Monthly Archives: October 2018

Why You Should Read Don Quixote — Part 2

Why You Should Read Don QuixoteMy first article on Why You Should Read Don Quixote was the text for a Toastmasters’ talk. And in this task, I was supposed to take the feedback on the talk and improve the speech. But it would be pretty dull to hear the same speech again. So I decided to take a new approach.

Before, I fear that I focused too much on the “great books” aspects of Don Quixote — how it was the first modern novel and the first postmodern novel. But really: I think you should read Don Quixote because it is enormously entertaining. It is The Twilight Zone of the 17th century. And so I thought I would spend a little time going over some of the amusing bits in the first book.

Pasteboard Visor

The novel starts with a discussion of this silly old man who has been driven crazy by the literary tales of knights errant. So he decides to become one.

In the past, you’ve probably seen movies where rich people have a knight’s suit of armor in their house as decoration. Well, lucky for Don Quixote, he too has one. So went he decides to hit the road and find glory by righting wrongs, he has a suit of armor waiting. Except…

The helmet has no visor on it. What to do? Make one out of pasteboard!

This shows, from the very start, that he understands, at some level, this is all play acting. He’s a knight errant in the same way that child who dresses up for Halloween as a pirate is a pirate.

The fact that pasteboard would not protect him doesn’t matter! As long as it looks like it will protect him!

Andres the Slave Boy

In his first real adventure, Don Quixote comes upon a farmer whipping a boy, Andres. He soon discovers that Andres has been working for the farmer. But the farmer abuses the boy and never pays him.

Don Quixote is outraged and demands that the farmer pay the boy. At first, the boy is happy to have this hero on his side. But Don Quixote simply instructs the farmer to take the boy home and pay him.

When Andres protests that if Don Quixote isn’t around, the farmer will just beat him further, Don Quixote dismisses him. Of course, the farmer will be a man of his word! And Don Quixote rides away, assured that he has done a good deed.

The Helmet of Mambrino

Later on, Don Quixote and Sancho are traveling in the rain. They see a man with a wash basin on his head. Or rather, Sancho sees a man with a wash basin on his head. Don Quixote sees a man wearing the mythical helmet of Mambrino! It makes whoever wears it invincible! So Don Quixote is keen to have it.

He rushes toward the man who, seeing a crazy man coming at him with ill-intent, drops the wash basin/helmet and runs off. A thrilled Don Quixote picks it up.

But he makes a rare admission to Sancho. He says that it does indeed appear to be a wash basin. Someone must have melted down the helmet of Mambrino, not knowing its value, and reformed it into a wash basin.

Reality Rears Its Ugly Head

At the end of the first book, Don Quixote and Sancho find themselves in a village they had visited earlier. There many of the earlier plots come back to haunt the Great Knight of La Mancha. But they don’t haunt us at all, because we are not crazy.

As we expected, after Don Quixote left the slave boy, the farmer beat the poor boy more savagely than he had ever before. The boy was no longer under the farmer’s control. Just the same, he had never been paid.

The man wearing the helmet of Mambrino was actually just a barber who was wearing his wash basin to shield his head from the rain.

It seems that everyone in the village has a story of how this crazy old man who thought he was a knight had ruined their lives. I think Andres, the slave boy, sums up the consensus, “Look here, mister knight-errant, if you ever come across me again, even if you can see that I’m being torn to pieces, for God’s sake don’t come to my rescue — just leave me alone with my troubles, because they can’t possibly be so great that your help won’t make them much worse!”

Many other exciting “adventures” come together at the end to turn Don Quixote’s world upside down. I’ve just highlighted two of my favorites, but I could go on.

If it sounds crazy, it should! You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of shadow and substance — of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into Don Quixote.

A Useless Press Conference

FBII was driving today, so I got to listen to the entire press conference about the arrest of Cesar Sayoc — the man suspected of sending pipe bombs to a number of Trump critics. What most struck me was just how useless the press conference was.

Jeff Sessions

It all started badly with Jeff Sessions giving a “can’t we all just get along” speech without a hint of irony. This is the way it will be with Republicans. In fact, before the press conference, NPR interviewed two political consultants: a female Republican and a male Democrat. And she, of course, brought up Maxine Waters who told Democrats to harass Trump Cabinet officials in public.

The Democrat pushed back and said that Waters specifically talked about making it uncomfortable for people in the Trump administration to go out to dinner. In other words: putting a social cost on working for Trump. She specifically wasn’t calling for violence. And Trump has specifically called for violence.

The Republican backed-down and claimed that she did not mean to make the two sides equivalent. But if that’s the case, what was she doing? She was trying to give Republicans cover by misrepresenting what Democrats have been saying!

During the same segment, Sessions was applauded for the way he dealt with the matter. But this is totally backward. Sessions is simply trying to remove politics from this clearly political act. And that’s what you would expect because it the Republican Party that has been pushing this kind of violence. In other words: the best political move for the Republicans is to claim that this is not political. Sessions isn’t being a statesman; he’s being a good Republican Party soldier.

Self-Congratulations From Law Enforcement

The law-enforcement officers who spoke were the same way. They didn’t want to get into the politics of it because this was just a law-enforcement matter.

But their bigger mission was to congratulate themselves. There was endless repetition of “The work our people did was amazing” and “The American people should all unite in thanking the FBI for its amazing work in this case.”

But the one bit of information that was helpful in the press conference undercut this: they found the suspect because he left a fingerprint on the envelope that he sent to Maxine Waters.

In other words: this wasn’t amazing work by the FBI and others. Apparently, Cesar Sayoc left his fingerprint on the envelope. And even then, the FBI would not have found him had Sayoc not had a criminal history and thus had his fingerprints on file.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure that the FBI has done a professional job with this investigation. But this is not cunning investigational work. Any law enforcement agency would have found this guy. I see nothing that should make Americans especially proud of the work in this case. Indeed, if the FBI had not found this guy quickly, it would have been an indication that we desperately needed reform at the FBI.

Press Conference Was Supposed to Be Useless

I was struck by the fact that the press conference started with the FBI saying that they were not going to comment on the investigation nor the suspect. I thought right then: why are you having a press conference?! After all, that is the information that the people want.

But they didn’t live up to that. They told us a number of things about the investigation like the fingerprint on the envelope. It seems that they simply weren’t going discuss anything that might make the president or his party look bad.

And that makes me think that the government is going to do everything it can to let this whole thing blow over before having to admit that the Republican with all the pro-Trump, pro-Republican, and anti-CNN bumper stickers on his car is, in fact, guilty.

Standing Up for the Rule of Law

One thing Session discussed was that America stands up for the rule of law. That was an interesting claim, because when it comes to criminal behavior by Donald Trump, neither the administration nor the Republican Congress nor even Republican voters believe in the rule of law.

And this whitewash of a press conference is part of this. Had it been a Clinton supporter sending out pipe bombs to Republicans, I’m sure we would hear a lot more — even things that weren’t true.

Elections do have consequences. We see that more clearly now than ever. But at least when Barack Obama was elected, the people knew what they were voting for. Although Trump voters are largely okay with holding the president above the law now, I know that’s not what they voted for.

Cherokee Nation’s Response to Elizabeth Warren

Cherokee Nation's Response to Elizabeth WarrenThere is some question as to whether Elizabeth Warren should have been pulled into a pissing contest with Donald Trump. After all, the man does nothing but piss. And there is no winning an argument with a man who habitually lies and who won’t even admit wrongdoing when there is video evidence. For example, Trump offered to donate a million dollars if Warren took a DNA test and it showed she was “an Indian.”[1] When she did so, Trump claimed he never made the offer.

But let’s cut through all the nonsense. The facts are clear. Trump made an offer to Warren. She accepted it and proved she was right. And he has since had a number of excuses for why he doesn’t need to follow through on his promise. I have little doubt that the million dollars does matter to him — even though it isn’t much compared to all the corrupt money he has acquired while being president. But the bigger issue is that Trump will never admit to being wrong. And with the help of the Republican establishment’s mendaciousness and the Republican base’s motivated gullibility, he doesn’t need to.

The Cherokee Nation Responds

What most concerns me is the response from the Cherokee Nation. They have been engaged in some major false equivalence. In addition to it being morally wrong, it is bad politics. Do they really think that knit-picking a Democrat who is broadly supportive of their concerns will translate to support from Trump and the rest of the Republican Party? Although it isn’t a subject of particular concern to the Cherokee Nation, look at how the Republicans has responded to the concerns of Native Americans regarding the Keystone XL pipeline.

I’m not saying that the Cherokee Nation should just accept that their allies are in the Democratic Party and so they should shut up. But in this case, leaders of the tribe seem to be going out of their way to find offense when there really was none. And we know this because their complaints have been about things that Elizabeth Warren never did. For example, Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin was interviewed on NPR.

Determining Who Is A Cherokee Is More Than DNA, Hoskin Says (16 Oct 2018)

Tribal Identity Isn’t Determined by DNA

The complaints circle around what it means to be Cherokee. And Hoskin is right — not just about Cherokees but about any group. The problem is, Warren’s argument with Trump — and the release of her DNA test results — have nothing to do with her being Cherokee.

Chuck HoskinThis whole thing started when she first ran for Senate in 2012. She was challenging Scott Brown, who made a big deal about it. And his supporters began calling her Pocahontas. Warren’s only claim has even been that according to her family members, they had a Native American ancestor. This is pretty common. Most families have one or more such stories. “Thomas Jefferson was the brother of our great-great-…-grandfather.” Or whatever.

What’s more, her listing herself as part Native American while in college is hardly cultural appropriation. I listed myself as Portuguese, and I certainly have no cultural connection to even the local Portuguese community. There certainly is some question about whether people should do this. But the issue is a mess and Warren certainly shouldn’t be held accountable for the fact that our society has (and probably will) never come to terms with its continued history of racism.

Warren Isn’t Claiming to Be a Tribal Member

Regardless, this is not the issue that Cherokee Nation leaders have been complaining about. They have been complaining about the DNA test. And the DNA test was taken to answer one question: did Elizabeth Warren have a Native American ancestor. And the results of the test indicate that she did, in fact, have an ancestor “living around the mid-1800s, which is similar to Warren family lore.”

The result of this attack on Warren has been that the release of her DNA test results is reported as being as bad or worse than Trump’s vile and loud racist comments. In fact, as you will see in the NPR interview above, Chuck Hoskin has no comment about Donald Trump’s racist bullying of Warren that caused her to release the results in the first place.

Elizabeth Warren Makes the Cherokee Case

And in the video that Elizabeth Warren released, she acknowledges all the points that Hoskin makes about DNA not being an indicator of tribal identity. Yet Warren’s video (which must have taken some time to produce) was released a day before Hoskin’s interview.

Yet if you do a Google search on “warren cherokee,” you will find article after article about how angry the Cherokee Nation is at Warren. And it is all about stuff that she did not do. It is all presented as explaining to Warren things that she clearly knows based on her video.

I really hate this because it allows Republicans to run around spreading lies — including their favorite lie that Democrats are the real racists. And I’m really unclear what the Cherokee Nation gets out of all this. Yes, it was an opportunity to educate the public. But it didn’t provide any more information than Warren’s video. And the Cherokee Nation could have educated the public without the false equivalence, which is all most people will take away from this debacle.


Elizabeth Warren’s Family Story (15 Oct 2018)

[1] Trump’s full statement was, “I will give you a million dollars, to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.” A DNA test can’t actually prove that one is a Native American in any scientific sense. Race is not a scientific thing. But in this context, Trump can mean nothing other than that she was telling the truth about having a Native American ancestor. As for the claim that she has less Native American DNA than the average American, that is completely false.

Why You Should Read Don Quixote

Why You Should Read Don QuixoteIt’s often been said that Shakespeare is the broccoli of English literature: people consume it because they think it is good for them but they don’t really like it.

And this is generally true of any of the Great Books that we are all supposed to read and pretend to love. Yet there are major exceptions like any Jane Austen book. But the single biggest exception is Don Quixote. You shouldn’t read it because it is important; you should read it because it is supremely entertaining.

I’ve read it dozens of times and yet you can still see me sitting on a bus reading it — laughing like a crazy man. And you too can be a crazy man like me!

The Boring Windmill Story

If you know only one thing about Don Quixote, it is the following story:

Don Quxiote rides over a bluff on his emaciated horse. There in the valley are dozens are windmills. But Don Quixote thinks these windmills are giants. So he charges toward them with a lance and is dashed to the ground.

Not very funny, is it? It’s no wonder that people think it isn’t worth their time. I wouldn’t either!

The Real Windmill Story

Now consider what is actually in the book:

Don Quixote is a Spanish gentleman: a man who doesn’t really do anything. He’s spent too much time reading exciting adventures about knights errant. So he’s decided to be one. He needs a squire, so he convinces a local working man, Sancho Panza, to come with him offering the prospect that Sancho will become governor of an island Don Quixote will win for him.

They come over a bluff — Don Quixote on his horse and Sancho on his mule. They see windmills and Don Quixote says, “Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves… [T]hirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes…”

Sancho is an uneducated peasant, but not an idiot. He says, “What giants?”

After a bit of conversation during which Don Quixote insists that the windmills really are giants, the crazy man rushes toward the windmills. Sancho yells after him, “You idiot! Those are windmills!”

Sancho races after Don Quixote, begging him to end this folly.

Don Quixote gets to a windmill and stabs one of its sails — thinking it a giant’s arm. This breaks his lance and dashes him to the ground.

Sancho soon arrives and says, “Didn’t I tell you those were windmills!”

But Don Quixote is having none of it! Sure, they are windmills now. But that’s just because his nemesis, the evil magician Friston, turned the giants into windmills “in order to rob me of the glory of vanquishing them!”

The First Modern Novel

If there is anything else you know about Don Quixote, it is probably that it is the first modern novel. In my experience giving talks about the novel, this is a claim that people have a lot of trouble with. What does it mean?

There are a lot of reasons why scholars claim that Don Quixote is the first modern novel. But the most important is the centrality of character in the story. Before Don Quixote, characters in novels weren’t individuals so much as archetypes. But even more important, the stories were not generated out of those characters.

In Don Quixote, the two primary characters are as vibrant and honest as any character in a modern novel — and that’s with 400 years of later novels stealing from them. In addition, the story is entirely driven by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The plot moves along because of their actions; they aren’t characters dropped into a given plot. And as you can see in the windmill story, the humor derives from the characters — Don Quixote chasing glory in his fantasms and Sancho trying to limit the damage caused by his lunatic friend.

The Postmodern Novel

Another reason that Don Quixote is so fun to read derives from the fact that it is actually two novels. If Part 1 is the first modern novel, Part 2 is certainly the first postmodern novel.

One of the conceits of Part 1 is that the story is true. So when Cervantes wrote Part 2, he did so in a world where the character was literally world-famous. But if the character was famous, then the supposed real man was famous. Thus, the entirety of Part 2 has Don Quixote and Sancho going on their adventures in a world riddled with people who knew them from the first novel.

Luckily, Don Quixote is too insane and Sancho too unsophisticated to realize that people are mocking them. Of course, in many ways, this isn’t very different from Part 1 where people quickly determined that Don Quixote was crazy and had much fun at his expense.

But the merging of fiction and reality is very fun. It makes Don Quixote resonate greatly with a modern reader.

Summary

In 7 minutes, it’s hard to explain why Don Quixote is such an enjoyable read. That’s especially true when I’m limited to a single story that takes up less than a page in the book. But I hope that I have whet your appetite about the book and at least made you realize that Don Quixote is more than just the story of a crazy man doing battle with windmills.