Archive for September, 2013
I signed in to my email yesterday and found a comment on the post before last, on the one called “Still Life,” that gave me pause.
The comment was from Mike F, and what it said was this:
a Harvard economist, and Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton, propose a way to explain why the poor are less future-oriented than those with more money. According to these authors, one explanation for bad decisions is scarcity — not of money, but of what the authors call bandwidth: the portion of our mental capacity that we can employ to make decisions.
Worrying about money when it is tight captures our brains. It reduces our cognitive capacity — especially our abstract intelligence, which we use for problem-solving. It also reduces our executive control, which governs planning, impulses and willpower. The bad decisions of the poor, say the authors, are not a product of bad character or low native intelligence. They are a product of poverty itself.>>>
This comment struck me for several reasons.
First–the blog post said nothing at all about “the poor” in general, and it did not say that the poor were poor because of bad judgment or lack of native intelligence.
I was speaking of a very specific phenomenon, and one that I never knew existed before I started teaching my deep remedials.
I might not have discovered it even then, except that one of my students hit the last month of the semester in the state I think of as “going to fail this course if you don’t do something quick.”
In my courses, students are allowed to write and rewrite their papers as many times as they want and without penalty until they get the grade they want. My assumption is that my job is to teach them to write coherently, not to see who can who can win a race whose only purpose is to determine whic of them the system can safely discard.
My students are often poor, but even my deepest remedials are not usually passive to the extent of some of the people they’ve left back home, and a lot of them are not passive at all.
Nor does the level of passivity correspond in any obvious way with the level of poverty. In the small city in which my present school is located, there is a small group of men (not organized as a group, but each independently) who go around collected returnable bottles and cans.
They have shopping carts, acquired God only knows how, and they push them through the city picking up whatever they can find. They are almost certainly homeless, and most of them are either alcoholics or drug addicts.
A (nonremedial) student of mine who had a secretarial job at the Department of Social Services told me that the Department had done a survey on these men to see what was going on and how they could help them.
They found that these men made between $100 and $300 a day,
Even at the lower figure, that’s more than most of my students make, with the added benefit of the fact that it is not subject to FICA or any other kind of taxes.
They’re homeless not because they don’t have money, but because they spend their money on drugs or alcohol.
And the Department can’t help them, because they adamantly refuse to enter homeless shelters or DSS programs, both of which insist that they get sober.
Before you start fulminating, let me get to what strikes me as most important about this.
These people are about as poor as you can get and still be living in the US, and yet they not only are not passive, they show a truly impressive ability to think, plan, and carry through.
The fact that they make a decision–alcohol is more important than housing–that you and I think is wrong or “mentally ill” is beside the point. They are able to formulate their wants, figure out a way to supply those wants, and put that plan into practice and stick with it over long periods and under very difficult conditions.
And, interestingly enough, sometimes they don’t make that decision. When the weather hits the real lows of February, most of them pay their way into the local fleabag motels. It’s more expensive in money than the shelters, but it comes with no strings attached.
The kind of passivity I’m talking about is not just a minority phenomenon because the poor are a minority. It’s a minority phenomenon because most poor people are not passive.
My students are not passive almost by definition–they’re in school, and that takes quite a bit of activity to accomplish. The concerted attempts to get people into school whether they want to go or not skews this a little, but not as much as you might think.
Even the most zealous inner city guidance counselor can’t make a kid come to class often enough to graduate, not even in a system where nobody counts absences on Fridays because, you know, the kids just don’t come.
Passivity of the kind I keep trying to describe–apparently with little success–would be literally impossible without a welfare state, not because the welfare state causes such behavior, but because without such a welfare state thepeople who are passive in this way would simply and inevitably die.
If your only response to a light bulb going out is to sit in the dark–even though there are light bulbs in a box in the hall closet–you must either have somebody to do for you what needs to be done, or you will not be able to stay alive.
I think part of the problem here is that it’s difficult to credit if you haven’t seen it. I think it may be difficult to imagine if you haven’t seen it. It can be hard to credit it even if you have seen it.
It can be an enormously odd thing to watch in action. If action is the word I’m looking for.
The other problem, of course, is that the quote Mike F provided seems to be yet another attempt to explain poverty in a way that makes the poor seem like automatons without agency, something that is certainly not true.
People escape from poverty all the time. Granted, these people tend to be Asian and South Asian immigrants, but they still begin desperately poor and don’t stay that way. If “bad decisions” and “lack of native intelligence” are explained by the stress of being poor, what explains the Indian family with the gas station and the clothing store, the Thai family and the two Chinese families with their own restaurants, the Vietnamese family with its woodworking shop?
Nor is it the case that “nobody wants to be on welfare.” I’ve had students–deep remedials all–hand me papers in which they declared positiviely that if they could figure out a way to get on the rolls, they would sit back and laugh at the rest of us paying their bills.
What’s more, the statement is a flat denial of what is obvious to most of us–and that is that behavior does in fact affect outcomes.
If we didn’t believe this, we would not push our own children to study and do well in school, to go on to college and get a degree, to work jobs to build up an employment record.
What it comes down to, I think, is this: I don’t think there is any such thing as “the poor.”
I think there are a lot of different people with a lot of different reasons from a lot of different circumstances. There are people who are ill or seriously physically disabled. There are people who just arrived with no money and who don’t speak the language. There are people who made bad choices and people who made good ones that didn’t work out.
To the extent that we’re talking about the intergenerational poor–that elephant in the middle of the room–I think the answers are varied there, too. Some are certainly my students who wanted to be on welfare (and that family whose story I posted a while back who were deliberately keeping their children away from tutors because they got more money for the family if the kids were labeled “mentally handicapped”). Some will be born without much in native intelligence. Some will make bad choices. Some will just be sticking with what they know.
But I don’t think it’s helpful, and I don’t think it makes a case for providing public assistance, to redefine people who happen to be poor and somehow not quite as fully human as we are, unable to make decisions for themselves, just too stressed out to know what they’re doing, or maybe addicted, or…
You don’t make public provision for the poor and destitute because they’re deserving or because they can’t help it or even because they have some vague “human right” to it.
You do it because they’re there.
I finished reading Wendy Kaminer’s Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU a couple of days ago, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about it ever since.
Kaminer is one of my absolutely favorite writers, the kind of writers whose books I look out for and always read.
I am not sure how I missed this one when it came out, but I did. I had heard–because hers is a name I watch for–that she had left the national board of the ACLU some time ago, and that she’d done so because she felt the ACLU was no longer the ACLU, that it was no longer an organization committed to civil liberties.
I also knew that one of her major complaints about the modern ACLU was the fact that it acquiesced in campus speech codes and “hate crimes” legislation.
In other words, if I had known this book existed, I’d have had it in house on publication day.
For those of you who have never read Kaminer, she’s the kind of liberal who makes you remember that there were, once, real liberals. In other words, she’s not a “progressive,” but a tireless defender of individual rights.
She’s also one of the world’s most trenchant critics of the therapeutic culture. I’ve recommended I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional here before, but I’ll do it again, in case you didn’t hear me. Things have gotten much worse since she wrote it, but they haven’t really changed.
I’m not sure whether to recommend this book or not.
It’s a very good book, and I’m very glad I read it.
But along with being a painstaking account of what happened at the ACLU to make her tenure there no longer feasible, it’s a kind of mourning.
It’s an anguished outcry at the death of something that was very important to Wendy Kaminer, and probably to a lot of other people, including me. It’s just that I noticed the death sometime earlier, so that by the time Wendy Kaminer left the ACLU, I had long been calling myself something other than liberal.
The loss, then, is not just that of this once venerable institution, but of an entire political idea, which no more exists in today’s world than a pterodactyl.
Except, of course, that it does. In Wendy Kaminer. In Theodore Dalrymple. In me. In dozens of other people who have been cut adrift in the politics of modern America with no party to represent us and no idea what we should even call ourselves.
I’ve settled on “libertarian,” but, given the antics of our present Libertarian Party, that isn’t a viable option for everybody.
In case you’re wondering–no, I’m not in favor of privatising the roads, eliminating all government help for the destitute, or abolishing the public schools.
Of course, if you know anything about actual libertarianism, you’d already know that I wouldn’t be in favor of any of those things.
Another subject for another time…
When I tried to explain all this to a friend of mine, he said that the ACLU was never the kind of institution Kaminer and I thought it was, because it never really defended anything but the rights of liberals. It did not, for instance, go after “government backed unions,” meaning (I think) closed shops.
Thinking this over, I’ve decided that it is not entirely a legitimate criticism, on two counts.
The first is that there are legitimate disagreements over what is and is not the individual liberties side of an argument. Your decision as to whether individual rights are being served or not by any policy will depend on what you think is going on in the real world.
If you think workers genuinely choose not to join unions, then you’re going to be in favor of “right to work” laws. If you think that workers are coerced into claiming they want a union out of fear of reprisals from management, you’re going to be in favor of closed shops.
And yes, from where I sit, it seems glaringly obvious that right to work is the way to go–but that has to do with my personal experience, and I may be right or wrong.
The other reason I think this isn’t a legitimate criticism of the ACLU, however, is that the record belies it.
Anybody looking back over the history of the organization will see that it repeatedly–at least, up until its present administration–defended very unpopular and very un-leftist people and organizations at great cost to itself both financially and in terms of membership.
The Skokie case alone nearly bankrupted the organization and sent hundreds of people fleeing its membership rolls. It went to bat for the conservative (and deliberately inflamatory) Dartmouth Review, a magazine whose staff eventually became the bright lights of a new generation of conservative leaders.
Those are two cases known to me, but there are dozens more, and the record is clear that the organization took those cases in spite of the fact that it knew it would get hurt.
These days, of course, the charge of picking and choosing a few high profile cases so that you get to claim to be “nonpartisan” would be completely justified. Anthony Romero’s ACLU is just another partisan political player in a partisan political world.
What it also seems to be is yet another institution that has started to be run for its own agrandizement rather than for advancing what are supports to be its ideals.
In other words, cases were taken–or not–based on calculations as to whether taking them would provide lots of publicity of a kind that would increase both memberships and donations.
One of the most telling aspects of this situation is the fact that Romero knews–as did his board, when they eventually learned about what was going on–that this kind of behavior and these sorts of policies would bring a lot of very bad publicity.
Romero understood the problem, because he tried so hard to hide a lot of these decisions and policies from the board.
The board understood what was going on, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to cover it over, lying about it, and trying to mischaracterize the content of various decisions.
And some of those decisions were positively bizarre. One had to do with Romero’s secretly agreeing to check ACLU hires against terrorist watch lists, right at the time that the ACLU was fighting the watch lists in the courts. Another had to do with trying to take credit for action on behalf of Guantonamo detainees that had actually been taken by a different organization.
A lot of this was less shocking than just sort of sordid and embarrassing–like Romero’s failure to tell the people who hired him that he had worked on establish the Ford Foundation’s gag rules for grant recipients, and then failing to tell them that he’d signed the ACLU on to those rules so they would get the grant money.
For me, the most painful part of the book was Chapter Eight, where Kaminer lists all the ways in which the ACLU has ceased to be a “civil liberties” organization and become a “social justice” one–and it’s very obvious she’s not in favor of the social justice thing.
In that chapter, we get everything from campus speech codes to sexual harrassment policies to a glancing look at at least some forms of affirmative action.
I could have written most of her complaints myself–and have, on and off, on this blog.
Wendy Kaminer is about my age. This is a requiem for a world that died by the time we were both in (Seven Sisters) college, a world that we both aspired to and longed for that was gone before we had a chance to enter it.
Wendy Kaminer still calls herself a liberal, as far as I know, and she may actually be one–a liberal, not a progressive. I call myself a libertarian, but it all comes down to the same thing.
Every once in a while, I discover something that is wonderful because it is wonderful–it’s not connected to politics or morality or any of the usual subjects. It’s not “important” in the way we usually apply that word. It’s something that just is, and I’m glad it exists in my universe.
The something wonderful this morning is the existence of a group of people in the UK–an apparently organized group of people–who go around rescuing sick hedgehogs from the wild, bringing them in for medical care and food and cleaning up, and then taking them back to the wild when they’re all better.
The hedgehogs seem to take very well to this treatment, and to return to the wild quite successfully. I kept getting images of said returning hedgehogs trying to explain their experience to hedgehogs who had never had it.
If hedgehogs had better communications systems, maybe we would find little troops of them showing up at back doors, making bids for adoption as pets.
I found the story about the hedgehogs in an article by Theodore Dalrymple in the New English Review–an old article, in a collection of them, in a book called Forever Fear.
The book had been, until yesterday, one of those casualties of my TBR list. It’s been floating around for a while, in spite of the fact that Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers and I usually read what he writes as soon as I get into the house.
I have no excuse for why I didn’t do that with this one. I do have a suspicion that it may have arrived at a crisis point, like exam week.
Whatever happened, I finally picked the book up yesterday, and the first thing in it was the story about the people with the hedgehogs.
But this is a book by Theodore Dalrymple, and that means we did get around to the usual subjects eventually. Even the article with the story about the hedgehog society wasn’t actually about the hedgehog society.
The article that got my attention was called “Steel Yourself,” and it was about what has happened to two former steel-manufacturing towns in the UK (one in England and one in Wales) now that steel manufacturing pretty well no longer exists in the UK.
My initial reaction–before I’d read the article through, I’ll admit–was that this was not going to be a very interesting piece. We all know what happens when the jobs disappear. Dalrymple himself has written several articles on this theme, and so have many others.
As it turned out, however, the article was not about the usual thing. It was not about the fate of the steelworkers and their decendants.
It was, instead, about the fate of refugees–Kurds, mostly, and also mostly young men.
The refugees have been resettled in these two former steel towns, where there is no work, and where starting businesses is nearly impossible because of regulations of various kinds.
And now, some years later, these people, who had had enough initiate and courage to brave a truly harrowing passage from their home countries to the UK–these people are, now…inert.
In fact, what Dalrymple’s description reminds me of is the parents and neighbors of my deep remedial kids, the ones who live in housing projects where garbage is lying all around on the floors and in the courtyards, where lightbulbs go out and stay out for months at a time, where, no matter how bad things got, nobody would actually get up and do anything.
Dalrymple suggests in this article that the listlessness–what I’ve called the passivity–is caused by a combination of a good-enough welfare state combined with restrictions on individual enterprise.
And this may be, of course, true–as it may be true for some inner city American Latino communities composed largely of people who were willing to brave border patrols, Minutemen vigilantes, and God only knows what else to get here.
And it is almost certainly true that we have, as has the UK, developed a class of people (social workers, low level regulators of various kinds) who have a vested interest in making sure that poor people stay poor.
In the end, though, I can’t quite see my way to accepting this as The Explanation for that passivity.
After all is said and done, these are not the only poor people in the US and the UK, and they’re not the only immigrants.
As Dalrymple mentions, as an aside, none of his descriptions of passivity, squalor and demoralization apply to the Indian and Pakistani immigrants in Britain.
They don’t apply to the Indian and Pakistani immigrants here, either or to the Thai and Vietnamese or Chinese.
In spite of the very real barriers to starting a small business, these people start them. In spite of lackluster education systems and racial discrimination against Asians in college admissions, these people get their kids into first rate schools.
Their children become doctors and lawyers and professors and members of the Obama administration. Their out of wedlock birthrate is nearly nonexistent. Their arrest rate is almost as low.
I can’t see that any of the usual “explanations” of the extreme passivity I used to see in those housing projects. The immigrants who succeed are both religious and nonreligious. So are the ones that don’t. The same legal and regulatory systems apply to both. They both exist in the same economy. At least at the beginning, they all go to the same schools.
There has to be something else going on here. I only wish I knew what.
But what I do know is two things:
First is that anything we can do to head this sort of thing off at the pass, we ought to do.
People who are passive to the extent and in the way I saw, and that Dalrymple seems to be describing, are no use to anybody, not even themselves. They’re not even properly exploitable.
If there’s something we know how to do that will bring people out of such a state, we should do it. If we know something that demonstrably works, I’ll be happy to pay the taxes for it.
If we do not know something that demonstrably works, but we can show that removing both the majority of welfare state benefits AND enterprise-inhibitory regulation will at least reduce the incidence of this kind of thing, then we should do that.
You’d have to go to the direst poverty on the planet before you found something more inhumane, or lives less human, than what this is.
And the level of poverty I’m talking about is, for structural reasons, not achievable in a modern technological state.
What has always scared me most about this situation is that it might be a temperament, and therefore inborn and largely unchangeable.
Dalrymple had a point, though, about those immigrants who come through great obstacles.
So I’ve got my fingers crossed.
I don’t know why I am always so surprised that what I write is taken in ways that would never have occurred to me. It’s not as if it doesn’t happen often enough. It happens continuously.
But every time it happens, there I am, anywhere from nonplussed to flabbergasted.
Today I am mostly on the nonplussed side, because looking at this particular misunderstanding, I’m convinced that I should have anticipated it.
So let me clear up the central mistake–when I say I am interested interiority in a novel, I don’t mean I want to know how characters feel.
I want to know how they think.
Feeling is all right as far as it goes, and sometimes you have to know how people feel if you are going to understand how they think.
But feeling always seemed to me to be mostly chemical and untrustworthy.
Feeling can sometimes be the result of the way we think, but it is more often the result of hormones gone wild, or a lack of sleep, or Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato.
The way people feel is not a very good guide to what they will do. The way people think very often is, and what is more, very often provides some explanation of why.
I am not saying that people don’t often hide their real motives from themselves. Of course they do, all the time. But part of knowing how people (characters) think is seeing that attempt at concealment from the self.
I think how people think is interesting in and of itself, beyond any other aspect of a story. How people think–people I don’t know, people I do know but don’t understand–is what I look for in the fiction I read.
I think one of my problems with science fiction (and some fantasy) landscapes and settings is that they make me distrust the characters as people–some of the characters are not supposed to be people.
Yes, of course, I know that some science fiction writers call characters Romulans and then have them behave exactly and think exactly as people would in the same circumstances or from the same bakbrounds.
There is just a part of me that can never get past the idea that, if I’m dealing with a Romulan, then the thought processes are possibly true for Romulans, but not necessarily for anybody else.
What people seem to want these days is less emotions (although there are entire genres devoted to nothing else) as mindlessness.
We me out characters in the most superficial way, and then we get events! adventures! people running around doing stuff that faster and faster!
This seems to be standard operating procedure in movies of all kinds, not just in one particular genre or another, and some genre movies can be among the few that try to escape brainlessness.
Into that last category, I’d put both the most recent Star Trek movie and the first one. There are actual issues that people are thinking about. Every once in a while, the people who are thinking about them talk about them.
Part of the problem is that movies are the preeminent art form of our era, and movies are not a wonderful medium for exploring how people think.
In fact, I would go farther than that. I would say that there is a limit to how much interiority a movie can display before it becomes a very bad movie indeed. What’s more, the more it works at displaying interiority the less credible the interiority it displays seems to be.
At the end of a viewing of Interiors or Notes on a Scandal, I’m not left with the conviction that I’ve learned something new and important about human beings.
I feel instead that I’ve been subjected to two hours of pretentious idiocy about the kind of people I’d block from my friends list on Facebook.
This is true even in cases where I am aware that, if something had been done to make the movie watchable, there might have been something worthy of being scene.
I give you Judi Dench’s character in Notes on a Scandal, who would have made a first rate murderer in any decent fair play, and who is a character type I’ve always found completely baffling when I’ve come across it in real life.
But movies are just not the place for really laying out the thought processes of human beings. When they are done well, they appeal to the emotions at best, and sometimes to less than that.
There are a whole lot of movies (and television shows) out there that are the artistic equivalent of roller coaster rides. The idea is to make the viewer dizzy with the up and down and around and backwards, dizzy with the thrill itself divorced from every other consideration.
At this point, the usual thing is to blame the lack of interiority in novels these days on the Evil Media Corporations that bought up publishers and tried to get books to get the kind of profit percentages they could flog out of movies and TV.
Goodness only knows that major publishers these days produce a mind numbing array of throwaway literature, books that strive mightily to reproduce the mindless action of the worst sort of movie thriller.
I think it is also true that books are never going to bring in the 17% return on investment that media conglomerates have come to expect from their other ventures.
Even in the golden days of American literacy, publishing companies were lucky to get 6%, and the most common return was closer to 3%.
No matter how painful it may be to admit it, the simple fact is that the reading of books is now and always has been a minority taste.
Catering to it can be profitable, but only if you’re very careful to keep your expenses under control.
The problem with corporations isn’t that they’re Evil, but that they are inevitably Bureaucracies. Bureaucracies always and inevitably metastasize. The more people you’re keeping on the payroll, the more money you have to make to cover your costs.
And at a certain tipping point, you’re suddenly in the position of needing more money to operate than you can sanely expect to earn from any source at all.
But I think the bottom line here is not any of that, although none of it helps.
I think that people want different things from their novels, and especially from their mystery novels, now than they did in the time of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers.
Every time I teach 102, I try to explain to my students between life in the premodern and the modern world.
To people before the period we call the Enlightenment, reality looked a lot like chaos. Very little was predictable. People died young for no reason anybody could really pin down. Wars started for what seemed like no particular reason on the spur of the moment, or arrived with hordes of horsemen from regions only rumored before the event. Crimes were often committed with impunity, both because the nobility weren’t held accountable when they sinned against people of lower status than themselves, and because it was often difficult to catch the perpetrators in a world without police departments or serious forensics.
Look at what people in the Middle Ages considered beautiful, and what you will find is the orderly and the proportionate. Not only did poems rhyme, they often adhered to rigid structural patterns. Every form of art–painting, music, drama, poetry, even the sermon–had long lists of rules that not only promised to make the end result predictable, but did.
Civilization in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was the imposition of order on a disorderly (and therefore dangerous and malicious) world.
The Enlightenment brought the reign of reason and the beginnings of society-wide order. It even brought a lot of actual order–new ways to organize cities and societies that brought with them a rise in the safety of such places through resorts to plans for public health; schemes for laying out roads and bridges that obliterated the old cowpath configurations; reformation of legal systems to make them more consistant; a steady march against the privileges of the aristocracy; and, eventually, the beginnings of modern police forces and crime detection.
To the Enlightenment mind and its inheritors (think lots of those Victorians), disorder was still the enemy. But where the Middle Ages saw that disorder as an evil supernatural force implanted in nature itself, the Enlightenment saw it as man’s willful rejection of reason.
The criminal was the criminal not because he made a pact with the devil, but because he rejected the inherent goodness of reason and order.
The good news and the bad news hit almost immediately–the new concentration on reason and order did make things better, but it also made things a little suffocating.
You could have a little more reason and order than you were able to live with.
Robert’s comment was right where it said that eras of reason and emotion trade back and forth with each other.
I just think that they trade back and forth with each other on the basis of whether most of us feel more menaced by too much order or too little of it.
The Golden Age of the mystery occurred between the two World Wars.
We are living, these days–most of us in the US–in the Golden Age of the bureaucracy, with endless pettifogging rules for every activity imaginable, with every wrongheaded incursion into our lives and thoughts labeled as “science” which, we are assured, trumps anything like personal preference or a national Constitution.
Maybe it’s not that surprising that “people thinking” is not what we look for in our entertainment.
It is Saturday, and I’m a little washed out from the week. So far, though, the day has gone well enough. I got the real writing done. I’ve answered a few student e mails of the “I’m panicking and it’s the week-end” variety.
It is, I will admit, beyond my comprehension that they never panick during office hours.
Anyway, I’ve gotten all my little stuff done and I’m just waiting for the mail with my fingers crossed that it has no bad news in it. If that comes through, I can officially declare myself to be Having A Week End, and proceed to watch very silly movies for the rest of the afternoon.
There’s been an awful lot going on in my life lately. And, me being me, I’ve been dealing with each issue as it comes up, separately and without connecting it to anybody else.
This works very well for me most of the time. Over the last fifteen or so years, I’ve had to deal with enormous upheavals, catastrophic illnesses, deaths in the family, serious medical problems that at least weren’t catastrophic but were scary. Bill died. Greg went blind and needed surgery to fix that. We had the Great Drama of Greg’s exit from the only school he’d ever known.
I could do more of this if I tried, but even though most of it is fixed as well as it can be fixed, it’s really depressing.
The point I’m trying to make here, though, is that, for me, dealing with this kind of thing, getting it done, getting it over with, has always required a kind of tunnel vision. I deal with the problem right in front of me. I shut off the problems not right in front of me. I do one thing at a time and then I sit back when there isn’t anything left.
Okay, there rarely isn’t anything left.
I’m a big advocate of this kind of tunnel vision. I think it makes it possible to deal with enormous and overwhelming problems without being overwhelmed.
But I do understand that it also tends to make you unaware of connections where they exist and may be important.
Over the last several months, I’ve been doing a lot that directly relates to my life as a writer, and specifically as a mystery writer.
I’ve written a book that is not a Gregor but is closer, in many ways, to the old Pay McKenna series. I have been trying mightily, with the very patient help of this wonderful person named Margery Flax, to rejoing the Mystery Writers of America. And, most significant, I think, I’ve left my agent of the last fifteen years and…gone back to the first agent I ever had.
There’s a lot to be said about the agent, who was also Bill’s agent (and still is, now that his books are going to e book formats and that kind of thing). We were good friends when we were in a business relationship and we’ve been friendly ever since.
Meredith is what I will always think of as the quintessential agent. She’s what New York looks like to me, and probably always will.
But my point here is that it was reconnecting with Meredith that made me realize what I’ve been doing with all the small and not so small decisions I’ve been making over the last several months.
What I’ve been doing is going home–going back to the beginning of my identiy as a Writer with a capital W, the professional kind.
I have, of course, been a writer all my life, in a way. I think I was six when I first tried to write a story of my own. I wasn’t all that much older than that when I first tried to write a mystery series.
The dectective was a Nancy Drew clone named Susan Derringer, and at first all she had was titles–lots of them.
People ask me, very often, why I don’t go back to actual Pay McKenna series and write another installment in that.
The answer is that I couldn’t write that way even anymore no matter how hard I tried. Pay McKenna ended just before Bill got seriously sick, and after going through all that I just don’t have the–the same mental and emotional atmosphere, I guess.
I’ve known many writers in my life who have been able to write light mysteries while going through hell on steroids, but I just don’t seem to be one of them.
Still, somewhere in my brain, I want to go back there as far as I can and reset something.
I keep thinking that my writing has become too grim, and sometimes too strident. I’ve always been very careful about not inventing ideological markers instead of characters, but lately I’ve been sick to death of all the issues.
I wonder sometimes if the pure mystery is any longer possible in this climate. The form was invented as a kind of anti-gothic, as the reassertion of reason against the forces of Romanticism, against the taste for emotional overkill.
Lately I think more and more that what people want is the emotional overkill. The insistance on reason has become the mark of a bad person. You saw it in the Trayvon Martin case, where nobody wanted to know what the law actually said, only what they wanted to happen, tell hell with everything else.
You saw it in the case of the new Miss America, who is an Indian, not an Arab, but who became the rallying point for thousands of tweets and blog posts excoriating the Miss American pageant for choosing a Muslim (always called an “Arab”) just days after the 9/11 anniversary.
The other thing I think people want that I don’t is lots of action–events! explosions! everybody chewing up the landscape!
Some people have always wanted action, of course, but the fair play mystery was always more about thinking than doing.
This is part of the reason, I think, why detective fiction has always been the one genre high culture writers and various intellectuals have always liked. It shares the same bias in favor of mental activity as the other fiction they like. It is interior rather than exterior in its action.
The interiority is what I found in Agatha Christie and later in the Harriet-and-Peter volumes of Dorothy L. Sayers. It’s what I find, now, in P.D. James.
They say that what goes around comes around, and that somewhere in the future there will be another cultural shift in favor of the reason and interiority I want.
But I’m not sure I’m going to live to see it.
And I don’t think I’m capable of recreating it on my own.
That’s a new acronym, invented by me. It means, “Oh, for God’s Sake.”
I invented this acronym specifically for an article posted on FB yesterday by several of the people on my FB friends list. You can find it here
And I’ll get to it in a moment.
First, however, I’d like to formulate a Useful Rule for Everyday Life.
This useful rule is like the other one I’ve come up with–“never defend a government that has to pass laws to prevent its own citizens from leaving.”
This new rule will also save you a lot of trouble, and it goes like this:
If somebody starts telling you that the period of this country’s greatest prosperity was also the period in which taxes were highest and regulation was expanding–
And he tells you that as “proof” that high taxation and regulation is good for us.
Then stop reading.
The writer either has no idea what he’s talking about, or he’s willing to engage in any kind of fraud to manipulating you into agreeing with him.
Because the period of America’s greatest prosperity was also the period of America’s greatest autonomy on the world stage.
It was World War II and it’s immediate aftermath.
It was the period when all our traditional competition–all of it–was busy blowing itself up and laying waste to its industrial plant.
After that, it was the period in which these same countries were trying desperately to rebuild.
Marshall Plan or no Marshall Plan, you don’t rebuild overnight.
So, yes, during that period when we had no real competition anywhere in the world and everyone who couldn’t compete with us needed to buy our products to survive, we had the most prosperity we’d ever have.
Unfortunately for the people who want to make this “proof” of the goodness of high taxation and higher regulation, all it actually proves is that, in conditions like that, we could have been governed by Bozo the Clown and we’d still have had a great time.
As you’ve probably guessed, the article makes that particular argument, among others that are equally assinine and silly, and that doesn’t even begin to be the worst of it.
The worst of it–aside from the fact that the writer doesn’t seem to know what “feudalism” means–is the nonsense of the bait and switch with “libertarianism.”
That is, the writer assumes that whatever caricature of idiocy his side has so far defined as “libertarian” is what “libertarians” believe, and then processes to have discovered a scandal because he’s actually read a couple of libertarian writers now and…THEY DON’T SAY THAT!
Instead of doing the obvious and honest thing and wondering if he might, just might, have been misunderstanding what libertarians are saying, he decides that libertarians don’t know what libertarianism actually said.
This is an incredibly neat maneuver, because it means he doesn’t have to listen to any of the contemporary advocates of libertarianism, or respond to anything they’re saying.
After all, you can’t respond to what you don’t know is there.
This leads him to declare that rule by bureaucrats is actually more “libertarian” than rule by “oligarchs” (he means corporate CEOs) because there are more bureaucrats than oligarchs, and “libertarianism says” that rule by bureaucrats is bad because there are so few of them and they therefore can’t know what people actually want.
But libertarianism does not say anything of the kind.
Libertarianism says each individual man and woman is a better judge of his own interests that ANYBODY else is, no matter how numerous (or not).
Bureaucrats do a bad job because they are not the individuals themselves.
Libertarianism would certainly also agree that “rule by oligarchs” (if we had it) would be just as bad, if now worse, except for one thing.
Except for those cases (very common in the present US) where corporations have managed to grow the regulatory state to their advantage (to use to protect themselves from competition), those “oligarchs” are always held accountable by consumers.
You don’t have to buy their products. If you don’t like what they’re selling, they lose, and if they lose often enough they cease to exist.
At least half the great, invincible corporations of my childhood have ceased to exist, somehow finding their oligarchic power not enough to keep them alive. You give the people what they want, or you die.
Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are accountable to nobody. When they do wrong, or make mistakes, it’s still almost impossible to fire them, and no matter how bad they are, they metastasize.
Libertarianism does not know, and has not ever, recommended an end to all regulation or to all public provision.
It says instead that the preservation and protection of individual liberty is the first business of government, and that regulation should therefore be:
a) limited in extent
b) limited in area (that is, pr0hibited absolutely in most areas of private life)
c) democratically and publicly imposed.
That is, that we shouldn’t erect an oligarch of regulators empowered to enact laws without the consent of Congress and to micromanage anything and everything it can get its hands on.
Nor do libertarians say that there should be no public schools or dam projects or libraries or public universities.
We’re happy to have public institutions as long as:
a) we really NEED them and
b) they are not used to enforce a virtual Official State Church on the public at large.
The issue in libertarianism is how to make it possible to allow every single human being to make his own decisions about his own life and, outside REAL crime, to protect him from people who would force him to toe the conformist line.
That means libertarians won’t care very much if your school decides to serve quinoa and passion fruit that none of the children will touch, but they WILL care if lunchroom officials confiscate the lunch you sent with your child because it doesn’t meet their idea of standards.
Yes, that’s right.
I want parents to have the right to send whatever lunch they want even if that lunch is Twinkies and potato chips. I want local school boards to decide on their curricula even when that means teaching creationism and climate “denial.” I want individuals owning stores and businesses and running hospitals and practicing medicine and law to be able to do all that without directly violating their religions, even if that means not paying for abortion coverage or not making wedding cakes for gay couples.
In case you’re wondering, the other article, this one
the article the first article calls a straw man argument, is just as silly as the first link I posted.
This one actually starts with a paragraph that misrepresents every single thing libertarianism is about.
Nobody ever said that “selfishness” makes everything better for everybody (assuming you’re defining “selfishness” as it’s commonly used), but that millions of people each making decisions about their own private interests results in better overall outcomes for everybody than “experts” and rulers trying to impose their own ideas of the good on everybody else.
This has been proved so conclusively true that I can’t believe anybody can deny it any more with a straight face.
Ah, but you deny it by pretending it says what it doesn’t say–you pretend it says “millions of people making private decisions will end up making the BEST decisions.”
But it doesn’t say that. It says that the outcome from millions of people deciding to eat Twinkies and chips instead of fruits and vegetables will be better overall than the outcome from experts and rulers trying to make everybody eat right.
It’s not that the first set of positions will lead to The Good, but that the second will lead to the Inevitably Worse.
Then there’s the thing about how libertarianism was resurrected by big corporations for their own advantage.
By and large, big corporations hate libertarianism, because it affords them no protection against competition.
Think of it–no bailouts, no being able to use regulatory agencies to keep upstarts from muscling in on your business, no big juicy government contracts for just about anything, never mind privatized prisons or the war in Iraq.
The other thing I’d really like is for people to stop telling me what’s wrong with Ayn Rand while making it completely obvious that they either haven’t read her or they don’t understand what she says.
I know that I’m in the presence of somebody who hasn’t read her or doesn’t know what she says when they use the common definition of “selfishness” and claim that’s the way she’s using it too.
One more time: when Ayn Rand uses “selfishness,” she means “being absolutely and inflexibly true to yourself.” That means holding onto your ideals and values even if you lose every material thing by doing so, even if you’re put in jail or tortured or killed.
In other words, she’s not talking about what we call “selfishness” in everyday usage, but about what we call “integrity.”
And, yes, the world would be a better place if everybody practiced that.
Next, I’ll start taking your seriously when you claim that libertarianism only exists now because Evil Billionaires and their Evil Corporations give it money when you start saying the same thing about Evil Billionaires and Evil Corporations who give money to the left.
Which they do.
There is money on both sides of these issues, and neither side is capable of making the populace believe what it wants them to believe no matter how much money it throws into the mix.
As for the “libertarian hypocrisy test,” it’s so ludicrous it makes my head ache.
It defines “hypocrisy” as “any disagreement with its own definitions and ideas,” so that it claims that libertarians who aren’t “willing to admit” that “production is the result of many forces, each of which should be recognized and rewarded” is being a hypocrite, when
a) in fact, libertarians do recognize that and
b) the real point of contention is not THAT each of the players should be rewarded, but what percentage of the rewards it is “fair” for each player to have.
If you start with the assumption that rich guys couldn’t get rich without the work of their employees, you get one answer.
If you start with the assumptions that employees couldn’t be employed if the guy didn’t start the business, you get another.
But the worst, and the most hypocrital, of the question in the test is:
>>>Does our libertarian believe in democracy? If yes, explain what’s wrong with governments that regulate.
This is the worst because I’ll guarantee you that the person who wrote this article has a whole list of things it would deny the right of any government, no matter how democratic, to regulate–abortion, for instance.
The issue isn’t “democracy,” but natural rights–there are some things no government should be allowed to regulate no matter how many people want it to.
There’s more that’s even worse–Ayn Rand never in her life suggested that government should “not regulate anything,” although, being a mostly sane person, she preferred laws passed by democratic bodies to “regulations” issued by bureaucratic fiat.
Well, whatever. The man, as I said, has no idea what Rand actually said, and if he’s every read anything but a quote here and there, he didn’t understand what it meant.
The final howler is the statement that Rand was “adamantly opposed to good works,” which the right “proves” by quoting a statement
The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.”
that does not say anything at all about doing good works.
It is, instead, about living an inauthentic life with no ideas of your own, no tastes of your own, no values of your own, but pursuing conformity at all costs.
A King and a Gandhi do the opposite of that. They were, in living the way they lived, “selfish” by Rand’s definition–they were true to themselves.
But, you know, what the hell.
It’s much easier to declare you opponents stupid and hypocrites if you haven’t a clue what they’re actually saying.
I know I make a lot of fun here about the silly trivialities of our local news, and I have every right to do that, because mostly our local news is about silly trivialities.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. There is something very comforting about living in a place where the stuff people get worked up about is the amount of traffic being generated by the Oktoberfest festival and the lack of parking near the second run m ovie house on Main Street.
Unfortunately, this does not mean that we don’t have real crime, if not on our doorstep, but very near it. Chesire is about an hour’s drive away, and the Cheshire home invasion made national news. Newtown is much, much closer–and, well, there’s that.
When we get crime up here, though, it’s seldom of the Cheshire or Newtown magnitude. It’s seldom even interesting, like the case of the New London lawyer who paid a hit man to kill her brother in law.
What we get are the kinds of things you’re all probably used to: domestic violence cases, gang shootings in inner cities, the occasional amateur bank robbery or convenience store stick-up.
Out in the very rural districts, we get the occasional meth lab exploding and taking the double wide with it. I don’t know what makes the rural white poor so fatally attracted to playing with chemistry, but there it is.
All these things are serious enough, but they also happen seldom enough so that every one of them is reported.
The relative rarity of them all does not make any of them any better, and it especially does not make the case we have this week end any better.
I’d say stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but you’ve definitely heard this one before. So I’ll just ask you to bear with me.
The story is common enough. She had a boyfriend and a 13 month old baby. She had something she had to do, and she left the boyfriend to babysit with the baby. The baby was whiny and fussy. The boyfriend got fed up. He picked up his fist, hit the baby in the stomach, and a few hours later, the baby was dead.
You can go here, if you like
for a fairly comprehensive report on this particular case.
Oddly enough, it was exactly this kind of crime that was the first I ever heard of when we moved into this house.
In that case, the boyfriend punched the baby so hard, he split its spleen. He was also older than this kid–who is, in fact, a kid.
A kid whose life is, effectively, over.
I think I’d feel a lot better about what is inevitably about to happen in this case if I thought this kid was malicious, that he was violent and meanspirited and close to psychopathic.
There is, however, nothing to indicate anything of the kind. He seems to be just a kid, the kind of kid who could show up in one of my classes. What happened was not an act of deliberate malice, but a momentary loss of self control. It was probably one of a history of momentary losses of self control.
What’s going to happen now is that the apocalypse is going to rain down on this kid’s head. He’s already admitted the act. We’re all waiting for the courts to decide for sure and finally what the charge will be that he will have to plead to.
In the meantime, of course, a baby is dead, her mother is hysterical and the authorities are not wrong that there have to be consequences for that kind of thing. We don’t excuse people, especially people who are technically adults, when their momentary losses of self control result in real damage.
What’s more, we can talk all we want to about homes without fathers and young men without role models leading to responsibile manhood, but people with a history of momentary losses of self control have existed throughout the millennia.
I don’t really have a “take” on this. It just bothers me, and it will probably go on bothering me.
And it’s Sunday.
But before I get specific about that–you guys do realize that Mique is talking about Australia, which may have different water issues than the US?
The short answer to Mike F is that I did not say I did not want any advice at all, I said I didn’t want any advice from Michelle Obama.
I’ll expand that to say that I don’t want any of this kind of advice from the government.
In fact, I’ll go farther than that. I think the government should be legally prohibited from even collecting information on citizens’ weights, their eating habits, or any other private choices.
These things should not be the business of government. Ever. For any reason.
And I object to Michelle Obama’s advice because, unlike the “advice” given by commercials, she’s de facto in a position to coerce me into doing it her way.
Corporations can run commercials on television and ads in magazines and I can be “gullible” enough to take the bait–but only the government can forcibly require me to buy their product.
The SCOTUS tells me that may demand that I buy the products of a private corporation and penalize me if I don’t. It says that when the government gives money to schools to provide school lunches it can tell the schools what kind of lunches to provide.
Thousands of school children who get no other hot meal for the day except for their subsidized school lunches didn’t get much of even that one all last year as they were fed food they didn’t want and threw out, leaving them to be hungry and distracted during their afternoon classes while their richer classmates (whose parents could afford to pack lunches for them) got yet another advantage in school.
Corporations can’t force me. They can’t even restrict my choices unless they can get the government to do things like, oh, erect a regulatory regime that’s a rule of men and not law, with lots of vague regulations arbitrarily enacted and applied and therefore making it nearly impossible for upstarts to challenge established large firms.
And no, “manipulation’ by advertising is not just as bad, or even nearly as bad.
I’m sorry. I just don’t see my fellow Americans as mindless automatons helplessly unable to resist advertising. We resist it all the time. We’re citizens, not victims. And we’re the reason why 90% of all product launches fail.
But this particular case, the case of bottled water, is even less of a good example than most examples of this kind.
Because this thing with bottled water didn’t start because corporations manipulated Americans into thinking their water wasn’t safe.
It started as snobbery.
It started, in the 70s, among the kind of people who went to the kinds of schools I went to as a badge of sophistication. You drank Perrier instead of regular water because regular water was, well, you know, American.
All those poor rubes out there, drinking tap water–well, they just didn’t know any better. Every time you saw them scarfing up their awful tasting stuff, well, you could just smile to yourself a little, because you were just so much more in the know.
I remember this. It drove me absolutely crazy.
Did corporations take advantage of this and market the stuff to people who thought like this?
I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. I see nothing unethical in that.
I DO see something wrong and unethical in the symbiotic relationship between business and government that has created a vast regulatory state who primary function is not to protect consumers from corporations but corporations from competition.
So–cut back the regulatory state. Take away the ability of agencies and departments to issue “regulations” which are really laws that have skirted the democratic process. Let any ambiguities in the laws be decided by the courts, where decisions set precedents that apply to everybody. End the need for businesses to hire dozens of functionaries just to deal with the government paperwork. Forbid business bailouts. Ever.
Do all that, and you may reduce the power of corporations.
You may even make them smaller.
In the meantime, I want to forbid my government from meddling in the state of my health, or my nutritiion, or any of those other things that are supposed to be part of PRIVATE life.
So, in case you’re wondering, I’m here at office h0urs. It’s Friday, and almost nobody is even in the building, never mind in this room looking to talk to me. I’ve done my Blackboard update. I’ve corrected all the papers I can correct. I’ve played a PopCap game because, you know, eventually this gets boring I’ve got a book on me, but I can’t read very well in this office.
So I decided to do something constructive instead. A friend of mine sent me this article:
which is a report on yet another Healthy Initiative coming out of the First Lady’s office.
In this case, the HI is concentrated on getting people to drink more water, and the article says everything that needs to be said about it better than I could.
But although the writer is completely confused about why the HI is not doing things like saying you should substitute water for “sugary drinks” and being so relentlessly “positive” that you begin to think everybody involved has been lobotomized–
I think I know what’s going on here.
I think that the White House has heard enough criticism, and outright anger, at all the other HIs, the new school menus, the constant hectoring about “being healthier” and “fighting obesity,” and they think the problem is that the advice has been too “negative.”
So they’re trying to give advice that’s entirely “positive.”
Somebody needs to tell them that nobody cares if the advice is positive or negative.
They don’t want any advice at all.
This keyboard sticks, and it’s driving me crazy. I’m going to go back to looking hopeful that somebody will walk through the door.
I’ve been sitting here over the last week basically tearing my hair out and having a cold. I’ll admit, if this is my traditional start of term catch something from students, it’s very mild, and I’ll take it.
My book still isn’t finished, although it’s preceding better than it was, and I’ve got a stack of papers to correct–the first real ones this semester–waiting for me when I give in and go to get lunch.
On the whole, I find this a not very cheerful day, but there are some things of note, some of them even positive.
First, it seems like Anthony Wiener will not be the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York, and therefore will not be the actual mayor of New York, which is something of a win for the dignity of the American political process.
Assuming it has any.
I’ll admit that after years and years of Michael Bloomberg’s prissy soft totalitarianism, the idea of a mayor with a looser style had its advantages.
But the bottom line is that whoever told Wiener he could pull this off, or even that he should try, was an idiot.
Second, we’re not going into Syria as far as I can tell.
My hesitation derives from the fact that I’m not really sure what is going on, and I’m not sure anybody else is either.
A friend of mine described all this to me as Obama practicing the multilateralism everybody wanted out of Bush on Iraq, but if it is, I don’t think we should do it any more.
I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but it just looks bad, less like measured reason and more like bumbling around without a clue.
And I’m not sure what it is all supposed to be in aid of.
The explanations I heard Obama give–okay, I didn’t listen to yesterday’s speech–didn’t make much sense, and to the extent they would have made any sense at all would have served as a justification for the Iraq war at least as much as it would have served as a justification of this one.
A lot of the people who post here don’t much like Obama, but I don’t care who it was who had made this particular pitch, it just didn’t–cohere, somehow.
And if you’re going to justify a war, you do have to put together a narrative that coheres. Somewhere.
Third, it’s the anniversary of 9/11, and as with all the other anniversaries of 9/11 so far, that doesn’t cohere all that well, either.
I sometimes think we haven’t really figured out what we think about all that yet.
This anniversary is eerily like the day itself, at least as far as weather goes out here.
But I think 9/11 is hard for most Americans to read.
And it gets harder for me to read the more I know about the world at large.
On that note, I’d like to suggest a book. It’s called Reading Lolita in Teheran, by Azan Nafisi, and Irani woman trained as a professor of literature in the US (Oklahoma/Norman) who went back to Iran to participate in the revolution against the Shah and ended up–
Well, eventually she ended up back here as a professor at Johns Hopkins, but what got to me was her realization that even if her Leftist allies had won that revolution, they would still have imposed not only a repressive state, but the same kind of repressive state.
She is, as far as I can tell, a more enthusiastic American than a lot of born Americans these days.
As for the successful revolutionaries, all I can say is that these people are obsessed with sex.
They’re more obsessed with sex than any Western porn addict could be if he worked on it for decades.
And, along with the bizarre mania for “purity” in men as well as women, the age of marriage for a girl in Iran is now 9, and the routine sexual abuse practiced by the authorized “morality police” is just stunning.
Dr. Nafisi is much more concerned with the fact that such ideological rigidness, of the left as well as of the right, renders the ideologue incapable of understanding fiction.
I think she may actually have a point.
I, however, have a stack of papers to correct.