Time Travel

Hobart Arena 1959

Hobart Arena 1959

The philosopher Richard Taylor asserts, in his book Metaphysics, that the idea of time travel is incoherent. The incoherence, he claims, “is exposed in saying that . . . at a later time—someone finds himself living at an earlier time. To imagine,” he continues, “‘returning’ to an earlier time is merely to imagine the recurrence of events of that time.

“More precisely, it is to imagine everything, except oneself just as it was then” (73).

I believe he’s wrong. I believe time travel is possible, not in the sense, however, of imagining the recurrence of past events just as they were, while remaining oneself unchanged. That, after all, is nothing but reminiscence, perhaps extraordinarily vivid, but reminiscence nonetheless. Time travel, real time travel, I believe, is the reverse of Taylor’s description. It is to have everything around one just as it is now, while returning oneself to the way one was at an earlier time. In this sense, it is to be not what one is, as the philosophers say, but what one was.

To the extent that most of us go through some kind of moral development as we mature, this may not seem like a desirable project. Moral development is not the only thing we undergo, however, we tend, as we become older, to lose something of the joy and optimism of youth. It ebbs away with the passage of the years, more or less quickly depending on the events of our lives. I lost much of my own joy and optimism, I think, with my parents divorce when I was seventeen. But there were other events, both before and after, that gradually eroded my innocent faith in the benevolence of fate.

One such event was when I gave up my dream of becoming a figure skater. I was forced to confront the fact that my family simply did not have the money to allow me to pursue that dream. I don’t remember ever dreaming of being in the Olympics or anything like that. I did dream, though, of becoming good, really good.

I always loved skating. My sisters and I used to pretend to skate on our driveway in the winter. The driveway was behind and slightly lower than the house and when it was covered with snow it looked a lot like a little pond. We would pack the snow down very hard and then slide around on it in shoes with slick soles pretending we were skating. Sometimes we would dress up. My mother used to take us to the Goodwill store and allow us to pick out cast-off party dresses, or “formals” as we called them, to dress up in. I had a black velvet one with a heavy rolled hem that made it puff out and flare beautifully when I turned. I would wear it and carry a little rabbit fur muff that must also have come from the Goodwill. I felt like a princess as I glided across the packed snow. We often “skated” in the evening when the light over the garage would illuminate the falling snow and if I looked up toward the night sky, it would seem as if the stars were actually falling softly on me or as if the sky were opening up and I were being carried away into it.

We would “skate” like this until our feet were so cold we had lost all feeling in them and then we would ascend the stairs at the edge of our “pond” that led into the kitchen where my father would be waiting with hot chocolate. My feet used to hurt excruciatingly as they warmed up again, but that never kept me from “skating” if there were sufficient snow.

I think I was ten or eleven years old the first time I went skating for real. I went with my Camp Fire Girl troupe. I don’t remember much about that first time except that I greatly admired the skates of one of the other girls. Most of us had to rent skates, but she had her own and they were not brown like the rental skates, but blue with fur at the top.

I must have liked skating though because I went back. My sisters and I began to go skating fairly regularly and soon we each had our own pair of beautiful white skates. None of us had had lessons, but we would wear little skating skirts and watch the other better skaters and imitate what they did.

My parents could not really afford to give us lessons, but I pestered them anyway until they finally gave in. My lessons were during the public skating sessions at the local rink on a little portion of the ice that had been sectioned off for that purpose by orange traffic cones. I had one fifteen-minute lesson each week with a second-rate instructor.  Eventually, my lessons went to half an hour, not because we could afford it but because, in my mother’s words, I had a talent for getting what I wanted, and I wanted to skate.

I was in a Barnes and Noble a few years ago when I ran across something that brought this all back to me. I wandered aimlessly through the magazine section. My eyes fell on a copy of something called International Figure Skating. I was curious to see what skating was like these days, so I picked it up and began to leaf thought it. There was a section at the beginning of photos from some gala or other. I flipped quickly past it, but then went back. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps there will be a photo of someone I used to skate with. Some of the people in the photos weren’t all that young. I’d assumed I’d have to pore carefully over the several pages of photos before I would find anyone, if I did find anyone, I’d known. But there, in the very first frame was Lee Anne Miller. And I wondered whether I’d actually registered the picture unconsciously and that that had been why I’d flipped back to look at the photos again. Or perhaps it had been the name I’d registered and that had called me back to the page.

There she was, staring out at me from the glossy pages of a magazine, the little girl I’d so envied. I recognized her. She seemed barely changed. The same delicate features, the same pale brown hair. I can still see that hair pulled into a small dancer’s bun, held in place with barrettes that matched the color of her leotards and little wrap-around dancer’s skirts. Pink leotard, pink barrettes; blue leotard, blue barrettes. She was like a doll, Lee Anne. Perfectly proportioned, tiny delicate features, dressed like a little ballerina. She looked like one of those dolls that dances in a jewelry box when one opens the lid, but prettier than that really. Lee Anne was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Her every movement was like a dancer’s, slow and deliberate and graceful. I used to love to watch her skate. There was something swanlike about her.

I was not part of that crowd, the elite skaters, not the first year anyway. I came to skate in Troy, Ohio, in the huge cavernous old Hobart Arena, simply because it was the only rink that was open in the summer. I loved the place. Most skating rinks look like barns, or warehouses, from the outside, but there was something noble about Hobart Arena. It was built of brick and stone in the grand style of the late 1940s. It had been given to the town by the Hobart Electric Manufacturing Co. in 1950 and had clearly been intended to be a showpiece. It was not only the rink, however, that was beautiful. It was in the middle of a park and just behind it was the municipal swimming pool that had a snack bar the skaters used to frequent between skating sessions. There was something almost magical to me about that grand cathedral of winter sport situated in the middle of a verdant summer paradise.

A bunch of us came up from Dayton that first summer. We were out of our league and that was kind of humiliating, but there was also something incredibly exhilarating about being around all that talent and dedication. I was fascinated by the discipline of it and all the esoteric trappings like the harness that hung from the ceiling and that was fastened around the waist of the female when pair skaters practiced overhead lifts. I loved the almost meditative hush of the sessions devoted to school figures a hush broken only by the soft whir of the scribes, the large aluminum ice compasses, scratching circles on the ice for the skaters to follow, or the occasional muscular, ripping sound of the push of skaters working on backward eights.

We had stroking class for an hour every Thursday evening and that first summer, at least, I spent the entire session in abject fear of being mowed down by the hoards of more powerful skaters. The second year was better though. I switched teachers. I got a better teacher, Dick Rimmer’s wife, Lynn. They ran that place, Dick and Lynn Rimmer. Dick had been the official coach to the 1972 Olympic team (at least I think that is what it said on the brochure I showed to my parents in an effort to convince them that the program would be worth the expense). I was determined not to remain the worst skater there, so I spent almost a year convincing my parents to secure Lynn Rimmer for me as a teacher. I liked her, she was kind. She told me once, when I was working on a split jump, that I was a “smart skater.” That made me happy, though I was never really sure what she had meant.

I did better that second summer. Not only was I not mowed down, I actually kept up, sort of. I got better skates, passed my preliminary figure test and was accepted, finally, into the periphery of the elite group. But then I had to quit skating. I needed a scribe in order to be able to progress to the first figure test. But a scribe cost fifty dollars. That was a lot of money back then and my parents couldn’t afford it.

Few middle class families can afford the cost of training a serious competitive skater. Figure skating, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago, is one of the most expensive sports there is. Skating parents must either have so much money that almost any sum can be spent on their children’s hobbies, or they must be willing to sacrifice everything, even their children’s education, for art or in the hope that they will “win the lottery.”

My parents had neither so much money that they could afford the cost of training a competitive skater, nor the values that would have led them to sacrifice everything else to get the money. I didn’t really understand that. All I knew, or thought I knew, at the time was that what I loved most was not important to them.

I didn’t even follow skating after that. “Never look back!” It was not just my motto, but my entire personality. I began to dream though, when I was in graduate school and when I first began teaching, about taking up skating again. I had a bad time in graduate school and that dream, distant as it seemed, was one of the things that sustained me through that difficult period.

I bought the magazine with the picture of Lee Anne Miller and decided that I should begin taking skating lessons

I had intended to take freestyle lessons but my first teacher steered me gradually toward dance, divining, I suspect, that I would be a much better dancer than I would ever be a freestyle skater. Dance is probably better for most adult skaters anyway because there is less chance of serious injury and a much greater chance of gaining something approaching genuine mastery of the sport. There are quite a few adult skaters who are expert dancers. They have become my role models.

I’m never happier these days than when I am skating. Skating is the only thing I do now for no other reason than the joy of it. It will not make me wiser. It will not help my career. Indeed, for an adult to take up figure skating is viewed by many people, including my husband (who, to his credit, has taken it up himself in order to be able to spend more time with me), as somewhat bizarre. Skating is popularly believed to be an activity for children not for older people, people with brittle bones.

When I’m done skating my session, the “adult session,” and the ice has been freshly resurfaced, I will sometimes stay to watch the beginning of the next session when the competitive skaters, one by one, take to the ice like so many seagulls gathering gradually about an invisible school of fish. They glide easily onto the frozen surface. Flying past me, they swoop, they dip, they dive, each listening to his own inner compulsion. There’s no effort at coordination, and yet they’re a kind of visual symphony, as beautiful as a flock of birds, if not more beautiful, because after all, what birds do is natural to them, whereas what skaters do is natural only to the spirit, not to the body, so to see bodies do it with such effortless grace–well, there’s something miraculous in it.

I am filled sometimes, as I watch them, with a terrible aching melancholy at the realization that I will never be one of them. There’s a tiny window of time in everyone’s life through which he can reach to grasp that sort of dream and mine was closed and locked long ago. Sometimes I can’t bear the ache that accompanies the realization that what I once wanted more than anything, I will never have, that I will have lived and died without ever having realized that dream.

Most of the time though, I am not unhappy. Most of the time I count myself very lucky. Many competitive skaters give up skating entirely after they stop competing, or after they stop performing (if they are so fortunate as to have had a professional career). Some say they simply don’t enjoy skating when they can no longer perform at what was once their peak, others have had all desire to skate extinguished by too many years of too rigorous a training schedule. They accept the diminished vitality that comes with aging as a matter of course. They age, they grow old, they die.

But I am growing younger. I’m a better skater now than I was when I was a child and I have every reason to believe that my skills will continue to improve for many years to come. Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov, the 1964 and ’68 Olympic pair skating champions, still perform and they are in their eighties. Richard Dwyer still performs and so is he.

I don’t know that I’ll ever don a little skating skirt again and my dreams, whatever they are, no longer include becoming a competitive skater. When I skate now, though, I feel like a time traveler. Something of the beauty of the slow and paradoxical summers I spent on the ice as a child comes back to me. I sense again the sweet strangeness of crossing the green expanse of park to get ice cream and then returning to the frosty unreality of the rink. When I skate now all the struggles, stresses and disappointments of the years fade away and I am once again the little girl gazing up at the stars falling from the sky.

The Logic of Limiting Violence

"Handgun," Oil on Canvass, Hall Groat II

“Handgun,” Oil on Canvass, Hall Groat II

The issue of gun control is once again in the news, thanks to the mass shooting in Connecticut yesterday. All the putatively-lefty pundits in the main-stream media are trotting out their tired arguments in favor of stricter gun control laws in what ought to be clear to anyone with live brain cells is simply part of the circus (as in “bread and circuses”) that poses as political discourse in the U.S. The problem, is not the easy availability of guns, it’s the increasing numbers of people whose murderous rage has ceased to be metaphorical. That is, the problem, I would argue, is not the supply of guns, but the demand for them.

We experienced the same revival of the public debate on gun control last July, when there was a mass shooting in Colorado. “In our country,” wrote Gail Collins then in The New York Times, “the mass shootings come so frequently that most of them go by virtually unnoticed. Did you catch the one last week in Tuscaloosa? Seventeen people at a bar, hit by a gunman with an assault weapon.

“People from most other parts of the industrialized world find the American proliferation of guns shocking,” Collins goes on to observe. She neglects to mention, however, that the differences between the U.S. and the rest of the economically developed world are far more profound than can be captured in the single issue of gun control. Yes, most other countries in the economically developed world appear to have more restrictive gun control laws, but those laws cannot alone explain the discrepancy in levels of gun-related violence here and there. After all, at least some of these countries have more liberal drug laws than we do, yet drug addiction there is still less of a problem than it is here in the U.S.

The real difference, or the distinction that makes a difference, is that the wealth in the other economically developed countries is less polarized. (see James Gilligan, M.D.’s Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic on the relation between wealth inequality and violence). These countries have extensive social welfare systems that in many instances have eliminated poverty and have provided free higher education and free health care. My point is not that these countries tend to have a better handle on just who is mentally ill and what kind of treatment they need. My point is much broader than that. It’s that these societies are more humane. When you know that no calamity that could possible befall you would cause you to end up destitute on the street, that no illness or educational ambition could bankrupt you or indenture you for the rest of your life and that the reason you don’t have to worry about these things is that your neighbors, your fellow citizens, are deeply committed to the view that no one should have to worry about these things–well, that makes you feel pretty good about humanity, pretty happy to be a part of it.

Norway had a highly publicized mass murder last year, but part of what made it so disturbing to Norwegians was how unprecedented it was. Norwegians, unlike Americans, are not used to mass murders. Life in Norway is pretty good. Life in Scandinavia in general is pretty good. Road rage, for example, is unknown there. I know. I lived there for eight years. Scandinavians take life a pretty leisurely pace and can afford to. They don’t become violent when someone, intentionally or unintentionally, cuts in front of them in a line. They don’t trample one another to death trying to get at a limited supply of deeply-discounted flat screen TVs. No murderous rage seethes just below the surface of society.

I moved to Denmark in 1990 along with my then boyfriend who was what one could call a gun enthusiast. He joined a gun club in Copenhagen and was surprised to learn, from one of the other members, that it was, in fact, possible, despite Denmark’s highly restrictive gun laws, to buy a gun on the black market in Denmark. Yes, he was told, there were a few bars, in what Danes considered the seedier part of Copenhagen, where a gun could be procured after a few discrete enquiries. The thing is, there aren’t many Danes out there making such enquiries.

Danes are pretty happy. Most Europeans, at least Northern Europeans, not to mention Canadians and those in Australia and New Zealand, are pretty happy compared to most Americans, and there are obvious reasons for this. It’s not merely that they don’t live with the fears nearly all Americans live with. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s not the absence of the fears, but the reason for their absence that makes the difference. They have a much more positive view of human nature than we do. They think people are naturally empathetic and sympathetic, that they want to make a positive contribution to the larger social whole, that they are generally kind and decent and ought never to suffer any more that is absolutely unavoidable. It’s a happier thing to be a human being in such a society.

That, if you ask me, is the real reason for the levels of gun violence, and indeed, violence more generally, in American society. The availability of guns doesn’t, after all, explain the levels of violence in the media, in movies and television.  We have a taste for violence in the U.S. that is unknown in the rest of the economically developed world. Why? Because we have been raised to view human beings as contemptible, as having to prove they are “worthy” of help before we will give it to them. We have a taste for violence because we hate one another and hate ourselves for being part of such a contemptible species.

Or maybe it’s just that we’re butt stupid. It ought to be obvious to anyone that the real problem with gun violence in the U.S. is the social and economic conditions that have created an apparently inexhaustible demand for guns, a demand that would be met no matter what the laws concerning the sale of guns. There’s no logic behind what passes as political discourse in this country. Perhaps we should have more restrictive gun laws. I’m not opposed to that in principle. That’s not the place to start, though. If we are serious about reducing gun violence, we need to figure out what’s driving masses of people to want guns and then begin working to eradicate that.

The painting above is by Hall Groat II. Other paintings by Hall Groat may be viewed on the “Daily Painters” website.

This article is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Counterpunch on July 23, 2012.

 

The War on Fairness

Portrait caricatureIt’s rare when a person does something that is at once so idiotic and so heinous that it brings discredit upon his entire profession. I fear philosopher Stephen T. Asma has done this, however, with his new book from the University of Chicago Press. I’ve bragged for years to friends and relatives that the philosophy curriculum at the graduate level is so rigorous that it weeds out the kinds of morons who all too often are able to make it through other Ph.D. programs. Not everyone with a Ph.D. in philosophy is a transcendent genius, I’ve conceded, but there’s a basement level of analytical acuity below which philosophers simply do not go.

I stand corrected. Stephen T. Asma’s article, “In Defense of Favoritism,” excerpted from his book Against Fairness (I’m not making this up, I swear) is the worst piece of incoherent and morally reprehensible tripe I think I’ve ever read in my life. I endeavor, as a rule, not to read crap, but I was intrigued when I saw the title of Asma’s article in the headlines I receive every day from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Clever hook, I thought! It seemed obvious to me that few people would undertake a genuine defense of favoritism and that the Chronicle would certainly never publish such a thing, so I was curious to find out what the article was actually about.

Well, it’s just what it says it is–it’s a defense, or an attempt at a defense anyway, of favoritism. I say “an attempt” at a defense because favoritism is considered by most people to be indefensible, and with good reason.  “Favoritism,” as distinguished from the universally human phenomenon of having favorites, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “[a] disposition to show, or the practice of showing, favour or partiality to an individual or class, to the neglect of others having equal or superior claims; undue preference.” It’s the qualification of the preference as “undue” that’s important here.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your niece or nephew, for example, to get that new tenure-track position in your department, but there’s a whole lot wrong with giving it to them, or giving them preferential treatment in discussions of who should get it, simply because they are your niece or nephew. Ditto for your favorite grad student. To want someone you care about to succeed because you care about them is perfectly natural. To ENSURE that they succeed over other, and possibly better qualified, people simply because you care about them is wrong. That’s what favoritism is though.

I thought at first that Asma might simply be confused about the meaning of “favoritism,” that what he was actually trying to do was to defend the view that there’s nothing wrong with having favorites, that what philosophers refer to as “preferential affection” is simply part of human nature and not something anyone should ever feel guilty about. The further I got into the article, however, the clearer it became that Asma was indeed trying to defend undue preference.

The piece, as Kierkegaard would say, is something both to laugh at and to weep over in that it’s such an inept piece of argumentation that it’s hilarious while at the same time being profoundly morally offensive. That Asma’s opening is, as one reader observes in the comments following the article, “irrelevant to his point” is the least of his crimes against sound reasoning.

“Fairness,” asserts Asma, “is not the be-all and end-all standard for justice,” thus positioning himself as a sort of imbecilic David over and against the Goliath of John Rawls whose theory of justice as fairness is much admired by philosophers. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with taking aim at intellectual giants. It helps, however, when one does this, to have a good argument.

But Asma does not have a good argument. It’s impossible to give a developmental account of Asma’s argument because it has little that resembles a structure. Instead of starting with premises that he carefully arranges to lead the reader from assumptions he already holds to a conclusion the inevitability of which he is finally compelled, if not actually to accept, then at least to concede as probable, Asma presents a mishmash of irrelevant, incoherent, and equivocal non sequiturs that litter the page like toys strewn about a room by a child rooting impatiently through his toybox for the one cherished toy he cannot find. And what is Asma’s cherished toy? Why it’s favoritism! Asma is determined to prove that favoritism is, in his own words, “not a bad thing.”

The upshot of Asma’s rambling argument is that the tendency toward favoritism is part of human nature. This is regrettably true. It makes us feel good when we promote the interests of those we love. Just because something makes us feel good though, doesn’t mean that it’s ethical. The conflation of these two things is known in philosophy as “the naturalistic fallacy.” Asma, ought to know this because he is a philosopher. How he can make such a fundamental mistake is mystifying.

The article begins with Asma recounting a scene with his son who is complaining because Asma will not allow him to play a game that involves the killing of zombies because he, Asma, feels his son is too young for that sort of game. “That’s sooo not fair!” his son protests. Instead, however, of using this occasion as the inspiration to write a book for children that will help them to better understand the meaning of the word “fair,” Asma takes his toddler’s grasp of the term, equates it erroneously with “egalitarianism” and decides to write a philosophical treatise (for adults) discrediting both.

Asma then turns to an examination of what he asserts is the virtue of generosity. What he actually describes, however, is not what most philosophers would identify as a virtue (which, according to Aristotle, for one, requires cultivation), but a natural inclination, found in varying degrees in various individuals, to share what one has with one’s friends–and only, he is careful to explain, with one’s friends. But the fact that most people enjoy sharing what they have with their friends does not make this inclination into a virtue. To equate a natural inclination, in this way, with a virtue is, once again, an expression of the naturalistic fallacy.

The child in Asma’s example gives all her candy to a few friends over the protestations of classmates to whom she has a less passionate emotional attachment. “But the quality of her generosity,” asserts Asma, “is not compromised by the fact that she gave it all to her five friends.” This flagrantly begs the question, however, because there is a sizable contingent of humanity that would contest such a definition of “generosity.” Sure, if you define sharing with only your friends as “virtuous,” then you won’t have a hard time defending favoritism because sharing with only your friends is the same thing as favoritism and far from seeing it as a virtue, most of humanity would see it as downright nasty.

And that isn’t the only problem with conflating inclinations and virtues. How about sharing with your friend when you have good reason to believe that that friend is going to use what you’ve shared with him to further some nefarious purpose he may have? Is that virtuous? Plato talks about that problem in the Republic. Is it possible that Asma, a philosopher, hasn’t read the Republic?

My heart sort of goes out to Asma at that point, though, because he seems to be contrasting the child who shares with only her friends with a child who refuses to share any of his candy with anyone–ever. But that’s not just greedy, it’s pathological and anyone who fails to recognize this must have had a very wretched childhood indeed. To Asma’s credit, he acknowledges that his argument is “counterintuitive.” Readers will find themselves wishing, however, that Asma hadn’t been so dismissive of his intuitions.

Asma erroneously asserts that the activities of those in the civil rights and feminist movements, for example, are expressions of favoritism and tribalism. That’s a fair charge to level, I suppose, against black supremacists, and perhaps against radical feminist separatists, but the two examples Asma cites, Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, hardly fall into those categories. It’s not favoritism to demand rights for one’s group that are equal to the rest of society. Only fighting for more rights, or for preferential treatment, could be characterized that way.

Perhaps it’s the term “equal” that throws Asma off. He seems to have a particular aversion to it. He refers, for example, to what he claims is “American hostility to elitism,” but the example he gives is not one of anti-elitism, which would be hard to find in our culture, but one of anti-intellectualism. That is, he points out that “politicians work hard to downplay their own intelligence and intellectual accomplishments so they might seem less threatening (less eggheadish) to the public.”

We’re not hostile to elitism in the U.S. though. We’re the most thoroughly elitist society in the economically developed world. Everything from our systems of taxation, education, and health, to our system of criminal justice is set up to favor the wealthy elites.

Asma cites several studies that show that what is called “ingroup bias” appears to be inherent in human nature and uses this fact to support his position that favoritism is therefore “not a bad thing.” That something is inherent in human nature does not, however, entail that it is morally acceptable. There are all kinds of unfortunate tendencies in human nature that parents, societies, and finally civilization itself endeavor to control, tame, and even in some cases eradicate.

Asma’s whole defense of favoritism is not simply an expression of “the naturalistic fallacy,” referred to above. To the extent that he tries to defend favoritism by arguing that it’s innate, he’s also guilty of conflating an “ought” with an “is.” Hume referred to this mistake as the “is-ought” problem. That is, it is a misguided attempt to draw inferences about the nature of moral obligation (i.e., how people ought to behave) from observations about how people tend to behave (i.e., how they do behave) when the two things are qualitatively different and need to be kept rigorously distinguished.

Asma returns, at the end of the article, to the example of children. He appears to have hopped on the bandwagon of pseudo-intellectuals who have begun to express concern that we are being too nice to our children. It seems Asma’s son came home one day with a ribbon he’d “won” in a footrace, but Asma’s pride dissipated when his son explained that all the children had “won” the race, that they’d all been given ribbons. “I don’t want my son, and every other kid in his class,” protests Asma, “to be told they’d ‘won’ the footrace at school just because we think their self-esteem can’t handle the truth. Equal rewards for unequal accomplishments foster the dogma of fairness, but they don’t improve my son or the other students.”

Leaving aside the issue that Asma has once again evinced that he has appropriated a toddler’s simplistic and hence erroneous definition of “fairness,” there’s something comically fantastical about Asma’s apparent fear that today’s youth are in danger of living out their lives in blissful ignorance of their own weaknesses and inadequacies. The likelihood, for example, that admissions to elite universities are suddenly going to become merit blind, or that we will cease keeping statistics on the accomplishments of professional athletes seems vanishingly small, and the only professions that seem openly to embrace the conspicuously inept are those in the financial industry.

Sadly, children will learn all too soon that there are winners and losers and that the former are rewarded while the latter are not. Not only does it do no harm to stave off that realization as long as possible, it may actually do a great deal of good if it helps us to teach children that their worth as individuals is not dependent on their bettering their peers in contests. Not everyone can be a winner. Most people have to content themselves with being also-rans. If we can teach children early that the also-rans are to be lauded as an essential part of the race (after all, there is no race without them), then we might actually help to increase the number of people who are able to live happy and fulfilling lives.

Asma’s fears are not restricted, however, to the specter of a utopian future for his progeny. Even while wealth is increasingly transferred to a dwindling minority of the American population, Asma is tortured by feverish nightmares of creeping socialism. “Liberals,” he asserts, “say ‘fairness’ when they mean ‘all things should be equal’”–as if we, in the U.S., stood in imminent danger of sweeping political reforms that would make the social-welfare states of Northern Europe look like Czarist Russia by comparison.

What’s disturbing is not so much Asma’s argument as the fact that it found a reputable (or at least once reputable) academic publisher and that it was actually excerpted in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Noam Chomsky said somewhere that despite all the atrocities he had spent a large part of his life chronicling, he believed humanity was making moral progress. You don’t see moral defenses of slavery anymore, he pointed out, whereas you did see such things in earlier periods of human history. Yes, maybe that’s true. But if we’ve regressed to the point that it’s now socially acceptable to publish moral defenses of favoritism, and attacks on fairness, can defenses of slavery be far behind?

This piece originally appeared in CounterPunch on 11/192012

Hedonic Adaptation

Paintings over table in PhillyMy reflections here were prompted by an article in today’s New York Times entitled “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The article, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is about how the euphoria associated with the first phase of romantic relationships tends to wear off relatively quickly. I’d initially planned to write a piece on relationships, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the problem Lyubomirsky describes isn’t restricted to relationships. Lyubomirsky charges that romantic relationships are subject to the same dynamic of what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” as are other thrilling experiences. That is, euphoria, she observes, tends to be short lived, whether it is associated with “a new job, a new home, a new coat,” or a new love.

The first thing that annoyed me about the article was its purely speculative character, or more correctly, the fact that it was mere speculation paraded in front of the reader as scientific fact. “[A]lthough we may not realize it,” asserts Lyubomirsky, “we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety.” Says who? Where is the scientific evidence to support such a claim? We like variety in some things, to be sure, but we like uniformity in others. We appear, in fact, to crave uniformity at least as much as we crave variety. We need, for example, to be able to assume that the future will resemble the past in crucial respects if we are going to be able to function at all and are notorious for being unable to appreciate variety when the variety in question would tend to discredit the worldview to which we have become comfortably wedded.

My point is not that Lyubomirsky is mistaken, or that she has no right to indulge in such speculations. My point is that they are speculations and should not be presented as if they were facts. One reader, Joseph Badler, made the point beautifully. “The ‘we are biologically hardwired’” he wrote, “is just too cheap. It can be used to justify anything. Evo psych post-hoc explanations are making everybody intellectually lazy.”

“Evo psych” refers to evolutionary psychology, which, if you ask me, is a completely bogus discipline that purports to provide evolutionary explanations for traits of human psychology. Why do people appear to crave variety in their sexual partners? Well, the evolutionary psychologist responds (and here I am paraphrasing Lyubomirsky) , because it guarantees a more robust gene pool. That makes sense, of course, but so does the observation that infidelity can be corrosive of social bonds and that promiscuity could thus threaten both the immediate family and the long-term survival of the entire community.

So which is it? Are people hard-wired to crave variety to ensure a more robust gene pool, or are they hard-wired to crave uniformity to be better able to survive to the age of reproduction? Or could they be hard-wired, as seems the most likely, to crave both things relative to particular environments and situations? But if this is the case, then evolutionary “explanations” for psychological traits are obviously speculative because of the seemingly limitless variables one would have to take into account when calculating in what sense natural selection might lie behind a particular psychological tendency.

The situation of the evolutionary psychologist becomes almost unmanageably complex even if we assume that all human beings exhibit the same psychological tendencies. Once we acknowledge that all human beings do not exhibit the same psychological tendencies, then evolutionary psychology, becomes, I would argue, a mere parody of an academic discipline. That is, I’d go further even than Badler. I don’t think it’s simply making people intellectually lazy. I think it’s making them stupid. That it continues to be respected as an academic discipline suggests that the academy is egalitarian to a fault in that even the criterion that one ought to be able to think clearly in order to be admitted to it appears to have been judged unfairly discriminatory.

A number of readers took exception to the comparison of a new love with new material possessions such as a “home” or “coat.” (I almost always enjoy reading the comments readers post to articles such as this one. They confirm my faith that the average person is neither so simple minded nor so superficial as the authors of the articles appear to assume). “Didn’t know love was material,” observes Anna from Ontario wryly.

It’s true that our relationships with people are importantly different from our relationships with things. They may not be so different, though, as some of the opponents of Lyubomirsky’s apparent materialism assume. Another reader points out that Lyubomirsky and those who agree with her “do not consider how the disposable and planned obsolescent qualities of consumer capitalism also ‘program’ us to always desire the new.”

I wouldn’t put all the fault, though, on consumer capitalism. Consumer capitalism, after all, is an expression of something in human nature. Unfortunately, it is the expression, I would argue, of one of the less appealing tendencies in human nature–impatience.

The thrill of the new is something with respect to which we are largely, if not entirely, passive. It wears off though. To continue to be thrilled by the same thing requires diligent effort. The problem with consumer capitalism is that what it parades for our approval is primarily the cheap and tawdry, things that glitter but which are not gold. Such things thrill us before we are fully aware of what they are. Once we learn what they are, they cease to thrill because there is nothing inherently thrilling about them.

Of course even things that are inherently valuable and which thus ought to be inherently thrilling are subject to the same dialectic. We are thrilled with the initial acquisition of them, but that thrill eventually wears off, or at least quiets down. It doesn’t take a great deal of intellectual effort, however, to appreciate that the thrill that dies down in this way is the thrill of acquisition rather than of possession. We are thrilled to have acquired a thing, but then we get used to having it. If it is truly something worth having, though, and we are capable of appreciating it as such, then the initial euphoria of acquisition should be replaced by the more enduring thrill of possession, or more correctly, of appreciation. The problem is, such appreciation requires effort. It requires that we look at the thing again, look at it long and carefully, that we actively search for what is good and valuable in it, rather than simply surrender ourselves to a passive thrill.

Years ago, when I first became engaged, my sister caught me admiring my engagement ring. “You’ll stop doing that after a while,” she said. I found that remark disturbing. I didn’t want to cease to see my ring as beautiful any more than I wanted to cease to love the man who had given it to me. It will happen to you though, her words suggested, independently of what you want. It will happen to you. Kierkegaard talks about that dynamic in the first volume of his two-volume work Either-Or. Everything disappoints, he, or at least one of his pseudonyms, says there.

But does everything have to disappoint? I have never ceased to see my engagement ring as beautiful, just as I have never ceased to love the man who gave it to me. I’m a very materialistic person, in a way. I have lots of things, lots of nice things in which I take enormous pleasure that does not diminish with time. I collect paintings and fountain pens and antiques of various sorts, and each one of these possessions adds immeasurably to the quality of my life.

I love to sit at my table in the morning and sip my coffee (I love coffee!) and look at the two paintings I’ve hung on the wall on the far side of the table. One is a landscape I found in an antique store and the other is a still life I did myself. They are not great masterpieces, but they are very nice and I derive enormous pleasure from looking at them. I look at them in the morning when I am having my coffee and in the evening when I am having dinner. I often work at that table in the afternoon and I’ll glance admiringly up at them periodically even then.

I don’t know what it is exactly that I like so much about them. Each is rough, and yet each is the product of some person’s vision. I like people. They are endlessly fascinating to me. I love handiwork because you can see the humanity in it. I like things because I like creation. I value it as something beautiful and moving. One reader of Lyubomirsky’s article observed that the reason her marriage had been happy until her husband’s death was that they had “had God.” Another reader pointed out, however, that that approach to keeping love alive won’t work for everyone because not everyone is religious. He (she?) went on to point out, however, that “looking beyond oneself and working toward the greater good (of one’s spouse, family, community, world) may be an essential element in the pursuit of lifelong happiness.” I’d agree with that. I’d argue, however, that unless you think that creation, or the universe, or whatever, is good, then even the “greater good” of one’s spouse, family, community, and even the world, will ultimately fall flat.

The challenge, I’d argue, to achieving an enduring happiness is that we’ve programmed ourselves, in a sense, to believe that happiness is inherently fleeting. That the thrill of acquisition is the only thrill there is. Whether that is the fault of consumer capitalism alone or whether it is an expression of something inherent in human nature, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.

The Circular Swing

Marie Schaefer (no caption)We think time moves along gradually, its changes so subtle they’re barely noticeable, until at some point one realizes the world one inhabits is no longer the world of one’s childhood, but only distantly related to that earlier world. Sometimes, for some people, this realization is itself gradual and subtle, but at other times, for other people, it comes with a start. Some people come to consciousness on the cusp of a new age and grow and take shape even as it does. Other people, are born at what it is clear only later was the waning of an earlier age. They thus straddle two worlds, these people, the world into which they were born and the one into which they grow up. They mature almost as artifacts of an earlier period. They learn the fashions and the vernacular of those who are only a few years younger than themselves, or perhaps even the same age but from a more progressive place. They’re always strangers in their own time, though, walking almost like ghosts through lives they feel on some level do not belong to them.

It’s probably partly temperament. Some people are simply uncomfortable with change. They’re the Parmenideans. Parmenides was the Presocratic philosopher who said that everything that changed was unreal, that only the eternal and unchanging was real. Then on the other side was Heraclitus, also a Presocratic. He’s the guy who said that you can’t step into the same river twice, that everything is constantly in a state of flux. All of humanity divides up that way, I think, into the Parmenideans and the Heracliteans. The latter can embrace a new age when the former can’t. The former live in a perpetual state of nostalgia.

I’m like that. I’m a Parmenidean. That’s why, I think, I’m so fascinated by the German television series Heimat. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. I watch it over and over again. I’m like Maria, the matriarch of the family that is the focus of the series. She was born around the turn of the last century. She was still young at the end of World War I, but she belonged to the world before the war. She kept everything together. She accepted change, as we all must, be she didn’t embrace it. Poul, her husband who left her and her two young children to go to America, was different. He was born around the same time, but was of a different temperament. He was one of the Heracliteans.

A person’s relationship to change is, again, not entirely a matter of temperament, it’s also timing. It’s possible to be born just as an age is coming to a close and in that way, to be old even when one is young. I’m like that, partly by temperament and partly by timing.  The temperament part I’ve always known about. It’s the timing part that has come to preoccupy me recently. I’ve become obsessed with the school I attended as a child, my fist school, Marie Schaefer Elementary School in O’Fallon, IL. There were several buildings that made up the school, the large central building, by far the oldest part of the school and then several smaller, newer satellite buildings of only one story. My kindergarten was in one of those buildings, and I believe my first grade class may have been as well. I don’t remember when I moved to the main building, but it’s that building which preoccupies me now. It was so great, so looming, so old. Everything in it was wood: the frames around the blackboards, the window frames, the desks. Everything was solid and utilitarian. The colors were somber greens or beiges, dark, worn. Each classroom had a cloakroom with thick wood moldings and countless hooks for our winter coats and hats and when it rained or snowed, that tiny, narrow room packed as it was with children’s wet overthings, would become as humid as a sauna.

The building itself was very warm. It was heated with old steam radiators. There were no protective covers on them. I remember this, because I burned myself on one once. That was one of the first injuries I remember. It was a strange experience. I’d never touched anything so hot. I didn’t do it deliberately, I only brushed against it, but felt immediately a sharp searing pain of an intensity hitherto unknown to me. I looked down at my arm and watched, with the sort of scientific curiosity children always have when they discover something new, the small patch of skin that had contacted the radiator contract and turn a dark reddish gray.

That great school building fascinated me even as a child because it seemed so old. It seemed to me from an earlier age, and yet it was my school building. The building down which halls I fled one day during a fire drill because I was too afraid to go down the fire-escape chute that was said to take the skin off the arms of children who did not remember to keep their arms held tightly to their sides. I hadn’t had to go down the chute. We’d been offered the choice of lining up and marching outside with the other children who didn’t want to brave the chute, but I’d been curious about it. At the last minute though, I chickened out and fled with a few similarly cowardly comrades down the halls that we feared were by that time engulfed in flames. They weren’t, of course, it was only a fire drill, not a fire. I didn’t understand that though, or at least I wasn’t entirely confident of it. I remember, in any case, being very frightened as our little group raced frantically through the hall to the great staircase in the center of the building that ran down toward the door.

Those are among my earliest memories, being burned on the radiator, and fleeing from what I feared was the burning building. I still remember the slant of the light through the many large windows as we ran down the hall. I can still hear the echo of our footsteps and the frightened cries of the other children.

I have a third memory of that school that is equally strong. It’s of the strange, bell-like swing on the playground. It was sort of like the hoop portion of an ante-bellum hoop skirt. There was a large central pole embedded in the asphalt and then a number of smaller, more slender poles that extended outward and downward from it. Three quarters of the way down was a great metal ring affixed to these slender poles. This was the first hoop. It served as a handrail. Below that was a second great circular wooden hoop that formed a bench on which we children sat. Beneath this bench was a third hoop of smaller circumference. Some children, I think they must have been older children, ones who understood how the swing worked and were not afraid of it, some children put their feet on this smaller hoop. Most of us though sat with our feet toward the outside of the contraption where there was no danger of their being crushed when the metal ring on the inside crashed against the central pole.

That’s how it worked, that swing. It swung back and forth from its axis on the central pole as a bell does when it is rung, so that the children sitting on the wooden benches around the circumference dipped first low and close to the pole and then soared high and away with such force that one had to cling to the little metal hand rail with all one’s might to keep from being tossed off.

It has to have been dangerous that swing. Even then it was clear that it would be easy for a child to be injured on it. One had to be in the second grade to be allowed on it. There were even monitors there at recess to make sure none of the very small children got on. I was so thrilled the day I entered the second grade, the day I was allowed on it. I don’t remember talking about it before hand. I must have though because it was an event, you see, to be allowed on that swing.

I’ve never seen another swing like it. I’ve always been nostalgic, but have become more so recently. Nostalgia comes naturally, I believe, to people when they hit middle age. So I began to think a lot about that school, about the old building that so fascinated me and about that swing. I tried to see if I could find any pictures of it online, but when I typed in the name of the school, what came up was unrecognizable to me. I emailed the principle, to see if the building had been torn down and if so whether there were any pictures of it and, in particular, pictures of the swing. She wrote back that the building had been torn down, many years ago, but that she had some photos she could send me. She had no photos of the swing though. She had never heard of the swing.

Never heard of the swing. That gave me a chill, a chill like the kind they say you get when someone walks on your grave. How could it be, I thought, that she had never heard of the swing. That swing was famous. It was impossible to think of the school without thinking of the swing. The swing had been right next to the old building, like a great bell ringing the children in to their classes. It did ring too, when the foot railing crashed against the central pole it made a ringing sound almost like that of a blacksmith pounding hot metal on an anvil.

Clang, clang, the swing would ring out loudly throughout recess. That’s how you could tell it was recess, because you could hear the anvil-like ringing of the swing.

Never heard of the swing? That was too strange to me. How was that possible? It was such a huge and heavy thing, so solidly implanted in the asphalt that it was hard to imagine anyone trying to remove it. Even if you could dismantle the swing itself, that central pole would have been almost impossible to extract from the ground. I’d envisioned it remaining there pretty much forever, that pole, just sticking straight up out of the ground, refusing to leave. And yet it must have been gone, because if it had still been there, someone would have remembered something about why it was there. There would have been a legend, like an urban legend–i.e., a schoolyard legend–about the dangerous swing that had had to be dismantled.

But she had never even heard of the swing. So it was gone, all gone. The imposing old school building and the amazing swing the riding of which was a rite of passage for the little children I grew up with.

I tried to find a photo of such a swing online. First I typed in “bell-like” swing, but all kinds of strange things came up that had nothing to do with playground equipment. Then I tried typing in “circular swing.” And there it was. There were two photos of the swing, not the very swing, but of ones like it. The first was from around the turn of the last century and the second looked to be from sometime in the 1930s or perhaps ‘40s. The swing in the first photo didn’t have a handrail. The one in the latter photo though was identical to the swing I remembered except that it seemed smaller. But perhaps I remember it as larger than it was since I was so small then myself.

That’s all, those two photos. I couldn’t find any information on the swing. I did hear, finally, though from a librarian at the O’Fallon historical society. She sent me some pictures of the buildings from my school that had been torn down. One was from 1901 and the other was from 1912. I can’t tell which was the building in which I had my classes because they looked very similar. They were next to each other, so perhaps I even thought they were one building.

I’ll bet the swing was as old as those buildings. Strange that something that was so important in my life has virtually vanished, is so obscure that even other people my age have never heard of anything like it. Ours must have been one of the last ones judging from the ages of the two photos I found. Perhaps it was the very last. Strange to grow up with something that had already all but disappeared into the annals of history. Strange to grow up thinking that such an antique was an ordinary amusement for a child of the period, when if it had ever been an ordinary amusement for children, it was for children of a much, much earlier period.