a blog on publishing by Bruce Fingerhut
1. Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
2. The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”
3. “So, indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”
4. The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
5. “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
6. “When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
7. “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”
Analects of Confucius, XIII Tsze-lu, Chapter 3, James Legge, translator
- “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” - May 20, 2013
We certainly have a remarkable President, a man who refuses to make decisions but must have his way! For those of you who blanch at an argument with an excluded middle, this may be an affront. How can a person have his own way if he doesn’t establish what his own way is? I think the most likely answer that overcomes the excluded middle is that there are ways to transmit a desire that is a consummate decision without either the words or the written proof of a decision.
Leaders of all sort, from corporate to king, have long been able to convey their desires without the inconvenience and, perhaps, embarrassment of spelling it out. After King Henry II showed his disdain for the Church by elevating his friend and drinking-and-whoring buddy Thomas Becket to the chair of Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket had the temerity to evolve into taking his religious calling seriously. Henry said (out loud to himself) in the hearing of his henchmen, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The henchmen then stormed Canterbury Cathedral, where Becket was praying, and murdered him at the altar.
Corruption is not typically taught the way algebra is, with graphs and blackboards and textbooks. It is hinted at, sometimes with nothing more than a raised eyebrow, and those who refuse to understand soon find themselves on the streets, looking for work. It has been this way from time immemorial, and will be this way until the world ends, whether with a bang or a whimper.
Men dissemble this way to cover their tracks and give them outlets for any result. Only God is wholly to the point. I am writing this on Pentecost day, a time that not only was the birth of the Church, not only the coming of the Holy Spirit, but also the turnaround of the story of the Tower of Babel. Instead of words bringing confusion and chaos among brothers, they redefined brothers as those who understand beyond words.
Words without the knowledge of the meaning are empty signs, lost on any audience. It is like expecting spell-check to make you into an editor. But having knowledge of meaning is itself insufficient if the person has bad faith. In the end, it is truth alone that is the hallmark of communication.
There will always be sycophants, hangers-on, henchmen, toadies, and flatterers, ready and willing to rid the king of a turbulent priest. The greatness of our humanity is that there are also turbulent priests, often willing to be martyrs for us.
My wife, Laila, and I went on our longest vacation in America in decades in early May, visiting the incredible canyon area of Utah and upper Arizona. I will return to write about that trip next week.
- When Did We Get to Be So Nice? - April 29, 2013
Publishers used to see themselves as gatekeepers to honesty and perhaps even to quality; some still are, though the Zeitgeist seems stacked against any need for gatekeeping at all. I’ve written on this with regard to amazon and the proliferation of semi-truths that is the internet and much of the book business now.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when people could have conversations about difficult personal, professional, or political topics and not feel obliged to lie so that they wouldn’t have to use the word “lie.” Let’s face it, we’re no longer really suited for a discussion around a table in the manner of Dr. Johnson and his friends. We’re no longer as witty, no longer have the vocabulary (of course, that is unfair; Johnson wrote the first English dictionary), no longer as polite, and, sadly, no longer possess either the time or the inclination to get to the truth of things, not if it is at the cost of using the L word. Using that word, it seems, is more likely to indict the speaker than the receiver. If a man cheated on his wife, our conversation about him might well devolve into four-letter words, but those same words serve their purpose whether we meant that as condemnation or praise. What does that say about us?
Where did this scrupulosity come from, that we are unable to use a perfectly good and clear, though harsh, word to describe an action? Let’s take a few samples from our presidential races in the past couple of decades. Remember George H. W. Bush being hounded constantly for saying at the convention that nominated him, “Read my lips, no new taxes”? Eventually, he fell victim to the bright and sunny arguments that raising taxes by oh-just-a-tiny smidgeon would suffice to have good relations with the other side, and help much of his program get passed. Of course, it did not happen. The same day that he relented on his “no new taxes” pledge, the people who had talked him into that action for the sake of unity started tagging him with the “liar” label, not the “flipper” label. I believe that this was more responsible for his loss in 1992 than any other reason, for example the forever-reiterated “worst economy in fifty years” cheer that was repeated ad nauseam, getting louder every time someone mentioned that the economic downturn was a minor one by American standards and that there was a Carter administration sometime within the fifty years under consideration.
Bush was followed by Bill Clinton, his now-virtually-adopted some, who was someone whose need to be loved led him to serial lies about the most trivial matters. I once said he couldn’t complete a thought without a lie (e.g., “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale.”). But, again, most of Clinton’s lies were such that he could easily be forgiven. They were about private matters or done so that everyone would love him. They were more pathetic than evil.
My point is that for both of these men, there are excuses which a great number of people could sympathize with. But now we have a president who simply repeats lies that are well known to be such, as though no one has found out, possibly because of the media, who don’t report the lies or refute them, but more likely because that he doesn’t have the same demands that Bush 41 or Clinton placed upon themselves: to hold the office in honor and to serve all the people and not just those who voted for him . . . in short, to have some combination of duty and shame..
We don’t have that problem any longer. There doesn’t appear to be any concern whatsoever from the present White House to see in lies or going back on one’s word something to be ashamed of. So they are repeated and repeated, without shame or change.
This is right out of the Saul Alinsky handbook. Not since Hegel walked the earth, has a man been more quoted without being read as has Alinsky. At least with Hegel, one may be forgiven for bypassing the work of this most self-consciously difficult writer ever to put pen to paper. When you read Hegel, you are likely to know the meaning of every word in the sentence, but still be flabbergasted at what the sentence meant. I remember being halfway through The Phenomenology of Mind, when the Professor asked me how it was going. I said, smiling, that I think I may have to learn German to understand the text perfectly. His response was, “No, Bruce, it is much easier in English.”
No one could say that about Alinsky. His prose is understandable to anyone from a Ph.D. to a brain-addled drug addict (or even combinations of the two), and yet no one apparently reads him, just the few famous quotes from him.
Reading him might expose a plan for the purpose of lies, of a strategy of using lies, of a tactic incorporating lies. The journey from being ashamed for an action to being ashamed to point out the shame of an action has reversed the meaning of “lie.” Once we lived in a world of “lies, damned lies, and statistics”; now we just have statistics. If they show 50.01% of voters agree with you, there is no reason to care about lies, much less damned lies.
What we have now is the inability to be shamed. When Joseph Welch, head counsel for the U.S. Army, who was under investigation by Senator Joseph McCarthy, said, “Have you no sense of decency, sir” (it’s misquoted as “Have you no shame, sir”), he could say that because it was a time when people knew what decency (and shame) meant. McCarthy was essentially shamed out of the Senate, and soon died a broken man, drunk and with a ruined reputation.
But now think of the Benghazi affair. Here we have enough lies to last a lifetime for any number of people in the Obama Administration, including, especially, the president himself. Yet, our fair-minded, nice, and concerned opposition and the media that is by no means an opposition force both refuse to call these lies “lies.” In so doing, they are neither fair-minded, nice, nor concerned. They are cowards and either fools or knaves (more likely, knaves). This lying about “lies” does not advance any agenda with even a taste of honesty.
Is there any public figure, any journalist, any lawyer, who would be drummed out of power because his lies shamed him? McCarthy’s moral center was superior to any number of politicians today.
Dear Friends: I’ll be away and incommunicado for a short time in Utah’s and Arizona’s canyon lands. I return on May 14. This blog will resume on May 20.
- Refused to Be Terrorized - April 22, 2013
Though I had other plans for this week’s blog, the events in Boston demands a few words, although far from the book-publishing world.
Most of what has been said over and over again this week is noncontroversial in my mind. Whatever their reasoning for the actions, a pair of brothers chose to disrupt the Boston Marathon with some horrific homemade bombs, killing three people and wounding some 170 others. Amateurs that they were, they did not seem to have thought through cover-up or escape. They then killed a police officer in cold blood by shooting him in the back of his head. Eventually, the older of the two was killed by police while his younger brother escaped, only to be caught the next day.
Many victims are wounded physically for life, and many more wounded mentally. This was the first terrorist bombing in the United States since the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 (the larger, more devastating attack in 2001 did not involve bombs).
Most of the whys and wherefores will not be fully vetted for some time. We can look forward to the wise and the foolish sharing the stage, giving opinions, and sometimes coming to conclusions. In the end, there will probably remain answers to questions that will displease some people. It is in the nature of a large and free society that controversies rarely lead to unanimity in conclusions. I have no desire to proffer any answers here.
What concerns me is the manner in which this event has affected and will affect our culture, what the late Paul Harvey used to call “our Americanism.”
The president gave what seemed to be a heart-felt speech, not placing blame but extolling the work of police from several sources. He said that the terrorists had failed, adding that Bostonians refused to be intimidated, that Americans refused to be terrorized.
I don’t know what he meant by “Americans,” whether he was speaking about the people of Boston or the larger community, whether he was speaking about people in charge of discovering and finding the terrorists or others.
What has bothered me is his notion of success or failure, of refusing to be terrorized or being terrorized. I am not at all sure that these terrorists failed. From what little we know about the terrorism we have faced for the past several decades, it seems by no means the case that these people judge success, for example, by the size of the death count or their having escaped capture. Indeed, suicide itself seems to be a part of many in such terrorist actions. We tend to call them cowards, but by any normal understanding of “coward,” these people are not that at all. Giving up your life for your convictions may be many things, but it is not cowardice.
But if they didn’t fail, did they succeed? Oddly enough, I think their success can only be judged by our reaction. If the number of the dead or the escape of the killers is not the way of judging success, it seems that our reaction to the event must be the goal. And just as the president was wrong to say that they failed, he is wrong in saying that we refused to be terrorized.
Again, this depends on who “we” are. If “we” are the people who make the decisions for subduing these killers, it is difficult to say that they refused to be terrorized. They closed down a great city to catch one amateur terrorist. If you were plotting a terrorist action, would you consider it a success to have closed down an entire city for a day? What would have happened if these terrorists were professionals instead of amateurs, and had ten people spread out over the city? Are we prepared to close down Boston for a week? for two weeks? Our fear is their success.
Perhaps our citizens’ reactions to this terrible event will spur on serious thinking about what it is that drives terrorists to want to harm us, about the balance between security and freedom for a modern republic, about the nature of success in a war on terrorism, and, finally, about our place in the world and our being (what Madeleine Albright called) the “indispensable nation.”
- “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” - April 15, 2013
No, the title is not a commentary on politics, though, given the present regime, one could be forgiven for thinking so. Nor is it the beginning of a fitting complaint about the IRS on this, its day in the sun.
It’s a quote from the Gospel of John, telling the story of the unrecognized risen Jesus telling St. Peter, who came back from a fruitless night of fishing, to cast his net on the right side of the boat, where he would find 153 huge fish. I don’t want to get into the shining theology of this last chapter of John; let’s just stay with the most mundane notion: that there will come a time in the life of each of us when we are coming up empty and are confused or depressed or upset about our situation. This occurs in our personal lives, in our working lives, in our spiritual lives.
I realize that some people find emptiness in a bad meal or someone giving them a crooked smile. What I’m talking about is sterner stuff, not necessarily end-of-the-line stuff (e.g., grave illness, marital infidelity, etc.), but something of importance that nevertheless doesn’t inhibit us from reacting and changing our ways.
In our work, for example (since this blog is presumably about work), having difficulties with colleagues or bosses, not getting the raise, losing a job or getting a demotion, being simply unhappy with the work, finding oneself in an ethically troubling situation, coming to the conclusion that this is not the work of a lifetime are all problems that can affect most of us.
I’m not a therapist (that’s my wife), and so though I know that there are innumerable coping mechanisms for people, depending on the problem and, especially, on their own psyche and history and personality, I would certainly not deign to give advice (let me reiterate: my wife is the therapist). What I can say is that on occasion one may come to the St. Peter situation, in which there is a solution offered that involves casting the net in a different direction. In the case of St. Peter, it came from the One most suited to give him correct advice . . . expect for the fact that John’s Gospel says explicitly that Peter did not recognize Jesus, the one who suggested casting the net on the right side of the boat. When this situation arises, we may well take St. Peter as our model, and give it a chance.
I picked a job problem rather than a personal problem because, after all, this blog is about publishing, but reverse-side net-casting is a lot safer in a job than with your wife or husband or children.
I find, for example, that some of the things that may bother you are not those that you really expected to have when you embarked on this journey. St. Augustine’s Press is one of the very few scholarly presses I know about that is not connected with a university or a foundation or that has a substantial endowment. So perhaps I could be forgiven (except from my wife . . . the therapist) for worrying about money. But money was never the reason to get into publishing. I know of only one person who got into publishing for the money, and both he and publishing would have been richer if he had chosen banking or money management or pharmaceutical sales for a living. I should add that no one I know became a therapist for the money either.
We live in a country that is both the mainstay of strength and balance in the world and yet is forever re-new-ing itself. Christianity is also this way: both the world’s bedrock of moral clarity (the motto of the Carthusians, stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “the Cross stands while the world turns,” says it best) and the very essence of renewal of purpose and method. I tend to think of the country and the Church in the same way as Richard Weaver playfully defined conservatism as the “paradigm of the essences toward which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.”
Casting your net out into unknown waters may be frightening, but that’s where all the big fish are.
- The Timely and the Timeless - April 8, 2013
I have been in the book-publishing business ever since leaving grad school. My first job was as an editor at Open Court Publishing Company, in the basal reader section (they also had a much smaller trade section), then at the University of Notre Dame Press. In both cases, quality was held to be more important than quantity. In both cases, they struggled: Open Court with competition from huge companies; Notre Dame with the very nature of scholarly publishing (about which, more below).
It was out of this experience that I came to realize that the mark of a scholarly house had to be that the timeless was the aim of the company, leaving the timely to trade publishers. What separates trade from scholarly publishing are mainly the intention of the publisher and the manner of sales, more than it is the very nature of the book’s purpose or even the execution of the writing of the work. Trade houses rely on the book trade, i.e., the bookstore market, far more than scholarly houses do. Consequently, they have a shorter timeframe to sell their works and a faster period to recoup their investment. Trade books have a shorter lifespan but often (usually) earn a greater amount than scholarly books. The print runs are larger, which means the unit price is smaller, although the discount is often higher. A premium is paid for being on time, for deciding quickly on reprints as needed, and for attending to far more promotion than is typical of scholarly books. Whereas scholarly books may wait months, even years, to get reviews, a trade book must garner all their reviews in a short time, or those reviews may come after the book is either reprinting in paper or pulped . . . in other words, if not wasted, at least of lesser import.
None of this is to say that one type of publishing, whether you want to call it trade v. scholarly, or timely v. timeless, is more important or central to the culture of our country than the other. There is room for both. But I have been convinced after all these years that it is important for the publisher to understand which side of the border he or she is on, in order to do the best for the author, the ideas (which, after all, are separate from the author), and the company. I have seen a number of scholarly houses greatly hurt, even go out of business, because they thought they could really compete as a trade house, with all the attendant work of that house . . . higher up-front costs, the frenetic pace of production/sales/promotion, and the decisions of when to fish and when to cut bait. Failure for a smaller house without adequate financial backing and staff is always around the corner in two ways: the book doesn’t sell right away, or the book sells too well right away. The first is heart-breaking, the second is disastrous. Only a few large houses can handle both the timely and the timeless.
What worries me these days is not just the siren call of big print runs and trade sales for the scholarly press, but the fact that even in full-throated scholarly publishing there seems to be a much more pronounced push toward early sales and early write-downs, St. Augustine’s Press is one of more than 100 mostly scholarly houses that are distributed through the University of Chicago Press’s Chicago Distribution Center. Several years ago the then-assistant director of the CDC made an exhaustive study of the sales of many (most?) of the houses that they distributed, and came to the conclusion that 85% of lifetime sales were made in the first year of its existence. This means, of course, that there is not much difference between the results in trade v. scholarly publishing . . . except that scholarly houses did not pulp the books fast enough. They were worse businessmen in a field of terrible businessmen.
But if the sales trajectory of scholarly publishers is similar to that of trade, except slower and fewer, what can be said of the complaints one hears from authors and reviewers that editing is becoming a lost art, that quality is lower even as production is higher, that, in short, the very nature of what a publisher should be, i.e., a gatekeeper, is in danger of becoming passé?
In 2005, there were 172,000 new titles published in the United States, a tremendous amount. I should add that publishing is likely the only business that has more manufacturers (i.e., publishers) than outlets (i.e., bookstores). Since the day of specialty bookstores seems to be over, how can we rightly assume that any bookstore can possibly keep track of what is being published?
In 2011, a mere six years later, the number of books published in the United States exceeded 2 million! I gather this includes both self-published works and perhaps e-books, but, still, the number is immense. Like trying to discern the truth of things on the internet, how can the reader in such a market be serviced without trusted gatekeepers? But today both our sales trajectories and our editorial practices have blunted the differences between the timely and the timeless.
Without the gatekeeper, without the guarantor of quality and truth, we descend to the character of Johnny Rocco in the movie Key Largo, who decided that the only way to describe what we really, truly wanted was . . . “more.”
- The Fourth Cup - April 1, 2013
I do not want this blog to be another iteration of Facebook, informing people I do not know, but have enough respect for that I cannot see boring or embarrassing them, with intimate details of my life. Except for e-mail and new printing know-how, I have done my level best to stay as far away from technologies as is possible, most especially social media. Life is too short to waste it on trivia. If my name is fated to be writ in water, so be it. Far better than splattered with corn syrup.
However, what I want to say about the Fourth Cup makes more sense if I mention a little background. I was born and raised into a Jewish household in the Washington Metropolitan area so long ago that, frankly, it was not so metropolitan. I was the beneficiary of a wonderful family and soaked in all the beauty and tradition of Judaism with precious little of what should have been the accompanying belief. By the time I married the first non-Jewish girl I ever dated, I called myself an agnostic for the simple reason that I did not have enough faith to be an atheist.
My journey (or, rather, my battle; for some, life is an Odyssey; for me it is an Iliad) was shepherded by a wonderful teacher, a great writer, a close friend, and, most especially, that non-Jewish girl. And I brought with me the Old Testament foundation that continues to mark my life.
I am no theologian, but I know a syllogism when I see one, and some events from the Bible or from our own reactions and life experiences remain central. I am afraid that were I to have had a Road to Damascus experience, my reaction would have been more like Scrooge than St. Paul . . . a bad piece of boiled beef. But God is good, and the pathway He has put before me, marked by these remarkable people and many others, has changed every important aspect of my life.
Now to prove that I am not a theologian. For many years now, my wife and I have celebrated both Passover and Easter, often, as this year, in the same week. The haggadah (the Passover prayer book) we use is completely authentic, not a “Christianized” one, but it lends itself to thought and questions and participation. This year I concentrated on the elements of likeness and of difference in Passover v. Easter. For example, both begin with a triumph, degenerate into catastrophe, and finish with a far greater victory. On the other hand, Passover is about saving a people (the salvation portion of the story, the handing over of the Law on Mt. Horeb, is not included), whereas Easter is about salvation, not about specific people or peoples to be saved. I never really thought before about the wide swath there is between saving and salvation.
This Passover I concentrated on the four cups of wine that are traditionally drunk during the Passover seder. The first cup is the Kiddush cup (the cup of sanctification), for blessing the festival day. The second cup (judgment) introduces Psalm 113, a psalm of praise. The third cup (redemption) is taken just after the meal of the unleavened bread. The fourth cup (Kingdom) is used in singing Psalms 115–116 and for the final prayer and exhortation. This tradition of four comes from the four promises that God made in Exodus: I will bring, I will rid, I will redeem, and I will take.
The Last Supper is often seen as a Passover meal, though there are arguments against this (i.e., Pope Benedict XVI gave good arguments that the Last Supper was the evening meal that occurred immediately before the first day of Passover, which lasts eight days; for example, in John 19:31 we hear “[s]ince it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day),” the legs of those being executed should be broken so that they might die). It is interesting that Judas drank the second cup (judgment) but left the table before the third cup (redemption), whereas Jesus drank the third cup (and here I am assuming specific times in the celebration), but left before the last cup, which is often called the Cup of Elijah, after a part of the seder when a young child opens the door to allow the Prophet to enter.
Elijah plays several prominent parts in the New Testament. He is there at the Transfiguration, representing the Prophets along with Moses, who represents the Law. He is mentioned while Christ recites the 22nd Psalm while on the Cross, when the people misunderstand the first words, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani” to be calling for Elijah. Elijah is the only man mentioned in the Old Testament who is spared death, but ascends into heaven on a chariot. He is to come again to announce the coming of the Messiah at the end of days.
So, if Jesus leaves the meal for Gethsemane after the third cup and before the opening of the door for Elijah, before the fourth cup, the Cup of Elijah, it is for a very good reason: the Messiah is not to come; the Messiah has come.
When Jesus arrives at Gethsemane, he prays to the Father that the cup may pass from him. Could this cup be the fourth cup? If so, Jesus’ actions mean more than asking for a stay of execution; it means a reprieve from Messiahship.
But the Father greatly honored him, perhaps best said in Luke 24:5, when, after the Sabbath, the women came to the tomb to attend to Jesus and found the tomb empty. There they were confronted by two men in dazzling apparel, who asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
- The War against Paper - March 25, 2013
Way back in the halcyon ’70s, when I decided to give up doing the one thing I liked and was good at, namely, editing, in favor of something I did not know I would like but was pretty certain I would never know whether I was any good at it, namely, publishing . . . I met a very smart fellow who ran the Rare Book Room at the University of Notre Dame’s Main Library. He wanted to help a fledgling, aspiring book publisher with some first-class wisdom, which was to realize right away that the book as we know it was dead, that the move away from the formats we experienced would continue, first with the abandonment of clothbound books for paperbound, then with the abandonment of paper for the new technology. I asked him what that technology was, and he spoke to me in soft tones, as though letting me in on the greatest tip in publishing, the one that would put me ahead of all the struggling publishers everywhere . . . the legion of the smart-and-poor . . . so that I could be among the leaders of the coming Zeitgeist. The secret was . . . microfilm!
Glad I didn’t bet the farm on that. Since that time, there have been many formats touted to replace the book. The array of replacements are themselves legion, whether they be new “things” like computer screens or e-books or audio-books, or whether they be some sort of automatic imputing into our brains, there seems to be no loss for new ideas. Like the women in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, they come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Few of these ideas last a season, and still the paper persists, while all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty dearth.
The purpose (maybe I should say “excuse”) of the new formats, I think, started with the idea that they would be more permanent than paper, but now the purpose is to be more efficient, and by that I mean to take on Olympian ideal: faster, higher, stronger. Knowledge or enlightenment or entertainment (it started with the first but has ended with the last) would just come to us, perhaps come upon us, like a cloud of knowing, painlessly enriching our lives without effort.
The problem is that we seem to be getting more knowledgeable at the same time as we are getting less wise. The data is forever “proving” that our youth are overflowing with . . . well, data. Too bad they haven’t the foggiest notion of what purpose is all about. Faster, higher, stronger may be a model for an athlete, but perhaps not a scholar.
Recently, the war against paper has changed from an argument for saving time and effort derived from a non-paper transmission of knowledge into an argument abjuring self-help in order to save the planet. This has the advantage of looking for results in happier and more productive polar bears rather than wiser and more productive people.
But the failure of man is everywhere evident. Arafat and Chavez both squirreled away billions of dollars, which could have been a good lesson in hypocrisy if only their minions would recognize it. Take Al Gore . . . please. He preaches the Gospel of Green, even buying green credits so that he could avoid his own sermons about the profligacy of carbon use. That didn’t make him a genius; that made him a hypocrite. What made him a genius was that the company he bought the credits from was his own.
The war against paper will likely branch out and have other iterations in the future. And the few people I have met who speak up in favor of paper do so because books offer a beauty and serenity and permanence (yes, permanence; all scholarly books are printed in acid-free paper, meant to last a minimum of 100 years) and, if we are lucky, truth.
The publisher supplies the good, the author the true, and the book itself, printed on sensuous paper, the beautiful. As the inimitable Mae West once said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”
- The Good, the True, and the Beautiful - March 18, 2013
It has taken a long time, almost a lifetime, but my wife Laila and I agree on most things. I once thought it would be impossible because we each go about evaluating matters in entirely different ways. I ask myself, “is it true?”, and she asks herself, “is it good?” Maybe this comes with the territory of our work: I am a book publisher, and she is a therapist.
Then it occurred to me that the reason we agreed may be that the good and the true are the same. If that were true, would not that lead to the notion that getting along, understanding one another, and having empathy (remember, I’m married to a therapist!) would be stitched into our DNA? Of course, it would be that way only if we were intent on knowing the good and/or the true, and on having some inkling about what was true and what was good. For example, if you want to be sure that some proposition is true, perhaps you might avoid seeking confirmation on the internet. If you want to know whether some action is good (this is harder to discern than knowing what is true), you might seek out great thinkers or (better yet) saints of the past, or, let us say, great models . . . I told you this was harder than merely knowing what is true.
If publishing is not tied to the truth, it is nothing more than propaganda. If therapy is not concerned with the good, it will lead to harming clients rather than helping them. No one ever said that speaking the truth or doing good was easy. The evidence is everywhere that it may prove to be the most difficult action a person must go through.
With the exponential increase in the myriad ways of gaining news, the nation has become more politically obsessed, and politics has devolved, I think, into a reworking of the true and the good.
The press was exasperated with the likes of John Foster Dulles, when the Eisenhower Secretary of State would answer every other question with “No comment.” In today’s world, that has proved to be unacceptable to say. Better simply to lie . . . as long as no one calls it a lie, of course, and the press seems unable to use the term. Access, after all, is far more important than truth.
Nowadays everyone in the press is his/her own lawyer. It started with the press’s inability to call a mass murderer whose deeds were seen by dozens of people “a murderer” . . . no, he must be an alleged murderer, because what is important is not that he was a murderer but that he was found guilty in a court of law. The truth, then, becomes the handmaiden to exactly the class of people who find it in their job description to hide the truth, to reword the truth, to unword the truth.
The closest reaction we are allowed is the reaction of indecision or confusion. So the press may seem to honor people who cannot seem able to discern the truth, but are often outraged at those who are decisive in calling a statement true or false, in calling a deed good or bad.
Politics has a way of diminishing ideas, people, and deeds. Ronald Reagan called for the 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” In our day, that saying has been taken to heart, but not among Republicans, who seem to relish castigating their fellow Republicans. No, it has been taken to heart by Democrats. It would be nice to think (though, I am afraid that I don’t think) that if President Obama announced that, in order to save the economy, every child under the age of 1 should be eaten, that it would not result in a bevy of Democrat Congressmen vying for the best recipe.
What we have today is what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of in the talk he gave on April 19, 2005, prior to the College of Cardinals adjourning to elect him Pope: “We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
- “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” - March 11, 2013
The quote is attributed to Talleyrand in speaking about the restored Bourbon dynasty after the abdication of Napoleon, and subsequently used against the French socialists and others. It comes close to Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results, though the Talleyrand quote gives us a reason for their repeating mistakes of the past over and over.
America is still a young country, and one of our characteristics is that we are willing to give new ideas a try. But once the ideas have been shown to be a failure, Americans of the past dropped the ideas and looked elsewhere for answers. But Americans in the 20th century and to the present seem reluctant to dispose of those ideas, and will accept one reason after another for that failure; they want to push ahead instead of admitting defeat.
Part of the problem is that when a theory seems right, when a glib and intelligent spokesman explains why the theory will work this time, we find it difficult to resist giving it another and yet another try. So many people seem to find fault, not with the theory, but with the circumstances of its use, as though it was circumstances that failed the theory, not the other way around. Sometimes the theory is then dressed up as new wine in old skins. At other times there is little in the way of cover-up, and Talleyrand really takes over.
Take the Great Depression in the 1930s. America was not alone in going through a devastating depression then. The entire Western world went through that depression, but only in America was it called the “Great Depression.” Others found their way out of experimentation with enormous deficit spending, with taxation that bankrupted the job creators, with make-work schemes for a portion of the enormous legion of unemployed, schemes that not only did not create wealth but were never intended to do so. Other countries did not repeat over and over the failed programs of the past, expecting different results. But America plowed ahead until World War II gave us, first, the market for a revived armaments industry and, later, the entry into the War itself, creating millions of jobs.
So, we’ve learned our lesson from that experience, right? We don’t do such stupid things now, right? Of course, you know the answer.
Sometimes I think part of the cause for this is that ideas are not put in terms that non-experts can see the depth of the problem. Let’s take the $831 billion Stimulus, passed in 2009, and put it in a perspective that all can understand. Suppose you had a very generous boss, who decided to give you a nice little raise, say $1,000 per second (please do not write me, asking where you can find such a boss), and decided to pay that amount both when you were working and when you were not working, so the $1,000 per second raise was for every second in the year. It would take less than seventeen minutes for you to become a millionaire, but it would take more than another 632 years to accumulate the amount of the Stimulus. Now, doesn’t that statistic put in high relief the success or failure of that Stimulus?
Maybe the problem isn’t that we have learned nothing. Maybe it’s that we have forgotten nothing.
- March 11, 2013
- “Life is to be entered upon with courage.” - March 4, 2013
The title of this blog is a quote from Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (1805–1859), who at the ripe old age of 26 came to America on a mission from the July Monarchy to examine prisons and penitentiaries in America. He visited some prisons, but ended up traveling widely in America, taking extensive notes, returning to France in less than two years, to write his masterpiece, Democracy in America, which was published in 1835, when he was 30. Tocqueville likely has no true rival in understanding the American personality and America’s place in the world. Here are a few quotes; you will see that his work is as lively and accurate today as it was nearly 180 years ago.
The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money
Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith
Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom
Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
It is the dissimilarities and inequalities among men which give rise to the notion of honor; as such differences become less, it grows feeble; and when they disappear, it will vanish too.
A democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it.
There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.
The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.
When I was studying political theory way back in the 1960s and 1970s, the greatest theorists in the world were Americans of German extraction, all escapees from Nazi Germany. Now, the greatest theorists are Frenchmen, who don’t need to escape their country, though their work is not exactly a celebration of the road that Paris has chosen to follow, which is in direct contradiction to the thought of their famous nineteenth-century son. After all, “life is to be entered upon with courage.”
Among the great French thinkers today are Philippe Bénéton, Rémi Brague, René Girard (who lives in America . . . on Frenchman’s Road, no less), Pierre Manent, Jean-Luc Marion, and Roger Pouivet, all authors of books published or to be published by St. Augustine’s Press. Vive la difference!