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April - June, 2002

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May 26 | 19 | 12 | 5
April 28 | 21 | 14 | 7

  June 30, 2002:
"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
-- Samuel Johnson (Boswell's Life of Johnson)

Since September 11, we've seen a huge increase in patriotic expressions here in the United States. As a result, this has probably become the most widely used Samuel Johnson quotation since that date. Perhaps not in mainstream media, but certainly in usenet postings. Many would say it's become the Samuel Johnson quotation most widely misused, too.

It would have been nice if Boswell provided more details about what was being discussed when Johnson leveled this complaint, but he doesn't. The barb comes out of nowhere. (Please see the update below.) But Boswell makes up for this lack of context by making it clear that Johnson was not indicting all patriotism, merely false patriotism. Beyond that, all Boswell tells us is that it was part of a discussion on patriotism which occurred on April 7, 1775.

What were the political issues of the day, and what were Johnson's thoughts around that point in time? Well, by that time he had already published his famous political pamphlets of the 1770's, including The False Alarm (1770) and The Patriot (1774). He had also published the fourth edition of his Dictionary, wherein he'd added an explanatory remark to his definition of "patriotism". In both the first and fourth editions, he'd defined "patriot" as "One whose ruling passion is the love of his country." In the fourth edition, Johnson added: "It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government." From the original 1755 definition, repeated in 1773, as well as comments in Johnson's various pamphlets, it's clear that Johnson felt that patriotism was a valuable feeling, one which shouldn't be taken lightly. All scoundrels may resort to patriotism, but this doesn't mean that everyone who expresses patriotic sympathies are automatically scoundrels.

All in all, it's a pretty dangerous slur to throw around, and one has to have their evidence in advance if in order to accuse someone of being a scoundrel. I've seen it applied to both Senator Clinton and President Bush, without any supporting arguments beyond political philosophy. I saw it applied to both the Gore and Bush camps during the fallout in Florida over the 2000 election. (I myself directed it at the Bush camp, here, but of course I provided good arguments, irrefutable reasoning, and was completely correct in doing so.)

The degree of the subjectivity becomes all the more apparent if we stop and think that Johnson considered Edmund Burke and his party just the sort of manipulative politician deserving of this petard. Johnson talks about false patriots as appealing to the rabble and circulating pointless petitions, all of which was done by the party Burke belonged to. (You might take a look at F. P. Lock's excellent biography of Burke for further evidence.) In addition, Burke frequently spoke late in Parliamentary debates, and there was little new ground for him to cover on an issue beyond abstruse, theoretical patriotic arguments; and, Lock notes that Burke worked within the mindset of an intricate conspiracy theory within the court.

A further argument that Johnson felt Burke a manipulative scoundrel comes from Boswell. Burke is a topic of discussion following the "last refuge" remark, and about Burke, Johnson says, "Sir, I do not say that he is not honest; but we have no reason to conclude from his political conduct that he is honest." And on another occasion, Johnson said of him, "In private life he is a very honest gentleman; but I will not allow him to be so in publick life. People may be honest, though they are doing wrong; that is between their Maker and them. But we, who are suffering by their pernicious conduct, are to destroy them. We are sure that [Burke] acts from interest. We know what his genuine principles were. They who allow their passions to confound the distinctions between right and wrong, are criminal. They may be convinced; but they have not come honestly by their conviction."

Edmund Burke is of course one of the most revered politicians in British history, someone nobody takes lightly. And practically no one would say Burke wasn't a patriotic politician. Anyone who misuses the Johnson complaint about false patriotism should be prepared for a retort along the lines of "such as Edmund Burke?" Watch them sputter while you lay these details on them.

UPDATE: The order of the topics of discussion that night as represented in the Life Of Johnson are different from what Boswell's journals suggest. In his journals (written first), discussions of Burke as a politician happen before Johnson's famous remark, not after. Thus, it's even more likely that Johnson had Burke and his party in mind when he made the remark. Boswell may have rearranged the order out of sensitivity to its implications.

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  June 23, 2002:
All boys love liberty, till experience convinces them they are not so fit to govern themselves as they imagined.
-- Samuel Johnson (Boswell's Life of Johnson)

The world is not benign. There are benign individuals who sometimes falter, and there are other individuals who frequently falter. And there are some individuals and businesses that need to be closely supervised. Even if they're no longer boys, they behave as boys.

As a New Yorker, I'm conscious of the impact that Wall Street has on the local economy. And I'm also conscious of declining investor faith in the stock market, as a result both of accounting skepticism and conflicts of interests among analysts. (As I write this, the NASDAQ has fallen back to where it was just after September 11; the DOW has not fallen that low, but it's 12% lower than a year ago.) I should think that nothing would be more obvious to Wall Street than that its health requires they demonstrate compliance with strict standards. But an article in the New York Times last week (free through July 1, with registration) suggested that Wall Street is working to soften oversight, by limiting the activities of states. It was thanks to the activities of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer that we know about unsavory behavior by analysts at Merrill Lynch — touting stocks they knew were dogs. (Such dogs as would amaze to walk at all, much less on hind legs!) I just can't fathom any position by Wall Street other than "we welcome all scrutiny!! We're all for it!! Bring it on!!"

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  June 16, 2002:
I pitied a friend before him, who had a whining wife that found every thing painful to her, and nothing pleasing -- "He does not know that she whimpers (says Johnson); when a door has creaked for a fortnight together, you may observe -- the master will scarcely give sixpence to get it oiled."
Piozzi: Anecdotes

A light anecdote for you this week. About how we get used to our surroundings, and pay them no regard. Many summers ago (and I mean many) I lived in the La Mancha apartment complex (see map) in Gainesville, just a short hike east of the University of Florida. One hot afternoon, with the windows open, my friend Jake, who lived miles away, and I were listening to music. He had never heard George Gershwin's Concerto in F before, so I put that on the turntable. Before the second, slow movement started, I said, "You know, every time I listen to this movement, I think of an isolated train station in the middle of the night, waiting for a train to come through." About three minutes into the movement, a train went by on the nearby tracks. (If you click the map link above you'll see the tracks a few blocks further east.) Jake heard the sound of the train, looked at me, and said something like "Of course that's what you think of. Gershwin wouldn't have put the train there otherwise." "What train?", I asked. "The train on the record." " What train on the record?" Jake was astonished with me, went across the room, lifted the arm of the turntable and moved to the beginning of the movement. "Listen," he said, "and you'll hear the train." So we listened. And there was no train. And Jake was bewildered. "I could have sworn I heard a train." With effort, I remembered the tracks were nearby, and we both laughed.

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  June 9, 2002:
"Patience and submission are very carefully to be distinguished from cowardice and indolence. We are not to repine, but we may lawfully struggle; for the calamities of life, like the necessities of nature, are calls to labour and diligence. When we feel any pressure of distress, we are not to conclude that we can only obey the will of Heaven by languishing under it, any more than when we perceive the pain of thirst, we are to imagine that water is prohibited."
Johnson: Rambler #32 (July 7, 1750)

This isn't the first time I've used this quotation as the Quote of the Week. I am regularly surprised by how frequently Johnson's writings have current applications. Perhaps it is because the human condition doesn't change that much as the centuries progress: either our situations, or the ways in which we deal with them.

But I suppose there's room to complain that Johnson is not the most succinct writer we know. This week I ran across a great Molly Ivins quotation about being assertive in the face of difficulties. (If you're unfamiliar with Ivins, she's a political columnist in Texas who pulls no punches. Years ago, when the Republican party held its convention in Houston, and presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan gave an incredibly divisive speech, Ivins wrote, "Perhaps it read better in the original German.") Any way, she has a line she's used on a number of occasions, which she calls "The First Rule of Holes." It goes like this: "When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." Her column this week was in response to a feeling that global warming is inevitable and so we should all just give up. She wasn't alone in this complaint: cartoonist Tom Toles also railed against the feeling that reactions are too late.

Now, I'm glad that our Environmental Protection Agency issued a report suggesting that global warming is a real phenomenon, contrary to the interests of an administration which is deeply connected to those who sell energy and contribute to global warming. I'm likewise discouraged by Bush's discounting the report, when he said he'd "read the report put out by the bureaucracy." That's pretty classic: when you can't deal with the message, shoot the messenger. But all in all, regardless of what the President does, you're not helpless. Shut off the lights when you leave the room. Turn off the computer: just because you have DSL and can stay connected, doesn't mean you need to. Consider a more efficient car when you're in the market. Take a bottle of tap water with you before you go out, rather than spending a buck at the deli while you're out. You can do this, and it won't kill you.

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  June 2, 2002:
"Memory is the purveyor of reason, the power which places those images before the mind upon which the judgment is to be exercised, and which treasures up the determinations that are once passed, as the rules of future action, or grounds of subsequent conclusions."
-- Samuel Johnson: Rambler #41

These days, memory goes beyond what Samuel Johnson discusses here, but the net effect is the same. If we move beyond pride and isolation, and expose ourselves to the ideas of others, we have an opportunity to make our progress swifter and our results stronger. It's certainly valuable to note our own progress and learn from our own experiences, but too often we work in small spheres.

In an early chapter in The Social Life of Information, the authors (from Xerox PARC discuss the informal learning process which Xerox service technicians went through each morning at the diner. Over their oatmeal, eggs, and bacon, they would trade war stories, yesterday's learning, and informally help each other down a learning curve. Another anecdote covers two technicians working on a perennially troublesome machine together, and riffing on each others' ideas until together they arrive at a solution for the machine, much in the same way that two jazz soloists will play off each other for a combined, stronger performance.

The concept isn't new, but it is surprising how many times we need new examples before we agree to try something new. I'm not going to go into a rant about the now-famous "failure to connect the dots" within US intelligence agencies (that's not what this site is about), but I am glad that we are moving towards more integrated efforts.

By the way, have you seen this?

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  May 26, 2002:
An anecdote from Miss Seward: "I told him (says Miss Seward) in one of my latest visits to him, of a wonderful learned pig, which I had seen at Nottingham; and which did all that we have observed exhibited by dogs and horses. The subject amused him." "Then, (said he,) the pigs are a race unjustly calumniated. Pig has, it seems, not been wanting to man, but man to pig. We do not allow time for his education, we kill him at a year old."
-- James Boswell: Life of Johnson

Yes, the pigs still get killed at an early age to produce pork. That has not changed in the last 200 years. But perhaps the sows are enjoying their brief lives more, now? A Dutch pork producer, Schippers, has found that artificially inseminating sows is more effective (that is, it makes more money!) if it's done with a mechanism which simulates the actions of a male. (I would provide you a link, but it doesn't look like it will be up for long. As of today, you can see it among the articles listed at the Netherlands Info Services NIS News Bulletin. It really is too bad I don't have a permanent link, because the item notes that Schippers has also developed a male pig robot to arouse the sows. Anything, I guess, to get us all the meat we want. As Johnson said while touring Scotland, "Any of us would kill a cow, rather than not have beef."

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  May 19, 2002:
Sir Joshua having also observed that the real character of a man was found out by his amusements, --Johnson added, "Yes, Sir, no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures."
-- James Boswell: Life of Johnson

Hugh Hicks died a couple weeks ago. (I know how you feel: why didn't anyone tell you? Well, that's why I'm here.) Many of us were too distracted by political events in Washington and the "E.R." season finale that we just didn't take proper notice; even the New York Times didn't publish his obituary until May 15th, a full week after his passing. (If you didn't click the link, I'll tell you: Hicks was a "prodigious collector of light bulbs." (He had over 60,000 at one point, and you can bet they were better organized than that tangle of Christmas Tree lights in your attic.) Maybe now you want to click?)

This guy's collection was so big, you'd think he would have found some retirement income as a consultant for some dot-com. Unfortunately the obituary doesn't address a very important question: what will happen to the collection?

It's also important to remember that such collections do not happen by chance, but with persistence. While Hicks did have a career as a dentist, it's unlikely that he spent much time dawdling in other collections. As Johnson wrote in his life of Pope, "Those ... who attain any excellence commonly spend life in one pursuit; for excellence is not often gained upon easier terms."

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  May 12, 2002:
"Of the caution necessary in adjusting narratives there is no end. Some tell what they do not know, that they may not seem ignorant, and others from mere indifference about truth. All truth is not, indeed, of equal importance; but, if little violations are allowed, every violation will in time be thought little; and a writer should keep himself vigilantly on his guard against the first temptations to negligence or supineness."
-- Samuel Johnson: Letter to Dr. Charles Burney

European politics took a sad turn last week, with the assassination of Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands. Based on what I've read in the press, as well as conversations with a close friend in Leiden, he was a very controversial figure, but not at all the kind that merits political assassination. This is such a rare occurrence in European politics, that the continent is in a state of shock. Even to those of us in the United States, who are more familiar with assassination, it's a horrible event.

Political commentator Andrew Sullivan has been in overdrive on his blog this past week, coming up with various causes that might explain what happened, as well as telling us how we should all react. Basically, rushing to offer explanations before facts were known. The first night, Sullivan was calling on the gay left to adopt Fortuyn as a kind of martyr a la Harvey Milk, even though there was no evidence that Fortuyn's sexual orientation had anything to do with the assassination. A day or so later, Sullivan provided a link to a column that suggested Fortuyn's murder was due to his anti-immigration beliefs; this, in spite of the fact that there was no evidence that Fortuyn's anti-immigration beliefs had anything to do with it.

Johnson's comment about "Some tell what they do not know, that they may not seem ignorant" is very relevant here, because of the web log environment in which Sullivan's been writing. Web logs, by their nature, are supposed to be current and to the minute. I don't know if there is a tablet somewhere that says currency has higher value than accuracy, but in a rush to be current one could fall into a trap of not being deliberate enough. Andrew Sullivan is proud of his blog's popularity (and in the past has boasted not only its traffic, but that it makes a profit). This is just supposition on my part, but he could well be making a conscious effort to go out on a limb. Other publications, such as The New Yorker, are famous for their fact checking. (I know this from personal experience, because they called me for help on Adam Gopnik's review of Peter Martin's biography of Boswell.)

Now, for the bit about accuracy. Throughout the week, Sullivan had talked about whether the media had been demonizing Fortuyn, and inaccurately characterizing him as an extremist. Fair enough question. In contrast, on Thursday, he compared a New York Times article's treatment of Fortuyn to the treatment of the assailant. The alleged assassin is an animal rights activist, and the founder of an animal rights group. After reading the Times article Sullivan quoted the alleged assassin as having said, "It's time we stopped moaning about nature and the environment." In Sullivan's view, this apparently cemented it for him: the alleged assassin is a radical extremist.

For me, this was the final straw in Sullivan's rush to judgment, because the statement actually came from Fortuyn, not his alleged assassin. So I emailed Sullivan, complaining about his two prior swift judgments, as well as his failure to read the New York Times article correctly.

No reply, but mirable dictu, on Friday the Thursday entry was amended. The mis-sourced quotation had been pulled from the Thursday entry.

In physical publications, a newspaper or a magazine issues a correction and admits their mistake. Basic, fundamental accountability, which is necessary in maintaining credibility. But not Andrew Sullivan. Just delete the evidence, and hope no one will be the wiser for it. He has issued corrections in other cases, but not on this one.

By the way, I am certainly not the first person to catch Sullivan in error. Check out Spinsanity's criticism of Sullivan's very sloppy work regarding Michael Moore's Stupid White Men.

One last thought (but it has a Johnson quotation, honest it does!!) The New York Times quotation which Sullivan thought characterized an extremist so long as he thought it was said by the alleged assassin? Well, if it's an extremist thought, why doesn't it make one think that Fortuyn, who really said it, is an extremist? By deleting the line, Sullivan doesn't get into this at all, but perhaps he should. But considering it an extremist statement doesn't help Sullivan's basic thesis that Fortuyn is not an extremist. So, we close with this Samuel Johnson quotation: "Instead of rating the man by his performances, we rate too frequently the performances by the man." (Rambler No. 166)

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  May 5, 2002:
"All the performances of human art, at which we look with praise or wonder, are instances of the resistless force of perseverance; it is by this that the quarry becomes a pyramid, and that distant countries are united with canals. If a man was to compare the single stroke of the pickaxe, or of one impression of the spade, with the general design and the last result, he would be overwhelmed by the sense of their disproportion; yet those petty operations, incessantly continued, in time surmount the greatest difficulties, and mountains are leveled and oceans bounded by the slender force of human beings."
Johnson: Rambler #43

This past week, I prepared extracts from the 208th and final Rambler essay. They are not up yet, but will be up later this week. I will also be uploading the 1,500th quotation/extract. As I move into the Adventurer essays, the series which was next in Johnson's career, I'm struck by how greatly I underestimated the size of the task I started five years ago. Back then, looking at the number of Johnson quotations in the various quotation encyclopedias, I figured 500 quotations would cover it, 700 max. And here I am, at 1500, only now having finished the Ramblers. The Adventurers and Idlers are still to come. Plus the Lives of the Poets, the Sermons, the letters. I don't think my effort at cataloging and organizing quotations approaches art, but it does appear to be helpful. So carry on I will.

By the way, a late Rambler essay opened up a new theme, on achieving the completion of a project. This made me realize that a number of themes should be grouped into a larger theme of Project Stages. For all you business people and other project managers looking for rallying cries, I hope you find it valuable.

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  April 28, 2002:
"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."
-- Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)

Why is it that men don't ask for directions? Faced with an errand that might be as short as 15 minutes, they'd rather let it drift into three hours of helplessness rather than consult a map. Is it an issue of proving their natural survival skills that prevents them from asking for help?

I bring this up only in an attempt to be humorous about something that happened on this site this past week; and there's nothing beyond the jokes about men that suggests this was a man...

Last week someone was searching for a quotation by Johnson, had a number of key phrases from the quotation, and used the search engine here over 40 times. The quotation is by Johnson, it just wasn't on the site, but they searched and searched and searched rather than giving up and emailing me. On the basis of one of their search phrases, I found it in about 32 seconds; but I was unable to help them because they never emailed me. So, if you've used the Topical Guide, and you've used the Search Engine, and you still can't find it, please email me. I'm happy to help, always have been.

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  April 21, 2002:
"It is, perhaps, not considered through how many hands a book often passes, before it comes into those of the reader; or what part of the profit each hand must retain, as a motive for transmitting it to the next."
-- Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)

Tonight over dinner, my neighbor and I were discussing the economics of the Internet. I've come to the conclusion that Internet access costs too little, in the sense that those who reap the rewards do so too cheaply, and those who deliver the goods do so for too little remuneration. On the user side, users here in the United States typically pay a flat monthly fee which doesn't go up or down according to how much they use it: there is no reason to use less, and lots of reason to use more. On the provider side, Yahoo!, the singular most popular web property on the Internet has reported losses for something like four straight quarters; other search engines have not been doing well, and some say Alta Vista hasn't been able to afford re-spidering for months. And yet, as little as these companies receive, the fact that they get anything is due to the fact that users have confidence that valuable content exists, if they could only find it. If that confidence was no longer there, the little revenues that search engines get would evaporate.

Among content providers - - the companies and individual publishers that drive users to flock to search engines, advertising revenue is way down. The laudable interest in achieving a decent return on investments has led to more and more intrusive advertising technologies such as pop-ups and "interrupting" ads, but this doesn't help most of them get into the black.

As for the internet service providers themselves (the AOLs, the Earthlinks, etc.), they are not exactly making money hand over fist either. But like the search engine companies, the little moneys they receive would vanish if users didn't think there was interesting content or services available on the web.

In classic economics terms, the market is in a state of surplus. Either the quantity demanded will have to increase - - along with a willingness to pay - - or the supply will decrease. People and companies who provide free content will find other ways to spend their time if they are not compensated. There is no real reason to ask them to work for free. If they are blockheads, perhaps they will continue. But who would want to read a web full of content provided by blockheads?

Until such time as the Internet develops economics which are more equitable, we need to support the content providers that appeal to us, before they go away. There are thousands out there; find a way to help the ones you care about. (As for me, I'm going over to Spinsanity right away.)

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  April 14, 2002:
On the task of editing Shakespeare, which Hawkins told Johnson should be intrinsically rewarding: "I look upon this as I did upon the Dictionary: it is all work, and my inducement to it is not love or desire of fame, but the want of money, which is the only motive to writing that I know of."
Sir John Hawkins: The Life Of Samuel Johnson

On April 15, 1755, Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published. It was the first high quality English dictionary, and it represented the standard until finally replaced by the Oxford English Dictionary.

It was a huge accomplishment, but too often the context of the project is forgotten. The romantic story is that Johnson decided we needed a dictionary, came up with the idea, and sought to conquer the mountain. The truth is a bit different. The project was proposed to Johnson by the booksellers (publishers) of the day, not vice versa. Inconsistencies in spelling actually cost the publishers money, and they wanted a standard. So they went to Johnson for the project, feeling him the most qualified. As for Johnson's motivation, well, this passage from Hawkins' biography suggests that it was money. Johnson's "no man but a blockhead" quip is of course more famous, but here Johnson is specifically talking about one of his most famous accomplishments. And for Johnson, the practical writer, it was an issue of financial compensation.

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  April 7, 2002:
"It has been observed by long experience, that late springs produce the greatest plenty. The delay of blooms and fragrance, of verdure and breezes, is for the most part liberally recompensed by the exuberance and fecundity of the ensuing seasons; the blossoms which lie concealed till the year is advanced, and the sun is high, escape those chilling blasts and nocturnal frosts which are often fatal to early luxuriance, prey upon the first smiles of vernal beauty, destroy the feeble principles of vegetable life, intercept the fruit in the gem, and beat down the flowers unopened to the ground."
Johnson: Rambler #111 (April 9, 1751)

In the Northern Hemisphere, spring officially sprung two and a half weeks ago. Here in New York, prior to the official arrival we had some warm weekends that tempted some of the greenery out, but that greenery may regret its prematurity, as we have still had some nights that approached the freezing mark. But now it is all more in swing, and the daffodils planted to memorialize September 11 are in full bloom. Baseball has begun, and my Braves are locked in an extra-inning classic with the Mets. But Spring always has a special meaning for Samuel Johnson fans, because next Monday, April 15, is the 247th anniversary of the publication of Johnson's birthday. (I wonder of the Johnson house in London has already started thinking about how they will observe the 250th anniversary?) And, another late spring anniversary comes in May, when we remember the day Boswell met Johnson in Thomas Davies' bookstore. (I can still remember exactly where I was...)

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