“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wet Socks: He Borara Chapter 3.2

(2,252 words. Or start from the beginning.) 

He wakes, panicked and disoriented, to the sound of rapid shuffling. A light sleeper, he nearly always knows when someone enters the room in the middle of the night. Mom probably, he thinks, but why would she be moving so quickly, without so much as a murmur to announce her presence. Peering into the dark, he recognizes his brothers by their silhouetted outlines.

            “I can see you guys. What are you doing?”

            “He’s awake!” Connor. “Quick, grab his legs!”

            “I said, what are—”

            Lac’s face is covered, his head pushed back onto the mattress. Connor must’ve moved around to the head of his bed as he sat up to see who else had stirred from his bed or entered through the door to the hallway. Now his older brother is pressing a pillow down on his face. “I can’t breathe!” Lac shouts, the words formless and muffled. He reaches up to free himself but feels his wrists gripped and pulled away from his body. It won’t be any of these sensations that live on in his mind, for him to re-experience over and over in his dreams. In his panic, he relies on some instinct to tell him which way to writhe, first to his right, as he pulls with his bound arms to hoist himself up off of the mattress, and then to his left as he twists his neck backward, chin to the side, creating enough space for a single gasping breath.

            “Lordly Lachlan likes leaving the earth on his lengthy constitutionals,” Rachel taunts, half singing.

            How many of them are in here? Four at least. Not Bess. She wouldn’t be part of this. She must not even know it’s happening.

            “This should help you come back down to earth, your lofty Lordship.”

            It’s not the blows he’ll remember either, delivered by an attacker on either side, thudding loudly into his stomach and ribs. Lac grits his teeth, determined not to make a sound, not to cry. What feel like baseballs wrapped in slings he’ll later learn are bunches of socks soaked in water and stuffed into the ends of longer socks.

His mind brimful with rage, every corner of his awareness splashed with scalding pain, he still manages a thought, observing how the succession of blows, half a dozen landed in alternating turns from either side—loggers bringing down their axes in rhythmic chops—constitute neat bursts of fury, the exact rhythm, intensity, and duration you’d expect from an assailant provoked to sudden violence on the occasion of catching an antagonist at a stark disadvantage.

            What he’ll remember most, though, is the sensation of his legs, kicking wildly at first, thwarting any attempt at fixing a firm grasp, promising, for a thrilling moment, a mode of escape from all the other hands pinning and holding him in place; he could kick loose, plant his heels, and pivot his upper body free—until inspiration strikes one of his siblings. The sheet landing softly over his knees won’t limit the torque he can generate, he’s sure—until it pulls tight, folding into a rope. No, no, no. Hands on his ankles. The twisted sheet passing under his knees. Once around his shins then jerked roughly downward, lashing his bound legs to the bed, dashing his last desperate hope. The thwacking blows collide loudly, painfully, with his chest and abdomen, but his trapped feet are what lie in wait to haunt his nightmares, vivid replays of the sensation readily triggered by the slightest echo of immobility.

The lesson delivered, his teachers release him abruptly, but in his shaking frenzy it takes him several seconds to unbind his legs. His brothers and sisters had earlier that night found the notebook he’d been filling upon his return from each night’s walk with all the airy thoughts that occurred to him along the way. What fourteen-year-old doesn’t have grandiose fantasies? he would pose years later to reassure himself, still feeling the sting of exposure and shame.

His kicks having set the hammock to swaying dramatically once again, Lac opens his eyes to the full light of dawn issuing in through the netting at the door of the Malarialogìa men’s hut. Clemens’s hammock is empty. Lac swings his legs out over the floor as he runs his hand along the seam of his mosquito net. His back stiff, his legs above each knee alive with a pinching ache, he pauses to arrange his thoughts. It’s to be back to Tama Tama with Clemens today to gather his supplies for the next seventeen months into a larger dugout canoe. Then Clemens will motor back up the Orinoco with him before turning around and going back to the mission outpost, leaving Lac here alone, with the Yanomamö. The thought jolts him to his feet, flailing about in the netting. I’m supposed to get situated and then have Laura and the kids join me in the hut I’m to build outside the shabono, he thinks. But how can I bring them to this place? How can I be sure they won’t be killed? Or kidnapped? Or contract some fatal disease? What the hell was I thinking? So, what then? Is it back to Michigan? Back to all my benighted professors? Back to my family and—I’ll have to find some other type of work.

After securing his research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Lac had worked out an arrangement with the head of the University of Michigan’s Department of Human Genetics. He’d heard that Dr. Nelson was looking for anthropologists to help him with a project to study isolated tribes in South America. The plan was to compare the Indian’s genetic material to that of a cohort of Japanese people who’d survived exposure to radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Seeing the project as an opportunity to get funding for future research, possibly even obviating the need to interrupt his fieldwork with long stints of teaching, Lac had agreed to serve as a guide and translator for a research team slated to arrive next year, near the end of his time with the Yanomamö. He’d undergone training back in Ann Arbor so he could help take blood samples and give general health assessments. How would he explain to Nelson his immediate retreat from the jungle, before learning a single word of the language?
Lac, ducking clear of the mosquito netting at last, but still struggling to shed the residue of his dream-saturated sleep, catches himself after several moments staring vacantly at the empty hammock between the door and where he now stands alongside his own. Clemens has told him about how he joined the New Tribes after leaving the army at the end of the war. He wanted to see more of the world. He wanted to do some good. He couldn’t, after all he’d seen, after all he’d done, simply go back home to his old life. Five years later, he and another missionary were making first contact with the people of Mahekodo-teri, a few hours further up the Orinoco from the confluence with the Mavaca. Clemens stayed on after the other missionary returned to the states—for his wedding in 1951. When Clemens did eventually leave Yanomamöland to recuperate and raise funds, the Salesians, who’d ignored the Yanomamö up till then because they were too difficult to reach, took the opportunity to start building the mission compound at Platanal, a short distance from Mahekodo-teri. So it was downriver to Iyäwei-teri for Clemens. He convinced the people there to move closer to the confluence of the Ocamo River with the Orinoco, where he set up another mission outpost, staying for a few years. When he left, however, the Catholics moved in again. Lac has in fact spoken over shortwave radio to the Italian priest who’s currently stationed at Ocamo. Now Clemens has his hut outside the Bisaasi-teri shabono near the Mavaca, and so far the Salesians have been content to leave him to his own brand of mission work there.

Lac can’t help but admire Clemens, who’d even mentioned on the way from Tama Tama that he was considering bringing his own wife and children to stay with him at Bisaasi-teri when he returns, around six months from now. I wonder if the incident with the kidnapped women will dampen his excitement about bringing his family out here, Lac thinks as he attempts to stretch out the kinks in his shoulders and lower back. Either way, Clemens will be returning to this place himself—despite having admitted to Lac that he can’t claim to have converted a single Yanomamö. “They listen to the stories,” Clemens said to him at Tama Tama, “but they expect their holy men to prove their magic somehow—by curing sick children or by making a charm that brings success in a hunt—and until they see the magic working they’re skeptical. The best I can hope for usually is that some of them will pick up elements of the gospel and incorporate them into their mythology. It’s a start anyway, a foundation.”

Lac hid his smile upon hearing this, thinking the prospect of the missionaries ever managing to build anything atop so flimsy a foundation far too miniscule to warrant taking on the risks. Now, though, he realizes that, regardless of who gets the best of the petty squabbles among the missionaries, the white people as a general block, with all their technology and medicine, along with the sheer inexhaustibility of their creeping presence, will soon enough be offering the Yanomamö all the proof anyone could possibly need of their magic’s deadly effectiveness. The proselytizing at this stage may be futile, but the unceasing migration of people is nonetheless a harbinger of much more far-reaching, much more cataclysmic, transformations to come. Clemens has told him of the Yanomamö at Bisaasi-teri’s stories of several other villages to the south, almost twice as large and as yet uncontacted. How long before someone from the New Tribes—maybe Clemens himself—or someone with the Salesians reaches these more remote groups? Or worse—how long before some mining outfit or some logging operation decides to move into the territory?

No one’s really had a chance to study a tribal society comprised of so many independent villages before, Lac reminds himself. Where else in the world is there enough unexplored territory to support such a society? New Guinea perhaps. The chance to learn what these cultures have to teach us isn’t going to remain in existence for long; the tribes themselves won’t exist for long. If so much of what my professors back home believe about people living in these societies is wrong, then that’s all the more reason to stay in this damn jungle and do some proper research. Plus, if Chuck has survived repeated expeditions to this place over the course of a decade, then I should be able to manage a year and half out here myself.

As if conjured by the thought, Clemens just then pokes his head into the hut, where Lac is still stretching and shaking his limbs, working to emerge from his early morning fog. “These damnable bareto,” he says, ducking inside, swatting frantically at the invisible tormentors swarming his face. “It looks like we may get some rain today. That could make traveling on the river a bit smoother, if the water level raises enough. And it’ll keep the gnats under control too if we’re lucky.”

Lac had been eager to step out of the hut into the leaf-filtered sunlight until the missionary’s reminder of what he’d inevitably have to suffer in the daytime forest. A solid globe of anxiety has begun forming beneath his sternum, impeding the downward expansion of his lungs, leaving him to gulp in the musty air in tiny gasps, a giant guppy trapped in a bowl of stagnant water. When he’d passed out last night with that cracker leaching the moisture from the corners of his mouth, he was determined to get out of this jungle as quickly as he could, leaving those wretched people he’d encountered yesterday to whatever fate had in store for them. Now he knows there’s no way he’ll be able to live with himself if he returns to Ann Arbor emptyhanded, defeated, having vindicated everyone at home who swore to his fecklessness. At least for the time being, he’ll be going through with the original plan. Back to Tama Tama for the rest of his supplies. Then back to the Mavaca in a dugout canoe. Back to Bisaasi-teri to live among the Yanomamö and see what he can find out about them and their battles over women.

“Let’s get a bite and then get moving,” Lac says, convinced the best way to break down that globe of tension growing under his heart is to start working. Laura and the kids? You’ll have to get a better sense of how safe it is, he tells himself. You don’t have to decide that now. It’s seventeen months. Take it one step at a time. You’ll still have chances to get out if you decide it’s necessary. For now, just get to work. Get your supplies up here. Get Chuck’s hut outside the shabono into livable condition. Get to work on your own hut, big enough for everyone in case they eventually do end up coming. Start writing down observations. Start doing your best to learn the language. And see if you can keep your damn self from getting killed. 

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Sleep of Reason: He Borara: Chapter 3.1

(2,433 words. Or start from the beginning.)

No sooner does he close his eyes than he’s back in his father’s house in Port Austin. “Annn-thhrro-pollogee”—the word seeps out through Malcolm Shackley’s beard-entangled lips as he recoils his chin, signaling that the emanation reeks of dubiety. “What, pray tell, is ann-thro-pology? I suppose it will put you in a higher wage grade than your physics and engineering degree at Sault Ste. Marie.”

“My professors seem to be doing okay,” Lac retorts. “Not that any of them has twelve mouths to feed,” he adds, fearing the unintended barb will only further provoke his father. Lac already regrets the blunt, offhand manner with which he delivered the news about his transfer to U of M. And his new major. Everyone in Port Austin has these ideas about college. You send off your perfectly normal kids—the ones you slaved away on a road crew or in a factory to feed and clothe as you worked dutifully to raise them and get them to school—and they come home with highfalutin ideas they toss at you with big fancy words. Like anthropology. Worse, they talk to you like they know something. They know things you’ve never even thought to ask about. What they don’t know, even though you did everything in your power to teach them, to show them—what they don’t know is how to work, how to get up every day and build or fix or do something of real value, with your hands, with your sweat and toil, the type of work that goes into being a man. Kids come back from college wanting to sit around getting paid for all their knowing.

Lac watches these thoughts simmer behind his father’s imposing eyes. He tries to maintain a placid demeanor, respectfully withstanding Malcolm’s contemptuous disappointment in his second-born child’s latest decision. Steeling himself to face down his impending denunciation as a smart-ass ingrate, he rushes to explain, “Anthropology is the science of culture, Dad. They go out to—”

His father interrupts him. “What sort of work will studying anthropology prepare you for? Are you planning to teach grownup kids old enough to be working, like these professors of yours?” In his father’s eyes, Lac is making a childish blunder, and now the elder Shackley is set to walk his ne’er-do-well son through the logic that ought to have helped him avoid it. Lac expected this. So far it’s not getting to him as he feared it might.

Lac’s older brother Connor, the firstborn of Malcolm’s outsized brood, is already moving up the ranks of the automobile factory in Detroit. Last year, when Lac was still an engineering major, Connor brought him to the city, showed him around the plant, and told him to say the word if he wanted to start doing “some honest work.” What is it, he wonders, with these people and their obsession with work? Don’t they ever get curious? Don’t they ever wonder what the point of all that work could possibly be? Don’t they ever wish the work they’re doing day-in and day-out could have some meaning—some purpose beyond fixing or assembling things a thousand other men could be fixing or assembling? Actually, a thousand other men already are working to fix and assemble those things right alongside them. How can they stand being so inconsequential, so interchangeable, so stuck in the same never-ending routines?

“I may have to do some teaching,” Lac answers his father. “But I’ll be a scientist. I’ll be doing research. I’ll be traveling and studying people’s cultures. I’ll be writing articles and books.”

“A scientist, huh? And who will be funding all this scientific research into other people’s cultures?”

Had his father’s tone really been that sneering? 

As the dream unfolds, his memory of the encounter blends with a dark fantasy of his father lecturing him on the endless ways professors lead their naïve students astray, filling their heads with silliness that could never survive beyond ivory tower walls, sending them headlong into peril—and even on occasion getting them killed—all for the sake of some crazy agenda no more enlightened than the mission of those lunatic Christians who wander into the jungle and wind up getting speared to death by the very natives whose souls they came to save. That’s if they don’t die of malaria first.

            Lac going on to become an atheist during his first year at U of M wouldn’t exactly advance his cause of appeasing Malcolm. After learning about so many different religions—every society, from states down to bands of hunter-gatherers, has its own—it just starts to seem like something humans do. Whichever particular faith among the multitude you end up being raised with is determined by pure happenstance. Sure, it could be that all religions tap into some general underlying truth, but there’s really too much variability, too much contradiction, for the theory of reconcilability to be at all plausible, however desperately some of his classmates clung to that position for its promise to preserve their beliefs intact within the crucible of science. The two traits common to all religions—or most of them at least—are the dualism of matter and spirit and the presumption of human-like agency driving natural events, neither of which holds up under skeptical scrutiny. What you start to see is that every supernatural belief system is a reflection of the society from which it emerges. That’s why whatever generous impulses are embodied in Christian doctrines become overlaid with pettiness and corruption once the faithful get tangled up in politics—or once the faithful get lost and gnat-bitten deep in the godforsaken jungle.

            Lac feels the swaying of his body in the hammock and realizes he’s no longer dreaming. His troubled thoughts have bulldozed him through the wall separating his sleep visions from his late-night lucubrations. For a moment, as he hugs his arms against the chill, he finds himself wondering if it was a minor tremor that so disturbed the gentle rocking of his hammock, but he knows the only displacement of the ground supporting his weight, however catastrophic, is merely figurative. Clemens’s snoring has ceased. Lac looks toward where he saw the missionary hanging his hammock but fails to pick out his shape from the dark space within the hut. At the outset of his journey down the Orinoco, Lac had already been fantasizing about the contents of his second book—after the one he’d write for an academic audience—based on a later return trip to the village at the confluence with the Mavaca. In this future book, he would reflect on the sad degradation, over the span of less than a decade, of the once proud Yanomamö, owing to increasing interference from the “outside world,” the world for which he continues to serve as a peaceful, signally respectful, even slightly traitorous emissary. He quietly chuckles at how sure of himself he was—and only a few days ago.

            Determined to calm himself, Lac stretches his legs, poking them out into the mosquito netting, and takes several deliberate breaths. Small pockets of the jungle surrounding the hut murmur to each other, an alien though somehow quaint breed of intimate late-night banter. After briefly nudging up against some frustration at being held captive to his fully alert state, with a humming mass of nervous tension behind his sternum, he feels his present predicament fading as his mind slides, not toward oblivion but back to what seems another lifetime, back to Port Austin. His walks. He hasn’t thought back to them in years, but he no sooner skims the surface than he feels himself plunging bodily into the joys and struggles of that time. He could step back into his life then and be right at home, as if the countless decisions and events filling the space between then and now were no more than the futile play of sails and rigging on a ship at the mercy of the currents. His walks, hours-long, used to simultaneously calm his mind and set fire to his imagination, though they also embarrassed him. In what was still basically a small fishing village, you couldn’t fart without everyone knowing which direction your ass was facing, as Malcolm liked to say.

So Lac, from his early teenage years, about the time most people begin experiencing some form of disquiet they need to tame, tried never to be noticed. People would think he was touched, or that he was being artsy-fartsy. Or worse, that he was being a snoop. A lot of times it began with one of the adventure stories he read. He’d close the book, sit back, and suddenly it was like his parents’ house wasn’t big enough anymore. He needed empty sky overhead, he needed to be moving, he needed to be actively fussing and tinkering and progressing along some journey if he was to have any chance of working out these big thoughts and fully embodying these gargantuan, heart-swelling sentiments.

When they got Josephine, it was easier to pass for pragmatic, but the routes he took weren’t exactly the most obvious dog-walking tracks, and the time he devoted was excessive. A neighbor once asked him if he dreamed of one day breeding German shepherds. Lac wasn’t sure about breeding them, but he was—still is—intensely fascinated with what goes into training them. Mostly, Lac liked to think about God, and the future. His visions of what all he might one day accomplish always had an otherworldly air to them. Maybe it was the proximity of so many distinct mediums, the big sky, the big body of water, the woods, the cold, the warmth. Maybe it was that, the derisive rumors notwithstanding, he succeeded in stepping away from the humdrum world of his brothers and sisters, mornings spent getting ready for school, the constant threat of fights on the playground, Malcolm’s chronic disapproval, people accusing him of putting on airs.

“Well, if you ever said anything interesting—if you ever did anything that wasn’t just like what everybody else does all the time,” he remembers saying to his sister.

“And what do you do that’s so spectacular, Mr. Dog Walker? What’s so special about your dog-walking adventures?”   

Sauntering past the scattered clusters of houses in old Port Austin, he would imagine fantastic stories for the inhabitants of nearly every one. Some of them were monsters, pulling the skin from children strip by strip to appease dark demonic deities. (He’d quicken his step past these, suspecting like all children do that some part of their imaginings are rooted in true intuitions.) Some of his neighbors were sad cases to be sure—especially the ones he was acquainted with in reality—but a few of them, the ones he always had the opportunity to meet over the course of some wild adventure whenever he hooked the leash to Josephine’s collar to take her along on one of his nightly expeditions, a few of them were potential mentors, poised to introduce him to the secret facets of the world, the facets none of his boring siblings, and certainly not his parents, had ever guessed at. This mentor would one day reveal himself, having borne witness to Lac standing transfixed by the blazing light of the stars and immediately recognized in him to capacity to understand his teachings, recognized him as someone he could pass along his secrets to, someone he could train to become a fellow spirit warrior, a member of the elite tribe of men who travel between worlds.

            Years later in Ann Arbor, he had no dog to accompany him on his walks, but the city made it easier to take on the purposeful demeanor of a man on his way somewhere, likely somewhere important. Now, as a young man, Lac saw the taller-fronted houses built with barely any space between them as symbols of family life, a species of comfortable captivity. Maybe someday, when he was old, when the scars he’d accumulated on his myriad adventures had healed, he’d settle into one of these huddled dwellings with an unimaginably pretty girl, a girl who radiated charm and warmth like one of the celestial spheres burning so far off in the sky to guide his way along the narrow streets, past the crowded houses. Everything for him then was future-directed, weighed in his mind according to its promise to initiate him into the magical hinterlands of existence. The sense of otherworldliness pervading his thoughts of the future didn’t so much fade as he grew up as simply grow vaguer and more distant, layered over with his airs of sophistication and tough-minded, hard-nosed worldliness.

Each of the houses he passed, he was aware, had a true history of its own, but history for Lac then was just another sort of mythology, just another storied, ambiguously supernatural realm. The touch and tone and sense of sacred passage attaching to each night’s walk—it never completely evaporated, even as his religious skepticism intensified over the course of his education, until one night he stopped on the sidewalk along one of his frequented routes through the neighborhood adjoining campus and, looking up at the sky, declared, “It’s just something people do, all these religious beliefs and rituals. It’s just part of our nature.” The end of his own religiousness, the demise of his Catholicism, the epiphany that transformed him in that instant into an atheist marked a sacred occasion in its own right, following as it did an undercurrent, not so much of divinity, but nonetheless of essences and resonances not moored to his beloved world of things discoverable by science—at least not moored in a way he could then see.

Once again awake in his hammock, Lac turns his head to see the contours of the mosquito net and the hammock bearing his guide and fellow traveler in the dim blue light of the looming dawn. He thinks back to how his mind turned the fronts of all those houses into something akin to the swinging facades of his sisters’ doll houses—the same way he looked through the wall of trees on the banks of the Orinoco and felt the presence of the people living beyond, carrying on through history a way of life implicating every human being alive today, his abiding intuition of mythical happenings on the other side of some divide, on the drabber side of which he suffers the misfortune of living. Gazing uncomfortably at the underside of the thatched roofing, he whispers, “What was I really expecting to find out here?”

Continue reading: Wet Socks: He Borara Chapter 3.2

Earlier Chapters:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Land of the Lost Ironies: He Borara: Chapter 3

            “It’s not always like this,” Chuck says as he completes the last of some running strides to catch up with Lac, who has charged ahead of him on their way back along the trail that first delivered them from the riverbank to the shabono. After talking with the Yanomamö men for a couple of hours—and being forced on half a dozen panic-stricken occasions to quietly await the outcome of a quick investigation of some section of the encampment wall—they’re now heading back to the rowboat so they can cross to the opposite bank of the Orinoco. “I mean, I’ve heard them talking about raids and fights like this before, but we seem to have walked right into the middle of some dangerous tension.”

Lac resists interjecting, “Obviously.”

They walk several more paces before Chuck adds, “I think it was just a matter of some seriously bad timing.”

The missionary’s tone is apologetic. Lac, ignoring the invitation latent in the ensuing silence to absolve him, wonders why Chuck is forbearing to use what they both just experienced as an opportunity to preach on the depraved state of man in the absence of Jesus. “You came here to study their way of life,” Lac imagines him gloating. “I came here to teach them a new way of life—to save their souls. After what you just saw, you tell me which of our missions’ ought to take precedence.”

As they thread their way along the trail through neck-high sawgrass, though, the only voices to be heard belong to the monkeys high in the distant canopy. Their whooping howls feature in the raucous theater of Lac’s agitated mind as long cylindrical tubes extending from their o-shaped faces, waving about against the deepening blue of the sky. Somehow, the image inches him closer to the brink of fury, as if the howlers were a chorus of obnoxious street barkers. He spent so much time preparing, planning so meticulously, anticipating every eventuality. What he walked into back there—that shouldn’t have happened. He shouldn’t have been the first to waddle through that entrance. The men would have recognized Clemens, so he would have been in danger a few seconds less, those crucial few seconds while Lac himself was a twitch away from being turned into a porcupine. He shouldn’t have arrived empty-handed. Proffering gifts in his outstretched hands, he would have posed less of a threat, and hence been less likely to provoke a preemptive attack. Most importantly, he shouldn’t have left his shotgun with the rest of his supplies and equipment back at Tama Tama.

The grass and tall weeds vanish abruptly as the two men plunge back into the dark understory, as barely any light from the sun makes it through the dense foliage overhead, even from directly above this pathetic excuse for a trail. The gnats, whose biting had never really seemed to abate, nevertheless return to their greater numbers and heightening frenzy as the men continue their march back toward the river.

“You okay, Shackley?” he hears Clemens say behind him.

Stopping to turn around and face the missionary, he opens his mouth to complain about being so grossly misled, but catches himself before saying a word. “I can’t say I was ready for that,” he admits instead. “It’s making me wonder…” He trails off, leaving Clemens to guess what it is he’s wondering, before turning back to continue along the meager trail.

Returning to his full, aggressive stride, Lac feels his unvoiced ire shifting toward the more deserving culprits, the ones whose knowledge and expertise he counted on, admired even, whose every word indelibly lodged itself in his brain, whose example shaped his every lofty vision of his own career. If anyone is to blame, he thinks, it’s my professors. It’s Dr. Sabine. It’s Dr. Hiddleson. All of them. They should have at least warned me of the possibility that the wild Indians would be hostile. All this crap about cultural relativism and not being the evil white man, the lone ranger lording it over the savages, the colonizer, the imperialist, the goddamned racist—they’ve got us so browbeaten and guilt-laden that we completely forget that the fucking Indians are human too, in every sense of the word. And sometimes humans kill other humans.

            He cants his head to call over his shoulder, “Okay, Clemens, tell me something. You’ve been wandering around in your rowboat on all these rivers and tributaries for more than fifteen years looking for uncontacted Indians.” He stops and turns before asking, “How often do they shoot arrows at you and chase you off?”

            “You hear lots of stories,” Chucks says as he draws near to where Lac is standing. “And it’s not just arrows. Some of the tribes bash each other’s heads in with clubs.” The trail is hardly more than a strip, not wide enough for them to walk two abreast. Chuck steps into the underbrush to sidle around Lac, saying, “I’ve actually only made first contact with one group—and you just met them.” Setting the pace now, he continues speaking over his shoulder, as Lac did a moment before. “When they first saw me, they were definitely scared. I think they were too shocked and, well, curious to respond violently. I was probably lucky. The other missionaries are always talking about close calls.” Ducking under a tangle of lianas, he grunts and takes a fortifying breath before continuing. “The thing is, it’s hard to say if you’re ever really making first contact. The Yanomamö already had machetes and axes when I got here. They were worn down to the nub, but they were also being used quite a bit. You have to remember too it hasn’t been that long—maybe a generation—since the rubber barons were down here killing and enslaving and torturing thousands upon thousands of the Indians. The Yanomamö may have traded for those machetes with the Ye’kwana. But even now there are often run-ins between ranchers and Indians. Loggers too—they’re probably even worse.”

            “You think they’re hostile to outsiders because of earlier attacks? That’s not what we walked into back there, was it? You said the fight was with another Yanomamö village.”

            “That’s true. And I can’t say what a war party from another village would have done to us. Maybe nothing. Of course, we may have been killed in a crossfire even if they weren’t trying to shoot us—they dip their arrows in poison when they’re hunting. I guess my point is just that it’s different out here. We may as well be a million miles away from any working justice system. It takes a certain kind of person to go into the jungle in the first place. Once you’re in it, well, it may be that you go a little crazy because it gets so intense—the discomfort, the constant threats, the endless insults to your person, the boredom—and you’re so far removed from anything you’re accustomed to. Anyway, it’s hard to tell how time in the jungle will affect a man. It changes people. I’ve even seen it happen to men with the New Tribes, good men. And God knows what the Indians have been through. I can’t say I really know much about how violent most indigenous tribes are before they meet anyone from civilization—I figure you’d know more about that than me. Either way, out here you have to be on your guard around people of pretty much any sort.”

            Lac detected no hint of sarcasm in Chuck’s suggestion that he ought to know more about what the Indians are like. It rankles nonetheless. Shooing the bareto away from his mouth, he inhales sharply, calming himself. The missionary’s words send his mind traveling back to a time when he and his dad were hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, along with his older brother and his uncle.

Lac would have been around thirteen, he figures, and after a few days wandering through the forest he was starting to get bored—in spite of the weeks of lobbying it had taken to get his dad to agree to let him tag along. At one point, as he was going about whistling and clownishly dancing around, he lifted his gaze to see the three older men crouching alongside a fallen tree. His dad shot him a look that struck him like a hard palm to the temple. Lac immediately fell silent, dropped to his knees, and crawled toward the cover of the wide trunk. Peering over it, he saw two men, both with rifles slung over their shoulders, making their way along a valley that was barely visible in the distance. Lac watched them for several moments until his dad pulled him down by the back of his vest.

“What’s the big deal?” he whispered.

His dad lifted his finger to lips, a gesture as peremptory as any command issued beside a raised hand. They waited in near complete silence for what seemed to Lac like an hour, until the men had long since disappeared into the forest. Even after he and the older men started moving again themselves, Lac sensed that a decision had somehow been made to keep silent, and to give the two strange men a wide berth. After what felt to the teenage Lac like hours, but may have been little more than twenty minutes, he opened his mouth to begin peppering his dad with questions. That’s when Uncle Rob swatted him hard on the back of the head. Lac turned to face his uncle, opening his mouth yet again to complain. The look on his uncle’s face was no less peremptory in its command to keep quiet than his father’s had been. They walked on, barely making a sound beyond the crunch of leaves and the snap of twigs beneath their boots, until the sun was nearly down and they wordlessly agreed to begin setting up camp, Lac fuming all the while.

“Those two men,” Uncle Rob said to him as they worked together running a rope for the roof of their tent. “Did you see their clothes?”

“Not really. They were wearing old jackets I suppose.”

“They were wearing tatters. Which tells your dad and me they’ve been out here for a long time.”

“So what?”

“So we’re in a different world out here. We’re a long way from any roads or any phones. It’s hard to tell what a man will do when he can be sure no one will know he’s doing it. Those two guys, we may have waved to them, shouted our hellos, and they may have waved and said hi back. Just as likely, though, they’d play friendly until they got close enough to shoot us. Then they’d rifle through our pockets and backpacks looking for money or anything they could sell. Men start to forget all about the rules when they’re a hundred miles from any police, a hundred miles from all the things that might remind them who they are. You gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest.” 

Lac hasn’t recalled this exchange, or thought about Uncle Rob, since he was still a teenager. At the time, he’d remained sulky, thinking his dad and uncle were being paranoid. Or delusional even, pretending to be commandos on some secret mission. How the two men they saw traversing the valley would have reacted upon being alerted to their presence remains an experiment yet to be conducted. But Charles Clemens of the New Tribes Mission, who ought to be plenty qualified to remark on the matter, apparently agrees wholeheartedly with old Uncle Rob that you gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest, or in his own words, that out here you have to be on your guard against people of pretty much any sort.   

Those times with his dad and brothers out in the Michigan wilderness had seemed so distant, from another lifetime. The last thing he expected venturing into the rain forest of Venezuela was to be reacquainted with anything from that period of his life. While the nostalgia is less than pure, he does manage to avoid delving into the myriad complications marring his reminiscences of that time, when he was both bullied and protected by men who were larger than life, when he still had the entirety of his adult life beckoning him onward with promises of boundless possibility. The memory effects a transformation, stripping away the dread that has been hanging from the trees like some pestilential fungus, suffusing the air with its spores, infecting his thoughts and weighing down his every step through the scrub. An actual breeze weaves its way through the shadowy undergrowth, a cleansing stream of thick, oxygen-rich air. For the first time in days, Lac experiences afresh the exhilaration of being beyond the reach of the workaday world, the thrill of impending discovery, the lure of the unknown on the other side of this thick teeming wall of green. The cooling and smoothing of the air speaks of their closeness to the river, but Lac feels like the breeze could almost be coming in response to a shift taking place in his own mind.

As they drag the rowboat from where they’d tucked it amid the latticework of kapok roots, Lac forgets his reasons for locking his thoughts away from the missionary, as though the farther away from the familiar world they travel, the more useless their so-called education proves, and the more pointless their competing agendas seem.

“When I was a kid,” he begins to say as they slide the rowboat down the bank through the suctioning mud, before being interrupted by a caught shoe. Bracing himself on the side of the boat, he lifts it free, producing a loud, almost comical gagging sound. “When I was a kid,” he begins again, “I loved adventure stories. I didn’t care if they were true or if they were fiction. Back then, there didn’t seem to be such a sharp distinction between the two. I was just as excited about Expedition Fawcett as I was by The Lost World. In college, though, that all changed. It was reading Darwin that made me want to go into anthropology.”

He glances over at Clemens as they swing the boat out into the water to see if the voicing of this blasphemous name induces any contortion of his sweat-soaked, washed out visage, but his face registers little aside from an intense focus on the delicate task at hand. “After Origin of Species,” Lac continues, “I turned right away to Voyage of the Beagle. After about a year I damn near had the whole book memorized. Then one of my professors used the section where he writes about the Indians of Tierra del Fuego as an example of nineteenth century racist attitudes.”

Clemens, with a hand on each gunwale, is already lowering himself into a seated position. It’s Lac’s turn to step aboard. His shoes trail thick streams of mud through the air, and his last awkward lurch sets the rowboat to tottering precariously. “He called them ‘poor wretches,’ Lac says as they steady the rocking, “with ‘hideous faces,’ whose ‘violent gestures were without dignity.’ I remember going through a crisis after that class. It was the last time I ever opened that book. I never read anymore adventure novels or expedition chronicles again either. Unless you count Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski.” 

The missionary hands him a paddle; the journey across the river will be too brief to warrant the use of the outboard. A few strokes on either side and they’re a quarter of the way to the opposing bank. Gazing mystified at the swirling eddies produced by each dip and pull of the paddle, Lac hears Clemens say, “You know, for me it was David Livingston and Albert Schweitzer.”

“Of course it was,” Lac says, chuckling. Clemens laughs along with him. “The irony,” Lac adds, “is that guys like Darwin and Livingston stand as icons of this evil imperialist drive to subjugate and enslave, but they were both staunch abolitionists.”

As they approach a clear spot on the bank, Clemens takes up the theme. “Schweitzer too. He wrote that part of his mission to build the hospital in Gabon was to make up for the crimes Europeans had committed against ‘the coloured races.’ A lot of his writings were criticisms of colonial oppression.”

We look back with such disdain for these doctors and missionaries and activists who did so much for indigenous peoples, Lac thinks, sussing out all the markers of their deep-seated racism, all the while declaring that our civilization’s supposed history of moral progress is but a myth. And no one notes the contradiction.

Their first task after hauling the rowboat up yet another soggy embankment is to find a clearing in the scrubland where Clemens says there’s an old hut they can hang their hammocks in to keep them out of reach of the ants and various other crawling insects. As they slog on, spiritlessly swinging their machetes, exhaustion beginning to set in, Lac turns his attention to the loud buzzing in the back of his mind, the insistent clamoring shame of his monumental error. He remembers once lying awake in his dorm at U of M and trying to mentally catalogue the elements common to all of his formerly beloved adventure tales, an exercise in cynicism and budding disillusionment. You start with a mystery and a hero. The mystery takes you to an exotic locale, leading to an ominous arrival. Now the quest begins. Along the way, you have an inventory of lethal threats, a certain fraction of which the characters will subsequently encounter—the disease-bearing insects; in the water, the piranha, the electric eels, those nightmarish, urethra-burrowing candiru, the anaconda; in the jungle, the venomous snakes, the wild boar gnashing and goring with their tusks, the jaguar, the hostile Indians. The characters nearly succumb before the mystery is finally unveiled and the object of the quest—the people of the lost civilization, the legendary monster, the secret medicinal plant—arrives on the scene to rescue them. But somehow the mystery then becomes a moral dilemma. Now that we know it’s here, how will we absorb it into our lives—without destroying it? Without destroying ourselves. But it all somehow redounds to the benefit—the development, the edification, the entertainment—of those of us carrying the torch of western civilization.

            Lac stops to watch Clemens hacking his way through the brush, engulfed by the darkening green immensity. Even if you decide to quit now, he thinks, you’ve still got quite an ordeal to go through before you make it out of here. Swiping away some of the sweat from his forehead and flicking away the bugs in one practiced motion, he takes again to the path carved out by the missionary, shrugging to adjust his pack. He realizes they’ve barely made it twenty yards from the top of the riverbank.

Before reading Darwin his freshman year at Sault Ste. Marie, Lac had perused scores of books about jungles and animals and geography, but they all unfurled as papery lists of lifeless, disconnected facts and details. In Darwin’s hands, on the contrary, every living creature on earth burst vividly to life on the page. His had been a synthesizing mind, not one geared toward mere observation. Origin unfolds as part chronicle of an idea’s incubation, part systematic weighing of evidence, and part exuberant celebration of the wondrousness of discovering how one simple theory could explain such infinitely diverse complexity. Lac absorbed it greedily, letting the points, the systematic style of reasoning, the character underlying it all, letting all of it permeate his thoughts, transforming them.

“I want to do something like that,” he’d said to himself after reading the final page and clapping the covers shut. This was the beginning of his self-imposed discipline, his ceaseless efforts to marshal his attention and corral his thoughts. First, master the details, and then progress to searching for the thread that binds them all together, the dynamic principle that sets them all in vital motion.

 But there was something else about Darwin’s style of thinking and writing and arguing, something he would come to associate with the project of science more generally. Lac had all his life felt bound to Port Austin, to Northern Michigan, to the struggles with his dad and his brothers and sisters, the smothering weight of the future’s most pressingly practical of considerations. Darwin’s was a mind unbound, a playground for fascination unfettered. Whereas most people’s curiosity before the natural world flashes for a fleeting moment before thudding into the wall of daily banality, the soaring wonder of great scientific minds again and again breaks through, like a freight train charging forth along the twin rails of pattern-seeking and prediction. The future-directedness of science was for Lac simultaneously a ticket to an unrestricted world and an escape from the mundane, a way to brush up against the eternal, the sacred even. People he knew growing up sought solace and spiritual uplift by muttering their futile prayers while kneeling beside their beds or by going to church and being led through the mindless motions. But religion obsesses over the past, trapping you there. Science looks out over the horizon, beckoning like a liberation. That’s the part he kept firmly in his grasp even after turning away from Darwin’s grand view of life at his professors’ behest.

“This is it,” Clemens says. “A guy from the Malarialogìa built this a few years back. It should keep the bats out of our hair.”

Lac scans the area, his eyes lighting on the ramshackle hut in a clearing in the brush. “The sun will only be up for a little while longer,” Chuck says as he clears the last of the sparse branches and vines in their path. “Not much point in trying to do anything but sleep after it gets dark.”

Inside the modest but blessedly empty hut, the missionary pulls his hammock from his bag and removes it from its rubber bag. Lac catches a whiff of the old sweat and stale wood smoke odor coming off the mildewed cotton. Recoiling, lifting his hand to his nose, he thinks: Even the damned missionaries are filthy down here.

“When we get back to Tama Tama,” Clemens says, “I’ll try to write up a list of common words and phrases. It took me months to start really picking up the language, but I can at least help get you started.”

Lac doesn’t tell him the issue is moot, because he won’t be returning to this place. Even now, he’s working out the logistics of his return trip to Puerto Ayacucho. Still, he can’t help wondering why this missionary is being so patient and helpful. It dawns on him, as it should have weeks ago, that Clemens knows he’s supposed to be writing a book, his dissertation, on the Yanomamö’s culture—a book that can be passed around to any other New Tribes missionary who follows him into the jungle in search of souls wilting for lack of Christ’s nourishing light. Disgusted, Lac finishes tying his own fresh hammock to the support posts and lies down, just in time to hear his kindly bald companion’s snoring begin in earnest. It’s not quite dark yet.

“Strange bedfellows,” he mutters, looking up at the underside of the thatched roof, wondering why he didn’t take a minute to check it for vermin but too exhausted to get up now. His legs and feet throb. His skin tingles and aches from the constant sweating and swelling. He can’t remember the last time he was this uncomfortable. But all the bodily insults are a mere backdrop for the chaos swirling in his mind. In spite of it all, however, he knows in a few moments he’ll be as deeply asleep as Chuck. Placing a cracker in his mouth and sipping from his canteen to wash it down, he smiles at the realization that he’s almost too tired to finish chewing. 

Also check out:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

Check out Napoleon Chagnon's original account of when he first met the Yanomamö (see particularly the section "The Longest Day: the First One" beginning on page 2).

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why Tamsin Shaw Imagines the Psychologists Are Taking Power

Tamsin Shaw’s essay in the February 25th issue of The New York Review of Books, provocatively titled “The Psychologists Take Power,” is no more scholarly than your average political attack ad, nor is it any more credible. (The article is available online, but I won’t lend it further visibility to search engines by linking to it here.) Two of the psychologists maligned in the essay, Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, recently contributed a letter to the editors which effectively highlights Shaw’s faulty reasoning and myriad distortions, describing how she “prosecutes her case by citation-free attribution, spurious dichotomies, and standards of guilt by association that make Joseph McCarthy look like Sherlock Holmes” (82).

Upon first reading Shaw’s piece, I dismissed it as a particularly unscrupulous bit of interdepartmental tribalism—a philosopher bemoaning the encroachment by pesky upstart scientists into what was formerly the bailiwick of philosophers. But then a line in Shaw’s attempted rebuttal of Haidt and Pinker’s letter sent me back to the original essay, and this time around I recognized it as a manifestation of a more widespread trend among scholars, and a rather unscholarly one at that.

Shaw begins her article by accusing a handful of psychologists of exceeding the bounds of their official remit. These researchers have risen to prominence in recent years through their studies into human morality. But now, instead of restricting themselves, as responsible scientists would, to describing how we make moral judgements and attempting to explain why we respond to moral dilemmas the way we do, these psychologists have begun arrogating moral authority to themselves. They’ve begun, in other words, trying to tell us how we should reason morally—according to Shaw anyway. Her article then progresses through shady innuendo and arguments based on what Haidt and Pinker call “guilt through imaginability” to connect this group of authors to the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation,” i.e. torture, which culminated in such atrocities as those committed in the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Tamsin Shaw

Shaw’s sole piece of evidence comes from a report that was commissioned by the American Psychological Association. David Hoffman and his fellow investigators did indeed find that two members of the APA played a critical role in developing the interrogation methods used by the CIA, and they had the sanction of top officials. Neither of the two, however, and none of those officials authored any of the books on moral psychology that Shaw is supposedly reviewing. In the report’s conclusion, the investigators describe the responses of clinical psychologists who “feel physically sick when they think about the involvement of psychologists intentionally using harsh interrogation techniques.” Shaw writes,

It is easy to imagine the psychologists who claim to be moral experts dismissing such a reaction as an unreliable “gut response” that must be overridden by more sophisticated reasoning. But a thorough distrust of rapid, emotional responses might well leave human beings without a moral compass sufficiently strong to guide them through times of crisis, when our judgement is most severely challenged, or to compete with powerful nonmoral motivations. (39)

What she’s referring to here is the two-system model of moral reasoning which posits a rapid, intuitive system, programmed in large part by our genetic inheritance but with some cultural variation in its expression, matched against a more effort-based, cerebral system that requires the application of complex reasoning.

But it must be noted that nowhere does any of the authors she’s reviewing make a case for a “thorough distrust of rapid, emotional responses.” Their positions are far more nuanced, and Haidt in fact argues in his book The Righteous Mind that liberals could benefit from paying more heed to some of their moral instincts—a case that Shaw herself summarizes in her essay when she’s trying to paint him as an overly “didactic” conservative.
Jonathan Haidt

            Haidt and Pinker’s response to Shaw’s argument by imaginability was to simply ask the other five authors she insinuates support torture whether they indeed reacted the way she describes. They write, “The results: seven out of seven said ‘no’” (82). These authors’ further responses to the question offer a good opportunity to expose just how off-base Shaw’s simplistic characterizations are.

None of these psychologists believes that a reaction of physical revulsion must be overridden or should be thoroughly distrusted. But several pointed out that in the past, people have felt physically sick upon contemplating homosexuality, interracial marriage, vaccination, and other morally unexceptionable acts, so gut feelings alone cannot constitute a “moral compass.” Nor is the case against “enhanced interrogation” so fragile, as Shaw implies, that it has to rest on gut feelings: the moral arguments against torture are overwhelming. So while primitive physical revulsion may serve as an early warning signal indicating that some practice calls for moral scrutiny, it is “the more sophisticated reasoning” that should guide us through times of crisis. (82-emphasis in original)

One phrase that should stand out here is “the moral arguments against torture are overwhelming.” Shaw is supposedly writing about a takeover by psychologists who advocate torture—but none of them actually advocates torture. And, having read four of the six books she covers, I can aver that this response was entirely predictable based on what the authors had written. So why does Shaw attempt to mislead her readers?

            The false implication that the authors she’s reviewing support torture isn’t the only central premise of Shaw’s essay that’s simply wrong; if these psychologists really are trying to take power, as she claims, that’s news to them. Haidt and Pinker begin their rebuttal by pointing out that “Shaw can cite no psychologist who claims special authority or ‘superior wisdom’ on moral matters” (82). Every one of them, with a single exception, in fact includes an explanation of what separates the two endeavors—describing human morality on the one hand, and prescribing values or behaviors on the other—in the very books Shaw professes to find so alarming. The lone exception, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, wrote to Haidt and Pinker, “The fact that one cannot derive morality from psychological research is so screamingly obvious that I never thought to explicitly write it down” (82).

Yet Shaw insists all of these authors commit the fallacy of moving from is to ought; you have to wonder if she even read the books she’s supposed to be reviewing—beyond mining them for damning quotes anyway. And didn’t any of the editors at The New York Review think to check some of her basic claims? Or were they simply hoping to bank on the publication of what amounts to controversy porn? (Think of the dilemma faced by the authors: do you respond and draw more attention to the piece, or do you ignore it and let some portion of the readership come away with a wildly mistaken impression?)
Paul Bloom

            Haidt and Pinker do a fine job of calling out most of Shaw’s biggest mistakes and mischaracterizations. But I want to draw attention to two more instances of her falling short of any reasonable standard of scholarship, because each one reveals something important about the beliefs Shaw uses as her own moral compass. The authors under review situate their findings on human morality in a larger framework of theories about human evolution. Shaw characterizes this framework as “an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology” (38). Shaw has evidently attended the Ken Ham school of evolutionary biology, which preaches that science can only concern itself with phenomena occurring right before our eyes in a lab. The reality is that, while testing adaptationist theories is a complicated endeavor, there are usually at least two ways to falsify them. You can show that the trait or behavior in question is absent in many cultures, or you can show that it emerges late in life after some sort of deliberate training. One of the books Shaw is supposedly reviewing, Bloom’s Just Babies, focuses specifically on research demonstrating that many of our common moral intuitions emerge when we’re babies, in our first year of life, with no deliberate training whatsoever.

            Bloom comes in for some more targeted, if off-hand, criticism near the conclusion of Shaw’s essay for an article he wrote to challenge the increasingly popular sentiment that we can solve our problems as a society by encouraging everyone to be more empathetic. Empathy, Bloom points out, is a finite resource; we’re simply not capable of feeling for every single one of the millions of individuals in need of care throughout the world. So we need to offer that care based on principle, not feeling. Shaw avoids any discussion of her own beliefs about morality in her essay, but from the nature of her mischaracterization of Bloom’s argument we can start to get a sense of the ideology informing her prejudices. She insists that  
when Paul Bloom, in his own Atlantic article, “The Dark Side of Empathy,” warns us that empathy for people who are seen as victims may be associated with violent, punitive tendencies toward those in authority, we should be wary of extrapolating from his psychological claims a prescription for what should and should not be valued, or inferring that we need a moral corrective to a culture suffering from a supposed excess of empathic feelings. (40-1)

The “supposed excess of empathic feelings” isn’t the only laughable distortion people who actually read Bloom’s essay will catch out; the actual examples he cites of when empathy for victims leads to “violent, punitive tendencies” include Donald Trump and Ann Coulter stoking outrage against undocumented immigrants by telling stories of the crimes a few of them commit. This misrepresentation raises an important question: why would Shaw want to mislead her readers into believing Bloom’s intention is to protect those in authority? This brings us to the McCathyesque part of Shaw’s attack ad.

            The sections of the essay drawing a web of guilt connecting the two psychologists who helped develop torture methods for the CIA to all the authors she’d have us believe are complicit focus mainly on Martin Seligman, whose theory of learned helplessness formed the basis of the CIA’s approach to harsh interrogation. Seligman is the founder of a subfield called Positive Psychology, which he developed as a counterbalance to what he perceived as an almost exclusive focus on all that can go wrong with human thinking, feeling, and behaving. His Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania has received $31 million in recent years from the Department of Defense—a smoking gun by Shaw’s lights. And Seligman even admits that on several occasions he met with those two psychologists who participated in the torture program. The other authors Shaw writes about have in turn worked with Seligman on a variety of projects. Haidt even wrote a book on Positive Psychology called The Happiness Hypothesis.

            In Shaw’s view, learned helplessness theory is a potentially dangerous tool being wielded by a bunch of mad scientists and government officials corrupted by financial incentives and a lust for military dominance. To her mind, the notion that Seligman could simply want to help soldiers cope with the stresses of combat is all but impossible to even entertain. In this and every other instance when Shaw attempts to mislead her readers, it’s to put the same sort of negative spin on the psychologists’ explicitly stated positions. If Bloom says empathy has a dark side, then all the authors in question are against empathy. If Haidt argues that resilience—the flipside of learned helplessness—is needed to counteract a culture of victimhood, then all of these authors are against efforts to combat sexism and racism on college campuses. And, as we’ve seen, if these authors say we should question our moral intuitions, it’s because they want to be able to get away with crimes like torture. “Expertise in teaching people to override their moral intuitions is only a moral good if it serves good ends,” Shaw herself writes. “Those ends,” she goes on, “should be determined by rigorous moral deliberation” (40). Since this is precisely what the authors she’s criticizing say in their books, we’re left wondering what her real problem with them might be.

            In her reply to Haidt and Pinker’s letter, Shaw suggests her aim for the essay was to encourage people to more closely scrutinize the “doctrines of Positive Psychology” and the central principles underlying psychological theories about human morality. I was curious to see how she’d respond to being called out for mistakenly stating that the psychologists were claiming moral authority and that they were given to using their research to defend the use of torture. Her main response is to repeat the central aspects of her rather flimsy case against Seligman. But then she does something truly remarkable; she doesn’t deny using guilt by imaginability—she defends it.

Pinker and Haidt say they prefer reality to imagination, but imagination is the capacity that allows us to take responsibility, insofar as it is ever possible, for the ends for which our work will be used and the consequences that it will have in the world. Such imagination is a moral and intellectual virtue that clearly needs to be cultivated. (85)

So, regardless of what the individual psychologists themselves explicitly say about torture, for instance, as long as they’re equipping other people with the conceptual tools to justify torture, they’re still at least somewhat complicit. This was the line that first made me realize Shaw’s essay was something other than a philosopher munching on sour grapes.

            Shaw’s approach to connecting each of the individual authors to Seligman and then through him to the torture program is about as sophisticated, and about as credible, as any narrative concocted by your average online conspiracy theorist. But she believes that these connections are important and meaningful, a belief, I suspect, that derives from her own philosophy. Advocates of this philosophy, commonly referred to as postmodernism or poststructuralism, posit that our culture is governed by a dominant ideology that serves to protect and perpetuate the societal status quo, especially with regard to what are referred to as hegemonic relationships—men over women, whites over other ethnicities, heterosexuals over homosexuals. This dominant ideology finds expression in, while at the same time propagating itself through, cultural practices ranging from linguistic expressions to the creation of art to the conducting of scientific experiments.

            Inspired by figures like Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, postmodern scholars reject many of the central principles of humanism, including its emphasis on the role of rational discourse in driving societal progress. This is because the processes of reasoning and research that go into producing knowledge can never be fully disentangled from the exercise of power, or so it is argued. We experience the world through the medium of culture, and our culture distorts reality in a way that makes hierarchies seem both natural and inevitable. So, according to postmodernists, not only does science fail to create true knowledge of the natural world and its inhabitants, but the ideas it generates must also be scrutinized to identify their hidden political implications.
Ullica Segerstrale

            What such postmodern textual analyses look like in practice is described in sociologist Ullica Segerstrale’s book, Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. Segerstrale observed that postmodern critics of evolutionary psychology (which was more commonly called sociobiology in the late 90s), were outraged by what they presumed were the political implications of the theories, not by what evolutionary psychologists actually wrote. She explains,

In their analysis of their targets’ texts, the critics used a method I call moral reading. The basic idea behind moral reading was to imagine the worst possible political consequences of a scientific claim. In this way, maximum guilt might be attributed to the perpetrator of this claim. (206)  
This is similar to the type of imagination Shaw faults psychologists today for insufficiently exercising. For the postmodernists, the sum total of our cultural knowledge is what sustains all the varieties of oppression and injustice that exist in our society, so unless an author explicitly decries oppression or injustice he’ll likely be held under suspicion. Five of the six books Shaw subjects to her moral reading were written by white males. The sixth was written by a male and a female, both white. The people the CIA tortured were not white. So you might imagine white psychologists telling everyone not to listen to their conscience to make it easier for them reap the benefits of a history of colonization. Of course, I could be completely wrong here; maybe this scenario isn’t what was playing out in Shaw’s imagination at all. But that’s the problem—there are few limits to what any of us can imagine, especially when it comes to people we disagree with on hot-button issues.

            Postmodernism began in English departments back in the ‘60s where it was originally developed as an approach to analyzing literature. From there, it spread to several other branches of the humanities and is now making inroads into the social sciences. Cultural anthropology was the first field to be mostly overtaken. You can see precursors to Shaw’s rhetorical approach in attacks leveled against sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson and Napoleon Chagnon by postmodern anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins. In a review published in 2001, also in The New York Review of Books, Sahlins writes,

The ‘60s were the longest decade of the 20th century, and Vietnam was the longest war. In the West, the war prolonged itself in arrogant perceptions of the weaker peoples as instrumental means of the global projects of the stronger. In the human sciences, the war persists in an obsessive search for power in every nook and cranny of our society and history, and an equally strong postmodern urge to “deconstruct” it. For his part, Chagnon writes popular textbooks that describe his ethnography among the Yanomami in the 1960s in terms of gaining control over people.
Demonstrating his own power has been not only a necessary condition of Chagnon’s fieldwork, but a main technique of investigation.

The first thing to note is that Sahlin’s characterization of Chagnon’s books as narratives of “gaining control over people” is just plain silly; Chagnon was more often than not at the mercy of the Yanomamö. The second is that, just as anyone who’s actually read the books by Haidt, Pinker, Greene, and Bloom will be shocked by Shaw’s claim that their writing somehow bolsters the case for torture, anyone familiar with Chagnon’s studies of the Yanomamö will likely wonder what the hell they have to do with Vietnam, a war that to my knowledge he never expressed an opinion of in writing.

However, according to postmodern logic—or we might say postmodern morality—Chagnon’s observation that the Yanomamö were often violent, along with his espousal of a theory that holds such violence to have been common among preindustrial societies, leads inexorably to the conclusion that he wants us all to believe violence is part of our fixed nature as humans. Through the lens of postmodernism, Chagnon’s work is complicit in making people believe working for peace is futile because violence is inevitable. Chagnon may counter that he believes violence is likely to occur only in certain circumstances, and that by learning more about what conditions lead to conflict we can better equip ourselves to prevent it. But that doesn’t change the fact that society needs high-profile figures to bring before our modern academic version of the inquisition, so that all the other white men lording it over the rest of the world will see what happens to anyone who deviates from right (actually far-left) thinking.
From Divigaciones

Ideas really do have consequences of course, some of which will be unforeseen. The place where an idea ends up may even be repugnant to its originator. But the notion that we can settle foreign policy disputes, eradicate racism, end gender inequality, and bring about world peace simply by demonizing artists and scholars whose work goes against our favored party line, scholars and artists who maybe can’t be shown to support these evils and injustices directly but can certainly be imagined to be doing so in some abstract and indirect way—well, that strikes me as far-fetched. It also strikes me as dangerously misguided, since it’s not like scholars, or anyone else, ever needed any extra encouragement to imagine people who disagree with them being guilty of some grave moral offense. We’re naturally tempted to do that as it is.

Part of becoming a good scholar—part of becoming a grownup—is learning to live with people whose beliefs are different from yours, and to treat them fairly. Unless a particular scholar is openly and explicitly advocating torture, ascribing such an agenda to her is either irresponsible, if we’re unwittingly misrepresenting her, or dishonest, if we’re doing so knowingly. Arguments from imagined adverse consequences can go both ways. We could, for instance, easily write articles suggesting that Shaw is a Stalinist, or that she advocates prosecuting perpetrators of what members of the far left deem to be thought crimes. What about the consequences of encouraging suspicion of science in an age of widespread denial of climate change? Postmodern identity politics is this moment posing a threat to free speech on college campuses. And the tactics of postmodern activists begin and end with the stoking of moral outrage, so we could easily make a case that the activists are deliberately trying to instigate witch hunts. With each baseless accusation and counter-accusation, though, we’re getting farther and farther away from any meaningful inquiry, forestalling any substantive debate, and hamstringing any real moral or political progress.

Many people try to square the circle, arguing that postmodernism isn’t inherently antithetical to science, and that the supposed insights derived from postmodern scholarship ought to be assimilated somehow into science. When Thomas Huxley, the physician and biologist known as Darwin’s bulldog, said that science “commits suicide when it adopts a creed,” he was pointing out that by adhering to an ideology you’re taking its tenets for granted. Science, despite many critics’ desperate proclamations to the contrary, is not itself an ideology; science is an epistemology, a set of principles and methods for investigating nature and arriving at truths about the world. Even the most well-established of these truths, however, is considered provisional, open to potential revision or outright rejection as the methods, technologies, and theories that form the foundation of this collective endeavor advance over the generations.

In her essay, Shaw cites the results of a project attempting to replicate the findings of several seminal experiments in social psychology, counting the surprisingly low success rate as further cause for skepticism of the field. What she fails to appreciate here is that the replication project is being done by a group of scientists who are psychologists themselves, because they’re committed to honing their techniques for studying the human mind. I would imagine if Shaw’s postmodernist precursors had shared a similar commitment to assessing the reliability of their research methods, such as they are, and weighing the validity of their core tenets, then the ideology would have long since fallen out of fashion by the time she was taking up a pen to write about how scary psychologists are.  

The point Shaw's missing here is that it’s precisely this constant quest to check and recheck the evidence, refine and further refine the methods, test and retest the theories, that makes science, if not a source of superior wisdom, then still the most reliable approach to answering questions about who we are, what our place is in the universe, and what habits and policies will give us, as individuals and as citizens, the best chance to thrive and flourish. As Saul Perlmutter, one of the discoverers of dark energy, has said, “Science is an ongoing race between our inventing ways to fool ourselves, and our inventing ways to avoid fooling ourselves.” Shaw may be right that no experimental result could ever fully settle a moral controversy, but experimental results are often not just relevant to our philosophical deliberations but critical to keeping those deliberations firmly grounded in reality.

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