Incomprehensible Irish accent from County Kerry: 1:53 video. Something about some stolen sheep.
It is the best of times for Thought Leaders. It is the worst of times for Public Intellectuals. It is the most confusing of times for those of us in the academy.
Let me unpack these terms. Public Intellectuals are experts, often academics, who are well versed and well trained enough to comment on a wide range of issues. As Friedrich Hayek put it, Public Intellectuals are “professional secondhand dealers in ideas.” Think Paul Krugman or Jill Lepore. A Thought Leader is an intellectual evangelist. They develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize to anyone within earshot. Think Robert Kagan or Naomi Klein.
Both Public Intellectuals and Thought Leaders engage in acts of intellectual creation, but their style and purpose are different. To adopt the language of Isaiah Berlin, Public Intellectuals are foxes who know many things, while Thought Leaders are hedgehogs who know one big thing. The former are skeptics, the latter are true believers. A Public Intellectual will tell you everything that is wrong with everyone else’s ideas. A Thought Leader will tell you everything that is right about his or her own idea.
Both intellectual types serve a vital purpose in a democracy. Public Intellectuals are often bashed as elitists, but they help to expose shibboleths masquerading as accepted wisdom. They are critics, and critiquing bad ideas is a necessary function. Their greatest contribution to public discourse is to point out when an emperor has no clothes. Thought Leaders, on the other hand, are often derided as glib TED-talkers lacking in substance, but they can introduce and promote new ideas. During times of uncertainty and change, Thought Leaders can offer intellectually stimulating ways to reimagine the world.
A public sphere dominated by Public Intellectuals has high barriers to entry; the marketplace of ideas becomes ossified and stagnant over time. One dominated by Thought Leaders has high barriers to exit; too many bad ideas linger in the intellectual ether. A healthy public discourse in which good ideas rise to the top requires a balance between the two types of thinkers.
Kevin D. Williamson explains that the big ugly corporations that we particularly hate, by some curious coincidence, really tend to be exactly the ones which are most in bed with the regulatory state.
Capitalism is unpopular for four reasons: banks, health-insurance companies, cable providers, and airlines. These all have something in common.
Airlines are in the wringer this week, with United shaming itself in spectacular fashion: Having overbooked a flight and seated the passengers, the company found itself needing four seats—not for paying customers but for airline employees who needed to be moved to another airport. When they did not find any takers for their paltry travel-voucher offers, they simply dispatched armed men to the airplane to force paying customers off, in a now-famous case, literally dragging one of them away. …
The FAA Consortium in Aviation Operations Research estimated a few years back that the inability of U.S. airlines to deliver the services they have been paid for and that they agreed to deliver costs businesses something like $17 billion. But that does not really capture the expense. A conference I attended not long ago was scheduled to get under way in the afternoon, but all of those who were speaking or who had other formal roles at the event were contractually required to arrive the evening before. There was plenty of time to fly in on the morning of the conference and arrive well before the opening of the conference, assuming the airlines kept to their schedule — but the organizers, who are not fools, were not willing to bet on that happening. I did a little back-of-the-envelope English-major math and concluded that the extra hotel rooms alone must have added a six-figure sum to the organizers’ expenses; if a significant number of the guests followed suit and decided not to bet on the airlines’ keeping their schedules, then the extra expenditure would have easily exceeded $1 million. There are thousands of events like that around the country every day. …
The airlines are terrible, of course, and every time one of them goes kaput, I do a little happy dance . . . until I remember that all that means is that the equally terrible remaining airlines have less competition. …
Airlines are like banks, health-insurance companies, and cable providers in that they work in very heavily regulated industries with relatively low profit margins, which creates enormous pressure for consolidation. (Notice how many health-insurance companies ditched markets they had previously served after the grievously misnamed Affordable Care Act was passed.) Those industries also are alike in that the relatively few players who remain in the market are heavily constrained by public-sector actors with powers that no private-sector monopoly would ever dare to dream of: the Federal Reserve, Medicare, the FCC, and the motley gangs of bureaucrats that have a hand in the airline business.
n the United States, it is regulation, not deregulation, that prevents foreign carriers from competing in the domestic market, which is not the case in New Zealand, which entered into a number of open-skies agreements to increase domestic competition, something our dinosaur airlines have fought against tooth and talon. And in New Zealand, airlines are obliged to compensate passengers if they bump them—up to ten times the cost of the ticket. No so in the United States.
And that points to one of the biggest reasons people hate banks, cable companies, health-insurance companies, and airlines: There is an in-your-face asymmetry of power. If the airline says your flight is going to be delayed by two hours — not because of a hurricane or unforeseeable events but because of straightforward managerial incompetence — then you basically have to live with it. You don’t get to say: “Okay, but I’m taking $50 off the airfare.” Your bank expects you to accept screw-ups on its part that might cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars if the mistake was yours. (My bank just spent 46 cents to send me a check for . . . 47 cents . . . because apparently I bank with people who cannot quite manage to calculate interest correctly.) Your cable service may go out for hours at a time, but if you’re one minute late with your payment, expect penalties.
That is one major problem with heavily regulated industries in which there is insufficient competition: The managers act as though the business were organized for their benefit rather than for the customers, and that attitude seeps down to front-line workers. The typical airline employee treats the typical traveler as though he simply is in the way. I once was introduced to an executive who informed me that he was in charge of “strategic planning” for a large municipal utility company. I asked him whether his strategic plan was to keep being a monopoly. “I’d really be exploring that angle, strategic-planning-wise,” I advised. He did not seem to appreciate my counsel.
If I were a better sort of person, I’d have a little sympathy for the senior executives at United, who must be having a hell of a week. I am not a better sort of person, and I’d be content to see them flogged in the streets. But that’s no way to make policy.
9. Guest Pilot
“We have a guest pilot on board this morning, so we’ll be announcing our bonus destination shortly.”
10. Unscheduled Equipment Retirement
“United regrets to announce that Flight 80 from Boston to Las Vegas experienced an unscheduled equipment retirement. As soon as our United crew reaches the flight’s bonus destination, we will announce how many passengers, if any, we will re-accommodate.”
When did human beings start tipping their weapons with poison to hunt prey? This is a question at the forefront of recent archaeological research.
In southern Africa San (or Bushman) hunter-gatherer groups, such as the /Xam of the Western Cape and the Ju/wasi and Hei//om of Namibia, used poisoned arrows for hunting during the 19th and 20th centuries. The origins of this technology, though, may be far older than we thought.
Recently, traces of the poison ricin were found on a 24 000 year-old wooden poison applicator at Border Cave in South Africa’s Lebombo mountains. If this identification is correct it would mean that people in southern Africa were among the first in the world to harness the potential of plant-based poisons.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.
United Airlines is in negotiations with Bull Conner to be the new VP of Customer Services. Various former officials of the Khmer Rouge turned down the offer, saying in a statement, “we feel we’ve brutalized enough Asian doctors over the years.”
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced Tuesday it had awarded a sole-source contract to United Airlines for work related to the forcible removal of President Bashar al-Assad from Syria.
The contract, worth $2.1 billion, tasks the airline company with locating Assad, grabbing him from his seat in the presidential palace, and “dragging him out of Damascus by his arms.” The contract also notes that Assad should be “asked several times, politely” to give up his seat of power, though if he refuses, United workers should bloody his nose up a bit, according to the posting at FedBizOpps.
Tom Simon takes a pretty successful poke at Annie Proulx in the course of a lengthy attack on pretentious literary modernism. Yay, Papa Hemingway! Boo! Jimmy Joyce!
This mania for stylistic weirdness, enforced by the blocking troops of Modernist criticism, led in the end to a situation where even quite ordinary newspaper reviewers would shout praise for the ‘experimental’ brilliance of bad prose rather than admit to the nudity of the reigning monarch. One of the reigning monarchs of the nineties was Annie Proulx, who was extravagantly lauded for the following sentence in Accordion Crimes. A woman has just had her arms chopped off by sheet metal, and this is how Proulx describes it:
She stood there, amazed, rooted, seeing the grain of the wood of the barn clapboards, paint jawed away by sleet and driven sand, the unconcerned swallows darting and reappearing with insects clasped in their beaks looking like mustaches, the wind-ripped sky, the blank windows of the house, the old glass casting blue swirled reflections at her, the fountains of blood leaping from her stumped arms, even, in the first moment, hearing the wet thuds of her forearms against the barn and the bright sound of the metal striking.
Every story is a conversation between writer and reader, even though the writer is effectively deaf and seldom hears what the reader is saying. Here is a rough transcript of the conversation as it transpires in the passage above:—
Proulx. My character is stunned. Absolutely gobsmacked. Don’t I do a wonderful job of telling you how gobsmacked she is? She’s not just amazed, she’s rooted.
Reader. I don’t think that’s how people react to having their arms chopped off.
P. Now if I were one of these hack commercial writers, I’d talk about her. But see how cleverly I do everything by indirection! See how poetic I am! The barn is built of clapboards, you see—
R. I don’t care about the clapboards. This woman is bleeding to death!
P. And you can see the wood grain because the paint has all been worn off, but I wouldn’t put it that way, oh no, I’m a Writer, I am. So I said to myself, what’s a better action verb to use in this place? Why, chewed, of course! But that’s not poetic enough for me, because I’m a Special Snowflake, I am. So I changed it to jawed instead. Isn’t that original? Aren’t I clever? Look at meeee!
R. I don’t think that word means what you think it means. It doesn’t mean chew; it means to natter on endlessly, just like you’re doing now. Now will you stifle it and get on with the story?
P. Now I describe the swallows, and they’re so ironic, because they’re unconcerned, don’t you see? And they’re just carrying on about their business, darting out of sight and coming back—
R. All this while that poor woman’s arms are flying through the air? They must be miles away by now.
P. That’s not my point. My point is that they’re catching insects, don’t you see, and the insects are like moustaches! Isn’t that clever? Only a Writer could have come up with that simile! Look at meee!!
R. I think you’re mistaking me for someone who cares.
P. And then I describe the rest of the scene, and I’m just as clever about that, and the windows don’t just make reflections, they make swirled blue reflections, because I’m a Writer, I am, and look at me being all impressionist!
R. I think I’m going to skip on a bit.
P. Spoilsport! All right, I’ll get in a bit about my character, since you seem so anxious for me to be all boring and nasty and commercial and stick to the silly old point. What do you think I am, the six o’clock news? So her blood is spurting, no, that’s too ordinary, leaping from her stumped arms—
R. You mean from the stumps of her arms. ‘Stumped’ means something completely different. It has to do with not having a clue, hint, hint.
P. I’m a Writer, I am, and you can tell because I don’t let myself be limited by your silly old bourgeois rules. Her stumped arms, I said, and I’m sticking to it. And then she hears the wet thuds of her forearms—
P. —against the barn, and then the sheet metal hits, and it’s not just the sound of it hitting, it’s the bright sound, because only a Writer would use something as nifty as synaesthesia to put her point across. See? I know about synaesthesia! I’m smart! Look at me! LOOK AT MEEEEEE!!!!
R. If you don’t get on with the story, I’m going to say the Eight Deadly Words.
P. (momentarily taken aback) Which are?
R. ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ I mean, if you’re going to stand there jawing (see, I used the word correctly) about swallows and moustaches and swirly blue windows, while the woman you have just mutilated is bleeding her life away — well, if you care as little as that about your own characters, I don’t see why I should give a damn. You haven’t even noticed that she’s in pain!
P. (angrily) This isn’t about her. This is about me! Me, meee, wonderful ME!! Damn you, why aren’t you looking at ME!!!
Of course this conversation is ruthlessly suppressed in the New York Times review by Walter Kendrick, who singled out that very sentence, in all its scarlet and purple excess, as ‘brilliant prose’. B. R. Myers was kinder to Proulx, if only in the interest of brevity:
The last thing Proulx wants is for you to start wondering whether someone with blood spurting from severed arms is going to stand rooted long enough to see more than one bird disappear, catch an insect, and reappear, or whether the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety.
The sad truth, I am afraid, is that self-consciously ‘literary’ writers do not write to be read; they write to impress the critics, and if their ambitions are particularly lofty, to have their books made required reading for hapless English majors. Then the English majors, or a depressingly large percentage of them, buy into the pernicious notion that this self-regarding drivel really is ‘brilliant prose’ — and, still more, that brilliancy of prose is the primary and sufficient purpose of literature — and the whole sorry swindle is perpetuated for another generation.
Proulx’s star has more or less fallen since Myers launched his attack, but the sentence cult goes on.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.