The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the average blogger to correlate all his links. We live on a placid island of ignorance, in the midst of black seas of Wikis, and it was not meant that we should check the references. The Wiki editors, each biased in their own direction, have hitherto harmed us little. But someday, the linking together of barely-associated articles will open up such terrifying vistas of the internet–and of our own frightful pagerank therein–that we will either go mad from the revelation, or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of icanhascheezburger.com (Many apologies, Howard–MM.)

It all started with this post from Thingy–I realized I had never found out the origin of the common phrase “it was a dark and stormy night. So, I followed the link and it turns out, it was from this guy Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He was a prolific writer who also coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”.

So, I decided to read some of his books. Being a fan of horror, I chose to start off with The Haunted and the Haunters: or, The House and the Brain. It starts off as a fairly generic ghost story, but the end has some very interesting bits of philosophizing. Not a great work, but an enjoyable read, all in all.

He also wrote a book called Vril, the Power of the Coming Race. I tried to read it, but it was pretty dull. The plot did remind me a little of Arthur Machen’s later work The Novel of the Black Seal, which influenced Lovecraft greatly. But apparently, Vril inspired something of a “cult following”, and by that I mean that people actually thought it was true. The book is about a super-race that lives underground and has a powerful substance “Vril”, which allows them to do all sorts of amazing things. Some, notably the theosophists, believed that “Vril” existed.

Which is curious to me, because I know basically three things about theosophists:

  1. In the paragraph immediately after the one I parodied above in Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft mentions the theosophists briefly.
  2. The Theosophical Society was founded by Helena Blavatsky, who I know about solely because of the lines in the Warren Zevon song “Sacrificial Lambs”: “Madame Blavatsky and her friends/Changed lead into gold, and back again.”
  3. They have one weird logo. Observe:
Theosophical Society emblem, via Wikipedia

I only saw this symbol the other day, when I was reading about the lyrics to the They Might Be Giants song “I Palindrome I”, which includes the lyric “I am a snake head eating the head on the opposite side”. The technical word for this is Ouroboros. That word is also whence the name of the character Borous in the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Old World Blues is derived.

“Hold up, Mysterious Man,” cries the bemused reader. “What the Devil is the point of all this free-association?” Well, I’ll tell you: there was some philosopher I was reading about many months ago who had some sort of reasoning system of free-association, “correlating contents” and looking for subtle inter-connectivities in Nature. It was really interesting, but in recent days I have searched Wikipedia with considerable diligence, but I can’t find his page. I think his first name might have been Charles, but that’s all I can remember. Any information you can furnish me with as to who the guy was would be appreciated.

It’s become the style lately to call the Republicans “Social Darwinists”, just as it has for some time been the style for Republicans to call Democrats “socialists”.  I’ve often said in responding to the Republican charge that, by their definitions, virtually everyone is a socialist. And I have to say, from what I read, by any definition, everyone is a “Social Darwinist”.

“Social Darwinism” means using the idea of  “survival of the fittest  to justify social policies which make no distinction between those able to support themselves and those unable to support themselves”, according to Wikipedia. Whenever I hear it, I think of Mandalore in KotOR II saying “the purpose of the weak is to feed the strong”. That’s what it boils down to: “Go Team Strong! Crush the Weak!”

The thing is, “the Strong” and “the Weak” are rather nebulous concepts. I mean, people are strong in some areas and weak in others.

For instance, here is a list of the most athletic Presidents ever. I bet Rob Gronkowski is a better athlete than any of those guys. Compared to him, they’re weak athletically. Yet, Rob Gronkowski will never be the Commander in Chief of the World’s most powerful military. And that’s because he is probably one of the weakest people in the world when it comes to politicking.  Bill Gates can’t bench as much as Ryan Kennelly, and yet he has done alright for himself in the world. Who is “weak” and who is  “strong” depends on the situation.

“Survival of the fittest” is practically tautological: “Who survives?” “The fittest!” “How do we know they’re the fittest?” “They survive!” (Before anyone gets excited, note that this does not disprove Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, much as some of my religious friends wish it did.)

In the broadest sense, “Social Darwinism” could be said to just mean “the world needs more good people and less bad people”. Everyone agrees with that. The difficulty comes in defining “good” and “‘bad”.

Ayn Rand, as we well know, chose to define good people as “people who had earned a lot of money by selling stuff in the free-market”, and bad people as “people who produce nothing and take government money”. So, the Randian worldview, somebody on welfare is “bad”, but a billionaire author is “good”. I have chosen these examples because I have in mind one person who was both: J.K. Rowling. And she would not have been able to be a billionaire author had she not taken government assistance. This is one of the biggest problems with the Randian worldview.

The Republicans are not “Social Darwinists” as much as they are “Defenders of People with Lots of Money”. Paul Ryan may have repudiated Rand the other day, but let’s face it; he’s just saying that so people don’t start saying he’s an atheist.

Two good pieces on Slate today; one about sociologist/philosopher William Graham Sumner and one about apocalyptic campaign ads. I’ll tackle the latter first.

It’s a good list, but I disagree with the claim that “when candidates get desperate, they try to scare you.” Was Nixon really desperate in 1968, or Johnson in 1964? Scaring people is always an effective tactic, whether they’re desperate or not. All attack ads either try to frighten or ridicule, and those that ridicule usually carry an undercurrent of frightening, as the idea of such a buffoon as the target of the ad taking office is scary by implication.

By the way, it didn’t make the list, but in my opinion the best political attack ad ever is this one, from Nixon’s 1968 campaign against Hubert Humphrey:

That ad is purely visceral. There’s not even any language in it until the very end, which is as it should be. The effective advertisement must appeal to instincts and base, gut feelings, not sophisticated reasoning. Trippy and weird as it is, this ad is psychologically effective.

On to the second piece, about William Sumner. His anti-socialist, “leave the rich people alone” philosophy sounds to me pretty similar to the ideas of his contemporary, Herbert Spencer. And it seems that Sumner was who coined the phrase “the Forgotten Man”, which, as my readers will know, has formed the theme of many a ham-fisted Jon McNaughton painting.

So, I skimmed some of the Sumner essay “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other” that the Slate article talks about. I confess, I could only skim because it was quite dull; most of the ideas in it are old hat by now, but it’s important to remember that they must have seemed novel at the time.

Sumner begins the essay by complaining:

We constantly read and hear discussions of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact. “The poor,” “the weak,” “the laborers,” are expressions which are used as if they had exact and well-understood definition. Discussions are made to bear upon the assumed rights, wrongs, and misfortunes of certain social classes…

He does not like the phrase “the poor man” one bit:

There is no possible definition of “a poor man.”.. The “poor man” is an elastic term, under which any number of social fallacies may be hidden.

And then:

There is an old ecclesiastical prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich.  In days when men acted by ecclesiastical rules these prejudices produced waste of capital, and helped mightily to replunge Europe into barbarism. The prejudices are not yet dead, but they survive in our society as ludicrous contradictions and inconsistencies. One thing must be granted to the rich: they are good-natured. Perhaps they do not recognize themselves, for a rich man is even harder to define than a poor one. It is not uncommon to hear a clergyman utter from the pulpit all the old prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich, while asking the rich to do something for the poor; and the rich comply, without apparently having their feelings hurt at all by the invidious comparison.

Well, if I were rich, people could denounce me as much and as viciously as they damn well-pleased and I wouldn’t complain.

But beyond that, it’s like Paul Graham wrote:

Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words. Do we have free will? Depends what you mean by “free.” Do abstract ideas exist? Depends what you mean by “exist.

Same problem here. Sumner gets bogged down trying to define things, or show that they can’t be defined, in order to make some point; and it all becomes nearly meaningless.

I’ll try to read more of this essay, but right now my eyes are glazed over. Sumner’s writing is like Ayn Rand’s without any of the animating passion.