Deep in the brain

An article about brain parasites that breed in cats and spread to creatures, possibly including humans, that then become unreasonably attracted to cats appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Atlantic.  The article triggered vast amounts of comment around the web; I’ll just mention that it appeared at about the same time Gregory Cochran argued on his “West Hunter” blog that the likeliest biological basis for homosexuality is a brain parasite.  If this strikes you as an obnoxious point to make, you are well on your way to grasping the nature of Dr Cochran’s mission.

The late Christopher Hitchens often irritated me, though not in the way that Dr Cochran sets out to irritate people.  I read his column in The Nation for many years, and always wondered what percentage of their working day that magazine’s widely praised fact-checkers spent correcting his misstatements, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods.  A few always slipped through; my personal favorite was this, from his column of 22 October 2001:

There are others who mourn September 11 because it was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West, went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And if I am right, then it’s not even facile or superficial to connect the recent aggression against American civil society with any current “human rights issue.”

I agree that it is foolish to regard the attacks of 11 September 2001 as an act of political protest, but that is not because Hitchens was right in his suspicion that their perpetrators chose the date 11 September from an obsession with the events of the seventeenth century.  A correction appeared in the following issue pointing out that the Ottoman forces actually suffered their defeat on 12 September 1683, not 11 September.  Hitchens, in his next column, dug his heels in and argued that because the battle began the previous day, he shouldn’t have to give up his point.  In defense of this apparently preposterous stance, he quoted a remark in which Hilaire Belloc put the battle on 11 September, then said that Belloc’s “awful ‘Crusader’ style is just the sort of thing to get him noticed by resentful Islamists.”

The same column in which Hitchens tried to salvage his theory that 9/11 was a reprisal for Hilaire Belloc’s prose style includes a quote from G. K. Chesterton.  Chesterton and Belloc were so closely associated that in their day they were often referred to as “Chesterbelloc.”  This issue of The Atlantic includes an essay by Hitchens about Chesterton, who was apparently one of his favorite authors.  I didn’t think of it in 2001, but it explains a great deal about Hitchens to think of him as a follower of Chesterton and Belloc.  Like those men, he was a prolific writer who prided himself on a fluent style, showed significant erudition in a wide range of fields, and did not particularly trouble himself about questions of fact.  Also like Chesterton and Belloc, he was an insistent and grossly unfair apologist for his religious ideas.  Chesterton and Belloc defended the Roman Catholic church by presenting every other faith tradition in an absurdly negative light; Hitchens simply added one item to their catalogue of strawmen when he set up shop as a professional atheist.  The essay in this issue raises the possibility that Hitchens imitated at least some aspects of Chesterton and Belloc’s work deliberately, as well as exhibiting an influence that stemmed from his early and long exposure to them.

Sandra Tsing Loh describes the difficulties she faces adjusting to the idea that her father, Eugene Loh, is in a long, terminal decline, and that she is his caregiver. The article’s hook is “Why caring for my aging father has me wishing he would die.”  I shouldn’t think that would require much explanation.  It is difficult to watch a loved one suffer irretrievable losses, stressful to take care of another person, and natural to resent unfamiliar responsibilities.

I suspect that everyone who has ever occupied Ms Tsing Loh’s current position has at least momentarily wondered how much nicer things would be if the other person would just hurry up and die already.  If Ms Tsing Loh had written a short story about a fictional character in her position who couldn’t shake that thought, she would have explored a facet of the human experience* that needs acknowledgement.  By choosing to forgo the distancing mechanism of fiction and write a first person account, complete with photographs of Mr Loh, she is performing an entirely different sort of speech act.  She is not only confessing to this wholly predictable, probably well-nigh universal human response; she is also confronting her father and everyone else who loves him with a demand that they discard pretenses that have become conventional because they often make life more comfortable for people in their situation.  That demand, if met, would create a new kind of social situation, one which would be “honest” in the sense that it leaves raw emotions unconcealed.  However, that very honesty is another form of role playing, in which the members of the group play roles that might be appropriate in a therapeutic setting, though not necessarily so in the setting of a family group that is supposed to survive for many generations.  To keep people together for that long under all the stresses that come with family life, it’s necessary to develop a shared understanding of boundaries and to define ways to renegotiate boundaries.  Without those understandings, it’s impossible to predict each others behavior, which means that it is impossible to communicate without leaving the impression that one is saying more than one intends.  If Mr Loh were to recover the ability to read, I can hardly that he would not flinch when he realized that he was the theme of sentences like “if, while howling like a banshee, I tore my 91 year old father limb from limb with my own hands in the town square, I believe no jury of my peers would convict me.  Indeed, if they knew all the facts, I believe any group of sane, sensible individuals would actually roll up their shirtsleeves and pitch in.”  He might laugh, but I’m sure he would flinch.

*I’m familiar with the arguments against the phrase “the human experience”, and I still like to use it.  If you rehearse those arguments in the comments, be prepared to read long discussions of the thought of Irving Babbitt in response.

The Origin of Superwoman

This issue of The Atlantic has been lying around our apartment for several weeks while I worked on my actual job; last night, I had time to read it.  The one thing I wanted to note was Sandra Tsing Loh’s piece about how her view of herself as a mother has changed in the aftermath of her divorce.  Partly because she’s now virtually homeless, partly because she’s been smeared as a symbol of neglectful parenting on “blogs large and small all across our fair nation” (oh, and in the Los Angeles Times as well,) Tsing Loh now takes a hard look at the ideals of motherhood into which she was once indoctrinated and which she can no longer hope to meet.  She turns for enlightenment to a pair of books that I remember seeing all over the place in the 1970s, but that have apparently become hard to find in the last couple of decades: Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex.  She particularly recommends Greer’s chapter on “Family,” which traces the change from the traditional norm of a multigenerational extended family consisting of dozens of people related by blood who live and work together to the modern Western norm of the nuclear family, a couple and their children separated from their “stem families,” often by hundreds or thousands of miles.  Tsing Loh quotes Greer’s statement that the traditional family was a more stable system than the nuclear family because responsibility for its most crucial functions did not “rest on the frail shoulders of two bewildered individuals trying to apply a contradictory blueprint.”     

Some months ago I quoted Kurt Vonnegut’s remark that, “When a couple has an argument nowadays, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this: ”You are not enough people!”  It seems that Vonnegut and Greer were thinking along the same lines in some ways.  Not in all ways; Vonnegut seems to be suggesting that we as humans, by our nature, can be nurtured only in the bosom of a close-knit multigenerational extended family, while Greer’s argument leaves open the possibility that our need for extended families is one side of a contradictory inheritance from our pre-capitalist past, and that we might in time be reshaped so that we can find happiness without returning to the days before capitalism.  That’s a big difference, of course.   And Vonnegut’s remarks leave out the main theme of Greer’s study, the inequality of the sexes in various forms of family structure.  Close-knit multigenerational extended family groupings are usually, perhaps always, strongly patriarchal; the nuclear family may dethrone  the paterfamilias, but it may also isolate a wife from other women during her marriage and throw her naked to the cold winds of the labor market in case of divorce. 

Still, where Vonnegut and Greer do agree is that the nuclear family does not put enough people under a roof to maintain a stable home life.  The Supermom ideal which Tsing Loh has bitterly learned she will never be able to meet is a symptom of this underpopulation.  The future Supermom is supposed to establish herself in “a cool Creative Class career, like Writer.”  Then, she adds to that career a second career, as Child Care Provider Extraordinaire.  “Today’s Professional Class mothers are expected to have… the personalities- and the creative aspirations- of elementary school teachers.  But if you’re like me, you can’t compete with those seasoned professionals for whom child education is an enthusiastic vocation.”  Unless your Creative Class career is as an elementary school teacher, you are almost certain to be like Tsing Loh.  Surely it would be a miracle of sorts if a person whose background was in one profession could, on the strength of no particular training, match a qualified and experienced professional in another profession, whatever her personality.     

Supermom, by dint of her miraculous gift for childhood education, then shepherds her children into Creative Class careers of their own.  And the requirements for membership in the Creative Class are unforgivingly narrow; “We see, at our Creative meetings, the line that separates state-college folk from Ivy alums.”  It’s all well and good if your kids are writers or artists or whatever, but if their degrees are from humble adult education programs like the University of Michigan or UC Berkeley, it doesn’t count, apparently.  You’re still a flop as a mother.  The Creative Class Supermom not only guides her children into this fantastically narrow mold, she does it  without stifling their individuality; “the last thing she wants to be is a 1950s style nag.” 

For those who accept defeat in the contest to be Supermom, there is consolation in the works of D. W. Winnicott, a 1950s psychoanalyst who developed a concept of the “good enough” mother.  Tsing Loh finds that Winnicott’s “good enough” mother is “actually pretty close to perfect.”  

Supermom is devoted to her children; so devoted, in fact, that she is racked with guilt if she suspects that she loves their father more than she loves them.  This, to Tsing Loh’s disappointment, is why Ayelet Waldman titles her memoir Bad Mother.  While Tsing Loh fears that she is a bad mother because she left her husband for another man, Waldman fears that she is a bad mother because she can’t keep her hands off her husband, her children’s biological father.  Tsing Loh says that this isn’t so crazy; after all, “The very success of the modern American family- where kids get punctually to SAT tutoring classes, the mortgage gets paid, the second-story remodel stays on budget- surely depends on spouses not being in love.”  Being in love simply takes up too much time and attention to meet all of Supermom’s, or for that matter Superdad’s, obligations. 

This is where it becomes crucial that “You are not enough people.”  Not only are spouses dissatisfied with a marriage that only gives them one more person to talk to, and that person a member of the opposite sex, but children are dissatisfied too.  Without grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, all under the same roof, they direct all their demands to their parents.  Without their own parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews, parents direct all of their aspirations to their children.  Because each person is only one person, nothing parent or child does can satisfy the other’s need for a bigger group.  What the parents do have to offer is chauffeur service, fees for tutoring, and entry into structured activities led by adults who wear whistles around their necks.  What the children have to offer is the good opinion of such adults.  These goods can only for a moment quiet the longing for a larger kinship group, and so each side demands ever more of them.  The two beleaguered parents insist on providing ever more education to their children; they pride themselves on it, to the point where it becomes inconceivable for them not to judge other parents based on the lengths to which they have gone in playing this particular game.

The Atlantic, July/ August 2009

the atlantic july and august 2009We as a species are currently dumping massive amounts of carbon into the upper atmosphere.  Average temperatures around the world are rising at an alarming rate, evidently at least in part as a consequence of this dumping.  No movement is in prospect that would stop the dumping, or even reduce it substantially.  So, what to do?  Some scientists and engineers want to remake the rest of the earth’s climate to accommodate our carbon dumping habit.  How could this be done?  There are several possible methods. 

We could shoot sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere.  That would be remarkably affordable- for as little as a billion dollars, it could end global warming.  The drawback is that eventually sulphur would rain down from the sky, and if we stopped shooting new sulphur dioxide up there global temperatures would increase dramatically in a very short period.  Also it would cause severe droughts throughout central Africa, a region which has not exactly been among the big winners of industrialization to start with, so that seems unfair. 

Also we could dump iron powder in the Antarctic Ocean, causing a huge plankton colony to bloom and suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  We’d have to be a bit careful about that- half a supertanker’s worth of iron powder could feed a big enough plankton bloom to trigger a new Ice Age.  And when plankton dies, it releases methane, which is a much more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. 

There are also people who would like to block sunlight by shooting millions of clay discs at the Lagrange point between the earth and sun.  These skeets might well reduce average temperatures on the earth, but they could also stop the formation of ozone in the atmosphere.  And without an ozone layer, life as we know it could not exist on the surface of the earth.  So that’s a little bit on the risky side too.  So it seems like reducing carbon emissions might be worthwhile after all. 

(more…)

The Atlantic Monthly (two issues)

March 2008: Which religion will win, asks the cover?  Eliza Griswold predicts that in Nigeria, the winners will eventually be those Christians and Muslims who can put sectarian animosity aside and live together in peace.  Granted, this prediction comes at the end of a staggering catalogue of extreme violence between the followers of the religions, but such is her prediction.  Alan Wolfe also foresees religious peace.  Walter Russell Mead predicts that the next generation of America’s elite will largely consist of people with evangelical Christian upbringings.  Lori Gottlieb urges her fellow single women to marry the first guy who comes along.  Francis X. Rocca visits the monastery Generalissimo Francisco Franco built to surround his tomb.  Sandra Tsing Loh writes about her experience as a mother of public-school students. 

April 2008: Some showbiz stories- a profile of paparazzi who make their living stalking Britney Spears, a review of a biography of 30’s star Joan Crawford, and a piece about Hollywood’s ongoing attempt to recapture its glory days of the 1970’s.  Lawrence Scott Sheets writes about some cases of attempted Uranium smuggling, one of which eerily recalls Ken Kalfus’ novella Pu-239.  B.R. Myers, assigned to review Ian Robinson’s Untied Kingdom, lavishes praise on the author’s 1973 book The Survival of English before noting that his current book his cranky, ill-informed, and bigoted.  Myers does put in a half-defense of Robinson’s identification as a “conservative Christian,” mentioning something disgusting from a recent Academy Award winning movie and pointing out: “the only people who actually object to this sort of thing are the religious right.  We of the non-faith either applaud the ‘pushing of the envelope’ or look the other way; it’s just culture, after all.”  I think Myers is onto something here; it strikes me that one of the great weaknesses of liberalism in all its varieties is a failure to engage with culture, to take it as seriously as it takes the claims of the marketplace.  Corby Kummer writes about the power of community gardens to create a peaceful space in violent neighborhoods.  Barbara Wallraff explains the origin of the phrase “cut to the chase” and explores popular unwillingness to accept the evidence of its recent appearance, then discusses ways in which dictionaries may differ from one another.

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