Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Clash of Vocations

Clash of Vocations


Robert West and I were classmates in college. He mentioned that his debate club team will compete soon. I asked him what his team will debate. He answered that they will argue for a certain proposition, and the next day, for the opposite proposition.

I was baffled. But, but, they can’t both be true! He patiently explained that debate club rules require such reversals. My perplexity turned to alarm. You mean... you’re expected to argue for something that you don’t believe?!

I was shocked. I was scandalized. I felt like I had seen something indecent. Robert West was visibly disgusted by my naiveté. He tried to tell me that the whole point of the debate club is to develop rhetorical skill; but I remained obdurate in my puritanism.

Looking back, I now see that our clash of values was due to different vocations. I was training to become a mathematician. My ideal was to Discover the Truth. He was training to become a lawyer. His objective was to Win the Argument. Ultimately my job was to ensure that the bridges don’t fall down; his job was to ensure that, when the bridges do fall down, his clients don’t go to prison.

In the many decades since then, I have slowly learned the pragmatic necessity for both vocations; but just then I didn’t understand.

We graduated and went our separate ways. Later we re-encountered, online, in a discussion group with a small group of friends. He and I often disagreed; for instance, on the reality of fictitious social constructs. I was moved to write:

‘Nonexistence has consequences.’

He was moved to reply:

‘ “Nonexistence has consequences”. True, but - ’

- and right there I stopped reading! True, but?! Triggered, I stood up. I stormed out of the room. To calm down, I did household chores. After I regained my composure, I returned to the computer. I sat down. I braced myself, and I read on. He said “true, but” even false social constructs have reality due to community pressure. I begged to differ.

In a related development, he and I later differed on the relative merits of motivational self-deception vs therapeutic self-honesty.

But one day we did agree on something; namely, that the correct name for our species is not “Homo Sapiens”, meaning “Man the Wise”; for that name is aspirational, not descriptive. We concurred that a scientifically accurate name for our kind is “Homo Semisapiens”, meaning “Man the Half-Wise”. I was pleased that we agreed.

But then I stopped hearing from him. Soon my other online friends told me that he had died.

I was horrified. Did agreeing with me kill him? Or did the approach of death weaken his rhetorical resolve? Perhaps Robert West could have argued for either of these propositions with equal plausibility. I, myself, will never know for sure.










Recently I’ve learned another name for our species:

          Homo Mendax.

Meaning “Man the Liar”.

          Only Homo Mendax or Homo Semisapiens would look at our history and call us Homo “Sapiens”. So which are we really, liar or halfwit? I call that question the “crook-or-fool dilemma”.

The solution is that everyone lies to a crook, so they become fools; and fools lie to themselves, so they become crooks. Therefore Mendax and Semisapiens meet in the middle.

          “Discover the Truth” is a Semisapiens ideal; “Win the Argument” is a Mendax objective. So I played Semisapiens when I said “nonexistence has consequences”, and West played Mendax when he said “True, but”. Even so, we are one.

          Plato wrote that the wise must become virtuous, to remain wise. I concur:  Mendax becomes Semisapiens. But Semisapiens becomes Mendax: therefore the virtuous must wise up, to remain virtuous.


Monday, October 3, 2022

A Fine and Grand Name

A Fine and Grand Name


One night, while driving my car, I turned the dial that brightens or dims the symbols on the dashboard. Suddenly I recalled a memory from my youth. I was reading the owner's manual for my Mom's Volvo; it mentioned that same dial, and called it the...

(takes deep breath)

Ideogram Illumination Intensity Adjustment Potentiometer!

This fine and grand name made such an impression on me that I recalled it many decades later. And now I have shared it with you.


Friday, September 30, 2022

Five Modest Proposals: Neutralizing Tecumseh’s Curse

     Neutralizing Tecumseh’s Curse


Being President is an affliction at the best of times, which these are not. The President elected in 2020 faces a plague, a depression, civic unrest, and also an Indian curse. According to legend, the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh laid a curse upon the Presidency; namely, that anyone elected on a year ending with zero will die in office.

          Tecumseh’s curse has accumulated a long list of victims: Harrison, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR and JFK. Some were murder most foul, and some were health-related.

Only Zachary Taylor died in office without being elected on a zero year. There are two other exceptions, but they’re arguable. Reagan’s body survived, but his mind died; and unpopular Dubya left the office no stupider than he entered it, but his entire family’s political career died.

          Call me superstitious, but I wouldn’t face odds like that. Besides, the White House should bear an Indian curse. It deserves one, it’s earned it. Tecumseh’s legendary curse gives the White House street cred. The tale is colorful and poetic. It’s authentic Americana.

          I write to tell how to neutralize the curse. Consider the Dubya exception: he survived, but his family’s political career died. So the next zero-year President should try this:

          Set up a working Administration.

Then do something nice for the Shawnee.

Then resign for health reasons.

Then retire from politics.

So his political career dies instead of him. I figure that this sacrifice should keep him safe from Tecumseh’s curse.

He can risk waiting until he’s genuinely sick before he resigns; or he can lie by quitting the Presidency before the job sucks all of the life out of him. That’s his choice. For proof that the Presidency sucks the life out of people, just look at previous Presidents, before and after.

If he wants his resignation to be an act of power, then he can publicly denounce certain rich crooks, and take decisive but politically-suicidal action against their crimes, just before he retires. So if he wants to, then he can slam the door on the way out.

I recommend that every zero-year President, from now on, take these precautions. It would mean that every fifth Presidential campaign will really be about the Vice-President. That’s how it’s been, so far.