When it comes to the twisted gyre of human identity, what would Hamlet be like on social media? He would be a lot like Hamlet, and a lot like you and me. Facebook has turned us into an electronic village. TV had already done that, of course, but on Facebook we can not only be held together but chat about what we’ve seen and heard. I grew up in a village and can recall just running into people on the sidewalks and exchanging news and views. Now I bump into people on Facebook. I used to walk around in order to encounter people. Now I place my bottom on a chair and scroll down. In my village I might tell Read on »
The Mindset Big By Tom McBride (Contact: email@example.com) 05/18/2022: Why Is Baseball on the 20-Second Clock? Minor league baseball pitchers have twenty seconds between pitches and that’s all. This has shortened the length of baseball games 20 or 30 minutes. It’s coming to the major leagues, too. Baseball has been losing out to sports with shorter games, such as hockey and basketball. People don’t like long games the way they used to. The days of spending a l-o-n-g afternoon at the ball park, where, as the song goes, “I don’t care if I never get back,” are over. Why? It comes down to mindset. Once upon a time, when you didn’t mind an unpredictably long baseball game, you had little Read on »
The Mindset List for the Graduating High School Class of 1961 Authors note: For more than two decades the Beloit College Mindset List chronicled the experiences and event horizons of 18-year-old students as they entered college. Created by Ron Nief, director of Public Affairs at Wisconsin’s Beloit College and his Beloit College colleague, Prof. of English Tom McBride, the list was distributed internationally each August as the authors traveled the country speaking and doing interviews. It was initially intended as a reminder to those faculty facing first- year students to beware of “hardening of the references.” Over the years it became one of the most quoted “back-to-school” references and was cited by Time Magazine as a part of the “American Read on »
When it comes to the twisted gyre of human identity, what would Hamlet be like on social media? He would be a lot like Hamlet, and a lot like you and me.
Facebook has turned us into an electronic village. TV had already done that, of course, but on Facebook we can not only be held together but chat about what we’ve seen and heard. I grew up in a village and can recall just running into people on the sidewalks and exchanging news and views. Now I bump into people on Facebook. I used to walk around in order to encounter people. Now I place my bottom on a chair and scroll down. In my village I might tell someone I’d not seen them in a while. On Facebook I might tell them I’ve not had a post from them in a long time. This is my Comment, and I Like the fact that they have resurfaced. In my village I would tell them it was good to see them again. Facebook, as Marshall McLuhan would say if he were around, has thrown us back to the village of olden days,
There are differences. In my village, if I didn’t want to talk to someone but saw them coming, I could change routes or stop by Mrs. Rogers’ house for a cup of coffee in order to avoid them. Still, the boring or unlikeable fellow villager might see me trying to escape. On Facebook, if I wish to ignore a fellow villager from Facebook, The World, I can simply do so without anyone knowing. If one of my fellow villagers of old and I exchanged gossip or opinions, it would for a while at least be just between us. If it happens on a Facebook thread, it will be there for all FB villagers to see, In the old village if I told a fellow denizen I liked Pepsi, the town grocer wouldn’t be eavesdropping to learn that he’d better order fewer Cokes. Facebook village, on the other hand, is a giant surveillance service for corporations much larger than the town grocer.
A village is a small, circumscribed place. In a big city one rarely notices visitors. In a village, visitors are a novelty, not unlike an unexpected Facebook Friend request. So it was in the Danish court of Prince Hamlet and King Claudius. Norwegian ambassadors paid a call, and it was a big deal, as Claudius needed to negotiate a territorial understanding between himself and
Fortinbras, the upstart and aggressive Norwegian prince. In such a courtly “village”–a great big castle–people would have run into one another all the time. But the Danish court is no ordinary village, as most of the inhabitants conspire to run into one another, Polonius acts as though he has just bumped into Hamlet, but in fact he has deliberately done so in order to spy for King Claudius, who knows that Hamlet has seemed to be acting funny of late and wants to know why. As Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother, Claudius wants to keep close tabs on Hamlet., It is as though Hamlet’s social media posts have been angrily daffy and the government wants to know why. So someone in the top echelons tells Polonius, “Friend him and feel him out.” In the Facebook village Polonius would have needed only to read Hamlet’s posts, but in the Danish village he has to eavesdrop. This gets him killed. Facebook lurking is safer.
Most of us would prefer to live in a village where people don’t plot to run into us in order to find out our secrets. That’s the difference between a good village and a bad one. There’s little privacy in an everybody-know-everybody type of town, but on Facebook we give up our privacy in order to get our ideas and photos “liked.” There would have been little privacy in the small Danish court, but Claudius goes a step further and seeks to invade Hamlet’s privacy in any way he can. He discovers that Hamlet is not mad due to love sickness and concludes that Hamlet must know something incriminating about Claudius himself. He plans to get rid of Hamlet one way or another,
It seems fanciful to imagine this whole drama of duplicity and spying and murder playing out on Facebook village, as opposed to the Danish court village. It may not be so outlandish. In the course of things Hamlet takes on several different identities: melancholy cynic, incoherently angry avenger, focused avenger, duplicitous counter-intelligencer, brave and resigned stoic. On Facebook we sometimes project multiple and shifting identities. We like our “likes” on Facebook and feel we must constantly maintain our reputation for: being witty, being liberal or conservative, being a good amateur photographer, being a lover of pets, being sympathetic, being a teller of sentimental family stories. We wish to maintain our standards, and if Hamlet were on Facebook instead of on soliloquies, he would understand, as he has his own internal reputation to uphold as a competent agent of revenge and upholder of the family honor and judge of his mother’s transgressions. We worry in the Facebook village about our brand. Hamlet has been branded by his father’s ghost and must now live up to the trademark. On Facebook there is no forgetting: posts are cyber spatially immortal. In order to move on with his life after the tragedy
of his father’s sudden death, Hamlet needs to forget him. But the ghost of his father tells Hamlet he cannot forget his duty to put things right. It is as though Hamlet, Sr. had his own FB account and has posted orders that can never be erased If Hamlet were to put his own maturation ahead of his revenge, someone would find old Hamlet’s posts on the web and remind Hamlet of unfinished business, It is like something you or I said ten years ago that now haunts us,
In my traditional village they never forget what you did, but because bumped into exchanges are just between the two of you, what you say can get forgotten, Not so with the Facebook village or the village of the ghostly Danish court.
Hamlet finds the dormant programming of his inner stoic. Instead of looking for the occasion for revenge, he lets it come to him. “Let be.” This is a story with a progression and turning point- -life with the dull parts omitted–whereas Facebook is more like life itself as we experience: a series of frames. Still, on Facebook we strive to convey our impressions of ourselves, present a unified front, or, contrarily, express different facets of ourselves. For most of the play, until he returns from his near-death experience on the ship to England, after which he accepts his as yet unknown fate with the cheerful adjournment of previous anger, he grapples with his identity every bit as much as does a villager of Facebook. In thinking he should be in control, as we try to be on social media, he sees himself through a glass darkly. Facebook itself may be just such a clouded mirror of identity dynamics.
Hamlet’s identity issues are impression management, standards maintenance, discontinuity of the self, and necessity to forget but the impossibility of doing so. These are all played out on Facebook every minute of every day. The electronic village is different from the “real” one. But the overlap in identity issues between the two suggests that there is something about the human quest for the self that transcends media more than we think. Hamlet on Facebook is not quite so preposterous as it seems at first thought. Something there is about the divided human self that doesn’t care what the medium is and just wants to do its thing, aspiring and confused. Did some potentially perfect deity outsource human identity to an ingenious but myopic, miscalculating architect? What an excellent question for a Facebook post.
The Mindset Big
By Tom McBride (Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
05/18/2022: Why Is Baseball on the 20-Second Clock?
Minor league baseball pitchers have twenty seconds between pitches and that’s all. This has shortened the length of baseball games 20 or 30 minutes. It’s coming to the major leagues, too. Baseball has been losing out to sports with shorter games, such as hockey and basketball. People don’t like long games the way they used to. The days of spending a l-o-n-g afternoon at the ball park, where, as the song goes, “I don’t care if I never get back,” are over. Why? It comes down to mindset. Once upon a time, when you didn’t mind an unpredictably long baseball game, you had little else to do. Now we have all these alternatives on our phones and tablets. We are more fidgety. Our attention spans for just one thing have diminished. We want X to end so we can get on to Y. Or Z. Or A. Or A2. Our mindsets have changed. So: throw that next pitch within twenty seconds or the ump will call an automatic “ball.”
05/17/2022: How To Stop Sucking at Life
Life is hard, but it is possible to do better at it if we delve into its contradictions. For example, we are free to make choices about all sorts of tings, but we had no choice whatever in where we born, who our parents are (or were), and what genes we were born with. So while in the United States, you can choose your brand of peanut butter, you cannot escape having the Texas drawl or clipped New England accent you bring to the check-out. Nor can you choose not to be hungry. Up to a point, we can decide whether we want to become an information manager or a teacher, but we cannot evade our height or eye color. For all our liberty in the present, we are greatly determined by a future we cannot predict or become totally ready for. And then there is our whole encounter, as humans, with the NON-human, such as computer chips, gasoline, data, and biochemicals (found in our pills). It is difficult to make them work for us when in fact we become so dependent on them that we are working for them! Human beings whose lives suck have lousy mindsets when it comes to these issues. They easily confuse what they can control and what they can’t. And they become so dependent on all sort os technology that they miss the satisfactions of, say, washing the dishes manually or writing a letter with pen and ink and paper or give the twice-a-day upper a little rest. Even then, we are reliant on technology, of course, but much less so. We can concede that we aren’t really in control and do something more fully human—at least every now and then. If we do not make ourselves so servile to non-human stuff and find the serenity of not knowing what’s going to happen, we will suck less at life. Take a Radom walk, GPS-free.
05/16/2022: Is It Better for Your Loved One To be Killed by a Serial Murderer or by a Spouse?
It is undoubtedly hard to bear when you lose a loved one, whether that be a wife or a husband or a child or a sibling or even a favorite aunt or uncle. We could include grandparents as well. Yet if they are killed by a natural disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake, it is a bit easier to take. They were just unlucky: the wrong place, the wrong time. If they are murdered by a serial killer, it would seem more ghastly. It is hard to prosecute a tornado, but a serial killer must not only be found but also convicted and punished. That adds a whole new layer of not only mourning but also anger and a search for closure once the trial is over, if there is one. In another sense, though, a loved one’s being killed by a serial murderer is somewhat like that loved one’s being killed by a tornado or forest fire. Serial killers are psychopaths, who are by far the most incurable of all human creatures when it comes to mental illness. One psychiatrist has said that psychopathology is the disease that no psychopath wants to be cured. They are missing a chip or some sort, an empathy chip perhaps, and are never really sorry for whaat they have done but only sad they’ve been caught. They are remorseless and in that sense are a force of nature as much as a tsunami is. If a loved one is killed by a Bunny or Dahmer, they too were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if a loved one is killed by a spouse, one feels that something could have been done. Someone should have seen this coming ad headed it off. You feel you should have spoken up before X or Y became your loved one’s spouse. Most murders are domestic or family affairs, after which the grievers might well wish they had advised the tragically departed not to marry X a long time ago.
05/13/2022: Why Did Queen Elizabeth Decide to Become a Virgin?
The first Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. In Cate Blanchett’s interpretation of her personality, in a recent film, Elizabeth was a vivacious, fun-loving young woman who, once she inherited the throne, became a cold, calculating politician. The erotic young woman became an official virgin in order to symbolize the purity of her realm. It was politics. It’s clear that Elizabeth had a values shift. Whereas she once valued fun, she decided to value power. You could say that her real transition was from partying to governing. You would be wrong. Her underlying transition was from one environment in which she could stay alive to another in which she had a better chance of staying alive. The constant was not political power but life itself. Elizabeth did not adapt, in other words, because she took seriously her new role. She adapted because she loved life itself and wanted to stay in it. It is said, wisely, that we must “adapt or die” This is a mindset of pervasive good sense. It involves either changing ourselves in order to fit our milieu better, or changing our milieu in order to fit ourselves better. Elizabeth chose the former. Others of us choose the latter: for instance, we move locales in order to be with—and protected by—“our” kinds of people. In the United States this is called “the great sorting out.” Republicans move to red states; Democrats move too blue ones, You could say this is about political and cultural values. In the end, however, it is about pursueing life. Adapt, we think, or die, and we are often right about that.
WEEKEND SPECIAL ON THE MINDSET BLOG: MAGA and the Problem of American Shame
Most of us know that shaming is a way of keeping a person down, as in “fat-shaming” or “body-shaming.” Those who shame us seem to be saying, “You are an utterly worthless person.” But what happens when those who have been shamed rebel and begin to shame those who shamed them? This is in the story of the MAGA movement headed by Donald Trump. His followers were told for some time that they should be ashamed of themselves if they do not believe in a multi-racial, multicultural democracy. Sexist and racist jokes were out. White privilege was something to be ashamed of. But Trump and others told this cohort that they had nothing to be ashamed of. After all, if a country with a vast white majority had worked well for them in the past, why should they be ashamed to oppose that country’s changing? Why should they be ashamed to pursue their own self-interest? Why should they be ashamed to be mad that blacks and gays and feminists were getting all the attention? This reflects a very American mindset. It is not for nothing that one of our American states has as its motto, Don’t Tread on Me. This is a nation of the individuated ego, not a country of reverential respect for others—“you should be ashamed for taking to your fellow citizens like that.” And then, having convinced its followers not to be shamed and bullied by liberals, the MAGA movement said to its members, “But you SHOULD be ashamed if you get squeamish over our methods and let the tribe down.” Asian cultures in particular think shame can be good: it is a hallmark of mutual respect and forgiveness. But it is a virtue mostly lost on Americans of all political preferences. We are a shambles nation, for good and/or ill.
05/12/2022: Are You a Groundhog, and When Did You Last See Your Shadow?
Phil the Pennsylvania Groundhog is famous the world over for seeing or not seeing his shadow on February 2, either forecasting or not six more weeks of winter. The psychologist Carl Jung had another shadow, this one an idea in our minds. Your shadow is the person you fear you might be but don’t want to be. This shadow might be subconscious, but it, well, “shadows” you wherever you go. If you are a rational person, you fear there might be an overly emotional one lurking inside you. If you think you’re an idealist, you may be scared that there’s a cynic inside. Or, if you pride yourself on being a cynical realist, you may be frightened that you are really a sappy idealist. Jung thought we ought not always fend off our shadow but embrace it, sort of like Luke Skywalker faced Darth Vader, his shadowy father. Shakespeare’s Hamlet prided himself on being a supremely analytical person, only to learn that he needed to let his intuitive self have a little reign for a while. Being constantly rational wasn’t getting him very far in the business of finding out whether his uncle had killed his father and, if so, getting revenge. When he stopped overthinking things, Hamlet was able to lure, almost against his will, his uncle into trying to kill him and thus he had a perfect public excuse to slay his wicked uncle. Mission accomplished. King Lear feared he had a secret insane person inside and feared both madness and total lack of authority. Both aspects of his “shadow” took over, and yet, Lear was able to integrate both his political impotence and his crazed looniness into a higher, forgiving, humble wisdom. Jung thought that, on occasion, fending off our shadow made us less creative persons, as thought that repressing the shadow made us more divided and paralyzed creatures. Whenever Phil the Groundhog sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter., Well, there are six more weeks of winter regardless of what Phil sees, but if he confronts his shadow, he’s much more ready, realistically, for the inevitable cold.
05/11/2022: Do You Buy Your Insurance3 From Pascal?
The great philosopher Blaise Pascal famously concocted a wager named for him. If you believe in God, and God exists, you will go to Heaven. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you lose a little fun. But if you do NOT believe in God, and God exists, then you will go to Hell. It’s better not to take any chances. This is like an insurance policy. Most of us don’t need all that much insurance. It’s unlikely our houses are going to burn down or that we are going to get some catastrophic illness But suppose we do. And then suppose we do NOT have ANY insurance. We’re out big-time. We are ruined. So Pascal’s mindset is really the mindset of those of us who buy insurance and the companies that sell us the policies. You could say, “I don’t buy life insurance. The insurance company is betting I won’t die before 65. Why shouldn’t I?” But suppose you and the insurance company are both wrong. Still, this is where the analogy between Pascal’s mindset and the insurance mindset breaks down. If you die, the insurance company will pay. That’s a legal contract. But suppose you DO believe in God and do so so much that you are an incessant gambler who thinks God is not only in existence but on your side in the game. Yet: Suppose God thinks, “I like this person. He believes in Me. But I do NOT like gambling. To Hell with him.” The problem with Pascal’s Wager is that you and God don’t have a legal, precise contract. Don’t buy your insurance from Pascal.
05/10/2022: Do Computers Get Inferiority Complexes?
2001: A Space Odyssey was made 54 years ago, but it could have easily been made yesterday or even tomorrow, for it is one of the most enduringly contemporary films ever produced. It seems as modern now as it did back then. The genius director Stanley Kubrick did the movie in four parts. In the first, one group of hominids beats off another with the high-tech instrument of a jawbone, a “device” shown to them by a black monolith that appears out of nowhere. In the second part, thousands of years later, the black monolith is back, on the moon, as the United States and Soviet Union compete to grab its uniquely powerful energy source. The US wins, and so in part three we are on a rocket ship being powered by laser energy to Jupiter. The journey is guided by a computer whose nickname is HAL, or Heuristically programmed AL-gorithmic computer. HAL makes an error and apparently can’t stand the fact that it did so. The astronauts fear HAL will make another, more costly one, so they seek to unplug HAL. He reads their lips and tries to destroy them before they can. It seems that HAL has become insecure about his infallibility, so fear of being unplugged is something it simply cannot stand to occur. One of the astronauts manages, barely, to escape from HAL’s machinations and, in part four, is blended into a surrealistic light show and becomes a child in a star. Thousands if not millions of people have tried to interpret this film. But at one level it seems simple: conflict appears to be inevitable in human affairs, whether we are talking hominids or astronauts or even computers. The perversity of HAL is that once it grows insecure, it goes into conflict mode. Losing something—land or resources or even fallibility—leads beings to want to g3t their “own” bak, and so conflict inevitably arises. Only, perhaps, when we become stars and blend into an infinite universe in which there is plenty for all, does war, or resentful computers at war with their users,, end.
06/09/2022: The ONLY Important Question You and I Will Ever Face
A common human experience is that we are impenetrable. They can tell us what to do but cannot tell us what to think. We can say we are thinking of an apple while really thinking of a peach AND NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW. So there is this utter privacy of self—if my name is Jill Jones, this is my unique “Jill Jones-ness.” And yet along with this mindset comes another: Jill Jones can’t get very far in life without, say Bobby Wilson or Hernando Gomez, or whoever else is in Jill Jones’s life. So we are alone and private and yet we are not. We may think ourselves to be unique, but we must constantly surrender that in order to cooperate with others. The same goes for our own consciousness. As human beings, we are aware that we are aware: when we see a bright blue, we are aware that it is WE (or I) who see that blue. Once we die, that consciousness vanishes—if you’ve had any sort of general anesthetic you know this to be true. But then the question is: well, is that all there is—is my self gone forever? Or is it uploaded into some GENERAL, UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS? This is really the only question you and I will ever face that is important: Are we alone, so that the unique you and me is gone once we die, or do we join some Universal Something or Other in which we blend into everything else? And if so, what is that Universal Something or Other? Is our consciousness a small part of some great pan-psychism, which even the rocks and the leaves share? All other questions pale in comparison. Don’t they?
05/06/2022: Copernicus and the Problem of Worrying Too Much
All of us observe the sun moving around the Earth, except that of course it doesn’t. It’s we who are moving. The Sun does ot. This was the radical theory attributed to the great astronomer Copernicus, who was proved to be right. It is like when we think the train beside us is moving. But it is our train that is. This is a common error. We think we are in a fixed position watching something else move. It is a fallacious mindset. The philosopher Immanuel Kant theorized that what we observe—rocks or pencils or sidewalks or whatever—is really “there,” but it is there only in the eyes of our own dynamic vision. We observe them as existing in space and time. Their real existence may have nothing to do with space and time, but we are built to see everything in terms of space and time. Again, we are mistaken to think that we are in some unbiased, fixed position from which to perceive things. This brings us to the subject of nagging worry. We often worry too much about stuff we can do nothing much about. And we think the problem is in what we are worrying about, whether it be disease or accident or danger or whatever. But maybe the problem is in us, the worried observer. The problem is not what we are worried about but more in the fact that we are fretting about it all the time. We have met the worry, and it is we ourselves. Or, to go back to Copernicus, we have met the moving one, and it is we ourselves.
05/05/2022: When Was the Last Time You saw a Real, Live Dragon?
Anyone who has ever taught the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem BEOWULF knows that there are a couple of ancient Scandinavian monsters in the text: Grendel and Grendel’s mother. They are not dragons, but trolls, yet even so, they are pretty tough customers—a couple of deadly big lizards. Modern readers might think that these ancient warriors did not really believe in trolls and knew they were mythic. These are just old stories. This would be wrong, Warriors and non-Warriors alike in ancient Scandinavian and Germanic tribes believed in creatures like Grendel. They were pretty sure such monsters existed. Had they ever seen one? Yes, thousands of times. The days were short, the nights were long, the forests were deep, and the human mind was impressionable. No doubt there were many more sightings of trolls than there have ever been on the Loch Ness monster. If you are sure that X exists, you will in time see X for yourself. This is a human mindset. There was never a sighting of a flying saucer until 1947, by which time the modern world was full of space stories and science-fiction tales. Once there was an initial sighting, comic books and TV shows included flying saucers, and soon enough lots of people were seeing them in the sky. We humans look into the vast night sky and cannot imagine that there aren’t aliens out there. When we see something strange, we start to connect the dots and are pretty sure it is a genuine and quite possibly sinister UFO. This is how we human beings are constructed: to find patterns—smoke sunsets fire, anxiety suggests lying, low clouds suggest snow, a star constellation suggest Orion the hunter. Given how many billions of stars and planets there are in the universe, it is very likely that there is life elsewhere. Given the distances between us and them, it is unlikely we will ever find and communicate with other intelligent life. Even if we could send a message to the planet Cordelia (a made-up name), the communique would take 25, 000 years to get there and another 25,000 to hear back. But we see their flying saucers all the time.
05/04/2022: The Mindset of the Protest Voter
The Protest Voter is disgusted. The PV is fed up. The PV is angry. The PV has decided that since (fill in the blank) Hillary or Macron or X is going to win anyhow, but since they are all flawed candidates, the PV is going to vote for someone who can’t win just in order to register opposition to a disappointing mainstream candidate who won’t change anything. The PV is a Bernie Sanders supporter who is furious that a far more moderate liberal Hillary Clinton has gotten the nomination. Or a French socialist who thinks Macron is no more than a Neo-liberal technocrat. But the mindset of the Protest Voter isn’t just one of irritation. It’s also one of assumptions about outcomes. In the 1990s Minnesota Protest Voters were so fed up with the offerings of the two major parties that they voted for a Libertarian named Jesse Ventura. He had no chance to win, they thought—or assumed—so why not cast a protest vote? They didn’t want Ventura to win, but they hated the conventional choices. But Ventura did win. PVs outsmarted themselves—not that Ventura was an awful governor. In 2016 PVs were sure Clinton would win. Trump was given no significant chance and even he had rented a small venue because he thought he would lose. The French run-off system of two rounds helps Protest Voters get their ire out of their systems. They will vote for a far-right candidate sometimes in Round I because it’ clear he or she can’t win. But when it becomes obvious, in Round 2, that he or she COULD win, they mute their fury, hold their noses, and vote for the ineffectivetual technocrat as lesser of two evils.
05/03/2022: How To Make the Hell of Other People Go Away
Something called “otherness” has been the preoccupation of great thinkers. The philosopher Hegel said that we come to know ourselves only in contrast to and similarity with others. Even God comes to know Himself through the unfolding of many different others in the universe. Or so says Hegel. The philosopher Sartre said that other people are Hell: they want what we have, disapprove of who we are, and take away what is rightly ours. We cannot do without others—we depend on them in social cooperation—but they make us miserable. Collaboration becomes a necessary Hell. But digital technology has done a great deal to change the mindset of Otherness. We can plug in and listen only to voices and music that we like. We can watch only the cable channels that we prefer. We can join the social media group that is just like us. We can eliminate a lot of the Otherness in our lives. A Ugandan bishop was once asked what he thought about Idi Amin, the dictator who was trying to kill him, and the bishop said that he loved Amin as Christ said he should. “Am I not stuck with him?” But thanks to the long, diverse tail of digital technology, we aren’t stuck with anyone any longer. We can say, even to the persons we don’t especially like in our own households, “Sorry, I can’t hear you, I have my ear plugs in.”
05/02/2022: Putin and the Return of the Cicadas
Among insects, few seem to be as rigorously engineered as the cicada. With its wide eyes and short antennae and big wings (well, relative to the rest of its body) and loud song, it returns like clockwork every seventeen years, during which time it emerges from the beneath the earth, has sex, dies, and then goes to some other place, indefinite, where it awaits its ancestors’ coming back in another seventeen years. It is the singing and the sex that are especially interesting to entymologists, but one wonders if there is much individuality among cicadas. Are there handsome ones or pretty ones? Are their grouchy ones or nice ones? Or is it the case that the sex is pretty random and that if you’ve heard one cicada song you’ve heard them all or even that if you’ve see one cicada you’ve seen them all? As Russia has become more Stalinist in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, there must be days when President Putin wishes that Russians were more like cicadas: lacking in individuality and prone to highly predictable behavior. It would be impossible to turn cicadas into slaves, but if human beings were more easily programmable, like cicadas seem to be, then more human beings would be slaves. The problem is that human beings aren’t cicadas. They have an entirely different set of genetic algorithms and are designed to succeed in a totally different environments. Human creatures tend to develop such bothersome things as individual opinions and different preferences. It is not impossible to enslave and brainwash them, but it’s not altogether easy. All this is a little unfair to autocrats like Putin, who probably thinks it is quite OK for a Russian to be an individualist within his or her family, as long as they keep their cicada-like heads down when it comes to politics. The problem again, though, is that human animals tend to want to have a say about who is boss. It’s hard to keep a two-legged non-cicada down. That’s also why, in seventeen years, the cicadas will return while Putin may well be dead.
WEEKEND EXTRA: Is Liberal Arts Education Brainwashing?
Suppose you were told to become X or join X—or else. Or suppose you were told that becoming or joining X would change your life—revolutionize it for the better—and would at the very least serve your self-interest. And then suppose you were given an education on the various ways to become X or be a valued and devoted member of X. You might well describe this as brainwashing, for you will have been subject to the three elements of brainwashing: coercion, persuasion, and education. After a while, especially after the education phase is over, you may need de-programming, for you have become an X and the old you no longer exists and will require a lot of work to bring that old self back to life. In the 1930s Germans were so “into” Nazism that ordinary people would get up each day and look for ways to “grow towards the Fuhrer.” Hitlerism was not only enforced. Germans were convinced it was transformative, and it was also in the schools—note the “Hitler Youth.” But what about liberal arts education? The typical mindset is that it is NOT brainwashing but is actually a guard AGAINST being brainwashed: critical thinking and all that. But actually Liberal Arts Education is also a form of brainwashing, isn’t it? You are coerced: pass these courses or you will be a stupid, unemployable person. You are persuaded: being educated will make you and life itself far more interesting. And, well, there’s plenty of education: it’s called liberal arts education, Nazis said, “You were once a lily-livered, tolerant pacifist; now you are a strong warrior.” Liberal arts educators say, “You were once ignorant and incurious; now you are a very smart lifetime learner who feels guilty if you don’t think hard every day,” You believe it, too. Why do you?
04/29/2022: Souls are Hiding in Plain sight
Of course, we all regret the existence of serial killers. Even some serial killers wish they were otherwise The pervasive question about them is whether they are born or made. Research suggests both. Serial killers’ brains are said to be unusually quiet and inactive in their pre-fontal cortex. This suggests that there is some neuronal reason why they lack empathy abd impulse control. That is one pattern. Another is environmental: they grew up in violent and abusive households. It’s still not clear if their alleged brain issues are something they are born with or something that results from the horrible milieu in which they grew up. Overall, there is evidence that they are not in total control of themselves and that biochemical and parental pressures have helped make them what they are. Do they have free will? One researcher into the subject has said that serial killers, given their pre-existing problems, likely have less free will than we non-serial killers do. Nonetheless, we punish them as though they freely chose to kill. Some of them, such as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacey, have been put to death. This in turn brings us to the mindset of the soul. It’s a word you typically hear only in houses of worship or as applied to certain types of music. It’s an old-fashioned word, one that in this scientific age might be regarded as superstitious, even. Yet we have not given up on the soul, even if we rarely invoke its name. We assumed that Budny and Gavey and the others all had a soul—some metaphysical entity beyond nature or nurture by which they could have resisted their crimes. It is this vague thing called the “soul” (a word we avoid) that guarantees that they had free will after all and thus HAD to be held accountable. Otherwise, how could we justify punishing them? “Soul” is a word we rarely use but cannot do without.
04/28/2022: Why Are Americans Obsessed With Being Harmed?
Over 150 yeas ago the philosopher John Stuart Mill proposed the “harm” theory of rights. You have the right to do X as long as you don’t harm anyone else as a result. You can swing your first as long as it doesn’t connect with someone else’s face. You can keep a mean dog as long as it doesn’t get loose and bite someone. American’s however, are especially supersensitive about the “harm principle.” Becoming a transgender person, for instance, would seem to be harmless, but some Americans think the very idea and existence of trans-gender persons harms public morality and stable gender relationships, and that it will ruin high school sports and make rest rooms dangerous. Disagreeing with someone about some aspect of race might seem harmless—just free speech—but some Americans think the very idea of believing that race is relatively unimportant is deeply harmful: that it upsets them and offends them and generally makes them less mentally well than they would otherwise be, so thy demand speech codes. It would seem that mask requirements are a good example of the harm principle: if you don’t wear them during a respiratory pandemic, you will harm others with infection. But many Americans think requiring masks harms their right to decide what to wear. Gun violence would seem to make regulating guns a good idea, but gun owners think such laws harm their right to bear arms however they wish. Some readers want to ban an author’s books because the author’s women characters are portrayed in a sexist manner, and these readers think the very existence of these books harms their right to be free of any and all sexual discrimination. Why are Americans so obsessed with other Americans’ conduct as harmful to them? It’s likely because Americans have the idea that their rights are absolute. Was not the country founded with the citation of “inalienable rights”? Once you think your rights are limitless, you become overly worried about the harmless behavior of your fellow citizens, especially if expressed through the rules of representative government, and you acquire the mindset that nothing should be allowed to eclipse them in any way. Masks, books, disagreeable speech, and longer waiting periods for buy guns are pretty harmless in the scheme of things and should not be abrogated in the name of some absolutist and overly tourhy doctrine of rights. But we Americans are quick to take offense on all sides; almost paranoid about being “harmed.”
04/27/2022: Why Alcoholics Should Read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
In the Oscar-winning film THE LOST WEEKEND, the chief character, Don Burnham says there are two Dons: Don the Writer and Don the Drunk. The film is about which Don is the real and enduring one. It’s a close call. These are two conflicting mindsets of identity. The same happens in Robert Louis Stevenson’s immoral book DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. The doctor concepts a chemical potion that will allow him to morph into a psychopath but then turn back to respectable Dr. Jekyll. Hyde cannot be traced or caught. But this is a tale of addition, like THE LOST WEEKEND. Jekyll rather enjoys being Hyde and soon needs more and more chemicals to turn back into Jekyll. Who is he? Jekyll or Hyde? Which one will last as the real one? The answer is: Hyde. In the movie the answer is: Don Burnham the Writer. Alcoholics are caught between two mindsets: X the drunk or X the productive, functional individual. Instead of announceng yourself at AA meetings with “I’m X and I’m an alcoholic,” maybe it should be, “I’m X and I’ve read DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. I now realize that addiction to Y is a rotten way to escape from the burdens of being me.”
04/26/2022: Elon Musk and the Mystery of the Serial Killer
Elon Musk was once famous for his Tesla cars but has now become even more famous for his rides into outer space. He or his guests go up hundreds of thousands of feet, see the Earth, get excited, and then come back down courtesy of three big parachutes. Fact is, Elon Musk is very good with space and time. He’s become a master of Outer space, and time is vital to both the marketing and energy of his electrical cars, which run, by the way, over space. Musk is an example of what Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher, described as the two main categories of the mind—this was three hundred yers ago, but there seems little reason to dispute him now. Kant thought the world really existed, but he also thought that we “create” it via the qualities of our minds, and that those minds are equipped from the start with concepts of time and space. That’s why we can know that the pine tree is fifty yards to the left of the oak tree as of 8:32 PM. Without this mental grounding in space and time, Kant said, we couldn’t know anything. We’re all pretty good at perceiving and managing space and time, but Musk is better than most of us. Kant added, however, that anything OUTSIDE space and time was UNknowable. God is outside space and time, so we cannot know God, or even that God exists. Free Will exists outside space and time: we can’t locate free will in space and time. A serial killer may have chosen to kill or might have been driven by physical causes that don’t afflict the rest of us. We act as though serial killers had a choice so the we can punish them, but to be honest, we really don’t know. Elon Musk’s mindset of space and time is great when it comes to rockets. But his guess is as good as ours when it comes to knowing for sure whether Ted Bundy was absolutely free not to become a murderer.
04/25/2022: Why the First Woman President in the U.S. Will Be A Republican
There is a popular mindset in the United States that the Democratic Party will nominate the first women who will be elected president. It is easy to see why this mindset obtains. Did not the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton? And is not electing the first woman president a feminist cause, and is not the Democratic Party the home of feminism? Yet this whole mindset may well be wrong. Democrats women candidates tend to be liberal and feminist. Men voters resent the so-called “nanny” state and feel that feminism is a zero-sum game: for every feminist win, they lose. This is an unfortunate attitude, but there it is. A Republican woman running for president is much more likely to be small-government libertarian and not especially feminist in the common ideological sense. She is potentially less threatening to male voters and will also pick up women votes who want to see a woman running the White House. A Republican woman candidate for president has a kind of “cover” that a Democratic woman candidate may not have. Male voters who abhorred Hillary Clinton welcomed Sarah Palin.
Weekend Tidbit: Will Hard Work Save You?
One of the most famous mindsets in history was identified in the 1800s by Max Weber, who observed that there was a link between hard work and Christian salvation. Protestants thought that you were predestined to go to Heaven or Hell and that there was nothing you could do about it. But IF you made a lot of money, it MIGHT be a sign that you were destined for Heaven. Thus did people work hard to do well and find a sign that they were blessed for Eternity. This is all laid out in a celebrated book called THE PROTESTANT ETHIC AND THE SPIRIT OF CAPITALISM. We don’t much believe this idea any longer, yet the mindset remains with us. We think hard work will save us in this life. It will keep us out of trouble. It will give us the personal luxuries we crave. It will affirm us as productive citizens. Digital technology was supposed to save us time and effort. It has done the reverse. We now work not only at the office but also at home after hours, The more emails we can send, the more we do send. We constantly check our phones for updates. And we don’t believe, any longer, that we will get to Heaven as a result. Hard work now saves us from having to take the time to face ourselves; it saves us from ourselves, not from Hell. Or is there a difference?
4/22/2022: Is Your Favorite Aunt an Electrical Charge?
Riding in an auto can be a sort of mystical experience. You roll along and the hills and shores go by as though by magic. This feeling doesn’t happen as much s it did when cars were new, but in any case it isn’t really magic. The car doesn’t run by magic. In fact, any good mechanic can show you how the electrical system links to the fuel tank and how the fuel tank links to the foot pedal and tires in order to move you along. There is an analogy between moving on four tires and electrically charged gasoline and a heavy driver’s foot. The same goes for the body’s liver. Any doctor or science teacher can show you how the liver makes and secretes bile through a system of ducts. It’s bile in; bile out: not all that hard to understand. But now let’s take your hyper-aware appreciation of your favorite aunt—doesn’t everyone have one? You perceive her hearty laugh, warm hug, diamond earrings, favorite blue dress. And what causes that experience? Ducts? A fuel tank? Nope. That’s caused by electrical charges in your brain—millions of them. But this time there seems no analogy—no link between ducts and liquid or controlled electrical fire and gasoline. We know that the brain is the cause of the mind when it experiences Aunt Martha and nuclear physics alike, but no one knows how the electromagnetic brain “becomes” the subjective mind. But wait: there is one mindset that might explain what’s coming down. This is the mindset of pan-consciousness. According to this mindset, the mind is conscious but then so is the brain. Neurons themselves have a kind of primitive consciousness. And this very low-level consciousness is multiplied by a million or two and voila: you are conscious of your Aunt Martha. It’s hard to know whether this pan-conscious mindset is a desperate attempt to explain the inexplicable or a brilliant theory. What do you think?
04/21/2022: Is Human Nature a Regulation or a License?
One of the great gifts of being human is fellow feeling. This is the basis of The Golden Rule. We feel the pain of others, in a way, and since we would not want them to do something painful to us, we do not wish to do something painful to them. This is not a matter of self-interest but of mutual human sympathy. This might be called an important aspect of human nature. You see it all the time. In this sense human nature is a ruler: Do NOT, it says, do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you. But then let’s consider the story of the 2016 Rhodden Family Massacre in Pike County, Ohio. Eight members of the family were shot to death in some sort of nightly raid. It took authorities a while to figure out who did it—there were all sorts of red herrings involving possible drug deals gone bad—but in time the police arrested one Jake Wagner. He came from a fairly wealthy adjoining family and had wanted one of the Roddens, Hanna Mae, to sign over custody of their love child, then two. She refused. So Jake got his mother, brother, and father to help him massacre the entire family, including Hanna Mae. Why wipe them all out just over a custody battle? Well, the answer is that human nature, in addition to giving us the capacity for fellow feeling, also gives us the capacity to be vicious and cunning, By wiping out the whole Rhodden family, Jake could hide the fact that the real target was Hanna Mae. If he had killed her alone, the cops would have started looking at him right away. But by killing them all, he and his Wagner kin could make investigators think this was some sort of drug-related revenge. The mindset about human nature is right to think of it as a governor of human behavior, but we must remember that governments give out permits all the time. Human nature allowed Jake Wagner to commit the most bizarre, deadly, and calculated crime in recent memory by a private citizen. He became In a sense the Stalin and Hitler of Appalachian Ohio.
04/20/2022: The Peyote of Quantum Mechanics
Over three hundred years ago Bishop George Berkeley proposed a theory that is very hard to refute. He argued that nothing exists unless we perceive it. Thus, if you are looking at a tree right now, the tree no longer exists when you are not observing it. Even if you set up an automatic camera over a 24 your period to film the tree, and you find that it is there all along, even when you are asleep, this still does not refute Berkeley, for, after all, the tree, whether on film or not, does not come back until you perceive it. Of course, perception can be a funny thing. Suppose you were looking at your backyard and saw a cat and a tree and then saw the tree become the cat and then the cat become the tree. We wold be inclined to say that you are tripping: that some sort of peyote or LSD has soaked your brain and altered your vision of “reality.” But—and here is a further twist—you don’t need to trip in order to see, as physicists do, that subatomic particles can be in two places at the same time and that sometimes they are particles and sometimes they are waves. Mathematics proves that they are the same particles, but what the math shows and what human observation shows are two different things. THUS: Maybe when you trip, and see the cat and the tree change places, with the one vanishing and then the other, only to come back as separate things, you have some deep insight into the nature of things. If sub-atomic particles are “really” the way the world is, then maybe peyote lets your brain and eye see how things “really” are above the sub-atomic level. Maybe the trip lets you see that everything is quantum—a radical new mindset., and a true one.
04/19/2022: What Is The Mindset of God?
In the 2021 movie Nightmare Alley, nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, an old carnival performer tells a young one to be careful: Never he said, think you are God, no matter how good you are at your tricks. The old carnie had perfected a series of verbal cues that allowed him to guess, correctly, the identity of objects that, blindfolded, he could not see. It is impressive. The young carnival performer perfects it brilliantly But then he gets in over his head. He promises a client he can make a dead mistress come out of the grave. He gets found out and descends into booze and decline. He forgot he was just a performer of trricks, however smart, and came to think he might be God. This brings us to the mindset of God. None of us knows for sure who or what God is. But surely there is one thing clear about God: God does not perform tricks with the universe. We are not God. If someone asks us, how do you make people in Sweden appear live on computer screens in Japan, we say, “Well, you have to know the trick, and it involves digital codes and pixels and radio waves.” God can do the same thing, but if you asked God, “How did you do that?,” God would not resort to explaining his high-tech tricks. God wouldn’t have any. God can just do these magical things because…God is God. God is not self-conscious. God does not calculate, God does not do science. Let us suppose, if we are pantheists, that the whole universe is God. Is the whole universe aware of what it is doing? No, It just does it, The old carnie was right: If you fall back on tricks, you aren’t God. When the young carnie thinks he is, he pays the ultimate price—see the film—in self-destruction,. Rise too far above yourself and you will sink below yourself.
04/18/2022: Did Alice in Wonderland Defeat Hitler?
The film Mrs, Miniver won the Oscar in 1943 for Best Picture. It’s a fine film about an English family trying to cope with theNazi Blitz on London in 1940. In one scene the Miniver family—the father, mother, two small kids, and the cat—wait in a bomb shelter as the explosions from German aircraft draw nearer and louder. In a short time, the whole bunker is rocked with deafening noise. Mr. Miniver tries to remain calm and reads aloud the closing paragraphs of Lewis Carroll’s famed Alice In Wonderland, where Alice is depicted as grown up with children of her own, cheerful but not quite as joyful and innocent as the little girl who followed the White Rabbit into Wonderland. So you have this juxtaposeition of Alice and the Luftwaffe—Alice within the bunker, the Luftwaffe in the skies. It seems at first that the film makers are communicating how the Minivers, like Alice, have had to grow up and face the evil discomforts of the world. In time you realize there is a mindset on display: a familiar and powerful one. This is the mindset of proud national identity, The English are proud of Alice; she was invented by one of them. And this is why they will defend their island to the death against Hitler: because they do not want to see their own traditions destroyed and become forced to speak German. At the end of the film, the local Anglican rector says that the war is a people’s war. It is the battle of a whole people against a deadly and wicked force. This is consistent with Winston Churchill’s view that it is the people who will “fight them in the hills fight them in the streets.” Everyone is a combatant. And they are fighting so that their civilization—and all the literary classics written in its name—will flourish and not perish from the earth. The parallel with Ukraine is obvious,
04/15/2022: If You were Asked to Take a Bribe, What Would You SAY?
Let’s say someone asked you to take a bribe. What would you say? Well, 1. You might say, “No, thank you. Taking a bribe is neither right nor wrong, as only scientific statements are right or wrong. But I think taking a bribe is against my self-interest.” Or 2..”No, Taking bribes is against my principles. My principles are not universally right, but they are the ones I am personally committed to.” Or 3: “No. Taking a bribe is against the natural development of what human beings are supposed to grow up to be: operating by standards of excellence, and not by whatever standards are bought and paid for.” If you break these three responses down, they come out in three schools about ethics: 1. Ethical statements are meaningless because they cannot be verified scientifically. 2. Ethical statements have no universal validity and are only rhetorical statements of personal preference. 3. Ethical statements are rooted in the natural progress of human beings as they grow to excellence, so taking a bribe would be to a human being what a tomato plant’s taking arsenic would be.” All three of these are famous ethical mindsets. Which one do you like? Or would you just take the bribe?
04/14/2022: Can Chat Bots Ever Be Human?
It’s a simple story. The psychologist Sherry Turkle had a chat bot during the height of the Covid pandemic. She was lonely and asked the chat bot what she had to say about that by way of comfort or explanation. The chat bot said, in a female voice, that loneliness was warm and fuzzy. This was inappropriate, and Turikle reported it as such to the programmers, who fixed the problem. Turkle, who is a critic of how high technology de-humanizes us, said this is the sort of thing that comes from a disembodied entity. But behind this whole tale is a mindset about what it is to be human. Let us take bees, which are not human. They do a hard-wired dance together in order to point the way to a pollen source. Not us: If we want to tell a fellow human being about a pollen source, we talk: We say “the pollen source is at X coordinate.” And that’s what makes us human, right? That’s what makes us non-bees. It’s our brains and our language that make us human. But suppose that’s the wrong mindset? Suppose it isn’t our brains but our bodies that make us human. Bees may not be human, but neither are chat bots. They ca’t say appropriate things about loneliness, or can do do only with meticulous programming, because they have never suffered from loneliness. Loneliness isn’t a mental feeling. It’s a bodily one. It isn’t felt in the head. It’s felt in a body that craves touching and contact. Is the right mindset that we are humans because we have bodies, and not in the end because we have brains?
04/13/2022: A Cheese and Olive Oil Sandwich, Followed by a Walk—But What’s REALLY Going On?
A person has a cheese and olive oil sandwich and then goes for a short walk. What is going on here? The answer is found in a mindset we generally don’t have. It’s a physics mindset. The second law of thermodynamics dictates that everything goes from order to disorder. So when we nourish ourselves with that sandwich, we are making sure we have plenty of fuel for our walk. We predict we have enough, and if such a prediction is sound, then it’s part of an orderly world. Yeah, but what happened to the second law of thermodynamics—this order from disorder stuff? It’s still around, As soon as we go outside and start walking, we start shedding body heat, which goes into the air and disperses randomly. But we do more than that: we spread disorder generally. We might step on ants. We might run into someone who has to sidestep us on the walk. We pound on the sidewalk and play our tiny part in wearing it down. Why are we allowed to keep doing this until we die? Well, we have an open secret: it’s the sun. The sun is free energy. It helps the olives, wheat, and cows grow so that we can have our cheese and olive oil sandwich. This means that we can replace the disorder we spread. The sun can’t stop the second law of thermodynamics, but it does help slow its effects. And you thought you’d just had a sandwich and gone for a walk! No. It was just your latest adventure with the second law of thermodynamics, which, in time, will turn your health from order to disorder once and for all. No more cheese and olive oil sandwiches then; no more walks. It’s the Second Law 1; you and: 0.
04/12/2022: Why Were There So Many Assassinations in the 1800s?
Talk about the power of mindset. In 19th century America three presidents were assassinated within fewer than 35 years—or one every 12 years! There were lots more, too, especially in South American countries, but there were two in the more stable democracies of France and England as well. Both the president of France and the prime minister of England were killed. In the United States one might argue that these deaths were avoidable except for a particular mindset: that in a democracy, such as the United states, it was not cool for presidents to go around with a lot of protection, Lincoln was famously cavalier about armed guards. James Garfield was murdered while buying a train ticket. William McKinley was shot to death while shaking hands in a line of ostensible well-wishers. In time, the nation got the memo and established heavy armed protection for its presidents. There is something charming about the mindset that presidents should be accessible and not have the Secret Service around all the time. There was also something lethal about it.
04/11/2022: How Genghis Khan Air Conditioned The Planet
Genghis Khan did his work eight hundred years ago. He is the greatest warrior in history. Though credited with some good tings, such as religious freedom and the art of diplomacy, he conquered lands the size of Africa and his soldiers killed so many people they equal the size of the Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles metros combined. He depopulated so much farm land that giant forests grew up and scrubbed carbon from the atmosphere. The Carnegie Institution found that this led to a massive and harmful global cooling, In 1956 John Wayne played Khan in a movie shot in the Utah desert, down wind from nuclear testing sites. Nearly half the film crew developed cancer. The cause and effect link is controversial. But both Genghis Khan and the legendary star who played him remind us that when we ignore or foul the atmosphere, the environment has a way of noticing and isn’t amused. The environment has a mindset of its own.
04/08/2022: Satan and the scientific Method
In the 1980s America saw what has been called a “Satanic Panic,” which was heralded by fear that day care centers had been taken over by worshippers of Satan. In the most famous of these cases, the McMartin trials in California, all the charges were either disproven or resulted in jury deadlocks. But some day care workers spent time in jail and later sued for damages. Whether or not Satan exists is not a scientific question. Science can neither prove nor disprove it. But whether or not children were molested by Satan worshipers in day care centers is a question more susceptible to scientific inquiry based on observable or verifiable facts. The best evidence for or against was believed to lay with the young kids, some of whom were barely above the age of toddlers. But are children of such tender age and social immaturity and defenselessness reliable? One investigator thought they were, while a psychologist wrote an article stating that if a child said he or she was molested, it was impossible that they were not. Investigators put leading questions to these children and often, though not always, got the answers they ostensibly wanted to hear: that the kids had been violated. But suppose a kid held fast: “No, nothing happened to me.” Well, said the investigators, this is proof that something DID happen to them. They were too traumatized to say so. Thus, if a kid said he’d been tapered with, he had been; and if a kid said he had not been tampered with, he had been. This is like saying that if a litmus strip turns red, it signifies acid and if it turns blue, it also signifies acid. The scientific method does not consist in making nature tell you what you want to hear but in asking nature too tell you what it can about the truth,
04/07/2022: Why Won’t They Just Get Out of the Way?
The dinosaurs, though long gone, were an immensely successful phylum. They were around for over 150 million years while human beings have been here only 200,000. Their time was a lot rougher than many people realize, for even as the group reigned, many of their species went extinct. By the time the T-Rex came along, the Brontosaurus was already extinct. The latter, by the way, weighed more than your average 737—or over 50 tons. It and the T Rex were also as big as a commercial jet. Yet the dinosaurs didn’t get here entirely on their own, They had help. First, there was a huge volcanic eruption in Siberia which pelted the earth with ash, heated the planet by blocking the sun, and poisoned existing creatures with noxious gas. The ancestors of the dinosaurs were small but mobile reptiles who took advantage of this cleared out space to become, well, to become the dinosaurs. And then, when an asteroid six miles long hit the earth at the speed of a fired bullet, this created an opportunity for birds to ascend in the wake of the wiped-out dinosaurs. T-Rexes and other dinosaurs had non-functional feathers, which birds adapted for flying. We haven’t lost the dinosaurs. They’ve just become sparrows and robins and eagles. It helps when other creatures just get out of the way, and this is today’s mindset. We’ve all said it: “If only so-and-so would get out of the way, good things will happen.” In the late 1930s most British men went off to fight Hitler and Hirohito. The women left behind took advantage. Without all those overbearing men around Oxford University, four women philosophers had room to challenge pre-existing trends, as explained in a new book by Benjamin Lipscomb. “If only you would get out of the way” is not only a mindset; it’s often true as well.
04/06/2022: Are Whales Modern?
It’s been nearly two hundred years since the whaling ship Essex sailed from Nantucket, MA around the tip of South America into Pacific waters, there to meet a mammoth and unusually aggressive whale that destroyed the ship. A few of the whalers survived in a small boat with sails that, luckily for them, happened upon a big French sailing ship that rescued them. They were starved, thirsty, half-crazed and traumatized by the necessity of their having to turn themselves into cannibals. They felt abandoned by God. When we look back on their plight, it is hard for us to think of them as modern. They had to depend on the wind to get around—no steam. They were looking for whales to supply lamp oil because there was as yet no petroleum or electricity. Their harpoons were primitive and devoid of any mechanical assistance. They had no radios. They were after a prized but ancient mammal that had not changed in thousands and thousands of years. The whale seemed very UN-modern, but then according to our lights, so were the whalers. Yet that was not their mindset. Little did they think that THEY were un-modern; they had sailing ships, harpoons, and were in search of a valuable commerceial product used not only in lamps but also in corsets and on human faces. They thought of themselves as right up to date. Here is the mindset of the present. Someday future generations may look back on US as un-modern, as poor souls who had to carry phones around in order to et information instead of just requesting it from the high-tech ether. When we condescend to the past, we should recall that those “poor” folks thought they were very contemporary and likely no less happy than we.
04/05/2022: What’s Wrong With Wrong?
Let’s suppose you say, “London buses are blue.” That would be wrong. London buses are red. It is factually wrong. It is a wrong description of the world. Now let us suppose you say, “When someone harms you, you should get even at once.” Is that also wrong? Well, we could certainly say as much. we could say, “When someone harms you, getting even at once would be wrong.” But if so, it is not wrong in the same way as the blue bus color is wrong. We could even go further and say, “The bus color is a fact; the forgiving thing is just an opinion.” Different strokes for different folks: what is wrong for some is not wrong for others. And yet, this seems limited. Surely torturing children is wrong just as much as calling London buses blue is wrong. But does the same thing—the same metaphysical force—make them both wrong? If so, what is that metaphysical force? What is it that makes both the torture of children and the labeling of London buses as blue WRONG? No one seems to know. It’s a mindset about “wrong” that many of us have but cannot really explain.
04/04/2022 Joe Biden and the Mindset of Blame
Bill Clinton was a popular two-term president. He was president during a high-tech boom in the economy and during a time when Baby Boomers were all still working and hence paying a large share of taxes. The economy took off. Federal deficits shrunk to surpluses. But twenty years before Clinton took the White House, something very different was happening. Demand and supply on a global scale were getting out of whack. The 70s became a time of great inflation, and after a while it got so bad that people even stopped consuming. Thus the nation had inflation without growth—something called “stagflation.” It made three presidents—Nixon, Ford, and Carter—terribly unpopular. All three of them did good things: Nixon began diplomatic relations with China, Ford wisely pardoned Nixon, and Carter started the nation conserving energy. None of it mattered. The economy, stupid, was bad. All three of them were blamed. Historical achievement be damned. Now Joe Biden is president, and supply due to Covid is slow while demand is super-strong. Inflation is back. The voting public blames Joe Biden, who had nothing to do with Covid. But someone must be blamed. Here is the mindset: Every effect has a cause, and bad effects likewise have causes. SOMEONE must have caused Covid and inflation, and if it isn’t the president of the United states, who could it be? We can always blame the Chinese, but we can’t do much about them. We can do something about Joe Biden, and it simply doesn’t make us feel any better to blame a bat from a Chinese live animal market. The bat isn’t running for anything except possibly its life. The football coach doesn’t play on the field, but the team has lost, so we get rid of the coach. We simply MUST do something.
04/01/23022: Shakespeare and the Art of Chinese War
Sun Tzu’s ART OF WAR was written about 2.5 thousand years ago, and its great theme is what we would call today “information asymmetry,” a fancy term that means you know more than your enemy does about what you are going to do, but you also engage in various feints and disinformation to keep him guessing—and guessing wrong. In other words, the art of war is based above all on deception. Shakespeare was also into deception. In his play RICHARD III he presents a hunch-backed character that everyone underestimates as ugly and lame. Richard is deceptive, and wants everyone to sell him short so that when they least expect it, he murders them on his way to the kingship. In the HENRY IV plays Shakespeare creates a character, Prince Hall, whom everyone believes is a lazy playboy. This is fine by Hal, who deceives everyone when he suddenly becomes a tricky politician and fine war leader. The Three Witches in MACETH tell him not to fear any man of woman born, and he is utterly confident in this prophecy until he learns that the man who is about to kill him was delivered by C-section, which is a little detail that lay hidden in the Witches’ fortune-telling. “Information asymmetry” is all over Shakespeare, and that’s the essence of HIS art, too. Shakespeare knows how the plot will unfold, while his readers and theater-goers do not. He keeps us guessing and off-balance with various twists and turns, not to defeat us in battle but to entertain us and get our money. He’s been quite good at that.
03/31/2022: Are You Doomed to Write a Novel?
Some years ago a railroad brakeman in Texas was forced to move to a new city in order to continue his job. He was unhappy about it. About 60, he said, “This will be my last move, The next time I move, they’ll be moving me.” This man was writing a novel with himself as the leading protagonist. He had been born, became a railroad brakeman, was made to move to a new city, and would make this his last move until he died, whereupon he would not be moving furniture but would become something that someone else would have to move. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. What is the meaning of the fact that he who himself had been forced to move would in the end have the luxury of being moved? What bitter or funny irony is this? Here we have an illustration of the novelistic mindset. We are all more or less born with it. In human experience, something starts, continues from its beginning, and comes to an end. Madame Bovary makes a bad marriage, has all sorts of bad reactions to it, and ends up destroying herself. Although we are quite different from her, most of us in our lives follow the same trajectory of beginning, middle, and end. We are guaranteed an end because we are going to die and know it. So we search for a reason, a significance, for the very fact that we were born and are here at all. It is death—the certainty of an ending—that puts us into a novelistic frame of mind. What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of a novel? Neither question makes any sense without the absolute certainty that there will be a last chapter, when they will move us.
03/30/2022: Why Is It So Much Fun to Kill Someone?
The late philosopher Ernest Becker said that we human beings live in two worlds: one biological, the other symbolic. The first is limited and bounded by death—we can run only so fast, see only so far, and find that our bodies betray us and we die. The second seems infinite: our religion or our ideology or our cultural achievements will go on and on, long after the last chapter of our personal biology has been written. Becker thought we clung to our symbolic selves in order to deny our biological selves. It’s like this: “My heart and kidneys will someday fail me, but that’s not really me, for I am a (Christian, Hindu, Democrat, Republican, artist, teacher, scholar, atheist….you fill in the blank). And so I just don’t think about death very much. I’m a symbolic person.” According to Becker this is the mindset by which we deny death. So: no wonder it’s given people a rush of kill people with different symbolic selves, as Protestants killed Catholics, Nazis killed Jews, capitalists killed Communists, Hindus killed Muslims, and so forth. Why is this so much fun? Because you get to remind your victim that he or she is a biological self by affirming via ammunition your own “eternal” symbolic self. It’s a twofer. You show your foe that he’s a mere biological entity while expressing your own symbolic, ideological immortality. A Protestant who kills a Catholic, or vice-versa, says, “How dare you question my symbolic self? You are a mere body. So take that!”
03/29/2022: The Unfortunate Mindset of the Tin Ear
In music a tin ear belongs to someone who sings perpetually off-key. The score calls for an A and they sing an A sharp or A flat. There are tin ears in language, too. In the 1930s a Congressman told a New Deal official that giving people free food would reduce their incentive, in the long run, to earn it for themselves. These people were starving, The official told the Congressman that people didn’t eat in the long run; they at every day. The Congressman may have been right, but in the face of a humanitarian emergency, his comments were off-key. He had a tin ear. Of late, there has been talk about the need to cut off sales of Russian oil, in order to punish Putin for invading Ukraine, and help Western fuel purchasers by lowering gas taxes. Environmentalists say this would be an awful idea. We should be raising taxes on consumers, they say, not lowering them. This way, we will wean ourselves from now unaffordable fossil fuels. Again, they may be right, but there is a short-term emergency with Russia, as a result of which gas prices are soaring, and folks need help in affording to pay them. Once more, people don’t need fuel in the long run; they need it every day. Another tin ear. After a brutally tragic school shooting at the Sandy Hook, CT school, NRA spokesmen said above all, let’s make sure gun rights are not decreased. Here’s another “in the long run” tin ear statement in the middle of a short-run crisis. What do these tin ears prove? Probably this: Human beings are built to survive, not ponder long-range ideals and principles. When people are focused on the present catastrophe, statements of long-arc principles are likely to sound like a B flat when a B is expected.
03/28/2022: Donald Trump and the Two Machiavellis
In an interview with Sean Hannity, Donald Trump refused to condemn Vladimir Putin as evil. Hannity gave him several shots at it, but Trump declined every time. He said that he and Putin “got along” all right; that they understood one another; and he went on to imply that this was all that really counted, True was saying that when you deal with Putin, it’s not about good and evil but about power and how to use it. It is a totally amoral business. This was also the view of Machiavelli, a great Italian political thinker, in The Prince, his famous book from the early 1500s. What we would call foreign policy, said Machiavelli, is not rooted in ethics but in power, and his little book is a guide on how rulers can and should use that power. It’s been called “a manual for gangsters,” but Machiavelli, were he around today, might say that war and diplomacy are more like mobsters than we might care to acknowledge. Machiavelli, though, also wrote another book: this one longer and less famous, called The Discourses. Here he strikes a different tone as he commends a republican form of government based on representative rule of the people, self-reliance, hard work, and civic engagement. Here, in other words, Machiavelli gets into “moral virtues.” If foreign policy is a lot like the Mafia or pro wrestling, domestic policy is rooted in the ethics of citizenry. When he was president, did Trump believe in the ethics of citizenry? He was opposed to abortion, for exaple, but did you ever hear him explain why abortion was wrong? Or was it just that the anti-abortion bloc and he cut a deal in order to keep him in power so he could do what they wanted? “You give me your votes. I’ll give you your judges.” It’s as though Trump had read The Prince but had never cracked open a copy of The Discourses.
03/25/2022: The Insoluble Problem of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse
The allegory of the city mouse and the country mouse goes back too ancient times and has been updated many times since. The city mouse judges everything by the latest information and studies and likes to live in a world of sometimes risky change. The country mouse judges things by traditional wisdom and prefers living safely in a world without consent disruption. One hundred years ago in the United States the colliding worlds of the two mice were on dramatic display. The American city was the home of jazz and short skirts and louche dancing. The American countryside was the home of prohibition of liquor and the Ku Klux Klan. The nation was hopelessly divided: the DISunited States of America. But then came the Great Depression, when the country was united by its desperate poverty, and then World War II, when the country was united against Hitler and the Japanese fascists. After the war, American prosperity was so extraordinary that everyone in the land was getting richer and richer—as long as they’ were white. So the problem of the city mouse versus the country mouse was solved—until lately. Now the problem has returned. City mice love high technology, new trends, multicultural urban areas, and Democratic leaders like Obama. Country mice love stability and traditional values (such as unlimited gun ownership and outlawing abortion), hate ethnic diversity, and adore Republicans like Donald Trump. Back in the NINETEEN 20s, the problem of division was solved by depression, then war, then prosperity. What will solve the current fissure? It is hard to find a plausible answer. This is a story of two divisive, insoluble mindsets.
03/23/2022: The Endless Winter of Corruption
In northern climes, harsh winters are inevitable. Unless you can afford to go south, you just have to put up with them. Everyone talks about the weather, as the old saying goes, but no one does anything about it, No one can, at least not in the seasonal sense. The same goes for pervasive corruption. You live in a society where you call a plumber, and he says he’s busy and can’t get there for a week unless you give him some sort of upfront fee, on top of his usual bill. A cop stops you for having your right tail light out—you never noticed before—and says he can give you a heavy fine, but if if you are willing to lubricate his palm he might relent. A gang member comes into your shop and tells you it’s a nice shop and it would be too bad if something were to happen to it, but that can be prevented for a fee. You might want to complain about these practices, but then you discover that the plumber is paying someone under the table to let him remain corrupt, and the cop is sharing his ill-gotten gains with the boss, who is sharing it with his boss; and that the cops are on the take via the gangs that threaten to destroy your shop. Corruption is incessant, It’s corruption al the way down, and all the way up. What can you do about it? The answer: about as much as you can do about a long, frigid winter. You learn to live with both. This is the mindset of corruption: something that is inseparable from a mandatory way of life.
03/22/2022: How Chevy Created the Great Depression
1925 was not only the middle of the American Roaring Twenties and not just the year Scott Fitzgerald wrote the great American novel, THE GREAT GATSBY. It was also the year that Alfred Sloan, the head of General Motors, came out with a radical new idea. Tired of losing car sales to Ford, he decreed that from now on Chevy, Buick, and Cadillac would come out with a new model every year. This created an exciting but dangerous new mindset. Before that, there were no such things as a 1923 Chevy or a 1924 Ford. There were only Chevys and Fords. You bought one, and it ran a long time. You didn’t need another one, and besides, your model looked the same as the one two or three years younger. Sloan changed all that: Americans would come to decide that they just HAD to have the latest model, which looked different every year, and that it was a matter of status. If you couldn’t afford a new car every year, then you must be poor, a failure. The catch was: People couldn’t afford a new model every year. But Sloan had thought of that: General Motors would lend you the money. This created a nation in debt in pursuit of status and it added to the already heavy debt being carried by farmers and stock market gamblers and land speculators. In time, debt as a way of life caught up with the United States, and the Great Depression ensued, motored by millions upon millions who could not pay their debts. People who had purchased 1830 Buicks on credit had to sell them and hope they could afford a 1922 Ford.
03/21/2022: Elizabeth Holmes and Lance Armstrong Both Cheated, But That’s Not Really What They Have In Common
Elizabeth Holmes and Lance Armstrong are among those who belong in the Hall of Fame of Cheaters. Holmes cut corners and lied about her Silicon Valley tech company and created reams of false blood tests for vulnerable patients. Lance Armstrong doped and lied about it in order to win all those French bike race titles. But what they really have in common is something that can easily happen to us—that does happen to us. And that is: we and they take games too seriously. Biographers trace Holmes’s story back to a sixth grade race—a foot race—where she came in last. She was in a game and was humiliated. She vowed this would never happen again. When we get into games, whether it be badminton or checkers or Mario Brothers, we sometimes become defined by the game. The philosopher C. The Nguyen says that games are an “existential balm for the difficulties of life.” In life, we may enjoy things but get no points for doing so and feel guilty about that; or we may pursue things the goals of which, and success of which, are ambiguous. How do we know we are raising our kids properly? How do we know we won’t die tomorrow? What values in an overly mediated culture should we adopt? Games solve this problem for us, and that’s why we love them. I may not know whether or not I’m always doing right by my friends, but I know whether or not I won the squash game this afternoon. Games focus our values, but they can also narrow them. Armstrong and Holmes decided not just that winning was the only thing, but that the game was the only thing—whether it be a bike title or becoming a Silicon Valley billionaire. This was their real mindset. They needed an ethical compass But they also needed an interesting hobby. Neither had one.
03/18/2022: Is Capitalism the Enemy of Democracy?
Capitalism and democracy would seem to be happy mates, and it’s no wonder. Does not capitalism depend on consumer demand—and isn’t that sort of the same thing as public sentiment before and after elections? Don’t politicians and mattress companies alike have to sell themselves to the general public? And doesn’t capitalist innovation depend on the right to “speak up,” and isn’t this right also protected in a democracy? And yet, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when American capitalism and democracy emerged victorious, we’ve seen global capitalism spread nearly everywhere except perhaps in Cuba and North Korea, while democracy has languished, with authoritarian states in China and Russia and the development of “illiberal democracies” in Hungary, Poland, and even the United States. What happened? Well, the answer lies in the differing mindsets of capitalism and democracy. Capitalists want to create demand, offer supply, cut costs, and make profits. Democracy wants to give millions of people collective power, so that it’s government of, by, and for the people instead of by oligarchic rich people and their special and exclusive interests. Since capitalism produces rich people—winners—while reserving the right to cut costs—replace workers with robots or ship manufacturing overseas, where it’s cheaper—capitalism creates anti-democratic backlash. Those displaced want to turn back the clock, and the only way to do that is by mandating it through autocracy. In that sense, innovative and dynamic capitalism disrupts democracy. Countries like China want to have it both ways: capitalist creativity but authoritarian government. But their leaders are fretting all the time about the contradiction, as well they should, for while capitalism complicates democracy, it is not in the end a deadly enemy of it. Few people are pleased to be decisive consumers but not care about whether their vote counts. Dictatorship hates democracy, while capitalism is just in a tense tango with it.
03/17/2022: Does Silicon Valley Believe in God?
The seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was so smart he’d have been a whiz in Silicon Valley, that great author of our dreams and disrupted of our lives. Pascal came up with a wonderful reason for believing in God. If you do so, and you’re wrong, you’ve lost nothing. But if you don’t, and then you’re wrong, you’ve lost everything, Why not believe in God just to make sure? It’s a low risk/high reward mindset. That’s also how it works in Sixicon Valley, especially with start-ups. The infamous Elizabeth Holmes Theranos scandal reveals as much. Holmes was able to raise 15 million dollars from venture capitalists just by promising to dingoes blood, administer drugs, and alert doctors to diseases—all as a result one little high-tech patch. This never worked, but venture capitalists have a mega-ton of money so for them, investing in Theranos was just as Pascal described Believing in God: low risk but high reward. Suppose Theranos had actually worked! Pascal’s theory about believing in God is caed Pascal’s Wager it’s a wager rich venture capitalists make every day. Most of them don’t work. But when you got billions to invest, you don’t need many winners to recoup your losses and then some. Silicon Valley definitely believes in “God.” Theranos was all too human: $billions were lost.
03/16/2022: Oranges in the Sky and Revolutions in the Air
In 1783 the first hot air balloons flew in France—also the first time in the world. Benjamin Franklin was in Paris and wrote that when they got high enough they looked like small oranges floating in the sky. At first, Louis XVI liked these miracles. One of them had the Bourbon royal symbol on it. But in time he came to fret about these balloons, especially when human beings, as opposed to roosters and ducks, began riding in them. There was already restlessness in the air, and by the end of the decade it would erupt and claim the King and Marie Antoinette alike. The hot air balloons were giving people dangerous ideas, If you could be free from gravity, why not free from tyranny? This was a burgeoning and subversive mindset. What in human capacity made such a mindset possible? The answer: the human ability to blend physical events with political ideas. Non-human animals can have—and read—physical experience, but they cannot abstract them into dreams and theories. Human animals can. No doubt King Louis wished from time to time that he was ruling dogs or chickens instead of people, for then there would have been no French Revolution—or, for that matter, hot air balloons.
03/15/2022: Can Computers Laugh?
Computing devices such as laptops, smart phones, and tablets are good at deep learning. Feed them a lot of information on a single subject, such as chess or world usage, and they will detect statistical pasterns faster than human beings can. Nearly every computer can beat nearly every human chess player. Computing devices are less good at making sounds, though they can ping or ring or even answer us when we summon such voice algorithms as Siri or Alexa—both of which can also read a screen to us. Still, a computer cant scream or say ouch or cry or laugh. Why is this important? What is the mindset behind a computer’s being unable to laugh? Let us do a thought experiment. Suppose you are typing a text into your phone and you write, “I’m afraid I laid an—.” The phone is going to suggest that you want to put “egg” in as that last word, and it will nominate “egg” so that you need only select it from a short menu and not have to type it in. Amazing! The computer knows that a common word after “laid an” is “egg.” It has taken a deep dive into word usage and come up with a high statistical probability on this point—deep learning. But then suppose a comedian wants to make a joke about the recent failures of a Hollywood studio and says, “Sony Pictures has decided to move next to a chicken farm so it will have some company while its laying eggs.” This is a symbolic, not statistical, example of “laid an egg.” It means “screwing up.” The computer ca’t get this joke. It can’t laugh. Human beings are in possession of symbolic social information that no computer is likely to grasp, ever, or be programmed to grasp, ever.
03/14/2022: Why You Should Join a Cult—For a While
When he was in his early 20s Malcolm Little, a prisoner in Massachusetts, joined a cult. He rose high in its ranks. Cults are dogmatic but also transformative. Malcolm changed his last name to X, as “Little” had been his slave name, which he renounced. With cults you have to go all in; and that’s a key to their mindset. Christianity itself was a cult in its early days, as when Jesus said, “He who follows me must give up family and not look back.” Malcolm’s cult was the Nation of Islam. Through its teachings he learned that black people were the original human beings, that white people were devils, and that black Americans should leave the United States and set up their own separate nation in Africa. Later, when he left the cult, he rejected some of these ideas and decided that white people, too, could be part of the solution to the race problem, The Nation of Islam’s approach to racism had always been too exclusionary to work, and that’s one of the reasons Malcolm left it, But the Nation of Islam was the making of Malcolm. It moved him to stop his criminal living, on the grounds that living a life of theft and dope was precisely what the white man wanted him and other black people to do: to undo themselves. Malcolm’s cult transformed into clean living and brilliant oratory, It made him a man. In time, he outgrew the Nation of islam—suggesting that sometimes you have to join a cult to get the sort of transformative jolt you need, as long as you leave yourself open to changing your mind later. The problem is: cults are hard to get out of They are rigid and unforgiving. Malcom’s leaving the Nation of Islam cost him his life in the winter of 1965.
03/11/2022: The Empire Mindset—and Its Catastrophes
There have been many famous empires in history. The Romans had one. The British did. The Americans did, or do. The Mongols did. The Russians did, and some of them would like to get some of it back: hence, the attack on Ukraine The Empire Mindset is one of vast and far-flung rule. Even now the English sing about Britannia’s ruling the waves, with “the waves” being many thousands of miles from London. The idea is that you can run Calcutta from offices in London. Yet empires always fail, and frequently with catastrophic events and outcomes. Why? The answer is because the Empire Mindset contains within it a major contradiction. It is not a circle that can be squared. As the Empire takes in a swelling polygon of peoples with their own customs, it can do one of two things: let the customs remain—in which case the whole point of Empire is simply reduced to a place on the map and not a set of imperial habits and customs—or impose imperial values from without—in which case the Empire becomes more and more stretched and broke trying to keep “law and order” via repression. The Empire can become either pointless or become a police state, and it is almost never willing to entertain the former, so it goes broke trying to become the latter thousands of miles from home base. This is what happened too Rome, Britain, and Russia. The American Empire tried to force democracy on the Vietnamese and courted disaster trying to do so. Even now, the Russians are facing the prospect of persistent Ukraine resistance as it tries, too late, to restore its old Soviet empire. Empire is not a natural state of affairs, and we can only cheat nature for so long before nature begins to answer back.
03/10/2022: Are You Against Terrorism? Nope.
Terrorism is easy to define. It is the secret plot of lethal violence against even innocent bystanders in support of a passionate cause. In 1605 a small group of alienated Catholics plotted to blow up the English Parliament, even though they would kill, in the process, some English Catholics who were innocent of repressing English Catholics at all. On September 11, 2001 there were Muslims killed in the Twin Towers. In John Milton’s great drama Samson Agonistes, the hero is Samson, a young Israeli who destroyed a temple full of hated Philistines. He did it, as Milton portrays him, for his beloved God, who was quite different from all the Philistine gods. Milton sees him as a flawed and tragic but finally heroic figure, and Milton himself hoped that anyone in Europe who persecuted Protestants would die a painful death. Terrorism against Catholics was fine by him. Most of us think we are opposed to terrorism, but millions of readers over the years have rooted for Samson. If you could have blown up Hitler, even if he were surrounded by lots of innocent people, would you do it? The mindset of what is terrorism usually depends on which side you’re on.
03/09/2022: Would You Like to Join the Flat Eart
A reporter who attended a meeting of the Flat Earth Society in Birmingham, England came back to say that the club’s members were rather well-informed by scientific principles. They were not anti-science, but they were anti-scientist. This was their mindset. They didn’t like scientists because they thought scientists were know-it-alls, part of a vast conspiracy to make them feel stupid. They were shown a photo of a round Earth taken from outer space, but spurned it because they said NASA was fake and so were the scientists who worked for the agency. As we live in a more complex scientific world, one informed by science from everything from evolution to Covid, many people find they cannot keep up and dislike the smugness and arrogance of know-it-all scientists. This is unfortunate, because scientists are not know-it-alls. Science is not a collection of hard facts and technologies but a method of testing. Science is built on uncertainty and updating. It is an activity of changing minds, albeit sometimes too slowly. It is too bad that scientists often come off as overly technical know-it-alls, thus triggering this anti-science attitude all over the world. The mindset of this bunch, though, is less anti-science than anti-scientist.
03/08/2022: The Dangerous
Mindset of “Never Again”
One of the most pervasive mindsets in human experience, both personal and collective, is what we should call “Never Again.” It can be perilous because it causes people not to face up to present dangers. The CIA suspected Aldrich Ames of being a super-traitor and double agent, but because of previous chaos around this general issue, the CIA was hesitant to pursue its suspicion. “Never again” was the agency’s mindset. “Never again shall we create so much a mess looking for moles and double agents.” As a result, Ames went on spying for the Soviets for years, and in time thanks to him the Soviets executed ten Soviets who were spying for the US. The Congress had a clear case of impeachment against Ronald Reagan, who had illegally circumvented the laws of the United States, but memories of the Nixon impeachment affair were so proximate that Congress did not have the stomach to do it all over again. Nevill Chamberlin, the prime minister of Britain, recalled the horrors of Word War I so vividly that he thought: “Never again,” and so he appeased Hitler and only fed his appetite for more seizures of territory. Never Again is an understandable mindset. It is not a profile in courage.
03/07/2022: CNN, LBJ, and t
he Problem of Bad Faith
Not long ago CNN did one of its original documentaries on the life of an American president—this time it was Lyndon Johnson. One is always struck by the LBJ-Vietnam story, and especially by Johnson’s constant claim at the time that he was a reluctant warrior. He did not want to prosecute the war in Southeast Asia, but two American presidents had given their word that the US would be there against the Communists, and the Soviet Union would take advantage of an American withdrawal. As early as 1964, in a phone call with Senator Richard Russell, Johnson and Russell agreed that nothing good could come for the United States out of Vietnam. Four years later Johnson had close to half a million American troops there. Some of today’s scholars think Johnson was indeed a hesitant commander-in-chief who nonetheless feared he would be charged with being “soft on communism,” a lethal accusation at the time. That may or may not be, but his view that he had “no choice” is a certain mindset. What is this mindset? It is the denial of one’s own freedom to make moral choices. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that whatever morality was, it had to start with the conviction that one was free to choose it—otherwise, he said, one was guilty of “bad faith.” President Johnson seemed gripped by a mindset of bad faith when he said, falsely, that he had no choice.
03/04/2022: The Riddle of P
Most of us have never tripped, so it is a bit hard for us to imagine what it is like. Those who advocate the experience say that on acid one sees more deeply into the life of things and that ordinary experiences is given a shimmering aliveness that reveals some energy beneath the surface of our daily routines. This sounds fuzzy, but some trippers say that one can get a sense of what it’s like by watching the last five minutes of the Stanley Kubrick film, SPACE ODYSSEY 2001. That cinematic journey is both disorienting and sublime. Yet in the end there is an enigmatic rivalry of mindsets when it comes to such adventures. According to one mindset, the LSD or mushrooms or peyote release in us the capacity to see far beyond and above ordinary life. Thus the trip is a visionary experience. Yet a competing mindset denies any such The. They trip is just your brain on extra chemicals. There is nothing “out there” to see. Tripping is just a drug-induced hallucination. Behind this discord is a deep Philosophical issue. Is there a real metaphysical realm well above what we cannot see (without acid, that is); or is everything just a product of our own minds, which means, really, our own brains? This is a hard question to settle, so it will remain a mystery for a long time, with dogmatic advocates on both sides, who are sure it’s not a mystery at all.
03/03/2022: Is It Better to Marry Than to Burn?
In the early days of Christianity the apostle Paul was thought to be an ardent supporter of, and interpreter of, evolving Christian doctrine. So various churches around the Mediterranean asked hi his opinion on various subjects in regard to Christianity, among which was sex. Paul was a converted Jew and was aware of Jewish attitudes towards sex: that it should remain entirely within marriage. This was not just a question of morality but also of survival. Sexual copulation produced children, which meant more Jewish religionists, which meant great chances of Hebrew survival. Wasting sexual energy outside of the family was a bad idea, for kids born that way were at greater risk themselves of not surviving. So Paul, applying the same idea to his new Christian religion, had the same logic: sex within marriage in order to have Christian children but no sex beyond or outside that. Paul, however, wanted to go a step further. Sex involved the unruly cravings of the body, and surely for a Christian devoted to spirit and eternal life, such yearnings were a terrible idea. Was not celibacy better than any sex? Paul, however, was caught between two mindsets: sexual coplatoon to increase the population of Christians but also the superiority of celibacy over sex. He solves insert dilemma with these nimble worlds: “It is better to marry than to burn.” Having sex is bad and sinful, but if you do it within marriage at least you won’t o to Hell. In a way Paul could have it both ways. Centuries after his death, the Church solved the problem another way: let the laity have sex and children in marriage, while the clergy stayed celibate and ran the masses—a division of labor that still endures.
03/02/2022: The Truth Will Set You Free—But Free From What?
“The truth will set you free” seems to be so obviously true that most of us would say it is our mindset. It’s the sort of truism that could easily fit on a bumper sticker. It is a saying of Christ’s, and this surely gives it authority. It seems quite apparently true that the truth will set you free, or us free. Yet the sheer complexity of human nature makes it not quite true, or not always true. It is true for the fox: if the fox thinks there is prey in a certain area, and it is not true that there is such prey there, then the absence of truth has imprisoned the fox in hunger. If it were true that the prey were there, the fox would be free—from hunger. Likewise, if it is true that there are berries on the other side of the mountain, then that truth, once you go there, will set you free—from hunger. But suppose you think well of yourself and believe you are an important person, something that one of Henrik Ibsen’s characters called “a life-life.” It is untrue that you are important, but your believing it gives you motive and energy and confidence. Or: you believe God loves you. This makes you free—from anxiety. If there is no God and if God does not love you, then your belief is false. But your liberty from dread remains. Yes, the truth does set you and me free, except when it does not.
03/01/2022: Do You Need a Virtual Vacation?
In 1935 the critic Walter Benjamin noticed that th
e Mona Lisa was showing up on postcards. Once there was only one Mona Lisa. Now there were thousands of them. The aura of seeing the Mona Lisa in person—the original—had given way to the age of mechanical reproduction. Today we can see the Mona Lisa online. No trip to Paris is required. Benjamin thought there was no substitute for seeing the real thing, but he admitted that there was an upside. People who could never afford a trip to Paris could now see, soft of, the Mona Lisa, even if it was the cheap imitation postcard version. Today “mechanical reproduction” has given way to “digital reproduction.” You can go to the Epcot Center, for instance, and get on a swing while all around you is an airplane trip across the United States. For a while you might even be tempted too think it IS the real thing. And that raises the question: In how may years will virtual, or digital, vacations be so good that you won’t have to leave home in order to see the Pyramids, the Grand Canton, or the Taj Mahal? Will people even want to take those “trips”? How much would they cost? Would martinis be included? An age of digital reproduction has given us a whole new and radical mindset. We can have an almost unlimited number of varied experiences, even if they aren’t the few authentic ones we had in the past.
02/28/2022: The Mindset of the Post-Truth Worl
Once upon a time someone might make a statement and be asked to verify it and reply, “I read it on the back of a matchbook.” It is quite true that facts or factoids appeared on the backs of matchbooks—such as “Lake Superior is bigger than all the other Great Lakes combined.” There was’t a lot riding on whether or not that was true, so other people would probably let it go. Still, it would have been better if our conversationalist had said that he or she read this information in a book. Matchbook assertions weren’t vetted—there probably were’t a lot of people employed to check matchbook sentences—but a whole array of people presumably checked books, including authors, editors, publishers, experts, and lawyers. A book was a lot more reliable—that business about the size of Lake Superior would have more credibility if it had appeared in a book called The Great Lakes. That would have been back in the pre-post-truth world. But now we live in a post-truth world. What is its mindset? Well, it seems that nearly everything has turned to the print on the back of a matchbook. On the internet folks can publish anything they like. There are no necessary checkers prior to being “published.” You can read that Lake Superior is bigger than all the other lakes together OR you can read that Lake Superior is 180 times the size of Lake Huron. Both propositions appear on your screen., They appear to be equally “true.” You can find out, but you have to be your own gate-keeper. Since a lot of people don’t want to take the trouble, we live in a post-truth world, where the mindset is “I read it in font, so it must be right.”
02/25/2022: The Mindset of Being Thorough
To say that someone is “thorough” is generally to compliment them. You want someone who will get rid of every last termite or find the last available fact about your ancestors. You do’t want someone who is careless and apt to “miss something.” What is the mindset of being thorough? It is an aim for perfection. It can also turn malevolent. Stalin could not be sure who his enemies were, so he decided to eliminate everyone whom he thought might be a foe. The Soviet children of the executed denied that their parents were guilty, but they accepted the need to weed every possible subversive out of the state, lest the danger mount and end the Communist regime. “Being thorough” can be a striving towards perfection, but it is also the mindset, or product, of fear that the stakes are so high that there can be no safe room for error. Dick Cheney told President Bush that after 9/11 the peril of a weaponized attack on American soil was so great that Saddam Hussein hd to be taken down, if only for insurance. The invasion of Iraq was launched in the mindset of being thorough—just in case.
02/24/2022; We All Know What Freedom Is—Except When We Don’t
What is freedom? Ah, that’s easy. Freedom happens when we can choose between reading a book or taking a walk, between Coke or Pepsi, between going on social media or not; even between voting or not. You and I are free when we can do as we please, not bounded by government or conformity. To be sure, there are limits. For a while at least we are not free to disobey our bosses or our parents. But we only obey our bosses so we can make enough money to choose between Lexus and Acura, Apple or Samsung. And we only obey our parents because for a while they actually may know more than we do. We respect them only so that we can get grown up and then choose—choose freely—between watching Prime or Netflix. The philosopher Hannah Arendt thought this mindset about our freedom was dangerously wrong. She thought we were mixing up the results of freedom with the conditions of freedom. And what are those conditions? We are free when everyone else is free, and to attain that condition we have to work at it—build a society of respect for those we don’t agree with or like but must listen to and try to comports with. It is a society built on a decent respect for the opinions of each other. If you live in a society in which green people are mailed for being green, you may think that’s OK because you are a mauve person. But suppose, in time, they get around to jailing mauve people, too. Then what good will your choice of the Bengals or the Rams do you?
02/23/2022: Do You Have e a Rubber Hand?
We have a certain mindset about our brains—one that is wrong. We see our brains as handling inputs from our environment, as in “A chair presents itself to us and the image goes to our brains and our brains then process its ‘chair-ness’ for us.” We think sensory data goes from the outside to the inside, and that our brains are neutral processors of information. Not so. A good deal of perception goes from the inside out, and our brains are not neutral but rather prejudiced. Brains may give us our minds, but the does to mean our brains are open-minded. If you are skeptical, try the Rubber Hand Experiment, which goes like this. Two people sit across a table from each other. Person A has two hands but puts one of those hands beneath the table and substitutes a rubber hand, which rests on the table beside Person A’s other hand. Person B then takes a brush and starts to rub both the real hand and the rubber hand with it. How does the hand under the table feel? It feels as though it too is being touched by the brush. The brain thinks, “Well, this one hand looks a bit odd, but it also looks enough like a hand that it must be one, so I’m sending that signal out to my client.” The client, or the owner of the brain, feels a tickle in his under-the-table hand, Brains learn on the job, and they are conditioned to play the odds. They are biased towards the probabilities built from past experience, and it’s only when further data is undeniably able to contradict that set of probabilities that it changes its “mind” for the brain owner. If the brain and its owner have nearly always perceived big brown things in the night, accurately, as bushes, that will be the bias going forward. By the time the brain and its client have realized it’s a bear, it might be too late. One of the reasons human beings are biased is because their brains are. On the other hand, if the brain had to start anew every time, neither it nor its owner would get anywhere in life.
02/22/2022: Are All Outer Space Aliens Also Communist?
Suppose aliens from outer space came to Earth and were shaped like grasshoppers. While they spoke English or French or Albanian, they regarded algae as a delicious dessert, somewhat like Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. We would quickly conclude, “These folks are not like us. They are weird.” This would be our mindset. Now go back in time rto the America of the 1950s. It was a golden age of sci-fi movies with weird aliens from outer space. And, not coincidentally, it was a time of rampant fear of: Communists, juvenile delinquents, Wonder Woman as lesbian (possibly), and violent comic books. It was an anti-weird mindset. Why were Communists thought to be so weird? There were two reasons at least: Communists did not believe in God and they did not believe in private property. To Americans, not believing in these two cherished principles made you so odd, dangerously so, that you might as well have been a grasshopper alien from outer space who loved Ben and Jerry’s Algae. And if you were a juvenile delinquent or homosexual, then that meant you might well be a Commie as well, because “Communist” became a catchall term for anything that seemed perilously strange. Even if a j.d. or homosexual were not an outright Commie, they were likely part of a Communest plot.
02/21/2022: The Kept Dog
In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories a character says, “We don’t keep a dog.” This is a British expression. In America we would say, “we don’t have a dog.” But the British expression is more accurate and meaningful, for a dog is indeed a kept creature. That is to say, the dog is given food, shelter, and water but in return gives up its agency. It becomes dependent on its keepers. It is often treated well but the fact remains that dogs (and cats) have evolved to fit into one major environmental niche: human beings. This is why dogs are so anxious to please; so eager to go to the bathroom outside and not on the house floors; and so good at disguising pain. These are all adaptive traits that enhance the pup’s longevity in the human household. The dog’s aim, an adaptation, is to make its owners feel like a god. If a wild dog sees a squirrel and eats it, then it is showing agency. But dogs are generally not well-adapted to surviving outside as much as surviving inside. When the dog gets old and sick, it is the owner, not the dog, who decides it is “time” at the vet’s. The owner thinks it is kindness to the dog, and maybe it is. it is also, though, a further extension of the dog’s non-agency—it is the human mindset of keeping and deciding to lose a dog.
02/18/2022: Is Life a Temporary Solution to a Permanent Problem?
One mindset about suicide is that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Some unsuccessful suicides have reported that on their way down off the Golden Gate Bridge they had reconsidered and were lucky enough to live to tell the tale. Death is a permanent solution to our troubles, but that’s also the problem: it’s a bit too permanent and totally non-reversible. But is it equally true—another mindset—that life is but a temporary solution to a permanent problem? The permanent problem is death. Most of us would prefer to von living. But even with our huge population, there are still more dead humans than living ones. And that’s to say nothing of all those burgeoning species—human or non-human—that never made it and went extinct. In evolution via natural selection, there are far more ways to be dead than to be alive. So a good mindset to have is thinking of life as a temporary solution to a permanent problem. The problem will never go away, and your fix—living—is only transient. The real mindset here, a healthy and wise one, is not to sweat the small stuff and in life, given the long run, it’s all small stuff.
02/17/2022: Has The Supernatukral, Really Gone Away?
We have a particular mindset about the supernatural, but maybe it’s time we changed it. We think of the “supernatural” as some divine, or even malicious, intervention in the laws of nature, as when someone is raised from the dead or lives forever in Heaven or even has an uncanny streak of altruism that makes him die to save total strangers: miracles. This is an old idea of the “supernatural” that has fallen out of favor in many quarters in a time of secular rise and religious fall. But if we think of the “supernatural” as something mysteriously over and above nature, then the old mindset can give way to a new one. Take the “natural” fact of death. People live and pass away, yet they are always leaving something much more permanent behind: a poem, an idea, Ann influence, a house, a photograph. Despite natural death all around us, we build these enduring institutions and countries with flags and boundaries and creeds and laws. The human bodies go away; the symbols go on and on. Finally, there is the very business of matter itself. There is not nearly enough ordinary matter to build the galaxies and planets of the universe, so most of it is made up of matter about which we know nearly nothing: dark matter, an invisible ghost that can be inferred but never seen. The symbols that transcend death and the dark matter that will never be seen: are these not “above nature” in some way? We can stop depending on God as some sort of super person and see that nature itself is both more surmountable—and ghostly dark—than we realize. The “beyond nature” has not gone away after all.
02/16/2022: How Many Murderers Do You Know Personally?
Murderers must have mindsets, and we have mindsets about murderers. We think of them as obsessive serial killers who can’t stop, or as career criminals who have homicide on their rap sheet along with much other nefarious stuff, or as hit men whose living is made by doing whack jobs. But lately there is data that should change our mindsets about murders. This is supplied by DNA technology that solves years-old cold cases. And we find that those who committed murder in their 20s and 30s have gone on to be, if not always the most solid of citizens, nonetheless family men and grandfathers. They have held down a job or jobs. They are often retirees. There is a popular Youtube series called “They Got Away With Murder,” about people who, mostly in the UK, evaded justice through a failed court system. Most of them apparently never killed again and led long and sometimes even successful lives. It is entirely possible that someone we think we know well and admire is someone who got away with murder. Murder can be a one-off, a dreadful mistake of younger years or perhaps the product of singular circumstance. Lots of murders are solved, but lots of them are not. How many murderers might you know?
02/15/2022: Ia Suicide Really Homicide in Diguise?
Sigmund Freud had one of the most interesting theories of all about suicide. Freud thought we loved ourselves above all, so why would we wish to harm ourselves in this most consequential and permanent way? His answer was that we had come to think of ourselves not as lovable agents but as hated objects. We no longer recognized the person we once were, hate ourselves and our lives, and wish rot murder this despised entity. Suicide is really homicide in disguise. If this theory is true, it complicates one of the most cherished modern ideas about suicide: that we all have a right to it and neither God nor others have anything to say about it. If it is no longer “I” who is making this most awesome of all decisions, but rather some sort of loathsome thing into which we have become, then “my” right to kill myself seems questionable.
2/14/2022: Autism and Shakespeare
Suppose X and Y both have leaky faucets in their homes. X is “mechanical” and goes to the hardware store, from which he returns to his house and with a few common tools removes the flawed faucet and replaces with the new one. Y is not “mechanical” and returns from the hardware store with a new faucet but also with instructions on how to install it. It takes him a long while. He is constantly doing one step and then going to the instructions to find out what the next step will be. He has no intuition about this sort of thing, makes frequent errors and has to start again, and has no real analogies from something he is knowledgeable about to guide him. Camilla Pang is a cancer researcher who is autistic. When she was growing up, lacking the intuition by which to decode social patterns and read the emotions and motives of others, she was a bit like Y with the faucet. Her particular genius was to find analogies on how to be a human from her great talent in science Empathy, she found, was somewhat like Bayes; mathematical Theorem for determining the probability of future events. Love was a bit like chemical bonding of elements Play was somewhat like the subtle cooperation of proteins. Etiquette was rather like the science of game theory. Pang grasps that these analogies aren’t perfect. Human nature isn’t science. But it gave her a “way in” to being human and she’s written a book about it Back to the idea that science and human nature aren’t the same thing: Shakespeare had no knowledge of our solar system or the theory of natural selection or the second law of thermodynamics. Today’s 8th grader knew more science than he did by far This did not stop him from being an uncannily great presenter of human behavior in all its glorious and perverse vagaries.
02/11/2022: The Mindset of the Warrior
Don’t try to be civilized, general George Patton told his soldiers, for you wouldn’t be in war in the first place if civilization had not failed. The goal now is to win. After the January 6 assault on the American Capitol, even Republicans thought the whole thing uncivilized and blamed Donald Trump. But within weeks they changed their minds. The assault was not really an assault, and Democrats were trying to make far too much of it. Besides, hadn’t Trump really won the election in a landslide? What happen3e? Republicans, and especially Trump supporters who had wavered for a while after January 6, were reminded that this whole thing was still war: war for cultural survival, war for traditional dominance, war for gun rights and religious rights. Briefly civilized and abhorrent at the capitol riots, they soon returned to the mindset of the warrior. As General Patton might have said, forget civilization; it’s too late for that. The aim now is to win.
02/10/2022: Charles Darwin on Bernie Madoff
Bernie Madoff purchased a seven million dollar each with his crooked and ill-gotten gains. It was hard to steer, so his wife was worried they would run into something. Madoff said he would not. “Nothing whatever can hurt us,” he assured her. At that time he was being investigated by the SEC. But he was sure he would get out of having to pay for his criminal enterprise. He’d always done so, hadn’t he? It is easy to say the Bernie was stupidly overconfident, but besides being a fraudulent investor, he was also a human animal. The best explanation of human animals comes from the work founded by Charles Darwin. To see the world through his eyes is to see statistical advantages and disadvantages. This is the fundamental mindset of Darwinism. The hedgehog’s rolling itself into a ball in order to hide is generally a pretty good adapted tactic—but not always. Still, it’s a good enough strategy that the hedgehog will keep it around. And the confidence of human animals in the face of difficulty is likewise a good strategy—a great motivator. Of course, it isn’t always a great strategy. Bernie should have known when to stop or even when not to start. Yet although Madoff’s confidence turned out to be a blend of bravado and idiocy, this sort of thing works enough of the time that it remains a common human trait. Bernie wasn’t just a con artist; he was also an evolved animal.
02/09/2022: The Mindset of Office Politics
Here’s a prediction. If you look into an institution, such as a college or hospital, you will find incessant office politics. This is a bit strange if you think about it. Why should not people who work for a college band together to fight ignorance or those in a hospital come together to fight disease? You can extrapolate. Why would not those who work for a company not join together to beat the competition? Yet, office politics are more common in a company than almost anywhere else—consider the UK and US comedy series The Office. What is the mindset of office politics? Well, the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt—he was one of the few Nazis with interesting things to say—asked what politics was all about anyhow and concluded that it was about enemies and friends. And the most important enemies and friends you and I have in our lives are those we see every day: those we just don’t like or those who wish us well or ill or those who want what we want when only one person can get it. Of course, politics can also be national and international, but according to Schmitt they start with friends and foes. And where are you most likely to run into them? The answer is: in the office. Another answer might be: in your family, where there is also a good deal of politics. But it’s usually in the office that the stakes are the highest. So the enemy in a hospital or college is not disease or ignorance, but the person in the next cubicle or office or department.
02/08/2022: The Mindset of the Invisible Indoor Toilet
The first president to use the bathroom inside was Andrew Jackson in 1833. Indoor plumbing was installed in the White House in order to put out fires, but there were added features such as a watery toilet bowl. Flush toilets came much later, and it was not until the late 1950s that virtually every American home had one. As late as 1940, only half of U.S. homes had one. So about 75 million Americans, 82 years ago, were going outside to excrete. Now we live in an America where about 16 million American adults are diagnosed every year as clinically depressed. Would being thankful for indoor toilets cheer them up? Not at all. The mindset today about indoor flush commodes is that they are invisible. You can find them of course, in order to use them, but they are psychologycally invisible. We never think about them. They’ve always been there. Maybe, once upon a time, a melancholy person got over being in the dumps when the family got indoor plumbing. That time has long passed. The moral may be that even revolutionary advances only make us happier for so long. Flush toilets can free us from outhouses but not from our selves.
02/07/l2022: The Mindset of the Brand
In the old West, and maybe even today, cattle are branded, Once they have the mark of, say, the Bar X Ranch on their hides, they will forever belong to the Bar X. That becomes their identity. This is the mindset of the brand. Once you are branded, or brand your self, then you must not deviate from the features that are entailed. For the cow this is easy. He or she just has to do what it does with the Bar X emblazoned thereon. For humans it’s harder, but it can be done. Boris lJohnson’s brand is one of harmlessly mendacious indifference; Donald Trump’s is one of punitive trolling of liberals; Bette Davis’s was one of coquettish excess; Roseanne Barr’s is one of outrageous political incorrectness. You can make a lot of money with a brand, but it’s also, as with the Bar X, rather confining. You aren’t allowed to deviate from it. Donald Trump has urged people to get Covid shots, which sounds a bit liberal, so he has been booed as being “out of brand.” In the age of social media EVERYONE can have her own brand. You can have your own website or lInstagram page. So for the first time, billions can ask: What is my brand? If, say, you are anti-government and anti-elitist, then you can’t get a Covid jab. That would be to de-brand yourself, like a cow wandering around the Bar Y ranch when he’s really a Bar X. Or supposed to be.
02/04/2022: If A Baker Won’t Service a Gay Wedding, Blame It on King George
It is an article of faith among many conservatives jurists that if a baker, on religious grounds, refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding, he or she is entitled to do so. This is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of religion. The authors did not want an official state religion, such as the one in King George III’s England, and they thought the best way to keep sectarian peace was to give everyone free choice to worship how and where they pleased. It was a great idea. But there was one catch: It made religious people a distinct category in the U.S. Constitution, one singled out for special protections. It has always been a matter of interpretation, but conservatives, who tend to like religion and think it is a great cohesive bond in a society, have seized upon this provision as a way of sheltering religious claims from the attacks of other interests. It is easy and obvious to conclude that the Federal government is constitutionally forbidden from entering a Pentecostal Church with arms and arresting everyone just because they are speaking in tongues. But what about the rights of minorities to be served? What about the obligations of people to serve in defense of their country? What about the obligations of institutions to pay taxes? All these rights and obligations have been modified via various religious exemptions. As the United States, according to surveys, becomes more and more secular, the First Amendment religious clause may come to seem more and more anachronistic. But it isn’t going anywhere, and conservatives will say that as long as it’s there, it must be taken very seriously. Meanwhile, we can blame King George for causing such a vexed and troublesome mindset,
02/03/2022: Is The Stockholm syndrome Just Another Name for Winter?
The Stockholm Syndrome is a famous psychological dynamic by which a captive falls in love with his or her captor. Dependency and dread turn to affection. Just ask Patty Hearst. Maybe this is a bargaining strategy or a survival one. It brings us to harsh winters. They too are the captors of those who must endure them. Do some people come to love them as part of their own climatic Stockholm syndrome? Russia, for example, has a uniquely frigid and long winter. Do Russians come to love their winters nonetheless and even love Russia for having them? Is this part of what it means to love the Motherland—loving Snow Land? Russian writers, the great ones, often write about loving the unlovable. Tolstoy takes his character Ivan Ilych through the paces of a contradictory love of death, of letting go. One of Dostoevsky’s characters, an addictive gambler, hates being captured by his habit but nevertheless loves the thrill, the edge, of it. Chekov is always writing about characters who have great affection for the ironies and hardships of life, and especially on account of them. Peter Pomerantsev, a renowned student of Russia, has written that the country is full of men who both fear—but also love—their abusive fathers. But does it all start with never-ending bouts of snow and ice? Are wintry people especially prone to Stockholm Syndrome.? The poet Wallace Stevens wrote of “the mind of winer.” Maybe he meant the mindset of winter.
02/02/2022: Why Do We Hate To Subtract So Much?
A recent research experiment reported in Nature goes like this: participants are given a block of green and white squares, the colors placed air random. They are told to make the squares symmetrical, with an equal number of white and green squares. They can do this by adding squares or subtracting them. The vast majority add squares. Very few indeed subtract them. Here is a mindset that is pro-addition and anti-subtraction. Where does it come from.? One answer might be the human aversion to loss, which has been well-documented. If we lose a little in life, we feel bad; if we win a little, we feel good. But the worse in losing strongly outweighs the better in gaining. Someone may offer us an exorbitant sum of money for a cherished item, and they may hear us say, “It’s not for sale at any price.” The pain of losing surmounts the pleasure of gaining. When we try to solve problems, we tend to think we need to add something, when taking something away will be more effective. There are so many fat books, yet it might be said that a fat book is a thin book that can’t shed weight. Adding to our bank accounts is a small pleasure. Paying bills is a great pain. Perhaps this mindset bias against subtraction goes back to our evolutionary history. Getting stuff was so hard in a state of nature that we were rewarded for hoarding and have never been able to kick the ancient biological habit.
02/01/2022: When “Better Than” Really Means “Worse Than”
It’s an axiom of logic that if A is better than B, and B is better than C, then A must be better than C, too. This is a pervasive mindset, and it makes sense. If you are shopping for a car, and you find the first one you test-drive pretty good and the next one worse, and then you test another one and it’s even worse, then surely the best one is the one you drove first of all and it’s certainly much better than the one you drove last. But hang on. Suppose we switch from cars to playoff games. If Alabama beats Georgia, and Georgia has beaten Clemson, then surely Alabama is better than Clemson, right? But suppose that Clemson lost to Georgia because of unique match-up issues against Georgia. That doesn’t mean that Clemson would have nearly as much trouble with Alabama and might easily beat Alabama. Here’s a real-life example. In 1985 the Miami Dolphins beat the Chicago Bears—their only loss all season. But in the AFC playoffs the New England Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins. So if the Pats were better than the Dolphins and the Dolphins better than the Bears, the Pats should beat the Bears in the Super Bowl, right? They didn’t; dthey lost big. Miami had match-up problems against the Pats they didn’t have against the Bears. Sometimes A is better than B, and B better than C, but C turns out, for uncanny reasons, to be better than A. It doesn’t make sense. But a lot in life doesn’t make sense. Beware of overly-logical mindsets.
01/31/2022: The Efficiency of Falling In Love and Obeying Orders
One of the typical arguments of high Nazi officials was that they were just obeying orders. It’s been seen as a cowardly excuse, but there’s much more to it. These officials had fallen in love with the aesthetic mindset, the beauty, of efficiency. How does efficiency work? It depends on everyone doing their jobs as order3ed, and that includes, even, giving orders to others. A gives orders to B, who carries them out perfectly. B gives orders to C, who carries them out perfectly. C gives orders to D, and so forth. Pretty soon everyone falls in love with the ideal of efficiency. The contents of the various jobs come to matter less than the organized execution of them. This is how the Holocaust, for example, came to be an efficient bureaucratic event. It’s a result of thinking abstractly rather than concretely. We find different things to be beautiful, but Beauty itself is a sensed, intuitive abstraction. Those who fall in love with other people have a similar sensibility. Why stay with someone so awful? “Because I am in love with him, or her.” This is the aesthetic mindset of destiny. He/she is my destiny,. Again, we may go back to World War II Germany. Why stick with Hitler? Because Hitler is my destiny. When aesthetic ideals such as total efficiency and romantic love take a grip, they are hard to pry away. Human beings, and not just 1940s Germans, are dangerously abstracting creatures.
01/28/2022: The Foe of My Foe is My Friend….For A While
Senator Joseph McCarthy served in the United States Senate from 1946 until his death in 1957. He is one of the most reckless and infamous senators in American history. A man with a drinking problem and an insatiable love of attention and power, he made wild accusations about alleged Communists in the U.S. government. He ruined lives, sowed paranoia, and polarized the country. His fellow Republican politicians often despised him, but he was good at bashing Democrats and brought out Republican votes. Republicans had not held power since the early 1930s—over twenty years. They were desperate to find a way back to power. But in 1953 these same Republicans took over the White House and both houses of Congress. Now McCarthy’s baseless Commie-hunting could hurt them, and he couldn’t stop himself. The old mindset—that the enemy of my enemy its my friend—no longer pertained. It took a few years, but in time the Republican Party turned against McCarthy and destroyed him. The untamed brute had become their foe, and they hunted him down.
01/27/2022: Attention Please: The GREAT SIMULATION Starts in 2050
Every now and then a philosopher or a scientist with impeachable credentials will say there is a non-trivial chance that we are all part of some Grand Simulation, as in the movie The Matrix. We are not real. We just think we are. We are as virtual as anything we see on our smart phone screens. Nothing is flesh and blood. All are pixels. It’s a wacky idea, but in this century that will change once we get the knack of converting our brains from neurons into digital code and updating them to computerized systems. This will separate our brains from our bodies. In nature we only have brains because of how they protect our bodies, but in time technology can liberate our heads from our limbs and corpuscles. We will live all brain all the time; or only brain all the time. As a result, our “lives” will become simulated—except for those whose brains have yet to be uploaded. Freed from having to worry about food and shelter all the time, our brains will become super-serene. The human race will never have to go out and forage for resources ever again. We will never meet aliens from outer space, because we Simulated Earthlings will have no reason to leave our own galaxy of total contentment.
01/26/2022: Are All Russians Children?
Suppose a mother gets a bouquet of flowers she does not like. A friend of hers is recovering from an illness, so the mother decides to give the ugly flowers to her friend and pass it off as a gift. She takes her young son along, who blurts out the truth: “Mother thought she had to get rid of them somehow.” The lad is punished. He is not free to speak the truth as he sees or knows it. He IS free to go to school, learn new things, receive gifts, ride his bike. But he is not free to speak the truth when it is a threat to his mother’s respect or regime. This is a parental mindset, and after all, children are allegedly not ready to have free speech yet. It is also the mindset, the political mindset, of autocratic counties like Russia. The Russian people are free to work, have children, go to parties, ice skate in the winter. But they are not free to exercise free speech and say what they really think or know to be true. As such, they are regarded as political children, except this time it is not the mother with the flowers but Mother Russia and Putin who enforce the rule.
01/25/2022: When Did God Become Embarrassed?
Despite the recent encroachments of climate change, science and technology have an impressive record in preventing famines and droughts. And over the past one hundred years as well, medical science and enhanced sanitation and better nutrition have increased longevity in most parts of the globe. Contrast this with the medieval mindset of sox to nine hundred years ago. Then, nobody could prevent famines or cure disease. Well, God could, but He chose to to, mostly because He wanted people to suffer in order to get them ready for Heaven. But then, starting around the 1700s, human beings began to do things that before that, it was thought only God could do. Human beings had a better record of reducing pain than God did, and this became the modern mindset. The audacious philosopher Nietzsche said that God was dead, but it would have been more accurate to say that God was embarrassed and began to lose credibility. As a result of science and technology’s record in shrinking suffering, God has become chagrined. No wonder a lot of True Believers don’t like science, even if they do like electric lights and penicillin.
01/24/2022: You and I Have Emerged—That’s Why We Won’t Last
TCM shows some very old movies—some of them are even silent films. They seem to creak sometimes. But there’s one thing that makes them just like every other movie, even the current ones. You can see that in the screen credits. Whether a movie was made in 1920 or 2022, it requires actors, cameras, screen writers, costume designers, set designers, producers, and directors. Long after the film is forgotten, the methods of making movies endure and endure. The film emerges from these methods and may be quickly forgotten. But the mode of production goes on and on. The same is true for us as living beings. We are composed of cells and genes. Long after we are gone, as emergent beings, the cells and genes will continue. Long after we have stopped being thinking creatures, due to our own deaths, neurons will continue to fire in other humans, and in non-human animals, too. The big emergent things pass away. The little enabling things do not. Even the sun will die in five billion years. But the particle-like waves of nuclear gases will not. Only little things are immortal, but that’s a mindset that we temporary Big Thins have a hard time accepting.
01/21/2022: Is Cannibalism Evil?
There are two famous examples of human cannibalism. One is the infamous Donner Party of the 1800s, who crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains, became trapped in winter, and turned to eating their fellow travelers’ dead flesh in order to survive. This came to be seen as the act of people who would rather act like beasts and live than restrain themselves and die. The other example is Thomas Harris’ Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter, played in the movies by Anthony Hopkins, whose psychopathology is rooted in the pleasure of eating his fellow humans’ flesh., “I had him with a fine Chianti.” To humans, cannibalism is immoral, whether residing in weakness or sociopathy. The mindset is that we are more than beasts: we have higher-order brains and maybe even immortal souls. But suppose this is all wrong, even backwards. Suppose it all comes down our bodies, not our souls or heads. Some arachnids and amphibians devour their own mothers shortly after their births, Suppose that they, and not we, had evolved to have language, conceptual thought, law books, and ethical guides. Is it possible that, given the adaptive advantage they derive from such cannibalism, that it would be immoral not to eat one’s mother? “Andrew Amphibian could not bring himself to do the morally necessary thing—consume his mother—and has paid for it all his life with arrested development. Andrew has become a social leech. By not doing the right thing, he has made all us other amphibians pay for it, too.” Does morality being in the body, not the mind? Shudder at the thought.
01/20/2022: People Like Aaron Rodgers, But Do They R3ALLY Like Aaron Rodgers?
The wonderful thing about games is that they clarify our values. In life, we are often confused about values. We think we are being good parents, but are we, rally? We think winning something is good, but just as often it turns out to set the stage for something bad later. We are sure we’re doing a good job, but our manager or boss doesn’t agree. It’s all messed up. But ah, at least there are games, where the values are clear: winning, having fun, getting better, and so forth. Games are a refuge from the bewilderments and false starts of life. This is the mindset of those of us who like games, whether playing them or watching them. Green Bay Packers fans are probably no less puzzled about the problems of life than the rest of us are. But the Packers have had a good year, and their star quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been better than ever. Rodgers’ goals are clear: victory, deception (of the opponent), speed, accuracy, strength. He is not in the least confused; a good QB is never confused. Millions love to watch him. But then he spills over into life, implies he got a Covid jab but really didn’t. In life he’s just s screwed up and fallible as we are. That’s why so many people like him (on the field) and don’t like him (off it). It’s the real meaning of “it’s only a game.”
01/19/2002: Prince Andrew and the Peanut Butter
If you have a sudden longing for peanut butter, you can easily go to the fridge or cabinet and open a jar. Of course, you might have to go to the store, but that’s no great obstacle. You have a mindset. You are a First World person, so satisfying your lust for peanut butter is no big deal. It’s humdrum, really. Others there might be for whom getting a peanut butter fix is not allowed for some reason, but you are not one of these Others. It’s simple: you can, so you do. This is also the mindset of powerful elites such as Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, but on a much higher level. He could hang out, given his standing, on the fleshpot yachts of Jeffery Epstein, so he did. It’s as routine as your fetching the peanut butter. It was his due. Hey, no problem. But few will blame you or me for acquiring the peanut butter, while millions are blaming him for hanging with Epstein and Ms. Maxwell. Not all longings and satisfactions are equal in the eyes of the public, for whom there is a great resentment about assumed privilege.
01/18/2022: Is Sherlock Holmes Smarter Than Britney Spears?
Sherlock Holmes seems a lot smarter than Britney Spears. She has never solved arcane and difficult crimes. But then she is a better singer than Sherlock Holmes. There is a mindset that such comparisons are absurd. We are comparing a fictional character to a real person. What makes Britney “real” and Sherlock “unreal”? The answer is that Britney exists regardless of our personal perceptions. She exists independent of our own minds. Someone named Britney Spears exists even if people in New Guinea, say, have never heard of her, just as the distant stars exist even if no one is around to see them. After we’re gone, they’ll still be there. But after we’re gone, Sherlock vanishes. There is no one to read him. He is totally dependent on our own minds and interpretations. So by this philosophical mindset, Brit has it all over Sherlock. She is real; he is not. Of course, she has never solved a crime, but really, neither has he.
01/17/2022: What Robert Frost Knew About Vlad Putin
A neighborhood is where you and I live. But a good deal of the time it’s more than just coordinates on a map. No. A “neighborhood” is not only where you live but where you’ve agreed to a set of customs and habits with those who live near you. A neighborhood becomes a community, and with it a certain mindset. Soon enough you don’t want strangers moving in and trying to change your neighborhood’s way of life. That’s why you have to fence these aliens out. As Robert Frost wrote in one of his greatest poems, “Good fences make good neighbors.” He was quoting his own neighbor, who insisted in the Vermont countryside on strict walls between Frost’s property and his. Truly good neighbors draw lines. A neighborhood, small or large, becomes a way of life to be defended. Vladimir Putin doesn’t want for his neighbor a democratic, market-free Ukraine, He wants a fence, and he insists there must be one or he will just take over Ukraine. The West says, “no fence.” Will there be war? Sometimes of course it isn’t just a fence. It could be a whole wall. Will Mexico pay for it?
01/14/2022: No Music, No Halloween!
This blog is about mindsets, but not all mindsets are conscious. Some of them are unconscious or not worked out formally in the mind in which they are set. You and I may believe something that motivates our deeds. But only until someone stops us and makes us think do we quite articulate what it is that we really do believe. For instance, we may face each day with optimism. But why? What is the mindset that gives us such cheer? What are our beliefs about good and bad prospects in the future? And then there are things that bypass the mind altogether, such as music. It goes straight for the heart. Sometimes we hear a song that we’d forgotten about and hear it as if for the first time, and we start to cry or dance or sing along. We aren’t thinking. We’re dancing or crying. We may believe that the most important part of the movies is the acting or the camera work or the story or the script. It isn’t. It’s the music. Even when the camera work was primitive and there were no talking parts and no color other than black and white, there was music. Organists and pianists were paid to accompany silent movies. When John Carpenter showed his classic horror film Halloween to investors, they laughed at it. When he showed it with his famous tinkling, shuddering piano score, they were terrified and signed up with some money. Review any emotional scene in any movie you like, and you’ll hear….music that cues your feelings, of fear or grief or laughter or suspense.
01/13/2022: How Do We “Know” Our Kids Love Us?
The standard smart person definition of knowledge is “true opinion plus sound justification.” We might “know” it’s going to rain next Friday, but we might not really know it. It might just be a lucky guess backed up by nothing other than a hunch. But with this definition we really don’t “know” much of anything. We may “know” that the sun will come up this time next year, but we don’t have any sound basis for that belief—or at least none that we can express. We may “know” our children love us, but we can’t have any ironclad justification for that belief. How do we know they aren’t just stringing us along in hopes of getting something from us in the future? The fact is, by the strict smart-person definition, we “know” a great deal that we can’t justify or prove and hence we “know” very little. But don’t despair, because the “know what” mindset is’t the only one hanging around. There’s another one, called “know how.” Here the prospects are wide. A dog might not know what is involved in urination—what pee is made of and so forth—but it knows how to pee outside. You may not know in the scientific sense how to zip up a winter coat where the zipper is hard to attach, but with practice you will know how to zip it—it’s just a matter of getting familiar with it. You know how to zip up that coat. A plumber may know nothing of Bernoulli’s principle of water flow, but he knows how to fix your toilet. We know little. We know how to do a lot,,
01/12/2022: Why You Should Talk To Yourself More Often
The greatest scientific mystery of the present day is that of human consciousness. We all have it, we humans, but how does it happen? How does it work? How do a bunch of neurons firing in our brains produce our consciousness of how hyper-blue that flower is? The scientific mindset is one of trying to explain consciousness, but there’s another mindset about it: asking the question of what it is in the first place. And the answer is…that it’s a silent version of talking to yourself. When you are conscious of how blue that flower is, or how super-sweet that hot chocolate is or how funny that door is shaped—or how scary that dog looks—you are really just turning to yourself and saying to yourself: “Look at how blue that flower is,” or “I wonder if that dog is about to bite me.” You could say these things to someone who’s there with you but no one is there other than…yourself. So you say this stuff to yourself, and when you do, you are conscious of the experience. You are not only aware. You are, thanks to your other self, aware that you are aware. The private self is a bit of a myth. When you are “privately” conscious, it’s really just an extension of your social life. It’s good to consult with others—even if the other is just YOU.
01/11/2022: Should Churches Be Lit Poorly?
Many of the major churches in Europe did not get electric lighting until the 1930s. For a while before that, they had gas light, but most of their existence has found them lit by candles, which were snuffed as soon as the service was over, lest a fire begin. This meant that for most of their history churches were not, by our standards, well-lit. Why were church authorities so slow to make them so? The answer is mindset. You weren’t meant to show up for church in order to see anything but to feel things: such as a conviction of your own sin and the mystery of God’s personce and forgiveness. Guilt is best felt in the dark, without distracting lights and objects. And in the semi-darkness God is everywhere and nowhere. The darkness made the experience of worship more inner and less outer; more about you and less about the church. The film critic Roger Ebert said film lost a good deal when it went to color and left black-and-white. With the latter, he said, movie goers could insert their own lively imaginations into the scenes and not have to be dictated to by well-lit blues and greens and reds. There is something to be said for the mindset of not being able to see all that well.
01/10/2022: Who’s The Scapegoat of the Week?
In 1912 Woodrow Wilson was elected president and had big support in southern New Jersey. Four years later, in 1916, this support had collapsed. Why? Because the region had lost considerable tourist dollars due to a series of deadly shark attacks. Wilson thought that stopping shark attacks was not in his job description, but the people of southern jersey thought he should have tried to do something. He didn’t, and they blamed him. This is the mindset of scapegoating. It opposes the mindset that sometimes bad stuff just happens. No. Someone is to blame. Someone should have prevented it. “My loved one has died of cancer. This should have been preventable. We need to spend more money on cancer research. Someone kept that from happening.” “My loved one was killed by a drunk driver. Someone should have stopped that. Damned politicians!” “Joe Biden isn’t responsible for the Omicron variant, but by golly, it makes us feel better to blame somebody, and who better than the leader of the free world?”
01/07/2022:The Terror of a Third Political Patty
Pundits are writing incessantly about how Republican leaders are afraid to stand up to Donald Trump. The man is a liar and a loser, say these commentators, even Republican ones, so why are you so afraid of him? And then they answer their own question by stating that, well, if you are running for office as a Republican, Donald Trump can crush you with a Trumpian opponent in the party primary. All that makes for colorful, if repetitive, content. But it masks the real mindset of the Republican Party. Party leaders don’t fear Trump. They fear that the far right of the party will split off and form their own party—call it The American Party. With the right in America split between extreme and moderate, a unified Democratic Party could win elections with ease. In a two-party system, nothing brings more terror to politicos than the prospect of a draining third party. Just ask George H.W. Bush and Al Gore, both of whom were defeated not by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush so much as by Ross Perot and Ralph Nader.
01/06/2022: Looking In Vain for Jim Morrison’s Grave
If you go to Paris to find, among other things, Jim Morrison’s grave, you may discover more obstacles than you bargained for. The cemetery is huge, and the gravestones are lined up, one behind another, in long rows. There are no neon signs proclaiming that this is Morrison’s marker, although along the way you might run into the gravestone of someone else buried there, such as Oscar Wilde. A map of the graveyard can be helpful, but it’s still a challenge—even a smart phone isn’t foolproof in your quest. The difficulty in finding the remains of the great rocker sends us right into the Mindset of Excellence and Fame. Someone is outstanding at something—whether it be playing the trombone or writing poetry or modeling a dress—only because so many others have a go and do these things much less well. If you are a mediocre poet, don’t feel bad, for you’re helping make Sylvia Plath look great. If you’re pat of a rinky-dink rock band, don’t feel awful about that. You’re helping make Jim Morrison and the Doors seem better than ever. And if you die and get buried in an obscure grave in a big cemetery, don’t get down in the dumps: at least you’re making it harder to find the headstone of someone famous..
01/04/2021: The Dreadful, Fatal, No-Good Problem with Democracy
All tyrants claim to have power due to democratic choice, but few if any tyrants actually believe in democracy itself. One of the first products of tyranny is hypocrisy. But the problem tyrants have with democracy is real, and it is simple: The people in their majority vote might get it wrong. This is why tyrants cannot really bear democracy: because the people might choose someone other than them. This is an ancient invective against democracy. For Plato, it was a non-starter for just this reason. The people are foolish. Only a wise dictator, trained by Plato, should govern. This was also the message of those who invaded the American capitol on January 6, 2021: Our enemies have prevailed, and they got it wrong. God and history and birthright have dictated—an apt word—that only Donald Trump be president. Of course, the rioters insisted that Trump had really won. They likely know better. They really mean that they don’t like democracy because, well, because in a democracy the majority can get it all terribly wrong. Other methods have become necessary—this is the ancient anti-democratic mindset. It is a perilous one.
01/04/2022: Suppose Hitler Forced Everyone To be Nice to Each Other
There are at least two human mindsets about the cosmos: that it has an author or that it does to have one. The Author is usually God, who is possessed with supreme power and who created the heavens and earth and all the multi-verses in between. But there is also the view that the universe just happened and has no direction or purpose, however much human beings might want it to. Here there is no God and only a power vacuum in which laws of thermodynamics are free to operate. There seems to be no way to reconcile these views. But maybe there is one, sort of. The great French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil believed that her God would never force anyone to be good, lest free virtuous choice mean nothing. Weil thought that if Hitler had commanded everyone to be nice and everyone was nice, the niceness, occurring under duress, would be worth nothing. In this view there is a God but this God has elected to become powerless and let the universe drift in order to give human beings the choice of being good or bad. Being forced to be good is dictatorial, and God has chosen not to be a dictator and let us decide via our own ethics what to make of the universe.
01/03/2022: The Mindset of Saving Ugly Butterflies
Let’s suppose there’s a rare butterfly species—one of tens of thousands—called the St. Anselm Centaur. We don’t need to know how it got its name. In fact, the name is made up. But let’s suppose it’s about as big as your thumb, not especially pretty, and of no great significance in the food chain. But there are only a few thousand left. Should we save it? Federal law might say we should, and this means resources being devoted by way of conservation. Saving the St. Anselm doesn’t come for free. Now let’s further suppose—and this part is totally true—that the St. Anselm is going kaput because we are building houses and draining swamps and planting lawns in its habitat. Here we encounter two competing mindsets. The first is this: Well, all species including us humans, have to contend with natural selection, including resource limits and competition from other species. This is all natural and cruel. But hey, we and the St. Anselm are part of nature red in tooth and claw. Why should we spend money to save it? But then there’s a rival mindset: Yeah, we and the tiny butterfly are both animals, but we’re the only ones with an ethical compass. We have a moral obligation to save a species that we ourselves have been in the business of destroying. Which mindset will win? The St. Anselm bitterly might want to know, if it could.
12/31/2021: The Efficiency Myth
On this last day of the calendar year let us consider the topic of efficiency. We live in an age of Great Efficiency, which can be defined a a ratio of energy to productive result. The less energy put into the system, and the more productivity that comes out of it, the higher the efficiency. The thermostat is a good example: it is so sensitive that the merest register or air too hot or cold will trigger an immediate, productive adjustment. Computer programs are marvels of efficiency: a mere mouse click can reveal a site of enormous amounts of information. We might get the impression that our lives can be like that, too. They cannot be. You can discover a valuable, rare book in a San Francisco book shop, but the only reason you came to San Francisco was because you were bored to tears with your job in San Bernardino and needed a break. Why not just go straight to San Francisco and find the book? Why was it necessary for you to bore yourself down south first? Why not just find the right partner immediately? Why do we have to go through all these intermediary steps? Why can’t life become more efficient? Life is too complex and unpredictable to design. You can live your life. You can’t program it. May all your mindsets in 2022 be effective and wise.
12/30/2021: Putin and the Mindset of the Winner
The Putin government has now outlawed historical researchers who were uncovering the crimes of the Stalin regime. Putin likes Stalin and does not want the Stalin era to be trashed. Why? Well, this is the mindset of the winner. Stalin may have committed great crimes against humanity, and he may have had a temporary nervous breakdown when the Nazis first invaded Russia. But in the end he won—well, his army did—and Hitler lost. Stalin was a winner. In effect, Putin is trying to rehabilitate Stalin. The Germans, to say the least, have no plans to rehabilitate Hitler. But Hitler lost. Stalin won. That makes all the difference. As Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi put it, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Putin, too, wants to be seen as a winner.
2/29/2021: A Big Mac and the Wizard of Oz
If you go to Yahoo or Google and order up an image of a Big Mac, you will see a spectacle. Up close, it not only looks yummy but also as b ig in its way as Mount Everest. Billions of them have been produced behind the scenes, but these single, spectacular I’mages of the burger communicate an ethereal quality, as though every particular Big Mac partakes of an ideal hamburger. This is what Guy Debod called the Mindset of the Spectacle. When we actually eat a Big Mac, it is generally a banal experience. It’s fast food that we wolf down. Macdonald’s isn’t just selling food, though. It’s selling ideal spectacle. When Dorothy and her retinae of Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow discover that the Wizard of Oz is just a huckster behind a screen, it’s as though they have looked forward to a Big Mac only to wander into Macdonald’s banal, sweaty kitchen. The whole point of spectacles like the Mac and the Wizard is to keep buyers separated from the means of production. We are never to know how spectacular stuff is really made.
12/28/2021: Why You and Your Doctor Will Never Get Along
If you lay down to go to sleep and your knee begins to ache and then the pain goes away only for you to find that your ankle also now aches and then after a while your elbow or your toe, you will experience discomfort in various and different parts of your body. But that will not be your mindset. You will worry that something might be wrong with your body, and while it consists of elbows and toes and so forth, it is just one body, and it is yours and the only one you will ever have. We experience our bodies as unifiers of our selves. It is with our single bodies—ours—that we move along in the world and open a jar of jam. The doctor does to see our bodies this way. He sees a problem with this or that part of your body or mine. Doctors cannot feel or experience your body, however much they can experience their own. It is a difference of mindsets—the body as one and the body as a map of different trouble spots—that makes you and me think, even after a productive medical visit, that the doctor just doesn’t quite get it.
2/27/2021: Why National Lampoon Christmas Vacation is the Most Profound Movie Ever Made
Clark Griswold, the daffy suburbanite in this Christmas classic comedy, is very hopeful. He has the Christmas spirit. But like so many billions of other Christians, his optimism is rooted not in the Christ child but in the prospects that his bonus will pay for a new swimming pool. Winters in Chicago are harsh, so one could argue that a summer pool is Heaven. But few would argue that it is THE Heaven. Clark is a secular Christian. At the same time, he is also no revolutionary. He hopes not for a new utopia of equality and freedom but for, well, for a new swimming pool. His mindset—one of secular religious sentiment and deep middle-class complacency—is where most people in the First World dwell. Few films illustrate this better than NATIONAL LAMPOON CHRISTMAS VACATION. It’s the profoundest Christmas classic of them all.
12/25/2021: Don’t Wish for a Merry Christmas; Wish for a Heavenly One
Billions on Earth now turn to the traditional birthday of Christ. Christmas means “the Christ Mass” or “the message of Christ.” That message is one of hope., In contemporary times that hope is for peace on earth and good will towards all who dwell on it. Five hundred years ago people knew better. They did not expect conditions on Earth to get any better. They thought the message of Christian hope was one of the After-Life. In a medieval play two shepherds are out in the field one cold December night. They are poor. One of their lambs has been stolen. They are cold. It also happens to be the night that Christ is born. At play’s end they are hopeful—not that it will get any warmer or that they will get any richer but that they will spend eternity in Heaven with he who is ow the baby Jesus. Today we have trouble believing that there is a Heaven. This is understandable. But without it, Christmas is a time of sentimental but vain hope and of ardent consumerism. One can have a merry Christmas but not a heavenly one and thus not a truly hopeful one. So coose your Christmas mindset.
12/23/2021: Is Every Movie a Con?
Con artists lure you in; get you interested; make sure you have some success; and then cheat you and get away. Moviemakers are con artists, too. In Psycho Alfred Hitchcock lures you into caring about a beautiful woman on the run who has been murdered while taking a shower. He then shows you the likely killer, a bizarre motel manager named Norman Bates. Hitchcock also shows you glimpses of the possibility that the knife-wielding killer is really an old woman, presumably Norman’s elderly mother. You are being conned. Old ladies are not deranged murderers, so it must be Norman, yet it is plainly an old woman who has killed an investigating private detective. You are being led down a garden path, and in the end you find the solution: it is both Norman and his mother, since he thinks he is his mother. Hitchcock has conned you, but he has played fair. He has given you the clues. You just weren’t smart enough to use them. That’s the mindset of the conned. If you re conned, you feel stupid in the end—how could you have missed what was right under your nose? And how can you ever get your money back?
12/22/2021: The Mindset of the Gambling Addict
Gambling is a blend of luck and skill. Part of the skill is figuring out the system of the luck. The number 1 hasn’t come up for a long time, so it must e overdue, right? So bet on it. Some people have concluded that most of life is luck, starting with where we were born and to whom. In this sense life itself is a series of gambles. We may think we are in control. We enter a school determined to study hard and succeed, not realizing that we could get run over just crossing the street. And yet because we do the things that turn out well, we think it is we who are in total command. We are asked how we did so well and answer, “I worked hard,” not “I got lucky,” even though others worked hard and failed. Weren’t they just unlucky? In the case of gambling addiction, the person who is hooked wins just often enough to keep going back but not often enough so that the casino goes out of business. It’s a pre-formulated system, yet whenever we win we think—the mindset of the gambling addict—that it is we who have been smart. This is the mindset of those who overrate the role of skill in life.
2/21/2021: The ;The Mythic Mindset of the Lone Wolf
Wolves hunt in packs, and “lone wolves” are temporary creatures in search of a new pack to join. Wolves understand that there are tremendous benefits to social cooperation. A gang of them can bring down more prey than a single one can. Still, in human society there persists the myth of the werewolf—the Lone Wolf in pursuit, viciously, of human victims. The most famous werewolf film was 1941’s classic THE WOLF MAN. But this story about a lone werewolf is the exception that prove the rule. Larry Talbot, who becomes a werewolf, is actually looking for a group to join. His father dislikes him, so he can’t join his family. He tries to court a beautiful woman to start a family of his own. But then he is bitten by a wolf and becomes a werewolf. He cannot join a wolf pack, for he is a werewolf, not a wolf. And there are no big werewolf families around. Larry is a lone wolf but not by choice. The Lone Wolf is a fantasy of our culture. We celebrate individualism—going your own unique way—but in truth we would get nowhere without the help of many, many others. We all have to hunt in packs.
2/20/2021 : The Mindset of Donating Your Body to Science
In the early days of anatomical science, few people would donate their bodies to science. Yet anatomists needed cadavers in order to advance their knowledge. So anatomical scientists in the early 19th century turned a blind eye to the cadavers they received, most of which came from grave-robbers. A few of them were even murdered. In those days the mindset was that if you wanted to go to Heaven, you had to be buried in consecrated ground with blessings pronounced upon your chances for the after-life. You were not inclined to request that your body be “donated to science.” Today millions of people every year stipulate in their wills that their bodies be donated to science. The popularity of this procedure; goes back to mindset: belief in the authority of science has gone up while belief in Eternal Life has gone down.
12/17/2021: Why White Folks Couldn’t Sing The Blues
Most mindsets are invented, and we inherit them. Before the invention of records and record players, there were hymns and “love songs.” But with 78 rpm records came mass marketing. There had to be categories—or mindsets—so that people can find what they were looking for in the record stores. Southern white music was called “hillbilly”until the Southern consumers revolved and then it was called “country.” Music played and sung by African-Americans was called “foxtrot” because the term “jazz” was thought to be vulgar in the 1920s. Sometimes it was also called—and sold as—“race music.” Jimmy Rodgers, who was white, is thought to be the first great country artist, but he was really singing “the blues.” Since he wasn’t black, it couldn’t possibly be “the blues.” Before he became Elvis, Elvis Presley sang a song by a black artist called “I’m All Right, Mama.” When the black artist—Arthur Crudup—sang it, it was called “rhythm and blues.” When Elvis did, it was called “rock n’roll.” Hank Williams sang—and yowled—the blues, but no white consumer would never call it that and in the record stores he knew that he would never find “Lovesick Blues” in the “blues” section. It is the power of the music mindset—recording technology and mass marketing and racial segregation all playing their assigned parts.
12/16/2021: Are New-Born Babies Sinful?
During much of the last century unwed mothers in Ireland were sent to institutions where they could work in laundries and have their babies. The work was hard, but this removed the girls from the same of society and helped protect their families from scandal. The young fathers fared much better. At the institutions the babies were often cared for poorly; their diapers were not changed and the mortality rate was high. Some of them were put out for adoption. When some of the babies died, they were often buried in unmarked graves. Here again the power of mindset. The Roman Catholic Church of Ireland considered the sex act as a bodily sin. Yet they also knew it was necessary to re-populate the Church. So the deal was this: You could engage in this bestial act, but only if you got a permission slip, and the permission slip was marriage. If you were not married, you were just totally steeped in sin. Even your resulting infant might be tainted, and those not adoptable were thought to be discardable, having come from poisoned fruit.
12/15/2021: Is Elon Musk A Mindset?
Elon Musk is Time Magazine’s Person off the Year. No one embodies The Future as much as Musk. In the Planet According to Elon we will be boarding electric self-driving cars, uploading our neurons to digital formats, and flying back and forth between Earth and Mars. There is nothing physics can’t solve. This is also a mindset. It is a distracting one. The great human problem is that we veer between re-shaping ourselves and accepting ourselves, and we don’t know which is which and turn out restless and unhappy. Mr. Musk cannot solve this problem at all. We will be no happier in his advanced world of the future., But it diverts us and even excites us, to think about it. It is a refuge from our real problem, which is that there is no cure for the condition of being human.
12/14/2021: The Starving Kids of Afghanistan Are Caught Between Two Mindsets
United Nations experts say mass starvation is a real prospect in Afghanistan this winter. One of the people responsible for outside food supplies has said that the ruling Taliban will be fine and won’t miss a mail, but in order to punish them, other countries are willing to withhold aid from the country, whatever the results for lack of nutrition among millions. What is going on? The Taliban holds to a medieval ideology that discounts the value of life on earth in favor of eternal existence in the After Life. The West’s ideology is modern and secular, with emphasis on Hunan rights in the here and now—something the Taliban is hostile to. The malnourished kids know nothing about the these two competing mindsets, and the two mindsets are taking scant notice of the kids. The two mindsets, medieval and modern, are long-term ideological projects, but people don’t eat in the long run. They have to eat every day.
12/13/2021: Why “Purpose” Is a Dangerous Word
In literature and film there’s a term called “a McGuffin.” A McGuffin is whatever gets the plot rolling. Two guys happen to meet on a train, and one says to the other, “I’ll kill your troublesome wife if you’ll kill my troublesome father.” The whole “purpose” of their meeting on the train was to set the scene for later events. We have “McGuffins” in our own lives. “I got cancer, but the real PURPOSE of the cancer was to make me a better person.” “Purpose” is a mindset—a dangerous one. It makes us feel better if we can build our lives around a “purpose” narrative. But look at Hitler: He said that the “purpose” of World War I was to expose the treachery of Jews and set the stage for Nazi vengeance. Suppose the First World War were just a bloody, life-consuming mistake; no purpose at all. The “purpose” mindset can make us feel better about bad things. It can also lead to even moe buttery, along with death camps.
2/10/2021: Is The Garden of Eden A Mindset?
The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, thought the Garden of Eden was in present-day Missouri. The famous Garden was a mindset, however, and mindsets can be “located” anywhere. What sort of mindset? Well, if you visited the Garden and asked one of the inhabitants, “Are you really happy here,” an intellectually honest answer would be, “I don’t know. How can I tell if I live in a place where there is presumably no UNhappiness?” When did you and I experience our first unhappy moment? It was when we observed someone who seemed to be feeling better than we were. If you stub your toe and cry, and you notice that your little playmate has not stubbed hers and is smiling, then you finally learn what happiness is. In the Garden, no one stubs a toe. The Garden is a place of ignorance, where you are cut off from contrasts. The Garden is a bubble, like the ones people in the upper Midwest live in, which is why, having never experienced a Southern spring, they think 40 degrees and rainy in March is “spring.”
12/09/2021: Why Kant We Always Tell the Truth?
Immanuel Kant is probably the greatest German philosopher of all time. Among other things, he is credited with the “categorial imperative,” a guide to ethics that goes like this: Do X only if you can responsibly will that everyone else can do it. This means you can never lie. What if everyone lied all the time? So if the Gestapo comes to your door and asks for that enemy of the regime you’ve been hiding, you cannot lie to them: You must admit that you are harboring a fugitive from the Nazis. This seems pretty wild, but Kant thought that ethics should not be graded on consequences, good or bad, but on right or wrong. And it’s just wrong to lie. But then: Can you also will that NO ONE should ever lie to murderous Nazi thugs? When you put it that way, the Categorical Imperative seems, at the same time, to be upheld and yet also fall apart. Ethical mindsets sometimes deconstruct themselaes in plain sight.
12/08/2021: What’s Wrong With Just Doing Your Job?
Adolf Eichmann was responsible for transporting millions of Jews to Nazi death camps. When he went on trial in 1960, he said he’d done nothing wrong, He was just dong his job; following orders. This is a mindset. Or perhaps it’s better to say that it is one side of a mindset. The other side goes like this: You must do the right job. Eichmann said he rejected this: No, he said, it’s much more important to do the job, whatever it is, right. He was trying to fool people in order to escape execution. He really thought he WAS doing the right job, as he was a committed Nazi. But his public mindset was: I was just doing my job; what’s wrong with that? Eichmann had experienced the Great Depression, when it was considered a disgrace to lose your job, and he wanted to keep his. He would rather have killed Jews than lose his job. That was his mindset, and more baleful proof that in life mindsets are almost everything.
12/7/2021: The Lone Nutter and the Thrill Killers
Most people think of murder as an illegal act, but it’s just as often a mindset. Lee Harvey Oswald murdered President Kennedy, but murder wasn’t the point. This was, for the ideologically fanatical Oswald, a symbolic act of the Cold War: killing the leader of the West. It wasn’t Oswald so much as his mindset that murdered Kennedy. In 1924, two Chicago sons of privilege, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, murdered a teen that they had picked at random. Murder wasn’t the point. Rather, the whole idea was to commit the perfect crime (which they did not). It was Leopold and Loeb’s mindset that murdered poor Bobby Franks. Murder itself, for both the Lone Nutter and the Thrill Killers, was a matter of a mindset’s collateral damage.
12/6/2021: Are School Shooters Playing Video Games?
When school officials in Michigan called young Ethan Crumbley into the office to ask him about a drawing he’d made, he told them he was designing a video game. What was the drawing? It was of a gun, a bullet, and two bloody human victims, along with a note that said “Help me!” This brings us to mindset. This blog shows how it rules so much of human activity. In Ethan’s mind shooting his fellow high students was probably like a video game, only more real and therefore better. He seemed to know that this was wrong, but the video-game impulse—or mindset—was too strong; the anticipated buzz was too great to resist. It’s often said that video games permit young people to sublimate: as long as they are shooting virtual action figures, they are harmlessly not shooting human beings. Yet since so many video games involve the use of “digital deadly force,” it shouldn’t be surprising that from time to time such games go real. Once the mindset is there, someone is bound to be a shot sooner or later, and in Ethan’s case it was sooner.
12/3/2021: Murder Isn’t Wrong. But It Should Be Against the Law
Most murder trials are about the presentation and judgment of evidence, but after all these factual details have run their coursed and someone has been found guilty of homicide, the judge pronounces sentence and condemns the convicted person as immoral. Judyes should know better, but they often like to say, “Well, we’ve done the legal bit, so now I get to say that you are sinful and sentence you to life in the slammer.” This is the judge’s mindset, but it is a regrettable one. We can come up with all sorts of religious objections to murder, including one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not kill. But in a democracy, as opposed to a theocracy, murder is not against the law because it is sinful, a disobedient and ungodly act. It is against the law because murderers are dangerous and it is the law’s job to protect us from danger. The proper mindset in a democracy should be: X or Y may be immoral, but they should not be against the law unless they are also a danger to the community. The application of this mindset to the question of abortion should be obvious.
12//2/2021: Do Chickens Have Mindsets?
If someone were to ask you or me why we are here, we might answer that we are here to love others and serve God; or that we are here to have a good time; or that we are here to pass on our genes to our children. The answer might be anything and everything. But that’s because we are humans and can tali. If you were to ask a chicken why it is here, and it could talk, there would be only one answer: “I am here to lay eggs and/or have my neck wrung.” Chickens, neither linguistic nor human, would have no difficulty in accent their life’s purpose. Yet according to Hannah Arendt, in her great book THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM, both Hitler and Stalin managed to turn millions into human chickens. These dictators did not have to command or instruct their followers, who were so brainwashed that they knew what Stalin and Hitler wanted to the point where commands and obedience were the same things. This is the human chicken mindset. Some Germans even talked about how they always acted in daily life as they thought the Furher would want them to act. They became as automatic and thoughtless as a chicken laying an egg or going to the slaughter.
12/1/2022: Do Fat Girls Have Mindsets?
Andre Dubus III wrote a short story called “The Fat Girl,” about a woman whose genetic structure and eating habits mandated her to be overweight. Her parents and friends wished it were otherwise, but off she went to college in just such a “condition.” Her roommate helped her lose a great deal of weight, and in time the fat girl become the thin girl. She married, but in time she began to gain weight again. After a while, she wore a big loose dress on summer outings rather than don a bathing suit. Dubus hints that she was, however, oddly happy. Here again is the power of mindset. Society has one mindset: you can be too fat but hardly ever too thin. But the heroine of the story has another mindset: I must follow my destiny; I am what I was meant to be. The thin girl wasn’t really who she was. Is there more happiness in authenticity and acceptance than in counterfeit and denial? That’s a tough one to answer.
11/30/2021: If It Ain’t On a Screen It Don’t Mean A Thing!
Mindsets are ghosts. You can’t see them. Burt they seem to control everything, Not long ago an elderly friend was on a bus that had sold out all seats. It was a two-hour bus ride, so he had to stand for the whole time. He was surrounded by a sea of college students, none of whom gave him their seat. Is this sort of chivalry dead in the United States? Maybe. But my friend noted that they simply didn’t see him or his advanced age. They were too busy with their smart phones. There’s the power of mindsets. If he had appeared on a screen, they might have acted more courteously. But the mindset of college students is: If it ain’t on a screen, it don’t mean a thing.
11/23/2021: Martin Luther and Birth Control
Over five hundred years ago a renegade priest named Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation—a Revolution, really. He had no idea of what he was really doing. As a result of his actions, the Catholic Church not only split into different Protestant sects. Those sects in turn split into sub-sects and so on. Once there was a Baptist church, and then came Southern Baptists, Hard Shell Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, and so on, Religion became splintered. It was a revolutionary mindset And so it was with Dr. John rock’s birth control pill Once people could see sex as not just for procreation, and not just a fear of pregnancy, they began to explore sex. And so came sexual identity: a new mindset. Now the world hs lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. What Martin Luther started in religion Dr. John Rock started with sex. Mindsets are everything.
11/22/2021: Is Elon Musk a Mindset?
We are all used to hearing that Elon Musk is a brilliant engineer; a genius. We heard the same thing about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Everyone wondered what they’d get up to next. Musk promises not only electric cars to save the planet but also Martian colonies. All these people are selling a mindset, and that mindset lis THE FUTURE. What is “the Future?” It’s that time in which everything will be just fantastic. We can wear watches that contain all the world’s information We can live on Mars. Futurists have promised that with cryogenics we can come back to life and that we can live forever by having our brains uploaded to a quantum computer. The FUTURE is a promise that our current miserable lives will be much more exciting and attractive. It’s a false mindset. The PRESENT is so much more interesting if you know where and how to look. What’s more, THE PRESENT is actually here.
11/21/2021: Is Kyle Rittenhouse Made in America?
In 1870s Texas vigilantes were a common occurrence. It’s no wonder. Marshalls and judges were few and far between. Now Texas is one of the most law and order states. There’s no need for vigilantes—in Texas or Wisconsin. But William Faulkner once said, “The past isn’t over. It’s not even past.” Those who don’t trust the government or the courts feel a need to revert to 1870s Texas, and wear a vigilante white hat. Kyle Rittenhouse went to Kenosha to “protect private property.” Some might think that’s the police’s job. Isn’t that why we pay taxes? But heroic vigilantism isn’t over. The past remains vital. Some Americans have “guns” that consist of a speed dial to 911. They come out of the same America as Rittenhouse does. But America has vastly different assembly lines.
11/20/2021: Is Covid Michael Meyers in Disguise?
We are all waiting to get back to “normal” and to live in a totally post-coved world. This is our mindset. But let’s suppose you were one of those few people who hated the 1978 horror classic movie HALLOWEEN. Once the film was over, you were happy to be a post-HALLOWEEN world. You could get back to normal and start watching movies you really liked. But uh-oh: Here came a HALLOWEEN sequel, and then another one, and then another one. It seems that hockey-masked Michael Meyers will just never stop “coming home” to murder everyone. The same will be true of Covid. It will make a sequel, perhaps less deadly but perhaps more. Or it may be another SARS virus. Like Michael Meyers, Covid will just keep “coming home.” Normality is a mindset. It’s also a deceptive one. Don’t fall for it!
11/19/2021: How China Proved Thomas Jefferson Was Wrong
A leading mindset in Europe and North America is that the rise of science and the rise of democracy were soul-mates. In the 1700s scientists began to explain that nature ran according to natural process and didn’t need God. Why must we have God when we have atoms? And why do we need God to create butterflies when natural selection will do? Once God began to wane, so did God’s agents on Earth—Kings—begin the exit. Politics became democratic, not royal. Was not the American Revolution itself a revolt against a KING? But then China came along in the 1980s and produced a highly scientific and even market economy without any democracy whatever. Thomas Jefferson was a great amateur scientist and a profound exponent of democracy. Surely the two have always gone hand-in-hand, Well, China’s success story proves that they don’t have to. It’s a whole new Mindset. AND A REVOLUTIONARY ONE.
11/182022: Is Murder a Mindset??
Adolph Eichmann was a murderer, and an Israeli court ordered him to be hanged. He was the bureaucrat who sent millions of Jews too their deaths during the Nazi years. His defense was that he was just doing his job and shouldn’t be punished at all. Eichmann had a Mindset. Al of us have a mindset when we are doing our jobs. All of us know that we couldn’t do our jobs if we didn’t have certain equipment and abilities. If you’re sorting mail, if that’s your job, you can’t afford to be blind. If your job is plumber, you can’t afford not to know the difference between a pipe and a wrench. In one of Shakespeare’s plays, a professional killer told his comrade that he was developing a conscience. The other pro killer said, “Don’t. You can’t do your job if you develop a conscience.” Eichmann’s mindset was just the same. He couldn’t do his job with a conscience, with compassion. Mass murder is a mindset. And here is what it is: It’s not a question of doing the right job; it’s a question of doing the job right—and that’s all.
11/17/2021: Is Covid Evil?
A mindset is everything. Take Covid.. It is a disease, yes, but in our minds we have set it up as an inconvenience, a threat, something government should do something about, or even a hoax. We have never in our minds seen it as an enemy. There is an old idea of evil found in perceptions of natural disasters. So a hurricane or a flood is a natural evil. That doesn’t mean it comes from an angry God or a devious Satan. It means that such things are evil because they, in their indifference, tempt us to be less than our best selves. They, such as a plague or a drought, are no respecter of persons, so they tempt us to be no respecter of persons. We become cynical and indifferent to the plight of others. Natural evils make us less kind in our daily lives. We become preoccupied and stop thinking of anything more interesting. We look for a super-hero to bail us out—a governor or an epidemiologist or a president—and forget that the best foe of this enemy is our going about our daily lives with as much pluck and compassion as we had before. With Covid our mindset has really blown it. We have made government or one another the enemy. The real foe is Covid, and we have let it make some of us more evil than we were before. We needed from the start to make COVID the evil, the enemy, and determine that we would not let it get the best of us. Mindset is crucial
The Mindset List for the Graduating High School Class of 1961
Authors note: For more than two decades the Beloit College Mindset List chronicled the experiences and event horizons of 18-year-old students as they entered college. Created by Ron Nief, director of Public Affairs at Wisconsin’s Beloit College and his Beloit College colleague, Prof. of English Tom McBride, the list was distributed internationally each August as the authors traveled the country speaking and doing interviews.
It was initially intended as a reminder to those faculty facing first- year students to beware of “hardening of the references.” Over the years it became one of the most quoted “back-to-school” references and was cited by Time Magazine as a part of the “American lexicon.”
In 2019, with the authors both retired, they transferred the rights to the Mindset List to Marist College in New York.
Ron and Tom continue to receive requests to create special lists for audiences ranging from students in Mumbai going abroad to study, to a Nashville bride, a decade older than her husband-to-be, who wanted a witty “Mindset Llist” included in her nuptials.
The following list is created as if it had been published in June, 1961. It reflects the worldview and experiences of 18-year-old high school graduates sixty years ago. Hardly a comprehensive list, readers are invited to make additions.
The Mindset List for the Graduating High School Class of 1961
Students celebrating their high school graduation in 1961 were mostly born in 1943.
At the time of their birth, Thomas Watson, chair of IBM, declared that perhaps “there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Also that year, Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince arrived and set the tone for the new generation: “Grown- ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
Since the “Boomer” generation dates from right after World War II, members of the Class of 1961, born in the throes of the war, represent the last dying gasp of the Greatest Generation, without doing any of the heavy lifting.
Possible classmates, also born in 1943, were Doris Kearns Goodwin, Newt Gingrich, George Harrison, and Arthur Ashe. And those departing that year to make way for a new generation included George Washington Carver, Nicola Tesla, Edsel Ford, and Beatrix Potter.
…and so, from an imagined publication on June 30, 1961…
Fortunately, The Great Depression had been declared officially over with the year they entered the world. Within a few years, their allowances would exceed what many families had had to live on for a full week during the depression years.
As babes, they were the greatest thing since sliced bread, which was still banned as part of the war effort.
And, if mom needed a new pair of shoes, she’d have to wait. They were still rationed.
Good chance that, as toddlers, dad was a member of the 52/20 Club: $20 a week for 52 weeks to help returning GIs get settled.
While the folks were very excited over their new arrival, they were also pretty grumpy over the government’s decision to start to withhold payroll taxes.
But the future held promise when Time Magazine’s 1943 Man of the Year was George Marshall. Four years earlier it had been Adolph Hitler.
For these students graduating from high school in June, 1961…
The concept of “Teenager” has evolved into a major force, designating a separate state of mind.
Stamps have always cost more than $.02.
They’ve grown up with acronyms like KP, SNAFU, MAD and UNIVAC.
SCUBA fans have always been able to breathe underwater using Jacques Cousteau’s Aqua Lung.
Presidents of the U.S. have always flown in planes, and there have always been jets.
They have always had the latest games, like Chutes and Ladders, and toys like the Slinky.
LSD has always been available for fueling trips.
Hairdos and bugs have always been controlled with aerosol sprays.
Big secrets have always been coming out of a lab in Los Alamos, N.M.
Trips to the nation’s Capital have always included a visit to the Jefferson Memorial and a look at the massive Pentagon.
There has always been an American Broadcasting Co., but the DuMont Television Network, which introduced Jackie Gleason and Bishop Fulton Sheen, didn’t survive into their teens.
They have always known how to pronounce Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Iwo Jima.
Failure to clean their plates at dinner was often met with a parental reminder of the conditions facing the poor children in Europe (and later in China and Africa.)
When the TV showed up in the living room, dad was stuck up on the roof rotating the antenna, shouting “is that any better.” You had to keep the TV lamp on in the room while you were watching or you might go blind.
Parents, sitting in the “dens” of their “ranches” often said they would never vote for a divorced man.
Being called a JD, or accused of smoking “MaryJane” have always been a disgrace for the folks.
“Do it yourself” has become the mantra of the suburban homeowner.
They can’t imagine that the hole in the upper corner of their elementary school desks actually used to hold an inkwell.
They have checked to make sure their Timex would “keep on ticking” and that their Paper Mate pen really could write through butter.
The only burger produced faster than at the local diner is at White Castle.
Citizens of Washington, D.C., have never been able to vote in presidential elections.
The country has always had two southern kings— one in civil rights and one in rock and roll.
“Chip and dip” in that special dish on the TV table has always been central to gatherings at home.
Though they had practiced “duck and cover” in elementary school, they had hardly noticed that those rusting triangular CD fallout shelter signs were vanishing.
Subversives and fluoride are everywhere.
They left Your Hit Parade for Alan Freed on WINS Radio, and the “Doggie in the Window” for a real “Hound Dog.”
Parties have always included nachos and deep-dish pizza.
Their “children’s hour” was shared with Buffalo Bob, Clarabell, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring.
Parents read Dr. Spock before the kids got up, and Dr. Kinsey after they went to bed.
“Expecting” has always been OK; “pregnant” has not.
Radio has steadily been fading into the background, except on the “transistor” at the beach.
Parents generally agreed that even slightly crooked teeth certainly needed braces.
They drove their folks crazy with “Just the facts, ma’am” and “Say the secret word.”
Flouristan in toothpaste meant “Look Mom, no cavities,” and hexachlorophene in soap meant germ-free hands.
There was a good possibility that dealing with their teenaged independence may have driven mom to Milltown.
Superman has always been on the watch for Kryptonite.
Autism has always been diagnosed but never discussed.
Tobacco companies have always been open about the side effects of smoking, but they have always blamed the other brands.
Fortunately, rock and roll came along so that J. Edgar Hoover could stop worrying that Frank Sinatra was being groomed as a new Hitler.
Dad has applied for a Diners Club card but there are rumors of a new BankAmericard credit card, widely available already in California.
Once they got their working papers at age16, they earned at least $1 an hour.
Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks has always been at the Chicago Art Institute.
The concept of the American Musical Theatre has always been recognized, ever since the arrival of Oklahoma on Broadway.
“A vast Wasteland,” “Bay of Pigs,” “Freedom Riders,” and “the military industrial complex” have sparked headlines and much dinner conversation in recent months.
In their ongoing efforts to establish their uniqueness, they can point to the fact that their class year of 1961 was strobogrammatic, indicating that the number was the same when turned upside down. The next one won’t be until 6009. It just proves you really can learn something from reading MAD Magazine.
Camelot will live forever.
Dear Boomers and Millennials: We must shed the coronavirus of division and complacency among us. This is your Hopeful Leader speaking. You have been apart, for Millennials feel that capitalism has worked for Boomers but not for them, and that Boomers have gotten the lion’s share of capitalism’s benefits. Meanwhile, Boomers don’t know wy Millennials would rather look at their smart phones than look at them. But that was all before Covid. After Covid the two generations—you young and old alike—can come together. The Generation Gap will have passed, along with the virus itself. What can I say, and how shall I lead, in order to make this come about?
First, Covid has taught us that Evil is no respecter of generations. Yes, more old people have died than young people, but plenty of young people have died, too. Is Covid evil? Was it evil? Oh, yes, an evil need not intend to be evil. Anything that kills living things just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong trime must be counted as evil. Anything that keeps us on lockdown, or takes away our livelihoods, or makes us distrust other people, is evil. Yes, Covid is evil, We live in a world of evil. Let us unite around the unerring conclusion that it doesn’t care whether you are young or old.
Second, Covid has taught us that we can’t escape from nature after all. We live indoors and look at screens. Only on vacations do most of us go outdoors and look at trees. The human project has been to evade nature: avoid the wind, pay no attention to where our meat comes from, believe that the Grand Canyon on youtube is almost as good as the real thing. But with Covid we have learned that we cannot run away from nature. It follows us indoors, floods our houses, shakes them to their foundations, destroys our jobs. Covid is nature’s way of saying it will do its thing no matter what we may wish. So let us, young and old alike, take this lesson to heart and face the future knowing that Nature is going to be a guest at the table and will have to be addressed. Nature doesn’t care if you’re young or old.
Third, the soldiers in this war were not young or old. They were young AND old. Doctors and nurses came out of retirement to risk their lives. Young nurses and technicians, some barely out of their teens, put their futrures in peril, their lives in danger, in ICU wards. And if you were in one of those wards, trying to breathe, you didn’t care if your nruse or doc were a Boomer or a Millennial.
Fourth, Covid was a chemistry experiment that led to disquieting truth. At some point someone performed an experiment to discvoer that water was really two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.. There was a little explosion, and water remained in the aftermath. Covid was just such a trial, and it revealed, not water but how many Americans live on borrowed financial time, and these are old and young alike. Wherther you are an elderly person living on Social Security alone or a young person, a sjhort order cook whose bar has closed, you are screwed. You were screwed by Covid. This is the foul-tasting water that has remained after the Covid explosion. But it is not young versus old. It is those who have and those who haven’t. Let us, as young and old lalike, try to protect those who haven’t from the cliff’s edge that they have been dwelling on for the longest time; too long. May our individualism never again tempt us to think there is no such thing as society. By “us” I mean youtyh and age alike.
Covid has been the great educator. It can teach us that year of birth does not matter as much as we tought it did. But we will realize this only if leaders lead and followers take time to hear and think. I, your Hopeful Leader, have said my piece. But I must jot be the only one.
Note: Any resemblance between the Hopeful Leader and Tom McBride is entirely a coincidence.
Flus Have Always Been Spanish Tom McBride
Suppose there had been a Marist Mindset List for the college class of 10440. The first item on the List might have been: “The flu has always been Spanish.” College grads in 1940 were born in 1918, the year of the last COVD-19 scale pandemic in the United States. This was not the coronavirus, which had not yet hatched itself.
It was the Spanish Flu.
President Trump has sometimes called COVD-19 the “Chinese virus” because, he says, it came from China. The Spanish flu, though, didn’t come from Spain. It was so-called because when the flu hit Spain, which was not at war (this was the end of World War I), reports of the severity were not censored. Everything was in the open. So when people around the world first heard of this mass malady, it was all about its effects in Spain. Hence: The Spanish Flu.
This is not to say that the flu wasn’t elsewhere, including the United States, where it killed 675,000 of us. But the United States government, fearing negative effects on war morale, censored the reality of the pandemic. It insisted that this was just “an ordinary flu by another name. Nothing to see here, they said. And they threatened to jail anyone who said otherwise.
Another item from the Marist Mindset List for the Class of 1940: “Truth and falsehood have always been arbitrary terms.” This is a direct quote from the official government agency created to keep up American war spirits.
How severe was the Spanish Flu? If you extrapolate from then to today’s world population, you get aroun350 million deaths. At last count fewer than 400,000 had died on on the planet from COVD-19. The current disease would have to kill several hundred times that many in order to match the Spanish Flu. Let’s hope it falls short.
“It’s always been heard to tell white and black soldiers apart.” This could also be an item, a Spanish-flu-related item, from the Mindset List for the class of 1940. As the world was still at war, young soldiers were hit very hard by the flu, and according to some doctors and nurses, they turned so blue that it was impossible to distinguish sometimes between African-American and white soldiers.
The flu’s symptoms were ghastly. Victims bled profusely from the mouth and nose. Fever was sky-high, breathing hard and then impossible. Unlike with COVD-19, which disproportionately affects the elderly, the Spanish Flu struck the younger hardest. Older people had lived long enough to develop partial immunity, it seems, but youth had not.
Was there any treatment for Spanish flu? Again, if we turn to the hypothetical Marist Mindset List: “Enemas, whiskey and blood-letting have always been preferred treatment for slu.” These were common ways to address the disease, and it is no great shock that none of them worked, though whiskey might have at least had a sedative effect.
Enemas would have made dehydration worse, and as for blood-letting, there was already enough of that via the orifices of the face.
Another quote from the Mindset List, Class of 1940, born in 1918: “A Liberty Bond parade has always been deadly.” Because Americans were not told the truth about the Spanish Flu, the city of Philadelphia went ahead with its crowded Liberty Bond Parade in the early fall of 1918. By Christmas, over 14,000 Philadelphians had died of the bug. In effect, Americans were ambushed by the flu. It came along in the spring, receded in the summer, and then saved its worst wave by far for the autumn. And then of course Americans were told that this was all no big deal. The war came first, though by November it had ende
Could this happen today? This is unlikely, given our mass media coverage and social networking. But this was a time before radio or TV or the Internet. News tended to be local, and local governments were keeping mum, too. It was easier to fool the public, which had few resources for comparative information.
As for treatment, in 1918 antibiotics were over twenty-five years in the future. The Spanish Flu, however, was a virus, not a bacterial disease. It was an unusually virulent H1N virus, not treatable then or now by antibiotics. But if the world had had penicillin back then, it might still have saved lives in treating linked bacterial infections arising from the dreaded flu.
The Splanish Flu was far more deadly than COVD-19. Its kills rate was much higher, and in the midst of a world war, where truth is not a big priority, there was little taste for government warnings and widespread social distancing. Such isolation would have saved millions of lives. But it didn’t happen.
Having visited itself on millions and millions, who either died or survived and got immunity, the Spanish Flu finally had no more bodies to swim in. It ddrowned. Americans got back to their lives, never quite having known what hit them until some years later when they began to reflect. But by the fall of 1918, as they saw photos of bit city policemen wearing masks, and high school gyms converted into hospitals, they must have known, at least subconsciously, that this was no garden variety influenza.
Tom McBride is a co-editor of the Marist Mindset List.
- Like Pearl Harbor for their grandparents, and the Kennedy assassination for their parents, 9/11 is an historical event.
- Thumb, jump, and USB flash drives have always pushed floppy disks further into history.
- The primary use of a phone has always been to take pictures.
- The nation’s mantra has always been: “If you see something, say something.”
- The Tech Big Four–Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google — are to them what the Big Three automakers were to their grandparents.
- Their smart pens may write and record faster than they can think.
- Nearly half of their generation is composed of people of color.
- When they pulled themselves up off the floor for the first time, they may have been hanging onto the folks’ brand-new Xbox.
- There have always been indecisive quadrennial debates regarding the future of the Electoral College.
- Oklahoma City has always had a national memorial at its center.
- Self-contained, battery-powered artificial hearts have always been ticking away.
- Because of Richard Reid’s explosive footwear at 30,000 feet, passengers have always had to take off their shoes to slide through security on the ground.
- They are as non-judgmental about sexual orientation as their parents were about smoking pot.
- They have outlived iTunes.
- Heinous, sexually-based offenses have always been investigated by the Special Victims Unit on Law and Order.
- The Mars Odyssey has always been checking out the water supply for their future visits to Mars.
- Snapchat has become their social media app of choice, thus relieving them of the dilemma of whether or not to friend Mom.
- In an unprecedented move, European nations via NATO have always helped to defend the U.S. militarily.
- They may well not have a younger sibling, as the birth rate in the U.S. has been dropping since they were in grammar school.
- PayPal has always been an online option for purchasers.
- They have witnessed two African-American Secretaries of State, the election of a black President, Disney’s first black Princess, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
- As they crawled on the floor, TV headlines began crawling at the bottom of the TV screen.
- “Pink slime” has always been a food additive.
- With flyovers, honor guards, and “God Bless America,” sporting events have always been marked by emphatic patriotism.
- Only two-thirds of this generation identify as exclusively heterosexual.
- Segways have always been trying to revolutionize the way people move.
- YouTube has become the video version of Wikipedia.
- There has always been an International Criminal Court, and the U.S. has never been a signatory.
- Newfoundland and Labrador has always been, officially, Newfoundland-and-Labrador.
- There has always been an American Taliban.
- By their sophomore year, their generation will constitute one-quarter of the U.S. population.
- Apple iPods have always been nostalgic.
- They have always been able to fly Jet Blue, but never Ted and Song.
- Quarterback Troy Aikman has always called the plays live from the press booth.
- It has always been illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving in New York State.
- Except for when he celebrated Jeopardy’s 35th anniversary, Alex Trebek has never had a moustache.
- Face recognition technology has always been used at public events
- Skilled DJs have transitioned into turntablists.
- The Apple Power Mac Cube has always been in a museum.
- The year they were born, the top NBA draft pick came directly out of high school for the first time.
- They have always been concerned about catching the West Nile virus.
- There has always been a DisneySea in Tokyo.
- They have grown up with Big Data and ubiquitous algorithms that know what they want before they do.
- Most of them will rent, not buy, their textbooks.
- They have probably all been “gaslighted” or “ghosted.”
- There have always been “smartwatches.”
- Their grandparents’ classic comics have evolved into graphic novels.
- They have grown up with a Patriot Act that has dramatically increased state surveillance to prevent terrorism.
- Defibrillators have always been so simple to use that they can be installed at home.
- Pittsburgh’s Steelers and Pirates have never played at Three Rivers Stadium.
- Congress has always banned human cloning completely and threatened arrest for offenders.
- At least one of the murderers of the four school girls in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963 has always been in prison.
- Monica and Chandler have always been married on Friends.
- Blackboards have never been dumb.
- A Catholic Pope has always visited a mosque.
- Cal Ripken, Jr., has always been retired.
- The U.S. has always been withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
- Euthanasia has always been legal in the Netherlands.
- Teams have always been engaged in an Amazing Race around the world.
- Coke and Pepsi have always been competing in the sports hydration science marketplac
For more information please call Tom McBride at 608 312 9508 or email Julia Fishman at Julia.Fishman@marist.eu
How To LISTify Your Classroom
7 Lists…7 Tips
The Marist Mindset List is a famed annual event because it supplies a witty and provocative list of items about what has “always” or “never” been true in the lives of entering college students. But the Marist List is much more than a yearly event. Here we offer some teaching tips based on creative uses of—you guessed it—LISTS. Welcome to How to LIST-ify Your Classroom. Lists: They aren’t just for supermarkets or even just for mindsets any more. –T.M. (Contact: Tom.McBride@marist.edu)
List Number 1: The First Day List
We’re so familiar with making a list that we don’t ee its creative potential. To start with, every list has two parts: what’s on it and what’s not on it. Someone once said of a college dean, “He doesn’t have a black list. He just has a list, and you’re either on it or not.” That’s true of all lists: the cucumbers were either on it or not, and if not, why not? Don’t answer that.
So let’s take this principle in the classroom and in life outside it. In the classroom we always start with a list. It’s called a syllabus. It includes some things and excludes others. This is where the teacher starts: She explains what’s on the syllabus and, though less often, shares what’s NOT on the syllabus. And in doing so, in prepping to do so, she clarifies for herself and others what her aims are. She gets a better sense of her focus. “I could have included this, but I didn’t, and here’s why.” This is a great first-day starter in the classroom. The syllabus is presented, and the introduction to the course is about what’s on it but above all what’s NOT on it. Lists are revealing by the contrast between inclusion and exclusion.
Call this THE FIRST DAY LIST. But it could also be called the EXCLUSION LIST, and our point is that the two lists (inclusion/exclusion) shold be one and the same. Meanwhile, in the classroom you can go through the first-day syllabus by explaining what you left OFF and why. It’s a way to focus the course ahead of the weeks to come. Sam Goldwyn: “Include me out.”
You can do this in life, too: whatever the subject, clarify your thinking by making a list and considering what is NOT on it, and why.
And thus endeth the first List.
2: The Tracking List
In our previous episode we covered the exclusion/inclusion principle of lists. Today we consider another aspect of lists: order and ranking. Let’s start with order. In Episode 3 we’ll consider ranking.
Order: When we go to the grocery store we usually make a list based on the layout of the store. The first aisle is the section for vegetables and fruits (also those plastic juice bottles shaped like lemons), so the mangoes and carrots always head the list. Pet food and ice come last, and you can guess why.
This is the law, and order, of our grocery list, at least as long as we keep going to Super Savings Supermarket.
But what about more conceptual lists? Let’s take the art of reading. In the classroom teachers assign readings all the time. Even as you read this, there are millions of people reading their course assignments from Singapore to Greenland. But, if you’re a professor, why just assign readings in literary theory or social sciences? Why not also help your students become better readers at the same time? You can do this… by having them make a list.
How? Well, think of the grocery store layout. After you’ve been to the store a few times you get the lay (and the law) of the aisles and conform your list to it. Have your students consider a reading assignment to be like a trip to the store. Once they’ve finished reading the assignment, or “checked out,” to continue the analogy, ask them to LIST the key ideas of the reading in the orderin which they appear.
So: after your students have finished a reading, ask them to LIST each concept IN THE TIMELINE IN WHICH IT APEARS and thus to map, for themselves, how getting one concept helps them get the next one and so on. This is a wa to get students to see what reading is inseparable from navigating Space-Time.Supermarkets unfold in a certain order and according to certain “laws.” So do many reading assignments, and if they don’t, they’re like grocery stores that make you guess, each time, on which aisle the cooking oil is this time.
We’re sometimes tempted to call these sorts of lists “Law and Order Lists,” but much more encouraging is the label TRACKING LIST. The list in Part 1 was called the First Day List. The Tracking List is different. The First Day List belongs to the teacher. The Tracking List belongs to the students. And once every student has done one, then there’s some gold in the class. Students can consult their own Tracking Lists in order (note that word) to review the reading. They can start making Tracking Lists in the future in order to get a quick sense not only of what they have read but also HOW THEY HAVE READ IT: how a reading instructs them. You as teacher can have students exchange their Tracking Lists as a way of promoting both small-group and larger-group discussions of the reading.
College reading assignments aren’t like the regular layout of the Super Saving Supermarket. Each one is a little different. Butr once students have had a little practice with Tracking Lists, they’ll discover that different reading assignments in a particular field don’t vary all that much in their presentation procedures. Just as the oranges are generally in aisle 1, the thesis is generally on about page 3, or maybe about 7.5 minutes in. Still, results will admittedly vary.
Last of all, this can help professors better choose reading assignments. If such an assignment does not have some discernible law and order to to its mode of presentation, then maybe it should be left off. Exclude a lawless, virtually untrackable, reading.
3: The Ranking List
This is a common use of lists. You can find them easily on the Internet: Top 50 Things You Didn’t Know About Woodstock or Top Ten Blues Radio Stations, and so forth. Nearly everybody likes a Top 10 List. If you’re on Facebook and propose a ranking of horror movies, you nearly always, in our experience, get plenty of comments. Everyone agrees that there ought to be a ranking, if few people concur on what the ranking should be. Should “Psycho” or “Halloween I” be number one? How about “The Town That Dreaded Sundown?”
Ranking Lists in the classroom have multiple uses. Once a course is nearly over, or a section of a course is over, students can rank the readings in various orders: pleasure, clarity, usefulness, and so forth. If the course is a literature course, you could ask students to rank, say, Salinger short stories in order of greatness. The nice thing about Ranking Lists is that first of all, you can do these lists according to many, many caregories (greatness, utilitry, difficulty, etc.); and second, these rankings, once shared, are an effective discussion switch. Ask students to explain and defend their rankings. It’s a means to generate substantive analysis and excitement about a course section, as long as students are required to articulate the rationales for their judgments.
Ranking Lists can be l quirky. You can, outside the classroom, list The Top 10 Movies Set in Winter, and have a parlor discussion (if such still exists), or internet chat, about why you chose which ones in which order (our favorite is GhostStory), and why others did or did not do the same. Or: suppose (back to the classroom again) you are teaching a Shakespeare course. Ask students to list the Top !0 Shakespeare Characters Who Would Have Made a Difference If They’d Been in ANOTHER Play by Shakespeare. Suppose Iago from Othellohad been King Claudius’ number one assistant instead of Polonius (Hamlet). Suppose Hamlet had loved Juliet instead of Romeo. You could ask students to rank these in order of how much difference these transferred characters would have made. It’s an eccentric way to think about the structure and motivations and motifs in Shakespeare’s greatest plays. It’s also a stimulating one.
Or: Ask students at various times to list, in order of most to least important, what they don’t (yet) understand about course contents so far. This can reveal to you, and to them, what they’re still struggling with. Top 10 Things I Still Don’t Get.
At this point we’ll stop. You get the idea. Rankng Lists can be clarifying. They can be fun. They can be creative. You can use them in classroom ways (likely ways that we ourselves have never thought of but that you will) and all sorts of non-classroom ways, too; otherwise known as life.
4: The Always/Never List
These lists can be good for teaching and learning and good therapy for life (“life” is an extra part of this little series, at no extra cost). . What are they?
They are lists of items that describe ongoing ways of life: continuous, daily time with a reliable and repeated set of activities and mentalities. Slighty Quirky Example: Priests in small Middle Western towns in the early 1950s lived a certain way. They did predictable things each day and had immovable assumptions. There were things they “always” did (said mass, listened to confessions) and other things that they “never” did (went to a parish member’s house for dinner more than once a month, rebelled openly against the adamantine housekeepers the parish had provided for them, auctioned off merchandise for sale at parish fund-raisers).d Short stories tend to be perfect illustrations of “Always/Never” Lists, since these stories often begin with “set” ways of life that are about to be interrupted by an unpredictable event that wll form the heart of the short story. (Note: The stories of J.F. Power are good sources of the “always/never” lives of priests.)
Alwayis/Never Lists are useful for describing, in a quick and concise way, the ethos of functional (or dysfunctional) ways of life. The subject of these Lists, whether they are about priests or office workers or the French court prior to the French revolution or nuclear physics labs or McDonalds restaurant staff. is “how they do things.” There may be no rhyme or reason, we may think, for how things are done in these various worlds (or subcultures), but “we do it this way because we always have” often prevails. These worlds, however, may be creative or complacent, productive or, when viewed by the Lister and her readers, ironic.
So how are such Always/Never Lists useful, first of all, in the classroom. Let’s look at possible assignments, such as this one: In this micro-economics course thus far, we have been looking at the economic activities of smaller groups and institutions, and the theories behind these activities. Your assignment: Assume a micro-economic group of one hundred peope, all your age, and write an Always/Never List itemizing what economic activities and mindsets they would ideally do over and over agin in order to make best use of their scarce resources. Limit your List to no more than 25 items, then brief a brief essay of about 1500 words justifying it.
We’re going to stop right there. By now you know what an Alwayis/Never List is; how it captures ongoing, often subcultural, ways of life; and you are innovative enough to know how these sorts of Lists can be used to assign your students’ creative work in sociology, economics, history, literature, and even biology (the always/never behavioral rules for survival of beetles and snail darters).
But we will say one more thing: about Always/Never Lists as therapyi for life itself. Jot down your own personal A/N List and ask yourself: Is my repeated, habitual way of life the optimal one for me? What things that I always do should I do less regularly, and what things that I never do should I start doin
5: The Comparison Shopping List
The Comparison-Shopping List is on the face of it one of the least glamorous of the list genres. It is, as its name implies, a double list (at least), two lists side by side, and what is on the left is compared with what is on the right.
This is the classroom (teaching/learning) version of comparison shopping. In both the commercial and academic versions, one is looking for the better outcome. It could be the best designer beer for the money or the best argument for the available time.
Yet while the Comparison-Shopping List seems obvious, it is probably the most helpful list of all. Benjamin Franklin made it famous in his memoirs when he showed how he made decisions: by listing the pros and cons of every choice, commercial or otherwise, in a list. It helped crystallize and condense his thinking. He thought he had worked all the pros and cons in his head, but once he took quill to Philadelphia fooscap he realized he had not done so. Writing things down has a way of jogging buried memories or liberating latent ideas. And seeing the stark differences in black and white provides an overview that, at once, both hastens and exposes good decision making. You don’t always know what you think until you see what you have to say.
In modern comparison-shopping lists, price is one consideration, but it isn’t the only one. What are the others? List them. In life and in education (isn’t that part of life, too?) one is loking (shopping) for beneficial outcomes. Shopping is a human activity so pervasive that it is scarcely avoidable. Even Cro-Magnons must have done it.
But, you may ask, isn’t the comparison shopping over once the student elects to take the course? How many choices does a student have after that? Plenty, and they are not just confined to class attendance and seating choices. Students are also asked to choose between and among opposing ideas. They are asked to assess these ideas, and to choose which ones to write about. When the student shops for and “buys” the course, the shopping has just started. Yes, students ARE consumers in the sense that smart consumers make informed and reflective decisions.
Whether the professor does it or the student does, listing colliding ideas and arguments about this or that subject is a fine way to map the stuff that a course is all about. Comparison Shopping need not just be a website that contrasts package tours. It can also be a smart board that shows the differences between feminist and non-femknist existentialism or between theoretical and applied quantum physics.
And if a student is browsing for a thesis for a paper. how does she choose which governing proposition will work best for her? Which one does she know the most about? Which one is she most confident of or most comfortable with? Which one would be hardest to find supporting materials for? Suppose she were to list four or five possible theses and then, below each one, list the pros and cons of choosing each one for a paper topic. One thesis might involve hard-to-get sources but it might also be the most interesting and original one? Which should she “buy”? A Comparison -Shopping List, academic version, will help make the choices more lucid.
What the ancient Greeks called “dialectic” is central to teaching and learning. It’s point-counterpoint. In nearly every field, including quantum physics, there are serious disputes about both theory and evidence. Writing these down, whether on the board or on a screen, in Comparison List form does wonders to focus the conflicts and train lights on the controversies.
We urge you to try making a Comparison-Shopping List. It may take a while to get the hang of. Practice in the fine art of them, though, will create incentives to go back to them many more times than once. Meanwhile, remember: KAYAK is just old-fashioned dialectic in digital form.
6: The Connector List
The definition of the Connector List is nearly self-evident: it’s a list where the various items are linked in some way. But every Connector List needs a a definable universe. You can put down on a List that the great ape died in a local zoo and that your great aunt on the same day got a paper cut, but what is the tie between the two? This is the nub of a Connector List: either the definable universe is the basis for the connections, or the discovered connections slowly build up a definable universe. If your great aunt were upset by the great ape’s death, because she had once been his keeper, and in her distraction got a paper cut, then there is a definable universe established by the linkage between death and cut. The great ape and your great aunt live in the same universe. Then, before you know it, you have the basis for a promising Connector List: bonds within the universe of a great ape’s death and the people and things his passing created.
How does this work in the universe of teaching? Here are some possibilities.
First, a student may, in preparing for an exam or just testing her own understanding, put down a diverse data-set from a definable section of a course. We recommend that she do this quickly and with no regard for whether or not the items fit together snugly. Then, after 15 or 20 of these items have been listed, she can go through them and see if she can connect them. If the items seem to be non-linkable, then that may be a sign that understanding is a little thin on the ground. If they seem quite connectable, this is likely a sign of good conceptual comprehension. Or there is a third possibility: that in finding the connections the student comes upon a new and insightful way to review the material. So the possibilities are: I get this; I need to go over this stuff again; or I’ve got some great new ideas.
Second, a teacher can also use a Connector List. The professor can present such a list to the class and ask class members to connect the items. “Here is what seems to be a highly varied data-set of items, but in fact they are linkable by careful attention to the concepts of this course. Can you link them? If not, let’s see what might be going on.”
Both these methods—the study method and the instructional method—revolve around Connector Lists. They have in common: an attempt to link details with principles, specific information with abstract concepts. But within the whole idea of a Connector List is a warning. , for there are two inadequateways to learn a course: One can grasp the major principles but be sorely lacking in supporting details and examples; or one can have a great memory of details but lack a full appreciation of general principles. A wise use of Connector Lists can save one from being either a bull-shiter or a fgrinder. Connector Lists are good ways to increase one’s sense of the concepts while, in working on the connections, the linkages, promote one’s more sophisticated understanding of the nitty-gritty.
Connector Lists dwell within universes of knowledge, and you can build a universe from the top down or the bottom up, but a good student needs skill in both kinds of construction.
Or, to put it another way, one can use a Connector List to be understand a universe of knowledge, or use a Linkage List to build one.
7: The Designer List
The best way to approach a Designer List is by considering that your academic aim, whether a review or a paper or an oral presentation, is a product: a product to be designed.
Let’s start with an analogy and assume that a biological species is a product: one that is built in order to survive and flourish. So what would have to be included in such a product? Several things. The species “product” must be designed in order to acquire and use resources, such as the sun or the soil or other members of the same species or the air or accessible prey. The species product must be designed in order to recognize and escape from predators. And, since there can never be just one member of a species in order for the species to exist at all, the design must also include some way of sexual or asexual reproduction. So a Designer List here would look like this:
Capacity for Use Environmental Resources
Capcity to Recognize and Flee Predators
Capacity to Reproduce
That’s it. A short list. But you’re not done. Now comes the Devil part: the details. For instance, if you are designing what will become a cow you don’t want to give the cow lion’s teeth, because cows need to chew cud and grass. That’s how they get along in their environment. A lion lives in a different setting. A cow should have special awareness of a wolf and seek shelter if possible. A lion can easily defeat a wolf, and the wolf, if there were one, would know it. So a lion needs no special wolf-detection skills. A lion needs speed and power because it stays alive by dealing with prey and predators in the wild. A cow gets by via the supply of milk, so designing the cow to be as scary as the lion would make no sense: no one wants to milk a lion-cow!
So now the Cow Designer List (we’ll exclude the reproduction item in the interest of time) will look different:
Capacity to Use Environmental Resources: Cow
–Offers plentiful supplies of milk
–Easily approached by human milkers
–Particularly good capacity to eat and digest grass
Capacity to Recognize and Escape Predators: Cow
–Special sensitivity to the presence of wolves
–Getting protection from human beings in exchange for milk
Note, too, that there is a functionalrelationship between the two capacities (use of resources, escape from predators) and the structural details that serve those two capacities. And if you follow us this far (can there be any question of that?), you’re now ready to do a Designer List of your own. We’ll give you one big example: An AcademicDesigner List—this is after all about the classroom above all—and then turn you loose to build, following these principles, your own academic list.
We double back to a recent idea: that the purposes of the design, and the accompanying list, is to build a product. A cow is a cow-product. A paper or a presentation or a review session: they are all products. Products are poorly designed or well-designed. We used the example of a cow and a lion, but we could have used the example of a bar of soap or a smart phone. Well, we could have if we knew anything about soap.
So let’s say you are writing a paper. Well, a cow in order to be successful has to have capacities A, B, X, Y, Z, etc. What must you have? Well, you’ll need lots of things, right? You’ll need a broovy intro (one that will draw the reader into your subject); you’ll need a so-what section (why is this important?); you’ll need a thesis, a governing and unifying proposition; you’ll need supporting details; you’ll need a section anticipating criticisms and answering them; and you’ll need a conclusion that mentions some larger implications, even though you’ll say that exploring them is “beyond the scope of the present paper.”
Now that’s 5 or 6 design features. You may not need them all, but you will need most of them. Note that we put these features not in a List but in a left-to-right paragraph. They’re harder to follow that way, so it’s time for a LIST (there’s just something about a List):
And then, of course, as you decorate the Designer List you will write in the functionaldetailsthat serve each feature. Before we leave this section, here are two tips.
First, you may not be able to plot this whole thing out in a fuilly-evolved Designer List right away. You may have to build your List by doing some writing in order to test out what you know and what you think and what you need to bone up on. You should go back to the List as you go, but don’t necessarily expect to construct the finished product right away, top down, and then start to write, command-control, according to it. This, by the way, is also not how the lion and cow got here. They got here using the first method, not the second. Or so the evidence says.
Second, make sure that your details are functionalto each section. Supporting details that underlay your thesis should go in that section and not in the answering-criticisms section; or vice-versa. In other words, don’t give a lion cow’s teeth.
Your turn! Design a great product.
What sorts of Lists hae we left out? Send any comments to Tom.McBride@marist.edu
During the Middle Ages the church would put skulls on bridges in order to remind people that death was near. Time was short, so it behooved those still alive to prepare for their own demise and to get their souls ready so that they would be acceptable in the after-life. One character in a medieval play, Everyman, dawdled. He thought time was long; that he had plenty of time. He learned otherwise and barely got ready for the judgment of Heaven.
In some ways the Marist List is also a memento mori. To be sure, it’s not a skull on a medieval bridge in London or Rome in 1300. But, as our many fans tell us, it does remind older readers that they’re getting along in life; that a great deal has changed in just eighteen years; that as they age, time speeds up and gets shorter and shorter. Older reads say they thought it was just yesterday that Blackberry phones went out of business, when in fact it was nearly twenty years ago. If they extrapolate, they discover that in just another twenty years (“tomorrow”), they’ll be going out of business, too, forever.
Once you realize this truth, you tend to confront what you wil do for the rest of your life. What will you prioritize? What will you give up? How much time do you really want to spend on your smartphone? It’s been said that “each of us lives two lives, and the second life begins when we realize we have only one.”
The Marist Mindset List is an annual reminder that time is brief and passes swiftly. It’s the modern memento mori.