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  • “Dangerous” by Milo Yiannopoulos; A Review

    Posted on July 16th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Back in February the legacy media was gloating over the demise of Milo Yiannopoulos.  Apparently the Left’s faux outrage machine had successfully smeared him over some unguarded comments he made about his sexual relationships as a young teenager.  These were construed as “support for pedophilia,” which they decidedly were not as anyone can see who listens to what he actually said.  No matter, Simon and Schuster cancelled his book deal, CPAC rescinded their speaking invitation, and even Breitbart caved, accepting his resignation as their technical editor.  It would seem Milo’s enemies gloated too soon.  He self-published his book, which currently sits at number two on the New York Times list of best sellers for combined ebook and print nonfiction.

    What to make of Milo, his book, and the public reaction to it?  When it comes to human behavior, the answer is always the same; go back to Darwin.  Forget the futile game of arguing about who is “good” and who is “evil.”  These categories exist only as subjective mental constructs, and are manifestations of emotions, not reason.  In short, they are figments of our imaginations.  Instead, look for the evolved emotional traits and predispositions that are driving the behavior.

    For starters, it’s always a good idea to look at ingroups and their associated outgroups.  They are a universal and fundamental aspect of human behavior, and they will always be there, along with all their associated loyalties and hatreds, as well as the dual system of morality human beings apply depending on whether they are speaking of one or the other.  They are also one of the most “dysfunctional” aspects of human behavior.  The innate traits responsible evolved at a time when the ingroup consisted of the relatively small group of hunter-gatherers to which one belonged, and the outgroup almost automatically became a similar group living in the next territory over.  At that time ingroup/outgroup behavior obviously increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, our brains became bigger, and we began associating in ever larger groups.  Our powers of imagination expanded with our brains, and we became capable of identifying our ingroups and outgroups based not merely on physical proximity, but on race, religion, class, ethnicity, ideology and a host of other criteria.  There is no reason to believe that such “modified” versions of the behavior will accomplish the same thing now that they did then.  In fact, there is good reason to believe they will accomplish exactly the opposite.

    In this case, Milo makes it easy for us to identify the relevant ingroups.  They are each identified in the title of a chapter of his book, and Milo has the honor of belonging squarely in the outgroup of every one of them.  They include feminists (chapter 4), Black Lives Matter (chapter 5), Muslims (chapter 9), and so on.  Many of them either overlap or have some affinity with the most significant of them all, the Progressive Left (chapter 1).  The Progressive Left is an ingroup that defines itself according to ideology.  In other words, the boundaries of its “territory” consist of a set of ideological shibboleths.  As set forth by a member of this ingroup in a review of Dangerous, these shibboleths are supposed to promote a “fair, multicultural, egalitarian society.”  A fundamental theme of Milo’s book is that, in fact, the Progressive Left is creating a profoundly unfair, divisive society that, far from being egalitarian, is based on a rigid hierarchy of identity groups.  In his words,

    We live in an age where one side of the political spectrum would like all debate, all challenge to their viewpoints, all diversity of thought to be snuffed out.  Why?  Because they’re scared.  Scared that their political, social and cultural consensus, carefully constructed and nurtured over the past few years, with its secular religions of feminism, enforced diversity, multiculturalism, and casual hatred for straight, white men, is built on a foundation of sand.

    The response of the Left to this assault on its ideology has been typical of ingroup responses that transcend species.  They have made a furious rush to defend their ideologically defined territory, filled with rage towards this presumptuous outgrouper, for all the world like a pack of howler monkeys defending its turf.  In a word, Milo is right.  They do hate him.  Leftist reviews of the book include such well-reasoned responses as,

    America now faces greater problems than the mean-spirited shitposts of a preening hack.

    Why any troll, racist, sexist, or teenager would pay for the version of Dangerous this draft presents when it exists on 4chan in endless supply is a mystery. At least the hatred there is more interesting.

    He’s a clickbait grifter who has made a name for himself spewing hate speech.

    Read them and you will find claims that the book is boring (it’s not), that it’s not selling (it sold out almost immediately on Amazon), that it discusses issues that are so yesterday (they aren’t yesterday for people who don’t happen to be obsessed with social media), and, of course, the de rigueur claims that the book is racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and so on.  What you won’t find, or at least I haven’t found so far, are well-reasoned arguments against any of the major themes of the book.  That’s not surprising.  The Left has now controlled the media, the academy, and the arts for so long that its ability to engage in rational argument has begun to atrophy.  Instead, it seeks to bully, vilify, and bludgeon its opponents into submission.  Conscious of its power, it has become increasingly authoritarian.  Hence its fury at the “deplorables” who dared to defy it in the recent election, and its determination to refuse legitimacy to the results of that defiance.

    Allow me to provide a brief tutorial on how such a rational argument might actually look.  In his book, Milo cites statistics according to which blacks are responsible for a disproportionate level of violence and crime in our society.  A rational response would be that the statistics are wrong, and that levels of violence and crime among blacks are comparable to those among other ethnic groups.  Concerning the gender pay gap Milo writes,

    Study after study show the wage gap shrinks to nonexistence when relevant, non-sexist factors like chosen career paths, chosen work hours and chosen career discontinuity are taken into account.  They key word is chosen… The wage gap is almost entirely explained by women’s choices.  Men prefer technical jobs; women prefer people-oriented professions.

    As Christina Hoff Sommers says, “Want to close the wage gap?  Step one:  Change your major from feminist dance therapy to electrical engineering.”

    A rational response would be to cite studies that demonstrate a systematic pay gap between men and women in identical jobs, or evidence of verifiable attempts to discourage women from choosing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.  Regarding Islam, Milo writes,

    Islam is not like other religions.  It’s more inherently prescriptive and it’s much more political.  That’s why I, a free speech fundamentalist, still support banning the burka and restricting Islamic immigration… Everywhere Islam exists you find political tyranny.  Islam is as much a political ideology as a religion, which is why limits on it are perfectly compatible with religious freedom and the First Amendment… Every noble principle the Left claims to uphold, from rights for women to gay liberation, even diversity itself, dies on the altar of its sycophantic defense of Islam.

    A rational response would be to demonstrate that the Muslim religion doesn’t inject itself into politics, that the states in which it prevails tend to be secular democracies, that Muslim theocracies are tolerant of gays, and they promote equal rights for women.  I have seen no such responses in any of the many attacks on Yiannopoulos and his book.  Instead, they tend to confirm his claim that,

    The practitioners of the new political correctness are not equipped for a world in which individuals can disagree with what is deemed appropriate thought.  They rely on silencing the opposition with hysterics, instead of winning with superior ideas… Purposefully or unwittingly, a generation of Americans now exists that is terrified of critical thinking.

    In other words, the Progressive Left seldom meets the arguments of Yiannopoulos or anyone else head on.  Instead they rely on the illusion that they occupy the moral high ground, and seek to vilify and anathematize their opponents.  Unfortunately, outside of the subjective consciousness of individuals, there is no such thing as a moral high ground.  Claims to moral superiority can never be objectively legitimate.  They exist in a realm of fantasy where good and evil exist as independent things.

    In spite of the Left’s anathemas, Dangerous is well worth reading.  Yiannopoulos is a very intelligent man, and his book reflects the fact.  He is well aware of the role of innate emotions and predispositions as drivers of human behavior.  In particular, he is aware of the fundamental importance of ingroup/outgroup behavior, or what Robert Ardrey called the “Amity/Enmity Complex.”  As he writes in Dangerous,

    Since the 1970s, social psychologists have been aware that emphasizing differences between groups leads to mistrust and hostility.  In a series of landmark experiments, the psychologist Henri Tajfel found that even wearing different-colored shirts was enough for groups to begin displaying signs of mistrust.  So guess what happens when you tell everyone that their worth, their ability, their right to speak on certain subjects and – shudder – their “privilege” is, like original sin, based on what they were born with, rather than any choices they’ve made or who they are?

    Like the men’s health gap, the black murder gap is very real, and simply isn’t discussed by black activists.  I suspect it’s a matter of tribalism, or ingroup/outgroup psychology, a common occurrence in politics.  Like feminists who blame their everyday grievances on an invisible “patriarchy,” or Wi-Fi enabled Waffen-SS wannabes who think Jews are responsible for everything bad, or Democrats who blame the Russians for Hillary losing the election to Daddy.  It’s very easy to dodge responsibility if you have a boogeyman to lump the blame on.

    These quotes reflect a level of awareness that most leftists never reach.  They also allude to the reason that the utopias they are in the habit of concocting for us have never worked.  An ingroup can be as egalitarian as it pleases, but the assumption that the identity groups they invite to inhabit their multicultural world will necessarily be similarly altruistic is delusional.  Ingroups and outgroups will always exist, and they will always hate each other, as demonstrated by the bitter hatreds leftists themselves tend to wear on their sleeves.  Until the innate behavioral traits responsible for ingroup/outgroup behavior and the dual morality inevitably associated with it are understood, accepted, and a way is found to effectively control them, they will continue to be as dangerous as ever.

    The book is an interesting read for many other reasons.  Its detractors dismiss discussions of such controversies as Gamergate as water under the bridge, but they should be of interest to readers who aren’t obsessed with the very latest twists and turns in the culture wars.  Such readers may also have heard little or nothing of the many contemporary thinkers mentioned in the book who, like Yiannopoulos, are challenging the dogmas of his opponents.  Their work is seldom found in newspaper columns, and the book is a useful guide on where to look for them in contemporary social media.  Other than that it includes some thought provoking comments on Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that “politics is downstream from culture,” the reasons for the counterintuitive nexus between the Progressive Left and radical Islam, the remarkable cultural similarity between current “conservative” and “liberal” elites outside of superficial political differences revealed to the surprise of many in the recent election, the many contradictions between the avowed ideals of the Progressive Left and the other “haters” called out in the book and the various forms of racism, sexism and bigotry they practice in the real world, and so on.

    Perhaps the greatest weakness of the book is something it has in common with virtually every other similar work you’re likely to find, whether it comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum.  It tries to counter claims of moral superiority with claims of its own moral superiority.  One can “win” such a contest by being more effective at manipulating moral emotions than ones opponents, but in the end it is an irrational, dangerous, and futile game.  Consider what is actually being manipulated – innate emotions and predispositions that have no intrinsic purpose or function, but exist merely because they happened to improve the odds that certain genes would survive and reproduce.  There is certainly no guarantee that they will even accomplish the same thing in an environment so radically different from the one in which they evolved as the one we live in today.  On top of that, those who seek to manipulate them often do so in pursuit of goals that have little if any connection to the reasons they exist to begin with.

    The only way our species will ever manage to get off of this merry-go-round is by finally learning to understand the fundamental drivers of behavior, moral and otherwise.  An individual who is fully conscious of the nature of the emotions that are the motivators for all the goals and aspirations he sets for himself in life will also be an individual who is capable of discarding the illusion of objective moral laws as a rationalization for those goals and aspirations.  I don’t oppose the Progressive Left because it’s immoral.  In the end, I oppose it for the same reasons that are actually motivating Milo.  I don’t like to be bullied by people who assume they have some imaginary “moral authority” to tell me how I should behave and think.  We could “win” by beating the leftists at their own game, and seizing the “moral high ground.”  It would be a hollow victory, though.  As has happened so often in the past, we would end up by becoming clones of the monster we had just slain.  We need to stop playing the game.  There has to be a better way.

  • Mencken Trilogy Republished: Some New Words of Wisdom from the Sage of Baltimore

    Posted on September 27th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Readers who loath the modern joyless version of Puritanism, shorn of its religious impedimenta, that has become the dominant dogma of our time, and would like to escape for a while to a happier time in which ostentatious public piety was not yet de rigueur are in luck.  An expanded version of H. L. Mencken’s “Days” trilogy has just been published, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rogers.  It includes Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, and certainly ranks as one of the most entertaining autobiographies ever written.  The latest version actually contains a bonus for Mencken fans.  As noted in the book’s Amazon blurb,

    …unknown to the legions of Days books’ admirers, Mencken continued to add to them after publication, annotating and expanding each volume in typescripts sealed to the public for twenty-five years after his death. Until now, most of this material—often more frank and unvarnished than the original Days books—has never been published.  (This latest version contains) nearly 200 pages of previously unseen writing, and is illustrated with photographs from Mencken’s archives, many taken by Mencken himself.

    Infidel that he was, the Sage of Baltimore would have smiled to see the hardcover version.  It comes equipped with not one, but two of those little string bookmarks normally found in family Bibles.  I’ve read an earlier version of the trilogy, but that was many years ago.  I recalled many of Mencken’s anecdotes as I encountered them again, and perhaps with a bit more insight.  I know a great deal more about the author than I did the first time through, not to mention the times in which he lived.   There’ve been some changes made since then, to say the least.  For example, Mencken recalls that maids were paid $10 a month plus room and board in the 1880’s, but no less than $12 a month from about 1890 on.  Draught beer was a nickel, and a first class businessman’s lunch at a downtown hotel with soup, a meat dish, two side dishes, pie and coffee, was a quarter.  A room on the “American plan,” complete with three full meals a day, was $2.50.

    Mencken was already beginning to notice the transition to today’s “kinder, gentler” mode of raising children in his later days, but experienced few such ameliorations in his own childhood.  Children weren’t “spared the rod,” either by their parents or their teachers.  Mencken recalls that the headmaster of his first school, one Prof. Friedrich Knapp, had a separate ritual for administering corporal punishment to boys and girls, and wore out a good number of rattan switches in the process.  Even the policemen had strips of leather dangling from their clubs, with which they chastised juveniles who ran afoul of the law.  Parents took all this as a matter of course, and the sage never knew any of his acquaintance to complain.  When school started, the children were given one dry run on the local horse car accompanied by their parents, and were sent out on their own thereafter.  Of course, Mencken and his sister got lost on their first try, but were set on the right track by a policeman and some Baltimore stevedores.  No one thought of such a thing as supervising children at play. One encounters many similar changes in the social scene as one progresses through the trilogy, but the nature of the human beast hasn’t changed much.  All the foibles and weaknesses Mencken describes are still with us today.  He was, of course, one of the most prominent atheists in American history, and often singled out the more gaudy specimens of the faithful for special attention.  His description of the Scopes monkey trial in Heathen Days is a classic example.  I suspect he would have taken a dim view of the New Atheists.  In his words,

    No male of the Mencken family, within the period that my memory covers, ever took religion seriously enough to be indignant about it.  There were no converts from the faith among us, and hence no bigots or fanatics.  To this day I have a distrust of such fallen-aways, and when one of them writes in to say that some monograph of mine has aided him in throwing off the pox of Genesis my rejoicing over the news is very mild indeed.

    Of course, if one possesses the wit of a Mencken or a Voltaire, one has the luxury of fighting the bigotry and fanaticism coming from the other side very effectively without using the same weapons.

    I certainly encourage those who haven’t read Mencken to pick up a copy of this latest release of his work.  Those interested in more detail about the content may consult the work of professional reviewers that I’m sure will soon appear.  I will limit myself to one more observation.  It never fails that when some new bit of Menckeniana appears, the self-appointed guardians of the public virtue climb up on their soapboxes and condemn him as a racist.  Anyone who reads the Days will immediately see where this charge comes from.  Mencken makes free use of the N word and several other terms for African-Americans that have been banned from the lexicon over the ensuing years.  No matter that he didn’t use more flattering terms to describe other subgroups of the population, and certainly not of the white “boobeoisie,” of the cities, or the “hinds,” and “yokels” of the country.

    Nothing could be more untrue or unfair than this charge of “racism,” but, alas, to give the lie to it one must actually read Mencken’s work, and few of the preening moralists of our own day are willing to go to the trouble.  That’s sad, because none of them have contributed anywhere near as much as Mencken to the cause of racial equality.  He did that by ignoring the racist conventions of his own day and cultivating respect for black thinkers and intellectuals by actively seeking them out and publishing their work, most notably in the American Mercury, which he edited from its inception in 1924 until he turned over the reigns to Charles Angoff in 1933.  He didn’t publish them out of condescension or pity, or as their self-appointed savior, or out of an inordinate love of moralistic grandstanding of the sort that has become so familiar in our own day.  He paid them a much higher favor.  He published them because, unlike so many others in his own time, he was not blind to their intellectual gifts, and rightly concluded that their work was not only worthy of, but would enhance the value of the Mercury, one of the premier intellectual, political and literary journals of the time.  As a result, the work of a host of African-American intellectuals, professionals, and poets appeared in Mencken’s magazine, eclipsing the Nation, The New Republic, The Century, or any other comparable journal of the day in that regard.  All this can be easily fact-checked, because every issue of the Mercury published during Mencken’s tenure as editor can now be read online. For example, there are contributions by W. E. B. Dubois in the issue of October 1924, a young poet named Countee P. Cullen in November 1924, newspaper reporter and editor Eugene Gordon in June 1926, James Weldon Johnson, diplomat, author, lawyer, and former leader of the NAACP in April 1927, George Schuyler, author and social commentator in December 1927,  Langston Hughes, poet, author, and activist in November 1933, and many others.

    Most issues of the Mercury included an Americana section devoted to ridiculing absurdities discovered in various newspapers and other publications listed by state.  Mencken used it regularly to heap scorn on genuine racists.  For example, from the March 1925 issue:

    North Carolina

    Effects of the war for democracy among the Tar Heels, as reported in a dispatch from Goldsboro:

    Allen Moses and his wife, wealthy Negroes, left here in Pullman births tonight for Washington and New York.  This is the first time in the history of this city that Negroes have “had the nerve,” as one citizen expressed it, to buy sleeper tickets here.  White citizens are aroused, and it is said the Ku Klux Klan will be asked to give Moses a warm reception on his return.

    From the May 1926 issue:

    North Carolina

    The rise of an aristocracy among the defenders of 100% Americanism, as revealed by a dispatch from Durham:

    “According to reports being circulated here the Ku Klux Klan has added a new wrinkle to its activities and are now giving distinguished service crosses to member of the hooded order of the reconstruction days.  In keeping with this new custom, it is reported that two Durham citizens were recipients of this honor recently.  The medal, as explained by the honorable klansman making the award, is of no intrinsic value, ‘but the sentiment attached to it and the heart throbs that go with it are as measureless as the sands of the sea.'”

    From the August 1928 issue:

    District of Columbia

    The Hon. Cole L. Blease, of South Carolina, favors his colleagues in the Senate with a treatise on southern ethics:

    “There are not enough marines in or outside of the United States Army or Navy, in Nicaragua, and all combined, to make us associate with niggers.  We never expect to.  We never have; but we treat them fairly.  If you promise one of the $5 for a days work, if he does the days work, I believe you should pay him.”

    So much for the alleged “racism” of H. L. Mencken.  It reminds me of a poster that was prominently displayed in an office I once worked in.  It bore the motto, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

     

  • Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love”: Literature Making a Comeback?

    Posted on March 4th, 2014 Helian No comments

    The great French (or Italian, if you believe his gravestone.  To make a long story short, he fell madly in love with a Milanese woman, who never said “yes”) novelist, Stendhal, had his own definitions of romanticism and classicism.  As he wrote in his Racine and Shakespeare,

    Romanticism is the art of presenting to different peoples those literary works which, in the existing state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure.

    Classicism, on the contrary, presents to them that literature which gave the greatest pleasure to their great-grandfathers.

    His definition of culture was equally idiosyncratic.  For him, genuine culture, whether music, art, poetry or prose, was a reflection of some aspect of the here and now.  It was a reflection of the artist’s observation and experience of his own world.  Classicists might entertain by resurrecting the cultural artifacts of bygone times, but, at least according to Stendhal, they were not creating culture in the process.  Neither were artists like Sir Walter Scott, whose work represented for Stendhal a daydream about the past rather than a reflection of the present.  In The Charterhouse of Parma, for example, the stifling reactionaries in post-Napoleonic Italy who were responsible for educating his hero, Fabrice, would allow him to read only the Bible, one or two official newspapers, and the works of Sir Walter Scott.

    While I am not particularly enamored about the idea of attempting to return to bygone times, I am not particularly happy with the present, either.  As a result, I have found little in what Stendhal would have considered the genuine culture of our time that I enjoy or appreciate.  In general, some random poem from a dog-eared magazine of the 20’s or 30’s is more likely to bring a smile to my face than any of the contemporary stuff I’ve read for the last year or two.  The same goes for serious fiction.

    However, I keep searching.  In fact, I just finished a book by a contemporary novelist that I actually liked.  It’s Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan.  I’ll even go so far as to say that I agree with some of the reviewer’s comments on the cover.  For example, from The New York Review of Books, “[McEwan] is the quietest and most lucid of stylists, with never a word wasted or fumbled.”  That’s no exaggeration.  I found myself constantly smiling (and feeling envious) over McEwan’s skill in the use of words.  However, I didn’t really connect with the characters or plot.  McEwan is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and I probably would have liked the story better in a movie rather than a serious novel.  The “enduring love” referred to is actually a rare, psychotic malady know as de Clerambault’s Syndrome, and things happen that are possible, but are nothing that an average human is likely to experience in the course of a lifetime.  I don’t doubt that the characters are accurate representations of people McEwan has run across, but they are alien to me.  I prefer characters in my novels that I can recognize immediately.  Stendhal may have written a long time ago, but I stumble across many of them in his work, and I actually turn up myself occasionally.  No doubt that’s why Nietzsche spoke of him as “the last great psychologist.”

    However, there are some brilliant insights and uncanny reflections of the present in Enduring Love. For example, my jaw dropped when I read things like,

     And what, in fact, were the typical products of the twentieth-century scientific or pseudo-scientific mind?  Anthropology, psychoanalysis-fabulation run riot.  Using the highesst methods of storytelling and all the arts of priesthood, Freud had staked his claim on the veracity, though not the falsifiability of science.  And what of those behaviorists and sociologist of the 1920’s?  It was as though an army of white-coated Balzacs had stormed the university departments and labs. (Italics mine)

    and,

     I had set aside this day to start on a long piece about the smile.  A whole issue of an American science magazine was to be dedicated to what the editor was calling an intellectual revolution.  Biologists and evolutionary psychologists were reshaping the social sciences.  The postwar consensus, the standard social-science model, was falling apart, and human nature was up for reexamination.

    Hows that for an example of Stendhal’s genuine culture as a reflection of contemporary reality?  Great shades of Arrowsmith!  I found myself scratching my head and wondering how many readers of a novel with a title like Enduring Love would have so much as an inkling of what the writer was talking about.  You really have to have some serious insight into what’s been going on in the behavioral sciences to write things like that.

    How about this one:

     We (the two main characters) were having one of our late-night kitchen table sessions.  I told her I thought she had spent too much time lately in the company of John Keats.  A genius, no doubt, but an obscurantist, too, who had thought science was robbing the world of wonder when the opposite was the case.

    I couldn’t agree more.  And last but not least, there’s this, about the metamorphosis of literature from the 19th to now:

    Most educated people read contemporary novels.  Storytelling was deep in the 19th century soul. Then two things happened.  Science became more difficult, and it became professionalized.  It moved into the universities; parsonical narratives gave way to hard-edged theories that could survive intact without experimental support and that had their own formal aesthetic. At the same time, in literature and in other arts, a newfangled modernism celebrated formal, structural qualities, inner coherence, and self-reference.  A priesthood guarded the temples of this difficult art against the trespasses of the common man.

    Sounds plausible to me.  Maybe that’s why contemporary literature and poetry seem so foreign to me.  We could use another guy who has the nerve to pull down the temples.  Meanwhile, it appears the book has been made into a film.  I’ll have to check it out.

    Stendhal Gravestone

  • The Implosion of Jonah Lehrer

    Posted on August 1st, 2012 Helian No comments

    A couple of years ago Harvard announced an ongoing investigation of evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Marc Hauser for “scientific misconduct” involving the integrity of experimental data.  Hauser wrote books such as Moral Minds for a lay audience as well as numerous papers in academic journals co-authored with the likes of Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Richard Wrangham.  He resigned his professorship about a year later.

    Now another public scientist and intellectual who also specialized in the behavioral sciences has fallen.  Jonah Lehrer was fired from his position at “The New Yorker” after admitting he fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.  I can only agree with his editor, David Remnick, that “This is a terrifically sad situation.”  Why someone as ostensibly successful and highly regarded as Lehrer would do such a thing is beyond my comprehension.

    One must hope we’re not seeing the start of a trend.  I can think of few things more important than the credibility and integrity of the behavioral sciences, so lately emerged from the debacle of the Blank Slate.  It turns out Lehrer didn’t even need to invent the quotes in question.  According to Randy Lewis writing for the LA Times, Dylan actually did say substantially the same thing in an interview with pop music critic Robert Hilburn in 2004.  Quoting from Lewis’ article,

    At one point, he told Hilburn something very close to what Lehrer seemed to have been after: “I’m not good at defining things,” Dylan said in 2004. “Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn’t. It’s up to the listener to figure out what it means to him.”

    But he also did open up remarkably about how he viewed the art and craft of songwriting.

    “I don’t think in lateral terms as a writer. That’s a fault of a lot of the old Broadway writers…. They are so lateral. There’s no circular thing, nothing to be learned from the song, nothing to inspire you. I always try to turn a song on its head. Otherwise, I figure I’m wasting the listener’s time.”

    Had he been more thorough in doing the research for his book, perhaps Lehrer could have been able to hold onto the success he seemed so desperately to want that he concocted quotes from the greatest songwriter of the rock era.

    It would be nice if the scientists who study our behavior and morality were themselves immune to the human frailties they write about.  Once again, we have seen that they most decidedly are not.  Those who seek Plato’s philosopher kings will have to keep looking.

  • Vignettes from 1925

    Posted on December 12th, 2010 Helian No comments

    These are from various articles and authors in the May 1925 issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury.

    Politics:

    What shall the end be? Will that race of men who for a thousand years have asserted the “right of castle,” rejected governmental interference in domestic affairs, proclaimed the right of the free man to regulate his personal habits and to rear and govern his children in accordance with the law of conscience and of love, now become subject to a self-imposed statutory tyranny which from birth to death interferes in the smallest cocerns of life? Shall we endure a legal despotism, the equivalent of which would have provoked rebellion amongst the Saxons even when under the Norman heel?

    I doubt not these statutory bonds will be eventually broken. The right of the free man to live his own life, limited only be the inhibition of non-infringement upon the rights of others, will again be asserted. But before that day arrives, will the splendid symmetry of our governmental structure have been destroyed?

    Alas, my friend, there is yet no light at the end of the tunnel.  Next, from an article about the Mexican border towns entitled “Hell Along the Border,”

    I have studiously observed the viciousness and even the mere faults of decorum in Juarez, largest of the corrupting foci, in season and out for a least twelve seasons. I have had my glimpses at the life of the equally ill-reputed Nogales, Mexicali and Tia Juana. I have been in confidential communication with habitual visitors to Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, Piedras Negras, and Agua Prieta. And I can find in all these towns no sins more gorgeous than those enjoyed by every Massachusetts lodge of Elks at its annual fish-fries prior to 1920.

    Regarding the evangelical clergy, the televangelists of the day, immortalized by Sinclair Lewis in his Elmer Gantry,

    The net result, as I say, is to inspire those of us who have any surviving respect for God with an unspeakable loathing. We gaze on all this traffic and, without knowing exactly why, we feel a sick, nauseated revulsion. We feel as we felt when we were children, and had a bright glamorous picture of Santo Claus, with his fat little belly and fairy reindeer, and then suddenly came on a vile old loafer ringing a bell over an iron pot. It seems a blasphemous mockery that men can preadch such vulgar nonsense, call it religion, and then belabor the rest of us for not being washed in the blood of the Lamb.

    Concerning the latest in the hotel trade,

    Whatever I might write were the latest wrinkle would not be the latest wrinkle by the time these lines get into type. But one of the latest, certainly, is radio service in every chamber.

    Of anthropology, from an article entitled “The New History,”

    The anthropologists have paralleled the achievements of the archeologists by making careful studies of existing primitive peoples. Ten years ago we possessed in this field only the chatty introduction by Marett, and Professor Boas’ highly scholarly but somewhat difficult little book, “The Mind of Primitive Man.” Today we have admirable general works by Goldenweiser, Lowie, Kroeber, Tozzer, Levy-Bruhl and Wissler with several more in immediate prospect. These deal acutely and lucidly with primitive institutions.

    As the cognoscenti among my readers are no doubt aware, this was written on the very threshold of anthropology’s spiral into the dark ages of the Blank Slate, from which it has only recently emerged.  The good Professor Boas played a major role in pushing it over the cliff.

    Concerning the value of morality in regulating society,

    Once we give up the pestilent assumption that the only effective sanctions for conduct are those of law and morals, and begin to delimit clearly the field of manners, we shall be by way of discovering how powerful and how easily communicable the sense of manners is, and how efficiently it operates in the very regions where law and morals have so notoriously proven themselves inert. The authority of law and morals does relatively little to build up personal dignity, responsibility and self-respect, while the authority of manners does much… I also venture to emphasize for special notice by the Americanizers and hundred-per-centers among us, the observation of Edmund Burke that “there ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. For us to love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

    and finally, from the collection of anecdotes Mencken always included under the heading Americana,

    Effects of the Higher Learning at Yale, as revealed by the answers to a questionnaire submitted to the students there:

    Favorite character in world history: Napoleon, 181; Cleopatra, 7; Jeanne d’Arc, 7; Woodrow Wilson, 7; Socrates, 5; Jesus Christ, 4; Mussolini, 3. Favorite prose author: Stevenson, 24; Dumas, 22; Sabatini, 11; Anatole France, 5; Cabell, 5; Bernard Shaw, 4. Favorite magazine: Saturday Evening Post, 94; Atlantic Monthly, 24, New Republic, 3; Time Current History, 3. Favorite political party: Republican, 304; Democratic, 84; none, 22; Independent, 3. Biggest world figure of today: Coolidge, 52; Dawes, 32, Mussolini, 3; Prince of Wales, 24; J. P. Morgan, 15; Einstein, 3; Bernard Shaw, 3. What subject would you like to see added to the curriculum: Elocution and Public Speaking, 24; Business course, 8; Deplomacy, 7; Drama, 4.

    Times change in 85 years.

  • South Park and Sex Addiction

    Posted on May 6th, 2010 Helian 2 comments

    I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I caught a great episode of South Park yesterday. It was a spoof on the “sex addiction” meme, starring Tiger Woods, with an “Emperor’s New Clothes” theme, where everyone had to pretend that they believed that rich, powerful men who enjoyed sex with multiple partners were afflicted by some terrible mental disease. It’s absurd when you think about it. Is there some reason why evolution should favor rich, powerful men who decide they don’t want to have children? Have these people never heard of the Genghis Khan effect, repeated on a lesser scale over and over again? And yet, we were all expected to nod our heads sagely and pretend we actually believed the “sex addiction” thing. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have lost none of that ephemeral comic edge that “Peanuts” used to have back in the 60’s, and I hope they can hold on to it for a good while longer.

    If you haven’t seen their movie, “Team America,” get the CD. I give it both of my thumbs up. You could probably count the number of films that have hit the big screen in the last decade that are creative, funny, and not relentlessly PC at the same time on one hand. “Team America” is one of them. As for the flap over the latest Muhammed episode, it speaks volumes about the times we live in. Two guys have the nobility to put their lives on the line in defense of freedom of expression, and the people whose liberties they are risking so much to defend react with incomprehension. Meanwhile, the abject sheep on the roof with their crucifixes in urine and caricatures of Mary smeared with elephant dung, who know full well they have nothing to fear from the victims of their scorn, are lionized as heroic fighters against “censorship” and avatars of culture.