The Samuel Johnson
Sound Bite Page
Home | Current Quote of the Week
September 28, 2003:
"Of the provisions the negative catalogue was very copious. Here was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine. We did not express much satisfaction."
—Samuel Johnson: Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (writing about an inn where he and Boswell had stopped)
I was taught in my consumer behavior classes that dissatisfaction occurs when reality measures poorly against our expectations. The effect is usually unpleasant, but sometimes Johnson focused on the value of the lesson. He once wrote his friend Bennet Langton* that the process leads us to lower our expectations: "I know not any thing more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality. It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed." In a sense, failure to measure progress (and its lack) is inhuman: if we don't compare where we are to where we expected to be, we don't take sufficient advantage of the powers of reasoning with which we've been blessed.
Where were we a year ago? It was just about this time last year when the Bush administration released its new strategic vision of our foreign policy. (You'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view it, but the doc is here.) A quick refresher may be helpful: it outlined a process whereby the US would achieve national security through a combination of reliable alliances and an imposing defense — a defense department so well run, so well manned, so well equipped that those who are not our allies would never dream of threatening us.
Many who read the document recognized it as a bold step, "bold" in the ambiguous sense that some use the word "interesting" to describe a painting about which they have mixed feelings. Scott Rosenberg, at Salon, recognized the financial implications of taking such a draining step, and wrote that "This is how empires are unmade." I too had similar misgivings, and wrote about them here.
Where we are now is no secret. Our current situation with Iraq demonstrates that we've made no progress in building alliances, while committing ourselves to massive, long term investment in the effort to move Iraq to democracy. I don't agree with calls that we make a premature exit, but we have to recognize what we're in for. Also, making a proper assessment means we have to accept the fact that WMDs are not plentiful in Iraq: the famous Kay report which had been projected for a mid-September release may not be released at all, because the US inspectors have too little to show for the effort. (It is also becoming increasingly difficult for even the staunchest hawks to argue that America was told the full story prior to the invasion, thanks to a recent reminder that in February 2001 US Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated that Saddam Hussein "has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours.")
(To be clear, my read of the events is far more negative than what I've put here; based on the reporting of John Judis and Spencer Ackerman, I have difficulty concluding anything other than that our perceptions, on this crucially important topic, were carefully spun by the White House.)
The immense costs of the Iraq effort will of course wreak havoc on our economy for years to come (a burden our children will inherit). These chains are foisted onto an economy which is already not doing well, yet the White House is of the opinion that the answer is to reduce taxes for the rich. Hoped-for efficiencies are of course a cruel master: companies gobble up other companies because it's easier to increase market share that way, but redundant employees are left in the dust (15% of a recently acquired bank in Virginia will be let go shortly — that's 904 people, all of whom depended on their paychecks). Further, the administration should have learned from the Soviet Union that economic markets are not so easy to manage; price tariffs which were instituted to curry favor with steel workers have led to a net loss of jobs thanks to greater job losses in industries which use the steel, such as automobile manufacturing.
I could go on about the failures of the Bush administration, but that would lead me too far afield from this column's original point, dissatisfaction (and writing it all up would be a task akin to producing a unified field theory). But it's worth noting that dissatisfaction is becoming more and more common among the American people. The President's approval rating right now is about 49-50%, a figure strikingly similar to the percentage of popular votes which he received in the 2000 election. Does anyone really think that everyone who approves is a Republican and all who disapprove are Democrats? I really don't think so: I'm sure that it skews that way, but there is no way, given his job performance, that all the Republican voters approve. Arizona, for instance, is a state Bush won in 2000 by 6%, but only 34% back his reelection. There are other indications that Republicans are worried. And, although I don't know how well-trafficked it is, there is this web site. "We did not express much satisfaction." Indeed.
(Note: this essay has been revised since originally published. It used to incorrectly credit this quotation as having been said to Boswell.)
September 21, 2003:
Fitzpatrick: "I have been looking at this famous antique marble dog of Mr. Jennings, valued at a thousand guineas, said to be Alcibiades's dog." ... Burke: "A thousand guineas! The representation of no animal whatever is worth so much. At this rate a dead dog would indeed be better than a living lion." Johnson: "Sir, it is not the worth of the thing, but of the skill in forming it which is so highly estimated. Every thing that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shows man he can do what he thought he could not do, is valuable. The first man who balanced a straw upon his nose; Johnson, who rode upon three horses at a time; in short, all such men deserved the applause of mankind, not on account of the use of what they did, but of the dexterity which they exhibited."
—James Boswell: Life of Johnson
Got that, everyone? It doesn't matter whether or not the use of a feat is immediately apparent, so much as whether or not it extends our understanding of human capabilities. Perhaps this is another way of thinking about David Blaine's current effort, suspending himself in a plexiglas cube above the Thames for 44 days without nourishment. The effort has drawn all sorts of reactions, some not so positive, some more positive, such as a visit from Sir Paul McCartney, a musician.
(QUICK: Paul McCartney: dead or alive?)
I think we can make an argument that the endurance which Blaine is showing does have practical uses: in extending our understanding of the human body's capability to survive under similar conditions, Blaine's techniques could be put to use by hikers, soldiers, etc. who are lost in the wilderness, or people adrift on boats for lengthy periods.
But are we to take Johnson seriously when it comes to people breaking the world's record for seesawing? How about the folks who sculpted a 7,000 pound flying pig from soap? Are all feats created equally? Personally, I wish Johnson were here. It would be nice to see him defend his argument, even if he wanted to admit the silliness of some of these pursuits.
September 14, 2003:
All power has its sphere of activity, beyond which it produces no effect.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #101
Who hear remembers Enron, that aggregation of financial smoke and mirrors, which was saluted as an icon of what could happen in a deregulated energy market, even as it manipulated prices in California, to the detriment of Governor Gray Davis, still haunted now with the recall...? Well, last time we checked, the main suspects in the case have yet to be charged, but this past week one exec pled guilty. The famous names — Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, et al — remain free, but there is this one conviction now.
The authorities must exercise their power where it has effect; to expend energies elsewhere would be to waste them. Given the importance of the financial markets, it still surprises me that the US Attorney General would, rather than pursue criminals in these areas, spend his energies on a public relations tour arguing for further "Patriot Act" laws. This, I suppose, is how he sees himself as being effective.
Fortunately, some state's Attorneys General have different views of their office, and are more active in actually pursuing financial criminals. New York's Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, stands out. He seems to have found a special efficacy for defending individual investors by pursuing fraudulent practices. The sad thing is that investors have been fleeced for years by such fraud, and it's taking a state Attorney General to halt it. Spitzer may not know where his powers end, but he certainly knows where there are unaddressed wrongs. Perhaps if John Ashcroft came in from the campaign trail, he also might have energy to fight crime?
September 7, 2003:
That we must all die, we always knew; I wish I had remembered it sooner.
— Samuel Johnson: Letter to Sir Joshua Reynolds
Please forgive me if, as a New Yorker, I feel like a comment about the anniversary of September 11, 2001. There is plenty to say about the horrors of that day; there is plenty to say about the depths of evil which must have been necessary to transform religious fervor into such an event; plenty to say about the loss which families felt. I remember all those things, but because I'm confident that others will be saying them this week, I would rather write a different reminder.
Johnson wrote his letter to his longtime friend late in life, when his decline due to old age was evident. Awareness of our mortality should not be a constant thought, he once told Boswell, else "the business of life would stand still." And I think I can safely say that very few of the people who perished on September 11 had thoughts of possible death as they went to work that day. Many said prayers on rising, I'm sure, thanking God for another day, but fewer thought about death.
It doesn't take a September 11, though, to make us remember that death can happen at any time — it doesn't even take other sizeable disasters like earthquakes to make us realize that. Think of the screwed-up, violent deaths you've read about: the recent case of the pizza delivery man being an example. It doesn't take violence, it could be a boating accident or a house fire. It could be a disease which overruns the immune system in days.
This, to me, is one of the great meanings of September 11: that our lives hang by a thread, and we need to live every day not as if it could be our last (with no foresight for the next day), but as days which will run out, and which need to be maximized within our life plans. This could mean taking the time to hug your kids more; it could mean making sure you make progress every day on your plans, or making plans. But do not let the time slip away, fruitlessly.
August 31, 2003:
"To equal robbery with murder is to reduce murder to robbery, to confound in common minds the gradations of iniquity, and incite the commission of a greater crime to prevent the detection of a less. If only murder were punished with death, very few robbers would stain their hands in blood; but when by the last act of cruelty no new danger is incurred and greater security may be obtained, upon what principle shall we bid them forbear?"
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler No. 114
The United States Consitution allows for inconsistencies between states when it comes to many laws: the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." The ways in which different states have decided to sentence criminals is just one manifestation.
In Johnson's time, murder was not the only capital crime. Robbery was punishable by death, and so was forgery (those who have read Boswell know that Reverend Dodd's death sentence for forgery incited Johnson to work for mercy on Dodd's behalf). In Rambler 114, Johnson expresses a concern that, if capital punishment is a sentence for too many crimes, then there is little or no reason for a robber to not kill his victim: the punishment is no worse. In 1995 the state of Louisiana passed a law allowing for the death penalty for rapists whose victims are under age 12. This past week, a man in Louisiana was sentenced to death for raping an 8 year old girl — his step-daughter. Some think the execution won't ever happen, but as long as the law allows it, there's no real reason to be sure. It's a horrible crime, of course, but I would imagine that the mother is glad her daughter is still alive.
One can't blame everything on the Tenth Amendment, however. The Louisiana law is in conflict with a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, so this may prove to be a test case which results in the overturn of the 1995 law. Also, the Federal courts have shown some inconsistencies: the death penalty is less likely to be given to criminals in the Northeast than it is in districts, say, in Texas. The Attorney General's office is trying to ensure that it's administered more consistently, by pursuing the more severe paths: in some cases, the US Attorney General's office has over- ridden local prosecutors who weren't originally seeking the death penalty.
Good thing we're a nation of laws. Now all we need is some more.
August 24, 2003:
"...in moral discussions, it is to be remembered that many impediments obstruct our practice, which very easily give way to theory."
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler No. 14
The gap between the ideal and the execution was something Johnson wrote about frequently. Rambler 14 is largely about managing our expectations of writers' lives, and reminding us that they are human: their books may be exciting, or hew to the highest moral standards, but in the end, the author is mortal just like us, and in all likelihood will have many of the same flaws we see in ourselves. One of Johnson's points in the essay is that we shouldn't let their humanity detract from the validity of their message, just because they are unable to meet their own high standards. The goal is still worth striving for.
Beyond moral instruction, Johnson also emphasized how our plans can get derailed when we are trying to accomplish something. He realized how difficult it can be to achieve what we set out to do, writing in Rambler 74, " Knowledge and genius are often enemies to quiet, by suggesting ideas of excellence, which men and the performances of men cannot attain."
Resolutions, too, attracted Johnson's aim: in Rambler 134, he wrote, ""Life is languished away in the gloom of anxiety, and consumed in collecting resolutions which the next morning dissipates; in forming purposes which we scarcely hope to keep, and reconciling ourselves to our own cowardice by excuses which, while we admit them, we know to be absurd."
And so, in our house, my wife and I are about to finish the first two weeks of the Atkins diet (the phase where you limit yourself to 20 grams of carbohydrates a day, in order to rearrange your body's priorities in what it burns, from carbs, to fat). The theory makes sense, and we've seen encouraging results so far. However, we know there will be temptations and impediments ahead: my wife misses bread, and I miss my Venco licorice. (Why go to the Netherlands if you're not going to bring some home?) So we will have to keep in mind the theory, and our eyes on the prize.
August 17, 2003:
"I have seen melancholy overspread a whole family at the disappointment of a party for cards; and when, after the proposal of a thousand schemes, and the dispatch of the footman upon a hundred messages, they have submitted with gloomy resignation to the misfortune of passing one evening in conversation with one another; on a sudden, such are the revolutions of the world, an unexpected visitor has brought them relief, acceptable as provision to a starving city, and enabled them to hold out till the next day."
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler No. 6
I am probably a couple days late in commenting on the blackout which was just experienced by 50 million people: we had no power, and just like September 11, our true experience was limited by our inability to watch it on television. (In fact, while we had electricity by Friday evening—we were without for about 27 hours—our ISP was still down until midday Saturday; so I couldn't have posted earlier even if I wanted to.)
In no way do I want to make light of the emergency situations or economic losses which were caused by the blackout: but the severity of what resulted there doesn't blind me to the very human aspect that many people just didn't know what to do with themselves on Thursday and Friday. Here in New York, a power outage is just so much more uncommon than what I experienced growing up in Florida, what with above ground power lines, hurricanes, and all that. We just learned not to be dependent on the television for our entertainment. Cards, musical instruments, a board game: it wasn't that difficult.
But boredom needed to be fended off, nonetheless. In spite of the fact that our ten-year old had the batteries for a Game Boy and a personal stereo (as well as the battery-operated radio), it was difficult to maintain patience. Again, I think this is upbringing: in Florida, I'm sure I went through two or three extended blackouts by the time I was ten. It's just different now.
We did talk to each other, and we did have some good times, but the boredom of familiarity couldn't be completely stopped; and when a downstairs neighbor rang our bell, we were very happy to open the door wide.
August 10, 2003:
"The present state of things is the consequence of the former,
and it is natural to enquire what were the sources of the good
that we enjoy, or the evil that we suffer. If we act only for
ourselves, to neglect the study of history is not prudent: if we
are intrusted with the care of others, it is not just. Ignorance,
when it is voluntary, is criminal; and he may be properly charged
with evil who refused to learn how he might prevent it."
Americans, the New York Times reports, are bored with the news, and would very much like something more entertaining than word of how badly it's going in Iraq. Well, isn't that just too bad! Perhaps the citizenry would be more interested in reading about the conferences after World War I, and how the Middle East got carved up, in order to get some sense of how badly world powers an muck it up. Take a look at most countries' borders, and you see they relate to latitude and longitude, mountain ranges, lakes, or rivers. Then take a look at the Middle East, and its crazy cookie cutter shapes.
If that history is too far back (!) for them to keep awake, I could go more recent when I teach the class: there's a wonderful article in the Sunday Washington Post about the path of deception which led us to war in Iraq...
I know how it is: the dog days of summer, and no pushover wars for Fox News to use to trumpet our greatness. It's really too sad: there's history at work here, but few want to read it.
August 3, 2003:
There are no safe bets, I guess, not even in crime. The Washington Post has a story about a gold ingot in the Smithsonian's collection that heretofore had been thought to date from the California Gold Rush; but the recovery of several contemporary ingots from the same gold firm, in a shipwreck off the North Carolina coast, has called into question the authenticity of Smithsonian's ingot. The museum piece is very different, it seems. "Whoever the forger was, and we don't know, couldn't have known that nearly 40 years later the shipwreck would be recovered and expose this piece as a forgery," said a consulting geologist.
This past week, you may have heard, PBS aired a retrospective documentary on Watergate, during which Jeb Magruder said that Nixon approved the break-in of the Democratic National Party offices in advance: not just helped to cover it up, but approved it in advance. At this late date, with so many of the participants dead, it's difficult to prove or discredit Magruder's story, and his 30 years' silence doesn't help his case. But there are also arguments in his favor.
It's a wonderful event, isn't it, when truth prevails?
I long for truth's appearance with respect to Iraq and WMDs. Until such time as they are found, or our administration admits an error, our credibility in the world will be hindered, and our ability to implement a forthright foreign policy will be weakened. I honestly don't care whether WMDs are found or not, I want the truth. And if they're not there, the sooner the administration recognizes it, and admits it, the better. No lower standards of evidence, such as "we told you he had WMDs and he did have them." The world requires proof that there was an imminent threat.
Truth is incredibly important. Next time the Republicans tell you they're the party of Lincoln, remind them they're also the party of Nixon. No resting on laurels here: we have to vigorously pursue the truth.
July 27, 2003:
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing an old friend from high school and college, and was struck by how little time was spent in re-acquainting ourselves with each other's recent experiences. Sure, there was some time spent in review, but conversations quickly shifted to what we were going through there and then. That, of course, is one of the benefits of a deep friendship where the parties have kept in touch.
How very different it is, when parties haven't spoken in some time, or worse, when one has abused the other's friendship somehow. In the best case, the two parties start off as little more than strangers; worse, there may be a cold animosity hanging in the air.
These thoughts occurred to me while reading an article about Japan's decision to send troops to Iraq. India, I'm sure you know, said they couldn't do it without a UN resolution approving it.
The way the Bush administration has consistently bungled international relations over Iraq — from the handling of 1441 in the UN, bullying North American neighbors Mexico and Canada, accusing France and Russia of aiding Iraq, and cold shouldering the UN over post-war involvement — is it any wonder that US forces are getting so little assistance from other countries?
Pragmatically speaking, could anyone really expect a country to contribute when the broader international organization (the UN) has been told how limited its role will be? Or, to call on a phrase from another era, asking other countries to help out, yet not let them play a leadership role, is akin to taxation without representation.
I'm sorry to say that the Bush administration has not done a great job of keeping its international friendships in constant repair. I only hope that the wounds are not deep. Maybe the next President will be able to mend it up.
July 20, 2003:
Complacency about our moral condition is sometimes at its ripest when it would seem there is nothing to worry about; we are only human, after all, and when things are going well, we're just not likely to review our flaws when there seems no reason to.
Our hubris dissipates, however, when events take another turn, and should they turn badly enough, we are likely to think harder about our ends. For Johnson, consciousness of our mortality was an important motivator for morality. Our after-lives, lasting an eternity, should swamp any transitory desires based on today's temptations — not to block out our vitality, so much as to confirm it, by reinforcing our ability to understand life's true values. Armed with a better understanding of what is truly valuable, we can better resist the small temptations which surround us.
Now, that's the idea, of course, but Johnson recognized that humans are fallible, and cannot always keep eternity in their view. He also recognized that doing so would be stupefying, that a constant sense of our mortality would be debilitating. While on their tour of Scotland, he remarked to Boswell, "If one was to think constantly of death, the business of life would stand still." The point, then, is to reap the rewards of a consciousness of mortality, and use it to resist temptation, but at the same time, not be distracted from our daily lives.
July 13, 2003:
The American press has become tenacious regarding the issue of the forged uranium purchase order and how President Bush came to mention it in his State of the Union address in January. The sad thing is that it is so delayed: I saw the need for skepticism in late February, and wrote about it in my personal blog on February 24 and in a lengthy discussion at Horsefeathers. My point then was, and remains, that if the President shows a pattern of muddying the record through either outright lies or leaving the populace confused about a relatively minor issue like the economy, then we should question the tale on graver issues such as war. Kind of like what Johnson said about people who don't even pay proper attention to what they eat. I figure, if I saw it — and I am no Washington insider — then it was foreseeable by others, and should have been raised by the mainstream media. But no, the so called liberal media needed the catalyst of absent WMDs in order to raise it.
No real patriot likes being in the position of saying "I told you so." It would be preferable if there were no need to doubt the administration, and for the sake of our foreign policy it would be better if we do find WMDs in Iraq. But no patriot who was skeptical, and then confirmed, would hesitate to say "I told you so": it is in the best interest of the country, if the administration insists on spreading confusion, that the value of skepticism is made more prominent. Only in this way can we hope for better performance from the administration (as idle as those hopes might be).