The Magazine

Mr. Stein’s Lessons

There’s more to learn here than the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.
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I have known Ben Stein for 50 years. We met as rival high school newspaper editors in early-1960s Washington, and then forged a close, lasting friendship a decade later as colleagues in the beleaguered Nixon White House.

Ben Stein

Ben Stein

But there are still times when I think of Ben as two different people. The first Ben Stein, the one most of the public is familiar with, is a near-Woody Allen character who stumbles through life as a wandering schlemiel not that different from many of his comic roles on the screen, including his iconic portrayal of the ultimate nerd teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Then there is the second Ben Stein: Yale Law School graduate, journalist, game show host, screenwriter, pundit, and bestselling author—a man of boundless energy, accomplishment, and compassion. Both Ben Steins come together here in ways that amaze, amuse, and inspire, often in the form of simple truths drawn from a not-so-simple life.

The great Viennese aphorist Karl Kraus claimed that there were three forms of truth: truths, half-truths, and one-and-a-half truths. Half-truths are shallow, obvious generalizations that are all-too-easily stretched or misapplied. The recently coined epithet “factoid” applies to many of them, such as the oft-repeated liberal assertion that “poverty causes crime,” even though most poor people are honest and many crooks are rich. By contrast, your ordinary, garden-variety truth is solid, sturdy, and self-evident. Almost a truism that goes without saying, it is a demonstrable fact: What you see is what you get, as with the multiplication table or a recipe for three-minute eggs.

One-and-a-half truths are different. They are the stuff of inspiration, flares that light a path to new levels in understanding life’s truths and seeing through life’s half-truths: the great 17th-century philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal’s conviction that “the heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing”; the latter-day sage W. C. Fields’s reminder that “you can’t cheat an honest man” because most con artists—from Nigerian chain-letter writers to Bernie Madoff—only succeed by appealing to the greediness of “victims” seeking a shortcut to riches.

Politicians and advertising men live mostly by half-truths; engineers and scientists live mostly by truths. The more original and creative among us, regardless of our rank or walk of life, live by one-and-a-half truths. The adage, the aphorism, the fable, and the proverb—all compact ways of expressing big truths—are among the oldest forms of human expression, far pre­dating the printed word. In the absence of documentation, they were a pithy, easily remembered way to pass on important life lessons from one generation to the next. And they continued to be so once writing came along. It’s no accident that the Book of Proverbs remains  the most frequently quoted (and most practical) section of the Old Testament, and that Jesus often chose to speak in parables and proverbs in the New Testament.

Wise heads have been at it ever since, from pagan stoics like Marcus Aurelius (“Blot out vain pomp; check impulse; quench appetite; keep reason under its own control”) to worldly clerics like the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián (“Without lying, do not speak the whole truth; there is nothing that requires more careful handling than the truth”); cynical aristocrats like the Duc de La Rochefoucauld (“We all have strength enough to endure the misfortune of others”) to Benjamin Franklin, whose Poor Richard’s Almanack was a collection of (mostly borrowed) practical advice in the form of catchy sayings, to the Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who sprinkled a few genuine words of wisdom (“A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. .  .  . Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined”) amidst his many malapropisms.

When asked to explain Goldwyn’s success as a producer of popular and often outstanding movies, the director/film critic Lindsay Anderson explained it this way:

There are lucky ones whose great hearts, shallow and commonplace as bedpans, beat in instinctive tune with the great heart of the public, who laugh as it likes to laugh, weep the sweet and easy tears it likes to weep. .  .  . Goldwyn is blessed with that divine confidence in the rightness (moral, aesthetic, commercial) of his own intuition—and that I suppose is the chief reason for his success.

There is nothing shallow about Ben Stein, a more recent Hollywood arrival. But like Goldwyn’s before him, his heart beats in tune with what is best in American life and American values. And he knows how to express it with deceptive simplicity and underlying strength.

What Would Ben Stein Do? is not so much a short book as the kind of extended conversation a savvy but humane old uncle might have with favorite nieces and nephews as they strive to come to grips with education and adolescence, work and adulthood, family and finance. Some of the advice is superficial. Spreading joy and boosting personal prestige by tipping generously, or making friends and boosting self-esteem by driving a flashy car, may not involve deep thinking, but they are practical applications of the biblical assertion that “he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of lyrical moments as well, when everyday things, simply described, lead to a powerful truth-and-a-half:

[L]ast night, after a fine sushi dinner with my wife; after a long nap with my precious dog, Brigid, lying on my chest, with her big, heavy old head right in front of my nose; I got up and swam in my pool. .  .  . It was about midnight. The moon was about half full. It was rising above a trio of tall palm trees. The moon painted the palm fronds a silvery blue. All around it were glittering stars, planets, and satellites. A jetliner taking off from LAX made a glowing contrail nimbus across the moon, and then another one came by, and then another .  .  . like strings on a stellar, nocturnal guitar .  .  . I thought, “At this moment; not my pal, Warren Buffett; not John Paulson, the spectacularly successful speculator; not anyone on this earth feels as good as I do. I am HAPPY.”

Then, Ben continues, “I realized—as I have many times—that to be happy is to be rich. It does not work the other way around.” The maxim? “To be arithmetically rich is not to be happy. But to be happy—to be content with what you have—that makes you instantly rich. There is no tax on it (yet). There is no way anyone can steal it from you unless you cooperate.”

Kitsch? Chicken fat for the soul? Maybe. But also something worth knowing, and worth being reminded of. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a wise old uncle like Ben Stein. Everyone can, however, enjoy the next best thing by dipping into What Would Ben Stein Do?

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, and writes on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.

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