December 17, 2016

1. Sugar Ray’s Dream

Readers of this e-zine know that I’m a collector of stories about the occult. I recently added another item to my collection:

Sugar Ray Robinson is widely regarded as one of the best boxers ever. On June 25, 1947, Robinson was scheduled to fight Jimmy Doyle. But on the morning of the fight, Robinson told the organizers that he was backing out. “Why?” “Because I had a dream last night that I hit Doyle and he died.” The organizers sent a priest to talk to Robinson, and Robinson was persuaded to fight. In the eighth round of the fight, Robinson knocked Doyle unconscious, and Doyle died later that night.1

This is one of the best “occult stories” I’ve heard because it’s well-authenticated — numerous people knew about Robinson’s dream before the fight. This story raises several questions:

2. Raging Bull

I saw the movie Raging Bull (1980), which is often called one of the best movies ever. It has an unusual power and authenticity. It tells the story of boxer Jake LaMotta; it throws light on LaMotta’s society, on his psyche, on boxing, etc. As you watch it, you feel that you’re watching LaMotta’s actual life, you don’t feel you’re watching a movie. The director (Martin Scorsese) and the star (Robert De Niro) felt personally connected to LaMotta; they were drawn to the story of his life, as they found it in his memoir, Raging Bull: My Story.

Though Raging Bull is an easy movie to respect, it isn’t an easy movie to enjoy. I’m not surprised that it wasn’t a box-office hit. It lacks suspense and humor, and it’s filled with graphic violence.

If we want to understand LaMotta’s psychology, we should go back to his childhood. He was beaten by his father, and “he was forced by his father into fighting other children to entertain neighborhood adults, who threw pocket change into the ring. LaMotta’s father collected the money and used it to help pay the rent.”2 This anecdote, which Scorsese doesn’t mention, shows paternal indifference. This indifference probably gave LaMotta a weak ego, low self-esteem, and a lack of self-discipline. These traits, in turn, led to rage, jealousy, obsession, etc. Scorsese shows the rage, but not the roots of the rage.

The Raging Bull DVD has commentary by Scorsese, by LaMotta, and by other people who worked on the movie. This commentary throws light on the art of film. As I learned about the making of the film, I was struck by how much effort was invested in the film. For example, De Niro learned how to box, and practiced assiduously; LaMotta insisted that De Niro became good enough to turn pro.

LaMotta is now 95. In 2013, he married for the seventh time.

3. Miscellaneous

A. I saw the acclaimed 2015 film Spotlight, which deals with the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse by Boston-area priests. Spotlight shows how Cardinal Law and other church officials didn’t try to stop priests from abusing children; rather, church officials merely moved offending priests to different parishes, where their misconduct usually continued.

Spotlight does an excellent job of depicting journalists exposing a scandal, but it doesn’t ask, “What motivated these priests? What do they have in common? Is there something in their background or personality that would help us to understand their conduct?”

B. I recommend The Big Short, a 2015 movie about the subprime crisis of 2008. Unlike Raging Bull and Spotlight, The Big Short isn’t content with facts, it looks for causes, it goes back to childhood, and asks, “What made Michael Burry and Steve Eisman independent thinkers? Why were they able to see what the rest of the world didn’t see?”

C. Confucius: “Behind every smile, teeth.”
Irish proverb: “Of three things beware: Hoof of a horse, horn of a bull, smile of a Saxon.”

D. I’d like to read a memoir by someone from North Vietnam. What a thrill it must have been to defeat first the French, then the Americans! True, casualties were high, suffering immense, but victory must have been sweet.

But what comes after victory? Only poverty and despotism. Once the celebration ends, reality knocks on the door. It was a big mistake for the Americans to fight in Vietnam, but an even bigger mistake for the North Vietnamese to fight. The North Vietnamese paid a high price in casualties and suffering, and got nothing for it. Victory over the U.S. and South Vietnam was followed by a flood of desperate refugees leaving Vietnam.

4. Giving Back: A Dialogue

AEveryone should give back to society. And that applies to you philosophers, too.
BOkay, we’ll try to give back to society. But first we need to determine what society has given to philosophers. Let’s make a list:

In the case of Socrates, poison.
In the case of Bruno, fire.
In the case of Rousseau, stones.
In the case of Kierkegaard, ridicule.

Are you sure you want us to give back to society?

5. PizzaGate and Pythagoras

Fake news stories spread like wildfire nowadays, and sometimes these stories resemble horror movies. Alex Jones, the host of a radio show, said that Hillary Clinton has “personally murdered and chopped up” children. Jones also said that the SandyHook shooting was a hoax.

Jones supported Trump, and Trump supported Jones. Trump went on Jones’ show during the primaries, and recently promised to come on again. After winning the election, Trump called Jones and thanked him for his support. Trump himself circulates stories that are as wild as Jones’ stories, such as the story that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of JFK.

The recent PizzaGate story resembles one of Jones’ wild tales. According to the New York Times, PizzaGate is “a wild chain of false claims imagining that Comet Ping Pong, a Washington pizzeria, is a front for a child abuse and trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, her former campaign manager.” One person who believed PizzaGate went to the restaurant to investigate, and fired a gun inside the restaurant.

The PizzaGate story was promoted by, among others, Michael Flynn, Jr., son of General Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor. Even after the gunfire, the younger Flynn tweeted, “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.”3 According to this logic, Hillary Clinton must prove that she didn’t murder and chop up children, and until she proves that, “it’ll remain a story.”

The phrase “fake news” implies that there’s “real news.” But there isn’t a clear line between fake news and real news, just as there isn’t a clear line between science and “pseudo-science.” Truth is often stranger than fiction, theories that seem wild are sometimes true, widely-accepted truths are sometimes false. There’s no sure criterion of truth; even when all the experts, and all the elite universities, agree that something is true, it may not be true (an example is the Stratford Theory). The Establishment is often unable to detect a falsehood beneath an appearance of respectability, and is often unable to appreciate an original idea, a revolutionary theory. So each of us must grope toward the light by ourselves.

Perhaps one of the most reliable guides to truth is ipse dixit (he said it himself). When the disciples of Pythagoras wanted to prove something, they would say ipse dixit, meaning “Pythagoras said it himself.” In other words, they appealed to authority, and Pythagoras was their authority. Authority is one of the best guides to truth. Academia has no use for authority; in fact, academia would say that intellectual life begins when we reject authority, and resolve to follow evidence.

But what topics are worth investigating, and what evidence is reliable? We have no choice but to listen to people we respect, listen to people with a high reputation, listen to authority. As Tocqueville said, “If man had to prove for himself all the truths of which he makes use every day, he would never come to an end of it.... Authority is always bound to play a part in intellectual and moral life.” (I’m quoting an authority to buttress my argument for authority.)4

© L. James Hammond 2016
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1. Wikipedia back
2. Wikipedia back
3. According to the New York Times, General Flynn “shares [his son’s] love for social media conspiracy theories.... Defense and intelligence officials, including some Republicans, say General Flynn’s conspiratorial bent was one reason he was forced out as chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, where some of his colleagues dubbed his wild theories ‘Flynn facts.’” General Flynn seems like a poor choice for National Security Advisor. back
4. For more on the subject of “fake news,” etc., see Jonathan Rauch’s essay “The Constitution of Knowledge.” I disagree with many of Rauch’s views, such as his respect for professional intellectuals and his contempt for astrology, but his essay is lively and readable.

Some academics realize that all of us believe things that we don’t understand, and don’t have evidence for — in other words, believe things on authority. Two academics are publishing a book called The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone; they published an article in the New York Times, and their work was discussed in The New Yorker.

The NewYorker article says that man is hyper-social, and reason evolved not to reach truth, but to facilitate social interaction, “to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group.... Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves.... Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”

The Tocqueville quote is from Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 1, Ch. 2, translated by George Lawrence. back