Twitter is the gift that keeps giving. Sometimes.
Today is one of those times. Regular readers of this website will of course be familiar with the doings of Business Cat.
(Click on the white play button).
Twitter is the gift that keeps giving. Sometimes.
Today is one of those times. Regular readers of this website will of course be familiar with the doings of Business Cat.
(Click on the white play button).
I’m staying near Pelorus Bridge (not a village but a small bridge over the Pelorus River), famous for being not only the first bridge from which somebody bungee jumped, but also for featuring in one scene in a Hobbit movie, to wit:
Part of the pretty Marlborough Sounds at the very top of the South Island, the Pelorus River was filmed as Forest River for the second of The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. You know the bit where they escape the Wood-elves in barrels and float down the river to Lake-town? Well the drop was done at Pelorus Bridge. The Pelorus Bridge Camping Ground, which is an excellent place to stay, was closed for filming. The river is awesome to swim in – that area of New Zealand is especially nice and warm – and, no doubt, kayaking down it is set to become a lot more popular.
Here’s the bridge:
Filming right below the bridge:
Here’s where I am: the north tip of the South Island. Tomorrow I head for Picton to take the ferry to the North Island, landing at Wellington:
But my host Don MacKay, a retired teacher, biologist, gentleman farmer, Scottish descendant (who plays bagpipes), and great guide, cook, and host (along with his lovely wife Karen, see below) took me to the bridge because it contains a wonderful, dense stand of virgin forest, through which we roamed for several hours, also checking the possum/stoat/rat traps that are there to try to keep the birds from going extinct. (The South Island robin, one of my favorite birds in New Zealand, doesn’t exist in this stand.) Wikipedia again, explaining why we were there (second paragraph):
Pelorus Bridge is a tiny locality in Marlborough, New Zealand where the Rai River meets Pelorus River. State Highway 6 crosses the Pelorus River at Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve, which was used as one of the film locations for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
The scenic reserve contains one of the last stands of original river flat forest in the area. The forest contains a mixture of beech and broadleaf species, as well as mature podocarps such as rimu, kahikatea and totara towering over the canopy. Several easy walking tracks connect the camping ground, picnic site, river, and the carparks. A circular walk leads over a pedestrian suspension bridge over the Rai River.
The first thing we saw was a stuffed long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculata) in the local cafe (Don monitors this species in the area). It is one of only two endemic mammals in New Zealand, the other being a species of short-tailed bats (Mystacina tuberculata). (It was Darwin who pointed out that on remote islands having endemic mammals, they are invariably flying mammals, showing that the endemics evolved after colonization.)
Here’s the long-tailed bat, which can fly 60 kph:
The lesser short-tailed bat is unique among all bats because it’s semi-terrestrial! It has very thick fur and spends 30% of its foraging time hunting in the air, 40% feeding from plants, and 30% crawling around the ground looking for food, for which it has a unique adaptation:
To assist with this unusual style of hunting, short-tailed bats are able to fold their wings inside a protective sheath formed from their membranes, and the wings have only a very limited propatagium, making them more flexible and mobile. Movement along the ground is also assisted by strong hind limbs and a robust pelvic girdle, and by the additional talons on their claws.
Look at this bat crawling around like a rodent!!! You can’t see its wings!:
One of the first trees we came across, kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides), had beautiful patterned bark:
I cropped the trunk to make it look like an abstract painting:
It is of course very wet there, and the tree trunks are often festooned with lichens and ferns that fall off when the bark flakes off:
I don’t know if this is a fern or a liverwort, but I’m sure some of you botanists can tell us:
This is what the virgin forest looks like—mostly beeches, podocarps, and ferns with assorted other species of endemic trees. This patch of forest has no invasive plants, though of course there are invasive animals, including weasels and stoats, Australian brush-tailed possums, and two species of rats.
The forest is filled with black beech (Fuscospora solandri), an endemic that has a black trunk—but the color comes not from the bark, which is whitish, but from a black mold that covers the trunk. And that mold is there because the bark is infested with scale insects that, in two of their instars (life stages) secrete a honeydew from their rear ends after feeding on the tree’s phloem. Here you can see the mold coming off of the tree and covering the ground around it, showing that it’s not the bark color!
Wasps are now invading the forest eating the honeydew, which was previously a valuable source of nutrients for insects and birds, including the kākā parrot (Nestor meridionalis), sister species to the kea. In my photo below, you can see the long butt appendage of the scale insect exuding a drop of nectar.
The New Zealand Conservation folk are trying to get rid of the invasive wasps using baits that have a proteinaceous poison that the wasps carry back to their nests, feed to the grubs, and then is re-secreted to the wasps, killing them. It seems to be effective. If the wasps monopolize the honeydew, they will severely reduce the population of native insects and birds:
Don checking a possum trap. He runs a trapline once a month. We didn’t do the whole thing, but did get two brown rats. I won’t show you the gory picture of a smushed rat. This trap kills the possum by putting a noose around its head, cutting off blood flow to its brain and quickly rendering it unconscious and then dead:
Berries in the forest are small, as are flowers. With no mammals in pre-human New Zealand to distribute seeds, the fruits have evolved to be attractive to and dispersed by birds. Likewise, the flowers are small, pollinated by birds and Lepidoptera (curiously, mostly moths, many of which fly by day).
Schefflera digitata, the seven-finger or (Maori) Patatē:
Coprosma robusta (?), the shining karamu:
The famous New Zealand silver fern (Cyathea dealbata), a tree fern whose leaves are green on the top side and silvery on the bottom. It was used by the Maori to mark their trails at night, as the silver bottom shines brightly in the moonlight. Don demonstrates the difference between top and bottom:
The silver fern is a national symbol here, appearing on the uniform of many national sports teams, including the famous All Blacks (rugby). It was also proposed to be part of the New Zealand National Flag, which now sports a Union Jack. They had a referendum two years ago to replace the current flag with a silver-fern flag (below), but the public rejected the design shown below, and the current flag (click on link) stays:
Two out-of-focus birds (my bad):
The pukeko, or Australasian swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus):
The New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa). Don attracted them by shaking ferns; the dropping leaflets looked like moths, attracting this insectivore, which followed us along the trail:
Below you can see a typical growth form of several forest trees, in which the lower branches have small leaves and branches that stick out horizontally, reverting to large leaves and normal twigs higher up. It’s thought this is a remnant of grazing by moas (now all extinct), to prevent them from overgrazing and killing the trees when they were young. The leaves supposedly get large and hence more sun-exposed when they’re beyond the reach of the moa’s beak.
Given that there were about a dozen species of moa of different sizes (ranging up to 3.6 m [12 feet] in height and weighing up to 23o kg [510 pounds]), this hypothesis would be difficult to test. Sadly, the moas were hunted to extinction by the Maori long before Europeans came to New Zealand.
This “moa tree” is Plagianthus betulinus, or ribbonwood.
Below are Don and Karen MacKay, my fantastic hosts, along with Sug (cat) and Geordie (d*g). Geordie (actually a lovely dog) is a miniature collie; Sug was a stray kitten who’s now 13 and lost her ears to cancer. Don and Karen were both teachers at the local school, but now Don does various biology projects (we went one night looking, fruitlessly, for long-tailed bats), helps with the local school, and tends the plants on the property; while Karen tends the sheep and chickens and produces a variety of products for natural therapy and organic skin care called Five Elements (her website is here).
Sug! The first picture is on her hind legs with tongue sticking out. Note that Sug is “Gus” backwards, and is also an earless white cat. Things are reversed in the Antipodes:
I get my cat fix:
The MacKay holding; there are 3.5 acres, twenty sheep, and eight chickens.
Karen and a ewe:
Don playing bagpipes. He’s very good, having played since he was a wee bairn. These are his grandfather’s pipes, over a hundred years old. They’re made from silver, ebony, and ivory:
We had a fantastic homemade feast last night: a huge pie made from wild pig, apples, peppers, and many other things, roasted yams, ears of corn, and broccoli—all washed down with a local Pinot Noir. Dessert was a homemade apple cake with ice cream (ice cream in NZ is of very high quality) and whipped cream.
Tonight we’re going out to dinner tonight for a feast of local green mussels.
Effusive thanks to Don and Karen for their over-the-top hospitality and to Don for his natural history wisdom.
Today is the birthday of Italian Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) one of the three great artists of the period along with Leonardo and Michelangelo. He left an impressively large collection of work behind him, considering he died very young at the age of 37, from “excessive sex”, or at least, so said his assistant.
Maria Von Trapp (1905-1987) also claims today as her birthday. Although everyone knows the Hollywood version of her story from The Sound Of Music, as one would expect the reality was not quite the same. Nevertheless, the family did abandon Austria as Hitler rose to the height of his power in Germany, fled to the United States and supported themselves by performing music publicly before settling in Stowe, Vermont.
Today is the anniversary of the 1979 Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown. A chain of malfunctions and a significant loss of coolant did not result in loss of life, but did forever change the way nuclear power was regarded resulting in anti-nuclear demonstrations and a hostility to its use as an energy source that remains to this day.
Over in Poland, the Princess is being enigmatical – as Shakespeare might say.
Hili: All of this makes one whole.
A: What does?
Hili: This and that.
Hili: To wszystko składa się w jedną całość.
Ja: To znaczy co?
Hili: To i tamto.
Finally, readers of this website are by now familiar with Gus, regular guest on this website. Yesterday Jerry met Gus’s mirror image.
The people I’m staying with have a white cat named “Sug” (short for Sugar), which is Gus backwards. AND. . .it is earless! (It had cancer on its ears.)
Gus’s staff comments: Since everything is backwards below the Equator, Gus would of course be named “Sug” in New Zealand!
I spent two days and three nights in Nelson, graciously hosted by American expats Tom and Ann, who spent much of their lives teaching in “American Schools” across the globe, but have landed in Nelson. As one of the sunniest places in New Zealand, a lovely town of 50,000 on the northern coast of the South Island, and having a thriving art, food, and wine scene, many retirees choose to settle here. I can well see why.
Here’s where I am:
I was exhausted the night I arrived, and so after dinner I repaired to bed. I was appalled to find I’d slept till 11 a.m.: something I haven’t done in—well, I can’t even remember sleeping past 8 a.m. I must have been tired. That made our visit to the Nelson Saturday Market (a famous institution) a quick one.
It was a lovely market, and everybody selling stuff, from clothes to arts to food, is required to have made the stuff themselves. Here’s a seller of spices and condiments, all of which he prepared himself:
Local honey of many varieties:
The famous and expensive “mānuka honey“, probably the world’s most expensive honey (a small jar costs about $30 in New Zealand currency, with $1 NZ equal to about 70 U.S. cents. It’s made by bees that pollinate the local mãnuka tree (Leptospermum scoparium), native to Australia and New Zealand.
It’s delicious stuff, and is touted as having antibacterial and “healing” properties, but in fact has not been proven to have any such properties when consumed by humans. It commands a premium for these properties, but it’s sort of a scam. Nevertheless, it is delicious stuff: very viscous and tangy.
Bowls made from the local woods are gorgeous. While it’s forbidden to cut down any native trees unless you’re clearing land for a farm, you can use driftwood so long as it’s below the high tide line (or so I’m told):
Had I room to carry stuff and was not afraid of breakage, I would have bought some of this wood:
From there we went to have lunch with 8 members of the Nelson Science Society at at the nearby Mahana winery specializing in Pinot Noir (the Pinots and Sauvignon Blancs from this region are spectacular. It’s almost harvest time so the grapes are covered with nets to prevent depredation by birds.
My lunch: New Zealand lamb (of course) with mashed potatoes, vegetables, and a glass of full-bodied Pinot Noir.
There was also a New Zealand equivalent to sushi:
Here’s Bill Malcolm, a retired botanist who had read my account of the Great Kea Hunt. He brought a picture showing him with a kea that had landed on his head (lower right). Keas, even in recent years, were once much more abundant than now, and it was easy to encounter them.
It’s a good thing it didn’t put his eye out!
Here’s a local bird called the fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa). I photographed it through a window, and it’s a bit out of focus.
New Zealand currency is great: on one side is a famous New Zealander (here on the $5 bill is Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first two men to climb Everest, with the mountain shown in the background). Coins for scale:
On the other side of every bill is an iconic New Zealand animal. This $10 bill appears to carry the Paradise Shelduck (Tadorna variegata):
Breakfast next day was at a small cafe in a garden center; an odd place for a cafe. But, as I’ve found in New Zealand, the food is uniformly good everywhere. Here’s my breakfast of French toast with baked banana and bacon. Yum!
We then repaired to the WOW Museum (the Museum of Wearable Art, which is combined with the Nelson Classic Car Collection). The first part of the Museum are arty costumes, all of which have been worn on the runway. This little number is made from wood:
A dress with faces in it:
Believe it or not, somebody can wear this and walk in it: there was a film clip of this moving Braque-esque sculpture:
I guess the wearer sees and breathes through the hole:
A sort of Vesalius costume:
And on to the classic cars, of which there are many. I’ll leave the readers to identify them:
I loved this tiny car:
The two-cylinder engine; I’ve put a coin on it for scale. It’s a tiny engine!
A Packard police car for my friend John Hempel, who loves Packard:
One of my favorite cars, an old Pierce-Arrow:
The hood ornament. Oh, for the days of lovely hood ornaments!
And older Packard; the photo below it shows the hood ornament—the only glass hood ornament I’ve ever seen.
The glass rooster hood ornament:
A 100-foot sailing yacht moored in Nelson Harbor. Some extremely rich person owned this thing, which was registered in the Isle of Man.
Yesterday afternoon we spent a few lovely hours with Tom’s friend Roger, a fanatic about rock and pop music from the Sixties through Seventies. He has 13,500 records: all vinyl (45s and 33s), catalogued by both genre and artist. We discussed various forms of old rock, including “northern soul” (an English musical form) and “skiffle” (which influenced the Beatles), listening to samples as we talked.
Here’s Roger holding a rare Rolling Stone album, apparently worth several hundred dollars.
He also owns a full-sized 1958 Wurlitzer jukebox, which Roger bought at an auction. It’s 60 years old, and still works perfectly!
Tom and Ann, my wonderful hosts in Nelson. Thank you!
And here’s the B&B where I stayed Sunday night: a little treat before I travel on. My backpack is incongruous in such a room!
I am just back from a two-hour tramp in the native beech/tree-fern forests around Pelorus Bridge (where part of Lord of the Rings–or The Hobbit–was filmed). And that is between Nelson and Picton on New Zealand’s South Island. What a lovely walk it was, too, although the forest was way too silent: many of the birds have gone extinct since James Cook reported the forests filled with a cacophony of bird sound. I have many pictures and will try to post some soon.
This morning we have a video from the American forest: from reader Tara Tanaka, who gives us a lovely one-minute production that took a long time to edit! Here’s what she wrote me:
I just finished about 36 hours of editing. I shot this over some of the best 7 weeks of my life in 2014 and 2016.
And the notes on her video, “Spring in the swamp”:
What a morning! Wood Storks are mating everywhere in the swamp – I heard this sound from the yard for years and didn’t know what it was – a very unique (and noisy) beak clacking mating ritual. I’m not sure if the neighbors really didn’t notice, or if they were just being polite. The Anhingas are building nests, and I got some much better video of our tiny Great Egret chicks when a parent came back with food this morning.
TRIGGER WARNING: BIRD SEX
LAGNIAPPE: Cute chick at the end.
Be sure to watch this full screen and in Hi Def on the Vimeo site.
Morning all! Welcome to a new week.
It’s the birthday of Quentin Tarantino (1963), director and actor who rose meteorically to fame with his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs, which I still think is one of his best films out of a strong field.
In contrast, and I realise that my opinion is a minority one, Inglourious Basterds, although visually and stylistically arresting, was ultimately incoherent as it careened from genre to genre.
Today marks the death (1934-1968) of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first human in outer space. The circumstances of his death in a MiG-15UTI jet accident was initially covered up owing to it being due to a pilot error in another plane flying in the area.
For your amusement, we have an example of genuine Irish internet today. It’s one of those quaint traditions in a country where the population is so very small that a sizable percentage of the population reads the Death Notices in the local newspapers as a matter of course every day. However, this page on Facebook had a bit of a strop-fest yesterday because their page wasn’t getting enough “Likes”. It reads like tasteless satire, but it is utterly genuine (and tone deaf). Some hours later the page offered a grunted Not-pology of the “sorry if you were offended, kthxbai” variety.
Today in Poland Hili is issuing instructions. But it seems that she may have somewhat missed the point of dog’s balls.
Hili: Don’t carry that ball into the garden.
Cyrus: Why not?
Hili: Because then you’ll have to run after it.
Hili: Nie przynoś tej piłki do ogrodu.
Hili: Bo będziesz musiał za nią biegać.
Last of all, we have an appearance from Leon, who is being sulky today too.
Leon: I’m just looking, so what?
On the way to Nelson two days ago, we passed through Paparoa National Park on the west coast of the South Island, one of New Zealand’s smallest national parks. It’s famous for its limestone geological formations, nearby blue penguins (I didn’t see any) and the rock blowholes, where the sea violently enters the caverns it’s carved, sending up huge plumes of spray. I haven’t time to describe the scenery in detail, but here are some photos.
Here’s where you’ll find Paparoa National Park (red dot):
Below is the nīkau (Rhopalostylis sapida), the only palm tree native to New Zealand, and one that shows pronounced geographic variation, though I’m not sure that variation has a genetic component. It’s a lovely tree with a green swelling (“crownshaft”) atop the trunk. The Maori ate the inner parts and used the leaves for weaving baskets and mats, as well as thatching roofs.
Here are the flowers. which sprout from near the base:
The rocks along the shore are called “pancake rocks” because they occur in prominent layers; they’re ancient limestone that has been uplifted. As the New Zealand Department of Conservation notes:
The Pancake Rocks are most spectacular in the Putai area. They were formed 30 million years ago from minute fragments of dead marine creatures and plants landed on the seabed about 2 km below the surface. Immense water pressure caused the fragments to solidify in hard and soft layers. Gradually seismic action lifted the limestone above the seabed. Mildly acidic rain, wind and seawater sculpted the bizarre shapes.
You can see the layers on the rocks to the left (the Kiwis do eat pancakes, too; they’re very common):
More pancake rocks:
The layers are clearly visible:
A blowhole, quiescent
A blowhole, with entering water spraying up:
If you look closely, you can see fanciful figures in this formation, including a lion on the right about to prey on the figures to the left:
The surrounding forest:
The cabbage tree (Cordyline australis), a monocot endemic to New Zealand but now planted around the world:
Here’s a cabbage tree photo from Wikipedia:
And in the national park visitors center, you’ll find more invasive Australian brush-tailed possum skins for sale. It’s a great pity that these animals must be exterminated to save New Zealand’s unique fauna (they’re cute), but there’s no alternative if we want to preserve the products of millions of years of evolution. It’s either them or the possum!
Among the many celebrating birthdays today are Steve Tyler (1948) and Diana Ross (1944). It’s not easy to choose just one song for either of them as they are prolific and have had long-lasting careers. It is also the birthday of Richard Dawkins (1941), Nancy Pelosi (1940), Watergate-busting journalist Bob Woodward (1943) and actor Leonard Nimoy (1931).
This song was a hit for Diana Ross in 1980 and referenced her leaving Motown where she had been since her days with The Supremes. [JAC curmudgeonly addendum: Not her greatest song by a long shot!]
I chose this song by Steve’s group Aerosmith because it always makes me smile. It’s an antidote to all those sappy love songs. (Trigger warning: loud and unpretty).
In 1484 William Caxton, thought to be the person who introduced the printing press to England, printed his English translation of Aesop’s Fables. His work is largely credited for beginning to standardise the various dialects of the English language.
In Poland Hili is being deliberately obtuse. However, I think that is part of the definition of Catness, and also gives rise to behavior such as sitting in doorways with the intention of going out and staying in at the same time.
Hili: Something is catching on me.
A: You don’t have to climb there.
Hili: What do you mean, I don’t have to climb there?
Hili: Coś mi tu przeszkadza.
Ja: Nie musisz tam wchodzić.
Hili: Jak to, nie muszę?
And finally, Gus in silhouette.
Live long and prosper!
I’ve never been a big fan of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: they are too soft on faith, and in fact include a Templeton-founded program, Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), whose goal is reconcile science and evolution with religion–largely Christianity (the program is headed by an evangelical Christian astronomer; see here, here, and here).. The DoSER program outrages me because a science organization shouldn’t be promoting a particular theological view (accommodationism). I have never joined the AAAS and never will.
Now, with the Science March in the offing, the AAAS is using it to swell membership and get money. Nearly every day I get an email ad from them asking you to join to support science (no way, AAAS—not till you ditch the faith-osculation) and to buy stuff from them. Here’s the latest:
I’m sorry, but this just strikes me as venal, especially because I get these inducements almost every day. The ads didn’t start appearing until the Science March was announced, so they’re clearly connected to that.
I am part of the force for science, but I’m not giving my dosh to an organization that also coddles religion, and that piggybacks on a march organized by others to swell its membership. It’s fine if the AAAS sponsors the Science March, but, as I said the other day, the aims of the Science March aren’t even clear.
Now is your chance, if you’re an academic or affiliated with a college or university, to sign a well-crafted statement in favor of free and untrammeled expression on campuses. The statement, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression” was written by Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, and Cornel West, a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard. The statement appears on the website for Princeton’s “James Madison Program in American Institutions and Ideals.”
West, a well-known African-American public intellectual, left Harvard 14 years ago for Princeton after a battle with ex-President Larry Summers, but has now returned to his original job.
Apparently the motivating factor for this statement was the unfortunate incident at Middlebury College in Vermont in which Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, was prevented from giving his talk at the College by a bunch of petulant, yelling, fire-alarm-pulling students, most of whom had almost certainly not read Murray’s book; and at any rate, Murray was not going to talk about that book, which had led some to accuse him of racism. He did give the talk, but in a sequestered room with a live feed, but then was attacked by students (and perhaps some outsiders) as he left the venue.
Since Murray’s shabby treatment, over 100 Middlebury College professors have chimed in supporting free expression and implicitly denigrating what their students did to Murray. You can see their signed statement, “Free Inquiry on Campus” at the link; here’s an excerpt:
Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.
The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.
The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate.
Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.
Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers.
A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act . . .
This, and the rest of the document, is a strong repudiation of Middlebury students’ privileged and entitled whining against what they consider “hate speech”, which really consists of things that Facebook and other Lefties have told them is speech that violates their purity code and should offend them. This is, of course, the reverse of the situation in the 1960s, when we the students, were the liberals and were opposed by a conservative faculty. Things have done a complete U-turn since that time. Now it’s the faculty fighting censorship by the students.
Lest you want to say that Murray had no business talking at Middlebury because he was a racist (an accusation I will not make since I haven’t read his book nor followed his doings), remember that Cornel West is a black man who has spent his entire career combating racism. Nevertheless, he and George are standing up for the right of Murray and others to speak freely.
Here’s the George/West statement in its entirety. It is wonderful, and the emphasis is mine.
The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.
That’s why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses. As John Stuart Mill taught, a recognition of the possibility that we may be in error is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider—and not merely to tolerate grudgingly—points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous. What’s more, as Mill noted, even if one happens to be right about this or that disputed matter, seriously and respectfully engaging people who disagree will deepen one’s understanding of the truth and sharpen one’s ability to defend it.
None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.
All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.
It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited. Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?
Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.
If you have any affiliation with a college or university, be you faculty or staff, I recommend that you sign this statement. I have. You can join me simply by sending your willingness to sign, your name and your affiliation to jmadison@Princeton.edu. Over 600 people have already signed, including Harvard’s Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris and former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier.
It is ironic that Harvard itself, largely through the actions of President Drew Faust and her deans, has created a climate on campus that represses alternative political views and tries to punish students for exercising their freedom of association in single-sex “Finals Clubs” which are not formally affiliated with Harvard. Those clubs are both all-male and all-female, and yet although they’re independent of the University, Faust promised to punish any student belonging to them. (I’m not sure whether these punishments were ever meted out.)
And don’t forget Harvard’s shameful episode of the “social justice placemats,” in which students were given Leftist “talking points” on four issues of social justice (Islamophobia, etc.) to use when they went home for Christmas. Faust, it seems, is at odds with many of her faculty and at least some of her students.