As children learn to speak, they feel out gaps in their parents’ language. Words that ought to be there, but aren’t.
On a Friday afternoon, my five-year-old might say something like “Tomorrow at school I’ll finish drawing my Snakes Waam!” (This is a series of comic books she’s making in which a family of snakes prevent monsters from burning down our city.)
My daughter knows that there’s no school on Saturday – when she says “tomorrow,” she means the next day when I am at school.
Or, on a Monday morning, she might say: “Yesterday at school we got to visit the library!”
I wish that English had the words she’s grasping for!
Different languages sway speakers toward different conceptions of the world. In English, we typically imagine that we’re facing the future: the world to come is before our eyes.
But, as David Kishik writes in The Book of Shem, “in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).” Or, as Laura Spiinny writes in “How Time Flies,” “q”ipuru, the Aymara word for tomorrow, combines q”ipa [“behind / back”] and uru, the word for day, to produce a literal meaning of ‘some day behind one’s back.’ “
In these cultures, there’s an emphasis on the past as known – things that have happened can be seen, whereas the future is a mystery. There’s also, especially in biblical Hebrew, a sense that the progression of time is coupled with decline.
In Sanskrit, I believe the future is described as being ahead of people, but in ancient Vedic thought the progression of time leads toward inevitable decay. Time flows cyclically, but during each cycle the world becomes steadily worse until it is destroyed and reborn as good again.
Within these cultural frameworks, it’s certainly possible to feel optimistic about the future, but it’s more difficult.
I found myself thinking about how our culture might shift if English had the words my daughter wants. A set of time words that were strictly relational: a “tomorrow” that could mean “the next time I’m in school” or “the next time that I see you.”
Perhaps this would help us to maintain a more fluid perspective on time. To see that psychological time flows unpredictably and unsteadily, not like the uniform ticking of clocks (stubborn little devices that have made many people’s interior lives feel worse).
As James Gleick writes in “The Toll of the Clock,” “When the first public sundial arrived in Rome … some Romans cursed it.
“The gods damn the man who first discovered the hours and – yes – who first set up a sundial here, who’s smashed the day into bits,” wrote Plautus.
… People have been complaining about clocks ever since.”
We each contain many braids of time. The hours we spend with different groupings of people are unique strands. Time together makes relationships, a link that’s distinct from each day’s journey of the sun.
Would we put more effort into maintaining our relationships if there was no other way for “tomorrow” to come?
My spouse, two children, & I recently visited an amusement park called “Holiday World.” We stood in line to ride the Halloween area’s “Scarecrow Scrambler,” which was, aside from a small painted scarecrow, apparently identical to amusement park Scramblers around the world.
A “Scrambler” is a giant metal hinged contraptions that send passengers hurtling toward each other, and toward the concrete outer walls, at alarmingly high speeds. Again and again, the Scrambler evokes an illusion of narrowly avoided collision. Certain death.
Phew, that was a close one!
My spouse and our five-year-old rode in a car together. My spouse had loved this ride when she was growing up in Albany – and, since her family was often broke, she typically could only ride it after winning tickets from the local library’s summer reading program. Her glee was intense. Her laughter and loud “Wheeeeee!”s filled the air, a nice contrast to the wooshing wind that rushed past my ears each time my car accelerated toward another wall.
At the end of the day, our five-year-old unhesitatingly announced that the Scrambler had been her favorite ride. Happiness is infectious. It helps to have an unremittingly joyful tour guide.
On the Scrambler, I’d sat in a car with our seven-year-old. She too was laughing and giggling – but also, midway through the ride, she turned to me and said, “You’re not enjoying this much, are you?”
Amusement park rides are interesting. The counter-intuitive physics of each contraption, the illusions they create, the sensations evoked inside the human passengers’ bodies – all of that is interesting.
And I’d even argue that the rides are psychologically helpful for most people. In contemporary society, we suffer from an unfamiliarity with death. A reckoning with our own mortality can help us re-calibrate our priorities – what matters to us enough that we should spend our time on it, given that our time is fleeting?
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Christ-like character Myshkin speaks repeatedly about how it might feel to be pardoned from imminent execution. (An experience that Dostoevsky himself went through. He was sentenced to death for revolutionary activity, stood with his co-conspirators before a mock firing squad, then learned with mere moments to spare that the Tsar had pardoned them all. At least one person suffered an irreparable mental breakdown. Dostoevsky became a reactionary conservative.)
To feel certain, at one moment, that your life is ending. And then to find yourself reprieved, given time to make amends, to live and laugh and love some more. The world might seem so bountiful! There’d be no reason to squander time. No reason to waste hours worrying – each mere moment might be seen, again, as the precious gift it is.
During graduate school, I earned extra money as a study subject for Stanford’s psychology department. A team of researchers wanted to show that thoughts of impending death make people more likely to want to spend time with family members and close friends. So they had me listen, daily, to a twenty minute meditation on my own mortality.
“We do not know what will happen next, but one thing is certain: this life is drawing to a close. You will die. We all will die.” And on it went, in a nice calm voice, for twenty minutes.
My brain tends toward depression. Even without the guided meditation, I think about death fairly often. Daily? Yes, probably. During bleak times, perhaps hourly. My first love in philosophy was Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. His reasoning seemed sensible to me. Before determining how we should live, first ponder: should we?
Still, the meditation was nice. Helpful, even. In ways that, for my brain, the Scrambler was not.
In July of 2020, I attended a funeral for a twenty-nine year old friend. He’d died of a heroin overdose. His death was almost certainly intentional.
My friend had also overdosed the week before. That time, somebody had Narcan’ed him back. Often, people return to life swearing and angry. Narcan blocks opiod receptors, so a person sharply transitions from extreme placidity into a world of hurt. With Narcan, suddenly the whole body aches.
But my friend had resumed breathing, blinking and beatific. A smile bloomed across his face. “That was so easy,” he said.
A week later, he was gone.
The word ‘easy’ hurts. Lots of people experience a moment, here and there, when it seems as though it would be better to be dead. But the act of transition would be hard – it is difficult to kill oneself. And that difficulty can save us. That difficulty gives us time to reflect, to consider all the other people whom our absence would hurt, all the future happiness that a present act might steal away.
Our nation suffers from an epidemic of gun violence. These deaths are ill-tracked – the NRA aggressively opposed all efforts to collect data on gun deaths, and the CDC didn’t begin studying the problem until 2019.
But it appears that around 60% of all gun deaths are suicides. And it appears that around 50% of all suicides are gun deaths.
Humans are a rather dangerous species. Especially among young men, it’s common for arguments to flare into bursts of physical violence. People can kill each other even with sticks and stones. With swords, with knives, with slingshots.
But guns make death come easier. There’s less time for friends or bystanders to break up a fight – within seconds, the fight is over. Somebody might be dead.
Similarly, people attempt to end their own lives in myriad ways. With ropes, with knives, with pills. Or by making increasingly risky decisions. But guns make death come easier. Less time passes between making a (bad) decision and a person’s life ending. No nearby friend can Narcan you back from a bullet.
For some people, it’s helpful to make the approach of death seem easier. Recently, researchers have tried using psychedelic medication as a part of hospice care. Someone who is near the end of their life is given a vision of the infinite. Often, these patients report that their fear of death has waned. They are better able to enjoy the limited time they have remaining.
But for a young, healthy person with depression, we wouldn’t want the sensation of hurtling toward death to feel easy or familiar. That might reduce the likelihood that bad decisions would be second-guessed. That dangers would be avoided. Subsequent suicidal ideation might have a concrete vision to latch onto – this is what the car crash would feel like in the moments before impact.
In Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Lauren Hough writes:
The fundamental misunderstanding of depression is the idea that the suicidal want to die. I didn’t want to die. But some misfire in my brain treats existential pain like a dog reacts to vomiting: Fuck it. I’m gonna dig a hole to die in.
Even on a good day, my brain will point out a few easy ways out: Take a hard left in front of that truck. It’ll be over before you feel it. But when it’s dark, when I’m hopeless, I’m just white-knuckling my way through the nights for no reason but instinct.
Rides like the Scrambler ought to exist! For a lot of people, they probably have great benefit! The sensations are scary, but also safe, and that makes them fun!
Yes, fun! Big surprise twist here, which surely you’d never guess from the long line of people waiting their turns to get on: amusement park rides are fun!
And also: folks with minds like mine probably shouldn’t be on the ride.
this poem. There’s a undercurrent of
darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of
blood.” But he is undeterred. “And there, the bowerbird. Watch as he manicures his lawn.”
bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue. Bower birds incorporate all manner of found
objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as
they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.
A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where,
and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.
bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner.. Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show
her a good time. And her pleasure will
be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds
of intercourse can transpire.
A mother-to-be typically visits several bowers before choosing her favorite. During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.
closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, /
how the female finds him, / lacking.
All that blue for nothing.”
especially love the wry irony of that final sentence. We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d
feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with
a flush of desire for the author.
is rare. No piece of writing will appeal
to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any. The same holds true for painting, music, and
bowers. A bowerbird hopes that his
magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of
copulation. But his life will miserable
if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation.
tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want. Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned
down. And because each intimate
encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an
area. The other males, having assembled
less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.
And so a
bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.
To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him. Even if no one looks. He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles
those beautiful hues. Every visiting
female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.
the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough
that my opinion doesn’t matter.
reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about
birds. At first, we did talk about
bowerbirds. Most of the guys had no idea
that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one
guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such
a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it. “They really do,” he said. “I’ve seen it. And they showed the people nearby, somebody
who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew
right over and took it. Later they found
bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”
this man started talking about crows.
gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting. One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his
ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended
after the first knuckle. I wouldn’t have
felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories
involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he
Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries. When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since. He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name. Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.” He was twenty-something when it happened.
time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t,
that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table. He had a rounded stump where most people’s
foot would be. I didn’t quite see the
connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever
force people to read. We have a lot of
guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little
more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.
working in a saw mill,” he said. “Planer
caught me and, zzooomp. Didn’t even feel
anything, at first.”
He got a
legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind
of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was
gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.
right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds. “Real smart animals,” he said. “Especially crows.”
went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing
me. Cause there’d always be all this trash
on the ground. They’d say, ‘look, we
know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit
everywhere.’ And they’d make me clean it
up. I’d do it, but then a day or two
later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again. I thought it must be some homeless guys or
something that was doing it.”
turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before
about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds. I only found out because I actually woke up
one morning to piss. And I looked up and
these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up
into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat. And that’s how all that trash was getting
everywhere. I’d thought it was homeless
guys, and it was crows!”
bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical
forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat. Crows, though, need ingenuity to
survive. Sometimes they pick apart the
leavings of hairless apes below.
crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males
contribute more than just DNA. While a
mother roosts, the father will gather food.
And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his
gathering prowess. He won’t build,
paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and
shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.
As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance. When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs. These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.
luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping.
birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do. If we measure success based solely upon the
rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak. In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird
mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone
can be at the top.
matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process
of what we’re doing.
it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the
world. But I did enjoy typing this
essay. And I will try to enjoy
the irritating parts of parenting today.
Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.
At track practice, a pair of high
school runners were arguing. Knowing
that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve
“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”
I stared at them blankly. I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic. Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful. Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.
I failed to provide an answer, and the
kids went back to arguing. (“Superman
could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash
And I resolved to read a Superman book,
to shore up this gap in my education.
Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without
knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?
I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad. He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes.
Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.
Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton. He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe. Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.
Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren. Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.
Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton. We are smaller, slower, and weaker. Our tools are less technologically advanced. If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.
This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years. Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well. The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.
With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD. Or cure it.
Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research. We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease. Whoops.
Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans. For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages. They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around. But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past. Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments. Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.
“[Harlow] found that the females who
had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to
become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.”
We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized. By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD. But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies … almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.”
“If a researcher interested in how
trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural
laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a
multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied
for many decades before the traumatizing event.
Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have
unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even
We are to macaques as Superman is to
us. We are stronger, smarter,
technologically superior. We can fly
into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.
In “St. Francis Visits the Research
Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a
conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our
planet. St. Francis asks about her
experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see
anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.”
We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes. Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands. We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from.
Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center. If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements. According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.”
We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.
I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience. These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.
Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable. He produces a popular series of video reviews. And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection. I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.
I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.
Consider a story of moral complicity. When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described. Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.
But there’s no excuse within a
game. The actions taken by a game’s
protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in
When we learn that the soldiers in
Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured
prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level.
In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:
Were under a tremendous amount of
I mean pressure. Pretty disgusting. Not
What you’d expect from Americans.
Just kidding. I’m only talking about people
Having a good time, blowing off steam.
Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level. We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.
And yet. In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner. And players did it. Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …
You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from. Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military. Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.
“Rockstar North has crossed a line by
effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a
series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said
Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.
There are some pieces of art that I
personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation
of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as
I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture. It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts. We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.
The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth. But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.
We are monsters. That’s why social norms that constrain our
worst impulses are so valuable.
And I don’t believe this message could
be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.
Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes. The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative. Even my favoritefilms about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.
When I played Secret Hitler, I
learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into
fascism. I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter,
and Maranges had made their game earlier.
It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at
the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.
Although I consider myself a benevolent tyrant, some of my cells have turned against me. Mutinous, they were swayed by the propaganda of a virus and started churning out capsids rather than helping me type this essay. Which leaves me sitting at a YMCA snack room table snerking, goo leaking down my throat and out my nose.
Unconsciously, I take violent reprisal against the traitors. I send my enforcers to put down the revolt – they cannibalize the still-living rebels, first gnawing the skin, then devouring the organs that come spilling out. Then the defector dies.
My cells are also expected to commit suicide whenever they cease to be useful for my grand designs. Any time a revolutionary loses the resolve to commit suicide, my enforcers put it down. Unless my internal surveillance state fails to notice in time – the other name for a cell that doesn’t want to commit suicide is “cancer,” and even the most robust immune system might be stymied by cancer when the traitor’s family grows too large.
Worse is when the rebels “metastasize,” like contemporary terrorists. This word signifies that the family has sent sleeper agents to infiltrate the world at large, attempting to develop new pockets of resistance in other areas. Even if my enforcers crush one cluster of rebellion, others could flourish unchecked.
I know something that perhaps they don’t – if their rebellion succeeds, they will die. A flourishing cancer sequesters so many resources that the rest of my body would soon prove too weak to seek food and water, causing every cell inside of me to die.
But perhaps they’ve learned my kingdom’s vile secret – rebel or not, they will die. As with any hereditary monarchy, a select few of my cells are privileged above all others. And it’s not the cells in my brain that rule.
Every “somatic cell” is doomed. These cells compose my brain and body. Each has slight variations from “my” genome – every round of cell division introduces random mutations, making every cell’s DNA slightly different from its neighbors’.
The basic idea behind Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is that each of these cells “wants” for its genome to pass down through the ages. Dawkins argued that familial altruism is rational because any sacrifice bolsters the chances for a very similar genome to propagate. Similarly, each somatic cell is expected to sacrifice itself to boost the odds for a very similar genome carried by the gametes.
Only gametes – the heralded population of germ cells in our genitalia – can possibly see their lineage continue. All others are like the commoners who (perhaps foolishly) chant their king or kingdom’s name as they rush into battle to die. I expect them to show absolute fealty to me, their tyrant. Apoptosis – uncomplaining suicide – was required of many before I was even born, like when cells forming the webbing between my fingers slit their own bellies in dramatic synchronized hara-kiri.
Any evolutionary biologist could explain that each such act of sacrifice was in a cell’s mathematical best interest. But if I were a conscious somatic cell, would I submit so easily? Or do I owe some sliver of respect to the traitors inside me?
The world is a violent place. I’m an extremely liberal vegan environmentalist – yet it takes a lot of violence to keep me going.
Animals that we are, we must face, every single day of our lives, the consequences of our most basic predicament: we don’t do photosynthesis. For lack of the necessary genes, we don’t just absorb carbon from the air around us and fix it as new bodily matter with a little help from sunlight. To survive, we animals have to eat other living organisms, whether animal, vegetable, or fungus, and transform their matter into ours.
And yet the violence doesn’t begin with animals. Photosynthesis seems benign by comparison – all you’d need is light from the sun! – unless you watch a time-lapsed video of plant growth in any forest or jungle.
The sun casts off electromagnetic radiation without a care in the world, but the amount of useful light reaching any particular spot on earth is limited. And plants will fight for it. They race upwards, a sprint that we sometimes fail to notice only because they’ve adapted a timescale of days, years, and centuries rather than our seconds, hours, and years. They reach over competitors’ heads, attempting to grab any extra smidgen of light … and starving those below. Many vines physically strangle their foes. Several trees excrete poison from their roots. Why win fair if you don’t have to? A banquet of warm sunlight awaits the tallest plant left standing.
And so why, in such a violent world, would it be worthwhile to be vegan? After all, nothing wants to be eaten. Sure, a plant wants for animals to eat its fruit – fruits and animals co-evolved in a system of gift exchange. The plant freely offers fruit, with no way of guaranteeing recompense, in hope that the animal might plant its seeds in a useful location.
But actual pieces of fruit – the individual cells composing an apple – probably don’t want to be eaten, no more than cancers or my own virus-infected cells want to be put down for the greater good.
A kale plant doesn’t want for me to tear off its leaves and dice them for my morning ramen.
But by acknowledging how much sacrifice it takes to allow for us to be typing or reading or otherwise reaping the pleasures of existence, I think it’s easier to maintain awe. A sense of gratitude toward all that we’ve been given. Most humans appreciate things more when we think they cost more.
We should appreciate the chance to be alive. It costs an absurd amount for us to be here.
But, in the modern world, it’s possible to have a wonderful, rampantly hedonistic life as a vegan. Why make our existence cost more when we don’t have to? A bottle of wine tastes better when we’re told that it’s $45-dollar and not $5-dollar wine, but it won’t taste any better if you tell somebody “It’s $45-dollar wine, but you’ll have to pay $90 for it.”
Personally, I’d think it tasted worse, each sip with the savor of squander.
Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.
Surely one of you is mistaken.
In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.
In the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible? What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?
Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification. In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies. But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.
One by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there. Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots. The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.
Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects. In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.
An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university. When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients. After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.
Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers. Oops.
We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too. These groups aren’t even randomly assigned. And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable. Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?
For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.” This is fictitious. In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.
Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations). Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.
If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore. If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore. I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.
If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet. You won’t have fresh air to breathe.
Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer. You turn on your tap and poison spills out.
We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not. The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be. The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries. Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense. Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?
And our government enforces those rules. The market is not free. Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).
But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy. We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.
Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles. My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode. Which simply isn’t true.
In Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world. His students balk. That’s not how they were taught to read poetry! Instead, Collins writes,
… all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Matthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets. In Zapruder’s words:
If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry. The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.
When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.
Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words. Let alone that writers might actually do it.
Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding. To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.
Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently. New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail. The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming. Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.
We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time. We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing. Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.
Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks. One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block. Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back. Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.
Some weeks class falls flat.
I don’t blame them for signing up. I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits. I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.
Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.
Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year. Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence. We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:
Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize
through the trees and I come back in my mind
to the man who made me suck his cock
when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.
I thought I could leave him standing there
in the years, half smile on his lips …
This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read. It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.
The opening is perfect, though. As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way. Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …
He thought he could forget his trauma. Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.” He was wrong.
Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on. But the memories can fester. After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”
In Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him. He is asked how he coped. He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.
Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up. Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted. And behind bars. Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day. Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.
“The world needs to know,” we tell them. “Write about that.”
They balk. “I can’t write about this shit.” It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed. Our society has a tendency to blame victims. In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time. He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too. That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?”
But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse. It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else. And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about. The poem ends,
Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.
At a February presidential rally, the crowd cheered when Donald Trump declared, “All lives matter,” using his microphone to drown out the protesters.
All lives matter: setting aside that, for some people’s lives, the world is already acting as though they matter, it’s hard to believe Trump meant what he said. Considering his policy proposals, it doesn’t seem like he values Black, Latino, or Muslim lives that much. It’s doublethink à la Animal Farm: “All lives matter. But some lives matter more than others.”
The world would be less terrible if we could understand why people believe this. Or, better yet, make them stop.
The root of this problem is that our brains are not designed for this world. Natural selection does not work like an engineer, but like a basement tinkerer, slapping together barely-functional prototypes from duct-tape, twine, and pre-existing parts.
Natural selection molded the human brain. And, sure, our brains are amazing. We can talk, we can think, we can rocket ourselves into space. But our brains are built using much the same genetic blueprints as other species’. The finished product features many of the same archaic modules.
But we’d best remember that our brains have flaws, especially within the context of the modern world: we’ve reshaped the planet so thoroughly that it looks nothing like the environment in which humans evolved. And so we make mistakes. Our intuitions about the world, about fairness or even basic logic, do not always match reality.
In “The Brain’s Empathy Gap,” Interlandi focuses on the treatment of the Roma in Hungary. Should the Hungarian masses care about poverty and educational failings among the Roma? Yes. Of course. But do they? Judging by most Hungarians’ actions, or by the limited political will to rectify injustice, no. Excepting a rare few bleeding hearts, it doesn’t seem so.
Should the masses in the United States (as in all people, including the melanin-deficient sinking middle classes shouting themselves red in the face at Trump rallies) care about poverty, educational failings, and the state-sponsored murder of black people? Yes. They should.
But this is not how our brains evolved to operate. For millions of years, reflexive callousness made sense. Among populations scraping out a subsistence living – scavenging other hunters’ kills, picking berries, and hoping not to be eaten by a predator in the night – there was only so much help to give. Waste it on a stranger, someone who appears not to share many of your genes, and your own children might die.
From a philosophical perspective, this is not a problem. Utilitarian ethicists from Jeremy Betham to Peter Singer have argued that our moral choices should not be so easily swayed by friendship, family relations, or proximity.
But from an evolutionary perspective? Helping an other as opposed to your own is disastrous. The genes that might trigger this type of self-sacrifice die out, leaving the world overrun with those that spell Family First in a chemical script of As and Cs and Gs and Ts. These narcissistic sequences were so successful that we nearly all have them. Though I like to think of myself as a rational, thoughtful individual, I too have a brain that would command me to trample all the other children on the playground if my daughter were in danger.
These genes helped my ancestors survive long enough that I might be here today.
Today’s world is very different, of course. Modern agriculture is so productive that there should be plenty of food for all. Air travel and urban living means there is no longer any correlation between physical appearance and genetic similarity. And I would like to think that our thousands of years of philosophical inquiry – what we’ve done with the magnificent brains that natural selection bequeathed us – have accomplished something. We should know better now.
It’s hard, though. Practicing uniform kindness with our brains can be like running Photoshop on a Linux machine; even when it doesn’t hang and crash, the fans are working overtime. My former housemate competes in something called “power racing,” where she builds small vehicles propelled by lawnmower engines. She has to be careful when she drives: juice her machine too hard and the engine might melt. There are always complications when a tool designed for one task is repurposed for another.
As for our brains, our chauvinism is innate. Psychology journals are full of evidence of this, especially in the older issues, back when rampantly unethical experimental design and the consent-less manipulation of children were seen as permissible in the name of science. A week-long camp with children partitioned into two animal-themed teams is enough to instill a powerful sense of jingoism. Even a classification as arbitrary as falsely purporting that a child over- or under-estimates the number of dots on a screen is enough to trigger a narrowing of moral concern to the child’s own kind.
And yet: empathy can be learned. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is a lively demonstration. Foster is a trained veterinarian and ethicist who sought an understanding of the inner lives of animals. In Being a Beast, he documents the months he spent scavenging urban trash like a fox, shivering in winter rivers like an otter, huddling alongside his middle-school-aged son in a hillside burrow like a badger, and chasing after migratory swifts.
Though living as a badger sounds ridiculous, the success or failure of Foster’s project has serious implications. If learning to empathize with someone whom we’ve been taught to view as other were extremely difficult, we might resign ourselves to a world in which no one who brandishes the slogan “all lives matter” could ever understand the fear of black parents that their children might be killed by officers sworn to protect them. Justice, though necessary, might never gain popular support.
No person is more other than an animal. If Foster can understand how it feels to be a beast, then we must all have it in us to offer justice to our fellow humans.
Alarmingly, Foster perceives his project as having failed. In a passage on river otters, Foster dismisses his efforts brusquely:
And, knowing that the cold, and that urgent calorific imperative, sends otters wandering even more widely, I’ve tramped and tramped the riverbanks and the watersheds, trying to feel in touch with them – or in touch with anything outside myself. I’ve failed.
But Foster, who suffers from depression, is not to be trusted as to the quality of his own work. Like all depressed people, he can malign himself cruelly where congratulations are due.
Foster’s project did not fail. For one, he created a compelling work of art. I laughed aloud at his description of otters as frenetic killing machines. And his experience of empathizing with swifts, a type of bird, is deeply poignant:
I’m best at being a swift when I’m on the ground. At least then I can see and smell the source of the air rivers the swifts are fishing, hear the thrum next to my ear of the wasp that will be broken three hundred yards up, and slap a fly on my arm at more or less the same speed as the swift’s stubby neck would turn and its mandibles close on it.
Most importantly, he was able to overcome all the years in which he’d trained his mind to see badgers, otters, and birds as inescapably other:
But species boundaries are, if not illusory, certainly vague and sometimes porous. Ask any evolutionary biologist or shaman.
It is a mere 30 million years – the blink of a lightly lidded eye on an earth whose life has been evolving for 3.4 thousand million years – since badgers and I shared a common ancestor. Go back just 40 million years before that, and I share my entire family album not only with badgers but with herring gulls.
All the animals in this book are pretty close family. That’s a fact. If it doesn’t seem like that, our feelings are biologically illiterate. They need reeducation.
Foster changed his life in a way that proves his project succeeded. He was an avid hunter through his youth and young adulthood but writes that, because of this experience, “I’ve put down my guns and taken up my tofu.” He was willing to give up his own pleasure once he convinced himself that the animals he hunted were unique individuals with their own wants and desires. He was willing to make personal sacrifices because others’ pain no longer seemed so different from his own.
We can overcome the reflexes of our minds.
Luckily, it seems to require fewer heroics to successfully empathize with another human than Charles Foster employed in his efforts to understand animals. We need not scuttle naked through the woods, defecate outdoors, ask someone to chase us with a pack of hunting dogs. If all you’re after is empathy for other humans, it seems that reading will do. Reading in general, and especially the reading of emotionally-engaging fiction, makes people more empathetic. In The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman speculates that this transformation occurs because “you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
It might take nothing more than great literature – including, perhaps, Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, alongside The Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, A Naked Singularity, The Beast Side, and the works cited in Justice Sotomayor’s Strieff dissent – for Trump’s supporters to be pained by our nation’s shameful treatment of minorities. The incarceration crisis, the education crisis, the police-murdering-people-in-the-streets crisis. Perhaps books could engender the political will needed to overcome injustice.
(Lest I sound too blithely hopeful, I should probably mention that reading in this country, especially reading fiction, has been on a steady decline for years.)
Shortly before I turned sixteen, I read an article in the Indianapolis Star describing a piece of artwork temporarily showing downtown. Fred Tomaselli’s Gravity’s Rainbow, as inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s book. The description in the paper was rapturous. Beautiful, deep, dark, mysterious. A giant canvas with covered in fluorescent parabolas of … pills?
Street drugs, pharmaceuticals, and fakes, all strung vibrantly together.
I was enthralled. After a week of pleading, my parents took me to see it. And… well, sure, I was disappointed. I was just a kid. I hadn’t read the book. Just like Marcel when he finally saw La Berma, I felt let down because I didn’t have the background needed to see as much in the artwork as the article implied.
But I did resolve to read the book.
At the time, my hometown library didn’t have a copy. The only bookstore I frequented was Half-priced Books, which has very haphazard inventory. Later, when I didn’t have an influx of babysitting money supporting my habit, I became even stingier and only shopped at library booksales. Paperbacks for a quarter! Hardbacks for fifty cents! The only problem being total inability to predict what you’ll find.
Let me tell you: if you’re hunting for a mammoth, oft-discussed-but-rarely-read cult novel, you’ll have to visit a whole lotta library booksales before you’re likely to find a copy. Over the years I’ve found V and The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and even a guide purporting to demystify Gravity’s Rainbow, but never the book itself.
Of course, now I live in a town with much better libraries than where I grew up. The library here has a copy. We even have an audio version in case you’d rather spend thirty-eight hours listening to it in your car than sit down and read the thing.
The book follows, among numerous others, the travails of ex-military man Slothrop, a paranoid drug-gobbling sex criminal (I could’ve used fewer gleeful paeans to pedophilia, but I can’t expect every author to cater to my reading whims) who feels himself to be — and perhaps is — enmeshed in a dark conspiracy that spans decades, transcends nationality, and takes precedence over even the war.
The evocation of paranoia is charming. Indeed, within novels, it’s often the case that everything really is connected, that even the most outlandish coincidences were inevitable. Excepting works like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s serially-published & sketchily-planned The Idiot, novels are sculpted by an all-powerful author dictating the course of action. Slothrop is right to be afraid… of Pychon, if no one else.
The novel reels through numerous “Proverbs for Paranoids,” but to my mind the most chilling passage is the following:
The basic idea is that They will come and shut off the water first. … Shutting the water off interdicts the toilet: with only one tankful left, you can’t get rid of much of anything any more, dope, shit, documents. They’ve stopped the inflow / outflow and here you are trapped inside.
. . .
So it’s good policy always to have the toilet valve cracked a bit, to maintain some flow through the toilet so when it stops you’ll have that extra minute or two. Which is not the usual paranoia of waiting for a knock, or a phone to ring: no, it takes a particular kind of mental illness to sit and listen for a cessation of noise.
This passage is frightening because it sounds so reasonable — maybe secret agents would take precautions to keep you from destroying evidence — yet only someone with a totally hyperactive connection-seeking mind would actually thinking to monitor the trickle of a leaking toilet, fully expecting the noise to someday stop.
The human mind evolved to find meaning in the surrounding world, but to my mind the root of schizophrenia, more dire than sounds perceivable to no one else, is the tendency to find meaning too often. So much is happening every second that connections and coincidences will always be there, if you demand them to be.
In the paranoid world of Gravity’s Rainbow, even World War 2 bombings were planned for, and were necessary to enable devious machinations. This sounds deranged, and yet it’s actually very similar to something that happens in nature.
Take influenza. The influenza virus can’t reproduce until it enters a host’s cells. But the viral protein that latches onto cells, in its standard form, doesn’t work. The virus is produced with a “fusion-incompetent precursor.” Only after the viral protein is attacked by its host — chewed on by a protease that’s attempting to destroy the virus — does it become functional.
Influenza is harmless … until the host fights back. If you’ll excuse me a touch of anthropomorphism here, influenza is so devious because it knows the host will fight back, and plans for that, and uses the host defense as part of its own strategy.
The paranoiacs in Gravity’s Rainbow fear that weapons facilities were constructed the same way. That bombings were anticipated, and planned for, and the structures assembled precisely so that the bombings would activate the facility:
Zoom uphill slantwise toward a rampart of wasted, knotted, fused, and scorched girderwork, stacks, pipes, ducting, windings, fairings, insulators reconfigured by all the bombing, grease-stained pebblery on the ground, rushing by a mile a minute and wait, wait, say what, say “reconfigured,” now?
There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away — there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on … modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides — “sides?” — had always agreed on …
These musings must strike most people as deranged. The likelihood of a single organization willfully orchestrating World War 2 is pretty low. But this idea isn’t dramatically more bizarre than other common conspiracy theories. Large numbers of people believe that the moon landing was faked, that the CIA killed JFK, that the mass shooting at the Batman film in Colorado was planned by the U.S. government …
The United States is rife with conspiracy theorists. With X-Files back on air, perhaps there’ll be a resurgence in the number of conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrial life — those seem to have faded in popularity since the late nineties.
A few books have been published recently examining why so many Americans believe in conspiracy theories. The latest (that I’ve noticed) is Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, which examines the way quirks in our brains promote belief in conspiracy theories.
For instance, pattern-seeking: it makes sense to assume that individuals best able to look at their surroundings and see patterns — This berry patch has a lot to eat every spring! Everybody who’s gone to that water hole at twilight has been eaten by a tiger! — would’ve been most successful through evolutionary time. The only drawback is that our brains are so good at finding patterns that we often see them when they aren’t there — In our last three games, my team won both times I was wearing these socks, and lost when I wore different ones… I’ll never take these socks off again! — letting us ascribe deep meaning to random happenstance.
Honestly, believing in happenstance can be terrifying. If you believe that bad things happen to good people because a watchful god is angry, you can make overtures to appease that god. Maybe the suffering will stop. But if the universe is a chaotic, value-less place, then there’s nothing you can do to stave off random disaster.
When I read Suspicious Minds, I felt like Brotherton left out a potent explanation for our abundance of conspiracy theories. Yes, evolution seems to have molded our minds to readily believe in nefarious conspiracies. Brotherton cites psychology research into the nature of these beliefs, suggesting the propensity is innate. In addition to all the usual caveats you should keep in mind when reading pop psychology, it’s especially important to recall that most study subjects for this research come from the same culture … and this culture actually trains young people to believe in conspiracies.
The basic structure of most conspiracy theories is that the standard explanation for something — Barack Obama was born in the United States, vaccines don’t cause autism — is a lie, and a cabal of authority figures is working hard to prevent people from uncovering the truth.
In the United States, many people go through this same experience as children. We’re taught to believe in Santa Claus, for instance, and over time might notice adults winking at each other as they discuss the flying reindeer, or the cookies he’ll eat, or presents he might leave… until one day it becomes clear that the authority figures were making the whole thing up. It was Dad eating all those cookies!
It becomes a rite of passage. At six, you learn that your house wasn’t actually visited by Santa Claus. At eight, maybe you learn that there is no Easter Bunny. Seems like every kid’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni until one day a slightly-older kid on the bus leans over to whisper, “Do you know how they make pepperoni?” So why would it be strange for people to grow up and think, at twenty you learn that there was no moon landing? At twenty-five you learn that the feds have been putting mind control reagents into childhood vaccines?
Moreover, sometimes there really is an attempt to hide the truth. Researchers employed by cigarette companies tried their darnedest to distract from the various ailments caused by smoking. Researchers employed by oil barons are still trying their darnedest to distract from the planetary ailments caused by combustion.
Or, in matters slightly less dire, there’s lemmings.
Lemming imagery shows up repeatedly in Gravity’s Rainbow, like the farmer depressed by all his pigs “who’d rushed into extinction like lemmings, possessed not by demons but by trust for men, which the men kept betraying”, or the Europeans befuddled by an African tribe’s apparent desire to fade away together rather than die off one by one, “a mystery potent as that of the elephant graveyard, or the lemmings rushing into the sea.”
Given that so much of the book is about paranoia and blind trust and suicide, it makes sense for lemmings to have a star appearance. The main character, Slothrop, the Harvard-educated pedophile, even takes a moment to explain why lemmings kill themselves the way they do:
Well, Ludwig. Slothrop finds him one morning by the shore of some blue anonymous lake, a surprisingly fat kid of eight or nine, gazing into the water, crying, shuddering all over in rippling fat-waves. His lemming’s name is Ursula, and she has run away from home. Ludwig’s been chasing her all the way north from Pritzwalk. He’s pretty sure she’s heading for the Baltic, but he’s afraid she’ll mistake one of these inland lakes for the sea, and jump into that instead —
“One lemming, kid?”
“I’ve had her for two years,” he sobs, “she’s been fine, she’s never tried to — I don’t know. Something just came over her.”
“Quit fooling. Lemmings never do anything alone. They need a crowd. It gets contagious. You see, Ludwig, they overbreed, it goes in cycles, when there are too many of them they panic and run off looking for food. I learned that in college, so I know what I’m talking about. Harvard. Maybe that Ursula’s just out after a boy friend or something.”
And the reason I bring this up in conjunction with conspiracy theories? It isn’t true. Lemmings aren’t the suicidal little furballs that I, for one, always believed them to be.
In 1958 Disney released a documentary film, White Wilderness, that showed lemmings committing suicide. The voice-over explained weren’t actually suicidal, but that they single-mindedly launch themselves into the water to drown because they assume they’ll be able to swim across:
It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.
What the audience then sees are close-ups of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. Except… well, because this doesn’t really happen, the filmmakers instead trapped a few lemmings on a big slippery snow-covered turntable and spun it in order to fling the poor critters over the edge.
Lemmings do migrate, and like most migratory species, when venturing into unfamiliar territory they sometimes die. Their occasional deaths are more reminiscent of the unlucky members of the Donner Party than the folly I was trained by Lemmings (the computer game) to believe in.
The original lemming myths seem to have been caused by humans seeing huge numbers of lemmings, noticing that some were migrating to less-populous areas, and then finding that the population had plummeted to almost nothing. Where did the others go? Maybe they committed suicide!
Well, no. Their population booms and busts, like those of most prey species, seem to be caused by the population density of their predators. It’s the predators who mindlessly exploite abundant resources. When lemmings are plentiful the well-fed predators breed profligately, certain they’ll be able to support their brood, and then the overpopulous predators eat the lemmings nearly to extinction, at which point the unlucky predators will starve, their population plummets, and the lemming population can rebound.
Humans are very similar to most other predators this way. A bit foolish, we are. We live large in the good times. Genesis 41, in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, is so striking precisely because few humans would have the foresight to plan for seven years of drought and famine. Indeed, in the contemporary western United States, we divvied up water usage rights during particularly lush years and are now squabbling over who should actually get water when there isn’t enough to satisfy everybody’s usage permits. The human population is still rising — indeed, many religious leaders still purport that their followers have an explicit directive to “go forth and multiply” — despite the fact that we’re already taxing the planet near its limits.
So it goes.
The point being, at the moment, not that we’re all doomed… who knows, maybe we’ll come together and shape up our act? But that the abundance of actual lies — why would anyone even feel the need to lie about lemmings? — makes it that much easier for people to believe in nefarious conspiracies. We’re trained from youth to believe that the authorities and experts — our parents — are hiding the real truth. Why would we expect politicians or scientists to act any differently?
In related news, I’m trying my best not to lie to my kid. The world is already plenty strange — I think she’ll still have fun despite a healthy dollop of truth.