Friday, August 31, 2012

Expanding the Canon - Aldo Leopold

As a preface, this is the first of an irregular series of 'Expanding the Canon' posts, which will highlight a work I (or my co-writers) think is worth being placed within the canon of Great Books, or works of art, or whatever.  It's a bit different than 'The Greatness of X' because it doesn't argue simply that a work is great on its own merits, but that it adds something to the sum of human thought that is unique and inarguably worthwhile.  These are works I think are worth putting up there with Aristotle, Kant and Kiekegaard, works that shape the way we think.

The first thinker in this series is Aldo Leopold and his works, A Sand County Almanac and Round River .


This past week I was on vacation to the beautiful, savage Northern Appalachians of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.  Being surrounded by the natural world tends to get me more impassioned about the politics of the environment, and makes me think more about them.  The forests seem solid, and in general seem healthier than those further south, but they're incredibly fragile, and seeing healthy hemlocks was bittersweet, since I don't know if they'll be there in 10 or 20 years, and I didn't see a single healthy beech -- bark disease had reduced most of them to pockmarked, oozing husks*.

Somewhere during the week my thoughts drifted onto Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, one of the greatest works of nature writing and probably one of the most famous.  I've thought about it every now and again, on and off for the past few years, and the more I think about it the more I'm struck by its greatness.

The central idea in Leopold's work is the Land, and its moral value.  He explores the land scientifically  in his accounts of ecological succession, lyrically in his vivid depictions of the seasons and the landscape (descriptions which remain scientific) and philosophically  in his argument in favor of a land ethic.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Two Virginia Icons and the Limits of Faith and Reason

If you read this blog at all, you'll know I'm from Virginia.  Fairfax county, sure, but born to a father from Richmond and raised with the myths of my native state.  The glorious past of the mother of presidents and all that.  Probably the most captivating part of those myths were the heroes -- Washington, Madison, Patrick Henry, JEB Stuart, Lighthorse Harry Lee, Jefferson, Robert E. Lee.  A whole host of dead patricians (or men of patrician pretensions) related through distant cousins and marriages of convenience.  But the ones that I liked best were Jefferson and Robert E Lee, for reason's I couldn't say.  Perhaps the idealized portrait of Jefferson the intellectual spoke to my own pretensions as a precocious 11 year old, or Lee's idealized, fatherly image image (filtered third hand from people who had read Douglass Southall Freedman) reminded me of my own father.

Now I no longer adhere to those myths*, though in many ways I'm glad I was raised with them -- myths can become touchstones even when they are abandoned or actively renounced.  Jefferson's hypocrisy about liberty and slavery, his refusal to free his slaves even when his revolutionary friends did their utmost to push him to do so, all of these have replaced the icon of my youth with something much more complicated.  With Lee, it seems as though the saintly figure portrayed by the myth had little relation to the deeply flawed man who broke his oath to his country and went to war to defend a nation built on slavery and built for its perpetuation.

Cognitive Bias and the Supposed Appeal of 'Bad Boys'

The estimable Coates has a post up about Caitlinn Flannagan's piece about Kennedy from a while back.  It was a piece that I never finished because a) Caitlin Flannagan and b) Boomer Kennedy nostalgia -- neither of which are things I'm a fan of.

The text quoted in Coates's post is vintage Flannagan - a ludicrous attempt to universalize her own tastes and experience to all women, the sort of thing that offends me because I resent the implication that my wife, my best friend and all the other women I like and respect are actually pertpetually adolescent daddy's girls who want a man who will mistreat them.  But that's less what concerns me.

Flannagan makes a particular claim that 'a significant number of women' are drawn to Kennedy because he treated women horribly*.  More generally, that a 'significant number' of women are attracted to men who treat women badly, because they treat them badly.  Coates goes on in comments to argue that this statement is truer if universalized -- that there's a decent number of people, male and female, who are attracted to people who mistreat them, or who are bad for them.

Intuitively, I wanted to agree with that.  I've known women with abominable taste in men and men with abominable taste in women (and women with abominable taste in women and men with abominable test in men).  But I suspect that in both cases I may mistake where the attraction lies due to my own biases.  That is to say, just because someone (person A) is attracted to a person (person B) who cheats on and belittles their romantic partners doesn't mean that cheating and belitting is the reason for the attraction.  But to an outside observer, cheating and belittling are the salient characteristics of person B, particularly when we see them treat our friend like crap.    Because we define person B in terms of cheating and belittling, we may be blind to what's actually appealing about them to person A.  Person B could be attractively assertive or flirtatious, person A could just be desperate etc.  Just because we mentally define people in certain ways doesn't mean that others do as well.

A fictional example of the bias at work is the common misreading of Pride and Prejudice that sees Lizzie Bennet being attracted to Darcy's seeming callousness and general jerkassitude.  In fact, the sequence of events in the book is 1) Lizzie is attracted to Darcy 2) he's a bit of a jerk 3) she gives up on him 4) he's a real jerk 5) he apologizes 6) she accepts 7) happily ever after.  But because we, as readers remember the hostility between them in steps 2-4, this becomes what's salient in their relationship.  Since the mutual hostility is, for us, Lizzie and Darcy's defining feature, his jerkish attitude is 'what she sees in him' -- not that he's wealthy, handsome, kind to his servants and loyal to his friends.  Because most of the action of the novel revolves around his pride and her prejudice, readers naturally asssume that the key to the underlying attraction is said pride and prejudice, not the fact that Lizzie and Darcy are both pretty attractive (if prickly) people.

*(I don't mean the adultery thing, I mean the just-about-raping 19 year old white house staff and then having them fellate his friends thing).