August 21, 2016
Excerpt from The Gift of the Good Land; Native Grasses and What They Mean
The most moving and memorable place…was a stony roadside we came to…too infertile a place to support a thick stand of grasses…but it had the richest broad-leafed plants. It had survived by the care of a farm family…a short way up the road. They mow this every year to keep the highway department from spraying it. The wife thinks the flowers are beautiful (and said) “I don’t know what they are, but I don’t want anyone fooling with them.”
What is the importance or value of these…ephemeral relics of a long-vanished prairie? What do they signify?
As we felled and burned the forests, so we burned, plowed, and overgrazed the prairies. We came with visions, but not with sight. We did not see or understand where we were or what was there, but destroyed what was there for the sake of what we desired. And the desire was always native to the place we had left behind.
The forest could not survive because we did not see it; we saw cleared fields. The prairies could not survive because in their place we saw corn fields and pastures sowed to the cool-season grasses of the Old World. And this habit of assigning a higher value to what might be than to what is has stayed with us, so that we have continued to sacrifice the health of our land and of our communities to the abstract values of money-making industrialism. Or to “recreation”; it is because we have so insulted and despoiled Creation that we need recreation. In the last generation huge areas have been laid waste by strip mining. And it is no mere coincidence that the spread of surface mining has been paralleled by the spread of extractive agriculture.
To see and respect what is there is the first duty of stewardship. “I don’t know what they are,” the farm wife said, “but I don’t want anyone fooling with them.” That is an ecological principle, and a religious one. If you don’t know what it is don’t fool with it. Don’t use it carelessly. Don’t destroy it. And who knows in any ultimate or final sense what any creature is? The biochemist Erwin Chargraff has written that “Even the most exact of our exact sciences float above…abysses that cannot be explored.”
by Wendell Berry
from The Gift of Good Land
August 12, 2016
August 4, 2016
A Facebook friend, David, made a reference to Moby Dick’s Ahab, suggesting Trump. I wrote back:
I like the white whale ref
I hadn’t thought of that
but it’s apt
Ahump or Trumphab
Melville spelled it out
for common consumption
and many eat
June 15, 2016
More bodies have piled up due to the glut of lunatics on the American scene. Following the latest mass shooting (and in a feeble attempt to address the certain anti-Islamic hysteria that typically follows a mass shooting by Muslims) I did a simple search of mass gun deaths from 2008 to the present I came up with this:
50 dead Orlando- Muslim lunatic
14 dead San Bernardino- two Muslim lunatics
3 dead Colorado Springs- White lunatic
9 dead Roseburg Oregon- White lunatic
5 dead Chatanooga- Palestinian/Jordanian lunatic
9 dead Charleston- White lunatic
6 dead Isla Vista CA- White lunatic
3 dead Fort Hood- Muslim American lunatic
12 dead Washington- Black American Navy lunatic
5 dead Santa Monica American/Lebanese lunatic
27 dead Newtown- White lunatic
3 dead Brookfield WI- Black lunatic
6 dead Minneapolis- White lunatic
6 dead Oak Creek- White lunatic
12 dead-Aurora- White lunatic
7 dead Oakland- Korean Christian lunatic
8 dead Seal Beach- White lunatic
6 dead Tucson- White lunatic
8 dead Manchester CT- Black lunatic
3 dead Huntsville AL- White lunatic
13 dead Binghamton NY- Vietnamese lunatic
5 dead Dekalb- White lunatic
8 dead Omaha- White lunatic
32 dead Blacksburg VA- Korean lunatic
Total dead 260 (and that’s only back to 2008).
Now if you crunch those numbers of gun-dead corpses, in terms of melanin or faith you get this (note: it’s possible some of those white lunatics were also Christian lunatics):
108 dead by white lunatics
77 dead by certain and possible Muslim lunatics
23 dead by black lunatics
52 dead by miscellaneous other lunatics
or: 42% dead by white lunatics, 30% by certain and possible Muslim lunatics, 9% by black lunatics, 20% by miscellaneous other lunatics
The most common element here is not ethnicity or religion, but guns. So you might argue that the 260 dead are the responsibility of NRA lunatics. And, if you insist upon adding the 3000 (more or less) 9/11 dead by Muslim lunatics, you’d have to fairly add the tens-of-thousands dead by American lunatics going to war in Iraq chasing the wrong perpetrators.
Editor’s note: Should we be concerned about faith-based lunacy? Yes, but across the board. Lunatics love their religions; after all, in what other sphere of human thought and activity can you acceptably justify your personal hate as the will of God?
June 5, 2016
OF all the students preparing to go to college this fall, perhaps none have faced a more hazardous journey than a young woman named Sultana. One measure of the hazard is that I’m not disclosing her last name or hometown for fear that she might be shot.
Sultana lives in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan, and when she was in the fifth grade a delegation visited her home to warn her father to pull her out of school, or else she would have acid flung in her face. Ever since, she has been largely confined to her high-walled family compound — in which she has secretly, and perilously, educated herself.
“I’m unstoppable,” Sultana laughs, and it’s true: She taught herself English from occasional newspapers or magazines that her brothers brought home, in conjunction with a Pashto-English dictionary that she pretty much inhaled. When her businessman father connected the house to the internet, she was able to vault over her compound walls.
“I surrounded myself with English, all day,” she told me by Skype. Today her English is fluent, as good as that of some Afghan interpreters I’ve used.
Once she had mastered English, Sultana says, she tackled algebra, then geometry and trigonometry, and finally calculus BC. She rises about 5 a.m. and proceeds to devour calculus videos from Khan Academy, work out equations, and even read about string theory.
Sultana, now 20, says she leaves her home only about five times a year — each time, she must wear a burqa and be escorted by a close male relative — but online she has been reading books on physics and taking courses on edX and Coursera. I can’t independently verify everything Sultana says, but her story generally checks out. After reading a book on astrophysics by Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, she reached him by Skype, and he says he was blown away when this Afghan elementary school dropout began asking him penetrating questions about astrophysics.
“It was a surreal conversation,” Krauss said. “She asked very intelligent questions about dark matter.”
Krauss has become one of Sultana’s advocates, along with Emily Roberts, an undergraduate at the University of Iowa who signed up for a language program called Conversation Exchange and connected with Sultana.
By Skype, Emily and Sultana became fast friends, and soon they were chatting daily. Moved by Sultana’s seemingly unattainable dream of becoming a physics professor, Emily began exploring what it would take for Sultana to study in the United States.
With Emily’s help, Sultana has been accepted by a community college in Iowa, with a commitment by Arizona State University to take her as a transfer student a year later. Emily started a website to raise money for Sultana’s university education.
Sultana reminds us that the greatest untapped resource around the globe isn’t gold or oil, but the female half of the population. Virginia Woolf wrote that if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, she never would have been able to flower — and Sultana is Shakespeare’s sister. Yet it’s also clear that internet connections can sometimes be a game changer.
Sultana’s family is wary of her passion for education but surrenders to her determination. “My mom said a lot of mouths will be open, a single girl going to the Christian world,” she said. “But I will die if they stop me.”
Unfortunately, the United States isn’t helping. Last month, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul rejected her application for a student visa. That happens all the time: Brilliant young men and women are accepted by American universities and then denied visas because, under U.S. law, they are seen as immigration risks.
(As a Muslim, Sultana would also be barred by Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims. I asked her what she thought of Trump, and all she would say, with quiet dignity, was: “He thinks all Muslims are bad. It’s painful.”)
Michelle Obama has pushed an impressive campaign called Let Girls Learn, yet her husband’s administration has never seemed as enthusiastic, and America routinely denies visas that would actually let girls learn. The United States spends billions of dollars fighting terrorism by blowing things up; I wish we understood that sometimes the most effective weapon against terrorists isn’t a drone but a girl with a book.
The Taliban understand this: That’s why their fighters shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. If only we were as cleareyed as the Taliban about the power of girls’ education to transform societies.
Sultana now spends her days working on calculus equations, listening to Bon Jovi and doing household chores while listening to the BBC or self-help audiobooks. It also turns out that she is a longtime Times reader and gets my email newsletter. She’s now working her way through more serious reading: Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”
Sultana has set up another appointment for a visa, for June 13. It won’t be Sultana who is tested but American policy itself. I’ll let you know what happens.
May 20, 2016
Some time ago a friend sent me a little book on the nature of bullshit, which is something much discussed but which I’d never seen or heard thoroughly analyzed until the book, titled “On Bullshit”, was unexpectedly delivered to my door in a little white truck branded USPS. This was a year or so before one of the greatest bullshitters of modern times made his successful hostile takeover of one of two major political parties of the United States of America due largely to his superb skill in the art of bullshit.
The author of On Bullshit is Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. Dr. Frankfurt’s major areas of interest include moral philosophy, philosophy of mind and action, and 17th century rationalism. So we can see that the good doctor is a solid member of the academic community and we can understand how On Bullshit may have naturally developed from those interests.
Dr. Frankfurt’s book is not a silly satire intended to evoke derisive laughter at the expense of those who practice it, but is a thoughtful and implicitly funny examination of a rhetorical tool employed by homo-sapiens since the time Cain explained to God his part in the homicide of his brother Abel. It’s implicitly funny because the idea of bullshit being the subject of a scholarly send-off is funny. It’s like learning your uncle’s often told fish story had won a Pulitzer.
It’s safe to say there’s never been a bullshit famine on the planet. It’s like kudzu, that invasive vine of Southeast Asia and our own deep south that eventually covers everything. The utility of bullshit, especially in certain professions like politics is probably the reason for its prevalence, but there is another. In a novel cited by Dr. Frankfurt a character says, “One of the first things my father taught me was, ‘Never lie when you can bullshit your way through,’” which goes to that other reason. Bullshit is often tolerated and is usually not considered as morally reprehensible as an outright lie (although lies too are coming into wider acceptance). As Frankfurt observes this is probably not because bullshit is morally superior to lying but that “the consequences of its being used are less severe for the bullshitter than for the liar.” The interesting thing about this, Frankfurt notes, is that the idea of “bullshitting your way through” (which is too often winked at) involves a “program of producing bullshit”. Whereas a liar is constrained by the truth (a liar must believe a truth in order to produce a true lie –no pun intended) —a bullshitter has more freedom. A bullshitter’s focus is panoramic (I love that), the author says. It’s not particular.
Now, for the purpose of this column (which is to present Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for president of the United States, as one of the hands-down most masterful and successful political bullshitters of modern times) Frankfurt gets to what I think is the foundation of Donald Trump’s political rhetoric: a bullshitter, he says, “does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and is thus not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it.” He goes on to say, as if elaborating on a particular Trump speech, that this lack of constraint is more expansive than a lie, with spacious opportunities for improvisation, color and imaginative play, suggesting a certain artistic bent as in the familiar term, “bullshit artist” (Trump as artist) and art, as well as its intent (unlike analytical discourse), is often oblique.
In fact, our good doctor says, what a bullshitter misrepresents is not fact nor what he takes to be fact. What he intends to obscure is his enterprise. What he misrepresents is what he’s up to. Frankfurt states that the truth value of what a man like Trump states “is of no central interest to him” and that his motive is unconcerned with how things really are. The truth is simply inconsequential to a bullshit artist.
The crux of On Bullshit may be found in its observation that a bullshitter, “…does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” And if things made up come up against reality and you have to, let’s say, “be presidential” it requires new BS and so we see Trump lately moon-walking, shuffling backward (Ryan no. Ryan yes. Ayotte no. Ayotte yes. McCain no. McCain yes.)but without the grace of Michael Jackson, as in this. or this, or this, etc.
As I’ve listened to Trump speeches over the past few months I’ve come away floored not only at how few actual ideas Trump’s speeches contain, but how he plows along stringing streams of thoughtless word-beads as if fashioning a colorful noose of nada to throttle the minds of listeners to the point of common-sanity deprivation. In fact I’d been completely stupefied until I pulled Harry Frankfurt’s little book from a stack, read it again and realized that fate (through the generosity of my philosopher friend) had worked to shed some light on the profound absurdity of the triumph of Trump.
Wrapping up, I’d like to share one more thing Harry Frankfurt’s said because it suggests the danger that men like Trump, in positions of power, pose to us all. He says the bullshitter “…does not reject the authority of truth as the liar does … he pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
by Jim Culleny
May 6, 2016
What a fabulous piece of art this is.