Sargon’s Sophomoric Principles

YouTuber Sargon of Akkad, a pseudonym for British man Carl Benjamin, has written a set of principles to describe the political philosophy he espouses, which so far can only be described by the adjective “liberalist”. Whether there is or will be a noun form for the set of liberalist ideas is unknown at this time. Unfortunately for linguists everywhere, liberalistism seems to the be most reasonable option to name the ideas with a noun. As such, I will do my best to torture my own prose in order to avoid ever typing the word liberalistism again.

The current set of liberalist principles are described here, which Sargon shared on Minds and are presumably written by him. I had to use an archive because they’ve changed since they were first published, and if they are to ever be worthwhile, they will change again. Sadly, these are not in a complete enough form to criticize in a meaningful sense. The lack of definitions, inconsistent language and terseness makes legitimate criticism impossible. Should my legitimate criticisms of what exists be heard, I am likely to find the sands of definition shifting so that no criticism needs to be addressed. The tools left to my disposal to examine this piece are therefore limited to pointing out structural problems and teasing.

Overall the set of liberalist principles as described here is consistent with my impression of Sargon and his followers: people whose opinion is that the status quo of 2018 is more or less optimal, and that the Wikiquote page of 17th century English philosopher John Locke in combination with their own conventional wisdom is all that is necessary to support that view. It is very fortunate for Sargon and his followers that they happened to be born into the moment when the optimal ideals for political organization are also the conventional civic virtues they were taught in middle school.

Individual Rights
All political rights must be universally shared by all adult citizens,  enforced by a state that is accountable to the people. Groups may not have rights that violate the rights of individuals.
Each person’s rights must remain sacrosanct. This is the primary protection all people in society must enjoy to ensure justice and there can be no extra-legal justification to violate an individual’s rights.

The first sentence of these principles already yields problems. “All political rights must be universally shared by all adult citizens,  enforced by a state that is accountable to the people.” Nowhere does Sargon care to tell us what a political right is. Is it different from the term natural right Locke uses? Are political rights the only kind of rights or are they part of a vast undefined tapestry of rights? The audience is left to guess what this means. Similarly, state, accountability and people are equally ill-defined terms. Unlike his favorite philosopher, Sargon seems to think that governments and states just fall out of the sky and have people assigned to them. Accountability is a strange term as well. Caligula was held accountable for his actions in government, but I don’t think that’s the sort of government Sargon had in mind. Of course, Sargon later goes on to say that only democratic governments are legitimate, so I think that overrides all sorts of accountability except for the ballot-box type of accountability.

Moving on from the first sentence doesn’t make things much better. Apparently groups have rights, whose source and function are left as an exercise to the reader, that may not interfere with individual rights. Why the rights of a group differ from the rights of an individuals acting in concert is kind of bizarre. In the next sentence Sargon describes individual rights as sacrosanct, which seems like an odd word choice in a document which excludes religion from the organization of government.

All legal adults must be franchised with the right to have a direct method of exerting influence over their government. This is usually a representative democracy with the state as the servant of the people, dedicated to protecting their property rights and interfering with their lives as little as possible.

In the second section, Sargon moves into sheer Jacobin territory by declaring democracy the only legitimate form of government. Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government, marks himself against the concept of divine right, but not against Kings who reign with the consent of the governed. The belief that democracy is the only possible legitimate form of government is either a Jacobin or Trotskyist concept, both of which encourage the revolution to be spread by force around the world.

That isn’t even the worst bit of the second section. Sargon says that all adults should be granted the vote. Does he mean naturalized citizens here? Does he include incarcerated felons? Is living within a state sufficient to be granted a vote for its government? It is hard to tell what are hidden extremist positions and what is simple intellectual laziness on Sargon’s part.

Economic Freedom
Property rights begin with personal self-ownership and extend to any property an individual has legally acquired. The individual must be, as much as possible, in control of their own economic destiny. This includes the right to own property, engage in trade, to sell one’s own labour or to engage in collective economic activities.

For once, Sargon writes too many words in the section on economic freedom. Rather than stick to broad platitudes, he adds in caveats to make sure he has room to justify encroachments by the status quo on his banal principles that come later in the short list.

Freedom of speech
All people should enjoy the right to voice political ideas, no matter how controversial, without suffering penalties via state imposed fines, exclusion from the political system, incarceration or any other form of punishment.
No political idea can ever be considered as incitement, abuse or harassment in and of itself.
No speech should be compelled.

His description of freedom of speech is typically short, so the fact it is missing necessary details shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point. I do find it interesting that like rights, he chooses the adjective political to describe speech. It raises the question if non-political ideas are subject to suppression and incarceration for a liberalist.

People should be judged by the content of their character. Promotion  should be on the basis of achievement and should not be unduly inhibited by innate characteristics.
Nobody is entitled to receive benefits they did not earn or to which they are not already entitled by being a citizen.
This is not to be misinterpreted as declaration against social safety nets or healthcare, but against individuals or groups claiming unearned benefits, whether social or material, that they otherwise do not deserve.

When it comes to meritocracy, the opening statement about people being judged by the “content of their character” seems out of place. While obviously an unattributed reference to Martin Luther King Jr., judging people by the content of their character isn’t meritocratic in the slightest under common definitions. An otherwise bad person who is an effective employee should be promoted according to Sargon’s achievement criterion in the second sentence, but not when the content of his character is used to judge. In just two sentences, Sargon manages to provide contradictory statements on how a meritocracy should operate.

Moving on in meritocracy we find more problems. The first is that I don’t know if the use of citizen is supposed to mean something different from the word adult used previously. Sargon then says that people aren’t entitled to benefits, except for the ones he thinks they are entitled to. The two statements here also contradict the earlier statement about people being in control of their own economic destiny. Of course, Sargon added a caveat to that statement, so he likewise doesn’t have to follow it when he doesn’t want to.

Blind Justice
Each individual will be governed by the same laws as their peers, whether applicable or not, without exception.
Each person will be presumed innocent until proven guilty and guaranteed the right to a fair trial.

Sargon has very little to say about justice, except that laws should be applied consistently, that innocence is presumed, and that there should be fair trials. This extreme terseness on such a vital subject, one much more important than freedom of speech or meritocracy is telling. The laziness displayed here just seems to be Sargon not particularly caring about the topic, but feeling like it needed to be included.

There must be a strict separation between religion and state. Religious institutions must not be able to exert political power on the state for the goal of promoting religious beliefs.
All people must be allowed to worship privately or publicly (or not at all) as long as their religious beliefs do not interfere with the rights of others. This includes the ability to establish religious institutions and proselytise their faith.
Nobody is free to impose their beliefs on others.

Finally we get to the last section of this silly set of principles, on the separation of religion and state. The word choice here is once again telling because he means something fundamentally different than the American church and state. Sargon wants worship of self to be enshrined in government, and for other modes of belief to be tossed aside. For someone who believes only in the self, this is a very good arrangement as it puts their religion that doesn’t seem like a religion in the position of a state church.

All and all, Sargon has laid out a set of principles so vague that at a passing glance, any American or Brit who doesn’t think much about politics, would not only have agreed with them, but probably wrote something similar and of similar quality in a high school civics course, even if they actually disagreed with the views Sargon promotes. Liberalistism, in this form, is indistinguishable from a dozen other dopey political brands like reformicons, or conservatarians. Nothing makes it stand out from boring consensus politics. At least consensus politics has the excuse of trying to find common ground between people without strict adherence to principle. Sargon is trying to make a statement about a coherent set of views, and fails at every conceivable level. As I’ve said, I didn’t even bother criticizing the actual ideas in this piece, just their poor construction, their contradictions, and the obvious caveats Sargon has to use as excuses for not following his stated principles. There is plenty to say about the ideas, and when the day comes that Sargon is able to articulate those ideas in a sufficient amount of explanation with a sufficient amount of specificity, I will be happy to engage with the ideas. Until then, this will have to suffice.

Harvard Classics, Volume 19: Goethe & Marlowe

This volume of the Harvard Classics was dedicated to Napoleonic-era German poet, dramatist, novelist, scientist, and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In addition to three works by Goethe, Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan drama “Dr. Faustus” is included as both reference and an important work of English drama.

Beginning with Marlowe, “Dr. Faustus” is the greatest play of its era not written by Shakespeare. “Dr. Faustus” tells the story of a German scholar who, seeking arcane knowledge, makes a pact with the devil for the services of Mephistopheles. The deal is Mephistopheles will serve Faustus throughout the remainder of his life, at which point Faustus’ soul will belong to the devil. The action of the play consists of Faustus’ search for knowledge, his pact with the devil, and his subsequent fall. In between are humorous scenes, possibly added after the fact, with the Pope and the Emperor. Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” is a great piece of drama, but Goethe surpasses it entirely.

Goethe’s take on the Faust legend is a bit different. In this one, Faust strikes a better bargain with the devil. In this case, the Faust’s soul is contingent on Mephistopheles being able to satisfy Faust’s quest for knowledge. The Harvard Classics only includes Part 1 of Faust, which is powerful enough on its own. While the devil brings Faust to a series of pleasurable encounters, the second half of the story is dominated by Faust and his lust for the maiden Gretchen. The main object of Goethe’s Faust is the depiction of the modern soul. Faust strives for knowledge and the sublime, but can never be satisfied in his quest for either of them. Spengler uses this characterization to describe modern society as a whole. This focus on the emerging modern man in the wake of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic era makes the verse relevant to today. The issues Goethe grapples with in Faust are issues we still have with us today.

In addition to Faust, another Goethe play, Egmont, was included in this collection. Count Egmont was a noble in the Spanish Netherlands whose execution was a flashpoint that started the Eighty Years War, which resulted in Dutch independence. The play outlines the last days of Egmont’s life, and the tumults going on in the Netherlands. Ultimately, this play casts Egmont as an early progenitor of Goethe’s ideal of national self-determination and liberty. The most famous part of Egmont however, is not the play itself. The score for the play was written by Beethoven, and the overture does a better job describing the play than my measly paragraph ever could.

The final work of Goethe in this volume was Hermann and Dorothea. A simple love story, beautifully written in verse, and set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars make it an engaging work of literature.

Next up on the docket is Dante’s Divine Comedy, followed by Il Promessi Sposi, The Odyssey, and Two Years Before the Mast to round up a long stretch of narrative-driven works.

Categorizing the Wealth of Nations

Sometimes on this site, I like to do some small analyses and modeling , and when I encountered this GDP Predictor, I wanted to play around with the data some and see what I could uncover. Unfortunately, the Excel spreadsheet doesn’t exist anymore, so I had to reconstruct the author’s dataset. I took this data and made a hierarchical categorization of nations based upon GDP per capita. These categories wound up having geographical and cultural meanings that went beyond the economic scope of the data.

While I used the link above for inspiration, I made some slight changes to the dataset. I included all of the sub-scores from the Fraser economic freedom index, which turned out to be very useful. I also used raw inputs, rather than converting everything to dollar values.  My data included national IQ, Economic Freedom Index and its subscores: Size of Government, Legal System & Property Rights, Sound Money, Freedom to Trade Internationally, Regulation. EU/NAFTA membership, and oil production per-capita rounded out the data used for each of the 185 countries I used.

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Harvard Classics, Volume 18: Modern English Drama

This volume of the Harvard Classics, focusing on the best drama from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, is both a collection of classics of the English language and a volume that highlights the limitations of something like the Harvard Classics. Since this volume was put together in 1909, it missed out on plays from the late 19th and 20th centuries which would have displaced some of the weaker plays in this volume. That’s no fault of the people putting the collection together, they took the relatively bare landscape of English-language drama from after the English Civil War through the Napoleonic wars and selected the six best representatives of that century and a half timespan. However, the difference in time between today and when the collection was assembled means that important contributions to the English dramatic canon by Shaw, Miller, Beckett and Stoppard aren’t in contention for spots in this volume.

The collection begins with Dryden’s All for Love. The preeminent poet in England after the death of Milton, Dryden has already been an important component of the Harvard Classics for his translations of Plutarch and Vergil. This play, however, is an original work that draws heavily from Shakespeare and Plutarch. All for Love tells the story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra in Alexandria after the Battle of Actium. Dryden takes the tense historical scene of the besieged lovers and adds a new element to the drama, Antony’s wife, and Octavian’s sister, Octavia. With Antony, his wife and his mistress all present, all set against each other and with the armies of Agrippa about to engulf them all, the personal drama stays at a fever pitch. Antony is portrayed as a man torn between despair, a desire to reconcile with his Roman roots and his love for Cleopatra. All for Love is distinctly different from the rest of the collection as it is more a hearkening back to the Greek and Elizabethan forms than a foreshadowing of things to come.

With that said the second play in the collection, A School for Scandal, by Richard Sheridan, could not be more diffierent from the high drama in the final days of Ptolemeic Egypt. A School for Scandal is a comedy of manners lampooning the British upper classes. The comedy relies on hidden identities, mistaken assumptions and secret machinations to weave its humor. The crux of the story leans on the perception and misperception of affection between husbands, wives, bachelors and maidens. It is a tough story to read through casually, as the intricacies of identity vary quickly and regularly throughout the play.

In my opinion, the other comedy in this collection, She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith told a simpler, better contained story that certainly did not lack in truly funny moments. The pretense of the story is two old friends are putting up their son and daughter as a prospective marriage, and the son is traveling to meet the daughter to see if romance takes off. In a story that could only take place in the pre-modern period, the son ends up at his intended’s home, thinking it was an inn instead of the home of a family friend. Hilarity ensues as it is unveiled that the son also is very nervous around women of high birth. This is where the “stooping to conquer” element comes in, as the host’s daughter plays a maid to win the love of the doubly-duped guest. All of these misconceptions lead to misunderstandings and weave with a secondary plot to come to a head at the end of the play. Ultimately, the play is a fine example of the 18th century romcom.

The next play in the collection, Shelley’s The Cenci, could not have a more opposite demeanor. Oedipus, Antigone, and King Lear are rolled into one drama that is seldom performed due to the darkness of the subject matter. The play is based on the true story of an Italian noblewoman who was raped by her father, conspired to murder him and then was found guilty of murder by the Pope. The main element of artistic power here is Shelley’s brilliant verse that is so compelling and captures the spirit of the characters involved in this unfolding tragedy. At every step of the way Shelley’s verse paints an emotional portrait of people under the worst stresses imaginable enduring different types of suffering.

The fifth play in the collection, Browning’s A Blot in the ‘Stucheon is one of the weaker members. The drama of the story is very reminiscent of Euripides in its simplicity and the role of chance in comparison with the other dramas of its age. The dramatic framework of a couple entering into an arranged marriage who were already secretly seeing each other clandestinely only turns into a drama when the woman’s desire to keep her guardian and brother from knowing about the pre-marital affair. Fate intervenes to turn a possibly comedy into a tragedy, resulting in the deaths of all three lead characters.

The final play, Lord Byron’s Manfred, stands out from the rest. Manfred tells the story of a superman who has, through intense study and training come to rise above the mortals around him. Searching for more, Manfred consults with demons and clergy to accumulate more strength, but in critical opposition to Faust, Manfred refuses to submit himself to any being, even God himself, in exchange for more. While not a triumph of storytelling, Manfred serves as a bridge between Milton’s Satan and Nietzsche’s ubermensch and represents an important development in the artistic expression of morality.

While Manfred was a response to Faust in many ways, the next volume of the Harvard Classics focuses on this story. Both Goethe’s and Marlowe’s version are presented against each other along with two other plays by Goethe. Once I’ve finished those four plays, I’ll be embarking on Dante, I Promessi Sposi, The OdysseyTwo Years Before the Mast, a collection of Burke’s writings, and a volume of JS Mill & Carlyle. Once I’ve finished all of those, I’ll officially be half-way through with the Harvard Classics.

Why the Conservative Movement is a Terminal Case

“The Conservative Movement” is a catch-all for the publicly acceptable, college-educated right in America. You can identify a member by their ability to say things like: “my principles kept me from fighting as hard as I could have” and “Ben Sasse, Marco Rubio and Jeff Flake are the direction this country is headed”. I come here today to declare the movement spawned in the post-war era as a terminal case. Conservatives today are not only detached from the founding values of the movement, they are widely uneducated in the history, philosophy and the theology of the worldview they purport to uphold. They will treat the phrase: “All men are created equal” as if it were scripture without a stray thought for Locke or Paul who laid the foundations for the founder’s vision.

The most damning thing of all for the conservative movement, is that they fail to come close to the principles outlined by Buckley when he founded the National Review, as good of a barometer as anything for what the conservative movement was supposed to be about. Principles are, by their very nature, things that should be just as true when Buckley wrote them 62 years ago as they are today. A movement that has given up on the principles that it was founded on only continues by sheer inertia. Without a motivating force to compel it forward, eventually the conservative movement will whither and die.

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What I Want The Doubters To Remember About Trump’s Election

We’re a year removed from the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. As such, many people are reflecting on the shockwave his campaign brought to the political landscape. This is an article for those who opposed and half-heartedly endorsed Trump assuming he’d lose.

The first thing I’d like you to ruminate on is how, despite being someone who works in politics, or spends hundreds of unpaid hours being an informed and engaged citizen, that you were completely wrong. Despite holding yourself up as a font of knowledge of political wisdom and common sense, you not only failed to see the seismic shifts in the electorate that led to Trump’s victory, you never thought there was a possibility of a Trump win. This should be a humbling experience where you realize that your so-called expertise doesn’t mean as much as you think it does, and in fact, it may have blinded you from understanding reality.

I know many of you weren’t willing to accept that your understanding of the world and reality didn’t match up in fundamental ways. Instead you opted to form conspiracy theories about Russian interference that explained how you could be so wrong. Until you can learn to accept that Trump won, and why he won, you’ll never understand the country well enough to win an election.

Let’s not forget the factors that led to Trump’s victory. It started with a growing tide of Americans are tired of political correctness being used, like 1984’s newspeak, as means to control the debate. Debate over issues of immigration, economics, foreign policy and culture are stifiled in America and dissent is shunned as impolite and unbecoming of a politician. Trump expressed something that none of the twenty other people running for president did, dissent from the bifactional ruling party on these issues.

Trump was the only candidate available to primary voters who opposed open borders. He was the only candidate who expressed skepticism of free trade and the economic policy that leads to the disparities Bernie and friends gripe about. He was the only candidate who said American foreign policy should be directed towards the best interest of American citizens. He was the only candidate to speak to growing atomization and the downsides of modern hedonistic materialism. If another candidate has spoken to these deep concerns, they would have won. But none of the other candidates had the vision to expose the divide between the positions of the Davosie and the citizens of the country. And you, who opposed Trump or supported Trump out of anti-Clinton sentiment didn’t see it either.

Now that Trump is in office, the dividing line between the few in power who support an agenda to change the direction of the ship of state facing off against an establishment united around open borders and corporate libertarianism.

What Trump is doing, or why he won isn’t my concern here. What is my concern is what you, the apphrensive supporter of Trump, or his opposition, should be feeling one year after the election. You should have done some serious reflection about how well you are able to understand what is going on in the world. You should have reflected on if Trump, who has managed to unite the worst elements of both parties, is on to something with his platform and framing of issues. Not only that, you should be asking yourself how you let the country get to the point where the electorate decided that their best chance at reasserting themselves as sovereign in America was by electing Donald Trump. Why was it that no one else spoke to the very real issues Trump tapped into? Why was Trump able to win on issues that opinion editors throughout the nation wouldn’t print?

If you haven’t given thought to these issues yet, you still haven’t processed Trump’s election, even a year later.

Harvard Classics, Volume 17: Fables

Volume Seventeen of the Harvard Classics covered the biggest names in Western storytelling. Beginning with Aesop and continuing through The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Pretty much every fairy tale you’ve heard of comes from one of these three sources. After reading these, its pretty easy to see why these are such important parts of the Western Canon, and why they are good for people of all ages to engage with.

Aesop’s Fables is a collection of short parables which were added to over the course of two millennia from a variety of sources. In Crito, Socrates makes reference to Aesop and his animal-based parables, but some of the parables are of biblical origin, like “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”, and some come from Indian stories as well. Together, these form a collection of stories that not only communicate the moral conclusions of western people over the course of its development and history, but have been etched into the minds of European & American children to this day. “The Tortoise and the Hare” is easily the most famous, but “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse”, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, and plenty of others are instantly familiar parables that have been recycled, repackaged and reused in a variety of formats over the years. Aesop’s Fables represent the collective decision making of dozens of generations on what it means to be a moral and productive individual and is worth the read.

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SJW’s Always Double Down Review

While his enemies would tell you he’s a dilettante Caracalla, who Gibbon dubbed “the common enemy of mankind”, and his proponents would present him as a right-wing polymath, Vox Day is at his best when he sets himself to long form writing, and this week marked the release of his latest book on contemporary politics,  SJW’s Always Double Down.

In the follow-up to the widely praised, SJW’s Always Lie, Vox Day is faced with the same challenges sequels face: how to stay relevant to the original audience without recycling material and treading over the same ground. There’s no need to worry about this problem with this sequel, the subject, social justice warriors, remains constant, but the focus has changed from the personal to the organizational level.

The first book focused on the commonly seen attacks on people coming from howling leftists where someone is suddenly forced to apologize and resign from their position for saying or doing something fairly innocuous. This new book focuses on how organizations become the types of places where these types of attacks become acceptable, tolerated and normal. From a broad perspective, this book is trying to answer the question: “How do institutions become taken over by the left, turned away from their supposed function, and made to spend ever more time and effort enforcing the latest Papal bull from the local Victim’s Studies department?”

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The Impossibility of Unbiased Media

No matter what happens, no matter changes in society, and no matter how people try, no unbiased media outlet will ever exist, and we shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise.

The problem with the concept of an unbiased media is a simple: there’s too much information in the world so it has to be filtered. Every person is going to have a distinct set of filters, so the filter applied by an ideal journalist will differ from the filter of any member of their audience.

The ideal journalist must look at a story and determine what facts to investigate to understand it. The ideal journalist must decide which lines of inquiry are potentially relevant and how much effort it will take obtain them. The ideal journalist must also consider the time and monetary restraints they face as a part of their job.

Once the ideal journalist has assembled the potentially relevant facts, the ideal journalist must then determine which of the facts are relevant facts before synthesizing them into a report.

There are two distinct layers at which the ideal journalist must act as a filter: determining which facts to procure and determining which facts to pass on to their audience.

The fact of the matter is that those filters, which are absolutely required for the ideal journalist to do their job, are necessarily biased. Prioritizing valuable information over non-valuable information is an inherently biased action. The way in which the ideal journalist assigns value to information is their bias.

The other important thing to recognize here, is that there is no one-true way of prioritizing information. Even though it should go without saying I feel the need to add that not all information prioritization schemes are equally good either. A good information prioritization is, ideally, aimed at the truth. Scott Adams would point out that a human’s information prioritization filter is geared towards self-preservation. With all our human foillables of not being able to create ideal information prioritization filters and having filters which aren’t necessarily tuned in the direction of the truth, we cannot assume that any particular information filter possessed by a person is the correct one.

With all that said, an ideal journalist, who endeavors to seek and report the truth of the matter without favor towards any of the parties involved, simply cannot accomplish their goal. The ideal journalist is beset with imperfect means of valuing information in both the gathering and reporting phases.

Another, similar problem which prevents unbiased journalism is the process of story selection. Much like the ideal jorinalist, the ideal editor must consider all possible stories and decide which are worth the effort to investigate and publish. The ideal editor is faced with an even more subjective task than the ideal journalist: determining which stories deserve his team’s limited attention and prioritizing them within the publication. Which stories deserve attention is simply not something that can be accomplished without imposing bias. The ideal editor might bias themselves towards the majority, or their readership, but that is a bias nevertheless.

One might suggest the solution to the problem of journalists with imperfect information filters is to get a pool of journalists with lots of different information filters and hope they balance each other out over time. That’s been done, but it doesn’t eliminate bias from stories, nor does it negate the influence of editors. It does not go near the weight applied by the people hiring the journalists and editors in the first place, who have their own set of impossible problems to deal with.

An unbiased media or media organzation is simply impossible. Many people would like to think otherwise because a truly unbiased institution would be indisputable because it, tautologically, only delivered truth. That’s why this fiction of an unbiased media needs to be buried, even if the media were full of people relentlessly seeking the journalistic ideal, it would still suffer from bias.

Harvard Classics, Volume 16: Stories from One-Thousand and One Nights

One of the nice things about a long, relaxing vacation is the chance to read books quickly. This helps the intricacies of the story stay organized in my mind and makes it easier to see the major themes of the work in question.

Arabian Nights or The One-Thousand and One Nights is the most important work of literature to come out of the Islamic world. Drawing on Arab and Persian sources, this collection of stories is an important source for understanding the culture and world of the Islamic Golden Age.

This particular collection included in the Harvard Classics is both abridged and taken from an early English translation. Each volume of the Harvard Classics is limited to 450 pages, so oftentimes, longer works are abridged, as I always try to mention.

In the case of the One Thousand and One Nights, we are treated to the introduction to the overarching narrative along with 6 distinct stories plus Aladdin and Ali Baba as later additions. The stories escalate in their strangeness and wonder as the nights progress.

For those who are unaware, the overarching plotline is the story of a King, who, along with his brother, discover their households are full of sin and their wives and harems are totally unfaithful the moment the Kings leave their respective castles. As a result, one of the brothers decides to start marrying brides and killing them in the morning, so that they can never commit adultery against him. Needless to say, the pool of available brides in the Kingdom quickly disappears until finally the only eligible maids left in the kingdom are the daughters of the Grand Vizir. The elder daughter marries the King and proceeds to tell him stories at night, and each of the successive thousand nights, in order to keep herself alive.

The bulk of the text is twisting interlaced narrative as we receive stories within stories within stories to ensure that the King finishes stories infrequently. We’re treated to instances where a barber tells the stories of all six of his brothers and the increasingly odd ways they became dependent on him. As time goes on, the stories become more adventurous, wonderous and heroic.

An example of these later stories are the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, in which an elderly Sindbad recounts his seven voyages, which each time lead to successively worse disasters. Sinbad luckily recovers from these and is able to retire as a rich man in luxury. Sinbad journeys out the Persian Gulf and down the coasts of India and Africa encountering strange kingdoms, strange animals and strange people.

These later stories, which are much less convoluted but much more interesting become highly entertaining and start to become reminiscent of sword and sorcery stories, “The City of Brass” in particular reminding me of the Conan adventures, where Emir Musa is sent on a mission by Caliph Abd Al-Malik to find the genies imprisoned by King Solomon.

The best story in the collection, although not a part of the original nights, is “Aladdin and his Magical Lamp”. The story covers Aladdin’s ascent from a lazy ne’er-do-well into a heroic figure. The story is pretty close to the Disney movie, but ultimately different enough to still be something new to a contemporary reader.

The next volume continues the trend of fables and stories with three collections of European tales: Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. I am looking forward to these stories with particular interest. Looking farther forward, English theater and Goethe comprise the volumes following folklore.