The Thinking 

Browsing posts from March, 2011

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The Filthy Past, cont.

March 31, 2011



BRITISH author A.N. Wilson writes in a recent issue of The Daily Mail about the TV hit “Downton Abbey,” the hugely popular BBC Masterpiece Theater series about the lives of Edwardian aristocrats and their servants. Wilson contends viewers gained an overly flattering picture of Britain’s pre-socialist past. That is dangerous. He says the cult of costume dramas is not merely silly or sentimental but “sinister.”

It’s important to note his words. It is wrong and evil to portray the past in a flattering light. Wilson is incensed by remarks by Hugh Bonneville, the actor who plays Lord Grantham, an aristocrat who does not want to lose the family manor because of his love for his ancestral past. Bonneville, who plays opposite Elizabeth McGovern as his wife, the Countess of Grantham, and Maggie Smith as the elderly Dowager Countess, made the following comments on the set of the show:

This country is currently in a complete mess, and the pre-World War I era, rightly or wrongly, was one in which the structure of society worked.

Wilson retorts:

That would seem to suggest that Mr. Bonneville thinks the ‘complete mess’ of our country would be resolved if we went back to pre-1914 Britain. Does he really mean this?

Does [Bonneville] want to abolish votes for women, or limit the franchise to men over 21? Or send homosexuals to prison? Or dismantle the Welfare State, or abolish the National Health Service? Read More »


The Filthy Past

March 31, 2011


victorian style chimney sweep, a child chimney sweep, hulton pi

IT’S WRONG and foolish to make a fantasy of the past, to glorify what was not glorious. By the same token, it is wrong to demonize it. This review from last September of Jane Humphries’ book, Childhood and Child Labor in the British Industrial Revolution fits into the latter category. Annabel Venning of The Daily Mail writes:

While the upper classes professed horror at the iniquities of the slave trade, British children were regularly shackled and starved in their own country. The silks and cottons the upper classes wore, the glass jugs and steel knives on their tables, the coal in their fireplaces, the food on their plates – almost all of it was produced by children working in pitiful conditions on their doorsteps.

But to many of the monied classes, the poor were invisible: an inhuman sub-species who did not have the same feelings as their own and whose sufferings were unimportant. If they spared a thought for them at all, it was nothing more than a shudder of revulsion at the filth and disease they carried.

It is not true that “almost all” industrial goods in Britain were produced by child laborers. Imagine an industrial economy run almost entirely by children while the adults did what? Adult men and women worked even more so. Nor is it true that the monied classes were indifferent.  Throughout the nineteenth century, there was a public outcry and activism on behalf of child laborers. Much of that outcry came from the upper classes, from people such as wealthy heiress and budding socialist Beatrice Potter, and led to the birth of the welfare state.

Starting in the 1830s, laws were enacted to improve the working conditions of children and limit their hours, laws which sometimes made their conditions worse as children sought jobs that were unregulated when larger and newer factories would no longer hire them, as this author points out. The children who suffered the most were the minority who did not live with their families but were kept by “parish houses,” or workhouses. These were government institutions. These were children under government care, abandoned to a system that was outside family protection. Read More »


More on Bullying

March 31, 2011


IN THE foregoing entry, a mother wrote in to ask for advice. Her teenage son is receiving painful physical taunts from friends. This is not a case of harassment by enemies, she said, but of horseplay or teasing that has gone too far.

Here a reader responds when I asked him what she should do. He makes an interesting point. Men today often urge their sons to endure.  Read More »


Men’s Earnings Declined as Women’s Moved Upward

March 30, 2011


THESE TABLES, which show the changes in median earnings from 1947 to 2009 for men and women employed full-time, were included in a recent post. I am publishing them again to draw further attention to these remarkable figures. From 1973 to 2009, the median earnings of full-time male workers over 15 years old decreased by an average of .1 percent a year. The median earnings for women during that same period increased by .8 percent per year.

In that 36-year period, the rates of divorce and illegitimacy soared. What is the lesson here? The more economic autonomy women gain, the more families dissolve or fail to form.

Read More »


A Case of Bullying

March 30, 2011


MRS. C. writes:

I was wondering if you could perhaps post this question regarding my thoughts on what I believe to be assault on a 15-year-old boy.
My youngest child, a 6’2″ freshman male in high school is on a competitive team, does great academically and is well liked by teachers, coaches, and also friends.  Read More »


Spring Pools

March 30, 2011


These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

                                      — Robert Frost


Quality vs. Equality: A Talk on Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

March 29, 2011



The essayist Caryl Johnston recently gave a lecture in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania on the works of Robert Pirsig, author of the bestselling book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig’s philosophical novel, which is not really about Zen Buddhism or motorcycles, was an enormous hit in the 70s, selling five million copies after initially being rejected by more than 100 publishers. Johnston argues that Pirsig’s “Metaphysics of Quality” offers a satisfying remedy to the moral and intellectual decline caused by modern rationalism. Johnston is author of several books, including Consecrated Venom: The Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge and From Boston to Birmingham. Her entire talk is posted below. 


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming to this talk about the works of Robert Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974)  and Lila, An Inquiry into Morals (1991).

I believe these books have something important to say to us today. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was immensely popular and sold millions of copies in 23 languages. Yet its message did not penetrate intellectual or elite opinion to any measurable degree.

I think this is unfortunate.  Pirsig’s philosophy provides real insight into some of our persistent problems. We forget how the capacity to act effectively depends upon the ability to think. Without clarity of thought no action is possible.  And in the long run, “no action” in the end means a loss of the good. Pirsig’s search for values reminds us of the purpose of thinking — which is to help us lead a better life.  

In my view, our deteriorating national situation is ultimately owing to the decline of thinking, or rather to confusion about how we think about values. To pull ourselves together as a nation and affirm a common future will depend upon our decision to develop our thinking capacity and to demand a better quality of thinking in our public life.  Read More »


Operation Odyssey Denial

March 29, 2011


I highly recommend Diana West’s latest column on Libya. She writes:

I’ll admit, there is an argument – a thin, riddled, web of an argument – that it was U.S. interests that drove military interventions gone wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t buy the argument: As it morphed into a nation-building fantasy, it became disastrously, tragically and recklessly mistaken. But I can see at least that tarnished glimmer of national interest flash in the sludge before sinking from sight.

Nothing like this is to be found in the sands of Libya. Read More »


Another Possible Entry in the Atheist’s Book of Common Prayer

March 28, 2011


REGARDING the atheist’s prayer, Peter S. writes:

One recalls the prayer attributed to the 19th century French atheist philosopher and historian Ernest Renan in a fit of hopeful agnosticism: “Oh God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.”


Dear Grandmother

March 28, 2011


AT HER BLOG Generational Womanhood, Jill Farris posts a letter written by her son to his grandmother, who years ago objected to Jill and her husband having such a large family.The notes in parentheses are by Jill. Here it is:

Dear Grandmother,

How are you? I am fine. How is the weather down there? It has been very warm and sunny this past week but today it is very dark and cloudy.

We are having Phillip and his girlfriend (our eldest son who is engaged to be married) come up for the weekend so our house should be pretty crowded. Lorna and Ayla (our eldest daughter and her friend) will come and my friend who is spending the week here. Dad is home now and the rest of the family so, all in all, about thirteen people will be here (not including friends that will be dropping by).

These are the times to remember because everything is so hectic that it’s fun because nobody is sleeping in their own room and everyone is sharing a room with three other people. Read More »


An Atheist’s Prayer

March 28, 2011


ON THE face of it, it seems logically inconsistent for an atheist to pray.  The truth is, it is logically inconsistent for an atheist never to pray.

It cannot be established with certainty that God does not exist. If you stood on one side of a locked door and wanted to know if someone was on the other side, what would you do? You would knock or call out to see if someone was there. You would listen.

Every honest, intelligent atheist should speak to God and see if there is any response or illumination. He should test his propositions in that way. The effort would have to be sincere and without pretense or it wouldn’t qualify as a true calling out. Here is a suggested prayer:

God, there is no knowledge that frightens me, even knowledge of you. For this passing moment, I suspend my disbelief, without bias or prejudice. I am uncertain, without proof. Please deign to speak to me. Read More »


Dirt through Postmodern Eyes

March 28, 2011


THE SUBJECT of household dirt can be interesting, as is demonstrated by the discussions here on whether guests should take off their shoes. However, a new exhibit at the scientific Wellcome Center in London apparently approaches the topic with the sort of postmodern confusion and glorification of ugliness that make visiting contemporary art exhibits the metaphysical equivalent of root canal. 

Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everday Life” includes an installation (what is “installation” but a term for grotesque and stupid conceptual art?) by artist Santiago Sierra made of human excrement and a sculpture comprised of a window so dirty one cannot see the glass. These are suppposed to spark thrilling meditations, thoughts that could easily be inspired by a few hours of normal housecleaning. The exhibit appears to be big on the idea of our “ambivalence” toward dirt, as if the centuries of innovation in cleanliness represent a neurotic, Freudian flirtation with disorder. Read More »


A War by Any Other Name Stinks

March 28, 2011


THE NEWS that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Hillary Clinton believe Operation Odyssey Delusion may last until next year is too depressing to absorb. You can read about it here. Gates calls this not a war but a “complex undertaking.” 

When asked whether this military campaign is in our national interest, Gates said on “This Week” on ABC, “No, I don’t think it’s a vital interest for the United States, but we clearly have interests there, and it’s a part of a region which is a vital interest for the United States.”

Let’s highlight once again the remarkable irony of Hillary Clinton, who has always presented herself as a beacon of feminist enlightenment, in the position of warmonger advocating military intervention without congressional approval. Feminists promised world peace. They give us self-annihilation.


The Culture War over Shoes

March 27, 2011


FEW DISCUSSIONS here have engendered more partisan passion here than this one over whether guests should remove their shoes when they enter a friend’s home. This issue is apparently important, but I can’t figure out why. It seems the Asian custom of shoelessness indoors is catching on. Some readers adamantly defend it on the ground of cleanliness and others as adamantly reject it.

Here are a few points of my own: Read More »


An Objection to My Retraction

March 26, 2011


THE FAITH AND HERITAGE website has responded to my recent criticism of an article recommending that Christians not do business with Jews because “the temptation to cheat is almost impossible for them to overcome.” I have not had the opportunity to read the response in its entirety yet.



March 26, 2011


On the Veranda, Arthur Ellis

On the Veranda, Arthur Ellis


From Chaos to Order

March 26, 2011


WHEN CIVILITY and common purpose reign in a society, there is little it can’t withstand with dignity. Modern life need not be rude, chaotic and ugly. Michael Wines writes in The New York Times on daily conditions in the shelters for those made homeless by the Japanese tsunami:

Just two weeks after this nation’s greatest catastrophe in decades, the citizens at Takada Junior High School No. 1, this town’s largest evacuee center, have managed to fashion a microcosm of the spotlessly organized and efficient Japan they so recently knew.

Theirs is a city where a hand sanitizer sits on every table; where face masks, which Japanese wear the way other people wear sunglasses, are dispensed by the box. It is a place where you do not just trade your muddy shoes for slippers at the front door, but also shed the slippers at the gymnasium door lest you carry a mote of dust from the hallways into the living areas….

… Drying remains a problem. “We have to dry the ladies’ underwear where people can’t see it. So we put it in two classrooms on the second floor, and then we lock the doors,” said Mr. Nakai, the evacuee center manager. Classes at the school have been suspended since the disaster.  Read More »


When Marriage, Education and Health Were Not State Affairs

March 26, 2011


KRISTOR writes at VFR:

People forget how society naturally organized itself before the statists began their insults to the natural order. People forget that before about 1900, municipalities had nothing to do with creating marriages; there were no marriage licenses. Churches performed marriages. No one else had the authority to do it.

No one knows that in 1850, banks issued their own currencies, that competed with the currency of the Bank of the United States. We have so much forgotten the idea of private bank notes, that we cannot even understand why Hamilton had to fight to get the U.S. to own its own bank, and issue its own currency. If we had competing currencies today, we would not have inflation. We’d have boomlets and bustlets, rather than the enormous run-ups and crashes we now get.

People forget that there were once no public schools, no public universities. Read More »

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