Monday, March 23, 2009

A Reasonable Measure

The French Revolution set out to replace tradition with pure reason. One of the most concrete things they bequeathed to us is the famously rational metric system. There are a hundred (rationally named) centigrams in a gram, 1,000 grams in a kilogram (cent = 100, kilo = 1,000) -- certainly more logical than 12 ounces in a pound. Centigrade temperature places freezing at 0, boiling at 100, instead of the unthinkable 32 and 212. And there are a hundred centimeters to the meter, 1,000 meters to the kilometer, as opposed to the ungainly twelve inches to the foot, three feet to the yard, and -- horrors -- 5,280 feet to the mile.

Money has been standardized, too. Most modern countries are similar to the U.S. The dollar is divided by 100; coins come in 1, 5, 10, or 25; dollars in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100. Reasonable. Compare the old British system. A farthing was 1/4 of a penny; 12 pennies to a shilling; 5 shillings to the pound; 21 shillings to a guinea. Who can make sense of such things?

The one rationalization that did not survive the Revolution was the calendar: 365 days = ten months, each with three ten-day weeks ("decades"), plus five holidays at the end, and a sixth for leap year. The day was divided into ten hours, each consisting of 100 minutes of 100 seconds. Rational. Orderly.

And all the new systems are based on modern science. The meter is 1/10,000,000 of the distance from one pole of the earth to the equator (though it has subsequently been given a more obscure definition in terms of the wave length of light, since the earth itself isn't perfectly rational or consistent). A gram is 1/1,000,000 of the weight of a cubic meter of water (and mass, of course, does not vary, as weight does, depending on the force of gravitation). Only money avoids any scientific grounding -- on the perfectly rational realization that money is merely a means of exchange, with no fixed value.

The problem is, none of these things are all that reasonable. Begin with the idea of 10s in the first place. It looks very nice on paper, until you realize that if we didn't have ten fingers, ten is the last number we would choose to orient our counting around. We are used to it, to be sure, but five is an awfully clumsy number, stretching the limits of simple math; 100 is so big as to be beyond visualization.

It makes far more sense to orient things around threes and fours, both of which are far more intuitive. Consider the day. The 24-hour system actually consists of 12 hours before noon, 12 after. 12 divides easily by 3 and 4. 6 is half way, 3 and 9 a quarter of the way. 7 and 8 are decent divisions between 6 and 9 (whether morning or night): to further subdivide by 2's would either make the hours too long (only one division between 6/the evening and 9/night?) or too short (my head begins to spin when I consider half of half of half). Once you divide the day into quarters -- 12, 3, 6, 9 -- three is a manageable way to break things down further.

Why do we do it this way? Because it's manageable. Because it's easy to think about. 2's and 3's, even 4's, are easy to think about. 10 is too big: you have to subdivide to get a picture of it. But it only subdivides into 5's, which are still just too clumsy. Imagine, in the Revolutionary system, dividing all the time from midday to midnight into 5 parts. It's just clumsy; there's no midway, no easy parts. 100 minutes certainly doesn't help. 60 breaks into 4 fifteens -- and it's awfully nice to talk of quarter-hours. And that breaks down into 3 x 5. All right, so we have 5-minute intervals -- but notice that we really can't think in much smaller units than that; we all joke about how absurd it is to say 6:03; we rarely even break the hour down to less than quarters. In any case, those 5-minute intervals just divide 60 into 12 parts: 12 is a manageable amount, because we can visualize 4 groups of 3. Imagine asking the time and being told, "it's 2/5ths past the hour." "??"

I see this with my little boy, who's just getting into numbers. "So, 8 is four and four?" he asked the other day. Yes, Joseph. But how did he get there? Then he tells me, "8 is two squares?!" Yes. He gets there because he can see it, because four is a manageable number. Apart from fingers, 5 is just too much. A base-10 number system forces us into nothing but 2's and 5's. Pentagons are weird.

Imagine how convenient the old British system was. A penny breaks into two (hay penny) or four (farthing). A shilling is 12 pennies -- and the standard coins were 3 and 6 pennies (three pence and six pence). Yeah. I can think about that. A pound, I'll grant you, was 5 shillings. But how delightful that a guinea was 21 shillings: 4 pounds-and-a-bit. This is a coin system designed for people to think about and do math in their head, not to look nice (with lots of 0's) on paper.

Apart from the lovely 3's and 4's, the old system is based on our senses. There are 12 inches to a foot -- partly because that makes it easy to think of a quarter-foot. But how perfect that an inch is the size of a man's first knuckle, a foot the size of a man's foot. Now that's useful. 1/10,000,000 of the quarter-circumference of the Earth might sound "scientific," but who knows how big a centimeter is? It's not based on anything.

A yard is one big stride. A mile -- did you know this? -- is from the Latin "mille," a thousand; a 1,000 big steps would be 3,000 feet, a 1,000 with each foot is 6,000 feet -- and a 1,000 slightly shorter steps, the kind you take when you're walking a long distance, comes to roughly 5,280 feet. Precise? No. But workable. How much less precise is it to use the kilometer, a distance, the kilometer with no reference to anything in our experience? How would you even approximate a kilometer? Anyway, if you want to be precise, you use a machine, which doesn't need the numbers to be nice. When the numbers matter is when you're using a rule of thumb: a thousand right-foot steps.

(Note, by the way, that here, 1,000 is a decent number, since you'll end up using your fingers.)

Fahrenheit? When do you want to know temperatures? When you're boiling water, you just wait for the water to boil. When you're going higher than that, or need to be more precise than that, you use a thermometer. (Though every candy chef knows the real signs are hard crack, soft crack, etc.) But when you want a number you can look at is when you're going outside. And you know, 0 - 100 F. is actually a pretty good range for outside temperatures. Here, we use base-10 numbers, because yeah, it's just a number to look at. Centigrade may seem real scientific, but your entire range of outdoor temperatures is significantly cut down. How useful is that?

And the Revolutionary Calendar might look very neat, but isn't a seven-day work week a little easier to think about? And when was the last time you complained that May has more days in it than February?

Here's the point I'm trying to make. Rationalism isn't rational -- certainly not reasonable. Rationalism means trying to make everything fit into a system. On the way, it throws out the data. It throws out tradition, which includes both some smart systems that have been worked out over time (like the utility of the number 12, and measures based on body parts) and all our historical documents (do you really want to have to convert every date before 1793?) It throws out the senses, so that you're more interested in things like 1/10,000,000 of the quarter-circumference of the earth than the length of your own foot. Rationalism turns Reason into a creator, instead of a receiver, a way to overrule the world around you instead of understanding it. And in the end, that isn't rational at all.

Conversely, there's nothing rationalistic about being reasonable. We who keep company with St. Thomas often get dismissed for thinking too much about syllogisms, definitions, and logical consequences. But these are the things our minds can get ahold of. Working with reasonable measures, with things we can actually wrap our brains around, is not rationalism -- it is the ultimate way to prevent rationalism.

Just like knowing how long an inch is keeps the fabric merchant from ripping you off.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Can We?

I recently spent some time in a children's hospital emergency room. While my four-year-old was getting stitches, we were introduced to Bob the Builder, a popular claymation children's show. The theme song is catchy, and within an hour of our coming home, even the two-year-old, who hadn't come to the emergency room, was singing along: "Bob the Builder -- Can We Fix It? -- Bob the Builder -- Yes We Can!" It's got that kind of pep that is both annoying and, from a child's perspective, sort of uplifting.

But I couldn't help notice the parallel to another pop-culture phenomenon. The night of Hillary Clinton's primary-election victory in New Hampshire, Barack Obama gave one of his more memorable speeches. The culmination is as follows:

when we have faced down impossible odds; when we've been told we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can. (break for cheering) Yes we can. (break for cheering) Yes we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights.

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.

I'm told that Obama was evoking the 1970's labor organizer Cesar Chavez. (There's an interesting commentary there on Obama's target demographic: people who recognize Cesar Chavez, but not Bob the Builder.) I have no idea how central this speech is to Obama's mystique, though I know LA made a fancy music video out of it, blending the very catchy with the utterly pretentious. So in critiquing this theme, I do not mean to criticize Obama as a whole -- I don't know enough about him to do that. I do mean to criticize what I take to be a central theme in modern liberalism.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes we can.
Except actually, it wasn't. The Declaration of Independence opens with questions of necessity: "it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands . . . decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires . . . ." These are matters, not of "yes we can," but of "yes we must." The necessity derives from "must nots." The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not, of course, "inalienable" in the sense that they cannot be taken away, but that they must not.

"Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." The fundamental theme of the Declaration is "no, you can't." No, government does not have the right to overstep its bounds; and the Declaration is a long list of abuses. The first of our "founding documents" has nothing of "hope" and everything of anger at governments doing what they must not. "A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people." What "we can" do is not yet even asked.

Eleven years later, our next founding document was published, the Constitution. (It took two more years for it to be ratified.) It would be delightfully ironic to describe the Constitution as a document of "yes we can." The Constitution is fundamentally an enumeration of powers. It says "yes we can" do x, y, and z, precisely to say "no, we cannot do anything else." There are several explicit "no you can't's" offered to the states:

No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility.

No state shall, without the consent of the Congress, lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection laws: and the net produce of all duties and imposts, laid by any state on imports or exports, shall be for the use of the treasury of the United States; and all such laws shall be subject to the revision and control of the Congress.

No state shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty of tonnage, keep troops, or ships of war in time of peace, enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power, or engage in war, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay.

And several direct "no you can't's" aimed at the Federal Government:

The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.

The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

No bill of attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.

No capitation, or other direct, tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken.

No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state.

No preference shall be given by any regulation of commerce or revenue to the ports of one state over those of another: nor shall vessels bound to, or from, one state, be obliged to enter, clear or pay duties in another.

No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law; and a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time.

No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

But more to the point, the Bill of Rights (which is, of course, nothing but a list of "no you can't's" for the federal government: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech," etc.; "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed;" etc.) is sealed with the Tenth Amendment:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
Anything not specifically listed as "yes we can" is thereby construed as "no we can't."

Of course, there is much hope in this document. But there is a difference between true "hope" and "yes we can": hope merely expresses a possibility. On leaving the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin is reputed to have responded to the question, "what have you given us?" with the answer "a republic, if you can keep it." True hope is always "if." Perhaps what so grates about Obama's invocation of hope is that it seems strong on the "yes we can" and weak on the "if." Does he ask anything of us, or just tell us we can do whatever we want?

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights.

Now, I do not deny that what I am describing as a fundamentally liberal attitude did exist among some of the more radical abolitionists. It is fair to put the unrestricted "yes we can" in their mouths, and indeed to root much of the rise of modern liberalism in the unrestrained desires of the radical Republicans in the years following Abraham Lincoln's death.

But I think it is pretty well understood, by those who actually study Lincoln, that his was an attitude of restraint. The one who actually freed the slaves, the one who brought the obscure Republican party to national strength, and maintained the Union so that their abolitionist ideas could apply to the slave states: Lincoln's attitude was hardly "yes we can."

In that marvelous Gettysburg Address, Lincoln describes the precarious situation of republican government:
Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. . . .
It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us . . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Yes, this is hope. But "yes we can"? No, I think Lincoln's attitude is, "perhaps we can." Perhaps, if we are righteous, there is a possibility. I am no expert on Barack Obama, but his hope feels a little cheap.

In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln proclaimed:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
"We hope -- if."

There are two fundamental weaknesses in the slogans "hope," and "yes we can." One is grammatical. These are transitive ideas. You have to hope in something. Even Bob the Builder knows this: "yes we can" is only a response to "can we fix it." "Yes we can" do this particular task. To proclaim hope and "yes we can" without proclaiming what we can is grammatically unintelligible. (Just as "change" is unintelligible without defining from what to what, and "choice" is unintelligible without saying what you're choosing: choose infanticide?)

The second weakness is metaphysical. Ability is limited. Our founding documents hope that maybe "yes we can" have a republican government, but only if we are clear what we cannot do. The Great Emancipator hopes that perhaps "we can" end the war and save the union, with its republican government: but he knows that we must ultimately submit to the judgments of the Lord of history.

It seems to me that this empty "can," "hope," "change," and "choice" are fundamental to Obama's philosophy. In any case, they define a particular liberal worldview, a view that refuses all limits, that defines its worldview by going to the moon: set any goal, and "just do it." The conservative is he who says, perhaps, but there are costs, in moral (and fiscal) discipline, there are limits to what can be achieved. A republic, like individuals, cannot stand by just "shooting for the moon." We must be careful to hope in what can be achieved, and take seriously what will be required of us to achieve it.