^ This. All of this.

We all agree this thing is bad. Like this smart person that also has internet access and a keyboard, I’m against this bad thing in this very specific way that you’re not.

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It’s entirely symbolic. I haven’t really done anything for any cause other than share links with comments in cancerous agreement (e.g. “This. All of this.”) on social media and send ten dollars to a candidate who will most likely do nothing to fix the issue, particularly in the very specific way people who I think are smarter than me think it should be fixed, but I believe, conveniently, as long as we keep posting imperatives derived from premises in the indicative mood, and then insisting that people aren’t listening when they disagree, or aren’t educated enough to have an opinion on the matter at all, hammer to anvil, something will change. I may not know how and I certainly don’t know what this change would even look like, given that the imperative itself is vague and mostly an exercise in nomenclature, but we all have to do something.

The ants ask God for a queen

There were once some ants who lived together in perfect security in a ancient anthill, nestled in the roots of a giant oak. They were a large company, and were very comfortable, but they came to think that they might be still happier if they had a queen to rule over them, as the other insect nations did.

So they sent the sage to the temple of their god, to ask Him to give them a queen.

God laughed at their folly, for He knew that they were better off as they were.

“This will be the manner of the queen that shall reign over you,” He said to the sage. “She will take your sons, and appoint them for herself, for her soldiery.

“And she will appoint her captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear her ground, and to reap her harvest, and to make her instruments of war.

“And she will take your daughters to be provisioners.

“And she will take your farms, in the deepest halls of the hill, the best of them, and give them to her servants.

“And she will take the tenth of your yield, and give to her officers, and to her servants.

“And she will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and put them to her work.

“She will take the tenth of your aphids: and ye shall be her servants.

“And ye shall cry out in that day because of your queen which ye shall have chosen you; and I will not hear you in that day.”

anteaterNevertheless the ants refused to listen to this message; and they said, Nay; but we will have a queen over us, that we also may be like all the nations; and that our queen may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.

Reluctantly, God sent them a queen, saying, “You will have some one to rule over you now.”

“Ah!” they said, “see how grand she looks! How she strides along! How she throws back her head! This is a queen indeed. She shall rule over us.”

And they went joyfully to meet her.

The orphaned moral of To Kill a Mockingbird

Years ago, a fellow writer told me that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was one of his favorite poems. As another writer who rarely reads poetry, I agreed. Beautiful and haunting. “Haunting?” he said. Sure. The narrator seems to be contemplating suicide, or perhaps fantasizing about his own end.

The writer was incredulous. He was upset. Ridiculous, he said. It’s a pastoral scene, a remark on the beauty and peace of winter and how the seasons relate to the span of our lives. I didn’t argue. Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps Frost’s sleep is a peaceful one, a completion. Perhaps the promises are immediate, a delivery to a friend or a dinner engagement with a loved one. I’m not one to trot out ultimate interpretations. But his objections seemed more like willing ignorance.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The bolded lines are, I think, what lead people like me to believe that the narrator is contemplating death, perhaps even suicide. The narrator has stopped “without a farmhouse near” on “the darkest evening of the year”; the owner of the property “will not see [him] stopping [there]”. He’s accompanied only by his horse, and is transfixed by the woods, “lovely, dark and deep”. How easily he could step off the road and disappear.

There is a reason to believe that Frost’s poem may have meaning beyond that of a rural scene, a “word painting,” a happy, harmless sentiment. How does one escape the narrator’s reluctant return to the road in the face of what he seems to desire most, the quiet oblivion of the forest?

I was reminded of this writer when I came across a listicle the other day: 5 things ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ got right 50 years ago that still ring true right now. (Only five?) The author pulls quotes from the book to confer a series of life lessons in the form of neatly rendered slogans, common stock among websites like Upworthy and Buzzfeed peddling feel-good clickbait advertisements for social media.

Four out of five of the “lessons” are innocuous, mostly apolitical. Lesson #4, however, presents a gross misrepresentation of Atticus’ closing speech; so much so, in fact, that her interpretation of the quote she pulled out of context attempts to prove a point directly opposite to that made by Atticus.

Here’s the quote she pulled from To Kill a Mockingbird:

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe

Here’s the “lesson”:

Privilege is real. From race to baking cakes. Sometimes you’re born into it, and sometimes you’re born with it.

Here’s the quote, italicized, in context. The bolded parts are relevant to the arguments following.

Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal… There is a tendency… for certain people to use this phrase of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious—because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believesome people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cake than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.

But there is one way in this country which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man equal of an Einstein, and an ignorant man equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human constitution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.

As a term, “privilege” is a bit of a moving target. For some, the term seems to comprehensively describe symptom, diagnoses and prognoses; for others it has a lighter meaning, a more general awareness of class and associated behaviors. Common among those who use the term is a prescription of some sort, urging or demanding acknowledgement of one’s privilege or lack thereof, and expecting appropriate behavior according to one’s place in the progressive stack. Often these are strident calls for what used to be called common decency. Sometimes they go beyond, calling for a Marxian-styled new human, properly educated, properly placed and under the eye of one or another expert, who adopts a necessary, paternal role in the process. Put more simply, the term has a complex contemporary meaning.

I won’t guess as to how the author uses it precisely. But as you see, in the above quote, Atticus does acknowledge differences in opportunity, race, ability and other human attributes. We are not born equal. Individuals are different. But for him, this is supplementary, a statement of the obvious, a component of a larger argument, not a sufficient condition of injustice requiring a particular action. In fact, Atticus seems downright in opposition to efforts seeking to equalize in the fashion of some modern civil rights activists:

The most ridiculous example I can think of is that people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious — because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.

Terrible feelings of inferiority. What animates our modern advocates for social justice more than the perceived/predicted feelings of groups for whom they often attempt to speak? Would the author of the article agree with Atticus’ argument, that efforts to democratize public education are ridiculous, that school administrators are fools for trying to spare the feelings of some children at the expense of others’ educational opportunities? Atticus turns that notion of equality on its head. He outright ridicules it.

For Atticus, the miscarriage of justice lies not in the discrepancies between the varying attributes of individuals; it lies in the discrepancy between how the law is applied to blacks and whites, in the very place where all people are supposed to be equal: before the law.

The point is obvious when the entire passage is considered, when the quote is placed properly in context. The distance between the author’s interpretation and one based on a thorough reading of Atticus’ speech (viz., not my shorthanded rebuttal written here) is the distance between the dilettante and the scholar, the sophist and the philosopher.

Rick Roderick, one of my favorite professors of philosophy, said the following regarding the presentation of precisely this sort of orphaned adage by campaigning moral instructors:

I remember studying Shakespeare, and they gave me this quote to remember from Polonius, you know – “To thine own self be true” – this could be the first line of every twelve step plan or therapy: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.

Of course, in the context of the play, you realize that Polonius is a bureaucrat, a politician, a windbag, a blowhard, shallow, stupid in his wisdom, is – as I said earlier – just exactly the banality of a common mind, but yet at grade school we teach this.

See how smart Shakespeare was? He was smart enough to show that that wasn’t wisdom – that kind of commonplace crap wasn’t wisdom – he was that smart, and more.

Even if there is no ultimate interpretation of a work, there are certainly shades of better and worse. The better are, at the very least, logical and obey some rule of non-contradiction. The best are comprehensive, taking for granted that every word, every phrase and every line in a work by Frost or Shakespeare or Lee has meaning and purpose, leading to or emanating from the central theme and thesis.

Truth and facts and statistics are synonyms

Eighty percent of Americans think that warning labels should be applied to foods that contain DNA.

All food contains DNA.

Eighty percent of Americans think that warning labels should be applied to all food.

The Post took a stab at an appropriate label. I have a better one:

Warning: Consumption of DNA does not impart knowledge of what DNA is or where DNA is, as evidenced by the existence of this label.

If I were the me 10 years in the past, here I might launch an earnest plea for better education, urging people to delve into the sciences, to shore up their understanding of the basics of biology and physics and chemistry to not only expand their knowledge, but to think of the entire world differently.

You should do that, if you ever get the chance. It’s neato. But a lot of other things are neato too and you probably don’t have the time or the interest. I don’t blame you. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I don’t want to talk about you. I already knew this about you.

What’s interesting (more interesting than you) is that this particular blip of scientific ignorance runs contrary to the upward trend (however slight) of The Most Holy Acceptance of Evolution in America. That’s gone up over the past ten years. A slim majority of decisive people in American accept evolution as the How, and more seem to accept it as time goes by.

Think about those deep conversations you have with your friends. You all sit in a circle, sipping craft beers and listening to old Dinosaur Jr. records and shake your heads in unison at the ignorant so-cons, savoring the last gasps of a dying breed of irrational, delusional barbarians, declaring in certain terms that you believe in science, not superstition. Science is the pursuit of truth! Next time these conversations play out their comforting narrative, try a new role: Talk specifics, if you can. See how many people can describe – in specific terms – the process of evolution. Natural selection. Genetic drift. What does DNA have to do with all of this?

It’s unfair to expect that no one will be able to answer those questions competently. But when I see 50 percent of the population accepting evolution and 80 percent who apparently have no idea what DNA is, it questions the actual state of the first statistic.

Here’s a guess: the much-applauded gain in scientific literates is actually a much-incentivized shift in personal philosophy.Young people like to dwell on the sophomoric question of God’s existence (I was no exception), and the trend upward is due to young people. The way the issue was framed by activists like Dawkins and Wilson gave people a new seat of righteousness set just as high as the old seat. Engage a “new” atheist and listen to them expound, pontificate and wax poetic about their “Einsteinian” views of the universe. It’s the same sort of insufferable sermonizing you’d endure from the pulpit of any Christian activist.

Try to get specific and you will see the price of their “acceptance.” There’s holes in their understanding. The sloganeering of the activists (framing, it’s usually called) boils down central methodological concepts of science in order to promote its higher virtues and instead of providing a door to further research and learning, they have created articles of faith. It sounds high and mighty to say things like, “Science is the pursuit of truth,” but if you don’t understand how that scientific truth is obtained or what that scientific truth actually tells us, on the ground, uninterpreted, then you’ve done nothing more than shifted your ideology, adopting one belief in a poorly understood principle for another belief in a poorly understood principle. At least in the case of the former, God as Being, Inconceivable, there’s a good reason for the concept being poorly understood.

TL;DR: It’s cool to be secular and scientific and technological.

It’s uncool to be a poseur. Some things never change.

A modern self

The confluence of insulated hyper-individualism and an apparent lack of elementary tools for self-analysis (e.g. a basic, learned mindfulness of the agency of other minds in a shared space) has created a strange circumstance wherein personal concepts of what the self requires to be whole seem to hinge on two notions:

  • (1) that in order to “be yourself”, change only comes as a result of a clinical evaluation of one’s personality, no matter how vague or speculative
  • and (2), that ease of mind only comes as a result of “positive” interactions with others. In practice, the second notion usually obligates dissenters, no matter how reasonable, to stay silent on one’s personal proscriptions.

Respectively, we’ve come to call these notions “therapy” and “civility”. The former may facilitate self-analysis, but is not itself self-analysis, though people may treat it as such. In meaning, the latter is a neologism.