Posted by: N.S. Palmer | February 4, 2018

When News Media Aren’t Exactly Corrupt


Are the news media corrupt?

Most people say “yes.”

Leftists point to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. Conservatives point to CNN and The New York Times.

They believe that such news outlets distort the facts and even lie about them.

Sometimes, that’s true. But there’s more to the story.

In the 1990s, I was a young newspaper reporter in Washington, DC. I was an accredited member of the U.S. House and Senate Press Galleries, covering Capitol Hill and several federal agencies. I saw from the inside how the news business works.

News versus opinion

Most people fail to make an important distinction. Editorial writers, columnists, and televised political commentators don’t report unbiased news. Usually, they don’t even pretend to do it. They’re arguing for their side of a debate.

If you read the editorial and op-ed pages of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, then you either know what you’re getting or you’re very naive. The same applies if you watch Tucker Carlson on Fox News or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. You know that they’re “on your side” of the debate. You want to learn things that reinforce what you already believe. Facts are okay, but you’re mainly looking for reassurance that you’re right.

As a result, there’s nothing dishonest about editorials or commentators arguing their case — as long as they don’t flat-out lie and as long as the other side is free to argue its case. None of it is straight news.

News reporting is different

News reporting is held to a higher standard.

Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize is named, said that the three most important qualities of any news article were “accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy.”

My proudest claim as a reporter was this: That from reading my news articles, no one could discern what I personally believed about the subjects of the articles. I usually had opinions, but I kept them out of news writing. If I really wanted to argue a case, I wrote an opinion column.

It might surprise you to learn that a lot of other reporters felt the same way about their own work. They often agonized about how to present the news fairly and without bias. I attended several conferences about how to report the news professionally but truthfully. It’s not as easy as you might think.

News reporting vs. human nature

A big problem is that news reporters aren’t passionless robots. They’re fallible human beings. Despite their best efforts, human nature sometimes leads them astray.

One week when I was a reporter, there were rumors of a scandal at a certain federal department. In our daily staff meeting, the news editor asked if anyone could find out about it. I didn’t normally cover that department, but I had a friend who worked there. I volunteered to call him and ask about it.

When I called, he didn’t know anything about the rumors but he agreed to ask around. He later called back to explain that the “scandal” was just an acrimonious disagreement between two groups in the department. What he told me was “not for attribution,” which meant that I could quote him but not identify him by name.

We weren’t close friends, but I knew him fairly well. I knew his wife and children. He was a decent and honest guy. His explanation sounded reasonable, and I wanted to believe it. I checked around a little more, but I didn’t have any other good sources and I thought that I already knew the truth. So that’s what I reported in a news article.

It turned out that I was wrong. I misinformed my readers: unintentionally, to be sure, but I did.

After I called him, my friend probably went to his own boss to ask about the rumors. In turn, the boss probably asked his boss, who asked his boss, and they all agreed on what to tell the news media. That’s what they told my friend, and he relayed it to me.

The most dangerous media corruption

The most dangerous kind of media corruption doesn’t involve bribery, Russian hookers, or anything like that. It’s dangerous precisely because its origin is innocent. We want to believe in our friends. We want to believe that what’s good for them is also what’s true. We usually see the world in about the same way as they do: similar assumptions, moral beliefs, and feelings about political issues.

Now that news has become largely infotainment, there are plenty of dishonest reporters. Some less-experienced reporters probably have no idea of what “straight news” even is.

However, I’d bet that at least half of today’s biased news has a more innocent but equally harmful cause: Reporters are people. They know the people in the fields they cover. They believe their friends and they don’t want to hurt them. Even with the best intentions in the world, some biased reporting is impossible to avoid.

Getting a balanced perspective

As with buying sandwiches from street vendors, “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) is a good motto for reading the news.

If you want to know the truth and not just reinforce what you already believe:

  • Look at a variety of news outlets to get different perspectives. If you read Breitbart all the time, make a point of reading The New York Times. If you watch MSNBC, force yourself to watch some Fox News. Each will tell you things that the others omitted and will give you a different slant on the news. If you combine the opposing slants, they cancel each other out so you get a more accurate picture of what’s happening.
  • Don’t read only the headlines. The reporter doesn’t write the headline under which the article is published. Often, headlines give a misleading impression about what the articles say. Sometimes, they even contradict what the articles say.
  • Watch out for weasel words such as “alleged,” “might,” “possibly,” and “could.” Those are red flags, indicating a conclusion that is not supported by the evidence. Anyone can “allege” anything, but that doesn’t make it true.
  • Watch out for anonymous sources. Sometimes, anonymous sources tell the truth. Other times, they lie under the cloak of anonymity. Treat all anonymous statements with skepticism, even — or especially — if they support “your side” of an argument.
  • Read the last few paragraphs. Biased reporters often “bury” inconvenient facts at the ends of articles. That way, people who only read the first few paragraphs get a false impression about what happened. Occasionally, less-biased reporters do it as well. If a scrupulous reporter knows that the editor is biased and won’t allow the mention of certain facts, he or she might bury them at the end, hoping that the editor won’t notice them. I’ve seen several articles like that in The New York Times.
  • Beware of accusations phrased as questions. Neither the question “Did Obama order illegal spying on the Trump campaign?” nor “Has Trump sided with Nazis?” tells you anything. They’re questions. But if you’re not paying much attention, your mind will convert them into beliefs that “Obama did” and “Trump has.” That’s why they work as propaganda. You’ll often see that trick used in headlines at the bottom of the screen on cable news shows.
Posted by: N.S. Palmer | December 28, 2017

The Fracas About Fribbits

By N.S. Palmer


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

It’s arbitrary which meanings we assign to things. We can assign any meaning we want, but meanings are not all equally useful for dealing with the ordinary situations of life.

Suppose that up to now, everyone in our social group has used the word “fribbit” to mean what we’d call a “rabbit.”

A fribbit is a plant-eating mammal with long ears, long hind legs, and a short tail. In other words, “fribbit” connects to those descriptions and to other things. When people in our social group talk about fribbits, they’re talking about rabbits.

One day, Janet announced that “fribbit” was a bad word because it was too limited. She wanted everyone to use the word “frabbit,” which she said was more useful. A frabbit was either:

  • A fribbit,
  • A pencil,
  • A car,
  • A coffee cup, or
  • A computer.

“Frabbit” was more efficient because you only needed to learn one word instead of five. Sure, she said, it was traditional to use both the word “fribbit” and the other four words, but her way was better.

Just to appease Janet, everyone grudgingly agreed to start using the word “frabbit.” Frank, the conservative of our group, had always half-believed that “fribbit” was a dirty word, so he was happy to go along with the change.

But Riff Raff still had a question:

“What if we want to talk about fribbits, and make it clear that we’re not talking about all the other things?”

Janet scolded Riff Raff for insulting all the people who worked in factories that manufactured pencils, cars, coffee cups, and computers. She called him an elitist snob, a Frabophobe, and declared that it was hateful for anyone to use the word “fribbit.”

So we all grudgingly agreed never to use the word “fribbit,” lest we offend factory workers or incur Janet’s wrath.

Janet said that frabbits were obviously manufactured items since four out of five of their components were manufactured.

Riff Raff asked, “But what about …” and he stopped. There was no permitted word with which he could pose his question.

Janet glared at him angrily. He said, “Never mind.”

Having disposed of Riff Raff’s objection, Janet explained that factories could produce any of the items, so it was arbitrary which was which. A frabbit that had been a computer could be a coffee cup. A pencil could be a car. And a car could be – well, some kind of furry thing for which there’s no name other than “frabbit.” To deny that any kind of frabbit could be any other kind of frabbit was the worst sort of narrow-minded bigotry.

Henceforth, Janet decreed, we had to treat all frabbits as interchangeable. If anyone thought their computer was a coffee cup, then it was a coffee cup, and so forth.

We ended up with lots of frabbits but no way to distinguish which was which. A few tragic accidents occurred when people tried to drink their coffee out of a pencil, but it was a small price to pay for being on the right side of history.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 29, 2017

Work with Nature or Against It?


Should we work with nature or against it?

Yes, and yes. It depends.

The question assumes that nature is either on our side or against us. If nature supports us and our ideals, then we would work with it. If nature is against us, then we’d work against it. A third option is to get frustrated and deny that nature exists at all. In practice, the third choice means claiming that nature is whatever we want it to be.

Those choices lead some very smart people to say things like “nature is what we are put in this world to rise above,” or that ideologies like feminism can bring about ill-defined “race, class and gender equality” on some permanent basis.

But the assumptions are wrong.

Nature exists, but it doesn’t care what we want. It doesn’t try to help us or to hurt us.1 It simply is what it is. If the stove heats up our coffee, it’s not because it likes us. If a rock falls on our foot, it’s not because it hates us. Things act consistently with what they are: that is, consistently with their nature. So do people.

Because nature doesn’t care, it’s neutral. It’s neither consistently helpful nor harmful to us. We must look at the facts of each situation, and decide what to do on that basis:

“whether nature in this instance is to be regarded as a friend or as an enemy.”2

Our Basic Choice

Our most basic choice is not to work with or against nature. Instead, our choice is to accept or deny reality. Only if we accept reality can we act in ways that are likely to achieve our goals.

Accepting reality means recognizing, for example, that a river flows in one direction and not the other. If we paddle our canoe downstream in the direction of the current, we reach our destination easily because the current helps us. If we paddle upsteam against the current, we struggle to get there because the current hinders us. Our trip takes more time. If we stop paddling for a moment, the current carries us backwards.

If paddling downstream with the current won’t get us where we want to go, then of course we have to paddle upstream, or else find another way to reach our destination.

However, if both directions lead to an acceptable destination, then we should paddle downstream and let the river help us. We’d be foolish to claim that upstream is really downstream, or that the river has no direction at all. Paddling upstream is stupid.

That’s the point of Francis Bacon’s advice, usually paraphrased as “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed:”

“Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, because ignorance of cause frustrates effect. For Nature is conquered only by obedience; and that which in thought is a cause, is like a rule in practice.”3

Accept Facts and Respond Appropriately

Recognizing nature doesn’t mean leaving it as it is: it means accepting it as it is. When we know the facts, we can decide whether they’re good or bad. If the facts are bad, we can try to change them. But pretending that facts aren’t true does nothing to change them. It usually makes the situation worse. It certainly handicaps our ability to change things for the better.

For example, good health is people’s natural state: it’s usually the “direction” of that particular river. As a result, we can paddle with the current to maintain and improve people’s health: encouraging them to follow a sensible diet, get regular exercise, and avoid harmful habits such as smoking or careless sex.

On the other hand, diseases are also natural but they flow in a direction we don’t want. In those cases, we should paddle against the current and cure the disease if we can. But even to paddle against the current, we need to accept the river as it really is, not as we might wish it to be. If we pretend to believe that influenza is caused by evil spirits instead of viruses, then our treatments will be ineffective.

Denial of Human Nature


Nowhere is denial of reality more costly than in social issues. Particularly harmful is the belief that all people are the same; that differences are merely “social constructs” and that vastly different populations can live together harmoniously.

That denial starts with a commendable wish for universal goodwill. Then it mentions a few anecdotal encounters between highly educated, culturally assimilated, and morally pacifistic members of different groups. Finally, it concludes that what applies to a few very unusual people, some of the time, applies to people in general, all of the time.

Unfortunately, it isn’t true. It never has been. As long as people are humans and not angels, it never will be true.

To pretend otherwise is to pretend that the river has no direction: that up is down, that male and female are interchangeable (or “social constructs”), and that it makes no difference whether you drink coffee or cyanide. It is a prescription for social conflict, both violent and nonviolent. As Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observed:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily … participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”4

Recognition of Human Nature

It’s not as if recognition of “groupish” behavior is a new insight. Human beings’ preference for in-group members and hostility toward out-group members has been known for millennia.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, violent conflict resulted from the large communities of Greeks living in Turkey and Turks living in Greece. After World War I, the victorious Western powers:

”to end the ethnic tensions between Greeks and Turks that had sparked so much conflict over so many centuries … all ethnic Greeks living in Turkey were expelled to Greece and all ethnic Turks living in Greece were transferred to Turkey.”5

The separation worked as expected: social strife between Greeks and Turks subsided, and the two countries resumed friendly relations.6

As conservatives are fond of saying, “That’s what separate countries are for.”

When conducting experiments, scientists make changes to one group and compare its results to a “control group” that gets no changes. In the late 1940s, the British colony of India provided a kind of control group for the Greek-Turkish separation. India’s large Hindu and Muslim populations had frequently engaged in violent conflicts. To solve the problem, Britain divided the country into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. However, that half-measure didn’t stop the conflicts:

“In the months immediately following partition, inter-religious violence only intensified. The bloodshed eventually triggered a massive population exchange, as religious minorities sought safety among their coreligionists. Over seven million Muslims fled India for Pakistan. And approximately seven million Hindus and Sikhs fled Pakistan for India.”7

Human nature is a fact, based in biology. People belong to tribes in which authority is hierarchical. If there’s no obvious basis for membership or hierarchy, people will make something up. Tribe members often behave with hostility and suspicion toward non-members. Almost every major group difference in a society is a fault line along which the society can fracture into separate, warring tribes.

We can work with those facts, work against them, or pretend they don’t exist. The facts will stay the same. If we ignore them — or even worse, are guided by wishful thinking — then we doom our societies to strife and bloodshed.

Works Cited

Brog, D. (2017), Reclaiming Israel’s History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace, Kindle edition. Regnery Publishing, Chicago.

Davies, P. (2008), The Goldilocks Enigma. Mariner Books, New York.

Jardine, L., ed. (2000), Francis Bacon: The New Organon. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Stephen, J.F. (1993), Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Liberty Fund, Indianapolis.

Wilson, E.O., The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright Publishing, New York.


  1. At the level of individual events and actions, the universe neither favors nor opposes us. However, at the level of physical laws, the universe seems tuned to values that support life: it’s called “the anthropic principle.” Based on the anthropic principle, some people argue for God’s existence: physicist Paul Davies makes that argument in The Goldilocks Enigma. Others, such as popular science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson and entrepreneur Elon Musk, speculate that we live in a computer-generated virtual reality created by intelligent non-Divine beings. 
  2. Stephen, J.F. (1993), Chapter 1. 
  3. Jardine, L. (2000), Book I, Aphorism 3. 
  4. Wilson, E.O. (2012), p. 58. 
  5. Brog, D. (2017), loc. 166. 
  6. Ibid, loc. 174. 
  7. Ibid, loc. 
Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 14, 2017

They Persisted


They persisted in refusing to accept an election that they knew to be legitimate.

They persisted in pushing a Russian collusion story that they knew to be false.

They persisted in not-very-subtly calling for the assassination of the President of the United States.

They persisted in vilifying the President, his family, officials, their families, and all Americans (“deplorables”) who support them.

They persisted in publicly harassing officials and their families, including small children and grandchildren, with vile and hateful abuse.

They persisted in violently attacking Americans who dared publicly to support the president, while claiming that the Americans were the ones who started the violence.

They persisted in using riots, slander, assault, and intimidation to silence any speakers who disagreed with them.

They persisted in opposing any attempt to protect Americans from terrorism.

They persisted in using corrupt courts to destroy American laws and institutions.

They persisted in falsifying American history and traditions as symbols of hate.

They persisted in using identity politics to divide and conquer Americans.

They persisted in insisting that America belongs to everyone in the world — except Americans.

They persisted in trying to subvert the legitimate government of the United States, as well as to destroy the country and culture that Americans have created.

When will it be enough?

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 4, 2017

When We Got Expelled from Europe


It’s a terrible idea. Until now, people muttered it quietly to themselves or said it only to trusted friends. But a seemingly endless series of Islamic terrorist attacks has brought it into the open.

After last week’s Islamic terrorist attack that killed 22 youths and children at an Ariana Grande concert, psychologist James Thompson let it rip:

“Islamic terrorists are making a clear statement: We can kill you whenever we like; we can kill your children; we can kill you in your most important public places; we can make your leaders hide behind bodyguards; we can make you partly undress every time you go through an airport; we can make fools of you by using your laws against you; we can make you scared of making fun of our religion even while you make fun of what remains of your own … we can breed resentful losers in such large numbers that any one of them can become a murderer, and it is unpredictable which Mohammed will take the predictable step of murdering you; and you will accept our excuses that we had no idea that particular Mohammed would take the logical step of biting the hand that fed it …”

Frontpage Magazine is by no stretch of the imagination a mainstream news site, but it’s not a fringe site, either. Many people read it. After an earlier terrorist attack in London, writer Daniel Greenfield walked right up to the terrible idea:

“We don’t know when or where the next attack will come. But we know from whom it will come. What are we going to do about it? We can pretend to be baffled the next time some Jihadi with a rap sheet longer than London Bridge goes on a killing spree … Or we can end the flow of future terrorists and deport the existing ones. Because they can’t run us over if we don’t let them in. They can’t bomb us if we don’t let them stay.”

He does not say “Muslims,” but neither does he get specific about who would qualify for deportation as “future terrorists.” It’s unlikely to include Presbyterians.

Many terrorist attacks slip past our police and intelligence services because there are too many potential terrorists to watch. Unwisely, our political leaders have brought millions of people from hostile countries to settle in ours. And instead of insisting that they accept our culture, laws, and values, our governments have encouraged separatism, bowing to the sacred cow of “diversity.”

Most resident aliens and migrants aren’t terrorists, but some are. If we can’t tell which is which, then we must either accept increasing terrorist attacks or — or what?

We Jews haven’t quite seen this movie before, but we starred in a similar one. In the 14th and 15th centuries, our people were expelled from England, France, Spain, and parts of Italy.

That’s where the similarity ends. The differences spotlight the challenges that face us today.

Other than not being Christians, we didn’t even do anything to get kicked out. We paid taxes, ran businesses, provided a financial system, and mostly kept to ourselves. We certainly didn’t go around murdering innocents in the name of God. We didn’t vilify and spit on the countries in which we lived.

Another obvious difference is the number of people involved. We don’t know exactly how many Jews were expelled, but possibly “no more than five thousand in England, fifty thousand in Italy, and a hundred thousand in France and Spain.” Based on population estimates for 1500 CE, we were 0.24 percent of the population in England, 3.33 percent in Italy, 0.67 percent in France, and 1.43 percent in Spain.

The contrast with today is stark. In 2016, the Muslim population of the United Kingdom was 3,115,000 (5.4 percent of the total population); Italy, 1,583,000 (2.6 percent); France, 3,574,000 (5.7 percent); and Spain, 1,021,000 (2.3 percent). Even if there were no other issues, uprooting even a significant minority of those people would cause great suffering and disruption.

And that’s a best-case scenario. In our case, when the kings of England, France, Spain, and Italy ordered us to go, we went. Peacefully.

If you believe that millions of angry Muslims would go peacefully, raise your hand. Nobody? I didn’t think so.

Expelling Muslims would mean civil war. Western societies would “win,” but at a terrible cost in bloodshed and destruction.

It could have been avoided if Western governments had followed sensible policies about immigration and assimilation, but that ship has sailed — for Mecca. We’re in a terrible fix. What are we going to do about it?

Until now, we’ve been kicking the can down the road. But the end of the road is in sight. We can’t kick it much longer before it bounces back and hits us. What then?

I wish I knew.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | May 13, 2017

My Two Moms


In celebration of Mother’s Day, this is the story of My Two Moms.

After all, if Ana Sagorsky could have two Dads, I can have two Moms. That’s equality.

My first Mom graduated near the top of her medical school class, where she met my Dad. He told me that back then, a female medical school applicant had to be at least twice as good as any male applicant for her to be admitted, and that Mom was every bit as good as that. He thought he had better marry her quick, so he did.

Her abilities weren’t limited to academics. She played piano and cello, wrote amazing poetry, and dabbled in philosophy. From my early childhood memories, it seems to me that she painted, but I’m not sure how much. She spoke several languages, including French, German, and some Yiddish. French was her favorite language.

Before she went to medical school — it must have been in her early 20s — she worked in Hollywood for a while. She also dated a movie star whose name you’d instantly recognize. When she had pneumonia one year, he visited her in the hospital, bringing roses and a bottle of champagne. She never got tired of telling that story. If she’d married him, I’d be much taller and better-looking. She knew a lot of television writers, and we occasionally spent time with them in the summers when I was a kid.

After medical school, she became a psychiatrist, and by all accounts was remarkably successful. Her reputation got a boost a few years later when, in the course of a speech at a convention of the American Psychiatric Association, a famous psychotherapist spent 20 minutes denouncing her ideas. As her Hollywood friends said, if people are talking about you and they spell your name right, almost all publicity is good publicity.

But everything has its price, and that includes genius. Mom was so smart that it was harmful for her. Geniuses see patterns that most people can’t see, but their problem is distinguishing real ones from imaginary ones. Just like mathematician John Nash, the subject of the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” she saw a lot of patterns that weren’t really there. As a feminist, she was also ambivalent about being a woman and rather hostile toward men. The latter wasn’t entirely without cause, since some of her older teachers in medical school thought women didn’t belong there.

I didn’t realize any of that when I was growing up, of course, and her psychological problems gave me a few of my own. However, in the same way as most benefits have a price, most prices have a benefit. I’m saner than most people precisely because I had to get there the hard way, figuring it all out for myself.

Not that I lacked help. And that’s where we get to my second Mom.

On paper, my second Mom hasn’t got a resume to match the first. However, she’s just as smart in ways that enabled her to avoid spending half her life in The Twilight Zone. She started out as a medical laboratory scientist, then went back to school and became an art historian.

If I make a joke about how medieval manuscripts were written or something equally arcane, she’s usually the only one in the family who understands the punch line. On the other hand, if she makes a joke about ornithology or botany, I’m usually the one who needs an explanation. She’s written several cookbooks.

Most important, she’s a good person, she’s rock-solidly sane, she likes being who she is, and unlike her predecessor, she wanted to be a mother.

After my birth parents divorced and I eventually ended up living with my Dad, I at first treated my second Mom terribly. I was negative, hateful, and — still residing in my first Mom’s Twilight Zone — a little crazy. I’m sure that my second Mom told Dad to back off and let her handle the situation, because otherwise he would have wanted to punch me. Instead, she bit her lip, took my verbal abuse, and kept treating me decently until I realized what an ass I’d been.

If my first Mom showed me a great mind, my second Mom showed me a great woman. One of my blessings in life is to have seen both.

For all that you have given me, My Two Moms, Happy Mother’s Day.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | April 20, 2017

Good News: You Exist and You’re Not Made of Glass

Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid. He had just washed his hair.

Thomas Reid (1710-1796) is little remembered today, but he was the most perceptive critic of the philosopher Rene Descartes.

Apart from the sufferings of middle school students with the Cartesian plane in geometry, Descartes is best known for his “method of doubt.” He wanted to know if there was anything of which he could be certain, so he resolved to doubt anything he could.

The history of France? No, he’d only read and heard what others said about it. The existence of the world? No, he might be dreaming or deceived by an evil demon. The existence of his own body? Same problem. It seemed that there was nothing of which he could be completely certain.

Except for one thing: His mind existed, because if he could doubt that his mind existed, then he had to have a mind with which to doubt it. Whatever else might be doubted, he existed as a thinking being. He could know that for sure.

Cogito, ergo sum! he cried, and leapt to his feet, alarming the other patrons of the tavern in which he’d spent the evening.

“Cogito, ergo sum” means “I think, therefore I am.”

After hic haec hoc and Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est, those words are likely the most famous Latin quotation of all time.

Tragedy almost struck later that evening when the tavern was about to close. The bartender asked, “Would you like another drink, Mr. Descartes?” Descartes pondered for a moment and then replied, “I think not.” Poof! He disappeared in a puff of logic. Luckily for us, he reappeared a moment later, laughing. It was one of his favorite party tricks.

But this blog post is about Thomas Reid. To prevent misunderstandings, I should mention that he was related neither to John Reid (the Lone Ranger), Britt Reid (the Green Hornet, also the grand-nephew of the Lone Ranger), nor to Tara Reid (the actress, no relation to any of the other Reids). Thomas Reid’s ideas must stand or fall on their own.

Descartes’ argument “I think, therefore I am” is usually considered a pretty good one, but Reid would have none of it.

Reid argued that certain assumptions were necessary for any thought at all. As a result, you couldn’t prove them without circular reasoning because in order to prove them, you first had to assume that they were true.

According to Reid, it was completely nuts to reject such assumptions even though they could never be proven. And here’s where we get to his juicy critique of Descartes. It’s a marvelous piece of writing:

“A man that disbelieves his own existence is surely as unfit to be reasoned with as a man who believes he is made of glass. There may be disorders in the human frame that may produce such extravagances, but they will never be cured by reasoning.”

And Reid himself doubts that Descartes was really serious:

“Descartes indeed would make us believe that he got out of this delerium by his logical argument Cogito, ergo sum. But it is evident he was in his senses all the time, and never seriously doubted his existence. He takes it for granted in his argument, and proves nothing at all. I am thinking, says he, therefore I am: And is it not as good reasoning to say, I am sleeping, therefore I am? Or I am doing nothing, therefore I am?”

Common sense has always been in short supply, especially in philosophy. If Reid’s brand of clarity appeals to you, give him a read. It’s well worth your time.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | February 7, 2017

America’s Suicidal Arrested Development


“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.”

Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) said it, but we really didn’t need him to tell us. Anyone who’s been a child or a parent knows it.

The only thing Wilde got wrong was that most of us eventually understand our parents and forgive them. It’s part of growing up.

When you’re a small child, your parents seem omniscient. They set your standards of what is real and what is right. As you get older, however, you realize that they don’t know everything. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they even do things that are wrong.

With that realization, we are bitterly disappointed. The people we believed were perfect turned out to be flawed and human. And like most disillusioned true believers, we react with anger. It’s the beginning of adolescent rebellion.

From believing that our parents were always right, we go to the opposite extreme of believing that they are always wrong. We think that they don’t know anything. They are vain, uncaring, dishonest, and evil. They are hypocrites who find fault with others (mainly us) but who don’t live by the high ideals they profess. Screams of “I hate you I hate you I hate you!” grace many such discussions between parents and their teenaged children.

Eventually, we grow out of our adolescent rebellion. We realize that we are just as flawed as our parents. As the years pass, we make plenty of mistakes. We sometimes fail to live up to our ideals. We sometimes hurt others. If we’re decent people, we regret all of it. We start to see our parents in a different light: a light that is kinder and more understanding.

We realize that if there are any perfect people on the planet, we’ll never meet one. They’re too rare. The rest of us are just trying to do our best, and all too often failing at it.

And in that moment, we forgive our parents.

We accept them with all their flaws and virtues, as the real people they are. We accept them as people who tried to do their best for us, even if they didn’t always get it right. And if we’re lucky, we love them for it.

I see the same thing happening to America on a national scale. Baby boomers were the first generation that never grew out of its adolescent rebellion. It was a rebellion not just against their parents, but against everything their parents respected and loved. A country. A culture. A history. A way of life.

All of those things were imperfect. The boomers’ parents admitted as much, but argued that they were more good than bad.

Such nuanced arguments could not be heard over the din of “I hate you I hate you I hate you!”

And since the parents themselves were increasingly troubled by the flaws in America, they didn’t come down hard on the boomers, as their own parents would have — and did — decades earlier.

As a result, many boomers never grew out of their adolescent rebellion. They never accepted their parents as good but flawed human beings. They never accepted America as a good but flawed country. They never grew up enough to understand. They never got past “I hate you I hate you I hate you!” That shaped their view of the world.

Then they went into government, teaching, and the news media. The story they told was derived from their arrested development. Instead of seeing America as a good country that was trying to correct its flaws, they saw it as an evil country that was defined by its flaws.

They taught their viewpoint to Millennials, many of whom believe as a result that anyone who disagrees with them is a “Nazi” and a legitimate target for violent attack.

If you live in a good country that is trying to correct its flaws, the sensible thing is to help it succeed.

If you live in an evil country that is defined by its flaws, the sensible thing is to destroy it. Then you can try to replace it with the utopia you see in your head.

The fact that such a utopia has never existed on earth won’t bother you, because your teachers misled you with politically correct ideology instead of teaching you any actual history.

The fact that you support violence against people simply for having their own opinions won’t bother you, because you can’t distinguish between actions and ideas.

The fact that every society is imperfect because human beings are imperfect won’t bother you, because you never learned to think beyond your feelings at any given moment.

And your still-adolescent mentors, all of them now pushing ages 60, 70, or 80, will cheer you on as you help them destroy the civilization bequeathed to you by their hated and imperfect parents.

Dr. Freud, please call your office. Civilization’s discontents are reaching a critical stage.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | January 6, 2017

Accept the Ephemeral, Embrace the Permanent


In The Hollywood Reporter this week, feminist social critic Camille Paglia pondered the challenges of aging in show business.

Paglia is always worth reading, and I recommend her essay.

There’s no denying the heartbreaking difficulties she recounts. Her advice is to leave youth to the young, while accepting the benefits of maturity.

In my opinion, the bottom line is this:

If your success is based partly on something ephemeral (like youth) and partly on something more permanent (like talent and hard work), then

  1. Gratefully accept the ephemeral benefits while they last, and gracefully let go of them when it’s time;

  2. Focus your efforts and attention on the more permanent things; and

  3. Always remember that your value as a person doesn’t depend on popularity or worldly success. Each person has infinite value, and that applies to you.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 26, 2016

A Life That Made a Difference


Next Monday, it will be seven years since my Dad passed away.

Even after seven years, I still feel as if he’s with me every day. Remembering him makes me proud, and sad, and reminds me of the example he set for me. It’s a lot to live up to.

Some years before he passed away, we were in the car and the conversation turned somehow to his mortality. I told him that I hoped he would live as long as he wanted to live. To a degree, I think that he did. And what a life it was.

The small town kid from Minnesota became a war hero. Then he finished college in three years and went to medical school. He became a distinguished internist. The Indianapolis hospital where he saw patients gave an annual award to the doctor who made the highest percentage of correct diagnoses, but Dad won it year after year until the hospital finally declared him “permanent champion.”


Dad taught a whole generation of younger physicians. For many years, you couldn’t walk 10 feet in an Indianapolis hospital without bumping into a doctor who had been one of his students.

If you were one of Dad’s patients and you had a 9am appointment, you saw him at 9am unless you were late. He treated indigent patients without charge. He was a man of science but he also believed in the personal side of medical practice. He knew it mattered. It was how he believed in treating people: with respect, compassion, and consideration.

He wasn’t a pushover by any means. Sometimes he was too frank in speaking his mind, especially about bureaucratic interference with medical treatment. It might have served his career better if he’d been a little more tactful. But he said what he meant, and meant what he said.

He was also a community leader. Apart from elected offices such as the Indianapolis School Board, he was an officer or volunteer for numerous civic organizations. After he retired from medical practice, he delivered meals for Meals on Wheels. He worked as a volunteer “scientific expert” at the Indiana State Museum, answering questions for school tours. He was always giving speeches in one place or another.

I’ll tell you something more personal. I don’t write much about personal events in this blog, but for this, I’ll make an exception.

When Dad and my original mother split up, it took me by surprise. All of my friends’ parents were divorced but I never thought that my parents would also get divorced. I should have seen it coming. They were intellectually but not emotionally well matched.

The day that I learned about it, Dad moved out of the house into an apartment, in the shabby little building shown in the photo.


That afternoon, he picked up me at school. We went to dinner in a restaurant near his apartment, where I spent the night. About 3am, I woke up and vomited. I cried. Dad hugged me. And he cried. I had never seen him cry before that. This was something so terrible, so shattering, that even Dad’s composure broke down. I hugged him back.

I only saw him cry one other time. When he turned 70, all the family and most of his friends gave him a surprise birthday party.

On behalf of all of us, my brother Steve read a tribute to him that I had written. Dad cried, in front of everyone. He knew he was loved. He knew how much of a difference he had made — to us, to our community, to our country, and to our world.

He still makes that difference. I don’t go a day without wondering if I’m living up to his example, or if I’ll ever make that kind of difference in the world and in people’s lives. I hope so.

Dad, wherever you are, thank you.

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