The last chapter problem

Columnist Ezra Klein introduces a useful concept, the “last chapter problem”:

In March, the historian David Greenberg wrote an essay on “why last chapters disappoint.” He began by reviewing “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann’s 1922 treatise arguing that the longtime dream of a rational, enlightened democracy was being undercut by the complexity of policy issues and the irrationalities of the voting public.

The critics agreed: Lippmann’s book was brilliant. At least, until the final chapter, in which Lippmann offered gauzy and unpersuasive hopes that mankind’s better angels would rise up and banish “hatred, intolerance, suspicion, bigotry, secrecy, fear and lying” from the public square. The conclusion, H.L Mencken said, collapsed into “mystical gurgle.”

But Greenberg was sympathetic. “Lippmann’s experience will be familiar to almost anyone who has written a book aspiring to analyze a social or political problem. Practically every example of that genre, no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book.”

President Obama’s address from Osawatomie, Kan., also had a last-chapter problem.

Klein goes on to analyze (favorably) Obama’s Kansas speech, which, however, ended in unjustified optimism.  He then, gracefully, applies the concept to himself and his own column:

And the truth is, I’m left with a last-chapter problem, too. It’s all well and good to call for reforms to clean up and modernize the political system, but such things are easier said than done. The Supreme Court presents a significant challenge to all but the most modest of campaign-finance reforms, and though the wanton deployment of the filibuster has rendered both parties nearly incapable of governing, there’s little congressional support for reforms that would allow majorities to actually pass the policies they’ve promised voters. But to get to the right answers, you must first ask the right questions.

“In the end,” wrote Greenberg, “most authors have themselves to blame. Having immersed themselves in a subject, almost all succumb to the hubristic idea that they can find new and unique ideas for solving intractable problems. They rarely do, and even works that do usher in specific reforms or broad social transformations — from ‘The Jungle’ to ‘The Feminine Mystique’ — do so by raising awareness about an issue, not by providing ready-to-go blueprints.”

Can you think of other “last chapter” problems?

via Obama’s economic argument: A good premise meets a bad finish – The Washington Post.

Bringing down an empire with words

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who spent 5 years in prison for undermining the communist regime, has died.  After communism in Russia and eastern Europe was so discredited that it fell apart, Havel was elected president of his newly freed nation.

It was the writers who did more than anyone else–yes, more than Ronald Reagan and more than the Pope–to bring down the communist system.  It isn’t enough–though it’s very important–for outsiders to stand strong against an evil empire.  The key to bringing down an evil empire is to turn its own people, including those who run the empire, against it by awakening their conscience to its evil and their complicity in it.

Some words from Havel:

After being unanimously elected president of Czechoslovakia by the newly free country’s Parliament in December 1989, Mr. Havel set the tone of the new era in a speech Jan. 1, 1990, his first day in office. Communism, he said, was “a monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine” whose worst legacy was not economic failure but a “spoiled moral environment.”

“We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another,” he said. “We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other. . . . Love, friendship, mercy, humility, or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension. . . . They represent some sort of psychological curiosity, or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times.”

Vaclav Havel, dissident playwright and former Czech president, dies – The Washington Post.

Does our free society now share that moral illness?  What dissidents do we need?

“Rudolph” accused of promoting bullying

Some experts are saying that the song and the cartoon “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” promotes bullying! See Does ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ Promote Bullying? « CBS Pittsburgh.

This is a classic example of confusing the content of a story with its meaning.  Yes, the other reindeers are mean to Rudolph because of his nose, making fun of him and not letting him play in any reindeer games.  But the story doesn’t teach its hearers to do likewise!  The sympathy of the story is all with Rudolph.  And Rudolph ends up triumphant over the bullies when the quality that they made fun of turns out to save Santa’s Christmas journey.

The meaning, the message, and the effect of the story is to teach children not to bully!

What other examples have you noticed of this confusion of content and meaning?

How John Stuart Mill changed the culture

Roger Kimball on the legacy of John Stuart Mill:

In 1859, two revolutionary books were published. One was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The other was John Stuart Mill’s pamphlet On Liberty. Darwin’s book revolutionized biology and fundamentally altered the debate between science and religion. Mill’s book revolutionized the way we think about innovation in social and moral life.

What is your opinion of innovation? Do you think it is a good thing? Of course you do. You may or may not have read Mill on the subject, but you have absorbed his lessons. What about established opinion, customary ways of doing things? Do you suspect that they should be challenged and probably changed? Odds are that you do. Mill has taught you that, too, even if you have never read a line of On Liberty.

Mill’s essay was ostensibly about the relation between individual freedom and society. Mill famously argued that the only grounds on which society was justified in exercising control over its members, whether that control be in the form of “legal penalties” or simply “the moral coercion of public opinion,” was to “prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

This part of Mill’s argument quickly attracted searching criticism. The British judge James Fitzjames Stephen, for example, went to the heart of the problem when he observed that Mill assumed that “some acts regard the agent only, and that some regard other people. In fact, by far the most important part of our conduct regards both ourselves and others.” As for withholding “the moral coercion of public opinion,” Stephen observed that “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.”

Stephen’s criticisms of Mill were published in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, which appeared about a decade after On Liberty. Many of the criticisms are devastating. Intellectually, Stephen made mincemeat of Mill. But that has hardly mattered. Mill’s doctrines have taken the world by storm, while Stephen has receded to become a footnote in intellectual history.

Why? One reason is that Mill said things that people wanted to hear. Mill seemed to be giving people a permanent vacation from the moral dictates of society. How often have you heard the argument “It’s not hurting anyone else” put forward as a justification for self-indulgence?

But it was not simply what he said about the relation between individual freedom and social control that made On Liberty such an influential tract. Much more important was the attitude, the emotional weather, of the book.

On Liberty is only incidentally a defense of individual freedom. Its deeper purpose is to transform the way we regard established morality and conventional behavior as such. In brief, Mill taught us to be suspicious of established morality not because what it says is wrong (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t) but simply because it is established.

Think about that. The tradition that Mill opposed celebrated custom and established morality precisely because they had prevailed and given good service through the vicissitudes of time and change; their longevity was an important token of their worthiness.

Mill overturned this traditional view. Henceforth, the customary, the conventional was suspect not because it had failed but simply because if was customary and conventional. . . .

Granted that every change for the better has depended on someone embarking on a new departure. Well, so too has every change for the worse. And surely, [David] Stove observes, there have been at least as many proposed innovations which “were or would have been for the worse as ones which were or would have been for the better.” Which means that we have at least as much reason to discourage innovators as to encourage them, especially when their innovations bear on things as immensely complex as the organization of society.

The triumph of Mill’s teaching shows that such objections have fallen on deaf ears. But why? Why have “innovation,” “originality,” etc., become mesmerizing charms that neutralize criticism before it even gets started when so much that is produced in the name of innovation is obviously a change for the worse? An inventory of the fearsome social, political, and moral innovations made in this century alone should have made every thinking person wary of unchaperoned innovation.

One reason that innovation has survived with its reputation intact, Stove notes, is that Mill and his heirs have been careful to supply a “one-sided diet of examples.” It is a technique as simple as it is effective:

Mention no past innovators except those who were innovators-for-the-better. Harp away endlessly on the examples of Columbus and Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno, Socrates and (if you think the traffic will bear it) Jesus. Conceal the fact that there must have been at least one innovator-for-the-worse for every one of these (very overworked) good guys. Never mention Lenin or Pol Pot, Marx or Hegel, Robespierre or the Marquis de Sade.

via Roger’s Rules » Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

 

Murdoch corners 50% of Christian publishing

HarperCollins is part of the media empire owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also among many other properties owns Fox News.   HarperCollins already owns Zondervan, the world’s leading Bible publisher.  Now Christianity Today reports that HarperCollins is also buying Thomas Nelson, the largest Christian publishing company.   This will give Mr. Murdoch control of 50% of the Christian publishing industry.

See HarperCollins Buys Thomas Nelson, Will Control 50% of Christian Publishing Market | Liveblog | Christianity Today.

Does it matter that the Christian publishing industry will be dominated by a secular corporation?  Or by a mogul like Murdoch, who also publishes racy tabloids?  What will this do to the smaller publishing companies like Crossway and denominational houses like CPH?  Or will e-books, the Kindle, Amazon, and viral online marketing make even HarperCollins obsolete?

Swedish mysteries

We’ve been talking about Swedish literature–particularly, Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God.   This would be a good time to discuss the latest outbreak of Swedish literature on our shores, the publishing phenomenon of Swedish mysteries.  The biggest sellers are by the late Stieg Larsson, whose “Millennium Trilogy” has sold millions, with the first title  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being made into what looks like a blockbuster movie that will be released December 21.

I started reading these as vacation diversions last summer and have to admit that I enjoyed them immensely.  I’m interested in the genre and the conventions of mystery stories.  As with all artistic forms, it is possible to follow them mechanically, resulting in merely conventional writing.  But they can also become the framework for infinite variations and fascinating applications.  These Swedish mysteries are especially complicated and absorbing:  There is not only ONE mystery to solve, there are several related mysteries.  And there is not only ONE detective trying to figure everything out.  There are several, working both together and at cross purposes with each other.   (This is true of the Larsson books, and it is also true of another Swedish mystery that I read,  The Hypnotist  by Lars Kepler.  Perhaps someone can say if these features are true of Swedish–or perhaps Scandinavian– mysteries as a whole.)  Also, the alliance between the rumpled but idealistic journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander advances the tradition of unlikely partners in detection that began with Holmes and Watson.  And Lisbeth is a truly compelling character, another eccentric-to-the-point-of-being-mentally-ill detective (think Adrian Monk) whose problems give them their advantages.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo even makes use of the famous “locked room” plot and then completely, we might say, deconstructs it.

So The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a really good mystery, combining also elements of the suspense thriller.  The subsequent ones,  The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, not so much.  They are thrillers, but not really mysteries.  One reads them just to see what the characters will do next.  And I would say those other two lay bare the over-the-top sensationalism that is also in the first one, but that is compensated for by the mystery.  After awhile, things get ridiculous.  But you can’t help but keep reading anyway.

Don’t read them, though, if you can’t imaginatively handle violence and sex, which in these novels are not presented in a pornographic way but in a disturbing way.   Here is one of my complaints about Larsson:  His villains are sexual transgressors.  Sex trafficking, sadism, pedophilia, prostitution–these are definitely presented as bad things.   But his good guys have open marriages, cohabit without marriage, experiment with bisexuality, and have a completely casual attitude towards sex that is also transgressive and yet belies how we are supposed to feel about what the bad guys do.

The Swedish settings are also interesting, and these novels are so immersive that you feel like you are in Scandinavia.  Here is a completely secularized society that nevertheless has Christianity as its cultural religion.  Everyone orients themselves according to the church year–such as Advent and St. Lucy’s day–and feels free to consult the friendly liberal pastor of the state church.  Some of the young people, though, are attracted to “fundamentalism,” which their parents don’t approve of, but tolerate because it’s their kids.

The over-riding question is this:  In a society so tolerant, so prosperous, and so welfare-statey, why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface?  And why is everybody so depressed?  And why is everyone so guilty?

 


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