"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fiction vs Non-Fiction–Why Even Bother With Fact?

In some circles fiction has a bad name.  Why, ask intellectuals, would anyone waste time on stories, when there is much to learn and so little time to do so.  They dismiss the racks of romances, Westerns, thrillers, and crime novels in airport bookstores; give credit to Shakespeare not because he was a great storyteller but because of his complex metaphorical prose, rich historical allusions, and Biblical references.  The fact that his Comedies are as silly and vaporous as any romance written today is lost on them.  Faulkner and Joyce are begrudgingly given credit thanks to their understanding of historical context, psychological perception, and revolutionary use of language; but they are the exceptions.  In the main, intellectual critics aver, fiction is a minor art, practiced by amateurs to satisfy romantic illusions.

While this is true to some degree –  potboiler storytelling and racy novels unfit for young women were very popular in the 19th century, many serious authors like Charles Dickens, considered one of the best storytellers in English literature, serialized their work. During that Victorian era, the line between "quality" and "commercial" literature was not distinct.
Serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain's Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution. A significant majority of "original" novels from the Victorian era actually first appeared in either monthly or weekly installments in magazines or newspapers.  The wild success of Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialized format within periodical literature. (Wikipedia).

As importantly, the first English novels of the 18th century were very serious affairs  indeed:
The early English novels concerned themselves with complex, middle-class characters struggling with their morality and circumstances. "Pamela," a series of fictional letters written in 1741 by Samuel Richardson, is considered the first real English novel. Other early novelists include Daniel Defoe, who wrote "Robinson Crusoe" (1719) and "Moll Flanders" (1722), although his characters were not fully realized enough to be considered full-fledged novels. Jane Austen is the author of "Pride and Prejudice" (1812), and "Emma" (1816), considered the best early English novels of manners (Tracy Stefan, History of the Novel, 2011)

Fiction, of course, is much older than the English novel.  The plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles are perhaps the seminal works of Western literature.  Combining drama, psychology, history, and human nature, they are works of intellectual rigor, insight, and expressive writing.  Without Oedipus there could have been no Hamlet.

Given this long, rich, and storied history of Western (and Eastern) literature, it is surprising that so many intellectuals not only prefer non-fiction but dismiss fiction.  After all there is really no such thing as fact.  History is  always written by the victor and not the vanquished.  Fact itself is given as much to subjective recall and interpretation as any fiction.  History, an assemblage of a few objectively verifiable events (the Battle of Borodino did happen, and there are rusted cannonballs and muskets to attest to it) but more personal accounts and second- and third-had reconstructions , cannot be considered absolute and undeniable.

French citizens who witnessed the craven events of Vichy France  still dismiss it as an aberration within an otherwise heroic underground Resistance.  German citizens deny popular complicity in the Holocaust and believe in the irrepressible will of Adolph Hitler.   Europeans and Arabs dispute the iconic French account of Roland’s and Charlemagne’s victory at Roncesvalles and focus more on the explosive, spiritually-driven Muslim march across North Africa.

Recent psycho-social research has all but debunked the testimony of eye-witnesses to crimes.  In one well-publicized case, all four witnesses swore that they saw two black men fire from a blue sedan, when later forensic and other objective evidence (airtight alibis) proved them wrong.  Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, and Kurosawa’s Rashomon are all stories about the subjectivity of perception.

Historical novels have become  increasingly popular.  Readers of this literary genre understand the fallible nature of historical records and accept that fictional interpolation is simply a matter of filling in ‘what was’ with ‘what might have been’.

The real point, however, has little to do with either the subjectivity of history or the fallibility of human perceptions.  Literary fiction may be the best if not the only way to understand the past.
Shakespeare knew this.  He observed that the one common denominator to all history was human nature.   Jan Kott, a noted Shakespearean critic noted that if one were to array Shakespeare’s Histories in chronological order, the stories would all be the same. 

Richard III, Henry V, the Dukes of York and Lancaster, King John, or Henry VIII all acted out of self-interest, territorialism, expansionism, a desire to accumulate wealth and property, and to assure the prosperity of their offspring.   What interested Shakespeare was the wonderful diversity in acting out these primal drives.

If one can feel the nature of Richard III, Iago, Edmund, Goneril and Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, or any of the Kings and Queens of England depicted in  his plays, one can understand the foundational basis of history, not just its twists and turns.

Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is a story about the intersection of American values, race, regionalism, and family dynamics; and is perhaps the best book ever written about the South.  In only a few pages Faulkner recounts the story of the development of the South, the emergence of the complex and sophisticated relationships between black and white, mulattoes, octoroons and quadroons, and its impact on one family.  While thousands of volumes have been written about the social, economic, historical, and cultural antecedents to slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, no one book can sum them all up in a dramatic, personal, and familiar story like Absalom, Absalom.

Hawthorne in both The Scarlet Letter and especially The House of the Seven Gables does much the same thing.  Like Faulkner he writes of the influence of the past on the present and how familiar human dramas are played out within a temporal context.  Trust, betrayal, compassion, deceit, morality and immorality are all conditioned by the past.  Hawthorne’s novels are both about the weight of history, family, and culture; the individuals struggling to survive under it; and the unavoidable forces of human nature that dictate their fate.

In other words, if one can understand through fiction why events happen – i.e. the human principles  that underlie all human actions – then the pursuit of facts and ‘reality’ is unnecessary if not irrelevant.
Of course facts will always be a factor in our personal assembly and understanding of the immediate world.  We need to pay attention to tax rates, run-ups to war, consumer spending, and economic disparities.  We have to negotiated traffic cameras, the rising price of butterfly lamb, and the meaning of rock-bottom oil prices.  Facts form the architecture of our world. 

However, at some point sooner rather than later, the need for underlying truth becomes more important than an illusory display of it.  Fiction is not a refuge for those wanting to ignore unpleasant facts or difficult ideas  It is the very place for understanding them.

Concussions - We Love Them And Won't Watch NFL Touch Football

Many Americans will be are glued to the television today (12.7.16) watching The Super Bowl; football; but many will do so over rising moral objections about the violence.

Pro football is a game of intricate strategies, the movement of the chess pieces, the tactical maneuvers, the athleticism of gazelle-like wide receivers, the brilliance of the quarterback who works in balletic tandem with them, and who in a millisecond calculated wind speed, route patterns, defensive alignments, and probability.

It is also a game of  brute force, the elemental power of vicious competition, blood lust fired by hopes of glory and reward and fueled by a pure essence of male testosterone flowing through perfect killing machines; a gladiatorial battle of these perfectly-sculpted, genetically ideal, uninhibited human specimens of will, destruction, and mayhem.

Some of us may turn our heads away from the gratuitous violence, the head-snapping high tackles, and coordinated phalanx rush of defensive linemen who displace thousands of pounds of massive human force to crush the quarterback, to crumple him with crushing hits from the front and from behind, twisting his frame into contorted agony, throwing him to the ground in triumph; but few of the rest of us do.  Yes, the game is a complex three-dimensional, dynamic chess match; a battle of intellect and will; a show of self-control, patience, and tactical restraint; but it is first and foremost a killer sport designed to inflict pain, suffering, and injury.  We don’t just want to see our opponent beaten, we want to see him subjugated, humiliated, bloodied, and cowed.

This is why concussions worry the NFL, ESPN, and CBS/FOX – they may turn football into a wussy game of touch.  This year the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has gone on the offensive saying, despite increasing forensic evidence, that the game is safe and getting safer.  The League has instituted new rules and regulations that are designed to reduce risk, and its new protocol ensures that any player suspected of a concussion is quickly examined for any signs of disability and is required to leave the game if any are found.  Because concussions are for more common than the NFL has been willing to admit, more and more players - many of them star performers - are being pulled off the field.

Great rivalries without star performers, however, are neutered affairs, amateur pick-up games that have interest for only the most collegial of fans.  When quarterbacks go down – as they have, will, and must because of the rules of mayhem which permit bashing, pummeling, and throttling – the game is no longer the same.  Second- and third-string quarterbacks send wounded ducks wobbling over the heads of receivers, make air-handoffs, collide with their own trailing backs, get pushed back to their own goal line because of delay-of-game penalties.

That eventuality, as bad as it is for the NFL is not what worries them most.  It is the removal of the very essence of pro football – the untamed violence, the hurt, and the blood – which gives them the shakes up in the sky boxes.  The NFL, the media, product advertisers, the team owners, and the thousands of stadium contractors, paraphernalia marketers are all in cahoots.  They know that the bloody, brutal, violent game of professional football is exactly what the fans want.


What should be done about concussions; and more importantly, should anything be done at all? The country is divided.  Some believe that the concern over concussions has gotten way out of hand. Anyone who plays professional football knows exactly what he is getting into. He knows that it is very probable that he will suffer at least one serious injury before he hangs it up. He, like the boxer who steps into the ring, knows that the game he has chosen to play is one based on violence, physical aggression, and controlled brutality.  Getting injured is a professional risk, and well worth it.

Every single quarterback, receiver, offensive lineman, or defensive back has gotten turned around at some point in his long career from Pop Warner through high school and in college.  They have had the experience of getting up from the turf, picking bits of mud and grass from their teeth, and being not quite sure what they were doing on the soggy, leaden field.  Or spent hours in the whirlpool soothing aching joints and muscles.  Scores of athletes have told their tales of not being able to move out of bed without Percocet, and not being able to move until ankles and knees have been trussed and strapped.

These athletes have understood the risk of professional football for decades, and they still knowingly accept it given the promise of big salaries, endorsements, and fame.  They are intelligent, savvy individuals who know how to assess risk and to calculate cost-benefit. Who doubts that most Division A elite college players, many of whom come from poor, dysfunctional families, and for whom football is not only a meal ticket but passage to the Elysium Fields of endless bling and hot women, would still play?  No one.

Other observers believe that nothing short of a fundamental restructuring of the game will do.  Why can't football be played in a way that still relies on balletic grace, intelligence, strategy, and precise timing but without the maiming contact?  Imagine a game with all the complex alignments, shifts, and movement of the current game - a game where supremely talented and trained athletes jump, accelerate, feint, and block but without the physical savagery.

While this might in theory be possible, it misses the point. Americans love professional football because of its ferocity, danger, and risk of injury or death.  Who would go to a NASCAR race with Interstate speeds and Prius acceleration would last?  Who would go to an NHL hockey game without the bone-jarring, concussive checks to the boards and the fights? Who would watch a prizefight if blows to the head were not permitted?  No one.

For better or worse, America is indeed the violent society that critics have observed.  From the Wild West to the inner city, shoot-outs settle disputes.  We are an aggressive, ambitious, individualistic society which has never been shy or apologetic about using force.  Our adventurous foreign policy is not a political aberration.  It is who we are.

It is perhaps unfair to pick on the United States.  The Middle East has recently erupted in a conflict as bloody, no-holds-barred, and violent as America could have ever concocted.  Wars, civil conflict, religious and ethnic dispute, and family feuds are as old as the human race.  Violence is as much a part of human nature as intelligence or creativity.

Politics is never far from any social issue in the United States, and American progressives have made more of the concussion issue than just player safety. “A legalized meat market”, social reformers shout.  “The NFL is a latter-day slave plantation with the black man under the lash of overseers and nothing more than the chattel of wealthy, aristocratic owners”.  To condone such anti-‘progressive’, licensed brutality when they are trying to promote civil harmony, international peace, and an end to history is simply unthinkable.

Frank Bruni writing in the New York Times in 2012 takes this ‘progressive’ sensitivity a step further.  Not only is professional football a supremely violent sport which maims players for life, it is rife with anti-social behavior:
There’s something rotten in the N.F.L., an obviously dysfunctional culture that either brings out sad, destructive behavior in its fearsome gladiators or fails to protect them and those around them from it. And while it’s too soon to say whether Belcher [recent murder/suicide] himself was a victim of that culture, it’s worth noting that the known facts and emerging details of his story echo themes all too familiar in pro football over recent years: domestic violence, substance abuse, erratic behavior, gun possession, bullets fired, suicide.
This is a very disingenuous observation.  Of course there will be domestic violence, substance abuse, erratic behavior, gun possession, and bullets fired in professional football since they are common in the communities from which players come.  No one in the NFL uses social workers to take family histories of players.  Scouts are only interested in speed, strength, desire, will, physical ability, and ambition.  They shy away from the least socialized of applicants – those who simply cannot restrain their destructive, antisocial behavior and who would be liabilities in a team sport – but tacitly agree that fighting your way up through the ghetto is one good indicator of will and drive.

In one of the most racist statements ever, the Deans of Harvard and Yale Law Schools wrote that they were specifically looking for black students because the struggles that black people have had to endure are so arduous and heroic that they are: a) stronger because of their constant fight and survival in a racist world and b) true Americans because they have never wavered in their quest for equality and excellence.

If Harvard and Yale subscribe to this claptrap, then without a doubt so does the NFL.  They are willing to take whatever the inner-city hands them provided they can perform on the field.  NFL owners like everyone else in market-driven America buy success.  They are not running rehab clinics, domestic violence counseling programs, or religious revivals. A certain degree of antisocial behavior comes with the territory. Bruni goes on:
The Union-Tribune maintains a database of N.F.L. players arrested since 2000. The list is long, and the league is lousy with criminal activity so varied it defies belief. The quarterback Michael Vick of course staged inhumane dog fights; the wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg with a gun he’d toted illegally into a nightclub; the wide receiver Dez Bryant was accused of assaulting his own mother.
What else is new? One only need look at the NBA which draws from the same social pool as the NFL for similar statistics.

Bruni ends his article with a mea culpa:
And we fans must demand it. On Monday morning, what didn’t feel right wasn’t just my neck, but also my conscience.
He is absolutely right.  We fans are complicit in the mayhem.  If we didn’t revel in the mayhem, maiming, and brutality, there would be no NFL or ESPN.  Sunday afternoons would feature soccer, golf, tennis, and figure skating. Take the thunder and lightning out of professional football, and no one will watch.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Addressing Social Inequality–The Restoration Of Fundamental Moral And Ethical Values

The son of a close friend will be married in June.  He, the son of a New York lawyer and a preeminent oncologist will wed the daughter of an equally successful Manhattan couple.  Isaac graduated from Stuyvesant High School near the top of his class, and his fiancĂ©e was a graduate of Hunter, another premier competitive high school in the city.  Isaac went on to Harvard and Harvard Law School, and she to Princeton and Yale Medical School.

The Levins were no different from any other upper middle-class Jewish family and as such prized learning and academic achievement.  Isaac and his sister Ruth never had to be advised or reminded of their patrimony.  Generations of Levins had succeeded in academia, business, and the professions.  Their academic and career trajectories had been determined since birth.

These expectations had never been expressly stated.  Nor had either of the Levin parents ever been Tiger Moms or Dads.  The culture of success, achievement, and personal achievement had never been questioned; and it was assumed that their children would follow the same trajectory as their parents and grandparents.

Isaac never felt obligated or pressured to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious family.  He was never hectored, badgered, or besieged.  He simply had grown up in a family that valued ideas and the discipline, logic, and perseverance that were the sine qua non of understanding, synthesis, and conclusion.

Dinner table discussions were often about morality, ethics, Judaic law and their application to modern life.  The ideas of Kant, Kierkegaard, and Schweitzer were never abstract intellectual premises, but viable , important postulates.  Kandinsky, Giotto, and Picasso were not simply artistic icons but creative geniuses who studied, interpreted, and validated life.  Humanism, revered by Isaac’s parents as the most influential philosophical movement since the Enlightenment, provided the intellectual context for all debates. 

                       Emmanuel Kant  www.lifeboat.clm

Although Isaac’s parents never insisted on its principles nor ever guided discussions to such rational conclusions, the lesson was not lost.  Success was never simply a matter of intelligence, ambition, and social savvy, but  a function of moral and ethical principles.

Isaac did well in school, but his parents were less concerned with his grades than what he had learned; and even before he entered kindergarten he had already been schooled in metaphysics and ontology.  Before he was five, Isaac had begun to understand the nature of things, their essence, and their meaning.

One day his father had taken him to the roof of their apartment building and let him explore the exhaust pipes, air conditioning units, and television towers servicing the units below.  Isaac learned that a hole could mean the aperture of a plumbing exhaust tube, the gaping unfinished repair of the gutters, and the opening to the elevator shaft.   A hole was always a hole, but had different dimensions, design, and character.

Isaac’s father liked to play word games with his on, and challenged him on the meaning of words and how they could represent concepts.  Words had meaning only within context.  Nothing was absolute but always conditioned.

Isaac’s world was never taken for granted.  Nothing was what it seemed, and everything had to be understood  based on what it could be.

The point is that from a very early age Isaac learned the value of objectivity, inquiry, and analysis.

Not only did Isaac’s parents insist on logical, disciplined study, but emphasized the moral and ethical implications of understanding.   It was never enough to conclude about the nature of being.  Responsible action, although predicated on logical conclusions, was a function of right.

It was no surprise, then, that Isaac was not only successful in his career, but became a profoundly moral person, one aware of the consequences of his actions on those less aware.

There has been considerable discussion about social and economic inequality; and most of it has been focused on the public interventions to address it.  The poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized only need remedial programs to help them join the mainstream- more attentive primary education, job training, and psycho-social preemptive counseling to improve self-esteem and image.  Yet few of these well-intentioned efforts address the foundational issues of dysfunction – the family.

By the time disadvantaged pupils enter primary school, it is too late.  The Isaac Levins have long left them behind.  They matriculate with none of the intellectual, moral, and ethical education necessary for social, economic, or personal success.

There are no programs to address this deficiency.  Head Start and other pre-school programs which attempt to redress the lack of intellectual training of early childhood can never compensate for parental indifference or ignorance.  Once a child has reached school age, the die has been cast.
How then, can the problem of early childhood learning be addressed?  How can the persistent problem of social dysfunction be remediated?  How can children learn the basic principles of right and righteous behavior that have been the foundation of all civilizations?

Cato the Elder, ancient Roman philosopher and educator is known for his diptychs – the essential precepts of education.  Honor, compassion, empathy, courage, respect, honesty, and discipline were the guiding principles of civilization; and were so taught to the future leaders of Empire.  Such education was no different in Athens, Persepolis, or London.   Why should it be any different today?  Why do we assume that social dysfunction can be remediated without these principles?


American ‘progressives’ have dismissed these principles and this education on the grounds of ‘diversity’.  Racial and ethnic minorities, victims of slavery, racism, and social marginalization have their own ethos and culture which must be respected.  The imposition of Western values is ethno-centric and outmoded.  Black teenagers subscribing to a sub-culture of street creds, sensitivity to disrespect, an overarching principle of local honor, and a need to survive in a hostile environment need to be respected for their particular ambition and reaction to their environment.

This attitude is tantamount to moral capitulation and ignorance of history.  Worse it is a patronizing and wrong consignment of these groups to permanent minority status.  Diversity is one thing but social and cultural imprisonment is another.

Such patronizing attitudes are the cause of perpetual minority dysfunction, and unless both community leaders and their majority supporters change their tune focus on responsibility, adherence to accepted norms, and reject the pervasive culture of entitlement, nothing will change.

Although some religious and secular leaders of minority communities have begun to speak out about ‘responsibility’, the nature of the socio-political system is such that these advisements have fallen on deaf ears.  Why should leaders insist on local responsibility when they know that millions of taxpayer dollars continue to flow?  Local governments are cash cows.

Pulling the plug seems harsh and retributive; but there is no other alternative. After decades of public assistance and investment with no visible results, a reliance on community effort is the only recourse.

A conservative administration in Washington will help and will do much to reverse the misguided progressive policies of the past; but only if local communities understand and accept responsibility can any meaningful change occur.