Thursday, June 18, 2009

The South Shall Rise Again?

Ta-Nehisi Coates is increasingly one of the more interesting reads I find on the blogosphere. The thing I enjoy about his postings is the way he isn't afraid to "work-out" his thoughts online, and to expose the flaws of his own thinking without exuding any false confidence that he has now reached a place of untarnished enlightenment. At present, he is where he is on his intellectual and personal journey, no apologies needed.

By contrast most bloggers, particularly those who advocate strongly for a given political or philosophical position, do not (or cannot) admit any such tentativeness. For example, I enjoy Will Wilkinson a lot and am frequently convinced by the arguments that he forwards on various topics (though I would be philosophically disposed to do so in advance), but there is also a sense at times that any given subject need only be run through an electronic libertarian sausage-making machine and out pops the blogged result. In other words, his intellectual position (hard won I do not doubt) rarely surprises me or seems to wrestle with its own internal contradictions (if they exist).

Ta-Nehisi, by contrast, once responded to someone who called him out on a supposed intellectual inconsistency between two separate posts with something to the effect of: "What can I say? I am a mass of contradictions." No apologies needed.

To wit, see his recent post linking himself to Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the KKK:

Of the many reckonings that black people of honest political consciousness must endure, the appointment with black slavery is the most agonizing. I don't mean the appointment with the notion of white people as the enslavers of our ancestors, but the appointment with our African ancestors as brokers.

I think, when you're in your intellectual infancy, myth keeps your sane. When I was young I believed, like a lot of us at that time, that my people had been kidnapped out of Africa by malicious racist whites. Said whites then turned and subjugated and colonized the cradle of all men. It was a comforting thought which placed me and mine at the center of a grand heroic odyssey. We were deposed kings and queens robbed of our rightful throne by acquisitive merchants of human flesh. By that measures we were not victims, but deposed nobles--in fact and in spirit.


By the time I came to Howard University, I was beginning the painful process of breaking away from the "oppression as nobility" formula. But the clincher was sitting in my Black Diaspora I class and learning that the theory of white kidnappers was not merely myth--but, on the whole, impossible because disease (Tse-Tse fly maybe?) kept most whites from penetrating beyond the coasts until the 19th century.

A few years later I read (like many of you, no doubt) Guns, Germs and Steel and was, again, heartbroken. Here was a book with no use for nobility, but concerned with two categories--winners and losers. And I was the progeny of the losing team. I was not cheated of anything. I had simply lost.

This was heart-breaking, in the existential sense. What was I, if not noble? What was the cosmic justice at work that put me here, that made me second? Slowly, by that line of questioning, I came to understand that there really was no cosmic justice, that I should just be happy to be alive. Moreover the truth--Harriet Tubman and Ida Wells--was sustenance enough. Finally I learned to actually like that old pain, that feeling of something inside me, deeply-held, falling away. It was not the end of me, just the burn of good, refining, moral and intellectual, work-out.

As I've said, I finished McPherson's Battle Cry Of Freedom today. It deserves its own post, but I want to focus on one aspect the book handles particularly well--the South's psychological need to turn defeat into nobility. I don't mean defeat in the war, so much as I meanlagging behind the North, economically, and due to slavery, lagging behind virtually the entire world, morally.


It is one thing to be judged immoral. But to be judged immoral and backward, at the same time, to be both debauched, and yet in your debauchery, still be a loser, is deeply painful. It was not bad enough that my people had been enslaved, but the fact that we were first enslaved by people who looked like me robbed us of any moral high ground.

The South long evaded that painful reality, and when confronted with it, simply lied. Thus pre-War Jefferson Davis is arguing that the fight is over slavery and white Supremacy. Post-war he's claiming it was about the sovereignty of states. To this day, 150 years later, you find people parroting this lie.


[Nathan Bedford Forrest’s] story is American--the dirt poor son of a blacksmith who becomes a millionaire. But he's noble too, and volunteers to fight for his home state of glorious Tennessee. With no military training, he rises to the rank of Lieutenant General, giving the Union hell the whole time.

Forrest is the model of Southern chivalry--too much so. He made his money buying and selling people like me, and when the war started he dutifully enforced the Confederate policy of giving no quarter to black soldiers. At Fort Pillow he massacred black soldiers trying to surrender, and afterward went on to found the Ku Klux Klan. Tennessee is dotted with monuments, not simply to the generals of the Confederacy, but to the first Grand Wizard of the KKK (Forrest). To this day, you can find people who deny his role in Fort Pillow and in the KKK.


I imagine for a kid coming up in these times, in certain sectors of the South, it's painful to face up to Nathan Forrest, to the notion that the pomp and glamour, all the talk of honor and independence was, at the end of the day, dependent on slavery. The Lost Cause isn't just "lost," it's barely a cause.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Study of Love

From NPR:

On a bright spring day, Schlitz is leading Teena and J.D. Miller down a path to the laboratory at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, north of San Francisco. Schlitz is the president of the institute, which conducts research on consciousness and spirituality. The Millers have been married a decade and their affection is palpable — making them perfect for the so-called Love Study.

Schlitz takes Teena into an isolated room, where no sound can come in or go out. Teena settles into a deep armchair as Schlitz attaches electrodes to her right hand.

"This is measuring blood flow in your thumb, and this is your skin conductance activity," the researcher explains. "So basically both of these are measures of your unconscious nervous system."

Schlitz locks Teena into the electromagnetically shielded chamber, then ushers J.D. into another isolated room with a closed-circuit television. She explains that the screen will go on and off. And at random intervals, Teena's image will appear on the screen for 10 seconds.

"And so during the times when you see her," she instructs, "it's your opportunity to think about sending loving, compassionate intention."

As the session begins, Dean Radin, a senior scientist here, watches as a computer shows changes in J.D.'s blood pressure and perspiration. When J.D. sees the image of his wife, the steady lines suddenly jump and become ragged. The question is: Will Teena's nervous system follow suit?

"Notice how here … see, there's a change in the blood volume," says Radin, pointing to a screen charting Teena's measurements. "A sudden change like that is sometimes associated with an orienting response. If you suddenly hear somebody whispering in your ear, and there's nobody around, you have this sense of what? What was that? That's more or less what we're seeing in the physiology."

An hour later, Radin displays Teena's graph, which shows a flat line during the times her husband was not staring at her image, but when her husband began to stare at her, she stopped relaxing and became "aroused" within about two seconds.

After running 36 couples through this test, the researchers found that when one person focused his thoughts on his partner, the partner's blood flow and perspiration dramatically changed within two seconds. The odds of this happening by chance were 1 in 11,000. Three dozen double blind, randomized studies by such institutions as the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh have reported similar results.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

If you've got a spare $2.3M lying around

Ferris: [describing Cameron's house] The place is like a museum. It's very beautiful and very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy

In The Atlantic, Joshua Shenk writes of his experience as the first journalist ever to have been given access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history...

Case No. 218

How’s this for the good life? You’re rich, and you made the dough yourself. You’re well into your 80s, and have spent hardly a day in the hospital. Your wife had a cancer scare, but she’s recovered and by your side, just as she’s been for more than 60 years. Asked to rate the marriage on a scale of 1 to 9, where 1 is perfectly miserable and 9 is perfectly happy, you circle the highest number. You’ve got two good kids, grandkids too.

A survey asks you: “If you had your life to live over again, what problem, if any, would you have sought help for and to whom would you have gone?” “Probably I am fooling myself,” you write, “but I don’t think I would want to change anything.” If only we could take what you’ve done, reduce it to a set of rules, and apply it systematically.

Case No. 47

You literally fell down drunk and died. Not quite what the study had in mind.

Last fall, I spent about a month in the file room of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, hoping to learn the secrets of the good life. The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years.

From their days of bull sessions in Cambridge to their active duty in World War II, through marriages and divorces, professional advancement and collapse—and now well into retirement—the men have submitted to regular medical exams, taken psychological tests, returned questionnaires, and sat for interviews. The files holding the data are as thick as unabridged dictionaries.


Bock assembled a team that spanned medicine, physiology, anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, and social work, and was advised by such luminaries as the psychiatrist Adolf Meyer and the psychologist Henry Murray. Combing through health data, academic records, and recommendations from the Harvard dean, they chose 268 students—mostly from the classes of 1942, ’43, and ’44—and measured them from every conceivable angle and with every available scientific tool.


But as Vaillant points out, longitudinal studies, like wines, improve with age. And as the Grant Study men entered middle age—they spent their 40s in the 1960s—many achieved dramatic success. Four members of the sample ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a presidential Cabinet, and one was president. There was a best-selling novelist (not, Vaillant has revealed, Norman Mailer, Harvard class of ’43).

But hidden amid the shimmering successes were darker hues. As early as 1948, 20 members of the group displayed severe psychiatric difficulties. By age 50, almost a third of the men had at one time or another met Vaillant’s criteria for mental illness. Underneath the tweed jackets of these Harvard elites beat troubled hearts. Arlie Bock didn’t get it. “They were normal when I picked them,” he told Vaillant in the 1960s. “It must have been the psychiatrists who screwed them up.”


The study began in the spirit of laying lives out on a microscope slide. But it turned out that the lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.” Arlie Bock had gone looking for binary conclusions—yeses and nos, dos and don’ts. But the enduring lessons would be paradoxical, not only on the substance of the men’s lives (the most inspiring triumphs were often studies in hardship) but also with respect to method: if it was to come to life, this cleaver-sharp science project would need the rounding influence of storytelling.


His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin.


Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. “Social anxiety disorder” is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant’s work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. “Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”


Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”


In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”


Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way? At times, Vaillant wears his lab coat and lays out his findings matter-of-factly. (“As a means of uncovering truth,” he wrote in Adaptation to Life, “the experimental method is superior to intuition.”)

More often, he speaks from a literary and philosophical perspective. (In the same chapter, he wrote of the men, “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.) In one of my early conversations with him, he described the study files as hundreds of Brothers Karamazovs.


Indeed, the lives themselves—dramatic, pathetic, inspiring, exhausting—resonate on a frequency that no data set could tune to. The physical material—wispy sheets from carbon copies; ink from fountain pens—has a texture. You can hear the men’s voices, not only in their answers, but in their silences, as they stride through time both personal […] and historical. […] With this level of intimacy and depth, the lives do become worthy of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.

I like the way the article captures the ultimate uncontainability of human experience, especially with respect to qualitative outcomes like a "good life." Narrative is obviously inadequate as a mode of scientific inquiry, but the roundedness of life cannot be captured through raw data analysis either. This is the purpose of art and myth to me. To communicate things that cannot be expressed in any other way.