"The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do." ~ Eric Hoffer
Minerva, Chapter 3
Three O'Toole walked down the corridor, counting off the numbers on the office doors. The campus was spread out in the Village, and O'Toole had had to ask several young people before finding the building. As he approached 824, he saw the old man walk out and close the door. O'Toole smiled; the old man was wearing a quaint but distinctive gray suit and vest, and a ridiculous red bowtie with black dollar signs on it. Unlike the earlier night, the old man's hair was now neatly combed. As he looked up from locking the door, the old man's face beamed with recognition.
'Hello Mr. O'Toole! Need to brush up on your microeconomics?'
'Oh, no,' O'Toole said after a moment. He was stunned that the professor had known his name. 'I just saw you on TV and thought I'd swing by.'
'Well, I appreciate your swinging, but right now I'm headed for class.' His voice dropped as he added, 'It would be difficult to hold myself up as a paragon of courtesy if I kept my students waiting.'
'Oh, I'm sorry to have bothered you,' O'Toole said quickly. It hadn't occurred to him that the professor might have work to do. 'Can I come by some other time?'
'Not at all, come to the class.' The old man stopped to look back at O'Toole, who had stopped walking and looked uncertain. 'I'm serious, it will be fine. It's an Honors seminar anyway; the discussion might even be interesting.'
O'Toole shrugged and followed the professor. 'Just out of curiosity,' he said, 'how did you know my name?'
The old man stopped and turned. 'Oh my, I've forgotten that although I know who you are, and you know who I am, and moreover that now I know that you know who I am, and you now know that I know who you are, that this is not a solid foundation for a relationship. Please excuse me. You gave a talk at the Business School three years ago, Mr. O'Toole. I recognized you from the cell, and looked up the old schedules to recall your name.
'And, as you must know since you found your way to my office, my name is David Mason. But please, I must get to class. We can discuss this afterwards.'
O'Toole fell in behind Mason as he resumed walking, and tried to suppress a smirk. He had known the man was eccentric, but he had thought it might largely be an act. The performance in the cell had been for an audience, and obviously the remarks to reporters (in which Mason had explained his purpose for publicly refusing to pay his taxes, and had promised that he would, if convicted, go on a 'horny strike' in which he would 'refuse to masturbate in prison') could only have been a childish publicity stunt. But apparently the man in person was just as strange.
* * *
Mason looked up from his notes and scanned the classroom. Several of the students immediately terminated their conversations when he caught their eyes, but it took a few moments for the last murmurs to die away. Mason had long ago learned to use the students' greatest weakness'the need for approval from their peers'to manipulate them. As a dictator surely realized in his own realm, Mason recognized that he had no real power over his students, should they openly defy him. If half the class decided to prevent the transmission of knowledge, they could do so. Fortunately, Mason also knew that the students had other concerns of more immediate importance than disrupting his classroom, and that any individual troublemaker could be quickly subdued by humiliating him in front of the other students.
'All right, just to refresh our memories, today we're discussing the Dennett excerpts, and you need to read Dawkins for next time. Then you'll all be able to write essays on why 'selfish altruism' is not a contradiction in terms.'
A girl raised her hand. Mason nodded his head, knowing what she would ask. 'So is that going to be a question on the final? Could you please repeat it?'
'Yes, Miss Lancaster, I could repeat it,' Mason began, 'but I will not.' The girl's face dropped. 'If I were to repeat every sentence, you would all learn only half as much.' The class laughed. 'And no, that will not be on the exam.'
The class laughed again. Julie's face blushed, and she struggled to remember exactly what Professor Mason had said about altruism. She wasn't sure if he now meant that the Dawkins material wouldn't be on the test, or just the fact that he couldn't repeat every sentence. Most of the time she didn't understand why the class laughed when it did at Professor Mason's comments.
'Professor?' another student, braver than Julie, said as he raised his hand. 'What's your view on evolution?'
'I think it would be a good thing for most of you,' Mason said, pausing just long enough to signal that this was a joke.
'Aww, come on,' the student persisted after the class's laughter subsided.
'Well,' Mason said, casting a glance at the back row in which O'Toole sat at a desk, 'since the purpose of these readings is to understand the concept of spontaneous order, rather than any particular empirical application of the idea, I suppose it doesn't matter if I share my personal opinion.' Mason saw the students perk up as they realized he was about to make a rare exception to his normal rule.
'First, let me concede upfront that the theory of Darwinian evolution is the greatest thing to ever happen to atheism. The theory provides an undeniable crutch for those who deny the existence, or at least the necessity, of an intelligent creator. However, this alone does not disqualify the theory; after all, the truth certainly has implications.'
Brian Jones tried to conceal his skepticism. He braced himself for a long-winded exposition defending the absurd idea that a dinosaur could turn into a man. Mason was yet another self-styled 'scientist' who didn't even do real science, but instead sat in his office conducting thought experiments. Nonetheless Brian listened intently, hoping to pounce on any flaw in the argument.
'I would say that there are five or six major points of contention in the debate over evolution.' Mason let the point sink in as he surveyed the room. 'I personally am only competent to judge on three or four of these controversies; the rest require proficiency in biology and archaeology that I simply do not possess.
'However, on those points which I feel competent to render a verdict, I always agree with the proponent of evolution, and disagree with the critics of the theory. Beyond that, there is a definite sense in which the Darwinian explanation is too elegant to be wrong. Let me offer an analogy: Suppose we want to pinpoint the epicenter of an earthquake . . . .'
Brian Jones couldn't believe what he was hearing. The charlatan wasn't even going to argue the material; he was simply going to switch the discussion to one about earthquakes!
''Now when the earthquake occurs, shockwaves travel away, through the ground, in all directions. So supposing the epicenter is here''Mason colored in a circle on the blackboard''the shockwaves will move out like so.' Mason drew larger and larger concentric circles around the solid dot.
'Now it turns out that certain types of waves move at different speeds through the earth's crust. So if we have an observation station at some point''Mason drew a small square several feet from the solid dot''then immediately following an earthquake, the people listening at the station will receive the fastest waves first.' Mason paused to draw a long arrow from the solid dot in the direction of the square. 'Only after some elapsed time will the slower waves hit the station.' Mason drew another arrow, this one shorter than the first, in the direction of the square.
'What is quite fascinating about this is that seismologists can use this single number, the time delay between hearing one type of wave and another, slower one, in order to calculate the distance of the source of the waves, which is of course the epicenter of the earthquake.'
Mason could see confusion on the faces of many of the students. Brian Jones was smirking behind his left hand, but Mason was used to such immaturity.
'The principle is the same that you use to estimate the distance of a thunderstorm. Light waves travel faster than sound waves. Therefore, when you see a bolt of lightning, you can count off the seconds that elapse before you hear the thunderclap. This difference allows you to calculate how far away the lightning bolt occurred, because scientists know the relative speeds of light and sound waves. It's the same with the waves traveling through the earth's crust.
'Now then, the interesting part.' Mason erased everything on the blackboard except the square. 'Unlike the observer of a lightning bolt, the scientists at the observation station cannot so easily tell the direction from which the shockwaves are coming. All they know for certain is the gap between the initial reception times of different wave types, and consequently all they can say is that the epicenter of the earthquake is at some specific distance from the station. But they cannot say in what direction the epicenter lies. What this means, therefore, is that any one station can only confine the location of the epicenter to a circle of a definite radius, with the station lying in the center of the circle.' Mason drew a large circle around the square.
'But don't give up yet!' Mason said with a twinkle. 'For if we have another station over here, then its staff can calculate the distance of the epicenter based on the gap that they experience.' Mason drew a second square, and a second circle around it, so that the two circles overlapped in two points.
'Now what has happened is this: The first station knows the epicenter is, say, 75 miles away. That means the epicenter has to be somewhere on this circle.' Mason pointed to the first circle. 'But the people at the second station know that the epicenter is, say, 45 miles away from them, meaning the epicenter must be somewhere along this circle. Of course, putting the two facts together leads us to conclude that the epicenter must be at one of these two points, where the circles intersect each other.
'Finally, if we had a third station, we could pinpoint the exact location of the epicenter.' Mason drew a third square, and carefully drew a third circle around it, making sure it touched one of the points where the first two circles intersected. 'And this, the method of triangulation, allows us to locate the source of the earthquake. There is only one point that is the proper distance from each of the three observation stations, and so it must be the source of the shockwaves.'
Mason waited for a full thirty seconds to allow the entire argument to seep in. The students would need to understand it before he could use it as an analogy.
'Now then, let us suppose that after this particular earthquake, seismologists announce that they believe the epicenter is likely to be somewhere near this point.' Mason pointed to the spot where the three circles met.
'But then along come a group of cynics.' Mason put down the piece of chalk and faced the class, now ignoring the board. 'They point out, quite correctly, that this suggestion of the location of the epicenter is merely a theory. These critics further point out that the seismologists are not making a prediction, but rather offering an untestable assertion. Indeed, the most articulate of the cynics write books, explaining that the scientists involved are merely assuming that the earth's crust is comparable to that found at a few dig sites. The scientists, after all, have never actually measured the speed of shockwaves through the ground around this point.' Mason turned to gesture at the board.
'In fact, based on the explanation of earthquakes given in a book passed down first orally and then copied by hand, originating thousands of years ago, the critics of the scientists offer their own rival theory: They say that the earthquake must be here,' Mason drew another circle and filled it in on the far side of the leftmost square. 'This is because . . .' Mason paused to dream up something clever. '. . . the earth was created shell first, and then the insides were pumped into a hole, which was then sealed. This is the location of that hole, and consequently all earthquakes originate here.
'Incidentally,' Mason said with a charming smile, 'the reason the scientists were so completely fooled is that the true composition of the earth's core'as explained in the book'is extremely complex, and thus not at all approximated by the crude models of the scientists. Brilliant scholars, ignored by the mainstream seismologists, can actually demonstrate with numerical methods that the readings at the observation posts are entirely consistent with the idea that the epicenter is here,' Mason pointed at the second colored dot, 'and not at the place where the scientists had conjectured.'
Mason put the chalk down again, and sat down. After a moment of staring at his desk, he looked back up to face the class.
'I think that's all I shall say on this subject. If you have not entirely learned my position on evolution, then my attempt has been successful. Now then, whose turn is it to summarize the reading for today?' The students shuffled their things as they took out stapled photocopies.
'Who had the Dennett piece?' Mason asked, looking around the room.
* * *
After the last student had left, Mason walked out into the hallway where O'Toole was waiting. Mason headed back toward his office, and O'Toole fell in with him.
'I hope you were not too bored,' Mason said in a light tone. 'Oh, in case you caught it, I think I may have botched the earth science analogy in the beginning. Halfway through the lecture I realized that it may not be different types of waves that the scientists measure, but rather the same shockwave traveling through different types of rock. It doesn't affect anything, but I don't want to be 'teaching' false things.'
'Oh, no problem,' O'Toole said. 'And the class was fine; I wasn't bored.'
Mason nodded his head in appreciation.
'So tell me,' O'Toole asked after he realized Mason was not going to reply, 'did you actually attend my talk a few years ago?'
'How could I forget it?' Mason asked with a large smile. 'You actually invented a better mousetrap! And you made a bundle of money in the process. You symbolize America.'
'Honestly, Mr. O'Toole, that was one of the finest talks I've ever heard at the Business School. Those MBAs learned more from your fifty minutes than from a semester in any of their classes. I'm not patronizing you; it was a wonderful talk.'
The two men stopped outside Mason's office. Mason unlocked his door and opened it.
'But of course, you didn't come here to reminisce about your presentation. You want to know what I was doing in that jail cell, and why I was dressed so shabbily.'
O'Toole nodded his head as he walked into the office. Mason closed the door behind him and sat down. He gestured for O'Toole to sit as well.
'The second question is easy enough: I have frequent occasions to be arrested, and I am conducting an experiment to see how my treatment by the police is influenced by my appearance. You happened to catch me on a night when I wished to appear indigent.'
'And what of the first question?' O'Toole asked.
'I am a philosophical anarchist, Mr. O'Toole.' Mason paused to detect any reaction from O'Toole, but found none. 'I long ago promised myself that I would either live in a free society, or else be imprisoned for its advocacy. Inasmuch as I have utterly failed in the former goal, I must content myself with rather futile but nonetheless amusing protests against the government.'
O'Toole thought for a moment before speaking.
'I imagine you've heard all sorts of objections to your beliefs.' O'Toole paused again. 'You certainly seem to be quite intelligent, so I realize you must have excellent reasons for thinking the way you do . . . .'
'Here, this should help,' Mason said as he pulled a book off of his cluttered shelves. 'It's a novel I wrote many years ago.' Mason smiled to himself. 'Back when I actually thought it would make a difference.'
O'Toole took the paperback from Mason and examined it. It was a novel titled Minerva. As with Mason's bowtie, black dollar signs littered the book cover's deep red background. Aside from the title, there were no other words on the book, not even a designation for its author. And although most people would overlook the fact, O'Toole noticed that there was no ISBN bar code on the back. He opened the book but found no explanatory material on the inside cover. The book simply began with 'CHAPTER ONE.'
'Not much foreplay, is there?' O'Toole asked. He was quite certain his suggestive reference would be perfectly acceptable, given the professor's antics. As he flipped through the book, he paused at a page with just two words on it:
O'Toole didn't know what to make of this. Whether it was a device for attention or a simple error by the independent publisher, he couldn't tell.
'I was a different man when I wrote that book, Mr. O'Toole.' Mason looked at O'Toole, his face full of apparently genuine anguish. 'I do not mean to insult you, sir.'
O'Toole raised an eyebrow. How could this charming and entertaining old man possibly insult him?
'But I assure you, my understanding of certain social problems is so . . . clear.' Mason's voice trailed off, and again his attention seemed to leave the room. After a moment he looked back at O'Toole. 'Can you possibly imagine the sheer excitement it would cause a cynical young economist, to realize that, in essence, the hippies were right? That the sociological analyses of John Lennon and Bob Dylan far surpassed that of my Nobel laureate colleagues?
'And that . . . worst of all . . . what we were doing was evil?'
O'Toole didn't know how to respond. This was turning out to be one of the most unusual conversations in his entire life. But the old man seemed on the verge of tears, as if he were discussing the unfamiliar foibles of his deceased wife, without realizing that O'Toole had no idea what he was talking about.
Perhaps sensing his discomfort'although O'Toole was certain that his face conveyed nothing'Mason's twinkle immediately returned. 'Forgive me, Mr. O'Toole. After realizing that government as we know it was completely unnecessary'actually no, after realizing that government was the creator of all social ills'I decided that it was my duty to bring this message to the masses. And yes, you are perfectly correct; my novel left much to be desired on the criterion of marketability. At the time I was under the impression that it would gain underground notoriety, and inevitably find its way onto everyone's night stand. But of course, the federal government still collects trillions of dollars per year.'
Mason smiled broadly. 'It would be quite embarrassing for me to face the true wielders of power in our society. I actually thought I would bring them to their knees, yet all I have to show for it is a tenured position at a mid-rank university.' Mason looked up at his ceiling, lost in thought. 'It honestly took decades for me to realize that these unseen enemies'the ones who controlled the politicians and the CEOs and the oil companies and all the rest'that these nemeses were not grossly underrating me, as I so smugly thought. No,' Mason looked back at O'Toole, 'these men were amused by me.'
There was a long pause. O'Toole finally broke it. 'Well, I'll certainly get a copy of your book. Is it . . . available?' O'Toole was worried about its lack of a bar code.
Mason's face visibly drooped. 'Mr. O'Toole, again I apologize. My behavior has been nothing short of obscene. You paid me the courtesy to visit and I repay you with unjustified assertions that I could indeed have been a contender. By all means, the book is yours.
'Oh, you might like this,' Mason said as he opened a drawer of his desk and flipped through a file folder. He pulled out a newspaper clipping enclosed in a transparent cover.
O'Toole took the sheet and examined it. It was a page from the Village Verdict, a local, artsy publication that he never read. On it was a book review of David Mason's Minerva.
'It came out the year after I self-published my book,' Mason said. 'Go ahead and read it; it's quite entertaining.'
O'Toole held the article up and began to read:
Menerva: A Review of David Mason's cult classic
by Tara McClare
Well what can I say? I finally broke down''You gotta read this book, Tara! It's awesome!!''and read Minerva, that meticulously detailed blueprint of a parallel universe that has had right-wingers in such a tizzy all these years.
And you know what? It wasn't half bad. We have to give Mason credit. After all, the guy's an economist, for Chrissake. You know the type: Mason's the sort of guy (and I'm not even making this stuff up, honest!) who comes up with formulas for insurance companies to calculate the dollar value of a human life (with richer people getting higher marks, of course), and who testifies before Congress on the 'efficient' number of homicides per year (hint: it's not zero).
But Mason is more than just an economist. He's a consistent economist. That is, Mason takes the economist's notion of 'inefficiency''i.e. that the status quo is B-A-D whenever the economists would prefer to live in an alternative world where we all did things their way'to its logical conclusion, and discovers that'heavens to Betsy!'the world is full of injustice. Armed with the tools of his economic 'science,' Mason pronounces moral judgment on any social arrangement falling outside the purview of a laissez-faire free market. Mason doesn't just want to cut the government; he wants to get rid of it altogether. And, just like a certain darling Russian thinker, Mason isn't afraid to write an entire novel just in order to smuggle his political views into the mainstream. (Elsewhere I've referred to these books as Trojan horse literature.)
But as I say, the book wasn't terrible. Aside from their freakish endowments of craftiness (obviously Mason's favorite trait), not to mention their generous helpings of conceit and egomania, the characters seemed fairly realistic. (Well, the male characters did. Fortunately, Mason only introduces one major female character, who will no doubt become an object of desire for America's exploding population of adolescent libertarian boys. Admittedly, the book's romantic scenes were a bit wooden, but what can you expect? An economist will argue that incentives and information costs make it better to jerk off than get a handjob.) The plot, though somewhat far fetched and interspersed with Batman and Robin cliffhangers, was interesting enough. (Of course, as a red-blooded American, Mason had to include not one but two wars.) And, I must say, the dialogue was rather snappy. You can even understand where Mason is coming from, given his obvious na'vet'.
There is, finally, a certain style to Mason's writing, which I can't quite put my finger on. Despite the herky jerky flashbacks and uneven pacing (which at times made me wonder if Mason wrote his novel in the throes of a severe bout with diarrhea), in the book you can definitely sense shades of a Larry McMurtry and Stephen King. But the problem is, Mason's characters are all designed to fulfill his propaganda needs. And in order to boil the message down for the faithful, the book is less a novel than a script for a Broadway show. (That might even be too kind. Minerva would be a comic book if not for Mason's prodigious vocabulary.) Although they are undeniably clever, Mason's characters are still artificial. Try as he might, Mason hasn't turned out good literature, since he hasn't tried to appeal to 'us' but instead to those who are afraid of 'us' and (gasp!) the decisions we might make at the ballot box.
Well, I suppose I should stop psychoanalyzing the author and get to his product. The book has some tacky stunts, like a character reading a book called Minerva. (That had my sci-fi acquaintance bouncing off the walls. He was convinced there should have been an 'infinite ripple' from this silly ploy, like when you're in a changing room and see a zillion of yourself in the mirror.) And for those with darker skin than mine (and no, that doesn't include everyone!), be wary of a ridiculous encounter in which Mason has a character snap and appeal to every stereotype the reader might harbor. Nonetheless, the book is entertaining in its own way, and by the end'with young Danny heading back home with his head held high'you feel as exhilarated (or not) as you would at the end of a Hitchcock movie.
In conclusion, I'm not saying David Mason's Minerva is bad. I'm just saying, unless you have a political science book report coming up, there are so many better books you could be reading.
O'Toole handed the clipping back to Mason. 'I'm not so sure she liked your book.'
Mason smiled. 'Lovely girl, that Tara McClare. Do you know her work? She's got quite an underground following. Whether it's her looks or her talent, is harder to say.'
'Oh, yes, I've certainly heard of her though I believe this is the first thing I've read, or at least, this is the first time I've read her and known it,' O'Toole said, though he couldn't name a single local writer at all, let alone recognize this one.
After a slight lull, O'Toole lifted the novel and said, 'Well, I'm looking forward to this . . . .'
'Yes! Enjoy! My door is always open.'
O'Toole got the sense that Mason wanted him to leave. He nodded and left the office.
As he went down the elevator, O'Toole realized that Mason had indeed wanted him to leave, but only so that he could get home and read Minerva.