Probe Vertically, See Horizontally

Excerpted from The Great Influenza by John M. Barry,  © 2004:

The greatest challenge of science, its art, lies in asking an important question and framing it in a way that allows it to be broken into manageable pieces, into experiments that can be conducted that ultimately lead to answers. To this requires a certain kind of genius, one that probes vertically and sees horizontally.

Horizontal vision allows someone to assimilate and weave together seemingly unconnected bits of information. It allows an investigator to see what others do not see, and to make leaps of connectivity and creativity. Probing vertically, going deeper and deeper into something, creates new information. Sometimes what one finds will shine brilliantly enough to illuminate the whole world.

Two Pins

Jacob A. Riis writes in his autobiography of his life of poverty upon arriving as an immigrant in America, and how it affected his decision later in life to become a newspaper reporter:

It was under such auspices that I made the acquaintance of Mulberry Bend, the Five Points, and the rest of the slum, with which there was in the years to come to be a reckoning. For half a lifetime afterward they were my haunts by day and by night, as a police reporter, and I can fairly lay claim, it seems to me, to a personal knowledge of the evil I attacked. I speak of this because, in a batch of reviews of A Ten Years’ War [Footnote: Now, The Battle with the Slum.] which came yesterday from my publishers to me there is one which lays it all to “maudlin sensitiveness” on my part.

“The slum,” says this writer, “is not at all so unspeakably vile,” and measures for relief based on my arraignment “must be necessarily abortive.” Every once in a while I am asked why I became a newspaper man. For one thing, because there were writers of such trash, who, themselves comfortably lodged, have not red blood enough in their veins to feel for those to whom everything is denied, and not sense enough to make out the facts when they see them, or they would not call playgrounds, schoolhouses, and better tenements “abortive measures.” Some one had to tell the facts; that is one reason why I became a reporter. And I am going to stay one until the last of that ilk has ceased to discourage men from trying to help their fellows by the shortest cut they can find, whether it fits in a theory or not. I don’t care two pins for all the social theories that were ever made unless they help to make better men and women by bettering their lot. I have had cranks of that order, who rated as sensible beings in the ordinary affairs of life, tell me that I was doing harm rather than good by helping improve the lot of the poor; it delayed the final day of justice we were waiting for. Not I. I don’t propose to wait an hour for it, if I can help bring it on; and I know I can.

The Making of an American, A Ten Years’ War,  and all of Jacob Riis’ other books, are in the public domain and may be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, HERE.

The Oz Man Cometh

Most statues are of forgotten men who fought forgotten battles in wars I read about in a book.  They aren’t things I give a lot of thought to.

If it’s an especially nice statue, I might think to myself, “Hey- nice statue!” but I find it hard to invest much emotion into them–  in no small part because of this:

Ozymandias
by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Meh.

The first time the Klan came to our town, they were met with several hundred counter-protesters and people who just came to watch the show. They raged and shouted, and they all got their pictures in the paper. It was quite a ruckus.

But the second time they came, nobody much cared. They assembled on the courthouse steps, yelled for a little bit to empty streets, then scattered and went home.

They never came back a third time.

There are times when it’s important to stand up and be counted, times when it’s critical to make your voice heard, but there are other times when– almost counter-intuitively– the most powerful tool in your toolbox is apathy.

“Nice lot of counting machines!”

I’m reading Jacob Riis autobiography and came to a part where he mentioned knowing Hans Christian Anderson.  I was amazed- then I remembered that when he wrote this book in 1901 he was already an old man, recounting a story from his youth.  It’s written in such an easy, conversational style that I lost track of the centuries:

Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, we boys loved him as a matter of course; for had he not told us all the beautiful stories that made the whole background of our lives? They do that yet with me, more than you would think. The little Christmas tree and the hare that made it weep by jumping over it because it was so small, belong to the things that come to stay with you always. I hear of people nowadays who think it is not proper to tell children fairy-stories. I am sorry for those children. I wonder what they will give them instead. Algebra, perhaps. Nice lot of counting machines we shall have running the century that is to come! But though we loved Andersen, we were not above playing our pranks upon him when occasion offered. In those days Copenhagen was girt about with great earthen walls, and there were beautiful walks up there under the old lindens. On moonlight nights when the smell of violets was in the air, we would sometimes meet the poet there, walking alone. Then we would string out irreverently in Indian file and walk up, cap in hand, one after another, to salute him with a deeply respectful “Good evening, Herr Professor!” That was his title. His kind face would beam with delight, and our proffered fists would be buried in the very biggest hand, it seemed to us, that mortal ever owned,–Andersen had very large hands and feet,–and we would go away gleefully chuckling and withal secretly ashamed of ourselves. He was in such evident delight at our homage.

The Making of an American— and all of Jacob Riis’ other books– are in the public domain and may be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, HERE.  Hans Christian Anderson’s parable of the Christmas Fir is online HERE.