Saturday, March 05, 2016

Description of the World - Part 59

Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (I knew very little about Hirschman when I encountered this book. I don’t think I fully appreciated the wisdom of the man until I read Exit, Voice, Loyalty. I also rather misread the Rhetoric book or at least gave it a bit of spin. Hirschman writes about how reactionary thinkers that projects of political liberation routinely routinely result in less freedom or simply prove impossible or have various bad consequences.  I’ve been more impressed with the same sort of programmatic pessimism applied to technology. Perversity, futility, and jeopardy certainly catch the drift of anti-environmentalism. Liberals who quote Hirschman sometimes miss the other side of his argument: if the right overestimates the difficulties of doing anything, the left tends to under estimate them. Of course Hirschman is also known for the idea of the hiding hand, which points to the advantages of positive thinking, which is to say overly optimistic expectations. It’s perhaps a good thing that we don’t realize that accomplishing great things requires unpredictable creativity. Things always take longer than you expect, but you can’t win if you don’t play.)

J.C.Beaglehole, The Life of Captain James Cook (Great big exhaustive biographies seem to be making a comeback as witness Caro’s L.B.J. biography. Big books seem fitting for big persons. If they’re dull, the fault generally lies with the author, not the subject, though Beaglehole had a head start granted Cook’s adventurous life. Since Cook died in his early 50s, killed by Hawaiians but already ground down by command of three world-spanning expeditions back to back, it’s all the more astonishing that 700 pages doesn’t seem too much. Before Cook left on his first great voyage, he got informal instructions from the Earl of Morton who recommended “to exercise the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several Lands where the Ship may touch. To check the petulance of the Sailors, and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms. To have it still in view that sheding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature…They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit…They may naturally and justly attempt to repel intruders, whom they may apprehend are come to disturbs them in the quiet possession of their country, whether that apprehension be well or ill founded.” I wrote in the margin: “the original Prime Directive.” Cook does remind me of Picard, though in the event the British ended up being sufficiently high handed.)

Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law (I considered becoming an attorney for about twenty minutes in 1966, not because I had lost interest in philosophy, but because academia seemed to me a lousy place to practice philosophy and I had to do something. I kept a certain interest in jurisprudence if not law itself later on, even listening to jurisprudence classes from the hallway at Yale. I don’t think much of it stuck. I note that virtually the only note in this tome was appended to an ancient case from colonial Massachusetts: “In 1673, Benjamin Goad, ‘being instigated by the Devil, committed the ‘unnatural & horrid act of Bestiality on a mare in the highway or field.’ This was in the afternoon, ‘the sun being two howers high.’ The Court of Assistants sentenced him to hang; and the court also ordered ‘that the mare you abused before your execution in your sight shall be knocked on the head.’” I wrote in the margin “pretty unfair to the horse.”)

Maria Reidelbach, Complete Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine (This anthology contains several of the Mad pieces that did more to shape my thinking than any point of common law. For example, it reprints the article from Mad #47 ‘How to be a Mad Non-Comformist.’ which I found very meaningful and even comforting at a time when I realized I didn’t fit in very well with people who didn’t fit in very well. All these years later, however, it still bothers me that the description of ordinary non-conformists says they patronize ‘obscure foreign language pictures with the sub-titles in pidgin Swahili,” but the illustration shows a picture subtitled in Sanskrit. Reidelbach also resurrects the “Potrezebie System of Weights and Measures,” which was the first publication of Donald Knuth, the great mavin of computer algorithms. I’m still envious of the juvenile Knuth for getting a publication in Mad with with illustrations by Wood no less.)

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