June 13, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
June 13, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
June 13, 2012
IN THE FIRST PANEL of aPeanuts strip—the preceding ones had been about Lucy scolding her little brother, Linus, for not being a good brother—Lucy asks what Linus is offering her: “What’s this?” “A dish of ice cream.” Then Linus explains: “I brought it to you in order that your stay here on Earth might be more pleasant.” She smiles genially, and uncharacteristically: “Well, thank you … You’re a good brother.” In the final panel, Linus walks away smiling: “Happiness is a compliment from your sister!”
That about sums it up. Pleasure is to be achieved by things like dishes of ice cream. Psychologists have shown rigorously that people are most pleasured exactly as you might have thought if you are a human being: when eating, say, a heaped pastrami on rye at Manny’s Deli off Roosevelt Road in what was once the garment district of Chicago. Happiness, by contrast, is more complicated, though it can also be pursued at Manny’s. It is the pleasure of kosher comfort food, down to the diminishing marginal utility of that last bite—but it is also expressing one’s urban identity and Chicago-ism, even at the costs of the considerable inconvenience in getting to Manny’s and braving the insults of the countermen. It is introducing your friend, a naïve gentile, to the Jewish side of the City of the Big Shoulders, affirming thereby your philo-Semitism. It is participating in the American democracy of a 1950s cafeteria. It is facing, too, the cost of a little addition to the love handles. And it is a compliment from your sister. Pleasure is a brain wave right now. Happiness is a good story of your life. The Greek word for happiness is “eudaimonia,” which means literally “having a good guiding angel,” like Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. The schoolbook summary of the Greek idea in Aristotle says that such happiness is “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”
But nowadays there is a new science of happiness, and some of the psychologists and almost all the economists involved want you to think that happiness is just pleasure. Further, they propose to calculate your happiness, by asking you where you fall on a three-point scale, 1-2-3: “not too happy,” “pretty happy,” “very happy.” They then want to move to technical manipulations of the numbers, showing that you, too, can be “happy,” if you will but let the psychologists and the economists show you (and the government) how.
On a long view, understand, it is only recently that we have been guiltlessly obsessed with either pleasure or happiness. In secular traditions, such as the Greek or the Chinese, a pleasuring version of happiness is downplayed, at any rate in high theory, in favor of political or philosophical insight. The ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi observed of some goldfish in a pond, “See how happy they are!” A companion replied, “How do you know they are happy?” Zhuangzi: “How do you know I don’t know?” In Christianity, for most of its history, the treasure, not pleasure, was to be stored up in heaven, not down here where thieves break in. After all, as a pre-eighteenth-century theologian would put it—or as a modern and mathematical economist would, too—an infinite afterlife was infinitely to be preferred to any finite pleasure attainable in earthly life.
The un-happiness doctrine made it seem pointless to attempt to abolish poverty or slavery or wife-beating. A coin given to the beggar rewarded the giver with a leg-up to heaven, a mitzvah, a hasanaat; but the ancient praise for charity implied no plan to adopt welfare programs or to grant rights of personal liberty or to favor a larger national income. A life of sitting by the West Gate with a bowl to beg was, after all, an infinitesimally small share of one’s life to come. Get used to it: For now and for the rest of your life down here, it’s your place in the great chain of being. Take up your cross, and quit whining. What does it matter how miserable you are in this life if you’ll get pie in the sky when you die? Such fatalism in many religions—“God willing,” we say, “im yirtzeh hashem,” “insh’Allah,” “deo volente”—precluded idle talk of earthly happiness.
Then, in the eighteenth century, our earthly happiness became important to us, in high intellectual fashion. By 1776, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was an unoriginal formulation of what we all, of course, now admitted that we chiefly wanted. John Locke had taught, in 1677, that “the business of men [is] to be happy in this world by the enjoyment of the things of nature subservient to life, health, ease, and pleasure”—though he added piously, “and by the comfortable [that is, comforting] hopes of another life when this is ended.” By 1738, the Comte de Mirabeau wrote to a friend, recommending simply, “[W]hat should be our only goal: happiness.”…
June 13, 2012
The best hope for democracy still lies in the unregulated marketplace of ideas, in which the maxim ‘Let the buyer beware’ remains the surest safeguard against cheats and charlatans, including those waving their PhDs in your face.
Are Americans too dumb for democracy?
Of late, there has been a spate of articles and op-ed pieces that suggest the answer to this question is an emphatic yes: The majority of Americans are simply too hopelessly ignorant to make the kind of intelligent decisions that are necessary to preserve a healthy democratic system.
Judging from the tone of these articles, America is currently suffering not only from an epidemic of obesity, but an epidemic of stupidity.
True, many of these complaints are apt to strike the neutral observer as suspiciously partisan, as when liberals lay the blame for the dumbing down of America on the doorstep of the Republican Party, and especially its Tea Party wing. But some advocates of the “too dumb for democracy” thesis have taken the higher and presumably non-partisan path of objective science—a fact brought to my attention some months ago by an article intriguingly entitled: “People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say.” Who were these scientists, and why were they saying such a thing?
The scientists were a team of psychologists working under Dr. David Dunning of Cornell University, who concluded after their research that “very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is.” Because it takes an expert in taxation to intelligently assess the worth of a proposed tax reform, for example, the average person will obviously lack the competence to make a judgment on the reform in question. Worse, he will lack the ability to recognize who the actual experts in the field are, leaving him vulnerable to political charlatans who will appeal to his emotions and not his reason. And what is true of a proposed tax reform will be true of any of the complicated challenges that face a modern nation like our own, from healthcare, to national self-defense, to fiscal policy, to global warming.
Underlying this argument are two assumptions. First, Dunning and his team assume that dumb ideas are the exclusive privilege of dumb people—or, more generally, that dumb people have bad ideas, while smart people have good ones. Second, they assume that dumb people are dangerous to the American democratic system. Both assumptions, however, are open to challenge.
To begin with, let us agree that there are a lot of dumb ideas floating around. Is this any proof that Americans have gotten stupider? Not at all. Extraordinarily intelligent men have held extraordinarily dumb ideas. George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Thorstein Veblen, and Jawaharlal Nehru were all brilliant individuals. All of them thought that the USSR under Stalin was a genuine worker’s paradise. A very dumb idea. On the other hand, during the same period, many unschooled dolts regarded the Soviet Union with an irrational and even paranoid horror—and they were quite right.
From time to time, extremely intelligent people become infatuated with ideas that later generations of equally intelligent people look back upon with shudders of revulsion. Consider the enormous number of progressive intellectuals who supported eugenics programs at the beginning of the last century, in contrast to the attitude towards eugenics of progressive intellectuals in the post-Holocaust generation. It would be silly to try to explain this difference by arguing that the pro-eugenic intellectuals were less intelligent than the anti-eugenic intellectuals.
Only someone abysmally ignorant of the history of ideas could believe for a moment that high intelligence is any guarantee against the lure of dumb ideas. The dumbest idea you can think of almost certainly owes its origin to an intellectual. Most people are born natural slaves? The wise Aristotle. Aryan supremacy? The erudite Arthur Gobineau.
Even if we concede that intelligent people often have dumb ideas, doesn’t it seem rather self-evident that stupid people will invariably have stupid ideas—assuming that they have any ideas at all? And doesn’t this preponderance of stupid ideas doom popular democracy to failure, just as the Cornell psychologists claim?
Proponents of American exceptionalism have an obvious rebuttal to this argument. It is called history. Even if we grant that Dunning et al have made a strong a priori case why democracy shouldn’t flourish, the historical evidence is that American democracy has flourished quite well. Could it have flourished even more? No doubt—but the relevant question is one of historical comparison. What nation has a better track record of success, measure it any way you wish? If Dunning is defining a successful form of government as one in which the leaders invariably adopt “very smart ideas,” then the United States clearly fails to meet their standard of success. But that is like arguing that multi-billionaire Warren Buffet is not a successful businessman because, by his own admission, he has made some bad investment decisions.
More decisively, a little reflection on our nation’s past suggests that if the dumb were going to do democracy in, they would have done it long ago.
Here’s a thought experiment: How much could the men who voted for Andrew Jackson in 1828 tell you about Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, Lord Kelvin’s thermodynamics, Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers, Keynesian economics, Turing machines, cybernetics, or the Internet? Nothing, absolutely nothing…
America’s Bloodiest Battle: American doughboys proved their mettle in the forests and fields of eastern France during World War I
June 13, 2012
On October 11, 1918, late in the afternoon, a platoon of American doughboys marched to the front in eastern France, passing shattered villages, forests reduced to matchsticks, and water-filled shell craters. At every step the Americans struggled to free their boots from the slopping mud. Icy wind and rain slashed at their clothing, and water poured in steady streams from the rims of their helmets, somewhat obscuring the devastation. They were already exhausted, some literally asleep on their feet, little aware that they soon would find themselves fighting the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history.
As the platoon slogged north, it skirted the summit of a craggy hill named Montfaucon, the slopes studded with burnt-out German pillboxes, and tripped over the sparse ruins of the village of Nantillois, hardly one brick standing on another, then moved through a copse of wildly leaning, fog-draped trees toward the edge of a small ravine. Rolling hills covered by well-plowed fields and small stands of oak covered much of this region of northeastern France. The German defensive positions exploited ridges, ravines, dense forests, and small rivers to maximum effect. Enemy shellfire increased, and the men dropped to a crouch or crawled.
Nearby lay the smoking remnants of a Salvation Army canteen. Less than an hour before, two cheery young American women had been distributing gallons of coffee and mountains of doughnuts to weary soldiers. Now their bodies lay ripped open in the mud, surrounded by doughnuts and coffee tins.
Lt. Samuel Woodfill, a tall, robust, 17-year Army veteran from lower Indiana, led the platoon past even more awful horrors. Unlike his doughboys, most of whom were poorly trained rookies, Woodfill had grown up with a gun in his hand, joining the Army at 18, fighting guerrillas in the Philippines, and then transferred—at his request—to Alaska, where he had hunted moose and grizzly bear in his spare time. Woodfill hadn’t thought much about the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. Less than three years later, however, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare and at the same time made a clumsy attempt to convince Mexico to attack the United States. As a result, Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war in April 1917. Congress complied and then set about trying to build an army out of millions of untrained volunteers and draftees. Woodfill was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to Company M, 60th Regiment, 5th (“Red Diamond”) Division.
American troops began arriving in France in large numbers in spring 1918, tasked to join French and British troops against the Germans, who had launched a massive offensive in March and come close to taking Paris. By May and early June, when American soldiers and Marines went into action at places such as Cantigny and Belleau Wood, the Germans were still struggling to break the Allied lines in France and end the war. That summer Americans joined the Allied effort in increasing numbers and helped to roll back the German advance.
Woodfill’s outfit hadn’t seen any action in those summer campaigns. Now, caught in the clammy grip of October, he led his men out of the shattered copse, down the slope of an open ravine, and into action for the first time. German machine-gun fire opened up a murderous volley, sending wounded or frightened doughboys toppling head over heels downslope. Reaching the bottom of the ravine, Woodfill dove for cover in a shallow depression near some partially buried scraps of corrugated iron. His overstuffed backpack bulged into sight, and the Germans pumped it full of bullets.
Adding insult to injury, a louse, or “cootie,” began marching slowly down his spine. Scratching was impossible. Nor could he return fire as bullets ricocheted off the corrugated iron. The enemy barrage moved steadily forward, plopping one after another, closer and closer to his position. Woodfill drew a photograph of his wife from his pocket and scribbled on its back his home address and the following words: “please forward this picture to my Darling Wife. And tell her that I have fallen on the field of Honor, and departed to a better land which knows no sorrow and feels no pain. I will prepair a place and be waiting at the Golden Gait of Heaven for the arrival of my Darling Blossom.”
The bombardment finally stopped, and Woodfill and his men crawled from their cover, eyeing each other sheepishly, each struggling not to betray his fear. A private who had taken cover near Woodfill tucked a piece of paper into his tunic—he too had written a farewell note.
The platoon traversed the ravine past the ruins of Madeleine Farm and deployed behind the crest of a ridge. “Halt, and dig in!” cried an officer; but there was no time. Instead the men scattered by twos into shell holes half full of water. Darkness fell, and as sight failed other senses grew more acute. The soldiers listened with dread to the grumble of intermittent shellfire, now far, now near, the crackle of machine guns, muttered curses, and the clank of equipment. The rain intensified.
Woodfill had only a few hours of “rest”—shivering in his shell hole—before a major ordered him to take eight men on a scout into the woods beyond the ridge. On the way back, Woodfill stepped onto a small bridge that the Germans had booby-trapped. A shell planted in a nearby tree burst over his head, and he lost consciousness. When he recovered, he found that blood was pouring from his nose. He felt as if an iron spike had been driven through his temple. Staggering back to his shell hole, he fell asleep, only to be reawakened a few hours later by floating out of the hole, which the rain had turned into a pond…