Filters for Elite Tasks

(My weekly reminder that I need to take better notes, so I can link to sources for my musing – they exist! Honest!)

Image result for plato
Those two. Always jawboning.

Quick thoughts, not sure what, if anything, to make of this: It was said somewhere that Plato, who wanted his academy to train up the future leaders, or at least, advisors to leaders, used math as a filter: the students who had the smarts and dedication to master state of the art circa 300 B.C. Greek math were the ones he wanted to train up as leaders. This, despite how rarely the properties of conic sections and the ability to construct regular solids figured into the proper direction of the polis. Such math was a proxy for the smarts and focus such direction requires.

That’s the theory, at least. Plato did help a few of his star pupils get gigs in some Greek city-states, with some success. The question is rather: would some of those who couldn’t hack the math have made as good or better political leaders? We’ll never know. However tempting it is to impose a basic math test on our elected officials as a requirement for office, that won’t roll back the clock. (1)

My man Feynman famously delivered a series of lectures on physics, accurately if unimaginatively known as the Feynman Lectures. Story I heard is that, at the first lecture, the hall was packed; by the last lecture, the majority of the audience was fellow professors with only a few students. Even Caltech kids, the best of the best of the best, for the most part couldn’t hack Feynman-level physics. Feynman himself considered the lectures a failure, noting that only 2 or 3 dozen students understood them.

I would contend that the lectures were not so much a failure as a filter. What those lectures did was identify the 2 or 3 dozen students who had what it takes to be a top notch theoretical physicist like Feynman. Caltech seems to have naively supposed that Feynman, who has a well-earned reputation as a great teacher, could bring an entire class of students up to somewhere near his own level over the course of a year’s worth of lectures. To catch up to Reds. That didn’t happen, and, in retrospect, was vanishingly unlikely from the get-go.

Image result for feynman diagram
“Get me a 5 year old child – I can’t make heads or tails out of this.”
– Rufus T. Firefly

Turns out that a smart enough kid can grind his way to a fairly high level of competence in physics, just not the way presented in the Feynman Lectures. But such a kid is unlikely to end up a top notch theoretical physicist. Then again, that disclaimer applies to just about all of us. It’s unclear that such a harsh filter, which likely convinced at least a few such kids that they could not hack it, did more good than harm.

In the first case, the filtering was conscious on the part of Plato; in the second, it does not seem to have even been intended. In both cases, the outcome was that at least some of the people with elite potential for very specialized, high value tasks were identified. I’m generally more concerned and aware of the filtering that goes on merely to ensure conformity, such as in schools, especially in colleges, where the chances a student who rejects the current political uniformity on campus will ever get very far in academia. Part of this is self-filtering: who with any integrity would want to fit in with such a crowd?

Not coming up with any more examples of this sort of elite filtering at the moment. You?

  1. Somewhere on this blog I’ve also floated a theory which is mine that the Dialogues were similarly used, probably earlier in the process. They each present at least 3 layers of activity: a superficial one, such that you can say “the Republic is about Justice and Good Government”; a second layer where you notice the setting – outside the city walls during occupation by the victorious Spartans, a victory only made possible by all-but-unimaginably bad decisions by the Athenian leadership; and a third level, where you wonder what all those things taken together mean, where Socrates is concerned with the polis as a giant man, wherein Justice, so enlarged, could be better seen, and then tosses that idea when his buddies point out that they (understandably) wouldn’t want to live in a city that was just as Socrates himself was just – and poor, and despised, and powerless, and so Socrates spins them a yarn that is, basically, Sparta. I’m imagining here that Plato could discuss this dialogue with a newbie, and get a pretty good idea of his intellectual depth within a few minutes. (I’d have gotten Silver if I were lucky. Probably Bronze.)
  2. Not that that isn’t a charming image.
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Academic VORP

Image result for baseball player old time

That would be Value Over Replacement Professor.

Background for those who lack the sports gene: Beginning in 1977, a guy named Bill James, a baseball fanatic with a degree in economics and a flair for statistics and writing, began compiling a slew of new metrics used to evaluate baseball players and teams. Over the decades since, he has become a widely recognized guru on this topic, and has inspired many followers and imitators.

Among James’ main goals was finding ways to statistically evaluate players using only objective measures. Historically, baseball players were evaluated mostly by feel, or by a few relatively arbitrary statistics: for example, batting average (hits/official at bats), home runs and earned run average (‘earned’ runs per 9 innings pitched). Batting average can vary a lot depending on who is hitting in front of you or behind you, and the field where your team is playing. Same with home runs, earned run average and other ‘box score’ stats: a lot of variables can give misleading numbers if not taken into account.

Crowds of smart people worked to address these and other issues. More and more variables got baked into the numbers. Eventually, people came up with the idea of a ‘replacement-level player’ – usually imagined as the equivalent of a player in the top tier of the minors, the guy a team would replace an injured major league player with. In other words, somebody just below what the team considers a major league talent. For hitters, VORP counts how many runs a player produces above what a replacement player would produce; for pitchers, it is runs prevented.

With a little more math, a team can figure out how much it is costing them to get or prevent each extra run by subtracting the minimal salary of a replacement player from what they pay the big leaguer, and dividing by VORP. Building on this basic idea – and there are evidently layers and layers of refinements and sophistication – you get Moneyball: you can figure out what actually contributes to winning, and what players and skills are undervalued relative to their contributions. By judiciously spending on what the other teams undervalue, you can up your team’s chances of winning while spending comparatively less money.

This process, which has taken over professional baseball, has had some tragicomic outcomes: teams discovered they were paying millions, sometimes, to players who added little or nothing they couldn’t get for cheap elsewhere, or had some guy in the minors whose skills failed some eye-test (subjective valuation) who was worth quite a bit in terms of wins. Age adjustments were added: for example, it seems a hitter’s ability to hit really fast fastballs, say 95+ miles per hour, falls off pretty dramatically starting in their early 30s. Thus, the value of young pitchers who throw very hard has gone up, and hitters entering their 30s has gone down. And a million other things. And, of course, aspiring player know all this, and work to shape their skill accordingly.

In the end, math wins.

It occurs to me that this sort of analysis should be applied to academia. I’d bet that maybe 80-90% of college professors have a VORP near zero – the next available candidate could deliver as much value as they do. It would seem that both the administration and the professors themselves understand this on some level: all those graduate assistants and adjunct professors are, in a sense, minor leaguers providing major league value at much lower cost.

This understanding also explains a lot of the psychology one finds among academics: they know, in their hearts, that a goodly percentage of the students in that graduate class they are teaching could do their jobs with no drop off in value from everyone else’s view. (The drop off in value from their own subjective view, of course, is enormous!) That’s why academics are so often touchy when challenged on even trivial matters, and so often disproportionately vehement in their prejudices views.

I once, years ago, came across an amusing summary of a study (obviously, buyer beware here) that found that academics were less emotionally developed than non-academics of the same age. The amusing part: the authors speculated that the cultivated habit of keeping an open mind tended to make academics less fixed in their beliefs, thus more easily disturbed by day to day events than the more relatively closed-minded non-academic.

Suuuure. That’s the ticket.

I propose, rather, that two factors might explain this phenomenon: first, that academia itself is a very tenuous environment, as most of the people in it know in their hearts that some punk could, and likely as not eventually will, replace them with no drop off in any performance anyone besides they themselves cares about, Second, such an environment is unattractive to more well-developed personalities, who want to get on with their lives instead of cultivating eternal adolescence. (1)

So, yeah, an academic VORP would be a good thing, for everyone except the zero-VORP professors out there. Maybe I should put together a grant proposal?

  1. Also, Critical Theory both attracts and creates miserable people. That could have something to do with it as well.

A Cultivated Mind

Just kidding! I think!

Here I wrote about how I’m trying to help this admirably curious young man for whom I am RCIA sponsor on his intellectual journey. I’m no Socrates, but I do know a thing or two that this young man is not going to pick up at school, that would be helpful to him and, frankly, to the world. Any efforts to get a little educated and shine a little light into the surrounding darkness seems a good thing to me.

I figure I’ll give him a single page every week or so when I see him, with the offer to talk it over whenever he’s available. Below is the content of the second page; you can see the first in the post linked above. We started off with a description of Truth and Knowledge. I figure the idea of a cultivated mind might be good next. We’ll wrap it up with a page on the Good and one on the Beautiful, and see where it goes from there.

Any thoughts/corrections appreciated.

A Cultivated Mind

A cultivated mind can consider an idea without accepting it.

What is meant by a “cultivated mind”?

Like a cultivated field:

  • Meant for things to be planted and grown in it
  • Weeded of bad habits and bad ideas
  • Is cared for daily

A cultivated mind

  • is what a civilized and educated man strives to have.
  • is not snobby or elitist.
  • Is what is required to honestly face the world.
  • Is open to new ideas, but considers them rationally before accepting them.

How do you cultivate your mind?

Reexamine the ideas you find most attractive:

  • Have you accepted them because you like them, or because you examined them and believe them true?

Carefully review all popular ideas:

  • Have you accepted them because to reject them might make you unpopular?
  • Have you really examined them before accepting them?

Double your efforts to be fair when considering ideas you do not like:

  • Can you restate the idea in terms that people who accept it would recognize and agree with? If not, you are not able to truly consider the idea.

NOTE 1: To engage ideas, listen to and read what people who hold those ideas say, especially when you don’t like them or already disagree. Hear and understand what the idea really is before you can consider it.This takes discipline and time.

NOTE 2: This is a life-long project, always subject to revision. Guard against over certainty, avoid exaggeration. Do not pretend to know what you do not know. Acknowledge that some things are difficult, and can only be known partially.

Follow the Dominican maxim: “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.”

Image result for monsters vs aliens B.O.B totally overrated

“Forgive him, but as you can see, he has no brain.” “Turns out you don’t need one. Totally overrated!”

 


Participation Trophy and The Cool Kid’s Club

As mentioned in previous insufferable biographical posts, I am a blue collar kid. Dad grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and worked in sheet metal, mom was the granddaughter of Czech immigrants whose father, coincidentally, also worked sheet metal – most all her relatives were farmers, so she got a full set of farm skills, too. (1) Neither had more than a high school education, apart from dad doing a lot of night school – he was certified in all types of welding and learned bookkeeping, etc. He was a real go-getter, with that farmer’s mentality that, if there was something to do, spending 16 hours a day doing it was how life worked.

The adults I knew as a child leaned strongly toward welders and other blue collar folks, and housewives. Later, when I was a teen and dad had made a successful go at running his own little company, he started hanging out a bit – golf (his doctor told him to get some exercise), that sort of thing – with a doctor friend and the pastor at our church. But I never got to know these people. I knew Billy Joe, Roy, Jose and Delbert down at down at dad’s shop. Guys who got their hands dirty. Starting at age 12, I spent many of my Saturdays and much of my summers working for my dad with these men, so these guys were my adult male role models.

Ah! This is like looking at pictures of the old neighborhood! The tools in dad’s shop were much cleaner, otherwise it’s a match.

Nonetheless, I managing to get into St. John’s College. They were pretty desperate, back then – basically, if you showed the initiative needed to complete the application essays, they’d give you a shot.

College was different. Not at all like my first 18 years.

I dimly expected college to be filled with smart people, at least, smarter than the folks I’d grown up with. Isn’t that what everybody thinks, having heard it from the cradle? Instead, I met lots of people not noticeably smarter than the people I knew from my childhood, but with markedly different expectations. The sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and other professionals came to college so fully convinced that college was how they cemented their place in the ‘smart’ world that it never rose to the level of consciousness. They might agonize over whether to become a lawyer before or after doing a stint in the Peace Corps, or even consider becoming an artiste, or living the life of the communist agitator – all perfectly within the realm of smart people careers – but they didn’t consider becoming bricklayers, say, except as some form of protest (irony as a goal had not yet reached St. John’s as of the late 70s).

No, whatever course they chose, their place among the professional elite was assured. Of course, there are exceptions – me, for example – but we exceptions, insecure of our place in that particular world, lacking the automatic graces and attitudes growing up like that seems to create, we – I – really didn’t and don’t assume we have any place among these folks. (2)

In highschool – and St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs, CA, considers itself college preparatory – there were still plenty of people who did not expect to be part of the elite. One of my basketball buddies, for example, got his girlfriend pregnant in his senior year – and graduated, married her, and got a job. That an 18 year old dude would get married and have children and get a job to support them was not out of the realm of acceptable behavior, circa 1975, in my little bubble. (Getting her pregnant before marriage was frowned upon, but much less than people now imagine – that he did the right thing afterwards made it only a minor, easily forgiven and forgotten slip up.)

I remember this dude because he was clearly smart, easily as smart as the typical St. John’s student. His expectations were wildly different, however.

Let’s talk about those experiences, whatever it is that corresponds in the lives of the sons and daughters of the professional class to my experiences of growing up with blue-collar people. I acknowledge up front that I’m arm-chair psychoanalyzing people here, because, obviously, I don’t know firsthand. The appearances do seem to support this analysis.

  • There’s the simple assumption, possibly unspoken but possibly not, that the people in our house and our friends are smarter than the people we hire to fix it when it breaks.

This can also take the form of false comradeship: we are brothers with the workers. That they don’t recognize it is because they are unenlightened. No, no, no – you think we’re insufferable snobs, and maybe that you hate us, but you really only hate the *bad* rich people! We’re your buddies! Nobody really believes this.

  • There are certain jobs approved of in our social network. They are the better, more worthy jobs held by the better, more worthy people. The classics would be doctor and lawyer (and college professor), but the right kind of politicians and businessmen are also admired, as well as do-gooder fields that make us feel good about ourselves. Community organizer, say.
  • We prove our own virtue and goodness by how we encourage and welcome the little people into our ranks.

This attitude has been institutionalized in colleges and universities. Look at all the gyrations colleges go through to get ‘diverse’, how the question: “would this person benefit from what we offer?” never really gets asked. Of course they would! What kind of nut wouldn’t want to be one of us!

Since it’s painfully obvious they belong to an exclusive clique, these members of the professional class are desperate to show they don’t, to keep that cognizant dissonance at bay. That’s why a character like Obama, who I have accurately described as a ‘towering mediocrity,’ gets canonized in advance of any actual positive achievement (for which we are still waiting). He’s the proof! See how good and sharing we are! It’s also worth noting in this context that it’s all optics – I’m closer to being from the ‘hood than O is. Dude grew up overseas and in Hawaii, for crying out loud! He’s the son and grandson of the 2nd most privileged class (to use language with which they are familiar) in America: academics. These are the folks that think, for example, they by rights can simply redefine any words they like – for our own good. Talk about power and privilege.

That’s why they are much, much more committed to getting black kids into Harvard than they are to helping black kids get some jobs training. Black kids with jobs and families don’t reinforce the professional class’s goodness, while sending people to college in order to welcome them into the tribe does.

  • Low, low risk economic environment. I’ve long thought of wealth as being most accurately measured by how big a problem, expense wise, you can take care of without it destroying your standard of living. Most people live in the 4 to 5 figure range: Need 1st & last for a new place? Need a new car? Need bail money? These can usually be taken care of by most people without breaking the bank, maybe through borrowing from mom. Need $200K to go to college? We have many people today who fully expect mom and/or dad to spring for this. Real economic want is just not a concern. Then, they’ll eventually inherit a house or two worth maybe 7 figures, which they will at worse have to split with one sibling (and maybe a few half-siblings).

These attitudes are absorbed with their baby formula. As Chesterton said, it’s the things simply assumed that are the most reliably learned.

  • Membership is the achievement, such as it is. Since it is just expected that the sons and daughters of the professional class will become professionals themselves as a consequence of being in the group, actually getting that career is more an affirmation of group membership than an actual achievement. Just as Uncle Billy can get you a job down at the docks if you show up on Thursday, 6 a.m. sharp and dressed to work, Uncle Chad has a spot at the law firm ready for you, if you check the right boxes. Every effort will be made to help you check those boxes. (3)

Thus, we get the participation trophy culture we now live in. It’s not a new thing brought about by mush-headed and guilty parents, but rather a simple expression of the true nature of the world, as they see it. There is little if any achievement in their lives. It’s all just group membership. Their college life, their careers, perhaps even their families are not experienced as an achievement, primarily, but rather as the all but inevitable outcome of group membership. (4)

We also get – or don’t – a whole set of group signifiers. In my day, the late 70s, the college boys owned a sports coat, some khaki slacks and a few button down collar shirts – except for the few of us who would have never had an occasion to wear that sort of gear prior to college. One of the young ladies I knew commented that her boyfriend at the time was the only man she knew who kept his $10,000 wardrobe on the floor. (She, presumably, kept her $10,000 wardrobe hung neatly in the closet.) I think I could have replaced every item of clothing I had with me at school for under $500. (This, even though my dad by that time was probably worth as much as most of their dads, after 15 years of 16 hour days at his shop. It really isn’t about money. He got his hands dirty.)

More subtle signs: what I will call a New York Times Book Review approach to learning. If you subscribe to the NYTBR and skim it every week, you will know what the cool kids are talking about and – more important – what the New York Times considers the proper attitude towards those books. You’ll have something to say when another group member (who, himself, is unlikely to have read the book) name drops. This confirms group membership while conveniently reinforcing you shared world view, giving you predigested acceptable responses while avoiding the risk of meaningful exposure to opposing ideas. (5)

  • Outcomes are essentially irrelevant. For people secure in their group membership and not having any real sense of economic risk, failure emotionally means something like having to borrow money from or move back in with mom and dad. It’s sad it didn’t work, but you gave it a good shot, that’s what matters! Next time, it will work! Thus, it’s bad form to harp on how everything from civil rights legislation to affirmative action to Prohibition to Obamacare to Communism have failed. As long as it reinforces group membership, it can’t fail, or, more to the point, it doesn’t matter if it fails. (6) Supporters of Obamacare truly did not care if it had any chances of providing what it promised to provide, even less that that whole ‘you can keep your plan’ was a bald-faced lie. The important point was that we good people support everybody getting healthcare. That the actual bill did nothing of the sort means nothing, and you’re a bad person and not of the tribe if you keep pointing that out. Just move along.
  • A corollary: real successes, real improvements in people’s lives are also dismissed or simply ignored insofar as such successes happen outside the bubble. When one is so uncool as to point out the direct correlation between free markets and improved welfare of the poorest people under such systems, as opposed to the relationship between communism and extreme repression and poverty, one get a knowing smirk or some sort of outrage, similar to what one gets if the similarity between fascism and communism is pointed out. Nope, the group accepts that the economy must be managed by the good, smart people – for the sake of the poor! – and that Nazis and Commies are *totally* different, so you must be crazy, evil, or both to suggest the opposite.

In some sense, our current little culture war is the reaction of people who accept this group membership as the obvious goal (if the the question ever reaches consciousness) of all good, enlightened people. Who doesn’t want to sit in the front of the class? Who wouldn’t want to be a lawyer or doctor or elected official from the proper party? Who doesn’t want to be behind all the progressive steps on the right side of history. Who would not want to have their thinking done for them by our hive mind?

The pain, the cognitive dissonance, of having to face a world of people who reject all of that is too much! Such people must be Eeeevil! They must be Literally Hitler! The weaker members flee for their literal (or figurative: college) safe spaces. The less weak roll their eyes hard when they’re not expressing group-approved heartfelt fear for the Future of the Nation. Beneath this range of reactions is the cultivated disbelief that anyone smart could possibly really disagree.

Heads are exploding. Bring popcorn.

Final note: perhaps we are on the verge of a collapse into barbarism, during which all the infrastructure, both physical and cultural, upon which civilization is built, will be destroyed by the mob. Dark Ages, cannibalism, cats and dogs sleeping together – you know the drill. Could be. But it also could be a Soviet Union style collapse, where the rot just got to be too much, so much so that a former B actor and a Polish bachelor in a funny hat could end it just by standing up to it and pointing. Recall how unlikely that scenario looked before it happened. Unfortunately, if there is a just God, that outcome is much, much better than we deserve.

  1. Mom could reduce a live animal to dinner with surprising alacrity. Glad she was on our side.
  2. Yet, by attending college, we lose our standing in the blue collar world. Was once a volunteer on a construction site, in college. I approached one of the foreman, who started speaking, in Spanish, before he’d turned around to see who it was. “Sorry, I thought you were one of the boys.” I am clearly not one of the boys (although the boys couldn’t do much of anything I couldn’t do). That 3 second encounter has stuck with me for 40 years now.
  3. Met a charming gentleman last week, who told how he, another son of the working class, had applied to illustrious Wall Street firms upon graduation, thinking: shoot for the top. He discovered that all the other men in his area were sons of prominent political or business leaders, CEO of this, cabinet secretary of that. For him, that job was a huge achievement; for them it was an entitlement, just another step in world they belonged to.
  4. Also, this may explain the odd deification of the tech geek billionaires, who are pretty much exclusively from this class. They are forward thinking, progressive and brilliant! They talk not about their vast wealth, but about how they are going to change the world! Good Lord, spare us from these people!
  5. Had this happen to me the other day, which is why I’m reading Polanyi’s Great Transformation: in catching up with a long-time college buddy, I asked about Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, I’ll admit it, to tweek him a bit. He asked if I was aware of Great Transformation. Later, in the course of reading and subsequently reading about that book – silly me, I thought that’s what one did! – I ran across the NYTBR review of Deneen. And – surprise! – the reviewer pretty says Deneen is way behind the times, that Polanyi explained all about how Liberalism, understood as Capitalist free markets, failed and continues to fail. So, we can safely dismiss any concerns over liberalism failing, because that’s not what we mean – we mean the good stuff! The NYT says so! Chances this buddy of mine has read Polanyi? Too close to zero to measure.
  6. Knew a man who said he always voted for the party that promised to take more of his money. The idea that that party might do either good or evil with the money thus taken didn’t enter into it.

Life, the Universe, and Everything: A User’s Guide

That title is a wee bit over the top. A bit. Here’s the real deal: I am the RCIA sponsor this year to a very bright young man, 16, who asks a lot of good questions and really seems to want to understand things. But he, alas, is a product of the schools, and therefore has systematically been denied any whiff of real education.

So, I thought to myself, I did, that maybe I could hook him on some basic logic and philosophy and steal him from the clutches of those who would dumb him down and control him. I could feed him just a bit of real, honest thought. Seemed like a plan. But given the realities of modern ‘education’, I should keep it real short.

A seriously furrowed brow. There just must be some serious thinking going on in there, right?

Here it is: a one page outline of Truth. What do you, my esteemed readers, think?

An Introduction to Truth, Facts, and Reasoning

Truth: A man is said to have the truth when his understanding corresponds to reality.

Necessary Truths: Those things which must be true if anything is true. Or, put another way, those things that must be true if you know anything at all about reality. Necessary truths do not depend on anything in particular you see, hear, feel, smell, etc., but rather must be true IF you see, hear, feel, smell or touch ANYTHING AT ALL.

The study of Necessary Truths is called metaphysics. (Today, the term metaphysics is applied to all sorts of stupid ideas, but this is what it means when used correctly.)

Necessary truths include:

  • An objective world exists. We call this world ‘reality’.
  • Truth exists. We can understand reality, at least some parts of it, at least a little.
  • The law of noncontradiction: A thing cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time.
  • All the other rules of logic. We use those rules to understand the rest of reality, but the rest of reality doesn’t help us in any way to understand those rules.
  • The rules of math. Same as the rules of logic.

Conditional or Contingent Truth: Truth that depends on conditions or assumptions. Conditional truths all take for granted the necessary truths. You can’t have any conditional truths without the necessary truths.

Conditional truths are very important. Almost everything we know are conditional truths.

Facts: Units of conditional truth created when the necessarily true rules of reasoning are validly applied to observations.

Conditional truths include:

  • All science. All science begins with observations and measurements, which are conditional because we can get them wrong. Science applies the rules of logic and math, which are necessarily true, to those observations and measurements to create scientific facts.
  • All theology. Because it includes revelation and observation!
  • All philosophy besides metaphysics.

Informed Opinion: A kind of conditional knowledge that has not been thought through completely, such as what a good craftsman knows about his craft. He hasn’t worked through all the logic or examined all the assumptions, but he ‘knows’ what works.

Lies

Reaching too far? Anyone under 60 get the reference?

Let’s kick off the new year with a list of lies and the truths that contradict the lies. Then, in the comments, you, my beloved readers who by now number well into double digits (like 12 or maybe even 13!) can add ‘favorite’ lies of your own. Needless to say, this or any such list is seriously incomplete by nature.

Since that process would be too straightforward for the standards of this blog, here is a framing note before we start:

Like all human beings, I lie. All lying begins with lying to yourself, otherwise known as pride. The ancient command to know thyself, or, in religious terms, to fear God, are calls to humility, which is nothing but recognizing reality: I’m just not all that. So, going in, I’m a liar on the wagon. I will fall off. I hope to get back on when I do.

The religious aspect of truth-telling is subtle, often unknown to the truth-teller, and often denied. Loyalty to the truth is a metaphysical commitment, structurally on a par with religious beliefs.(1) It has long been understood by Christians that there is great honor and grace in seeking the truth, because in the end (and ‘In the beginning’) the Truth is a Person. What this doesn’t mean is that arriving at any particular moral or metaphysical or any other kind of truths is necessarily dependent on accepting the revealed truths of Christian dogma. In the case of this list, the list maker – me – became convinced of the truth in many of today’s contrived controversies quite apart from any religious beliefs I hold, and should hope I’d hang onto those convictions if I were to tragically lose my particular religious beliefs. For example, that a new human being comes into being at the moment of conception is so blindingly, obviously true that I’d hold that position regardless of my belief in, say, the Incarnation. (What it means that a new human being is created at conception is another question. It truly is a religious belief as moderns use the term that human life matters at all.)

This is the sense in which I assert that seeing the truth denied in the following lies is not a result of religious belief. A logical man would hold to these truths regardless of his religious convictions, if any.

Finally, there are better and worse lies, in the sense of how well the liar can fend off the truth. Good lies in this sense are *almost* true, only some last minute twist makes them lies. Good liars in this sense lay out many points no one would argue against, (2) save the twist for the end, and then accuse you of hating, oh, peace, love, and understanding if you dare challenge their lie. Needless to say, therefore, good lies come in attractive packages full of convincing truths. Good lies are constructed to make any who oppose them seem as mean-spirited (Nazi!) and dense (stupid!) as possible. Thus, if you mention, for example, all the exceptions carved out of Obamacare for the politically favored, you are not smelling a rat, but rather hate poor people. And so on and so forth.

Onward:

A: Lie: History is moving forward. History has a right and wrong side.

Truth: History is a description, not an actor. It is rank superstition to think history does things, such as progressing, let alone has a right and wrong side.

A.1: Lie: The world is progressing toward some (undefined) better future. Good and bad actions can only be judged by whether they help or hinder this progress.

Truth: Progress is not the same as change. When the Mongols invaded the lands of the Slavs and sold tens of thousands into slavery, or Islam crushed the 1,000 year old Greco-Roman civilization of North Africa, these were great historical moments, and great changes – but were not in any sense progress, let alone Progress. (3) Neither is every change in the last 250 years progress. Progress is a judgement and a description. Belief in ‘Progress’ is built upon the same lie as the belief that History is an actor.

B: People’s actions result from their class consciousness. People are guilty of whatever acts their class commits, and suffer whatever oppression their class experiences, regardless of what actions they personally take or oppression they personally suffer.

Truth: In a similar way, classes, however defined, do not act or have consciousness or suffer. They are simply people grouped for convenience. Some of the people in class may act or understand well, some may not. When members of a class act, they act as people, not as members of a class. This remains true regardless of how much money, power, or status a man may have – those things will affect the nature of the opportunities for good and bad action a man may have, but the action is and remains his own. Classes do not act. (4)

C: Lie: People are defined by the class or classes they belong to. Classically put: the individual is nothing, the collective is everything. You cannot escape your class.

Truth: In the modern West, class barriers are very permeable, and have been for centuries now. That’s how, for example, a German Jew can move to London, sponge off rich friends and write pseudo-Hegelian nonsense about class consciousness. If real class barriers existed, such a man would be a shopkeeper or worse. In fact, if classes really existed as determinate actors, Marx would never have been able to ‘transcend’ his class and write his BS. Unless of course History was making Progress through him, in which case, he’s the chosen prophet of his god, sent to preach that the day of judgement is at hand. Considered as a philosopher, he’s a self-refuting charlatan.

D: Lie: Gender is a social construct.

Truth: Sex is a biological fact in all sexually reproducing higher life forms. Male or female are the only categories for mammals. The existence of a tiny, tiny sliver of twilight (genetic mutations and errors) does not disprove the night and day of man and woman. On the other hand, ‘gender’ is a term of the philologist’s art. As anyone who has ever tried to learn a language knows, it does not have much to do with biological sex. A table is neither female or male, but it does have a gender in many languages. Pretending the concept of gender applies to members of the human race, a sexually dimorphous, sexually reproducing species, is a risible exercise of raw power. (5)

Oh, heck, that’s enough for now. If my honored readers like this enough to add to the list, maybe we can make a series out of it. In any case, have a happy New Year!

  1. Think of Augustine’s ‘Believe so that you may understand.’ Or think of Pilate’s ‘Truth? What is that?’ You have to want to understand, you must value the truth, before you can accept religious teachings. Then, one subjects them to Aquinas’s test: that they are not unreasonable, and to Chesterton’s: does the key unlock the lock? Wanting to understand and loving the truth are not logical, in the sense that they are not the result, but rather the basis, of any logical thinking.
  2. Tom Lehrer’s Folk Song Army intro: “It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffeehouse or college auditorium and come out in favor of things everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on.”
  3. OK, if Progress, a term as wildly undefined in practice as fairness and oppression, is taken to mean ‘destruction of the west and a return to barbarity,’ then, right, the Mongol and Islamic invasions were Progress.
  4. The truths in which this particular lie is wrapped: people tend to look out for their own interests, and people, being tribal or, even more fundamentally, pack animals, will tend to favor the course of actions they perceive as favored by their tribe. Calling this tendency, shared with rats and tuna, ‘class consciousness’ is putting an entire Mary Kay sales professional’s inventory on a pig.
  5. Not getting into privilege here, except to point out that, if the children of the very rich are the most privileged people in the world, the children of academics – both natural and adopted – are the second most privileged. These assume the power to simply change the definitions of words and outlaw language by fiat, and to condemn any who fail to go along with it to the outer darkness. These are also the people who fail to see that Brave New World and, indeed, 1984 are meant to be distopias. As long as they are the ones in charge, what possible objections could right-thinking people have?

Russian Cover Band, Hieronymus Bosch, Bach, Western Civ, and all that

There’s no telling what people will find fascinating. A while back, I mentioned Hieronymus Bosch, who is for me a little like a train wreck – can’t justify looking at him, but can’t stop looking, either. Many people these days are fascinated by Bosch’s weird and disturbing pictures, but evidently not as much or any more than his contemporaries. It seems Bosch’s works were copied, and those copies displayed all around Europe. Many of his works were intended as personal devotionals, not big public displays. Public demand to see them evidently led to their being widely copied and publicly displayed.

Bosch died in 1516. That means he was a contemporary of Dürer, Botticelli, and Raphael, among other objectively superior artists. Those artists were copied plenty, too, surely – but people dedicated many hours to copying Boch as well. Bosch, though no slouch, possibly was easier to copy, as Dürer is one of the very greats draftsman of all time, and Botticelli and Raphael are Botticelli and Raphael. Be that as it may – really? You’re an art student or practicing artist, and it’s Bosch you’re going to painstakingly copy? Okey-dokey.

Raphael detail
Botticelli detail
Durer detail
Bosch detail

But it wasn’t just the copyists. Artists went there because it was where the money was. Contemporary reports are that people flocked to look at those copies. Maybe the local cathedral provided all the needed beauty to calm their beauty jonesing, but the gargoyles failed to meet the demand for the disturbingly hideous? 

I mention this to illustrate that popular taste being inexplicable is not a new thing. 

Spending too much time on Youtube. There’s this Russian band that covers songs by the band Chicago. So? Couple of things: Chicago is not an easy band to cover. The musicianship of these Russians is excellent, and their enthusiasm is off the charts. They don’t fake anything – they have the full horn section, a string section, excellent backup vocalists, killer lead guitar player and an awesome drummer. These things alone make them unusual for a cover band. Check this out:


They do Chicago better than  Chicago does Chicago. (1)

Leonid, the mastermind, and the guy who has transcribed all the parts for the players, retired 4 years at the age of 60 in Moscow and decided to do something for fun. So he started getting together with his friends and covering 1970s pop tunes from an American band. As you can see, the ages range from at least their 60s on down to kids in their 20s if not younger – in other videos, the crack string section has some pretty downy-faced kids in it. 

This is not the project of some young, self-identified ‘ironic’ punks. What we have here are people – highly skilled people – spanning three generations, many of whom grew up in Soviet Union, dedicating A LOT of time and energy into mastering the music of of an American band popular when Brezhnev ran the show. 

I admire and have affection for these people. They look a lot like my relative. In fact, you could stick me in a family photo with most of those guys, or them in mine, and we’d fit right in. I suppose the music of Chicago might strike them as embodying everything that’s cool about the West. You could do worse. Their clothing – English language t-shirts, jeans, and the drummer’s ball caps – he  even sports an LA Dodgers’ hat – suggest the music of Chicago isn’t the only Western thing that appeals to them.  

But still, very Russian. I amused myself fantasy casting a Russian revolutionary era film with these guys – you got convincing Bolsheviks and peasants galore, party officials, thugs, an Orthodox priests or two. You’d need to find some stern Russian matrons somewhere. That one chick singer (‘chick singer’ is a term of art) is almost a parody of Slavic beauty, she’s so gorgeous, and so Russian!  Obvious double agent/love interest.

Raining on this love parade – really, just a light drizzle – was the thought that all this care and artistry lavished on some pop tunes is a bit like those souls who carve accurate copies of the Statue of Liberty out of a grain of rice. Or those who copied Bosch. Fascinating, I suppose, but – why? Wouldn’t it be much better if, inspired by Chicago, they spent their efforts creating some kick-ass Russian pop music? Assuming pop music is their thing. Maybe aim a little higher? These folks come from the people who built things like this: 

Related image

While it would amuse me to no end if kids in America became obsessed with Russian pop music – a ‘Russian Invasion’ we could live with – I’d be much happier if we instead imitated them in a mania for building over-the-top cathedrals. 

I’m still mulling over the claim that Western culture has effectively stagnated since the late 1980’s, with nothing truly new and life-altering either in the arts or technology. We just make copies and tweek things around the edges. The whole generation gap idea came about when there really were life altering changes between each generation. One generation was the first to grow up with cars, a revolution in personal travel that marks the line between before and after. Before, people lived at home and rarely traveled more than a few miles in a day, and even then, were limited to destinations along train routes. After, people could travel hundreds of miles in a day to an exponentially greater number of places.  It’s routine. Same sort of thing happened with telegraphs and phones, airplanes and trains, the green revolution and computers. One generation could only communicate slowly if at all, the next is wiring messages near instantly to nearly anyone around the world. 

Now? Despite all the claims of ever increasing progress, this generation has nothing much dramatic to separate its routine experiences from the last generation’s. (Note I’m not convinced here, but this is the argument.) Phones, cars, video games, CGI – all we’ve seen is improvements around the edges. Even the internet is over 20 years old, meaning it already existed when the last generation was coming of age. 

Be that as it may, what is clear is that we live in the Age of Cover Bands. Hollywood is legendarily cannibalistic, or, perhaps more hip: they recycle diligently. Pop music is a formulistic wasteland. New houses are these weird Frankenstein’s Monsters of stitched-together traditional parts  – and they’re better than the new commercial buildings! At least the so-called Renaissance often did a better job copying better examples. After they slandered the true creative genius of the middle ages, they simplified back down to what they fancied to be Roman and Greek examples, while incorporating Medieval advances without footnotes. 

Among the most successful sources being copied today are comic books. I understand that we are not to look down on them, as they contain (or until recently contained) strong stories with dealing with the eternal themes of good and evil, weakness and strength, and beauty and ugliness laid out in a popular, easy to digest format. And comic book writers, for the most part, were inspired by the classic epics and tragedies, so that works derived from comic books could be said to be derived second hand from very great sources. But still – we are not strong enough to demand our very own epics and tragedies written for adults? 

Finally, I am reminded of the curious fate of Bach. By his death in 1750, the classical music style (not ‘classical music’ as a general term, but specifically music written after the fashion popular from the early 1700’s until Beethoven’s death) had taken over, and Bach, with his dense baroque fugues and cantata, was dismissed even by his own sons as being an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy.  Note that until the later works of Mozart, classical music did not get within the ballpark of how sophisticated and adventurous Bach routinely was. Instead, the new classical style introduced during Bach’s lifetime was a simplification, structurally, harmonically, melodically, and emotionally much less complicated than Bach. Early classical music tends to be more emotionally sunny, sometimes relentlessly so. Compare the works of his sons with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor. While beautiful, the early classical works do not compare for emotional depth. All that counterpoint and elaborate structure in the Bach are not there to show off. Themes come around again and again, never quite the same, building, like the working out of the soul’s salvation. Awesome is an overworked word. Too bad – that’s what this work is. 

Bach took what he found as the current state of music, and did not set out to refute it, but rather to push it to its ultimate perfection. Bach might roll his eyes hard at that last statement, or maybe punch my lights out (that boy had a temper on him!). He might have put it: I am a musician. By the grace of God, I will do the best I can. It just so happened that he was one of the very few truly great musical geniuses in all history, so that his best was really, really good. 

Bach’s fate was to be disparaged by his own kids and forgotten by his contemporaries, only to be rediscovered by – the great classical musicians! Hayden and Mozart each studied his Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven had it down by the age of 11. (I’ve been working my way through it off and on for the last few decades. At the current rate, I’ll have Book I complete by around 2050! Have I mentioned I have very meager musical talents?). These giants were working off hand-copied manuscripts – the WTC was not published until 1801! 

It’s so common to think of Bach as  – correctly – this giant, this colossus tower over the world of music, that it’s sobering to think he was once dismissed and nearly forgotten. Part of the great legacies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is that they would not let him be forgotten. 

So, there is hope. Hollywood could have a revival by simply rediscovering the pulps, which tend to share the story-telling and moral clarity of comics, but with more room to expand on them. Or, more likely, Hollywood could be put out of business by others who rediscover them. 

The curious pointed often missed about Bach: by sticking to what he loved about music and ignoring the current style, he paradoxically become one of the most creative artists of all time. Musicians are always marveling over the harmonic and melodic twists he routinely comes up with, not to mention his ability to stealth-structure things so that they always sound perfectly complete and satisfying, even though it’s hard to say why, sometimes. Sometimes, to look at it, a piece seems an increasingly complex fugue going round and round and round, not going anywhere. Then you hear it, and it’s perfect. This experience makes complete amateurs like me strongly suspect that when I don’t get Bach – there are some long minor fugues in the WTC that seem a little amorphous, for example – that I’m just not smart enough. 

The lesson I get from all this: stick to your knitting, do what it is you do as well as you can, and, not only will you, by the grace of God, produce good and worthy work, you might even end up being very ‘creative’ and ‘original’ without trying! If you’re a genius, that is.

The late John Taylor Gatto assures us that genius is a common as dirt. 

Wouldn’t it be great if I would follow my own advice? 

  1. The reason they do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago is that they patently LOVE this stuff – those people are having a blast. I seriously doubt Chicago could muster that level of enthusiasm after a few years of playing these songs in concert over and over and over again. Assuming enough of the band is alive and able to try. Train does Zeppelin better than Zeppelin does Zeppelin for the same reasons.