Monday, December 31, 2012



Prompted by my browsing while tracking down the quote for the previous post:  whenever I encounter strong dislike of Lewis by someone who identifies as Christian, I wonder if a fear of self-examination is what is really in play. (Particularly if it’s Screwtape or Great Divorce.  Not everyone likes fantasy and science fiction, after all. And writers from another era often send up things that are a bit jarring and take a moment to absorb. See Lewis On The Reading Of Old Books, his introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation. )

I’m estimating it’s at least 75%. They fall into a few broad categories, a fundamentalist version and a modern social/political version being most prominent. Inability to hear, inability to question one’s premises, inability to evaluate one’s motives – yeah, you could see why Lewis would be the last person you wanted to read, and you’d need to get your rationalisations up and running quickly.

Here’s another quote, related to the last post.
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it. (The Screwtape Letters, 1942)

Only A Joke

Just because you can get someone to laugh doesn’t mean it’s not offensive.  It’s a convenient excuse that people try – Oh come on, it was just a joke – implying that the fault must be yours.

It’s tricky, because sometimes it’s true.  Some people, perhaps even some entire groups, are oversenstive and their offense should not be an obstacle.  With humor, sometimes the entire point is to show how little it takes to offend them.  I have mentioned before that the ability to laugh at oneself is good shorthand for emotional balance.

Comedians may drive culture somewhat, yet I think they mostly reflect it.  They are out at the edge, breaking down barriers, but it isn’t arbitrary. They are usually sensing which barriers are soft, what boundaries can be expanded.  We as audience are in a sense invitational:  Break this fence.  We want you to. We haven’t quite got the courage to do this ourselves.

Yet the offense given is sometimes the entirety of the humor.  When you take it apart, there isn’t actually anything funny in there, just meanness, and the audience is only expressing joy that the meanness is being expressed publicly. In those situations, what is happening culturally is worth observing. Historically, it has been used in the arts to suggest evil and stupidity – groups of boys attempting to humiliate girls with hurtful comments they dare not respond to; rednecks making fun of blacks.  The Nazis in the 30’s were not a stern people – they loved to go out and drink with their friends and make fun of gypsies or laugh at stories of terrible things done to Jews.  The play “Cabaret” didn’t come out of nowhere.  That people laugh is not sufficient. A good deal of “clever” writing now is mere creative insult.  It is remarkable how little of even the NYT columnists remains once one studiously removes the snark.  I have a distant impression that television comedy and standup are the same, but I can’t be trusted to have a representative sample from what I encounter indirectly. And I know less still about movie comedy.

I can like that sort of humor as well.  Dave Barry and especially PJ O’Rourke have that as part (though not all) of their repertoire.  Jonah Goldberg same.  I liked small doses of Jay Severin in the old days for his sheer outrageousness.  But for me, it only works as a seasoning, not as food itself.  It gets tiring.  I can also enjoy sheer outrageousness, of the “Borat” type.

When people don’t laugh, it usually means it just wasn’t that funny.  But there is a type of not-laughing that tells us something else.  There is an uncomfortable silence, an intake of breath, a how-dare-you quality that is a refusal to be amused.  It is hard to describe, because once the moment of humor has passed, the memory of being offended can pass as well, so that the non-laugher can tell himself “No, it just wasn’t very funny.  I didn’t mind him making fun of X in principle.”  Yet if you can read the audience right, you can tell they aren’t going to laugh. Don’t go there.  They aren’t going to like it.  You are treading on sacred ground.  Watch what happens to a professional comedian, who thinks the old rules of chuckle-funny still apply. A few laugh uncertainly, but it dies quickly.

Well, perhaps it wasn’t chuckle-funny, even in a different era with a different audience; perhaps nothing along those lines would be.  We’ll never know. Rickles cleverly attributes the problem to it being a basketball joke. Ah.  The audience knows Rickles from roasts and insults, which may give it an added significance.

Not very shockingly CS Lewis had something to say on this.

The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their 'sense of humour' so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humor is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is "mean"; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer "mean" but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful—unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient by that English seriousness about Humour. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as "Puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humor." (The Screwtape Letters, 1942.)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Life For Sudan

Just an end-of-the-year reminder:  Life For Sudan is the charity that Sponge-Headed Scienceman runs (with others.)

European Tribes

I have mentioned the change in family structure, and likely enormous changes in economy, violence, and corruption in Europe thereby, because of the ban on consanguinous marriage by the Roman Catholic Church over a thousand years ago.  It's a major theme over at hbd*chick and a fascinating possibility.  She had a summary post in 2011 on the disappearance of European Tribes that includes cool maps and a long comment section.

Violence In General - Medications

We see a lot of mis-prescribing among our admissions.  Every week we have at least one where we ask “Who the hell thought she should be prescribed Adderall? Now she’s manic and lost her job!” Or “I can see why they were giving her Celexa, because she’s depressed and the delusions have an obsessive quality.  But that’s just not cutting it.  She needs an antipsychotic.”  Thus I am at one level sympathetic to the the idea of meds being the problem.  I see lots of it.

We like things to be neat and tidy.  Sometimes they are.  The sign says STOP.  The customer has ordered chicken tenders. To get a refund you have to mail in the slip. I’m betting your job isn’t always that simple, and ours certainly isn’t.  The usual criticisms of prescribing are that the doctor only sees people for a a few minutes, that they are too ready to see certain conditions and are not aware of others, that they have been fooled by a patient who is intentionally or unintentionally lying, or that drug reps influence them too much.  All rather true, but misleading.  Personalities are complicated, and presentations are complicated.

Hell, you can’t even tell in yourself, can you?  Am I depressed? Coming down with something? Not eating right?  Refusing to acknowledge my real situation? Constipated?  Actually anxious, or OCD, or histrionic?  Spiritually dead? Reacting normally to hard times? Too busy?  More traumatised than I thought? How’s my thyroid?

If you can’t tell, living inside your own head, do you think ten minutes more with the doctor is going to make everything come clear for her?  This is doubly complicated with the young, or uncommunicative, because then we have to get our information from others – usually mom – whose input can range from brilliant to pathological.  We all present differently at different times, and this is magnified when we are uncomfortable.  We put in energy to look good, or to describe precisely how it’s not good at all, or to resolve in out own minds how both things are true.

Psychoactive medications do have side effects, or unexpected effects.  Are antidepressants for kids being overprescribed?  It’s a great newsy sort of item.  But some kids are getting them that shouldn’t, and some aren’t getting them that should.  We know that no matter what the general average is.  See also pain meds, ADD meds, anti-anxiety agents, OCD medications.  What is happening as a general narrative is useful only in whether it red-flags the treatment for a particular patient.  People arrive at the doctor’s office in distress.  Sometimes they don’t clearly meet criteria for anything, but have two or three things that they might be suffering from.  And they are miserable – or they are disquietingly dangerous in their thoughts – or they are not doing well in school. What’s the best thing to do?

In the national discussion, this gets further complicated by people with agendas.  They are sold on organics and hate Big Pharma, so they seize on every problem, refusing to acknowledge benefit.  Or their theology says you shouldn’t need medications (not only Scientology or Christian Science – there are Christian groups, particularly those influenced by chiropractic, natural healing, or promise-driven readings that can get you to the same place.  A lot of the Oral Roberts/Kenneth Hagin theology is pretty cultish, though I don’t know who their current successors are).  Or they just need to know more than everyone present.  Whenever there is a general narrative about psychiatric meds being peddled in the wake of a tragedy, I assume that an agenda-driven group is behind it.  Rahm Emanuel is not the only one who remembers Alinsky’s dictum of never letting a crisis go to waste. It’s hard not to see them as vultures, actually.  I can squint and see that maybe they want to ease another’s suffering, but no.  9 times out of 10 that’s the rationalisation, not the reason.

Violence In General - Contradictions and Overstimulation

The state hospital has had contradictory attitudes over time to the idea of “blowing off steam” versus more strenuously containing behavior.  In the 1980’s there were heavy punching bags on the units which patients could use.  We found over time that some patients got even more worked up using them, and had to be pulled back, screaming, threatening, and hands now bleeding. There seemed no balance on the other side of anyone actually benefiting.  We have a gym, and for those who can already contain themselves, it seems helpful to jog on the machines, play basketball, or lift weights. But we don’t actually have measures to show that these things do help.  They just seem like normalised behaviors, so we encourage them.  Others rapidly get overstimulated with even minor activity.

Or, they can get overstimulated and get assaultive when members of the opposite sex heave into view. BTW, it was always considered so ignorant and old-fashioned to declare how sexualised dancing is since the 60’s, but it becomes startlingly clear in an environment where people are locked up in a small space and impulsive behaviors can get out of control quickly.  “Maria was dancing provocatively, so of course all the males had to come down to the day area” is said at morning report.  But Maria’s dancing is sometimes a pretty mild version of what you’d see at any wedding, so at one level it’s not provocative.  Except it is, and everyone can tell instantly.

Playing the TV or music too loud can be overstimulating.  I don’t know that particular styles are worse.  Some styles are more likely to be played loudly, but we’ve got folks who will crank up anything and get worked up.

Young males hanging around and woofing together is overstimulating, and we put a lid on that quickly.  For females with a trauma history even hearing about other trauma is overstimulating. Personality disorders activate when they see someone else getting attention, as it threatens to them that they will be cast out of the family into the darkness.

We have been less encouraging of sexual behavior or the use of pornography, though even here there has been controversy.  Psychology especially used to teach that these were normal expressions which we shouldn’t stand in the way of, however much church ladies objected.  Then women with feminist leanings objected on other grounds, of exploitation and advantage-taking, muddying the waters further.  Gay rights advocates became adamant that sexual expression was part of their humanity, and that started to bleed into mental health because most practitioners were liberals who wanted to keep up.  So the issue of whether to give out condoms became a complicated medical/moral/clinical/legal risk set of issues that is still unresolved. If people really press for it, their right to have pornography is upheld, but we make it so difficult that only the determined find it worth pursuing. I don’t think we notice anything other than whether someone is getting – you guessed it – overstimulated.

We don’t show horror movies or very violent or sexual ones, but we don’t have any data to support that.  We just figure it’s probably a bad idea, and why take the risk?  There are video games as well, some of which are a bit violent, but never the highest category of that.  Some of the line staff play those games or watch those movies, but they are considered declasse.  Not that we egalitarians would ever say that.*

We let people cross-dress, even flamboyantly if they choose, because we are very modern and it’s their right.  We only mention in whispers that this seems to occur more often when the patient is sicker, because then people might think that we think that…oh dear.  Couldn’t people just get better and go home where we didn’t have to see them and do whatever they like?  Because when they’re right here in front of us, and our professional judgment that they are much sicker on other grounds, but our politics tells us that we can’t say that, not even in front of our own staff, it creates a conflict we don’t like.

Oh, and BTW, the cross-dressers get overstimulated as well. 

Crowds overstimulate, but so does isolation, especially if one has hallucinations.
Pain overstimulates. 
So does missing on substances one has some dependence on – caffeine, opiates, nicotine, alcohol. 
Emotional rejection and a host of other things overstimulates.  

We may not know what the deep impact various things have on your psyche long term, but we are damn good at observing overstimulation, and we think it’s a bad thing that makes people violent short term.

*A lot of these discussions about whether people should play these games or look at these pictures or have these guns have a you-are-alien-to-me feeling, which is quite obvious when you look for it in the language people use. I think the pathology may be exaggerated when that happens.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bob Bennett

I've loved his music since the 70's.  I saw him touring with Michael Card years ago.

I heard these two for the first time today on the way to work, on one of the CD's I got for Christmas. Stick with the whole ten minutes.

Judeo-Christian, Not So Much

There is a standard idea in the West that one of the objectives of the Christian Church, because it was an objective of Jesus himself, is to make the world a better place.  I submit that this is in fact recent by historical measures, dating to the Reformation perhaps, and not really gaining steam as a practice of the churches until it started ramping up in the Anglosphere.

I have mentioned before that Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats, does not really talk about improving society, and may be referring primarily to care of other Christians (“my brethren”) rather than even individuals in general.  Helping them is not excluded, and over the first few centuries of the Church that indeed started to happen, but the NT focus is on a new tribe, a new people.  So too the improvement of society isn’t incompatible with Christian practice, but the focus is different.  The distinction may be more important than I recognised, a potential stumbling block for both left and right.

I have wondered how this idea wandered in and grew.  It is clearly well in place by the time the Methodists start reforming the institutions of English and American society in the early 19th C.  I can’t trace back to a time when one can say that nothing in the church connects with a vision of improving society, but it is largely absent from the thinking before 1500.  The focus of charitable work is enormously on individuals, on souls, and not on building a nice place everyone can be comfortable to live in and proud to be a part of. Such is not only a just by-product, it is not even a frequently-mentioned by-product.

Since exploration and colonisation of the world by Christian Europeans, there was a hearkening back to Old Testament rules for societies.  Settlers saw their situation as related to that of the tribes of Israel – some indeed stated quite explicitly that they were a new replacement for same – and tried to fit the concepts of in-group justice in OT Palestine to their society.  As it wasn’t a bad set of rules, and lots of Christians have been quite literal, there has been a lot of pushing and shoving over the years exactly what of those strictures applies now, either in specific or in principle.  Is this God’s order for us as well? YMMV.

So Jacques Barzun’s explanation that this is a Greco-Roman, not a Judeo-Christian idea struck me with some force.  Again, I wonder why it did not strike me with force the first time I read From Dawn To Decadence. Perhaps I thought this was but an attempt by a secular scholar to steal credit from the church and give it to the humanists. Perhaps I was looking for something else while reading that section.  Either way, I did not see it, but I noticed it this time.  The idea of improving society – for the Greeks, the city they lived in, for the Romans, a more mixed idea of demonstrating superiority and keeping the peace in the heart of the empire – was revived in the Renaissance and grafted on to Christian thinking.  It was certainly never incompatible with it, but it was not prominent until then.

In Christianity, improving society was secondary; care of the individual was primary.

The ideal of a comfortable and orderly place to live is Confucian as well, and the grand public works projects in the cities of the ancient Middle East and the Mayans suggest that this idea rather naturally occurs to wiser people as they become prosperous.  Apart from any milk of human kindness or personal generosity, they find that life is just better when those around you are also doing well.  There is less strife, more politeness, and gradually increasing prosperity. It is an earthly wisdom, not a revelation.  The Scandinavian nations have increased in this attitude of group good and group order dramatically even as they became more secular.  Helping the poor even when it doesn’t do you any good – even when it may cost you a fair bit of discomfort – is the specifically Christian idea.

The argument that this has been a net gain for Christian societies in the West seems overwhelming.  Grafting Athens onto Jerusalem has been a winner.  Both would build hospitals, for example, and the motives might be seen as complementary rather than competitive.  But I think there are hidden costs, and as the church falters in the West, we begin to see those now. There is the rather obvious loss of focus on New Jerusalem in favor of Old Saybrook. That comfort here distracts us from heaven is a Christian cliché at this point, especially at Christmas as Santa pushes Jesus out of the manger. (Santa is now being pushed out himself, in favor of God-knows-what.)  Yet it is a cliché we never seem to do anything about.  We just chirp about it from time to time, to show we remember the lesson.  This world is not my home, we embroider and frame in our comfortable houses, or sing about accompanied by expensive musical instruments over even more expensive sound systems.  I’m not trying to kick anyone in particular here.  Such contrast is so deeply embedded in our culture at this point that I don’t see how we change it.  Even the accusers are guilty, and sometimes they know it.

More subtly, but more perniciously, the value of the individual is eroded.  This may seem strange, even impossible, for an idea that came into especial prominence in the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, both distinguished for exalting the value of the individual.  But both those movements, however much they purported to be about indivuals, were in the end about the redistribution of power among groups within society.  This had enormous practical benefit to many people who had no prospects and no voice before, so that their individual worth in society was indeed increased.  But it increased in conjunction with their group’s rise, not their own.

Thirdly, the practical balance that actually has resulted is to look at individuals as part of groups.  That is not much part of the NT, but very much part of politics in the West, including America. Not only have we not been able to shake that, it may be increasing.  I can’t see that as entirely positive.

It was the best that could be managed at the time, and perhaps for any society at any time, so I don’t fault it too heavily. More, many more, individuals got to be valuable.  Some thought worthless at least got some status in our societies, which is not at all the case in most of the world to this day.  But that is not the same as all individuals being valuable. They said that, but it wasn’t what happened.  The Enlightenment was ultimately a class of people who did better under the new boss.

When you look at it all from a distance, any movement toward improving society is necessarily a movement away from the individual.  We allow a great deal of that and approve of it because it improves our individual lives to be made to give money to have fire departments and courts of law.  But societies which focus entirely on the their own improvement tolerate less and less deviation by the individual.  On the Christian Right, the America-as-Christian-Nation crowd, it is a set of cultural values that are seen as belonging to the good of society, the founding society and the majority society, which the individual resists at his peril.  To the Christian Left’s Jesus-was-pretty-much-a-redistributionist crowd, it is the individual’s goods that are seen as belonging essentially to society.

In both cases I am trading in political stereotypes that are not entirely fair.  Yet they are both more true than not.  The good of society underlies both group’s actions.  Take that away, and what do either have to talk about?  We don’t see that the very ground they are standing on to pursue their competitive visions of society is entirely earthly terrain.  It is an assumption both make that neither sees. In neither case is it a clear NT idea.

I like how it has worked out for me and mine as individuals.  I’m not seeing any organisation of society I’d plan to move to instead.  But I am seeing a new hidden cost.  I don’t see clearly where it’s all headed.