Archive for the 'psychology' Category


The Skies Belong to Us

I’m reading a recent book called The Skies Belong to Us. I really like it so far, but reading it is also really infuriating, because you see the seething dysfunction of American society at this time.

Roger Holder’s father serves in the Navy. He moves his family to Oregon I believe, but his family is subjected first to housing discrimination, then to outright assault and intimidation, and then his kid is put in the hospital because other white kids beat him. This is completely outrageous. The man is SERVING THIS COUNTRY ON AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER, but he can’t live in peace at his port of call.

His son even tries to make good despite living in such a thankless climate. Roger Holder serves in the army, where he kills for this country. His best friend dies while in Vietnam, he nearly dies after his vehicle runs over a land mine. His psychology is slowly warped by the callousness and killing that he sees, and then — and this part I found especially eye-opening and infuriating — he is thrown in jail because he is caught smoking a joint in the streets of Vietnam. I found this absurd on so many levels.

First, it’s a big “who cares.” I’ve always been against the drug war. It makes no sense.

But there’s a wider issue, which is that this man is trying to keep his sanity in the face of constant violence. He uses drug to escape, and he’s punished for that. Not ONLY THAT, he’s sent to a military prison where, surprise surprise, only black people are being held (well wait, 10% of the inmates are white).

So not only has he shipped himself halfway across the world for a country that won’t treat him decently. But in doing his job, he’s put in jail with selective, racist, chicken-shit enforcement in Vietnam.

But IT GETS BETTER. You may wonder, “why did the military suddenly get so interested in prosecuting marijuana use in 1969?” (it was no big deal for a long time). The reason is that the My Lai massacre happened, and some politicians blamed the war crimes on drug use. No, this was not the cause of a violent war spun out of control, systematically causing dementia in its perpetrators, this was a bunch of druggies who lost control and shot up a village while high. This is laughable, there was no evidence that drugs were at work in the My Lai massacre (and indeed the leader of the unit who committed the massacre, William Calley, was convicted of war crimes). Marijuana acts as a sedative and soldiers did drugs to escape the brutality of some of the things they were asked to do.

But war crimes are not politically convenient. So it was easier to try to cover up the massacre and then declare that it was just a renegade incident of reefer madness. Roger Holder gets caught in the dragnet.

So here’s Roger. His dad is prevented from decently raising a family by racism. His son decides to serve the country anyway, nearly dies himself, watches his best friend die, and kills scores of Vietnamese. He uses drugs to keep up with his responsibilities as a helicopter gunner, but when the atrocities of Vietnam in My Lai come out, as perpetrated by an American commander, it’s decided that it would be easier to blame drugs, and then, in the made up drug war, arrest black soldiers. Outrageous. Unconscionable.

*Spoiler Alert*

No wonder Roger became a skyjacker.


Narcissism over time

Sometimes I get upset on this blog about narcissism. I thought I had license to do this because the work of Jean Twenge and others supports the idea that there is a marked increase in the narcissism of the current generation, when compared as an age cohort to other age cohorts. Thus, even though newspapers are constantly, i.e., in every decade, saying that narcissism was dangerously on the rise, I thought there was actually some data supporting the truth of that claims THIS TIME AROUND.

In an effort at fairness, some new studies have come out challenging the data used in making this conclusion.

This second one got cited in the Atlantic. It seems less powerful, but frustratingly, I just don’t know enough about statistics to understand most of what is said.


At Home with the Marquis De Sade

I finished At Home with the Marquis De Sade. I started off wanting to read about him because many european philosophers make reference to him and treat him with some reverence in terms of his place in intellectual history.

The book wasn’t an intellectual history though, but a personal biography. That was fine, I was just curious about this man who I had heard inspired the word “sadism.”

In the end, I think I found out why people find him so interesting. He was one of the first true anti-enlightenment writers in the tradition of a marx or a Nietzsche, who rails against everything that is taken for granted and accepted. He thought pain could be good, that humans were by nature bad, that the governments were organized perpetrators calumny and theft. He was voraciously against the death penalty, an egomaniacal aristocrat who pretended to be a revolutionary to stay alive. He was a misogynist and a swindler, but a champion of sexual equality and also just ONE WEIRD DUDE.

Hearing about his sexual exploits was kind of interesting and shocking. He was into weird stuff, smelling people’s farts, anal sex. When he was in his seventies, he tried to have anal sex with a 17 year old girl. He horrified prostitutes with his deranged wishes. He used the mathematical null sign to indicate in his diary when he had had anal sex. He call dildos that he used for masturbation “prestiges.”

I find two progressions particularly revealing abou this life. For one thing, he was almost always in jail. Vincennes, the Bastille, and finally he ended up in a mental hospital, Charenton. He probably visited a total of more than 15 jails, and he survived execution during the Terror by nothing more than a mistaken roll-call (or maybe he bribed someone). His jail sentence I think contributed heavily to his view that life was nothing but a series of wrongs built on a foundation of injustice. What he did to initially land in jail was bad. It was exploitative, traumatizing, and harmful. But he never caused permanent harm to anyone (I don’t believe, it’s hard to keep track of what happened to all the prostitutes he slept with after the fact). But his reputation just grew and grew until he was seen by all sides, royalist and revolutionary as a monster. A fringe maniac who wanted nothing but blood. Of course, his novels didn’t help with that impression as the descriptions that the author of At Home chooses to quote are truly horrifying. Cannibalism, rape, torture, infanticide. All on a large scale. It is kind of frightening, even for a modern reader who has watched Kill Bill and seen horror movies.

The other progression is of Sade’s personal/social life. He is such an irascible person, but it is compensated by his unbelievable charm and charisma. The combination of his insufferability and his magnetism created a pattern through all of his main personal contacts. His wife, Pelagie, loved him ardently, but over a period of decades, his tantrums slowly ground her down, to the point where she could not tolerate him. She utterly and completely cut ties with him. This process repeats in everyone Sade meets. Pelagie’s mother was the same way, but she, the Madame De Montreuil, was smarter, and so her period of infatuation with Sade was shorter. Sooner or later though, everyone grows tired of helping him out. First Madade De Montreuil, then his wife Pelagie, then his best friend from home (forgot her name), then his lawyer and counselor Gaufridy, then his son and finally his best friend Madade De Quisnet all reach their limit with him. He loses all his friends in this way, and it’s quite sad to see how he incapable of properly valuing a relationship.

However, my overarching conclusion about Sade though is that very little of his reputation as a “great” (here just meaning momentous) man is deserved. He’s really what today we would just call a garden variety loser. His dad was deadbeat, and he followed right along. He never made any money in his life, he clung to his aristocratic title like a talisman, and indulged himself in a paralyzing type of egoism, complete with tantrums and delusions. When his lawyer was on the run, trying to stay alive as revolutionary members of the terror were hunting down royalists like himself, Sade complained that he wasn’t finding enough credit to feed the Marquis’ unrepentant gluttony. I don’t know if it has been considered, but there seems to be a strong chance that Sade was bipolar. His kids treated him terribly, but it’s not surprising given that he would hurl abuses at them and their mother when all she did was try to make his incarceration term in the Bastille more comfortable. I mean, if Sade hadn’t decided to write some of the most offensive fiction ever seen until that point in history, he would be a painfully pathetic person.

Last, I can’t resist contrasting and comparing Sade with Robespierre. Robespierre was the ultimate prig. The ultimate prude. A famous quote about him was that he would pay someone to offer him gold just so that he could refuse it. The ultimate in self-righteousness. Sade was the opposite and obese man of desires, he lived only to satisfy whatever desire crossed his mind. Sade was an aristocrat, Robespierre was a petty bourgeoise. The contrasts are extensive, but what they shared was an ability to hold others captive with their words, written (Sade) and spoken (Robespierre). It’s amazing that either of them became anything at all, given how socially flawed they were (Robespierre had his best friends put to death, Sade drove them to misery), and how untalented they were at most things.

To me, there is some kind of wider trend going on, because during the French revolution, it seems like there were so many lunatics running around who were endowed with power and respect. How did that happen? Another example: Jean Paul Marat, a pamphleteer in the French revolution who indiscriminately called for death and massacre in the name of revolution. Du Plessix Gray rightly calls him “one of the revolution’s most bloodthirsty vampires.”



A classic story of overcoming

My dad loves stories of overcoming, and so I made sure to send him this.

These stories are not common in the statistical sense — it’s rare when someone beats all the obstacles in their path. Hell, it’s rare when someone with every advantage overcomes every obstacle in their path, much less someone who starts with disadvantages.

But these stories are common in the narrative that they tell and what they exalt about human potential. Everyone made fun of this guy, then all the college programs made up reasons why he wouldn’t be good. Blah blah blah. This just continued to not care what other people said; to be impervious to the prejudices, narrowness, and the laziness of others.

There’s  a quote by John Wooden that I like: “Never let the things you can’t do prevent you from doing the things you can,” and the secret of this aphorism is that if you really believe, if you take its spirit to heart, you find out that there’s really not much that you can’t do, in the end, at all. Another Wooden quote, “do all the little things right, and that’s when big things can happen.”


The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

I’ve been thinking a lot about various linguistic phenomenon lately, and today wikipedia was kind enough to blow my mind.

There is apparently a poem in Chinese in which every syllable has the sounds shi (in different tones). The poem is called the lion eating poet in the stone den. The poem is 92 characters, trumping a similar english sentence:




Optimism, Confidence, James Stockdale

Here’s a little forest of ideas I just wandered through.

First, I watched this movie.

Thea idea is pretty simpel and intuitive. People do better when they are optimistic. I agree with the overall point, but the issue is not optimism, it is confidence, and they are subtly different. I think confidence is a complex thing, but it is not an outlook and it is not faith, two things that I think get bled into optimism. Optimism is the tendency to look at a situation and to see the best in it, but that is not confidence. Confidence can along with someone who sees disaster lurking around every corner or in someone who thinks everyone will turn out right. Rather, action is a kind of knowledge, it is knowledge HOW to attack problems and perhaps knowledge THAT one has this attacking skill. It is the difference between “learned helplessness” and other hard-to-characterize psychological states that can overtake people when they do not see opportunities. People without confidence see certain actions as impossible or closed off. Someone without confidence may not start a business, even though they are eminently qualified to do so. They may not ask another person out, even though they are kind and attractive. Confidence then is a way to unfold the world as one of POSSIBILITIES FOR ACTION.

A chair offers the possibility of sitting and level, stable ground offers the prospect of walking. These are such banal actions that we don’t think about them, but confidence is just like these basic interactions with the world but amplified. Someone who is confidence knows that they can adapt to meet a challenge and persevere in the face of unseen obstacles.

So throw away optimism, I prefer to think about the trait being pointed at in this video as confidence, which is different than optimism.

So, all of this brings me to the Stockdale paradox. I read briefly about John Stockdale, one of the U.S. Navy’s greatest heroes, perhaps more heroic than John McCain (though comparisons of heroism are of course shallow). He was captured in Vietnam and survived all types of torture. He is one of the most highly decorated Naval officers of all time.

Anyway, there’s not really a paradox, but he expressed the view that people who thought they would be released went crazy. They were too optimistic, or FOOLISHLY optimistic. His view on the other hand was realistic. He knew his situation was terrible and disastrous. But he said this:

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

To me, this is absolutely critical, because it’s not just confidence. It’s not just that he never doubted he would succeed in resisting the brutal torture of the Viet Cong (take a minute to appreciate what kind of person has confidence like that). But not only that, he VALUED the experience. He didn’t just think things would turn out alright, rather, he thought things were alright, because he was in the midst of a defining and valuable life moment.

And now I’ll just make the point that I’ve been wanting to hone in on for many years now, which is that pain is good. I don’t mean that’s it good because it helps you do something else or focuses you. I mean it’s good, full stop. Excessive pain is not good, and it’s not good to inflict pain on others, but somehow or other, pain, tribulation, and difficulty, are all necessary ingredients to a good life. They unlock our potential, add confidence, and inject meaning.

Some have charged the view that I have just put forward as a misguided privileged view. A pseudo-philosophy that looks callously on the suffering of others. Not so. Concern for others is paramount and alleviating suffering is good. Doing these things is just another way that a life gains importance and meaning. We hear this point, in words remarkably similar to John Stockdale, a quote from Victor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor. Notice the similarity to the above quote.

Fundamentally, therefore, any  man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

If Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, can say with confidence, as he does throughout his book, that there was something valuable and liberating in his suffering, then I think there is something to that position.

The difficult is in saying why pain and suffering can contribute to a good life. Clearly if pain were good in the way that happiness is good, then we could help others by INFLICTING pain on them. But we know that is false. We do good only by alleviating pain and suffering. Still, I have the thought that pain is good because because it sets the conditions for a valuable activity. For instance, our ability to laugh is a condition on the activity of joking around with each other. Pain by contrast sets the condition for the activity of heroism. It is right and good to fight against pain, but if we were ever to fully end suffering in the world, completely nullify difficulty or frustration, then my claim is that we would have lost something. We would have lost, among other things, the possibility for heroism.

If we tore all the basketball hoops in the world down, we would lose the ability to play basketball (until we built some new ones obviously). If we ended pain, the same thing would happen. We would lose the ability for heroism.

We are thus in an interesting moral situation with regard to pain. We must make pain our enemy and strive against it, but we must never fully succeed. Of course, if we abolished pain, people might still want it in some cases. Maybe some runners would want some pain while they ran, to give them runners high, or complete the feeling of the activity taken as a whole. But pain paradoxically cannot serve its purpose if we can pull at it like a drug, streaming it only as we want it. The whole ability of pain’s function to ennoble us depends on the fact that it does NOT respond to our wishes. When we are put in a difficult situation, like being in Vietnam, we cannot choose to turn pain on and off at will. The heroism of Stockdale comes from the fact that he endured what was thrown at him. Not that he turned on a pain chip in his brain until he was done having enough pain.

In other words, I claim that morality sets the boundaries for what is an acceptable balance between pleasure and pain in the world. And looking at ordinary morality, this is not so strange. Pretend I can sacrifice in order to help someone, and that the person who I help will not feel pleasure to a degree greater than the pain I feel. But imagine the person I’m helping is badly off and I’m fairly well off. Ordinary morality requires my SACRIFICE. A utilitarian would claim I have no obligation. If my pain will not generate more pleasure than is lost by my efforts, I should not act. But ordinary morality contains the notion of sacrifice. It says I should help someone who is worse off if I am better off even if their gain does not outweigh my loss. If pain is bad, then this is hard to explain. If pain can be good in some cases, i.e., when I’m helping someone worse off then myself, it can be ennobling. And this is what we find.


Warm Bodies

I saw Warm Bodies, and I really liked it. It’s well done and the metaphor it’s playing with is obvious and powerful without needing to be constantly remarked upon. The narrative is tight and simple. There are really only three or four characters, and the dialogue is pretty minimal too. The movie kind of speaks for itself, and it’s self-speaking style is made all the more powerful by the fact that the production value seems below other hollywood fare (not way below, just unmistakably below).

So the overall metaphor of the movie is pretty clear. It’s from the perspective of “R,” a zombie who has little tinges of consciousness. He’s not quite a corpse, but he can’t articulate any thoughts. He just has this nagging thought that there’s something more to life than shuffling around and moaning. The other zombies that R shuffles by are zombies, but in reality, they’re standing proxy for ORDINARY PEOPLE and ORDINARY LIFE. The idea is that ordinary life can become corpse-like, a possibility that I appreciate and fear. People can, if things are just dehumanizing enough, be only going through the motions. Enter R, who wants more. He has a spark of feeling and slowly grows more human as he falls in love with Julie, a human he rescues on a whim.

What I think is the real story and the real artistry of Warm Bodies is the way that it finishes out the arc of the interest we have in zombies, vampires, and other things. What makes zombies compelling is the mythos that surrounds them. They are scary and they are the other. They are completely non-human, inhuman, anti-human. Whatever you want. And there are a TON of movies and tv shows (walking dead on AMC now, land of the dead, dawn of the dead, 28 weeks later, quarantine, night of the living dead) that explore the tension that a zombie world creates for human beings. For instance, do we become a garrison society? To survive, must we become in turn somewhat dead? Deadened to things that we take for granted in non-zombie life. There have been explorations of zombies as biological weapons gone wrong, pointing to the way that humans create their problems for themselves. Other movies explore the pure horror of facing something that is already dead. Some movies, like Shaun of the Dead, even use zombies to make jokes (as does Warm Bodies to an extent)

Sooner or later though, a theme and a mythos runs its course. Zombies are reflections of ourselves, a reflection of our flawed nature, our opposite, our future, our past, but in Warm Bodies, the mythos returns to ground zero — in Warm Bodies WE ALREADY ARE ZOMBIES AND ALWAYS HAVE BEEN. We return to the perspective of the zombie and enter their consciousness and we find out that in fact, not only are zombies like us, but they are JUST LIKE US. They have hopes and dreams and want to succeed, if only they can get the chance. It is the risk of intolerance from the humans that keeps them, almost, in their half-alive state. In this, the movie is pure genius, because it responds to an artistic tradition with poise: our entire fascination with zombies is reinterpreted and distilled into the character of the general. The movies asks us why zombies could fill all the roles that we made them play over the years and asks to consider the simple possibility that they might have feelings too. The movie asks to question the fundamental premise we used to create zombies: that they have nothing “inside,” and so have no use or value other than as threats to life and instruments to horror.