Movie Review of “Life Itself”- The Life and Death of Roger Ebert

I recently watched the movie of film critic Roger Ebert’s illness and death, Life Itself. It is one of the most moving depictions of the end of a well-lived lives that I have ever watched.

I first encounted Ebert arguing about movies with his partner Gene Siskel in the 1970s. I enjoyed their sophisticated banter about movies. Ebert was a superb prose stylist who really loved literature. (I have written about him previously on this blog.)

A warning though. The movie is not for the faint of heart. Ebert wants us to know what death is really like. I was edified by watching the film.

Review of Harold Evan’s: “Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters”

“words are the only things that last forever; they are more durable than the eternal hills.”
~ William Hazlitt

Sir Harold Evans shares his exquisite prose with us in his new book, Do I Make Myself Clear: Why Writing Well Matters. Evans is the former editor of The Sunday Times and The Times of London. He holds the British Gold Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism, and in 2001 his peers voted him the all-time greatest British newspaper editor. He was knighted in 2004.

Evans begins by reminding us that in his classic, “Politics and the English Language” Orwell argued that bad English corrupts thought and vice versa. Yet today things are even worse. “For all its benefits, the digital era Orwell never glimpsed has had unfortunate effects, not the least making it easier to obliterate the English language by carpet-bombing us with the bloated extravaganzas of marketing mumbo-jumbo. Words have consequences.”(3)

We live in a fog created by slovenly language that is either unclear, or specifically designed to mislead and confuse. In response Evans writes a polemic against the current state of our language, and the malfeasance that often accompanies it.

Fog everywhere. Fog online and in print, fog exhaled in television studios where time is anyway to short for truth. Fog in the Wall Street executive streets. Fog in the regulating agencies … Fog in the evasions in Flint, Michigan, while its citizens drank poisoned water … Fog in pressure groups that camouflage their real purpose with euphemism; fog from vested interest groups aping the language of science to muddy the truth about climate change … Fog in the U.S. Supreme Court, where five judges … sanctified secret bribery as freedom of speech. But never come there fog too thick, never come there mud and mire too deep … as to withstand the clean invigorating wind of a sound English sentence. (4,5)

(I hope Evans is right that language can defeat the lies, but I’m skeptical. I’m reminded of this quote, attributed to various people, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” I’m not sure that most people even recognize good sentences or good reasoning—hence the proliferation of bad thinking. Yet, as Pascal put it, “All our dignity consists, then, in thought. This is the basis on which we must raise ourselves … Let us make it our task, then, to think well: here is the principle of morality.”)

What Evans has in mind is noble language like Churchill’s “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down;” or LIncoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people;” or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream;” or Orwell’s “Political langauge … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Nowhere is the degradation of language and the lies that accompany it more destructive than in politics. The Presidential election of 2016 took these tendencies to new heights. “Fake news, entirely fabricated to generate clicks and income for the fabricators, was tweeted and fed into Facebook without correction. Judgment fled to brutish beasts and men lost their reason. I’d argue that the maelstrom of mendacity makes it all the more imperative that the truth be clearly expressed.” (15)

(I don’t think the expression of truth is enough, since so many live in information bubbles that tether them to misinformation, and prevent the truth from creeping in. There are also many psychological impediments to good thinking, and cognitive biases inhibit people from changing their minds. You can tell people about the truth of climate change, evolution, or Trump’s lies and malfeasance, but that’s hardly ever sufficient.)

Regarding politics, Evans argues that anger with, and lack of trust of, political leadership and institutions can partially be traced to the degradation of language. He also believes that the opaqueness of written and spoken English is one cause of the substitution of fanatical emotion for quality reasoning. Consider this gem from a Trump rally:

We have to stop illegal immigration. We have to do it. [Cheers and applause] We have to do it. Have to do it. [Audience: USA! USA! USA1] And when I hears some of the people that I am running against, including the Democrats. We have to build a wall, folks. We have to build a wall. And a wall works. All you have to do is go to Israel and say is your wall working? Walls work. (16)

But clear speaking, thinking and writing is hard, as any good speaker, thinker or writer can tell you. Good writing demands continual rethinking and rewriting. Such considerations lead to the aim of the book: “to give you the tools so you can finish the job, first by describing the tools and then by applying them to lengths of knotty prose. (29)

It is hard to do justice to the plethora of suggestions Evans offers. He is obviously one of the world’s foremost editors, and his advice on writing is extraordinarily helpful. (I wish he had the time to edit my posts!) His advice includes: short sentences are generally clearer than longer ones; use the active voice; be specific; ration adjectives and adverbs; give concrete examples; cut the fat; be organized; don’t bore; and make every word count.

The multiple examples of editing bad writing are instructive, but I found his examples of good contemporary prose particularly instructive, especially a piece by David Foster Wallace in Rolling Stone about John McCain and the captivity he endured as a prisoner of war. (McCain, along with Senator Susan Collins and Senator Lisa Murkowski, recently saved health-care for millions of Americans and undermined the Republicans plan to let more people die and give the rich more tax cuts.)

Evans knows that it isn’t easy to counter the language that is intent on deceiving and confusing. But this project is important because: “The fog that envelops English is not just a question of good taste, style, and aesthetics. It is a moral issue.” (347) That is what he has tries to make clear in the book, and I believe he succeeds. Lack of clarity in language along with outright lies serve a common purpose—to deceive people in order to control them and thereby solidify the place of those in power. But as we all know if we think about it, civilization is based on the assumption that people tell the truth. If I don’t think you’ll give me directions or the time, what’s the point of asking you?

Shelley: “To A Skylark”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets, and is regarded as one the best and most influential lyric poets in the English language. Shelley wasn’t famous during his lifetime, but recognition of his poetry grew steadily after his death. He drowned in a storm on the Gulf of Spezia in his sailing boat, just before his 30th birthday.

Long ago as an undergraduate, I took a class in the Romantic poets, and subsequently memorized these few lines from “To a Skylark.” I don’t necessarily agree with them but they demonstrate, as does the rest of the poem, Shelley’s command of the language.

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

We surely live in the past and future, and our joy is always tinged with sadness. But I disagree that the evil is necessary for good—a common claim. That claim exemplifies the idea of an adaptive preference. Since we can’t have our preference for unmitigated joy, we claim to that hate, pride, fear, and tears are somehow necessary. But if we could rid of ourselves of those things, I think we would. Still, we do learn from suffering. But then again, maybe what we learn is that suffering is not good and should be vanquished.

Review of Aaron James’ “Surfing with Sartre”

Aaron James, Professor of Philosophy at UC-Irvine, has written a new book, Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning. It addresses major questions in philosophy from his unique perspective as both a philosopher and former surfer. James argues that the surfer mentality offers a unique perspective on philosophical issues because:

Surfers often have a certain natural lightness about being, about the meaning of their personal existence. Those more at sea existentially can certainly appreciate the surfer’s good fortune. And it is hard to dislike people so thoroughly enthralled by living … Surely most of us could learn to live lighter, by sliding over life’s problems. (4)

 One of his salient themes is that “what the surfer knows suggests that we should … get used to an even more leisurely, surfer-friendly style of capitalism, in which we all work, but a lot less …” (5) He claims that working less is an ethical imperative because work “as we now practice it emits gases … that are steadily warming the planet. So … as long as we do something less consumptive of ecological resources than working … we contribute to society by making the climate change problem a little less terrible … ” (6-7) Leisure activities are thus “a new model of civic virtue. The real troublemaker is the workaholic, whose labor-intensive striving makes the problem of global warming worse …” (8)

And these issues are of profound ethical importance: “If climate science is even roughly correct … would it be morally okay for us to further enrich ourselves in work, without limitations, if many billions of living or future people are thereby put at grave risk of profound injury? Or are we obliged to adapt?” (8)Would it really be so hard to work less, and enjoy life more he wonders.

While most of us derive a sense of self from our work, it doesn’t have to be that way. The Protestant work ethic nurtured capitalism, but now we should reject both and use our time more productively than for destruction of the ecosystem. This is the main point of the book, that the surfer mentality is “on the right side of history.” (9) We should adapt our lifestyles to a changing planet.

The book devotes most of its pages to the surfer mentality’s insights regarding philosophical problems, using Sartrean philosophy as its foil. Key insights include that: 1) being in the moment provides more comfort than material possessions; 2) we should choose the surfer mentality; 3) intense pleasure and self-transcendence can be experienced by being in the flow; and 4) a hyper competitive society destroys humanity and nature. This leads James to state:

In a more leisurely capitalism, we’d have a less competitive way of life … and we’d spend more of our time getting attuned, living from love, practicing for its own sake, and transcending status preoccupation for a happier contentment. (288)

The book’s epilogue relates its insights to the question of life’s meaning. But he changes that question to: “What are the meanings, plural, of life. If that’s the question … then we just enumerate the many different ways life can have meaning … Friendship. Worthy projects. Creative activity. Music. Surfing. Nice parties. Or whatever … ” (292) James rejects the view that there must be one meaning to explains all these multiple meanings. So for James the meaning of life “can be nothing more than the various ways life is meaningful to us …” (292) The hard part is choosing from the many ways that life can be meaningful.

Of course this analysis ignores the question of the meaning of the cosmos itself. But even if we could discover such a super meaning—say the super meaning was to enjoy an eternal feast in heaven—then we could just ask about the meaning of heaven. Maybe we would like heaven, maybe we wouldn’t. But independent of our answer to the question of universal meaning, James points out that there is already plenty of meaning in life.

Still James admits that many people won’t be satisfied because they want to be “part of something bigger ….” (293) Here he recommends that we just add that meaning to our list, and connect our daily activity with that meaning: “being part of a collective enterprise could never be more than one source of meaning among many on a long list … So our list of meanings can grow longer … to cover big parts of history.” (295) In fact, “… many of our activities would come to seem much less important to us if we came to know that an asteroid would destroy the planet soon after our death.” (298) So being part of history is already an important part of meaning in our lives.1

Considerations about the future are connected with James’ concern about the destruction of the biosphere.

We living people are enjoying the carbon-based prosperity party. And though we’ll be dead before our emissions completely befoul the global ecology, if we don’t take rather dramatic steps to control their production, our story will be one of having indulged in the feast and skipped out on the check, without paying our bit, let alone helping with the dishes.

This really would not be cool. It would be a gross human failure, or, if you will, a great stain, or sin. (299)

Capitalism has produced great things, yet it encourages the self-interest that contributes to the destruction of the planet. So should we continue to enjoy the party and despoil the environment, or live a more leisurely, happier lifestyle? The sun’s light and heat brought us a planet teeming with life, but we now trap its heat in our atmosphere. Will we continue to bury our heads in the sands, or will we make a heroic effort to change things and save the world for future generations? Let’s hope we do the latter.

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Samuel Scheffler made a similar point about our concern for future generations.

Review of “Exile Nation: The Plastic People”

I have recently watched the documentary: Exile Nation: The Plastic People. It is about U.S. deportees in Tijuana who struggle to survive a cartel war zone, and who live in cardboard boxes and sewer pipes, in an ever-expanding underworld of exiles. Most of the deportees have lived in the US since childhood, have extended families in the US, have no relatives in Mexico, and speak no Spanish. Many have waited for citizenship for years but multiple roadblocks block that path. Many of these deportees do the migrant farm work without which Americans wouldn’t enjoy low prices for their food. Here is the trailer for “Exile Nation.”

I encourage my readers to watch this moving film and, if possible, work for solutions to human degradation in the US and elsewhere.