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Seven Questions for Anne Fadiman

Here are seven questions that I’d like to ask Anne Fadiman, author of the wonderful book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, when she speaks on campus:

Question 1

In your book Rereadings, you remarked that the first time one reads a book, she does it with more velocity; the second time, she does it with more depth.

Coming back and rereading The Spirit Catches You more than 10 years after you wrote it, do you feel as if you understand it better now? Is there anything you would do differently? Are there parts or aspects of the book of which you are especially proud — that make you think, “Anne, well done!”?

Question 2

In your essay “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” you said that you were thrilled by the writing of Carl Van Vechten, who tossed off unfamiliar words and classical-literature references with the same ease that some of us can recite details of the latest “Gossip Girl” TV episode. In particular, you wrote that:

What simultaneously thrilled me and made me feel most like a dunce was Van Vechten’s vocabulary. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d met so many words I didn’t know.

In writing, it seems like we have conflicting goals. On one side, there are beauty and depth. On the other side, there are clarity and communication. Based on your description, Van Vechten’s writing seems to succeed at the former but fail at the latter. How can we balance those goals, or should we even try?

Question 3

In your essay “The His’er Problem,” you told how at age 19 you met William Shawn and got a summer job at The New Yorker. Today, print magazines are shrinking or disappearing, and the Web doesn’t yet seem a reliable way to launch a writing career as opposed to a hobby. Do you have any advice for young writers who want to follow in your footsteps?

By the way, I adored your description of the meeting with Mr. Shawn:

“I considered The New Yorker a cathedral and Mr. Shawn a figure so godlike that I expected a faint nimbus to emanate from his ruddy head.”

Question 4

From your essay “Marrying Libraries,” we know that you like William Butler Yeats. Who are some other poets you like, and why? What about contemporary poets?

Question 5

Do you think that reading and writing poetry helps us develop a good writing style? Are there any poets whom you especially recommend for young writers?

Question 6

In your essay “Procrustes and the Culture Wars,” you applied the metaphor of the Procrustean bed to four questions about how to evaluate literature. Do you think that metaphor applies more widely, to issues such as economic justice, gay marriage, health care reform, and even to having a woman or African-American as president? If so, how?

Question 7

Your book The Spirit Catches You is filled with ideas about life, destiny, choice, and forgiveness. As the author, what lessons would you most like us to learn from it?


Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

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Libertarianism Isn’t Free

September 22, 2009 9 comments

Like most people, I guess, I’ve flirted with libertarianism. In high school, I also flirted with a libertarian who was a real-life version of “Gossip Girl’s” Carter Baizen. I lived to regret it, but that’s another story. Get me drunk some Friday night and I’ll tell you all about it. Two margaritas should be enough. 🙂

Basically, libertarianism says that we should have as little government as possible — and for many libertarians, that means no government at all. According to them, the only legitimate purpose of government is to protect people from violence, coercion, and fraud. Anything else is illegitimate. Libertarians oppose government involvement in activities such as ensuring food and drug safety, licensing doctors, limiting child labor, operating public schools, or regulating banks. On the positive side, however, libertarians support complete freedom for people in their private conduct. As a result, they oppose all laws against so-called “victimless crimes,” such as the use of socially-disapproved drugs. The most extreme libertarians want private business to take over all the functions of government, including police, courts, roads, and national defense. That enables them to argue for the total abolition of government.

My introduction to libertarianism

My introduction to libertarianism came via Ayn Rand (1905-1982), the fiercely polemical author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as well as several other books. She also wrote a Broadway play called “The Night of January 16th” that, ingeniously, has two different endings. It depicts a murder trial in which members of the play’s audience serve as the jury. The play’s characters testify in the trial, and the jury’s verdict depends on which characters the audience members believe. Later, in the 1960s, Rand described a philosophy based on her ideas and called it “objectivism.” There’s no denying that she was a smart, creative person who thought her own thoughts and went her own way.

However, I was ultimately repulsed by her total lack of compassion for other people, as well as by her kinky ideas about the proper relations between women and men. One pivotal scene in The Fountainhead has the book’s protagonist, Howard Roark, rape the main female character Dominique Francon. But the rape is supposed to be “okay” because Roark is the good guy and “you know, women really want to be raped” as long as it’s by a big, macho man with chiseled features.

Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged depicts a strong businesswoman named Dagny Taggart who has a similar relationship with her lover Hank Rearden, the owner of a steel mill. At one point, Dagny wears a diamond bracelet that Rand says gave her “the most feminine of all aspects — the look of being chained.” Uh-huh. And it’s a woman who wrote that! No, thank you. Bondage might be fine as play (as long as it’s consensual), but not as a definition of femininity.

Unlike some writers, by the way, Rand cannot make the excuse that these scenes are just part of a story and that they don’t mean anything. According to her philosophy of art and literature as she explained it in her book The Romantic Manifesto, art’s function is to focus on what is essential and to ignore the merely accidental. If she spends time describing a scene or event, it’s because she thinks it spotlights something important. Her essentially misogynistic view of women has been a scandal in libertarian circles, leading both to criticism by feminists and to fevered apologetics by Rand’s followers. (See, for example, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra.)

But let’s get back to libertarianism.

Libertarianism’s central idea

Libertarianism’s central idea is that we shouldn’t use violence or coercion against other people except in self-defense. Libertarians call it “the non-aggression principle.” It sounds nice, and we could definitely do worse. But there’s a big problem with it:

It’s impossible to know if an act violates the non-aggression principle unless you already know what rights people have and what belongs to whom.

That gap makes libertarianism a blank doctrine. You can fill the blank in different ways, depending on which theories of rights and property you pick. Those determine what counts as aggression and what counts as self-defense. That’s why libertarianism comes in so many different flavors: mainstream (“limited government”), anarchist (“no government”), socialist, Christian, and lots of other varieties. They all fill the blank in different ways.

For example, suppose that I have a new iPod and you take it from me by force. That’s aggression, right? But what if I had stolen the iPod from you? Then you are repossessing your property. What if I got the iPod with a tax refund that you believe came indirectly from your paying higher taxes? Is it then aggression if you take the iPod? Or did I commit aggression against you by buying an iPod with a tax refund?

Or suppose that I’m Dominique Francon from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, and you’re the novel’s hero, Howard Roark. You break into my bedroom and, against my violent resistance, force yourself on me sexually. Was it rape? Not according to Ayn Rand:

It was not an actual rape, but a symbolic action which Dominique all but invited. This was the action she wanted and Howard Roark knew it.

And elsewhere:

If it’s rape, it’s rape by engraved invitation.

Let me get this straight.* If I “all but invite” sexual assault (Is my skirt too short?), and the man who assaults me is sure that I “really want it” in spite of my resistance, then it’s not aggression or rape. Am I the only one who thinks that’s transparent double-talk in defense of the indefensible? Let me give you the real argument. Libertarians don’t like the word “aggression” but they do like Ayn Rand. Therefore, it wasn’t rape. Libertarians pick and choose which actions they think are aggression based on their ideology and emotional biases.

The non-aggression principle says nothing

All political and moral theories forbid non-defensive violence and coercion, but they define it differently. Even Adolf Hitler felt the need to pretend that Poland had attacked Germany first, so he could claim that the Nazi invasion of Poland was in self-defense.

Therefore, to say that one shouldn’t commit aggression is merely to say that one shouldn’t do what one shouldn’t do. Libertarians think that they’re saying something profound and important, but in fact their central principle says nothing at all. At least, it says nothing until it’s tied to a particular theory of what rights people have and who owns what. Until then, it’s a blank waiting to be filled.

How libertarians fill the blank

Mainstream libertarians try to fill the blank in two ways. First, they appeal to economics: usually, to their house brand of “Austrian” economics, which they prefer because it validates conclusions that they’ve already decided they want to reach. But economics merely describes the current distribution of income and wealth, and then tries to explain it. If you look to economics to determine what rights people have and what they own, the only answer you get is a description of how things currently are and a theory about why they are that way. Thus, despite its pretensions, libertarianism is a very conservative creed.

Second, libertarians appeal to ridiculously simplistic examples to justify their views of income and wealth distribution. If someone walking in the forest picks up acorns that don’t belong to anyone else, then she “mixes her labor” with the acorns and they belong to her. If a pin-maker working alone makes 1,000 pins in a day, then the income from selling those pins clearly belongs to her.

But libertarians try to extend those simple cases to argue that corporations have the “natural right” to own vast tracts of land or that Wall Street bond traders somehow “produce economic value” corresponding to the stupendous incomes they are paid. How do we know that they produced the value? Because they got the money. Why did they get the money? Because they produced the value. Some people might call that circular reasoning.

Libertarianism’s conservative bias

Libertarianism’s conservative bias is also built into the non-aggression principle itself. Events that occur in the present are much easier to prove as aggression than events in the past. If you hit me on the head and I haven’t hit or threatened you first, that seems pretty easy to identify as an act of aggression.

But if a corporate polluter dumps toxins into a community’s water supply, then it’s much more difficult to prove what happened and who is responsible. Can you prove that Mr. Smith, vice president of illegal operations, ordered the dumping? Can you prove that Sally’s cancer and Jimmy’s auto-immune disease, which developed years later, were caused by the toxins? Can you prevail against an army of corporate lawyers who have unlimited funds to drag out the case until you give up or die? Probably not.

As a result, libertarians come down hard on working people trying to defend their lives and livelihoods, but they want to let corporate wrongdoers get away with murder — sometimes, literally. Their solution to corporate crime is to get rid of all government regulation and let the crimes happen. The survivors (if any) can then sue for damages. Good luck with that. It worked so well on Wall Street that it wrecked the world economy.

One of my uncles, who is a philosopher (and in conversations with whom I developed many of these ideas), remarked that libertarians’ real guiding principle is this:

“What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is probably a government handout that’s rightfully mine.”

That doesn’t sound like non-aggression to me.

__________________
* In a less serious context, I’d probably make a joke about that.


Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

L’Shanah Tovah!

Happy new year to all of my Jewish friends!

Tonight at sunset, Rosh Hashanah begins — that’s the Jewish New Year’s Day. They get a good deal, because their New Year’s holiday runs a full two days, until sunset on Sunday.

And if I may explain a little more, just to prove that I really do know it:

  • L’shanah tovah combines the Hebrew word le, meaning “to” or “for,” shanah, meaning “year,” and tovah, meaning “good.” Hebrew has no indefinite article like our English “a” or “an,” so the translation is “to a good year.”
  • Rosh Hashanah combines the Hebrew word rosh, meaning “top,” ha, meaning “the,” and shanah, meaning “year.” So the translation is “top of the year.”

To all my Jewish and non-Jewish family, friends, classmates, teachers, and anyone else I forgot to list — L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu — “May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year!”

Your shiksa friend,
Rinth


Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

Plan for Tomorrow, But Enjoy Today

Annie Le could have been any one of us. The 24-year-old Yale graduate student was smart, fun, and focused. People liked her. She was careful about her personal safety. It was supposed to be her wedding day. And she was murdered on the Yale campus.

We live on one of the safest campuses anywhere, much safer than Yale. One reason is our location. And though we sometimes complain that Public Safety is a nuisance, they do their job very well.

Even so, anything can happen, anywhere, anytime. We shouldn’t live in fear of that fact, but we shouldn’t ignore it, either.

Carpe diem. It means “seize the day.” Seize it, love it, use it to learn new things and improve yourself. Use it to connect with your friends and family. Get to know someone new and interesting.

The only thing guaranteed to any of us is the present moment. We should enjoy it and use it the best way we can. Then, whether our time comes in one minute or in a hundred years, we’ll be happy and our lives will be well-lived.


Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

They Hate Obama Because He’s Smart

September 15, 2009 6 comments

Activate your B.S. detectors, dear readers. I’m about to engage in wild speculation.

The difference, of course, is that I label it as speculation instead of pretending that I’m just giving you the facts.

One of the things we do in my family is read newspapers. Lots of them. Yes, I know, that’s so totally last season. But you learn quite a bit that way.  And I read my news online so that I don’t destroy any trees in the process.

The “letters from readers” section of today’s New York Times has a letter that seems to clarify why some people hate President Obama so much. It’s not that he’s black, though that’s part of it. Here’s what got my attention:

Mr. Obama’s professorial and condescending attitudes toward his critics have only made things worse.

I read that and I thought, “Huh? What condescending attitudes?”

I’ve watched President Obama speak several times, including his speech to Congress last week. He didn’t smirk or make fun of his audience. Each time, he gave facts and logical arguments. He focused on issues rather than personalities.

I did not feel that he was condescending at all. I felt as if he was speaking to Americans as his peers, as rational people who could understand facts and assess his reasoning.

But then I realized: To a lot of people, that seems like condescension. They’d rather listen to a fake cowboy who grew up in Connecticut and bought a fake ranch in Texas. They don’t like the idea of a president who’s intelligent, uses multi-syllabic words, and has lots of that fancy-pants book larnin’. They want a president who seems just as stupid and ignorant as they believe that they are: someone with whom they would feel comfortable “having a beer.”

In their eyes, President Obama has committed an unpardonable sin: It’s not just that he’s black, but that he’s black and he’s smarter than they are. They can’t accept that. Every time he opens his mouth and uses those two- and three-syllable words, they think that he’s talking down to them.

But they’re reacting not to anything Obama does, but to their own deep and painful sense of inadequacy. That’s why they react so differently from the way I do, and from the way most college students probably react. We don’t have a deep-seated fear that we’re stupid. They do fear that about themselves, and Obama’s calm, logical approach just seems to rub that fear in their faces.

Ironically, they’re probably not stupid. I’ve known people like that. They haven’t had the educational opportunities that we have, they haven’t read lots of books and they don’t speak any other languages, but there’s nothing wrong with their intelligence. They’re afflicted less with stupidity than with a nagging sense of inferiority. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) is a poster child for that syndrome.

Anyway, you may run all that through your B.S. detector to see if it was worth reading. I’ve got homework. 🙂


Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

Categories: Politics Tags: , , ,

Don’t Outlaw Diet Coke

September 12, 2009 5 comments
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I totally love Diet Coke. It’s fizzy, it tastes good, and it’s better than all those dangerous and illegal drugs that I of course have never seen and would never, ever use.

Diet Coke not only has caffeine, but it’s also got aspartame, better-known as NutraSweet. Now, you might not know much about aspartame except that it kills rats if you inject them with 100 times their body weight of it, and it causes insanity in college students who stay up too late on Friday nights drinking beverages that contain it.

But aspartame is also chemically related to the amino acid glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are what your brain uses to send information across synapses, the gaps between the end of one nerve cell and the beginning of the next. Normally, if you have plenty of neurotransmitter molecules available for your synapses, then zowie! You’re zooming along the cognitive highway, ready to dance or do linear algebra or reorganize your closet or embarrass yourself with karaoke. Or all four. At the same time. Just like tonight.

A brain synapse after exposure to Diet Coke.

A brain synapse after exposure to Diet Coke. With apologies to Bear, Connors, and Paradiso, "Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain."

One of aspartame’s breakdown products mimics glutamate.  Both have an “excitatory” effect, which makes it easier for nerve cells to activate and fire. That’s why Diet Coke zaps you awake better than regular Coke, which contains caffeine but doesn’t also contain a faux neurotransmitter.

So the next time you hear someone at a party say that majoring in neuroscience and behavior is a waste of time — well, first, consider going to more interesting parties. And second, remember Diet Coke. Without neuroscience, yes, we would still have Diet Coke. But we wouldn’t quite understand why it is so yummy.

And we wouldn’t be able to impress people by proving that we actually can spell “nurosyense” … uh … “nervosience” … oh, foo. I think that my Diet Coke is wearing off. Maybe I’ll just go to bed. 🙂


Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

The Mother of All Isms: “Label-ism”

Sexism. Racism. Prejudice.

May Yang has a point. Even at school, we aren’t immune to society’s “isms” that endanger our relationships with other people. We need to reach out to each other — not just to the people who are like us, but precisely to the people who are not like us.

But all those little “isms” come from one big one: Label-ism.

When we label things, we think that we understand them and know how to deal with them. Sometimes, we do. But very often, we don’t. And when we don’t, we tend to do the wrong thing. When we label people, we often end up treating them unjustly.

I’m not saying we should get rid of labels: we couldn’t live without them. Labels represent ideas, and ideas are how we make sense of the world. If you go to the doctor and she diagnoses you with appendicitis, that label tells her how to treat your illness.

But we shouldn’t mislead ourselves about what labels tell us or how much they tell us, especially about people. And we shouldn’t be complacent, thinking that we’re immune to the effect of labels.

For example, take me. Even though I know that I shouldn’t label people, I catch myself doing it anyway. I did it while I watched part of President Obama’s speech to Congress tonight.

During the speech, I noticed two things. First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wore nearly-matching outfits. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t intentional unless it was a totally surprising and unexpected statement of LGBT solidarity. I’ll leave it to Rachel Maddow (MSNBC commentator and one of my personal role models) to make that determination. 🙂

Second, I noticed that House Republican leader John Boehner (R-OH) was scowling as the president explained the need for health care reform.

President Obama described cases in which insurance companies canceled people’s medical coverage after they got sick. As a result, some of the people died. Obama said, “That is heartbreaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.”

Rep. Boehner looked like he wanted to spit on the floor and walk out of the chamber. I thought, “Ah. Yes. He’s an evil Republican,” as if that explained his behavior. And then I realized what I was doing. I was putting a label on him that might or might not have anything to do with reality. The label didn’t explain anything. All it did was express my own arrogance and feeling of moral superiority.

Is Rep. Boehner doing something bad by trying to prevent real health care reform? Yes.

Does he believe that he’s doing something bad? Almost certainly not.

Does he believe that he has good reasons for what he’s doing? Count on it.

So what does it accomplish to label him as evil? How does it help us to understand the situation better? How does it help us to enact health care reform and build a more just and compassionate society? It doesn’t help at all. Instead, we should just say, Rep. Boehner is misguided and seems as if he can’t be reached by rational argument. We sympathize with his concerns (which we should make a sincere effort to understand), but we need to get this done so let’s ignore him and detour around him.

Rep. Boehner is an extreme case, but we do the same thing on a smaller scale every day with people we meet. We stereotype them based on their opinions, religion or nationality, how they dress, or where they’re from. And then we think we understand them. We don’t. We are not getting to know them as they really are, but only as the preconceived pictures we have in our minds. We’re not reacting to them at all. We’re reacting to our own prejudices as if they were reality. That’s not just unfair, it’s crazy.

To build an inclusive community and society, we have to put aside the labels that keep us from knowing and valuing other people as they really are. That requires us to go outside of our personal comfort zones, and get to know people who differ from us in ways we don’t fully understand.

Just like us, they are here for a reason. Once we know what that reason is, then we have expanded our community to include them, expanded our minds to understand more of the world, and expanded our hearts to become the people we were always truly meant to be.

And that is a big part of why we are here.


Copyright 2009 by Rinth.