Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Psychology

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Magdalena River

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 12:45 pm


One Hundred Years of Solitude must be Gabriel Garcia Marquez's best title, and it's the book that made him famous all over the world. But I somehow neglected to finish that epic novel, and was more attracted instead to Love in the Time of Cholera, a book so good it would probably have made the Colombian author famous again if he hadn't been already. I also enjoyed Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth, and I wonder if I specially favor these two novels because they both employ a vivid setting: Colombia's Magdalena River.

I'm a fool for riparian literature, perhaps because rivers hold such great spiritual significance (from the Jordan to the Ganges), or because they work so well as metaphor, whether the characters are lazily floating downstream like Huck Finn or tensely steaming up against the current like Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. My fascination with rivers makes Love in the Time of Cholera a natural for me, since this novel is basically a happy Heart of Darkness with senior sex. The ever patient Florentino Ariza has waited an entire lifetime to lie in the arms of his beloved Fermina Daza, and after many decades he finally outlasts her husband and scores with her on a boat heading up the mighty Magdalena. (Ariza's patience is his one great power, a character trait so distinct it earned him a seat in my hypothetical literary poker tournament a few years ago).

The river is a constant presence in this novel. Early in the story, Ariza escapes his heartbreak by travelling up the river, where the beauty that surrounds him is disturbed by visions of the cholera epidemic currently gripping the land:






Philosophy Weekend: Genocide and Drunk Driving and Causality

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 12, 2014 08:36 am


When we write about genocide, it's customary to descend into paroxysms of inexplicability. Jeffrey Herbst of Foreign Affairs magazine marked this month's 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda with a typical display. "Despite the thousands of pages devoted to the Rwandan genocide," writes Jeffrey Herbst in Foreign Affairs magazine, "we still do not have a good answer to the most basic question: Why?" It's clear from the tone of this introduction that no clear answer will be supplied -- though many words will be spent -- and when the Foreign Affairs paywall kicks in after a few paragraphs, most readers will do as I did and click away. No need to pay $2.99 just to read the same old cliches.

It's strange that Jeffrey Herbst thinks the genocide in Rwanda is inexplicable, since the political and psychological motivations behind the disaster are vividly and clearly documented in the massive historical record. The anguished "why" is a fraud -- the question Jeffrey Herbst and so many other commentators are grappling with is not actually "why" at all. The question they're really stuck on is this: "How can we live with the truth about why this happened?". That's the painful question nobody wants to ask.

The causes of Rwanda's genocide are obvious to anyone who learns the history and analyzes the data points systematically. The same obvious causes can be seen in the other terrible genocides that shamed the 20th century, from Armenia to Nazi Germany to China, and in several genocides that are raging right now in Darfur and Central African Republic and Syria. We're going to discuss these causes today. Our results will differ, though, from the weak pop-psychology answers embraced by common wisdom. The cause of the genocide will not turn out to be racial prejudice, or tribal hatred, or economic class envy, or repressed sexual aggression, or man's inhumanity to man. We're going to do a better job than that. And we're going to be systematic about it by starting with Aristotle's well-known list of four types of causes. To quote Wikipedia:






Philosophy Weekend: Can A Person Be Guilty Of Genocide?

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 6, 2014 08:03 am


One of many unforgettable moments in Philip Gourevitch's book about the 1994 Rwanda genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is the author's visit to Gitarama prison a year after the massacre. He finds a scene of incredible physical misery, though the sufferers barely complain. It's the suspected Hutu perpetrators of the previous year's genocide, not the Tutsi victims, who are crowded together here.

On the day of my visit to Gitarama Prison, six thousand four hundred and twenty-four prisoners formed a solid-looking knot, and I had to plan each step I took with care. It was difficult to figure out how the people fitted together -- which limbs went with which body, or why a head appeared to have grown three legs without a torso in between. Many of the feet were badly swollen. The bodies were clad in rags.

Gourevitch is perplexed by what he finds as he visits various prisons holding thousands and thousands of suspected Hutu killers. The prisoners could easily escape, the author observes, but they don't try. They just sit there.

Although the tightly packed inmates were all accused of terrible violence, they were generally calm and orderly; fights among them were said to be rare, and killings unheard of. They greeted visitors amiably, often with smiles and with hands extended for a shake ... The captain kept calling out, "Here's a journalist from the United States," and the huddled men, squatting at our feet, clapped mechanically and made little bowing motions. It occurred to me that this was the famous mob mentality of blind obedience to authority which was often described in attempts to explain the genocide.

Blind obedience to authority is what these bewildered prisoners are guilty of, and it appears possible that they are so passive because they have already judged themselves to be guilty, that they look so confused because they don't understand themselves how they suddenly transformed into murderers. Some of them admit this to Gourevitch, and later he talks to a former Hutu leader who has returned to the village where he presided over the murder of approximately seventy of his neighbors to ask for forgiveness from the few survivors who remain.






Philosophy Weekend: Genocide is Not a Force of Nature

by Levi Asher on Friday, March 28, 2014 10:03 pm


We speak of genocide as a problem from Hell, but we rarely speak of it as an ethical problem that can be solved. This suggests that we have ceased to think of genocide as a problem of human dimensions. We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes: we see it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way, and if it ever does we plan to hide.

Philosophers need to get their courage back, because genocide is an ethical problem that must be solved. Organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International toil weakly to solve it as a political problem, while Doctors Without Borders fights it as a practical problem, striving year after year around the world to alleviate the pain. But none of these organizations are designed to analyze the psychological roots of the problem, or to propose great philosophical epiphanies that might change the world. Indeed, I know I must appear foolish when I suggest that any kind of moral epiphany could possibly help, even though I'm quite sure it could.

We should expect our best ethical philosophers to address this topic often, but the great thinkers of the 20th century shied away. Sartre did not manage to communicate clearly on the topic of genocide, nor did Nozick or Rawls or Tillich or Jaspers or (ahem) Heidegger. Today, we have a few well-known academic ethicists like Derek Parfit, but they tend to steer far clear of bold speculations about the causes of our worst real-world problems. Alain de Botton has created a clever and brazen philosophical website called The Philosophers Mall that attempts to connect trendy news stories about celebrities and pop culture to philosophical questions. De Botton is at least trying to think outside the box -- but a celebration of triviality in philosophy is the opposite of what we need the most.

We are a couple of weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that took 800,000 lives in Rwanda in April 1994. I'm sure this 20th anniversary will generate some news blips, and perhaps a reminder of the disaster that is still occurring today in Darfur.






Philosophy Weekend: The Atrocity Cube

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm


It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.

Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.

I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.

The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).






Philosophy Weekend: Blood Alienation

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 15, 2014 09:50 am



What can we discover by analyzing the worst atrocities of modern history together, looking for patterns and common features? A whole lot, it turns out -- and we're just getting started.

Last weekend we discussed the surprising fact that every society will always consider itself highly moral and principled, even as this society may engage in vile activities. We called this the Ashley Wilkes Principle (named after the noble, brainy Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind). This week I'd like to examine another notion that appears to be surprising and self-evident at the same time.

A recent book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by the historian Alan Taylor drives home a single point: during the War of 1812, when the British Navy invaded and occupied Virginia's Chesapeake coastline, an event occurred that badly shook Virginia's well-entrenched plantation society. Slaves began to realize that they could escape bondage by reaching the British ships that lay ashore. Once they escaped, they would conspire with their British rescuers and help them invade their own plantations and villages to retrieve their families and free more slaves.






The Great Lost Rock Memoir: Inside Out by Nick Mason

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 04:17 pm


It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.

My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.

On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.

Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.






The Harriet Saga

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 11:18 am


It's probably the best tween book of the modern era; at least it's the best one I can think of. Well, hell, everybody loves Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, which was published fifty years ago this year.

The anniversary is already getting so much attention -- an event on March 15 at the 92nd Street Y on Harriet's own beloved Manhattan island featuring Gregory Maguire, Leonard Marcus and Rebecca Stead, a Booktrib appreciation featuring crime writers like Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke and Sarah Weinman -- that I almost want to skip mentioning it on Litkicks. Except for one thing: I love the book as much as everyone else. I can't not say so.

Harriet is about a churlish, opinionated 11-year-old who tears bravely through New York City's varied neighborhoods looking for trouble, and finally finds worse trouble than she ever wanted in the trivial atmosphere of her own schoolyard. I value the story for its emotional sophistication, its appreciation for the delicacy of a kid's emotional stability, and for the drama of the devastation that occurs when it breaks. The break in Harriet M. Welsch's swirling life of urban adventure occurs, of course, when her private notebook falls into someone else's hands. All the kids in her school read what she's written about them. The revelations hurt Harriet's own closest friends the worst, and Harriet is shocked to discover that even the dull kids in school that she never bothered to care about suddenly have the power to hurt her back, and badly.






Philosophy Weekend: Ethical Sudoku

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 15, 2014 12:29 pm


It occurred to me only recently that I have a revealing habit: when I am under a lot of stress, I find myself doing Sudoku puzzles. I suppose what I crave is the reward of completion, and the illusion (it is only an illusion, I'm sure) that I am a successful problem-solver. There have been moments in my life when I have clung to my iPad Sudoku app like an alcoholic clinging to a bottle.

There is something magical about the process of solving a Sudoku puzzle, and the magic may reside in the fact that a new puzzle contains a lot of empty spaces with a few numbers filled in, which corresponds to a solved puzzle with all the numbers filled in. The new puzzle may look like this:






Philosophy Weekend: Wealth and Envy

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 1, 2014 11:33 am


A video that's been making the rounds about a clueless super-wealthy plutocrat who compares America's treatment of the rich to the Holocaust and brags about his wristwatch that's worth "a six-pack of Rolexes" has got me to thinking. The most revealing thing about this video is the boyish excitement this 80-year-old former investor seems to feel about his expensive watch. He, like some others who argue for pro-wealth policies, seems to think that liberals and progressives who want to tackle the problem of income inequality are suffering from Rolex envy.

I wonder what it would feel like to wish for an expensive watch. I don't know how much a Rolex costs, but I've never remotely yearned for one, and if I owned a Rolex I wouldn't want to wear it. I don't wear a wristwatch at all, and really don't understand why anyone does. An expensive watch doesn't strike me as an attractive object the way that, say, an agate or a piece of ocean glass is. Gold and silver are not my favorite colors. And when I want to know what time it is, I just look at my phone.

And yet I've heard from economic conservatives that economic progressives like me must envy the rich. I really don't think most of us do. The lifestyle of luxury is not always attractive, even when it is curious. At most, most of us envy the freedom that would come with a moderate amount of wealth, and that's as far as the envy goes.






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