An “Ode to Joy” in a Difficult Moment

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For those searching for joy (and who isn’t), I offer a musical destination. For those searching for defiance — making a statement — I offer the same music, played differently. In both cases the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You’ve heard it before even if you don’t know it. TV admen for cars and toothpaste made sure.

In a lifetime of listening, the most joyous performance known to me was played by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Charles Munch on April 27, 1956. You might have been brought to tears or thrilled by this music before — and this rendition is thrilling — but, the combustible singers and players, “drunk with fire” in the words of Schiller used by Beethoven, generated an unexpected smile impossible to prevent even if someone paid me to be grim. I’ll give the source below, if you care to put your money where my grin is.

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Unfortunately, not only admen and women turn musical art into a tool. Politicians do too. The Ninth was used in Hitler’s Nazi domain to celebrate his birthday, putting the requested performers in a dilemma: to play or not to play, that was the question. One man in particular gave a peculiar, but memorable response. He played the Ninth, especially the finale’s “Ode to Joy” — including heavenly words about a time when “all men become brothers” — as if to transform the celebration into something joyless, toxic, and dystopian. Indeed, until you experience it, you cannot think this piece could be played in this way. Of course, the conductor was already faced with something beyond imagining: the corruption of the most civilized nation of his time, one he called home.

Here is what Michael Tanner wrote about the concert in notes to a CD of the complete performance:

In April, 1942, (the conductor Wilhelm) Furtwängler was tricked by Goebbels into conducting this work on the eve of the Führer’s birthday in Berlin, something he had always managed to avoid before. Try as he would to insist that he was unwell, had commitments in Vienna, and so on, he was forced to take part and conduct it. … And in the last movement, after stupendous ecstasies and paens, the unspeakable happens: Furtwängler always accelerated wildly for the closing bars, suggesting a barely controlled excitement. But on this occasion the last bars are a nightmare of nihilism, a stampede towards the abyss, such as I have never heard in any other music. It is as if Furtwängler is doing what Thomas Mann’s fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn says he will do in Dr Faustus: take back the Ninth Symphony, because all the hope and aspirations of the noble side of humanity have come to naught. But instead of writing a new piece to negate the Ninth, Furtwängler does the unthinkable and revokes the work by the way he plays its own ending.

Tanner is not the only person with this opinion. Lynn Rene Bayley wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “Even if he was not really trying to hurl Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the face of Hitler, one definitely gets the feeling that, in his mind on that day, this “Ode to Joy” had become an act of defiance, almost distorting the music (and words) to produce an almost apocalyptic vision of the score. In short, one gets the feeling that Furtwängler was not certain whether he, or German art, would survive the Nazi horror, the war, and the Holocaust.”

Hyperbolic? You can be the judge, since the last four minutes of the performance are preserved below. But do find a way to listen to the piece in some other performance, too. The abyss is not a friendly place.

The top photos are of Charles Munch, the second being the cover art for the joyous performance I lead with. The recording of the Munch/Boston Symphony performance is produced by the St. Laurent Studio, catalogue #YSL T-315. The CD includes a rendition of Roussel’s Piano Concerto and only the finale of the Beethoven. Trust me, you won’t feel shorted by the absence of the first three movements. It can be obtained directly from St. Laurent Studios. Note that prices are in Canadian currency. It is also available here.

When Words Fail

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There are times, whether in therapy or in life, when words are inadequate. Listening to a story of heartbreak, sometimes my heart broke a little, too. If my patient watched me carefully (no failure on his part if he didn’t), he saw the tears in my eyes. Words would have intruded on what was happening between us. In a sense, the air, the touching contact of our eyes — the silence — did that which could be done.

This moment in US history cries — and cries out — for a response, but too many words have already been written and spoken. I am reminded of the composer John Cage, a wry and brilliant man. His most famous piece is entitled 4’33.” The composition consists entirely of silence. Quiet is appropriate for mourning, is it not?

Whether in words or in silence, compassion only goes so far. Expressed opinion only goes so far. But the emotional shards need removal, thus grieving comes first for most of us.

The work of therapy begins with the processing of pain. Sadness often robs us of motivation. Fear can paralyze. There are more catastrophes predicted than realized. Unrestrained anger turns you into the thing you hate. Rage is a motivator, but not easily prolonged or healthily maintained. No psychologist would urge you to try.

What then? Prior to counseling’s end you must change yourself if your goal is to change the world, whether one’s small personal globe or the bigger one.

Marcus Aurelius wrote,

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.

Like the wrestler we take a breath, search our ingenuity, and get up when we have been thrown to the mat.

A return to the fight is essential whether in therapy or life. Action — exerting control of what you can control — defeats the sense of helplessness.

In therapy and in life we are called to heroism. Courage is required to take on uncomfortable truths, beginning with those about ourselves. Difficult actions must follow. No heroism is needed to pour gasoline on your heart and light a match. Reason is your friend; emotion, not always.

Take responsibility and act responsibly.

Nor does one profit by the simple wish for a result, a passive hope for a change, or a patient wait for others to lift you. Freedom from your demons, in therapy and in life, must be won.

Our demons teach us who we are and what we are made of. Are they perhaps, in this way, our friends? Do we owe a peculiar debt to our challenges? You cannot think otherwise when you watch your 14-month-old child learn to master his universe, but you can when you have been decked. Regardless, whatever we want we must make it so.

Therapy is not an endeavor of a few weeks or months if the goal desired is substantial. Whether in therapy or in life you will succeed only if you persevere. Expect setbacks. Whether in therapy or in life, many make a fast start out of the gate, but fade before the stretch run. The finish line is not achieved and the problems then persist. Lasting dedication of your entire spirit triumphs over both temporary grievances and passing enthusiasms. No distractions are permitted for the true of heart.

Cato said:

When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched. … Good judgment without action is worthless.

Whether in therapy or in life the voice is yours, the choice is yours, and the action must be yours.

The painting above is The Silence by Johann Heinrich Füssli. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

On Being Pursued for Affection

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I suppose every young man, at least in his dreams, imagines being chased by a throng of attractive admirers. Like most, however, I live in relative anonymity. If there were ever any mobs in hot pursuit of me, they must have been invisible and remarkably quiet.

Until recently, that is.

No, I haven’t become a rock star. Indeed, if crowds were to gather around me, I might have expected the attention in the heady days of my early life — back when I was a “stud-muffin.” Since you will not necessarily take the latter description on faith, you can see the proof in this detailed, antique photo. The young woman has asked that I not reveal her name:

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In any case, the pursuit I shall describe began in August. A little background is required. Stick with me.

I live in the 10th Congressional District of the State of Illinois. My representative is Republican Robert Dold. In the last Congressional election he defeated incumbent Democrat Brad Schneider. Congressman Schneider wants to take another crack at the seat he lost. The contest will be close, probably less than 5000 votes separating the winner and loser. The candidates are battling for every one of them.

That’s where I come in.

Several weeks back I wrote Mr. Schneider about a policy position on which he and I disagreed. I mentioned my past support of him and present doubts. Within a day or two, I was surprised to get a response from one of his staffers. Not the boilerplate, “form letter” email one usually gets from elected representatives, but one crafted only for me. He wrote to tell me Mr. Schneider wanted to talk to me.

Within days my wife and I had a phone conversation with the former congressman about the issue in question. “Brad,” as he asked me to call him, was a good listener, very bright, and made his case. No one changed positions, but I appreciated the 20-minutes of his time. I thought it would be a “one-off” — something not to be repeated.

Wrong.

This past week, Twitter sent an email informing me of a new “follower” (see below). No, not Mr. Schneider, but his opponent, Congressman Dold. Since I never use Twitter except to announce a new blog post, his “following” can mean only one of two things:

  1. My representative wants to read future blogs or
  2. One of his staffers is making an effort to flatter me and, I suspect, every blogger in the 10th Illinois Congressional District expected to vote.

I am not so full of myself to think Mr. Dold wishes to read my blog or even knows of its existence. I do believe, however, his staff is doing everything to garner votes, as one would expect, even to the point of dressing their candidate in the uniform of the Chicago Cubs (again, see below), a baseball team that last won a World Series in 1908, but with a large fan base in our district.

I now feel foolish for never having thought to wear a Cubs uniform in order to increase the size of my therapy practice.

Earlier I failed to mention a third player in the race. Mr. Schneider is opposed in the Democratic Party primary election by Ms. Nancy Rotering, the Mayor of Highland Park, IL. I must say, however, I’m a bit disappointed not to have been contacted by her. Doesn’t she value my vote just as much as Schneider and Dold? Who does she think she is?

What’s more, she is the only female candidate. While my wife and I are happily married, my fantasy didn’t involve being pursued by men. Moreover, I never hoped to be wanted for my vote, but for something more tangible.

The proverb tells us “everything comes to him who waits.”

Well, almost everything.

Gerald M. Stein,
You have a new follower on Twitter.
Gerald M. Stein
Rep. Robert J. Dold
@RepDold
Proudly representing the 10th District of Illinois. Follow me on Facebook & Instagram: facebook.com/RepDold | instagram.com/RepDold
Illinois Tenth District · https://dold.house.gov

The “stud muffin” poster is the work of Lauren Eldridge-Murray and can be purchased at http://www.redbubble.com/people/retrocharm/works/6008982-hi-cupcake-hi-stud-muffin?c=109437-funny/ If you mention my name, you will receive no discount. In fact, the poster might cost you a bit more.

Breaking the Code: When Words are Not What They Seem

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Plain English is hard to come by. Some of us struggle with directness, while others take diplomacy to an extreme. We are caught between people who speak with the bluntness of a club to the head and those who are so careful it is difficult to know whether they make a sound.

Worse still, some speak in code. Psychologists and other therapists do their best to break the code, to find the meaning inside.

You might have heard Governor Scott Walker’s address pulling out of the Republican Party (GOP) presidential race. You heard the words, but did you get the meaning? The first sentence of his announcement provides an example of words in disguise and an opportunity to analyze them:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.”

The “field” to which he referred includes more than a dozen competitors for the 2016 presidential nomination of the Republican Party. He went on to state it would be better if the voters had a limited number of alternatives in the run-up to producing a party standard-bearer.

The single sentence is revealing. Those 15 words did two things beyond informing us he was dropping out:

  1. The Governor gave a coded message to many of his Christian supporters.
  2. Mr. Walker offered a preposterous reason for his decision to leave the campaign. He tried to disguise his loss of public support as the cause of his decision.

The former candidate’s sentence can be decoded even without the help of the late Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi’s Enigma codes during World War II. The second word in Walker’s opening is “believe,” a powerful utterance for some of strong Christian faith. Even more significantly, he went on: “I believe I am being called …” This phrase carries with it the notion of a “calling,” associated with life direction provided by a supernatural entity. Ministers, such as Scott Walker’s father, often say they are called to the vocation of ministry. Not coincidentally, many of the candidate’s strongest supporters are on the religious right.

In effect, Mr. Walker’s sentence was partly addressed to his spiritual backers, letting them know he is keeping faith with them, and acting according to his (and their own) religious beliefs. By so doing, he provided them with a reason to think favorably of him if he chooses to run again for public office. Thus, one can imagine Mr. Walker’s desire is to be thought of as a man of God doing God’s will.

I can’t comment on the Governor’s private contact with a superior being, if indeed such occurred. Yet it is difficult to think that Scott Walker’s disappearing public support did not determine his decision. The notion that he might have ended his campaign after receiving “the call,” even were he leading in the polls, strains credulity. The Governor is playing his religious believers for chumps.

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Remember what the press said about Mr. Walker’s decision to exit the race. The following quote comes from the September 21st issue of the The Wall Street Journal:

“He led most polls in Iowa until mid-July, and regularly ranked among the top three or four contenders in national surveys of GOP primary voters. But after a lackluster performance in Wednesday’s GOP debate, he didn’t register any support in a CNN/ORC national poll conducted right afterward. …

“But his biggest problem appeared to be fundraising. Many of his top donors expressed concern in recent weeks that … he wouldn’t raise enough money to maintain a large campaign staff.”

Following Walker’s message to the faithful, the remainder of his sentence attempts to recast his political failure as an act of leadership:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.” Thus, Mr. Walker anoints himself a leader, not a loser. Moreover, he says he just wants to “help.” Wow, he is an altruist, too.

Instead of telling us all this, the Governor might have been frank:

“I have less than 1% support of the likely primary voters. I can understand why potential backers will not fund my campaign. Hats off to those who beat me.”

What Walker did, in a mere 15 words, was an act of “spin.” His simple sentence was reprehensible because he mocked his alleged faith, tried to play on the religious convictions of his followers, and fashioned himself not as the loser in the race, but as a leader who exemplified high principle and, perhaps, divine guidance.

Yes, political speech is an easy target. Who can forget Bill Clinton’s righteously angry statement, “I did not have sex with that woman!” This sentence defined “sex” as intercourse alone, thereby giving him license to deny the accusation of inappropriate behavior with a White House intern.

My conclusion is this: George Orwell, the author of 1984, was correct. We live in a time, as he predicted, when language’s meaning is torn syllable from syllable. Communication has always been hard enough. Now, not so long after Orwell imagined it, failure is sold to us as success and religious references play to the gullibility of the flock.

Sadly, much of this has occurred for millennia, but was thought dishonorable in times past. The difference now is that such deceit is considered clever by too many of those who notice, and honest by those who don’t.

Words matter, in therapy and out.

Especially in disguise.

The top images are called Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit, the work of Arcimboldo, 1590. If you take a close look, you’ll notice the painting on the left is an inversion of the one on the right. Thus, they represent a visual analogue of the essay’s topic: disguised speech. The bottom image is Governor Walker speaking in 2015, by Michael Vadon, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Well Do You Know Yourself? An Answer in Ten Minutes or Less

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We spend more time trying to understand the motivations of others than our own. Not that we aren’t focused on ourselves, but our internal machinery is more likely to ask “How shall I handle this problem?” than why you did or didn’t do something.

“What caused me to do what I just did?” is not at the top of our self-examination question list.

If we are already sure of our motives, as most of us are, self-analysis doesn’t occur. The reasons for our actions seem obvious.

For example, Donald Trump recently said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. And they’re bringing those problems with us (sic). They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

In response to criticism over his remarks, Trump countered, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”  Mr. Trump is certain of his motives without even a bone scan to prove it, but I am much less confident than he is. Is his belief about himself correct? We might ask the same question of ourselves. Ergo, my title: How Well Do You Know Yourself?

I will give you a chance to find out shortly.

I raise the topic because we aren’t as insightful about ourselves as we might be. For example, in matters like politics and religion, we arrive at our opinions intuitively, but think we reasoned them out. In fact, according to Jonathan Haidt, our attitudes are driven by instinct and bubble up from our unconscious. Only later does our logical brain kick-in and generate reasons for those predetermined opinions. The thinking cerebral cortex therefore takes the job of defense lawyer or public relations advocate to justify attitudes and make them palatable to ourselves.

Haidt says we are like monkeys riding elephants. The emotional elephant is 90% in charge of leading the way, but the monkey logician on his back thinks he is in control. I imagine you believe this about some of the people you know — the ones who fool themselves. Perhaps not yourself, however.

You might consider Mr. Trump to be like a friend who doesn’t understand himself — isn’t honest with himself. “The Donald” denies any kind of dominant, irrational, and instinctive prejudice, despite his recent comments disparaging Mexican immigrants. If you believe you are more self-aware than Mr. Trump, his example won’t cause you to question your own psychological self-rationalizing process.

Nearly everyone believes himself to be thoughtful — careful not to jump to conclusions. Indeed, you might believe the two of us are like the majority of those who answered the following Gallup telephone survey with a “yes,” saying they’d vote for a woman, a black, or a Hispanic for President.

The Gallop poll results are below. The question asked of participants comes first, then their responses:

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I don’t believe the data, at least in the top few categories. Why?

First, most of us recognize the political incorrectness of saying we wouldn’t vote for a woman, black, or Hispanic. Even to someone on the phone who promised not to share the information. Second, we are hesitant to admit our bigotry to ourselves.

Finally, look at the question again. The second sentence reads (with my italics): “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be ____, would you vote for that person?” If you are prejudiced, you could well rule out most any woman, black, or Hispanic instinctively. At the same time, however, you might say to yourself, “but if (hypothetically) he has the right stuff, then he’d get my vote.” It wouldn’t take long before you pat yourself on the back for being enlightened. In effect, you have persuaded yourself, “the person’s gender, race, or nationality isn’t important, but only the ability to do the job.” The poll, in the example just described, would produce an inaccurate result.

Now is your chance to find out who you are. The good folks at Harvard developed something called The Implicit Association Test.  Their creation is not like Gallup’s poll. They don’t ask only about your beliefs, but measure your reactions to pictures and words to uncover what your implicit (unconscious) attitude is.

You might be sure you lack bias, but the test is capable of surprising you. No guarantees either way. Perhaps you are as color blind as you think you are.

Take the 10-minute measurement: Implicit Association Test. Click on “Social Attitudes.” Then you will have at least a partial answer to the question: how well do I know myself?

There are a great many tests on the site. They deal with our imbedded reactions to race, age, overweight, sexual preference, mental illness, etc. Don’t expect, if, say, you are black, to automatically have a more favorable implicit association to blacks than to whites on the test particular to such responses.

Another point. You are likely to ask yourself whether a connection exists between preferring “white” over “black” (for example) and your chance of discriminating against someone who triggers an implicit prejudice. Not necessarily. You will find a more detailed answer imbedded within the site after you decide to take a test.

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, as Dostoevsky wrote, a hostage to those “things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?

A Man Who Didn’t Give in: Sir Nicholas Winton

 

“I work on the motto that if something isn’t impossible, there must be a way of doing it.” So said Sir Nicholas Winton when asked how he saved the lives of 669 children. Sir Nicholas died yesterday at the age of 106. Before you give up on whatever challenge faces you, get to know his story. The video documentary (above) includes a 2014 interview of Winton. I wrote this essay in 2009: To Save One Life is to Save the World/

Defining Yourself by What You Hate

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Personality tests put us into categories: introversion/extroversion, thinking vs. feeling, etc. Today I’ll suggest a different method of evaluating yourself: what do you hate? And, by the way, what is the value of hatred?

Dating sites ask you to list your interests, loves, and desires: the types of music, activities, and vacation locations you favor. But wouldn’t you want to know what your prospective lover dislikes? Especially those things that make him red in the face when he speaks of them? What might be on such a list if he were honest?

  • People who are “over-emotional.”
  • Those of a different political party.
  • Humanoids of another religion, or particular ethnic or national group.
  • Children or pets.
  • Fans of a rival sports team (or the team itself).
  • The rich or the poor.
  • The homeless, the elderly, the infirm.
  • Elitists or populists.
  • New York, the West Coast, Texas, etc.

There are two qualities we should consider for each item on the “hate” list:

  1. What is the rationale given for the intense enmity? Does it seem reasonable to you? Is the person open to new information and reconsideration of his opinions or is he closed off?
  2. What is the degree of intensity to his emotion? Sure, most of us possess pet peeves, favor the home team, and wish a particular political party behaved itself. But some people hold such strong dislikes that any mention of the object of their distemper risks causing their heads to explode. Why? More worrisome, what might that tendency predict when they find something troublesome in you?

As Jonathan Haidt notes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why People are Divided by Politics and Religion, we tend to form opinions and beliefs intuitively — that is, before we evaluate the facts. Our reasoning brain is not only a step behind our intuitions, but inclined to act as a defense attorney or public relations specialist to justify the instinctive stance.

Haidt likens us to riders and elephants, both within the same person. You might believe your rider is in charge, directing the elephant. On the contrary, Haidt says the elephant — the intuitive and quick acting part of our emotional/intellectual being — is the one who determines beliefs for us most of the time. Only then does the rider get engaged and try to rationalize our convictions. To Haidt, we are 90% elephant-like and 10% rider-like regarding the extent to which our instincts or our capacity for thoughtful analysis, respectively, are in charge.

Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, and other social scientists point to the historical survival value of being able to come to quick decisions, decide who is a friend and who is a foe, etc. Moreover, strong dislikes and hatreds have been a necessary part of staying alive since the dawn of man. Even today, a too-rational soldier might question why he is about to kill another man who, in the abstract, deserves to live just as much as he does. The propagation of our species demands the capacities to love and to hate — the latter, at least, in extreme circumstances.

Now I’m going to throw you a curve. I will offer a thought experiment, meaning a hypothetical scenario, to help us understand the “role” of hatred. What would happen if we erased every dislike in the world and any recollection of those dislikes? How would we be different? Would we all live in peace?

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Well, to some extent we can already observe a variation of that thought experiment in the USA and other so-called “civilized” countries: political correctness (PC), an idea not yet in the culture in the 1950s. Back then it was not difficult to find people who were proud of stating their bigoted convictions about various racial, religious, and national groups. I’m not suggesting folks like those disappeared, but public discourse is more careful to avoid frank prejudice. Even some of the most intolerant main stage figures attempt to deny their bigotry, however obvious to the rest of us.

How successful has the PC movement been at tamping down outrage? While there are fewer cross burnings and lynchings, I imagine you’d agree we haven’t wiped out indignation and those who feed on it. Moreover, I believe a real life version of my thought experiment would reveal the invention of new hatreds to fill the role of those eliminated. Kind of like a spring-loaded Pez candy dispenser, once you remove the top object, an ill-willed person will find something else popping up to chomp on.

Those of you old enough to remember the ’90s will recall that once the USSR fell, US religious fundamentalists who could no longer rail against godless communism changed their focus to homosexuality. Their hell-fire and brimstone sermons were directed at “those people.”

Some of our fellow humans — not a small number — are better described by what they hate than what they love. Indeed, one might argue that in the absence of the hated “other,” the angry ones wouldn’t know who they are. Without “sinners” who must go to hell, there can be no humans who are given a heavenly reward because of their goodness — the opposite of whatever they deem bad and deserving of harsh judgment.

Anger is part of our nature; something too handy (necessary?) to completely discard. We bind ourselves together as much by the things we hate (such as, the Chicago White Sox) as the things we love (the Chicago Cubs). Not every sports fan is a maniac, but if even athletic teams can trigger out-of-control partisan riots, as sometimes happens in European style football (soccer), no wonder we are prone to other corrosive divisions: people of color vs. whites, Democrats vs. Republicans, Turks vs. Greeks, etc.

The human race turns with ease into good guys and bad guys, as demonstrated by psychologists like Stanley Milgram in his work on obedience to authority, and Philip Zimbardo in his prison experiment.

For a fictional view of whether hatred would be suppressed by my memory-wiping fantasy, I urge you to read Howard Jacobson’s brilliant novel, J, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. J presents us with a world without recollection, where history books and mementos are absent and one’s lineage is almost impossible to trace. Ancient enmities and prejudices are forgotten. Proper etiquette requires regular apologies to others in the face of even the small possibility of offense.

This sounds serene, but J describes a world inhabited by metaphorical ghosts who reside in a past never fully described. The negative afterimage of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED is always in the background — a distant, dark event so terrible (if it occurred, since no one is sure) discussion is discouraged. The book suggests our animal nature is not easily suppressed by laws or political correctness.

Who will win? Our better angels or those creatures who fit a Hobbesian vision where “the life of man (is) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?” I am rooting for love, but I think our best chance of self-correction is first to look at the human condition in all its imperfection. Jacobson’s J gives us an opportunity to do this. The novel is also LOL funny (at times) and beautifully written throughout.

Nonetheless, the author offers us a cautionary tale of what it means to be different in a civilization full of grievances an inch under the surface. It implicitly asks the reader whether love can triumph over the dark side of human nature — the worm at the heart of the rose.  J will get you thinking about who you are and who we are. The greatest books do.

Confidence and Ignorance: Not as Far Apart as You Think

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Every woman should meet Anatole Kuragin. Indeed, you probably have, but don’t know it. He is dashing, carefree, devil-may-care, self-assured, and self-deluded. As one character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace says of its two ladies’ men, “Dolokhov and Anatole Kuragin have driven all our ladies out of their minds.”

Prince Kuragin is a prince of a fellow literally, but not figuratively. He’d be described as a “player” today:

He walked with a restrained swagger than would have been ridiculous if he had not been so good-looking and if his handsome face had not borne an expression of such benevolent satisfaction and good cheer. … With women Kuragin was much more intelligent and simple than in the company of men. He spoke boldly and simply, and … had a most naively cheerful and good-natured smile.

On one particular woman, his effect is to “make her feel constrained, hot, and oppressed.” Hot seems the right word even as we now interpret it, almost 150 years since Tolstoy’s work was published.

But looking into his eyes, she felt with fear that between him and her that barrier of modesty which she had always felt between herself and other men was not there at all. Without knowing how herself, after five minutes she felt terribly close to this man.

Part of Prince Kuragin’s impact is doubtless due to his purely physical qualities. But Tolstoy makes the point elsewhere that Kuragin is, in fact, not intellectually talented or hard-working. His confidence comes, in part, from his lack of self-awareness and the gift of not reflecting on who he is, what he does, the errors he makes, and the wounds he inflicts.

Anatole was not resourceful, not quick and eloquent in conversation, but he had instead a capacity, precious in society, for composure and unalterable assurance. … Besides that, in Anatole’s behavior with women there was a manner which more than any other awakens women’s curiosity, fear, and even love — a manner of contemptuous awareness of his own superiority.

Keep Prince Kuragin in mind as you read this excerpt from an essay by Cornell University’s David Dunning, We Are All Confident Idiots:

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers — and we are all poor performers at some things — fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

This isn’t just an armchair theory. A whole battery of studies conducted by myself and others have confirmed that people who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge. College students who hand in exams that will earn them Ds and Fs tend to think their efforts will be worthy of far higher grades; low-performing chess players, bridge players, and medical students, and elderly people applying for a renewed driver’s license, similarly overestimate their competence by a long shot.

Such individuals are confident because they look at themselves through the distorted lens of their own self-delusion. In the case of a cad like Kuragin — one who has his way with people and then discards them — his self-image is that of a person who is noble and intelligent, despite the obvious characteristics of foolishness, impulsivity, and unreliability Tolstoy impresses on us. Since he is “irreproachable” in his eyes, each of his acts must be good. Men and women of this type reason from an abstract belief about their own value, which automatically confers propriety on all of their behavior. If you suggested he had done something bad, he would reject your opinion and find a justification for his action. You would be told you are too critical or ignored or rebuked for your own shortcomings.

We are dealing with someone who is narcissistic, so in love with himself he doesn’t have room to love others. He is not trying to be hurtful and would be astonished to see himself as he is. Just as unfortunate, he is ignorant of much else in life, including his own level of competence.

Now consider this comment, also from Professor Dunning, who is talking about competence alone:

Because it’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.

OK. My point here is not to make you feel bad about yourself, so I’ll change perspective again and leave you with this thought.

We just had an election. Some of the candidates — now our elected representatives — were enormously confident. Indeed, among us there are those who were impressed by their confidence. These officials will now be leading our city, our state, our nation.

Uh-oh!

Getting a Grip in a Difficult Time: Reasons for Optimism

Malala-Yousafzai

As I listen to the news and read the newspaper, it seems we are in the worst moment in history or something pretty close. Think of the following list:

  • Ebola
  • Ebola panic (a rather different thing than the disease itself)
  • Antibiotics losing their effectiveness
  • More armed conflicts and genocides than you can count on two hands
  • Political stalemate
  • Few if any great men or women to lead us
  • Climate change threatening planetary survival
  • Science-denial leading people to prevent the inoculation of their children against disease
  • Intolerance of opposing views even if they are well-reasoned
  • A fracturing of the sense of community (as, for example, was present during World War II or immediately after 9/11)
  • Political and corporate corruption
  • Unemployment
  • Homelessness
  • Racial/religious discrimination
  • Growing economic inequality
  • Inequality of opportunity
  • Educational failure
  • Enraged voices on all sides
  • Killer air-bags
  • The common cold. I threw a sneeze in just to lighten the mood!

Before you take a suicidal walk straight into and under the sea, inhale and step back. Here are a few ways to deal with all the bad stuff. I’ll describe five, the last two of which might actually be helpful:

  1. The Ostrich Impersonation.
    Take a tip from the myth about an ungainly, flightless bird. Stick your head under the covers or close your eyes. Perhaps the world’s troubles will disappear. Don’t read or watch anything having to do with problems. Stay focused only on personal issues or (even better) distract yourself from everything important, including your life’s direction. Don’t vote, but do drink, drug, jump on every sexual opportunity, surf the net, tweet every five minutes, buy a new sweater and post loads of selfies so we can rate your new look. YOLO! (You only live once)!
  2. “Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of the Light!”
    Attempt to be first in something. Lead the world in rage! That’s the spirit! Hone your expertise in criticism. Pick fights, complain, point fingers, and shake fists. Argue about politics and religion. Give family members a hard time, too. Despite having no experience or education in science and politics, shout “Follow me!” as you lead the crowd over the cliff. Should anyone survive, accept no responsibility.
  3. Pray, and If All Prayer Fails, Pray Harder!
    Ignore the real world. Spend the largest part of every day in prayer, if possible in a place of worship. Believe the gods will help you if only you pray hard enough. Take the attitude of the man who ignored flood warnings even when the police came to evacuate him. “No thank you, I’ll be fine,” he said. “The lord will protect me.” A few hours later, after the ground floor of his home was under water, a rescue boat made the same offer. Again, he repeated his confidence in the almighty from the window of his upstairs bedroom. The tide rose and the hours clicked by. He was now on the roof and a hovering helicopter dropped a rope ladder, his final chance to escape. “No thank you, I’ll be fine,” he replied once more. “The lord will protect me.” He drowned, of course, but was quite incredulous and a bit irritated. Upon arriving at heaven’s gate, this devotee of the creator delivered a Job-like complaint to St. Peter: “I was a devout man. I prayed every day. I never harmed anyone. I counted on God, but I died! Explain this!” he demanded. St. Peter looked down at the little fellow and said unto him, “Who do you think sent those people, you fool!”
  4. Look Back at History.
    Think about your own life, all the calamitous moments you thought unsurvivable. You’re breathing, aren’t you? You survived! Maybe you even learned something. Perhaps the world works the same way. Pick a year, say, 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember listening to President Kennedy’s TV speech on the evening of October 22nd, announcing a military blockade of Cuba to prevent Soviet missiles from being delivered. I wondered if I would be alive the next morning as those warships faced off. Mankind has endured two World Wars, the Great Depression between them, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918/19, the Bubonic Plague, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and more. Anyone who longs for the “good old days” has a challenge. Your grandparents lived when blacks were lynched and summers brought fear of polio. Bright women were largely limited to work at home, secretarial jobs, and teaching. Despite everything, including ourselves, the giant daisy chain of Homo sapien life that began with the first man and woman remains unbroken. Shakespeare knew the trouble we’ve seen: “‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” Making the world better has never been easy. Still, humanity lives, laughs, and every so often creates a technological miracle.
  5. Take Action.
    As in #4, reflect upon your own life, but think anew, think what you alone can do. It might be grand or something small. Take heart in 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, Malala Yousafzai. Her 2013 speech to the United Nations came after she recovered from a bullet wound to her head by the Taliban. She had done the unconscionable: the teen wanted an education for herself and all young women. This is a portion of  her UN oration, given when she was just 16:

    I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.

    If we have reason for optimism about this crazy world, it is in the realization the human species endures, but we live as surely in the shadow of death as did our short-lived ancient ancestors. All of us owe ourselves and each other the responsibility to make life better. We alone can ensure all life, not only human life, goes on. You and I are not Malala Yousafzai, but surely, to “be peaceful and love” is in your power and mine.

The top image lists an incorrect birth year for Malala Yousafzai. She was born in 1997.

Are Villains Due Respect When They Die?

Evil_red.svg

The old saying goes, “There is no rest for the wicked.” I’m not so sure about that, but I do know one thing: there is sometimes no resting place for the wicked. Two examples: one from a great Greek playwright, the other from an aborted burial in Rome last week.

The imaginary funeral took place in ancient Thebes, the work of Sophocles. His almost 2500-year-old play Antigone focuses on a sister’s effort to bury her brother, foreshadowing the funeral drama that just played out in The Eternal City, as Rome is known. The recently frustrated burial rites were those of a 100-year-old Nazi named Erich Priebke, the murderer of 335 Roman civilians as pay-back for a partisan attack near the end of World War II.

Almost no one wanted those funerals to happen, an eternal dilemma for the defeated bad guys of history. Both of these men were considered enemies of the state at the time of their deaths. Antigone’s brother Polynices had led a rebellion against the Theban leader, who also happened to be his brother Eteocles. Although the latter’s side was the winner, both brothers died in the conflict. Eteocles was honored as a fallen hero, Polynices left unburied in disgrace, fair game for dogs and vultures.

Then there is S.S. Captain Priebke. In 1944 the fascists who still occupied Rome were losing their grip. An S.S. police battalion of ethnically German Northern Italians aligned with the Nazis was attacked by 16 members of the Italian “Patriotic Action Group.” A bomb was placed in a garbage cart along their marching route. Twenty-eight members of the regiment died immediately in the explosion and ensuing gunfire, along with two civilians, one of whom was an 11-year-old boy. All of the partisans escaped. The date was March 23, 1944.

Antigone in Front of the Dead Polyneices by Nikiphoros Lytras

Antigone in Front of the Dead Polynices by Nikiphoros Lytras

The S.S. commander determined that the deaths in the ranks of the military column called for reprisal at a ratio of 10 Italians for every regiment member who died. Hitler reportedly wished this to be completed within 24 hours, by which time there were 33 dead. The Italian victims included some people already in Nazi custody, 57 Jews, as well as additional civilians needed to create the “correct” ratio. A total of 335 were ultimately killed individually by pistol shot in the back of the head as they kneeled with their hands tied behind their backs, their bodies disposed of in a group (without proper burial rites) until they were exhumed over one year later. All of this occurred in the Ardeatine Caves outside of Rome. The two S.S. officers who carried out the massacre were Erich Priebke and Karl Hass, who were eventually arrested.

In 1946 Priebke escaped from a British prison camp in Northern Italy and made his way back to Rome, where he was supplied with false identity papers by Bishop Alois Hudal at the Vatican. He then fled to Argentina, living there freely for 50 years until extradited to Italy in 1995 and ultimately convicted as a war criminal. At the time of his death on October 11, this very old man was residing in Rome, serving his time under house arrest. But now, it seemed, no one wanted any part of his remains. The Vatican (Priebke was Catholic) refused to permit a funeral in any Roman Catholic Church. Argentina, where he wished to be buried beside his wife, refused that request, as well. Only the Society of St. Pius X, a reactionary Catholic splinter group that has been associated with Holocaust denial, attempted a funeral before protesters intervened. For the record, Priebke never admitted guilt or responsibility for the murders, nor did he ever apologize.

If you are a reader of the Greek dramas of antiquity and can set aside the Nazi connection, all of this might sound familiar. So should the ensuing dispute between those who sought burial and those who wished to prevent it. In Rome, it was the opposition to the funeral that carried the most weight, which included the city government, the Roman Jewish community, and interested parties like the Vatican. In Sophocles’s play, the state was represented by Creon, an ally of Eteocles, who forbade burial of Polynices on punishment of death. Only Polynices’s sister Antigone protested and decided to take matters into her own hands, by burying her brother so that he might go the Greek version of the afterlife, known as the Underworld. In so doing, she felt herself to be honoring the gods as well as her brother, and showing respect to his body lest it be savaged by birds and wild animals. Priebke’s defenders, virtually all on the extreme political right, sound a bit less noble than Antigone, at least by news reports.

Erich Priebke in 1996Erich Priebke in 1996

It was doubtless to avoid just such problems with the body of an enemy that the USA decided to dispatch Osama Bin Laden to the depths of the ocean. But remember that some believe that respect should be shown to a corpse no matter who is the evil-doer and no matter how much evil was done. As my Catholic friend Joe puts it, “The person is still a human being and therefore worthy of respect. If there is to be justice, it will now come in the afterlife, not rendered by man but by God.”

Others fear that the dead Hitlers of the world, if properly buried, will become tourist attractions if not pilgrimage sites, especially for those who share the deceased’s point of view; in effect, their final resting place morphing into a religious shrine for some sort of misguided, quasi-religious veneration. But again, my friend Joe had an interesting take. His fear is that someone will find Captain Priebke’s cemetery headstone (at this writing a secret burial is planned) and desecrate it. I should emphasize, Joe is no Nazi, but simply thinks that if we consider ourselves civilized, then that civility should extend even to the very worst of us.

It is also worth remembering that history is written by the victors, and that the identity of the good guys and the bad guys is very much determined by who writes that history. Priebke argued in court that the partisans who took on the SS battalion were terrorists and therefore it was they who should be blamed for all of the consequences that followed, including the retribution by the Nazis. Think of the posthumous honor that would have come the way of the World Trade Center bombers, were their supporters to have achieved an overthrow of the U.S. government.

Still another point of view has to do with the fact that we are talking about dead villains, not living ones. Presumably, they are not harmed by the lack of a proper burial (although Antigone would argue otherwise, because no afterlife would then be possible). By the same token, the one who has passed away doesn’t benefit from getting an appropriate disposal of his mortal remains, unless it is thought necessary according to the individual’s religion.

Obviously, those who definitely do care about the carcass are the people left behind: the loved ones of the deceased (if there are any), friends, perhaps some of his co-religionists, and people who are sympathetic politically (including the Society of St. Pius X). Most of us know what it is like to lose someone we care about, to go to funerals, to engage in grieving, and various acts of remembrance, including visiting grave sites. On the other hand, we also know that some deaths seem more than usually deserved. That category would certainly include child abusers and rapists, as well as people like Mr. Priebke.

Priebke made his own desires clear: he wanted to be buried in Argentina, his adoptive homeland, next to his wife. How much should that matter? Indeed, how many of us even know whether those we care about do themselves care what happens to their bodies after they die? If they haven’t purchased cemetery plots or informed us of what to do after they’ve departed, we can only guess. Some might expect us to regularly visit their gravesite. Others might think that to be a waste of time. But most of us, who, after all, will eventually join the ranks of the bygone, probably hope that an occasional kind thought by someone left behind would be nice.

But here, in Captain Erich Priebke, we have a man who never acknowledged wrongdoing, never repented, never tried to comfort the relatives of those he afflicted, and apparently never felt guilt or shame. And, never gave his victims a proper burial. Were you or I living in Rome, what might we have done, or wished to see others do concerning the disposition of his body? I imagine that the answer to that question says more about us than it says about Mr. Priebke, who was, at the time of his death, the oldest convicted war criminal in the world.

The top image, Evil Red, was sourced from Wikimedia Commons, as was the painting by Lytras. Some of the background material on Erich Priebke was sourced from Wikipedia.org/