The Magnificat and the Great Reversal

The song “O, What a Beautiful Morning” on my recording (Siri’s choice) of Oklahoma, takes 2:35. The fragment of that same song included takes about 36 seconds, just long enough to introduce the theme and then move on.

For Advent this year, I’ve been thinking about the Birth Narrative as told by the gospel according to Luke. It occurred to me some time this year that if the gospels were written from back to front, as is the general view of scholars. then by the time Matthew and Luke got to telling about the birth of Jesus, they had already told about his death and resurrection, about his teaching and his healing. If that is so, I thought, then they would be free to introduce the main themes in their gospel accounts in the way they tell about the birth.

Sing it, Gordon.

Then it occurred to me that if you were going to compose an orchestral overture for a Broadway musical, you would first give your attention to the songs you had written for it. That is when I started timing “O what a beautiful morning” and the fraction of the overture that introduces “O what a beautiful morning.” The song is a little over four times as long as the introduction in the overture. How about that?

One of the prominent themes of Luke’s gospel is the reversal of fortunes theme. He is quite explicit about it. In his famous Sermon on the Plain, he offers four blessings and four cursings—perfectly matched. Luke 6: 21 and 25 say, “Blessed are those who are hungry now; you will have your fill. Alas for you who have plenty to eat now: you will go hungry.”

It is a major theme in Luke. These are not idly chosen verses. So following the Broadway musical metaphor, it seemed to me that we ought to expect to see this theme introduced in the Birth Narrative.
And it is. It doesn’t take much looking at the Magnificat to see those themes introduced there. But in writing the Magnificat, Luke has more in mind than just introducing the theme. He is also locating Jesus at a particular place in the history of Israel and to do that, he introduces the character of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. [1]

Hannah and Mary

The situations of Hannah and Mary could scarcely be more different. Hannah desperately wanted a child and prayed ardently for one. [2] Mary was quietly going about her business, married to Joseph, but not yet living with him. Absolutely not “expecting” in either sense of the word. Nevertheless, God grants both Hannah and Mary sons and both express their thanks to God. But what kind of God is this?

This is a God of the slash. [3] The conditions before the slash are overturned or reversed after the slash. Look at these three examples.

Hannah says “The childless wife has borne seven/While the mother of many sons is bereaved.” Notice the pattern. You can read the slash as “nevertheless.” Mary says “God my Savior… has looked upon the humiliation of his servant/. Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed,”

Hannah exults that “The bows of the mighty are broken/While the feeble are girded with armor.” Mary says that God has “pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.”

Hannah says “The sated have hired out for bread/While the hungry are fattened on food.” Mary says “He has filled the starving with good things/ [and] sent the rich away empty”

These three comparisons establish the common principle that Luke sees God as a “reversal of fortunes” God. We would expect, then, to see that pattern expanded in Luke’s gospel and we do. We have already seen the “blessings and cursings” in Luke’s “sermon on the plain” in Chapter 6.

This set of contrasts between rich and poor, as well as between Then and now, are characteristics of Luke’s preaching, so I will content myself with only one example. In Luke 16, he tells the story about “the rich man” (otherwise unnamed) and the beggar, named Lazarus. “Now,” the rich man is living large and Lazarus lives in misery. “Then” the rich man is tormented in the fires of Hell, while Lazarus is comfortably in Abraham’s lap. Here is Abraham’s explanation.

Abraham said, “My son, remember that during your life you had your fill of good things, just as Lazarus his fill of bad. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony.

Luke 6:25

The words in bold font establish the Now and Then contrast I mentioned, although from the standpoint of the speaker, they are reversed. When Abraham ways “Now,” he is referring to a time we call “Then.” Still, the meaning is clear and it is what we would expect from a reading of the Magnificat

There is an urge to explain this story in some other way. As it appears, we find it offensive. We want the rich man to be guilty of some particular flaw, something that we could understand as a Ticket to Hell. But Luke doesn’t give us one. Any more than Mary found some specific fault in “the sated [who are forced to] hire themselves out for bread.” Any more than the princes who have been pulled down from their thrones.

Logically speaking, we ought to wonder what the sated had done wrong that they had to work to earn a loaf of bread. [4] But we don’t. Similarly, we might wonder what the princes had done wrong that they had to be pulled down from their thrones. But we don’t. And Luke has no more interest in the sins of the rich man than we have in the interests of the overfed and the ruling elites. Luke’s Jesus is interested in Now and Then.

You already had yours.

I admit that I have trouble with this emphasis. I admit that I take comfort from the absence of this emphasis in Mark, Matthew, and John. And, oddly enough, I take comfort in keeping clear in my mind that Jesus says, in Luke’s account, what he says. Keeping that clear in my head seems, somehow, the right thing to do.

I think, myself, that Luke presupposed a zero sum economy, in which whatever the rich have was stolen from the poor. Whatever power the princes have, is deployed against the powerless. If it were possible to have an economy where all benefitted (not equally, of course) or a polity where power is exercised for the benefit of all (not equally, of course), we might wonder how Jesus would address that issue.

I do. But I know better than to look for help from Luke. Especially not at Christmas.

[1] And that isn’t all Luke does with the story of Hannah and her son, Samuel. I think that story lies behind several elements of the story, including the “presentation” of Jesus at the Temple in Chapter 2.
[2] The prayer was so “ardent” that the priest, Eli, accused her of being drunk.
[3] More formally, a “virgule,” but I didn’t want to get close enough to a virgule birth to tempt anyone.
[4] It is possible, of course, that they were loaf-ers.

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Stepping up

What if there were something you would like to be able to reach and it is just a little too high to get to? Not a problem. You get a little stool and climb up on that. And if you have calculated the distances correctly, that solves the problem.

If what you want to reach is still too high, you get a higher stool. But then you have the problem of how to get up on such a high stool. Not a problem. You get a little stool that will help you get up on the higher stool which will let you reach it.

Obviously, this could go on and on and at this point I am just going to rely on your imagination. So we can have something concrete to imagine, let’s say that there is a trophy up on the top shelf. [1] In fact, the “trophy” is coherent thought and expression. I always desire it, but sometimes, it is out of reach.

What to do, what to do?

I remember a device I used in the early spring of 1974 when I was writing my dissertation at the University of Oregon under considerable time pressure. I’d go in to my office early in the morning completely unable to do the work that had to be done. That kind of work was simply out of reach. But I did have a plan.

First I would take a book off the shelf and open it at random and start to read it. It would be an author whose style I liked. Often it was John Kenneth Galbraith. When I began to track the ideas I was reading and even more the beauty of the language, I would put the book back and turn to my typewriter.

Yup. Typewriter. Writing something was something I thought I could do once I was up on that first stool. And I would just start hitting keys; any keys. Whatever keys my fingers wanted to hit. That was fine for my fingers and it was an action in a sense that the reading was not, but it got boring and I began to want to actually say something. That’s the second step stool: saying something.

I would just keep typing and watch how the keystrokes eventually formed words and sentences. Units of meaning. Not very useful ones, of course, but what use does a step stool have beyond helping you reach something higher than you could reach from the floor?

Once I got that far, it was often far enough. Well, high enough. If it wasn’t, I’d roll a page into the typewriter and write a letter to friends or family. That usually did it. From that step, I could reach for the document I had abandoned yesterday and start making a little more progress. At that level, I had reached the ‘trophy,”—being able to think and write—and I could get to work.

I still do that. There are three things I should be writing this morning. None of them are this essay. But I know I can write this essay. It is the lowest step stool this morning. When I finish it, I may be able to do one of the other pieces. I need first to realize that I can’t reach what I need to be able to reach. That is hard sometimes; realizing it is hard sometimes. [2] I am tempted sometimes to just bull my way through it as if effort alone could summon coherent thought or fluent expression. But when I admit how futile that is, I search my mind for a small step stool.

When I do good work at that level, a come to feel that I can reach the next step stool. And, if necessary, the next one, until I can reach what I need. It’s a kind of 12 Step program except it requires fewer steps. It does begin by admitting that I cannot do in my present state what I want and need to do. It does recognize that I simply cannot do, by forging ahead and forcing the pace, what I need to do. I have to be able to hear the music.

This process produces a subtle, but powerful change for me. First I have to assess what I have just done and call it good enough. That’s not too hard given how low I have set the bar. But there is more to it. First, it commits me to a predictable future. I have done this a lot of times. I know what happens next. I know where it winds up. It winds up with being able to do the task I had in mind when I started. Second, it cashes in “successes” other people would be ashamed to admit, but each such success is a step up.

Sometimes, having gotten to the end of the process, [3] I produce a sentence or a paragraph that I am still proud of years later. After one such experience of “stepping up,” I wrote this: “I was raised by a cool systematic father and a warm episodic mother.” That was in 2001 and I still think of it every now and then and I am comforted by it.

[1] Trophies aren’t the kind of thing I win. People who are more talented or who work harder than I do win trophies. But trophies are something I notice. Back in the very old days there was a Greek word tropaeum, which meant, ”the monument of an enemy’s defeat.” You put a pile of stones at the place where the tide of battle turned and the bad guys had to retreat. I notice trophies like that and I might just have one up on the shelf in my closet.
[2] My friends who are of a more suspicious cast of mind would insist that “admitting it’ is what is hard. That is sometimes true, but not this morning.
[3] There are two tests. The first is how good it feels when you are writing. The second is when you finish it and read it and find that it actually makes sense.

 

 

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The disappearance of narcissism

Good news! You’re not narcissistic and neither am I. And neither is anyone else you know.

And why is that? Because the traits and the associated behaviors that characterize narcissism are now so common that they are no longer abnormal. The most you could say about a person—thinking still of narcissism as a personality trait—is that they are “unusually narcissistic.” [1]

But that’s just the beginning. How do you like this language? “You have a combination of traits that lie on a continuum or spectrum culminating in narcissism.”

“He’s on the spectrum” has become an expression that is taken to mean something among the people I hang out with because it is taken for granted that we are talking about autism. But what if we aren’t talking about autism? What about the possibility that “on the spectrum” is now a general purpose term? What if there is no way to know what “spectrum” we are talking about?

This is a whole new way of imagining clinical diagnoses. Looking back on “the old way,”—the one we are still using, more or less by default—narcissism is a trait with fuzzy boundaries, but a clear core. “Narcissism” is a diagnosis that means something. The symptoms can be these or those and they may be more or less clear and prominent, but the term still means something. In other words, at the center of all those different expressions, there is an area of commonality so clear that we give a name to it. If there is less commonality, we say that “it” (narcissism) has several subtypes.

Narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder

But, as I say, that’s the old way. The new way, the popular way, utilizes a more general phenomenon I have decided to call “spectrumization.” OK, it’s not a word (yet) and it’s really ugly, but it is understandable. It uses the all-purpose Greek verb izein, “to make” and the Latin spectrum and gives us the English meaning, “to turn something into a spectrum.” Which is what we want. Is he autistic. Nope, he’s on the spectrum. Is he racist? Nope, he’s on the spectrum. Is he a pedophile? Nope, he’s on the pedophile spectrum. Spectrumization.

Next, there is the question of how to name the spectrum. The common practice—and, really, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise—is to name the spectrum by the the most prominent pole. For physical and psychological diseases and for social disorders, that’s the worst end. We all know this, but imagine that there were a scale, a spectrum, beginning with complete benignity toward all races. You wouldn’t call it a multi-racial benignity spectrum and say that someone who is at the very low end is “racist.” Of course you wouldn’t. You would call it a “racism” scale and pretend there simply isn’t anyone at the other end. That person would be a “non-racist.”

You see where this takes us, right? The most contentious conditions and behaviors are not recognizable clusters of traits, but “positions” on a spectrum and the spectrum is named by the more pejorative pole.

And not only that, but by the nature of the term, it is fixed in time. There are no terms for completely unanticipated experiences to which the newbie responds with bafflement at best and, more commonly, with anxiety and rejection. So someone who sees their first chicken beheaded has a reaction. He is somewhere on the [fill in the blank, I dare you] spectrum. The thousandth doesn’t evoke any reaction at all. But note that the name you filled in did not take this gradual desensitization into account. The name of the spectrum is frozen even if the position on the spectrum is not.

More realistically, if you respond to the first passionate gay kiss you see with “Ee-ooooo. Whoa!” are you homophobic? Well, actually, as mistaken as it is, that would be the good news. Actually, your reaction shows that you are at some point or other on the spectrum of homophobia and, due to “spectrumization,” you will never get off. You can be more or less, but you can never be “not.” Not if you are straight.

When I write a piece like this, I get accused of catastrophizing. Not at all. Here’s what I am saying. If “conditions or behaviors” (or even attitudes) are taken to be positions on a spectrum; and if the spectrum is named by the worst end’ and if it implies a settled condition, not the initial response to novelty—then, yes, this is what happens.

It’s ugly but it hasn’t happened everywhere yet and maybe we can find a way to stop it.

[1] All Things Considered, December 11, 2010 “It’s all about me; but is narcissism a disorder?” https://www.npr.org/2010/12/11/131991083/it-s-all-about-me-but-is-narcissism-a-disorder

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Don’t talk to her like she’s a slave

This is (yet another) reflection on a dilemma presented by the Netflix show HUMANS. As the series develops, it is showing more interest in the fundamental robotic dilemma: just how is it that “they” are different from “us.?” That’s not the part that has interested me so much. It is, rather, just how to integrate them into ordinary human society.


As I have already described in “Robot Servants and Friends (and Lovers)” Joe Hawkins, overwhelmed by the demands of taking care of the house and the kids during his wife’s absence, goes to the store and buys a robot—a Synth—to help around the house, just as the ads promise. But “Anita” as Sophie, the younger daughter, names her, is way too good at everything.

This causes some predictable problems. When Laura, the mother, offers to read Sophie a story, Sophie says she would rather have Anita read it. Her mother, she says, “reads too fast,” implying, as I understand it, that she always seems to be in a hurry to finish “the task.” Anita is never in a hurry. “But reading bedtime stories is my job,” Laura protests, and she is right. But she has a lot of other jobs too, and she is not nearly as competent as Anita is.

Some other problems are not so predictable until you see them played out. Then you say, “Well of course.” Mattie, the older daughter, is a computer nerd and objects to Anita’s presence in principle. The first morning Anita is there, she prepares and serves breakfast. It is not something the un-augmented Hawkins family is used to.

Mattie carps at Anita, “Anita, brown sugar. I hate white.” Anita turns away to get the brown sugar, but Laura intervenes, “Anita, stop.” And, to Mattie, “She’s not a slave.”

Mattie responds, “That’s exactly what she is.”

So this isn’t a problem of the “essential humanity” of the Synths; does the undefinable “human essence” exist or not. This is a problem of what happens to a small group—it’s a family group in this case, but it wouldn’t have to be—when the norms of normal social discourse are flagrantly broken in the presence of everyone. Mattie’s point is that Anita doesn’t deserve to be spoken to politely. Laura’s point is that language like that causes damage to the family. They are both right. [1]

The first point is that Mattie, in using such language in the presence of the rest of the family, causes damage to herself. Let’s leave the factual case aside. “Slave” is not a term that is applicable to a functioning family android any more than “free” is. But the factual case is not the issue here.

There is a way of conceiving this interchange in much more than utilitarian terms. Mattie needs to assess the situation, to formulate a response that aligns what she thinks is going on and how she feels about it; she needs to express that in some way that is understandable in both senses of the term—the descriptive and the emotional—to the people who are there and to whom Mattie wants to communicate. Strictly speaking, there doesn’t even need to be an object there, just an occasion. For the purposes of this model of communication, Mattie could be by herself in the middle of a desert and could be addressing a lizard in such terms and the damage I am talking about would be done to her anyway.

Sherry Turkle wrestles with this issue in her book about robot/human interaction. There is something entirely genuine about the formulation and expression of the human feelings “in interaction with” the robot. [2] Warm and loving expressions of emotion addressed to a dog or a cat or a robot do the same good to the human who formulates them. Similarly, the damage done to a dog or a cat or a robot, damages the human actor even if no one else is present.

I have not, in the paragraphs above, established that communication ought to be understood in this way, and you may not find it as persuasive as I do. I am saying only that if you think of communication that way, you will understand why I am arguing that Mattie damages herself in treating Anita as if she were a slave.

The second part of the argument, probably the one Laura had in mind, is that expressions of that kind damage the family. [3] Mattie, in the early shows of the season, is a snarky eye-rolling teenager and she makes lots of nasty remarks about her siblings. This is different and Laura knows it. The question that is open before the family is whether Anita is a safe “person” to verbally abuse. Will any family exchange be marked by this kind of nastiness on the grounds that “it” doesn’t care or shouldn’t?

So far as its effect on the family is concerned, according to this model, it doesn’t matter whether Anita is offended or if she doesn’t notice. Everyone else will notice and the gathering, whatever it is, will be taken another step toward everyone’s laziest and meanest instincts—instincts that are always there, ready to be activated like some kind of dormant virus.

Laura’a right to use the “slave” metaphor about Mattie’s nastiness. Later, she finds herself apologizing to Anita for some things that have been done to her and the apology helps her a good deal.

[1] In the case of this particular show, it turns out that “Anita” is also a self-aware robot named Mia and the Mia-consciousness is something this Synth has intermittent access to.
[2] Since the robot does not “respond,” it is not technically an “interaction,” but the human observation is placed in the context of interaction, so it feels like “interaction” is the proper frame of reference.

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“Professors are the enemy”

Let’s start with a paragraph from Heather Cox Richardson’s November 3 post, “Letters from an American.” She is reporting on the pushing and shoving that is going on in politics these days.

Meanwhile, the Republicans continue to focus on culture wars like the manufactured Critical Race Theory crisis, claiming that educators are destroying America. This is the formula Youngkin used in Virginia, and they appear to be running with it. Already, it is dangerous. Yesterday, at the National Conservatism Conference, J. D. Vance, who is running for the Senate from Ohio, quoted Richard Nixon’s statement that “The professors are the enemy.”

And, she reports, “Vance’s audience applauded his statement.”

I’d like to make a few observations based on that paragraph. First, it is useful to note that Richardson and I are both professors. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture us both disapproving anti-higher ed rhetoric.

Second, she refers to the “manufactured Critical Race Theory crisis.” I’m not a fan of CRT for a variety of reasons, but it is worth noting that this is an ideological emphasis that progressive academics invented and hung around their own necks. And when they did that, they invited Republicans to hang it around the necks of Democratic candidates. CRT is not a conservative pipe dream. Conservatives will characterize it in ways that will be helpful them them and they will exaggerate what it is trying to teach, but CRT is there and it has implications and I think some of them are scary.

Democratic candidates need to find a way to deal with it. They could support it and all its implications wholeheartedly and criticize conservatives for not doing the same. That won’t work, but it is better than pretending the conflict is not there. Or, they could separate the business of governance from the value that theorizing adds to academic discourse. Democratic candidates don’t want to get caught saying it is just a theory—“just” is the hate word there—but they need to return attention to the business of governing.

Democrats will lose a fight that sets up as racists v. anti-racists. We will lose a fight that is set up as racists v. non-racists. Democrats need to be about fairness for all Americans. If it is played right, that is a fight they can win. And it has the virtue of being about governing, which the Republicans, taken a a whole, have shown no interest in at all.

Here is a reason that is important. Richardson correctly noted that in saying what he did, Vance was quoting Richard Nixon. That is true, but the difference in context makes a difference in meaning. Here is the context in which Nixon’s remark was made.

”Never forget,” he tells national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig in a conversation on December 14 1972, “the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times.”

This is from the recently released trove of Nixon tapes. This was a pre-Watergate meeting with two of his closest advisors. Nixon would never never have preached that at a campaign rally, which is what Vance was doing. To my mind, that indicates a significant change that is not caught by noting that Vance is quoting Nixon.

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Sex with Machines

This picture appears in the Netflix series HUMANS (with the A upside down) to advertise a whorehouse that has no whores in it. All the erotic services are provided by robots who, in this series are called “Synths.” It’s a very good choice for a designation because it is built on the adjective “synthetic.” That means you don’t have to answer the question, “Synthetic what?”

Synthetic what? is the question that drives the series.

Think, however, what you would do if you had the job of designing an emblem that would indicate just what kind of place this is. It is a place where very convincingly human robots offer very convincing performances of erotic encounters. I think whoever designed this symbol should get an award.

No man–they show only men as customers and only women-appearing robots as providers of services–is going to think of himself as that blue cogwheel. He is going there to obtain the services of an entity he is happy to think of as a pink cogwheel, but he, himself, is, of course, a person. And, during his time there, the person in charge.

Just being human, I guess

Right. Except that is not what the sign says. The sign says that if you come in here and pay your money up front, you get to be a blue cogwheel. You can feel any way you want to at the time, but we are telling you what we think of you and what you really ought to think of yourself.

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Robot Servants and Friends (and Lovers)

Laura Hawkins, the mother, stands in the upstairs hallway, looking into the middle distance. Her teenage daughter Mattie, says, “Mom? What are you doing?” Her mother responds, “Just standing here being a shit mother.”

That seems harsh. Here is the interaction that just preceded that.

Laura wakes up her daughter, Sophie. “Time to get up. I’ll go and do your lunchbox.” Sofie says, as an afterthought, “Can you cut off the crusts, like Anita does?”

The show begins with an advertisement for the new household robots. [1]

“Could you use some extra help around the house? Introducing the world’s first family android [mechanical maid] What could you accomplish if you had someone, something, like this?”

The “extra help” the advert [1] refers to comes in the form of a Synth, programmed for household chores. Just what those “household chores” would necessarily include is not touched on by the advertising. What they might come to include, if the Synth turned out to be better at something than the parents are, is one of the main themes of the show and why I like it so much. [This is “Anita” (in other plots, “Gina,” played by Gemma Chan, reading to Sophie.]

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is synth-1.jpeg

I’d like you to keep the expression “extra help” in your mind as you consider Sophie’s request, “Can you cut off the crusts….like Anita [the family Synth] does?” It is clear that in the advert, it is presumed that you will go on about your life, off-loading the onerous or inconvenient jobs to the Synth. It is clear in the interaction between Sophie and her mother that a new and higher standard of lunch-prep has been set by the Synth and now it is up to the mother to meet that new standard.

And as soon as you see that event, you say, “Or course. How could it be any other way?”

Toby, the teenage son, has a weight problem. He takes one look at Anita and says, “Why did they have to make you so fit?”


Mattie, the super-techie older sister, tries to reprogram Anita with far-reaching consequences, none of which Mattie had in mind. At the Hawkins’ home, Mattie speaks rudely to Anita so that her mother will tell her such language is appropriate so that she can tell her mother, firmly, that it is exactly appropriate for a “being” like “Anita.”

Joe, the husband, is the “primary user” (purchaser) so Anita is “bonded” to him in a special way. Also in some ordinary ways. For instance, Anita comes with a special sex packet called 18+ and, at Joe’s request, she instructs him in its use. They have what would be a “fling” if she were human and the next morning she is back to Synth mode, impersonally polite and helpful to everyone.

I asked you to try to keep in mind the expression “Extra help around the house” which is featured in the advert.[2] Does any of this sound like extra help around the house?

One night at bedtime, Sophie asks Anita to read her a story. “No, no,” Laura intervenes, “that’s a mother’s job.” Sophie says she would rather have Anita do it. “You read too fast,:she tells Laura. And we hear, “You always seem to be rushing through the story so you can go do something else.” Which is probably true. Anita doesn’t have anything else to do until she has to power up again that evening.

The show, which is called HUMANS, with the A upside down, is an adventure show too because some tech genius David Elster, has begun secretly producing “special” Synths who have something like a “self” and who desire autonomy. And then there is a cop who is trying to chase down these special “deviant” Synths. But these are spectacular problems. The problems I find more engaging are that we would need to find a way to be adequate human beings in a world full of non-human beings who are better at everything than we are. They perform compassion better than we perform compassion. And if you think that the truly human job is to seem compassionate when and only when you feel compassion, I say welcome to the world of parenthood.

These problems are not at all unrealistic and they are not very far away either. Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together is a wonderful introduction to the issue. Having interactive robots around divides the world of your own feelings and responses right down the middle. We want to criticize them because their actions are not “authentic.”

Knowing all the while how many of our own actions are not authentic and wondering whether that is a distinction we can afford to make. Or afford not to make.

[1] No one has used that term yet. People refer to them as “Synths.” The Synths themselves refer to themselves as “appliances.”
[2] Since it is a British show, I have decided to call all the ads, “adverts.”

 

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Are we entitled to our own facts?

On balance, yes. It isn’t as easy a question as Sen. Moynihan seemed to think when he admonished his colleagues that they were entitled to their own views, but they were not entitled to their own facts.

There is a sense in which Moynihan’s Aphorism is obvious. It is easy to give examples, but the examples that first come to mind are examples from the physical sciences. What star is nearest Earth? Alpha Centauri at 4.3 light years. How far away is the moon? I hear 240,000 as an answer and, of course, that is not wrong. It just isn’t always right.

Even the facts we are certain of are facts of convenience. They are averages or ranges of values. They are simplifications of more complex realities. For instance, Alpha Centauri is not a “star.” It is the name used for the collection of stars comprising the star system made up of several bodies. Are these “facts of convenience” really “facts” in the Moynihan sense of the term. I don’t think so.

When you move from the natural to the social sciences, the boundaries of “facts” get a lot fuzzier. If you imagine that there is a “true range” of a fact—outside the boundaries, the assertion can be shown to be false—then you can see that there is room for a lot of variation within the “true range.”, How wide the range is depends on why you need the fact. If you need more exactness for some reason, you narrow the range of “correct.” An answer is a fact for the original purpose, but inaccurate (not factual) for the second purpose. Unsettling, isn’t it?

I am taking an eighth grade arithmetic test. What is the value of pi? You see the problem.

Are we entitled to our own inferences?

Facts aren’t all that important by comparison with valid inferences. Debaters are taught to support the position they are assigned by collecting facts that make the case compelling. Given that all the “facts” they cite are demonstrably true, does that mean the conclusion is inescapable? No, of course not. The opposing team is making the opposite argument—and giving the audience reason to doubt yours—using facts that are as true as yours. Could it be that Team A is entitled to their facts and Team B to their facts? Of course. You don’t have to invalidate the other “facts.” You can get the same job done by ignoring them—if the other team will let you.

What does this collection of fancy dancing do to the Moynihan Aphorism? Nothing really. His statement—attributed to a lot of other people too—is perfectly adequate for the purpose he has in mind. I think it does lead us astray, though, in imagining that we would come to the same conclusions if we relied on “the facts,” and as I remember Moynihan, that is what he meant.

Every story you want to tell has a set of verifiable facts that make it seem plausible. What we find really offensive is the use of facts which, together, seem to point to a conclusion that is utter nonsense. The art of implying an inescapable conclusion by selecting which facts to present is highly valued these days. And it cannot be attacked by showing that this or that fact is “wrong.” It can be attacked only by showing that apparently contradictory facts are also true.

If I am free to choose what argument to make, then I am entitled to choose the facts that support that argument, presuming, of course that all the “facts” I cite are demonstrably “not false.”

Some years ago I read an article that said that the public schools in Georgia were issuing gummed tabs to put in biology texts. The tabs said “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.” My immediate response was that given the educational setting in the schools they described, that probably had very little effect on what the students thought about evolution. What concerned me—I was alarmed, actually—was what it taught the students about the relationship between facts and theories. Here’s the truth. Theories that are fully supported by factual studies are worth relying on. Theories without such support are not worth relying on. “Facts” don’t add up to theories. That’s not how it works. And every student in Georgia who believed the premise—not the argument—of those little sticky tabs in the loser.

If the problem we face is that people are asserting the truth of propositions that can be shown to be false, then it is easily solved. If the problem is that the logic used to connect these facts is one of several that would do the job, then the problem is harder to identify and also harder to correct. What threshold should should an argument have to pass to be considered plausible? What other conclusions could be drawn using these same facts, but approaching them with new presuppositions. Those two questions show why it is harder.

But, as much as we would wish it otherwise, many arguments are based on values that are not widely shared. If I want to show that “they”—you get your pick on identifying “them”— do not have my interest in mind, I can make arguments as fast as you can destroy them and when you have destroyed the last one, I will be of the same opinion as before. It is a view I need to hold and I can generate facts faster than you can destroy them provided that I can say what generalizations are supported by the facts I cite. The generalization is that “they” do not have our interests in mind.

I am as discouraged as anyone by the way wholly specious arguments dominate our discourse in the U. S. today, but we have those differences because we have different values. The values rely upon different kinds of logic to connect one fact with another and to argue for the the generalizations they point to. And the facts are facts—good enough for the purposes for which they are being used.

Facts are just bullets. You don’t have to know how guns work to fire them.

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Real Religion

I want to wind up talking with you about the current series, “Manifest.” [1] I would like to start, however, with a line from Pay It Forward. The line is, “We’re not allowed to pay it back.” I am counting on you to know the story, but I want to highlight “we,” and “allowed.” There is a definitive prohibition of some sort that applies to all the members of some unspecified category. Who allows? Who forbids?

From there, follow me on to Ghost. There is nothing religious at all in Ghost, but we know what happened because Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) hunts around after he is murdered and finds out. Then he finds a way to communicate the facts to his girlfriend, Molly Jensen (Demi Moore) by means of a psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg). So we know everything. Sam tells Molly to go to the police and tell them what actually happened and here we run into difficulties. The police have not had access to the information we have and that Molly has and they are forced to treat her report just the way they would treat any such report. They get a lot of reports like this and there would have to be some reason for them to believe this one, while continuing to reject the others. [2]

“Manifest” features an “event” that happens to Flight 828 and that strongly affects 19 of the passengers. We get the information the passengers get. We hear the voices, we see the visions, and so on. We don’t know exactly what they mean—and neither do the recipients—but we know that they are called on to intervene in “normal life” on the basis of this private knowledge they have. That’s difficult.

Ben Stone’s son, Cal, for instance, is being treated for cancer. There is an experimental treatment that shows promise, but it requires that the protocols be followed strictly. That’s the professional part. On the other hand, Cal is linked in some kind of “mind meld” [3] with a Romanian passenger who was stolen from Flight 828 and being used as a guinea pig; high voltage electricity being put into his brain. Because of the mind meld, whatever happens to the Romanian, happens to Cal. That requires the medical professionals to interpret what they are seeing within a completely foreign (and flimsy) frame of reference. They are reluctant to do it, of course.

Really Engaged. Not Followers

When they stop the experiment on the Romanian, Cal improves instantly but, as the doctors say, “Sometimes people just get better.” This isn’t seeing some amazing event beyond your ability to explain it. This is rejecting the professional explanation you trust in favor of a completely wild and unsupported hypothesis based on body snatching and, who knows, maybe aliens.

This is what I am calling “the religious point of view,” not that it is presented as religious in the series. It is transcendent rather than immanent; it requires you to ignore what your training tells you, in favor of someone’s wild-sounding scheme.

There is another presentation of religion, however. We know two things about it. The first is that it is fraudulent from the first moment of its existence. Adrian Shannon was on Flight 828, so he was wherever the plane and its passengers were for the unexplained five and a half years. But they have no sooner landed than he becomes Brother Adrian of the Church of 828.

The second thing we know is that it looks a great deal like a conservative charismatic church. They have a very small liturgy they share, like “Blessed are the children of the returned” They have a representation the the plane that looks very much like a cross. They have the hands in the air style of participation. This is “What religion really is” as far as the presentations the show offers. I am calling in “the institutional point of view.”

Brother Adrian’s “Church”

It is not hard to be disgusted with “the church of 828” but it is very hard to be confident in the “callings” the principal characters—nearly all passengers. We see them “get” the calling or see Cal’s crayon drawings of what is going to happen, but we don’t know what this force is, so our trust is in the people we see.

The church of 828 points beyond itself, but fraudulently. The real “break the frame of everyday life” transcendent religion gives us nothing to believe in. This religion thing…it’s not for sissies.

[1] Certainly one of the cleverest titles I have seen. It is not only that there are several possible meanings, but that the meanings are so very different from each other. The manifest is the list of the passengers on Flight 828. But something also, a transcendent intentionality of some sort, is “being manifest” i.e. “shown.”
[2] Molly gives then a reason like that, information only her source could have had, but the police have no reason to treat it as special.
[3] It’s a Star Trek reference, even though the use of the brain to control limbs remotely is now possible. You do see it every now and then when He meets Her in a bar and their eyes meet across the room and they share the same thought remotely.

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Sticky Discrepancies

There are so many different ways something can be funny. I have been blessed with kids who wonder just why it is that something is funny. That’s a good thing for me because it means I have someone to talk to about it or, when necessary, to argue with about it.

Max Eastman in The Enjoyment of Laughter says that two things are required. There needs to be a sensed discrepancy and the discrepancy needs to be taken playfully. Those two things.

That seems simple, of course, but you don’t need to be able to say just what the discrepancy is to find it funny. “There’s something about that sentence,” people will say, or, meaning no criticism, “There’s something wrong with it.”

My son, Doug, has recently begun producing what he calls “sticky comics”—“stick” for “stick figures.” I love them. Having the stick figures there allows you not to notice that there is nothing really there but dialogue. There are no “raised eyebrows,” for instance, so Doug has to give someone a line that would be said by a person—a person who had a conventionally equipped face—with raised eyebrows.

We almost always agree on which ones are really funny, but lately, we have been coming up with different answers on just why they are funny. That’s what I would like to work through today. Here’s one, for instance.

We have an introductory question. These comics are published in an internal newsletter, so “someone here” refers to the organization to which all the readers belong. Then there are four highly stereotypical responses, none of which appear to be an answer to the question, but as we see in the questioner’s second speech, they actually do answer the question. And the correct answer, the one implicit in that second speech, is confirmed by the last line. But not directly.

Three things happen after the question is posed. First, an answer is given. Just how it is an answer is the artistic achievement of the panel. Second, the answer, still not named, is recognized: “Never mind. I think I know.” We may not know yet. Or we may know, but have not yet called it anything. Third, the correctness of the answer is confirmed, still without directly saying what it is.

That’s a lot that’s left hanging. “Left hanging” runs the risk of gravity and gravity is the enemy of levity. This comedic form really shouldn’t work, but as you see, it does. “Left hanging” runs the risk of alienating, or at least failing to connect with, readers. But the last line can’t confirm that “what’s discrepant” is really what the reader suspects. It needs to indicate, but not to confirm.

Comics that play with meaning that is almost there really shouldn’t be this funny. I guess that’s the true art. Imagine that the three steps worked like this: a) I hear someone is running for office, b) Yes, I am the one, c) Ah. These are the ame steps. Not funny.

I think we are meant to be still assembling the common element in the four mini-speeches, trying to think of what name to give that common element, when the first speaker nails it for us and has the guess immediately confirmed. This is a comic for people who are saturated with American political images. Only in that way can Doug afford to be as indirect as this and still count on our arriving with him at the same conclusion.

Note, however, that the most significant step toward meaning comes in the penultimate speech. The rhythm is da da da DA da. I am not saying that da da da da DA would not be funny nor am I saying that da da da DA DA would not be funny. I am saying only that those other forms would not be funny in the same way this form is. This form, I am saying, is characteristic. It is very close to “defining.”

Let’s look at another one.

I don’t think I will have to be so wordy this time. There is the opening question again. There is the “answer” again—a set of seemingly unconnected remarks with a implicit commonality. Then the realization of what that commonality is; then a response indirectly confirming the correctness of that answer. It goes da da da DA da, just as the previous one does. You might think that an answer as wordy as the last speech (12 words, including a high flown cultural reference) doesn’t deserve the lower case “da,” but I think it does. I gives the answer “I was on hold for a very long time, thanks for asking” simply by adding the third “achievement” to the first two.“

The internet was out” is necessary, but it isn’t funny. It has no relationship to how much Red got done. “On hold” supplies that. It is the DA. But is followed by a nice small da. Ah.

On more. This one looks simpler, but it isn’t really. There is no introductory question. That would introduce some conversational distance between Red Dog and Blue Dog and that would be fatal. Blue says ‘I do this” and Red says “I do that.” We have no way of knowing whether those are to be set against each other or not. If Red responded, “You do? Really?” it would be understandable. But that’s not what is going on.

This one is all about the commonality of the two dogs. There is what to call it—the title calls it the heart of dogness—and then there is how to appreciate it. All that is accomplished in “your work.” That is a line that belongs to another kind of conversation, one artist to another—painters, screenwriters, standup comics, landscape gardeners. We don’t expect to find it here and that is the discrepancy.

Note that there is a shortage of das here. I would call this on da da DA da at the most. Maybe just da DA da. It is crucial


Finally, here (just below) is the one that got Doug and me talking about his patterns. I don’t think I have a criticism. I’m not sure. I might. What I am sure of is that I read it prepared for da da da DA da and didn’t get it. I think the last DA is too big…has too much weight. Or something.

Blue asks the question. Red goes overboard in answering it. That’s how I read it. The chimney sweep line is almost nasty. The next one (contemporary) is useful, but unusually prescriptive. That is what makes us read the penultimate line as DA. It is Blue’s response to the snarkiness of Red. But given that, shouldn’t the last line, be simply a recognition of Blue? That is the way the other two function. They go da da da DA da. This one goes da da da DA DA.
It’s very upsetting.

Doug doesn’t read it that way and the two of us are just beginning to develop humor formats (which are not funny, I grant you) for the sticky comics he writes, and which, in the proud papa’s judgment, actually are funny.

So what do you think? Is the final DA too much?

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