Category Archives: Modern Works

Sorting Out Right and Wrong With Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell Ticket Stub.jpgHow do we know what is right and wrong? This was the question that Malcolm Gladwell put to his audience at the New York Fest on October 7.

Gladwell set the stage for the question by comparing to pieces of literature: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. He compared the treatment of what combat meant to veterans after World War II and after Vietnam. In The Man in the Grey Flannel suit, there are harrowing depictions of combat, but the effects of the war on the main character come from an affair he had with a woman while overseas and not the violence he faced. On the other hand, the main character of In the Lake of the Woods is greatly affected by the violence that he was caught up in during the Vietnam War.

Gladwell found this quite strange, and I don’t think there were any combat veterans among the New Yorker Fest audience to explain how one veteran might be able to put aside the experience of the war and another could not. But Gladwell used this as a jumping off point to talk about our sense of right and wrong and how it has changed over time.

In the first book, the violence committed was not wrong, but the extra-martial affair was, whereas in the second book, the violence was part of what was wrong.

But Gladwell acknowledged that it was not that simple. He noted that our sense of right and wrong has changed over time to the point that we now measure right and wrong not by a more sense, but rather by how much harm has been done by an action. In the first book, the wrong was an affair that caused no particular harm. In the second book, the harm caused by the violence made it wrong.

Acknowledging that there were difference between the wars and the generations, Gladwell confronted the question a little differently. He raised the question of childhood sexual abuse. He gave as an example a study done by Bruce Rind that found that survivors of childhood sexual abuse were able to overcome the trauma and go on to lead normal lives. The response in the media was that Rind’s study was somehow minimizing sexual abuse, rather than the positive interpretation that people can overcome terrible experiences. Rind essentially said that just because people could overcome the effects of the abuse, that didn’t make it any less wrong. (You can read more about it here.)

Gladwell said that this recent approach — that wrongfulness is strictly related to the amount of harm it causes — is a result of secular thinking displacing religious thinking, and that it has impoverished our moral conversations. He mentioned the controversy over the Woodrow Wilson school at Yale, and noted that the students protesting against the name were claiming they were harmed by it.

“You can’t argue , if you are a student at a great school. you aren’t being harmed by the name on the outside of the school,”Gladwell said.

Gladwell asks why they can’t just argue that it is morally wrong to name the school after him, and instead have to claim harm.

I think Gladwell has missed two currents in American society that have led to the shift in our definition of wrong and right from moral to level of harm.

First, the United States legal system has made the determination of harm a fundamental part of determining right and wrong. You can’t bring a case in the courts unless you can prove harm. This is the ‘case or controversy clause,’ which comes out of Art. III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and was part of Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. You need to show that you have suffered actual harm in order to bring a case. I believe that this kind of thinking carries over, even if unconsciously, into the American psyche.

The second current that I think Gladwell has missed is more controversial, but it is the fact that there is a certain power in being a victim. Rory Miller, a corrections officer and tactical team leader, has written a number of books on violence and its aftermath. On of the things that he has mentioned is that people will sometimes adopt the role of victim/survivor because it gives them the power to manipulate situations and groups of people. Miller cautions that we should be careful about this, because survivors of trauma and attacks have the capability to recover and even become stronger after something terrible happens to them. He notes that the anyone who might have to deal with violence could end up in the position. But there is a notion, almost unspoken, that victims never truly recover and thus must always be catered to. Miller notes that it is not unreasonable that someone might try to turn that weakness into a strength.

The upshot is that claiming harm has been done and that one is a victim lets people feel as though they are in a stronger position than just making a moral claim. The problem is that spurious and manipulative claims of harm make it harder to help people who have really been hurt.

I think Gladwell would benefit from talking to Miller before writing anything because Miller understands the power of victimhood and the processing of trauma. I don’t know that either of them will ever see this, but I think the conversation would add dimensions to both of their works.

I also think that Gladwell has it right: we do need to think about right and wrong both in terms of harm and in terms of a moral calculus.

“I’d like to see is hold both notions. There are times when what is harmful is wrong. I’d like to say that there are times when you don’t have to make a harmful claim if you are going to make a moral claim,”Gladwell said.

Modern Works: Should I Stay or Should I Go? “Leap” By Tess Vigeland

Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really WantLeap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever thought about just saying ‘Forget it, I am not going into work tomorrow?’ even if you didn’t have something else lined up? This book is about people who have done just that.

Tess Vigeland starts with her own experiences in leaving Public Radio’s Marketplace without a plan B in place. Much of the book is structured as a memoir, but it is designed to help people ask the questions of themselves about whether they should stay or go. One of the most interesting ideas is whether or not quitting something is as bad as it is made out to be. We are all taught early on not to be quitters, but there are times when it makes sense to walk away.

This is not a how to book, but there are plenty of references in it for people who want to follow up with those kinds of reading. Instead this is about preparing yourself mentally and emotionally to make a change when you need the change to happen — even is there is no plan B in place.

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Modern Works: The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan

The Watch that Ends the NightThe Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book came to my attention thanks to the Tragically Hip song “Courage: For Hugh MacLennan.” The song draws on the following quote from the book:

“But that night as I drove back to Montreal I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.”

This book, which spans the time from Great Depression to about 1950, is a product of its place and time, which helps it make observations about the human condition like the one above that are universal. In a strange way, it seems the more we change, the more we stay the same as people.

While I am not entirely sure how I feel about the narrator of the book, I realize that I can like the book without entirely liking the narrator. This book is a collection of love stories set against the backdrop of history, but they are the love stories of intense and flawed people. So the stories are somewhat unconventional, because it is not just love for other people, but also for ideals, and sometimes those things get confused.

At the same time, we see the changing world through the eyes of the narrator, who is a political commentator for the CBC. So at the same time that we get observations like the one above, we also get insights like this:

“The evil inside the human animal — the fascists are charming it out like a cobra out of its hole and the capitalists let them do it because they think it’s good for business.”

I feel like this is as true today as it ever was, though perhaps it is not the fascists, exactly. But that evil gets charmed out, and some people think it is good for business.

People like historical fiction, Canadian literature, and understanding how a specific time and place can reflect universal themes will like this book. If the quotes above can’t pique your interest, then leave this one alone.

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Hamlet: A Populist Tragedy

The next reading in the Great Books is the “Tragedy of Hamlet,” by William Shakespeare.

I read a Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Hamlet, which has notes on facing pages of the play’s text. It is likely not what the creators of the Great Books set would like, since they were focused on reader response. That said, the Folger editions are a great way to read Shakespeare because they can help with the language questions.

In reading it again, I think that Hamlet is a populist tragedy. Many of the people killed in the play are not aware of what is happening. Hamlet and Claudius mislead people and they die for it.

Take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s friends. They are brought in with the idea that they are helping their friend. Claudius tricks them into taking Hamlet to England where Hamlet is supposed to be executed. Hamlet finds the sealed letter and rewrites it so that it is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are executed. But they have been duped from the beginning. There is no evidence that they knew about the plot of Gertrude and Claudius to take the throne. They certainly would not have ever opened a letter from a king, so how could they know?

Tom Stoppard wrote a play that was also turned into a movie called “Rosencrantz and  Guildenstern are Dead.” On of the critical lines is “We were sent for.” The play in many ways is about a deterministic universe. The movie contains this line, which I think is important for us all:
“There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no. Somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time. ”

If you read Hamlet you should find this play and watch the movie.

Also, let’s take the case of Polonius, whom Hamlet murders. He also did not know what was going on, and was looking after his kid. With his moral compass, he is not likely to support the murder of the king. He gives the oft-quoted, blowhard speech in Act 1, Scene 3, which includes “to thine own self be true,” which is oft quoted in context of following your dreams. But this is misquoted.

Considering Polonius’s full quote, this really means “don’t lie to yourself,” which is good advice.

“This above all: to thin own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

There is also the famous quote: “Get thee to a nunnery,” in Act 3, Scene 1. In high school, we all liked to tell each other that “nunnery” meant a brothel in the parlance of the time.

But here again, I think we are misreading the play.

“Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…”

Then he tells Ophelia that even if she does marry that she will not escape calumny even if chaste, so it would be better to go to a nunnery. It is about being chaste and escaping everything that they are going through in Hamlet’s family.

Is ‘Hamlet’ the tragedy of suckers? Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes all end up dead because of Hamlet and his indecision. In Act 4, Hamlet refers to Rosencrantz as an apple int he mouth of an ape. Is that a warning? Is there are point, as Stoppard suggests, where they could have said no and avoided all of this? The play is full of some many critical points, where a different decision would have changed the lives of so many people. Do we face these same decision points? Do we know when we do? Maybe the point of Hamlet is really “to thine own self be true” — don’t lie to ourselves about what our decisions might mean.


Can Old Books Teach Us Anything?

One of the questions that repeatedly comes up when it comes to ‘Great Books’ and ‘Classic Works’ is whether or not we can actually learn anything from these old books. Has the digital age changed everything to such an extent that we are better off learning Python and Java rather than Latin and Ancient Greek? Does the existence of the Internet and Smart Phones putting all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips mean that we are fundamentally different?

We can store our memories outside of our brains. We can navigate anywhere we can get a satellite signal. We can track and quantify nearly every aspect of our lives. We can connect with people in ways never imagined by our ancestors. Does that fundamentally change the way humans interact? Does it change the way we fundamentally are? If it does, then does that make all the ancient philosophy and literature historical artifacts rather than something that can help us live our lives today?

When it comes to philosophical matters, the only method for evaluating it is living our lives and experimenting. Human relations are a complex topic, but I have recently stumbled across an interesting comparison that I think proves we have something to learn from the writings of the past.

I stumbled across a blog written by a former police officer and self-defense writer named Loren W. Christensen that discussed how an average person should behave in places where there are a lot of street people and the potential for crime. It reminded me of an old book by a Lt. Col. Baron De Berenger in Britain who wrote a book of advice called Helps and Hints on how to Protect Life and Property. After reading it and thinking about the two writings, it seems the two pieces show both how things change and how they stay the same.

When it comes to self-defense, people like to talk about the old masters and secrets handed down through generations. In addition, there has been a revival in people studying European sword fighting and other combat arts. Of course, the growth of Mixed Martial Arts competition has led to people questioning the value of traditional martial arts. This is a microcosm of how, as new things, or old things repackaged as new, come on the scene, people begin to question the value of what has come before.

But there is a lot more to self-defense than just technique. What I want to compare is advice given to people about self-defense from 1835 and 2013.

In advising people about how to conduct themselves on the street where there might be bad people hanging around, there are some similarities between the two time periods. First, let’s look at a bit of technical advice on where to walk.

From 2013:

“Where to Walk
The old advice was to walk along the curb to avoid being grabbed by someone next to a building. The new advice, based on crime studies, suggest it’s a better to walk down the middle of the sidewalk to avoid anyone hiding between parked cars or reaching out from a building doorway. If you see street people loitering at the curb, walk next to the building but be cognizant of doorway insets and corners. If you can see street people on the sidewalk a ways in front of you, cross the street.”

From 1835:

“Avoid at all times, (but in such a case especially,) to pass too closely to gateways, mews, or lanes, or recesses in either; keep plenty of space between you and such places, and between gaps in hedge-rows, lonely barns, outbuildings, or other places from whence assailants, be it singly or in connection with others in the roads, may rush at you. Take the carriage-road, if circumstances will permit, in all hazardous or suspicious situations, and, if compelled to use the causeway, walk as close as possible to the edge nearest the road or gutter; even then it is useful to occasionally cross to the other side of the road to ascertain whether the suspect person will do the same….”

The interesting thing about these two passages is that they show how the technical advice changes to some degree because in 1835, there were not cars parked on the edge of the street. What is interesting, though is the discussion of how to deal with people. Both writers are talking about street people who might be interested in mugging someone.

From 2013:

“Eye Contact
“It was once sage advice not to look an unsavory type in the eye. But we now know that predators look for people who appear lost in their own world, oblivious to their surroundings. It’s simply amazing how some soon-to-be-victims can’t see five, filthy, freaky-looking street people gathered on a corner. But it happens all the time.
“Don’t deliberately avoid eye contact because they just might think you aren’t aware of them. If you notice one or more looking at you, make brief eye contact with one or all of them. Some street people tend to avoid someone who looks like they might make a scene or respond assertively. They prefer someone who has the victim look: eyes downcast, slumped shoulders, and a shuffling gate. Don’t stare back and don’t assume a defiant attitude. Just give them a quick look, one that communicates that you know they are there and you won’t be taken by surprise.”

From 1835:

“Make it a rule to look firmly, searchingly, and even sternly at the faces of all suspicious characters, especially if you have reason to suspect that their approaching or passing you is under the contemplation of robbery. After this test, the pickpocket, and most of the swell mob, will quit you speedily; but if a fellow on the highway hangs down his head, as if to baulk your scrutiny still to continue about you, prepare yourself instantly to make the most desperate resistance possible, for he not only has determined on attacking you, but he will conclude his robbery with ill-treatment, to continue it perhaps as long as symptoms of life appear…”

There is an earlier part of the same chapter that coincides with Christsen’s advice.

“To keep your antagonist at arm’s length is good, but to keep him at your stick’s length is infinitely better: the middle of the road facilitates both; always taking care to draw a suspected person away from the causweway, in order to prevent his securing what usually is the higher, and therefore the ‘vantage ground.’”

The technical advice is similar, but again for different technical reasons, since most people do not carry walking sticks anymore. But the examples show that even though technical adjustments may need to be made as technology advances, there are things about human nature that remain the same, which means that there is some value in the old philosophy and literature to understanding two of life’s biggest questions: why are we here, and how do we live here.

The blog mentioned can be found here:

The book is available on google books and can be found here:

Humanities and Charles Manson’s Real Name

In this blog, I have said that one of the values to studying the humanities is that the study leads people away from following crazy, destructive ideas. Instead, it teaches them to question authority, find better solutions to problems, and recognize their own value as human beings in solving problems.

Dan Bern, a musician with a wry sense of human, wrote a song called ‘Krautmeyer’ that I think points up to a lot of the value of being able to see humans as humans and recognize our own humanity.

Charles Manson doesn’t even know his last name anymore
Charles Manson’s real name was Charles Krautmeyer; he’s forgotten it
Charles Manson had a bunch of people
Who believed his every word
Who followed his directions to cut a bunch of rich people
Would they still have done if they’d known his name was Krautmeyer
I kinda doubt it

He talks about Marilyn Manson and how things would be different if he called himself “Marilyn Krautmeyer.”

The value in this song is that it can show us that we should not get sucked in by personalities and manipulators, regardless of their levels. Thinking about the greatest instances of man’s inhumanity to man, they come when people en masse start to follow a leader with crazy ideas. Thinking about our own lives and the way that we sometimes put ourselves in bad positions because of bosses, friends, fads, and so on, it pays to remember, as Dan Bern points out, that these people are often just picking their noses.

I was on a bus the other day, and a guy got on dressed all in black in 90-degree plus heat, with facial piercings. He was attempting to look fierce, or out side of the mainstream, or something. He was wearing a Marilyn Manson tee shirt. All I could think was “his real name is Marilyn Krautmeyer,” which changed the way I viewed him, and brought out his humanity.

Modern Works: Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Back to BloodBack to Blood by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Back To Blood Tom Wolfe again makes and in-depth study of a city and a culture while all the time exploring the idea of what it means to be a man. In Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full he looked at this idea from the perspective of Wall Street and Harlem and from real estate development and prisons, respectively.

Here Wolfe tackles Miami and its confluence of cultures. This time it is mostly from the perspective of a nurse and a cop. His main characters are working class people who brush up against and alter the upper echelons of the city. While the characters were engaging, Wolfe’s depictions of them as uneducated, or perhaps under-educated, sometimes seems a little over-emphasized, and a bit incongruous. At one point his nurse does not know the words ‘monograph’ or ‘treatise’, but knows ‘hypomanic’ and thinks about ‘decephalized larvae.’ She also doesn’t know what a logotherapist is despite being a psychiatric nurse. It is forgiveable, but a bit of an oversight in the writing. There are similar issues with the cop.

Wolfe’s writing, however, remians as strong as ever. I find that his prose carries me along and is easy to read. Wolfe plays with punctuation to show where characters are thinking and having an internal dialogue versus speaking out loud. I liked the offset. He does some odd repetitions of words to emphasize points. Sometimes it works, sometimes it is jarring. There may also have been one sub-plot too many. But overall, the writing is great.

His exploration of the Cuban, Russian, and Haitian communities is interesting, and knowing Wolfe’s reputation for research, probably based largely in fact. Of course, he also explores the cop subculture, which reliably appears in his novels.

One of the interesting themes that emerges from Wolfe’s works is that despite cultural differences and location changes, there are constant threads in human, and especialy masculine, behavior. It is hard to read his works without thinking about the interactions and power plays that we see every day.

I would recommend this book to people who like Tom Wolfe’s other works, people who are interested in Miami, Cubans in America, and in questions about what it means to be a man in modern society.

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