Monday, September 26, 2016

Thinking: Not Just for the "Elites"

The pundits handicapping tonight's Trump-Clinton debate were slowly driving me insane, and now they've speeded up. The debate is not a fair fight, and should not be. A guy who doesn't know anything is supposed to lose a debate against a smart person who knows a lot. Anything that makes those people an "even" match is a fix. But the craven attempts to frame Trump v. Clinton as an even-money proposition has finally put my finger on something that's been bugging me for a long time: the insistence that being smart is elitist. That is not true, and never has been, because there are a lot more smart people than there are elite people. The idea that only "elitists" are smart is complete bigotry. It flatters people who consider themselves elite, and plays on their stupidity. 

America was built upon a broad populace of basically smart and decently educated people. That is what makes the country work. The idea that average people are basically bright and remember things they've learned is not some fantasy. The idea that "intelligence" is confined to ten percent of the population, mis-defining intelligence as being in the top ten percent of the standardized test scores, is the shoddy thinking of the snobbish. 

A majority of people in the United States are smarter and better informed than Donald Trump, who has enough money not to think at all. You don't need an advanced degree to know Mexico is not paying for any wall. You don't need to go to Harvard to see that this guy is full of it. You need to be a pampered elite journalist to mistake that blowhard for one of the average people outside your little bubble.

Now, we have been steadily neglecting or attacking most of the institutions that support our basically-smart country: the public libraries, the public schools, the public universities. There has been an enormous slant in this country toward monopolizing education for the elite, to the benefit of those elites and the undoing of our country. Underestimating the average person's intelligence is the basic error of all American elitists, but a mistake that benefits them in the short term. Of course, in the long run, being at the top of the pyramid because you've undermined its base is a sucker's move. But nobody said the elite were actually very smart. Well, except them.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Why Art?

Why study the arts? Some politicians ask the question as a joke, mocking this or that discipline as impractical. Those who defend the arts and humanities answer in economic terms, arguing for the rich and versatile skills one learns in the humanities classroom. I have made that economic case myself. As far as it goes, it is true. But it is not the only argument, and it does not go far enough.

We need the humanities because we are human. We need the arts because we are mortal. We need art and poetry because everyone we love will some day die.

We are human, and so we have problems that we cannot solve. That is not pessimism. Life is also full of beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. But even the best life includes the certainty of pain and loss. They are sure to come, and there is no "practical" solution for them.

Medicine can cure disease, it can ease suffering, it can extend life. It cannot banish death. Medicine does remarkable things, and I am grateful for it. But the larger problem remains.

Human ingenuity and practicality and industry can do wonders, and I am lucky for everything technology has done for me. But technology does not end the problems of the human spirit: loss and loneliness, wounded hearts and broken souls. We will never have a technological fix for these problems. There is not an app for that.

Right now, somewhere in California, some of the richest men alive are trying to find a technological solution to the problem of death. They have come to believe, or at least to hope, that money and technology will buy them immortality. What does this teach us? That people like Larry Ellison, Sergei Brin, and Peter Thiel, for all their fabulous wealth and admirable math skills, can be complete idiots. This problem is not to be solved in the way they hope. (The idea that immortality would come out of Silicon Valley, whose products are not built to last even a single decade, is hilarious.) The problem that they want to overcome is called "thermodynamics." It is part of the nature of all things. Silicon Valley's riches do not change that. They only fuel the hubris that lets billionaires mislead themselves.

None of us, personally or as a society, are ready to look straight ahead at problems like death, or to think about them too long. We have built marvelous toys to distract ourselves, like children putting off bedtime. The old folk saying about only using ten percent of our brainpower is not quite true; the truth is we use ninety percent of our brain power to trick ourselves out of dealing with the truths we can't face.

But we will all find ourselves, sooner or later, dealing with problems that money and technology cannot solve:

                   Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
                   mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
                   che la diritta via era smarrita.

                  (In the middle of our road of life,
                  I found myself in a darkened wood
                  Where the right path was lost.)

When that happens, and it will happen to all of us, we will be stuck with it. We will not be able to write a check. We will not be able to take a pill. We will not be able to ask Siri for the answers. The new car won't save us, because we'll already be off the road.

For these moments, humankind has invented the many arts and disciplines called "the humanities." Philosophy, art, literature, history, religion, theater. These disciplines do not solve the fundamental problems in the sense that those problems go away. No poem will keep you from dying. But all of these arts search for ways to deal with those problems, to come to grips with them honestly. Technology solves the problems that can be solved. Art faces the problems that cannot be solved.

Those problems do not go away. But the accumulated human wisdom of a few millennia does often help. Sometimes, what you need most is perspective, and sometimes, alas, there is nothing to give you but perspective. Philosophy, literature, and art are tools for broadening and deepening your perspective. You are a thinking soul in a difficult and transient material world. When there is nothing for you to do except to think, nothing you can change but your own thoughts, Tolstoy and Milton and Yeats are there to help.

And when all else fails, as eventually it must fail, the arts provide consolation. When the matter fails you, you will be forced to seek the comfort of self-deception or to reach for the hard-won consolation of difficult truths. For some, that consolation is philosophy, for others faith, for still others art. But I would humbly suggest that you rely on everything you can.

If nothing else, the arts and humanities give us something durable to think about in our fleeting, temporary world: things that, if not eternal exactly, are at least durable. When the world changes under your feet, the thought of something that came long before you and will remain long after you are gone is a kind of comfort. At least, it has been for me. And then I am like the poet Keats, who could no longer deceive himself about his death), looking at the ancient Greek pottery which would outlive him:

     When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man ...
What else to say? We are flawed and human and fragile, and we need all the friends that we can get.
cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, September 05, 2016

Balanced Coverage and Baseball

So today, Paul Krugman told it like it is about the newspaper that employs him and its strange "balance via bias" coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, in which the Grey Lady tries to give both candidates equivalent amounts of negative coverage. This requires (or allows) the Times to exhaustively cover "shadows over" and "questions about" the Clinton campaign while outright ignoring outrageous Trump behavior (such as funneling $25,000 to a state DA who was considering whether to sue one of Trump's businesses). The Times has written multiple stories on donors to the Clinton Foundation asking for favors and (wait for it) not getting them, while writing no (none, nada, zero) stories about the Trump Foundation giving the Florida DA twenty-five grand while a lawsuit was being considered. That's fair, right?

And the logic here, as in much of the media coverage, is that Trump has done so many terrible things that there isn't room to cover them all. So if he behaves badly enough, he gets some free bad behavior as an incentive. What journalism!

Then the Times, in a not at all biased piece of behavior, responded like this:
The Times did eventually tweet a link to Krugman's column, about nine hours after Silver's public shaming. So public shaming, plus nine hours, to get the routine social media promotion that all the paper's op-ed columns get. Nice.

Now, I know some of you will want to get into the weeds about details of Hillary Clinton's e-mails and the penumbras and emanations of the meetings she did not actually hold. So let me switch the topic entirely. Let's talk about baseball.

Sixteen years ago (on August 29, 2000, to be precise), two baseball teams played a game in which an eye-popping eight members of one team, including the manager, were ejected by the umpires, while exactly none of the other team's players or coaches got thrown out. Eight ejections to no ejections. How can that be fair? I have occasionally heard sportscasters ask exactly that question. If one team has eight people thrown out and the other side none, I have heard one Hall of Famer say, something has to be wrong. Obviously, this discrepancy is a sign of biased umpiring, right? Right?

No. Not at all.

On the home team's first at-bat, the visiting pitcher, Pedro Martinez, hit the leadoff batter with a pitch. (Full disclosure: I am an ardent Red Sox fan, and a pretty big Pedro fan. But I will fully admit that Pedro Martinez sometimes threw at guys intentionally. I might be biased in the Red Sox's favor, but in this case all of the facts are clear beyond question.) The umpires, rightly or wrongly, believed that Martinez had hit the home team player (Gerald Williams of the Tampa Devil Rays) by accident.

Williams, however, chose to run out to the mound to attack the pitcher. This is a clear baseball no-no. It also led to nearly all the players from both teams rushing onto the field, pushing and shoving each other. Have I mentioned that the game had just started? The umpires regained control, sent everyone back to their places, and resumed the game. They ejected one player, the player who had rushed the pitcher's  mound, and kept everyone else in the game. That was basically the last eviction that involved the umpires' judgement calls. One Devil Ray ejected, no Red Sox ejected. Still with me?

A couple of innings later, the Devil Rays pitcher hits a Red Sox batter. This, too, may be an accident. But there is a clear baseball tradition of pitchers retaliating for hit batsman by going out and hitting one of the other team's batters as payback. At this point, the home team pitcher is not ejected. But, in baseball parlance, the benches are warned. This means that any further hit batters, or clear throws at batters, will lead to the automatic ejection of that pitcher AND his manager. Automatic. No questions. Great. Each team has hit one batter, one player has been ejected for starting a fight, and now both teams face automatic ejections if someone else gets hit.

Two batters later, the Devil Rays pitcher hits another Red Sox batter, the Red Sox's best hitter, pretty clearly not by accident but that's no longer even the question. The pitcher and the team manager get run off the field. 3 Devil Rays ejections, 0 Red Sox ejections.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are doing pretty well. They build up a three-run lead and -- this part will be important -- their pitcher Pedro Martinez is throwing a no-hitter. After hitting that first batter, he hasn't let anyone else on base. He has gotten every single Devil Ray batter out, inning after inning. They simply can't hit him. They can't even work a walk.

So, eventually, the Devil Rays pitchers hit, or try to hit, more Red Sox batters. When they do this the pitcher, and whichever coach is filling in as manager at that moment, get ejected. In one memorable sequence (and I still remember watching this), the Devil Rays pitcher throws at one Red Sox batter so that the pitch is literally behind the poor guy. That pitcher gets ejected, taking one of his coaches with him. The Devil Rays bring in a new relief pitcher, let him warm up, and he immediately hits the very same batter that the last pitcher was ejected for throwing at. Four ejections in one at-bat. This is how you get to eight.

Why did this happen? Because, after a certain point, the Rays kept hitting batters because they wanted to bait the opposing pitcher into hitting one of them. If he got upset and retaliated, he would be thrown out of the game. They desperately wanted him out of the game, because he was throwing a no-hitter. But he obviously was not going to do anything to get thrown out of the game for the very same reason: he was throwing a no-hitter, a record-book accomplishment that he had never achieved. He was not going to be ejected if he could help it, and since he could help it, he did.

The team that was getting repeatedly ejected were not being treated unfairly. They were breaking rules that the other team was following. They were doing it to bait the other side into a misstep, and also trying to work the umpires. Should one of the Red Sox been ejected for "balance" every time a Devil Rays player got ejected? If that were true, the Devil Rays could get the Red Sox punished for the Devil Rays' own bad behavior. Which brings us back to the 2016 election.

The Clinton-Trump election is like this. One side is way outside the established rules and falling behind. The other is playing carefully by the rules and winning. The rule-breakers are protesting loudly that things are not fair and many in the media (who now behave, in the worst possible way, like sportscasters) are coddling those complaints and seeking to punish the winning campaign for the losing campaign's misdeeds. This dynamic will only intensify when Trump next falls further behind in the polls. He will do his damnedest to get Hillary thrown out of the game.

To some, including some people who make their living as Serious Journalists, this seems only fair. Because they have lost their sense of what fairness actually entails.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog