Monday, October 25, 2010

'A penny saved is a penny earned.'—Bernie Madoff. Part 1.

Among the myriad things that puzzle me these days is society's knee-jerk tendency to vilify an idea based solely upon who said or wrote it. We saw this recently in the case of the local Pennsylvania high school that made the national news and talk shows, and was roundly chastised therein, for kicking off its yearbook presentation of graduating seniors with an epigram from that well-known "thought leader" (as our pal James Ray likes to call himself), Adolph Hitler:

And in the last analysis, success is what matters.
Look, quoting Hitler in your yearbook is dumb. It will haunt you forever in some sense; every time you open the damn book to see what one of your moron friends scribbled under his picture, there it will be. Decades later, even the person who picked the quote will still be saying, What was I thinking? But...what about the quote itself? It's not some fringe notion; in fact, it's the creed by which many of us live. Can't you see that same basic thing being said by Tony Robbins, or Vince "winning is the only thing" Lombardi, or any number of other heralded motivators who are invoked daily in classrooms, meeting rooms and auditoriums across America? We tend to be a bit skeptical of Machiavelli, but we sure quote the dude often enough, and he expressed the same essential thought in stronger, more ominous terms: "The end justifies the means."

I grant you, it's always interesting, and can be the spark for stunning insight, to look at a quote in the context of what we know about the speaker. In that sense, there's a chilling quality to Hitler's words. (You wonder: My God, what was he thinking of when he talked about success?) But why should an idea itself become tainted or lose its legitimacy altogether simply because we have no use for the person who said it? An awful person can have some brilliant ideas. And vice versa. There is irony in the title of this post that derives from its jarring incongruity with what we've learned about ol' Bernie, but that irony has nothing to do with the wisdom (or lack of same) of the words themselves. Even ol' Ben was a wee bit of a cad himself, you know, certainly for that era.

To me, it doesn't (and shouldn't) matter whether it was Lord Tennyson or Charles Manson who said, "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."* Nor, if we find out tomorrow that Benjamin Disraeli was secretly a pedophile cop-killer, should that knowledge undermine the stunning rhetorical power and grace of a line like, "A precedent embalms a principle." An idea is just that and nothing more: an idea. A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, these fundamental principles apply as time goes by. And if you suddenly have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, you really need to bone up on your knowledge of classic film, in particular by watching Casablanca. Then you too can ask yourself, as I have for decades, So what was the big freakin' deal about Ingrid Bergman, anyway? But I digress.

The larger point is that we worry far too much in this culture about what people say in general. We'll get down to cases next time.

* Technically, the correct form of the quote is 'Tis, which sort of gives it away.

33 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, your line, "Then you too can ask yourself, as I have for decades, So what was the big freakin' deal about Ingrid Bergman, anyway?" is a perfect example of the need to dissociate the statement from the person making it. You have been known to come up with some genuinely intriguing insights, and I thus might be prone to considering that you know something about Ingrid Bergman that I - and a multitude of other guys across several generations - must have missed. Per your wise admonition, however, I will consider the statement solely on its own merits (or in this case, lack thereof). Next, you'll be telling us that Sophia Loren is/was homely.

On a slightly more serious note, I think it inevitable that we consider the context in which a phrase is uttered, and while the words themselves may well stand up to scrutiny if removed from that context, their meaning can change dramatically if we consider the larger framework in which they are spoken.

Dennis Hopper was best known for his counterculture characters, and delivered many lines which epitomized that group. Knowing that he was an avowed (some would say arch) conservative rendered many of his lines paradoxical, even humorous in a way far removed from their actual meaning.

Steve Salerno said...

I sense that this thread is destined to veer off in a subordinate direction, but...Sophia Loren?? You gotta be kiddin' me. She looks like Keith Richards (and pretty much always did).

Mike Cane said...

Aw, c'mon, Steve. Next you'll be asking, "So, it was a chick on a ferry, so what?" about the memory of one of the people in Citizen Kane who never stopped thinking about a girl he saw on a ferry one day. It's all about our regrets and missing a chance we should have seen as gold at the time. And even if Bergman and the ferry girl had been duds, at least they TOOK THE SHOT.

Here, check out this post:

Serendipity finds you

As for your main point, I detest Ayn Rand, but I'll still use quotes from her I find useful. Sue me for inconsistency. I'll live.

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, thanks for weighing in. A study in "wist," was CitKane. Romantic that I am, I still can't think about the damn sled without choking up just a little bit.

Thanks also for the link. Interesting post. My life has been an object lesson in serendipity, though my dependents might have another term for it...

RevRon's Rants said...

"Sophia Loren?? You gotta be kiddin' me. She looks like Keith Richards (and pretty much always did)."

And you call yourself Italian! May you be slapped upside the face with a not-so-fresh baccalà!

Of course, if you're hinting that you find Keith Richards attractive (and there's nothing wrong with that, but it is kinda scary), I might cut you a bit of slack. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Sophia Loren isn't even the most attractive Sophia; that distinction would have to go to the young contemporary actress, Sophia Bush.

I think I've set forth my pantheon of female beauty, but to recap:

Natalie Wood
(alone, on the appropriate above-the-fray pedestal)

Then, in no particular order
Cheryl Ladd
Gene Tierney (not in all shots--but in some she may just be the most beautiful woman ever)
Grace Kelly
Charlize Theron
Kate Beckinsale
Lesley-Anne Down
Barbara Parkins (from the old TV show, Peyton Place

I'm sure I'm forgetting a few, maybe even some of the elites, but you get the idea. I'm not a fan of "extreme" features.

etc.

RevRon's Rants said...

Well, since you included Kate & Grace on your list, I'll cut you a bit of slack, but don't push it by dissing Sophia any more. Baccalà remains at the ready!

Of the more current crowd, I nominate the following:

Cote de Pablo (of NCIS)
Julie Bowen
Anne Hathaway (from Disney to softcore... gotta love it!)
Cosmic Connie (I am biased, and not suicidal!)

Anonymous said...

Steve, love the photo-illustration! Took me awhile but I finally got it, LOL.

Steve Salerno said...

Rev: I agree with you that Julie Bowen was an indefensible omission from my list. I remember how struck I was by the softness of her beauty in the (silly but entertaining) Tim Allen vehicle, Joe Somebody).

Dimension Skipper said...

But...what about the quote itself? It's not some fringe notion; in fact, it's the creed by which many of us live. Can't you see that same basic thing being said by Tony Robbins, or Vince "winning is the only thing" Lombardi, or any number of other heralded motivators who are invoked daily in classrooms, meeting rooms and auditoriums across America?
—Steve S.

Maybe this is a little too obvious, but... then perhaps it would be wise to simply quote one of THEM? No, context isn't EVERYthing, but it does mean SOMEthing, I believe.

Now if your (the generic "your") intent is specifically to illustrate exactly what you're pointing out in this post, that an idea is an idea and a personality is a personality and the two are separate, then by all means go around quoting Hitler, Chuck Manson, Ted "Unabomber" Kaczynski, Rachael Ray, Osama "Death To America!" Bin Laden or any other folks who will be generally regarded by your target audience as evil personified. However, a yearbook is, of course, typically (and probably appropriately) meant to serve dual purposes as both (majorly) a remembrance of the past as we move to the future and also (minorly) as inspiration for that future.

(Though honestly, I personally don't recall ever being inspired/motivated at all by such things. For me, and I've been this way so long I can't really remember NOT being this way, if I sense the blatant manipulative attempt behind such broad mass appeal things, the effect on me is almost always the opposite of—or at the very least apathy toward—the originator's obvious intent.)

But no, I just don't think a yearbook is the place you really want to be quoting that feel-good motivational counselor A. Hitler. Nor do I think it's the preferred place to be doing such things for either A) simple shock value, or B) instilling the objective (and ironically, educational) lesson of considering an idea on its own merits regardless of the source.

At the very least, if I was going to use such a quote in that context, then I would try to balance it with a similar quote from a generally admired historical role model and probably add some sort of editorial note about how ideas are important, but so are the people who interpret and implement them in society.

For me it's one of those niggling yes and no issues... Yes, The person and the idea are separate... but then again, no, not really. Likewise, the idea and the implementation are also separate... but not really—depends on the folks doin' the implementin' as to how things turn out.

Maybe it's a zen "everything is connected" kind of thing. Or a "The road to Hell..." kind of thing. Or a mix.

Basically, I'm pretty sure we're on the same general page with this issue, but here's one little bit of food for thought... If the originator/speaker of a quote has no bearing on the idea(s) expressed, then why append attribution at all? Doesn't the attribution typically lend a certain significant weight (or point) to the thought BECAUSE it provides further context?

Put another way... Why attach any author's name to a book? If it's only the ideas that matter, then just publish the ideas. Same for film/TV writers, directors, actors... An idea for a movie might sound dull to me, but if I find out it will star Sandra Bullock, well, it may still be a bomb, but *I'll* often pay to see it (though even I avoided All About Steve).

Steve Salerno said...

DS: Rachael Ray?

I guess my point (not made with enough specificity or clarity, I'm thinking) is that we automatically flinch away from listening to people who are already identified with something nefarious--as if there's nothing they could say that could possibly be worth hearing. There also seems to be an implied assumption that if Hitler says it, well, there must be something wrong with it by definition. I agree that there's probably something wrong with him, but that doesn't mean the man is incapable of having thoughts that are just as worthy of inclusion in a Dialogue of the Minds as anyone else's.

Look at it this way: Suppose you're in a dark room, and no one is identified/identifiable, and all you have to go on is the thoughts they put forward; and as all of you exchanged your points of view, you sat there thinking, "Wow, those are some great ideas. Very impressive." Then the lights come on and you realize you're surrounded by Hitler, Bundy, Dahmer, Manson, and yes, even Rachael Ray. Does that new knowledge negate the value of all you've heard? (Assuming they didn't kill you while the lights were off.)

And if you think about it, this situation is the precise converse of the other condition that I lamented recently, where if someone is renowned or a celebrity in any given area, we somehow act as if we think that person is an expert in every other area of life as well, and will listen to whatever they have to say.

It's just as stupid from either direction.

Steve Salerno said...

A p.s. to DS: But I do think it was not very smart to use the Hitler quote if other similar quotes were available. I thought I was clear about that, too. It just doesn't look good....

Dimension Skipper said...

1st, re Rachael Ray... Anyone that perky HAS to be evil, don'tcha think? Plus, what's up with that extra 'a' in Rachael?

But anyway... No, I get what you're saying (at least, I think I do). Really all I'm saying is that old standby of mine that the ultimate truth lies somewhere in the middle among great interconnected extremes.

Imagine these enormously simplified scales:

BAD IDEA . . . . . GOOD IDEA

BAD PERSON . . . . GOOD PERSON

Once I know both the idea and the source, then yeah, my perception of the source as a person/role-model/what-have-you colors my perception of the idea to some extent.

Most ideas and most people fall within the vast middle regions for me and therefore one does not appreciably affect the other. But a good idea is indeed dragged down (though not necessarily negated) if the source is someone I consider to be a really bad person.

Likewise a really bad idea (as I see it) espoused by someone I normally admire inevitably lessens my appreciation of that person, at least a little bit and even if only for a short time.

It is much rarer for me (indeed I don't know that it's ever happened) that an obviously bad idea is elevated for consideration in my eyes by being espoused by an already admired personality. Also rare is when my view of a disliked personality is eased by their advocacy of a good idea. Maybe it's MY nature or maybe it's HUMAN nature, but I think such contextual reactions are just naturally more dramatic in the negative direction.

But such reactions ARE just that (imo anyway)... natural. I agree that way-too-quick knee-jerk reactions in that vein certainly aren't optimal. Too often the quick reaction like that becomes immediately entrenched, bypassing the more rational analytical thought process, even though it may eventually lead to the same result with a more objectively defensible base.

The wildcad variable for me is in the raw numbers. If we're talking about a single instance of an expressed idea and a single personality expressing it once, then the effect is most dramatic. However, if it really IS a good idea, then won't many others be advocating for it too? Then you get to weigh the idea against your opinion of the overall advocacy group. (And you also get many more opportunities for positively contextualized quote attributions from which to choose.)

For me, yeah, the idea itself is of primary importance, but I cannot say the source of the idea is completely irrelevant. It shouldn't be the ONLY thing or even necessarily the major thing that bears on my consideration, but it's definitely in the mix.

I do think that too many folks tend to jump right over the rational analysis of an idea and proceed directly to emotional outrage (or defense). Perhaps it's because of how the idea fits within their already well thought out and defined worldviews (which is fine, I guess, though it probably means they don't periodically reconsider those views for any adjustments). Or perhaps it's just easier for them to skip right to absolute certainty and not have to deal with any internal struggles re pesky gray areas.

In short, people would much rather to be certain about things to the point where they often have no qualms about just simply BEING certain (or at least pretending to be) when really they have no reason to be. That explains much of religion and even a good bit of science and scientific research imo. Whether that certainty is about the worth of a particular human idea, the existence of a benevolent intelligent Creator, or that Rachael Ray is evil... doesn't matter.

Certainty wins. It might even be what people are most searching for in life, even more so that happiness or contentment. In fact, I would bet that for most people they absolutely cannot be happy or content without that feeling of certainty.

Dimension Skipper said...

Now that I think about it, maybe certainty is just another word for faith, but to me there's a subtle difference. Faith has more of a spiritual connotation and certainty is more broadly applicable to everyday life, even mundane things.

Aaah, never mind me, I'm just thinking out loud and it's probably coming across as pure babbling...

Steve Salerno said...

DS: Now you've gone and done it. Now you're getting into areas that are near and dear to my heart, even though they bog us down in hopelessly theoretical terrain, and no one (probably) cares anyway. But see, I have this idea that what we think and what we do are two entirely different (and mostly unrelated) things. So a person can have a really good mind that is altogether detached from the true motivating agent that makes him who he is to the outside world. In other words--and now who's babbling!--our behavior has nothing to do with what goes on in our heads. So if thought is almost entirely disassociated from (and has zero input in) behavior, as I believe is the case, then the "thinking module," if you will, may have tremendous value even though it is sometimes compromised by emotions that rise up from the Action Module.

Or let me try to put that in a way that doesn't make it sound like I'm insane. Most of the time the mind goes about its merry business, thinking what it thinks. The body/behavior component, meanwhile, does what it does, oblivious to what the mind is thinking. Although the mind has no impact on what the body-behaving component does, the body-behaving component may sometimes "reach up" and cause the mind to have certain thoughts that justify (or at least explain) what the body-behaving part has already done or "decided" to do on its own.

This model of thought completely eradicates free will, of course. Thus my belief in determinism.

Dimension Skipper said...

Yes, you were very clear about that, Steve. And as I mentioned before I believe we're mostly in agreement on the general issue. Where I veer off only slightly is from your professed puzzlement at peoples' reactions to such things. It doesn't puzzle me, though I do wish that people would be more rational and much less emotionally reactive.

And while I can't put an actual percentage on it, I believe that an idea itself should be MOST of the thing (probably at least 90% if I had to try to judge), but not EVERYthing.

The phrase "consider the source" pops to my mind as appropriate advice. (Not consider ONLY the source, but DO consider it.)

Btw, I confess I didn't click through to the "yearbook presentation" link, so I could very well be missing some subtlety or key fact. If so, then the fault is mine, of course, but I pretty much take your characterization of the incident at face value and assume you're using it as a jumping off spot to the broader point re the concept of ideas as pure thought.

NormDPlume said...

Back in my day, students were not asked or even permitted to place pre-printed quotes in the high school yearbook (we could write whatever we wanted in longhand, however.)

When a student complained to Mr. Lee, the sarcastic English Teacher/Yearbook Advisor sneered "You pseudo-intellectual twerps have absolutely nothing to say! You think you are all a bunch of deep-thinkers, but I've read enough of your papers to know that you guys are vapid!"

Will the world lose anything if high school students are not allowed to write their insipid pearls 'o wisdom in yearbooks? Have high school kids become famous for revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings via insightful blogs and tweets? Ummm - No?

And Ingrid Bergman was all about lighting and shading techniques in black-and-white photography. In color, she didn't look so hot. But in the proper black-and-white film noir scene - under a shadowy, wide brim hat while smoke wafted past - she could look pretty hot. Plus, she didn't say much. with her, it was all about the eyes.

Steve Salerno said...

NDP: Why Norm...have you not been paying attention? Did you somehow miss the current wall-to-wall advertising by Verizon (initially) and then copycat T-Mobile, which celebrates how much better off the world is now that tweeners can fill the air with their wit & wisdom at unlimited calling rates?

roger o'keefe said...

Raquel Welch. Nobody and I mean nobody had the total, uh, package the way she did in her prime. I still wouldn't kick her out of bed.

roger o'keefe said...

At the risk of raising some eyebrows I might add that our dear departed Alyssa also had one of the prettiest faces you'll ever see anywhere.

Steve Salerno said...

I think I've asked this before, but when exactly did SHAMblog become a combination dating service/booty call?

Steve Salerno said...

And Roger...how did you plan to get Ms. Welch into bed? ;)

roger o'keefe said...

Point taken.

Anonymous said...

I don't know her name but the hispanic wife on Modern Family has got to be way up there.

Steve Salerno said...

It's nice to see that people are focusing on the intellectual content of this post. Of course, I have no one to blame but myself. A trial lawyer would say I "opened the door to this testimony."

a/good/lysstener said...

That is very sweet, Roger. No offense, but if only the right people felt that way, life would be even sweeter. ;-)

I do believe we can learn something from almost anyone. A sin or screw-up in one area should not rule out someone's potential to be instructive in another area. And don't they say even Hitler loved his dogs?

Cosmic Connie said...

While I am rather enjoying the frivolous directions this conversation has taken, we can easily bring it back to SHAM-related issues. That is, if it's okay with everyone here. :-)

One of the standard defenses offered by many SHAM/New-Wage/McSpirituality believers, when faced with evidence regarding the bad behavior of their favorite guru(s), is that no human being is perfect. When cornered with particularly damning evidence -- e.g., a grievous inconsistency between the guru's teachings and his or her actual behavior -- the defenders sometimes go all Jesus, righteously preaching about casting the first stone, etc.

When absolutely cornered, they almost invariably say that you simply have to separate the message from the messenger. "He (or she) teaches a lot of good stuff, after all," is the standard response. "Take what you need and leave the rest." In so many critics-versus-believers discussions, it all comes back down to that.

Many disillusioned New-Wage followers have had to take the message-messenger separation process up a notch in recent times. Case in point: James Ray's former followers. (The fact that he still *has* faithful followers and is still apparently gathering new ones says as much about them as it does about him.)

Most of us have heard the argument that Ray was an extreme case and very much an exception to the rule, and that the self-help industry should not be judged by a few bad apples. Others -- mostly the critics and haters and naysayers ;-) -- say that while he may have been extreme in that his events resulted in deaths, his general bad behavior is far from exceptional in the industry.

At any rate, even if "separate the message from the messenger" can be useful advice, it is, as I've often argued, very difficult to do when brand-crazy gurus or "experts" insinuate themselves into every lesson they teach, and are so clearly marketing themselves above all else. And in many cases, their "messages" are self-serving, not to mention of questionable value. But I would go so far as to say that most of the gurus do not WANT you to separate their message from them. They would just rather you leave their human failings out of the equation. Unfortunately that's pretty tough to do when some of them are making their living telling people how to live good lives, have great relationships, etc.

If we go outside of the self-improvement industry it's very often easier to separate the message from the messenger (or the art from the artist, as the case may be). In the creative arts, for example, it's almost a given that the lives of many in both the visual and performing arts are train wrecks. While this may be sad, disturbing, disgusting, or merely snarkworthy at times, at least most of these folks aren't preaching to us about how we should live our lives. They aren't making outrageous promises that their work will make all who experience it wealthy, healthy, and happy. So I'm much more willing to cut most artists and entertainers slack than I am James Ray and his ilk.

PS ~ Methinks a certain faux-robot blogger is about to drop a very big bombshell about yet another venerated guru. Be prepared.
PPS ~ Roger, I agree with you about Alyssa, but as you can see, she is hardly "departed." Hi there, Alyssa!

Steve Salerno said...

Connie: How dare you bring my blog back to its rightful purpose and terrain!

Seriously, thanks for weighing in with that; it's a most-useful perspective on how some folks can take my reasoning and almost "commercialize" it, perverting it to their selfish aims and even using it as a cop-out, of sorts.

I shall eagerly look forward to the next bot-bomb.

RevRon's Rants said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RevRon's Rants said...

I think when evaluating the viability of an idea in the context of the person sharing the idea, the old legal concept of "preponderance of evidence" should be applied. One "guru" with whom I'm quite familiar will occasionally come up with (or steal) an idea or phrase that actually seems wise, yet the very fact that he otherwise spouts so much absolute garbage leaves me applying closer scrutiny to the supposed morsel of wisdom, simply because I know that the guy always has some ulterior motive for his actions. In such cases, I'll research the idea to see where it originated, if for no other reason than I refuse to provide the scammer with anything resembling a testimonial.

Bottom line: If someone typically spouts BS and consciously misleads others for a living, it would seem to make sense to look for the BS, even when what is said sounds good.

Dimension Skipper said...

Eerily relevant on the subject of "Hitler perception"...

Today's SMBC
By Zach Weiner

Steve Salerno said...

DS: I read cartoons like that and what strikes me is that we can now joke about things like "eliminating everyone on my list," just as we joke about bin Laden and, implicitly, 9/11 (even though many observers in the immediate post-9/11 aftermath predicted that the disaster would spell "the death of irony"). I'll never forget the Letterman episode, I believe a celebration of one of his show's landmark anniversaries, where he featured an ersatz video from bin Laden standing outside some cave. And UBL's first words, said in this exuberant, cheery voice, were something like, "Congratulations, David! And death to America!" Such thoughts have become funny again--at least sometimes--just as we're far enough removed from Hitler for him to be funny--most of the time. Interesting how that works. But a positive comment, I guess, on human resiliency and the need to "defuse" emotional pain somehow.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, you sure know how to bring out the best in people.

This has to be one of the most entertaining comment threads on SHAMblog in a while. It would make for a great episode of "The Office." :)