I don’t always read the Sunday New York Times. We had a subscription at one time, but some Sundays it would just sit there while our busy lives carried on at a frenzied pace, particularly when the kids were young. So we stopped the rather expensive subscription, and now I just walk down to the local Piggly Wiggly on Sunday morning and buy a copy from the newstand when I figure the day looks slow enough to leisurely enjoy reading it.
Reading the Sunday Times is like eating ice cream. It has a steeply diminishing marginal return curve–once I’ve read a Sunday Times, I’m good for a while, but after a long absence, I develop a craving. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d had a slow enough Sunday for reading like today (February 3, 2013), so I got a copy of the Times. And I thought it might be something good to while away the hours until the required entertainment later in the afternoon of watching the National Football League put on the show of playing its championship game.
The New York Times generally takes itself very seriously. That’s what romantics do, and a straight path can be traced from the Romantic movement begun in eighteenth century Europe to the journalistic vision of the New York Times. The New York Times is to modern journalism what Rousseau was to early modern political and philosophical thought. According to Bertrand Russell, the preeminent British philosopher of the twentieth century, the Romantic movement started in France, where the French greatly admired la sensibilite, meaning a proneness to emotion, and more particularly the emotion of sympathy. As Russell said of the movement, “To be thoroughly satisfactory, the emotion must be direct and violent and quite uninformed by thought”.
So it should have come as no surprise when I stumbled across a couple of articles in the Sunday Review section–the most Romantic and serious of the already serious Times–that had me chuckling, nearly guffawing, practically the whole way through their reading. But mine was sardonic laughter, at the utter silliness of it all. Both were expressions of emotion, direct and violent and quite uninformed by thought.
The first article, pretentiously headlined, Weighing the End of Life, detailed the trauma suffered by the author when her dog, age fourteen (that’s ninety-eight in human years), was getting frail and close to death, and how closely her decision on what to do with her dog paralleled decisions people in her geriatric practice faced at the end of their lives. Here’s her opening paragraphs:
ONE weekend last year, we asked our vet how we would know when it was time to put down Byron, our elderly dog. Byron was 14, half blind, partly deaf, with dementia, arthritis and an enlarged prostate. He often walked into walls, stood staring vacantly with his tail down, and had begun wandering and whining for reasons we could not always decipher.
Attentive to Byron’s needs, we softened his food with water and sprinkled it with meat; we cuddled him when he whimpered and took him outside to relieve himself seven, even eight times a night. We couldn’t take a vacation because we couldn’t imagine asking anyone, friend or dog sitter, to do what we were doing. Nor could we fully trust anyone to provide the care we thought Byron required.
Seven or eight times a night, she got up to let the dog out? Really? Does she know that this dog won’t be around to comfort her in old age, or allow her to catch a glimmer of eternity through the eyes of grandchildren? And that even parents of human infants, who might one day be expected to do those things, would find this sort of sacrifice extreme and unusual, to say the least? This creature over whom she is losing sleep and foregoing all other ordinary life functions (like, say, staying overnight elsewhere) is a dog. She is experiencing what my daughter would call a first world problem. Dogs get old and die, several generations of them during the course of an average human lifetime. Though the truth of a dog’s life span is a pesky little fact that might have otherwise informed her emotion, she refused to consider it. It didn’t seem possible, but her emotional riff got morbidly sillier:
When asked whether it was time to put Byron “to sleep,” our vet said he used the 50 percent rule: Were at least half of Byron’s days good days? Or was it two bad days for every good? When you get to the latter, he explained, it’s time.
This conversation gave me pause for two reasons. First, what did Byron want? Was 50 percent good enough for him? How about 70? Or 20? There was, of course, no way to know.
Which brings me to my second reason for pause. When not serving as faithful servant to our tiny dog, I am a geriatrician. Because older adults have a greater range of needs and abilities than any other age group, and because there is a national shortage of geriatricians, I care for the frailest and sickest among them.
What did Byron (the dog) want? What does any dog/animal/living creature (except in some cases, humans) want? To live so long as they are able to do so. But not even that is correct. They don’t want anything except what natural selection has designed them to instinctively want. They are, after all, dogs. And natural selection has designed them to survive, but not forever. Death is as much a part of living nature as is life. For humans and dogs. And every other riven, living thing. Why make such an emotional mess of things? At least the utter ridiculousness of it all was good for a chuckle.
Then there was a woman, Avita Ronnell, a University Professor of the Humanities at New York University, writing in the Opinionator–The Stone section of the Sunday Review. The Stone is where philosophers sometimes go to contribute articles when they are depressed, and philosophers are seemingly always depressed. This woman certainly was depressed, and she pinned the blame on, of all things, the Very Large and Moderately Unusual Storm Sandy (I refuse to call it “Superstorm” Sandy–it wasn’t even a hurricane when it made landfall) that hit New York back in late October of 2012. The title to her article was Stormy Weather: Blues in Winter. Here’s her closing, after a whole bucket load of precessional drivel and spit:
When Freud reviews the attitude of so-called primitive peoples to calamities missile-guided by Nature or gods, he points to these peoples’ felt failure. Natural disruption, which puts into play and unleashes something like the supernatural, appears to be sent our way as a message from above. Most often, it represents a form of reactivity, an accusation. The super-natural (Sandy was so often called a super-storm) is something that humankind has called upon itself in response to stinging acts of frivolity. Freud’s examples involve failed mourning—of the enemy. The so-called primitives believed that storms mark down those who have neglected to honor or properly bury their enemies.
I try to review our recent wars, whether mapped on Afghanistan or in ghetto streets and surrounding precarious clinics. I try to gauge the implication, however remote, of every citizen, in the waging of these and other aggressions. This seems far-fetched — perhaps closer to science fiction than to science. Is there a way in which radically disrupted weather systems tell us, maybe merely on an unconscious register, that we are involved in world-class wrongdoing? In a Shakespearean way, I keep on punctuating such observations by the refrain: “No, such a reproach cannot be addressed to us.” I am also of the scientific epoch and understand the deregulations of global warming.
Still, could the super-storm have been a call from elsewhere? A reminder of the stripped-down disposal of enemy troops or tropes, our graceless menu of aggressions brought home to us, the world-class homeless? I may or may not have my finger on the pulse of Hegel’s Weltgeist, the guiding world-spirit, but something about my very private and idiomatic blues comes from the pressure of a sustained injustice, a dishonoring that occurs in my name and that may affect all Americans on one level of consciousness or another.
Could anything more absurd be imagined? To believe one’s depression is caused by a storm which was sent to New York’s shores by some mad god to punish some portion of us for “world-class wrongdoing” is the essence of Romanticism, of the idea that feeling something deeply enough can make it true. Most philosophers are atheists, or at least scoff at the idea of a God who directly and willfully intervenes in human affairs to punish wrongdoers and reward the faithful. Ronnell is surely among them. But she just gave, if doubtfully, the exact same explanation for Sandy that, for example, the average Pentecostal preacher gave for Katrina–that Sandy was punishment for wickedness. I wonder, would Ms. Ronnell wish to count as confederates the likes of televangelists? I understand that she feels blue. Everyone occasionally does. Her ennui may even have been triggered by the calamitous storm. But to leverage her feelings into an observation on the causes of natural phenomenon is to feel in a manner quite uniformed by thought. On the pages of the New York Times Sunday Review, Romanticism isn’t dead and buried. It isn’t even dead.
But ploughing through the slag, I finally found a nugget of wisdom, in an article provocatively titled Boys at the Back by Christina Hoff Sommers, author of “The War Against Boys”. The take-away line is the last sentence:
The rise of women, however long overdue, does not require the fall of men.
Ms. Sommers article was about how boys who are not so well-designed, awash as they are in testosterone that makes them aggressive and fidgety and hyperactive, for the manner with which schools routinely deal with them. The post-modern age in the developed world places a far higher premium on cooperation, instead of competition; on brains, instead of brawn; on servility, instead of obstreperousness. Boys generally lack, because of testosterone, which primes them to be good warriors (and capitalists), but not docile, sedentary cube dwellers, the attributes most highly sought in today’s information economy. And really, what boy (or man) would write an article on the challenges of trying to figure out what an old, dying dog wants out of life? And what boy (or man) would whine, claiming it had them depressed, about some weather calamity several months ago? Okay, a few metro sexual men who have discovered the way to a woman’s heart and between her legs is to act like a woman might bemoan a dying dog or a storm from the past, but most men would simply scoff at such nonsense.
But Sommers’ conclusion hits on a truth far more profound and of much broader application than just the manner with which society is failing boys. Let’s change her sentence to read something like this:
The rise of women or gays or blacks or Latinos or Asians, does not require the fall of men or heterosexuals or whites.
This is not a zero-sum world, and certainly not in the context of sexual relationships in a sexually-reproducing species, as humans mainly are. Women can not do better at the expense of men without which they ultimately harm themselves. And the same is true (if less emphatically because of not being as intimately related to the sexual impulse) for any of the myriad groups progressives seek to free from white male oppression.
Oh, well. I found one nugget of insight sifting through the sands of an Arabian desert of emotional nonsense. At least there was the Super Bowl to look forward to.