Sunday, June 28, 2009

Modern Minds

Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself. ~ Henry L Mencken

I am amazed to announce that America's Greatest Thinker (at least for 2009) has been found in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. John Pollock has been granted that exalted title as a result of winning The Great American Think-off in that international center of deep thought, New York Mills. The issue was settled among four finalists by having them address the earth-shaking question, "Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?"

Two of the four, including Mr. Pollock, argued that the answer was "Yes."

Why is it that I am not the least bit surprised that the two that would argue that way would be a lawyer (Pollock) and a former E. F. Hutton employee (the other guy)? In case you're curious, the other two occupations were Air Force Master Sergeant and environmentalist (and part time operator of an ice-cream store).

Anyone who ever took a philosophy course will recognize the question as one of those absurdist sort of problems that would get posed in a first-level ethics course. An intelligent student would immediately raise the issue of the definition of "right". Do we mean "correct"? If so, the question is ridiculous because it can never be wrong to do the correct thing. Or does right mean "moral"? If so, does it mean moral in a legal, religious, or ethical sense?

In other words, as stated, the question doesn't mean much. But that's never stopped a philosopher.

I'll leave it to the reader to make up his/her own mind whether the "yes" arguments even make sense. To me they don't. The Wall Street guy uses an economic example to say, basically, it would be stupid for a failing company to admit their situation, so they should lie about it. His logic is that if the company was truthful, they would fail. Well, the lie-like-a-rug method hasn't proved to work out so well, now, has it? Only a stock brokerage employee could find that a rational argument.

As to Mr. Pollock, well, I can't make heads-or-tails about what his point is. His penultimate sentence, though, is "And in the end, I have realized that what matters is what one does, yes, but also how, and why." So, Mr. Pollock, to put it another way, the end justifies the means.

That is one sad philosophy. This is also an odd philosophy coming from a civil rights attorney. But, let's consider that most of our politicians these days are lawyers. That would explain a lot.

Frankly, the saddest thing is that these dissertations would be regarded as profound thinking. They read like sophomore essays that might have garnered a C+ from any of the philosophy teachers I had.

I guess that's what passes for great American thinking these days.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Shakespeare Caper

We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep. ~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Not too long ago, a portrait belonging to one Alec Cobbe was announced as being a true portrait of William Shakespeare, which would not be a big deal except that it looks very different from other portraits. Now it turns out that Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel says most emphatically, "Nein, mein Herr". Her technique involves comparisons with other images along with some basic detective work about wardrobe.

So here we are, once again, dealing with that age-old question, "Just who was this Shakespeare cat anyway?" I've discussed this before at some length, and I've allowed as how it basically doesn't make a crinkled farthing to me who wrote the plays. It does, however, seem to bother some folks a great deal. So, what the heck, let's take another shot at it.

Some time ago, I read
Players: The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare by Bertram Fields, which takes a little different tack on the subject: Now, I'll warn you in advance that people didn't come flocking to his point of view, but I find it intriguing. Besides the book is a fun read.

Fields spends most of the book discussing what few actual facts are known about William Shakespeare. There is the Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon who seems to be an ordinary Joe who was a merchant, who sort of mysteriously goes off to London for a time. There's the Shakespeare who was an actor, who was a principle in running (and possibly writing for) a theatre. It turns out to be a little tricky to tie these people together. If you do tie them together, then you have to deal with a number of issues. For example, how did a grammar-school educated Shakespeare come to know history so well? How did he become so wordly wise in his writing and imagery? And why did he write such a lousy epitaph for himself?

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
to digg the dust enclosed heare!
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,

And curst be he yt moves my bones.

That has all the charm of "There was a young lady from Nantucket."

After attempting to separate what is fact, what is surmise, and what is plain old conjecture, Fields lists the candidates for authorship of the collected works of the bard, and it's quite a list. It includes, in no particular order: Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford; Christopher Marlowe; Francis Bacon; Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland; and Elizabeth I, Queen of England. So who does Fields think is the culprit?

He thinks it was a committee. Well, he uses the term "collaboration", but you get the drift. Essentially, Oxford is the main author of the group, since he's been penning a few poems and plays on the side. It isn't considered proper, however, for nobles to be stooping to show biz, so he hooks up with this struggling actor named Shaksper and gets him to be a front man (for which Shaksper will be paid well), but only after changing the name on the frontspiece to Shakespeare.

Things chug along nicely. Christopher Marlowe provides assistance on some of the plays, and even Shaksper provides some suggestions, what with his being an actor and all. Oxford, meanwhile, holds some plays back, mostly because he doesn't think he's gotten them quite right. Meanwhile, "Shakespeare" is turning out plenty of pretty good stuff.

Then Oxford becomes ill and dies. His son-in-law, Lord Stanley, finds the plays and consults the family lawyer, Francis Bacon, who, it turns out, knew about Oxford's little hobby. Plays are dusted off and, in some cases, punched up by other playwrights, like John Fletcher and Thomas Middleton.

No, I've never heard of them either.

Anyway, this all goes on for sometime until Shaksper himself kicks the bucket. Once Oxford's family finds that the "bard" hasn't spilled the beans about Devere's little arrangement, Stanley decides it would be a good idea to collect the plays and sonnets together, so he gets Ben Jonson to do this. Jonson being the editor of the First Folio is a major irony because he had no use for Shaksper, but, on learning of Oxford's arrangement, he thinks it would be a hoot to immortalize the man he considered to be a two-bit thespian.

So there you have it. Oxford, Stanley, Jonson, Middleton, Fletcher, and Marlowe (plus some other minor characters) are the authors of the plays. William Shakespeare is a front. Sorry, no Queen Elizabeth. She was busy doing queen stuff.

Now, does that diminish the plays somehow? Not to me. Those works stand (or fall, in the case of a few of them) on their own merits. Frankly, it matters not to me if Shakespeare's butcher in Stratford wrote the things. I'll still find enjoyment in Othello, Macbeth, or Richard III. And I'll be frustrated by Hamlet.

Really now. With all those authors, couldn't someone have helped Hamlet make up his mind?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rituals

Without cultural sanction, most or all our religious beliefs and rituals would fall into the domain of mental disturbance. ~John Schumaker

A young lady in Florida, a student with a 3.89 GPA, who had been chosen as class valedictorian, was pressured, if not outright forced, into changing her graduation speech. Her sin was that she was going to give a speech that was, shall we say, reality-based. Instead of the usual flowery "As we venture onto the seas of life" garbage, she was going to give some sound advice, like get a steady job before you worry about changing the world.

This upset the powers that be, and she ultimately gave the traditional speech. What a pity.

Allow me a couple of stories. When I graduated from high school during the late Pliestocene, I was chosen as a graduation speaker. In our case, we didn't do valedictorian, salutatorian, or whatever. No, our speakers were elected by the faculty. I came to learn there were some who were concerned about choosing me because they were worried I just might do something on the other of the Floridian. Well, I thought about doing just that, but, realizing that my parents would have a fit, I decided to go the route of writing an abstruse philosophical treatise that no one understood.

The advantage of wrtiing a speech no one could figure out was that no one could think of a good reason to object.

At the end of the ceremony, we did the funeral march out of the gym. Once we exited the gym, we broke into a run for the auditorium where we could dump our robes and mortarboards and get the heck out of Dodge. About half the students were out when the doting parents, grandparents, and assorted other relatives, who were duly absorbed in the solemnity of the moment, heard a piercing, "YAHOO!" ringing out in the hallway. Some were amused, and some weren't.

Flash forward to the graduation of The Daughter. After an interminably long program, the principal finally brought proceedings to a close. As he mouthed his last platitude, the student body rose as one with a cheer and began tossing confetti, streamers, and toilet paper in the air, punctuated by streams of silly string.

I loved it. My mother hated it. I gave The Daughter all sorts of praise for the celebration, while Grandma gave her a sullen peck on the cheek (and probably chewed her out at some later time).

Immense scholarly tomes have been written on the importance of ritual in society. Ritual is a key in human development that bound groups together and brought order to a disordered world. There was time when ritual may have served some sort of purpose of that nature, but, to me, ritual and ceremony are an immense pain.

Ritual pervades our lives. There are graduations, weddings, funerals, initiations, and on and on. All these events seem to involve a lot of time, fancy dress, and regimented behavior. Yet many people cling to these endless wastes of time, all the more as people get older.

Not me. I thnk life it too short to take three days to bury someone. Gatherings where platitudes or "sacred" phrases are mouthed endlessly are a crashing bore. If it were up to me, diplomas would be mailed out.

Ritual has, in fact, often been a divisive force, since, while it binds one group together, it excludes others. This comes to mind everytime I see references to the "secret" initiation rituals of the Freemasons, which evidently aren't very secret any more, since you can see them portrayed about once a month on any of the documentary channels. These rituals have been exaggerated and misinterpreted by those not privy to the inner circles of Freemasonry and used as an excuse for persecution.

One person's ritual is another's satanic rite.

I recognize that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do away with ritual. Totalitarian regimes have tried to do that, because the dictators don't want people to bind against them. What they end up doing, though, is replacing one set of rituals with a new set that glorify the regime. The dictators simply replace one set of ceremonies with another.

Despite the difficulty, it would be helpful to the growth of the human race if we could become independent of baccalaureate breakfasts, viewings of the deceased, and the tallying of the happy couple's wedding gifts. Just imagine the time we'd gain to do something useful with our lives.

By the way, I was the kid screaming, "YAHOO!"

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tony Franklin Speaks. Some People Should Listen

The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely to be the one who dropped it." ~ Lou Holtz, Arkansas

Tony Franklin was a significant part of the soap opera at Auburn University last year that ended with the "retirement" of coach Tommy Tuberville. Franklin was supposed to bring in his high-powered spread offense, which definitely turned out to be a very low-octane affair. I commented on his termination at the time, but I never got around to talking about Tubervilles' exit, mostly because I was being lazy and not writing at the time. All of that is very old news now, and I wouldn't be mentioning it now except that Coach Franklin gave an interview to Josh Moon the other day and appeared on a local talk show as well.

The article on the web doesn't do justice to the article that actually appeared in the paper. Evidently, the coach, who had refused to talk about the whole business at the time, happened to be in a more gabby mood when Mr. Moon contacted him. In fact, he couldn't shut up.

I'm not overwhelmed by genius offensive (or defensive) coordinators. They come and go. Today's genius is tomorrow's has-been; just ask Al Borges, who could do no wrong when he had Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown destroying defenses but became just another coach once that duo left. Franklin, though, was so over-hyped it seemed like he was destined to fail from the start. He certainly didn't help matters by the way he handled the quarterback situation.

For a spread offense, you need a quarterback who can throw and run. Kody Burns, the logical incumbent, could run, but his passing was a little suspect. For some reason, Franklin induced Chris Todd to transfer to Auburn and promptly made it clear that he was the clear leader for the starter's spot. The trouble was that Todd was coming off shoulder surgery and threw the ball about as hard as I can, which ain't very much.

That's not necessarily so bad. Some weak-armed quarterbacks have been very successful by using their feet to give them better passing opportunities or to keep the defense loose and allow receivers to get open. Unfortunately, Todd, who had no surgery on any of his leg parts, couldn't run a lick, either. A spread quarterback who can't throw and can't run should be holding a clipboard.

Add to this Franklin's weird play calling and generally confusing approach to players, and you have a recipe for failure. Which he did.

So now he's at Middle Tennessee State. He still doesn't see where he did anything really wrong, but he does go out of his way not to blame the Auburn coaches for the failure either. Apparently, it was all the fault of the trustees and boosters.

Now, let me make it abundantly clear that Auburn does have a long and tiresome history of trustees and boosters exerting idiotic influence on the athletic programs. Auburn is almost legendary in the number of coaches that they have paid not to coach, due to firing them with quite a few dollars left in their contracts.

While I might not agree with Franklin's rationalizations about what happened to his offense at Auburn, I do find his comments on the attitudes of influential fans very interesting. By "influential fans", I mean, of course, big money boosters and trustees. What the average fan thinks is immaterial to these people. It has become obvious, though that the influential fans are exerting control on big time programs that is unprecedented.

Franklin, while trying to remain complimentary, essentially says that the SEC has led the way in allowing the big-money guys to determine the actions of a program. I think there's something to that, although it's obvious that most of the big-time schools (the perennially highly ranked schools, like Texas, Ohio State, USC, and so on) are in the same boat. Even a successful coach is, as Nick Saban said, one 7-5 season from being kicked out.

It's because of the money, of course. Which actually makes no sense. Colleges are running around pleading poverty in droves, raising tuition or, if they are state schools, begging for more state money and raising tuition. Yet, they hand out huge contracts to coaches and spend obscene amounts on their athletic programs. Sure, they recoup some of that in booster donations and television money, but if the big athletic programs were bringing in money in proportion to coaching salaries, schools like Alabama and USC wouldn't have to charge tuition at all.

It's also generating the culture that Franklin spent a lot of time decrying in his newspaper and radio interviews. Franklin could well have avoided it, but even he admits he was "seduced by the money."

It is, of course, an illusion that schools are making any money from major sports. It's gotten to the point that,in recent years, teams are actually losing money to attend bowl games. Most recently, despite receiving around $300,000 for the Papa John's Bowl, Rutgers ended up out about $100,000 just because of the costs of dragging the band, cheerleaders, and about 200 players, coaches, and assorted hangers-on to Birmingham.

The sad thing is that big-time college sports have been a mess almost since the beginning. The sport was so brutal at the outset that Theodore Roosevelt consider banning it. Once that problem was resolved, teams paid ringers to play; now at least players have to at least make a pretense of attending school. Basketball's gambling scandals are legendary. Steroids in the pros? Colleges were doing it first and are probably still have a serious issue with performance enhancers.

I've been a fan of college sports for years, so I'm part of the problem, too. Because the only way this is going to change is when the fans stop spending obscene amounts of money to have the privilege of buying seats, or when the rest of us stop watching the big games on ESPN. It is not, however, outside the realm of possibility that those things could happen. After all, NASCAR has thought they were bulletproof all these years. Now, with track attendance and TV ratings dropping, they're wondering what they're going to do. College presidents are liable to be in the same position if they don't watch out.

Because I haven't watched a NASCAR race in two years.