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"Cynicism is fundamentally about self-defense from future pain"

I find this confusing. Aren't cynics actually Idealists? That is, their fundamental position is that there is Virtue to be found once the falsity of fame, power, wealth, vanity, and pomp are cast aside? They don't seem to be defending themselves from pain, rather the almost seem to seek it - that's why they wandered homeless like wild dogs (cynic, from cyne, Greek for dog) or at best lived unwashed in barrels?


"read to me like a self-satisfied expression of condescension towards an audience so naive as to expect some justice in this world"

Tyrell, actually it appears a standard part of the traditional African folktale formula. Remember, most folktales were not told in private settings. African folktales were traditionally told by people with social performance/storyteller roles at public events. African folktales often end with a similar "proverb" and a statement by the story teller that the tale is done, and discussion of the moral can begin or be considered. See the African folktales book above for a detailed description of the traditional experience.

But formalism is a key part of all folk-telling. In the West, folk tales begin with "Once upon a time" and formally end with "They all lived happily ever after." In Russia, since that's come up, a common beginning is "In a certain kingdom, in a certain land" or "In a certain village, not far, not near, not high, not low," while my favorite may be "Once upon a time in a wide white world, in a wide white kingdom, across the nine white lands." (Russian Fairy Tales, Aleksandr Afanasev)

Russian tales tend to end "And they all began to live happily together for the glory of the people." (Since many Russian folktale books are in fact, as stated by Vladimir, Soviet anthropology, that last bit might be Soviet style.)

You can compare this to the elaborate and beautiful stylization of the Arab folktale, which traditionally were often told by women storytellers to other women as amusements at events like births and weddings. "Once upon a time there was or there was not - for we know nothing except by the grace of God, only Allah knows all. . ." Also extended families in the secluded women's quarters told stories while women were embroidering, thus openings like "There was or there was not, shall we tell stories or sleep in our cots?" - meaning shall we sew or be lazy? (from Arab Folktales, Iner Bushnaq)

These Arab folktales tend to end with a rhyme "We left them happy and back we came/May God see your life's the same" or, since many of these are wedding stories, they end with a formal vouch for eyewitness truth, "And I know this to be so, for I attended the wedding myself, and never have eaten cakes so sweet...." or some other testament to the celebration of the day.


Because we in the West also say "no good deed goes unpunished," we do not mean that one shouldn't do good deeds, or that the failure of others to correctly respect good deeds is a fact of life that should cause us to throw up our hands and collapse gloomily at the unchanging evils of the world. Rather it is an ironic statement in sympathy with the person whose good deed was unrewarded, to show that we recognize ourselves the goodness of good deeds, unlike those other nasty monkeys who aren't "nice."


What? Of course it is a realistic story, but it is told as form of warning! Don't behave like this - be nice instead! Think and display gratitude - don't abuse hospitality & kindness! Isn't this in keeping, Robin, with your idea that stories are about niceness and to reinforce that we value it and are nice ourselves?

EY I think you completely misinterpret the meaning of this important story:

". . .one of the most pervasive features of [African] tales: the use of them as a discussion of how to act correctly. . . This is the way of the small community worldwide, for the well-being of the group resides in the sharing of this kind of [moral] knowledge, through which family and friendship obligations are woven into the web of community.

This process of engagement, of using moral tales to open rather than close off discussion, is precisely the modus operandi of a group of African stories. . .

Throughout Africa there are stories that "belong to" animals like Mouse or some creature who intrudes itself into a human community, but acts as if its still in a wild state. It is Hare and Spider and Jackal and the other clever creatures living near man, but hiding in holes, in the nooks and crannies, in the borders that test culture.

Living in the in-between places, they share the power of nature and the products of human culture, but with their bad behavior they obey neither the moral rules of man nor the proper laws of nature. Thus these animals thrive on not only upsetting rules, customs, and boundaries, but also on attacking the family, friendships, morality, and all the ways people have learned to live in harmony. One must remember that when naughty tales of these trickster animals are acted out, it is to gales of laughter.

These tales within an oral world. . .argue then by analogy, not only with regard as to how people should and should not act in society but also as to how actions affect the whole community. Because such stories and proverbs are indirect means of entering into deep moral discussions their use is considered good manners in Africa."

-- African Folktales, Roger D. Abrahams, from the Introduction

This seemingly simple and slightly risque African folktale then should be understood as the way Africans start moral discussions, in this case, on the features of gratitude. That naughty trickster Snake sneaks in & abuses the hospitality of the Farmer, and Snake dies for it; but the Farmer himself cannot see that he duplicates Snake's lack of gratitude and good manners in his treatment of Heron! Heron likewise also fails to behave. Thus the Farmer suffers harm to his wife and so gets his comeuppance. No doubt Heron will come to a bad end too, for his lack of proper gratitude.

Snake's initial "prank" turns out to disrupt the entire social order and results in real pain. This says nothing about gloominess - it doesn't counsel "defection," rather the tale talks about how even small slips of good manners can spiral out of control to wreak people's lives. In traditional African cultures, where the group always comes before the individual, this would be considered an important lesson.


"Nearly all people for thousands of years thought it was perfectly all right to keep slaves"

And many still do today - for example, Shari'a endorses slavery. Our Western values are far from universal and cannot be taken for granted.


"if there is a reason to expect human rightness to be in some sense coherent"

Alas there probably is not. Sir Isaiah Berlin speaks powerfully and beautifully of this so-called values pluralism in his book Liberty.

There are several ironies - if not outright tragedies - of life and this is one: that we don't want what we want to want, and that the things we think we ought to want often conflict with each other as well as our underlying motives. We are not in charge of ourselves and we are mysterious to our own hearts. Men and women are conflicted and, due to evolution, conflict.

@Mike Blume

"On Firefly, Kaylee is beautiful, has an above-female-average sex drive, and falls in love with the introverted, socially awkward intellectual character - isn't she exactly the sort of catgirl most male sci-fi fans would want?"

No. That would certainly freak the nerd out. M. Vassar and I have several times discussed this problem - nerds seem to integrate their low status, so often if any even half-decent skirt shows an interest in them they reject instantly, thinking "wow, I know I'm a loser, so you must be worse to like me." Nerds would do better to uncoil from the defensive crouch of that identity ASAP.

Economic weirdtopia . . .after the Ultimate Crash of 2105, the best ems got together and created a new universal atomic currency, based on not just on gold, but on reserves of quark-gluon plasma made from gold nuclei in deference to mankind's historical preferences.

Sexual weirdtopia. . .since death is over through nanotechology or uploading into perfect android bodies you can get on a 3-year-lease, there's no need for birth. If ems want to create a new being from themselves, they just copy different brain modules from the catalog and create the perfect "children" who share all the traits & values they want them to have.

Technological weirdtopia. . .once we found gravitational waves, we decided few things were as beautiful as watching black hole spin-flips. How majestic to see the jets reverse - like Niagara Falls but much much better. They become the new lunar eclipses. The AIs decide for retro-aesthetic reasons to resort to communicating only via gorgeously polished and highly decorated ebony "punch cards."

Cognitive weirdtopia. . .since unlimited thinking power is available via copy & merge for ems, or simple access to AIs, thought has become devalued. Who wants it when it isn't rare? Real physical sensation becomes more highly valued than ever, and people pile hop into giant "cuddle piles" with numerous artificial cats just to feel the warmth.

Governmental weirdtopia. . .we discover the aliens learned long ago how to encode their whole being into several kinds of waveforms. Thus the first message SETI finds is actually the ambassador itself. It informs us of the spectral rules governing the bands given to various alliances and tells us where to find the repeaters. The cosmos is governed by a universal FCC.

@Eli "Ben Franklin, say" Franklin is probably the best person to come to the here - it's very well-known he wished to preserve his body in Madeira so he could be revived to see the future, yes? Plus if you've actually read any of his letters and other writing, you see how much more flexible his mind was than just anyone you have ever met. My impression is that he would find today less shocking than probably 75% of those who live now do.

"talking about science in public is socially unacceptable" This is already true in many places around the world and has been for several decades now, yes? I don't just mean Kansas.

@Robin " I would be out of place there in many ways" Considering "The Nerd Identity," (Matt Damon stars) don't you and Eli both rather revel in how out of place here you are in many ways? In light of that, wouldn't the future you have proposed in some ways also be more congenial to you?

Isn't the shock caused by the rigidity of identity, as Ben Jones implies? By re-thinking how identity functions, wouldn't the shock be far less? Altho' honestly I don't see why the idea frightens anyone, as it has been a core notion of both Hinduism and Buddhism for millenia - we should all have had time to integrate the concept apart from the dogma.

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