What’s Wrong with G. K. Chesterton

In 1910, G. K. Chesterton published a book in the form of a rambling more or less connected series of essays, which he titled What’s Wrong with the World.  A hundred years later, it serves as an interesting example of much which is right and appealing in Chesterton’s work – and also much which is odd, not to say (to modern ears) appalling: thus the title of this piece.  That the attempted humor of my title is perhaps too obvious for good taste is merely a nod to Chesterton’s contention within this very volume that an obvious joke simply means one which is understood, and that an obvious joke should therefore be regarded as a good one.  I am not sure I agree in all cases.

Regarded as a logical argument, What’s Wrong with the World is a failure.  Chesterton’s central axioms are sound enough (if as unpopular now or more as they were with the Edwardian intelligentsia), but he displays here in startling degree his great weakness: that of treating his personal tastes, desires, and prejudices as truths and sound premises.  He claims at one point, “I do not know the East; nor do I like what I know,” – a raw emotional rejection I rather doubt Chesterton would have let slide in the other side of any of his debates.  It is clear enough that to Chesterton “the East” stands as a label attached generally to most if not all of the world outside of European – or, what he would likely contend was more important, Christian – culture.  That he could thus readily conflate in his own thinking such varied societies as the Ottomans, India (with its kaleidoscope of cultures), and Japan is perhaps no more than a sign of his times: that he would put this kind of thinking down on paper as an argument is, while honest enough, problematic in a moral sense.  It certainly causes his own thesis no end of trouble.  It also, however it may have sounded to his contemporaries, is a rather startling and uncomfortable contention to all but the most rabidly nationalistic modern ears, even those who have not themselves any particular affection for any of those societies.

This is particularly unfortunate in that examination of – for example – Indian society would in any case have largely strengthened his point.  Chesterton proposes, against the more rabid Socialists and Eugenicists – not to mention other varieties of social planners – that the basis of society is the family; that the family should be free; and that free families on the whole want to be left alone, if not from social demands, at least by the force of the State.  He maintains that any measures taken to stave off actual physical need which reduce the independence of the family should be regarded as emergency measures – in modern political parlance, we might dub them a least of evils.  So far, sound enough: but laying down a universal principle while dismissing quite a deal of evidence about what the universe might think of it is unsound.  The family – whatever its cultural habits – really is as universal as he thinks it is.  Men and women – regardless of their geographical location on the globe – really have, on the whole, preferred to live in decent independence from any overbearing State as long as this remains at all possible.  Instead of piling up this evidence, his distaste for other cultures leaves his book open to a superficial reading in which he composed nothing more than one more militant complaint about new ideas, one more appeal to the good old days.

More problematic still to modern ears is the tone which he takes when discussing the role of women in the family – and by extension, society.  He talks rather as though the traditional approach had been carefully thought out and planned.  His figures seem to imply not so much a practical consensus in behavior as an intentional construction of society along certain lines.  His greatest logical failure is his appeal that most women would actually agree with his social positions – an argument to authority which collapses if the authority changes its mind.  But his tendency to present the “traditional” scheme of the family as answering difficulties after considerable thought and planning is really rather odd.  It seems to militate against history: not that philosophers have not defended normal family life in such terms, but there have been as many philosophers, from Plato on, who have if trying to plan a society come up with different schemes.  The philosophers and planners, it might be argued, have tended towards the egalitarianism Chesterton detests.

If, however, we set aside this rhetorical foible, his argument is strong enough, granting his axioms.  He makes what is very possibly the strongest practical argument in favor of women (or at least wives) behaving mainly as homemakers.  He states in the strongest terms the goodness and necessity of the work: he makes even an argument that, at least in terms of character and psychology the demands of an intimate motherhood are anything but limiting.  If this part of the argument is repellent to modern ears, it is merely because Chesterton flips modern assumptions on their head: he is inclined to see the fact that men commonly must work away from the house a defect in society.  If men are forced into limited work, at least women are kept safe and sane.  The home is a safe harbor.  For children to be expected to live mainly outside the home – especially the young children currently (Chesterton would think, and I am at least emotionally inclined to agree) victimized by the current fad for preschools and such – is yet more a travesty.

Those defending traditional common sense are often accused of protecting entrenched interests.  Chesterton, at least, is free from this charge: he sees the moneyed and influential classes embracing new heresies and social programs as a method of tightening control.  He even discusses at length the problem of social planners who take emergency measures – and then under political pressure, forget the original emergency and argue for their stopgap plans as innate goods.  Moreover, Chesterton has a clear idea of an ideal practiced and transforming society (although his ideas – not discussed in this volume – for achieving final results are in my opinion unreliable).  That it is an old idea is rather a point in its favor than otherwise to the Roman Catholic apologist.  “[The purpose] of all these pages, is this: the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. … If other things are against it, other things must go down.  If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down.  With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.  Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property, because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution.”

The Problem With Gerrymandering

Here is a reasonably neat map of Maryland, and its counties:

Maryland is fairly infamous for being one of the more gerrymandered states – that is, its congressional districts are drawn to attempt to preserve party seats.  In Maryland, that tends to mean artificial protections for Democrats; in other states it can be Republicans – maybe more often, in fact.  What does gerrymandering mean in practice?

Most of us, faced with the problems of assigning representatives, would want to make fairly neat divisions.  In particular I prefer to keep subdivisions (counties or cities) in place where possible.  So I took a couple swings at district drawing.  Maryland has 8 congressional districts at the moment.  Here’s the first attempt to determine them, keeping entire counties together, and joining generally similar areas together as much as possible:

This would probably work fine, but it’s a rough sketch.  Some of the districts end up with significantly different populations – Montgomery County as its own district has around a million residents, basically doubling the southern light brown and eastern dark purple districts even though each has several counties.

Attempting to balance populations, after a couple hours work, produced this:

For the sake of convenient comparisons, where I split up counties, I used straight lines.  Obviously that’s unlikely to happen exactly in reality – even if you did use straight lines, mine are probably not in exactly the right places – but it gives a general idea.  I’m not entirely happy about dragging a “Western Shore” district up through several counties and around Baltimore on both sides, but for a couple hours fiddling it’s not too bad.  I’d expect any reasonable plan for Maryland to look more or less like this.

What are Maryland’s actual congressional districts?



Review: Everything and More

In 2003, David Foster Wallace wrote an account of how mathematicians have dealt with aspects of infinity throughout history for W. W. Norton & Co.’s series “Great Discoveries”.  At some point I got a copy as a present, and have now read it.  In 300 pages – and I doubt it was supposed to run that long, as Wallace refers to the work repeatedly as a “booklet”, he traces the history of the problem of calculating infinite and infinitesimal quantities, or calculating with them – in short, how math has dealt with the enormously huge and the incredibly tiny – from the Greek philosopher-mathematicians to the 19th century German mathematician-philosophers, with a quick nod towards 20th century math which has (in Wallace’s account) mostly succeeded in demonstrating the 19th century solutions have their own problems and forced mathematicians to figure out how to deal with that.

Wallace’s style is engaging from one sentence to the next, but the overall structure of the book ends up a bit muddled, as he attempts to present at times incredibly complicated concepts in an understandable framework.  For the most part – though as a mathematician (low-grade) I may not be the best person to judge – he succeeds, though I judge the “optional” technical explanations periodically inserted would have been better maintained as integral parts of the book.  The final effect is much like the legendary Japanese garden technique where a great deal of care goes into presenting a final appearance of perfect naturalness: but this by its own rules prevents other qualities of line or symmetry.

Everything and More was a good reminder for me of the puzzles and paradoxes that attract me to some of the more theoretical parts of math, though I would hardly say I understand it all.  At one point, Wallace describes Leibniz – he of the calculus – as a “lawyer/diplomat/courtier/philosopher for whom math was sort of an offshoot hobby”, footnoting this description, “Surely we all hate people like this,” but I suspect Wallace himself of similar gifts, given how easily he, acknowledged mainly as a writer, converses of complicated mathematical topics.  It is also evident from Wallace’s fulsome praise for the man that he had at least one great teacher, a Dr. Goris.

If you have any interest in mathematics – especially its quirks and paradoxes – and are prepared for a reading experience complete with concept-induced headaches, I’d recommend this one.

Election Status: August 1 – Presidency

I may update my opinions as the election draws nearer, especially if debates reveal anything useful.  I will also be writing a section at some point containing thoughts on Congressional and local races, together with some analysis of Maryland races once I do some research.  For now, the Presidency:

At the moment, there are four candidates who could be elected to the the office of President of the United States under normal circumstances: Hilary Clinton (Democratic), Gary Johnson (Libertarian), Jill Stein (Green), or Donald Trump (Republican).  Due to vagaries of the system, these people are recognized more by their party’s ballot access than direct possibility of voting for them: as a result, Stein’s candidacy would take a strange coalition to succeed; additionally, Johnson and the Libertarian party are, as of this date, lacking access in several states – most importantly New York and Ohio.  I do not know whether with three months to go this can or will still be changed – and if so, in which states.

In addition, numerous small parties or independent candidates have some ballot access but not enough to secure the Presidency under normal circumstances.  There are, it seems to me, a great many problems with how elections are structured – but as the system currently tends to benefit the two largest parties, I have small hope of seeing the changes I might hope to be made.  In fact I will not even spend time on Stein’s candidacy: I do not believe she is at all likely to win or even poll particularly well.  Additionally, I have very little agreement with the Green party’s positions.

This leaves three candidates: Clinton, Johnson, and Trump.  If I were to guess, I would guess that Trump is likely to win the race.  In the first place, his candidacy for the Republican party seemed to show some support – judging by open primary states – from normally Democratic voters, suggesting a cross-party appeal.  In the second place, he reflects far too closely what I see day to day – especially on the internet – as the typical American political discourse: insults, angry sound-bites, sexual irresponsibility, vulgarity, and distrust of anyone not in one’s own personal “group”.  I see these habits in people claiming all sorts of different ideological positions.  I suspect his tone therefore resonates strongly with those who more or less agree with his positions (such as they are), and I doubt those opposed to him will be able to mount effective criticism when they tend to indulge in the very kind of nonsense they want to criticize him for.

When I say I think Trump will win, I do not mean that he ought to win, except perhaps in a “get what we deserve” sense.  His presence is angry, immature, and destabilizing.  His policies are not always consistence and as plans incoherent.  Apart from his ability to seize attention, he has very little to recommend him in office.  There are, I think, only two reasons to vote for Trump.  One is that he does seem to care about a certain kind of often-ignored citizen – the relatively poorly off working class, especially if white.  Reintroducing their concerns into political decision-making can hardly be a bad thing: except I still do not see Trump as the person to address those concerns competently.

The other reason would be if the alternatives are worse.  When comparing Trump with Clinton, I am honestly not sure who is more dangerous to the state of the republic.  Trump is a public disgrace: Clinton appears to be competent, but her stated goals are to push us further down an immoral and unConstitutional track, and I very much doubt her political integrity.  By this I mean that – much like President Obama, or perhaps more accurately Senator Reid – she is prepared to use any method, however questionable, which she can get away with to implement policies which she believes will work.  I do not much like being told what to do on quite a number of matters Clinton thinks are public business, and moreover I do not like what she seems likely to try to tell me to do.  I am not sure it is much of a defense to say she “means well”, though I believe that somewhat nebulous phrase does apply: I do not think she is interested (only) in personal aggrandizement as Trump is.

I am not content with the concept of voting for “the lesser of two evils”.  Even considered as “the most possible good”, there seem to be cases where it is hard to find any meaningful distinctions.  If in fact there were no moral distinctions to be made, and both options are bad, a moral person is justified – I am tempted to say required – to choose neither, even if this means abstaining.  Of Clinton and Trump, Clinton is more likely to be a responsible President, but Trump is less likely to impede whatever good policy comes from Congress.  How to choose?

In the event, I currently find Johnson preferable to either.  His basic legal principles and record are superior.  He has not to my knowledge either been involved in any scandal or made an idiot of himself nationally.  I do however have reservations, because on two key points he seems entirely in tune with today’s dangerous tendencies.  He has indicated, in the first place, that he is comfortable using executive orders to achieve good policy – to what extent I am not sure as no interviewer (to my knowledge) has questioned him seriously about this.  He also is unwilling to face down the Supreme Court, especially on abortion: he sounds on the subject just like any other Court supremacist.  (He is, however, far more likely than Clinton – who would pick a probably radical progressive – or Trump – who would likely pick a crony – to make solid appointments to the courts.)

If the election were tomorrow, I would as of now vote for Johnson.  I do not want to make this an endorsement, because the drawbacks of his positions are nearly as big as the advantages.  At the same time, I see – especially in comparison – virtually nothing but drawbacks to either of the other candidates.