Thursday, February 3, 2022

Aesop on "The North Wind and the Sun," Old Rabbis on Stolen Bricks — and Junk Mail


    I grew up on Aesop's fable of "The North Wind and the Sun" and the rabbinical parable of the bricks. In the fable, the North Wind and the Sun get into a contest to see who can get a man to remove his cloak.

    The North Wind blows and blows and then blows some more and harder, and the man just wraps his cloak more and more tightly. Then it's the Sun's turn, and the Sun turns up the heat, and the man takes off his cloak. MORAL: The same as the one that went into English as "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," which I'll throw in since what interests me isn't that MORAL but the behavior of the North Wind: failing in a ploy and then repeating it and repeating it more strongly.

    The rabbinic parable has a guy thinking about moving into a city and meeting and being treated very nicely by his future neighbors. So he decides to build a house there and gets materials, including a large pile of bricks. Then the night before he's to start construction, the neighbors come over and each one steals a brick — one brick — until the pile is gone, or pretty much. Next day the guy comes over, sees the theft, and laments the loss and demands tracking down the thief. The neighbors come by and ask, rhetorically, "What thief?" And the first one adds, "I took one brick. Surely you're not such a petty cheapskate you'd make a big deal over one lousy brick?!" No simple MORAL here, but a traditional conservative view about social responsibility and how little misdeeds for individuals can add up to a significant social evil. (Also an important idea for questioning the right of each individual gas-station owner to determine who may or may not use his toilets if the upshot is that Black families had problems finding convenient toilets when driving, say, from Florida to DC. Or each arguably legitimate refusal to cooperate with a public health measure if the cumulative upshot is the spread of disease.)

    There's much less at stake here. Here it's my repeated complaint about the repeating and repeating and repeating of individually okay or even admirable e-mail and US-mail appeals for money and support if the cumulative upshot is to overwhelm people (e.g., me). In my case, with rare exceptions, I've just stopped responding, tossing them all (all such mail: into paper recycling or MacTrash): doing without in the case of commercial appeals; just repeating my past donations with charitable appeals; and putting almost all my political money into a local political group that doesn't often bother me for money (and has long since sold my contact information).

    So: Sending me more electronic or hard-copy junk-mail appeals isn't going to help you, gals and guys — you're just doing the North Wind thing. Plus kind of the opposite of stealing bricks: piling up (figuratively burying a guy in) appeals.

    I see no solution here, although it's another reason for better public financing of public services so we need fewer charities, plus public financing of elections, with spending limits. Well, and the US Postal Service should charge junk-mailers more than publications, people mailing bills, and actual letter-writers — and there's got to be some way to charge people per item of electronic mass mailings.
    Taking as a funding model the idea of Constant Contact — actual name of actual firm — may not work so well. 

Yes, I Would Teach Flat-Earth Theory ....

    About 1970 or so I taught a course at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) in the Rhetoric 108 program: theme-based college comp courses for students who did well on the incoming-frosh writing sample but not well enough to place out of introductory. writing entirely or who wanted (or whose major department wanted them) to take a writing course. The course's theme was "The Rhetoric of the Life Sciences," and we looked at the debate over evolution (of course), but also "spontaneous generation," the structure of DNA, and a bit at related matters: plate tectonics for one, and another on a bit of weirdness with Immanuel Velikovsky, author of Worlds in Collision (1950), which presented a theory of the catastrophism variety, which got us into the catastrophism vs. uniformitarianism debate.

(My first published essay was, "Catastrophism and Coition: Universal and Individual Development in [D. H.] Lawrence's Women in Love" [1967] — which got me on the mailing lists of some serious whack-jobs.)

Velikovsky was worth studying:
    • Why he was popular, and convinced even two of my pretty prestigious senior colleagues in English.
    • The fact that however much Velikovsky was a charlatan and nut, Catastrophism vs. Uniformitarianism had been a serious debate, which had gotten resolved in favor of Uniformitarianism — until catastrophes made a comeback.
    • That Velikovsky was wrong about the comet, but had some good points to make on the political implications of Uniformitarianism: a theory that served, however unconsciously, conservatives and moderates (though Catastrophism was, I'd think, ambiguous for radicals and revolutionaries). 

    Relevant here: The question, "Well, would you teach flat-Earth theory?!" should be a real question, not just rhetorical. And yes, I would, starting with what is meant by "teach." Jews can refer to "Our teacher Moses," where the teaching (Torah) includes a good deal of laying down the law. "Our teacher Socrates" refers to a pain-in-the-ass who raised questions. For most of us, most of there time, our senses indicate Earth as lumpy but basically flat. Why did large numbers of educated people quite early on come to believe that Earth was a ball? What's the evidence that they did come to that belief? What's the evidence without complicated instruments that Earth is round? How was it that a literally ancient scientist or two could get Earth not only spherical but could estimate the circumference? And why believe the planet a perfect sphere when it's an oblate spheroid? 

    That gets you into art history, history of science, how science actually operates, and how semi-conscious or explicit philosophical ideas can condition scientific ideas (spheres as a perfect form, appropriate for heavenly bodies — not some deflating ball from kids' games).

    And then there's the psychology of Flat-Earthers. Anyway, actually "teaching the debate" can help critical thinking a whole lot more than laying down the law — how to fill in the "bubbles" on Scantron exams — with the right answers to questions of little immediate relevance for most of us most of the time.

* * *

    A graffito in a stall in a men's room in the Business school at Miami University (Oxford, OH [the older Miami]) gave as "The Secret of Success: Find out who Big Brother is; / Find out what Big Brother wants; / Do it." Under that in a different handwriting, "Marry Big Brother's daughter," but that's not relevant here. What is relevant is the meta-lesson behind Big Brother's laying down the law on whether Earth is round or flat, whether species evolved or were created, Uniformitarianism vs. Catastrophism, whether or not life can arise in our world spontaneously. That lesson: Part of The Secret of Success is filling in the bubbles — or even responding to essay exam "prompts" — to reflect Big Brother's doctrines. And Leftist teachers who lay down the law in their classrooms help drive home the meta-lesson, which will be of use to Right-wing little brothers in the business world, who control a lot more of what makes for Success than do folks on the Left.