“Bright Eyes” and La Dolce Vita

Although I finished my PhD years ago, I have the good fortune to continue to be welcome at the weekly lab meetings for my advisor, Gerard Saucier, where he talks with his grad students about the many interesting things he’s working on and thinking about. Today’s meeting covered what he described as a “smorgasbord” of topics, among them cultural differences in value hierarchies, or more simply put, what people believe is important.

Several philosophers have proposed their own hierarchies of values, like Francis Hutcheson and Jeremy Bentham. In general, at the very top of the hierarchies are more universal values: the well-being of everyone. Next comes the well-being of one’s own family and friends, then more abstract good things like art and science, then one’s own interests that don’t cause harm to others, and at the bottom, more selfish gratifications that may involve treating others poorly. In other words, if your highest principles are the public good, you could use this ranking to decide how to prioritize things you might be interested in doing.

But in his research, Gerard has learned something interesting, which caught my attention in the past, and which he mentioned today also – there’s another familiar value ordering that’s different from the philosophers’ hierarchies. It goes like this: At the very top, we have success – not necessarily money or material goods or with a disregard for others, but pursuing one’s ambitions with regard for intelligence, wisdom, family security, and self-respect. After that comes true friendship, enjoying life, being responsible, honest, and broad-minded, in a “world Continue reading

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The remarkable story of Little and Little (2021)

This morning I read a delightful academic paper, with an even more delightful backstory. The lead author, Sabine Little, is a professor at the University of Sheffield, specializing in “Languages Education,” especially multilingualism. Her native language is German. So when the Littles had a child, they naturally decided to raise him to be bilingual, with Sabine speaking German, and Toby’s father his native English. When Toby was 4, however, he asked his mother to stop speaking German to him. Then, when he was 6, he asked her to resume, as he had realized he wanted to learn German. He also asked if they could “do research together.”

I imagine that at the age of 6, Toby’s idea of “research” was that it was something potentially worth his attention because he knew it was important to Sabine. As a mother, I know how it feels when your child decides to try something because they see you doing it, although my own memories along these lines were much less consequential. I’m thinking of when my younger son was 2 or 3 and wanted to try some of the foods he saw me eating. His initial reactions to red salsa were pretty amusing, but in the end favorable; his conclusions about romaine lettuce went the other direction. Nevertheless, I was flattered.

Toby and Sabine, however, were making a much larger commitment. As they explain in the paper, “Through a joint research diary, we regularly and rigorously chronicled both language-related conversations and our emotions linked to the process of bringing back the heritage language.” Over two and a half years, that research diary ended up at 83 typed pages, or 25,450 words. And, “Since Toby had proposed the study himself, his desire to be involved in all Continue reading

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How China’s ruling story helped kill 2.6 million people, and counting

So far, more than 2,640,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19. Thanks to the vaccines, maybe the death toll won’t climb much higher, and maybe life will soon return to normal. But is there anything China could have done to nip this disaster in the bud?

This week I watched the PBS Frontline episode from February 2, “China’s COVID Secrets,” and I learned that the importance to the Chinese government of its Stability meta-narrative may have played a big factor.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that as far as I know, we have no basis whatsoever to disparage China’s rulers by implying that they’re indifferent to the pandemic and the toll it’s taken on the world. I don’t know them and I don’t have access to that kind of information about them, but I personally think it’s important – without solid evidence to the contrary – to assume that people (yes, even politicians!) are basically trying to do their best. (And all too often we do have solid evidence to the contrary, but one has to feel sorry for some public figures in this regard.)

I also want to make it clear that a great many Chinese people, especially the scientists and health care professionals, have worked very hard and effectively since the first days of the outbreak, doing what they could to understand the new virus and protect people from it.

Nevertheless…

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A thousand years of grievance? Here???

When I write about speeches that get people really riled up – as part of our research team’s ongoing study of genocide – one of my favorite examples is Slobodan Milošević’s Gazimestan speech. About a million Serbs showed up to hear this 1989 speech, which revitalized a 600-year-old grievance (the Serbian loss at the Battle of Kosovo, against the Ottoman Turks) and led to unthinkable violence (the Serbian “ethnic cleansing” and genocide against their Bosnian neighbors, who had largely adopted the Ottomans’ religion during centuries of occupation).

A 600-year-old grievance! That couldn’t happen here. Right? After all, the United States is less than 250 years old. The first permanent English settlement here wasn’t until 1620. And yet…

Let’s start with today’s partisan polarization. We have the Democrats, affiliated with an “urban elite,” and the Republicans, now dominated by a populist, nativist mindset most thoroughly entrenched in rural communities. And even though we often think of the split as epitomized by, say, New York City and Los Angeles versus “Flyover Country” in the Midwest, it’s also generally understood that the sense of grievance among Trump’s supporters is partly fed by unresolved resentments from the U.S. Civil War. This “Lost Cause” mentality fueled anger against plans to remove commemorations of Confederate leaders, flaring up at Charlottesville and shifting to a new Lost Cause in the January 6 riots.

What I hadn’t realized until reading a post somewhere recently was that the settlement patterns leading up to the North-South split in the U.S. Civil War had essentially mirrored the two sides of the English Continue reading

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The WWE model of American politics

dutch_savageWay back in the day, my Grandpa Ben was a big fan of Portland Wrestling. A quiet man otherwise, he’d cheer on Dutch Savage and boo Bull Ramos. I was maybe 10, and I didn’t see the appeal. Looking back, I have no idea whether Grandpa believed the theater or enjoyed the parody. He also liked Westerns, so maybe scripted drama was his thing; it’s hard to say from this distance.

Some 40 or 50 years from now, Americans will wonder the same thing about their Republican grandparents. What did they really believe, way back in the “Teens” and ‘20s? Did they honestly think Donald Trump and the many politicians in his pocket were sincerely fighting for their well-being (without any policies of their own except to oppose the Democrats at every turn)? Or had they all become so cynical about government as a means to make our lives better that they cheered on the Capitol rioters and the Congressional obstructionists “flipping the bird” at the American people in every vote?

Way back in 1988, Donald Trump got his start in show business with a WrestleMania event supposedly taking place at Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza. Who would have imagined, back then, that Trump would go Continue reading

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Hacking your mood with a Strawberry Letter

A couple of weeks ago, I popped into the First National Taphouse to pick up the dinner we’d ordered, and on their sound system was a song I hadn’t heard, or thought about, in years. It was the Brothers Johnson, singing their 1977 hit, “Strawberry Letter #23,” which has a fun, bouncy melody for the chorus, “A present froooom you, Strawberry Letter 22.” Or, alternatively, the line, “Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue.” Check it out!

The premise is that the singer/narrator and his lover have been exchanging “strawberry letters” as tokens of love, and having just received her Strawberry Letter #22, this song is his response, #23. It was confusing at the time – we all thought the song title should or did include #22, not #23.

Anyway! After that Taphouse meal, I wrote “Strawberry Letter #23” into my ongoing, multi-page do-list and now, whenever I scroll down and come across it, voilà! A cheery, bouncy tune begins playing in the back of my mind, infusing its positive energy into my day. (Alternatively, if pop-funk is too perky for you, try this extremely infectious sea shanty, a recent TikTok craze.)

It’s basically the same phenomenon described in this recent Washington Post article about rewatching old movies and shows – and the same thing I wrote about a month or two ago, about taking a mental stay-cation. We can hack our own moods by setting aside some time to deliberately put our attention Continue reading

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Fairness and the “R” word

Last week I shared my concern that efforts to hold the United States accountable for what our society has done to handicap some population groups could lead to some very negative side-effects. That is, our discussions of collective responsibility could lead to a backlash and a disavowal of democracy altogether. If we shift to a form of government where citizens are only minimally involved – an authoritarian style where we leave responsibility to the person in charge – some might find that liberating.

As an example of such accountability efforts, I mentioned the idea of “reparations,” such as the original plan to give the newly emancipated African Americans 40 acres and a mule, and more recent suggestions by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

black_farmer_with_mule

One of my readers (RT), made the point that “if people are disadvantaged in the present, we have a collective responsibility to do something about it regardless of what happened in the past.” I agree! Unfortunately, as this timely op-ed by Heather C. McGhee makes clear, the United States isn’t doing Continue reading

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One freedom may be the biggest threat to democracy

Today I want to talk about a perverse incentive that some Americans may have for preferring a more authoritarian government – it can give them a certain type of freedom that we don’t have in a democracy, the freedom to ignore collective responsibilities.

As we all know, there’s been considerable discussion lately about how much white America, and many white Americans, have profited from the labors of Black people. This Brookings Institute paper sums it up – when you compare the average “wealth” or “net worth” of white and Black Americans, the difference is shocking. If you add up the value of your house (if you own it), your car, your retirement fund, whatever’s in your bank accounts, and whatever other “stuff” you have, and subtract the balances left on your mortgage, your car loan, your student loans, and whatever else you owe like credit card debt, that’s your net worth. For white families, the average net worth is $171,000. For Black families, it’s only $17,600. The average white high school drop-out has a higher net worth than the average Black college graduate! Hard work and personal initiative cannot reliably make up the difference – there’s a huge gap. And that’s behind the reparations movement, the idea that we should collectively do something to make things more fair.

The paper notes that reparations are not unprecedented – we’ve supported compensation for Native Americans and Japanese-Americans, and we required Germany to compensate Holocaust victims after World War II. But although some slave owners received their own reparations to compensate them for the loss of their human “property,” the Emancipation promise of “40 acres and a mule” for African Americans was quickly rescinded. The paper also describes how Black Americans were largely excluded from the New Deal and the G.I. Bill – and we all know the attitude many Americans have toward Affirmative Action programs.

40_acres_mule

And then consider all the broken promises the U.S. government made to the hundreds of thousands of Native people deprived of their ancestral lands and livelihoods. Today’s Native people have the highest poverty rates and lowest education levels of any major population group in America, problems that have been compounded by Covid-19.

A great many of us would conclude that we as a nation are collectively indebted to the descendants of these people who were wronged by our government and our ancestors.

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The hidden danger of stories – and a friendly alternative

Audiences loved the 2019 Downton Abbey movie, but some reviewers found fault. The New York Times review noted there was “barely enough plot to go around.” The critic for RogerEbert.com frames it more positively: It’s a movie about seeing people take “care of the little details,” an “opportunity to watch people who are very good at ordinary, non-lethal tasks do those things with skill and imagination.” The general lack of suspense is, as a software geek might say, “not a bug, but a feature.”

In my last post, I took some pains to describe precisely what is, and is not, a “story.” That is, formally, a story or narrative has a protagonist facing a challenge, leading to suspense and then its resolution. And yet, although I love a good story as much as anyone, I don’t want to come across as a “story snob.”

We don’t need the conflict/resolution structure of a formal “story” to enjoy spending time immersed in another world or a different point of view.

This past year has been an excellent time to engage our imagination elsewhere. I described a few weeks’ mental recreation in Trieste in a recent blog post, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. My partner and I had great fun this year watching several “slice of life” anime series – we get to know some characters, things happen, other things happen, time passes. There’s no grand story arc, beyond “our protagonist(s) adapt(s) to changing situations.”

One of our favorites was We Never Learn: Bokuben, set in a modern Japanese high school. Yuiga is a very good student, but his family is poor, so he has to tutor three girls Continue reading

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When is a story not a story?

This question comes up a lot in my line of work – honestly, all too often. Let’s start with a definition. A story is a description of a particular event or series of events with a focus on one or more problems and their resolution, over time. It’s coherent; all the information in the story is in some way relevant. And it has emotional resonance; reading or hearing a story leads you to feel some suspense, followed by its relief.

irisOne thing that isn’t a story is a description of sensations and impressions. It could be the wildflowers you saw on your walk through the woods, a strange cloud in the sky, the interesting melody that’s stuck in your head, the happiness you felt when your extra-shy kitten reached with his extra-big paws to grab at your hand. None of those are stories. This distinction points out a key difference between people with moderately advanced dementia and people with healthier brains, by the way: Once you’ve got dementia, your brain still has plenty of input of what’s going on around you – you still see and hear things – but you tend to lose your ability to connect your impressions coherently, which includes being able to tell a full-scale story about them.

Cultural scripts, which include what psychologists call “event schemas,” aren’t stories either. For example, when you got to the supermarket, there’s a cultural script you need Continue reading

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