Category Archives: Rumintions

Slow thoughts: those things that have been percolating for quite some time.

The Scratch on Achilles’ Armor

 

Much has been said of Trump’s success as a businessman, as an industrialist, as a media mogul, and now as a politician. One cannot argue with success–except when it’s irrelevant.

America has always been the land of the underdog. A small group of Pilgrims braving ocean and foreign land for the chance to practice their religion in peace; the ragged revolutionary besting the greatest army in the world; the rebel yell resounding in the halls of Washington; our little Sherman tanks facing off against the mechanical behemoths of Nazi Germany…

We don’t like the  clear winner.

At least, that’s the  America I grew up with. It’s a patent falsehood.

We brought old world technology and organized zeal to bear against the disorganized aboriginal tribes of the new; we organized a brilliant guerilla campaign against a politically divided and distracted enemy 3000 miles away in an age with no instantaneous communication; no underdog can face down the shame of defending slavery; and we brought to bear upon Nazi Germany a military industrial complex so overwhelming, we managed to fight two full-scale wars on six fronts all at the same time (land campaigns in Europe and the Pacific, Atlantic and Pacific naval campaigns, and the intense bomber campaigns that devoured both Germany and Japan).

We have never been the underdogs.

And yet, I find myself, again and again, rooting for them. I root for Hannibal against the Romans, the Red Coats against the Colonials, the Union against the Confederacy (huh?)…and the Trojans against the Greeks.

Walter Benjamin once quipped that history is written by the victors. I often wonder just how true that is. Thucydides wrote the history of the Peloponnesian war, after all. So while many wars are written about by the conquerors, it’s not some kind of law of nature. This became especially clear to me recently as I finally got around to finishing the Iliad. The Song of Ilium, with justice subtitled the Wrath of Achilles, was written by a Greek(s) and tells the story of their conquest of the city of Troy. One would assume that the story unabashedly takes the side of the Greeks, the author(s) being as partisan as the rest of us. This is not the case.

Time and again the Greeks, when compared to their Trojan enemies, come across as haughty, arrogant, vainglorious, and duplicitous. The Trojans, on the other hand, are more often than not honorable, stoic, stalwart (Paris notwithstanding). Both sides evince passions and foibles, but it is the Trojans, exemplified by Hector, who really come across as admirable men. Perhaps it’s no wonder that in the Middle Ages Hector was elevated to one of the Nine Worthies, up there with Judas Maccabeus and Charlemagne.

It’s Hector I want to talk about. There’s a scene in the 2004 adaptation of the Iliad–Troy–wherein Hector duels Achilles and, having fought bravely, is slain by his unbeatable foe. Everyone knows that Achilles is going to win–even Hector. Yet still he walks into the field of battle, resigned to his fate, a true Stoic. He doesn’t go quietly into the night, however; in and amongst the swordplay, he manages to graze the armor of Achilles, nearly wounding the demigod.

This scratch upon the otherwise completely unblemished armor of Achilles is worth some exploration. That a man could even touch a demigod seems to me quite incredible. Hector, knowing he is going to lose ,still does his level best, and leaves a mark upon his conqueror as a reminder of what was lost in the winning: a good man.

I think Trump would do well to remember the scratch upon Achilles’ armor. America has always been a land of winners and losers. We are not unique in this. History is the story of the quick besting the slow, the smart the dumb, the strong the weak. Nothing new. What is a little unsettling, in our case, is just how disproportionate our victories have been. We don’t just subdue an enemy, we decimate them entirely. A sliver of the aboriginal population remains on this continent. Post war Japan and Germany were irrevocably changed as a result of our bombing campaigns, occupations, and commercial interests. The middle east has seen an influx of billions of dollars, thousands of foreigners, and tens of thousands of corpses since the inauguration of the War on Terror.

We go big, then we go home.

I hope that, in some small way, this piece serves as a reminder of the little scratches our victories leave upon our national armor. They came not without cost; and we as a nation do precious little reasonably to ask ourselves if these victories were worth it. This question is rarely asked in a balanced way. Whether defending or bemoaning, the conversation is one that generally disregards the reality of the past.

The Right tends to erase the real cost of Progress, unable to face the human toll that allowed for the spread of Christianity, Capitalism, and the like. The Left, on the other hand, pines for a return to some halcyon time where aboriginals lived in harmony with nature and the White Man (that scourge!) was nowhere to be found.

Of course, both views of the past are patently ridiculous, alternative facts if ever such things existed–like my narrative of America the underdog: comforting but ultimately false.

What we need, and what T rump needs to come to grips with, is a rational look at the debt our nation has incurred in order to get where it is today; a solid understanding of what victory really means; and a recognition, that, for crying out loud, America is not in danger of being overthrown by a foreign power.

We are more a threat to the rest of the world than the rest of the world is to us. We have bountiful resources, the largest military in the world, a united and fertile population, a foothold on every major continent–and a president who is more interested in self aggrandizement than anything else.

Given our power, I wish that we were more like the humble and honorable Hector and less like the haughty, thin-skinned, vainglorious Achilles.

A Piece of Dead Poets Society Fan Fiction

It is the year of Our Lord 1959 and my son has committed suicide.

My wife sobs in our bed, where first she felt the spark of his life kindled within her.

He ended his life because…

Please allow an aggrieved father a moment to compose himself. To write in haste would be to let the my flood gates open. Composure requires time, so please allow me a few extra words and a few extra seconds.

My–my son has committed suicide. Reason, that tower, threatens to crumble; my heart quakes the foundation, pounds mortar and brick and thought into dust–choking me, blinding me.

I descend and walk cautiously into a forest of exposed nerves. I tread carefully betwixt these raw, these weeping trees. A branch grasps at me and I stumble–“Father, you are a good father, but you work too much.” His face, so young…

My vision grows dark. Yet still, I must not lose myself here in this Wood of Suicide. I must not make the same mistake as my son. I must persevere; I must understand.

I did not understand him. I did not pay close enough attention. Where was my mind instead? Wandering down corridors where ends meet; single-minded, I forgot that others existed around me, other minds for whom I worked, for whom I breathed…

He killed himself because he felt trapped, by me and therefore by life itself. He was seventeen, that age where one is neither man nor boy; too old to take paternal diktats at face value, too young to rationally refute them.

He killed himself because I would not let him act in the school play. By extension, I would not let him be himself. That is the immediate cause. And being immediate creatures, that is all his friends will see or understand. That is likely all they will ever see. I am a monster to them, an abyss. The stings of their gaze–hateful eyes–humble me still, though the funeral is long over. I pray they do not stare overlong at the abysmal thing that I have become, lest in their hate they become like me, like I was: uncomprehending. They do not understand, as my son did not understand, and as I did not understand.

I would not let him be himself. What was he? Adventurous, restless, smart, something of a dreamer–qualities not unique in any young man filled with potential. It is such qualities that grant happiness to some, sadness to others. Why did they throw my son into the abyss?

These qualities knocked themselves against my stern Realism. Please, I hope my tears have already convinced you that I write no apology for myself. It is a mere statement of fact, or near to one as a man can manage. My son was a dreamer; it is a father’s duty to understand and cultivate his son’s dreams, but equally so must he also temper them with his experience, such as it is.

What have I experienced? In my youth I was very much like my son. Is that so very surprising? What could he have become, had he only lived a few more years; I spent so much time as a young father dreaming such castles in the air for my son’s future. What I dream now–

My youth was that of the 1920s–a time for dreams, for adventure, but also a time when dreams withered in excess. I reached economic maturity right as it all came crashing down. My son knew nothing of such hardships. I strove earnestly that he would never have to.

I do not claim this as a mistake. I worked hard to let him have a better life than I, and  will die believing this to be the right and honorable thing to do. What went wrong?

I dream of dungeons now, sunken in the earth, far forsaking the castles of my youth.

My son killed himself because he felt trapped by me. He felt trapped by me because somewhere along the way I grew not just stern, not just stoic; I became callous, towards my son, my wife, myself. I thought only of the future and narrowly, economically, trammeled by the dollar: my professionalism roared, drowned out all other sounds. Cacophony to mute, everything to nothing…

At some point, I forgot the sweet laughter of my son as he pretended to be Lindbergh flying across the ocean, and thought instead only of how he would provide for himself and his family when he was no longer under my protection and tutelage.

I reiterate: this was a noble goal. A father ought make sure his son is ready to take on the Great Wide World. But to what end? I toiled that he might never face the hardships I faced. Did I ever stop to consider that, in doing so, he would face different traumas altogether? I believe this to be common to all human experience. Pain is contextual. Human life is a series of yearnings, never truly satisfied. In striving so hard to make sure his life was economically stable, I starved him of something else entirely.

I did not understand the pain he endured. Further, I did not see that in his pain, in his youth, he did not understand all that I did for him, all that I had been through, all that I was. He did not see a human man striving for his child; he saw a tomb growing darker with each passing day. He did not see the castles that I dreamed for him, only the dungeon of our home. Is it any wonder that at some point he sought to free himself from being buried alive?

I let myself die, and because of that my son killed himself. Call him misguided; call his solution an overreaction. Fair enough. But was it fair to him that I placed him in such a situation in the first place? He can never learn from his mistake, and though I continue to live I can never really learn from mine.

He was our only child.

 

Running Scared: a Movie Review that Devolves into Politics

From what do we run?

Ourselves.

That is the thesis of Running Scared.

The movie takes place in a stylized rendition of New Jersey and tells of one night’s combat between the Italian Mafia, the Russian Mafia, crooked cops, and the people caught in between. Our protagonist, and the man who does the vast majority of the running, is Joey, a low-level tough tasked with disposing of a gun used to kill a dirty cop.

Things do not go well and therein adventure lies.

Or perhaps not. While the gore and the cinematography and the music all drew me in—and have over half a dozen viewings—what really interests me are the psychological adventures of many of the characters. Consider:

Joey turns out to be an undercover cop. He presents a hard edge, but as his wife puts it, “I didn’t marry an evil man.” He pleads with his wife at the end of the film, when it seems he is on death’s door, that he was always “the real Joey.” There is a disconnect between the person he presents and the person he is.

His Russia neighbor, Anzor, beats his wife and abuses her child; and in turn gets shot by said child (precipitating the running of the film). Yet we learn from that selfsame wife that he saved her, still pregnant, from being killed by his uncle for not having the child aborted. The price for this was being ostracized from the family. Now a decade later he has devolved into drugs and paranoia, yet underneath the grime there is a man who is deeply, almost pathologically devoted to John Wayne and the cowboy ethos. He ends the movie refusing to kill the boy who shot him and dying for his honor. Another double life.

Teresa, Joey’s wife, finds herself looking for Anzor’s kid Oleg (himself running after shooting his guardian), and discovers that he has been stolen by a married couple who kidnap, film, and desecrate children. She saves his life, along with 2 other children, and kills the deranged couple with no hesitation. As she puts it to Joey, “I have never seen true evil until tonight.” Another example of an inner reservoir of strength not readily apparent at the beginning of the film.

As a final example, we have Lester the pimp. He finds himself beat up a few times but ultimately in possession of the gun everyone is trying to find (the one Oleg used to shoot Anzor). In confronting Oleg and Joey at the end of the film, Lester blurts out “Say hello to my little friend,” before shooting Joey in the side. What does this evince but a man running from his own sense of inadequacy and lack of real power?

This movie has been criticized for a lack of character development. I submit that good stories need not possess character arcs as such, wherein someone learns something and becomes “a better person.” Rather, a story like this benefits from an arc of discovery on the part of the audience. These people are presented to us fully formed, and as such each is his own enigma at the start of the movie; with each reaction and every bit of information they share, we learn more about who they are.

Doesn’t that seem more psychologically realistic than a 3 act story where clear lessons are learned and growing happens as a matter of course? Most people do not change beyond a certain point. Their characters are set by years of social development mixed with genetic predisposition and a little trauma thrown in for good measure. By the time adulthood is reached, I contend, most people stop developing. Instead, they grapple with the world using the tools they find themselves possessing and go from there.

Growth can happen, does happen, needn’t happen. It is not guaranteed. Some characters, like Joey, are just good guys caught up in something that is unraveling in their hands, fighting the good fight but facing defeat at every turn. Others, Anzor for example, degenerate from a childhood ideal but retain that core somewhere—rarely called upon but there nonetheless. As his wife says, “He’s not a killer.” She was right. He was a junky with a quixotic sense of right and wrong.

I love this movie because of these psychological depths. I love this movie because we are privy to developed characters dealing with situations they were never prepared for, situations that don’t yield growth so much as truth: their real selves are exposed in the light of trauma, and we get to see what each of them are made of.

I am reminded of Lord of the Flies, a book I cannot get out of my head of late. The lord of the title is a totem left by a group of boys surviving on a desert island, a pig’s head impaled upon a stick and stuck in the ground. It is there as a ward against an unknown beast that stalks them as they hunt and play and devolve. In reality, of course, the beast is no external monster: it is the savage in each of the little children, and they pay for their lack of insight with the deaths of at least 3 of their number.

This reminds me of something a little more contemporary: Mr. Trump. Having watched his rise in popularity, having caught his speeches, researched his claims, and dug into his various positions, I have come to two realizations.

First, he has no substantial political platform. Over the past six months, he has changed positions on every single issue on which he has given an opinion. There is no need to give proof of this here. Those who realize this never supported him, and those who do not will not be swayed by anything  I say here.

His lack of any semblance of a platform led me to my second realization: his is the candidacy of the flies; it is his head that so many of us wish to hold up against the beasts of the night; his talking points that buzz around and die like the flies that dance around the pig’s head, deafening us to their void-speech. We support him because we are afraid of the savagery within every human breast. We support him because he presents himself as a fighter and a champion against that savagery.

We support him because we don’t think he would run from what scares us, not realizing that because his internal man is so radically different from the external, that he is a coward that presents as a brawler, he would be at the head of the race and beat us all into the abyss.

We do not realize that he is a product of our fear, not a champion against it. His popularity is the result of looking for solutions through broken glasses. He is the destroyer of civilization, not its savoir.

I suppose the logical thing is to ask towards what ought we run? Or put more politically, whom should we look to as our champion?

What ought we look for in a leader? Someone who gets things done, who doesn’t bullshit, who respects the law (or doesn’t, if he’s breaking it for something you support), who reverences the Constitution (or recognizes it as a fallible human document), who will defend our country (but does that mean preemptive action or just diplomacy), who will invigorate the economy (whose economy)…

We live in a federated republic. That means our leaders have the impossible job both of responding to the general will and tempering the extremes of popular opinion for the sake of compromise, stability, order (control, if you like). It is an impossible task because what some see as a mandate from the people others take to be mob violence against political minorities, or just the loudest minority getting their way by acclamation.  It is a job I do not envy.

My vote, such as it is, will go to Bernie Sanders.

I don’t agree with everything he says. I am suspicious that we will be able to get enough money by taxing the billionaires and corporations to pay for what he wants to do (although does it really matter if the government technically has enough money, because it doesn’t seem to…); I tend to think free trade does more good than harm (but perhaps the agreements we have in place are better for businesses than their employees); I appreciate his stance on gun control that there needs to be compromise between urban and rural citizens.

I am not convinced that healthcare and education are universal human rights, but then again I remain unconvinced that rights are really a thing at all, except within a cultural context. If enough people are convinced that everyone should be able to speak their mind within reason, then suddenly we have that right; if enough people think that basic healthcare (however defined) is required by all, then suddenly it becomes a right. I do think that, in the ideal, basic healthcare and higher education have the potential for civic utility and should thus be taken seriously as ideas. This assumes the healthcare is not extraneous and the education useful and meaningful, but if we take those assumptions as granted, then there is a real conversation that must needs be had.

Regardless, Sanders has several things going for him that I find compelling. I think he is a good citizen, well spoken. Unlike Trump or Clinton, Sanders comes across as a man trying to do his best for the national community rather than merely for himself. Trump’s campaign is about the Brand; Clinton’s is about the Legacy; only Sanders cares about the Union.

He also strikes me as the most rational candidate, in how he presents himself, how he converses with others, how he interviews. I get the impression that I could sit down and have an actual conversation with him, dialogue about the issues, and have him actually hear me.

I also admire his consistency, not so much on various issues but in his efforts towards doing real civic good. I don’t care if this or that position of his has or has not changed over his political career; I care that for the duration, he has striven towards the public good. Trump, the developer of casinos, thinks only of his private aggrandizement. Clinton, the head of a decades old political machine, is just as selfish.

So, I submit that Sanders is the man to vote for. If you disagree with his policies, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that he has come to his opinions after, I think, real consideration for their public worth. The second is that our political system was built such that no branch has all the power. As Sanders himself has stated, without Congress behind him, he will be able to accomplish very little. If enough people want his reforms to pass, it will happen with the approval of the legislature. If not, then he will have a difficult four years. Either way, compromise is inevitable; the tempering of his platform is inevitable. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, no one with whom you will agree 100%. But there is such a thing as a candidate with a “good brain,” to quite Trump, such a thing as a candidate willing to put the Union above himself, such a thing as a civically-minded politician. I think such men deserve to be elected. If reason is against them on an issue, they can be swayed. If money or power tempt them away from the public good, they have the fortitude to at least put up resistance.

There is no shame in electing a man for his virtue. That, as Montesquieu was so fond of reminding us, is the well-spring from which Republics flow.

Why The Second World War was Fought

JFC Fuller was an interesting man. Did you know that he was a member of the British Fascist Party? Wikipedia told me that. Pretty neat, huh. Bet you didn’t even know there was a British Fascist Party. Bet you didn’t even know a man named JFC Fuller existed. I know of him. That makes me better than you.

That’s how internet debate works, no? It’s all about being the better man. Man A presents a thesis, the force of which doubtless reflected in the multitude of grammatical errors present. Man B counters with insult, vitriol, or at best a fact or series of facts followed by insult or vitriol. Sometimes Man C comes along to ask a snide question, or Man D blasts everyone with something entirely different but (more likely than not) of equal condescension. Knowledge in this context leads to arrogance, not understanding.

I’ve heard this state of debate lamented, as if it were unique; or at least as if the recent past could be held up as a better time, a Golden Age. Funny thing about golden ages: they’re bullshit. Hesiod was a bullshit artist, a storyteller. Like all men, he weaved a narrative that befit his view of things as he thought they ought to be. Everything fit just so. The world was made comfortable.

Obviously I am doing the same thing.

My narrative is thus: people fight, debate is a verbal extension of that combativeness, and when words fail, we resort to warfare. Generally speaking, by the time words fail, we’ve forgotten what it was we were originally arguing about. Read any YouTube comments section and you’ll likely find this to be the case. The original point of contention has been buried in heaps of bile, phlegm, all that is humorous in the human mind.

Think of World War Two as a giant YouTube comments thread. No one could remember, let alone agree upon, what was at stake, but everyone wanted to fight about it. Memories were conveniently short, erratic, inconsiderate. Germany invaded Poland to regain part of what was lost when she lost World War One, and as a first step towards Lebensraum. France and Britain came to Poland’s defense as an act of desperation following the fiasco of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Then followed a year of nothing from the Allies, nothing but movement and conquest on the part of the Germans. Then Germany invaded France, hoping to knock her out and preclude a second front festering her planned invasion of Russia. Italy entered the war hoping for the easy loot she failed to obtain during the last conflict.

France fell, leaving Britain alone. Churchill came to power and turned what had been a political war for the Allies into a religious one, a war of Freedom versus Nazism. Germany turned away from Britain, having no means of crossing the English Channel, and began her long war with Russia. She had already forgotten her fear of a two-front war. Britain joined with the USSR, already forgetting the fundamentals of her crusade. She convinced herself that in fighting German tyranny and hegemony, she could readily ally herself with a different tyrant and hegemon. Spain allied with Germany only insofar as her Catholicism wanted to crush the atheistic Soviets.

Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, hoping for a limited war to secure her economic interests against an America that has shown nothing but hostility towards an Asiatic power conquering her neighbors like a good European. In response, the US declared war on Japan, Germany declared war on the US, Japan struck at the British and the Dutch, and the Allies and the Axis solidified at last.

Then came the Atlantic Charter, wherein the Allies affirmed the principles of Freedom against those of tyranny. Britain and America had already forgotten the purges and famines of Stalin and his USSR. Soon thereafter, Unconditional Surrender was made the only mode by which victory might be attained. Poland, Pearl Harbor, politics itself were forgotten amidst the ardor of this crusade against Evil.

As the tide turned against Germany, she spoke less of her new Empire and instead propagandized once more about the evils of Communism. Nostalgia for the 1930s, when Nazism was seen as a bulwark against Communist aggression, could not stem the tide of Allied hatred. Germany was to be obliterated.

The comments thread ran deeper. Strategic bombing campaigns against Germany and later Japan came to fruition, allowing the Allies to butcher as many civilians as their Cause would allow. They had already forgotten the atrocities against which they fought. Hundreds of thousands were butchered, burned, rendered mute against the blast waves of a million tons of TNT. Technology being what it was, and the doctrines of aerial warfare being what they were, it was both far easier to bomb a city rather than a facility, and seen as far more effective, hitting both the economic and moral heart of the Enemy. The atomic bomb was the thousand-sunned climax of this strategy. Morality was forgotten in the rubble of expediency.

The war ended in more ruin than any other endeavor that has come down to us through the gory pages of recorded history. Germany, Japan, Italy lay in smoking ruin. Eastern and Central Europe bore the scars of the largest battles ever fought, and of the most mechanically deliberate extermination ever attempted. Britain, though bloodied, received but a fraction of the civilian destruction she inflicted upon her enemies. America had to sustain more discomfort from her own government than from her foes. Western Russia was the mass grave of nationalism and national socialism.

Why was the war fought? The reasons changed with the context. First Lebensraum and Poland; then Freedom and Justice; national  or economic survival; to fight the scourge of Communism, because winning is always better than losing…By 1945, the only country with a clear political objective was Russia, and that objective was achieved, namely that of carving its own empire out of the little corpses that dotted the map of Eastern Europe. The threat of German dominance was replaced by the reality of Russian.

But that is not to say that the Crusade against Evil was a failure. It was, but not because Russia came out at the top of the political heap. Stalin was a shrewder statesman than any of his peers, matching his guile, patience, and foresight against Hitler’s religiously confident audacity, Churchill’s skill with words, and Roosevelt’s knack for democratic politics. Stalin had a clear, realizable objective and he obtained it. That is the point of war. It is argument by other means. The eradication of evil is not a realistic objective, because that evil resides within the human heart itself. Only nuclear holocaust would gain us that objective.

The Crusade against Evil was lost the moment it was conceived, because that is not the purview of war. Now, as it happens, this unrealistic war did have one moral consequence the import of which cannot be forgotten. It stopped the Holocaust. It is tempting to think that, once Greater Germania had been liquidated of undesirables,  this mechanized butchery would have ceased. Perhaps. Then again, perhaps, with the economic strength of a united Europe and the sense of destiny born of a hundred stupendous victories, the successors of Hitler, raised on Goebbels’ propaganda, would have tried far worse. It seems better, at least given the limited time with which he have been able to judge the result, to have weathered the iron curtain than it might have been had Europe had to endure the brick oven.

Short of annihilation, how might humans eradicate evil from their hearts? I doubt it can be done. Emotion is the stuff of life, for better and for worse. Without love, life would seem to be pointless. Of course I am biased. The flip side, however, is hatred. It does not seem possible to have one without the other, our emotions being so intricately tied together. As long as we are individual, we will have points of view; as long as we emote, we will want to defend those points of view beyond the bounds of dry logic; as long as we wish to defend even that which might be incorrect to the “objective observer,” should such a vantage exist, we will eventually come to blows. And whether those blows come in the form of internet sass or Zyclon B, it will be the product of the human psyche.

And I still know who JFC Fuller was.

On the Romantic Erasure of Jewish Identity, and Other Erotic Sundries

I read an article today by a Jewish woman lambasting a work of romantic fiction written by a Christian woman. The gist of the reviled book is that a Jewish girl is taken under the wing of a concentration camp commandant, they fall in love, and in the end they convert to Christianity and save Jews from the Nazi maw. Something like that.

The reviewer in question was utterly outraged, first that a non-Jew was even writing from the perspective of a Jewish woman; second that any redemption could be had by any Nazi but especially the commander of a concentration camp; three that such dross has a right to be published at all. I disagree, albeit respectfully, with each of these concerns.

*

My first and paramount disagreement is that an outsider cannot, ought not write about the perspective of another–in this case, and it is an extreme case, about the seminal tragedy of the Jewish people: the Holocaust. Emotionally, this subject is notable for several reasons, its close proximity to the present day, its enormity, the methodicalness with which it was carried out, the unparalleled historical evidence for its breadth, sadism, and efficiency…No event in recorded history can match the Holocaust in pints of blood or reams of paper. Controversy is inevitable.

That a Jew is insulted, enraged, baffled, betrayed at the sight of a romance set during this time is understandable. I as an outsider in every way, when I put my mind to it, can imagine the intellectual outrage, create my own sense of emotional distress, work up an appetite for blood. Are my emotions a mere echo, a mimicry, a farce of the genuine article? There is no objective way to know. I suspect that the immediacy of my recreation soon wears off, while her emotions linger. I suspect that her reaction is stronger than mine, more concentrated. I suspect that both are personal, although in differing ways. Both are real, in the sense of being experienced, although clearly hers are the more intense. It is a matter of degrees, I think, and not of validity.

And regardless of degree, both require honesty. She needs to be honest in the use of her memory, a tricky device and prone to error, exaggeration, and outright fabrication. I, experiencing second hand, need to be honest in my humility and genuine in my attempt to research and grapple with something outside my immediate sensory experience. Both have their flaws and limitations. Both are acts of constructing order out of chaotic data.

Her criticism strikes at the very heart of what I believe the point of writing is. I approach fiction much like I approach history, as a process by which empathy is had for my fellow man. Rousseau was not wrong in surmising that pitie is a natural part of the human mind, but it dulls in the face of competition, rivalry, jealousy. Sometimes it disappears altogether, at least functionally.

Great fiction (and history in this sense is fiction because the historical narrative is a product of the imagination), effective fiction, is empathetic. It is the author’s admission that his is not the only perspective, that even through his own prejudices and limitations (necessary to the creative process as they are) he can see that there are other stories than his own, other perspectives than the one he assumes to be correct on a daily basis, other modes of thought and being than the ones that he finds comfortable and natural.

It is an imperfect process to be sure. I can never know what it was like to be in the Holocaust, either as guard or as condemned, ditto for growing up in a Jewish family in the wake of that cataclysm. But I can imagine. I can surmise. And I can honestly put myself into the shoes of another, doing my best to see what she sees, breath what she breathes, think what she thinks. In doing so, I will never be able to recreate the objective reality of the past. Fiction cannot do that; history cannot either (nor memory, if we’re being honest). I can, however, recreate at least a semblance of the subjectivity of the human creature.

When done in good faith (and careful research is a prerequisite to this fidelity), fiction is a way for the subjective to bend, expand, look upon itself. In this way our common humanity is better understood–and our differences (in opinion, in custom, in disposition) are made rational, are made understandable to the outsider.

*

Now, what of redemption? I should first mention that the Christian idea of redemption makes sense in this context. All can be saved if they only embrace the Truth that is Jesus Christ. In so doing, they shed their pride and thus deserve (earn, are given–depending on your theology) salvation. A counter-intuitive notion, to be sure, and one that Christians have trouble putting into practice (witness the hatred felt towards child molesters, as an example), but an ideal of many Christian denominations it certainly is.

So, that a Christian author would find the idea that a Nazi could be redeemed plausible and indeed quite compelling as an exemplar for the power of God to forgive all his creations, is not an irrational turn of events. Nor is it strange that a Jew would take umbrage at this. The Jewish God is not so loving as the Christian, and the tone of His interaction with the world shifts radically from the Old to the New Testament. The two perspectives are so radically different as to make compromise practically impossible.

Theology aside, I believe that all people deserve redemption in the historical sense of that word. What I mean is, as a historian, it is my duty to throw my imagination into the perspective of anyone that becomes my subject of study, regardless of their thoughts or actions. It is the closest thing I can do to allowing my subject the objectivity–the lack of unconscious or irrationally strong bias–that makes for genuine, honest history, that is to say history done in good faith.

It is in this way that we lose the temptation to grind axes, vomit polemics, or pass vitriol off as scholarship. In this way we judiciously, carefully weave our prejudices into the fabric of the work, balancing them as best we can against whatever facts we unearth. No bias can be totally erased, but it can be tempered. In that equilibrium resides an honest picture of the past–not complete, but a valiant effort in that direction.

Historical redemption is also a humanizing activity. It reminds us, by forcing us to look at the motivations behind what we presently consider the most heinous acts, that it is not a monster we are studying. It is not a demon that has attracted our historical curiosity, who begs for our historical judgment. Our subject is nothing as special as all that. It is merely a man, with a man’s strengths, a man’s motivations, a man’s imperfections.

Morally, it whispers into our presently arrogant ear that we, as humans like once they were, have the same potential for good and for ill, that the actions that we take will have consequences–intended or no–just as theirs did, that the future will judge our actions with as much narrowness of perspective as we now judge our progenitors.

Whatever their reasons were, the Nazis perpetrated the worst slaughter that recorded history has preserved. This should sober us, terrify us to the reality of human motivation: that given enough energy, we can justify anything. Being reminded of that, we of the present should show the caution and restraint so seldom seen by those whom we claim to have bettered. We are our past. Those people were and are us. Their mistakes were ours, the mistakes of the race. Only when we own up to them, our wrong-doings, can we internalize them, learn from them, possibly outgrow them. History is a laboratory experiment 1000 generations running. We are as much lab rats today as in the days of Hammurabi. After so much trial and error, will we ever escape this maze?

*

My final quibble is with the idea that such a work as this, being insensitive to a minority community, being historically ignorant, being racist in its erasure of Jewish identity by a Christian one, ought not have the right to be published at all. My gut reaction to such a statement is horror. After all, the first amendment is what allows me to write whatever I want without fear of recourse. It has its limits, libel for instance, but realistically my speech seems freer than at any other time or place in recorded history. The majority will always find ways to silence the minority, but the official response is so ridiculously weak that I have no fear of having the hammer of the law smite me for what I put to print.

The question becomes is that a good thing? The outraged author to whom I am responding says that such fiction as this is dangerous in its ability to nullify the identity of another. She is rightfully concerned that free speech is dangerous. It certainly is. Freedom is fraught with danger. Do the benefits outweigh these?

I am inclined to say yes.

Philosophically, or perhaps politically, a free exchange of ideas seems of genuine practical value, for it–hopefully–results in a weeding out of the less-well-thought-out stuff, and through the continual editorial process of criticism and response, would yield something better. But this seems hard to quantify, or to prove.

I will say that the potential allotted to a people possessed of free speech seems more fraught with peril, but also so much higher, than a people trammeled with the safety of a controlled mind. Strife breeds necessity, and necessity creativity. And there is no place where creativity is more necessary than in the products of the human imagination.

So there it is, a respectful disagreement. Can the internet handle such a thing? …And there I am being self-righteous. We can all breath a collective sigh of relief.

A Critical Analysis of Psychiatry as it is Practiced in America Today

The following is a rather long essay I wrote a while back. Although edited since then, it is imperfect. Nevertheless, upon reading it over more than six months after the fact, the vast majority struck me as substantially true. And my qualms with the rest were small enough as to warrant no immediate remedy. All in all, I think its length makes up for at least 2 months’ worth of missing posts…

The Definition of Disease

Psychiatry resides within the realm of medicine. Medical professionals try to make people healthy, which means the treatment of disease. Psychiatrists, by extension, treat the mental version of that, namely mental illness. How do we define disease; and how mental illness? I define disease as a biological entity foreign (in some sense) to the human body or to its homeostasis, which has these two common characteristics:

  1. A loss of functionality in the region affected, ie it is harmful
  2. A predictable course of events leading up to and including the loss of said functionality.

Thus, something like Ebola is a disease, as it causes loss of functionality (read: death) in something like 90 percent of those afflicted, and does so in a manner predictable by doctors who observe its consistent course through the human body.

As it is commonly used, mental illness encompasses a host of entities seen as various diseases, disorders, syndromes, all of which afflict the mental life of an individual in some detrimental way. It is inexact, indeed utterly incorrect, to lump such things together under the medical umbrella. Their only common characteristic is a similar pattern of behavior of varying severity. This is why schizophrenia, major depression, dementia, and bipolar disorder are lumped together with Asperger’s, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, habitual addiction, and bulimia. The former group are diseases of the brain, as they seem to affect the physical workings of the brain (its chemicals and so forth) and in so doing tyrannize human behavior.  They are, more or less, diseases in the medical sense because they fit the criteria mentioned above: they impair biological functionality and do so in a predictable manner.

The latter are not diseases at all. It is clear that they impair functionality in varying degrees, but their diagnosis is subjective, their course variable, their outcome, should treatment be forsaken, is not known with any kind of certainty.

Medically, biologically the afflictions lumped together under the metaphorical term “mental illness” share nothing in common: some are diseases, some are not. What they have in common is social in nature and has been mentioned already, namely similar patterns of behavior. The one thing that the mentally ill have in common with each other is that their behavior is considered by Society to be, in one way or another, unacceptable. So we have declared the paranoia of the schizophrenic, the psychosis of the cocaine addict, the inactivity and suicidality of the majorly depressed, the manic energy of the bipolar, the eating habits of the bulimic, the defiance of the ODD, the dominating proclivities of the habitual addict to be against the accepted norms of our culture. Psychiatry, indeed, does not subscribe to cultural relativism. No, these patterns of behavior, many having nothing to do with medical disease in the least, are thought to be objectively bad, unhealthy, and by implication evil. The majority has deemed such deviant behavior to be in need of rectification. And the current trend is for the course of correction to fall under the direction of medicine. Unpopular behavior is therefore a sickness that must be cured.

That many of these activities are harmful to the doer is obvious. Endorsing suicidal thoughts might presage an end to the endorser’s life. We cannot predict the outcome. Nor do suicidal thoughts necessarily inhibit functionality. I myself “endorse passive suicidal ideations” from time to time. Huh, I wonder what it would be like to just veer into oncoming traffic… Yet somehow I manage to go to work, love my wife, and read voraciously. Such thoughts, in and of themselves, mean little, except that the mind is constantly bubbling with weird, sometimes uncomfortable, always unconscious activities that now and again rise to the surface of consciousness. That is part of being human, and not in and of itself indicative of anything harmful, unhealthy, or demonic.

That many of these activities are harmful to others, which is to say metaphorically contagious, is another matter all together. It will be dealt with elsewhere, but suffice it to say, most “deviants,” most mentally ill pose little actual threat to those around them. Their behavior makes others uncomfortable; that discomfort leads to fear; and that fear produces in the imagination of the many the impression of imminent danger. Forceful, even violent intervention is then seen as necessary.

Psychiatrists have, therefore, accepted for themselves a two-pronged role in society. On the one hand, they purport to treat illness, accepting, diagnosing, and attempting to treat things like schizophrenia or bipolar. On the other, they police social mores, deeming certain sets of social behaviors as deviant from an established, accepted, and sought after Norm, and thus in need of corrective action. Because they confuse their dual role, and indeed are oft ignorant of it, the very notion of what makes an acceptable psychiatric patient, let alone what constitutes effective treatment, has fallen under a cloak of mystery, mysticism even. Psychiatrists have taken on the role of priests–for better or worse.

Brain Diseases

The first thing we must establish, then, is what the psychiatrist ought to be doing with himself. It is my contention that he does little in the way of medical healing, but in fact spends most of his time policing deviant social behaviors that are not linked to biological disease. This is because brain disease, when rigorously diagnosed, is uncommon; whereas deviant social behavior can be found wherever the subjective eye decides to look.

Let us flesh out the biological, diagnostic difference between these two classes of ailments, one actual the other metaphoric. First let us examine the mental illnesses that are actual, biological diseases. For the sake of accuracy, I will refer to these as diseases of the brain, as in some fashion (often a mystery to us) the brain is afflicted in such a way as to produce extreme and antisocial behavior on the part of the patient. To my mind, these include the following (subject to amendment):

  1. Major Depression
  2. Dementia
  3. Schizophrenia
  4. Bipolar
  5. Psychosis

All five of these diseases, once diagnosed, meet our two criteria for disease. They are states that are foreign to the body that:

  1. impair functionality and;
  2. do so in a way that is predictable on the part of the clinician.

Thus major depression saps the patient of all drive and energy, leaving them a motionless lump often afflicted with symptomatic thoughts of hopelessness, purposelessness, and suicide. Major depression is the result of some abnormality in the brain, and has nothing to do with the outside social or relational world of the patient. Hence, “bouts of depression” brought about by the death of a loved one, or some other trauma, have no place here. They come and go with or without medical intervention. Major depression, conversely, responds consistently to medical treatment, ie medication or ECT. It has a consistent course and thus responds predictably to intervention on the part of the practitioner.

Dementia is the most tragic of this list. Psychiatrists seem able to diagnose with relative consistency the onset of dementia, especially in the elderly. This is because the criteria for it are stringent and less susceptible to interpretation. This consistency is rendered moot, however, by the complete lack of effective medical interventions. Thus, while doctors can identify dementia, they can but watch its progress in passive silence.

Schizophrenia manifests itself, at the latest, in the early 20s of the patient, and produces within his mind a web of delusion, paranoia, and fantasy from which some recover, in which some remain, and into which some plummet further. It is too little understood to respond vigorously or consistently to treatment, but it is probably a brain disease, as evidenced by its seemingly consistent and accurate diagnosis. Such accuracy has fallen by the wayside of late, as parameters have gotten looser and looser. This is why when Thorazine was introduced fifty years ago, many schizophrenics who were treated with it were almost miraculously healed by it. Whereas now, far fewer people diagnosed “schizophrenic” respond strongly to treatment. The problem is, at least in part, one of mislabeling, miscategorizing, misdiagnosing.

Bipolar, what was once more accurately referred to as manic-depression, consists of alternating states of complete lethargy and dangerously high levels of energy. The pendulum of the mind swings with reckless abandon, impairing functionality and doing so in a predictable manner. It responds consistently to treatment when it is correctly diagnosed. Here again we run into serious diagnostic issues. Unobservant psychiatrists often see a similar pattern of behavior in someone who is simply energetic, sad, hopeless, angry, or temperamental; and in their haste to diagnose, overreach themselves, labeling someone bipolar when they are nothing of the sort. Here we have an instance of the danger of associating similar patterns of behavior with each other under the general term “mental illness,” as the diagnostic criteria become so vague as to fit almost any situation, should the prejudices of the psychiatrist deem it so.

Psychosis is thought to be the result of a chemical imbalance within the brain. We think this because psychotic symptoms consistently accompany heavy cocaine usage, and cocaine affects certain chemical balances in the brain. However that may be, psychosis sometimes has a predictable pathology and can respond to treatment. But here again, the problem of diagnosis rears its ugly head. And what one psychiatrist might term psychosis, another might diagnose as schizo-affective disorder. It seems clear that cocaine affects the chemical balance of the brain in some way, producing unreasonable and sometimes violent behavior. This pattern of behavior, however, is too easily confused with others to be consistently diagnosed. There is enough of a physical cause, however, for us to put psychosis on the list while at the same time reminding ourselves that it is an imperfect label. Indeed, the word psychotic is used to describe a great deal of behaviors, including paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and violent, to us unreasonable aggression. This constellation is loose enough as to invite misnaming; so that what one astronomer might name Orion another might call Taurus. The illness is increasingly in the eye of the beholder–each starry grouping tied together by a different mythology.

As the list goes on, we can clearly see a decreasing level of diagnostic certainty. This is because psychiatrists diagnose based on behavioral patterns that share too much in common to be useful in many cases. The extreme ones, however, like the long term and seemingly random lethargy of major depression, are rare enough as to be consistently identified. That is something worth reiterating: brain disease is rare, and so are the extreme behaviors that accompany it.

We would do well to note that the issue of misdiagnosis is not a problem in psychiatry alone. Medical doctors fall prey to it not infrequently, as many diseases share common symptoms. One symptom check on WebMD makes that abundantly clear. We cannot, all of us, be afflicted with cancers alone! The difference is that while medical doctors can often verify the veracity of a given diagnosis, whether through means of tests like an MRI or via the success or failure of a given treatment, often times psychiatric patients are assigned a diagnosis without the possibility of change. Objective tests like those that are used to identify cancer hardly exist in the realm of psychiatry; at the same time, the failure of a given line of treatment rarely results in a different diagnosis. The only time that consistently happens is when a patient is seen by a different psychiatrist. Then the pattern of behavior is evaluated by a different set of subjective eyes, and a new (often arbitrary) label is assigned. Neither medicine proper nor psychiatry is perfectly consistent, but the latter’s consistency is so lacking as to call into question the whole diagnostic enterprise.

Psychiatrists and Psychologists

But let us leave these more or less medical diseases for the moment and focus upon psychiatry’s primary role, that of social police. This has been medicalized more and more over the past two centuries, resulting in a pitiful ignorance on the part of psychiatrists. They talk of medicine and disease, but they deal chiefly with problems of social organization. Most of what psychiatrists “treat” is not the extreme anti-social behavior of the brain diseased; no, it is the social misbehavior of the personality disordered.

What is personality disorder? Here, I define it exactly as its constituent parts dictate. Personality is that web of interests, skills, proclivities, temperaments, emotions, experiences, phobias, hopes, and beliefs that constitute the mental life of a person. If they dictate a person’s behavior in such a way that society sees them as consistently troublesome, then they can be said to have a disordered personality. In psychiatry as it is currently practiced, all kinds of ailments fall under personality disorder so defined; ADD, ODD, ADHD, habitual addiction, eating disorders, ASDs, the DSM 5 is dominated by such things, all of which share common patterns of behavior, habits of action, that are seen by those observing them to be a problem requiring a solution. In psychiatry, these are social problems addressed by medical solutions.

Personality disorder is an inability to function in society, not owing to biological factors alone (God only knows how biological mechanisms and the resultant pattern-maker/breaker we call the mind interact). This is generally manifested in an unreasonable obstinacy or inflexibility when confronted with something a person does not like. Alas, society is a continuing convergence of conflicting ideals and desires; men must be able to compromise if they are to live peaceably with their neighbors. What is needed, therefore, is something of a school of diplomacy. Compromise, after all, is the essence of effective diplomacy, as it is the essence of effective social involvement. Psychiatry does not provide this. Instead, it seeks to medicate the problem. It works under the false assumption that such medical, chemical, biological means are suitable answers to questions of a predominantly social, habitual nature.

The long misstep American psychiatry has taken over the last 60 years and five incarnations of the DSM is, more than anything else, a medicalization of these misbehaviors. Now, a difficulty emerges here wherein it can be justifiably argued that legitimate cases of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), to name but one example, are legitimate ailments (read: diseases of the brain) requiring some sort of medical intervention. This I do not dispute. What I question is the diagnostic criteria used to label someone as afflicted by such a disorder. Remember, using patterns of behavior as your sole means of diagnosis is very problematic. Saying that a child has ASD simply because he has six (or is it seven, five, three?) of a list of behaviors is dangerously arbitrary and subjective, to the point where it loses all utility–the defining characteristic of any scientific endeavor. Notice that ASD contains within it so many behaviors, so many facets, and such loose boundaries as to void most of its practical value as a set of diagnostic criteria. And that is the solution we are after here, practicality. The problem is one of functionality.

It is likely, to my mind, that legitimate ASD is the manifestation of a disease we know nothing about, some ailment of the brain itself, that we are miscategorizing as something which it is not because of our ignorance. Please keep in mind, our knowledge of the human body is haphazard, incomplete, and grossly inadequate compared to our perception of that knowledge. Indeed, most of the great medical breakthroughs of the 20th century were happened upon by pure accident or coincidence. Need we rehash the miraculous discovery of penicillin? The hand of God, we might say, has had far more to do with our medical advances than the billions pumped into systematic research each year.

So, psychiatry has medicalized personality disorder, and in so doing inherited the optimism and then the arrogance of modern medicine. It has lumped together the sick-nonfunctioning with the unsick-nonfunctioning and so mangled the meaning of the word treatment as to fail to heal the sick or police the miscreant.

Let us resurrect and clarify a distinction, that of the psychiatrist and the psychologist. The psychiatrist’s domain is that of the brain and the diseases thereof. His therapy, his treatment is that of medicine, for he is trying to fix biological problems with biological solutions, realigning unbalanced chemicals with more chemicals, faulty electric signals with jolts of his own design, etc. Psychologists, on the other hand, would be those professionals who specialize in persons who, while not medically ill, have abnormal difficulty functioning within society. They help disordered personalities, those who are so inflexible that they fail to mix with the great globs of people around them.

So, let us leave the medical diseases of the brain with the psychiatrists, or whatever set of professionals best have the biological knowledge and expertise to identify, diagnose, and treat things like major depression; and cast our eyes upon those who we would have deal with personality disorders. There is, in fact, an imperfect precedent for the profession of psychology as I envision it, one that dates back to the early twentieth century.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

Freud founded the modern movement of psychoanalysis, its basic goal being the unearthing of the unconscious workings, motivations, desires of people such that they might better be able to live in society. He referred to personality disorder as neurosis; whilst brain disease he called psychosis. He never used his methods on the sick as I have defined them, and indeed pleaded with his disciples that psychoanalysis not become the handmaiden of psychiatry. Laymen, he said, could be psychoanalysts, if only they had the proper training. A medical degree was not necessary. He did make the mistake (in my hindsight) of describing neuroses as pathologies. We may smile at the metaphor and more accurately describe them as disorders, but he, as a neurologist, clung to the pseudo-medical nature of the anti-social behavior which he attempted to treat (read: correct).

At any rate, Freud saw before him behavioral patterns that cried out for correction. Their defect was their anti-sociality. The neurotic was narcissistic, selfish, destructive, childish, mean, vindictive, paranoid, incestuous, violent–in a word, they were nonfunctional with regards to society. He thought he discovered the source of their behaviors within their childhood development. The chief structure of Freudian childhood was the Oedipus Complex, whereby the child sees the mother as its source of protection and as the object of its affection; simultaneously, it sees the father as a source of love in his own right. The ensuing struggle within the infant has him first desirous of supplanting the father as the cohort of the mother, then of pleasing the father so as to gain his patriarchal love and ward off castration (the baby’s autoerotic tendencies being met with such parental reactions as “do that again and I’ll cut it off!”).

This abozzo is highly condensed and doubtless inaccurate, but the point is that Freud saw within a child a relatively regular series of developments viz-a-viz its relationship with its parents and the world at large. The infant’s sexual experiences and complexes subside with time, only to reappear later in life at the onset of puberty. This has to do with the advent of neuroses because of what Freud called repression, wherein a person’s regular journey through the vicissitudes of its Oedipus Complex is somehow abnormal, thus causing it psychological trauma which it then seeks to forget in the oblivion of time. In order to do so, it represses such memories away from the conscious gaze of its Ego (the self, consciousness). They are not removed, however, but continue to reside, albeit in an often mutilated form, within the child’s Id (the unconscious swirling of instincts and drives with which the Super-Ego (conscience) is in constant antagonism). Repression, therefore, is incomplete, and its imperfection manifests itself after puberty via the behavioral patterns Freud referred to as neuroses–the ineffective balancing of the overzealous desires of the Id with the unreasonable expectations of the Super-Ego. We here refer to this unbalanced inward battle as personality disorder.

Freud built an entire scheme upon the foundations of Oedipus and the importance of childhood development, and in so doing devised a method of treatment that he thought would be able to unearth the repressed trauma, throw the light of day upon it, and allow the neurotic to carry himself once more into the current of society. This he called the psychoanalytic method. The basic idea was to talk with the patient, get an intimate history of their lives, collect their most bizarre and nonsensical dreams; then, interpret that information using knowledge of the unconscious drives of human behavior. After that, the source of a given neurosis could be unearthed, like a slow archeological dig, then brought into the light of the present–where we are to hope the patient learns to cope with his new-found self-knowledge.

Above all else, I must commend Freud’s attempt to enter into a dialogue with his patients. Despite his mislabeling them as sick, he very much wanted to get to the bottom of their lives, as his theory of neurosis depended upon an in depth knowledge of his patient’s personal history. Hitherto, psychiatrists sought only to observe the “mentally ill” within the confines of an asylum or hospital. For perhaps the first time in modern history, someone actually sat down and systematically talked with people society had deemed insane. He seems to have quickly realized that his methods would not work on what I have referred to as the brain diseased. Conversations with a schizophrenic patient are not conducive to introspection, nor of slow and patient analysis. They are too explosive, too paranoid, too sick to dialogue with, at least on the Freudian model. Keep in mind, he sat with his patients for hours a week. These were long, drawn out, very thorough sessions. Keep in mind also that for a person to have a legitimate brain disease, the capacity for such long and engrossing conversations would surely be lacking. Here again, Freud did not treat sick people. He treated those with disordered personalities.

So, Freud is to be commended for his attempt at dialogue. We must also praise him for his understanding that what he was doing was helping civilization against the extreme narcissism of the individual. He recognized in his psychological theories a series of implications for the formation and maintenance of society and civilization which he elaborated upon late in his career. Of paramount importance here is the idea that:

  1. Civilization developed as a way for humans to combat nature.
  2. Individuals, when they are not united in this fight, strife against each other, as they both loath the work necessary to maintain society and cannot argue past one another’s passions.
  3. Civilization is thus in a constant battle against its own constituents, who are led more by their instincts than their reason. Hence the necessity of laws and governments.

The objective of psychoanalysis is therefore the defense of civilization against those especially asocial, selfish, and narcissistic minds by way of dialogue, self-discovery, and cathartic return to more social behavior. Anti-social behavior is thus policed into acceptable modes; and human community is in some small measure maintained.

This is important for our purposes because it is so unmedical in its objectives. Or rather, the two fields of medicine and psychoanalysis are as cousins. Both seek to maintain human civilization. Whereas medicine seeks to perpetuate and extend the trenches of humanity against nature, psychoanalysis seeks to correct the soldiers who go AWOL.

Psychoanalysis and American Psychiatry

Psychoanalysis, despite its nonmedical objective, was presented by its founder as a science, specifically a medical one. It is excusable, therefore, that American psychiatry latched onto it in the first half of the twentieth century. It is even excusable that in the latter half of that same century, with the advent of psychiatric drugs and different kinds of therapeutic techniques,  medicine discarded any conscious adoption of psychoanalytic method but opted to continue the treatment of the neurotic under the umbrella term of “mental illness.”

American doctors did this because it was their belief that people with disordered personalities were sick in the same way as those with diseased brains. Their treatments, then, reflected this idea of behavioral pattern as sickness, and so entailed nursing measures, medications, hospitalizations, outpatient therapies, and insurance companies. It has been my experience, however, that such methods work so inconsistently as to call into question their efficacy.

Psychiatrists persist in their belief, despite the evidence all around them, that their methods work–if only the patient would listen to them, take their meds, live by the psychiatrist’s creed! No doubt there are occasions where the psychiatrist’s plea is justified, as when the schizophrenic patient does not take their medication for six months, becomes unhinged enough to maybe be a danger to himself or others, and ends up in the hospital once more. Most of the time, however, we are dealing with personality patients. Since they are not medically ill, medical intervention such as the psychiatrist wishes to impose upon them are ill suited to the problem at hand. And yet the psychiatrist persists…and meddles…and pleads…

What problems are we talking about when we talk about personality disorders? Look through the DSM 5 and take your pick. Kids who are obstinate in the face of authority, women who eat too little or too much, children who are anti-social in the extreme, men who rise to anger at seemingly little provocation, the lack of any reasonable attention span…all of these behaviors, and the patterns that surround them, fall under the purview of personality disorder. It is these things the psychoanalyst tried to treat; that the medical psychiatrist fails to treat; and that the psychologist must needs find a way to deal with.

An Historical Analogue to the Methods of American Psychiatry

Before we even try to grapple with an answer to the question “how do we deal with personality disorder?” I must stop and comment upon the certainty with which psychiatrists approach their patients. The faith they possess regarding the accuracy of their diagnoses–and the efficacy of their treatments–is simply astounding; indeed, it is inexplicable except when we compare it to the behavior of the religious. Faith, after all, is in part a persistence in a belief despite physical evidence to the contrary.

This smacks, in my mind, of the practices of the Catholic Inquisition. I do not wish to demonize the priests in charge of that endeavor, any more than I wish to do so with psychiatrists. We are, all of us, only human. I would like to point out, however, a few similarities between the inquisitors and American psychiatrists, between those who honestly defended a religious creed and those who claim scientific skepticism.

Both proceed from a position of certainty. The inquisitors approached their subjects with the notion that they had in their possession the Truth, divinely revealed and elaborated upon by a church, the organization of which was divinely ordained and sustained. It made sense, then, for them to take issue with those who by word or by deed went against established doctrine. To do so struck them as lunacy. If God knows all, and has bequeathed that knowledge to man in the form of the Bible, and established the Church as the human interpreter of that Truth, then how could a man go against their dogmas and still be considered in his right mind? Given a certain set of beliefs, the position of the inquisitor makes perfect sense.

In order to combat this tendency towards error, the Church established the Inquisition in various countries, the object of which was to collect testimony regarding potential heretics, assess the validity of such accusations, test them in court if they found the evidence substantial enough, and issue judgments and sentences to convicted heretics. In the English speaking world, the Inquisition in Spain is the most infamous; and apparently it was the most active and vigorous incarnation of that institution. In actuality, it was far less bloody than popular imagination has hitherto supposed. Nevertheless, as an institution it shares with American psychiatry the utter certainty that what is being done is infallibly correct.

For psychiatrists, too, approach their field from a position of certainty. This was excusable for the inquisitors of the middle ages, since they were acting within the confines of a religion. To do so under the auspices of modern science is grotesque in its dishonesty. Scientific inquiry is based on the presumption that we don’t know everything. Indeed, a hypothesis ought to be proffered only after observations have been made, not the other way around. Psychiatrists do not do this. When a patient enters the ward, they are assumed insane until proven otherwise. The hypothesis is asserted before observation is made. By the same token, psychiatrists show a remarkable inability to adjust their diagnoses in the face of new, often contradictory evidence. Related to this, they often cherry pick what the patient does or says to substantiate claims of mental illness. Examples in the notorious study entitled “Being Sane in Insane Places” abound. Several people with no psychiatric history got themselves admitted to seven different hospitals by lying about hearing “voices,” acted as normal and polite as they were able upon admission, and were, to a man, labeled as sick (most as schizophrenic). The seven were left to their own devices as to getting discharged. They had to convince the staff that they were stable enough to leave. The shortest stay was nine days, the longest fifty-five.

A good scientist seeks to disprove his hypothesis. A good theologian seeks to prove an axiom he already holds to be true. The one approaches his task with skepticism, the other with faith. They both use human reason, but from different starting points.

This certainty in psychiatric diagnosis bespeaks a faith that is not justified. This faith is most spectacularly apparent in the universal and unquestioning adoption, in the clinical setting at least, of the DSM and its various installments. Yes, it is prefaced by a brief caution to the user. It mumbles something about the vague idea of normalcy, the subjective nature of many of their diagnoses, etc. But these are as the whisper of the careful scholastic theologian against the roar of the lay preacher. Indeed, the DSM is treated as something of a Bible amongst many in the psychiatric field. Its verdicts are final. Certain. Divinely inspired. And billable to your insurance.

Around this faith has been erected, over the course of the last few decades, a system that is certain of its pronouncements, confident in its treatments, and eager to reap the financial rewards for another soul saved. Time after time I have seen patients beset with disordered personalities float in and out of the psych hospital at which I was employed. Again and again they came, heard the gospel, partook of the Eucharist (are not medications miraculous things?), and went on their way in a week or so, their stays covered by insurance that, often enough, was applied for at our hospital! Does that strike no one else as a conflict of interest?

This reeks of the ignorant simony that ran rampant (although not to the extent that later Protestants would like us to believe) among the clergy of the Catholic Church of the Renaissance. There were well meaning priests then, and there are well meaning psychiatrists now; but then as now an uncomfortable emphasis on money reigns. Hence the giving of money for the reduction of the sentence of purgation, and hence the readjustment of a patient’s medication so that their insurance company will continue to fund their stay.

There was a tendency within the Inquisition to think itself infallible. Hence the Inquisitors would never accuse themselves of error or heresy. In exactly the same way, modern American psychiatrists possess the same self-imposed infallibility. This is why the psychiatrist sees the behavior of the Other as sick, while his own problems are “understandable given the circumstances”; the patient is depressed and in need of medication; the doctor is sad and just needs some cheering up; the patient has an unfounded fear of the government; the doctor is rightly concerned about the overreach of the NSA.

Once he has made a decision, the psychiatrist rarely recants, especially if it goes against established psychiatric dogma. This is why a patient can be documented as not suicidal and then discharged; only to be readmitted twenty-four hours later for suicidality–and no one admits that they either  made a mistake in discharging too early; or  admitted a person who was not even “sick” in the first place. The possibility that the person’s suicidal thoughts (if actual) were the result not of illness but of social situation, that no medical intervention would change that situation, that she would be returned to that selfsame situation upon discharge never occurs to the psychiatrist. Why would it? Social components have little to do with medicine. And medicine is all the psychiatrist wants to talk about. He is a technician, and has little time for the subtleties other lives are possessed of.

Psychiatry pays lip service to such things via the labors of the social worker, but she works under the same medicinal chains as that of the therapist. Her advice, her aide, her often miraculous ability to find housing or what have you for the patients under her care are rendered moot by the simple fact that their social problems are buried under medical jargon, only to be unearthed once hospitalization has ended. Thus does the patient leave, look at the same shattered life she left, and return to the hospital once more. It is a vicious cycle that leads only to dependence on the part of the patient, dominance and contempt on the part of the medical staff.

This infallibility is especially dangerous with regards to psychiatry because it has the unintended consequence of dehumanizing the patients psychiatrists say they are trying to help. Everything they say is twisted, everything they do is documented, to provide evidence of their insanity. If a patient asserts he is not sick, it is a symptom of his illness and his “lack of insight.” If he refuses medication, he is “non-compliant with meds.” If he paces the halls, he is considered “anxious” or “paranoid.” Conversely, if he agrees that he is sick, then he gets to stay for treatment. If he comes back again and again, the staff suspect he is milking the system or a drug addict–and admit/treat him with an air of condescension. If he is too eager for his medicine, he is thought to be “med-seeking.” If he stays in his room, he is “isolative to self.” Literally everything he says or does is refracted through the psychiatrist’s infallible prejudice towards illness to be proof of some kind of disorder or sickness. Never does the legitimate possibility of health ever come up. What other kind of doctor brooks so vigorously towards nay saying?

The inquisitor found heresy practically wherever he looked. The Spanish found every recently converted Jew suspect; other inquisitions found multitudes of heretics, witches, and the simply misguided. It should be noted that few were killed, more imprisoned, some made to endure years of monastic life, and some freed entirely. Many inquisitors were judicious, careful, pious. Many were corrupt or careless. None doubted that heretics were a very real threat. Outside of the Spanish Inquisition, few doubted that witches were numerous (and even the Inquisition in Spain did not doubt the existence of witches). Looking back, it seems clear that many supposed heretics were the victims of observation bias, extortion, or betrayal at the hands of a neighbor. In the same way, psychiatrists, in their infallibility, find sickness wherever they look. Everyone is compulsive, addicted, bipolar, possessed of a deficient attention span, suffering from the stress of trauma after the fact…And men, then as now, are understandably susceptible to the allure of money, to the temptation to lock an enemy up where they will not soon be let out.

How We Might Proceed

Let us tie together some of these divergent strings and then proceed on to what might be done by way of remedy or alternative. I have tried to show that:

Disease, in its medical context, is an ailment foreign to the natural state of the human body, either in the form of an alien organism or in that of an alien configuration of the human body itself; and that it must meet the following two criteria:

it must disrupt the functionality of the human body in some way;

it must possess a predictable pathology or course of events.

Mental illness is a metaphor turned illusion. It seeks to couple together medical diseases that affect the brain with disorders in a person’s personality–the web of beliefs, proclivities, passions, and the like that make up one’s mental life.

The former are the result of a biological system thrown into turmoil by other biological forces; and, with varying degrees of success and consistency, are treatable by medical means, usually, but not always, in the form of psychiatric drugs. They are properly called brain diseases and are the purview of the doctor or psychiatrist.

Diagnosis is not perfect. Medical diseases, however, have these two defenses against misdiagnosis:

Objective tests to determine the biological dysfunction (which             with regards to brain diseases is still in its infancy);

Submission to the outcome of a given treatment as the final                   arbiter of the accuracy of a diagnosis.

The latter are the result of a bio-social organism’s inability to interact functionally with the society in which it resides. Such disordered personalities are so inflexible in their desires as to be unable to get along with those around them. They cannot compromise. They are as the obstinent Hitler compared to the diplomatic Metternich. Such disorders, whatever their nomenclature, are the domain of the psychologist.

Freud referred to personality disorder as neurosis. He looked to childhood development for its cause, and thought he found it within the interruption of its normal course of sexual growth.

He made the mistake of calling neurotics ill, but tried to treat them through dialogue, such that he might help them to uncover their repressed traumas and correct their deviated course of development; the end result hopefully being a degree of reintegration into a society threatened by the dysfunctional selfishness of the neurotic’s pattern of behavior.

Despite Freud’s arguments to the contrary, psychoanalysis became the handmaiden of psychiatry in America.

With the advent of antipsychotic drugs, psychoanalysis fell into disuse; but American psychiatry continued to treat the neurotic (personality disordered) as well as the psychotic (brain diseased). It kept the medical outlook that was Freud’s chief error, whilst discarding the dialogue he used as his means of treatment in favor of more medical avenues of treatment.

American psychiatry has persisted in this medical treatment of personality disorder in spite of the inconsistent results of their treatment methods, meaning medication does not treat personality disorder. It is not a chemical problem. It is a social one.

This lack of efficacy bespeaks a level of certainty unbecoming of a scientific effort but uncomfortably like that of religious faith.

Indeed, there are disturbing similarities between American psychiatry and the Inquisition of the Catholic Church. They are:

Axiomatic certainty, the idea that an assertion is made and then proof found. This is the opposite of the scientific method.

Faith in the unassailable assertions of the psychiatrist and his staff, evinced chiefly by the use of the DSM as the Bible of psychiatry–as an unquestioned and seemingly divinely inspired document of Truth.

The uncomfortable emphasis on money found both in the Catholic Church of the Renaissance and in the American psychiatry of today.

The infallibility of both the inquisitors on the one hand, and the psychiatrist and his staff on the other. The accusation of the heretic and the diagnosis of the mentally ill both evince a domination of an Other and a complete lack of introspection, restraint, or humility on the part of the Institution.

Having reiterated all that, what is psychiatry left to do? Let me preface these remarks with an admonition for skepticism and debate. I do not pretend to divine revelation, either explicitly in thought or implicitly in action. My reflections are only those of someone who has experienced American psychiatry within the confines of a single hospital over but two years and five months, and who has read perhaps ten books directly concerning the topics currently under discussion. Let this not be the final word on the matter; let thought be stimulated and discussion provoked.

First, psychiatry must discard the medical pretense. Let physicians treat the diseases of the brain, major depression, dementia, bipolar, and the like. Too often patients are admitted to the ward with physical ailments that affect their behavior: urinary tract infections, unbalanced electrolytes, brain tumors, syphilis, etc. These are or by right ought to be the realm of the physician.

Second, the psychiatrist must embrace his role as a social policeman, of psychologist. He must admit that the personality disorders he is desirous of treating are not diseases as such, but only by way of metaphor, that they are patterns of behavior society has deemed unacceptable and in need of correction.

Note: I am suspicious that psychiatrists would necessarily make good psychologists. Freud’s admonition that medical licenses are not necessary for psychotherapy rings true in my ear. Doctors are technicians. Everything is or ought to be cut and dry with them (sometimes literally). Psychologists, however, are dealing with human personality, which is irritatingly and beautifully subject to individual differences and contextual variation; it seems to defy the natural laws of development we seek to impose upon it.. Even Freud had to entertain the notion, as his career twilighted, that the Oedipus Complex was not the only mode of development for a child’s sexuality. Let us make use of scientific skepticism and methodology whilst at the same time forgoing the construction of objective laws of behavior. Society is too flowing to be confined within the iron grids of Science. Let it run its course within the arbors of Art. Let the psychologist be more artist than scientist, being flexible, personable, and empathetic. He is the subjective studying subjectivity itself. He must never forget that.

Third, he must follow the spirit of Freud, if not the letter. His single greatest contribution to the normal’s interaction with the abnormal was the initiation of consensual dialogue. We might disagree with the theory of mind underpinning psychoanalysis, but surely there is something to be said for talking with those we seek to help! (In the study “Being Sane in Insane Places” the average length of time a psychiatrist spent talking with his patients was recorded as mere minutes per day. That was in the 1970s. The hospital wherein I worked was no improvement.)

Fourth, having established the object of our endeavor, and something of a rough means, it remains for us to determine the desired end goal of our New Psychology. In simple terms, we desire to turn disorder into order, dysfunction into function. Personality disorder is an inability to function in society, not owing to biological factors alone. This is generally manifested in an unreasonable obstinacy or inflexibility when confronted with something a person does not like. Alas, society is a continued convergence of conflicting ideals and desires; men must be able to compromise if they are to live peaceably with their neighbors. Psychology, therefore, is something of a school of diplomacy. Compromise, after all, is the essence of effective diplomacy, as it is the essence of effective social involvement.

Fifth, we must do away with the current criteria for involuntary commitment. Currently, at least in Pennsylvania, a person can be incarcerated in a mental hospital if:

  1. They have recently tried to commit suicide.
  2. They are a credible danger to themselves or others.
  3. They are unable to care for themselves such that death might ensue within the next 30 days if commitment is not carried out.

These criteria are too broad, and lead to the destruction of individual liberty. Yes, we are trying to serve the public good; but the spiritedness, skepticism, and self-criticism that comes from individualism seems worth the effort to balance against the needs of the collective. Sometimes private vices does equal public virtue.

Again, Freud provides an alternative. A paramount law of psychoanalysis, at least as Freud practiced it, was the voluntary nature of the therapy. A serious problem with incarcerating neurotic people is that, really for no justifiable reason, they are having their rights trampled. To my mind, the only justifiable cause for involuntary commitment is the clear and present danger one man posses to his fellows, not some nebulous notion of the imagination where no hard proof is forthcoming.

A Criminal Digression

This brings us to a subject that has been simmering under the surface of our discussion of personality disorder: criminality. Recall that Freud understood the laws of society to be one part of its protection against the extreme narcissism of the individual. This makes a great deal of sense to me. I, however, have perhaps something of a different political outlook than did Freud, being an American (he loathed America). To my mind, one is breaking the spirit of American law when he tramples upon the rights of others. What are our rights? In the broadest of terms, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let the lawyers determine the specifics. Should an individual strip you of one of them, intervention on the part of the majority (read: the government, the majority in action) becomes necessary.

What does this have to do with psychology as we have so defined it? Such behavior, like murder, rape, censorship, things of that nature, I define as criminal, as they break the spirit of the law. This kind of criminality requires the action of the policing arm of the legal system. I said earlier that psychologists are something of a social police force. They deal with neurotic behavior, disordered personalities, inflexibly dysfunctional members of the community. One has a right to ask if that includes criminals. After all, such unlawful behavior fits the bill of asociality. Things like murder are so zealously selfish, narcissistic, and anti-social as to warrant psychological intervention, no?

This, however, brings up another issue (will this never end?), namely the objective of the prison system. Take a look even at the names we use in the prison system: departments of correction, correctional officers, penitentiaries, detention centers, penal system–notice anything strange about them? Their meanings are all different, even contradictory. Are our prisons meant to be places of correction, whatever that might mean? Are they places where offenders do penance, to whomever we might say penance is owed? Are they places where the criminal are separated from society, confined for the protection of the majority? Or are they merely places of punishment, to where the crime is justly fitted? We must needs ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish with our philosophically justified and practically necessary incarcerations before we can find a fitting place for the psychologist. Perhaps he might aid in correction. Perhaps he might guide penance. Perhaps he might make the punishment meaningful for the punished. We cannot know, because we do not know what prisons are really for, beyond separating a deviant minority from an offended majority.

Still, if behavior is anti-social to the point of infringing upon another’s rights, separation from the community would seem to be necessary. If such behavior is the result of a chemical imbalance, then the individual would need to be locked in a psychiatric ward for treatment. If it be the result of a narcissistic, what we might call sociopathic personality type, then the individual would belong in jail. For the most part, it has been my observation that those with disordered personalities do not behave criminally. They may break the letter of the law and incur the wrath of the injustice system, but they hardly infringe on the rights of others, thus leaving the spirit of the law intact. There are those who do break the spirit of the law, and perhaps they are more numerous than I imagine them to be. That would make some sense, as inflexibility often has violence as its only recourse.

The objective of the psychologist might, then, be two-fold. Outside prison, he would voluntarily dialogue with those people who seek out his help, who want to get along better in society. Within prisons, he might serve a similar, albeit state-mandated function. This latter scenario strikes me as difficult, however, since the criminal is hardly likely to trust someone assigned to “coach” him into a lifestyle he has little willingness to adopt. Again, though, until we as a society decide what, exactly, our prison systems are for, until we repeal those laws which serve only the moralizing, meddling impulses of the few rather than protecting the rights of the many, the psychologist might better spend his time outside the gridiron.

A Return to Reformation

Back to involuntary commitment: the criteria is only that of harm, not harm to the self (which falls under a man’s right to do what he pleases with himself without infringing upon others), but only the harm of others. Does this include the potential for harm, or actual violence alone? Is actual violence on the part of the majority ever necessary in the face of potential violence on the part of the individual? Remember, incarceration is a violation by the majority of the individual’s rights. To do such a thing requires stringent trammels, lest abuse run rampant. Let us, then, remain cautious, even to the point of allowing harm to come to some.

We can only justify action if an individual has committed a crime. Potentiality is not enough, as all of us have that potential within us. Thus, even those with diseased brains ought not to be forcibly hospitalized–imprisoned, if we are being honest–unless they have done violence to others. Without actual violence, the only way a schizophrenic or majorly depressed individual would be able to receive treatment is as the vast majority of diseased persons: voluntarily. The actual violence of the schizophrenic is like a car accident where both parties are injured. In the former case, one individual does violence, is incarcerated, identified as sick, and treated against his will but to the best of our abilities. In the latter, two parties come together violently, are rushed to the hospital (if they are in critical condition they are unable to give consent for treatment), where they are healed as best as can be. The point is that under extreme conditions, like when a person is not physically able to give their consent, even medicine treats involuntarily. Here again, the emphasis is on extremes. Medicine only treats involuntarily those in a condition too critical to say otherwise. By the same token, the branch of medicine we call psychiatry (that treats diseased brains) can only treat involuntarily those who are at the extremity of illness, meaning their diseased brains have caused them to act in such a way as to infringe upon the basic rights of a fellow citizen.

Sixth, let us curtail the meddling impulse. The goal of psychology is to defend society against the asocial, specifically by helping such people as have disordered personalities to live independently but in an integrated manner within our civilization. To that end, we must be willing to talk and listen and on occasion advise those who seek our council; but at the same time, we must caution ourselves against living vicariously through others. Psychologists are human too, and like all men are better at giving advice than taking it. We would do well to remember our fallibility in the face of neurotics who so obviously would live better lives if only they would take our advice. In the long run, it does the client better if we dialogue with them and allow them to take an active part in the discovery of solutions, rather than simply play the part of the passive listener. Let them enrage us with a dissenting opinion, force us to bolster or reconsider our point, and we will find that both parties come out stronger for the effort.

A Final, Personal Digression

I have said that personality disorder is characterized as inflexibility, by an inability to live effectively within the confines of society. Besides criminality, which is perhaps the extreme end of that concept, is there not another difficulty that I have yet to address? Namely, how useful is this label, this category? It certainly should not be used as a diagnosis. People are not neurotic or psychotic merely, with perhaps those on the fence referred to as “borderlines” thrown in for good measure. Behavior is not split nicely between abnormal unreasonableness due to biological illness or abnormal inflexibility due to mental illness. As I have tried to show, such inflexibility that has a social origin merely is not a sickness, does not brook diagnosis, and requires the mending of dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, not medical intervention. Such problems in living, such dysfunctional relationships, are not abnormal. People spend their whole lives grappling with relationships that are far from ideal. We get the impression that the majority have adapted in such a way as to make do with these imperfect relationships. Some, however, seem unable to get along with others in a functional way. They are constantly involved with the police, the lawyer, the judge, or (God help them) the psychiatrist. These are the people whose personalities might be accurately described as disordered, who would benefit from voluntarily walking into the office of the psychologist, learning habits with which they might make their relations to the rest of the world more sociable, and in so doing lead, at the very least, more tranquil lives.

I have tried to use the term to differentiate that great mass of people that are unsick from those few that are, but who are one and all treated or mistreated within the confines of medical psychiatry. It has been my experience that a large portion of these myriad unsick have the same problems that many of us have–problems in living, meaning poor interpersonal relationships. Others wrestle with issues resulting from their perceived or actual minority status within society, things like addiction, sexual queerness, or poverty. Society puts them down for their troubles and they happen upon psychiatry as a means of help or escape (it’s hard for problems to bother you when you’re high on Seraquil). Many of them deal with trauma, but that is nothing special. Humans all must cope, must grapple with traumatic events, starting with being born. It is my earnest hope that the patient, detached (not objective) dialogue had between psychologist and client, when done in an atmosphere of consent and mutual respect, might yield for these normally (not abnormally) troubled souls a bit of perspective, advice, maybe even the possibility of self-improvement.

Seventh, we would do well to keep, if not an open mind, then at least one with a reasonable immigration policy. Having dragged psychiatry from its scholastic undeath, and having separated it into medical psychiatry and personal psychology, let it not fall back into the cobwebs of complacency and dogma.

Heinlein, Steinbeck, and the Prospect of Reform

Of what benefit is reform? Given the blood-soaked pages of history, and the road to hell paved with good intentions, is it even worth the effort? To answer that, I propose to look at two literary men bent on reform: Robert A Heinlein and John Steinbeck. They are of interest because they were 1. good writers, 2. thoughtful individuals, and 3. looking at American society and its various problems during the same time period, but with different perspectives and through works of radically different setting.

Heinlein began his literary career after a failed political one. His first book, then, was a reaction to the thwarting of his political life. Being very opinionated, he could not help but do something, even if office holding was not in his stars. For Us, the Living is a story about a man catapulted into the future, one where the barbarities and injustices of the 20th century are laid bare for the time traveler by the inhabitants of the future. It is full of blunt criticism, the kind Steinbeck would likely approve of. He dwells on wealth disparity, class disparity, political corruption, and our ridiculous sexual mores, to name a few. Indeed, the protagonist’s chief future liaison is a woman, one with much more education, responsibility, and vigor than the typical (read: culturally idyllic) woman of the America of the mid 20th century.

Later in Heinlein’s career he authored Starship Troopers. It is remembered as a militaristic polemic wallpapered in sci fi gadgetry and alien warfare. In reality, it was Heinlein’s attempt to clarify and defend his political views against those in the science fiction community who took issue with his support of nuclear armament. In broad strokes, he envisioned an earth where the weak social democracies, built on the laziness and entitlement of the mob, failed into violence and chaos. From that chaos rose the veterans, who built for themselves a two-class global polity. Civilians enjoy the rights of free expression, economic endeavor, and justice; citizens enjoy the privileges of political life. The difference between the civilian and the citizen is federal service, usually military in nature. Only a veteran can vote or hold office. It is Heinlein’s solution to what he saw as a crippling problem of modern democracy, namely that those who have no active stake in society dictate policy for that active minority that seeks to defend hearth and home. It is doubtless his most controversial and (I think) misunderstood work. This misunderstanding is most clearly evinced in the film version, which satirized its fascist undertones, forgetting that fascism stole erratically from anything that looked practical at the time, thus negating its superficial similarities to other political ideologies (militarism, limited political franchise, etc).

His two greatest works, Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love, look uncompromisingly at the human condition. The former does so on a future earth by way of an alien analogue to Christ, a satire of the worst aspects of Christianity and of the corruption of bureaucratic government, a complex look at human love and sexuality, and a pantheistic faith where “Thou art God.” The latter takes us centuries into the future, wherein humanity has colonized the galaxy, moving from world to world. It chronicles the oldest living man, his history according to his own accounts, and his potential future. He regales us with tales about buying two child slaves, raising them to be self-reliant frontiersmen, and then setting them free, to feast or famine on their own; about his adventures raising a family on dangerous, almost uncharted frontier worlds, etc. The main line of the story has the protagonist regenerated from self-inflicted old age, reinvigorated by his discussions with a sentient computer, that computer’s transformation into a person, and their attempt to forge yet another new world for them and their growing family.

Heinlein spent his whole literary career critiquing humanity in general, but he also attempted to point towards reform. We will get to his vision in a moment, but first, let us outline Steinbeck. Unlike Heinlein, I have not read enough Steinbeck to give a representative account of his body of work. I’ve read three of his books: Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus (short, personal, psychological character studies), and The Grapes of Wrath (a reformist manifesto if ever there was one). It is upon that last book that I wish to focus. Unlike Heinlein, it deals with a setting that was very much contemporary for the author, the America of the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck spends the majority of the novel railing against the injustices of banking, the greed and corruption of large business, and the governmental apparatuses that defend such inhumanity towards man. He chronicles the dehumanization that occurs when a man owns far more than he can cultivate with his own bare hands, the loneliness, isolation, and fear that accompany financial tyranny, and the misery suffered by the poor when they are crushed under the boot heels of such machine-men. This book, too, offers up some ideas for reform, both practical and philosophical. Let us now compare the reform notion in both authors.

Heinlein starts off by thinking of the future as a useful lens for the present, so that the present might see itself in a truer light and correct its blemishes accordingly. By the time of Stranger in a Strange Land, this proclivity is fully formed, as he uses the idea of a man raised by Martians and returning to earth as a vehicle for growth, critical analysis, and, ultimately, a profound attempt to change what it means to be human, ie the very make-up of society–of man’s relation to man. After this work, however, Heinlein turned away from reform in the here and now. This is clear in Time Enough for Love, where the main character points out that when a planet’s population grows obese with time, it always degrades–freedom always gives way to security, chaos to order; the system always grows too bloated for its own good, and the meddlers, thinking they know what is best for everyone, reign supreme. Thus, liberal humans are always striving towards the frontiers, and the main character himself has led many such expeditions to new, dangerous, chaotic, but free planets. It seems Heinlein’s contention, by at least the late 1970s, that humans will always muck things up, so the only practical solution is to keep expanding–if, that is, your desire is freedom.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck hints more and more as the book goes on that the plight of the poor and underprivileged is building towards something, that something is simmering under the surface, that the bankers are only hurting themselves by dominating their laborers, and that eventually the emotional dam will burst, letting out a flood of reprisal and reform. He looks towards collective action as a means to this end. He also sees pantheism, as expressed by the character of the ex-preacher, as the ideology of contentment for this new cosmos, where man will help man, where all the universe is God, where tyrannical hierarchies, be they corporate or Christian, have no place (the world being a level spiritual field; so long, Pseudo-Dionysius and your celestial hierarchy!). He does, however, brook caution. Realistically, he sees reform on the horizon, and has no love for the business class; at the same time, he sees the French Revolution and Ancient Rome as somber examples of failed reform, wherein the oppressed cast down their oppressors and oppressed in turn, perpetuating a cycle of domination and dehumanization. He ends the book with a single act of kindness between strangers, as a starving man is suckled by a woman who just had a stillborn baby. This indicates that he is suspicious of systematic overhaul, and places his faith more in individuals and their innate kindness towards each other in times of troubles.

What are we to think of these two men and their visions of reform? In the former, we see hope dashed against the inevitability of Systems, the victory of Order, the aristocracy of the Meddling class, leaving the frontier of the stars as the only refuge. In the latter, we have an author who sees reform inevitably on the horizon, who on the one hand relishes the collapse of corporate tyranny, but who on the other recognizes the historical precedent for a continual cycle of power and dominion.

I very much sympathize with Heinlein’s view that Systems seem inevitably driven towards decrepitude and stifling order, that the meddlers will always win out. Steinbeck seems to agree, at least so far as the verdict of history is concerned. In The Grapes of Wrath, he seems perhaps to agree that overarching reform will inevitably continue the cycle under different nomenclature, resulting in his very personal ending. Both men seem to think that there is more hope in individuals and small groups than there is in larger communities.For example, in Heinlein’s novel Farnham’s Freehold, the characters band together to weather the apocalypse (brought about incidentally, by the nuclear lunacy of warring factions); the emphasis in the Puppetmasters is on freedom of thought, liberal humanity over orderly aliens, and on the survival of one family in particular; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress deals with the growing pains of a new lunar society and the struggle to free itself from a bloated and oppressive earth, etc.

Steinbeck’s family in The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads, stick together through thick and thin. A few members die, two flee, and the protagonist goes off to fight the good fight against the banks and oppressors–and yet the book ends with the majority of the family huddling together amidst a storm; and the book stops not with the grand pantheistic reformism of the protagonist Tom, but with the simple kindness of his sister Rose and her charitable breast. Steinbeck, it should be remembered, does assert that humanity progresses, that even a step backwards is only a half-step, a prelude to several steps forward. The French Revolution, after all, inspired those of 1848, the democratization of Europe, nationalism, self-determination (and the Great War of 1914-1949, and the Cold War, and the modern surveillance state…). He seems to think that such progress will always be towards better worlds. Does that mean the corporation from the Alien movies, whose slogan “Building better worlds” is stamped triumphantly on every human frontier? Again, his very personal, very small ending seems skeptical of this grand progress, so vehemently and earnestly proposed in the middle of Grapes. Perhaps Heinlein is right: our answer is a fresh start on a new world. Shall we throw up our hands in disgust and try again somewhere else, as the Puritans or Greeks of yore? Let us hope such endeavors are not funded by multi-planetary corporations; that would defeat the purpose.

Conan the Barbarian and the Nature of Fatherhood

Conan the Barbarian, released in 1982 and responsible for launching the film career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, is best remembered for a few things: the beautiful, dashing score (embodying the whole notion of “high adventure”), the impressive battle scenes (practical effects at their finest), and the hammy, campy, sometimes legitimately good acting. Watching it for the 25th time this past weekend, however, I thought it about time that I present one more facet of this 80s gem worthy of our attention and our memory: the primary theme of the film, namely fatherhood.

That a film like this, with all its hammy camp, snake orgies, and blood could have a theme at all is probably not so outlandish. Even the worst films grope at something, however unintentionally or awkwardly. This film does not trip over its theme accidentally; it does not shove it down your throat like a xenomorph embryo; no, Conan the Barbarian takes up a topic, deals with it consistently throughout the film, and leaves the viewer, hopefully, contemplating what they saw.

Since this is a movie rarely thought of, to my knowledge, in academic or thematic terms, I find myself compelled to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that fatherhood, if it is not the only theme of the movie, is at least the predominant one. Criticism, like history, requires evidence. Essays that present assertions without giving evidence from the text are dross. I must do the academically honest thing, therefore, and evince my thesis. To do so requires an outline of the movie, highlighting thematic evidence as it comes up. Once done, we can spend some time and assess what, if anything, the movie is trying to do with its main theme. (Hint: think Nietzsche and Rousseau).

There are, far as I can see, five salient points in the movie that support fatherhood as the chief topic of import.

1. The opening credits. Have you ever actually watched them? It’s so much more than a badass montage of a man forging a sword. It is a montage of Conan’s father forging a sword. Hmm, interesting. Conan’s father, and especially the sword he makes, come up again and again as the film progresses. Already we have in our minds the making of something, the idea of creation and formation.

1a. The first words spoken are those of Conan’s chronicler. While not a father in the strictest sense of the word, the chronicler, as historian, forges the identity of his subject for posterity–for good or ill. Thus the historian, like the blacksmith, participates in an act of creation, a definite corollary to the movie’s notion of fatherhood.

2. The first dialogue consists of Conan and his father. What are they talking about? Myths regarding the creation of the world, about how the gods left “the enigma of steel” on the battlefield, where men found it, “Not gods, not giants, just men.” Then he tells Conan: “You can’t trust anything in this world, not men, not women, not beasts; [points to sword he just made] this you can trust.” The father talking about how the world was created, and about the nature of steel–something he just forged; and he’s talking to his son, something else he created (or was at least integral to the process thereof).

Hey! Here’s a clip! (Listen to that music!)

3. So Conan’s village gets annihilated by mysterious raiders; Conan (still a child) is sold into slavery and set to work at a mill which he must turn. This toil forges him into the Platonic ideal of Brawn that we see for the rest of the film. Eventually he is taken in by a different master (presumably when the economic utility of the mill in which he labored declined), who proceeds first to use Conan as a brute gladiator, and then to provide him with martial training, sexual companionship (no homo), and wealth. Conan fights with much distinction, but after a while, his master feels that Conan is like a “dog that has been kept too long,” and thus resolves to free him one night (probably while drunk, woops!). Conan thrust back into a liberal world he hasn’t known in 20 years. This master of Conan’s is something of a surrogate father.  He takes Conan under his domination, teaches him, has him trained, and then frees him. He had a profound influence on Conan’s development.

4. After finding a sword in a tomb, sexing a witch, and befriending a thief, Conan attempts to track down the people who destroyed his village. Their standard is that of snakes, so he goes from town to town asking about such creatures. Again and again, he is pointed towards the towers of the snake cult of Set, who worship the sorcerer Thulsa Doom. After getting high, Conan and the thief decide to scale one of these towers and see what all the fuss is about. What they find is verification that this snake cult is indeed the people who slaughtered his village; an adventurous woman who quickly becomes Conan’s love interest; so much money that he parties himself into a stupor, and eventually an audience with the local ruler, King Osric “the Usurper” (ah, to have such a surname!). Obviously the king is honkin’ pissed that these thieves broke into one of Set’s sacred towers, right? Nope! Like Julian the Apostate vis-a-vis Christianity, Osric is no fan of this particular cult: “Snakes, in my beautiful city!” It turns out that the king’s daughter has fallen under this serpent spell. He wants Conan and pals, as the only guys around to stand up to this cult, to infiltrate Thulsa Doom’s mountain of power  and rescue his daughter. He then pours jewels into their hands, promising much more, “Enough to become kings yourselves.” And here’s the crux: Osric goes on to say that  “There comes a time when the gold ceases to shine, when the jewel ceases to sparkle, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.” Wow, powerful stuff, huh? Seems that way to me, especially coming from a movie as apparently silly and vapid as something with barbarian in its title, and naked people painted on the posters (but really, how badass was that poster, you know the one I’m talking about).

It’s this one. This is the one you should be thinking of. Obvs.

The entire reason Conan meets the leader of the cult, the whole impetus for his quest to confront Thulsa Doom, is set in motion by another father and his love for his child. He sets Conan back upon the quest for revenge, derailed after his successful tower heist.

5. The remaining bits of fatherhood in this film all come from the chief antagonist, Thulsa Doom.

5a. The first is when Conan goes off alone to Doom’s mountain fortress (his lover, Valeria, did not want to go at all–preferring the warmth of their love to the fires of vengeance or something, whatevs), meets a wizard–his future chronicler–and gets captured. Conan rails against Doom for destroying his father, his village, his people. Doom responds that Conan “Broke into my house, stole my property, and killed my pet–and that is what grieves me the most…Thorgrim (his underling) raised it from birth.” (Another reference to fatherhood and development). It is at this point that Thulsa Doom comments, almost in passing, on the drive he instilled in Conan by decimating his village, regretting only that Conan wasted this gift, “Look at the strength of your body…such a waste…” In punishment, he crucifies Conan, so that Conan might contemplate his own failures. He also talks about the riddle of steel, the answer of that enigma being simply that flesh is stronger: “What is steel, compared to the hand that wields it?” And is not the entire movie about the forging of the flesh, ie the idea of fatherhood and the raising/development of a child?

5b. The second time Doom involves himself in the theme of fatherhood is when he and his forces attack Conan, in retaliation for Conan’s surviving his crucifixion, raiding the mountain of power, and stealing back King Osric’s daughter. The attack is repulsed, but before retreating, Doom attempts one final assault. Osric’s daughter is screaming and pleading with Doom not to abandon her. In response, Doom readies an enchanted snake arrow and fires it at his erstwhile worshiper. Realizing her imminent death, she yells out in desperation for her father. The thief blocks the arrow with his shield, Thulsa Doom flees, and Osric’s daughter is his follower no more. It is worth noting here that one of Doom’s lieutenants (Rexor, a high priest) wielded the sword that Conan’s father forged at the beginning of the movie. In the process of killing him, Conan cleaves the sword in half. That’s probably not significant at all. OH WAIT! It definitely is. Keep that in mind when we finally address what this movie is trying to tell us.

5c. The third and final instance involving Thulsa Doom is at the very end of the film. Conan interrupts Doom’s “Let’s go take over the world and cleanse it” speech by coming up behind the sorcerer. Whirling around, Doom stops Conan in his tracks with an entrancing stare and begins to pontificate to Conan. He focuses on the fact that he bequeathed upon the barbarian all that Conan has, his strength, his skill, his drive–all by burning his village and killing his family. His speech is summed up with one line: “I am the well-spring from which you flow,” he says. He even goes so far as to claim himself as Conan’s father: “For who is your father if it not me?” It is at this point that Conan blinks out of the trance, decapitates Thulsa Doom with his father’s broken blade (which disperses the cultists), burns down the mountain of power, returns the king’s daughter, and consigns himself to a series of lackluster sequels and slipshod reboots.

Climax!

In sum, we have images of forging, myths of creation, three separate potential father figures for Conan, an aggrieved father in the form of King Osric, and references to “the riddle of steel” brought up at the beginning by Conan’s father, regarding metallurgy, and answered later on by Thulsa Doom, in terms of flesh, not steel.

What are we to make of all this? Is the movie actually trying to say something about the nature of fatherhood and the influence of fathers, about the definition of a father and what makes a father in the first place, etc? Let’s see if I can’t venture an interpretation, over and above merely pointing out that the theme itself is pervasive (which hopefully is obvious at this point).

Let me start by pointing out that at the very beginning, before the credits even start, the movie throws upon the screen a quote from Nietzsche, the controversial German philosopher: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” We must, then take the whole movie with that in mind. Next, let’s keep in mind the idea of steel and the act of forging something. This whole movie is about the molding, the forming of one man: Conan. To that end, he is provided with love and security from his father, pain and purpose from Thulsa Doom, and training from his gladiatorial master. Each of these men adds a different layer to the finely forged blade that Conan becomes by the end of the film, a man “Destined to become king by his own hand,” as a witch remarks. Indeed, we ought wonder at the fact that a poor slave boy could rise to such a status as to warrant his own chronicler! The whole movie is a forge, and each father of Conan’s a different bellows, helping heat or cool this flesh that is more powerful than any steel, yielding a man powerful, confident, and strong (although apparently not as cunning as the Conan from the Howard books. C’est la vie).

This, however, brings up an interesting point: to what degree does Conan will his own development? It seems that he has no “will to power” of his very own; he is not so much an active force making his own destiny, but rather a reactive one, bending and thrashing in response to various influences–ie individual father figures. It appears that this movie would have us believe Conan’s character and actions were determined by outside forces and not by his own hand. At the very least, the movie seems to be indicating that his development into manhood was out of his control (a fair assertion); but that perhaps he gains volition after the death of his final father, Thulsa Doom. Let’s remember, he shatters his father’s sword, wielded by an opponent, and then uses it to kill Thulsa Doom. That states pretty powerfully that Conan has vanquished his childhood, buried the past, and attained the freedom to will himself, to be active rather than reactive. Given the reference at the beginning of the movie to Nietzsche, this reading of the evidence does not strike me as far-fetched in the least.

Conan the Barbarian, in closing, is more than mere hack and slash, more than incredible music, and more than campy acting; it is a film that delves into the influence of fathers, into the nature of education, and into the development of character. Is it the Emile of the modern age? No, but it certainly holds its own. And there are a lot more naked women…and wild blueberries

Concerning Inquiry

Which is to be more lauded, conclusions drawn from deductive reasoning, or those induced? Philosophical discourse until the “Age of Reason” preferred the former, much to the chagrin of those philosophes and scientists who were to inherit the intellectual organs of western thought in the Modern Era.

Moderns criticized the ancients and medievals for relying upon a priori reasoning, which is to say conclusions logically deduced from an assumption, the foundation upon which many a philosophic citadel has been constructed. The most obvious example is building a System based on the assumption that God exists. The scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages were especially lampooned for this methodology, which resulted in labyrinths of terms, logics, and deductions, unintelligible to all and thus of no practical value to anyone.

In contradistinction to this deductive approach, modern scientists and philosophes relied upon an inductive method, inducing conclusions a posteriori, based  not upon some foundational assumption, but rather upon empirical data collected and analyzed. The benefit of this method, so the argument ran and runs even still, is that it precludes drawing conclusions until the preponderance of evidence leans one way or another; while at the same time allowing for practical application. An example would be rather than philosophizing upon the various humors of the body as expounded by ancient authorities like Galen, a scientist would induce based upon dissection of the human body the inner workings of that machine, thus allowing medicine to advance beyond the counterproductive cure-alls like blood letting.

Inductive reasoning, solidified in the scientific method of today, triumphed over the deductive alternative chiefly because it yielded results, stupendous results. Scientific experimentation has allowed for the systematic collation, study, and analysis of every facet of the physical world, thus producing technological miracles undreamed of even 200 years ago.

Why bother bringing this little historical narrative up at all? Because it is false. Yes, there was an obvious shift in methodology in and around the 16th century. The primacy of Aristotle crumbled amidst the realization that many, terrifyingly many, of his empirical observations were wrong, and what’s more, they were easily corrected by the simple expedient of, well, actually looking at the things themselves. To give but one example: Aristotle asserted–or a student of his school asserted, it’s sometimes hard to know for sure, what with he having died more than 2000 years ago–that the semen of the Ethiopian was dark like his skin. Now, while the verification of this assertion might carry with it some awkwardness, it is something that can be checked. Egregious, and to us obvious, mistakes like this eroded Aristotle’s credibility, so unassailable (so far as natural science was concerned) during the Middle Ages.

This extended to other ancient authors as well, the eminent physician Galen coming immediately to mind. In short, scholars turned from books (as in the Renaissance) towards the objects about which the books concerned themselves. Thus scholars made the transition to scientists, theses were not taken seriously unless they be backed up with “scientific” evidence and exposition, and the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment.

That basic conceit being admitted, what could the issue be? To my mind, it is the following. The scientist’s criticism of the scholastic was and remains the latter’s reliance upon an assumption, upon which a logical argument is then constructed. The scientist, however, relies upon his own basic assumption, one that defies any attempt at empirical justification. Experiments, as mentioned, rely upon a preponderance of evidence, not so much to prove anything, but to indicate an ever-increasing likelihood of the truth of a given hypothesis. Technically, empirical data never proves anything as such; it simply pushes the conclusion in a more likely direction. (This, by the way, seems a point often dismissed, as any headline beginning with “Study Shows,” “Science Proves,” etc, etc).

Based on this preponderance of evidence, scientists then formulate what are referred to as laws, which are objective, generally applicable principles by which the natural world is said to function. They are objective because they remain the same regardless of the vantage point of observation; they care not for the subjective nature of human observation. Here, belatedly, is the problem: these laws rely on the assumption, a priori, that a phenomenon having been observed repeatedly will repeat itself under the same conditions ad infinitum. Thus an apple will always fall from a tree, a man will always die if his heart be removed, the three laws of motion will remain in effect– regardless of the theory of relativity, which is simply another set of laws that makes allowance for a universe very much more complicated that Newton supposed.

The problem is that there is no logical reason why this should be so. Just because an apple, once dislodged from a branch, is observed falling to the ground 10, 100, 1000, even 1,000,000,000 times does not necessitate that it do so the 1,000,000,001st time. To point to the laws of gravity, induced from such empirical observations, is to appeal to circular logic, since such laws were derived from empirical observations that need not perpetuate themselves.

What about mathematical proofs for natural laws? I must confess my almost total lack of understanding of that language. Nevertheless, I am vaguely aware that certain geometric proofs are based upon first postulates that must be assumed before anything else can be done. Perhaps my mathematical ignorance allows some skeptical bliss; it is a subject that is on my short list for further study.

An even stronger case can be made for the mutability, nay the unreliability of our own sense organs. How often do we mistake one thing for another, misremember things, fill in the gaps of our perception subconsciously with fragments of other half-seen things? It is sobering to consider how flawed our empirical observations really are. This scientists have striven to overcome through peer review, complex experiments, mathematical proofs, and now no doubt computer technology. Still, it is up to human being to interpret the data provided by these methods; and so we will always see the objective through the lens of the subjective.

From a philosophical perspective, inductive and deductive reasoning are in fact the same thing. They both rely upon assumptions. And even all the ingenuity and creativity of the scientist cannot overcome our own perspectival nature.

At the very least, this discourse ought caution the scientist. Even if he disagrees, and asserts the omnipotence of natural law, he must needs admit that his theories are ever-changing, bending and reforming based not, he hopes, upon his own prejudices but on what the data say. I do not think that to be the case. Prejudices are the colored glasses through which we view the world; and without them we are blind. Subjectivity makes up the very essence of personhood, and thus cannot be overcome. Nevertheless, for the ardent scientist, theories bend themselves to fact, and simultaneously, theories can never be proven, only rejected as contrary to what is observed. To prove something is to achieve certainty. Science, if it is to adhere to its own dogma, must remember this. If it is going to chastise philosophers, religious people, indeed the whole vulgar, non-scientific bulk of the population for adhering to various faiths, then it must above all else refrain from the same killer certitude that it (and here I specifically refer to the New Atheist branch of the scientific community) blames for the wars of religion, nationalism, and ideology that are loathed as tribal atavisms.

Science ought not brook certainty. To do so is to adhere to a creed, a faith, a dogma that its core beliefs cannot abide. And yet it is that very core of beliefs (their faith) that necessitates a rejection of belief. And so it goes, the circle of contradiction, the inconsistency that hobgoblins our little minds, one and all.

Concerning Pet Ownership

Recently I came across a bit of news that can be summarized as follows: 1. person adopts dog; 2. dog inundates owner’s home with farts; 3. owner returns dog.

The article is here:

Does that sit well with anyone? It does not with me. Let me elaborate (or don’t; I’m going to regardless, neener neener).

I grew up with pets. We had a series of dogs in my house. They are all dead now. “These were comrades whom I had; there are no better.”

In college I had a pet rat. She brought a lot of joy with her wee little body. She, too, is dead.

I have a history with animals. That is not to say I don’t love eating them, but I do take the Christian idea of man as caretaker of the lower orders of life to heart. Assumptions of hierarchy aside (a topic for another day, to be sure), mankind has a duty to steward the life that shares this space with us: great power, great responsibility and all that jazz.

Pet ownership is one facet of this responsibility. I do not know enough about the ins and outs of the pet industry to speak at any length about it, although I suspect it’s not as happy and lovely as the kittens it produces. I do, however, know something of the act of owning an individual pet. It is that upon which I will focus.

Purchasing a pet is not the same as purchasing a laptop. Such lifeless hulks (artificial intelligence not withstanding) are used, then discarded when their utility has expired, or when the owner decides, wisely or not, that he wants a new and improved (eek!) device. These inanimate objects are at the mercy of their owners, be they grandmas who fill them with spam and viruses, but who at least keep them for 10 years, or tech savvy 20 somethings who upgrade more frequently than congressmen are elected to the House. And that is ok, insofar as there is no moral outrage in the act of replacing a laptop at the first sign of discomfort (issues of waste and rampant consumerism not withstanding).

This is not so with a pet. Yes, once you purchase a pet they come under your complete dominion. Like the laptop, the pet is at the complete mercy of its owner. That pronoun is misleading, for this thing purchased is not an “inanimate fucking object,” it is a being endowed with the breath of life. The study of animal consciousness, emotion, memory is still very much in its infancy, and there seems to be great scientific debate as to whether certain animals should be considered conscious, whether any are self conscious, whether some feel pain, how much others can remember. Those questions are irrelevant in this context. What matters is the basic idea that you, the human, are assuming ownership over, and therefore responsibility for, another living thing, regardless of the power of its memory, regardless of whether it knows it is an object divorced from other objects, and regardless of whether it suffers when you kick it in the ribs.

A bond like that cannot, to my mind, be broken. When you pick up that kitten and place him in your car, you are telling that living thing, “Hey, cutie, I am going to take care of you. I am going to retard the development of your natural survival instincts by environing you in the comforts of the modern home. I will feed you, shelter you, and protect you from your natural predators, so you can share my life with me, and I with you.” Once formed, that bond makes the animal helpless in your arms. Helpless! It reaches maturity confined within the ivory walls of modernity, far away from the blood and mud of the natural world. How likely do you think it is that such a creature, once set free, would be able to survive on its own?

The idea that someone could enter into such a contract with a creature, then abandon him to the forces of chance, without even the benefit of a fighting chance, sickens me. I know life is unfair. “It rains on the just and the unjust alike.” Do we really have to add pile upon pile of puppy martyrs, mute in the face of a frailty that they did not choose, to the cruelty that nature already reaps upon itself?

I had a long conversation about this with my wife, specifically regarding a violent or aggressive pet around our future children.  I argued passionately that if we were to buy a pet, it would be forever fused into the fabric of our family, and in that respect it was no different than a child, violent or no. She pointed, however, that realistically we could not house both a child (who perhaps would not respect the personal space of others, even animals) and a pet who would react poorly if annoyed too much.

This was a perfectly valid point. I countered that unless the animal was definitely beyond saving, we had a duty to do everything in our power to pacify the animal, and probably educate the kid. That, I said, was the price to be paid for pet ownership. That animal would be just another child; indeed, more of a child than even the actual child, since the animal would be dependent upon its human masters for the entirety of its life (while the expectation of the human offspring is one of independence, however rarely that is ever completely achieved).

My wife, in her calm and thoughtful way, said that made sense, that she was actually kinda surprised at how deeply I took the commitment of pet ownership, and that, at the end of the day, if the animal was implacable, it would have to be gotten rid of, either by giving it to a more suitable home, or by killing it.

To me, such a decision should be reminiscent of putting a child up for adoption. It should not be easy. It should not be callous. It should not be reckless. It should not be convenient. It should be the last resort, the least bad solution to a terrible situation that no one wanted. For the act of extirpating a pet from its home, from its family, from its protection, is a breach of a very real contract, one that people follow with the same intensity and verve, which is to say with the same callousness and selfishness, as the contract of marriage.

By the end of the discussion, I came to a very sobering conclusion: I knew that if forced to choose, I would choose the child over the pet, cast it out of my family, and consign it to a fate out of my control; I knew that is what I would do, should the situation ever arise. In my heart, however, I also knew that such a decision would haunt me, that being forced to inflict such an injustice upon another living thing, one that I had personal responsibility for, would wound me deeply. The easiest thing to do, it seemed to me, was simply to avoid pet ownership altogether, to recognize that facet of my character, and act accordingly.

Animals are not people. They are not on the same level as people. But they are living things. And, as pets, they are living things brought under the domination of a human master, who in the act of purchase agrees to provide for the pet’s basic needs, needs that it can no longer meet on its own, thanks to the context in which it was raised. This bond between owner and pet, between powerful and powerless, between parent and child, should not be taken lightly. You ought never enter into it simply on a whim for a collection of molecules you find cute, but loath a week later because he shit the carpet.

Pet ownership is serious business. You, as the owner, have the destiny of another living creature within your hands. Do not take that responsibility lightly.

odds