Corrosive speculation

Matthew Continetti writes on journalists, political speculation, and the devaluation of “the news” in the public mind:

Events are turning me into a radical skeptic. I no longer believe what I read, unless what I am reading is an empirically verifiable account of the past. I no longer have confidence in polls, because it has become impossible to separate the signal from the noise. …

The fact is that almost the entirety of what one reads in the paper or on the web is speculation. The writer isn’t telling you what happened, he is offering an interpretation of what happened, or offering a projection of the future. The best scenario is that these theories are novel, compelling, informed, and based on reporting and research. But that is rarely the case. More often the interpretations of current events, and prophesies of future ones, are merely the products of groupthink or dogma or emotions or wish-casting, memos to friends written by 27-year-olds who, in the words of Ben Rhodes, “literally know nothing.” There was a time when newspapers printed astrology columns. They no longer need to. The pseudoscience is on the front page.

Nor are the empty conjectures and worthless hypotheses limited to Donald Trump. Yes, pretty much the entire world, myself included, assumed he would lose to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, a not-insignificant segment of the political class, both Democrat and Republican, thought the Republicans would not only lose the presidency but also the House and Senate. Oops! I remember when, as the clock reached midnight on November 8 and it became clear Trump would be the forty-fifth president, a friend called. “Are we just wrong about everything?” he asked. …

“Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts,” Michael Crichton once said. “We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It’s not sensible to listen to it.”

When we talk (seriously or ironically) about fake news, we’re talking basically about what Continetti is writing about: agenda-driven speculation rather than reporting on the facts of an historical event.

When Donald Trump called “fake news” the “enemy of the American people,” it was reported by the New York Times as a general attack on the free press. But Continetti underscores how vitally important a real free press is, and how agenda-driven speculation in the media really does function as an enemy of public life, in the sense that so many of us no longer believe anything we read or hear.

Bobby Schindler on food and water

I mentioned early in the week that Bobby Schindler and I were in Washington to do an interview with Catherine Szeltner of EWTN’s “Pro-Life Weekly” program. It aired Friday night on EWTN, and is up on YouTube now. Bobby talks about the work of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, and focuses on the issue of food and water as necessary for human dignity and a basic and ordinary part of medical treatment:

An important note: we often talk about “end of life” issues when we really are not referring to a situation where anyone is dying. Terri Schiavo wasn’t dying when her estranged husband petitioned Florida courts for the right to deny her food and water. She had experienced a brain injury in 1990 and was lived as a disabled woman who was reliant on no machines or artificial life support.

All that Terri needed was food and water by means of a feeding tube, because her brain injury resulted in difficulty swallowing. Terri’s case only became an “end of life” case when her estranged husband sought to end her life. Unless someone is actively dying, they’re not facing “end of life” issues.

Health as wholeness

Wendell Berry spoke in 1992 with Michael Toms. I found their conversation recently when searching Berry’s works and enjoyed the entire hour:

…an hour of stirring and straightforward wisdom from one of the most highly respected of modern American writers and poets. Using words like “affection”, “satisfaction”, “care”, and “joy”, Berry calls for a re-evaluation of the basic values and practices of our lives. He illustrates his ideas with glimpses of his own life and those of his Kentucky farm neighbors, and describes a future where we can learn to find love, wisdom and meaning in the people, the places and the work of our own daily lives. “Abstractions don’t work – abstractions are abstractions,” he says. “You have to realize that finally you must do something.”

There was this particular exchange that I transcribed because it was arresting to me:

I thought to myself that health is so much more than just physical.

Yes. It is, of course, physical. But physical health doesn’t exist apart from the health of other things. Health ultimately involves the community, and the community ultimately involves the place, and natural life of that place, so that real health … is harmony with the world. Nothing is left out of health because health always implies wholeness.

And harmony with the world in the sense not of the planetary world out there, but harmony with the place we’re experiencing here.

Yes, the world as it’s represented to you immediately where you are.

So often I think that there’s this projection out there somehow that disconnects us from our ability to manifest creatively or to do something.

Yes. It leaves you with nothing to do. The universe, and even the planet, are ideas with respect to this conversation, anyway. They don’t immediately exist. And being right with the universe doesn’t propose that you do anything. Whereas being right with your local place and community and household—that task proposes many little jobs of work and some big ones.

Listen.

Words should reflect realities

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.” —Confucius on the doctrine of the Rectification of Names

I’m probably as guilty as anyone, but a good place to start to reform the names we give things, the words we speak, would be to start with the simple things. “Disrupt” often simply means “change.” “New and improved” often means “different.” And “the more you spend, the more you save” is simply a non sequitur.

When we speak more carefully, it becomes easier to share a common vocabulary—and sharing a vocabulary, where most things have a commonly understood meaning, is a great way to change the world for the better.

Failing Eastern Europe

As I’m making my way through William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” I thought of something from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that I read a few years ago. A literary father of the Solidarity movement, Solzhenitsyn exposed the moral bankruptcy of Soviet rule by revealing its Gulags. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” published during the era of de-Stalinization, was like body blow to Western intellectual Soviet sympathizers. Solzhenitsyn also had frank words for Roosevelt and Churchill’s post-Hitler strategic appeasement:

In their own countries Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom. To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious. How could they, in their decline from 1941 to 1945, fail to secure any guarantees whatever of the independence of Eastern Europe? How could they give away broad regions of Saxony and Thuringia in exchange for the preposterous toy of a four-zone Berlin, their own future Achilles’ heel? And what was the military or political sense in their surrendering to destruction at Stalin’s hands hundreds of thousands of armed Soviet citizens determined not to surrender? They say it was the price they paid for Stalin’s agreeing to enter the war against Japan. With the atom bomb already in their hands, they paid Stalin for not refusing to occupy Manchuria, for strengthening Mao Tse-tung in China, and for giving Kim Il Sung control of half Korea! What bankruptcy of political thought!

Dubliner

Bobby Schindler and I were in Washington today to film with EWTN for its recently-launched “Pro-Life Weekly” program. Catherine Szeltner hosts, and has been a clear and reasonable voice spotlighting issues of human dignity and basic rights since the launch of the program. We were excited to film with her, and Bobby’s first segment will air Friday night and be available online shortly afterwards. I’ll share that here when it’s available.

We spent an hour or so on the patio at the Dubliner after filming, wrapping up some writing and emails before catching our train to Philadelphia.

It was a good day.

Harmonizing knowledge

R.C. Jebb supplies a counter-argument in his same 1899 address to yesterday’s somewhat pessimistic riffing:

“The ideal of humanism has thus been reinforced in a manner which brings back to us something of the spirit which animated the Renaissance when it was largest and most vigorous. For the enthusiasm of the Renaissance was nourished by the monuments of classical art scarcely less than by the masterpieces of literature. Each statue that was disinterred from Italian soil, every stone or coin or gem that could help to illustrate the past, became a source of delight to men whose strenuous aim was to apprehend classical antiquity as a whole.

But the very progress made in recent times has brought us to a point at which the larger educational benefits of humanism become more difficult to harmonise with the new standards of special knowledge. A full comprehension of the Greek and Latin literatures demands at least some study of ancient thought, ancient history, archaeology, art. But each of the latter subjects is now, in itself, an organized and complex discipline; to become an expert in any one of them is a work of years. Hence much can be said in favour of a plan by which the University student, who is to devote a course of three or four years to the humane letters, confines himself, during the earlier stage of it, to the languages and literatures ; then turns away from these, viewed in their wider range, and concentrates himself, for the rest of his time, on one or two important aspects of classical antiquity, such as philosophy and history, to the exclusion of the rest.”

As we acquire greater breadth and depth of knowledge, specialization is necessary and becoming a generalist is less about extensive knowledge in the major fields than about an ability to recognize the connecting threads between many discrete branches of knowledge.