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March 27, 2005:
"...this world must soon pass away. Let us think seriously on our duty. I send my kindest respects to dear Mrs. Careless: let me have the prayers of both. We have all lived long, and must soon part. God have mercy on us, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ."
— Samuel Johnson: Letter to Edmund Hector
The demise of Terri Schiavo (or what's left of her, since the medical consensus is that she is in a persistently vegetative state) has been, sadly, a too public affair. Her parents, brother, and sister have largely behaved as you would expect, wanting to do everything they could to hang on to her, refusing to resign themselves to probabilities.
The hucksters in Washington DC who have been too willing to take advantage of the drama for a few political points among already-core supporters should be ashamed of themselves; they have used the family's situation in a most hellish way, cloaking themselves in faith and religion for gain. And in so doing, they've fed the hopes of the family, with hopes that these politicians could never honestly deliver; in addition to giving false hopes, they also perverted government, passing laws in the middle of the night with only three senators (in a body of a hundred) present.
For over a week Ms. Schiavo has been deprived of food and water, and the chance that any court would change the direction of years of careful judicial decisions would have to have been reckoned as minimally slim. And in this time, while her body has been making its way towards absolute, undeniable death, her family has been completely distracted by fleeting hopes, media coverage, and attentive followers.
I hope there is time for the family to reconcile themselves to her passing before it actually occurs, that they may be better prepared, and pray for her eternity. Perhaps they are already doing that; perhaps they don't want to show that side while they feel hope remains. I don't know, and it would be foolish to speculate.
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March 20, 2005:
Wickedness must be opposed by some, or virtue would be entirely driven out of the world.
— Samuel Johnson: Sermon 17
Little is known about when Johnson wrote his sermons; he told Boswell that he'd written them all for pay, and that his identity as their author was a secret. A couple dozen or so were written for John Taylor, and they weren't published with Johnson's name on them until 1812, nearly 30 years after Johnson's death.
Sermon 17 concerns itself with lying, both in terms of giving false witness in court as well as when talking about others in society. Johnson pointed out that it was wrong to assassinate someone's character not only by spreading falsehoods, but also by giving a distorted characterization of their behavior by ignoring all the good and focusing on an isolated fault.
To make the audience understand the full significance of lying, Johnson goes beyond its impact on the target and writes about the general erosion of morality which ensues when we participate in calumnies. He sees a threat to society when we fail to act morally, and clearly, "but everybody does it" would hold no sway with him.
Although Johnson was merely writing about calumny, this argument is applicable to a much broader sphere of behavior. Tax time is approaching, for instance; how many people do you know who justify cheating on their taxes by claiming that everybody does it? "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" should be the reply.
(Incidentally, the Holy Grail of quotations collectors is the source of a line attributed to Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." It appears in many variations, yet it's never been found in his writings, speeches, or letters. So while it's been widely attributed to him, it's not established. But if you would like to reliably express the same thought, with a correct attribution, you can use the Johnson quote above; its veracity is established.)
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March 13, 2005:
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.
— Samuel Johnson (Boswell's Life of Johnson)
I bet you're just the type of person that doesn't need this quotation explained to you. (You might like to know the background, however. Johnson, Boswell, and Joshua Reynolds were visiting an estate, and Johnson only seemed to care about the contents of the library, parting company in order to survey its contents. When called on his exit in order to do so, he excused himself with the above.)
A quote so easily understood can seem stale, until you start to consider how its fundamental truth has resisted the erosion of time. Last week, the New York Times had an article about the hoops through which people jump to manage their lists of phone numbers now that they call so many people using mobile phone. And I'd be lost without the little card that tells me where all the satellite television channels can be found (on the satellite of course, you twit). As an aside, at one point while I was at American Express, I counted all the passwords and passcodes I needed as part of my job; I forget what they were all for (and I've forgotten the codes, too), but it approached twenty: there were codes to turn on the PC, codes to get into the local computer network, codes for your voicemail... That's only three, but I'd swear there 18 or so. (Consults an old list...)
The interesting phenomenon is that I don't think technology has increased the burden on our memories. These days, yes, one may complain about having to remember all these numbers, but before technology expanded, people were expected to have other types of knowledge close by, either in our heads or quickly found. Shakespeare, biblical passages, more of the details of history, perhaps the classics or Latin or Greek. I'm not saying our burden is less important, but that perhaps if we feel especially burdened we shouldn't.
As for the value of being able to call up something relevant without consulting resources, it does have its occasional uses. I remember business meetings in the 1980's when a question would come up about a previous discussion, and I was able to end controversy by reciting who said what to whom, the replies, and use their words almost exactly. I wasn't making it up. Ending a controversy in a business meeting and getting on with the real issues at hand was always pleasurable.
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March 6, 2005:
All that great wealth generally gives above a moderate fortune is more room for the freaks of caprice, and more privilege for ignorance and vice, a quicker succession of flatteries, and a larger circle of voluptuousness.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #38 (July 28, 1750)
How much is enough, Johnson is basically asking. In a way, this passage might be another argument that he's a liberal and not a conservative. If you read the entire essay the quote above comes from, you see that Johnson is arguing against living in the extremes at both ends: wealth which corrupts and breeds complacency as well as poverty that introduces poor health and so on. Johnson's point regarding wealth is that there is much to be said for doing with less. He doesn't argue for a redistribution of wealth, but sounds an alarm about its ills.
This morning I was encouraged to read that Mary-Kate Olsen (one half of the famous Olsen twins, the other being Ashley) seems to be consciously taking a different path than we hear for hotel heiresses and the like. She's making a fashion statement by dressing down, shying away from the conspicuous consumption of so many other celebrities her age. Further, her statement seems to be trend setting.
I don't really know what to attribute it to. It could well be that Ms. Olsen is less attracted to material goods; I don't know, and the article doesn't seem to include her opinions so much as others' reactions to her dress and what it might represent. It could also be that she's simply recognized that in her environment (a university campus) she'd look just plain stupid dressing as finely as her wealth allows. She is also only 18, and may become more ostentatious (not to be confused with Austin, Texas) in the future or in different surroundings.
But heck, the mere fact that she's bothering to get a college education at all, when she's already a millionaire, suggests she has a different head on her shoulders.
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February 27, 2005:
The distance is commonly very great between actual performances and speculative possibility. It is natural to suppose that as much as has been done to-day may be done to-morrow; but on the morrow some difficulty emerges, or some external impediment obstructs. Indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure, all take their turns of retardation; and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can, and ten thousand that cannot, be recounted. Perhaps no extensive and multifarious performance was ever affected within the term originally fixed in the undertaker's mind. He that runs against Time has an antagonist not subject to casualties.
— Samuel Johnson: Life of Pope
In its highest form the art of procrastination employs a diverse set of techniques, some more subtle than others; a failure to use the full variety of tools makes the procrastination seem artless and manufactured. That, of course, is the beginning of the end of procrastination, for it's not usually dealt with until it's recognized.
To the procrastinator, the variety of tools isn't always apparent, and this helps the vice flourish under some other guise. The procrastinator may recognize the guise and deal only with the specific case without dealing with the agent. "I have to remember I can't count on tomorrow" is certainly a beginning, but it's not as effective as recognizing a general failure to take advantage of the opportunities one faces.
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February 20, 2005:
Friendship has no tendency to secure veracity; for by whom can a man so much wish to be thought better than he is, as by him whose kindness he desires to gain or keep?
— Samuel Johnson: Life of Pope
Johnson wrote these lines regarding letters between friends; in his era people actually wrote letters to each other, and in doing so had an opportunity to carefully compose what they wanted to say and how they would say it. The danger of reading too much into someone's letters is heightened when the subject is a writer, skilled at communication and nuances.
But that doesn't mean the danger ends there, of course: you don't have to be a paid writer in order to be able to communicate well or anticipate the reactions of your letter's recipient. Politicians are certainly adept at anticipating reactions, even if we don't celebrate their posthumously published haikus.
Today, of course, few people write letters, preferring the telephone or the quick email. Beyond issues associated with these technological evolutions, need we still be concerned? Think about how you tidy before friends arrive, just because you want the place to look nice. I wouldn't say you were being dishonest in doing so, but you'd have to admit that you were trying to put a different side of yourself out of view.
Do you cheat on your taxes? And have you told your friends that you do? The small businessman who cuts corners on his adherence to fire regulations, assuming he can beat the probabilities of a fire — do you think he tells his closest friends? I don't think very many people are numb to the potential of shame, even if it doesn't stop them from their transgressions.
If only the potential for shame actually kept more of us on a proper path, instead of merely limiting our intimacy with our friends...
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February 13, 2005:
Distinction is so pleasing to the pride of man that a great part of the pain and pleasure of life arises from the gratification or disappointment of an incessant wish for superiority, from the success or miscarriage of secret competitions, from victories and defeats, of which, though they appear to us of great importance, in reality none are conscious except ourselves.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #164
Back in the days before the corruption of the world occurred and all was lost to liberal thinking, I took a university class in bowling for my Physical Education requirement. Ha! This should have been the first signal of the depravity towards which the world was slouching, but I learned some important life lessons in that class: try to use the same lane and the same ball consistently, and if you learn each's idiosyncracies you can go far. This gave me a considerable leg up whenever I was in an important meeting; on those occasions where I said something really regrettably stupid, I would always look for the "reset" button.
Seriously, familiarity did help the scores, and one class I actually rolled a 230. The maximum you can achieve is a 300, and this was a genuine achievement. To this day, nearly 30 years later, it's still my best. I don't know that I'm a worse bowler, but I certainly haven't had a consistent opportunity with the same lane. (The last bowling ball I owned was consumed in a fire 20 years ago.) It hasn't really been a priority.
Anyway, 230 counts. I took my score and clipped it, and dutifully posted it on the refrigerator in my college apartment. It was there for weeks. I will always be grateful, however, to the roommate (one of three) who eventually anonymously scrawled on it, "Nobody cares."
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February 6, 2005:
The mind is seldom quickened to very vigorous operations but by pain, or the dread of pain.
— Samuel Johnson: Idler #18
The Chicken Little stance ("the sky is falling") which many took over Social Security's future ("it's in crisis!") was overblown, but it was certainly effective in getting the nation's attention. The "crisis" language has died down in the face of reasoned counter-arguments (the White House hasn't used the word "crisis" in connection to Social Security in a month — January 6 was the last occasion), but that hasn't stopped the discussions about radical changes to the program.
For Democrats, the need to respond to calls for privatization is itself a crisis. The Republican calls for reform radically restructure the program, and yet cannot solve its financial issues without cutting benefits.
How great a motivator is pain? Well, obviously Democrats are motivated by pain, as they see a call to radically restructure the program (eventual phase out) as a crisis.
We can also see pain's impact on the lack of Republican action in 1998. In 1998 there was no pain, and in a time of budget surplus, President Clinton called for funneling the surplus into Social Security in order to shore up its financial situation. To his dismay, Republicans who formerly supported that position fell away in order to press for expensive initiatives which they felt would help them get re-elected. For them, the greater pain was in November, and they couldn't think then about the pains that might lie down the road.
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January 30, 2005:
A merchant's desire is not of glory, but of gain; not of publick wealth, but of private emolument; he is, therefore, rarely to be consulted about war and peace, or any designs of wide extent and distant consequence.
— Samuel Johnson: Taxation No Tyranny
Johnson's view of who should participate in government — both in its voting and here, regarding consultation — was restrictive. In his pamphlet The Patriot he railed against politicians who tried to appeal to the ignorant and the indigent. And here, of course, he suggests it's folly to consider the opinions of the business class.
A lot has changed in the 230 years since Johnson wrote each of these pamphlets, and I've argued elsewhere that we shouldn't presume that Johnson would feel the same way were he living among us today: a Johnson "today" would have the benefit of the last 230 years to consider before expressing thoughts like these.
The root of Johnson's opinion here still holds sway, however. People's opinions and world views are contaminated by their own circumstances, whether they don't recognize it or do and try to compensate. People have motivations to say what they say, and in our search for truths and best paths, understanding motivations can be a help.
A frequently discussed political topic here in the U.S. is our Social Security program, and what to do about its expected shortfalls in 40 to 50 years. Some want to completely revamp its core concept — under the current program, taxes go into a pool, and that pool pays for current retirees and deceased dependents as well as invests for the future through US Treasury bonds; those who want to revamp want workers to have their own private accounts which the government can't borrow from. Those who are against this radical revamping point to its inefficiency, horror stories from other countries who've gone this route, and whether or not this revamping isn't like using an A-bomb to deter a bank robbery.
What also gets discussed by the anti-reform group (and denied by those promoting privatization) is the potential profits for Wall Street, as well as a core anti-government mentality on the part of those who are seeking to establish private accounts.
What's the truth? Well, you can find my opinions here in my blog, but my basic point is that if you ignore the motivations of those who campaign for one side or another, you're disregarding important information in your attempts to understand.
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January 25, 2005:
Life admits not of delays; when pleasure can be had, it is fit to catch it.
— Samuel Johnson: Letter to Boswell
Johnson was no hedonist, let's remind ourselves of that at the outset. In fact, even when talking to Boswell — the recipient of the advice above — it wasn't unusual for Johnson to tell him to slow down in his frolics. Johnson was very much one for keeping his eye on futurity and salvation, and not let pleasure get in the way of that.
But that didn't mean he saw no room for gaiety and joy. Johnson could laugh heartily and go out on a frisk when it was appropriate. So "appropriate" is very much an operative concept here.
The other relevant concept is the fleetingness of life's offerings, and Johnson's little carpe diem applied just as much to the opportunities of productivity. Frequently, he'd write about people letting time glide by while they languished in indecision about how to spend it, or where to live, or what career to choose.
That is the point, I think: seize your opportunities, and if pleasures are your rarer opportunities, then catch them while you can.
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January 16, 2005:
If we make the praise or blame of others the rule of our conduct, we shall be distracted by a boundless variety of irreconcilable judgments, be held in perpetual suspense between contrary impulses, and consult forever without determination.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #23
The President of the United States has decided that by merit of his re-election, there is no need to hold anyone in his administration accountable for anything that has gone wrong in Iraq:
This is of course a flimsy argument for inaction. It presumes 100% awareness of what has gone on in Iraq, 100% awareness of the possibilities, and 100% moral rectitude among the voters. It also presumes that 100% of the voters considered nothing else but Iraq in choosing between him and John Kerry. (These presumptions can be taken care of quickly: a study done by PIPA showed how confused Bush's supporters were about the realities in Iraq; exit polls showed that voters considered a variety of issues in choosing, such as the economy, Iraq, terrorism, moral values, and so on.)
Bush has introduced a very low standard for acquittal, the popularity poll of an election. There's no recognition of the basic facts that many people don't know what's going on and all that's been bungled. The man really needs a good preacher, I think, if he's going to use the election as his compass.
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January 9, 2005:
Of the innumerable authors whose performances are thus treasured up in magnificent obscurity [ed: in a library], most are forgotten, because they never deserved to be remembered, and owed the honours which they once obtained, not to judgment or to genius, to labour or to art, but to the prejudice of faction, the strategems of intrigue, or the servility of adulation. Nothing is more common than to find men, whose works are now totally neglected, mentioned with praises by their contemporaries as the oracles of their age, and the legislators of science.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #106
Those who know the famous stories about Samuel Johnson know that he had little patience for "state hirelings," as he defined those were on the government pensions of his time — even considering them treasonous for letting money corrupt their sense of what was best for the country. The news that commentator Armstrong Williams has received nearly a quarter million dollars of taxpayer money to promote a Bush program, without any disclosure of the relationship to his audience, smacks of just the kind of corruption which Robert Walpole was known for and Johnson railed against.
Williams has claimed that he supported the policies even without compensation for coverage, but in a fit of utter hypocrisy he questioned Richard Clarke's motives surrounding 9/11 because "he's out selling books," during an appearance on CNN. The money may not have affected his opinions towards the specific policy they wanted him to promote, but it could very well have made him think more fondly of his patron, and other policies as a result.
It's a horrible abuse of the public trust, of course: people have a right to know when they're being advertised to. And the list of those who could be negatively effected doesn't end with the audience or Armstrong himself: other African-American conservative commentators may also have their sincerity questioned, as well as conservative commentators in general; liberal commentators, too, may be greeted with skepticism if the public imagines wealthy liberal philanthropists plying their pockets. Perhaps the only party which won't be affected is the government itself: the administration was already known for distributing PR videos disguised as news, and the people who learn about Armstrong Williams' devious relationship will likely already have heard about the PR videos.
But Armstrong Williams is now officially welcome to the obscurity offered by a library; he's already lost the syndication contract for his columns, and hopefully will soon be consigned to history's dust-heap. He's truly done a great disservice to his career, his industry, and now the program he believed in, for the renewed skepticism.
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January 2, 2005:
Great powers cannot be exerted but when great exigencies make them necessary. Great exigencies can happen but seldom; and therefore those qualities which have a claim to the veneration of mankind lie hid, for the most part, like subterranean treasures, over which the foot passes as on common ground, till necessity breaks open the golden cavern.
— Samuel Johnson: Idler #51
The world's response to last Sunday's tsunamis has been generous and unprecedented, according to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It would be better, of course, if governments were clearer about their commitment to relief immediately, but while governments may have been slow, individuals have risen to the fore. (For instance, at this writing Amazon.com has raised over $12 million from about 150,000 people.)
This is, at its heart, the kind of instantaneous need which provokes a deep, broad response: it happens in one day, grows more sever over the course of another few days, and has human suffering written all over it. The collective outpouring reassures us all that we are not cold automatons, but all part of the firmament.
And yet, how many small needs go by us all the time without catching our attention or provoking generosity? It is not as if tsunami relief is the only way we can improve the lot of our fellow man. In an earlier essay (Rambler No. 107), Johnson wrote...
"To wipe all tears from off all faces is a task too hard for mortals; but to alleviate misfortunes is often within the most limited power: yet the opportunities which every day affords of relieving the most wretched of human beings are overlooked and neglected with equal disregard of policy and goodness."
By all means, donate to the tsunami relief efforts. But remember, after the tsunamis, people will still be going hungry elsewhere; children will need clothing; the homeless will need housing. The beggar you pass will appreciate your small change and a little bit of humanity. Do not wait for tsunamis, please.