At Home

I went out with a group of Spanish scholars today, and it was lovely. Two were left-wing and two conservative. Of course, the left-wing academics would be considered far right in the US which they know and find very entertaining. We had a fantastic discussion, and it was a profound pleasure to be among people who are speaking openly and saying things nobody would dare breathe in US academia.

Everybody argued and yelled without being terrified of giving offense. I haven’t participated in anything this intellectually stimulating… since the last time I spoke with this group.

One of the academics I met left a tenure-track job in the US 6 months before going up for tenure because of the stultifying environment of extreme wokeness. She is considered extremely left-wing in Spain but back in Kentucky she was perceived as almost to the right of Hitler.

Of course, I have this blog where I can speak of things that interest me but I very much miss having such discussions in real life. I don’t think I’m going to go to any more conferences in North America because what’s the point of listening to strings of slogans that we all already know? I’ll go to Spain instead.

Why China Doesn’t Lead

Today China released its much vaunted plan for peace in Ukraine. You can read it here.

The extraordinary impotence of the text is striking. It’s a well-intentioned, bland word soup that could have been produced by ChatBot GPT. There’s nothing bad in it other than it should be shameful for anybody over the age of 14 publicly to release such a string of banalities. “War is bad. Peace is good. Sovereignty is important. Respect human rights!”

The plan is said to be based on the doctrine of “4 necessities, 4 commonalities and 3 observations.” Anybody who has had to sit through an administrative meeting knows that this is the language of Western bureaucrats. There’s a lady in our Office of Instructional Innovation and Design who speaks like this because there’s nothing else she knows how to do.

The most striking thing, though, is that the 14-year-old who wrote the text is clearly Western. This is Western mentality, the Western conceptual apparatus, carefully and eagerly regurgitated in a manner of a conscientious but dull student. Over a billion people, one of the highest-IQ group of the planet, and all they can produce is this major snooze.

People keep saying that China is the next global hegemon. But they confuse size with the capacity to lead. Look at Great Britain or Spain. They are tiny. Yet they created enormous empires and made their languages and cultures globally crucial.

When a small handful of Spaniards defeated the Aztec Empire, that happened because the Aztecs were in a civilizational dead-end of which they themselves were quite aware. Spaniards made themselves more attractive to the multitudinous tribes that went to fight the Aztecs on their side and guaranteed their win because they were a civilization on the rise. Aztecs were on the decline. They had no new ideas, no mental agility. Not on the individual level, of course, but as a group. They tried to inscribe the arrival of the Spaniards into an outdated system of old myths. That wasn’t working, so they got stuck pondering this tedious conundrum and lost valuable time. When you contrast the absolute certainty of Hernán Cortés and the impotent wavering of Moctezuma, it becomes clear who was bound to win the contest.

The same but even more egregious process took place when Pizarro conquered the Incas. And now Mexico and Peru speak Spanish and struggle with very Hispanic problems in a very Hispanic way. (OT: is anybody following what’s happening in Mexico? It’s major and really bad. I can post about it if people are interested).

Leadership comes from a complete certainty that you have something really cool going on and you need to share it with the world. It works this way both in our individual lives and small groups or globally. “I’m big so follow me” makes no sense. “Follow me because I know a wonderful place you’ll love” does. Today China made it abundantly clear that it has no map that could take us to a great place and, moreover, doesn’t even suspect that maps can be drawn and new places can be explored.

As a famous Soviet writer said, “the scariest enemy is the one you invented yourself.” Let’s stop fearing imaginary foes and concentrate on our own leadership.

Lose Yourself… in COVID

OK, first of all, have you heard Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”? It’s also known as the best pop music song known to humanity. If not, listen to it here and then appreciate the way it was remastered for the current times by a talented reader of this blog:

Here’s the contemporary version of the masterpiece:

His face is sweaty,
Breath hot,
Lips are chapping,
There’s fogging on his glasses already,
Sight declining,
He’s boosted
But to neurotics
He looks sick and frightening,
Could cough germs,
But he keeps vaccinating,
Takes his mask off,
The guards all yell so loud
He opens his mouth
But they escort him out,
Ain’t choking, no,
Lungs functioning just fine right now,
Mask mandate sucks,
Pissed off,
Over, pow!

Snap back to reality,
Oh, unmasked celebrities,
Look, unmasked governor!
They lie,
He’s so mad
But he won’t
Give up that easy, no,
He won’t have it,
He knows,
It’s all back to the masks,
It don’t matter,
They’re dopes,
He knows that,
System broke,
Deck stacked,
And he knows
That when he goes back to just work from home
That’s when it’s
Back to the masks again,
This dumb mask crap,
He better go
Protest mask mandates.

You better
Boost yourself!
It’s the safest,
You know it,
Data shows it,
I’ll never let it go,
You only need three shots,
Do not miss your chance,
Just go,
This pharmacology helps you for a lifetime!

The germs escaping
Through this hole that is gaping,
Gaps won’t seal ‘less we taping,
Let me breathe!
As we move toward a
Vaccinated order,
As normal life is fading…

Book Notes: Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman

Yes, this is the follow-up to the refined sensibilities post. And it’s about a true-crime book.

The problem with the true crime genre is that criminals are not interesting people. Authors have to concentrate on the investigation, the trial, or the impact on the victims because there isn’t much to write about otherwise.

Sarah Weinman didn’t have that problem, though, as she sat down to write a book about Edgar Smith.

Smith was a trailer park deadbeat in New Jersey who stupidly murdered a young girl for no discernible reason, immediately got arrested, and was promptly sent to Death Row. So far so boring.

But then it started to get interesting. On Death Row, Smith somehow learned to write like a person of refined sensibilities. Mind you, he didn’t learn to speak or to live like one, only to write. So he wrote.

As a result, he managed to attract the attention of William F. Buckley, a leading conservative intellectual. Think what you will of his political beliefs, it is undeniable that Buckley was an intellectual of the highest caliber. Being a conservative, he didn’t hold criminals in high regard, to put it mildly. Imagine the power of Smith’s writing to strike a close friendship that spanned well over a decade with somebody like that.

And it wasn’t only Buckley. From his jail cell, Smith wrote thousands of letters to some extremely sophisticated people, making them downright besotted with him and, what’s really shocking, seeing him as one of them. They didn’t feel sorry for him. They felt intellectual affinity. Smith began to write books and became a best-selling author while sitting on Death Row.

The intellectuals who befriended (and in one fascinating case, fell in love with) Smith couldn’t conceive that such a cultured, sensitive, deep man could have really been guilty of some sordid, senseless murder. Or even if he were, then surely, the 15 years after his conviction had clearly reformed him, right?

So every effort was made to help Smith go free. And he did. His sentence was commuted to time served and he was released.

Unfortunately, as I said before, he could write like a sophisticated person but not live like one. Soon enough, Smith stopped writing, dropped his intellectual friends, including Buckley, and reverted to his persona of an indigent, shady bum.

And then he tried to murder somebody else.

I’m not giving any spoilers here because all this is mentioned in the first two pages of the book. It’s how he made himself attractive to so many people and managed to be in writing what he couldn’t be in person that the book explores.

I have to warn you that if you decide to read Scoundrel, please be prepared for the obligatory woke pledge in the opening paragraphs. Weinman swears fealty to the cause of “Black and Brown boys” who make absolutely no appearance in the rest of the book but have to be invoked like jealous deities whenever one speaks on any subject whatsoever these days. Once you get past that, the book becomes really good. Every subchapter ends on a cool cliffhanger that makes you want to keep reading.

Smith’s literary gift abandoned him as suddenly as it had come. As I keep saying, we can’t know why the gift gets bestowed on people or taken away. Scoundrel gives us a glimpse into this mystery and is worth reading for that reason alone.

Refined Sensibilities

There are people of refined sensibilities in the world. I don’t know how to put it so it doesn’t sound unbearably stuffy, so I will tell a story to illustrate the concept.

I have a friend who was born in a dirt-poor Mexican family. The father abandoned them, and my friend had to quit school at 16 and go work at an oil rig to support his functionally illiterate mom and two younger brothers.

For reasons that are impossible to comprehend, my friend turned out to be a person of refined sensibilities, an auto-didact who taught himself several languages, and became obsessed with books and obscure European movies.

The life at an oil rig was very distasteful to him. Contrary to the stereotype of a bookish guy as being slender and easy to bully, my friend is a huge, burly guy with the physique of an armoire, so nobody hassled him. But there was no life of the mind at the oil rig, and that, to a person like him, is almost as bad as death. Everything is smelly, dirty, and ugly. Other guys talked about stuff that to him, a deeply religious guy of extraordinary moral probity, was repellent. The only thing that kept him afloat was a copy of Dante’s Inferno he was reading in the original. That book was his biggest treasure because it took him from the debasement of the oil rig to the world of beauty and light.

Once he came back to his bunk and discovered that the treasured book had disappeared. Finally he found it in the toilet, which was of the kind that has holes in the ground, with the attendant nastiness and stench. Somebody had torn out the pages and used them as toilet paper. “It wasn’t out of malice,” my friend told me. “He simply didn’t see a difference between a page with words on it and a page without.”

For people of refined sensibilities who are reading this and who are shaken by this story like I was, I can reassure you by telling you that the friend ended up becoming a college professor and a writer. It all ended well. But the story is a perfect metaphor of life. Some people experience the sublime and others shit on it. Sometimes they do it unthinkingly and sometimes out of frustration because they really don’t get it and it annoys them. If you ever felt shat upon for being too sensitive, too bookish, or too repelled by coarseness, then you’ll know how precious it is to meet people like yourself. People who get it. People who acquire a dazed look when they can talk about their favorite books, indie bands or comics. People who were always laughed at and told they are weird.

All this has a point which will be revealed in the next post. For now, please stay with the story and think about the concept of refined sensibilities.

Snow Day

The day before yesterday it was +24°C in Salamanca, and today I woke up to a snowstorm. It’s still very warm outside but huge, wet chunks of snow are falling from the sky. The photos don’t show it but the blobs of snow are so huge that you can barely see where you are going.

I haven’t seen such snow outside of Canada for years. What a beautiful surprise!

Ukrainian Qualities

At my class on semantic fields, I found out that Ukrainians are:

– obsessed with freedom and incapable not only of following rules but intellectually processing their existence

– extremely passionate and totalizing in their feelings (Demon Copperhead is a work of genius! The Poisonwood Bible is complete dreck!)

– low-anxiety

– messy, all over the place, the opposite of meticulous

– extremely loyal but incapable of forgiving what they see as betrayal

– very stubborn

– capable of such intense enjoyment (including of very trivial aspects of life) that others think they are mental.

I feel very understood. All of these qualities are both bad and good. But they are very real and very mine.

National Divorce or Individual Choice?

In the completely unrealistic scenario of “a national divorce”, the resulting ideologically homogenous countries would once again become extremely polarized over some new set of issues. It would take a few months at most to achieve the same or higher levels of polarization.

MTG is a cognitively challenged individual and I wouldn’t make fun of a person with an intellectual disability if I didn’t see people with no cognitive issues express the same idea about the “national divorce.” That anybody would think narcissistic wounds can be healed by isolating the wounded from reality is very strange. No, unpleasant as it must be to the afflicted, the constant exposure to the world’s complexity is the only remedy.

I have reached a stage in life that when I watch movies or shows I loved 20 years ago, the actors who seemed old back then have suddenly become alarmingly young. When I re-watched “Pride and Prejudice” mini-series from the 1990s, however, Jennifer Ehle who plays Elizabeth Bennet didn’t look young. This wasn’t because of anything to do with her appearance but because of the amazing self-control of her character she so beautifully portrayed. Elizabeth is a passionate person yet her sense of dignity and propriety serve as a corset to keep her passions from being destructive. As a result of knowing how to contain herself, she’s a happy person who can be at peace even when her life is uncertain and her desires are thwarted. Again, Ehle’s superb acting shows how indestructible Elizabeth’s inner source of deep contentment is.

There’s an enormous distance separating Elizabeth Bennet from the endlessly squealing, self-pitying and infantilized MTGs and AOCs who think it’s cute to act like little girls well into their middle age and who are incapable of exercising self-control. Some outside force is always to blame for their unhappiness. The whole country must be at fault for the misery of the perennially inflamed MTG and AOC. The trouble is always “systemic”, “national” or even “global.” That MTG and AOC themselves might simply try to get themselves in check and stop freaking out simply never occurs.

Chatbots and DEI

Turns out I’m not the only person who discovered that ChatBot GPT is great for drafting meaningless bureaucratic texts:

The letter from the Peabody College’s office of diversity, equity, and inclusion expressed regret about the Michigan tragedy, in which a gunman killed three students and left five others in critical condition last week. The note, signed by associate and assistant deans of the college, included an attribution attached to the bottom that read, “Paraphrase from OpenAI’s ChatGPT AI language model, personal communication, February 15, 2023.”

Some people on campus are pouting as if the problem were the use of the chatbot and not the very existence of the office of diversity, equity and inclusion with its silly, pre-canned statements.

My administrators love sending these condolence messages sometimes for weirdest reasons. I wish they quit altogether. The world will be a better place when we outsource both the reading and the writing of such messages to the AI. Chatbots can spout long, sensitive perorations filled with cliches and written in perfect bureaucratese at each other and leave humans in peace.