Friday, December 12, 2003

Yes, Everybody Has One…

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

- Voltaire

Stephen Bayley, author of A Dictionary of Idiocy, recently wrote in The Telegraph, "I love opinions so much, I keep on having more of them." All of us have heard the disparaging cliché, "opinions are like assholes, everybody has one," which is usually issued as a form of dismissal. These are two views on one of the most human of all activities – or, at least, since we acquired language - forming opinions.

I am inclined to agree with Bayley on this. I, too, love opinions and I am not afraid to express them in most situations. But, in the timorous, sanitized PC worldview, giving voice to opinions is a suspect activity, unless you are, to use one of their favorite phrases, in compliance. Therein lies the problem. The best opinions are often disturbing, fly in the face of conventional wisdom, and well, cause those who hold more dogmatic views to squirm in their seats. I find it dismaying, to say the least, that holding opinions, however well informed they might be, to be a term of approbation; "Oh you're so opinionated!" As if denying the critical judgment any thinking person should be favorably disposed was something for which to be ashamed.

A girlfriend once berated me for my "strong" opinions and my annoying habit of expressing them anywhere and at anytime. It seems I had offended or made uncomfortable several of her friends at a party we had attended. Several weeks later, when another invitation was extended, they insisted that I accompany her. Apparently, a number of them found my "outspokenness" to be stimulating and wanted another opportunity to explore and debate some of the points I had made. Assuredly, I took no small amount of delight in pointing this out to her.

In a theocratic, authoritarian, or totalitarian society there is little use for opinions. A medieval monk in his abbey or a contemporary mullah in his mosque and, indeed, a storm trooper in Hitler's Germany or a Stalinist commissar, had little use for original opinions. The collective opinions of religion or political ideology are inflexible dogma, not interesting expressions of private thought. The groupthink of an Orwellian dystopia comes to mind. The best opinions are contrarian, not conformist, although that is in itself a matter of opinion.

In retrospect, I relish the contradictory nature of my own upbringing (although it did not seem like much fun at the time), where my rigid pre-Vatican II Catholic education often came into conflict with the somewhat loopy, argumentative, and combative Irish family I was raised in. The Irish have a rather large reputation for their oratorical and rhetorical skills as summed up in the expressions; "He has the gift of the gab" or more simply put, "he's full of blarney." My family had it in spades. Opinions, of course, were held with steadfast conviction (or until you found yourself in agreement with your opponent, and then you promptly switched sides!). My father who was the ringmaster (and primary provocateur) of these verbal gladiatorial battles, would often remark to his friends that his children "would rather fight than eat" with a lump of pride in his throat.

Later, when I attended university, I joined a very fashionable wing of leftist politics, which I now refer to as that "great lowing herd of radicals" where creative, original thought was held in as much esteem as Richard Nixon. In short order, I was to prove to be as poor a socialist as I was a Catholic. In recent years, a number of people have entreated me to become a "conservative" or active in the Republican Party. What ever for? That I might show how I would make an outstandingly bad conservative Republican as well? The Vietnam era poet, Robert Barth, once told me he belonged to an "anarchist party of one". That sounds like a party where I might feel welcome.

So, what in the end separates those who hold strong opinions and bigoted yahoo? The literary critic, George Steiner, in addressing the limp, multicultural relativists who inhabit universities everywhere, said: "The difference between the judgment of a great critic and that of a semi-literate censorious fool lies in its range of inferred or cited reference, in the lucidity and rhetorical strength of articulation or in the accidental addendum which is that of a critic who is a creator in his own right."

Also, it is important that one be flexible enough to revise, reevaluate, and sometimes discard those opinions that no longer work, especially in the light of factual evidence no matter how much you do not like it. Jonathan Swift, a holder of considerable opinion in his right, weighed in on this matter nearly three hundred years ago: "The latter part of a wise person's life is occupied with curing the follies, prejudices and false opinions they contracted earlier."

So what do you do the next time you are tempted to throw a rock into the ripple-free pond of consensus? Well, chuck away! Wittgenstein believed that if people never did stupid things, nothing intelligent would ever happen. Opinions, even the bad ones, make you think, or to be a little less charitable, make you a little less stupid.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Well Said!

George Carlin has a brilliantly scathing routine centered on how Americans rely on soft language to avoid hard truths about death, disability, poverty and racial tension. "That guy's not economically disadvantaged,'' is the gist of Carlin's monologue. "He's f***ing broke.''

While many of us (if not all of us) will use a euphemism or two through the course of the day to grease the social wheels, to get along, or spare someone's feelings with little or no harm, there can be consequences. George Orwell pointed this out time and time again:

"Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

The obvious and obviously stupid obfuscations of governments and big media such as "collateral damage" instead of "dead civilians" have become so mind-numbingly commonplace as to be the butt of jokes or to be simply ignored. The military has always had a flair for linguistic lunacy. Perhaps it is the nature of their mission that makes it so, they deal in horrors most of us would rather not face. Yet, it does take a toll. There is more than a grain of truth to the old adage that if you are to repeat something long enough and loud enough, it will eventually become "true."

Now that the personal has been politicized, there is no stopping what has become known as political correctness or PC. While many well-meaning people argue this horrific language with twisted brutish constructions is necessary in order to provide more "friendly" or "sensitive" environment. It might be construed as more "kind" to say someone is "aurally challenged" but in reality it ignores what is in front of your nose – this individual is deaf. He knows he is deaf, you know he is deaf, but if you add five syllables and construct a fuzzy imprecise clause…well, it just will not seem as bad.


Not every group perceived to be worthy of victimhood and entitled to protection from the slings and arrows of outrageous language are as enchanted with the notion as their "protectors" might have wish. Recently in Britain, the Teacher Training Agency told its pupils to avoid using the word "brainstorming" for fear it might offend epileptics. There are a lot of good reasons to avoid using the word "brainstorming," but offending a group afflicted with a neurological disorder is not one of them.

It appears that organizations involved in issue relating to epilepsy took umbrage with the student teachers overweening concern. Gemma Baxter, from the National Society for Epilepsy, had this to say:

"We also contacted people with epilepsy in the community and the overwhelming response was that 'brainstorming' implies no offence to people with epilepsy, and that any implication that the word is offensive to people with the condition is taking political correctness too far."

Well said, Gemma, well said.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Autism: Movies and Television Are Not Reality

A controversy has broken out in Britain in the past few weeks about a docudrama entitled "Hear the Silence" concerning the link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism. Regrettably, I will probably not see the program since it is airing on BBC and might not be available to American audiences. I have more than a passing interest; my sixteen-year-old son, Brendan, is autistic.

But, I have read a great deal about it and have had several e-mail exchanges with one of my editors about it. The growing hysteria about the rise (and this is debatable for a number of reasons) in numbers of autistic children and compulsory and mass vaccinations of children has little basis in science. And, in view of alternatives - we do know the damage measles, mumps and rubella can do – against a theory, more accurately speculation that there might be some connection, what is a parent to think? Still, when it comes to your own flesh and blood, it is bloody damn difficult to remain detached and objective.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle and the parent of an autistic child had this to say in Spiked-Online:

"Hear the Silence is a scientifically dishonest and emotionally manipulative film, which can only compound the distress already experienced by families affected by autism as a result of the anti-MMR campaign. This campaign has made parents feel guilty that, by giving their children the MMR vaccine, they may have contributed to the development of autism - a notion for which there is, after more than five years, still not a shred of scientific evidence. It has also dragged more than 1000 families into a prolonged process of litigation (now halted by the Legal Services Commission), which could only lead to disappointment and disillusionment."

I could not have put it better myself. Autism is an affliction coloring every aspect of my life as well as that of my daughter and ex-wife. It has opened a portal into the world of prejudice, condescension, and superstition I could have hardly known existed. To use this as fodder for made for cheesy TV tearjerkers (and there have been several made in the U.S.) often appears as opportunistic voyeurism from where I am sitting.

Brendan was already eleven when the controversy about MMR broke in the news, thereby knowing that had there been any conclusive evidence I would not have had it available to me when he was vaccinated. There's enough guilt and second-guessing as it is. However, Brendan has had the misfortune of living in the post "Rain Man" world (the 1988 movie starring Dustin Hoffman) and the host of misconceptions it has foisted upon the general public. This is not to say it was not a wonderful movie – particularly Hoffman's performance, which was dead on – it was. Still, its focus on the "savant" features has had some negative effects.

When people first meet Brendan or discover that he is autistic, they often say something like "I bet he's good in math" (which in fact, he isn't) or they wait looking for his "special" gift as if it were a parlor trick. The savant feature, or as it was called in less politically correct time "idiot savant", occurs in perhaps one in two hundred autistic children – compared to 1 in 2000 in Downs Syndrome or 1 in 20,000 in "normal" children. In short, it is not universal. But, if you were to ask Brendan about spiders, you would learn more than you would ever care to know unless you were an entomologist. This is not a savant feature, but rather a fixation; a trait common across the entire (and rather wide) spectrum of severity within the autistic disorder.

Is it possible to have a relationship with an autistic child? Is it possible to have a relationship with a cat? This is not an attempt to demean Brendan: I am simply saying that the "normal" parameters of parent-child do not always have much currency in our relationship. He is different, but loved nonetheless.

Monday, December 08, 2003

'We Can Implant Entirely False Memories'

No, this eerie line is not a quotation from a scene between Inner Party member O'Brien and the protagonist Winston Smith in the notorious Room 101 of Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, but rather the title of a story concerning psychologist Elizabeth Loftus in the British newspaper The Guardian.

Dr. Loftus, the author of The Myth of Repressed Memory, conducts an experiment on the unwitting former star of the TV series M*A*S*H*, Alan Alda:

" In his new guise as host of a science series on American TV, he was exploring the subject of memory. The researchers showed him round, and afterwards took him for a picnic in the park. By the time he came to leave, he had developed a dislike of hard-boiled eggs based on a memory of having made himself sick on them as a child - something that never happened."

The idea that an intelligent adult could be manipulated into to believing in a relatively short period a childhood memory that never existed sent shivers down my spine. The whole issue of epistemology – how do we know what we know – is thrown into sharp relief. And, just exactly what kind of memories are we carrying with us that are totally erroneous, which brings me to a second scary article I read today in the New York Times, entitled TV and Movie Characters Sell Childrens Snacks, a critique of the growing role of product placements in movies and television shows and their influence on children.

I was recently asked to write a piece concerning what I remembered about November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was only ten years old, yet I seem to remember it as clearly as if it were only a few years ago rather than forty. But, in trying to recall events from that period while trying to filter out the ongoing onslaught of influences that have come along since, I made a startling discovery. Yes, the memory of seeing my mother standing at the door and waving me inside while tears streamed down her face is indelibly marked on my consciousness, but I also found I could recite several of the jingles from cigarette commercials from that era. For those of you too young to remember, the last cigarette commercial (for Virginia Slims) was broadcast on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show - 11:59pm on January 1, 1971. (I had to look that up.)

More telling is the fact that I can remember LS/MFT (Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco) and can still hum the tune. And, I am still smoking 34 years later.