You will frequently run across Daniel Quinn's Ishmael
in your more progressive college courses. I was introduced to the book by some friends in Chicago. They were big fans.
Do you remember that Celestine Prophecy
nonsense of 10 years ago? This is fairly similar, except where "Celestine" is now widely regarded as new-age bullshit, "Ishmael" still holds on to some level of philosophical credibility.
Let's deal with the credibility thing first. "Ishmael" has maintained a certain progressive following largely because it deals with protecting the environment. While I am all for protecting the environment (in fact I'm more in favor of it than Daniel Quinn, we'll get to that later) "Ishmael" takes a fairly hard line stance on the subject. But over-the-top environmentalism is not what makes "Ishmael" so stupid, so ridiculous, so amazingly inept. After all, you could at least make the case that an enormous conservation effort should be pursued based on available environmental science. I would not make this case, but someone could plausibly do so.
What makes "Ishmael" such a bad book is that it relies not on logic, but on argument from authority. And who is this authority, you ask? Newton? Einstein?
It's a psychic gorilla. Named Ishmael. He rented out an apartment and posted an ad in the paper looking for someone who "wants to save the world."
My friends tell me that this is simply a plot device, but it can't be. There is no other reason to pay attention to the ramblings of Mr. Quinn, except for the fact that they are being spewed forth from the mind of a psychic gorilla.
Ishmael makes the following analogy in order to impress upon his student the necessity of changing our evil, selfish ways: (Paraphrased. I'm not touching this book again.)
Mankind is like someone who is falling from a very high cliff. From this person's perspective everything looks fine. The scenery changes only slightly, that is until you get a few thousand feet from the ground at which point it becomes glaringly obvious that there is a problem, and you can't do anything about it.
That's it. No evidence that this reflects our current situation is offered, Quinn simply makes the assertion. He also praises the "natural world" method of distributing scarce resources. This method involves a lot of fighting, starvation, a serious decline in population, and a complete abandonment of technology. He discusses a predator and its prey, and says that in the natural world, sometimes the prey will escape, sometimes the predator will eat, but it is up to the gods to decide who wins on a given day. This is good. No one gets too much and no one wastes resources.
And of course, the student in the book believes every word from the psychic gorilla without question, because it's tough to argue with the 400 pound gorilla in the room. Especially if he happens to be psychic.
It is shocking how many people are taken in by this book. The worldview that Quinn advocates is despicable. It is filled with death and suffering, and brings progress to a standstill. It is nothing more than the typical leftist romanticism of the state of nature. Quinn wants to protect all of nature except for humanity. He is a self-loathing human.
There is also ample evidence available to indicate that Ishmael himself isn't too bright. When we meet him his living conditions are lackluster. Rather than utilizing his talents to better his own situation, which would allow him to spread his message with greater efficiency, he is content to live in hiding and in poor health. Assuming he does have something worthwhile to say, he chooses a very poor method for saying it. A method that all but ensures that no one will hear it.
So, don't read Ishmael under any circumstances. It's truly terrible. I ran into someone reading it on the train the other day while I was reading Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness
(on Danny's recommendation). He told me that reading "Ishmael" would do more to make me happy than any self-help book (note that Gilbert's book is anything but a self-help book). This happens to me with some regularity on the train. For some reason people like to tell me about Ishmael. I asked him why it made him happy and he replied that he now had a better understanding of how people are affecting things. I told him that I had read Ishmael and that I didn't believe that Quinn had any understanding of how people are affecting things and that if he did he wouldn't need to use a psychic gorilla as a proxy.
(Note: I should mention that when discussing "Ishmael" you should always say "psychic gorilla" and never "psychic monkey." Even though "psychic monkey" sounds funnier, "Ishmael" defenders will quickly and snottily correct you on this point, as if it matters.)
He then advised me to "look at the world around me and see what's going on."
He then disembarked from an electrical train in one of the nation's largest cities amidst skyscrapers and magnificent works of public art,
where coffee and giant burritos are plentiful, violence is minimal, and modern forced air heating is keeping hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise be miserable or dead at a balmy 74 degrees.
As usual, the world looks pretty nice to me. And best of all, no psychic gorillas.
I wish that Julian Simon
would have answered Ishmael's advertisement and put an end to this nonsense.
Labels: Books I Hate