October 12, 2012
When we live through something like the September 11 attacks, we hear lots of news stories about them, but sometimes we miss important aspects of them. I recently saw a Frontline documentary called “The Man Who Knew,” about John O’Neill, an FBI agent who foresaw the September 11 attacks. O’Neill was obsessed with bin Laden and al-Qaeda since 1995. He read everything he could find about al-Qaeda, watched videos of bin Laden, went to Yemen to investigate the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, etc. He knew al-Qaeda was planning an attack inside the U.S., and he thought that they wanted to “finish the job” that they had begun in 1993 with an attack on the World Trade Center.
In an earlier issue, I discussed how Michael Burry had foreseen the financial crisis of 2008. I said that Burry was a loner with poor social skills. Like Burry, O’Neill was a maverick who didn’t fit into the bureaucracy. But unlike Burry, O’Neill was outgoing, even flamboyant; his elegant apparel earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness.” O’Neill’s flashy style raised eyebrows at FBI headquarters. The FBI leadership refused to let him investigate the 1998 Africa bombings, and his investigation of the Cole bombing was cut short.
If the September 11 attacks were an isolated event, it wouldn’t be surprising that O’Neill’s warnings went unheeded, and that his superiors didn’t support him. But the September 11 attacks weren’t an isolated event, they were the culmination of a series of al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. interests. Hence it’s astonishing that O’Neill wasn’t supported; on the contrary, his efforts were undercut, and he was eventually pushed out of the FBI. At the time of the September 11 attacks, he was the security chief for the World Trade Center. He was killed on September 11.
While O’Neill is the hero of the documentary, those who assisted him also appear in a positive light — Janet Reno, for example, and Mary Jo White. Reno and White seemed to respect O’Neill’s independent streak. Reno tried to push the FBI to focus on the terrorist threat. On the other hand, FBI director Louis Freeh didn’t support O’Neill, and didn’t heed his warnings. Freeh’s deputy, Tom Pickard, was O’Neill’s arch-enemy, and worked overtime to undercut O’Neill.
O’Neill’s story seems perfectly suited for Hollywood.
The local GreatBooks group recently discussed Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” Few people praised the essay. Several people criticized it as egotistical, self-centered; several people said it was dense, difficult to read. But the essay provoked a lively discussion, so it was a good choice for the group.
The first “research paper” I wrote, as a high-school junior, was called “Emerson and Self-Reliance,” so I’ve been reading Emerson for a long time. Many of the phrases from “Self-Reliance” have worn grooves in my brain:
For many years, it’s been clear to me that there’s a strong Zen element in Thoreau. I tried to trace this Zen element to its source. Knowing that Thoreau was impressed with Emerson’s essay “Nature,” I looked in “Nature” for the source of Thoreau’s Zen. I didn’t find it. So I began to think that Thoreau didn’t get his Zen from Emerson. After reading “Self-Reliance,” however, I’m beginning to think that there’s a Zen element in Emerson, and it may have influenced Thoreau. “Self-Reliance” was part of Emerson’s “First Series” of essays, published in 1841, when Thoreau was 24. So it could have influenced Thoreau’s Walden, which Thoreau probably began in 1846.
Like Zen, Emerson emphasizes spontaneity rather than reason. Emerson says that “Spontaneity or Instinct [is] the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life.... We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.” One thinks of the Chinese concept of the Tao, which produces everything by spontaneous action. Emerson’s respect for intuition reminds one of the Romantic writers; New England Transcendentalism is an offshoot of Romanticism. Like the Romantics, Emerson emphasizes originality and spontaneity rather than tradition.
Emerson’s emphasis on instinct rather than reason makes him akin to Jung. One might say that Emerson was a champion of the unconscious avant la lettre. Emerson tells us that “we must go alone,” we must “stay at home,” and put ourselves “in communication with the internal ocean,” rather than going abroad “to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men.” Is there a better synonym for “unconscious” than “internal ocean”?
Emerson’s respect for the present moment makes him scornful of history. He criticizes people for clinging to the past, for storing for the future, for trying to grab hold of time instead of going with the flow.
When I read this, I was reminded of that moving passage at the end of Zen in the Art of Archery where the student is leaving Japan and returning to Germany, and the master makes him a gift of his best bow:
Notice the scorn for history, for remembering the past, for the curiosity of the museum-goer. Notice the respect for spirit, energy, action, the present moment.
But if everyone follows their instincts, will harmony result? What if someone hears an inner voice telling him to commit murder? Emerson is aware of this possibility, and responds thus:
But how would Emerson respond if his neighbor lived from the Devil? How does Emerson reconcile his doctrine of self-reliance and spontaneity with the existence of evil? Emerson is often criticized for ignoring evil, but before we add our voices to that chorus, we should consider that every great writer ignores something, emphasizes one side of an argument, and exaggerates a little. Otherwise we wouldn’t get a forceful essay but a string of qualifications. So let’s focus on what Emerson says, not on what he doesn’t say.
Emerson is probably correct to think that positive urges outnumber negative ones. We can deal with negative urges as we’ve always dealt with them: with police, with courts, with prisons, with armies. Emerson is right to emphasize the force of nature, of spontaneity. Spontaneity rules the universe, and on the whole, it rules in a positive way. Even if we wanted to fetter our nature, we couldn’t. As Horace said, “You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she’ll always come back (Naturam expellas furca, tamen usquo recurret).”1
Our instincts may be the source of much evil, but they’re also the source of all that’s best in us. Emerson’s Concord neighbor, Hawthorne, was once asked about his Scarlet Letter and he said that he didn’t write that novel, it wrote itself. The best artistic works, like the best athletic performances and the best philosophical ideas, happen spontaneously.
Let’s go back to the passage we quoted above, in which Emerson emphasizes the flow of time, and says that this flow “degrades the past... shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside.” Isn’t this a rather disrespectful way to refer to Jesus? Emerson treats Jesus as an historical figure, not as a divine being, and he suggests that the march of time will relegate Jesus to oblivion. It seems that Emerson wasn’t a Christian, or at least, not a pious one. Perhaps this is why he was barred, for many years, from speaking at Harvard.
Emerson says that every individual represents a “divine idea.” He’s friendly toward generalized religious feeling, but he’s contemptuous of specific established religions. Throughout “Self-Reliance,” Emerson takes jabs at the Christian establishment. He says that you’ll be wasting your time and energy “If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society.” He seems to be pointing us toward new kinds of spirituality, toward a religion that listens to our inner voices, that communicates with our “internal ocean,” rather than listening to ancient texts. He speaks scornfully of the Bible. He complains that “strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul. We shall not always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives.” Notice how he predicts we will break free from the Bible, from ancient texts (“We shall not always...”). Whitman also had a cavalier attitude toward Christianity and the Bible; this helps to explain why Emerson was instantly attracted to Whitman. Doubtless Emerson would disapprove of the Islamic world’s respect for the Koran — how they study it assiduously, even memorize it, and try to live by it. Emerson respects the inner voice, not the ancient text.
Like Hebrew prophets, philosophers often speak against their society — speak against prevailing trends and fashions. As Kierkegaard put it, “genius, like a thunderstorm, comes up against the wind.” Emerson criticized his society for respecting ancient writers rather than their own inner voices. Our society, however, doesn’t have excessive respect for ancient writers, excessive respect for tradition. We don’t need Emerson’s message as much as Emerson’s society did. One might even say that we need the opposite message — Respect tradition, listen to ancient writers. In our day, respect for originality has been carried to an extreme.
Emerson complains that architects follow old patterns: “Why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model?” Emerson’s reasoning would doubtless appeal to a modern architect like Frank Lloyd Wright. Today, however, many people probably prefer the architects of Emerson’s day, who followed old patterns, rather than the modern architects who strive for originality and achieve only a wild anarchy. Emerson didn’t seem to realize that originality can be carried to an excessive point, that it can become the enemy of culture.
Tradition and originality are polar opposites. There are many such pairs of opposites in the world of culture, and society oscillates between them. When one is emphasized, then people begin to see the value of the other; action calls forth reaction, thesis calls forth antithesis. As Proust put it, “The critics of each generation confine themselves to maintaining the direct opposite of the truths admitted by their predecessors.”2
Emerson emphasizes originality, and overlooks the importance of tradition. He should neither be blamed for this, nor criticized. He plays a role, and plays it well; he expresses one side of the argument, and expresses it well. He asks, “Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton?” One could just as easily argue that these heroes learn much from their predecessors, are inspired by their predecessors. One could quote Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” The original thinker is often the person who has admired the tradition most, studied it most, learned the most from it. Whether we emphasize originality or tradition is a matter of taste, like whether we call the glass “half empty” or “half full.” If the preceding generation emphasized originality, we’ll probably choose to emphasize tradition, and vice versa.
While Emerson is a champion of originality, Machiavelli was a champion of learning from the great men of the past. “A prudent man,” Machiavelli writes, “should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent, so that if he does not attain to their greatness, at any rate he will get some tinge of it.”3
Another pair of opposites in the world of culture (in addition to tradition and originality) is the importance of the individual versus the importance of society. We can say that the individual makes history, or we can say that history and society make the individual. Shakespeare made the Elizabethan age, but the Elizabethan age made Shakespeare. Here again, Emerson emphasizes one side of the argument: he emphasizes the importance of the individual (as Carlyle did). “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” Emerson writes. “All history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.”
After the 2004 Presidential debates, I wrote, “In the first debate, Bush seemed poorly prepared and over-confident, perhaps because the Republican convention had gone well for him, and he seemed headed for a landslide victory, perhaps because he did quite well in his debates with Gore in 2000.” And just as Bush was over-confident in 2004, Gore was over-confident in 2000, since he seemed intellectually stronger than Bush. Gore’s over-confidence led to a Bush victory (in the first debate in 2000), just as Bush’s over-confidence led to a Kerry victory (in the first debate in 2004).
Now it’s Obama’s turn to be over-confident, now it’s Obama who seemed to be headed for an easy victory. In debates, as in other areas, over-confidence seems to be a recipe for disaster. Obama had abundant reason to be over-confident because Romney seemed to be a hapless candidate — a wealthy man, born into wealth, a distant personality, completely unable to connect with the average American.
I should have anticipated that Romney would do well in the first debate; I had seen him debate Teddy Kennedy (when he was running for the Senate in 1994), and I knew he was a good debater. But I didn’t anticipate Romney’s decisive victory — in fact, no one (as far as I know) anticipated it. One might call it a black swan event.
In the first debate, Obama didn’t seem to believe in his own policies, or he didn’t have any policies to believe in. As one commentator said, it wasn’t just a poor debate performance, it was a philosophical defeat, it showed that the Democratic party lacks a program, a vision, a belief. They have a program for the campaign, but not a program for the nation’s future.
In the second debate, Obama won’t be over-confident, and he won’t underrate Romney, so it’s hard to see how Romney can have a clear victory in the second debate. Obama’s slight edge in the polls seems likely to persist until election day.
Lichtenberg said he’d rather read what a philosopher crossed out than what he published. This is the premise of a recent Weekly Standard essay that focuses on what Obama and Romney said inadvertently, rather than on their prepared speeches. The author of the essay, Yuval Levin, quotes Obama’s remark “you didn’t build that” (meaning the individual entrepreneur doesn’t build companies by himself, he’s helped by the surrounding society). And Levin quotes Romney’s remark about the 47% of Americans who are dependent on the government.
Levin insists that the real debate isn’t between Democrats who believe in government and Republicans who believe in the individual, the real debate is about different attitudes toward civil society, toward the space between government and the individual. Levin describes this space as “the family, civil society, and the private economy.” He says that conservatives have always championed this intermediate space, while progressives have tried to replace it with large-scale, “rational” government policies:
When Levin talks about the family, I’m reminded of Moynihan’s famous essay, which connected welfare policy to the breakdown of the black family. When Levin talks about helping the poor, I’m reminded of the network of charities that we discussed earlier in connection with the novels of Hardy and Lawrence. I’m also reminded of how, in India, members of a given caste helped each other, thereby making the caste system a form of “social insurance.” When Levin says that civil society involves feelings of “fraternity, friendship, and loyalty,” I’m reminded of Edmund Burke’s similar comments in his Reflections on the French Revolution.
I recall one of my neighbors saying that, years ago, he had financial problems, but someone in his Catholic church came to his aid. The priest probably knew someone with a financial surplus, and someone with a financial deficit, and arranged a re-distribution of wealth; it probably made both parties feel better. I also recall an elderly Jewish man saying that he wanted to retire and devote himself to Jewish charities. Here again, we see how churches, religious groups, ethnic groups, can function as social insurance, as charities.
Progressives might point to Social Security as a large-scale, rational government program that has helped the elderly, while conservatives might point to “urban renewal” projects (which we discussed in the last issue) as examples of large-scale, rational government programs that damage society.
Levin says that conservatives want government to foster civil society:
What conservatives fear, according to Levin, is that civil society is being eroded because government is doing what was once done privately, and because government is becoming so large that civil society is being swallowed up. So conservatives are proposing, Levin says, to reform the structure of government in order to preserve the structure of society.
When I was in Paris, a few years ago, I wasn’t satisfied with the subway option or the walking option. I longed for wheels — roller blades or bicycle. If I go back to Paris, I look forward to using the new bike-share program. Bike-share programs are popping up in many major cities, so before you hail a taxi, or buy a subway ticket, or put on your walking shoes, check if the city you’re visiting has a bike-share program.
As gas prices rise, car sharing is also becoming popular. While bike sharing is government-organized, car sharing is privately organized. One might compare car sharing to apartment sharing, which we discussed in an earlier issue. Of course, the Internet makes car sharing and apartment sharing possible. Since these sharing programs aren’t government programs, the question arises, Is the Internet creating a new kind of civil society? An e-society? Should Levin have discussed this e-society in his essay on civil society?
A recent New York Times article says that the leading car-sharing websites are European: Paris-based BlaBlaCar, and Munich-based Carpooling.com. Neither site offers rides in the U.S., but Carpooling.com will soon. One of the founders of BlaBlaCar said, “‘It started out a bit like hitchhiking, but now it’s almost like booking a seat on a train’.... Passengers pay for tickets online and the company keeps a commission.”
Where did they get the name “BlaBlaCar”? They have a feature that allows users to specify how much conversation they want!
An article in the New York Times suggests that Alzheimer’s might be “Type 3 diabetes.” In other words, Alzheimer’s might be related to diabetes. “The connection between poor diet and Alzheimer’s is becoming more convincing. [We] already know that people with diabetes are at least twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s, and that obesity alone increases the risk of impaired brain function.” Since Type 2 diabetes is becoming widespread, we can expect the number of people with Alzheimer’s to rise.
If Alzheimer’s is fostered by a high-sugar diet, this is an argument for the Atkins diet, which favors fats over sugars. Atkins says that eating fat will make you thin, because fat quenches appetite, while sugar stimulates it.
I came across some astrology websites, and was astonished at how accurate they were — how they could describe the traits of a person born under a certain sign. This was my first experience with astrology. The sites were poorly written and filled with tawdry ads. Perhaps I would have been even more impressed if they had been well-researched, well-written, etc. Here are some excerpts from the sites (I’ve made some changes to the language):
Astrology is a subject that rational thinkers love to hate. They’re convinced it’s the crudest sort of superstition. They can’t explain it, and they refuse to believe what they can’t explain.
A rational thinker on Wikipedia assails both astrology and Jung:
The Catholic Church also condemns astrology. According to the Catechism:
|1.|| As Emerson put it, “I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being.” back|
|2.|| Guermantes Way, Part II back|
|3.|| The Prince, ch. 6 back|
|4.|| http://www.123newyear.com/zodiac-signs/cancer.html back|
|5.|| http://www.iloveindia.com/astrology/sun-signs/cancer/man.html back|