SKEPTICISM

They say that there are matters of faith, and matters of science.  Science necessarily involves skepticism.  Tenants, or theories, of science have to be tested.  It is healthy and ultimately productive to dispute well-accepted theories.

Why, then is so much faith given to the theories circulating now?  If one part of a theory is proven correct, why do we so unconditionally accept the whole package that comes with it?

Here are some cultural cows that I struggle with.

  1. GLOBAL WARMING

A few years ago, there was much talk of global warming.  A number of scientists and would-be scientists were glibly saying that ozone depletion was causing this warming, and they went on to closely predict how and when the earth’s current cities would be overtaken by water.

Since then, the conversation has gone to the vaguer term of Climate Change.

It’s clear that climate exchange exists.  Throughout the earth’s long history, the climate has warmed and cooled numerous times.  What we do not know is the extent to which humans contribute to the current climate change.

Nevertheless, we do know that our recklessness and greed are adversely affecting the planet, and compromising its future.  Environmental protections are needed.  The Environmental Protection Agency should remain in full force.

  1. ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER

This has become the coverall diagnosis for any child not performing up to social expectations.  The reality is that the very existence of ADD is disputed in the scientific community.

It’s clear that the symptoms of this so-called disorder do exist.  But they can come from a wide variety of different sources.  Persons with serious mental illnesses now go undetected for years because they’ve been misdiagnosed with ADD or ADHD.

Yet the doctors will quickly prescribe Adderall or another widely used drug.
These drugs are now prescribed simply to enhance academic performance, a practice causing long-lasting addictions.

This medical sloppiness will go down in the Hall of Shame with the 18th century practice of bloodletting.

  1. EVOLUTION

While certain religious groups will argue that dinosaurs never existed, proof of evolution is everywhere.  We have witnessed evolution occurring in our brief human history: the evolution of horses from dog-sized beings to magnificent creatures, and the evolution of dogs from wolves.  Even within our lifetimes, over the last century, we’ve seen the further evolution of humans into taller and longer-living creatures.

We still don’t know, however, how exactly evolution occurred, and there is still considerable room for interpretation.  The evolutionary theory of random selection suggested by some biologists is an interpretation I’ve never bought into.

  1. THE ASTEROID

The reality is that dinosaurs did not quite go extinct.  Some evolved into other creatures such as mammals.  And dinosaurs have down into our world in the birds that surround us everywhere.  The robins and cardinals that serenade us from the trees and ledges near our windows boast the bright plumage, quick movements and lilting songs developed by late dinosaurs.

The giant creatures of the Jurassic period did, of course, become extinct.  But there is still not enough information for us to believe the theory pushed at us by large cliques of scientists: that the dinosaurs perished from an asteroid hitting the earth.

We still have viable alternate theories.  It’s highly possible that the mass extinction was caused by disease.  Or by a significant decline in the once-abundant food supply.  It’s significant to me that Robert Bakker, the bearded cowboy who revolutionized paleontology, disputes the asteroid theory.

Why cover our ignorance in the unconditional acceptance of the hypotheses in circulation?

AFTERDOUBTS

So I have spent my entire life throwing dirt at the otherwise uncontested cultural cows.  All of which has led me to be considered a crank, and one relegated to the margins of society.

Looking back on my childhood, it was only natural that I would not do well in school, or that I would be considered an annoyance by my teachers.  It’s a wonder I wasn’t thrown out.

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

After a prolonged battle with Hollywood powers over his last film, Margaret, playwright-screenwriter-director Kenneth Lonergan returns to the screen with Manchester by the Sea.  Hollywood ways and theatre ways of working do not jibe, and Lonergan, in the Margaret battle, became a pronounced victim of the film world’s power tactics.  Lonergan is a playwright in the best sense of the word: he is fundamentally concerned with the soul’s struggles.

His new film features a janitor named Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck.  Lee’s adolescent nephew, who has lost his father and been abandoned by his alcoholic mother, needs him as a guardian.  Returning to his native town, Manchester by the Sea, Lee also encounters his ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams.  The Williams character, despite being remarried, is still in love with him.

But at the frozen core of this story is anguish and guilt over an event that occurred years earlier.  Because of his guilt, Lee cannot remain as guardian for his nephew.  Nor can he come to terms with his ex-wife, or get involved with other women.  He is stuck.

It seems fundamental to plays and movies that they deal with characters who change.  Those changes, or turns in the story, seem essential to the dramatic work.

Is Manchester by the Sea any the worse for centering on a stuck character?  The film has many of the hallmarks of a good, even great, movie.  Its acting, led by Affleck and Williams, is outstanding.  Its use of visuals, showing the sea town of Manchester, is top quality.  It is a story honestly and skillfully told.

Nevertheless, in art as in life, we hope that people will learn from their tragedies and continue their journeys as humans.

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THE STRANGE CASE OF DAVID MAMET

I’ve gone through stages with David Mamet the same as I’ve gone through with Mike Tyson.  Back when Tyson was the best heavyweight, when he floored Michael Spinks in a few seconds, I was a fan.  When Tyson got violent outside the ring, and was having frequent altercations with the law, I lost my enthusiasm for him.  Now that Tyson, long after his boxing days, has himself under control and seems deeply contrite for his offenses, I’m back in his corner.

Back when David Mamet was one of the leading playwrights on Broadway, as well as a leading scriptwriter in Hollywood, I was keenly interested in him.  When he started writing books of essays such as Writing in Restaurants, he seemed to be a philosopher-artist in the tradition of Goethe, Tolstoi and Shaw.

Then there came a long middle period when Mamet was spouting nonsense.  His writing suffered for it.  His plays were negligible, and in film he had the debacle of Redbelt.  Curiously enough, he was still tolerated in the theatre and film worlds, as if people assumed he would come to his senses.

A few years ago, Mamet had an epiphany of sorts:  he realized he was a rightwinger.  He thereafter espoused a conservative ideology.

This mental clarification brought back the quality to Mamet’s work.  He did well in writing and directing a TV movie on Phil Spector.  Ironically, with the ideological lines drawn, he is no longer tolerated.

A few months back, his most recent play, China Doll, bombed on Broadway.  The play bombed because of the acting, but people glibly ran off with the opinion that Mamet had written a terrible play.

I argue that Mamet is being treated unfairly at present.  I also prognosticate that Mamet will remain a force in theatre and film, as well as contemporary thought, for some time to go.  China Doll will get better productions in the future, and will be seen in a far different light.

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ACTORS AND ARTISTS

My father was not an artist, but he understood artists and athletes.  He knew athletes from playing sports in his youth, and remaining a football and basketball fan the remainder of his life.  He knew that college football players were often also on basketball, wrestling or lacrosse teams.  He understood from this that an artist proficient in one art would most often be proficient in others.

We forget that actors are, by nature, artists.  We think of them as celebs, or would-be celebs.  When a film actor plays in a country band or writes a book of fiction, we too often consider such activities as dilettante posturing.

Yet such activities go far back into history.  While recent attention has been paid to the art work of James Franco, Lucy Liu and Pierce Brosnan, Shakepeare’s fellow actor Richard Burbage Burgess, the first Hamlet and Lear, was also an excellent painter.

Recently I revisited the island of Maui in Hawaii.  This island has a major art center in the old whaling village of Lahaina.

The Higgins Harte Gallery in Lahaina features among its artists the work of three film actors, only one of them still living: Red Skelton, Anthony Hopkins and Anthony Quinn.  Probably the most limited in subject matter, despite their skill, are the paintings of Red Skelton.  All of his featured paintings are of clowns.

Anthony Hopkins, the only featured actor still living, is an artist of many talents.  Besides being one of the best contemporary actors, he is also a concert pianist and composer.  His wife has pushed him to show his paintings, and the paintings at the Higgins Harte Gallery show an experimental bent.

But perhaps the best visual artist among these actors was Anthony Quinn, who excelled in both painting and sculpture.  This Mexican artist shows the influence of such early twentieth century Mexican and Spanish artists as Diego Rivera and Salvatore Dali.

It should be noted that Quinn was a visual artist before he became an actor.  After winning art contests while attending a polytechnical high school, he studied architecture with the great Frank Lloyd Wright.  When Quinn had trouble speaking after having mouth surgery, Wright advised him to take acting lessons.  Architecture’s loss was acting’s gain.

The painting of Quinn and Hopkins have been as much a part of their artistry as the guitar playing and fiction writing of other actors.  It’s high time we started looking at such work with a new seriousness.

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RULES FOR ARTISTS

There are two fundamental rules for artists:

  1. Realize that Life is more important than Art. It is this realization that gives Art its value.
  1. If you see that you were made to be an artist, then pursue your art with diligence. The life of an artist is too difficult to pursue if you were not made as one.

 

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PLATO AND POLITICS

Plato was the first major thinker to develop a human typology.  Before Friedrich Schiller or Carl Jung, he divided humanity into types.  In his Republic, the great Greek philosopher analyzed the relative suitability of different types for political leadership.

These divisions were set by the passions or qualities that dominated each individual.  Some people were ruled by greed, others by combativeness and still others by philosophical contemplation.  Plato did not consider those ruled by greed, the businessmen, to be suitable leaders.

We have suffered much recently from the business interest of politicians.  The Bush family, from the oil industry, waged needless wars in oil-rich Iraq.  In a move resembling Aeschylus’ tragedy The Persians, Vice President Dick Cheney reaped financial rewards through Halliburton after pushing the younger Bush into the second Iraq invasion.

All of this should cause us to cast a jaundiced eye on one of the current candidates: the real estate developer Trump.

But we should also remember that George Washington, one of our greatest presidents, was the wealthiest American in time.  Washington was not merely a successful farmer, but an entrepreneur in a number of business projects.

Yet the case of George Washington is complicated.

Plato also opposed the ruling of the state by military people: the people ruled by combative passions.  World history seems to bear this out.  We only need to look decades.  Nevertheless, the U.S. has had considerable success with its general-presidents, including Eisenhower and Washington.

Plato said that the state should be ruled by philosophers: those devoted to the pursuit of right reason.  He said that his ideal republic would not be realized until either philosophers became kings or kings philosophize.

Perhaps, in the 21st century, such a view seems patently unrealistic.  Excepting Jan Smuts of South Africa, philosophers have long kept away from the practical world of business and politics.  In the confines of academia, they have, over the past century, become narrow specialists.

But the great thinkers of the ancient Greek world, running from Greece across the Mediterranean to Magna Graecia in southern Italy, were not narrow specialists.  Most of them worked in science, or at least in the natural philosophy that led to science.  We need only think of mathematical discoveries of Pythagoras and his disciples.

The great teacher Socrates turned from scientific investigation to dialectical analysis.  Yet his followers immersed themselves his science.  Plato, following the Pythagoreans, did considerable work in geometry.  Plato’s student Aristotle, hailing from a family of physicians, became the most accomplished scientist of the ancient world.

The question of scientists, of course, brings up other questions.  In his novel The Shape of Things to Come, H.G. Wells envisioned a future war-torn world saved by scientists.  But would we want Sheldon Cooper, the physicist on Big Bang Theory leading us?  Brilliant scientists often miss many practicalities, and fail to read the subtleties of human behavior.

In ancient world known to Plato, philosophers often not merely scientists but also statesmen.  Pythagoras and Empedocles were political leaders.  Parmenides created a constitution for the city of Elea.  Even Plato involved himself in politics, until he was jailed by the king of Sicily for a short time.  In this context, the concept of a philosopher-king was not so farfetched.

Plato, who came from an aristocratic family, had a strong distrust of democracy.  His Republic cannot, in every aspect, be a guide to us in continuing to shape our own democracy.  Yet it can be helpful in making us look at human types and passions.

We can infer that the best leaders are well-rounded persons with complex compositions and wide-ranging backgrounds and interests.  It would also be best if philosophy, as the pursuit of wisdom, remained a part of a leader’s personality.

When selecting a president we should look for a candidate with executive experience.   It would also be helpful for the candidate to possess legislative experience, as that infers the ability and willingness with others.

Hillary Clinton, as both former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, has both legislative and executive experience.  Barack Obama, a former Illinois state legislator and U.S. Senator, had legislative experience, but was hampered by his lack of executive experience.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, a quite successful president, had executive experience as leader of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II.  While he did not serve on a legislature, Eisenhower had something close to legislative experience in his Allied command.  For the Allied forces combating Germany and Italy were loosely-contacted nations, often with opposing interests.  General Eisenhower showed considerable political skill in keeping these nations aligned.

Today Donald Trump is one of the two major presidential candidates.  As head of several corporations, Trump has abundant executive experience.  But the corporate has far different rules than the political.  The behavior we tolerate in business magnates is far removed from what we expect of political leaders.

It doesn’t help that Trump has only worked in business.  Plato would not have recommended him for leadership of the state.  Trump would probably admit that in his work he has been motivated by greed.  But what other qualities has he shown himself to possess?

As I’ve pointed out, George Washington was an enterprising capitalist.  But Washington had abundant executive experience in the service of the state as commander of the successful effort to free the colonies from English rule.  He also possessed considerable legislative experience as a long-time member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.  Interestingly enough, Washington also had judicial experience as a judge in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Trump has nothing comparable.

I do not write these words to tell others how to vote but rather to encourage analysis.  Our system of selecting presidents seems have hit a dead end.  The people who win nominations are most often a far cry from the people most needed to run the country.

George Bernard Shaw said that the challenge of question of how to best pick leaders is the great mystery of civilization.  Now, in the early 21st century, it’s apparent that both parties have recently failed to provide satisfactory leaders.

We need more open elections.  Voters need more options.

I conclude with the now-remote question of how to find the greatest leaders.

Our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, were far different people than the people they started out being.

Washington, as a frontier surveyor and commander in the French and Indian war, was a major opportunist.  He did whatever he needed to help his ambitions.  Abraham Lincoln, early in his career, was little more than an ambitious and crafty frontier lawyer.

These two men eventually showed great nobility of character.  Lincoln ended up with a truly altruistic vision, and Washington was selfless and even humble in the service of his country. In essence, both men had the ability to evolve.

Franklin D. Roosevelt perhaps lacked the stature of Washington or Lincoln.  But his scale of achievement far exceeded the presidents of recent decades.  He started out as a somewhat superficial person.  It was the onset of polio that changed him, and gave him considerable compassion for the sufferings other people.

Franklin Roosevelt, too, had evolved.  It was this compassion and strength that helped him lead the nation through both the Great Depression and the Second World War.

How can we find such an ability?  To do so we would have to look closely, beyond all the hype and hysteria that confronts us today.

 

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POWER PYRAMID

As we obsess on the trainwreck that is the current presidential election, I have tried ways to become at peace.  Rhetorically, I ask myself questions: Will the whole ship of state sink with one disastrous personality of a president?  Isn’t the president merely one person in a large system?  Why don’t we pay attention to the other persons manning the government?

Recently I read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  I read it mainly because of the musical, but the book gave me some insights.  As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes commented, a page of history is worth a pound of logic.

Since attending law school, I have struggled with the meaning and shape of the federal constitution.  Yet seems to me, from reading Chernow’s book and other historical texts, that our nation’s founders planned the federal government as a pyramid of power.

These founders, including Hamilton and James Madison, were well informed.  They drafted the constitution with their eyes on history.

It has been said that they took our system of checks and balances from the French jurist Montesquieu.  Montesquieu, in turn, saw this system as already working in the English government.

But Montesquieu’s observations were not quite accurate.  It was true that a century earlier, following the Restoration, Charles II and Parliament had shared power equally.  They were compelled by circumstance to cooperate with each other.

But after the accession of the Hanovers in the early 1700’s, the British Parliament became the sole shaper of public policy.  The monarchs became figureheads.

It was Parliament that imposed the taxes exploiting the American colonies.  For a considerable time, colonists, including young Hamilton, retained a loyalty to the King even while venting their anger against Parliament.  It was only after George III called for the hanging of all rebels that angry colonists turned away from him.

As Parliament had been the most active part of the British government, our nation’s founders established the Congress as the primary branch of the new government.  It would be Congress that would enact laws and levy taxes.

The founders agreed that the nation would have a chief executive.  But the executive branch was viewed with suspicion.  The chief executive, or president, could potentially assume power as a monarch or despot.

It would be best that the president be subordinate to the Congress.  The president had to run the nation in such matters as commanding the military and collecting taxes, but laws would be passed only by the Congress.  If the president hoped to influence public policy, he or should would have to do so through the Congress.

Finally, the judicial branch was to be the most the most limited.  It would make decisions only on the specific cases that were presented to it.  It could interpret existing laws in the cases presented.  But those decisions were limited to evidentiary facts presented by counsel.

We would do well to again look at this pyramid.  Admittedly, all of these branches have evolved.  The presidency, through such strong personalities as Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, has assumed more power.  The nation has largely looked to presidents for leadership.

The Supreme Court has also significantly developed.  With the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison,  the Court, led by John Marshall, established the principle of judicial review.  The judiciary has the power to review legislative or executive acts in the light of the federal constitution.  It can accordingly strike down laws that do not comply with the constitution.

But a misperception exists to the effect that the judiciary has broad powers.  Much has been made of the far-reaching decisions of the Warren Court.

Yet these decisions are limited to constitutional considerations.  The Civil War fundamentally changed the nature of the federal government.  With the south defeated, the federal government changed from a federation of states to a united government.  The constitution was amended not merely to acknowledge the rights of all persons, but to provide some federal oversight on the potential denial of those rights by state or local governments.

Further political changes occurred in the two decades following the end of the Civil War.  Reconstruction ended.  The federal government backed away from enforcing the constitutional amendments enacted in the late 1860’s.  The Supreme Court refused to oversee the acts of state governments, even allowing segregation to stand in the 1896 decision of Plessy v. Ferguson.

The Court was thus reneging on the judicial review policies established by the Marshall Court.  It was allowing unconstitutional acts to stand.

In reaction to 80-plus years of judicial backsliding, the decisions of the Warren Court were far-reaching.  Through Brown v. Board of Topeka, Kansas, the Court held school segregation to be unconstitutional.  Miranda v. Arizona  ruled that police must give warnings before they may extract confessions from incarcerated suspects.  Gideon v. Wainwright established the right of the indigent to free counsel.

Yet these decisions were not broad exercises of judicial power.  They were rather corrections of the prior abdication by the judiciary of its responsibilities.  The courts  again to stuck down government acts that violated the constitution.

Contrary to their detractors, the justices on the Warren Court understand their limitations.  They were not authorized to create new laws.  They were not to question the soundness or wisdom of statutes or executive policies.  Often they were compelled to uphold foolish laws.

We would do well to also understand the limitations of the executive branch.  This branch must carry out the day-to-day work of the federal government.  It must collect taxes, protect the nation and investigate and prosecute federal crimes.

But its powers are nevertheless limited. President Obama’s attempts to circumvent Congress through the issuance of executive orders have been of minor effect.

To understand the relationship between Congress and the president, we must go again to history.  In medieval England, the barons grew tired of the unilateral levying of taxes by the tyrannical King John.  Through a combined effort, they forced John to sign the Magna Charta.  The monarch could thereafter levy taxes only with approval of the nobles.

In the succeeding decades, kings had to call nobles from the far corners of the kingdom in order to gain such approval.  This, of course, caused considerable problems.

Edward I solved these difficulties 1295 by calling the so-called Model Parliament.  With the established Parliament, its members, consisting of members of the nobility and clergy, met at regular intervals to establish public policy.

The origins of Parliament, then, lay in issues of governmental coffers.  As a descendent of the British Parliament, the American Congress assumed control of the new nation’s finances.  Without Congressional sanction, acts of the president were without funding, and of little effect.

The making of executive orders also involves problems of process.  Made only by one person, the president, an executive order lacks the supple shape of laws traditionally shaped by legislative compromise.

We should pay at least as much attention to the people we are to elect to Congress as we do to the person selected for the White House..  A good Congress can keep a dangerous president.  Members of Congress, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, voted in favor of George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq.  Had they done their work properly, the invasion may not have incurred.

Likewise, the current Congress, led by such recalcitrant members as Ted Cruz, refuses to act, or to cooperate with the president.  Certainly it is healthy to oppose a president on principal.

But the Congress has gone far beyond mere assertiveness.  The federal government has stagnated, and issues such as gun control and immigration remain unresolved.

Regardless this presidential election’s outcome, we should turn more attention to the Congress. If we cannot quite get back to the power pyramid envisioned in 1787, we should at least start holding Congress accountable for its actions and inactions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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