Friday, May 30, 2003

The Temperance Oath

I’m reluctant to recommend serious books to people who don’t read much, especially if they have the native intelligence to understand them. Accustomed to the pabulum of the popular press, self-help books, and the Management Secrets of Attila the Hun, they are very likely to get upset when the first time they go beyond formula. Real books present real arguments, and real arguments actually can persuade, the more so when the listener has no experience of arguments and no context in which to place them. For most people the uncertainty and sustained effort involved in thinking are painful and unfamiliar. They wrap both arms around the first notion they comprehend, hoping that it will turn out to be the key the universe. In a college kid, the resulting enthusiasm and conviction can be charming because it is likely to be temporary. In adults it can and has had significant consequences. Think of all those earnest workers who, having puzzled out the bit about surplus value in the first book of Capital, decided that Marxism was as indisputable as arithmetic just as a later generation would be mesmerized by the Laffer curve—economics seems particularly prone to generating the fetishism of the concept.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Word Problems

In one of my earlier avatars, after Rama but before Kalki, I edited math textbooks and in the process learned three things from my interviews with thousands of mathematicians. First, mathematicians are cheap dates—statisticians order the oysters, mathematicians the soup. Second, mathematicians are lousy at judging the qualifications of the people they meet—my contacts regularly assumed that I had a PhD in math when my transcripts show that I took my last math class at Gardena High School in 1963. What math I know I picked up as an anthropologist, going native, might learn how to shrink heads. The third insight was more substantive. The secret reason math folks want to inflict calculus on so many undergraduates is not that very many people will ever integrate a function in anger but because passing calculus absolutely requires a student to finally learn algebra and, Woody Allen to the contrary, lots of people need that. By the same logic, if you really need to understand calculus, you need to take differential equations. And so on. The general rule is that it makes sense to take one more course than it makes any sense to take. Generalized still further, an analogous logic works in the Liberal Arts.

Literary criticism has a terrible reputation just now, and various pundits bewail the fact that all theory gets between the common reader and the various sacred texts. But commentary, whatever its intrinsic value, can serve to enforce the careful reading of books in the absence of snap quizzes. Though the notion of a virgin reading is simply incoherent on this side of the Moon, I suppose the very best readers can dispense with overt mediation if they are willing to fall in love with a text, and there really isn’t any substitute for memorizing poetry, but very few of us are in the situation of Abraham Lincoln puzzling out Shakespeare by the fireplace light. We need indirections to enforce our attention and, above all, to slow us down until we catch up with the text.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Phantom Menaces

In his mathematical fantasy Flatland, Abbott imagined a 2-dimensional world whose inhabitants have a hard time understanding the mysteries of the third dimension. In its own way, our public discourse is also a Flatland; but what Americans have trouble comprehending, besides an argument more than two sentences long, is anything that takes more than a few months to take place. Our politicians are never penalized for promoting policies that will obviously harm us over the long or even the medium haul. Reagan ran up the deficit back in the ‘80s, but the consequences of his financial policies were perfectly invisible. The economic growth we missed out on as a result wasn’t anything you could see, feel, or make a headline about. Indeed, the bad consequence is the area between two curves, the increase in wealth we would have had with lower interest rates and the actual increase. Try running a political ad on the basis of that calculus problem!

Incidentally, I don’t think the more thoughtful Republicans are unaware of the predictable consequences of their economic policies. Some of them may be counting on the Rapture to zero out their MasterCards, but for many of them the advantages of a big national debt outweigh its costs. Over and beyond bankrupting and perhaps destroying the social programs the Right hates, deficit financing results in vastly better yields for bondholders. To a remarkable extent, the Republican platform is a very well thought out answer to the exam question, “How do we get people who work for a living to support those who don’t work at all?”

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The absence of imagination had itself to be imagined

In Being and Time Martin Heidegger attempted to describe the basic facts of human existence, the structures that characterize all conscious experience. In important ways, the book is more than brilliant; it is simply right; and its insights surface in surprising places, for example, theoretical computer science. Philosophically trained people regard those unfamiliar with Kant, the “precritically na├»ve,” with amused condescension as if they were children who don’t know how babies are made. It’s not that philosophers are all Kantians—far from it—but they have first-hand knowledge of how an encounter with the Critique of Pure Reason forever changes how you think. Some of Heidegger’s ideas are enlightening in the same sense. One can correctly say of Being and Time what Goethe said about the Critique, “It’s like walking into a brightly lit room.” The good lighting in question, however, does not refer to the clarity of the writing.

Heidegger has come in for sustained criticism over the last couple of decades because of his dubious political connections, but I have been more concerned about what his style betokens. In fact, Heidegger’s way of staging his ideas bears on his relationship with the Nazis. The pedantic pomp of the syntax and the majestic obscurity of the terminology don’t make Being and Time into a conceptual Nuremberg rally, but there is an element of stage management about Heidegger’s presentation that furthers an agenda not obviously related to the underlying argument. Partly the monumentality and pretentiousness of the text reflects nothing more alarming than the status anxiety or mere vanity of a Heidelberg philosophy professor, but the implication remains that the philosopher is a Mage or Hero who can conjure a special truth by dint of a mysterious act of will. The language is an aesthetic, which is to say cosmetic, solution to the problem of how to maintain or establish privilege and sacrality in an utterly profane and disenchanted world. Taken literally, Being and Time presents a vision as stark in its own way as the atoms and void of Lucretius, but the Heideggerian censer puts out enough aromatic smoke to obscure the industrial landscape. The theological tone worked: whatever effective support Heidegger lent to the Reich, he certainly managed to give aid, comfort, and thesis topics to a great many nuns.

Calling something primal, ontological, archaic, or even Ur doesn’t automatically change anything. One is, we presume, the Ur Integer; but it isn’t any oner for all that. Which suggests a project for the industrious. What would the Heideggerian philosophy look like transposed into a more neutral key? I’m certainly not industrious, but I can offer a very small sample of what it might be like to rethink the Heidegger without the heavy breathing—technically speaking, without the ontological difference.

Heidegger calls the universal characteristics of existence existentials. They are what every one of us shares despite and because of our utter uniqueness. He calls one of them “thrownness,” the fact or circumstance that we always find ourselves in the middle of things. The world and its affairs are always already underway when we take an eternally belated notice of them. The Divine Comedy begins “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” Imagine that this line described not a particular moment in a particular life but every particular moment of every life. Alternately the pris de conscience can be exemplified by the moment at the party when you sober up enough to notice the cigarette butt floating in the half empty cup of lukewarm Everclear and Welch’s grape juice.

I assert a quotidian, earthly, mundane, reductive, statistical, nonphenomenological, thoroughly ontic counterpart to this insight. The fundamental thing to realize when and whenever we begin to realize anything is that the jig is up. Everyone’s existence is the most recent consequence of an unbroken string of happy chances. A gipsy wizard might feel special because he’s the seventh son of a seventh son, but our complacency is founded on winning millions of genetic lotteries back to back. That we are here is the sheerest miracle, but nothing about the situation guarantees that the miracles will keep on coming. To the contrary. We are as subject as anybody else to the prevailing rotten odds. It follows that the fundamental realization, if not exactly a Viconian thunder word, is “Gulp!”

Monday, May 26, 2003

Gaming the System

Everybody would like to believe that political and social problems could be resolved once and for all by some clever mechanism or universal rule. Reform the Electoral College and restore democracy. Limit campaign contributions and eliminate corruption. All of which is not very different from the universal fantasy of golfers that a new putter will miraculously improve their putting. But politics, like swinging a golf club, is not something done once. As Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers, “There is no nonpolitical way of escaping politics.” Every reform generates its own counter reform because what’s at play are the creative and destructive energies and intelligence of real human beings. We know from the prophet Jeremiah that the “heart of man is devious and desperately corrupt.” Meanwhile it is a theorem of theoretical computer science that there can be no universal defense against parasites. Consequently…

All of which is supposed to serve as a highfalutin introduction to an observation about one particular class of parasites and their practices. The recent scandals at the New York Times made a peculiar impression on me because the same editors and executives that are currently wringing their hands about the deceptions and plagiarisms of Jayson Blair, a relatively junior reporter whose stories were human interest pieces whose authenticity or falsity had no larger significance, cheerfully harbor and indeed honor Jeff Gerth whose dishonest journalism figured in the fabrication of the Whitewater scandal and the later martyrdom of Dr. Lee. From there own perspective, the editors are right. While Gerth indeed habitually misrepresents the truth, he follows all the regs, writes every word himself, and always has two sources for everything, albeit sources he has reason to believe are unreliable. He deserved his Pulitzer Prize because he excelled at journalism, which is, after all, the manufacture of stories for money. Of course Gerth would be out of the running if there were a prize for the activity of accurately reporting on important matters, but we don’t have a name for that.

At this point, I should anticipate an objection. Confronted with the evidence, journalists always respond to radical criticisms of their profession by reciting the speech about how free societies need watch dogs. But nobody disagrees with that sentiment. The problem is that journalism as it is actually practiced is anything but a watchdog. For the most part, it’s a lap dog. Changing the technical rules of journalism or burning Jayson Blair at the stake won’t help that. Somebody has to judge themselves and their profession by whether or not it succeeds in informing the public and not by a set of guild rules. It isn’t really a sonnet just because it has fourteen lines and rhymes ababcdcdefefgg.

Sunday, May 25, 2003

Party Line/Story Line

I remain skeptical of the current Roadmap to Peace Initiative, even after the supposedly historic decision of the Israeli cabinet to agree to a Palestinian state. What actually happened in Jerusalem and what is being reported in the United States are not entirely congruent. For example, the implication is that Sharon and his people have accepted the Bush plan or at least its important provisions. But the cabinet ruled out in advance any consideration of the so-called right of return and Sharon will go to the summit with a secret list of 14 non-negotiable reservations. On the critical issue of settlements, the prime minister reiterated that only building on sites not approved by the Israeli Government will be stopped. One can find all these “details” on the BBC world service. CNN isn’t reporting them, at least this morning on its website.

By the way, agreeing to a Palestinian state is less of a concession than it appears to be, especially in the aftermath of the conquest of Iraq. It is perfectly clear that a rump Palestine will have no more genuine sovereignty relative to Israel than Panama does relative to us. Why would Sharon have any more compunction about bombing the state of Palestine than he had about bombing the West Bank? International law didn’t restrain his activities in Lebanon, and the strictures against preventative war have greatly lessoned in the Bushzeit.
Without Fear or Fava Beans

According to Aristotle, the Pythagoreans understood everything by reference to a list of ten contraries: limited and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, square and oblong. These terms are not just a set of dimensions or co-ordinates. All the first terms and all the second terms were believed to go together as if they reflected a single cosmic polarity. Now presumably there aren’t a great many Pythagoreans around any more, but their way of thinking endlessly resurfaces because it is, formally speaking, the default strategy of the indolent mind, which is to say the default strategy of the mind. We’d still like to believe that if something is left-handed (or just leftist), female, and oblong, it’s very likely to be devious, dark, and evil or—to be fair-minded for once—to think that all conservatives are racists because both terms are found in the right hand column of our personal list of contraries. That’s perhaps permissible in the context of the coarse games of politics, where all sides have to forgo the truth in order to play at all, but it’s just a vice if we want to understand something, even something political.