Words and Meanings

While sitting uneasily at the Mad Hatter’s tea-party Alice is engaged in the following exchange with the March Hare and the Hatter:

“. . . why is a raven like a writing desk?”

“I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you can find out the answer to it?” asked the March haste.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice replied hastily; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!'”

“”You might just as well say” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.'”

And so it goes in Wonderland. Poor Alice!

In our world, where we seldom wonder, we occasionally puzzle over the problem whether the tree falling in the forest with no one around can be said to have made a sound. Or, to quote William James, we ask whether in going around a tree with a squirrel on the other side do we go around the squirrel if he remains always on the other side of the tree?

Well, some of us worry about such things. Mostly stuffy philosophers in their closets. These appear to be real problems when, in fact they are somewhat spurious. They are merely verbal problems and they can be solved by simply stipulating what we mean by “sound,” in the first case, and “around” in the second case. To take the second case, we go around the squirrel if by “around” we mean we circumscribe the squirrel; we do not if we mean by “around” that we see all sides, front, and back of the squirrel.  In the first case it is clear that depends on what we mean by “sound.” It all depends on saying what we mean.

If we mean what we say, on the other hand, then we are probably not modern parents who challenge their kids with threats they seldom or never carry out: “Peter, if you don’t stop hitting your little sister you will be sent to your room!” But, as so often happens, Peter keeps hitting his sister and is never sent to his room. Parents so often don’t mean what they say and the kids grow up not knowing where the line is drawn — if, indeed, there IS any line!

Thus do logical and linguistic puzzles translate into real-life experiences where kids are spoiled and we both eat what we see and see what we eat. Or we seem always to get what we like even if we really don’t want it — and we certainly don’t need it.

But, in the end, as Ludwig Wittgenstein told us long ago, we need to show the fly the way out of the milk bottle: we need to make clear to others what we mean when we use words — words such as “socialism,” “capitalism,” “democracy,” “conservative,” or “liberal.” Otherwise the fly will buzz around in the milk bottle and never get out — and we will debate endlessly about matters that really don’t matter and insist that facts are really fictions and truth is a matter of opinion.


Am I Dreaming?

Lewis Carroll’s classics Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass focus on a perennial philosophical question first propounded by Bishop George Berkeley in the eighteenth century: the things we take to be real, material, and substantial are merely intangible, “sorts of things” in the mind of God. We do not know what is real and what is merely apparent. Further, we cannot say at any given moment whether we are awake or dreaming because there is no reliable criterion that enables us to distinguish the two states from one another.

Bishop George Berkeley
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In a conversation Alice is having with Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Looking-Glass Land we hear the following exchange that follows their discovery of the red king sleeping under a nearby tree:

“I’m afraid he will catch cold with lying in the damp grass,” said Alice, who was a very thoughtful little girl.

“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he is dreaming about?”

Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”

“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you would be?”

“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.

“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere, Why you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”

“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out — bang! — just like a candle!”

“I shouldn’t!” Alice exclaimed indignantly. “Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?”

“Ditto,” said Tweedledum

“Ditto, ditto,” said Tweedledee.

Both of Carroll’s tales have a surreal quality and throughout Alice is constantly wondering if she is awake or just dreaming. This generates the pithy problem: how do we determine that we are awake? Berkeley was convinced we could not, that is, we cannot say just why it is that we know we are awake at any given moment and not dreaming. We may have strong feelings. Common sense insists that we are awake and not dreaming when we ask the very question. But the problem is HOW do we know this? We cannot distinguish dreams from reality with any certainty. And this is because any claim to knowledge must produce the criteria that make the claim knowledge and not a pretender.

If I claim that this computer before me is real I can say I know it because I can see it and touch it. But how do I know I am really seeing it and touching it and not just dreaming that I am seeing it and touching it? As you can see, it’s a tough one! No one really answered Berkeley satisfactorily in the many years that have followed his suggesting the paradox and it is still out there.  David Hume suggested reality has greater “force and vivacity,” but this won’t work because many people have very vivid dreams and for many people reality is a blur — especially if they a prone to the occasional tipple. So Lewis Carroll is having great fun with it in his Alice stories. Children’s stories, eh?? I don’t think so!

Carroll later wrestled with the problem in his book, Sylvie and Bruno in which the narrator shuttles back and forth mysteriously between real and dream worlds.

“So, either I’ve been dreaming about Sylvie,” he says to himself in the novel, “and this is not reality. Or else I’ve really been with Sylvie and this is a dream! Is life a dream, I wonder?”

If it is, perhaps we will all wake up soon and discover that this is so and breathe a sigh of relief. Otherwise this dream is a nightmare.


Mean What You Say!

I was watching ESPN’s “Sports Center” yesterday morning and found one of the topics especially interesting. The four regulars were asking a sports guru off-site what he thought about the fact that the University of Richmond has suspended five baseball players for playing “Fantasy Football.” This game is regarded by both the NCAA and by the University as a form of gambling because it involves the winning and losing of money. The guru, and later the four talking heads, insisted that this punishment was a case of overkill. The KIDS (the words emphasized by the guru) were just having fun and if the NCAA and the University want them to stop gambling they should pay them for playing baseball instead of encouraging them to gamble in order to make more money (!).

As you can see from they brief synopsis, the discussion frequently went off-topic. The guru had a difficult time staying on-point; his mind jumped around like spit on a hot griddle. But I daresay he was paid well for his appearance. In any event, I tend to agree that all Division I NCAA athletes should be paid and then use some of that money to pay for their education if they want one. I have been saying this in print for years. But that was not the issue. Nor was the issue whether the rule made any sense.  The issue was whether or not those five players should have been punished for gambling. The answer — despite the unanimous opinion of the well-paid people on “Sports Center” — is a resounding YES! They should be punished.


Because there is a rule at the University and coming down from on high from the NCAA — king of all intercollegiate sports — that gambling is a no-no. It’s against the rules. The rules are clearly set out and the students, we must assume, were told ahead of time that they were not to become involved, no matter how innocent it may seem and whether or not we agree that “Fantasy Football” is gambling (which I think it is, by the way). In a word, if they broke the rules then they should be punished. Otherwise the rules mean nothing. And it seems to be coming to this, doesn’t it? It’s a cultural problem. We draw lines in the sand — at home, at work, in college, wherever — and then we are busy doing something else when the kids cross that line; we then redraw it somewhere else. It’s small wonder the kids lose all respect for authority and seem to be in a fog much of the time. And, recall, according to Christopher Lasch, this loss of respect for authority is at the heart of our narcissistic culture.

When I worked as a camp counsellor for five summers in Maine many years ago the camp director (who was a wise man indeed) told us at the initial meeting: “if you tell the kids you are going to punish them for doing something wrong, you must do so. If you threaten to kill them if they don’t stop fighting, then you must kill them!” Obviously he wasn’t urging its to kill the kids. (Or was he??) He just wanted to make a point: mean what you say*. I took that to heart as a counsellor and later as a parent — and as a teacher. If I made rules for those people to follow I expected them to follow them. And in the case of  my kids whom I loved dearly or good students who had a legitimate excuse for turning in a late term paper, believe me it hurt me to penalize them, which I did anyway. I suppose it’s what they call “tough love,” but whatever they call it, it makes perfect sense and the fact that five people on television all agree that those baseball players should not have been punished simply attests to the sad demise of basic ethics from which those glued to the television take way the wrong sort of message.

Now, if only the punishments made sense and were consistently applied it would be easier to make my case. The talking heads seemed to be more disturbed about the seriousness of the punishment than the punishment itself and with that I agree. The rules should be clear, consistent, and consistently applied to the stars on the team or the kids in the living room watching R rated movies after being told not to do so. And the punishment should fit the crime. But to say that those who break the rules should not be punished is simply wrong-headed.


*And as Alice learned in Wonderland, this is not the same thing as “say what you mean.” But perhaps that is a topic for another time.


I was determined not to add my voice to the outcry about the latest revelations regarding Donald Trump’s utter contempt for women whom he sees simply as objects placed on earth to satisfy his sexual urges. I really didn’t want this blog to lower itself to that level, the level of the gutter where this man seems to be most at home. But there are a few things that really need to be said.

I begin with the fact that the revelations about his vulgar comments regarding women do not really surprise me. I am past being surprised by anything this man says or does. But I continue to be amazed that those women who still follow him continue to do so regardless. For example, take the case of  Cynthia Schiaroli, a retired elementary school teacher in Reading, Pennsylvania who insists that she will vote for Donald Trump:

“I am not voting for him to be pope,” [she said].
While Schiaroli was “disgusted” by the tape and said she would have a serious problem with her own husband saying anything like that, she believes Bill and Hillary Clinton have said and done things just as bad, if not worse.
“Hillary gets passes for everything,” Schiaroli told CNN Money on Saturday.

This woman dismissed Trump’s comments as no worse than the kinds of things Bill and Hillary Clinton say, which makes me wonder how she comes by this inside information about the private conversations of the Clintons, but it matters not. Her blind dislike of Hillary Clinton makes it impossible for her to even consider leaving the Trump camp. This, in turn, leads to a question.

How does one get from the hatred of a woman one doesn’t even know, except from media reports and mud-slinging sketches put together by marketing firms, to blind support of a vulgar, narcissistic, megalomaniac? There is a leap there somewhere and it is impossible, I suspect, to follow it. “I can’t stand Hillary, therefore I will vote for the man bent on demeaning all women and those who disagree with him while he clearly lacks the knowledge to run the country he insists only he can save.” Clearly this is a muddled mind.

Trump was reported to have said at one point that he could shoot someone in the middle of main street in front of a number of witnesses and he would still have thousands of loyal followers behind him. I thought at the time this was simply another example of his propensity to brag and blow himself up in his eyes and those of his adoring minions. But I am beginning to believe that he was right. It doesn’t seem to matter what he does; those loyal to him are also purblind to his obvious shortcomings — if one can use such a mild term to describe this man’s total lack of character.

When this election is finally over — and it cannot possibly come too soon for my liking — we will really have address what might be called “the Trump phenomenon.” That is to say, how is it possible for thousands of people to hang on this man’s every word — so many of which are bald-faced lies — and grant him license to describe someone like Hillary Clinton as a “horribly flawed person.” Why does this not strike a chord in his followers suggesting that this comment, among so many others like it, is the epitome of hypocrisy: it is the pot calling the kettle black. And there is little evidence that the charge against Clinton has any grounds whatever in the truth.

But the truth seems not to matter. For his mindless minions, as I have noted in the past, this man can say whatever he wants to say and it will be believed. Indeed, for those who have attached themselves to him like Velcro this man defines what is true and what is false. This may change from day-to-day, but it makes no difference: what he says is all that matters. Those who would criticize him are simply out to get him which proves, in their minds, that he is right and they are wrong.

In this regard, I do suspect that when this man comes under attack he becomes the victim no matter how well-grounded in truth the allegations against him might be. He is under attack from the Establishment, an ill-defined group of smart-ass liberals who are “out to get us” — which is why his minions need someone like Trump to hang on to. He gives them a desperately needed sense of power which they otherwise lack and he says and does those things his followers would like to say or do but have heretofore been disallowed  by the have-it-alls. It is interesting in this regard that the woman quoted above can’t stand Hillary because she “gets passes,” is allowed to get away with everything. The Establishment protects its own in the tiny minds of the fearful minions.

The sheer illogicality of the Trump phenomenon beggars belief and demands close scrutiny by those who claim expertise in understanding the meanderings of troubled minds. For myself, I easily lose my way and feel like Alice in Wonderland where everything is upside down and back to front. It’s not a world in which I want to try to find my way, but I do hope there are others who will make the effort and then reveal to us how this could possibly have happened.

Recipe For Failure

I am pleased to offer up the following recipe for your consideration:

Begin with two cups of parents who work hard to keep their heads above the financial waters and who must therefore largely ignore their kids who are left to their own devices. The parents are riddled with guilt, have forgotten how to say “no,” and have read books by childless pop-psychologists about how to raise children; as a result their kids are spoiled at home and have never learned the need for self-denial and hard work. However, all have learned well the path of least resistance.

 (Courtesy of Facebook)

(Courtesy of Facebook)

Add slowly one cup of kids whose time is almost entirely taken up with the “social network” and who use electronic devices to “stay connected” while losing real contact with others and with the world around them, bearing in mind that those toys are damaging their brains, eventually rendering portions of those brains chronically damaged.

Add three tablespoons (no more, no less) of the self-esteem movement in the schools the kids attend that insists the kids are terrific when all the evidence suggests that they are falling way behind the rest of the developed world. In fact, when a mathematics test involving 24,000 students worldwide was followed by the yes/no question whether the student was good in math, American students rated themselves highest on self-esteem and actually scored lowest on math! They have been taught to expect rewards for little or no effort. Clearly, schools in America have become like the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland “where the participants run in patterns of any shape, starting and leaving off whenever they like, so that everyone wins.” Everyone gets a prize — but, in fact, no one wins.

Mix in three teaspoons of underpaid, harried, and poorly-trained teachers sustained by a thin gruel of psychobabble and filled with disdain for the tradition that produced the great men and women of the past. Martin Gross, in his Conspiracy of Ignorance drives the point home thusly: “The problem is not the kids but the Educational Establishment, which is an unscholarly, anti-intellectual, anti-academic cabal which can best be described as a conspiracy of ignorance, one with false theories and low academic standards. Well conceived, internally consistent, it has been powerful enough to fight off all outside challenges and true change. All at the expense of our schoolchildren.” 

Blend in carefully one cup rejection by the entire Education Establishment for the data that show clearly that there is a serious problem in our schools and that other nations, such as tiny Finland, have it right while we have it all wrong.

Stir slowly over a low heat while holding your nose and don’t, please, attempt to eat the mess because it will make you sick.

Money Matters

As you are doubtless aware, the college football season started recently. In fact, it started with a game in Dublin, Ireland between Notre Dame and the United States Naval Academy. That’s right, they flew the Naval Academy’s football team to Ireland to play a game. That would be our tax dollars, folks, part of our “defense” spending. And we might also note the “fly overs” at a number of other major games last weekend that have become a part of the jingoistic spectacle that is now American sports and which probably cost a dollar or two of our “defense” spending as well.

And we could total up the bill with other recreational spending on the military here and all over the globe where we have forces protecting us against whoever it is they are protecting us against. I suspect the cost of softballs alone would feed a family of four for a year. But that is speculation because I doubt very many people are privy to the inside dope on just what our defense spending goes toward. Ron Paul’s son recently had the audacity to suggest that there should be an audit of the Pentagon, but that suggestion fell on deaf ears and closed Republican minds.

But the Republicans are eager to cut federal spending and bring the government down a peg in order to help balance the budget. Yeah, right! So where will the cuts come from? You guessed it, social programs. 60% of the federal budget in the coming year will go to “defense” spending — Department of Defense, war, veterans affairs, and nuclear weapons programs. 6% will go to health and human services, 6% to education, 5% to the individual states, 4% to the Department of Homeland Security, 3% to Housing and Urban Development, and 4.5% to other programs. Oh, and there’s also a projected 1.5% that will go to helping develop and support new energy programs other than nuclear weapons programs. There are a few other piddling items, but you can see from this list where the major cuts will come — given that the “defense” budget will actually be increased in the future if the Republicans have their way. The cuts will come from programs designed to help folks survive and better themselves. Paul Ryan, for example, has suggested that Pell Grants be frozen or reduced in order to force the colleges and universities to reduce tuition costs for the nation’s college students.

Ryan’s suggestion reminds me of one of our local legislators who pushed through the Minnesota legislature a plan to increase the speed limits on two-lane country roads in order to reduce the speed of the vehicles and reduce accidents on country roads. That’s right: increase the speed limits in order to reduce the speed of local traffic. You heard it here, folks, it’s called “newspeak” or “policalese.” Whatever you call it, it’s hogwash and Ryan’s plan to cut Pell Grants in order to reduce tuition costs for students falls in that category.

Thus, if this crew is elected to run our government, we can brace ourselves for cuts to social programs that help people receive an adequate education, feed themselves, and find temporary shelter when they fall on hard times — while, at the same time, the military gets more money for softballs, golf balls, tennis balls, fly overs, and trips to Ireland to play football. I begin to know how Alice felt in Wonderland.

Underground Man

I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”

It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay, and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.

Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical.  Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.

For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.

But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?