Bits and Pieces

After reading a good book there are bits and pieces of insight and even wisdom that float to the top — bits and pieces that deserve special attention and deeper thought. I always underline them and return to them later — which is why I read real books, not electronic substitutes. This way the books become a part of me and I also become a part of them. Readers of these blogs will know that I often return to Christopher Lasch, one of the deepest thinkers I have read who always teaches me something about subjects that interest us both. In reading The Minimal Self — which I have referred to in earlier posts — I have quoted several insights that I think deserve special attention. I post other bits and pieces here:


(Lasch is convinced that we as a culture have entered a survival mode of existence that resembles in important ways the techniques used by the inmates of the death camps during the Second World War. In this regard, he noted):

“. . . It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any numbers of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and to live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow victims — they also insists that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. It is the survivors who try to ‘give meaning to survival,’ while those who come after them and live under conditions seemingly more secure see meaning only in survival itself.”


“. . .modernism in its most ‘advanced’ form no longer explores new frontiers of sensibility, new dimensions of reality, but, on the contrary, undertakes a strategic retreat from reality and a regression into a realm . . .’in which mental and perceptual operations are so basic that they cannot sustain any but the most undifferentiated emotions.’ It is hardly necessary to add that in ‘advanced’ art this embodies the survival mentality characteristic of those faced with extreme situations: a radical reduction of the field of vision, a ‘socially approved solipsism,’ a refusal to feel anything, whether pain or pleasure. . . . the weakening of the distinction between the self and its surroundings — a development faithfully recorded by modern art even in its refusal to become representational — makes the very concept of reality, together with the concept of the self, increasingly untenable.”


“Our culture surrounds children with sexually seductive imagery and information; at the same time, it tries in every possible way to spare them the experience of failure or humiliation. It takes the position that ‘you can be anything you want to be.’ It promises success and gratification with a minimum of effort. Adults spend a great deal of time and effort trying to reassure the child of his importance and of their own love, perhaps in order to allay the suspicion that they themselves have little interest in children. They take pains not to remind the child of his immaturity and dependence. Reluctant to claim the authority of superior experience, parents seek to become their children’s companion. They cultivate a youthful appearance and youthful tastes, learn the latest slang, and throw themselves into their children’s activities. They do everything possible, in short, to minimize the difference between the generations. Recently it has become fashionable to minimize gender differences as well, often — once again — with the best of intentions.”


“A truly conservative position on culture rejects both enforced conformity and laissez-faire. It attempts to hold society together by means of moral and religious instruction, collective rituals, and a deeply implanted though not uncritical respect for tradition.”


“All these institutions operate according to the underlying principle that a willingness to cooperate with the proper experts offers the best evidence of ‘adjustment’ and the best hope of personal success, while the refusal to cooperate signifies ’emotional problems’ requiring more sustained therapeutic attention. . . the shift form the authoritative sanctions to psychological manipulation and surveillance. . . [has given rise to] a professional and managerial class that governs society not by upholding authoritative moral standards but by defining normal behavior and by invoking allegedly non-punitive, psychiatric sanctions against deviance.”

Gone is the moral high ground of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so eloquently. It has vanished within the self in which all of reality has been reduced to the “world-for-me.” We are now living in an age that centers on the self, the reductio ad absurdum of solipsism.


In A Word

I caught the tail end of a weekly show on ESPN called “Jalen and Jacoby” in which two former athletes exchange what are supposed to be barbs but which come across as a high school sketch gone terribly wrong. In any event, David Jacoby mentioned that Jalen Rose loved “etos” chips — any chips ending in “etos,” especially Cheetos. He was reminded that Cheetos are made with palm oil which comes from the rain forest and that every time he eats a Cheeto he is killing one more branch of a tree in the rain forest (grin). Further, he was asked: knowing that we depend on trees to breathe don’t you care about life on earth or the earth itself?

Jalen responded that he does care about clean air and the planet but “I’m not sure I can give up my Cheetos.”

This was supposed to be funny, I suppose, tongue in cheek. But it tells us a great deal about the man Jalen Rose and about so many other people on this planet who are just like him. We don’t want to give up what we want in order to benefit later. We focus on short-run pleasure and while we may pay lip-service to the long term, we really don’t give it any serious thought.

I am reminded of the story going around about the frog. If he is placed in water and it is brought to a slow boil, he will die. If you try to place the frog in boiling water he will make every effort possible to escape. It’s all about the here and now for me and not at all about the future. Not just for frogs and not just for Jalen Rose. But for so many of us.

To Tell The Truth

In several of my comments on posts by my friends Barney and BTG I have been circling around an issue that I think deserves expansion. It has to do with one of the central problems we face as a nation and as a human race, if that doesn’t sound like hyperbole. And it has to do with our increasing inability to tell (and recognize) the truth. On ESPN, for example, we hear about a “six pax of cold-hard facts” which turn out to be a load of opinions that amount to little and certainly should not be confused with facts — unless you can say that Jackson held the opinion that the Jets would be a terrific team this year. That may be a fact, but when Jackson says the Jets will be awesome, that’s his opinion .

Most of the problems that Barney and BTG write about are serious problems, such as the drought in California and the determination of the legislature there to continue to endorse fracking, which both he and BTG have written about eloquently and persuasively: it is madness. It is madness on a normal day, but when water is becoming increasingly precious it is double-madness. But there are other serious problems we face as a nation and as a people who seem determined to follow one another blindly off a cliff into oblivion. And, it strikes me, it comes down to two things: (1) overpopulation, which I consider the core problem at the heart of all the rest. and (2) education, which I go on and on about for a reason. If we cannot use our minds to think our way through these problems we are in serious do-do, especially if we hope to feed, and provide air to breathe and water to drink, the numberless mouths we seem determined to continue to produce.

One of the obvious signs that we are losing our ability to think is not only our inability to differentiate between facts and opinions, as noted above, but our inability to recognize the truth when it is staring us in the face. We are inundated with information from all sides and people make claims that we suspect are bloat and rhetoric, but have no grounds for rejecting. So we simply accept comfortable claims, the path of least resistance. On the contrary, we need to be suspicious of all we hear, but we also need to be able to recognize that when a scientist, let us say, who is operating within his or her domain of expertise tells us that the earth is in serious danger we need to listen and take appropriate action. This assumes that we can recognize experts when we see and hear them and that we can think our way to appropriate action when necessary. But the first step is to accept as true those facts that are undeniably true despite the fact that we find them terribly confusing or even deeply disturbing. As BTG tells us, we must beware of cognitive dissonance.

We are not in position to know everything. We need to rely on experts for many things from medical advice, to accepting the bad news from our mechanic about why our car engine goes “clunk.” And this means that we need to be able to differentiate between genuine experts and those who just pretend to be experts. This is no small order. There is a host of folks out there who claim to be experts; my rule of thumb is to suspect the lot of them and listen only when I know that the expert knows what he or she is talking about. For example, I listen when a geologist tells me that earthquakes in Oklahoma are becoming increasingly numerous, and I listen when he presents the evidence that suggests that fracking is almost certainly the cause of those earthquakes. And I tend to reject out of hand anything I hear on Fox News, just as a matter of principle.

We need to know whom to listen to and when to pay attention. We need to have a healthy skepticism and a suspicious attitude toward those who merely pretend to know. A good clue is to ask whether the speaker has a “hidden agenda.” If the “scientist” on TV wearing the white smock is being paid by Gulf Oil I suspect he is not telling me the truth. If he works at Cal Tech and is trying to live on a faculty salary, then he might have something worth hearing — even if we don’t particularly like what he is saying. The truth is not determined by what we like to hear and read. It is determined by evidence provided by impartial sources and tested by others who have no axe to grind.

Aboard The Titanic

I am working my way through another of Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novels, titled Flight Behavior. The reading goes slowly because the book, while extremely well-written, is so dense and so disturbing. One can take only so much at a sitting. This one is about climate change and the effect it is having on monarch butterflies. Actually, the odd behavior of the monarchs is the result of climate change and the stupidity of humans who have clear-cut a huge area in Mexico where the Monarchs usually Winter over. Because of the clear-cutting, torrential rains in that part of Mexico have destroyed the entire mountain area where the butterflies usually end their migration. As a result, they have found themselves in the Tennessee mountains and the question is “why?” The climate in southern Tennessee is not conducive to the survival of the butterflies over the Winter. Something has gone seriously wrong with the inherent navigational system they have relied upon for thousands of years, and the novel centers around a small group of people who are determined to discover the reasons and try to understand what is happening to their world — and to ours.

The novel’s focus is upon its hero, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman with very little education but a bright and inquiring mind, her slow-witted husband, and two very small children. They are dirt poor, but Dellarobia has discovered something extraordinary when she walks up on the mountain one day in a fit of despair over what she regards as a wasted life. She suddenly comes upon millions and millions of beautiful monarchs who have appeared from nowhere and seem determined to stay for a while. The novel recounts the results of her discovery: her mother-in-law’s determination to profit from the discovery by giving tours, her father-in-law’s determination to log the area for the money that he desperately needs after a series of financial disasters, Dellarobia’s fame as the news media seek her out and delight in romanticizing her story, without mentioning the terrible fact that there is something very wrong to bring those creatures to this place in such great numbers. But the discovery also brings a lepidopterist from New Mexico, an expert on Monarch behavior, with a small crew of three graduate students who are very much concerned to find out why this has happened.

I won’t spoil your surprise should you decide to read the novel, which I highly recommend to those with steady nerves. But at one point in the novel, after Dellarobia has gone to work for the scientific team helping with odds and ends around the laboratory they have set up in her barn, a discussion is taking place between the lead scientist, Ovid Byron, his somewhat cynical graduate assistant Pete, and Dellarobia. At one point Byron explodes in anger at Pete’s glib dismissals of the unconcerned, “For God’s sake, man, the damn globe is catching fire, and islands are drowning. The evidence is staring them in the face.” Later, Dellarobia reflects on the apathy of humans who choose to ignore the obvious.

“She spoke carefully to the room. ‘I think people are scared to face up to a bad outcome. That’s just human. Like not going to the doctor when you’ve found a lump. If fight or flight is the choice, it’s way easier to fly'”

The novel puts me in mind of a ride on the Titanic with all of us aboard. The captain and those in charge of the vessel have all the confidence in the world in the invincibility of this ship. After all, it’s the greatest thing men have come up with and the epitome of technological expertise. The passengers are all busy entertaining themselves in hundreds of different ways, in the lounge dancing and dining; in their staterooms making love or playing with their electronic toys (or both); a small group clusters in the stern, heads bowed in prayer, eyes shut tight, fingers in their ears; and a few scientists are standing in the bow of the ship pointing to the huge iceberg that is dead ahead and shouting against the wind. We all choose to ignore it, to “fly” as Dellarobia says, rather than fight. We are in group denial: it’s too painful to take into our consciousness. As she says, “It’s impossible.” So we continue to dine, dance, play with our toys, and keep our fingers firmly in our ears. The captain is certain that the ship can withstand any collision with an iceberg and denies that there is any real danger.

But there is danger; it is dead ahead, and we cannot survive if we continue to ignore it — especially since there are no lifeboats on this ship. The only possible option is for enough passengers to take the scientists seriously, band together and take control of the ship and steer it to safety. The question is whether enough people will realize that the scientists are right before it is too late.