Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Dying Man Can Eat Anything: an Old Man Can Say Anything

I’m not particularly radical, but I know I come across that way at times. I sound radical because I more or less write what I think, at least relative to the going average for straightforwardness. The substance of my ideas is not far to the left or philosophically drastic or, for that matter, original; but having arrived at a time and place in my life where there are few consequences to speaking up, I sound strident to others whose words and even thoughts are under more effective external or internal censorship than mine. That’s not bragging. It would be if I paid much of a cost for typing away in the dead of night to a tiny audience of old friends, puzzled interlopers, and perhaps NSA bureaucrats. But I’m not risking much. I’m not in the situation of so many of the business people and academics I know who have to be extremely careful about what they put on the Internet because an unwise spasm of sincerity really can complicate their lives and even menace their careers. After all, in this age of universal surveillance absolutely everything is taken down and may be used against you. 
Speaking truth to power may be heroic. Speaking truth to the void is mostly just comical. Indeed, in the limit, it is essentially virtual; for just as a bird is only able to fly because of the resistance of the air that apparently hinders its flight, speech means to the extent that it does work against the burden of custom and expectation. When the Emperor admitted that the war situation had developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage, it mattered, though his majesty wasn’t entirely forthright about the situation. By the same token, if a TV news anchor or an ex-president takes a big risk and speaks with five percent more candor than usual, the incremental sincerity counts vastly more than any number of my rants, even assuming that in some cases I’m actually right about something. When I was in the publishing business, I used to tell potential authors that they had a choice of changing the thinking of a great many people in a small way or, if they pulled it off, changing the thinking of a very few people in a big way. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to this trade off because zero times anything is zero. If you’re going to bet on a number instead of a color, you should at least pick one of the integers and not one of the reals.

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