michael crichton: why speculate?

THE GREAT IDEAS ONLINE
July 2005 № 332

WHY SPECULATE?
A talk by Michael Crichton

There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it and when he can.
—Mark Twain

My topic for today is the prevalence of speculation in media. What does it mean? Why has it become so ubiquitous? Should we do something about it? If so, what? And why? Should we care at all? Isn’t speculation valuable? Isn’t it natural? And so on.

I will join this speculative trend and speculate about why there is so much speculation. In keeping with the trend, I will try to express my views without any factual support, simply providing you with a series of bald assertions.

This is not my natural style, and it’s going to be a challenge for me, but I will do my best. Some of you may see that I have written out my talk, which is already a contradiction of principle. To keep within the spirit of our time, it should really be off the top of my head.

Before we begin, I’d like to clarify a definition. By the media I mean movies, television, Internet, books, newspapers and magazines. Again, in keeping with the general trend of speculation, let’s not make too many fine distinctions.

First we might begin by asking, to what degree has the media turned to pure speculation? Someone could do a study of this and present facts, but nobody has. I certainly won’t. There’s no reason to bother. The requirement that you demonstrate a factual basis for your claim vanished long ago. It went out with the universal praise for Susan Faludi’s book Backlash, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction in 1991, and which presented hundreds of pages of quasi-statistical assertions based on a premise that was never demonstrated and that was almost certainly false.

But that’s old news. I merely refer to it now to set standards.

Today, of course everybody knows that “Hardball,” “Rivera Live” and similar shows are nothing but a steady stream of guesses about the future. The Sunday morning talk shows are pure speculation. They have to be. Everybody knows there’s no news on Sunday.

But television is entertainment. Let’s look at the so-called serious media. For example, here is The New York Times for March 6, the day Dick Farson told me I was giving this talk. The column one story for that day concerns Bush’s tariffs on imported steel. Now we read: Mr. Bush’s action “is likely to send the price of steel up sharply, perhaps as much as ten percent…” American consumers “will ultimately bear” higher prices. America’s allies “would almost certainly challenge” the decision. Their legal case “could take years to litigate in Geneva, is likely to hinge” on thus and such.

Also note the vague and hidden speculation. The Allies’ challenge would be “setting the stage for a major trade fight with many of the same countries Mr. Bush is trying to hold together in the fractious coalition against terrorism.” In other words, the story speculates that tariffs may rebound against the fight against terrorism.

By now, under the Faludi Standard I have firmly established that media are hopelessly riddled with speculation, and we can go on to consider its ramifications.

You may read this tariff story and think, what’s the big deal? The story’s not bad. Isn’t it reasonable to talk about effects of current events in this way? I answer, absolutely not. Such speculation is a complete waste of time. It’s useless. It’s bullshit on the front page of the Times.

The reason why it is useless, of course, is that nobody knows what the future holds.

Do we all agree that nobody knows what the future holds? Or do I have to prove it to you? I ask this because there are some well-studied media effects which suggest that simply appearing in media provides credibility. There was a well-known series of excellent studies by Stanford researchers that have shown, for example, that children take media literally. If you show them a bag of popcorn on a television set and ask them what will happen if you turn the TV upside down, the children say the popcorn will fall out of the bag. This result would be amusing if it were confined to children. But the studies show that no one is exempt. All human beings are subject to this media effect, including those of us who think we are self-aware and hip and knowledgeable.

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

So one problem with speculation is that it piggybacks on the Gell-Mann effect of unwarranted credibility, making the speculation look more useful than it is.

Another issue concerns the sheer volume of speculation. Sheer volume comes to imply a value which is specious. I call this the There-Must-Be-A-Pony effect, from the old joke in which a kid comes down Christmas morning, finds the room filled with horseshit, and claps his hands with delight. His astonished parents ask: why are you so happy? He says, with this much horseshit, there must be a pony.

Because we are confronted by speculation at every turn, in print, on video, on the net, in conversation, we may eventually conclude that it must have value. But it doesn’t. Because no matter how many people are speculating, no matter how familiar their faces, how good their makeup and how well they are lit, no matter how many weeks they appear before us in person or in columns, it remains true that none of them knows what the future holds.

Some people secretly believe that the future can be known. They imagine two groups of people that can know the future, and therefore should be listened to. The first is pundits. Since they expound on the future all the time, they must know what they are talking about. Do they? “Brill’s Content” used to track the pundit’s guesses, and while one or another had an occasional winning streak, over the long haul they did no better than chance. This is what you would expect. Because nobody knows the future.

I want to mention in passing that punditry has undergone a subtle change over the years. In the old days, commentators such as Eric Sevareid spent most of their time putting events in a context, giving a point of view about what had already happened. Telling what they thought was important or irrelevant in the events that had already taken place. This is of course a legitimate function of expertise in every area of human knowledge.

But over the years the punditic thrust has shifted away from discussing what has happened, to discussing what may happen. And here the pundits have no benefit of expertise at all. Worse, they may, like the Sunday politicians, attempt to advance one or another agenda by predicting its imminent arrival or demise. This is politicking, not predicting.

The second group that some people imagine may know the future are specialists of various kinds. They don’t, either. As a limiting case, I remind you there is a new kind of specialist occupation—I refuse to call it a discipline, or a field of study—called futurism. The notion here is that there is a way to study trends and know what the future holds. That would indeed be valuable, if it were possible. But it isn’t possible. Futurists don’t know any more about the future than you or I. Read their magazines from a couple of years ago and you’ll see an endless parade of error.

Expertise is no shield against failure to see ahead. That’s why it was Thomas Watson, head of IBM, who predicted the world only needed 4 or 5 computers. That is about as wrong a prediction as it is possible to make, by a man who had every reason to be informed about what he was talking about. Not only did he fail to anticipate a trend, or a technology, he failed to understand the myriad uses to which a general purpose machine might be put. Similarly, Paul Erlich, a brilliant academic who has devoted his entire life to ecological issues, has been wrong in nearly all his major predictions.

He was wrong about diminishing resources, he was wrong about the population explosion, and he was wrong that we would lose 50% of all species by the year 2000. He devoted his life to intensely felt issues, yet he has been spectacularly wrong.

All right, you may say, you’ll accept that the future can’t be known, in the way I am talking. But what about more immediate matters, such as the effects of pending legislation? Surely it is important to talk about what will happen if certain legislation passes. Well, no, it isn’t. Nobody knows what is going to happen when the legislation passes. I give you two examples, one from the left and one from the right.

The first is the Clinton welfare reform, harshly criticized by his own left wing for caving in to the Republican agenda. The left’s predictions were for vast human suffering, shivering cold, child abuse, terrible outcomes. What happened? None of these things. Child abuse declined. In fact, as government reforms go, its been a success; but Mother Jones still predicts dire effects just ahead.

This failure to predict the effects of a program was mirrored by the hysterical cries from the Republican right over raising the minimum wage. Chaos and dark days would surely follow as businesses closed their doors and the country was plunged into needless recession. But what was the actual effect? Basically, nothing. Who discusses it now? Nobody. What will happen if there is an attempt to raise the minimum wage again? The same dire predictions all over again. Have we learned anything? No.

But my point is, for pending legislation as with everything else, nobody knows the future.

The same thing is true concerning the effect of elections and appointments. What will be the effect of electing a certain president, or a supreme court justice? Nobody knows. Some of you are old enough to remember Art Buchwald’s famous column from the days of the Johnson Administration. Buchwald wrote a “Thank God we don’t have Barry Goldwater” essay, recalling how everyone feared Goldwater would get us into a major war. So we elected Johnson, who promptly committed 200,000 troops to Vietnam. That’s what happens when you choose the dove-ish candidate. You get a war. Or, you elect the intellectually brilliant Jimmy Carter, and watch as he ends up personally deciding who gets to use the White House tennis courts. Or you elect Richard Nixon because he can pull the plug on Vietnam, and he continues to fight for years. And then opens China.

Similarly, the history of the Supreme Court appointments is a litany of error in predicting how justices will vote once on the court. They don’t all surprise us, but a lot of them do.

So, in terms of imminent events, can we predict anything at all? No. You need only look at what was said days before the Berlin Wall came down, to see nobody can predict even a few hours ahead. People said all sorts of silly things about the Communist empire just hours before its collapse. I can’t quote them, because that would mean I had looked them up and had facts at hand, and I have promised you not to do that. But take my word for it, you can find silly statements 24 hours in advance.

NOBODY KNOWS THE FUTURE.

Now, this is not new information. It was Mark Twain who said, “I’ve seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass.”

And much of what politicians say is not so much a prediction as an attempt to make it come true. It’s argument disguised as analysis. But it doesn’t really persuade anybody. Because most people can see through it.

If speculation is worthless, why is there so much of it? Is it because people want it? I don’t think so. I myself speculate that media has turned to speculation for media’s own reasons. So now let’s consider the advantages of speculation from a media standpoint.

  1. It’s incredibly cheap. Talk is cheap. And speculation shows are the cheapest thing you can put on television, They’re almost as cheap as running a test pattern. Speculation requires no research, no big staff. Minimal set. Just get the talking host, book the talking guests—of which there is no shortage—and you’re done! Instant show. No reporters in different cities around the world, no film crews on location. No deadlines, no footage to edit, no editors…nothing! Just talk. Cheap.
  2. You can’t lose. Even though the speculation is correct only by chance, which means you are wrong at least 50% of the time, nobody remembers and therefore nobody cares. You are never accountable. The audience does not remember yesterday, let alone last week, or last month. Media exists in the eternal now, this minute, this crisis, this talking head, this column, this speculation.

One of the clearest proofs of this is the Currents of Death controversy. It originated with the New Yorker, which has been a gushing fountainhead of erroneous scientific speculation for fifty years. But my point is this: many of the people who ten years ago were frantic to measure dangerous electromagnetic radiation in their houses now spend thousands of dollars buying magnets to attach to their wrists and ankles, because of the putative healthful effects of magnetic fields. These people don’t remember these are the same magnetic fields they formerly wanted to avoid. And since they don’t remember, as a speculator on media, you can’t lose.

Let me expand on this idea that you can’t lose. It’s not confined to the media. Most areas of intellectual life have discovered the virtues of speculation, and have embraced them wildly. In academia, speculation is usually dignified as theory. It’s fascinating that even though the intellectual stance of the pomo deconstructionist era is against theory, particularly overarching theory, in reality what every academic wants to express is theory.

This is in part aping science, but it’s also an escape hatch. Your close textual reading of Jane Austen could well be found wrong, and could be shown to be wrong by a more knowledgeable antagonist. But your theory of radical feminization and authoritarian revolt in the work of Jane Austen is untouchable. Your view of the origins of the First World War could be debated by other authorities more meticulous than you. But your New Historicist essay, which might include your own fantasy about what it would be like if you were a soldier during the first war… well, that’s just unarguable.

A wonderful area for speculative academic work is the unknowable. These days religious subjects are in disfavor, but there are still plenty of good topics. The nature of consciousness, the workings of the brain, the origin of aggression, the origin of language, the origin of life on earth, SETI and life on other worlds… this is all great stuff. Wonderful stuff. You can argue it interminably. But it can’t be contradicted, because nobody knows the answer to any of these topics—and probably, nobody ever will.

But that’s not the only strategy one can employ. Because the media-educated public ignores and forgets past claims, these days even authors who present hard data are undamaged when the data is proven wrong. One of the most consistently wrong thinkers of recent years, Carol Gilligan of Harvard, once MS Magazine’s Scientist of the Year, has had to retract (or modify) much of what she has ever written. Yet her reputation as a profound thinker and important investigator continues undiminished. You don’t have to be right, any more. Nobody remembers.

Then there is the speculative work of anthropologists like Helen Fisher, who claim to tell us about the origins of love or of infidelity or cooperation by reference to other societies, animal behavior, and the fossil record. How can she be wrong? It’s untestable, unprovable, just so stories.

And lest anyone imagine things are different in the hard sciences, consider string theory, for nearly twenty years now the dominant physical theory. More than one generation of physicists has labored over string theory. But—if I understand it correctly, and I may not—string theory cannot be tested or proven or disproven. Although some physicists are distressed by the argument that an untestable theory is nevertheless scientific, who is going to object, really? Face it, an untestable theory is ideal! Your career is secure!

In short, the understanding that so long as you speculate, you can’t lose is widespread. And it is perfect for the information age, which promises a cornucopia of knowledge, but delivers a cornucopia of snake oil.

Now, nowhere is it written that the media need be accurate, or useful. They haven’t been for most or recorded history. So, now they’re speculating… so what? What is wrong with it?

  1. Tendency to excess. The fact that it’s only talk makes drama and spectacle unlikely—unless the talk becomes heated and excessive. So it becomes excessive. Not every show features the Crossfire-style food fight, but it is a tendency on all shows.
  2. “Crisisization” of everything possible. Most speculation is not compelling because most events are not compelling—Gosh, I wonder what will happen to the German Mark? Are they going to get their labor problems under control? This promotes the well-known media need for a crisis. Crisis in the German mark! Uh-oh! Look out! Crises unite the country, draw viewers in large numbers, and give something to speculate about. Without a crisis, the talk soon degenerates into debate about whether the refs should have used instant replay on that last football game. So there is a tendency to hype urgency and importance and be-there-now when such reactions are really not appropriate. Witness the interminable scroll at the bottom of the screen about the Queen Mother’s funeral. Whatever the Queen mother’s story may be, it is not a crisis. I even watched a scroll of my own divorce roll by for a couple of days on CNN. It’s sort of flattering, even though they got it wrong. But my divorce is surely not vital breaking news.
  3. Superficiality as a norm. Gotta go fast. Hit the high points. Speculation adds to the superficiality. That’s it, don’t you think?
  4. Endless presentation of uncertainty and conflict may interfere with resolution of issues. There is some evidence that the television food fights not only don’t represent the views of most people—who are not so polarized—but they may tend to make resolution of actual disputes more difficult in the real world. At the very least, these food fights obscure the recognition that disputes are resolved every day. Compromise is much easier from relatively central positions than it is from extreme and hostile, conflicting positions: Greenpeace Spikers vs the Logging Industry.
  5. The interminable chains of speculation paves the way to litigation about breast implants, hysteria over Y2K and global warming, articles in The New Yorker about currents of death, and a variety of other results that are not, by any thoughtful view, good things to happen. There comes to be a perception—convenient to the media—that nothing is, in the end, knowable for sure. When in fact, that’s not true.

Let me point to a demonstrable bad effect of the assumption that nothing is really knowable. Whole word reading was introduced by the education schools of the country without, to my knowledge, any testing of the efficacy of the new method. It was simply put in place. Generations of teachers were indoctrinated in its methods. As a result, the US has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the industrialized world. The assumption that nothing can be known with certainty does have terrible consequences.

As GK Chesterton said (in a somewhat different context), “If you believe in nothing you’ll believe in anything.” That’s what we see today. People believe in anything.

But just in terms of the general emotional tenor of life, I often think people are nervous, jittery in this media climate of what if, what if, maybe, perhaps, could be—when there is simply no reason to feel nervous. Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts. We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It’s not sensible to listen to it.

We need to start remembering that everybody who said that Y2K wasn’t a real problem was either shouted down, or kept off the air. The same thing is true now of issues like species extinction and global warming. You never hear anyone say it’s not a crisis. I won’t go into it, because it might lead to the use of facts, but I’ll just mention two reports I speculate you haven’t heard about. The first is the report in Science magazine January 18 2001 (Oops! a fact) that contrary to prior studies, the Antarctic ice pack is increasing, not decreasing, and that this increase means we are finally seeing an end to the shrinking of the pack that has been going on for thousands of years, ever since the Holocene era. I don’t know which is more surprising, the statement that it’s increasing, or the statement that its shrinkage has preceded global warming by thousands of years.

The second study is a National Academy of Sciences report on the economic effects to the US economy of the last El Nino warming event of 1997. That warming produced a net benefit of 15 billion dollars to the economy. That’s taking into account 1.5 billion loss in California from rain, which was offset by decreased fuel bills for a milder winter, and a longer growing season. Net result 15 billion in increased productivity.

The other thing I will mention to you is that during the last 100 years, while the average temperature on the globe has increased just .3 C, the magnetic field of the earth declined by 10%. This is a much larger effect than global warming and potentially far more serious to life on this planet. Our magnetic field is what keeps the atmosphere in place. It is what deflects lethal radiation from space. A reduction of the earth’s magnetic field by ten percent is extremely worrisome.

But who is worried? Nobody. Who is raising a call to action? Nobody. Why not? Because there is nothing to be done. How this may relate to global warming I leave for you to speculate on your own time.

Personally, I think we need to start turning away from media, and the data shows that we are, at least from television news. I find that whenever I lack exposure to media I am much happier, and my life feels fresher.

In closing, I’d remind you that while there are some things we cannot know for sure, there are many things that can be resolved, and indeed are resolved. Not by speculation, however. By careful investigation, by rigorous statistical analysis. Since we’re awash in this contemporary ocean of speculation, we forget that things can be known with certainty, and that we need not live in a fearful world of interminable unsupported opinion. But the gulf that separates hard fact from speculation is by now so unfamiliar that most people can’t comprehend it. I can perhaps make it clear by this story:

On a plane to Europe, I am seated next to a guy who is very unhappy. Turns out he is a doctor who has been engaged in a two-year double blind study of drug efficacy for the FDA, and it may be tossed out the window. Now a double-blind study means there are four separate research teams, each having no contact with any other team—preferably, they’re at different universities, in different parts of the country. The first team defines the study and makes up the medications, the real meds and the controls. The second team administers the medications to the patients. The third team comes in at the end and independently assesses the effect of the medications on each patient. The fourth team takes the data and does a statistical analysis. The cost of this kind of study, as you might imagine, is millions of dollars. And the teams must never meet.

My guy is unhappy because months after the study is over, he in the waiting room of Frankfurt airport and he strikes up a conversation with another man in the lounge, and they discover—to their horror—that they are both involved in the study. My guy was on the team that administered the meds. The other guy is on the team doing the statistics. There isn’t any reason why one should influence the other at this late date, but nevertheless the protocol requires that team members never meet. So now my guy is waiting to hear if the FDA will throw out the entire study, because of this chance meeting in Frankfurt airport.

Those are the lengths you have to go to if you want to be certain that your information is correct. But when I tell people this story, they just stare at me incomprehendingly. They find it absurd. They don’t think it’s necessary to do all that. They think it’s overkill. They live in the world of MSNBC and The New York Times. And they’ve forgotten what real, reliable information is, and the lengths you have to go to get it. It’s so much harder than just speculating.

And on that point, I have to agree with them.

Thank you very much.

– International Leadership Forum, La Jolla (26 April 2002)

tolerance at home and abroad

13 février 1900.
Claudel déjeune. Il parle du mal que l’affaire Dreyfus nous a fait à l’étranger. Cet homme intelligent, ce poëte, sent le prêtre rageur et de sang âcre.
—Mais la tolérance ? lui dis-je.
—Il y a des maisons pour ça, répond-il.

Ils éprouvent je ne sais quelle joie malsaine à s’abêtir, et ils en veulent aux autres, de cet abêtissement. Ils ne connaissent pas le sourire de la bonté.
Sa soeur a dans sa chambre un portrait de Rochefort et, sur sa table, La Libre Parole. Elle a envie de le suivre dans ses consulats.
Et ce poëte affecte de ne comprendre et de n’admirer que les ingénieurs. Ils produisent de la réalité. Tout cela est banal.
Il a le poil rare et regarde en dessous. Son âme a mauvais estomac. Il revient à son horreur des juifs, qu’il ne peut voir ni sentir.
13 February 1900.
Lunch with Claudel. He speaks of the harm that the Dreyfus affair caused to us abroad. This man, this poet, smells of a fanatical priest and acrid blood.
—What of tolerance? I said.
—There are houses for that, he replied.

They feel some unhealthy joy at dumbing themselves down, and they want others to follow suit. They do not know the smile of kindness.
His sister has in her room a portrait of Rochefort and, at her table, La Libre Parole. She wants to follow his consular appointments.
And the poet affects a failure to understand and admire anyone but the engineers. They produce reality. All this is commonplace.
He has thinning hair and a downcast gaze. His soul has indigestion. He returned to his horror of the Jews, whom he cannot suffer to see or smell.
13 февраля 1900 года.
Обед с Клоделем. Он говорит о том, какой вред нанесло дело Дрейфуса нашей репутации за рубежом. От этого человека, этого поэта, исходит душок изувера-священника и едкой крови.
—Ну а терпимость? спросил я.
—Есть для этого дома, ответил он.

Они испытывают какое-то нездоровое удовольствие от самоотупления, и подстрекают других к тому же. Им неизвестна улыбка великодушия.
Его сестра повесила в своей комнате портрет Рошфора, а на стол положила «Ля Либр Пароль». Она хочет следовать за ним в его консульствах.
А сам поэт делает вид, что не понимает никого кроме инженеров. Они производят действительность. Всё это пошло.
У него жидкие волосы и потуплённый взор. Его душа страдает несварением желудка. Он возвращается к своему отвращению к евреям, которых он не в силах ни видеть ни обонять.
—Jules Renard, Journal 1887-1910, Pléiade, 1986, p. 570

the best things in life

Barack Obama [on TV]: It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled…
Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt): Ah, yes, we’re all the same. We’re all equal.
Obama [on TV]: … that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are and always will be the United States of America.
Cogan: Next he’ll be telling us we’re a community, we’re one people.
Obama [on TV]: In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people.
Driver (Richard Jenkins): Had yourself quite a party.
Cogan: I do the best I can. [to the bartender] Beer.
Driver: So everything is under control, I take it, at long last?
Cogan: You know, for someone I’m trying to help out and everything, you’re awful hard to get along with. Could’ve made you drive up to see me, I didn’t have to come down here. I’m trying to be nice to you.
Driver: You’re trying to be nice to me?
Cogan: Sure, I’m a nice guy. I like to make things easy on people, do people favors now and then.
Driver: Do me a favor: don’t do me any favors. I see how you work.
Cogan: Tell you what, just give me the money.
[Driver hands Cogan an envelope.]
Cogan: Excuse me.
Driver: Are you gonna count it?
Cogan: I gotta take a leak. Leave me alone, all right? Have another ginger ale, for Christ’s sake.
Obama [on TV]: … from beyond our shores, parliaments and palaces, those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared. Tonight we’ve proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope. [crowd cheering]
Crowd chanting [on TV]: Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!
Driver: Feel better?
Cogan: No. There’s only 30 in there.
Driver: Three guys. Yeah, I had to ask them if I should pay you for the kid. But, you know, they said I should, so.
Cogan: They were right too. That’s only ten a piece.
Driver: Correct.
Cogan: The price is 15.
Driver: Dillon charges 10. Recession prices. They told me to tell you that too.
Cogan: I made a deal with Mickey for 15.
Driver: Yeah, yeah, but the way they got it, Mickey got in a fight with a whore, the dumb shit, and now they got him in the can, and you’re filling in for Dillon and you get what Dillon gets, no more. Talk to Dillon. Take it up with him.
Cogan: Dillon’s dead. Dillon died this morning.
Driver: They’re going to be very sorry to hear that.
Cogan: Sure, sure, they are. It’s gonna cost them more.
Driver: You know, this business is a business of relationships.
Cogan: Yeah, and everyone loved Markie.
Driver: You are a cynical bastard, you know that?
Obama [on TV]: … to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that out of many, we are one.
Driver: You hear that line? Line’s for you.
Cogan: Don’t make me laugh. We’re one people. It’s a myth created by Thomas Jefferson.
Driver: Oh, now you’re gonna have a go at Jefferson?
Cogan: My friend, Jefferson’s an American saint because he wrote the words, “All men are created equal”, words he clearly didn’t believe, since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits so, yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went out and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.
[♪ Barrett Strong: “Money (That’s What I Want)”]
♪ The best things in life are free ♪
♪ But you can give them to the birds and bees ♪
♪ I need money ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ Your love gives me such a thrill ♪
♪ But your love don’t pay my bills ♪
♪ I need money ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ Money don’t get everything, it’s true ♪
♪ But what it don’t get I can’t use ♪
♪ I need money ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ Money ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ Lots of money ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ Whole lot of money ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ Uh-huh ♪
♪ That’s what I want ♪
♪ That’s what I want… ♪
♪ That’s what I want… ♪

a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing

This is London. In a moment, you will hear the Prime Minister, Right Honorable Neville Chamberlain, speaking from Number10 Downing Street. His speech will be heard all over the Empire, throughout the continent of America, and in a large number of foreign countries. Mr Chamberlain:

To-morrow Parliament is going to meet, and I shall be making a full statement of the events which have led up to the present anxious and critical situation.
    An earlier statement would not have been possible when I was flying backwards and forwards across Europe, and the position was changing from hour to hour. But to-day there is a lull for a brief time, and I want to say a few words to you, men and women of Britain and the Empire, and perhaps to others as well.
    First of all I must say something to those who have written to my wife or myself in these last weeks to tell us of their gratitude for my efforts and to assure us of their prayers for my success. Most of these letters have come from women — mothers or sisters of our own countrymen. But there are countless others besides – from France, from Belgium, from Italy, and even from Germany, and it has been heartbreaking to read the growing anxiety they reveal and their intense relief when they thought, too soon, that the danger of war was past.
    If I felt my responsibility heavy before, to read such letters has made it seem almost overwhelming. How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war.
    I can well understand the reasons why the Czech Government have felt unable to accept the terms which have been put before them in the German memorandum. Yet I believe after my talks with Herr Hitler that, if only time were allowed, it ought to be possible for the arrangements for transferring the territory that the Czech Government has agreed to give to Germany to be settled by agreement under conditions which would assure fair treatment to the population concerned.
    You know already that I have done all that one man can do to compose this quarrel. After my visits to Germany I have realised vividly how Herr Hitler feels that he must champion other Germans, and his indignation that grievances have not been met before this. He told me privately, and last night he repeated publicly, that after this Sudeten German question is settled, that is the end of Germany’s territorial claims in Europe.
    After my first visit to Berchtesgaden I did get the assent of the Czech Government to proposals which gave the substance of what Herr Hitler wanted and I was taken completely by surprise when I got back to Germany and found that he insisted that the territory should be handed over to him immediately, and immediately occupied by German troops without previous arrangements for safeguarding the people within the territory who were not Germans, or did not want to join the German Reich.
    I must say that I find this attitude unreasonable. If it arises out of any doubts that Herr Hitler feels about the intentions of the Czech Government to carry out their promises and hand over the territory, I have offered on part of the British Government to guarantee their words, and I am sure the value of our promise will not be underrated anywhere.
    I shall not give up the hope of a peaceful solution, or abandon my efforts for peace, as long as any chance for peace remains. I would not hesitate to pay even a third visit to Germany if I thought it would do any good. But at this moment I see nothing further that I can usefully do in the way of mediation.
    Meanwhile there are certain things we can and shall do at home. Volunteers are still wanted for air raid precautions, for fire brigade and police services, and for the Territorial units. I know that all of you, men and women alike, are ready to play your part in the defence of the country, and I ask you all to offer your services, if you have not already done so, to the local authorities, who will tell you if you are wanted and in what capacity.
    Do not be alarmed if you hear of men being called up to man the anti-aircraft defences or ships. These are only precautionary measures such as a Government must take in times like this. But they do not necessarily mean that we have determined on war or that war is imminent.
    However much we may sympathise with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbour, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that. I am myself a man of peace to the depths of my soul. Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me; but if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted. Under such a domination life for people who believe in liberty would not be worth living; but war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark on it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defence, when all the consequences are weighed, is irresistible.
    For the present I ask you to wait as calmly as you can the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented, and you know that I am going to work for peace to the last moment. Good night.

Transcribed from BBC Archive, “Chamberlain Addresses the Nation on His Negotiations for Peace”, 27 September 1938. See Neville Chamberlain, In Search of Peace: Speeches, 1937-1938, London, 1939, pp. 274-6.

another win for human rights

As of today, citizens of California no longer need any more of an excuse to be licensed to carry a gun than to be licensed to drive a car.

Plaintiffs in Richards v. Prieto had argued that Yolo County’s Sheriff’s policy, in light of the California regulatory regime as a whole, abridges the Second Amendment right to bear arms because its definition of “good cause” prevents a responsible, law-abiding citizen from carrying a handgun in public for the lawful purpose of self-defense. Yolo County’s policy provided that “self protection and protection of family (without credible threats of violence)” are “invalid reasons” for requesting a concealed handgun carry permit. The district court concluded that Yolo County’s policy did not infringe Richards’ Second Amendment rights and denied Richard’s motion for summary judgment while granting the MSJ of Sheriff Ed Prieto. Today, Justice Diarmid O’Scannlain reversed and remanded this ruling on behalf of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Thus the court granted the plaintiffs’s demands:

  1. Declaratory relief that the “good moral character” and “good cause” provisions of California Penal Code § 12050 are unconstitutional either on their face and/or as applied to bar applicants who are otherwise legally qualified to possess firearms and who assert self-defense as their “good cause” for seeking a handgun carry permit; and
  2. An order permanently enjoining Defendants, their officers, agents, servants, employees, and all persons in active concert or anticipation with them who receive actual notice of the injunction, from enforcing the “good moral character” and “good cause” requirements of California Penal Code § 12050 against handgun carry permit applicants who seek the permit for self-defense and are otherwise qualified to obtain a handgun carry permit under that section.

It’s all over for hoplophobes, but for the shouting.

waging peace, the centennial edition

And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.

Barack Hussein Obama, 28 February 2014

On the same date, June 23, 1915, he wrote to his life-long friend Owen Wister:
    “Your friend, the English pacifist, turned up. He seems an amiable, fuzzy-brained creature; but I could not resist telling him that I thought that in the first place Englishmen were better at home doing their duty just at present, and in the next place, as regards both Englishmen and Americans, that the prime duty now was not to talk about dim and rosy Utopias but, as regards both of them, to make up their minds to prepare against disaster and, as regards our nation, to quit making promises which we do not keep. Taft, second only to Wilson and Bryan, is the most distinguished exponent of what is worst in our political character at the present day as regards international affairs; and a universal peace league meeting which has him as its most prominent leader, is found on the whole to do mischief and not good.
    “I was immensely pleased and amused with your last Atlantic article (‘Quack Novels and Democracy’) and I think it will do good. I wish you had included Wilson when you spoke of Bryan, and Pulitzer when you spoke of Hearst. Pulitzer and his successors have been on the whole an even greater detriment than Hearst, and Wilson is considerably more dangerous to the American people than Bryan. I was very glad to see you treat Thomas Jefferson as you did. Wilson is in his class. Bryan is not attractive to the average college bred man; but The Evening Post, Springfield Republican, and Atlantic Monthly creatures, who claim to represent all that is highest and most cultivated and to give the tone to the best college thought, are all ultra-supporters of Wilson, are all much damaged by him, and join with him to inculcate flabbiness of moral fiber among the very men, and especially the young men, who should stand for what is best in American life. Therefore to the men who read your writings Wilson is more dangerous than Bryan. Nothing is more sickening than the continual praise of Wilson’s English, of Wilson’s style. He is a true logothete, a real sophist; and he firmly believes, and has had no inconsiderable effect in making our people believe, that elocution is an admirable substitute for and improvement on action. I feel particularly bitter toward him at the moment because when Bryan left I supposed that meant that Wilson really had decided to be a man and I prepared myself to stand wholeheartedly by him. But in reality the point at issue between them was merely as to the proper point of dilution of tepid milk and water.”

—Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time: Shown in His Own Letters, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920, pp. 385-386

The President’s first note to Berlin about the sinking of the Lusitania, the “strict accountability” note, was followed by a second in a tone so different that it drew from Elihu Root the memorable observation:
    “You shouldn’t shake your fist at a man and then shake your finger at him.
    Taft had humorously described Bryan’s statesmanship as: “Chautauquan diplomacy.
    Roosevelt had described the President’s foreign attitude as: “Waging peace.

Owen Wister, Theodore Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919, Macmillan, 1930, p. 344

toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite

Extrait d’une lettre adressée à M. le chevalier de Rossi en Saint-Pétersbourg, le 15 (27) août 1811.     From a letter addressed to Mr. the chevalier de Rossi in Saint-Petersburg, 15 (27) August 1811.
2o Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite. De longues réflexions, et une longue expérience payée bien cher, m’ont convaincu de cette vérité comme d’une proposition de mathématiques. Tout loi est donc inutile, et même funeste (quelque excellente qu’elle puisse être en elle-même), si la nation n’est pas digne de la loi et faite pour la loi.
    Jadis le czar de Géorgie sortait tous les matins à cheval pour rendre la justice : il parcourait lentement les rues de Tiflis. Les plaideurs arrivaient, et disaient leurs raisons. Le czar donnait et faisait donner des coups de bâton à celui qui avait tort ou trop tort. Un Géorgien disait dernièrement, le plus sérieusement du monde, à mon frère, qui me l’a écrit : Eh bien ! Monsieur, on a remarqué que ces princes se trompaient très-rarement. Ils regrettent donc très-sincèrement cette vieille justice de rue ; et quant à la nouvelle que les Russes leur ont portée, qui procède par forme, par délais, par écriture, ils ne peuvent pas la tolérer, ils en sont malades ; et qui leur rapporterait la bâtonomie leur ferait un plaisir infini. Il y a chez nos vieilles nations d’Europe mille finesses que je crois très-fort au-dessus des Russes, du moins tels que je les connais dans ce moment. Le recours direct au souverain (ou la plainte) est une idée enracinée dans le plus profond de leurs cœurs ; et même, pour l’honneur de la souveraineté, elle est plus ou moins naturelle à tous les hommes. Je ne crois pas que l’opinion publique puisse être violée sur ce point. Il n’était pas malaisé, ce semble, de trouver le moyen qui aurait tout sauvé, en donnant seulement à la plainte, lorsqu’elle aurait été admise, la force de renvoyer la cause au plenum (ou chambres assemblées, suivant notre style).
Every nation has the government that it deserves. Lengthy reflection, and experience acquired at great cost, have convinced me of this truth as if it were a mathematical proposition. All law is useless and even fatal (however excellent it may be in itself), if the nation is not worthy of law and made for law.
    In the days of old the Czar of Georgia went out every morning on horseback to dispense justice; he slowly traversed the streets of Tbilisi. Litigants came and pleaded their cases. Armed with a cudgel, the Czar pummeled, and had pummeled, whoever was out of line or in the wrong. A Georgian recently spoke in all earnestness to my brother, who related his words to me: Well! Sir, they say that these princes very rarely erred. Thus they very sincerely regret this old street justice; and as for the new kind that the Russians have brought to them, which proceeds formally, slowly, and in writing, they cannot tolerate it, they are sick of it, and whoever would restore baculonomy to them, would deliver them an infinite delight. There are thousands of refinements in our ancient European nations, which I consider a great improvement over the Russians, at least as I know them at this moment. Direct appeal to the sovereign (or complaint) is an idea deeply rooted in their hearts, and as a credit to sovereignty, it even is more or less natural to all men. I do not believe that public sentiment could be violated on this point. It was not difficult, it seems, to find a way that would have saved everything, just by giving the complaint, once it was admitted, the force to refer the case to plenum (or elected assemblies, according to our custom).

— Joseph de Maistre, 1753 – 1821

lenin the head banger

Kremlin papers reveal Lenin the head banger

Lenin, one the most powerful leaders of the last century, was a problem child who slammed his head on the ground to demand attention, claims a new biography.
    Details of Lenin’s troubled early life were discovered in the handwritten memoirs of his elder sister Anna, which had been censored after his death and stored in sealed vaults under the Kremlin.
    The disclosures will further unravel the official account promoted by the communist government, which portrayed him as a saintly purist, far removed from the weaknesses and foibles of ordinary men.
    The memoirs reveal that the young Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, later known as Lenin, had short, weak legs and a large head that made him top heavy and caused him to fall over. He was unable to walk until he was three. When he fell over he would bang his head on the ground in frustration. “The wooden structure of the house made it into an echo chamber and the floors and walls resounded as the little fellow went on crashing his head on the carpet — or even the floorboards,” wrote Anna, who was six years older.
    Lenin’s parents were deeply concerned that he would end up mentally retarded. As well as his headbanging habit, Lenin had boisterous and destructive tendencies which upset his cultured family. “It was such obsessive behaviour that the family were very worried,” said Robert Service, author of the biography which will be published later this month.
    “He was very noisy and extremely disruptive as a child.”
    At three, he stamped all over his brother’s collection of theatre posters. His parents gave him a papier-mâché horse for his birthday but he twisted its legs off one by one. After Lenin’s death in 1924, anything that might have been perceived as even mildly critical was censored. As the Communist party developed the cult of Lenin, personal details vanished. His sister abandoned the drafts of her memoirs, which contained frank details of his personal life that she knew would not pass the censor. They remained locked in the Kremlin until discovered by Service after the fall of the communist state in 1991.
    “What has been brought out is how spoilt the little brat was by all the women around him,” said Dominic Lieven, professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics. “This family correspondence gives you an awful lot of little insights into the hatreds which boiled up inside him, as well as the strength of his personality.”
    Service has played an important role in uncovering the Kremlin’s secrets since he was granted access to its archives. Three years ago he revealed that Lenin kept his mistress in the Kremlin alongside his rejected wife.

— Tom Robbins, The Sunday Times (UK), 12 March 2000

in praise of edward snowden

Writing for The London Review of Books, David Bromwich summarizes the state of our union:

Since the prosecutions of whistleblowers, the abusive treatment of [Bradley] Manning and the drone assassinations of American citizens have been justified by the president and his advisers, a dissident in the US may now think of his country the way the dissidents in East Germany under the Stasi thought of theirs. ‘The gloves are off.’ Nor should we doubt that a kindred fear is known even to the persons who control the apparatus.

I offer the following thoughts in the nature of commentary.

Shortly after 9/11 Dick Cheney proclaimed that it will be necessary for us to be a nation of men, and not laws. Shortly after Edward Snowden disclosed the scope and extent of NSA surveillance, giving the lie to its sworn denial by the parties responsible for its execution, Barack Obama sought to reassure us that he wasn’t Dick Cheney. That is right, in so far as the limited surveillance of foreign communications advocated and implemented by Cheney, has been extended to all Americans under the Obama administration.

In the wake of Snowden’s disclosures, Obama has sought to reassert “the system of checks and balances” around NSA surveillance and to “set up and structure a national conversation” on cyber surveillance and civil rights. Ironically, up to now, the system of checks and balances has been stymied, as the Supreme Court shut down the last attempt to adjudicate the legality of NSA surveillance for want of standing. In other words, it found the plaintiffs unable to prove their injury by snooping so secret that it couldn’t be publicly acknowledged. Snowden has single-handedly removed this obstacle to judicial scrutiny. He cannot be faulted for the crimes he committed in doing so, just as he cannot be faulted for taking our manly overlords at their lawless word. In a system whose executive branch has arrogated the unalterable authority to execute its citizens without a trial, whose courts have renounced their power to deny any warrant or check any prosecution in the matters of national interest, an individual willing and able to expose the abuses of power under the color of authority, has every right to place himself above the law, even as the state loses its authority over a challenger to its corruption. That’s what it means to live in a nation of men, and not laws.

Eighteen years ago, Claire Wolfe observed: “America is at that awkward stage when it’s too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards.” I am grateful to Snowden for increasing our odds of fixing the system from within, before our bastards are fit to get shot.

the last biggest lie

What are the five biggest lies?
    “The check is in the mail.”
    “I won’t come in your mouth.”
    “Some of my best friends are Jewish.”
    “Black is beautiful.”
    “I’m from your government, and I’m here to help you.”

— Blanche Knott (Ashton Applewhite), Truly Tasteless Jokes, 1983, p. 104

“I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

— William F. Buckley Jr., Yale alumnus, Rumbles Left and Right: A Book about Troublesome People and Ideas, 1963, p. 134