The Samuel Johnson
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September 30, 2004:
If in an actor there appears an utter vacancy of meaning, a
frigid equality, a stupid languor, a torpid apathy, the greatest
kindness that can be shown him is a speedy sentence of
How much of national politics is driven by acting skills? Tonight in the US we're having our first "debate" between John Kerry and George Bush, and as we go into it the press has reminded us of really important issues which came out in prior televised debates:
I would far prefer that the expulsion be over something more serious than the above bullets, but this was what much of the press conference was not only this week but at the time.
But yet we know that our future depends on more than just speaking with conviction, as Johnson sets the standard for judging an actor. Listen carefully tonight to what Kerry and Bush say; carefully evaluate the truth of what they say. Do not go by apparent strength of conviction.
September 19, 2004:
Yesterday (Saturday, the 18th) was Johnson's birthday. Where I normally take one of his quotes and use it as a springboard for a little essay in this space, today I'd rather just do tribute, and put up a half dozen quotations of his which are special to me for one reason or another, staying away from those you're likely to run into through normal circumstances like flipping through Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.
So without further adieu (uh oh, French, he wouldn't have liked that...)
September 12, 2004:
No species of literary men has lately been so much multiplied
as the writers of news. Not many years ago the nation was content
with one gazette; but now we have not only in the metropolis
papers for every morning and every evening, but almost every
large town has its weekly historian, who regularly circulates his
periodical intelligence, and fills the villages of his district
with conjectures on the events of war, and with debates on the
true interest of Europe.
The Internet is many things, and its list should include being a new way for people to feel they are being heard. Opinionated cranks (like me) who were formerly content voicing complaints to regular companions at the local Shamrock Pub (or worse, staking out individuality from the crowd through that ever-effective tool, a belt buckle with their name on it) have found that by using software to write their web pages and a small hosting account, that they can attract a coterie of like-minded individuals, have their opinions reinforced, and through time and network effects find that numerous people read their opinions.
This, in turn, encourages the cranks from the other bars to get their own copies of the software, their own hosting accounts, and start up their own journals and compendia of thoughts and observations without which we somehow got through life beforehand.
In the same way that the local historians of Johnson's time had questionable credentials, a similar state exists with the musings of those on the Internet; sometimes the qualifications are lacking in the topic matter, and other times they are lacking in journalistic standards.
The "new media" (as these opinion columns are sometimes called) have been credited with forcing traditional news outlets to re-focus on stories which had previously been rejected by the traditional news outlets for their lack of merit; where the traditional media may have given a story a brief discussion and discussed its lack of merit, moving on to stories which are more important, the sensationalist leanings of web loggers — who only know an interesting story when they see one, don't typically do independent interviewing or investigating, and don't weigh the evidence, perpetually wishing to be out quick and early with their "take" — can cause a swell of public interest as a result of their echo chamber, finally forcing the traditional news outlets to return to the corpse, exhume it, and once again drive a silver dagger through its heart, this time in a much more public fashion. These, in short, are the dynamics of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story and their accusations against John Kerry. First brought to attention in May (and discussed then), conservative bloggers who support Bush felt that the coverage wasn't enough, and armed with inadequately supported opinions, forced outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and so on, to not just discuss the story but justify why they discarded it in the first place. And for this distraction, many bloggers feel triumphant about causing a re-focus.
If this were a singular instance, it wouldn't be worth commenting on. But earlier this year, as part of the careful development of a story, a news outlet was investigating rumors that John Kerry had had an affair. Investigating a story to see if it has merit is not the same thing as deciding that it does, and likewise less than printing the story. But the mere presence of an investigation was sufficient evidence for one sensationalistic blogger (Matt Drudge) to run with reports about the investigation, as if the investigation itself were newsworthy, causing a flurry of activity through the Internet, and ultimately resulting in major news channels asking themselves how to cover a flurry without mentioning what the flurry was about.
Johnson has weighed in on how we should have higher standards as readers. Ah, but if only writers read him more often, and saw the vanity of their efforts.
August 17, 2004:
Vulgar and inactive minds confound familiarity with knowledge,
and conceive themselves informed of the whole nature of things,
when they are shown their form or told their use.
It's a sad fact that people don't think as much as they can; given a facile explanation or simple reasoning, they rarely question it further. The gap between what we're capable of doing and what we actually do when considering the world is easily exploited by a skillful politician who employs thin rhetoric.
Take, for example, a recent political exchange here in the US. Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry said:
"I believe I can fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history."
Vice President Dick Cheney responded by harping on the use of the word "sensitive," as if it meant something like conducting war in a namby-pamby fashion, and ignored everything else Kerry said.
In a sense, Cheney was relying on the laziness of his audience (both those present and those who would later read the account) that they would not search out all of what Kerry said, nor think about the broader implications of being insensitive.
Kerry was of course speaking about gathering allies when he used the word sensitive; he was not talking about coddling the enemy. Beyond that, a glance at the definition of sensitive suggests that there is much to the idea that is honorable (being aware of what's going on around you, reacting to others, and so on); Cheney clearly hoped that everyone would be comfortable with his framing of the term and not consult a dictionary.
Lastly, Cheney hoped his audience would accept his outline of the implications of sensitive and not consider the characteristics of being insensitive. The abuses in Abu Ghraib prison are the product of being insensitive; so are behaviors like rounding up Japanese-Americans in World War II and putting them in internment camps. So was turning away a shipload of Jewish refugees trying to escape from Nazi Germany.
My point, obviously, is to not lapse into a comfortable arrogance about what we hear, and over-estimate our comprehension of what we're told.
July 25, 2004:
All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better
countries, he may learn to improve his own, and if fortune
carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.
Johnson was 64 when he visited Scotland, and at that point — as someone who had spent many years observing humanity and thinking about his own strengths and weaknesses — he may have felt that he knew as much about himself as he ever would. For there is something in the line above that suggests that most of what you will learn while traveling would be in the comparison of one area to another. There is nothing in this line that suggests that the traveler might learn something new about himself and how he responds to different situations.
The alert traveler may also observe how others in his party react to the new surroundings, and take that learning back. So in essence, I don't think Johnson began to articulate all the advantages of travel.
I'm just back from a weekend in Vermont; my wife and I dropped our daughter off to her first session of sleep-away camp. There is just no way I can transfer the advantages of Vermont to New York City (that mountain is staying put), but I will be able to take what I saw in our daughter in the unfamiliar environment and apply it to life here. The louder strains of independence suggest that adolescence will have plenty of opportunities if we can find a way to channel it, and the sheer joy she displayed during specific activities are certainly a clue to how to make her life as a teenager more enjoyable.
So yes, travel, and don't be surprised if you learn more than a new vocabulary.
July 11, 2004:
He that finds his knowledge narrow, and his arguments weak, and by consequence his suffrage not much regarded, is sometimes in hope of gaining that attention by his clamours which he cannot otherwise obtain, and is pleased with remembering that at last he made himself heard, that he had the power to interrupt those whom he could not confute, and suspend the decision which he could not guide.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #11
So the 9/11 Commission (officially called the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States) issued an interim staff report which found no collaborative relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda regarding 9/11; further, they said that frequent contacts between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda produced no productive alliances (aside, perhaps, from Iraq agreeing to rebroadcast speeches of an al Qada-favored Imam).
Undeterred by this rendering of events, the Bush administration — both Bush and Cheney — held fast, tying themselves to the mast of pre-invasion claims, in spite of the siren songs which tried to seduce the American public into a reality that, perhaps, there was less cause for war than had been suggested.
The Bush-Cheney line relied on reiterating the word "ties," and applying that word, seemingly, to the contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda in the 1990's, apparently oblivious to generally held beliefs that "ties" means something concrete and not easily dissolved.
Pressured to explain their continuing insistence, Cheney said he "probably" had information which the 9/11 Commission didn't have; yet, when asked to provide the commission the additional information, Cheney's spokesperson basically prevaricated and said words to the effect of "we've answered all their questions; how can we know what they haven't got?"
With wind in his sails, though, Cheney continued to blather on, and this week the 9/11 Commission issued a statement that, based on everything Cheney has been saying, Cheney has no additional information which the commission hadn't considered before issuing its staff report. Kathunk.
And Cheney's spokesperson's retort?
"As we've said all along, the administration provided the commission with unprecedented access to sensitive information so they could perform their mission," Kellems said. "The vice president critiqued some press coverage of the staff report. He did not criticize the commission's work."
That's right, he only wanted to be heard. He didn't stir up any controversy, it was all the media's fault.