Unable to find anything printable to say about Jonathan Swann's remarkable and appalling interview with Pres. Trump, I allowed my mind to wander and into it popped one of my favorite lines from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. It is the great moment in act two when Pooh Bah and his confederates, having given the Mikado an elaborate and entirely false account of their execution of a 2nd trombone player in a traveling band, discover that the person they have claimed to execute is the son of the Mikado, for which act they face hideous death. The others reproach Pooh Bah for his over the top description of the imaginary execution and Pooh Bah replies, in an effort to justify himself, that it was " merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." I don't know why I love this line so much. Perhaps it is because it strikes me as a fairly accurate description of a good deal of the contemporary philosophy I have read.
But since my mind is endlessly restless, it then recalled a truly appalling moment in a course I taught at UNC Chapel Hill six or seven years ago. The doctoral program in public policy requires all of its students to take a seminar on Moral Dimensions of Public Policy, a course that had for many years been taught by a senior member of the UNC philosophy department. But because this notable had a grant and was on leave, I was recruited to take his place. The experience was in general delightful. The students, unlike most philosophy department graduate students, had gone out into the world after graduating from college and held extremely interesting jobs in various aspects of public policy before returning to their doctorates, so they were not only bright, they also had a variety of interesting experiences on which they could draw in our classroom conversation.
One day, as I was going on about something or other – I cannot now recall what – I made a reference by way of illustration of the point I was elaborating to one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. From their facial reactions I could tell that my reference was falling flat so I took a moment to poll the young people sitting around the table and I discovered, to my horror, that not a single one of them had ever heard of Gilbert and Sullivan. I could have handled it if they confessed that they could not sing half a dozen of the songs or recount the plots of the plays. I mean, young people have their limitations. But not a single one of them had so much as heard of Gilbert and Sullivan.
I think it was at that moment that I first realized I had definitively passed my sell – by date. Sometimes it is hard growing old.