By Tom McBride: mcbridet@niefr
02/03/2023: Why Does Everyone Love Jesse James?
Jesse James was a murderous outlaw whose gang robbed under the cover of, and tacit approval of, anti-Union politics in post-Civil War Missouri. Yeah, Jesse and his bunch robbed trains and banks, but surely, they were mostly REPUBLICAN trains and banks. Old Jess was on the right side: for him and his tribe the Civil War wasn’t over, and they were very pro-slavery, a good place to be in western Missouri back then (it was called “Little Dixie”). Yet all that has long ago faded; still, Jesse remains a folk hero even for those who don’t know anything about his politics. Why? It’s because of the one thing that they do know about him: that he was shot in the back by a coward for the reward money. This makes Jesse seem brave—the sort of person you’d want on your side—in stark contrast to his killer. Had he been shot in the heart in a face-to-face gunfight, his legend would be seriously tarnished.
12/31/2022: Why Donald Trump Decided that Cross Pens Were “Horrible”
Ever since the presidency of Gerald Ford the Cross Pen Company of Rhode Island has sold pens to the White House for ceremonial bill signings. This included the White House of President Trump, which ordered 150 of them early in his presidency. But then, after using the pens for a while, he declared them “horrible pens” and started using a Sharpie perhaps for bolder signatures. It is hard to find the reason for Trump’s change of mind. Cross Pens have long been serviceable enough for not only millions of customers but also for presidents for half a century. What gives with Trump? A speculative e answer is that the pens are made in Rhode Island, and Rhode Island is not Trump country. The state where the pens are made is not backing Trump, so Trump decided he would not back them. If so, this is personal vanity. It is also the secret of Trump’s charismatic success. He is able to translate his personal grievances into those of millions of his fellow citizens. Whatever insults Trump, insults them. If Trump is taken down for x, y, or z, then it is a direct attack on them. Few politicians have inspired such total identification. It has happened with the likes of Hitler and various Popes. Freud once said that millions and millions of Catholics thought the Pope loved them, even though he had never met them.
12/16/2022: Mirror, Mirror on the Wal: Who’s the Home Run King of All?
This past baseball season a Mets slugger was aiming to break Roger Maris’ home run record 61. Of course, Mark Maguire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa would declare that they have broken it already, but the world does not concur, as they used steroids. Maris excelled Babe Ruth’s old record of 60 in a 154-game season. But then Maris may have been on uppers, as were many of the players during his generation. The Babe was presumably not on anything other than booze, but then, he faced all-white pitching and also played before the days of specialized relief pitchers. So, who is the true home run king? It would be nice of baseball stats were self-explanatory and self-evident—a number is a number—but, alas, baseball history and context overrides baseball arithmetic.
12/09/2022: Where Should We Do With Statues of Robert E. Lee?
George Washington owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Robert E. Lee owned slaves. So: if we get rid of Lee statues in public places, then we should get rid of Washington and Jefferson monuments, too. This is a canard. While Washington and Jefferson did own slaves, they never fought in a war to retain slavery. Had they encountered the option they might have done so. But there is no evidence in the historical record that they would have made that choice. The record on Lee is clear: he led an army to defend slavery. Washington was the Revolutionary War leader and the first great American president. Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. Defenders of Lee point out that he was a great, brave man and fought fort states’ rights. This may be true. But he also fought to keep slavery legal. In a country that universally condemns slavery as a moral aberration, the only place for a Lee statue is in a museum devoted to Civil War or Confederate history. His days of being a monumental hero are over. He lost the war. It’s a good thing.
01/30/2023: 2 REASONS PUTIN WILL INVADE THE BALTIC STATES—AND 1 REASON WHY HE WON’T
Vladimir Putin is an angry gambler. Such people ae dangerous. He blends fury and resentment with a capacity to take outrageous risks. This is why he might well invade the Balkan states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. He is mad enough to do it, as he thinks those states belong to Russia and not to NATO. And he is risk-prone enough to do it, as he will gamble that the West cares less about these states than Russia does. He might think that NATO will come to their aid but only with token resistance. Russia will get its empire back after all. Still, suppose NATO AND THE UNITED STATES decide that the credibility of the alliance is too much at stake, and treaty obligations must be kept even at the risk of nuclear war. Then Putin would be caught between two terrible options: lose to superior NATO (Ukraine has shown how weak is the Russian military) or use nukes. Will this scenario deter him? Probably. Not for sure.
01/26/2023: We Are George Santos; George Santos is Us
Comedians have had a field day with the prevarications of George Santos, who said his mother was in the WTC on 9/11, that he got a volleyball scholarship to Princeton (or was it Yale?), that his ancestors were victims of the Holocaust, and that he had an MBA from NYU. These are outrageous fabrications, and yet they are deeply human. The late, great humorist James Thurber, one of the finest American writers, wrote a famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” about a milquetoast who imagined that he was a great hero. Thurber once wrote that it was the secret wish of every American male to hit a winning home run with the bases loaded in front of not only his wife but also his mistress. Many of us wish we were somehow someone else. Santos is an especially sick puppy for making his fantasies public and selling them in order to attain public office. But he is not a Martian. He’s one of us.
01/24/2022: Meet Vlad Putin, VictimI
n the 1650s the French writer Francois la Rochefoucald told the story of the wolf and the lamb. The wolf accused the lamb of fouling the stream from which he drank, whereupon the lamb said that was impossible as he had just been born and he himself was drinking upstream of the wolf. The wolf was having none of this and said the lamb was guilty, if for no other reason than that he would like to foul the wolf’s stream and also because the lamb’s kinfolks were fouling it all the time. After stating this, the wolf ate the lamb without a trial of any sort. The lamb tried to assert that he was the victim, but the wolf said no, he was the REAL victim. Not long ago the Russian foreign minister said he was sorry about the war in Ukraine but that’s what Ukraine gets for threatening the security of Russia. Some of us might be forgiven for thinking that it is Ukraine that is the victim, but the Russians say they are. They are the wolves in the story and are, they say, the true victims. Just ask them.
12/09/2022: The Creativity of Mantraps
One of the great myths about the creative process is that it is a single, Eureka, light-bulb-in-the head moment. Creativity is a solution to a problem that is often long considered. This problem can consist of how to make a vaccine hook onto the immune system to how to make a blue turnip become an artistic expression of personal meaning. And then there’s the odd creativity of devising mantraps, or bobby traps. Once more, these solutions smack of problems long mulled over, and ingenious solutions being applied. Both a farmer in Iowa and a machinist in Colorado had a problem: people kept breaking into their places when they weren’t there. The local constabulary did little or nothing. So, the farmer and the machinist, quite independently of one another, set up mantraps: these were string contraptions that would fire a shot gun at anyone who opened the door to their places without permission. In Iowa an intruder got his leg blown into such bits that amputation became a near thing. In Colorado, a teen-aged thief was shot to death. Because they were protecting only possessions and not lives, both the farmer and machinist got into legal trouble—the farmer sued by the robber (the robber won) and the machinist charged with manslaughter (though he did not serve jail time). Creativity paid for Picasso and Virginia Woolf. It doesn’t always pay.
01/19/2023: Does God Love Privacy?
In 1959 John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, told a reporter that he had private religious beliefs but that they would play no part in his public execution of office. There his first fealty was to the Constitution of the United States. Protestant voters, fearful that Kennedy would let the Pope run the White House, were reassured. They believed, at that time, in a strict separation of church and state. But back then the Catholic hierarchy had an allergic reaction to what Kennedy said: in the view of the Catholic hierarchy, you should take your religious beliefs into the public sphere all the time. Today there are six Catholic conservatives on the Supreme Court. They agree with what prominent Catholics said about Kennedy 64 years ago. Some of us might think that if a baker thinks homosexuals are sinful, he has a right to that belief as a matter of his religion, but in the public sphere, his first loyalty is to the 14th Amendment, which would forbid any baker from treating gay people differently when it comes to baking a wedding cake. But this is not the view of the six Catholic justices. They think religion is not just a private belief but a public duty. Evangelical Protestants, who also don’t especially favor gay people, now agree with them. The days when the Catholic Kennedy expressed beliefs dear to the Protestants of his day are now over—at least as far s the Supreme Court is concerned.
01/18/2023: Is Darwin in Heaven or Hell?
Surely Darwin is in Heaven. He explained to use why we have different species and gave us a model for understanding the world—via pragmatic adaptations to environments—that are applicable to everything from music to commerce, from celebrity to government. His world-view has played major roles in the development of vaccines and antibiotics. Yet Darwin might be in Hell. His work altered the intellectual climate of the late 19th century and valorized competition over compassion. Ruthless competition and brute power were excused on the basis of the idea that “this is how nature works.” Even American progressives thought the “race” needed “pruning” and supported euthanasia and sterilization of the “unfit.” Nazis complained of non-Aryan “bacilli in the blood” of pure Germans. One wonders if without Darwin there would have been Hitler. In Darwin’s defense he himself only said that the “fittest” (those who produce more offspring) do survive, not that they should survive.
01/16/2023. Selena Gomez Is Not Allowed to Enjoy Herself
At a recent awards ceremony Selena Gomez appeared in a beautiful gown but a bit larger than heretofore recently. She was body-shamed and soon returned fire. She said she had increased in size because “I had enjoyed myself over the holidays.” Body-shaming is sometimes referred to as a form of Schadenfreude: those of us less thin and lovely are gleeful that someone looks a bit more like us. There is more to it. The mindset is that celebs owe us: It is their job to present an ideal. This is hard work, maybe, but it’s their job. Beneath all the easy glamour of celebrity-hood is a draconian Puritanism and repression.
12/07/2022: Murder Is a Crime. Is It Also a Sin?
Sometimes defense lawyers know that their client, and not someone else, killed a person. As a result, although the client denies it, he or she actually did the killing. Does a defense lawyer at this point say, “I will not defend you, you sinner?” No. The underlying idea is that while the client may have done the killing, he or she is not yet been proven guilty of murder. It’s the defense lawyer’s job to prevent that from happening, and when you get a situation like this, as you often do, it is recast as “a lawyer defends a guilty person” But this re-summation depends on assumptions, such as “killing is always a sin and all such sins should be punished.” Democratic countries with judicial trials resist such certainty. Even killing—even murder—may not be certainly wrong. This is not only a bedrock of the legal system. It is also a bedrock of government’s role in morality. In the theocracy of Iran, women are required to keep their bodies totally covered. That may be a fine and wholesome thing to do, but in democracies it is not a certainty, So, governments do not dictate body coverage. There are rules, such as the American Constitution, but even that isn’t based on certainty, which is why the document may be, and has been, amended, and why there are different interpretations from judges.
01/12/2023: Is It REALLY “For the American People to Decide?”
In 1858 Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois decided he would follow in the footsteps of the great compromisers of American history, such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. They had both been giants of the Senate, and one of their specialties was coming up with fixes, however temporary, that would prevent a war between the slave and free states. By the late 50s, the South wanted to expand slavery to the new western territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Once more, bubbles of civil war were starting to boil. Douglas had a great idea: these territories could simply vote for themselves on whether or not they wanted slavery. It was not so simple as that. In Kansas, the issue was not just decided at the ballot box but at the points of various guns. Douglas, though, was in a good company, for he advocated “letting the people decide.” His senatorial opponent, Abraham Lincoln, said this was not a question of popular sovereignty but of morality. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he said. Since then, the refrain of “that’s for the American people to decide” has become a convenient way of avoiding the declaration of moral judgments. Former Vice-President Pence obviously disapproves of Donald Trump; but when asked if Trump should be president again, he said, “that’s for the American people to decide.” He doesn’t want to lose Trump supporters. In New York state a man named George Santos lied his way to a Congressional seat. When Speaker Kevin McCarthy was asked if the fabulist should be removed, McCarthy said, “that’s for his voters to decide.” McCarthy doesn’t want to lose a House member who voted for him for Speaker. We might respond by echoing Lincoln: “If lying to win election is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
01/10/2023: Will Obesity Become the New Populism?
By now it’s clear that there is an American populist resentment of elites and experts, from climate change to Covid vaccines. Of late, medical experts have warned about a new epidemic in the land: obesity. It is estimated that as many as one in five children are obese, and many pediatricians say that it is time for a combination of counseling, medication, and surgery to do something about it before it is too late. Before it is too late for what? Well, for bad health outcomes, heart attacks, shortened longevity. A case can be made that all of this will overtax the American health system, but might not all these anti-obesity interventions also burden the system? One wonders how long it will be before the overweight of America rise up in their righteous anger to say that they can eat whatever they want and live foreshortened lives if they wish, and it’s no business of the CDC and WHO. Will there be a populist fusion ticket consisting of the two best-known plus-sized American governors—J.B. Pritzker and Chris Christie? How long before the right to refuse sugar-free Coke in favor of “the real thing” become a rallying cry? Come to think of it, Trump himself is a bit pudgy and likes Big Macs for lunch and maybe even for breakfast.
01/08/2023: Why Putin Has Already Gotten What He Wants in Ukraine
Russia lost the Cold War and has been deluding itself ever since. It is a viral petro-state, but its economy is second-rate and now we know its military is even worse, Putin complained that Obama treated Russia as no more than a “regional power” and always sent “women” to deal with him, So, what do you do when you lost the Cold War and are no longer a first-rate superpower? YOU ACT OUT, much as a former class bully acts out in order to prove that he’s still “relevant.” The bully may have few visible, or invisible, means of support and is soon expelled or jailed. But Putin is free of accountability, as there is no civic life in Russia and no real democratic traditions in an authoritarian and acquiescent realm. And he can play a weak hand by acting out. Russia doesn’t have four aces any longer—that was 1973, not 2023—so he compensates by doing outrageous things in order to get the world’s attention. One of these was to invade Ukraine., To be sure, Putin is not winning three, but already he has gotten what he wants: he has shown the world that Russia is still relevant. Attention, he is saying, must be paid!
01/05/2023: What on Earth Happened to Barack Obama?
When he was a law student Barack Obama co-authored a long paper on political realignment. He dismissed two strategies as unworkable: one was a Democratic bid for suburban votes that gave up on black equality; the other was trying to achieve black equality through the courts. Neither would work. The only answer was to bring back a New Deal coalition between the white working class and poor blacks, as when FDR in 1936 not only carried Harlem but won 99 percent of the vote in South Carolina. When Obama won his brilliant triumph in 2008, he not only carried the black vote but also a large share of the white working-class ballot. But by the time he left office, he had lost the white working class, and the Obama coalition mostly consisted of white professionals, young people, and people of color. This might have been enough, but Hillary Clinton could not bring out enough young people and people of color to win, quite, the presidency. How did Obama lose the white working class? Two big reasons: First, their support of him eight years earlier had been a function of Republicans having been discredited because of the Great Recession. Second, once the economy had recovered, thanks in part to Obama’s economic team, the white working class was much more receptive, again, to Republican claims that Democrats were out-of-touch elites, too enamored of secular values and reparations for minorities. We might want to remember that the last time poor whites and poor blacks were on the same side was during the New Deal until about 1964, but this odd coalition was a product of a crisis: The Great Depression, which has not happened since.
01/04/2023: You & I Don’t Need Enemies, lbut Great Persons Do
It is likely impossible to get through life without making a few enemies. We get into each other’s craw or in one another’s way. But we don’t generally need enemies and often wish we could have avoided them. Sometimes we try to make up with our foes. Most of us, however, are not great and important persons. They do need enemies. This goes back to what Machiavelli said long ago: that fear is a greater motivator than love. So: Mao needed his Western gunning-dog capitalists; Hitler needed his non-Aryans; Donald Trump needs his “deep state;” Putin needs “the decadent West;” and celebrity evangelicals need their “atheistic secular society.” These great personages, once having inspired fear of the adversary, then garner love as the “Great Protectors.” In the ordinary run of life, enemies happen. In the extraordinary world of politics and religion, they are cultivated.
01/03/2023: What Does “The Dude” Know Thkat We Don’t?
One of the cult film immortals is “The Dude,” played by Jeff Bridges in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. He is described, and self-described, as the laziest man in Los Angeles. He does not work, lives off welfare, and goes around in his bathrobe all day. We enjoy the misadventures of The Dude in the movie, but in the backs of our minds are all sorts of counter-Dude thoughts, such as “I have to work for a living” or “Idleness is the Devil’s workshop; hard work is salvation.” But what if The Dude knows something we don’t? What could it be? Well, here’s one possibility: The Dude knows that all our “great” work projects in the long run will amount to noting, In the long arc of time, all of them will be forgotten and turn to dusty oblivion. George W. Bush said the theology of The Taliban would end up in the ash bin of history, but in truth, The Dude might say, we all end up in the ash bin of history. So why not enjoy life when you still have it? Admit your insignificance and increase your pleasure. No need to take off that bathrobe!
01/01/2023: How to Preach to an Empty Park
William Jennings Bryan is now mostly lost to history, but he was the first progressive Democrat and one of the great populists in American history. Raised in Illinois, the moved to Nebraska and in the 1890s found a great issue among the farmers of the Midwest and South. This was a time when the United States was “turning urban,” and the rural folks left behind thought they were getting a raw deal because they had to sell their crops so cheaply in order to sell them at all. What they needed, Bryan told them, was some inflation. The only way they could get that was for the United States to go off the gold standard for valuing its currency and go instead to a silver standard. Not only would the silver industry thrive. Prices would go up because silver was deemed less expensive than gold. Bryan was a great orator and coined an apt phrase: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a Cross of Gold.” He was a hit, but despite running for president three times, he always lost. Still, he was a force in the Democratic Party. President Wilson made him secretary of state, but he resigned in protest against America entering World War I. He spent his last days defending a literal interpretation of the Bible—Bryan always stood by his rural “base”—and collapsed with a heart attack at a time when he seemed ridiculous to sophisticated intellectuals. Still, he was known as “The Great Commoner” and had a major statue of himself enshrined in the 30s in the Washington Mall until it was removed to make way for a road. The Great Commoner was placed in a warehouse until his hometown of Salem, Illinois, removed the statue and put it in a park near that small town. It is still there. Bryan in bronze perpetually preaches to an empty park, a sign perhaps of both the obscurity of his memory and a certain futility to his life. In his day he was famous—but that was in his day.
12/08/2022: How a Misplaced Adjective Could Get You Burned at the Stake
In 1553 Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland. His final, agonizing words were “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me” Note that he didn’t say, “Jesus, Eternal Son of God.” And that’s one of the reasons he was burned at the stake. He had denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. He thought there was one eternal god and that Jesus was his son. But that did not make Jesus divine. It was a heresy, and so came the flames. It was not just a misplaced adjective. It was a deliberately misplaced one. Servetus has especially offended the unofficial leader of Protestant Geneva: John Calvin, for Servetus had also denied the doctrine of Original Sin. This was bad news indeed for Calvin, who preached that everyone is either saved or not saved and that most of us are in the latter category. The aim of this doctrine was to get all the truly saved into one glorious place, such as Geneva, and make those who weren’t sure about their status strive incessantly to prove they were among the saved. The doctrine that “few of us are among the elect” had a great appeal in terms of mass psychology. Servetus would have ruined all this, so while Calvin didn’t want him burned at the stake—he thought this was too Catholic—he nonetheless lost control of the situation and had to sit by while those even more radical than he burned Servetus, misplaced “eternal” and all.
12/29/2022: What Should You Do with a Dog That bites Kids?
“Human-aggressive dogs” are not uncommon. When your dog bites a kid, you should have it put down, right? You love your dog, but you love the safety of children more. But if we unpack this word “love,” there’s a good case to be made that you don’t have your dog euthanized. You can keep your dog away from children; you can buy an “Elizabethan collar” that will block off your dog’s mouth from harming others while on walks. If you do these sorts of things, then you LOVE your dog. What is love? Well, it is an emotional response of course that says, “This is not take it or leave it. This is steadfast devotion.” Shakespeare said love was a ship that is not shaken by storms (such as your dog biting a kid). People in romantic relationships ask, “Does he (or she) really love me?” This is not some mushy question, illustrated by a heart emoji. This is a practical question: Will she (or he) keep his (or her) side of the bargain? Don’t put down that pup.
12/28/2022: What Xi Jinping Doesn’t Get About the West
Xi is the most commanding Chinese leader since Mao, and he is a true believer. He has a traditional conservative’s distaste for social disorder, and a Communist’s belief in the power of the state to enforce order. Under Xi, China has become a systematically digital police state, complete with cameras everywhere and face recognition of those who do so little as jaywalk. Xi’s beliefs were on display during the Covid crisis. Rather than depend on Western vaccines, he went with a homegrown product that was much less effective, and relied on massive shutdowns to make sure there was “zero Covid” in the country. Let Western democracies, with their much vaunted “individual freedom,” deal with the chaos and rapid spread of Covid. China had a better idea. What’s wrong with this picture? It isn’t that China, too, has suffered from scores of Covid deaths and has lurched from shutting down to opening up. No. It’s this: xi overestimates the “disorder” of Western societies. Yes, in the United Sates there are mass shootings and recently an attack on the Capitol and all sorts of gender experiments and disruptive social media. But it’s not as though Western democracies are all chaos, all the time. There are plenty of incentives for social cooperation—from economic opportunity to enforceable laws—so the U.S., France Britain, Australia, etc. are far from the Somalia that Xi thinks they are. And they get a lot of individual liberty as a bonus.
12/27/2022: Is PSYCHO a Greater Film Than CASABLANCA?
The venerable Hollywood newspaper VARIETY has come out with its own list of the 100 Greatest Films. It ranks Hitchcock’s PSYCHO as the greatest and bumps a traditional choice for top 5—CASABLANCA—up to number 17. This seems to be an eccentric choice, so we might entertain its rationale. PSYCHO is a technically great film, with the infamous shower sequence being the prime example. Hitchcock’s mastery of discomforting panic is on display in his filming and editing this horrific scene. And PSYCHO is a bold film in that it kills off the beautiful starring heroine Janet Leigh halfway through the film. The Oedipal “solution” to the film’s plot was likewise a daring move for its time in the placid late 1950s. CASABLANCA is hardly a technical masterpiece—in fact, there is even an editing error in the film when Humphrey Bogart’s raincoat is wet from the Paris rain but only a few minutes later, in film time, it is dry. The ambience of “Casablanca” in wartime is but a mirage of the Warner Brothers backlot. Yet CASALANCA’S greatness does not reside in its technique but in its story about the conflict between love and honor. This was a major issue during the Second World War but is no longer. Has VARIETY gone with brilliant technique and novel plotting as better than a great cinematic drama about how personal desire must take second place to great causes? Technique over theme: is that a wise choice?
12/26/2022: Is Being Gay A Choice? Yes, and No.
Except for certain continuous exceptions, many of us have turned our backs, long ago, on the idea that one can “help” being attracted to people of the same sex. This is a biological tendency. One can no more help that than help being hungry. It is equally true that while you can’t decide to be hungry, you can decide what and when and how much to eat. Likewise, if one is attracted to those of the same sex, one can publicly identify as being gay, or not. In this sense alone, being gay is a choice. It may be that some conservative evangelicals think that while same-sex attraction is biologically inherited, it should nonetheless be kept in the closet. Others probably think that such attraction cannot be biologically inherited because God would never design nature this way. Whatever: deciding to identify as gay is a personal choice. There’s a broad consensus in North America and most of Europe that it is a choice to which people have a right. There is informed speculation that someday people will ALSO have a choice about whether or not to be homosexual, via genetic surgery. If that happens, look for a different proposition: that one should not discriminate against people who choose to be homosexual any more than we should discriminate against people who choose to become Buddhists.
12/04/2022: John the Baptist is Mad as Hell and Isn’t Going to Take it Any More
According to Scripture, when John the Baptist in the 1st century A.D. was asked if he were the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, he said no—that he was just a voice crying in the wilderness. Even so, what a voice! John is honored by three great religions today. Christians believe he paved the way for Christ, and serious scholars think the Gospels are right when they say John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, whereupon a dove appeared along with a voice that told Jesus his Father was well-pleased with him. Although John did not declare himself the Messiah and Jesus did, they were in the same line of work: Jewish prophets promising that something big is about to happen, something you don’t want to miss out on. It’s sort of “Jesus is coming, so you’d better look busy.” John had a gift for prophecy that mass movements can’t do without. Marxist Socialists prophesized a classless society; Nazis predicted a Third Reich that would last a thousand years. In the film Network, the anchor man Howard Beall, who had once been as popular as Walter Cronkite, declared one day that he was tired of being a bull shit newsman and had become a prophet. “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” He said that if people didn’t stop watching TV all the time, they would turn into a tube. He told them to stop watching him, even; but how else were they to get their prophecy? John’s reference to himself as a voice crying in the wilderness is significant. The wilderness is complicated and thick, but John cut through all that with “repent, or else.” Prophets predict stuff, get people excited about the future, and simplify the befuddled complications of our lives in wildernesses where we are apt to get lost.
12/22/2022: Folks Celebrate Jesus’ Birthday Every Year. Who Was This Guy?
Jesus was from Galilee, not Judea, and this is akin to saying that he was from a small town in Iowa rather than from Chicago or Los Angeles or New York. He was one of many prophets in an area of the world mostly controlled by the Roman Empire. This was an ancient era of great cities—not New York or Paris but Rome, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. Jesus entered Jerusalem only at the end of his life, but he was always a man of Galilee, which was much more obscure and rural. He championed the lowly, the ordinary, the meek and mild. He was a bit of a culture warrior, stating that greatness was not to be found in the big cities but in the humility of those who lived in villages and on farms. This is one reason why he was popular in his lifetime and why his brand of spirituality is honored all over the world. Most of us, even if we live in big cities, are ordinary. Few of us are great. But Jesus said, the way to be truly great is to eschew earthly greatness. Be mild; forgive your foes; and you will join him in Heaven. This is the basis of his appeal—to make those of us who are last become first—and to promise us that if we do indeed live a merciful life of modest loving-kindness, we will go to Paradise when we die. What Jesus preached is against human nature, because most of us are not prepared to forgive our enemies and swear off ambition. We need supernatural aid to defeat our natural tendencies, and this is why Jesus is required to be divine, supernatural, the son of God. Otherwise, he is just another philosopher advising us to do things that are against our nature, even as he tells us that our compassionate ordinariness is truly great in the sight of God, his Father.
12/21/2022: We Are Living Through An Age of Pronoun Anxiety
Someone who is grammatically astute recently posted that he never dreamed he would be having problems with pronouns. Teachers and professors, well-meaning and skilled, report difficulty remembering that trans-gender males and females in their classes want to be referred to as “they,” not “he” or “she.” They are non-binary: not either/or but both/and. This is a matter of gender, but in another sense, we have long lived through an age of pronoun anxiety—it’s just that we’ve masked it by traditional pronoun references. An author recently wrote a piece about the death of his father, who passed away last spring. He reported that every day he rises with a single thought: “I will not be able to speak to my father on the phone today.” The old “I”—pre-death-of-dad—is missing a vital piece. It wasn’t an “I” in the first place. We refer to one another as “I” as opposed to “he” or “she” in order to avoid confusions about bodies, but in the more significant sense all of us “I’s” are “theys.” We all live with other people embedded within us. We live with familiar trees and pets and milestones within us. Dualism (me versus him or her or it or they) is convenient, but it fails to match the reality of our integrated selves—the extent to which the single self is really a plural “they,” “I am part of all that I have met,” said Tennyson’s Ulysses, who forgot to realize that “I” is a distorted pronoun reference.
12/20/2022: Tammy & Hillary
In the early 1990s, when there were questions about her husband’s marital fidelity, Hillary Clinton defended him but added that she was not some “Tammy Wynette standing by her man.” Her remark showed why she would never be popular in America’s small towns and rural areas. Secretary Clinton has been an admirable feminist, but she always exuded the idea that feminism is a sort of luxury for more affluent and educated women, who could afford NOT to stand by their man because they had their own good jobs and income. Women in rural areas have neither and have fewer options when it comes to abusive and faithless husbands. For them, Tammy Wynette’s song “Stand by Your Man” is a sort of anthem, even today. When he was running for the Senate in Ohio, J.D. Vance wanted to show his Appalachian voters that he “got” their values. He said that marriages should be able to survive spousal abuse. He won.
11/21/2022: Can Abortion Save the Earth?
In 2017, the year before he died, the famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking predicted that by 2600 the earth would be so populated that everyone would be standing shoulder to shoulder. ‘They would use so much electricity that someone on the moon would see the planet glowing aet all times. Over two hundred years ago a minister of the
Gospel, Thomas Malthus, predicted something like this. He said that overpopulation taxed resources to the point where massive starvation was inevitable. In the short run, Malthus has been proved incorrect. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution we were able to use and create more and more resources. The population has increased, but we have not starved—in fact, our standard of living has improved. Yet in the long run Malthus—and Hawking—may be right. What can we do about overpopulation? We can impose massive and required birth control. We can impose a ban on copulation—good luck with that one; how could it be enforced? Wait a minute, though! We could enforce it by mandating that every pregnant woman abort the fetus. This seems like a horrible idea. You and I won’t be around to see if it becomes necessary. Ever since the reverend Malthus, there has been this clash between population resource usage and individual morality. And to think that Malthus was a preacher! What kind of trickster God is there, anyhow?
12/14/2022: why Every Novelist is Hindu
Suppose that in your mid-20s you took a job in a small bank in a small city in the American Plains. You got on well in the job and then met a beautiful woman who also happened to be the mayor’s daughter. You and she fell in love and married, but then she divorced you in a disgraceful scandal with another man that left you embarrassed and diminished. But the two of you had wo children—two boys whom you loved very much. But one of them was taken from you as a result of a hit-and-run, and later it turned out that the driver was the man who stole your wife. Time passes. Your other son grows up and himself becomes mayor of the small city. He will try to undo everything his grandfather mayor did—clean up the town—but in the meantime your rival lover gets out of prison, where he was sentenced for manslaughter, and shoots you to death. Now let’s review this story as a Hindu fatalist might. You think you went to this town to work in a bank, but actually, by the perspective of fate and karma, you went to the town so that you could be humiliated by your wife, suffer the loss of your son, be grateful to see your other son shine, and then get murdered by the man who, years ago, stole your wife. It was all preordained. It had already been decided. This is a common Eastern, especially Hindu, philosophy. But wait a minute! It’s also the plot of a potentially great novel! This is why every novelist is, in a sense, Hindu. Novelists too believe in fate, and they are in control of its unfolding. If you and I could only believe that we are characters in some novel, we would probably become a lot more serene. We would relax and enjoy what we cannot control. But then, if we were as tranquil as all that, we’d be lousy characters—and so we have a paradox.
11/20/2022: Cannibalism and the Habit of Self-Love
In the 1940s and before, a tribe in the jungles of New Guinea were confirmed cannibals. The women and children especially ate the flesh of dead loved ones. This may well have been a case of eco-economics. Resources were limited, so perhaps there was an upper limit on the number of wild boars that could be killed in hunting; and no doubt there was some set of spiritual beliefs involved as well. Whatever the causal nexus, by the 1950s Dutch missionaries were in the area and tried to convert the tribes away from cannibalism. It is much icer, and more civilized, they said, to eat wafers and drink wine. If you are going to be cannibals, do it this way by consuming some embodiment of the body and blood of Christ. There was a lot of resistance. We can speculate why. Perhaps the tribes felt the old way had served them well—despite some evidence that cannibalism causes disease—and they didn’t want to take chances on untried and new ideas. Or maybe it was something like this: “I’ve always been a cannibal; it’s who I am. I cherish my identity.” Does this sound familiar? The human habit of self-love—what the French moralists called amour propre—extends to identities of which we are inordinately proud. “I’ve gotta be me.” This must be why Democrats would never support a Republican, or vice-versa. We love our identities because we love ourselves.
11/18/2022: Big Tech and the Curse of Ingratitude
Surely the most recurring phrase of ingratitude is “yeah, but what have you done for me lately?” Nothing seems a better example of this ingratitude than American production and consumption habits. The latest instance of a company that seems to be falling behind the times is Kohl’s department store chain, which for various reasons is deemed to be not keeping up with new consumer habits. Yet few if any Americans will stick with Kohl’s because of the many happy hours they spent there, shopping in the past. No. That was then; this is now. The best example of this ingratitude is Big Tech. Yes, Facebook was great, but no one has been grateful to it. Consumers insisted that it come up with new features, such as Video and Audio Messenger, or they would split. And then came demands for faster video uploading times. Now Mark Zuckerberg, sensing that we ingrates are getting bored with Facebook and even Instagram, has changed his company’s name to “Meta” and promises vivid virtual reality in the future. You just put on your headset and move to an alternative universe. He knows that we ungrateful consumers always want more and are never thankful for what he has done for us in the past. And if he does NOT come up with this great virtual reality? Well, then we’ll really be ungrateful. It’s a good thing we don’t treat our family and friends the way we treat Kohl’s and Big Tech.
2/11/2022: Why EVERYBODY Hates Woodrow Wilson!
Half a century ago Woodrow Wilson was considered one of America’s most successful presidents. He had established an administrative state to regulate the money supply ad protect consumers from rancid food and poisonous drugs and commercial fraud. He had prosecuted the American victory in World War I. Now everyone—Republicans and Democrats alike—despise Wilson. What happened? Democrats hate him because of his racism—he was a Southern bigot—and Republicans loathe him because he was an effective apostle of big government. But it’s the implications of these bi-partisan hatreds that are most consequential. The Democrats have become a civil rights party since the 1960s, and today’s Republicans have become a party that shares some of Wilson’s racial views. At the same time, though, today’s Republicans, while championing the white man forgotten by the Democrats, still hate big government. Thus, Republicans are a populist party without an activist government program. They are small government populists. This is one of the reasons they lost the White House in 2020: had Trump really come up with a big building program to employ resentful white folks, he might have won. If Republicans continue to be an anti-anti-racist party, they need government policies that actually help their economically-declining fly-over-country constituents. As it is, they only offer their base a kind of “therapy.” In the long run, it won’t be enough. Maybe Republicans need to revise their views on Woodrow Wilson!
11/16/2022: The Mindset of the Libertarian Fascist
It would be a stretch to say that all libertarians are psychopaths, or vice-versa. Surely there are empathetic libertarians, and surely some psychopaths must be socialists. Burt when we encounter a billionaire libertarian, we might want to worry a bit. Billionaires are very successful people, and, unlike you and me, they tend to dwell alone atop the food chain. They may even get the idea that that’s how it should be and that, in a free market, if you and I didn’t make it to the top, we’re sort of, well, inferior and maybe don’t count all that much. So: while we’re posting on Facebook and Instagram about our favorite pets, they’re raking in billions. While they’re touring outer space in their own rockets, we’re dully stuck on Earth. While we’ll die and soon be forgotten, they’ll upload their consciousness into the cloud and live forever. Pretty soon it’s them versus “the little people.” Fellow-feeling dwindles, while technological manipulation, concocted by them, abounds. The rest of us are more or less bounded by nature—we have to sweat every day just to pay the heating bills—they have mastered it. They will live someday on their own virtual islands, and guess who will be king?
11/16/2022: Why Do Stories Turn Us into Suckers?
In the late 180ssd George du Maurier was a famous cartoonist for the British humor magazine Punch, but he was losing his one good eye and had a family to feed. So, he wrote a novel called Trilby. He’d never written one before. Well, it turned into this sensational hit. It featured a young and innocent woman named Trilby who was mesmerized by an evil foreigner named Svengali. Under his spell she became a model in “the altogether” and a fabulous singer. But a painter named “Little Billy” fell in love with her, and his agony at her Svengali-induced condition convinced her to ditch the sinister exotic hypnotist and come to him, a talented but simple and good-hearted soul. It has a sad but somehow exalted ending, this tale. There was a good deal of scandal attached to Trilby posing nude, but this was considered but one detail in her entire story. It was the story that counted, not the incidents in the story. The story defeated the episodes by including them. It wasn’t what happened, but the story of what happened. It is hard to explain this propensity for narrative over event. But it’s clearly one of the things that makes the human world go round—stories are subject to conning and inspiration alike.
11/14/2022: Is the Lord’s Supper Fake News?
“Fake news” is a term popularized by Donald Trump about information that is inconvenient or offensive to him and his followers. The most prominent example is that Joe Biden fairly won the 2020 election, which Trump says is a “fact” promoted by the evil elitist cabal trying to bring him down. Biden’s win is “fake news” therefore. We could look at what Trump calls “fake news” in another way: that the idea that Trump was cheated is a myth believed by MAGA Americans. Trump said to his followers, “I always win. Stick with me and you too will be winners. You can’t lose, ever.” So, the proposition that Trump “really” won is a myth in service of this “we always win” declaration. It is a unifying idea. Most of us reject it. We think Trump’s claim is the real fake news. But wait a minute: Is the idea that the Eucharist involves the body and blood of Christ (initially as wafer and wine until Catholics ingest it) also a myth? Is it too not a unifying one (like Trump’s claims, without evidence)? Is it, too, “fake news?” If fake news takes on the status of religious tradition, do we stop thinking of it as being, or ever having been, fake news?
09/16/2022. “I Don’t Believe in Ghosts but I’m Afraid of Them!”
The uncanny and inexplicable scare us. There’s a noise we can’t account for. Or a tall man we dreamed about in the night shows up in a magazine we’ve not seen before. There’s some seemingly perilous presence at the door or in the dark. We can experience these things and yet not believe in ghosts, for which there is no good scientific evidence. Indeed, there are various scientific explanations FOR seeing ghosts, such as sleep paralysis or drug overdose. Ghosts are immaterial, but science on which we depend is rooted in matter, not the ethereal, and such matter can be reduced to non-scary measurement and math This is all very rational stuff, while ghosts are nothing if not irrational. When was the last time you discussed a geometrical theorem with a ghost? Those who do not believe in ghosts know that, nonetheless, ghosts are a tempting default explanation for what is otherwise not explainable. This puts us in a paradoxical grammatical and logical situation: We don’t believe in ghosts, but we are nevertheless afraid of them. Or maybe this is not as contradictory as it seems. The next time we see an inanimate object looking as though it were menacingly alive, we realize we don’t believe in haunting but still can’t totally rule it out. We can’t prove ghosts DON’T exist either.
09/15/2022: Do Super Bowl Commercials Scare Us?
Philip K. Dick wrote a short story (“Faster, You Die”) about a young high school lad who suffered because his was the only family in town without an atomic fall-out shelter. It wasn’t just that the boy was scared—where would he go if the enemy attacked—but he was also ashamed of his family’s non-conformity. Dick is onto something vital here: that when we are afraid, we are not just fearful for our physical safety but also for our social validation. The boy in this story was scared not just of The Bomb but also of losing his identity to the point where in the eyes of his town, he was essentially a Nobody, part of an uncooperative and bullheaded cockroach family. When others consume and we do not—when others, but not we, purchase the latest CRV or smart TV or sauna—we can become genuinely frightened by the fledging decline of reputation, status, credibility, and self-identity, or something akin to the beginnings of death. A certain societal agency is after all, an enormous part of being able to make a living in contemporary society, and one must make a living in order to live. Dick’s protagonist lives in a militarized culture, of fervid war fears and preparations, so without the latest model in bomb shelters, or even a shelter at all, the teen fears both atomic fallout and social fallout. Are Super Bowl commercials not just designed to prompt our envy but also to arouse our fears?
11/13/2022: When Catholics Were Communists
The Joe McCarthy era in the United States has been over for nearly seven decades. It was a time of suspicion about “the enemy within”: the proposition that the American government was littered with secret Communist traitors working for the Soviet Union. This was not unprecedented, although the names of the players were different. Three hundred years before the “Red Scare” of the American 1950s, English Anglicans were worried about a different enemy within: Catholics. Since the 1500s, when Henry VIII broke with the Pope and declared a Church of England (since then dubbed “Catholic Lite” by some wags), it had more or less been decided that a. England would not be a Catholic country; and b. that countries that were Catholic, such as France and Spain, were foes of England. Thus, anyone who sought to make England Catholic again was a traitor, thus presaging the alleged Commies of the 1950s. In the late 1600, when it appeared that the new king, James II, had strong Catholic sympathies, the English kicked him out and went all the way to Holland to find reliable Protestant monarchs. In the meantime, there were all sorts of allegations of “Popish Plots” to turn England Roman Catholic. Joe McCarthy would have been right at home, except that in the late 17th century, being Irish, he would probably have not been allowed a role.
12/01/2022: Can Someone Be Libertarian and Fascist at the Same Time?
A libertarian believes in personal freedom and is against government regulations, abrogation of free speech, laws against victimless crimes like pot-smoking A libertarian hates taxes, the war on drugs, and the outlawing of abortion. A fascist wants total government control, with official and draconian policy extending into all areas of citizens’ lives. A libertarian trusts the individual to be free; a fascist does not and wants a police state. So how could a libertarian be a fascist at the same time? In the United States we’ve figured out how. The linkage is paranoia. An American libertarian—a gun-bearing anti-government type—is so sure that “they” (generally the government) are out to curtail liberty that he or she wants to destroy everyone who seems to be threatening. Thus does the American “libertarian fascist” support a strong man who will destroy those who are trying to destroy their “land of the free” America. This means denying other Americans their right to vote or their protection from police brutality or even their right to be in the United States at all. This in turn suggests that many American libertarians aren’t for liberty unless it applies to what they want to do. An overly suspicious and very inconsistent libertarian becomes an American fascist.
11/29/2022: Joe Biden and Assisted Living
The United States is not a country of old wise men. When our greatest authors, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Mailer, got to be old, they acted as though they were young, persisting in the outrageous behavior of youthful rebels. America has long been invested in such values as novelty, disruption, competition of the free individual in the free market (a bit of hypocrisy here), and competition. Today we are surrounded by young “disrupters” in the Big Tech industry, although sone of them are getting, along with their companies, a bit longer in the tooth. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford were not old men when they turned the world upside down. Thus, how said it is when we learn that a once-young agent of change has now gone to a nursing home, where they suffer from dementia and have to be cared for at all times in their helplessness. Joe Biden’s relative unpopularity results from the simple and harsh fact of inflation. Image counts, too. Biden is not a young whipper-snapper; no Elon Musk or Taylor Swift is he. An octogenarian, even a fairly young-acting one like Biden, seems especially powerless in the face of higher prices and sluggish supply chains. Lots of guys Biden’s age are in assisted living. His major support is on the Left, home of protests against sexism and racism. Lefties are against ageism, too, but not so much in the case of Joe Biden. This is a young country; Bide is an old man. He’s likely done a good job—he’s steady and experienced—but he shuffles when he walks.
0/10/2022: Why A Dog Can Never Be A Pervert
One of the most famous dog stories is that of Gray Friars Bobby, an Edinburgh terrier who supposedly guarded his late master’s grave for fourteen of his seventeen years. The story has been doubted, and by some accounts Bobby was one of many graveyard dogs who made their homes in cemeteries, there to attract the affectionate attention of various visitors and caretakers. Bobby made his regular hang-out spot a particular gravestone, but it was not that of his master—he may have never even had one. If the story of Bobby were true, it would make the dog what in psychoanalytical terms is known as a “pervert,” or someone who substitutes full sexual pleasure for a fetish—a commodity compulsion. A pervert is a sexually hung-up person who is devoted to his car. The concept of perversion is extended to anyone who substitutes a fetishized thing for any instinctual pleasure. Dogs seek instinctual pleasures: food, water, shelter. They are programmed by evolution to get these things from human beings. That a Scottish terrier would add to these basic and necessary pleasures the symbolic obsession with a gravestone would not only turn him into a “pervert” but also into a creature with an ideology Whatever the human ideology, it tells us that once we buy it, we will be afforded greater pleasure: Christianity will send us to Heaven, Communism will free us from the slavery of capitalism, consumerism will give us the joy of owning bright new shiny things, and so forth. We are supposed to be so grateful for these various ideologies that it is virtually our duty to enjoy their benefits without raising questions, and we may even feel guilty, or be made to feel guilty, if we do not get a sufficient buzz out of a fetishistic crucifix, portrait of Stalin, or pair of Gucci shoes. If going to Heaven, or being freed from the market, or getting to buy a new smart phone every year does not make us glad, something must be wrong with us. Bobby the Terrier does not, and cannot, pick up on any of this. He does not look for ideological alternatives to the fulfillment of fundamental, necessary, and simple pleasures. He has no sense of ideological duty, and, like all other dogs, cannot possibly be a pervert. The myth about him is itself a human, and ideological, invention: about human entitlement to the friendliness of nature.
10/09/2-022” Winston Churchill’s Parents Treated Him Like Shit. How Did He Succeed?
It is surely an axiom of American parenting that if you want your kid to succeed, you must love and support her from the beginning. Only such affection and interest can lead to the ego-strength needed for success. Winston Churchill’s parents didn’t get the memo. His father, a brilliant but unstable politician, and his mother, an American socialite, seemed to despise young Winston at every turn. They didn’t want him home for Christmas—he’d just be under foot—and they both went out of their way to indicate his many failures, even when he didn’t do all that badly. He admired them and wished to please them. He never did. Yet he went on to have brilliant careers as a soldier, writer, and political leader. How was this even remotely possible? Well, he did have a nanny who loved him dearly. He was an unquestioned member of the aristocracy during a time of British Empire, and this gave him a sense of destiny despite parental hostility. Or perhaps he just had a yen for life and striving that no amount of parental malfeasance could down. Did he have a “genetic gusto?” No one knows. But he does suggest that while children with loving parents do better than children who don’t have such parents, there is still a mystery to human endeavor and fate that cannot be solved.
09/15/2022: Can Someone Be Innocent and Guilty at the Same Time?
In an underrated 1964 film called DEAD RINGERS, the redoubtable Bette Davis plays the role of twin sisters, Margaret and Edith. Margaret cheats Edith out of her life-long happiness when she steals Edith’s rich lover from her and marries him. It takes a while, but in time Edith gets vengeance: she murders the scheming Margaret and takes on her identity as a wealthy widow. She finds out, however, that Margaret and her boyfriend had actually murdered Margaret’s rich husband (and Edith’s former lover). Since she is stuck with Margaret’s identity, Edith goes down for a murder she did not commit and is sent to the gas chamber. She is innocent and guilty at once, but she is punished not for the crime she did commit but for the one she did not. In the late 1970s, in Madison, Wisconsin, the young and beautiful Barbara Hoffman was convicted of murdering her elderly boyfriend. She was cleared of killing another man, but Wisconsin prosecutors thought the death of the old boyfriend had been an accident while the death of the other man was intended. Thus, Hoffman was sent to prison for a murder she did not do but was not sent to prison for a murder she did do. She too was guilty but also innocent at the same time. Last, Saddam Hussein: he was innocent of having weapons of mass destruction but not innocent of brutal torture. He was also guilty and innocent at once, and the Bush Administration, looking for a justification for war in effect framed a guilty man.
1/08/2022: Why Someone Should Always Do SOMETHING!!!!
In 1912 Woodrow Wilson did very well among voters in southern New Jersey, a state in which he was also the governor. Four years later, now president, he did poorly among them. Why? Well, there had been a series of infamous shark attacks there—the movie and novel JAWS are based on them—and Wilson was asked what he would do about them. They were hurting the tourist business. He said shark attacks were not in his job description. This infuriated voters there. They thought Wilson should do SOMETHING. Another president, George W. Bush, became unpopular because too many Americans had taken on too much risky debt and caused the Great Recession. This was a world-wide problem. Bush could do nothing. He could not cancel all the debts by presidential decree. But voters thought he should have done SOMETHING. In time, he did; he signed a law bailing out the banks, which was not the something that voters thought he should do. Joe Biden faces an inflation caused by an imbalance between supply and demand. He cannot issue a decree automatically increasing supply and lowering demand. He can do nothing. Voters think he should do SOMETHING. This was the genius of Franklin Roosevelt. Only World War II ended the Great Depression, but Roosevelt always seemed to be doing SOMEETHING in the way of government programs. He always had action on the floor. He was popular. Something there is in human nature that wants something, anything, to be done.
11/05/2022: Who Oh WHO Can Make People Behave Themselves?
All of us see other people who need to behave themselves; that is, behave better, or even more, behave as we want them to behave, or as we ourselves think we behave. This is very much the spirit of go government control. It ranges from left to right. In the 1960s, it was thought that restaurant owners who would not serve black people were not behaving themselves, so the government forced them to do better. It is thought today that women who get abortions are not behaving themselves, so it is up to government to make sure they behave better. This especially brings us to the brilliant political model of modern China. It is not that Chinese do not have freedom, for they do. They are free to take creative entrepreneurial risks, which are the putative bedrock of the country’s economic miracle. But when it comes to the nation’s one-party government, these same Chinese are expected to keep their mouths shut, do their economic thing, and trust the government. There is an economic engagement but not a civic one. This seems to be a very smart system: Know your place and make the economy work. BEHAVE YOURSELF! There is just one problem: If the government screws up, they have no freely-chosen feedback system to tell them so. As a result, the government will keep screwing up—see Putin, Vladimir. Sometimes people who behave badly are trying to tell us something important.
11/04/2022: Is Homelessness a “Big Problem”?
Seventy percent of Californians think homelessness is a big problem, and apparently the governor thinks so, too, as he has offered communities a billion dollars to fight it. But how do we get the seventy percent figure? Through a poll of course. This is where we run into ambiguity. It’s famously known that a sub-atomic particle is either a particle or a wave depending on how you measure it. In other words, the act of observation itself interferes with the reality. So: when someone is asked by a pollster, “do you think homelessness is a big problem,,” a certain percentage will think, “Well, if must be, or this pollster wouldn’t be asking about it.” This does not mean that said responder hasn’t seen a homeless person or has never thought that homelessness was bad. But a BIG problem? As compared to what? Here is where the very act of observation may be interfering with the reality of the situation. Sometimes we change what we see just by looking at it.
11/03/2022: What’s Unwise About Leo Tolstoy?
One of the best-loved short stories of all time is Leo Tolstoy’s “Three Questions,” about a king who wants to know what he should care about, whom he should ask, and what he should do. It’s not just kings who care about these three questions. The king goes to a wise old hermit, and, well, you won’t have the story spoiled for you here. But the gist is this: You should care about what’s happening now, and ask questions of those who share the “now” with you, and do what the “now” requires. A corollary is that the past is over and uncontrollable and the future is unknowable and uncontrollable. This is a wonderful little story, and it might well reduce your anxiety about life. At the same time, the advice is foolish and unworkable. You and I have to deal with the past all the time: it’s not really over and is constantly exerting its influence on us. And as for the future, well, life would be unlivable if we did not think about it and try to plan for it. Tolstoy’s advice in this story is profound, but it’s not advice that ordinary human creatures can possibly follow.
11/11/2022: Have you Been PORN Again?
One of the most striking films of 2021 was Ninja Thyberg’s PLEASURE, about the Los Angeles porn industry. Sex sells, as the old saying goes, but this film explores the hard and bitter work behind the sales. It concerns a small-town Swedish woman who comes to L.A. determined to brand herself as “Bella Cherry,” a porn-star queen. It’s not enough to be lovely and shapely. One must also be willing to do hard-core scenes. This Bella vows to do—her motives are unclear, but they seem to be the usual ones of money and fame. The movie entails our following the boredom, mechanics, backbiting, and stresses of doing these scenes, such as interracial double anal penetration and gang rapes and sadists with ladies on dog chains. Behind the passion of the porn industry is a good deal of dispassionate hard work. We watch as Bella goes back and forth between hating the humiliations and adoring the fame. The moral seems to be, “Brand-building in any industry is hard.” Is the film erotic? As soon as we realize that all this eros is manufactured, our libidos plummet. Watching PLEASURE is a bit like watching TIGER KING: you are degraded with all this sleaze, but you can’t avert your gaze. I’s a gawker’s film; a successful one.
10/29/2022: Once Upon a Time, Human Beings Were Like Vampires
Vampires are strange. They speak as human beings do, albeit often with an Eastern European accent. They walk around on two legs part of the time, and become humanoid-like bats part of the time, and then, like human beings, they lay in coffins, but, unlike human beings, they also rise from them. Vampires are in a category gap: part human, part flying mammal. Dwelling as they do in this canyon between human and bat, between man and blood-sucker, between mortality and perverse immortality, they are odd indeed. This is one of the things, but only one, that makes them scary. Yet during the heyday of Renaissance humanism, the era of Shakespeare and John Donne and John Milton and Francis Bacon in the 1500s and 1600s, all human beings were in a category gap. The gap wasn’t between humans and bats but between animals and angels. Humans were neither the one nor the other. Like animals, they had sex and went to the toilet (though not always outdoors). Like angels, they had spiritual aspirations and visions. Human beings were as instinctual as beasts and as rational as angels, yet neither wholly one nor the other. This was the great humanistic doctrine: that human beings were strange, even strange to themselves, and thereby all the more enigmatic and wondrous. That mindset is gone. Humanism is no longer paramount. We now have other models for human beings: that they are just another animal, for instance, or that they are algorithmic-processing machines. Some even think we are in a sort of post-human era, in which technology itself will replace flesh-and-blood. We are apparently no longer so gloriously strange to one another and to our ourselves as once we were. The beasts are still around. The angels have vanished.
Blog Author: Tom McBride; email@example.com
10/26/2022: The Deadliest Fog in American History
The Great Donora, PA Smog, or Fog, lasted for five days in late October of 1948. It was later blamed on a temperature inversion, whereby unusually cold air weighed own the sulfur pollution from the local zinc plant. Twenty people died, for it was as tough World War I style poison gas had been unloosed on this town of then 14,000. Eventually fatal lung and heart problems persisted among the population for years. In time, researchers discovered, in further investigation, that dirty air, even if not inverted and “smogged,” did slow-motion damage. In time, over twenty years later, Congress passed and President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. But here’s what was remarkable: during the first three days of the Great smog, the residents of Donora carried on as usual—this was their mindset. They could not see their hands in front of them, yet: they went to work as usual, played football as usual, went trick-or-treating as usual, shopped as usual. Only by the third or fourth day did they begin to realize that this was a dire emergency. Doctors began giving adrenalin shots and firemen brought in oxygen tanks. There is something about human nature that does not want to accept the abnormal until it is forced upon them. When “normal” has been functional for a long time—Donora had had brief fogs before, and everyone thought it the price to be paid for good-paying steel factory jobs—we are reluctant to admit that it’s going away. Folks don’t turn to change on a dime. They need a whole football field, probably several football fields.
1/07/2022: The Mind-Body Problem–& the Midterm Elections
Over four hundred years ago the French philosopher Rene’ Descartes said the mind and body were separate: two different things somehow joined together. They certainly do seem different: when we say we would like to be in Hollywood, it is the mind that expresses the wish, but the body that will actually be in the Hollywood Hills. Still, most philosophers and scientists have rejected Descartes’ “dualism” and insist the mind and body are one, even if they can’t explain precisely how they are one. The American midterm elections would seem to be a point for Descartes. There are two vital issues on the agenda. One is the price of gas and bread. The other is the threat to democracy from election-deniers. So far, it seems, more people care about the former than about the latter. Whether or not this is a wise preference is not at issue here. The inflationary question would seem to be a “body thing”: how can I afford to feed my body and move it from place to place? The democracy question seems to be a “mind thing:” abstract imaginings of how in the future democracy might gradually come to an end. This division suggests that not only are the mind and body separate, at least in ordinary practice, but that, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “You can’t talk to someone about God (or democracy) when their stomachs are growling.”
10/18/2022: Every Night, Give Thanks for Your Suffering
Most of us would rather not hurt than hurt. We’d prefer not to stub our toe or get a headache. And then there is mental suffering, as when we are lonesome or we have broken up with someone. But we should give thanks for such pain. When we stub our toe, we are more careful the next time. When we get a headache, we can start thinking of ways to avoid future ones. If we did not hurt due to physical wounds, we wouldn’t seek help. It’s the poignancy of such episodes that keeps us treating bad ow-ies and staying alive. But what about mental pain? Why do we feel bad when we are lonely? Because that is how we as human animals are wired. We have been designed to seek the advantages of collaboration, and loneliness tells us there is a dearth of that in our lives. Yet the agony of loneliness can’t be separated from the virtue, in survival terms, of a longing for social cooperation. Meanwhile, we are also made, we human mammals, to conserve our limited personal resources. When we pour a lot of those into a personal relationship, and it doesn’t work out, we feel pain, for we have wasted limited personal resources. Yet the mental hurt cannot be de-linked from the virtue, again for survival purposes, of using these resources with efficiency and care. Fact is: hurting is inseparable not only from being alive but of surviving at all. Be grateful for it.
09/14/2022: Dr. Fauci and The Problem of Political Paradigms
It has been sixty years since the philosopher Thomas Kuhn published his famous book on the development of science and introduced the world to “paradigm shifts.” His thesis was that science went through periods in which one model of reality was dominant, until that model wasn’t, and then everything changed in scientific research—a paradigm shift. Ever since, people in all walks of life have been looking for paradigm shifts in their own lives, whether scientific or not. Kuhn thought that those equipped with one paradigm would talk right past those with a different one. Take the political role of Dr. Anthony Fauci. Establishment figures from George W. Bush to Barack Obama see him as a dedicated public servant, a top disease scientist, and a wise counselor to political leaders confronted with such emergencies as Covid-19. Libertarian and populist conservatives see him as a bureaucratic busybody, an administrative tyrant out to tell people that they must wear masks and close their businesses. To them, he’s an overrated know-it-all who looks down on the great unwashed in fly-over America. It is unlikely that these two groups—establishment types and populists—can have a commensurable conversation about Dr. Fauci. Their prevailing paradigms are just too different: one respecting scientifically-based management of populations and the other resenting it as intrusive, overeducated government. This would be a conversation of the deaf, or like two people, one who speaks Swahili and the other, Farsi—with no translator between them.
11/2/2022: Is Benjamin Netanyahu a Victim?
It seems that Benjamin Netanyahu will return as prime minister of Israel, this time in alliance with an extreme right party that advocates radical new restrictions on Palestinians. Whenever something like this happens, there will be some who will recall the Second World War and the murderous repression of Jews by Nazis. They will wonder why Israelis treat Palestinians as Nazis treated Jews. Without getting into the question of equivalences, false or true, this is an apt time to consider a clash of two rules. The first is the Golden Ruse of treating others as you’d like to be treated. The theory is that Israelis wouldn’t like Palestinians to treat them the way they treat Palestinians. If strictly adhered to, the Golden Rule would end the existence of both victims and victimizers. The rule that actually applies here, though, is the Leaden Rule: Do as you are done by. Here the idea is quite different: Make sure that no one else can do to Jews what the Nazis did, and that includes Palestinians. Netanyahu’s lesson from the Holocaust is not the Golden but the Leaden Rule. For him, and indeed for many if not most of us, the Golden Rule depends on a conspiracy of doves that simply will not happen.
09/13/2022: Is A Truly Happy Marriage a Close Encounter of the Third Kind?
Surely Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is one of the world’s great films. It’s about alien encounters, of course, and the inspirations and aspirations such encounters can engender. It’s a film that declares such encounters can be a religious experience, accompanied by all the dazzling lights and harmonic music that often go along with such experiences. But it is also a film about happy marriages. At first, this observation seems very wrong. The character played by Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Nearing, is so obsessed with the extraterrestrial that his family leaves him as some sort of nut case. But then he finds another woman—Gillian, played by Melinda Dillion—who shares his obsession, especially because she has lost her little boy to alien abduction. Just before the film’s climax, when both Roy and Gillian realize that the aliens are friendly and have come in peace, they kiss one another. At that point they could be starting a happy marriage. It doesn’t happen, because Roy (Dreyfuss) is SO compelled by the alien experience that he decides to go back into space with them. Yet Roy and Gillian could have been a blissful couple for a simple reason: BECAUSE THEY SHARED THE SAME INTENSE INTEREST. When couples are happily married, they don’t love each other so much as love the same things together. If someone loves what I love, it’s a great boost to my ego, and I love them for boosting it! Alas, though, Roy is TOO obsessed. Jesus said, “If one follows me, he must give up family and loved ones.” This is Roy. There are couples that are happy because they both love the church, but every now and then someone in church takes Jesus seriously. You can’t truly be married to Jesus of the leader of the Planet Andromeda and be married to your spouse at the same time.
10/312022: Halloween Special: The Most Witchy Movie of Them All
The most witchy movie of all time is appropriately called “The Witch,” directed by Robert Eggers. It first appeared on screen in 2015. It’s not only a real fright. It also explains, in effect, where witches come from, or at least why they come onto the scene. The reason is simple but profound: Witches show up when patriarchy collapses. Today “patriarchy” is a dirty word, suggesting male dominance, discrimination, and repression. “The Witch” shows us that patriarchy emerged because people were scared. Puritans in colonial Massachusetts faced hunger, disease, bears, dark forests, Native Americans, failed crops, and dastardly winters. So, they sought, naturally enough, protection, and the protector was of course a strong male otherwise known as God. No human male patriarch could have existed without being able to wield the authority of God. The proposition was both simple and complex: God would protect the colony, and if He didn’t, then it was a result of colonial sinning, so the group would have to do better next time if it wanted to keep getting God’s shelter. Note how subtle this is: Even if God doesn’t protect you physically, He gives meaning to your struggle in the wilderness. “The Witch” is about a family that leaves the larger group over a theological controversy in the 1600s. it relocates, but now the patriarch is down to just one person, the male head of the family. He proves to be a poor patriarch. He’s a bad farmer and a lousy hunter. As a result, the local witch—a horrifying & cunning figure—enters the scene and destroys every member of the family except the oldest daughter, who strips naked and joins the coven. Her message: “If patriarchy can’t protect me, why continue to put up with its repressions? Why not have some fun?” Yet the scariest thing of all would be to doubt that God was ever around in the first place. So, the movie ends with, “Better a Satanic witch than the death of God.” At least the witch proves that evil exists and thereby affirms the existence of good as well. Whew! “The Witch” is terrifying but not despairing. And there’s all that nudity and sex, too.
10/17/2022: Halloween Special: The Most Frightening Commode of All Time!
Commodes generally frighten us when they run over and we can’t stop them. All that filthy water—what will we do? But the scariest commode of all time DID flush, and it was also the first commode ever filmed in movies. This was in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, when the camera caught Norman Bates flushing a note written by the just-butchered Marion Crane down the toilet. This was the last thing Marion had written in her life, and Norman gets rid of that and of all other traces of Marion. We actually see the torn-up note going down the bowl. It’s a shocker. You aren’t supposed to kill off the beautiful heroine in the middle of a film, much less flush her last note, but that’s what Hitchcock did, and it’s one of the things that makes PSYCHO a masterfully brilliant and disturbing film. What’s more: the flowing water in the commode reminds us of the flowing liquid in the shower where Marion met her godawful, bloody death. By now, sheer flowing water, and that alone, is enough to scare us half to death. Hitch knew what he was doing in this movie.
09/12/2022: Are You Too Lazy to Love Anyone?
Forty years ago, a University of Chicago professor named Eugene Gendlin had his students hone their empathy skills. One student would describe her feelings, after which the other one would state in his own terms what the first student had said. Not until the two of them had agreed on a shared language of experience was the round of empathy deemed to be over. A black person can tell a white person what it’s like to be him, but it will take some time for the white person to take it all in. Shared language is hard to find. We can communicate well about all sorts of things, but real listening about emotions and experiences is long and difficult. This is why the problem of racial inequality cannot be solved by patient listening. It takes too long, and few people outside Professor Gendlin’s classes, perhaps, have much time or interest. Even people who say they love one another shy away from the empathy project. George Orwell once said most people don’t love each other because love is such hard work.
09/11/2022: Lord Byron and Lord Weinstein
In the 1860s the famous American writer Harriett Beecher Stowe, of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN fame, took on the long-dead Lord Byron. By this time Byron was perhaps the most legendary figure in 19th century Europe, unless one counts Napoleon. He was thought to have been a great poet, a fabulous personality, and a war hero—had he not died defending the Greeks against the infidel Turks? He had become famous overnight in the early 180ss with his derring-do antics and beautiful, if sometimes scathing, verse. He was called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He had been a bad boy, and Stowe decided, in the name of 19th century feminism, to unmask him as one who had slept with his half-sister. Her article backfired. She got some facts wrong, and people, even enlightened women, were not ready to give up admiring Byron and even his transgressions. This was partly because Byron embodied a spirit, of rebellious individualism, that began with the Romantic Movement and has never quite left either Europe or North America. Stowe was probably a hundred years or so too early. Now the #MeTo Movement has turned the brooding, tormented but promiscuous Byronic Hero into a Man Behaving Badly. Such Byronic wanna-bes like Charlie Rose, Matt Lurer, and Harvey Weinstein have all gone down. Although no one should count out the Byronic Hero quite yet, the larger question is whether or not one’s artistic ability outweighs one’s ethical conduct in the social scale. Everything—Darwin teaches us this—must make a living amid environmental challenges. Harvey Weinstein made a great living as a producer, but it wasn’t enough to save him from prison for sexual assault. Now his living is poor indeed. This is also a matter not just of Darwinian struggle but also of ethics. Byron and Weinstein would claim that they did their jobs, of great social value, so well that they should be cut a lot of slack, just as the art-critic soldiers in THE MONUMENT MEN claimed that saving Michelangelo’s art justifies the loss of human lives. When we make claims for the necessity of our own practices and existence, we should expect push-back, whether from feminists or those who just aren’t that into great art and don’t think it’s worth a single human life.
09/10/2022: Is Abortion a “Family Value?”
Right-wing populist parties do well these days in Hungary and Poland, two historically Catholic Eastern European countries where “family values” are crucially important. Such values include, of course, the heterosexual nuclear family, ideally headed by a strong breadwinning husband, and lots of children. It’s not surprising that laws against abortion are strictly enforced in such countries. The Catholic Church has long thought that abortion is a murderous sin, and large Catholic families have always been a good way to keep the faith traveling down to future generations: Your parents told you, and you tell your kids, and they will tell their kids. In ore secular countries, however, the right TO an abortion may also be a “family value.” Being able to feed all the young mouths in the family is of great ethical and practical value. This is sometimes called “family planning.” Here is something that right-wing parties in Western Europe and North America forget: that “family values” is a complex notion. At the same time, left-wing parties also seem to forget it. The Democratic Party in America talks a great deal about multi-cultural rights but says little about family values. This is unfortunate, since pro-choice politicians have family values on THEIR side, too.
09/09/2022: Hurricane Schadenfreude
As the world watched Hurricane Ian near the west coast of Florida, one wonders if “Strom Schadenfreude” was not at work. The idea is, “I’m glad it’s them and not me.” Something may also be at work in addiction to true crime: “I’m glad they were the victims and not me.” “Schadenfreude,” or rejoicing in the misery of others, is a German word that English has borrowed. But whatever language it’s in, it displays the linguistic genius of human animals. Look at it this way: In order to be glad about the sufferings of others, a process has to occur. We have to look upon others’ woes, decide that we are far from unhappy about them, and maybe chortle to ourselves, all the time tuning into the Weather Channel to see how those awful Floridians are getting on in their desperation. This is a four-step process, and you’d think it would need some verbs of action to describe fully. Yet the whole verbal activity has been reduced to a single noun. This is what human linguistic societies do: They see a repeated series of actions enough times that they consider them a trend, deserving of a single noun. The noun catches on, and before you know it, you have a single word for that social attitude of yours. And once that happens, you figure: “Well, unless a lot of people were reveling in the sufferings of others, there wouldn’t be a word such as ‘schadenfreude.’” This in turn almost gives you permission to laugh over the downfall of others. You think, “Well, lots of us are doing it.” Thus, does social life shape language, which in turn shapes social life.
10/19/2022: Why Is Oxford the Murder Capital of the United Kingdom?
In real life there are few murders in Oxford, England. In fiction there are dozens and dozens. This is because, starting in 1933, Oxford types have written plenty of detective stories set in their native habitat of the old and famous university town. From J.L. Masterson to Sarah Caldwell, from Dorothy L. Sayers to Colin Dexter (the most famous for his Inspector Morse series), crime fiction set in Oxford has been abundant. Even better, readers who like such mysteries set in a cerebral place like Oxford tend to be affluent and buy lots of books. It’s quite the racket. But it’s more than a racket. There are mindsets at work here, or at play. One of them is that Oxford with its university is a cloistered and innocent place. Murder is truly a snake in an otherwise safe, if eccentric, garden. When the murder is solved, evil is banished from Eden—until the next murder anyhow. And then there’s another thing: if a murder can occur among such civilized people as Oxfordians—if a tutor can be killed simply because he is unpopular—then what we would like to think about civilization and what is actually true about it will inevitably clash. We like the collision, as readers safely from afar, and love its pseudo-resolution in favor of civilization.
09/08/2022: How Republicans Could Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Inflation
Whatever its cause, there is little doubt that Republicans love the current American inflation. It gives them something to run against. The worst news for any American president is a faulty economy, and the current American president is a Democrat—good news for Republicans. In the long run, though, there is another reason Republicans might like inflation—if, that is, they can get into power. The current Republican Party is America First, and this means closing in, keeping America more isolated from the rest of the world, and especially from its immigrants. It means lessening the power of Chinese supply lines in the global economy. It means letting our European allies fend for themselves. What does this mean? Well, among other things it means cutting down on the long supply lines of cheap parts that come from Asia. It means pulling out of the global economy, an arrangement that is always looking to cut overhead and find inexpensive labor. It means “Made in America” but MIA means higher prices for parts and products. An honest MAGA Republican will defend these higher prices and say it is the price we need to pay I order to keep American workers employed here at home and isolate the Unit3d States from multi-cultural and global influences. Culturally, it will be a Republican Utopia. But Utopias don’t cost nothing.
09/07/2022: Why Charles IIII Won’t Lose His Head
Not many countries have kings these days, but even fewer have once beheaded a king—that was over 300 years ago—and still have one. England and Scotland—the UK—is that country. They now have Charles III, but once upon a. time, they chopped off the head of Charles I. He believed in the doctrine of “no bishop, no King.” He meant that the bishop—the Church—once having vouched for the authority of the king, His power became absolute. As much as anything else, that was what the Protestant Reformation was about: for by stripping away the power of the Pope and his cardinals and bishops, the King’s power was also reduced, since both Pope and King can say they are doing God’s will on earth, which simply cannot be questioned. Charles Number One said his power came from God, not the Parliament or the people. But by 1649 the Protestant Reformation had gone too far in England, and in Scotland, and Charles’s intransigence meant the blade met his neck. Since then, the UK has brought back the monarch and today likes the idea of being la constitutional MONARCHY—it’s their brand. The first Charles lost both the battle and his head, however. Nowadays Brits like the king as a way of worshipping tradition—something most Britons can agree on—but the archbishop of Canterbury’s opinion matters little and none at all in political affairs. That’s terrible new for the legacy of Charles I, but it also means that Charles III’ neck is safe from all alarms. He simply doesn’t matter all that much in what is really crucial. The formula is “no bishop, no king with any real power.”
10/18/2022: Why Sex Is So Important that Nothing Else Really Matters
Philip K. Dick wrote a dystopian short story about the military-industrial complex towards the end of World War III. It’s ugly. There is in the United states something called “the network,” a string of interconnected factories that produce and monopolize everything from food to metals. Whenever anyone else wants to start resource production, The Network sends out robots who say, in neutral bureaucratic language, that this is against the rules; and if you destroy that robot, there are thousands more behind who will say the same thing. The whole story is one of radioactive slags and nearly-opaque mines. Nothing is said about sex, and indeed it’s a male-dominated story with only one female character. There’s not an ounce of heterosexual frisson in the entire tale. AND YET THE STORY IS ALL ABOUT SEX. Were it not for sex, there would not be people, and without people there would be no world war. Without sex, and hence people, there would be no mouths to feed and no one would need to make giant backhoes to mine the earth for raw materials to keep warm. Without sex, and hence humans, there would be NOTHING AT ALL, since arguably nothing really exists unless it is perceived and documented. Yes, if the tree falls in the forest and no human hears it, it hasn’t fallen. The problem with the human condition is SEX. Without sex, no people: no shortages, no Hitler, no philosophy, no wars. And yet, as Shakespeare has put it, no one knows how to shun the Heaven that lures us to such Hell.
09/06/2022: Count Dracula and the Charlottesville Riots
By now vampire stories are routine, but it was not always so. For instance, Alexei Tolstoy’s “Family of the Vourdalak,” which goes back to 1841, was one of the first vampire novellas, although the most famous one of all was Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, which came out six decades later as a novel. There are two great vampire motifs. The first is that to become a vampire is to be dehumanized, forcing the poor but vicious creature to be awake only at night, fear the Cross (and garlic, too), and survive desperately on the sucking of the blood of others. The second is not dehumanization but, rather, replication: vampires bite other human beings and turn them into vampires, who in turn bite still others and so on, and before you know it, you have a whole “family” and then a “village” of vampires, as in Tolstoy’s story. Take these two themes together; you get a formula: human beings can be “replaced” by highly reproductive dehumanized bat-persons. This is in turn a perfect metaphor for xenophobia. Indeed, Stoker’s famous novel is terribly w3orried about “aliens” from Eastern Europe coming to the British Isles and replacing good Anglo-Saxon stock with a bunch of blood-snacking night owls, except that they aren’t owls but far worse. In Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, the cry of the right-wing protestors objecting to the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue was, “You will not replace us.” Fear of being replaced, whether by bats, multi-culturalists, or Eastern Europeans, seems to be a feature, not a bug, of the human project.
10/16/2022: Is Nikolas Cruz a Victim?
Nikolas Cruz in 2018 murdered sixteen high school students in Florida. A jury has decided that he should not be put to death for this crime but given life in prison. His defense attorney said that, through no fault of his own, he had been the victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. This argument evidently was enough to persuade the jury to spare his life. None of this is to say that Cruz should have been executed, though one has some sympathy for the parents and loved ones, who pointed out that if capital punishment is on the books and cannot be applied when there are sixteen victims, why is it on the books from the start? What is certain is that once we can apply a medical term to a human being, we are already in the territory of mitigating circumstances. A simple example will show why this is so. If someone got cancer in the “pre-modern-medial” age, and suffered gripping pain, it would be possible to say that the agony was punishment for sin. Now, of course, we have a different, and presumably better, explanation: the spreading of cells, through no fault of the patient. And: just as “Cancer” is now an explanatory medical term, so is “fetal alcoholic syndrome” or, for that matter, “borderline personality.” The “medicalizing” of human behavior is not a get out of jail free card, but it is a good card for extenuating circumstances. There are cancer “victims” and fetal alcohol “victims.” The former should not be told they are sinners, and the latter should not be put to death.
09/03/2022: Ulysses and the Talking Pig
Philip K. Dick wrote a short story, set in the far distant future, about a talking pig, called a “wub,” on a space ship headed to Mars. The “wub” is articulate and erudite. He discusses with members of the crew the meaning of Ulysses’ journey, off to fight but then returning home. The “wub” discourses on the question of what IS our true home and whether or not we are forced in the end to return there. Is our true home non-existence, and is the time of our existence, very short, the real anomaly? For Captain Franco commander of the spaceship, this is all well and good, but he sees the talking pig—over 400 punds—as good to eat and a boon to the diet of the space crew. So he shoots the “wub,” and they enjoy having “it” for dinner, where Captain Franco says the meal has been extremely delicious and very civilized, and then he himself begins to discuss the true meaning of Ulysses. Few stories better capture the double nature of human kind: able to analyze great philosophical questions but obsessed with limited resources and, as animals, obliged to find enough to eat. In the end, no doubt, it is the latter that is our “truest nature.” This is why you ca’t, as George Bernard Shaw once said, talk to a person about God when his stomach is growling.
09/06/2022: Yes, Nature Really IS a Machine!
One of the most persistent and comforting views of nature is that it isn’t a machine. It is an organic landscape, a concatenation of suggestive symbols, a guide to self-reliant wisdom, at once helpful and unpredictable. Likewise, we who partake of human nature are not machines. We are creative individuals, uncanny in our ingenuity. As for “natural machines,” well, now you’re talking about sub-human, who have been described as perfectly-designed hunting and eating machines. A “machine” acts predictably according to human design, like a combustible engine or a thermostat. Surely that’s n0t us, and neither is it the trees in our backyards. Sorry, but the underlying reality of nature, both outdoors and human, is mechanical. Our genes copy themselves mechanically with only occasional mutations. When we get hot, we sweat. When we get hungry enough, we might fast in order to protest something, but we will never decide not to be hungry. Trees are designed to gather energy and grow. Jesus preached the Golden Rule but it’s far more likely that when someone does us in, or tries to, we will seek vengeance or justice. That’s because of an underlying mechanism in nature that’s linked to personal and species survival. In fact, the thermostat is the most illustrative machine of all in nature, as trees, bees, genes, kangaroos, and us are all in constant adjustment to changing circumstances. We are all of us thermostatic and mechanical. Don’t be insulted that you are a machine. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.
09/02/20222: Is Pantheism Just Sexed-Up Atheism?
In all philosophical or theological discussion about God there is this typical division of God and the World, and it mostly goes like this: The World sucks; God does not. It’s easy to see why. The World often DOES suck, with needless tragedies, pervasive injustice, unforeseen disasters, plus illness and death. God, on the other hand, is wise, just, and the guarantor of immortal life. But then we end up with problems, sooner or later and usually sooner: If God is so good, why doesn’t God make his/her/its World better? Or: maybe the World isn’t so bad after all, since there are noble people around, so doesn’t this mean God is IN the world and not apart from it? The God-World problem just goes on and on—it’s the gift of living and thinking that just keeps on giving. But now here come the PANTHEISTS to solve it for us. How? Easy, JUST MAKE GOD AND THE WORLD THE SAME THING. God is in every leaf, dictator and molecule—in everything. You give kip a lot if you’re a pantheist—Richard Dawkins says you give up God in the generally accepted sense of a personal creator and savior. He says pantheism is, as such, just “sexed0-up at theism.” It seems that if you’re a pantheist, you’ve given up God for God-ness. Maybe that will be sufficient.
10/10/2022: Queen Elizabeth and Marilyn Monroe: A Tale of Two Monarchs
Sometimes it seems that history is trying to signal us, and so it appears when we consider that Queen Elizabeth and Marilyn Monroe were both born in 1926, though they died sixty years apart. Both are among the famous, iconic women of our times. When both of them were born, no one expected them to become famous. Elizabeth was the daughter of the SECOND in line for the throne, and no one dreamt that her louche uncle would ever decline it. Marilyn was born Norma Jean Baker to a poor and obscure Midwestern family. Elizabeth emerg3ed as a symbol of the innocence of power: a regal and dignified symbol that belied all the lethal guns and ruthless oppression of the once-great British Empire. Marilyn symbolized the innocence of sex. She was voluptuous, girlish, playful, and available (though not really the latter: like Elizabeth, she kept her queenly distance from most of us). Elizabeth for most of her reign ruled over a declining and then fallen Empire, and thus remained a figure of nostalgia for it. Marilyn’s heyday was the America of President Eisenhower, when her iconic fame vouched for the unparalleled power and prosperity of post-war America—in that sense, she too is a figure of nostalgia. Elizabeth’s feminism resided in her sheer competence as a monarch: her magisterial unflappability. Marilyn’s feminism lay in her unapologetic expressions of her own sexual prowess and in her own super-competence to make the camera love her and to create herself as an actress of exquisite comic timing. Both can claim a type of immortality: Elizabeth because she embodied the eternal institution of the monarchy, Marilyn because she died young and gorgeous and is an eternal digital pin-up. Only Princess Diana and the Virgin Mary can rival them as The Woman Forever.
09/01/2022: Hitler’s Knobby Knees
Mussolini bared is chest. So has Putin. Not Hitler. He was embarrassed by the lack of his chest expanse and did exercises in a vain attempt to remedy it. He would never wear any sort of shorts because of his knobby knees. He was a hypochondriac and could have effeminate moments, though he would also rant continuously when he wanted or needed to. Women were often attracted to him, though it is not clear how magnetic he would have been had he not been a successful right-wing politician. He slept late and often could not be found. But he became one of the most powerful leaders in history and surely one of history’s most evil and destructive men. He was good, knobby knees or not, at selling fantasy. Even if his ardent fans had seen his knobby knees, it would not have mattered much. They were not into empirical realism but into constructed fantasy. Hitler told them he would make Germany great again and this is what they wanted to hear and what they needed to hear in order to be cheered up. There is a reason why fantasy and reality are different. To be sure, Hitler did revive the Germany economy, but the rest was the fantasy that Germany could rule the world. Walt Disney also sold fantasy, as in his great feature-length cartoon FANTASIA. There you could see the fantasy for yourself with your own naked eyes—it was a cartoon.
08/31/2022: Ted Cruz and the Emergence of the Air Conditioner
Senator Ted Cru says the Supreme Court made a mistake when it made gay marriage constitutionally legal in all 50 states. He said that marriage had always been regulated by the states. He implied that what has traditionally been the case should continue to be the case. The Court applied similar reasoning in scuttling Roe v. Wade. Abortion not only isn’t mentioned in the text of the Constitution; it has always been regulated by the states. One wonders what the attitude about sweating in Cruz’s native Texas would have been when the air conditioner came around. Would traditional Texans have said, “we’ve always sweated in Texas in the summer, so this whole air conditioner thing is a mistake.” In fact, the air conditioner made labor in the South much more tolerable and helped build the prosperity of the Sun Belt. So: “We’ve always sweated and thus should always sweat.” So: “Marriage has always been governed by the states, so it should always be governed by the states.” No doubt Senator Cruz would say that invention and law are not the same things and should be evaluated by different standards. Here he is surely right. But laws, like technologies, change. “We’ve never had an air conditioner before.” “We do now.” “The states have never been told to allow gay marriage.” “They have been told now.” Whether it’s AC or gay marriage, that was then—this is now. When it comes to evolution, precedent will always lose in the end. Just ask the wooly mammoth and the dodo bird.
10/03/2022: How Every Colonoscopy is Like an Agatha Christie Novel
Colonoscopy preps, for those of you who are yet to endure them, are tragic events. The process required to clean one’s bowel for the colon investigation is poignant. It entails foul-tasing laxative, an excess of excretion, and a period of hunger. One never enters the clinic or hospital not feeling weakened and faint. But isn’t this just a mildly painful inconvenience? No. It is a tragic reminder of the more bestial facts about our necessary biology: the sphincter muscles and waste matter. It is a tragic memento of our basic animal nature—the mammalian urges from which all our catastrophes spring. And yet, once the colonoscopy itself is over, and we have awakened from our general anesthetic and told we are free of tumors, we are happy. We are given a cup of coffee and a few crackers by the clinic, and they taste like champagne and ambrosia, and we are blessed. We forget all about our procedure and are told we don’t need another for five years. THIS IS ALSO HOW AN AGATHA CHRISTIE MYSTERY NOVEL WORKS. There is a murder, and this is tragic. Someone in the house, believed to be respective, is a brutal killer. But then Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot solves the murder, and we can all be happy again. Christie’s detective novels are tragedies with a happy ending, as are colonoscopies. In addition, we forgot all about colonoscopies until the next time, just as we forget all about the melancholy murder in a Christie novel—until the next Christie novel starts the whole thing all over again. Meanwhile, Miss Marple is like the doctor who tells us that we are now totally polyp-liberated “in there.”
10/02/2022: Dangerous to be Around Him, Dangerous to Forgive Him, Dangerous to Call Him a Monster!
In her much-praised memoir about growing up on a Pacific Northwest reservation with an abusive and drunken father, Terese Marie Mailhot writes, “It was dangerous to be around him, it is dangerous to forgive him, it is dangerous to call him a monster.” Rarely has the human predicament been more tersely and beautifully told. Being around her father was physically perilous, but that was just the beginning. Later in life, she could have forgiven him, attributed his drinking and assaults to his poverty, and tried to move on. But that wouldn’t do. Her own dignity as a person was at stake, and to forgive him would have denied his violation of her worth. If being around him was dangerous to her body, forgiving him would have been dangerous to her very soul. And yet: if you call him a monster, then you are admitting that your own flesh and blood was monstrous. What does that make you? These are treacherous waters to negotiate. Somewhere between total forgiveness and total self-doubt is some sweet spot of human poise and value. When someone hurts us, especially someone we love, we must move on and yet not quite. If we are honest about our troubles, we find answers are in short supply.
09/01/2022: Hitler’s Knobby Knees
Mussolini bared is chest. So has Putin. Not Hitler. He was embarrassed by the lack of his chest expanse and did exercises in a vain attempt to remedy it. He would never wear any sort of shorts because of his knobby knees. He was a hypochondriac and could have effeminate moments, though he would also rant continuously when he wanted or needed to. Women were often attracted to him, though it is not clear how magnetic he would have been had he not been a successful right-wing politician. He slept late and often could not be found. But he became one of the most powerful leaders in history and surely one of history’s most evil and destructive men. He was good, knobby knees or not, at selling fantasy. Even if his ardent fans had seen his knobby knees, it would not have mattered much. They were not into empirical realism but into constructed fantasy. Hitler told them he would make Germany great again and this is what they wanted to hear and what they needed to hear in order to be cheered up. There is a reason why fantasy and reality are different. To be sure, Hitler did revive the Germany economy, but the rest was the fantasy that Germany could rule the world. Walt Disney also sold fantasy, as in his great feature-length cartoon FANTASIA. There you could see the fantasy for yourself with your own naked eyes—it was a cartoon.
08/30/2022: What Happens When You Hang a Black Cat?
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat,” is a masterpiece in the horrible and macabre. A drunken man wounds a black cat who had been devoted to him, but the cat’s continued presence makes him feel guilty, so he hangs it. In time, another black cat enters his life, but this one has a slowly expanding white mane. There is no need to spoil the story for you. But there is one notable feature of human motivation, of which Poe is the great master in demonstrating. It is this: When we do evil things, we feel guilty and then do more evil things trying to get rid of those who make us feel guilty. Then our guilt resumes, and we have to do the whole evil thing all over again and so on and so on and so on. This is probably a feature of serial killers. Ted Bundy killed a young woman, but then in his respectable life, before he was caught, he was around other young women whose innocence and trust and enthusiasm made him feel guilty about the life he had taken. So, he had to kill again—another young woman—in order to remove an unwitting source of guilt. Poe understood how perverse we can be: doing evil things because we can and then doing more evil things in a futile and terrible attempt to expunge the guilt. Lo, what demons we mortals be!
08/29/2022: Dementia and Loss of Language
“Dementia” is an umbrella term under which sits Alzheimer’s Disease and other specific maladies of the aging brain. Some of this decline is blamed on what is known as “protein folding,” which evidently means that a surfeit of proteins in the brain impedes its function. Victims and sufferers lose their sense of self, and they are often barely recognizable to those who know and love them. Their personalities, narratives, motives, and reactions are no longer the same. They lose not only physical function but also social function. They are no longer “themselves” or “there.” Their linguistic abilities vanish,. This in turn brings us to the composite work of the Renowned philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who theorized that language is a way of life and a way of life is language. “We” are the language we speak, to whom we speak it, and what are the subjects of our discourse. Language is how we ground ourselves as functional beings in a community. Dementia patients lose that, so it is no wonder they lose “themselves.” But there’s another angle as well, for Wittgenstein also stated that there are places where language cannot go, where its capacity for functional communication becomes impossible. He thought that happened when we tried to define beauty or ethics. Those with dementia have gone into a strange place where their accustomed language is useless. They not only lose the usual language of their old communities, which gave them identity. They also enter into a world for which they have no language, for which, perhaps, there is none.
08/28/2022: Are You a Rock? Yes!
Even the smallest kid knows all about examining rocks. They aren’t geologists, of course, but they like to feel rocks, see if they can lift big ones, find out which ones are good for throwing. Later on, they might graduate to asking whether a rock is a sedimentary or metamorphic. They might be on their way to becoming a geologist someday. But the little kid and the advanced scientist have something in common: they are both “examining” rocks. The rocks to a great degree are in no position to object. They just lay there. The rocks are the objects; the examiners are the subjects. This is the fundamental stance of what we come to know as modern science, which is premised on the idea that human observers who know get to examine and investigate nature. But this has always been a rather awkward arrangement. This is why we when WE are the rock—the medical patient—we are often stiff, semi-resistant, and embarrassed—maybe even a bit resentful when the doctor tells us we aren’t opening our mouths wide enough. We aren’t rocks, yet we are examined as though we are. Add to this the SOCIAL scientists: the psychologists who examine our heads and emotions and motives and the sociologists who examine our group think and behavior, or the political scientists who examine our political actions. We might even resent it. Once a political scientist called a man on the phone and did a questionnaire about his political attitudes. The political scientist said, “I’m trying to find out whether you’re a liberal or a conservative.” The man on the phone said, “Well, why don’t you just ask me and get it over with?” Modern science has been good to us. It’s also turned us into a kind of rock.
09/23/2022: Is Abortion a Violation pf Natural Law?
According to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, one of the great errors is thinking that because a thing is, that’s how it ought to be. At first, we will wonder how we could make such a mistake. The Russian invasion of Ukraine IS, but surely no one thinks that that means the invasion OUGHT to have occurred merely because it did. But other cases are much more subtle. For instance, it IS a fact that women get pregnant and give birth, and those opposed to abortion think this IS means it’s how things OUGHT to be. Thus, abortion is a violation of an OUGHT; it is, in effect, a transgression against natural law. There are many reasons why those who are “pro-choice” take the position they do. They rarely, however, meet the philosophical challenge of the anti-abortion tribe. But if they did so, they would deny that the IS leads to an OUGHT. That women give birth and men supply the sperm is an accident of nature. It IS an accident, and ergo that does not mean that’s how things OUGHT to be. Abortion is not a violation of natural law. That being said, there may be all sorts of good reasons why women choose not to get one. But if they choose to have one, it does not mean that they should be pursued by the Natural Law Police.
08/27/2022: The Tragedy of “You Go First”
Nearly anyone who gathers minimal data about the condition of the planet can get depressed in a rush. There is above all the dilemma between the need for growth and the need for climate modulation. These goals are both laudatory and in terrible conflict with one another. Growing exponentially is a great idea—it sustains the population—but in its capacity to foul the air, it is an awful idea. Curbing carbon emissions is a terrific idea, but it will limit growth and an overpopulated planet will see starvation and you can’t eat clean air. As these two end games increase in tension, so will conflicts among peoples. Add in nuclear and biological weapons to this already combustible mix, and you have problems. This is one of the reasons some people of the Boomer Generation are actually glad they will die before the whole thing collapses. Yet in theory there is a solution. Nations can learn how rtf cooperate. Nation A can say to Nation B: we will limit our population growth and cut down on our contribution to greenhouse gases, if you will do the same. But Nation B knows that decreasing population and industry will harm it, so it turns back to Nation A and says, “No. You go first. We will follow (maybe).” Nation A is obviously wary, and in time no cooperation is achieved. The ghastly planetary problem continues to the point of non-sustainability and/or destruction. Cooperation is easy to imagine. It is nearly impossible to get done when the stakes for going first, with no guarantee of reciprocity, are so high.
08/26/2022: Why Did Neanderthals Paint Their Faces?
Anthropological consensus now has it that Neanderthals painted their faces. Why? Probably so that friends would recognize friends but also recognize enemies. It’s a bit like football colors. Your team wears maroon and gold while the other team wears silver and red. That way, there’s no confusion about who is friend and who is foe. This is a double aspect of human nature, extending at least as far back as the Neanderthals. First, there is dualistic thinking: my tribe versus your tribe. Second, there are the benefits of group collusion: when people of like minds get together and cooperate, they can achieve a great deal. Thus are “painted faces” and “football colors” a mixed blessing: the source of both potentially deadly rivalry and the benefits of social collaboration. Both racism and NASA come out of the same tribal, dualistic, cooperative tendency,. “Tribes” need not be of just one race, ethnicity, or sex. The beauty of the United States and other countries is that they have made “tribes” multi-cultural. Still, if you are out to defeat racism or sexism, you need a tribe, and this means you are trying to use dualism in order to stop dualism—quite the contradiction.
08/27/2022: The Tragedy of “You Go First”
Nearly anyone who gathers minimal data about the condition of the planet can get depressed in a rush. There is above all the dilemma between the need for growth and the need for climate modulation. These goals are both laudatory and in terrible conflict with one another. Growing exponentially is a great idea—it sustains the population—but in its capacity to foul the air, it is an awful idea. Curbing carbon emissions is a terrific idea, but it will limit growth and an overpopulated planet will see starvation and you can’t eat clean air. As these two end games increase in tension, so will various conflicts among peoples. Add in nuclear and biological weapons to this already combustible mix, and you have problems. This is one of the reasons some people of the Boomer Generation are actually glad they will die before the whole thing collapses. Yet in theory there is a solution. Nations can learn how rtf cooperate. Nation A can say to Nation B: we will limit our population growth and cut down on our contribution to greenhouse gases, if you will do the same. But Nation B knows that decreasing population and industry will harm it, so it turns back to Nation A and says, “No. You go first. We will follow (maybe).” Nation A is obviously wary, and in time no cooperation is achieved. The ghastly planetary problem continues to the point of non-sustainability and/or destruction. Cooperation is easy to imagine. It is nearly impossible to get done when the stakes for going first, with no guarantee of reciprocity, are so high.
08/26/2022: Where Did Communism and Fascism Come From in the First Place?
No one can understand the origins of the twin ideologies of the 20th century, Communism and Fascism, without grasping what it was they were seeking to replace. Both ideologies thrived in the wake of declining European empires, as World War I had dealt a significant blow to the British, German, and French imperial projects. In time, after World War II, these colonial empires—in India, southeast Asia, and Africa—would be gone. Both Communism and Fascism are critiques of those empires. From the perspective of Communists, these empires had enabled mass production and mass foreign markets, with a resulting inequality between owners and workers. Communists believed in equality at any cost, including the cost to individual middle-class freedom, which they tended to scorn. As for Fascists, they hated a different aspect of imperialism: its dealing with people of yellow and black skins. To be sure, the British, German, and French empires oppressed Africans and Asians, but from the Fascist point of view, it was dangerous to go there in the first place, lest the purity of the white race be “mongrelized.” Fascists stressed tribal ethnic purity and, like Communists, were not cray about individual freedom and the rule of law. One might argue that, as bad as the old empires were, they were better than Stalin and Hitler.
08/24/2022: Would You Like To Be a Fish in the Arctic Sea?
On popular nature shows about the Arctic Sea, especially on public television, it’s the fish who get almost no sympathy. The sea gulls, the otters, the puffins, even the sharks, are given great personality in the struggle for existence. But that struggle depends on killing and ingesting the fish. The birds can dive for them. The otters can pick them out of the cold sea with their almost-human paws. The seals can swim out to get them, sometimes at twenty knots top speed. These are the Arctic creatures who get the close-ups. They are our friends on our living room flat screens. One sometimes thinks: I would not want to be a fish in the Arctic Sea, barely filmed except when in some creature’s mouth and without being given any individuality at all. Yet of course, to speak of a fish’s individuality is totally incoherent outside children’s books or some other form of fiction. The fish has no idea that it is there mainly as seal and shark fodder. It lacks consciousness, an awareness of an individual self. What makes human life so hard? It is not the struggle but the individual awareness of the struggle, the sense that I alone am suffering, or if not I alone, then I am suffering in my own unique way. It creates enormous self-sympathy and beyond that, self-pity. From that follows fear. Life is hard because we feel it apart from others. Life is hard for fish. But they don’t know it, Only death can free us from the burden of individuality. How about dying in the jaws of a gigantic otter in order to end all our human poignancy?
08/23/2022: Does Hannibal Lecter Know Something We Don’t?
The Christian view of morality is simple. Murder is wrong. Jealousy is wrong,. Adultery is wrong. Any of us are capable of these things, and this is because Evil is a real thing that can grab hold of us and turn us into killers, sneaks, sobs, and thieves. We must resist and embrace Good instead of Evil. If we don’t, we are the ones at fault—no one else is, finally, as far as we are concerned. We should pray for guidance when tempted. God can help. Jesus says so. This is not the view of Hannibal Lecter, the crazed but brilliant serial killer in Thomas Harris’ famous novels and the films made from them. Lecter does not quite say so, but it seems he knows something that Christians don’t: that what is good and what is evil are all a matter of power and opinion. The only reason Christians can say that murder is bad is because they have the force of social opinion, popular theology, and legal consensus on their side. The Hebrew Ten Commandments said thou shalt not kill, and then Jesus, himself Jewish, took up that idea by stating that one should not only not kill but even love one’s enemies. But, no doubt Hannibal (who liked to kill) would say, this is far from an objective fact. It is all a matter of how you look at it. Hannibal would be a “perspectivist.” What is real is what is observed and how it is observed. Those with the greatest observational numbers and power get to say what is true and good and right. This is why you will find Lecter in a garish and Gothic Thomas Harris thriller but not in an Agatha Christie mystery novel, where the killers are ordinary people who have lost their way to Evil. They aren’t cannibals like Hannibal. They are doctors and lawyers and government officials who have turned bad, as any of us can, for Evil is real and not a matter of opinion.
08/22/2022: The Mongoose and the Cobra: Loyalty and Cunning
Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous story about a mongoose named Riki Tiki Tavi and a cobra named Nag and his wife, who was named Nagora. The mongoose and the cobras take up opposite sides in a struggle over who will control an Indian garden and whether or not the human inhabitants of the nearby house will live or die. Riki Tiki is on the side of the humans, while the two cobras want to kill the humans so that they, the snakes, can run the garden as their exclusive domain. The humanized Riki is very loyal to his adopted family, but the cobras have their own loyalty. When the human father of the house kills Nag with his gun, Nagora vows revenge due to her love and loyalty for her late spouse. The mongoose and cobras are given Kipling’s first-rate personification—they all speak good English—but they also tell us something about human persons in general—about us, in other words. What is it? It’s that loyalty and cunning in human beings are not in any way mutually exclusive. Riki plots to protect his household from the snakes, while the snakes plot to get even with the household and its human beings. If we were to say of a human being, “He loved his country and plotted with great cunning to save it,” we don’t think of that as being contradictory. Real mongooses and cobras are also cunning, but they are not aware of it—they go on instinct—and are incapable of being loyal to abstract causes such as countries or institutions or ideals. But as for us humans, we are loyal because we are cunning and cunning because we are loyal. We’re sort of a grand mess.
08/21/2022: Don’t Let Your Kid Run Away from Home—He’ll Come back Speaking Albanian
Linguists seem to agree that there was once only one language. The Bible agrees and tells the story of the time when all spoke the same tongue. It was only as a result of pride, says the Good Book, that people wanted to develop different languages and built the Tower of Babel, where they gathered in confusion and were unable to communicate with one another. Historical linguists say that from this single common language many more developed as a result of people moving around. Once a sufficient number of them had assembled, they began to vary this common language and it kept on varying until three was an entirely new language, and that new language got varied as a result of more geographical movements, and in time there would be over six thousand languages on Planet Earth. It’s a bit like the old parlor game Telephone—Pass It Down—where the original message gets garbled the more it is passed along. The one original tongue was garbled in different locales until it was no longer recognizable in that language. It was only recognizable in the new language and then there were even more new languages, and now we have everything from Mandarin Chinese to Farsi to Swahili to Albanian to Cherokee. But the Biblical account is also right., People leave their original towns and languages out of pride.They want to better themselves and are proud of themselves when they do. So where do new languages come from? From a blend of moving and garbling and pride. If your kid feels too proud to stay in the old home town, he or she just might come back for a visit speaking Gaelic, and you won’t be able to understand a word.
08/22/2022: How To Tell Whether Virtual Pink Elephants Are Real
Philosophers, neuroscientists, and software engineers say that in time virtual reality will become indistinguishable from reality. That does not mean that in the future you won’t be able to tell whether you are looking at a real tree or a virtual one. Well, not at first, anyhow. But over time the real bed and the virtual bed will look essentially the same. Virtual reality will be three-D, sharp, and vital. You will be able to make a virtual You make or unmake that virtual bed. You can “live” in virtual reality. You can even prefer it and live a meaningful life within it. You will at last be able to choose your world. But suppose you saw a pink elephant in your virtual world. Wouldn’t it be hard to convince yourself that it is “real?” Not at all, because, you see, there will be hundreds of thousands of people in that same VR with you. They will all see the pink elephant, and thus by social consensus it will be “there.” This is, after all, how we verify nearly all natural and social facts in the present, non-virtual world. I see an oak tree and you look and you see it, too, and then we find a few other people and they see it as well. I say an election was stolen, and if we can find several million more to say it, then it’s been stolen.
08/20/2022: Quentin Tarantino’s Hollywood Fairy Tale
When the Charles Manson gang murdered Sharon Tate and her friends, fifty-three years ago this month, it was one of the most brutal, frightening, and tragic mass killings in United States history, and one that will live on in popular culture for a long while to come. The gruesomeness of it, and bizarre origins of the perpetrators, live in legend. In ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, director Quentin Tarantino told the tale differently. In his version the Manson gang was rubbed out by Rick Dalton, a fading TV star, and his stunt man, Cliff Booth. They didn’t show up as a deus ex machine to save Sharon Tate. They were wasted from their usual concoction of drugs and booze. They were as such defending their own swimming pool from the bad guys who showed up by mistake. But Sharon and her retinae were saved, This was a happy ending, an alternative version of what happened. It was a fairy tale ending, hence the “Once Upon a Time” in the title. Rick and Cliff weren’t noble characters, but they were better than the Mansonites were; it’s as though the woodman who saved Little Red Riding Hood was a member of the mob and a wife-abuser—but still better than the Big Bad Wolf. Tarantino turned the fairy tale formula into a tale of moral ambiguity and tells us that in life, as opposed to fairy tales, pure heroes and victims, if not villains, are hard to find if you are looking with care.
08/19/2022: Should You Name Your Car Jimmy? How about Maria?
Once upon a time people gave names to their automobiles, especially if the car was an old clunker that sometimes ran an sometimes didn’t. The idea was that the car “had a mind of its own.” Of course, it didn’t. If it didn’t run, it had something mechanically wrong with it. Still, the whole jocular idea was to give the car an “agency in its behavior.” This brings us to the brain-mind problem. Most brain scientists today are sure that there is no real difference between the brain and the mind and that what we call our “free minds” are just a complex blend of elecctro-chemical brain cells. This means that the “mind” is a sum of physical pars, just as your car is a sum of physical parts. There is no “car”—just a collection of manifolds and spark plugs and burning gasoline working together, And there is no “you”: just a collection of neurons. But the idea that there is no “you” contradicts daily experience. After all, we have names. There IS a you and me: an Erica or a Tom. When we name our cars, we are pretending that there is a “personal” car—a Jimmy or Maria with a will of its own—even though we know better. We might likewise know better than to think there is a real you or me. But we aren’t likely to give the idea up, and thus the mystery of brain and mind interaction remains until scientists can do a better job of unraveling it.
09/08/2022: Queen Elizabeth, King Lear—and Fuckin’ Betty Windsor
Not everyone in the UK liked Queen Elizabeth, though most will mourn their beloved monarch. One anti-Royalist Scot once asked “why we have to bow down to fuckin’ Betty Windsor.” It is hard to grasp that Elizabeth II was also just….Elizabeth Windsor. The fact is, British monarchs have always had two bodies: the human, physical, mortal one, and the “immortal” and institutional one. Betty Windsor” dies, but “long may She reign over us,” which means, “may there always be a monarch.” This is an enormous political problem for British kings and queens. They must exude and project an immortal dignity and reserve while also coming off a a relatable human being. It’s a hard act to get just right. Elizabeth was quite good at it, while other monarchs have been too aloof or al too human. And then there was Shakespeare’s King Lear, who totally confused his human and institutional bodies. He decided one day that he was old and mortal—all too human—and so he gave e up the crown. But then he decided he was somehow still King—IMMORTAL—and the contradiction didn’t serve him well but tragically. Elizabeth balanced Betty Windsor with Queen Elizabeth II and in that sense was better than Lear, though it is doubtful that Shakespeare would write a play about her, as her material was too sane and dramatically uninteresting.
08/18/2022: Should We Blame God for Dirty Air?
Some observers think we are returning to a “New Animism,” where Nature itself replaces God. Instead of God, there is worship, actual or potential, of the jaguar or the tree or the forest or the whole eco-system. A related idea is that God is to blame for our climate crisis. We separated Nature from God a long time ago, and God gave us permission, or so we thought, to do with Nature as we wished—and we have fouled it to the point of floods and fires and droughts. These are all attractive ideas, but they make limited sense. It is not surprising that vast swaths of humankind have come up with God, because God is capable of loving us while the jaguar and the tree are not. God in theory cares about us. Nature cares nothing about us. It is analogous to mind and body. We think our minds care about us, if for no other reason than it’s in the mind that we care about ourselves and others. Our bodies care nothing whatever about us and will betray us at a moment’s notice or even no notice at all. So it’s hardly shocking that we use our Minds—analogous to God—to care for our Bodies—analogous to Nature. If we do solve the climate fix, it won’t be done by abandoning “God.” God may have permitted us to turn coal and iron ore into steel, and pollute the skies, but a pragmatic yet still-caring God will also give us permission to build electric cars and use hydrogen instead of fossil fuels. That’s because “God” cares about our well-being, just as our Minds care about our personal well-being, while the Body (Nature) doesn’t give a damn. It’s fashionable not to separate mind and body, but we will continue in practice to do it all the time.
08/17/2022: If You Get Sick, When Is It Your Fault?
There is apparently a general paradigm of action when you see the doctor with a complaint. The doctor will run tests, and if she is not able to find anything verifiably amiss, she will prefer you to a psychotherapist. This seems wise enough, as she has reached her limit of knowledge and treatment and thinks someone else should try. But there are problems. One is that what’s wrong may not yet be testable, as in the case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, once thought a psychosomatic disease but now more and more thought to be a biological one. After all, if you had a pain in your heart once upon a time, you were turned over to a priest, who might try to exorcise your demons. This is what happens when “medical science” has no methods for finding out what’s really wrong. And then there is the difficulty of being told “well, we can’t find anything biological, so it must be ‘all in your head.’” A doctor will never tell you that, precisely, but it is implicit. The ancillary idea is that there is some failure in your life or in your character that has made you ill. It’s, well, sort of your fault. There’s a lot wrong with this: the body and “head” are not really separated in this way, the medical tests may be limited or flawed, and there is a psychosomatic element even to obvious ailments such as high blood pressure or cancer. Still, the idea lingers: “I can’t find anything wrong with you, so someone will have to look at your head, your life, maybe even your virtue or lack of same.”
09/03/2022: When John McCain Wanted to Approve of Gay Weddings in Closets
Tim Miller is a former Republican operative who has recently emerged as a gay man. In 2007 he was working for Senator John McCain, who told Chris Matthews that He didn’t think gay marriages should be legal but thought it was OK if they occurred in private ceremonies. Miller, then secretly gay, was aghast. This was a “moderate” position that could hurt McCain’s chances to get the GOP nomination in a party totally allergic to gay marriage in any form. Today, Miller says he is aghast at something else: how quickly he put aside his own secret longings in order to make political gains. He now laments how often political types like him put aside their personal and ethical beliefs in order to “win” for their party. He cites lots of Republicans he knows who personally think Donald Trump is dangerous but would rather work for him than let the other party win. Which side are you on? This is an old story, first written up in print in the early 1500s by Machiavelli in THE PRINCE. The great political philosopher pointed out that personal ethics and political ethics are totally different. What one might not do to a personal enemy (or friend) one might and should do to a political enemy or even a political friend if political interests serve. Machiavelli has been blamed for describing and endorsing what has long been the case. Tim Miller is now amazed at a phenomenon he could have discovered in reading a famous (and infamous) book published five hundred years ago in Tuscany.
08/16/2022: Why It’s A Public Service to Make a Terrible Movie
One would be shocked at how many amateur poets there are. Poetry magazines get millions and millions of poems from writers eager to be published but who rarely if ever are. The poet and critic Randall Jarrell once wrote of the poet laureate of the Ukraine, years ago, who was a wonderful man but who never wrote a single good poem. Some poets, Jarrell went on, are so bad that they might as well perform somersaults at their own funerals: their work is just that embarrassing and inappropriate. But this is broadly true of every human endeavor. Even if you are a goo accountant or carpenter, there will be millions who are better. It’s even worse than that: it’s because you ARE in this endeavor, whether it be poetry or carpentry, that you supply a system by which the best can be named the best. If only Michael Jordan played basketball, his excellence would be meaningless. This is why one-star films are so valuable. They provide a yardstick by which CITIZEN KANE and VERTIGO can be measured as cinema of genius. This is also why, if you are an amateur poet or sculptor or musician or runner, you should above all enjoy yourself, for chances are, there are millions who are better—hot just better, but much better.
08/15/2022: The Crucial Importance of Viktor Oban
Viktor Oban is the leader of Hungary and is lionized by the American right. He is popular in Hungary. His winning message is simple: Hungary should remain always a white Christian nation. He makes no claims that Hungary is superior because it is a democracy. He is he counterpart on Iran’s leadership, which maintains its identity and excellence based on its being an exclusively Islam nation. Oban does not want Muslims moving to Hungary. So if Hungary and Iran were to duke it out, it would not be on the basis of democracy versus theocracy but on the basis of Christianity versus Islam. This turns national rivalries into the world of olden days, when Christians fought Muslims and Catholics fought Protestants. We thought that world was over (except, at least, in Northern Ireland). Oban is part of a very conservative movement that would transform to those days as somehow better, perhaps more honest. But it would reduce the moral claims of the West to religious, not ideological, foundations. The West would no loner b e defending the Enlightenment but the Cross, plus a certain type of pigmentation.
08/14/2022: Why Won’t the Idea of Resurrection Die?
Christ’s rising from the dead repeals the laws of biology and physics and is hence dismissed in secular circles. But the psychological notion of resurrection won’t die. This is clearly seen in the way human beings conceive of space. Years ago, when Johnny Cash was performing at California’s Folsom Prison, an inmate named Glen Shirley had written a song and asked Cash to sing it at the concert. It went, “Inside the walls of prison/My body may be/But the Lord/Has set my soul free.” Shirley had turned his tiny, demeaning cell into a shrine for Jesus. It had become a holy place, the site of his renewed hope for his own soul. A humbling place had become a holy one; a punishing place had become a center of eternal hope. When architect Michael ARAD heard that some people wanted to put the 9/11 memorial sixty feet below ground level, he recoiled. No, he said, it should be a plaza at street level, which is much less depressing. Today people go there—it is much larger than Shirley’s prison cell—and feel harrowing sorrow but also, yes, a persistent hope that we can do better than what happened on that day. It is a place of secular resurrection. Glen Shirley and Michael ARAD, who designed the memorial in New York, are powerful testimony to the persistence of resurrection in the human spirit, whatever the physics of Christ’s rising from the dead.
08/13/2022: Would You Have Been Against Slavery?
It is hard to know whether a majority of Americans were opposed to slavery two years, say, before the Civil War, but it is a good bet that if a majority were, they were not prepared to die to get rid of it. Those who did, like John Brown, were popularly viewed as foolish and perilous radicals. Almost no one in the south was opposed to slavery. It was a way of life. The truth is, most people are too busy, conformist, or cowardly to take unpopular stands. It is sometimes said that slavery would have died had it not been for the cotton gin, but another way of putting it is that slavery would have died if there had been a great majority of principled and courageous Southerners. But let us not be too hard on them, for advanced thinking and bravery are nearly always in short supply. Human beings can take difficult stands, but we are mostly built to survive and get along with others. If you were a Southerner in 1858 or even a Northerner then, there is very little chance that you were exercised over the immorality of slavery. Two years later, of course, everything changed, mostly because the South overplayed its hand and seceded. Once the issue became the Union, and not slavery, ordinary people could no longer afford not to pay attention. At long last, their own lives were going to be affected.
08/25/2022: “The Girl from Plainville” and the Smart-Phone Glory of Dying Young
The new Hulu hit series “The Girl from Plainville” has gotten top reviews, which is a bit unusual because most dramas based on true stories get everything distorted in excess melodrama. The “text-manslaughter” case of Michell Carter was sensational at the time. Is it really possible to unlawfully kill someone using text messages? But prosecutors thought Michelle had masterminded the suicide of her depressed friend Conrad Roy, and she was convicted. The remarkable thing about the Hulu series is its deeper theme of nutty human mindsets. Michelle comes off as a sociopathic narcissist trying to orchestrate and control everyone around her as the only way she can acquire their “love.” She meets the already-suicidal Conrad and decides not that he is so fine that he should keep on living, but rather too fine for this world and ought to proceed with his plans to kill himself. For the self-absorbed Michelle, she thus becomes the theatrical producer of a romantic, glorious youthful self-destruction. Conrad becomes a well-coached martyr to her vision about the grandeur of dying young. The series makes it clear that this whole dynamic was much more likely via digital technology, in which personal interactions are not proximate and direct but distanced and abstract. It is much easier to deny the grisly physicality of death—the stopped heart and ravaged lungs—when “death” is just a matter of thumb-typed letters on a smart phone screen. Here is a link between narcissism, sociopathy, and cyberspace. Early death is sublime as an impersonal idea or as an extension of virtual reality. In Conrad’s case it just happened to be non-virtually “real.” He’s dead. Michelle is a felon.
08/12/2022: Are There Viruses of the Mind?
We are all familiar with viruses of the body, of which Covid 19 is the most recent and powerful example. The virus attacks the body but does not kill most of the ones it targets. There are, however, some catastrophic and painful deaths. These viruses spread through the air and attack the lungs. Vaccines can help the immune system cope. None of this is news. There are also viruses of the mind. They spread over the internet, especially via social media. Many of these engender hateful behavior, just as Covid engenders coughing and breathing behavior. As with Covid, the results are not generally disastrous, but every now and then, someone dies as a result of a hateful person with assault weapons. Viruses of the body kill; viruses of the mind kill. Both spread rapidly and dangerously. There are vaccines for the former but not for the latter. Even if we had an anti-hate vaccine, which could be injected, we would be reluctant to administer it, for free speech is not to be subject to chemical mind control. If, though, we had a paradigm shift and saw mind viruses of hate as a public health problem, we might be less hesitant to find and even require a vaccination.
08/12/2022: Is Our Brain’s Left Side our Enemy?
There are a number of labor divisions between the led and right sides of our brains. Th left side is oriented towards tasks, towards managing and manipulating the outer world. It’s the realm of “I’ve got to finish sawing this before noon.” The right side is more centered on reflection and context, as in “WHY do I feel I have to saw this before noon” or “Would I rather be fishing instead, and why?” The left side of the brain is also the center of language and hence, some neurologists think, of self-justification. One neurologist was testing a man for whom the communication links between left and right sides had been broken. The right side had picked up on a message from the researcher that said, “sand up.” So the subject stood up. But the left side of the brain had not gotten that message, so when the man rose, the neurologist asked him, “Why did you sand?” The left brain then took over: “Oh, I was thirsty and wanted to get a drink. Can’t a man quench his thirst around here?” This was left-brained, self-justifying B.S. But we couldn’t get along without our our left hemisphere: it is the seat of words and tasks and skills. Still, the overall context for our actions is found only in the right hemisphere. That’s why it’s the more important one. With the left hemisphere you can learn to “play the piano,” but it’s only when the left and right combine that the piano starts to play yum, and the two of you have a conversation. You surprise the piano, and sometimes it surprises you. You can act in the world with the left brain only, but in order to converse with the world, and all its riches, you need to go right. When you do, you sense that it’s not things that are real. It’s relationships.
08/11/2022: Tucker Carlson for President?
Democratic Party activists, and members of the party in general, see America as replete with problems to be solved. Take obesity. Studies show that diet and exercise alone rarely work, so medications are needed. Yet Medicare doesn’t cover these, so by the tine obesity takes over one’s health, with heart problems, for instance, it is almost too late. This is a big problem, and it needs to be solved. Democrats thus advocate that Medicare pick up the tab for anti-obesity medications. They cute studies showing that in the long run this will save money and lives. Democrats depend on medical sociologists and expert doctors to prove their case. They cite the latest research. But there is no story here; no tale about enemies and friends. Republicans, on the other hand, tell stories: “Socialists are coming for your guns, Feminists are out to destroy your families. Trans-genders and gays don’t respect your sexuality. Elites think you’re stupid. Immigrants are after your jobs.” In the Democratic account of obesity, there are no heroes or villains. Politics are about who is your friend and who is your foe. Democrats have a sophisticated policy agenda but no coherent media message, while Republicans have no policy agenda but an internally consistent and powerful media message. This is why the Democrats will never nominate Jon Stewart for president, but the GOP just might nominate Tucker Carlson.
08/10/2022: The Humanities Are Dying Because Human Beings Are Dying, Too
The humanities are not a growth profession. There is little demand for those who can translate ancient Greek or author dissertations on Shakespeare’s minor comedies. The humanities are not practical. They do not fuel economies hooked on burgeoning. This is why most college students want to major in one of the STEM fields: Science, Technology, Economics, and/or Math. But there is also a cultural reason why the Humanities are going out of business: Because human beings themselves, as generally known, are also going out of business! At the heart of the traditional humanities, regardless of the scholarly skills involved, is a picture of human striving and suffering. The whole business had to do with whether human beings, as conscious agents, could win or lose, avoid misery or have to face pain, made good decisions or bad ones. This is what Plato, Milton, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Homer were all about. But that image of human beings is gradually but certainly dissolving, being replaced by “trans-human” and “meta-human.” The idea of the first is that digital technology is replacing human pursuit of knowledge and focused activity. Think robots, androids, cyborgs, etc. And then there is the “meta-human,” which derives from Eastern religions and philosophy and is based on the idea that the conscious, free human agent is an illusion altogether and that in the end we are fairly insignificant participants in an infinite field of consciousness. The 21st century will see the end of the Human Being of Shakespeare and Euripides. There will be footnotes about Hamlet and Medea to the effects that back then people actually believed that individual bodies and souls were real—heroic instruments of free choice and creators of persistent dilemmas. This will be counted as a superstition of the past.
08/09/2022: Are Serial Killers Moral?
In the 60s and 70s Susan Edwards’ father abused her, and her mother apparently knew about and did nothing. Later, Susan married Christopher Edwards, and together they escaped into a fantasy life based on Hollywood movie stars of the city’s Golden Era, especially Gary Cooper. As her parents aged, and as she and Chris became more immersed in their fantasies, Susan decided, along with her husband, that they needed more money for their habit of buying costly Hollywood memorabilia. So, in the notorious Wycherly murder case in England, they murdered Susan’s father and mother, buried them in the back garden, and for fifteen years used their money to grease their habit. No doubt Susan thought this was only just, both the fantasy and the money. Had she not been violated by a wicked father when she was young? Had her mother not let it happen? Serial killers like Susan are not moral, exactly, but they do have a moralistic sense. Susan thought these murders were a rough form of justice. The law did not agree, yet may ways this is what we mean by justice: righting the scales. It generally doesn’t happen. You can get a million dollar settlement, but it won’t bring your child back, or get an apology from the Pope, but that won’t undo the damage done to abused kids. Compensatory justice is imperfect. Maybe the best way to approach this matter is not to demand a justice that isn’t there but rather to say, “Even if he gets away with it, I wouldn’t want to be that person. It is better to suffer injustice than to do it.”
08/08/2022: Was Lizzie Borden a Zen Buddhist?
There is a famous Zen story about a Zen master who asks his best student to figure out how to get a huge ship into a small bottle. The student ponders the big model ship and looks at the comparatively tiny bottle. He smashes both and leaves the master’s room. That’s why he’s such a good student of Zen. He does not get hung up on impossible paradoxes. He does not let obsession ruin his serenity. He can accept that life often does’t make sense but knows that living itself is the major thing. He knows the art of moving on. In the 1890s an all-male jury had to confront its own impossible paradox. How could a fine upper-middle-class Victorian lady, who taught Sunday school, hack her parents to death as a man would? Impossible! Yet the evidence was good that she had. The jury did a Zen. It acquitted her. It did not try to solve the contradiction, It just moved on. Lizzie never went to jail or hung for what was likely a double homicide. But after the community applauded her acquittal because it uphold the fiction of gentle womanhood, it proceeded to shun her. The town solved the paradox for the all-male jury, which in effect might well have seen the zen wisdom of punting.
08/07’2022: The Cops Save Lives—But Not In the Way You think
There are two images of police in direct contact with people’s lives. One comes from the likes of the George Floyd case, where we see a cop seeming to take a life. And then there are TV shows, for instance, where the constabulary arrive just in time to save some helpless victim from a serial killer, say. Or, then again, there are instances in both media and life where the police catch someone who goes on trial and is put in jail to protect the lies of the rest of us. But these examples do not get at how the cops really do save our lives, yours and mine. They do so by their very existence. Most of us follow the rules and obey the law., We are not a threat to ourselves our others. This is so because we see more upside to being law-abiding. Why rob a bank when you can make more doing a good, and lawful, job? But don’t overrate enlightened self-interest alone. We also follow the rules because we don’t want to be caught and be punished. We may not think about the cops much, but we always know they are around to find us and turn us over to the prosecutors and prisons. There’s all sorts of potential for mischief, for police can be corrupt and/or politicized. But for the most part, the police save lives by their silently frightening us into good behavior.. They save lives due to their very existence. You don’t and won’t read about this or hear about it in the media, which rarely focus on what doesn’t happen.
The Mindsets Blog is by Ton McBride: firstname.lastname@example.org
08/06/2022: Are There Any Daddy Long Legs Spiders on Mars?
Some very smart people think everything comes soon to Mathematica: that the fundamental ingredient of all is numbers and equations. Others, equally smart, think math is only a workable slice of what there is. There is no settlement of this question on offer here. But it is possible to argue that much of the world is arithmetic. Life itself, like football, may be a game of inches. Existence itself may be a matter of measurable hits, misses, and near-misses. Every NBA player is quick, but Michael Jordan and LeBron James were half-a-second quicker, and that’s all it took. Mars is a place of incredibly thick dust storms, extremely cold temperatures, and precious little running water. So could it be colonized? One expert says that 110 is the minimal number for success—the bare minimum in terms of collaboration and new births, 105 won’t do. Once more, applied arithmetic seems to be the name of the game. Or take a Daddy Long Legs spider. It is not poisonous, but let’s say that at one point in its ancient history some members of the species developed poison—butnot quite ehough to pass on the genetic trait before dying, If only 205 more of these spiders, with poison, ha lived 4.8 percent longer, the Daddy Long Legs would be toxic today and have an added advantage in the survival contest.
08/13/2022: Is Donald Trump Li Cheney’s Fault?
One would be hard-pressed to find a Democrat or Democratic-leaning independent who does not adore Liz Cheney. She has ended her political career by standing up for proper and legal Constitutional order. She is the essence of those who put country over party. But it is not quite that simple. Before January 6, 2021, Cheney represented a state, Wyoming, suffused with resentments against the Federal government for gun regulations and land management. These were not just policy issues. They were also macho issues—leave my guns and my land alone, The leading newspaper in Cheyenne, WY, is called the Cowboy Daily. One can hardly separate the policy details from the testosterone culture. Cheney should not have been surprised that such attitudes were ripe for plucking a demagogue as talented and “manly” as Donald Trump. Cheney has found that representing and approving of cowboys can be a two-edged sword, and now she is on the other side of it.
08/05/2022: Could a Nerdy Engineer Have Prevented the Murder of John F. Kennedy?
In April 1963 an engineer in Dallas, Michael Paine, picked up Lee and Marina Oswald for dinner. Michael’s somewhat estranged wife, Ruth, had befriended the Oswalds, who were in dire straits, and had invited them over for dinner. Thirty years later Michael recalled that Lee displayed a photo of himself, now infamous, brandishing a rifle in the back yard. He never mentioned it to his wife—they were’t talking much. Had he done so, the pacifist Ruth would likely have confronted Lee about the rifle, and it would never have ended up being hidden in her garage the night before the Kennedy assassination. If only Michael and Ruth had bee communicating, it is alleged, then Lee would have gotten much ore resistance to his violent tendencies. Kennedy would have been saved. This is all speculation. Oswald might have murdered Kennedy anyhow, simply hiding the rifle in his rooming house, where he lived most of the time except on weekends, when he visited his wife and children at the Paine home. Still, Michael’s silence, until 1993, is one of the big “what-ifs” in history. The whole idea is that if you take one item out of a sequence of events, the whole sequence will not happen. But there is another way of looking at it: that the real cause of Kennedy’s tragic demise was not in the past but in the FUTURE. Some inevitable, future destiny preceded all these events of 1963. All was foreordained. This is anathema to most of us, who think we should be able to find clues about the future and then alter it. But look at it this way: Suppose Michael Paine had been uncannily wise and thought, “A fellow like this could be dangerous enough some day to shoot the president,” although Kennedy’s trip to Dallas was not even planned seven moths before he showed up. Even if Paine had been this prescient, he still could not have stopped a fated event, whose future outcome was the “cause” of all that came before it. Perhaps Kennedy’s death by gunfire was retro-caused: something in the future preceded everything that led up to the catastrophe.
08/04/2022: Cann We Blame the Young After They Get Old?
When he was a youth, George W. Bush was nabbed for drunk driving. This came out on the eve of the 2000 presidential election. Bush shrugged: “When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish,” It is no secret that we human beings develop. We change. It is even speculated that we are not the same person when we turn 70, as opposed to when we were 20, say. We think we are because we share the same body and have the same memories over time. But despite the continuity of our names, even, we are not the same person. This issue comes to the fore when we consider the former British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, now serving a long prison sentence for her role in Jeffrey Epstein’s sex abuse and trafficking schemes. She was in her 30s then, and now is about to turn, in jail, 61. She is married, presumably to a man with less savory habits than Epstein had. Her powerful father had died in disgrace, and arguably in Epstein she was looking for a substitute for Robert Maxwell, who thought of her as the apple of his eye. This is called looking for love in all the wrong places—here in kinky, cruel, manipulative places. Maxwell had all the scofflaw habits that we associate with some of the rich and famous. She was duly convinced of her crimes. And yet: could she be capable of them when she was arrested, now that she is in a more wholesome milieu? She must have said to herself, several times: “That was then, this is now. I am no longer a threat to society. I AM NOT THE SAME PERSON. What was I thinking back then?” There seems reason to assume that she has changed, and for the better. Can we blame the young when they become old? If it is a matter of retributive justice, the answer is yes.
08/03/2022: Are You Connected to Somebody Who’s Connected to Somebody?
The former district attorney in Nw Orleans, Jim Garrison, became the hero of a great Oliver Stone movie, JFK. In the movie Garrison was played by Kevin Costner, who pursued with obsessive fury the “real” assassins of President Kennedy. It turns out that Garrison had almost nothing of substance, and his epic search failed, except for inspiring Stone’s movie. One of the links Garrison found was on a street in Irving, Texas, where Lee Harvey Oswald spent his last night of freedom with Mrs. Ruth Paine, who had befriended the Oswalds, Lee and his Russian wife Marina. Garrison discovered that ON THIS SAME STREET lived a couple of musicians who had once played at the night club of….JACK RUBY, who on November 23, shot Oswald himself to death. It was easy for Garrison to conclude that they were all in on a conspiracy: Mrs. Paine, who sheltered the Oswalds; Ruby himself, who rubbed out Oswald; and the musicians who worked for Ruby. Somehow they formed a giant conspiracy behind which was—the CIA, the mob, the Cubans?—to murder the 35th American president. It did not occur to Garrison that the proximity of Mrs. Paine to Jack Ruby’s former musicians was a coincidence. Mrs. Paine’s stepmother-in-law knew Allan Dulles’ former mistress, and Dulles was, once, head of the CIA. We are all connected to somebody who is connected to somebody. You might be surprised at how few degrees of separation there are between you and someone famous or important. You have a neighbor who has a cousin whose second cousin once knew…Elvis Presley or now knows Lady Gaga. We are all, it seems, on the verge of being part of a conspiracy.
08/02/2022: If You saw Macbeth, Would You call the Police?
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most dangerous and deadly characters. Despite his attempt to fend off his wife when she urges him to assassination King Duncan and become king hmself, Macbeth is a brutal warrior who likes to kill. He realizes in time that it has dehumanized him, but he has a yen for it, and a talent, and he leaves corpses everywhere throughout the play. These even include MacDuff’s children. So if you saw Macbeth in your neighborhood, you’d be seeing a serial killer and want to call the cops. That’s in real life. In the theater you are safe from Macbeth’s murders and are given aesthetic distance. Then you see something else: evil, yes, but also the sheer energy of a life devoted to it. Macbeth expresses a kind of greatness about what human beings are capable of. It also helps that Shakespeare has him talk so pretty. James Remer, the novelist and philosopher of true chimer, thinks the events of 9/11 triggered the American obsession with crime. We suddenly realized we were not safe after all from the pockets of terrorism in the world. They could turn airliners into missiles. Once more, however, we are at a safe distance from all the true crimes we can’t get enough of. Crime pays—for us—if we are far enough away from it to gain a sense of human potential and also come through it ourselves, every time, without a scratch. We have done one more true crime, and once again, the victim isn’t us. What a relief! Shakespeare would have understood.
09/08/2022: Will The Supreme Court Overrule Romeo and Juliet?
Justice Clarence Thomas says there is no right of privacy in the United States Constitution and suggests that previous decisions based on this non-existence should be rethought. This might even include his own inter-racial marriage, though he does not list that as one of his examples in his most recent concurring opinion on the subject of abortion law. This brings us to the subject of forbidden marriage. Romeo and Juliet loved each other intensely but came from rival families and were thus prohibited from marrying. Such enmity was as big a barrier as racial differences used to be. If Romeo and Juliet had a guaranteed right to privacy, as expressed in some Italian Constitution, then there would have been no obstacle to their wedlock. The philosophy is simple: The world is uncanny, contingent, and unfair—the two young lovers just happened to be born Montague and Capulet—so the law has to make the world more just. The justice of the law is a way of compensating for life’s brutal indifference. What would Justice Thomas think? He might see the tragedy of R and J as a sad but inevitable thing that no “loose” reading of the Constitution can do anything about.
07/29/2022: Are UFOs Angels and Demons?
A lot depends on how big your God is. Take the Vatican. It is keenly interested in UFO sightings and believes they are totally consistent with a Big God. God can do anything. Even if the UFOs don’t exist in objective fact, God can inspire someone to think she has seen one and this in turn transforms her life into one of wonder and humility. Scientists may be skeptical because of the great distances involved between us and any other form of intelligent life—one that could design and fly a saucer—but Theists of the Big God do not see such distances as any object. UFO sightings have been recorded for hundreds of years, and so have sightings of angels and demons. Perhaps the sightings of flying saucers by medieval people were identified, by them, not as air borne machines but as angels and demons. We, of course, live in an advanced tech age, so naturally we see them as some expression of space technology. What is for one age a UFO might be for an earlier one an angel or demon. Both sets of people see the same fuzzy things. But the world view and the nomenclature are totally different.
07/28/2022: Why Do Some Serial Killers Have Groupies?
When Ted Bundy was being prosecuted in Florida over forty years ago, women would attend the trial in adoration and fascination. Some of them parted their hair as Ted’s victims had done. Why? Three reasons account for this mindset. First, Budny had not yet been proven guilty, so there was still a theoretical chance he didn’t do these horrific butchering crimes. Second, he was handsome—the boy next door—and middle-class white. How could such a man do such things? Even if he did, he was a man of intrigue. In a lot of ways Bundy was Sears or Penneys catalogue handsome: a face of of cookie-cutter symmetry. But put that wholesome demeanor together with his alleged crime, and you have the exotic. Finally, while the trial showed evidence of Bundy’s crimes, it could not show the crimes themselves, where arguably one could see Ted at his most authentic. Besides, in general we are in awe of people who can do difficult things, such as walk a tightrope or do multiple flips in a nano-second. Killing all those women and not getting caught for a long while seemed a sign of great competence. There are new books and films about Ted Bunny all the time. They are unlikely to cease soon.
07/27/2022: Tucker Carlson, Vampire Slayer
Fear of demographic replacement goes back to the 1800s. Great Western powers, such as France, had colonized a good deal of Africa and the Mideast and feared that the colonized would become the colonizers and get revenge. Western Europeans had gone “over there” and taken over, so why wouldn’t “they” come “over here” and try to do the same? Such Great Replacement theories go back a ways, though lately, in the wake of 9/11 and social media and the loss of white working class jobs, they have become more mainstream. Tucker Carlson pushes them nightly on Fox News, and in France this is a talking point of Le Pen and the right. Actually, the most famous Great Replacement Theory is thinly veiled in a world-celebrated book, Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, which first appeared in 1897. Count Dracula was not a Jew or a Muslim or an Asian or Latin American migrant. He was a Romanian vampire, but Romania seemed to the English exotic and threatening enough to be feared. So, Dracula was part of a “them” coming to get “us.” He and his minions would be part of a huge pyramid scheme. Dracula would bite them, and they would turn into vampires and bite us and before we know it all of us are vampires. Part of the Great Replacement theory has also involved fear of the over-sexuality of the invading force. They will out-reproduce us and rape all our women. Dracula, sure enough, was a figure of charismatic eroticism. He was the original Great Replacer, but he was stopped not by Fox News but by a stake in his heart as he slept. He only worked nights. That was his udoing.
07/26/2022: Are You Important Enough to be the Target of a Conspiracy?
If Jack Ruby had not shot Lee Harvey Oswald, there would have been much less conspiracy theorizing about the JFK murder. There is plenty of evidence that Ruby’s shooting was the lone act of a violent man who just happened to be there—and had no access to information that would have permitted pre-planning—but the Ruby shooting looked like a hit job. If there were a conspiracy against JFK, himself, it was because he was important and “in the way” of someone—the Cubans, the mob, the CIA, take your pick. And if Oswald were the target of a conspiracy, it was because Oswald himself had become important and “in the way” of somebody. Before we we look too far to explain the abundance of conspiracy theories, we should examine human vanity. “There is a conspiracy against us because we are significant people in the way of powerful interests.” One of the greatest conspiracy theories today is the GREAT REPLACEMENT. There is a conspiracy among elites and people of color to replace white folks with non-white folks, and with Jews. White prople in so thinking believe they are important and powerful and need to be gotten out of the way. It is not only a way to assert White Power. It is also a way for White Power types to congratulate themselves on being so wonderfully powerful. The more likely fact is that times are changing, demography is changing, transportation is changing, and that no one is “out” to get anyone. A part-time trucker in Alabama or Missouri is just not that important so that anyone wants to remove him from the scene.
07/25/2022: Did the Unabomber Just Need a Dog?
In the early 1970s Ted Kaczyniski, who would go on to become the terrorist Unabomber, got a letter from a prominent Federal health official. Ted had written about the dangers of behavioral control, as in the government planting chemical devices in people’s brains in order to turn them into complaint zombies. The official replied that all organized societies depend on behavioral control. This is true: social coherence depends on a good deal of conformity. Ted apparently decided that if all social orders had to have behavioral control, he’d have none of social orders. He moved to the Montana woods and had as little to do with people as possible. So far, so good: He did not believe in behavioral control, especially as it was imparted by technology, and if such controls made society possible, he would turn his back on society. This is logical. But there was a tragic back story. Ted didn’t like society, but he’d had ample proof that society didn’t like him. He was a math prodigy thrown in with bullying kids older than he was, and most people thought he was weird. Ted was not affectionate or lovable. By rejecting society, he was getting his own back, because society had more or less rejected him. In time, this vengeance would fuel his sending bombs that killed a few people and injured others. It is said that we should not run away from who we are—in China Achebe’s great novel THINGS FALL APART, the Nigerian tribes call this one’s chi. Who was Ted? He was an unlovable loner. But he could not live with that—his chi, shall we say—so he struck back because he could not accept who he was. Not all of us are loving, popular, likable people. Some of us are not. There is always an out. A dog is not critical of us the way humans are. Dogs are capable of loving anyone. Had Ted gotten a dog, he might well have lived with his sour self much better. He’d have gotten some love, even if it depend in part on opening dog food cans. There is peace in accepting our fates—who we are—but if who we are is someone unlikeable, then a dog helps—a lot. Their saving grace is that they are to discriminating.
07/22/2022: How Shakespeare Predicted Watergate’s Deep Throat
In about 1600 Shakespeare wrote a play about a soldier who did not get promoted. This soldier, named Iago, took revenge on his boss, Othello, by misleading him and inducing him to murder his wife. Thus was a life tragically destroyed, and in part it happened because Iago did not get promoted. Over three centuries later President Richard Nixon overlooked the number two FBI official, Mark Felt, and appointed Patrick Gray as head of the bureau. Felt, like Iago, was furious, and soon proceeded to leak secrets about Nixon that helped in time to destroy his presidency. The journalists Woodward and Bernstein called Felt “Deep Throat” in order to protect his identity. It is said that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Hell also hath no fury like a man who is not promoted.
07/21/2022: Are We a Nation of Brats?
Perhaps the most famous brat in the movies is Baby LeRoy, who appears as a toddler in the W.C. Fields classic, IT’S A GIFT. He turns on a barrel of molasses—they had those in grocery stores back in 1933—and proceeds to romp through the spillage in his Oxford shoes. He gets the sticky stuff all over the store. When Fields berths him, his mother rushes to his defense and denies that her darling could have done anything of the sort. Baby LeRoy is a brat. What does this mean? It means that he has no regard for the consequences of his actions. He doesn’t care that someone has to clean up the mess and that his reckless curiosity is costing someone time and money. Of course, he’s just a child. But what about us? We enjoy trashy movies and TV shows as part of our freedoms, little caring about or recalling the blood spilled to secure them. We love our phones but have no idea how they work or what went into their invention. We are told that our opinions, which are far from expert about most things, really count a lot. Donald Trump calls us “great” and “winners,” but hardly a politician goes by without calling us “hard-working Americans.” We are flattered and spoiled, but, like Baby LeRoy’s mother, we are in denial. No doubt we aren’t full-time brats. Do we nonetheless have too many bratty moments?
07/20/2022: Joan Crawford and the Dilemma of the American Woman
The film JOHNNY GUITAR is notable for two things. First, it was panned in its day of 1954 and is now regarded as an American classic. Second, it stars two female stars who take on strongly masculine qualities. It features not just one but two stars who wear guns around their dresses. Mercedes McCambridge, who plays Emma, never dons trousers, as does Joan Crawford, but by the film’s mid-point she has buckled two six-guns around her waist. Crawford first packs iron while wearing trousers, but then abandons them—guns and trousers—during the middle portion of the film, only to put on both again at the end. Early in the film, one of Crawford’s employees—she is a saloon keeper in late 19th century Arizona territory—says that his boss thinks and acts like a man and often makes him feel he isn’t one. This was pretty radical stuff for the American 1950s, yet latent in both the Crawford and McCambridge characters is a housewife-like domesticity. Crawford is an ambitious saloon-keeper who aligns herself with the coming, disruptive railroad, but she also makes it clear that she wants nothing more than to settle down with her old beau and live peacefully, and profitably, in the saloon apartment. McCambridge is a real gun-toter, and Crawford’s great rival and beta noir—Crawford shoots her dead at film’s end—but she too is cozy-domestic. One of her main motives is to keep the railroad out and the pastoral cattle grazing in. She is violent and aggressive, but it’s all in the name of keeping matters domestically unchanged. This was in the 50s the dilemma of the American woman, She could be ambitious but had to be reassuringly like the “little lady.” Crawford could wear trousers, but in one scene she is in a dress at home playing a lovely tranquil piece on the piano. McCambridge packs her weapons, but she is never without a dress: a long one.
07/25/2022: Why Donald Trump Is Your Next President
The Republican Party would seem ill-advised to re-nominate Donald Trump in 2024. He is someone who has never gotten the popular vote. He lost by nearly 3 million votes in 2016 and by seven million in 2020. But he will be the GOP nominee in 2024 and will win. The reason is simple. He claims the election was stolen from him in 2020 and even said he won the popular vote in 2016. He is the sole Republican candidate who can justify fixing the 2024 election so as to eliminate its alleged corruptions. This means that state legislatures in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, and possibly Pennsylvania, can declare that Trump is the real winner of their states, and it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court, now flirting with the “independent state legislatures” doctrine, will interfere. It will be harder to sustain this legislative incursion with another Republican candidate, but with Trump they can claim they are dong it in order to correct past electoral fraud. In effect, “they stole the election from Trump, so we are right to steal it back.” Trump has made the minority of Americans displaced y secularism and global capitalism feel proud and “great” again. His voters don’t think votes by socialists, feminists, gays, and people of color should count anyhow. All this will be enough for Trump’s re-election in two years.
07/19/2022: Will Scientists Ever Find Signs of Intelligent Life on the Planet Earth?
One of the most fascinating things done by astrophysicists is to speculate about the possibility of life in other parts of the Universe. They start out by considering the various “habitation zones,” which are areas of outer space where planets have particular relationships with their stars—not too hot or cold—that might allow for the emergence of water, which is essential for any form of life. And then they look into how long the star—what we call the sun—will last. If it’s a short-lived star, there might be time for life to emerge but probably not intelligent life, which has taken 200 million years here on Earth. It’s a lot more complicated that what’s been covered so far. But the most ironic aspect of this whole business is the claim by one scientist that the chances of our finding intelligent life are diminished by the likelihood that intelligent life on ANY planet will not last longer than 12,000 years because of its—INTELLIGENCE! According to this view, intelligence is not all that necessary to sustain life: locomotion and sight are much more important, and while plants can’t move around, the wind moves their seeds around for them. But—and here’s the argument that takes the cake—intelligence is even ANTITHETICAL to the longevity of life. Why? Because intelligent creatures are much more likely to mess with nature at its own peril. We Earthlings are intelligent enough to create giant industries and consumer habits that are slowly cooking our planet. Now we have to be intelligent enough to deal with the resulting droughts, heat waves, forest fires, and floods and we might not be up to it. It’s hard to believe that in the long run intelligence is counter to the ongoing of life. Yet since once we are gone the roaches and rats and bacteria may well remain, we might want to rethink this issue.
07/18/2022: How To Make Something Really Weird Seem Really Normal
In a podcast called BETRAYAL, you will find the story of Jennifer and Spence, who had a fairy tale romance and marriage until Spence was accused and convicted of sexual assault. He was a teacher who had groomed one of his students. In the podcast Jennifer, now Shane’s former wife, talks to his victim. She was fifteen at the time, and Spence was in his late 30s. This seemed weird to his teen-aged student, who was shy and insecure to begin with. But Spence soon made it seem normal—and wonderful. If it seemed strange, that’s only because God and the cosmos work in strange ways. God meant it to happen, said Spence. The victim was a person of faith, so once Spencer brought God in, an illicit romance became a conversion experience. But wasn’t Spence married? Yeah, but he was going to leave his wife, and they were planning a divorce—a lie. Don’t men leave their wives for younger women all the time? Here was another “normal” that made the bizarre seem Ok and mainstream—but still fabulous. This is a terrible story, but the narrative conversion technique is a preponderant mindset. We constantly translate crazy new information into knowledge we already have. We try to put it into a category we have already mastered. When Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver sees humans who are super-bestial, he is sure they are non-human beasts. He wants his world to be “normal.” When he discovers that the “beasts” are human beings, and that the horses in the realm are rational, he has to start from scratch and is himself driven half-way mad in the process.
07/15/2022: Can You Love a Triangle More Than You Love Bad Pitt?
It is said that Brad Pitt is the top actor in the world today. He has starred in many fine films. He is sexy. He does humanitarian work. He is artistic, attractive, and compassionate. Yet Plato’s teacher Socrates would beg to differ. In the great book THE SYMPOSIUM Socrates would concur that Brad Pitt is very lovable, but he would say that there are many lovable people. You could love Brad for his mind, but there are many fine minds to love. For that matter, you can love your significant other for erotic appeal and brilliance of intellect and upright character, but you will find, said Socrates, that there are other significant others with the same fine qualities. Socrates’ point: True love is not love of specific things but of universal things, such as the abstract beauty of geometry. Take a right triangle: There is something both beautiful and lovable about its consistency, where its hypotenuse always equals the length of its other two sides added together—oh, you have to sure these sums perhaps. Such uniformity and predictability are monumental. That is universal. It never wavers, unlike Brad, say, whose eye might wander, and has. There is a serenity in this Pythagorean Theorem. This is called Platonic love, which is non-erotic. But loving a triangle or even its qualities seems so far away from what we mean by love that perhaps Platonic love should be called Platonic Admiration so that we can forget about it and get back to loving Brad.
07/14/2022: So Why CAN’T We Predict the ‘future?
We all know why we can’t predict the future: because we can’t see it. It’s invisible. It hasn’t happened yet. A harder question is, if we could predict the future could we alter it? Even more interesting is the proposition that we cannot foretell the future because the universe won’t let us. If we attend to areas where we CAN predict the future, such as whether or not it will rain tomorrow or whether our car will start in the morning, we quickly see the nub of the problem. This is the mindset of factors. The fewer the factors, the more we can isolate them, and the more we can understand the rules of how they work, we better we can predict the future. Weather people know these things quite well and have been trained to read them. As for your car, there are a limited number of things that make it start, and you or your mechanic know how they work. You know the factors, their location, and their rules. Ah, but the universe itself has so many factors that it becomes impossible to predict where you’ll be in five years or even if you’ll be anywhere alive. Someday, maybe, we will have sufficient computational power that we can put all the factors into the machine and have it sit out the future. But that’s a lot of computing wattage, and suppose we ourselves don’t know what all the factors are. And then there’s the reality of randomness even if we do. It seems we will get better at predicting the future, with artificial intelligence at our beck and call, but we will never be good enough. The universe, like the house in Vegas, will always win.
07/13/2022: Is There an Exact Replica of You on A Billion Light Years Away? OF COURSE THERE IS!
Some folks say science should stick with experiments and not speculate. Many of us do have the idea that science involves putting water outside every night in the winer to see if it freezes at temperatures below 32 degrees F. And if it does, and doesn’t at temps above that number, then it’s probably the temperatures that cause the freezing. This is a basic trial, but it makes sense and surely that’s how science should work: putting forth hypotheses and testing them. If only science were entirely like this, the world would be simpler. It isn’t. It is a scientific FACT that there are 10 to the 80th degree atoms in the universe. Try multiplying 10 up to 80 times on your calculator and watch it explode. It is a gigantic, mammoth, vast, gargantuan number. Now assume that these zillions and zillions of atoms have an unlimited amount of time to combine in different sorts of ways. Sooner or later, they are bound to combine so as to produce an exact copy of you. You yourself will never know about it of course, and no one can say when it will happen or even if, somewhere a trillion trillion light years away in an ever-expanding universe, it has already happened. It’s unlikely you and your twin are going to be comparing notes before you die or before he or she dies. The truth is, we can be pretty big fish in the little ponds where we live, but if we see that we live in the universe, we become not minnows but sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-minnows The universe is made up of tiny things like actors and enormously large numbers of them. As you are just a temporary and small blend of these atoms, and as there is only one of you, you are not long for this universe, or multiverse. But cheer up: someday there will be another version of you, although the “latest” you will suffer the same cessation. This is scientific speculation, but, alas, it is based on scientific fact.
July 15, 2022: Does God Rescue Lost Kittens?
This entry will be more personal than most of then are. Yesterday, my wife and I lost our nine-month-old kitten. A patio door was left open for a very short time but long enough for her to escape. After an hour of frantic and increasingly pessimistic searching, a jogger saw the kitten out of the corner of her eye near our apartment building. I had messaged my daughter, over a thousand miles away, to alert her to the crisis, but my wife had already notified her. It was my daughter, not my wife, who told me the kitten had just been found. I typed into Messenger a single word: God!!!!!!!!!! Why did I do this? It seems to me to have been more instinctual than thoughtful. What did I mean? Did I mean to thank God for saving the kitten? Logically, I don’t think God does that. But did my primitive need to believe it override my logical belief? Or did I mean: Only God can figure out the perplexities of life, since only God must have planned them? I don’t logically believe that either, but, again, was there some atavistic impulse at play here, one that makes mincemeat of my logic? What do we mean by God anyhow? I think belief in God is not easy to shake, whatever we may think about our individual selves. It is a word, a concept, that refers to some entity or force or spirit that at least cares about justice or at least knows why we don’t have it. For even the most rational among us, God is hard to get rid of. God!!!!!!!
07/11/2022L The Lowly Axe and the Progress of Humanity
In the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a golden age of axe murders. The reason is not hard to find. Nearly every house in America had an axe in its front or back yard back then, as this was the age of the wood-burning fireplace and stove. Murders did not go away, but axe murders mostly did once natural gas and oil became efficient and frequent sources of household warmth. Any school child will tell you that she learned once upon a time that tools were one of the major reasons for the advance of civilization. These tools, such as the hoe or axe and later the plow, were the high-tech instruments of their day. They extended what human animals could do physically and made life more secure. Once it was more sheltered, human life could go into other things, such as philosophy and opera and dance. There is a line between the axe and the concert. Yet the axe, so useful in chopping wood for the stove and keeping the house warm for philosophical discussions, once became the great means of bloody murder. This is the way it is with humankind. All sorts of progress is being made, it seems, but so many of us don’t seem to have gotten the memo.
07/08/2022: Who are the Elites and Why Are They So Hated?
Most of the world’s countries live in dynamic societies, where change and “the new” are the thematic hallmarks. In the United States we are constantly exposed to this or that problem and the need to solve it. These can range from how gentrification pushes poor people out of their neighborhoods to how colleges are not complying with Title IX to how people of color feel less and less comfortable going on hikes or picnics. These are difficulties that we need to solve—in the future. And this brings us to elites. They are those who not only identify these problems but propose answers to them. Elites are always planning for our futures. They are smart and well-paid. These are the people who thought it was an excellent idea to bundle high-risk mortgages together into single asset packages. They are the people who assured us that Saddam Hussein had lethal weapons and had to to be removed. They are the people who told us that inflation was nothing to worry about in 2021. But the mortgage asset units created massive debt and led to a great recession. There were no WMDs in Iraq. There was nothing to worry about re: inflation in 2021, but now it’s 2022 and there’s a lot of rising prices about which to fret. This is the big thing with elites. Many of us don’t like them because we think they are arrogant in their purported intelligence and actual advanced degrees. And they are often wrong. We are left holding the bag. And yet, it seems, we cannot quite do without them. Donald Trump and his allies despise elites, so it’s no wonder that Trump says we should make America great again by going back to 1956. We can’t do that. There are no time machines going backwards. So we are stuck with elites and just hope they know what they re doing, as often they do. We are stuck with them just as we are stuck with the future.
07/07/2022: We Reached the Last Straw A Long Time Ago—So Why Are we still Here?
In the 1933 comedy classic DUCK SOUP, Groucho Marx plays a general who is surveying the damage done by a terrible war. He picks up a straw among the debris and litter and is asked what he is looking for. “I’m looking for the last straw.” Nothing is more trite and common than this phrase about the last straw. “That’s the last straw,” we say when we’ve had enough of something and won’t go further with it. Groucho, amid all the haylofts that have been bombed, is looking for the LITERAL last straw, and that’s the joke. But the metaphorical idea is that we have lain long enough on a straw bed that finally, with the last straw gone, collapses beneath and we shall not go near that bed, or former bed, again. Has not life on Earth reached the last straw many times? A meteor’s dust blocked the sun and destroyed the dinosaurs, who had been around for millions of years. Genghis Kahn so denuded forests in Asia and Europe that he brought on a global winter. The Nazis shot or poisoned six million Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables.” That’s the population of greater Chicago. Imagine everyone in greater Chicagoland being lined up to be murdered. Aren’t all those the last straw? Yet we living creatures keep going. How? Why? Perhaps the Marx Brothers have the answer: in their manic punning and misbehavior is a sheer energy to live, not for any special purpose other than to keep on living. “Get out of this loft,” says a frustrated man to the Marx Brothers. Chico Marx replies, “It’s better to have loft and lost than never to have loft at all.” And, maybe, so it is.
07/06/2022: Is The Golden Rule Made of Lead?
“Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” Nothing seems more admirable than kindness. We honor not just politeness but above all compassion Is there any reason to be suspicious of it? Of course: some “kind” people are deceiving us in order to take advantage. But even if compassion is sincere, there are still reasons to be skeptical of it. These reasons are two in number: origins and selfishness. It was the disturbing philosopher Nietzsche who speculated that Christian kindness and mercy originated when slaves were looking for a way to even the score with masters. The latter were unkind and domineering, but if slaves could mass together in large numbers and say that cruelty was bad, they could mobilize their numbers to defeat the masters and make Christ their heroic example. For Nietzsche, compassion is just a political strategy. Meanwhile, second, kindness is a good social strategy—do good unto others and they will often reciprocate, and productive collaboration is just around the corner. The benefits of social cooperation are legion and multiple, especially if society comes together to punish cheats and defectors. These benefits confer prosperity and make it more likely that we will pass on our genes to our offspring. So kindness at the level of the gene-carrier is self-serving for the genes, who are designed to be reproduced and copied above all else.
07/05/2022: Is Every Life a One-Off?
Frank Wills is surely the most important security guard in history. He exposed the burglars who broke into the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1972 and sparked the Watergate political scandal that destroyed President Nixon. Yet his heroism in the long run of his life did him few favors, and he died in obscurity in South Carolina in his early 50s. He was asked if he’d still catch the Watergate burglars if he had it to do all over again. “That,” he replied “is like asking me whether I wish I’d been born white or black. It’s all a matter of destiny.” Wills in effect was saying, “There are no do-overs in life. We only live once. We can’t rewind the tape. We aren’t coming back for a second time..” If he is right, then the errors we make in life have a remorseless quality. In one sense they cannot be rectified. This is a hard truth, so we seek ways to get around it—a kind of loophole is what we are looking for. One of the main ones is that we learn from our mistakes and won’t repeat them. This way, we do get some do-overs. But then we are prone to over-reacting. A college hires an airy academic as its president, and there is not nearly enough fund-raising. So it hires a financial wizard next time around, but this one has no academic ideals whatever and embarrasses the school. We go to a fine restaurant and get food poisoning. We’ll never go there any more. But it turns out this was a rare event, so we have just cheated ourselves out of many fine meals. We marry an introvert, and it doesn’t work. So we marry the second time an extrovert—and that doesn’t work either, but for the opposite reasons The difficult truth uttered by Frank Wills is inescapable, Life is destiny. There’s only the one story, and it always goes forward
07/04/2022: What George Orwell Got Wrong about Newspeak
In his great classic 1984 George Orwell depicts the Ministry of Truth in the dictatorship run by the infamous and ever-present Big Brother. It’s a large pyramidal building with the following words engraved hugely thereon: WAR IS PEACE; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY; IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Orwell means these slogans to be a parody of political language, where words are twisted to suit power. It’s the opposite of the kind of honest, transparent prose that Orwell loved and affirmed. It’s the propaganda of the brutal regimes of the world. Yet in a way Orwell got this wrong. These regimes have a point of view where Freedom really IS Slavery, and where War really IS Peace, and where Ignorance really IS Strength. This seems non-sensical, and as Orwell has put it, it is. But tyrannical governments have a somewhat defensible logic. If everyone in the nation will submit, as slaves, to the ideology of the regime, then the regime will be free: free to do as it likes against its foes and free to protect its people from these foes, even if they are enemies the regime has “made up.” And if the people will not ask questions and stop being curious (Ignorance), then the country or empire will be united and strong. Ignorance really CAN be strength. Finally, if the regime wages war and establishes a stable, repressive empire, there WILL be peace. Behind Newspeak is something that Orwell did not quite get: that if you leave out individual freedom, creativity, and skepticism, then the Newspeak regimes make a great deal of sense. This should remind us how much we who oppose these regimes really admire, and want to protect, individual human potential—to the point where we think knowledge is strength, war is the opposite of peace, and freedom and slavery are and always will be incompatible.
07/03/2022: Is a Fetus a Burglar?
You are a single woman living on your own, and you have done all you could to make your house burglar-proof: alarms, locks, etc. Still, a burglar gets through. He is a strong man, but you have a gun. You will use it. No one will blame you if you decide it is better to shoot than to die. It is your freedom that is at stake. Likewise, you have done all you could to keep from getting pregnant. You have used birth control pills, and so on. Still you do get pregnant, even though you did not want to. You seek and get an abortion. Should anyone blame you for doing so? It is your freedom that is at stake. Just as you should not give up your bodily freedom to a burglar, you should not give up your bodily freedom to a fetus. You were weaker than the burglar, but despite this natural disadvantage, the gun was an equalizer. When you get pregnant, you, as ordained by nature, have a much greater bodily investment. The father’s natural contribution is a matter of seconds. Yours will be nine months of possible medical complications. Just as the gun is an equalizers against the burglar, so is an abortion, safe and legal, an equalizer against an undesired pregnancy. There is a natural inequality built into the reproduction process. Abortion is a blow for your freedom but not only that: for equality between the sexes, too.
07/01/2022: Could Trump Have Been a Great National Hero?
In 2016 Donald Trump was essentially a third-party force. He was opposed to multiculturalism, which surely made him no Democrat. But he also believed in big government spending for infrastructure, which made him no orthodox Republican either. In some ways the Republicans are a major party that has absorbed Trumpism in a way similar to how the Democrats earlier absorbed the civil rights movement and feminism. Trump ran as a sort of third-party, alternative outsider and managed to win, if barely. This might have set the stage for his presidency becoming a refreshing new option. There were two paths. First, Trump might have become a sort of “broker president.” Neither a Democrat nor wholly a Republican, he could have made it his mission to break partisan gridlock. He could have insisted that the two parties compromise and get something done to address national problems. Or: he could have become a master builder president: one who had no patience for rainbow coalitions but who came to the rescue of a white working class displaced by globalization. He could have sponsored big building projects and re-training enterprises in flyover country. In fact, if the working class had some measure of prosperity restored to it, it might well have come to have more tolerance for progressive, multi-cultural ideas. This is all speculation. But it does arise from Trump’s third-party origins. Why didn’t it work out this way? Because Trump lacks the patience and interest in details to have been a broker; and because more traditional Republicans such as Pau Ryan convinced the political novice Trump to go for tax cuts rather than big government building. Trump’s biggest interest was not in becoming president but in continuing to be an autocratic reality-TV star who happened to BE president. The seeds for a ore heroic Trump died in the soil and were perhaps never too hardy to begin with.
06/30/2022: Do Our Computers Have Lives?
Are our brains just computers made out of meat? Well, there are parallels. Computers have memory; so do our brains, Computers can process information; so can our brains. We and our computers both depend on a certain logic and inference. We could even go further: computers wear out, and so do we. Of course, computers can be cloned, but we cannot, at least not legally. But where does the analogy between human brains and artificial intelligence break down? There are two limit points. First, if computers do have lives, they aren’t the same as our lives. What are we concerned about in our lives? Well, survival for one The nature of human rights, for another, The welfare of ur family, friends, city, or nation, or even beyond to the great globe itself. These are not issues in the lives of computers. They in theory could be programmed to “worry” about other things, such as the quality of their silicon chips or the housing that keeps them from breaking if dropped, But if computers have lives, even simulated ones, they are not the same as our lives. Second, as such, computers have no skin in the game. Whatever computers are made of, they are not made of skin. We are. We have frail human tissue, easily harmed and even killed off. We care. Can computers be programmed to “care”? In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the computer HAL does care whether or not he is deemed erroneous or useless. HAL plots vengeance. So far, that’s jut in the movies.
06/29/2022: Should the Word “Accident” Be Banned from the English Language?
Jessie Singer has written a book stating that there are no such things as accidents. Yes, a driver runs a stop sign and hits a child unintentionally. But this is not an accident. The driver was hurrying to deliver a package for some company that is trying to cut costs, or the driver is drunk due to liquor companies making a fast bak on his habit. There are industrial accidents, but they aren’t really accidents either: the factory is cutting safety costs. Poor people have a lot of road accidents, but that’s because their roads are so poorly maintained. Poor folks have poor ways. There’s a lot of sense in this view: accidents are often the last chapter in a larger context. Jessie Singer’s argument is that greater equality and less corporate power would reduce accidents, or “accidents.” The matter is intricate. For instance, we know that in order for our grocery shelves to be full, truckers must drive at least sixty miles per hour, There would be fewer accidents if they drove at 40 or fewer still if they drove at 30. But the pace of the exchange system—money for goods and services—would decrease by half. Ms. Singer’s book is a great critique of the link between capitalism, inequality, and accidents. But the interconnectedness of our economy is not going away. Folks don’t want to have to wait for their new lawnmowers or fresh Nutella jars.
06/28/2022: Remember The Good Old Days When Ross Perot Wanted Us to Look Under the Hood of the Car?
In 1992 the Texas businessman Ross Perot did very well for a third party American political candidate. He brought a data-driven approach to the issues and problems of governance. We need to look under the hood of the car, he said, and find out what the problem is and then fix it. Perot could have been forgiven for this attitude. After all, it was what had apparently made America great: a pragmatic notion built on facts and repairs and solutions. It was how he had run his own business, Texas Instruments. Today this notion seems quaint. We live in a word of clashing websites, podcasts, and mono-cultures. Each has its own facts. Rival tribes’ facts are “fake news,” and this for some even includes the New York Times and Associated Press and CNN. These organizations pride themselves on getting it right. Their critics say they are composed of haughty elitists with a liberal slant, even a socialist one. Virtual reality seems more exciting and alluring than “reality” does. It was once said that you were entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts. Not any more. This seems to be a time of what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” There are facts—Perot was right about that. If a rattlesnake is but ten seconds away from biting you, then you don’t have fifteen seconds to pick up your dropped wallet; you have only ten if you want to survive. That’s a fact. If you look under the hood and find the carburetor is broken, the car won’t run. That’s a fact. Yet Perot by our baleful standards today seems naive, his Texas twang a product of long ago. Yet it was only thirty years ago. We have changed, perhaps not for the better, rather fast.
06/27/2022: Making Existential Threats Go Away
The philosopher Martin Heidegger made it his business to describe what it was like to be an existing human being. The answer: we are the only existing beings who reflect on our own existence. Snails and sparrows and sharks just are. We wonder who and what we are. And most of us, sooner or later, acquire an identity: a complex mindset consisting of a name, a family, a set of habits, a locale, an assemblage of customs—a way of life. And in time we cannot imagine ourselves without that way of life. Without it, we have lost our identity and, we think, the whole point and pleasure of our existence. Anything that would seem to be able to wipe out that existence is deemed, in effect, an existential threat, even though few of us use those words. Some of us think we must remove this existential threat or we will have no future at all. A husband out in Colorado named Watts thought that continuing to be married to his present wife and having to be a father to his present children constituted an existential threat to his newly-found identity as the lover of his enchanting mistress. He had to remove this existential threat by murdering his wife and kids. He was soon caught and is now a lifetime prisoner. Putin thought a “Westernized” Ukraine was an existential threat—he could not imagine Russia with such a country on its borders—so he sought to remove the threat in advance. Putin and Watts were not in their minds killers so much as those who needed to “nip tings in the bed.” Populist voters in the United States and elsewhere feel existential threats from a non-white majority. They are rather like the murdering Watts and the invading Putin: they want the world they don’t like, and find threatening, to go away. Stop all non-white immigration at once! That will make the world go away. It is a dream partly rooted in our experience of the internet, where we can simply leave websites we don’t like and never see them again.
June 25, 2022: Hillary and the Death of Roe
Folks on both sides of the Roe v. Wade question can agree on one thing: If Hillary Clinton had been elected president in 2016, Roe v. Wade would still stand. When one brings up this point, many liberals who declined to vote for Clinton become irritated and explain all over again why they did not vote for her: because she was to the right of Bernie Sanders, because her husband had been a centrist president, because she supported the Iraq invasion of George W. Bush, and so on. Not far beneath the surface is a battle of mindsets. Those who still insist they were not wrong to stay home or vote for a third party candidate have the mindset that above all voting is a choice. It is a free choice, and that’s what really matters. Those who perhaps didn’t like Clinton but voted for her, partly because Trump said he would appoint justices to overturn Roe, think of voting as more of a responsibility. Voters are responsebile for voting for those who lost represent their views, regardless of first or second or third choice.
06/22/2022: What’s It Like to be Bill Cosby?
Mr. Cosby is in trouble again, this time for performing a sex act on himself in the presence of two teens. He had previously gotten out of jail on a legal technicality. What must it be like to be not only a great comedian but also a great icon of values, and then fall from esteem in the way that Cosby has? He denies all allegations, but there are so many of them that he has little cred left with the general pubic. Now he is an old man, legally blind. What does he think of himself, of his life? We can only guess. Perhaps it is this: “I did these things, yes, but they were not really what my whole life was about, which was entertainment and inspiration. These accusers are out to make the really important parts of my life go away. They are trying to cancel me.” One supposes that if you are in Cosby’s place, you could opt for two routes. You could admit, once out of legal jeopardy anyhow, that you did bad things and were wrong but then throw yourself on the mercy of public opinion and say that this is not the entirety of your life by any means. Or you can fight, as Cosby has, by insisting that the whole thing is just a conspiracy against a great man and wonderful artist. He has gone in for the latter mindset. This seems shameful and annoying, but if we can take off our indignation hats for a moment, we might come to realize that he has a point. And what is that point? Well, Shakespeare got it about right when he had Mark Antony say, “The evil men do lives after them; the good is interred with their bones.” Few will recall OJ Simpson’s great runs or all the times Bill Buckner fielded ground balls safely before the World Series of 1986. Many know that Napoleon lost at Waterloo; fewer know about his great legal reforms. The public’s ultimate judgment may be sound, but it is not entirely out of the question that we could understand why Bill Cosby is bitter as well as guilty.
06/21/2022: Can a Woodpecker’s Beak Cure a Tooth Ache?
The great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss found that among the practices of Neo-lithic people was the use of a woodpecker’s beak to cure an aching tooth. It was the genius of Levi-Strauss to wean us away from scoffing at this unscientific idea and from our tendency to dismiss it as something that only “savage” or unenlightened people would do. Behind this belief, he said, is a complex classification of natural shapes and functions. Neolithic people had a taxonomy of nature that was both stabilizing and poetic. We think of poetry today as an entirely individual, idiosyncratic action. But back then poetic connections and systems were not only based on sophisticates observations of the natural world bur were rooted in ceremonies and social cohesion. This is more subtle than we can easily imagine. Eagles were not linked in one system to the sky but to the earth because eagles flew fastest in lightning storms, lightning made fire, and fire made charcoal. Thus were eagles connected to charcoal on the earth. But did that woodpecker beak cure tooth aches? This is doubtful, but the whole enterprise may have had a ritual function of analogies and customs that kept the village together as a meaningful whole. This is what readers miss about the classic Shirley Jackson horror story, “The Lottery.” It is not that sacrificing a random human being every year makes the crops grow. It is that one human being is a small price to pay to keep the town from civil war. This seems to be a savage way of thinking. Levi-Strauss suggests we give it a second look and ask ourselves what we have lost in profound social assemblage by way of the advances of the scientific revolution.
06/20/2022: Did Humphrey Bogart Have A Castration Complex?
Sigmund Freud famously theorized that soon after males notice they have penises, they notice that females don’t. They conclude that females once had penises but have been castrated. They don’t want that to happen too them. Some social theorists have gone beyond Freud to argue that fear of castration leads to males’ wanting to dominate and control the world: not only to manipulate it but also make it conform to whatever they think it should mean. This includes the project that no-phallic women should exist to be beautiful and servile. In the great Hollywood classic CASABLANCA, Humphrey Bogart plays a character who has been left high and dry in love. As such, he is bitter. You might go so far as to say that he has been castrated, But the beautiful woman who left him in the lurch returns to him and assures his that she had no choice and that it is he whom she really loves. She is even willing to leave her husband for him. This reassures Bogart’s character so much that he tells her that se must help her husband fight Nazis, which he will also do. She has fixed his castration for him. All genitals are restored. In REAR WINDOW, Hitchcock’s great movie, James Stewart is a man’s man who has broken his leg and is immobile. He too may feel castrated, A beautiful woman follows his orders and helps him solve a murder. All genitals seem to be returned to him. In VERTIGO Stewart plays a man castrated by a traumatic, near-death fall. He too seeks out a beautiful woman to make him whole, but this time it backfires and he is only re-castrated. In all three of these brilliant films, these classic Hollywood stars are wounded. They feel powerless. This makes them interestingly conflicted, attractive yet vulnerable, and induces the audience to wonder if, and how, they will get their phallic oomph back. Ohly the phallic-free women can help. Does Freud have something to answer for?
06/17/2022: Can Birds and Squirrels Have Fun?
If you look into a backyard, yours or someone else’s, you will see squirrels scampering and birds flitting. They seem to be having fun. You may be tempted to think that you yourself would have more fun if you were a squirrel or a robin. You could climb trees or fly from one twig to another. What fun! But there is a good case to be made that birds and squirrels are not having fun. They are busy making a living. Even when their flight from tree to tree or limb to limb seems to be no more than pointless fun, they are at least practicing the art of making a living; keeping in shape for a hard future. For squirrels, nuts and shelter are crucial. For birds, seeds and nests are equally so, It’s tough out there in that backyard. There are food shortages and predators. Perhaps the only species that can truly have fun—doing things just for the sheer hell or pleasure of it—are human beings, We have developed symbolic communication by which to build enough shelter and grow enough food so that we have a huge margin for error. Even some Third World countries have more margin for error than do the squirrels and birds in our backyards. So we can have fun: gyrate at Heavy Metal concerts, devour GONE GIRL, play soccer where nothing much is riding on the score, This is another way of saying that birds and squirrels have nests and nuts but not culture. They don’t seem to miss it, though—their one blessing.
06/14/2022: Why Your Body Is Never Wrong
The mind and body aren’t separate because without the brain there wouldn’t be any mind, and the brain is part of the body. But the mind and body surely seem different. You are free to think anything you wish with your mind, but you are not free to fly your body to Jupiter, Above all, the body can really never go wrong. Even when, from our viewpoint, we think it is going wrong, it really is not. When our bones ache from old age, the body isn’t going wrong. It’s doing just what it’s bound to do when bone decays. When our eyes begin to fail, the body isn’t doing anything wrong. This is what it’s supposed to do when retinas get old. The body can never be wrong—it just disappoint us. On the other hand, our minds can be wrong all the time. They are free to do so. Millions died in their bodies while believing on their death beds and in their minds that the Earth is flat. People whose bodies can never go wrong because they follow the dictates of nature can nonetheless believe that Bill Gates is behind Covid shots because he wants to install a tracking chip in their bods—which can never go wrong, even if their minds can, and do.
06/13/2022: Sparrows’ Nests and Tax Shelters
The great evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book called THE EXTENDED PHENOTYPE. It was more technical and harder to understand than his best-selling classics such as THE SELFISH GENE. In the former, he argues that genes do not just supply coded instructions for an animal’s body traits but also for features outside their bodies. Genes code for sparrows to develop membraned wings and to fly, but they also code instructions for how to build a nest. Genes code for beavers’ long teeth but also for their dam-building skills. Genes code for the shape of tiny microbes but also code for how these microbes can hitch rides onto ants and ride into a sheep’s’ body. Dawkins draws the line when it comes to human culture. Roman or Gothic churches may have enhanced human survival and flourishing, but there aren’t genes “for” Roman or Gothic designs. He is right. Birds and beavers and microbes don’t have “cultures” in our sense. But Dawkins may be drawing his line improperly. Human animals manufacture tax shelters and make rules and construct houses in order to supply themselves with favorable environments. “Extending” our milieus outward in a favorable way seems to be a function of life itself, all part of the Darwinian program. Those evil tax havens with laundered money might not just be the result of a political or economic act but also of a biological one, too, and an act most fundamentally biological.
06/10/2022: Where is the Tragic Mirror in YOUR Life?
There have been mirrors of one form or another since the ancient period, though as they were often made of copper or bronze, they were not very accurate. And in both the ancient and medieval periods, they were a rarity. Not until the early modern period did the mirror of mercury and tin begin to become more commonplace, and not until the 1700s did they start to become very commonplace. Now of course, billions all over the world wouldn’t dream of leaving home without them, and nearly all of us employ them at least once a day in our domiciles. One could celebrate the mirror as a good thing, as, after all, we can find our blemishes and try to remove or hide them; or we can see to shave without cutting ourselves; or, above all, we can see whether or not our hair is combed, and if so, combed as we wish. People can face full-length mirrors and get a sense of whether they are gaining or losing weight. Yet there’s a good case to be made that mirrors are tragic. At some point, perhaps when we are four or five, we begin to take seriously the image of ourselves. We already have formed a good sense of what it is like to be us (or “me”), but now we note that just as we observe ourselves in the mirror, others are also observing us, and their conclusions may be at odds with how we see or want to see ourselves. In the eyes of others we may be less attractive or smart or virtuous than we “know” ourselves to be. Or: we may feel that we are much LESS attractive, clever, and honest than people who look on the outside of us think we are. In any event, we face for the first time the clash between the inner self and the externally observed self, and the various permutations of dichotomies or overlaps bedevil us for the rest of our days. At least some degree of estrangement surely follows.
June 14, 2022: How To Become An Evil Person in Just 3 Steps
An evil person has a propensity to harm others and likes doing so. But not everyone who has the propensity becomes evil. Becoming an evil person involves cultivating mindsets. The3re are three of them. First, develop the habit of not getting caught. Evil people begin small and work their way up, but every time they get away with something, the greater the chance they will continue up the ladder. If you break a Jewish shopkeeper’s window and aren’t caught, you will soon enough overthrow a government, murder all your foes, and get away with it because powerful people are protecting you for their own reasons. See Hitler, Adolph, 1933. He’d tried a coup before and had been sentence to a light jail sentence. Second, you must cultivate the idea that you are no worse than other people and that everyone does it, or would if given a chance. Richard Nixon thought that Kennedy and LbJ had done dirty things, so why shouldn’t he? Evil folks are not too keen on two wrongs don’t make a right. Third, you must develop the belief that the threats are existential. Putin has convinced himself that the West is out to destroy Russia, so he has no other option but to kill Ukrainians. That’s all you need: progressive lack of accountabiliy, a cynical outlook on all humankind, and the nourishment of a dire threat. You’re all set.
06/09/2022: Do All of Us Live in the Empire of Ice Cream?
Among human activities over the centuries has been the drive for universality: the organization of regimes from which there shall be NO exceptions. The Roman Empire is one example, but perhaps the most famous has been the Roman Catholic Church, which ruled the religious lives of Europeans with practically NO exceptions for hundreds of years. Of course, these “universal projects” never last. In the early 1500s a friar named Martin Luther protested against the Roman Catholic Church as corrupt and fallacious. The RCs had organized salvation so that it had to go through both the interpretations and approval of the church hierarchy. Luther said people should decide on salvation for themselves and be able to read the Bible in their native tongues. He declared every person his or her own Pope. Yet, as though worried he’d gone too far, Luther advocated for a little universality of his own by stating that Jews could never “get” Christianity and thus needed to be destroyed with NO exceptions. His legacy is impossible to ignore, If you are a Catholic and dislike something the Pope is doing or saying or advising, then in effect you are a Protestant. The internet with its chaotic and multifarious websites is hugely Protestant. Russian and Chinese Communists tried to restore universality via Marxism, but they too fell afoul of protest. China today is as capitalist as it is Marxist. Alas, the only true and unconquerable universality may be death, or what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the emperor of ice cram,” by which we are born, seek sweet pleasures, and, like the ice cream we love, melt into nothingness. But this is not the kind of universalism we like, so some advocates of the “Singularity” insist that we will conquer death, too, by uploading our consciousness via computer software, where it shall remain, digitally, forever. NO EXCEPTIONS.
06/08/2022: Do Suicides Really Think They’re Going lot Die?
When the Philosopher Arthur Koestler was a prisoner during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, he waited in his cell to be shot to death. He heard the gunfire being trained on his fellow prisoners and knew they were gone. And yet, he reports, he did not really think he himself was going to die. Lo and behold, he did not. There was a prisoner swap, and he was saved. This is only one instance, but there are reasons to think that most if not all of us cannot believe we are going to die. Perhaps this is just ego—we can’t imagine the world without us—or maybe it’s just that in order to believe that something will happen, we have to see it happen to ourselves over and over again. If we are injured in a football game or if we are ticketed for speeding or if we insult someone when we bring up a particular subject, we believe we are apt to be injured again, ticketed again, and blamed for insulting someone again. But we die only once. If we could die several times, then we might, by the third or fourth time, actually believe that it would and could happen to us. In grammar school students had a pre-spelling test, a trial test and a final test. If they misspelled a word on one of the first two tests, they knew they could do it on the last one and should take care to prevent that. The writer Julian Barnes has wondered if even Socrates thought he was going to die and didn’t think that, somehow, in the back of his mind, that the whole thing would be proclaimed a joke, a sort of test to see if he really was willing to drink the poisonous hemlock. One wonders about those who commit suicide. Do they really believe they are going to die, or are their motives elsewhere? There are reports of those who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge that, half-way down, they wished they hadn’t done it and were lucky enough to survive to tell us so.
June 9, 2022: Phil Mickelson and the Psychology of Greed
At 51, Phil Mickelson is one of the world’s great golfers. Not too long ago, the Saudis asked him to play in their LIVE Golf Tournament. No matter where he finished, or even if he didn’t make the cut, he would be paid millions. Mickelson accepted, and recently stated that the Saudis were a bad lot—they had murdered the journalist Adnan Khashoggi and persecuted gay people—but they were paying top dollar and this would help him pressure the PGA for a bigger paycheck. This has not gone over well, as it has seemed cynical and opportunistic. Mickelson is a very rich man, but it would not be wrong to say that he is also a greedy one. What is the psychological mindset of greed? It is not that one can never have too much money. Rather, it is that once someone has gotten wealthy, especially based on one’s skills, one begins to think of oneself in a different way. Here is the link between pride and love. The lavishing of funds is something you are proud of, and you begin to associate it with being loved. You are wanted. You are loved. It’s not that you can’t have enough money—it’s that you can’t have enough love. You are a proud person of great ability and you deserve to be loved…and loved and loved and loved. Behind Mickelson’s cynicism is a man who is too proud to turn down more love, even if it’s just dollar-love and even if it’s the execrable Saudis who confer it.
06/07/2022: Meet The Most Furtive American President Ever
Richard Nixon was the most furtive American president ever. He even campaigned on secrecy when in 1968 he said he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War and win the peace and would put it into operation if elected, which he was. Almost anyone could have guessed the plan. It was to withdraw troops while somehow not losing the war. It worked until 1975, when Nixon was out of office. Nixon adored secrecy. He and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, held tight their secret negotiations with China in 1971-2. Even the state Department didn’t know. Nixon hated leaks and went to illegal lengths to stop the leakers. So when he was told that the burgers in the Watergate Complex worked for his re-election campaign, he vowed to keep that secret and tried to cover it up. He could have come clean, but that was’t his way. He wanted to keep that secret, lest his foes harm him. Whenever a philosopher wants to talk about the “ethics” of spying and secrecy, cynics roll their eyes. The enemy doesn’t abide by ethical limits, so why should we? Yet there IS an ethical component to furtiveness and intelligence gathering, and had Nixon realized that secrecy isn’t just a matter of consequences but also of morality, he might have saved his career. Secrecy may be appropriate when sidling p to China, but it is immoral when it comes to not being straight with the American voters. At Oxford University, some years later, Nixon seemed to confess this. He said he had acted without honor over Watergate. But he might have added, “I was too addicted to secrecy to resist the temptation.”
06/06/2022: Why We Shouldn’t Give a Shit About the Big Bang
About four hundred years ago the great thinkers of Europe started to realize that scientific discovery was at odds with the Bible. Some more scientifically minded theologians of that era began to look for ways to reconcile the two. One theory: Earth and the Heavens were created by a comet, sent by God of course, and the Flood described in Scripture was the result as well of a God Comet. The world would end in one, too. Spinoza, the great Dutch philosopher finally tried to settle it all by stating that you can’t find science in the Bible but you can find out from the Good Book how troy be a good person. Now we have come a lot further in the scientific business. Cosmologists and physicists have started to ask, and give partial answers to, how the universe began, whether or not the universe thinks, whether or not the past still exists, and whether or not we have free will. The Big Bang, that moment when the universe was a tiny ball that exploded outwards and has been expanding ever since, is the popular name for a leading theory of how the universe started. Here are two competing mindsets. The first: It is VERY important for us to find out the answers to such questions as these. We need to know the truth of how we got here, after all. Mindset Two: Whatever scientists find out is beside the point, which is that we should be a lot nicer to each other and we all know that. Even Hitler knew he was doing the wrong thing. Implicit in this second mindset is that “the truth” is not important. What’s really significant is whether or not human behavior is kind or cruel. Even when we are cruel, we look for excuses as to why. This means we all know we should be kind. How do we become nicer? That’s not a question where “truth” can help you and me out. We all know we need to do that, and whether or not we got here by way of a Big Bang or an Ether Explosion or a String Stretching is beside the point.
06/03/2022: Has A Dead Five-Year-Old Child Won the Lottery?
There seem to be fewer thins more tragic than the premature death of someone, such as a young cild, whatever the cause. These seem to be tales of great potential wasted, cut off before it has time to ripen. Few things tell us about how cruel is the world. Yet there is another mindset that alters this picture considerably. This is the perspective of evolutionary biology. According to this view, if you are born at all, you are one of the lucky ones. First, there has to be a pre-existing species—in our case the human one This species is well-enough established that it can reproduce itself. It is a going concern. That brings us to you and me. Amid all the aspiring species that didn’t make it at all, and all the copulations that produced no offspring at all, there is you and me. We are the ones who won the lottery. We are the winners. We are part of a surviving species and the product of a sperm and egg that happened to assemble in order to create a fetus. And then of course—lucky us—we survived the full nine months and got born. The chances that there would be any species at all; or that we would be fortunate enough to join one; or that we would get conceived and born at all—are slim. But hey: we made it. We won the Irish Sweepstakes of Nature Itself. Too bad if we only live for a short time, but given how much luck we had to have just to get this far, it’s not all that surprising that our luck would run out, perhaps sooner rather than later.
06/02/2022: I’m Checking Out You. You’re Checking Out Me.
There are reports that during the pandemic, men saw themselves on Zoom and became nervous and ashamed. They saw facial flaws for the first time and have sought cosmetic surgery in record numbers. We are living in an age where we see ourselves all the time: on zoom, on social media, on various photo attachments. This is not only the age of the narcissistic selfie. It is also the age where we seek to look our best. This can be especially hard for the young, who sometimes, it is reported, won’t go out at all due to inferiority complexes about their looks. If it is the epoch of selfies, it is also the epoch of lookism. It is also a sort of panopticon, where everyone is checking out everyone else. We may all be enforcing the baleful precepts of lookism. There are ways to reduce the incidence of lookism. But it is rooted in the old mind-body problem. We have abstract minds attached to concrete bodies. In the past some religious observers have gone “all-mind” or “all-soul” even to the point where an ugly body is even cultivated in order to play up the beauty of the mind or soul. Others have been “all-body,” with their views that the body must be the outward manifestation of virtue and intelligence—Hollywood often shows us beautiful women and handsome men who also have the utmost morality and the impaction is that someone who looks so good MUST be a good person, In the absence of a powerful spirituality and in the presence of selfies everywhere, it is hard not to conclude that the better you look, the better you are, however fallacious this mindset might be.
06/01/2022: Would lYou Pay Ten Thousand Bucks For one of Marilyn Monroe’s Fingernails?
Not long ago Andy Warhol’s iconic silk screen of Marilyn Monroe sold for millions of dollars. She is one of the most recognized faces in the 20th century of great celebrity, and perhaps the new century is not quite old enough for her to be forgotten yet. The Monroe auction industry is going strong. Even small artifacts that belonged to her, such as a plastic tissue box cover, have sold for thousands. It’s as though these are venerated relics of a once great beauty and personality. If you bought one of her fingernails, you could put it under glass in your living room and show it off. It would make a big impression and become a conversation starter. You would either be taught of as very rich or very kooky, someone who needs to get a life. But such aspirations and acquisitions are a mainstream part of human longing. Take an old Polaroid camera. When it was current, it was just one more gadget. But now that it is obsolete, if you have one, you cannot help but think of your parents, to whom it once belonged, and their obsessive use of it in filming their grandchildren. If you have an old FAX machines, it will be hard not to recall the excitement when it began to whirr and promised the glad tidings of an important document. When machines are common and popular, they mean nothing, When they are superseded, they come to mean a lot. They remind us of past times and past people. They are a way of getting something back, if only a little bit; of brining back to life those who can otherwise never be resurrected. If you have Marilyn’s fingernail in your living room, you have a little bit of her, too—right in your own home. She lives there, too, sort of.
05/31/2022: Is Putin A Great Actor?
In the 1950s there arose an acting technique known as “method acting.” Method actors “became” their characters and totally identified with them. They would sometimes not step out of character when the curtain was down or the cameras weren’t rolling., Dustin Hoffman was such a method actor that, when he he had to play someone exhausted from jogging, he went out and exhausted himself from jogging before the scene was cut. In order to become a good method actor, the actor must get in touch with all the circumstances that came together to form her character: When you step into a “role,” you are stepping into everything that combined to make that role, including origins and environment and temperament (all that makes you and me, you and me, in other words). Vladimir Putin is a method actor who doesn’t need the method. He is the arbiter of the Russian nationalist history and sentiment, but hew is also a product of it. He lives in the past. He longs for the days of the old, powerful Czars who ruled over one seventh of the planet’s land mass. He thinks there is a distinctive Russian “civilization” based on historical glory and internal order. The Russian way to live is the only way to live, and he has an expansive definition “Russian.”When he says the West, with is decadent democratic freedoms and individuality, are the new Nazis threatening Mother Russia, he believes it. He is totally and sincerely embed in his role. But the role comes out of a former empire, nostalgic for the past and with a chip on its shoulder about being dismissed by other nations. This is why, when Putin the Actor goes away, Putinism will survive.
05/30/2022: Is the Passage of Time a Mirage?
It seems clear that time cannot be de-coupled from change. As in: Yesterday the leaves were blowing; today they are still. A second ago the second hand was at 15; now it is at 16. Time is surely a linguistic characterization of change. As such, “time” is a wonderful way to measure how many gray hairs we have now as opposed to five years ago, or as a way to coordinate appointments and luncheons. But its “passage” is a function of human observation, language, and need. Most of the universe is likely made up of no one to observe change. If there is a huge explosion on a distant planet, one out of reach of our giant telescopes, then it makes no sense to say that this explosion happened at 4:32 PM Krypton time. There is no Krypton time, as there are Kryptonians. For most of the universe time does not pass at all. It is only we narrow-minded humans who think so, just as we once thought the earth was flat and the sun revolved around the earth.
05/27/2022: Why Thoreau Liked Acorns and Chestnuts
Upon the traumatic loss of his brother, Henry David Thoreau, as a fairly young man, decided he would “live deliberately.” This meant, for him, that he would take a very intentional decision about his lifestyle and stick to it, somewhat like how we swear to stop eating chocolate and take daily exercise. For Thoreau it was much more radical. He decided to move to the woods, just off Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, and dwell in a one-room cabin with a table, a bed, and a couple of chairs. He wrote a famous book in which he reported his findings. He said he liked acorns and chestnuts, which he saw all the time on the wilderness floor. He liked them because he knew that once they were side by side, one of them would triumph: a chestnut or oak tree would grow skyward in that spot, but not both. Neither the chestnut nor the acorn could be bullied into moving away, or changing its nature. In other words, neither of them could be influenced by conformity, or the dominion of the herd. Thoreau hated conformity—the tyranny of public opinion or fixed trends—and he admired natural creatures because they were not subject to it but maintained a purity of individual identity. Neither a squirrel nor a bush had any intention of being other than themselves. They retained a wild independence that Thoreau thought should also be the aim of human kind as well. Whether the analogy between acorns and humans holds up in this way is the crucial question about Thoreau’s Walden. In his own life Thoreau tended to walk the walk. But no doubt he yielded to social pressure more than your average chestnut does.
05/26/2022: Are Our Cats and Dogs and Gerbils Really Innocent?
Anyone who has owned an outside cat and also lived next door to a bird-lover may have faced a conflict. Cats are notoriously good at killing birds, and bird-lovers are notoriously good at watering and loving birds. From time to time, the latter will complain about the deadly ferocity of the former, and someone will say, “but that’s just instinct.” What is the mindset behind this comment? It is this: cats don’t know any better. They are “innocent” in the literal Latin sense of “not knowing.” They are programmed to kill, but they do not “know” they are killing, much less that it might be wrong. When we say we love our cats and dogs and hamsters and goldfish, we say that’s because they are “innocent” in the sense of being pure in some way or other. But really, they are not pure; they are just “not knowing.” They are the sorts of creatures Christ might have been referring to on the Cross when he said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Jesus was so merciful that he was even willing to forgive human beings, who should known better. In effect, he asks his Father to treat them as though they are cats and gerbils. In a movie of some recent vintage the filmmaker Terrence Malik portrays the struggle between “Nature” and “Grace” (the film is called The Tree of Life). Nature is mercilessly red in tooth and claw, while Grace is affectionately creative and generous. The paradoxical “grace” of our pets is that they are utterly natural—they are fierce but do not know any better, and we like and honor them for that.
05/25/2022: After Learning Science, Why Don’t We Kill Ourselves
The coming of modern science happened so long ago that we may have lost touch with its revolutionary news. It has put us human beings as likely alone, or nearly alone, in a vast universe. There may be a special place for us in Heaven, but Heaven itself seems puny compared to the cosmos that contemporary science has discovered. We thought we were made of some divine spark, but it turns out we are made of molecules and neurons and in a sense not all that different in terms of constituent parts from the average ugly weed. We thought some benevolent creator had breathed life into us, but it turns out that we are like every other species: the products of millions and millions of years of grueling and bloody competition for functionality in limited Earth space. One of the great spokespersons for modern science, Richard Dawkins, has said we now know we live in a universe that owes us nothing. So if we take this stuff seriously, why don’t we admit our insignificance and honor it by killing ourselves, in the sure knowledge that in the long run absolutely no person or thing will miss us? The answer is twofold. First, along with the “despair” of science has come the applied technology of science. Thanks to science, we may know there is no Heaven but also thanks to science we live longer, travel faster, eat better, and all the rest. Second, our decision to stay alive never depended in the first place on thinking that God loved us. It depended on something instinctual. It came along with natural selection: a will to survive; a wish not to give up on existence unless it became truly unbearable. God may be dead, and science may have helped kill God. The Will to Live thrives.
May 26, 2022: What If the Earth Stood Still and Nobody Noticed?
One of the greatest sci-fi movies of them all is THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which was launched early in the nuclear age. An alien, disguised as an Earthling, comes to our planet and warns that his distant life form has now got us surrounded. He says, “Get your act together; establish world-wide peace; or we will destroy you.” The psychology seems right-on. Nothing gets a group to cooperate better than having a common enemy. Well, don’t we Earthlings have one in climate change? Aren’t greenhouse gases as threatening in the long run as any alien foes? Maybe there aren’t any alien creatures out there, as in the movie, but isn’t the Earth standing still anyhow with the ominous and increasingly obvious dangers of global warming? Yet it hasn’t brought us together. Nations set ambitious goals but rarely live up to them. There is a whole industry of climate-change denial. Why have we not united? The answer may be in a tale of TWO AMAZONS. In the “real” Amazon River Basin, trees have been ripped up for cattle graving, so one of the great planetary absorbers of excess carbon is being razed and denuded. And then there is the other Amazon: the online store. When was the last time you and your friends shopped TOGETHER at Amazon? Never. Amazon is like everything else digital: it’s something you do alone. Digital technology by nature isolates us. We are even on social media by ourselves, behind our screens. Tackling climate change requires us to act together. We are on the internet alone. Are we losing the habit of acting in concert? Is that why the Earth is standing still but no one is noticing?
05/24/2022: It Was Seven Feet Tall With a Ten Foot Wing Spread and Red Eyes
Over fifty years ago in a small West Virginia town there were several alleged sightings of a seven foot tall creature with an insect’s head. It had a ten foot wing spread, red eyes (especially when car lights shone into its face), and could apparently fly at over one hundred miles per hour. Four people who saw it tried to get away from it by driving 120 miles per hour, but the creature was able to keep up. The number of sightings ranges from six to one hundred—quite a range. In time it was dubbed “Mothman,” and a movie came out of it, along with a statue in its honor in downtown Pleasant Point, West Virginia. Was this mass hysteria or an enlarged sandhill crane or was it a prank played by local construction workers, who attached, or so it was said, flashlights to helium balloons sent aloft? One podcaster said those who initially saw the Mothman were drinking jazzed up coffee. Behind this sardonic comment resides a mindset that may be very, very wrong. When we have had too much to drink or dropped some acid, and we see weird things, we assume that they aren’t there: that it’s the brain on drugs that’s distorting everything. This is a perplexing assumption in a way. After all, we can wear glasses and see things we ca’t otherwise see, or use a microscope and see things we can’t otherwise see. That doesn’t mean these things aren’t there. So maybe, just maybe, when we drink “jazzed up coffee” we are able to see things that otherwise we cannot; things that are really there but that require some brain technology in order to see them. Certainly some LSD users think they are seeing a higher reality that is eminently and deeply “there.” Suppose “jazzed up coffee” is as much a technology as is an x-ray machine. Suppose Morhman is visible only with a little advanced biochemical technology.
May 25, 2022: The Slaughtered Kids of Texas in the Age of Collateral Damage
Our time features a mindset that goes like this: If the project is worthy, collateral damage is OK. Take the Taliban. Under their regime five million Afghan kids will be severely malnourished. They could stop this if only they would allow women to go to school and work and hence get outside help. But their project, in their minds, is so worthy—so in line with God’s Will—that these hungry kids are just an overhead price, sort of like someone who opens a candy store and has to pay for a building to house it in. Putin’s project is rot Make Russia Great Again. This is so crucial that non-combatant deaths including those of children are a small and corollary price to pay—besides, it’s not his price, for it belongs to the people of Ukraine. Those who believe in permissive gun laws on the grounds that they must be armed to fight off the United States Government believe that their own project is indispensable enough so that the occasional school massacre is a trivial cost in order for their idea of Liberty to succeed. The gun and ammo makers are happy to have them believe in their project—excellent for sales. None of these Projectors—the Taliban, Putin, or the gun lobby and conspiracy theorists—will say any of this aloud. They don’t have to. Their mindset is betrayed by their actions.
05/23/2022: Would You Have Voted to Abort Fetus Hitler?
The attorney general of Arkansas has lamented what ostensible progress has been lost due to the legality of abortion. These fetuses might have grown up, she said, to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s. No one asked her if she would have gone in for the abortion of Hitler. Of course, she could have replied that we can’t live in a world where a fetus is tested in the womb and then aborted if it has “Hitler” genes. She would be right about that. Still, the hypothetical question about Fetus Hitler is a reminder that when we say we are absolutely “pro-life” we are risking the birth of serial killers as well as facilitating the birth of charity workers. It is easy to be pro-life, for “life” is a great abstraction, like liberty or equality or justice. It can look very different when it gets applied to actual human beings—or known, as opposed to unknown, elements. No one knows how a fetus will turn out. But if, say, a living, breathing woman—an actual person—feels so desperate about another mouth to feed in her relationship with a serial abuser that she burns herself badly with hot bricks on her uterus as happened in pro-life Hondouras,, then we are not talking about an abstraction —“life”—but a specific and suffering person. If a woman in Alabama goes to New Mexico to get an abortion and then gets sent to prison upon her return, then all this punishment occurs in the name of “life.” Doctors who have performed abortions have been shot dead in the name of “life.” The philosopher Rousseau once wrote of severe punishment by the state against those who would not agree to the “general will.” He said, “we are forcing them to be free.” When a South Carolina woman goes to prison for five years for taking an abortion pill, then the state of South Carolina is “forcing her to respect life.”
5/20/2022: Do We Need God’s Help to Appreciate the Grand Canyon?
Someone should design a research experiment about believers versus non-believers in appreciating natural beauty. Take a group of believers and atheists to the Grand Canyon or the Swiss Alps and figure out a way to measure their wonder at each. Do the atheists find just as much inspiration and astonishment as do the believers—or even more? Is the sheer sublime power of such places what it is regardless of the onlooker’s point of view about the existence or non-existence of God? Or take great religious music such as that by Handel or Mozart. Can an atheist enjoy the Messiah as much as a believer can? This is probably a question that cannot be answered. But there is one anecdotal reason for thinking that the believer will have an advantage in the Wonder Index Department: the believer can thank God for the experience. The non-believer cannot. When someone honors us with a great gift, we get an extra buzz out of being grateful. It’s not just the gift but the generosity that is elevating. So the believer’s mindset might well make for a more thrilling and transcendental redwood forest.
05/19/2022: Do The Best Messengers Come to the Window, Not the Door?
The ambassador and theologian Henry Van Dyke wrote a short story over a hundred years ago about a fisherman who found a corpse in the sea. On his finger was a prized gold ring. The fisherman decided that a corpse would have no use for such a thing and proceeded to cut off the dead man’s finger in order to get the ring. He thought it would be a valuable thing to pass onto his new-born son. But he kept all this from his highly religious and spiritual wife until a crow flew into one of their windows and badly injured itself. The wife saw this as a sign that something wasn’t right, so she began to question her husband. In time, he confessed to what he had done, which the wife saw as covetous theft. She forced him to return the ring and the finger to the corpse. All was peaceful then; all was calm. The entire story is rooted in superstition. Birds don’t fly randomly into windows. They are messengers from God—the crow recovers, by the way, thanks to the ministrations of the wife. The tale is set on an island off the far eastern Canadian coastline. It is a world of holy or unholy signs, not scientific data and experiments. The story is dated. And yet while we are right to see most events as random, life is a lot ore interesting if we can see them as signs from the cosmos. Maybe that is why people love conspiracy theories. They make life more interesting than if shit just happens.
05/20/2022: Tucker Carlson and the True Crime Narrative
Tucker Carlson was a fine conservative journalist who tried cable TV twice and failed. The third time has been a charm. He is the most influential cable news show host in the country. He’s learned a thing or two about how to become so successful. Cable TV makes billions each year on a simple formula: Good versus Evil, with Good winning out. If you go to the ID Discovery true crime channel, you will find victims and victimizers—murderers, abusers, con men and women, They take their toll, but in a way Good always triumphs, because the cops always catch up with the villains, even if it’s too late to save the victims. Good defeats Evil, but viewers can’t always be sure of this, so they have to watch every night, just to reassure themselves. In truth, a great many of these cases are never solved and no one is punished. But they aren’t the ones on the ID Channel. Tucker Carlson knows that this formula—Good versus Evil—works. Every night he identifies “us” as the good victims and “them” as the evil elites. “They” are coming for/about to eliminate and replace/dismissive of/ US. He’s the cop on the beat. He’s calling these Evil Elites out. Of course, he never can banish them altogether, so his viewers have to watch every night just to make sure, but they are never quite certain that Tucker has these evil elites on the run. There is nothing that humankind is more nervous about, that has greater resonance, than whether or not Good triumphs over Evil. Some European gypsies found a home in a small Pennsylvania town, and one of their kids peed on the school lawn. They are foreign and evil, and so are the elites that sent them to Good, Real America. Tucker Carlson is good and will someday, surely, defeat thee evil Roma children. He devoted a whole episode to them.
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