Disapproval Fatigue and Team Names

I grew up in a meat and potatoes house. We had noodles from time to time, but we never had “pasta.” That being the case, the first dozen or so times I saw the word “antipasto, “ I misunderstood it completely. [1] Today’s reflection is going to be a little bit on the sober side. Probably pretty abstract, too. So I thought starting with the pasta might help; unless, of course, you are anti-pasta.

It will come as no surprise to anyone to hear that the United States is in the midst of a culture conflict. That means, for today’s purposes that there are different cultural norms and that the proper pursuit of the implied goals has either broad latitude or virtually none. And that means that people in Culture A are going to be disapproving of the words and actions of the people in Culture B and vice versa. There is a lot of disapproving going on.


I, myself, am not a big fan of being disapproved of. but today’s dilemma isn’t just that. The more it happens the more it hurts and the more resistant to it I get. I am hoping that by this stage, you are getting a little impatient and are waiting for me just to get on with it. I’m almost done.

At the beginning of the process—imagining for the moment that there could be a “beginning”—when someone criticizes me for some view I hold, I look at the view to see if I really hold it or if I should make any changes in the way I express it and so on. But later in the process, the people who are criticizing and the criticisms they are making are so familiar, that I react to them, rather than to the issue. This is the stage I call “disapproval fatigue.” It is analogous to having the same toe stepped on over and over. After a while, it just hurts more.

When I get fatigued, I don’t go back and look at the object of their criticism any more. I either move out of range or I raise the issue with them in a more focused way—essentially justifying the view they are criticizing—or I begin to attack their views. The grounds for their criticisms are weak, I say, or their way of allocating costs and benefits among the related issues is short-sighted, I say, or their criticisms are badly put and need to be refined.

Digging In

At this point in the process, I am anti- a bunch of things. I will pick three, just as illustrations. I am opposed to the racial policies that are being pushed on me. I am opposed to the description of a goal as unmixed good and therefore as justifying all kinds of actions to support it. I am opposed to the “warfare model” of partisan competition, regardless of whether it is being deployed by the other party or not. I promised three; there are three. There are more where those came from.

We are coming now to the point of this painstaking development. At this stage I am anti-this and anti-that and anti-the other thing. But, as Emil De Becque says so ardently in South Pacific, “I know what you are against. What are you for?” The pressure to be “for” something gets very strong.
You want to say, “Of course I am against that and that and that, I am an X. What would you expect?” The value of the name associated with X is crucially important. X is the answer the De Becque’s question: it is what you are for. And what you are for is the reason you are against all these other things.

That X does some valuable work for you. It gives you an answer—one answer—to the critics. There is a downside to that, but at the moment we are considering the value. It is simple and recognizable. And not only that, it gives you membership in an association of sorts. “Ah,” say the other members of this association, “You are one of us.”

Digging in has drawbacks

As you expected. Here are a few from the banquet table of drawbacks. First, it isn’t accurate. Team names—like “Neoliberal” for instance—do have the effect of grouping people together but people wind up under such an abstract banner for a lot of different reasons. So even if you have chosen it as a shelter from the storm, you have to know that it will misrepresent your views, your particular views.

The second is that you can “dig in” on procedural grounds or on substantive grounds. In the examples above, you can criticize an approach as being too radical (proponents will do anything to advance the cause) or as being wrong (the wrong goal is being pursued). I am calling that first one a procedural critique and it matters because the X name you take will be a strategic or a tactical one. You will be expected to argue that the goal should be pursued more broadly or more slowly or with more attention to side effects. X, in this case, will turn out to be translated as “moderate” or “gutless” depending on the kind of friends you have and on how early in the dispute names are called for.

If you argue that the goal itself is wrong, then you will get a goal-related name. “Patriot” and “Traitor” are goal-related names. “Perpetrator” and “Victim” are goal-related names. [2] You see where this is going.

The last lap

I have been so tempted to begin calling myself a conservative. I don’t want to do it because I don’t like my teammates. And it distorts the reasons I hold a lot of the views I do hold. And it leads people to infer, erroneously, that I must hold related views Y and Z, which I do not.

I think I am not yet at the place where I am compelled to choose among the team names. I can keep on doing what I have been doing, which is staying away from some meetings, and reading these books rather than those, and probing carefully to see if I dare have in any setting, the conversation I would like to have. As long as those work well enough and I am not overwhelmed by “disapproval fatigue,” I can keep on doing them. My formal affiliation with some team or other is postponed. I am just me being me.

I may already be, however, at the place when I really should pick a name (and therefore a team) and I might if I could find one that meant what I want it to mean. It would have to have implications for the issues I keep getting involved in (not all of them, of course) or it would not communicate automatically to the other participants what they should expect from me.

I think the recent interest in “anti-racism” is a good example. It offers a scale where “racism” is one pole and “anti-racism” is the other pole. I myself am a non-racist. There is no place on that scale for me. The argument against my position is that there is no way NOT to be on the scale: you are either for racism or against it and being “non-“ is effectively being for it. I disagree. I think that in specifying “race” as the organizing principle, you are guaranteeing an exhausting fight and one which you will lose.

Some fights really are about race. “Race” narrowly construed. But many that are said to be about race are really about either culture or about social class. And of those, some can be more effectively defined and fought if they are about culture or class than if they are about race. So let’s say each of these possibilities is available. We will call these issues “racial;” those issues “cultural;” and those other issues class-based. I think that’s just smart.

So what do you think? Am I a non-racist?

[1] It still doesn’t seem quite fair that ante + pasto migrated over to anti + pasto as if confusing non-Italians were its entire reason for being.
[2] “Marginal” and “marginalized” are goal-related names, too, although you might not think it.

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So…who IS the fairest of us all?

I’ve been in a number of conversations recently that presume race and racism as the proper context for the discussion. It isn’t always. Sometimes it is culture; sometimes it is class; sometimes it is religious practice.

And on some of those occasions, I have said, “You know, race isn’t really the best category to use in exploring this topic.” And sometimes—fairly frequently, actually—the response has been, “No, no. Race is the right thing to talk about!” And if I say that the best topic is one that distinguishes effective childrearing practices from ineffective ones, I have sometimes been called a racist.

That doesn’t affect me as much as the accusers, inevitably friends of mine, think it will because I was brought up in a culture where “sin” was invariably relevant. There was no getting away from it. The most honorable self-control still falls under the scythe of “thought, word, and deed.” [1] So “racist” isn’t quite that moral blow my friends think it ought to be.

I have two ideas I would like to take out for a walk this morning. The first is that, as important as race is, there are other things we need to talk about, too. One way to approach the question—not the question of racism, but the question of talking about racism—is to ask when we will be done. The best answers, I think, vary with the reasons for talking about it. Here are some.

American history: Race has been a huge part of American history. I think it should be part of every school curriculum every year. I think racial guilt should not. And if you think it should, I would like for you to say what good outcome you are trying to achieve by making school children feel awful about things their great-grandmothers did. [2] I can see the teaching that “the savages” ought to be denied human dignity as a wrong teaching. I can see acts of cruelty and theft of property [3] as part of the account of American history. I can see the decisions and acts of particular individuals and groups as deserving the adjective “racist.” But in our schools and in our teaching generally, I think there ought to be a reason for teaching what we teach.

The defense I most often hear is that it ought to be taught because it is true. But that’s an awful answer. It ought not be taught if it isn’t true, but among the zillions of true things, some are relevant to the narrative and some (most) are not. And narratives themselves are not true or false, but rather useful or not. Facts that are alleged in support of the narratives can, of course, be true or false, but the narrative itself cannot.

Social Equity: Let’s start with the idea that the economic and political system we have developed have very positive effects on people who are resource rich [I define that notion broadly enough to include having good parents] and very poor effects on people who are resource poor. As Anatole France puts it, “’The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

There are three kinds of reasons commonly given in support of social equity—“equity” remember means “fairness” not necessarily equality. The achievement of social equity will need to have some way to deal with those disadvantages that are principally caused by racial discrimination, but racial equality and social equity aren’t the same kinds of things at all. The first of the reasons is that it—achieving a fair society—is the right thing to do. I think that is important for many kinds of reasons, but it is not, by itself, going to solve the problem.

Another kind of reason is that social equity is cheaper. When a population is treated fairly and believes it is being treated fairly, governing them is not at all expensive. Frances Fukuyama, writing about trust, says that in low trust societies, there is a tax levied on every human transaction. That’s why inegalitarian and authoritarian societies are so expensive. It is a commonplace to say that if we spent more money on schools, we wouldn’t have to spend so much on jails. I have some quibbles about that, mostly having to do with measurement, but the idea that prevention is cheaper than treatment ought to be relatively uncontroversial.

Although you wouldn’t necessarily presume it, it is true that having a small favored population to whom the best of the society flows means that you have to do something to keep those goods and services from the large disfavored population. Keeping the good schools separate from the poor schools and the good neighborhoods separate from the poor ones requires monitoring and enforcement. It requires laws and regulations and inspectors and punitive sanctions and somebody has to pay for all that. In a lot of cases, exclusion just costs more than inclusion.

This is not an argument for inclusion, please remember, on the grounds that it is right. This argument is based on how much less expensive it is.

Third, social equity gives us the kind of society we would genuinely prefer to live in. This argument doesn’t take the route of arguing how best to achieve it, only that it is the common preference. An equitable society is not one where there are no losers; it is one where the losers are where they are because of their choices. [4] Winners and losers are not toxic categories in an equitable society, particularly if it is a snapshot taken today rather than a fate forced in the long run onto whole populations. It is also a help if “being a loser” is not a disaster. A society that helps its losers gives them a chance to not always be losers.

This is really the simplest of the arguments. A society where you can live freely only when the walls are high and the gates are locked is not a good place. A society where you are allowed to go wherever you want provided you are willing to step over the bodies on the sidewalk or fend off the mendicants is not a good place. People would choose something better than that if given the chance.

In the paragraphs above, I have argued that you can say a lot of important things about equity without ever introducing the effects of our racial history. But now I would like to talk about race and especially about racial stereotypes. This isn’t “race” the way biologists look at it. These are the different flavors of “them” that show up in conversations that get out of hand.

I hear that there is increasing concern that “whites” are going to become a minority in this country. That’s where the demographers see the trends to be headed. I think it is worth asking, “minority of what?” Any answer to that will be required to invent the category of “non-whites” and to treat it as if it were a coherent cultural or political entity. You would have to be willing to say things like: this is how nonwhites think, this is how they relate to each other, this is how they vote, and this is why. Those are ridiculous because they require attributing commonalities to a population that actually have in common only that they don’t look like you. That’s not common enough to say sensible things. “Non-white” in this formulation is only another way of saying “them.”

Let’s start at another place and wrap this exploration up. Using “race” as described above, it is reasonable to say that every “race” has characteristics—things they characteristically prefer, things they are normally good at or poor at, patterns of childrearing. “Characteristically,” I said. Now let’s imagine a circle of chairs on a stage. In each chair is a representative of each “race.” The question the moderator asks is this: what characteristic of your “race” are you proudest of?”

There ought to be something to say no matter what group you are representing. It doesn’t sound that hard. But when we get the the white representative—you see now why I started with the fantasy about the majority of minorities—what will the white person say? Whatever it is, it will be called “racist” by nearly all the people I know. Good things about white people are “racism.” End of discussion.

I have three criticisms to make of that sorry state of affairs. The first is that it is silly. The second is that it is patently unfair. The third is that it will not help us get to where we want to be.

There is a lot of talk today about “anti-racism.” That’s my position. I think race should be the focal point when it helps us all move in the direction we want to go. Where there are other concepts that are more helpful, let’s use those.

[1] One of my favorite Whoopi Goldberg lines comes from early in her career. As she relates it, someone said the was a sinner. “No, no, she said, I’m a surfer.” As if she was talking about one pronunciation or another and the accuser’s misunderstanding was completely benign.
[2] Probably it was their great-grandfathers, but I am grandfathering the current gender equity discussion into the old racial guilt discussion
[3] Complicated without a common definition of what constitutes “property” but we could have gotten over that if we had really wanted to.
[4] It is not hard to think of exceptions, like people who were born with debilitating mental or physical handicaps. I grant them as exceptions to the general rule and ask that you do that too.

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Staying Protected Against “Them”

I want to express a guarded admiration for “them.” Before I do that, I will need to say just who I mean by “them” and also to suggest that the clarity of that designation is becoming a little ragged around the edges. I will give some examples and hope you get the idea.

The first stop is the Fox News slogan, “We report; you decide.” I think that is a disastrously bad standard for a respected news station to choose. [1] At the same time, I can see how it would be received favorably by any group of consumers, particularly a group that feels itself being deprived of the right to make decisions. In public relations, you really can’t go wrong by appearing to lodge the decisive power in the hands of another group; the other group seems always to appreciate the vote of confidence.

Another way of putting that slogan is, “We are not very good at telling you what is really news and what is not.” Or possibly, “Don’t think of us as knowledgeable reporters; think of us as a bulletin board, where you yourself can choose what is worth your attention.”

FOX news has been the choice of Republicans for a long time. But as the the Republican party has been becoming more and more populist—and less clearly conservative—it is harder to identify “them.” Are we talking about conservatives or are we talking about populists? Or some other group? Each group would like to be able to decide just what “the news” is, but, for different reasons.

At that point, I would like to introduce today’s entry. Daniela J. Lamas wrote an opinion column in the New York Times today called “When Faced With Death, People Often Change Their Minds.” It is an article well worth reading whether you wind up agreeing with the premise or not and you can see it here.

But it isn’t that issue that attracted my attention. Instead, it was the younger brother of “We report, you decide.” It is D.Y.O.R—“do your own research.” Obviously, that is sound advice in some circumstances, but it is easy to see how it can support simple denial or even conspiratorial thinking, given the segmentation of knowledge sources. Here is an example:

“Two days after getting the jab, a friend of mine’s friend had a heart attack,” a Reddit user wrote recently in a discussion about Covid-19 vaccines. “I’m not saying they’re connected, but D.Y.O.R.”

Let’s see now. What would the research topic be? The correlation between heart attacks and vaccination? The government plot to kill credulous citizens? And where would you look? The annals of the American Medical Association? QAnon for Everybody?

You see the problem.

Also, it clear that in the meantime—you know, while the “research” is being conducted—no one should be vaccinated because, of the likelihood of the resultant heart attacks. As you can hear from the tone, I am having trouble not being angry about it. And, to be honest, it isn’t only because of how stupid it is, it is because of how effective it is.

What, after all, is the alternative to DYOR? Trusting someone who has been trained to distinguish realistic risk from fanatical fright-mongering? We can’t have that. That would lead to trusting “them.” And the thing we know about “them” is that they are not like “us.”

So “them” as marked out in these examples doesn’t seem to come down to Republicans or to conservatives or to more exotic categories like “white males without college degrees.” It seem that “them” refers to people who are systematically alienated from the professional infrastructure of the society. So if you have mastered an academic discipline of some sort—say economics, psychology, geology, biology—you are “them” and are no longer trustworthy.

Such people are allied to the gummint (Ronald Reagan’s pronunciation, which is just perfect for this use) and are therefore the enemy. Fortunately, you have an alternative to relying on such people. You can go to the internet and, you know, DYOR.

[1] An organization that wants to be respected for the quality and reliability of its journalism, rather than for just for being loyal.


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And be sure to look both ways

Yes, well, easier said than done. I caught myself cheating this morning and this was just as I was backing out of my parking spot. This is the way it happens with me, for good or ill. I catch a happening and then before I have a chance to process it fully, I see it as an instance of a class of happenings. “Oh,” I said to myself, “I do this all the time. I just happened to notice this time.”

In this post, I would like to explore what “this” is. I am hoping it sounds familiar. My highest hope is that you will say, “Oh…I do that all the time.”

By “this,” I mean to refer to a suite of behaviors. [1] “Suite” means that they happen together. Cuing one behavior very often cues the whole suite. And that’s really why this matters at all. As I was backing out of my parking slot this morning, some part of me was aware that I should “look both ways.” So I leaned forward—that’s what you have to do to look both ways in a Prius—and turned my head to the right and then to the left. I didn’t actually see anything because I wasn’t looking.

I was performing the suite of behaviors that is, somewhere in my brain, titled “looking both ways,” but I was busy thinking about other things and didn’t pay the slightest attention to what was there to see. Having looked both ways, I looked down at the dashboard where the rear view camera’s image is displayed. I didn’t pay any attention to that either.

I did some other things, though, which I assume are part of the suite. I frowned the sort of frown that we associate with concentration. I noticed that, too. I increased my general muscle tension, which, I suppose, is consistent with readying myself to react physically to whatever I might have seen, had I been actually looking.

It is that collection of behaviors I had in mind when I said “I do this all the time.” Then, in that immediate second thought, I was persuaded of two things. First, the “look both ways” thought cues all the behaviors I named. It cues the ones that are directly associated with my goal of not running into anyone and it cues all the others which have come to be associated with it. So I don’t really think the frowning helps; it’s just part of the suite.

I also suspect that there is a performance dimension to it. That thought is hard for anyone to escape who has read a lot of Irving Goffman, [2] and I often catch myself doing things that I suspect have the goal of reassuring others. You play “the totally focused shopper” or the “looking carefully both ways” especially if there is someone you want to look at and don’t want to get caught looking at them. Then there is, “I’m so engaged in this book that I didn’t notice you come in,” and a host of other things we learn to “perform” so that they scarcely seem to be other-oriented at all. They are a suite.

But what caught my attention this morning is that while I was performing this suite of behaviors, I noticed that I was paying no attention at all to what I was pretending to be looking at. I would have seen a person standing there, I suppose, but I wasn’t gauging how close I was to the back wall. I wasn’t looking to see if some item that is usually in “storage” against the east wall had drifted out into my path. I wasn’t looking. I was pretending to look. I was performing the suite.

And then, on the way to Starbucks, I got to thinking how much like the model of evolutionary traits this is. Evolution chooses the structures and behaviors that lead to successful competition for food and for mates. [3] But nothing requires evolution to go back over the suites of changes and rigorously comb out all the elements of the suite that don’t actually make a contribution. So these associated traits or structures just ride along with the ones that are making a contribution to the survival of that species. There is no evolutionary value on going back and removing the ones that actually aren’t helping. If they are associated with the traits that do help, they are “chosen” as well.

So the frown, for instance. I know I do it. I know it doesn’t help, except is the very distant instance of seeming to an onlooker to be “looking intently.” But there is really no reason to go back and make sure I don’t frown; no reason to exert myself to remove it from the suite where it has wound up. Just leave it there.

But remember to look both ways. This message has been brought to you by the god, Janus (see above), who looks both ways better than anyone. And happy new year.

[1] I know there was a time when just how “behavior” was to be defined was crucially important to psychologists. I suspect that time has passed, but in case it is not, I intend a very broad meaning so that it includes gestures and various muscle tonalities.
[2] Certainly
The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Stigma, Asylums, and especially his essay, “On Deference and Demeanor” in The Goffman Reader.
[3] Or, in the case of the Praying Mantis, both
, simultaneously.


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The Seduction of Joe Hawkins

If you have been reading this blog recently, you know that I have been thinking about some of the “interpersonal” issues dealt with by the TV series Humans. [1] Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill), frustrated and angry at what he has to put up with in running the home in the absence of his wife, Laura, throws up his hands and goes to the store and buys his family a Synth. The Synth comes in the body of what looks like a very attractive young woman (Gemma Chan) and the family names her Anita.

The presence of Anita in the Hawkins home is like a bomb going off. Laura is angry; the nerdy older daughter, Mattie, can hardly wait to reprogram her, the son, Toby, wants a free grope as soon as the occasion is presented, and Sophie, the younger daughter, is delighted to have a friend who really truly understands her. But it is Joe who is destroyed.

I know the use of the word “seduction” in the title is misleading, but it is important to the argument I want to make so I am going to go ahead and use it and be careful to explain what I mean by it. I do not mean by using it that Joe is “seduced” by Anita. He is not. The heart of the verb is based on the Latin verb duco, meaning to lead. [2] The prefix, se- contributes “aside” or “apart.” In this context we may say “astray.” What seduces Joe Hawkins?

Three things, none of which require robotic assistance. First, he and his wife are on the outs, and part of that is that they have no sex life at all. Whatever the sex with Anita felt like, the expression of his resentment toward Laura certainly felt good. It seduced him.

Second, he presumably knows how to seduce a human female. The story doesn’t cover that, but Joe is a physically attractive man with a lot of social skills, so probably he has had the experience of persuading a young female to have sex with him. Probably it didn’t take much persuading. It was not, in any case, a situation where he does something (in Anita’s case, it is reading the code words in order) and has to ask, “Is it kicking in?” Or, afterward, “How do I turn it off?” In short, the guidance system he grew up with is not there to support him.

But, third, he feels an obligation. This is the odd one. It is this idea—and the subsequent conversation with my son, Doug—that pushed me in the direction of writing this post. Once he starts down the path of seduction—of “being led astray—you have to wonder who is leading him.[3] It isn’t Anita.

Joe says “What do I do now?” and Anita says, “Anything you want.” That’s no help. She is giving him permission; he needs instruction. But nevertheless, a line has been crossed. There is now a functioning “we”—Joe and Anita—and Joe feels an obligation to play his part. He does things that, in the moment, he does not want to do, because “he ought to.” He owes it to her; he owes it to “the two of them functioning as a team.”

It is in that sense that Joe is obligated. He has created a functioning unit and he has duties, in the moment, to his “partner.”

I know it sounds odd, and I may be wrong, but I urge you to think it through before you reject it. “Feeling an obligation” is something that happens to Joe. It is a genuine experience of his regardless of the object. It can be argued that since the focus of the obligation is fraudulent, that it cannot produce a sense of obligation, but if the feeling is Joe’s property, he will attach it where he has learned to attach it.

I wrote earlier of Laura’s concern that her daughters speak politely to the family robot. The older daughter, the techie, says that the robot ought not receive the dignity that belongs to a human, but her mother says that the daughters are affected by the responses they choose regardless of the object. I think she’s right.

And that is the third of Joe Hawkins’ problems. He has formed a social bond with a robot and it will take him a while to separate out the “feelings of obligation” that are inappropriate, if, indeed, he is ever able to do so. [4]

This “sex scene”—it is in quotes because all the huffing and puffing is skipped—has one more element that marks it as well conceived. When, afterwards, Joe asks, “How do I turn it off?” Anita answers “Command it!”

It is unlike anything else she says while she is with the Hawkins family. It is completely outside her vocabulary as Anita the household help. It suggests how the designers think of her vocabulary in “passionate adult woman” mode. Even the answer to how to bring the session to an end is, properly, addressed while she is still in the mode; while she is still a sex slave.

Whoever thought of that knows a lot about language.

[1] I’m going to save you the problem of deciphering the meaning of the quotation marks that would plague this essay. Many of the “persons” I will be dealing with are robots—“Synths,” in the language of the show—but they function like human persons in all the ways the plot requires, so I will just skip the quotation marks. So, Anita Hawkins, a Synth, is a person.
[2] The title Duke, meaning leader, comes from this same source.
[3] There is, by the way a whole brothel full of robots downtown (London) who know how to take any kind of initiative and one of them is Niska, a robot who was raised with Anita. Anita calls Niska her sister.
[4] This is not fundamentally different than Tom Hanks decision, just in time, not to dive into the ocean in Castaway, to “rescue” his only recent companion, a volleyball named Wilson. He clearly felt the obligation to Wilson and only the prospect of certain death helped him clarify his situation.

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Happy Birthday, you Bastard

I wrote recently about my “victory laps.” I started counting when I hit 80 and every year thereafter is a victory lap. One of the reasons to call the additional miles something special is that it gives me a chance to reflect on “the race” (getting to 80) itself and decide that I have been doing too much of something or other and too little of something else. In the context of running a course I will be running over and over I can decide to make changes next time.

I knew when I began writing a blog that was aimed specifically at the things that intrigue me that I was going to have to confront gravity—a persistent pressure toward seriousness—and I determined to resist it. I have lost track of that intention in the last few years. Today, I’m going to try to remind myself of it.

I’m going to do that by appreciating a Happy Birthday song I heard for the first time this week. Then I would like to poke at it a little. That doesn’t make it any funnier, but, for me, it does make it more fun. Maybe it’s just me.

Here’s the song, to the tune of the Happy Birthday song we all know.

May you live a thousand years
May you drink a thousand beers
Get plastered
You bastard
Happy birthday to you.

I have enjoyed that every day since I first heard it. A fellow resident at the senior center where I live—she described herself as having “an ecumenical background” by which she means she has done a lot of different things in her life—taught me this. She actually sang it to me as we were standing in front of the elevators. That night I taught it to the church choir at our practice.

So why is it funny?

Here’s where I lose most people. They hear it and laugh at it and they are done. When I am done laughing at a joke like this, I am just getting started. I think the “May you…” beginning cues up something poetic and traditional. I think of the Irish Blessing—“May the wind be always at your back…” and so on. If your mind starts to prepare for this kind of sentiment, you are going to get smacked in the face two lines later.

Dictionary illustration of the meaning of plastered – very drunk. The original source of the image is http://thefreedictionary.com/plastered

Max Eastman, in The Enjoyment of Laughter, says that when we prepare for one thing and then another thing happens (in a context where they difference can be taken playfully) we think it is funny. I think that the traditional style of the first line suggests that this song is going to be that kind of thing and our minds prepare to hear it that way.

The second line begins to cast doubts. It has the same structure, but somehow “thousand years” and “thousand beers” don’t point in the same direction. We begin, at that point, to adjust our expectations. Not from one thing to another, but from “I know what this is” to “I not really sure what this is.” And just in time, too.

Lines three and four are where the fun comes. “Get plastered” is fully colloquial. There is nothing traditional about it. And the reference—the good intentions are assured in the way the song is sung—to the celebrant as a “bastard” fit perfectly with “plastered.” So the emotional tone is kept but the form of it is changed abruptly.

And not only that, the rhythm of the second two lines is entirely different than the first two. There is something faintly trochaic about the first two lines. They suggest lines line “Till Burnham wood remove to Dunsinane.” That line is a standard iambic pentameter. So I tried to make the first line of this song fit some known meter. No luck. The result is that the change of accents corresponds with the change of social tone. It goes from formal sounding to informal and from long and liquid to short and punchy. And it goes there really fast. It’s the speed as much as the change that gets you.

And finally, we get to what pretends to be the governing sentiment. “Happy birthday to you.” But everybody knows that the sentiment isn’t really what the song is about.

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A Victory Lap in a year of COVID

For quite a while before I crossed “the finish line” [1] I gave some thought to what to do next. There are some good reasons to think about the question, but there are also some pictures in my head that have played as large a role as any thinking I have done about it.

While I was at the University of Oregon, I saw Steve Prefontaine win a lot of races. The stands were full of Pre fans and they stood cheering his victory for a long time. He continued to run laps close to the stands recognizing their applause. I remember hearing one of the commentators noting his response to the fans and observing that he did the last round in 62 seconds. A great picture to hold in my mind.

The other picture is my own initial experience of the “victory laps,” as I called them, when I finished long training runs in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, where I lived in the late 70s. I would get back home after a 15—20 mile run and tack on an extra half mile, one lap around New Faculty Circle. Nearly all the physical stresses I accumulated during the run somehow relaxed when I ran that last half mile as “merely celebratory” and not “really running.” Even the blisters eased off some. It was still running, obviously, but something had happened because of what I called it.

I was only in my 40s then, but it occurred to me that it would be very tidy to think of getting to age 80 as four laps of 20 years each. And very shortly after that, I began to think of the years after 80 as victory laps, like the ones I was doing then, and I began to hope that I could run those additional years as a celebration of the run I had just finished.

It was a flash of inspiration. I could keep on running, but I had already completed a very demanding course. I liked that.

And that is just the way it has turned out. I have just finished my fourth victory lap. Yesterday. Each has been alike in feeling celebrative; each has been different in what is enjoyed and celebrated. Today I am starting my fifth. [2]

That last lap had some unique features, marked particularly by the COVID pandemic. I am so very grateful that I did not have to make the hard choices about going to campus and risking my health and the health of others. As a long-since retired person, I have invested where I chose. I have put in more miles on my bike this year than I ever have in a year when I was not commuting. I often ride and out and back route where there is a Starbucks at the end of the out. This is clearly not a winning and losing kind of ride; it isn’t even a get there on time kind of ride. It’s celebratory.

I am deeply appreciative of the Bible study groups that have materialized and for whom I prepare the materials. I joke that preparing for the the groups keeps me off the streets, but if you think of “the streets” as having no meaningful work to do, it is really true. I have been teaching one overtly religious study—a group of men at my church—and two secular ones. Sometimes I have had a chance to teach the same text; once emphasizing the religious significance and twice as a study of how narratives work.

Here’s an example. Luke says that Elizabeth got pregnant and, Luke 1:24b, “for five months kept to herself.” When you approach the text as a narrative, you wind up asking, “Why is that there?” Or, more succinctly, “So…?” It isn’t hard to find an answer. What’s hard is noticing it and asking the question. [3]

I’ve learned a lot about Zooming this year. I don’t think I will ever want to give that up. For no more inconvenience than a phone call, you can see people and share slides and discuss them. My friend, Fran, and I taught an Adult Ed course on some children’s books, making the pictures as readily available as the text. Who would have thought?

I’m only a few hours into Victory Lap #5. I have no idea what it will hold for me and I don’t need to. My only commitment is to run it in a reflective and celebratory mode. There is an evaluative component to it, of course. I used to remember the run and assess my performance. Should I have taken that hill up to the Cheese Plant harder? Was I holding back more than I should have? I’m not being critical. I just realize I am going to come to that hill again and I want to have thought about how to run it. That’s part of the celebration.

When I began to think about “the end of the race” in terms other than dying, I thought of it first in words the Apostle Paul provided me, “I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” Paul does not strike me as a celebratory kind of person, but years later I found out that the “course” he had finished could also be called a curriculum—from the Latin, currere, “to run.

And I already know how to finish a curriculum.

[1] Question: What’s on the other side of the Finnish Line? Answer: Russia.
[2] This isn’t like they say about marathons. You don’t plan to run another one until your memories of the previous one begin to fade. It was during that training run era that I ran my first marathon, the Pittsburgh.
[3] The answer is that Gabriel cites the information as proof that the whole proposition he is offering Mary is really true. No one else knows it because Elizabeth “kept to herself.”

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A Dutch Nativity

A couple I knew in the 1970s sent me this creche in appreciation for a Bible study we and some of their classmates at Westminster College had just completed. It was Luke’s story this year, which accounts for some of what you see in the picture. But not all.

The sheep is undoubtedly meant to remind us of the shepherds, but I don’t see any shepherds. Presumably they have returned to the fields praising God for all they had seen and heard and leaving one of their sheep behind. That is possible. On the other hand, since Joseph and Mary are going to need a sheep at the Temple as a sacrifice eight short days from now (Leviticus 12:6)—that will save them from having to go the cheap (turtledove) route. So the sheep could come in handy and that may be why the shepherds left him.

The idea that there were animals at all is said to come from Isaiah 1:3, where an ox and an ass are referred to, but you have to go to the Advent story itself to come up with sheep.

Baby Jesus is in what looks like a crib rather than a feed trough. That seems awkward from a textual standpoint. I guess it is possible that the shepherds came, but left early because there was no baby of the sort the angel described. The angel was quite specific—swaddling cloths, lying in a feed trough. They may have thought that an angel who was wrong about the little things, could also be wrong about the big things and that same angel did speak of good news for the whole people. Maybe he was as wrong about that as he was about the clothing and the resting place of the infant.

The windmill is clearly out of place in Palestine if we are to take its presence literally, a tendency the adult Jesus would warn against, as we will see shortly. As a source of power, however, it is built to be moved by the spirit—wind, breath, and spirit are all the same word in Greek—so it may well be that “moved by the spirit” is a not so veiled reference to the conception of Jesus (see Luke 1:35) or to the dynamism of the followers of Jesus (see Acts 2:2).

In the same spirit, cheese was a normal part of the Israelite diet in the 1st Century. Not, perhaps, those great Dutch rounds of cheese, such as we see here, with a third already missing. So cheese as a dietary element may be all that is meant here. On the other hand, it does recall Jesus’ rebuke of the crowds, memorably reported by Monty Python. [1] Jesus says that the peacemakers are to be blessed, but someone in the crowd has trouble hearing. What did he say, blessed are the “cheesemakers?” No, no, no. Jesus responds, “Well…obviously…it is not to be taken literally. It is meant to refer to any manufacturer of dairy products.”

The point would be, allowing full scope to artistic freedom, that the cheese is there to suggest Jesus’ later remarks about cheese and literalism. The cheese in only an item in the larger category of dairy products just as Bethlehem is only one of the towns of Judah.

Finally, Joseph and Mary are themselves a handsome young couple. The little black cap on Joseph’s head may be there to represent his trade, carpentry. And Mary’s lovely blonde braids need no further comment at all. It is easy to see how Joseph would be attracted to such a lovely and typical Dutch maiden.

[1] I regret to say that we have to abandon Luke’s account and go over the Matthew for the true text of Jesus’s remark about the peacemakers.

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But First It Will Piss You Off

Using emotionally powerful language for your own purposes is a time-honored practice. Especially for humor. Humor sets one meaning against another in a playful context [1] and one of the meanings may be an allusion to a well-known phrase. I saw a book titled Power over People; it was about overhead power lines. In a context where conservative Christianity is pervasive, slight alterations to biblical language serve to set one meaning against another. I was delighted to learn recently that the word the King James Version translates as “dust” would better be translated “clod (of dirt).” The whole idea of Adam as the First Clod brings designations like First Lady or, recently, First Gentleman, into a hilarious focus.

Of course, for humor purposes, it helps if the phrase being played with is not deeply meaningful to anyone. For humor purposes, familiar, but not emotionally rich, is the perfect combination. [2] But some uses, like the one I have in mind for today, have, in the past, meant something to distinct communities of believers. The phrase is “the truth will set you free.”

There was a time where the meaning, not just the cadence, of that text was powerful. Let’s start there. This text comes from John 8:31 where Jesus says, in Raymond E. Brown’s translation [3] “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” So, by being disciples of Jesus, you will come to know “the truth”—the specific meaning of the expression is not made clear in this passage—and you will be released from your current condition of slavery. Being a disciple enables you to “live in” the word that Jesus is (See John 1:1) and by living in that word you may come to know the truth. It is knowing the truth that will set you free, but it is discipleship that will enable you to know the word and live in it.

The text is complicated and obscure. Also powerful. And easily perverted to other uses. Raymond Brown, in his commentary on this passage, says, “The hackneyed use of this phrase in political oratory in appealing for national or personal liberty is a distortion of the purely religious value of both truth and freedom in this passage.” I think “hackneyed” is an unnecessary slur, but it isn’t wrong. Let’s rescue the kernel of this sentence for today’s use: “The use of this phrase…in appealing for…personal liberty is a distortion of the …value of both truth and freedom in this passage.”

Let’s consider that point to have been made. Now let’s start somewhere else. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles) serves as Ted Lasso’s counselor on the series named for him. She offers this quip to Ted at a crucial moment. The meaning is completely apparent given the context. Dr. Fieldstone says, “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” There are so many good things about this formulation, none of them, of course, related in even the most remote way to the words of Jesus.

And as I got to poking around a little in that phrase, I discovered that it is the title of a book by Gloria Steinem. That places it in the context of Second Wave feminism, where “truth” and “free” have much clearer meanings. It is also clear, in this context, why someone would be pissed off upon learning “the truth.”

This is exactly the meaning Morpheus has in mind when he tells Neo in The Matrix, “The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.” Neo very sensibly asks, “What truth?” And Morpheus responds, “that you are a slave” and goes on to offer him his freedom. [4] It is easy to see why Neo would be pissed off by learning that he was a slave, but the meaning of that word requires the possibility of freedom and the freedom offered is only freedom from. Free from the Matrix, Neo can make genuine choices, good ones and bad ones, and experience the consequences.

What truth?

And that is also what Steinem means. Women have been enslaved and when they learn that, they will be appropriately angry. After the anger, the opportunity to be set free, to live freely, will offer itself, along with the choices that have good or bad consequences.

And that’s why I like the combination of “will set you free;” immediately undercut by “but first it will piss you off.” But the idea that it will piss you off, so clearly understandable in the contexts I offered, is not at all clear outside those contexts.

There is nothing about the truth—taken generally—that will piss anyone off. Every illusion is a slavery of a kind and truths that dispel them set us free from the bondage they exert. Everyone who has grown out of untrue or outmoded beliefs has the experience that the truth will set them free (from that bondage) but it will not piss them off. It is a glorious and wonderful realization.

Everyone would agree, I think, that depending on what the truth is, it will strike you as scary or infuriating or exciting and wonderful. Nevertheless, there is a strong tendency for “the truth,” that expression, to mean something much worse that you had thought. Pick up a book entitled, “The Real Truth about America.” What do you think it will say? [5] A speaker who leads off by saying, “Tonight, I’m going to tell you the truth” has some awful message to reveal. The audience presumptive has been living in comfortable illusion, therefore “the truth” will be bleak and irksome.

I’m not really sure just why we do that. Have we always done that? Do we think we live in comfortable illusion and that therefore the truth must by the kind of thing that will make us angry? Why would that be?

[1] Thanks to Max Eastman’s The Enjoyment of Laughter
[2] Wayne and Schuster in devising a baseball game using as many allusions to Shakespeare as they can has the coach assigning positions: “with you three guarding your accustomed bags, Stan the first, Bill the second, and Richard the Third.” Yup. Richard the Third.
[3] Yale Anchor Bible Commentary
[4] New doesn’t need to abide in the word. He just needs to take the red pill.
[5] I just checked Amazon. They don’t have a book by that title. Yet

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Meet the Barbara

Sherry Turkle warned long ago that people seize on “counseling computers” and confess the most remarkable things to them. I enjoyed her account when Alone Together was published in 2011, but I hadn’t thought about it recently. Then Joe and Laura Hawkins, from the tech drama Humans, show up to see their counselor and discover that she has had to go home, sick. The office offers Joe and Laura the services of “a Barbara.”

The Barbara didn’t surprise me as much as it might have. Here is why. This is an excerpt from Alone Together (page 23).

“I was among MIT students using Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, a program that engaged in dialogue in the style of a psychotherapist. So, a user typed in a thought, and ELIZA reflected it back in language that offered support or asked for clarification. To “My mother is making me angry,” the program might respond, “Tell me more about your mother,” or perhaps, “Why do you feel so negatively about your mother?”

A Perfect Barbara Counselor

“ELIZA had no model of what a mother might be or any way to represent the feeling of anger. What it could do was take strings of words and turn them into questions or restate them as interpretations. Weizenbaum’s students knew that the program did not know or understand; nevertheless they wanted to chat with it. More than this, they wanted to be alone with it. They wanted to tell it their secrets. Faced with a program that makes the smallest gesture suggesting it can empathize, people want to say something true.”

“I have watched hundreds of people type a first sentence into the primitive ELIZA program. Most commonly they begin with “How are you today?” or “Hello.” But four or five interchanges later, many are on to “My girlfriend left me,” “I am worried that I might fail organic chemistry,” or “My sister died.”

As we will see in just a moment, Joe Hawkins has some of the same incredulity Professor Turkle has.

Weizenbaum’s students knew that the program did not know or understand; nevertheless they wanted to chat with it. More than this, they wanted to be alone with it. They wanted to tell it their secrets.

And they move quickly into topics that might plausibly be thought to mean something to them.

“I have watched hundreds of people type a first sentence into the primitive ELIZA program. Most commonly they begin with “How are you today?” or “Hello.” But four or five interchanges later, many are on to “My girlfriend left me,” “I am worried that I might fail organic chemistry,” or “My sister died.”

So I had been thinking about this kind of thing for ten years before I met Joe and Laura Hawkins and their “Barbara.” This is episode 2.1 at the 14:00 mark if you would like to check it out for yourself.

The Session

The Barbara: “Laura, in the last session, you had identified a key challenge for you, namely, rebuilding trust in Joe. Have you had the opportunity to reflect on this further, …Laura.”

That doesn’t really work. The Barbara tries again.

“Perhaps we should approach a different question. Laura, do you feel satisfied that Joe has made a full and honest acknowledgment of his misdeeds?”

And Laura responds, eventually:[No] “I…still don’t feel that I really understand why you did it”.

Joe says “Laura, they’re stupid things [the Synths]. I was a bit drunk. I was lonely. We hadn’t… You know. We hadn’t for ages. You were never there, emotionally or physically, so….I suppose I wanted to do something …”

The Barbara “Please finish your thought, Joe”.

Joe ….”I wanted to do something that would make you notice me.”

The Barbara “Laura, do you understand that? Does it feel truthful?”

Laura Hmm.

An Assessment

There are three things in that exchange that made me pay more attention to it than I thought I would. The first is, “Laura, do you feel satisfied…” That’s not a big leap from “You are both exhibiting signs of anxiety” and the low-grade answer Laura gave, that they hadn’t really had time to work on the question.

The second is, “Please finish your thought, Joe.” Joe had begun to say what was really behind what he did with Anita, the Synth, but he stalled out. The Barbara noticed that and asked him to finish the thought.

The third is: “Laura, do you understand that? Does it feel truthful?” I would have been less surprised, I think, had the Barbara said, “Laura, how do you feel about Joe’s answer?” But the Barbara wanted specifically to pursue whether it sounded “truthful” to Laura. Knowing Joe as she does, is it plausible that he could have done what he did for the reasons he gives?

The other exchange that attracted me was one I attribute to the writers generally, not to the writing of the Barbara particularly. Joe gets aggressive about the Barbara’s probing into the matter of their feelings. What sense does it make, Joe wonders, for a thing with no feelings at all to ask such questions. Here is the Barbara’s answer; I think it is a good one.

The Barbara says, “I am accessing the anonymized transcripts and associated statistical analysis of over 38,000 counseling sessions.” So, in short, my data base is huge. Joe tried to blow it off: “Easy stats,” he says.

But Laura, who is a good deal brighter than Joe, rescues the point: Laura “Why not? We’re not the only people in the world to go through this and I don’t actually feel you understand…what it meant to me.” Somewhere in the very respectable data base the Barbara has access to are a lot of couples like us. We are, figuratively speaking, part of that data base and the general truths apply to us as much as to the others.

Good point, Laura

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