Reason #5,167 why government matters: because Tony Bennett is absolutely sublime*…
I had very good training. I was in the service [...] in the Second World War. And when I came out under the GI Bill of Rights, they gave us the best teachers. Zolinski was secretary to Stanislavski, the Method acting teacher, of Russia; performed with him on the stage. Pietro diAngeo was my bel canto teacher to keep my voice in top shape. And Mimi Spear was right on 52nd Street and she told me, “Never imitate another singer. Just listen to musicians and find out how they phrase and how they feel about a song, and imitate them.” [...] Very good advice.
(The transcription is mine, and I’m not entirely sure about those name spellings.)
Also interesting: in the same interview, Scott Simon hands him the perfect opportunity to do the “God’s creation is wonderful” boilerplate, but Bennett doesn’t take it. Instead he talks about nature and the universe, sans any hint of religion:
I love life. I wish I could communicate to the whole planet what a gift it is to be alive. [...] I paint every day, and I keep learning that the master, as Rembrandt said, is Nature. And you keep looking at it and you keep trying to understand it; you can’t comprehend the height of creativeness that Nature has. What a gift it is to be part of the whole universe.
I’d always assumed that Bennett, as an Italian-American of his generation, was likely a conventionally religious man; and perhaps he is, and merely keeps his faith private — nothing wrong with that. But could he be a secular humanist? It’s not impossible; in a statement clarifying remarks he made about 9/11, he says this:
My life experiences — ranging from the Battle of the Bulge to marching with Martin Luther King — made me a life-long humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior. I am sorry if my statements suggested anything other than an expression of my love for my country, my hope for humanity and my desire for peace throughout the world.
Who knows if he means “humanist” with a capital H; but I can’t help remembering that self-declared, bona-fide humanist Asa Philip Randolph also marched with King, and I wonder if Bennett is intentionally making that association.
In any case, I’m just having fun speculating; it doesn’t really matter to me whether Bennett is a man of quiet faith or of no faith at all. What a joy it is simply to hear him sing, and to know that he shares a deep sense of human solidarity and of connection with the universe in the here-and-now. Perhaps for him — certainly for me — that’s enough.
*Stevie Wonder is no slouch either.
Andrew Sullivan links to this video of NBA legend Maurice Cheeks, who, with a supportive crowd, comes to the aid of a young girl who falters while singing the national anthem:
Sullivan sees this as the American spirit at its best:
I love it because it really represents America. This experiment has never been easy, or its success foretold, as the questions of the anthem seem to illustrate. We have faltered, nearly given up, torn ourselves apart, segregated and murdered, boomed and busted more than a few times. The greatness of a nation lies not in some false narrative that you see in the Tea Party fantasists, the people who believe the Founding was intended to end slavery, rather than accommodate it, the people who see nothing but greatness and hegemony and pounce on all those who see flaws. It lies in a constant balancing of interests and ideas, and our collective response to failure. In this rendering, a black man rescues a white girl caught by nerves and close to collapse, and rallies her to the end, with the crowd. That’s a powerful symbol of America at its finest.
Indeed. Patriotism, true patriotism, is not jingoism, is not kneejerk pride, is not blindness to America’s flaws. To love this nation is to love a sick or struggling relative: you don’t ignore her troubles and pretend all’s well, but neither do you turn your back on her or proclaim her unworthy of your love. You stand by her and help her get better. You see her faults with clear eyes and love her in spite of them. You nurture her strengths. And you burst with quiet hope and pride at everything she is and everything you know she can be.
Sullivan also points out something I’d never really noticed before: that the key phrases in “The Star-Spangled Banner” come in the form of questions. “Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” It’s a note of uncertainty, almost, an acknowledgment that at some point the answer may well be No. As triumphal as the anthem seems, in other words, its final question — is this still true? is the American spirit intact? does the nation still mean what we want it to mean? — invites us constantly to interrogate ourselves, and to live up to the answer we want to give.
A very lively exchange of ideas (and arguments) about the future of human spaceflight and exploration, from last summer’s The Amazing Meeting. Panelists are Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss, moderated by Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy. It’s almost an hour, and well worth watching if you have the time.
I very much agree with Tyson’s argument (starting around 15:00) about the government’s role in advancing the frontier: that governments, historically, have been the engines for initial exploration and discovery; the epic voyages of Columbus, Magellan, and Lewis and Clark — not to mention Armstrong and Aldrin — were all government-funded affairs. Commerce follows in the wake of discovery, taming the risky into the routine (as trips into low Earth orbit are now passing into the purview of private enterprise) but forward-looking governments are still best-positioned to marshal the will and resources of their citizens to fund the first leaps into the unknown.
(via Bad Astronomy)
[...] 56 exotic creatures — a fierce menagerie that included wolves, monkeys and 18 Bengal tigers, an endangered species whose numbers total less than 3,000 in the wild — [...] had fled their cages on a 73-acre private reserve. Friends described the couple who ran it as animal lovers, but they also had a history of run-ins with the authorities.
By late Wednesday, a day after the hunt began, the authorities in this central Ohio city of 25,000 said they had killed or captured all but one of the animals, a monkey. It had not been seen all day, and officials believed that it might have been killed by one of the other animals, said Tom Stalf, assistant director of operations at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
The creatures had been freed on the reserve, a few miles west of downtown Zanesville, after one of the owners apparently cut open their wire cages or opened the doors and then fatally shot himself, the authorities said.
An attempt was made to tranquilize one of the tigers, but ultimately all eighteen were shot and killed.
I understand the authorities putting public safety first, but the deaths of so many innocent, frightened, and in many cases endangered animals are still a tragedy.
As I’ve written before (and as the article points out), there are only three thousand tigers left in the wild — with just a thousand breeding females — and their situation is no less dire today. Click here to help.
My mind has been on education a lot these days, as we take our fifth-grade daughter to visit middle school after middle school, analyzing and comparing notes, trying to decide which ones to apply to next year. It’s funny — though not all that surprising, I suppose — to see how all these presentations and open houses and tours help you refine in your mind what you think education is for. And so it was interesting to be in that frame of mind when I came across Adam Gopnik’s meditation on the fifty-year-old classic The Phantom Tollbooth (which I’d read to my daughter last year) and realized how Norton Juster was slyly writing about the point of learning itself, without ever saying that’s what he was up to:
As with every classic of children’s literature, its real subject is education. The distinctive quality of modern civilization, after all, is that children are subjected to year after year after year of schooling. In the best-loved kids’ books, the choice is often between the true education presented in the book — say, Arthur’s through animals at the hands of Merlyn, in “The Sword in the Stone” — and the false education of the world and school. The child being read to (and the adult reading) is persuaded that self-reliance is a better model for learning than slavish obedience. [...]
[Milo's] epiphany is that math and reading and even spelling are themselves subjects of adventure, if seen from the right angle. The point of “The Phantom Tollbooth” is not that there’s more to life than school; it’s that normal school subjects can be wonderful if you don’t have to experience them as normal schooling. [...]
For “The Phantom Tollbooth” is not just a manifesto for learning; it is a manifesto for the liberal arts, for a liberal education, and even for the liberal-arts college. [...] What Milo discovers is that math and literature, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, should assume their places not under the pentagon of Purpose and Power but under the presidency of Rhyme and Reason. Learning isn’t a set of things that we know but a world that we enter.
Juster was writing a comic hymn to the value of the liberal arts at a moment of their renaissance [...] In “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the real moral sin is knowing too much about one thing: the Mathemagician who obsesses over quantities; the unabridged Azaz who lives off his own words. Against those who worried that the liberal arts could not help us “win the future,” Juster argued for the love of knowledge, and against narrow specialization. “The Phantom Tollbooth” was for learning, against usefulness. “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all,” Milo complains to Rhyme and Reason. They don’t tell him to listen to his inner spirit, or trust the Force. Instead, Reason says, “You may not see it now, but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else. . . . Whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”
Read the rest of Gopnik’s excellent piece here.
Echoing Philip Reeve, Neal Stephenson calls on science fiction writers to once again imagine a bold future — “an over-arching narrative” that provides “a shared vision” — that can inspire scientists to make it real:
Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees. [...]
“You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” proclaims Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (and one of the other speakers at [the FutureTense conference]). He refers, of course, to SF writers. The scientists and engineers, he seems to be saying, are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense.
Elsewhere, Thomas Friedman — a self-described “frustrated optimist” — tells WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook that the visionaries are already among us, waiting to be unleashed:
What always makes me an optimist about this country: it is still full of people who just didn’t get the word. They didn’t get the word that we’re down and out. They didn’t get the word that we’re in a slow decline. They didn’t get the word that we’re in a recession. And they go out and start stuff and fix stuff and heal stuff and organize stuff [...] whether it’s on Wall Street today or in places that you’ve never seen before. [...] What they tell you is that the country is alive.
If you want to be an optimist about America, stand on your head [...] because there is just a huge thrust coming from below, and as I’ve said ad infinitum, it looks just like the space shuttle taking off — all that thrust coming from below.
In That Used To Be Us, Friedman and co-author Michael Mandelbaum elaborate:
We are optimists, but we are also frustrated. We are frustrated optimists. In our view, the two attitudes go together. We are optimists because American society, with its freewheeling spirit, its diversity of opinions and talents, its flexible economy, its work ethic and penchant for innovation, is in fact ideally suited to thrive in the tremendously challenging world we are living in. We are optimists because the American political and economic systems, when functioning properly, can harness the nation’s talents and energy to meet the challenges the country faces. We are optimists because Americans have plenty of experience in doing big, hard things together. And we are optimists because our track record of national achievement gives ample grounds for believing we can overcome our present difficulties.
But that’s also why we’re frustrated. Optimism or pessimism about America’s future cannot simply be a function of our capacity to do great things or our history of having done great things. It also has to be a function of our will actually to do those things again.
More arguments for optimism here.