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.