One Great Idea and Unimaginable Harm

John LennonI’m not a huge John Lennon fan. He wrote some great songs, though. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” and “Across the Universe” come immediately to mind. Just the same, he demanded a great deal of charity from the listener. I know I am pretty much alone on this, but “Imagine” is a terrible song. I can’t think of a work of art that is so exclusive. John Lennon’s there to help us become enlightened, which is bad enough, but then, “Imagine no possessions; I wonder if you can?” Had he been a more serious songwriter (there is no doubt of his enormous talent), he would have written the song as a self-indictment. The people listening to that song could imagine no possessions a hell of lot better than that pretentious multimillionaire. (Yoko Ono’s net worth is a half billion dollars.)

Still, it is a profound sadness that he was murdered 33 years ago today at the age of 40. I think he had one more great creative period left (and no, Double Fantasy was not part of it). It’s interesting that Mark David Chapman appears to have been inspired by his conversion to Christianity to killed Lennon because of Lennon’s statement (15 years earlier!) that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. I don’t mean to suggest that Christianity is to blame for the actions of Chapman. But it is certainly true that most Christians blame Islam for violent acts by individuals of that faith. I know that Christians respond that Jesus taught peace. But he also taught violence (eg Matthew 10:34-35). These old holy books can justify pretty much anything you want to do.

Good God, what a day for birthdays!

Eli WhitneyOn this day way back in 65 BC, the great Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known to us English speakers as simply Horace, was born. Most people know of him because of one line from one of his poems Odes Book III, Poem 2: Dulce Et Decorum Est. The line itself is, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” A straight translation is, “Sweet and decorous it is for the fatherland to die.” Now Horace is exhorting his fellow Romans to man up. You can read the whole poem in English at Poetry in Translation. Today, we know the line from Wilfred Owen’s poem of the same name where he quotes the line. This is how he ends his poem:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori

I learned a great deal about Latin from reading Horace. All my life, I had heard that Latin was a perfect language. Yet here was this famous line that ends with an infinitive. It sounded vaguely like German to me. What I learned is that there is no such thing as a perfect language. And no language is superior to another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. I run into grammatical problems all the time that simply can’t be solved simply in English, but that is built right into other languages. It is very much like programming languages. The best language depends upon what you want to say. And that can change clause by clause. But one cool thing about Latin: it really isn’t that hard. If I had a child, I would encourage him to study it.

The great French filmmaker Georges Melies was born in 1861. You probably know of him from the hit children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret and the film based upon it, Hugo. He was a professional magician who got into films very early. He is more or less the father of film special effects. But his films are generally quite charming. And they were certainly better than what was being done in America at that time. Of course, over time, his creativity was worn out. He came from the stage and his films continued to be constrained by that paradigm. But it is hard to say if that is the result of lack of ability or of the extreme demands placed on him by that great villain of early filmmaking, Thomas Edison. Regardless, it would take D W Griffith some years later to fully realize that stories on film could be told in an entirely new way. None of this takes anything away from Melies, of course. In the end, France treated Melies very much like the United States treated D W Griffith as well as Orson Welles. He was praised and honored. Young filmmakers consulted with him. But he was not able to make a single film the last 25 years of his life and much of that time he lived in poverty. Here is The Impossible Voyage from 1904:

Another Frenchman, mathematician Jacques Hadamard was born in 1865. I don’t begin to understand his work. But I like what he had to say about mathematics. You see, to me, mathematics is the most creative thing that a human being can do. I get a lot of pushback from people who just don’t get math. This is like people who can only draw stick figures claiming that the great Renaissance painters were not creative. This is how Wikipedia describes it:

In his book Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, Hadamard uses introspection to describe mathematical thought processes. In sharp contrast to authors who identify language and cognition, he describes his own mathematical thinking as largely wordless, often accompanied by mental images that represent the entire solution to a problem. He surveyed 100 of the leading physicists of the day (approximately 1900), asking them how they did their work.

Hadamard described the experiences of the mathematicians/theoretical physicists Carl Friedrich Gauss, Hermann von Helmholtz, Henri Poincaré and others as viewing entire solutions with “sudden spontaneousness.”

Hadamard described the process as having four steps of the five-step Graham Wallas creative process model, with the first three also having been put forth by Helmholtz: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification.

The great Irish flutist James Galway is 74 today. My opinion of him has really gone up over the years. I think when I was younger, I was put off by his flashiness. But the truth is that he does everything just perfect. There are flutists as good but no one is better. Here he is doing the Allegro from the fourth Bach Flute Sonata:

Other birthdays: the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots (1542); French composer Claude Balbastre (1724); Czech composer (and friend of Mozart) Frantisek Xaver Dusek (1731); French playwright Georges Feydeau (1862); sculptor Camille Claudel (1864); composer Jean Sibelius (1865); the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886); cartoonist E C Segar (1894); Cuban painter Wifredo Lam (1902); poet Delmore Schwartz (1913); singer Sammy Davis Jr (1925); comedian Flip Wilson (1933); non-Chinese actor David Carradine (1936); singer Jim Morrison (1943); musician Gregg Allman (66); actor Kim Basinger (60); comedian Sam Kinison (1953); pernicious provocateur Ann Coulter (52); and Sinead O’Connor (47).

The day, however, belongs to the inventor Eli Whitney who was born on this day in 1765. Known for his invention of the cotton gin, he made all his money manufacturing guns for the United States government. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that he was an evil man, but he had a profoundly evil effect on the history of the United States. Slavery in the United States was not originally a racial institution. The problem from the standpoint of the slave-owners was that the black and white slaves had this nasty tendency to bind together and upset the “natural” order. At times, they were joined by the native tribes. So a kind of caste system was developed. The blacks were the slaves, the former white slaves just became the working poor, and the slave-owning aristocracy stayed the same. Divide and conquer. For the slave owners, this was not about racism; it was about money. But the poor whites had to be sold on the idea that the blacks ought to be slaves because they were inferior. Otherwise: there could be more binding together. Over time, I’m sure the slave-owners convinced themselves that the blacks were inferior. But it was always, always, always about money.

By the end of the 18th century, slavery was dying out in the south. Understand: it costs money to own a slave. You have to feed and cloth and house him. It only makes economic sense to keep a slave if he produces more than he costs. And at that time, all the south was producing was rice and tobacco which were not high margin crops. They were producing cotton too, but because of the seeds that had to be removed, it was labor intensive and thus not very profitable. Some slaveowners were giving away their slaves. Until the cotton gin was invented in 1793. In the 20 years after its invention, cotton production increased almost 100 fold.

This was not just a catastrophe for the slaves themselves. It was terrible for the southern economy. For the next 60 years, instead of industrializing and diversifying its economy, the south became dependent upon a single product. It was, in effect, a banana republic. Slavery was going to die regardless, because eventually cotton demand would go down and anyway, others, more inclined toward modern manufacturing processes would have out competed the south’s slave labor approach. Slavery is just bad economics. It is the most extreme example of income inequality. But Whitney—a northern industrialist—allowed the south to diminish its economy and destroy the lives of millions of black Americans both before and after the Civil War. It’s sad, because I’m sure Whitney meant well.

Happy birthday Eli Whitney, may God be as merciful as many claim!

2 thoughts on “One Great Idea and Unimaginable Harm

  1. I was a freshman in high school when Lennon died. Hearing that he had been shot and murdered in the street was so upsetting and sad – it solidified in my young mind what an awful world we live in.

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