Saturday, February 28, 2015

Internet Discussion II

Over the last year, most of what little writing I've done has appeared on this blog. Occasionally I've posted comments on other sites, but I've come to prefer posting here because it is more peaceful and I don't get the unsettling sense of looming chaos or confrontation that I often encounter elsewhere. My posting experience goes back almost nine years to mid-2006, during which time I've posted on a wide variety of websites, and I am now inclined to restrict myself to my own. The heavily-moderated sites such as the NYRblog once seemed promising, but the fact of the matter is that most of the articles and comments there were not particularly interesting to me and the time lag between posting, moderation and appearance of the post made the process painfully slow. Moreover, the editorial policies at the NYRB encourage a special kind of pretentiousness, and they have very little going on there that captures my interest, especially since Tony Judt died. In any case, they have now completely stopped accepting comments, which means to me that they don't really care about their readers and probably don't care much about the discussion of ideas either. I am privately hoping for the imminent deaths of Robert Silvers and his publisher.

Since leaving the NYRblog, I've regularly been reading 3 Quarks Daily. This is an improvement over the NYRblog, but it has its own set of limitations. Overall I think their selection of articles from across the web is quite good, but the commenting and discussion there are not noteworthy. On Mondays they feature their own authors, who, in my opinion, are substantially less interesting than those who appear on other days. Several Monday contributors seem to be second- or third-tier academics who are attempting to use the site to advance their careers. S. Abbas Raza, the founding editor, is doing a good job, but there is a disproportional representation on the site of his friends and relatives, which makes it seem insufferably cliquish at times. Very few people comment there regularly, and the regulars each seem to have different agendas that don't complement each other. One commenter regularly attempts to lure readers to his blog with links. Another commenter always presents a formal academic facade and lists references with each post; his avatar is a photo of himself wearing a jacket and tie, as if he were on his way to a job interview. As with all websites, any discussion tends to be weak and uninteresting, often with very little real communication between participants.

Another disappointment I've had has been with The Chronicle of Higher Education website. When I first chanced upon it about a year ago I was impressed. The level of discussion was better than most. The scope of the site is constricted by its focus on academic topics, but the articles are generally of good quality, and the comments, at least initially, seemed above average. However, the site apparently has little or no moderation, and in the course of a year the comments have turned into a free-for-all. The impression I get is that at any given moment there is an enormous pack of Internet hooligans frantically searching for an outlet to vent their frustrations and inform the world of their innate superiority. The presence of shrieking brats on an education-oriented site triggers a serious case of cognitive dissonance in me, and I have no reason to put up with it.

I used to think that it would be possible to construct a widely-read website that had good articles and good comments that were posted in a timely manner. It now looks as if there are forces working against that. Predictably, capitalism, particularly in the U.S., creates products that are compromised in design from their inception when the underlying goal is profit maximization. It is difficult enough to create a website that generates profits, but practically impossible to create a website that appeals only to a few discerning, well-behaved readers and still run a profit. In this general area you have at one end the NYRblog, which has clearly indicated its complete indifference to its web readers, probably because any money spent there is not money well spent, and at the other end you have The Chronicle of Higher Education website, which has caved in to a rowdy mob of web readers rather than make an effort to maintain a minimum standard of quality. I think it would probably be possible to design and manage a very high quality website that had excellent articles and comments, but no one has much incentive to do that because it would most likely lose money.

Therefore, for the time being at least, I intend to confine my writing exclusively to this blog. If you know of or come across a site that you think I might like, please let me know, and I'll take a look. Since I will no longer be posting elsewhere using my Disqus account, which shows this blog address, not many new people will find out about this blog, and it will probably remain very cozy indeed.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

On Being Old

It's official: I'm old; today I turned 65. Up until recently I didn't think much about age. When you turned 30 you thought of the phrase "never trust anyone over 30" - not exactly words of wisdom. When you turned 40 you thought that was supposed to be a marker for middle age - so what. By 50 you were definitely in middle age and by 60 you were supposedly at or near the end of middle age. But 65 is a little different. That used to be the standard retirement age, and you were expected to die within a few years. I'm already on Medicare and Social Security and now qualify for all of the senior citizen benefits, including discounts and tax breaks. The local newspaper would refer to me as "an elderly man."

My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles are all dead. At least six people whom I knew in college are already dead. I've started reading obituaries with greater interest. One becomes habituated to death, and it is less disconcerting over time. The worst part of old age may be having to listen to others discuss their ailments and medical procedures ad nauseum. One friend, a lifelong smoker, had cancer, and we got blow-by-blow accounts of his progress for several years, including the misplaced encouragement from his doctors, before the inevitable occurred. An acquaintance died suddenly of a heart attack at age 60, a better way to go. Rest assured that on this blog I will not discuss any illnesses that I develop in the future.

Fortunately I don't yet seem to have any ailments. I weigh less than I did when I was 25 and am probably in better shape. I haven't noticed any cognitive decline. Research shows that if one is not impecunious or sick and enjoys one's life, the later years are the best of all. My inner elitist snob rejoices in no longer having to take orders from cretinous bourgeoisie. Rural Vermont suits me perfectly. I have sufficient resources to pursue hobbies without worrying about destitution. Children and a grandchild provide a basis for interest in and optimism about the future. Whatever additional benefits technology may bring, I don't think I'm interested in immortality.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Joseph Battell

Since moving to Middlebury and researching the history of our house, I've become interested in local history. This is a relatively well-documented subject, because most of the settlement did not occur until after the American Revolution, and Middlebury College was founded in 1800, providing an educated population to document whatever transpired. History of the Town of Middlebury, by Samuel Swift, published in 1859, goes into great detail about who lived here and when. Swift interviewed an early settler, Mary Kirby, from Litchfield, Connecticut, who in 1791 had married another settler, Samuel Severance, from Northfield, Massachusetts. Samuel was the elder brother of Enos Severance, who built our house in about 1798 and died in 1842. Three of the four old Severance houses mentioned by Swift are still standing in our neighborhood. Compared to most of the U.S., it is much easier here to get a sense of continuity with the past.

Yesterday we went to hear a talk at Middlebury College about Joseph Battell (1837-1915), a well-known figure in Middlebury history. He was an eccentric character and a good example of the dominant cultural values in America during the Victorian period. Battell was a grandson of Horatio Seymour (1778-1857), an early settler, judge and U.S. Senator, and grew up in Seymour's house, which is a landmark downtown. He attended Middlebury College and while still young inherited a fortune from his father's brother, who had worked in the steel industry. He lived the rest of his life in a manner that might be described as spoiled, marriage-averse, whimsical, fatuous, opinionated, imperious, philanthropic and repressed.

Early on he adopted a detached way of dealing with women. Rather than pursue them, he objectified them first by viewing them at a distance through a telescope and later by taking chaste photographs of them in stiff poses. He never married, and although there is no clear evidence, it would be reasonable to assume that he was a repressed homosexual, not unlike his contemporary, Henry James. In no photograph does he look happy.

Battell had several hobbies. He took an interest in the Morgan horse and is said to have saved the breed when he built the Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge. He was an amateur writer whose first book was so bad that his sister bought all of the unsold copies and burnt them. His most notorious book, called Ellen, or the Whisperings of an Old Pine, involved a Socratic dialogue between a girl and a wise tree in which, among other things, Darwinism and the wave theory of sound are supposedly refuted. Though it didn't help his literary reputation and was universally regarded as unreadable, that didn't stop him from printing a second, deluxe, edition.

In most practical matters Battell fared somewhat better. He decided to host a summer retreat in Ripton, Vermont, near the pass over the Green Mountains. Named after nearby Bread Loaf Mountain, the inn grew into a large, popular hotel that drew people from across the country. In conjunction with the hotel, he purchased thousands of acres of land along the summits of the Green Mountains from Bread Load to Camel's Hump. He also bought the Middlebury newspapers and published the news for many years. As a newspaperman, he used his paper to rant against things that he opposed. He hated cars and printed stories of car accidents from around the world. For a time he managed to block car traffic on the road, now Route 125, to the Bread Loaf Inn. He ran for and was elected to office in the Vermont House and Senate, but was not able to win when he ran for governor.

Battell's legacy is visible today. The Morgan Horse Farm is intact. The commercial building downtown that he built and inhabited, called the Battell Block, is still occupied. The stone bridge over Otter Creek on Main Street that he insisted on building is still in active use. His Bread Loaf property was given to Middlebury College and still hosts the writers' conference that dates back to Robert Frost. For a time, Middlebury College must have had the largest campus in the world with the 30,000 acres it received from Battell. Most of that is now part of the Green Mountain National Forest. He also provided funding for some of the current buildings on the Middlebury campus.

As a Victorian, Battell shared some similarities with another contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Although Roosevelt was more specifically raised to be a high achiever and to contribute to the public good, Battell also thought that it was his duty to make lasting contributions to society. Both valued preserving the natural environment, with Battell planting hundreds of thousands of trees in the then-deforested Green Mountains and Roosevelt creating the National Park and National Forest systems. Both were eccentric, but in different ways. Battell was part Luddite and Roosevelt was part imperialist. Another difference was that Roosevelt belonged to a large clan and Battell did not. The realization of Victorian ideals is probably best seen in Theodore Roosevelt's fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose early role model was Theodore.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Quote of the Day

Last night the [Alfred] Knopfs gave a box party at Carnegie Hall to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a supper later at their city apartment, 400 East 57th Street, in honor of the conductor, Koussevitzky....Willa Cather surprised me by saying that [Mahler's Ninth Symphony] was too much for her, but that she liked the Ravel. The latter was a very cheap piece of trash....

After the concert...we went to [the] Knopf apartment....A lot of miscellaneous introducing. I got but one drink–a small straight Scotch. Dashiell Hammett, the writer of detective stories, came in drunk, and became something of a nuisance. After we left, so Blanche told me today, she had to get rid of him. William Faulkner, the Mississippian, who came in late also got drunk. At 4 A.M. Blanche and Eddie Wasserman decided to take him to a speakeasy to dispose of him. Unfortunately, all the speakeasies in the neighborhood were closed, so they had to haul him to his hotel. He still talked rationally, but his legs had given out, and he couldn't stand up.

—H. L. Mencken, diary entry, November 27, 1931, New York City

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Positive Thinking

One reason why this blog won't become popular is that it isn't optimistic enough. Everything from the Bruegel painting, which depicts the downward path of blind men, to the commentary on American culture, which identifies its weaknesses, seems to suggest pessimism. Even though I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist, by contemporary standards it is easy to become labeled a pessimist simply by not being extremely optimistic. People go to websites for their daily fix in order to make themselves feel good, and they won't find accommodation here.

By nature I am a skeptic and tend to analyze enthusiasms more than engage in them. The first optimist I knew was my father, and his failures made me cautious from an early age. First, we had to move to the U.S. because there was "music in the elevators," and then, as his career floundered, there was always a lucrative group insurance policy that he was about to sell that subsequently never materialized. We were going to have televisions on the ceilings and sail to Florida in a private yacht, but we never did. My father, I concluded, wasn't sufficiently realistic. On the opposite end of the spectrum I was exposed to successful optimists in the business world. Larry, the president of the company that I worked for in Dixon, Illinois, never made any negative comments and was quite successful as a manager. People respected him, he made good decisions, the plant did well, and the community benefited. His management style came directly from Dale Carnegie, and the only management training that he offered to his employees was a Dale Carnegie course. I didn't take the course, but later read How to Win Friends and Influence People in a departmental training program at a different company. To Larry's credit he was an effective person who knew how to get things done, and he was usually fair. However, from my point of view, Larry was extremely limited as a person. By conventional standards he was a success: he had an important job, a high salary and multiple homes. But to me he was something like the ninety-pound weakling who didn't want bullies kicking sand in his face and worked out in order to become musclebound and intimidating. His weapon was positive thinking, which allowed him to meet his career goals but did not make him well-rounded. Because most of the managers that I've known have been ineffective, Larry stood out to me. The techniques that he used were not taught in business schools, but, from a practical standpoint, they were more important. He was quite good at motivating those around him, and he did this by consciously eschewing negative statements and infusing subordinates with optimism about their role in the company and the success that would follow. He did not in the least believe in participatory management but was careful not to frame his statements autocratically, which he knew would alienate people. He said "we" instead of "I." This way he got what he wanted out of everyone while maintaining his distance.

American society is saturated with positive thinking, which has a long history tying it to both religion and business through the Puritan work ethic. Other societies encourage optimism, but they rarely institutionalize it the way it has been in the U.S. As a meme, optimism probably has a net beneficial effect on populations from an evolutionary standpoint. Negativity, even when realistic, often fosters passivity and despair. Optimism encourages action, even foolish action. Just as talk of failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, talk of success can effectuate it. The problem for someone like me, who lives relatively comfortably and has no material goals, is incorporating myself into such a culture. The American Dream, for example, means nothing to me. I don't care whether or not I become richer. American values, which contain that "hayseed" element mentioned by Kenneth Tynan, may appeal to, say, refugees escaping from crime and poverty in Guatemala, but why would they appeal to me? Oddly they still appeal to many wealthy Americans, which may have to do with the mythology in which they have been immersed. If wealth gives you spiritual gravitas, being richer makes you a better person - or so the thinking goes.

Just as pessimism can produce undesirable results, such as giving up too easily when there are solutions at hand, there are undesirable consequences to optimism. American society seems to have become a cult of optimism that engages in little self-reflection. From the standpoint of those who are poor, unemployed, homeless, etc., optimism makes sense, because there really are things that they can do to make substantial improvements in their lives. But making it a mantra for everyone is a mistake. In the somewhat mindless capitalist system that envelops us, the wealthy typically express their optimism by wasting resources on conspicuous consumption. They build impressive new houses that they don't need and give contributions to politicians who will help make them even richer. Meanwhile the country pollutes the environment, exacerbating global warming. We brazenly offend other countries with our ridiculously distorted worldviews such as American exceptionalism.

Optimism has its place as a positive psychological force that can produce good outcomes and a sense of well-being. But it must always be tempered with reason, because it can easily go awry. Studies have shown that males routinely overestimate their skills, which may be good if they unexpectedly succeed, as did Vincent van Gogh, for example. However, the more powerful a nation, and the more arrogant its citizens, the greater the costs when someone in power fails as a consequence of overestimating his skills. Arguably none of the presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt have been up to the task. Did George W. Bush have an adequate understanding of the Middle East when he decided to invade Iraq? Did Dick Fuld know what he was doing when his choices led to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and precipitated a global financial crisis?

Even at the street level in the U.S., optimism must be viewed with caution. Will a new strip mall or industrial park really benefit the community? Is a degree in English from an elite university going to lead to a fulfilling life? I often find that the outlooks held by optimistic people are too simplistic. It may be true that you have to start somewhere, but at some point trial and error is no longer appropriate and you had better settle on an attainable path with knowable results. Thought must be given to unintended consequences, an area that usually gets little attention. Optimism lends itself to naïveté, not a flattering characteristic in adults. It can be associated with infantilism and the American culture of youth.

I ask myself where the serious thinkers are. It is hard to imagine that they have much of a presence in government. They rarely show up in the news media. There may be a few of them in academia, but you scarcely hear from them. Certainly there is little evidence of them in the arts and entertainment. In the meantime the optimists are daydreaming or advancing their agendas and no one seems to be minding the store.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Quote of the Day

American talent does not survive sophistication. It needs to preserve a certain naïveté, a hayseed element, even a touch of the child, and the primitive, if it is to retain its juice and energy. This is true of Huckleberry Finn, of Scott Fitzgerald (always an outsider in Paris and the Côte d'Azur), of Hemingway (with the boyish braggarty of his virility cult), of the out-of-towners who founded and wrote for The New Yorker, of Ring Lardner's ingrained and obsessive provincialisms, of Whitman, Sherwood Anderson, Runyon, John Ford...When urban sophistication lays its hands on the American artist, it is like frost on a bud–witness the aridity of Edward Albee's recent work and the nonexistence of Truman Capote's. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, so different in almost every respect, have more in common with each other than either has with–say–Nabokov. When US talent goes elegant, New York really becomes what Spectorsky calls it–"a road company Europe." Exception: Cole Porter is about the only one I can think of.

—Kenneth Tynan, diary entry, October 19, 1971, New York City

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Swearing Off American Fiction

All in good faith I recently took yet another stab at American fiction. If there is one illness that I have it is evident in my continued belief that some American fiction might actually be worth reading. This time around, in a discussion I had about Michel Houellebecq on 3 Quarks Daily, people recommended Tom Perrotta and George Saunders. I got about two thirds of the way through Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher before deciding that I was being aesthetically and intellectually abused. At first I withheld judgment, because I noticed that Perrotta made a compelling case for born-again types by showing how they are weak individuals who can find no other way to be functional adults. However, by the time I had quit reading it, I recognized that both of the protagonists, Ruth and Tim, are simply too uninteresting to warrant my continued attention. Ruth is a politically correct schoolteacher and mother who overreacts to the evangelicals who encroach on her suburban town and Tim is a dysfunctional rock musician and addict who requires externally imposed discipline in order to prevent implosion. At this point the novel was already too protracted and Perrotta, who at least seems to have done his homework, apparently has intentionally created a topical novel that will sell well and perhaps also become a movie based on his screenplay. I couldn't face finishing it and don't care about the denouement.

More surprising than this disappointment was the collection by George Saunders. He has been called one of "the 100 most influential people in the world" by TIME and received a MacArthur Fellowship. The book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was described by Thomas Pynchon as presenting "An astoundingly tuned voice–graceful, dark, authentic, and funny–telling just the kinds of stories we need to get us through these times." I found the title story childish, implausible and poorly-written, containing none of the characteristics that I believe are worthwhile in fiction. I skimmed the rest of the book and then permanently set it aside. Saunders is somewhat reminiscent of other American authors whom I dislike: Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O'Connor and John Kennedy Toole. I also detected a note of Bob Dylan in his phraseology.

I had high hopes for Saunders, because he had actual real-world experience and spent his formative years outside the American literary community working as an engineer. A few years ago I had a similar disappointment when I read The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam War veteran whose book was also critically acclaimed. My thinking was that people who spend significant portions of their lives in non-literary environments may have outlooks or insights that will breathe life into their fictional work, in contrast to what typically emerges from creative writing programs and the publishing industry. My interpretation now is that writers like Saunders and O'Brien do in fact have richer backgrounds than most literary people, but there are so few of them and they face so little competition within the literary sphere that it is relatively easy for them to succeed. This situation is exacerbated by what I think of as a shocking lack of discernment or willingness to challenge the status quo among members of the American literary establishment. They even use static formulas for "stunning new voices."

If you have been following my writings about my literary preferences, you will have noticed that I don't think much of most American writers. This has also been corroborated by my reaction to another book I'm reading, New York Diaries, edited by Teresa Carpenter. The anthology is comprised of diary entries made by miscellaneous people who happened to be in New York when they wrote them, covering the period from 1609 to 2009. I'm most of the way through the book and can tell you that I have not found the entries by Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Edgar Allan Poe or Mark Twain the least bit interesting. In comparison, the entries by Alexis de Tocqueville and Simone de Beauvoir stand out as perceptive and well-written.

Often I have been misled by positive, uncritical reviews of new fiction that have been written by people who ought to know better. Almost any review that you come across is likely to be suspect. For example, I recently read a review of a new novel by Miranda July, The First Bad Man, in which the reviewer admits that the author "doesn't know that much about narrative structure" yet goes on in the next and final sentence to praise her. In my framework this is coded language for "the book is crap, but my job is to sell it." My guess is that Miranda July's work can be summed up by three facts: she is too young to remember life before PCs and Macs, too old to have grown up using handheld devices, and she was raised by parents who taught at Goddard College. All else follows from that.

If you get the impression that I'm displeased by certain aspects of American life, you're right. It is no coincidence that I live in the state with the lowest number of Americans other than the one in which Dick Cheney resides. As a bonus, it borders Canada, handy for hasty retreats. Regarding American fiction, my nights are better spent seeking intelligent life beyond the solar system whenever the skies are clear and the temperature is above zero.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

How Aliens Spend Their Time

Ever since my youth I've had a passing interest in what intelligent aliens might be like. Though I didn't read much science fiction, I was exposed to plenty of it on TV and at the movies. I saw the 1953 film version of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, in which Martians attempt to conquer the Earth. In the famous 1960 Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, crafty aliens create mayhem by stoking fears in a clever parody of McCarthy-era politics. Then there was the 1962 Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Man, in which seemingly friendly aliens are actually taking humans back to their planet in order to eat them. Unseen aliens occupy the background of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. For unknown reasons they have placed black monoliths at various locations in the solar system in order to accelerate the evolution of humans. The Alien series, which began in 1979, features creatures which, though possessing intelligence, operate on the basic model of catching and feeding on members of advanced civilizations that have had the misfortune of encountering them during space travel. Of course, there are other well-known films that feature aliens, but I don't count those produced by George Lucas or Steven Spielberg as worthy of consideration. The same goes for Superman, Star Trek and most TV science fiction.

My perspective has changed somewhat in recent years while I've had plenty of time on my hands. My children have grown up, and I no longer have significant responsibilities. This has affected how I think about intelligent aliens. I've also been thinking about where evolution might lead and the potential effects of super-intelligence on mankind. It seems that the aliens portrayed in the above films and TV programs are unlikely to exist, because most of them are based on anthropomorphic models. For example, we might like the idea of conquering the inhabitants of other planets, but if we were sophisticated enough to do that we would probably be sophisticated enough to solve whatever problem we had without leaving home. The Alien creature is perhaps the most plausible of the group, because it follows a Darwinian model with no evidence of anthropomorphism, making it among the scariest of all space monsters.

I have often thought since the 1972 Pioneer 10 mission that the idea of sending a message to intelligent aliens might be a bit naïve. There are some elements of anthropocentrism here, at least to the extent of presuming that intelligent aliens would analyze our information in a manner similar to us. Many people seem to think that we will have a great deal in common with aliens: they will be glad to hear from us, and we will be glad to hear from them; we will feel happy that we are not alone in the universe. It is possible that we will come into contact with such beings, but when I think of extremely advanced beings, I don't think that that will be the case at all.

With billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars, and with most of those stars orbited by planets, it is highly probable that countless other planets have life on them. We have had civilizations on Earth for about 10,000 years, which is an extremely short period in the history of the universe, so we cannot know what a civilization might look like after 100,000 or 1,000,000 years. My guess is that many highly advanced alien species exist now and many have already reached extinction.

Putting this in a Darwinian context, what would it be like to live in an extremely advanced technological society? If you assume that such beings cooperate or live separately, none of the aspects that we associate with survival would be relevant. Everyone might essentially be immortal. No one would have to work. The infrastructure would be self-maintaining. Energy, food and shelter might be limitless. Children, if desired, could be designed and created with little effort, though there may be no reason to have them anymore if everyone were immortal. It seems likely to me that none of the challenges that we associate with living, other than psychological ones, would come into play. It also seems plausible that such beings might arrive at a boundary in their understanding of the universe, leaving them with nothing interesting to discover. Cosmology, physics and all of the other sciences might reach an explanatory limit that could never be surpassed.

This situation would be so foreign to us that we can hardly contemplate it. What would people do if they had no struggle? It is possible that they would find ways to entertain themselves for eternity, but at that point choosing not to exist might also become an attractive option. Perhaps advanced civilizations voluntarily go extinct. This is a far cry from our current worldview, but it is something worth thinking about. Possibly we have not come into contact with intelligent aliens only because most of them have decided to die.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tibet II

In contrast to my last post on Tibet, any similarities between Tibet and Britain at the start of the twentieth century would be difficult to detect. After its medieval period, Britain went through the Industrial Revolution and became a major world power, while Tibet, comparatively speaking, remained stuck in the Middle Ages. During the sixteenth century England had broken from the Roman Catholic Church and closed its monasteries, while Tibet still retained its ancient system of Buddhist monasteries, with the high lamas participating in government. Most of the population in Tibet lived like serfs and had few rights or economic opportunities. Only monks and aristocrats received educations, and the majority of the population was illiterate. Tibet had little contact with the outside world.

Thubten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama, reigning from 1879 to 1933, was the first Tibetan leader to face bringing Tibet into the modern era. In 1904, when the British foolishly invaded Tibet in the misguided belief that a Russian military buildup was occurring there, he fled to Mongolia and sought help in vain from Russia. He fled to India in 1910 when the Qing Dynasty invaded, and he later restored relations with Britain. He attempted to institute reforms in Tibet, but made little progress.

The fourteenth and present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who has reigned since 1950, has faced even steeper challenges. Initially his relationship with Mao Zedong looked promising. Tenzin Gyatso recognized that Tibet needed reform, and he accepted socialism. Mao knew that it would take many years to modernize Tibet and didn't want to rush it. However, China badly mismanaged its economy under Mao's Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961, eventually causing disastrous famines that resulted in 35 million deaths. Later on, the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, fueled fanaticism in Tibet that resulted in the destruction of most of Tibet's remaining cultural artifacts, including monasteries, books and statues. Nearly all of the monasteries had already disbanded by then.

At first the peasants in Tibet were positive about communist rule. Their land had been owned by the monasteries and the aristocracy, and their work went to support both. Now, without private ownership, they were on equal footing. However, when communal farming failed, they became skeptical, and they eventually took out their frustrations on the Chinese administrators and Tibetan aristocrats who still held high positions in government. They remained loyal only to religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama. This came to a head in 1959, when riots caused the Dalai Lama to move to India, where he had been offered asylum. The CIA, which had been backing Tibetan rebels against the Chinese, assisted during the trip.

Unlike many exiled Tibetans, the Dalai Lama did not support a CIA-sponsored rebellion in Tibet. By 1972 this became a moot point when Richard Nixon met with Mao and reestablished relations with China. Gradually, China's centrality as a world power made support of Tibetan independence diplomatically untenable because of China's strong stance in controlling Tibet's sovereignty. As of 2011, the Dalai Lama has retired from his position as the leader of Tibet's government-in-exile in Dharamshala, India.

Based on what I know, Tenzin Gyatso is not destined to become a significant historical figure. Ironically, much of his influence is indirectly related to the popularity in the West of the 1937 film Lost Horizon and, ever since the 1960's, Eastern religions. Spiritual hunger is still a real phenomenon throughout the world, and Tibetan Buddhism, at least in a simplified version, appeals to many. It also helps that a few Hollywood celebrities have endorsed it. However, it does not appear that he will have any long-term effect either on Tibet or the world. Most of his public statements are platitudes that anyone could think of, and Tibet as a political unit is far too weak to have much control over its own destiny.

If mistakes were made in Tibet, they were made long before Tenzin Gyatso was born. It would be preposterous to expect a feudal society to acquire power equal to that of developed countries. For hundreds of years, all of Tibet's resources were poured into its aristocracy and monasteries, and inequality was accepted at a level that does not exist in modern democracies. Tibet would not be able to defeat a well-equipped army, and its last chance of becoming an independent nation has probably passed. At the present time, much of the culture of old Tibet has already been destroyed and may never be restored. The economics of supporting its former network of monasteries will never again be feasible. Theocratic rule is in the process of becoming obsolete worldwide. From a strategic standpoint, I think Tibet should give up all ideas of independence from China and focus instead on its cultural heritage. Here it could learn from the history of England. England too has passed its prime and is now a shadow of its former self in world affairs. While it still has a robust economy compared to most European countries, with a strong financial services industry, it has managed to hang onto its cultural heritage by in effect becoming a gigantic theme park for tourists from all over the world. It would make sense to me if Tibet were to adopt a similar strategy.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

News as Entertainment

One of the most noticeable cultural changes during my lifetime has been in the area of news consumption. When I was growing up people tended to read The Daily News, The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal when commuting to or from work. Some subscribed to the local newspaper, The Standard-Star, for which I had a paper route, and most people watched the evening news on weekdays. Today some people still read physical newspapers and watch the evening news, but in reduced numbers. I haven't seen any recent statistics, but I suspect that most people now get their news somewhat haphazardly in various digital formats.

I was never a big newspaper reader and got into the habit of watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite until he retired in 1981. When Eric Sevareid appeared on the program, he added incisive commentary of a kind that has completely vanished today. Occasionally I would read the Sunday New York Times. Journalists like Cronkite and Sevareid got their start during World War II and gave serious presentations in which they attempted to bring up all the hard news. The contrast between Cronkite and, say, Diane Sawyer, who recently retired from ABC World News, is astounding. Network news now consists of a series of feel-good moments designed to hold the attention of a geriatric audience just long enough to brainwash them with pharmaceutical ads. I doubt that many people under the age of sixty regularly watch the evening news anymore.

The purveyors of news and the media in general are now obsessed with content, and the role of news in the important sense of keeping the public informed enough to make sound voting choices within the democratic system is largely nonexistent. Part of the decline in interest in real news can be ascribed to commercial competition from businessmen like Rupert Murdoch who have long catered to the lowest common denominator in order to attract more readers and viewers. However, there are other reasons for the public to be less interested in the news now than they were in the 1960's. First there was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, then there was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Racial unrest hasn't gone away, but there is currently nothing like the Watts riots of 1965 or those following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. The protests against the Vietnam War, which claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans, were far more significant than any in recent years. In those days large numbers of people watched the news, and the CBS Evening News had a correspondingly enormous budget. Without any immediate excitement, competition for viewers and readers has devolved to providing light entertainment for the largest audience possible.

In recent years I have stepped up my reading and have become aghast even about the quality in higher levels of journalism in the U.S. After following editorials at The New York Times for several years, I finally decided that they rarely are insightful or thoughtful, and it is difficult not to see them as page filler for an uncritical and gullible readership. The same goes for The New Yorker, which isn't really of much interest beyond fashion, whether it's fashionable plays, movies, fiction or ideas: this is the last place to look for interesting perspectives. Most recently I had a complete falling out with The New York Review of Books, which markets itself to quasi-intellectuals and bon vivants. The editor, Robert Silvers, seems to have developed his own formula: recruit writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Simic, Martin Filler, Pico Ayer and Lorrie Moore after they have already made names for themselves, milk them for a few years to perpetuate the myth of high quality at the publication, and then, as they sail off into obscurity, replace them with people from the ranks of the latest falling stars. Editorially, the NYRB is a niche player that concentrates on pabulum for intellectual poseurs.

As bleak as this may sound, there are bright spots now because of Internet publishing. On any given day there are bound to be several new and interesting articles to be found there, and the problem is mainly in finding them. In this frontier, I think 3 Quarks Daily is doing a reasonably good job, and it seems likely that there will eventually be competitors in the field of gathering interesting articles from across the web.

My news and journalism consumption habits have changed a lot over the past few years. For the most part I don't pay much attention to the news anymore. In the morning I look at the headlines on The Wall Street Journal and check up on the investing scene. I then scan 3 Quarks Daily to see if there is anything that I would want to read. In the evening we usually watch PBS NewsHour, which is mainly a ritual associated with our cocktail hour. The reporting is better than what you find on the networks, but the reporters rarely ask hard questions, and, like most journalists, aren't that bright. We like Mark Shields as a foil to David Brooks, but I'm sick of both of them and wish they'd retire. David Brooks is the kind of professional journalist who knows exactly how to enhance his career but whose opinions are essentially worthless. In any case, I don't care about domestic politics, and that is usually their main topic. Often it is too painful to watch the entire program, and we prefer the shorter version on the weekends with Hari Sreenivasan. Lately I have become interested in local news and very much enjoy reading the Addison County Independent, which I think is an amazing publication for a county with a population of only 36,000.

Despite my general indifference to the news, technically its low quality and limited influence on public life are problematic for a country whose existence is predicated on the presence of an informed public. However, in keeping with my views on capitalism and democracy, I do not expect this situation to improve. Rather, as I have said, the capitalism plus democracy formula is unsustainable and will end one way or another at some point in the future. Capitalism, democracy or both will sooner or later change from their current forms.