Noble Fictions and Sacred Texts

Note: This is my contribution to the book What Do We Do about Inequality?, the first such book from an initiative called The Wicked Problems Collaborative. The book just marked one year since publication, and with the blessing of WPC publisher and editor Chris Oestereich I’m posting it here. It has been very lightly edited from the original.

It has been asserted that the relative morality of cultures and practices can be scientifically determined—“scientific” not in the sense of people in white coats doing lab experiments, but in the sense of being empirically perceivable. The idea is that we can compare one cultural practice or norm or moral tenet to others, observe how they affect human happiness, and make an objective judgment. This is a controversial way of thinking, notably advocated by Sam Harris in his concept of “The Moral Landcape,” and I largely agree with it. To be broad, I feel very secure in saying that a culture or morality that, say, makes a virtue of the subjugation, demonization, or abuse of entire classes of people is objectively worse than one that values all members of society and works to see them realize their individual potentials.

In order to say that a practice is morally better because of its impact on human happiness, we have to first decide that human happiness is something worth achieving. For if we choose not to grant that human happiness is an assumed goal of any moral code (in favor of, say, maximized production or complete subjugation of a given class or ethnic group), what we then determine is and isn’t “moral” changes drastically. There is no Cosmic Rulebook that states with utter authority that human happiness is something anyone, humans included, should give a damn about, so we have to choose it as our goal. We have to decide for ourselves that we will base our morality on what best allows for the flourishing of human happiness, and then behave as though it is an irrevocable law of existence. If we behave as though this is a malleable idea, that human happiness is only sort of important, then all choices that flow from this change entirely. Not only do we choose human happiness as our moral bedrock, but we also act as though it could be no other way even if we wanted it to be.

Let’s leave this aside for a moment.

I used to make my living (such as it was) as a Shakespearean actor. In the theatre world, there exists the concept of “the sacred text,” a kind of secular devotion to the words on the page over all else. If, as an actor, you want to make some kind of bold choice with your character, it cannot be out of the blue; there has to be support for it, an explanation of that behavior, in the script. If one is playing Willy Loman, and one feels compelled to perform him with an outlandish Australian accent, one had better see something within the words written by Arthur Miller in the text of Death of a Salesman that provides the basis for this.

The idea of the sacred text is given extra weight when referring to Shakespearean drama, partly because Shakespeare is widely considered to be the English language’s greatest writer (and so we assume that he probably knew what he was doing), but also because his works are, to us, so very old. They are now part of the very foundation of Western civilization. Go ahead and muck around with a Neil Simon comedy, even get crazy with your Bertolt Brecht (he is practically begging you to, anyway), but if you think Hamlet is entering from stage right on a hoverboard, you better find the line where he or someone else on stage says something synonymous to “But soft, what yonder hoverboard is this?”

Even if Shakespeare’s genius is taken as a given, adhering to his text and treating it as sacred is still a choice. But to take this to its extreme, to decide that the Word of William is infallible as far as the production of one of his plays goes, something has to be sacrificed. Usually, this is the audience’s attention. I suppose one could remain entirely faithful to the text of Comedy of Errors and probably wind up with a more-or-less satisfied audience. It is rather short and intellectually light for a Shakespearean play, so it doesn’t demand much of the audience’s brain power, and it also has a lot of dirty jokes that transcend time and space. On the other hand, as someone who has sat through full-text versions of plays like Henry IV and Hamlet, I can tell you that a production’s reverence for the text can go horribly awry, causing some of the most beautiful lines of English ever written to syphon off the audience’s will to live.

This gets us into what it means to treat a text as sacred. Certainly, we keep every written line intact, but must it then also be performed exactly as Shakespeare himself might have? Complete with the accent and pronunciations of sixteenth century England? The same clothes made from the same fabrics, fashioned without any industrial tools? Should the actors not bathe frequently? You see where this can go.

The idea of the sacred text is fine; it serves as an excellent guideline, a starting point for the choices that will have to be made in the mounting of a theatrical production. But if we choose to behave as though the text of a play is inerrant (and I say “behave as though” because we assume the play was written by a fallible human), the production can become shackled, rigid, and, essentially, bad art. If the goal is an entertaining, moving, and enlightening performance, choosing to treat the text as entirely sacred is a bad strategy. Instead, a production can remain faithful to the spirit of the play, cut lines where needed, add elements where they enhance the show, and make the best of it. But if the goal is to rigidly honor the words of a 400-years-dead man at all costs, those costs will likely include the joy of the art itself. By restricting the production to what it “must” be, we miss out on the all the possibilities of what it could be.

Laws are like this. As with plays, strict adherence to the precise wording of a given law (literally, “the letter of the law”) is a best-intentions means of making sure a law is applied equally to all parties, but the spirit of a law, the problem it seeks to solve, can be lost. And if they were not considered at least somewhat malleable, the Supreme Court would not have much to do. The same goes for musical notation, codes of ethics, and, yes, religious texts.

Let us now then look at an example that covers a lot of these aforementioned bases, as both a kind of code of ethics and religious text, at least for a civil religion:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

American society, as well as the broader Western world, gets a lot of mileage out of this couple of sentences. It is not a law, really, nor a code, but an expression of values—a “founding document” in the clearest sense. It is a declaration that a new nation has been established, one basing its very reason for being on its statement of purpose, that “all men are created equal,” with a particular set of rights that cannot be revoked even by said nation.

For this to work, though, for the “mission statement” of the United States to make sense, one has to accept that all men are, in fact, equal. But, of course, the very men who signed this document did not believe this to be the case. The man who wrote it certainly didn’t believe it, or, if he did, he was primed for a very awkward encounter with his slaves (who would be explicitly decreed a fraction of a person each), and an uncomfortable night at home, with the wife that he and his colleagues had forgotten to include in the franchise.

We’re off to a rough start with what is more or less the single most “sacred text” on the continent, excluding of course religious scriptures. It did not have full buy-in from its authors and signatories, and certainly was not applied in any broad sense. If we presume that the word “men” in “all men are created equal” was intended to mean “humans,” it was an utterly unfulfilled idea. And if it was meant in the narrow sense of males, the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote still gives the lie to this assertion.

Not much of a sacred text then.

Interestingly, subsequent generations have broadened the meaning of “all men” to include more or less all human persons, at least in definition if not in practice. Despite enormous resistance, it seems to get broader all the time. And a lot of that progress has to do with the fact that so many of us today treat the opening words of the Declaration of Independence as a sacred text, in a way that its authors and signatories clearly did not.

But let us be coldly rational for a moment. Are all humans created equal? Of course we aren’t. We are unequal physically: not only do we come in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, but some of us are born with catastrophic conditions, and some with mind-boggling natural talents and innate geniuses. Beyond biology, we are born into different geographies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages to flourishing depending on any number of factors from availability of natural resources to whatever form of government manages the people within one’s borders. We are born with different tastes in food, sex, art, and activities. We are born into different stations in life, some into wealth and rank, others (most?) into abject poverty, and desperation. We each, individually, then take our collected circumstances, and make vastly different choices about how we will go about our lives. To assert flatly that we are created equal is so astoundingly and blatantly incorrect that it implies a fundamental problem of word comprehension on the part of the speaker.

Does this throw the entire human experiment in democracy, and well, humanism itself, into the toilet? Of course not: we still have some degree of agency here. And the founders, narrow as they were in their definitions, helped us out with this.

As a humanist myself (and a secular one at that), as much as I revere the broadened meaning ascribed to “all men are created equal,” the most meaningful words in all of America’s founding documents are actually its first:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

It is most decidedly not self-evident that all humans are created equal, for the reasons previously mentioned and an infinite number more. But the Declaration says that we will behave as though it is. It does not say, “Whereas it is self-evident that all men are created equal,” but “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We have decided, on our own, using our fallible human brains, that we will act as though all men are created equal and form our government around this noble fiction.

I derive great inspiration and resolve from this. In the face of staggering inequality among the human population (where, in America alone, there were slaves and royalty, aristocrats and massacred indigenous people), these men said that their new nation would begin its very existence with those words, which amount to an admission that this founding idea of equality was entirely anthropogenic. God did not say we were all equal, and there was nothing embedded in our genes to tell us this by instinct. We just decided to think that way.

That part of the text is particularly sacred to me. It is both humble, in that it admits to being wholly invented, as well as grandiose, in that it means to act on this invention and use it to build an empire of the people.

This is all very well; we have announced our intentions as a people to treat each other equally, but, why? Because it seems nice? To what end? Evidence suggests that treating all human persons as though they were equal, even if they are not inherently, increases overall human happiness. Throughout the democratic world, where societies have rejected the official codification of castes, class distinction, and discrimination and disenfranchisement based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, things have been better. Where everyone gets the same relative shot at an education, at employment opportunities, at business transactions and patronage, at social interaction, the society as a whole flourishes, leading to more opportunities and more happiness.

We are, of course, fallible humans, so we still manage to screw it up, but because this is science, we get to keep trying. It takes a long time to go from experiment to experiment, and the failed experiments can often be devastating, but we do learn. And through all the twists and turns civilization has taken in modern history, and the roller coaster ride on which democracies have taken their citizens because of varying interpretations of equality, it remains pretty obvious that those societies that act on the fiction of equality across the board contribute more to overall human happiness than those that do not. That means that even for self-serving narcissists, it makes more sense to back a system based on equality than inequality, if for no other reason than that because it tilts the odds for happiness in your favor.

Many plays begin with an acknowledgement that what the audience is about to see is fake. The opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V is not only an acknowledgement, but also an apology:

…But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…

This thing you are about to experience is a fiction, we are told, but we need you to buy into it. It won’t work otherwise. Excuse the fact that it’s obviously not true, and go with it, and we will all benefit. You’ll have a wonderful time at the theatre, and we actors will get paid. And when it’s over, we all know that it was just a show.

Knowing that these are our goals, to entertain a crowd and keep a troupe of performers employed, we can take the text given to us by the playwright and make the best of it, without treating it as immovable. We can remain true to the spirit of the play, but cut lines where necessary, make acting and staging choices that enhance the experience of the performance but may not be explicitly called for in the text. We can do all that because we know that our aim is not to robotically recite thousands of lines of verse, but to deliver an experience of art and entertainment. We need not treat the text as “sacred” in the theological sense, though we can revere it.

Ostensibly, the aim of government is to establish the parameters of societal behavior within which human happiness can be maximized. So we make rules and laws, and we establish systems and methods for carrying them out. If we follow each one to the letter, rigidly enforcing their literal meanings through all time and in all scenarios, we miss the chance to experiment and improve. If we follow the spirit of these laws and rules and systems, we offer ourselves more of a chance to make things better for everyone affected. If we were to treat “all men are created equal” as a sacred and inerrant expression of divine will, the majority of the American population would still be left out, and human happiness would be severely stultified, capped at the happiness of males, presuming we are at least not limiting this definition to white, property-holding males.

It is a remarkable thing, to see a theatrical performance in which the play itself acknowledges its own artifice. It is liberating for audience and actor alike to openly agree that we will all now consent to a fiction for the purpose of maximizing the happiness of the evening.

It is astounding that we could do the same when building a society. We can admit to ourselves that while our collective equality may be a fiction, yet we will hold it as a self-evident truth in order to maximize human happiness over the span of generations. The rest of the words in our play—in our constitutions, in our law books, in our manifestos, in our declarations and proclamations—are there to uphold the spirit of that idea, the idea of universal equality as a means to the general well-being. This suspension of disbelief is difficult, for some more than others, but once we all buy in, we can enjoy the hell out of the show.


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I Watched the Mighty Skyline Fall

Cleaning up the kitchen after dinner this evening, my wife Jessica had put on some Billy Joel to listen to, and asked what album of his I preferred to hear. Songs in the Attic, I replied, his 1981 live album intended as a way to introduce his older songs to an audience who has just become aware of him from 1977’s The Stranger. The performances of songs like “Streetlife Serenader,” “Los Angelenos,” and “Summer, Highland Falls” are far, far superior to their studio album versions. Perhaps my favorite song on the record, however, is “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).”

And then it hit me. Holy shit, I thought to myself. It’s 2016. Next year is 2017. That’s crazy!

Let me just quote Wikipedia for an explanation of what this amazing song is all about:

Joel has described it as a “science fiction song” about an apocalypse occurring in New York as a result of discussions that the city was failing in the 1970s. … He explain[ed] that the song depicts the apocalypse occurring in New York, “the skyline tumbling down, this horrendous conflagration happening in New York City.” Joel stated that the song is titled “Miami 2017” because many New Yorkers retire to Miami and the narrator is telling his grandchildren in the year 2017 about what he saw in the destruction of New York.

So in Joel’s sort of alternate-parallel-universe, New York City becomes an unfathomable disaster (“it always burned up there before”), its problems in the 70s running out of control, and some unmentioned authority sees to it that the city is simply wiped off the map. (“They said that Queens could stay,” of course, and someone “picked the Yankees up for free.”)

I assume that this urban apocalypse happens more or less contemporaneously with the time the song was written, the late 1970s, because in the song, 2017 is supposed to be the far future, when elderly retirees in Miami are thinking back on the event, “Before we all lived here in Florida / Before the Mafia took over Mexico.” But of course 2017 is no longer the far future. It’s five and a half months away.

It’s worth pausing to consider, as noted by Joel himself, that on September 11, 2001, we all, in fact, “watched the mighty skyline fall.” But it wasn’t a failed city that needed to be “dealt with,” as in the song, but a revived and ascendant city that was attacked by those who preferred that we all exist in a kind of Bronze Age hellscape.

But in both cases – the obliteration of the city in the song, as well as after the towers fell in real life – New Yorkers are and were defiant and resilient:

We held a concert out in Brooklyn,
To watch the Island Bridges blow.
They turned our power down,
And drove us underground,
But we went right with the show!

Luckily, in the real world, New York is still here as 2017 approaches. But there’s also the eerie line in the song about how “the Mafia took over Mexico.” That, of course, hasn’t happened as far as I know. But the intractability and unthinkable horrors wrought by drug cartels in Mexico today make the line disturbingly prophetic.

I wonder if Joel could have conceived in his dystopian 2017 that someone like Donald Trump might approach the presidency. After a year like 2016, it’s not hard to imagine a President Trump, fictional or nonfictional, deciding that the best way to deal with any hotbed of trouble and unrest, be it within or without our borders, is to lay waste to it.

In which case, we’d be looking back on it from, say, 2057. Not in Miami, of course, because by that time it’d probably be either under water or too hot to bear. But perhaps in Maine, forty years from now, a handful of us old folks will look back in horror and wonder, still alive, “To tell the world about / The way the lights went out.”

But of course, it’s just a song.

The Sublimity of Bagpiping for a Penguin

This is quite possibly the greatest photograph ever taken.

Gilbert Kerr of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, playing the bagpipes for/at/in the presence of a penguin. Amazing.

This photo was taken in March of 1904, and it’s hard to imagine a more sublimely absurd picture. 

Hat tip to @terracolta, who characterizes the penguin as “indifferent.” Oh, would that we knew for sure.

The Sublimity of Bagpiping for a Penguin

This is quite possibly the greatest photograph ever taken.

Gilbert Kerr of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, playing the bagpipes for/at/in the presence of a penguin. Amazing.

This photo was taken in March of 1904, and it’s hard to imagine a more sublimely absurd picture. 

Hat tip to @terracolta, who characterizes the penguin as “indifferent.” Oh, would that we knew for sure.

Those Funny Germans

Stephen Evans realizes how off-base some myths about the German people are, including the idea that they are somehow humorless (most of my own ancestry is German, not that you’d know it from my Portuguese name):

The other day, I went to the site of an unexploded World War II bomb. They frequently turn up in building work and this one was near the main station in Berlin.

The bomb disposal man was there. He is the chap who walks calmly up to these rusting lumps of danger with a wrench to make them safe.

He had a badge which said in English: “If you see me running, make sure you catch up.”

It’s a black humor, but still.

This Isn’t the William Shirer You’re Looking For: Thoughts on Steve Wick’s “The Long Night”

Readers of this blog may already be aware of my deep affection for the thousand-plus-page tome The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, journalist William Shirer’s invaluable 1960 history of Hitler and his Germany. It was with great delight, then, that I was made aware of a history of that history, Steve Wick’s The Long Night, telling the story of Shirer’s years covering the tumult in Europe, mostly from the eye of the storm itself, Berlin.

Though I feel it is missing a crucial chapter, it is a stirring tale. As Wick himself notes, it reads as much more of an adventure tale than a formal history or biography. Shirer struggles daily for over a decade with Nazi censorship, separation from his wife and child, a lack of support from his employers back home, his deep disappointment with the German people, and his own hubris and failings.

We learn a great deal about the mindset of the period, as Shirer was a tuned-in, worldly journalist who had come from extremely humble, rural beginnings. Of particular note to some of this blog’s readers is Shirer’s impression of the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” the event in American history that in many ways began the culture wars in which we struggle today:

As Shirer saw it, the drama unfolding in Tennessee in anticipation of the upcoming trial was reason alone to take leave of his country. “I yearned for some place, if only for a few weeks, that was more civilized, where a man could drink a glass of wine or a stein of beer without breaking the law, where you could believe and say what you wanted to about religion or anything else without being put upon, where inanity had not become a way of life, and where a writer or an artist or a philosopher, or merely a dreamer, was considered just as good as, if not better than, the bustling businessman.”

Even then, the willfully ignorant mob was making the rest of civilization feel unwelcome, just as the Tea Party imbeciles do today. Indeed, even Shirer’s struggles with a supposed journalistic need for “balance” over a human being’s honest impression rings true today. And like today, honesty did not always win the day over bland neutrality:

As for Hitler’s speech proposing peace for Europe, Shirer knew it was a lie. He was disgusted with himself for not declaring it so flat out. But he knew he could not, nor could he find a German outside the government to say it, and the frustration ate at him. “The proposal is a pure fraud, and if I had any guts, or American journalism had any, I would have said so in my dispatch tonight,” he wrote. “But I am not supposed to be ‘editorial.’ ”

But as a fan of Shirer’s definitive work, I concluded my reading with a slight sting of disappointment. Wick omits from his tale the writing of Rise and Fall; the process of putting this all-important book together is almost totally absent. Wick himself tells us near the book’s end that to do so would mean a wholly separate volume. “A biographer will someday write the story of the enormous hurdles Shirer had to climb to sell the book,” demurs Wick, and one can’t help but wish that this hypothetical book already existed within the one we were already reading.

What a herculean effort it must have been to pen such a book! Ten years of Shirer’s life was poured into it, and its influence will be felt for generations. Surely, this story can be told as well as the formative experiences in Europe that led to the book’s genesis. It is not Wick’s fault that this is missing (though having the words “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” in the subtitle does lead one on), but its absence is palpable and deflating.

That said, the book as it is holds up, and it is a story that needed to be told. We learn so much about what it means to be a journalist, a pro-democracy American, a liberal, and a vulnerable human being caught in a volatile, insane world.

Darwin’s Mischief, Through Antebellum Eyes

In 1860, botanist Asa Gray reviewed the brand new book, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, for the Atlantic Monthly, and it is a fascinating read. Not least of all for what about it induces cringing to modern liberal eyes:

The prospect of the future, accordingly, is on the whole pleasant and encouraging. It is only the backward glance, the gaze up the long vista of the past, that reveals anything alarming. Here the lines converge as they recede into the geological ages, and point to conclusions which, upon the theory, are inevitable, but by no means welcome. The very first step backwards makes the Negro and the Hottentot our blood-relations; — not that reason or Scripture objects to that, though pride may.

At the very least, Gray is willing to accept, if grudgingly, that those of African descent are actually the same species as he. Indeed, Gray only concedes that they share a “blood relation,” as if they are as closely related to, say, species of bird are to each other. And note the use of the anarchic “Hottentot,” a derogatory term for a particular tribe of African, the Khoikhoi (as though “Negro” was not itself derogatory, or, for that matter, the whole passage).

Gray’s antebellum racism is not all that causes wincing, particularly when one considers that he is reviewing for an educated audience the book that serves as the cornerstone for modern biology and (one could argue) modern cultural atheism.

The next [step backward] suggests a closer association of our ancestors of the olden time with “our poor relations” of the quadrumanous [“four-handed,” meaning primates with hand-like feet] family than we like to acknowledge. Fortunately, however,— even if we must account for him scientifically,-man with his two feet stands upon a foundation of his own. Intermediate links between the Bimana and the Quadrumana are lacking altogether; so that, put the genealogy of the brutes upon what footing you will, the four-handed races will not serve for our forerunners;— at least, not until some monkey, live or fossil, is producible with great-toes, instead of thumbs, upon his nether extremities; or until some lucky ‘geologist turns up the bones of his ancestor and prototype in France or England … and until these men of the olden time are shown to have worn their great-toes in a divergent and thumblike fashion. That would be evidence indeed: but until some testimony of the sort is produced, we must needs believe in the separate and special creation of man, however it may have been with the lower animals and with plants.

Don’t you just love how he only allows for the scientific accounting of human origins — as opposed to the supernatural account — for the sake of argument, as though it’s something that could only be done in a weird hypothetical fantasy?

Gray is eager throughout his review to brush aside the notion that humans are themselves a product of the evolutionary processes Darwin describes. While he does true to give Darwin his due for his far-reaching and thorough theory, the mainly goes to great pains to explain that it makes perfect sense that humans would be unique among animals to appear out of nothing. He chidingly declares, “the author speaks disrespectfully of spontaneous generation” and posits:

Several features of the theory have an uncanny look. They may prove to be innocent: but their first aspect is suspicious, and high authorities pronounce the whole thing to be positively mischievous.

Well, that’s one way to look at it.

Even more fascinating, Gray was instrumental in getting Darwin’s book published in the U.S. — which, of course, makes one question the ethics of the folks at the 1860 Atlantic for allowing him to review a book he had such a personal stake in. Isn’t history amazing?