Archive for August, 2012


Soulnerd: The Third Spiritual Option

August 28, 2012

TDF Guest Jeremy Sherman

“Life is like getting on a boat that is about to sink.”

-D.T. Suzuki

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”

-Ernest Becker

We are mirror mortals, the first known species with the capacity to imagine the full arc of life and to know in definitive detail that we die.  We get on the boat; we row with great enthusiasm knowing that no matter our destiny, our real destiny is the inky deep.  We invest in our journey, conscious that we must eventually divest.

And it isn’t just the one death.  Getting on a boat that is about to sink is a fractal experience played out in the arc of minutes, hours, years, eras, epochs and millennia. Every day something dies.  You lose your glasses, your friend snubs you, you realize that the thing that thrilled you yesterday isn’t great after all.  Over the months, too, the people and joys come and go.  Then each of us dies.  Our families die.  Our civilizations fall.  Our species.  The universe itself is terminal. Everything we embrace as exciting and new comes with its time-release aging, decay, and breakdown.  When you buy a pet dog you buy a pet dog’s death.

None of this would matter if we never got on the boat.  But here we are. We care. When we fall in love, investing, it’s like a taste of heaven—joy eternal. When we break up, divesting of each other, it’s a little taste of hell—dissolution eternal. The deeper you go in the more it hurts to come out. Whether we choose to divest or divestment is thrust upon us, there it is, the inevitable, looming no matter where we go.

This view of life fits with disconcerting snugness.  Because we throw our lot in with the garden, we grieve when we’re cast out of it.  Because we accelerate into what enthuses us, our brakes squeal and our wheels shudder when we are forced to stop.  Union is sweet, disunion is sour.  Yes, no one gets out alive, but also no one gets out without great grief and loss, and here we are, knowing we’ll be evicted eventually. And what can we do about it?

I’ve had a hard time with the word “Spiritual.”  Powerful but ill-defined words make me wary.  Since I can’t find much consensus about what it means, I feel at liberty to offer my own definition.  Spirituality is one’s overall strategy for coping with the challenge of investing, knowing that one must eventually divest.  Spirituality is a kind of preparation, a pre-grieving. Defined this way, I see three main spiritual paths, each with myriad variations, but still ultimately just three:

1.     Make One Eternal Investment: Build a pillar of belief to hold onto, one thing from which one never divests for all eternity, something that can’t be credibly challenged or tested and proved wanting, something that explains why people leave and people die and why there has to be so much pain and disappointment and letting go, a belief perhaps that explains how it will all make sense by and by or will be made equitable in the world beyond, a belief that makes the world beyond—the eternal realm–one’s primary focus, aiming us toward its purpose ever after and toward the happily ever after that we expect to come from serving its purpose ever after.

2.     Let Go Into Thin slices: Since letting go is the hard part, make a practice of divesting.  Practice divesting by being present in every instant. Excise memory (of what’s lost) or projection (to what’s in store). Be here now, quieting the hungry ghosts of intellect and conception.  Become one with nature which doesn’t think, theorize, speculate or foresee, but just is.  Return to animal simplicity. In pain, simply say “ouch.” In pleasure simply say “ah.”  Don’t generalize or theorize about implications. Know the arc but live in the moment, the cross sections, one slice of life at a time.

3.     Make a study of the arc: Put one’s grief in context of the patterns structures and trends of human and natural affairs. Study that larger context with heart and head full open, feeling waves of sorrow and joy and thinking about and analyzing the waves, using your intellect and capacity for conception, giving voice to hungry ghosts, the desire to understand, and to manage, to minimize grief but also to face it squarely.  Study it through the many disciplines, culture’s long arguments, quests, debates and accounts, the peculiarly stubborn attempts to see clearly that constitute intellectual culture.  Cut a path through big time, the “long and wide now” by absorbing evolutionary biology, intellectual history, philosophy, anthropology, and above all, literature. Become worldly so that you can say of whatever life deals you, “Yes, this too life has in its vast and intricate creative capacities.”

Every once in a while people ask me if I’m spiritual or have a spiritual practice.  By their definition I think they’re asking about the first two kinds, in which case my answer is an obvious no. But I balk a little because though the third kind is in some ways an anathema to the first two, it feels like my spiritual path, so I haven’t known exactly what to say.

My deepest spiritual experience came by reading a novel about a normal couple divorcing.  It was during my first mid-life crisis (I’ve had two and am expecting one more).  My wife was in love with someone very spiritual. My marriage and my career were both falling apart. My eldest son was showing signs of severe chemical imbalance. My expectations of success as a man felt snuffed.  I was terribly uncomfortable in my skin, crying every day, an embarrassment to my wife and children, an endless font of anxiety imposed on my friends.

I had to get away and decided to spend a month in rural Guatemala where I had worked in my early 20’s.  En route I stopped off to see my brother, an English Professor living in Chicago. He asked me what I brought to read on my journey.  I showed him my books, all Buddhist tracts. “These are all so aspirational,” he said. “Why not read some fiction?” He gave me a book of short stories by John Updike spanning the arc of an ordinary marriage. It captured people just as we are. It laid us wide open in precise non-judgmental detail, including all our shocking neediness and coldness and yet free from authorial scorn.  It was  people just seen.

On a bus from Guatemala City to Livingston, a long drive that flew by I was thoroughly absorbed, feeling as one with us, but not in some platitudinously abstract “we are all one” kind of way.  Rather, intimate with the details, and generalizing intellectually with my heart wide open experiencing the full catastrophe of being one of us, fearful in our embraces, haunted by the pairing of investment and divestment. It was grace, forgiveness from the universe, but grace in the fine details set in the context of the real predicament, not in God’s sweeping and peculiar forgiveness for His making us wrong on purpose.

On my spiritual path, Updike is a master, as are so many practitioners of fiction.  Though I now work among theorists and scientists, philosophers and psychologists, I contend that no theoretical or scientific or spiritual work is anywhere near as capable of representing what this is, this life of ours, than good fiction. Literature is a yoga, a soulnerd’s intellectual-spiritual practice of contour-fitting what we know to what is so.

[Cross-posted from Jeremy Sherman’s Mind Readers Dictionary]


Denying Denial

August 24, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Dumb jokes about the longest river in Egypt assume that denial is as familiar to everyone as the Nile is. But explorers were still searching for the source of the Nile just a few years ago (National Geographic News, April 19, 2006), locating it now in “a muddy hole” in the Nyungwe forest, multi-crocodiles, mosquitoes, and miles from the nearest Coke machine. And denial can be just as elusive.

Suppose we launch a denial expedition by following the winding course of the dumb joke. The wordplay on “denial” pokes fun at someone’s inability or unwillingness to recognize that they’re unable—or unwilling—to face a painful reality. The joke calls attention to an attempt to fool yourself or others by screening things out. If you catch someone “in denial” and refer to it as the longest river in Egypt, your joke is using a euphemism that acknowledges the sensitivity of the subject.  But at the same time, the euphemism is slyly mocking not only the avoidance of a painful reality, but also the butt of the joke’s denial of being in denial.

Humor gives us a safe way to think about dangerous subjects.  After all, who isn’t in denial about something? But beyond that, denial usually means someone is being willfully or helplessly blind and therefore out of control—and maybe at risk.  Humor allows you to acknowledge the behavior, criticize it, yet also tolerate it.  And maybe even forgive it.

But wait, you say.  Forgive what?

Conventional wisdom regards denial as a choice or a weakness you can overcome.  There’s some truth to that. It matters of course because denial can kill you as well as save your life. If you’re Franklin Roosevelt, it can make sense for you to be denial about your crippling polio since that gives you more spare time to lead a panicky nation through an economic catastrophe and a world war.  Whereas if you’re a Nazi bent on fighting to the last breath in the final months of WW2, when the war was plainly lost and yet more people died than in all the earlier years of fighting, then denial has some drawbacks.

So we’re of two minds about denial. It can be healthy or toxic. The jokes are ambivalent too.  We can laugh at our limitations and foolishness, but also we can feel the pressure of criticism.  A quip about the Egyptian river is usually a wry dig—perhaps affectionate and concerned, but perhaps censorious.  If the dig is meant to shame someone, it’s usually because in this culture you’re supposed to be brave and smart enough to face life and death resolutely. Therapists and twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous coax you to be realistic and adapt to the truth.

One complication is that like eating, denial is compulsory. Without editing, the world would be terrifying. One of life’s big disappointments is that nobody gets out alive. And once dead, you have a long time to get used to it – so long that the idea of it is unthinkable. No wonder it hurts your feelings. No wonder we’ve evolved reflexes to avoid threats. No wonder we often recoil from suggestions of death and misfortune without thinking about it.

And no wonder we compensate by overdoing our appetite for life—for sweets and “sweeties,” food and sex, youth and prestige.  It’s not wholly a choice.  We eat and mate because otherwise we die and go extinct. But if stuffing your gullet counters fears of deprivation and death, even if it makes you sick, then bingeing too can be a form of denial.

Worse, you can’t enjoy your succulent “drumstick” or “coq au vin” unless you kill Chicken Little first.  We thrive on an orgy of slaughter, thrice daily. As a species, we spend much of our working lives raising other creatures to kill them. Or consider that we’re also animals, and as history tells us, tasty meat too.[1]

Denial helps to tame such mind-blowing conflicts. We invent cuisine and table manners and the rules and rites of religion to manage conflicts that are otherwise stupefying.  The “romantic candlelight dinner” – culture – maximizes appetite for food and fertility while screening out the meat cleaver in the kitchen. We rely on culture to harmonize the world, but culture too is colored by denial.

As Ernest Becker insists, we’re impossibly conflicted creatures.[2]  We’re biological animals with teeth on one end and an anus on the other, with limbs to catch prey and start the microwave. But we’re also symbolic creatures who can conceive of the Higgs boson, the Mona Lisa smile, the yo-yo, and infinity. To keep your mental balance you have to manage these creaturely contradictions. You don’t have a choice.

One route up the Nile to explore this peculiar territory would start with the admission that denial is built into us.  It’s natural, not just a rare emergency behavior, or a side effect of a hang-up such as addiction. As explorers, we’d be taking for granted that we’re always paddling up denial against da current.  To put it more exactly, we could start by stopping the denial that we routinely deny denial.

Okay, that last sentence is a tease: a deliberate mind-twister.  It’s a joke and not a joke. A riddle and not a riddle.  You know what the sentence means, but its paradoxes may also leave you with a sense that there are puzzles that you could go back and examine again. Denial is a process, not a destination.  It opens into the largest questions about who we are and the strangeness of being alive.

Hand me that there paddle, mate.


1. For a look at the conflicts presented by food, have a look on YouTube at Mark Lewis’s shrewd documentary “The Natural History of the Chicken”:

and my Becker Foundation talk about how culture manages such conflicts:

2. American anthropological psychologist Ernest Becker is known for The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.  Check out the Becker Foundation’s website:

Cross-published from Psychology Today:


Ambivalence and the Decision Tree: Two deep models shaping your behavior whether you know it or not

August 23, 2012
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Let’s see, where were we? Ah yes, rounding a bend in da Nile, catching a glimpse of the insoluble ambivalence we were talking about. The idea sounds simple, but it’s not so easy to appreciate how it shapes your life. Ambivalence can be paralyzing, exasperating, or intimidating when you have to admit that we’re of two minds (at least) about everything.

The idea began to intrigue me when I found to my amazement that most (smart) college students I asked were unable to define ambivalence. They confused it with ambiguity and equivocation. The concept that we have conflicted feelings and attitudes about everything seemed strange to them, or only hazily familiar.   For a decade now I’ve kept asking the question, always with the same result, even with a small sample of international students. This is really crucial, rock-bottom-important stuff.  They sort of know they have complicated inner life, but they’re fuzzy about the word—the concept—that would give them some control over it.  What’s going on here?

Here’s a hypothesis:

A generation or two ago most college students knew something about slide rules and Freudian lingo. Thinking about inner life, you used terms like repression and ambivalence—sometimes clumsily, but that’s another story. Freud, you recall, saw personality beset by conflicting forces. The challenge was to face up to the storm of reality and keep your balance. For Freud, you were a detective of inner life trying to identify the often invisible pressures pushing you off the sidewalk. It was all about keeping an eye on the shadows and continual problem-solving. It was all process, with no trophy answers and lifetime guarantees. And it was a moral drama too. It prodded you to admire courage and honesty and the ability to harmonize tensions—what the Victorians used to call character.

 The Freudian heyday was the hair-raising twentieth century with its insane industrial killing, sickening Depressions, and social revolutions smoked down to a roach that burned your fingers. Adversity could knock you off your bicycle, but so could swinish affluence.

Now a generation has grown up in the post-Vietnam age of computers and consumer utopia. The deep trope underlying inner life now is no longer Freud’s vision of wrestling with ambivalence every day, but the decision tree. Life is a sequence of consumer choices.  Yes, no.  This one or that.  The underlying scheme directs you to pick the right schools, the right career, the right spouse, the right neighborhood, the right child, the right pediatrician, the right schools, the right grief counselor. If you get each branch of the decision tree right, you collect $200 and reach utopia as in a board game. Or you best every enemy in sight and rest your tired thumbs in video game triumph.  The model implies that utopia means success, prestige, perfect contentment, a framed ownership certificate, envious eyes on your awesome wardrobe, your McMansion, and your leased BMW.

Decision tree behavior is easy to caricature because you and I know that in reality it’s artificial.1 It fits a culture saturated in airbrushed commercialism in which political candidates can be caught lyingrepeatedly yet trusted for their wealth and lifestyle. Decision tree thinking asks if you made successful choices invading another country, not what motives were pulling the trigger or who suffered along the way. It turns denial into a plastic sterling silver trophy cup on the mantel. Since it doesn’t honor the sweaty effort to balance conflicted motives, it valuesmore: more success, more money, more more. Hence the nation’s catastrophic financial bubbles and unending piggybank-busting wars.

The decision tree also serves a culture that privileges executive freedom and enforces factory controls. After all, it’s industry that raised living standards by systematizing work in scale. The boss and the timeclock rule working lives. The decision pretends that you, too, can escape that crushing monotony and take home an obscene Wall Street salary if only you choose right at every juncture.

Described this way, the model arouses your ambivalence, doesn’t it? It’s attractive simplicity may even set your teeth on edge.  Actually you’ve been ambivalent all along, but American culture smothers ambivalence under the couch pillows. Unless you’re an idiot or a ranting talkshow ideologue, real life mixes up the two models. These days ambivalence is harder to deal with partly because Freud & co. are out of fashion and so many successful people seem to be telling you that decision trees are as infallible as tech. But like Microsoft Word, choice isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

The truth is, ambivalence is everywhere and worth knowing about. For instance, you’re telling somebody what you really want to get done today, and you sit there earnestly elaborating the details, over and over and over, until your friend finally gets up saying, “Well, I shouldn’t keep you,” pulling the ambivalence alarm to get you moving.

You want to be an ichthyologist or a pet store owner, but it will close off the thousand other careers you’ve dreamed of.  You love intimacy, but you resent its demands too. You enjoy sex but there are times when part of your brain is echoing G. K. Chesterton’s harumpf that “the sensation’s only momentary, and the positions are ridiculous.” When hormones are boogeying, you nearly faint at the sight of a beautiful body. Yet bodies are also hilariously grotesque, with a big toe on one end, a bony pod of thinking meat on the other, and in the middle, teeth, thirty feet of plumbing, wrinkles, erratic hair, and assorted orifices. You love your body. It feels sexy and promises to generate more life at those times when you forget that you’re also trapped in it and if you stick around long enough, it will decay and die and take you with it.

The mind-blowing paradox is that ambivalence generates anxiety, and as Ernest Becker saw, anxiety spurs us to create culture as our primary means of managing those deepest of creaturely conflicts. No wonder the bipeds are continually renovating houses, religions, and scientific theories. No wonder we’re tirelessly reinventing the cultures that shelter and inspire us and make us believe our lives have enduring significance. We love them. We fear and hate them. We scrutinize and recreate them.

But that’s a betel nut to chew another day.


1. The best caricature of decision-tree thinking I know is in one of the most profound American novels ever published, John Barth’s devastatingly tragicomic The End of the Road (1958).  Not to be missed.



Adolescents and the Scale of Heroism

August 22, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

As many of us embark upon a new school year it feels appropriate to reflect on healthy heroism. Late adolescence is a time of vital dreaming when the armor of character is formed. The purity and power of the hero’s journey at age seventeen or eighteen is something to behold. Students express the foolhardy courage of the Monty Python Black Knight who cries, “It’s only a flesh wound!”, while simultaneously exhibiting the vulnerability that typifies their youth. They are godly and they are creaturely in spades. They are also works in progress. Society has had its say but they are still flexible, formed but not finished. This seems a very opportune time to introduce Becker’s core insights because the students have the cognitive ability to grasp the insights and also the vitality of youth to carry them heroically forward. They have the courage to be. Becker can percolate as the vital lie of their character forms. Some will keep their eyes open. Some will understand.

Regardless of whether the students follow up with Becker specifically, I’m hopeful they’ll  become more reflective on the role and nature of heroism in their lives. Becker refers to “the paradoxical gift of a confusion about heroism” that his parents gave him. He experienced the confusion as a gift because it called him forward toward greater understanding. Unfortunately, not all confusion about heroism is successfully resolved, as Becker so insightfully chronicled. A confusion about heroism, writ large, can produce war, famine, pestilence, and death as we try to escape from evil. Becker’s ability to address heroism on both the personal and the societal level makes him extremely relevant to young adults who feel their singularity intensely, even as they are inevitably drawn into the web of culture. Just as Becker concludes The Denial Of Death with a strong statement about the limits of a heroic individual, so too he ends Escape From Evil with a parallel statement about the limits of a heroic society. There is a nary an apotheosis to be found. What does this mean for the students?

For educators of youth, it is vital to engender hope. Hope represents that liminal space where the falling angel meets the rising ape and nihilism is countered. Where is hope to be found? In his critique of the limits of Enlightenment rationality, Becker at one point quotes Paul Pruyser who asked, “If illusions are needed, how can we have those that are capable of correction, and how can we have those that will not deteriorate  into delusions?”  This is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s “good lies.” It may be that history is unwinding in a way that will allow us to take advantage and create such life-affirming illusions. Specifically, we are in the midst of a massive contraction occasioned by the crisis of natural limits, oil, water, food—you name it. Large institutions and the expansive mythologies that have undergirded  them are  fragmenting under these pressures. Has it not been the case that our capacity for ideologically driven mayhem has followed the oil curve upward? And have not our illusions followed an Apollonian trajectory borne on the wings of the great god Technos? What will happen as we draw down? Certainly one scenario is that we will fight ruthlessly over the shrinking pie, and there are signs that is happening. There is another possibility. Life lived at a more local level may afford the opportunity for a heroics of local scale: less John Galt and more Wendell Berry, less individualistic and more communal. My students are encouraged to view themselves generationally, as a collective making positive and necessary change. The cult of the individual seems to be running out of steam. This, coupled with the immediacy of our physical needs in the draw down might be the impetus for a healthier heroism. History seems to be the balm for our existential crisis, the realm of new possibilities where hope can dream.



August 17, 2012

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

What we can’t think about: genuine humility is not just a becoming human trait… it is necessary for rational thought.

Composer and comedian Oscar Levant once said, “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.” Levant died just before “Denial of Death” was published, so he could not have been talking about Ernest Becker… but Becker clearly fits the bill.

Becker’s intellectual humility permeates his work. In the preface to Escape From Evil he said, “As in most of my other work, I have reached far beyond my competence and have probably secured for good a reputation for flamboyant gestures.” Becker also repeatedly and graciously expressed his intellectual debt to thinkers such as Otto Rank, Norman O. Brown, and Robert Jay Lifton. The irony, of course, is that Becker himself was arguably one of the most important thinkers in modern times, yet he was regularly shining the spotlight on others.

Sages throughout the ages have recognized that intellectual humility is required for wisdom. Socrates, of course, knew that he knew nothing, but many of the deepest thinkers since Socrates have expressed similar views. Montaigne’s famous motto was “What do I know?” and yet Montaigne—like Becker—was enormously learned. Becker and Montaigne (along with Nietzsche) are my intellectual heroes; one cannot read their works without sustaining a permanent change in how one thinks. (Keep in mind that we are talking intellectual humility here; one need not go to the lengths of Montaigne, who observed that the women sometimes criticized his performance in bed!)

Blaise Pascal didn’t think much of Montaigne’s lack of piety, but he agreed with him on the importance of intellectual humility. Pascal observed that we all start life in ignorance, but a few “noble souls” explore, learn, and think, eventually reaching the point of “wise ignorance”… that is, such people are self-aware enough to understand what they do know (a little), and what they don’t know (much). Most of us, however, reverse this; we learn only a little and yet imagine that we know much. Most pundits, politicians, and our growing cadre of plutocrats fall into this category, and they are the ones who, according to Pascal, “upset the world.” Pascal should see how they are messing up the world today!

But what about Nietzsche, you ask? The man was certainly a genius, and yet the chapters in his last book Ecce Homo, written in his Turin apartment before his breakdown, include Why I Am so Wise, Why I Am So Clever, Why I Write Such Good Books, and Why I Am a Destiny. (True!) But I won’t give you that as an exception because Nietzsche, as usual, was trying to be a provocateur. Some Nietzsche scholars feel Ecce Homo was actually an exercise in philosophical humility for Nietzsche, but at the very least he was being ironic.

In his long poem The Task, William Cowper beautifully captures the point of intellectual humility.

Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one,
Have ofttimes no connection. Knowledge dwells
In heads replete with the thoughts of other men;
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.
Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass,
The mere materials with which wisdom builds,
Till smoothed and squared and fitted to its place,
Does but encumber whom it seems to enrich.
Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much,
Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.

Knowing what you don’t know is critical to rational thought and reasoned discussion, yet we humans are inclined to vastly overestimate our understanding of the world. Yogi Berra certainly had intellectual humility, and perhaps he got it right when he said, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”



August 14, 2012

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

This morning I ran across something Walker Percy had to say about how, as a price of adapting to the world, we must accept the notion of habit. It’s a way of making the world less threatening. It’s hard to believe a self-conscious creature could live without accepting some habits. We like to believe the world more predictable than it is. Percy notes, however, that habit distances us from the world, obscures our “seeing.” Habit cuts us off from a primary response to the world. Our vision becomes like our speech: overloaded and meaningless with clichés. We experience the world through a hazy veil. Percy gives a clever and perceptive anecdote:

A man in Boston decides to spend his vacation at the Grand Canyon. He visits his travel bureau, looks at
the folder, signs up for a two-week tour. He and his family see the tour, see the Grand Canyon, and return
to Boston. May we say that this man has seen the Grand Canyon? Possibly he has. But it is more likely what
he has done is the one sure way not to see the canyon.

Percy explains why the man has not seen the Grand Canyon, not really: “the Grand Canyon, the things as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind.” A lady with whom I once worked, in telling of her trip out West, told me not to waste my time on seeing the Grand Canyon, for it “was nothing but a big damn hole in the ground,” a comment that told me much more about the woman than about the Grand Canyon.  A man who toured Europe for three weeks told me all he saw was a “lot of old buildings.” About all he had gleaned from his trip is that London is expensive, Rome is dirty, and the female performers at a show he saw in Paris went topless. Henceforth, all Paris will mean to him is a bare tit.

William Blake said pretty much the same thing Percy does. Blake said we must learn to see through the eye, not with the eye. To see with the eye is to see with habit; to see through the eye is to see anew, with imagination. I think this is what Emily Dickinson means when she tells the skeptic that the song of the bird is not in the bird, but “in thee.” Habit obliterates the world of Awe, before which we ought to stand with fear and trembling, the mysterium tremendum of seething creation. It’s a scary business; habit helps us assuage the fear, good old habits and the usual illusions.

Wallace Stevens proves to me, though, that one need not go in search of Grand Canyons; the world outside of one’s window is full of revelation for one who will see, a revelation that Stevens calls “the angel of reality,” an angel with “neither ashen wing nor wear of ore,” one “without a tepid aureole, /

Or stars that follow me, not to attend, / But, of my being and its knowing, part.”

I am one of you and being one of you
Is being and knowing what I am and know.

Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,

Cleared of its stiff and stubborn man-locked set,
And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone . . . .

But habits can be good things. When I ran an errand this morning, both going there and returning home, I stopped or went as the traffic light told me. Routine is not inherently wrong. It is the thing, in fact, that saves us from chaos and terror.


Roberts and Rationality

August 8, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Circumstances conspired to put me on a “political news diet” for the last few weeks – no TV, no newspapers or magazines, no podcasts, no internet, very sparse radio contact. I have to say that once the withdrawal shock was weathered, it was pretty nice. What’s more, that the world could just keep right on going, even without me obsessively milking each medium to follow its every move. Furthermore, I felt much more relaxed and optimistic about our species the longer it lasted! But, of course, all good things must end, and like it or not I am now back home trying to work my way through the amassed pile of papers, mags, podcasts and Bill Moyers programs that were sitting here waiting for me. Did I learn anything from the experience? Probably nothing profound or that will stick. In any case, I’m back at it now, and noticing something others have missed.

There is an emerging consensus among academic social and political scientists that people do not make political commitments based on rational considerations of specific policies. Their research points toward the conclusion that across the political spectrum, conservative to liberal, people are heavily and even determinatively influenced by nonrational factors. Rational faculties are more likely to be employed in the secondary step of rationalizing decisions and commitments already made.

One version of this thesis getting a lot of attention right now is that of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012). Haidt interprets research findings to conclude that people generally “pick a team” and then on specifics will line up behind whatever the team position is. This goes a long way in explaining why people will so consistently line up behind inconsistent positions on specifics (e.g., “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”) and even support with a full head of steam policies that are directly contrary to their own personal best interests (e.g., the long-term unemployed person voting for those who will curtail unemployment benefits.) This often leaves liberals (who hold rationality in high esteem) scratching their heads confusedly. But liberals are prone to the same type of thing–misdeeds perpetrated by those on liberal side are much more easily overlooked and forgiven than the same misdeeds on conservative side.

There is a lot that could be done with this analysis, but it appears to break down when we consider the judgment rendered by Chief Justice John Roberts in the recent case concerning the constitutionality of Obama’s healthcare mandate. According to this view, we might have expected Roberts would line up dutifully with his “team” and find the mandate to be unconstitutional.

Instead, even though he dodged the direct question of the mandate, we find him weaving in and out to find some rationale for ruling favorably on the policy itself (as I only learned days later.) This was a real shocker to everyone! The conservatives clearly feel betrayed, that Roberts has double-crossed them and is not a reliable “team” player. Liberals discuss the possibility of welcoming Roberts into “their” camp. So while the team-analysis does seem to hold in terms of the follow-up reaction, it doesn’t seem to explain Roberts’s own motives.

Keep in mind that social science research is never intended to explain the motives of specific individuals in specific circumstances, but only that of large numbers of people in general circumstances. With that said, it seems clear to me that Roberts decided that by hook or crook the Obamacare policy had to be found constitutional. His resort to the taxing powers of the other branches allowed him to do this without total, in-your-face disagreement with “his” team on the question of the mandate. In other words, his brief was clearly a rationalization of a prior decision and not the basis for that decision.

Why this prior decision, when it would have been so easy to simply rule with the other four justices against the constitutionality of Obamacare? I suggest it has to do with the fact that Roberts is beginning increasingly to look at his court from the perspective of History. From this perspective, he sees that future historians will be writing about the Roberts Court as extremely activist and powerfully partisan. Although something like 40% of its actual decisions have been 9-0 or 8-1 (in other words, representing a clear court consensus–cause for at least some optimism about our divided political present) the remaining 60%, which are often the much more visible cases, have been down the line 5/4 decisions in which the majority unapologetically align themselves with the conservative point of view. Roberts understood that if, in the heat of this election year, there were to be yet another in a long line of 5/4 decisions on key watershed issues, this time against the healthcare mandate, thus effectively gutting the main positive policy achievement of Obama’s first term of office, the judgment of History will doubtless be that under John Roberts, the Supreme Court degenerated into little more than a submissive handmaiden of the Republican Party. Obviously, Roberts wanted desperately to avoid this judgment of History, and he found a way to do it (or at least mitigate it somewhat.)

I am surprised that no one else appears to have noticed this (at least I haven’t seen it mentioned in the post-decision analyses I have read so far) but it is really the only way I can make sense of the motives for his decision, and the Byzantine brief he wrote to rationalize it. We’ll have to see if it results in more unexpected twists and turns in future cases.


Bedtime for Bongo

August 3, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

What we can’t think about: when the forces that control us are invisible, we feel helpless.

Anxiety, says the doc, is fear whose cause can’t be identified.  To be suddenly frightened for no reason is itself frightening, so anxiety naturally tends to feed on itself, leading to panic attacks and group hysteria.  For the most part we live in a magic circle of conventional beliefs and rules shared with family and “us.”  But we’re half-aware that there are things beyond the circle such as DNA, Swiss bank accounts, Timbuctu, black holes, the future, and death.  Come to think of it, what we can’t see can seem overwhelmingly vast compared to the earthly and mental landscape we see every day.

The comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” used to show his brash young Calvin talking back to imagined monsters under his bed to calm himself for sleep.  The logic is straightforward: like death, sleep requires letting go of consciousness – of self, really.  By inventing monsters, Calvin is paradoxically reinforcing fears yet diminishing them by making them particular enemies.  You can fight monsters.  You can debate them.  At the same time the comic strip is objectifying and mocking anxieties so that the audience – us – can master them.

Religions work the same way.  The cosmos is terrifyingly violent and hostile to life as we know it.  Death is arbitrary and unwelcome, no matter how brilliantly we rationalize it. And you can’t get much more invisible than death: it’s nothingness and lasts forever – so long that the idea of it is unthinkable.  No wonder it hurts your feelings.  The world’s religions fill up that terrible void with stories, rites, and rules: “God.”  Science, too, works on the invisible, excited by the unknown but also ambivalently devoted to discovering natural laws.  Even scientists are of two minds about what’s under the bed.  It’s how we’re built.

One reason fundamentalist Christians become hysterical about science, and especially evolution, is that science represents a tolerance for anxiety and the unknown that is very recent in human development.  In effect, science is propelled by a faith that we can know more than we now do, whether or not the whole enchilada is discoverable.  You’d think anxious religious imaginations would sympathize.

But what about invisibility closer to home?  Think of the way in which society uses invisibility to manage morale and control populations.

Here are two seemingly trivial examples – apologies for any political warp.  I’m thinking of the conflict over candidate Mitt Romney’s refusal to reveal his tax returns and the complementary outraged suspicion that his rival Barack Obama is not an American citizen.

Both of these conflicts demonstrate anxiety about invisibility.  The suspicions about Obama’s birth crystallize a cluster of anxieties that alien forces govern our lives.  In this view the real power behind “big government” is invisible.  This is the premise of films such as “The Matrix” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”  The visible world cannot be trusted beyond your back fence.  Hence the epidemic disregard for science and rules of evidence in public life these days.  “Global warming” is a conspiracy of sinister scientists.  Alternatively, climate change denial is a conspiracy of “big energy” companies.  Obama is a spectral being, not who he seems to be: very like the witches and demons who impersonated your familiar neighbors during the witch panics, or the Communists or Islamic terrorists hiding under beds in postwar America.

The scale of life and the need for abstractions are intimidating.  When institutions deliberately obscure or oversimplify their operations to maintain control, their size and remoteness from hands-on experience are unsettling.  If that invisibility masks actual harmful motives, the effect can be panic.

What about Romney?  In effect, he’s keeping his millionaire business career invisible, and polls show the public of two minds about it.  One group denies his invisibility matters, perhaps out of fear that their own privacy could one day be exposed to “the mob.”  The other group fears that the candidate’s invisibility will confirm his known background of outsourced jobs, foreign tax shelters, and the like.

In themselves, these can seem like small, particular concerns.  But they’re symptomatic.  Recall Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” which reported on the devastation of Flint Michigan after GM began outsourcing production to foreign shores.  The film chronicles the filmmaker’s effort to reach “Roger” – Roger Smith, CEO of GM – to establish some sort of accountability for the suffering the corporation was causing.  And the nightmare joke is that the corporation and American culture conspire to keep that life-or-death power over people hidden.  Crime, squalor, and mental illness beset the city.  Ronald Reagan appears in town and advises residents to move – in effect, to flee.

Something comparable is afoot today as the global economy rebalances, the postwar American standard of living declines, and the hidden policy-makers look for ways to triage surplus people.  Hostility toward immigrants and labor unions accompanies attacks on medical and social insurance.  It may be, as recent psychological research has shown, that wealth tends to make people callous.  Researchers such as XYZ have argued that CEO’s and “too big to fail” bankers show characteristics of psychopaths.  But the bottom line, so to speak, is the opacity of the aggression and suffering. Invisibility allows survival greed at the top to dominate society.

Keep in mind that power can be blatantly visible and yet hidden.  The news routinely shows photos of the Capitol.  But even the stereotyped “big man” African dictator relies on invisibility.  His capricious and vicious decrees come from an unseen, unaccountable “place” inside him.  The force that descends on ordinary lives from that invisible beyond has the nerve-wracking ability to undermine everyday reality and sense of self.  Without exaggeration, you can say it has the smell of death about it.

This is why we depend on the rule of law and the courage of criticism.

Otherwise who knows what’s lurking under the bed?