Category Archives: Writing and society

Weekly book review: The Swerve

Every so often a book comes along that helps to organize a great deal of what we’ve learned about the world. Such books show us how news events, historical shifts, wars, peace, technological changes, literature all occur and influence each other, showing that what Walter Cronkite used to call “the way it is,” is actually a pretty complicated and interconnected network of ever-shifting things. I took a course in college co-taught by faculty from various departments including history, literature, philosophy, and they taught us how the science, art, and politics of the Elizabethan world all influenced each other. Steven Johnson’s work, particularly his virtual trilogy, The Ghost Map, The Invention of Air, and Where Good Ideas Come From, (I reviewed the latter book here) is another example of that kind of integrative work that makes one gasp for air in delight.

ImageStephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) is that kind of book. It is beautifully written, erudite, and informative. Most important, it’s very relevant to our own polarized times, when “Christian” fundamentalists seemingly want to wage permanent war against every other kind of fundamentalism and science, in a time when, faced with cataclysmic climate change and other urgent problems,  we are once again witnessing a stupid, time-wasting War of the World Views.

The Swerve is the story of how an Italian scholar and humanist, Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, managed to find and get back into circulation a famous ancient book that had disappeared from history, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. Greenblatt shows how this long lost book, a philosophical treatise on the physical world and the implications for how one lives, became, after its rediscovery, a key source of ideas that propelled us into the modern world. How, in short, a book you’ve probably never read and never heard of, had a massive effect on not just the world you live in, but on how you view and understand that world — and yourself.

I enjoyed this a lot; started reading it idly in spare moments on my iPhone’s Kindle app, and it soon forced its way past other things I’ve been reading and became the main thing on my mind. The kind of book that you find yourself thinking about when you should be doing other things.

It wasn’t quite balanced the way I expected from the reviews, in that it’s largely a biography of Bracciolini, the guy who managed to find and copy and get Lucretius’s book back into circulation; but I later decided that understanding the intellectual, political and practical world Bracciolini lived in was background I needed, in order to grasp the importance of the book in his world and time. This was blended with a fascinating discussion of the clash between the outlook of Lucretius and the Epicureans, with other established views, both in ancient times (culminating eventually in the suppression and deliberate destruction of such works by the early and already intolerant and violent Church), and during the entire period leading up to and through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and beyond.

Greenblatt’s book shows how the basic scientific concepts of the ancient philosophers led to the ethical and psychological implications of their world view.  For if “the nature of things” or “the way it is,” is that all of reality, including us, is composed of atoms and nothing else; if even our “souls” (or we might say, “minds”) are made up of, and organzied by those ever-moving atoms, then the belief structures, ancient and modern, involving the fear of hell and fantasy gods, has no reality basis, and is both unnecessary, and unnecessarily harmful. In which case, the only sane thing would be to ditch the scary old gods and repressive theologies, and to find ways to appreciate and enjoy our brief time alive. (I personally don’t believe one has to do without a mystical or religious view of reality to accept and learn from such a philosophy, but perhaps I shall indeed order that hot tub!)

Greenblat shows how the blowback by the Church from Lucretius’s ideas helped fuel the fires of the Inquisition, and how the book and its outlook was a challenge both to the Church, the established political powers, and to probably, the dark, fear-based world views of many ordinary people. He finally discusses the importance of the book in helping to launch the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, all the way through (in an astounding ending) the nearly certain reference to Lucretius and his Epicurean philosophy in the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson (who considered On the Nature of Things to be among his favorite books) declared that a main purpose of a government is to assist its citizens in their “pursuit of Happiness.”  (That was not, and at the time of the writing of the Declaration could not possibly have been a goal listed by a “Christian” Continental Congress, at least not one as fantasized by modern right-wing evangelicals.)

As a psychologist, this book represents the retrieval of an important chunk of my profession’s “intellectual history.” As a human being, it’s simply a wonderful tickle and challenge to one’s outlook if one grew up “churched” and still finds oneself pondering, as the world turns to desert and the darkness looms, about one’s life, what it all might mean, and whether leasing or buying a hot tub makes the most sense. At the very least, hot tub or not, it certainly inspires me to read the original source of all these fireworks, Lucretius’s Nature of Things.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Climate change, Psychology, Public affairs, Writing and society

Weekend book review: “Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life” by Michael Moore

In high school we used to do a science experiment to learn about a phenomenon called “supercooling.” Supercooling occurs when you reduce the temperature of a liquid below the point where it becomes solid, without it actually getting solid. Imagine water at 20 degrees, but instead of ice it’s still sloshing around in the glass. (Or it could, if sloshing didn’t risk freezing it.)

The fun part (to a high schooler) comes when you drop a tiny, crystalized (i.e., “frozen”) piece of the substance into the vat of supercooled whatever, because this causes the whole thing to go instantly solid. Pop. In a sort of poetic license-y way, the stuff was “frozen all the time — it just didn’t know it.” (Apologies to my high school science teachers on that one.)

This may be an odd, too-early-in-the-morning association to Michael Moore (it is — please bear with me), but you can’t think about him without thinking about his impact on our society over the past couple of decades, and how he tends perhaps to be viewed with such love and really, gratitude by a sizable percentage of our citizenry, while being intensely despised by so many on the right (or maybe more accurately, to the south?)

In his new and wonderful book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, Moore shares a number of stories from his early life all the way up through the creation of his first breakout documentary, Roger and Me.  But Moore does more, because he also shares the penalty he’s had to pay for his success as a documentarian and through his life, as a public figure. Specifically, a lot of right wing hatred and death threats.

The hatred of a guy like Moore can take odd forms. I remember in a classroom discussion how a very conservative student (unusual in a psychology grad program) began criticizing Moore because, well, by that time in his career Moore had apparently made a fair amount of money. Not sure why material success should be seen as some kind of a bad mark, particularly by a Republican, but I suppose he was attacking a Fox News caricature of Moore, a sort of “hypocrite because he’s a millionaire playing a hermit who despises capitalism and so should live out of a begging bowl” fantasy. But that a fairly bright graduate student would see that trope as some how an invalidation of Moore’s work or ideas says, I think, a lot about Moore’s impact, or the impact of anyone who takes strong stands in the public arena. Because there is nothing logical about such a critique — it’s a purely emotional argument against the guy (likely crafted by those Foxy masters of the catchy, emotional, irrational argument.)

Psychological research, aided by our ability to film the “brain in action” in recent years, continues to show that people don’t really base their political opinions, their criticisms and arguments and ultimately, their laws on logic. They base them on raw emotion, what neuropsychologists call the “low road” of mental functioning. What Freud used to call (in a bad English via Latin) the “Id” (or more literally and I think, properly, “the It”) inside us. That part of us that is wired for aggression, for raw, clawing, roaring, fornicating, eating, sleeping, belching, farting and then fighting and roaring again, survival in the wild. This “low road” form of thinking is a big part of what we are, the part we try to overcome or to channel into constructive activities, at best, or just try to hide from the chumps and voters and investors and sex partners, at worst. Ultimately, many of our opinions tend to be wild rampaging boars, dressed up in a bowtie (or wearing lipstick).

So it should not be surprising that disagreements can get lethal. Moore describes a number of would-be assassinations, particularly during the group traumatization and symptomatic blood lust that enveloped the country after the events of 9/11, when he’d dared to speak out at the Oscars against Bush and his dishonest war, and how he ended up being hated, threatened as a result, living in hiding for a year or two, finally emerging but surrounded by what sound to be very cool but very necessary Navy SEAL-caliber bodyguards (it’s less fun than it sounds.)

What really surprised and delighted me as I read his book was the experiences he shares from earlier,  growing up in the fifties and sixties, his early experiences as a future famous rabble-rouser.

Besides the fact that he’s a delightful, accessible, moving writer (he was a journalist for many years before he took the plunge into films), Moore’s book was a treat for two big reasons.

First, he is a great tour guide. Here Comes Trouble is in fact one of the best “memory books” of highlights of the second half of the twentieth century (and the first dark decade of the 21st) that you can read. He touches on so many of the highlights of the progressive movements, from the civil rights struggle and the assassinations of the sixties, through the Nixon and Reagan eras and a chilling account of how he snuck into a meeting in Mexico, sponsored in secret by the Reagan Commerce Dept., where the plans were laid to export tens of thousands of American jobs to Mexico.   These stories are mixed with charming little interludes, like his story of how he as a child got lost wandering around the US Capital building and was found and rescued by a newspaper-reading stranger who turned out to be Senator Bobby Kennedy.

But Moore also brings back some long-forgotten experiences of my own, and in reading his book I started to wonder how many other people of his and my generation probably shared in these same experiences — the things that shape one’s world view and “character” for decades to come. Because much of the current cultural and political scene in America has evolved out of these activities, movements, conflicts from four and five decades past. The things he did, we did, back then, are still very much active forces (on both sides of the polarized spectrum.)

Two examples come to mind: he shared how he entered a speech contest as a high school student, sponsored by the Elks Club. The contest required a speech on “something-something-how-Lincoln was a great president.” But Moore opens the chapter by talking about how his dad had decided not to apply for membership to the local Elks Club-sponsored country club, because the Elks and their country clubs did not admit minorities. So young Michael of course gives a “how dare they invoke Lincoln?” speech about the Elks, the sponsors of the talk. And wins. And blunders into national media attention. Laws were ultimately written to prohibit that kind of discrimination in private organizations like the Elks.

But see, Mike wasn’t the only kid doing that kind of thing then. I know because I did it too, and  other kids around the country were also doing similar things. (In my case it was a VFW speech contest. We were supposed to write on “my responsibility to freedom” which, during the Vietnam war and sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, no doubt meant we should write clichés about how we should be downtown at the recruiting office right after you hear our speeches, signing up to fight in Nixon’s war. But being a slightly too young to be a hippie late boomer kid who was reading eastern philosophy and Gandhi, I of course wrote about how “freedom” means not being sucked into the craziness and it’s really all about inner freedom and so on. Won the school contest but my success didn’t rise any higher.)

Later on, he gets involved in starting a little community alternative newspaper in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and this is where he ends up spending his early career. In my case, some kids from Scranton did the same thing and for one issue (till my parents told me I couldn’t be out that late) I was a “co-editor” of the first issue of “Slocum Hollow.”  Wrote the editorial in the “Harrisburg Seven” trial or something like that.

It was eerie reading this stuff. It was as though Mike Moore did my adolescence, only he did it so much better. Perhaps he took more risks, but certainly, he brings a genius to these activities that is unique. You admire his nerve, and I wonder, how many of us secretly wish it were us shepherding a boatload of medical patients to Cuba for low cost medical care.

And that’s where my thinking about the “supercooling” thing comes in: the real service Michael Moore has provided the country has been to act as that single, tiny crystal that gets dropped into the beaker of supercooled liquid. He is someone who has the gift of being able to “activate” other people who already feel the same things, who are well past ready to speak out, organize, contribute… but who somehow, particularly in times of high-groupthink and danger for speaking out, tend to nurse these feelings in darkness and silence. He’s a principled man who is willing to express his beliefs and stand for what’s right even when it means death threats. Agree with him or not, you have to admire his willingness to play this role.

But agree with him or not, the other point is that he’s not the only one. And if Michael Moore didn’t exist, someone else would have no doubt spoken up instead, whether it was about the Iraq war or the barbarity of our “capitalist” health care system, or many other such causes. This is really a struggle about the core, the soul of America: are we to be a compassionate society, caring about each other and organizing a government and economy to meet the needs of the citizens… or are we wanting to be basically a feudal society, in thrall to our “lords and ladies” (i.e., “job creators”) who have the money, the power, the control of our lives, and who’ve permanently rigged the system to ensure their position and our subservience forever?

There’s an old saying in the psychotherapy biz, that the role of “town drunk” is an elected position. Meaning that if there is a dysfunctional society or organization or family, sooner or later someone gets “drafted” to speak out, act out, express the problem or the need. (After which, they get “blamed” for being “the only one with this problem.”) Historians argue about whether “times make the hero” or “the hero makes the times.” The answer is, of course, both. Michael Moore has had a remarkable impact on our country… and yet, perhaps the mass of people who admire his work contains the “seeds” of so many more Michael Moores, waiting for the right heat, or the right light, to crack open and change everything in an instant.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Compassionate society, Writing and society

The Writer In the Tower

A writer must be comfortable planting their own thoughts into the minds of others. That is what writing is. Putting your ideas, perceptions, feelings, fantasies out there as “attractive nuisances” that sit dangling from low hanging leaves and drop into the heads of passing Creatures Who Read. If you are good at it, your thoughts will propogate widely, because they will have a stickiness or hard-to-shake quality that lodges them firmly in the brains of readers.

And so you will change the world.

This suggests that one way a writer can fail to become successful is to lack either the ability, or the will, to have their thoughts take up residence in other people’s brains. The ability comes from all the zillions of books and lessons on writing, the examples of brilliance that have come before, the hours and years of practice that begin to accumulate the first time a four year old future writer prints the letter “A.”

That’s the easy part.

The hard part may be the hidden difficulty, the unconscious resistance to letting yourself communicate that freely and deliberately with readers.

Writers are often introverts, even closet social phobics, and the whole idea of writing for them may be organized around having some way to exist in the world without having to interface very intensively with other human beings. Writers are fond of “mountaintop retreats” and quiet rooms and being in but not of a coffee shop crowd. We want peace and quiet. We are sometimes afraid of making a peep. We may want to say “sorry” if someone notices that we have interfered with their idiotic monologue.

But this can become a psychological barrier. A kind of classical Freudian “neurosis” – a “fear of success” pattern that we aren’t even aware of having, but that limits our success as writers and engaged human beings. We can be too timid, too shy, to imagine that we can actually influence and change the thinking of others. “Who – me??” we may ask, as we skitter back to our garrets.

Like it or not, we are all nodes of the Network. Each of us is, on average, six degrees of first-name-basis separation from every human being on the planet. We may live on mountaintops hidden away from the prying eyes and loud voices and critical opinions, so also away from the caring glances and warm friendships and warm bodies of others, and we may feel more comfortable or safe or at peace, less jangled and impinged on, that way.

But I assert that we still need, as writers, to cultivate the ability to let our minds couple with those of others. To have something of ourselves take up permanent residence inside the thoughts and so the bodies (neurologically speaking, at least) of readers.

Not to allow this, to withdraw in permanent shy obscurity, is to risk entombing ourselves inside our own mental dungeons — like mad, forgotten prisoners long ago bricked up in castle towers, sliding sheets of foolscap through narrow window cracks, unaware, or worse, foolishly reassured, that our words of experience and cries for help lie rotting, unread, at the bottoms of silent moats.

Leave a comment

Filed under Phobias, Writing, Writing and society, Writing profession

Another Science Reporter Fail: “Education and the Aging Brain”

An article today in the NY Times by Patricia Cohen summarizes some research conclusions that suggest that the way to preserve your brain into old age is to get more education.  The problem is that the main study being cited appears from the article to be what we call a ‘correlational study,’ which may prove nothing of the kind.

Correlational studies are done by rounding up a bunch of people who, say, all went to college and comparing them to people who didn’t, and then comparing their “brain fitness” test results in middle age.  These studies can be extremely valuable and, as my old grad school prof Tom Bouchard used to teach us, they are often the best way to study the really really interesting things in science, because they may provide a tremendous wealth of information.

The problem with such studies is that they can suggest, but not necessarily prove, that one thing causes another.  A mantra that all undergraduate psych students memorize is that “correlation does not equal causation.”  Just because two things tend to happen together, like education and healthier brains, doesn’t prove that the one thing caused the other.  It’s equally likely, say, that people with healthier brains were the ones who were both motivated to pursue, and who could succeed at completing, additional years of education.  (You might be more “motivated” to go to college just because for you, it’s easier.  If it’s easier, you will enjoy it more.  On the other hand, kids with reading or attention problems, say, or who just aren’t as sharp, may find it harder and more painful to study, so the thought of four more years of slogging through books and tests may seem much less pleasant for them.)

Cohen’s main lapse is in failing to explain or discuss this caveat.  What she doesn’t say is that we really don’t know if the older folks with the more resilient brains got that way because they went to college, or whether they chose and managed to get through college because they had perhaps more well-functioning or healthier brains in the first place.  If someone had set up the proper experiment fifty years ago, by randomly assigning some people to go to college and keeping others out, we might have had very different results when testing their smarts when they were older.  We might have found some difference, but maybe not the same level of difference, say, between the two groups, which might mean that big headlines about “save your brain by going to college” would have seemed overly optimistic and simplistic.

There is evidence that doing things such as going to college, particularly decades ago when fewer people did so and so admissions were more selective, did tend to require at least somewhat better probably “inborn” ability levels.  We also have evidence that late-life problems with things like Alzheimer’s might be predictable even in one’s teens.   A study of elderly nuns showed that the ones who eventually developed Alzheimer’s had, as young women applying to a religious order, a very different style of writing.  They used few or no complex sentences, for instance (the kinds with commas in them and so on; the other girls didn’t do that.)  The researchers in that study were able to do a sort of “experiment” by seeing how well reviewers could predict who would eventually develop Alzheimer’s, by simply rating the young women’s essays on whether they used “linguistically dense” sentences that had things like multiple ideas, or even just commas in them.  Turned out the predictive value of that kind of thing was weirdly high — the researchers could almost always match the eventual health outcome with the women’s writing styles from decades earlier.

While it is probably true that going to college develops a stronger brain, and there are certainly studies (some cited in her story) suggesting that mental exercise in general makes the brain healthier (though jogging probably helps more), these results are tentative and shouldn’t be overly simplified.  Almost all of the studies showing that people who study French or go to college have “better brains” are correlational; it’s as least as likely that people with better-functioning brains just enjoy using them for a wider range of mental tasks.

It’s good if readers recognize when reporters are perhaps jumping too hard on squishy findings.  Sloppy reasoning gets tedious to read over and over again. Reporters and publications know that they can attract “mindshare” with dramatic but misleading headlines, stories based on poorly done or poorly reported half-truths.  (e.g., “Air Force Still Denies Finding Alien Bodies at Area 51.”)  But this kind of bad reporting is not just misleading — it can also have negative real-world consequences.  People make poorer decisions when they are based on poor or faulty information — they change their lifestyles, adopt new diets and exercise regimens, waste blood and treasure on things that in the long run, just don’t matter.  They also may do bad things to each other based on half-truths and this kind of ignorance.

When I was in college we were assigned to read a little workbook for honing our skills at spotting false conclusions derived from research.  The earliest articles were the easiest to figure out — a piece by someone allegedly named “Pileous Lupus Swarthy” was about determining whether werewolves could be “diagnosed” based on their response to a “silver allergy” test that entailed firing a silver bullet in the brains of people suspected of being werewolves. (Since it was “well known” that werewolves are allergic to silver… well, you get the idea.)  The article concluded that the diagnostic test worked perfectly, since 100% of the test subjects who were shot in the head died, proving that they were all werewolves.

Which is silly, but not so much when you remember that the identical reasoning was used in the middle ages to kill thousands of women suspected of witchcraft, by binding them hand and foot and throwing them into ponds.  The “proof” they were innocent of witchcraft would be that they drowned.  “Real” witches were the women who managed to float.  They would be burned alive.

Leave a comment

Filed under Psychology, Writing and society