Grand Sweep of History, part 1

Ever since I graduated, I’ve been frustrated by my lack of a grasp of history. Yet I get kidded (I think good-naturedly) about being the History Professor, since I tend to leap into some conversation or other with some story from history. This says way more about the general lack of historical perspective than it does about my level of historical erudition.

Anyway, barring a (not totally out of the question) return to academia, here’s my approach to history. Use it wisely, to dazzle your friends and baffle your enemies:

1) Get the big stories right. This could also be titled: Look at the Map, or even look at the pictures in a travel guide.

Examples: Chinese culture is really widespread. Not only are there 1.3 billion Chinese, but Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian and parts of many other cultures are offspring of Chinese culture, and Chinese influence continues to push outwards at the boarders. China is really, really big and important.

Islam is really widespread and – here’s the kicker – Islam has had effectively no positive influence on the lives of the people where it has held sway. Very politically incorrect, but also utterly historically undeniable. You can easily see this by the ridiculous lengths people go to to try to credit achievements to Islam. For comparison: vastly more useful, beautiful, and culturally positive things were produced by the about 50,000 5th century B.C. Athenians or the about 50,000 15th century Florentines  than have been produced by the millions upon millions of Muslims over the 14 centuries Islam has existed. All you have to do is look to see this.

There are really big mountains between India and China, but if you are willing to ford some rivers, you could walk from the Levant to Mumbai.

2) Get the big movements right. Mostly talking about where people are from and where they went.

Example: Americans tend to think that the native Americans have been almost eliminated. That’s somewhat true in the US, but almost completely untrue outside of some of the Caribbean islands. The blood of Native Americans runs strong in the populations of most of Latin America.

The Germanic tribes settled both France and Germany. The French and Germans are descended from the same peoples. The French Germans (so to speak) sort of learned Latin (“French is the most degenerate Romance language” – some professor or other), while the Germans Germans didn’t.

3) Atrocities are as common as dirt. Many peoples, when given the opportunity, have not hesitated to exterminate their enemies as far as possible – it’s not something only crazed dictators do (they just do it more efficiently) it is something regular people do. This adds needed perspective – what we should learn from  the Nazis is not that they were particularly monstrous, but that they were a lot like us. We should not be looking outward, but inward, if we wish to avoid more atrocities.

More later. Ciao.

The Lamest Arguments of All

…are those which, if true, would make argument impossible. If there were to be a litmus test for a functioning mind, this would be it: if you make an argument which, if valid, proves that argument is impossible, FAIL!

Examples are alarmingly common. Short and sweet:

There is no truth. I am all that is.

Slightly longer:

Free will does not exist (in the words of Lucy, then why are you telling me?).  Truth is unknowable. We can’t know if we are sleeping or awake.

Most of the more long-winded self-eradicating arguments are really based on nothing more sophisticated than these. Often, there’s an implied nod and a wink in there as well – oh, sure, I know that if I claim their is no truth (in however roundabout a way that claim is made), there’s no point to this (or any other) argument, but, hey, we really know that what I mean is that there’s no point to THEIR arguments, you know, the ones that are mean and would lead one to conclude that MY world view is, well, STUPID.

It’s vanishingly rare to see that level of clarity*.

So, we hereby declare: if your argument either leads to or is premised on the impossibility or meaninglessness of argument, then – shut up. Go home. Rethink your decision-making paradigm.

* I’ve heard 2nd hand that the recently deceased (2007) philosopher Richard Rorty comes around eventually to the concept of ‘irony’ as the label for the state one reaches when one rejects all analytical (truth-based?) metaphysics yet still feels compelled (by what?) to care about stuff. This sounds indistinguishable from some blend of despair and fantasy (I will disavow knowledge & truth, but assert nonetheless a deep concern for people and society, even though I recognize that they don’t even exist in any coherent manner), but, hey, haven’t read the dude (yet).

Stack of books on the floor is now well into double digits, and the need to read a lot more history is greater than the need to digest yet one more ‘philosopher’, sooo – I’ll comment on Rorty in a year or two.

Futility – Looking for a Glorious Failure

Obviously, I’m still working through this whole blog thing. Where I think this is going:

– Huge ideas, chopped up and packaged into little largely incoherent chunks.  Just got through reading a John C Wright post. Mr Wright has a better grasp on the problems than I do – he acknowledges up front that all he’s giving is an outline. It’s good stuff. I, on the other hand, have struggled mightily to say very similar things, using a less formal, more slap-upside-the-head style (self inflicted, of course – you know, you get it and say ‘of course!’ That’s it!’ and smack yourself lightly. I’m not into slapping anyone.) But of course, this stands a lottery ticket’s chance of success. You all have better things to do, I suppose.

– I’ve avoided family stuff so far. It’s fun, and amusing, but also invasive. Not sure I can face my kids asking them if I can blog about our personal lives. But it would be fun.

– And then there’s politics. I find this week’s batch of scandals and politicians pretty boring most weeks. The ‘let’s forget history, math, science, our own founding documents, tradition, human happiness and all that other bathtub ring of a dead, patriarchal scum, and just do the right thing’ attitude more than a little disturbing and stupid. And funny! Well, once in a while. So that’s more what I’m writing about, rather than front page news, except by way of illustration.

So, on to the next shiny object passing before my eyes….

Not Your Kids, or Mine, of Course…

Because, as either an FNGs, a woman married to an FNG, guys who wishes he were FNGs, or a woman who wishes or plans to be married to an FNG , we are both a lot more loving and a lot less tolerant and enabling of self-centered behavior in our kids. So they of course are going to be the good citizens of tomorrow and stave off the utter collapse of civilization for one more generation, God help them.

Just to be clear.

Shocking News: Kids these days are kinda narcissistic

Nice couple paragraphs and link to a NYT article about kids these days, over at First Things…

My comment, posted there, copied here:

3 thoughts:

Perhaps the humanitarian who loves humanity but hates people is reflected in the title: community organizer.  Because helping real people is hard and often thankless, while organizing a community (whatever that may mean) provides a useful distance from what the actual individual people may want.

Also, I have a good deal of interaction with kids through my kids’ school: these kids, if they ever could be brought to reflect critically on themselves would recognize narcissism as simple reality – what else is there? Stories I could tell…

Finally, I think the genesis of Generation Narcissus is the almost inevitable outcome of the 60s: the hippies of the 60s were the Greed is Good crowd of the 80s, the first generation to consistently treat children as Certificates of Achievement (limit 2 to a customer, please!), to be worked in around career and personal fulfillment, and certainly not a limit on your right to walk out on your spouse, if you feel so inclined. Those kids grew up to raise the current brood – no ties bind you, enduring the weeping of the little children and the elderly as they are handed off to the care professionals so that Mom and this week’s Dad can follow their dreams unencumbered is just a price you (not the actual criers – that’s THEIR issue, not yours) must buck up and pay. it’s just the way it is.


Further thought: the French Revolutionaries behind the Reign of Terror were high-minded humanitarians – and their high-minded humanitarianism lead them to, you know, guillotine a large number of  men and women (famously, a convent of cloistered Carmelites)  for the crime of getting in the way of the Revolution’s  unabashed love of ‘Humanity’.

Not that that could happen here. U-uh, no, never. Other than the sordid history of the past 250 years, during which many tens of millions died because they were getting in the way of their betters’ efforts to create this week’s Earthly Paradise, what would ever make you think something so crazy?

Schools. Culture. Science.

Speaking of stating the obvious: we rely more and more on schools and science the more our culture dies. This is a mistake, as explained below.

What’s slightly less obvious: the success of schools and science (however that success is defined) is a result of a successful culture. What obscures this truth is the sometimes silent, sometimes shouted from the rooftops claim that, somehow, successful schooling *results* in good culture and good science.

To quote Shrek: Yea, likes that’s gonna happen.

If you find the above assertions incoherent or even blasphemous, recall that there’s a huge array of interests and individuals who’s livelihood depends on schools holding a sacred spot in our society – these people have pretty much pushed the rational opponents of schooling (e.g., Orestes Brownson) off the public stage entirely. and we can’t entirely discount the presence of a Stockholm Syndrome – having been prisoners of schools for well over a decade, we cut deals to save our psyches.  The upshot: posing the perfectly reasonable question of what, exactly, school is good for is far more emotional for most people than can be explained by the question itself.

Let’s say you start with culture instead. For an extreme Catholic example, look at St. John Bosco – he worked with abandoned and orphaned boys. The very first thing he did was create a culture – he knew that there was no point in trying to start a school until the boys belonged to something, felt affection and obligation to something. So, he and his brother teachers first and foremost treated the boys with respect – no bullying, no making them receive the Sacraments for their own good, no harsh discipline. Next, Bosco and Co provided a vivid, constant example of what a meaningful adult life was like – they were happy, hard-working, intimately involved in the lives of others, caring for the weak.  It is within this context that ‘schooling’ took place. The primary material  goal of Bosco’s  education was to get the boys a job – again, a job is just one important way we have a meaningful roll in our culture. Only as a secondary goal were academics pursued.

To recap: Bosco, a great lover of children and famous for his ability to connect with them,  knew that the major lack in the lives of these boys was family – the smallest unit of culture – and that that lacuna must first be filled before any other progress can be made. Because the boys lacked families, they also lacked any means for joining adult culture – namely, they couldn’t get a job, which meant they couldn’t get married and raise a family (couldn’t, as it were, attain FNG status! See, it’s all connected!).  So Bosco worked to reconnect the circle that was broken for these boys – by becoming family for them, by helping them get a job, he enabled them to join that great interlocking chain of family circles we call a culture.

Science, in the context of culture, is just another useful craft. The mythology tries to convince us that great scientists are some sort of James Dean style outcasts, operating on the fringes of culture and fighting off culture’s ignorance in order to lead us, kicking and screaming, into the future. This is historically utter nonsense, but hey, who learns history any more?

QED: School and Science succeed because of culture.

Formerly Normal Guys – 1st Pass

Here’s the game: once upon a time, guys tended to get married, stay married, raise a bunch of kids with their loving wife, and work in order to support their familial Jones. That’s just what Normal Guys did.

Now, a preponderance of guys seem to be trying to get rich, get girls, practice serial polygamy, opt out of the whole ‘Dad’ gig and otherwise defy everything that used to define a Normal Guy.

So, as a guy who would have tidily fit into the old Normal Guy category, I’m going to take it upon myself to identify and wax rhapsodic about any men I come across who would have formerly been considered pretty normal – Formerly Normal Guys, in other TLA-friendly words.

Things that are right out:

– Lots of wives;

– Obvious trophy wife;

– No kids, or one or two ‘perfect’ kids. FNGs actually liked kids – loved them, even – and instead of viewing them as little human Certificates of Achievement, instead viewed them as actual human beings Normal Guys were blessed to have a chance to live with. Exceptions can be made to this rule for either circumstances beyond control (think GKC) and for voluntary celibacy, such as Catholic priests (JPII seemed like a FNG, but it seems a little sacrilegious to call him a FNG. Issues remain to be ironed out, here);

– Wedded to career – willing to sacrifice human relationships to get ahead, whatever that means.

What else?