The Unexamined Life and the Fate of Serious Reading


A serious book about serious reading. By “serious” I mean a book that takes comparatively serious effort. But Bound to Please is also a pleasing book, for those who make the effort. You’ll know what I mean by “serious” and “pleasing” when you read the following selection. Author Michael Dirda comments on a report issued by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—called “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” The preface to that report is by Dana Gioia, a distinguished poet and critic.

“’Reading at Risk’ is right to lament the decline of what I will forthrightly call bookishness. As the report implies, the Internet seems to have delivered a possibly knockout punch. Our children now can scarcely use a library and instead look to the Web when they need to learn just about anything. We all just click away with the mouse and remote control, speeding through a blur of links, messages, images, data of all sorts. Is this reading? As Gioia reminds us, ‘print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability—and the many sorts of human continuity it allows—would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.’

 

“Yes, the Internet has allowed fans of Finnegans Wake and Dorothy Sayers and the English ghost story to gather and share their knowledge. Web sites and chat rooms do encourage people from around the world to form digital communities. But the computer must seem a far more ambiguous gift to anyone who has ever faced screenfuls of spam, or discovered that hours are eaten up just answering email, or found their colleagues drooling over pixellated lovelies, or noticed that their children had stopped going outside because they were unable to tear themselves away from bloody, digitized battles, or simply realized that they themselves felt incomplete when not online every minute of the day—and half the night. In other words, virtually all of us recognize that that flat-screen monitor before our eyes casts an insidious spell, and all too often it seems that the best minds of the next generation—and more than a few of our own—are being lost to its insidious, relentless ensorcellments. Who now among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly edgy’?

 

“Americans can still be smart and creative, but the pressure of the times is oriented toward quickness—we want instant messaging, live news breaks, fast food, mobile phoning, and snap judgments. As a result, we are growing into a shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere speed and spectacle in all aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that just maybe we’ve shortchanged our better selves, that we might have listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art, read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because it was time to tune into Law and Order reruns, or jack into a WarCraft game on our home computer, or get back to the latest made-for-TV best seller. Sometimes nonetheless, late at night or when faced with one of life’s true crises, we will surprise in ourselves what poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.”

MDirda-Book Cover-Bound to Please

Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education—Essays on Great Writers and Their Books
Author: Michael Dirda
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Copyright 2005 by Michael Dirda
Pages xxv-xxvi

Questions to Consider:
1. Dirda compares serious reading with the Internet, to draw attention to the special value of reading real books. What values are compromised when the print-culture gives way to the Web-culture?
2. What is Dirda’s basic thesis? What do you find most convincing about his thesis?
3. How do these few paragraphs make you feel about your own reading practices?
4. What does the word ensorcellment mean? Why would Dirda use an unfamiliar word like this here?

Is Donald Trump a “Birther”?


Donald Trump has been making a very publicly visible appeal to President Obama to settle the matter once and for all and make his birth certificate public. Does this make Trump a “birther”?

First, keep in mind that the term “birther” has been used by the media to stigmatize a portion of the American electorate as right-wing kooks. Some media outlets seem to have calculated that by calling these American citizens by this epithet it will eventually embarrass and silence them, or at least contain their influence.

This appears to be a clear effort to defend the President. But defend him from what? Apparently, the President’s stubborn refusal to publish his birth certificate is viewed even by his defenders as a posture that is worthy of media defense. But why?

And what exactly is a birther? You’re definitely supposed to be a birther if you actually believe that Obama was not born in the United States. There are people in this country who believe this. So they have the clearest claim to the epithet. And maybe some of these “true believers” wear the epithet with pride.

Are you a birther if you are genuinely concerned about the possibility that Obama was not born in this country, and would simply like for him to step up and prove that he was? I wouldn’t say so. And this seems to be Donald Trump’s attitude. Trump, as far as I can tell, is not a birther. He has said that he hopes Obama was born in this country. Would a real birther hope for this?

With Trump’s recent appeal to Obama to take the very simple step of proving his citizenship, I’ve thought about the issue a bit more than in the past. It now seems to me that Obama has repudiated an opportunity to demonstrate good will toward all Americans, including those who would like to have clarity about this matter. What possible harm can there be in accommodating a reasonable request for such information? What past American President would refuse to make his birth certificate public if there was such a broad interest in seeing his American citizenship demonstrated?

Many who are not generally considered birthers have enjoined Obama to produce his certificate. In response, challengers often say, “Do you believe that Obama was not born in the United States?” And if the answer is, “No,” then challengers think it’s stupid to ask the President for his birth certificate. But it isn’t stupid. If there is enough concern among the American people to see this demonstrated, then that should be reason enough for the President to accommodate them.

That’s my view, then. Without believing that Obama was born outside the United States, I do believe he very simply ought to make his birth certificate public. I believe this because his refusal to do so has revealed a stubbornness that is unbecoming of the leader of our nation. There’s some reason why he does not wish to give satisfaction to those who have called for it. Those reasons create suspicion and escalate discord about the matter. Why not “bring the country together” on such a small point?

Trump alleges that Obama has spent quite a bit of money to ensure that his birth certificate does not come to light. If that’s true, I’d like to know why. Does it lead me to believe that Obama was not born in the U.S.? No.

Others have said that media outlets are so thorough in their scrutiny of a presidential candidate that if Obama was not born in the United States, then this would have been exposed during Obama’s candidacy. But doesn’t this argument cut the other way just as well? Doesn’t it stand to reason that if Obama was born in the United States—given the huge controversy concerning the President’s citizenship—compelling evidence that he was born in the U.S. would have come to light via media scrutiny? The evidence, apparently, hasn’t been conclusive either way.

The issue hasn’t subsided and there’s reason to think it will haunt the President in the future. It’s looking now like Obama will be confronted with this issue again as he campaigns for a second term. Will the pressure be great enough this time round for him to capitulate and make his birth certificate public? Who can say? If the President was not born in the U.S., then, by Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, Obama is not the legitimate President of the United States. That would provide motive for refusing to go public. But if that’s true, how long can the truth be suppressed? I imagine that sooner or later, even if Obama is elected for a second term, actual dissembling about his citizenship would come to light eventually. And that would not be good for Obama.

Here’s something to consider. There’s a good chance that the history books will note the issue and document Obama’s determination not to publicize his birth certificate. Readers will not have the benefit of observing his charisma and judge his likeability. If the President isn’t eventually forthcoming, perhaps a majority of Americans a couple generations from now will be birthers. That would not be good for Obama, either. What President would wish to go down in history as very possibly the only “American President” who was never really a legitimate President? The only way for Obama to ensure that that never happens is for him to produce his birth certificate.

Notes:

  • FactCheck.com concluded that an alleged digital copy of the certificate, released by the Obama 2008 Campaign, is of an authentic certificate for Obama from Hawaii. The story features a foto with the caption “The Obama birth certificate, held by FactCheck writer Joe Miller.”
  • Snopes.com also has written in defense of this perspective.
  • See Wikipedia articles on conspiracy theories about the Obama birth certificate and about Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Donald Trump appears to be testing the water for a run at the presidency in 2012. Could this be why he has re-introduced the topic of Obama’s birth certificate into the national discussion?
  • Chester Arthur, 21st President of the U.S., has gone down in history with doubts about his citizenship still lingering. Vice President Arthur succeeded President James Garfield after Garfield died of gunshot wounds caused by an assassin.

Related Post:

Dick Morris Reports Popular Support for Controversial Governors


Events in Japan have caused a nearly total news blackout on everything else. But things continue to happen elsewhere in the world. For instance, in Wisconsin, the Republican Governor Scott Walker is still threatened by angry Democrat leaders, and a few Republican state senators are being challenged with recall efforts by Democrat senators who boycotted passage of a bill they didn’t like by leaving the state.

Dick Morris, a very smart political strategist, has polled Americans for their attitudes about these happenings. The strong more popular support for bold challenges to public employee unions surprised me.

One of the most interesting sections of Morris’s report says this:

Absentee State Legislators

Voters reacted strongly against state legislators who boycott their legislatures to stop the passage of labor legislation. By 25-61 they rejected the idea that it is “necessary” for Democrats to boycott the legislature so as to deny the majority a quorum “to stop legislation restricting unions from being passed.” The majority agreed that the legislators “should return to the legislature and respect the decisions the voters have made in the last election.”

See the full report here.

Stock Market Responding to Japan’s Nuclear Crisis—The Role of American Media


The stock market is responding to Japan’s nuclear crisis, and the picture isn’t pretty. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished down 242 points today. The Nasdaq dropped by 51 points.

This is because the stock market doesn’t like uncertainty. And uncertainty is the hallmark of the current situation. Japan is in crisis. The American media are trying get to the bottom of things. But they have resorted to sheer speculation on the basis of doubtful evidence. I hold the irresponsible media partly responsible for our stock market malaise.

Japanese officials are holding their cards close to the vest. Is this because the news about their damaged nuclear reactors is far worse than they want the world to know? Or is it because the Japanese culture favors patient and cautious reporting rather than minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow updating? Who knows?

Here’s something we do know. When the American media bring the experts in to speculate about events unfolding in Japan, they are compelled to reflect “two sides” to the “issue.” (Maxim: “There https://douggeivett.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpare two sides to every issue.”) What’s the issue? “Just how bad is the situation and how much risk of spreading radiation is there right now?” So one expert is selected precisely for his relative optimism and another is selected for her more negative outlook. This does not ensure that the media retain individuals on each side who are equally competent to evaluate what little is known.

Case in point: Bill O-Reilly (Fox News) interviewed Professor Richard Muller, a physicist at UC Berkeley, and Rita King who, bless her heart, is a “former nuclear industry journalist.” Speculation without benefit of good data is bad enough. But speculation from a former journalist is painfully specious.

Gunther Oettinger

Cameras with direct feed into some American broadcast studio are an invitation to loose lips. Have you heard what Gunther Oettinger said today? Who’s Gunther Oettinger, you ask. He’s the European Union Energy Chief. Gunther said that Japan’s nuclear plant crisis is “out of control.” This was during a European Parliament committee meeting in Brussels. The stock market went nuclear; the sell-off in equities plunged deeper. Read about this here, where we’re told:

The EU energy commissioner’s spokeswoman, however, later clarified that Oettinger did not have any special or extra information on the situation in Japan.

There you have it. An escalation in alarmist talk with no correlative change in data.

Let’s face it. We don’t know what’s happening on the ground in Japan. Our typically American demand for immediate information and quick fixes isn’t getting us anywhere. Poor Shepard Smith, of Fox News, flew out to Japan to get first-hand information, and he’s learning more about what’s happening in Japan during his conversations with Fox anchors at home than he is from officials in Japan.

In American news reporting, there’s no such thing as keeping your powder dry and your mouth shut. But if there isn’t any more specific real news from Japan soon, the media may have to start covering other important issues and events happening in the world, like our national debt and the Congressional failure to produce a budget, the war in Afghanistan, and Muammar Gaddafi’s goofy and perilous antics in Libya.

Nuke Media Distortion with Facts—What to Believe about the Dangers of Japan’s Nuclear Reactors


Are you good at believing the things you believe? That’s my motto. So what are we supposed to believe about the danger of nuclear radiation following Japan’s recent 9.0 earthquake and damage to nuclear reactors at two locations?

Satellite view of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

First, why we need to know what is happening:

  • We care about the safety of the Japanese people.
  • We care about the safety about the world population.
  • We care about radiation drift toward North America.
  • We have energy needs that may be met with new reactors in the U.S., but only if they’re safe.

Second, why the mainstream media cannot be trusted for knowledge of what is happening:

  • The media are prone to sensationalize the “news” in order to boost their ratings.
  • The media have a liberal bias, which is already heavily invested in opposition to nuclear energy.
  • The media have no idea what a reactor is, how one works, and what terms mean when used to described behavior at a nuclear plant (e.g., “meltdown).
  • The media, even if they try for “balanced coverage” by “experts” with opposing views, are as likely to get crackpots having their own meltdown over what’s happening in Japan.

Third, the only way to nuke media distortion (whether deliberate or not) is with facts and critical reflection.

For facts, the internet is probably your best guide.

The most valuable report I’ve read so far comes from Dr. Josef Oehman, a research scientist in mechanical engineering and engineering systems at MIT. Read his analysis “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors”. The cost of being well-informed is the effort of becoming informed. Oehman’s article is lengthy, but accessible. You can settle for sound bytes or get the facts in clear and cogent detail.

Oehman captures the threat level with this advice:

If you were sitting on top of the plants’ chimney when they were venting, you should probably give up smoking to return to your former life expectancy.

I’ve started following Oehman on Twitter.

Of course, you want more than one doctor’s opinion. So switch off your TV and search out other reliable sources of real information. If you must monitor the TV coverage, be sure to note the names of specialists and experts who are interviewed, find out who they work for, and examine their credentials.

And listen carefully to the naive questions the journalists are asking. Watch for their own off-hand comments and simplistic reactions. Last night I watched Geraldo interview specialists about the news out of Japan. Geraldo marveled with near-panic that engineers had resorted to flooding their reactors with sea water in order to cool the over-heated reactors. Apparently he didn’t know that this is backup protocol when disaster strikes. (See the article by Oehman.)

Critics of nuclear energy will be sorely tempted to make good use of the disaster in Japan. But this could backfire on them if it turns out that the 9.0 earthquake demonstrates the safety and viability of nuclear power plants, even when disaster strikes.

Time will tell.

What Is Modus Tollens?


Modus tollens is a valid argument form. Because the form is deductive and has two premises and a conclusion, modus tollens is an example of a syllogism. (A syllogism is any  deductive argument with two premises and a conclusion.)

The Latin phrase ‘modus tollens‘, translated literally, means ‘mode of denying’.

Shown schematically, this form of argument looks like this:

Premise 1: If A then B.

Premise 2: Not-B.

Conclusion: Therefore, not-A.

Arguments of this form are produced by substituting statements in English for A and for B. For example, suppose A = ‘Casey is a dog’ and B = ‘Casey has four legs.’ We can substitute as follows, for a valid argument:

Premise 1: If Casey is a dog, then Casey has four legs.

Premise 2: Casey does not have four legs.

Conclusion: Therefore, Casey is not a dog.

Any argument of this form is valid. But not every argument of this form is sound. For an argument to be sound, it must meet two requirements. First, it must be valid; second, it must have true premises. The above argument about Casey is valid, but it’s not sound. Why? Because the first premise is false. It implies that all dogs have four legs. But this generalization, unfortunately, is not true. (It also turns out that Casey does have four legs; so premise 2 is false, also.)

Because modus tollens arguments are always valid, we may extrapolate from this argument form a rule of inference as follows:

“Always infer not-A from the conjunction of two premises, if one premise is a conditional statement of the form ‘If A, then B,’ and the other premise denies B.” (The order of the premises doesn’t matter.)

Caveat:

Be careful not to confuse modus ponens with modus tolendo ponens. Modus tolendo ponens is an argument of the following form:

Premise 1: Either A or B.

Premise 2: Not-A.

Therefore, B.

See also “What Is What Is Modus Ponens?”

The Perils of Multiculturalism


British Prime Minister David Cameron

One of the most important speeches of the year—and it’s only February now—was delivered by British Prime Minister David Cameron a few days ago at the Munich Security Conference. In his speech he focused, in laser-beam fashion that is unusual for a politician, on the perils of multiculturalism. I urge you to read or view his speech.

Cameron links “Islamist extremism” to the “British experience” of multiculturalism, and argues that, if only for security purposes, multiculturalism must be reversed in his country.

Here are a few questions we all should be considering:

  1. What is “multiculturalism”?
  2. What’s the difference between multiculturalism and a policy of multiculturalism?
  3. Does Great Britain have a policy of multiculturalism? Does the United States?
  4. What are the virtues of multiculturalism?
  5. What are the perils of multiculturalism?
  6. Should the British government halt multiculturalism?
  7. Can the British government halt multiculturalism?

I’m especially interested in two other questions:

  1. How are you affected by multiculturalism?
  2. Do you agree with David Cameron’s general position on the issue?

Update:

This post was referenced in the “Roundup for Week 7” at the The Naked Listener’s Weblog. Thanks, Robert Lee, for the notice!

%d bloggers like this: