Archive for October, 2005
In honor of Halloween, the inimitable James Carroll has written Dance of the Demons, a mediation on good and evil, on the tendency to project danger onto others or the Other, and on the desire to have clear markers to distinguish the good from the bad. Costumes symbolize these markers. The witch must have a stigmata, so as to be clearly recognized. His meditation poses profound questions the resolution of which may decide the fate of the human race.
Halloween, and the attempt to clearly demarcate good from evil represent social as well as psychological questions. How to maintain the collectivity of the community while allowing for individual freedom. Are freedom and community irreconcilable? Can one truly accept the freedom of the witch, of the one who thinks (and act) differently? If one attempts such acceptance, is one then committed to a tolerance for true evil, as moral absolutists are fond of claiming?
The war in Iraq, Carroll argues, is a manifestation of the American way of distinguishing good from evil. Saddam was easily viewed as the new Satan, to follow in the line of Hitler, International Communism, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Evil Empire. Of course, he is one of the axis of evil, combining the earliest metaphor with one characteristic of our modern scientific world.
Like children reading costumes, we know the wicked from the good. We make our threats, seize our booty, and name the enemy, not thinking that we ourselves have become the world’s. For America’s children, this is play. For their nation, it is war. Trick or treat.
The question that bedevils us all is how to go beyond good and evil, to accept the moral ambiguity in each of us and thus in them, the Other. And how to not allow this recognition to paralyze us, to render efforts to improve the world impotent.
October 31st, 2005
Dylan Evans, who wrote the previously mentioned piece on Utopia, is, it turns out, a former Lacanian psychoanalyst who became disillusioned with Lacanianism, and with psychoanalysis generally. He has a chapter, From Lacan to Darwin [pdf], forthcoming in Literature and the Human Animal [eds. David Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Gottschall, Evanston: Northwestern University Press]. This chapter is a fascinating account of the Lacanian movement from the inside. He discusses the attractions of Lacan to many of us: his claim to develop a linguistic basis for psychoanalysis, bridging psychoanalysis and cognitive science; his concept of the “mirror phase,” which views human infant development in comparison to chimpanzee development; his view of the sense of self as based on illusion, a result of alienation; and his apparently erudite drawing upon much of the western philosophical and literary traditions. Further, like many attracted to Lacanian theory, Evans had no prior experience with psychoanalysis.
Unlike many Lacanians, Evans sought to clarify and comprehend Lacan’s thought, resulting in the publication of An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Along the way, Evans discovered that Lacan’s concepts were not clear. Further, most Lacanians viewed the obscure nature of these concepts as a strength, not a weakness. Lacan was to be accepted as a genius and guru to be followed and absorbed whole, rather than studied and critiqued as a thinker whose thought is to examined for the degree to which it represents reality accurately and the extent to which it stimulates other productive ideas. Data, Evans came to realize, was irrelevant to most Lacanians. The texts were to be studied as is the Talmud, with hope that one would be experience enough grace to comprehend.
Meanwhile, Evans found that Lacan’s theory did not advance his clinical practice. Whenever his interventions were based on Lacan, they failed to help. When they were based on a common sense attempt to understand and accept the patient, they were more likely to be helpful. Eventually Evans came to renounce psychoanalysis and, indeed, all psychotherapy, turning instead to the intersection of evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and, ultimately, robotics. I, perhaps defensively, would claim that his few years as an actual therapist were, perhaps, not enough to really judge the quality and nature of the profession.
Evans does not discuss his renunciation of psychoanalysis in general in this chapter. In fact, it is not clear that he has had much experience with non-Lacanian analysis. Many of his insights into the Lacanian phenomena and this community’s antipathy to data is relevant to other psychoanalytic “schools.” Yet, increasingly, psychoanalysts have become more open to nonpsychoanalytic thought, and to empirical research. While I share much of his concern with the quality of the empirical base for many psychoanalytic claims, I find much in psychoanalysis worth retaining. Perhaps some day a truly modern psychology will supersede psychoanalysis. But not yet, I would argue. I also would claim that his few years as an actual therapist were, perhaps, not enough to really judge the quality and nature of the profession.
In any case, his account of Lacanianism from the inside seems fair and well worth reading. I have met “Lacanians” who have uttered critical thoughts in private, but no one, to my knowledge has written such an account. He truly seems to want to explain himself to Lacanians, not simply to denounce them. Will he succeed? I doubt it. But, perhaps he will help others with silent reservations to cease suppressing them. And, perhaps, he can aid other psychoanalysts to recognize the dangers of theory without clarity and without a concern for its base in evidence. Psychoanalysis without critical thinking and without empirical research may, indeed, become that dead end he thinks it is.
October 30th, 2005
In an article today, Dylan Evans writes of our major societal problem, that we no longer dream of a better world, of a world where work is fulfilling and leisure means more than time for TV.
But if idealism without a dose of reality is simply naive, realism without a dash of imagination is utterly depressing. If this really was the end of history, it would be an awful anticlimax. Look at the way we live now, in the west. We grow up in increasingly fragmented communities, hardly speaking to the people next door, and drive to work in our self-contained cars. We work in standardized offices and stop at the supermarket on our way home to buy production-line food which we eat without relish. There is no great misery, no hunger, and no war. But nor is there great passion or joy. Despite our historically unprecedented wealth, more people than ever before suffer from depression….
It is this complacency, this lack of idealism, that is in part responsible for the repugnance with which Muslim extremists view western society. When George Bush speaks of exporting democracy to the Middle East, he should realize that liberal democracy on its own is a limp, anemic idea. If the west is to provide a more inspiring ideal, then it is time we devoted more thought to the questions that Plato, More and Marx placed at the heart their utopias; the question of how to make work more rewarding, leisure more abundant, and communities more friendly.
Evans hits the nail on the head. Without visions of a better world, this one will remain dreary and only marginally palatable. The fall of “communism” brought the end to horrible regimes. But it also brought the end to hope. That great revolutionary union Solidarity in Poland, which dreamed of a radical democracy building on the creativity of all, could only help bring a “free market” to Poland, giving up all pretense of transforming life. The Gdansk shipyard where Solidarity was born was closed by the “market” and the workers joined the unemployed, while Lech Walesa, their leader, became only another right-wing steward of despair for all.
It is hard to dream of a better world, but the future of the human race may depend upon it.
October 27th, 2005
David S. Bernstein in the Boston Phoenix has an excellent article — Yes, you should be afraid: As avian flu threatens to kill millions, Bush bets our lives on the free market — that discusses the dangers posed by Bush’s (and most Democrats’) free market approach to coping with a potential pandemic. Bernstein makes clear the dangers in relying on iincentives to get private companies to produce needed vaccines. For one thing, the incentive may very well fail. And they may discourage the production of the most effective vaccine (by rewarding companies whether or not their product actually works).
The primary bird-flu strategy involves giving as many concessions as necessary to prompt the pharmaceutical industry to make the drugs we’ll need. There are arguments to be made for that approach, but stronger arguments against it — including, most noticeably, that it has failed miserably before….
To be ready to respond to an outbreak, we need to have, at the ready, an entire infrastructure in place for the creation, manufacture, and distribution of a drug that, until the time comes, does not and cannot exist.
Building and maintaining capacity for a theoretical future product is not something free markets do well. Companies do not invest millions in manufacturing facilities for non-existent products.
The pharmaceutical industry, meanwhile, has become the single largest government-influence peddler, according to the Center for Public Integrity, spending well over $100 million a year on lobbying and campaign contributions…. In short, judging by recent legislation and activity by agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the US government is more likely to do big pharma’s bidding than vice versa.
The article is weak, however, in proposing a clear alternative. Given the present crisis, how does Bernstein believe the government should guarantee that needed steps are taken?
October 23rd, 2005
As we await the detailed Federal plan for coping with an avian flu pandemic, it appears that the Federal Government intends to leave the primary responsibility to state and local governments. Think about this: tens of thousands of local governments, many with very limited resources, will have to cope with a disster the likes of which hasn’t been see for over 80 years. Every local government that does a poor job will help
the pandemic spread, causing greater problems for everyone.
If a bird-flu pandemic hits the United States, don’t expect to see the federal government riding to the rescue. “Communities, in large part, will be on their own,” predicts Pat Libbey, the executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
The federal role in such a pandemic would be largely policy-oriented and advisory, Libbey and local health officials explain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would issue technical advice to health care workers, such as what symptoms to watch for in the population, how to administer a vaccine or an antiviral, and which groups of patients should receive treatment first.
October 23rd, 2005
This article popped up today. It reports on a poll secretly commissioned by the British Ministry of Defense which, is correct, shows the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are implacably opposed to the occupation. Key sections:
The survey was conducted by an Iraqi university research team that, for security reasons, was not told the data it compiled would be used by coalition forces. It reveals:
- Forty-five per cent of Iraqis believe attacks against British and American troops are justified – rising to 65 per cent in the British-controlled Maysan province;
- 82 per cent are “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops;
- less than one per cent of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security;
- 67 per cent of Iraqis feel less secure because of the occupation;
- 43 per cent of Iraqis believe conditions for peace and stability have worsened;
- 72 per cent do not have confidence in the multi-national forces.
The opinion poll, carried out in August, also debunks claims by both the US and British governments that the general well-being of the average Iraqi is improving in post-Saddam Iraq.
It would be nice to get a more detailed acount. For example, were the Kurdish regions included? If so, virtually every single non-Kurd must be “‘strongly opposed’ to the presence of the troops.”
October 22nd, 2005
No one knows if or when an avian flu pandemic will hit the world. But we do know that this is a serious possibility, and that the consequences could be catastrophic: tens to hundreds of millions dead worldwide; millions dead in the US; economic damage that could lead to another major depression as workers die and others cease working out of fear and the need to take care of ill family members. Perhaps starvation would set in as the economy slowed and transportation ceased for large infected area.
Given these possibilities, one would think that any government would make preventing and preparing for this potential catastrophe a major priority. It’s therefore nice to see that, for the Bush administration, avian flu is a priority. However, the priority isn’t preparing for it but preparing to spin the government’s failure to prepare.
Take this new article on U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt’s trip to Asia, the origin of this disease [Official: Preventing Pandemic Impossible ]. Secretary Leavitt of the “see no obstacles” Bush administration proclaims defeat in advance.
“Can we create a network of surveillance sufficient enough to find the spark when it happens, to get there fast enough?” he said. “The chances of that happening are not good.”
But will the US do all it can to prevent the spread of the disease? A no-brainer would be for the US and other wealthy nations to set up a fund to reimburse livestock breeders whose birds become infected. Since breeders sometime hide ill birds because of fears of economic devastation if they are detected and the rest of the breeder’s stock is culled, common sense would indicate that the world has an interest in making sure that this compensation is more than adequate. So is the US moving full steam ahead to create such a fund? The Secretary made it clear the US intended to do little:
“He said the U.S. government was considering ways to help offset the economic loss to Asian farmers forced to slaughter infected flocks, but help would be limited. Without subsidies, poor farmers resist killing their sickened livestock.”
While prevention is the best hope for the world, once a pandemic starts, public health strategies for coping are three-pronged: vaccination; use antiviral drugs; and quarantine.
As for vaccination, some efforts seem to be underway. Thoughtfully, the “United States may help finance some of the $100 million production burden.” “May?” “Some of the burden?” This hardly seems like an all out effort to prepare for potential catastrophe. And let’s not forget that that $100 million price tag is for vaccine for the United States only. Other wealthy industrial countries also will make preparations to vaccinate at least some of their populations. But what of the several billion people living in countries too poor to shoulder this cost on their own? Evidently they are simply to be left to get infected and die in their millions. In addition to the immorality of this, it will be a disaster for prevention in the United States and the other industrial countries. An epidemic left unchecked in large parts of the world will be a breading ground for the virus and for the development of modified forms of the virus which we may be less protected by vaccine. So any reasonable strategy for dealing with the virus would be based upon considering the entire world as an interconnected system. But not, evidently, that of the Bush administration.
Another important tactic is preparing stockpiles of antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu, to treat people when they become infected. While there is concern that avian flu strains may be developing resistance to some of these drugs, stockpiling them is indeed a good fallback in case a pandemic can’t be stopped. So is the Bush administration doing all it can to get as many doses of these drugs as possible? These drugs are protected by patent, interfering with the ability of multiple companies to devote their resources to manufacturing them. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has made the obvious suggestion that these patents be suspended in the interests of protecting millions of people. Secretary Leavitt’s response is that U.S. intellectual property rights would not allow such action. No urgent call for suspending those rights in an emergency from the administration that has deemed virtually no human right worth protecting as it pursues its GWOT (Global War on Terror).
As for quarantine, the Secretary says the country isn’t ready, but hasn’t outlined a detailed approach to make it ready. Obviously, such an approach should be developed in close coordination with the career professionals in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health agencies whose job it is to protect the public from health dangers. However, President Bush’s main idea was to propose giving the military, those experts in preserving the health of the public, a key role in imposing quarantines. As usual, the administration is more concerned with using the potential crisis to advance its agenda of militarizing American society than with actually preventing or coping with the crisis.
Never fear, however. Should a pandemic hit these shores Secretary Leavitt has already outlined the administration’s excuse. It’s all the fault of those other people, those individuals, families and public officials who were too shortsighted to prepare:
“People have not exercised adequate personal preparedness to last more than three or four days in their normal environment without going to the store,” he said. “What’s the responsibility of communities? What’s the responsibility of families? Is it important that the mayor of a small town be thinking about a decision between Tamiflu and a swimming pool?”
I guess all that’s needed is to trade in that swimming pool for a stock of the (unavailable) Tamiflu. If you don’t, the catastrophe, should it occur, is your fault, just as those selfish people in New Orleans are responsible for their suffering as they refused to evacuate and their local officials neglected to ask for FEMA’s assistance.
October 18th, 2005
Today’s Guardian has a nice article on the realtion between metaphor as understood by cognitive science and as used in literature: What’s on your mind?. It serves as an introduction to modern thinking on the importance of metaphor in human thought, and of the embodied nature of human cognition. Excerpt:
No professional group is more interested in the workings of the human mind than writers of fiction. Novelists as different as David Lodge, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have turned to the language of neuroscience in exploring venerable ideas about human experience. Even those writers without any overt interest in the mind sciences face the daily challenge of representing human consciousness on the page. The problem with mental states, for writers as much as for psychologists, is that they are unobservable. Confronted with the task of portraying the unportrayable, writers do what scientists do: they build models and reason from analogy. Writers’ most powerful tool in this respect has been metaphor, the likening of mental processes to non-mental, usually physical, entities. But have these metaphors kept pace with the advances made by cognitive scientists? Can literary metaphors of mind shed light on our unspoken assumptions about what goes on in our brains?…
The mind-as-container metaphor would certainly look familiar to many modern psychologists. The computer scientist John Barnden has collected together some common mind-metaphors in his online databank (www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~jab/ATT-Meta/Databank), a glance at which suggests that physical, static conceptions (such as of ideas as possessions, or as graspable external entities) still dominate contemporary talk about the mind. But psychologists now argue that we possess a wealth of knowledge of which we do not have conscious awareness, such as the procedural skills necessary to ride a bike, or the ability to draw on previous experiences without consciously recollecting them. It is not that these chunks of knowledge are temporarily lost in inaccessible spaces – rather, they belong to an entirely different system for storing knowledge to that which underpins our “explicit” memory for facts, names, phone numbers and so on.
In making this distinction between explicit and implicit memory, psychologists have replaced Plato’s thought-box with a metaphor from linguistics: the difference between your “known” knowns and your unknown ones is the difference between what you say and what your body language says for you….
Modern novelists’ fondness for first-person storytelling, brilliantly exemplified in the embedded narratives of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, has often served as an excuse for writers merely to render thought, rather than getting to grips with its dynamics and complex simultaneities. For all their limitations, metaphors of mind give writers a handle on the ineffable qualities of cognition. When thought becomes no more than unspoken speech, fiction’s gleaming reputation as a mirror of human consciousness will inevitably begin to tarnish.
October 15th, 2005
On the eve of the latest “tipping point,” Patrick Cockburn provides a comprehension description and analysis of the total American-British failure in Iraq: Iraq: The state we’re in. It’s one of the best summaries I’ve seen.
LEADER: When will peace return to Iraq? When will the terrifying cycle of bombings and suicide attacks abate? When will the people have food and electricity? When will they be able to walk the streets in safety? When will our sons and daughters return home? How will it all end? In this special report from Baghdad, The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn exposes the monumental series of blunders that plunged the nation into chaos – and explains why the conflict will be longer, bloodier and more profound in its consequences even than Vietnam
October 15th, 2005
The inveterate Knight Ridder reporter in Iraq, Tom Lasseter, has an important account of the new sectarian militia, sometimes referred to as the Iraqi Army: Sectarian resentment extends to Iraq’s army, undermining security.
But day to day, the Iraqi officers mostly run their own show, carrying out most of the patrols and running checkpoints without help. Increasingly, however, they look and operate less like an Iraqi national army unit and more like a Shiite militia….
“When we are in charge of security the people will follow a law that says you will be sentenced to prison if you speak against the government, and for people like Saleh Mutlak [A Sunni leader] there will be execution,” Zubaidi said….
“Even if you people, you Sunnis, roll tanks on our heads we will not give this country back to you,” Mousawi said. “It’s ours now.”
Some Iraqi troops went a step further, saying they were only awaiting word from the marja’iya before turning on American forces. Although many Shiites are grateful for the overthrow of Saddam, they also are suspicious of U.S. motives. Those suspicions partly stem from the failure of the first Bush administration to support a U.S.-encouraged Shiite uprising against Saddam in 1991. Saddam suppressed it and slaughtered thousands.
“In Amariyah last week, a car bomb hit a U.S. Humvee and their soldiers began to shoot randomly. They killed a lot of innocent civilians. I was there; I saw it,” said Sgt. Fadhal Yahan. “This happens all the time. If they keep doing this, the people will attack them. And we are part of the people.”
Sgt. Jawad Majid chimed in: “We have our marja’iya and we are waiting for them to decide when the time to fight (the Americans) is, when it is no longer time to be silent.”
“Thousands and thousands of Shiites are being killed, which is why they’re joining the army,” Sabri said. “Just let us have our constitution and elections in December and then we will do what Saddam did – start with five people from each neighborhood and kill them in the streets and then go from there.”
Asked if he worried about possible fighting between his men and the Sunnis at Umm al Qura, the brigade’s command sergeant major, Hassan Kadhum, smiled.
“Your country had to have a civil war,” he said. “It will be the same here. Everything in this world has its price. In Iraq the price for peace will be blood.”
October 13th, 2005