Whoso Rewardeth Evil for Good, Evil Shall Not Depart from His House

Sometimes, I’m glib.

Actually, I’m often glib.  Usually, even.  Always, maybe.

Anyway, I was glib last week when, while addressing a recent Bookends column in the New York Times, I wrote, “Reading is great”.

The fact that I was glib does not mean that I was wrong: reading really is great.  I believe, in all sincerity, that written language, our ability to record, preserve, and transmit information, is humankind’s greatest achievement, our best, perhaps only, hope of progress.

But while the ability to read is our paramount intellectual accomplishment and the great joy of my life, it can still bite me in the ass.  There is so much to read, and not all of it brings welcome news.

This month, the cover article of The Atlantic magazine is by Jeffrey Goldberg, and is called, ‘Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?’

Goldberg’s thesis is this: the Holocaust caused a temporary recession, or perhaps merely a masking, of Europe’s historically endemic anti-Semitism.  The effect is now wearing off, and a new wave of anti-Semitism from Muslim immigrants has exacerbated it.  The hatred that was always there is creeping back out into the open, and while Goldberg doesn’t believe that Europe has found itself back in 1933, he wonders whether it might not have found itself back in 1929.

The evidence which Goldberg marshals to support the existence of significant anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in France and Sweden, is persuasive; less persuasive, perhaps, is the evidence in support of its increase.  But this is pretty cold comfort: first of all, I find Goldberg essentially credible, and so extend him the benefit of the doubt.  But secondly, isn’t it bad enough that there is still anti-Semitism in Europe?

Anti-Semitism is primitive, and appalling, and stupid.  It was primitive, and appalling, and stupid in 1933, and then we were all given a terrible lesson.

Of course, the Holocaust was much, much more than a lesson – it was a genocide.  But, at the very least, it should have been a lesson.  Millions of people fell victim to a base prejudice: a lesson is the very barest minimum of what that should have been.

The Holocaust should have obliterated anti-Semitism in the mind of every civilized person of every race, religion, nation, or creed on the planet.  That it didn’t, that the deaths of six million innocents only bought Europe’s Jews a century of reprieve, makes me despair.

Six million lives was far, far too high a price to pay to rid us of one prejudice – if it could not even do that, then we are hopeless, a wretched and evil species doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over and over, hamsters on the Devil’s own wheel.

What is the point of recording information if we cannot or will not learn from it?  The act of writing is hopeful: it supposes that knowledge might be cumulative, that every human might not have to start from scratch, that the path to wisdom might be shortened.

But if six million deaths will not teach us, then what chance does the written word have?  What can the reason, the argument, the logic, or the witness of past persons do for us if their very deaths leave us unmoved, as stupid, vile, and ignorant as we were before?

And we are stupid, vile, and ignorant.  We cherish our bigotries and our hatreds more than we cherish each other; we preserve them and pass them on from generation to generation like twisted little heirlooms.  Truly, what pieces of shit we have proved to be.

I have read too much history to have any faith in us anymore.  No one has any right to surprised by Goldberg’s article: given a long enough timeline, man will always turn on man.

I’m not surprised; I’m sad.  More than that, I’m disgusted: what a pathetic excuse for a species we are.  Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?  The evil in man has made itself felt in every place, in every time – perhaps the better question is, where would they go?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.

Shame, Shame, Shame, and the New York Times

This week, the subject of the insufferable Bookends column of the New York Times was ‘Is There Anything One Should Feel Ashamed of Reading?’ (last week, it was ‘When It Comes to Reading, Is Pleasure Suspect?’, so clearly Bookends is in the middle of some sort of terrible binge-purge episode).  The highly predictable yet verbose answer to that question, written this week by James Parker and Charles McGarth, was essentially, ‘No, of course not! Reading is great!’

Reading is great, but so is shame.  Of course, it is unpleasant to experience and remember, and it has been used many times to evil ends, but let’s not throw the shameful baby out with the bathwater: shame is an emotion with high specific utility.

Shame is one of the leading indicators of wrong action.  Shame is what tells us when we have behaved badly, when we have been a lesser version of ourselves.  Shame is a measure of the discrepancy between who we want to be and who we have proved to be.

James Parker at least nods at this, with his distinction between “top-down shame”, which is imposed on us from someone else, and “bottom-up shame”, which we impose on ourselves, and which he endorses.  But he doesn’t believe that anyone does or should have bottom-up shame about what they are reading.

But we have all had the experience of hoping we are not caught reading something – that is shame.  And when we are ashamed of what we are reading, it is because we know that the book we are reading is beneath our ambition.  And our ambition so often defines our best self.

Books are one of the places where we express our hopes for ourselves.  We don’t just read for who we are – we also read for who we want to be.  We read books we ‘ought’ to read, to know more, to advance intellectually.

And that is right and proper, in appropriate measure.  All things in moderation; I don’t recommend reading exclusively for self-betterment.  Reading well is like eating well: it protects and strengthens you, but being too rigid about it robs you of joy and makes you a bummer to hang out with.

So we have our vegetable books, which we read because we should but which we may also love, and we have our junk food books, which we read even though, perhaps, we should not, because it’s really fun and we can’t help ourselves.

And our relationship with these latter is, in part, modulated by shame.  And it should be, no matter what the New York Times says.  The truth is, you’re going to die one day; your time on this earth is limited, and you are spending it reading Twilight.  That is a decision which deserves a second thought.

Which is not to say that you definitely shouldn’t read Twilight.  If you have the urge to, you probably should indulge it.  Fun isn’t evil – it’s fun.  But you should be a little ashamed.  That’s what keeps you from reading nothing but books like Twilight, and to read nothing but books like Twilight is to turn down an intellectual dead-end.

The cultural value which informs pieces like this week’s Bookends is one we’ve all encountered before: at least it gets them reading!  Parker and McGrath make a very good show of joshing around this point, but it lurks in the dark heart of all such discussions.  It’s also patronizing and wrong.  The New York Times knows full well that reading Fifty Shades of Grey is not the moral or intellectual equivalent of reading The Gulag Archipelago – the lack of shame they champion, the standard they promote, is one they do not and would not apply to themselves.  Of course they don’t read only for ‘fun’; of course they experience shame when they read trash.

But for the great unwashed, the mouth-breathing masses, whatever gets you idiots to turn off ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’ and crack open an actual book should be celebrated.  It’s hopeless to expect you to read anything at all difficult – dreck must suffice.  Charles McGrath will even jovially admit to having joined you, once, but then only really out of anthropological interest, to “understand the fuss”.

Don’t be fooled – Charles McGrath is ashamed of having read Fifty Shades of Grey (as would I be, if I had ever sunk so low).  But he doesn’t think you should be, because he never expected better of you.

I do, though.  I think we should all be ashamed of Fifty Shades of Grey.  I believe that a great day is within our grasp, when all people, rich and poor, black and white, young and old, will join hands and, whether they have read Fifty Shades of Grey or not, deny it.

Chairman Mao Will Seat You Now

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read, I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.”

Mao was a nobody from Hunan province, and he was ignored by the prominent intellectuals he so admired.

This passage is excerpted very early in Philip Short’s biography of Mao, and I am well past what was, in the grand scheme of things, a brief episode in his life.  But this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

Mao Zedong would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that would kill tens of millions of people.  He would become, by some estimates, the most accomplished mass murderer in this history of humankind.

But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten, and this story has haunted me since I read it.

With how many people do you interact every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pull your car around, pump your gas, see you to your table?

And those are the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

And what if one of them will become Mao?

There are two aspects of this idea I find disturbing.  The first, and the more ordinary, is the possibility of our unwitting proximity to evil.  It’s not pleasant, imagining that history’s next great killer might be taking your order.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, the clerk in the Beijing University Library wasn’t evil.  He would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but he had not yet.  And maybe, he need not have,

And if it is a question not of ‘When’, but of ‘If’, if he might but might not, then who else might?  Might one of my brothers?  My husband?  Might I?

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, he would find his way to his role, he would make space in history for himself.

But is it equally possible that history had an opening and that it would fill it?  Who is to say that Mao was the only man who might?  Perhaps many men might have done the job – perhaps most.  It may be that the murderers will out; it may also be that history could make murderers of us all, and she chooses.

This isn’t a lifetime movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters aren’t borne of a diathesis-stress model: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues and nightmares?

I don’t like my reflection in this mirror: I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me into shape to order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one.

But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.

The Law of Infinitesimals

Three weeks ago, I mentioned a book I was reading, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen, which is about…exactly what it sounds like it’s about.  The essential premise of the book is that the Age of Reason ushered in by the Enlightenment is under assault, that the forces of ignorance, superstition, and philistinism are everywhere.

Three weeks ago, I was pretty glib about this assault on reason.  I was only about halfway through the book, and I think I basically concluded that, because of a spin class I once took, everything was just fine.

I was wrong!  I’ve finished the book, and I’m frankly terrified.

Here is but one scary and demoralizing example:

Have you heard of Hahnemann’s ‘Law of Infinitesimals’?  It is one of the three laws invented by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700’s, and it remains one of the foundational tenets of homeopathic medicine.

Hahnemann’s Law of Infinitesimals states that the more you dilute a medically active substance in a medically inert solution (like milk or water), the more potent it becomes.

I’m going to repeat that very slowly, just so we’re all clear:

The more you dilute a substance (so, the less of it there is per unit solvent), the more potent it becomes.

Let me put that another way:

Let’s suppose you have two cups of water, Cup A and Cup B, and into Cup A you put 100 molecules of Medicine X, and into Cup B you put 1 molecule of Medicine X.

The Law of Infinitesimals

Cup A                           Cup B

According to one of the cardinal principles of homeopathy, Cup B will be the more powerful medicine.  Not the correct dose, not the more medically advisable, the more powerful.

Some homeopathic remedies are sold at dilutions so high that they almost certainly contain no molecules of the original “medical” substance.

(Of course, it would be very difficult to say this for sure of any given container of diluent; however, Avogadro’s Limit is generally held to be the dilution at which no more original substance remains.  Avogadro’s Limit is around 13C (1 x 10²⁶) if 1 mole of the original substance were used in first dilution.  Hahnemann apparently advocated 30C as the best “usual” dilution of homeopathic remedies, and one remedy, Oscillococcinum, is famously sold at 200C.  Since every ‘C’, or “centesimal dilution” is one part substance diluted by 99 parts solvent, that would mean that a 200C solution (one part into 99 parts, then one part of that into 99, then one part of that into 99, 200 times) would have one molecule of active ingredient for approximately every 100²⁰⁰ molecules of diluting solution (that would be 10 with 400 zeroes after it).  Since that is way, way more than all the molecules in the universe, it is very unlikely that that one molecule is in your dose.)

No problem, say homeopaths!  Even if your bottle of Oscillococcinum has zero molecules of Oscillococcinum in it and is, in actuality, a bottle of water, no matter: the water “remembers” the Oscillococcinum, and that’s just as good.  No, scratch that – it’s even better.

This is so stupid I can’t believe that anyone believes it.

First of all, heaven help us all if water molecules “remember” other substances with which they’ve come into contact.  Worse still if, through that “memory”, water can impart the properties of those substances to the drinker.  Because, if that is the case, when you drink that Oscillcoccinum, or even when you down a bottle of Poland Spring, you’re also drinking all the things all the water molecules in that bottle have ever touched: feces, dirt, rotten flesh, every manner of poison and putrescence that has burped out of the surface of the earth in the gadzillion-odd years it’s been roiling around.

But failure to see that is merely failure of imagination, a failure of which we are all guilty.  Active belief in the Law of Infinitesimals, on the other hand, is an almost deliberately perverse misreading of actual principles of medicinal dosing.  It is a committed idiocy.

It also violates the sort of everyday experience that informs common sense:

If you’re making margaritas, and you make one with a single shot of tequila, and one with two shots of tequila, which will be the stronger drink?  Is there a single homeopathic consumer on the planet, no matter how credulous and stupid, who would accept the Law of Infinitesimals from their bartender?

I live in a country where a frightening percentage of the population refuses to believe in Evolution.  Where there is a movement against vaccines, the enormous benefit of which has been demonstrated well beyond reasonable doubt.  My countrymen are so skeptical that they literally pose a threat to themselves and to their own children.

But they believe in this, in Memory Water and the Law of Infinitesimals.

And the angels wept.

If the sight of serial dilutions makes you want to curl and weep, Wikipedia actually has surprisingly good and clear information on homeopathic doses.  Their basic article on homeopathy is also pretty informative.

Featured image is not of Hahnemann, who I’d love to kick in the shins right about now and so will not feature here and who looks like a tool (see the Wikipedia page on Homeopathy if you don’t believe me), but of Amedeo Avogadro, who might not have been a looker, but was right.  It is taken from his Wikipedia page.

Worth

I was catching up on my Radiolab episodes the other day, and I listened to one called ‘Worth’.  In the way of Radiolab, it was a collection of stories loosely organized around a theme, in this case, the monetary value of things not normally valued in those terms: the environment, human lives, or time, in particular, time in your life.

The take-home message of this last was that, when developing and marketing drugs, we, both as individuals and as a society, should think about how much additional years of our lives are worth.

If you were 75 years old, and had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and there were a drug available which might extend (might being one of the operative words) your life by 12 – 24 months, would you take that drug if it cost nothing?  Yes, almost certainly.  How about if it cost $100 per year?  $100 per month?  $100 per day?  $100 per hour?  There are drugs that cost more even than that.  How much is it rational to spend to prolong life?

In general, I think it’s overly optimistic to expect people to be rational about death; nevertheless, these are questions which we should be able to at least entertain, if not answer.  I’d like to think I’d be able to have a discussion about my own end of life care, what I’d be willing to spend and endure, and what I would be willing to ask my family to spend and endure.  I am comfortable, at least intellectually, with the idea that my life is of finite and measurable worth.

But I know that I will never, ever be to think rationally about what my father’s life is worth.  I can accept that the value of my life is not unlimited, but the simple, emotional truth is that, to me, his life is priceless.

It is not that I love my father, in any meaningful way, more than I love my mother, or my brothers, or my spouse.  But my father’s death has been the great terror of my life since I was a young child, and I would do anything to postpone it.

I once told him, when I was very little, that I hoped I would die before he did.  He told me with great emphasis that that was the unkindest thing I could ever wish for him, that no parent should ever outlive their child.

I didn’t want to upset him, so I negotiated: I told him that, in that case, I hoped that we died at that exact same instant.  He failed to appreciate the compromise I was offering him, and told me that he hoped that he would die many, many years before I did, that I would have a long and happy life even after he was dead.

I didn’t tell him, but I didn’t think that was possible.  I still don’t.  The idea of living a happy life in a fatherless world is incoherent – it does not compute.  It’s like telling me you wish me a long and happy life after the sun goes dark for good.

When I was young and the black dog of my father’s death would appear at the edges of vision, my mother told me that that fear would diminish as I got older, as I started my own family and had my own children.  She told me that, when my own offspring were in the world, the death of my parents wouldn’t obliterate it.

I don’t have children.  Maybe I will one day, and maybe she will be proved right – she usually is.  But perhaps all she is really describing is the replacement of one apocalypse for another.  I cannot bear the thought of my father’s death – will I be able to bear the thought of my child’s any better?

I think what I’m trying to say is this: ‘worth’ is a concept with meaning only when there are choices.  “What’s it worth to you” suggests two options: the thing you want and the price you might pay, both with value you can understand and which you can compare.  Death of the most loved ones, this does not have value against which something else can be measured.  This is the scaffolding upon which the world has been built, and without it, nothing has value.

And the point is moot.

“To See and Listen to the Wicked is Already the Beginning of Wickedness”

I used to work in the lab with a young woman, on her way to medical school, who didn’t “believe in schizophrenia”.  Everyone hears those voices, she explained to us completely in earnest; to succumb to them was simple weakness.  “Schizophrenics”, she would say with air-quotes, were just lazy people gaming the system, exploiting disability and trying to get out of working.

This woman was obviously a malignant idiot (and she is now in medical school, so be very afraid), but I was stunned and fascinated by her.  I have spent my entire adult life working in neuroscience research, where people don’t question the essential validity of psychiatric illness.  We study schizophrenia because we believe it exists, because, and I can’t stress this enough, it does.  It emphatically does: schizophrenics are ill – they are not “lazy”.  I’d never met anyone who’d admit to not believing in mental illness before.

Imputing moral failings to people who suffer from psychiatric disease is retrograde and stupid, and I mention that here because I am about to do it.

There’s been a fair amount of press this week, in the wake of the conviction of Lacey Spears of the second degree murder of her son Garnett, about Munchausen by Proxy.

Munchausen is a factitious disorder, a disorder characterized by the fabrication of symptoms of somatic illness.  People with Munchausen often go to extraordinary lengths to receive medical attention for their fake illnesses: they research their “condition” obsessively, run up huge medical bills, poison or mutilate themselves; they have even been known to undergo surgeries that they do not need.

They do not believe that they have these disorders – Munchausen is not a disorder of delusion or psychosis.  Munchausen patients are deceptive, they are seeking attention and sympathy.

Despite the fact that there is, at this time, no known neurological lesion associated with Munchausen, I won’t dispute that someone who is so desperate for attention that they will drink bleach or undergo unnecessary amputations is mentally ill.  However, Lacey Spears didn’t have Munchausen; she had Munchausen by Proxy.

Munchausen by Proxy is Munchausen Disorder where the medical charades are enacted not on the sufferer but on someone else, usually a dependent, a child or an elderly parent.  Instead of poisoning themselves, people with Munchausen by Proxy poison their dependents, over and over and over again.

I just don’t know that I have what it takes to consider someone with Munchausen by Proxy mentally ill, a victim of their condition in the same way that someone with schizophrenia or bipolar is a victim of their’s.

The argument is that Munchausen by Proxy is a compulsion, that the “need” for attention is like the need that someone with obsessive compulsive disorder might have to wash their hands repeatedly.  That may be, but I doubt it: Munchausen by Proxy deceptions are methodical and controlled, not frantic and compulsive, and well enough in-hand to be perpetrated on other, vulnerable people.

More than that, I’m not sure I care.  This may be my failing – certainly, I believe that it is my responsibility to try to see the world as it is, whether or not it accords with my wants or expectations.  I know I’m not the first person to see a diagnosis as an excuse, and I’m not at all sure that’s company I want to keep.

But I’m not sure it’s right or wise to let every category of human wickedness hide behind pathology.  If you are “compelled” to put feces in your child’s feeding tube because you’re so needy for the attention of others, are you sick or are you so supremely selfish as to be fairly called evil?  Or are you both?  And do your actions really deserve our moral parsing?  Do we owe you the time and energy it takes to figure out why you’ve done this, why you’ve killed your own child for attention?  Do you deserve the protection a diagnosis gives you?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about evil people and evil acts – I find them interesting and I want to understand them, maybe more than I should.  I care where the line between illness and evil lies, and I think that, perhaps, I want to draw that line between compulsion to self-harm and compulsion to harm another.  I think it behooves us to treat self-mutilators as sick: they hurt, primarily, themselves.  But we lose moral credibility if, as a society, we decide that anyone who hurts anyone else must be “crazy”, or ill – we should not rob all wrong-doers of volition.

For whatever reason, the coverage of Lacey Spears left me cold and angry.  Even I have my limit, and maybe this is it.  I have a difficult time seeing Munchausen by Proxy as an illness – I see it instead as vileness, as tremendous and terrible selfishness.  And I don’t want to look for moral or psychological complexity in that kind of darkness any more; I just want to look away.

Title quotation by Confucius.

“One Half the World Fools and the Other Half Hypocrites”

A Disgression on ‘ How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions‘, by Francis Wheen.

I’m reading a genuinely scary book: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen.  It’s a catalog of the absurdities and errors which, according to the author, characterize the thinking of modern Western man: post-structuralism, catastrophism, Reaganonimcs, alternative medicine, &c.

Two years ago, this book would have made me feel smug.  I suffer from none of the pernicious un-reasons which afflict the men and women in this book, despite the fact that many of them are actually smarter than I am.  I try to be empirical, and I think I largely succeed (but, then, again, obviously, everyone thinks they’re empirical).

Two years ago, I would have read How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and shaken my head in self-satisfied dismay about how stupid and gullible other people are.  But that was before I took a spin class.

I’ve taken one spin class, a little over a year ago.  I really enjoyed that one spin class I took, although I would never describe it as pleasant.  It was in a small dark room filled with bikes armed with excruciating sharp little seats.  The music was thumpy and very loud and there was an extremely fit woman in the front shouting at us.

But it was encouraging shouting.  This woman with insanely muscular arms kept yelling at me that I was beautiful, that I was killing those hills, that I could definitely do another, that I was looking really great today.

These were all lies, or at least, none of these things were objectively true.  I didn’t look beautiful or even great – I looked horrible, like a sweating person in bad pain who wasn’t going to be able to sit comfortably for a week.  And I was not “killing” the “hills”  – I was lurching up them in near-despair.

Nevertheless, I believed everything the woman screamed at me that day.  Somehow the dark and the music and the numbing pain and the arms and the yelling combined to make me love that shrieking woman, and I would have followed her into battle if she had asked me.  Yet I remember that somehow, in the dank thrumming spin room, it managed to occur to me how cultish my feelings were.

I didn’t care at all – I was having a blast.  But it was humbling: I was susceptible to spin class-level manipulation, which is not, let’s face it, super-sophisticated.  And I knew I was being manipulated, and it still didn’t matter to me: feeling pumped in that moment was worth more than occupying my precious intellectual high-ground.

I don’t think I betrayed the Enlightenment by enjoying my spin class.  But we all abandon the strict precepts of reason every once in a while to make our world a little more comfortable.  That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it admirable: ideally, we would all be empirical all the time.  We would be data-driven: we would not believe what is not true, and when we do not possess sufficient data, we would remain agnostic.

But someone who actually did that would be insufferable.  We must act on what we believe we know and we must, in a world of contradictions, at some point choose to believe something: I chose to believe in that moment that I was a hill-crushing goddess.  I think that the best that we can reasonably do is change our minds when new information requires it: when I saw myself in the mirrors in the hallway after class, I quickly revised my estimation.  We’re all going to turn out to have been wrong about much of what we believe, whether we like it or not – in the meantime, we might as well spin.

Title quotation by Thomas Jefferson. Featured image, from Thomas Paine’s Age Of Reason, taken from rationalrevolution.net.