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Going to the Dogs

By Chris Mead

Hello from Walter Mead’s younger brother Chris. On my last birthday I found a large crate at my house, courtesy of Walter. Now I’m stuck with a large four-legged creature for a good portion of the rest of my life. (Walter is afraid I will send him a monkey in revenge for Riley, the Black Lab now sleeping near this computer.)

Walter’s had the best of me before. We had a heated intellectual argument when I was 13 and Walter was 14 or 15. Who was the better artist? Bob Dylan, said Walter. Gary Lewis and the Playboys, said I.

But sometimes I win. Once, when I was about 18 months old and Walter’s only rival for our parents’ affection, he enticed me toward him. “Here, Chris,” said my three-year-old brother sweetly. Between us were a dozen or so thumbtacks he had carefully set up for me. Fortunately, Mom happened by, swooped down, and saved me.

Walter grew up to be much nicer than he was on that particular day. He became an intellectual with a large helping of common sense. In fact, something he said to me around a decade ago still resonates with me. It sheds light, for me, on Roger Berkowitz’s eloquent plea on Via Meadia for better teaching, and less micro-specialization, at universities and colleges. Walter was at a gathering of people who were discussing the economy. There were perhaps two dozen people on the stage. Each was asked to talk for just a couple of minutes on the economic situation.

Everyone had intelligent things to say, Walter said. But only a couple of them made jokes. These, not by coincidence, were the famous ones. These were the specialists who had somehow found a way to appeal to and connect with the public.

It may be too much for us to expect every economist to be funny, or every professor to have a bestselling book. Sometimes we rely on others to distill the findings of people who are uncovering specialized information. To me, one of the best of these is Steven Pinker, whose The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a remarkable synthesis of hundreds of historical and behavioral studies, ultimately making a convincing case that people are nicer than they used to be, and getting nicer by the decade.

Pinker’s thesis is counterintuitive. With the help of the news media in particular, we tend to think our society is going to the dogs. Pinker says that somehow we are going in the opposite direction, becoming kinder and gentler, less violent, less criminal, less discriminatory.

My favorite book of Walter’s, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, has a similar command over myriad items of information. It shows how contending factions in American history managed to shape a successful foreign policy in a raucous, democratic way, without many “geniuses” on the order of Metternich or Talleyrand or Bismarck.

Neither Steven Pinker nor Walter Mead would be able to make their interesting cases without a large number of scholars toiling away on campuses to dig up information for the ultimate benefit of others. Many of these scholars have been in the humanities or the social sciences. More power to them.

That said, if a scholar can communicate well only to a handful of other scholars, and not very well to students or to the public, then that academic had better be learning something important. This may be difficult to judge, but if tax dollars are involved, a measure of scrutiny is absolutely fine with me.

Ultimately, we need more people who can relate one specialty to others, who can connect their streams of data points to some river of meaning, who can swim a ripple or two ahead of Google. We need people who can think and who can express clearly what they think. We need…better people.

Fortunately, Steven Pinker says, we are actually becoming better people. We are getting smarter. We are showing more empathy. And we’re nicer.

I’ve been looking at some of these things myself. In the coming ten days, I’ll be writing about local business organizations and their involvement with their communities and economies in a way that I hope will illuminate a street light or two along Via Meadia.

As for empathy: Walter, I forgive you for the thumbtacks and the dog. What kind of monkey would you like?

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  • Luke Lea

    Thanks foe the biographical info, especially the thumb tacks! I’d condemn him except I once offered the girl next door some mushrooms on crackers. We were both four and she wisely said no.

  • Eric from Texas

    One way to see how much nicer we’re getting as a society is watching children’s cartoons, now and then. Cartoons from the 1930s, 1940s, and even 1960s were much more mean-spirited at times than we see today.

  • cacrucil

    Did you actually write/sing a song about Bill Clinton called “The Taxman from Arkansas?” Sounds suspiciously right wing.

  • dearieme

    “… contending factions in American history managed to shape a successful foreign policy in a raucous, democratic way, without many “geniuses” on the order of Metternich or Talleyrand or Bismarck.”

    It did have the anti-genius of President Wilson, though.

  • Tom

    @Eric: That, sir, is highly debatable.

  • Soul

    Having just experienced another family reunion, the usual mentions of the cruel acts older siblings heaped upon the younger came up! My sister is pretty good at listing times, dates, and places for when we had incidences. I’m thinking she keeps a journal listing all, for if there ever should come a time where a Nuremberg type trial is held of older sibling bad actions against the younger she will be prepared. I swear I didn’t believe my sister would have a melt down after placing fake worms into her juice cup!

  • Chris Mead

    Cacrucil asks if I wrote and sang a song called, “The Taxman from Arkansas.” Guilty! Since then, Bill Clinton has grown on me. And we’ve certainly seen examples of heavy federal spending by presidents of both parties since Clinton left office.

  • WigWag

    “Since then, Bill Clinton has grown on me.” (Chris Mead)

    Bill Clinton has grown on tens of millions of Americans since he left us; not only Democrats, but Republicans and Independents as well. Clinton personifies the rational center of American politics that so many people yearn for. His presidency while far from perfect was one the most successful, if not the most successful of the later half of the 20th century.

    There’s a reason Americans stood by Clinton during the impeachment scandal; he epitomized a form of politics that they liked and still do. Clinton is the most popular politician in America today; if it were constitutionally permissible he would defeat any opponent of either political party. He’s so popular that he could announce that he had selected Monica Lewinsky as his running mate and still win. Of course this is probably due as much to the imbecility of the current crop of Democrats and Republicans as to Clinton’s political skills.

    Republicans better hope that despite Romney’s enormous blunder with Paul Ryan that the man from Bain finds a way to eek out a victory. While I dont like her as much as I like her husband, Hillary Clinton will only be 68 four years from now and she’s almost sure to run (barring unexpected health problems). If she’s running for an empty Oval Office seat about to be abandoned by a retiring Obama, she’s almost sure to win. Who could possibly defeat her? Chris Christie? Bobby Jindal? Paul Ryan? Mitch Daniels?

    If Romney loses, Republicans will remain in the presidential wilderness probably until the middle part of the next decade.

    It’s that Clinton magic that Chris Mead has come to appreciate.

  • Eric from Texas

    Tom @5,

    OK, those aimed at younger children have improved. There are plenty of cartoons aimed at teenagers that are questionable.

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