Terry Pratchett said…

“When someone is saved from certain death by a strange concatenation of circumstances, they say that’s a miracle. But of course, if someone is killed by a freak chain of events — the oil spill just there, the safety fence broken just there — that must also be a miracle. Just because it’s not nice doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous.”

The birds have alighted upon him! It is a miracle!

This one comes from his book Interesting Times, which is a story about the Discworld analogue to China. In it, a series of improbable events occur – as they often do on the Disc – leading to all kinds of exciting outcomes. As also often happens on the Disc.

I noted this quote, however, because I’ve had a long-standing grudge against the word “miracle,” or rather how it is used by most people. If that surprises you, just wait until I start talking about “unique.”

One of the ways I hear it used is what the quote is talking about – that a miracle must, by necessity, be a good thing. You had a car accident and walked away? Miracle. Your child was born a month early and she’s healthy and growing? Miracle. You got a job offer just when you needed it most? Miracle.

At the same time, though, if you’re going to slap that label onto good things that happen unexpectedly or improbably, then you really should do the same for the bad. After all, the dictionary definition of miracle is: “An effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” Note that it says nothing about that event being subjectively good or bad. It simply is. So the car crash that nearly killed you? Miracle. Your child being born too early to survive on her own? Miracle. Losing your job? Miracle. There’s no reason we should confine ourselves to one end of the good-bad spectrum.

The other problem I have with the way miracle is used these days isn’t touched on by the quote, but it’s adjacent enough that I feel comfortable bringing it up.

Look at that definition again. Note the words, “..that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” Now I know that word usage changes over time, blah, blah, blah, but I have my limits and this is past them.

When you look at the miracles of the Bible, for example, they describe things that couldn’t be explained by contemporary understandings of the world. The Red Sea parting, Jesus turning water into wine, Lazarus coming back from the dead – these are things (if we make the assumption, for the moment, that they actually happened) that were utterly inexplicable to the people who experienced them. From their point of view, only a divine or supernatural force could have accomplished those feats.

But we live in the 21st century. That car accident you walked away from? You walked away from it because teams of engineers and scientists worked hard to figure out how to build a car that would survive a crash. The factory workers made sure to assemble it properly so that it would perform the way it’s supposed to. Decades worth of research and legislation went into crafting safety standards. You survived that crash because of the work of human beings, and it doesn’t take special knowledge to see that it is so.

This girl spent weeks planning that fire…

The same thing with a premature baby – a team of skilled doctors and nurses kept that baby alive. Dedicated parents gave as much time and money as they had to see to it that their daughter had a chance. And centuries of medical knowledge and experience by hard-working men and women gave us ways to ensure the health of the most fragile among us.

As for your “lucky break” job? Well, certainly it sounds lucky. But chances are, you did the work of looking for jobs, making contacts, and doing work that was good enough and reliable enough to be noticed. The timing is nice, but coincidences do happen, and this was one of them. In each of these cases, no divine or supernatural agent is necessary, so calling any of them a miracle is just plain wrong.

Now if your car had actually phased through the object it was supposed to crash into, like a ghost sliding through a solid wall, then that might just be miraculous. If your baby aged two months overnight, thus ensuring that she would be safe and healthy, then that might just be miraculous. If you woke up the day before your unemployment ran out, opened your eyes to discover that you not only had a job, but you were at your job, and you had had that job for years already – that might just be miraculous.

Those things don’t happen, though. I know you want them to happen, but they don’t.

The over-use of the word “miracle” basically does two things. First, it debases a perfectly good word, robbing it of what makes it powerful and special. Secondly, and more importantly, it demeans the work and knowledge and skills of human beings. The pilot who lands a crippled plane, the firefighters who run into a burning building, the doctors who save a dying patient, the soldier who rescues his comrades – all of these people have worked hard to gain the skills they need to do what they do. In many cases, they risk their lives and their well-being to serve others. To call what they do a “miracle,” to ascribe their lifetime of effort to the hand of a mysterious divinity, is to take away all they have dedicated their lives to.

Frankly, I respect them too much to insult them that way.


Frederich Nietzsche said…

“I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains adamant. At last – memory yields.”

Of course, against his mustache, neither Memory nor Pride even stand a chance.

Well, ain’t that the truth.

What’s really interesting is that Freddy was commenting on something that wouldn’t get a proper name for nearly a century – cognitive dissonance. In short, cognitive dissonance is the experience of having two conflicting opinions or emotions active in your head at the same time. As an example: buying a lottery ticket. When you go to the counter to buy your ticket, you know that your chances of winning are very, very small. At the same time, though, you truly believe that you could win. You can’t commit to both of these thoughts, so you have to choose one and then justify it to yourself. You might say that you’re buying the ticket because you always have, or because you feel that your numbers are “due,” or because it’s a small price to pay for the chance to fantasize for a while.

On the other hand, you might walk away from the counter without your ticket, running the numbers in your head as a reminder that you’re more likely to get hit by lightning than to win. Or you might come up with a vast conspiracy theory in which no one actually ever wins the lottery – winners are manufactured by The Government, who is using the whole process to keep you docile and needy.

Either way, your brain is struggling to reconcile these two ideas, and it does this largely without letting you know what it’s doing.

In the case of Nietzche’s quote, he’s probably referring to something more significant than deciding whether to drop five bucks on some numbers and a dream. He’s looking at the operation of cognitive dissonance that is powerful enough to alter memories themselves.

Think about this: You’re at the supermarket, and the new kid at the register is slow and making mistakes. As you stand in line, you get more and more frustrated, making note of every little error that he commits. Finally you snap. You start yelling at the kid about how he should take the job seriously, how a monkey could probably do it, and how you think he should really reconsider his life goals if he ever wants to be a useful member of society. And then you storm out.

Looking back, you realize that what you just did was really assholish. If you had seen someone else go off on a register jockey like that, you would have thought, “Jesus, what a prick!”

But… but you’re not a prick, right? Of course not! You’re a decent person, with a decent life, and not the kind of person who would take out their anger on some random teenager. That’s not you!

He deserved it. They always deserve it…

But you did it. You remember doing it.

It is at this point that Nietzche’s quote comes into play. You remember being an asshole, and yet you know you’re not an asshole. One of these has to give. So you think back on the event, and you start to remember things. The kid had a slouch to his shoulders, wasn’t standing up straight. Clearly lazy. And the kid was slow. Unmotivated. He never looked at the customers, but just kept those cold, glassy eyes on the register. And you think you might have heard him say something really quietly, or at least let out a deep sigh when you unloaded your 27 assorted cans of gourmet cat food on the conveyor belt.

You’re not sure if he called you a faggot, exactly, but he seemed like the type.

By the time you get home, your memory has been adjusted to match the event, and now that young, fumble-fingered kid at the supermarket has become an incorrigible reprobate who should count himself lucky that you didn’t leap over the conveyor and beat some sense into him. At last, your memory of the events correspond with your understanding of yourself, and the cognitive dissonance is dealt with. Whether or not that’s what “really” happened is irrelevant, because it allows you to feel good about yourself.

And if one of those has to go, memory is definitely the one that’s going to blink first, so to speak. There is research out there that suggests that the more you access a memory, the more you change it. For example, there are people who distinctly remember watching TV on 9/11/2001 and seeing the first airplane hit the World Trade Center. They’ll swear up and down that they saw it happen live, even though there were no TV stations broadcasting it at the time. Even the very act of remembering a long-held memory has the effect of altering that memory in some way. The physical architecture of the brain is changed when you remember, and that in turn changes the memory itself.

As unsettling as it is, our memories are very open to interpretation and amendment, and in a fight against our own self-identity, memory will almost certainly always lose.

George Burns said…

“Too bad all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair.”

Even God was young once…

I feel this one is especially timely, given that it’s election season, and I wonder what Burns would make of our current media culture. In his day, the amateur wonks were indeed relegated to taxicabs and barbershops, with only a small, captive audience. You endured a rant, perhaps occasionally nodding and grunting to show you’re listening, and then you dash out of the cab or the barbershop as quickly as you can. If you thought of them at all after that experience, it might just be with a rueful shake of the head, muttering, “Some people…”

Today, of course, you can get the same level of ill-informed, vehement political discourse just by turning on a cable news channel. And you don’t even get a haircut out of the bargain.

One of the great things about America is that anyone is allowed to express their opinion about politics. One of the worst things about America is, well, that anyone is allowed to express their opinion about politics. It’s the price we pay for freedom, people. And if we confined it to just those simpler, one-on-one rants, perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad.

In this day and age, though, the ever-hungry 24-hour news cycle needs fresher faces and louder voices, people who will bring in the viewers and bump up the ratings. It doesn’t matter if they have their facts right or if they have any kind of expertise in the topics they’re ranting about. All that matters is that they have a platform from which to speak and an audience that won’t go away. As long as people keep watching them, they must be right. Thus, for every event there is an opinion. For every statement, there is a reaction. No matter how quotidian the non-event might be, someone, somewhere can figure out an angle to get angry from, and the cable news cameras will be more than happy to be there for them.

Of course, Burns’ comment can also be connected to the oft-rephrased quote, my favorite version of which comes from Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” While Yeats was using it as part of his apocalyptic vision, it’s all too true in regular life. The people with experience and knowledge in a certain field are acutely aware of how much they don’t know. Thus, the more you learn, the less certain you can be about everything you think you know, and you make sure to consider your opinions and your statements carefully. On the other hand, people who know very little about a topic often feel like they know everything there is to know. They have a few little facts or an idea that makes sense, and they take it and run with it. And god help anyone who tells them they’re wrong.

We do this because, deep down, we like to believe that we have some handle on what’s going on. We like to believe that there is an order to the universe and that we know what it is. Whether we understand correctly or not is irrelevant. All that is necessary is to say, “I believe,” and leave it at that. The brain will take care of the rest, employing various logical fallacies – confirmation bias among the most useful – to continually remind us that we’re right, regardless of what the evidence might say to the contrary. It takes an effort of will, a decision, to think critically, and it’s a way of thinking that you must carry on all your life. It’s work, and it carries not only the responsibility to back up your statements, but the risk that you might have been wrong all the time. Some people – a lot of people – can’t handle that kind of responsibility and risk, and so go on in the belief that what little they know is really all they need to know.

Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal found a great way to express the phenomenon as well:

We’ve all been there, and I think if he were alive today, Burns would approve of the idea.

Samuel Butler said…

“God cannot alter the past, but historians can.”

Go ahead. Alter the past. I dare you.

Man, where to start with this one?

My first thought is to reference Orwell’s 1984, in which the character O’Brien says to Winston, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” It’s kind of the same idea, if a bit more insidiously carried out in that novel.

When I wrote a review for Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I started off by saying that “History is, in its way, a fiction.” And that’s far more true than we care to imagine. It’s the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we stand for, and in order to make our preferred narrative work, we find that we have to pick and choose what we talk about. We say that history is written by the victors, and that has always been true, no matter where you go.

In Zinn’s case, he wanted to tell the tale of the abuses of the United States, starting with the first Natives to meet Columbus and moving through the centuries to the hard-fought battles for civil rights in the 20th century. He admits at the beginning of the book that it’s the story he wants to tel, and does so because no one else had told it in such detail before. Zinn’s narrative was so strong that it inspired counter-narratives that explained why U.S. history proved we were awesome. Despite being completely contradictory, they were both true, depending how you define “true.”

So yes, historians can change the past, turn a hero into a despot or a victory into a defeat. What’s interesting about Butler’s line is that he has decided to conflate “history” with “the past.” If history is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, then what is the past?

Honestly, it’ll take a much better mind than mine to answer that. It has been said that there is no past at all, the the universe is an unending Now, and it is merely our collective memory of a different Now that we call “the past.” If that is true, then the past cannot be altered because it doesn’t exist.

On the other hand, perhaps the past is a real place, ensconced in the dimension we call Time, but one to which we are forbidden to return. It would be as if we were walking down a road, but only allowed to walk forward. Going backward, stopping – these things are beyond our ability, and perhaps that of God as well. The past is a place protected due to the fact that no one can get at it.

My hero…

I’ve always been a big fan of time travel, and so I like to believe that there is a real past that we can get to, if only we can find the right police box or get the right car up to 88 miles per hour. Even if I could get there, however, would I be able to change anything? There’s plenty I’d like to change, after all – I’d like to find young me and just say, “One: you’re gay. Two: join the swim team. Three: Buy Google and Apple stock. I’m out, enjoy Japan.”

Would it have any effect, though? After all, if Past Me took that advice, then Future Me could not exist to give it. On the other hand, I think that if a strange guy showed up in my room when I was thirteen and said all that to me, I probably would have freaked out, rather than taken his advice to heart. The potential changes in my life might be swamped by the massive amount of anxiety and uncertainty that such an event would lead to.

Of course, Butler wasn’t talking about time travel (as far as I know), nor was he actually suggesting that we find a way to go to the past and make some adjustments. Rather, he was simply trying to emphasize the power and influence that historians can have over how we perceive the past (regardless of whether or not it exists). It’s a lesson that we should all take when learning about history, both recent and ancient.

History is a story, and you need to know who’s telling it to you, and why.

Sinclair Lewis said…

“There are two insults which no human will endure: the assertion that he hasn’t a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble.”

He could only sit for portraits sarcastically

Sinclair Lewis was one of the great authors of the early 20th century, going so far as to be the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lived hard and wrote all the time, and most of his best quotations – and there are a lot – are simply dripping with a certain cynicism and world-weariness.

This line comes from his book Main Street, about a big-city woman, Carol Milford, who marries a small-town doctor and moves to his small town with him. In one scene, one of the women of the town is talking about how other people are talking about Carol. At one point this woman makes the assumption that Carol has never really known hardship, which instantly incenses her. Over the course of the book, she discovers that small-town people are every bit as petty and unpleasant as city folk, and ends up leaving the tiny town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota for a while. She returns, hoping she can still have a life in this conservative, backstabbing town, but she’s not too optimistic about it.

Actually, the first thing to pop into my head when I read this quote was Anne Romney – something that doesn’t happen often, I assure you. Her job on the campaign has been to try and humanize her husband for the voters. To that end, she tells us about how her Mitt really does have a good sense of humor and how they “ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish” right after they got married. Anne’s job, especially during the Republican National Convention, was to sink Sinclair Lewis’ intolerable accusations before they could go much farther.

It didn’t work, mind you. I still see him as a grinning robot who’s lived an extraordinarily privileged life. But I give her credit for trying.

Thing is, the Romneys aren’t unique in this regard. Watch almost any election, and the candidates will fall all over themselves to prove how down to earth they are, how real their lives have been – how much they’re Just Like Us, even if they’ve never been like us in their lives. Oh, they’ve had trouble, friends and neighbors, and it has, of course, made them into better – or at least more electable – people.

Story of my life, sister…

But here’s the key – “trouble” is an entirely relative concept. It’s almost impossible to gauge your troubles against another person’s if you have never been there yourself. So for a person born into wealth, having to send your child to Yale instead of Harvard because he didn’t study hard enough and the goddamn Rothschilds outbid you on the library wing again is a real problem that cuts to the bone of that rich person. It may be objectively less troubling than not being able to send your kid to college at all because you make too much money for federal aid, but not nearly enough to pay tuition, but – and here’s the important point – trouble isn’t an objective thing.

It’s entirely in the mind of the troubled, and the only person qualified to judge if you’ve known trouble is yourself. Now, does this mean that you can kick poor people out of the way and scream, “Pity me, poor monster that I am, for my wi-fi connection doesn’t reach all the way into my bathroom!”

Of course not. That would make you an asshole, just as it would if you looked at a rich person and made a blanket judgement that they have never known a hard day in their lives. It would be, to use Lewis’ word, “impertinent.”

What is required, then, is empathy. You shouldn’t make those assumptions about other people because you don’t know them. And even if you do, it’s not your place to decide what bothers them and what doesn’t. Other people are not required to conform to your perspective on the world, no matter how much you wish they would.

The flip side is that if you are fortunate enough to have First World Problems, you need to be able to put them into a less personal perspective. Yes, it’s sad that you only have a hundred million dollars instead of a hundred and fifty, and maybe that screws up some of your dreams, but you should know better than to look for sympathy amongst people who dig through couch cushions for spare change to buy gasoline.

As for not having a sense of humor, well, again – some people think Carrot Top is funny, so I suppose there really is no accounting for taste.

Molly Ivins said…

“I don’t have any children, so I’ve decided to claim all the future freedom-fighters and hell-raisers as my kin. I figure freedom and justice beat having my name in marble any day.”

She looks sweet, but she’s iron all the way through…

Molly Ivins was a wonder of the written word. She was a sharp, acerbic, no-nonsense writer who knew how to take shots at people in power like no one else. She enjoyed nothing more than taking on a politician who thought that no one would dare speak the truth about him, and taking him down as many pegs as she could. She once likened George W. Bush to a “post turtle”, i.e. a turtle than has been put up on a fencepost. “You know he didn’t get up there by himself. He doesn’t belong there; he can’t get anything done while he’s up there; and you just want to help the poor, dumb thing down.”

She was one of the great political satirists of her day, and said of her own mission, “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.” Alas, she contracted what she called “an outstanding case of breast cancer,” from which she passed away in 2007.

Ivins’ view of the powerless taking shots at the powerful is what underlies this quote, a hope for some kind of legacy after she is gone. The full quote comes from a letter to the ACLU, the rest of which is worth reading:

“Every time someone down the line is irreverent about authority, I’ll have my monument. Every time some kid who was born a nigger, a kike, a wop, a Polack, a gook, a gimp, a fag, or just a plain maverick lifts up her head and dares anyone to stop her, I’ll have my monument. Every time they peaceably assemble to petition their government for redress of a grievance, I’ll be there. Whenever they worship as they please (or not at all), I’ll be there. Whenever they speak up and speak out and raise hell, I’ll be there. And every time some blue-bellied, full-blooded nincompoop who holds elected office is called to the floor for deciding to keep us safe by rewriting the Constitution, or by suspending due process and holding a citizen indefinitely without legal representation, I’ll be there. Now that is immortality. I don’t have any children, so I’ve decided to claim all the future freedom-fighters and hell-raisers as my kin. I figure freedom and justice beat having my name in marble any day. Besides, if there is another life after this one, think how much we’ll get to laugh watching it all.”

This passage speaks clearly to those of us who have a deep distrust of authority, and are even more deeply disappointed with the way authority often comports itself. It’s not hard to find examples of the powerful taking advantage of the powerless, whether we’re talking about police officers, politicians, bankers, lawyers, or even people who just plain believe that they’re better than everyone else.

In the United States, we are somewhat divided on this. On the one hand, we love an underdog.
How else could you explain shows like American Idol, where people are brought out of obscurity to rise to fame? We like to see the Little Guy get the prize and come away big.

On the other hand, however, we believe in a kind of meritocracy, where talent and hard work deserve to be rewarded with money and power. This by itself is great, except that we then assume that those who have money and power must automatically be deserving of it. And just as not everyone who works hard gets rewarded, not everyone who has those rewards have earned them.

That’s where Molly’s hell-raisers come in. A good society should be a self-correcting mechanism, constantly trying to stay in some kind of balance that works out best for as many people as possible. When things get out of whack, corrective measures need to be taken. When the powerful start doing their best to keep people down and to keep people quiet, then those people have to rise up and say, “This isn’t right.”


And no matter how it might seem to those observing, standing up to power is never easy and never safe. Whether it’s standing up to a legal or economic system that is inherently unfair or standing up to your friends and family who think its okay to pick on the little guy, there is a lot of risk involved. Not all of us can build up the courage to pick a fight like that, and those who do are worthy of our respect.

I wish Molly had been around to see the end of the Bush years and the history-making election of Barack Obama. I wish she could have seen Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. I wish she could have seen the Romney campaign, because she would have just had so much damn fun with it. But alas, she left us too soon. She stood up for her beliefs in a very public and very loud way, and we could all do well to follow her example.

John Quincy Adams said…

“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Maybe not, but those are the eyes of a man who’s seen monsters.

All right – no more of this fancy-schmancy psychological navel-gazing! Let’s get into the realm of history, international relations and American imperialism!

John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States and the son of the second President, John Adams said this (or at least a variation of it) in his 4th of July address, 1821, as one line in a mercifully short speech on American foreign policy. The speech itself is to answer the question, “What has America done for the world?” – a pretty big question for a country just over thirty years old.

In the speech, Adams tells all who would listen that America stands for freedom and liberty, both for herself and others. Wherever people stand for equality and freedom, America will stand with them. Wherever people struggle for the basic rights that are the birthright of all mankind, they can look to America to lend its approval and best wishes. “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled,” he says, “there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.”

But she’s not planning on getting herself involved.

Adams, like many modern Americans, had quite high regard for the influence of the United States, but believed that if we were to start stepping into conflicts that did not concern us, we “might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….” We would be too powerful, too influential, in we would inevitably start imposing our will upon the wills of nations. This speech told of a careful neutrality, America as a cheerleader, but not as a player.

This was an interesting position to take, given the rabid expansionism of the United States, its complete disregard of the independence of the Native Americans, and the fact that Adams had a hand in one of the ballsiest moves ever pulled off by an emerging nation: the Monroe Doctrine, which told Europe to stay the hell out of our goddamned hemisphere. It seems that when Adams spoke of not interfering with other nations, he was assuming that everyone knew the nations to our north and south were exempt. To his credit, Adams didn’t do any invading, or even a whole lot of meddling, but despite this speech, he had a hand in creating the political and cultural conditions for future presidents to meddle to their hearts’ content.

Andrew Jackson. Not pictured: The giant barrel of oak-aged, double-distilled, fine Tennessee crazy.

And that’s the rub of it, really. I think Adams wanted to believe it was true, but he probably knew in his heart that it was a naive dream. For example, he was more generous to the Native Americans than most, but I’m sure he took one look at Andrew Jackson’s face during the campaign and thought, “Those people are screwed.” And in his speech, he spoke of “…equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights,” knowing full well that there were millions of people in the United States who had none of those things.

Perhaps Adams wanted an America that was influential, but not powerful – at least not in the sense that we usually understand power. He wanted America to stand apart from the constant warring that tore Europe apart every decade or so, and for good reason. We could be an example to others, something to look towards and aspire to, but we wouldn’t go around remaking nations in our image. The world would certainly be a different place if he had gotten his wish.

But the truth is, as we all know, America is a rabid monster-hunter. We make Van Helsing look like the neighborhood welcome wagon. The world has no shortage of monsters, and America is more than willing to go out and destroy them.

Perhaps it was easier back in 1821, when the world was bigger. With the Atlantic Ocean between us and Europe, it was easier to look out and see it as a barrier that was not worth surmounting. The affairs of Europe wouldn’t touch us over here, so we were safe to lend our moral support as we saw fit.

In the last nearly two centuries, of course, the world has become so much smaller. America cannot afford to let some monsters live anymore, and so we go after them. Our nation isn’t as self-sustainable as it once was, so the well-being of other countries is more in our interest now. We cannot simply cheerlead, but we rather must give aid. That does backfire, of course, and has done so very many times. But the underlying principle that Adams states in that speech and in that line is still sound: we aren’t indiscriminate hunters on the international stage. We get involved when we feel it is in our interest, and when we think it will leave the world a better place. We’re not always right, but we at least mean well. Usually.

Though I suspect Adams, were he able to look at the last 200 years of American history, wouldn’t see it quite the same way we do.