Monday, June 25, 2012

Distributive Justice In Victorian Children's Books

I was a little under the weather the past few days, and as entertainment I decided to read a bunch of Victorian children's novels.  Children's novels -- because what's nicer when you're sick than kids' books?  Victorian -- because of the copyright laws.

If you don't already know, if you have an e-book reader you can read many many out of copyright books, downloadable from various sources but mostly  You used to be able to read these books with the amazing app Stanza, but Amazon bought Stanza and closed it down or something so that people would use the Kindle app and be tied to the Kindle versions of the books.  That's too bad.  But now there's an app called MegaReader ("MegaReader"? really?) that does pretty much the same thing. 

The way the timing works out, many books that are just now out of copyright are from the Victorian era, or just after it.  (Info about duration of copyright at this wikipedia page).  It's kind of interesting, actually, the way the law functions to reacquaint readers with a specific time that moves forward as we do.

I started by rereading some known favorites:  The Secret Garden; A Little Princess.  Then I realized I'd never read Doctor Dolittle, so I read a couple from that series.  Then I found the Pollyanna books, and was like "OMG you mean the idea of "being a Pollyanna" = "being annoyingly optimistic" comes from an actual book and I didn't know that already?"

What struck me on reading them all the same time was their shared obsession with the problems of suffering and poverty and the ... shall I say "limited"? ideas they bring to bear on the problem?

Doctor Dolittle is about a kind and good man who never wants anyone to be unhappy.  So far so good!  His solution to the problem of money, though, is just not to think about it ever.  He takes things as they come, does good where he can, and ignores the rest.  It's the animals, especially the wise parrot, who organize things so that there's food on the table. 

And speaking of food, the animals are often the poor and downtrodden in this book, which recounts the misuse of horses, the pains of animals in zoos, and the sufferings of fish in aquariums.  So ... when it comes right down to it, what do we do about the fact that people eat animals and animals often eat one another?  That doesn't come up in the book.  I thought the kind Doctor would have to be a vegetarian at least, but the topic never arises.

Moral:  poverty is bad, so be nice to everybody and try not to think about it very much.

With A Little Princess, I remember even when I was a kid I was weirded out by way the happy ending has lovely Sara Crewe transformed back into a wealthy and happy child and her best friend Becky transformed into ... her maid? 

Sara starts off wealthy, but through a mistake is thought to be a penniless orphan. She's put upstairs with the domestic servant Beckie.  The book recounts their sufferings with horror, and the book is clearly about how awful it is to be poor in England in the late 1800s.  I guess to a certain imagination, the answer to the suffering of the poor is not to lessen inequality but just for rich people to be nicer to poor people.

Moral:  poverty is bad, so be nice to poor people and their lives won't suck so much.

The Pollyanna books don't really get to the problem of poverty 'til volume two.  The first book is all about Pollyanna being Pollyanna.  She teaches everyone to play the "glad game" -- where you find something to be glad about in every situation.  It's to the book's credit that when Pollyanna is in an accident and thinks she's crippled for life, she cannot play the game at all -- her only consolation is that other people she's been nice to over the years drop by with warm wishes.

In volume two, Pollyanna goes to Boston to stay with a family friend for a few months, and there she encounters actual poverty:  people who haven't enough to eat, and live in squalor.  She can't find anything to be "glad" about about that situation either.  Her solution is to make friends with some poor people, and then make life better for them.  In the course of the books she arranges two formal adoptions of poor orphaned children by wealthy and previously sour-minded adults.

Moral:  poverty is bad, so find a few poor people and bring them to live with you in richlandia.

Pollanna seems to have more advanced thinking on the subject than anyone else; at least she actually wants to make poor people richer instead of just tossing them a muffin here and a kindly word there. 

The adults in the book warn Pollyanna, though, that too much in this direction leads to "socialism." So she'd better be careful.

Plus ça change.

Monday, June 18, 2012

We Love The Bad, The Stupid, The Vapid, The Obsequious

A poster for the movie "Tilt," starring Brooke Shields.  Who knew?
What's the Parisian equivalent of a "dive bar"?  I don't really know, but I was in one the other day.  This being Paris, it wasn't so much a dive bar in the sense of being dark, noisy, and full of drunks.  It was more a place for drinking, buying lottery tickets, placing bets on things, watching sports, and pretending to do all these other things while really flirting with the cute Chinese waitress.  It was also a place for playing pinball. 

You remember pinball, right?  Its heyday was just before PacMan, back in the paleo-agonic era.  Pinball machines are endangered now, but maybe you've seen a few of them tucked away in their modern sanctuaries: hipster bars.  Instead of a "screen" they have an actual ball that bounces around; instead of a "joystick" or "game controller" there are these flipper things. 

I always try to avoid saying things that make me sound like an old man, like "You kids with your Wiis and your X-boxes and your games of war and shooting-up-prostitutes, you don't know nothing."  But in this case what else can I say? 

I could go on and on listing points in favor of pinball.  The main one relevant here is that it is possible to be sexy and cool while playing it.  Video games, not so much.  Using a joystick looks ridiculous, and the new machines, where you have to wave your arms around to make the motion of a tennis racket/baseball bat/fist/whatever -- they're even worse.

Part of the appeal of pinball is that you have to interact in a masterful but gentle way with a 300 pound machine.  Nudging the machine a bit:  essential strategy.  Nudging the machine too much:  TILT! your ball is over.

Anyway, in my dive bar there were these guys playing pinball.  And one guy had on a nice suit, and nice shoes, and he had a nice haircut and a reasonably intelligent look on his face.  He also had -- what's the equivalent of road rage for pinball?  He had TILT RAGE. 

He could barely contain his anger.  Every time he lost it was like a new tragedy.  He hit the machine; he stomped his feet; he swore at the people around him.  I don't think he every really technically tilted the machine.  He was just really pissed off about losing.

And now we're finally getting to the point of this post, which is that I found this an attractive quality.  I didn't find it an admirable quality.  I think getting really upset about a pinball game is stupid.  This is a case where a quality I find attractive in a person is not a quality I find sensible or good, and isn't even a quality I'd be looking for in a friend.

I think this situation -- that what's attractive isn't always what's good -- is more common than people would like to admit.  When people date the Bad, the Stupid, the Vapid and the Obsequious ... it really gets under everyone else's skin. 

In particular, when a woman dates a Bad or Stupid Guy, there's often a whole narrative about it: Oh, She Must Have Been Mistreated As A Child and That's Why She Likes Him. She needs to regain her self-esteem.  The implication is that the normal healthy person finds attractive in the opposite sex the qualities of goodness, patience, and generosity.  But isn't this contradicted by the facts?  As I've mentioned before, Keith Richards has to fight them them off with a stick.  Nothing against Keith, but it's not because he's a Good and Virtuous Man.

This whole problem had been much on my mind before seeing Tilt Rage Guy, because I'd been thinking about it as it arises in the books of Anthony Trollope.  I've just been rereading The Palliser series.  Because they concern the English aristocracy, these novels contain a lot of plot elements having to do with the marriages and marriage-longings, suitable and unsuitable, of various young persons. 

In The Prime Minister, poor Emily Wharton is swept off her feet by one Ferdinand Lopez, a man we know ahead of time to be fast-talking, good looking, and easily angered, and a man we later come to know as truly despicable.  Of course Emily's family is deeply mystified by her choice, and also angered by her rejection of Mister Suitable, a long standing family friend.

I was talking over Emily's problems with my friend and he pointed out how many of Trollope's heroines were in the same situation.  They love the scapegraces, the smooth talkers, the passionate lovers and the cutters of fine figures.  The upstanding and quiet young men everyone else approves of for them?  Meh, not so much. 

It drove everybody crazy then, and it's driving everybody crazy now.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Earthling Experience: Can I Get A Refund?

If you watched Star Trek TNG, you know that superhuman Q also regarded the human condition as an outrage.

Life is not what I wanted it to be.  I don't mean my life:  my life is almost perfect, given the parameters of human existence.  It's the parameters of human existence I'd like to lodge a complaint about.

I was hoping for something like The Sonny and Cher Show on LSD and meth.  What we've got is like The Biggest Loser hosted by Dr. Phil.  Dear Sirs, Can I get a refund on The Earthling Experience?

Just as a start, the physical apparatus is incredibly crude.  Not only are we absurdly fragile, needy, and physically weak, but even the most basic elements of the design frequently malfunction. 

You ever go to the physical therapist and have them haul out that fake skeleton to explain why your shoulder/back/elbow is bothering you?  I imagine your first thought is not "Gee, how could that get screwed up??"  It's more like "Wait, that's how it's supposed to work?"  I always end up leaving grateful and surprised that the rest of my body has functioned so relatively well for so long.

Then the whole pain thing is so stupid.  Are you telling me there's no way to motivate us to avoid things that would be better than this moronic yes-no system, a system that uses no thought, and that requires actual suffering?  What are we, animals? 

The pleasure idea is OK in principle, I guess.  But why is it implemented so stingily?  The hedonic treadmill ensures that even if you like something -- even if you like something AND it's good for you -- the pleasure you get from it will dwindle and fade. 

And the pleasures of life are so much paler and more fleeting than they have to be.  Evidence for this comes from first-person reports of drug users, who pretty much universally report pleasure that is way more intense and way sturdier than any sober pleasures.

Why so fucking stingy with the pleasures, Earthling Experience?

Arching over all of these is the Great Boredom Dilemma.  If you don't have what you need and want, you're dissatisfied.  But if you do have what you need and want, you're bored.  I remember as a kid being really confused by the idea of any kind of utopia.  I saw early that many of my most pleasant moments involved trying to do things and learning to do things.  But in a utopia, wouldn't you be able to do all the things you wanted to do?  Would utopia be a place in which I was trying to learn how to play the piano and frustrated by my failures?  Or would it be a place in which I could play effortlessly just as I wanted to, with no struggle at all?  Neither seemed to me particularly utopian.  The problems just seem inherent in being human.

OK, now these are my views.  And I am aware that there are people who do not share them.  They do not feel this way about human existence.  Sure, they hate pain and suffering as much as the next person.  But as long as their basic needs are being met, they find in human existence a source of contentment and happiness.  They bask in their pleasures, fret mildly about their frustrations, and don't worry about things that drive me crazy, like the ridiculous finitude of life.

These people do not want a refund on the The Earthling Experience.  Sometimes, when I'm in a difficult mood, I find myself wondering:  should I be more like these people?  To put it less contentiously, would it be better if the world were more full of people like these people and less filled with people like me?  I mean, if the earth can only support life for such-and-so many people, doesn't it make sense to ensure that the ones who arrive and the ones who are likely to have a satisfying experience?  To put it more contentiously, should there be people like me?

It's interesting to me how little philosophical attention there's been to the question of what we humans should be like (notable exception here).  I mean, there's a lot of answers to the more limited question, Given that we are human and thus have such-and-so qualities, what are the virtues we ought to foster and promote or the rules we ought to follow or the aims we ought to have or whatever.  But there are larger and more destabilizing questions lurking nearby.  What should we aim to be?  Should we even aim to be human?

I don't have a full answer, but obviously, I think there should be people like me:  people who don't have the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, and who frankly, wouldn't want such a thing; people who have complaints about the human set up; people who cannot accept the Positive Thinking Party Line. 

For one thing, maybe we're right:  maybe things suck and the rest of you are brainwashed.  For another, wouldn't earth be boring if we weren't around?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Listening To Pinot Grigio

Dionysus mosaic, via Wikimedia Commons.
About a million years ago when I was simultaneously a bored bookstore employee, a disaffected mathematics graduate student, and a watcher of television, I happened to read Peter Kramer's book Listening To Prozac.  In all kinds of ways it was a weird choice.  I hadn't yet studied any philosophy; I never did study psychology; I usually find non-fiction books tedious. 

But there was something about the idea of the book that fascinated me.  That idea is that anti-depressants like Prozac don't just alleviate serious depression in people who have it; they also affect the personalities of people who have mild depression or even none.  Shy people become more extroverted, nervous people become more confident.  One patient reported feeling "unencumbered, more vitally alive, less pessimistic."

Perhaps most interestingly, Kramer reported that the patients who experienced this felt not like they had new selves or identities, but rather that they were more the self they were before.  They were able to cast off something that was getting in the way of them being themselves, in order not to change, but to be fully themselves.

It's to Kramer's credit that there's no drama aspect to all this.  There's no "OMFG drugs change people's selves it's time to give it all up for raw foods, Tai Chi, and no electricity."  Even though Kramer admits to being somewhat disconcerted, he doesn't offer any simple answers.

I got to thinking about the book recently, because I was thinking about drinking.  I'm a person who -- let's say I'm a person who enjoys a glass of wine.  For me, the transformation induced by drinking is almost always X -> X+.

That is, drinking I go from being Me to being Me+, a better version of me.  I'm not only a bit more cheerful.  I'm eager instead of discouraged; I'm confident instead of daunted; I'm interested instead of bored.  I think more interesting things; I like people.  Pretty much everything is improved.

It's funny, because often when you hear people who like to drink a little too much talk about drinking there's this standard narrative which is like Oh, It's Great Until It's Not and Since You Can't Stop you inevitable Pass That Point and end up Crying Into Your Beer.

Not me -- I mean, I don't really have the Crying Into Your Beer phase of drinking.  Because -- have I mentioned?  for me drinking is X -> X+.  I don't drink beer, but whatever I'm drinking, I'm laughing into it, not crying into it.

This does give rise to a practical problem:  one doesn't want to drink too much.  But for me that really is a practical problem:  alcohol has a lot of calories, and it's not good for you in large amounts.  If the gods of consumer culture could just get cracking on solving those problems, I'd be good to go (see production suggestion #2 in my previous post on designer drugs).

So of course you can see why I started thinking about Listening to Pinot Grigio.  It's like, I'm me, only better.  "Unencumbered, more vitally alive, less pessimistic" -- that's it, exactly.  

In  the "most helpful" book review of Listening to Prozac on Amazon, a psychotherapist points out two interesting things about how the book seems today.  One is that Kramer didn't foresee that the side effects of Prozac would stand in the way of it becoming The People's Drug.  Some of those side effects are sexual, and the reviewer wryly notes that "the real stampede, ironically, has been toward Viagra" -- though why it seems ironic that people want more and better sex is obscure to me.  What could be more predictable than that?

The other is that "when push comes to shove, the past decade indicates that, bottom line, Americans continue to entertain a pharmaceutical Calvinism, a suspicion of medicine, and more recently, of the companies that make them."  That is, we retain a sense that there's something wrong with taking pills to feel good.

I think that is true, and it's also true that people have weirdly puritanical attitudes about alcohol.  They often talk as if there's some moral problem with drinking for fun:  Oh No, You Might Not Be Able to Drive, Won't Someone Think of The Children? 

As far as I'm concerned, the problem with recreational and non-recreational drugs are the same: it's not that there's something bad with mood-alteration, it's just that we're not very good at it yet.  In fact, when I'm Listening to Pinot Grigio, I'm often struck by how little we've improved on the basic experience of wine drinking.

Sure, alcohol has its side effects, and taken immoderately it's not good for you.  But sadly that's true of everything, still.

And now, let me end this post with a quotation from the Wikipedia entry on Dionysus, god of wine:
He is also the Liberator (Eleutherios), whose wine, music and ecstatic dance frees his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverts the oppressive restraints of the powerful.
Freedom from self-conscious fear and care! That is it.