Skip to content

The Walrus and the Carpenter

I don’t know why but I often find myself mentally redoing projects that I did in university. Usually it’s the ones where I had to present something. I imagine myself standing back there in front of the class again, and what I’d say if I were doing the presentation now.

In an English course once I had to memorize a poem, recite it to the class, and give a little analysis of it. A lot of people chose song lyrics. That was a mental shift for me — it hadn’t occurred to me before that that poems and songs are the same thing. Ever since that assignment I’ve thought of poems and songs a little differently.

This morning if I were picking a poem to memorize and talk about it would be the Walrus and the Carpenter, from chapter 4 of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. There’s always been something really horrible about that poem, to me, and maybe now I see what it is.

The story: the “Walrus” and the “Carpenter” are walking along a beach. They entice a bunch of oysters to follow them. The oysters are excited to go for a walk, but they get tired and sit down to rest. Then the Walrus and the Carpenter eat them.

As I see it now, there’s something very characteristically modern in this story. At the climax of it, when the oysters have gotten tired and sat down, the Walrus casually mentions that it’s “time to feed”. The oysters pleed for their lives, and the Walrus answers them,
“The night is fine. Do you admire the view?”

It’s horror, but it’s so understated as to be matter-of-fact. From the perspective of the oysters what’s happening is terrible; but the Walrus and the Carpenter are on such a different plane that in some sense they aren’t experiencing the same event. They’re just having a nice dinner. They’re aware that their actions are a tragedy to the oysters, but there’s no necessity for them to empathize with that and so they don’t.

You get the same sense of disconnection reading Franz Kafka, and people like that. It’s not about good and evil, these modern writers seem to be telling us. It’s about the powerful and the powerless; the informed and the uninformed. But the differences between these groups are not fundamental. At various times they seem like one big group — Walrus, Carpenter, and oysters all walking along the beach together. They experience some things in the same way — the pleasure of the walk — and to that extent they’re in the same story. But then, seemingly by accident, part of the group gets hungry and decides to eat the rest of the group. From the standpoint of the eaters this is completely unremarkable; it’s just a thing that happens.

In most of the horror stories we knew as kids there was some supernatural creature doing evil things. The devil tricked people, or ghosts haunted them, or dragons robbed them. Some creature that was clearly an outsider perpetrated the evil, and it clearly was evil. There was never a sense that the dragon had its own perspective within which its actions were perfectly acceptable, and even ordinary. There was no sense that the dragons and devils and demons were the same as everyone else.

There was a line in a comic strip called Pogo which said “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That’s the sense you get in more modern stories. The evil isn’t supernatural — on the contrary, it’s often ordinary to the point of being banal. It isn’t other, it’s us. But it’s also not us, depending on circumstances. You might have a job that requires you to do something harmful, but you could as easily be fired and replaced by someone else. So evil things aren’t perpetrated by evil people. In fact, depending on your perspective the evil may or may not exist for you.

The enemy, if there is one, is us. Well and good for Camus to say that it’s the duty of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners, but how can that be practically achieved? Where are the opportunities for meaningful choice? They must exist, but they’re well-hidden.


Bored by misrepresentations of Marxism

It’s hard to find a concise summary of Marxism that makes any sense. I’ve seen two things that promised to summarize marxism, but which then went on to describe the life of Karl Marx. (Rather like discussing Newton’s theory of gravity by talking about what his favorite foods were when he was a toddler. Did he notice the apple fall because he really liked apples? Something to ponder.) Other summaries do really talk about some Marxist ideas, but then leave out crucial connecting ideas, so that you’re left feeling that it was all rather mystical. Ironic, because Marx was being as coldly materialistic as you can get.

Here’s Marxism, then, as I understand it, without any mumbo jumbo.

People can be divided roughly into two classes. There are people who survive by earning a wage; these we can call ‘workers,’ or ‘the working class.’ Then there are people who live off of their investments. This second group owns businesses, and they earn profits from those businesses. The second group can be called capitalists

The power of naming

“So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”
–Genesis 2:19, English Standard Version translation

For a long time I’ve been interested in the idea that the ability to name things gives the person doing the naming a subtle form of power. When you study some field that has a lot of jargon associated with it, you can feel in your bones that the jargon subtly shapes your outlook. Part of it is that you’re joining a club: the club of people who can speak the specialized jargon of some field or other. But it runs deeper than that also. Ideas that have names take on an importance that unnamed ideas don’t have. If we aren’t careful we can easily start to believe that named ideas are “Real,” and unnamed ones are unreal.

I’ve read that in the 1960’s and 70’s, the departments of organizations that hired people were named “Staffing”. Their job was to staff the organization. But somehow the name of that department was changed, and it’s now referred to as “Human Resources”. Subtly, without much discussion of the issue (as far as I know), employees have become human resources. The process of managing employees is becoming Human Resource Management. I don’t understand the details of how that was made to happen, but it’s been done quite effectively.

In psychiatry, the mechanism for naming and renaming things is more visible. There’s a group called the American Psychiatric Association, and it publishes what is (really) a book of names. It tells psychiatrists how to diagnose things like Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and many other disorders. Occasionally updates to the psychiatric manual come out; occasionally, disorders change, and new ones appear, and old ones disappear. ADHD didn’t exist 50 years ago, I suppose, but now that it’s been named it does exist (for a lot of people). Maybe someday it’s nature will be redefined by the American Psychiatric Association, and some people who used to suffer from ADHD won’t suffer from it anymore, and people who used to be healthy will become ADHD sufferers. Voila naming.

When I studied international relations theory in university, the names given to different political outlooks disturbed me very much. People who believe that “If you want peace, you should prepare for war” were referred to in all our textbooks as Realists. People who would oppose spending so much money on weapons were given names like Idealists, Marxists, or Liberals. That’s part of the jargon of international relations theory, as tought in colleges and universities throughout the “western world”. (And beyond as well, so far as I know.) Arguing for a large military is being realistic; by extension, people who oppose large military budgets are unrealistic.

In my economics courses, things were as heavy-handed or worse. Things like pollution are referred to as externalities — they are external to economics, and therefore not fit topics for economists to consider. People are consumers, and people are also human capital. Aside from that we don’t exist — or perhaps, our other characteristics are externalities which the economist ought to ignore. So a particular field has been named economics, and it is about making decisions that effect everyone’s lives much more than who gets elected next year; and the people who manage the economy use language like human capital, human resources, efficiency… but all art, all environmental concerns, the children and the elderly, and really everything that makes us people instead of machines, isn’t given any names in their field and so is almost completely ignored.

The scariest part, I think, is that through ‘education’ people might someday accept this kind of worldview as ordinary. Right now it’s mainly in higher education that you learn you’re a consuming machine that exists to be trained and exploited. But we could eventually have kids in kindergarten who think of themselves as resources, if we don’t already. If they experience sadness about being a resource instead of a person, they may accept the idea that they suffer from depression and need medication. In short, we might become the nightmare creatures that we depict ourselves to be in our ‘higher’ studies.

Like an overflowing pitcher

Systems can be judged by how closely they represent reality.  That’s how scientific theories are judged.  You take a set of ideas like Newton’s ideas about gravity, and they work together as a system that tells us how to think about the universe.  But we have experiences of the universe also.  If Newton’s system of ideas says that the moon will appear in the sky at a certain time, but the moon doesn’t appear then, we would know there was something wrong with Newton’s system.


We know that there’s a lot wrong with our economic system.  It’s a set of ideas that work together to give us a way of thinking about the world.  But the things it predicts don’t happen around us.  This is so well known that economics students aren’t given any real examples of real countries to work with.  The theories are tought in reference to “Country A” and “Country B,” or similar.  It’s very obvious that the system only works in a fairytale reality, but that isn’t a concern of the people teaching it.  The point is not to teach ordinary people how economics really works.  The point is to tell them what is useful for them to believe, and then reward the ones who demonstrate that they’ve learned the ideology and can apply it.  Those are the ones who will say things that benefit the rich, and say it in a way that sounds convincing.  It may be worth hiring them, which means they may be able to pay off their student loans, which means they are the best students.  That is why they deserve A’s.


So alright, it’s a corrupt system.  That in itself isn’t worrying.  People lie, people pursue their own interests, such is the world.  Economists are priests of a new materialistic religion, and they do what priests do: teach the faith to the flock, so that they’ll keep on quietly growing wool and being fleesed by the shepherds.  Looked at from one viewpoint it may be unjust; but from another, the sheep may be happy with it, and the shepherds may be happy with it, so it isn’t important whether or not the faith is true.


However, there is a world outside of the fantasies of people, and if our fantasies diverge from it too far we’re eventually confronted with consequences.  You can believe that wearing a certain amulet makes you invulnerable to fire, for example, and the belief is just fine as long as you aren’t near any fires.  Maybe the amulet helps you sleep.  You used to have trouble falling asleep at night because you worried about the house catching fire at night.  Now you just wear your amulet to bed and don’t worry, and you sleep great.  You’re happy, and the guy who sold you the amulet is happy, so what’s the problem, right?  There isn’t a problem, as far as it goes.  We can cherish unrealistic beliefs our whole lives without suffering any consequences.  But if one day there is a fire, and we stroll confidently into it because we’re wearing our fire-protecting amulet, suddenly the belief is no longer enough.  We can have such utter faith in our amulet that we ignore even the sensation of burning, but when our skin blackens and falls off our ignorance doesn’t keep us alive.


So we have an economic system founded on paper money.  We have a lot of faith in this system, and with some justification.  Most people spend most of their lives doing work, and being rewarded for it with paper money.  And that is working reasonably well.  You hand your paper to people at cash registers, and they don’t try to stop you from walking out of the store with real solid objects.  So it works.


People don’t talk about why most paper is nearly worthless, but the bits that have the money symbols printed on them are a matter of life and death.  We don’t talk about who gets to print those money symbols on bits of paper, thereby spinning wood pulp into gold.  We talk constantly about how to get the paper money once it’s printed up — “What do you do for a living?” — but the printing itself, and the managing of it, is generally ignored.  As long as inflation isn’t too bad, that makes a kind of sense.  Whoever’s playing God — creating out of thin air what most people have to devote most of their lives to aquiring — the pseudo-God must not be taking all that much for itself.  If it went wild and printed up lots of money, there could be cause for concern; but as long as it’s a well-behaved pseudo-God, we needn’t worry.


Einstein reportedly said that he studied physics because he wanted to know the mind of God.  If you want to know the mind of the pseudo-God that creates our money, and which people worship by working in order to earn it, you could study economics.  It’s all there.  It’s concealed by being written in a lot of jargon, like most religions.  The priests normally interpret it for ordinary mortals, because it sounds very complicated — you may be puzzled about how a piece of bread takes on the substance of the body of someone who died two thousand years ago, but that’s because you never learned to read Latin.  Similarly, it’s hard for you to understand why the paper in your wallet is worth so much — the sacrament by which paper is transubstantiated into money takes a lot of specialized training and mastery of certain jargon in order to grasp.  But if you have time, and nearly superhuman patience, you can slog through the doctrines that guide the pseudo-God we worship.  His mind is pretty clearly written down, though in so much jargon that it may as well be Latin.


Our pseudo-god believes that the only value anything has is the value set for it by a market.  In other words, the price tag is the value of the thing.  Maybe it’s a warm jacket manufactured in China, on sale for $30.  Its value is therefore $30.  If tomorrow it isn’t on sale, and its price tag says $60, then it became twice as valuable overnight.  You may wonder how that could be, since it’s the same jacket as yesterday, but mainstream economics only concerns itself with right now, and it has absolute faith in the ability of markets to determine the value of things.  Planning is for communists.  There is no past, there is no future, there is only right now.  There are no values that aren’t expressed by price tags.  Air is free, for example, so air is valueless.  You might think it’s important; you might think that keeping it breatheable is important.  But that’s thinking about the future; that’s planning ahead.  The pseudo-god believes that clean air won’t be worth anything until you have to pay for it, and then it will be worth whatever the market makes you pay.


In general the well-trained economists do believe that only now matters, and planning leads to inefficiency.  They’re also trained not to think about politics.  Free trade is good because it reduces the ability of governments to control their economies.  Privately-owned central banks are good for the same reason.  Whoever has money should be free to spend it as they like, no matter how many people are effected by those decisions — political interference is bad.  Regulation is bad.  The price tag of a thing expresses its real and only value, and thinking about the future is generally a waste of time.


This is the creed of our priests.  This is the guiding wisdom of our society.  That the rich must be left alone to do as they like, and their decisions will be correct by definition.  There are other societies in which the government is expected to play a more active role in the economy, but those are misguided communists.  This is not a thing we need to prove, because economic theory doesn’t concern itself with real countries: but you can deduce by studying country A and country B, taking for granted a few unimportant assumptions, that countries in which the government is allowed to play a role in the economy are bound to fail.  The wisdom is so comprehensively tought, and so useful to rich people in North America and Europe, that I don’t think it’s going to change quickly enough to make a difference.  Lots of people have tried to change the thinking by publishing articles and books, and so on.  But this worldview has proven its usefulness to the people who set agendas here, and clearly it will take more than just a public bailout of the whole system to make them admit that the pseudo-god they’ve erected might not be omniscient.


I do expect our economic system to go the way of the Soviet one.  It’s just as unwilling to confront reality as the USSR’s system was.  It’s up to the people lending money to our system to decide when to quit lending, and how quickly.  Hopefully the results will be peaceful; hopefully the American political class will allow itself to be bought off, like the Soviet one did, and be content to go be oligarches somewhere.

Having Fun with History

How will the future see us?  I find this an interesting philosophical question to try and answer.  It’s a philosophical question in the sense that it doesn’t have a right answer.  We have to speculate, approximate, sometimes straight up guess at an answer.  So there’s an element of play involved.  No matter what answer we come up with it won’t be right; but on the other hand, who could say that we’re wrong?  Ahh, but the challenge is to come up with an answer that’s persuasive.  That’s where it can get interesting.


People who write about history for a living love to divide things up into units.  There’s a classical age; low middle ages; high middle ages; modern age; some say there’s a post-modern age…  Names get given to geographical areas too, which helps to keep things tidy.  Ancient Greece; Roman empire; Persian Empire; British Empire; Ottoman Empire; United States of America (no matter how disunited they’ve sometimes been)…  The people who actually lived in Ancient Greece would have been very surprised to learn that they lived in Ancient Greece.  It’s hard to guess how they saw themselves really: maybe as citizens of city-states within Greece — Athenians, Corinthians, and like that.  Or did most of them feel allegiance to a particular group, more so than a particular area — a member of the Corinthian people, say, as opposed to a member of the city of Corinth?  But in any case, clearly calling them “Ancient Greeks” has more to do with how we’ve chosen to depict history than it has to do with the people being depicted.


Similar to what’s happened with ‘the Ancient Greeks,’ I suspect that Canada and the United States and England and Germany and France, and so on, will at some point become just “The Europeans”.  I imagine it would make sense to study the age of European expansionism, ranging from about 1492 to 2000.  (But the numbers would be different if a different calendar was being used.  And why shouldn’t a different calendar be used, since choosing the birth of Christ as an approximate starting point would be odd to non-christians.)


The history of the last 500 years would look pretty odd if you ignored the idea that France and England were different countries, and called them all Europeans.  But in a way it would also make sense.  You could summarize it all so quickly.  This is what happened.


The Europeans wanted spices, and the trade route to the princely states of the Indian subcontinent had become impassible because of politico-religious wars.  So the Europeans sent out some ships looking for a water route to the princely states, and hit the Americas.  The Europeans then set up colonies in the Americas.


How the next bit gets portrayed could depend a lot on what message the student is supposed to take away from learning about the Europeans.  Maybe the history is being written in a country where setting up colonies isn’t a policy the government wants to pursue.  If it’s a Chinese historian, and the Chinese government has decided that colonies are more trouble than they’re worth in the long-run, then the student could learn all about how the colonies fought wars against each other and even against their parent countries, and eventually brought the period of European dominance to an end.  I think that’s a really easily supportable thesis.


But there could be other ways to write our history, to advance other theses.  You could say that trade with the colonies made the Europeans very rich, but they became greedy because of their individualistic culture.  The Europeans in the center of Europe wanted to make colonies, but the coastal Europeans had already claimed the whole world for themselves, and finally Europe self-destructed over that issue.  (Germany, in central Europe; and what we call the World Wars, but what might be called the wars for the world — or even the War for the World, since dividing them into two separate wars is a little unnecessary.)  That should work too.


Again supposing that it’s Chinese historians writing about the European age, I wonder if they’ll give the Europeans credit for inventing things like television.  Likely not.  Television is practically obsolete already anyway.  Some Chinese company can invent a machine that shows holographic images, or all out virtual reality, and then nobody would care that there was some intermediate machine called a television that the Europeans used to use.  If it did have to be mentioned, say in a history of technology, then it could be shown that a Chinese person came up with the theory of television first, but maybe European companies were the first to build it.


Surely the planet is going to run out of oil at some point, which will require vast technological changes.  If everybody rides on some sort of ultra-efficient public transportation, there won’t be any point remembering that there were once cars.  It could even be socially detrimental to remember it, as tending towards the anti-social individualism that ultimately makes the Europeans so wasteful.


So that’s how I play Historians of the Future.  I figure it’s a good time to play it because I think the European age really has hit a wall.  It seems like time to figure out which bits of European/American culture are worth preserving, and how they could be framed to make people from a different culture take the trouble to do it.

Counterculture counters complacency, so it isn’t just a waste of time

One of the few things I find interesting about the United States of America, in a historical sense, is its glorification of ‘counterculture heroes’.  You don’t have to watch many Hollywood movies to catch on to this motif.  There’s a disaffected rebel loaner whom nobody likes; he (I think it is usually a he) is the kind of guy who might pick his nose in public, or show up to a fancy dress party in torn jeans and a cowboy hat.  But this irritating person solves the problem nobody else can solve, by thinking outside the box, or by daring to challenge some misguided authority figure.  In the end, the other characters still don’t quite like the rebel (if they did like him it might imply that he had been accepted into their social group, and so lost his rebel identity; a kind of death), but he does finally get some respect.  The movie Top Gun goes so far as to name its hero Maverick; most movies like this make the point a bit more subtly.


In the real-world U.S. of A., as opposed to the fictional one, people who go against the grain rarely get political or economic rewards.  John McCain did get marketed as a “maverick” during his bid for the presidency (and I have no doubt that word was chosen because he used to be a naval pilot), but realistically speaking he married into wealth and his views aren’t remotely revolutionary.  For all the hype about the American dream, the statistics show a country where the poor stay poor.  (See e.g., the World Bank’s `World Development Report’ for 2006: ” evidence from the United States (where the myth of equal opportunity is strong) finds high levels of persistence of socioeconomic status across generations: recent estimates suggest that it would take five generations for a family that earned half the national average income to reach the average.”  The World Bank does make that report available online, but the old link to it doesn’t work anymore, and the functioning one I found through Google is so long and ugly that I don’t think it would work if I posted it.)


Well, so the US is politically and economically conservative.  But it does have a bit of dynamism on the cultural front.  It doesn’t glorify harmony; at least not these days.  The culture doesn’t expect people to `know their place,’ even if most people’s ‘place’ in the scheme of things is quite rigidly defined and static.  So there should be some opportunity for ideas to move up the hierarchy, even if not much opportunity for people to do it.


Perhaps the US has really been a bit innovative in this respect; a bit, dare we say, exceptional?  They’ve promoted the idea that irresponsible-seeming social outcasts might, in rare circumstances, have something invaluable to contribute.  So it follows that free speech is something that communities should protect for all their members.  (I remember Salman Rushdi referring to free speech as “the jewel in the crown of the American constitution.”  He was probably being gently ironic, given that the constitution came out of a war against the British crown.  But it was clear from the rest of his speech that he meant it seriously as well.)

Considering the Unexamined Life

The famous statement of Socrates (as reported by Plato, and translated by somebody) that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is a puzzling statement.  Maybe Plato was just being grandios about his own profession, philosophy, and came up with the idea that people who weren’t thinking philosophically might as well be dead.  Then he could’ve attributed the idea to Socrates, to give it more weight?  It’s hard enough figuring out what people living in our own time really said, even when they’re speaking English.


Albert Camus had one of his characters comment, in his novel The Fall, that the life of a modern man could be summed up in the phrase “He fornicated and read the papers.”  Camus died long before the Internet came into being, so maybe he’d be more optimistic these days.  But maybe not. 😛


There does seem to be a lot of disdain in the western philosophical tradition for people who don’t engage with their lives in a philosophical way.  I’m not a fan of disdain — it seems too easily habit-forming — but I understand why people could be profoundly afraid of a world full of noncritical, newspaper-reading fornicators.  (Well, to be honest I don’t mind fornication so much.  They can put that part on Youtube and it won’t bother me.  But noncritical consumption of news is very creepy.)  There’s a quote I’ve heard attributed to Bertold Brecht: “After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, there could be no poetry.”  I suspect Brecht was taking an idea too far on purpose, in order to be provocative.  But maybe we do need to be more careful — less poetic and playful? — than people who lived before humanity had become so potentially destructive.  Might examining and critiquing the world around us make us safer?


(A note on the Bertold Brecht quote: I heard it in lecture 26 of Pamela Radcliff’s course “Interpreting the 20th Century: The Struggle Over Democracy”.  The title of the lecture is “Existentialism in Post-War Europe,” and the whole course is available for sale here.  But Google can’t find any such quote by Bertold Brecht.  Instead it finds many references to a similar quote from Theodor Adorno, writing a few decades after Brecht: “After Auschwitz there could be no poetry.”  Exactly the same quote, minus Hiroshima.  If the earlier Brecht quote given by Pamela Radcliff is accurate, it may be worth some effort to get it noticed.  I think including Hiroshima makes the thought much more relevant.)