Sunday, April 18, 2021

Woke Me When It's Over

A sixth grader's father has caused a tempest in uptown Manhattan by mailing an angry letter to the 650 parents whose kids are enrolled in Brearley, an elite private girls school that costs $54,000 a year to attend. 

Recipients of the letter include Chelsea Clinton, Tina Fey, Drew Barrymore and Steve Martin.

"Our family recently made the decision not to reenroll our daughter at Brearley," wrote Andrew Gutman

"We no longer have confidence that our daughter will receive the quality of education necessary to further her development."

Gutman went on to say the school "has completely lost its way."

"The administration and trustees have displayed a cowardly and appalling lack of leadership by appeasing an anti-intellectual, illiberal mob, and then allowing the school to be captured by that same mob," he wrote.

The mob Gutman had in mind: the advocates of woke.

Last week I attended my first woke training course. 

I'm embarrassed to say I almost fell asleep.

The silliest portion of the training, by far, came when the presenter shamed herself for describing things as "crazy," pledging never to use a word offensive to psychotics. 

Her self-mortification generated over a dozen red-heart emojis and prompted one participant to pledge never again to describe things as "lame," a word offensive to cripples.

As far as the training went, he took the word right out of my mouth.

Woke's roots lie in French "post-structuralist" philosophy, which claimed that truth and righteousness are the solely property of the marginalized.

Many great philosophers contributed to post-structuralist thought.

But sadly, in the hands of hacks, their contribution to Western thought has devolved from insight to idiocy.

Woke training is inane.

Worse, it's a form of rhetoric philosophers call "moral grandstanding."

"Moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion," says philosopher Brandon Warmke. 

"Moral grandstanders have egotistical motives: they may want to signal that they have superhuman insight into a topic, paint themselves as a victim, or show that they care more than others."

Rather than mending society, moral grandstanders' soapboxing is divisive.

"Moral grandstanding contributes to political polarization, increases levels of cynicism about moral talk and its value in public life, and causes outrage exhaustion," Warmke says.

Moral grandstanders are also "free riders," Warmke claims. 

"They get the benefits of being heard without contributing to any valuable discourse."

Andrew Gutman's letter, although harsh, comes, I believe, as a predictable gut-reaction to moral grandstanding by Brearley.

"I cannot tolerate a school that not only judges my daughter by the color of her skin, but encourages and instructs her to prejudge others by theirs," Gutman told The New York Post.

While worried about his daughter's "indoctrination," what actually set Gutman off was the school's insistence he attend woke training, which he called "simplistic and sophomoric" and likened to Mao-like rehabilitation.

Too bad he didn't realize he simply could have napped through the training. 

Please, woke me when it's over.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Beyond the Pale

Both dove-like roved forth beyond the pale.

— John Harington

I'm reading Revelations, the new biography of British painter Francis Bacon. 

The book opens by recounting how Bacon's parents, always the nomads, settled in Ireland in 1900, when the country was "still regarded as a colony," where they rented a manor in one of the horsey counties that surrounded Dublin, a region known as "the Pale."

The Pale—a 600-square-mile area referred to by the British king as his "four obedient shires"—was colonized in the 12th century. To mark his colony, the king drove wooden stakes, called "pales," into the ground. Eventually, the pales were replaced by a deep ditch and a hedgerow, but the name "the Pale" stuck.

If you lived inside the Pale in the 12th century, you lived under the protection of the crown, in a genteel environment safe from the savageries of the Irish. If you ventured beyond the Pale, well, good luck: you'd exited civilization.

Poet John Harington cemented the phrase beyond the pale in a 1657 work entitled The History of Polindor and FlostellaA character in the poem retreats to his manor for "quiet, calm and ease," but with a reckless girlfriend "roved forth beyond the pale," where he and his lover are immediately attacked by thugs.

Beyond the pale soon became synonymous with "outside acceptable behavior."

Two centuries later, Rudyard Kipling published "Beyond the Pale," a short story described by Kingsley Amis as "one of the most terrible in the language."

"Beyond the Pale" describes the forbidden affair between an Englishman and an Indian. Desperate to see his lover one night, the Englishman knocks at her window, only to see her thrust out two stumps where her hands had been. Shocked, the man doesn't notice an invisible assailant, who stabs him with "something sharp" in the groin.

The lovers pay heavily for roving beyond the pale. "A man should keep to his own caste, race and breed," the narrator advises.

While mores differ from those of the past, it's still easy to venture beyond the pale. Crooks, coaches, clerics, celebrities, journalists, CEOs, politicians and police officers do it every hour of every day.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Closer Than Ever

In the threatening situation of the world today, it would not be at all surprising if sections of the community who ask themselves nothing were visited by "visions." 
— Carl Jung

CNN reports that the Pentagon has acknowledged the existence of UFOs, after classified videos of flying saucers were leaked. The generals will report their findings to Congress in June.

Why this announcement isn't the lead of the day mystifies me. Perhaps, thanks to decades of lying, the federal government no longer has credibility.

Steven Spielberg in fact had Watergate in mind when in 1975 he pitched the script for a political thriller he eventually entitled "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Much different than the final cut of the film, Spielberg’s first draft followed Claude Lacombe, a Pentagon contractor who blows the whistle on a coverup. Lacombe's employer knows aliens visit Earth, but doesn't want the public to know.

Lacombe was based in part on Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the civilian advisor to Project Blue Book who developed the "scale" for alien encounters.

According to Hynek, a "close encounter of the first kind" was a UFO sighting; a "close encounter of the second kind" was the discovery of hard evidence; a "close encounter of the third kind" was contact.

Hynek—who served as Spielberg's technical advisor and enjoyed a cameo in the film—believed UFOs were real. He called them "M&Ms."

"I hold it entirely possible", Hynek said, "that a technology exists which encompasses both the physical and the psychic. There are stars that are millions of years older than the sun. There may be a civilization that is millions of years more advanced than man's. 

"I hypothesize an 'M&M' technology encompassing the mental and material realms. The psychic realms, so mysterious to us today, may be an ordinary part of an advanced technology."

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Comics and the Code

Happiness is a stack of comic books.

— Charles M. Schultz

A mint-condition copy of Action Comics #1—the comic-book premiere of Superman—sold for $3.3 million this week, according to Antiques & the Arts Weekly.

Before this week's sale, the 1938 book had changed hands three times, selling for $1.5 million in 2010, $1.8 million in 2017, and $2.1 million in 2018.

The comic survived in pristine shape because it had been tucked inside a film-fan magazine for five decades. A collector bought the magazine at an auction in 1980, unaware of the hidden gem inside.

"This book launched the superhero genre," auctioneer Vincent Zurzolo told Antiques & the Arts Weekly. "There’s a reason collectors and fans will always be obsessed with it."

If you missed this week's auction, or can't spare $3.3 million for a comic book, I suggest you at least spend $16 and buy a copy of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

That extraordinary, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel—inspired by the story of Superman’s creators—recounts the big-city adventures of two young oddballs who arrive in New York on the eve of World War II, hoping to cash in on the latest American craze: the superhero. You'll learn more about the origins of comic-book publishing than you'd care to know, but will find Chabon's tale spellbinding.

While I never had $3, much less $3 million, to spend as a kid, I remember buying comic books religiously. They cost only 12 cents and—given the gripping stories and lavish, cover-to-cover illustrations—were well worth the price. Find eight empty soda-pop bottles, redeem them for the three-cent deposits, and you could go home with two!

Always a festive day, a new batch of titles would show up every other Tuesday at the neighborhood confectionery. My friends and I would rush to the store after school, to make sure we didn't miss out on our favorites. 

Mine were without doubt The Fantastic Four; Detective Comics (featuring that ethereal night-creature Batman); Strange Tales (featuring Dr. Strange); Tales to Astonish (featuring Ant-Man and The Incredible Hulk); Classics Illustrated (retellings of great books like Kidnapped, Mysterious Island and The War of the Worlds); Our Army at War (featuring the broody, brawny Sgt. Rock); and the always rip-snorting Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandoes.

Happiness indeed was a stack of comic books. Little did I know the comics I loved were unloved by millions of parents.

Parental displeasure stemmed in large part due to Seduction of the Innocent, a 1954 best-seller by a crusading disciple of Freud, Dr. Fredric Wertham.

Dr. Wertham's book convinced parents that comics—packed as they were with vivid depictions of nonconformity—turned decent, all-American kids into rebels and juvenile delinquents. 

Dr. Wertham's call for federal oversight of the comic-book industry gave rise to Congressional hearings and to the Comics Code Authority, an effort by publishers to censor themselves.

The authority was superheroes' Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. 

Publishers would submit their comic books to the authority and, if approved, include its seal on the covers. The seal on the cover proved to distributors, retailers, parents and readers that the a comic book had met the authority's ironfisted code.

Among other things, the code prohibited comics from presenting cops,
judges, lawyers and government officials "in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority."

It also required that "in every instance, good shall triumph over evil;" that "if crime is depicted, it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity;" and that, if the cartoons illustrated violence, none were "lurid, unsavory, or gruesome." 

Depictions of "nudity in any form" and of "sex perversion, abnormalities, and illicit sex relations" were all strictly taboo. So were depictions of vampires, werewolves, ghouls, cannibals, zombies, and women's cleavage.

The Comics Code Authority remained the industry's arbiter until 2001, when the censors made the mistake of rejecting an issue of Marvel Comics' X-Force. After the rejection, Marvel quit submitting comics for approval, and other publishers soon followed suit.

Despite efforts to police itself through the Comics Code Authority, the mid-century comic-book industry was too inherently anarchic to save the children. 

In 2003, cultural critic Edward Said wrote, “I don't remember when exactly I read my first comic book, but I do remember exactly how liberated and subversive I felt as a result. Everything about the enticing book of colored pictures, but especially its untidy, sprawling format, the colorful riotous extravagance of its pictures, the unrestrained passage between what the characters thought and said, the exotic creatures and adventures reported and depicted: all this made up for a hugely wonderful thrill, entirely unlike anything I had hitherto known or experienced."    

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

No Vaccine for Vanity

Vanity costs money and is a long way leading nowhere.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Planners of scientific and medical meetings are captivated by yet another band-aid fix for flagging attendance: vaccine passports.

Vaccine passports will bring back the crowds, they insist.

But one such planner, Ben Hainsworth, has called vaccine passports a "red herring." Planners should instead be focused on their value proposition

“If we have vaccine passports, but we are still thinking about events in the same way we did in 2019, the recovery will be a big flop," Hainsworth says. "We need to think about the unique value of face-to-face and start re-pitching and redesigning our meetings."

It's no surprise scientific and medical meeting planners love vaccine passports. For daydreamers like them, vaccine passports are the panacea of the month. Naysayers like Hainsworth are simply that—naysayers.

But is he? I think not. When you consider their elements, today's scientific and medical meetings offer attendees little of real value: they draw no leading practitioners, provide no unpublished research, and appeal to practically no one but job-hunters. Why would they recover after the pandemic?

I saw these gatherings lose their value long ago, while working for scientific and medical meeting planners back in the '90s. 

A smug bunch, the planners I worked for clung vainly to the status quo, repeating tired formulas and delegating the crucial work of program-design to volunteers. Content to live in the "fairyland" of federally subsidized science and medicine, they denied that meeting attendance was declining—geometrically—and that my research was showing first-world practitioners found their events irrelevant.

Two real-world movements drove the decline and irrelevancy: open science and managed careBut these vain planners would have none of it. They bristled when presented with the fact that their events were subsisting on job-hunters, grad students, and a few third-world practitioners, while pointing with pride to their swelling exhibit halls, a boon to hospitals in search of equipment. But there were hidden economic pressures on equipment-makers, too, thanks both to managed care and the inherently unaccountable nature of tradeshow exhibiting.

Flash forward to 2021 and the chickens have come home to roost. The pandemic has already up-ended meeting planners' reality and experts are predicting that by 2025 the world will be a world of "tele-everything." Practitioners, yearning for safety and convenience, will work from their homes and private offices, travel less frequently, and make few forays into public spaces. Live scientific and medical meetings may be nothing more than a pale memory.

Too bad there's no vaccine for vanity.

HAT TIP: Thanks go to Warwick Davies, principal of The Event Mechanic! for alerting me to Ben Hainsworth's remarks.
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