Make America Cynical Again

     Recently, during a discussion of current events, my own beloved father looked at me gloomily and said, “You’ve become cynical.  That makes me very sad.”

     “Why?” I asked.

     “Because if you’re cynical, it means you aren’t hopeful about people,” he said.

     I was surprised, and for two reasons.  The first was his use of the word ‘become’.  Whether I am, as he says, cynical, or whether I am, as I would argue, realistic, I have certainly always seen the world through this lens.  It is familiar by now.  I have always been this way – I have never been optimistic.

Trump Rally
Quick, what color are all these people?

     (Although, in my father’s defense, it is true that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America jarred me and, perhaps, sharpened the edge on my cynicism.  I had not believed my countrymen would be willing to elect a man that xenophobic – I was wrong.  I don’t intend to overestimate them again.)

     But I was also surprised by his juxtaposition of cynicism and hopefulness.  He seemed to feel that these were necessarily opposite conditions – I don’t believe that they are.

     ‘Cynical’ can mean several things.  My father, in this context, probably meant ‘distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’.  I suppose I am that.  It’s not that I don’t believe that humans lack either sincerity or integrity, or even that those qualities are rare.  However, I believe that those qualities co-exist, in all humans, with cowardice, malevolence, and a facility for dishonesty, and that, therefore, those virtues are unreliable in any individual or population over time.

Nuremberg Rally
The Annual rally at Nuremberg in 1936

     As I have said before (several times), I believe that all peoples, in all places, at all times, are capable of evil.  That this capacity for evil, like our capacity for good, defines us as a species.  That we will never outgrow it, evolve past it, or become too smart for it, and that we must be ever vigilant against it.  I believe that the data, both historical and contemporary, support my conclusion.  I believe that this conclusion, to put it plainly, is true.

     And the truth is never cynical.  No belief, no matter how rosy it may seem, if it is not premised on the truth, can be really hopeful.


     The belief that we are better than our ancestors or the people of other nations, this is a self-flattering lie, a delusion which is easier to bear than hard truth.  And lies are never really hopeful; they are, in fact, a surrender to a much darker cynicism than I am capable of: that it is better to believe yourself good than to acknowledge your own capacity for evil and so avoid doing it.  That it is better to seem than to be.

     I believe that it is far more hopeful to be a cynic who looks out for ordinary evils than an optimist who insists that evil is always freakish, because only the cynic will see the evil coming far enough away to stop it.  Only someone who believes in evil will trouble themselves to learn about it, and learning is the best way we can avoid it in ourselves.

     Any view of the human race which denies an essential and ineradicable part cannot be hopeful.  Hope is not hope which is premised on ignorance.  There can be no true hope without honesty first.

     So, no, Dad, I may be cynical, but I’m not hopeless.  On the contrary, Dad: I find that you have much less hope than I.  People who, confronted again and again with the wickedness of their fellow men, with their small-minded hatreds, their tribalisms and rages, people who nevertheless insist on finding them essentially good, they are hopeless.  People who are then always surprised when evil happens, they are hopeless.  People for whom the good opinion of each other means more than actually saving each other, they are hopeless.  If you must lie to yourself about man’s nature in order to accept him, that is hopeless.

Memorial Rwanda
Memorial shrine in Ntarama for victims of the Rwandan genocide

     I believe I have seen man in all his despicability, and I still see a way forward for him.  He’s not a saintly ape, he is not basically good, but, with attention, he might learn.  And, as long as that is true, he will never be completely hopeless.  

     I’m trying to learn, and so I’m not hopeless.

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For Whom Does the Bell Toll?

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
-John Donne

Ebola has come to the United States (or, to be more specific, Ebola has come to the United States for the first time without our permission). As of the time of posting, there is only one confirmed case in Dallas, and that man, Thomas Duncan, while critically ill, is still alive. The American news media has been covering it extensively, it remains ‘Breaking News’ on CNN, and ‘Dallas’ and ‘Ebola’ have been trending pretty much constantly for a week straight.

To be fair, there has been a great deal of coverage of the African casualties of this latest Ebola outbreak in the United States as well, but Ebola’s arrival on our shores has clarified our focus. This is completely normal and understandable – people are more interested in the goings-on of their own communities than of the communities halfway around the world. It is not necessarily callous to care more about a minor local threat than a major remote one.

But simply because something is normal and understandable doesn’t mean that it should go unexamined. And while the African Ebola patients are in many ways distant from us, their own sufferings so far dwarf our own.

Most English speakers are familiar with the above quote by John Donne; many are also familiar with his quote, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself”. Fewer are aware that they are actually the same quote:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

This last and most famous part is usually spoken with menace, as though the quote were spooky. It is not. Donne is saying that the death of any man is, in some small way, his own death, and he is the less for it, because he is likewise part of mankind. So, when the church bells ring announcing a death, you need not ask for whom they toll; any man’s death diminishes humanity, and therefore you, and thus, in some measure, they toll for you.

As of writing, more than 3,400 men, women, and children in Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have died of Ebola. The news that Ebola has come, even in a limited way, to the United States may have more immediacy, but we are still diminished by those deaths so far away. So, indulge the news cycle, by all means – I certainly will. But remember: whether the bell tolls for an American or an African, it tolls for thee.

Donne’s most famous quotation appears in his book, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasionswritten when he believed he was dying.

St. Anthony’s Fire

Claviceps purpurea is a gnarly purple fungus that grows on grain, specifically on wet grain.  It looks like nothing so much as worms clinging to stalks of wheat.


If that grain is ground into bread and consumed, the bread causes ergot poisoning.

Ergot poisoning (or ergotism) has been known, if not understood, at least since the time of Lucretius, the first century B.C.  There are two different forms of ergotism: convulsivus and gangraenosis.

Both forms of ergotism present with diarrhea, vomiting, mental impairment, and hallucinations.  This is why sufferers of ergotism have historically been thought mad, or possessed.  Ergotismus convulsivus is additionally characterized by profound visual, sensory, and mental disturbances, and contractions in the muscles of the hands or limbs, and paraplegia.

Patients with gangraenosis ergotismus suffer from lack of blood flow to the limbs, which often break out into blisters.  The limbs become gangrenous, and either autoamputate or become septic.  Hence the convent record which describes “a great plague of swollen blisters [that] consumed the people with a loathsome rot so their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”

In 1090, when his son fell ill from ergotism, a French nobleman promised, before the tomb of St. Anthony, that if his son recovered, he would give his fortune to the church.  St. Anthony, Anthony the Great or Anthony of the Desert, was an Egyptian hermit who lived in the third century A.D.  He is often prayed to against skin diseases (perhaps not the most appetizing of saintly vocations).



‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’, Hieronymus Bosch, 1500-1525

When his son was well, that nobleman founded the Order of St. Anthony, monks who devoted themselves to caring for the victims of ergot poisoning.  Over time, because of their efforts, ergotism became known as St. Anthony’s Fire.

Hungry Ghosts

There is a Buddhist monastery in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, north-east of Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. The monastery sits on the side of a small mountain, overlooking Turtle Rock, and the climb to it is lined with illustrated sutras posted on sign boards.  There are well over one hundred sutras, and they are in English as well as in Mongolian, and I made myself odious to my travels companions by reading every single one.

One in particular struck me, and I took a picture of it:


“The number of animals is much less than that of hungry ghosts; it is like comparing the number of stars in the nighttime with those that shine during the day.”

At first, I supposed that ‘hungry ghosts’ was a poetical description.  However, the term appeared on a number of the sutra boards, so if it was a poetical description, it was heavily utilized.

I know now that ‘hungry ghost’ is a technical term.  It is a translation of ‘preta’.  Pretas, in the Buddhist tradition of that monastery, were once wicked, corrupted, or greedy men.  When they died, they were reincarnated as pretas, beings afflicted with a terrible and insatiable appetite.  Sometimes, this appetite was simple hunger or thirst; sometimes, it was more elaborate.  The pretas are often depicted, as on the sutra board, as skeletal, with protruding stomachs.  Their appearance frightened off humans who might have otherwise been moved by pity to feed them, and their enormous bellies were impossible to fill.

Sometimes, in their desperation, they were driven to humiliating exigencies, like the consumption of feces.  Sometimes, they ate the flesh of the human dead.  Sometimes, what food they could acquire burst into flames at their touch.  Sometimes, they were afflicted with so great a thirst that their throats dried and closed.

The most wretched pretas I encountered in H.L. Mencken’s ‘Treatise on the Gods’; where he encountered them, I don’t know.  He writes,

“Yet others suffered from such deformities and diseases that they could not eat, even when food was before them.  The teeth of some, for example, turned into needles, and mastication became impossible.”

If the sutra on that mountain is to be believed, these unfortunates are all around us.  They outnumber and walk among us, thin, swollen, needle-toothed, and hungry, in a desolating afterlife.

H.L. Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods.

Lock Your Doors

     In 1972, Herbert Mullin, an unemployed schizophrenic man living in California, came to the conclusion that the West Coast would be devastated by a series of earthquakes unless he performed blood sacrifices.  He acquired a gun, and began killing people.  He first killed a male hitchhiker, then a female hitchhiker.  He went to a priest, who, according to Mullin’s disordered mind, thought Mullin’s work so important that he offered to be a sacrifice himself.  Mullin killed him, then a mother and her children whom he also believed volunteered to him.  By the time he was caught, he had killed 13 people, most chosen more or less at random.

Herbert Mullin Mugshot

Herbert Mullin’s Mugshot

     The most famous serial killers, in the United States at least, all selected their victims based on sexual preference or according to the standards dictated by fantasy.  Ted Bundy killed brunette women.  Jeffrey Dahmer lured young men into his home; so did John Wayne Gacy.  David Berkowitz looked for women sitting in cars alone or with men.  These men are called organized, and they have more media appeal.  They fit our television idea of the serial killer: the crafty pervert who hunts individuals, who plans.  They are like spiders.  They seem smarter and are therefore more frightening.

     Personally, I find killers like Herb Mullin, disorganized killers, much scarier.  Take Richard Trenton Chase, another mentally-ill man living in California in the 1970’s.  Chase was convinced that he was being poisoned, and that his blood was turning to powder.  He believed that the only way to replenish his blood was to drink the blood of others, and he did this to several of his victims.  Chase broke into the homes of people who lived in his neighborhood, and killed men, women, and children, and even after his conviction, he believed that he killed in self-defense.

Richard Trenton Chase Mugshot

Richard Trenton Chase’s Mugshot

     After he was convicted, Chase was interviewed by the famous FBI profiler Robert Ressler, who asked him how he picked his victims, and the houses he broke into.  Chase told him that he simply walked down the street, trying doors.  If a door was locked, he moved on, telling Ressler, “If the door is locked, that means you’re not welcome.”  If it was open, he went in and killed anyone he found.

     That is terrifying.  Against men with a plan, you can arm yourself, at least hypothetically.  You can refuse to go home with Gacy, or to get in the car with Bundy.  But against Chase, against crazy chaos like that, there is no way to plan.  You might be able to hide from death that is looking for you, but from death that knocks at random?  There’s no hiding from that.

For Robert Ressler’s account of Herbert Mullin, Richard Trenton Chase, and the development of criminal profiling for the FBI, read Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI.

‘A Disgrace to Civilization’

     On March 29th, 1889, William Kemmler murdered his common-law wife, Matilda Ziegler, with a hatchet.  A little over one year later, on August 6th, 1890, he became the first person to be electrocuted in an electric chair.

     Kemmler was a very public casualty of the War of the Currents, the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse for the future of American electricity.  Edison favored the direct current (DC), which he had developed; Westinghouse produced alternating current (AC), which had several distinct advantages over DC, most particularly its ability to travel over long distances more efficiently at higher voltages.

     Edison went to great lengths in his campaign against AC.  He invented stories about people being electrocuted by AC.  He tried to convince people to refer to death by electrocution as “Westinghousing”.  He had his assistants hold public demonstrations during which they “westinghoused” stray cats and dogs with AC.  Finally, he arranged for the creation of an AC-powered electric chair for state executions, in the hope that it would persuade the general public of the lethality of AC electricity.

     The chair itself was designed by Harold P. Brown.  Brown worked for an electric company that used DC electricity, and he threw his lot in with Edison against AC.  The chair, as it was eventually assembled by Edwin Davis, the ‘State Electrician’, had two electrodes, one to be placed on the top of the head, and the other to be placed on the back.

The Kemmler Electric Chair

The Kemmler Electric Chair

     The day before the execution, the chair was successfully tested on a horse (the logistics of which tax the imagination).  On the day of, Kemmler, dressed in a suit and tie, was taken into the execution chamber at 6:38 a.m.  He apparently remained composed, even while the warden cut a hole in the back of his suit for the second electrode.  When he was all strapped in, the warden said, “Goodbye, William”, the signal to turn on the current.

     Accounts differ on the exact voltage to which Kemmler was subjected, and for how long.  From somewhere between seventeen and fifty seconds, anything from seven hundred to seventeen hundred volts of AC electricity coursed through Kemmler.  He smoked, gasped, and passed out.  The attending physician, Dr. Edward Spitzka, declared him dead.

     When several attending witness noticed that Kemmler was still breathing, Spitzka revised his diagnosis.  A second current, of one thousand thirty to two thousand volts, was initiated.  The New York Times described it thus:

“Blood began to appear on the face of the wretch in the chair.  It stood on the face like sweat…But there was worse than that.  An awful odor began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the hair under and around the electrode on the head and the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing.  The stench was unbearable.”

     In all, Kemmler remained in the chair for eight minutes from the first moment the current was turned on.

     A subsequent autopsy found that, despite the imperfect nature of the procedure, Kemmler had become unconscious during the first instants of electrocution, and that death had been painless.  The autopsy also indicated that the skin contact of the electrode on Kemmler’s head had been obstructed by his hair, which Kemmler had refused to cut.  The electrode on his back had been insufficiently wetted; according to the New York Times,

“The result was a terrible burning of the back clear through to the spine.  The skin in contact had been burned to a black cinder and the flesh above had been cooked until yellow, while the inner tissues had been baked.”

     Despite these hiccups, many considered Kemmler’s execution a success; indeed, it was hailed as an humanitarian triumph.  Proponents offered that it represented a significant improvement over hanging, which often took fifteen to thirty minutes to choke the life out of its victims.

     The New York Times was not convinced.  In an editorial dated August 7th, 1890, it wrote,

“A sacrifice to the whims and theories of the coterie of cranks and politicians who induced the Legislature of this State to pass a law supplanting hanging by electrical execution was offered to-day [sic] in the person of William Kemmler, the Buffalo murderer.  He died this morning under the most revolting circumstances, and with his death there was placed to the discredit of the State of New York an execution that was a disgrace to civilization.”

 Image taken from The Times

I first encountered the story of William Kemmler and the Society for the Suppression of Eating, oddly enough, in Bill Bryson’s fabulous Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.

Death and the ICD-10

     I was perusing the 2010 National Vital Statistics Report this weekend when I started to wonder about the letters and numbers that are listed after each cause of death: for example, syphilis (A50 – A53), or accidental drowning and submersion (W65 – W74).

     These numbers turn out to reference the ICD-10-CM, which is the United States Clinically Modified version of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th Revision.  Published by the World Health Organization and begun in 1983 to replace the ICD-9, the ICD-10 is a classification system designed to track mortality and health statistics in a way that creates statistical comparability between countries.

     What this means, essentially, is that the WHO has published a list of all the ways that it can think of to die.  A very cursory read-through of the ICD-10-CM opened this particular neurotic’s eyes to new and various ways to die that I, frankly, had never really considered.

     For example, there are different codes for morbidity as a result of contact with hot drinks (X10.0) versus contact with hot food (X10.1) versus contact with fats and cooking oils (X10.2).  Note: morbidity as a result of contact with hot drinks is not the same as morbidity as a result of contact with hot tap water (X11) even if, like me, you drink tap water.

     You can die from falling out of a grocery cart (W17.82).

     Apparently, you can be bitten to death by squirrels (W53.21).

     There is a code for morbidity as a result of contact with non-venomous plant thorns and spines and sharp leaves (sharp leaves!) (W60), which sounds like a slow and excruciating, if perhaps effortful, death.

     Crocodiles and alligators can kill you by biting you (W58.01), striking you (W58.02), crushing you (W58.03), or via “other contact” (W58.09).

     Somehow, you can die from contact with a non-venomous frog (W62.0) – maybe from choking on it?

     You can burn to death from a fire while on water skis (V91.07).

     Horrifyingly, you can die from the effects (unspecified and therefore more frightening) of a foreign body in the auditory canal (T16).

     There are more, many more; Wikipedia informs me that the ICD-10-CM enumerates some 68,000 morbidity codes, and once I start clicking through, I find myself nearly unable to stop.  I’m going to pull myself away now, and wander back out into the world, avoiding for as long as possible any of 68,000 ways to die.