Sunday, November 29, 2020

Nullius in verba


In chapter 3 of FREE SPEECH ON CAMPUS by Chemerinsky & Gillman, we are reminded of Italian astronomer Galileo (1564-1642) who dared challenge the orthodoxy of the church by arguing that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. For saying this, the church accused him of heresy and placed him on house arrest for the remainder of his life. Some 300 years later, on October 31, 1992 the church issued an official apology to Galileo for having reacted to his factual scientific findings the way it had.

We are also reminded that "higher education was not founded on free thought but on indoctrination" as inquiry and discussion were confined to theological orthodoxy. In spite of its origination, higher education has aspired to evolve away from a place of indoctrination to a place of critical inquiry:

"If one starts from an assumption of already knowing the truth—religious, political, or otherwise—then higher education is merely about instructing students to become disciples."

The earth, the sun, the church, the apology, the university ... thinking about all of this makes me want to make a delineation that won't go over well with SOME. That SOME are the ones who take the phrase: Nullius in verba (which in Latin means "take nobody's word for it") not just out of context but into absurd contrarianism. That SOME are the ones who today believe that by taking nobody's word for it means believing in ridiculous ideas like—the world is flat. That SOME align themselves with the genius nature of Galileo—as if just by challenging orthodoxy they are as brilliant as the Italian astronomer.

The freedom to speak doesn't mean the babbling nonsense of the unstudied weighs the same as findings of a studied and practiced person. It simply means that babbling isn't forbidden. This point is made by musician Wynton Marsalis in his book, MOVING TO HIGHER GROUND, where we learn of a time when he taught shy young musicians to start improvising. He did so by encouraging them to make stuff up and just loudly play anything that intuitively came out of them. After getting them to produce a cacophony of painful-to-hear sounds, Marsalis said to the kids: "I told you it was easy. It's only hard if you want it to sound good."

Galileo didn't make stuff up through cliches and intuition. He made sound assertions after years of disciplined study. Marsalis doesn't just go on stage and miraculously make great music. He does so after years of study, practice and collaboration. 

In the book FROM ETERNITY TO HERE by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, we learn how through entropy (disorder), our universe continues to expand. We have more disorder today than yesterday but not as much as tomorrow. That's how the universe has been and will continue to be as it continues to expand ... as trees fall, eggs crack, tears shed. Entropy makes us ponder that a long time ago, there was less entropy and more order, which begs the question ... what is the origin of such order? Isn't order evidence of God? 

The elegance of entropy is what reels me back from pure atheism to agnosticism. What doesn't reel me back in is the babbling of that SOME who love to say things like "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" or "If I can stand in line at Walmart, you can stand in line at the voting booth."

It's easier to babble than to study. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020


In chapter 7 of his book Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton Marsalis describes a time when he was teaching improvisation to a group of shy kids by saying to them: "It's so easy. Just make up stuff. Yes, play anything that comes to mind, fingers, or lips. Louder! Wilder! That's it. You're improvising." And after the kids produced a cacophony of free-spirited but painful-to-hear sounds, Marsalis added: "I told you it was easy. It's only hard if you want it to sound good."

Earlier in the book, Marsalis recounts a time when saxophonist Frank Foster called for a blues in B-flat during a street concert with other musicians when a young tenor player began to play "sounds that had no relationship to the harmonic progression or rhythmic setting," causing Foster to stop him:

"What are you doing?"
"Just playing what I feel."
"Well, feel something in B-flat, motherfucker."

Marsalis explains that jazz is about—expressing-accepting, reacting-accepting—on repeat. Like when a trumpeter plays what he/she feels in the moment, followed by say a bassist reacting to what has been played by playing/expressing what he/she feels about it. And on and on. When all members of the band strive for the balance of expression-acceptance-reaction within the company of practiced musicians striving for excellence, jazz enters a nirvana called "swing." In swing, no single player hogs the stage with endless solos. In swing, players give and take, back and forth, without compromising sincerity of the heart and soul.

Swing in jazz reminds me of "swing" in rowing crew as described in The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. Crew is not a sport for individuals to show off solo strengths. Rather, it's a sport where individuals become one unit by making modifications as needed ... where a rower with a shorter reach learns to reach longer, and a rower with a longer reach learns to foreshorten his/her reach so that every rower can be in synch, causing the boat to attain a rowing nirvana called "swing."

Marsalis states that not all musicians respect the swing, which he likens to the state of our democracy: "Balance is required to maintain something as delicate as democracy, a subtle understanding of how your power can be magnified through joining with and sharing the power of another person."

In other words, it's not just about the freedom to belt out whatever the hell one feels.

It's also about belting out what one feels in collaboration and cooperation with others, in the right key and with awareness of context, motherfucker. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

There, There by Tommy Orange


[This original essay was posted on my IG on March 2, 2019. I am reposting it today to encourage anyone who is thirsty to read something to address the tensions that exist in the holiday called Thanksgiving.]

Just finished reading THERE THERE by Tommy Orange. At first I thought it was a collection of short stories. And then after about 50 pages, I realized it isn't a collection of shorts, it's one cohesive novel ... where seemingly unrelated stories and characters intersect, interrelate, inter-tangle. The older I get, the more I realize that everything is connected. I realize that a person from this interaction is related to a person from that interaction and that this word affects that word, and this treatment affects that treatment.

There is righteous rage in this book. The kind of rage I felt a few weeks ago when watching the Glib entitled face of the white teen boy (from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky) donning a MAGA hat while taunting #NathanPhillips (a veteran and member of the Omaha tribe). And then watching prime time give the boy a one-on-one interview to deny his Glib. And a judicial system that allows Glib to claim and cry unfairness. Just like his hero, the grifter-in-chief.
Fuck. I mean, what the fuck.

This life is at once too much and not enough. But hey, let's just make nice and let it go ... cause turkey's in the oven, the cranberries are cooked, guests are coming, and we have so much to be thankful for. So let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for our abundant blessings and all that you continue to bestow upon us, amen. "But there's no time and no good reason most of the time to look back. Leave them alone and memories blur into summary" (Tommy Orange, There There, page 165). 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Expressions & Regulations


Emily Bazelon reminds us in her piece (Free Speech Will Save Our DemocracyNYT Magazine, October 13, 2020) that President Obama encourages us to allow all speech to occur, no matter how offensive, as we strengthen our speech so that the best ideas emerge as the most credible. Bazelon also reminds us of historically foundational thinkers upon which Obama's assertion rests, including Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who in 1919 said "The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas" and John Stuart Mill who wrote in (On Liberty, 1859) that it is wrong to censor ideas, because knowledge arises from the "clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

In Chapter 2 of The Free Speech Century by Lee Bollinger and Geoffrey Stone (2018), we find an essay titled Every Possible Use of Language? by Frederick Schauer. In it, Schauer cites Holmes as having given us the enduring idea that speech can be restricted on alleged dangerousness only if the danger is "clear and present." Most of us have understood this point by understanding the example he used to make this point, which is that no one is free to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

What makes these traditional tenants of free speech challenging today is 1) the grotesque advances of technology that cause false information to spread like wildfire and 2) modern leaders like Donald Trump whose penchant for totalitarianism cause him to spread outlandish propaganda one day and on another day (when confronted by irrefutable proof of his earlier falsehoods) takes oblique and cynical cover by saying "I was just joking." 

Schauer argues that the First Amendment "cannot have been ... intended to give immunity for every possible use of language." In other words, some language is beyond the grasp of the First Amendment's protections. For example, when Trump's language inspired domestic terrorists earlier this year to devise a plan to kidnap and murder Governor Gretchen Whitmer, it would be hard for the First Amendment to kick in and regulate that speech because in the moment of Trump's language, dangers are likely speculative and likely distant. Not clear enough. Not present enough.

The good faith argument that all speech ought to be allowed in order for the best idea to win (a la Mill, Holmes, and Obama) may need further examination as we confront a modern context where our social media channels fuel the growth of totalitarian leadership-based dangers. Dangers that might not explode in the now but dangers that are dangerously flammable and uncomfortably adjacent to this moment.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

TRUST by Pete Buttigieg


"Laakum diinukum wa lii diinii" is the Arabic sentence that came out of Pete Buttigieg's mouth in a tense moment when he and another American found themselves in a marketplace, on the streets of Somalia (TRUST, Buttigieg, 2020). The tension began when rather than pretend that he and his friend were Canadians (which many Americans were doing while in the Middle East (in order to avoid receiving the negative attitudes toward Americans)) they declared to the people in the marketplace that they were from the USA. As tensions about politics and religion rose in that moment, Buttigieg (a devout Episcopalian) uttered that sentence which translates in English to: "Your religion for you, and my religion for me." Buttigieg explains that it is "the final sentence of a sura in the Quran about how Muslims are supposed to speak to unbelievers."

At the heart of most faiths is that God wants me to believe. Not through force, but free will. Makes sense to me because like God, I want to receive love from others—not through force, but free will. Forced faith isn't faith. Forced love isn't love.

After a string of blisteringly hot days, I see clouds rolling in as I look out the window from where I write. Much-needed rain will come. An isolationist would want me to believe that the rain that falls on me is MY rain, produced by MY land. America first. To hell with everyone else.

But science teaches that rain happens through a phenomenon called bioregionalism, where atmospheric rivers transport moisture from the tropics to other parts of the world, and that 30-50 percent of California's rain comes through "atmospheric rivers" that originate in places like The Philippines (How to Do Nothing, Odell, 2019).

Yesterday I attended a zoom conference held by The Hammer Museum where speakers were talking about the troubling lack of storytellers telling stories about climate change. One reason is that storytellers can more easily tell stories by looking at something that has happened in the past. Wars. Famines. Disasters. Climate change isn't something that happened in the past. It is happening.

To take action and care not only for what is mine or what I think is mine (e.g., God, rain, etc.) we need to find a way to strengthen trust in experts and institutions who provide not conspiracies based on innuendo and mistrust, but evidence through research, study and good faith. As addiction to conspiracies and misinformation continue to spread, it feels daunting. It feels like a tug of war between isolationism and global cooperation. Between forced faith and faux faith. As much as it feels tempting to give up and let go of that rope, I hold on, and meditate on the final sentence in this book where Buttigieg says: "I trust that we can meet that moment, if only because we must."

Sunday, October 11, 2020

THE ABUNDANCE by Annie Dillard


As I was reading Maggie Nelson, I knew that I'd be reading Annie Dillard. Because when a writer I admire admires another writer, I jump to that named writer. The massive pile of books by assorted authors that has been waiting to be read will need to wait longer. I've got time, I think.

Within her book of essays titled THE ABUNDANCE, there is an essay titled The Deer at Providencia. In it, Dillard talks about a newspaper article titled "Man Burned for Second Time" that she has clipped and keeps taped to her mirror. It's about a man named Alan McDonald who as a young person was badly burned in an accident involving flaming gasoline. Dillard explains that severe burn victims have a high suicide rate: "Medicine cannot ease their pain; drugs just leak away, soaking the sheets, because there is no skin to hold them in." The article explains that years after this first burn accident, McDonald is involved in a second accident, causing him to be severely burned a second time. The article quotes McDonald as saying "Why does God hate me?"

I can barely read beyond this essay because I actually start sobbing for McDonald and all other burn victims of the world. And I want him to know that I hear the validity of his question.  

In the following essays, Dillard challenges me to wonder HOW I see by arguing that likely, I see what I expect. She cites author Stewart Edward White who writes about the way of seeing deer: "As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious, then you will see deer. " In other words, I am one who walks with a camera (from shot to shot) or without one, to allow an internal shutter to open as I see a new way, allowing me to become a true observer.

Dillard takes me with her on her own journey of sometimes seeing the mirage of immortality that gets constructed in between nature's harsh evidence that life is finite. And if I can see the mirage for what it is, I will take her advice when she says: "SPEND the afternoon. You can't take it with you." 

She asks: "What would you do if you had fifteen minutes to live before the bomb went off? Quick: What would you read?"

If I had that newspaper clipping about McDonald, maybe I'd read that. Or the cards my kids have written me over the years. Or nothing at all. And ask indignantly (mainly because I don't know whether I truly hate death), "Why does God hate us?" 

Thursday, September 24, 2020



That the title of this book explains the absurd nature of "solutions" by correlating it with "other problems" invites me in. 

When my brother took his life in 2013, I was feeling a lot of things and I wanted to say a lot of things. Mostly that nothing makes sense and that everything hurts. And when I tried to say those things, unsolicited advice came my way with "solutions" that I wasn't seeking and advice that I wasn't interested in. Turns out the universe is filled with people wanting to make a person who is feeling bad to either feel bad about feeling bad or to stop feeling bad. Like the only feeling worthy of having is a "good" one, or a brave one, or a choose happy one. Thankfully, my therapist at the time wasn't dispensing solutions or advice. He simply was and was helping me be.

In Chapter 10 of SOLUTIONS and OTHER PROBLEMS by Allie Brosh, we learn that Allie has also experienced heartbreaking loss. Her sister. Through her drawings and words, Brosh explains the sensation of the bad feelings that you want to explain to the world in such a grim situation. She does this in the most brutally untidy and most dignified way I've ever read.

Yesterday, I tuned into a zoom call where Brosh was interviewed by Marc Maron about this new book. It was lovely. When asked about her favorite comedians, she said that Dave Chapelle's optimism is one she can get behind, noting that Chapelle doesn't cover up the pointlessness and hurt to have the audience only notice the balloons and rainbows. She also stated a discomfort in the idea of advising anyone about anything, but prefers to be an "open source" for anyone who wants to observe how she is going through it. I realize that the most significant influencers in my life don't come at me with unsolicited solutions and advice. Rather, they live and open up the way they live, in case I want to observe it. And sometimes, I derive something helpful from the observation if it comes into view.

That's what this book is. It is an open source where I get to observe stories that allow me to strongly identify, that make me feel that Brosh is weird, that I'm weird, that life is weird, and sometimes, there are balloons.

If HYPERBOLE AND A HALF (Brosh's first book) is about coping with depression, SOLUTIONS and OTHER PROBLEMS is about coping with loss. I'm grateful for both.