Paying Attention to Hitler: Some Centennials

September 18, 2021

I will not surprise anyone by observing that authoritarian populism has taken hold in the United States. Donald Trump never made the slightest pretense of valuing democracy as a system of choosing leaders. There were other things that were much more important, such as, for instance, “Making America Great Again.” In light of that, it occurred to me this morning that we might pay more attention than we have to the various Hitler centennials. [1]

If we did that, we might begin that observation with a paragraph that starts like this:

On July 29, 1921, Hitler assumed leadership of the organization, which by then had been renamed the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party.

For this part of Hitler’s career, we might take the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 as an orienting event. This connection came to me a little late, so I failed to notice that only 52 days ago—that’s a century and 52 days, of course—Hitler became the official leader of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party (the NSDAP) in Munich. By starting there, we would have laid a good foundation to begin noticing what he did to plan military-style action (premature, it turned out) against the state and the strategy he adopted afterwards.

It would be fatuous to claim that the rapid rise of populist authoritarianism in Germany in the 1920s would look just like the rise of populist authoritarianism we are facing in the United Statess in the 2020. On the other hand, it would be just as silly to refuse to see the similarities. Here are three:

Hitler believed, as did many Germans, that Germany had once been great and that its greatness had been stolen from it. All he wanted was to “stop the steal” and return Germany to the status it deserved.

Hitler believed that democracy as a system was weak and specifically, that it was inadequate to the present crisis. On the other hand, especially after the failed military action in Munich in 1923, Hitler saw that the democratic system was the best chance for the Nazi party to take power. It could be—and was—discarded after that.

Hitler exploited the economic difficulties of a large swath of the German people after the war. They were angry anyway. Hitler only needed to focus their anger on useful projects and on vulnerable populations

Macht Deutschland wieder gross

English and German don’t line up all that well as languages, but I notice that Hitler’s Stormtroopers the Sturmabteilung wore something that looked very much like an American baseball cap. That being the case, it is easy to imagine MDWG—Macht Deutschland wieder gross—printed across the front very like MAGA is used by Donald Trump partisans. My German isn’t all that good, but I claim that is a plausible version of “Make Germany Great Again,” which was, in fact, the heart of Hitler’s early rhetoric in Munich.

[1] This does not require that we celebrate them, of course, but it might be worth our while to begin tracking them.

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Opprobrium Entrepreneurs

September 9, 2021

People who like to write about or think about or argue about American politics (overlapping, but not identical categories) owe a debt of thanks to Cass R. Sunstein for the term, “opprobrium entrepreneur.” Opprobrium is the imputation of shameful conduct. [1]

It’s a little harder to say exactly what an entrepreneur is, but it is about the front end of a development. The people who determine the demand for a product—the “product” in this instance is the unacceptability of certain words—or who organize its popularity or who popularize it among audiences who were not initially engaged.

Sunstein, in his 2018 paper , “The Power of Normal” proposes a way new norms are popularized. It is the mastery of this process that qualifies someone as an OE. Sunstein says:

Once conduct comes to be seen as part of an unacceptable category — abusiveness, racism, lack of patriotism, microaggression, sexual harassment — real or apparent exemplars that are not so egregious, or perhaps not objectionable at all, might be taken as egregious, because they take on the stigma now associated with the category.

This is a logic-driven process. It isn’t very good logic, but the general argument—if X is bad, Y, which shares some of X’s traits, is also bad—is the kind of argument one finds in logic. So if, for instance, racial hatred is bad, then racial stereotyping is also bad and inattention to the widespread use of racial stereotypes is also bad and the refusal to become reliably enraged when one hears about an instance of racial stereotyping is also bad, That series should illustrate why I called “a kind of logic” and also why I said it wasn’t very good logic.

Sunstein follows the mechanism this way. An action or an attitude is declared to be objectionable. Then it is located in a category. Then anything else that falls in that category is also objectionable. So if raping a woman you met at a party in college is bad, then asking the woman if she would like to have sex with you is also bad, then asking her out on a date the next weekend is also bad, and so is saying that she is attractive. If you take the trouble to devise a category like “taking an initiative toward a woman at a party,” then anything that falls under the category “initiative” bears the same opprobrium.

Sunstein offers a list of common categories: “abusiveness, racism, lack of patriotism, microaggression, sexual harassment.” But the whole notion of “category” is notoriously hard to pin down. There could be a category of irrational behavior, or of excessive appetite, or of deficient appetite, or even “inappropriate behavior”—which requires a whole new set of standards.

Consider, for instance, “lack of patriotism” in Sunstein’s list above. If we think of patriotism as a love of one’s country, then obviously, it is the display of this love, at appropriate times and in approved modes, that is being considered. So hating your county would fit, if you kept talking about your hatred. Not caring much one way or the other [2] could be seen as a lack of patriotism. Not displaying your feelings when such a display is called for could be seen as a lack of patriotism. Failing to praise others whose displays of their own patriotism are to be taken as the new norm—that too could be seen as a lack of patriotism.

You see how it works. Once the category is developed, weaker and weaker and weaker stimuli cue the same response that strong stimuli once cued. I love the story I heard in the 1970s of the college girl who was organizing recycling for her dorm and put signs on the paper bins: “white paper” on one and “colored paper” on the other. A friend, just to tease her, scratched out “colored paper” and wrote “paper of color.” As a joke from a friend, I thought it was funny. It wouldn’t be funny of the girl was accused of racism and kicked out of school, but she really should have been more sensitive to the possibility that someone would respond to the signs as if they were racist.


There is a solution to this problem. It’s simple in principle. It is to divide responses like this into too little, too much, and just right. I said it was simple. Rather than establishing “patriotism” as an undifferentiated good, for instance, we could say that there are expressions of patriotism that are too little, others that are too much, and still others that are somewhere in the middle. We could also allow large categories of everyday life where “patriotic acts” are really not required at all.

This would allow us to distinguish acts with racist intentions and expressions from others which bear only tangentially on race at all. The Opprobrium Entrepreneurs establish the category (bearing on race = racist) then label everything in the category as equally objectionable. Intentions are not required. Attitudes are the same as behavior. Insensitivity (to the categories I am selling) is the same as racism. And so on. And on.

Thomas B. Edsall, in his New York Times column of September 8, cites a number of scholars who think that the pushback against this kind of entrepreneurialism has begun. I hope so.

[1] It hasn’t had to develop much from the Latin root probrum, “reproach, infamy.Apparently it is one of those ideas tucked in near the foundation of society.
[2] Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris did some really interesting studies of young people at the time the European Union was being developed and the new thing, the better thing, was not to be “French” or “German,” but to be “European.”

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Evangelize your friends. Or else.

Today, I opened a Facebook post from a long ago friend. Still a “friend” in the Facebook sense of the term.

The Bible…says Matthew 10:33 “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which art [sic] in Heaven. [1]

If the Holy Spirit moves you and you’re not ashamed, just copy, and make this as your status update.

I admit that I am not sure I am up to current Facebook language and practices, so I might have misunderstood what “status update” can mean. I imagined that it signaled some piece of information about her family or something new about her job or maybe some new idea she wanted to put up for comment. Having read its contents, particularly the part I have excerpted above, I now believe it signals nothing at all about my friend except possibly that she can be shamed into doing something that someone else wants her to do.

My friend received a post from a conservative Christian minister. He asks her to make this post of his “your status update.” My friend very seldom posts on Facebook and when she does, it is about her family, which is large and devoted. My first thought on reading this “update” was that she must have had some reason for posting it. But when I read it more carefully I saw that it says that God will be ashamed of her if she does not.

He starts with this passage in Matthew in which Jesus argues that how we live our lives here will have eternal consequences. If you proclaim me here, my Father will proclaim you there. And vice versa. The message focuses on the versa.

And what does my friend have to do to earn God’s acceptance and to avoid being rejected? Only to re-post the minister’s message and call it “your status update.” That doesn’t sound so hard. All you have to do is post something implying that it is about you and your family, leaving your “friends” to learn on their own that you are just being used as an outlet for someone else’s message.

I have quite a few friends who read an article or a blog post and find it to have some merit and put it up on their Facebook page with a note that says something like “I thought this was a really good argument. What do you think?” Or “I thought this was a beautiful poem and wanted to share it with you.”

This isn’t that.

My friend looked at this post and its argument that the only reason you would NOT post it as a status update is that you are ashamed of it. [2] And if you are ashamed of this message, it is like being ashamed of me, which is like being ashamed of Jesus, which is like being ashamed of God—and you will pay the price for that, you may be sure.

That’s what this is.

What you have to do to avoid God’s wrath gets easier and easier. Just post my letter and call it “a status update.” The consequences of not doing that simple little thing get harder and harder. “My Father will be eternally ashamed of you.”

I imagine as I write this that I will not be reading any more “status updates” from my friend unless they say what they are about. And if others like myself do that, my friend’s pool of friends will become more and more homogeneous—more and more like a silo. And that will be a shame.

[1] I am not entirely sure why the King James grammar requires “is” as the verb here, where “art” is required in the Lord’s Prayer. I suspect that “art” is required by direct address (Our Father, who ART) where the normal usage (My Father, who IS in heaven). Can anyone help me on that?
[2] You could argue that the other element of the appeal—if the Holy Spirit moves you—is important as well, but I am quite sure that my friend will not be certain that the Holy Spirit has moved her. She will clearly follow the “shame logic.”

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The Nap Ministry

I learned to nap when I was a teenager. I was working at a lumber yard—my brothers and I all did that in the summers—and I remember walking a few blocks to lunch at home and then lying on the floor in the living room for a quick nap before going back to work. I remember sleeping soundly for fifteen minutes and waking refreshed and going back to work.

As I look back, I am not quite sure how much of that actually happened but I remember it all clearly and my brothers, who sometimes keep an eye on this blog, will all have views.

Fast forward to grad school at the University of Oregon. I began to work with the idea that the “problems” we tried to solve were of our own making. We encounter difficulties of all kinds because of who we are and the way life is organized in our society, but how we construe them [1]—formulate them as problems to be solved—is up to us. There are, accordingly, “good problems” and “bad problems.” The good ones help you see what to do next and call on your best efforts.

In this morning’s New York Times, Cassady Rosenblum wrote a column called “Work is a False Idol.” In that column, I first heard about “the nap ministry,” which, as an actual organization (see I have no interest in at all, but with my background in napping and in the formulation of useful problems, I can hardly stay away from it.

What’s the problem? That’s often a way of asking, “What’s wrong with it?” That’s not the way I use it. What I mean is, “What problem have you constructed to give a useful shape to this collection of events?” So, how about the one embedded in this headline: Work is a False Idol?

Idols are objects of worship. Why are we talking about worship? And if we are going to talk about worship, why specify “idols” which are false by definition. [2] This is a terrible problem, although it is probably not a bad headline.

The group Ms. Rosenblum cites, “the nap ministry” has a heading that is even worse. They ask, at the top of their page, “How will you be useless to capitalism today?”

The goal suggested in this problem formulation is that you find a way to be useless to capitalism. “Capitalism” in most journalistic contexts, is a word much like “idolatry.” It’s hard to say just what it is, but we know it is bad. We used to hear about attempts to “overthrow” capitalism, a problem with its own difficulties, but aspiring to be useless to “capitalism” is not even a thought worth having. “I have succeeded today! I have been of no use at all to capitalism!” Woohoo!”

There is no distinction, in these problems between work that really needs to be done and “fill the time” work. There is no distinction between work through which you express yourself and in which you find great joy. It’s all “work,” presuming you receive monetary compensation for it, and so runs the risk of being “useful” to capitalism. Oh dear.

There are lots of ways to formulate meaningful problems, problems that are actually worth solving, At the national level, you might ask how the goods and services we need could be produced without causing so much human cost. That’s a good problem. You can come at it either from the end of causing less damage or from the end of repairing quickly and effectively the damage that is caused. Those are both good problems. They help you see what to do next and they mobilize you to do your best work on them.

At the personal level, you could aspire to live a meaningful and satisfying life by doing work that will compensate you adequately and by refusing meaningless competitions or display. Those specifications set a very low bar for “adequately” and they enable a whole host of interesting tradeoffs in the choices you make. That’s a good problem too, for the same reasons the systemic formulation is a good problem.

So…not to beat this to death, “staying useless to capitalism” is not a good problem. It will not do for you what needs to be done. “Refusing to worship the idol of work” is not a good problem either. Aiming at defeating abstract forces is just unlikely to bring you the intentional clarity you will need, so reject such aims. Make good problems instead. And then get to work.

[1] We get that word from a Latin verb, construere, which means to build. How very appropriate!
[2] Etymologically, idolatry is the worship of images, the Greek is
eidōlon. If you really want to do it, you should call them icons.

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The Use of Conflicts in the Gospel of Mark

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus responds unevenly to the opportunities he has to engage in conflicts. There is an easy way to demonstrate this, although I am sure it would not persuade anyone who wasn’t willing to be persuaded. You simply array the conflict situations Mark describes and note when Jesus chose to engage and when he didn’t. Then you plot them out from mild to severe and see how they line up.

I’ve done that twice recently, once in a secular setting and once in a religious setting, and found the question thoroughly engaging. The situations were mostly familiar, but the approach—how did Jesus choose how to engage in these conflicts and for what reasons—was unfamiliar. There is something of a “gentle Jesus meek and mild” aura that seems to persist from week to week, even as we dismembered it week to week. For that reason, and perhaps for some others as well, it continues to be a surprising study.

As I looked for a way to convey what appears to be a series of strategic choices, I happened on the notion of a manager choosing the series of opponents for his young boxer. The idea that Mark is the manager gives room for us, as readers, to imagine the strategic choices Mark made in assembling the gospel. He can’t use all the materials he has, even if he wanted to, and he needs to turn these materials into a narrative that will make sense to readers. There is, therefore, an order these conflicts must have. It would be unsettling to have the intensity decrease markedly as Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover conflicts.

So the fantasy that Mark serves as Jesus’ “manager” allows us to look for the strategy in his choices. Also, as in the stories, the manager would choose just the fights his fighter needed to build his skills. This stretches the metaphor just a little, but it is clear that some of the conflicts feature challenges to the power Jesus has; others to the authority he has. Some pit Jesus against the Pharisees, some against the scribes, some against the Sadducees. Some conflicts require Jesus to define his ministry, others to define his nature.

So overall, seeing Mark’s account as a boxer’s manager’s choice of conflicts—though fanciful—offers some very sensible choices to the reader.

Some Examples

For instance, in Mark 2, the Pharisees challenge Jesus about his disciples’ refusal to engage in fasting. Why is that? Jesus responds by saying that this is a special time.

19 Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot fast while the bridegroom is still with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then, on that day, they will fast.

The claim this makes is among the mildest of Jesus’ responses. The disciples behavior is related to the time they are with their master and when that time is over, they will again pick up the valuable practices of observant Jews.

But three verses later—in this metaphor, “three verses later” refers to where Mark places these two conflicts in relation to each other, not to any fixed elapsed time—the Pharisees criticize the disciples for violating the Sabbath and Jesus responds much more robustly. He does not appeal to the differences among the various rabbis about just how strict to be. He appeals first to the practice of David, later King David, who took liberties with the Sabbath.

Then he crowns that conflict with a very powerful reference—no less powerful for being puzzling:

27And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; 28so the Son of man [many translations have Son of Man] is master even of the Sabbath.’ [1]

There is no question, however, that in this conflict, Jesus moves from less controversial claims to more controversial ones.

Examples could be multiplied. We dealt with twelve of them, all from Mark, in these sessions. In some, Jesus simply refused to be baited. In Mark11, Jesus asks his opponents—chief priests, scribes, and elders, in this instance—a question they dare not answer in public. When they refuse to answer, Jesus says:

‘Nor will I tell you my authority for acting like this.’

When the opponents ask a question like ones they have been asking—why don’t your disciples….?—Jesus simply explodes. (Mark 7:6—8)

6He answered, ‘How rightly Isaiah prophesied about you hypocrites in the passage of scripture: This people honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. 7 Their reverence of me is worthless; the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments. * 8You put aside the commandment of God to observe human traditions.’

There is nothing remotely like an answer to the question in that response. Imagine that Mark, the Manager, calls for a shift from defense to offense, sensing that the time is right. In this metaphor, we cannot judge whether the metaphor treats Mark as the “manager” of the career of Jesus or as “manager” of the needs of the narrative. In either case, the shift into attack mode is dramatic.

There is no need to multiply examples. If you build an array of the least offensive of Jesus’ responses to the most offensive, you find that the conflicts fill up the whole scale. We cannot tell from Mark’s account alone whether this is a well planned ministry or a well planned narrative, but the range is impressive and it gives a new and interesting perspective on Jesus.

[1] What does Mark want us to understand here? “Son of Man” is used in Mark’s gospel to mean several different things (see Mark 17:62 for a very high claim).

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The Distrust Party

In situations of persistent conflict, it is really hard to continue to wish good things for your self and your group without also sliding off to wishing bad things for “them.” That is one of the very large problems the U. S. faces at the moment. The COVID 19 pandemic has made that abundantly clear.

The Republican party has become the party of Distrust. One of the things that makes this possible is that it makes some undifferentiated THEM available as a scapegoat. You can urge the party faithful not to support anything that would bring aid and comfort to THEM without raising the question of the best way to respond to the present situation.

The old Republican party wasn’t like that. Heather Cox Richardson reminded me in her column today that President Eisenhower characterized his program as “a middle way between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands of the welfare of the whole Nation.” 

There are two positive formulations there. There are things we have to do for the welfare of the nation as a whole. Let’s do those. On the other hand, there is the freedom of the individual to consider, a freedom that needs to be respected. No modern Republican could make an appeal like that because the Republican party as become the party of distrust.

Ross Douthat noted in the New York Times this morning that the simplest way–he granted that there were other considerations–would be simply to pay people to take the vaccine. Among the reasons he gives for this approach is one I like a lot. It is cheap. The return to the society of this paltry investment in the nation’s welfare would pay for the expense many times over.

But…really? Have we been driven as far as that? A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that a lot of people don’t think the case for the vaccine has been made. And why is that? It is because the major institutions that oversee the health of the public can’t be trusted. And how do we know they can’t be trusted? Because the party of Distrust–the Republicans–have been shouting it from the rooftops for forty years. These formerly trusted institutions have become part of THEM.

So what would have become a trusting (and inexpensive) response to the unanimous judgment of the professionals has become a very expensive exercise in compliance that the government is forced to purchase. Providing the services the country needs to an untrusting population is really really expensive.

It can be argued that allowing everyone to exercise their own judgment is the best way to solve the problem. That’s a good looking approach at the beginning, but eventually, we need to say that it isn’t working. So it isn’t “a good way to solve the problem” because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. That would be the place where a sensible society would invoke Plan B, whether that involves punishing people who refuse vaccination or rewarding people so they will accept it.

But both of those treat those plans as ways to solve the problem. If “I get to make the choice for myself” is asserted as a right, then there is no Plan B. That brings us to President Eisenhower’s use of the word “untrammeled.” Untrammeled–literally “unbound”–individualism is the kind that will accept no amount of public benefit as an adequate reason to give up even a fragment of precious autonomy.

In the 1940s, they used to say “there’s a war on, you know” as a reason to do something for the public benefit that the government could not otherwise require you to do. “There’s a war on, you know” saved the government untold trillions of dollars in compliance they didn’t have to buy. Conversely, the persistent cultivation of distrust we have seen from the Republicans–oh, and the Russians, too–does cost those trillions. There isn’t a war on anymore.

And the Party of Distrust considers only the benefit to itself when crucial public programs fail.

That’s really the problem the Democrats face. Even the consistent achievement of crucial public purposes is not going to rebuild trust. Trust is built by explanations, not by achievements. Every beneficial program that can be explained away as “politically motivated” does not have the effect of building up our fund of trust. And “trust is cheaper than purchase,” true as it is, is not the kind of explanation that is going to restore trust.

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My colleague, the Honorable Scumbag from North Dakota

It is a commonplace that the United States is now in a hyperpartisan era. People who think that is not true or who think it is not important often pass it off by saying that nothing is more naturally human that for people to get angry at each other and, while angry, to say angry things. It is “natural,” of course, to say angry things when you are angry, but not everyone does.

I have never personally been in a barroom brawl, but in the dramatized accounts I have heard and seen, men go out for a beer, have too many, pick a fight on some pretext or other and fight it out. It was once very different in the U. S. House of Representatives. People who think that is not true often point to the physical violence that some representatives have resorted to on the House floor, but the fact that they always cite the same few events indicates how rare they are.

You really don’t expect running (candidates) or sitting (incumbents) congressmen to routinely abuse each other and if, once upon a time, someone in the House had proposed the routine abuse of their partisan opponents, he would have had to explain why it was a good idea.

Newt Gingrich, then Republican Whip in the House, did explain why it was a good idea and I am going to tell you how he sold the idea. [1] But before I do that, let me give you some of my favorites. Here are nine of my favorite terms from the list Rep. Gingrich circulated to Republicans running for office in 1990. These are nine from a list of 30.

common sense

“Use these words,” Gingrich says [2] “to help define your campaign and your vision of public service. These words can give extra power to your message.”

Those don’t sound all that bad. Anybody here against “strength” or “duty” or “freedom” or “common sense?”

Here are some items from the other list. This is a list of 36. Again, I will choose nine.


And how shall we justify using these words against the people who, if they win, will be our colleagues in the House of Representatives? This is what Gingrich told them. “These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, his record, proposals and party.”

And they did. And it worked.

There is a lot to deplore in this campaign of vilification. [3] My interest today is only to look at the words by which they were first sold. The words you are to use in “defining your vision of public service.” Some vision. The words you are to use in defaming your opponent (and his record, his proposals, and his party) are words that “create a clear and easily understood contrast.”

Your opponent is a traitor and hypocritical. You, on the other hand, are passionate and principled. Do those create a clear and easily understood contrast? Not really. There is no understanding in those words at all. They don’t require substantiation. They are “feeling words” only—is your opponent actually a “traitor?”—but they sound like substantive charges. And denying these charges has roughly the same effect as admitting to them, so there is almost no risk at all to the perpetrator.

And now the Congress labors to pass legislation that a majority of Senators and Representatives favor and which polls show to be overwhelmingly popular. Thanks, Newt.

[1] I take for granted that there were also reasons that were not given publicly. These were the public reasons.
[2] In the pamphlet Language: A Key Mechanism of Control, which was sent to Republican candidates.
[3] Rep. Joe Wilson, who yelled “You lie!” at President Obama at a joint session of Congress in 2009 is a direct beneficiary of the advice Gingrich gave in 1990.

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Living on Autopilot

Human personalities are incredibly complex. I know that because I have one, myself. And for some purposes, I think we should lean into and fully appreciate the complexity. But there are other purposes—I am going to explore one today—for which some simplification may be helpful.

Abraham Maslow’s famous and widely misunderstood hierarchy of values will serve as an example. He argued that humans have a drive toward what he called “self-actualization” A few other things need to be taken care of first—survival, safety, and community, for example—but as each “need” is met, our attention and our efforts move toward the “next” level of values. [1]

I have something simpler in mind. I have in mind a three part division and I start in the middle with something that could be characterized as “autopilot.” This is the level of functioning—cognitive, conative, affective, and behavioral—that I expect of myself on a day to day basis. [2] There is a plus version, in which I intend and enact “better things.” Notice how much complexity is wiped out there. There is also a minus version, in which I either intend and enact worse things, or simply neglect to intend or to enact at all.

So instead of Maslow’s five levels, I have three. Instead of Maslow’s drive toward self-actualization, I have “doing better” and “doing worse.” Maslow’s scheme is rich and sophisticated and, apart from the problem that his levels are notoriously hard to measure, better for researchers. My scheme is embarrassingly simple, but I will argue, on its behalf, that it is easier to use. I think I have been using it for years, but just today, I thought of names to call it.

In the early 2000s my wife died. We had been friends for a quarter of a century or so and married to each other nearly all that time. Her death devastated me. I withdrew from all the parts of life I could withdraw from and participated minimally in the others. In that deeply deprived state, I learned some interesting things. I learned, for instance, that some things gave me a little boost and helped me move on into the next hour. I didn’t intuit those things; I discovered them. “Hey,” I would say to myself, “That helped.”

Oddly, one of the things I discovered is that buying things helped. It didn’t matter much what it was, although whimsical purchases were better, and it didn’t matter how much they cost. I concluded eventually—no way to tell if I was right about this, but it doesn’t really matter—that making a purchase implied that I would still be there to use it at some time in the future. I would still be here when the TV dinner needed to be eaten or the new chair needed to be sat in or the new CD needed to listened to.

That is when I began to think about the boundary between autopilot and “better than autopilot.” I’m still thinking about that boundary although the depression based on grieving the loss of my wife dissipated [3] and I got on with the business of living.

What is my better self like?

To keep this from getting entirely out of hand, let me treat the “better self” with the metaphor of carrying capacity. This metaphor neglects entirely the fact that some days I really want to do better things, not just carry heavier burdens. It also neglects the fact that on those good days, I am more sensitive to just what is there to do. But, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to deal with Autopilot in terms of carrying capacity. This is what that looks like

Carrying capacity is the simplest kind of notion. Imagine that I am a lifeboat after a cruise ship has sunk. As the boat I am (autopilot) I can take on nine people before we all sink and die. But I am more buoyant in the plus version of myself and I can take on eighteen people without sinking. And I should.

I live in a senior center with, in round numbers, a couple hundred other people like me. We live in our own apartments and come and go as we please. We have the problems people have from time to time and that older people have more of. I can walk into a common area, say a lounge where people are loosely organized around a coffee pot, and tell a lot of things at a glance. I can tell who is hungry for conversation or, maybe, just for recognition. I can tell who is still pissed off from our last discussion. I can tell who wants to ask me to be on a committee or to tell me she was unhappy about the last meeting of the Resident’s Association.

On a buoyant day, I can take on all eighteen. On an Autopilot day, nine. On a minus day, I just keep moving and try not to make eye contact. The water is lapping at the gunwhales as it is.

As a scheme, it’s a lot simpler than Maslow’s, but it also doesn’t carry the ideological baggage of the Maslovian version and I can use it every day. I do like that.

[1] Jim Davies, my grad school mentor, was a Maslovian and he loved words. He used to say that the need for belonging and then the need to be differentiated from the group to which one belongs, could be expressed as the need to be a part; then the need to be apart.
[2] Three of those four terms are familiar. “Conative,” which refers to will and intention, is not often used. The others mean: how I think, how I feel, and what I am most likely to do.
[3] Grief at that level is never really “gone.” There are little triggers that I accumulated during all that time and every now and then something pulls one of them and I remember briefly what it used to feel like all the time.

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The Crusades (again) in the 2020s

I had a friend once who descended from time to time into an irrational rage and he hated to go alone. I am going to describe the process in the form it finally became familiar to me. This will make it sound like a process I understood at the time. It will also make my friends actions sound as if they were chosen and intentional. Neither of those is true.

He would begin by lamenting things we both opposed. Then he would move on to things I thought were less clear. Then to things that angered him but not me. At that point, I would begin to disengage the way one does from a drama that has failed to catch your interest. At that point, he would begin to attack me for mistakes and errors of judgment, past or present, knowing I could not really disengage from such an attack. It was, after all, an attack on me.

I did learn, however, to disengage even from those attacks. Once I saw the pattern, I knew they weren’t really about me, no matter how they were phrased. But even more important, I came to understand that wherever he was going, he would need some help coming back and if I went with him, I would not be able to help. I would be in the same “place” he was. So to honor our friendship and to retain the ability to be of service to my friend, I would disengage even from attacks on me.

When he came back from wherever it was he went, I was still there and was able to help him reorient himself and check back in to his life. He was very resentful when I refused to accompany him but he was grateful that I was still there and still ready to help when he got back.

The Politics of the Pit

Most of my life, politics has been about power and wealth. I’ve gotten used to it. Now it is about virtue and I’m not sure the system the Framers built can handle it. [1] I remember the ease with which I absorbed the idea that the Crusaders went to Jerusalem to take it back from the Infidels = Muslims. They succeeded. Then it was the job of the Muslims to take it back from the Infidels = Christians. You see the problem.

Good and Evil cannot rotate in office the way Democrats and Republicans can. And as liberalism and conservatism—now Trumpism—have moved more and more to waging war against evil, there doesn’t seem to be much of a place for a person who is interested in the old favor-trading coalitional politics. That means there is no room for someone who refuses to be absorbed into the descent into the pit. And it may also mean that there will be no one left to help the survivors out of the pit.

So I am going to have to make the decision about progressive politics that I was forced to make about my episodically angry friend. If I can’t talk you out of it and I am unwilling to go down into the pit with you, then the most I can do is to wait here, hoping that I will be able to make a contribution to your welfare when you come back.

It’s sad, really. Back when progressives, and before them, “liberals,” formulated problems that could be addressed by devising programs and spending money, there were things that could be done. Now that whole areas of public policy have been transformed into questions of “sin,” there really isn’t anything that can be done.

The Sin Axis

Progressives are, by and large, secular, so “sin” might not be the first way to describe the orientation to come to their minds. It isn’t hard to work with, though. Sin is the end point of an axis. It is bad. The closer you get to it the more bad you are, but you don’t get good by getting further away from it. Just less bad. You can sin by “thought, word, and deed” as the expression goes. You can sin by being part of a group that has sinned in thought, word, and deed or that sinned during some part of their history.

There is, obviously, no good end to the sin axis. If “sin,” rather than enacting and funding needed public programs, is the question, then there is only one axis, as there was in Jerusalem where each soldier was an Infidel to the soldiers on the other side. Not “opponents,” you see, but “enemies.” And, further, “evil.”

Progressivism still has programs to support that would improve the lot of people who need them and there are contributions to be made there, but progressivism as a cultural force is like a revolution that has gained momentum and lost balance. It is on its way down into the pit.

I will try to find something useful to do while I am waiting. The decision to refuse to go with them has taken about all the energy I have right now. Still, you can’t spend all your time as a former lemming [2] and I get bored easily, so I will need to find something to do. Finding a way to get back to normal politics would be nice.

Lots of democratic socialist countries do their day to day work as normal politics. Of course, they didn’t get to be democratic socialist countries by normal politics either, so there is work to do.

[1] Very close to the surface of the system the Framers built is Newtonian mechanics. One force balances another. Imagine how that would all have to change if something, say “gravity” were declared to be evil.
[2] I saw the 1958 film
White Wilderness in which the Disney studio purported to show lemmings committing mass suicide by running off a cliff. It was very persuasive. Even now that I know it was staged, I keep the mental movie.

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How well do you want it fixed?

In the early 1960s, I dislocated my left shoulder. After many subsequent dislocations, I decided to see if I could get it fixed. I went to team of doctors who were said to have a lot of experience with athletes. That one piece of information should have prepared me for unusually fine questions, but it didn’t. I told the doctor what was wrong with my shoulder and asked if he could fix it. He moved it around a little with his hands and then asked a question I had never heard before and that I want to think about today. He said, “How well do you want it fixed?” [1]

I long time friend recently characterized me as “buoyant.” I took it as a compliment, of course, but I think what she meant was that I revert quickly to the question the surgeon asked me. I wonder how good something needs to be to be good enough.

I hear people say that they “didn’t get enough sleep last night.” I know what they mean and I never ask, “Enough for what?” It is what I always think, however, and it is what I ask of myself. I don’t sleep as deeply or as long as I did when I was a young man, but the amount of sleep I get is a very acceptable match for the “work” I need to do that day. [2]

So I ask myself, when I am trying to decide whether to get out of bed, “Have I had enough sleep?” I pause, at that point, and consider two things. The first is what I need to be able to do when I get up. The second is, how soon after that could I go back to bed if I really needed to?

Consider these two scenarios. I have something really exciting to do. I feel the stimulation of this “meeting” just in the anticipation of it. I am confident that when the meeting begins, I will be filled with energy and possibly even, depending on the meeting, with creativity. If I am trying to decide whether to get out of bed using the standard, “Have I had enough sleep” on the day of this meeting, the answer will almost certainly be Yes.

Notice that that calculation has nothing to do with how much sleep I got or with how I feel at the moment. The “enough” standard, matches how I feel to how I need to feel. Is that being buoyant?

This way of thinking about whether I have had enough sleep makes it plain that what looks like a property is actually a relationship. I always feel as if “sleepy” were a condition of my body, but that makes no sense at all if the same amount of alertness is good enough for some things and not good enough for others. Think about it. I have had enough sleep to attend a stimulating meeting of my peers but I have not had enough sleep to attend a dreary make-work meeting called by my superiors. Clearly, we are not talking about the same meaning of “enough sleep.”

But consider the implications. Do I need to be taking sleeping pills so I will get enough sleep? No, I need to engage in more engaging activities when I get up. Do I need to be taking stimulants when I get up? No, if I am doing things that stimulate me, I don’t need chemical stimulants. [3] If “enough sleep” is, in fact, a ratio between how I feel and how I need to feel, then altering either side of the equation will work equally well.

The second question I posed above has to do with how long I need to be alert. This is a sort of fail-safe provision. If I can get up and do what I need to do and then go back to bed, I can take that into account when I am getting up. If I can go back to sleep after the meeting, then I can hold it together during the meeting.

It turns out that “How well do you need it to be fixed?” is a question with quite a few valuable connections. Do I need to order from the most exotic menu I have ever seen or do I need to order from a menu that has interesting and nutritious food on it? Do I need a bike that will take sustained speeds over rough terrain or will a bike that does everything I want to do be enough? In my recent (now fifteen years ago) trip into the world of dating, I had to get clear in my mind about just what I was looking for. I was looking for a woman who was “good enough” on the whole host of criteria that are featured on dating shows and truly excellent in the few things that will be important in our life together over the years. [4]

Again, not “traits” but “ratios.” It is not hard to make that case, but it is really hard to keep it at the center of your attention, where decisions get made; it is hard to feel it, when your reasoning is accustomed to thinking about traits.

This is really important to me as a man who lives in an old body. Note the careful phrasing. It is easy to say that all my systems—cognitive, affective, behavioral—are fading. Nothing works as well as it used to. On the other hand, nearly everything still works well enough to do the things I most want to do. “Fading” needs to mean that I am no longer able to do the things I need to do. Again, note the careful phrasing. “Need to do” is not the same as “used to do.”

It’s a ratio and I am free to choose the other term. If I remember. Does that make me buoyant?

[1] I didn’t know what he meant. I said, “I’d like to be able to play basketball.” He said, “Industrial league?” He was a sports doctor.
[2] Ursula LeGuin created an anarchist society in her book, The Dispossessed. In preparation for setting up this culture, the founders invented a new language because they understood that the values of the culture would be embedded in the language. For that reason, they invented a verb that meant both “work” and “play.” Tedious, meaningless activities, to distinguish them from both work and play, were called kleggich. I feel that same way: “work” and “play” are pretty much the same thing to me these days.
[3] Or what they are now calling “energy drinks.”
[4] I have written recently about the importance I placed on the kind of marriage I had in mind and the true necessity that we both be willing to do the work necessary to sustain it.

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