Spinoza Would be Appalled

I read this today in the letters section of the New York Times in response to this article on Spinoza.

If one were adhere to the worldview of Spinoza as defined here, you would be very saddened by the way democracy is practiced in this country today. The founders viewed liberty and freedom as the bedrock of a self-governing country. We have become over the last century or more a country whereby unelected unknown individuals working for the government have taken control of aspects of our lives for our supposed own good. Spinoza would be appalled as would the founders over how we have lost much of our liberty to think and run our lives.

I responded thusly:

@bill walker Your comment stopped me. Really? So you wanted to read a controversial book and couldn’t find it? You wanted to go to any church at all and someone prevented you? You wanted to see a movie, attend a lecture, take part in a political rally, and were held back? You couldn’t choose a doctor or go to a private or public school or drink from a public fountain or change your gender or post a letter to the editor because “unelected unknown individuals working for the government” were out to limit your freedoms? Spinoza, if he were here today, would be plainly astonished at the amount of freedom we have. Objectively, no people have ever been more free to express their wishes as we are today. It’s not those unelected unknown people who want to limit your freedom: is those elected MAGA stooges who forced libraries to remove dictionaries because they define words that describe bodily functions. In other words, they are us, if we let them.

Oh My God! We’re Getting More Anxious

Ross Douthat of the New York Times— the token conservative commentator on the opinion page– accepts the results of a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show that teenagers today– especially–omygawd! girls– are more anxious, more depressed, and more unhappy than ever before.

By “social liberalism” I don’t mean the progressivism that took off in the Trump era — antiracism and diversity-equity-inclusion and #MeToo. I mean the more individualistic liberalism that emerged in the 1960s and experienced a second takeoff across the first decade of the 2000s. Its defining features were rapid secularization (the decline of Christian identification accelerated from the 1990s onward) and increasing social and sexual permissiveness — extending beyond support for same-sex marriage to beliefs about premarital sex, divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, marijuana use and more.

And it’s all because of the liberals!  Douthat doesn’t think gun violence should depress anyone, or the cut-throat competitive nature of the U.S. economy, or the fear of being bankrupted by medical expenses, or the fact that a sexual predator and psychopath was elected president in 2016.  Oh no.  It’s the widespread availability of sex, gay or hetero, as a woman or a man or neither, and, of course, drug use.  Have we heard this before?

I have two points.  First of all, we hear about these studies all the time– and I mean ALL the time.  Sociologists and social scientists just love asking teenagers if they are happy.  Now, imagine for a moment you are a teenager.  And life is not great, but it’s not all bad either.  You’re kind of getting through it.  You have some hopes and dreams and know you might have to work hard to achieve them.  You have friends.  Then someone comes along and asks you if you are happy or depressed or anxious.  They ask you again an hour later.  They ask you again the next day, and the next, and the next.  You read articles in the New York Times or see pieces on CNN that tell you that a big problem today is that teenagers are not very happy.  You start to wonder.  Maybe I am unhappy.  Maybe I’m depressed.

I don’t deny that it might be true.  What I question is the assumption that these numbers represent a net change from previous eras, like the 1940’s, the 1950’s, and 1960’s.   How would we know?  It’s a great question to thoughtfully ask yourself: how would we know?

Nobody studied issues like this in the same comprehensive, systematic way in the 1950’s as we do now.  We didn’t have the internet, obviously, or social media, and even television and radio was completely different than they are today.  We didn’t have as many books or magazines or records or films.  We didn’t have as many family photographs or recordings, let alone video.  We had numerous wars around the world, and the U.S. itself was embroiled in Korea, and about to get embroiled in Viet Nam.

We had a lot of obvious racism, whites only schools, whites only restaurants and drinking fountains.  We had a lot of drunk driving and date-rape, both of which now are severely punished, but were not back then.  In fact, the consensus on rape seemed to be to not report it at all.  We had a lot of teen pregnancy, “shotgun” weddings, and groping and petting.  We had a society that blindly worshipped the military and the police.  (It is no coincidence that Douthat, a conservative, would harken back to an era of such “stellar” values even if he doesn’t make explicit those particular values).

I suspect that a big part of our perception of the 1950’s has been shaped by unrealistic media portrayals, most emblematically, in “Happy Days” and the movie “American Graffiti”.   Have a look at “The Last Picture Show”, “Diner”, “Rebel Without a Cause”, or “Badlands” for a corrective.

Secondly, Douthat clearly implies that enthusiastic membership in a church is a viable corrective.  If only we had a study that showed that teenagers who are active members of churches are happier, less depressed and less anxious,  and happier, than those who are not.   We have no such study.

What studies we do have that compare church-going folk with non-church-going folk seems to show that we are all largely the same, holy or profane, saved or damned.  We all indulge in porn.  We all cheat and lie.  (But only one side votes for Trump and loves guns and only one side believes you may have been born to the wrong gender and the world is warming.)

Even for Douthat, this column is unusually contrived in his desperation to find some way to blame liberals and progressives for the sad state of America.   Like all conservatives, he knows that his side, the side of regressive, low tax, deregulated economies, benefits by promoting a sense that we are on the brink of catastrophe.  Nothing new.  We’ve been on this brink according to the Douthats of the world since Elvis first gyrated his hips.

The Captive Psychiatrist

The great challenge of American film and literature is this:  the protagonist must disclose powerful personal stories of past abuse or crushing disappointments or betrayals to win the audience’s sympathy (and excuse his addictions, infidelities, and other bad behavior) but telling all this to the object of his or her affections would come off as self-pitying.  The only plausible venue for this type of disclosure is the therapist’s couch.  But in the popular imagination, only a weak effeminate pussy would voluntarily become so vulnerable as to disclose such details, so it must be dramatized as coerced.  Somehow, we must create a dramatic situation in which the protagonist can simultaneously disclose his vulnerabilities and mock the inquisitorial mind.

Here’s the problem, and it’s not a small one:  no psychiatrist or psychologist worth his salt would waste a minute of time on a patient that doesn’t want to cooperate.  It is a bedrock principle of psychotherapy that you can’t provide therapy to someone against his will.

And what therapist would even want to try?

But what if it’s a condition of probation, or shared custody of the children, or a job?  The problem does not change.   If a patient behaved the way Will Hunting behaves in “Good Will Hunting”, the therapist would almost certainly wish him luck in future endeavors and tell him he has willfully thrown away his probation or the job or the custody arrangement or what have you.

And so we have “A Clockwork Orange”, “Good Will Hunting” and “Shawshank Redemption” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Gangs of New York”, “Antwone Fisher”, and perhaps the worst of all, “Reign Over Me” (in which Liv Tyler played the psychiatrist– seriously) and so on.   It’s become an extremely tiresome trope, a sure indicator that a film writer has run out of ideas or is concerned that his audience is so stupid they won’t get the point of the story.

(An additional trope in many of these films is the therapist who cares so much that he or she chases down the reluctant patient and begs them to receive therapy.  Seriously.  The audience is invited to project themselves into a character so lovable that professional psychiatrist and psychologist will abandon personal schedules and work obligations in order to track them down and drag them into their healing arms.)

“The Sopranos” toys with the issue and frequently straddles the line.  Tony has a real problem: panic attacks.  He stops seeing Dr. Melfi for a while but the panic attacks resume.  He tries a different psychiatrist, who proves ineffectual.  He returns to Dr. Melfi on just barely believable terms, though he frequently blurts out something like, “I’ve had enough of this crap”.  The audience projects itself into a character who thinks he’s smarter than a psychiatrist.

What’s really going on in these scenes is the writer is trying to show that he is smarter than a psychologist or psychiatrist.

The most contemptible examples of this are those mildly enlightened films that pretend to have a real theme, an idea, an enlightened perspective on something, like “Reign Over Me” and “Good Will Hunting”.   “Good Will Hunting” lays the groundwork for the millions of Trump followers who are convinced that those educated elites are really no smarter than the average janitor (played by the charismatic Matt Damon).  But it would not be an asset to the character to have Will admit to how much harm he has suffered from his traumatic upbringing unless he is compelled to admit it; thus, the kludge plot mechanism of having his probation depend on attending therapy sessions with the utterly charming and sexy Robin Williams– who, nevertheless, threatens to kill him at their first session after Will makes light of Dr. Maguire’s wife.  (And the probation?  Another tired trope: Will was involved in a gang fight.  Because he is a bad boy?  Oh no– one of the gang members used to abuse Will when he was a child.  Hollywood loves bad boys but not if they’re really bad, just as they love titillation, but not real, honest sex.)

I used to work in a children’s mental health centre.  I can tell you that almost none of the psychiatrists or psychologists in these films approach believability.  Dr. Melfi in “The Sopranos” is particularly inept.  Now, I’m not saying that psychiatrists or psychologists can actually be smart and effective.  But they do have extensive training and they will have some idea of how they are going to approach the task at hand, even if their approach is contrived or transparent or just plain ridiculous.   Dr. Maguire in “Good Will Hunting” is supposed to win our respect by showing how tough he is when Will mocks his (deceased, unknown to Will) wife.

It’s not admirable: it’s downright stupid.




We Hum Along to Infidelity

There is a video of a group of children performing the song “Gentle on My Mind” in this cheerful, anodyne style that makes you sit back and think, oh, how wonderful that he (the songwriter) has such warm thoughts about his girl.  She must be so pleased that he’s thinking about her after he stayed a few nights and then ran off.

Have you ever hummed along to it?

Have you ever taken note of the lyrics:

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line

There are many strange paradoxes in popular culture: our contempt for men who “love ’em and leave ’em” for their cruelty and selfishness, and our worship of songs like “Baby the Rain Must Fall” and “Gentle on my Mind”.  Our cancel culture, about men who cheat.  Our public disapproval of philanderers.  But most people still hum along, as they do with a song about killing an unfaithful wife (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”).

“Gentle on my Mind” is pretty poetic about it:

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’
Cracklin’ caldron in some train yard
My beard a rustling, cold towel, and
A dirty hat pulled low across my face

This gets kind of weird.  Not only is he dumping her– like Gordon Lightfoot in “For Lovin’ Me”, but he’s wandering around like a hobo, not working, evidently, and surviving on soup with his fellow derelicts in “some train yard”.  Quite a picture for his beloved, while she’s warming to the idea of being “gentle on his mind”.

So the gentle part means she isn’t going to put up a fuss about him dropping in for sex now and then, leaving his sleeping bag behind her couch, and then taking off whenever he feels like it.

Elvis Presley recorded it.  So did Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.  But, Aretha Franklin?!  Yes, she did.  Well, that’s liberating!

John Hartford wrote the song, he says, after watching “Dr. Zhivago”.  And from personal experience.

Maybe I misunderstand the lyrics.  Maybe the poor guy had no choice but to move on and eat soup in the train yard.  But it doesn’t sound like it:

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother
‘Cause she turned and I was gone

Who’s right?  Well, let’s expand it a little.  Let’s consider Hartford’s wife.

The story of the song narrates the reminiscences of a drifter of his lost love, while moving through backroads and hobo encampments.[2] Betty Hartford, who later divorced her husband, noted to him the similarity between herself and the song’s female character. She questioned John Hartford about the man’s negative feelings toward his marriage. Hartford said he likened her to Lara and attributed the man’s feelings about being trapped in a relationship to his “artistic license”.

There you go.

It was, at one time, one of the most played songs (in all versions) on radio in North America.

Men thinking kindly — or not– about the women they abandoned

The Mainstream Media is Right

In today’s Washington Post– and all over the place, actually– several right wing pundits are weeping their little eyes out because the Mainstream Media is so biased that it gave overwhelmingly favorable coverage to Obama and overwhelmingly hostile coverage to McCain. McCain, in fact, stopped talking to the media early on in the general election campaign because he thought they were all “for Obama”.

Is it true?

And if it’s true, does it matter?

1. If it matters, how come Bush was able to win two elections without the slightest assistance from the MSM? How come McCain didn’t complain about bias when he was the media’s darling? And how dare the MSM disapprove of John Hagee anyway, or Gordon Liddy, or James Dobson, just because they are crypto-fascists?

The fact is that even if there was a conspiracy, it couldn’t work: the internet has made it impossible for anyone to effectively suppress news. If a story really was suppressed– that would become the story, as it often does, when you see even liberal columnists bemoan the alleged bias of the media. (They somberly note that more favorable stories have appeared about Obama than about McCain.)

But what if Obama is the better candidate?

In short, McCain says it’s snowing and Obama says it’s raining, the media is biased if they look outside. [With thanks to Campbell Brown, CNN Editor, in Time Magazine this week.]

2. What about Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, ABC, and all the other conservative outlets? I could almost buy the bias argument without choking if any of these whiners would actually think to mention that Fox News is at least as biased– and, more reasonably, actually far more biased– than CBS or the New York Times. We often accuse our enemies of the flaw we most recognize in ourselves.

3. If the MSM really unfairly ignored the William Ayers story, then Fox News would most certainly have uncovered any relevant facts. But Fox News and conservative columnists kept ranting about William Ayers without providing the slightest evidence of anything about the matter that was relevant to the election. What Fox News did do was give air time to some of the most poorly documented and scurrilous stories circulating among the fanatical fringes. Obviously, they can safely assume that most of their loyal readers and listeners don’t read very widely.

4. Nobody tied Sarah Palin to a chair and forced her to provide Katie Couric with inane answers to sensible questions. Nobody forced her to chat for six minutes with a bad imitator of French President Sarkozy. Nobody forced her to identify white rural citizens as “real” Americans.

5. Did the MSM largely ignore Biden’s gaffes? I don’t know of any gaffe by Biden that would have caused anyone to doubt his knowledge, abilities, or competence. Even his comment about Obama being tested by America’s enemies soon after taking office wasn’t even really all that controversial– does McCain really believe he won’t be?

6. Would you really go to Fox for actual news over the New York Times, Washington Post, or L.A. Times? Okay– the Wall Street Journal and Globe & Mail– conservative papers– provide a fair bit of real journalism. But then, you don’t hear their columnists ranting on and on about liberal bias. The most conservative columnists, like the most conservative politicians who never seem to actually serve in any wars (McCain is the exception), never actually seem to do any reporting– just opinions.

7. As even many conservative columnists agree, Obama ran an absolutely superb campaign, perhaps one of the best in recent history. He was supremely well-organized and efficient, and he raised enormous sums of money. He was consistent and prudent and unflappable. The MSM accurately reported. That’s not bias: that’s journalism.

8. The conservative press assumes that all Americans share their anguish that Obama doesn’t seem very eager to blow things up, bomb foreign cities, or spend trillions on obsolete, ineffective weapons systems. How dare he. They are even more astonished that any sane person would have the slightest concern for the environment at a time when Wall Street Investors actually have to bear some risk for their investments.

What is “bias”?

Everyone talks as if there is a common understanding of what “bias” looks like. Take the example of Obama’s alleged association with William Ayers. This issue puzzled me. I heard from conservative pundits that there was something nefarious afoot here and the MSM was not reporting it. All right, I thought. Let Fox News– biased the other way– report it. So I went to Fox News, and Charles Krauthammer, and George Will, and the others, and waited to be enlightened with information the MSM had ignored or concealed. What was that information? What new evidence of a covert relationship did they have? What shocking story did they have to tell?

Well, it turns out that the shocking story they had to tell was that the MSM didn’t find anything particular sinister about Obama’s relationship with Ayers. They met a few times and Ayers, who lives openly in Chicago and, in fact, was voted “citizen of the year” by the City of Chicago for his extensive work promoting educational programs. Here’s CNN’s take on the issue.

The “bias” here is expressed as the conclusion drawn by responsible journalists that the Ayer’s story has no real significance or relevance to Obama’s candidacy. They worked together on two boards of charitable organizations that were clearly active promoting progressive social causes. They probably served together on a panel addressing juvenile justice issues. The odd thing is that one might reasonably argue that Obama’s association with this community activist has flattering implications. Think about it. Ayers was a radical in the 60’s, but he grew up, he matured, and learned to work within the “system”. He clearly is dedicated to working with disadvantaged youth in the City of the Chicago. How awful is it that Obama, a community organizer, would end up working with him on several worthy projects?

Now the pundits over at Fox News seem to perceive something dangerous in this activity. But that’s not because biased MSM reporters ignored important details. It’s because they don’t share the same extremist values of the conservative pundits who find the very idea of “progress” hysterically frightening because it applies to the lives of working Americans instead of the portfolios of investors.

So what the hell is going on here, with this “bias” argument? Is this all there is? Is this typical of the conservative arguments against Obama? Now I understand what they mean by “bias”.

It should surprise no one that at least some Republicans are immediately presenting the bullshit argument that somehow Obama didn’t really win a mandate. When Republicans win the election by concealing their real policies of shifting wealth from working people to investors, it’s because voters want them to govern. When Democrats win by campaigning on policies that benefit the middle classes–as Obama clearly did–, the voters were “deceived or misguided”. So John Boehner wants you to believe. That justifies the Republicans in Congress being as obstructionist as possible. Precisely the kind of politics the voters rejected by choosing Obama.

If Obama wanted to get his way more efficiently, he could just do what Bush did to get his way on Iraq: lie through his teeth.


America as theocracy.

Grand schemes don’t work and we need a strong military because human nature is corruptible; less government is better because man is so good he can be trusted not to exploit or abuse the weak. God created the world but he doesn’t want us to take good care of it. Because I am pro-life I think we should kill criminals. I believe in truth and integrity so I smear my political opponents. George Bush is godly and frankly quite hot. Part of the fight for freedom and democracy means allying ourselves with paragons of democracy and freedom like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It’s not about the oil. To preserve western values like freedom and human rights, we might have to torture and imprison people without charge, conviction, or sentence. We are so godly, our church is state of the art. Rock music represents the evil, sensual side of human nature, so we will adapt it for use in our worship.

The Mouse Brings the Cheese

There is an interesting article here about why many poor, working-class Americans vote for the party whose policies are clearly against their own self-interest.  [Dead link– sorry.]

They vote for the party that fought the Iraq war to benefit the same companies that are now gouging them at the pumps. They vote for the party that weakens regulations that protect their health and safety. They vote for the party has steadfastly refused to shore up the one great government program that benefits them directly: social security.

I’m not sure I totally buy it but it made me realize that criticism’s about Palin’s lack of qualifications will only fall on deaf ears. To many of these voters, the idea that Palin has no experience or knowledge relevant to the job of president is a wonderful thing, because they don’t get what’s so complicated about “cleaning up Washington” of all those vaguely evil people who, for example, messed up this wonderful privatized health care system so that it actually is more expensive and less accessible than almost any other nation’s government-run systems. “I’ll be damned if I’ll vote for a health care system that makes me wait for treatments I could get right away if I actually had a decent insurance plan…”

Russians Unhappy with U.S. Involvement in Georgia

Georgia on my mind… how would the U.S. respond if Putin starting holding high-level meetings with Mexican officials to negotiate some kind of strategic alliance? Hmmm. Or if they tried again to put missiles in Cuba? Well, hell, let’s go for it. World War III– here we come.

Why do the Republicans always act as if the so-called Main Stream Media isn’t allowed to reach the conclusion that– especially this time around– is obvious to any rational person: Obama is the better candidate. The Republicans constantly howl that the media is “biased” because they know, in fact, that their outrage will frighten many journalists into giving them more favorable coverage.

What’s wrong with the media having an opinion about the issues they cover? The media are, compared to Joe Six Pack, relatively well-informed about the issues. Many of them have spent considerable time with the candidates. Why, oh why, shouldn’t they have a preference?

So it’s just possible– just possible– that Sarah Palin really is a lousy candidate.

Unruly Adolescent Males

No reform can enable schools to cope with the 36.9 percent of all children and 69.9 percent of black children today born out of wedlock, which means, among many other things, a continually renewed cohort of unruly adolescent males. Washington Post, April 24, 2007

I don’t know. Not much to add to that really.

Well, let’s make this point. If, over a long period of time, 70% of children born to black mothers are born out of wedlock and raised without a father…. what we have here is what is “normal”. What is “abnormal” for that community is the traditional television family of Mom, Pop, Uncle Charlie, and the kids. On the other hand, now that I mention it, most television families are single parents– so the writers can introduce a romance every so often– like every other episode– because otherwise we would find the show boring.

So maybe we should quit whining about children being born out of wedlock and just face facts and start establishing programs that are optimized to work with single parent families instead of assuming a “normal” two parent family.

From a sequence in the comic strip “For Better or Worse” that I frankly found rather creepy. At no point is there any attempt to find out whether “Grandpa” is really into this clingy, enmeshed caregiver. Is this about love or possession and control? Is this something that describes your soul or circumscribes your individuality?

As a Christian, I don’t believe that marriage “defines your soul”. Your faith does. Christ himself demanded that his followers be ready to forsake their families to follow him– not exactly James Dobson, is it?