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“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, August 27, 2009

James Wood's Weak Spot. Part 2

In one of those cosmic coincidences that had Carl Jung positing that some supernatural synchronicity operates on and guides our psychic development, I had just begun reading Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory: An Introduction for a graduate course a few hours before this week's New Yorker arrived in the mail. The issue features James Wood's review of Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Wood's views on literature and "theory," little or none of which deserves to be called such (is any of it ever tested?), have not only struck me as much more reasonable than those of any postmodernist but they've also inspired me. In preparation for my class on literary theory, therefore, I read up on James Wood--(as well as Frederick Crews).

In the first part of the essay, Wood takes atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to task for their crude understanding of the deity. He then goes on to summarize Eagleton's argument, that Dawkins and Hitchens have too crude an understanding of the deity, and explain why he finds it unconvincing. Eagleton believes in a non-material and abstract god, so what's the point of all the scientific criticism of the idea? But, Wood points out, in stripping Christianity of "idolatry,"--or anthropomorphism--one is necessarily dismissing a large majority of its essence. Christ was, after all, supposed to have been a flesh-and-blood man. Wood rightly calls Eagleton out on this, equating the argument with saying:

'But I don't mean your kind of God; I mean something much more sophisticated and ethereal.'... (78)

Wood goes on, "Theologians and priests are always changing the game in this way. They accuse atheists of wanting to murder an overliteral God, while they themselves keep alive a rarefied God whom no one, other than them, actually believes in" (78).

What's odd about Wood making this counterargument against Eagleton is that I was mentally making the same counterargument against Wood while reading the first part of the article. He even claims that Eagleton's "shiftiness about his religious belief has the remarkable effect of pushing the reader back onto the stout deck of the dreadnought Ditchens" (77), which is Eagleton's not-so-clever abbreviation of Dawkins and Hitchens. So does Wood actually agree with the new atheists, even though he claims not to?

As I quoted in part 1, he says what's "most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty" (76) But Dawkins only stresses the immense improbability of any deity existing, which he juxtaposes with the downright incoherent hokiness of the bible and the bloodiness of the battles it inspired. His argument is that it's not only unlikely, but silly and dangerous too. It may be intolerant to point this out, but the new atheists aren't intolerant to the point of bombing abortion clinics. Ditchens's intolerance is completely intellectual, and completely justified. Doesn't Wood see this? The final paragraph of his essay is instructive on this point:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief. Such atheism, only a semitone from faith, would be, like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity. It could give a brother's account of belief, rather than treat it as some unwanted impoverished relative. It would be unafraid to credit the immense allure of religious tradition, but at the same time it would be ready to argue that the abstract God of the philosophers and the theologians is no more probable than the idolatrous God of the fundamentalists, makes no better sense of the fallen world, and is certainly no more likable or worthy of our worshipful respect--alas. (79)

This prescription reminds me of Wood's criticisms of John Updike's novels in The Broken Estate. In an essay titled "Updike's Complacent God," he charges that Updike never convincingly portrayed the negative capability experienced by someone having a crisis of faith. All Updike's characters seem, probably because Updike himself was complacent in regard to religion. I'm tempted to be cynical and say Wood's refusal to endorse Dawkins and Hitchens is a result of his snobbishness--he's just too cool for an author generally suspected of crassness. But I think rather it's just a matter of taste. Wood agrees with the new atheists; he just wishes they were a little more tore up about the truth they've happened on--as he probably is.

One final thought on all the bandied complaints about "liberal positivism": no one says science and rationalism and the enlightenment were perfect, unqualified boons to society. They're just better than any of the other epistemologies we've experimented with, especially the philosophical cherry-picking and blatant fantasizing of gullible lightweights like Eagleton. As Einstein said:

"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

James Wood's Weak Spot. Part 1

On matters literary, James Wood is to be not only read but studied. We all come to know the habitual distortions and exaggerations of our closest friends’ stories, and this often allows us to see through what we hear them saying to a more accurate version of what really happened. We correct for our friends’ quirks of perception and recollection. Wood has the uncanny ability to do this with literature; he sees through writerly mannerisms and even virtuoso techniques to the reality that inspired the author. In a section of his How Fiction Works, Wood explains why unreliable narration doesn’t prevent readers from getting the real story being narrated:

We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator’s unreliability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us to how to read its narrator. (5)

He makes it seem elementary. But reading novels in an attempt to learn how to read their narrators is something I for one learned how to do, in large part, from reading James Wood.

It is Wood’s ability to see through fiction to reality that makes him the ideal apologist for realism; he dislikes flimsy characters created solely for the purpose of being immolated on the altar of metafictional experimentation. He takes fictional characters seriously. In his book The Broken Estate, for instance, he complains of the august John Updike that his poetic descriptions, by favoring sonorous and surprising terms rather than informative or accurate ones, amount to “lyrical kitsch” (212). “Such writing,” Wood says, “bestows rather than discovers” (213). Of course, we expect fiction, since it is by definition creative, to bestow, but Wood sees fiction playing a more serious role than detailing made-up situations in nice-sounding language. Fiction has the potential to lead to real discoveries.

Since Wood takes fictional characters so seriously, his views on religion ought to be pretty interesting. The subtitle of The Broken Estate is Essays on Literature and Belief. And, according to the biographical note on the jacket of How Fiction Works, he has written a novel called The Book Against God. The essays only deal with religion through the lens of the various novels and authors he discusses, and, though I haven’t read it, the novel, being a work of fiction, can’t be read as any explicit statement of its author’s beliefs. So when this week’s issue of The New Yorker arrived in the mail (or rather on the couch, borne on the hands of my girlfriend from the mailbox) I was excited to see Wood’s name listed in the table of contents alongside an article on “The new anti-atheists.” This excitement was heightened by my philosophical affinity with the new atheists, particularly Dawkins and Hitchens. So where does Wood fall in the debate?

Turning to the article as I sat down at a Chinese food buffet, I was let down (and let me here flag the understatement) with the first page an a half, in which Wood jumps on the bandwagon of bashing Dawkins et al for discrediting too simplistic a notion of the deity (note my refusal to capitalize):

the God most worth fighting against [for them] seems to be a hybrid of a cheaply understood Old Testament, a prejudicially scanned Koran, and the sentimentalities of contemporary evangelicalism. (75)

He goes on to explain Stephen Jay Gould, in advocating his Non-overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA, seems reasonable to him because his father was a zoologist who late in life became a priest. Therefore, the reasoning goes, there must be a more sophisticated way to believe than those attacked by The God Delusion crowd.

I was at this point, losing faith in Wood, but I was still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. (See what I did there.) Then I came across the only stupid thing I’ve ever seen Wood put into print. Discussing HADD (the hyperactive agency detection device in our minds), he takes issue with the example Dawkins provides of our natural proclivity to see agency where none exists. John Cleese gets out of his car, which has just broken down, and starts going ballistic on it, cursing it and beating on it. Cleese could explain--but wouldn't--that the scene derives its humor from the fact that it's completely absurd to blame the car, but also completely understandable. But, Wood tries to argue that beating on the car isn't so crazy:

the car is not a piece of indifferent nature. It is man-made, and so to assume a
causal, if rather obscure, link between the human agency and the car’s breakdown
isn’t insane—surely, sometime in the nineteen eighties, Dawkins owned a badly
made English car? (75)

Oo, snap! But wait: is Wood talking about planned obsolescence, suggesting someone may have deliberately designed the car to break down? I guess that would imply agency—but not the car’s agency. It’s still quite insane, therefore, to beat on the car, whether it’s man-made or not.

"What is most repellent about the new atheism," Wood writes, "is its intolerant certainty; it is always noon in Dawkins world, and the sun of science and liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadows" (76).

At this point in reading the article, I was amply disappointed, but it turns out Wood's breezy conformity in regard to Dawkins isn't representative of his religious views in general. In the next section, in which he reviews the "anti-atheists," Wood does an about-face. More on that in part 2.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Silver Spoons and Street Corners

Since I wrote the last post, I've been thinking a lot about differences in upbringing, and about social advantages us middle class whites take for granted. From mowing our lawn for five bucks a pop, I graduated to other peoples' lawns, and then to multi-acre lawns that required the use of large tractors, which were helpfully provided for me by my dad. As soon I got my license, I got a job at The Elks Country Club washing dishes. From there I went to Spiece to be a shoe salesman. I worked all these jobs while going to school, having a secure roof over my head, a more-or-less stable family environment, and being looked over by competent--at times overbearing--parents.

School is another matter entirely. My mom and I often argue about just how much I benefited from attending Catholic schools, something she insisted on when my dad was balking because of the expense. But even if Catholic schools were better (they're not) I would have enjoyed quite a bit of an advantage had I gone to public schools around where we lived too. The budget for schools is largely determined by housing taxes, so areas with affluent homeowners tend to have better funded schools. Inner city schools, on the other hand, tend to have less money over all, and substantially--ridiculously--less money per capita for the students. The ratio of minorities to whites in these schools is often more than 9 to one. (Here's a link to Jonathan Kozol's article about this in Harper's).

What this means is that while I was busy learning not just the explicit lessons of a school curriculum but also the procedural skills of adhering to schedules, budgeting time, preparing in advance, paying attention, sitting quietly, kids less fortunate than me were getting their education on a street corner, learning how to get respect, how to hustle, how to get what you need and not get caught.

But most middle class people I know don't see being to work on time as a skill so much as a moral issue. They are unable to appreciate the true significance of different upbringings. Part of the problem may be the challenge to free will such an appreciation would pose. Indeed, most people I talk to are prone to get angry when you talk about the advantages they enjoyed, as if you were trying to take credit away from them. It's also just really hard to remember picking up implicit lessons, really easy to take them for granted, and all too tempting to indulge in feelings of superiority.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hard Work and Handouts

One of the first things I did as a kid to make money was mow the lawn for my dad. Being a kid, I didn't appreciate the political implications. Like many middle class parents, my dad thought he should teach us kids (me and my two brothers) about money, how to earn it, how to hold on to it, how to spend it wisely. Like many middle class parents, my dad also wanted to get out of mowing the lawn. While my dad was busy killing his two birds, I was busy pushing along and fantasizing about the He-Man and Thundercats action figures I would buy, completely oblivious that any lesson was being imparted.

As an adult, I think about that first lawn-mowing gig (many would follow) whenever I'm discussing politics and someone refers to the danger supposedly inherent in government programs to benefit the poor. For instance, one of my friends recently expressed his dual concerns that reforming insurance so that more people were covered poses a threat to his own policy and that by simply giving a service to people who hadn't paid for it, as he has been paying for his for years, "it will make the slugs sluggier," as he put it.

The issue of fairness comes up frequently in these discussions, and is usually expressed in terms like, "Why should I get taxed on money I earned so that the government can turn around and give my money to people who don't even work." (Of course, the actual terms are seldom this polite.) The other issue, making the slugs sluggier, is what brings to my mind what my dad was trying to trying do for me by having me work for my allowance--he was making sure I wasn't spoiled. The interesting thing is that the fairness issue cannot logically fit with the spoiling issue, and yet conservatives habitually trot them out in tandem.

My dad, I like to think, succeeded in his efforts to raise me with a strong work ethic, and it is that very fact that forces to me wonder what I'd be like if I didn't have a guy like my dad around while I was growing up (or a guy like my dad to contribute half my genes). I was taught that you work, you get paid, you spend your money however you want, and you deserve whatever you so acquire. Of course, this is assuming that you have the option to work. When jobs are scarce, getting hired is itself something you have to work to acheive. And if you have a friend or a relative who hooks you up with a job, even if you go on to earn money at it, are we still talking about fairness when the issue of tax money to help the unemployed comes up?

The issue of fairness presupposes self-determination, that at least for the most part everyone has the same opportunities to work and earn money. You can say self-determination is in fact something you can teach, but then it's not really self determination--it's determined by the teacher. I was lucky to have a dad to teach me the value of hard work, and I can't say that it's not fair if I have to help someone else who wasn't so fortunate. I didn't earn my dad.

While at the heart of the fairness issue is free will, the issue of spoiling rests on determinism. (Full disclosure: I am a determinist.) We, as a society, the argument goes, shouldn't give anyone--especially people who don't work--handouts because that will make them dependent on us. I find this argument much more compelling than the fairness argument, because more than in almost any other industrialized country starting off with more in America means ending up with more (this is measured by what's called the Social Mobility Index). Plus, it seems to me that what social psychologists call the self-serving bias, according to which we attribute our successes to our own hardwork and skillfullness but our failures to forces beyond our control, virtually guarantees poor judgment regarding who deserves what. Witness banking and investment executives. (The flipside of the self-serving bias, the fundamental attribution error, has us attributing negative behavior in others to their character and dismissing the importance of factors beyond their control--together, it seems to me, these two in-built prejudices go a long way toward accounting for the whole of conservative thought.)

If we recognize that arguments for fairness cannot be reconciled with those against spoiling, and that fairness in regard to income is too hard to assess to be the basis of public policies (I'm sure a lot of you have disagreements, but for the sake of argument...) isn't the fact that there must be an incentive to work for the economy to function enough to suggest that social welfare is a bad idea? I think it depends on how the welfare is administered. If it goes, say, to health care, I'd say we don't much have to worry about people being spoiled--you have to be healthy to go to work. Likewise, if it goes to education, which actually requires a work ethic of its own. I suppose you could argue that some people go to school instead of working--I'm probably guilty of that--but most see school as a stepping stone to a better job.

Finally there's the fact that my dad only paid me five bucks a pop--that's serious exploitation.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Consumer Friendly Government?

This past weekend I drove with my girlfriend to Pennsylvania to attend a wedding. My girlfriend's family is pretty interesting, a "goldmine" of literary material as I've said to her. Her dad and stepmom live in a house off the electrical grid (sometimes using a generator) up in Lagrange. They do their best to live apart from society. Her dad gets odd jobs welding and sells junk cars and trucks. Her stepmom works in an alternative health shop, and is a huge guru/advocate. Bring up medicine and you can count on her getting pretty worked up. (I had to bite my tongue because of my views on alternative medicine--for instance that it's dangerous.)

Since the health care debate--if you can call it that--has been foremost on my mind, I listened to several conversations throughout the two and half day trip and tried to see where people were coming from politically. At one point, I lost patience and began to spout off. Later, one of my girlfriend's distant relations thanked me for "the impromptu town hall." But her stepmom seemed a bit resentful.

In the 1200 pages of the House's health reform bill (why is everyone calling it Obama's?) there is somewhere a section that gives the government access to all of our bank accounts, from which they (bureaucrats) can make any sort of withdraw they deem necessary. This is what my girlfriend's stepmom had heard--though from where she wouldn't tell me. If this actually were in the bill it would be an even more egregious violation of the fourth amendment than the patriot act. But I'm not convinced I need to factcheck this. It's nonsense.

Why should the bill run to 1200 pages? A lot of resistance to the House reform bill (Obama's and the Senate's are still to come) comes from the notion that complexity is evidence of obfuscation. In fact, their complaints about government in general followed that theme. Why don't they tell us in plain terms what's in all these bills they pass?

Of course, you can watch C-SPAN twenty-four hours a day. And all the bills are on public record. It's not a matter of unavailability--it's just too hard to take it all in. The problem is that there is no way to govern 290 million people without the laws getting more complicated than any individual can track. The Founders knew that; that's why we elect representatives. The problem is that as the world gets increasingly more complicated, American education gets increasingly scattershot.

The health care bill is 1200 pages because setting up a public insurance option is complicated; restructuring insurance regulation is complicated; mandating and subsidizing insurance is complicated. Most of the stuff in those pages is procedural, as in, How do we implement this reform? not What will this reform be? That's why no one wants to read it. It's like computer programming code. Naturally, industry lobbyists and Republicans out to make sure Obama gets to his Waterloo appointment on time, have seized on this necessary complexity and exploited it to float fantasies about death panels and bank account mining.

So much of the impetus behind wanting to shrink or limit government derives from our inability to conceive of its various functions. Too bad we can't have some trustworthy average Joe come to our houses, sit down with us, and explain in layman's terms everything every bill does. Too bad politicians routinely exploit this state of affairs. But civilization, with a strong government, is still a helluva lot better option than returning to some state of nature. Sorry that government isn't very responsive to you and me personally, as individuals, but how the hell could it be?

Hunting and gathering or horticultural tribes may have laid back lives (though no health care) but we're kind of past the population threshold for those to be viable anymore. We can become a third world country, or we can try to wade into the complexity and make the government as good as we can.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Think Tank is Usually a Misnomer

So you're watching cable news and the studio correspondent introduces an issue, any old issue. After going over the basics and delineating the two sides (too briefly to be of much educational use, and why make it so confrontational by splitting it between two conflicting viewpoints? Ahh, so it'll be more entertaining). You've got "experts" arguing "both" sides of the issue so the network can claim it's not biased, a la Fox News's slogan "Fair and Balanced." Now if you look down at the graphics when the "experts" get their chance to take up the entire scene--except of course for the ticker--you can read their names as well as the supposed source of their expertise. Often the "expert" is affiliated with a university, a magazine, or has some first-hand experience with the issue. But more and more lately the "experts" are listed as members of this or that Think Tank.

Even Pen & Teller give their show "Bullshit" over to Think Tank members, as in their global warming episode in which they interview a guy from The Cato Institute. So what are these Think Tanks, and why should we believe anything their members claim?

The first important thing to know about Think Tanks is that they're founded on one or another ideology. The Cato Institute, for instance, is libertarian. The Heritage Foundation is straight down the line conservative. And so is The American Enterprise Institute. There are some liberal Think Tanks too, mainly environmental, but by far the most prominent examples serve the right. Not surprisingly they are privately funded. (The ACLU is a liberal example.)

What happens all too often is that a bunch of businesses get together and try to come up with a way to deal with pesky scientific findings, like that second hand smoke can be dangerous, or that pumping CO2 into the air is melting Arctic Ice, findings which many may believe justify government regulation of private industry. So you stack a so-called Think Tank with researchers and analysts who share your ideology, let them reevaluate the science, declare it "junk science" or even an outright hoax, and then send them to the cable news studio to sit across from an actual epidemiologist or a climate scientist, and viola, we have a shoppers paradise of ideas--and who wants to believe we're responsible for ruining the environment? Bummer man, change the channel. What is this PBS?

But what's so different about university or private sector scientists? Aren't they just as likely to be ideologically driven? In a word, no. Scientists are trained to avoid what's called confirmation bias. This bias manifests itself in myriad subtle ways so it isn't easily--or ever completely--rooted out. It is the tendency to find what we expect to find, and miss what we expect not to be there. Another way to put it is that confirmation bias has you reasoning backwards: you start with your conclusion and construct your argument (or distort your evidence) to fit with it. Now whereas scientists do their best to avoid confirmation bias--think double blind clinical trials for drugs--Think Tanks call it, well, thinking. Cato is for deregulation, so they come up with ways to cast doubt on the science behind global warming concerns--simple.

Not all Think Tanks are completely in the pocket of big businesses. But if you have a Think Tank "expert" telling you something different from any large group of scientists, you can be pretty sure the only real expertise is in corporate shilling.

"Bullshit," incidentally, could have been another good show on critical thinking and the scientific method. Instead, the values it promulgates are cynicism and anti-scientific libertarianism.