The Times Are Out of Joint, Global Province Letter, 7 May 2014

Rest, rest, perturbèd spirit!—So, gentlemen,
With all my love I do commend me to you,
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you,
God willing, shall not lack. Let us go in together,
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together...    Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Fretful Future.  The journalist Lincoln Steffens was famous for proclaiming, “I have seen the future and it works.” Oft as not he was commenting on Soviet Russia with which he had a long love affair.  But of course Soviet Russia was a dismal failure. In fact, ever since Peter the Great, Russia has failed along every dimension except when protecting its territory against Napoleon or Hitler. A safer adage would be to say, “I’ve stared the future in the face and it ain’t pretty.”  Didn’t Orwell say, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”  Right or wrong, he seem to better capture the mood of opinion makers in the present day than Mr. Steffens.

Til lately Americans sort of thought we were the exception to the rule. No matter the state of the world. Our future beckoned, and riches lay round any corner. But lately we have gotten to be as wacky as anybody in the solar system.  Nothing works.  It took 15 minutes yesterday to buy some cilantro in the self service line at Kroger even though the grocery clerk pushed all the buttons for us, maybe even the right ones.  A few blocks away we inquired about a case of South African wine we ordered weeks ago which merely had to be transported from one store to another:  it never arrived.  In New York we visited a fancy car dealer and were shown all its wares by idle salesmen:  then we found out we could not buy anything because we did not live in New York City. That was only one of several emporiums that could not be bothered to make a sale, for the managers were all caught up in their knitting, far too busy to do real business.  Our puny but incessant domestic difficulties cited here result from a world that is turning itself upside down, such that it is often unfit for man or dog.

Democracy Under Siege.  David Brooks in “Saving the System” essayed recently on how democracy and civility amongst nation states have hit a speed bump:

When Hill talks about the modern order he is referring to a state system that restrained the two great vices of foreign affairs: the desire for regional dominance and the desire to eliminate diversity. Throughout recorded history, large regional powers have generally gobbled up little nations. Powerful people have generally tried to impose their version of the Truth on less powerful people.

But, over these centuries, civilized leaders have banded together to restrain these vices. As far back as the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, dominant powers tried to establish procedures and norms to secure national borders and protect diversity. Hegemons like the Nazis or the Communists tried to challenge this system, but the other powers fought back.

Today that system is under assault not by a single empire but by a hundred big and little foes. As Walter Russell Mead argues in a superb article in Foreign Affairs, geopolitics is back with a vengeance. Whether it’s Russia seizing Crimea or China asserting itself, old-fashioned power plays are back in vogue. Meanwhile, pre-modern movements and people try to eliminate ethnic and religious diversity in Egypt, Ukraine and beyond.

It is not just that democracy is under attack by a 1,000 piranha in the waters all around the world.  Ten thousand wolves are eating away at democracy in these United States as well, where, for instance, the right to vote is under attack in state after state and registration rules are tilted in order to shrink the vote.  

It is no wonder that the little projects, such as shopping for cilantro, falter badly, since our infrastructure is under attack. When the rules of the road change on a whim, then traffic stops moving down the road.

Lard and Cheese Will Make You Happy?  But it is not just in the world of geopolitics that we are ripping up the textbook.  Science is asunder, too.  A minor example perhaps pops up in the world of nutrition.  Nina Teicholz has been writing about “The Questionable Link between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease.” 

“Our half-century effort to cut back on the consumption of meat, eggs and whole-fat dairy has a tragic quality. More than a billion dollars have been spent trying to prove Ancel Keys's hypothesis, but evidence of its benefits has never been produced. It is time to put the saturated-fat hypothesis to bed and to move on to test other possible culprits for our nation's health woes.”

In fact, well before Ms. Teicholz came along, many, many scientists questioned the hyper-emphasis put on cholesterol in the Framingham, Mass. Heart Study, which was a far from comprehensive look at the causes of heart disease, though it was fondly embraced by the ruling thinkers at Harvard. But few would resort to the ridiculous hyperbole that would claim butter, and eggs, and meat don’t play a part in heart health.  Most know that a pot above the waistline, whatever puts it there, will put you in an early grave. Yet unscientific science in the present day is leading to some weird conclusions.

NeoPlatonism.  Late in the Ancient Greek Experience, well after the greatness had worn off, Greece slipped into a NeoPlatonic period where undisciplined minds hammered together bits of philosophy with several cups of magic and mysticism.  Sort of pretend wisdom. Feckless meanderings of the mind masquerading as Platonism.

That’s where we find ourselves now. Systems of all sorts to include philosophy are being shattered. Amidst the chaos little everyday things cease to work. In this world, as we have said before, “Systems Are on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown.”  It’s all confusing and sometimes mildly depressing. 

Barnum and Bailey World.  How does one keeps things together when things are falling apart? Stay centripetal when all the world is centrifugal. The answer maybe is to stay close to and converse daily with those of a civilized demeanor to immunize oneself and one’s community against disintegration. Indeed it is a Barnum and Bailey World in which one must search out belief and reality:

It is only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn't be make believe
If you believed in me

Yes, it's only a canvas sky
Hangin' over a muslin tree
But it wouldn't be make believe
If you believed in me

Without your love
It's a honky tonk parade
Without your love
It's a melody played in a penny arcade

It's a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn't be make believe
If you believed in me

As did renaissance humanists. in an earlier age, we must search out the few in many lands who hew to fellowship, reasoned  discussion, and a fond regard for those of good spirit .

P.S. Love is breaking out in Teheran. Love songs are now at least being tolerated by officialdom in Iran. Even in this rigid country a few upsets are in the works.  Some of the challenges to orthodoxy around the world are heartening. See “Singer Steps into Spotlight as Nation Changes Political Tune.”

P.P.S.  Miss Teicholz spends an inordinate amount of time deriding Ansel Keys.  His Seven Countries study was taken to heart in Finland (and sadly not the United States).  Finland has had astounding drops in per capita cancer and heart death statistics as a result.




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