Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Depressing Blog?

As stated, the main purpose of this blog is to record my thoughts. A very small number of people read it, each with varying regularity, and I put in a secondary effort to meet their needs, if known, though there are limits to my flexibility in this regard. If I were writing purely to entertain others or, say, to amuse myself by inventing a persona that isn't me at all, I probably wouldn't bother keeping it up. I don't get much feedback on the overall tone of the blog, but a couple of offline comments have come up recently that I thought I might as well address.

One of my readers would rather see posts that project optimism about the future. That reader usually agrees with me, but gets a little rattled by interpreting my tone as relentlessly downbeat. In fact I don't think I'm particularly negative, and this is merely my personality expressing itself, and that includes a certain obsessiveness with honesty and facing reality as it presents itself. In my view we are barraged with misinformation throughout our lives, and I am the kind of person who likes to know all of the bad news up front so that I can address it. Some people would rather adopt a strategy in which they avert their attention when something unpleasant is about to occur and instead think happy thoughts, but apparently I am more the hardcore realist. My kind of realism is neither negative nor positive and simply seeks the truth or an approximation of the truth, which is usually the best we can hope for. The difference between me and more idealistic people is that they feel relieved when they have a good feeling and I feel relieved when I think I know all of the pertinent information, even when it has negative implications. My preferred strategy is to know what's going on now so that I don't have any unpleasant surprises later. In my experience, Pollyannaish people are not really happier in the long run, because their delusional thinking is likely to catch up with them sooner or later unless they somehow manage to live from cradle to grave in a protective bubble, which certainly is possible, but in my case if there ever was a protective bubble it broke long ago.

Another reader who knows me fairly well said recently that if psychiatrists read my blog they would recommend that I be put on a suicide watch. Here again is the impression that I am extremely downward-looking, as if the world were coming to an end - my world anyway - and I might as well just die. This reader knows that that would be an inaccurate assessment of me, since I don't fit the profile of a depressive person at all, though by the same token I'm never going to win an award for being upbeat or happy-go-lucky. All I'm really doing is trying to see things as they are and contemplate how to navigate life as best as possible without being sidetracked by the roaring background noise that everyone faces.

There is another aspect to my personality that hasn't specifically been mentioned, and I'll discuss that a little too. My orientation to the world is rational, especially when it comes to my writing. This can make me seem cold and emotionless to highly empathetic people. I am usually looking at the reasons behind things, whereas they tend to be more emotional and are attuned to the well-being of others. An example of this occurred early in my career. One of my co-workers who was only in his late 30's died suddenly of a heart attack. I had liked him and was sorry that he had died, but was not particularly shocked, as he was morbidly obese, drank a lot, smoked, got no exercise and had a fat girlfriend on top of it all. For someone like me, when certain behavior has a predictable outcome, I don't empathize as much as some people do. This extends to all areas, such as smoking cigarettes and then getting lung cancer. In this instance, another co-worker became quite put off by my muted reaction to the death, but I don't go in for theatrics just to suit other people's expectations. For the purposes of the blog I want to clarify that I am not a psychopath lacking empathy for others. Although I will react to the opinions you express, this is a place where I can be as rational as I like and never have to apologize when I don't comply with standards that are at variance with mine.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Intellectual Stimulation

It is probably true of my readers that, like me, they seek a certain amount of intellectual stimulation. Working and other day-to-day pursuits have always seemed a little repetitious to me; in a way they seem like biding time, and I get a sense that I should be figuring things out better rather than plodding along mindlessly in a routine. There is a tendency in society to reward people for going with the flow and not thinking too much, as in "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous" (Julius Caesar). Life is easier for the employers of docile and compliant workers, and jobs keep people off the streets, where they might commit crimes, join gangs or foment political unrest. I see the American Dream as part of a thought control conspiracy that works better than communist propaganda ever did. In the 1960's, people used to jokingly say "America, land of the home, free of the brave." "Maggie's Farm," by Bob Dylan, has been my theme song ever since I first heard it in 1965. The song ends with these lines:
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

Dylan's old rebelliousness still appeals to me, but I parted company with him long ago when it became apparent that he has no interest in ideas and in every way is an anti-intellectual. Although I didn't end up in a career that required much brainpower myself, I have always been interested in ideas and have found it somewhat of a challenge to get intellectual stimulation. Some of the difficulty had to do with living in places like Terre Haute, Indiana and Dixon, Illinois, but even college towns and urban areas seemed to have their limitations. My friends and acquaintances from college were more mentally alert than my co-workers, but you could hardly consider them stimulating conversationalists. Thus I turned to books, periodicals and trips to Europe for my mental health.

Since the 1980's, besides reading a variety of books, I've gone on and off the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, each several times. Currently, besides the Times Literary Supplement and Nature I get most of my journalistic reading from 3 Quarks Daily. I've now had it with the Times Literary Supplement again and am giving up on Nature because most of its articles have very narrow ranges and are extremely technical. I'm going to switch to Boston Review and Nautilus based on a few articles of theirs that I've read. I prefer reading printed pages to screens, and that isn't likely to change. Although I'm fairly happy with 3 Quarks Daily, it doesn't feature many in-depth articles and doesn't come in print. I've mainly given up on Internet discussions, but may still make posts from time to time. In addition to this I continue to read about astronomy, which is literally and figuratively a huge topic.

I seem to have a love-hate relationship with intellectuals. On the one hand they are the best-read people around and have the potential to enlighten you on a variety of topics, but on the other hand they tend to be careerist hacks who don't have an original idea in their heads and use whatever knowledge they possess to divert attention from the fact that they don't know anything important and in most respects behave like trained monkeys. After reading them for years, I find that the literary magazines consist mostly of obscure articles that function much like reality TV for PhDs, in which you might learn, for example, that such-and-such eighteenth century literary figure had a difficult relationship with his wife, which subsequently led to an affair with such-and-such contessa. Whether the literary figure's writing was worth reading in the first place doesn't often come up, and in most instances it probably wasn't worth reading then and is even less worth reading now. You begin to feel as if these articles are parlor games for the damned living in hell. I am lucky to find one in ten articles in literary magazines remotely interesting.

A topic that I tend to avoid is politics, which is quite popular among educated people. I quickly lose interest in these types of discussions, because, as I've said, I don't think that either democracy or capitalism are viable on a long-term basis, and most of this discussion takes them for granted. The so-called left likes democracy, and the so-called right likes capitalism, and there has been no progress on this in my lifetime. I had hopes that scientific people would be an improvement over humanities people, but, while as a group they seem more honest and more likely to find usable solutions to the problems facing mankind, they are locked into a constraining career hierarchy that limits their ability to effect change for the better. There seem to be stupid turf wars over money in research and academia that inhibit the production and implementation of useful ideas on all fronts. The literary and intellectual magazines seem as if they are offshoots of academia that share its weaknesses while adding some of their own, such as selecting articles that will keep them afloat financially whether or not they contain any good ideas.

My hope is that there are more Tony Judts and Czeslaw Miloszes out there who will one day eloquently address the issues of our time, but finding them now seems more difficult than ever.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Intelligence in Context

When I question the competency of experts it may seem as if I'm saying something along the lines of "Why do the people in charge seem so dumb?" I have criticized politicians, academics, intellectuals, journalists, artists and writers. However, from a Darwinian point of view intelligence is merely one aspect of the natural selection that gave rise to Homo sapiens and made us a successful species. According to Darwinian theory, multiple characteristics play roles in the evolution of a species, and singling one out because it seems more important than others may be a mistake over longer periods, because natural selection never stops working. Therefore, when people don't seem as smart as they ought to be, it may simply be a matter of characteristics other than intelligence displaying their importance in the evolutionary process. In other words, you don't necessarily have to be smart to succeed in the fields mentioned.

Though mankind hasn't been observing itself scientifically for very long, there is some evidence that natural selection is operating now, and in ways that may have nothing to do with intelligence. An article in Science discusses how the Dutch may have come to be the tallest people in the world, and apparently intelligence is not a factor. In this case natural selection seems to favor tall men, who have more children in the Netherlands than short men for reasons that aren't entirely clear. The researcher behind the article speculates that Dutch women associate male tallness with greater ability to support children. At its root, Darwinism comes down to determining why one type of organism outnumbers a similar type of organism, and the difference can often be explained in terms of simple physical characteristics such as height, or in this instance the social perception of the importance of height. Similarly, if you look closely at people who are successful in various fields, including those fields that require a lot of education, complex characteristics such as intelligence may play a smaller role than you might expect.

I recently came across a 2003 interview with the well-known writer David Foster Wallace who suffered from depression and hung himself in 2008. I have read a couple of his essays but none of his fiction, and I think he considered himself a serious writer. At the time of the interview he was teaching English and said:
I have a lottery-prize-type gig at Pomona: The formal duties are light, the students all have way better SAT scores than I did, and I get to do more or less what I want. I'm doing Intro Fiction right now, which is fun because it's a chance to take kids who are very experienced in literary criticism and paper-writing and to show them there's a totally—in some ways diametrically—different way to read and write.
Although this example doesn't exactly fit what I'm saying here, I find it useful. Wallace was probably a pretty smart guy by any measure. He did well academically at Amherst and studied briefly at Harvard before becoming a literary sensation in the U.S. However, there is no clear connection between whatever intelligence he may or may not have possessed and his subsequent career. The point is that he became a magnet for conventionally intelligent students at Pomona College who perhaps thought that he could impart wisdom upon them which would enhance their careers later in their lives. My theory is that no students who studied with David Foster Wallace will have significant literary careers, because ultimately the skills associated with successful literary careers have almost nothing to do with academic credentials or conventional intelligence. In the case of Wallace's career success it seems as if his mental illness and luck probably played at least as important a role as intelligence and education. Extrapolating from this example specifically to creative writing programs, you typically have faculty with commercial literary success and students who hope to do the same. As in the case of Wallace's students, creative writing students, at least the ones in better-known programs, probably have, on average, excellent academic credentials and high intelligence by conventional measures. I think that very few of these students are likely to have successful literary careers, unless you lower the bar considerably and count low-circulation literary publications that are unlikely to provide the equivalent of a living wage without full-time academic employment. It appears to me that in the academic route to a writing career, intelligence plays little or no role in determining whether or not a student succeeds professionally.

The conclusion that I draw from this is that, while intelligence may be an asset in many fields, it is not essential for success in most fields, and other characteristics may be more important. In the course of my life I have noticed that intellectual capacities do vary, but much of the time intelligent people are merely fast learners, and slow learners often catch up with them and function with equal proficiency. With respect to experts, their intelligence or lack of it may similarly have little relationship to their status within their professions. Truth and falsity, which are more the focus of this blog, operate on a different scale from intelligence, and it is important to keep in mind that the people whom I criticize may or may not be intelligent.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle is a concept popularized by Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990) in his humorous 1968 book of that name. According to the principle, employees within an organizational hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence. This occurs because the skills in which one has demonstrated proficiency are often different from those that are required to perform competently in higher-level jobs. Although this is a fairly loose idea without much research behind it, it was and still is recognized and discussed in business schools. One context in which it can come up is that of high growth corporations in which the entrepreneurial founders have the wrong skill sets needed to manage large organizations, and they are often replaced by professional managers who have better administrative skills.

This idea is similar to the ideas in many of my posts if you broadly expand it beyond corporations. Similar phenomena can be seen in politics, the professions, academia and journalism, and among intellectuals, artists and writers. What I've noticed time and again is that an aura surrounds those who rise in their fields that isn't necessarily commensurate with their actual knowledge or ability. Some of that aura is created by others who unconsciously confer a mystique to recognized leaders, and some exists in delusional or lazy thinking among the leaders themselves when they come to believe that they must know something that other people don't or possess some special talent because they've been successful so far. One of the most spectacular recent examples of this was the premature awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama after he had been president for less than nine months. The expectations were so high for Obama during his presidential campaign in 2008 and early in his first term that people projected capacities and ideas onto him that we now know with certainty that he did not possess. His thinking on foreign policy seems to have turned out to be roughly the same as that of George W. Bush, and what differentiates him seems to be little more than a tendency to proceed with greater caution. Certainly his track record in foreign policy looks shaky now, with more instability in the Middle East and the continuation of American aggression by means of drones and other covert methods of dubious legal standing. If he wasn't the successor to the aggressive and reckless Bush, Obama would now stand out more clearly as a confused military aggressor. The events are a bit too current to permit full historical judgment, but I suspect that Obama will be seen as a conventional president who brought no new ideas with him, did not demonstrate any particular talent as a leader, and probably thought more highly of himself than has proven to be warranted. It is almost inconceivable that the Nobel Committee would have awarded him the Peace Prize if they had seen into the future of his presidency. In my opinion, the American public and the Nobel Committee were lulled into complacency by misreading Obama's actual competencies. He was a significant contrast to both George W. Bush and John McCain, who exhibited macho decisiveness and poor judgment, and he successfully sold himself as a thoughtful and articulate leader who would skillfully push through carefully thought out policies. As a practical matter he proved to be poor at taking action or winning people over. In retrospect he looks like a charismatic lawyer and academic who got in way, way over his head, and in the meantime he has served the interests of his wealthy backers, who come from the same cadre that supported Bill Clinton and now Hillary.

I have been shocked and disappointed by the questionable competence demonstrated by those doing well in many fields. Not long before the Great Recession, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan was considered God incarnate by many economists, even as his polices helped precipitate the recession. Many within the New York intellectual establishment supported the Iraq War. They have also been complicit in the manipulation of U.S. foreign policy to serve Zionist interests that have probably cost U.S. taxpayers trillions of dollars while cementing America's reputation in the Middle East as self-serving imperialists. On the literary front, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers, comes to mind. The book is filled with sophomoric flourishes and failed attempts at profundity, yet it succeeded at launching Eggers' career as a respected American literary writer. It seems as if Eggers came to be considered a great writer by audaciously stating that he was a great writer, without even qualifying the statement. Eggers may have other talents, but his literary success based on that book is not a good sign. As you know, I consider the American literary scene a disaster and a desolate terrain–an artistic desert in which you travel at your peril. Regarding academia, there seems to be evidence that many faculty have embraced if not encouraged the current atmosphere of political correctness which, in my opinion, fosters an unrealistic view of the world and creates college graduates who are poorly adapted to the workforce and adult life. Adolescents who are about to be tossed to the wolves should hardly be taught that no one has a right to hurt their feelings.

The underlying explanation for this phenomenon probably has to do with the fact that we're wired to live in groups and are often unable to think beyond the conceptual boundaries of whatever group we happen to belong to. Groups in a fundamental sense are our bulwark against external threats, and group cohesion played a critical role in survival during everyone's ancestral past. Once group leaders become unassailable, there is a strong disincentive to challenge them even when they are known to be wrong. In a corporate context you might be fired, and in any career you might face a significant setback or ostracism by defying orthodoxy. So if Bill Gates, Paul Krugman, Alice Munro, Charles Simic, Bob Dylan or Barack Obama doesn't seem to know what he or she is talking about, there may not be much anyone can do to remedy it. Fortunately, at least in the case of scientists, there is science to back them up, and in the long run that won't be ignored, though ideology has been known to suppress scientific findings on many occasions. The kinds of hegemonic behavior by leaders that I'm discussing here may not subside until machines become capable of thinking and doing just about anything better than we can. At that point future historians may become dumbfounded that our species had been able to survive at all.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Altruism is an Instinct

As a nonconformist, I have throughout my life looked on with amusement, dismay or puzzlement while others uncritically adopted whatever ideas happened to be popular at any particular time. In 1961 during his inaugural address John F. Kennedy famously said "ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country;" not long after that the Peace Corps was founded and 1960's American-style liberalism took off. It had never occurred to me that there was an imperative to do volunteer work, and nationalism even then seemed like somewhat of a bogus concept, since I already had reservations about American life, though I would not have been able to articulate them at that time. Living in one of the most liberal states now, I still encounter a lot of the same Kennedyesque do-goodism that doesn't make much sense to me. Middlebury College, for example, is a bastion of liberalism and like many elite liberal arts colleges expects its students to demonstrate a strong commitment to community service. If I were still in high school I would probably have to go through a cognitive therapy program in order to make myself civic-minded enough to be accepted at a good college.

It occurred to me today that much of my critique of Western liberalism, particularly in regard to its assumptions about human nature, can be summed up by stating that altruism is an instinct. I have already laid the groundwork for this claim by discussing humans as eusocial creatures who have evolved cooperative behaviors that allowed the species to survive up to the present. It is an obvious enough statement, but it has enormous consequences if you think about its implications with respect to religion and morality. You can more or less throw out most existing theology and moral philosophy and start from scratch. In my view, if altruism is an instinct it should be examined in the same way as other instincts, not as a supernatural or rational phenomenon that has its roots either in a divine being or in an analytical process.

For comparative purposes, altruism is a little like sex. You feel good engaging in both of them, and why do you think that is? Your body rewards you for repeating those activities that saved your ancestors, to put it simply. They helped others and others helped them, allowing them to survive life-or-death situations over thousands of years, and that behavior became encoded in our genes, whereas less cooperative people were more likely to die and consequently their presence is less evident in the gene pool. The mechanism that executes this is probably the involuntary release of chemicals in the brain that makes you feel good when you help someone, and you can easily observe this both in yourself and in others if you just pay attention. The real reward is that rush of chemicals, which may prevent you from acting selfishly even when that might be to your advantage. I strongly doubt you'd ever see much altruism without it.

I thought of sex because that is an extreme case of chemicals influencing human behavior. Sex is far more essential than altruism and encompasses organs and neural systems in addition to the production and release of chemicals in the brain. If your ancestors hadn't been interested in sex, you just plain wouldn't exist under any circumstances, whether they were altruistic or not. In the same ways that we've created comforting stories that provide a palatable explanation for altruism, we've done it with sex. We like to attribute altruism to the inherent goodness of mankind or to the will of a benevolent god even though we know perfectly well that there is no evidence for either. In the case of sex, the accompanying mythologies also seem like a cover for something that we'd rather not think about. Thus was born the idea of romantic love, which still plays an important role in millions or billions of lives, depending on which culture you happen to belong to. In my view, excluding personal drug use, the more pleasurable an activity, the more important it is likely to be for survival, and consequently our bodies have gone to a lot of trouble to pump us full of just the right chemical mix to make us unable to resist doing it. How interested in sex would anyone be if they never experienced the accompanying feelings and sensations? They're there for a reason, and they work pretty well. The mechanisms associated with altruism are just not as noticeable given their lesser biological significance.

One might take a skeptical position on the foregoing, but proving that it is correct doesn't interest me and it is close enough to the truth for my purposes. Finding all of the related chemicals, neurons, genes, etc., would be too large of an undertaking for me, especially when you can approximate the truth via thought experiments about why some traits exist in us rather than others. Altruism isn't likely to exist either by virtue of our rational adoption of it or as a result of pure chance.

I find it important to think about altruism as an instinct vis-à-vis public policy, because others don't seem to do this, or if they do you never hear about it. In the U.S. the prevailing view, from Bill Gates to Barack Obama to David Koch to Dick Cheney, is that Americans are the altruistic good guys in white hats, and the rest of the world is full of unaltruistic bad guys in black hats, for example, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Iran and North Korea. The truth is that there are good guys and bad guys everywhere, and they can coexist in the same body. Moreover, altruism came into existence in small groups well before our modern conception of mankind arose, and it may not function at all the way we like to think of it in inter-group conflict. And, to make matters worse, there are severe misunderstandings of nature to be found in the writings of contemporary philosophers who advocate extending our altruism to other species. Of course, this all brings me back to my favorite theme of automated government. In deciding how to sort things out among ourselves, it would be useful for everyone to recognize that we are, after all, just animals and not divine beings placed here by an omniscient god.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Monday, August 10, 2015

Gardeners and Nature

Growing up, I had little exposure to horticulture. My grandmother in England had a large garden in which she grew vegetables, as did many to get through World War II, and I can recall shelling peas in her kitchen in the 1950's. My grandparents also had a bomb shelter in their back yard. But when we moved to the U.S. we lived in a rented house followed by an apartment, and we never had a garden until my last year of college. As an adult I began to grow flowers and vegetables in 1977, and I have grown at least tomatoes ever since whenever possible, probably during twenty-two summers in all. Over the last eight years I have received greater exposure to how others perceive gardening, and it has been a slight surprise to me to which I am only gradually adjusting.

My original interest in gardening stemmed from the somewhat hippieish point of view in vogue at the time, which connected it with nature. Hiking and the outdoors were popular in the 1970's, and there were still communes and ashrams around in those days, though I was never a follower of fads. I liked the idea of growing your own food, and in fact it did taste much better and was probably healthier than what was available in stores. I found flowers pleasant and I liked and still enjoy seeing them, but, as you may have noticed, I try to concentrate on what is essential, and food is more essential than decoration, so I quickly focused on vegetables rather than flowers.

I tend to look at everything as part of a continuum in nature, which in a way makes even the most cultivated and exotic flowers nothing more than prettified versions of what grows spontaneously in the wild. Technically most of our vegetables are exotic too after centuries of hybridization and, more recently, genetic modification, but food occupies a different category in my mind, because you can't live without it, though you can easily live without adornments to your surroundings. In other words, food is essential and decoration is not. As an aesthetician of the wilderness, which is where we all live whether we admit it or not, I experience a certain amount of cognitive dissonance with the thinking of gardeners, women usually, whose goal is to create aesthetically pleasing gardens and flower arrangements while not only ignoring the inherent beauty of many natural plants but also waging quiet wars against those plants which might interfere with their plans.

Since few men seem interested in growing flowers other than as a vocation, I am tending to think that flowers are the province of women, and that they fit into the context of what I said earlier about a possible female-specific desire to live in appealing, controlled environments. From a male point of view it is easy to see this as a waste of time, or at least, with respect to priorities, as far less urgent, for example, than preventing the lawn from becoming a jungle or having dead trees falling over and knocking down power lines. Based on my exposure to the local garden club, I don't think that the members have much interest in botany - curiosity is not a factor here - and their primary goal is simply to have pretty flowers and yards, something more akin to interior decoration than anything else. Besides the garden club, it could also be instructive to look at the Dutch tulip bulb bubble of 1637, during which the price of a tulip bulb became ten times that of the annual wages of skilled craftsmen. On that occasion, beyond a simple female interest in pretty things, there must have been competition to own a rare and expensive item, perhaps with prices additionally boosted by speculators. Probably female thinking regarding gardens encompasses both innate predispositions and immediate methods for attaining higher social status. Certainly some women's gardens do serve a competitive function with respect to other women.

As one who inhabits the male end of the gender spectrum, the garden club take on gardening is still somewhat of a mystery to me, though my aesthetic side is sympathetic. The thing that is funny to me is that all organisms can be beautiful in their own way, and often the visual differences simply mask similarities. I prefer to see organisms within their natural habitats going through normal life cycles. If there wasn't a babbling brook with pumped water there before, there needn't be one now. In a way, flower gardens can be as artificial as AstroTurf, another scar on the earth left by mankind. A dying old sugar maple is just as beautiful as and even more interesting to me than any new tulip.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


As someone who has never been particularly ambitious, I occasionally think about what motivates the people who do end up becoming notably successful at one thing or another. Some may say that most unsuccessful people simply don't have what it takes: perhaps they're too disorganized, too stupid, too lazy or, more charitably, too disadvantaged, to accomplish much of anything. Others may view those who succeed as having special talents. Some may chalk it all up to luck. I prefer to look closely at those who are thought of as successful and examine what specifically motivated them, because I think this provides a clearer picture of both the individuals and the cultures in which they live.

Speaking anecdotally, it appears that most successful people work very hard before receiving recognition. People such as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Ludwig van Beethoven, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Vincent van Gogh all worked extremely hard throughout their careers. Those who aren't quite so industrious may work more deliberately and produce successful results over many years, for example Emily Dickinson and Charles Darwin. The definition of success in the arts and sciences is somewhat more variable than it is in commerce. One may become famous posthumously like Vermeer or Mendel, and some excellent art has probably already been lost forever without ever being appreciated. In our age commerce triumphs, and the very rich often acquire a cultural stature that far exceeds the importance of their accomplishments. How else can you explain the current ascent of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential polls? Trump has "buffoon" written all over him, yet he is giving top Republican contenders such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker a run for their money.

As you might expect, I tend to see the drive toward success as having evolutionary roots. Competition has historically been the province of males, who are directly or indirectly and consciously or unconsciously attempting to attract mates, produce offspring and protect them. High social status draws women like a magnet, and attractive young women still put up with the likes of old sexist geezers such as Hugh Hefner, who, I am sorry to say, remains a role model for millions of men. Women are equally interested in procreation, but biology has placed them in a different strategic position in which they must concentrate on the actual details of bearing and raising children, a situation which can be facilitated with a powerful husband. The recent cultural emphasis on gender equality has complicated the landscape in which both males and females operate, but men still tend to be more competitive than women, and women are still more interested than men in creating and maintaining safe environments that are suitable for raising children, whether they have children or not. Gender flexibility may have some biological justification, but there must be limits to that flexibility if populations are to reproduce.

The male idea of success can be seen in men's desire to compete in sports, games and at work. Being rich usually does the trick for attracting women, especially in the U.S. I have always found the case of Jacqueline Kennedy instructive. Here you had an upper-class, well-educated, attractive and intelligent woman who, in my opinion, married down for both John F. Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. Though he had some good qualities and eventually the high status of being president of the U.S., Kennedy was the son of a rather crass and unpleasant social climber and Wall Street crook. Onassis was a crude Greek ship owner who clearly had nothing to offer Jackie besides money. Whether they think about it this way or not, men with lots of money are generally going to have better reproductive options than paupers, with a better pick of the lot than most others.

The female idea of success can be seen in childrearing and the formation of cohesive communities. Having an enriched, safe environment with lots of support provides optimal conditions for raising children. Also having the right sort of men around for protection helps, and this may partly explain why women are often attracted to risk-taking men, who otherwise might seem foolish or irresponsible. Women themselves, I find, are comparatively risk-averse and would usually rather delegate that role to men. This is probably borne out in mortality statistics, which consistently show women outliving men. Basically, from an evolutionary standpoint, having some guy die instead of you and your children is a pretty good deal. And men are accommodating anyway: they like being heroes, even at great personal cost.

Observer that I am, I enjoy seeing lives as a whole, and how, over a period of many years what once seemed like a special talent that sprang from nowhere years later looks like a rather pathetic monomania from which a person can't escape. Bob Dylan is a good example of this. Here you have one of the best pop lyricists ever, a lousy voice and passable instrumentation. He worked very hard and everything gelled for him in the early 1960's, but it might easily have turned out quite differently. He happened to be a talented writer who was in the right place at the right time, but writing was apparently not his main interest: he preferred performing in front of live audiences. Now, fifty years later, most of his lyrics are forgettable, but he is still on tour as an aged rock star, stuck in a formula from which a more creative person might have extracted himself. Similarly, I fail to see the point of how billionaires choose to live. Even one of the most likable, Warren Buffett, seems crazed: he's still working at age 84 with a net worth of $72 billion. Perhaps he has spent his life trying to prove that Harvard Business School was wrong to turn him down in 1950.

Lifelong obsessions can also be found in the arts. Vincent van Gogh, I think, expressed loneliness in many of his paintings. He had a rather difficult personality and couldn't get along with anyone for an extended period. Yet he yearned for companionship, and this appears in his painting of his bedroom in Arles, which shows everything in pairs, as if two people lived in it. His obsession, you might say in this instance, was the absence of a mate. Many artists and writers become typecast early in their careers, like villains in Westerns. They may end up spending their lives producing the genre that brought them success initially well after it serves any artistic purpose to them. In the arts, it is easiest to succeed with a brand, because the truth is that consumers of art don't really like much change. Painters and writers do this frequently: Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Stephen King, Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, for example.

It is important to recognize that many of the people who have been successful have had net negative effects on mankind. Besides all of the deaths caused by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, there is the global pollution caused by successful industrialists, and many wars can be attributed to religious leaders from across the centuries. Even when you look at advances in agricultural and medical technologies, you have to wonder whether anyone considered the desirability of the unchecked population growth that ensued. The world population has grown from just one billion when our house was built two hundred years ago to more than seven billion today. To some extent today's refugees are the product of yesterday's technological and industrial successes.

I'm not saying that there aren't any breathtaking artistic, technological or conceptual achievements, but rather that when they occur they must be seen in context, and one person's success doesn't imply someone else's failure. Subliminal drives are what produce success, and those drives exist more or less in everyone. For those who are happy living in their own skin, being unsuccessful may at the most fundamental level mean little more than not having the most attractive husband or wife.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Child Protection

One of the topics that I discuss with my daughter is how protective she ought to be of her son while he is growing up. The norms have completely changed since I was a child and have continued to change since my children were raised. You can get a general sense of the current standards from this video. In many parts of the country children who are outside unaccompanied by an adult are considered at risk, and consequently their parents may be deemed unfit or negligent. The two aspects of this phenomenon that interest me are how it came into existence and what effects it might have on the future development of children.

There has probably been something written about how this state arose, but I'll just give my impressions. A lot of it may stem from the fact that in most families today all of the adults are working, and stay-at-home mothers are in a minority. When I moved to the U.S. in 1957, hardly any mothers in my neighborhood worked. The children walked about by themselves unaccompanied by parents and played with friends without any parental supervision. I don't recall any adults out at night with trick-or-treaters (other than the very young) even when, unlike today, Halloween extended until well after dark.  It is possible that always having mothers nearby led parents to feel that their children were safe, and that when mothers became unavailable due to their jobs a natural caution set in that caused parents to overreact. Leaving children with poorly-paid daycare workers doesn't inspire much confidence, and the fact is that many children may have experienced sub-optimal childhoods because of their daycare.

Furthermore, the public has always been at the mercy of the press, which tends to misrepresent child abduction and child abuse rates in the interest of selling advertising. The press has also been instrumental in generating public fear regarding terrorism, and collectively Americans seem to have felt far more threatened by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein than common sense would dictate. With those two men out of the picture, the press has now shifted its focus to the perils of ISIS and an Iran with nuclear weapons. The tendency of Americans to conform makes them vulnerable to propaganda campaigns that range anywhere from the harmless marketing of consumer products to the insidious manipulation of foreign policy by special interest groups such as military suppliers and subcontractors, oil companies and Zionists.  

The present paranoia about child safety, then, seems to stem primarily from economic changes, public gullibility and perhaps a little public guilt about the increase in child neglect by busy parents. One must assume that regional legislators, social services, police and judges haven't cooked this up on their own and are merely responding to public demand. Once it started, the expectation that children will be protected may have increased spontaneously, because unattended children began to stand out and attract more attention than previously. The perception may be that twenty children seen wandering around unaccompanied is normal, but something must be amiss if there are only one or two.

What is harder to determine is the long-term effect of child over-protection. Not living in a child-rich environment, and not knowing many people under thirty, I can only speculate on this. As I have suggested in other posts, the cognitive development of younger people today seems to proceed quite differently from that of my generation. I get the sense that over-protection combined with the rise of digital media is making children less prepared for certain situations than the children of the past. When children are not allowed to spontaneously explore on their own, they may, for example, develop a poor sense of direction. If their interactions with other children are scheduled and limited, they may become socially retarded in comparison to earlier generations. This deficiency may be compounded by the substitution of social media for face-to-face interactions. If they are prevented from engaging in any risky activity, they may later be unable to cope with some situations that are easy to navigate for those with more diverse childhood experiences. An apt analogy is the role of early exposure to germs as beneficial for later resistance to asthma and certain allergies. It is too soon to tell, but I think sheltered children will tend to display some of the characteristics associated with only children, including self-centeredness and social inflexibility. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that sheltered children will acquire certain skills that they would be less likely to acquire in traditional childhood environments. For example, they might become more proficient in new technologies such as software development.

I am in the age group that used to say "Never trust anyone over thirty." The same group may soon be saying "Never trust anyone under thirty." I already feel that way about the sheltered college students who require trigger warnings for even the most innocuous of statements; they may be the wave of the future, and I don't think I'm going to be able relate to them well. Perhaps, if no one has done it already, someone should write a book about the benefits of feeding children a spoonful of dirt, releasing them into the woods alone and letting them sojourn unaccompanied in a ghetto. You can't prepare for unpleasant experiences by avoiding them entirely.