On Masculinity

“And then he passed out,” Brielle concluded. “I swear, he does the dumbest things sometimes.”

“A friend of mine once told me,” Mr Magundi said, “that the male half of our species is really made up of two sexes. She called them ‘men’ and ‘guys.’ The difference, she said, was in the permanence of their masculinity. A man’s masculinity is simply a genetic fact; he never has to think or worry about it. But a guy’s masculinity is conditional. The most insignificant things can cause him to lose it, and then he can win it back only by doing something extraordinarily stupid or destructive. A guy can lose his masculinity if he drives a station wagon, or if he lets a school bus pass him on the highway; he can lose it if he is forced to sing in public, or—like your boyfriend—if he refuses another drink when the rest of the guys are still drinking. Most vandals are guys who need to prove that they still have their masculinity; for the same reason, the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are male. Most of the wars in the world can be explained as groups of guys desperately trying to preserve their masculinity. Women and men build up civilization, but guys tear down civilization, because they can lose their masculinity by being too civilized. I don’t normally give personal advice, Brielle, but I’d seriously suggest that, when the time comes, you should marry a man and not a guy.”

On Beauty

“If you can draw, you can do advertisements or comic books or something,” Brielle was saying, “but it’s like art museums don’t take art seriously anymore.”

“For most of history,” Mr. Magundi replied, “the question we asked about art was ‘Is it beautiful?’ Now we ask, ‘Is it meaningful?’ In fact, I think many, perhaps most, artists today would be insulted and appalled if you told them art was supposed to be beautiful. But I think without beauty we lose the meaning. Too much of the art I see today is little more than a punch line. You get it, and you laugh, or you say that it’s clever, and then you’ve got everything there is to get from it. There’s just one joke; it may be thought-provoking, but it provokes only one single obvious thought. But if you look at Picasso’s Guernica, you see infinitely more. Picasso could have scrawled ‘War is hell’ on a bedsheet and hung it on the wall, and that would convey a message. But it would not fascinate us, and it would not move us. What moves us is beauty, even in horror. What fascinates us is complexity and subtlety, something that engages us in a conversation rather than simply declaring a fact to us like a newspaper headline. In histories of art two centuries from now, I think our era will be portrayed as the one-joke era of art, and it will be dismissed in a paragraph. The next paragraph will turn with a sense of relief to the era when beauty was rediscovered as the primary goal of art.”

On Fundamentalism

“But we have to do something to clamp down on fundamentalism, don’t we?” I said.

“I think we need to think of fundamentalism—Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Maoist or whatever—as something like coal gas or tornadoes,” Mr. Magundi replied. “It’s a force that exists. It shouldn’t blow up or blow down and kill a bunch of innocent people, but it will given half a chance. There’s no use saying there shouldn’t be tornadoes in Oklahoma; there are, and that’s life, and we just have to make the best of it. We have to build our houses with shelters so that the tornadoes will blow over without killing us. And when they do blow over, we have to be ready to pick up the rubble and shrug and say, ‘Well, that’s the way it goes.’ In the future we may be able to mitigate the force of the weather, and we may be able to mitigate the force of fundamentalism. But I have a suspicion that, if we try, we’ll botch both jobs terribly, and make a bigger mess than the one we were trying to clean up.”

On the American Revolution

“That’s because the French completely botched their revolution,” Mr. Bates said rather smugly.

“The thing that sets our American Revolution apart from most other revolutions,” Mr. Magundi replied, “is that it was a conservative revolution: conservative in the root sense of the word, meaning seeking to preserve the established order. The French Revolution had as its object to sweep away all the ancient institutions and replace them with something entirely new to France. But the Americans had seen their ancient liberal institutions swept away and wanted them back. Here in Pittsburgh in 1775, a people’s committee resolved to support the New England rebels, saying that the committee did ‘most cordially approve of their opposing the invaders of American rights and privileges to the utmost extreme.’ And similar statements came from all over the country. The Americans were not mainly theorists; they saw a despotic government invading their ancient rights and privileges, and they defended what belonged to them. Before the despotic invasion, they had lived in states governed by popular assemblies with a governor as the executive; after a successful revolution, they lived in states governed by popular assemblies with a governor as the executive. It was the interval of despotism that was the innovation, and we rejected it.”


On Styles of Thinking

“I don’t see how it makes a difference to the science,” Mrs. Bowman said.

“People use two kinds of thinking when they want to discover the truth,” said Mr. Magundi. “I call them rational thinking and personality thinking. Rational thinking asks, ‘How do I know?’ Personality thinking asks, ‘Whom do I trust?’

“We all use both kinds of thinking to some degree. When we need to make a quick life-or-death decision, well-placed trust is likely to preserve us when there’s no time to reason things out. But most people lean more in one direction or another. You’re a rational thinker; you look at your scientist’s methods and reasoning, and you see nothing wrong with it, so you can’t understand what relevance it has if he did something wrong in his personal life. But a personality thinker—and I believe personality thinkers are the more common type—is simply appalled that you would see things that way. If a scientist is a thief or an adulterer, then of course you have to reject his science, because you can’t trust him. I think it’s terribly damaging to judge science by personalities, but a personality thinker would just smirk at me and tell me that of course that’s what a man like me would think.”

On Atheist Politicians

“I don’t think I could vote for a politician who said he was an atheist,” I said.

“I’d choose a declared atheist over any opponent,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Politicians lie: it’s their habit, perhaps even their nature. Any ordinary politician will say what he needs to say to get himself elected. Why should I believe a politician who says he’s a faithful Christian any more than I believe one who says he’ll balance the budget? But a politician who declares himself an atheist knows that his declaration will cost him countless votes, and gain him virtually nothing. He proves by his statement that there’s at least one lie he won’t tell—that there’s at least one principle that’s more important to him than getting elected. For him alone, there really is concrete evidence of honesty: he says he’s an atheist, and, by God, I believe him.”