The New York Review of Books, 22 December 2011

I subscribed to The New York Review of Books for years and years.  I kept renewing because interesting pieces would appear in it just as my subscription was about to expire.  Then it would go back to its usual unrelieved tedium for another 11 1/2  months.  Anyway, I saw a copy of the 22 December 2011 issue in a magazine exchange rack the other day.  I picked it up.  I’m glad I don’t subscribe anymore, or it would have been the issue to lead me to renew.

Michael Tomasky reviews sometime presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s campaign autobiography.  This sentence intrigued me:  “While some of us may scoff at a man whose claims to fame include peddling Whoppers (Cain turned around the Philadelphia regional division of Burger King) and pizzas (he was for ten years CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, which he also made profitable) to an increasingly obese nation with less and less need of them, conservatives find virtually any form of private-sector achievement admirable.”  In the USA, academics, journalists, and others in the nonprofit world are routinely challenged to justify their existence in terms of the value of their services to society at large.  Success in business, by contrast, is generally accepted as self-justifying.  I’ve lived in the USA long enough to find it a bit jarring, in fact, to hear Tomasky step outside this paradigm and treat business as an activity like any other.

Ingrid Rowland reviews Robert Hughes’ Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History.  Rowland meditates on the coexistence of Rome’s historical patrimony and the dominance of mafia groups in the city’s business life.  I wonder if the two things can be separated.  The only cities I can think of that have decisively broken mafia control are Las Vegas and New York, and in each case the slayer of the mafia was the unfettered multinational corporation.  That’s hardly an entity that would be likely to preserve the signs of eternity in the Eternal City.

Freeman Dyson reviews Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman’s theme, Dyson tells us, is the power of “cognitive illusions,” which he defines as “false belief[s] that we intuitively accept as true.”  Kahneman began his career by identifying what he calls the “illusion of validity,” the idea that the conclusions which people intuitively draw when faced with questions relating to topics about which they are well-informed are likely to be true.  As a very young researcher in the Israeli army in 1955, Kahneman was called upon to evaluate and, eventually, to replace the system the army was then using to place recruits in jobs.  That system was based on the opinions that experienced officers formed after brief, informal interviews with recruits.  Kahneman found that those opinions had no correlation with the recruits’ eventual performance.  He then designed a brief factual questionnaire for recruits to fill out and a mechanical method  of analyzing the results of that questionnaire, a method which turned out to be quite accurate at predicting recruits’ performance, and which has been the basis of assignments in the Israeli Defense Forces ever since.  Dyson follows this story with a story from his own experience in the Royal Air Force during World War Two, when changes that would have made bombers likelier to complete their missions were made impossible by the unwillingness of their crews to admit a fact which statistical analysis made achingly plain, that bombers carrying experienced crews were just as likely to be shot down as were bombers carrying inexperienced crews.  The illusion of validity was at work here as well; the idea that they were acquiring expertise that they would be able to use to save themselves gave the crews self-confidence that they would not exchange for safer planes.

Dyson explains the title of Kahneman’s book in terms of his thesis that cognition should be analyzed in terms of two systems, which Kahneman calls System One and System Two.  System One, our inheritance from our early primate ancestors, is fast and inaccurate; System Two, the product of our neocortex, is much more accurate but very slow.  In the fast-changing conditions of life in the arboreal canopies where our distant ancestors lived, it was far more important to be fast than it was to be right.  If a predator was coming, immediate movement in any direction was likelier to lead to safety than was long-delayed movement in the ideal direction.  Indeed, the RAF crews who resisted the changes Dyson and his fellow analysts could use statistics to recommend found themselves in a very similar environment to that in which our lemur-like forebears darted about, and so could hardly be blamed for favoring System One reasoning over System Two.

Dyson puts in a good word for two thinkers whom Kahneman does not mention, William James (whom Rowland also mentions, for his telling in The Varieties of Religious Experience of the story of how Alphonse Ratisbonne converted to Christianity) and Sigmund Freud.  Dyson argues that Freud anticipated many of Kahneman’s key concepts, notably availability bias (that is, “a biased judgment based on a memory that happens to be quickly available. It does not wait to examine a bigger sample of less cogent memories.”)  Here’s what Dyson says about James:

James was a contemporary of Freud and published his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, in 1902. Religion is another large area of human behavior that Kahneman chooses to ignore. Like the Oedipus complex, religion does not lend itself to experimental study. Instead of doing experiments, James listens to people describing their experiences. He studies the minds of his witnesses from the inside rather than from the outside. He finds the religious temperament divided into two types that he calls once-born and twice-born, anticipating Kahneman’s division of our minds into System One and System Two. Since James turns to literature rather than to science for his evidence, the two chief witnesses that he examines are Walt Whitman for the once-born and Leo Tolstoy for the twice-born.

Freud and James were artists and not scientists. It is normal for artists who achieve great acclaim during their lifetimes to go into eclipse and become unfashionable after their deaths. Fifty or a hundred years later, they may enjoy a revival of their reputations, and they may then be admitted to the ranks of permanent greatness. Admirers of Freud and James may hope that the time may come when they will stand together with Kahneman as three great explorers of the human psyche, Freud and James as explorers of our deeper emotions, Kahneman as the explorer of our more humdrum cognitive processes. But that time has not yet come.

Lorrie Moore reviews Werner Herzog’s film Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life.  This bit, describing the death house ordinary, stuck in my mind:

The reverend is against the death penalty but in thinking of it before the camera he veers off onto an anecdote about a golf trip and almost hitting a squirrel that “had stopped in the middle of the cart path,” and we can see how when pressed to illuminate its own contradictions the human mind can go on the fritz.  This may really be Herzog’s theme.  There is much strain and helplessness felt by the functionaries asked to dole out this ritualized punishment.

I can’t help but wonder what Kahneman would make of these flailings of a mind “on the fritz.”  Moore describes another of Herzog’s interview subjects, a former executioner named Fred Allan, who had to quit his job and foreswear his pension because he couldn’t stop visualizing the faces of all the hundreds of condemned men whose lives he had ended in the death chamber at Huntsville prison.  That sounds like a cognitive illusion worth cultivating in everyone inclined to set up shop in the killing business.

Kwame Anthony Appiah reviews two new books about W. E. B. DuBois, Lawrie Balfour’s Democracy’s Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W. E. B. DuBois and Robert Gooding-Williams’ In the Shadow of DuBois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America.  Appiah notes two facts that impede a proper study of DuBois.  Again, I wonder what label Kahneman would put on these cognitive illusions.  The first is that DuBois’ great longevity tempts us to see him as a more nearly contemporary figure than he in fact was.  His death date, 27 August 1963, is in many ways less illuminating of his thought than is his birth date, 23 February 1868.  The second is that he still ranks as a sort of patron saint of intellectual achievement among African Americans, and so any attention to his limitations may be taken as an attack on all such achievement.  Appiah acclaims Goodling-Williams and Balfour for having the courage to venture into these sacred precincts and do scholarly work there.

According to Appiah, Goodling-Williams finds three ideas at the heart of DuBois’ political ideas: first, the idea that politics is in essence the exercise of command over a community.  Second, the idea that this command is rooted in and to some extent tempered by “political expressivism,” a process by which those who are to be led recognize as their leaders those individuals who best express what they regard as the essence of their common life, what DuBois meant by “soul” in the title of The Souls of Black Folk.  Third, the idea that the main political issue facing African Americans was social exclusion, which in turn resulted from the twin evils of racial prejudice among whites and “the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.”

These three points set DuBois at odds with Frederick Douglass, who saw healthy politics as essentially a matter of collaboration among equals rather than a matter of command and control; who rejected nationalistic conceptions of leadership as collective self-expression; and who saw white supremacy, that negation of collaborative politics, as an evil quite apart from social exclusion of African Americans.  Goodling-Williams, Appiah argues, uses Douglass as a mouthpiece for his own democratic vision of politics, one in which leaders must listen to the actual voices of their followers, rather than to their collective soul.

Appiah ends with an interesting question about DuBois archnemesis, Booker T. Washington:

Could it be right to act like Booker T. Washington, deferring a demand for justice for yourself if that would bring justice more swiftly for your descendants?  Or is there something so discreditable, so slavish, in acceding to these injustices that it is better to resist them, whether or not your resistance brings forward the date when they will cease?

My inclination is to ask how we could know that any given act of deferring a demand for justice would in fact bring justice more swiftly for our descendants.  From a God’s eye perspective in which we could know with certainty that this was so, then the question would be one we could analyze coolly, rationally, in what Kahneman might call a System Two manner.  But given the limitations on what we can in fact know about the future, surely the best course of action would be to set an example of resistance, however futile it might be in the short term, in the hope, however ill-founded, that our descendants might hear of it and be inspired to emulate it.  Both our own action and the action we would hope to inspire in our descendants under that scenario would be the results of System One reasoning, bold and drastic and very likely to be misguided, but I don’t see how under real world conditions a policy generated solely by System Two reasoning could lead us to anything other than a situation in which full equality between whites and African Americans will remain forever in the future.

Malise Ruthven reviews Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest.  Ruthven talks a bit about the paradox that results when Westerners compare the Sunni/ Shia split to the Protestant/ Catholic split.  Shias, with their hierarchy, shrines, and veneration of saints, are often compared to Roman Catholics, while Sunnis, with their many sects, internationalist themes, and iconoclastic tendency, are often compared to Protestants.  Yet Shiism is at its heart a protest against Sunni ascendancy.  So at moments it is appealing to compare Shiism with Protestantism.

This discussion obviously doesn’t get one very far, since the very definition of an analogy is a comparison between things that are in other respects dissimilar.  In some ways the Shias are a bit like the Catholics, in other ways they are a bit like the Protestants, in a great many ways they aren’t much like either.

Interesting to me were a description of Dabashi’s rejection of Max Weber’s description of Muhammad (Appiah also mentions Weber, commenting on Weber’s admiration for DuBois and his skepticism about democracy.)  For Dabashi, Weber’s view of Muhammad as an “ethical prophet,” rather than an “exemplary prophet,” is too schematic and conceals the ideological difference at the heart of the Sunni/ Shia split.  Dabashi argues that the two branches have different ways of dealing with what Weber would call the exemplary character of the prophet.  Sunnis, says Dabashi, tend to believe that shari’ah law can absorb the prophet’s example and teach the community to cultivate virtue, while Shias favor the view that a living imam must embody his example in the presence of the community if its members are to know what is virtuous.

Dyson says that “religion does not lend itself to experimental study,” and so remains outside of Kahneman’s focus.  Nonetheless, I wonder how Kahneman might analyze this difference.  It sounds to me like the Sunni ideal is a System Two prophet, Muhammad converted from living man into the rational processes of the law.  The Shia ideal, by contrast, sounds like a System One prophet, Muhammad who gave us a line of successors who are not themselves prophets, but who share the prophet’s intuitive understandings of right conduct and arouse the same understandings in us by the influence of their example.

Ruthven mentions the political sociologist Sami Zubaida, who has written a number of things about the contradictions in the Iranian political system that stem from the fact that that country’s constitution defines sovereignty as stemming from God and also as stemming from the people.   He also mentions Dabashi’s admiration for Philip Rieff.

Tim Parks and Per Wästberg exchange views on the question, “Do We Need the Nobel?”  Considering the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mr Parks takes on a job that strikes me as absurdly easy, which is to prove that no group of eighteen people can be taken seriously as the judges of all the world’s contemporary literatures.  Mr  Wästberg can respond only by describing the lengths to which he and his fellow members of the Swedish Academy go in attempting the impossible task of giving fair consideration to all the living writers in all the languages of the world.  Mr Parks receives this description in good grace, but sees in it no rebuttal to his main point.