The Sweet allure of emptiness?
Question #8: Is there any reason not to not vote for Mitt Romney? ?
My daughter, age eleven, who is a dancer, recently appeared with Dances Patrelle, a Manhattan company, in a wild Gilbert & Sullivan redo. In mid-Pinafore, for those who were paying attention, the following lines were slipped in:
He had no thoughts,
So the G.O.P.
For the presidency.
I have not been able to get this out of my head. There is no doubt to whom they were referring. A crowded field of Republicans full of shaky ideas and worrisome positions fell one by one. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan had symmetry but a complete ignorance of economics, and Rick Perry wanted to eliminate Federal agencies but couldn’t remember which ones and Michele Bachman admired the Founding Fathers for their tireless work to end slavery. Ron Paul had a clear set of beliefs that he apparently shared with only a very few voters. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum found more backing for their beliefs but not enough. And who was left standing? Mitt Romney. Why? He had neither ideas, convictions nor positions. So he presented nothing about which to be upset. In a country where most people claim to vote for the lesser evil, isn’t this the perfect candidate?
If you admire Obama for creating health care, isn’t that what Mitt did as governor of Massachusetts, but if you don’t like it you can take comfort in the fact that Mitt opposes it too now . He supported a woman’s right to her own decision but now wants the abortion option banned. So if you oppose a woman’s rights you can vote for Mitt but if you disagree, he used to disagree too and may go back to that stance later. He hired an openly gay foreign policy advisor, and then fired him because he was gay, giving both pro and anti gay voters a reason to back him. Well, he didn't fire him--just wouldn't let him talk because it would offend homophobes so he left. Mitt didn't want him to leave. He hired him.
He was at his best in the diplomatic turmoil caused by a Chinese dissident who took shelter in the U.S. Embassy. Mitt, not known for foreign policy insights, said that if what he heard was true, it was “a dark day for freedom.” He was not clear on what he had heard or from whom—his top foreign policy advisor was gone. He said that he had heard that they “probably or may have sped up the process.” That nuanced distinction between probably and “may have” is at the heart of Mittville. In other words he had no idea what was going on but if it turned out to be bad he was probably against it.
According to pollsters Mitt is well-liked among the much sought after “independent” voters. I can understand people who don’t vote or choose a third party. And I understand the Republicans who are ashamed to admit it. And there are those who just don’t want to join a party. But most of them are the swing voters , the ones who decide elections because some years they vote for Republicans and some years they vote for Democrats.
It is time to blurt out what we are all thinking. Who the hell are these morons? Given the polarization of American politics, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is so stark that I have to wonder what kind of an imbecile would have trouble choosing between them. Are they just people who can’t make up their mind about anything? Are they people who don’t pay attention enough to understand the difference? Or—wait a minute—are they people with absolutely no thoughts or convictions. Are they in fact people just like Mitt Romney?
So isn’t Mitt Romney just the perfect candidate? President Romney won’t do what you don’t like or at least he can be counted on to do what is not like what you don’t like. Either that or to not do it. Or to not not do it but also do it in a not too done way.
If what I have heard is true this may be or probably will be a dark day for freedom.
Why do I write about Darwin
Question #7: A woman in Virginia wrote me a very polite and sincere letter saying that she enjoyed my book WORLD WITHOUT FISH but she did not understand why I kept referring to the dubious and unproven theoriees of Charles Darwin. This with some editing was my answer.
Dear Mrs. Howe,
You are correct in thinking that I do not have a lot of time for answering letters. But yours seemed so sincere and respectful, you do seem, as you say, “an all around nice lady,” that I thought I would take a little time to try to answer your questions.
I am struck by your statement that “Darwinism is a theory, developed by a human being.” Why should that be grounds for rejecting it? A theory developed by a human being is a perfect description of all religions and all science as well. It is not true that Darwin turned against his theories. I do not know where you heard such a thing. He spent his life providing the evidence to back up his theories, amassed a daunting body of evidence. At the time of his death he had been working on research on the evolution of plant species.
The claim that Darwin’s theories are unproven is not exactly true either. Of course one can always invent absurdities to reject evidence. You can say for example that the devil placed the evidence to deceive us. There is no way of arguing with this kind of closed-minded rejection of facts. But science for more than one hundred years has amassed a huge body of evidence supporting Darwin’s theories. With each break through in biology it becomes clearer. We can now trace life back even before the evidence of fossils and these earlier forms of life further illustrate the theory of evolution. Genetics has revealed a code to biological history that further demonstrates evolution. Of course, at what point evidence becomes proof can always be argued.
But why is this question of proof so important to religious people. There is considerably more evidence of Darwin’s theories than of the supposition that God exists. in fact the supposition that God exists can neither be proven or disproven so unlike evolution it is not a scientific theory but a belief. And yet you do not seem to be bothered by the lack of proof there. Neither for that matter was Darwin. He also believed in God. There is in fact no conflict between Christian belief and Darwinism.
Evolution is not a belief but, as you say , a theory which is the foundation of scientific method first developed by Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century, a method that has saved lives and produced wonders, and, though it has also caused a few negative things such as nuclear weapons, has greatly enhanced our lives. The scientist starts with a theory and then applies it to test its veracity. That is what Darwin did as did Einstein, Newton and every other important scientist. It is how polio was cured, how cancer will be one day, has opened up space exploration, taught us about the earth and the stars, made global communication possible and allowed us to travel the world.
Yes, Mrs. Howe the great majority of educated people in the world do understand the importance of Darwin. If Americans didn’t this country would be plunged into a terrible backwardness just as we would in a world run by people who believe the earth is flat. To reject Darwin is to reject science, which is to reject knowledge, which would plunge us into darkness. If America had a majority that rejected Darwin, which happily it does not, the other nations that were not steeped in ignorance would simply leave us behind.
The reason I included Darwin in my book is that to understand what is happening to the oceans, you must first understand how the natural order works and Darwin is the key to understanding it. All natural science is based on Darwin’s theories, which have been shown to be accurate over and over again.
Now it is in the nature of science to overthrow. Einstein’s theories were a rejection of Isaac Newton, though Newton was brilliant. Right now there are physicists challenging Einstein. Someday some genius may develop a theory that overrules Darwin. But it will be something new that hasn’t been thought of before. The old idea that species were created one by one and are not interconnected has been irrevocably disproven like the theory that the sun and stars revolve around the earth. For now Darwin is the only explanation of the natural order that makes any sense and when it is used in interaction with nature it works. No one has come up with anything with which to replace it.
But beyond that I think that people and especially children, must be protected against religious leaders and politicians who would tell them what not to read. Read everything and decide for yourself.
Have you read Darwin? I hope so because you cannot make an informed decision on all of this unless you do
I do not want to tell you what to think, only that you should open yourself to a wide range of thought—not all of it religious and not all of it Christian, though Darwin was both-- and reach your own conclusions. Hopefully you can find bargain prices on these books too.
I wish you well.
Puking for freedom
Question #6: Does Rick Santorum have the right gastrointestinal system to be President?
When did the Republican Party become the Party of entertainment. You just can't wait to hear what they say next. You can't make stuff like this up. Remember when you were a kid there would be some kid who would threaten that if you didn't do what he wanted he was going to puke. Now Rick Santorum has become that kid.
On ABC News’ This Week he said that John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on freedom of religion made him want to vomit. Santurum's response to Kennedy's’s assertion that “the separation of church and state is absolute” was “You bet that makes you throw up."
You bet. This raises several questions about the Presidential candidate.
1- Since one of the most prescious concepts of the U.S. Constitution, a cornerstone in making American democracy an improvement on Europe, is the seperation of church and state, can we have a president who loses his lunch at the mere thought of it?
2-Is Rick Santorum so psychologically and physically deranged that ideas that he doesn't like make him vomit or is he just incredibly crude and inarticulate?
3-Is Santorum so ignorant that the entire concept of seperation of church and state goes over his head?
4-Will Mitt Romney find something that he can vomit about?
Lets just move ahead to the last two questions. The concept of seperation is two pronged. No religion is allowed to establish a special place and no religious practic or expression is to be outlawed. So Santorum's claim that it keeps religious people from expressing their point of view has no basis in fact. Why is it that most of the time only a certain stripe of christian has a problem with this. Everyone else is grateful for the seperation of church and state because they fear the christians running things. If there were no seperation of church and state and this meant that Mormons or Catholics or Jews or Moslems were able to run things Santorum supporters would more than lose their collective lunch. So this is an unlikely stand for a Roman Catholic like Santorum, except that his political base is Christian. Funny that they aren't getting queezy about a Catholic who opposes seperation of church and state. That's why JFK made his speech.
But what about Mitt who is nothing if not adaptable. He is going to want to vomit too? But over what? The religion issue does not work well for him. because he is a non-christian trying to appeal to christian voters. But how about this for a Romney moment. Couldn't he claim that bad financial management makes him want to hurl? Or how about shoddy immigration law. The sight of all those illegal folks, doesn't that just make him want to up chuck.
I don't know. but surely there is some way he can work the lunch tossing in his favor. I am sure his highly competent staff is working on it right now.
Doesn' it just make you want to...
Is being dumb such a bad thing?
Question #3: What’s wrong with Mitt Romney
Question #4: What’s wrong with the Republicans
Question #5: Whats wrong with America?
What’s wrong with Mitt Romney? The republicans don’t seem to like him very much and since everyone agrees that he is the most likely chance for a Republican White House next year, isn’t it strange they don’t like him more? True he seems, even looks, like a phony who has been on every possible side of every issue but so what? Isn’t that almost the definition of a politician? It was certainly true of John McCain who the Republican’s embraced four years ago. And McCain has endorsed Romney. Isn’t that proving the point?
Or is the real question what’s wrong with the Republican Party? Well, for starters, it has come out and there is film available on YouTube proving this, that Romney speaks French. Yes that’s right. When with the Olympic committee in Salt Lake City he gave a speech in French. Just the idea of a President of the United States speaking a foreign language might strike some Republicans as –well, elitist. The accent was a bit heavy and the syntax resembled a bad translation but he was SPEAKING FRENCH DAMN IT!! Republicans hate the French. They do not do whatever we tell them like a good ally should and they insist that France matters which implies that something other than the US matters.
Here’s a question: Why do Republicans keep thinking that they can nail Obama for being an out of touch elitists for going to Hawaii but not for going to Martha’s Vineyard.? Is it that they cannot grasp the idea of someone actually being from Hawaii, that he is simply going home for a visit? Or is it that the people who would be receptive to such attacks are judged to have some idea of where Hawaii is but know nothing of the far more elitist Martha’s Vineyard?
But how did Romney attack him? He compared it to Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” attitude. So he really is a Francophile? This is not acceptable in the Republican Party. Certainly making references to French history is inacceptable. In his defense, he is showing his ignorance, always a good tactic in the Grand Old Party. Marie Antoinette actually never said, “Let them eat cake.”
What troubles me most about the Republicans (okay, heads a really long list) is that they want to exalt ignorance. Obama , a black man raised by a single mother is constantly attacked as an elite because he is well educated. Romney, Bush and quite a few other Republicans also have Ivy League backgrounds to answer for. George W. Bush knew how to play it, perfecting his role as a bumpkin despite coming from a wealthy well-connected family and holding degrees from both Yale and Harvard. He kept quiet about his passion for reading a large quantity of books (including at least one by me???) Romney has not been as successful in explaining away his education. But neither has Obama.
For authenticity the Republicans offer Michelle Bachman (although why are her first names Michele Marie?) who thought the American Revolution began in New Hampshire, Herb Cain (remember him) who thought foreign policy was too complicated to retain in his head, and Rick Perry who did not know how many judges sat on the Supreme Court.
Isn’t this love of ignorance the great flaw in American democracy? In 1820, another suspiciously well educated politician, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them , but to inform their discretion by education.”
Anyone who has been a political pollster, as I was in 1976, knows that most Americans base their vote on irrational conjectures, petty prejudices, and irrelevant trivia. When we look on a democratic process that is more entertaining than liberating, more farce than deliberation, can we not identify the problem in our failed educational system? Is this not the root of our problem. Educated people do not admire ignorance..
How did I get here?
Question #1: How the hell did I become a blogger and what does that have to do with democracy?
Question #2: What is democracy, anyway?
Isn’t it ironic, maybe even hypocritical, that I would start blogging? I wrote my book What?, a book entirely in the interrogative, because I believe that we are living in a world in which people make too many statements and don’t ask enough questions. Why would that be? First of all there is 24 hour news broadcasting with a painful amount of space to fill up and they fill a lot of the holes with pundits, which can be almost anybody willing to declare themselves on the subject. Isn’t it cool to be a pundit? Doesn’t everybody want to be one? Couldn’t I be as good as that guy? And you probably could. It takes neither knowledge nor real credentials.
I sometimes wonder if I am ever remembered in the village of Mumbles in South Wales. It was during the height of the O.J. Simpson trial and since I seemed to be American –my only credential on the subject, but good enough—I was surrounded in a pub by Welsh men and women wanted to know what the outcome of the trial would be. I carefully explained to them why O.J. would be found guilty. Are there people scattered all over South Wales now who remember that idiot from America?
Probably not. The secret of being a successful pundit is to never apologize for your mistakes or in anyway indicate that you were wrong. The pundits who explained how John McCain was going to win the election were on the show the following day explaining what would happen next.
But if television has encouraged us to be stuck in the declarative, the Internet is even worse. The Internet invites every unqualified person to weigh in on everything. And why is it that you are always invited to make comments but seldom to ask questions? You can write anonymous book reviews without any credentials to be reviewing books. You can, for that matter, self publish books without the least indication that anyone is interested in them. And you can blog –just idly spew out your opinions on most anything without any qualifications whatsoever. In effect you are publishing your own op-ed pieces. This is a little difficult for me to get excited about because other people have been paying me for op ed pieces for the last thirty years. I could sell this piece. So why am I writing it for free?
The argument, frequently heard about all this, is that it is democratizing. This reminds me of the joke frequently heard when the conspicuously incompetent Ronald Reagan was president. People would laugh and say, “it proves that in America, anyone can be president.”
To debase everything and let mediocrity reign by avoiding any standards or gate keeper: is that more democratic? Isn’t the idea of democracy that everyone has an equal chance—educational opportunities, commercial opportunities-- rather than pretending that everyone has equal ability? Commercial publishing is not a perfect filter, they do publish bad books and turn down good ones. But they still have a much higher batting average than self-publishing. On occasion The New York Times Book Review has run mediocre reviews by people who shouldn’t be reviewing. But Times reviews are still a lot better than the reviews found on Amazon.com.
There is in all of this the idea that if money were removed from the equation artists would be more creative. Of course they would also be less productive since they would be forced to do something else to earn a living.
But it is true that commercial interests often interfere with creativity. In the early 1990s after the fall of communism I frequently profiled Eastern European writers for the International Herald Tribune. They would talk about how stultifying writing for state-run publishing had been and talk about pressures to write in certain ways, to have happy endings… I would laugh and say, “Wait until you see commercial publishing.”
Removing money from the arts in order to make culture more democratic was a big idea in the 1960s. It produced a few interesting things such as Living Theater, which denounced money in most of their plays. But it did not produce a flowering of art and writing.
From the Internet there is an explosion of amateur writing, amateur journalism, amateur music badly recorded with inept mixing and poor sound, there is even amateur medicine. There are people rejecting professional doctors for health gurus who claim to know better. They have no science, do no testing and their research is simply reading websites. Now not only can anyone be President—and have you noticed that more and more unqualified candidates are turning up because why shouldn’t running a chain of pizzerias qualify you for the White House—but also anyone can be a doctor , a lawyer, a reporter, an author. Is this democracy? Access to medical school is democracy, but is giving medical advice without training democracy? Are we doomed to a world of bad books, medicine, music? Is everything to be debased in the name of democracy? In what way is that democracy?
In the information age the quality of information itself is at risk. I always warn students that while it is true that they have more information available to them than any previous generation, they probably only have the same amount of accurate information available and they have much more to sift through to get at it.
If you feel like posting something on the Internet chances are a dozen other places will pick it up because that is how people are getting their information. Each of those dozen places will be picked up by another dozen. Erroneous information in time becomes fact. Scientists who study memory find that anything that is repeated often enough becomes lodged in long-term memory and people generally believe as truth anything in their long-term memory.
The Internet will probably somehow change. In the end something will have to serve as a filter so that we can rapidly distinguish the good from the bad because people simply do not have the patience to weed through all this. That was why critics , professional reviewers , were invented. Independent films, alternative theater, small publishing, none of this carries the idea that anybody is good enough. And somehow in time this will also happen with the Internet. Somehow better blogs will get positioned in ways that worse blogs can’t. Some say the Internet will become less democratic. But maybe it will also become better because it is daunting how much garbage you have to wade through now. To publish only good writing and good reporting, to only elect highly capable people to high office, to seek medical help from rigorously trained experts, is not elitism. Isn’t it how democracy is supposed to work?
I see in writing this piece a tendency to meander. If I were to sell it for publication I would need to tighten it up but since this is the Internet, my blog, I don’t have to do anything. Is that a good thing? Is it democracy to say in 1300 words what I could say in a thousand words ?
What our society discourages us from saying is, “I don’t know.” If you don’t know, it would be best to fake it. Every pundit and politician knows that. But this is a blog by somebody who doesn’t know. I was coming into my building recently and two neighbors stopped their discussion and one pointed at me and said, “This is the man who knows everything.”
“I know nothing,” I answered, “And I’m not even sure of that.”
It is going to take time to settle all this and see where it will go but in the meantime, I think I will keep asking questions on this blog so I can have some idea of how it works. But you may notice that I am not inviting comments.