The Circus and the Charlatan

Ringmaster introducing a circus show.A number of commentators seem to have the impression that Donald Trump is a one-of-a-kind, never-before-seen phenomenon without precedent. If there is a primoprogenitor, a cautionary exemplar of the Coming of the Donald, then that forewarning must surely be the American bunco artist P. T. Barnum. If his name seems familiar, it probably is due to his partial ownership of the famed Barnum and Bailey circus.

Many tales about Barnum’s ingenuity have survived him, and a few of them may be true. The version of the story I’m about to share with you is of uncertain provenance, and so we regard the truth of it to be not in the literal details but in the larger, figurative themes. Our interest here is not in the ‘truth’ of the origin of the story but rather in the ‘truth’ of the story’s message. For example, there’s the story of Barnum’s exhibition of a ‘real’ mermaid, direct from the south seas.

It is said that Barnum bought the ‘mermaid’ from some sketchy seaman ‘down at the docks.’ Barnum then began exhibiting the thing, placing it in a coffin-like box set up in the center of a large tent: See the Mermaid, Two Bits.

The tent filled up rapidly, but that didn’t satisfy Barnum. The customers were spending lots of time standing around the display and theorizing. Barnum realized that he didn’t want a tent full of paying customers. He wanted ten tents full. He had to move people through the tent in order to maximize his profit. His problem wasn’t drawing a crowd, his problem was getting rid of it in order to bring more customers in. As he said, “Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.”

Barnum’s solution? A sign at one end of the tent reading, “This way to the Egress.” People would enter the tent to see the mermaid and after a few minutes someone would notice the sign and say: “Hey, everybody! Let’s go see the egress!” And eveyone would follow.

Not exactly underhanded, but at the least misleading. Egress is another word for exit. Barnum counted on below average vocabulary skills (and an unwillingness to look stupid) to carry off the scheme. All of which lends support to his observation: “No man ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of the American public.”

We don’t know what the ‘mermaid’ really was. Some say it was a manatee carcass, others claim it was a dead squid with its tentacles arranged to resemble flowing tresses of hair. Whatever it was, it surely reeked to high heaven. Just like Donald Trump.

Barnum had a few other tricks up his sleeve which we’ll examine in future posts.

I have seen Fear in a Handful of Semicolons


Something is in the news that I never suspected would become an internet phenom: the besmirched and disparaged semicolon. A book has been published on the subject, and I’ve come to learn many people have been taught to never use semicolons. I don’t remember any specific instructional events involving semicolons and me, but I do think the semicolon is indispensable.

If you were told by your teacher not to use semicolons, I suspect you were told so that you would start to write short, declarative sentences. Like Hemingway’s. One thought to a sentence. Short, declarative sentences are indispensable too; they are where our thoughts come to life.

The semicolon is properly used to join together two independent clauses that relate similar thoughts or themes (except when the clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction):

Donald Trump is corrupt; he is owned by the Russian oligarchs.

This use of the semicolon in a parallel structure (like the one above) serves to give strong emphasis to the independent clause following the semicolon. Note that an independent clause must follow the semi-colon and not some modifying phrase or clause. The semicolon is also effectively used as a kind of pivot point in the sentence, setting up an opportunity for antithesis—the movement from this to that, from one to the other, from darkness to light:

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

The pivot provided by the semicolon and the parallel structure of the joined clauses lends a tolling majesty to the words, a reinforced rhetoric that comes from more than the ideas alone. The rhythm introduced by the semicolon is a big part of its persuasive power. Do not fear the semicolon.

Some Knowledge Patterns to Ponder


He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. —Aeschylus, Greek tragic dramatist (525 BC – 456 BC)

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.  —Buddha

One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.  —Ecclesiastes 1:4

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of stars. —Walt Whitman

Outside the box

The Test

Several men went to the Royal Palace and requested to become Emperor Akbar’s Royal Advisor. Akbar told them, “Only the person who passes my special test will get the job.”

He then took off his coat and put in on the floor. “Cover me from head to toe with this coat,” Akbar commanded.

All the men tried, but one by one they failed. When they covered his lower body, his upper body remained uncovered, and when they covered his lower body, his upper body remained uncovered.

Then Birbal entered the court, and Akbar asked him if he could complete the task. Birbal paused for a moment, and then politely asked Akbar, “Could you pull up your knees for a second?” Akbar did, and Birbal easily covered him from head to toe with the coat.

—This folktale from India reminds us that we shouldn’t allow our thinking to be boxed in by artificially imposed boundaries, or what has come to be known as “thinking outside the box” or “lateral thinking.” The men in the story are trapped by conventional thinking. They believe it’s the size of the blanket that is the problem. Then Birbal shows up and switches expectations by seeing the Emperor’s size and shape as the problem and not the dimensions of the blanket. In other words, instead of worrying about the size of the blanket, Birbal sees it’s the Emperor’s dimensions that need to be adjusted to fit the blanket’s dimensions. It’s a thought process that may be more familiar to you in the form of word puzzles: a Man rides into town on Friday, stays overnight, and leaves on Friday. How? Friday is the name of the horse he rode in on.


Rule by Fear

fear demon

Bertrand Russell, English philosopher and logician:
“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”

Our daily lives seem full of agitation. The mood in our public spaces sometimes feels edgy. Everyone is exhausted.

Fear tactics are effective. The use of them has become wide-spread–from advertising to politics to the latest phone scam. Most of us don’t seem able to resist the allure of feeling fear. It can take a lot of self-discipline to get out of the grip of powerful emotion. If we can’t step back and get loose, we tend to make stupid decisions.

Neuroscientists have postulated that our minds do two types of thinking: type one, a kind of automatic thought process that powers through to a quick decision in response to stimulus and type two, which is characterized by coherent logical analysis and reason. Certainly, when the building is crashing down around you and your thought process is shouting,”Run!” you’re in the grip of a powerful emotion and you probably should listen to it. There are many times, though, when this way of thinking or reacting can lead to trouble. Big, ugly trouble. Racism. Sexism. Religious Hate.

Every one of us is susceptible. We have “hot buttons” that will trigger these intense emotional responses, issues that cause an automatic, knee-jerk reaction in us, a reaction based on misinformation, hasty conclusions or unwarranted assumptions.

Be aware of your buttons, be aware of when they’re being pushed, of who’s pushing them and what they want from you. When we are angry or afraid, we are easily manipulated.


Claims Based on Ignorance: The Argumentum ad ignorantiam Fallacy


“I haven’t seen a single shred of evidence…”

“We don’t know of any evidence…”

“Nobody knew that…”

“Fox News is not aware of any evidence…”


Be on the lookout for this kind of construction, which, as charges and counter-charges fly back and forth, we are likely to hear frequently. The remark is not necessarily a fallacy, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing to admit your ignorance (that’s called intellectual humility). But the construction often leads to a fallacy, and it’s one that can be quite persuasive. When this construction is presented as a reason to think something does not exist, we start to run into trouble.

You can’t claim that x is false because there isn’t any evidence (that you know of) to show x is true. This is known as argumentum ad ignorantiam or the argument from ignorance.

“I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that smoking causes lung cancer.”  

OK. You’re simply claiming there’s no evidence you know about.

“I don’t know of any evidence that smoking causes cancer; therefore, the cancer must be caused by something else” Or, “Therefore, smoking is safe.”

Here the construction leads into a fallacious claim: it can’t be true because I don’t know of any evidence.

This is akin to saying there are no sharks in the ocean because I’ve never seen one. Things do not need to be in range of your sensory apparatus in order for them to exist. The furniture is still in there even though you have turned out the lights and locked the door.  And it’s dancing, throwing confetti, and wearing party hats. So don’t argue from ignorance.