Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dead Certainties

There was only one small table, with no chairs, wedged in between one side of the double door, the edge of the wall, and a large photograph of Bartali.
Carlo Lucarelli, Via Delle Oche
(Trans. Michael Reynolds)
***
Two weeks ago, Vincenzo Nibali became the first Italian cyclist to win the Tour de France since 1998.
And one week before that victory, another Italian Tour winner was honored in Tuscany on the centennial anniversary of his birth. Gino Bartali won the great event twice—once before World War Two, in 1938, and once after, in 1948. However, as Lizzie Davies explains in the Guardian (UK), Bartali's greatest feats came away from the race course:
In the aftermath of September 1943, when Italy had surrendered to Allied forces and swaths of northern and central Italy became Mussolini's Nazi puppet republic, [Bartali] is understood to have transported counterfeit identity papers to Jews who were at risk of being deported to concentration camps. The papers were hidden in the frame of his bike.*
He also hid Jews in the cellar of his house. For his actions Bartali was posthumously recognized as being one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.
How many people could honestly say that they would have acted as bravely as Bartali in similar circumstances? Well, we know that every Frenchman today would swear on his last baguette that in the 1940s he would have joined the Resistance. But as for the rest of us . . .?
*
I hate hypothetical questions. I have no idea whether I would divert a runaway train to run over 950 senior citizens instead of a new-born baby. I figure I'll deal with that issue when it arises. So, if I have no idea how I would act in advance of a situation, I certainly wouldn't presume to proclaim that I have privileged knowledge of how other people (whether living or dead) would act. But the more I read, the more I feel that I am in the minority, for the world seems full of self-confident mindreaders.
Take Elton John (Please!--sorry, I had to channel my inner Henny Youngman). Sir Elton, according to the British press, is certain that Jesus would have backed gay marriage:
If Jesus Christ was alive today, I cannot see him, as the Christian person that he was and the great person that he was, saying this could not happen.
The Independent
Andrew Brown, who writes about religion for the Guardian, points out that Sir Elton's statement is
a bit like saying that Plato would have been a heavy user of Facebook. We can't prove otherwise, but it's more a remark about gay marriage, than the historical figure.
Elton John has form here. Like many celebrities, he seems to understand Jesus as a distinguished member of his entourage, one for whom he will always make VIP tickets available, and who agrees with him about everything important.
The need to have the exclusive sanction for one's necrophiliac reading of Jesus' mind is apparently so great that people will even resort to the law courts to secure it for themselves:
Tyler Perry has won a long trademark battle for What Would Jesus Do, defeating a reality television series star who sought to use the trademark for a Christian reality show.
Kim “Poprah” Kearney, who acquired some fame after appearing on VH1’s reality series I Want to Work for Diddy, filed a trademark to use What Would Jesus Do for a Christian reality show in January 2008.
Tyler Perry Studios filed an entertainment services trademark for What Would Jesus Do in May of that year, in an attempt to secure the rights to use the phrase for entertainment products including films, musicals and television series.
The Guardian
And it will probably come as no surprise that a recent poll showed that Democratic voters asserted that Jesus would align himself with their side on the contentious political issues of the day, while Republicans claimed that the Nazarene would be voting with them.**
Now, please don't get me wrong, I'm not just picking on the “What-Would-Jesus-Do”ers here. The “What Would”s are all over the place. “What would the Founding Fathers have thought about our libertarian crazies?” asks a headline on Salon.com. The Atlantic poses a foreign policy question:
What Would Reagan Do in Iraq?
Rand Paul and Rick Perry each claim to be the Gipper’s heir in the Middle East. Who's right?
*
Well, to all this mindreading, I say “Feh!” I have no idea how Marx (whether Karl or Groucho) would have organized the Brazilian defense at the last World Cup or what Machiavelli would have done to secure an Oscar (either the midfielder or the statue). I barely have a glimmer of an idea of what I might have for breakfast tomorrow.

But I must admit that there is one hypothetical question that I am willing to deal with:
You are the propelling your small raft toward the survivors of a shipwreck. There are four drowning men in the water—a disc jockey, a used-car salesman, a leper, and Rush Limbaugh. You have room to save only three of them. Who would you leave to the sharks?
Now, that's a no-brainer!
***
*http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/17/italy-remembers-gino-bartali-cycling-hero-save-jews-nazis
**http://www.salon.com/2014/07/14/republicans_confuse_atlas_shrugged_for_the_bible_partner/



Saturday, July 5, 2014

"By Chance or Nature's Changing Course"

In the eighth minute of today's quarter-final World Cup match between Argentina and Belgium the ball was deflected off the leg of a Belgium defender into the path of Gonzalo Higuain, an Argentinian who had been invisible in previous matches. Higuain took a sturdy swing with his right foot and rolled the ball into the far corner, away from the goalkeeper's despairing lunge. It was the only goal of the game and advanced Argentina into the semi-finals.

After the game I opened my computer and continued my interrupted surfing of my favorite websites. On the site of The Atlantic magazine I found this article:
"What If America Had Lost the Revolutionary War?
A Fourth of July thought experiment"
By Uri Friedman*
It was today's juxtaposition of football match and article which inspired me to write this blog post now rather than at some future time as I had intended.
*
The category of historical speculation called “Counterfactuals” has probably been around forever; one imagines Adam speculating, “What if it had been a tangerine?” (One good result that I envision is that there wouldn't be any fashionistas.) In magazines and books the counterfactuals are rife: “What if . . .
the South won the Civil War?
Kennedy had not been assassinated?
Hitler had invaded England?
The Spanish Armada was not defeated?”
Those are some perennials.
And this year on the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I an article in the New York Times wonders, “If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived.”
*
I must confess that I cannot take any of this seriously. To my mind, such speculation is basically a parlor game.** It certainly is not a thought experiment. The lives of nations, like our own lives, are subject to the whims of chance and accident. Supposing you do decide to assume an alternative historical happening (such as Al Gore being narrowly elected—there's at least one book on Amazon that speculates on that), how many assumptions are you allowed going forward? Based on Gore's campaigning, you might reasonably assume that he would do (or try to do) A. But after A, how certain can you be that B would follow—or C after B? To build a whole new history based on such a causal string (unaffected by chance or accident—or counterpressure from attempting to do A, B, or C) is fatuous. And a lot of the counterfactual fatuity is based on the projector's using the re-framed history to advance his own political, economic, or philosophical views.***

Friedman asked Harry Turtledove, the author of a counterfactual novel about the American Revolution, “what the world might have looked like in 2014 if Britain had won the Revolutionary War, or if the war had never been fought in the first place.”  
"If the British Empire included all of North America north of the Rio Grande as well as India, it would be incontestably the strongest state in the world," he responded. . . .
"Because the Empire was so strong, we might well have missed out on not only the Napoleonic Wars but also the World Wars. On the other hand, we would also have missed out on the kick in the pants wars give to technology and medicine. We might have had as many deaths that could have been prevented in our own world by medical advances as we've lost in our big wars."
Turtledove, it seems from Friedman's article, is just indulging Friedman and his parlor game question. Nevertheless, isn't it a bit of a reach to assume a deterministic chain of events that reaches almost two-and-a-half centuries into the future?

A slight, accidental deflection of a ball off a leg determined the outcome of today's football game. How many accidental deflections would change the presumed course of England's future as projected by a counterfactual historian imagining, say, that Elizabeth I had been deposed by Mary, Queen of Scots' conspirators or by a successful Spanish invasion? Or the fate of the colonies in the New World?

You want a parlor game? Try Charades.
***

**After writing this, I discovered this quote from Martin Kettle:
To EH Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, to speak of what might have happened in history, as opposed to what did happen, was just a "parlour game". To EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, such counterfactual speculation was "unhistorical shit".
(Kettle, himself, likes counterfactuals.)

***Did somebody whisper "Niall Ferguson"?













Wednesday, July 2, 2014

No

This does not pretend to be the definitive work on denial; it would take a book-and-a-half to cover the topic. It's just a look at three different types of denial.

Deny, Deny, Deny

The famous advice given in the 1967 movie A Guide for the Married Man is the resort for all guilty persons who are afraid of being found out (in this case, of infidelity): “Deny, Deny, Deny!” It's the stonewall defense. Even with a smoking gun in your hands and a bleeding corpse at your feet--admit nothing at all costs. “What are you talking about?” “Oh this. I can explain.” And so on and so forth. The best exponent of the this ploy is Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One (Act II, Scene 4).
PRINCE HENRY
We two saw you four set on four and bound them, and
were masters of their wealth. Mark now, how a plain
tale shall put you down. Then did we two set on you
four; and, with a word, out-faced you from your
prize, and have it; yea, and can show it you here in
the house: and, Falstaff, you carried your guts
away as nimbly, with as quick dexterity, and roared
for mercy and still run and roared, as ever I heard
bull-calf. What a slave art thou, to hack thy sword
as thou hast done, and then say it was in fight!
What trick, what device, what starting-hole, canst
thou now find out to hide thee from this open and
apparent shame?
POINS
Come, let's hear, Jack; what trick hast thou now?
FALSTAFF
By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye.
Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the
heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince?
why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but
beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true
prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was now a
coward on instinct.
Falstaff doesn't just deflect the shame from his being branded a coward, but he turns his cowardice into a positive quality. The “coward on instinct” is the champion of “Deny, Deny, Deny!”
***
Deny, Deny!
It's easy to understand that the guilty (in thought and/or deed) will readily turn to the stonewall tactic. Without a confession the accusers have a lot of work to do to prove their case. But what if there is absolutely irrefutable evidence of guilt. Well, first of all, you just deny that it is absolutely irrefutable proof of guilt. Take, for example, the photograph of the teeth mark on the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini inflicted by the bite of Uruguay's Luis Suarez in a World Cup match this past week. (It should be pointed out here to those who don't already know that Suarez is now a bi-continental biter with multinational tastes, having chomped a Dutchman in Holland, a Serb in England, and now an Italian in Brazil.)
The denial project was essentially a three-step process.
First step: Denial that the proof is indeed proof. There is a simple explanation for the photograph showing teeth marks, according to Suarez's home country defenders in the media and the Uruguayan Football Association--the picture was Photoshopped!
According to newspaper reports in Uruguay and Spain, when submitting its evidence in defence of Suárez, who has now been banned by Fifa from football for four months and nine international matches for his actions, the Uruguayan FA planned to argue that digital manipulation of images has been rife and that they cannot be trusted.
The Guardian, UK
Which brings us to the second step: Did you note where the above quote came from? The whole incident is a conspiracy concocted by the British (with a little help from the offended Italians and the Brazilians, who, according to the Uruguayans, would supposedly have an easier chance of winning the tournament if Uruguay were out of it).
The Uruguayan Football Association has gone on the offensive in an effort to save Luis Suarez from a lengthy ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini, claiming he is the victim of a smear campaign by the Italians, the English media and the Brazilian hosts.
Oops, sorry, that's from the conspiratorial Guardian, again. Here's an obviously unbiased reaction—from Tenfield.com, the website of the corporation which broadcasts Uruguayan football:
Los británicos, en la conferencia de prensa, en tres ocasiones preguntaron a Oscar Tabárez sobre la incidencia, afirmando que “Suárez mordió a Chellini”. Inclusive señalaron que la FIFA debería intervenir y expulsar a Luisito de la Copa del Mundo.
(British reporters, in the press conference, asked Óscar Tabárez [Uruguayan team manager] three times about the incident, saying that: “Suárez bit Chiellini.” Their intention was Fifa should expel Luisito.)
Sorry once more, that's a Guardian translation.
The Tenfield response segues into the third step of defense. It concludes (in translation):
It would be good if these Englishmen remember how they won the World Cup in 1966 with a ball which was not a goal.
This should be called the “Na Na Na Na Na” fallback: You benefited from something perhaps not-quite-right about half-a-century ago, so you have dirty hands and should keep your mouth shut about other people's misdeeds (metaphor like James Bond's martinis—shaken, not stirred).
***
Deny!
Whereas Denial Type 2 is a tactic to defend  the emotional side of life, Denial Type 3 is employed in the worlds of punditry and politics, by those who purport to be engaged in serious debate on intellectual issues or legislation.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has concluded, “Human influences are having an impact on some extreme weather and climate events.” Now consider the following two statements on this issue:
1--“There is . . . no evidence for the increase in extreme weather. . . . I own a home on an island in South Carolina looking south in the direction of hurricanes, and after Katrina I was really interested when they said this is a harbinger of increased hurricane activity, which since then has plummeted."
2--“I don’t agree with the notion that some are putting out there—including scientists—that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate. I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”
The first statement, which offers an anecdote as a supposed rebuttal of scientific evidence, is a clear violation of an old Yiddish proverb (and nobody wants to violate one of those) that goes (in English, since none of us are up to snuff in Yiddish): “'For instance' is not proof.” But I guess we shouldn't expect much from the speaker of the first statement, our old friend the pundit George Will (we met him in the previous post, “Stinking to High Heaven”), who does not score high in Yiddishkeit. Will feels that he can pit his anecdote against the overwhelming scientific evidence because “Scientists are not saints in white laboratory smocks.”
The second statement is a clearer presentation of the stance that Will takes. It's by Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida. Rubio's key words are “I do not believe.” As Amanda Marcotte noted in a Salon.com article,
Rubio isn’t disagreeing with the opinions [my emphasis] of scientists; he’s disagreeing with the conclusions derived from the evidence. Even if all the climate change scientists died tomorrow, the planet would still be heating up. This isn’t a matter of one person’s opinion versus another. It’s a man being presented with facts and refusing to believe them.
Perhaps what we can call people like Will and Rubio is “scientific philistines,” analogous to artistic philistines, who “know what they like.” Scientific philistines know what science (and the technology that flows from that knowledge) they like and deny the validity of the science they don't like. Thus, they can wear digital watches, use computers, fly in airplanes, take antibiotics, etc. without bothering to consider the fact that the differing sciences of metallurgy, physics, chemistry, etc. are interconnected. Decades ago, I first came across a famous scientist (I don't recall who it was, though) suggesting (tongue-in-cheekily) that people who don't believe in evolution shouldn't be allowed to fly in airplanes. Here, more recently, is William Hirstein's take on the subject:
To be consistent, extreme science skeptics such as creationists should not trust any existing technology. They should not use computers, drive modern cars, fly on airplanes, or have an MRI done, since the same science that tells us that animals evolved created these technologies. But of course these are reliable technologies. The best explanation for this fact and the fact that our cars go, our bridges do not fall down, hospital patients get better at ever-improving rates, and so on, is that the science behind these achievements correctly describes the world.
But like Rubio, other politicians will go on proposing legislation that ignores scientific findings, while gloating about their philistinism. John Becker, Republican member of the Ohio legislature, defended his bill on birth control devices thusly, “This is just a personal view. I’m not a medical doctor.” And like Will, other pundits will deny evidence when it displeases them (e.g., Charles Krauthammer, on the same television show as Will: “I'm not impressed by numbers. I'm not impressed by consensus”).

Should we call this type of denial intellectual dishonesty? Or is there another term that might be used?
*
I learnt a new word today: 'solipsism'
Reader “JimKent”
commenting on a Guardian article
May 24, 2012
*
Maybe that's it: Scientific philistines are so wrapped up in their subjectivity that no other truth can exist in their world. Some comedian (again, I heard it many years ago and can't name the person) once put down artistic philistines with the analogous retort: “I don't know much about medicine, but I know what I like.” Unfortunately, as John Becker has shown, the laughable has become reality. And reality for too many, is no longer determined by evidence.
*
In the Principles and the Three Dialogues [Bishop] Berkeley defends two metaphysical theses: idealism (the claim that everything that exists either is a mind or depends on a mind for its existence) and immaterialism (the claim that matter does not exist).  His contention that all physical objects are composed of ideas is encapsulated in his motto esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived).
"Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy"
In his Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell relates the following story:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
*
Epistemology (by Richard Wilbur)
I.
Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

II.

We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, “You are not true.”
***
Some Sources:

Jonathan Chait


William Hirstein,

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” http://www.iep.utm.edu/berkeley/

Amanda Marcotte, http://www.salon.com/2014/05/23/how_right_wingers_are_amping_up_their_war_on_science_partner/
Amanda Marcotte,
Luis Roux, http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jun/28/luis-suarez-uruguayans-hurting
*
And for another angle on denial (and, this time, those who believe in global warming):
Emmett Rensin, http://www.thebaffler.com/blog/2014/07/cigarettes_and_climate_change




















Friday, June 20, 2014

Stinking to High Heaven

“He shoots, he scores!”
Foster Hewitt
***

As a carryover from my unrealized childhood desire to become a sports announcer, when I watch a sports event on television I usually do a play-by-play broadcast in my head. That, of course, will never get me inducted, like Foster Hewitt, the legendary announcer on Hockey Night in Canada, into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto—or into any other sports hall of fame, wherever located. But like Mr. Hewitt I have invented a phrase—while not as sonorous as his goal call—that I have coined for a particular defining moment in a game.

For example, on June 14 in the 35th minute of Italy's opening round game against England in this year's World Cup finals, Claudio Marchisio found himself in acres of space and was able to easily boot home the initial goal of the match. It was an example of what the announcing voice in my head has named a “deodorant play,” the definition of which is “a play that is made by someone who did not put on any deodorant before the game and thus reeks so much that no opponent cares to get close enough to defend against him.” In Marchisio's case, no Englishman, even were he brandishing the proverbial ten-foot pole, was near enough to make contact with the Italian. 

***

Just the weekend before the England/Italy match in the heat and humidity of Manaus, Brazil, George Will, who is a member of that Washington fauna known as “pundits,” raised the temperature of quite a few readers of his Washington Post column by … well, let the headline in Salon.com tell it:

George Will: Being a victim of sexual assault is a “coveted status that confers privileges”

The Washington Post columnist thinks women are lying about sexual assault in order to get "privileges"
The New Yorker elaborates:
Colleges and universities have now learned, [Will] writes, “that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate”; he sees this quite plainly in “the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. ‘sexual assault.’”
I have a suggestion: 

Since having one's body violated, being battered and bruised, and perhaps being permanently maimed is such a good thing, someone should take the aforementioned ten-foot pole and administer a few well-directed blows against George Will's person. I am sure that he would welcome them. After all, who would reject the opportunity to gain the privileges that the coveted status of victimhood confers?



Sunday, June 8, 2014

Prize Package

I see that there's a new movie out called The Fault in Our Stars, which is a play of course on the words of Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings”). All of which reminds me of the time four decades ago when I was awarded a prize in New York magazine's weekly competition. The contest was to substitute a rhyming word for another in a famous quotation. My submission (which I really thought wasn't as good as my losers in previous competitions—in fact, I believed wasn't really good absolutely) was: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underthings.” My award was a year's subscription to the magazine and a book on home decor—which was about as apt as giving a hockey stick to a koala.

Over the years I have had a mostly hate/hate relationship with New York magazine (not to be confused, please, with the New Yorker). From time to time over the last half century, lured by the siren song of a year's subscription for ten dollars or so (as an inveterate bargain hunter, I probably would have even sent a sawbuck for a year of Milkmaid's Quarterly), I would stuff a ten-spot into an envelope, forgetful of the reasons why I had stopped subscribing only a few years before (here I should put forth the words of the philosopher George Santayana--“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”):

1--The magazine seemed to be composed of pages drawn from a ream of onionskin rejects;
2--The text on those thin pages was in a typeface that I imagine could only be named Eyestrain Serif;
3—And most importantly, every issue had as its lead story, “I Can't Afford My Upper East Side Condo on My Salary of $750,000 a Year.”

I was never on the same page as the magazine and its world; it was like being in a muddle of a party where one has not been introduced to anybody.
*
And now that the magazine is online it's still pretty much the same. The home page is filled with references to persons I suppose are Iowa-born artisanal bagel makers transplanted to Brooklyn or emaciated hoper-models from a reality TV show called The Universe's Next Great Stick Insect Person. 
 
OK, I admit I'm not being entirely fair. This past week I found some real people writing for the mag and actually read two articles and am likely to quote from one of them in the near future.

But as for the celebrity culture the mag revels in, I am more interested in reading about the latest advance in milking stools.



Friday, May 16, 2014

The Virtue of "If"

The previous blog post (“In a Manner of Speaking”) noted the confusion that can arise because the word “more” can be used as a modifier of quantity or of quality. What about its opposite, “less”?
“Less” has problems, but none of its own making. The problems are caused by other words. There’s its almighty conflict with “fewer.” Think of those benighted souls who grind their teeth when they approach a supermarket checkout counter with a sign reading, “Ten Items or Less.” Those are people who believe in a rule that goes like this (according to Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage):
fewer refers to number among things that are counted, and less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured.
It is a rule that is “simple enough and easy enough to follow,” says the Dictionary. It does have one fault: “it is not accurate for all usage.” And the Dictionary proceeds to offer a zillion (I exaggerate) examples of writers “violating” what is in reality a non-rule.

*
The other word that creates a problem for “less” is “than.” They so often come as a pair, and, like “more,” the pair can involve quantity or quality. The “less than” quantity usage should not be a problem (unless you refuse to get on the check-out line mentioned above). But as for the quality issue, consider this example of a favorite usage of newspaper editorial writers:
Mr. Jones was less than honest in his remarks about his role in the affair.
Er. . . Let’s see: if being honest is an all-or-nothing thing, then being “less than” honest is really to be what? “Not honest”? “Dishonest”?

“Less than honest”; “less than frank”; “less than forthcoming” and the rest of those editorial constructions are prime examples of weaseling, seeming to be stating something, while allowing oneself to slither away from full responsibility for one’s words (“No. I never used the word “dishonest”).
*
Weasel words are all over the place. Consider the following Staples ad:
15% OFF
your entire in-store purchase.*
Exclusions apply.*

Weasels are not only words—look at that wonderful asterisk, which morphs the ad into “Everything—but not everything.”

One could go on and on about weasels (political ones, critical ones, business ones, etc.--whole books have been written on the subject) especially about the prime weasel de nos jours—the non-apology apology. Such as the one that begins, “If any one was offended . . . .”

So, to avoid filling a book, let's end here with a focus on that contender for number one weasel: “if,” and as usual we turn to Shakespeare:

As You Like It (Act V, Scene 4)
JAQUES. But, for the seventh cause: how did you find the quarrel on the seventh cause?
TOUCHSTONE. Upon a lie seven times removed- bear your body more seeming, Audrey- as thus, sir. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier's beard; he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was. This is call'd the Retort Courteous. If I sent him word again it was not well cut, he would send me word he cut it to please himself. This is call'd the Quip Modest. If again it was not well cut, he disabled my judgment. This is call'd the Reply Churlish. If again it was not well cut, he would answer I spake not true. This is call'd the Reproof Valiant. If again it was not well cut, he would say I lie. This is call'd the Countercheck Quarrelsome. And so to the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.
JAQUES. And how oft did you say his beard was not well cut?
TOUCHSTONE. I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial, nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we measur'd swords and parted.
JAQUES. Can you nominate in order now the degrees of the lie?
TOUCHSTONE. O, sir, we quarrel in print by the book, as you have books for good manners. I will name you the degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct. All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too with an If. I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel; but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an If, as: 'If you said so, then I said so.' And they shook hands, and swore brothers. Your If is the only peace-maker; much virtue in If.
“Much virtue in If”--especially when it's time to weasel away.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is published by Merriam-Webster

  
  

Saturday, May 10, 2014

In a Manner of Speaking

In the last blog post, "Faces and Places," I ventured "to slightly revise Hamlet," by writing, "I am native there and to the manner born." It is possible (even probable) that many (if not most) people did not recognize that the one word changed was "there" from the original "here," but thought that the change was to "manner" from "manor." Such is the curse of homonyms--and--more importantly, not knowing the original sources of quotations.

In Act I, Scene 4 of Hamlet, the Prince, Horatio, and Marcellus are on the battlements of Elsinore awaiting (they hope) the re-appearance of Hamlet's father's ghost. In the meantime, below them in the castle, they hear "A flourish of trumpets, and ordnance shot off." Horatio, clearly surprised, asks, “What does this mean, my lord?” Hamlet informs him: 
The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail*, and the swagg'ring upspring reels,
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
 “Is it a custom?” asks Horatio. And with Hamlet’s response Confusion makes his entrance.


Ay, marry, is't;
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.

Indeed, a double dose of Confusion, that merry addler of people's brains.


As a pun (one assumes in this case the creators really did know the original), the title of the successful British sitcom To the Manor Born (1979-1981), starring Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles worked perfectly, for the series involved the desire of the previous occupant (now rather impoverished), Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, to regain possession of the manor from the present owner, the nouveau-riche supermarket tycoon, Richard DeVere (original name, Polouvicka). Now a manor is a pretty nice place to dwell in, I imagine (being an American peasant myself), but consider that Hamlet is a prince and calls the castle Elsinore his home (when he is not off studying at Wittenberg). Thus, he's not likely to be calling himself "manor born." 

Recall that Horatio's question was about "custom"; Hamlet's reply is that the wassailing is customary, but that even though he is native to the culture, it is a practice of which he disapproves. To his mind, he says (and here's the second bit of Confusion's mischief),

. . . it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.

It's that word "more," which can modify something quantitative or something qualitative. "I caught more fish than you today"--quantitative. "The judge's sentence was more lenient than the guilty party deserved"--qualitative. Hamlet's statement is a qualitative judgment (as we will see in a moment). And the misuse of his phrase arises because people take the "more" as signalling a quantitative observation, rather than a moral judgment. Thus  we get the creeping-along puritanical motorist who's being past by all other drivers complaining that the speed limit is "more honored (sorry, but as I said above, I'm American) in the breach (i.e., not being observed) than in the observance."


After making the above remarks, Hamlet goes on for twenty-two lines to complain to Horatio how such customs of hard drinking make Danes 

traduc'd and tax'd of other nations;
They clip [call] us drunkards and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height, 

The pith and marrow of our attribute.
To better explain the origin of the negative reputation of his nation, Hamlet uses the analogy of how individual men--men with “the stamp of one defect,”—are forever branded in the eyes of others by that fault, no matter what “virtues else—be they as pure as grace” they may have. 
 

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Back in August, 2011 the blog post entitled "Ask the Wrong Question . . ."** focused on Prof. Joshua Knobe of Yale, a pioneer in the field of experimental philosophy, who had the observation that."people are more likely to assign blame for things that go wrong than to give credit for things that go right" (Stanford magazine)*** named after him--the "Knobe Effect." (Isn't this where we're all supposed to go "Duh"?) The Stanford article (Knobe's an alum) goes on to pose (in paraphrase) some of Knobe's questions ensuing from his "Effect:"


Why should the results of an action have a bearing on intentionality? And when it comes to questions of character, why do we tend to give more weight to negativity? Why does it sometimes happen that a single misdeed in a lifetime of otherwise exemplary behavior can destroy a reputation? 

The article points out that "Knobe has office space in both the philosophy and psychology departments at Yale."

Perhaps if he had space in the English department, he'd have learned that Shakespeare dealt with the issue over 400 years ago.  

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