This film makes us ask fundamental questions: what is truth; where is the fairytale? In modern terms: where is the fake news? And what is the difference between them? And it does that in amusing ways. It’s a very good film.
It toys with “true events”—the murderous rampage led by Charlie Manson and his band of followers. But that event which is expected throughout the film is only the background to the film. It is not the true story of those events. Or maybe it is. After all, what is truth anyway?
It tells the entirely fictional story of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) Hollywood stuntman to star Rick Dalton (Leonardo diCaprio) a fading Western movie star and Sharon Tate, (Margot Robbie) a real person who was brutally murdered by the Manson gang. Dalton lives next door to the house shared by Tate and her husband Roman Polanski. That lends an ominous quality to the film right from the start. Given that Quentin Tarantino is the director we always expect (no dread) the worst. Al Pacino plays the role of a casting agent and Kurt Russell as a Hollywood hot shot and Bruce Dern plays an old blind former star who wants to warm his hands one more time at the fire of life with a Manson girl. When Booth shows up at his home where he is sleeping and introduces himself as a stuntman, he retorts, “every man needs a stunt man.” For sure.
Though inspired by actual events nothing is straight-forward in this film. After all truth is murky. To misquote Bob Dylan, reality does not talk it swears. Characters in the film are or are not based on actual characters. What else would you expect about a film based on Hollywood’s golden age that went sensationally down in fire after the murder of Sharon Tate and friends?
But the finale still surprises. There are multiple story lines but all revolve around the world of make believe, and of course, we never believe. No one tells the truth, and no one cares. An 8-year old child star sounds like a middle-aged matron. Actors may or may not be acting. Like the Beatles said, ‘Nothing is real.” Nothing to get hung-up about. It’s all Helter Skelter, reputedly the words in a Beatle song that inspired Charlie Manson. For a while the action moves to the Spahn Ranch, that was also used as movie set, was where the Manson team hung out in dilapidated splendour is the scene. Here we get to meet the Manson clan on their own territory and it is not a pretty sight.
Tate spends an afternoon girlishly watching herself in a recent Dean Martin film. Dalton plays scenes that may or may not be real.
Needless to say, the night of the planned murders do not go according to plan. It is a melee. The Manson gang goes to the wrong house, but they see that Dalton is a worthy candidate for murder too. After all why not, “kill the guys who taught us to kill?” Since we’re in Hollywood that makes sense doesn’t it? To the others it seems like a “great idea.” The night ends up being the blackest of comedies.
Here is a conversation between Cliff and a young Mansonite:
Cliff: “You are real right?”
Teen: “Real as donut.”
Cliff, thinking it is all a joke, asks, “Who are you?”
Teen: “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business.”
That explains it. Or does it?
When all is done, the survivors party on. No one cares about the dead. Would you? After all, nothing is real. Except maybe escapism of Hollywood movies. That is true escapism. True lies.
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah presented a salute to what they called the Salute to the Heroes of the Pandumic. They included clips from various right-wing media pundits, starting with Sean Hannity in which he bombastically delivered a mocking and sarcastic comment, alluding particularly to the suggestion that anyone who takes the coronavirus seriously is a wimp:
“Tonight I am here to report, the sky is absolutely falling, we are all doomed, the end is near, the apocalypse is imminent and you’re all going to die. Or, at least that is what the media mob would like you to think.”
Next up was Rush Limbaugh, who said on February 24, 2020:
“I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold! The hype of this thing as a pandemic, as the Andromeda strain, as the ‘Oh my God if you get it you’re dead.’”
Maybe he will be dead right on this.
The came Pete Hegseth a Fox commentator who said on March 8, 2020:
“This is one of those cases where the more I learn about coronavirus the less concerned I am. It’s a lot of hyperbole.”
Then we heard Lou Dobbs, also from Fox on March 9, 2020:
“The national left wing media playing up fears of the coronavirus”
That was followed by Fox’s Tomi Lahren on March 10, 2020:
“The sky is falling because we have a few dozen cases of Coronavirus on cruise ship. I am far more concerned about stepping on a used heroin needle than I am about getting the coronavirus but maybe that’s just me.”
Of course they had to include Judge Judy (Jeanine Pirro) with her comments on March 7, 2020:
“It’s a virus like the flu. All the talk about coronavirus being more deadly doesn’t reflect reality.’
They also showed Dr. Marc Siegel commenting on Fox News on March 6, 2020 as follows:
“This virus should be compared to the flu because at worst, at worst, the worst case scenario it could be the flu.”
Next came former lawyer turned television pundit, Geraldo Rivera on February 28, 2020:
“The far more deadly, the far more lethal threat right now is not the coronavirus, is the common old flu. Nobody has died yet in the United States as far as we know from this disease.’
Then there was Laura Ingraham also on March 9, 2020,
“The facts are actually pretty reassuring, but you would never know it watching all this stuff. ”
We were also blessed with commentator Jesse Waters on March 3, 2020,
“You know how I really feel about the coronavirus? If I get it I’ll beat it. I’m not afraid of the coronavirus, and no one else should be that afraid either.”
Of course we had to have Matt Schlapp on March 11, 2020:
“It is very, very difficult to contract this virus’.
On March 2, 2020 there was a reassuring comment from another physician, Dr. Drew Pinksy:
“The fatality rate is gonna drop.’
He was followed by Ed Henry on March 10, 2020,
“In it context it is not quite as scary.’
And of course the inimitable Fox commentator, no famous for intelligence, Ainsley Earnhardt on March 13, 2020, who opined as follows:
“It’s the safest time to fly. Everyone I know is flying right now. The terminals are pretty much dead, and then the planes, remember back in the day when you had a seat next to you possibly empty, you could stretch out a little more, its like that on every flight now.”
We also had the benefit of advice from Republican Congressman Devin Nunes on March 15,
“If you’re healthy for you and your family it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant. Likely you can get in easily.”
Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz on March 4, 2020 added a colourful prop for his statement by wearing a gas mask when he mocked concerns about the spread of the virus.
On March 11, 2020, a reporter in the Capital asked Senator James Inhofe who famously called climate change science a hoax and brought unseasonable snow into the Senate to “prove” his point, what precautions he was taking related to Coronavirus he confidently extended his arm and asked the reporter, ‘Wanna shake hands?”
Of course there is the razor sharp mind of the leader of the President’s task force on the coronavirus, Mike Pence, who said on March 10, 2020, saying,
“In our line of work you shake hands. I expect the President to continue to do that and I’ll continue to do it.’
Of course, Pence, unlike some of us, can no doubt rely on divine intervention to protect him. A fine example for us indeed.
Then there was the President’s man Larry Kudlow on February 25, 2020 who said,
“We have contained this. We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight.”
Of course no such salute would be complete without a word from Kelly-Anne “Alternative Facts” Conway who said on March 6, 2020,
“This is being contained. And do you not think it is being contained?’
Then were shown more of Sean Hannity, saying on February 27, 2020,
“Zero people have died in America form the coronavirus. Zero!’
Finally, we were given the benefit of Donald Trump’s words, on February 26, 2020,
“This is a flu. This is like a flu. Its’ going to disappear. It’s like a miracle, one day it’s going to disappear.’
Of course after downplaying it for weeks, and calling the reporting of the virus or the virus itself, a “hoax,” on March 17, 2020 Trump changed his tune,
“I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic. I took it very seriously.’
Even Sean Hannity on March 18, 2020, following Trump one day later said,
“This program has always taken the coronavirus very seriously.’
It takes real chutzpah to lie so brazenly. Both Trump and Hannity have that in abundance.
Are none of them feeling at all guilty or at least embarrassed about having misled the public into minimizing the importance of this pandemic?
I decided when I retired that I wanted to do something. Not work. Not chasing the all mighty dollar. Nothing wrong with that, we all have to do it, but I have done that for nearly 40 years (really more when you include the 7 years of post-secondary school education I had to do in order to qualify for my profession). Of course, given current market tribulations I might have to return to work again.
This next phase of my life was inspired by the English poet John Keats. In particular it was inspired by his famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
He wrote about an old urn that has an image on it showing Dionysian revelries. It showed young lovers in flight and pursuit. That urn freezes a moment in time. It is a moment of time—an instant—forever frozen by the artist’s art, which in turn is celebrated by the art of the poet. It opens like this,
“Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or both”
That bride that Keats refers to is forever pursued; forever uncaught, and hence eternally virgin. The bride never loses her luster. Her beauty lasts forever. Only true beauty can do it. The beauty of artistic achievement is forever. Keats always longed for permanence, but of course in life could never find it. He actually died very young. I think he died at 29 if I remember correctly. Only in art could permanence be found.
Eternity is inexplicable. It mystifies us. Everything of this world is subject to change, decay, and disintegration. Keats wanted more than that, so he lamented this fact but acknowledged the only way out, was art. He found permanence in an image on a Grecian Urn :
“Thou, silent form, dost tease out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
That is what I mean. I think Keats meant beauty in a wide sense. He was not talking only about the beauty of a young woman—though that too. After all there is beauty in old women too. Even old men have a faint streak of it from time to time.
Keats wanted to include the beauty of artistic achievement. That is the beauty that lasts forever, or at least a long time. As close as we can get. A young woman’s beauty turns old. It is still beauty, but it is different it has changed. The beauty of the image on a Grecian Urn remains the same forever unchanged forever avoiding decay.
Now as I enter the time of my degeneration I notice the changes more deeply. Until recently I thought I would be healthy and powerful forever. I believed I would never decay, never diminish. Sadly, I now know clearly that this is not to be. I am not to be. I am draining away. But in my last years, I want to pursue truth and beauty, even though I know I will never catch up with them. Beauty and truth will be forever unravished by me at least. There will be no consummation. Keats urges the lover not to grieve for his lover will never “fade”, because even though the lover will never get to kiss her,
“She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever will thou love, and she be fair!’
Yet the pursuit, I hope, can be filled with grace, and wonder, just like the lover pursuing his bride of silence, forever uncaught, but forever beautiful. I will pursue truth and beauty because that is all I know and all I need to know. It will be part of what Keats called “a mad pursuit.” Yet he also says it is “wild ecstasy.” That’s what I want—wild ecstasy.
Of course the next question is how to do that? How does one pursue truth and beauty in the modern world? There are many roads to truth. Art is one source of both truth and beauty. Keats knew that. Philosophy is also one. Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom through thinking. Reason is the instrument of philosophy. When reason shows the truth, it is beautiful. Music is a source as well. An important one is nature. It is the unedited manuscript of god. Religion can be a source, though often it is a restrictive source of narrow thinking, that leads to falsehood not truth. Then it leads to exclusion, superiority, and hate. And then it ceases to be religion. An expansive religion—one, which connects us to the world, and to each other is a deep source of everything that is true and good and right.
Northrop Frye said that he had carefully arranged his life so that nothing ever happened to him. That gave him time to do what he really wanted; to read and think. What a great goal. To many it seems absurd. But it is not absurd; it is a delight. That is the way to pursue truth and beauty. That includes moral as well intellectual, artistic, musical, truth and beauty. And it’s all beautiful. And its all true.
It is a pleasure to read a novel by Barbara Kingsolver right after reading one by Toni Morrison. Both are outstanding novelists, but they are different from each other. As I have said before, Morrison’s novels are difficult. You really have to work at them, but the rewards for doing are immense. With Kingsolver, reading is effortless. You can breeze through her books, but that does not mean the book is an “easy read.” It is and it isn’t.
I recommend you take things slowly. I am a meanderer. Even when I read, I meander through the book. That means I have to go back to the beginning or somewhere else earlier in the book. With Kingsolver that is also worth the trip.
I recently read her book Unsheltered. It is a story about 2 families more than a century apart with a strange connection. The connection is a ramshackle old house in Vineland New Jersey that is about to fall apart and crumble into oblivion because of an unsound foundation. It just takes a century or more to do that. Is she trying to say something about America?
The book is about more than that however. It is about a search for truth and the importance of summoning the courage to speak that truth. The Thatchers are the first of the families to occupy the house. They do so in the late 19th century. Thatcher Greenwood is a science teacher at school and “he felt his soul touched by light.” Thatcher thought, “an active mind should be fed the meat of the world…wonderments, of any kind that compel her. Things that are real.” He saw “the world divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners.” Sadly, his lovely wife is on the side of sweetness while he is searching for truth and that gets him into trouble. The truth is not always sweet, no matter how we wish it were.
The second family to occupy the house has done everything right but is assailed by bad luck. It is led—well sort of led—by the matriarch Willa Knox a magazine journalist out of work because the magazine has folded. Similarly her husband, Iano is a lecturer at a small college that has also folded. This family is floundering in its dubious shelter about to collapse. But the family has a steady and surprising rock, the daughter Tig, fittingly named after a Greek tragedy, Antigone, but amazingly resilient. Her name means “worthy of her parents” and that she is. She is the unlikely solid foundation of the novel.
Thatcher is a teacher who is enthralled with the new ideas of Charles Darwin but is forbidden by his principal from teaching them. How can he get in trouble by seeking and speaking the truth? He will lose his job if he does not renounce those ideas. Thatcher knows “we are often persuaded that what is convenient is also right.” He also knows that this is the enemy of truth seeking. As Nietzsche said, desire is the enemy of truth.
Thatcher knows that to his students “Science was a bewilderment they approached with fixed expressions of disbelief, the young ladies adding to this sulkiness owned by their gender, peering up at teacher from under an eave of curled fringe.” How can he abandon his charges?
He is trying to get his students to see what is not visible. It must be inferred. His students are dubious. He holds up a bottle that contains a gas, but his students are sceptical because they can’t see it. Yet one male student admits that we can’t see it “but we smell it sure. When my pa passes gas you’ll know in the next room. Specially if he’s been at the liver and onions.” This wisdom came from Willis Chester who looked startled when his classmates burst into laughter.” While Chester is wise, his Principal, Mr. Cutler, is not and Thatcher must deal with that. He knows it is a horrible task. “Thatcher wondered what task could be more wearisome than shoring up a stupid man’s confidence in his own wisdom?”
Thatcher wants to treat his students to the wonders of the scientific method. “We study unseen particles by observing their effects. Discovery comes from the small increments of weight and measurement we call data, providing answers to questions we have carefully framed.”
The poor students have a brilliant teacher saddled with a dead-beat Principal Mr.Cutler who gets his science from the Bible. “Experiments alarm him. Modern scientific theory enrages him, discussion of Darwin particularly, but not only this. The suggestion of taking students outdoors to study nature, he treats as blasphemy.” Reminding me of the current President of the United States, Cutler, “reads nothing. It might interfere with his knowledge of the universe.” Cutler instead holds, “to answer all his questions, using scripture bent back on itself like a fish hook.”
Thatcher is aided by his neighbour, a brilliant scientist, Mary Treat, who explains that humans are often blinded by fear of the new ideas. “A humanity derived from the plain stuff of earth frightens them even more…Presumptions of a lifetime are perilous things to overturn.” Mary gives Thatcher a very difficult task: “Your charge is to lead them out of doors to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it. To stand in the clear light of day, you once said, unsheltered.”
It is not easy to stand up to a mob. Even a mob dressed in proper clothes like attendees at a school debate. With clear echoing of modern events, where another mob in another place, shouted in front of a modern demagogue, Thatcher says,
“I wonder what service is possible, Mary. When half the world, with no understanding of Darwin at all, will rally around whoever calls him a criminal and wants him hanged.
She said nothing to this. But it was no exaggeration: the crude effigy dangling from a noose, the monkey’s tail pinned to the stuffed trousers, the murderous crowd chanting lock him up! The provocateur was an itinerant preacher in a threadbare rabat and pieces of an infantryman’s uniform, boots, and greatcoat he must have pulled from a dead soldier. Thatcher had stood astonished, watching violence in its own bloody birth canal.”
To this Mary replies, again echoing modern events, “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.” Thatcher makes the scary reply, “If that is our nature, then nature is madness. These are more dangerous times than we ever have known.”
Thatcher’s friend, Carruth, also seeks the truth and decides to tell it, no matter what the consequences. Again, as in modern times, Carruth wonders how people can be bamboozled by demagogues against their own interest. How is that possible? Thatcher explains, “They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.” Carruth nodded thoughtfully, “A delicate business, telling the truth.”
Cutler, Thatcher’s superior at the school, knows nothing of Darwin. Nor does he want to discuss the scientific method of searching for the truth. “His brand of science is an edifice built of scriptures and saints.” It is a strange science. One willing to convict Thatcher of being a veritable witch entirely without evidence. Such men fear the truth. “Men like him dread new views, for fear they’ll set aside their hard-earned credentials and begin their climb again at the bottom rung.” He compares these men to persecuted Darwin: “Darwin explains geographic distribution with beautiful simplicity, compared with the buttresses and gargoyles of Cutler’s angel bridges. His strange science is a falling house. If I train young eyes to be observant, they will see cracks in his construction of the universe.” Cutler’s “science” is as shaky as Thatcher’s house.
Cutler “speaks to those who want nothing new. And that is most people nowadays. They hunger for any crumb of explanation that sustains their old philosophies.’ Thatcher thought of the riot he’d seen in the Boston square, the scarecrow Darwin hanging from a lamppost, the crowd terrified witless at the prospect of shedding comfortable beliefs and accepting new ones…People want comfort.” Yes people want shelter. Being unsheltered is scary.
But I have been neglecting the modern family. They too face being unsheltered, and no one finds this more challenging than Willa the matriarch. Her husband seems oblivious to the danger. Her son is off chasing money. But her daughter, Tig, who never got anything right, so it seemed, finds she can deal with it. She is resilient.
In fact Tig is critical of Willa and her father. They kept searching for the security of tenure, by moving from town to town, and in the end when he finally got tenure, it dissolved in his hands. As Tig says, “You made such a big deal about security that you sacrificed us any long-term community.” Now her mother is worrying about a shaky house when the world as they know it is dissolving. Here is part of their conversation:
“Mom. The permafrost is melting. Millions of acres of it.”
Willa tried to see a connection. “And I’m just worried about my house. That’s your point?”
Tig shook her head. “It’s so scary. It’s going to be fire and rain, Mom. Storms we can’t deal with, so many people homeless. Not just homeless but placeless. Cities go underwater and then what? You can’t shelter in place anymore, when there isn’t any place.”
Willa tucked her hands between her knees and declined to believe those things.”
Willa desired a different truth. So Tig like Thatcher more than a century earlier has to deliver the bad news—truth in other words—to people who don’t want to hear it. They just decline to believe it. The world is collapsing but people just don’t want to hear about it. They want to worry about their house without a foundation, when all of civilization has no sound foundation.
Willa can’t see changing their lifestyle. She tells Tig, “I’m human, Tig. We live, we consume. I think that’s just how we have to be.” To this resignation to collapse Tig replies, “Of course you think that. When everybody around you thinks the same way, you can’t even see what you’re believing in.”
Tig envisions the world to come. So different than the world of her mother. Her mother wanted her kids to have more than her. A natural motherly reaction. Are we parents not all like that? But the world has changed and the old one is not coming back. Someone has to face that truth. People seek comfort and instead get uncomfortable truths. Dusty, Willa’s grandson won’t have the same life his grand mother had. He will have to deal with it.
As Tig says to Willa,
“He’ll have to learn to be happy with what he’s got. He doesn’t’ get a choice. He got born in the historical moment of no more free lunch. Friends will probably count more than money, because wanting too much stuff is going to be toxic. We didn’t’ ask for this, it’s just what we got. ”
“Thou shalt not want.”
Something like that. Waste not, want not.”
But Willa cannot face this truth from her daughter. It is not the truth she wants.
“…You’re offering me this Mad Max scenario of pirates taking everything they can grab, and I just can’t accept it. It’s to horrifying.”
“Seriously Mom? It’s here. One percent of the brotherhood has their hands on most of the bread. They own the country, their god is the free market, and most people are so unhorrified they won’t even question the system. If it makes a profit, that’s the definition of good. If it grows, you have to stand back and let it. The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.”
Only Tig in her family can face this ugly truth. Like Thatcher earlier. In a court of law, of all places, he finds another truth that the people of Vineland cannot face—that their lord and master, killed a man without justification. The jury does not want to face that truth. That truth is also too ugly for them. It is too uncomfortable.
At last Thatcher sees light and air coming into the court when a court reporter lifts the window. This was a “heaven sent vision.” Thatcher realizes he cannot say more. He has done his bit to deliver truth:
“He was finished with declaring himself to a public without ears to hear his language. Without shelter, we stand in daylight, she’d insisted once, and he had thought only of death. Simple man. He might sleep in a bed of cactus thorns or a tree under the stars, but he could choose the company he kept and it would not be this fearful, self-interested mob shut up in airless rooms. They would huddle in their artifice of safety, their heaven would collapse. His would be the forthright march through the downfall.”
So both owners of the house fail to bring the truth to people who can hear. But—perhaps—not all is hopeless. There is some slim hope. Ilana Masad, commentator on National Public Radio reviewing the book may have got it right by saying, “Kingsolver doesn’t give us solutions, but she reminds us to take comfort in one another when we can, and that hope is necessary even when all seems lost.”
I spent about 45 minutes listening to a French philosopher courtesy of the CBC radio app. The philosopher was Bernard-Henri Lévy. I had downloaded an interview with him by Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current. I had also heard him recently on Real Time with Bill Maher.
Lévy is a is a French public intellectual, philosopher, media personality and author. In Europe many just call him BHL because he is so well known. In France philosophers and artists can be rock stars. I love France! Lévy was one of the leaders of the a group started in 1976 known as “Nouveaux Philosophes” no doubt after the famous wines. According to The Boston Globe he is “perhaps the most prominent intellectual in France today.” Famously he also said, “I am more afraid of Puritans than those who admit the weakness of the flesh.”
Sometimes we just need a French philosopher to set things right. For me, basking in the hot sun, listening to CBC radio all the way from Arizona, was one of those days. He is currently flogging his book The Empire and the 5 Kings. Based on this interview I think it would be worth a read. Being a cheap Mennonite I will wait for the paperback of course.
Apparently the 5 kings of the title of the book are 5 countries that he calls “totalitarian,” namely, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, and Turkey. I think the “empire” he refers to is the United States, since Lévy lamented the fact that the US was pulling out of Europe, leaving the way open, he believes, for the 5 dictators. He admitted that the US as an empire was far from perfect, but it was much better than the 5 kings that will inevitably take its place. He may have a point.
Lévy said that the 5 Kings (I would add Trump here) have declared war on truth. He reminded us what Joseph Goebbels the Nazi Minister of Propaganda said, “I will decide who is a Jew. I will decide what is truth.” This is not unlike Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark when he talked about the War in Iraq. Rumsfeld was George W. Bush’s Mininster of Defence who said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” This is the madness of some political political leaders and Lévy wants to expose it.
Lévy is also critical of the Internet. He once said, “There is no better instrument for incubating idiocy than the Internet. Nowhere is this more clear than in the United States.
In the interview Lévy passionately set out his critique of contemporary political life and his philosophy: “There is a battle between wisdom and idiocy; between the courage of moderation and the cowardice of extremism, between the respect of art, and beauty, and intelligence and the idea that all these values have to be torn to pieces.” Bernard-Henri Lévy also said, “Populism is a new word for fascism. Lévy said that when he was young, in 1968, he and his friends were fighting for all the people to have access to beauty, wisdom, and truth and now the populists, or fascists, want to destroy that. When they want to eradicate the elites, they also want to rid the world of truth and beauty. That is what he is fighting against, and that is why I like him so much.
The court of public opinion does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The court of public opinion makes its own evidentiary rules. In the court of public opinion we can consider hearsay, we can hear opinion evidence given by non-experts, we can accept leading questions, and can violate all kinds of other valuable rules of evidence. But all of us sitting in judgement in the court of public opinion should learn from the courts of law. They have some good ideas.
In the court of public opinion we should remember to listen to both sides. We should exclude dubious evidence. We should reject specious arguments. We should make our decisions based on the best evidence we can muster. We should not rely on second hand stories. We should be on guard against bias. We should keep an open mind. We should not base opinions on junk science. We should cross-examine those who testify to us (if we can). We should employ reason in weighing the evidence, rather than faith, emotion, feelings, or instincts. We should not guess or leap to conclusions. We should be diligent. We should do all these things (and more) if we are actually trying to discern the truth. We should try our best to be ideal observers.
Of course if we just want to mouth off none of this is necessary.
I am still struggling with the concept of moral humility–an elusive but important goal.
A good friend of mine, much smarter than me, told me that he does not feel he can do more than ask gentle questions. He is very effective at avoiding excessive arrogance. He practices moral humility. I aim to move in that direction.
That does not mean I should be silent. I think that if we see someone acting badly, particularly if that person is in power, we should speak. We should do that respectfully, but we may and should do that. I am trying to teach myself to criticize gently, without pontificating. That is not easy.
Today I learned something valuable for a fellow walker in our walking club. He is a strong Christian—even an evangelical Christian I would guess—and said he had learned something valuable recently. He said when talking to someone he never tried to convert the other person. Rather, he said, “I ask questions,” he said, “all I want to do is leave a stone in the other person’s shoe”.
I know that I have been pontificating too much. For example, I have been very critical of capitalism. I have never denied that capitalism has done a lot of good. It has pulled hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty into poverty. That is a momentous achievement. We need to do even better, but that is not nothing. It is a lot. I doubt that I have converted anyone.
Yet that does not mean we must give capitalism a free pass. We cannot allow capitalists free rein to destroy life on the planet as sometimes they seem bent on doing. We must criticize, but do so with humility always remembering that we mightbe wrong. Recall the uncertainty principle. Act as if we might be wrong.
As the Beatles said, “Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.”
Like the Republic of Imagination that I read last year, this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran that I read this year in Arizona, was brilliant. Both are written by Azar Nafisi. This one is an odd little book. It is written by a young Iranian professor of English literature who now teaches at an American University, but tells us about her first years as a professor in Iran during and after the time of the Iranian Revolution. She started sort of a book club at her home when she felt suffocated by the oppressive regime while teaching in the University of Tehran. She went home to escape and took some of her female students with her. The professor and her students rebelled. They rebelled not with guns, bombs or conspiracies. They rebelled by reading American and English literature! In their hands that was a revolutionary activity.
All of the women lived in a totalitarian society where officials were wary of the Professor but didn’t really know what to do about her. Some of them learned how to resist. Some of them suffered serious consequences, but that is not really what the book is about. The book is about literature as rebellion.
Nafisi denied that a book was in the ordinary sense moral. She did say this, “it can be called moral when it shakes us out of our stupor and makes us confront the absolutes we believe in.”
One of the most amazing scenes in the book is when her class at the University decides to put the book The Great Gatsbyon trial. Her students play the roles. The prosecutor is a strict straight-laced Muslim regime supporter. The defense counsel is one of her more radical female students from her book club. It is a remarkable achievement. According to Nafisi, “a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals , and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.” It is a revolt against moral hubris in favor of what I have come to call moral humility or restraint.
The Iranian officials tried to prescribe what all the people should do, how they worship, how they love, what they read, and what they think. It tried to restrain them totally. The women became revolutionaries not by any overtly political acts, but only by readingand thinking. None of them fired a gun. Yet, the women learned how literature can defeat ideology. This is what Nafisi in her second book called “the Republic of Imagination.” Nafisi sees literature as revolutionary force opening the mind to possibilities. Imagine please, Jane Austen as a revolutionary!
Its books like this we should read when we are forced to confront authoritarianism. Times like now.
Moral humility is born out of uncertainty. Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher was inspired by John Locke. Locke always emphasized that all knowledge is uncertain. People should always take into consideration that they might be wrong. This should be remembered whenever we deal with others who have different opinions from us. This leads directly to tolerance in practice. Live and let live. Reject fanaticism in favour of moderation.
Russel called this the liberal outlook. it lies not in any particular beliefs but rather in how they are held. Instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively with the understanding at all times that new evidence may show we were mistaken and will then abandon our beliefs. This is the opposite of how theologians hold beliefs.
Critical thinking is not utopian. It adopts instead what I have called the Russell principle, after Bertrand Russell. He said, “it is wrong to inflict a certain harm to achieve a dubious good.The more uncertain the future goal one is trying to achieve, the less the harm one must employ to obtain it.” It might be permitted to inflict violence to avoid a certain greater harm, but it makes no sense to inflict a certain harm to avoid an uncertain future harm unless that future harm is much, much worse than the means. This always requires a rational analysis of the probabilities. The more dubious the future goal the more gentle must be the means employed to obtain it. The problem with many modern revolutionary utopians is that often they inflict a certain substantial present harm to achieve not just a dubious future goal, but an impossible goal!
I prefer modest goals and modest means. Many believe such views, especially in religion or politics, is too tame. They prefer missionary zeal. I don’t. I prefer moral humility.
I know moral humility is something I have to learn. I wish I had more of it. often it is too easy to be judgemental. From my blogging post it is too easy to pontificate. High horses are difficult to get off with grace.
This is what a friend recently posted on my Facebook page in response to one of my epistles, “Some years ago, while working through some structured Spiritual Exercises, I came to the awareness that there is so much depravity in me… that anyone else’s shortcomings were just not properly on my agenda.” (I have changed his words slightly. I think this was a mild rebuke of me. And I appreciate it. I will tell you why.
I hate to use the defence that Trump’s new lawyer Rudy Giuliani recently used when he basically admitted his client was guilty of all charges. Not the best defence for a lawyer to use. Yet that is exactly my defence. I agree with this subtle charge. Not only is this right it is profound. I should look at my own shortcomings before looking at those of others. After alI have plenty to go around. It is too easy to be judgmental. Remember Omer Simpson’s prayer, “Please God let me go to church regularly so I can learn to be more judgmental.”
Moral humility requires that we abandon the search for perfection and accept the limitations of the human. As has often been said, but not often enough, perfection is the enemy of the good.
I think one of the most profound passages in the Bible is Micah 6:8 which says, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”Right now I want to emphasize “humbly”, though the other two are important too.I really need more humility and I need it badly.
I have been pontificating too much. That does not mean I won’t criticize others when I see something is wrong in my opinion. I think that would be abdication. After all I think we should point out important errors others are making, particularly if they are powerful people. We all benefit from criticism. But I must always remember that it is just my opinion. I have not found absolute truth. I must remember my own flaws first before pointing a finger at others. If you know absolute truth how can you be humble? If you don’t you mustbe humble.
But I wil continue to speak. I just hope more wisely.