A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a "Ship of Fools". This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.

How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the notion of a ship of fools can describe several different specific situations. In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the people on the ship are fools because they have no seamanship skills, and yet are far out at sea in a boat they do not know how to operate. This metaphor corresponds to the situation in several of the songs below.

In Sebastian Brant's 1494 popular satire Ship of Fools, the fools are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, depicted literally as jesters or clowns who represent various influential clerics, judges and rulers of the era. The idea of a ship of fools that symbolizes a debased and corrupt world also corresponds to several of the songs below.

In Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel Ship of Fools and the 1965 movie that followed, various characters are unintentionally foolish. They do not take over the ship as in Plato's Republic, nor do they rudely debase the ship as in Brant's satire. Instead, they try their hardest to make good decisions. They are fools in the most existential sense: they try to navigate their lives with intelligence and wisdom, but cannot seem to sail in a straight line. That situation is also captured several of the songs below.

After originally discovering that I owned six songs called "Ship of Fools" by the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant, I began searching iTunes for more songs with the same title, and was blown away by the variety I found. I ended up spending ten bucks buying ten more songs, thus creating a playlist that I listened to for several weeks. Remarkably, this playlist sounded great. Indeed, the musical and thematic consistency between the 16 different songs I found called "Ship of Fools" almost indicates some kind of nearly supernatural synchronicity across the deep blue sea of lyrical and musical creativity.

Here are a few notes on each of the sixteen songs. They are listed here in rough order from my least to most favorite. Videos are included for my top five.

16. "Ship of Fools" by Van Der Graaf Generator

"Ship of Fools" by the 1970s prog-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator is an instrumental, so it's hard to divine any themes. The tone and tenor of the song morphs from moody to bright to murky, which may describe an experience on a journey with a ship of fools. But it's hard to tell exactly what the title is supposed to indicate, if anything at all.

15. "Ship of Fools" by the Scorpions

The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin' through a deadly storm
It won't take long 'till we collide

The Scorpions of 1980s hair-metal fame are from Germany, so it's too bad they didn't find a way to properly channel the spirit of their countryman Sebastian Brant. I like the Scorpions best songs (like "Rock You Like a Hurricane", which would be an uncomfortable weather situation for a hapless boat). But their "Ship of Fools" comes off a bit limp. The lyrics are trite and unremarkable, and even the band's patented screaming twin-guitar attack fails to save the song.

14. "Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum

Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain't it hard to play that part
When you've got a drunken heart

"Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum adds an interesting twist to the question above: are the fools on our ship stupid, or crazy, or corrupt? In Soul Asylum's song, they are simply drunk, which is actually another reasonable interpretation of the phrase "ship of fools". The proverbial vessel in this song might be a frat bus or a party limo. The passengers claim to be looking for love -- "fool's gold" -- but are unlikely to find it. The lyrical equation is intriguing, but the track's power-punk rhythm could be better, and as one of only two punk songs on this list, Soul Asylum's "Ship of Fools" suffers badly in comparison to the track by Fucked Up (see below).

13. "Ship of Fools" by Sarah Brightman

Sarah Brightman's "Ship of Fools" is about a bittersweet love affair. I don't really go for her brand of sleekly produced pop vocal, but I do appreciate the sincerity in her voice as she yearns:

I'll do anything to get to you
Because we're riding on a ship of fools.

12. "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen

I'm not really sure what to think of "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen, which is entirely concerned with a woman who treats the narrator badly as herald angels beckon in the background with dark foreboding:

All aboard! Ship of fools ...

It's interesting that the narrator of this song, unlike those of most on this list, is not already on a ship of fools, but only hears angels calling him to come aboard. It's unclear what will happen if he does or does not answer their call. Overall, there is something here, but I wish Echo and the Bunnymen had developed the nautical theme more completely. This is a prototypical 80s song (like the superior Erasure track below), but it delivers an unexceptional journey.

11. "Ship of Fools" by Ron Sexsmith

I've never heard of Rox Sexsmith before, though I am pleased to find that he sounds a bit like Ray Davies of the Kinks. It's not clear if his "Ship of Fools" represents a love affair or the whole damned world, but it is clear that he sees no exit ramp on this unsteady vessel:

We are all on the same boat, darling
On the same rough sea
We are all on the same boat, darling
The ship of fools at sea

10. "Ship of Fools" by Harry Manx and Kevin Breit

Harry Manx is apparently the inventor of his own musical instrument, which adds resonating sympathetic strings like those of a sitar to an acoustic guitar. The effect is only subtly audible in this unique folky number, but it does give the musical setting a pleasing kick, and I also like it that this song goes meta with its theme, informing us that the narrator is only singing about a ship of fools because he heard a song on the radio.

Heard a song on the radio, growing dark
About the hard times coming down today
On a Ship of Fools ...

We must wonder, which "Ship of Fools" did he hear on the radio? And does he have a "Ship of Fools" playlist too?

9. "Ship of Fools" by Erasure

"Ship of Fools" by Erasure is the most painful love song on this list, and the best example of the dark synthesizer-driven 1980s musical genre that was once called "mope rock". In this song's tragic story, the fact that we are all stuck on a boat filled with idiots turns out to be the only shred of commonality that two lonely and isolated souls can connect about:

Ooooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools?
Oooooh, why is life so fragile and so cruel?

8. "Ship of Fools" by the Doors

The Doors deliver an apocalyptic "Ship of Fools" in late 1969, following the summer of Woodstock, the Manson murders and Apollo 11. Given Jim Morrison's bent for Jungian symbology, it's not surprising that the Doors were the first rock band (as far as I can find) to record a song called "Ship of Fools". But it is surprising that Morrison equates he proverbial ship with the USA space program, which had just succeeded in its greatest journey before the band recorded the song:

Evil walks on the moon ...

Is the Apollo 11 moonshot the ship of fools? I'm not sure if that's what this song is saying or not. I have huge respect for Jim Morrison and the Doors, and the main reason I don't fully love their "Ship of Fools" is that I sense it as a wasted opportunity. They could have opened it up into a ten-minute epic like "The End" or "When The Music's Over", and this would have given Morrison time to fully explore the literary potential of this song's title. Maybe this would have also allowed the usually brilliant Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger to perk up their riffs.

7. "Ship of Fools" by Fucked Up

Fucked Up delivers "Ship of Fools" as a straight punk rave-up, and blow Soul Asylum's besotted "Ship of Fools" out of the water with their Clash/Ramones-driven energy. The lyrics are enigmatic and fascinating, though the actual story about the boat gets lost in all the Rimbaud-esque symbolism:

The speaker and the spoke
The axle and the wheel
The teller and the tale
The flower and the bee
The sword and the steel
The beast and the yoke
The fish and the sea
he prisoner and the jail
Sinking on the ship of fools

6. "Ship of Fools" by Flyleaf

I was not aware of the "Christian band" Flyleaf, but Kristen May's sweet soprano voice is even more pleasing (to my untrained ears) than that of the grand Sarah Brightman. I'm also pleased by the lyrics, which fully develop the nautical theme and don't shy away from biblical connotations:

See them sailing away, singing on a ship of fools
When they tried to build a heaven, they always use the devil’s tools
Adam and Eve, now they’re putting on their clothes
Because they can’t undress the secret to make another garden grow

The following are my five favorite songs called "Ship of Fools".

5. "Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead

"Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead is a sublime slow ballad, and the lyrics tell a story of anger and defiance. This narrator intends to sink the ship of fools, though he rides on it while plotting his mutiny. I don't know how the song's story ends, but I hope the narrator wins. This is lyricist Robert Hunter at his very best:

Went to see the captain, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.

I'm a huge Deadhead, though strangely this has never been my very favorite gentle-toned highly lyrical Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad (that would be "Black Peter" or "China Doll"). But this is a well-loved song, and for good reason. The Dead's "Ship of Fools" has been notably recorded by Elvis Costello.

4. "Ship of Fools" by Robert Plant

Like a werewolf who finds himself infected, Robert Plant doesn't know how he wound up on his "Ship of Fools", but he knows he's on the ship and feels very little hope of finding a way to get off.

I built this ship, it is my making
And furthermore my self-control I can't rely on anymore.

This song recalls the original passage in Plato's Republic: the ship is desire, and the storm is the turbulence inside the human mind. Plant calls out meekly to "turn this boat around", but there doesn't seem to be anybody at the captain's wheel.

3. "Ship of Fools" by John Cale

"Ship of Fools" from John Cale's 1974 album Fear is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs on my playlist. I've raved before on Litkicks about John Cale's stunning work with Lou Reed, and "Ship of Fools" brings out the same qualities I've raved about before: that lilting, elegant voice, those chiming clockwork rhythms, the mysterious and complex musical undercurrents.

Cale narrates this song in the voice of a rustic, a dumb provincial traveler. In this song, "fool" refers not to madness or stupidity but just to a lack of brightness, an emptiness of the spirit. All the passengers on this gloomy boat seem to be in dire need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The places and names in the song hint at some kind of spaghetti Western locale, but Dracula shows up in Memphis, and the overalltone of the song appears medieval, as if inspired directly by Sebastian Brant's 1494 book of verse.

2. "Ship of Fools" by World Party

"Ship of Fools" by World Party was a big hit on MTV and FM radio in 1987. I liked the song then and I like it now. The catchy lyrics always struck me as a protest against the prevailing conservatism of President Ronald Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain -- a howl of rage against policies that were pitting wealthy against poor and increasing the powers of corporations against the rights of individuals:

Avarice and greed are gonna
drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world
you're in search of no good
but I'm sure you'll build your Sodom
like you knew you would
Using all the good people
for your galley slaves
as you're little boat struggles
through the warning waves

Unlike John Cale's meek journeyman, who only leaves his gloomy ship to stumble ashore and find something to eat, the narrator of World Party's "Ship of Fools" hates being stuck on an infernal vessel bound for oblivion, and begs to be released. "Save me!" the singer yells. World Party's "Ship of Fools" seems most likely to have been inspired by the Heironymous Bosch painting on the top of this page.

1. "Ship of Fools" by Bob Seger

After listening for several weeks to 16 different songs called "Ship of Fools", it came time to choose my favorite song on the list. The decision I arrived at surprised me, because I've never been a huge Bob Seger fan. But I can't deny that this was the song that gave me the most pleasure whenever it came on.

Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is a deceptively simple guitar-strummin' ballad that appeared on Seger's breakthrough 1976 album "Night Moves". It features an achingly gorgeous vocal line sung by Seger with suave sensitivity and real conviction, especially as the story ends:

I alone ... survived the sinking.

This calls to mind Ishmael at the end of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which is not a bad connotation for a song called "Ship of Fools". It's interesting that Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is one of very few on this playlist in which the ship of fools actually goes down. (Another is the Grateful Dead's, and in several songs it's not clear what the hell is happening to the ship. Interestingly, the Ship of Fools does not sink in the books by Sebastian Brant or Katharine Anne Porter.)

Despite the Melville shout-out, Bob Seger clearly seems to have based his "Ship of Fools" on the 1965 movie. He indicates this with his opening line:

Tell me quick, said old McFee
What's this all have to do with me?

But i's funny that he hands this line to a person named McFee, since the character who speaks the words in the movie is Carl Glocken. It's a well-chosen line, though, since Glocken stands as a representative narrator -- an eternal passenger, ironic and philosophical -- for every possible idea of a ship of fools.

Glocken in Katharine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools is a small person with no wife or children or career, apparently supported by a wealthy family somewhere on dry land. He spends his lonely life going back and forth over the Atlantic ocean on cruise ships. It's how he finds an endless stream of new superficial friends with which to strike up fascinating conversations. Glocken has developed a tough skin and a keen sense of sarcasm after many voyages.

Glocken is often insulted for being small, and is always banished to the "misfits" table in the cruise ship dining room. In one of the movie's climactic scenes, a dignified German Jew finds himself banished from the Captain's table to the "misfits" table after a Nazi bigwig complains. All the misfits at this table eventually become friends with Glocken, who observes all their dramas and is the conscience of the film.

Michael Dunn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Glocken, the character who inspired Bob Seger's song. This seems suitable, since Glocken's ironic and dread-filled attitude deftly ties Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools" back to Sebastian Brant's "Ship of Fools", and Plato's, especially when he faces the camera to speak to all of us. "What's this all got to do with me?" Glocken asks.

Indeed, what? Well, don't you know ... we're all stuck together on this ship of fools.


The image of the "Ship of Fools" has appeared in several books, a movie, and sixteen songs by artists like the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Robert Plant, Soul Asylum, Sarah Brightman, Bob Seger, the Scorpions, Echo and the Bunnymen ...

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Sunday, March 29, 2015 09:09 am
A playlist of 16 different songs titled "Ship of Fools"
Levi Asher


I saw Kathy Acker's name fly by in a tweet yesterday. Her name carries power for those who remember it. Alternative and transgressive literature blossoms in today's Internet-powered cultural scene, but there was a time (back when Ronald Reagan was President and a lot of things were lamer than they are today) when Kathy Acker was the only young punk writer in the world with any amount of fame. That was a lonely era for a serious indie voice of the streets, but Kathy Acker played her role with style and class.

She died of cancer in 1997, when she was only 50 years old and had a lot more writing to do. Looking back at her body of work today, it seems clear that empowerment was always her mission. Her literary role models were men -- William S. Burroughs, Charles Olsen, Jerome Rothenberg -- but her influence seems to be most strongly felt among woman writers who heard her call for empowerment via unapologetic self-expression. Her influence can be traced through many voices that have dared to be brash over the years, from Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Tama Janowitz and Maggie Estep to JT Leroy, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Porochista Khakpour, Paula Bomer. Every one of these controversial writers must have had to dig deep within to find the confidence to write without fear. They may not have followed Kathy Acker's direction, but they did walk in her trail.

Acker may be best remembered for writing very frankly about painful topics like child rape and prostitution. But she was also a blazingly original theorist with a constant urge to liberate classic fiction/poetry texts from any sense of ownership, property or meaning. She called herself a "pirate" and freely spliced together texts belonging to other writers, acting decisively upon the impulse that would eventually find expression in David Shields' Reality Hunger. One example of a literary cut-up that did not get Kathy Acker into trouble was her novel Don Quixote, in which a terrified young woman lying on a bed in an abortion clinic transforms herself into the knight Don Quixote, and eventually selects a dog as her Sancho Panza. This book didn't get Kathy Acker into trouble because Miguel de Cervantes was long dead.

But she did get in trouble when she cut up a comically commercial sex scene from a Harold Robbins bestselling potboiler into her own transgressive novel, and her account of the agony she went through when Harold Robbins demanded an apology (and her own publisher refused to stand behind her) stands today as a vivid, pained document of the agony of a struggling writer drowning in a world of misunderstanding. This account, titled Dead Doll Humility, may be the most accessible thing she ever wrote. If somebody wants to read one thing by Kathy Acker, this piece would be a good choice. It begins in screaming caps:



As the piece progresses, the author's voice becomes tentative and weak following the repeated application of public disapproval and apathy. Dead Doll Humility presents the losing struggle of a writer clinging desperately to the right to write, against all opposition:

Want to play. Be left alone to play. Want to be a sailor who journeys at every edge and even into the unknown. See strange sights, see. If I can't keep on seeing wonders, I'm in prison. Claustrophobia's sister to my worst nightmare: lobotomy, the total loss of perceptual power, of seeing new. If had to force language to be uni-directional, I'd be helping my own prison to be constructed.

There are enough prisons outside, outside language.

The Los Angeles Times article by Carolyn Kellogg that caused Kathy Acker's name to fly happily before my eyes yesterday offers some good news: a new book of letters between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark called I'm Very into You: Correspondence 1995--1996 has just been published by Semiotext(e), which describes the correspondence as "a Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century, but written for queers, transsexuals, nerds, and book geeks".

A Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century is a tall order. But there's no doubt that our current epoch can use more Kathy Acker.


Kathy Acker's "Dead Doll Humility" presents the struggle of a writer to persevere against all opposition.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015 09:02 am
Kathy Acker, Writer
Levi Asher

Update, March 13 2015: Daevid Allen has died, according to a message from his son.

Daevid Allen, a brilliant songwriter and archetypal hippie prog-rocker who co-founded Soft Machine in 1966 before reaching his peak as the mad visionary genius of Gong, has announced that he is dying of cancer and has six months to live.

I am not interested in endless surgical operations and in fact it has come as a relief to know that the end is in sight.

I am a great believer in "The Will of the Way Things Are" and I also believe that the time has come to stop resisting and denying and to surrender to the way it is.

I can only hope that during this journey, I have somehow contributed to the happiness in the lives of a few other fellow humans.

Many people have never heard of Daevid Allen, who wears a bright blue shirt and gazes skyward in the photo above. But those in-the-know prog fans who do know the music of Gong tend to be rapturous at the mention of his name. It was Daevid Allen who inspired the British band Soft Machine to name themselves after a William S. Burroughs novel, after which he drifted to Paris and teamed up with his muse and lover Gilli Smyth to create the musical collective known variously over the years as Gong or Planet Gong, or New York Gong (the punk-flavored variation that flared up in the late 1970s) or Mother Gong (the branch Gilli Smyth maintained on her own).

The lack of a hard core behind the band's fluid identity expresses not only the band's existential philosophy but also its musical approach, which was relentlessly experimental and international but always sweet, funny, approachable and optimistic.

Gong existed on a dynamic musical fault line: the lyrics were goofy and the cosmic imagery delightfully faux-naif, but the music was solid kick-ass jazz rock, tinged with theatrical flourishes reflecting influences from Ornette Coleman to Brecht and Weill to Edith Piaf. The remarkable sonic stew reached its peak in three great mid-1970s concept albums known as the Radio Gnome Trilogy. The very best of these three albums, in my opinion, is the delicious Angel's Egg, a little-known masterpiece that occupies a sonic ground somewhere between Zappa/Beefheart's Bongo Fury, Pink Floyd's Ummugumma and Preservation by the Kinks. A great video of the song "I Never Glid Before" from this album captures both the innocent sparkle and dramatic musical sophistication of Gong.

I never fully understood the fantasy/sci-fi plotline of the Radio Gnome rock opera, which deals with pointy-headed space aliens, Octave Doctors, a hero named Zero, a prostitute with a cat (memorably voiced by the fearless Gilli Symth) and a bunch of creatures known as Pothead Pixies, whose name is abbreviated as PHP on the comic illustrations that graced the covers of their 1970s albums. (I never found proof of this, but I always guessed that Rasmus Lerdorf, creator of the programming language PHP, must have been a Gong fan.)

I might never have heard of Daevid Allen or Gong, just as many people who think they know a lot about 1970s classic rock have barely any idea that this long-running creative collective exists. I only know about Gong because I long ago happened to briefly befriend a small community of obsessive young prog-rock fiends in a small Hudson Valley New York town who lived in a musical bubble and introduced me to the deep discography of serious experimental music from Brian Eno to early Genesis to Todd Rundgren to Gong, which made the biggest impression on me of all of these names. (I fell out of touch with this crazy group of friends, but later discovered that one of the ringleaders had morphed into the prog-rocker Phideaux Xavier, whose unique ongoing work continues to remind me of the genius of Daevid Allen.)

Indeed, Gong will probably live on through its influence on other artists, and if Daevid Allen dies in approximately six months as he expects to do, there will only be a gentle ripple of recognition around the world. The influence will be felt in large but subtle vibrations, like those of the ancient Asian instrument the band is named after.

Look up in the air
The Octave Doctor's there!
And when he strokes his gong
Your middle eye comes on

In a moving interview at Blues.Gr just a year ago, Daevid Allen hearkened back to his early Beat inspiration to provide his own perspective on it all.

William Burroughs gave me excellent advice. He said: "Keep your bags packed and ready to go at all times".

Daevid Allen, your friends around the world thank you for brightening our lives. We pray that your passage will be peaceful.


Daevid Allen, the brilliant jazz-rock mastermind of Soft Machine, Gong, New York Gong and Planet Gong, releases a public statement about his fatal cancer.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015 09:51 am
A circle of Gong, featuring Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth and Didier Malherbe
Levi Asher

The horrifying report of the US Senate investigation into CIA torture during the Iraq War was released to the public this week, revealing depths of sadism and cruelty that nearly everybody but Dick Cheney considers un-American. When scandals like this are revealed, our first instinct is to look for someone else to blame.

This is a natural instinct, and I followed the instinct myself when I called out Dick Cheney above. But that was a cheap shot, and blaming others for a complex problem always feels like a moral dead end. Did we not all participate in the democratic process that led to the election of the leaders who embraced barbarity on our behalf? Are we not ourselves all to blame?

To blame ourselves seems more enlightened than to blame others. And yet, surprisingly, it brings us no closer to real understanding. Whether we blame others or ourselves, either way we are identifying a flaw in human character as the cause of a terrible problem. We are presuming that bad traits like greed or sadism or toxic ideology or ignorant apathy lead certain individuals (others, ourselves) to make wrong decisions. But we always discover that this realization doesn't improve anything, because no personal judgement will have an impact on problems like torture -- or human slavery or terrorism or genocide or any other form of geopolitical atrocity. Even when we occasionally manage to put some evildoers in jail, we don't seem to be fixing the underlying problems at all.

Imagine a bunch of people floating on rafts towards a waterfall that will soon kill them all. They are all paddling as hard as they can in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Some are using their hands, some are kicking their legs, others are trying to lash their rafts together. They are all yelling at each other that somebody else is doing it wrong, or they are crying for help because they know they are themselves doing it wrong. But the key point is this: they are all going to go over the waterfall. It doesn't matter whether they paddle with their hands or kick with their legs. It doesn't matter what any of them think, or what any of them say. They are in the grip of a force of nature. They are floating on a river that is carrying them against their will.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, it may be the case that a CIA torture scandal was simply inevitable. It may not have mattered what Dick Cheney thought, or what any Cabinet official or Washington Post reporter or angry voter did. It may be that the CIA's descent into barbarity was an inevitable result of the invasion of Iraq. The actions of certain powerful individuals surely made the torture scandal worse, and the actions of certain other individuals may have made the scandal less horrible. But this is like the difference between people who are paddling fast or paddling slow to get away from the waterfall. Either way, they are all going over.

When we discuss atrocities like the CIA torture scandal, we should try to puzzle out the actual forces of nature that caused the atrocity. Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is far more powerful than that of any individual decision-maker's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind, whose patterns do not resemble those of the individual mind at all.

This is why it feels so unsatisfying to blame individuals like Dick Cheney (or George W. Bush, or Donald Rumsfeld, etc. etc.), who are no longer even in power. It also feels unsatisfying to blame ourselves; after all, we know we never personally sanctioned torture. To blame ourselves for decisions we know we never made might seem nobly self-sacrificing, but it also feels gratuitous and weak, and leaves us helpless against the likelihood of future atrocities.

If we are perplexed as to what we did wrong last time, what can we do to make sure we don't do the same thing wrong the next time? Are we supposed to vote harder? Go out to the streets and protest ... against exactly what? Should we throw out all our elected officials, based on a magical belief that a new set of politicians will maintain higher moral standards in time of war?

But then, we must ask ourselves, what government ever maintains high moral standards in time of war?

Meanwhile, we're still on our rafts, paddling as hard as we can, and the current is still carrying us towards the waterfall ...

No individual person can institute a policy of government-sanctioned torture. This is an act that requires a group, a collective, a bureaucracy, a herd. It is not the individual mind but the group mind that conjures visions of cruelty. No single person -- not a Napoleon, not a Hitler, not a Mao -- is ever capable of wielding or controlling the kind of power that a herd mind can wield once a war begins.

It's all too easy to fixate on individual personalities and miss this crucial truth. It's easy to imagine that a vile leader like Dick Cheney might actually harbor private urges of psychological or sexual sadism (he looks so creepy that many people believe this about him prima facie, though it may or may not be actually true). But there is very little substance to these speculations. For instance, even if Dick Cheney is a diagnosable sadist, this does not explain the disturbing CIA actions detailed in this week's report. Dick Cheney was never in a prison cell brandishing a whip and a bucket of water and a rectal feeder. It takes a very large bureaucracy to carry out a policy of institutionalized torture over the course of many years. It takes a herd mind.

The mystery of the herd mind explains why individuals who participate in acts of atrocity often appear bewildered when they are caught in the act and called to explain their actions. We see this whenever a historical atrocity occurs. Ask a Turkish politician about the Armenian genocide of 1915. Put a Nazi on a witness stand and ask why he killed Jews. Interview a bunch of Rwandan Hutus who sit in a crowded jail about why they killed Tutsis, or a bunch of Serbians about why they killed Bosnians. You'll always get the same shrug. They aren't hiding the answers. They really don't know why they did what they did.

Again, here's why they did it. They were channeling the herd mind, and the herd mind has a different logic than the individual human mind. In times of peace, the herd mind can be a source of beauty and generosity and wonder. In times of war, the herd mind can lead us to greater levels of evil than almost any of us could ever be capable of dreaming up. In either case, the herd mind's logic always operates differently than the individual mind. And we tend to follow the herd mind's logic as often as we follow our own.

Are we letting individual actors off too easily when we recognize that only a herd mind can commit atrocities like torture or genocide? We could take crowd psychology too far and let this happen, but we should not. The fact that we are all stuck in the river's strong current doesn't mean that we shouldn't observe the different ways that people attempt to paddle. It does no harm to put an Adolf Eichmann or Sloban Milosevic or Dick Cheney in jail, and it provides or would provide a neat (though weak) moral lesson to do so.

Still, we must realize that we solve no problems by punishing individual evil-doers in time of war. Go ahead and put Eichmann and Milosevic and Cheney behind bars, but other fools will take their spots. The herd mind is not choosy about its leaders.

So, how do we begin to understand the nature of the herd mind, so we can at least make better decisions about which herds to join? That's a gigantic topic that will require future discussion, though we laid some groundwork in past weeks when we discussed the fact that a herd mind will always believe in its own moral excellence. (We called this significant discovery The Ashley Wilkes Principle.) We've also noted that fear and paranoia tend to quickly overwhelm the herd mind in times of war, and this does appear to be a key finding that will hopefully lead to future discoveries about possibilities for long-term peace.

This week's USA Senate report on CIA torture disturbed many people around the world, and has stirred many of us to think harder about what can be done. I'm sure that many people are reading various go-to texts for enlightenment. Some may be reading Noam Chomsky or Slavoj Zizek. Some may be reading the US Constitution or the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Some may be reading the Bible or the Dhammapada.

Me, I'm reading a book called Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War by Wilfred Trotter, originally published in 1919. I don't know why I never read this book before, and I have a feeling I'll be writing about it again. Till then, please share any thoughts you have about this topic. I'd love to know if my words on this page are making sense to anyone but me.


Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is more powerful by levels of magnitude than that of any individual's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind.

view /TortureAndTheHerdMind
Saturday, December 13, 2014 10:51 am
A 1919 Wilfred Trotter book explains a lot today.
Levi Asher

I used to read short stories all the time. At one point, I was more into short stories than novels.

Well, why not? This was back when Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and William Trevor were all putting out stuff on a regular basis. It sure did seem like a golden age.

I never put much stock in golden ages, though. I'm sure there are just as many good short story writers out there today as there were in the Breakfast Club years. But I'm not always sure who these short story writers are. So, I made it a point to read three recent volumes by three acclaimed short story writers recently. I must have chosen well, because I struck gold of some sort with all three.

Flings by Justin Taylor

I almost had a bad experience with Flings by Justin Taylor. This is probably because I didn't begin on the first page, but instead skipped ahead to the one story named after a Phish song. This turned out to be one of the only stories in the book I didn't like.

Justin Taylor is the kind of hip young over-educated brooklyn writer I might never have noticed if he didn't have one quirk that caught my attention: his substantial knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Stereotypes about batik-wearing aisle dancers aside (and really, these stereotypes have become extremely stale), there is a lot of fresh energy and intellectual depth in our long-running jamband subcultures, and it's about time a hip young over-educated brooklyn writer decided to turn these subcultures and their fringe members into material for fiction.

I thought Justin Taylor really nailed the aching sweetness of modern-day hippiedom with his clever novel The Gospel of Anarchy, which is about a houseful of collegiate Florida neo-Situationists who conjure up a new religion from the filth of their communal kitchen. I remembered this book for its warm characters, but I was left cold by the selfish and thick-headed Dad who takes his gloomy children to a Phish concert in "Mike's Song", the first story I read in Flings. Perhaps I came to this story with unfair expectations, but I can't help hoping that a story about a Phish concert will capture some of the joyousness of the actual event. I didn't get the point of this story, and I couldn't help wishing Taylor had written with the mood of the story's setting instead of against it.

I then had a rough time with the opening story of Flings, which is also the title story of the collection. I found myself wearied by the endless stream of jumbled hapless college graduates who work for non-profits and try heroin and gossip about each other. Finishing the story, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I later read the acknowledgements at the end of the book:

"Flings" is, among other things, in loose homage to Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'

To which I thought: thanks a lot, Justin, but you could have at least told me about the required reading in advance. All would be forgiven, of course, if the story worked on its own, but I don't think it does.

Fortunately, Flings immediately got better for me once I proceeded to the next story, Sungold, a playful romp that takes place in a college-town vegan pizza chain store, featuring a few of the wan anarchists and naive idealists Taylor draws so well. Then I loved Poets, maybe the best story in this book, which follows two egotistical young creative writing program junkies from their sophomoric beginnings to the eventual ravages of middle age, literary obscurity and romantic disconnection.

Even if it doesn't manage to find joy at a Phish concert, Justin Taylor's Flings is a delightful postmodernist grab bag, an accessible series of experiments in irony and attitude. The collection's title describes the book well: some of these flings don't fly, but that's the nature of a fling.

Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer

If Justin Taylor's collection feels like a grab bag, Paula Bomer's Inside Madeleine feels like a tunnel, and it takes only a few words before we realize how fully we have entered it. Here's the first paragraph of her first story, "Eye Socket Girls":

I don't want to jump out any window. I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living. They pump the air in here out of machines. It stinks like Play-Doh. Open a window, please -- I won't jump -- I'm not a suicide patient. I just don't eat.

This eye-socket girl is hospitalized for anorexia bulimia, and her crisp, efficient narrative leaves us with the chilling realization that she has no intention at all of allowing herself to be cured.

An odd and Poe-esque physical or sexual dread is a lurking note in many of Paula Bomer's carefully composed short stories, which tend to cohere to a single structural backbone: we meet a person whose inner thoughts drive her crazy, and we follow these thoughts towards their inevitable collisions.

Like a recurring bad dream, this pattern was also evident in Paula Bomer's first story collection Baby, in which the protagonist tended to be a financially comfortable New York City socialite in a very troubled marriage. Inside Madeleine mostly takes us back to the growing-up years, as if a prequel to Baby. The intensity of Bomer's steady voice remains; in simple words and sentences, devoid of pop-culture distractions or historical events or grand intentions, Paula Bomer takes us into a dark interior space and asks us to look around.

What demons, exactly, do we find? Every reader may project his or her own concerns into these Rorschach diagrams, but when I analyze these confused characters I see a looming self-hatred. In "Outsiders", a college student with plenty to be proud of can only fixate on the superficial and trivial flaws that alienate her from her peers. In "Cleveland Circle House", a psychology student gets a job in a halfway house packed with rowdy mentally ill drifters, and then begins battling her secret sense that she is one of them.

In "Reading to the Blind Girl", yet another college student is so overpowered by the domineering personalities that bluster around her that she ends up guiltily avoiding the blind girl she has been reading lessons to, banking on the fact that the blind girl cannot see her walk by. But this is a Paula Bomer story, which means that even this blind girl somehow seems to catch the guilty act.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

I'm not going to lie; I didn't enjoy a couple of the stories in Hilary Mantel's new volume at all.

There's a story called "Comma" about a kid who goes to grandma's and sees a lady whose baby has birth defects and is wrapped up like a comma:

Now the dark flowers on her frock had blown their petals and bled out into the night. She ran the few steps toward the wheeled chair, paused for a split second, her hand fluttering over the comma's head; then she flicked her head back to the house and bawled, her voice harsh, "Fetch a torch!" That harshness shocked me, from a throat I had thought would coo like a dove, like a pigeon; but then she turned again, and the last thing I saw before we ran was how she bent over the comma, and wrapped the shawl, so tender, about the lamenting skull.

I don't know. I guess this is the kind of writing that wins awards, but it comes across a bit plummy to me, and I certainly wouldn't want to read an entire book in this Joycean voice (okay, if the book is called Dubliners I would, but it's not my favorite kind of voice).

There are a few stories in this volume that I didn't think amounted to time well spent, but then there were a few that scored, like the opening piece "Sorry To Disturb". In this story, which appears to be autobiographical, the wife of a Canadian engineer who is stationed in Saudi Arabia tries to make friends with another foreigner, a Pakistani.

This dignified housewife's effort is not a success, and it's clear that Hilary Mantel is a writer who likes to see fault lines move, who likes the crash of cataclysmic change. I really loved the title story of this collection, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher", which offers an alternate reality in which the rigidly Conservative British Prime Minister is targeted by an assassin. We see it all close up, very close, though the occasion is entirely accidental.

Hilary Mantel's voice is cool and elegant here, and with this comic material her command of the art of fast fiction can be clearly seen. Even when her stories don't move me -- and about half of them don't -- I am impressed by the authority and intellectual confidence behind her literary voice.

In the same way, I'm impressed by Paula Bomer's control and consistency, and by Justin Taylor's puckish agility. Maybe this is still a golden age for short stories after all.


New short story collections by Justin Taylor, Paula Bomer and Hilary Mantel

view /TaylorBomerMantel
Monday, November 17, 2014 03:08 pm
New short story collections by Justin Taylor, Paula Bomer and Hilary Mantel
Levi Asher

The past week was a rough ride on the literary Internet. Thursday brought the sudden death knell of HTMLGiant, a rollicking community website frequented by writers like Tao Lin, Zachary German, Megan Boyle, Noah Cicero, Marie Calloway and Blake Butler along with a wide cast of erratic contributors and scattered postmodernists. This lively website always reminded me of the fun and psychotic days when Litkicks ran message boards.

The good news is, HTMLGiant is staying alive through October for one last gasp, promising to unleash a series of farewell blog posts "because if there’s anything this website deserves it’s an uncontrolled flameout". That's the way to do it, HTMLGiant!

The bad news, though, is that the immediate impetus for HTMLGiant's closing is a charge of sexual abuse that has been leveled against the novelist Tao Lin, who happens to be probably the most successful and popular member of the whole "alt-lit" crowd.

I haven't seen Tao in a few years but I used to enjoy talking with him at New York City literary events. I always had a positive impression of this quirky young writer. I would be very sorry to see his career destroyed for any reason, though I agree with others that if he has committed an act of violence against another person, he cannot be easily forgiven. I don't understand the detailed facts about this case, but it is clear that people have been hurt, and that is sad.

The Tao Lin news wasn't the worst bombshell on the scene for me this week. Ed Champion, one of my closest friends, and my longtime "traveling partner" on the literary blogging scene, has had a severe mental breakdown. This didn't happen suddenly. Several of us have seen this coming for the last few years, especially the last two, as various paranoid tendencies got the better of him.

A dumb offense against another writer has (rightfully) generated tremendous backlash against Ed, who has by this point really hit bottom. Unfortunately for himself, he generated a lot of damaging publicity in doing so.

I felt particularly close to the events this week because the other writer who finally called Ed out on his increasingly offensive behavior was the novelist Porochista Khakpour, who is also a good friend of mine. I reviewed her novel The Last Illusion recently, and saw her read from this novel at a Virginia book festival just three weeks ago.

I wrote extensively about my personal feelings about the really frightening crisis that has occurred between two of my good friends and several others in the publishing/lit-crit community on my Twitter account, particularly in a stream of about 50 tweets on September 30 and September 28. Please go there if you'd like to read my perspective on the whole story.

All I'd like to say here is that I think Porochista did the right thing to speak out loudly when Ed started threatening her, and that I really hope Ed gets well. Many people have enjoyed his work at or Bat Segundo over the years, and I hope the literary community can find some sympathy for a guy who made big mistakes and is now suffering for them.

* * * * *

I call this Philosophy Weekend blog post "From Chaos" because life feels chaotic right now. But the emphasis is on the "From", because I'm making some good changes on Litkicks right now. If you're a regular reader, you may have noticed that I've been gradually reducing the frequency of blog posts, which used to come at the rate of two or three a week. Starting now, I'm going to stick to a slower pace of one blog post a week.

This will help me keep the quality level high (quality is always more important than quantity when it comes to blog posts, don't you think?). It will also help me work on a new project I'm cooking up, something that is currently being born, but will take a little while more before it can emerge from the chaos.

I will still be writing often about philosophy and politics and ethics, but this weekend's blog post will be the last one called "Philosophy Weekend". Now that I'm doing one blog post a week, they'll all just be "Literary Kicks". This may take some getting used to, but I think it will work out fine.

I began Philosophy Weekend in June 2010 after ending a weekend series devoted to the New York Times Book Review because that had stopped being fun. I wanted to start using the Litkicks platform to share thoughts about the issues that were most on my mind at this time, particularly issues relating to history, sociology, psychology, politics, religion and philosophy. I think the series was a success, and I am thrilled that Litkicks readers embraced the experiment and kept up a steady level of intelligent and provocative debate in our comments. I hope this keeps going, and I have no doubt that it will.

I'll be continuing to write about the same topics, but it will no longer be a separate section. I like the symbolism that the last Philosophy Weekend blog post is named after the primordial Greek god Khaos, while the very first Philosophy Weekend blog post was named after Sisyphus. Pretty cool, eh? That's how I'm going out. I like to think dear Friedrich would approve.

* * * * *

A note about the artwork: before I began writing this article, I googled "primordial chaos" and found this image on the page of an artist named Vivi-Mari Carpelan, who has very nice work.


Why this is the last blog post in the "Philosophy Weekend" series.

view /FromChaos
Friday, October 3, 2014 08:47 pm
Primordial Chaos by Vivi Mari Carpelan
Levi Asher

If you're on the east coast of the USA these days, you might catch a painted bus called Furthur running up and down the seaboard. This colorful vehicle is named after the original Furthur that took novelist Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Ken Babbs and the rest of the Merry Pranksters across the country on a famous road trip 50 years ago. I caught up with Zane Kesey and the giant rolling metaphor he designed for his father when they finally rolled into Brooklyn, New York last month.

Ken Kesey is a writer we have always appreciated here on Litkicks, both before and after he died in 2001. Kesey may be more often remembered for his crazy bus than for his great books these days, but we shouldn't forget that it was the critical and commercial success of his powerful novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962 that made the bus journey in 1964 possible.

If the idea of a bus trip in 2014 to honor a bus trip in 1964 sounds strange, we should recall that Kesey's original bus trip was itself an homage to Jack Kerouac's On The Road (which it enacted in reverse, California to New York) as well as a forward-looking and freewheeling hippie Dada experiment. We can't know for sure what sociological and countercultural expectations Kesey had when his first journey began, but it's obvious that the author was aiming to create a spontaneous living novel, even though the debris of the journey overtook its chief and he never transformed the journey into a book of his own. It fell to visiting journalist Tom Wolfe to write the definitive book about the bus trip, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

I had all these literary themes on my mind as I strolled over to a bar called Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg at dusk on a Friday night and found the bus placidly parked on the corner in front of the bar. A happy gang of tie-dye-wearing hippies, clowns, musicians, dusty travelers and eager tourists milled around.

The bus had generated a lively and talkative sidewalk scene, though I had trouble finding anyone who could fill me in on the concrete details of how the cross-country journey had been going, whether expectations were being satisfied, and where I could find out more of the dirt and the details than were being posted on Facebook. I eventually found a friendly guy who seemed to be a member of the core traveling group, and he let me step onto the empty bus to take a selfie (posted above).

However, when I tried to ask him serious questions I quickly learned that he was coping with the crowd of interested tourists (a group which, unfortunately, he thought I was a part of) by delivering only oblique answers in the form of ciphers and koans. Recognizing this technique as Prankster-speak, I didn't push too hard for answers to my questions, and instead wandered inside the bar where a Grateful Dead band called Half Step was tuning up for their first set. I found Zane Kesey working a table stacked with t-shirts, keychains, bumper stickers and other Kesey-related paraphernalia (the one thing that was missing, I'm sorry to say, was books).

I was eager to chat with Zane, but I quickly realized that the conversation would go nowhere, because the room was too noisy, and because he was busily working the t-shirts-n-stuff table all by himself. I had a few questions for him about his father's legacy -- I was particularly interested in asking about the play Twister, a postmodern parody of The Wizard of Oz that had been one of Ken Kesey's later works, and which I'd always been curious to learn more about. Zane brightened up when I asked this question, but there was clearly no opportunity for a serious conversation as the band began to play across the room. I hope I'll get another chance to chat with Zane about his father's legacy some day.

I was not at all disappointed that I couldn't engage in a serious literary discussion of Ken Kesey's works with his son or with anybody else at this gathering, since no Prankster would ever answer a question seriously anyway, which meant the inhabitants of the bus were doing it right. I decided to switch gears and enjoy the music, and had a great time dancing with a happy half-Brooklyn half-Prankster crowd to the wonderful tones of Half Step.

The band struck the right chords for the night, and they cooked.
As they began their first song, I thought to myself that if they really knew about all the Ken Kesey/Neal Cassady/Grateful Dead connections, they would prove it by doing 'Cassidy' or 'The Other One'. They did both.

My encounter with Furthur only lasted one night. But Beat scholar Brian Hassett had a longer encounter with the 50th anniversary Furthur crew in Bethel and Woodstock earlier in August, and he has more stories to tell.


An updated Further arrives in Brooklyn, New York to mark the 50th anniversary of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' famous bus ride.

view /Kesey2014
Tuesday, September 2, 2014 08:04 pm
A Levi Asher selfie in an empty Furthur bus
Levi Asher

A few days ago, an African-American teenager was killed by a policeman for no apparent reason in a town called Ferguson on the outer edge of St. Louis, Missouri. As outraged citizens began protesting in the streets, the police made a bad situation worse by confronting the protestors in terrifying battle-line formation with quasi-military equipment and tear gas grenades, denying the right to assemble, arresting journalists and photographers.

Now the protest has become a global concern, and the anger that many of us in the USA have been expressing contains some pent-up rage, since we’ve all been watching video footage from Gaza, and Ukraine, and Syria and Iraq. We’ve been seeped in images of foreign violence all year, so the images of violence in the middle of our own country can feel like the revelation of a hidden universal truth: we are part of this war-torn world.

Universal truths often emerge rapidly in times of public crisis, but we need to carefully choose which universal truths we want to nurture. It is indeed a discouraging truth that our own benevolent authorities can commit murder, that our own peaceful towns can erupt in bitter conflict, all on a pleasant summer day.

But there are also other more encouraging and instructive universal truths that emerge in difficult moments like these, though the positive lessons often shine only weakly through the ugliness and noise. Because so many people in Ferguson, Missouri are sharing photos and videos and instant reports, and because the local police chiefs and politicians have been issuing regular press conferences, the mechanics of this crisis have been relatively transparent. We haven’t yet learned why an African-American teenager was shot by a cop, but we definitely have learned how the reaction to the shooting devolved into a riot.

The whole story went like this: first, a cop shot a teenager for no reason. Then an angry crowd expressed its outrage, and the police snapped into brutal military mode to quell the protest. Why was the police response so brutal? Because the cops felt threatened. They felt threatened because one of them had made a terrible mistake, and retributions were sure to follow. The violence of the police response was a reflection of the police department's internal sense of guilt about the original shooting.

Of course, the overreaction by the police only made the protestors more determined to stand their ground, and unfortunately the scene on the street also began to devolve into some amount of mindless destruction and looting, thus creating a demand for more police. The cycle was complete.

The object in the image at the top of this page looks like a weapon, but it is in fact just an antique razor, found among other ruins of medieval England centuries after it had probably been used by at least one man to shave his face. I choose this image (which I superimposed on a scene of a World War One military parade) to represent the philosophical principle known as Occam’s Razor.

William of Ockham was a 14th century theologian and philosopher known for a declaration that is widely loved among philosophers even today. “Occam’s Razor” is an appeal to empirical simplicity, to common sense, to the power of rationality and the importance of avoiding bias. The statement is this: given a difficult problem to solve, the simplest answer is probably the one to keep.

Wikipedia’s introduction to the concept explains it well:

Occam's razor … is a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in problem-solving. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but -- in the absence of certainty -- the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.

Occam's Razor is a famous philosophical statement, but it’s not a cliche, because a thoughtful consideration of this principle can still provide surprising and provocative results in many applications. I thought of Occam’s Razor as I followed events in Ferguson this week.

I also thought of Occam’s Razor when I wrote last weekend’s Philosophy Weekend blog post arguing that the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency 40 years ago was not actually the product of Nixon’s personal psychological problems but rather of a reasonable fear of espionage and military weakness shared by many Americans during the Vietnam War era. I also thought of the Razor several months before when I wrote a series of blog posts suggesting that every major incident of genocide during the last couple of hundred years has been primarily motivated not by hatred or prejudice or racism or religious bigotry but, again, simply by fear.

This emphasis on fear as a root cause of conflict is indeed the major truth that Occam’s Razor can deliver to us as we analyze any crisis, whether in Ferguson, Missouri or in Israel and Palestine or Russia and Ukraine or Syria and Iraq. The answer always fits, and it always explains everything. Always.

Occam’s Razor is intended not only to emphasize simple answers that work but also to cut out complicated and tortuous answers that don’t work. When we accept the simple answer that violence and conflict and war are always the product of fear, we are successfully cutting out several other bad answers that are often cited as the root cause of violence and conflict and war.

Here are some of the bad answers that Occam's Razor can help us shave away, when we try to think intelligently about the violent conflicts of our time:

  • These terrible things happen because some people are just evil and hateful.
  • These terrible things happen because some sectors of society are not capable of civilized behavior.
  • These terrible things happen because of our innate enjoyment of violence.

It's sad to realize how popular these three general beliefs are, and how widely they are held. If a poll was taken, I bet all three of these statements would rank higher in public acceptance than the one I am proposing, which is:

  • These terrible things happen because both sides feel threatened.

But that's just because people aren't thinking very hard, and aren't using Occam's Razor.

Indeed, the hypothesis that fear is the root cause of most civil and global conflict survives Occam's Razor in a way that the other three statements do not. To posit a mental state or motivational force called "evil" or "hate" is to introduce murky and quasi-demonic concepts where they are not needed. We do not know for sure what "evil" is or where "hate" originates. But we do all instinctively know what "fear" means. If all the historic and current conflicts of the world can be explained simply as products of fear, than this is a better answer than any answer involving intangibles such as "evil" and "hate". Fear is the more primal and direct phenomenon, and thus better passes William of Ockham's test for reasonable belief.

Since it is indeed possible to find strong expressions of fear as motivating factors for most conflicts or mass atrocities, the statement that posits evil or hate as more influential than fear does not pass Occam's Razor. That takes care of the first statement.

As for the second, which posits deeply embedded societal difference between, say, street protestors and cops in Missouri, or between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, we will quickly bog down in contradiction once we try to characterize exactly what these differences are. On what scale is a society's moral sophistical supposed to be measured, and how do we know that our cultural biases are not reflected in these scales? The closer we look, the less clarity we will find regarding these societal differences, and therefore this explanation is more of a conceptual stretch than the simple explanation that conflict between societies is a product of fear.

As for the third statement above, the Dostoevskian observation that humans often enjoy violence, we must admit that this is in itself true. However, it does not appear evident that our natural enjoyment of violence plays a strong role in our politics. While we should not deny the twisted aspects of human nature, we can at least take comfort in the fact that our violent instincts generally provide only weak and sporadic signals to our rational minds, and that most people will choose to behave decently to each other when they can. Most importantly, we can observe that psychological urges towards violence are a private individual phenomenon, and that these secret individual urges are not likely to occur to large numbers of people at the same time. This means that the collective behaviors that become dominant in times of a public conflict -- protests, fights, police riots, foreign invasions, wars -- are not likely to be expressions of private urges to violence overcoming many people at the same time. That would require a practical mechanism to exist for the transference of private urges to public policy, and this mechanism itself is too murky and mysterious to survive Occam's Razor.

To sum up: sure, we could believe that the ongoing disaster in Ferguson, Missouri is a manifestation of spiritual evil, or a result of societal deficiency, or the product of dark psychological urges towards violence. But, again, William of Ockham has advised us to always select the simplest answer that successfully addresses all particulars of the question. In Ferguson, Missouri, the simplest possible answer is "fear".

In Israel and Palestine, the simplest possible answer is also "fear", and it is too in Ukraine and Russia, and Iraq and Syria. In all cases, we can trace the influence of fear on both sides of the conflicts, and we can sadly watch everything unfold from the fear instinct alone. It's an answer to a difficult question that holds up pretty well. William of Ockham showed us the method 700 years ago, but we're still struggling to wield this razor correctly.


A medieval theologian named William of Ockham gave us a philosophical principle that can help explain the violent conflicts that puzzle and terrify us today.

view /OccamsRazor
Sunday, August 17, 2014 08:44 am
Ockham's Razor and a military parade
Levi Asher

"It was a lust for political power." - Bob Woodward

"There is no simple answer." - John Dean

President Richard Nixon, caught in a big lie, resigned in disgrace forty years ago. As we commemorate our shared memories of this astounding political scandal today, we are unwittingly basking in a new layer of delusion and willful untruth.

Yes, we conceal the truth today about Watergate, especially when we talk about the original motive for the crime, and when we try to analyze the lessons learned. I've enjoyed watching a couple of new television shows that interview the principals in the affair, but I can't help cringing at the level of voluntary obfuscation, of creative contextualizing. The gauze of popular self-delusion about Watergate does not serve a sinister political purpose but rather serves our need for comfortable conclusions, for meaningful metaphor (which may be meaningful even when it does not reveal a truth), for the dubious entertainment of banal psychobiography. It's easier to demonize Nixon than it is to realize that the disease that brought this President down is widely shared by others.

Bob Woodward sums up the popular understanding of the motive with a critique of Nixon's overreach: "It was a lust for political power". Well, Bob Woodward is a great journalistic hero, but he's evidently lost his sharpness over the last forty years, because this is a limp cliche. At the time of the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon had already gathered immense political power. The opposition Democratic party had lost its ability to unite behind a single leader and win national elections because it had become hopelessly split between old guard and new radicals (similar to the way the Republican party is split and cannot unite to win a national election today). The Nixon-Agnew ticket was absolutely secure in the upcoming 1972 election, and this election would indeed produce a historic landslide.

Yet there was great anxiety in 1972 within the Nixon administration, and this anxiety had nothing to do with electoral politics. It had to do with the war that the United States of America was badly losing to the little Communist nation of North Vietnam, and it had to do with the massive protest movement in this country against the Vietnam War. Since so many Nixon administration principals have shared their stories, and since so many recordings of actual White House conversations can be heard, we know exactly what Nixon and his staffers were worried about in 1972.

They were worried about internal agents for foreign enemies, Communist spies, homegrown traitors or saboteurs who had nestled into the government apparatus. After his election in 1968, President Nixon tried to run the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon as a tight ship, closely controlled from the top. But he and his top staff found the large government bureaucracy impossible to control. Nixon had total loyalty within his staff, but he could not trust anyone at the State Department or the National Security Council (not even Henry Kissinger!), nor at the Pentagon.

This problem suddenly escalated dramatically when a military staff analyst named Daniel Ellsberg infiltrated national security in 1971 to release the Pentagon Papers, a set of secret internal documents about the Vietnam War. I have written about the strong connection between the Ellsberg case and the Watergate scandal before and I consider this point so important that I am now writing about it again: the release of the Pentagon Papers provides the entire explanation for everything that happened in the Watergate affair. The White House reaction to the release of the Pentagon Papers is the key. Once you put the Watergate pieces together with Daniel Ellsberg as the first piece in the puzzle, everything else falls logically and simply into place. It's commonplace to say that Watergate is a mystery today, but in fact the mystery has been thoroughly solved.

All we have to do is look at what happened, not in 1972 when election season began but in 1971 after the Pentagon Papers were released. Startled by the devastating realization that a "Communist spy" (in fact Ellsberg was not a Communist spy, but to Nixon's staff he was damn close enough) could infiltrate the Pentagon, the Nixon administration became terrified that they were losing the espionage war against their sneaky global enemies. The stunned reaction at the Presidential level can be clearly seen in the recorded White House conversations that took place at the time, and in many memoirs of the Nixon administration that would follow. They weren't talking about how to win the 1972 election; they had that sewn up. They were worried that they'd be blindsided by the next Daniel Ellsberg, and they were deeply, desperately worried about this.

Nixon and his top staff felt helpless and weak against this invisible foreign and domestic opposition. They were now convinced that they were weaker on espionage and dirty tricks than their enemies. These enemies did not include the Democratic party (which was weak and internally divided) but rather the nation's enemies: Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam. It also included various unknown disloyal American protest leaders and hippies and Ivy Leaguers and New York Times journalists who sympathized with Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam, several of whom seemed to have collaborated in the illegal release of the Pentagon Papers. Nixon and his top aides were sincerely frightened.

So, these top aides responded to the release of the Pentagon Papers by making the original mistake that would eventually lead to the Watergate scandal. A unit that nicknamed itself "The Plumbers" was formed in the summer of 1971 to develop a capacity to carry out secret illegal operations on behalf of the White House. The group was led by two highly self-important but foolish gung-ho pro-Americans with espionage experience: E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.

Here is the vital point to understand: this secret team was specifically designed to operate illegally. They didn't break the law to achieve particular goals; rather, demonstrating the ability to break the law without getting caught was the entire goal. The reasoning of Nixon's top staff went like this: "we are besieged by spies who are breaking the law, and we don't know how to fight back. We have to match strength with strength and learn how to play the same game our enemies are playing."

Some may wonder how the White House could have trusted two shady blowhards like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, and empowered them to act on the administration's behalf. But it was exactly because they were shady blowhards that Hunt and Liddy were hired. They were tough guys who could brag about actual spy operations they had carried out. They looked impressively sneaky and scary. They knew how to handle microphones and suitcases and cameras and copying machines. They even styled their names like J. Edgar Hoover.

If Hunt and Liddy could carry out a few not-quite-legal operations on the White House's behalf, then Nixon and his top aides could rest comfortably with the knowledge that they had a secret espionage team that could equal the espionage team they were sure their enemies already had. This is the kind of logic that only starts to make sense in time of war, and only starts to make a lot of sense when the war is going badly. Therefore, the primary motivation for the Watergate scandal can be found not in Richard Nixon's personality but in the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.

So the hapless Plumbers showed up to work at the White House after the release of the Pentagon Papers, but they had one big problem. They couldn't think of any actual useful mission to carry out. Hilariously, unbelievably, the best idea they came up with was to break into the private office of Daniel Ellsberg's pyschiatrist in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles to see what embarrassing information they could find.

E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy pulled off this operation successfully in September 1971, though they found no information they could use against Ellsberg. Hunt and Liddy then used the same burglary team and the same weird techniques in the summer of 1972 to burglarize the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Office Building. The Watergate burglary had no clearer purpose than the earlier burglary of the psychiatrist's office. Both operations were practice drills, proofs of concept. The Plumbers had to do something to prove their usefulness, and that's why Watergate happened.

"There is no simple answer" says John Dean in 2014 in one of several enjoyable TV specials commemorating the anniversary of Nixon's resignation. Why would a smart guy like John Dean satisfy himself with this trite and incorrect formulation? There is a simple answer: the motivation for the Watergate break-in was the Nixon administration's fear that it could not compete with the espionage capabilities of its enemies. The cover-up that followed was also seen by Nixon as a battle against hidden enemies within the media establishment, and thus the cover-up was also motivated by fear.

This can be clearly seen in the quote at the top of this page, which I screen-grabbed from another 40th anniversary TV show called Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words:

We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They're using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? - Richard Nixon

There's your smoking gun. The rationale for Watergate wasn't lust for power. It wasn't greed. It wasn't Richard Nixon's unique psychology. It was fear for national security, fear of fatal weakness, stoked by a terrible war that was going badly.

As I mentioned above, I've laid out my theory of Watergate on this blog before, and I am repeating my theory today because I think it amounts to a solid and sensible interpretation of the historical facts that are there for anyone to see. I'm frustrated that so many accounts of the Watergate scandal don't even mention Daniel Ellsberg or the Pentagon Papers, even though it's a plain simple fact that everything that happened in 1972 was a direct consequence of what happened in 1971. I'm disappointed our national memory of the Watergate affair so often trivializes it into a morality tale, or a psychological biography, or a mystery novel, or a slapstick comedy.

In fact, our taste for metaphor and pop psychology has clouded our understanding of the basic facts about the Watergate break-in. Sure, everything that happened from June 1972 to August 1974 was incredible and meaningful and fascinating in many different ways, and there's no reason we shouldn't indulge in a creative contextualization of history to explore possible interpretations. But sometimes our contextualized interpretations overwhelm our basic view of what actually happened, and I think this tendency has led to a systematic historical misunderstanding of Watergate. Mostly, we like to marvel at the quirky and clumsy persona of Richard Nixon himself, and this is where most popular analysis of the Watergate scandal begins and ends.

That's unfortunate, because there was a wider significance to Nixon's fall, and a broader moral to the fable. As much as we enjoy demonizing or laughing at (or, sometimes, sympathizing with) Richard Nixon for his awkward personality and his five o'clock shadow and his square 1950s mindest, the terribly bungled Watergate break-in really wasn't the product of Richard Nixon himself. It was the work of many individuals (Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Egil Krogh, Fred LaRue, Maurice Stans, John Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, Charles Colson) with diverse personalities and motivations and backgrounds.

Strangely, they all thought it was logical to form a group called the Plumbers who would develop a White House capacity to carry out covert operations. No member of Nixon's team objected as this group proceeded to burglarize Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and then the DNC headquarters. It seemed to make sense to all of them.

This seems to point to the existence in 1972 of a kind of delusion that was shared between many individuals, and certainly did not exist only in the mind of Richard Nixon. In fact, the need for the White House to develop a capacity to carry out illegal espionage operations was so easy to understand that many of Nixon's supporters responded to the Watergate arrests by urging Nixon to simply confess that his administration had ordered the operation and apologize. After all, they said, President Lyndon Johnson had done the same kinds of dirty tricks, and had also planted microphones (and indeed this was true). Many Americans believed that an apology from President Nixon for the Watergate break-in would have sufficed, and it probably would have.

But Nixon didn't apologize in 1972, and his popular presidency was utterly destroyed. And forty years later today the Vietnam War is over, and Nixon is gone, long gone, forever gone, dead.

It seems, though, that our human capacity for shared delusion remains very much alive.


We love to psychoanalyze Richard Nixon, but Watergate wasn't really about one man's delusions. It was about the shared delusion of a nation that was losing a war in Vietnam.

view /WatergateDelusions
Saturday, August 9, 2014 11:11 am
Screenshot from "Nixon by Nixon", an HBO documentary
Levi Asher

Sometimes shuffle mode on my iPhone really comes through for me. I was having a pretty bad day yesterday, and it found a song that cheered me up.

I was having a bad day for a few different reasons. The biggest is something that's been going on for a while now. An older member of my family -- a person who I really care about and have always had a great relationship with -- has been stricken with a cruel health problem, and is suffering a lot.

This kind of ordeal puts other problems in a certain perspective, but not necessarily a perspective that's helpful. For instance, I've been looking forward to celebrating the 20th anniversary of this website on July 23rd, but I've also been feeling very frustrated about my progress as a writer. During those poisonous moments in which everything on Earth seems pointless, I can only see this blog as a symptom of my chronic need to be idiosyncratic at any cost, and thus as a bizarre monument to my own lifelong failure.

Well, okay. Failure's been in the air, and not just for me: failure to communicate, failure to reach, failure to deliver. Failure seems to have been trending lately, at least in my corner of the universe. An insane incident occurred yesterday involving one of my favorite people in the literary world, a person who must have been soaking in his own psychological poisons during the same moments that I was too. Everything turned out okay, but for a few moments the incident got frightening, and after it was over it all seemed like a sign of a sort of general despair among many of my writer friends, all of whom have moments in which we feel desperately starved for connection and validation. Another friend who was caught in this whirlwind summarized her takeaway from yesterday's public drama with this accurate tweet:

Even before all this went down, the main thing that had me upset yesterday was my day job, which makes me very happy most of the time. I am the tech lead on a Drupal project for a cool new government-funded healthcare-related website that will launch later this year. Well, every web developer knows that it's dangerous to feel too excited about any project with a high profile and a large team. As software developers, we are in the most vulnerable spot in a tech organization chart: caught right in the middle between the impossible expectations of what people think we should be able to do easily and the punishing truth that even simple technical tasks often devolve into colossal cascading misunderstandings. When these collisions occur we become angry, paranoid, defensive.

Mostly we become angry at ourselves, because it was our own mistakes that led us astray. These paroxysms of self-criticism often occur at moments when the pressure to deliver is highest, and for a software developer delivering means thinking, focusing. It is hard to think and focus when gripped by negative personal emotions. It doesn't help that the demands to deliver are often accompanied by complete incomprehension as to how something that ought to be simple could possibly be so hard. There's also often a complete incomprehension that we need a break, and this can be especially frustrating when we already feel that we're putting in more than our fair share of effort with little recognition or appreciation.

All of these different feelings were swirling in my mind yesterday afternoon as I sat in my home office, trying to force my fingers to keep tapping, even though my brain had long since checked out ... feeling angry and bewildered and sick of everything, wondering when the hell I was going to have time to churn out another Litkicks blog post too.

Then a song I hadn't heard in a while suddenly popped up on my shuffle mode and penetrated my terrible mood.

This was "The Nickel Song" by Melanie, a minor hit single from 1971. The song amounts to a delightfully self-indulgent complaint, and it seems to indicate that people demand the same kind of impossible enthusiasm from bright-eyed hippie folksingers that they do from writers and web developers.

Well, you know that I'm not a gambler
but I'm being gambled on
They put in a nickel
and I sing a little song
Da da da, da da da, da da da da da
Da da da da da
They put in a nickel
and they want a dollar song

I paused to listen, grabbed as much by the bouncy rhythm and sly phrasing as by the words. It's really just a casual folk ditty, or at least it seems to be when it starts, but I don't think the song is actually about being an underpaid folksinger at all. On closer look, "The Nickel Song" actually seems to be about a love relationship that's gone bad.

"They put in a nickel, and they want a dollar song." Yeah, that's about something more than singing. But then halfway through the song the tone shifts again, and at this point I don't think it's about a love affair anymore either. It's about the entire world, about peace and war and poverty and injustice and all that stuff that singers used to sing about back in the late 1960s and early 1970s (I wish they would sing about it as often today).

Well, I don't know so many things
but I know what's been going on
We're only putting in a little
to get rid of a lot that's wrong

These words sure hit me -- perhaps because of the innocent hope for change that the words betray. This helped me remember why I myself try so hard to express my thoughts and ideas on this blog, why I wrote long weird screeds about Ludwig Wittgenstein and pacifism and The Pushcart War. And I guess it's why I work so hard at my day job to build websites that I think will be great, even though I always get blindsided by decisions made by committees that I don't agree with and have little power to influence.

Maybe I related so much to this song because I'm familiar with Melanie's body of work from my childhood, and I know that her deceptively cheerful Woodstock-era demeanor masked a body of personally expressive and exploratory work that often led, like the poet Robert Frost's, to surprisingly sarcastic and dark places. The fact that Melanie's howl of misery called "Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma" became a commercial for Ramada Inn ("Look What They've Done to Ramada") is too ironic for words.

Melanie was roughly the same kind of highly original narrative songwriter as Joni Mitchell, though she was never as successful or as critically acclaimed as Joni Mitchell. This may be because she admittedly fell short of Joni Mitchell's immense level of pure musical talent, not to mention Joni's level of steady, focused ambition. However, as a lyricist I think she was Joni's equal, and her words had even more bite. As she sings in "Cyclone":

Sweat on my brow, blood on my lips

That pretty much captures her "all-in" performance style. My favorite version of "The Nickel Song" is the loose-limbed full-band rendition on her great 1979 live album Ballroom Streets, but I wasn't able to find a video of that. I was able to find a good live performance of the original solo acoustic arrangement of "The Nickel Song" from the year it was recorded:

And I'm putting up this video today as a placeholder, because I'm going to take a short blogging break here for a week or two. Then I promise I'll come back in full force, ready to keep giving it all I've got.

But I really need this little reprieve for the next several days, so I hope nobody minds if there's no Philosophy Weekend for a weekend or two. I plan to spend some refreshing days out in a calm and relaxing spot next week, and I also plan to focus on getting my other work done so I can stop feeling so rushed and aggravated all the time. Because, really, sometimes it's just hard to keep up the pace without starting to feel resentful about the effort I always put in.

Sometimes I just get sick of it all -- sick of writing, sick of coding, sick of caring. And sometimes I just can't help feeling like a lot of people around me have been putting in a lot of nickels. You know I'll be back soon, because I always am. But right now, I guess I'm just all out of dollar songs.


In which Melanie Safka's "The Nickel Song" is a soothing song for a tough day.

view /MelaniesNickel
Thursday, June 26, 2014 11:32 pm
A buffalo nickel
Levi Asher