Friday, November 13, 2009

Meeting with Doug Hollan

I had the good fortune of meeting recently with my old mentor, Dr. Douglas Hollan, a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at UCLA. He is also an Instructor at the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute and President-Elect of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. His theoretical interests include psychological and cultural anthropology, ethnopsychology, cross-cultural psychiatry, and person-centered ethnography. He conducted his fieldwork among the Tana Toraja in Indonesia.

His impressive academic credentials notwithstanding, he is most importantly a tremendous teacher. Thus far in my life no one single person has influenced me more in terms of my general world view and specific academic theoretical and methodological perspectives.

In the course of our conversation one of my primary impressions was the extent to which, having once been a promising student, I am now - much to my chagrin - a full-fledged layman. The discipline has progressed into new territory with which I am utterly unfamiliar, to say nothing of the vague, cloudy haze representing all prior knowledge I once possessed on the subject matter.

No matter; I took in this reality with a certain sangfroid, reassuring myself that one's predisposed inclinations, talents, gifts, etc. will eventually - given a serious, diligent, and persistent work ethic - prevail over a self-imposed period of academic dormancy.

I will admit, however, incredulity regarding how the discipline could have possibly carried on without me! Surely the massive, nearly insurmountable intellectual and creative void left in the wake of my departure left Anthropology reeling - perhaps academia in general. In any case, apparently they have somehow recovered.

In giving consideration to resuming an academic career, it strikes me that before tackling the painful and loathsome process of applications, standardized tests, letters of recommendation, etc. it makes sense I should immerse myself in - heaven forbid - the actual material I might be studying.

Dr. Hollan (everyone calls him Doug; due to some sort of built-in decorum I am incapable of calling him anything but Dr. Hollan) has graciously allowed me this opportunity through a course he teaches, Mind, Medicine and Culture, and I have been very excited to dive in and read, read, read.

From time to time I will post my impressions here, beginning with a few excellent articles written on Stigma. Now,
In communicating my own thoughts, it should quickly become clear that while I am a true proponent and champion of Anthropology, I am not a sycophant. I have a strong and often very critical point of view, derived from a true passion for the discline and its potential influence on other perspectives. Indifference will not enter the equation.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A Conspiracy of Culture

In this entry I examine the John F. Kennedy assassination from a unique, and - so far as I know - new perspective, relying heavily on anthropological constructs but adding a few of my own as I go. Let's dive right in.

I. Cultural Context: Dallas, TX in 1963
Dallas in 1963 represented perhaps the polar extreme of America's right-wing animosity towards John F. Kennedy's liberal policies. A number of exhibits clearly reflect this exaggerated sentiment: 1. the Assault of Adlai Stevenson on October 24, 1963; 2. An eerily prescient November 17th article in the Dallas Morning News calling for an "Incident-Free Day"; 3. A "Wanted for Treason" pamphlet distributed week of visit; and 4. A "Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas" advertisement placed in the Dallas Morning News signed by Bernard Weisman. Let us examine each:

1. "Dallas Has Been Disgraced": Assault on Adlai Stevenson
On October 24, 1963 - a month prior to Kennedy's visit, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was assaulted by hecklers outside Dallas' Memorial Auditorium Theater after delivering a speech on United Nations Day. Struck over the head by a picket and spat upon, the incident was condemned in an article in Time Magazine, an editorial in the Dallas Times Herald, and by Governor John Connally, who called what transpired, "an affront to common courtesy and decency". (Read the original Time Magazine article here).

One important takeaway from this earlier, more mild (but nationally noteworthy) incident was the reaction it provoked from Dallas civic leaders: condemnation. Though it seems obvious, that they didn't explicitly endorse the behavior illustrates a second dimension of our cultural analysis: while on the one hand there existed a streak of strong anti-Kennedy sentiment, on the other there also existed an ethic of hospitality to visitors and, more importantly, decorum and sanctity towards elected American officials. As I will discuss later, these two ethics were in irreconcilable conflict with one another, two sides of a cultural dilemma that would ultimately play out on a larger stage: an earthquake in culture, redefining American ethos.

2. "Incident-Free Day Urged for JFK Visit"
After the Stevenson assault, the potential to further jeopardize the national reputation and image of Dallas was clearly enough of a concern that on Nov. 17th the Dallas Morning News ran the remarkably prescient headline "Incident-Free Day Urged for JFK Visit". The article identifies both evidence of general preexisting animosity and the spirit of hospitality leaders wanted to preserve.

"The President of the U.S. represents the highest and proudest office in the world. And he will be welcome. Our reputation as the first city of Texas and the friendliest town in America has been earned and won by Dallas people through the years."
- Robert B. Cullum, President Dallas Chamber of Commerce

We now know, of course, a drama of the deepest national gravitas was about to be acted out on the Dallas stage. What is most extraordinary, given the above headline, was that tickets were sold in advance. Taken from a wide lens, the news of Kennedy's pending assassination was portended several days earlier in virtually every publication.

I will later argue this represents indirect evidence of premeditated and unconscious collective knowledge of what was to come, something I call Cultural Prescience. A watershed moment in American history was momentarily to occur; it is plausible that given the weight of the pending act, we might identify indicators of early unconscious collective recognition, worry/anxiety over pending danger, etc. Such headlines are, at a minimum, a recognition of elevated tension and agitation. Certainly we see unconscious remorse once the act is committed, something I will discuss later.

For now let this merely serve to illustrate the heightened state of animosity/tension surrounding Kennedy's visit to Dallas.

3. "Wanted for Treason"
This handbill was distributed in the streets of Dallas in the days preceding Kennedy's arrival, illustrating again the degree of hostility located at the extreme of the Dallas cultural spectrum.

Of particular interest in our analysis is the language of this and the following article. In the list of grievances, words pertaining to "Communism" occur with significant frequency (i.e.; "He is turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the communist controlled United Nations", etc.). "Communism" - rooted squarely in the middle of the Cold War - was a powerful cultural symbol, that is, an idea widely discussed/shared, emotionally laden - an integral component of the Dallas sociopolitical vernacular. That such a charged symbol might be idiosyncratically manipulated by one of its marginal actors should come as no surprise, as we will discuss in a moment.

Aside from the language, this and the following are examples - again - of the degree of hostility present in the political extremes of Dallas culture, and therefore represent a fundamental constituent of the spectrum of meaning associated with President Kennedy and his visit.

4. "Welcome, Mr. Kennedy, to Dallas"
This political advertisement, placed in the Dallas Morning News, also is heavily laden with "Communist" accusations, and on face value would serve only as additional evidence to substantiate the general anti-Kennedy animosity present in the Dallas cultural spectrum.

Its importance, however, extends further.

The advertisement had particular relevance to Jack Ruby (Oswald's assailant). The bottom of the page was signed by a "Bernard Weisman, Chairman of the American Fact-Finding Committee". Ruby, who was Jewish (Jacob Rubenstein) apparently worried that an advertisement disparaging the President had been endorsed by someone of Jewish descent. According to his later testimony, once the President had been killed, Ruby was fearful the assassination would somehow be tied to a Jewish conspiracy. Were he able to demonstrate - on his own - the loyalty and courage of a Jew, he would therefore be able to counteract this potentially devastating stigma.

Irrational, but nevertheless extremely important logic (i.e.; his) to what I will discuss in more detail later: Ruby's marginalized and distorted idiosyncratic expression of a cultural ethic shared by all.

CONTEXT ANALYSIS PART A: An Elevated Probability for Action
The Stevenson assault and the Kennedy assassination can be made similar by reducing our descriptive variables to more general ones. We find then they differ only in terms of amplitude:

By the above definition, the said ACTION described took place in Dallas once in October, then again in November. That one happened to be an assault and the other an assassination is, in the manner we have defined it, a matter of semantics - a difference only in amplitude. In short, a recurring phenomenon.

Now, we can reasonably assume not every citizen in Dallas was capable or inclined to club Adlai Stevenson over the head with a picket, and certainly not to shoot the president. It is thus likely neither Oswald nor Mrs. Fredrickson represented the average Dallas citizen. Something behaviorally idiosyncratic must have separated them from a normative mean (we of course know this was the case with Oswald; so far as I know Mrs. Fredrickson's past is unknown).

Despite a lack of familiarity with our beloved Mrs. Fredrickson, let us suppose both Lee Harvey Oswald and Mrs. Fredrickson occupy the margins of Dallas culture where this particular ideal is concerned. We will label them cultural extremes,
following Ruth Benedict's (1934) category of deviance: an individual too much like the cultural stereotype or valued ideal. A cultural extreme is thus a person just like everyone else, only more so; a caricature of an ideal. "Anti-Kennedy" anger/hostility shared in varying degrees by all within the unconscious Dallas ethos is expressed and experienced more significantly in these particular actors. This may be roughly analogous in some respects to Devereux's (1956) analysis of "sacred" disorders:
...his conflicts are simply more intense than those of other members of his group, though fundamentally of the same type and involving the same segment of the personality, the ethnic unconscious. He is quite often like everyone else - 'only more so'.
Under static cultural circumstances, a given ideal is generally not volatile enough alone to propel an actor - even one located on the extremes - into atypical or abnormal behavior. The likelihood for deviance, however, is increased significantly under conditions of cultural agitation such that existed in Dallas in 1963 as we have previously described. In the case of cultural agitation, all members are "buzzing", much like molecules in a heated beaker. The most marginal or unstable of those members - residing closer to the metaphorical "boiling point" - are most likely to deviate into unusual or atypical action:

From this pattern we might posit the following:

Hypothesis A: In 1963, general sentiment against Kennedy and his perceived agenda had reached a degree of amplification in Dallas culture, such that certain marginal actors within it - thrust into atypical circumstances - were more likely to cross normative behavioral boundaries.

Let us now look at the sources of this general cultural "agitation".

Conflicting Pillars of Culture
To set the contextual stage of November 1963 in Dallas, Texas, we thus have identified the following ideals in conflict: 1. a component of extreme animosity towards President Kennedy and his politics; and 2. a contrasting component of cultural hospitality and American Patriotism, punctuated by a reverence/love for the sanctity of the highest American public office.

In this light, John F. Kennedy was both reviled and revered, loved and hated. His politics were treasonable; his office was sacred. It is this contradiction I argue was the true engine of elevated agitation in Dallas. A President as Traitor should evoke hatred, even violence. But a President as Sacred must be revered and respected. The two ideals were irreconcilable. Were culture a distinct, complex organism, these two fundamental and inflexible pillars would represent unsustainable seeds of internal conflict for which dramatic resolution was necessary.

Consider, if you will, a scenario in which the only amplified ideal present was "President as Traitor." Were there no ambivalence - no complementary component of "President as Sacred" - then the degree of cultural agitation would be significantly lessened. There would in fact be no conflict at all: the President is a traitor, he must therefore be removed/deposed. Once he was gone we would see no sadness, grief, or remorse; the act would be culturally approved, even rewarded.

By adding the dimension of Patriotism - of sanctity, of loyalty, of reverence, ultimately of love - we create true cultural conflict, both unsustainable and demanding resolution. (I will argue later the result of the Kennedy assassination was, in fact, a collective resolution of the above conflict).

There is another issue, however, we must address before we continue. One might argue it would be simplistic to reduce the "President as Traitor" ideal as one generally applicable to Dallas and not isolated to the radical far-right from which it originated. To this reasonable assertion we would respond by pointing to strong evidence of the ideal's cultural resonance. Though the intensity of the sentiment was greater to the right, the ideal was understood and grappled with - to varying degrees - among the full spectrum of Dallas culture.

In this sense, if we view a change-state culture as one in motion (i.e.; perpetual transition) then what takes place on its periphery is extremely important to the normative whole, because its periphery represents a potential future: a frontier of uncharted psychocultural territory which - in the event said "migration" is sanctioned (via resonance) - will eventually become absorbed into the larger gestalt. Thus a marginal ideal, particularly if resonant, will receive unconscious attention and require cultural reconciliation before it might take its place among the existing emotional/symbolic framework. This is one of the ways we might explain a phenomenon such as Cultural Prescience: analogous to the extended "feelers" of a slug, exploring new terrain before committing to a given direction.

For instance, extreme cultural agitation (i.e.; revolution, war) might propel even normative types into "deviance", potentially allowing the eventual sanction of whatever might then transpire. Given, then, such potentially high stakes, as culture becomes agitated, sensitivity towards peripheral action takes greater import: a slug extends its feelers only when it begins to move.

To view the American President viscerally - as an enemy, a traitor - was something new in the context of post-WWII American affluence/jingoism. Though the bulk of this sentiment may have resided in the polar regions of the cultural ethos, that it resonated with the larger group - even in lesser degrees from its point of origin - required redefining the definition/emotional investment of the shared symbol "President of the United States" in the general sense. It was necessary, in a nutshell, for the general ethos to lose some degree of innocence, naivete, and ultimately cohesion, in order to cope emotionally with a future world of increased political polarization and - possibly - civil fracture. That we see similar patterns in today's political milieu - even after readjusting our degree of emotional investment in the office of President - pays homage to the prevailing strength of this long-standing cultural dilemma.

In any case, I digress. For the moment let us posit the following:

Hypothesis B: Dueling/Conflicting cultural components of animosity versus sanctity towards the symbol of "President" fueled general cultural agitation in Dallas, triggering idiosyncratic attempts at unconscious "resolution" among its peripheral actors.

Note that the problem, illuminated in this particular light, should be very troubling to anyone wary of reductionist cultural explanations for individual behavior. This concern I quite understand and share; however the ideas I will present, though focused on culture, I argue are no means mutually exclusive of person. Idiosyncratic personal expression is, in fact, vital to my analysis (perhaps explaining why I use the word "idiosyncratic" with such frequency!).

Preexisting examination of this event in American history has focused too vividly on the individual actors (in particular, fixating on what I would call their "manifest" rather than "latent" motivations), wholly neglecting the larger and more revealing cultural context. The only manner in which the larger context has been addressed (peculiarly, I will argue) is in the form of conspiracy.

In other words, there exists a collective suspicion of some larger framework lurking behind the Kennedy assassination, but this suspicion can only be expressed through a search for conscious, tangible connections, rather than in unconscious relationships. In a search for a collective culprit, we have persistently fixated on concrete red herrings (i.e.; "Oswald took orders from Castro!" or "Ruby was a hitman for the mob!") rather than uncomfortably acknowledge our own collective culpability in what was ultimately a necessary cultural "crime" fundamental to repositioning our collective psychology in order to adapt/cope/keep up with a changing world.

I have thus very intentionally framed the conflict as a collective one. These clashing, friction-causing pillars of culture, so situated, were not only the internal conflicts of the individual actors in question, but rather the conflicts of essentially all its cultural members - experienced in varying degrees and from varying perspectives - but understood by all. Everyone familiar with the Dallas milieu was confronted with some degree of unresolved, persistent conflict between two dueling, deeply ingrained values. In the context of post WWII jingoism, an American Patriot could not possibly view his/her President as a despised traitor, yet in a changing world of increased political polarization, it was precisely this possibility banging tirelessly on the door, begging for introduction into the broader cultural spectrum. Culture, in order to move "forward", required an essentially colder, less intimate view of the symbol, "President"; a cultural shift was necessary away from the degree of emotional investment required of its conventional placement in the collective psyche.

The myth of Camelot, in short, had to end.

What is most unusual is that a such a vital collective problem would be played out by the culture's most peripheral and marginal actors
. I believe the reason for this is that culture is cruel: we nominate the weakest and most peculiar among us to do our dirty work.

Let us now examine the two most prominent of these actors, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, each as a personification of the above components in conflict.

II. Lee Harvey Oswald: A Communist in Dallas
Given the context as I have described it, a Communist in Dallas is an oxymoron. That the assassin could have been a Communist seems (and seemed) absurdly misplaced; Dallas was probably the last place on Earth you might expect to find one. While we have identified preexisting conditions portending an act of violence, the source of said act should have - by all accounts - emerged from the extremes of the far-right, not the far-left!

So why didn't it?

The answer is it absolutely did.

Lee Harvey Oswald will forever remain a riddle as long as we try and decipher him as a true Communist (it should be noted every attempt to do so thus far has failed). Viewing him in this light is at best baffling and at worst comical; any close analysis has concluded his various attempts to adopt a Communist identity, while certainly not lacking in panache, were a dismal and complete failure - nothing short of a joke. The pursuit of Oswald as a legitimate Communist is a small sanguine fish by any other name.

We only begin to understand Lee Harvey Oswald when we consider "Communism" within the context of the culture from which he emerged. The symbolic location of "Communism" in 1963 American culture was laden with a laundry list of stigmatic linguistic associations. This very stigma, combined with the allure of a powerful, enigmatic, foreign movement placed in opposition to all that threatened him - was precisely what attracted Oswald. "Communism" was Oswald's bedfellow solely because of its uncanny similarity to his own troubled interpersonal history and oppositional frame of reference. He was not a Communist at all; he was a marginalized personality desperate for an identity to empower his own need for grandiosity and place. For this reason he could never genuinely embrace life in the Soviet Union; it ultimately didn't interest him. His true interest was in a fantasy of antithesis to his own culture - nothing more.

Hypothesis C: Lee Harvey Oswald was not a Communist, but rather gravitated towards the stigmatized role and location of "Communism" within his own culture, because it reflected and reinforced his own marginal and rejected place within it.

The True Identity of Lee Harvey Oswald: A Dallas Misfit
Oswald's self, defined in opposition to the shared modal type, only underscores its inescapable and vice-like hold on him. As such, his identity can be measured only by the Dallas cohort, rather than by the farcical "Communist" costume he was trying so unsuccessfully to wear.

Thus his adoption of a "Communist" identity in a fiercely anti-communist environment is a peculiar means of expressing unconscious allegiance towards the very ideas he seemed so adamant to oppose. Given his psychological instability, it should come as no surprise that collective expression would resonate most strongly and peculiarly in this particular actor.

Note also it is not a coincidence that the language contained in the far-right handouts and newspaper advertisements were riddled with references to "Communism" while the eventual assassin was similarly decorated. That they stood in ostensible opposition is a falsehood, a triviality; both were saturated in the web of meaning surrounding the core cultural conflict in question.

If his motivation was to oppose his own cultural milieu, his fight was a futile one. In truth he was more vulnerable and susceptible to its suggestions than perhaps any other actor within it. He was fundamentally weak: an impressionable personality with no solid emotional ground upon which to stand, and thus highly susceptible to the “Cultural Agitation” present in Dallas in November of 1963.

Hypothesis D: Lee Harvey Oswald - not a Communist, but a Dallas misfit - was subject to his own culture's ideals and in fact more vulnerable to their amplified internalization and idiosyncratic expression.

The resonance of general sociopolitical "anti-Kennedy" agitation would have taken particular strength in his troubled character. The subsequent expression of that impetus, while extreme, might be viewed (from someone very cold and objective) as nothing more than his continued idiosyncratic manipulation of his culture's symbolic lexicon, in a failing effort to resolve interpersonal conflict (of course Oswald, given his grandiose needs, tended to prefer the biggest fish in the lexical pond). Just as he manipulates the cultural symbol of "Communism" to suit his own unique psychological purposes, so does he also manipulate the symbol of the "President of the United States".

The common thread of his symbolic manipulation is grandiosity. He did not quietly become a "Communist"; his defection received national attention. His choice of symbol was intentionally provocative to his peers. Nor, of course, did he quietly shoot a public figure; it was this element of attention, of notoriety - more than any other - that drew him to a target otherwise difficult to explain.

His true motives become particularly clear in analyzing Oswald's actions after the assassination. It seems odd Oswald did not make any serious attempt to flee; in fact he did rather the opposite. Savvy enough to escape the Texas School Book Depository (even after being stopped by an officer), he went to his apartment, took a pistol, and essentially returned to the crime scene. That he was able to initially escape undetected but then be captured so shortly thereafter (after shooting a police officer, no less) demonstrates his true psychological need in committing the act to begin with: recognition. His calm, confident, and almost smug demeanor after his arrest is further evidence of the psychological gratification his capture provided him. It was ultimately what he wanted and why he did it. He seemed to be enjoying himself because he was.

Let us examine the second most important mystery of Oswald's act: Why Kennedy? (The first most important question, Did Oswald have any help?, I address later as the crux of my argument).

When viewed from our initial, erroneous position - "Oswald the Communist" - the facts just don't add up. In the months preceding the Kennedy assassination, Oswald attempted to shoot and kill General Walker, a right-wing zealot Oswald considered a "fascist". Despite gallant conspiratorial efforts, no one has been able to successfully explain why Oswald would suddenly shift from a radical right-wing assassination target to one located squarely on the left (A "Frontline" special on this topic did their very best to dramatize this dilemma to full effect: asserting it was a question Oswald "had taken to his grave" and ending with a macabre shot of his tombstone).

By framing Oswald correctly, we might provide a more satisfactory answer.

If we examine Oswald as a "Dallas misfit" - vulnerable to the general collective ethos - his choice of target makes perfect sense, no more or less logical than Mrs. Fredrickson hitting Adlai Stevenson with a picket. As a marginal actor - a cultural extreme - in the Dallas milieu, the "anti-Kennedy" ideal had potential to make the strongest unconscious impression upon him. "Anti-Kennedy" fervor - cultural agitation - was the perfect blanket to settle over his grandiose interpersonal needs. His conscious motivation (to be someone, to do something extraordinary) masked his true unconscious motivation (to express/actualize a valued cultural conflict/ideal).

His plan was impulsive. The path of the motorcade past the Texas School Book Depository was pure happenstance (proof of this lies in how his job there was arranged: spontaneously, by his wife's friend Ruth Paine two weeks prior to the motorcade). In his desperate search for a target, one magically presented itself to him (thus were the motorcade route never printed in the newspaper, the assassination would never have transpired). The target resonated not only because of the elevated status of the President (appealing to his need for grandiosity) but also because of the general "anti-Kennedy" agitation in Dallas (resonating brightly within him and reflecting his ultimate and deep-rooted need for group inclusion, not exclusion). Because of his marginal location and fragile sense of self, Oswald was more susceptible to this agitation than most, so much so that he acted upon it.

Oswald, in this light, strangely and peculiarly personifies the ethic "President as Traitor". Violence was not Oswald's solution alone; it was a sentiment familiar to many within the Dallas milieu: voiced, desired, just not acted upon. The idea was an emergent property of individual thoughts and experiences; assassination resided in the organism of culture. Troubled, weak, needy, impressionable - it was Oswald who received the nomination to act out a terrible but necessary collective deed.

Once committed, however, the tables were immediately turned. Given the two competing/dueling ethics at work, the moment one was fully expressed, the other was allowed to grieve. "President as Sacred" - ultimately the loser in this battle - now had a brief, remorseful moment in the sun, not only for Dallas but the entire country.

This ethic too required a volunteer from the cultural margins. The sacred President was a value in equal need of personification. The full expression of both components of cultural conflict was vital to its resolution.

Enter Jack Ruby.

III. Jack Ruby: You Killed My President, You Rat!
In order to understand Jack Ruby and his actions with any degree of clarity, he must first be properly identified within his general cultural context - similarly to as we have done with Lee Harvey Oswald. Like Oswald, Jack Ruby was little more than a troubled, marginal character, vulnerable to a "buzzing" cultural ideal. Like Oswald, he is best understood as a cultural extreme, only his ideal was the complementary pair to Oswald's: the opposing pillar of culture - "President as Sacred" - in irreconcilable conflict with "President as Traitor".

Hypothesis E: Like Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby was also a Dallas misfit, more vulnerable to the amplified internalization and idiosyncratic expression of broader cultural ideals. The ideal "President as Sacred" was particularly salient to him, strongly resonating on both psychological and cultural levels.

Again, if we attempt to consider Ruby as anything other than a marginal misfit - whether a pawn of the mob or a hitman carrying out the final act of a conspiracy - we come up absolutely empty-handed. Despite a remarkably persistent effort (a persistence for which we can account for, as I will in a moment), repeated attempts to force Jack Ruby into some conspiratorial hole have proven futile.

When, however, we examine him as a troubled, marginal Dallas character, we are rewarded with tomes of supporting evidence.

The Effect of Kennedy's Death on Jack Ruby
It is reasonable to say Kennedy's death had cultural resonance; the profound effect of his assassination on the American populace is indisputable. But like any cultural event, how it was experienced varied among its individual actors, according to their location, degree of symbolic identification, relevance to individual psychodynamics, and so forth. The Dallas population was, for instance, perhaps generally more emotionally effected by the assassination, given their close proximity to it. Certainly the small group with direct contact to the Dallas Police station were exposed to an immediacy not shared by others and therefore had greater potential to experience the impact of Kennedy's death more profoundly.

Jack Ruby lived on the margins of this small "Dallas Police Station" group. His "after-hours" club, the Carousel (let's just call it a strip club, a rose by any other name), catered to Dallas police officers; for this reason he was well known among them. He served them gratis drinks, gave them exceptional treatment, etc., and in return they turned a relatively blind eye to his frequent and well-documented acts of temperamental violence. Ruby considered himself a friend of the police, and in fact he was. That he was granted such easy access to the Dallas Police Station only underscores their connection.

Ruby was thus a marginal member of the group with closest proximity to events and characters surrounding the assassination. Such membership, however, was far from sufficient criteria to shoot someone. There were certainly others similarly situated (even other marginal members, I would imagine) who would never have killed Oswald. We must therefore assume that in order for Jack Ruby to commit such an extraordinary act - to so grossly violate existing social norms - Kennedy's death had to resonate within him more significantly than with those sharing similar proximity to the event itself.

Let us consider the cultural and psychological dimensions behind this exaggerated resonance.

Cultural Resonance: Like Everyone Else, Only More So
Jack Ruby exhibited a number of peculiar behaviors prior to his murder of Oswald illustrating how profoundly Kennedy's death effected him. Foremost among them was the closure of his business (it might be interesting to discover what percentage of Dallas businesses closed their doors, and for how long, following Kennedy's murder - I doubt many shut down for three days). In mood, he was said to have agonized over the assassination. Certainly, it received his undivided attention: Ruby attended all the various news briefings at the police station and lingered there constantly in the days following Oswald's arrest.

The actual shooting was spontaneous. Ruby placed a telegram next door to the station and in a span of 90 seconds walked down a ramp into the basement area where Oswald happened to be being escorted out at the same moment. The timing was serendipitous (perhaps not the correct word); Ruby simply pulled out his gun, pulled the trigger, and proclaimed, "You killed my President, you rat!"

Note Ruby did not say "You killed the President" but rather, "You killed my President". The location of "President" in Ruby's internal symbolic web was significant enough to warrant a place of intimacy and familiarity. Further, his identification with the police - the very band of characters whose role was to enforce the consequences of Ruby's own violent behaviors - allowed him indulge in a sort of delusional role-reversal. Suddenly, it was Ruby's turn to enforce an obvious and much-needed consequence, desired overtly by all. It was his chance to be a hero. Only he, Ruby, possessed the courage and gumption to act upon what everyone else ultimately wanted. It was this "buzzing" collective ideal - combined with a desperately desired positive/valued cultural role - that spurred Ruby to take matters into his own hands. Like Oswald, he was a marginal character, weak and (unlike Oswald) mentally unstable, the perfect candidate for an ideal to resonate with an unusual and peculiar brightness.

Again, the desire to shoot Oswald - the urge to act out this collective need for vengeance - was by no means Ruby's alone. When it was reported Oswald had been killed, the audience outside the Dallas police station broke out into applause. After his arrest, Ruby received many letters expressing appreciation for his deed. In fact, directly after committing the act Ruby was convinced he would indeed be hailed as a hero. That he was arrested and charged came as something of a surprise.

Thus again we see a shared/collective ideal expressed through an individual actor. This alone, however, is not adequate to explain such an extraordinary deviance from normal spectrum of action; it is necessary to identify an additional layer of individual psychological resonance.

Idiosyncratic Vulnerability: Ruby's Ambivalence Towards His Jewish Identity
To compound his marginal status, Jack Ruby suffered mental instability at the time of the Kennedy assassination and during his imprisonment thereafter. Prone to paranoid delusions, his individual state of mind was such that we might understand more easily his idiosyncratic behaviors.

The primary expression of his delusions came in the form of a deep-seated ambivalence towards his own Jewish Identity.

For a Jewish businessman in 1963 Dallas, Texas, concerns over anti-Semitism were by no means unfounded. There were valid reasons and pressures to anglicize one's name; the result, however, was to present difficult and unique challenges in self-identity and place in culture. For Jack Ruby, ambivalence towards his own Jewish identity was only a small portion of a very troubled background for which again I leave to elsewhere. The reason I isolate this aspect of his person is because it comprised the idiosyncratic language and context of his symbolic manipulation.

Jack Ruby's idiosyncratic motivation was rooted in paranoid delusion. He believed that the killing of Kennedy would ultimately be tied to a local Jewish conspiracy, a fear connected to the name "Weisman" on the anti-Kennedy advertisement he had read earlier and been angered by in the paper. By killing Oswald, he could defend an unwarranted and brutal attack on Judaism (already taking place - in his mind - in the form of torture at the building where he was housed). His paranoia is evident in a letter to his brother Earl: still may be able to save Israel. By getting to Miami either hitch-hike or some-way. You won't be able to fly because they will be watching for you. From Miami you must find a way to Cuba, by pretending to rent a boat to go fishing, and get to Cuba someway. From there you must find a way to Russia. Then you tell the Russians how Egypt has been using them all along, but they are much closer to Johnson, because of what is happening to the Jews in the U.S. Then they will understand what kind of person Johnson is, and then they may be able to save Israel.
- Letter from Jack Ruby to his brother Earl
Thus the motivation behind Jack Ruby's spontaneous act of shooting Lee Harvery Oswald was compounded in layers from the idiosyncratic (exacerbated by mental illness), to the collective: a general resonance of grief and anger surrounding the death of the President, resonating within him with particular strength. Only in this manner - as a marginalized character personifying a shared ethic - are we able to explain his actions with any degree of clarity.

Two Troubled, Fragile Actors Residing on the Margins of Culture
We have identified both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby as persons residing on the margins of culture, from troubled backgrounds, lacking psychological stability, desperate for identity, and thus susceptible to the idiosyncratic expression of shared ideals, particularly those strongly resonating with personal struggles/crisis, both real and perceived.

Viewing both characters as such results in a more robust explanatory framework accounting for the vast majority, if not all, of the activities and behaviors surrounding the assassination.

Why, then, the persistent and stubborn preoccupation with conspiracy? The exercise is riddled with inconsistencies, scrutiny in one area and leaps of faith in another. Such patterns are always indicative of a latent agenda. One of the odd aspects of our collective suspicion, for instance, is the imagined culprit: the identity of the "true" conductor(s) behind the orchestration of Kennedy's death really makes no difference to us. It could be the CIA, Castro, the Russians, the mob... Who cares? What is more important is that someone - anyone - else was involved in addition to these two miserable characters.

Indeed, when we look at them closely, do either of these two gentlemen appear to be candidates for the starring roles in a conspiratorial play? Were you coordinating an elaborate plot to assassinate the president, would either men come to mind in your casting of the most vital parts?

My suspicion is no.

And yet, that is precisely what we have done. We picked the most fragile and broken among us to do the work of the collective whole - to express in action an attempted resolution of a cultural conundrum.

What is most striking about our strong and lingering fixation with conspiracy is less what it has yielded in terms of tangible facts (essentially none), than what it has revealed in terms of residual collective need. Our collective psyche wants a conspiracy - demands it - but again and again an examination of the facts reveals nothing but a few flimsy straws. Even with the assistance of science to disprove empirically a number of the more originally plausible assertions (i.e.; multiple shooters, magic bullets), the suspicion of conspiracy persists. Why?

Hypothesis F: The search for a conspiracy will never be satisfied because, in fact, there was one: a conspiracy of culture.

It is this phenomenon which is the crux of my argument and one I would now like to examine in greater detail.

IV. The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A Conspiracy of Culture
John F. Kennedy's murder did not involve the CIA or the KGB, a second shooter, or the grassy knoll. The assassination was executed by the general populace, an emergent property of our own collective psychology, in an effort to resolve an irreconcilable collective conflict. The unusually persistent quality embedded in our search for a conspiracy is, in essence, an admission of collective culpability and guilt.

The End of Camelot
John F. Kennedy's death was a defining and sharply transitional moment in American history, since described as "the end of Camelot". Indeed, the President and the First Lady, both young, attractive, and charismatic, were celebrated and romanticized much like monarchs of yesteryear.

Certainly, the connection to monarchy was not a coincidence. The symbolic language of Representative Democracy blankets nicely over longer-standing and more traditional forms of government. For this reason a "President" has historically resembled a monarch, or collective father figure, in terms of emotional identity among our culture's individual actors. This was particularly true among the jingoism and national affluence following WWII.

It was precisely this growing emotional investment which had to - facing a changing world - reverse course and assume far less significance in the collective psyche.

Kennedy's assassination was sobering and grave, not only because of his loss, but also because there existed a collective recognition that something had changed culturally. There was no going back to what was - a sort of naivete, an innocence, a denial of our society's capacity to inflict harm upon itself. That an American citizen - even a radical one, located on the social margins - could shoot an American president was an added blow to the grief and suffering caused from the loss of a symbolically significant person. It was this, more than Kennedy's death itself, which caused such extensive shock. Something in the act had compromised the general American cultural cohesion.

The moment marked the resumption of American political polarization, delayed by post-WWII jingoism and general material affluence.

The reason polarization had to resume was because the symbolic framework belied a cohesion in America that was no longer possible; it was now necessary for the extremes - given changing socioeconomic conditions, issues, etc. - to continue distancing from one another. What once had unified them had now to make way. The spectrum of culture had to be extended to accommodate both the changing world and the differing views regarding what to do about it. All corresponding symbols therein therefore required recalibration in terms of normative emotional investment.

Camelot had to end. Between these two conflicting pillars of culture, something had to give, simply because their inherent resiliency had made their dual existence obsolete and impossible.

The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in Russia in 1881 follows a very similar pattern. The Tsar, at the time, moved freely among the people - a fundamental and celebrated ideal in Russian culture. For what Tsar could not mingle among his subjects? He was, after all, ordained by God to rule benevolently, revered and admired by all, etc. And yet, at the same time, worsening socioeconomic conditions and inherent inequities had given birth to an oppositional cohort who viewed the Tsar as a bitter enemy and target. His assassination thus represented the end of a vital ideal: very simply, a Tsar could no longer mingle among his subjects because some of them wanted to kill him. The cultural spectrum has expanded to such a degree that what had once been a cherished value now had to be collectively (and, in some cases, bitterly) repositioned. The world had forever changed; Tsar Alexander II's assassination sent seismic waves in all directions throughout Russian culture with great future implications on policy, perspectives, and so forth.

Deeply grounded ideals linger. They are both resistant to change and inflexible. Therefore, when placed under strain they at first do not budge an inch, even in the face of absurdity. When the strain becomes insurmountable, they do not bend, they shatter. The result is an abrupt, seismic shift in culture.

Let us look back at the assassination with the benefit of time and perspective, and ask ourselves how our collective perception has changed.

A Contemporary View
Today, we look back at footage from the Kennedy assassination with incredulity. Why? Because it strikes us as odd that a motorcade could parade through a city with a President so carelessly exposed: no shield, no bullet-proof windows, etc. Today, the President in his public appearances actually wears a bullet-proof suit. His vehicle consists of an "eight inch thick body, tear-gas cannons and inner Kevlar tires that keep moving after a burst". In other words, today we are less naive; we recognize the possibility - or inevitability, if given the opportunity - of potential political violence among the general citizenry towards its leaders.

Today, the polarized spectrum of politics in America is a reality we no longer question. There might be some form of residual collective longing for a more unified country, but even that seems to be waning. Harmony is hardly the new black.

In retrospect, looking back at the reaction of Walter Cronkite to the death of the President seems - while touching - almost sappy. We would be hard-pressed to find a contemporary commentator who, when thrust into similar circumstances, might genuinely express such sentiment (there certainly would be plenty willing to fake it). Today we are - again, in terms of relative degree - colder, harder, and more emotionally distant to our politicians.

Our culture has changed.

I don't intend to sound cynical, but rather to illustrate how difficult it is to find sustaining examples of "pre-assassination" political and social culture. Of course, we live in a different world for a myriad of reasons that extend far beyond the Kennedy assassination. The significance of the moment (and our subsequent preoccupation with conspiracy) is to show the collective roll of an abrupt cultural shift. So exaggerated and amplified were these events in our collective psyche, we are able to see hints of phenomena that are everywhere in our cultural and psychological lives.

I quote from an AP article written a year after the assassination, reflecting upon the prevailing sentiment:

...for the people, at this time, there is still nothing except the feeling of a cruel, blunt blow. It deprived them of an unexpected beauty. It removed, not so much leadership which Mr. Kennedy had scarcely begun to reveal and which is not lacking in the country now, but the promise of something quite remarkable. It was just possible, Americans now realize, that Mr. Kennedy would have rephrased their message to the world and to themselves in a way that would have made the changes they know to be inevitable not sad, not tortuous, but exciting. - AP, 1964, my emphasis

Conclusion: Understanding Conspiracy
Given that the actors in this play were merely extremes of the Dallas milieu - and, by extension, the American milieu - their indictment is ultimately an indictment of ourselves. Their actions were the logical expressions of cultural ambivalence towards a changing world. The casualty was a cultural symbol (sadly an actual person, John F. Kennedy). The perpetrators were the entire American Culture.

What followed – the search for a conspiracy – was a tacit cultural acknowledgment of the collective nature of the assassination. There was no actual conspiracy – no 2nd shooter,etc. – proven after decades poring over volumes of evidence; there was rather a cultural conspiracy, a sharp shift in culture making Kennedy's assassination one of the more important events of the 20th century: the end of Camelot, the collapse of the myth of President.

Going Further: The Potential Connection Between Cultural Prescience and Historical Determinism
Let us pretend, for a moment, we are Marxists (we probably aren't, hence the need to pretend). Nevertheless, if Marx was correct, and material conditions dictate the inevitable progression of social development, then it follows that on a psychocultural level we will be constantly left with lags - gaps between how we understand the world and how it really is. If materialism leads the way for sociocultural to follow, then we are forever (in a change-state society) in need of reconciling our collective psychology with new and ever-changing conditions.

Thus if determinism in the economic/materialist sense is grounded in empirical reality, then determinism in the psychocultural sense should also follow closely thereafter (That one might precede the other - and in which order - is an interesting and unanswered question, so far as I know). However, the larger point is that theoretically you cannot have one - economic/material determinism - without the other - psychocultural determinism.

In this sense, collective cultural events may be more preordained then we have previously imagined. Granted, a radical notion, but one - at a minimum - warranting extensive and thorough investigation.

From the point of view of Cultural Prescience, assassination resided in the organism of culture for a purpose: the unfortunate, tragic consequence of collective culture abruptly and seismically transitioning to a revised perspective more consistent with the pending future.

It is this aspect in particular of my humble analysis I intend to explore further, covering a wide-range of relevant topics.

Friday, September 25, 2009

More Statistics!

Virtually every news network is trumpeting the "breakthrough" in an HIV vaccine trial, citing a "31.2%" reduction in the risk of being infected!

"In the three-year experiment, 74 of 8,198 people who received placebo shots became infected with HIV compared with 51 of 8,197 people who received the vaccine, suggesting the vaccine regimen could have reduced the risk of being infected by 31%.

The NIH said the results are statistically significant."
Statistically significant? Really?

Considering that less than 1% of either group contracted the HIV virus, how on earth can comparing the two be "statistically significant"??? Couldn't virtually any rare occurrence break down with a similar disparity in distribution?

Even if the results are "statistically significant", is it really responsible to conclude the vaccine has resulted in a "31.2% reduction"? That seems a very misleading number to me. Throw in a few isolated cases to one side or the other and the percentage would change significantly.

I am no statistician but it seems to me you might come to such numbers arbitrarily, substituting virtually any rare phenomenon.

Had the study consisted of 80,000 people, then these results might be interesting. But to come to such conclusions with so few actually contracting HIV seems highly, grossly irresponsible.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Dangerous Mathematic Slant of Economic Theory: On 'Rational' Free-Market Behavior

Paul Kruger's recent article in the NY Times made an impression upon me; the gist of his argument is essentially this:

"...the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth."

This got me thinking about how absolutely dangerous mathematics - and "empiricism" in general - can potentially be. The reason these are dangerous is because they appear neutral. Value free. Objective. Based on observable phenomena.

In the realm of human behavior, the golden rule - Garbage In, Garbage Out - is an aphorism for virtually any "empirical" study.

Economics, it seems to me, relies far too heavily on math. The result is a slew of sycophants, gleefully justifying the free market with clever little equations, giving everyone the impression of a system grounded in fundamental behavioral truths.

Economists love to talk about "rational" behavior. The emergent property of consumers - all making independent, rational choices in a free market - results in a near-perfect system.

Their attraction to the rational, unfortunately, is not merely derived from its ostensible resonance with observable behavior, but rather from its capacity for quantification. Rational behavior is predictable, measurable, and plugs right into an equation. This, from a strictly scientific view, is a bias that should set off alarm bells. Any behavior that lends itself to a desired methodological approach should be rigorously scrutinized.

It is not as if there aren't other perspectives. Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" cites irrationality as the defining quality of capitalism:

"...The earning of money... thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs. This reversal of what we should call the natural relationship, so irrational from a naive point of view, is evidently as definitely a leading principle of capitalism as it is foreign to all peoples not under capitalistic influence."
- Max Weber

So, there appears to be some conflict, or at least irony, in the the idea - on the one hand - that the we should trust in the free market, guided by the collective rational decision-making of its actors, and - on the other - that the very spirit of capitalism itself (the Calvinist-inherited notion of vocation, making money as an end in itself rather than a means to satisfy material needs) is irrational.

When we observe our economic system at work, we see all kinds of 'irrational' behavior. It must drive the economists mad. Because there are more factors involved in life-decision making than purely market-driven sensibilities. But Weber's point is a much larger one: irrationality in capitalism extends to even those making the ostensibly correct decisions.

To infer the existing system as we know it is grounded in some empirical reality, governed by objective mathematical laws, is both foolish and extremely dangerous. Fortunately it is also false; reality has sent a discipline mired in hubris scrambling for the calculator! I suggest they crush the bloody thing with a hammer and start doing some actual thinking.

I do not mean to criticize mathematics - obviously a robust explanatory tool when accounting for a full range of predictable behavioral phenomenon within a contained, rule-governed environment. But the scientific method becomes absolutely overwhelmed when dealing with the Real World, simply because it is impossible to isolate variables or even to identify them all!

And yet they do try, don't they? And what happens? In study after study, not just in economics but virtually any discipline, causal relationships are made from mere correlations (and that even in cases where most of the variables have been accounted for). This results in all kinds of reductionisms: biological, economic, etc. - all of which merely reinforce our general cultural hegemony. Instead of opening up our world, we use science to close it. An institutionalized myopia.

That little island in The Phantom Tollbooth comes to mind: Conclusions. You have to jump to get there.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Two Conflicted Selves of Turgenev and Chernyshevksy's Need To Respond To One of Them

Turgenev is someone I truly identify with, not as a writer (a dream, to write so) but as an individual conflicted with two competing identities: one, the liberal Country Gentleman, fond of nature, romanticism, decorum. Progressive, a humanist, but subject to the comforts of pleasant, secluded life. The other: the Stern Conscience - provocative, demanding, intellectual, uncompromising. A humanist for whom reform is not sufficient. The table should not be cleared, its legs should be kicked out. Rigorous, disciplined, haughty, and - on some level - hypocritical.

Not a terribly flattering portrayal. But I believe Fathers and Sons is a true projection of Turgenev's conflicted inner world; this - combined with the profound and disruptive resonance the novel created in Russian culture - is precisely what makes it one of the greatest works ever written.

Bazarov, the young nihilist, is his Stern Conscience. Nikolai Petrovich, the Country Gentlemen, is his weaker but ultimately more genuine self, hence the internal conflict.

Turgenev's life story absolutely reflects this pattern. His hero, the critic Belinsky (an early pre-nihilist revolutionary, himself the subject of a future post) who died earlier in Turgenev's life, almost jumps out from the grave in demanding Turgenev adhere to his strict moral obligations, while time and time again Turgenev tips his hand with ambivalence towards both the rigors of his responsibilities and the new generation in general.

While he desired their approval, their friendship, their sanction, ultimately his opinion of the nihilist revolutionaries was low:

"[He]... could not bear their fanatical rejection of all that he held dear - liberal culture, art, civilized human relationships. But they were young, brave, ready to die in the fight against the common enemy, the reactionaries, the police, the State. Turgenev wished, in spite of everything, to be respected by them.
- Isaiah Berlin (p.24)

This leads us to the fundamental question of Turgenev's novel:

Is Bazarov a positive or negative character?

That this remains in dispute only further underscores Fathers and Sons' brilliance. My own thesis is that he was a negative character; the fate and portrayal of Bazarov tips Turgenev's hand.

Enter Chernyshevsky
Now one of these fellows Turgenev desperately sought approval from was an editor of a radical paper (Contemporary) named Dobrolyubov, who wouldn't even speak to him. He would literally turn away and face the wall. That Turgenev tried so fervently to seek Dobrolyubov's respect, even under such conditions, shows just how deeply his psyche needed his Stern Conscience to validate his weaker but more authentic Country Gentleman self.

The radical Dobrolyubov's fellow editor was a chap named, surprise surprise, Chernyshevsky.

"What is to be Done?" was written in large part as a response to what Chernyshevsky and his cohort considered an affront to their movement: Turgenev's negative portrait of the nihilist Bazarov.

That Chernyshevsky felt he needed to correct the image Turgenev had created, only underscores Turgenev's true opinion of Bazarov.

Why is all this important? Well, Bazarov is often referred to as "the First Bolshevik". Thus Turgenev's opinion of him - historically speaking - is no small trifle. Further, placing the two novels in context with one another helps us understand them both.

A cursory and off the cuff analysis, but whatever. Next I will discuss the relationship between "What is to Be Done?" and Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, as well as the charater Roskolnikov as an antithesis to the positive/ideal Rakhmetov. There is a sort of circular portrayal, fluctuating from the negative, to positive, then back to negative, that has had an enormous impact on subsequent philosophical thought, politics, etc. etc.

Bazarov (ambivelant/negative) --> Rakhmetov (ideal/positive) --> Roskolnikov (anit-Rakhmetov/negative)

Each is a response to the last; anyhow more on this later...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What is To Be Done? In Literary and Historical Context

In the next few posts I intend to discuss the literary and historical context of Chernyshevsky's "What is to Be Done?" In order to do so I felt it handy to create the diagram below as a point of reference. I may - likely - will add to it, but first want to discuss each individual connection, starting with the relationship to Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. I find this relevant to the general understanding of the Russian Revolution, its relationship to some great works of Russian literature, as well as the various philosophical strains that evolved from the fundamental question it poses.

Without further ado, here's the chart (note I've avoided for a moment the progeny of Dostoyevsky because it gets too complicated too quickly. But I will discuss shortly - I'm sure you can't wait):

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life As A Finite Pie: George M. Foster's image of limited good

The notion of life as a finite pie is correlated to the image of limited good, a term famously and controversially coined in 1965 by Anthropologist George M. Foster (yes, I know, old white guy) to explain peasant behavior:

"peasants in all societies share a common 'cognitive orientation,' which he calls the image of limited good. Since nothing can be done to increase the resources that peasants divide among themselves, one person's gain is inevitably another's loss. ...[This] accounts for a great deal of otherwise puzzling peasant behavior. For example, people who believe that good is limited will understandably be secretive about their own successes and envious of others'; they will avoid cooperative work situations for fear of being cheated; and they will resist innovations that, in their view, cannot increase the available good. ...this 'image' often persists into an era in which cooperation and acceptance of modern techniques could lead to a better life for all. Peasant communities have strong sanctions against innovation: 'The villager who feels the need for Achievement and who does something about it, is violating the basic, unverbalized rules of the society of which he is a member'..."
-(Rethinking Psychological Anthropology, Bock p. 144)

The above is essentially a verbatim definition of how one might be expected to behave in our world of Swindlers and Fools. Thus the predicament in Russia - one of 'cognitive orientation' (which sounds so - I don't know - sterilized) - is not a unique one. (On a side note, the controversy boils down to essentially that his conclusions were a little too general; probably true, but shouldn't undermine the larger and very valid point.)

What is of interest, in my view, is that ultimately we aren't giving those holding the image of limited good enough credit, when perhaps we should consider such a 'cognitive orientation' may stem from an actual reality: a material world whose resources are indeed limited and finite.

Foster's view is in this sense ethnocentric, because the underlying assumption is that in truth, life is not a finite pie, but one of possibility, freedom, and liberty. The benefit of one does not necessarily entail the detriment of another.

If we accepted the premise that a world exists somewhere in which good is indeed limited and finite, then we run into a bit of trouble when it comes to creating Liberty there:

Liberty consists in being able to do anything which does not harm another.
- Declaration of the Rights of Man

Well, in the world of Swindlers and Fools, you can't do much at all that benefits you without harming someone else!

Thus we have a bit of a problem on our hands.

This is why the spirit of the Russian, French, and American revolutions were all essentially the same: models committed to the preservation of human liberty against - in spite of - what seems to be an inevitably rising tide: increased discrepancies between rich and poor, a greater gap between haves and have nots, increased corruption, greed, croneyism, nepotism, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

One might argue the question, "What is to be Done?" has yet to be adequately answered.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Enter Rakhmetov

If you read my last few posts (introducing in a very crude way the Russian nihilist, tying him in a very crude way to the dichotomy between faith and science, and then providing a very crude sketch of his world - the world of Swindlers and Fools) then it is now time to dig a little deeper and get into the meat of what this is all about.

So let's meet one of these nihilists in person, starting with arguably the most important one: Rakhmetov. As you will soon discover (particularly once you see his photograph), his influence on Russian history cannot be understated. We will look at him as both hero and caricature, and after that we'll meet his better-known antithesis (and one of the greatest characters in fiction): Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov. Then we will tie all of these elements together in a nice revolutionary bow.

This is going to be so exciting! But let's back to the task at hand. To meet Rakhmetov, we must return to Chernyshevsky's novel "What is to be Done?" We must return also to the world and paradox of Swindlers and Fools. Why? Because Rakhmetov has been historically interpreted as Chernyshevsky's answer to this very severe and most fundamental problem - perhaps the most daunting problem of modern civilization.

Notice first that both Chernyshevsky's description of the problem and his solution are embedded in the language of characters. You can play the role of either a Swindler or a Fool. You can develop into a Vera Pavlovna (the novel's female protagonist). You can model yourself after a Rakhmetov. Everything is framed in terms of the individual. This is because his entire approach is - in accordance with the time in which it was written - one of personal character: personal moral and ethical virtue is what interests him; the structure of society is only significant in how it shapes the self.

In other words, if society is soil, he is interested in the plant, and from the plant the crop. The soil is only relevant in how it nurtures the plant - it must be rich with nutrients, it must drain well, etc., but in essence his approach is an inverted contrast to the manner in which these issues are discussed in social science today. But I digress, more on that later.

Now come on, let's meet Rakhmetov already!

It should come as no surprise that Rakhmetov is a nihilist (Remember "Nothing exists except that which can be observed by the senses"? Hence he is a student of the Natural Sciences) very much like Bazarov in Fathers and Sons.

And like the other central characters in Chernyshevsky's novel, he is neither a Swindler nor a Fool. He rejects the Swindler, but he won't subject himself to be the Fool, either. He declares this dichotomy as false and breaks it over his knee, his only weapon his mind.

But he is something a bit more too.

is a moral ascetic hero, an ideal. While most in Chernyshevsky's novel are people willing to dedicate their lives to the greater good, Rakhmetov has gone further: he has truly sacrificed his. He lives in the most austere way, selflessly, his actions governed exclusively by the needs of the cause, guided by "principles and not passions, according to convictions and not personal desires.” He eats raw meat, sleeps on a bed of nails, reads voraciously, that sort of thing.

There are only a few of them, but through them everyone’s life will flourish. Without them life would wither and go sour. There are only a few of them, but they make it possible for all people to breath; without them people would suffocate. There’s a great mass of honest and good people, but there are very few people like them. But these few people are within that mass, as thine is in tea, as bouquet is in fine wine. They are its strength and its aroma. They are the flower of the best people, the movers of the movers, the salt of the salt of the earth.

He is, in essence, a professional revolutionary.

So why is this all important?

Well, in order to explain that I must tell you the story of the Brothers Ulyanov.

Now, a long time ago, there were two very bright brothers, the Brothers Ulyanov. The elder one, Alexander (pictured left), went off to University and was arrested for his role in a plot to assassinate the Tsar Alexander III with a bomb planted in a textbook.

The event essentially destroyed the family, already struggling with the premature passing of their father the year previous. Alexander was hung, his sister Anna was exiled for her role in the plot, and thus one can only imagine the effect this all had on the surviving younger brother, Vladimir, and his mother.

Indeed, Vladimir Ulyanov realized he knew nothing of his elder brother's political beliefs. One night he went into his brother's room, sat down on his empty bed, and took "What is to be Done?" from the bookshelf.

He read it six times that summer.

He modeled his remaining life after this moral ascetic character Rakhmetov. In 1901 he outlined his revolutionary blueprint in a paper entitled, not coincidentally, "What is to be Done?"

Thus the character Rakhmetov came to life in Validimir Ulyanov, much better known for his revolutionary moniker than his real name. Here is his photo, or rather his mugshot from his first arrest as a youth. I'm sure you'll recognize him. Now, regardless of your opinion of him, whatever it may be (and please, don't make any presumptions about mine; I might surprise you) as I mentioned before his effect on history cannot be understated.

"He plowed me up more than anyone else... After my brother's execution, knowing that Chernyshevsky's novel was one of his favorite books, I really undertook to read it, and I sat over it not for several days but for several weeks. Only then did I understand its depth... It's a thing that supplies energy for a whole lifetime." - Lenin

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Adventures of Pinocchio: More on Swindlers and Fools

Carlo Coloddi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio", first published in 1880 and the inspiration for Disney's animated classic "Pinocchio", is also set in a world of Swindlers and Fools, to the point of caricature, which makes illustrating the idea a bit easier. Pinocchio is obviously a gullible Fool; the Fox and the Cat are Swindlers, and so on.

The scene I was most struck by was one neatly capturing the concept of life as a finite pie: one in which you will be lucky to get a few crumbs; slices reserved only for those who take at the expense and suffering of those around them.

Life as a finite pie is - I would argue - a foreign concept for most of us, simply because we have never experienced it firsthand. We are lucky, because if we did, it is very likely that in short while most of us would be Fools, and a few of us would be Swindlers. Most of us would have nothing, while a few of us would have more than their share.

But let's get back to the example. In the scene, the Showman Fire-eater - the basis for the character "Sromboli" in the watered-down Disney version (the cricket, incidentally, is crushed and killed by Pinocchio in the original) - calls on his two puppets, Harlequin and Punchinello, to bring Pinocchio to him:

"Bring that puppet here: you will find him hanging on a nail. It seems to me that he is made of very dry wood, and I am sure that if he were thrown on the fire he would make a beautiful blaze for the roast."
At first Harlequin and Punchinello hesitated; but, appalled by a severe glance from their master, they obeyed.

So Harlequin and Punchinello bring in Pinocchio pleading desperately for his life, and the Fire-eater (who "had not a bad heart") for whatever reason takes pity on him. He is saved.

Remember, however, that in this world life is a finite pie. If Pinocchio is not going to burn for the mutton, something - or someone - else will. And that is precisely what happens:

" you can see I have no more wood with which to finish my mutton, and to tell you the truth, under the circumstances you would have been of great use to me! However, I have had pity on you, so I must have patience. Instead of you I will burn under the spit one of the puppets belonging to my company. Ho there gendarmes!"
"Take Harlequin, bind him securely, and then throw him on the fire to burn. I am determined that my mutton shall be well roasted."

The gendarmes grab Harlequin. Pinocchio, beside himself, now pleads for the life of his friend Harlequin, all to no avail. Finally, Pinocchio - for the first time in the novel - shows he may just have what it takes to become a real boy. He says:

"In that case, bind me and throw me among the flames. No, it is not just that Harlequin, my true friend, should die for me!"
These words, pronounced in a loud, heroic voice, made all the puppets who were present cry. Even the gendarmes, although they were made of wood, wept like two newly born lambs.

Fire-eater, similarly touched, grants a pardon to both Harlequin and Pinocchio. Note, however, what he has to say about it:

"I must have patience! Tonight I shall have to resign myself to eat the mutton half raw; but another time woe to him who chances!..."

Thus life is a finite pie. Every act has a measurable consequence; for every give there is a take. Pinocchio is spared, therefore Harlequin must burn. Harlequin is spared, therefore Fire-eater must eat his mutton half raw.

But wait a minute, you say. Eating mutton half raw is a great deal different then being burned alive!

Yes, that is true, but that is just the point also. Fire-eater is a Swindler (albeit one, apparently, with some relative measure of compassion); Harlequin and Pinocchio are Fools. The consequence for Fire-eater is inversely proportionate to his slice of the pie.

In a world where life is a finite pie, stratification becomes inevitable because if someone must swindle for gain, someone else must therefore be fooled for loss. In such a system, when gain for one invariably results in loss for the other, we are left only with some sense of moral ethics (individual character, compassion, empathy, courage, virtue, sacrifice, etc.) as the sole counteractive force tempering suffering and oppression. And when that fails, if we are lucky and happen to live in a place that allows it, we are forced to resort to laws (in this light, a litigious society could therefore be viewed as one of individual moral failing)...

Now in the world I personally have had the good fortune live in, none of this could happen of course. Because in my world, although you could make a strong argument there exists a Fire-eater, he happens to have a large pile of wood for his fire, and therefore it is vastly easier for him to pardon Harlequin and Pinocchio. He has no dilemma or conflict; he never has to consider whether or not his mutton will be half raw at their expense.

In this same world I have had the good fortune to live in, one could argue also that the large pile of wood is rapidly dwindling (and one could also argue that this same pile was itself derived from a world of Swindlers and Fools, hidden from us behind a curtain, across an ocean, or over a border).

The question, then, is what will happen to this world when the pile of wood runs out - when the only way that Fire-eater can get his mutton properly cooked (as he prefers it) is by tossing one of his puppets into the fire?