Read Do You Think You're Clever? Online

Authors: John Farndon

Tags: #Humour

Do You Think You're Clever? (3 page)

If you could go back in time to any period of history, when would it be and why?

(Law, Oxford)

Who would not jump at the chance to go back even to yesterday, to live moments of your own life again, and see if with hindsight things could and would have been different? And who could resist the astounding opportunities offered by a Tardis voyage into deeper history? To step into, or even to catch a fleeting glimpse of the real, living, breathing, happening long-lost world of the past would be such a glorious, heart-stopping piece of magic that you’d take whatever was offered without worrying about choice. How amazing it would be to watch the dramatic highlights of history as an eyewitness – Julius Caesar riding triumphant into Rome to be proclaimed emperor, Queen Elizabeth I greeting the heroes of the English fleet after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. And yet wouldn’t the quiet, unnoticed passing of life in the backwaters be just as riveting – whether you dropped in on a medieval peasant waking tired as always for a day’s work in the fields or eavesdropped on an eighteenth-century housemaid meeting her lover for a tryst between shifts. Just give me that time ticket and I’ll take it to anywhere!

But a specific choice is requested. I could go back in time simply for the personal pleasure of witnessing something such as Mozart in concert at first-hand. That would indeed be extraordinary. And yet perhaps ultimately only a little more comes from this than watching a really good DVD. What if stepping back into the past gave you the almost godlike opportunity to change the course of history with the benefit of hindsight? Then, it would be unimaginably wasteful not to try.

Maybe, for instance, I could go back to Sarajevo on the morning of 28 June 1914 and warn the Bosnian police to keep Gavrilo Princip away from the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination by Princip later that day triggered the events that led to the First World War of 1914–18. Perhaps that one small intervention might have averted the First World War – the most horrific, traumatic, ghastly war then yet seen, claiming millions of lives and casting such a dark shadow over people’s minds that we have never recovered. And if there had been no First World War, maybe there would have been no Second World War, since Hitler’s rise in Germany was a direct consequence of the reparations from the first war, and the lives of tens of millions of people around the world would have been saved. There might have been no Holocaust …

Of course, the train of subsequent events would be so tangled, so infinitely varied in possibilities that it’s impossible to even speculate on the effect of such an intervention. Maybe the story of the world, released from such a terrible
fate, would have been of incredible joy and wonder as lives and attitudes improved. Or maybe it would have turned to one of even greater calamity. And maybe, too, just as in chaos theory the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas, so even a small intervention in history, rather than something as marked as averting Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, might have had massive consequences for the world’s story.

But even if the time machine I am supplied with only allows me to witness things rather than intervene, I surely should try to learn something that I might bring back to help the world now. Of course, the chances are that on my return my discoveries would be treated as the ravings of a fantasist. But what if I were able to convince people of what I’d seen? Again, it’s impossible to know, since the chances are that I might learn something just as important from some small, surprising moment than one of history’s Big Events. As an agnostic, I can imagine the impact on my life personally – and maybe the future world if I could acquire convincing evidence – of going back and discovering, say, that the Biblical story of Christ was literally true. Of course, if it turned out to be not true at all, the time trip would have been wasted.

So again, I think perhaps I should just go where the ride takes me …

Are you cool?

(Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Oxford)

It’s just possible this question is about my physical comfort on a hot day. If so, I could say ‘yes’ with a fair degree of confidence and precision. In fact, I know just how cool I am to within a few tenths of a degree (36.8°C), because like all mammals we humans have a remarkably good feedback mechanism for thermoregulation that ensures that our body temperature remains pretty much steady. Indeed, we humans are probably the coolest of all mammals because we have especially good mechanisms for keeping cool. Unlike other mammals, we have no fur, and can lose heat by sweating profusely. Only horses sweat as much, and horses don’t walk upright so more of their body is exposed to the heat of the sun. Interestingly, though, with a drop in body temperature of less than a degree I’d turn from cool to cold. A drop of much more than a degree and I’d go from cold to hypothermia, with my skin turning blue, my extremities numb and my whole body shivering in a futile attempt to keep warm …

Of course, this question is probably meant to be about metaphorical cool, not body cool! In the last decade, at least, ‘cool’ has become such a ubiquitous word for all things good among the younger generation that it’s actually no longer cool. Cool is too ordinary, too much used by all kinds of people to quite live up to its name. The concept of cool will surely survive, though. It’s an old idea – the idea of ironic, apparently effortlessly superior detachment from
the mainstream. Aristotle identified it in his
Nicomachean Ethics
. The Italian Renaissance style guru Baldassare Castiglione in his guide for courtiers talked about
sprezzatura
– an aristocratic nonchalance and distance which disguises all traces of effort, perfectly characterised in Leonardo da Vinci’s
Mona Lisa
. And at the bottom of the heap there have always been those celebrated for their ironic and rebellious wit in dealing with their oppressed status.

But what we call ‘cool’ today probably comes originally from the black jazz scene of the American 1930s and 40s, where windows in smoke-choked clubs were left open on even the coldest nights, leading to the term ‘cool jazz’ for the seductive style of music played there. The languid detachment of jazz ‘cool’, though, was completely transformed by the rebellious rise of hip-hop and rap culture. That turned cool into something so aggressive and powerful – not just style but attitude – that it spread far beyond its black roots into youth culture as a whole.

That attitude of cool was an essential way for young black men, pushed to the fringes of society, to give themselves some pride and self-respect. But as it has spread wider, the nature of cool has changed. In one direction, it has just become an ordinary, harmless, friendly word of affirmation and praise, but in another it has acquired a far more divisive image. It has become a badge for the cool inside crowd among the young (and the would-be young) – those in the know, informed, stylish, fashionable,
dismissive – that separates them from the non-cool outsiders – ill-informed, lacking in style, the sheeplike ‘losers’. It’s often a means, now, of bullying psychologically (and sometimes physically) those who don’t fit in. And more depressing still, it’s become a means for advertisers to create and exploit aspirational markets. What an irony that the once rebellious nature of ‘cool’ is often now linked with expensive, exclusive style affordable only to the ultra-rich!

It’s this oppressive, aggressive and exclusive side to cool that makes me declare ardently, no I’m not cool. I rebel against the notion of a standard or style or attitude that oppresses those who don’t fit in – that excludes and diminishes the vulnerable, the shy, the uninformed and the unconfident. I rebel, too, against the dominance of a set of values which seems so geared towards the superficial and ephemeral. And I rebel against the idea of being cool if it means being detached, distant, uninvolved, dismissive, unresponsive, lacking in emotional honesty – in fact, lacking in all the things that make the world a happier, more sympathetic place.

Ultimately, though, I suspect that whatever I care to think about it, many others wouldn’t hesitate to confirm that I’m not remotely cool in any way! I possess none of the attributes that would make me cool, I guess, such as a sense of style, insider knowledge of trends, nonchalance, calm assertiveness and sexual swagger. Yet nor can I say I’m driven by fiery hot-blooded Latin passion. So perhaps I would have to say I’m not cool but tepid …

If there was an omnipotent god, would he be able to create a stone that he couldn’t lift?

(Classics, Oxford)

This is an ancient question asked by theologists and philosophers to throw into doubt assumptions about God. It’s called the stone paradox. It’s intended to suggest that God cannot logically be all-powerful – and so probably doesn’t exist. The argument goes that either God can create a stone which he cannot lift, or he can’t. If he can create this stone, then he can’t move the stone, in which case he’s not omnipotent. If he can’t create the stone, then he can’t be omnipotent either because there’s something he can’t do. Amazingly, theologists and philosophers have been debating this question for hundreds of years, trying to work out what a stone that could not be moved even by an omnipotent being could possibly be like – what it would weigh, what would stop it moving, and so on.

Yet actually it’s not really a paradox, because it’s simply a question of using mutually exclusive terms. There simply cannot be a stone that cannot be moved by an omnipotent being. It would be the equivalent of a square circle, a married bachelor, a sunny night or a wet desert. So the question is pointless. An omnipotent god cannot create a stone that he cannot lift, but that doesn’t mean he is not omni potent. It’s just false logic.

Of course, many theologists would say that God is beyond logic anyway. So in answer to the question, ‘Can
God create a stone he cannot lift?’ the answer is ‘Yes, and he can lift it’. His powers are said to be miraculous beyond human understanding. That’s how he created the universe from nothing and could, if he wanted, make 2 + 2 equal 5. QED.

In some ways, though, this leads on to fundamental questions that continue to intrigue yet remain impossible to answer, and that appear to be genuine paradoxes. What was there before the beginning of time, for instance? What is beyond the universe, if the universe is everything there is? Cosmologists now say they believe the universe is finite. But how can a universe, which by definition includes everything, be finite? How can the limitless be limited? How can eternity start and end? It’s asking questions like these that has, ironically, turned some cosmologists to belief in God, because it seems there are things that it’s genuinely impossible for the human mind to comprehend.

Should someone sell their kidney?

(Medicine, Cambridge)

Ever since organ transplants first became common in the 1960s, there has been a problem sourcing suitable donor organs. An estimated 170,000 people are on the waiting list for kidneys in the USA and Europe, and each year another 5,000 join the queue. Most kidneys for transplant come from dead donors, but since people can usually survive
with just one of their kidneys, they can also come from living donors – about 1 in 10 in the UK do and 1 in 4 in the USA. Kidneys from living donors are generally in better condition, and there is a better chance of finding a good match, especially among relatives. Taking a kidney from a living donor also avoids the horrible unpredictability of waiting for someone with a compatible kidney to be killed accidentally or die quickly without damage to the organ.

The problem is, of course, that not everyone has a generous relative sitting by, which is why desperate kidney sufferers in the world’s richer countries may look for a donor in the developing world. And with kidneys fetching well over $5,000, many poor people in countries like Pakistan and Colombia have been tempted to sell one of their kidneys. Most governments try to stop the trade in organs, but kidney sufferers in rich countries are desperate for health, and people in poor countries are desperate for money, so the trade continues on the black market, even where it isn’t allowed legally. At least 6,000 kidneys are traded around the world each year. In Pakistan, there are many villages where more than two out of five people have just a single kidney.

Those who partake in the trade justify it like this. The kidney sufferer is very ill, and if someone else can help them by donating a kidney, why shouldn’t they? And if the kidney sufferer is rich and the donor very poor, why shouldn’t they show their gratitude with a generous cash payment? That way, two people benefit: the recipient who
gets his new kidney and a new lease of life, and the donor who gets a cash payment that transforms his life and maybe that of his entire family. According to David Holcberg of the Ayn Rand centre, it’s a matter of self-determination: ‘The right to buy an organ is part of your right to life. The right to life is the right to take all actions a rational being requires to sustain his life. This right becomes meaningless when the law forbids you to buy a kidney or liver that would preserve your life.’ Holcberg argues that poor people ‘do have the capacity to reason’.

But, of course, it isn’t as simple as that. Donating a kidney is not an everyday, harmless procedure like selling a chair. Undergoing the operation to remove the kidney can be traumatic, and very occasionally fatal. Sometimes a botched operation carried out in secret can leave the donor desperately ill. Even if the operation goes smoothly, the donor may survive perfectly well on one kidney, but is left with no back-up. Many poor fishermen in southern India who sold a kidney in the wake of the 2004 tsunami now bitterly regret it.

The question does not address whether someone should buy an organ, but it’s a question worth answering – and the answer, to my mind, has to be ‘no’. Of course, it’s wonderful if a kidney is donated freely and generously, but as soon as money is involved, the pressure of payment becomes the dominant issue. You cannot avoid the possibility that you are exploiting someone’s desperation – and risking their health. It’s no coincidence that paid donors cannot be
found in the rich countries of the world; they can be found only in poor countries where people often feel they have no choice and would willingly sacrifice their health for the sake of a better life for them or their families. As William Saletan wrote in
Slate
magazine in 2007, the donor will be ‘a fisherman or an out-of-work laborer who needs cash and can’t find another way to get it. The middlemen will open him up, take his kidney, pay him a fraction of the proceeds, and abandon him, because follow-up care is just another expense. If he recovers well enough to keep working, he’ll be lucky.’

Interestingly, though, the question comes at the issue from the donor’s point of view and asks should the donor sell a kidney. Here the answer isn’t so clear. As a (comparatively!) rich Westerner, of course I can’t say the donor should sell, and yet nor can I disapprove of the donor who chooses to sell, even at risk to his or her health. I would never want anyone put in the position where they are tempted to sell a kidney, but I can entirely understand how someone would willingly accept the suffering and risk to give themselves or their family a better life. Indeed, maybe I would even admire their courage, while condemning the terrible inequalities that drove them to it. If the question was ‘would I?’ and I could transform the lives of my friends and family by acting as a donor, I might hesitatingly say ‘yes’ and prepare myself to live with the consequences. The hesitation would be that by putting myself at risk I could increase, not reduce, my family’s hardships, and that might be enough to stop me. But to the question ‘should someone?’ the answer must clearly be ‘no’ – because that is a question only the donor can decide, and no one else. It’s a hard choice; there is no ‘should’ about it.

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