Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I Think Therefor I Am

Spend more time thinking and less talking

Have you ever had someone come up to you about something or other with the question: “What’d you think about this?” Be careful.

Such a question has you facing a sticky situation and being put to the test --- the quandary of thinking as in the old admonition to “stop and think.”

“Some people get lost in thought because it's such unfamiliar territory” (G. Behn). Or as Winnie the Pooh said: “Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?”

The famous Dane (not Victor Borge), Soren Kierkegaaard said: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

A huge amount of Kierkegaard’s ideas go way over my head and make little sense to me. But I understand him here. He is right when he complains that the art of thought is seldom used.

Take a look at our supreme leaders (Washington politicians impersonating statesmen), who were duly elected to see that government business runs like clockwork. Not a cuckoo clock as it often appears. If any of our Washington warriors ever gave much thought to the people and country, it would be like a miracle from heaven.

Someone should compile and publish what our elected “servants” thoughtless say. The antics on the floor of the House and Senate reveals how little they think before they speak. (See C-Span, which shows everything but the empty seats. You can always catch some of the more outlandish, irritatingly silly and bizarre blurbs on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.)

Rex Stout (author of Nero Wolfe mysteries) edited just that kind of book in the 1930s. He recorded the actual stupid remarks made on the floor of the House and Senate. Stout’s book is “The Illustrious Dunderheads.” (Some library may have a copy. This classic’s prices begin at $70.)

American poet Archibald Macleish urged us to think for ourselves: “The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.”

The actual act of thinking has meant trouble for many who broke from the herd to think for themselves. Real thinking can turn into a dangerous sport, but it is needful if anything is to be accomplished in our lives or in the nation’s capital. Example: Think more before voting. Think about oversight.

Thinking is what got men like Robert Kennedy and his brother John killed. Thinking was the culprit for most of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s troubles.

Voltaire (pen name of Francois Marie Arouet), a seventeenth century French satirist author, put a lot of stock in the act of thinking. He once said: “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”

To think, to actually think, is not as easy as you might think. Yet thinking remains as rare as purple hen’s teeth. A local philosopher parsed Rene Descartes’ dictum “I Think Therefore I Am” to simply mean our real selves come out when we think more and talk less.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Are We Really That Ignorant ???


The polling business expands almost weekly. You can find a poll that one in four Americans believe in just about anything. A Pew poll found that 26 percent of adults believe spiritual energy indwells trees, stones, and inanimate objects. And 25 percent put stock in astrology.

The business of estimating what Americans believe, or think about something, is a huge industry. A new poll comes out every week on politics or sex. Polls help fill newspaper space when Brittany Spears or the millionaire Hilton girl fails another sobriety test.

If you read the polls and it agrees with our views, you think it is another sign of how smart people are. But if the polls results go against the grain, you ask yourself, “are we really that ignorant?”

I’ve written about the Baylor University senior who was going to work in Japan and could not find it on a huge wall map. According to Time Magazine and Newsweek, and other pollsters, the poor fellow is not alone.

With a map before them, young Americans were ask to find Iraq. After seven years with hundreds of thousands of Americans being based in Iraq, only 63 percent could find the country. Only a third of Americans of all ages could find the continent where the world’s largest river runs. (It’s the Amazon River is in South America.)

Barely half of Americans were correctly able to state that Judaism was older than both Christianity and Islam. Another 41 percent were not sure. For those in doubt, the three strains of Father Abraham were founded in this order: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

A Zogby Poll ask readers to name at least two of the seven dwarfs. Not quite three-quarters could name two of the Snow White dwarfs. Then they were ask to name at least two members of the Supreme Court. Not quite a quarter could do that. Disney reigns.

The majority of Americans – three in four – correctly identified Larry, Curley and Moe as the Three Stooges. To put that in context, only two out of five could correctly identify the executive, legislative and judicial branches as the three wings of government.

Local and national polls are all over the charts when it comes to the freedom of smoking, where they please and when they please.

Opinion polls on when and where an adult may smoke has touched a tender spot with many a smoker and non-smoker. It is almost as hot an issue as religion and politics. In the old days, the time between Sunday school and morning worship was for the men, led by the deacons, to step outside for a quick smoke. This I witnessed as a boy at the town church (First Baptist, Brownwood) and the country church (Stag Creek Church, Comanche County). New Orleans pastor J.D. Gray enjoyed a big cigar as did England’s greatest pulpiteer, Charles H. Spurgeon. Back then medical doctors not only smoked but were the heart of tobacco industry’s poster boys.

Smoking rates by state vary widely, with smoking twice as prevalent in some states as in others. States with the most highly educated residents tend to have the lowest smoking rates and vice versa. Smoking is also lower in states with higher cigarette taxes and broader smoking bans. Now mayors and city councils are faced with the big problem of where to allow smoking in public places. It is easily solved by taking the side of health over commerce.

Some unknown polling source, with unusual courage, announced blonds were smarter than brunettes? It must have been some estúpido brunettes thinking blond hair would make them smarter. (Learned the Spanish word for “stupid” last week when I did something estúpido.)


Monday, September 13, 2010

Lao She, China's Master Storyteller


Few writers have had the influence of China's Lao She (1899-1966). He is required reading in China schools and was voted by the Chinese of the world their favorite writer. His works appear in over seven languages. He was a Manchu and knew what it was like to be a minority.

His son, Shu Yi, writes in a Hong Kong 2009 Festival Magazine about the need for more of his short stories to be made into films.

Shu Yi and his sister Shu Ji, both writers of renown in China, wrote glowing forwards for my book on the life of their father: Lao She, China's Master Storyteller, published in 1999 in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth. It is also the year the Towery-Lao She Collection was dedicated at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It houses Towery's vast collection of and by Lao She, outside of China, is the largest to collections in Japan.

His many short pieces, first printed in newspapers during the 1930-1940 era are not as well known as his Rickshaw Boy (Camel Xiangzi), Yellow Storm (Four Generations) and Tea House, but they are filled with his insight and humor for the human spirit.

His work along with Lu Xun's writings helped in plane easy to read language their readers to the plight of the underdogs and led to what is now Modern Chinese Literature.

My book has filled a gap in the study of world literature. It is the only book in English of his life and introductions to his work. University studies in world literature can receive as many as five copies for only the postage. ORDER BY E-MAIL: bet@suddenlink.net



Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Steve Biko, South Africa Martyr

Steve Biko was 30 when he died in South Africa detention, Sept. 12, 1977

I remember seeing the permanent wooden sign across the highway going into Greenville, Texas that boasted in huge letters to have the blackest land and whitest people in Texas. In Brownwood’s Coggin Ward School I learned that neighboring Comanche County had no blacks. Going through town on a train was dangerous for “darkies” as white bigots called them.

That brought me to thinking about a black hero who gave his life that his people could be considered human beings. Sunday, Sept 12, is the 33rd anniversary of the murder of South Africa’s Steve Biko.

South Africa’s Apartheid government was dismantled in 1990. World opinion was slow to close in. The change began with the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990. For the first time people of all races were allowed to vote. In 1994 Nelson Mandela, over 25 years a prisoner of the system, was elected president.

Apartheid (an Afrikaan word meaning ‘apartness’) control evolved as a force after World War II. The system was based on the complete segregation of the races. Townships and villages dismantled, blacks moved out to slums. They could work for the whites but had to be out of town before dark. There was no justice for indigenous peoples.

The white man knew, based on their view the Holy Scriptures, that he was superior to all other races and set about keeping them ignorant and apart.

First, a little background on the southern tip of Africa. In the late 16th century the English and the Dutch trading companies challenged each other for a stopover on the continent’s southern tip. They went the sea route because the Arabs controlled the land routes to the spices of India and the East Indies. English and Dutch stayed apart but never liked each other.
The Boer Wars of 1880-1 and 1899-1902, were fought between the British and the descendants of the Boers (Dutch settlers in South Africa) decided who would “own” the black man’s land. It took two wars to decide which white overlord would head a government. The Second Boer War ended with promised eventual self-government for the Boers (which never came). The blacks, Zulus and others were in for a century of hell in their own homeland.
This Sunday, September 12, is the anniversary of the murder of Steve Biko in a South Africa prison. He was one of South Africa's most significant political activists and a leading founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement. The uprisings of 1976 brought about his arrest along with thousands of others. His death in police detention in 1977 led to his being hailed as a martyr of the anti-Apartheid struggle. He was but 30 years old.

His struggle gave hope to the masses who were not just segregated but harassed, beaten and killed at the whim of the white superiors.

In a speech in Cape Town in 1971, Biko said: "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

Since the evil of one race over another seems to be having a revival here and around the world, I thought it time to remind us of a man who rose above the others and proclaimed all men equal.

“Cry Freedom” by South African journalist Donald Woods tells how he is forced to flee the country after attempting to investigate the death in custody of his friend the black activist Steve Biko. Denzel Washington plays Biko and Kevin Kline is Donald Woods. Worth reading and is a well-made film.

Another South African journalist, Alan Paton, wrote “Cry, The Beloved Country” with insight into how difficult life is in Apartheid South Africa. He tells of a South African preacher’s search for his wayward son. The book was made into a move by the same name, starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris. A moving story.

For inspiration and information, Nelson Mandela’s book “A Long Walk to Freedom” is at the top of the list of books on South Africans.