“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
Monday, December 28, 2009
It could be that I'm you're run-of-the-mill, desensitized American male, but I didn't get what the big deal was about cannibalism in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" when I read it a couple years ago. Watching the movie, though, I had William Flesch's "Comeuppance" in mind, and I saw that there was a struggle, often between father and son but sometimes within each of them, to maintain their humanity in the face of such devastation. I suppose I understood this while first reading the book, but the struggle to remain "strong reciprocators" seemed somewhat beside the point, what with all the grieving and starvation and all. But Papa's and the boy's "carrying the fire" is important precisely because of these difficulties.
One criticism of Flesch's theory keeps rearing its head in my mind (a head rearing in my mind?): costly signaling, like that of the man and his son as they survive while also continuing to be strong reciprocators, is an explanation for many non-adaptive behaviors. But as I look around at the world and see more and more examples of costly signaling I have to wonder, what isn't costly signaling? Is the idea testable? Does incorporating it into the paradigm of natural selection render that theory untestable? The problem here is that costly signaling is too broad of a concept, one whose precise mechanics I've yet to see spelled out.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
One of the dishwashers at the restaurant where I work likes to light-heartedly discuss politics with me. “How are things this week on the left?” he might ask. Not even in his twenties yet, he can impressively explain why it’s wrong to conflate communism with Stalinism. He believes the best government would be a communist one, but until we figure out how to establish it, our best option is to go republican. He loves Rush Limbaugh. One day I was talking about disparities in school funding when he began telling about why he doesn’t think that sort of thing is important. “I did horribly in school, but I decided I wanted to learn on my own.”
He went on to tell me about a terrible period he went through growing up, after his parents got divorced and his mother was left nearly destitute. The young dishwater had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. The story struck me because about two weeks earlier I’d been discussing politics with a customer in the dinning room who told a remarkably similar one. He was eating with his wife and their new baby. When I disagreed with him that Obama’s election was a national catastrophe he began an impromptu lecture on conservative ideology. I interrupted him, saying, “I understand top-down economics; I just don’t agree with it.” But when I started to explain the bottom-up theory, he interrupted me with a story about how his mom was on food stamps and they had nothing when he was a kid, and yet here he is, a well-to-do father (he even put a number on his prosperity). “I’m walking proof that it is possible.”
I can go on and on with more examples. It seems like the moment anyone takes up the mantle of economic conservatism for the first time he (usually males) has to put together one of these rags-to-riches stories. I guess I could do it too, with just a little exaggeration. “My first memories are of living in government subsidized apartments, and my parents argued about money almost every day of my life when I was a kid, and then they got divorced and I was devastated—I put on weight until I was morbidly obese and I went to a psychologist for depression because I missed a month of school in fourth grade.” (Actually, that’s not exaggerated at all.)
The point we’re supposed to take away is that hardship is good and that no matter how bad being poor may appear it’s nothing a good work ethic can’t fix. Invariably, the Horatio Alger proceeds to the non sequitur that his making it out of poverty means it’s a bad idea for us as a society to invest in programs to help the poor. Push him by asking what if the poverty he experienced wasn’t as bad as the worst poverty in the country, or where that work ethic that saved him came from, and he’ll most likely shift gears and start explaining that becoming a productive citizen is a matter of incentives.
The logic runs: if you give money to people who aren’t working, you’re taking away the main incentive they had to get off their asses and go to work. Likewise, if you take money away from the people who have earned it by taxing them, you’re giving them a disincentive to continue being productive. This a folksy version of a Skinner Box: you get the pigeons to do whatever tricks you want by rewarding them with food pellets when they get close to performing them correctly—“successive approximations” of the behavior—and punishing them by not giving them food pellets when they go astray. What’s shocking is that this is as sophisticated as the great Reagan Revolution ever got. It’s a psychological theory that was recognized as too simplistic in the 1950’s writ large to explain the economy. What if people can make money in ways other than going to work, say, by selling drugs? The conservatives’ answer—more police, harsher punishments. But what if money isn’t the only reward people respond to? And what if prison doesn’t work like it’s supposed to?
The main appeal, I think, to Skinner Box Economics is that it says, in effect, don’t worry about having more than other people because you’ve earned what you have. You deserve it. What a relief to hear that we have more because we’re just better people. We needn’t work ourselves up over the wretched plight of the have-nots; if they really wanted to, they could have everything we have. To keep this line of reasoning afloat you need to buoy it up with a bit of elitism: so maybe offering everyone the same incentives won’t make everyone rich, but the smartest and most industrious people will be alright. If you’re doing alright, then you must be smart and industrious. And if you’re filthy rich, say, Wall Street banker rich, then, well, you must be one amazing S.O.B. How much money you have becomes an index of how virtuous you are as a person. And some people are so amazing in fact that the worst thing society can do is hold them back in any way, because their prosperity is so awesome it benefits everyone—it trickles down. There you have it, a rationale for letting rich people do whatever they want, and leaving poor people to their own devices to pull up their own damn bootstraps. This is the thinking that has led to even our democratic president believing that he needs to pander to Wall Street to save the economy. This is conservatism. And it’s so silly no adult should entertain it for more than a moment.
A philosophy that further empowers the powerful, that justifies the holding of power over the masses of the less powerful, ought to be appealing to anyone who actually has power. But it’s remarkable how well these ideas trickle down to the rest of us. One way to account for the assimilation of Skinner Box Economics among the middle class is that it is the middle class; people in it still have to justify being more privileged than those in the lower classes. But the real draw probably has little to do with any recognition of one’s actual circumstances; it relies rather on a large-scale obliviousness of them. Psychologists have been documenting for years the power of two biases we all fall prey to that have bearing on our economic thinking: the first is the self-serving bias, according to which we take credit any time we succeed at something but point to forces beyond our control whenever we fail. One of the best examples of the self-serving bias is research showing that the percentage of people who believe themselves to be better-than-average drivers is in the nineties—even among those who’ve recently been at fault in a traffic accident. (Sounds like Wall Street.) The second bias, which is the flipside of the first, is the fundamental attribution error, according to which we privilege attributions of persistent character traits to other people in explaining their behavior at the expense of external, situational factors—when someone cuts us off while we’re driving we immediately conclude that person is a jerk, even though we attribute the same type of behavior in ourselves to our being late for a meeting.
Any line of thinking that leads one away from the comforting belief in his or her own infinite capacity for self-determination will inevitably fail to take hold in the minds of those who rely on intuition as a standard of truth. That’s why the conservative ideology is such an incoherent mess: on the one hand, you’re trying to create a scientific model for how the economy works (or doesn’t), but on the other you’re trying not only to leave intact people’s faith in free will but also to bolster it, to elevate it to the status of linchpin to the entire worldview. But free will and determinism don’t mix, and unless you resort to religious concepts of non-material souls there’s no place to locate free will in the natural world. The very notion of free will is self-serving to anyone at all successful in his or her life—and that’s why self-determination, in the face of extreme adversity, is fetishized by the right. That’s why every conservative has a rags-to-riches story to offer as proof of the true nature of economic forces.
The real wonder of the widespread appeal of conservatism is the enormous capacity it suggests we all have for taking our advantages for granted. Most people bristle when you even use the words advantage or privilege—as if you’re undermining their worth or authenticity as a person. But the advantages middle class people enjoy are glaring and undeniable. Sure, many of us were raised by single mothers who went through periods of hardship. I’d say most of us, though, had grandparents around who were willing to lend a helping hand here and there. And even if these grandparents didn’t provide loans or handouts they did provide the cultural capital that makes us recognizable to other middle class people as part of the tribe. What makes conservative rags-to-riches stories impossible prima facie is that the people telling them know the plot elements so well, meaning someone taught them the virtue of self-reliance, and they tell them in standard American English, with mouths full of shiny, straight teeth, in accents that belie the story’s gist. It may not seem, in hindsight, that they were comfortably ensconced in the middle class, but at the very least they were surrounded by middle class people, and benefiting from their attention.
You might be tempted to conclude that the role of contingency is left out of conservative ideology, but that’s not really the case. Contingency in the form of bad luck is incorporated into conservative thinking in the form of the very narratives of triumph over adversity that are offered as proof of the fatherly wisdom of the free market. In this way, the ideology is inextricably bound to the storyteller’s authenticity as a person. I suffered and toiled, the storyteller reasons, and therefore my accomplishments are genuine, my character strong. The corollary to this personal investment in what is no longer merely an economic theory is that any dawning awareness of people in worse circumstances than those endured and overcome by the authentic man or woman will be resisted as a threat to that authenticity. If they were to accept that they had it better or easier than some, then their victories would be invalidated. They are thus highly motivated to discount, or simply not to notice contingencies like generational or cultural advantages.
I’ve yet to hear a rags-to-riches story that begins with a malnourished and overstressed mother giving birth prematurely to a cognitively impaired and immuno-compromised baby, and continues with a malnourished and neglected childhood in underperforming schools where not a teacher nor a classmate can be found who places any real value on education, and ends with the hard-working, intelligent person you see in front of you, who makes a pretty decent income and is raising a proud, healthy family. Severely impoverished people live a different world, and however bad we middle-class toilers think we’ve had it we should never be so callous and oblivious to claim we’ve seen and mastered that world. But Skinner Box Economics doesn’t just fail because some of us are born less able to perform successive approximations of the various tricks of productivity; it fails because it’s based on an inadequate theory of human motivation. Rewards and punishments work to determine our behavior to be sure, but the only people who sit around calculating outcomes and navigating incentives and disincentives with a constant eye toward the bottom line are the rich executives who benefit most from a general acceptance of supply-side economics.
The main cultural disadvantage for people growing up in poor families in poor neighborhoods is that the individuals who are likely to serve as role models there will seldom be the beacons of middle-class virtue we stupidly expect our incentive structure to produce. When I was growing up, I looked up to my older brothers, and wanted to do whatever they were doing. And I looked up to an older neighbor kid, whose influence led me to race bikes at local parks. Later my role models were Jean Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I got into martial arts and physical fitness. Soon thereafter, I began to idolize novelists and scientists. Skinnerian behaviorism has been supplanted in the social sciences by theories emphasizing the importance of observational learning, as well as the undeniable role of basic drives like the one for status-seeking. Primatologist Frans de Waal, for instance, has proposed a theory for cultural transmission—in both apes and humans—called BIOL, for bonding and identification based observational learning. What this theory suggests is that our personalities are largely determined by a proclivity for seeking out high-status individuals whom we admire, assimilating their values and beliefs, and emulating their behavior. Absent a paragon of the Calvinist work ethic, no amount of incentives is going to turn a child into the type of person who tells conservative rags-to-riches stories.
The thing to take away from these stories is usually that there is a figure or two who perform admirably in them—the single mom, the determined dad, the charismatic teacher. And the message isn’t about economics at all but about culture and family. Conservatives tout the sanctity of family and the importance of good parenting but when they come face-to-face with the products of poor parenting they see only the products of bad decisions. Middle class parents go to agonizing lengths to ensure their children grow up in good neighborhoods and attend good schools but suggest to them that how well someone behaves is a function of how much they have—how much love and attention, how much healthy food and access to doctors, how much they can count on their struggles being worthwhile—and those same middle class parents will warn you about the dangers of making excuses.
The real proof of how well conservative policies work is not to be found in anecdotes, no matter how numerous; it’s in measures of social mobility. The story these measures tell about the effects of moving farther to the right as a country contrast rather starkly with all the rags-to-Republican tales of personal heroism. But then numbers aren’t really stories; there’s no authenticity and self-congratulation to be gleaned from statistics; and if it’s really true that we owe our prosperity to chance, well, that’s just depressing—and discouraging. We can take some encouragement for our stories of hardship though. We just have to take note of how often the evidence they provide for poverty—food stamps, rent-controlled housing—are in fact government programs to aid the impoverished. They must be working.
Monday, December 21, 2009
A whole-world problem—and the key to solving it is to get everyone to acknowledge it. But of course some people, some businesses, have more to lose once it is universally acknowledged than others. When concern about global warming was new, it was understandable that fossil fuel companies would be hold-outs longer than other sectors, even that the US, with its economy so dependent on oil, would be the last to come around. Something new and disturbing is happening today though. Industry channels millions of dollars into PR firms and so-called think tanks like Cato, and when any one person first makes the decision to invest in this kind of commercial and ideological “research” he or she must realize that the “findings” will be highly dubious, not to mention intentionally deceptive. But then somewhere along the line the industry as a whole decides to take the talking points seriously—to treat them as if they were real science. Soon the initial step of hiring the PR firms and commissioning the think tanks is forgotten altogether, and it’s a matter of “Our knowledge is as a good as your knowledge,” a shoppers’ paradise of ideas, a postmodern nightmare.
Maybe it’s not so remarkable that industries can so effectively delude themselves since, after all, individuals do it every day. What is remarkable, though, is how effectively they’ve enlisted so many people who aren’t even part of those industries to trumpet their patently contrived talking points—and to do it with such zeal. In past entries, I’ve hinted at some possible explanations for how this conversion and near-radicalization of ordinary citizens is accomplished. But I like to point out that, though it’s part of the denialists litany of canards that global warming is religion, it seems to me what the PR people have exploited in so many conservatives is their own cherished beliefs in the omnipotence and benevolence of the invisible hand of the free market and in the omnipotence and benevolence of America. Aren’t these beliefs much closer to a religion than the belief that carbon dioxide is rapidly accumulating in the troposphere (measurable, measured, verified), trapping heat from the sun (measurable, measured, verified), and causing the global average temperature to increase (amen?).
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The Cost of Denying the Abyss: Signals of Selfishness and Altruism in Death in Venice 4th and Final Part
It is Tadzio’s role as a paragon of prosociality that makes his less than perfect teeth so striking to Aschenbach. When he first notices that the boys’ teeth are “not as attractive as they might have been,” he sees it as a sign that he is “sickly” and that he will “probably not live to grow old” (51). For some reason this thought provides him with a “feeling of satisfaction or relief,” perhaps because it allays some of the envy he feels for the boy, which is naturally already much allayed simply by dint of his being a child. Later, when Tadzio is playing on the beach with his friend Jashu, he is described as looking at the other boy and “smiling with eyes and lips” (60). And, when it happens by chance that Aschenbach and Tadzio actually come face-to-face and the young boy smiles at the old man, he can barely stand it. “You mustn’t smile like that!” he imagines saying. “One mustn’t, do you hear, mustn’t smile like that at anyone!” (67). The symbolism of teeth in Death in Venice is close to that of language: Aschenbach comes to know that “Eros dwells in language” (62) as he sits writing an essay that has been inspired by the boy’s beauty. Language itself is an inherently social adaptation. But the old writer uses it only in isolation. Likewise, teeth serve both the self-directed function of mastication and the other-directed one of conveying emotion.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Flesch follows theorists Amotz and Avishag Zahavi in positing what they call “the handicap principle” as an explanation for how strong reciprocity could evolve and persist in animal populations. As is evident from people’s behavior in The Ultimatum Game, they are willing to pay a price, in other words to handicap themselves, for the sake of fairness. What makes the handicap effective as a signal is that the individual who imposes it on him- or herself must be able to survive with the added burden. The peacock signals his fitness with his elaborate feathers because only a fit individual could drag around such a cumbersome display. (Conspicuous consumption is the human financial analog.) Humans, on the other hand, signal their fitness, and thus enhance their reputations, by taking on the costs of rewarding fellow altruists, and even more so by punishing defectors. Flesch calls this “costly signaling.” And it explains the emphasis Mann places on the costs incurred by Aschenbach in the service of his art. But does Aschenbach’s writing somehow signal his strong reciprocity?
Death in Venice is at base a narrative exploration of the nature of art and how it affects the life of the artist. It must be borne in mind that even as we are assessing Aschenbach’s work for signs of strong reciprocity we are simultaneously assessing the work of Thomas Mann for the same quality. This observation suggests the possibility that, altruistic as Aschenbach may have believed he was in the beginning of the story, Mann may be signaling to us, his readers, his own altruism by punishing his character for his wrongheaded approach to art. In Flesch’s words, “The story tells a story of punishment; the story punishes as story; the storyteller represents him- or herself as an altruistic punisher by telling it” (83). We in turn signal our own strong reciprocity by volunteering affect for the characters, in the case of Aschenbach a feeling of suspicion and indignation at the beginning—assuming we disagree with his theories of art—and perhaps even a pleasurable anticipation of comeuppance for him. By the end of the story, though, what we feel for him is more likely to be pity. Aschenbach won much of his acclaim as the author of a work called A Study in Abjection, which reflects his decision to “repudiate knowledge” (32). The story is described as
"an outbreak of disgust against an age indecently undermined by psychology and represented by the figure of that spiritless, witless semiscoundrel who cheats his way into a destiny of sorts when, motivated by his own ineptitude and depravity and ethical whimsicality, he drives his wife into the arms of a callow youth—convinced that his intellectual depths entitle him to behave
with contemptible baseness" (32).
It seems the story was about a second-order free-rider who failed or refused to punish two defectors. And the story itself was the punishment of the second-order free-rider by a third-order observer. So, Aschenbach is indeed a moralist, a strong reciprocator, by he is a moralist of a certain type:
"The forthright words of condemnation which here weighed vileness in the balance and found it wanting—they proclaimed their writer’s renunciation of all moral skepticism, of every kind of sympathy with the abyss; they declared his repudiation of the laxity of that compassionate principle which holds that to understand all is to forgive all" (32).
The principle Aschenbach adheres to in the place of understanding and forgiveness is Frederick the Great’s “durchhalten!” (29), which signals his determination to rise above his own disadvantages, to trumpet “the heroism of weakness” (31). This Anti-Enlightenment attitude is all but indistinguishable from conservative ideology at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century. And it may even be that with the novella Mann is signaling not just his strong reciprocity and his aesthetic philosophy, but also his political beliefs.
The closing section of the novella can be seen as a refutation of the theory of art expounded in the second chapter. Aschenbach, it seems, has overcompensated for the undignified, unmanly nature of his work by applying to it a militaristically strenuous ethos. Over time, this intense rigor has dried his well of creativity, and his existence has become unbearably sterile. The turn he takes over the course of the plot is toward greater fertility. Unfortunately, he lacks the wisdom to balance his unruly social emotions with his eagerness to maintain his dignity.
"There he sat, the master, the artist who had achieved dignity, the author of A Study in Abjection, he who in such paradigmatically pure form had repudiated intellectual vagrancy and the murky depths, who had proclaimed his renunciation of all sympathy with the abyss, who had weighed vileness in the balance and found it wanting; he who had risen so high, who had set his face against his own sophistication, grown out of all his irony, and taken on the commitments of one whom the public trusted; he, whose fame was official, whose name had been ennobled, and on whose style young boys were taught to model their own" (85).
Some critics cite these lines as evidence that the narrator is taking a step away from the character and establishing an ironic distance (Furst 167). According to this reading, Mann has witnessed his protagonist’s dejection in the face of overwhelming temptation, and is taking an opportunity to signal to his readers that he doesn’t condone this acquiescence but is merely narrating it. But the statement that Aschenbach had successfully “grown out of all his irony” in the midst of such an ironic sentence belies that reading. And that he goes on to deliver, in his imagination at least, a discourse on what he’s discovered through the course of his journey to be the true nature of art further suggests the inextricability of the narration from Aschenbach’s thoughts.
In the lines about the former dignified master, Mann is maintaining the free indirect style of narration he’s used throughout the story. The early respect and admiration evinced by the narrator is a reflection of Aschenbach’s high opinion of himself, and when this opinion turns sour it isn’t a signal that the narrator is abandoning him, but that he simply has come to think ill of himself. (A comparison of the narrative style of Death in Venice with that of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary may be of future interest.) In an earlier scene, Mann even locates the source of Aschenbach’s self-doubts. The love-stricken man is standing in the hallway of the hotel, leaning his head against the door to listen for Tadzio’s voice, and running “the risk of being surprised and discovered in this insane situation” (71). This risk calls to mind his ancestors, to whom he habitually rehearses the list of his achievements so that he can assure himself of “the respect they could not have withheld.” But naturally he’s worried about what they might say about his present circumstances.
"But for that matter, what would they have said about his entire life, a life that had deviated from theirs to the point of degeneracy, this life of his in the compulsive service of art, this life about
which he himself, adopting the civic values of his forefathers, had once let fall such mocking observations" (71).
Aschenbach’s militaristic approach to his writing has been a reaction to his abiding uncertainty about the value, the manly dignity, of any life devoted to art. He wants to prove to himself that he is living up to the standards and ideals of his heroic ancestors. And yet, here he is, shamefully infatuated with a young boy he lacks the social grace even to greet casually. We may feel pity for him at this point, but to do so, ironically, we must apply that same principle, “to understand all is to forgive all” (32), he himself has so strenuously repudiated. This is his comeuppance.
In his discourse to Phaedrus near the end of the novella, Aschenbach has to admit to the young boy, and to himself, that “though we may be heroes in our fashion and disciplined warriors, yet we are like women, for it is passion that exalts us,” and that “we writers can be neither wise nor dignified” (85). And, despite his earlier renunciation, he now recognizes that he “has been born with an incorrigible and natural tendency toward the abyss” (86). The great author’s downfall can be read as the inevitable result of his long repression of this tendency. But it can also be read as a demonstration of the real dangers all artists must face, the costs that will ensue should they fail to strike a proper balance between disciplined solitude and passionate abandon. As the story begins, Aschenbach’s work is described as tending “toward the exemplary and definitive, the fastidiously conventional, the conservative and formal and even formulaic” (33). This description is remarkable for its distance from the work in which it is found, and thus it fails to imply the approval the author—here at the beginning of the story is where the narrator’s ironic distance is most in evidence. And since the distance between Aschenbach and Thomas Mann is established early on, the two men’s views of art can actually be seen as converging at the end of the novella, though Mann probably intended to imply that Aschenbach is overcompensating in the opposite direction in his move toward acknowledging his kinship with the abyss.
But is Aschenbach’s attraction to Tadzio merely a punishment exacted by an unsympathetic contriver of the plot that is his fate? When he first glimpses the young boy, it is in the presence of several of his sisters, a governess, and later his mother. This absence of an adult male figure may be noteworthy in light of the narrator’s earlier emphasis on the fact that Aschenbach, though once married and father to a girl, “never had a son” (33). As noted earlier, his feelings for the boy are at one point described as “a paternal fondness” (51). In many ways, Tadzio is nothing like the old man: he has long, blond, curly hair, compared with Aschenbach’s short, dark hair; he gives off an “air of richness and indulgence” (44), while Achenbach is all austerity and restraint; he is a “lie-abed” (46) while the old man gets up early to work; most importantly, Tadzio is always surrounded with companions, while Aschenbach had “grown up by himself, without companions,” and because of his physical weakness “medical advice and care made school attendance impossible” (29). Tellingly, after first seeing Tadzio and watching him on the beach that first time, he goes back to his hotel room, where
"he spent some time in front of the looking glass studying his gray hair, his weary sharp-featured face. At that moment he thought of his fame, reflected that many people recognized him on the streets and would gaze at him respectfully, saluting the unerring and graceful power of his language—he recalled the external successes he could think of that his talent had brought him,
even calling to mind his elevation to nobility" (51).
What Aschenbach has just become aware of through comparing himself to the boy is that Tadzio is prosocial—he even volunteers some punitive affect, a mild altruistic punishment on behalf of his Polish countrymen, to a Russian family sharing the beach when he signals them by “glaring forth a black message of hatred” (49)—while he, despite his fame, is utterly friendless and his days are devoted solely to his own selfish endeavors. In many ways, Tadzio is his conduit from his northern, solitary, disciplined, and even antiseptic existence to the southern world that is crowded, indulgent, and, it turns out, infected. When he acknowledges his love for the boy is when his famously closed fist opens in “a gesture that gladly bade welcome” (57).
Read part 4
Thursday, December 10, 2009
At one point, Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach, and the famous author is “so deeply shaken that he was forced to flee” (67). The poor man nearly collapses hyperventilating.
Read part 3
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Read part 2