Jun 06 2013

What puts the ape in apricot?

Mona posted a sonnet poem on my Facebook page.

You have no enemies, you say?
Alas, my friend, the boast is poor,
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes. If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never set the wrong to right.
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

– Charles Mackay (26 March 1812 – 24 December 1889), author of a history of popular folly, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”

It’s very appealing, but I have an inner daimon or teaser or pest or red flag or something, that won’t let me accept the compliment, much as I’d like to.

Why? Well because it works in one direction but not the other. Yes if you’ve never ever pissed off a single person, you probably haven’t done much righting of wrongs. But that doesn’t mean that the more people you’ve pissed off, the more righting of wrongs you’ve done.

Think Galileo. Yes, people thought Galileo was wrong. That doesn’t mean that just because people think you are wrong, you are therefore right.

Think Bill Gates. Yes, there must have been people who thought he was daft to drop out of Harvard. That doesn’t mean that everyone who drops out of college will become another Bill Gates.

I frequently piss people off by being an asshole. Sometimes, I think, I’m an asshole but still right about whatever it is I’m being an asshole about. But not always, and I don’t necessarily have to be an asshole about it. Sometimes one has to be an asshole, but not always. Sometimes I’m an asshole and wrong besides.

(But then there’s the whole thing about different standards for asshole status depending on whether you’re a woman or a man. That complicates things.)

Having said all that, I certainly enjoy getting flattering sonnets on my Facebook page!

Probably because I’m an asshole.


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  1. 1

    The sonnet is perfect. I love that you second-guess yourself, but–accept the compliment! Do it. Just do it.


  2. 2
    Hertta (Herttainen)

    You’re not an asshole. Sure, you’re not afraid to piss people off. You couldn’t write about atheist and feminist issues the way you do if you did. But you don’t go out of your way to hurt and insult people like assholes do.

    And I see the sonnet being about standing up to assholes and thus making enemies, not just doing or saying things that piss people off. So I think it’s quite fitting, actually. Just take the compliment.

  3. 3

    Yes if you’ve never ever pissed off a single person, you probably haven’t done much righting of wrongs.

    Righting of wrongs is a large positive good, but not perpetuating wrongs is a non-trivial good as well, even if it fails to piss off most people. Small contributions can mount up.
    *Side note. I took a class in 1968 from a graduate student in Computer Science named Bill Gates, but it wasn’t that Bill Gates. (Sigh.)*

  4. 4
    Brian Engler

    I like the poem, I like what you do, and I particularly appreciate the Wizard of Oz reference. A cowardly lion you never will be.

  5. 5

    I realize this is going to sound pedantic. but that poem is not a sonnet. A sonnet has 14 lines of (roughly) two-syllable feet. As a lyricist, I react about the same as a biologist would if somebody captioned a picture of an octopus as a nice insect.
    Nice poem, though.

  6. 6

    Sorry. 14 lines of *five* roughly two-syllable feet.

  7. 7
    Ophelia Benson

    Thanks Brian. The genius of Yip Harburg, eh.

    Zeke – oh yes. I half-noticed that but then forgot about it. Beg pardon.

    I even know several of Shxpr’s by heart, so you’d think I could do better.

  8. 8

    Sometimes the difference between awesome and asshole is the context. But I’ve never seen you be an asshole, and I’ve often seen you being awesome.

  9. 9
    Josh L.

    Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Only a handful understood Albert Einstein. And nobody understood Emperor Norton. (source)

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    Whooo – thanks for that, Josh!

  11. 11
    A Hermit

    Just as a side note, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” was one of the first skeptical works I ever read…still well worth reading today.

    You can get a free digital copy here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/24518

  12. 12
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    Yes, people thought Galileo was wrong.

    Not to nitpick, but he actually was wrong in a number of very important ways (mostly due to his refusal to accept the work done by Brahe and Kepler

    Hey, they updated the site. Cool.

  13. 13
    Dave Maier

    Not sure I’ve dashed a whole lot of cups from perjured lips myself. And in general my attitude is that since I piss plenty of people off without intending to, I better not try to do it *on purpose* or the whole world will be mad at me. But if that were everyone’s attitude then those cups would go undashed; so I guess it’s good that somebody does it.

  14. 14

    Zekehoskin – Wot we pedants would call ‘iambic pentameter’, yes?

  15. 15
    Gordon Willis

    Yeah. Pedance frever. Write on, epicure!
    I second Sheila. Bloody right, for sure.
    (Not Shakespeare. Couldn’t be that Rupert Bear,
    But I do mean it, ’Phelia, I swear!)

  1. 16
    Robert F Kennedy Jr isn’t afraid to read science » Butterflies and Wheels

    [...] you see? This is what I was saying last week, about the flattering idea that having enemies is a sign that you’re courageously right. No, [...]

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