The Story of Your Era


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Questioner: Looking at our political lives today, how do you talk to young people about the future?

Will Self: I think a lot about how the world was when I was in my early 20s, when I was finishing university…

And what strikes me is how much more anxious young people are now than we were, and this despite the fact that when I left university there was major unemployment, we were losing manufacturing jobs hand over fist. Our foreign policy was unstable; we were still living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud and a dispensation of mutually assured destruction. There were legitimate fears about Soviet aggression. A lot of these things you would imagine hit some of the same buttons in some of the same combinations, and yet… and yet… and yet… we weren’t as anxious as a lot of people are now.

And you know what, I think people are right to be more anxious now, oddly. Obviously that’s offered with the benefit of hindsight, but my suspicion is they are right to be more anxious…

I honestly think if I were a young person now I would concentrate, not selfishly on my own life; I think it’s very important in life to have compassion toward others and to do things for other people. But I would not place any expectation or faith in political change. I’m sorry: that’s not the story of your era.

The story of your era is going to need to be stoical. Perform, as the great Zen poet Bashō says, random acts of senseless generosity. Engage with your work. Enjoy the spectacle of life. But I wouldn’t place any great expectations on the idea society or political systems are in some way evolving or progressing, and that if you can just figure out how to get your shoulder to the wheel in the right way, and encourage some other people to do the same, that the whole thing is going to move. I’m sorry, but I really would abandon that idea. I think you’ll have a much happier and productive life, incidentally, and probably end up doing more good.


Comments adapted from Will Self’s recent interview at his office at Brunel University. I like his answer, but can’t bring myself to agree.

I’m sorry: that’s not the story of your era…

Image courtesy of Pin Drop Studio.

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The Last Wild Cheyenne


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Wooden Leg Cheyenne Indian

“I was baptized by the priest at the Tongue river mission when I was almost fifty years old. My wife and our two daughters were baptized too… I do not go often to the church, but I go sometimes. I think the white church people are good, but I do not trust many of the stories they tell about what happened a long time ago. I have made many friendships with the church people and am glad to have the white man churches among us, but I feel more satisfied in my prayers when I make them in the way I was taught. My heart is much more contented when I walk alone with my medicine pipe and talk with God about whatever may be troubling me. […]

Both of my daughters went to school at the Tongue river mission. They lived there during the school months. Each Sunday we were allowed to take them to our home… Later, I built a house only a quarter of a mile from the Mission, and on a sloping hillside above it. We could look from our front door and see the children at any time when they might be outside of the school buildings. My wife and I were pleased at their situation in life. ‘They will have more of comfort and happiness than we have had,’ we said to each other. […]

It is comfortable to live in peace on the reservation. It is pleasant to be situated where I can sleep soundly every night, without fear that my horses may be stolen or that myself or my friends may be crept upon and killed. But I like to think about the old times, when every man had to be brave. I wish I could live again through some of the past days when it was the first thought of every prospering Indian to send out the call:

‘Hoh-oh-oh-oh, friends: Come. Come. Come. I have plenty of buffalo meat. I have coffee. I have sugar. I have tobacco. Come, friends, feast and smoke with me.’”


Pulled from the ending of Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer by Wooden Leg and Thomas B. Marquis.

Wooden Leg (1858-1940) was one of the thousand or so Cheyenne warriors who joined up with the Lakotas during the Battle of Little Bighorn. As book’s title suggests, that fight makes up the center of his story, though the before and after of WL’s life, including his sober and remarkably evenhanded reflections on Custer’s last stand, are the most interesting parts of the story. This excerpt makes a fitting end to it, not only because it captures the nuance of WL’s temperament, but also because it strikes a tranquil tone in finishing a story that’s in many ways wild.

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Photo: Wikicommons

The Purpose of Bold Political Lies


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“The result of this system is that the gullibility of sympathizers makes lies credible to the outside world, while at the same time the graduated cynicism of membership and elite formations eliminates the danger that the Leader will ever be forced by the weight of his own propaganda to make good his own statements and feigned respectability. It has been one of the chief handicaps of the outside world in dealing with totalitarian systems that it ignored this system and therefore trusted that, on one hand, the very enormity of totalitarian lies would be their undoing and that, on the other, it would be possible to take the Leader at his word and force him, regardless of his original intentions, to make it good. The totalitarian system, unfortunately, is foolproof against such normal consequences; its ingeniousness rests precisely on the elimination of that reality which either unmasks the liar or forces him to live up to his pretense.

While the membership does not believe statements made for public consumption, it believes all the more fervently the standard clichés… In contrast to the movements’ tactical lies which change literally from day to day, these ideological lies are supposed to be believed like sacred untouchable truths…

[I]ts members’ whole education is aimed at abolishing their capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction. Their superiority consists in their ability immediately to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose. In distinction to the mass membership which, for instance, needs some demonstration of the inferiority of the Jewish race before it can safely be asked to kill Jews, the elite formations understand that the statement, all Jews are inferior, means, all Jews should be killed; they know that when they are told that only Moscow has a subway, the real meaning of the statement is that all subways should be destroyed…”


Pulled from part three of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

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The Lives and Deaths of Third Parties in America


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Richard Hofstadter

“[T]hird-party leaders in the United States must look for success in terms different from those that apply to the major parties, for in those terms third parties always fail. No third party has ever won possession of the government or replaced one of the major parties. (Even the Republican Party came into existence as a new major party, created out of sections of the old ones, not as a third party grown to major-party strength.) Third parties have often played an important role in our politics, but it is different in kind from the role of governing parties. Major parties have lived more for patronage than for principles; their goal has been to bind together a sufficiently large coalition of diverse interests to get into power; and once in power, to arrange sufficiently satisfactory compromises of interests to remain there. Minor parties have been attached to some special idea or interest, and they have generally expressed their positions through firm and identifiable programs and principles. Their function has not been to win or govern, but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the dynamic element in our political life. When a third party’s demands become popular enough, they are appropriated by one or both of the major parties and the third party disappears. Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.”


Pulled from chapter three of The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter.

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Foreseeing a President Trump in 1998


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Richard Rorty

“[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion… All the sadism which the academic Left tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”


Excerpted from Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country.

“To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” by William Butler Yeats


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William Butler Yeats

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.


“To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” by William Butler Yeats (1916).

Getting up One More Time


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Jack Dempsey

“Jack Dempsey once said, ‘When I was a young fellow I was knocked down plenty. I wanted to stay down, but I couldn’t. I had to collect the two dollars for winning, or go hungry. I had one fight when I was knocked to the ground eleven times before I got up to win. I had to get up. I was a hungry fighter. When you haven’t eaten for two days you’ll understand.’

‘Take the average person walking down the street,’ [Angelo] Dundee continues. ‘One punch in the neck from a fighter will tear his head off. Even things that look simple are tough. Everyone knows a fighter is supposed to keep his hands up. Try it! Don’t even throw punches. Just walk around with your fists clenched at eye level for three minutes and see how tired your arms get.’

There are no shortcuts to becoming a quality fighter. A boxer takes out of training what he puts into it. If he hits the heavy bag hard in training for three minutes a round, he’ll be able to punch hard for three minutes a round during a fight. If he plays pitty-pat with the heavy bag, he’ll get arm weary when the chips are down. Wasted talent is the oldest story in boxing…

No athlete spends emotionally like a fighter. His life is one intimidating situation after another, and to succeed he must be emotionally disciplined in the ring. That means learning to curb anger, making the right mental moves at the right time, and above all conquering fear.”


Found in Thomas Hauser’s book The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing.

Photo: Daily Dose Sports

They Weren’t Warriors


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US Soldiers in WW2

“They weren’t warriors. They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands, sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice. They were good boys. I talked with them all afternoon as we sneaked slowly forward along the mysterious and rubbled street, and I know they were good boys. And even though they weren’t warriors born to kill, they won their battles. That’s the point.


Even the dizziest of us knew that before long many of us stood an excellent chance of being in this world no more. I don’t believe one of us was afraid of the physical part of dying. That isn’t the way it is. The emotion is rather one of almost desperate reluctance to give up the future. I suppose that’s splitting hairs and that it really comes under the heading of fear. Yet somehow there is a difference.

These gravely-yearned-for futures of men going into battle include so many things — things such as seeing the ‘old lady’ again, of going to college, of staying in the Navy for a career, of holding on your knee just once your own kid whom you’ve never seen, of again becoming champion salesman of your territory, of driving a coal truck around the streets of Kansas City once more and, yes, even of just sitting in the sun once more on the south side of a house in New Mexico. When we huddled around together on the dark decks, it was these little hopes and ambitions that made up the sum total of our worry… rather than any visualization of physical agony to come.”


Pulled from two sections of Brave Men, Ernie Pyle’s eyewitness account of World War II.

Photo cred:

Thankful for the Waves


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Laird Hamilton 3

“Water always finds the path of least resistance. It flows. You never see square turns on a river. There’s always a curvature. I think life’s like that, too… So you could say that I believe in things being predestined. How could I not? When I think of my life, I feel as though I’ve always been given the absolute right circumstances to help create who I am. If I hadn’t grown up in Hawaii… surrounded by the era’s greatest surfers throughout my childhood, I don’t know where I would have ended up. And I don’t want to know. I’m grateful for all of the twists and turns of fate that have brought me here.

My spiritual beliefs have helped me walk the path that I knew I needed to be on. I’ve been reading the Bible since I was 16, when I first discovered it (through a girl I was dating — how else?). I’ve always found something golden and truthful in its pages. […]

I believe that our imagination is our connection to higher knowledge. It’s the most formidable tool that we have, an amazing source of inspiration. And then, of course, there’s the world we live in, which is no slouch in that area, either. What we’ve been given here is precious: majestic in its smallest details and its grandest spectacles. Anytime you feel like you’re in danger of forgetting that, I recommend taking a good look at a 50-foot wave. Anyone who can be around something that powerful and not feel humbled has some serious analyzing to do. You can’t deny the spritual world when you’re staring into its eyes.”


From part three of Laird Hamilton’s Force of Nature: Body, Body, Soul, and of Course, Surfing.

Photo credit:

Lose Your Fear in the Ring


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Anthony Joshua 2

“Fighters are the most exposed athletes in the world. During a fight, the crowd observes every twitch and movement. Still, spectators rarely see fear in a quality fighter. ‘That,’ says [boxing trainer Cus] D’Amato, ‘is because the fighter has mastered his emotions to the extent that he can conceal and control them.’ But whatever a fighter says, the fear is there. It never goes away. He just learns to live with it. ‘And the truth is,’ D’Amato continues, ‘fear is an aspect to a fighter. It makes him move faster, be quicker and more alert. Heroes and cowards feel exactly the same fear. Heroes just react to it differently. On the morning of a fight, a boxer wakes up and says, “How can I fight? I didn’t sleep at all last night.” What he has to realize is, the other guy didn’t sleep either. Later, as the fighter walks toward the ring, his feet want to walk in the opposite direction. He’s asking himself how he got into this mess. He climbs the stairs into the ring, and it’s like going to the guillotine. Maybe he looks at the other fighter, and sees by the way he’s loosening up that his opponent is experienced, strong, very confident. Then when the opponent takes off his robe, he’s got big bulging muscles. What the fighter has to realize,’ concludes D’Amato, ‘is that he’s got exactly the same effect on his opponent, only he doesn’t know it. And when the bell rings, instead of facing a monster built up by the imagination, he’s simply up against another fighter.'”


Pulled from a section on Cus D’Amato in Thomas Hauser’s The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing.

D’Amato was the trainer behind legends like Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, who he adopted at sixteen when Tyson’s mother died. When D’Amato passed away, Tyson discussed his old trainer:

[D’Amato] didn’t know me. He told me with no hesitation that I was going to be the youngest heavyweight champion of all time… If it weren’t for that old, Italian white guy, I would’ve been a bum. Cus D’Amato was a physical person like I am. He was impulsive and impetuous like me. If somebody upset him, he would just go after them — even at 75… the psychologists would’ve had a field day with him.

He’s simply up against another fighter… It applies to a lot of life.

Move along:

Photo courtesy of Irish Mirror

We Don’t Carry the Burden of Disliking One Another


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Mitt Romney

“We have very fundamental and sound principles that guide both the president and me. He and I, of course, both feel the pressures and tensions of a close contest. It would be easy to let a healthy competition give way to the personal and the petty. But fortunately we don’t carry the burden of disliking one another.

Barack has had some very fine and gracious moments. Don’t tell anyone I said so, but our 44th president has many gifts, and a beautiful family that would make any man proud.

In our country, you can oppose someone in politics and make a confident case against their policies without any ill will. And that’s how it is for me: there’s more to life than politics. […]

At the Archdiocese of New York, you show this in the work you do, in causes that run deeper than allegiance to party or any contest at the moment. No matter which way the winds are blowing… you answer with calm and willing hearts in service to the poor and care for the sick, in defense of the rights of conscience and in solidarity with the innocent child waiting to be born. You strive to bring God’s love into every life.

I don’t presume to have all your support… and I’m certainly not going ask for it. But you can be certain that in the great causes of compassion that you come together to embrace, I stand proudly with you as an ally and friend.”


From Mitt Romney’s speech at the famous Al Smith dinner, given around this time four years ago.

So much to like here. Though I didn’t vote for Mitt in the election — and wrote here and there why I decided not to — I admire the guy and, four years later, think he would have made a very fine president. I especially like how much of a gentleman he is — that he consistently brings value to the communities and organizations he’s led while never succumbing to pressure to take the sleazy way out. When a challenge arises, answer with a calm and willing heart.

You can watch the (very funny) 2012 Al Smith dinner below.

Images courtesy of Vice and Wiki


Mitt Romney and Barack Obama