Wednesday, May 16, 2012

We Are Normal (And We Want Our Freedom)

Frontispiece from Thomas Henry Huxley, Evidence As To Man's Place In Nature, 1863

I have noticed that general works [1] about the history of Man either ignore China altogether or relegate this huge section of mankind to a couple of paragraphs.  One of my aims in this book is to supply the general anthropologist with at any rate an impetus towards including China in his survey.  This does not mean however that the book is addressed to a small class of specialists; for all intelligent people, that is to say, all people who want to understand what is going on in the world around them are, 'general anthropologists', in the sense that they are bent on finding out how mankind came to be what it is today.  Such an interest is in no sense an academic one. For hundreds of millenia Man was what we call 'primitive'; he has attempted to be civilized only (as regards Europe) in the last few centuries.  During an overwhelmingly great proportion of his history he has sacrificed, been engrossed in omens, attempted to control the wind and rain by magic.  We who do none of these things can hardly be said to represent normal man, but rather a very specialized and perhaps unstable branch-development.  In each of us, under the thinnest possible veneer of homo industrialis, lie endless strata of barbarity.  Any attempt to deal with ourselves or others on the supposition that what shows on the surface represents more than the mere topmast of modern man, is doomed to failure.

[1]  e.g., A.M. Hocart's The Progress of Man, E.O. James, Origins of Sacrifice, both quite recent works.

Arthur Waley, The Way and its Power, A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, New York, MacMillan, 1938, p. 11.

Leonardo da Vinci, Self-Portrait in red chalk, 1515

Note:  Arthur Waley's preface to The Way and its Power is quite impressive in itself and I excerpt it here in spite of a friend's request that I self-interdict from posting material that might seem to fall under any sort of "words to live by" rubric.  Oddly (and some people I know will find this very odd), what crossed my mind while reading this was the vicious, crude, hectoring and bullying nature of the largely (and at this point sufficiently) discredited Washington Post article late last week regarding Mitt Romney's supposed Cranbrook School "bullying incident."  The Post's work on this story, including their significant but unacknowledged "non-retraction retraction" revision of the article, and the weekend television pundits' collective take on the piece, are additional clear examples (as if any were needed) that journalists tend to be bullies and Bullies Are Wimps.

Neil Innes, 1968


  1. Mitt the Cranbrook bully is not my concern. But that he is a bully today, and a wimp, is. A case in both points: Recently one of his "advisors" must have explained to him that something needed to be (un)done about his idiotic remarks about how chasing down Bin Laden would not be worth the dollars. So Mitt asked one of the big tough kids, Rudy Guiliani, to stand next to him in the photo op him so he wouldn't look weak. Despite that support, a case of nerves made him mispronounce the contemptible villain's name at the critical moment. "Any president would have gone after Bin Loden, even Jimmy Carter," Mitt said, demonstrating that he retains his eye for spotting the weak kids that everyone knows it's ok to pick on. Never mind that Carter is a much braver man than Mitt.

  2. A moment of silence, please, for the late Burt Weedon

    1. Roddy -- you're overreacting and overinterpreting. As for the Cranbrook story (since we're sort of "on it"), I've been following the subsequent reporting on the reporting and it was a shoddy piece of work and unrevelatory without even being mysterious. Yesterday, driving home from Philadelphia I heard I heard a man interviewed on MSNBC, who had coincidentally been a classmate of Romney's at Cranbrook and of Obama's at HLS. (Obviously, this fellow took a lot of time off before beginning a legal career.) He was the sole black member of Romney's high school class and his father owned a chain of drug stores in Detroit. He's now a Michigan state court judge. Unremarkably he recounted that he was unaware of the supposed bullying incident and that he thought Romney and Obama were both really nice guys, very capable men and that he enjoyed having them as classmates. They tried to push him on his political views, but since he's a judge I wasn't surprised to find him circumspect. If you read Romney's entire quote about the viability of pursuing Bin Laden, something Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow are loathe to share with their viewers, it was pretty innocuous, which had been the principal knock on Romney previously. I can't pile on criticizing Jimmy Carter or join in any encomiums either, but I don't admire the man and am glad he didn't get a second term. I think Romney's riposte was perfectly appropriate, considering the idiotic remark he was reacting to. It's clearly going to be a long election season, which I hope is a prelude to a better succeeding four years. For many Americans, the last four years have been hellish, a long, dark, receding tunnel. For what it's worth, I know some ardent Democratic lawyers in Boston who have worked closely with Romney for years and who think well of him personally. If they didn't, they would surely mention it. Bullying is something that tends to be non-isolated and difficult to hide, like boorishness. I hope you liked the Waley excerpt and the brilliant Neil Innes image.

      Dave: Yes, of course. As Horatio would say, the rest is silence.


  3. Noting that Mitt is mechanical and scripted and hollow-seeming and bends the knee to every crackpot constituency may be many things, but over-reacting? Right or wrong, it is based on the obvious.

    Initially I regarded Mitt's high school behavior as no more relevant than Obama's place of birth. But then, remembering that brave tableau of him with "America's mayor," it occurred to me that high school metaphors supplied the best tools of interpretion, or over-interpretation.

    My post was meant to be, as you of all people should have noticed, sorta funny. It is going to be a long season, but one can't be expected not to make fun of Mitt, after all.

    1. The humor, I'm afraid, was a little subtler than my brain could detect, but I'm glad to know it was there. I hope the humor in my post didn't go unnoticed either -- I mean, Neil Innes as Normal Man. (I suspect Neil would not be a Romney supporter.) As far as crackpot constituencies go, like so many other things, the eye of the beholder comes into play. Corrupt constituencies, of course, matter also and neither political party can seem to manage without them. I would like to see the United States' chief executive office occupied and executed by someone competent and capable, someone who doesn't seem hostile to me and my family in action or rhetoric. I think those have been missing elements these past several years. Going back to college, not high school, the current occupant (I've probably said this to you before) reminds me of the campus student government bullshitters I knew at Swarthmore, a personality type that really, really turns me off. I'm not a big Rudy Giuliani fan either, by the way, although I think he was an improvement over Dinkins, who allowed a number of bad things to happen in the city. Curtis

    2. I am with you that corruption -- I would add hypocrisy as well -- is a vice shared generously among our two parties. But Obama does not seem hostile to me and my family. (Or, when it comes to gay marriage, to my friends.) It sounds unpleasant for you, and I sympathize. Lord knows these last four have been rough years for the country, but that was going to be the case whoever won the last election. Of course, how well or poorly Obama has played the difficult domestic hand he was dealt is a fair question, to say the least. I expect it will be the decisive question.

      As for his foreign policy, I don't listen to the trio you mention unless something is called to my attention, (although I passed Schultz on the street this week), but prompted by your correct recollection that Romney's dollars remark was innocuous, I confirmd that Romney publicly disagreed with Obama's hawkish statements about incursions into Pakistan. (Concedely, they scared dovish me as well.)

      I doubt his foreign policy will be decisive, but Obama's seems to me to have been competent and consistent with his promises.

  4. Roddy -- It's nice to be in touch with you today. Actually, I have tremendous reservations and/or am in disagreement with almost every aspect of the president's domestic and foreign policies, including how his domestic economic policies have affected other nations, especially our European trading partners. I thought his 2008 campaign statements about incursions into Pakistan were reckless and they still give me pause. As far as his gay marriage endorsement, it's very difficult for me to see past the politics of it to its substance. It is certainly the case, as so many have said, that he certainly didn't turn out to be the "new" sort of politician he said he would be, except in the sense that unlike most of our recent leaders and would-be leaders, who have perhaps had too much asked of them in terms of making personal, private life, disclosures, he has made very few and the press, among others, has (amazingly) abetted him in those efforts to suppress all sorts of details. The eventual biography may turn out to be interesting, You must admit that at least I'm consistent. For what it's worth, I think Romney, should he be elected, will be just fine and I think the daily attempts by MSNBC types to demonize him simply look foolish. I think a very interesting investigative article or even academic paper could be written about how MSNBC successfully translated for commercial purposes everything that failed on Air America radio for tv. Curtis

  5. You say Obama's 2008 campaign statements about incursions into Pakistan were reckless. A thing it turns out they were not is bullshit.

    And reckless how? Since when is it reckless to actually clue in the electorate, in the course of an election, what your intentions are? And while you are at it, give fair warning to an equivocal ally?

    I don't regard Romney as evil. But then again, I don't get that riled about incumbent presidents generally, even liars like Reagan.

    Here are three sufficient reasons why I will not vote for Romney: He will appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court, which will set back our civil liberties. He will abet those who would repeal the estate tax. He belongs to a dangerous and screwball cult. (Kidding about the last one being a reason.)

  6. I think we're concerned about different things or put our concerns in a different order of priority. I doubt that a Romney administration would set back our civil liberties. I believe another Obama administration would considerably disadvantage the US and international economies. But to get back to the subject of my post, I think the Washington Post article was a terrible piece of journalism whose timing was in various respects troubling. Curtis