Sen. Collins says No to democracy

It always seems odd to me when events that make such sense on one level, aggregate to produce effects that make no sense at all on another level. This is what Adam Smith had in mind when he said that when you look at economic transactions, you see only greed and private advantage; but the whole set of economic transactions is guided by “an Invisible Hand.”

It is what Karl Marx meant when he said that when the mob of proletarians assembles to hang the last few remaining capitalists, the capitalists will sell them the rope because they will make a profit on the transaction.

And, regrettably, it is what Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) meant when she said, about her vote against S1, the “For the People Act, “S1 would take away the rights of people in each of the 50 states to determine which election rules work best for their citizens.” As in the case of Smith and Marx, when you look at one instance, the logic flows one way. The businessmen are being greedy, but the system as a whole works. The capitalists are making an economic transaction the yields a profit when they sell the rope to the leaders of the mob, but they are advancing their own deaths. Sen. Collins is arguing that the states have a right to distribute the vote any way they like but you can’t have a democracy that way and Sen. Collins says she is in favor of democracy.

In each of these instance—Smith, Marx, and Collins—there is a logic at the level of the particular transaction that is reversed in the system as a whole. Sen. Collins would never, I am sure, favor the elimination of the right to vote for all black citizens in the states. I hope she finds it disquieting that the reason she gives for voting against S1 would cover that action as well.

Her argument is that the states have a right to adopt the “election rules that work best for their citizens.” Which citizens does it work best for?

Heather Cox Richardson, in her June 22 post “Letters from an American,” cites research by the Voting Rights Lab.

According to the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab, 18 states have put in place more than 30 laws restricting access to the ballot. These laws will affect around 36 million people, or about 15% of all eligible voters.

I suspect that these voters, the 15%, are not the ones Sen. Collins has in mind. When she gives an absolute right to the states to control their voters’ access to the ballot, she is saying that anything they do is fine with her. The U. S. Constitution doesn’t look at it that way. There are lots of actions that states could take—some, like the poll tax, they actually have taken—that the Supreme Court has declared to be unconstitutional.

But between these two—between the absolute right of the states to control the election laws and the absolute right of the Constitution to forbid the disenfranchisement of citizens, there is an intermediate zone—a zone that has not yet been eliminated by judicial action but that is clearly incompatible with democratic governance. That’s where Sen. Collins is working.

Democracy requires free, frequent, and competitive elections. Even more, it now becomes clear, democracy requires the belief by its citizens that the elections are fair. [1] Sen. Collins is supporting the right for the states to violate the rights of their citizens as much as they like provided that they have decided that “that is what works best for their citizens.”

She has decided, further, that the national government has no right to curb the abuses of the states because the states have the right to make the decisions they are making. The states also have, of course, the duty to insure equal access to the ballot box and Sen. Collins doesn’t say what the Senate should do when the states claim the right to neglect this duty.

I am glad I am not writing her speeches. I have no idea how I would justify that.

[1] “Fair” is a colloquial way of saying “free, frequent, and competitive.”

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Fathers’ Day Thoughts

I always thought that the basis of my authority over my children was that I had their welfare in mind and they did not have my welfare in mind. On the occasions when they argued with me, they found that asymmetry frustrating. They were inclined to want to win the argument. I didn’t mind losing the argument, but I wanted them to argue well.

That wasn’t the only thing I wanted, of course, but I said OK to some things on the grounds that a very respectable argument had been made that I would not have approved otherwise. I don’t think that made me easy to like as a father, but it helped me feel that I was doing them some good. When I needed to be liked, I did other things, likable things.

When my wife died and I had to go back into the dating market in my late 60s, I thought long and hard about what I was looking for. By that time, I had been married most of my life and I knew I wanted to live with a woman I could look in the eye and tell the truth and also one I could work with side by side, each of us valuing the contribution of the other. I came to call those two faces of the relationship “intimacy” and “collegiality” [1] and I knew by then that a relationship that had only one of those two virtues was in trouble.

When I got the two concepts all worked out it my head, I was stunned to discover that that is what I had been hoping for in my relationship with my children. I wanted to work with them as a valued partner does—valued not for who he is but for what he contributes to the common project. And I wanted the kind of acceptance and trust that would allow me to look them in the eye and say what I really thought. To me, that felt like saying who I really am.

The parallel between fatherhood and husbandhood isn’t perfect, of course, but I wasn’t looking for any similarity at all, so when I found it, it smacked in the face. Did I really want my children to grow into partners I could love and also work with? Yup. I wanted that long before I had the words to say it even to myself.

I celebrate Fathers’ Day, not because I achieved all the goals I had as the father of children, but on the grounds that I had those goals and I worked at them because I was their father. It is what that relationship was for. That is the way I saw it then and it is the way I see it now.

I made a lot of mistakes as a father. It was my first time around, after all. But I think that, all in all, the relationships I have with my children are considerably better than I deserve. [2] I still argue with my children when the occasion arises and I take great pleasure in the fact that they argue well. I take special pleasure on those occasions when they argue better than I do. I’ve never been very competitive.

I know they love me and, of course, I appreciate that. But they make allowances for me as well and to do that they have to know who I am—they do—and to be willing to pass over some things out of sheer consideration. I have heard them pass off a mistake of the kind I make frequently by saying to a spouse or a friend, “It’s OK. He always does that.”

As Fathers’ Day gifts go, that is the top of the line and I am very grateful for it.

[1] I didn’t call them that to the woman I was courting until I knew her well enough that I thought I could get away with it, but it mattered to me that “intimacy” came from intimus, “most within.” Colleagues are people who are “sent or chosen to work with each other.”
[2] A father who gets what he deserves from his children is likely to be an unhappy man.

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I can’t take him anywhere

It’s a great line, but it has to be delivered just right. It is accompanied by a rolling of the eyes or a slow shaking of the head. It does some very good things when it is done right and I’d like to explore some of those today.

In the senior center where I live, I see couples celebrating their 50th or 60th wedding anniversaries. [1] There are some bad relationships among these long-lived marriages, of course, but there are some surprisingly good ones, too.

In the good ones, more often than not, the woman shepherds the relationship. She characterizes the relationship as a relationship of a certain kind; she seeks out and maintains the social settings where her own marriage can be well received. Her husband is, in these marriages, more of a bit player. There are things he is good at. She sees to it that he has a chance to do those things, that he is well received, and that the cost of these small performances is kept within the tolerance of the people they are with.

It is in the context of a marriage like this that I hear lines like, “I can’t take him anywhere.” It is a line delivered with mock resignation. That is why the expression “take him” works. She wouldn’t say it of a husband who is not, for any of several reasons, socially presentable. She would be running the risk that the line would be taken seriously. She would not say it of a husband with whom she is currently and visibly at odds for the same reason.

With the proper inflection and body language, “I can’t take him anywhere” is fully compatible with “I am grateful that he still takes me places I want to go.” If the line were taken seriously, the relationship is either one in which she takes him places or he takes her places. Delivered with mock despair, as I most often hear it, it doesn’t imply either of those and the potential contradiction just sits there for anyone to use.

It is a line with a message. The message is tacit, but it is there. It is, “Whatever he just did or said is not to be taken seriously.” If it was a lapse, it was a characteristic lapse. It was the kind of lapse we laugh about in our marriage and we invite you to laugh about it as well.

I remember so well an early dinnertime conversation with such a couple. He said something like, “ I want to tell the story of my time in Texas.” She said, “Dear, you just told that story. He responded, “Well, I want to tell it again.”

At this point, I was thinking, “Oh dear. How is this going to work out.” It worked out great. She reached out and touched his arm and said, “Well it’s a really good story. You just tell it again.” And she looked over at us, away from him, and winked. She included us in the charade and assured us that the cost would be low. And it was.

The kind of recognition implicit in the line I am examining—or in the equivalent, “ Oh..George!”—has the effect of placing the lapse in the intermediate zone. It is not ignored. That would leave the others without guidance as to how to understand it. It is not seriously deplored. That would call attention to the statement or action rather than to the man himself and to his status in the relationship. It would give the others a problem to solve.

Notice that the structure of the sentence, “I can’t take him anywhere” imagines a continuing series of actions. She “takes him” places and she is going to continue to “take him” places. That is given in the tense of the verb, “take.” The clear implication is that the woman, in her capacity, at least, as the shepherd of the relationship, either likes what the man just did or has learned to bear it with good grace. The remark invites her current company to treat it the same way.

As oblique as this might seem on her part, it is much better than ignoring what he just did. Ignoring it doesn’t give the others any clues about how or whether to respond to it. For people who will be think “Did he just say what I think he said?” the wife’s response establishes that he did but that it isn’t a major flaw. So “I can’t take him anywhere” acknowledges that something has been said or done, that she takes it in good humor, and that she invites others to do the same.

In some of these relationships, I suspect that it has been the husband who has done the shepherding over much of the course of the marriage. It is clear, however, that as a rule, men’s abilities recede faster. I see that a lot although, of course, my abilities are receding faster than Bette’s. The shepherding of the relationship that he once did is now being done by her. And the best ones are really something to see.

[1] I’ve been married 58 years myself, but I have spread the burden out over three different women. Always the gentleman.

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Oregon, Their Oregon

Oregon has just revised our state song. It was filed with the Oregon Secretary of State yesterday. It doesn’t get any more official that that.

The principal virtue of the new version is that it gets rid of some really embarrassing language from the old version. That really needed to be done. “Conquered and held by free men” calls up a lot of scenes that were celebrated in 1920 when it was written. “Land of the empire builders” sounded a lot better before we turned against the idea of having an empire. And “blessed by the blood of martyrs” requires a particular historical perspective and a special reading of history.

I, myself, am nowhere near the front of the line of people who court being offended by outdated language. Still, even I found myself shying away from the language of what we can now call “the old version” of the song.

On the other hand, you can’t really “declare” a new state song. You can remove the old one. But if you had a community gathering and wanted to amp up patriotic sentiment by singing “the Oregon state song,” the words people would sing would be the old ones. They would sing the ones they know. They are not going to learn the new ones, even if they are better, because the new ones don’t have any claim on their lives.

My kids and I used to sing “Oregon, My Oregon” because a) we were just moving there and b) it was a real rouser. For that reason, I will probably learn the new lyrics. I have already sent them to the kids—who are now in their 50s and 60s, but still…

It may be that we are past the era of “state songs.” That Oregon should have an official song doesn’t really sound contemporary to me. The new state song is not going to catch on if people don’t sing state songs anymore. We can listen to choirs sing it on special occasions, I suppose, but the old people won’t know the new words and the young people won’t sing “state songs.” So probably, we will just stop singing it. That doesn’t appear to be the intent of the legislature, but I’d guess it will be the effect.

Nothing in the new version (see the Appendix) has anything to do with people. It is a celebration of nature and there is a lot of nature in Oregon to celebrate. It is about nature because we can agree about nature, leaving an owl to two to be decided upon. But we have no version of the history of our people that we can sing together. So we just write “us” out of the song. Problem solved. [1]

I am quite sure that the legislators who passed this Resolution thought they were substituting a new song for an old song. I fear they are substituting no song at all for the old song.

[1] Is it only a matter of time until we get to the Star Spangled Banner, which contains these words, tucked safely into the obscurity of the third stanza.

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave…”

Appendix: The words to the newly-adopted version of Oregon, My Oregon

Land of Majestic Mountains
Land of the Great Northwest
Forests and rolling rivers
Grandest and the best
Onward and upward ever
Forward and on, and on
Hail to thee, Land of Heroes,
My Oregon

Land of the rose and sunshine
Land of the summer’s breeze
Laden with health and vigor
Fresh from the Western seas
Blessed by the love of freedom
Land of the setting sun
Hail to thee, Land of Promise,
My Oregon

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An appreciative sort of partnership

I know from watching movies that the classic pickup line is, “Do you come here often?” When couples meet in the dining room of the senior center where Bette and I live, the equivalent question is, “So….how did you guys meet?” As a result, I have heard myself answer that question a lot of times over the last five years and have heard Bette answer it, too. [1]

The story has taken on familiar contours, like a much-loved stump speech. I think that makes me love it more, rather than less, but it doesn’t keep me from adapting it to my audience. It doesn’t keep me from listening carefully to what I am saying, either, and like any storyteller, I find myself modifying the story so that it continues to fit my current interests and concerns. [2]

The last few times I have told my part of it, I have emphasized the part where I made a really uncomfortable decision. I decided that I was in the process of falling head over heels in love with Bette and that there were a couple of questions I needed to ask while I was still able to hear what her answer was and to react to it with integrity.

What I needed to tell her was that I already had a commitment to a kind of marriage. It was a kind that required two active partners to make it work so it was only fair to her to tell her about it. And it was only fair to me to tell her early enough in the relationship that I would be willing to walk from a very promising beginning if she didn’t want to be part of a relationship of that sort. I was in a hurry because I know what infatuation is like. I know, for instance, that the English word is derived from the Latin fatuus, “foolish.” And I know that no matter how hard I try to exercise “sober judgment” while I am infatuated—“enfoolished”—I don’t really exercise such judgment.

That being the case, I needed to tell Bette, while I still could, that I wasn’t just looking for a wife; I was looking for a partner. Bette was very good about it. She took it seriously. It took her a little while to make sure that I did not mean that I wanted to restore the marriage I had had with Marilyn, with her being expected to play the part of Marilyn. [3] Once she was confident that I was not asking her to do that, she was free to examine the model on its merits and she found a good deal of merit in it.

That solved the problem for me. The problem, remember, was not how to court Bette. It was how to confess a previous commitment to a kind of relationship. Now that she liked the relationship, as much as you can like it by looking at it from the front end, I could move away from the problem of having both an actual commitment to the model and a rapidly developing commitment to Bette. They now appeared to be compatible and I had asked the question early enough that I was able to really hear the answer.

That’s the end of this segment of the “how we met” stump speech. But, as I said, saying it a lot means hearing it a lot and as I have been hearing it, I have begun to feel the need to explore what good things there are on the other side of infatuated. The word wasn’t built to be a phase in the development of some mature good. No one talks about the “trans-infatuation stage” of a relationship. [4] But that is what I would like to do here.

I think “appreciative” covers most of what I want to say about that stage. It does cut short the very important part of the marriage that requires taking initiatives that show both that you love your partner and that you know who she is. So let’s just take the active part for granted and move on the the responsive part, which I am calling “appreciation.”

The choice I find that I face on a day to day basis is whether to appreciate the good things in the marriage—I experience them as “things Bette does”—or to take them for granted and just not notice them at all. Infatuation takes care of that problem. Every trait and every act appears in the golden glow of enjoyment, lust, surprise, and anticipation that pervade the time you spend together. When you spend a lot of time every day together, infatuation just doesn’t do the right things. But taking the understandings and the courtesies of a willing partner for granted doesn’t do the right things either.

Being willing to notice the generosities and the understanding that are offered on a day to day basis actually does do the right things. It is banal, I know, to think of that willingness as “a labor of love,” but I think it is a good description. There is no denying that it is a labor. Taking things for granted is always easier. It facilitates all the other things you are doing; all the other group memberships and responsibilities and all the other projects. But putting those things first and not allowing the time and energy that appreciation requires, shorts the marriage if it is the kind of marriage I am talking about.

The marriage will not run on appreciation if you do not appreciate. You will not appreciate if you do not notice. You will not notice if you go on autopilot and take everything for granted. Staying off of autopilot is a lot of work. It is “a labor.”

But you could justify that level of work by saying that love makes it worthwhile. [5] Love is a hardy plant, but it does need to be watered from time to time by appreciation. Feeling that you love a person is a reason to pay attention to the gifts that love brings. Continuing to love and appreciate that person whether you are currently feeling it or not shows that you understand the relationship between the actions you take and the emotions you feel. So appreciation of the kind I am talking about leads to the feelings that love brings, which feelings can have the effect of keeping you off of autopilot and attentive to the relationship you actually have.

That’s doing a lot with so trite a phrase as “labor of love,” but having heard myself telling the story at dinner after dinner, I am pretty sure that is the way I feel about it. And it makes me very happy that I put this question to Bette while I was still willing to walk away from the relationship if she had said that it made no sense to her at all.

That’s not what she said.

[1] We have two distinct modes, depending on who is asking. One is sequential. One of us tells the story, then the other. The point of view of the speaker is assumed in each case The other is intermittent, very much like a sportscaster and a color commentator describing the game they are seeing.
[2] The facts, obviously, are all the same. Narratives change by relative emphasis, color, and tone; not by inventing new facts.
[3] At this time in my life, my son, Dan, gave me some very good and very uncomfortable advice. He told me to date a lot of women even if I didn’t
want to. If I neglected to do that, he said, I would just be looking for “another Marilyn,” no matter what I told myself I was doing and that would not be fair to any of the dates, particularly anyone I got really serious about.
[4] The closest we come is “trans-fat” which is like infatuation in the sense that it is a problem you are supposed to be able to deal with.
[5] I am talking about the ordinary romantic love that husband and wife often have for each other. There are many other kinds of loves that rea
lly don’t balance out. They cost more than they bring in. They are worth doing anyway.

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Making Policy by Hurt Feelings

Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard, puts it this way in an email to Thomas Edsall of the New York Times. “Authorities… need to become much more skeptical and tough-minded when encountering the language of hurt.”

Why? Here’s how Professor Kennedy sees it. “‘Woke’ folk making wrongful demands march under the banner of “EQUALITY” which is a powerful and attractive emblem.” Yes it is. Yes they do.

“At the same time,” Kennedy continued, “many of the people demanding the diminution of…essential freedoms have learned how to … deploy skillfully the language of “hurt” — as in ‘I don’t care what the speaker’s intentions were, what the speaker said has hurt my feelings and ought therefore to be prohibited.’ ”

Yes they do deploy that language skillfully.

And that is why the people against whom this language is being deployed—Kennedy has university administrators principally in mind—need to become tougher and more skeptical. And if they don’t?

Then, “they will continue to offer incentives to those who deploy the specters of bigotry, privilege and trauma to further diminish vital academic, intellectual and aesthetic freedoms.”

To me, that sounds like an outcome worth preventing.

Kennedy says that administrators will need to be more skeptical. In a time when our language has been redefined so that feelings are “true,” it is asking a lot of the administrators. They can’t say, “No, your feelings are actually not hurt.” I think whether one’s feelings are hurt or not is often a moot point. If you need for your opponent to have committed an error and if feeling offended is the proof that an error has been committed, it is the simplest thing in the world to consult your inner feelings and discover that they have been hurt. So the question of whether they are actually hurt or not cannot be the question to be decided.

Two questions are better. The first is: “Do these ‘hurt feelings’ actually cause any damage? The second is: “What other values will have to be put in jeopardy in order to prevent your feelings from being hurt.”

Kennedy says “vital academic, intellectual, and aesthetic freedoms are at risk.” If he is right about that, and it sounds right to me, then the case would have to be made that so much damage is being done to the “woke” students making the complaint that it is worth damaging these freedoms. I know that is a harder case to make, but I really don’t think anything less than that meets the standard of public policy.

I think it is crucially important that truth continue to matter. It may be hard to arrive at and it is always perilous to measure adequately, but the alternative is simply that one group can yell louder or cause more damage than another. So keeping truth as a standard is really important. It is so important that it is worth hurting some feelings, if that is what it requires.

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But is it really therapy?

I am just about to read a news article (New York Times, June 1) about a “therapist” app named “Woebot.” I have read enough in the area that I think I have a sense of what has to be said. I don’t know the big names in the field, with the exception of Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, and I don’t know any studies at all. Still, it seems to me that whoever is talking, there are some things that have to be said.

This is what I think they are.

On the question of whether this is really “therapy,” the therapists [1] will be facing off against the technologists. [2] The therapists will ask if this is really therapy. Therapy is defined as a set of interactions that require human beings. Therapy requires honesty and insight; it requires empathy and understanding. Having declared that, they will turn to the technologists and dare them to show that Woebot has those things.

The technologists won’t do that, of course. They will change the presuppositions. “What is therapy, really?” they will ask. You guys are talking about history. This is the way it has always been done. Let’s talk, instead, about “it.” What is it, really, that needs to get done? People who are confused need to make a choice; people who need to change their behavior need a reason to do so and encouragement to continue, Woebot does that. Read the transcripts. “Therapy” is healing. Woebot causes or promotes or facilitates “healing.” It is therefore a “therapist.”

There is a lot of merit to talking about why the interaction between therapist and client works. What is it about the “therapeutic exchange” that causes the changes that are desired. It’s hard to tell, really. Outcome measures won’t do it, obviously. Reports of insight won’t do it.

The second question that will arise is what the effect of Woebot is in the long run. Woebot is a phone app. Everybody has a phone. “Therapy,” is therefore available everywhere and everywhen,. How can anyone be opposed to that? That’s what the technologists will have to say.

The therapists will say that what the app will do is the direct the attention of some really needy people away from the humans who can help them. There is really no substitute for the meaningful interaction we can have with other minds, but we can be trained to call something “good enough” even when it is not. If therapy were, as you argue, like scratching an itch, then the client would always know whether the itch has been scratched. But in real therapy, the client realizes whole new options, he constructs whole new approaches to problems. Woebot can’t have that effect on people. What it can do is to teach them that the kind of mechanical “performance of empathy” is all there is and that it is, therefore, “good enough.”

The technologists will have to say that the therapists are denying a lot of people small amounts of real progress because it is not “real” therapy—this despite their failure to define just what “real” therapy is.

Now I think I will go read the article. If they say other things—things I did not foresee that they would have to say—I am going to be really surprised.

[1] Old fashioned, no disrespect intended, person to person types.
[2] They focus on the hardware and construct the algorithms that make it do what it does and seem like it seems.

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I and AI

Sherry Turkle’s memoir, The Empathy Diaries, was published recently and I bought it as soon as I heard about it. She has spent nearly all of her professional career studying the human-robot interaction.  She is the one who, in Alone Together, reported on the children to whom MIT has given little playmate robots for a little while. The language the children chose was that the robots were “alive enough” to do the things they liked to do with them.

There are lots of things wrong with “alive enough” as a standard of being, but you can see how it solved the problem for the kids. They know that the robots are not “alive” in the way people are. On the other hand, it is very hard for them to use words like “not alive” or “dead” or “inert” or “insensate” of cherished companions. This dilemma pushed them to innovation. The robots have a place on the “scale” of aliveness. Alive and Dead are not binary positions for these kids.

I’ve been a fan of Turkle’s ever since. Her mostly engineer colleagues at MIT think of her as a conservative. I think of her as a humanist. Robots, she says, “perform empathy.” Humans “have” empathy.

That is a powerful point, but it is more subtle than it first appears. How do we know that humans experience empathy? Well, they act as if they understand us and our situation. We infer, therefore, that they can imagine being in our “place.” If they do it badly, we judge that they do not really have empathy, but are only performing it. And badly, too. But AI robots are performing it better and better all the time. They “seem to care.” We respond as if they do care, even when we know better.

Now we come to the crucial point. If AI empathy is done better and is more reliable, why would we not prefer it to human empathy–what we used to call “real empathy?” I say it is the crucial point because in the first instance we said that human empathy is real and robot “empathy” is not. Now the point is that if empathy is empathy and if robots do it better, we have every reason to prefer them.

Turkle’s argument is that performed “empathy” is not really empathy no matter how good it is. But that is hard for us. We tend to prefer “the experience” to “the reality:” in cases where they are not the same. This puts what we feel( it understands me) in conflict with what we know (it has been programmed to seem to understand me). It requires us to put an abstract understanding ahead of an immediate pleasure.

Turkle’s approach to the problem is to spend more time being ourselves. It is not hard to see the damage we do to ourselves by being online all the time. The new electronic access we have to each other makes it easier to stay “connected” but being really together is another thing entirely. “Connected” is a kind of being in touch that lets us surf from one person to another, avoiding three kinds of difficulties: people we don’t like, traits we don’t like (even in people we do like) and quiet time when nothing at all is going on.

Turkle says we need those things in order to be who we are. The constant connection is just a distraction from spending time with ourselves. She values “solitude” in which we are alone but not lonely. I follow her argument without any difficulty so long as she is describing how busy we are and how endlessly in touch. I get it that doing those things doesn’t do for us what needs to be done, but I still think that choosing what is real will require rejecting what is merely performed which will mean choosing the mix of pleasant and unpleasant over the completely positive.

We will need to have confidence in “who we really are” in relationship in order to reject what is merely performed and to affirm what is real–and maybe not quite to affirming. That confidence will be born in relationships we invest in; not those we collapse into. Wanting that kind of contact as urgently as we will need to will be necessary if we are to keep ourselves separate from the increasingly competent robots that are available.

“Alive enough” is not going to save us forever. Hating robots is not going to save us at all. We are going to have to learn to value and to prefer who we really are. It’s not a job for Superman. It’s a job for us.


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Another Marshmallow Test

Many years ago, psychologist Walter Mischel devised a test of the ability to defer rewards. For experimental subjects, he used students at his daughter’s grade school. For rewards, he used whatever kind of treat a child might choose. Some years later, New York Times columnist David Brooks called it “the marshmallow test,:” and, like a lot of the names David Brooks thinks up, it became a widely used term. [1]

What Makes the 'Marshmallow Test' So Iconic? - Early Learning Nation

The test was simplicity itself. You can have the chosen treat now or, if you are willing to wait for a little while, you can have several treats. I don’t know what Mischel’s initial expectation was but I do know, thanks to the book he wrote about the experience, that he very quickly became interested in the strategies children used to dismiss the marshmallow from their attention for awhile.

“The Tragedy of the Commons” (Garrett Hardin this time) is another such test. If each person grazes his cows on his share of the commons (ONLY) everything will work out, but if you graze on more than your share, it will not. Others will follow your example; the commons will be grazed unsustainably, and it will crash. No one wants it to crash, but the potential for environmental collapse is remote, whereas the reward of cheating just a little is immediate. Besides, your neighbors are already doing it.

It is very hard to discipline ourselves to achieve a distant goal, particularly if it is abstract, when there are immediate rewards available for undercutting that goal. Everybody believers in “democracy.” That’s what the polls say. But that’s like believing in marshmallows or in the commons. What behaviors are inconsistent with sustaining a democracy”

The one that is facing us at the moment is the Big Lie. Many elected Republicans continue to maintain that the election of 2020 was not fair and that Joe Biden did not win it. A majority of Republican voters feel the same way. There is no standard of proof to which anyone could appeal in making the argument. But even if there were such a standard, “what actually happened” and the proof that it did really happen are both remote. They gratify some do-gooder sense that we really ought to tell the truth; ought to admit the observable realities that would enable us to live together.

Commitment to those “remote” consequences is what makes democracy possible.  “Free and fair elections” is a remote standard.  “Our guy won” is an immediate value and holding it unquestioningly–demanding not that it be proved, but that it be taken for granted–is what makes you part of your group.  It is the entry fee for many friendship groups.  It might very well be a requirement for continued attendance at your church.  It is the Marshmallow Test for Republicans.

The question it poses is clear.  Can you defer your dessert–that would be a Trump victory–until such time as he wins a majority of the votes?  If you can wait, you could get a much greater reward.  You could win democracy as a functioning system AND your preferred candidate as the leader of the executive branch.  Both.  It’s what the children got who met the challenge of the Marshmallow Test–more candy.

But–one more time–to do that, the R’s would have to put their loyalty to democracy first.  First, they would have to say, we demand free and fair elections.  Then we want our candidate to win those elections.

Over the years, democracies have not been stable.  This is why.  It puts the things people care about only in an abstract way, first.  And it puts the things people care most passionately about, second.  “Democracy,” as President Alan Shepherd said, “isn’t easy.  You got to want it bad.”  I hope very sincerely that we want it that bad.


[1] I had a friend once who, in a fit of bad temper, dismissed all the results of the studies on the grounds that some kids, surely, would not like marshmallows and the test was therefore invalid.

[2] The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success

[3] Stuart Stevens, a Republican media consultant says “For the first time since 1860, a major American political party (Republicans) doesn’t believe America is a democracy.”

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Really want to have a partner

I have taken a fair amount of abuse lately–abuse of the raised eyebrow kind–for a story I tell about the early courtship days with Bette. The story as I tell it, and I tell it as I remember it, has a crisis in it; a point where my way of thinking requires me to go one way or the other. People who don’t know me say things like, “Surely you didn’t!” when I get to that part of the story. People who do know me say, “Well…sure. Of course you did.”

Here is a paragraph of back-story. During the time that Marilyn and I were married, just short of a quarter of a century, I became a fan of a certain kind of marriage. Sometimes I call it a Courtship Marriage. [1] During that time I learned a lot about what a marriage could be. Those years with Marilyn just blew the lid off the concept and I had a lot of years of living with her to formulate the experience into certain regularities. Just observations about why it worked and what it would take to keep it working.

Marilyn died in 2003 after several years of a danse macabre with cancer and I had to learn to cope with grief, first, then loneliness. Then I had to build a life for myself that I liked and was proud of. After I got those done–they are never “done” actually, but you know what I mean, I’m sure–I began to look around for a partner. “Partner” turns out to be the crucial term because it presupposes the task in which we would exercise that partnership.

“Romance” isn’t that task. It feels like it at the time, but it isn’t. So I got online and dated quite a few women. Following, by the way, the sage advice of my elder son, who said that if I didn’t, I would just use my dating to find a replacement for Marilyn. He said that dating actual women while maintaining a secret “ideal” wouldn’t be fair to my dates and would systematically distort my own search.

And then I found Bette. I liked her right away and I enjoyed our times together, but I was still looking for a partner and there is no way I could ask Bette if she would be my partner without telling her what sort of project I had in mind. And I felt some urgency about it, because I was falling for her fast and I began to worry that if I had to choose between the relationship as it then was and finding a partner for the marriage I wanted, I would make a bad choice. I knew at the time, for instance, that the English infatuated was based on the Latin fatuuus, which means “foolish.”

That brings me to the crisis I mentioned in starting. In the worst scenario, I would just do the things I thought Bette would respond to most positively and then ask her to marry me and then after we were married, start to bring out these really important things that I had never mentioned to her during our courtship. She would have married a man to made a commitment to her, but with serious–but always tacit–reservations. In the next to worst scenario, I would tell her candidly that I was committed to a certain kind of marriage. It was a kind that required the attention and the honest effort of both partners, so I could not in good conscience continue to court her without asking her whether she wanted to be in such a relationship. At that point, in this next to worst scenario, she would say that she really didn’t find that kind of marriage attractive [2] and that we would have to stop seeing each other.

I could have “resolved” this dilemma in several dishonest ways. I could have said that I really didn’t want the Courtship Marriage. It was just nostalgia about my marriage to Marilyn and it would pass away. Or I could have said that the model really didn’t, however much I once thought it did, require the full-time active participation of both partners, so Bette’s lack of initial enthusiasm wasn’t a real obstacle.

Possibly, I should pause here to say that she was, in fact, really intrigued by the idea and said she would really like to be part of a marriage like that. So the crisis passed nicely.

But the place in the story where the eyebrows go up is the place where I have to decide in good conscience that I have to tell Bette that, however much I am attracted to her, I have a prior commitment. I am not just looking for a woman I like who also likes me. I am looking for a partner who will join me in making this thing–this kind of marriage–work year after year. It is hard, I want to tell you, to sit down with a woman you are besotted with and say, “This has been really wonderful, but there is something I need to tell you before we go any further.”

I think most of the criticism comes from romantics who think that if I liked her and she liked me, that was really all that mattered. They think, upon hearing the story, that it is not really right to court a woman by specifying your own heart’s desire about the relationship you would like to have. It feels to them like asking the woman you are courting to sign a contract. It feels deeply unromantic.

Another kind of criticism comes, I think, from the idea that the kind of marriage Bette and I have should be the product of out living together and figuring it out together. Confessing my “prior commitment” to Bette is good, but it is not as good as not having a prior commitment. What I thought at the time was that the way Bette and I worked out our unique plan for making this kind of marriage work would provide for all the individuality our marriage would require of us. And so far–fifteen years into it–it has.

There are, of course, challenges yet to meet. There is the “in sickness or in health” challenge. Can I continue to “court” a woman who is seriously ill; can I continue to “court” when I am seriously ill? We’ll see. I have hope. There is the “for richer, for poorer” challenge. Can we joyfully spend money together and joyfully endure hard times together. I have hope. We’ll see.

But the conversations I began with never seem to get that far and Bette and I leave the conversation with disappointed romantics behind us. Oh well. The courtship-style marriage we have really does take a lot of tending and we are fortunate that it is work we like to do together. That’s actually the only way it can be done.

[1] The basic idea of it is that you don’t stop courting your wife just because you have married her. There are complications, of course, but that is the premise.

[2] Or impossible or requiring the sacrifice of things she was no longer willing to sacrifice, or some such.

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