Islamic fundamentalists sometimes have a point

Ho, hum. Another videotaped beheading of another Western do-gooder. What is up with all these white American men just sort of showing up in the Middle East hoping to do good, but inevitably becoming captives of one of the warring factions? There have lately been three (if my recall is accurate) Americans whose beheadings were videotaped for public consumption by ISIS, which probably means there are three hundred or so out there waiting to be similarly rewarded for their “altruism” (as the word “altruism” describes something that doesn’t exist, the word always requires quotation marks when being used so that no one misses the irony, which is also why it should never be used in conversation unless both hands are free to make the air quote marks). Do-gooders are like cockroaches—if you see one on the kitchen counter, there’s probably a hundred in the woodwork. And one imagines, if ISIS had only one or two white American men left in captivity, it would be less willing to sacrifice them to the cause of dying for Allah for which their “altruistic” hearts were unwittingly devoted. They probably have dozens. The latest victim, Peter Kassig, had converted to Islam and even taken a Muslim name, Abdul-Rahman. So much for doing well by doing good and trying to assimilate.

All these videotaped beheadings remind me of the scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where Indiana Jones is being chased down a narrow alleyway or corridor in a crowded Arabian city by some locals. It appears Jones is trapped in a sort of box canyon of a street. When he turns to face his pursuer, the big, stereotypically scary (bushy eyebrows, facial hair, maniacal eyes, etc.) Arabian guy pulls a scimitar from the waist belt around his robe, and starts waving it around menacingly, like a ninja twirling nunchucks. Things look rather dire for Mr. Jones, but only for a moment, until he reaches in his own belt (holding up regular old Western rugged-wear pants), pulls out a pistol, and unceremoniously shoots the dangerous-looking Arab.

I recall my fellow theater patrons actually applauding after Jones killed the guy. I may have, too, but I don’t remember for sure. I was just a teenage kid at the time.

But I wasn’t too young to get the lesson for the scimitar-wielding Arab—don’t come to a gun fight with a knife. The lesson for the executioner in the ISIS videos is along the same lines—don’t come to a drone/smart bomb fight with a knife and a video camera. The US could destroy ISIS in a New York minute if it so desired. ISIS only exists because the West lets it exist. The more poignant question is why it chooses to do so.

A CNN opinion piece written by Fawaz Gerges claims that the beheadings are acts of desperation by an organization that finds itself on the run in the face of American and European (aka, Western) air bombardment. Perhaps. But like the stock market can stay irrational far longer than investors can stay solvent, ISIS can stay irrationally committed to the Levant much longer than the West has the will to keep at the task of hunting it down. In a way, ISIS is less of a military organization and more of an abstraction made concrete. ISIS stands for the idea that the West is corrupt and weak and immoral and decadent. And it has a point. In fact, the continued existence of ISIS proves the point. But there are other markers of Western decadence that help prove ISIS’s points. Take, for instance, female sexuality.

Western women, particularly American women, are more or less afforded complete freedom to do what they wish with their sexuality, to the point that they can have the unintended consequences of their sexual activity siphoned from their bodies without legal penalty or moral sanction. Given all that freedom, what have American women done? Arguably, they have used their hard-won freedom to become even more sexually depraved than men. It is instructive that Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus (and legions of other American women famous for their hyper-sexualized personas) are all poignant examples of American women expressing their sexual freedom in a lowest-common-denominator fashion, competing to see who can be the most outrageously sexualized, as if the only dimension to American women is their sexuality.

American women have, by and large, proved incapable of handling sexual freedom. Instead of using the opportunities presented by equality and freedom to civilize and harmonize the culture as only women are capable of, they have vulgarized it, dragging the whole culture through the gutter of sexual depravity. They adamantly refuse to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with the power of a womb, preferring to pretend that the power of the womb they attempt to exploit through exhibitions of their sexual attractiveness should have no consequences except their enhanced social status. But no power has ever been wielded that didn’t come with responsibility.

The refusal of young American women to take positive and responsible charge of their own sexuality is why American colleges now feel compelled to define as sexual assault every casual sexual contact without which a provable consent was rendered. The “Yes means yes” movement, now codified into law in California and elsewhere, is the rough equivalent of the rules in Muslim and other “backward” cultures regarding the interactions of unrelated males and females. The West, facing a crisis of female irresponsibility in dealing with sexual equality and freedom, has been forced to vastly expand the definition of rape to protect the virtue of its women. It is little wonder that the notion of modesty in female dress and behavior as touted by ISIS and other Islamic fundamentalist organizations has found purchase, particularly among African and Muslim cultures, outside the vulgarized West.

People in the West would say that Muslims and Westerners treat women quite differently. In reality, the West pretends the problem of female sexuality does not exist, until it inevitably does, at which point it imposes strict behavioral codes enforced with draconian punishments, much as Muslim cultures do. The difference is that Muslim cultures realize that female sexuality has always been problematic to civilization, and requires modesty in dress and behavior to attempt to forestall bigger problems later on. Which is the better and more “progressive” solution? It would be hard to argue that the West, exemplified by outrageous campus rape statistics, by the likes of Miley Cyrus and others, and hyper-sexualized femininity, has things better figured out.

Taking female sexuality as one cultural touch point, the basic premise of ISIS is correct. The West is grown morally bankrupt and decadent. ISIS serves a valuable purpose in pointing out as much. Perhaps that’s why it has thus far been allowed to survive.

If you thank me for my service on Veteran’s Day, I’ll bop you on the head

My daughter did it just to yank my chain. “Thank-you Daddy, for your service.”

“Ha, ha. Do that again, and I’ll quit not domestically abusing you.”

“Thank-you for your service.”

Bop, went my hand (lightly) against the back of her head.

“Thank you for your service, Daddy.”

Bop, again. It was sort of fun. She must have thought so too or she wouldn’t have kept at it.

She’s going away to college next year, so this is pretty much it for a close personal relationship between us. But it’s been fun this year, as she’s tried to decide what she wants to do while juggling a busy social life. She’s got at least two main romances and a number of boys that are just “friends”. I’ve told her, like Harry told Sally in the 1990’s movie, men and women can’t really be friends. Men who befriend a woman only do so in order to get laid. Sorry ladies, it’s true. I’ve tried to help my daughter, even as she does her best to aggravate me in every aspect of life, understand the male psyche. It’s not terribly complicated. Men want sex. They’d like to have sex with a woman who they find attractive and who wants to have sex with them, but they’ll settle for a snake if they can find someone who will hold its head. It’s just the way guys are. They just aren’t usually as emotionally invested in the relationship as are women. The way a woman can get a man emotionally invested is to withhold sex until he is. Nothing new here.

I’ve also told her that I don’t care how much a woman thinks ‘no’ means ‘no’; to imagine that she can then get sloppy drunk and expect men will respect her wishes is to also imagine that there will be a unicorn under the tree on Christmas morning. Like I told her, boys and booze don’t mix. The country music song, Tequila makes her clothes fall off, was old when it was written.

I’ve told my daughter why I can’t stomach people thanking me for my service—it’s condescending, awkward and presumptuously foolish. It’s condescending for some stranger to think I served for their benefit just because I happened to serve. Maybe I served in spite of the fact that they benefited, which is certainly true, for example, in the case of early 1990’s soccer moms eagerly cheering on the death and destruction in Iraq and Kuwait. I served in that war, but only because I had to, and not at all for those cheering soccer moms. The idea that we were killing people so that spoiled, entitled, rich, white soccer moms could fill up their hulking SUV’s with cheap gasoline repulsed me. It repulsed me then and repulses me now. That the first Iraq War led directly to the attacks on 9-11, which led directly to the destruction of the Constitution with passage of the Patriot Act, which led to two more wars in the region, repulses me even more. Especially don’t thank me for my service in that one. I am ashamed that I was involved.

And how awkward is it to have somebody you don’t even know come up to you and thank-you for something you didn’t do for them? What do you say? No thanks to your gratitude? Because I didn’t serve so you could expiate your guilt at living an easy, indulgent life while others were sacrificing for you. It’s just awkward and like most things awkward, contrived and pretentious and unnecessary. If I were still serving, I would never let any civilian use me or my soldiers for the purpose of guilt expiation. There would be no trotting out of heroes to make the politicians look good.

It’s also presumptuously foolish to imagine that I and my fellow service members are schmucks who didn’t do a cost-benefit calculus when deciding to serve in the military. I certainly did. And here’s what I got out of it: A paycheck, no small thing in the economy of 1985; a chance to travel the world; a chance to fly helicopters, and I could go one, but isn’t that enough? The cost? Maybe, just maybe, being asked to participate in a killing that I didn’t agree with, which happened to be the case for me, but still wouldn’t have tipped the scales against serving. I didn’t serve for altruistic reasons. I haven’t an altruistic bone in my body. And neither does anyone else. No one has ever done anything for someone else for which they didn’t get some sort of benefit. And the guys who joined in the years since 9-11 when the US basically entered an era of perpetual war, obviously knew what they were getting into. It has to be assumed that they did the same cost-benefit calculus as I did, and as every other living creature in the world, human and otherwise, undertakes before embarking on a course of action.

But my daughter did a reasonably decent job, eventually, after being bopped on the head a few too many times, of justifying why she should be grateful—because by serving I made money and started building a life for myself, and that life eventually led to her. Fair enough. But she could say that about a number of things, and she needn’t have thanked me for her, because, there as well, I have selfishly benefited. I’ve always gotten more than I’ve given through having her in my life.

An open letter to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Computer, regarding his recent announcement

Dear Tim,

It is okay that I call you Tim, isn’t it? I mean, you felt like you knew me well enough that you revealed your sexual proclivities to me, and since I haven’t the same capacity to convey mine to you in such an attention-grabbing manner [ravenously heterosexual, if you must know] I felt I should at least be allowed to address you informally.

I appreciate that you felt so comfortable in your own skin that you could let us all in on your little ‘secret’, though I’m sure it wasn’t much of a secret among the people who actually knew you. And isn’t that the way things should be? And I bet you never got any grief from any of them about your homosexuality. Steve Jobs certainly didn’t hold it against you when he named you as his successor.

You claimed that your homosexuality was the greatest gift God has bestowed upon you. Were you serious? Where, then, does the Apple Computer gig fit in? I mean, I doubt your predecessor thought his sexuality was the greatest gift bestowed upon him. I’m not the CEO of Apple Computer, and while I’ve had plenty of sex over the course of my half century or so on the planet, I don’t consider my ravenous heterosexuality (does it make you uncomfortable to hear me discuss things that way? Imagine how heterosexuals feel about homosexuals ceaselessly revealing their sexual proclivities to the public) to be the greatest gift God has bestowed upon me. Or, even one of the top ten gifts.

It might even be the greatest curse. Have you been around American women lately? Oh, yeah, but not in that way. Well let me tell you, they can be batshit crazy and controlling and diabolically evil, and that’s just the ones who can otherwise function in society well enough that they not be institutionalized. If you want to know a bit of what American men face when confronting the problem of their heterosexuality, go to see the movie, Gone Girl. You ought to be able to view the movie a bit more objectively than I did. I was shaking with terror by the end, and will probably never look at my wife in the same way again. I can see why so many men who are on the sexual preference fence are climbing down into your side of the pasture. Heterosexuality doesn’t seem much of a gift, but a burden. But maybe that’s just been my experience with it.

As I recall, your predecessor at Apple wasn’t married (not that heterosexual or homosexual marriage is required for expressing one’s sexuality), but certainly behaved as if he were heterosexual. But I bet Steve Jobs thought the iPod, not his sexual orientation, was the greatest gift God bestowed upon him and upon Apple Computer. (Given Jobs cultish appeal, God undoubtedly achieved near perfect expression through Jobs, or at least that’s what Jobs seemed to think). I mean, before the iPod, Apple Computer had about been forgotten in the great consumer technology game. The iPod was like Sony’s Walkman. Literally, accounting for the differences in technology of the times, the iPod and the Walkman were identical. They were faddish but individualized means of listening to music. God, through his medium, Jobs, and Jobs, through his medium, Apple, made it cool to walk around with earbuds in one’s ears, just like Sony had once made it cool to walk around with a CD player strapped to the hip and headphones wrapped from ear to ear. But with iPods, a library of music that would have taken a fair-sized closet to store now could be accessed and downloaded digitally and carried everywhere. The world was so much better for it. Well, except for recording artists and record companies who found it harder and harder to get paid as it became easier and easier to share music. But certainly, the iPod made Apple Computer matter again, and turned the mock-T wearing Jobs into a guru of techno fashion. With the iPod becoming the next big, cool technology thing, which Jobs wisely followed with the iPhone and then the iPad, each with relentlessly innovating updates, Jobs and Apple Computer eventually became to consumer technology what Ralph Lauren was/is to Western sartorial tastes—the place the masses of middle to upper middle class bourgeoisie turned to in deciding upon what they should be wearing or carrying next. That little bitten apple logo (and what a sardonic little slap in God’s face the logo represented) became as chic for consumer electronics as that little polo pony and rider logo was for clothes.

None of any of this had really anything to do with anybody’s sexuality, except that the striving for status that wearing a Polo or carrying an iPhone represented was innately tied to sexuality and has been cynically exploited by both Jobs and Lauren. Higher status humans, like higher status wolves in a pack, get to have more sex. Or, at least, that’s the case in the heterosexual world. I’m not really sure how things work in the homosexual world, since I don’t live there.  It would seem ambiguous, as there is no reproductive point to the sexuality of a homosexual.

But the truly remarkable societal change the iPod and iPhone fads represented was that information technology was no longer valuable simply for its usefulness. It became as much or more valuable for its stylishness. Where Microsoft’s operating platforms were only as beautiful as they were efficient enablers of productivity enhancements, Apple’s phones and computers were considered stylish and beautiful in their own right. The culture spent the nineties getting more efficient and thereby richer on Microsoft technology so that it could squander its fortune on iPods, iPhones and iPads. Information technology jumped the shark and become a luxury, instead of utilitarian, good. The coolness of the iPhone bled over into even the personal computer game. No hipster would be seen dead with a Dell or HP PC by the mid to late aught’s. Whereas an IBM PC was de rigueur in the eighties, it had to have a point and click Windows operating system interface by the mid-nineties (no more DOS), and then it was replaced altogether by Compaq, Gateway, Dell and eventually Hewlett Packard by the end of the decade. Apple obliterated all that. It became the “It“ IT company apparently unto infinity (if the stock price is any indication) for consumer technology devices.

The point here is that Apple got to be cool when the slow accretion of wealth across the society during the nineties yielded enough people who could afford to indulge personal technology as something more than just an efficiency enhancement tool. And here’s the deal—the same could be said of the present cultural movement to liberalize laws and attitudes towards homosexuality. It is a function of wealth that homosexuality is celebrated and accepted. The West, without any real existential challenges, has become unimaginably wealthy (even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes) and with unimaginable wealth comes luxuriant decadence. It’s sort of perfect in a way that you, the CEO of Apple Computer, are the first to come out among the Fortune 500. Apple sells luxury (if mass marketed) technologies. There is nothing anyone needs with an iPhone that they couldn’t get with someone else’s phone for cheaper. The iPhone can charge more because it is chic. And a society that can afford iPhones can afford to provide the equal protection of its laws to people who have more or less foresworn their reproductive imperatives (notwithstanding some few homosexuals do have children). It is not often discussed in this world of seven billion and rising people, but it matters quite a bit to a society whether or not its citizens have children. Ask Japan, and Russia. Both countries have total fertility rates well below replacement. One openly persecutes homosexuality (Russia). The other (Japan) does not, but neither does it provide any special protection for the condition, or allow homosexuals the benefits (?) of marriage. But it can’t be imagined that the leaders of both countries aren’t very concerned, if not always openly, that their populations are in actual decline. What leader seeks for his organization to shrink?

The problem with homosexuality, so far as society is concerned, is its violation of Kant’s categorical imperative. If everyone were homosexual, unless there arose a different means of human reproduction (which is not entirely implausible), the society would not long exist. For Kant, the answer to a question of whether something is moral is to ask what would happen if everyone did the something in question. If the answer comes back clearly negative, then it should not be done by the individual.

So there is the Kantian moral problem of societal survivability, but all moral problems are about survivability of either the individual or society, so calling it a moral problem is really just another way of saying that at some percentage of the population, homosexuality could be expected to impair the long-term prospects for the survival of the species. Yet another way to put it is that there is no way that a strictly homosexual genome could be naturally selected for propagation in a sexually reproducing species. Homosexuality, especially of the exclusive variety, is a genetic aberration, but one of many that is possible within the expansive human genome. The anomaly afflicts, according to a study by the Williams Institute, about 3.5% of the adult population in the US. And yes, there are varying degrees of innateness. The homosexual inclination lies upon a gradient, a continuum, where there are the perfectly straight people on the one end, who are disgusted at the very thought of homosexuality and who have never had a homosexual encounter, and perfectly homosexual people on the other end, who are similarly disgusted at the idea of physical contact with the opposite sex. Most people, as I suspect is the case with you, Tim, lie somewhere in between.

But it can’t be imagined that widespread acceptance of openly homosexual lifestyles won’t encourage the fence sitters to jump off the fence and into the homosexual camp. I don’t know for sure, as I’ve never had a homosexual relationship, but it would seem to me that homosexual relationships would be less difficult and fraught than straight relationships. With homosexual relationships, there is already a commonality that is not present in heterosexual relationships—the homosexual couples have in common the physical plumbing and experiences of being male or female in society; they view things from the same, or very similar perspectives, gender-wise. Straight couples don’t have that luxury. Men and women really are different, and not just because of social conditioning. It takes a powerful urge (i.e., lust) to bring them together, and for those in the middle of the heterosexual/ homosexual gradient, that urge might not be strong enough to overcome the volatile differences.

Western society is rich enough and populous enough that it can afford to extend protections and benefits to homosexuals, and doing so helps it believe that its mythical purpose of promoting equality and individual liberty remains its animating virtue. Promoting the acceptance of homosexuality, as you did in coming out, is seen as, in your words “…paving the sunlit path towards justice, one brick at a time… “. It is viewed as the highest expression of human progress, even more so than the progress represented today by everyone spending their days hyperactively socialized on their iPhones. But in changing the conversation from your company to you and your sexual proclivities, it could be argued that you did a disservice to the shareholders of the company who you purport to represent. Of course, it might be a public relations gambit worth taking, if Apple’s technology products become more closely identified with the social movement de jour of this bored society. And it would be an appropriate identification (Apple with the Gay Movement), because in large measure, boredom is the real driver of both. Apple figured out how to make endless hours of wasted time looking at internet drivel appear to be purposeful and cool, while also making it moderately enjoyable. And the homosexual acceptance movement is something that relieves the domestic ennui, particularly of the federal government and court system and a whole host of do-gooder organizations that need but can’t often find a purpose for being and who thrash aimlessly about when they don’t have some perceived injustices to correct. And it gives society at large something besides another military campaign abroad to rally around.

But the reality is that people have always known there were homosexuals in their midst. Homosexuals often were ignored or marginalized or even ostracized and persecuted, because the majority of people thought, then and now, that homosexuality is, of whatever source, an aberration. And it is an aberration, of the genetic variety. But there are other such genetic aberrations that aren’t met with similar disdain, and it is not right and never was to treat homosexuals poorly. People always sort of knew that homosexuals were born that way, but still persecuted them for something they had no control over. Being homosexual, at times in the past, must have seemed not much different than being Jewish (for the most part, Jews, also, are born that way), except that the Jews had a more robust social support system than did homosexuals, at least until recently.

Tim, I hate that there needs to be a gay acceptance movement and that you felt compelled to support it with your coming out. But I relish the reality that society has grown so rich and has so conclusively conquered so many other injustices and threats that it can now turn its attention to gay acceptance. But I caution that wealth and luxury yields inevitably to decadent excess, and that we are pretty much already there, which endangers us in a progressively-accumulating manner internationally. ISIS makes easy hay with the bored young men it needs as fighters because it is easy to point to the decadence (particularly sexually, particularly among heterosexuals, particularly among women—Western women seem hell bent to outslut each other in behavior and attire, getting a bit more vulgar with every passing year—a matter for a different letter) that seems to have been the point of all that vaunted Western progress. While the West extends the marriage franchise to homosexuals, ISIS establishes an Islamic caliphate in the Levant where homosexuality is punishable (like all else) by death. The two extremes are more closely related than anyone cares to admit.

As a parting observation—you came from Alabama, growing up in Robertsdale, down around Mobile, and attended Auburn University. It would have been nice if you hadn’t felt it necessary to get in a dig in your coming out at how poorly homosexuals were treated in Alabama when you were growing up. It would be hard to imagine that they were treated much differently in Alabama than they were anywhere else back then. I am about your age and found very little open persecution of homosexuals when I was growing up, but also was aware of very few openly homosexual people. Where I live now (Birmingham), there are openly homosexual people everywhere, and pretty much nobody notices, so far as I can tell. Whole neighborhoods (Crestwood) have reputations for having a large percentage of homosexuals (in Crestwood’s case, as urban rejuvenators). Things really aren’t that bad down here. There are no laws specifically protecting homosexuals, but there are also none specifically deleterious to the homosexual condition and lifestyle. I think the principle of live and let live, which Alabamians like to assert against the Federal government, has been sort of intuitively applied to homosexuals by the vast majority of the population.

In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed our little chat. Best wishes for whatever new, must-have thing Apple comes up with next. Who knows, I might even, for the first time, buy one. But probably not.  Don’t despair.  I don’t wear clothes with little polo players embroidered on them either.

Regards,

TCA

Was it Auburn football’s voodoo magic that broke Treadwell’s leg to ensure a victory

To anybody paying attention, it is pretty clear that sometime after the disastrous 2012 Auburn football season, when the Tigers went 0-8 in the SEC after having won a BCS Championship only two years before, the Tigers made a deal with the devil, or found favor with a powerful angel, or just learned how to cook up a little black magic to make the ball bounce its way. How else to explain going from worst in the SEC to the BCS championship game in one season, with basically the same footballers as stunk up the field the year before? An alternative theory is that Gus Malzahn, whose first season as Auburn’s head coach was last year’s inexplicable turn-around, is the new evil genius of football, not even requiring talented players in order to put a world-beating team on the field. Yeah, right. I think it’s more plausible to figure that Auburn, or maybe just Malzahn, offered some sacrifices to a voodoo god, especially considering the way things had to break (literally, with the last game) for them to have enjoyed the success they’ve had.

The black magic started last season with last second luck at Mississippi State that helped the Tigers squeeze out an early-season victory. Then it was Johnny Manziel looking less than Heisman-worthy to get the win in College Station. Then came the miracle tip at Georgia on a fourth and forever play that would have wrapped up Georgia’s own somewhat miraculous comeback, but instead gave the victory to the Tigers. Things just got ridiculous the following week, when hated Alabama’s Nick Saban plead with the ref’s to have one second added to the clock so that the Tide might try a field goal to break the tie before overtime. The attempt fell short and was promptly returned for a game winning touchdown that set the Jordan Hare rafters to rattling for the ages. It was a second that will last forever. Excepting the LSU game, the magic only failed once for Auburn last season. It came when Florida State’s Jameis Winston marched his team down the field for the winning touchdown as the last seconds ticked off the clock in the BCS Championship Game. Considering how many scrapes Winston has gotten into off the field but somehow manages to still play, he may have a closer relationship to the voodoo god than Auburn. Or, perhaps the god was exhausted, having taken Auburn from a season without a single SEC victory to the cusp of the national title over the span of just two years.

The voodoo god resurfaced Saturday night in Oxford, Mississippi, but this time revealing its ugly side. How else to explain it? What other team snatches a victory from the jaws of defeat by having an opposing player’s leg break just before he crosses the goal line? This is getting scary. If Auburn can command the god break an opponent’s leg to preserve a win, what can’t it do? What won’t it do? Saturday night showed that Auburn’s god is a merciless god that will stop at nothing to preserve a victory. Think about it–breaking a player’s leg, and in such a painful manner that he drops the ball six inches before he falls into the endzone, writhing in agony? What if Auburn’s god decides Nick Saban needs a heart attack? What if it directs its ire towards the Saban family, like a Mafia don might? This could get ugly.

In hindsight, it seems that Mississippi State must be really, really good, to have beaten Auburn and the power of its voodoo god earlier this season. Or, maybe Auburn’s voodoo god is lazy, sort of like its defense, and hadn’t awakened to the danger that the Tigers might lose that day before it was too late. Or, considering that Mississippi State gave up five turnovers that day and still managed to win, maybe Auburn’s voodoo god was displeased with the Tigers for some reason, and wanted to teach them that relying on luck is not always a sound strategy, even when you have plenty of it. Whatever was the cause of the stumbling, bumbling effort at Mississippi State, the god made amends Saturday in Oxford.

However, it could be argued that the god who broke Treadwell’s ankle was not Auburn’s god at all, but was the mad god that delivered three of the last five BCS Championships to Alabama. Remember 2009’s championship? It took two blocked field goals to beat Tennessee that year. Two blocked field goals in one game? Who does that, without supernatural help? Remember 2011? It took a string of unpredictable losses, culminating in Iowa State’s defeat of Oklahoma State, to reposition Bama for the title game after having lost to LSU in the regular season. The Tide won the BCS Championship in 2011 without even winning its own conference title. And it won the 2012 BCS Championship after losing a game early in the season to Texas A & M. So the Tide has had plenty of help in its recent return to luminance in the college football firmament. Besides, consider its head coach—Nick Saban. Could it be just a coincidence that his name sounds so much like “Satan”? Saban would say that there’s no such thing as coincidence, which he would probably follow up with one of his half-crooked Grinchy-looking grins. And if he dropped from a heart attack just before the Auburn game, his point would be proved.

After losing to Ole Miss earlier in the season, Alabama needed Ole Miss to lose at least two games to give the Tide a chance at the SEC championship. Done (LSU the week prior) and done (Auburn this week). Now Alabama again controls its destiny. If it wins out (LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn remain), it will go to the SEC championship game with one loss, even if Mississippi State’s only loss is to Bama. So it might have been Alabama voodoo that did Ole Miss in. Auburn needs Mississippi State to lose two games if it is to go to the SEC championship game. The only real chance of that is if Alabama and Ole Miss beat them. I doubt Vandy’s gonna get it done if one or the other of those fails. Incidentally, who has the toughest remaining schedule in the SEC, just going on present rankings? Yes, of course, it is Bama, not Auburn, contrary to what the voodoo queen likes to claim. Bama has the first (Mississippi State), third (Auburn) and fourteenth ranked team (LSU) left on its schedule. Auburn has only Texas A & M (unranked) Georgia (17th) and Alabama (4rd) left. So shut up already, Gus.

We’ll know more about whose voodoo, Alabama’s or Auburn’s, beat Ole Miss when the Tide plays LSU this Saturday. If Bama loses to LSU, we’ll know it was Auburn’s (because Bama will be all but eliminated with another loss). LSU, which started out looking like a cream puff this year, has really turned its season around. But with two losses already (to Auburn and Mississippi State), LSU is almost certainly not going to win the SEC West. Auburn would have to lose two of its last three games (Texas A & M, Georgia and Alabama remain) and Mississippi State would have to lose all three of its remaining games (Alabama, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss). And LSU would have to win all its remaining games (Alabama, Texas A & M and Arkansas), which is not impossible, but is unlikely. LSU ain’t winning the West. And if it somehow happens anyway, it could be reasonably assumed that Les Miles upped the ante on the voodoo god’s favor, because it sure as hell wouldn’t make any football sense.

Over in the SEC East, things haven’t made sense for a while. Texas A & M crushed South Carolina to start the season, then South Carolina beat Georgia. Georgia hands Missouri its only loss, and then gets beaten by a Florida team that was embarrassed by Missouri. Kentucky becomes a dark horse in the hunt for the title, but gets beaten by Missouri and Florida and Mississippi State and LSU. The only team that controls its destiny in the SEC East is Missouri. If it wins out against its weak remaining schedule (Texas A & M, Tennessee and Arkansas), it will win the East. But if it loses any one of those games and Georgia (Kentucky and Auburn remain) wins out, Georgia will go. Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are all out of the running. Florida could win the East, if it wins the rest of its games (Vanderbilt and Kentucky—very doable) and Missouri loses all three of its remaining games (Texas A & M, Tennessee, Arkansas—most unlikely). If Florida won the East, it would be a football mystery for the ages (Georgia would still have to lose another game). But it wouldn’t matter anyway—Will Muschamp is still getting fired, no matter how many voodoo dolls he sticks pins in.

The homestretch ought to be fun. It’s looking like a possible rematch between Auburn and Mizzou in the SEC Championship Game. Or, maybe Mississippi State and Mizzou. Or, Mississippi State and Georgia. Or, Auburn and Georgia. Or, Alabama and Georgia. Or, Alabama and Mizzou. Or, LSU and Georgia. Or, LSU and Mizzou. Whatever happens, I think the West beats the East again. It seems about now to enjoy something of a closer communion with the mad gods controlling the football fates.

Book Review: “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn (2012)

Note: This is a review of the book, not the movie. I finished reading the book shortly after the movie made it to my hometown theaters a couple of weeks ago, which is to say, shortly after it was released to the general public. I have not seen the movie.

If the saying that all fiction is autobiography is true, Gillian Flynn’s husband better sleep with one eye open if he ever thinks of straying. Amy, the “gone girl” of the title, is a sort of wife-monster of every husband’s nightmares. She is superficially sweet and charming. But that’s just the veneer her cold and calculating selfish nature uses to disguise her pathologies. Amy is a cliché (though she would violently object to the appellation). She is the prototype for hell hath no fury like the wrath of a woman scorned. And with Amy, a poor little spoiled and pampered rich girl with two oppressively doting parents, her wrath must be indulgently expressed in a manner calculated to utterly destroy its object.

It would be trite to say that Amy is a psychopath, although I doubt that most people, even people like Amy’s parents who were child psychologists, would disagree that she is. Psychopaths aren’t all that complicated—their only real flaw is their inability to feel remorse or guilt for doing things that harm others. They do what their selfish instincts tell them must be done to achieve whatever it is their impulses tell them they want or need—status, power, money, sex, etc., without concern for the feelings of others. There are lots of psychopaths in the world. Probably every high-powered executive in a Fortune 500 company could be diagnosed a psychopath to some degree. But Fortune 500 executives know to carefully hide and suppress their impulses to do things that law or morality forbids (e.g., killing, torture, bribery) lest the revelation of their rotten core or their apprehension by the authorities impairs the satisfaction of their desires. Social psychopaths won’t generally physically harm themselves or others to get what they want.

But not Amy. As we learn over the course of the book, she is diabolically clever at exacting revenge when she feels to have been wronged, and will stop at nothing to achieve it. In her vanity and competitiveness, she always seeks an elegant vengefulness that enhances her reputation at the expense of the object of her vengeance, but that also makes the object of her wrath clearly aware that she has been avenged. Because all the slights Amy ever suffers seem to arise from the queered up notion, one she probably acquired in childhood from being an only child with two adult humans spinning their lives around hers, that anytime she is anything less than foremost in the consideration of others, she has been wronged, and when she has been wronged, she deserves to inflict an Old Testament, angry vengeful God wrath on whoever it was that wronged her. And while she wants vengeance, she knows it is a dish whose recipe must be meticulously followed, and of course, be served cold. Like she told her husband, Nick, towards the end of the book, when he finally lets her know that he realizes what a psycho bitch she is, Everything I do, I do for a reason, Nick. Everything I do takes planning and precision and discipline.  Which sounds perfectly reasonable, not psychopathic at all. Until you find out what she has spent her time doing, with planning, precision and discipline.

Gone Girl is the rare book that both my wife and I have read. The wife mainly likes bubblegum, “trashy” (her words) novels. I mostly like geeky, somewhat intellectual non-fiction about some aspect of human endeavor or experience (I started a book on the history of opium after this one). But I decided to read this one because of jacket blurbs that had it exploring marriage (if with a psychopathic backdrop), which is certainly something of human endeavor or experience in which I am interested. I asked my wife what she thought of the two protagonists/antagonists, Amy, and Nick (Amy’s husband). She said about what I was thinking–that they deserved each other.

The book is about far more than just Amy’s psychopathy. It is about marriage in the modern world, and once you get to know Nick, you will understand the feelings Amy had for him, and might even see how what she did was something of rough justice for how he treated her. Nick, who desperately wanted to be anything except like his dad, who was gruff and unfeeling and critical and always angry, turned out to be far worse than all that. He turned out to be a caricatured cliché of a man who, after both he and Amy lose their jobs in New York City, drags his wife away from her friends to a life of isolation in the Midwest town where he grew up, cajoling her to pony up the funds for a bar he and his sister own and manage while he leaves Amy alone at a desolate suburban McMansion to slowly lose her mind. To top it all off, he cheats on her with a coed from the local community college where he teaches classes part time. It is Amy’s discovery of the affair (at its inception, unbeknownst to Nick) that sets her on her vengeful course, the one which required planning, precision and discipline. It could be argued that Amy is not a bit crazy but is just really, really angry, and justifiably so. I’m sure more than a few women will read the book and cheer her on, at least a little bit, because Amy felt exactly what most women who have been betrayed feel, even if most women wouldn’t have done the things she did to exact her revenge. I even cheered her vigilante vengeance a bit. Nick deserved what he got, almost. Hell hath no fury. I bet Nick’s dad understood as much. Amy wasn’t any crazier than Nick made her. Yeah, my wife was right, they deserve each other.

The book also stands as poignant social commentary on the institution of marriage. Why did these two narcissistic, selfish people get married? The question matters because, as Amy observes, they were both being phonies to win the other’s love, and when time and circumstance wore off the façade of romance, it left the ugly truth that neither of them much even liked the other, but now they were stuck, sort of, with each other. It felt like Amy wanted to be married because marriage is just what you do at a certain age. She didn’t get married for the old reason people got married—to have kids. She seemed to want marriage as an accouterment she could proudly display as evidence of her desirability and likability among her social set, or she wanted marriage for the same reason people these days get dogs—to have a creature that loves and depends on them. In any event, neither she nor Nick seemed mature enough to understand the true implications of marriage. Neither of them seemed to get that marriage is a business partnership that is in the business of enhancing the life and times of its two partners. It often can be, as Amy and Nick treated it, a dialectic struggle to see which partner will impose their will on the other. But as Nick pointed out towards the end of the book, when Amy demanded he turn over the manuscript he’d written describing her antics in their relationship for the price of being a part of his child’s life: We had spent years battling for control of our marriage, of our love story, our life story. I had been thoroughly, finally outplayed. I created a manuscript, she created a life.

Nick was a fool for ever believing that he could win the marital dialectic. So long as a woman is fertile, she will win every power struggle in which she chooses to engage with her significant other. Because no matter what a man might do or create, only a woman can create a life, and that superpower trumps all others, hands down. As between a coupling man and woman, husband and wife or not, there is absolutely no doubt where the power lies. It lies in the womb. As it has since time immemorial, long before the Pill and abortion on demand.

Flynn left me wondering why these people got married. Or worse, why any two people should ever get married. What is the purpose of marriage? Is it to stave off loneliness? Because some of the loneliest times of my life have been since I tied the knot. Is it to bring happiness and joy into one’s life? Because there is nothing more miserable than a marriage that isn’t working. If marriage is a partnership for the business of enhancing the survival and propagation prospects of its partners, is it ultimately about raising children? Indeed, that seems about right. The question then becomes, why have children?

Flynn , through Amy, offers a poignant example of why not to have children. It is very hard to understand why anyone ever should. Especially today, where the state has taken up roles (e.g., of old-age caregiver or economic support) at one time the sole province of the spouse or children, it is hard to see the benefits of having children.

And well, it is apparently not only me who was left wondering about marriage and children after reading of Nick and Amy’s misery. The total fertility rate (the number of children born to each woman) has been more or less steadily declining in the US since shortly after the post-WWII baby boom. It stands today at a level (2.01) that is not high enough to replace the existing population (roughly 2.1 is needed to replace the existing population). And the same is true of marriage. The percent of the population that is married is at an all-time low. Women and men are postponing marriage more and more each year. The average age of the spouses of first marriages in the US is now about 29 years old for men, and 27 years old for women, both all-time highs. All this probably has something to do with improved health expectations (40 is the new 30, etc., and infant mortality is at all-time lows). But the age of the spouses, the overall marriage rate, and the number of children each woman bears are inversely correlated to economic development the world over. Marriage and child-rearing seems to economic development the same as belief in God seemed to the Age of Reason—ever more difficult to justify, or at least difficult for heterosexuals to justify. I haven’t the foggiest notion as to why homosexuals are so eager to engage the franchise.

The Census Bureau website describes marriage like a children’s book might, as something that happens “when two people love each other and…” Albert Jay Nock, my favorite superfluity, would say hogwash. He said that love in marriage is no more essential than love among any other type of business partners is essential. Here’s his take on the institution of marriage, from Memoirs of a Superfluous Man:
Regarding marriage as essentially a quasi-industrial partnership, a business enterprise, and then looking over the persons of one’s acquaintance who are engaged in it, one must see, I think, that the distribution of natural aptitude for it is about what it is for other occupations.
Amy and Nick were meant for each other, because neither of them were meant for marriage at all. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, and maybe even if you have, the book is definitely worth a read.

Book Review: The Aryan Christ: The secret life of Carl Jung by Richard Noll (1997)

This is an interesting, but disturbing book. I read it on the heels of reading Steven Pinker’s masterpiece, The Blank Slate, which was appropriate, if only accidentally so, as the two men (Jung and Pinker) wrestled with the thorny problem of how much of what we know is learned and how much is due to innate attributes. Interestingly, both men arrived at similar conclusions, if by following decidedly different paths.

Pinker’s The Blank Slate was essentially an extensive dissertation on the important role played by genes in understanding epistemology and human behavior—he argued that there was no blank slate—that the blank slate was a myth perpetuated to serve the political and sociological ends that obtain when it is imagined that the environment is the sole determining factor for human behavior, an idea which is quite easy to ridicule. Could a human being take the ordinary human genome with which it is born, and become something else through its socialization, like a hawk or wolverine? The blank slate proponents take an aspect of reality (that socialization/environment matters) and extend it past the point of logical coherence.

But so, too, do the proponents of genetic determinism, such as was Jung, and Pinker to a lesser extent, often take the idea that genes matter to the point of logical incoherence. Jung was a vociferous proponent of psychological archetypes, a phrase he coined to describe preexisting (i.e., innate) means of engaging the experiences of the world; he even believed that the memories of one’s ancestors could be recalled through dreams or other methods of connecting with the subconscious (though only admitting as much through informal channels mostly out of sight of his scientific peers).

Steven Pinker was far less radical in his determinism, pointing out that psychological studies had proven that fifty or so percent of a child’s behavior can be attributed to its genes and the other fifty percent to something else, but that the something else, it was known, was not its home environment. Pinker pointed out that the something else may be some other environment , asserting that it was possibly the culture into which the child was reared, but it was not the environment that the parents create for the child (if taken to heart, capable of offering a bit of relief to parents who believe hovering was essential to child rearing). Pinker was less interested in proving that genes make an overwhelming difference in determining personality and character attributes than in disproving the idea that genes make no difference whatsoever. As environmental determinism had not arisen as a serious explanation of human behavior during Jung’s time, Jung was more interested in proving the importance of phylogenetic influences (in context, meaning the historical development of a tribe or racial group as was inherited and expressed by the individual) in understanding the human psyche and its diseases and defects. For Jung, there wasn’t even the necessity of experience to implant memories in our brains, quite a stretch from the position of the socio-psychologists who Pinker sought to discredit, who believed the brain did not fashion the manner with which experience affected it.

Jung felt like the differences between the conditions encountered by our ancient phylogenetic heritance and those of civilized society today vastly limit the opportunity for the proper expression of our inherited nature, causing many of the psychological tensions and neuroses we commonly experience. And well, he has a point. There is no possible way that our genes evolved as quickly as our living conditions have changed, since the switch about ten thousand years ago from hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture, and until today, to basically sitting around waiting to be fed by the one or two percent of the average developed world’s population that is employed in agriculture. If we have a phylogenetic heritance, it surely sits frustrated in the recesses of our souls. To imagine that the frustration doesn’t occasionally yield quite disturbing mental or physical problems would be fantasy. The meaning of life—i.e., the whole purpose for which our magnificent organism evolved—is to perpetuate itself, specifically its genetic code, in space and time. We are meant to survive and propagate; our bodies and minds were designed to help ensure we did so successfully. When civilization deems our bodies and minds practically superfluous for the task of surviving and propagating, and even inimical to the task if they are allowed their natural expressions, they often turn on themselves for lack of something to do. A good example of the ravages wrought by undirected and unnecessary mental or physical potential are the litany of autoimmune disorders afflicting people in the civilized world these days. There is precious little for the immune system of a person in the sanitized, immunized developed world to do. So it often turns on its own body. The potential of the immune system, and the dangers that accrue when that potential is misdirected, are vividly displayed in disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, debilitating diseases where the immune system attacks the body in ways that more often than not prove ultimately deadly. Even the proliferation of asthma and allergies can be attributed to an under burdened immune system. And the various medical ailments attributable to obesity and sedentary living provide the clearest example of bodies that have not yet evolved to fit the environment in which they now exist.

The burgeoning list of psychological ailments that occur within a population whose minds are hardly tasked with the imperatives of survival, if at all, is perfectly illustrated by the nearly one thousand pages of the recently released Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders, Five. Though the manual is produced by experts whose opinions are tainted by self-interest, which necessarily calls into question a good many of the newer disorders, the utter explosion of recognized mental defects and deficiencies over the last century attests, at least in part, to the uselessness and irrelevance of the vast power of the human intellect for surviving in today’s world. Most people simply don’t need all that computational and inferential capacity, so their minds either atrophy or go off half-cocked. Smart phones, to take just one example, aren’t making human beings smarter—they’re making them stupider–and driving them crazy in the process.

But Jung’s analysis of the troubles afflicting humankind were mainly directed at only a sliver of it—that portion which could claim Aryan roots, hence the “Aryan Christ” portion of the book’s title (though Jung never explicitly excluded others, the implications of his interests and observations were obvious). Jung was born in 1875 to a family of German extraction living in Switzerland. He died on June 6, 1961 near the banks of Lake Zurich, after having lived and worked there most of his life. So Jung, like Hitler, whose ascent to prominence came a couple of decades after Jung’s peaked around the mid-1910’s, was a German born on foreign soil (Hitler was born in Austria). It’s not clear whether there is anything meaningful to wring from the correlation that both men, champions of the superiority of the Aryan/Teutonic race, were born outside of Germany. Perhaps there was the impulse to aggrandize and mythologize their German heritage as a response to their being outsiders in the lands of their birth, but that’s just idle speculation.

Jung eventually became a proponent, if hidden through the use of Decknamen (which more or less means, in this context, psychobabble cover names), of the growing Volkish movement, which was a pagan movement originating in Germany in the late nineteenth century from which ideas of Aryan and Teutonic purity and supremacy arose, along with the impulse to re-embrace pagan rituals and gods from a mythologized German past. The German mind, ever so focused on efficiency in material things, has also always held a deeply Romantic and spiritual strain, through which the Volkish movement found expression beginning around the fin de siècle. Hitler, of course, would later channel the movement into a diabolically racist expression of Nietzschean Romantic nationalism that would embroil practically all of Europe in conflict through its expression. But it is not speculation to say that the mindset that Jung brought to psychoanalysis was the same as Hitler brought to expressions of German hegemony. And if that seems a severe indictment of Jung, it is one which Jung would have been forced to admit if Noll’s scathing critic of his life and times is any guide, and The Aryan Christ appears to be exceedingly well-researched and documented.

Jung believed that through analysis and meditation and other techniques (like automatic writing or singing or painting) that the conscious mind could tap the mother lode of ancient wisdom and insights—the wisdom and insights of one’s ancestors and their gods, among others—through communicating with the subconscious, a thing which he described as the “collective soul” or “collective unconscious”. He carried the notion a bit further than the universal, and described what the phylogenetic memories should look like for those, like him, of a mainly Aryan lineage (notwithstanding that the German claim of Aryan lineage is by and large mythological, cut from the whole cloth of the German imagination out of a common lineage in the languages). For Jung, in the heart of every German beats the soul of an ancient, noble warrior with close ties to the soil and to Nature, a soul which could conveniently be accessed by analytical psychology. Jung’s German soul wasn’t much different than Rousseau’s Noble Savage, except that Rousseau’s savage had no intrinsic national character. It is quite clearly the case that Jung was not much more than a German Romantic nationalist who dressed up his political and sociological (and sexual) impulses with the appearance of scientific rationalism. Jung was accused of being more than just the Aryan Christ–of being a Nazi sympathizer–a charge which never quite stuck but one for which he was never quite completely acquitted either.

After reading Noll’s version of things, I have no doubt that Jung at least considered himself to be the Aryan Christ, which tells me he was a mystic and cult leader more than he was any scientist. Noll points out that Jung’s followers were almost always female, and that his relationship with them almost always had at its core a sexual component. (Has psychoanalysis ever been about anything except the psychologist getting laid by his patient?) Jung’s analysis of his soul (and Jung and Jungians were always analyzing their own psyches) revealed to Jung that men are naturally polygamous, so he insisted upon embarking on a life of polygamy for himself, his long-suffering wife be damned. In fact, the process of analytical psychology seemed to have been simply talking to yourself and listening carefully to the answer. (And what other answer, one wonders, might he have expected upon asking himself if he should have sex with more women than his wife?) Jung even vocalized conversations with himself while in transcendental states, with one aspect of his psyche being represented by a falsetto voice and the other by his normal tone. As Noll explained it, Jung’s analysis was a process of deification, where the individual in analysis learned to unify all aspects of their being along the way of becoming their own god, a status which Jung certainly had achieved for himself.

One of the most famous of Jung’s patients and later, something of an aficionado, was the middle-aged daughter of John D Rockefeller, Edith Rockefeller McCormick. As often happens, the peculiar behavioral traits and psychological quirks that make a man like John D Rockefeller special were expressed as psychoses of an often debilitating nature in his children. So it was with Edith, who was forlorn and taciturn always, like her daddy, but to the point of becoming severely agoraphobic (fearful of going out of her house) after having a second child (of five she had) die in infancy in 1903.

After a trip to Hungary in 1910 failed to alleviate her condition, and having heard of the miraculous potential that psychoanalysis, of the sort gaining popularity with both the Swiss Jungians and the Austrian Freudians, offered, Edith reached out to Jung when she heard he was in New York. She tried to convince him to come to the US permanently, offering to build him a house and pay him a generous salary. He wisely refused, so she went to Switzerland, taking her entire family, along with tutors and governesses, in order that she might enter his therapy. The family stayed from 1913 until 1921 (the children and Harold, her husband, only sporadically), undergoing psychoanalysis (Harold became a believer in its benefits when he too was psychoanalyzed) and for Edith, eventually doing psychoanalysis on others. Just as female patients often fall in love with their male psychoanalysts, so too, do male patients of female psychoanalysts also fall in love with their psychoanalysts. Edith and Harold divorced shortly after her return to the states when she came home dragging along a gold-digging gardener who had become her lover while undergoing psychoanalysis with her.

The thought that kept tumbling through my mind while reading about Jung, who was justifiably (it seems to me) portrayed as a self-absorbed, narcissistic, quasi-cult leader, is that his story is like what Don Henley said of the Eagle’s song Lyin’ Eyes—that it was old when it was written. Jung’s schtick seems as old as mankind, or at least as old as civilization (before which time there are scant records). Jung was a shaman, a sorcerer and a mystic who infused meaning and purpose in the ordinary and banal lives of others by helping them believe, through a combination of quasi-legitimate psychology and utterly illegitimate sorcery and mysticism, that they carried the gods of their forefathers inside them and were part of a collective subconscious that could be tapped through psychoanalysis.

It is no accident that so many of the idle rich (e.g., Edith Rockefeller McCormick) sought out Jung and psychoanalysis to soothe their troubled souls. It is only the idle rich who can afford to be afflicted with all manner of nonsensical conditions like agoraphobia, which leaves the definition of the house and of going out to the agoraphobic to decide. Does going out include taking the garbage to the curb? Can an agoraphobic go down to the corner grocery on occasion and still suffer the affliction? Would Edith Rockefeller have suffered the affliction if it meant she would starve to death? Because having an affliction such as agoraphobia means nothing of the sort when you have servants to do your bidding all day. Edith Rockefeller McCormick had no real reason to leave her house, especially the one in Chicago when she was there, so why should she? Agoraphobia in her case was just as likely an expression of laziness and disregard for unnecessary human companionship that she had the wealth to indulge than it was any sort of real psychosis.

But the really disturbing aspect to the story of The Aryan Christ is how transparent were the biases with which Jung operated, even as no one, except perhaps his competitors, called him on them (Freud, it appeared, was on to him early, at least by their split in 1913). Certainly Jung made no effort to calibrate his findings through the subjective biases with which he arrived at them. So when Jung desired living a life of polygamy, he invented a psychological justification for it, claiming that it was unhealthy to suppress the desire. When Jung saw that the latent racism of the German Volkish movement could be used for his own professional self-aggrandizement (or was simply a latent racist himself), he created a whole world of the subconscious where the archetypes of one’s ancestors and culture could be contacted through transcendental states induced during psychoanalysis. This was heady stuff, but it was all nonsense. The naval gazing of psychoanalysis might have died long ago with Jung had it not retained some legitimacy with Freud, who was less self-absorbed and cultish, and more scientific in his demeanor. In any event, there is no such thing as a collective subconscious that exists without a body that has a mind firmly ensconced within it. Steven Pinker observed as much in The Blank Slate. And a group of people, or a culture, is not a body, but many bodies, or a mind, from which subconscious thoughts might arise, but many minds. To imagine that the particular can be extrapolated to the whole in such a manner is quite analogous to imagining that just because some measures of life are substantially impacted by genes that all of them are. It is carrying things to a logical incoherence, something to which Jung was desperately inclined.

I found the book, and Jung’s life and times, to be interesting, in the sort of way that a train wreck is interesting. To imagine that Jung has not been thoroughly and completely discredited by now, particularly with our new understandings in neuroscience (the subconscious really does exist and really does control things, but not in the same manner that Jung or Freud believed) speaks to P.T. Barnum’s adage that there’s a sucker born every minute. But the book is well-written and certainly worth reading.

Midseason Predictions about and Observations of SEC Football (October 11, 2014)

“Predictions are hard, especially about the future”, so said Yogi Berra. Since I have done so marvelously well at predicting the economic and financial future of the civilized world (i.e., that it would crash all over again by the witching date on the Mayan calendar, in December 2012, though I didn’t use the Mayan’s as justification for my premonitions), I decided that I should put my impressive capacity to see into the future to work at predicting the outcome of football contests.  Football is, sadly enough, easily the only game I’ve ever loved, and might be the only thing I’ve ever loved doing.

Because I am from a state in the heart of college football’s premier conference and I only really follow with any sort of diligence the teams that play within it, I’ll stick to the Southeastern Conference. Besides, if I get the SEC right, the chances are that whatever obtains will go a long way toward predicting the national champion, as all but one of the last seven BCS championships have gone to a team from the SEC. (In one case, to a team from the SEC which didn’t even win the SEC championship—Alabama in 2011 beat LSU, the SEC champion, for the BCS title).

I’m waiting until now to make my predictions because, as otherwise insightful as I normally am, I don’t much see how anyone can tell in college football which team will be good from one year to the next until they’ve played a few games (which makes preseason and early season rankings are meaningless), and that is especially so when so many of them get new quarterbacks, as happened in the league this year. The only constant on a college team from year to year is the head coach, and even head coaches are routinely changed. But by this time of the new season, a couple of games into the conference schedule, it’s usually fairly obvious which teams are contenders and which are pretenders. So, taking my alma mater first, and really only because it’s first in alphabetical order, here goes:
Alabama
The Crimson Tide, sad to say, are this year a pretender. After winning three of the last five BCS championships, they have forgotten how to play to win, and now only know how to play not to lose, which is a surefire strategy for doing just that. The Tide might lose four SEC games before the season is through, putting them right at the middle of the SEC West. After losing to Ole Miss Saturday, they stand a good chance of losing to Texas A & M, Mississippi State and Auburn. They could win any of those games, too, but they will all be close games and the Tide doesn’t know how to win close games anymore. They just don’t have the fire in the belly or the belief in the heart. This is apt be a long season for Bama fans, ‘cause all those teams Bama crushed so many consecutive times in lately reestablishing their dominance of the SEC are smelling blood in the water (Bama has almost twice as many SEC championships, 23, as the next two on the list combined—Tennessee and LSU, at 13 and 11, respectively). Bama won’t make this SEC championship number 24. It is, as Saban observed last year, a victim of its own success.
Auburn
It looks like Auburn this year will be a real contender, and not a flukey one as some folks last year claimed (me included). At my job clerking for a local law firm several years ago, I one day had a guy aggressively shove me like he wanted to fight because I said that most people outside of the state of Alabama didn’t even know that Auburn is in the state of Alabama. I had just returned from a decade away from the state, serving in the Army and going to law school, and so felt pretty certain in my observation. But still, I couldn’t believe things had gotten so ridiculous with the rivalry. And I figure it’s still true today. But it doesn’t matter. Auburn’s team last year was no fluke. It was very good, but also was exceptionally lucky on occasion, as any championship team must be. This year’s team is better than last year’s. It won’t need luck to run the tables, even though the schedule is no cakewalk (as I’m writing about sports—I’ll mix my gd metaphors like stew if I want to). It’ll just have to keep playing to win, and will have to fastidiously ignore its newspaper clippings once everyone jumps from the Bama bandwagon to Auburn’s. Auburn faces perhaps its toughest remaining test this Saturday at Mississippi State. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.) Unless something untoward happens, it should dispense fairly easily with State and be on its way to its second SEC championship in as many years, and a shot at a national title. Nobody will care exactly which state it’s from if the Gus Bus keeps rolling.
Arkansas
Arkansas is back from the dead. It hasn’t won a conference game since October of 2012, but it is playing better football. Is it playing well enough to beat Bama Saturday? Doubtful, but possible. The problem with Arkansas is that, though it is playing better football, so is everyone else playing better football in the SEC West, except Bama and LSU, and they’re still not as bad as Arkansas. And the only remaining non-division games it has are Georgia and Missouri. Ouch! Maybe it can bag a win from Bama, LSU or Missouri. It’s hard to see how it has a chance to do so anywhere else. Even playing better, it still may post another 0-8 SEC record, especially if it falls at home Saturday against Alabama.

Florida
Whew, these Gators are stinky bad. The Tide, even in its weakened state, simply annihilated them. Alabama’s offense was responsible for all 63 points scored that day in Tuscaloosa—the 42 Alabama put on the board and another 21 on Florida’s side of the ledger that were directly attributable to Bama’s worsening case of turnoveritis (which cost them the game in Oxford last week). Florida is, however, at the moment, undefeated in the SEC East, eking out victories over Kentucky (in overtime) and Tennessee (by a point). This week they have LSU, a game which is only occasionally played nowadays because of the divisional split, but until lately would have had significant championship implications anytime it was. Now it’s a game of also-rans, something like an Ole Miss-Vandy game in a normal season. If Florida ekes out a victory over LSU, they’ll sport a 3-1 SEC record halfway through the season. Who knows then, they might get lucky at Georgia and South Carolina and bring home a divisional championship. It won’t matter. They aren’t even in the same league (metaphorically speaking of course) with Auburn, who should win the West and make short work of whoever limps to the top in the East.
Georgia
Georgia doesn’t make sense. It opened by annihilating Clemson (a traditional rival that gave Florida State all it wanted when playing them later in the season), and then a couple of weeks later lost to South Carolina, a team that got clobbered by Texas A & M to open its season, and recently lost to Missouri and Kentucky. What gives? Georgia has one of the most talented teams in the conference this year, like it almost always has, and has easily the best running back in the league in Todd Gurley, but having all that talent hasn’t counted for much for Georgia lately. Mark Richt, Georgia’s head coach, seems to routinely do the leastest with the mostest, just the opposite of what a good coach should do. And Gurley just got suspended indefinitely. At least Richt had the good sense to hire Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State for his defensive coordinator. Pruitt was Saban’s cornerbacks coach under defensive coordinator Kirby Smart when he was at Alabama, then spent last year at Florida State as head coach Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator, so he’s got championship rings for four of the last five seasons. (Disclosure, I personally know Jeremy and his family—he’s my wife’s cousin. The family is one of the finest you’d ever meet, especially his dad, Dale, who has been coaching high school football up on Sand Mountain in the northeast corner of Alabama for about the last 40 years or so). If Georgia will routinely show up to play, and Jeremy’s defense can work its magic like it did in FSU’s championship run last year, there is no team on its schedule it can’t beat, including Auburn, which it might get to play twice, if as I expect, Auburn and Georgia win out in their divisional contests.
Kentucky
Kentucky barely lost to Florida in its SEC opener, rolled over Vandy a couple weeks later, and came from behind to beat South Carolina last week. Kentucky is the Arkansas of the SEC East, except that it will win a few more games this year than Arkansas (it has already won two) because the East is just not that good. Kentucky is playing much better under new coach, Mark Stoops (yes, the brother of Bob Stoops, head coach of Oklahoma). LSU and Mississippi State are the remaining non-division games—expect a split, beating LSU and losing to Mississippi State, though it might give State all it wants. But with the way Kentucky is playing, it could actually win out in the East, over Missouri, Georgia and (easily) Tennessee. Kentucky is my dark horse to win the East, if Georgia forgets again that it must be more than just talented in order to win.
LSU
Wow. It’s been awhile since the Bayou Bengals have been this bad. Auburn’s Tigers crushed them last week. But they might bounce back this week against a defanged Gator team. (Incidentally, I wonder which beast would actually win in a contest between a gator and a tiger—my money would be on the tiger, but then I’ve always admired tigers as the most beautiful of God’s predatory creatures). Even if they do, Kentucky is not apt to show them any mercy. And neither will Ole Miss, Alabama, or Texas A & M. They might beat Arkansas, for their only victory in the SEC. Then they can say about Arkansas what Alabamians routinely say about Mississippi, “Thank God for Arkansas”, because Arkansas will keep them from being last. LSU is the latest iteration of proof that what Bear said is true–starting a freshman quarterback in the SEC is worth at least two losses.
Mississippi State
What to say about State? It’s for real, not a fluke. And Dak Prescott is as good a quarterback for State as Cam Newton was for Auburn in 2010. He just might take them all the way. But I don’t think so. I think they’ll lose Saturday to Auburn, but will run the tables after that. Which will mean a nice bowl game for the Bulldogs, but no SEC championship. If by some miracle Mississippi State can manage to beat Auburn, and all the rest heading into the Egg Bowl (which they should, if they can beat Auburn), the Egg Bowl (the game between State and Ole Miss at the end of the season) will be as big as last year’s Iron Bowl. Imagine that.
Missouri
Missouri’s season hinges on what they do in a couple weeks against Georgia at home. If they can win that one, they could again become a dark horse, like last year, for the SEC East championship. But I think their run last year had more to do with the weakness of the East than with the quality of the team. And the East may be marginally better this year. Mizzou has only A & M and Arkansas left on the West portion of its schedule, so shouldn’t have much trouble with a tie-breaker. But first it has to beat Georgia, and then a week later, Florida. Even Tennessee could be problematic this time. I figure Mizzou ending at about 500 in the SEC.
Ole Miss
Who would’ve thunk that Ole Miss and Mississippi State would be tied in the AP rankings at number three going into the season’s seventh week? But there it is. Ole Miss, however, is not as good as Mississippi State. Alabama’s lackadaisical defense made Bo Wallace look good, but he’s not. He’s not in the same league as Dak Prescott. Ole Miss, a school that doesn’t know how to phonetically spell the way ‘old’ is pronounced in the South (it should be Ol’ Miss, not Ole Miss, unless the school is celebrating its Spanish heritage, which actually doesn’t exist, unless you count Hernando De Soto’s sixteenth century explorations), could, imaginably, run the tables and win out. But it won’t. Because it’s been here so many times before and has always managed to find a way to disappoint. And one victory over Alabama, where the Tide basically gave them the game through turnovers and stupid penalties, but was far and away the more talented team on the field, does not an SEC championship make. Not even if the goalposts get torn down. The University of Ole’ Mississippi will lose at least a couple of games, probably to State and Auburn, maybe even to Tennessee and LSU.
South Carolina
The Gamecocks are as inexplicable as Georgia. How do you get spanked by a mediocre A & M team, and then beat a very good Georgia team, only to lose to Missouri and Kentucky? It is South Carolina’s bad fortune that they have to play Auburn on the plains this year, which might ironically end up sealing their fate in the SEC East this year. At 2-3 in the East so far (they also beat Vandy), the Gamecocks will have to beat Tennessee and Florida, and probably Auburn, to have any shot of a trip to the SEC championship game. But they just aren’t that good. South Carolina is another team without a proven quarterback, just like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU and Vanderbilt—a list of the dogs of the SEC, no doubt, and its not an accidental coincidence. It is really hard to win in the SEC without a solid performer at the quarterback position.
Tennessee
The Tennessee Volunteers have the second best overall winning percentage among SEC schools, and have won the second most championships in the conference (behind Alabama, in both instances). But that hasn’t mattered much lately. They have become something of the Michigan of the conference, a former powerhouse that has sadly forgotten how to win. They have been nothing less than horrible for at least five or so years now, ever since Lane Kiffin’s Tennessee team almost denied Alabama the first of this latest run of national championships save a couple of blocked field goals by Mount Cody that fine October afternoon. The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry since then, once the premier rivalry in the league, has been a boring beat down by the Tide. But maybe not this year. The Tide is not that good and Tennessee seems to be playing better football. It will surely beat Vandy this year, but maybe not Kentucky or Missouri. But it is one of those sharks smelling Alabama blood in the water about now. Tennessee would like to beat Alabama more than it would like to beat anyone, and Tennessee fans know that old faithful among Alabama fans hate Tennessee more than they hate even Auburn. It might just happen for Tennessee this year.
Texas A & M
The Aggies started the year overrated, after their big victory over South Carolina, which in hindsight seems more indicative of the different quality levels of the two SEC divisions than the relative quality of the two teams. A & M wasn’t that good and South Carolina wasn’t that bad. But A & M really isn’t as good as advertised. They’re a mediocre team, quite typical of the Southwest Conference from which they migrated a couple of years ago, able to light up the scoreboard but playing Swiss cheese defense. SWC contests were always scorefests, and the SEC has become more similar to them, but there still runs a deep strain of defense in the SEC. Like Bear said a long time ago and the conference internalized, you can’t lose if you don’t get scored on. A & M will likely lose at least three more games, putting them at the middle of the SEC West pack. If they can manage to beat Alabama, that will probably keep them out of the bottom half of the division.
Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt is back to being Vandy this year. They won’t win an SEC game, finishing as they so often have, dead last in the conference and in their division. They really should look the East–to the ACC. They still wouldn’t win any championships there, but they might occasionally have a superficially competitive run of seasons.
Bottom Line

Bama’s days of dominance over SEC football (and consequently of all of collegiate football) ended in one really long second at Auburn last season.  It will take the Tide another few years of also-running and outright losing before it rekindles the championship flames.

In the power vacuum of Bama’s demise, it is still undetermined which team, if any, will step into to become the team to beat, but Auburn appears to have the inside track, at least until SEC defenses figure out Malzahn’s offense.
For this season, it’ll be Auburn vs. Georgia in Atlanta for the league championship game, perhaps after Georgia beats Auburn in the regular season to avenge last season’s miracle play. But Georgia won’t beat ‘em twice in one season. Auburn wins the SEC and most likely, the National Championship, if recent history is any guide as to which conference the national champion will come from.

Book Review: The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (2002)

I desperately wish I had been paying closer attention when the flower of Steven Pinker’s genius blossomed in the public consciousness around two decades ago. Instead of spending all that time in the mid 2000’s wandering in a field of dead philosophers I could simply have picked up The Blank Slate and been quickly educated on what we know of the distilled essence of human nature. This book, a grand tour of the reigning theories of human cognition and development (concerning much of what philosophers call ‘epistemology’), as applied to the contemporary strategies for dealing with problems like violence and gender relations and child-rearing, is nothing less than a tour de force of rational, objective thought. This is the best book I’ve read since reading Albert Jay Nock’s sensational Memoirs of a Superfluous Man a few years ago. Like Nock, Pinker is concerned with the thing as it is, not the thing as our social blinders and biases want to deceive us into believing that it is. And the thing as it is turns out, not surprisingly, to be quite different than the thing as most people wish it would be.

This review will not be directed at criticism so much as simply sketching out the contours of Mr. Pinker’s ideas so that I might more easily recall them for future reference.

In the last chapter of the book Pinker notes how artists have often depicted the realities of human nature that he was trying to describe in The Blank Slate much more poignantly than any psycholinguist like him would be capable of doing. But he should give himself more credit. Pinker took the time to write a succinct book (434 pages) about a complex subject in which he manages to clearly and lucidly explain the leading science on the matter, while also offering competing points of view, and readily dispensing with them. For the clarity he offered the world along the path to understanding human nature, Steven Pinker can rest easy that his legacy (the striving for which he points explains a good deal of human behavior) is for all time secure with The Blank Slate. The book is that good.

Blank Slates, Noble Savages and A Ghost in the Machine

The book takes its title from terminology that should be familiar to any armchair philosopher. The ‘blank slate’ (or in its Latin form, tabula rasa, which literally means ‘scraped tablet’ after the waxed note pads used during Roman times that were heated and scraped clean between use) is the idea, most famously promoted by the seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke, that nothing gets in the mind except through experience. A baby is born with a blank slate (a chalkboard or whiteboard in today’s vernacular) upon which the senses write the tale of the person’s experiences. The theory assumes the mind of man to be completely malleable—that the attributes of the slate being written upon do not matter in the least. Radical scientists (Pinker’s appellation) who have adopted the Blank Slate as their philosophy of mind believe that the mind can become anything at all, depending on the experiences it encounters in its environment.

It should be patently obvious to anyone, except perhaps people in academia and some professional fields in whose interest it is to see things otherwise (education, e.g.), that the idea is absurd. No matter how much nurturing a child raised by wolves might get, the child still grows into a human and no matter how little a dog experiences of other dogs (who are descendants of wolves), it still, mind and body, becomes a dog. On a personal level, no matter how much basketball I had played, or how many great coaches had nurtured me as a child, I would still not have developed basketball skills to rival Michael Jordan’s (I know—I played a lot of basketball, and they did not come). That there are those who actually believe that nurture is everything and that genes and nature do not matter reflects a combination of circumstance perhaps unique to our time. Western cultures (the nonsensical idea originated in Western cultures) are grown so rich that any manner of silliness may be indulged without consequence, and as a result, whole professions have grown up that have a vested interest in the implicit acceptance of the idea that humans have no nature that can’t be changed with proper nurturing. And it is the essence of the political Progressive’s ideal.

What Pinker does not explore, but is as valid a basis for explaining how the Blank Slate could obtain a cultish coterie of devotees, is that Rousseau has finally won. The Age of Reason, begun by Enlightenment philosophers like Spinoza and Descartes; Newton and Galileo; and even, ironically, Locke, is now over. The benefits of engaging the universe with objective rationality have been fully realized. And Reason, having made us rich, can now be rejected for indulging the emotions, and engaging the world through the unrestrained primacy of the heart. There are good, heart-felt reasons, for wanting to believe that human beings are wholly creatures of their environment, and today there are no existential restraints that prevent us from doing so, even as there is no evidence to support the belief. Believing a thing to be true because of the sincerity and depth with which the belief is held constitutes the essence of Rousseau’s eighteenth century Romanticism. Two hundred years later, Rousseau has finally won. The heart is free to ascertain truth through believing whatever the hell it wants to believe, without concern that the head might ever interfere.

Recall the 1983 movie “Trading Places” with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. Winthorpe, the character played by Aykroyd, is the managing director of a Philadelphia commodities brokerage, engaged to the niece of the owners, the Dukes brothers, who wager with each other that they could trade Winthorpe for a street hustler, Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), and that the results would not change—each man would rise or fall to according the station he’d been assigned in life; that innate characteristics had nothing to do with their relative positions; that it was all nurture that got them where they were, which is roughly the position of the ‘radical scientists’ in the academy. Of course, in the movie, it works just as the Dukes experiment suggested it should—Winthrope becomes a drug addict living with a prostitute and Valentine makes the Dukes rich. Or does, until the two men find out they had been manipulated for the Dukes’ entertainment, at which point they become cooperators instead of competitors, and destroy the Dukes’ commodities brokerage to their advantage. The movie was a big hit, but mainly, I think, because the underdogs who had been cynically manipulated won. The manipulators (the Dukes) became the manipulated (by Valentine and Winthorpe). But the premise of Trading Places was so sufficiently suffused in the public consciousness by the time of the movie that it seemed perfectly plausible that when the two men traded places, they would trade the attributes of their characters with a trade in circumstance. A managing director of a commodities brokerage could be anyone, and whoever it was, would become exactly who Winthrope was before his fall.

Pinker’s observations in The Blank Slate stand in opposition to the outrageous premise driving the plot in ‘Trading Places’. Billy Ray Valentine was a street hustler for more reasons than the unfortunate circumstances of his life, and while Winthrope might have inherited the managing director position at the commodities brokerage, he also inherited the genes that got the brokerage started in the first place.

The notion that environment explains everything is actually a quite familiar one in movies. ‘Pretty Woman’, with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, is a fairy tale, a bit like Snow White, where the whore (Roberts) with the virtuous heart who would never have sold herself except that she was forced to by circumstance, is rescued from a life of prostitution by a wealthy suitor (Gere) who can see through her circumstance and gaudy attire to realize there is more to her than just whorish beauty. It is Romanticism and romantic nonsense, to be sure, to imagine that all whores have hearts of gold, or even that most do, and that they wouldn’t be whoring except for their circumstances (there are other ways that women can make money, especially in these economically liberated times). But for movie goers, Roberts’ character was admirable because she was a victim of circumstance who only spread her legs reluctantly. The Blank Slate, the idea of environmental, and not genetic, determinism, becomes a catchall explanation and excuse for every sort of social, and personal, ill imaginable. The Blank Slate is to the social sciences and pop psychology what anthropogenic global warming is to environmental sciences—the cause for every observable effect.

There are two complementary ideas fueling the neo-Romanticism of today. Pinker describes them as the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. The Noble Savage is the idea that man in his natural state is not violent or environmentally rapacious or power hungry or status conscious, or any of the other undesirable traits we see expressed in modern man. The idea is that if only man could return to his hunter/gatherer days, he could live in harmony with the environment and himself and his fellows. The notion of man being a Noble Savage corrupted by civilization was popularized, if not first promulgated, by Rousseau.

And it is bunk, every bit of it. Hunter/gatherer clans of today, Pinker points out, have far higher rates of violent crime than do people living in civilization. They take no more notice of the environment than a seventeenth century Dutch or English capitalist sailing the high seas looking for land and resources to exploit might take, as they have essentially the same relationship to it—that of rapacious exploiters. And there is rarely anything approaching harmony within the clans or without them, as they are always consumed with a frenzied striving for the power and status that ensures reproductive success within the clans, and they are constantly under threat of attack by other clans. Chimps, our closest genetic relatives, are notoriously barbaric, taking apparent joy in the killing of those the troop deems to be others. Whatever is in our DNA that makes us different from chimps is apparently not the code that determines violent inclinations. We are every bit as violent as chimpanzees, but have a greater mastery of tools, so can often leverage our latent tendencies quite substantially. Chimps don’t yet have the bomb.

The Ghost in the Machine idea is a derivative answer to an ages-old theological problem with metaphysical implications that came to a head during the Enlightenment—if the body is material and dies, what is it that is sacred in this sublunary world that can survive death and go to heaven? Thus was the idea of an eternal, disembodied soul invented by Enlightenment philosophers, who needed to find some mechanism to protect belief in God and eternity as they were rapidly stripping the notion of a supernatural God from the fabric of belief.

It was Descartes for whom the idea of Cartesian duality–that human beings are comprised of two parts, the body and the mind/soul (the latter being the ‘Ghost’)—was named. Descartes hadn’t long proposed the duality until Spinoza, not bound to please any church or synagogue after his excommunication, said that it was nonsense—that there is no duality between mind and body. In his words, “…we understand not only that the human Mind is united to the Body but also what is to be understood by the union of Mind and Body.” Mind arises from the Body and does not exist as a separate entity. There is no such thing as disembodied minds or souls. Has any sane person ever had a conversation with a disembodied mind? There is no Ghost in the Machine, but again, the idea that there is seems so romantically attractive that in this age of neo-Romanticism we allow ourselves to believe that which we know not to be true.

But is there any truth to be found in the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage or the Ghost in the Machine? Like almost all wayward ideas, there is a kernel of truth in each. For instance, behavioral geneticists can only explain about fifty percent of the variability of human behavior through genes—the rest, as Pinker points out later in the book, in a chapter about children—is a mystery. We aren’t a blank slate, but neither are we unaffected by experience.

The Noble Savage taps a deep vein of the civilized human’s experience, one that tells him that so much of how we have structured our world today screams bloody hell against our genetic legacy. We have hunter/gatherer genes, not sit-in-a-cubicle-typing-on-a-spreadsheet genes. Modern civilization does great violence to our genetic legacy. Can we really be so much faulted that our dim remembrances of the past conjure idyllic, less structured, less violent and less stressful lifestyles?
And it certainly seems that we have souls that survive us. What are the memories we carry of people who have died except vestiges of an eternal soul? It could easily be argued that so long as the memories of the living persist, the soul of the person survives.

But not one of these justifications suffices for good science. Just because we want our minds to be a Blank Slate that would develop into a Noble Savage if properly allowed, and whose disembodied soul would then live forever in the world of the Great Spirit, does not make it so. We must dispense with how we would like things to be and concern ourselves only with how things are if we are ever to gain a workable understanding of the nature of human beings.

The hubris accompanying the idea of the Blank Slate was at times comical. Here’s what John B Watson (1878-1958), the founder of behaviorism, a psychological movement following the Blank Slate to its logical conclusion, said (as quoted by Pinker):

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

What is most interesting in this debate over nature and nurture that Pinker attacks with preternatural insight (but not really, as the nurturists would say he derived his nature from his environment, so it could not be preternatural, even as his observations are parenthetically opposed to those of the majority—the Blank Slate aficiondos–in his academic environment) is how anyone could ever come to believe themselves so powerful as Watson believed himself to be? Was it Watson’s nature or nurture that led him astray? How could anyone look at objective human reality, with talents and abilities arrayed over a bell curve for every measurable attribute and conclude that nothing of the differences had to do with the innate genetic composition of the individual, but instead had solely to do with the environment in which he was raised? What of those with mental deficiencies and defects? Could Watson have made them into anything he wished, or is his limitation that they be “well-formed”, whatever that means, be enough to get him off the hook?

This much is clear: It takes a directed willingness to ignore reality for anyone to make a claim such as Watson did. Perhaps this willful ignorance was the product of having coming of age during a time when science seemed very close to completely conquering nature in every other realm. Or it might have been because Watson was a one of those sort of psychopaths who readily lie to see their version of truth accepted. Or it may simply have been that Watson’s inherent biases blinded him to reality, a rationale which goes a long way towards explaining how academia adopted the notion of the Blind Slate—the academics propounding the notion were vested in the outcome. Whatever is the case, the notion that nature is irrelevant simply does not withstand even the mildest scrutiny.

But it may well be that academia will be forced to backpedal from the idea after all, because one of their revered constituencies, in seeking recognition and rights, have rested their claims on the idea that their status is innate and not chosen. I speak, of course, of homosexuals. I wonder, would Watson have believed he could make a straight man out of a homosexual, or vice versa? Homosexuals claim they are born that way. And of course, for the most part, they are correct. But if they are born that way, how could every other human attribute be completely malleable except this one, sexual orientation? The contrived and exclusive importance of nurture simply collapses in the face of innate attributes determining sexuality. And the idea of the innateness of homosexuality, initially only reluctantly adopted by the gay community because of its social implications in other spheres, has now become something of a taboo to even question.

Would that the questioning of innateness in determining the variability of other attributes like, for example, intelligence or sociability or criminality, were similarly taboo. Without question, the innate genetic makeup of any individual bears heavily on their talents and abilities and personality. The mistake is made whenever one lumps groups together and tries to determine individual attributes by dint of group averages. Every group of humans, whether randomly sorted and collected, or lumped together according to some racial, ethnic, cultural, climatological, and etc., attribute, will have a bell-curve dispersion of traits around a mean. But the averages tell almost nothing about the individuals, only perhaps rendering some predictive capacity greater than simple randomness if the groups are appropriately demarcated for attributes. For example, while the average percentage of body fat for Inuit might dramatically exceed that of sub-Saharan black Africans, there will still be some Africans who have a greater percentage of body fat than some Inuit, but most Inuit will have a body fat percentage exceeding that of most Africans, so it would be a fair guess that if a person is Inuit, their body fat percentage exceeds that of a black African. Acknowledging anything less or more is simply willful ignorance or outlandish speculation.

It would seem almost impossible for the social sciences to hold fast their commitment to the Blank Slate, particularly in the face of the increased acceptance of homosexuality as innately determined. But academia is nothing if not nonsensical. Its ideas need have no bearing on reality because the people who propound them from the ivory tower have no intrinsic need for them to make actionable sense. Academia can be irrational and willfully ignorant for long stretches, insulated as it is from the vagaries of nature and its selection and elimination process.

After explaining the implications of the Blank Slate and Noble Savage and Ghost in the Machine, Pinker applies the implications to several social “hot buttons”, politics, violence, gender, children and the arts. I will take each, briefly, in turn.

Politics

Pinker points out that political attitudes—the great divide being between conservatives and liberals—are innately determined, by over sixty percent of their variability according to studies of identical twins. And these differences go back over the millennia to the beginnings of recorded history. The conservative idea that society is an economic or social contract whereby rational, but innately selfish people come together when, and only when, cooperation enhances their selfish aims, arose as far back as Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, and was the central tenet of political philosophers from Machiavelli to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith and Bentham.

The liberal catechism is that society as a cohesive organic entity and its individual citizens mere parts. People are thought to be social by their very nature and to function as constituents of a larger superorganism. Plato, Hegel, Marx, etc., and the humanities and social science paradigms ascribe to this ideal.
Pinker refers to the two visions of mankind expressed as political impulses as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision. The Tragic Vision believes man to be a necessarily flawed creature limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue—limitations for which all social arrangements should account. The Tragic man is inherently selfish. The Utopian Vision imagines that it is only the fault of man’s circumstances that limits his potential. The Utopian man actually wants to become altruistic, and can, if circumstances permit.

Which is correct? The Tragic or the Utopian Vision? Any vision that fails to account for the inherent self-interestedness of mankind is doomed to see only very dimly the reality of mankind’s nature. Yes, man is a social animal, in the sense that he most often finds that sociability allows him to achieve his ends at substantially less cost and greater gain than otherwise. But man is not simply a constituent part of a superorganism, like an ant in an ant hill. Men have the capacity for individual reproduction, unlike ants (or other social insects). Thus their imperatives always conflict, at least in some measure, with the imperatives of society and of the other humans comprising it. Any organization of society that fails to account for mankind’s selfish nature arising from his capacity for individual reproduction is utterly doomed to failure. In recent history, the society most closely constructed along the lines of a superorganism had to have been Mao’s China. Something north of twenty million Chinese died as a result. And the social organization collapsed into a heap of selfish capitalism shortly after Mao’s death. So, is man an inherently self-interested individual, or is he at heart an altruistic member of a larger organization, always willing to sacrifice for the common good? Ask the Chinese.

Violence

The idea that men were Noble Savages who became corrupted and violent through the influence of civilization is just a load of Romantic drivel. Men are innately violent (and here, “men” is not necessarily the male gender used as a universal for all mankind, as it actually is mostly men who commit the violence—more on that later). More so than any other extant species, mankind kills its own. And the violence is not just a question of environment (though environment certainly contributes). Killings, beatings and rapes have been going on for as long as we have records to know of such things. But there is something of an environmental antidote to our violent nature: Take an idea from Hobbes and vest a leviathan government with a monopoly on the imposition of violence. Strongly governed societies have far less violence than anarchical or loosely governed societies.

If you need an example from today of what Hobbes meant, look at the number of deaths suffered in Iraq before and after Saddam Hussein was toppled. The anarchical social order left in the wake of Hussein’s disposing has been relentlessly violent. Life really is nasty, brutish and short for Iraqis today. Nobody knows when a bomb will go off and kill everyone in the market or at the mosque or at the wedding. At least under Hussein, there was a predictability and rationality to the killing. Hussein, for all his faults, kept the people in line by jealously protecting his government’s monopoly on the use of violence. And now the US must go back to Iraq to fix the problem its departure exacerbated. How many lives might have been saved had the US understood that men are inherently violent and that the only proven means of quelling the killings is for them to vest, either voluntarily or through force, a governing entity with a monopoly on the imposition of violence? It is possible that self-governing individuals will choose a state strong enough to quell the murderous impulses of its inhabitants. The likelihood is far less when the state is riven with ancient tribal and theological differences.

Relying on Hobbes, Pinker shows three rational reasons for human violence—competition, diffidence (or distrust) and glory (or honor/status). The compulsions of natural selection are as compelling in humans as in the rest of living things. Violence is just one of many possible strategies to win at the competitive game. Distrust causes people to fortify their defenses against others. It is never known to what extent one’s neighbor covets one’s possessions, so it always best to be wary and ready to defend, and oft times, particularly in the case of nation-states, the best defense is a good offense. Remove the survival impulse that yields competition and the fear that yields diffidence; there would still be glory and honor to justify violence. Probably more people have died at the hands of those who were attempting to protect or enhance status, i.e., who sought to achieve honor or glory, than for any other reason. Hitler may have justified his murderous assault on Europe by claiming he feared for German safety, but in the end it became about Hitler seeking honor and glory for himself and Germany through violent means. Practically every emperor in history, from Qin to Genghis Kahn to Napoleon, achieved their status and perhaps a trifling slice of immortality through the violence they inflicted upon their own and conquered peoples.

Incidentally, Pinker doesn’t bring it up, but there is a genetic marker that can predict with over 90% accuracy the gender of an inmate in the prison system who has committed a violent crime. What is that marker? The possession of a Y chromosome. Men are incarcerated at far greater rates than women. Surely though, this disparity in rates of incarceration is solely the product of boys receiving less positive nurturing than girls, no? But then why too is the Y chromosome also such a good predictor of who will hold jobs at the pinnacle of society (much to the chagrin of feminists everywhere)? Boys can’t have been advantaged such that they become CEO’s at a greater rate than women while at the same time disadvantaged so that they become inmates at a far, far greater rate than women. But boys and girls are discretely different genetically (and physiologically), and that matters a great deal, as will be discussed in the forthcoming section.

Gender

Pinker identifies two forms of feminism—equity and gender feminism. Equity feminists believe that women should be treated on an equal basis with men, so far as such a thing is possible. Neither gender should expect special treatment, good or bad,m for the simple act of being of that gender. Gender feminism is what a famous conservative talk-show host calls femiNazi feminism, and gets a disproportionate amount of attention because of the utter outrageousness of its views. In surveys, the vast majority of people ascribe to the ideas of equity feminism, but far fewer buy the catechism of gender feminism.

The gender feminism catechism looks something like this: First, they believe that there are no differences between men and women that have anything to do with biology. The differences are all social constructions. The second is they believe that humans possess a single motive—power—through which all of social intercourse must be understood (it should be observed that this is quite the same observation as made by Hegel, a German philosopher of the nineteenth century, who claimed that all the world, social and otherwise, was a constant dialectical struggle for power). Third, they believe that human society is not the result of people dealing with each other as individuals but is the result of groups vying for power against other groups. So, conveniently for the gender feminists, the fact that women have possibly been oppressed in the past (though the claim is routinely accepted, and Pinker does so here, it gets harder and harder to imagine the more one thinks about it that any group with the individual and collective power of the womb could be long subjugated), fits their narrative of how the world operates. Thus, although there are no differences between men and woman that aren’t contrived, men take these contrived differences to create a power advantage that they then use to collectively exploit and subjugate women. The problem with the theory, aside from having the biology wrong, is that it depends on a contrived difference to cause all of the supposed advantage afforded to men. If the difference actually is contrived, wouldn’t some woman (or women) come along who could crash through the contrivances to claim power for herself? Did they leave out the part where women believe the contrived differences are real and hold real advantages for men, thereby making what is contrived real? That’s not true either, but is the only way their beliefs could comport with reality.

Men and women are different, and not only because they have been socialized to difference by the happenstance of the particular plumbing with which they were born. Men are not more intelligent, on average, than women, but they are, on average, bigger, stronger, faster, tougher and otherwise physically more capable than women. It is simply how eons of evolution has parceled out the attributes between the sexes. Because women faced the necessity of carrying a baby for nine months and then nursing it for several more years, the heavily physical tasks, like hunting and protection, were left to men. And so men got bigger and stronger, while women were smaller and softer. But as Pinker points out, men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. Men and women both are from the East African plains, and evolved together as a species with the same survival impulse latent to all species. The parceling of attributes between males and females is how nature selected H. sapiens to accomplish its ends.

The more interesting aspect of Pinker’s discussion concerned violence against women, and specifically, rape. The gender feminist catechism is that rape is an act of violence and power, not sex, and in a blank slate, purely socialized world, can be stamped out with proper socialization. Pinker points out that there is no reason to believe as much—that rape can very well be an act of procreation—a way for a marginally fit male to use his physical prowess to see his genes into the next generation. As Pinker observes, “Evil men may use violence to get sex, just as they use violence to get other things they want…It would be an extraordinary fact, contradicting everything else we know about people, if some men didn’t use violence to get sex.”

When it is acknowledged about men and rape that a) men are built for violence, and b) that they often use their physical prowess to violently achieve their aims, and c) that they often seek to have sex with women who don’t want to have sex with them, then the fact that rape sometimes occurs is no mystery. Combine all three motives with opportunity, and the chances are vastly increased that there will be a rape. The prescription for reducing rape, particularly of the acquaintance variety, is to reduce the opportunities. Men are going to be what men are going to be, no matter how many sensitivity training seminars they are forced to attend. But men don’t often get to express their innate attributes without the fear that doing so might be very costly. Remove a potential cost—perhaps through intoxicating the female thereby impairing her ability and desire to resist—and the likelihood of expression goes up.

Women who get drunk or high in the company of men don’t ‘deserve’ to get raped, no matter how slutty is their attire, no matter if they voluntarily go to a man’s room or home. But if women, and particularly gender feminists, were really interested in reducing the incidence of rape, they would increase the costs that might accrue for men who are contemplating stepping over the line and indulging their innate impulses. They would advise young women to stay reasonably sober in the company of young men, particularly when they are alone in the company of young men. Not many frat boys are going to be interested in fighting a clawing and scratching young woman in complete control of her mental and physical faculties in order have sex. But they don’t mind having their way with a woman drunk nearly to the point of passing out. It’s a lot easier that way. There’s a reason country songs have lyrics like tequila makes her clothes fall off.

The gender feminists would like to increase the penalties and likelihood of punishment (along with, of course, more sensitivity training) in order to tilt the male calculus against rape. But there are ample punishments for truly random acts of violent rape, if the perpetrator can ever be caught. And with acquaintance rape, or even husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend rape, the issue often resolves to a he said/she said contest where justice demands that the male’s version of events be given as much probative value as the female’s version. It really would be better and easier to prevent date rape or acquaintance rape that women took some proactive measures to do so, such as staying sober enough to know whether someone is having sex with them.

Rape is not necessarily an act of violence or an expression of power. It can be (e.g., the sick minds and actions of serial rapist/killers). But more often it is just an act of lust that is expressed through leveraged violence. Which is good, because lust is easier to contain than mere violence. But don’t tell the gender feminists as much.

Children

To sum up the matter regarding children, Pinker points out that almost nothing of what our children become is attributable to us, except the genes that we provide them. Quit hovering, all you helicopter parents. Nothing you do will ultimately have any bearing on who or what your children become. These conclusions arise out of the three laws of behavior genetics:
1) All human behavioral traits are heritable;
2) The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the same genes, and
3) A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

Adopted siblings raised together by the same parent are no more similar in the people they become than are random strangers plucked off the street. None of the child-rearing books you’ve read matter. None of all “…this love that [you’re] pouring into your child…counts for [any] thing…”, as Pinker notes a Chicago woman lamented, upon learning of the three rules. And well, it doesn’t. But Pinker also points out that what does matter are the memories, good or bad, your child has of his rearing. They won’t change his personality or who he becomes, but they will affect his opinion of you. In other words, treat your kid well, and later on when you’re old and decrepit, dribbling your oatmeal down your chin, he might just be kind to you. Unless of course the genes you gave him that determined his personality, or the socialization he received from his peers (where it is guessed that most of the rest of behavioral traits are determined) taught him to be cruel, even to people who have been nice to him. It happens sometimes. Parents used to call it a “bad seed”, but now blame it all on themselves.

Art

The first point about art that Pinker sort of subtly makes is that it is both ubiquitous—all cultures in all known times have engaged in painting or decorating or designing or writing, etc.– and it is done for its own sake, i.e., it is done outside the context of an identifiable survival purpose. Art is conspicuous consumption, i.e., consumption without a direct and immediate survival purpose, and always has been. Only now, everyone thinks there is no good art being produced any more. And well, Pinker might in this instance agree. But not because there aren’t any good artists. Instead because the art world has got itself so discombobulated thinking of nurture as determinative that it can’t see, in some cases literally, the forest for the trees.

Art has become, or perhaps always was, a mechanism for attaining social status, both for the artist and for the connoisseur. Creating or owning and appreciating “…difficult and inaccessible works of culture serves as a membership badge in society’s upper strata.” Which also explains how obscure and ridiculous so much of today’s art has become. It is only a connoisseur who can appreciate that a blank canvass isn’t just a blank canvass, so a blank canvass gives a connoisseur ample opportunity to demonstrate his membership in society’s upper strata by his winking appreciation that indeed, the canvass is so insightfully blank.

The problem with modernism and postmodernism, where blank canvasses and incoherent designs and vulgar images (e.g., “piss Christ”) count for art is that the movements have as their intellectual foundations a false premise, namely “…that the sense organs present the brain with a tableau of raw colors and sounds and that everything else in perceptual experience is a learned social construction.” This is hardly how the brain operates. The brain organizes what the senses provide it in order that we might assimilate and use the information to enhance our survival and propagation prospects. As for appreciating art, the brain interprets a communication from another human being, in whatever form—picture, sound, writing, etc.—by attempting, through its innate talent at empathy, to determine the point the person was trying to get across. It will do so while assuming that the point bears some relation to that person’s visceral impulses, as it intuitively knows that everything else a person does relates somehow to their visceral impulses. With some of the art being produced these days, the point seems to be that the artist is asking the connoisseur to join him in a fraud that serves to achieve status for them both by, for example, perpetuating the idea that a blank canvass could somehow be communicating a much deeper meaning than just a blank canvass. As Pinker deftly puts it: “The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship.”
Pinker makes the point that part of the attraction (and repulsion, by less affected denizens) of modern and postmodern art is its heavy reliance on faddish methods of presentation (e.g., using live actors) or mediums of expression (a vase full of the artist’s “piss’). This comports with the idea that art is a matter of conspicuous consumption, a luxury good in the economist’s lexicon, that is consumed for status. Promulgating the appearance of innovative cleverness (think today’s hipsters) has always been a vehicle for status enhancement. But initially successful fads are always carried to their logical, though ridiculous, conclusion. If a bit of flare at the bottom of the leg of a pair of jeans is good, then a lot of flare is even better, no?

Recall the leisure suit of the seventies, which was the laughably garish embodiment of several fashion trends of the time (wide lapels, silky print shirts, bell bottom pants, etc.). Faddish trends in modernism and postmodernism ultimately and inevitably resolve to the sort represented by the leisure suit, following their oft-times utterly nonsensical origins to their logical conclusions. Artists are the emperor’s court, dressing him in imaginary clothes, and the connoisseurs are the parade goers raving over the finery of the cloth. As Pinker notes, there is little wonder the general public stayed away.

Summary

It would be hard to read Pinker’s Blank Slate without feeling at least a bit despondent. Very little has changed since its publication twelve years ago. There are no dearth of parenting guides, or child-consumed helicopter parents, though we now conclusively know that what parents do or don’t do makes very little difference in what a child becomes. The notion of environmental determinism, i.e., that nurture explains everything, is as alive and well in academia as it is a foundational premise for popular society. Rape is blamed on patriarchal conditioning; violence on video games. The gender pay and promotion gap is presumed a fact of life and solely attributable to the oppression of women by men who are themselves conditioned to oppress and subjugate women by a patriarchal society, which also condones rape. The political right and left pursue self-contradictory policies (the anti-government right wants hegemony over a woman’s womb; the pro-government left wants more or less complete freedom from governmental intrusions of their privacy), without a hint that they understand the self-deception required to do so.

The social organization seems to have resolved to a politically-correct web of lies it is agreed upon that all will/must believe, with the proffering of contradictory evidence considered taboo. We have reentered the age of Romanticism, where the veracity of thing is determined by the depth with which it is believed, so the harder we believe in the lies we promulgate as values, the truer the lies become. The emotional indulgence of a revived Romanticism has arisen from the vast wealth created through centuries of engaging the world with objective rationality. We grew rich, vastly rich, apparently in order that we might become stupid. In some age to come, once our emotional indulgence bears the inevitable fruit of our impoverishment, perhaps some observer of the human condition who is confused as to why things are so miserable will pull Pinker’s The Blank Slate off some dusty, forlorn library shelf (if we haven’t burnt all the books for warmth by then) and rediscover truths about human nature that we knew all along but refused, in the lap of luxury, to acknowledge

Book Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

This is something of a difficult book to wrap the mind around, as Jane Eyre, the title character, is such an enigma. She seems to be hopelessly romantic, in both the philosophical sense of relying on her emotional impulses to guide her behavior no matter the readily ascertainable consequences, and in the relationship sense of believing that true love will conquer all, all while being almost maniacally logical and objective in her observations and her engagement with the world. But she is immensely likeable, even if an enigma, both to the readers and to the many protagonists and antagonists she encounters along her way.

The book is written as a memoir of the early years of Jane’s life culminating in her marriage to Mr. Rochester, the owner of a grand English manor, who by the end of the tale when he finally marries Jane, has suffered devastating disability and loss from a fire set by his crazy first wife, who died in the fire. Told from the perspective of about ten years after the marriage, like all memoir, it vastly overstates the ability of the mind to accurately remember. But it is beautifully and vividly written—the prose is as compelling to read as the imagination conjures the pictures that Jane painted with brush and canvass in her spare time were to ponder. Bronte is an artist with a pen. She drew her character, Jane Eyre, as an artist in paint, a relatively minor piece of the Eyre puzzle. Bronte described her remaining attributes with brilliant clarity and detail, bringing her character to life in a manner that few artists, wielding either pen or brush, are able.

I found Bronte’s name for her title character a bit interesting. From what I could tell, Eyre is pronounced with one syllable, very similar to the manner that Southerners pronounce ‘air’, with an extra little lilt behind the ‘r’, which perhaps explains the spelling with an extra e at the end of the name. An eyre is also a circuit court held by itinerant royal justices in Medieval England, which is to say, before the setting of the book in the late eighteenth century, but perhaps within recent enough history that her 19th century readers could have made the connection. The word has a Latin root, iter, meaning journey. As Bronte’s novel is about the journeys, literal and emotional and spiritual, that young Jane takes along the path of growing from a child into a woman and then a wife, and the moral choices she makes along the way, the name seems fitting. But I haven’t the faintest idea if that’s why Bronte chose it, and frankly, if there is some conclusive scholarship on Jane’s last name, I’ve not been able to find it. Maybe an Eyre is just an Eyre, which was a common enough surname in England at the time the book was written.

The narrative opens with Jane an orphan, living with her deceased uncle’s wife and kids (Jane’s cousins). Jane’s parents died of typhus, as well her uncle, who made his wife, Jane’s aunt, promise to take good care of Jane on his deathbed. The aunt promised, but failed to deliver. She encouraged her children to ostracize and mistreat the ten year-old Jane. Jane’s first major recollection involved what seemed almost like torture, even of a psychosexual nature, with Jane being punished for hitting her male oldest cousin after he had provoked her. It was an all-around ugly affair, Jane’s turn with her aunt and cousins, but revealed for the reader the depth of Jane’s resolve to survive, and even so far as possible, thrive, no matter the circumstances, and her indefatigable will to abide hardship in order to do what her heart knew to be right.

Jane is revealed from this beginning episode to be nearly omniscient in understanding, at their time of occurrence, the motivations of her own heart and those of others. In actuality, it would only be in hindsight, and after much reflection, that she might have grasped how she felt and why during the episodes of brutality she suffered as a child. But it is fine to imagine that Jane is quite inwardly reflective, because the plot is only a scaffold upon which Bronte drapes the inner workings of Jane’s psyche. Jane Eyre is a novel about the human heart more than anything else.

I read the novel because of a Bronte quote about a different novel, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that was used in one of the two introductions (this one placed at the end) of the Penguin Classics publication of Austen’s most famous novel. Bronte was unsparing in her criticism:

What did I find [in Pride and Prejudice]? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.

As Bronte’s assessment of Pride and Prejudice was poignantly close to my own, I figured I rather might enjoy reading Bronte in the stead of Austen. My instincts were sound. Bronte is a brilliant and engaging writer. Austen, while undeniably gifted, either hasn’t Bronte’s insights into the human condition or doesn’t much care to explore them. Pride and Prejudice is about the life and society and petty issues of England’s landed gentry in the late 18th/early 19th centuries told from the perspective of a coming of age female, which is to say, it is about how to create the specialized business partnership known as marriage in a manner that will profitably ensure an estate’s continuation while also be a pleasing matter for the wife.

Alas, a great deal of Bronte’s book also concerns marriage—Jane’s dismal prospects at the start of her adult life, and then her dizzying proposal and whirlwind near-marriage in the middle, and then finally the marriage to the man from whom she initially ran away at the end. Is there anything more to a young woman’s world than the striving to marry? Perhaps not, but Bronte put the striving to good use in exploring moral and spiritual complexities and ambiguities that beset everyone in all times, not just in young women striving to find a husband in manorial England.

Much ink has been spilled over whether either of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or Austen’s character, Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice were proto-feminists paving the way for a different sort of female role in society. I would say in both cases, no—that anyone trying to make out Jane or Elizabeth as proto-feminists is guilty of doing retro-history, applying today’s cultural mores to those of yesteryear. The revolution in female economic roles often improperly attributed to feminism did not come about until after the Industrial Revolution had reached maturity, and all its advancements were put to use through two world wars for doing what mankind has always been possessed of quite astute capabilities, i.e., the killing of his fellows, even before industrial automation so improved his efficiency at the task. Both of these novels were set in post-feudal, but still agrarian England, where all the wealth was tied up in land and all the land was owned by males because the land was also tied up in provisioning the King’s army and navy with male soldiers and sailors. Women of today look back at their historical sisters and imagine what an awful lot they had, but they fail to consider that females were not treated ‘equally’ back then in no small measure because an equal measure was not expected of them. They were not expected to do the hard, dirty work of living and killing and dying as the men were. Outside of the actual and unavoidable pain of childbirth, which admittedly was often a deadly affair prior to modern medicine, women were put on a pedestal. The men were in charge, to some extent, but they suffered for bearing the burden.

Bronte’s Eyre was fiercely independent and strong-willed, even to the point of foolishness. When she found out at the altar on their wedding day that Mr. Rochester was already married to the crazy woman living upstairs in his manor, she impetuously left him, even after he proposed instead that she be his mistress. She would be either his wife or nothing, and she very nearly died of starvation/exposure/hypothermia in her escape, before St. John and his sisters (who we later find out are her cousins) took her in. I don’t see where anything Jane did in that episode or others that was proto-feminist, unless it is imagined that there were no fiercely independent and strong-willed women in the world until Betty Freidan and her ilk came along, which is utter nonsense. History is replete with strong-willed, independent women, from Queen Victoria, shortly after Bronte’s age to Cleopatra and Joan of Arc well before it. And it can’t be imagined that all the women who don’t grace the pages of history were shy retiring wallflowers.

Bronte was perhaps a bit interested in dispelling myths common even today about women—that they are nicer, calmer, more agreeable etc., than men, always saying what people want to hear rather than the truth. Jane was frank and straightforward, unemotional nearly to a fault, and with nothing at all that could be considered flowery or flighty in her personality, just a rashness that led to her running away from Mr. Rochester that early morning. Jane told things like she saw things, in much the same manner as Austen’s Elizabeth, whose ‘liveliness’ (i.e., frankness and openness) captured Mr. Darcy’s heart. Elizabeth also impetuously left on a slight adventure when she heard her sister had taken ill. Hers was a 2-3 mile hike on roads and trails that left her petticoat a bit muddied, hardly comparable to Jane’s leaving with nowhere to go and no money and only a mind to run forever away from Mr. Rochester. Both instances could be conjured, if squinting real hard, as the acts of proto-feminists, I suppose. But I rather believe them to simply be examples of people acting impetuously in the circumstances, people who also happen to be female.

If anything, Jane Eyre doesn’t qualify as a proto-feminist because she seems to be actually more liberated than the liberated Modern Woman of today, though perhaps not in the way a Modern Women would imagine that they are liberated. Unlike the sisterhood of Modern Women, Jane put great stock in the sacrament of marriage, refusing to be her betrothed’s concubine after learning of his previous, and extant, marriage. Even though Rochester’s marriage was a sham because of the insanity of his wife, Jane turned out to be a stalwart defender of the legalities of the institution, steadfastly refusing to allow Mr. Rochester the pleasure of her company without the sanctity of marriage. And later, she adamantly refused St. John’s (her rescuer from exposure after escaping Rochester, and later found to also be her cousin) offer of marriage, as it was done solely for the practical purpose that she might follow him to India and help him in winning souls to Christ. (Thus also is revealed the Eyre enigma—she believed in the sanctity of marriage as represented by its legalities, but also that marriage could not be sanctified if not done out of love.)

She would be married, if at all, to someone she loved (Mr. Rochester), but she would not submit, even in a state of the direst need and dimmest prospects, to the life of a concubine, not even with a man whom she loved. She was not a whore, marital or otherwise. She wanted in marriage a loving, mature relationship that perhaps happened to include sex (the thrill she felt at Mr. Rochester’s touch was certainly of a sexual nature, but it did not seem that the love she felt for him depended upon her sexual attraction), not a sexual relationship that was more or less transactional in nature, which is the nature of the relationship that a great many Modern Women settle for, among both those who believe themselves to be liberated and those who do not.

Jane showed respect for herself by respecting the institution of marriage, in its character as a social institution whose contours are sketched in the law, and in its character as a very personal and private affair, a perspective which Modern Women might do well to emulate. Marriage is not meant to constrict and confine women nearly as much as it is meant to restrict and focus men. It is an institution created to serve the needs of child-bearing women, not the needs of the men who impregnate them. Often throughout history, powerful men have shunned marriage (at least of the monogamous variety) for the very reason: They know they needn’t confine themselves to one woman in order to get the main benefit (i.e., sex) that marriage offers to the man.

Jane agreed, prior to discovering Mr. Rochester was already married, to proceed from being his governess (for a child, not his, who he had more or less adopted) to being his wife, even before she had received the windfall from her uncle’s estate that provided her an independent means for life. She knew she was desperately in love with Mr. Rochester and could not have so betrayed herself to turn down his offer, but was still hesitant, as she knew she was negotiating from a position of weakness, and one that would only grow weaker upon entering the marriage. She did not want to become his possession, seeking instead to become his equal partner in life, but was not willing to betray her heart simply to eliminate the mere possibility that the power dynamic would fail her in a detrimental manner. If there is a more pro-female perspective (or, more aptly, pro-human perspective) than Jane’s, I challenge the modern feminist to provide one. Yet, does anyone think Jane’s perspective unique to her times? The male-female dialectic when it comes to marriage has always involved a battle of wills, and no, the battle was not always, or even not often, won by the man. The balance of power in marriage is always in flux (or in any other relationship, for that matter). There is always jockeying for dominance, in matters both great and small. Bronte shows that power always arises from within—there is nothing more powerful than a person with control over their own emotions and faculties, as was Jane,–and that once that sort of internal control is achieved, the woman (or man) can readily manipulate the soft levers of interrelationship power to ensure she is never run over roughshod by her mate. The key to power is self-control, and Jane had it in spades. And there is nothing unique in that notion to Jane Eyre’s era, or to the era that followed her, or to the fact that she happens to be female. Bronte’s observations are timeless and gender indeterminate.

Modern feminists like to imagine that they have cut Modern Woman from whole cloth as a result of their liberating agitations for equal treatment, particularly regarding reproductive rights; that before Roe v. Wade and the Pill, women were doomed to desultory lives as baby factories, their wombs being all they had worth selling. The mythology is balderdash. Women have never been any less vivaciously spirited, strong-willed, stiff-necked, meek, obsequious, and all shades in between, as they are now. Their wombs have always been important, but only so far as the individual women possessing them believed in their importance. There have always been sexually promiscuous women who thought little of the special obligations the ability to create life conferred; it is that only now they have easier ways to prevent their sexuality from having consequences, or to eliminate the consequences relatively easily. Different women have different personalities, just like different people have different personalities, but their essential character has not changed, not even in the face of changes wrought by industrialization and the relative decline in economic advantage it wrought to male physical prowess. There is still an aspect of the dialectic in male-female sexual relationships where the female’s trump card is access to her womb, and the male’s trump card is the willingness to support the products thereof.

Bronte’s Jane Eyre stands in testament to the timeless nature of the female experience. As much as today’s feminist movement likes to think it has impelled progress, it can only claim so by imagining a much worse past for women than actually existed, or by ignoring that much of its ‘progress’ has accomplished nothing more than to allow women to be treated equally as poorly as men. Feminists celebrated, actually celebrated, when the US Army and Marine Corps agreed to allow women to serve on the front lines as infantry combat soldiers. If gaining the ability to be slaughtered, as has happened to so many male infantry soldiers throughout history, is progress, one balks at imagining what regression or stasis might look like.

It was something of a convoluted chain of events that led to my reading Jane Eyre. I had known for some time that my daughter was a big fan of Jane Austen, and particularly of Pride and Prejudice. She and my wife suggested I read it so I might better understand her. The daughter will soon be graduating high school and attending college, and she’ll be expecting my help in deciding on which one to attend. How could I help her choose without really knowing her? So I read Pride and Prejudice, which felt like nothing more than a well-written Harlequin Romance to me. I failed to see the profundity of its insights, except perhaps those of the lead character’s dad, who did the bare minimum required to keep up the appearance that he was somewhat engaged in the silly affairs of his wife and their five daughters. But in the second Introduction to the book, this one printed at the end, there was the Charlotte Bronte quote, previously provided, of what she thought of the book. As it fit my opinion nearly perfectly, I decided I should read Bronte, who wrote during the same era as Austen, and in generally the same setting (manorial England). The contrast was stark and profound. Austen wrote of English manorial society. Bronte wrote of the human heart, using manorial England as the canvass for her pictures depicting it.

I was reminded of both the women in my life through Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Young Jane’s defiant stand against her older male cousin’s physical abuse made me think of what things must have been like for my wife when she was a young girl and suffered the same sort of abuse from her dad. I imagine she defied him as valiantly as Jane did her cousin. And when Jane impetuously left Rochester with no real plan and no money and no prospects for getting any, putting her own life in immediate peril, it made me think of my daughter, who is nothing but one tough cookie when it comes to demanding boys treat her with the respect she thinks (and rightfully so) she deserves. Though I would hope my daughter be more reasonable in her reactions, I could still see her responding with the same force of character in a situation similar to the one Jane faced. In short, I saw in Jane Eyre a woman who every woman would do well to emulate. After I told my daughter that Jane Eyre is a very good book, worthy of the time it would take to read, she spontaneously picked it up and started reading it one night. I hope she takes it to heart. I think everyone would feel inordinately blessed, like I am, to have as a daughter or a wife or a sister, a woman like Jane Eyre.

In defense of Ray and Janay Rice; in contempt of the spineless NFL

What would you do if someone hit you and spit in your face and lunged at you in an elevator? If you’re like most people, male or female, you’d do something to protect yourself—either pushing them away in a defensive posture, or defending through the time-honored method of counterattack. Ray Rice chose the latter, but failed to calibrate his counterattack to account for the weakness of his foe, perhaps because of drunkenness, maybe just for rage.

Like the military behemoth Israel destroyed whole city blocks in Gaza each time a dozen or so rockets fired from there landed harmlessly in the desert, Ray Rice, who is a bristling two hundred pounds of muscled-up NFL running back, coldcocked his fiancé (now wife) to the floor when she spat in his face and lunged at him. She couldn’t have ever done, without a weapon to equalize things, any sort of actual physical harm to Ray, just like Gaza without a nuclear weapon is not much more than a thorn in Israel’s side. Ray and Israel were rightly castigated for having used force well in excess of that required to send the message that such behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. But nobody would ever suggest that Israel should sit idly by while rockets are flung across the sky, admittedly on a weak prayer that they might hit something more than cactus, but still. And Ray Rice should not have been fired from his job and rendered a public pariah for having done, if a bit excessively, what anyone would have done in the premises. He was defending himself. Watch the video. It’s clear he was provoked.

Here’s the link to TMZ, the website that originally published the video.

The NFL and Rice’s employer, the Baltimore Ravens, effectively delivered a gut punch to Janay Rice to go along with Ray’s punch, and the subsequent smack on the elevator’s railing that rendered her unconscious, when they fired and suspended him. How is this going to help things for the Rice’s? If you think there might have been some fighting before, just wait until Ray’s checks quit coming.

It is high time the NFL quit kowtowing to women’s organizations, allowing them to do just like an angry wife might, extorting the behaviors they seek through terror campaigns. Here’s a little secret the National Football League needs to internalize: There will never be any appeasing the National Organization for Women, or the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or any other of the myriad organizations that uber-social females quite naturally contrive as vehicles for complaining about men. Football is a man’s sport, played by men, which is why men and non-feminists love it and feminist agitators loathe it. No matter what the NFL does, so long as it remains essentially the same sport that involves blocking and tackling and hitting, i.e., so long as it remains a sport that mimics the violence of hand to hand combat, the feminists will hate it because it involves things that, in their inability to compete, they necessarily hate, and demand that the world follows suit.

Guys generally understand individually, or at least married guys do, what seems so baffling to the NFL—that in the relentless dialectic that constitutes a male-female relationship, there is nothing a woman won’t do to assert her power and control over her man. But while the male-female relationship is a constant power struggle, it is one where if the woman wins, both sides lose. Men must fight back. They must hold their women at bay. Because, if a woman ever feels she has finally gained dominion and control over her man, she will quickly grow bored and seek another man to similarly subdue. Women are incapable of happiness. Likewise, female advocate organizations won’t stop until all power has been ceded to them or the women they ostensibly represent. Of course, they still wouldn’t be satisfied then, and would undoubtedly turn the dialectic inward, pitting women against each other, because contentedness is not a female attribute. But the point is that there is no way the NFL can appease these organizations, except by destroying itself, at which point both sides lose.

The league let women into the door of appeasement with observing breast cancer awareness month in October, complete with pink towels, shoes, gloves, hats, etc. Did they really believe that would suffice to stop the females from braying incessantly about the league’s violence? Did they really believe that feigning interest in the health issues concerning women’s breasts was really going to get them off the hook for providing so many men a mostly harmless outlet for expressing all those visceral attributes that arise from having a surfeit of testosterone? Women are only happy when their men are miserable, so the NFL, which helps make men a little less miserable than they might otherwise be in a society intent on filing their sharp edges down to dullness, is at cross purposes with female desires. The happier the NFL makes a man on Sunday or Monday or Thursday, the more work is left to the woman to bring him back to the level of misery she thinks is acceptable for his being allowed to be a part of her world.

Men understand this perfectly, which is why they howl derisively every time the NFL caves to female demands to feminize the game (if usually out of earshot of the females in their lives). And if the NFL becomes too glamourized, or too pussified, then men will leave it to the women, and go find some other entertainment that expresses and embodies the violence and aggression and athletic ability that sets men apart from women, attributes they love to express or see displayed, but aren’t often afforded the opportunity in the strait jackets of feminized culture in which they must exist.

The male-female dialectic is a one-way thing in many respects. Women are desperately at war with men, while men are decidedly less combative, usually laconic and lackadaisical about the whole thing. It’s not because men believe they have all the power and aren’t threatened by the women. It’s that they know the women who believe they need to openly wage war are fools who don’t understand the power they have. Men innately know that women hold the reins of power in any male-female sexual relationship. It comes with having a womb. But men understand that women can’t be allowed to run roughshod over the family or their relationship, or them, just because they happen to have a womb, and they understand that it is their job to see it doesn’t happen. In other words, men get that God doesn’t pay them to lose the dialectic with women, because everyone loses when that happens.

Maybe that’s what Ray was thinking when he gobsmacked Janay that night in the elevator. Or, maybe he was just really pissed that she thought she could get away with doing to him what he’d never allow any man to get away with. We’ll never really know, because only the people in a relationship really know what is going on in it. But I think anyone who is honest will admit that what Janay did that night demanded a response. Even Janay admitted as much. Just perhaps not quite as forcefully as Ray administered it.  And the NFL did nothing but make matters worse, as I am sure, both the Rice’s would attest.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 207 other followers