Trust But Verify

In “Dover Beach,” the eminent Victorian, Matthew Arnold, expressed the belief that the tide of Faith was going out. Today, it sometimes seems the tide of enlightenment rationalism has gone down the drain, and that we are sinking into primitive superstition.

Donald Trump didn’t start the retreat from reason, but he certainly isn’t doing anything to stop it. He tweets six impossible things before breakfast each day, and the gullible eat it up. We now don’t object merely to political correctness, but to the idea of objective truth.

Consider recent poll results that show 46% of registered voters believe news organizations fabricate stories about the president, and 56% of Republicans believe the government should have the power to shut down “fake news.” Forty-one percent of Americans don’t believe that everyone should be free to practice the religion of their choice. And 46% of Trump voters believe Hilary Clinton ran a satanic pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizzeria.

What’s next? Burning witches or stoning women caught in adultery hardly seem out of the question. I hasten to add that loony beliefs and the embrace of misinformation are not confined to the realm of politics, in part because we are becoming a nation of dunces.

Only 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government, and 37% can’t name a single right protected by the First amendment. An Independence Day poll found that 14% of teens thought the American Revolution was fought against France and 5% believed the enemy was the wicked Canadians. Twenty-five percent couldn’t identify the two sides in the American Civil War, and 55% believed the constitution calls for “One Nation Under Jesus.”

A 2013 poll of young Americans found that only 51% could point to New York on a map, and 29% couldn’t identify the Pacific Ocean. Thirty percent didn’t know what the Holocaust was, and 20% believed the sun revolves around the earth. If book learnin’ is in short supply, however, fear not. Belief is booming, particularly in ghosts, alien abductions, and a vast array of pseudo-science and outright superstition.

Twas ever thus, I guess, but in a supposedly literate, educated, scientifically advanced country, such credulity is alarming. It is a symptom of a larger loss of faith in all sources of authority. The word of teachers, men of the cloth, judges, scholars, presidents was one thought to be largely trustworthy. Danial Patrick Moynihan famously said a person is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

Shows what he knew. Presidential spokesperson Kellyanne Conway assured us that one’s “alternative facts” are just as good as the truth. Better, if they confirm our prejudices or justify our transgressions. The long slide to this debased alternative reality began long ago.

The Cold War’s Red Scare spawned plenty of merchants of falsity and witch hunters. McCarthy claimed without evidence that traitors were everywhere, including the man who won World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall. The John Birch Society said Dwight Eisenhower was a closet communist.

State and local school boards shy from teaching evolution, ban “controversial” literary classics and adopt history texts that misrepresent our past and contain no discouraging words lest ministers, prudes, or jingoistic patriots descend on them en masse.

The best and the brightest erred catastrophically about how easy winning in Vietnam would be, then systematically lied about the endeavor. Richard Nixon said he was not a crook, but he turned out to be the mastermind of a criminal conspiracy aimed at subverting democratic government. Televangelists turn out to have feet of clay and Catholic priests to be pedophiles. And the WMD in Iraq were a Bush Administration hoax, or delusion.

And now, the internet with its endless supply of really fake news, con games, hacks, trolls, propaganda, cyberbullying, stalking, disinformation and uncurated, unverified alternative facts means we are living in a world where who you trust, who is regarded as speaking with authority is based on no objective measure by tens of millions of us Truth, reality,are in the eye of the solipsistic beholder.

When faith in the veracity of every person and institution has been lost, intellectual anarchy reigns, ognorant armies class by night, and in the land of the fact-free blind, the one-eyed demagogue is king.

Memories, Merchants, And Movies

Happy bloated and Black Friday. Here are a few books I’ve read lately that are worth recommending, including a book about reading. Since huge numbers of books are sold during the Christmas season, one of these might be a welcome gift.

Michael Dirda is the longtime book critic for “The Washington Post.” He’s famous for both the breath of his interests and the enthusiasm with which he recommends his latest find. “An Open Book” is his memoir of growing up as the bookish son of a Lorain, Ohio steelworker. To his family he seemed like a member of an alien species. I have long enjoyed Dirda’s reviews, but I picked up this volume when I saw it was like a return to my own early years.

That’s because I am a year older than Dirda, grew up 27 miles from him, the son of a rust belt factory worker, and was just as sure as Dirda to be found with my nose in a book. I also studied literature at an Ohio liberal arts school and ended up newspapering, though in a far more provincial and less illustrious manner than Dirda.

Anyone who grew up in the 1950s and 60s would probably enjoy this nostalgic visit to a lost world of blue collar industrial America. Those for whom books are central to life will recognize themselves in this portrait of the reader as a young man whose horizons widen, and tastes develop by discovering vast new worlds between two covers.

They may also be amused to recall the cheapo classics available from the TAB book club and the notion that Will Durant’s “Story of Civilization” was the last word in historical knowledge. They will also have fun agreeing with Dirda’s youthful taste or picking fights with it. I heartily seconded his fondness for Rick Brant’s electronic adventures and those of Tom Swift Jr. and Ken Holt, but he lost me when he fell for Doc Savage and Tarzan.

“City of Fortune” by Roger Crowley concerns the heyday of Venice, roughly from 1100 to 1500, from the age of the Crusades to the High Renaissance. It tells the improbable tale of how a bunch of fishermen built a city on a boggy lagoon and turned it into an economic powerhouse through sea trade, linking the supply of goods from the East with the developing demand of an awakening Europe.

It is heroic how these traders brought cargos back from Alexandria, Constantinople and distant Black Sea ports, and how Northern European customers crossed the Alps to attend markets on the Rialto. But the book also serves as a cautionary tale. The once mighty La Serenissima on the Adriatic declined as the balance of power shifted in the Levant, and as the even more heroic voyages of the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch shifted the supply chain from the ancient Silk Road to open ocean. Almost overnight the business model of Venice was doomed, turning it from the center of the world into a backwater.

Crowley argues that the Venetians understood before anyone else not just supply and demand, but “the need for consumer choice, a stable currency, on-time delivery, rational laws and taxes.” And in the process, it “replaced the chivalrous Medieval knight with a new type of hero; the man of business.”

Readers will not miss the fact that the object lesson of Venice can also apply to our own hubris. Their commercial empire was subject to unpredictable change, “harbors and ports came and went, and the roots it put down on many foreign shores were not deep.” Perhaps we ourselves are like Venice, which “knew deep down that all the imperial razzamatazz of trumpets, ships and guns was only a mirage.”

David Thomson is always entertaining and thought provoking, in his film criticism, biographies and especially his indispensable reference work, “A Biographical Dictionary of Film.” It is as amusingly opinionated as Dr. Johnson’s dictionary. He argues, for example, that the most important film actor in history is Cary Grant, and makes a pretty persuasive case for it.

His most recent book is “Warner Bros: The Making of an American Studio,” and both the title with its bros, and the origin of the work reflect his puckish intellect. It is part of a Yale University Press series that offers brief biographies of important Jews, such as Einstein, Kafka and Freud. Immediately Thomson admits the brother that counted was Jack and that he is “maybe the biggest scumbag ever to get into a Jewish Lives series.” He hastens to add that in Warner’s Hollywood, this was not an entirely pejorative term. Rascals were admired.

The book itself does not dwell at length on the machinations by which the four sons of a Youngstown, Ohio cobbler turned themselves into movie moguls. He’s more interested in the movies the leader of the pack, Jack, made in the Golden Age of Hollywood, and in the characteristics they shared that made them immediately identifiable as Warner products.

Warner’s first made money with Rin Tin Tin, became a pioneer of the sound era with “The Jazz Singer,” but then, in the early Thirties as other studios opted for opulent café society escapism or singing and dancing, Warner’s began to specialize in the slum, the street, the gangster, and in hard-edged melodrama. Warner’s was noir long before noir.

Its stars embodied these leanings – Edward G. Robinson, Cagney, and Bogart in films like “Public Enemy,” “Little Caesar,” “High Sierra,” “White Heat,” “The Big Sleep.” And Warner’s women were also as tough as nails — Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top in “Baby Face,” Bette Davis in “Of Human Bondage,” “Marked Woman,” and “Dark Victory,” Joan Crawford evolving from unrepentant tramp to anguished wronged woman. And equally manic and transgression was the cartoon unit where Bugs was a kind of Cagney with a carrot.

Thomson is brilliant on all this, and how it reflected the scuffling brutality of Jack Warner whose actors regularly fled his tyranny. But he also had the guts to embrace an ash can view of the Great Depression, and a willingness to attack the Nazi regime when other studios worried about losing revenues from Germany.

Men Behaving Pathologically

Trigger Warning: Some readers may find the following remarks politically incorrect, insensitive and sexist. Proceed at your own risk.

So, we have all been subjected to a tsunami of sexual abuse cases in the news, and the sort of never-ending, 24/7, information-free commentary usually reserved for, well, tsunamis — or the latest mass shooting.

The fact that so many women have come forward (and in the case of Kevin Spacey, men) to accuse bullying louts of unwelcome sexual advances is news, but the fact that so much of it goes on isn’t. Let’s face it, men are pigs.

Or, if that’s a bit harsh, they are designed by nature to be incessantly in the market for something they value more highly than pearls and rubies, fast cars, corner offices, intelligence, character, longevity, beauty, and even power. And, in a cruel practical joke, the supply is controlled by the opposite sex.

Clearly, this imbalance of emotional power can lead to trouble, so civilization has created all sorts of laws, customs, mores, manners, taboos and commandments to prevent daily unpleasantness due to hormonal madmen. It is no coincidence that war, which is the absence of those civilized restraints, is accompanied by rape and pillage.

To be fair, the vast majority of men manage to color within the lines. Indeed, most are humble supplicants for the favor of fair lady, willing to endure the kind of trials of their worthiness described by the troubadour love poets. Unfortunately, in our macho culture they are supposed to pretend they are in charge. But a few haven’t gotten the message that women just let them believe they have power. That clueless fraction behaves like pushy creeps, to use a technical term.

All the blather about the cases in the news by earnest news talkers has tended to boil down to one conclusion. The perps are unspeakably vile, but not because they are after sex exactly. If so, we’d have to ban romance novels, senior prom, honeymoons and “Outlander.”

No, their method of seeking preferment is the problem. They abuse power to get what would otherwise not be available to them. This makes them contemptible, and in quite a few cases criminal, but it is not what makes them disgusting.

If they weren’t disgusting in the first place, they probably wouldn’t have to ambush, bully, abuse, blackmail, threaten, drug and harm their victims to get them to look with favor upon them. I am aware that I am approaching political incorrectness, but you will have noticed that flocks of women have not come forward to accuse the likes of Warren Beatty, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Brady or the current pretty boy pop star of unwelcome advances. Why, because attractive men, like attractive women, are attractive.

The rest of us are aware that we are not about to be voted sexiest man alive, and are about as likely to cause women to swoon as to write the symphonies of Mozart, create Berkshire Hathaway or discover the theory of relativity. We hope merely to be presentable enough, amiable enough, solvent enough, reliable enough to get one female of the species to tolerate our attentions.

It doesn’t take long to see why the creeps are driven to creepiness. They haven’t got what the ladies are buying. They do not attract groupies. They aren’t the Prince Charmings. They are the toads. Vulgar, unmannerly, arrogant, entitled, tone-deaf, abusive, uncaring, egocentric, brutal, pompous jerks.

Oddly enough, these are traits that can be useful in real estate development, politics, crime, on Wall Street and in Hollywood. But such neanderthals have trouble attracting women, because they are unattractive. For starters, just look at most of them. Most women wouldn’t, no matter how much money and power they accumulate, which is a particularly bruising rejection.

Of course, not all creeps are created equal. They come on a continuum. Some, like Al Franken, are just pitiful. He appears to have succumbed to a moment of lunacy when confronted with a women whose career path included Hooter’s calendar girl, Fredericks of Hollywood lingerie model, and Playboy siren. His career path was class clown. One look at him and at her and you’d never suspect they belonged to the same species. The poor sap knew from elementary school he wasn’t worthy, and briefly lost his grip on reality. This is your garden variety workplace stupidity.

Others have weird, and often illegal, kinks. Judge Moore who has all the sex appeal of the Pillsbury doughboy, even when equipped with his cowboy hat and tiny little gun, has an unholy desire for underage girls, which unsurprisingly was not reciprocated.

Others, like Louis C. K. seem to have a strange exhibitionist streak and long to put on solo performances. There really is no business like show business, I guess, but there are professionals who cater to such desires, sparing their customers career-ending exposure. At the other extreme, Bill Cosby was so little interested in a personal connection that he liked his women unconscious. This takes the objectification of women to the brink of their extinction.

The really disturbing creeps like Cosby, Weinstein and Trump seem permanently out of touch with reality. Apparently, they didn’t have mothers to teach them how to behave. Apparently, they never looked in the mirror. They seem to have imagined they might be desirable. Obviously they believed money or the perks they could dispense made them irresistible.

They seem to have been deformed early in life and believe, as toddlers do, that people can be treated like food or drink or toys, something to grab when you want it and throw away when you’re bored with it. Interestingly, many of them don’t just treat women like disposable objects that can be demeaned and used at whim. They do the same to everyone around them.

They expect their advances to be welcome, even applauded, their desires to be satisfied as smilingly as by a maid or waiter, a loyal aide, chauffeur or groundskeeper. And when a woman says no, their all-consuming egos are affronted, and they treat the victims as if they were the offending party. They call them ugly and brand them liars, and threaten to sue or blackball or harm them if they don’t vanish as if they’d never existed. In effect, they’re fired.

They behave inhumanly because they have a part missing where, in most people, the humanity lives. Sad, as the Creep-in-Chief likes to say.