Friday, January 29, 2016

Once Upon A Time

In the context of research describing how Disney teaches terrible values about women  there was the following quote:     There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things.

I just sat and stared at that for a minute or so.  I wondered “What would be the best way to explain what is wrong with this to the people writing it?” This in turn leads to “Well, what exactly is wrong with it?” When you set yourself the task of trying to explain such things in simple English, you see new elements along the way.  Sometimes your initial argument starts coming unglued.  Sometimes you find even better arguments you hadn’t thought of.  At minimum, you set yourself a bit of exercise in refining exactly what it is you think about a subject.

The four activities men are doing and women not, are not equally separate.  The women in my wife’s college sorority certainly bonded together in tavernish settings singing drinking songs. I’m not sure that practice was common before WWII, but we can at least clearly say women are obviously capable of this. Giving each other directions…I’m not sure what the movie context for that is, but I’m thinking this is also pretty manageable among women, dating back many decades.  Centuries. Women have invented things, though that seems more recent as well.  In the types of economies common to fairy tales – there’s a general feel  for the ones from your own culture, however remote – there are two types of invention, the magical and the technological.  In the former, the women are quite the equal of men in the Wands, Enchanted Beasts, and Animated Household Object categories.  In the technological, which is intentionally related to our own,  women simply don’t show up in any century in the Improved Blunderbuss, Newfangled Harness, or Mineshaft Support categories.

And then there’s the “no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast,” which let you know right up front that these researchers…well, never mind. Any insult would distract from their probable good qualities of industriousness, seriousness, and concern for fairness in all things.

But taking the list as a whole we have the overwhelming impression of “You’re crazy.  That world never existed anywhere, not even close.” To which their obvious response would be "But it's make-believe.  All of it is made up anyway. Disney isn't historically accurate to any era with these stories, nor are they true to the original tales.  They rework them to..."

Yes?  They rework them for what purpose? It is easy to say "to make money," but that doesn't answer why those particular reworkings have the effect of making money.  Disney reworks old stories to fit them to more modern values.  For the last two decades or so that has meant Spunky Gals. Those of us familiar with the older versions have responses ranging from irritation to horror, but that is largely because we are comfortable with older things and their wormy creepiness, violence,  and mixed primitive sexism.  And even we don't much like some of the earliest tales.  We like them partly updated.  The general public likes them even more updated, but even they require that this be recognisable as an old story put in modern terms.  That is what a fairy tale is.  When we say "Once upon a time," that is a different story than one beginning with "Wouldn't it be cool if..."  The latter is science fiction - which also has some good movies that make money.  But very different movies.  (Fantasy occupies some middle ground, closer to fairy tale.)

There was never in our culture - nor, I think in any other - a time and place where women led the townspeople against the Beast and bonded over drinking songs.  There just wasn't, and harumphing that there should have been isto plead for a different genre.

But once upon a time there was one woman who wanted to lead the townspeople against a monster, and that's a story we like.  Or perhaps two sisters, or some supernatural female figures - elves, dryads, sibyls - led a hamlet or an army into the fray. But the joy of those stories is that those females are unusual.

That is the main problem with the researchers' understanding.  They don't under the genre, so they want it to be something else.  They want Once Upon A Time to be Wouldn't It Be Cool If. They are free to make those movies if they like.

A second, lesser criticism.  They tot up how much the male and female characters speak in the early Disney Princess movies versus the newer ones, with surprising results. I think their interpretation of this is a muddle, but it's interesting to see. There is one significant difficulty with all this.  Many of these male and female characters are um, crabs, or teapots, or frogs or whatever.  This is a place where I agree that dividing the genders into neat binaries may unwarranted.  Snow White's dwarves are necessarily pretty butch, but the mice in Cinderella? Not so important. Also, making definite interpretations about features such as Ariel's "voice" tries to force modern categories onto older elements.  Really fairy tales are messier in their symbolism that way.  It is another woman who takes her voice, while every male would rail against it.

Practical Application of Haidt

It occurred to me that I hadn’t given any consideration to the practical application of Haidt’s 6 moral foundations to the current presidential primary campaigns. First, the Democrats, just because Bernie jumps off the page here.

Sanders’s foundational appeal is abundantly clear.  His campaign to date has mostly hit the fairness/cheating bell, repeatedly and loudly.  That a few people are very rich means they have cheated, and he is quite blunt about the system being rigged. This is one of the two main foundations for liberals, and however hard Hillary tries to match him on this, she’s not going to come close, because of her own wealth, and the perception that she abuses her positions and office for her own gain. The best she can hope for is to neutralize this foundation by being “good enough” on the economic fairness, trying hard to pick off support from specific groups that believe they are being treated unfairly, and leaning hard on the fairness aspect of “it’s about time we had a woman as president.” Bernie mostly says “We’re all being treated unfairly, except the 1%.”  It’s working.

On the foundation of care and harm they may be more equal.  Sanders wants people to have things, to be cared for by the government more than now, but Clinton has been at this longer and her voters trust her on this. Interestingly, both are stressing what largess all Americans are going to be eligible for – read Middle Class – not just designated groups. However, Clinton straddles this far better than Sanders, and she calculates that people who want their group to be specially noted for being treated unfairly will prefer her. On that score, she is also far more aware than Bernie that while enthusiasm can get you launched, the voter only has to like you 1% better on the final day.

Here is an interesting twist.  Both are attempting to play loyalty cards as well, which is supposed to be a conservative foundation.  Bernie’s Simon and Garfunkel ad “…all come to look for America” gives instant patriotism permission to all the cynics.  It’s very much a Jack Kennedy New Frontier appeal, and that song is more effective than both Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s “hope” appeals, because those always carried an undertone of “paying the other bastards back.” Sanders has only a very few people he wants to pay back.  I wonder if that whole-tribe America appeal might actually be sanctity instead of loyalty. Since Sanders is notably restrictionist on immigration (though we have noted that his supporters aren’t aware of this, and he may be waffling again), there might be some unconscious us/them appeal on that level as well. Or even consciously hinting at that, not that they’d tell Bernie.  But some of these political video producers are pretty clever. Even I was moved by it.
Hillary’s constant hint to her supporters is “Hey, I’ve been loyal to you (black people, women, gays, elites, lobbyists) all these years, so you should be loyal to me.”  Anyone with a memory knows that’s not true in any of those cases, but it’s half-true, and the associated, rather menacing hint is “Well, but I have the strength to protect you and Bernie doesn’t.”

I’m not seeing authority/subversion issues anywhere in the campaign. (Liberals don’t tend to stress than until after they are in office.)  Whatever liberty/oppression bells are being rung are better described under fairness/cheating.

On to the Republicans in the next post.  They look muddier (as would be expected with more foundations to attend to), but I think that Trump is focusing his campaign on some sort of proportional fairness. If you want to get in and offer your opinions on that before I get mine in, fine.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ridiculous Prediction

I never read articles about the horse-race aspect of elections, because it is such foreign territory to me, and voters always do things that puzzle me.  But let us pretend that my complete lack of skill is actually a marker for objectivity and my outside observer status allows me to stand back and see what others cannot.

Okay, even I don't believe that, but here is the one thing that should make you pay attention, anyway. All the people who know this stuff well and make their livings from it have been completely wrong - as wrong as I am - about Trump.  And if you look at it, they have been almost as wrong about all the other candidates, Democrat and Republican, as well. Wrong about Bush, wrong about Clinton, wrong about Cruz, wrong about Sanders...

So here's my thought: None of the current top four can win a general election.  You can read all the experts on that.  All four have major negatives that are so strong that none of them can get half the vote.  Heck, I don't see how any of them gets 40% of the vote.  Bloomberg entering screws both sides.

Let us note here that Sanders, Trump, and Bloomberg have no party loyalty. And that is reciprocated by their parties. Cruz is better only by comparison.  Only Hillary can cling to that shred of "Look I have been loyal to you in good times and bad, I'm calling in every chip." Downside1: Young men, even Democrats, hate her, and young women are slowly defecting. Downside2: If she gets indicted...

So every four years some clever journalists get to speculate what a brokered convention in either party would look like. 

Maybe this time it's true.

In either party if it gets to convention with no one having enough delegates - if in either case it goes to a second ballot - then all bets are off. Some pundits will look good in retrospect because they guess right what would happen, but really, who are you going to trust to explain this?  Karl Rove?  James Carville? Ann Coulter? Jon Stewart? When was the last brokered convention and what does it have to do with now?

IF, a modern convention goes to a second (third, fourth, and the longer it goes the greater the panic) ballot here is my prediction:  these are generally just delegates, the people in the party who have no principle except winning. The honest liberals, honest conservatives, deeply committed evangelicals, fanatic environmentalists, social-justice warriors, fists, second, or third wave feminists, libertarians - these all fade into insignificance. There aren't enough of them to matter.

They want to win.  More than anything they fear the abyss of their party not only losing, but losing badly. Candidates who did not excite the voters even in their own states, Senators or Governors with lackluster records and little charisma*, all of these might be held aloft as the One True Hope of the party.

The people will weep, they will scream, they will gasp.  They will need consensus, and unity, and a focus so badly that they will embrace what they will later tear down. They will nominate someone and the enthusiasms will rapidly become genuine (that is, as genuine as it ever is). If it sounds like I am predicting some terrible collapse of democracy and being my ultra-cynical self, it is just the opposite.  I think both the Republicans and the Democrats will pick a better candidate that way than they will elect now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What's In Your State?

All states, even small ones like NH have regions that inhabitants use to subdivide the place.  A few are familiar names to outsiders – Cape Cod, Black Hills, Long Island, Outer Banks;  many more are immediately understandable once one has heard it.  If you hear that a state has a mountain region or mountain district as a distinct idea known to natives, it’s fairly simple to pick up a map and figure out where that is.  The names vary slightly and are not quite predictable, but neither are they surprising.  It’s Connecticut Coast, not Seacoast.  Some say Maine Coast, others say Coastal Maine, but no one says Maine Shore.  New Hampshire’s region next to the Atlantic is The Seacoast.  Massachusetts breaks that up into distinct bits.

Instate, an important area might own the geographic feature:  The Lake*, The Beach, The Island, The River. Outsiders get annoyed at the provincialism of this, but language is about communication.  Others are obvious enough to be predictable even if previously unknown.  I’ll bet they call that The Panhandle in Oklahoma. (They do.)

Others are less obvious, and those are more fun.  Anyone could figure out what the Lakes Region or White Mountains refer to, but you have to pause a bit for others.  We used to have the Golden Triangle in NH, but I haven’t heard the phrase in years.  Above The Notch is a real thing here. Some are not fully distinct even to natives.  Upper Valley refers to the area around Hanover and Lebanon, sometimes including parts of Vermont, sometimes not.  But Upper Connecticut Valley might mean that area, or the one farther up near Colebrook.  The Merrimack Valley in some contexts means everything from Nashua to Franklin, but since the high school of that name went in it more likely refers to the upper half of it.

I know Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, and a few Massachusetts regions, but I’m interested in the regions of your states that tend to be known internally, but don’t occur to outsiders.

*There are nuances here.  The speaker’s family may own property on another lake, or those in the conversation may know that some other lake is meant. Yet if they move to a different conversation at the same function they might revert to The Lake meaning Lake Michigan, and none other.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

They Cut Lund's Brain

He came back to the hospital around 1980, after having been out since the early 60's.  Richard had been able to be placed at one of those small-town boarding houses that still existed then, where a woman would take you in and cook your meals and do your laundry in exchange for your disability check.  You got to live with a couple of other guys, equally disabled, and got to sit on the porch and smoke cigarettes, waving to the people who came to recognise you and your harmlessness. The family might drag you to church or to Grange or some hobby of theirs like flea markets.  They remembered your birthday and they gave you a cake.  They had a stocking for you at Christmas. If you said crazy things no one minded, really. A sparse life, but not abusive, usually.

Things could go wrong.  If you got violent or uncooperative, they would send you back, and after we had tuned you up and haggled with them a bit, they would have you back. But not always.  You might have become difficult beyond their ability (or at any rate, their willingness) to have you back.  Maybe you hit one of the other men, who was still afraid of you. Or maybe you had said alarming things to the granddaughter that made them think you were no longer safe.

So Richard was back, and it was our job to fix him and then sweet-talk and reassure the landlady that he could be wedged back in.  Letting her complain about how bad he'd been and go on irrelevantly and at length how hard her life was, with her daughter moving back in with a baby and her husband's back finally gotten too bad for him to work anymore.

But Richard wasn't fixing up all that well.  He was difficult and now refused to clean his room or take a shower, even when I was hooshing him in good directions.  He might suddenly turn and get combative - our word for when someone is violent in response to intervention but not initiating violence - but generally he was just stubborn. He had been very assaultive years ago in the hospital, but had been a lamb, mostly, since he had gotten a frontal lobotomy at our facility in the late 1940's.

Not all lobotomy patients were alike.  They were less violent and angry after the procedure, but their impulsiveness or delusions might remain. The older staff had general advice on what to do with them, as they had known many in earlier years, but it was generally acknowledged that it was all still very unpredictable, and some were still obstreperous or surly even after they'd had their brain messed with and been placid for years.  Just one of those things.

I'm sorry, I have to stop for a bit.  The memory is very painful now that I'm in it again, back there with Richard Lund 35 years ago.


Richard Lund isn't his real name, of course. Even now I couldn't identify him clearly because of confidentiality laws.  He had no wife, no children.  His parents had died.  I want to say he had no siblings, but perhaps there was a half-sister, now living in western New York or some such. There was no mention of her in the record beyond his childhood. Revealing his name would hurt no one, and my inability to fully commemorate him is ironic in terms of what I will write later, but there it is.  Rules are rules.  Even if I were to reveal it, you would be unable to track him down, because he shares a name with a semi-famous person from a few decades ago, who gobbles up all the search engine space.

He was my assigned patient, and he was annoying in a few ways. He was always reluctantly cooperative at best, and likely to sucker-punch me at odd moments once a week. Yet what grated on me most was his vocabulary.  He was a poser, showing off that he knew words, but using them wrongly. Underneath it all, there was the unspoken assignment that I was supposed to be brushing him up, or his placement would be lost. As if this were my fault. I was increasingly frustrated, and it must have showed. One of the nurses suggested I take an hour or so to read through his old histories and see if there were anything helpful there. I took the hint, and gratefully accepted the time off the unit.

State hospital records were a ridiculous contrast in those days.  There would be a shift note by the unit staff 3 times a day, 365 days a year, for as many years as a soul lived in hospital, pages and pages of slept 6-7 hours...ate 75% of dinner...attended walk group without incident. Useless after a week or so but preserved forever. Clinical notes, by psychiatrists, social workers, or psychologists, were more sparse.  In one of the oldest charts I ever saw I read Virginia's yearly notes from the psychiatrist, 1926-1935, two sentences each.  One learned to paw through the thick brown binders ignoring whole sections in order to find some three page treasure:  a social history, psychological testing, a school record.

Richard's chart from the late 1930's - 40's bounced back between two dramatic themes: he was continually assaultive, responding to no reason, no sedative, and no intervention.  He had an eye for the helpless victim and wreaked havoc among them, poor quivering souls who wanted only to be left alone. So frontal lobotomy, in the context of no restraining medications and the other choices being physical restraint - in chair, in cuffs, on bed - was the kindest choice, however grim it seems now. I had seen enough of the violent preying upon the innocent, and the violent in restraints for days on end, to know that the choices were not clean.

The other theme was his poetry.  He had been published in a half-dozen of the small, ephemeral literary journals of the day. Taped into his record were two Table of Contents from reviews I had not heard of, but also included poems by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Someone in 1944 had included three of his published poems, and in the back section were replies from editors and poets who he had evidently appealed to to get him OUT of this hospital. His requests are not recorded, but a secretary for William Carlos Williams had sent a rather odd, distant reply, saying that there was nothing that could be done but praising a poem he had written years earlier. An editor of Pound's replied that he no longer had any contact with that man since his arrest after the war. (Pound was confined to an institution himself at the time.)

So he was a poet - perhaps second-tier but real, and rising - and the State of NH had given one of its sons a lobotomy.  Local Boy Does Good, from a town too small to have its own high school. But that all came to an end.

For good reason, but I still hated it.


I went back to the nurse and said "You knew what I was going to find when you sent me, didn't you?"  She allowed that she had.  One of the older nurses had vaguely remembered Richard was a poet, and knowing me, she thought I might be one of the few who understood what it signified. I am no fan of any poetry, but I was enough of a failed writer myself to understand what he most have dreamed and nearly grasped.  I brought the thick binder down to the day area where Richard and a few others silently sat and asked: "I found some poetry that Mr. Lund wrote years ago. It was published in real literary magazines.  Do I have your permission to read it aloud?" His expression changed not in the slightest. He had a perpetual look of one-half tick above neutral, except when he would instantly turn to fist-clenched anger for a minute or so, and I detected no flicker.  That's not enough for "consent," but I really wanted to read the poems and I pressed on. 

One nice woman listened intently and gushed after I finished the first poem, looking at Richard and praising him in cooing tones. I couldn't tell if he had heard me, or cared in the least.  He was unmoved by the second and third readings as well, except that he corrected my pronunciation of the name of an obscure Greek goddess, putting the accent on the correct syllable. Nothing more.

"Mr. Lund, if you want to do any writing again, I can get you notebooks, and put them in a safe place every night.  And I promise to read what you write."  He did not look at me nor turn a millimeter in my direction nor blink an eye.  "Nope.  They cut Lund's brain and he's in a wall.  It's all Ozymandias now."

I thought for years that the Ozymandias reference was just his broken posturing again.  I get it now.

But this is the last thing that will ever be said or written about him, and I can't use his name.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Charles Williams Quote

CS Lewis was a great admirer of Williams's work.  I have known of Williams since college but have never gotten around to reading any of him. Tonight in a book about Lewis I found this intriguing quote from his fellow Inkling's essay "He Came Down From Heaven." I had never thought anything like this, and it is remarkable evidence of Charles Williams's belief that Christianity was True Myth, Necessary Myth.
If, per impossibile, it could be divinely certain that the historical events upon which Christendom reposes had not yet happened, all that could be said would be that they had not yet happened.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


I have mentioned more than once that the ability to laugh at oneself may be one of the best signs of a healthy personality.  CS Lewis did me one better, which I noticed years ago, but forgot.

There was a movie decades ago* - perhaps it was "Oh God" - that was quite direct in its making fun of praising God.  The idea was that it would be boring in heaven to keep harping around for centuries saying "You're great.  You're wonderful.  We praise you, we praise you."

It was  a different movie.  Can't remember which.

It does sound that way from the outside, doesn't it?  In fact, the more depressed you are, the more artificial and stupid the idea of praising, praising, praising sounds. Childish?  Primitive? Hypnotised?  Something unthinking, anyway.  CS Lewis addresses the whole idea in Chapter IX of Reflections On The Psalms, and he starts by acknowledging that it looked quite as stupid and pointless to him when he started reading the Bible in earnest. That's one of the nice things about skeptics and doubters in the pews - they aren't afraid of mentioning such things.  There is a difference, of course, between those who note it as a puzzle and possible obstacle to believing and those who just want to pee on the floor and be insulting.  The former are necessary in every church, the latter must be "handled" so that they do not strangle the lambs, as their motive is destruction.

For the whole chapter, I think you must get the book.  But a considerable section is here. I extract what I think is the center...
I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . . Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?’ The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation...

Distilling further, I think the quote "praise almost seems to be inner health made audible" is the improvement on my own theory of being able to laugh at oneself.  The two are related, the Psalmist's in the positive and more spiritual, mine in the negative and more worldly. We quite naturally in the flesh regard ourselves as the most important thing going.  Yet God lifts us out of that to see reality as it is.  When we see it, we shall praise. Being able to take ourselves less seriously is just a stop along the way on that journey.

 *If I am quoting from a movie it is very likely decades ago.

Advice From Bethany On Challenging Your Own Assumptions.

"Don’t just read what your side says the other side is saying, read the other side." (Italics mine.)

The Welfare Trait

James Thompson reviews Adam Perkins's The Welfare Trait. (HT: hbd chick)

Also of interest in the review is his third link "Are You a Nuisance?" from over a year ago.

Two thoughts: I include the link because I think it provides a caution to both liberals and conservatives/libertarians in the construction of the social safety net. Conservatives should take a step back because the effect measured turns out to be small.  While it is true that small effects year over year can become large (the compound interest of both vice and virtue), it is important to note that we're not in societal collapse yet, nor does it look like it will happen this year.  Cultural change is not linear, but it sure looks as if the Europeans are going to get a good look at the problems of poorly-designed benefit states a lot sooner than we will.  So observation, not outrage, is advised.

Liberals need to take note because the predictions of the heartless conservatives turn out to be true.  Rescuing the poor does make a measurable number of them worse and measurably increases their number. More poor people hardly seems like a good national goal.

Second thought:  These studies do not factor in what I think is a large consideration:  not all high receivers of services are in categories that will reproduce similarly high receivers in the next generation.  Children with Down's Syndrome use a lot of government services on their way through life. And then that's all. Perhaps I am missing something, and those are not the ultra-high users who do have gradually higher reproduction rates, and the data is washing out there. Yet I know lots of ultra-high users - mental health, corrections, medical - and a lot of them don't have children nor will ever. Therefore, if the ultra-high users in general are reproducing at a higher rate, even with a subset that is non-reproducing, then that could indeed get out of hand quickly.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fairy Tales

Retriever sent the BBC link on the ancient interconnectedness of fairy tales, and both James and Maggie's commented on it.  A woman at church supper had run across the article (she used to be a professional storyteller), and later my son reported that my 8 y/o granddaughter had noticed that "Raiders of the Lost Ark" seemed to be a cross between "Star Wars" and "Lord of The Rings."  Thus, it looks like I am obligated to weigh in on the subject in some way.  Admittedly, the first three elements surrounding me may be related to each other.

I was initially very suspicious, and that may have influenced all subsequent reading. But I thought I'd have a go at the original study, and I was both confused and mildly encouraged.  Their intent was not merely to see if they could find similar stories in diffuse Indo-European cultures, but whether they followed a pattern based on language more than geography, as would be considerably more likely with folktales.  That is, they are not merely trying to determine whether a story about ravens giving advice occur in many lands, but if there is a pattern of particular raven-stories being more common in one linguistic line than another. I am also grateful that the researchers were properly tentative, in contrast to the (usual) journalists' blithe overconfidence of "Oh yeah, totally there.  Traced it back to the Bronze Age."

Strong points: I think they have actually discovered some signal amidst the noise. There are a few stories that seem more common here than there, and strongly enough that the discovery of a lot of neutral story-data would not wash it out.  It will be very interesting research to see over the next few decades whether stories in Sino-Tibetan, Altaic, or Amerindian languages show persistence over linguistic rather than geographic space, especially if the stories are not that similar to those in this study. Frankly that is the only evidence that would really convince me going forward.  We have to see this in other language groups, not just our own heavily-researched one.

Problems: It is really hard to extract signal from noise in this sort of thing.  Look at Figure 4 in the original study and look at the names of tales.

A lot of those stories sound like cultural universals that would just naturally pop up no matter where you lived. "The Faithless Wife," "The Lazy Boy." I'm thinking those aren't simply Indo-European concerns. Even something stranger sounding like "The Animal Bride," is known worldwide. There is a fairly common Korean story about a female bear who went into a cave and ate nothing but garlic for a long time in order to attract a human husband. (Hey, it could work.) There are animal brides and grooms in Amerindian stories. "The Monk and the Bird" sounds culture-bound at first, but when one steps back, that's likely to be something that shows up over and over again. Yet there are stranger stories that one would think could possibly show up anywhere, but wouldn't automatically show up everywhere: "The White Serpent's Flesh," or "Three Hairs."

Similarly, it is hard to know whether stray elements in a story are the real ancient connection, preserved like a fly in amber of thousands of years, or are random drop-ins, differing from valley to valley and signifying nothing.  The hero drinks from a very fine cup - a good storytelling detail, but is it somehow important at a mythic level, a feature that captivated the minds of hearers over generations that kept one story alive while another vanished? Or is it an accident that happened to be preserved in the version we are familiar with.

Stories change, and they change quickly.  If you pick up a book of folk tales that records versions before 1900, you will find them quite alarming in their strangeness.  Here is one from the Brothers Grimm, and thus only a few hundred years old,  not 10% of the time-depth we are talking about for other tales.  The Juniper Tree.
Therefore, we should be very suspicious if anything seems to be recognisable after a few thousand years. We may be imposing meaning on stories.

Still, I hope it's true.  BTW, there is a classification system for folktales that you might like to browse, the Aarne-Thompson. 

Autism and Freud

One of the usual suspects sent along this book review in Slate about In A Different Key: A History of Autism. A key line jumped out.
But by the time you get to their 40th chapter, it has become clear why so many autism parents seized upon this conspiracy theory and clung to it so fiercely. The history of autism is not one in which expert opinion has covered itself in glory. (Italics mine.)
This is quite true, and likely more in the backstory of anti-vaxxers than I had supposed.  I came to the subject in the 1980's when a youngish psychiatrist, having just interviewed a charming autistic teenager sneered "We used to attribute that to cold, rejecting parenting," and an older psychologist's nostrils flared.  His private comment to me later was that sometimes it was caused by refrigerator mothers.  He was deeply Freudian via Fritz Perls, and was already rather a dinosaur and a joke amongst the staff.

So it was only later that I learned about Bruno Betelheim spreading such pain and destruction in his day, and regarded it as very past tense; and later still that I learned that his theories, and the similar ones from other ego psychologists, were still common outside of hospitals and treatment centers. They were likely still found in pockets here and there as the autism/vaccine theory came into play. There were still a few credentialed "experts" making those claims, and thus ripe as examples of how all experts should be dismissed by those who "knew better."  Especially as the "know betters" tend strongly to natural treatments and solutions while psychiatry has tended to focus on medication, which just confirms the anti-vaxxers prejudice against them.

Reflecting on Betelheim and the other experts of the day I thought - not for the first time - how thoroughly suffused all of brain and personality sciences were with the theories of Freud. Virtually everything traced back to him, even in opposition - for the opponents, too, swallowed many of his assumptions whole.

Psychiatry had not been going in a grand theoretical direction before Freud, but was operating on observation, cataloging, measuring, and describing, as were the other branches of this new idea of Scientific Medicine, less than a century old.  But somehow buried sexual conflicts, competition with parents, and unconscious motives were exactly what European, and very quickly thereafter American society wanted to be true, and so embraced them.  A madness of its own, really, as the influence in many other fields was enormous.

So I have to wonder - is there anyone who has caused as much human misery in America over the last century as the well-meaning Sigmund Freud? Stalin and Hitler are likely untouchable in European damage, but their effect on Americans was more indirect.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


I sent a PJ media piece on documentaries around to a small email group, because the article awakened me to the fact that I still trust documentaries in general years after I have left school, for no reason I can explain except inertia.  As the discussion unfolded, I realised that this had weakened over the decades, likely attributable to Michael Moore's work.  I haven't seen more than section of it, but they irritated me in their childishness.  Yet I still think documentaries have some objectivity that other forms lack.  After some back-and-forth my son Ben, who is a filmmaker and has actually seen many of these documentaries over the years, sent this reply.  It is almost entirely unedited. Have fun.  He reads my blog eventually, about every week, so any comments you leave may not be answered immediately.

There’s a good piece in the New Yorker. I think I wouldn’t go as far as the writer on some of these statements, but agree strongly that viewers are taking away the wrong idea: they’re not worried about fixing a broken system, they’re worried about the two individuals in the documentary. 

I think that mindset is fairly understandable. When a documentary humanizes someone like this, it’s easy to become attached. Steven Avery is not a particularly likable individual, but he’s there, on screen, clearly a human person. You see what the police see when they look at him and his family, you see the class warfare that’s apparent just from everyone’s interviews. It’s a poor white family, who are the wrong sort of people. 

The question is, what responsibility do documentarians have to create a broader perspective? Wouldn’t we feel played if they jumped to big picture statements that “this is happening all the time” and “the system has to be scrapped and rebuilt”? Some major societal changes have come from small scale investigations that put bigger issues into the public eye: Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was supposed to be a study of the exploitation of immigrants, but it led to changes in health protocol nationwide. Nellie Bly’s piece about living in a mental institution led to massive changes in the legal system. But the expansion of “this is something that is happening right here, in front of my eyes” to “this is a national issue that must be addressed” was done by the readers, not the authors.

I think documentaries are probably more discussed than other pieces that cause societal debate, because they remain in the national consciousness much longer. An article that gets linked to on everyone’s page makes its effect, by the time a response is written, everyone’s already forgotten about it, and whatever damage it was going to do is damage done. This is the strategy currently being employed by our political candidates - Trump, and to a lesser extent Cruz, continue to drop dramatic statements and incendiary remarks at every opportunity. The backlash is immediate. But by the time the media gets around to having response pieces by cooler-headed experts, the campaigns have already moved on to other things.

Contrast that with say, the response to the Kony 2012 video. The video exploded, was met with extremely positive feedback, and led to a lot of national debate on the subjects. Then the video was picked apart in ways both fair and unfair. But once the tide turned, it stayed turned. Commentary snidely dismissing the video was everywhere. Being anti-Kony 2012 became the new “hey, have you seen Kony 2012? We don’t care enough about what’s happening in central Africa!” To side with the filmmakers in any way was considered passé. It somehow gave not caring about something the moral high ground, because we are responsive far more than we are rational. No wonder poor Jason Russell had a mental break. I probably would have, too.  

I feel like we, as a society, can’t hold two different thoughts in our head. Either trying to catch Joseph Kony was good, and people who didn’t care about it are bad, or else trying to catch Kony was bad, and people who thought we should catch him were simpleminded. By the time the Kony 2012 “Cover The Night” event happened - only a month and a half later! - the movement was dead and buried. But people didn’t develop a nuanced understanding of the situation, they only developed the sense that one should have a nuanced understanding of the situation. 

I thought that was one of the things that dragged the first season of Serial down, towards the end. Sarah Koenig and her producers started by breaking down a case and discussing the limits of memory, and the way remembering something wrongly can have ripple effects. But when the series caught fire, she had to respond to the firehose stream of debate about the series. By the end of the season, the conversation was so strongly “do you think Adnad did it, Y/N?” that Koenig’s focus shifted, until it ended up entirely on that subject as well. Since she didn’t have an answer to that question other than “I still have doubts - and not just the 'reasonable doubt’ kind, real doubts,” the series sputtered out. The defining argument from the series became whether or not a Best Buy in Baltimore had ever had pay phones or not.

This is what documentaries do in modern society - they spark a conversation, but in the end, it seems we need to pick sides and dismiss the other side’s arguments out of hand, even though before we interacted with the subject we were on neither side and were perfectly happy be there. The documentary films we remember most are the ones that we utterly dismiss: Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Food Inc., Super Size Meetc. We remember the ones we turned on far more than the ones we loved.

ABBA: Mamma Mia! The Party

ABBA has a new business venture which reunites them.  It seems to be a Greek Taverna style party costing $150/head.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Warriors, Pagans, Jacksonians, and Pharisees

Two topics, not precisely related, but as two planets orbiting the same sun.


Grim posted Walter Russell Mead and I thought I would comment.  (This started as an email to a smaller group, and suffers from some discontinuity.  So adjust, already.)

I think he gets the overall picture that Jacksonians have been an enormous obstacle to American improvement, but are probably also the major engine of American culture, with the Jeffersonian ideals modifying that larger whole, not running the show. My natural sympathies are against the Jacksonians. Jonathan Haidt's Elephant and Rider again.

But the hatred for them, the unreasoning spiteful tribalism of their enemies who are convinced of their own righteousness, is likely the second greatest obstacle to American improvement.  And as Senator Webb's Born Fighting chronicles, without the Jacksonians the Jeffersonians wouldn't have a country to run.  That, on the strictly practical level, should inspire some grudging gratitude, though it doesn't.

Taking it from a non-practical - from a purely spiritual POV, it would seem at first glance that the more temperate Jeffersonians would have the Christian edge over the primitive, vengeful Jacksonians. It is certainly easy to find NT verses that would point us in a fairly opposite direction to that touchy tribe.  But this is where the influence of Lewis and Tolkien and Chesterton on this ex-pacifist has been shocking. Through them I learn that the temptation of the over-spiritual, of the Pharisee or the Dualist, is far more dangerous. The victorious warrior can also glorify mercy, compassion, and eventually forgiveness.  That doesn't seem to flow in the opposite direction.  CS Lewis touches on the contrast in a different context, but I think it applies. 

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, 'Would that she were.' For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads.
If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin. ("Is Theism Necessary?" God In the Dock.)
So the Jacksonians get the edge practically, and they get the edge spiritually.  How, then, do the Jeffersonians even get to exist, let alone capture the moral high ground?  I think it is because they own the in-between world.  They can be Orange, complaining to the Yellows that they just aren't red enough, then turn to the Reds and say you aren't Yellow enough.  You can look on that as hypocrisy and cheating, I suppose, or you can look at that as operating in the real world that is both Spirit and Flesh.

I posted this comment over at the CS Lewis site and thought it fit.

Christians will warn against the dangers of the Spirit of the Age, and we certainly see a divide in our own time. There is a political-right Spirit of the Age, and one on the left as well, and we Christians spend a lot of energy deploring or praising one or the other. I am certainly quite opinionated on the subject myself. I spent half of last night muttering about a vacuous essay on one of this year's fashionable crises by a pastor in my denomination. Not time well-spent, I think.
But I think there are many Spirits of the Age, intellectual fashions in one group or another. Lewis covered some of the larger ones in Screwtape, in That Hideous Strength, in The Great Divorce, and most especially in Pilgrim's Regress. Yet he was also sensitive to the fashions in his own field and own circle, and regarded those as more dangerous to himself personally. That is likely, as subtler, narrower temptations are often designed with us in mind.
I think his essay The Inner Ring addresses this more powerfully than the other references above. It certainly knocked me over when I was young. And a few times since as well. 

Postscript:  Reading "The Inner Ring" again, for the second time today, I am even more convinced of its importance. Ignore everything else and ponder that. I think it may be more of a male than a female temptation, but perhaps I do not perceive the feminine rings so clearly and do not notice.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Two By Two - The Albums

5th-6th grade. These were my favorites from among my mother's albums. She was a fan of both and had several others by them. I used a lot of Kingston Trio material in my years of fascination with folk music. It was a good enough foundation. // I dropped Sinatra very early and never did come back, though I like a few songs. For some unexplained OCD reason, I still sing "French Foreign Legion" to myself from time to time. I sang it at a church talent show around 1964.

7th grade. I fell in love with Mamas and Papas harmony. That was the first album I bought with my own money. $3.19. // Still love early Clapton.

8th grade. I almost had to have five entries for this year but forced myself down to three. These were all artists that I also listened to on other albums, other years.  I sang a lot of their stuff at every local coffee house where they let me play and my mother would allow me to go into that neighborhood. Also used some in the very cool bands I played in. Chief among these was "Lavender" with Chris Riley, who I still keep FB contact with.

9th Grade: Acid rock: Grace Slick and Marty Balin eventually went on to do mostly romantic songs. The band is ironically holding square instruments, but when you look at their bright faces now and you know the rest of the story, you can see they weren't the hard-edged rebels we thought. Slick had a haunting voice, and they sang about taking drugs and having sex, which was edgy at the time. They used a lot of harmony for an acid-rock band, which may have been part of the attraction. // I loved Harris's "MacArthur Park," and "Didn't We" stayed in my performance rotation for years. I was stunned when people later said they found it all too overdone. That's why I loved them I suppose, as I was overdone myself.

10th grade:  More acid.  A lot of political and social commentary here, most of the "American society is bad because of war and materialism. We still like to take drugs and have sex." Romantic songs sneak in again, even in this supposed up-against-the-wall protest album.// The first time I heard "Good Vibrations" on the radio it blew me away. The Beach Boys had always seemed a fun but shallow band to that point. I still turn this up when it comes on the radio.
11th grade. We move into rule-bending here, and in most subsequent years. I didn't actually own this myself until a year or two later. But I hung out with guys who wanted to play these all the time, so I learned a lot of them and played them with others.

12th grade. I could have included comedy albums right along, notably Bob Newhart's "The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back" and Bill Cosby's "Wonderfulness," both of which I can still recite verbatim. Jonathan Winter's "Another Day, Another World" also comes in there somewhere. An obscure album "Woodschtick," by The Credibility Gap came into my possession somehow - I don't recall buying it - and I loved that in college as well. It was not until decades later in the age of the internet when I went researching it - to see if it had left any trace - that I learned that the group included some prize comics indeed, well before they became famous: Harry Shearer, David Lander, Michael McKean. Albert Brooks worked with the group at other times. A young woman I knew only slightly complained openly when she heard the title of the Firesign Theater album that came out my senior year in college: Everything You Know Is Wrong. "I've had it! There's too many people going around just smirking and making fun of things without coming up with any consequential ideas themselves!" I decided that she was right, that I was somewhat guilty, and it was something of a turning point for me. I never listened to them again.

Freshman college. You never needed to buy these or put them on your own record player. Someone was playing them at full volume at your dorm in 1971-72.
Sophomore college. A keyboardist we worked with briefly worked at the record store. As soon as I walked in he pulled out a record telling me I was the person he thought of first when he heard it. He put on "Gaudete" and I was entranced. I went back to 8th-grade levels of obsession, even listening to "King Henry," which is terrible. //My roommate developed a sudden taste for bluegrass and brought a Flying Burrito Brothers album back after Christmas. I bought this one shortly after so we'd have more. He wanted our band to play more of this. Heh. I never had the dexterity for that. I was a vocalist who survived with guitar tricks.

Junior year. The band played a fair bit of this album, so my roommate had it on a lot, trying to work out some of the other instruments to see what we could substitute in for that. Mostly we just liked the harmonies.