Negative Feedback vs. Positive Feedback

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

There is no denying that the country is divided on the subject of the administration of George W. Bush.

I wonder what a prudent politician must do to deal with such a condition, on the presumption that one does so because one is at least 1% devoted to the proposition that I represent, to the world, the entirety of the American population. If all you are concerned about is achieving and holding office for as long as possible, presumably for other goals to be sought, attainable only as the result of being in office, the strategy is simple. You must only achieve one vote more than required than the other guy.

George W. Bush is clearly content to serve only that part of the electorate that is sufficiently satisfied with his performance to vote in favor of keeping him to continue with it. His objective is simpler still than stated above. He must only gain, if needed, the additional votes necessary to keep him in office.

A president of the United States unconcerned about the significant opposition of his people — by what measure we call it "significant" is beyond my sense of it at the moment, but I am not in the position of being concerned about the size of the opposition — is as president too sure of himself to deserve to be president. As a practitioner of the black arts of psychiatry intimated to me recently, he wishes Bush were more neurotic.

Long since, President Bush has proven himself impervious to nay-saying. The likeliest reason is that he never seeks it, and, by extension, it is never brought to his attention (at least not at his behest).

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Bush and some old American traditions

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

George Bush is nothing, if not a quintessential American. He may be happy to consider himself so, but I do not mean this in a positive way.

Americans have, at their worst, certain tendencies that may characterize the American character. At the least they characterize the American way of life. No other sovereign culture permits what ours does. Hence few citizens of few other countries have the means to behave in a legal way that we do.

Blame the Other Guy

And if blame isn’t sufficient, have him investigated. It has happened at different times in different recent administrations in Washington that the touchstone for upright behavior was the expectation that the culprit (for which read, the Chief Executive) will own up to responsibility where such ownership is due. “I did it. I’m responsible,” is a simple formulation…

As they used to say in the Bronx, before they started with “fuggedaboudit,” I say, “fat chance.”

These days the buck stops well before it can be traced any further, or at least it stops in such an obscure place, the outgoing President, or the incoming, as the case may be, has plenty of time to put the culprit on the Big Pardon.

Politics trumps every other consideration

The key condition of having civiiization is people living together. Given human behavior, even two are a collective, with divergent, if not antithetical, goals and ways of reaching them. So with any more than one person there’s the need for politics—or its inevitability. By politics we live together, in the ultimately desultory and inefficient manner we’ve managed to do for as long as we’ve managed to call ourselves a civilization. That is, given human behavior, this means that at any one time it is impossible for the entire civilized collection of us to be happy. Hence, politics: the human way of controlling the inherent chaos, and at least paying lip service to the objective of seeing to it it gets no worse. As long as somebody is happy (somebody other than a politician) at any one time, we congratulate ourselves on our advances.

Each of us has been in the condition of not being in control. It is the defining condition of infancy and early childhood. Many of us have had some experience of being in control, as an older sibling, a bully, a boss, a parent.
Being in control is better. Hence the appeal of politics.

For one thing, being a politician significantly increases the chances that you will be, at any one moment, one of those people in the collective—the body of civilized men and women—who is indeed happy. Being in control may be a precondition. I’ll have to think about that.

In any event, politics tends to encourage those in power to want to stay there.

By at least nominally taking care of business (and civilization is now so complex, we are now so beset by laws and rules and statutes and protocols—with every one of them invented at the time because it served the specific purpose of meeting somebody’s idea of how to keep somebody, usually someone else, or something under control—that most of the population is happy to have someone else assume the job of staying on top of things, so the rest of us can pursue the full time job of keeping misery at bay). Trouble is, it’s merely a nominal proposition; we say, “Thank God, that’s being taken care of,” and go back to making shopping lists for our weekly visit to the local big box market.

You’d think politics—running things—would be a more than full time proposition. But it seems so many politicians find so many opportunities to spend a considerable amount of time running things to their advantage. Until someone notices that no one is really running things. It’s a sad proposition, but the best test of whether politics is working is to have the least number of people with any advantage whatsoever.

Never happens, of course, but we keep trying. The only thing we’ve proven is that the people in power do manage to have some advantage, certainly relative to everyone else, and that becomes a very strong incentive for wanting to stay there. In power.

The result, and we will have to ignore a great deal of history of noble and ignoble rhetoric, which pretty much started the moment Aristotle sent his final corrected galleys of “Politics” to the publisher (so to speak) and people realized this politics was a pretty good idea, is that people in power will say anything to stay there, and if they are not in power, but want to be, they will pretty much say anything, usually about who is in power, to unseat the incumbent and replace them.

Politics is a pretty good idea, at least in principle. Problem is, with regard to politics, “principle” has passed from its ethical sense of the fundamental code of good conduct to its strictly ordinal sense of being the first stone one puts it place before proceeding with the rest of the edifice (usually dedicated to the one who placed the stone).

So, politics is no longer a matter of “first, let’s do the right thing.” It’s a matter of, “first, let’s get into office.”

With such a modus vivendi—certainly it’s the operating truth of American politics, realized most purely in presidential politics—the only dignity we can cling to is that shred that adheres to the rule of honoring the office, and not the human who happens to occupy it.

Don’t read the manual

We’re an appliance happy culture, and we expect all appliances to work the same way — without need for consulting the instructions, however simple. Yet the biggest problem in tech support, for example, with computers (which are not so simple, and far from being appliances) is the neglect of the first two instructions with any electrical device: “Plug it in, and turn it on.”

Apparently Mr., Bush, the chief executive after all, that is, head of the branch of government charged with actually conducting the business of government, likes to pretend that this is a silly first order of business. It’s running, isn’t it? In the case of national security and threats to same (not to mention threats to the life and limb of the citizens of our great republic), Mr. Bush will be the first to allude to his sworn duty to “preserve and protect” the Constitution and all it entails. Hint, it entails protection from threats.

Yet his defense concerning a top secret briefing memo on security was there was nothing to be done in response as it was bereft of hard evidence. In appliance metaphor terms, the oven was on full blast, and we had somehow got our hands on the recipe for Symbol of Financial Power Flambé, but we were not only on the road with the car packed, but we were already at our happy vacation hacienda, and George W. is not apparently one of those kinds of husbands who suddenly wonders if “Gee, did I leave the oven—burners, air conditioner, clothes iron, wood chipper….—running?”

Dealing with terrorism is of course not so reductive, and that stove metaphor looks silly, especially when you consider that, well, they don’t eat what we do. Hell, they don’t even like the same foods. You’d think we’d check up ahead of time on the culture, dining habits, typical dishes, how they’re cooked. But we get along by assuming the world loves a mess of ribs, smoked and slathered with sauce, and dammit, who doesn’t love pork?

Back to that issue of hard evidence for a moment though. In the new millennium, hard evidence is what you get after the fact (remember the innocent days of Watergate, when a magically re-appearing strip of Scotch® Brand transparent tape on a door lock of the office complex garage was enough hard evidence of something or other for an untrained, unarmed security guard to call in the gendarmes?)

Intelligence chatter, and the educated deductions of trained, experienced intelligence professionals is not hard evidence. Declarative sentences are not hard evidence. Four highjacked planes (three of them still with the honor of being implemented successfully as the world’s largest and deadliest IEDs [improvised explosive devices]). That’s hard evidence.

Hmmmm, we’d better check into this. That rascal Osama bin Laden.

Talk Big, Think Small

The big stick is standard issue, so even Teddy Roosevelt would be comfortable with that. But what happened to speaking softly? We should not even inquire into the current state of the Great Unanswered Question (not “why are we here?,”  but “who the hell do you think you are?”), as this might require some intellectual vigor, based on reading, inquiry, thought and analysis.

No, Americans like big talk. Making the world safe for democracy.  Nice idea. Noble. But with the small problem that, as the basis of a strategy, it calls for large, complex, sustained, and lengthy implementation. Not the least of the tasks is facing up to some big enemies, and doing it with some delicacy.

Like big talk, Americans like big action, or shall we say, concrete action. Accomplishing the obvious, and recounting the tale in its entirety (“mission accomplished”) even while satisfying the endemic national attention deficit.

Having suffered the humiliation of a protracted standoff, at great human and financial expense, with a determined enemy that had already withstood a slightly older version of an indomitable, superior, and larger and more sophisticated military foe, we’ve been picking easier targets ever since, or pulling out before something very small and nasty turned into something very big and even nastier. Lest I lose anyone here, I’m talking Vietnam, who had already outlasted the French, and subsequently the malleable, but only mildly unpleasant regimes of Haiti, Grenada, Panama. The pullouts occurred in Lebanon and Somalia, you may recall, but that may only have occurred because we had not as yet drawn a bead on a definable enemy, even an abstract one, like “world terrorism.”

Hence our big actions involve lots of men and lots of guns and lots of noise, and until George W. Bush lots of justification, at least enough of the sort that satisfied the most reasonable of exponents of liberalism.

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Regarding Writing and Reading

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

I find, especially as I’ve gotten older (how many times do I think this should be a "default" opening for anything I write?), that I am less and less inclined to write at length, and even more so disinclined to read matter of great length.

The issue seems to me to be one of the engagement and interest. If I am fired up about a subject or a topic, I go on blithely and at what I know to most other people are insuperable lengths to state my point, whatever digressions my rambling may inspire (or provoke), whatever associated matters, with an attendant discussion of a length that the new matter deserves. This is a behavior that produces a result that to many people (and always as a surprise to me) is the object of envy. Why on earth would anyone want to be able to express themselves in such a way, and endlessly to boot? Further inquiry reveals that this envy is more of an abstract wistfulness about the difficulty of self-expression. I become convinced that it is less the actual artfulness that is evident and more the quite evident ease with which the words pour out that elicits the envy.

Similarly, if I am truly interested in the subject, presumably either in some visceral way, or at least as a matter of prolonged intellectual engagement, I will read on, in any medium, sometimes doggedly (held back chiefly by the ineptitude, or at least the inelegance, of the writing skills of the author). When I was training to be a scholar, which is how I think of my career both as an undergraduate and a graduate student of literature, I quickly learned of the most daunting aspect of the regimen. It is only in retrospect that I can articulate and hold closely my belief in the actual challenge. Through my student days, I always wondered about the soundness of my own intellectual equipment, not only in making discoveries of merit, and using such discoveries as the basis of original, cogent, and useful scholarship on matters that might in fact add to the store of human knowledge, and most specifically about the nature of being alive, as a human. I should not have worried, as I well knew with the abrupt end to my formal education, having observed the evidence of the extent and quality of the equipment bestowed upon my peers and found myself at least to have a middling chance at competing on that score as a result of the talents and skills I myself possessed.

No, the true obstacle to furthering a career in academe (aside from the vagaries of the intrigues, politics, and bureaucratic snafus that seem to characterize academic life as much as life in any other profession or craft) is slogging through the dross, through the verbal landfill that characterizes most of the output of writers on serious subjects, including unhappily (and, as they say in the software business, counter-intuitively), literature. Language is not the determinant. Whatever the native language of the writer, and whatever the language of the subject matter, there is a high degree of predictability that the writing will be impenetrable, off-putting, and, incomprehensible.

I am convinced, and I state this at the risk of becoming a target to whom one of the worst of epithets that I can think of applies, "anti-intellectual," that one reason for the esteem, as well as the cachet of difficulty and extremity of understanding, in which certain orthodoxies are embraced is the execrable way, indeed the almost impossible way there is about them of extracting any meaning, in which the theorists of that orthodoxy have expressed themselves. My metaphorical hat is off to those who, not so much translated them from some other tongue than English (fill in your own languages here), but to those who have managed somehow to abstract, distill, or otherwise channel, whatever wisdom or fineness of thought that may be therein embedded. If Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard and company have a following at all among Anglophones it is due to those brave, prescient, enduring, or possibly inventive, souls who have mined the tons of ore that are their canons, and managed to put on display, in clear, cogent and attractive form, what gems (and such seems the ratio of ore-to-precious substance) these living intellectual spelunkers of deep, unlit grottoes have claimed to have found hidden in their darkest corners. It’s easy to turn foreign gibberish into gibberish in English. Most such translators hone their skills through a youth misspent in generating their own original gibberish.

If it were up to me, their greatest contributions would have been relegated to the status of effective sleep aids. I lament the years, made up of strings of anxious moments as I despaired ever of writing like a critic or scholar, whose accumulated output would burden, for decades, if not centuries, the shelves of ill-lit book stacks only to be exposed to light by hapless students whose plight it is to suppose that one day they themselves will have left behind something worthwhile reading, never mind pondering and explicating to oneself, and then to others, and not to mention the actual business of modern scholarship, and that is, to build upon, enhance, or perhaps take issue with on substantive grounds, only to emerge as the basis for a new or anti-orthodoxy. The brotherhood of academia seemingly takes (or took — I will not speak for current conditions) one vow, and that is never to suggest to recruits, neophytes or acolytes that this particular emperor wears exclusively the proverbial emperor’s wardrobe.

Discovering truth is a tough business. To cloak what one believes is truth in anything but crystalline garb (a not subtle distinction from the cloth of the famous Emperor’s cloak) is to leave the truth undiscovered. To do otherwise also suggests that the discoverer is incapable, in his or her own field, of accomplishing successfully what I am told the mathematician must understand is the great challenge of his discipline. It is said that if you cannot explain your theorem (never mind its proof) to an intelligent ten year-old, it is likely you do not understand it yourself. Einstein said, "make it as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Compression of Language / Compression of  Thought

The Einsteinian admonition to be as simple as possible is not a command to be poetic, gnomic, or epigrammatic in expression. Bible study over two millennia has demonstrated that the simplest of texts can inspire torrents of words by way of enlightenment, explanation, explication, or mere rhapsodizing. Some seemingly simply stated concepts sometimes require lengthy elucidation. The danger is in imagining that such elucidation requires something other than clarity and simplicity (of that further irreducible Einsteinian variety of "simple") itself.

There is a truism, I believe, that suggests that even the most seemingly difficult of ideas — the Theory of Relativity is the usual contemporaneous example, as it has been (and as it has been contemporaneous) for a number of decades now, suggesting a dearth of truly difficult, truly profound ideas in the interim, that is, since 1905 — will eventually become the curriculum in high school, if not in the lower grades. This is a testament not to the diminution in time of the profundity of an originally difficult idea, but to the power, as I am trying to suggest, of simplicity. For you advocates of String Theory, I will say simply that I am not aware that it is as much an integral part of the high school physics curriculum, nor may I suggest, is it as simple (and no simpler) a theory as that of Relativity. I will not comment on either its profundity, or repercussions (but merely because I know even less than I do about its currency in high school curricula).

For me, if some things have proven more difficult for their hardness (I mean this metaphorically, in the metallurgical or gemological sense), it is not that I am less interested in them. There are lines of poetry, if not whole poems, that I would put on a par, in terms of comprehension in an encompassing fashion, with certain principles of science. I spent less time with the so-called Laws of Thermodynamics, than with some of the Cantos of Pound, not because one was harder than the other, and certainly not because of a proportionate lack of clarity (or simplicity, if you prefer), but because the one interested me more. It seems to me that scientific laws (or equations) and poetry are, by intent and definition and the magical ingenuity of the language of each, that is, the least building blocks of the language of each: letters and integers, the least reducible ways in which we can express, simply, any idea, from the most homely and quotidian to the most profound. There is no more efficient way, I don’t think, of compressing meaning via language than through poetry or the formulae and equations of mathematics (itself, essentially, the language of science).

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