The Social Brain

“The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected.”  ― Will Rogers

Politicians are not the only practical jokes that get elected.  A lot of bad ideas also “get elected”.  Get elected in the sense that they become as popular as cheap hamburgers, and more popular than much better ideas.

Social Darwinism is surely one of the worse ideas that humans have ever invented.   Humans are quite talented at inventing bad ideas, but talent alone lacks the necessary brilliance to have invented Social Darwinism.  No, Social Darwinism took genius.

There were actually several geniuses involved in the invention of Social Darwinism, a whole intellectual clusterfuck of them.  But perhaps William Graham Sumner was the most brilliant clusterfucker of that whole group.

In 1883, Sumner published a highly influential pamphlet entitled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other”, in which he insisted that the social classes owe each other nothing, synthesizing Darwin’s findings with free enterprise Capitalism for his justification.  According to Sumner, those who feel an obligation to provide assistance to those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for resources, will lead to a country in which the weak and inferior are encouraged to breed more like them, eventually dragging the country down. Sumner also believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for existence was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival.  [Source]

To be able to take an idea as brilliant as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and turn it into an idea as hard-packed with stupidity as Social Darwin is absolute genius.  Sumner might have been one of the people George Orwell had in mind when he said, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them”.

Anti-intellectualism is just as American as apple pie or selling diabetic horse urine as beer.  That does not mean, however, that Americans skeptically refuse to  embrace the ideas of intellectuals.  No, in practice, it has meant only that Americans are so unfamiliar with intellectuals and their ideas that they can’t tell the good from the bad.  They are like those poor, sad folks who are so anti-sex they never develop whatever raw talent they might have for sex into becoming moderately decent lovers, let alone dynamos between the bed sheets.  There is no other way to explain the continuing popularity in America of Sumner’s ideas.

Social Darwinism is many things but so often at the core of it is the notion that human evolution has been predominantly driven by intraspecies competition.  As it turns out, however, to say that intraspecies competition predominantly drove human evolution is just as absurd as saying that a dozen minutes of start-to-finish jackhammering is mainly all there is to sex.  There is so much more!

For a long time, scientists have known that the human brain is exceptionally large relative to body size.

Early attempts to explain the fact tended to focus on environmental factors and  activities.  Thus, humans were thought to have evolved large brains to facilitate banging rocks together in order to make tools, hunt animals, avoid predators,  think abstractly, and outsmart competitors for vital resources like food, territory, mates, and rocks.  This was known as the “ecological brain theory”.

Then, in 1992, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar published an article showing that, in primates, the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increasing social group size.

This strongly suggested that primate brains — very much including human brains — grew big in order to allow them to cope with living in social groups.  As a consequence of that and other research, the new “social brain theory” started replacing the old “ecological brain theory” in the hearts and minds of scientists.

We don’t have the biggest teeth, the sharpest claws, the fleetest feet, the strongest muscles in nature.  But, as it happens, we are in most ways the single most cooperative species of all mammals, and in unity there is strength.  One human is usually no match for a lion even if he’s the most competitive human within a hundred miles. But through cooperation we are able to achieve more together than we can achieve through competition.

I once saw a film in which a band of two dozen or so men and women chased a huge male lion into a thicket and killed it in just a few seconds with nothing more than pointed sticks.   That is the bare minimal kind of cooperation that no doubt helped us to become the extraordinarily successful species we are today.

Even the fact we are able to (to some extent) reason abstractly might have much to do with our evolving as a social species.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with the fascinating theory that reasoning evolved — not to nobly discern truths — but to persuade our fellow apes to cooperate with us, and to help us figure out when someone is telling us the truth.

Thus Mercier and Sperber begin with an argument against the notion that reasoning evolved to deliver rational beliefs and rational decisions:

The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

In other words, those of us who wish in at least some cases to arrive at rational beliefs and rational decisions are somewhat in the position of a person who must drive screws with a hammer — the tool we have available to us (reason) did not evolve for the purpose to which we wish to employ it, and only by taking the greatest care can we arrive safely at our goal.  But I digress.

Mercier and Sperber go on to ask, “Why does reasoning exist at all, given that it is a relatively high-cost mental activity with a relatively high failure rate?”

They answer that reasoning evolved to assess the reliability and quality of what someone is telling you (“Is Joe telling me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his beer cellar?”), and also to enable you to persuade someone to do (or not do) something (“How do I talk Joe into giving me all his beer?”).   That is, reasoning involved in a group context.  The implication is that we reason best and most reliably when we argue or debate with each other.

I have long thought that one of the reasons the sciences have demonstrated themselves to be all but the most reliable means of inquiry that we have ever invented — second only to getting baked on Colorado’s finest weed in order to ponder the “Big Questions” of life — is because the sciences rest on the principle of intersubjective verifiability.  Basically, you check my work, I’ll check yours, and together we might be able to get closer to the truth than either of us could get working alone.

When Thomas Hobbes was writing out his political philosophy in the 1600s, he embraced the sensible notion that any political system should be based on human nature, as opposed, say, to based on what we might think some god or king wants us to have.   Hobbes, who often cooked up brilliant ideas, now proceeded to burn his meal, for he envisioned that human nature is essentially solitary.  He thought if you go back far enough in human history you will come to a time when people did not live in social groups, but alone.  There was no cooperation between people and it was instead “a war of all against all”.

Hobbes was not only wrong about that, he was very wrong about that.  What evidence we have suggests our species always lived in groups, our ancestors always lived in groups, and their ancestors always lived in groups.  In fact you must go back at least 20 million years in evolutionary history before you find a likely ancestor of ours that might have been a loner.  Our brains have been evolving as specialized organs for dealing with we each other for at least 20 million years, which is almost long enough to listen to every last complaint my two ex wives have about me.  And hell, we’re only talking about their legitimate complaints!

Of course, the fact we are social animals does not mean we are hive animals.  We are very much individuals, so far as I can see.  But that means, among much else, that there is and always will be a tension or conflict between our social and our individual natures.

Before we started living in the first city-states about 6,500 years ago, we lived in relatively small hunting/gathering bands of 200 or so people at the most.  So far as we know today, the bands were mostly egalitarian.  Just about anyway you can measure it, there wasn’t much social, political, or economic difference between people.  And the individual and society were probably in a fairly well balanced relationship with each other. Then some killjoy invented the complex, hierarchical society of the city-states.   And the people of the time, instead of doing the rational thing, and hanging him on the spot, let him get away with it.

From that infamous day forward, there’s been very few times in history when the balance between the individual and society has favored the individual.  Most societies have been oppressive.  That needs to end.   Yet end in a way that restores a sane balance, not in a way that destroys societies through extreme individualism.

Women’s Sexuality: “Base, Animalistic, and Ravenous”

What is the future of our sexuality?

How, in twenty maybe forty years, will we be expressing ourselves sexually?

Do we have any clues today about what kind of sexuality tomorrow might bring?

And why did my second wife doze off on our wedding night just as I was getting to the climax of my inspiring lecture to her on Socrates’ concept of love?  After all, she positively begged me for some “oral sex”!  Doesn’t make a lick of sense she fell asleep in the midst of it.

I’ve been wondering about those and other questions this morning but not, as you might suspect, because I’ve been binge viewing Balinese donkey on donkey porn again.  What inspires me instead is the emerging consensus in the science of human sexuality.  That consensus strikes me as a game-changer.

It’s sometimes said that the early human sexuality studies of Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, paved the road to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s.  It seems to me today’s new, still emerging consensus could be like that — or it could be even more seismic than what we’ve seen before.

What’s at the core of this is women’s sexuality, along with a growing body of research that strongly suggests women’s sexuality isn’t what most of us nearly the world over have been taught it is.

To be sure, nothing is going to happen overnight.  For one thing, any really profound cultural changes that result from this new understanding of women’s sexuality are almost certain to take generations to be fully realized.  Deep cultural change is seldom quick.  Yet, sometimes great storms are proceeded by light rains blown ahead of the main storm, and something like that could happen here too.

For another thing, it’s always possible that the emerging consensus will fall apart.  The research seems to me solid so far, but as yet, not massive.

Some Old Ideas About Women’s Sexuality

To understand how the new science could transform our cultures, let’s first look at what’s at stake.  It seems that across many — but certainly not all — cultures there is a more or less shared set of beliefs about the differences between men and woman’s sexuality.  Among these beliefs:

  • Women are naturally much less promiscuous than men.
  • Women naturally seek and need emotional intimacy and safety before they can become significantly horny.
  • Women naturally prefer to be pursued by men, rather than to do the pursuing.
  • Women are naturally pickier than men when choosing a sex partner.
  • Women are naturally less horny than men.
  • Women are naturally less likely than men to cheat on their partners.
  • Women are naturally more suited to monogamy than men.
  • Women are naturally more traumatized by divorce than men.
  • Even more traumatic for women than divorce is a night spent with Sunstone.

What seems to be happening is that, idea by idea, the old notions of how men and women differ in natural sexuality from each other are being challenged by the new science.  Sometimes the challenges merely qualify the old idea, usually by showing that, although the difference exists, it is largely due to culture and learning rather than to innate human nature.  At other times, the challenges threaten to overturn the old ideas completely.

Some New Ideas About Women’s Sexuality

Bergner, and the leading sex researchers he interviews, argue that women’s sexuality is not the rational, civilized and balancing force it’s so often made out to be — that it is base, animalistic and ravenous, everything we’ve told ourselves about male sexuality.  –Tracy Clark-Flory

I believe that when thinking about the emerging new consensus, the emphasis should be put on “emerging”.  There are so many questions yet to be answered that I do not believe it can as yet be definitively stated.  But at this stage, the following four points seem to me, at least, to best characterize the most important findings:

  • Women want sex far more than almost all of us are taught to believe.
  • Their sex drive is as strong as, or possibly even stronger, than men’s sex drive.
  • Their desire for sex does not always depend on their feeling emotionally intimate with — nor even safe with — their partner.
  • Women might be less evolved for monogamous relationships than men.

But do women know this about themselves?  There’s evidence that many women might not.  One such bit of evidence:

Dr. Meredith Chivers attempts to peek into the cage by sitting women in La-Z-Boy recliners, presenting them with a variety of pornographic videos, images, and audio recordings, and fitting their bodies with vaginal plethysmographs to measure the blood flow of desire. When Chivers showed a group of women a procession of videos of naked women, naked men, heterosexual sex, gay sex, lesbian sex, and bonobo sex, her subjects “were turned on right away by all of it, including the copulating apes.” But when it came time to self-report their arousal, the survey and the plethysmograph “hardly matched at all,” Bergner reports. Straight women claimed to respond to straight sex more than they really did; lesbian women claimed to respond to straight sex far less than they really did; nobody admitted a response to the bonobo sex. Physically, female desire seemed “omnivorous,” but mentally, it revealed “an objective and subjective divide.”

Women, it seems, might not be in tune with their physical desires when it comes to sex.  But if this is so, it should come as little or no surprise.

The Repression of Women’s Sexuality

While significant efforts to repress women’s (and often enough men’s) expression of their own sexuality are not found in every culture (e.g. the Mosuo), they seem to be found in all major cultures, and they range from shaming all the way up to female genital mutilation,  honor killing, and stoning.  Indeed, rape — which is a nearly ubiquitous behavior — can be seen as largely a form of repressing women’s sexuality, especially given how often it is justified in terms of “she asked for it”, meaning that she in some way or another expressed her sexuality in a manner the criminal(s) thought invited attack.

But those are merely the enforcement mechanisms for more subtle ways of repressing women’s sexuality.  Sexual ideologies seem to be the primary means of repression.  By “sexual ideologies” I mean in this context anything from full blown systems of thought about what is proper or improper, right or wrong, natural or unnatural about women’s sexuality to unorganized and unsystematic ideas and beliefs about their behavior.   For instance, advising young women not to wear short skirts doesn’t count by itself as a true ideology, but for the sake of convenience I’m lumping such advice into the same bucket as true ideologies here.

Sexual ideologies are perhaps even more effective than the gross enforcement mechanisms at repressing women.  If you can convince someone that it’s natural, right, and moral to suppress her sexual feelings, then you do not need to rely on the off chance you can catch and punish her for them if she fails to do so.  Ideally, you can even get her to suppress her feelings to the extent she no longer knows she even has them, because if you can do that, then she herself is apt to become something of a volunteer oppressor of other women, especially, say, in raising her daughters.

Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.  — Rose Sayer, The African Queen (1951).

Disturbing Studies

Here are a few quick examples of the things being found out about women’s sexuality these days:

In surveys men routinely report having two to four times the number of sex partners that women report, which lends support to the notion that men are naturally more promiscuous than women.  But one study, published in 2003 in The Journal of Sex Research, found that when men were tricked into believing they were hooked up to a lie detector, the men reported the same number of sex partners as the women reported.  This is significant because it calls into question a fair body of research that is often cited in support of the notion women are less promiscuous on the whole than men.

A 2009 study published in Psychological Science found that pickiness seems to depend on whether a person is approached by a potential partner, or is themselves doing the approaching.  The experiment, conducted in a real-life speed-dating environment, showed that when men rotated through women who stayed seated in the same spot, the women were more selective about whom they chose to date. When the women did the rotating, it was the guys who were pickier.  This implies that women’s choosiness might largely depend circumstances, and not on innate nature.

In 2011, a study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science found that women liked casual, uncommitted sex just as much as men provided only that two conditions were first met: (1) the stigma of having casual sex needed to be removed, and (2) the women had to anticipate that the man would be a “great lover”.   Contrary to conventional wisdom, the women did not seem to need to feel emotionally intimate with the man in order to enjoy casual sex with him.

In 2015, evidence was published in the journal Biology Letters that both men and women fall into two more or less distinct groups: Those who prefer monogamy and those who prefer promiscuity.  Curiously, the sexes were about the same in terms of the proportions of men and women  who favored one or the other.  A slight majority of the men favored promiscuity, while a slight minority of the women did.  This would seem to undermine the notion that men as a group are markedly more promiscuous than women.

The journal Psychological Science published a 2006 study that found women in general are more flexible than men in their sexual orientations, and that the higher a woman’s sex drive, the more likely she was to be attracted to both sexes (the same was not true of men).

In 2006, the journal Human Nature reported that both men and women in new relationships experience about equal sexual desire for each other, but sometime between one to four years into the relationship, women’s sexual desire for their partners began to plummet (The same was not true of the men: Their sexual desire held constant.)  Two decades into committed relationships, only 20% of women remained sexually desirous of their partners. Long term monogamy appears to sap a woman’s sex drive.   Ladies! Tired of the Same Old Same Old? Willing to dress up in a hen costume and squawk like a chicken?  Sunstone loves his rooster suit, and is currently available most evenings.  Simply call 1-800-BuckBuck! Motto: “He’s even more desperate than you are!”®

Disturbed Men

The new science has huge implications if it is indeed sound.  For instance, as hinted above, the sexual repression of women often enough depends on women buying into certain myths about their own sexuality, such as the myth that a woman’s sexuality, when compared to a man’s, is weaker, less urgent, less demanding.  If the myth is true, then an implication is women should sexually defer to their partners, place their own sexual needs on the back burner while tending to the needs of their man.

Yet, if the new science is sound, then men and women’s sex drives are more or less equal, and there becomes no ideological reason for women to not demand their rightful share of the fun.   That seems to disturb some men.

I can think of any number of reasons why some men are disturbed or put off by sexually assertive women, but none of them are relevant enough to go into here.  Yet, it should be kept in mind that some men  — but not all — are disturbed by the notion that women, being by nature sexually equal to men, ought to have equal rights in bed.

There are other implications of the new science men might find even more disturbing.  Perhaps the biggest implication might have at its core how women’s unleashed sexuality could affect men’s reproductive success.   The new sexuality might fearfully suggest to many men that their liberated partners are now more likely to cuckold them.  That’s not a prospect most men are entirely blissful about.

Grand Sweeping Summary and Plea for Money

Acceptance of reality is not, actually,  one of our major strengths as a species.  Even if the new science proves over time to be sound, it’s unlikely to be accepted without a fight.

If you are like me, you believe more research is needed into women’s sexuality.  Much more research.  Moreover, you are keen on funding some of that research yourself!  Yes, this is your opportunity to send me on a mission of scientific discovery to my town’s finest strip joint, where I will be surveying and assessing how women express their sexuality through dance, while flirting with suffering a heart attack from the intrinsic excitement of doing science.  Simply email me to arrange a transfer of funds!

Hamlet, Sex, and Drugs

I was reading earlier tonight of a new, scientific study published just two days ago that analyzed the hospital medical records of 20 million people in the United States and found those folks who used cannabis had a 26 per cent higher chance of suffering a stroke than those who did not, and a 10 per cent higher chance of having a heart attack.  The study of course concluded that cannabis use could endanger the health of one’s heart.

Now, there seems to be an excellent, detailed write up about the study here.  I would urge you to check it out if you use cannabis, know someone who uses cannabis, or are planning to vote on whether to legalize cannabis.  But please understand that I’m not suggesting what you should do about the study.  That’s up to you to decide.

No, the reason I began this post by mentioning the study is certainly not because I intend to go on from there to advocating that you and everyone else should give up cannabis now because there seems to be some risk to using it.  Instead, I have what I myself believe is something fully more important — and perhaps even more interesting — to talk with you about at three o’clock in the morning, my time.

But I wonder now what is the best way to introduce this new subject?  Were we speaking in person, I would naturally signal my excitement at the prospect of discussing the new subject with you by of course vigorously flapping my arms while squawking at you like a chicken: A move I have learned through repeated experience is an excellent and virtually guaranteed way to get someone’s attention. I use it all the time.

Alas!  We are not speaking in person.  So, I’ll just blurt out the subject I wish to discuss with you just like a thirteen or fourteen year old schoolboy is apt to spontaneously blurt out the very first words that come to his mind the very first time in his life he asks a girl to hang out alone with him.  Ready?  Here goes: “Why does our noble species of supersized chimpanzees so very often refuse to acknowledge there can be good points on both sides of an issue?”

It was the cannabis study, you see, that brought that question to mind for me.

I like most of us, I have more than enough  experience in life to know the release of such a study is not only going to cause thousands of debates around the world within the next few days, but that many of the people debating the various issues that the study raises will be absolutely and immovably convince that their side, and only their side, has all the good points on it.

For instance, there will surely be people who favor cannabis use that will be simply unable to entertain the thought — even for a brief moment — that the study could be reliable and that cannabis use could endanger one’s heart.  And just like them, there will surely be people on the other side unable to acknowledge that the risks might not be great enough to some people to deter them from using cannabis.

But why is that so?  Put differently, don’t you find it a little strange we humans are so often unable to accept complexity, and seemingly feel compelled to deny any complexity actually exists?  After all, we’ve got the sharpest brains of all the animals on the planet.  Even our esteemed political leaders are second only to most plants and some minerals in terms of the processing power of their brains.   Why can’t we — at least why can’t so many of us — cope with complexity?

I wish to propose an answer to those questions.  An answer that, as it happens, is to be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

As you might recall, there is very little action in the play.  There are many great soliloquies and speeches, but nothing much actually happens until a brief, climatic moment at the very end.  (Indeed, the play is uncannily reminiscent of  my two wedding nights.)  The cause of the lack of action is that the character of Hamlet spends nearly the entire play dithering.

Why doth he dither?  I believe it was the philosopher Walter Kaufmann who pointed out that Hamlet wavers because he has too many choices, and to my recollection, there’s some science that backs up Kaufmann.  The phenomenon is called, “overchoice“:

The phenomenon of overchoice occurs when many equivalent choices are available.  Making a decision becomes overwhelming due to the many potential outcomes and risks that may result from making the wrong choice. Having too many approximately equally good options is mentally draining because each option must be weighed against alternatives to select the best one.

But what has overchoice to do with acknowledging that there can be good points on both sides of an issue?

I believe the relationship is fairly straightforward.  When faced with complexity — such as a situation in which there are good points on both sides of an issue — many of us adopt a strategy of reducing the complexity to manageable proportions by going into denial that there are good points on the other side of the issue.  At least, that’s my guess.

Furthermore, by seeing things in a less than realistic way — that is, by seeing them as one-sided — we crush the wavering doubt we feel and thus open ourselves to taking unhesitant action.

You see that reductive strategy employed nearly everywhere by folks.  Not just in the debates over cannabis that are sure now to flood us for a few days if the reports of the new study go viral, but also in nearly everything else.  Take the issue of abortion.  Few issues seem to bring out one-sided views so decisively as abortion.  I would suggest here that the reason for that might be — not that the issue is simple — but that it is so overwhelmingly complex.  For precisely which reason so many of us adamantly reduce it to black and white.

That’s pretty much all I want to say on this topic for now.  But I can’t resist finishing up this post by offering a practical tip any pastors in the audience.  If you’re a pastor and your sermons have been putting people to sleep, I would suggest to you, based on my singular research into such matters, that you should dress up in a chicken suit when it’s time to man the pulpit.  Trust me!  I have years of experience in this, and flapping around and squawking like a chicken is the best practical way I’ve ever found of seizing people’s attention.  Folks loves them a good chicken act.  And, so far as I can see, there’s absolutely no downside to it at all!

I Didn’t Learn the Truth Until I was Twenty-Two

During all the years between my birth and leaving home to attend university, I witnessed my mother crying once, and once only.  To my shame, it happened after I made a cruel remark accusing her of being responsible for our family’s poverty.

I was 17 by then and, since I’d never seen her cry before, I had up until that moment naively assumed there was nothing in this world — no misfortune, no tragedy, no evil  — that could move her to tears.  When the tears came I was at a loss of what to do, so I did nothing.  Instead, I sat in my chair shocked into disbelieving silence while she sat in her chair simultaneously crying and apologizing to me for having lost control of her emotions.  Apologizing just as if she was committing some outrageous, inexcusable offense.

Looking back, I think the event should have taught me volumes about how great and deep was my mother’s sense of responsibility for our poverty.  But instead of fully reflecting on the event, I went into denial of its significance.  That is, I didn’t deny it had happened.  But I denied it was important or meaningful.

That was my way of handling the terrifying thought that some aspects of life could overwhelm her.  I was not at 17 fully conscious of the fact that my mother was the source of my strength, but conscious of it or not, I still deeply needed to believe there was nothing in life she couldn’t handle, and that by implication, there was nothing in life that I myself couldn’t handle just as well.

Consequently, she and I never again brought up between us the subject of our family’s poverty, and so I did not discover from her the proper causes of it.

One of those causes was that she was the sole breadwinner for our family of four.  My father had died relatively young, leaving mom with the burden of fending alone for me and my two brothers.  My older brother was only four at the time, so of course she had the added burden of very young children to raise.

Women back then had few job opportunities.  In 1960, only 38% of women worked outside their homes, and most of them were limited to working as teachers, nurses, waitresses, clerks, or secretaries.  Exceedingly few were in management.  Yet, my mother became one of the exceptions.

After my father died, she moved us from the city where we were living to the small town that she herself had grown up in.  Her move was a strategic decision:  She needed the support of her friends and family who still lived there.

Her decision paid off.

When a job as the CEO of small housing and apartment corporation headquartered in the town opened up, some of her family and friends went to work successfully lobbying the board of directors to hire mom.  That’s how things are so often done in a small town.  Your friends and/or family go to bat for you by talking with people they know who are in a position to hire you — or even talking with people who know people who are in a position to hire you.

The company had been operating in the red, but mom succeeded in turning the company around, and putting it in the black, where she kept it for the rest of her long, forty year career.

By the time I graduated from university, the company was being written up in industry magazines as a model business, and mom had become modestly well known within those circles not only for her competence in running the company, but also for her willingness to mentor other executives at non-competing companies around the nation.

Yet it was not until near the end of her career that she was paid much more than was necessary for our family’s survival.  In 1960, the average family income in America was $6,691.57.  Mom, who is a very private person even in many ways to her own family, has not told me how much she herself earned in 1960, but I have ample reasons to believe it was less  than the average for an American family, let alone less than the average for the family of a business executive.

One pound of round steak cost $1.06 at the time, much more expensive than hamburger or chicken.   Because of the expense, I didn’t know what round steak — or any other steak — tasted like until I was 11 years old, when I became the first of my brothers to eat a steak.  One day my best friend happened to mention that his mom was preparing T-bones for his supper that night, so I naturally asked him if T-bones were any good, because I didn’t know.  His mother overheard us and kindly decided to invite me to supper.

Strangely, it didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-teens that we were a seriously poor family.  I always knew we weren’t as well off as many families, but there were still poorer families than ours.  Besides, we never went without a meal, there was a roof over our heads (thanks entirely to my aunt, who bought a house for us to live in), we were clothed, and we had books.  For some reason that I’m sure of, the books upon books in our house assured me that we were doing just fine.

Consequently, I simply assumed up until the age of about 15 or 16 that most of the signs of our poverty were due to my mother’s tastes.  Few toys for Christmas?  That was, to my mind, because mom thought toys were mostly frivolous and unnecessary.  No family vacations?  Another frivolous thing.  No expensive foods?  Mom has no appetite for them.  And so forth.

Sometime in the late 1960s or very early 1970s, I quite bluntly demanded of mom to know how much she earned.  To my surprise — because this wasn’t the sort of thing she was usually willing to reveal — she swore me to never tell anyone outside the family, and then she all but whispered a figure to me.  I can no longer recall what that figure was, but I do still remember that it sounded like a lot of money to me, and that I came away thinking we were solidly middle class.

The only other thing I now recall about that figure was that — back when I still remembered what it was — I was surprised when a professor mentioned in a class the same figure as the poverty threshold for a family of four in perhaps 1970 or thereabouts.  In short, my family had that time been living at the poverty line.  But I didn’t learn the reason for that until I was 22, the year my aunt died.

I came home for the funeral, but couldn’t stay at my mom’s house because the bedrooms were to be used by out of town family members.  One of mom’s best friends, however, had some bedrooms for the three of us nephews, and so we stayed the evening of the funeral at her house.  The next morning, she made breakfast for us.

I have no recollection of what prompted Ann to tell us the story that morning, but she did.  Over pancakes and sausage, she told us how troubled our mother had always been in the years we were growing up.

Now except for a few phrases and sentences, I can no longer recall the exact words Ann spoke that morning.  But I am fairly confident that I still remember the points she made — and sometimes the manner in which she made them. To me, the conversation my brothers and I had with Ann that morning is one of the most significant conversations of my life.   What follows is part recollection and part re-creation.  However, I have left out some things that I suspect might have been said, but which I’m not confident enough were said.

Today, I don’t remember what prompted Ann to start off, but she began something like this: “Were any of you boys ever aware during your childhoods of how constantly worried your mother was about your poverty?” We all said “no”.

“Some evenings your mother and I spoke for hours about it.  You see, it never left her mind that you boys were always one step away from disaster.   She knew all that had to happen was a major illness or an accident befalling any one of you, you or her, and she could be reduced to the poor house, maybe see you all split up.  She had nothing to fall back on, no savings.”  I seem to recall Ann pausing then, and perhaps taking a puff off her cigarette, before going on:  “She was paid jack all the years you were growing up.”

Someone asked why.

“Do you want to know the truth?” Ann responded.  Then, placing an equal weight on each word she spoke, Ann said in an unusually emphatic voice:  “Because. Ike. Bachmann. was. a. bastard.”

I recall the word “bastard” was mildly jolting coming from Ann, who was more than a decade older than mom — and therefore presumably even more conservative than mom in her opinions about the impropriety of swear words — and who was also quite active in the Presbyterian Church.  Bachmann must have been a real bastard for Ann to call him that.

Even now, I can still see her slowly searching each of our faces for comprehension, perhaps trying to see if we could now put two and two together for ourselves.  Her manner gave me the further impression that she was determined we would remember the words she’d just spoken for a very long time, maybe even the rest of our lives.

Still, I was confused.  What did Ike Bachmann have to do with any of this?  In my recollection, mom had not once spoken ill of the former chairman of her board.  In fact, she had seldom spoke of him at all to us, and when she did, she had usually called him, “Ike”, as if he were a familiar friend to her.  He’d died not more than two or three years before my aunt’s death.

My older brother broke the silence.  “What did Bachmann do?”

“What didn’t he do?” Ann replied.  “He treated your mother like a slave, for one thing.  But mostly he was one of those men.  What’s that word you young people use for ‘those men’ nowadays?  Male something…chauvinists!  I’m not one of those feminist women, but they do have a point about men like Bachmann.

“Bachmann was just as old-fashioned as country outhouse.  He was hot-tempered.  It didn’t take a lot to set him off.  And when he got angry, he was raw, nearly unrestrained.  Arrogant, too.  But mostly he was a bastard.  A pure bastard.

“Your mother, you know, had to deal with him until the day he retired, about a year before he died.”

“Would it be alright if I asked now exactly how he was a bastard?” I said, “I mean I don’t doubt he was a major one from what you say, but what exactly did he do?”

“Ike Bachmann.” Ann began. “Well first there was no telling him that your mother could do just as well as a man in her job.  It didn’t matter how well she did, he always went about telling people that if he could replace her with a man, that man would do better.  And I know there were times he came close to replacing her.

“Now and then some man in the town would get interested in having your mother’s job.  Then like as not, he’d start talking to people, telling anyone who’d listen, that it just wasn’t right your mother had her job when there were men out there who needed to support their families.  It happened several times over the years, and that’s how it usually started.  With talk.  Did you boys ever know any of this?”

We shook our heads.

“I know.  Your mother never told you.  She didn’t want you scared, of course, you were just children.

“Anyways, word would sooner or later get back to Bachmann that someone wanted her job.  Or maybe someone would just straight up tell him they wanted your mother’s job.  But it usually started with them politicking about it, trying to gather supporters, and put a little pressure on Bachmann and the rest of her board.  The thing is, Bachmann never once stood up for your mother.

“Some of the other board members now and then did, but not her chairman.  Not even once.  Well, I don’t know about every last time a man came looking for your mother’s job, but the times I do know something about it, Bachmann offered them her job.”

I think at that point, my older brother said, “What?” in disbelief.  My younger brother in anger hammered out the word, “Damn!”  And I’m pretty sure I  stared at Ann with my mouth nearly slack-jawed in shocked silence.

“To my knowledge, only one thing — only one thing — stopped Bachmann from replacing your mother.   And that was Bachmann’s greed.

“You see, he was too greedy to pay even a man more than he paid your mother.  Your mother was fortunate, very fortunate, that none of those men accepted Bachman’s offers.  You’d have been in serious trouble.  All four of you.”

After what seemed like quite awhile, my older brother asked, “Did mom ever talk to you about getting a different job?”

“At least a few times each year!  But what kind of jobs are there for women in this one-tractor town?  There were plenty of reasons your mother couldn’t just quit, and that was one of them.  Maybe another day we’ll have time to talk about them all.”

Ann fell silent for a moment as if making a decision, then, “I want all three of you to promise me that you’ll never tell your mother what I’ve told you today.  She’d be embarrassed to death, you know.”  We responded with our promises.

Regrettably, I never did get a chance to question Ann about all the reasons mom didn’t just get a different job.  But whatever mom’s reasons, I’d lay money they weren’t frivolous or light ones.  Mom was just as rational as she was stoic.  Even now, forty years after the conversation with Ann, I still have yet to meet more than a relative handful of people who are as consistently rational as mom was before dementia set in when she was around 94 or so.

As for Ike Bachmann, his attitude towards women was in most ways commonplace in that town.  That is, some jobs were commonly thought of as “men’s work”; women lacked whatever it took to do them as well as a man; which was one good reason to pay them less; and so forth.

But I think that when Ann called Bachmann a bastard she was not just referring to the attitudes towards women that he shared with so many other people.  I later learned a few more things about Bachmann, and it now seems probable to me that he was misogynistic.  Ann was probably right: Ike Bachmann was a bastard.

The American Class System and the Political Correctness of the Regressive Left

By political correctness, I do not mean the term as it has come to be employed on the right—that is, the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets. I mean its older, intramural denotation: the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.  — William Deresiewicz

A few days ago, The American Scholar published a revealing article by William Deresiewicz on the political correctness of the regressive left.  The article, which is beautifully written, entwines several themes, and one of those themes is that advocates of political correctness on the college and university campuses in the United States are almost exclusively drawn from two social classes: The privileged upper and upper-middle classes.

Those two classes are predominantly comprised of affluent, politically liberal or neoliberal White and Asian professionals.  They overwhelmingly attend elite private colleges and universities  — the hotbeds of political correctness — and at those institutions, they constitute by far and wide the vast majority of the student body and faculty.

If Deresiewicz is correct, the implications are interesting.  Today’s elite students will almost certainly go on to become tomorrow’s elite professionals.  I wonder if we’re going to see safe spaces in the corporations, trigger warnings on business memos, and endless cat and mouse games of “Gottcha for being Politically Incorrect!” played out in business offices.  Of course, those would be the minor changes.  The major changes would be made in politics and law.

Deresiewicz’s article is a long one, but an excellent read.

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: An Award Winning Blog

Ed Darrell is a teacher and gentleman from Texas who has created an award winning blog called, “Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub“.  He is also a staunch defender of truth and accuracy in a day and age when both of those things seemed too often scorned.

Ed is knowledgeable in a variety of subjects, including history, economics, geography, and education; and he is scientifically literate.  It’s hard not to be impressed by the man.

Have I mentioned yet that Ed’s blog has won the prestigious Golden Primate Award, which is given out exclusively to the very best blogs on the internet?  Well it has!  And if you check it out, I think you will agree that his blog deserves it too!

Currently, over 1,000 people a day visit Ed’s blog, and it is very close to marking it’s 5,000,000th all time visitor!  If you are at all curious what a blog that can attract five million visitors looks like, go right over to Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub and check out Ed’s masterpiece!  I hope you will enjoy his blog at least as much I do!

Creativity and the Artist

a-guest-post-by-serafia-alhoNote to Readers from Paul Sunstone: 

Serafia Alho is an amazing Finnish author and blogger who I have for some time wished would do a guest post for Café Philos.  Today, she has made my wish come true.  I am excited to post here a piece she’s written exclusively for this blog, and which explores in moving, almost poetic prose both the creative process as experienced by an artist, and the challenge to that creativity posed by the darkening clouds of our times. Please welcome her!

What does it mean to create?

To create is to experience pain: it’s a deep discontent with the world in its current state. To the artist, the only way to relieve that pain is to put everything aside and to focus all their skill and energy on mending it, either succeeding in their task or continuing to try until the magnitude of the task kills them. This is why many artists drink.

To them, every day is another wrestling match against the giant known as imperfection, and they’re constantly troubled by their inability to realize their vision — tormented by the feeling of muteness that comes with seeing something, but being unable to translate it to any other living being. Sometimes what they’re trying to achieve presents itself to them like a mirage in the middle of a desert — possibly attainable, but so intangible that only the foolhardy set out to seek it. Yet they do, because they have no other choice than to do so.

Art is fueled by emotion, and a member of the audience can catch a glimpse of that, however fleetingly, when being faced by an artwork. It is what we look forward to in art, and though the receiver only rarely gets to experience the full force of what the artist had to endure for the work to get completed, we always wait for it and when it happens, we call it Great Art and celebrate it long after the artist is already dead — often consequentially marring it in the process of doing so. True art does not rely on historians or tour guides to explain itself to us: it imposes itself on you, grabs hold of you, and speaks for itself. That ability to bypass our defenses is exactly where some of the struggle of the artist stems from. How can a single human expel all that emotion? What sort of exorcism is required to drive the artist’s passion into a form that fittingly represents the thing itself, in a similar fashion an idol represents the divine manifestation of a being — not becoming the spirit, but being of the spirit, inextricably linked yet completely separate?

Some artists are born with the genius of being able to capture the essence of a thing simply by looking at it. However, most artists are forced to spend years training their hands, their eyes, their mind to bend to the task of shaping the unwilling materials they work with: partly reality itself, partly the human psyche, partly their chosen mediums like clay and paper. One single brush stroke holds within a thousand hours; one book carries a lifetime. The craft allows no cutting corners: there is no deity handing down ready-made artworks, and the effortlessness we associate with inspiration is nothing but a lie, designed to cloak the ugly mundanity of the time the artist spent unskilled, unnoticed, and mocked. We prefer to see the divinity, and take joy in perceiving the artist as something of a mystic: not quite human — and somehow not quite deserving of being one.

We think of art as cheap, perhaps because emotion is a renewable resource, and so are artists. We’ve become so desensitized to the thought of creation as an act of destruction that we think nothing of it when an artist breaks. Neither does the act of creation have any inherent value to us — only a completed artwork has meaning. The artist him- or herself naturally never thinks like this, nor would it be possible for him or her to. They know that most of the emotion, the underlying value of experiencing art, the emotion that elevates great art to true art, is burned up in the very kiln that makes the artist. The audience only ever sees what comes out from the oven, and they have no interest in the shards and pieces making up the bulk of what’s needed to create single artwork.

What then is an artist to do when their source of creative fuel is suddenly overtaken by an even greater emotion, one that chokes or even cripples them with such a force that even creation itself suddenly loses all its meaning? It does happen — it has happened — it’s currently happening all over the world when millions of people have had to face the looming sense of doom that is the US presidential election.

Best-selling authors have had to ask their publishers to move their deadlines. Projects are stalled, professional creators drink themselves to sleep. All their motivations suddenly in ashes, the small insignificancies in life they’ve set out to express suddenly uprooted by the very real, and very visible, wrongs going on right under all our noses. To some, it’s felt like the destruction of the world as they’ve known it.

Art grows best at the edges of life, not in the rocky ugliness of unbending realism, and so it’s no wonder so many creators are grinding to a standstill. The conventional advice given to artists in times of hardship is to integrate it into their creation: to ingest it, stem and all, and to keep creating whatever happens. In that sense, artists are the shamans of the modern day: they take upon themselves the poison that others are unable or unwilling to face, and through doing so they bring order out of chaos, good out of evil, and share it with the world.

But it’s a risky business, being a shaman. Although they alone are said to have the skills to travel to the Underworld, not all of them come back from there. It is a terrifying feeling when your work suddenly loses its meaning, especially if that work is only half complete. The feeling of importance is not a voluntary act, and it leaves us artists with only one of two options: to toss out the artwork out completely, or to change, to drink the poison despite knowing some of us are never coming back. Time and again the birth of new art movements have been in parallel with the turning points of history, and maybe this time will later be remembered as the starting point of a yet to be explored form of human expression, one that better reflects the sense of alarming immediacy now coursing through our social media.

Pain will always flow with and from creation. May some day, when time has passed, only the beauty be remembered.