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GP 25 June 2008: Impolitic Thoughts

The History of Good Ideas.  When a new theory appears on the scene that cuts across all we have so dearly believed, we revile it, no matter how true.  For the new to get accepted, philosophical bombs must be exploded, and temples torn down.  America’s great philosopher William James got it right back in 1907:

First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it. (Pragmatism, Lecture 6)

But Schopenhauer and others also hit the nail on the head:  “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”  And the great naturalist Louis Agassiz put it more colorfully: “Every great scientific truth goes through three stages.  First, people say it conflicts with the Bible.  Next they say it had been discovered before.  Lastly they say they always believed it.”

Tottering.  But it takes more than the passage of time for new theories to thrive.  The old structures have to be toppling around us.  Cheap oil needs to disappear; a funny kind of prosperity has to set in, wherein the working classes experience a fall in their real wages, although the financial markets and the well-heeled have wads of cash to burn.  Bridges have to collapse in Minnesota; American power has to erode around the world; Republicans have to be the engine of humongous, simply unbelievable deficit spending that is not unlike the breakdown of public finance and the relative decline of the whole economy in Great Britain than began as far back as the 19th century.  A rage of tornadoes has to redo the landscape of America’s heartland.  When all this transpires, we can have a long, hot summer and realize that something new is just waiting to happen.  The Ancien Regime doth crumble.

George Packer in “The Fall of Conservatism,” The New Yorker, May 26, 2006, pp. 47-55, recently essayed on how America’s rightwingers have driven into a brick wall.  Conservatives are out of good ideas.  But (and this is the problem with New York publications that devote themselves to blasting the right, and lauding the left: they are not keen to admit their own failings), the liberals are not any better off.  Packer misses this thought.  All parts of the political spectrum are acting out of impulse, mostly driven by old stale ideas.  One wonders whether sensible moderation is about to get its day in court.  Our colleagues addressed this overwhelming dearth of good ideas back in 2002, when our Annual Report on Annual Reports called businessmen “Long on Words; Short on Ideas.”

During this summer of our discontent, all sorts of offbeat notions are rearing their heads. It takes a dash of churlishness to get them aired, but it’s time to hear necessary, discordant voices:

UC Berkeley Should Have Trees, Lots of Trees.  Leadership at the University of California, particularly at Berkeley, has been inept for 4 or 5 decades.  It is peopled with a bunch of empire builders.  So it was a relief to learn that a “Judge Gives a Victory to Tree Sitters in Berkley Oaks” (New York Times, June 19, 2008, p. A15).  “The university has sought to cut down the trees, adjacent to the university’s football stadium, to build a $123 million athletic center.”  The judge ruled that the university’s ambitions “on the site must be delayed for environmental and seismic concerns.”  As at several universities, beauty and nature fall victim to sharp-nailed academic bureaucrats who are all too prone to scratch the blackboard.  Clearly afflicted with edifice complexes, they do not have expansive, century- peering views of their responsibilities.

Bernard Maybeck, the great regional architect of the Bay Area, once had to appear before Berkeley city officials to defend a lovely tree that sat in the middle of a street north of campus.  He understood that we have to pay attention to the small things in order to make the whole worthwhile.  Those that have followed—liberal or conservative—have not been as attentive to the town’s greenery, excepting for the great parks in the hills behind.

Affirmative Action a Bad Idea?  Thomas Sowell has always been a bothersome commentator because he has inconvenient notions for a bright, black man.  At the beginning of 2007, he knocked The New York Times for semi-endorsing the idea that high Asian admissions were a problem for the University of California system, and that blacks and Hispanics were suffering as a result.  He sees this as a backdoor attempt of the Times to bolster ‘affirmative action’ policies.  Ward Connerly, onetime UC regent and also a black, single-handedly overturned affirmative action in California, and is still fighting the fight, regarding such a policy as bad for all minorities. While affirmative action initiatives still are mooted about, thoughtful people are looking for a more intelligent way to promote genuine advancement of those who are left out.  Sweden, for instance, does not take to ‘affirmative action,’ though it is broadly committed to equality and fairness.

Cellphone Disease. We are sure that cellphones are a disease, simply because we see too many people on them, wherever we go, the busy talkers ignoring the injunctions of gurus that you must concentrate on being where you are.  As we have said, in America, everyman pays too much for bad service and defective equipment.  In recent discussions we have discovered that the world’s leading cellphone company, Nokia, focuses its main energies outside the United States, because the big phone companies here drive dross into the equipment, and the phones are generally not consumer friendly.

But we may not have told you the half of it.  Sober articles in all sorts of places raise the spectre of cellphone cancer.   Read, for instance, Tara Parker-Pope “Experts Revive Debate over Cellphones and Cancer,” Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2008, p. D5.  This issue reminds us of the dangers posed by microwave ovens, which were once wave leaky:  even today we do not know if the ovens have dealt with emissions from all parts of the wave spectrum.  It is becoming pretty clear that a sane consumer will use a headset.  Walt Mossberg gives you a head start on finding the right one in “Cellphone Headsets with Less Bulk, Background Noise,” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2008, p. D1.

For better and worse the cellphone is very much with us.  Rich Ling’s The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society attempts to appraise its impact.  One can take a gander at it by visiting ACM.  Ling theorizes that the cellphone is and will upset the way we organize urban life—that it is a phenomenon that is remaking the way we live.

Liquor Law Mishmash.  Our mishmash of liquors laws does nothing for prohibitionists or imbibers.  They benefit a distribution system that makes you pay too much for the product, and penalizes small producers interested in providing high quality.  For some amusement over this, read Eric Asimov’s “A Befuddlement of Liquor Laws,” New York Times, January 30, 2008, p. D7.  We have noted that there is a serious movement afoot to get the drinking age back to 18, and teach people how to drink correctly.  This includes a petition drive, academic advocacy, and a full-blown association led by a former president of Middlebury.

The plight of quality, small producers is amply illustrated by Brendan Miniter in “Spirits Maker Is Willing But the Law Is Bleak,” Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2008, p. W11.  “I’m standing in the distillery room at Tuthilltown Spirits here, and when owner Ralph Erenzo pours a dram of his ‘Hudson Baby Bourbon’ for me, I sample it right away.  It’s smooth and sharp and then burns a little on the way down.”  Once upon a time nearly every farming community in America had a distillery.  “New York’s micro-distillery industry disappeared during Prohibition and never staged a comeback because state and federal liquor laws make it difficult for small guys to compete in the liquor business.”  In fact, we have never quite recovered from the Prohibition disaster.  New York State has given some, but not enough, legislative relief.  In general it is tough for small distillers and vinters to make and sell their stuff to consumers.

Oomph for Charity.  Just in time, we find there is ferment in the museum field, with innovations on a host of fronts.  We say just in time, because old style directors and benefactors are building big unwieldy museums that promise to be heavily under-utilized, as Americans become more interior, taking their pleasures at home, since their workdays are too long, and the TV too convenient.  For museums this principally means converting themselves from repositories for artifacts into very agile educational facilities.

We see small signs that all sorts of nonprofit practices are about to get upset, with more efficient and effective fundraising practices and a much more expansive and practical idea as to how to deliver useful services.  To this end, take a look at Steve Lohr’s  “A Capitalist Jolt for Charity,” New York Times, February 24, 2008, p. BU1.  “The process is being pushed forward by a new breed of social entrepreneurs who are administering increasing doses of bottom-line thinking to traditional philanthropy in order to make charity more effective.”  “Yet to have the greatest possible impact, a further step down the capitalist road is sometimes needed, analysts and others in the field say.  Muhammad Yunus, the microfinance pioneer and Nobel laureate, calls this next step the ‘social business.’  The goal, according to Mr. Yunus, is to create ventures that more than pay for themselves—in other words, turn a profit.”

“‘Capitalism is a very mutable, flexible beast, and what we’re seeing is social entrepreneurs addressing some of these social challenges in profoundly different ways than traditional nonprofit organizations,’ said John Elkington, co-author with Pamela Hartigan of ‘The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World,’ a new book that was handed out last month to attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.”

Escape from New York. The poster for the movie Escape from New York shouted “New York is a walled maximum security prison; breaking out is impossible; breaking in is insane.”  Summertime or not, it is hard to get away.  Even if you fly off in an airplane, the city still occupies your mind. 

But with the revival of New York’s waters, it is possible to escape—staying right there. Dan Ackman’s “Where City Fish Are Jumpin,’” Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2008, p. D7 points out where to fish in Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.  Rich Johnson, host of “The Fishing Line” tells his listeners all the best spots to catch one around Long Island, just a hop away from Manhattan.  As well, you can learn how to get out on the waters from Harry Hurt III, probably the most stylish writer the New York Times has on its payroll.  For instance, in “Rowing Is Invigorating (But Do Stay in the Boat),” New York Times, June 14, 2008, we learn we can enjoy the in’s and out’s of rowing at Sag Harbor.  Hurt also turns a variety of other sports into elegant experiences in his columns.

July 4th.  As we come up on the country’s birthday, we hope you are trying something new.  And that you are enjoying the new currents that are rocking all our boats.

P.S.  Now that all our ideas on how to run the railroad (i.e, society) have petered out, we probably need a few more fellows speaking up who don’t fit into anyone’s box.  Senator James Webb has that feel about him.  Novelist, war hero, onetime Secretary of the Navy, sometime Republican, sometime Democrat—a real disorganization man.  “He contends that ‘poor whites’ are an oppressed class, and defends Confederate soldiers for fighting for state sovereignty.”  He senses that a disproportionate number of blacks wind up behind bars because of nonsensical drug policies.  See “Arming Obama,” Wall Street Journal, June 21-22, 2008, pp. A1 and A10.  His latest book is A Time to Fight.  According to Senator Chuck Hagel, “You can’t frame Jim Webb in any political classification, and he really doesn’t care.”  He is being bruited about for vice president, although neither he nor we are sure he’s the man for the job.

P.P.S.  Gardiner, New York is clearly a helluva place.  It’s not just the home of Tuthilltown Spirits.  Arthur Lauer, which makes pretty decent teak outdoor furniture, has been there, simply forever.

P.P.P.S.  Both the New York press and the national press pull up the drawbridge whenever criticism arrives at their doors.  Very quickly they protest they are fair, balanced, and thorough.  Of course, as each day goes by, our press has gotten sloppier, less-balanced, and lazier, becoming yet another rotting timber in democracy’s house.  There are all sorts of technological reasons why media companies are having a tough time.  But eroding standards and shoddy journalism have not helped matters.  It is does not help, of course, that live media figures are vastly overpaid and underworked.  It is an amazing anomaly that C-Span is perhaps our only reliable news and literary channel.  So we should not really be singling out the New Yorker, even if it does have tinted glasses and even if its copy started getting very lightweight with the advent of Tina Brown.

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