Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/28/2010

Tommy Bahama Getting Lucky, and Voting as the Lord Leads You

Marian Anderson's Dream

Marian Anderson's Dream

When one clicks the “x” to delete an ad in the sidebar on one’s Facebook page, one can indicate why one deleted the ad (it’s uninteresting, misleading, offensive, repetitive). A box appears saying,

“Thanks for your feedback. Over time, this information helps us deliver more relevant ads to you.”

I play a private game that gives me a (false) sense I’m taking control of something in my life. I click on the “x” to close every ad and then click on “offensive.” I find every ad offensive.

About a month ago I needed a pair of shorts, the kind we called “Bermuda shorts” back in the dark ages. The 100+degree temperatures in Dallas preclude wearing jeans. I googled “men’s shorts” thinking I could shop from home. I couldn’t have imagined so many styles. “Fly racing Swank, Oakley Take Short, Adidas ClimaCool, Tommy Bahama Getting Lucky, UNDER ARMOUR hype,” to name a few. Not only am I mystified by the plethora of styles, but I’m also astonished at the speed with which the entire industry of men’s shorts knew about my “window shopping.” Every time I open webmail or Yahoo or—any page with ads—an ad for men’s shorts appears. I think I’d look especially good in THESE.

I heard a discussion on the radio about the companies whose sole purpose is to collect bits of information from my computer every time I do anything on the internet. The author of a book on the subject gave an example (she was shopping for shoes) of the same phenomenon from her googling.


Everything I do on the internet helps “them” deliver more relevant ads to me. But I am astounded by their very “being.” At least their “being” on my computer, in my face.  I know it’s possible for someone, somewhere to keep track of my shopping for shorts because I’ve heard it explained. But if I could not see those ads here, I would have trouble believing it’s possible. My belief in the “being,” the very “existence” of the ads is based on what I know. Not the other way ‘round. My knowing is not based on my belief.

Philosophers and literary critics and such folks think a great deal about being. Annie Dillard claims that, “Any penetrating interest in anything ultimately leads to what used to be called epistemology” (1).  I clearly remember the first time I heard the word “epistemology” bandied about as if everyone should know what it means. In a graduate seminar discussing Hemingway and Fitzgerald at the University of Texas at Dallas, another student said, “Understanding TENDER IS THE NIGHT goes to the heart of Fitzgerald’s epistemology.” I hadn’t read the novel, I had no idea what she meant by “epistemology” (remember, my education to that time was completely in music), and I wasn’t sure why Fitzgerald should have any of it. That was in about 1995.

Fortunately for me, DILLARD—the writer and the writer on writing, not an academic—explains what she means (saving my participation in the seminar—her book was required reading in another seminar I was part of that semester).

If you undertake the least mental task—if you so much as try to classify a fern—you end up agog in the lap of Kant. For in order to know anything for certain, we must first examine the mind’s own way of knowing. (2)

Ah, “epistemology.” The mind’s own way of knowing.

One of the ads I X-ed out on Facebook this morning was for the gubernatorial campaign of one Andy Barron, of whom I had never heard. (This is like the old trick of saying, “Don’t think of an elephant,” in order to make you think of an elephant; but please don’t give his campaign the satisfaction of having one more person google his website. I did, and that’s quite enough.) Barron proclaims he’s running a campaign to save Texas. Directly under the website banner are the words,

Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen Again
We can do anything through Christ (Philippians 4:13)
Without Him we can do nothing

A sidebar asks that you
Vote as the Lord Leads You.

Not surprisingly, his first campaign issue is, “Prayer as a Priority—since 1962 when prayer was eliminated unnecessarily from public schools there has been a steady decline in morals of our society.”

I try to get my students to understand that Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) is a logical fallacy. Barron’s reason for running is a Post hoc fallacy. He believes (although it is not true) that school children are forbidden to pray. He knows the result of that prohibition is “a steady decline in morals in our society.” Barron’s epistemology, his mind’s way of knowing, is through belief. Because he believes what he believes, he claims to know what he knows.

So much of the “knowing” being flung around these days is based on “belief” rather than evidence that one might well wonder if anyone “knows” anything that’s true.  If Andy Barron and his campaign were unique in this season of vicious political discourse, I could laugh it off as the delusion of one man who cannot justify what he “knows” to be true with what he “believes,” and therefore makes up something different to “know.”

Whites don’t own Abraham Lincoln. Blacks don’t own MARTIN LUTHER KING. Those are American icons, American ideas, and we should just talk about character, and that’s really what this event is about. It’s about honoring character. (2)

Glenn Beck’s justification for preempting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech for his own political gain (and Sara Palin’s) seems to me to be knowing based on belief, rather than belief based on knowing. He believes something (it’s pretty hard to tell what from his convoluted syntax). Something about “character.” Something about “American ideas.” Something about King and Abraham Lincoln being American “ideas” (can a person be an idea?).

Most amazingly, BECK BELIEVES that his spontaneous idea to have a rally for what he believes on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech is “divine providence” (3). I suppose if one believes God is directing one’s activities, then it really doesn’t matter what one knows—or what anyone else knows.

But will I look like Tommy Bahama?

But will I look like Tommy Bahama?

I know someone somewhere somehow is keeping track of my posting this blog (and your reading it). Bits of information tell them I want to buy some Bermuda shorts. Because I know that, and I see the ads for Bermuda shorts on my computer, based on those bits of information (ads that are “more relevant” to me), I believe I am connected to a massive, universal, ubiquitous web of information gathering and dissemination. What I know directs my belief. I don’t know divine providence guides what I plan to do or that the morals of the nation are dependent on the prayers of public school children. I may believe those things. But those beliefs do not become what I know.

I’m hoping that the majority of the electorate understands the danger of epistemology based on belief. We all believe some pretty wacky things.

(1) Dillard, Annie. Living by Fiction. New York: Perennial Library, 1982 (53).
(2) Gardner, Amy. “Glenn Beck rally will be a measure of Tea Party’s strength.” Post Politics. August 25, 2010. Web. 28 Aug 2010.
(3) ibid.

(ABOUT YESTERDAY’S POSTING: I’m aware it doesn’t make sense. Like my students, I couldn’t make the writing say what I meant: finding “meaning” in literature is hard enough; finding “meaning” in real life is impossible; the world’s preoccupation with nuclear arms is an example; the government and its apologists want us to believe certain untrue things about “weapons of mass destruction;” if we believe those things, we will elect the wrong person to be President; the person in charge of the campaign to get us to elect the wrong man based on those untruths is duplicitous; we now know Ken Mehlman was worse than duplicitous—he was (is) a phony, shall I say a liar? he is gay and hid (sort of) that fact for years for political gain; this week he’s “come out.”. Why believe him now?)


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