Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Lamentation: "hammer the sky"

In Khalil Gibran’s “On Joy and Sorrow” (from The Prophet), the poet describes the two emotions of his poem’s title as ‘inseparable’ from one another. Persuasive though his arguments may be regarding the shared source and strength of these feelings, I have generally found myself more enduringly affected by profound expressions of sorrow than of joy.

It has been lamentations that have stuck with me, well beyond the moment I first encountered them in my reading or elsewhere. For while joy seems fleeting, its emotional high ephemeral, sorrow and its origins maintain a powerful and lasting presence in my memory.

With that introduction, I begin an occasionally series of posts of lamentations that have had such a deep impact on me.

The selection below comes from Annie Dillard’s wonderful book For the Time Being. I must first offer apologies to Dillard, for although I have accurately quoted the selection below, I know that I have taken it out of the context of her engaging book on what it means to be alive. Nonetheless, her image of a man hammering the sky has remained with me, a visceral expression of rage against the heavens.
On the shore beyond me I saw a man splitting wood. He was a distant figure in silhouette across the water. I heard a wrong ring. He raised his maul and it clanged at the top of its rise. He drove it down. I could see the wood divide and drop in silence. The figure bent, straightened, raised the maul with both arms, and again I heard it ring just as its head knocked the sky. Metal banged metal as a clapper bangs its bell. Then the figure brought down the maul in silence. Absorbed on the ground, skilled and sure, the stick figure was clobbering the heavens. 
I saw a beached red dory. I could take the red dory, row out to the guy, and say: Sir. You have found a place where the sky dips close. May I borrow your maul? You maul and your wedge? Because, I thought, I too could hammer the sky --- crack it at one blow, split it at the next --- and inquire, hollering at God the compassionate, the all-merciful, WHAT'S with the bird-headed dwarfs?


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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: "Donkeys donkeys donkeys and Nesreddin"

Burros burros burros y Nasrudín
(Donkeys donkeys donkeys and Nasreddin)
Adaptation: Carmen Romano
Illustrations: Eloisa Torres











47 pages

A significant number of humorous stories have been attributed to Nasreddin, a 13th century Sufi philosopher; in the centuries since his death, these stories have been passed on, adapted and added to, forming a rich and deep tradition. Generally just a paragraph or a most two or three long, in these stories Nasreddin takes on various roles, from a sage, to a common man, to a fool; generally the tales contain a moral, or universal truth, in some more directly stated than others.

The wonderful little collection Donkeys donkeys donkeys and Nasreddin (in the original Spanish Burros burros burros y Nasrudín) consists of twenty-three such stories, involving Nasreddin with his donkey. In these brief tales, we find the broad variety of characterizations that Nasreddin can take on. For example, in No One Escapes, Not Even the Donkey (No se salva, ni el burro), Nasreddin teaches his son an important life lesson:
Nasreddin traveled together with his son. The father walked, while the son rode on the donkey. Along the road they crossed paths with several peasants who gossiped:
— What an inconsiderate kid, riding the donkey while the poor old man walks!
The son got off the donkey, and the father climbed on. A short while later, they came across several villagers,
— What a heartless type! they said — leaving the kid to walk in this heat, while he so comfortably rides the donkey.
Hearing them, Nasreddin and his son continued on riding the donkey together.
Soon they again crossed paths with other perolesople who gossiped:
— How inconsiderate. Don’t they understand that that is too much weight for the poor animal?
Then Nasreddin and his son got off the donkey and walked along next to it.
After a time the met other peasants who said:
— What fools, the donkey walks by himself, while those two walk at its side.
Nasreddin said to his son:
— Have you noticed? Each one said something different.
In this world you can’t please anyone nor save oneself from criticism.
Therefore, the best thing to do is to faithfully follow your own will my son.

Nasreddin as the simpleton makes an appearance in Helping my Donkey:
One day, Nasreddin rode on his donkey, while carrying a sack full of flour on his shoulders. — Hey, Master — they asked him — why are you carrying the sack on your shoulders?
— What would you like? — he answered — my poor donkey is old and barely able to carry me, and so I took pity on it and decided to help it a little, by carrying the sack on my shoulders.

In Contraband Donkeys we find another view of Nasreddin, as a shrewd operator, who again points out human short-sightedness:
Nasreddin crossed the border every day with baskets of his donkey filled with straw. Since he admitted to being a smuggler, the border guards searched him over and over again. Hoping to discover the hidden merchandise, they looked through the straw, soaked it in water and even burned it on occasion. Despite all this, Nasreddin continued to become richer with his earnings from the contraband.
Eventually he retired and went to live in another country, where, several years later, one of the border guards came across him.
— Now you can tell me, Nasreddin, what contraband where you taking through, that we could never manage to discover?
— It was clear: The Donkeys! — answered Nasreddin.

Each of the stories in this beautiful collection is accompanied by a lovely illustration composed of a simply presented scene featuring Nasreddin and one or more donkeys. The illustrator has used cloth to create puppet-like cloth figures, and then placed photographs of them onto simply drawn backgrounds to create the final images. The cover illustration shown at the top of this review provides an example of the artwork in the book.

Taken together, the anecdotes in this collection provide pointed commentaries on the human condition, presented as humorous anecdotes. The stories and images create an engaging book for adults, but one that will also appeal to and intrigue children.


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Included below are the original Spanish versions of the stories translated for the review:

No se salva, ni el burro

Nasrudín viajaba acompañado de su hijo. El padre caminaba mientras el hijo iba montado en el burro. En el camino se cruzaron con unos campesinos que murmuraron:
— Qué muchacho más desconsiderado,
¡Va montado en el burro mientras que el pobre viejo camina!
El hijo bajo del burro y subió el padre. Al poco tiempo, se encontraron con unos aldeanos
— ¡Qué tipo más desalmado! — dijeron — deja al muchacho caminar con tanto calor, mientras él va tan tranquillo en el burro.
Al oírlo, Nasrudín y su hijo montaron los dos en el burro.
Al rato se volvieron a cruzar con otra gente que murmuraron:
— Qué desconsiderados ¿Es que no comprenden qué esa es una carga exagerada para el pobre animal?
Entonces Nasrudín y su hijo desmontaron y caminaron al lado del burro.
Después de un rato se encontraron a otros campesinos que dijeron:
&mdash Qué tontos, el burro camina solo, mientras que esos dos caminan al lado.
Nasrudín le dijo a su hijo:
— ¿Te has dado cuenta? Cada uno ha dicho algo diferente.
En el mundo no se puede dar gusto a nadie y tampoco se puede uno salvar de la crítica.
Así que, lo mejor es seguir fiel a tu propia voluntad hijo mío.


Ayudando a mi burro

Un dia, Nasrudín iba montado en su burro, levando un saco lleno de harina sobre sus hombros. — Oye maestro — le preguntaron — ¿por qué llevas el saco en tus propios hombros?
— ¿Qué quereis? — contestó — mi pobre burro es viejo y apenas puede cargar conmigo, así que me dió pena y he decidido ayudarle un poco, cargando el saco sobre mis propios hombres.


Contrabando de burros

Nasrudín cruzaba la frontera todos los días con las cestas de su burro cargadas de paja. Como admitía ser un contrabandista, los guardias fronterizos lo registraban una y otra vez. Esperando encontrar la mercancía escondida, cernían la paja, la sumergían en agua e incluso la quemaban de vez en cuando. Mientras tanto, Nasrudín se enriquecía cada vez más con las ganancias del contrabando.
Por fin se jubiló y fue a vivir a otro país, donde, unos años más tarde, lo encontró uno de los aduaneros.
— Ahora me lo puedes decir, Nasrudín, ¿Qué pasabas de contrabando, que nunca pudimos describirlo?
— Estaba clarísimo: ¡los burros! — Contestó Nasrudín.


Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Monday, June 12, 2017

Physicist Leonard Mlodinow on the Concept of Free Will

On her engaging and thought-provoking radio program On Being, host Krista Tippett has invited in a number of physicists. During her discussions with them, she has often touched on the concept of free will, and, in particular, raised questions about the view among some physicists that free will does not exist: that at least in a theoretical sense, our every thought and action are determined by the same physical laws that govern every other event in the universe.

Tippett returned to that topic in a recent conversation with the physicist Leonard Mlodinow, entitled Randomness and Choice, and as the exchange developed, her deep discomfort with physicists’ viewpoint on free will became apparent. For Tippett, a lack of free will makes a human being little more than a kind of automaton, tightly constrained to think and act in ways that are dictated by the laws of physics.

With Mlodinow, the discussion on free will began with Tippett referencing an earlier exchange she had had with physicist Brian Greene on the topic. (For a transcript of a key moment in that program with Greene, see the post-script to my review of Edward O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which can be found here.)

Greene had tried to assuage Tippet’s concerns by noting that the complexity of the human brain makes it effectively impossible to predict our future actions, and that this fact gives us the feeling of having free will even though in reality we don’t. The short-coming of this argument, as Tippett pursues with Mlodinow, is that having the feeling of having free will is not equivalent to truly having free will.

She notes that, independent of however convincing the feeling of having free will may be for us, if we consciously accept that we don’t truly have free will, then it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have no responsibility for our actions. A disturbing consequence of this would seem to be, as Tippett points out, that moral qualities such as heroism or cowardess that we might associate with particular actions, suddenly have no meaning, since a person has merely reacted based on the fixed, physical laws of the universe.

Mlodinow attempts to create a path through this thicket by starting from an argument similar to Greene’s comments on the complexity of the mind, but that doesn't satisfy Tippett anyone than it did when Greene presented it.  She sees an opening in something Mlodinow wrote, which describes a concept that he refers to as a randomness inherent in our environment and our interaction with others. 

Ironically, Tippett — the journalist and author — interprets Mlodinow's writings on randomness in a strict, almost scientific sense, assuming that he means that a fundamental randomness exists in the universe, and that this could be a window through which free will could be considered to exist for human beings.  Mlodinow —the scientist —  explains however, that he uses the word randomness in a more colloquial sense, and that it relates to an <i>apparent</i> randomness, one that arises directly out of the complexity argument described above; given enough information, that randomness would disappear into the laws of physics.

He then goes on to describe his thinking related to the concept of randomness, arguing that when faced with the constant stream of events in our lives that are, for all intents and purposes, random, we make choices, and that we must make these choices as if we do have free will.  Thus, even as he acknowledges his fundamental scientific understanding that the physical laws of the universe determine our every decision and action, he makes clear his belief that we must not use that reality to absolve ourselves of responsibility for what we do.

Ultimately, although Tippett’s fascinating discussions with physicists such as Greene and Mlodinow help us think about many of the deep questions involved in the concept of free will, we are left with no clear-cut answers. It remains for each of us to resolve for ourselves how we understand this mystery of human existence.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I had a conversation with Brian Greene and that still has me thinking and we ended up talking a lot about something that I know is a given for physicists, and it’s there in your writing, although I think you nuance it in interesting ways. And I want to get into this with you. Which is, no scientist in any field claims to be able to predict or understand human personality or destiny, but most physicists do believe fundamentally that nothing happens in the universe that is not the result of fundamental forces and laws of physics. I mean, you’ve wrote this from the birth of a child to the birth of a galaxy. And that is just a really stunning and puzzling fact. [Laughs].  
DR. MLODINOW: [Laughs] Yes. And, I could give you a monologue for hours about that, but I’ll try not to.  
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I mean, let’s just have a conversation about it, because I haven’t been able to really stop thinking about it, puzzling with it. And as I was reading, getting ready to talk to you, I realized you’re a perfect person to talk to this about. I mean, where would you start talking about that as a puzzle?  
DR. MLODINOW: There are a lot of aspects to that question. Maybe the most basic one is really comes down to are there miracles? Meaning exceptions to the laws of nature. Or does everything follow physical law? In a way that’s the essence of the question. You know, Isaac Newton, when he invented his physics, which is to say the beginning of modern physics, the physics of the everyday world, he believed that everything followed his laws without exception, except that God steps in now and then, and sets things straight when they start to go awry.  
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.  
DR. MLODINOW: So he believed in some kind of limited miracles. Pierre Simon Laplace, who proved that the solar system is stable, was very famous for saying something that he actually semi-stole from a Catholic priest. But his statement — very famous statement is that if you know everything, the state of everything now, and you know all the laws, and you have infinite calculation ability, then the future and the past are both determined. Neither is hidden from your knowledge or from your eyes. And so when Napoleon asked him why there was no God in his science, Laplace said, I have no need for that hypothesis. [Laughs].  
MS. TIPPETT: Right.  
DR. MLODINOW: If you believe that there are no exceptions, whether they be big miracles or minor deviations from the laws of physics, whether you look at the quantum laws that are fundamental or Newton’s laws. Whichever laws you look at, neither set of laws has room for deviations or choice, let’s say. Conscious choice. So, if you believe that the brain follows those laws, as everything that — in the laboratory that we’ve ever looked at, does, then it’s not a question for scientists.  
MS. TIPPETT: But the totality of our lives and circumstances at any given moment is the result of so many more — like we imagine choice and we imagine we have an intuition of purposefulness. Or the need for that. But one thing that was very striking to me about, you know, getting into the way you think about this is, I think, one thing I said to Brian Greene, you know, his title — his book title that’s so well-known is The Elegant Universe and you physicists use that language of elegance and beauty together with truth, right, in terms of, you know, the equations that are true are elegant and somehow this picture of the laws of physics being as tyrannical as any medieval God was…  
DR. MLODINOW: [laughs]  
MS. TIPPETT: …this is what really troubles me. At the extreme edges of talking about the laws of physics this way, you could just substitute the way the most primitive human cultures have used the word God, and we are so reduced.  
DR. MLODINOW: Well, this is interesting, because now we’re coming to the difference between theory and practice. [Laughs]  
MS. TIPPETT: [Laughs] Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: And, the idea that we have no free will is an interesting philosophical question. In reality, we do have free will. Because in reality a system as complex as the brain with 100 billion neurons and I think 1,000 to 10,000 connections between each of them on average, is so complex that not only could one say that one can’t, in principle, model it or predict exactly what it’s going to do next, but almost in principle you can’t. Because in very complex systems, small changes in the state of the system produce large changes in the output.  
MS. TIPPETT: Right. DR. MLODINOW: It’s called — that’s called chaos. But that’s typical of very complicated, non-linear systems. And…  
MS. TIPPETT: The human beings are…  
DR. MLODINOW: …the thing about the brain is…  
MS. TIPPETT: …I would say every human being…  
DR. MLODINOW: …that even…  
MS. TIPPETT: …every human being is a complicated, non-linear system. [Laughs]  
DR. MLODINOW: [Laughs] Yeah, hey the ones I know are.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: Of course, not me, I’m very straightforward, and logical, and always right. [Laughs ]. But other people are like that. And, when you look at their brain, there’s no way, even if you put the equations of physics, it’s an infinite possibility. And with something as complicated as the brain, I believe that errors in these measurements are always going to ruin your predictions. So in physics you have these things called effective theories, which are saying okay, there’s some other theory underneath it, but that’s too complicated. This one works. And this, but we’re still even going farther and saying almost in principle that the brain is too complicated to apply Laplacean determinism and so, the free will that we feel that we have is really — does defy the God as you say, the rulers or the despots of determinism. [Laughs]. So that’s just another way of looking at it. That’s probably as far on the spectrum toward free will as most scientists are willing to go.  
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Well, I mean, and let’s just bring it down to earth. You know, your father, resisting the Nazi’s in Poland, if you took this blanket statement that there is no choice, there is no free will, somehow this was all determined by forces beyond our control or comprehension. Your father’s life there and his action meant nothing, and had no nobility, and no meaning, and there’s just something — everything in, I don’t think just me, but most scientists as human beings, would rebel against that thought.  
DR. MLODINOW: Well, to me, even with my own view of free will and feeling that the laws of nature don’t have exceptions, what my father did, or what anyone does, is meaningful. Because if you think of this way, that he’s a biological organism that I don’t know his — the layout of his brain or how that produces whatever he does, so I judge him by his actions. And what he was doing with those heroic actions was revealing who he was. And, there are other people who revealed who they were and, you know, it wasn’t, in my mind, as attractive of a person. [Laughs]. So, I don’t think that there’s a difference between he’s on the spot making a decision do I take the fall for this or do I try to blow up that or whatever his decision was, is any less heroic if the decision was meant to be based on who he is as a person.  
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I mean, it raises the question of whether there is such a thing as courage, or maybe it’s just that our definition of courage is like isolated acts, but…  
DR. MLODINOW: Well, of course there’s…  
MS. TIPPETT: …you’re saying maybe it’s…  
DR. MLODINOW: …or maybe the courage is who you are. And the courage isn’t that decision at that moment, the courage is that you’re the kind of person who would make that decision.  
[Music: “Oblivion” by Ahn Trio]  
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with the physicist Leonard Mlodinow. He’s reflecting with me on the puzzling dissonance between our human sense that we choose and shape our lives, and the scientific observation that free will is an illusion. He is a child of two Holocaust survivors, and someone who’s written books with figures as diverse as Stephen Hawking and Deepak Chopra. He’s been sharing the nuanced way he reconciles his life experiences with modern physics faith in randomness.  
MS. TIPPETT: I find a bit of an opening, also, in the way you think about this and the way you write about randomness. So here’s something you wrote and I think these two things went together. I mean, you write about your father’s — a story he told you about how he got the job in the bakery at Buchenwald, the concentration camp. His sense that this is just random but tell that story.  
DR. MLODINOW: Oh, that was in The Drunkard’s Walk.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: And the book is about randomness and life. And to me, you know, when I was thinking about writing that book, I was almost shaken by the realization that I’m, you know, a random effect of something very bad. And I hope that for me, I’m glad I’m here, but I’m only here because Hitler or the Nazis killed my father’s previous family. And that led to my being here.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: And that was a very hard to thing to face, in a way, that — what’s the meaning of my life, when it arose from something like that? And in that story, he was in the Buchenwald concentration camp, and he had stolen — he stole a loaf of bread from the bakery. And, the baker, I guess there were a certain number of people who had access. They lined them all up and brought the guys with the guns. And they said who stole the bread? And my father didn’t say anything. And then they said, okay, we’re going to start at this end of the line, and we’re going to shoot everybody, until either you’re all dead or the thief steps forward. And so he puts the gun to the head of the first person. So my father, at that point, steps forward, and admitted that he stole the bread. And, he told me that it wasn’t a heroic thing that — he didn’t do it out of heroism, he did it surely practical that these guys are all going to die, and I’m going to die, too, or I’ll just be the only one. So he stepped forward. And instead of killing him, though, the baker acted like God, and somewhat arbitrarily took him under his wing and gave him a job as his assistant in the bakery. And so, he had a much better job after that, based on that incident. And it just shows you that even in the midst of all this cruelty, there’s randomness, or I don’t know what, whim? I don’t know if the guy — I don’t know if he was being human and let some of his humanity peek out, or he wanted to play like God, I don’t really know what was the person’s motive, but that’s one of many things that happened to my father. If it had happened differently, I wouldn’t be here, and my kids wouldn’t be here. And everything would be different in, you know, that lineage.  
MS. TIPPETT: You know, one of the things that’s so fascinating is how quantum physics has presented a picture of the world that is so much more of reality, the way things work — that is so much less ordered, more — there’s chaos, there’s randomization, and it wasn’t there for Newton or even for Einstein or they didn’t want — you know, Einstein didn’t want those things to be there. And, you know, one of the things you say is anything that is possible eventually will occur. [Laughs]. Just wait long enough and strange things will happen. But still, there’s an order to it.  
DR. MLODINOW: Doesn’t your life work that way? [Laughs].  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. [Laughs]. But here’s the out I — here’s the opening I feel you give. Here’s something else you wrote. “The outline of our lives, like the candle’s flame, is continuously coaxed in new directions by a variety of random events that, along with our responses to them, determine our fate.” You know, you say that we are driven to see patterns and create patterns where the patterns aren’t there, but essentially there’s so much randomness. But, you — seems to me that you’re also presenting our responses as mattering. There is randomness, and then you talk about that even though that is true, you know, the number of at-bats, the number of chances taken, number of opportunities seized does make a difference. It does shift things. Can you explain that in scientific terms?  
DR. MLODINOW: [Laughs]. Yeah, I was thinking about Brownian motion, so that says it all.  
MS. TIPPETT: [Laughs].  
DR. MLODINOW: No, I’m just kidding [laughs]. The — so The Drunkard’s Walk, which is the title of that book, is sometimes called The Random Walk and it comes from a jagged path that particles in Brownian motion seem to take for no apparent reason. In Brownian motion, people look at — this in the 19th century, they noticed that little grains of pieces of pollen would jiggle around for no apparent reason in liquid. And they thought at first maybe that was a life force, because there was no force on it. Maybe that’s what was jiggling, because it’s pollen. But they eventually figured out, and Einstein actually is the one who explained it, that this jiggling comes from the impact of the molecules on the pollen, pushing it this way and that way. And I saw a parallel with our lives, because when you look at your life, if you had to sit down and think about, and I’m talking about in detail, not just the headlines, if you think about all the details of what happened to you, you will find that there was a time where you had the extra cup of coffee, where if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have met Person A.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: Or you probably don’t realize that if you hadn’t done this, you would have gotten into crash which you — car crash but you didn’t, because you were a little bit later than and the guy — the drunk guy hit someone else or whatever. When I look back in my life, or I looked at the life of certain celebrities, I could find so many instances like that. And I had fun tracing some of them. How little things make a big difference, and — but the little thing that happens to you, other than if it’s something random like getting hit by a car, but in other ways, the little things that — what they really do is they raise opportunities for you. Or they raise challenges. And the course of your life depends on how you react to those opportunities and challenges that the randomness presents to you. So that’s what I meant by that. That if you’re awake and paying attention, you will find that things happen. They might seem good, they might seem bad at first, you don’t even know. Or you’re wrong about whether it’s good or bad. But, in time, it becomes clear whether the thing was good or bad, but the important thing is how you reacted to it.  
MS. TIPPETT: And, how is that acceptable for you as a physicist in a way that the notion of free will is less convincing? I’m just trying to figure out what the distinction is.
DR. MLODINOW: Well, if I were to describe your every atom, then there wouldn’t be this randomness. I mean, there is still quantum randomness, which I don’t — I think just as a red herring here, but randomness is really a context-dependent term. So imagine you’re flipping a coin. That’s one of the archetypical random event in our culture. We always flip a coin. And it comes out, if it’s a fair coin, 50/50. But actually if you control very carefully how you put the coin on your thumb, and how you flip it, and where it’s going to land, you can — it’s not really random. It’s going to come out heads every time, or tails every time. So, whether it’s — the coin flip is random or not really depends on what you know and how much control you have. And so what I’m saying about life is you don’t know a lot, even if you think you do [laughs] and you don’t have a lot of control, even if you’re a control freak. So a lot of things that happen to you in that sense are random and the same thing with your reaction to it. Yes, maybe a god-like person who knew what the state of all the atoms in your body could tell how you’re going to react, but since none of us are that, it really does matter, and you do have a choice. And that determines your life.  
MS. TIPPETT: Okay.  
DR. MLODINOW: It doesn’t sound like you’re very satisfied, though, I think.  
MS. TIPPETT: No, no. I just wonder, I mean…  
DR. MLODINOW: Hmm, another scientist answer, ha. [Laughs].  
MS. TIPPETT: [Laughs] Well, I feel like this could be a few hours, but I mean, I do hear, I mean, the words…  
DR. MLODINOW: So, the quality of your voice tells a lot, doesn’t it. [Laughs]  
MS. TIPPETT: [Laughs] Yes, it does. It does. I just wonder if there’s a vocabulary thing here. Do you know what I mean? Like that the notion of free will doesn’t work for science, but, I mean, you used the word choice, and I suppose that would be subject to some debate, but I feel like there’s a way in which you’re saying, you know, that what we do matters. Although you might say it, and describe it, and see it in a very different way that humanity has said that kind of thing up to now. Knowing what we know now about the universe. Is that fair?  
DR. MLODINOW: Yeah. I definitely think that my decisions matter.  
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.  
DR. MLODINOW: Now, it’s more of a philosophical question, I guess, whether I was destined to make that decision.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: In my life, that question doesn’t — is something to ponder at times, but the effective theory is that yes, if I step off the building, I’m going to fall off the roof, and bad things will happen. And I don’t know whether I was destined to decide not to step off or not, but I take the decision as if I have a choice.  
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.  
DR. MLODINOW: And I think you have to live your life that way. And no one — whether or not you can argue that theoretically there’s a choice or not, no one knows enough to tell you what choice you’re going to make.  
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.  
DR. MLODINOW: Not even yourself, I think. 
[Music: “Halcyon” by Jon Hopkins]  
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: physicist and writer Leonard Mlodinow. 
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a way in which this thing that physics is pointing out and that you point out in your books and on — they subliminal, the way our subconscious is kind of influencing us in ways we aren’t aware of and randomness. I mean, you — there’s a way in which that pointing out how little control we actually have over so much of what happens to us is a piece of truth that the spiritual traditions have carried forward in time. And that philosophy has known for a long time. I also sense that there’s — the way you take that in, even the science of it is that’s real power in that knowledge. Does it change the way you kind of move through your everyday life knowing about your lack of control? I mean, how does that — how do you work with that as a human being?  
DR. MLODINOW: Well, certainly it does change, I certainly don’t mean to say that the unconscious is not you and there’s someone else [laughs] pulling the strings.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: But what we don’t realize is how much of our feelings, our actions, our beliefs, are coming from our unconscious mind. And I think that when we raise our consciousness about our unconscious, you’re knowing yourself better and to know yourself better, I think, is a good thing. You understand how you’re going to react, and you understand why you did things. And you just have more understanding for yourself. So it not only helps you make in a way better decisions, economically, but it helps you make better decisions, I think spiritually, because you have, in a way, more tolerance for yourself, as well as more understanding.



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My review of Leonard Mlodinow's book written with Stephen Hawking, <u>The Grand Design</u>, can be found here.



My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Why Do Trump’s Supporters Remain Steadfastly Committed to Him?

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been listening regularly to Sam Harris’ podcast, Waking Up, on which he has engaging and thought-provoking conversations with people from a wide variety of fields. As he summarizes on his site, his intent is to explore ‘important and controversial questions about the human mind, society, and current events.'

In the wake of last fall’s election results, ‘current events’ has, not surprisingly, become a recurring topic of his conversations with the guests he invites onto the podcast, just as it has for so many of us in our discussions with family, friends and colleagues (assuming, of course, that we can even broach the subject at all in the current polarized climate). His guests have included: former world chess champion, and now political activist, Gary Kasparov (The Putin Question); political commentator, and former speech writer for George W. Bush, David Frum (We’re All Cucks Now); journalist and author Anne Applebaum (The Russia Connection); and, in the wake of the most recent revelations of mid-May, Applebaum again, along with journalist and author Juliette Kayyem (The Path to Impeachment).

One question that has surfaced repeatedly in Harris’ conversations and analysis: why do Trump’s core base of supporters consistently dismiss as unimportant Trump’s on-going string of seemingly self-destructive behaviors — actions and statements that for any past politician would have certainly been career ending? Harris, for example, raised that question in his discussion with Applebaum in The Path to Impeachment (~29 minutes in):
So, what do you think it’s going to take, because this is the thing that I find above all so depressing about what his existence is doing to American society. I mean it’s just uncanny to continually hear from Trump’s defenders, who seem completely oblivious to his flaws. No matter how awful you imagine Hillary Clinton to be, and how much you wouldn’t want her to be President, it seems to me that you have to admit that Trump is showing some signs of a dangerous unprofessionalism, at least. And so I mean, what do you make of the fact that there seems to be no path from where we are through the brains of Trump’s defenders to an admission of what should be obvious, that this person is unfit for office. What would he have to do, do you think, to actually turn the tide?

Applebaum’s answer was the verbal equivalent of throwing her hands up in the air, saying that, well, perhaps the tide will finally turn, that enough negative stories will build up to create a tipping point. Her response is not altogether unreasonable given the unceasing stream of shocking moments that Trump has generated. My concern with that line of thinking, however, is that it’s been the working assumption since early in the primaries; there has been a consistent belief after each new negative event by or about Trump would be the one that finally ended his run — and obviously that point has so far not been reached.

I would argue that this line of thinking — believing that the next mistake he makes will be the decisive one — constitutes a kind of failure of imagination on the part of those dismayed by Trump as president — an inability to recognize and acknowledge the deep-seated nature of his base’s commitment to him. Only by understanding the origins and depths of this commitment can we imagine how Trump’s political story might end. To that end, I suggest that Eric Hoffer’s treatise from 1951, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, offers a path to just such an understanding; in it, Hoffer demonstrates how all mass movements, whether they result in good ends or bad, "share certain essential characteristics." (xi). (For my full review of the book follow the title link; quotes from the book include page number references.)

To be clear, I would not characterize Trump’s supporters as constituting a mass movement in the traditional sense. His base largely continues to support him, but does not appear to be, at least at this point, a mobilized group ready to be called to action; they voted for Trump, and are now simply waiting for him to fulfill the promises he made during the campaign. Nonetheless, many of Hoffer’s descriptions in his book of the general characteristics of members of mass movements seem to be strongly represented among Trumps hard-core supporters. Thus Hoffer’s analysis can perhaps provide insight into the motivations of these supporters, and why they hold so faithfully and tightly to Trump.

It must be acknowledged that those who voted for Trump certainly had a variety of reasons for doing so, including, for example, a visceral dislike of Hilary Clinton and strong conservative views on particular social policies. But I feel that the most valid analysis of his support has recognized that the core base grew out of a much more fundamental and so much more enduring motivation: people frustrated with the path their lives are taking, who feel little hope for the future, and who are convinced that the political and social elite of the country not only cares nothing for their plight, but actively pursues policies that work against their interests.

I recently heard an interview given by historian Vincent Harding back in 2011 (details here) — long before Trump appeared on the political scene — in which he provides a trenchant analysis of the source of this frustration:
I have a feeling that one of the deeper transformations that’s going on now is that for the white community of America, there is this uncertainty growing about its own role, its own control, its own capacity to name the realities that it has moved into a realm of uncertainty…. Up to now, uncertainty was the experience of the weak, the poor, the people of color.... But now, for all kinds of political, economic reasons, for all kinds of psychological reasons, that uncertainty, and unknowingness, is permeating what was the dominant, so-called, society. That breaking apart is for me more likely the source of the anxiety, the fear, the anger, the unwillingness to give in, the need to have something that they can hold on to and say, this is the way and it's got to be our way or we will all die.

The feelings of “anxiety … fear [and] anger” Harding describes have led to a deep frustration among a significant portion of the American population, and, turning now to The True Believer, we find that the starting point of Hoffer’s analysis is in fact that “the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements.” (xii) Hoffer goes on to write that American society can be particularly reactive to the kind of uncertainty that Harding has described:
One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope. This attraction is particularly effective in a society imbued with the idea of progress. For in the conception of progress, “tomorrow” looms large, and the frustration resulting from having nothing to look forward to is the more poignant. (15)
 Hoffer adds, in a statement that now, almost seventy years later, feels ripped from the top stories of our day:
The present-day workingman in the Western world feels unemployment as a degradation. He sees himself disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things, and is willing to listen to those who call for a new deal. (27)

As noted above, the central point of Hoffer's thesis is that the frustrated masses that come together to form a political or social movement — whether with positive ends, such as the American Revolution, or negative ends, such as Nazism — share certain common characteristics.  For one, to be moved to action, Hoffer found that they must in part be “intensely discontented yet not destitute … [and] wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking.” (11)  It would certainly be hard to dispute that many of Trump’s supporters seem to underestimate the challenges Trump could face in delivering on his promises, whether it is to bring back in significant numbers heavy-industry manufacturing jobs, or to make Mexico pay for the wall, to name but two of the more obvious examples.

Regarding the willingness of Trump’s core base of supporters to discount his seemingly unending string of controversial and often offensive statements and actions, Hoffer’s analysis again resonates. He argues in the book that, by submerging themselves into a unified mass of the disenfranchised, people lose the critical discernment of individuals, and develop such feelings and behaviors as “a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate, [and a] credulity.” (59)

In particular, he describes a “connection between dissatisfaction with oneself and a proneness to credulity.” (83)   He notes that “the facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ. … To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason.” (79) Thus, critically — and dishearteningly for anyone who hopes that sober discourse could turn Trump’s supporters against him — “the fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense.” (85)

This then would appear to be the point we have reached. A group of people so angry, so disenfranchised, so frustrated (to use Hoffer’s term) that they are beyond the reach of reasoned counter-argument. In such an environment it is not so surprising then that for Trump’s base: any facts contradicting what Trump says are defined as fake news; Trump’s inability to make good on his legislative promises despite Republican majorities in the House and Senate is blamed on a lack of support from establishment Republicans and Democrats; calling Trump out for inopportune or inappropriate comments is simply the press or his irrational detractors making a mountain out of a molehill. It would seem that there is quite literally no argument that can be made that would convince a hardcore supporter of Trump to turn their back on him.

Which leaves us where? What is then the path to Trump’s base turning on him? I would argue that path goes through Trump himself. He will have to say or do something that shows him reneging on what he promised his base, something over which he clearly and visibly has control and for which his base cannot rationalize the blame for his failure onto other politicians or the media.

The challenge is that Trump seems to instinctively recognize this, and so continues to push a legislative agenda that fulfills his promises even though it clearly can never pass as proposed; he assumes that his supporters will blame that failure on congress. Meanwhile, on those things that are truly within his control, he does what he promised during the campaign, whether through executive actions, or, for example, in pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. He cannot be reasoned out of doing these things, because he is not doing them for ideological reasons — he does them to survive.

Note, too, that making the argument to Trump that he is now losing some of his support is unlikely to gain traction with him. He was told throughout the primaries that he couldn’t win, that the numbers weren’t there, and yet he became the Republican nominee for president; and this repeated itself again in the general election. Even if some supporters have indeed now begun to drift away, there remains a vocal core that continues to support him. Given all that, why would he suddenly start listening to the polls, and stop believing in his own infallibility? And, ultimately, his self-assuredness only reinforces his supporters’ faith.

Thus, we come to recognize that the answer to the question of why Trump’s base seems so unwavering in its support despite all he has done lies not in over-simplified and disparaging explanations of irrationality or stupidity. Harding’s identification of the social shifts now taking place suggest that a significant portion of the American population has sunk into a deep frustration with their lives; Hoffer’s analysis demonstrates how this frustration can lead people to band together to create a powerful and unyielding group ready to rally behind a populist candidate, and how such a group would become largely immune to arguments against their standard-bearer.

Those with the power in politics and society at large to effect changes that could have acknowledged and attempted to ameliorate the social and economic challenges for a significant portion of their fellow citizens over the past several decades have failed to do so, and have as a consequence allowed the development of a group of people primed for Trump’s arrival on the scene.

At this point, it would seem that we are all consigned to ride this political roller-coaster for the foreseeable future.


As an aside, there is one rather disturbing thought to consider: if Trump does finally fall from power, and Pence becomes president, it’s not clear that Trump’s base would support Pence going forward — in fact, it seems highly unlikely, as Trump’s hard-core base clearly seems to find little to like in either the Republicans or the Democrats. Thus, after coming together to pin their hopes on Trump, they will suddenly find themselves without a standard-bearer in government. Will they quietly become invisible? Or, will they perhaps turn to a new populist leader, one more competent and focused than Donald Trump, who may harness their frustration with even more dangerous effectiveness?



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Hoffer anticipates too the rise in hatred that has been evident since late in the campaign, and has only spread since election night. The use of hatred of the other may seem a commonly accepted means of riling up a crowd, but Hoffer’s analysis provides perhaps a new and deeper insight into how such techniques work. He notes that “even in the case of a just grievance, our hatred comes less from a wrong done to us than from the consciousness of our helplessness, inadequacy and cowardice — in other worlds from self-contempt.” (94) Thus, again, the heart of the matter is to be found in frustration and disenfranchisement. In a statement with strong implications today, seven decades after it was written, Hoffer claims: “Should Americans begin to hate foreigners whole-heartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.” (96)


My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf