Why Are Driver’s Seats on the Left Side?

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Model T Ford

“One central characteristic of the Model T now generally forgotten is that it was the first car of consequence to put the driver’s seat on the left-hand side. Previously, nearly all manufacturers placed the driver on the outer, curb-side of the car so that an alighting driver could step out onto a grassy verge or dry sidewalk rather than into the mud of an unpaved road. Ford reasoned that this convenience might be better appreciated by the lady of the house, and so arranged seating for her benefit. The arrangement also gave the driver a better view down the road, and made it easier for passing drivers to stop and have a conversation out facing windows. Ford was no great thinker, but he did understand human nature. Such, in any case, was the popularity of Ford’s seating plan for the Model T that it soon became the standard adopted by all cars.”

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Pulled from Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927.

To counterbalance this impressive account of Ford, read Bryson’s description of just how mindbogglingly stupid the genius was.

Or go on:

Meet Napoleon Bonaparte

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Napoleon Bonaparte

“Napoleon Bonaparte was the founder of modern France and one of the great conquerors of history. He came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee. As First Consul and later Emperor, he almost won hegemony in Europe, but for a series of coalitions specifically designed to bring him down. Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment, over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven. For any general, of any age, this was an extraordinary record. Yet his greatest and most lasting victories were those of his institutions, which put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution and cemented its guiding principle of equality before the law…

The leadership skills he employed to inspire his men have been adopted by other leaders over the centuries, yet never equaled except perhaps by his great devotee Winston Churchill. Some of his techniques he learned from the ancients — especially his heroes Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar — and others he conceived himself in response to the circumstances of the day. The fact that his army was willing to follow him even after the retreat from Moscow, the battle of Leipzig and the fall of Paris testifies to his capacity to make ordinary people feel that they were capable of doing extraordinary, history-making deeds. A more unexpected aspect of Napoleon’s personality that also came out strongly over the course of researching this book was his fine sense of humour. All too often historians have taken seriously remarks that were clearly intended as humorous. Napoleon was constantly joking to his family and entourage, even in the most dire situations.

Napoleon’s love affair with Josephine has been presented all too often in plays, novels and movies as a Romeo and Juliet story: in fact, it was anything but. He had an overwhelming crush on her, but she didn’t love him, at least in the beginning, and was unfaithful from the very start of their marriage. When he learned of her infidelities two years later while on campaign in the middle of the Egyptian desert, he was devastated. He took a mistress in Cairo in part to protect himself from accusations of cuckoldry, which were far more dangerous for a French general of the era than those of adultery.

Napoleon Bonaparte at the Sphinx

Yet he forgave Josephine when he returned to France, and they started off on a decade of harmonious marital and sexual contentment, despite his taking a series of mistresses. Josephine remained faithful and even fell in love with him. When he decided to divorce for dynastic and geostrategic reasons, Josephine was desolate but they remained friendly. Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, would also be unfaithful to him, with an Austrian general Napoleon had defeated on the battlefield but clearly couldn’t match in bed…

Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback. His letters show a charm, humor and capacity for candid self-appraisal. He could lose his temper — volcanically so on occasion — but usually with some cause. Above all he was no totalitarian dictator, as many have been eager to suggest: he may have established an unprecedentedly efficient surveillance system, but he had no interest in controlling every aspect of his subjects’ lives.

Overall, Napoleon’s capacity for battlefield decision-making was astounding. Having walked the ground of fifty-three of his sixty battlefields, I was astonished by his genius for topography, his acuity and sense of timing. A general must ultimately be judged by the outcome of the battles, and of Napoleon’s sixty battles and sieges he lost only Acre, Aspern-Essling, Leipzig, La Rothière, Lâon, Arcis and Waterloo. When asked who was the greatest captain of the age, the Duke of Wellington replied: ‘In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.’

He convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment and a story whose sheer splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries. He was able to impart to ordinary people the sense that their lives—and, if necessary, their deaths in battle—mattered in the context of great events. They too could make history. It is untrue that he cared nothing for his men and was careless with their lives. He lost a friend in almost every major battle, and his letters to Josephine and Marie Louise make it clear that these deaths, and those of his soldiers, affected him. Yet he could not allow that to deflect him from his main purpose of pursuing victory, and he would not have been able to function as a general if it had, any more than Ulysses Grant or George Patton could have done.

Napoleon certainly never lacked confidence in his own capacity as a military leader. On St Helena, when asked why he had not taken Frederick the Great’s sword when he had visited Sans Souci, he replied, ‘Because I had my own.’”

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From the introduction to Andrew Robert’s new biography, published November 4th last year, Napoleon: A Life.

Make more introductions:

Napoleon Bonaparte

What Old Photographs Mean

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Robert Hofstadter

“One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father, taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, said to me, with a note of despair, ‘What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.’ The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering — soul-searching, quite literally — I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.

In the living room we have a book of the Chopin études for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad — and yet, think of the powerful effect that they had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frédéric Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority — to the experience of living in the heart, or rather the soul, of Frédéric Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards — scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frédéric Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being — his sufferings, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions — and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him. In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score to a Chopin étude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.

Although the above is a bit more flowery that what I said to my mother, it gives the essence of my message. I don’t know what effect it had on her feelings about the picture, but that photo is still there, on a counter in her kitchen, and every time I look at it, I remember that exchange.”

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From the beginning of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s remarkable book I Am a Strange Loop.

Pictured above: Robert Hofstadter, 1961 Nobel prize winner in psychics, discoverer of the structure of protons and neutrons, and father of Douglas.

Read on:

On the Twisted Need to Defend Pamela Geller

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Pamela Geller

John Podhoretz:

It’s an extraordinarily distressing phenomenon and very telling fact about Western culture now…

You know, the great battles over censorship and free expression in the course of Western history over the last three centuries have largely been about high art. The suppression of Ulysses, the suppression of Lolita. The jailing of Voltaire and Diderot. The mistreatment of Flaubert over Madame Bovary and Theodore Dreiser over Sister Carrie.

And now — a fascinating phenomenon — that it is this kind of gleefully sophomoric, you know, na-na-na stuff, that we’re now called upon to defend in the name of free expression.

But if this is where the war has been declared, we have to fight for it.

Jonah Goldberg: 

That’s why [the Hebdo massacre] was an unequivocal win for the bad guys, the whole episode. No matter how it plays out, it was a win.

Everyone’s talking about how galvanized Western Europe is, how they sold 3 million copies of the next Hebdo issue.

But there’s a reason Lenin’s philosophy was “The worse, the better.”

When you live in a moment where radicals can create a crisis mentality — and create actual crises — you force everybody to take extreme positions.

In a normal situation where Muslim terrorists weren’t murdering people, none of us would want to run the crap that Charlie Hebdo ran. But we’re left with no choice but to defend running it.

So now we all defend it and we all run to the ramparts, and I’m 100% on that side. But in a healthier society, we wouldn’t even have to do this because it is offensive.

But the problem is you simply cannot be held hostage by people who murder people over this kind of thing.

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Podhoretz and Goldberg, talking in the 37th episode of their excellent and embarrassingly named podcast with Rob Long, GLop.

Though I don’t find myself aligning ideologically with them all that often, I’m a listener and fan of G’, Lo’, and P’ — they’re up to date, super well read, awash in cross-cultural references, and, probably more importantly, really funny.

For barely related riffs from both speakers, pick up Podhoretz’s short book on the Hillary Clinton presidential run Can She Be Stopped? or Jonah’s The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.

Keep on:

What Liberals Still Have to Conserve

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Tony Judt

“The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve… The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

That these accomplishments were no more than partial should not trouble us. If we have learned nothing else from the twentieth century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. Imperfect improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek. Others have spent the last three decades methodically unraveling and destabilizing those same improvements: this should make us much angrier than we are. It ought also to worry us, if only on prudential grounds: Why have we been in such a hurry to tear down the dikes laboriously set in place by our predecessors? Are we so sure that there are no floods to come?

A social democracy of fear is something to fight for. To abandon the labors of a century is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come. It would be pleasing—but misleading—to report that social democracy, or something like it, represents the future that we would paint for ourselves in an ideal world. It does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us in the present, it is better than anything else to hand. In Orwell’s words, reflecting in Homage to Catalonia upon his recent experiences in revolutionary Barcelona:

There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

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Pulled from Tony Judt’s speech “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?”, given at New York University in October 2009, the same month he became paralyzed from the neck down due to ALS.

You’ll find a modified version in his excellent collection of conversations with Timothy Snyder Thinking the Twentieth Century.

Listen to it:

Read on:

Shop Amazon, Support The Bully Pulpit!

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Books

Whether you’ve been a reader of this blog for two and a half years or just found it today, I have a request. I want you to buy yourself a book.

It doesn’t matter what book. Could be my favorite one. Could be the one that made me laugh the most, or that one that almost made me cry. It could be that one you let your roommate borrow 8 years ago and want to leaf through again, or that other one you’ve had sitting in your Amazon cart since Christmas. Really, it’s up to you.

I’m asking because I’m now an Amazon affiliate.

This means I can earn a small fraction of any purchase made on Amazon through any link on my site. What’s more, if you want to throw in a new cell phone charger, umbrella, or some laundry detergent into your cart, I’ll get a small cut of that, too. The only thing you need to do is make your way to Amazon through any Amazon link on my site, then make a purchase of whatever you want regardless if I linked to it directly. The price of your items won’t change.

I started this site in September 2012 for a few reasons. I wanted a place to ventilate ideas that are important, evergreen, and often submerged in the day-to-day, and to hone my thinking and writing in the process. But more critical was the sense that there wasn’t a comparable website – an outlet that presented heavy ideas from history, politics, and philosophy in a multimedia-integrated, visually rich and accessible way – on the internet. I still believe that, and that intuition has been partially borne by the Bully Pulpit’s growth. I’ve never spent a minute promoting it, and The Bully Pulpit is now read by roughly 25,000 monthly readers, not including a 6,000-person email list. 93% of posts are shared on social media.

For a site that is just a daily, not hourly or by the minute, broadcast of relatively dense stuff, those numbers aren’t bad – and they keep growing. Thank you for that.

So if you care about having a resource like this (ad-free, I freely add), show your support for it by buying something for yourself and shelf. If you make purchases repeatedly off Amazon, please do them through a link on here.

And drop me a line if you do (john[at]jrbenjamin.com). I’d appreciate hearing about what book you picked up.

John

C. S. Lewis: How to Spot a Truly Humble Person

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C.S. Lewis

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably, all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too.  At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. […]

Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says, ‘Well done,’ are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased him; all is well,’ to thinking, ‘What a fine person I must be to have done it.’ The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom.”

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Excerpted from chapter 8 of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

More on the subject:

Thinking Hard about the Everyday

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Ludwig Wittgenstein, Swansea, Wales, September 1947

“Whenever I thought of you I couldn’t help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. You & I were walking along the river towards the railway bridge & we had a heated discussion in which you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any… journalist in the use of the dangerous phrases such people use for their own ends. You see, I know it’s difficult to think well about ‘certainty’, ‘probability’, ‘perception’, etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other peoples lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important…”

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Ludwig Wittgenstein, writing in a note to his friend Norman Malcolm on November 16th, 1944. You’ll find it in Malcolm’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir as well as Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-1951.

The context of this note, which can be found in Malcolm’s intimate biography of his Cambridge advisor, is rooted in a casual interaction between the men which had taken place five years earlier, in 1939. That autumn, Malcolm and Wittgenstein were walking along the Cam river when they saw a newspaper vendor’s sign plastered with the headline “Germans accuse Brits of trying to assassinate Hitler!”. Wittgenstein shrugged, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if the accusation were true. Malcolm bristled, claiming such a scheme would be against the “national character” of England. “The British [are] too civilized and decent to attempt anything so underhand,” he remarked. Even years later, Wittgenstein thought the remark an enormous betrayal of logic which, to his mind, we owe loyalty above all else — especially something as dubious as nationalism.

Keep reading:

Thomas Sowell: The Obvious Problem with a “Living Wage”

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Thomas Sowell

“Wages and salaries serve the same economic purposes as other prices — that is, they guide the utilization of scarce resources which have alternative uses, so that each resource gets used where it’s most valued. Yet because these scarce resources are human beings, we tend to look on wages and salaries differently. Often we ask questions that are quite emotionally powerful, even if they are logically meaningless. For example: Are the wages ‘fair’? Are the workers ‘exploited’? Is this ‘a living wage’?

Such questions seldom get asked about the prices of inanimate things, such as a can of peas or a share of stock in General Motors. But people are believed to be entitled to pay that is ‘fair,’ even if no one can define what that means. ‘Exploitation’ and ‘a living wage’ are likewise emotionally powerful expressions without concrete meanings. If a worker is living, how can he be receiving less than ‘a living wage’ unless he is, as some have said thoughtlessly, ‘living below subsistence’?

No one likes to see fellow human beings living in poverty and squalor, and many are prepared to do something about it, as shown by the vast billions of dollars that are donated to a wide range of charities every year, on top of the additional billions spent by governments in an attempt to better the condition of less fortunate people. These socially important activities occur alongside an economy coordinated by prices, but the two things serve different purposes. Attempts to make prices, including the prices of people’s labor and talents, be something other than signals to guide resources to their most valued uses, make those prices less effective for their basic purpose, on which the prosperity of the whole society depends. Ultimately, it is economic prosperity that makes it possible for billions of dollars to be devoted to helping the less fortunate.

Nothing is more straightforward and easy to understand than the fact that some people earn more than others, for a variety of reasons. Some people are simply older than others, for example, and their additional years have given them opportunities to acquire more experience, skills, formal education and on-the-job training — all of which allows them to do a given job more efficiently or to take on more complicated jobs that would be overwhelming for a beginner or for someone with only limited experience or training. It is hardly surprising that this leads to higher incomes. With the passing years, older individuals may also become more knowledgable about job opportunities, while increasing numbers of other people become more aware of them and their individual abilities, leading to offers of new jobs or promotions. It is not uncommon for most of the people in the top 5 percent of income-earners to be 45 years old and up. […]

These and other common sense reasons for income differences among individuals are often lost sight of in abstract discussions of the ambiguous term ‘income distribution.’ Although people in the top income brackets and the bottom income brackets — ‘the rich’ and ‘the poor,’ as they are often called — may be discussed as if they were different classes of people, often they are the very same people at different stages of their lives. An absolute majority of those Americans who were in the bottom 20 percent in income in 1975 were also in the top 20 percent at some point over the next 16 years. This is not surprising.”

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Excerpted from Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, a modern conservative’s primer on money and the market economy.

Below, watch the affable 84-year-old discussing the release of the fifth edition of Basic Economics with the Hoover Institution’s Peter Robinson last December.

And there’s more:

Sam Harris: Let’s Cut Cops Some Slack

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Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson

“People have erroneous assumptions about how violence unfolds.

If you’re deciding to block or defend yourself once a guy is already throwing his sucker punch, you are 9 times out of 10 too late.

I’m not making any claims to know what happened in Ferguson with the shooting; it could be every inch the homicide that many people seem to think it was. But the reality is that cops are having to work in a universe where they do a traffic stop and someone pulls out a gun and shoots them in the face.

So they have to assume that is a possibility no matter what you look like, no matter what kind of car you’re driving… You see them unbuckling the strap on their holster as they just walk up to give you a ticket. That’s because they don’t have the luxury of time. They can’t wait to see you produce a gun and say ‘OK, now my lethal force option is beyond reproach.’

So the only mode to be in with a cop — no matter how much of an asshole he might be — is to stay compliant, and then you sue him later. In the middle of negotiating with a cop, no matter how unjustified the arrest may seem, that’s not the time to be telling him he’s an asshole or talking about how you’re such a good guy and this is a violation of your civil rights.

The sheer fact that a cop has a gun on his belt makes any contact a potential lethal encounter for him.

So if you just go hands-on a cop, push a cop, he doesn’t know that you’re not going for the gun on his belt. He doesn’t know that you’re not going to push him into a car and he’ll be knocked out, and then you’re going to grab his gun.

So it’s all deadly from a cop’s point of view. Very few people understand that.

I had a friend who was stopped by a cop recently. This is a middle-aged Jewish guy who is, in his mind, the least dangerous person on earth, thinking why on earth is a cop stopping him. But my friend said something to the cop, then the cop unlatched the top restraint on his gun, and my friend said, ‘What? You’re going to pull out your gun on me?’

And the cop said, ‘What does a bad guy look like?’

And that just cut through the misunderstanding for my friend.

My friend knew he was not a bad guy; but there’s no way for the cop to know he’s not a bad guy. People are just not aware of that, and they’re interacting with cops and it’s dangerous everybody.”

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Sam Harris, riffing in an interview with Joe Rogan last September.

There’s more:

Sam Harris

“Holding Court” by Clive James

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Daniel in Ireland

Retreating from the world, all I can do
Is build a new world, one demanding less
Acute assessments. Too deaf to keep pace
With conversation, I don’t try to guess
At meanings, or unpack a stroke of wit,
But just send silent signals with my face
That claim I’ve not succumbed to loneliness
And might be ready to come in on cue.
People still turn towards me where I sit.

I used to notice everything, and spoke
A language full of details that I’d seen,
And people were amused; but now I see
Only a little way. What can they mean,
My phrases? They come drifting like the mist
I look through if someone appears to be
Smiling in my direction. Have they been?
This was the time when I most liked to smoke.
My watch-band feels too loose around my wrist.

My body, sensitive in every way
Save one, can still proceed from chair to chair,
But in my mind the fires are dying fast.
Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air.
Think less of love and all that you have lost.
You have no future so forget the past.
Let this be no occasion for despair.
Cherish the prison of your waning day.
Remember liberty, and what it cost.

Be pleased that things are simple now, at least,
As certitude succeeds bewilderment.
The storm blew out and this is the dead calm.
The pain is going where the passion went.
Few things will move you now to lose your head
And you can cause, or be caused, little harm.
Tonight you leave your audience content:
You were the ghost they wanted at the feast,
Though none of them recalls a word you said.

__________

“Holding Court” by Clive James. You’ll find it in his much praised valedictory collection Sentenced to Life. I’ve just ordered my copy.

More from Clive:

Clive James

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