Why Are We Not Smarter Now?

I recently read Candide by Voltaire.  I will add my voice to the many over the years that have deemed it a classic.  I think I would even say it is one of my favorite books I have read.  If you were to tell someone to read a book that was written by a French intellectual in the 1700’s, many would imagine something dense and challenging.  However, despite the amazing wealth of ideas in the book, it is direct, accessible, funny, and full of truths that still resonate in the modern day.  I almost felt in certain ways that I was reading a precursor to Carlin or Vonnegut, people that are able to speak truth to power in very direct and clear way, while making you laugh out loud at things you shouldn’t be laughing at.

I was a history major at WVU for several years, before finally graduating with an American Studies degree from Penn State.  One of the things in history that always comes up is trying to justify or condemn someone for what they did based upon the times that they live in.  “Well so and so owned slaves, but you have to understand the times that they lived in.”  I think something like that is only completely true if you know how far thought had progressed in certain societies.  If slavery or some other evil is accepted by almost everyone, then you might not be able to judge someone if the light of truth hadn’t been shown on that particular evil yet.  On the other side, if people knew something was evil, or unethical, than you can judge those people in their own time.

Reading Voltaire makes me think that the argument, you have to understand the times, doesn’t hold water as much as I thought.  Voltaire satirizes almost all of the evils of his time and ours:  Violence over religion, colonialism, exploiting other humans for profit, violence against women, war, and on and on.  The book was written in 1759, before the United States even existed, yet there is a passage where he points out how absurd it is to treat those of another race cruelly, especially in the name of God and country.  He is constantly satirizing different religious sects for fighting with each other over beliefs.

The book basically follows the title character, a well meaning but naive man from Germany who is told by a court philosopher that all is for the best, that all is part of some natural order.  When Candide gets kicked out of the castle he is living in, for being with a woman that he shouldn’t be, his story becomes a downward spiral of the tragic and comic as one bad thing happens after another.  The language is very direct and simple, but the amount of terrible deeds listed almost becomes poetic in its scope.  It certainly is one of those works where things are so terrible it goes through the looking glass, where the awful becomes funny as a result of perceived absurdity.  The book holds a mirror up to the human race, asking the question, almost screaming, “What are you doing?!!!”

The forward to the book makes the case that above all, Voltaire was against superstition.  It was superstition, belief in things that have no basis in nature, that is man’s biggest folly.  He understood the cruelty that humans could do to one another through created orders like religion and nation states.

Although Voltaire doesn’t have any answers, he does have a direction by the end of the book that at least points towards ways in which humans could lead lives worth living.  Although this is a book largely of darkness, even if hilariously conveyed, this is not a book completely without light.

Although the world has progressed in certain ways since the time of Voltaire, many of these problems are still with us.  I couldn’t help but ask myself several questions:  How did he have such a clear view of the world before modern science and so much other knowledge existed?  If he had such a clear view of the world of the world, why were so many others in his time so lost in the dark?  If he had such a clear view of the world in 1759, why is it that so many of these problems still persist?  How is it that someone writing in the 1700’s could see the world, when so many people, SO MANY PEOPLE, of right now are so lost in the woods?  Why do so many idiocies associated with religion and superstition still exist, if he knew so much then and we have gained so much knowledge since his time?

Who knows such things…

Nixon’s Vietnam Treason

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Nixon’s Vietnam Treason

It seems that is confirmed, by George Will and other sources, that Nixon committed an act of Treason concerning the Vietnam War.  During his first election he contacted the leaders of South Vietnam, when he was still a private citizen, and sabotaged peace talks to make his election chances more favorable.  That is the simple version.  Maybe this was really big news and I missed it somehow, as Will’s article came out last year.  But if not, why wasn’t this much bigger news?  We spend weeks on crashed planes, but not weeks on elected Presidents who have committed treason?  I realize Nixon has been dead awhile, but this seems the kind of thing that society could learn a lot from.

W., House of Cards, Deadwood, and Reflections On the Illusions of Power

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The other night I watched Oliver Stone’s W. for the first time since it was in theaters, his film about George W. Bush.  There is that old saying that comedy is tragedy plus time.  The farther we drift from those years the more they seem like some kind of strange absurd comedy.  (And yes I am fully aware of the real tragedies that were part of those times.)  Like when you study the horrors of medieval times they almost appear like a Monty Python comedy.  I think people will look back on that point in our history with disbelief.  How did we knowingly choose to put a man like that in charge for two terms?  Why did we invade a country that posed no threat to us?  It was baffling then to many and even more so now.

If you lived through those years the movie might seem too light for what actually went on.  However, if you view it in a detached way, as someone looking back who didn’t live through them would, I think it emotionally reflects how those times will be viewed.

I’ve also, as stated, been watching House of Cards lately.  Given some of the problems with the third season, I still think it possesses interesting ideas.  Combined with watching W. is the idea that our leaders our just people, no different from us.  They may have better luck, family ties, or ambition, but at the end of the day they are humans.  It is only ritual and stage craft that gives them their power.  We are all part of a play.  The power they possess is only in direct accordance with how much power we believe that they have.  In the show Deadwood there is the idea that history is, “a lie agreed upon.”  There are rules and traditions that create the perception of order and therefore create order itself.  It is the belief in these fictitious sets of principles that holds it all together.

To close, I quote Twin Peaks:  “We live inside a dream.”

My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Native American History

The recent announcement that Buffy Sainte-Marie will be opening for Morrissey has got me pulling out her records again.  (That is a concert I would die to see!)  I just became aware of the above song, My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying, a song that tells the history of the United States from a Native American perspective.  I find it inspiring that a small Native American girl in a cotton dress had the courage to stand up and sing this song in the 60’s.  You won’t find many large macho males with the courage to do something like that today when, although their are miles and miles to go, things are somewhat better.  I have read a lot of history dealing with Native Americans.  While it is true that no song, however brilliant, can communicate the full complexity of that history, the lyrics of this song ring true to my understanding of that history.

Now that your big eyes have finally opened
Now that you’re wondering how must they feel
Meaning them that you’ve chased across
America’s movie screens

Now that you’re wondering how can it be real
That the ones you’ve called colorful, noble and proud
In your school propaganda, they starve in their splendor
You’ve asked for my comment, I simply will render

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Now that the long houses breed superstition
You force us to send our toddlers away
To your schools where they’re taught
To despise their traditions

You forbid them their languages, then further say
That American history really began
When Columbus set sail out of Europe
Then stress that the nation of leeches that conquered this land
Are the biggest and bravest and boldest and best

And yet where in your history books is the tale
Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth
Of the preachers who lied, how the Bill of Rights failed

How a nation of patriots returned to their earth
And where will it tell of the Liberty Bell
As it rang with a thud o’er Kinzua mud
And of brave Uncle Sam in Alaska this year

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Hear how the bargain was made for the West
With her shivering children in zero degrees
Blankets for your land, so the treaties attest
Oh well, blankets for land is a bargain indeed

And the blankets were those Uncle Sam had collected
From smallpox-diseased dying soldiers that day
And the tribes were wiped out and the history books censored
A hundred years of your statesmen have felt
It’s better this way

And yet a few of the conquered have somehow survived
Their blood runs the redder though genes have paled
From the Gran Canyon’s caverns to craven sad hills
The wounded, the losers, the robbed sing their tale

From Los Angeles County to upstate New York
The white nation fattens while others grow lean
Oh the tricked and evicted they know what I mean

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

The past it just crumbled, the future just threatens
Our life blood shut up in your chemical tanks
And now here you come, bill of sale in your hands
And surprise in your eyes that we’re lacking in thanks

For the blessings of civilization you’ve brought us
The lessons you’ve taught us, the ruin you’ve wrought us
Oh see what our trust in America’s brought us

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Now that the pride of the sires receives charity
Now that we’re harmless and safe behind laws
Now that my life’s to be known as your ‘Heritage’
Now that even the graves have been robbed

Now that our own chosen way is a novelty
Hands on our hearts we salute you your victory
Choke on your blue white and scarlet hypocrisy
Pitying the blindness that you’ve never seen

That the eagles of war whose wings lent you glory
They were never no more than carrion crows
Pushed the wrens from their nest
Stole their eggs, changed their story

The mockingbird sings it, it’s all that he knows
“Ah, what can I do?”, say a powerless few
With a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye
Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you?

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Here are three great books about Native American history and our country’s Indian Wars.  (Keep in mind that these are simply three out of many.  I chose these books not only for the history that they tell, but also because all of them are absolutely captivating reads of the first order.):

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – This is a comprehensive overview of the wars that the United States government fought with Native Americans.  This is probably the best place to start.

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides – This book focuses on Kit Carson, the Western tribes and predominately the Navajos, and the Indian Wars fought in New Mexico.  This is history truly brought to life through exceptional writing.  It has the descriptive beauty and pace of a great novel.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne – This book focuses on Quanah Parker, Texas, and the U.S. and Commanche War.  Another book where the writing is simply exceptional.  This book is also essential to understanding the culture of Texas.

Apologies about the title error earlier. Sometimes autocorrect gets the best of you!

The Strange Origins of Valentine’s Day

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NPR: Origins of Valentine’s Day

The above article over at NPR tells the original story behind Valentine’s Day.  To be fair I think the origins are slightly murky.  This article, and several other I read this morning, make it known that no one is quite sure of the exact origin.  Anyway, as with many holidays and traditions, it has become sanitized over time.  Sample from the article:

From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.

The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

Obama Secretly Supported Gay Marriage In First Presidential Run

Obama Secretly Supported Gay Marriage All Along

Was just reading the above article over at Huffington Post that features an excerpt from David Axlerod’s new book, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.  In the excerpt Axlerod claims that Obama supported gay marriage all along, even while he claimed that he favored the more politically popular civil unions during his first run for the presidency.

I’m sure this will make some heads on the right explode.  I am also sure that even some of his supporters will claim this shows a lack of character.  However, this is really not out of step with politics in general.  Having been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals about Lincoln, even our greatest president engaged in this kind of thing.  (Well, I was reading it until my Kindle exploded!  I will finish it as soon as possible.)  Lincoln was often told by the left wing of his party that he was not moving fast enough on slavery, even though he eventually was the president that put an end to slavery.

The idea is that leaders have to take the temperature of the populace on issues.  A good leader will be out front of the public on issues, “leading” them to do the right thing, but they can’t be too out front of the general population.  If they are too out front they risk a backlash and giving the opposition a chance to make political inroads.  So they have to have enough courage to move the ball down the field, but enough smarts to do it in a way where they don’t risk creating a situation where they don’t have enough political capital to get things done.

On top of this political leaders, especially at a national level, have a many other issues that they also need to treat in this same manner.  It’s a complex puzzle that is not an enviable task.  This is not to say that the general public should not express outrage if they believe a politician is acting against their interests.  It is expressly this growing political “heat” that will eventually give a leader enough cover to make it politically expedient to act.  Those that try to change the national dialogue through protests and other forms of peaceful serve a very important role in democracy, one that has often been ridiculously belittled in the mainstream media, but it is not the same role that a leader elected by popular vote has.

This is not to say that one can not criticize Obama on his decisions.  It is fair to say that Obama was not far enough in front of the general population.  If someone wants to make the argument that he lacked the courage to act in a timely manner, I don’t know if I would agree given all of the other issues at stake when he took the presidency, but it is again a fair criticism.  However, I think history shows that a political leader who has a different opinion in private and in public is not out of the ordinary, and might even be smart politics when trying to accomplish a larger goal.  Although it is too early to tell, and I am more willing to hear arguments against this belief, I think the gains that gay couples have made during Obama’s presidency will leave Obama looking favorably on this issue in the history books.  Change, important change, and I do believe that gay marriage is an important issue as everyone deserves the chance to find love and happiness, is not always pretty.  To change the way people think takes real people doing real work.  It requires those that are willing to stand up for justice on the front lines and, yes sometimes, it also requires political leaders that are willing to bend political will in using the often unseemly machinations of politics.

Why Did Germany Produce So Many Great Composers and Why Does Art Flourish?

I’ve been reading about classical music again lately.  It is one of the forms of music, along with jazz, that I don’t have a real deep understanding of the history of, or that I don’t understand the forms and technical terminology.  It is this insanely large and diverse body of work that I didn’t grow up on, which can be intimidating if you try to dive into as an adult.  My parents taught me to see it on rare occasion.  Sometimes they played it around the house.  I also had the typical public school music education, but honestly a lot of that has been lost to the cloudy fog of memory.  So I am left to my own devices to navigate something the size of an ocean.  The book I’m reading is a really good introduction.  It is called Classical Music:  The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works.  It is by Phil G. Goulding.

The author begins the book by telling the reader how he came up with the list and is very conscious that this list, or any other, is not perfect.  It is simply a means to start a conversation and to initiate the new.  What amazed me at the very beginning, and what I never put together on my own, was how many of the titans of Western music were German.  The author puts 18 Germans in the top 50 on his list.  (The author is American.)

So in learning about classical music a new set of questions arise.  What was going on in Germany that allowed for such an wealth of talent?  What was going on culturally, economically, and politically that set the stage for a certain art form to thrive?  Why in 1960’s America and England did rock and pop music suddenly explode into being, at a level of quality that has not since been equaled?

Art of any kind is not created in a vacuum.  Artists have to be able to earn a living so that they can focus and hone their talents.  If someone has to work 12 hours a day in a mine they are probably not going to be able to develop the high level of skills that especially something like classical music takes.  Whether it is paying for recording time now, or assembling an orchestra in the past, there has to be the means to do so.  There also need to be a culture that is at least somewhat receptive to new ideas and talent.  Their needs to be some kind of audience, even if it is just the wealthy, that has the skill set to appreciate and demand more of art.  That’s not saying that there won’t always be some kind of brilliant art in any society, but for it to be widespread there must be an audience that is receptive and appreciative of what is going on for it to thrive.

Also, although political turmoil can often inspire great works of art, too much political turmoil can also crush art in its cradle.  Mikhail Bulgakov is an interesting study.  He was a novelist and playwright in Russia who wrote the classic The Master and Margarita among others.  That book is considered a masterpiece and it was inspired partially by what was going on in Stalinist Russia.  On one hand he might never have created his masterpiece if he did not find inspiration in the political events of the day, which were extremely oppressive.  However, many of his works were banned.  Would he have possibly written more in an open society?  That is something we will never know.  However, he was spared when many others were not because he was liked by Stalin.  How many other writers work was destroyed, or how many writers were themselves destroyed, before their work ever came to be?  Even in Stalinist Russia there was still the basics of a functioning society, however repressive.  What if there was a war so brutal in a country that it descended backwards to where everyone was living in a primitive tribal society, and if so how much art would be created then?

Again, these are all questions I don’t have answers for, but I think they are worth thinking about, especially in relation to modern life.  Why is it that television is producing so many great shows that have some degree of mass appeal, while the most popular recording stars are often completely vapid?  Questions, questions, questions…