Claims on Belief: The Greatest Show on Earth

photo by stevendepolo

My son is studying James Whitcomb Riley for school.  Hoosier Poet or Children’s Poet depending on which books you like of his.  In reality he appears to have been a very amazing comedian and story-teller.  In other words, a performer, an actor.  His poems make this clear.  They cannot be read with much pleasure, you must imagine them coming to life in performance where the actor would embody the soul of the voice on the page and create a persona.  Riley was no poet; Riley was a kind of vaudevillian.  All accounts say he even upstaged Mark Twain on more than one occasion.  Twain himself praises Riley’s act in a famous essay called “How to Tell a Story.”

Let me set down an instance of the comic method, using an anecdote which has been popular all over the world for twelve or fifteen hundred years. The teller tells it in this way:

In the course of a certain battle a soldier whose leg had been shot off appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to the rear, informing him at the same time of the loss which he had sustained; whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the unfortunate, proceeded to carry out his desire. The bullets and cannon-balls were flying in all directions, and presently one of the latter took the wounded man’s head off–without, however, his deliverer being aware of it. In no-long time he was hailed by an officer, who said:

“Where are you going with that carcass?”

“To the rear, sir–he’s lost his leg!”

“His leg, forsooth?” responded the astonished officer; “you mean his head, you booby.”

Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood looking down upon it in great perplexity. At length he said:

“It is true, sir, just as you have said.” Then after a pause he added, “But he TOLD me IT WAS HIS LEG! ! ! ! !”

Here the narrator bursts into explosion after explosion of thunderous horse-laughter, repeating that nub from time to time through his gaspings and shriekings and suffocatings.

It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story form; and isn’t worth the telling, after all. Put into the humorous-story form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have ever listened to–as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.

Twain then goes into considerable detail about how Riley makes the story his own by casting the parts in rural caricatures of which he became famous, namely a bumptious farmer.  It is the telling, and the teller, that often make a tale humorous, and often make outlandish stories believable.

The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness of the old farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result is a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious. This is art and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story.

A truism regarding lies (and stage acting), go big.

It possibly comes as no surprise to you that Riley was a “huckster” for snake oil as a younger man.  In fact, one company he worked for was called The Wizard Oil Company and Riley often claimed, in his act of selling, to have been blind but made sighted by their curatives.   Later in life, as Riley was dying, he actually took the “medications” he sold as a young man.  They of course made him more ill and possibly sped his end.  (Detailed at the Wikipedia entry for Riley.)  We know he lied to sell the product; but we also know he took the product.  Did he forget to be skeptical or to use his common sense, or did he simply want to believe otherwise, to think that those who made these products were honest and honorable folks?

As my son and I were talking about Riley’s life and his career I was casting about for something that might help him understand the role of the huckster.  It had been some time but I remembered we had watched  Pete’s Dragon on more than one occasion and that a subplot in it offers a traveling duo of snake oil salesmen who conning the “rubes” as they travel from country town to country town (bumpkins are most gullible after all).

That movie offers an interesting opportunity to think about skepticism and belief.  Pete, the protagonist, is shown in the beginning escaping his abusive adoptive hillbilly family with the aid of a dragon that only he can see.  Of course, we think this a psychological manifestation, but in the movie, the dragon is very real as he knocks down walls and makes footprints in the dirt and generally scares the locals after aiding Pete’s escape.  The dragon is Pete’s only real friend and of course vice versa.

I’m sure I never asked my children how they differentiated the “magic” of the potions with the magic of the dragon, or rather, Pete’s self-curative magical imagination.  One pretends to be “science” while the other, a kind of art.  But both, at least as regards snake oil (and aside from placebo effects) set as against targeted chemical-biological treatments (but plenty of snake oil here as well), are imagined.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Claims on our belief are abundant.

A friend forwarded me a blog piece on the promise of energy derived from the process of cold fusion (how the sun “works”), “Cold Fusion: Is it Possible? Is it Real?”.  A physicist claims he’s created a machine that can do this with minimal energy input.  This is a soon-to-be-confirmed hoax, or as I like to say, con.  In the blog piece the author makes this statement regarding scientific claims (the standard one): extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, or in Popperian language, one must make a claim that might be falsifiable (this has been contested by other philosophers of science, but I more-than-digress)  No evidence on offer here.   It is instructive that he opens the piece with a story about the first chess-playing automaton (a turbaned “Turk”) which was a very elaborate and large hoax machine within which the human agent could play the games.  It’s a very interesting piece that culminates with a video of that master of debunking spurious scientific and paranormal claims The Amazing Randi.

Spurious claims:

Yesterday I was angry all day about something of a similar nature.  I had written a piece, published in the local newspaper (“Beware of claims from groups wanting money,” as a response to a prior column published by a local high school student (“School diary: Rights of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness are far from universal”) that was primarily a request to give money to a charity out of San Diego which purports to offer aid and protection for African children who have been abducted by a Ugandan “leader” and his “army”.  (I use quotation marks because because I think that we might consider these tribal marauders as something more akin to gang thugs–these are warlords operating in a land that escapes our understanding.)

While I in no way made claims that this was untrue or that this warlord was a good guy rather than a terror, but rather simply intended to show that we cannot know the complicated world of Africa and that children should not be conned via our school systems, what was commented upon was the simple fact that I offended the sensibilities of this high school student and possibly crushed her dreams.  I “crapped in her punchbowl,” according to her defender, a local high school teacher.

This is one of many comments defending the student and vilifying me (found behind the pay-wall of the newspaper):

But for all of you claims about what we are missing, the sad thing is you are missing much more

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. Ms. Holly Hays, a high school columnist wrote a very heartfelt column about a presentation she had been to that for the first time awakened in her the warmth many of us feel about living in a free society. Some people feel it the first time when they see a flag flapping in the breeze, others when a soldier gets out of a car at a curb, and others still when the geriatric veteran shows up for a parade with his lawn chair and a small flag patch sewn onto a khaki shirt that only he knows is how old. Finally others are stricken at odd places like the Indy 500 when Taps are played before the race or when the jets fly over.

It is that fleeting feeling, she writes about, almost a twinge that instantly grows and there, for at least one brief moment the person understands deep in their heart what it means to be an American; the freedom to think on any subject; having the right to say and do what you think is good; And never having to worry that ultimately the people of this great land will never have your back.

Yes, Mr. Storms [sic], you missed it. Holly’s column was about Invisible Children. But that was only on the surface. She touched on the other things that were deep inside her and an awakening she experienced when she thought of those children without. Yes, Holly The High School Student got in touch with Holly The Soon To Be Adult American and she acted honorably on those new feelings and her new heart-felt connections to the good that real Americans can do in the world. It was a great day for Holly.

And then along came you, bitching and moaning about things you said and admitted you know nothing about, but yet focused intently on breaking the spirit and the heart of a young woman who wants nothing more than to write about the great things and broad currents that can be harnessed in America and a day when we all return to the time of yore to rally around those who actually enter the arena, not because we necessarily agree with them, but because we respect their courage for doing so.

And though none of this seemed at all pertinent to the content of either my piece or this student’s it struck me that I was wrong about its relevance.  The commenter was performing the role of the embattled charity; I, the role of the monster warlord; and the student had indeed become an Invisible Child–though a healthy, white, well-educated, American girl of privilege (comparatively, of course), she had become voiceless and attacked and would need saving.

Further, the comments on offer are entirely a kind of snake oil dream in themselves.  The American Dream of our glorious munificence towards our citizens combined with the White Man’s Burden of Empire.  So hopelessly naive in construction and presentation that it needs no commentary.  Perhaps we are living in Passamaquoddy.

It turns out that schools are indeed centers for the indoctrination of national pieties.  Why did I imagine otherwise?

Further reading:

November 27, 2011 Organized Lovelessness; Occupy Charity

November 23, 2011 Fronting Intervention: Using Invisible Children to Sell War to Children

The White Man’s Burden, Kipling

The Charm of Jingoism, Chesterton

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