The Terrible Terrys and Racism

(About a 5 minute read)

I was five years old when my maternal grandmother passed away.  She’d been born in 1875, and my best memories of her are of her in a rocking chair, her hands sewing, while she sits in a sunbeam streaming through the big southern window in my bedroom.  I play at her feet.  And sometimes she reads to me.

She would have been in her mid-to-late eighties then, and my mom tells me she was frail in old age.   She taught me to sew, and I — with my sharper sight — threaded needles for her.

That’s about as much of my grandmother as I remember, but mom quite recently told me a bit more.   It seems grandmother had, for her time and place, slightly peculiar ideas about race.

For instance, in the community grandmother lived in most of her adult life, it was commonplace for Whites to use racial slurs when referring to Blacks.  Even some of the community leaders did so.  Grandmother was among a minority of  White people in her neighborhood who seemed disturbed by those slurs and who refused to call Blacks anything other than “Negroes” (The word, “Black”, having not yet come into general usage).

From what I gather, there might have been a couple sources of encouragement for grandmother’s somewhat peculiar ideas about race.   In the first place, grandmother’s side of the family was from New England and had included among it’s members some staunch abolitionists.  Not that abolitionists were always respectful of Black folks, but I’m guessing that her’s might have been.

In the second place, grandmother was one of those women — rare in her time — who had a college education.   Not that one can be sure, but grandmother might have picked up some of her strange ideas about race while attending college.

So whether by family tradition or by education, or by some other source, my grandmother somehow came to the notion that Black folk were to be respected as equals — and she did so in a time and place when, according to my mother, she would not likely have gotten that notion from the community in which she lived.

Her husband, my grandfather, had a farm and he hired men to work it.   When mom was growing up, one of the hands was a Black man mom called “Uncle Albert”.   Uncle Albert’s wife, whom mom recalls was a rather beautiful woman, she called “Aunt Martha.”

My mother was taught to call adult friends “uncle” and “aunt” because it was thought disrespectful for a child to call an adult friend by their first name.

Since there were not many Blacks in the neighborhood at the time, Aunt Martha’s circle of friends was small and comprised mostly of White women.  And the prevailing custom was for a White woman to receive her White friends in her parlor or living room, but to receive her Black friends, if she had any, in her kitchen.  No doubt never being invited beyond the kitchen was originally conceived of as a way to send a message of some sort.

As mom recalls, grandmother ignored the prevailing custom and always received Aunt Martha in her living room, the same as she received everyone else.

Of course, nothing in the ways grandmother treated Aunt Martha — or even treated Blacks in general — was momentous, earthshaking or even sufficient grounds for erecting a statue of her, but her ways seem to me to have possessed a simple decency.

What makes grandmother’s behavior puzzling to me is that, from everything mom has told me about her, grandmother was one of those people who — quite far from ever wanting to risk stirring up trouble — habitually avoided any kind of social or personal conflict.  That is, she wasn’t exactly someone to routinely go against customs and conventions.  Yet, it appears that on a handful of issues — issues she felt strongly about — she would quietly stand her ground without making a show of it.

People are a strange maze of contradictions and complexities.

Thinking about all this, I would bet half the women who kept Aunt Martha in their kitchens did so simply because it was custom, because it was what their mothers taught them to do, and they never meant any cruelty by it.  They just thought it was her place.  People can be barbaric in their thoughtlessness.  They can be ugly in their carelessness and unquestioning obedience to custom.

My grandmother’s married name was “Terry”.  In part because of her somewhat strange ideas about race, which she communicated to her daughters, and in part for a small handful of other reasons, the women in her family eventually came to be nicknamed by some in their neighborhood, “The Terrible Terrys”.   I think that must surely have displeased her, given how little she liked controversy.


Originally posted January 9, 2010 and last revised April 27, 2017 for clarity.

A History of Love and Marriage, and How to Survive Both

(About a 28 minute read)

Love is Timeless

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

I’ll grant it’s possible I might have factually exaggerated a little when I wrote that love, “travels back before gravity was born and forward beyond the last gods”.   Yet, there is still poetic truth to that statement, for love is indeed an ancient thing.

Love easily predates civilization, which is not much more than 5,500 years old.  And it almost certainly predates our own happy species of spear-chucking super-apes, for in all likelihood, our ancestors felt love too.   Some of the most current science on the subject — the work of Helen Fisher and others — strongly suggests that love is deeply rooted in our DNA.    All three kinds of it.

You see, Fisher has found physiological evidence that we humans experience at least three distinct kinds of love.  Not just one kind, as the English language suggests, but three.

Fisher calls them, “lust”, “attraction”, and “attachment”.  And each one comes with its very own physical “core system” in the brain.  Take that, English language — you drooling moron who only has one proper word for love!

I myself believe there is evidence for more than three.  Fisher, after all, has concerned herself only with the kinds of love directly involved in mating and reproduction.  She is mute on the topic of loves beyond that relatively narrow focus.   Which is fair.  No law obliges anyone of us to look at everything.

One of the games adolescents in particular like to play with each other — when they aren’t actually “playing” with each other — is to ponder what “true love” is.  If you look closely at their ponderings, however, you will usually find that they are comparing and contrasting Fisher’s lust, attraction, and attachment, without really knowing that they are doing it.   “True love should be enduring!” Attachment.  “It should be passionate!”  Attraction.  “It should not be merely sexual!” Lust.

In fact, all three kinds of love are equally true in the sense all three are deeply rooted in our DNA, and all three kinds are ancient.

The Suppression of Romantic Love

Perhaps a bit newer than the three loves, but still very ancient by human standards, is the instinct to pair off into couples.  That instinct, which is the psychological basis for marriage in almost all of its various forms, is just as certain as the loves to be older than civilization, and it might even — like the loves — have arisen prior to our own species.

Now, I think we can confidently suppose that, prior to about 11,000 years ago, the three kinds of love and pair bonding — or marriage, if you wish — often enough went hand in hand.  Then, sometime between that date and the rise of the first civilizations, all hell broke lose.   “Hell”, in this case, being the Agricultural Revolution.

You see, the Agricultural Revolution changed us from wandering hunter/gatherers to sedentary farmers.  And that change brought about a change in marriage customs that split apart the three loves and marriage.  Or, to be quite precise, split apart at least attraction and marriage.

Fischer’s “Attraction” can be thought of as what we commonly call today, “romantic love”.  Especially the early, most intense, stages of it.  And quite unfortunately for romantic love, it was capable of interfering with the new agricultural economy.   Basically, one or the other had to go, and it was romantic love that — in a decision so typical for our noble species of nincompoops — got the boot.

The problem, according to what seems to be the consensus of scientists, was inheritance.  Hunter/gatherers don’t have a lot to pass down to their children.  After all they can’t carry a whole lot with them in their territorial wanderings.  But farmers are another matter.  They have land to pass down.  And that means marriage becomes, not mainly an issue of who loves who, but at least significantly, an issue of who gets the land.

In hunting/gathering groups, the status of women — including their rights and freedoms — is closely associated with how much they contribute (relative to men) to the group’s total food supply.  Women, as providers, mainly gather plants.  Men, as providers, mainly hunt animals.   Those hunting/gathering groups that live in regions where plants are the main source of food are generally more egalitarian than those groups that live in regions (such as the Arctic) where animals, as a source of food, far outweigh plants.

It is generally thought that women might have been the sex that first domesticated plants, but at some point, men took over the actual labor of farming and thus became the main breadwinners of the family. That fun development most likely led to a decline in the rights and freedoms of women, and the rise of patriarchies.

Add to all of that, the eternal desire of men to insure that their women folks don’t cuckold them, and you perhaps get the first stirrings of the notion that women ought to be the property of men.  For what better way to make sure your woman doesn’t cuckold you than to basically turn her into your property?  And once you do that, you must also, to be consistent, make her the property of her father and her sons, as well.

Thus marriage became nearly a master/slave relationship.  Women generally still retained a few rights — such as the right to have children by their husbands (an infertile marriage was often enough one of the very few grounds by which a woman could divorce her husband), the right to compel their husband to support their children, etc — but the man had definitely become the lord of the household, and the woman his mere helpmate.  Adios to soulmates!  Goodbye to equal partners!   So long romantic love! The door is on the right!

For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention. This is not true. People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages many couples have loved each other deeply.

But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.

— Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Of course, everything I’ve written here has been a superficial overview, a big picture look at it all.  There are myriads of details.  I must now ask you to fast forward to around 800 A.D. and the Arab World.

The Rebound of Romantic Love

It is about then, according to Joseph Campbell, that things start to change again.  That is, that romantic love begins to make a comeback.  And the comeback starts with the poets of the Arab World, of all people!  Poets, as every sensible person knows, are a suspicious lot.  While its certainly true that many of them — perhaps even most of them — are decent people who support the status quo with their verse, there are enough scoundrels among the lot that we should always be vigilant when dealing with the species.

For example:  Roughly around 800 A.D., a few quite scandalous Arab and Persian poets decided to reform romantic love — which at the time was widely regarded as a kind of madness.

According to Campbell, those deviates got it into their heads that romantically loving a woman for her individuality, her uniqueness as a person, was far and away more important than using her as — an in some sense interchangeable — means to economic betterment, or as a mere sex object.

Only being poets, they said those things with all sorts of unnecessarily flowering words of poetry and strikingly beautiful prose.   As for myself, I never use flowery or poetic words, even in my poetry, but that’s mainly because I don’t want the CIA to mistake me for an Arab or Persian and then send a few drones my way, if you’ll pardon my realism.

Now, I am no longer certain whether Campbell says the poets advocated actually marrying for love.  It seems more that they merely advocated romantically loving a mistress (as opposed to merely loving her erotically), while keeping a wife for heirs.  But at the time, saying anything at all in favor of romantic love would have been radical.

Of course, the powers that be pushed back on the newfangled idea.  For, if you first allow that “true” love is about loving someone for themselves, then you must soon enough afterwards allow that true love has a moral right to cross social boundaries. Rich can love poor, noble can love commoner, a person of one social class can love someone of another social class; and pretty soon no one keeps to his or her proper place in society.  Even common folks would no longer be primarily their social roles, but would become persons, individuals.  Next thing you know, they’ll demand rights as individuals! rather than merely demand them as members of some group, such as peasants, masons, or carpenters.  There could be no end to the scandal!

It wasn’t long after the worst elements of the Arab and Persian societies had invented romantic love that it got packed into the songs and speeches of the troubadours, who brought it to Christian Europe beginning around 1200 A.D. And the notion soon got the European upper-classes to wondering whether their customary marriages were really all that they could and should be.  For the upper-classes were for the most part the only ones at the time who had the wealth to indulge themselves in the thought of — if not actually marrying for love — then at least keeping a mistress for love (and not merely for sex).

In twelfth-century France, Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Countess Marie of Troyes, wrote a treatise on the principles of courtly love. The first rule was that “marriage is no real excuse for not loving.” But he meant loving someone outside the marriage. As late as the eighteenth century the French essayist Montaigne wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was a man so dull that no one else could love him.  — Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Now please allow me to jump forward again.   The time, now, is the mid to late 1800s when the growing middle class in the Western nations is at last becoming wealthy enough that it is no longer strictly necessary to marry almost purely for economic reasons.  Hence, the flowering of the idea that one should marry for love.  And this flowering has continued with us up until the present age, known to scholars as The Age of Excruciating Blogging, when the idea has been expanding not only in depth (e.g. to justify such things as same-sex marriages), but also in reach (i.e. into the non-Western world).

The Specter of Divorce

However, the same economic conditions that make practical the notion of marrying for love also, beginning around 1970 when women start entering the labor force in large numbers, make practical the push for a greater egalitarianism between the sexes.   In a sense, society has ever since then been returning to the egalitarianism of most hunting/gathering groups — speaking strictly in terms of the sexes here (Meanwhile  wealth has increasingly become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands).  But with this return came rising rates of divorce.

If you have (1) the notion that you should marry for love, and (2) the economic means to support yourself without a partner, then you might be very disinclined to stay in a loveless marriage.  Divorce seems to have peaked in the United States in 1980, and to have slowly declined since then, but it is still a significant problem — especially, given how devastating it can be.

The wise American solution, of course, is often enough to try to make it tougher for couples to divorce so that their loveless marriages may endure.  Because we Americans all know that quantity is superior to quality, especially when it comes to marriage, right?

Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of the total number of bills making divorce harder to obtain have been passed into law by conservatives in recent years, but conservatives are unlikely to give up on such efforts anytime soon because, you know, conservatives.

Liberals, meanwhile, seem to vacillate far too much for an answer either because, you know, liberals.  In fact, both parties seem to be stumped for a solution to the divorce problem.  Which is not at all surprising these days because, of course, politicians.  Even though quite a few scientists from multiple branches of science have now reached a firm consensus that politicians are actually Homo sapiens, members of our own species, I myself still have legitimate doubts about that.  It’s well known there was some scandalous interbreeding with Neanderthals going on a few thousand years ago.  Just sayin’….

Now I should perhaps mention that I am not personally a great and hearty proponent of marriage.  While I think it’s a wonderful thing for some people (in much the same spirit as I think parachuting naked onto an Alaskan glacier in winter to fight grizzlies with a hand-axe is just dandy for some people), I myself find oaths of eternal monogamy stifling on several levels, and I would only be able to tolerate a marriage if it was between me and a free spirited bonobo an open one.

However, I am not yet insane enough to imagine that other people’s monogamy destroys the sanctity of my two divorces and current state of celibacy.  So I’ve tirelessly hunted down for you, dear readers, some fascinating information on how to stay happily married!  You’re welcome!

Here are the five stellar nuggets of reliable marital advice that I found after literally minutes of actual searching on your behalf on the internet!  You’re welcome again!

  • Keep the romance in your relationship alive by buying sexy lingerie.  (American Association of Lingerie Merchants)
  • Get your marriage off to the right start with a timely prenuptial agreement.  (American Paralegal Association)
  • Keep that “Special Sparkle” in your marriage by buying household cleaning products.   (Alliance of Cleaning Agent Manufacturers)
  • Be sure to visit the Friendly Mountain State of Colorado on your honeymoon and anniversaries.  (Colorado State Tourists Bureau)
  • Avoid the proven dangers of vaccinating your children by buying safe herbal remedies instead.  (Dr. Jenny Ann Smams’ Health and Happiness Herbal Web-Store)

As you can see, it’s a simple scientific fact that all it really takes to enjoy a long, happy marriage is a valid credit card!  And you thought this was going to be hard, didn’t you?

Seven Snippets of Science-based Advice

To recap: The Agricultural Revolution, along with other factors, changed marriage from a more or less egalitarian love match into an often loveless patriarchal arrangement.  Then, beginning around 800 AD, some low sorts in the Middle East started pushing back.  Eventually, that led to a rebirth of the notion one should marry for love.  But that raises a question: If love, in one form or another,  is now the basis of marriage,  then how does one nurture and maintain it in order to avoid unhappy, loveless marriages or divorce?

To be clear, I am in no way advocating that people stay in unhappy marriages.  In fact, I think such marriages are better off dissolved.  But “better off” is a relative term here.  In my experience, divorce is devastating, and the only thing worse than it is an unhappy marriage (Whether or not to divorce, however, is a decision best left up to the spouses themselves).  My aim here is not to promote staying in unhappy marriages, but to pass along some sound information about how to head off an unhappy marriage in the first place.

That information does not come from me, however — nor even from the ever trenchant and insightful people at the Colorado State Tourism Bureau — but from a group of scientists largely working at the University of Washington.  The leader of those scientists is John Gottman.   Gottman was one of the founders of the University’s so-called, “Love Lab”, and he and his colleagues’ findings might possibly provide some insights into how couples can build and maintain high-quality, loving relationships.

What I intend to do here is to simply lay out some of Gottman’s research-based insights (with a bit of commentary for clarification provided by me).  He, of course, believes they are quite effective.  I believe they are most likely effective.  But the real judge must be you and your own experience when attempting to apply them.  This is, after all, science, not dogma.  With that said, let’s to the chase!

 • First, if you aren’t doing it already, keep up to date on your partner’s world.  A lot of us don’t seem to do this.  Early on in a relationship, we freely ask a lot of questions.  But so often we fail to actively check later on in the relationship whether anything has changed.  Knowing your partner is essential, according to Gottman, and keeping up with them is a vital part of that.  So, know his or her goals, worries, and hopes; their images of themselves; their relationships to the key people in their lives; and the major events in their history, among many other things.

 • Second,  nurture fondness and admiration.  In various studies, Gottman claims to have been able to predict with an accuracy of between 80% and 94% whether a couple will soon divorce.  Although his rates of prediction are still controversial, it seems that his insight into what factors to look for as dangerous warning sights a couple is on the verge of divorce are somewhat less controversial.  The key factors are: (1) criticism of partners’ personality, (2) contempt (from a position of superiority), (3) defensiveness, and (4) stonewalling, or emotional withdrawal from interaction.  Of the four, Gottman believes contempt is the most important.

To counteract at least some of the four factors, make it a habit to remind yourself of your spouse’s genuine virtues — even in the midst of a conflict.

• Next, turn towards each other.  Gottman believes that in marriages, people periodically make “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support. For instance, your partner might say to you, “Come take a look at my newest stick figure drawing of you, dear!  I think it might be my best work to date.  Do you think we can have it framed to hang above the fireplace?”  If you somehow positively acknowledge your quite possibly deranged partner’s bid in circumstances like this, then — according to Gottman — you are laying a foundation for emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life.

On the other hand, if you routinely “turn away” from these bids,  then you are doing the opposite.  That is, you are undermining the foundation for emotional connection, etc.

• Let your partner influence you!  As Gottman puts it:

The happiest, most stable marriages are those in which the husband treats his wife with respect and does not resist power sharing and decision making with her. When the couple disagrees, these husbands actively search for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way. It’s just as important for wives to treat their husbands with honor and respect. But our data indicate that the vast majority of wives—even in unstable marriages—already do that. Too often men do not return the favor.

 

• Solve your solvable problems.  Not all problems are solvable, but you should certainly solve those that can be solved.  Gottman proposes how to go about it, too.  To quote:

  • Step 1. Use a softened startup: Complain but don’t criticize or attack your spouse. State your feelings without blame, and express a positive need (what you want, not what you don’t want). Make statements that start with “I” instead of “you.” Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. Be clear. Be polite. Be appreciative. Don’t store things up.
  • Step 2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts: De-escalate the tension and pull out of a downward cycle of negativity by asking for a break, sharing what you are feeling, apologizing, or expressing appreciation.
  • Step 3. Soothe yourself and each other: Conflict discussions can lead to “flooding.” When this occurs, you feel overwhelmed both emotionally and physically, and you are too agitated to really hear what your spouse is saying. Take a break to soothe and distract yourself, and learn techniques to soothe your spouse.
  • Step 4. Compromise: Here’s an exercise to try. Decide together on a solvable problem to tackle. Then separately draw two circles—a smaller one inside a larger one. In the inner circle list aspects of the problem you can’t give in on. In the outer circle, list the aspects you can compromise about. Try to make the outer circle as large as possible and your inner circle as small as possible. Then come back and look for common bases for agreement.

Apparently, those steps were not invented by Gottman, although they are recommended by him.  I myself, however, used to use a version of them back in the day to great effect.  The challenge is to turn them into habit so that you stick with them even in the heat of a conflict.

• Overcome gridlock by honoring your partner’s dreams.  Gottman believes that many “perpetual conflicts” have at their root possibly unexpressed dreams, goals, or visions.  These can be simple things, such as what neighborhood to live in, or they can be as huge as what one partner believes is the meaning of life.  In dealing with gridlock then, you should try the tactic of discovering your partner’s dreams for themselves and your marriage, and then honoring them.  You don’t need to make them your own, but you do need to honor them.

• Last, create shared meaning.  Once again, as Gottman puts it:

 Marriage can have an intentional sense of shared purpose, meaning, family values, and cultural legacy that forms a shared inner life. Each couple and each family creates its own microculture with customs (like Sunday dinner out), rituals (like a champagne toast after the birth of a baby), and myths—the stories the couple tells themselves that explain their marriage. This culture incorporates both of their dreams, and it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop. When a marriage has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock.

It strikes me that, to the extent they are effective, Gottman’s insights can be applied far beyond marriage.  They can, for instance, be applied to any partnership inside or outside of marriage.  And they can even be applied to “mere” friendships.

In my opinion, his insights look to be of some use, but of course, as I said earlier, the final authority on that is you and your own experiences trying to apply them.

Impressively Profound Summary

For various reasons,  old, patriarchal marriages seem to be on their way out the door not just in the Western world, but increasingly elsewhere, too.  It may yet take another hundred or two hundred years, however, before they are almost entirely a thing of the past.   The success or failure of those marriages was largely measured in terms of such things as the number of children born to them, whether they resulted in anyone’s economic betterment, and, of course, their duration.  Considerations such as whether they were loving marriages didn’t arise until nearly modern times.  But today that consideration has so much come to the forefront that even most proponents of traditional marriages now like to say love is key to a good marriage.

The old patriarchal marriages are being replaced by new, more egalitarian marriages based primarily on love.  Ironically, these allegedly “new” marriages are very likely to have more ancient roots than the allegedly “old” marriages, for they seem to date back to our hunting/gathering past, when societies in general, and not just marriages, were more egalitarian.

The new marriages, however, do raise some problems, for they usually are not shored up by oppressive or coercive societal pressures or laws.  Because they are based on love, they are freely entered into, and perhaps almost as freely exited.  Thus, to keep them together puts a premium value on nurturing and maintaining love in the relationship.  And that, of course, is great news for therapists and marriage counselors!

But where do you think marriage is headed?  Is it true that egalitarian marriages are increasingly shoving aside patriarchal marriages — perhaps even worldwide?  How key is love, really, to a happy marriage?  Are there any remaining reasons or justifications for unhappy couples to stay together these days?  And will civilization survive the Age of Excruciating Blogging?  Please weigh in with your thoughts, feelings, comments, and drunken offers of marriage!


A closely related post:  Women’s Sexuality: “Base, Animalistic, and Ravenous”

Late Night Thoughts: Magic, Leadership, Feminism, Poetry, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

There are places you can visit at night in the San Luis Valley and not see an artificial light for miles.  If you stand in one of those places when the moon is down and tilt your head back until you are gazing nearly straight up, you risk falling into infinity.

I have never know a daytime sky to appear as deep, as vast, as infinite as a nighttime sky, though some of the crisp autumn blue skies of Colorado do seem to have a touch of the infinite.  Nothing, however, quite compares to stars by the thousands set in the black ocean.

Although you cannot possess the vastness of the night, you can long to possess it.  Long just as intensely as ever someone longed to requite an unrequitable love.  Long because its beauty makes you feel alive, and you want that feeling to stay with you forever.

It is wiser, though, to set aside any feelings of possessiveness.  Let them pass by you like winds without trying to cling to them or nurture them anymore than you would try to cling to or nurture those winds.  For possessiveness clung to kills the heart, kills love, even in human relationships, let alone in our relationships to nature.

To love the night so intensely that you might be in some sense renewed, reborn by it, you must be willing to let it go.

◊◊◊

Some years ago I took Becky’s children, Leah and Aaron, to a public Easter egg hunt.  Watching them and the other children dash about unsystematically exploring one possible hiding place after the next, and often the same hiding place they’d explored only moments before, I suddenly realized there was a sort of logic to their apparent randomness.  The logic of magic.

They were, it seemed to me, selectively picking “good” spots to explore, while ignoring “bad” spots, spots that perhaps did not seem to them magical enough to hold an egg.   And they would return to those good spots time and again, because, of course, magic.

The little legs of Easter
All hunt the same bushes
Each pair runs to check
And recheck the same spots

It’s the logic of magic
It’s found in good places
And appears where it wasn’t
Just a moment ago

◊◊◊

On a blog I recently came across a post by a young woman in which she expressed pride in being a leader.  She so reminded me of myself many years ago.  Had you asked me back then if I was proud of so often being the leader, I would have told you that I was, and I probably would have recited the choicest passages of my résumé, whether you wanted to hear them or not.

Then, in my 30s I finally got enough experience of people to have two or three modest, but still significant, insights into — not leaders — but followers.  It seemed to me then that there were two main (but not only) reasons people follow other people, and that neither reason was all that good of a reason for me to be proud they were following me.

Perhaps the best reason people follow is because they think their leader is going where they want to go.  People who harbor that reason won’t allow you to lead them down just any old path you want to take them.  They only go down the path they themselves want, and they stick you out front largely so you, and not them, must take the risk of being pounced on by a tiger waiting for its next meal to come loping along, full of pride at being allowed to play leader.

The second reason people follow seems to be that they themselves feel too insecure or threatened to lead themselves.  Such people would follow a chimpanzee if it promised them security.  And they are often so frightened of something that they would follow the chimp down any path the chimp chose to take, even the path to hell — just so long as the chimp kept reassuring them it was the safest route.

In either case, being a leader has less to do with special you, and much more to do with them, than your pride constantly tells you it has.  But add to all that the fact that about one-quarter to one-third of all people are such poor judges of character that they are incapable of distinguishing a wise leader from a damnable fool, and you end up with a pretty poor foundation for taking much pride in the fact people will follow you.

◊◊◊

On my second night in Colorado, I left my motel room to drive to a high place in the mountains where I got out of my car and witnessed a moon so seemingly huge that I had the absurd, yet remarkably visceral desire to see if I could touch it.  And I actually did stretch out an arm to it.   It appeared, then, to be just beyond my reach.

At the time I felt I was a refugee.  Earlier in the year, I’d gone out of business, lost my wife, my house, my friends, and most of my possessions.  It seemed to me that night that all my accomplishments in life were behind me, and that I’d been a fool to have for decades valued all those things more than I valued simply loving life.

On this mountain I’m alone
The moon a foot beyond my hand
And there’s nothing that I know
Do I ever understand?

I just wonder how it is
That all the things we ever did
Could mean so much more to us
Than the love we freely give.

For I am but a passing thing
From one moment to the next,
And with each moment’s passing
There is nothing left.

On this mountain I’m alone
The moon a foot beyond my hand
And for all the things I know
Do I ever understand?

◊◊◊

Few movements are as misunderstood these days as feminism.  Which is a bit strange because the movement is by and large based on a simple, easy to understand, ideology at its core.  That is, it’s a form of egalitarianism.  Specifically, the form of egalitarianism that asserts women ought everywhere to have the same rights, freedoms, and liberties as men.

Unfortunately for feminists, decades of anti-feminist propaganda have convinced vast numbers of people that the true core of feminism is misandry, the hatred of all things male.  And even more unfortunately, there are a few self-described “feminists” who feed and inflame that image of all feminists by themselves being actual misandrists.

What’s true of feminism, though, is true of all large movements, for every such movement has its lunatic fringe.

I wonder why.  Indeed, I quite often wonder why every movement has its lunatic fringe.  But I have yet to arrive at an answer that satisfies me.

◊◊◊

Have you ever reached the cardboard backing of a paper tablet only to find yourself torn between throwing it away and saving it for some use only god knows what?

◊◊◊

I had an uncle who grew up in the Great Depression when frugality so often meant the difference between eating three meals a day or merely two or one.  He taught me around the age of six or so never to throw away a bent nail.  “It’s a perfectly good nail.  Just hammer it out so it’s straight enough to use again.”

Shortly after my eight birthday, he taught me to shoot a rifle.  “Here’s your one bullet.  There will be no more bullets today.  Now aim well and carefully, Paul, so you hit the can with it.”

I took forever to aim, but I hit the beer can.

◊◊◊

As a rule, the more convinced we are that we are right, or have got hold of the truth, the less likely we are to have seen deeply into the matter.  So often, to look deeply is to become aware of how uncertain the truth is.

◊◊◊

The notion that our minds at birth are Tabula rasa, blank slates devoid of any innate knowledge, biases, instincts, etc., is an ancient one, dating back to at least the ancient Stoics.  It basically asserts that almost the whole of what we are as persons will be ultimately derived from our experiences in life, or from what we learn from them.   It is also a perennial idea in the social sciences.  And, last, is almost certainly nonsense.

For instance, humans have just too many ubiquitous behaviors for us not to be, at least in large part, an instinct driven species.  Moreover, we seem to be born with talents — that is, with aptitudes or predispositions — for various things.    We also seem to be born with inherent cognitive biases.  And there is at least some evidence that we even have in us at birth the rudiments of arithmetic.

All of which suggests the notion that we humans are connected to our past in much more profound ways than merely through the continuum of time.  Our DNA is ancient, and we are in so many ways, the manifestation of our DNA.

Throw Your Rockets Far

I shall not tell you Aaron at eight
Somewhere we walk in the yellow grass;
The sky huge, but our feet owning each step.
Somewhere we hear the shorebird’s cry
From a beach in Africa we never left.
Somewhere we are shaman, warrior, gatherer,
Women and men intimate with our past.

No, I shall not tell you Aaron at eight
What at eight you simply feel
On your lawn at dusk when you throw a bottle rocket
With a warrior’s grace — and hard at the moon.

Late Night Thoughts: Scam-Sharks, Poetry, Blogging, Rebirth, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

Grey skies, greyer rain.
We shelter our hearts
Together you and I
Beneath our bright
Yellow umbrella.

◊◊◊

Where are the best blogs?  I’ve come across several in the past few weeks, but not nearly enough to slake my depraved thirst for other folk’s  pleasantly twisted, often unique, vibrantly creative, or revealingly truthful perspectives on all things life.

If you know of any great blogs that fit any of those descriptions — or for that matter, are great and snerklesome in any other way — please link me to them!  I’d love to check them out!

 ◊◊◊

A young man, about 20 I would guess, recently told me that we know we are right when “the voice within” confirms we are right.  He was responding to another person’s question, “How do we know when something is true?”

I think, from what I’ve heard and read, that the notion we can discern the truth or falsity of an idea merely according to whether or not some “inward voice” tells us that it sits well with us, or feels right or true to us, is a popular one these days.

Frankly, I also suspect it is evidence of a disturbing lack of a competent education.  If that young man honestly didn’t graduate from high school knowing how — at least in principle — to sort what is true or from what isn’t true, he should consider suing his school board for negligent injury and malpractice, and name his teachers as co-defendants.

He should go for blood, too!  Settle for nothing less than hundreds of thousands.  It’s arguable that part of the foundation of any decent education is to learn what makes something true or not.

Whether the law will actually allow him to file such a suit is almost irrelevant to the fact that he does honestly deserve compensation — if he was not himself somehow to blame for being left ignorant of how to judge whether or not something is true.

He deserves it because he’s almost certainly going to pay for it again and again in the currency of messed up life decisions until he does learn.

Every politician and scam-shark out there can already smell his blood.

◊◊◊

I confess.  As you probably suspected, I just now cheerfully made up the newborn word, “snerklesome”.  I have no idea what it should mean.  Do you?  Suggestions, please!

◊◊◊

Without You

If I had this day to own
I think I could sit here for an hour
With nothing more important
Than coffee and this pen
And how much better living’s been
Without you.

I don’t do a lot these days —
It’s so crazy, but it’s fun
Just recalling what I’m missing
Without you.

It ain’t about good or bad
Or anything so grim —
I remember well your beauty —
But the mornings still have been
Lighter now without you.

◊◊◊

Is the desire for rebirth, renewal a human universal?  It seems ubiquitous enough: It’s found in every culture and society that I myself know of.  Perhaps it really is a universal, or nearly universal, trait of humans.

◊◊◊

I really do need more blogs to read.   “Please, sir, I want some more.”

(Silence)

“What? More?  The boy wants more?” Said the master bloggers in unison and disbelief.

“That boy will be hung”, said the author of a science blog. “I know that boy will be hung.”

◊◊◊

The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.  — Kenko, Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa).

Sometime around the age of 50, I began to notice how predictable, repetitious, and boring life was becoming for me.  The weariness took hold gradually, but steadily grew over the next several years until it reached something of a crisis in that I was becoming lethargic and dissatisfied under the weight of it.

Ironically, those years were still the happiest of my life up until that time.  Yet the boredom rose and began to threaten that happiness.  What to do?

I would prefer to tell you now that I found the perfect solution, but I didn’t, and I still haven’t.  I have, however, managed to greatly reduce the problem through more than one means, most of them commonsense (“Try new things”, “Break at least some of your routines”,  “Turn to the arts and sciences for fresh ideas and ways of seeing”,  “Start a guerilla war with the kids on your lawn”, etc.).  Some of them, however, are perhaps a little bit more than commonsense.

When I came across Kenko several years ago, I was struck by two things.  First, the novelty of his view of uncertainty.  Most of us, I think, are annoyed by uncertainty.  We even seem to run from it.  For instance, how often do we embrace all too tightly beliefs about the world that we cannot possibly — if we were honest with ourselves — be that certain of?  And how often do we cling to old, outdated, now worthless habits and routines for no better reason than they make our days more predictable?  We are usually inclined, I believe, to view uncertainty as anything but “precious”.

So Kenko’s view of uncertainty first struck me for a view I’d never come across before.  And in the second place, it struck me for a view I didn’t understand.  Why did he think uncertainty was so precious?  Was he really seeing something?  Something I myself had never seen before?   If so, then what could it be?

Something I’ve become acutely aware of is how we tend to turn to stone over the years: To ossify in our beliefs, daily activities, relationships, and self-identities and images.  Indeed, I’ve written about how and why our self-image can become our greatest tyrant and oppressor here.  The problem is that it does very little good to merely say to ourselves, “Don’t do it!”  That’s about as effective in practice as “Just abstain until marriage” sex-ed.

What has worked best for me to solve the ossification problem is to look for uncertainties in my self-images or self-identities.  Seeing how uncertain my notions of myself are has significantly helped me to hold at least many of those notions tentatively, lightly.  It even seems to me now that a lightness of heart or spirit begins with a lightness of self-image.

Thank you, Kenko.  You got me to barking up the right trees, sniffing the right crotches, for an at least partial solution to my problem.

◊◊◊

Is there an absolute reality?

That’s a bit different from asking if there’s an absolute truth.   Ideas are like maps, reality is like the terrains the maps refer to, and truth is a quality of the relationships between the maps and their terrain.  So when we ask, “Is there an absolute reality”, we are not really asking if there is an absolute truth.

Without an absolute reality, the notion of ever knowing all there is to know about the universe becomes impossible, even in theory.
Yet, would that be a good or a bad thing?
◊◊◊

Artists of all kinds so often think they must seek out new truths.  Perhaps their most vital service to us, however, is to make old, solid, and well-known truths once again visible to us.

For such old truths have become clichés, and few of us see much beyond the surface of a cliché, see it fresh, and as if for the first time.  Consequently, old truths so frequently have less impact than they should (for our own sake) have on our views, actions, and attitudes.

◊◊◊

Recently, I saw a man in anger destroy nearly at once several friendships that only moments before were important to him.  He did it because he felt slighted by two or three individuals, and to retaliate, he entirely broke off relations with a whole small group of people, and not just the two or three members of the group who he felt had slighted him.

“A man can only take so much”, he said.

But it was not the man who suffered the slights, it was the ego in the man who suffered the slights.  A more rational thing to have done might have been to look more deeply into the matter, for when someone slights you, they either do so accidentally, or with just cause, or with injustice.

If accidentally, forgive them.  If just, apologize and forgive them.  If with injustice, dump them and forgive them (Forgiveness is not for their sake, but for yours.  It’s unhealthy to carry around a grudge).  But whatever you do, don’t lose friendships valuable to you over such slights.  The poor fool was a puppet of his pride.

◊◊◊

We make too much of beliefs.

We are taught to make too much of them by our cultures, and then we never seem to get around to de-programming ourselves of such an insidious notion.  We are even taught that we are our beliefs.  That they are the very substance of our selves.  But a self made out of beliefs — no matter how profound those beliefs are — is a shallow, superficial self.

For beliefs — even when true — are no more than the maps we use to negotiate reality, and just like paper maps, they are not at all the reality they refer to.  A person who thinks his or her beliefs are their selves is like a hiker who thinks the trail map they hold in their hands is the trail itself.  You can’t lose your virginity by reading a textbook in biology, and you can’t really know yourself if all you know are your beliefs about yourself.

Beliefs should be worn lightly, tentatively, hesitantly.  They should never become balls and chains on our ankles.  How, then, can we dance light-heartedly through life?

◊◊◊

I Remember

I remember
Laughing under summer skies —
Would have thought we could fly —
And the winds pass on by.

I remember
Holding hands while the river flowed —
Came a time to let you go —
And the waters pass on by.

Now for all that I know
You have a good life
Filled with the stars,
The sun, and the trees.

But all that I do know —
It’s the life you should have,
So beautiful
You were to me.

Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

Late Night Thoughts: Infatuation, Invention, Creativity, Pragmatism, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

It snowed last night.  Not a light, romantic snow either, but a heavy wet snow that piled up to seven inches on some of the tree branches, bowing them, sometimes breaking them.  Now and then a mass of snow would fall from one of the trees overhanging my cottage and land on my roof, sounding like some large animal had pounced on it.

◊◊◊

Most of us in America have been taught the difference between infatuation and love is a matter of duration.  If an attraction endures for a long time, then it’s love, but if it’s fleeting, transient, then it’s infatuation.  But even when I was in high school, I knew that was a greasy idea.

Because of Janet.

I met Janet the second semester of my freshman year, and I became infatuated with her the day after I met her.  That infatuation lasted five or six years, but I never mistook it for love.  I knew almost from the first moment I noticed it that it was infatuation. What I didn’t know was how to shake it off.

◊◊◊

Some years ago, I made a genuine, serious count of the most profound insights and creative inventions I’d discovered up until that moment in my life.

I went at it in earnest, left nothing out unless it was too minor, insignificant to include in the count.

There had been about a dozen.

Yet everyone of the ideas had been discovered by someone before me, someone whose work I was ignorant of until after I re-invented the idea myself.

And each of the inventions had, each for its own reasons, come to nothing.

“Thank you for writing up your proposal, Paul.  We appreciate the hard work you put into it, but we decided yesterday in an executive meeting not to pursue your idea.  Frankly, we don’t see a major market for it.  People will never purchase in droves a plastic card allowing them to make long distance calls from any phone”.

Two years later.  “Hey, could you tell me what these things are?”

“Oh, those are something new.  Seven-Eleven just started carrying them a couple days ago.  We call them, ‘Phone Cards’.  Buy one! They allow you to make long distance calls from any phone.

“Why are you crying, Sir?  Can I get you a towel?  Um…maybe a few…?”

“No. no. It’s too late, my shirt is already soaked.  It’s just that…that I’m so happy for you!”

“Sir?  Sir, I’m going for those towels right now!”

◊◊◊

I once thought creativity was a by-product of intelligence, but someone emailed me links to a few articles on the subject a couple years ago in what turned out to be a rather creative attempt to open the way to romancing me.

Seems creativity has been a subject of scientific study for a bit over 30 years now, and that it has little enough to do with intelligence.  There’s a kind of minimum threshold of sorts, but it’s not high, and if you’re smarter than that, then you might or might not be a creative person.

One of the scientist’s major findings: Especially creative people have brains hard-wired for it.

The woman who emailed me the links, by the way, ended up after a few back and forths, emailing me one of the most lengthy, vicious, and creative attacks on my character and life-choices that I’ve ever read the first few lines of before deleting.  Seems she was a wee little bit peeved to learn I was really, genuinely committed to celibacy.

◊◊◊

A month back, my young, 22 year old friend Sophie asked me “Why is sex shameful?  Even though I know in my mind there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I still feel shame.  Why is that, Paul?”

“Why are you asking me, Sophie?”

“Because you know everything, Paul.  You’ve told me so yourself!”

“Oh, that’s right!  Yes, I did.  But I forgot to mention to you that by ‘know’, I meant ‘I have an opinion about it’.  For me, you understand, those are the exact same things.”

“You’re such a real man, Paul.  Such a real man.”

“Thank you so much, Sophie!  Your lavish praise is so annoying.”

“Just get on with it.  What’s your opinion?”

“Well, I do know there used to be an hypothesis in anthropology and evolutionary psychology.  Maybe it’s still current.  According to it, sexual shame evolved in us as an instinct in order to facilitate male bonding, which allowed us to live in larger, more survivable groups.”

“Figures.  It’s always about you men, isn’t it?”

“This time it’s about you women, too.  You see, the notion is that our evolving feelings of shame meant couples quit having public sex.  And that meant male friendship bonds were not as often broken by the sight of another male getting it on with a delicious, desirable female that every other male jealously wanted.  Obviously, the anthropologists had you in mind, Sophie, because you’re so delectable!”

“I am NOT loaning you my money, Paul! Not a dime!”

“Delectable. Kind. Compassionate. Caring…”.

“Shuddup Paul!”

◊◊◊

It is so often necessary to see less truth in order to see a deeper truth.

 ◊◊◊

A few days ago, I was on my way to the corner store when a homeless man approached me with a smile on his mostly toothless face, and a whiff of alcohol on his breath.  “You look just like Arlo Gutherie!” He said.

Truth, it was he who looked like Arlo.  You could see the resemblance despite how his face had been warped over the years by the occupational hazards of long-term homelessness.

We carried on a lively back and forth for twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes.  It was a real conversation, too.  I made a point of that.  When I myself was homeless, the one thing I missed the most was being treated like I actually existed.

◊◊◊

It seems to be an American cultural trait to address problems pragmatically, except for human problems.  Back in the 1930s and ’40s, fatal, crippling, and maiming automobile accidents were almost as common as women in a coffee shop are today.

The problem was tackled with scientific precision.  Hundreds of studies were done.  Then change was brought about by dozens upon dozens of innovations.  Guard rails installed at key places.  Road curves redesigned to make them safer to negotiate at normal speeds.  Seat belts made mandatory.  Driving tests required before licensing.  Air bags.  Child safety seats.  And so forth.

None of the innovations was, by itself, anywhere near to being a solution to the problem.  But each innovation reduced the problem by perhaps as much as 1% or 2%.  And like drops of water filling a bucket, they began adding up.  Today, tens of thousands of people still die on the roads — there is much that remains to be done — but the carnage is not even close to what it once was.

That’s how Americans, at least until recently, tended to approach most problems.  Pragmatically.  But the exception has always  been “human problems”.  Then the Puritan rears up in us.  We become, not pragmatists, but moralists.  Not rationalists, but irrationalists.

Unwanted teen pregnancies, substance abuse, rape, homelessness, poverty, joblessness, scientific illiteracy, declining middle class incomes — these are all problems that could be solved almost overnight in relative terms.  Solved, or at least ameliorated, reduced to their lowest possible frequency, if only we would approach them with sustained, pragmatic efforts to solve or ameliorate them.

And some of us wish to do exactly that.

But apparently, not enough of us to matter all that much.  The Puritans, the moralists, for the most part have the upper hand in America.  We put men on the moon within a single decade of pragmatic effort, but we can’t even get effective comprehensive sex education taught in most Southern public schools, and all too many public schools in the rest of the country.

It isn’t sex that’s shameful.  It’s moralism.

My High School Math Teacher was a Space Alien!

(About a 7 minute read)

Often, when I think of the people in my life who have most deeply — some might say “most traumatically” — impressed me as smart in some ways and stupid in others, I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. B.

No one — not even I — questioned Mr. B’s competence as a mathematician.  I will submit, however, that Mr. B, despite his smarts in math, was twenty years ahead of his time in some kinds of stupid.

I had Mr. B as a teacher in the early 1970s.  William F. Buckley was alive, and Buckley was frequently a very smart man.  He also had the clout to be the intellectual guardian of the Republican Party.  That is, if he decided someone or some group was too stupid to fit in as a Republican, Buckley would use his considerable influence to exile them from the Party.  The Republicans have no one like him today. Today,. the crazies have become the Party.

The John Birch Society was one of the groups Buckley succeeded in kicking out of the Party.  The “Birchers” believed — in the way stupid people fanatically believe things — all sorts of nonsense.  For instance, they thought Dwight D. Eisenhower was a willing tool of the Soviet Union and a deliberate traitor to America.  Buckley thought the Birchers were in danger of sliding into fascism.  Perhaps he was right.

My math teacher subscribed to the John Birch Society, and perhaps to other Radical Right organizations as well. We knew whenever he had received in the mail another one of their newsletters — he would put aside teaching mathematics for the day and instead lecture us on themes that were rarely enough heard in the early 1970s outside of certain circles.

I can still recall a few of his more memorable pronouncements: “Pollution never killed anyone”.  “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist out to destroy America. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”  “The Soviets will invade us any year now. Maybe any day now.”  “Women don’t need equal rights.  Men do!  Women are smarter than men.”  “Negroes are shameless whiners. They haven’t been discriminated against since the end of the Civil War.”

I am a strong believer in the notion that, although everyone has a right to his or her opinions, not all opinions are created equal.  Some opinions are forged of sound logic and a weight of evidence.  Some other opinions are forged of logical fallacies and nonsense.  Many people believe that differences of opinion never reflect differences of intellect.  I’m not so sure.  It seems to me some opinions are so stupid their owners, if not merely ignorant, must be stupid.  But then I’m no psychologist, so maybe I’m wrong about that.

Yet, it is simply true that — often enough — the same one of us who is so stupid as to believe the Theory of Evolution is a conspiracy of the world’s 500,000 biologists, is nevertheless a brilliant (or at least competent) engineer.  How can we account for that?

Mr. B once said something that I think is about half true: “No matter how good you get at math, you will never cease to make mistakes. But if you practice, you will catch your mistakes as you make them, and then correct them yourself, instead of needing someone else to correct them for you.”

I think it sometimes happens that way.  But I also think very few — if any — of us ever get so good that we catch and correct every one of our own mistakes, whether in math or in any other field.  We will always need the help of others.  Indeed, it seems one reason the sciences have been so successful at establishing reliable facts and producing predictive theories is because they employ methods of inquiry that encourage people to correct each other’s mistakes.  That is, science is a profoundly cooperative endeavor.

Buckley once described some of the notions of the John Birch society as “paranoid and idiotic”.  To some extent, those two things go together.  A “paranoid” person is typically unwilling to accept anyone correcting his ideas.  Quite often, the result is his ideas drift into idiocy.  That’s to say, it seems one of the best ways to become stupid is to systematically reject or ignore the efforts of others to correct us when we are wrong.

But why are we humans so often wrong in the first place?

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with a rather interesting theory that could go far to explain why our species of great ape seems prone to cognitive errors.  It’s called “The Argumentative Theory”, and it is well worth reading up on.

The gist of it is that our ability to reason evolved — not to figure out what is true or false — but to (1) evaluate arguments intended to persuade us to do something, and (2) to persuade others to do what we want them to do.  Consequently, our ability to think logically and evidentially is imperfect — one might even say, “somewhat remedial”.

Part of the evidence for the Argumentative Theory is our species built in cognitive biases.  By “built in”, I mean that the biases seem hereditary.  The fact our thinking is inherently biased is strong evidence our thinking evolved for some other function than to merely figure out what is true or false.  Mercier and Sperber would say that function was to persuade people by arguments and to evaluate their efforts to persuade us by arguments.

Regardless of whether the function of reason is to discern reality or to win arguments, the fact our species is so prone to cognitive error might go far in explaining how it happens that the same person can be smart in some ways and stupid in others.  That is, perhaps we are smartest — or at least, we tend to act smartest — when we have some corrective feedback.

That feedback might come in the form of ourselves “checking our work” — as when we check a mathematical solution.  It might come in the form of  whether we achieve our intended outcome — as when we fix a car so that it runs again.  Or the corrective feedback might come in the form of constructive criticism from  well trusted others.

Perhaps the less corrective feedback we have, the more likely we are to adopt stupid opinions.  Or, in other words, we should not expect our own reason alone to take us where we want to go.  Rather, we should expect our reason plus some form of corrective feedback to take us there.

I think my high school math teacher, if he were alive to read this essay, would be appalled by my suggestion that — no matter how good we get — we are still wise to listen to the critiques of others.  It seems to me Mr. B cared so little to hear the opinions of others that he might as well have been a space alien orbiting his own little planet and all but totally out of touch with earth.  He seemed to think he was his own sufficient critic.  And perhaps his lack of concern for the input of others explains why he found it so easy to harbor so many “paranoid and idiotic” notions.  Notions that, in a sense, were more stupid than he was.