Tuesday, February 10, 2009

(No.13) Distilled Wisdom

Many of us enjoy a well-turned phrase and a pithy quote. Here are several I have noted recently.

  • Ignorance and a sense of community                                                                                 From an essay by Mark Slouka in the Feb.2009 issue of Harper's Magazine writing about the US electorate:                                                                                                         "Ignorance gives us a sense of community: it confers citizenship; our [elected] representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath.  ...   One out of every four of us believes we've been reincarnated; 44% of us believe in ghosts; 71%, in angels. Forty percent of us believe God created all things in their present form sometime during the last 10,000 years. Nearly the same number -- not coincidentally, perhaps -- are functionally illiterate. Twenty percent think the sun might revolve around the earth. ... But doesn't this past election then sound the all clear? .. For starters consider how easily things might have gone the other way had the political and economic climate not combined into a perfect political storm for the Republican Party.... Truth is, we got lucky; the bullet grazed our skull.  ... a significant number of our fellow citizens are now as greedy and gullible as a boxful of puppies; they'll believe anything;... Nothing about this [presidential] election has changed that fact."                                                                                   
  • Dying is a matter of pratfalls                                                                                              English writer and barrister John Mortimer, who died age 85 on Jan 16, 2009, in his book "The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of  Growing Old Disgracefully" (2000):                                                                          "Dying is a matter of slapstick and pratfalls. The aging process is not gradual or gentle. It rushes up, pushes you over and runs off laughing. No one should grow old who isn't ready to appear ridiculous."                                                                                                                              
  • Stupid economic behavior                                                                                                             New York Times columnist David Brooks writing in the Jan.16,2009 issue of that newspaper:                                                                                                                             "Economic behavior can be accurately predicted through elegant models. This view explains a lot [about the financial problems in the US] but not the current financial crisis --  how so  many people could be so stupid, incompetent and self-destructive all at once. The crisis has delivered a blow to classical economics and taken a body of psychological work that was at the edge of public policy thought and brought it front and center. In this new body of thought, you get a very different picture of human nature."                                                                                                                                                                                                        
  • Obama's challenge                                                                                                                            From the new book by David E. Sanger, "The Inheritance" (2009). Sanger is a Washington correspondent for the New York Times:                                                                                         The U.S. "pursued a path that has left us less admired by our allies, less feared by our enemies, and less capable of convincing the rest of the world that our economic and political model is worthy of emulation. ...  Not only does [Obama] need to re-establish our economic influence, he needs to restore the leverage that comes from backing up diplomacy with the explicit or implicit threat of military action. ...  When the biggest threat looks more like loose nukes that escape Pakistan than launched nukes out of Russia, all the old tricks for avoiding Armegeddon don't work. Our nuclear arsenal has become the Maginot Line of the age of terror: big, scary, and fundamentally useless as a deterrent."                                                                                                                                                                                                    
  • The elderly & the company of the young                                                                                 From the new memoir "Somewhere Towards the End" by the 91 year old English book editor Diana Athill:                                                                                                                              The elderly, she writes, can find great enjoyment in the company of younger people. But she warns that "One should never, never expect them to want one's company or make the kind of claims on them that one makes on a friend of one's own age. Enjoy whatever they are generous enough to offer, and leave it at that."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
  •  High-paid oxymorons                                                                                                                      Toronto Globe & Mail columnist Rex Murphy, writing in that newspaper on                 Jan 3,2009:                                                                                                                                                                  "Celebrity reportage, witlessness in full genuflection to tackiness, has exploded the meanings of flattery and self-abasement. Entertainment reporters, as they deliriously regards themselves, are high-paid oxymorons. They all but lick the shoes of those they cover, and even that exemption is, I'm fairly confident, not total. Till very recently , the worship of celebrities was more or less confined to high-gloss, low-IQ entertainment magazines and their TV equivalents. But with the advent of Barack Obama -- and I should insist, not at his prompting -- it has done a worrisome crossover."                                               
  • Devotion to an institution                                                                                                               In 2005 American baseball player Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Political scientist Hugh Heclo, in his book "On Thinking Institutionally" (2008), cites Sandberg's acceptance speech as an example of how people talk when they are defined by their devotion to an institution:                                                                                      " I was in awe every time I walked to the field. That's respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. ...  [Sandberg motioned to those inducted before him] Those guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It's disrespectful to them, to you and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up. ... Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn't work hard for validation. I didn't play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that's what you're supposed to do, play it right and with respect. ... If this validates anything, it's that guys who taught me the game ... did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do."