Archive for October, 2008

What Really Scares Us

Posted: October 29, 2008 in Culture

Halloween is two days away. Like most U.S. holidays, we’ve lost our sense of what it represents and are only too enthusiastic to celebrate the lighter, more enjoyable aspects. For kids, it’s nearly all about the candy. For adults, it’s usually about costume parties — license to look and act the fool for a night at least. Dozens of websites offer a historical view of Halloween, though most suffer from the tendency to tell the history from the perspective of those traditions familiar to us now. Here’s an example.

Wired has an interesting article with a link to historical photographs of people dressed for Halloween. What struck me upon viewing them is how the costumes reveal what presumably really scared the people in the pictures, namely, disfigurement:

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it and the pics merely reflect poor mask making. Still, how much scarier is a homemade mask suggestive of the real-life Elephant Man than a mask and cape of some bogus supervillain from a Batman movie bought at a drug store?

Avoidance and Duty

Posted: October 17, 2008 in Culture, Debate, Media

In basic Freudian psychoanalytical theory, the pleasure principle is the idea that people are driven to seek pleasure, and conversely, avoid pain. Its obviousness might make one wonder why the pleasure principle was ever codified as a psychological dictum. Even more interesting is the myriad ways the principle is subverted through behaviors such as deferred gratification, charity, and sacrifice. For the moment, I’m interested in the negative side of the pleasure principle, avoidance, and the duties it imposes (or vice versa).

On workdays, I awaken to about 10 mins. of National Public Radio. My local station is currently in the midst of an eight-day fundraising drive, one of several scattered across the calendar. This year, fundraising was kicked off via the Internet a little bit early to allow listeners and supporters the opportunity to buy back a day or two of the drive in a heretofore novel strategy of avoidance. The duty imposed, of course, was early donation. My suspicion is that the effort is a wash, since listeners still have to suffer several days of browbeating to support NPR. And because it’s so difficult to perceive something that isn’t there, two fewer days of fundraising blather may well go unnoticed. On the other hand, the displeasure of listening to various fundraising gambits for days on end may be intense enough for some people to exclaim “omigod, make it stop!” The awful memory may prompt them next go round to pay up just to make the announcers shut up.

A case of nearly universal avoidance is jury duty. Several strategies exist to escape this duty imposed repeatedly throughout adulthood on most Americans. The best may simply be to answer jury polling questions rationally rather than emotionally, as trial attorneys typically want jurors who can be persuaded emotionally rather than those who are able to maintain calm objectivity. The duty to submit to jury service probably has nothing to do with avoidance except for their shared universality. The painful loss of a day, week, or even longer (how do people survive long trials?) is necessary to support a legal system that, among other things, guarantees a jury of one’s peers. Members of the various state bars are also required from time to time to perform pro bono work to indigent clients. The comparison with jury duty is pretty direct: participants must pitch in to support the structure that benefits them. In the case of pro bono work, only bar members can do so, despite their universal hope of avoidance.

All across the Internet these days, as well as in other media, the conflicts between various religions and the nonreligious are getting more intense. The nonreligious or atheist crowd in particular has raised its profile precipitously in the last few years. Personally, I find these conflicts distasteful in the extreme and wish to avoid them. However, just as a religious faith may impose a duty on the faithful to minister, evangelize, and proselytize on its behalf, more and more atheists are arguing that the stakes are too high now for nonbelievers to watch the contest from the sidelines or ignore it altogether, especially as the separation of church and state continues to erode in the U.S. In short, duty to promulgate an opinion trumps one’s personal desire to avoid the whole morass.

In contrast, a widening range of topics and issues must be avoided in polite company to forestall argument, including capital punishment, abortion, gun control, racism, sexism, and even routine party politics. The problem is that attitudes and opinions have become so hardened and extremist that proponents lose the ability to maintain principled disagreement without resorting to hysterical name calling, libel, and slander, if not outright violence. Although not generally recognized, there exists a need for dissent to generate a plurality of opinion and help define issues from a variety of perspectivees to avoid an attitude from devolving into a counterfactual and/or uncritical truism, which is precisely what happens in the absence of dialogue. We see it served up on TV in a host of what might simply be called shouting shows, no longer polite company, where contestants vie for the loudest agrument with which to shout down their opponents. It’s become almost a blood sport, though it’s difficult to see any spoils going to the victor.

Around the World

Posted: October 8, 2008 in Idle Nonsense

From the idle curiosity department, this video (sorry, embedding didn’t work) shows some fearless guy doing a complete loop on a specially constructed swing. Almost every kid in existence who has ever swung on a swing has thought about doing an around-the-world loop. Of course, with typical rope or chain connections, it’s impossible. From a mechanical standpoint, I wonder if the considerable height of the swing in the video is necessary to generate the momentum to go all the way around. The guy also has to have his feet secured to the platform with something like ski boots so that he doesn’t simply fall off once his arc reaches a certain pitch. I also wonder how many test runs were made before shooting the video. There’s no apparent hesitation or nervousness.

Follow the Money

Posted: October 7, 2008 in Economics, Legal Matters, Media, Politics

Several blogs and news sites I frequent have linked to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review called “Boiler Room” that takes its principal theme from the movie of the same name. It’s a thoughtful and well-written article that describes the motivations and attitudes behind the credit crisis currently causing the full-on implosion of financial markets everywhere. The article blames the business press in particular for failing to frame the issues properly and report responsibly on the shenanigans of the financial sector. Indeed, the same can be said of many blogs commenting on the story. Why are more critics not recognizing and saying aloud that the behaviors underlying financial dealings in the last couple decades are just plain criminal? Was nothing learned from the savings and loan scandal? Was there not an abundance of klaxons noisily warning of circumstances and incentives that led ineluctably to wave after wave of corruption, financial crime, and collapse?

Let me just say it clearly, then: the people behind corporate, banking, insurance, and investment firm collapses are criminal. There was nothing passive about it. They should be arrested, tried, convicted, stripped of their ill-begotten fortunes, and sent to jail.

In criminal matters, a basic investigative strategy is to follow the money: find the ultimate destination of the cash and find the culprit. Usually, as fictional crime stories go, the culprit is some shadowy figure operating behind the scenes. More recently, fictional stories tend to place the culprit at the center of the story and may only reveal the magnitude of evil at the end. Today, there is no secrecy as to where culpability lies, and there is no story twist or last-second reveal to tweak our sensibilities. Rather, everything has been occurring out in the open and with an astonishing guilelessness.

It’s scarcely different with the bailout, which on the short term at least has failed to stem a collapse of confidence — confidence being necessary to perpetuate a systemic fraud, or more properly, con game. So where is that $700 billion flowing? Well, it’s going to the same people and places that conned everyone in the first place. Call it a long con.

We’ve been told over and over that the bailout is necessary to restore confidence. This article in the New York Times is notable for its picaresque anecdote from the Great Depression:

In 1929, Meyer Mishkin owned a shop in New York that sold silk shirts to workingmen. When the stock market crashed that October, he turned to his son, then a student at City College, and offered a version of this sentiment: It serves those rich scoundrels right.

A year later, as Wall Street’s problems were starting to spill into the broader economy, Mr. Mishkin’s store went out of business. He no longer had enough customers. His son had to go to work to support the family, and Mr. Mishkin never held a steady job again.

Maybe there is some truth to this as applied to today’s situation, but it’s a cheap rhetorical trick nonetheless. It also doesn’t mask the fact that the bailout money is flowing in precisely the wrong direction, a part of the same wealth transfer project begun 20+ years ago in the Reagan era. The sad consolation is that our dire situation is shared around the globe. We’re all in the same boat, and we’re all bailing now.