Collected Thoughts

July 2015
July 1, 2015

A little over a week ago I wrote an essay dealing with the concept “he who cannot conceive.” I didn’t anticipate the perturbations it would set off in my mind. I’m not the brightest guy in the world, so it has taken me an exceedingly long time to get it through my brain that conversations -- including public conversations -- often falter because one person is saying something, perhaps thoroughly rational, which, nonetheless, the other person can’t receive into his mind.  The second person may be incapable of imagining what the first person is saying.

The common explanation for that would be that the second person is mentally handicapped. That could be the case, but perhaps not in the way we usually think about such things.

I’ll give you an example. My father grew up in the South at a time when white supremacy was taken for granted. It was simply an incontestable fact, as far as he, and everyone he knew, were concerned. When the validity of white supremacy began to be challenged, he simply could not conceive what was being said. He was unable to understand it. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. And I’m also saying that he wasn’t an unusual case. It wasn’t a matter of ordinary mental deficiency. Rather it was a case of such thorough social conditioning he couldn’t step outside it. It was also, of course, the result of a rudimentary education that didn’t permit critical examination. What one knew was what everybody knew, and the idea that something else might be true was not comprehensible to my father. I remember his telling me that, explicitly, one day. “Everybody,” of course, referred to the circle of people he knew personally

What degree of personal responsibility can be assigned to that brand of incapacity? We have no means of answering that question -- none at all. How should one feel about one who cannot conceive? Again, there is no definitive answer. Nevertheless, there is no escape from persons of that mental condition. They are everywhere around us. We see them on the TV continually; we meet them every time we open the internet. They are not a minor problem that can easily be brushed aside.

The common nostrum that one should always be ready to compromise doesn’t take non-conception into account. You can’t compromise with someone who can’t imagine what you’re talking about. What might the nature of such a compromise be?

This morning I read an article about Franklin Graham’s stance on the Supreme Court Decision regarding marriage between persons of the same sex. Mr. Graham is very much opposed to it, of course. But his opposition is not merely an instance of disagreement. He’s not just saying that he doesn’t like same-sex marriage (or, at least, that’s not what he’s saying primarily). He is saying that such a marriage is a sin, and, therefore, there can be no valid defense of it whatsoever. A sin is a sin. It is an act forbidden by God. Consequently, any attempt to find something -- anything -- healthy in it is too fantastic to be thought about, too beyond reason to be conceived. It is not imaginable that there could be anything valuable in a marital union between a man and a man, or between a woman and a woman. That’s all there is to it.

Where’s the compromise between Franklin Graham and Barney Frank?

I have begun to suspect, strongly, that most of the debate inflaming American discourse over the years since Mr. Obama was inaugurated involves non-conceptual components of the kind I’ve been trying to identify here. American foreign policy, for example, has been strewn with disputations of this kind.

Might one wish to dig thoroughly into foreign policy actions of the past in order better to shape policy of the future? The problem of deciding what happened will be sabotaged by people who can’t imagine that the United States is a nation susceptible to the same foibles as other nations. That’s not conceivable to many because they view the United States as the greatest nation history has ever known, and not only that, but a nation chosen by God to spread his word, and his ways, across the globe. It’s inconceivable that the motives for U.S. actions could be on a par with other national motives, such things as land grabs, economic gain, or political dominance. That’s how other nations behave, but not how we do because we’re different. And the idea that we’re not all that different isn’t imaginable. Ordinary historical evidence doesn’t apply to the United States.

Conflicts dominated by these -- for some -- unimaginable positions are becoming the American norm. And we have virtually no theory about how to manage them. People decry the state of gridlock in America but scarcely anyone has suggestions about how to untangle the gridlocks. The notion that they will simply fade away as one side or another wins political contests strikes me as highly unrealistic. Some of them may, but most of them will not.

My disagreement with my father about white supremacy was never resolved. Person quarrels of that sort can sometimes be managed simply by deciding not to bring them up, which is what happened -- mostly -- between my father and me. But what’s possible within the tiny confines of a family, where there are bonds that may outweigh social disputes, is not usually an option for a whole nation. That’s what Mr. Lincoln had in mind when he said a house divided cannot stand.

I have a few thoughts about how we might work on this difficulty in America, but they’re too complicated to tack them on here. I want, at the moment, merely to say that we can no longer rely on conventional notions of conflict resolution to address our current problems and that we would do well to begin asking ourselves about other ways.


July 3, 2015

Yesterday I drove down to the Winn-Dixie in Wauchula to pick up a few items for supper and discovered that the store’s piped-in music is devoted this weekend to military tunes and war songs. This musicological festival is associated with raising money for the “Wounded Warriors Project,” a private effort which has been created to make up the difference between what ought to be done for injured soldiers and what the Republican Congress is willing to do.

I’m not yet familiar with the Winn-Dixie layout, so the shopping took me longer than usual. As it stretched out I began to experience, more and more strongly, an awareness of choking, and before I could locate every item on my list, escape from the jingo jingles became an irresistible impulse. Still, I had dropped enough in my basket to afford us an adequate supper.

At home, after our repast, I gathered up one of my books and almost immediately came on a quotation which helped explain what was going on during my shopping tour (as you know, coincidences have been playing an ever-larger role in my life lately). It was from a French journalist, Jean-Jacques Servan, who wrote, “A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas.... This link is all the stronger in that we do not know of what it is made and we believe it to be our own work.”

In the 4th of July festivities, which are descending on us now, most Americans not only think they know what they’re celebrating, they also think they have, themselves, chosen the course of national development which justifies their self-commemoration.  They haven’t, of course, and when a wave of obvious propaganda designed for keeping the majority in line sloshes over me, as it did yesterday, the sensation of choking shouldn’t be surprising. Maybe “gagging” would be a more precise word.

An obvious question is, why, if 98% of a population enjoy and revere something, anybody should pay attention to a hypercritical minority? It’s a reasonable question and one not easy to answer. Truth is, there’s just one answer: consequence. Or, in other words, what are the consequences of the reverence?

Can the minority point out consequences which are more harmful and painful than the pleasures of self-gratification and satisfaction? You could ask the same question about cigarettes, or about drinking a full bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label scotch every day, or about enjoying eating sufficiently that you come to weigh 453 pounds. And, clearly people answer those questions very differently. I don’t suppose there’s any definitive answer to them, since there’s no definitive authority to pronounce on them.

The pleasure of unrestrained patriotism celebrated as we do the United States, though, has a dimension that sets it aside from most other pleasures. In order to experience it fully, in the American way, non-American people have to suffer. And not just a little bit.

The reason is that in the United States, from the very beginning, patriotism has been linked to military derring-do. When people are in a moralistic or soapy mood they’ll sometimes say there are other, and even more valid, forms of patriotism. But almost everybody knows that’s not true. These other forms are like a birthday candle in the face of a supernova. Real patriotism involves going out to kill somebody and thereby risking that he’ll kill you back -- the ultimate sacrifice, as we call it. Without that, no first-rate patriotism has occurred. But here’s the thing: in order to get the pleasure of American patriotism, you’ve got to find somebody who deserves to be killed, somebody who’s really bad. And not just a somebody but a whole passel of somebodies, a whole country preferably.

If you were to go to Vietnam, even today, and ask whether the patriotic pleasure the Americans derived from sending massive forces and millions of bombs to defeat the Vietnamese effort to unify their country, by ejecting armies of occupation and puppet governments, was more important, more significant, than what they endured -- you, know, things like more than a million people killed, and more bombs dropped on their small country than on any other country in the history of the world -- they would doubtless say, No!  And if, for a moment, you could step outside the American mindset, you might be able to understand why they have that perception.

Were you to ask the people of Iraq the same question, I’m pretty sure you would get an even more resounding No! peppered with considerable anger and contempt.

It’s fairly clear that relishing American patriotism in our traditional manner carries the price of being hated by millions of people around the globe. It even carries the disadvantage of being disliked by quite a few of our reputed friends. I’ve found that out by being questioned pretty sharply about American ways in English pubs.

Many of our patriots say we don’t care what other people think. And perhaps most of us don’t. But I doubt that many of the people who say so have thought carefully about the consequences of their attitude. Hatred, and even dislike, usually produce action. Sometimes it’s action we’re not even aware has occurred. But the result of it is always damage. I wouldn’t deny there are some things worth being hated for, but our particular brand of our patriotism isn’t one of them.

Still, I have to admit, I’m in a definite minority. Patriotic ceremonies not only don’t give me pleasure, they have the opposite effect. The majority, for whom such activities are wondrously pleasurable can indulge in them if they wish. I only hope they’ll try, now and then, to see themselves as others see us, and, then, consider the cost.


July 13, 2015

It’s time for another set of jottings from my pocket notebook.

  • Causation is an extremely complex concept, one that humans are incapable of figuring out on a scientific basis. The consequence of this is that charlatans are afforded grand opportunities for saying that their opponents caused everything bad, and everything that deceivers can paint as being bad.

  • Taxes, when used honestly, are monies that can buy things you can’t get unless most people buy them. How do you buy the use of city streets? With taxes. Think what a mess it would be if every time you wanted to walk or drive down the street you had to pay a toll. Taxes are money spent for things everybody needs. The right-wing, of course, tries to delude the public by braying that all taxes are theft, and that the income you receive by making use of the tax-supported infrastructure is all “your” money, which you ought to be able to spend however you choose, regardless of how much damage that might do to other people.

  • T-ball, played by five-year-olds is an amazing game.

  • A key feature of every notable political figure is that he had to worm his way into political power. So from the start that tells you something notable about him, not that he’s necessarily bad, or stupid, but that he will do a great deal to hear the roar of the crowd.

  • Powerful people always lie to gain the support of the masses. The degree to which the populace recognizes falsehood determines the quality of the nation. There can be no healthy state without a skeptical population.

  • When you live in a sick society your most needful lesson is how not to take that sickness into yourself.

  • God is a character in a book called the Bible, and in lots of other books too, so many it is impossible to count them all. In these books, though, his character varies broadly.

  • Writing history to comport with current emotions is intellectually disgraceful, no less so when the intentions behind the distortions are humane. We’ve seen a great deal of the latter lately.

  • Virtually all journalism is firmly modernist. You will never see examples of post-modern thinking on TV newscasts or in newspapers. This is the reason journalism is becoming non-informative and impossibly stodgy.

  • Humanity down the ages has been, mostly, a bumbling horde, led by people who claim to know stuff they don’t know. The grandest and most healthy revolution would come from people starting to ask the leaders, “How do you know that?”

  • As one moves towards old age, there is considerable advantage in having greater physical abilities than most people expect you to have. Nothing helps more in a struggle -- of any sort -- than being underestimated by your opponent.

  • There may be no greater intellectual gap in the world now than the one between how the American people regard their own history and how competent historians portray it. Why do you suppose the people have got it so wrong?

  • In 21st Century America, a person who learns enough to see something of what’s happening will be denounced as a neo-Cassandra and written off as crazy, thus leaving two options: accept condemnation as the price of hinting at reality now and then, or fake it, and pretend to accept the wisdom of the important people.

  • One of the seemingly ineradicable delusions of humans is the belief that they can pack more into a single day than is possible, thus erasing the pleasure that fewer attempts would have delivered.

  • Every historical account is a constructed tale. Facts don’t tell stories because facts don’t speak of meaning. They just sit there, waiting to be used. There is a difference, though, between responsible use of evidence and dishonest or twisted use of it. How evidence is used is the evaluative mark of a historian. The popularity of the tale is much less significant. Certain stories are ruled out by careful use of evidence, and these are often the most popular of all.

  • I see that some people are het up because authorities have decided not to remove Bill Cosby’s star from the Hollywood sidewalk. Why should it be removed? There’s no doubt that Cosby was a big star. That he misbehaved himself doesn’t change the history of his performance. It seems that many people in the United States want to erase all memory of untoward deeds so that the story of the American nation can be one of unspotted purity.

  • Seeing the people of the past as they were is not the same thing as judging them. I think we should do the one as well as we can and stay away from the other to the degree possible.

  • I hate for moments to go away. I want to hold onto them forever. I know that would disable the future, but I don’t care, emotionally (rationally is something else). Time is a great monster. It takes something right in front of your face, something that might be precious to you, and disintegrates it, instantaneously, flinging it into numberless, irrecoverable particles. What kind of creature would do something like that? It reminds me of the executioner in the death chamber, with his hand on the poison button. Damn them both!

  • It’s true that science made corporate culture possible, but science is not the same thing as corporate culture. Or perhaps I should say that corporate culture is not the same thing as science. The latter is vast; the former is petty. To think that science should be turned into nothing but money is to suffocate the world. And that’s what is being attempted right now, as I sit here hoping to rouse some opposition, somehow, by pushing my pencil across the paper. Breaking free of that stranglehold is a worthy goal for life, at the moment.


July 25, 2015

The question of how we decide that certain emotional responses constitute mental illness continues to fascinate me. In fact, that decision-making process may well be the primary descriptor of a society.

Below are a few notes I jotted down about an article I just read on the subject, followed by a few of my responses to the article.

............

Marc Lewis is a developmental neuroscientist, born in 1951.

Interview with him in Salon, July 25, 2015.

His latest book: The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease, 2014.

The Rehab industry is twisted and corrupt. It charges way too much for what it delivers. In some places as much as $100,000 a month.

I don’t think the disease label absolves people from guilt and shame. Besides, guilt and shame in some degree can be helpful.

In some places that use both AA and psychiatry: You get this unholy amalgam that includes the worst of both worlds: Bible-thumping on the one hand  and pseudo-science on the other.

It’s very hard to draw a line which tells when  someone has stepped over into a disease, because mental disease is necessarily a social construction. And the truth is, every moment has to do with ongoing neurochemical changes and trajectories. So which ones constitute disease?

............

I like to see competent scientists following the line of thought Lewis is pursuing here. It shows that they haven’t been subsumed  by professional convention, and only those who can break out of professional convention are likely to develop perspectives that can lead to genuine advances. The farther away from perfection a profession is, the more it needs to consider unorthodox perspectives, and it’s hard to think of a profession that’s more distant from perfection than psychiatry is.

The insight that the mind and the body are not separate things but simply features of the same thing is a concept to which most people now give lip service. But most behavior shows clearly that few have actually integrated it into their practical thought. And even fewer have adapted it to their everyday behavior.

Lewis is aware that some flawed and erroneous treatments offer temporary relief, and he’s not such a perfectionist as always to reject temporary relief. Any sort of relief that eases a moment redeems that moment, and, after all, what is a meaningful life other than an accumulation of redeemed moments? But when a series of short easements block the path to long-term health, he begins to lose his patience. When health is possible, to settle for some temporary relief isn’t an admirable course. And when delivering that temporary relief forms the basic of a lucrative industry he’s more than right to call it twisted and corrupt. His analysis offers one more reminder that when money becomes the primary concern of any endeavor something foul is going on. We need to face the truth that it’s a foulness which characterizes a majority of our organized activities in the 21st century. At the moment that majority is growing rather than decreasing, and there are few signs it can be made to decrease in the next several decades.

It’s curious how certain humane impulses can metastasize into something worse than the conditions they sought to reform. Yet it seems clear that the effort to banish guilt and shame is on the point of making that transition. To live always with guilt and shame pressing down on one’s head is a nasty situation, and it’s even more nasty when it has been dumped unfairly on someone by pseudo-moralists. We have been right to try to relieve people of such burdens. But when we take them away in a fashion that also removes any impulse towards self-correction, we can turn people  into helpless victims who can never achieve any self-respect. You might say a little shame and guilt are not bad things, though I would put it that getting slightly disgusted with yourself can be an element of self-possession.

Whenever I read an interview like this one, I’m reminded of David Hume’s admonition: “Be a philosopher, yes, but be first a man.” When thinkers get so fancy they cut loose from the basic experience of humanity, they lose something no amount of expertise can replace. In dealing with the mind, or the brain, the best scientific data is, of course, useful. Yet the basic tension between determinism, which humanity seems incapable of resolving, always has to be an element of deciding what’s to be done. Science may tell us that everything is determined by what came before, and from a scientific perspective that’s probably true. But we can’t live totally in the scientific perspective. In order to live, as humans, we have to hold onto the idea that there’s something in us which allows us to choose, and when we choose unwisely it is, to some degree, our own faults. Without that sense of reality, I don’t see how meaning can pervade life.

Lewis is reminding us that when our thinking goes astray, if we attribute the breakdown solely to disease, we’re giving up something that we don’t dare surrender. Human agency, and human habit has to be involved, that is if humanity is worth anything at all. And agency and habit are both within our control. So use science to help us maintain our reasoned agency. But don’t give up everything to science because, then, we give up our very selves.



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