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December 21, 2003:
To every place of entertainment we go with expectation and desire of being pleased; we meet others who are brought by the same motives; no one will be the first to own the disappointment; one face reflects the smile of another, till each believes the rest delighted, and endeavours to catch and transmit the circulating rapture. In time, all are deceived by the cheat to which all contribute. The fiction of happiness is propagated by every tongue, and confirmed by every look, till at last all profess the joy which they do not feel, consent to yield to the general delusion, and, when the voluntary dream is at an end, lament that bliss is of so short a duration.
—Samuel Johnson: Idler #18
The paying public, I suppose, has a right to pleasure. But how do we react to the mediocre? This morning's New York Times has an article about standing ovations, and how they are no longer an indicator of a high quality performance. They have become so frequent, the writer and others state, that they are routine — think of it as an extreme form of grade inflation.
There are a number of hypotheses floated: a less discriminating public, social modeling, an audience's desire to finally do something... I have also sometimes felt as if there is some kind of competition to clap first at a symphonic performance (an instantaneous applause, with no opportunity to exhale after the conclusion of a piece).
It happens in other arenas besides the performing arts, of course. I'm familiar with complaints that baseball broadcasts spend too much time showing replays of routine fielding, and while that may not carry over to the next morning's water cooler conversation, it can effect our perceptions of what's exceptional. And who wants to lead their group in being a grumpy party pooper?
Johnson, in fact, thought it important to differentiate between discrimination for appearances and discrimination in order to sift between the good and the bad. In Rambler 74, he wrote:
"Let no man rashly determine, that his unwillingness to be pleased is a proof of understanding, unless his superiority appears from less doubtful evidence; for though peevishness may sometimes justly boast its descent from learning or from wit, it is much oftener of base extraction, the child of vanity and nursling of ignorance."
...and in another Idler essay (no. 25), he wrote, "He that applauds him who does not deserve praise, is endeavouring to deceive the publick; he that hisses in malice or sport, is an oppressor and a robber."
December 14, 2003:
The morality of an action depends on the motive from which we act.
—Samuel Johnson (quoted in Boswell's Life of Johnson)
In my view, the capture of Saddam Hussein is a good thing. Obviously I'm not alone in feeling that way.
There are others — mostly liberals, like me — who have mixed feelings about this, not because they don't think the capture itself is good, but because they see it as shoring up Bush's popularity. An increase in Bush's popularity, they feel, increases his chances for re-election, and furthers policies they disagree with — ultimately leading to negative outcomes which outweigh the positive aspects of bringing Saddam Hussein to justice.
Strictly speaking, liberals who feel this way are being patriotic, because it is out of a deeply-felt love for their country that they arrive at their mixed feelings about the capture.
I suspect this factor is lost on some people. Many conservatives, of course, are quite pleased with the capture, and are on a mission to uncover those who are not as enthusiastic as they are. Andrew Sullivan, for instance, is holding a contest for the "most strained and mealy-mouthed statements from the devastated press and anti-war politicians." InstaPundit wrote, "Those who, frankly, would just as soon see the entire war as a failure, are ready to call anything short of perfection a failure." There's a failure to understand that people can, with the best of intentions, look for Bush to fail in specific areas. And they look for that failure out of the best of intentions.
Do intentions matter this much, that they justify having mixed feelings about the capture of Saddam Hussein? I think they do. I don't think this is a situation where we engage in a patriotism contest, and make the sole criterion be elation over the capture.
December 7, 2003:
Whatever is common is despised. Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetick.
—Samuel Johnson: Idler #40
I suppose that the "promise, large promise" of advertisements which Johnson proceeded to observe is one approach, but it seems as if Johnson's imagination was too limited to see how pervasive brands would become in the 21st century.
The Washington Post reports that everyone's favorite Big Apple is giving more and more consideration to brand partnerships; Snapple is the official soft drink of the public schools, and MasterCard's sponsorship of Central Park is made clear through signs all over Olmstead's and Vaux's canvas.
As much as I'm turned off by the commercial intrusion into public spaces, I have to recognize that very few people here welcomed the cutbacks in services which budget shortfalls originally called for; when there were threats to close the Prospect Park Zoo, petitioners were as frequent as mosquitoes in Florida in August. And I never heard any citizen point to any city service and say, yes, this would be something good to eliminate or cutback. Efforts to raise revenues (through increased taxes on items like cigarettes or East River bridge tolls) were frequently spat upon, sometimes by the ever-supportive governor. So, in a sense, I guess New York gets what it pays for, and if it takes corporate sponsorship to help span the gap, then so be it. (I'd feel more comfortable if the city were explicit about how and when we will be free of corporate sponsorship; I expect it's here to stay.)
It would be unfair, I think, to single out New York for scorn on this matter. (Is anyone doing that?) College basketball fans have long known about the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University, named after the Carrier Corporation. That arena has been around almost 25 years, under that name. I don't know if that facility was one of the first to identify with a corporation, but there are certainly many more that have come out since.
When I think about the unexpected places where ads pop up (unthinkable 30 years ago) — shopping carts, public rest rooms — as well as product placements in movies and television, I suppose we should be grateful for those occasions where a company chooses to speak to us through a genuine claim (or "large promise") rather than a 24/7 assault on our attention.
November 23, 2003:
Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is."
—Samuel Johnson: Milton (Lives of the Poets)
Even as we speak, the Kid Unit is struggling to read a chapter in a book for school, a book which the aforesaid Kid Unit has described as being the most boring book ever read. As adults, we remember similarly excruciating encounters with literature — did Hardy really open Return of the Native with a 712 page description of the heath? (That's what it felt like my senior year...)
It's no secret why we persevere with a book when sufficient coercive power exists (like school, and the threat of pop quiz from Mrs. Dougherty), but as adults, why do we sometimes continue? How many people wish they could just grab Hans Castorp by the throat, and say, "Look: just get off the mountain: leave now," and when they realize they can't strangle him to sense, decide, "I guess I might as well finish this book." What makes other readers decide that they can get on with the rest of their lives without having finished it?
A writer can struggle on every single word all the day long, working hard to invest each sentence with the proper tone, activity, and so on, making sure that it progresses the story or deliberately making time slow down. But there will be readers on whom such efforts are lost. Occasionally it will be wasted effort on far more than "some" readers. The audience's interest must be maintained, or the book will not be read, the words will have no effect. As Johnson wrote in his life of Dryden, "That book is good in vain which the reader throws away."
November 23, 2003:
"It is by affliction chiefly that the heart of man is purified. Prosperity, allayed and imperfect as it is, has power to intoxicate the imagination, to fix the mind upon the present scene, to produce confidence and elation, and to make him who enjoys affluence and honours forget the hand by which they were bestowed. It is seldom that we are otherwise, than by affliction, awakened to a sense of our own imbecility, or taught to know how little all our acquisitions can conduce to safety or to quiet; and how justly we may ascribe to the superintendence of a higher Power, those blessings which in the wantonness of success we considered as the attainments of our policy or courage."
— Samuel Johnson: Adventurer #120
Sordid tales about the behavior of the rich are easily found: not just Ted Kennedy's failures with respect to the Chappaquiddick accident, but the way in which they are often said to overestimate their personal efforts in achieving their station. (For instance, a popular quip about the first President Bush, attributed to Jim Hightower, was that he had been "born on third base, but thinks he hit a triple." The remark has also been applied to the second President Bush.) Nor does the behavior stop with politicians: Frank Rich detailed the famous excesses of Paris Hilton and the indicted former CEO of Tyco, Dennis Kozlowski.
Frank Rich's piece, if you read it, is also interesting because it discusses the approach-avoid conflict which many feel about riches. On the one hand, we laud wealth as a sign of success, but those who have it often try to downplay their significance, in an effort to appear more 'normal;' not just President George W. Bush, but Democratic contenders John Kerry and Howard Dean; the latter had recently told an audience that he went to a college in New Haven, Connecticut, instead of just saying "Yale." (I also remember Elton John defending his earnings by pointing out that Paul Simon made more than he did, it was just that Paul Simon was among the "quiet rich.")
But if riches can sometimes buffer the wealthy from experiencing adversity, they don't provide a complete shield (e.g., imClone's Sam Waksal); and therefore, the trials of adversity can still be meaningful, even for the rich (witness actor Christopher Reeve, who has united his celebrity status and disability for several good causes).
On a related note, we are heading into the holiday season, and I hope you'll consider finding some way to volunteer. You can make a difference, during the holidays and all year round.
November 16, 2003:
I mentioned to him that I had become very weary in a company where I heard not a single intellectual sentence, except "that a man who had been settled ten years in Minorca was become a much inferiour man to what he was in London, because a man's mind grows narrow in a narrow place." Johnson: "A man's mind grows narrow in a narrow place, whose mind is enlarged only because he has lived in a large place: but what is got by books and thinking is preserved in a narrow place as well as in a large place. A man cannot know modes of life as well in Minorca as in London; but he may study mathematicks as well in Minorca."
— James Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson
Narrowness doesn't need to be location-based. It can come from having a limited social circle, or reading only certain books. (In fact, Johnson points out that books are a good way to overcome the narrowness of one's surroundings.) Although I don't think I wrote about it last month, much was made about a survey which indicated that viewers of Fox were less informed about the situation in Iraq than those who got their news through other sources, such as PBS or CNN. From research on familiarity with one issue, conclusions were frequently drawn about the quality of information on Fox — yet it's easy to imagine that if the issue were medicare, or judicial nomination approvals, or the budget, that the rankings of the news channels' performance could readily shift.
A few years ago I read Cass Sunstein's small book republic.com, in which he warns of the myopic perspectives which people can develop by focusing their attention on specific news sources, or "collaborative filtered" news output which has been created according to our tastes. When we read a newspaper, turning page by page, we unintentionally encounter a lot of news stories which can expand our horizons, but when we read online and only click certain headlines, the reader can get stale. Similarly, by hanging out with a group of like-minded individuals in leftist or right-winged message boards, our sense of the broader social norms can become distorted, and as a result our understanding of propriety. (By the way, while I didn't think it was a great book, I was surprised by some of the reviews at Amazon, many tied into political viewpoints, such as "Another pointey-headed liberal propounding theories about how freedom is bad for us." My own feelings were that the book's ideas were too simple for book-length treatment.)
All in all, I don't see much reason for anyone, no matter where they live, what they read, or who they hang out with, to feel superior: everyone has their own way in which they are vulnerable to provincialism, and it takes effort to round out our perspectives.
Read a different newspaper today, perhaps one from another city; walk through another neighborhood; go to the library; rent a foreign film; go to a different bar and strike up a conversation with a stranger.
November 9, 2003:
"A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it."
— Samuel Johnson: The Patriot
Johnson's pamphlet The Patriot was a reaction to the combination of Whigs and opposition party members which he saw as engaging in useless exercises — and because they called themselves Patriots (with a capital P) it's a valuable backdrop to his famous remark that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
The shallow machinations of those patriots are not limited to politicians, of course. This week's brouhaha over CBS's miniseries on the Reagans is a case in point, one where a whole lotta people got vehement about a television movie that didn't tell history the way they saw it; never mind that it was a movie, not history — the defenders of the Reagan cult saw it as another attempt of the "biased" media to extend the pernicious, controlling liberal influence and take another chip at all that's right with America.
Wrote a columnist in the Sacramento Bee:
There was a flood of electronically manufactured emails on the issue, according to a columnist at the Seattle Times:
Such an intrusion into entertainment, of course, would have been unprecedented, and I don't recall a similar demand regarding Showtime's drama over President Bush's reactions to September 11. But maybe these protectors of historical accuracy were all out splitting logs when that little controversy arose.
The Reagan series has been moved from CBS to Showtime (another channel in the parent company's media stable), but this relegation is apparently not enough for some. One grassroots organizer said, "I'm grateful that it's not going into 110 million homes as it would have on CBS. But it's still a smear of a great American leader on a network that'll reach 15 million homes, and I'm still getting hundreds of e-mails telling me, `Don't stop, keep the movement alive.'"
And these people are all getting up in arms about what — a movie?
One of the pieces of dialog which most upset the defenders of the Absolute Truth was that the TV Reagan made a callous remark about AIDS sufferers; while it's true that Real Life Reagan (RLR) never made that remark, RLR was slower than December molasses to do anything about the AIDS epidemic, and so with one line of dialog the producers were able to describe inaction that would have taken 5-7 minutes otherwise. (RLR didn't really respond to the AIDS epidemic until 1985, when Rock Hudson died.) It's called license.
And who is this figure who the Keepers of the Flame are trying so ardently to defend from the vile clutches of a movie? Well, anyone who read Theodore Draper's A Very Thin Line knows that he was a disengaged politician who was happy to have his subordinates selling arms to Iran and funneling money to the Contras. And if you don't have the time to read an entire book, you might want to read two articles by Timothy Noah about Saint Reagan.
Imagine if this same level of energy were being exerted about something which really mattered, and could have an actual impact on people's lives...
Update: A discussion in response to this.
November 2, 2003:
"It very commonly happens that speculation has no influence on conduct. Just conclusions and cogent arguments, formed by laborious study and diligent inquiry, are often reposited in the treasuries of memory, as gold in the miser's chest, useless alike to others and to himself. As some are not richer for the extent of their possessions, others are not wiser for the multitude of their ideas."
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #98
Samuel Johnson, ever the practical man, clearly thought that learning for its own sake was senseless: learning that could be applied was valuable, but those who learned and didn't put it to use were, in a sense, deformed. Many of Johnson's essays deal not only with impractical knowledge, but with the awkwardness which is produced from inattention to what can be used day to day — the ability to carry on simple conversations, for instance.
Yet it's important to realize that Johnson was far from denigrating the value of an education: he knew how much he had gained from being well read, and wrote about sons and daughters who were not prepared for the world, whether due to their parents' negligence or their own irresolution.
All this is in keeping, of course, with Johnson's basic belief in the value of moderation. Johnson saw value in many of life's pursuits, but knew they could distort us if left unchecked. He once wrote that "The love of fame is to be regulated rather than extinguished; ... men should be taught not to be wholly careless about their memory, but to endeavour that they be remembered chiefly for their virtues, since no other reputation will be able to transmit any any pleasure beyond the grave" (Rambler #49). And in the first Rambler essay, not knowing whether to boast of great plans or to understate his plans, he wrote, "It may, indeed, be no less dangerous to claim, on certain occasions, too little than too much. There is something captivating in spirit and intrepidity, to which we often yield, as to a resistless power; nor can he reasonably expect the confidence of others who too apparently distrusts himself."
Balance, balance, balance.
October 26, 2003:
On the opposition party in the Senate of Lilliput: "Their business is not to lead or shew the way, but to follow at a distance, and ridicule the perplexity, and aggravate the mistakes of their guides. They are only to wait for consequences, which, if they are prosperous, they misrepresent as not intended, or pass over in silence, and are glad to hide them from the notice of mankind. But if any miscarriages arise, their penetration immediately awakes, they see at the first glance the fatal source of all our miseries, they are astonished at such a concatenation of blunders, and alarmed with the most distracting apprehensions of the danger of their country."
—"The Nardac Secretary," from a debate written by Samuel Johnson (Gentleman's Magazine, July, 1741)
Johnson's "Debates in the Senate of Lilliput" were the imagined creation of Samuel Johnson, meant to superficially recount what actually happened in the British Parliament; transcripts were not allowed, but The Gentleman's Magazine provided Johnson skeletal notes taken down surreptitiously, and it was his job to invent debates based on the notes. (For a few more details and an example debate, click here.)
US political discussions often claim that partisanship is worse now than it has ever been before (for example, Clinton-hatred was never as bad as the Bush-hatred now seen; the Democrats have blocked too many judicial nominations, and so on).
Johnson's having described the phenomenon of opposition party obstructionism as far back as 250 years ago, it seems appropriate to ask a few questions: how bad is it, really? is it worse now than ever? and, are we likely to see it diminish any time soon?
One of President Bush's campaign claims was that he was experienced at reaching across the aisle in Texas, and we could expect him to do the same in Washington. So far, I am not seeing it (early in his administration, you'll remember, his assistants even alienated a Republican senator who wasn't adequately partisan causing that senator to abandon the party; as a result the Republicans lost their senate majority). The chummy nicknames which Bush often uses in talking to others just aren't enough.
October 19, 2003:
So few of the hours of life are filled up with objects adequate to the mind of man, and so frequently are we in want of present pleasure or employment, that we are forced to have recourse every moment to the past and future for supplemental satisfactions, and relieve the vacuities of our being by recollections of former passages, or anticipation of events to come.
—Samuel Johnson: Rambler #41
Johnson knew that people's attentions drift from what is around them, and while we may not always be focused on where we are — or events happening elsewhere — our minds could also light on recollections of the past and expectations for the future.
It's not that we are scatterbrained, he thought, but that our worlds are not enough to capture all of our focus. It's another manifestation of one of his recurring themes, that life in general falls short of our imaginations, and if we think long about it we are bound to be disappointed. The "filled up" expression recurs in an anecdote Hester Piozzi reported, where she quotes Johnson as saying "Why, life must be filled up, and the man who is not capable of intellectual pleasures must content himself with such as his senses can afford."
Those who don't understand the cause of their ennui will often try to solve it through acquisition, but this too is doomed for failure: "our desires always increase with our possessions" (Adventurer #67), and the man who is so rich creates large pointless projects. As Imlac said to Rasselas,
"I consider this mighty structure [the pyramid] as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments. A king, whose power is unlimited, and whose treasures surmount all real and imaginary wants, is compelled to solace, by the erection of a Pyramid, the satiety of dominion and tastelessness of pleasures, and to amuse the tediousness of declining life, by seeing thousands laboring without end, and one stone, for no purpose, laid upon another. Whoever thou art that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratifications, survey the Pyramids, and confess thy folly."
October 12, 2003:
The difference, [Johnson] observed, between a well-bred and an ill-bred man is this: "One immediately attracts your liking, the other your aversion. You love the one till you find reason to hate him; you hate the other till you find reason to love him."
—James Boswell: Life of Samuel Johnson
"Love is blind, and lovers cannot see," wrote Shakespeare, but he didn't need to stop there; we all have triggers which change the way we look at the world. Breeding was apparently one of them for Johnson (and if he was not projecting, it was the case for those around him, too).
Last night my wife was watching a show called Date Patrol, one of those shows where a group of television-producer-appointed advisors revamp someone's life; on "Date Patrol" the objective is to spice someone up for the dating game. Last night's episode focused on a New Jersey woman who, along with other issues, had body language which showed how quickly she became judgmental about those she was around. A quick trigger for her was a man's merely being kissing her on the cheek; from there she seemed to sink into an ordeal. But with training, she learned that she could enjoy life more by not shutting down so quickly, being more open to people, and allowing her winter-colored wardrobe to admit some Spring.
In a way, her growth required her to be more open to the world's diversity. Diversity isn't really a bad word. If people react negatively to the idea, it's often because people don't feel they need to be reminded that discrimination on race, creed, or gender is illegal. But there are other ways we exclude people, to our own disadvantage; and though not required by law to mend our ways, they are worth our review.
Diversity encompasses the kinds of music or food we like, the way we approach problem solving, and the part of the country we're from. Just as I would bristle over someone ignoring me because I was raised in Florida, I'd be foolish to ignore others just because they belong to a different political party.
But we make these stupid decisions all the time, and in cutting ourselves off from much of the world, go stale. As if, to paraphrase Dylan, in our resistance to being born we have decided it's better to be busy dying.
October 5, 2003:
"Every man has something to do which he neglects; every man has faults to conquer which he delays to combat."
—Samuel Johnson: Idler #43
The Kid Unit is now in middle school, and one of the planned subjects is called "Study Skills." The concept may be a shock to the KU: an actual class devoted to the ways various people study, learning your own style, and working it to success. For many people it's a natural — a friend of ours in the Netherlands seems to have been using a Filofax® when she was still in her mother's womb. Quite different for the Kid Unit, however.
I have not been the best example, and need to add changing that to my list of priorities. When I look around this small room in our apartment, I see mountain ranges of CDs waiting to be moved from jewel boxes into vinyl sleeves; a dozen or so zip disks of jpegs waiting to be burned onto CD-ROMs; books I will never read waiting to be sent back to their lenders, along with books I'm in the process of reading, waiting for their place on a shelf. Scads of receipts, waiting to be entered into Quicken®, Quicken® software waiting to be reloaded onto the new PC, and old Quicken® data back-up files waiting to be restored. How could a child have better habits with such a stellar example?
Clearly, it needs to be addressed. Priorities aren't always difficult — I've recently addressed my weight, and lost 20 pounds through Atkins — and so I hope I can pull this off, too. Too much is at stake, because it's not just me, but also my example that is an issue.