Thursday, May 19, 2011

The telltale sign of an ideologue

I'm after a general point, but I'll start with an example. Take someone who constantly criticizes Barack Obama. Economic proposals, immigration policy, Supreme Court nominees: one failure after another.  Especially lacking, our critic tells us, was his approach to the "war on terrorism." If Obama weren't such a professorial wimp, he'd do more to get Bin Laden. Or so our critic repeatedly suggests, in conversation and a barrage of forwarded e-mails.

But then, the world learns that Barack launched and supervised a plan that issued in Osama's death. For two weeks, the e-mails stop. Our critic is silent.

What should we call such a critic—that is, one who constantly speaks against a person or cause, but then says nothing when the person or cause achieves something that is worthy by the critic's own standards? I suggest the "critic-gone-silent."

The critic-gone-silent has a close cousin. Call him the "booster-gone-silent." For months and years, we can count on our booster to tell us (for example) just how wonderful the Catholic Church is. Its liturgy is incomparable, its saints inspiring, its culture unsurpassed, its theology the best. It puts other expressions of Christian faith to shame.

But then, news of the latest scandal breaks. The deeds are unspeakable, the cover-up deplorable. For two weeks, we hear nothing about the Church. Our booster is silent.

In such cases, our commentator (whether critic or booster) exposes his character less by what he says, than by what he does not say, and (perhaps most importantly) when he does not say it. What shows him to be an inveterate ideologue, indeed a fanatic, is precisely his silence. Our critic-gone-silent is not interested in judging accurately when Obama falls short, and when he gets something right. Our booster-gone-silent does not care about honestly assessing the glories of the Catholic Church (and they are many) and weighing them against its failures (and they are many). Whether critic or booster, the silence of each, and particularly its timing, is no less revealing than anything said.

Given the sheer number of voices that compete for our attention, I have a modest proposal. Simply ignore, or at least do not prioritize, anyone whose timed silence reveals him to be an ideologue or fanatic. Rather than waste time on somebody who cannot say anything positive about Obama, why not prefer the critic who points out Obama's errors when necessary, but is unafraid to give him credit when he deserves it? If you want truthful information about the Catholic Church, should you really listen to an apologist whose primary interest lies in convincing you to join the Church? Someone who speaks learnedly about the Church's virtues, but suddenly falls silent when the latest scandal breaks, is a propagandist, not to be taken seriously about matters ecclesial.

My examples are drawn from religion and politics. (N.B. I might just as easily have picked on fanatical anti-Republicans and rabid secularists.) But the principle extends well beyond these domains. To take an example from my own field: once I spoke to a prominent academic who expressed a strong opinion on a recent book about Heidegger. After hearing my interlocutor's criticisms, I said, "That's very persuasive." (It was, in fact.) "But what of the book's good points?" He looked at me as though I had said something quite unreasonable. I pressed: "I happen to have read another book by this author. Not everything he does is wrong, I'm sure. Please tell me one good thing about the book." His spoken reply: "The typeface." His substantive reply: silence.

The point has wide application. Perhaps it can be formulated as a general rule: Invariable silence about the defects of a cause that one treasures, as well as persistent silence about the good points of a cause that one detests, are telltale signs of ideology. By ideology, I mean a mode of chatter that might entertain us now and then, perhaps even instruct us, but that we should not confuse with actual thinking. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Down with "utilize"!

Some years ago, George Orwell took aim at the needless multiplication of syllables. His essay on the topic, "Politics and the English Language", is part diagnosis and part cure.  "Silly words and expressions have often disappeared," he writes, "not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority."

One silly word that Orwell mentions, under the heading "pretentious diction," is "utilize."  In his spirit, I propose its total elimination.  I've noticed that "utilize" rarely occurs in isolation; it almost always precedes or follows other gobbledygook.  Asked why his company is more profitable than the competition, a mid-level manager caught in the grip of "utilize" might say:

"We utilize results-driven methodologies" (13 syllables). 

Were the same person to speak English, he would say:

"We do what works" (4 syllables).

Does "utilize" ever accomplish anything that "use" does not, other than tripling the syllable count? If it did, a case could be made for its preservation. But I'm hard pressed to think of a single example where "use" would not do just as well as "utilize."  And I can think of instances where substituting "utilize" for "use" leads to nonsense: "Excuse me, I have to utilize the bathroom."

Many occurrences of "utilize" are not so obviously silly.  But they do, I think, illustrate Orwell's point about the decadence of our language.

Why worry about such things?  Rather than reproduce Orwell's analysis, I will simply quote a positive benefit that he mentions: "If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.  You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself."  

I've picked on "utilize."  What other words or phrases strike you as prime candidates for elimination?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Aristotle, Montaigne, and Friendship: A Piano Lesson

It is always great fun (for me, anyway) to teach Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to first-year students. It contains a deceptively simple recipe for rearing children, or reforming oneself. One does not follow a list of rules; rather, one becomes the sort of person for whom the rules are no longer necessary. The virtous avoid injustice not out of fear of punishment, but out of horror of dishonor. They refrain from drinking too much not with an eye to law enforcement or the waistline, but because the thought of over-indulgence strikes them as disgusting. It is not difficult, once one has achieved these heights, to be good. It is a pleasant, joyful, noble life.

How does one achieve such a life? This is the good part: you simply thoughtfully imitate those who are already there. You confront a fear, refrain from manipulating your colleagues and friends, give generously even when you have needs of your own. But there are some painful caveats. Among them is this: the way that you acquire vice is the same as the way that you acquire virtue. In other words, if you become excellent by behaving well, you become morally lost by behaving badly.

And so it is with your fingers.

Suppose you are learning to play the piano. You attempt to play Vivaldi’s "Spring"—and since you are just learning, you follow dutifully the fingering markings placed above some of the notes. They tell you that after you play 3 (the middle finger) of your left hand, all you have to do next is place the 2 (index) on the key next to the one that you just played. But 1 (the thumb) will have none of it. The thumb remembers the piece you were practicing last week, or the scale that you used to warm up, where it pulled that neat trick in which it slides gracefully under those impertinent fingers and catches a key behind. It wants to move.

Unfortunately, when it moves, number 2 is no longer in place to make the easy move to the next key. You fumble and mess up—and play on. The next time, the thumb’s presumption has not been corrected, and so it tries again to move. The next time too. Congratulations. You have now engraved in your hand the memory of how not to play the piece.

When one of your fingers chooses to rebel in this manner, the punishment must be swift and proportionate. A mediocre, sloppy performance of a piece will remain mediocre and sloppy as long as you continue to play it through over and over again. In fact—such a method is an excellent way to train yourself to play the piece very badly indeed. Your fingers, like the soul, develop habit in resemblance to action. The only way to escape is through slow, precise, and dedicated attention to the action that has become difficult.

Now we come across another problem: when you first begin to play a piece of any complexity whatsoever, the whole thing is difficult. Here, the above corrective technique will not work. You cannot stop at every measure and learn it by itself. Or I cannot, at least. Besides the profound tediousness of such a procedure, it ensures that you will never learn to connect the measures to one another.

The trick is to know when one has played the piece through enough times to discern where the genuine difficulties are. Do you see how delicate this will be? Playing through the rough places too many times will train you in the habit of playing them badly. Stopping at every moment where the piece becomes difficult will train you to play haltingly and hate the piece. And in my experience, there is no predicting when you will reach the horizon between one ocean and the other.

If it is this difficult to identify the problems in a piece of music, consider how much more difficult it must be to find the problems in that infinitely more complicated instrument—the human soul. Its mysteries have no notation, and we have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to look at the sheet music at all.

Here, Montaigne insists, is why we need friends—of the right sort. These are not—as we may be tempted to think—those who insist that our most feeble, awkward efforts are dulcet, lilting tones. They are rather those who can tell us where our faults lie. He identifies as a crucial disadvantage of greatness the lack of fellows who are willing to challenge a ruler. This lamentable condition does not really honor the ruler; it insults and stultifies him. By yielding every point to those in power over us, “we confirm and authorize the defects and vices they have.”

It is no accident, I think, that Montaigne places this essay before “Of the art of discussion,” wherein he describes an excellent friend as one willing to oppose and contradict—“a strong, manly fellowship and familiarity, a friendship that delights in the sharpness and vigor of its intercourse, as does love in bites and scratches that draw blood.” “It is not vigorous and generous enough if it is not quarrelsome, if it is civilized and artful, if it fears knocks and moves without constraint.”

In action, as in music, it is far too easy to play the notes one has always played, however discordant the result. We need other ears to hear us, and to remind us that we are capable of more. I suspect Montaigne is right that harmony in life requires friendship open to the contrast of dissonance.

One final, important note: I am not saying that this is why I am here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

New Contributor to ES!

I am happy to announce that my wife, Dr. Margaret Watkins of Saint Vincent College, has formally applied for the position of co-contributor to this blog.  In arguing her suitability for the position, Dr. Watkins claims to have found "Elastic Steel" while searching online for her dean for some gossip about her local professional team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I suspect that Professor Watkins has a bridge to sell me too.  In fact, several of them, as you know if you've ever visited Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh is to bridges as Paris is to lights.  'Tis the City of Bridges.

Seriously, I'm delighted that Margaret will be contributing to the blog!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Smile: Dante, C.S. Lewis, Roxy Music

Three connected moments from Dante's Paradiso: (1) Beatrice warns Dante not to make an idol out of her beauty: "My eyes are not the only Paradise," she says in Canto 18 with a smile; (2) Three cantos later, she stops smiling, lest Dante find himself converted to ashes; (3) Beatrice smiles again.  What's happened to make this possible?  The triumph of Christ, as told by Canto 23.  Now Dante can bear the smile.

What smile is this?  Il santo riso, Dante says, the "holy smile."  True holiness and the joy expressed by a smile—these things somehow belong together.  In the holy smile they become one.  Were I a founding type, I would be tempted to found "The Church of the Holy Smile."  (Or so I told my students, as if they needed further grounds for suspecting that their instructor might be slightly mad.)

"The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance," says C.S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms.  You can smile without dancing, but you can't dance without a smile.  As David danced, some hint of the holy smile crossed his face.  Or so I should think. 

Another splendid expression of the delight of which Lewis speaks: the last four minutes or so of Roxy Music's 1973 "Psalm."  Some say the song goes on too long.  But I think it's a great build-up, the perfect closer of Stranded's first side.  Just let yourself get into it, as you wonder whether he's ironic, serious, or both.  Though I would ultimately recommend the studio version, featuring the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, the live version (posted below) is quite worthy.

When Bryan Ferry picks up that harmonica at 4:42, you too may want to smile.  Or dance.  Or read the Psalms.  Or all three.

Am I now a blogger? 'Fraid so.

Thinking of myself as a "blogger" is quite strange.  There's no small part of me that wants to say, "I'm not a blogger, I just happen to have started a blog, in order to ..." (insert whatever dubious justification comes to mind).  But surely the technical definition of "blogger" is "one who or that which blogs."  And I am blogging.  So I suppose I should just admit it.  I'm a blogger.

There.  That felt better.

It's natural to wonder, "Which audience am I writing for?"  But that raises a prior question ("raises," not "begs"—there is a difference!): "Is there an audience at all?"  That one does write, or should write, for an audience is not self-evident.  Once I fancied that writing should be a kind of pure self-expression, not necessarily "for" any audience.  Hearing a lecture by Bernard Williams when I was in graduate school persuaded me otherwise.  Ridiculing the concept of "pure enquiry," he suggested that philosophers who write are well advised to examine their motives for writing, and to direct their work to a specific audience.  Is the principle universal?  His answer, delivered in that Oxbridge accent that is really hard to argue with: "Ninety percent of those who say ‘I just have to write’ are stupid.  But more than 0% of them are geniuses."

My dissertation director once said: "We write for our friends."  I'm not sure I can do better than that.  At any rate, I suppose that as a blogger (I said it!), I am writing for my friends.  And myself.

Not every entry, I promise, will be a reflection on the act of blogging.  It's just something I've got to get out of my system.  I suppose I could imagine a blog about blogging.  But that would be a meta-blog.  While I'm doubtless some sort of metaphysician, to the very end, I simply can't handle being a meta-blogger.