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Friday, February 27, 2015

The dance with death

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

by John Macbeath Watkins

"To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything," Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death.

I was about seven or eight when I first faced my own mortality.

We were living in the old colonial house we rented in Maine from old Mr. Adams, and my bedroom had a dormer window looking out over the verdant summer landscape. I don't know why it came to me, but I realized that not only would I die some day, I actually had some control over when it happened.

Not that I was suicidal. The fact that I could end my life at will gave me a feeling of control, a feeling that my life was a choice. Having very little notion of anatomy, I rested a pocket knife against my abdomen, relishing the fact that I would not pierce my flesh. I would choose instead to live, to go out into the green, down to the creek to watch the minnows, out to the old oak to climb.

For some reason, the knowledge that I was mortal and that my life was a choice gave me a feeling of significance. And significance is exactly what we need to feel to deal with the knowledge of our own mortality.

Some of us attach ourselves to something larger, like a cause of a church that will live on past our lifetimes. Some will procreate, and find meaning in parenting, and carrying on the species.  Some will seek to be with people who are like us, and will know us, and give us a feeling that we are significant because we are known.

And some of us write, and try to influence the whole structure of thought that is the realm of meaning, because in the end, meaning is what it's all about. In psychology, all these methods of dealing with our desire to live and the knowledge that we will die is called terror management theory, the study of how we try to feel immortal by establishing meaning in our lives. The desire to live and the awareness of death mean that we spend some large part of our lives, consciously or not, dealing with the terror of death.

But do we all feel the rumble of terror that underlies everything? I think not.

For example, I've known several people who died climbing. I'd gone for a scramble on the rocks with two of them, and they scared me. The kept placing themselves in positions where only their skill lay between and a fall that could severely injure them, even kill them if they landed wrong. In each case, I was saddened but not surprised to learn that they had fallen to their deaths.

The joy of dancing with death seemed to enliven them. This should not be surprising; after all, we never contemplate what we're living for when we are faced with our imminent death.

When my father retired after a career in the Air Force, he felt something was missing. It took about a year for him to sort it out.

It was danger. When he flew in B-17s in World War II, those who completed as many missions as he did in heavy bombers had a loss rate of about 70% killed or missing in action. He told me that when they were gathered for a briefing, and were told about 10% might be lost on that mission alone, every man in the room was thinking, "those poor bastards." None were thinking about their own deaths.

He served through three wars, and even in peacetime, people he worked with were dying every year. Military aviation is just not as safe as flying on an airliner, and practicing the things expected of them killed aviators even in the safest units.

Yes, there are people who fear death. A 2009 Harvard study found that deeply religious people were more likely to ask for heroic measures to keep them alive, and fewer had "do not resuscitate" orders than the general population. Andrea Phelps, a senior medical resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the study's lead author, suggested that such people might be more satisfied with life, but that seems unlikely to me.

I think they sought the comfort of religion and heroic measures to preserve their lives for the same reason: A fear of death. Religion offered them assurances, but still the fear remained.

But Becker argued that this is not how most people deal with the problem. Most, he said, attempt an "immortality project," an attempt, rather than relying on the heroic measures of doctors, to do something heroic and eternal.

Humans have a dual nature, their animal bodies and their symbolic selves. In the animal world, there are acts to preserve your life and the lives of those closely related, but these are not heroic in the sense Becker means. Heroic acts, in his framework, are symbolic acts. Heroic acts either make us a part of something eternal or involve us creating something eternal, allowing us to live on past our allotted time on earth.

Becker believed that religion, our traditional hero system, was failing in the age of reason, and that science could never take over that function. He thought we needed new illusions to sustain us.

But that's like seeking to advance medicine by making more potent placebos. In the age of reason, it is difficult to retain any illusions. We need to consciously invent our own meanings, and be aware of how we are embedding ourselves in the structure of thought and the structure of society that carries on beyond our lives.

That means being conscious of how much we are made up of all those who have influenced us, and how much we can influence those who come after us. We must be careful who we are, because that is what lives on when we die.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Friday, February 6, 2015

Psycho killers, corporations, and the limits of individualism

by John MacBeath Watkins

Any Rand, so often read by the young and impressionable, and so often recommended by the old and
implacable, was a great admirer of a psychopathic killer named William Edward Hickman.

This was early in her life, when she was an impressionable 20-something, the sort of youth that would be impressed by Nietzsche and by the works she herself created later in life.

Rand's most memorable characters, such as John Galt in Atlas Shrugged and Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, have some traits in common with Hickman, in particular their selfishness and egoism.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is reported to have his clerks read The Fountainhead, Rand Paul is named after her, and Paul Ryan told the Weekly Standard in 2003 that he had his staffers read Atlas Shrugged. Ryan has since disowned the atheistic author.

Ayn Rand was in love with the concept of the superman. Not the DC Comics character who is constantly engaged in self-sacrificing attempts to save the world, but more the sort of superman admired by Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Gentle reader, you will recall that Raskolnikov, in this novel, murders a pawnbroker to steal her cash, justifying this with notions that he is a superman like Napoleon Bonaparte, who refuses to be restrained by common morality.

Raskolnikov commits his crime under the influence of the philosophy that some people are naturally capable of great things. By the same philosophy, these supermen, to accomplish great things, have a right to commit acts which would be immoral for the common herd.

But the fatal flaw of this hero is that he has a conscience, and empathy for others, and he is consequently tortured by what he has done.

Rand, in her early 20s when Hickman's case was in the news in 1928, admired Hickman because he did not have this weakness.

She wrote in her journal that she had an "involuntary, irresistible sympathy for him, which I cannot help feeling just because of [his anti-socialness] and in spite of everything else." She admired his "calm, superior, indifferent, disdainful countenance, which is like an open challenge to society."

Hickman shot a druggist in a holdup, but didn't get much money. He decided to try his hand at kidnapping. His victim was 12-year-old Marion Parker, and he demanded $7,500 for her safe return, which was a fair chunk of change back then.

He got the money, but didn't bother with the safe return part. Hickman, who had enjoyed wringing the necks of chickens as a child, did the same with Marion Parker. This was not a rational crime, because her father needed to see her alive before turning over the ransom. Hickman cut off her arms and cut her torso in half, apparently just for the pleasure of doing so, then realized he'd have to make her look a lot better before showing her to her father.

He sewed her eyes open with wire and stuffed her torso with towels so that he could prop her on the passenger seat and tie her in place.

Rand was not ignoring his terrible acts in her journal. Instead, she was going to bat for him.
"Yes, he is a monster—now. But the worse he is, the worst must be the cause that drove him to this. Isn’t it significant that society was not able to fill the life of an exceptional, intelligent boy, to give him anything to out-balance crime in his eyes? If society is horrified at his crime, it should be horrified at the crime’s ultimate cause: itself. The worse the crime—the greater its guilt. What could society answer, if that boy were to say: “Yes, I’m a monstrous criminal, but what are you?"
So it was the old "I blame Society" ploy, which is rather surprising coming from Rand. She was at that time working out her philosophy and planning a novel which was never completed, called "The Little Street," in which the hero would kill an evil minister. Rand did not like religion even then.

She described the hero in these terms: "Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should. He knows himself—and that is enough. Other people have no right, no hold, no interest or influence on him. And this is not affected or chosen—it’s inborn, absolute, it can’t be changed, he has 'no organ' to be otherwise. In this respect, he has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel 'other people.'"

The novel would have been Crime and Punishment without the conscience. A mature Rand chose not to make her heroes murderers, but instead captains of industry, moving from murderous psychopaths to "pro-social" psychopaths who succeed without committing the sort of crimes that get the death penalty. This gained her a following among the Captains of Industry and Masters of the Universe types, and those who aspired to be the Masters of the Universe.

She had, in her lifetime, a cult-like following. Today she has a wider following. The superman idea she wrote about, in its 19th century form, was linked to a radical individualism that has a long history in America. The social Darwinist had the notion that those who are strong succeed, and that this is the natural way of the world. In fact, Objectivism is pretty much social Darwinism minus the bogus biology.

In Europe social Darwinism talked about the German "race" and the Italian "race," but in America social Darwinists were more concerned with the superior individual.

The history goes back further. In the 19th century before the Civil War, there was a radical individualist movement that claimed working for other people was equivalent to slavery. This is where the term "wage slave" comes from. The notion never really caught on, because working for wages is nothing like slavery, but the idea that people needed to own the means of production to be their own master persisted. At the time, this meant to most people that people should have access to land.

The Homestead Act was popular with the radical individualists, as a way that people -- by which was meant white male people -- could own a piece of land and be self-reliant. One of the philosophers of individualism was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose famous essay, Self-Reliance, said that we are born into an oppressive conformity, and must escape it. Emerson believed there was genius in each person, and breaking free of restraints could release it.

“No government or church can explain a man’s heart to him, and so each individual must resist institutional authority,” Emerson wrote. Rand, in her admiration of Hickman, might be said to echo (and twist) Emerson's claim that “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Not that Emerson would have admired a man who lacked moral sense. But his philosophy, like Rand's, conflicted with the need to work together to build and maintain a society.

The U.S. Constitution says:
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
(Emphasis added.)

The notion that there could be a "general welfare" for the nation indicates that we're all in this country together

Radical individualism is at odds with the notion of a social contract, which indicates that we can only enjoy our rights by forming a society. It is also at odds with organic conservatism, the notion that the traditions and culture that shape us are the wisdom of our civilization and should not be quickly set aside, and yet, it finds most of its followers on the right.

But it fits very well with our notion of the creative individual, the sort of person who changes society, and we are a society that is in constant change. This makes it all the stranger that radical individualism has become a favorite theme of conservatives.

Perhaps it has to do with justifications. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkley, did an experiment where a game was rigged to give one player a cash prize, and showed how, as that person accumulated more money, they became more likely to cheat. Keltner wrote of his research:
"If I have $100,000 in my bank account, winning $50 alters my personal wealth in trivial fashion. It just isn't that big of a deal. If I have $84 in my bank account, winning $50 not only changes my personal wealth significantly, it matters in terms of the quality of my life — the extra $50 changes what bill I might be able to pay, what I might put in my refrigerator at the end of the month, the kind of date I would go out on, or whether or not I could buy a beer for a friend. The value of winning $50 is greater for the poor, and, by implication, the incentive for lying in our study greater. Yet it was our wealthy participants who were far more likely to lie for the chance of winning fifty bucks."
The New York State Psychiatric Institute researchers surveyed more than 40,000 Americans and found that the poor are less likely to shoplift than the rich. As a shopkeeper, I can confirm this finding from experience.

Keely Muscatell, a University of California at Los Angeles neuroscientist, has found that if you show both the rich and the poor pictures of children with cancer, the poor show more activity in the part of the brain involved with empathy.

Michael Lewis, who interviewed Keltner and Muscatelll for an article in The New Republic, reports that Keltner said:

“As you move up the class ladder, you are more likely to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted in giving to others. Straightforward economic analyses have trouble making sense of this pattern of results.”

This seems even stranger when research shows that while the rich are more likely to cheat to get more money, getting more does not make them happier. Mike Norton, from Harvard Business School, surveyed clients of a large investment bank, and found that although additional money does not make the already rich happier, they continue to think it will.

That lack of pleasure in additional money is a result one might expect based on the declining marginal utility of money, but why do the rich cheat to get more, as Keltner's study showed? Why, in the face of the fact that more money does not make them happier, do they persist in wanting more?

The answer seems to be a sense of entitlement. Instead of saying, I've been blessed, I should help the less fortunate, it seems to be human nature that when we have more, we believe we deserve to have more.

And when we have experienced misfortune, we have greater empathy.

The psychological mechanism here seems to be the "just world" fallacy. We want to believe that the world is just, that those who deserve more will get more, and it helps with society's functioning if we can get people to act as if this was true. People are more likely to work hard if they believe hard work is rewarded, for example.

If you believe in a just world, and you have been given more than others, you feel more entitled. The Koch brothers, who inherited great wealth and have gained much more, are objectively entitled to a great deal. Why would they not feel entitled to more than other people, and less constrained by the rules others must obey? And yet, I cannot help but feel that these men are morally disfigured by inherited wealth, causing them to act to get their way regardless of what needs others may have. Certainly the legal history of Koch Industries seems to confirm Prof. Ketner's research.

But however much we may wish to believe in the just world, life is often unfair, and those with the power to seize life's rewards are more likely to get them, regardless of fairness.

Social Darwinism and Objectivism act as a salve to the conscience of those who have a good life and don't want to be bothered about the injustice of inequality. These philosophies justify inequality by comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

But can we have the creativity Emerson advocated without the psychopathic tendencies inequality encourages?

Certainly. Greatness, in Emerson's mind, was not tied to wealth, but to creativity and realizing your own purpose. Why has our understanding of the value of individualism changed?

The research cited above indicates that inequality is part of the reason it has changed. We can expect greater disparities in wealth to trigger the sense of entitlement revealed in Ketner's research.

(How has it been part of the reason? And in what ways has inequality changed it?)

In addition, as capitalism has evolved, it has changed. Corporations now define most of the great capitalist enterprises, and corporations, like psychopaths, lack moral sense. The frightening thing about psychopaths is that while others understand you and empathize with you, psychopaths understand you and manipulate you.

Like Rand's hero in The Little Street, corporations "can never realize and feel 'other people.'" The empathy that is the basis for our moral sense is not merely dulled by wealth, it is lacking because corporations are undead things that live in law and finance without conscience or empathy. And as more people work for corporations, this monstrous lack of moral sense becomes the world we live in.

And Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy is one better for corporations than for people. Corporations can live forever, so they need not make the kinds of sacrifice parents make for their children. They can be selfish and single-minded pursuers of profit in a way only psychopaths among humans can.

The only thing that can oppose them is human empathy, and caring for each other.