Dr. Jordan B. Peterson in Portland, Oregon

by Glenn on July 10, 2018

One of the great moments at the Jordan B. Peterson lecture here in Portland, Oregon (June 25, 2018, Keller Auditorium) happened just before the program began. An announcer told the audience that had gathered that “a zero tolerance policy for heckling and disturbances will be strictly enforced.” The audience erupted with applause and cheers. I remember thinking in anticipation of the event that one unruly audience member could ruin this for everyone else. I wasn’t sure who the others were in the audience. Conservative? Liberal? Religious? Irreligious? We were all together on the desire to hear someone speak without worrying about them getting shouted down. We had paid money to hear Dr. Peterson, not protesters, and so it was a relief to know that should someone try to grab attention, it would be dealt with. Security was taken very seriously for this event. Each attendee was searched carefully upon entrance. There was a significant police presence both inside and outside the building.

The event was hosted by Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report. I had never heard of him previously, but I live in a basement, both literally and figuratively. I enjoyed him immensely in this context. His opened the evening and conducted the Q&A with Dr. Peterson at the end. Among whatever other skills he has is a particular genius for relating to crowds. (He is a stand-up comedian, which makes sense. Here is a short clip.) He didn’t appear to have a set speech and his role seemed to be to get the house ready for Dr. Peterson rather than appear for himself. Rubin noted that this was the first time in all his appearances with Dr. Peterson that the house announcer earned applause for the no heckling announcement. He assumed we were pretty tired of protesting. Yes!

I suppose the first take-away from the evening was the assumption that at least the nearly 3,000 Portlanders in attendance were fed up with protests. This is the age of shouting down those you disagree with or don’t think should be heard. It’s wearisome.  It’s not enough to ignore the people whose views you don’t like, you have to denounce and disrupt them. But in the same way that someone’s right to swing their arm ends at my nose, one person’s right to free speech can’t be at the expense of my right not to have to listen. Further, it is my right to choose to listen to someone speak, and someone who interferes with that is violating my rights.

In his opening remarks, Rubin mentioned the protest that was going on outside, across the street, in anticipation of this event. (I noticed it as we approached Keller Auditorium.) This was the first time I recall attending an event that was protested by others. Rubin told us that the protest was by Antifa against violent men. He wondered aloud (to applause and laughter) what that had to do with those of us who were inside Keller Auditorium. What there was to protest remains a mystery to me.

Rubin’s funniest line didn’t elicit the loudest response from the audience. It was subtle and may have caught his audience off guard. He mentioned how his appearance at a previous event led someone to accuse him of being “anti-gay”. He followed that with, “My husband was sure surprised to hear that.” Perhaps tolerance and respect doesn’t quite equate to acceptance and affirmation. Hard to know what happened there.

Rubin didn’t speak very long. I got the sense that his sense was we were ready to listen to the headliner. Rubin’s introduction of Dr. Peterson and his subsequent appearance on stage was greeted by a standing ovation and raucous cheering. The idea of college professor as rock star is really odd.

Here are some highlights from Dr. Peterson’s talk that night:

1. He is trying to understand why so many people are flocking to hear him speak at these public lectures and why the YouTube phenomenon of people like Joe Rogan is exploding. He contends there is a hunger for long-form, intellectual discussions. He believes we are in a Gutenberg-style revolution in communication. For the first time in history, the spoken word has the same reach as the printed word. He talked about television’s problem of “narrow bandwidth,” which he explained is the one- to six-minute opportunity you have to make a point before you have to go to a commercial. This is the sound-bite world where if you can’t make a point quickly, you fail. (A related point, which I’ve heard Dr. Peterson make elsewhere is that the narrow bandwidth requires a certain kind of charisma, which becomes more important than—and perhaps takes away from—what you’re actually saying.) He recounted recent events where he and Sam Harris had public debates that were on the intellectual level of a PhD defense, and where audiences seem quite engaged with it all.

He talked about the theory some have offered that television has made us stupid, but he thinks that is incorrect. To the contrary, television has brought a lot of people along who would have missed out on education. And he notes that HBO and Netflix are demonstrating that people are willing to binge-watch hours and hours of one television program and that those programs are nearing the quality of written literature in terms of the number of characters and the complexity of their stories, requiring a level of sophistication to engage with them. And so people are turning to YouTube to watch long intellectual discussions. His own experience with YouTube was having posted many of his lectures there and discovering one day that there were over one million views. “That’s a lot.” (I think he referred to a million books and then said, without a trace of irony, “That never happens.” As a warning to writers in the room he said, “It will never happen.”) By way of metaphor, he says he is riding a wave but is not the wave.

This technological revolution of long-form intellectual discussions means that where reading and videos both require single-minded attention, a podcast means you can recover time spent doing other things—driving, exercising, washing dishes, etc. The entrance barrier to embracing the technology is low and people can enrich their lives with perhaps as much as two hours of high-level intellectual engagement. For the first time in history, the spoken word has the reach of the written word.

Dr. Peterson referred to his fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, who coined the expression, “the medium is the message.” What I understand of McLuhan’s arguments has come to me via Neil Postman. Something I’ve heard Postman say (or, rather, seen him write) is that new technologies mean there will be winners and losers. The Gutenberg revolution left you behind if you could not read. One of the things I’ve been trying to think through is what, if anything, is the downside to this new revolution. The closest I’ve come to is that you do need access to internet bandwidth, which has a cost. And the equipment you need to listen to anything on the internet also has a cost. So while the content is “free,” the way you listen to it certainly is not. Another possible downside is the fact that the internet is not edited like, say a book or a newspaper. On the up side, you have the free expression of ideas; on the downside is that you have an ocean of content to wade through, much of which is prurient or inane. Taking advantage of this new revolution requires a disciplined search for the ennobling, or else you drop hours watching cute cat videos and the like.

Further, that idea of “free,” while true, is misleading. True, you can upload and listen to a YouTube lecture for free (assuming you have internet access and a viewing platform), but it’s not like Google is not exacting a cost. In addition to fairly unobtrusive ads, the price we are paying is that we are giving over our data to internet companies. The YouTube lectures are not the product; we are the product. Perhaps the price is insignificant compared to the gain.

2. Dr. Peterson referred to the “intellectual dark web,” which was an unfamiliar term. Here is a website. The New York Times offered this report. Of all the people mentioned in these articles, I am most familiar with Dr. Peterson. It is odd for me to think of him as “dark” in any sort of way.

3. Dr. Peterson offered an interesting view of the political landscape. One of Dr. Peterson’s gifts is his ability to frame things well so that there is actually something to talk about and consider. He talked about politics this way: Most of us think that we are very enlightened when we vote. Whether we’re on the left or the right we think we have come to our opinions rationally. Really, though, we tend to select our sources for information, which have points of view we agree with. Dr. Peterson maintains that much of our approach to politics has to do with temperament. On the right you have people who appreciate structure. Republicans are organizers. They know how to build and manage things. They manage well. The problem is that those structures can get old and stale and you can spend resources maintaining structures that shouldn’t be maintained. On the left you have people who know how to create new structures. They have an idea for how things could be different and they create. The problem for these types is that they aren’t very organized and don’t know how to set up and maintain these structures. And, of course, the end of a structure is painful for those who benefit from that structure.The people on the right need to recognize that structures sometimes need to be ended so that new structures can emerge. Dr. Peterson’s point is that both sides need each other. The left has these ideas, but they need people on the right who can put the ideas together. There are visionaries and there are managers.  Dr. Peterson told a great story out of Egyptian history and mythology that stressed the importance of having both perspectives. I wish I had been taking notes. (I’m sure I will find the story in his book, Maps of Meaning, when I get into it.)

4. The political discussion led into a riff on the importance of dialogue. Since Left and Right need each other they need to talk continually with each other. The truth comes out in the talking. The goal is not to win. In fact, it’s bad if either the left or right wins. If the right wins, the inequalities that emerge from hierarchical structures will be ignored. If the left wins, we won’t have any structures and our culture falls. He placed the importance of dialogue in the context of marriage as well. There, again, the goal is not to win. The goal is to talk and discover the truth together. If you win an argument, that means your partner loses, and “who wants to be married to a loser?”

5. It was nearly a throw-away line, but one of his most affecting statements for me was about Donald Trump. He related an experience he had listening to a comedy icon talk about his work in movies and television. He was loving the conversation and then this person turned to talk of Donald Trump, which Peterson found dreadful. He commented that it doesn’t take much “perspicacity” (probably the first time I’ve ever heard this word used out loud) to find something negative to say about Donald Trump. I don’t have the exact words, but it was to the effect that it’s too easy to criticize; that, obviously, Mr. Trump is a deeply flawed person in a self-evident sort of way. It takes no special insight, really, to point this out and doesn’t really accomplish anything to do so. He imagines a number of American voters going into the voting booth in 2016 saying, “Ah, the hell with it” and “voting Trump.” His point is that there are more important and interesting things to talk about.

6. I liked Dr. Peterson’s rule of three when it comes to managing people. When someone does something you don’t like, you give it a pass the first time, you note it the second time, and then the third time you confront. If you confront after the first occurrence, the person can argue their way out of it, denying it happened or making it about you. But if, when you confront, you have three examples, it’s hard for the person to explain away all three.

*  *  *

Dr. Peterson doesn’t bring a product, he offers a discussion, which he says is possible even in the context of a lecture. He doesn’t show up with a prepared talk; he wants every lecture to be different. His goal, even as he does all the talking, is to engage the audience—and he is relentlessly focused on the people in the front few rows. (I’ve heard him say that the lights make it impossible to see any farther back.) He is to academia what jazz is to classical music. Because he can riff it’s a mistake to think he doesn’t know what he’s doing or talking about, in the same way that it’s a mistake to think a jazz musician hasn’t practiced long tones or scales. What appears improvisational, is only possible because of years of dedicated study. I’ve heard people get up in front of people and not say anything. What’s extraordinary is how Dr. Peterson can hold the attention of 3,000 for a couple of hours and, at the end of it, you can point to specific things he said and reflect on them.

A beautifully written account of the evening, including the protests, can be found here.

Holiness Unto the Lord

by Glenn on July 6, 2018

It was fascinating to spend time this past weekend at the quadrennial meeting of pastors and lay leaders of The Evangelical Church, a denomination known until recently as The Evangelical Church of North America. The national meetings occur every four years, at which point its supervising leader (the General Superintendent—a position more of influence than actual authority) is elected through an open ballot with the names of all eligible candidates. (In this case the national leader was re-elected to a third four-year term on the first ballot, with 65 out of 118 voting members selecting him.)  Regional meetings are held annually and regional leaders are selected by a similar election process within the context of those meetings.

The Evangelical Church is a small denomination within the larger world of evangelical churches and denominations. Each evangelical group, including, for example, The Evangelical Church, whose meetings I attended this weekend, and The Salvation Army, the church in which I grew up, have their own emphases, which is one of the reasons why there are so many denominations. My sense is that all the churches that make up the larger evangelical church movement have a relatively broad consensus on the following:

—The Bible is God’s revealed voice to people.
—God is both one and three—Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit.
—Human beings are sinners headed toward destruction.
—The death of Jesus on the cross provided the way for human beings to be saved.
—Salvation means life change, both within, through inner transformation, and without, through relationships with others.

All of these statements need to be defended, but are assumed here. And while I’m sure there are quibblers, I think these things are broadly accepted by evangelicals, even if they may be spoken of in different ways.

Within the evangelical group are a number of churches and denominations that are part of a holiness movement. (Yes, a movement within a movement.) The Evangelical Church, The Salvation Army, the Wesleyan Church, the Nazarene Church, and the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), for example, make (or at least at one time made) one of their emphases the imperative, “holiness unto the Lord.”

It’s important to note, these churches that identify (or identified) as holiness churches would not necessarily have an easy time merging, if that were something they even wanted to pursue. While they share evangelical underpinnings and may have similar beliefs about holiness, they have widely differing views about governance and the roles of women, to name just two.

One of the priorities of the current leader of The Evangelical Church is for its pastors and, by extension, their churches to embrace their heritage as part of the holiness movement. He was, of course, speaking directly to this denomination and not other holiness churches let alone the entire evangelical movement. But talk of “holiness unto the Lord” is familiar to me from my days in The Salvation Army.

As the leader spoke this weekend about the need for holiness I was reminded of some thoughts from childhood. There are two:

One, the need for holiness is beyond dispute. There are many, many verses that provide (and, in this case, were used to provide) ample proof-texting for the need of holiness in a person’s life. There’s no question that the Bible speaks about and emphasizes holiness (for starters, Ephesians 1:4 and 4:24, 1 Thessalonians 4:7, Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:15–16, and Hebrews 12:10 and 13:12 quoted in his talk.)

Two, what exactly holiness means and how it is achieved are problematic and, therefore, hard to talk about.

To frame the issue, I think of salvation as occurring over time. When we talk about salvation we are actually talking about three time frames. First, there is the moment we put our faith in Jesus and are saved. That is the day our salvation begins. Last, there is the day we die and our salvation is finalized for all eternity.

The second is the time between when we are saved and when we die.

To put it in chronological order: We were saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.

What does it mean that “we are being saved”? (Noting that some might object to the present participle,  indicating that it is accomplished over time.)

Holiness churches sometimes stress the need for a “second work of grace,” which seemed to be the case this weekend. While this idea is derived from the Bible, it’s not a Biblical term. This seems to align the holiness churches with, say, the Pentecostal movement, which talks about the baptism of the Holy Spirit (a Biblical term), which may occur when you are saved, but often occurs later and is sometimes associated with water baptism. The reason they don’t align is that the holiness churches and the Pentecostal churches differ in what the second work of grace/baptism of the Holy Spirit means in terms of outcome. The Pentecostal churches would stress the gifts of the Spirit, beginning with speaking in tongues. The holiness churches would stress a holy life.

Here’s one quote that was used by the leader this weekend.

“Entire sanctification is a state of righteousness and true holiness, which every regenerate believer may attain. It consists in being cleansed from all sin, loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.” (The Discipline: The Evangelical United Brethren in Christ, 1947)

I have a problem with that first sentence. First, sanctification and holiness are synonyms. Second, holiness and sanctification are different from righteousness. Holiness (sanctification) has to do with being set apart; righteousness has to do with right actions. So this first sentence is a bit like saying, “A is B and A,” which is a contradiction and a tautology.

Still the larger truth is there. After you are initially saved, you’re not done. There’s more saving that God wants to do in and through you until the day you die. But now the complications begin:

1. Is a holy life accomplished over time or in one moment? Some will talk about sanctification/holiness as a process; others will insist it’s an event accomplished in a moment of surrender, often public at an altar.

2. What is this “state” of being? Is a holy life the end of sinning? If not, what has changed? Some will insist that a holy life means you no longer sin, or at least are no longer tempted to sin. Is this even possible? What is possible in terms of living a holy life? Or, what does a holy life look like?

3. What is the difference between sanctification and “entire” sanctification? My sense of the scriptures that talk about holiness is that they refer to it in a binary way. Something is or is not holy, meaning it’s unnecessary to call something (or someone) “totally” or “entirely” holy. If it is binary, then we don’t need to talk about “entire” sanctification, because sanctified is what it is. If it is not binary, how do we differentiate Biblical sanctification from so-called “entire sanctification”?

4. How do we talk about holiness without describing it as righteousness? Holiness is often presented as a list of things you do and don’t do, which is righteousness. It was interesting, as this particular leader spoke, he emphasized that holiness is not legalism. That was a relief, frankly. I grew up in a legalistic environment, which I now see as a kind of self-righteousness. But once you begin to talk about holiness not in behavioral terms, the meaning gets a little fuzzy.

5. Who is doing the work of holiness? When a person is saved, most evangelicals would be careful to stress it’s God’s work. We are saved by grace through faith and even that faith comes from God is how Paul formulates it in Ephesians 2:8–9. If God saved us and will save us, isn’t it possible that he will be instrumental in our present saving? As it was presented this past weekend, God saves us initially, but now we need to live a holy life, so get to work! Be holy. God saved you so you could save yourself.

6. How do we preach holiness in a way that communicates well. Is there a way to describe holiness that is both concise and invites consensus? In other words, can it be defined simply and will a large group, for example the pastors in a denomination, understand and agree with the definition. Further, is there a way to communicate “holiness unto the Lord” that may be understood and practiced pragmatically by lay people so that it may be communicated to and demonstrated to others? Finally, is it possible that “entire sanctification” has a whiff of jargon about it? It might make sense to some of us in our little group, but will not be understood by people in other, even Christian, groups. It seems to me that I should be able to explain what it means to follow Jesus so that people who don’t follow Jesus or follow him within another Christian tradition will understand what I am talking about.

None of this is meant to be critical of any particular individual or organization as much as to identify that my own thinking on the subject is rather muddy. This is most decidedly an area where I need to spend some time reading and thinking and writing. It may or may not be a confusing issue, but I don’t have to be confused about that.

Some working principles, initial hypotheses, and thoughts:

1. Differences need to make a difference. We shouldn’t play games with semantics to try and differentiate what is essentially the same thing as something else.

2. Distinctions should not be pursued in isolation. Nor should we be elitist about our faith. We should be convinced it’s true, but we need some intellectual humility to acknowledge that other people from other Christian traditions are thinking about what it means to follow Jesus and are convinced of truth as well.

3. The distinctions between Christians and non-Christians is paramount to distinctions between one group of Christians and another. Obviously, we need to talk about holiness, without which “no one will see the Lord,” (Hebrews 12:14) but a life of holiness may be anathema to someone who is hell-bound.

4. Avoid majoring on the minors. Given the choice of major doctrine or minor distinctions, we should focus on the former. One of the useful aspects of the many denominations is that their individual emphases may affirm our particular emphases or point us to something that we are neglecting.

5. We need to pay attention to the danger of pride.  If I call people to a certain experience with God, it can be a little condescending. The call to be holy shouldn’t be separated from the call to follow Jesus, so that what is called a holy life cannot be construed as “Look what I have achieved. I have become holy. You people better get your acts together and be holy like me.” We should not talk about holiness apart from God.

6. Perhaps holiness is talked about more than we think. Rather than look at verses that mention holiness in isolation and try to formulate an extra-Biblical idea of what they might mean, perhaps pursuing holiness without which no one will see the Lord is more widely discussed in the Bible than we think.

7. We are talking about both an experience and a theory. I see a couple of dangers. First, the person talking about holiness needs to be careful not to make their experience with Christ the measure of what it means to follow Christ. Second, this is something lived, not theorized about.

More to come.

Munk Debate on Political Correctness

by Glenn on June 25, 2018

I discussed a thread on a volleyball message board that turned into an unresolved argument about what is and is not racist language and what constitutes basic respect for others vs. what is political correctness.I think it all began with a simple question of whether or not the Japanese Women’s National Volleyball team is good, at least potentially. Eventually, the President’s name was mentioned and the argument became thoroughly politicized.

It wasn’t a sophisticated discussion and nothing much was resolved. But even in sophisticated discussions, things don’t always work out well.

Recently, I watched the Munk Debate on Political Correctness: “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress …”

For the resolution were Michael Eric Dyson and Michelle Goldberg. Against the resolution were Stephen Fry and Jordan Peterson.

This was a sophisticated discussion, but it, too, had some heated and unpleasant moments.

The two-hour debate is well worth the time watching (through their website, linked above, or on YouTube, below) to, at the very least, understand where things go awry when talking about progress/political correctness.

I think I understand the opposition’s point of view. Stephen Fry, who for me was the highlight of the debate, is a self-proclaimed contrarian. In his pre-debate interview he said he stands against “sanctimony, piety, self-righteousness, resentment, anger, orthodoxy, accusation, denunciation, shaming.” A “soft lefty,” he stands against these things whether they come from the right or, as they do on this issue, from the left. He wants to “achieve the golden aim of making a more tolerant society,” but he doesn’t want it to happen by, for example, prescribing language or tearing down statues. His simple argument is that it doesn’t work and fuels the anger of the right. He wants to see a day when people relate to each other in respectful ways, but insists that “saying what is and is not correct to say … delays the day.”

This issue of speech is what I think brought Jordan Peterson onto a larger stage and, as a result, this stage. He is a psychotherapist and a college professor at the University of Toronto. But when Canada wanted to compel certain forms of speech for people who don’t identify as either male or female, he spoke up rather forcibly, decrying the agenda of “the radical left,” which he maintains has “dominated” the humanities and the social sciences in the universities. He does think you need a left. The left speaks for the people who aren’t making it in the culture. It’s a voice of empathy. But his grave concern is two-fold: that the left “can go too far,” and that their aims are “ill-defined.” He thinks “the conflation of empathy and ideology” is dangerous and doesn’t like how “everything transforms into a polarized political argument.”

It’s unfortunate that the weakest debater was for the motion. My current sympathies were with Dr. Peterson and Mr. Fry and I was interested in hearing the argument for the things that they are against. Unfortunately, Michelle Goldberg, a writer, including columnist at the New York Times, stood against the opposition, but not necessarily for the motion. She doesn’t like, in particular, some of the things that Jordan Peterson has said. But that’s not the same thing as advocating for progress. In the end, it seemed like she was against people who are against “political correctness,” where the word is used pejoratively.

The other problem with Ms. Goldberg was that she has too many tics in her speaking style. She has adopted the contemporary habit of often ending sentences with “Right?” Once in a while it’s appropriate to check in to see if you are connecting with your audience, but too often makes you sound needy. Add to that a generous supply of “um”, “you know?”, “kind of”, “sort of”, and it all becomes exhausting. (I note that the transcript of the debate removes all this chaff from her spoken language. She is much better on the printed page.) She also may be the most imprecise speaker, though I haven’t done any fact-checking. At several points in the debate she said she was quoting Dr. Peterson and he interjected, “That’s not what I said.” I’ve listened to a number of interviews with Dr. Peterson and I think he really tries to be precise in his speech because he worries about being misquoted. My initial reaction is to believe him.

Michael Eric Dyson, therefore, was the only person really advocating for the motion. In his pre-debate interview he said the idea of political correctness was created by the left as an ideal but was taken by the right to mean “everything I’m mad about that I can’t be bigoted about anymore.” His essential point is that there are people who have benefited from privilege. They tend to be white and male. It’s time for them to share. Dr. Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. Interesting, in the debate he will say exactly the opposite of what Dr. Peterson did regarding the radical left in the universities:

“The radical left is a metaphor, a symbol, an articulation. They don’t exist, their numbers are too small. I’m on college campuses, I don’t see much of them coming.”

Dr. Dyson is also a minister and has an obvious gift for public speaking. There’s a line that he used in both the pre-debate interview and in the debate. He points out Thomas Jefferson’s essential inconsistency in that he advocated for human freedom and had slaves. And when it came to Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s “loins trumped his logic.” It’s a clever line that got an audience reaction, but what is he saying? Yes, Jefferson was not consistent, but it was his ideals not his failings that were appealed to by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. You can complain about Jefferson, but didn’t Jefferson identify the very principle that ended slavery and introduced Civil Rights? My main complaint, then, about Dr. Dyson during the debate is that he sounds good, but what is he saying? This is a point that Mr. Fry would make in his closing statement, referring to a

“classic, if I can call it that, huckstering, snake-oil pulpit talk. It’s a mode of discourse, a rhetorical style that I find endlessly refreshing and vivifying, but I’m not sure that we actually focused on the point in question.”

Ms. Goldberg was the first speaker. It was just four paragraphs in that she suggested Dr. Peterson was insane and brought Donald Trump into the debate:

“In the New York Times today, Mr. Peterson says: ‘The people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence.’ That’s not particularly insane to me, because I’m an American and our President is Donald Trump, but it’s an assumption that I think underlies a worldview in which any challenges to the current hierarchy are written off as political correctness.”

This, though, is where the debate hinges. Those for progress or political correctness (not intended as a pejorative, here) maintain that there is a power structure, a pyramid or hierarchy, that leaves minorities at the bottom. They merely want the power and wealth to be shared.

The questions that the other side are wrestling with are:

1. How true is this? and

2. What do we do about it?

And the problems begin with asking that first question. On one side, people want to think about to what extent they have benefited from privilege. On the other side, people want to say that it’s axiomatic. If you’re even asking the question, you’re clueless. And we get stuck as we did in this debated. In one of the more heated moments of the debate, Dr. Peterson will engage with Dr. Dyson.

Dr. Peterson:

“Let’s assume for a moment that I’ve benefitted from my white privilege, okay? So let’s assume that.”

Dr. Dyson:

“That’s a good assumption; that’s a good assumption.”

Dr. Peterson:

“Yeah, well, that’s what you would say. So let’s get precise about this, okay?”

Dr. Dyson:

“Hmm, was that very individual of you?”

Dr. Peterson:

“Let’s get precise about this, okay?”

Dr. Dyson:

“Mm-hmm, let’s get precise.”

Dr. Peterson:

“To what degree is my present level of attainment or achievement a consequence of my white privilege? And I don’t mean ‘sort of.’ Do you mean 5 percent? Do you mean 15 percent? Do you mean 25 percent? Do you mean 75 percent? And what do you propose I do about it?

“How about a tax? How about a tax that’s specialized for me so that I can account for my damn privilege, so that I can stop hearing about it?”

The exchange continues and is worth watching because Dr. Peterson goes on to ask the question of when does the left go too far. At the same time, it feels to me as an observer that there is a bit of mocking in the way Dr. Dyson engages.

We never will get answers. This is where the conversation will break down. Dr. Dyson calls Dr. Peterson “a mean, mad, white man.” Dr. Peterson eventually responds,

“And with regard to my privilege or lack thereof, I’m not making the case that I haven’t had advantages in my life, and disadvantages in my life, like most people. You don’t know anything about my background or where I came from, but it doesn’t matter to you, because fundamentally I’m a ‘mean white man.’

“That’s a hell of a thing to say in a debate.”

Dr. Dyson contends,

“Let me just say that the “mean white man” comment was not predicated upon my historical excavation of your past; it’s based upon the evident vitriol with which you speak, and the denial of a sense of equanimity among combatants in an argument.”

I can say, having watched a fair amount of Dr. Peterson, is that he does communicate with a fair amount of intensity. And I do think it is just that—intensity, not anger—that you see when he communicates.

The point he wants to make is not that hierarchies don’t exist. There are people in power who have exercised power unjustly (Harvey Weinstein gets prominent mention in the debate). And there are people who are not participants in the hierarchy or speaking on behalf of those who are not or have been injured. The question remains, What do they want? And I do think it’s fair to ask How far is too far? Ms. Goldberg says violence and censorship are too far. But what about state-mandated speech? Dr. Peterson does recognize that inequalities are a problem. His argument is that correcting those inequalities can present a cure worse than the problem.

The finest moment of the night I thought belonged to Mr. Fry. In his closing statement he said this:

“It’s a strange paradox, that the liberals are illiberal in their demand for liberality. They are exclusive in their demand for inclusivity. They are homogenous in their demand for heterogeneity. They are somehow un-diverse in their call for diversity — you can be diverse, but not diverse in your opinions and in your language and in your behaviour. And that’s a terrible pity. So, I would say that I’m sorry that it got a bit heated in places, because I was hoping it wouldn’t. I was hoping it would be a shining example of how people of all different kinds of political outlooks can speak with humour and wit and a lightness of touch. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.'”

After the debate, Dr. Peterson said this about Mr. Fry:

“[I]t was a pleasure sharing the stage with him. I’ve rarely heard anyone ever deliver their convictions with such a remarkable sense of passion and wit and forbearance and erudition — it was really something.”

This is what happens on the internet

by Glenn on June 22, 2018

The U.S. Women’s National Volleyball team is one of 16 teams who are playing in the inaugural  Volleyball Nations League over five weeks this summer. (Preliminary rounds are over. Six teams, including the USA remain and are headed to China for the finals.) Part of my following their play is that I pay attention to a volleyball message board called Volleytalk. Read the rest of this entry »

Rules by Scott Stowell

by Glenn on May 24, 2018

From Print April 2013, p. 70 | Illustration by Scott Stowell

1. Pay attention.

2. The sooner you realize that nobody knows what they’re doing, the better.

3. If it’s not right, it’s wrong.

4. You think they can see through you, but they can’t.

5. Decide what you’re going to do. Do it.

6. It is about who you know, but I also know a lot of idiots.

7. Make sure you look good at the airport.

8. It doesn’t matter if anybody knows that you were right all along.

9. Don’t complain.

10. People are smart. If you keep that in mind, a lot of possibilities open up.

A Song in the Brain

by Glenn on May 3, 2018

One of the quirks of the human brain, or at least my brain, is the stuff that is buried in there that comes up for reasons I can’t explain. Last night as I was washing dishes, here was the song that appeared in my consciousness:

I do remember watching the Bobby Vinton Show back, and I mean WAY back, in the day. But why would it pop into my brain at that moment.

Volleyball as an Art Form: The inspired play of Imoco Volley Conegliano

by Glenn on April 28, 2018

As a fan of NCAA indoor women’s volleyball, this is a tedious time of year. The beginning of the season is four months away.

The 2018 FIVB Volleyball Nations League begins next month, Read the rest of this entry »

Three Murders and Some Thoughts on the Authorial Voice on Screen

by Glenn on April 11, 2018

The first book I finished reading this year was Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

I have seen three adaptations of the film for the screen. Read the rest of this entry »

Erle Stanley Gardner and an Author’s Point of View

by Glenn on April 7, 2018

The latest Perry Mason novel I read (Erle Stanley Gardner. The Case of the Buried Clock. New York: Ballantine Books, 1943) has more overt references to World War II than the previous one (The Case of the Careless Kitten).

There was a war metaphor:

“The door was pushed open. Two men came barging over toward the group, moving with grim purpose like warships plowing through sea toward a convoy.” [p. 46]

One of the characters was back from the war, recuperating from injuries:

“Vincent Blane had asked him if it would make him nervous staying alone in a cabin where a murder had been committed. . . . Harley smiled every time he thought of that; he who had been trained to carry on while comrades were shot down all around him; he who had become so familiar with death that it had ceased to inspire him even with healthy respect, let alone fear …” [p. 59]

There was a reference to rationing:

[Perry Mason:] “Perhaps in your position, Doctor, you haven’t as yet appreciated the seriousness of tire rationing, and therefore dismissed it from your mind.” [p. 92]

War time” was referenced, where clocks were pushed forward an hour ahead to save electricity.

I assume all of the characters in the story were white. Race wasn’t an issue as it was in the previous book. However, one of the characters makes a comment that reminds you that race was an issue:

[Lola Strague]: “And I do wish, Burt, you’d either snap out of it or go home! After all, I’m free, white and twenty-one.” [p. 139]

I don’t recall ever hearing a line like this and had no idea it was a catch-phrase:

There was another expression I’d never heard:

 [Harley:] “… if he was going to jail he’d as soon be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and he was going to make it worth his while.” [p. 15]

An explanation of the expression is found here.

As always, there are interesting (which does necessarily mean good) metaphors/similes:

“Hamilton Burger moved with the slow dignity of a steam roller …” [p. 210]

“Mason lit a cigarette [it would be interesting to count how many times that gets written in one of these books]. ‘Trying a lawsuit is like changing a flat tire. Sometimes the jack works perfectly, the rim comes off, the new tire goes on, and you’re on your way so smoothly that you hardly know you’ve had a flat. Sometimes everything goes wrong. The jack won’t work, and when you finally get the car up, it rolls off the jack, the old tire sticks, the new rim won’t go on. . . . And this is a case just like that, where everything has gone wrong to date.’” [p. 148]

Astrology makes an appearance in the story. A short chapter in the book consists of a newspaper article, including this paragraph:

The Bugle has commissioned one of the leading astrologers to cast the horoscope of Jack Hardistry [the murder victim]. Jack Hardistry was born on July 3rd, which according to astrologists, makes him a ‘Cancer,’ and astrologists point out that persons born under the sign of Cancer are divided into two classes—the active and the passive. They are thin-skinned, hypersensitive, and suffer deeply from wrongs, real or fancied. They are at times irrational in their emotions, and subject to ill health.” [p. 144-145]

I’ve never understood astrology and don’t understand how a reporter would include it in a news article, though I do have very smart friends who think it explains all sorts of things. Mason’s private detective, Paul Drake, had some things to say about astrology:

“She’s [Mrs. Payson] interested in astrology, but she’s interested in a lot of other things. Astrology, it seems, doesn’t have so much to do with astronomy, and like lots of women who talk about the signs of the zodiac, she doesn’t know a damn thing about the stars themselves.” [pp. 216–217]

Astronomy is the place where Mason gets stuck for a good portion of the book and Paul’s comment helps him solve the case.

These Perry Mason novels continue to be interesting because of the times in which they are set. (I think the same thing is true of the television series.)

*  *  *

This book got me thinking about the authorial voice.

Early on I noticed that Gardner had certain sentence structures that he used again and again. I’ve never been so aware of an author’s writing style, especially sentence structure. There were a few formulations in this book that leapt out at me as I read.

1. The first I’ll call the “that … which/that” structure.

“Harley propped his head back against a pine-needle cushion, half closed his eyes, experiencing that sudden fatigue which comes to men whose reserve strength had been sapped by wounds.” [p. 4]

“Adele Blane, sitting on the rock beside him, smiled down at him with that tenderness which women have for men who are recuperating from wounds received in combat.” [p. 4]

“There was still the same charm of manner—that courteous interest in others which was neither effusive on the one hand, nor patronizing on the other, but had the graciousness of dignity about it.” [p. 12]

“Yet there was in the man’s face that grayish look of fatigue which comes to those who are near the point of physical exhaustion from the strain of overwork.” [p. 90]

“For a moment the pair were gripped in that rigid immobility that comes with discovery.” [p. 7]

2. The second I’ll call the “with that” structure.

“The evening had turned chill, with that peculiar penetrating cold which comes at night in the high places, which gets into the blood and settles around the marrow of the bones.” [p. 16]

“The air was cold and still with that breathless chill which polishes stars into glittering brilliance.” [p. 123]

“Hamilton Burger said with that ponderous manner which was so characteristic of him.” [p. 210]

3. Ina number of these examples, a “which/that comes” formulation is used often (underlined above).

None of this is meant as a complaint or critique so much as an observation. I’m just beginning to become aware of certain phrases that I use again and again. It’s hard to get around them and if you obsess on them, you might get stuck and never write another sentence.

*  *  *

Novels and stories are told from either a first or third person perspective, which means we experience the story as “I woke up, dressed, and went out,” or “Bobby woke up, dressed, and went out.”

With first person, someone “in the story” describes the action as we experience everything through that person.

Third person is different. Someone outside the world of the story tells the story. The Perry Mason mysteries are told in the third person.

This gets a little tricky. In a first person story, the author may or may not be the narrator. If the story isn’t true, the person telling the story is likely not the author sharing their experience, but a person from the author’s imagination (allowing for unavoidable autobiographical elements).

A story told in the third person doesn’t necessarily mean that the author is that storyteller either. Some years ago I read James Michener’s Hawaii. It’s a phenomenal book. If I recall correctly, it is written in third person from the beginning, but then at some point the authorial voice shifts for a moment. I don’t want to give anything way, but in a key moment the third-person telling gives way to a first-person comment. And so the rest of the book has two layers. There is the story that Michener is telling—and we wonder, as with all good stories, what will happen next and how will it end—and then there is this mystery of who is doing the telling. It doesn’t seem like Michener is the one telling the story (though, obviously, he wrote the book). Who does this voice belong to? It’s a great thing.

I just finished listening to a book, The Noticer: Sometimes, all a person needs is a little perspective, by Andy Andrews (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2009).

I enjoy Mr. Andrews, so this isn’t meant as a critique of what he is teaching (this is an engaging and worthwhile narrative about, as the title says, the importance of perspective), but I found it a little odd that his book began in the first person and then shifted to the third person and by the end was back to the first person. I don’t recall noticing the abrupt shift in point of view when I read the book some months ago, but as I listened to it this past week, that shift in voice didn’t work that well, perhaps because the entire book was read by the author. What if the first person elements were read aloud by Mr. Andrews and then the third person were read by someone else? Probably would have been even more distracting.

In the Perry Mason novels, the third person voice normally describes what can be perceived by an observer. The third person voice does have an omniscience about it. It knows everything that is going on in the story, including what is going on in the hearts and minds of each of the characters. But it limits what it tells us. As readers we accept this. In the case of the Perry Mason novels, we don’t get to see into the hearts and minds of characters. But once in a while, though, something slips:

“Milicent Hardistry dropped into her chair, almost immediately propped an elbow on the arm of the chair, and rested her head against the upraised hand. Her attitude was that of tired dejection. She only wanted to get it over as soon as possible.” [pp. 207–208]

Suddenly, with the last two lines, it appears we are going beyond observation. “Her attitude …” could be a description of how her affect might be perceived. But the last line, “She only wanted to get it over as soon as possible,” seems to be telling us what’s going on inside the character. This is something I will pay attention to in future novels. Are there limits for the omniscient third person narrator? Do those limits change?

*  *  *

I do like the authorial voice to be consistent. When I’m thinking too much about that voice, whether it’s because of a repetitive sentence structure or a major shift in storytelling perspective, it’s a little distracting.

I want that voice to be trustworthy. I want to know that I may rely on that voice to be telling me the truth, at least the truth as they see it. I’m sure there are some novels that play with this, where the narrative voice (either first or third person) has some issues with reliability, which becomes part of the experience of reading the novel. That gets confusing for me. I have enough trouble tracking characters and timelines and details, particularly with mysteries, without wondering if I need to be focused on the narrator as well.

I enjoy it when the authorial voice is interesting. I am remembering the first line of E. M. Forster’s Howards End:

“One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.”


Less delightful though fantastically compelling is the authorial voice in Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Here is that opening line:

“It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.”

Not delightful. Pained, really. The genius of this novel is that Ishiguro has, unforgettably, captured the voice of a butler.

Note: I suppose there is such a thing as second person writing. It seems to me that falls more in the realm of advertising and self-help:
You can have whiter teeth and fresher breath.
You can take control of your life if you will follow these nine steps.
My experience with stories, though, has them in first or third person.


Considering Mr. Trump—Part One

by Glenn on March 25, 2018

A month or so ago, I worked at a conference where a speaker said, essentially, “I don’t care what Donald Trump thinks or says. I care about what he does.”

The speaker was Jewish and he referenced Harry Truman who the speaker said referred to Jews in private correspondence as “kikes,” but then was the first world leader to recognize the State of Israel. He didn’t care that Mr. Truman may have had private prejudices about Jewish people, because his public decisions supported them.

Similarly, he was happy with President Trump’s job performance so far, citing first on his list of reasons for his satisfaction with the President the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of “I don’t care about private thoughts; I care about public actions.”

One the one hand, I think it makes sense. When all is said and done with this presidency (which may be sooner than later), what becomes law is what the President signs into law. What he says doesn’t constitute law.

But you can’t say that what President Trump, or any person, says doesn’t matter. You can argue that what the President says matters more than a “regular person,” because so many people pay attention to it.

There is a connection between the private and the the public. Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood comments about an attractive soap star were, we assume, meant to be kept “private”—

[Donald Trump:] “Yeah, that’s her. With the gold. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

—except they never were private. They weren’t public, until a month before the election, but they weren’t private. What he is describing is not right either as “locker room talk” (which, if I recall correctly was how he explained or justified himself—I think at some point he began denying that he had said this) or, especially, as actual statements of his behavior.

Further, speech may influence my actions or be a form of action itself.

If I had some reprehensible opinion of a certain ethnicity, it’s likely (at least for me) that that opinion would influence my actions toward a person of that ethnicity. And that’s not right.

And, God forbid, if I should utter that opinion to another human being, particularly someone of that ethnicity, that would be wrong and hurtful. “Sticks and stones” are bad, but it’s a lie to say that names do not hurt. (Whether those words should be punished, i.e. with hate speech laws, I don’t know.)

The President has been over-the-top in his speech, who’s to say that he won’t be over-the-top in his behavior.

As a Christian, it’s tough to reconcile Mr. Trump to your faith. The teachings of Jesus on marital fidelity go beyond behavior and beyond speech into the heart—the world of thought and desire:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27–28)

The election of 2016 was a nightmare. On the one hand you had Mr. Trump, who didn’t seem “presidential” in any sort of way we had previously understood the word. (Someone pointed out, unhelpfully, that now, by definition, everything he does is presidential, which renders the term pretty much useless to describe future potential presidents.)

On the other hand you had Mrs. Clinton, who had already been in the White House for eight years with her husband. It’s an impression, but it felt like we were to vote for her because she was entitled—it was her turn. She had been rejected previously by her party. I had questions about her health. The Clinton Foundation appeared to be an organization for political friends to work in while they awaited the campaign and election. (Donations to this organization felt like political graft or opportunities to curry favor with a high-powered government official who was running to become its most powerful government official.) I was bothered by the arrogance and carelessness (if not outright illegality) she demonstrated with her email server. And then there was my memory of previous scandals, which I took as an indication of things to come—with the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future results, with people the past feels more predictive. These scandals were neatly summarized this week by David French at National Review:

“You truly have to have lived through the Nineties to understand the sheer number and magnitude of the scandals. Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, cattle futures, bimbo eruptions, the Lincoln Bedroom for sale, perjury, obstruction of justice, allegations of rape, groping, and — yes — an affair with an intern in the actual Oval Office. If you want to talk about foreign influence on elections, the funneling of Chinese money into the 1996 Clinton presidential campaign is still stunning, even these many years later.

“Liberals still mock conservatives for their alleged “obsession” with Clinton scandals, but the scandals were real, they were significant, and they never stopped. The Clintons remained the Clintons, after all, and Emailgate was greeted with such fury in part because it was all happening again. Could anything finally rid us of this troublesome family?”

The bottom line is you had a choice between two people neither of whom I thought should be anywhere near the White House.

The Evangelical Christians I know tended to vote for Mr. Trump for any or all of the following reasons:
–He wasn’t Mrs. Clinton.
–He appeared to be tough.
–He seemed to have enough energy for the job.
–Court appointees are an important legacy for an administration and the best chance for conservatives would come with Mr. Trump.
–He took a hard (and graphic) stand against abortion.

When I questioned friends about why they were voting for Mr. Trump and expressing concerns about his character, temperament, judgment, etc., their answers included:
–“As though Mrs. Clinton was any better.”
–“I’m voting for a president, not a pastor.”
–“We need someone who will get things done.”

Fourteen months in, I don’t know what to think. It’s not that I wish Mrs. Clinton had won. I do resonate with those who like some things that he has done. But whatever hopes I may have had about how Mr. Trump might comport himself in office have proven to be unfounded. I’ve read a number of books about Mr. Trump since the election and will reflect on them soon.

I remember my sadness thinking about this poster in countless classrooms around the country:

It’s hard to picture Mr. Trump’s image on a poster like this.

* * *

This will be an interesting day for Mr. Trump with the 60 Minutes interview of Stephanie Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels) scheduled to play this evening. Jonah Goldberg this weekend somehow managed to catch the significance of the moment and lighten the mood without too much “See I told you so” tone.

A couple of observations:

1. The President has been quiet on the subject of the alleged affair with Ms. Clifford. That’s unusual for him. When someone attacks him, he tends to push back rather hard and is unafraid of doubling-down on things he says.

2. When a person says objectionable (and horrifying and disgraceful and disrespectful and inappropriate and misogynistic) things, for example the before-referenced Access Hollywood conversation with Billy Bush, it makes denials of that sort of behavior harder to believe.

Ultimately, are we going to learn anything we didn’t know or should have known? Is there anything to do with that knowledge?

Perry Mason and the Case of the Careless Kitten

by Glenn on March 6, 2018

One of my goals is to read the complete Perry Mason mysteries. There are 85 of them. My connection to them goes back to my grandmother. As a child at her house, I remember her watching the show on her little black & white TV, although it wasn’t a show I could appreciate or follow as a child. Watching it today is nostalgic.

Books, of course, are different from television and movies. And, reliably, the books are better, or at least much different.

It’s especially true with this series.

I haven’t read one of the Perry Mason mysteries for a while but just finished The Case of the Careless Kitten. (Erle Stanley Gardner | New York: William Morrow & Company, 1942.)

Although the publishing date is early in World War 2, there isn’t much direct mention of the war except for the fact that one of the characters has come out of basic training. He is in love with a girl whose aunt (and protector—no mention of what happened to her parents) disapproves. As he and she talk one evening, a crime is committed in the house and he is seriously wounded by a gunshot. While he is in surgery, the girl observes,

“I guess we used to think we were entitled to happiness as a matter of right. Now, people are dying all over the world and . . . well, I’ve got to learn how to take it—and so has everyone else.”

While the war isn’t mentioned overtly, the attitudes, more specifically, the prejudices of the era, are quite explicit. Uncomfortably so.

A servant who self-identifies as Korean is referred to as “Jap” by a police officer.

His name is Komo, which does sound like a Japanese name. One would understand why he wouldn’t want to be identified as such. In response, he says “with dignity,”

“Excussse please . . . I am not Japanese. I am Korean. My sentiments for Japanese are not friendly.”

A co-worker of the servant says to Perry, “I can’t stand having a darned Oriental snooping around.” He goes on to call him “that damned Jap.”

When that co-worker makes claims about that servant, Perry Mason uses the same sort of kind of language: “Those Japs certainly are clever. The Orientals know a lot about drugs that we don’t know.” This is surprising. Is this language Perry would use, or is he simply using the language to get into the confidence of this co-worker?

I can’t imagine the Perry Mason of television saying anything like this. I have another five novels to go that were published during World War 2. It will be interesting to see if and how the language changes.

In an earlier novel, I remember Paul Drake and Perry wanting to interview some witnesses. Perry tells Paul to talk to someone, Perry says, “I’ll talk to the Chink.” It makes you cringe.

In 2018, the words feel entirely inappropriate and disrespectful. I can separate the attitudes of a character from his author, but it’s weird to consider a world where that was okay.

Part of my attraction to the books (and the television show as well) is the anachronisms—cars, police methods, the unceasing and abundant smoking, which is startling to consider. Clearly, though, propriety in language has changed. For the better.

One quote I really enjoyed. A lawyer, Gerald Shore, who Perry Mason has taken on as a client tells Perry, “I see that I’ve got to be frank with you.”

He adds,

“I think you’ll realize that no one ever knows how honest he is. He goes through life thinking he’s honest, because he’s never been confronted with a sufficient temptation; then suddenly he’s confronted with some crucial situation where he finds himself facing ruination on the one hand and with a chance to turn defeat into victory by doing something which seems very simple but which is—well, not dishonest but not strictly legal.”

Perry is not interested in “excuses.” But it does feel honest. Perhaps an affirmation of 1 Corinthians 10:12:

“[I]f you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

There are funny expressions in the Perry Mason books. Della Street wakes up, pushes away the kitten she is taking care of, and says, “Not now, Amber Eyes. The strident clang of the alarm calls me to industry.” Not sure who talks like that. Apparently Della does.

There are funny similes, too. In another book, Gardner writes something to the effect of “Della Street looking as crisp as a chilled lettuce leaf …”

It’s hard not to think of the television personalities as you read the books. The one that doesn’t fit the description is Lt. Tragg, who is younger in the books than on television. While not explicit, Perry and Della’s relationship in the book clearly goes beyond the professional.

BBC Radio 4

by Glenn on January 16, 2018

Since listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, I’ve been turning to BBC Radio 4 from time to time, usually on weekends. The news that you hear isn’t any more hopeful than what you hear on NPR, but I find the remove from American politics and the dry humor refreshing. This past weekend one of the announcers introduced a program with words along the lines of, “As we get over our disappointment that the American president won’t be visiting us next month, we turn to …”

It’s other programs and voices that I find refreshing.

I’ve discovered that the BBC has its own news quiz, in a somewhat different format though along the lines of NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me,” the one NPR show I listen to with any regularity. I’ve only heard two editions of this news quiz, but it’s interesting to hear the British talk about their single-payer health plan and to listen to them discuss so many different politicians. Here, we tend to focus almost exclusively on Mr. Trump (or whichever president is in power). I suspect that power in their government is more diffuse, therefore there are more players.

This weekend on BBC Radio 4, I heard a lovely program about Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah.” I don’t remember my first exposure to the song, but I remember a particularly heartbreaking moment on The West Wing (Season 3 Finale, “Posse Comitatus”) where the song was featured.

But the piece that I’ve been thinking about the most, though,  was a commentary by Howard Jacobson titled, “The Frozen Wastes of Emojiland.” This is a meditation by Jacobson on dramatic speech and social media.

Jacobson begins his commentary quoting one Julia Holmes who didn’t like what was written on the new £10 note. It was a quote “by” Jane Austen,

“I declare, after all, there is no enjoyment like reading.”

Ms. Holmes thought it “a strange choice.” The problem is that while Jane Austen wrote that, she didn’t really “say” it. The words belong to Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice, who is, according to Jacobson, “a woman of surpassing shallowness.” She is “saying only what she thinks Mr. Darcy would like to hear her say.”

And so Jacobson riffs on the nature of dramatic speech, the words of which “are as true or false as the person speaking them in the context of who they are spoken to and why.” Literature is different from a sermon or tract. Art is different from ideology.

Jane Austen didn’t say, “I declare, after all, there is no enjoyment like reading.” The same think happens with Shakespeare, Jacobson continues. He was “a dramatist not a philosopher.” The aphorisms that we quote actually belong to his characters. One of the most famous is:

“This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Sounds like great advice. And it might be. Except that Jacobson points out, rightly, that “authenticity” is only a virtue “if the self in question is worth being true to.” In this case, Shakespeare’s Polonius, from Hamlet, is a gas bag. What does Gertrude in exasperation say to him at one point? “More matter, with less art.”

Jacobson makes two points. One is that we need to recognize dramatic speech.

In my car these days, I am listening to the collected speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” a speech from 18 September 1963, King concluded with,

“Shakespeare had Horatio to say some beautiful words as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet. And today, as I stand over the remains of these beautiful, darling girls, I paraphrase the words of Shakespeare:  Good night, sweet princesses. Good night … And may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.”

Probably among the least significant things to appreciate about Dr. King is the fact that he recognizes dramatic speech and uses it appropriately. But I do appreciate it.

Years ago I remember struggling with a book by a Christian author. It was one of those “You’ve got to read this” books that people tell you about. The book was saying we need to tell more stories and use less propositional truth. And for a conclusion they turned to the balcony scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which the author described as “the most beautiful explanation for the gospel of Jesus ever presented.” The author continues, “In this scene, Juliet may be considered the Bard’s Christ figure, and Romeo the embodiment of the church, thus presenting Shakespeare’s opinion of a Christian conversion experience.”

That, it seems to me, is not the way to recognize dramatic speech. I don’t have a problem with using the love of Romeo and Juliet as an analogy to describe the love between Jesus and the church, but it seems a stretch to say that this was “Shakespeare’s opinion of a Christian conversion experience.” I wish they had left Shakespeare out of it.

The second point Jacobson makes is critical of social media, which “has reduced all discourse to a shout.” He calls this a “thumb up or thumb down culture.” There are some great lines near the end of this commentary, which is worth listening to again (which I have done a couple of times, now):
“Before we attack,” make sure “it’s views that are being expressed.”
“Thought is not an act of war.”
“A joke is not a manifesto.”
“Insults are not conversation.”
“Differences in opinion come in shades.”

I am grateful for radio/listening that forces me to think.