Hard Times

I am not a Charles Dickens scholar and really not much of a fan to be honest. I have read a number of his novels, but I find them a bit too didactic to be true art though I realize that novelists are free to do with their writing whatever they choose. At the same time I realize they are well worth reading, despite the fact that so many of his characters are caricatures, overdrawn and designed to produce a smile or a frown. Clearly, he was determined to draw attention to the poor and downtrodden of his times and their proximity to criminality which is always a temptation, especially for the poor. Moreover, his popularity and his influence are well documented. If popularity were the measure of the true worth of a novel, Dickens’ name would be at or near the top of the list. But I do not think popularity counts for much when it comes to aesthetic value. Still, as I say, his novels show signs of true artistic impulses, his writing is masterful, and his novels always provide us with something to think about.

In Hard Times, for example, Dickens targets utilitarianism, just aborning in his day and in his view a threat to the human spirit. Utilitarianism was the brain-child of Jeremy Bentham and it involved a careful calculation of alternatives in order to determine in a given case which is the best (i.e., most pleasurable) course of action, the “felicity calculus” as he called it. In a word, one could calculate the amount of pleasure involved in alternative courses of actions to determine which was the better choice. It’s all about human pleasure and calculation. And it was the calculating part that bothered Dickens — by which he meant all sorts of mechanization and regulation, the determination to measure everything and the eradication of all spontaneity and imagination. Dickens was a true romantic.

Folks like Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, have always had a problem with reason and the notion that one should incorporate reason into the normal comings and goings of the ordinary human. By way of satirizing this notion, for example, Dickens has Gradgrind hold forth at the start of Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Mr. Gradgrind (note the name) the schoolmaster is all about “facts” and his determination to make reasoning machines out of his pupils — as Dickens sees it. And this view of education became an accepted truth about traditional ways of educating young children. It gave birth to such things as the Summerhill experiment in England in which children were allowed to have free reign over their own education. This eventually morphed into progressive education, an education, following Dickens’ lead — and the full-blown attack by Rousseau earlier on — that paid less attention to the subject matter (Facts) than it did to the children who were being taught the subject matter: education became child-oriented. And we have inherited this view of the proper way to educate children, for better or worse, emphasizing self-esteem and giving birth to our age of entitlement.

I have held forth on this topic many times, and I will not bore my readers by dragging out old axes I love to grind. But suffice it to say that, assuredly, the child matters — but so does the subject matter. In addition, facts (especially in our day of “alternative facts”) and reasoning skills are essential to help young people gain possession of their own minds, so they can free themselves from stupidity, narrowness of vision, and blatant prejudice. We need to teach the child when she is young and as she grows older we need to teach the child the subject matter. When she reaches college we need to teach the subject matter. Facts, perhaps, but necessary ingredients in any well-rounded education. I share Dickens’ aversion to utilitarianism and the trend toward reducing quality to quantity, but his reaction is a bit extreme.

In a word, we need Romantics to remind us of the pitfalls of a too narrow indoctrination which we try to pass off as the only way to teach and learn. But we also need to rescue the notion of discipline and rigor from the dust-heap where they have been thrown by the zealots who see only one way to do things. It’s a question of balance, in the end, reason and heart. We need not choose between them. I suspect Dickens knew this: he was trying to make a point.

Unreasonable Doubt

I recall reading years ago about the results of a study that showed beyond doubt that the self-esteem movement was based on a faulty assumption. Telling kids they were great because they breathed in and out on a fairly regular basis did not, in fact, breed self-confidence. In California, where the self-esteem movement was started, the study was denied by at least one city councilman who said: “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In fact, the study showed that the kids who were told they were great knew damned well they were not and what was bred was not self-confidence but contempt for their elders. I worked with kids for years and, believe me, they know when they are being duped. They sense falsehood the way a dog senses fresh meat on the floor. They may not be able to articulate it, but they sense falsehood and pretense.

In any event, the doubting of science is not new and it seems to have been given new life in recent years as people who should know better insist that scientific evidence about climate change is bogus and science, in general, ought to be dismissed out of hand as an attempt to alarm and upset the rest of us. The people who make these outrageous claims are obviously in denial (or the pockets of Big Oil) as they proceed to make their coffee in electric coffee-makers, make office calls to their local physician when in pain, drive their automobiles, fly around the world in airplanes — all activities involving faith in scientific ingenuity. In a word, we have here a case of denial in the form of selective beliefs. We reject those beliefs we find uncomfortable and we adopt as certain those that make us feel good.

This would not be a serious problem, of course, if we weren’t talking about the survival of the human species and possibly even the planet itself. Selective belief has been around, I dare say, since the dawn of time. For all we know the saber-tooth tiger fell victim to it! But we are now living in an age in which the rejection of science borders on the insane. Science is not THE answer to all our problems. Heaven knows, Horatio, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in science. But, at the same time, science can provide us with a fairly certain guide to human conduct that will not only fly us anywhere we want to go, but also help us avoid the deep pitfalls that await those who insist upon walking around with blindfolds across their eyes.orwell-1

I am a firm believer in testing all claims to truth. Critical thinking is essential if we are to survive as individuals and as a species. But it is not critical thinking that insists upon the rejection of scientific truth; it is sheer stupidity, if not duplicity. There are certain things that are beyond doubt: the probability is so high as to approach certainty. When 97% of the scientific community agrees about the dangers of continued abuse of the planet, we can be fairly confident that this is true — even if we can’t follow their arguments and decipher their complicated data.

It pays us to be cautious when the stakes are as high as they are. And it pays to check for hidden agendas among those who deny climate change as well as those who insist it is a fact. The deniers have a great deal at stake, to wit, their increasing profits in the sort term. The affirmers are scientists who are simply concerned about the future of this planet and who have no hidden agendas — despite all the false charges laid at their feet. It might be the better part of wisdom to pay attention to those who are shouting alarms in increasingly louder voices and ignore those who insist on looking the other way. It just makes sense.

Gaslighting

I recall years ago seeing a survey that concluded the most distrusted people in this culture are used-car salesmen (excuse me, previously-owned-car-salesmen) — followed closely by politicians. I dare say that after the recent election the ranking has switched: politicians must be in the lead, surely. Both are notorious for their lies and deceptions, though the politicians seem to be determined to set new records.

But, what precisely is a lie? We can say that a lie is a deliberate attempt to mislead. It involves intent, not just mistaken facts. When another study during the recent election showed that Trump had lied 87 times in a week and Clinton only 8 Hillary’s followers were well pleased — even though it was noted that she did lie. Now, we don’t know if it was lies, in either case, because we do not know what the intentions of the two candidates were. We cannot know — and it is quite possible that the candidates themselves didn’t know! (How many of know what our intentions are when we take action?) There’s a difference between confusing the facts and downright lying. It’s possible that either, or both, were simply confused about some fact or another. Heaven knows I do that all the time.

But the repeated pattern of distortion and falsehood suggests a deliberate intention to mislead. In Trump’s case we seem to have before us an inveterate lier, one who lies without knowing that he is doing so. It’s simply a habit. It has proved successful in his business dealings and it has become a part of his persona, such as it is. Tell them what they want to hear; it matters not if you lie like a rug. In Hillary’s case, it is not clear. Being a politician I dare say she has intentionally lied on numerous occasions — at times because she was guarding secrets at other times simply because she wanted to mislead. But Trump offers us a case study in what has been called “gaslighting,” a practice that is sure to lead us to the point where truth and falsehood will lose all meaning. A recent CNN story  helps us grasp the concept:

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.
If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day. Unless Trump starts behaving in a radically different way . . . , gaslighting will become one of the words of 2017.
The term comes from the 1930s play “Gas Light” and the 1940s Hollywood movie version (Gaslight) in which a manipulative husband tries to unmoor his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, by tampering with her perception of reality. He dims the gaslights and then pretends it’s only she who thinks they are flickering as the rooms grow darker.
That’s only the beginning. He uses a variety of truth-blurring techniques. His goal is to exert power and control by creating doubts about what is real and what isn’t, distracting her as he attempts to steal precious jewels.. . .

. . . The techniques include saying and doing things and then denying it, blaming others for misunderstanding, disparaging their concerns as oversensitivity, claiming outrageous statements were jokes or misunderstandings, and other forms of twilighting the truth. . . . When Trump says something that outrages a portion of the population and pleases one segment, he can have it both ways. Voters eager for a tough guy president may be happy with the bully, while those who don’t like it might be appeased by the denial. In the end, few people can keep up with all the facts all the time. And as he tries to undercut the credibility of serious journalists, he makes it even harder for everyone else to find an easy path to the truth.

The key lies in this fact: it’s all about power over others. It’s a shell game born of  Trump’s disdain for others and he plays it masterfully. This is a man who loves power and seems determined to do whatever it takes to increase his own and reduce that of those around him. He may not always intend to mislead — we cannot possibly know — but it is fairly clear that when he is confronted by bare facts that conflict with what he says he shows definite signs of one who is now faced with the problem of restating the falsehood so it appears closer to the truth, ignoring it altogether, or simply accusing his accuser of misrepresenting what he had said. It’s all a part of the gaslighting scheme and in the end we are the victims — as is the truth itself.

Lies and More Lies

In light of the fact that the New York Times recently reported that Trump was guilty of 87 “misstatements, exaggerations, and falsehoods in a week” I thought this post from a while back worth repeating, though, as I say, those who follow this man are convinced that every criticism that is leveled against him is a lie by “those damned liberals.” As I also say, we have lost sight of just what lies are — they are not just those statements we dislike, they are those statements that seek to alter the truth and tend to mislead.

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld” George is giving advice to Jerry who has been asked to take a lie detector test to determine whether he does or does not watch a soap opera every day. He is seeking to impress a cute policewoman and is afraid the truth will put her off. George is giving him advice because George is so good at lying; it has become a habit with him. He tells Jerry, “it’s not a lie, Jerry, if you really believe it.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work, because Jerry simply cannot keep up the ruse. But it seems to be working in today’s political scene as the Republican candidate (who shall remain nameless if not blameless) seems to be very good at lying. I suspect he has had a great deal of practice — after all he claims to be a successful business person when, in fact, his businesses have a habit of failing. But I also suspect that he really believes what he says. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t know what he says because he doesn’t listen to himself. His mouth seems to open when his brain is engaged elsewhere — heaven only knows where.

The problem is that his mindless minions who hang on his every word and grammatically incorrect sentence seem to believe whatever he says. One thinks of a cult where the followers blindly follow where the leader leads — or points. And this is a problem because when the lie becomes the norm, then facts are useless, even meaningless. Lying becomes merely a word that is used by the minions to discredit criticism of their leader who can do no wrong. Those “Fact-checkers” who claim to be neutral and only interested in setting the record straight are dismissed as biased and perhaps even in the pocket of the opposition.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that operates as one grows older, separating fact from fiction, truth from myth. This principle is central to maturity in the human animal. Without it, he or she remains a child living in a make-believe world in which everything goes as planned and there is no pain or suffering. This, of course, is the world of those who continue to insist that there is no Truth (except what comes from one man’s mouth) and where lies are otherwise the norm. Reality is displaced by myth and the leader standing before you is larger than life and beyond reckoning. What others say about him are all lies. Everything he says is solid gold.

What happens in this case — and it is this case which is of major interest since so many seem to be living in this mythical world where one man has all the truth there is and everyone else is an inveterate liar — is that ears are closed to the truth as it relates to the real world: the real world has ceased to exist. The only world is the world in which the man standing before you says whatever comes into his head and it is taken for the truth, the only truth there is. Everything else is a lie, the only lies there are.

Philosophers will tell you that truth is attached to statements that correspond with facts in the real world. Thus, if I say the cat is on the mat, this is true if, and only if, the cat is, in fact, lying on the mat. But when the “successful businessman” standing before us tells us that the truth is what he says, and what he alone says, then the cat disappears and the only reality is the reality created by this man’s words — such as they are. We hear what he wants us to hear and nothing else. Our minds become closed to the fact-checkers because we are told they are biased. The word “lies” attaches only to those things said by those who oppose this man. The paradox is that he lies when he says that others lie. But we are no longer able to distinguish between the lies and the truth — except when it is pointed out to us by our Infallible Leader.

Expertise

One of the things that defines the times in which we live is our suspicion of anyone who presumes to know what he or she is talking about. We deny expertise. It’s one of the sadder effects of our egalitarianism. We move from the moral fact that all are equal to the absurd conclusion that no one knows any more than anyone else. Aside from our medical people and our auto mechanics, whom we must trust, we think all other opinions are of no great weight, certainly no better than our own. We forget what George Berkley once said: all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Some opinions are heavy and others are so light they float away in the wind, many of our own included.

But if it is my opinion I am convinced that it weighs as much as yours, no matter who you are. “It’s just Plato’s opinion,” as one of my students said in reading a Platonic dialogue, with the clear implication that it weighed no more than this particular American college freshman’s did. “We are all entitled to our opinion” translates for many into “my opinion is just as good as yours.”

Take the issue of global warming, as an example. There are a great many people in our Congress who think that 97% of the scientists are wrong despite the fact that those scientists have examined the situation carefully and are reluctant to draw conclusions that cannot be corroborated by their peers. That is to say, those who sit on their butts every day making huge salaries think they are as smart as those who are paid very little to study the appropriate evidence and draw conclusions, many of which are unpalatable to them as individuals. Science is disinterested and a very strict task-master. Yet, those sitting on their butts in Congress, or running for president, claim to know better than they what is happening to our world. The problem is, of course, those who do not know control the mechanisms that might make our world a safer place in which to live and plan our collective future.

Expertise, if you think about it, is based on knowledge of one’s field. An expert in biology may not be the best person to ask about the literary value of a new novel. But in his or her field the opinions uttered have weight. We do ourselves a great disservice to ignore the experts in an age in which we are overwhelmed by information and have so little knowledge about so many things. Like it or not, we must trust others to help us understand what is going on in our world. If we have pain in the gut which we think results from listening to political lies, and it the pain persists, we really ought to visit the physician and listen carefully to what she has to say.

At some point we must trust the experts and acknowledge that there are people who know a great deal more than we do. We must trust those who know and know those who are worthy of our trust. But those people who stand up before us running for political office and who claim to know things that are patently absurd should not be trusted. We must always be on the alert for those who claim to be experts but who know less than we do, while at the same time acknowledging that there are experts who know a great deal more than we do. It requires judgment and scrutiny of every word and gesture — and a suspicious eye on the possibility that there is a hidden agenda somewhere that we might not want to embrace.

In a word: ask ourselves whether or not the person who is making the claim has something to gain from our believing what he or she has to say. The scientists who predict that our planet is in dire straights have nothing to gain from our accepting their conclusions. Those fat cats who sit in Congress and are paid to vote as the corporations want them to definitely have something to gain from the rejection of what the scientists have to say. And that politician with the strange hair who stands there making outrageous claims wants us to believe everything he says even though so much of it is bollocks. His agenda is not even that well hidden.

In a word, we must suspect all those “experts” who have a hidden agenda. But this is no reason to reject expertise altogether: there are some who really do know more than the rest of us. But, to my knowledge, none of them has strange hair.

Scientific Ignorance

The new chair of the House Science and Technology Committee is Rep. Lamar Smith. He’s a Republican from Texas so that pretty much tells you what you need to know about Mr. Smith. Texas is the state, you will recall, where a recent survey revealed that four out of ten high school science teachers think that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. It’s also the state where creationism is routinely taught as a science.  So it makes perfect sense that we would want such a man to head up this science committee where the first order of business, we are told, will be to convene a hearing to determine whether or not the globe is in fact warming. The fact that these men might not know a fact if it bit them in the britches is apparently not to the point.

Heading up the House Science Subcommittee is Representative Paul Brown (R-Ga) who famously said “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” I wouldn’t know if this is true because I have never been to Hell, but I will take Mr. Brown’s word for it; I assume he knows whereof he speaks. But it still makes me nervous to think that men of this caliber are leading this country. Madison and Jefferson must be turning over in their graves.

In any event, I shall pass over the irony that stares us in the face to address the comment of Representative Brown which shows an alarming ignorance about just what science is. Because science, if it is properly understood, does not allow an intelligent person to accept or reject its conclusions at will. Those conclusions demand our attention and acceptance — whether we like them or not. And I assume that Mr. Brown would prefer to think of himself as an intelligent person — even if we find it difficult to agree with him.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not a devotee of science. I am not a true believer. I think there are things science does not know and there are limitations to the scientific method. There are things in literature and poetry, for example, that are profoundly true but which cannot be known by science or reduced to scientific formulas. But this is because science relies on mathematics and it insists on quantifying data in order to measure and calculate. In its proper domain, however, when it follows the correct procedures and presents its findings to the scientific community — which then has the opportunity to test its findings — it makes no sense whatever to contend that science is “straight from the pit of Hell” (no matter how familiar we are with that part of the cosmos.)

Representatives Brown and Smith will be involved in the search for what they regard as truth with respect to the warming of the globe. This despite the fact that the government they are a part of recently completed a study involving 300 scientific experts (including NASA) who agreed overwhelmingly that the earth is warming at an alarming rate and that humans are very much a part of the cause. So the globe will continue to heat up, our weather will become more and more freaky with “events” like hurricane Sandy becoming more common, the drought in the Midwest will continue and crops will burn up in the fields while forests are increasingly engulfed in flames. At some point even people like these two men will have to admit there is a problem.

In the meantime they (and 74% of their fellow Republicans in Congress) continue to deny the obvious. They put me in mind of a group of morons sitting around a table in a cabin perched on the side of a mountain ignoring the increasingly loud noise from the approaching avalanche as they discuss whether or not they should (maybe?) shore up the roof.

That’s Your Opinion!

We are fond of saying “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.” In a sense that’s true. But in another sense it is absurd. As George Berkeley once said, all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Why would one be entitled to hold an opinion that is blatantly false? For example, why should a person be entitled to hold the opinion that the earth is flat or that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time — as an alarming number of high school biology teachers in a recent Texas poll apparently believe? I mean, obviously a person can hold such an opinion, but why on earth would they want to? As Plato noted long ago, there is such a thing as right opinion — and such a thing as wrong opinion. One would think that we would want to jettison the latter and develop the former. I take it that “right” opinions are those that have intellectual support: they are reasonable. At some point right opinions become facts and dispute at that point is out of the question for reasonable people, though Congress will continue to debate their truth.

In the case of the shape of the earth or the time when humans lived on earth vis-a-vis the dinosaurs, opinions can be argued sensibly and evidence can be brought forward. But in the case of art and ethics, it is widely believed, it is open season on opinions: anything goes. I would contend that this is a wrong opinion. In ethics and art there are sound and unsound opinions: some claims can be supported by evidence and argument while others cannot. And like opinions about the shape of the earth, our job is to jettison the unsound opinions and develop the sound ones. Let’s take a couple of examples.

In ethics I might claim that the skin-heads are right to stand up for white supremacy. This is a value judgment and it is clearly unsound. There is no evidence whatever to support this claim: no evidence that whites are “superior” to any other race of humans. We have a value judgment based on a biological falsehood.  In any event, we have an example of an ethical claim that can be argued, defended, rejected, or accepted on the grounds of support and evidence. It’s not JUST an opinion.

In art a case can be made that some works are better than others because of the remarkable craftsmanship and lively imagination they exhibit. But after the case has been made, we can still like the inferior work. No matter how strong a case I make that Vermeer’s “Maiden With A Pearl” is a better work than Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover with the family bowing their heads over a Thanksgiving meal, one might still prefer the latter to the former. In that sense there’s no disputing taste. But experts can make strong cases for some works of art simply being truly remarkable and in some sense of that word “great,” whether we like them or not. The same can be said in literature, poetry, sculpture, and dance. Some works are good and some are really quite bad — again, whether we like them or not. In a word, some opinions are simply stronger than others. The evidence can be brought forward and reasons mustered on one side or the other.

In the realm of ethics and the fine arts opinions never reach the realm of facts, strictly speaking. There will always be room for debate because even though we might see the point of the evidence and argument that supports a claim — that Vermeer’s painting is better than Rockwell’s, for example — we might still prefer Rockwell, as mentioned above. The mind might assent, but the heart may be slow to follow. But the point I want to make is that discussion and rational argument have a place at the table of ethics and the fine arts just as do claims made about the shape of the earth, the desirability of certain types of treatment for illness, or the question of climate change. There are facts and there are sound or reasonable opinions and they need to be separated from the trash of half-truths, weak opinions, and absolute nonsense. This reasoning applies to the determination of who would make the better President as well.