I have some advice for the two people who will be selected to go to a party for the President at George Clooney's house:
Choose your guest wisely.
Whoever you pick to join you is going to owe you big time.
Think about it -- and chip in $75 or whatever you can today to be automatically entered:
- Ann Marie
Wow! Only seventy-five bucks? Why you can spend that on half a shopping cart-load of house brand groceries. “Ann Marie” puzzled me for a moment. I do have an eminent colleague and friend named Ann Marie, who is probably an Obama supporter. But I didn’t know she was a movie fan. Then there is Ann Marie, sister of one of my kids’ friends in Middle School. She’s been living in California for the last thirty years, and California is a blue state. Also, Hollywood is in California. Still—little Ann Marie from next door?...I read further.
It soon turned out that Ann Marie, with whom I was not previously on first-name terms, actually, is a certain Ann Marie Habershaw, the COO of “Obama for America”. So we now have one presidential candidate who declares corporations to be persons squaring off against an incumbent person who declares himself to be a corporation. It’s all somewhat confusing.
I do readily admit, though, that Ann Marie Habershaw is one classy name, right up there with Julianna Smoot, my other penpal in the Obama campaign—along with Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, and occasionally the President himself. Most days of the week I get an email from one of these people, but this is the first one to invite me to dinner at George Clooney’s house. Sort of.
There was some small print. The invitation was not actually an invitation to dinner. It was an invitation to buy a sweepstakes ticket. In order to be eligible to go to George Clooney’s party I had to be at least eighteen (“or of majority under applicable law”). I had to be a legal resident of the United States. I passed that test with flying colors, but there was still a hitch: “Odds of winning depend on number of entries received”.
I hadn’t considered that. So there was more to Ann Marie’s letter than met the eye! Not only must I, in selecting an escort to George’s party, choose wisely—I must construct, and on the basis of a crucial unknown, an algorithm to assess the odds of actually being invited in the first place. My instinct probably would be to invite my wife to go with me. Same old same old. But where had I heard that phrase—choose wisely—where had I heard it before? It came to me in a flash: Indiana Jones, last Crusade, Holy Grail! Well, we no longer live in an Age of Faith. Dinner with George Clooney is probably about as close to the Holy Grail as it gets. I must choose wisely.
But first, apparently, I had to help George Clooney figure out where he lives. Ann Marie was offering a “party for the President at George Clooney’s house.” But the small print promises only “round-trip tickets for winner and a guest from within the fifty U.S. States, DC, or Puerto Rico to a destination to be determined by the Sponsor (approximate retail value of all prizes $3,200).”
Remember, John, choose wisely. There are imponderables here. You have no idea of the scope of the competition. Furthermore, the location of Mr. Clooney’s house may not yet have been determined by the Sponsor—and note the sinister capital letter on that word Sponsor. Hmmm. Choose wisely. The only solid clues are the numbers with the dollar signs. You cannot determine the odds of winning, but you can calculate, and calculate precisely, the potential return on investment—investment being one of the President’s favorite terms of art. Now if you divide 3,200 by 75—well, do the math. What you will get is forty-two followed by a decimal trail of six-six-six! It’s the Habershaw Code!
P.S. When I went to my Google account to mount this post, I find that I have yet another message, this one from the President himself. Its subject line reads “Clooney and Me”. Dare I open it? I must choose wisely.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
I spent my entire professional life among Ivy League adolescents in transition to young adulthood, and I know a thing or two about the mores of today’s fast-paced, hard-driving, no nonsense young professional class. When they communicate, they communicate. Thus, when the message at the very top of my e-pile yesterday morning addressed me briskly with the solid, no-frills, naked monosyllable of my Christian name, I sat up and took notice.
I am of an older generation. I also happen to have a Christian name that denotes (a) a toilet, and (b) a prostitute’s customer. Under these circumstances I must confess to preferring something a little more formal and traditional: “Dear Doctor Fleming,” for example, or maybe something along the lines of “Egregio Professore,” “Your Serene Highness,” or “Stupor Mundi”. But beggars can’t be choosers. When it’s coming from the White House, you’re lucky to be getting anything at all. Here was a message with a banner headline: “Obama, Clooney, and You”.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
A theoretical advantage of the electronic revolution, and especially of the Internet, is that it creates the conditions for instant global debate of a rapid-fire kind, in which the intellectual thrust and parry of the old Dominican theological faculties or the Oxford Union in its heyday is thrown open to the whole wide world—at warp speed. Thus some obscure person named Hilary Rosen gains fame and infamy in the same instant with a single four-second sentence about Ann Romney uttered on national television; but within an hour Ms. Romney has riposted with the Tweet heard round the Echo Chamber. So Google is now prepared to lead you to “about” 75,100,000 places you can find some electrons dedicated to the episode.
The phenomenon, however, seems to be selective. The intellectual ferment effected by “Gladly Lerne” seems to work at the rate of a fine old brandy, if not that of the construction of Salisbury Cathedral. A couple of months ago I wrote a little essay about optimism and pessimism viewed from the macro-historical point of perspective. The general question raised was the following. Are we better off than we were—not four years ago, but four aeons? It attracted zero public comments, but slowly a few private emails drifted in, and I sense a need to defend pessimism.
I believe that it was Chesterton who remarked that the doctrine of Original Sin is unique among the dogmas of Christian theology is that it is empirically demonstrable. Any medievalist is likely to engage at some point or another with Saint Augustine; but I only appreciated the full extent of the man’s genius when I became a father. According to the Romantic Wordsworth “… trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God, who is our home”: but the poet doesn’t mention the booming thunder in the clouds. Look dispassionately at any newborn infant and you will see the pure distillate of egoism, its very quintessence. It is three in the morning. The baby wants to be fed, so the baby yells bloody murder.
The screaming child gives no thought, none, to its mother’s exhaustion. The father’s need for restorative sleep sufficient for the successful execution of his arduous work has never entered the child’s mind. The baby knows only the immediacy of its own desire. To expect to find in the situation the slightest suggestion of the postponement of gratification would be absurd. The postponement of gratification is the product of socialization and coercion that free spirits like the Wife of Bath, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the gurus of modern educational theory have ever lamented. Medieval political theorists, drawing on Aristotle as well as Augustine, saw in the necessary coercions (the criminal law, marriage, and whipping schoolboys for instance) sad memorials to a debased human nature.
We recognize the single-mindedness of infantile desire when we accuse others of “acting like a baby”, a form of behavior widely practiced by babes of all ages. Certainly anyone long associated with a college campus will have seen many “demonstrations” at which a “student leader” in brief political liturgy shouts out two questions to assembled fellow “activists,” to which the crowd bellows in prescribed reply.
Q: “Whadda we want?”
A: “Justice!/Disinvestment!/Free condoms!/Whatever!” [pick one ad libitum]
Q: “When do we want it?”
But the distance between the vehemence with which the human race demands instant gratification and the lethargy with which it achieves useful aims is evident in a few revelatory facts of linguistic history. Latin mane meant “the morning”, and especially “first thing in the morning,” but already in classical time it had begun its slide of procrastination seen in its Germanic (morgen, morrow, etc.) and Romance (demain, mañana, etc.) relatives, where it refers to the day after. Forget Poor Richard’s Almanack; the principle by which people really live is “Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow”. There is by no means anything essentially Hispanic about the “mañana mentality.” At least in Spanish one meaning of mañana remains “morning”. In English morrow (without its prefatory to) simply withered on the vine of innate human indolence.
That isn’t all. In Old English the adverb sóna meant “immediately,” “right now”. By Chaucer’s time a few centuries later there was definite slippage. The word soon had taken on the rather indefinite if still hopeful meaning we tend to look for in it today. Yet few things are less convincing than the telephone message from the contractor who tells you that his men will be by to complete the job “soon”. It isn’t exactly a lie. Describe it as the creative exploitation of rapid semantic development.
from the Christian Science Monitor
An even more flagrant display of adverbial decay is evidenced by presently. This word manifestly has to mean in the present, now, as opposed to in the past or in the future. The chances are eight to three, however, that the next time you are sitting in a waiting room and the receptionist tells you that Whoever It Is will be with you “presently,” you will still have time for a couple of games of chess. I have a lot more to say on this subject, and I’ll return to it presently.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
The System of Dante's Hell
I was for several years the master of an undergraduate residential college, so that I am not unaware that college roommates sometimes treat each other in vile ways demanding redress. Even so, a recent criminal trial just up the road at New Brunswick (NJ), which ended in the conviction of a Rutgers undergraduate (Dharun Ravi) for his serious mistreatment of his roommate, has drawn my attention to the relatively new legal category of “hate crime”. Ravi grossly abused his roommate’s privacy by spying on him, and by encouraging others to view his secretly recorded sexual activities. The roommate later committed suicide, and though the prosecution neither claimed nor demonstrated a causal connection, many have drawn the inference; and the gravity of the circumstance probably contributed to Ravi’s conviction of the crime of “bias intimidation”, which is a “hate crime” that might lead to lengthy imprisonment.
I appear to be in a minority in my disquiet at the very concept of a “hate crime”. I entertain doubts that a jury could accurately isolate “hate” as the principal motive force behind complex and ambiguous social actions. (I shall reserve for another day a yet more fundamental objection: so what if they could?) But mostly, the confidence with which the press and remote observers diagnose “hate” alarms me.
Several weeks ago in Florida a man named George Zimmerman shot and killed a youth named Trayvon Martin. I cannot imagine that anyone reading this blog is unaware of this appalling affair. Even on the basis of sketchy and contested details it is very hard, prima facie, to imagine circumstances under which this killing was not stupid and abominable. It is slightly more conceivable, barely--in light of the possible breadth of a recently instituted “stand-your-ground law” of which I had never before heard--that the act was not illegal.
Even as I have been writing this, the latest Newsweek came in the mail. It documents in statistical detail the dramatically different ways in which black Americans and white Americans are inclined to interpret the episode. But in fact as yet we simply do not know enough to draw safe conclusions concerning the “objective” facts of the episode, let alone conclusions concerning the mind of George Zimmerman. Inclination in the absence of factual knowledge is just another, and nicer, term for prejudice. Nevertheless dozens of pundits, several prominent news personalities, and even some elected members of Congress have felt perfectly confident in identifying this ghastly episode as a “hate crime.”
That there are gradations of crime seems too obvious to require argument. Certainly no medievalist is likely to deny the principle. Most people are familiar with the so-called “six questions of journalism”. A good reporter ill make clear to the reader the what of a story, its who, when, where, why, and how. Yet how many people know the origin of these questions? They derive from what were called the “circumstances” of sin as detailed in the confessional manuals of the later Middle Ages. Incest was always a no-no, but it was worse to sleep with your aunt than with your cousin, and worse to sleep with your sister than with your aunt. One of the great lines in world literature comes when the hero of Tom Jones arrives at the (mistaken) conclusion that Mrs. Waters is actually his Mum: “O good Heavens! Incest—with a mother!” The stroke of genius there is the indefinite article. Tom is echoing the casuistry of a printed consanguinity table of an old prayer book!
Our secular law has long recognized the concept of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in the commission of illegal acts. The guy who kills somebody to take his sneakers and the guy who kills his aged wife because he cannot stand to see her descend yet further into Alzheimer’s are both killers; but few of us would be content to leave it at that. Yet it would be a very risky business to start a taxonomy of “sneaker crimes,” “Alzheimer crimes,” etc. If you feel confident about what a “hate crime” is you ought to feel equally confident about a “love crime”. I don’t feel so confident.
The system of Dante’s hell, based in the ancient Aristotelian ethical scheme, presents a tripartite hierarchy of dereliction. All mortal sin will get you into hell, but the carnal obsessions that nearly monopolize our tabloid newspapers—the general Aristotelian category being incontinence—are of a primitive nature. Worse in Dante’s eyes are the sins of violence. The naughty lovers Paolo and Francesca are in a relatively high rent district of hell when compared with the abode of the jealous husband who murdered them. But the worst category is fraud, which involves not merely the indulgence of appetite or the unleashing of irascible passions, but the actual perversion of the reason. But applying human reason to evil ends is not thought crime.
In my view “hate crime” is. In an effort to purge ourselves of all taint of “prejudice,” we presume it virtuous to punish people for what they think–or what we think they think. So far as I am concerned punishing people for what they think is not a slippery slope, but the ski jump at Chamonix. When I was researching and writing The Anti-Communist Manifestos I had occasion to meditate on the principles of Marxist jurisprudence (aka “revolutionary justice”) that founded the gulag state under Lenin and by the late Thirties under Stalin populated it by the millions.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Few readers of “Gladly Lerne” are likely to be so assiduous as to remember my essay on “The Tornado of Twenty Ten”, but it still exists somewhere out there in the inexhaustible memory bank of the Anima Mundi. The blog post is, among other things, a photographic memorial to a devastating storm that passed through our neighborhood in August, 2010. The wind flattened a huge linden tree on the west side of our house, which was spared from major damage by a few capricious inches.
I was so relieved at having escaped major catastrophe that I at first paid little attention to the mere disaster it did produce. The linden’s twisting roots undermined a section of one of my stone walls, and it crashed down upon a row of three fine mature holly trees paralleling the house—essentially our privacy screen on its west side. The southernmost holly it destroyed utterly, leaving the other two as maimed and blasted as the background in a classical Japanese ink drawing.
Eventually I got around to trying to clean up the mess. I have left the remains of the blasted hollies for experimental purposes. I am turning them into a living trellis for two concord grape vines, which I hope will create a leafy screen, and one attractive to birds. That scheme got off to a pretty good start last year; by June I’ll know if it is going to work in the long run. The killing ground itself, however, needed more radical intervention, and that’s where Lulu came in handy.
Lulu is my middle granddaughter, and a precocious landscape architect. She advised me that what was needed was a new strip of lawn between the house and the bonsai hollies. A new stone path linking back yard with front should transverse the new greensward. That is a distance of some twenty yards, and I could tell she was a real architect in the making by the blitheness of her proposal of a herculean labor that was, of course, to be achieved entirely by the sweat of somebody else, namely her aging grandfather. But I try always to follow expert advice, and it is fun scrounging the necessary stone in old dump sites.
Lulu took a much more hands-on attitude to creating the mini-garden that should lie between the new stone path and the old stone wall. According to her architectural theory, it should be less formal than the patch between the walkway and the house. Indeed, it should exploit something of the ruggedness of the stone wall and the brokenness of the holly trees. She didn’t actually use the phrase “architectural quotation,” but that was clearly the concept she had in mind. The plan was to create by artifice a seemingly natural grassy patch randomly scattered with daffodils and featuring a couple of handsome and carefully placed rough squares of stone.
Since what was actually there at the moment was a patch of scrabbled ground made green only by a few luxurious weeds, it took a real vision to imagine the concept. It also took a good deal more work—digging deep around stubborn holly roots, and screening the soil to rid it of its gravel. This time the architect herself pitched in. She got her hands dirty—and I mean, really dirty. New grass in these parts always does much better when planted in the fall, so that Lulu was able to enjoy a certain sense of achievement well before Christmas.
But the floral heart of the project was an investment in faith, and an exercise in postponed gratification—not ordinarily the forte of nine-year olds. But this week she has viewed the results. How could burying those funny little daffodil bulbs, with their dead onion skin and their funny dead tops, actually result in such triumphal beauty? Her Anglican grandfather was able to find a scriptural reference most apt for Holy Week: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Lulu, whose theology tends to be more Rousseauian, assigns it to the category of fun. Yet I can hardly demur. What could be more fun than resurrection?
I have not made a practice of “guest blogs”, as attractive as that possibility has seemed on certain Tuesday evenings. In fact I have not had a single one. But the old order must change, as Tennyson says, “Lest one good custom should corrupt the world”; so I conclude with some field notes jotted down by the architect herself: