The Samuel Johnson
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December 26, 2004:
There are multitudes whose life is nothing but a continuous
lottery; who are always within a few months of plenty and
happiness, and how often soever they are mocked with blanks,
expect a prize from the next adventure.
Hope has value: it can spur us to develop plans and take action. But hope which is unsupported, or which doesn't result in action, is to our detriment. Sometimes the fault is in the hope — no plan of action will make me a major league centerfielder — and sometimes the fault lies with the idle, who congratulate themselves with their vision and do nothing to realize their goals.
A new year is almost upon us, and many of you will be making resolutions. If vain hopes are a problem for you, I wish you the utmost success in wrestling with that fault in 2005.
December 13, 2004:
I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving: having, from
the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming plans
of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing,
therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD,
grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for Jesus
Christ's sake. Amen.
Johnson died some twenty years after writing this prayer, and since today (December13) is the anniversary of his death, perhaps it makes sense to consider what he accomplished in his last twenty years?
Impressive output for any writer, and this was only in his last twenty years. The quantity and quality of his output is one of the reasons why people think Johnson was frequently too hard on himself. Yet who is the best judge of our potential? Johnson was a firm believer in the parable of the talents — that more is expected from those who have been blessed with more — and felt that if you didn't push yourself to do more you would never understand your full capabilities.
As he wrote in Adventurer 128,
Man can only form a just estimate of his own actions, by making his power the test of his performance, by comparing what he does with what he can do. Whoever steadily perseveres in the exertion of all his faculties, does what is great with respect to himself; and what will not be despised by Him, who has given to all created beings their different abilities: he faithfully performs the task of life, within whatever limits his labours may be confined, or how soon soever they may be forgotten.
Another reminder from the Great Cham that we not be complacent...
December 5, 2004:
The rigour of winter brings generally to the same fireside
those who, by the opposition of inclinations, or differences of
employment, moved in various directions through the various parts
of the year; and when they have met, and find it their mutual
interest to remain together, they endear each other by mutual
continuance of the social season, with all its bleakness and all
Yup, it's December, and all of a sudden your social calendar has gone kerflooey. You couldn't squeeze in an impromptu poker night if your life depended on it, and the thought of facing all sorts of people you haven't seen since — well, last December sets your teeth on edge. What on earth will you say to each other, and if your companionship really mattered so much to them, why didn't it happen on some spontaneous occasions more frequently in the past year? And so you (and me, and many others) morph into Mr. Grumpy.
But don't you get over it once you're there? Is it so bad? Unless you're absolutely dead-set on having a bad time and have your arms crossed in a physical "harumph," don't you find a bit of pleasantry, followed by a bit more, increasing in its momentum until by evening's end you wish it could be prolonged?
Well, I suppose if you're really hardened to the whole idea you could write it off as the mutual delusion of crowds. Or, you could decide to end the evening with concrete plans to see these people again, and bid them adieu with something more sincere than the eighties' token "We must do lunch." You could actually agree to do lunch; you could also set a date for say, dinner in February (or poker!!). So bring your PDA to your holiday parties, and use the occasions as a springboard for a pleasant year.
November 30, 2004:
Policy never pretended to make men wise and good, the utmost
of her power is to make the best use of men such as they are, to
lay hold on lucky hours, to watch the present wants and present
interests of others, and make them subservient to her own
What is the role of government? That's the thought this quotation provokes. Johnson sees government's efficacy in forcing behaviors, but doesn't see its power in changing attitudes or understanding.
If that's what Johnson thought in general, and not in the limited situation of foreign policy, I respectfully disagree. In fact, I also disagree when it comes to foreign policy.
Domestically, the federal government promotes the wisdom of home ownership through tax deductions on mortgage interest; over time, more and more people realize the value of saving their money into their real estate instead of paying rent. Whether or not you agree that it's a good thing for people to have a real estate nest egg when they retire, the government has convinced people of it. There are other examples, too: public policies have promoted better health and hygiene, for instance, and more people are concerned about their cholesterol. And millions have given up smoking since the surgeon general started a campaign against cigarettes in the 1960's.
So, yes, I see government as having greater impact. People may be slower to change their minds than their practices, but they can change their minds. It's also worth pointing out that one of the 9/11 Commission's key areas of recommendations relies on this belief: they recommend working with foreign governments and peoples to improve their economic lots so there is less rage and discontent. This shouldn't be an idea which only liberals see the value in: much of the reason we are in Iraq is in the hope that we can establish a beachhead for democracy. If conservatives disagree with the efficacy of government on issues such as this, they should re-think the policies which have led us to Iraq.
November 21, 2004:
It is wonderful with what coolness and indifference the
greater part of mankind see war commenced. Those that hear of it
at a distance, or read of it in books, but have never presented
its evils to their minds, consider it as little more than a
splendid game, a proclamation, an army, a battle, and a triumph.
Some, indeed, must perish in the most successful field, but they
die upon the bed of honour, "resign their lives amidst the joys
of conquest, and, filled with England's glory, smile in
The hell of war which William Tecumseh Sherman cited is a thought too jarring for many people. So it wasn't surprising that many Americans preferred the glory of a statue's toppling to the ignominy of a soldier shooting a helpless Iraqi. Undoubtedly, some still cling to fantastic stories about PFC Jessica Lynch's capture and subsequent rescue.
Sometimes the amazing thing about Johnson's writings is not that he had a unique perspective, or that he expressed what he saw with particularly provocative words, but that he could see tendencies in humanity which transcend cultures and times.
The US-led offensive in Falluja could have been initiated months ago. Remember April, and the problems dealing with Sadr? Why did the US wait to crush insurgents, rather than dealing with them back in the spring or summer?
Of course the reason has to do with the political calendar and the US presidential election. We haven't been overwhelmed with a flood of US casualties, but the administration couldn't have known that would be the case. Knowing the sensitivities of the public, it delayed this offensive until after the election.
November 14, 2004:
Prudence and justice are virtues and excellences of all times
and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are
geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual
nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary
and at leisure.
Johnson's argument is simple: morality is not a hat we can put on and take off at will; it should suffuse everything we do, even if it's not obvious. Other parts of daily life are like hats (switching from considerations about what to cook for dinner to considerations about what to watch on television) and can be changed at will, but morality should be pervasive. The cook should consider his guests' allergies, or perhaps think about whether he cares about the life of a veal calf, but there comes a time when he stops thinking about cooking itself.
In the U.S. presidential election, exit poll surveys asked voters what they considered most important, and were asked to choose from a list. The list included items such as the economy, Iraq, terrorism, and a vaguely worded option called "moral values." Moral values was chosen by more people than any other item, and on that basis (as well as the presence of ballot referenda on eleven states proposing bans to gay marriage), many have concluded that moral values were the deciding factor in the election, and many pundits have suggested that Democrats have to get in line with the "rest of the country" on morality.
Not to re-initiate a debate on whether or not moral values drove the decision (I did that here on my daily blog, see "David Brooks wrong again"), it is worth considering a common complaint about the exit survey question, which separated "moral values" from other aspects of the voting decision.
Many, such as me, consider moral values as pervasive in the other aspects listed. The decision to go to war against Iraq was fraught with moral aspects: did the President lie to the American people? was there humanitarian benefit to toppling Saddam Hussein, outweighing the implications of war? As for the economy, while on the face it would seem to be a question of Mammon, morality plays a role there, too. Abortions are higher in the Bush administration than they were under Clinton, and many attribute that to the poor economy. Buying from Wal-Mart to get a lower price may mean more U.S. workers' jobs are outsourced to workers in other countries; how do you weigh the trade-off between your own wallet and your countryman's? is outsourcing acceptable if it provides low wages to a foreign worker, even if those low wages are not up to U.S. standards? and taxes — the President has chosen to reduce taxes on the wealthy, and increase the debt load on future generations. Is that morally acceptable? I could take you through similar logic on issues surrounding the environment and terrorism, if I so chose.
My point is not to discuss specific political positions here, but to demonstrate that moral values should have been pervasive in every voter's mind. What I don't know is how respondents felt when asked that question — whether they went through the careful reasoning I speak of here, or whether they just glommed on whatever leftover moral issues they had in their mind at the time. Survey researchers sometimes test a questionnaire for how well it communicates before they launch it; sometimes they just assume they know. (Researchers can be just as arrogant as anyone else.) I don't know if they did that here, but it feels like they didn't.
November 7, 2004:
To proceed from one truth to another, and connect distant
propositions by regular consequences, is the great prerogative of
It's our power to reason which separates us from the brutes, but what are we to think of those who don't take full advantage of their opportunities to learn and reason?
Some 55 million Americans have woken up to the reelection of President Bush, something they didn't want; worldwide there are more, of course. But if America is to move past its state of polarization, before it can even begin to grapple with differences in political philosophies, you would think there would be a set of agreed-upon facts which form the basis of extension and further discussion. How else to proceed in a dialog, if the world is not just viewed differently, but facts not agreed upon?
In late October, the well-respected Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) released the results of an examination of beliefs held by the American electorate, and how those beliefs differed among supporters of President Bush and Senator Kerry. Their surveys have strong methodologies, and their conclusions are widely respected. They found that Bush supporters believed Iraq had WMDs (and that the US had found them), that Iraq was behind September 11, and that Iraq had supported al Qaeda. They believe these points in spite of several U.S. government reports which have either found these weren't true, or found no evidence to support them; these come from respected, broadly circulated reports like the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committe; the information was widely discussed and reported in detail by major newspapers across the country.
In other results PIPA reports that 75% of Americans feel we shouldn't have gone to war in Iraq if they had no WMDs. Yet support for the war is strong, because so many are confused about whether or not Iraq had them.
It's the unfortunate outgrowth of people not spending enough time sampling different news organizations. PIPA also found (a pdf file) that "those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions [about Iraq], while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch PBS are significantly less likely."
How to proceed? Well, for starters, we have to all engage in a more common Town Square, and while it makes sense to frequent the news sources we prefer, it's unconscionable to not venture out more. A better informed populace is the cornerstone of a stronger democracy, as you know.
October 24, 2004:
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.
Here in the U.S. we are cursed with a press that no longer prints the truth, or even what it sees as the truth. Cowed by conservative critics that it is too liberal, it digs deep to be "evenhanded:" it feels forced to couple a disclosure of Bush-Cheney mendacity with a parallel example from John Kerry, no matter how dissimilar the significance.
It's not a new phenomenon: in 2000, candidate Bush acted like he was pro-consumer by talking about a patients' "Bill of Rights" he'd signed into law as governor, omitting any reference to his efforts to defeat the bill before it came to his desk for signature. Al Gore relied on newspaper accounts of overcrowding in a Florida classroom, and was proven wrong. Yet it was Gore who was branded the liar.
Here in 2004, Kerry has been using scare tactics when talking to senior citizens about Social Security. Bush has insisted he won't cut seniors' Social Security benefits, but has not explained how he'll accomplish his staggering restructuring of the program's cash flows. And while the press has given adequate notice of Kerry's tactics, they've let far more serious claims from the Bush administration slide by. (Kerry's charge, while contradicted by Bush's statements, might be defended on the grounds that Bush can't support his claims that seniors' benefits are safe.)
Currently, for instance, the Bush-Cheney campaign is engaged in rewriting history. Not just saying that they have a different view, but that history never happened. Kerry has charged that Osama Bin Laden was let out of a dragnet in Tora Bora when we outsourced the job of capturing him to Afghan warlords. Bush- Cheney say this is not true, yet newspaper accounts from the period confirm Kerry's version of the events.
Yet the press by and large is letting the Bush-Cheney campaign get away with this rewriting, because it no longer differentiates between big lies and small ones. The constant "on the other hand" analyses which followed all the debates has given the Bush-Cheney campaign the sense that it has free reign, and that a flagrant foul is no worse than a minor one.
October 14, 2004:
It is common for those who have never accustomed themselves to
the labour of inquiry, nor invigorated their confidence by
conquests over difficulty, to sleep in the gloomy quiescence of
astonishment, without any effort to animate inquiry or dispel
obscurity. What they cannot immediately conceive they consider as
too high to be reached, or too extensive to be comprehended; they
therefore content themselves with the gaze of folly, forbear to
attempt what they have no hopes of performing; and resign the
pleasure of rational contemplation to more pertinacious study or
more active faculties.
Many in Johnson's audience belonged to a leisure class that read to be entertained, rarely exerting their faculties; if they went to university it was more out of social expectations than any genuine need to apply their learning to a profession.
But regardless of economic standing, the parable of the talents tells us that more is expected from those who have received more blessings; if we have been given intellectual capabilities, and fail to use them, not only won't we be fulfilling expectations, but at the time of Judgment we will be judged wanting.
How are we to know what we're capable of? Certainly not by assuming the worst about ourselves, deciding we cannot engage the world, and retreating in defeat. Languishing without effort is unacceptable, and while it's senseless to attempt reading Stephen Hawking without an adequate background, that doesn't mean we can't get the background (of that we could be capable), and then tackle astral physics.
If we fail to appreciate that learning comes in stages, we may never reach our goals, and never achieve our full capabilities. Not trying, not taking the first steps, is inexcusable.
October 7, 2004:
Nothing is to be estimated by its effect upon common eyes and common ears. A thousand miseries make silent and invisible inroads on mankind, and the heart feels innumerable throbs, which never break into complaint.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #68
It wasn't so long ago that the United States was tied in knots over the sexual peccadilloes of its President. News on the scandals was inescapable, both on television and in print. Legislation was stalled, and efforts to fight terrorism by bombing camps and chemical plants couldn't be done without some nagging fear of being labeled part of some "Wag the Dog" syndrome.
Even if you take it as a given that the outrage then was not over sex but over lying and abuse of power — something I'm not ready to do, I think it wasn't even about sex, but hate — how much greater should the outrage be now that there is no argument but that the Bush administration took us to war against Iraq with no justification? It's not just an issue of being misled on intelligence, it's an issue of ignoring dissenting intelligence. Claims were made that aluminum tubes were "really" only suitable for enriching uranium when experts said they were unsuitable for that; accounts that Iraq had dismantled its weapons programs in the early 90's were disregarded; the inspectors on the ground in 2003 were prevented from completing their mission.
And now that the U.S. government's authorities have issued their final conclusive report that Saddam Hussein was neither a grave threat nor a gathering threat, support for Bush remains strong in the polls.