Overcoming the temptations of conservatism, with the good people of Cranford

Even for progressives, being “conservative” is not necessarily a bad thing. A great many of us are conservative in at least some ways. Maybe we don’t like to try new foods, or we have some routines we really don’t want to change.

And this type of conservatism doesn’t necessarily match up with our political affiliation. My late step-dad (the good one, the one who kinda sorta shared in a Nobel Peace Prize) was a diehard Democrat and quite progressive for his time politically, but personally he was, shall we say, set in his ways. It’s possible that his lifestyle conservatism gave him the sense of background stability that let him be more open to new ideas for making the world a better place, and for living and working in places very unlike his Midwestern origins.

In contrast with this lifestyle conservatism, there’s also what we might call social or political conservatism. This worldview is focused on preserving institutions and traditions, and this is what we usually mean by conservatism. These folks want the security of knowing that things will continue to be how they expect them to be. But that’s not realistic. Things do change!

(And before we go any further, let me note that the “turn back the clock” mentality associated with Donald Trump and his followers is not what I’m talking about. Some political scientists call that mentality “radical conservatism” – these folks very much want change. True conservatives emphatically do not.)

Given that change is unavoidable, what are our realistic options for encouraging conservatives to make their peace with it?

gaskellRecently I was rewatching one of my favorite BBC mini-series, Cranford, based on the novel of the same name (and several shorter works) by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gaskell. Her books helped open people’s eyes to the human costs of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and she’s also known for being good friends with Charlotte Brontë.

Cranford isn’t like her “heavier” novels. It’s a sympathetic and often humorous look at life in a cozy village where ongoing sameness is a virtue. And yet, things do change. People come and go, loved ones die, technology advances.

This time while I watched the show, I realized that Gaskell was showing us different ways that even the most conservative people can begin to accept new ways of doing things.

1. When the change is obviously and indisputably for the best. Jem Hearne, a carpenter, falls from a tree and suffers a nasty compound fracture of his arm. Standard medical practice would be to remove the arm – but even if Hearne survived the surgery, he would no longer be able to work. A newly arrived Continue reading

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Beyond love/hate binaries

Quick! What do e-cigarettes, fossil fuels, and Downton Abbey all have in common?

E-cigarettes are great – if you used to be a heavy smoker and managed to switch your nicotine addiction entirely to e-cigarettes, which are much less likely to cause lung cancer. E-cigarettes are kind of terrible, though, if you’re a teen who tried them a few times then found yourself hooked on nicotine, which is not without its own health risks, and which can pretty much control your ability to feel okay, once you’ve let it. And all too many people who use e-cigarettes end up using regular cigarettes too.

Fossil fuels? Obviously we’d rather be using Earth-friendly renewable sources of energy, but if the year is 2022 and you find yourself suddenly needing to cross a continent or ocean in a matter of hours, then fossil fuels will come to your rescue.

E-cigarettes and fossil fuels are both what we might call “ambiguously valenced” products – good for some people in some circumstances, bad for other people or in other circumstances. Other examples could include, hm, beef, whiskey, morphine, guns. I’m sure there are many others. (And there are also ambiguously valenced activities: abortion, jumping from airplanes…)

The trouble is, “good sometimes, bad sometimes” involves more nuance than we generally want. Nuance takes mental effort. We’d rather like or dislike something than have to call on more complicated feelings.

Sometimes, something many people think is bad turns out to be somewhat good. Both cannabis and chemicals classified as “psychedelics” may have valuable medicinal properties.

And sometimes, something we think of as good turns out to be not so great, like Bill Cosby.

When things are ambiguously valenced, it’s harder to deal with them. People who want to quit e-cigarettes get less support from others, because those others may think there’s really nothing wrong with e-cigarettes, especially compared to the alternative. (It’s also hard to get funding to help people quit. Grant reviewers don’t necessarily see the need for it.)

Why am I thinking about this, and what does it have to do with Downton Abbey?

I finished reading an interesting book yesterday: Orwell’s Roses, by Rebecca Solnit. It’s an exploration Continue reading

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When Principles meet Loyalty, who wins?

I was probably right there on the Berkeley campus when the package arrived. I’d finally resumed work on my bachelor’s degree, and I also had a university office job, so I spent much of my time there. Thankfully, the package didn’t come into my hands, so I wasn’t on the receiving end of the Unabomber’s eighth attack. A grad student named John Hauser was – the enclosed bomb blew up his arm, and he only survived because a previous Unabomber victim was nearby and used his necktie as a tourniquet.

The Unabomber’s campaign of terror lasted another ten years, killing three people and injuring 23 others. Eventually, he mailed out a massive “manifesto” explaining his worldview, insisting on its publication. After much discussion with the FBI, a major newspaper agreed to publish it, in the hope that someone would recognize his writing style.

And someone did.

David Kaczynski had a trove of letters his brother had written over the years, and going back through them, he discovered phrases very much like those in the manifesto. With his wife’s encouragement, he reported his suspicions to the FBI. Ted Kaczynski was captured, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

I’ve always been intrigued by the story of David Kaczynski. What was it like to make that phone call? To turn in his own brother? But he had to act, or more people would surely die.

And I’ve always been intrigued, too, by the fact that we find his story so remarkable. Why was it surprising? Because we expect personal loyalty to outrank – to “trump” – principles. Or rather, sure, Continue reading

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From clickbait to transcendent meaning

This evening the weather was perfect for reading outside, and that’s what we were doing, enjoying the rustling leaves overhead, the trickle of water from our little fountain, and the antics of four of our cats, when my phone gave a beep. It was a message, in Messenger, from one of my neighbors. The message said, “Look who died, in an accident I think you know him…? so sorry,” with a couple of emojis and a link.

Naturally, I was terribly curious. I didn’t click the link, though. The message looked very like the sort of clickbait my mother-in-law had recently gotten from a friend’s hacked account, and I expect my neighbor is better with punctuation. Also, upon reflection, I also realized that this neighbor and I haven’t had that many conversations, so she doesn’t “think” I know various people. Rather, for any given person, she either knows for sure or doesn’t have a clue. Sure enough, a few minutes later she sent another message – don’t click the link, because she’d been hacked.

My big project for the past year or so has been studying the ways that people can make messages and ideas more dramatic and impactful. These techniques are familiar to anyone who’s encountered clickbait, but they’re also used in social movements, ranging from those encouraging us to broaden our ethical sensibilities (like caring more about nature) to those pushing us to contract them (as in mass violence, where leaders might want us to make war against people we’ve known and liked for years).

I’ve come up with five families of techniques that are commonly used to make information more exciting and interesting. They’re generally the same things that make art more visually interesting and music more emotionally moving, but they’re used here as ideas rather than part of the physical world. I’m sure I’ll write more about them here after I’ve found a good way to publish my work, but for now, I’ll just note that two of these techniques seem to me to be especially powerful.

The first is the contrast between existence and non-existence, that is, referring to birth or, especially, death. Research has found that making people think about death can make them more anxious and distressed (naturally!). Beyond that, though, sharp contrasts attract our attention, and as contrasts go, this is one of the sharpest.

The second is the realization or discovery of something you care about that was previously hidden from Continue reading

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Fantasy worlds as thought experiments

Reading a fantasy or science fiction novel gives your imagination a good workout. Not only are you constantly watching for clues to help you paint a coherent picture of the story world and how it works, you’re sharing the viewpoint of a character (or several) whose problems are probably very different from your own. As with reading any fiction, you gain empathy for others – you are literally practicing perspective-taking. With fiction set in other worlds, however, you also learn to see your own world differently, experiencing this world’s problems without the biases that would intrude from mapping your own identity into the story (as one may do with historical fiction), and potentially gaining real-world insights. Also, spending the time mentally inside another world gives you a refreshing break from your own, especially if this other world is somewhere wonderfully strange.

Of course, if the world you’re having to learn is too strange, spending time there becomes more work than fun, and you might give up. Authors have to make tradeoffs between originality and familiarity. Fortunately, there are – well, not tricks exactly, but techniques – that authors can use to help. They can model their world on ours, hence the endless stream of fantasy novels featuring European-style castles, knights, et cetera. They can give their characters problems that, although challenging, are also very simple – all it takes to save Middle Earth is the destruction of Sauron’s ring. Or they can give us a point-of-view character who’s naïve and has to learn how things work too, alongside the reader.

My partner and I both love the Murderbot books, Martha Wells’s series about a human-shaped, artificial intelligence “Security Unit” that illegally hacks its governor module to get control over its body, manages its intense anxiety by binging on soap operas, and finds itself (to its horror) making friends. To be honest, Wells doesn’t use any of those “help the reader” techniques in this series, so it takes some work to follow the story at first, but the books are short and immensely fun. Since I liked them so much, someone – I’m pretty sure it was local author Nina Kiriki Hoffman – suggested I also try another series by Martha Wells, The Books of the Raksura. I did and I loved them. I’ve read the five main Raksura books twice now, and this week I was delighted when my partner decided to try them too.

The Raksura books, which begin with The Cloud Roads, are a series inspired by its author’s background in anthropology. There are probably dozens of intelligent species sharing a world in which magic is real but rather limited, and which is most definitely not Earth. Our point-of-view character, Moon, is so naïve that he doesn’t even know what his shapeshifting species is called, but, as any reader might guess, he soon learns that he’s Raksura. A Raksura can just look ordinary and fit in well with other ordinary folk, but they (at least some of them) can also transform into a winged predator that apparently looks something like a gorgeous, glorious cross between a dragon and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Cover art from The Cloud Roads:


Not long after he started reading The Cloud Roads, my partner started telling about parallels he was noticing between the world where the Raksura live and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series. I hadn’t noticed them at all. The Sharing Knife books are set in an alternate version of North America – we start the story among farmers living in a fantasy version of Ohio (though it’s not called that), spend time both with Anglo-types and Native-types, and eventually travel the entire length of the Mississippi River (though again, it’s not called that).

But he had a point, and that brings me to my own point. I hadn’t really considered before that, just like Continue reading

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Growing up “meta”

Our young friend Maddie recently celebrated her first birthday. Maddie loves berries and books! We do too! And thus, my partner and I gave her three books about berries.

One is a book about colors of fruit.berry_colors

One is a counting book. Did you know that technically, grapes are berries?


berry_storyAnd the other is a story. A cute little mouse finds a great big strawberry, but the narrator warns the mouse that a bear who lives in the woods would also like the strawberry. Bears are big and scary! As the narrator goes on and on, the mouse becomes more and more concerned. On one page, we see that the mouse has bound the berry in chains, holding the key to its padlock. On another page, both the mouse and berry are wearing Groucho disguises. Finally, the narrator makes a suggestion. The best way to solve the problem is for the mouse to cut the berry in half and share it. With the bear, I assumed? But no, that’s not suggested at all. With the narrator! And this is done, and having eaten half a humongous berry, the mouse is quite content.

My partner read me the story when the book first arrived, and I took it at face value. Today, though, before delivering the book to Maddie, I read it for myself. This time, I realized that, uh oh, the narrator was probably manipulating the mouse’s emotions to get some of the berry for themself. And while there’s an important role in literature for the “unreliable narrator,” who isn’t disclosing all their own knowledge and motivation to the reader, it hardly seems suitable to put the person reading aloud to the child in that role. Parent as trickster? Hm.

I grew up in what I now think of as a golden age for irony and meta-awareness in children’s media. My younger sister watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street back to back, and the contrast between them was striking. It wasn’t just the pace, although that’s obviously different too, but the tone. Continue reading

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Real-life hopepunk

I’ve been meaning to write about hopepunk. One of my online friends, Susan Kaye Quinn, is a novelist in this newly recognized genre, and today she posted “A Brief History of Hopepunk.” Another online friend, the novelist P.J. Manney, has been hosting a Facebook group devoted to what she calls “The New Mythos,” recognizing the importance of giving people realistic hope for the future by showing them how people can work together ethically, even in very trying circumstances. That’s the essence of hopepunk. It’s what Aja Romano – in a terrific summary – refers to as “weaponizing kindness and optimism.”

Usually when I talk about the genres we can choose for our group-defining stories (meta-narratives), I’m talking about the directions in which we’re collectively headed. Are things getting better, like with progress? Are they getting worse – is there a potential catastrophe that we’d better avoid? But that’s not the only way we can categorize our meta-narratives. Another way is to think about what we, as individuals, can do as part of a larger group. That’s where hopepunk and its alternatives come in.

In 2017, the novelist Alexandra Rowland coined the term with this tweet: “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.” She later elaborated on her idea here, initially, and then in greater detail here.

Grimdark, as a literary genre, is all about cynicism and despair. There’s really no point in trying to do anything, because it will just get torn down. It’s grit, and it’s realism, and ugh. For most of the people living in the world of Game of Thrones, this is their reality. It’s common in cyberpunk, too – think Blade Runner.

But that’s not our only choice. You can also stand up to darkness and destruction, against all odds, not really expecting a final, conclusive victory, but fighting for what you know is good and right. Like the people of Ukraine. That’s hopepunk.

Putin, we are told, is in the grip of a Restoration meta-narrative, unleashing destruction to restore the borders of Imperial Russia. If the tsars controlled it, he wants it. Zelensky, by contrast, says the story of today’s Ukraine is the story of sustaining the land to which today’s Ukrainians have a personal Continue reading

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In love with the land – the real clash of civilizations

What does it mean to love the land? Two very different things, apparently.

Today I was reading Ezra Klein’s column in the New York Times, where he was talking about anti-liberalism. Remember, we have multiple meanings for “liberal,” and this one means, to quote Klein, “the shared assumptions of the West: a belief in human dignity, universal rights, individual flourishing and the consent of the governed.” In general, both the Democrats and Republicans believe in this kind of “liberalism.”

By contrast, anti-liberalism is what we find on the wayyyy far right, with the kinds of thinkers who inspire fascists and who generally reject, for example, Christianity, since after all, it’s about human dignity and all that supposedly weak-minded stuff. What do they believe in, then? As Klein puts it, among other things, anti-liberalism says that “our truest identities are rooted in the land in which we’re born.”

I immediately thought back to a book my friend Doug was telling me about yesterday, Down to Earth, by the French philosopher Bruno Latour. Based on the publisher’s summary, it’s about the importance of rethinking what it means to “belong to a territory,” because being connected with the land is vitally important to being able to address ecological crises effectively.

So, on the one hand, we have identification with land being associated with scary far-right extremists. On the other, we have identification with land being important for the environment. What does this mean?

This actually came up for me a few months ago, listening to a talk by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s one Continue reading

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Mindset and “genius” – life lessons from the Schumanns

One of the most popular – and practically useful – concepts to emerge in psychology in recent decades has been Carol Dweck’s concept of “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets. Dweck, a Stanford researcher, found that in any given context, people tend to think of their abilities either as already determined and forming part of their sense of who they are, or as changeable, where their success will depend largely on their own efforts to develop their abilities. She calls these “fixed” or “growth” mentalities, and they also show up in her work as “entity” versus “incremental” ways of thinking. This is basically what people are talking about when they distinguish between talent and skill – one comes naturally and the other takes disciplined work.

In practical terms, this means if someone thinks being smart is an either/or thing (“fixed” mindset), then doing poorly on a test can be devastating. On the other hand, if being smart is a process (“growth” mindset), then doing poorly on a test is useful or even valuable, because it highlights where you should turn your attention next. The same ideas also come up in criminal justice – if you think a person is bad by nature, then prison will just be a place to keep them out of trouble, but if you think people can change, then prison should include educational opportunities and rehabilitation.

(I’m not claiming Dweck was totally original with this. It reminds me of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, in which processes are more real than substances. It’s also closely linked, I think, to the Buddhist teaching that suffering comes from our unwillingness to accept that nothing can ever last. We want some things to be fixed and certain, for our basic sense of security and predictability, but there are limits on how far we can actually go with that, given how biology works. Dweck’s contribution, I’d say, is that she gives us a practical, fairly easy way to shift our thinking that can improve our daily lives.)

Today I learned a fascinating new thing – this mindset distinction actually plays an important role in Western cultural history: the idea of the “creative genius.”

My friend Barbara Harris recently started an online book club as part of her work with the Oregon Bach Festival. It’s free, anyone can join, and it’s fun. Our first book, The Little Bach Book by David Gordon, was mostly about what it was like to live and work in Leipzig in the early 1700s. Johann Sebastian Bach was not an admired superstar during his lifetime – rather, he was a hard-working, salaried musician Continue reading

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Putin, Ukraine, and the “glory” trap

As Russia, under the determined leadership of Vladimir Putin, shocks the world with its invasion of Ukraine, Americans find ourselves wondering: Why????

Here’s what the New York Times says about Putin’s position.

“Mr. Putin has described the Soviet disintegration as a catastrophe that robbed Russia of its rightful place among the world’s great powers and put it at the mercy of a predatory West.”

and, “Mr. Putin has also insisted that Ukraine and Belarus are fundamentally parts of Russia, culturally and historically,” that is, that “Ukrainians are ‘one people’ with Russians, living in a failing state controlled by Western forces determined to divide and conquer the post-Soviet world.”

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had been closely allied with Russia, just as Belarus is, but in 2014 they shifted toward the West and had been aspiring to eventually join NATO and perhaps the European Union.

So, in essence, the problem comes down to two motivations, which Putin has apparently decided are worth a huge investment in Russian lives and Russian economic well-being.

The first motivation is a strong desire to shift where Russians are on what we might call a fear-trust axis. Fear and trust are mutually exclusive, and Ukraine has had generations of reasons to mistrust Continue reading

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