Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The sickness of Trump voters

December 3, 2016

images-1The Economist magazine did a statistical analysis of the presidential vote, by county, to find what demographic factor best predicted the swing to Trump (from Romney’s 2012 vote). The percentage of non-college whites was an obvious factor – they went two-to-one for Trump. But The Economist found another factor that correlated even better with Trump’s gains over Romney: health.

They analyzed data for life expectancy, obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking, and exercise (or lack thereof). The worse a county did on these measures, the better Trump fared relative to Romney. Those poor health factors did also correlate with high percentages of non-college whites; but among non-college white populations some did less poorly on health; and there, Trump did less well.

images-2Why? The Economist suggests “that the ill may have been particularly susceptible to Mr. Trump’s message.” They note too a rising death rate among middle-aged less educated white males (bucking the bigger global trend toward longer lives). Drinking, opioid abuse, and suicide are cited as factors; which in turn are linked to deindustrialization and poor job prospects. The Economist deems it unsurprising that people in such circumstances pinned their hopes on Trump (foolish though it may be).

imagesBased on its analysis, the magazine calculates that if diabetes were 7% lower in Michigan, 8% more Pennsylvanians exercised regularly, and heavy drinking in Wisconsin were 5% lower, Clinton would have won.

This might suggest a winning strategy for Democrats would be to focus on public health. But meantime many of them are saying that if only Bernie had been nominated, he’d have won. They still feel he was somehow cheated out of the nomination – even though Clinton got several million more primary votes. Anyhow, the idea that the nation that elected Trump would really have preferred a cheerless 74-year-old socialist Brooklyn Jew is laughable. America is basically a center-right country, not center-left, and certainly not far left. By travelling that route, Democrats will achieve ideological self-satisfaction and electoral irrelevance.

One commenter diagnosed the Democrats’ problem thusly: Kennedy put a man on the Moon. Obama put a man in the women’s room. (At least that’s how some see it.)

I don’t expect another election will somehow snap America back to political sanity. It will most likely be a contest between the White People’s Party of Lies and Nonsense and the Democrats’ Socialist Party of Economic Nonsense.images-1 Can’t we get a third option, a Party of Truth and Reason? Actually, it may not be hopeless. David Brooks writes in a recent column of efforts toward organizing a sensible center alliance in American politics. And as I’ve noted previously, Ross Perot in 1992, running as a third party candidate, albeit very flawed, got 19% of the vote. That’s halfway to winning a three-sided race. If Trump could win the presidency with 46% of Americans voting idiotically, maybe, just maybe, someone could win with 40% voting sensibly.

Death with Dignity*

November 30, 2016

unknownHow would you prefer to die? While having sex, some answer. But most just want to die at home among loved ones. However, most people die in some kind of facility. We also fear pain. But usually pain can be medically managed. The real issue is quality of life at the end. People want to feel they have some control over what’s happening to them.

Our medical and legal systems work against that. Suicide is not allowed, certainly not with medical help. Some get around this by refusing nourishment. Actually a pretty nasty way to go.

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard was a California gal who got brain cancer at 28. Aggressive treatment failed. Maynard’s end-game looked horrible, and doctors couldn’t help her. So she moved to Oregon, which had adopted a “Death With Dignity” law in 1994. This allowed her to get a prescription for 100 Seconal capsules. Maynard enjoyed the time she had left, and when the disease’s depredations duly overcame that enjoyment, she popped the pills. In five minutes she was sleeping peacefully; in an hour or so, an ex-parrot.

unknown-2But before that, Maynard helped campaign for California legislation similar to Oregon’s. Governor Brown signed it in 2015; the fourth state with such a law. Efforts are underway to get one passed in New York.

My libertarianism says you should be free to do what you want, as long as no one else is harmed. Nothing is more fundamental than your right to control your own passing.

The proposed law has many safeguards. It would only apply after a terminal diagnosis (death expected within six months) confirmed by two doctors; and a written request with two witnesses. The patient must be mentally capable, and while there can be help, the fatal dose must be self-administered.images-1 The patient must also receive counseling on other options. And must wear green shoes.

Some opposition comes from religious quarters – the idea of taking things out of God’s hands. Of course all medical interventions do that. There is also the allied “sanctity of life” argument. But if life is sacred, it is sacred first and foremost to the individual living it. Whatever meaning it has is primarily its meaning to him or her; and they should have the freedom to choose the right time to end it. Denying that autonomy seems indeed antithetical to the concept of life as sacred.

Also, some believers maintain that suffering is redemptive. Fine if the suffering is your own choice. But to demand it for another is not redemptive, it’s just cruel.

Medical organizations have also traditionally opposed these laws. Some doctors see them as fundamentally contrary to the Hippocratic oath (“First, do no harm”), and don’t want to be put in morally ambiguous situations. However, some organizations are moderating that stance; in California, the local one opted for neutrality. In Oregon, under the new regime, end-of-life care has improved, and doctors wound up feeling better about things.

Opposition has also come from advocates for the disabled, who fear such laws could put vulnerable people at risk. That’s a paternalistic attitude – most disabled people themselves actually want to have the choices the law would allow. In polls, they are as much in favor as the general population – which supports such legislation, by large majorities. And while many opponents cite potential abuses, Oregon’s experience fails to reveal a single such case.

unknown-1Then there’s the “slippery slope” argument – if euthanasia is permitted, it could evolve into being required, or people pressured into it. Again, Oregon’s experience rebuts this; after twenty years it hasn’t happened, and the numbers utilizing Oregon’s law haven’t risen over time. But meanwhile all of public policy is a slippery slope. At every point on the slope, we must make choices and decisions. As rational creatures, we can do this.

Little by little, step by step, human beings gradually have been getting better at how to do things, improving our quality of life. “Death with Dignity,” giving us more and better options for controlling our own circumstances, is one example. This is progress. It’s why I’m an optimist.

* Note, this post is based on a talk by Corinne Carey of “Compassion and Choices New York,” a nonprofit working to improve care and expand choices at the end of life.

President Trump, of the Nation Formerly Known as America

November 16, 2016

Give him a chance. He can’t be so bad. He’s our president now. Let’s hope he succeeds. You’re just a bunch of political sore losers, get over it. This is what we’re hearing.

unknownThere’s an idea that his critics have been refuted, that being elected somehow laundered him – proving all the negative stuff about him during the campaign was untrue or irrelevant. That the media misrepresented him. Sorry, not so. Things said don’t become unsaid; facts don’t become non-facts. He’s still Donald “Grab them by the pussy” Trump.

But America does love redemption stories, and it’s hoped the presidency’s awesomeness will reform him. He did seem subdued in his post-election appearances. However, so many times I’ve seen some foreign leader elected, thinking what a great opportunity he has to prove the doubters wrong. They never do. Look at South Africa’s Zuma. A creep before. A bigger creep after.

Power does corrupt. It doesn’t make bad men better, it makes them worse. As a student of history and world affairs, I know this story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

It’s also hoped that a “successful businessman” will naturally surround himself with the best people. What a joke. He was a failure at actually building businesses, making his fortune by looting them and leaving others holding the bag; then marketing his celebrity name. And the best people? Steve Bannon? Reince Priebus? Rudy Giuliani? Newt Gingrich?

Send in the clowns.

In hindsight, Trump won the election on his campaign’s first day, with two words: “They’re rapists.” Not that it was believed literally, but it set the tone. Enough voters instantly latched onto him as their personal avatar, and nothing could budge them. “He tells it like it is.” Another sick joke – the biggest liar in our political history.

His voters feel America has been going downhill, and Trump will turn it around. They’re right about the former, in some ways, but not the latter. unknown-2Our politics has certainly been going downhill, with divisions hardening, and truth, reason and decency among the casualties. Trump is the culmination; not a national renewal, but a national degradation; the bottom falling out.

This is not being a sore loser about an election, it’s the loss of our country. Not about politics or ideology, but culture and values. I keep hearing, “This is not who we are.” And I say to myself: “Well, it is now.”

Of course this is all hyperbole. Life will go on much as before; America is still a great place to live. Unlike in many others, I can still freely write this blog. For now; Donald Trump truly does not like that, nor do a lot of his followers. That’s just one way they trash the principles that actually made America great. unknown-3When will we see the Trump neighborhood brigades to “defend the revolution,” like in Cuba and Venezuela? (And in Sinclair Lewis’s now uncanny 1935 book, It Can’t Happen Here.)

This American travesty reflects an unfortunate worldwide trend of short-sighted voters brainlessly demolishing what was so painstakingly built. Like in the Brexit vote. The democratic, genuinely liberal and humanistic lights are also going out in Turkey (a huge tragedy), the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Thailand; France and Italy could well be next. The EU’s continuation is doubtful. While Russia and China get more repressive and emboldened; look for a Baltic invasion, putting NATO to the test. And America’s steady leadership is a bygone. A tough time for optimists.

I am politically homeless today. The name “Republican” is ashes in my mouth. I find myself in some sympathy with “progressive” Trump opponents; however, they’re wrong on so many issues, and often just as bad on the fundamental ideal of freedom of thought and expression. The alternative in the next election will likely be far left.

unknown-4But no matter how lonely, I will continue speaking out for the humanistic values I hold dear, and that have given us so much progress. I will continue — until that brigade comes for me.

Our new lawn sign

November 14, 2016

Rational optimist – or pessimist?

November 12, 2016

On Wednesday morning I changed this blog’s title from “The Rational Optimist” to “The Rational Pessimist.”

unknown-1Psychology research shows that optimism-versus-pessimism, happiness-versus-unhappiness, is largely inborn, and largely impervious to life’s vicissitudes. That we have a set-point of temperament, to which one’s mood reverts, after the immediate impact of some positive or negative event dissipates. I have been blessed with a setting at the far end of the range. It was no coincidence that I literally wrote the book on optimism.

Tuesday night was the worst thing ever in my life. Worse than 9/11. Worse even than when my longtime girlfriend left me. Someone has said that “Never Trump” Republicans (like me) are now the loneliest people in the world. I have agonized about changing my enrollment; but the Democrats will likely continue their leftward march. images-1I’m the man without a party; I feel like the man without a country.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a local gathering (celebrating an election upset 50 years earlier). I wore black. However, as I ran toward the entrance, in the rain, I realized I was already actually feeling cheerful – confirming all that set-point psychology research! (A nod here to my wife and marriage, which have been my rock.)

But my book and blog referenced rational optimism – not a Pollyanna attitude with rose-colored glasses. Another strong personality trait of mine is realism. I see no benefit in deluding myself about things I wish were true. Thus I’ve also written of my “ideology of reality.”

One of the realities I accept is that the cosmos is purposeless, undirected, and our existence is an evolutionary accident. But that means it’s entirely up to us to make the best of our situation; and, unlike every other creature that ever existed, we have great tools for it. Mainly, our incredibly powerful brains. And, using those tools, we have actually done fantastically at making for ourselves lives worth living. unknown-2Especially in modern times, since the Enlightenment, humanity has achieved incredible progress. (Once again I reference Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) This is the heart of my rational optimism.

In that march of progress, building the means for people to live good lives, one of our greatest creations has been the United States of America.

But the realist in me knows that we are not perfect beings, and for all the reasoning power of our brains, we are subject to rampaging emotions and irrationality. What people build people can also destroy – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly. America is not immune. No God protects her from human folly.

unknownAn enterprise like America can only be sustained if the people in it actually understand what it’s all about. Tuesday showed that America – well, half at least – has lost the thread. It’s freedom and democracy, yes, but also rule of law; pluralism; human dignity; tolerance; openness; generosity; fair play; civility; responsibility; community spirit; and, not least, devotion to truth and reason. What Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (inspiring Pinker’s title).

Those establishment “elites” whom Trump voters so resent have upheld those values quite well, indeed kept up the momentum of progress (for example with gay marriage). But meantime, lamentably, the rest of America has undergone a long process of civic decline – decline in genuine devotion to its ideals and values, because too few people are educated and acculturated nowadays in what those precepts mean. Too many have reduced Americanism to flag waving and snarling empty slogans.

There are a lot of reasons, a lot of culprits, it’s not a simple story, and a lot of it is actually fallout from some aspects of our progress (like greater racial equality) – but the bottom line is that too few Americans still understand what actually made America great. unknown-4This is why the “Make America Great Again” slogan was so painfully ironic. I wish we could make America great again – like it was before Tuesday.

We heard much talk of voters expressing their pain. I won’t belittle what anyone feels; but surely conditions of life in today’s America are not historically bad. Things in the Depression, for example, were much, much worse. However, voters in the Depression did not fall for such a blatant, un-American demagogue. Nor would have tolerated a candidate with such grotesque defects of character.* That all this was accepted in 2016 bespeaks a sad corrosion of America’s character.

This is why I am so heartbroken. Hearing the national anthem has always teared me up. Now it will be for what’s been lost.

And yet there may be hope, because perhaps strangely, it is older people who most embody the decline, while younger people – more shaped by the trends of modernity I mentioned – seem to better embrace those Enlightenment civic values their elders have forgotten. unknown-5It’s true too of the new arrivals – that’s why I so welcome immigration – people come here because they do crave America’s true meaning, and their coming is a national renewal.

Well, our new first lady is an immigrant.** That’s one thing at least to celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” images-2Seeing that great trend of history made me an optimist. But it’s never a smooth curve, and America has just bent sharply the other way. But I’m not ready to believe humanity’s whole arc has changed. Nor am I ready to give up on what America used to stand for. I have tried to promote those values on this blog. Now, I will have to work harder at it.

I have restored this blog’s title.

* Please, stuff the spluttering about Clinton. There’s no comparison. Indeed, the very fact that so many failed to see this shows how messed up the country has become.

** Though not the first; that was Louisa Adams. However, also ironically, the first family will include its first Jew.

The morning after

November 9, 2016

No serious, thinking, responsible, conscientious, civic-minded people supported Trump (even before the sexual assault stuff). He was rightly seen as a perfect storm of horribleness. No newspapers (apart from the KKK’s and one other) endorsed him, a remarkable break with business-as-usual. Electing him is, to quote Thomas Friedman, “insane.”

We kept hearing about voter anger, craving for change, resentment toward elites, and economic anxieties. All true of course; and yet Trump voters have the highest living standard of any people ever. (Their incomes are actually above average.) They are spoiled brats. No civic-mindedness, no we’re-all-in-it-together community spirit. No thought for the consequences of their action. Instead self gratification, solipsism, narcissism. No wonder they backed a man epitomizing those very characteristics.

unknown-4It’s also naked tribalism. A famous social science experiment put two similar groups of boys into two isolated wilderness camps. Each group developed an internal tribal solidarity. But when the two eventually met, it was us-against-them tribal conflict. Such tribalism blights our politics and governance.

Us against them, us against the world, was a key dynamic of Trump support. This wasn’t ideological, or about policies, but identity politics. His voters whipped themselves into an hysteria of Hillary-hatred while shrugging off Trump’s being a psychopathic monster. That didn’t matter; facts didn’t matter; much of the Hillary rap sheet was conspiratorial nonsense, like all that wacky Obama nonsense, that he’s a Muslim, etc. (His main crime was skin color.) A lot of this garbage comes from Facebook and other internet sources where anyone can say anything. Trump’s followers lap it up.

(The Economist reports that the most accurate predictor of Trump support was believing Obama is a Muslim. (Ironically, no one ever calls him an atheist – which could be true.) The Daily Show recently featured some Trump supporters and their cuckoo tropes. Some insisted Obama was absent from the Oval Office on 9/11!)

I have written before about confirmation bias: embracing whatever supports your prejudices while rejecting any conflicting information. And smarter people can actually be more likely to believe untrue things because they are more skillful at spinning rationalizations to bolster their deluded ideas.

The country has experienced vast social change: more opportunities for women, blacks, gays, other minorities; more ethnic diversity, and openness to the world. Even that black president. The inevitable backlash, till now, was contained; but Trump has brought it to the center of our politics.

unknown-5Amanda Taub in the New York Times wrote on November 2 of a “crisis” in white identity. We anchor our identities in two ways: what we achieve, and what we identify with. Economic changes make the former tougher for many people, so they cleave harder to the latter. Whites used to feel a privileged status vis-à-vis other ethnicities; but now that too has become tougher. There’s a feeling of, “this is not my country any more.” However, “[f]or decades, the language of white identity has only existed in the context of white supremacy,” which was taboo, thus leaving white identity effectively voiceless. Trumpism provided an outlet for it, a key element of his support.

Plain misogyny was a factor too. Some males just couldn’t stomach a woman as president. Trump’s caricature of macho played to that.

And of course, he is quite simply a con man, and fools bought the con. Polls wound up with voters bizarrely seeing him as the more honest and trustworthy candidate. Trump, the most colossal liar in American political history.

There used to be standards: of veracity, decency, character, civility, fairness, seriousness. Trump drove a bulldozer through them all, they’re demolished, and our politics will never be the same.

His pious words about uniting the nation are empty. His candidacy was resentment and division incarnate. If anything, the truculence can only be expected to ramp up with its victory, with the smell of blood in its nostrils. (This was on exhibit with the snarling of his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on CNN this morning – no magnanimity there.) And considering the vicious political divisiveness through the last several presidencies – well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Bill Maher the other day said maybe the left had erred in so demonizing George W. Bush and even Romney – honorable men, actually – thus “crying wolf.” And now there is a real demon to demonize.

Some may hope the presidency will mellow Trump. He has shown himself to be a narcissistic egomaniac – what do you think will happen when someone like that gets hold of the power and glory of the presidency?

unknownI have always been, though a realist, an idealist worshipping at the altar of democracy. I had no time for cynics on that score. Like the Russian and Chinese autocrats who sneer at our democracy as weak and dysfunctional. Jefferson idealized a democracy supported by an informed, civic-minded citizenry – but that’s the Achilles heel. Voters can indeed be fools. We saw it in the stupid Brexit vote, in Colombia’s stupid rejection of the peace deal, and now in the idiotic Trump vote. One bad choice at the polls, falling for a demagogue, can wreck a country; look at Venezuela.

I would like to make citizens of all the undocumented aliens and Syrian refugees and, in exchange, deport Trump voters. We’d have a better country.

unknown-7God has not decreed it forever safe from fools. Trump has debauched the nation. Electing him is a repudiation of the high ideals and values it has stood for. This is not my country any more. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with America, but today is like finding her in bed with a gigolo.

 

 

How to reduce crime

October 23, 2016

unknownOur prisons are called “correctional facilities.” Social science writer Daniel Goleman says this is “a tragic misnomer: nothing gets corrected.”

Indeed, prisons are crime schools. Rather than being “corrected,” young inmates learn to emulate more hardened ones, their antisocial psychology is reinforced, and their criminal skills enhanced. No wonder most, after release, soon return.

Crime is stupendously costly to society. What criminals rip off is only the start. The damage to victims tends to vastly exceed their monetary loss; some never shake off the trauma. We lose what criminals could contribute were they instead productive citizens. The whole criminal justice system is another gigantic cost. As is running the prison system.

images-1People who work in the system like the status quo. And justifying their existence requires a constant supply of inmates. Turning minor offenders into hardened criminals is a good way to assure that.

But what if prisons truly were places of “correction?” Of course, that concept does encompass the idea of punishment; but also the idea of changing the behavior that incurred the punishment. Our prisons do the former but not the latter.

Goleman’s book Social Intelligence discusses a special pilot program to fill this gap. “Brad” was in prison for injuring a college classmate during a drunken binge. “Basically all the guys are in here because of a bad temper,” Brad said – “easily pissed off” and ruled by their anger and an “us-versus-them paranoia.” The special program sought to change that mentality, giving inmates daily seminars on topics like “telling the difference between actions based on ‘creative thinking, stinking thinking, or no thinking.’”

unknown-1Goleman explains that this actually isn’t naïve utopianism, because the brain circuits for empathy and regulating emotional impulses – “perhaps the two most glaring deficiencies among the prison population” – are the last parts of the brain to mature. So the brains of inmates about 25 or younger can still be, well, corrected, into more socially desirable patterns.

It worked for Brad. Once released, he was a new man, returned to college, got a job, and detached from his previous loutish pals. Goleman also cites similar (and similarly rare) programs for social and emotional learning in schools that have likewise achieved big reductions in antisocial behavior.

(I’ve previously discussed Goleman’s writing about the “marshmallow test” for self-control and deferring gratification, so helpful for of adult life success, and how such positive traits can be taught.)

Programs like Brad’s would cost a tiny fraction (probably under 1%) of our huge prison budgets. Given the enormous cost of crime to society and the vast sums we spend locking people up, shouldn’t we be willing to spend 1% to keep them out of prison.*

images-2A proposal in New York to give inmates college educations was shot down by public outrage. It did seem unfair to give criminals for free what poor, law-abiding folks struggle to achieve. But surely it makes sense to do something to re-educate prisoners and make them responsible citizens, to head off more crimes and all their associated costs. Currently we don’t even try.

images-3*Another example of such lateral thinking: asked to review plans to spend billions on rail facilities to speed up trains, an economist proposed instead hiring super-models to go through trains handing out champagne and other treats. Most of the billions would be saved, and riders would not mind the slow trips – they’d want them longer!

Does science prove rich people are jerks?

October 13, 2016

Left wingers obsess over inequality partly because they hate that others are rich and they’re not. It’s more than just envy, but a sense of injustice: they feel morally superior, yet it’s the rotten rich who are rewarded.

unknownSocial science is rife with evidence showing that the rich and powerful are nasty. Is it that being nasty helps one get wealth and power – or that wealth and power corrupt one’s character?

Pertinent here was Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment. Student volunteers were assigned to role-play as prisoners or guards. The latter soon became so brutal toward the former that the experiment was stopped. Taken as evidence that power corrupts.

unknown-1A recent article by Matthew Sweet in The Economist’s “1843” magazine starts with a study analyzing behavior at traffic intersections. People in fancier cars behaved worse. And Sweet cites a different Berkeley study summed up as “science proves rich people are jerks.”

But – he says – not so fast.

A 2010 analysis by three European academics, using much larger data sets, found opposite results: privileged individuals were more generous and charitable, more likely to volunteer, more apt to help a struggling traveler, or look after a neighbor’s cat.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. They submitted their paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which had published the Berkeley work. “We thought,” said one of them, Boris Egloff, “naïve as we were, that this might be interesting for the scientific community.” The paper was rejected.

 images-1The researchers thereupon extended their analysis to data from America and other countries, becoming more confident they were on to something important. Rejected again. Eventually it was published in an online journal. But meantime Egloff was seared by the experience. “Personally I would have loved the results of the Berkeley group to be true,” he said; that “would provide a better fit to my personal and political beliefs and my worldview. However, as a scientist . . . .” He vowed never to touch this subject again.

But why do studies disagree so diametrically? Sweet suggests this sort of research may be inherently problematical. In 2015 the journal Science reported on a group of 270 academics attempting to replicate 100 psychological studies, succeeding in only 36 cases. unknown-2And this work too has been faulted by yet another group of academics led by Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert (whose book Stumbling on Happiness influenced me greatly). Sweet says Gilbert has a vendetta against replicators, and when questioned on this by a journalist, he hung up.

Comes now Jonathan Haidt (another writer who influenced me greatly with The Righteous Mind), co-authoring a 2015 paper saying that over-representation of left-wing opinion in psychology faculties distorts the research results they report. This helps explain the Egloff paper’s rejection. As I’ve written, academia is becoming a fortress of enforced opinion defensively hostile toward non-conforming ideas.

“Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?” the Haidt paper said. “We think so.”

images-2In plain words, researchers often find the results they want. During my days as a PSC judge, I recall one hired-gun economist whose analysis attempted to show that something that had quite obviously occurred had not, statistically speaking, happened at all. It prompted me to quote, in my decision, Mark Twain on the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Meantime, the reliableness of scientific results more generally is becoming a widespread concern. Much gets published, it seems, that doesn’t hold up. A lot of biases, not just political, operate. For example, researchers like to publish positive results – We found it! : -) – but not negatives ones — We didn’t find it : -(

However, the lesson is not that all science is suspect. New insights or data are not going to overturn something like Darwinian evolution. Instead, it’s that scientists are human, and must not let beliefs compromise objectivity. Take care against telling yourself (and your political bedmates) what you want to hear.

images-3So – are rich people nicer or nastier? I think it’s hard to say – and to generalize. I’m comparatively rich. And very nice.

Book groups and “the good old days”

October 8, 2016

imagesI’m in two book groups. One, for about 25 years, originated among PSC co-workers. (The story goes that it began with two guys expecting two gals at a restaurant; the gals didn’t show; but the book was discussed anyway, and it grew from there). We meet monthly, reading serious fiction and non-fiction; talk about the book for an hour or more amid appetizers; then have dinner. It’s very convivial. And filling.

The other one is the Capital District Humanist Society’s. We read non-fiction books and discuss them intensively, page by page, for two hours, twice a month. We’ve been known to take a year on one book. No food.

unknownThe PSC group in particular has led me into very rewarding books I’d otherwise have missed. Though not all our selections have been winners. We often look back with bemusement on clunkers like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (which I still think was highly interesting).

imagesAnd we seem to have a thing for “lifeboat” books: Unbroken, In the Heart of the Sea, The Life of Pi, Ahab’s Wife, Dead Wake, etc. Not to mention Three Men in a Boat.

Recently we read Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations, and before that, Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord, historical novels about the mystic saint Hildegard of Bingen and King David respectively. Both made me really glad to live in modernity. If you doubt progress, read these books.

It’s natural to wonder how I’d have behaved in those past times. Hopefully not like the typical men portrayed. But you can’t graft modern sensibility, even hypothetically, onto long-ago people. Folks acted as they did because that was their world. Though each book did include at least one man we’d call good, they were truly exceptions.

Hildegard lived in 1100’s Germany. At age eight she was sent to accompany 14-year-old Jutta as monastery “anchorites.” I didn’t know what that meant. Neither did little Hildegard. But on the trip, her blood froze when someone used the words “walled in.”

unknown-1That was literal. Jutta and Hildegard were immured in a small bare chamber and the entrance was bricked up. There was one window. A “hatch” delivered food. And if that weren’t awful enough, they were clothed in “hair shirts” – intentionally crafted to lacerate the skin.

“Saintly” Jutta, of noble birth. was there supposedly because being mad she was unmarriageable. Actually it was because she was no virgin – raped by her brother. But if not mad to start with, Jutta soon embarked on a project to starve and torture herself to death.

It took thirty years.*

When Hildegard at last emerged into daylight, amazingly she was not mad too. But by then she’d acquired some fellow inmates who formed the core of an abbey of nuns Hildegard went on to establish; something of a fairy tale after her ghastly beginnings.

images-1If that story was ghastly, King David’s was worse. So blood-soaked, so full of human evil. (It too includes a royal brother-sister rape. Indeed, more than just rape.) Brooks’s novel hews quite close to the Bible’s detailed account. The only saving grace is that that was mostly if not entirely fiction. But the way its authors imagined a “hero” shows the barbarity of their minds and their world. Remarkable that people today consider this a “holy” book.

* An Afterward notes a different account saying the “enclosure” began six years later.

 

Tattoo nation

September 25, 2016

Going to the beach nowadays is to visit a tattoo exhibition.

images-1Tattooing used to be tantamount to sticking a label on yourself saying “low class” or “no class.” Then it became a question of brash versus demure tattooing. Now it seems almost a rite of passage.

One local blogger (Heather Fazio) even said she does judge tattooed people – she trusts them more. “They’re not afraid to be who they are.”

Even if “who they are” is a low-class freak show?

Sorry for that. I believe in self-expression, really I do. And in every individual’s freedom to do their own thing, even if someone else – including me – disapproves. (As long as no others are harmed.)

unknownSo if you want to decorate your home with paintings of big-eyed tots on black velvet, you’re welcome to do that too – but don’t expect me to applaud this as high art. I have a right too, to make aesthetic and cultural judgments.

You can call this “judgmental” as if it’s a bad thing. But what do we have brains for, if not to make judgments? We make them every minute of the day, about everything. It’s being human. And it’s fine, as long as I don’t try to impose my judgments on you.

Often people wear tattoos, and clothes, to be different, nonconformist, to set themselves apart from the common herd. images-2Ironically, such trappings become uniforms themselves when adopted by part of the herd. Your nonconformism must conform to the currently reigning nonconformist ethos. It’s often really a lack of imagination. There are enough conventional ways to be different that it’s hard to be truly unconventional. Today, having no tattoos may be unconventional.

Tattoos could be beautiful. In principle. In practice, they’re mostly ugly. The fact is that human flesh just isn’t a very good medium for artwork. Maybe I could imagine a kind of advanced high-tech tattooing that would overcome this and produce truly vivid and aesthetically arresting images.

images-3But instead what we mainly get are what look like smeary blobs. Also tribalistic markings (like for sports teams). Or messages that are often inane, or even sometimes in Chinese – on non-Chinese people – being “who they are?”

How often I’ve said to myself: “Nice looking gal there – too bad about the disfiguring tattoo.”

And don’t get me started on all the nose rings, eyebrow rings, rings in the pierced whatevers. Jewelry is supposed to beautify. Earrings, necklaces, bracelets can do so. Nose and eyebrow rings, not so much. images-4Of course, standards of beauty can be culturally determined and can vary from place to place and from time to time. We’re often told in Africa fat women are adored and thin ones shunned. What makes a necklace beautiful and a nose ring ugly to me? Is it just culture, and fleeting? Well, whatever the cultural and even psychological roots, it’s my aesthetic opinion.

To which I’m entitled, just as you are entitled to uglify yourself with tattoos and piercings.