Friday, September 25, 2009

A Fishy Tale

"But man was not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed, but never defeated." -- Santiago

There was a small to-do a while back, I forget precisely how long, when a European scholar on the committee that awards the Nobel prize for literature said that no current American authors need apply. The remark raised my hackles at the time. It's a cottage industry for European intelligentsia, looking down their noses at those ignorant Americans. But now, having surveyed a few of the more prominent American authors from the first half of the 20th Century, I kind of see his point. There aren't many current authors who are fit to hold the pen of a Steinbeck, or a Fitzgerald.

Or a Hemingway.

The Old Man and the Sea was one of Hemingway's last books, and some say it was his best. The plot is simple: an old fisherman in the middle of a slump goes out alone, hooks a giant fish, and fights to get his prize back home. But glossing over it like that misses the much larger point: a man's not beat until he decides that he's beaten. As long as he refuses to yield, he's still in the fight.

You might think this an odd theme for Hemingway to explore, given the way he checked out. I tend to give him a pass on that. In those days, they didn't understand depression very well, or how to treat it. The electroshock therapy was slowly destroying his brain. The man simply wasn't in his right mind, there at the end.

In any case, the theme of endurance runs through the book. At virtually any point, Santiago could have cut his losses and come home. He could have given up fishing right at the start. He could have given up before going far out to sea, or when he realized what a big fish he'd hooked. He could have given up at any point during the chase. He especially could have given up when the sharks came, and began devouring his prize bite by bite. But he didn't. As he said, a man can be destroyed but not defeated. He came home with prize basically worthless, that no one would pay any money for ... but a legendary one, that every other fisherman would envy.

The phrase "nothing ventured, nothing gained" rolls so glibly off our tongues that we scarcely realize the truth of those words. Nothing great was ever achieved without cost. No worthy goal is ever gained without hard work and persistence. Santiago's lesson for us is that when life gets hard, we face a choice. We can either take the easy way and quit ... or we can face the challenge, and show the world what we're made of.

The verdict: highly recommended. There are few finer books that a young man could read.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Epic Fail, Joint Address Edition

"Captain Sobel! We salute the rank, not the man."
-- Major Richard Winters, 506th PIR

People who complain about the lack of civility in politics generally don't remember how it was back in the old days, when fistfights on the floor of the House weren't particularly uncommon. Or, the way Lincoln's opponents compared him to an ape. Politics has always had an ugly side ... but, generally speaking, we've always had a modicum of respect for the Presidency itself. Even when we didn't especially like the man holding the office.

But, sadly, that appears to have changed.

Joe Wilson is a disgrace to the Congress, to his party, to his home state of South Carolina, and to the traditions of the fine nation he purports to serve. Hang your head in shame, sir! Hang your head in shame.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Call of the Weird

We commonly use "Left" and "Right" to describe people's political views. This usage stems from the time of the French Revolution, where it actually described where the delegates actually sat when the National Constituent Assembly was in session. As a valid descriptor of political philosophy, that was when it was most current and most valid. It's still an adequate description for most people. Most of us can identify as either liberal/progressive, conservative, or somewhere in between. But not all. Not every political philosophy maps uniquely onto the left-right curve.

There are a couple of different ways to represent this. The one I like best was devised by Jerry Pournelle while he was writing his Ph.D. dissertation in political science:

The first thing I'd like to stress about this is that "irrational" isn't necessarily an insult in this context, it simply means that the person in question doesn't believe that the problems of society can be solved by reason. "Rational" means that the person in question does believe that reason can be applied to the problems of society. And it's not a true/false distinction, everyone is on a continuum from one to the other. Likewise, "Statism" isn't an insult, it simply means that he or she believes that government is, itself, a positive good.

The nice thing about this representation is that you can uniquely place just about every political philosophy you ever heard of. The odd thing is that people looking across an axis, say, Democrats and Republicans, tend to think that the guy on the other side is crazy. Equally strange is that looking across a diagonal you don't necessarily get that same sense, even though they're just as far away from you as the guy across the axis. I'm not sure why that is. It's a very interesting insight, though.

The Nolan Chart is rather less useful, because it doesn't quite map every philosophy uniquely. However, it does come with an on-line test. It's useful for a first approximation of where you stand. Not that most of us need a quiz to figure that out ... Anyway, I took it again today, and here's the result:

I tend to wander, depending on exactly how I'm feeling that day, but I'm usually within a tick of that spot. I could be either Democrat or Libertarian with little heartburn. I was a Democrat precinct chair in '02, and voted that way in the last two elections. I may yet go back.

Now, the question is, why Libertarian?

My basic view on government is that of Jefferson: that government governs best which governs least. Minimalism describes my creed probably better than any other term. People will always misuse and abuse authority, so they should be given as little of it as possible. This is the point where my views are most congruent with the Libertarian Party. As I've said before, I love my country and I support my government, but that doesn't mean I trust them much. That said, minimalism isn't necessarily all that practical in a country that is, after all, the third most populous nation on Earth. It was doable when we were a smallish agrarian nation. But it's a recipe for anarchy when we're standing shoulder-to-shoulder, all 300 million of us. Now, I'm looking for a balance point between the freedom of the individual and the health of the society. I'm not sure where that is, but I'm fairly sure that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a complete lock on it either.

But I'm not a hard-core Libertarian. There are a lot of areas where I don't especially agree with them. The thing that kept me away from them for a long time was, well, a basic stinginess I sense from them. Their economic policies are at best strange, and at worst, stone barking mad. Their basic approach towards adversity is that you should man up and get over it. While that's a nice idea in principle, sometimes it just can't be done in practice. Not everyone is that resilient or resourceful.

However, they're fairly harmless. It's not like they're ever going to get enough of a majority to do anything. If we were to group people on a Nolan chart, they'd probably look something like this:

Most people, I'd venture to say 90% or so, would spread along the middle, roughly according to the Law of Thirds. (That's 1/3 Right, 1/3 Center, 1/3 Left.) Of the other ten percent ... well, I can't imagine too many people down at the bottom corner of the chart. Kim Jong-Il, maybe. Or Doctor Doom. Or just about any of James Bond's villains. But no one that actually works for a living. No, the truly weird have one and only one true home: the top corner. Never mind that they'll have about as much luck selling their platform to the electorate as they'd have selling ice to Eskimos. They're made of sterner stuff. In the abstract, I admire that kind of stubborn resolve ... but I'd rather spend mine on something I can actually accomplish.

And just right now, that "something" is helping my daughter with some homework. It's a great life if you don't weaken...