The Lost Art: The Life of a Professional Whistler

The Lost Art

 

There is, a Google search reveals, no shortage of odd jobs: armpit sniffers, dog food tasters, etc. But there are also jobs out there that retain their oddity but are much more, let’s just say, refined. I think a professional whistler is one of those. My colleague found Steve Herbst and together we filmed his story.

He’s worn a lot of hats lately, but the one he likes the most — that fits him best — is being a whistler. He grew up around music lovers but shunned instruments for something that he could always take with him. His incessant practicing doesn’t seem to have won him a lot of friends, but if nothing else it’s turned him in to a very good musician. I’ll be posting links soon.

Can Conservatism be Beautiful?

I’m not sure, or at least I wasn’t sure until I read the first two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (yes, that is meant to be provocative, as in Min Kampf; the guy is from Norway and has written six autobiographical tomes that are often maddening with their details of common life but break out into beautiful passages and asides just often enough to make it worth reading). He’s very controversial in the Scandinavialands.

All that aside, I’m wanting to do a book review for a magazine on how he makes skepticism beautiful. Skepticism — the classical kind and not the authoritarian kind pitched by scientologists — is the basis for conservatism, and thus one of conservatism’s challenges is to remain relevant and progressive in the best senses of those two words. But its strengths are that it is based firmly in a sort of earthly reality, taking into account the limits of knowledge and human experience. That description doesn’t sound very beautiful, so here’s at least one passage in Knaus. that I think does a good job.

He’s on vacation to Norway (he’d been living in Sweden), takes a walk outside and notices everything around him: the clear sky, the wet green fields, the trees lining the towering mountains. Enter soliloquy here:

This was beyond our comprehension. We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them?

So, slaves, what think ye? Am I too far off base here, or is this doable?

Why Ben Carson is Wrong About Tithing and the Old Testament

Ben Carson, who spoke here last year, has become a new conservative folk hero. There is a lot that can be said about him & his recent speech in Washington, but I think one point merits closer attention, and that is his belief that the Bible itself offers justification for a flat tax rate because of its injunction to tithe at a set percentage. Here’s the problem with that view, though:

The tithe as in the Bible isn’t just by virtue of being in the Bible; and even if it were, it wouldn’t mean that it could be justly imposed on contemporary society by governmental policy.

The first point, I think, should be fairly obvious: lots of things aren’t just in the Old Testament. For starters, a righteous man was commanded to flay (seriously—flay; as in burnt-offering flay) his son. There is enough death to put Moroni at ease, then there is that fairly troubling command in 1 Samuel 15:2-3 to “kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” as if killing the people and the children wouldn’t have been enough—to add to the innocent blood of the infant the blood of the sheep to make sure desecration and destruction has taken its full toll. Then there are all of the special covenants that, even perhaps in a religious setting, people have a hard time making sense of, but that become incomprehensible in a contemporary political setting. When the injunction to tithe was given it wasn’t given with a justice claim.

All of this is to say that these things weren’t fair or just by virtue of their inclusion in the OT. The typical justification for said unjust “Heavenly Distributive Schemes”—to put it nicely—is that God had his reasons, which is I suppose satisfying enough for some, but one must also concede the point that from a societal & political standpoint these things are still very much unjust. If not, very few moral or human right claims make sense, and terrifying is the person who did not concede the point.

The second point is perhaps less obvious, but it shouldn’t be. Take the following two people and their accompanying salaries:

A: $20,000

B: $100,000

Assuming a 10% tithe, A must pay $2,000 and B $10,000. So the question is this: does the $10,000 mean more to B than the $2,000 does to A? And, ceteris paribus, I think you’d have to say that the $2,000 is much more valuable to A. Presumably, much of As earnings go towards essentials—health care, food, minimal housing, etc.—than does Bs, which, say, goes towards a family vacation. Prima facie, I don’t think a flat rate is fair at all—it certainly seems to be much more lenient to the wealthier solely by virtue of it being flat.

None of this, of course, is to say that a sufficient justificatory scheme is impossible; it may very well be, but it isn’t found in the Old Testament.

Ethics For Sale: Hugh Nibley is Somewhere Crying

In China it is possible, Michael Sandel writes in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, to hire the Tianjin Apologizing Company to apologize on your behalf to that person you can’t bring yourself to even speak to. This sort of thinking–made possible by the crowding out of actual values to market ones–belies a certain attitude that I think is at the very least troubling: namely, that everything is for sale. Because some things clearly aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

So, naturally, it was a bit unsettling seeing this sign at the business school–essentially seeing something that should have intrinsic value trying to be given an extrinsic incentive. There is no value, belief, tradition, or whatever that won’t respond to money, or so the economists & the folks at the WSJ think. But in a rare moment of insight, Jonathan Long of the WSJ had this to say about the standard economic view:

“This is a depressingly reductive view of the human experience. Men will die for God or country, kinship or land. No one ever picked up a rifle and got shot for optimal social utility. Economists cannot account for this basic fact of humanity. Yet they have assumed a role in society that for the past 4,000 years has been held by philosophers and theologians. They have made our lives freer and more efficient. And we are the poorer for it.”

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Violence, Part I: Nature Devouring

I hope this to be the first of two not-so-focused essays on violence.]

In a vein not usually explored by people with normal jobs I’ve found an interesting parallel between a passage in Mencius and one in the Old Testament. The biblical passage is kind of obscured in this larger context of the Assyrians settling in Samaria, slipped in like the author was telling us the weather that day:

And so it was at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they feared not the Lord: therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which slew some of them. (2 Kings 17:25)

This is reported to the king of Assyria, so he naturally teaches the people the law of god, and end of lions. Next story. I came across this in John Sullivan’s essay on animal violence (and by that I mean animal-on-human violence[1]). I don’t think I would have otherwise paid any attention to it; it is, after all, but one of many odd passages in Kings, although I have for a long time known about the two she-bears who came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the ‘small boys’ to death.

Anyhow, the other day I was reading Mencius and came across this:

If benevolence and righteousness are obstructed, that leads animals to devour people.

These are eerily similar. But despite Kipling’s ‘East is East and West is West and never shall the twain meet’, I actually get where Mencius is coming from a little more than the OT. The idea of benevolence & righteousness being central to everything functioning properly is a major theme, probably the major theme, of most of what Mencius taught, and this kind of fits into his overall project. It also has this sort of agnosticism toward religion & god that marks almost all Confucian works. It isn’t that god will punish evil; it’s just that this obstruction leads to the devouring and the social chaos or whatever, because that’s just the way it is. It’s the way it has been and the way it will be forever, because that’s who we are and that’s what nature does.

And that feeling is completely lost in Kings because you’ve got the Lord behind the actions, and it makes it sound absurdly casual, like another day at work, cleaning up messes. (I guess in fairness the Harper Collins Study Bible I’ve got [NRSV] says that the lions are “agents of divine judgment,” which makes sense.)

But there’s really something I find fascinating about all of this, about thousands of years of mistreatment finally taking its toll and the earth and all those belonging to Her finally taking revenge for the totality of all of the cruel and senseless acts. In a way it would be more terrible than (the much-loved-by-pop culture) zombies or vampires, because we were already supposed to have triumphed over nature, harnessing it & neglecting it until few understand its mysteries anymore.

Terryl & Fiona Givens wrote a book that came out in Oct. called The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. I haven’t read it but I’d imagine that it gets its idea from a book in the Pearl of Great Price where it says that God actually wept, much to the astonishment of the protagonist. But in that same chapter, kind of weirdly, it says that “all the creations of God mourned; and the earth groaned . . .” I guess a lot of this is supposed to be figurative or whatever, but I think it’s at least as interesting as the idea of God weeping—His Creation taking on its own human emotion, the animals and all of nature doing this collective pitiful groan under the weight of it all; of standing witness to the violence that we insanely carry out on each other; of the blood spilt from malice, much of it its own only to return back to its element.

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[1] When you Google ‘animal violence’ all of the results on the first page are of human-on-animal violence. But Sullivan’s essay is seriously entertaining. A large part of it is made up, but none of the accounts of animal on human violence are, and many of those are exceptionally absurd.

Mormonism and the (Relatively) New Quest for Success

In 1958 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States to see why agriculture—“America’s biggest success”—was one of the Soviet’s great failures. Playing host was Ezra Taft Benson, at the time the Secretary of Agriculture, who would later become the president of the LDS Church. According to Benson, while touring farms, Khrushchev said to Benson:

You Americans are so gullible. No, you won’t accept communism outright, but we’ll keep feeding you small doses of socialism until you’ll finally wake up and find you already have communism. We won’t have to fight you. We’ll so weaken your economy until you’ll fall like overripe fruit into our hands.

It was an experience that Elder Benson was not quick to forget; he reminded Church members (and any other souls willing to listen) of the dangers of Communism every chance he got. (Thanks to Glenn Beck [what happened to this guy anyway? Too extreme even for Fox, and now I read he’s telling children’s stories or something of the sort?] for the reference).

Elder Benson is now the go to figure for conservative Mormons intent on advocating the virtues of private property and of capitalism. This is a group that has grown increasingly large and powerful in the last fifty or so years. And now, with high-profile political candidates and even more business gurus that are members of the Mormon Church, it is a group that has been finding itself in the spotlight quite a bit lately.

This week the Economist ran an article on Mormons and success. It is a wonderful article (and one that even manages a joke about facial hair), noting that “Less than 2% of Americans are Mormons, yet their commercial prominence belies their numbers . . . Mormons have constructed a huge pro-business infrastructure.” Perhaps one of the reasons for this success, the author writes, is a long-standing fascination with organization and a type of self-reliance drawn from being a persecuted minority. It tries, in other words, to draw a coherent line of explanation through Mormonism’s history.

Yet this self-reliance and striving for success has manifested itself quite differently in the past, and I think that in the face of all of this “success” it is easy to forget this. (The article in the Economist did not go into such detail). Up until about 60 years ago, Mormons were very much ill-at-ease in the larger world of business. Capitalism itself has had a rocky relationship with the Church, repudiated the first half of the Church’s history and fully embraced in its second. Now the success garnered under such a system is almost worn on the sleeves of members. It is to them a testimony to the lessons learned on missions and the principles of the gospel. As noted, this view—while now practically mainstream—was not always so popular.[1]

So there at least seems to be another tradition within Mormonism that is often forgotten, even as Mormons rush to the spotlight of success. While I don’t entirely know what to make of this historical flip-flop, I don’t think that the world of business schools and Goldman Sachs is one we should wholly embrace without critical thought. As even Milton Friedman recognized, capitalism is a morally neutral endeavor; it has one objective, and that is to maximize profit. It is, by nature, not involved in religion, charity, or ethics. To what extent, if any, it is detrimental to these, I do not know.

Business schools will not doubt continue to be filled with young ambitious Mormons eager for a taste of economic success. But if this is done thoughtlessly, and in a manner ignorant of tradition, such a quest can come with a high price.


[1] Why has this been? Richard Bushman summed up at least a few of the possible reasons: 1) Capitalism seems to “reduce receptivity to the gospel”; 2) It is ‘godless’ in that it neither advocates nor repudiates faith in God—in the realms of ethics and religion, it finds itself mute; and 3) Corporate values “invade our families in the form of consumerism.” In this light the modern striving for worldly success is odd; the Church has had a relatively smooth relationship with the also “worldly” endeavors of science and democracy, but that has not been the case with capitalism.
Others, most notably Hugh Nibley, have viewed business schools as a hotspot of moral deprivation, and wrote that “Every step in the direction of increasing one’s personal holdings is a step away from Zion, which is another way of saying, as the Lord has proclaimed in various ways, that one cannot serve two masters: to the degree in which he loves the one he will hate the other, and so it is with God and business, for mammon is simply the standard Hebrew word for any kind of financial dealing” (Approaching Zion). Some view Nibley as a type of lonely yet sane voice in a dark wilderness. I don’t know what to make of him–he’s fascinating, to say the least.

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Women and the Voices of Reason

Last year columnist David Brooks asked readers to send their “Life Reports” to him, where he would occasionally post some of the more interesting reports in hope of teaching us all a few things. Charles Snelling—a wealthy entrepreneur who was raised by an abnormally strict father—wrote in some of the details of his life experience. When he was young, he met the love of his life. She took care of him and patiently dealt with the shortcomings that come with growing up in an emotionally deficient household. Six years ago, she caught Alzheimer’s, and for these last six years her husband took care of her. Rather than being bitter, he expressed gratitude for being able to repay her in some way.

But last week, Snelling killed his wife and himself. The Snelling family released a statement: “This is a total shock to everyone in the family, but we know he acted out of deep devotion and profound love.” Readers generally tended to express the same type of sentiment. Some made comparisons to Romeo and Juliet.

Huh? Profound love? How in any way is this a decent act, let alone one led by profound love?

Here the only sane voices seem to be those of the women. One woman, who had spent 25 years caring for an Alzheimer’s patient, rightly argued that “none of us have the right to decide that another person’s life is worthless.” Snelling obviously had issues–more issues than he was willing to let on in his letter. It is possible that deep down he just wasn’t a very good person, adept at manipulating others. Or that he couldn’t care for her—in which case he should have sought professional help. It is also possible, as Brooks notes, that he no longer had control over his faculties.

In any case, I am with the women on this one.

Summer Reading List

I’ve been counting down the days until I can sit down with a few good books. Sometime I want to try reading all the books on some list or coming up with a clever list of my own where all of the books are related, but for now I just really really want to read these. If you’ve read some of these or have any more suggestions, I’d love to know. This summer I am definitely not above vegetative entertainment.

Wolf Totem – Jiang Rong (Sold several million copies in China a few years ago.)

Fathers and Children – Turgenev

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Confederacy of Dunces – Kennedy Toole

Metamorphosis – Kafka

Red China Blues – Jan Wong

Wild Grass – Ian Johnson

Demons – Fyodor Dostoevsky (The best political novel ever written?)

The Seriousness of Novelists

I was reading an interview of Cormac McCarthy the other day, and in usual fashion he came across as quite the serious dude. Among other things, he had this to say:

“I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.”

I am not sure how I feel about this. It is at once ridiculous; yet I do have some sympathy for the concept as it relates to writing novels. After reading The White Tiger and loving it, I decided to try some short stories by Aravind Adiga. But they were a bunch of snoozers–it was almost like he wrote it hoping people would buy it on the strength of his first novel. Can great art (and especially great literature) be produced flippantly? Whatever the case, I do think it true that it is very difficult to produce in a classroom setting–for nothing stifles creativity like a creative writing class.