Monday, May 20, 2019

Freud's Narcissism of Small Differences

 If you take the idea of confronting something like a Toad in the vegetable garden, they're fairly well camouflaged they're always aware of you before you see them, and for those of us who may not be men of steel they can give you a little bit of shock, then in the very brief first moments of the confrontation you know everything you know about Toads. Of everything you know about Toads in the Vegetable Garden some things float higher than other things. Between people, those things that float higher will vary. Entirely possible some people don't like Toads, others might see them as a food source, and yet others might consider them potentially very dangerous. Not certain when I first confronted a Toad, possibly an illustration in a fairy tale book of a Toad being popped into a cauldron, there was a Toad in Wind in the Willows, he was wealthy, basically out of control, drove recklessly in his automobile, got himself kidnapped by Weasels. He has a whole series of character flaws. Then as I aged I recall waking up in a hedgerow and there was a Toad inches away from my face, just staring at me. The expression on the Toad's face was a tad accusatory, I'd clearly done something terribly wrong and had that Toad been larger than I, pretty certain blessed release would have ended the struggle much earlier for me. The Toad is an appraising creature, there's always a question in his or her stance. Which is why whenever I confront a Toad in the vegetable garden I can't help but recall a Toad which as a result of careless shovel work on my part I'd somehow managed to cut off three of his or her fingers, on the left front paw, if I remember. Nor was this act of mine terminal for the Toad, the creature, three fingers missing, hung out along the Asparagus bed for a couple of years. A Toad in the wild can live a good ten years, sometimes more, and have lived fifty years as pets, so I was never certain whether my action had reduced his or her time upon earth.

"What's this got to do with the narcissism of small differences?" People like to think of themselves and their relationships as unique and wonderfully special, but you can't really be even remotely unique and special and live in a society. Society to function requires a common denominator that limits specialness. Some societies do more to quell uniqueness and specialness than other societies. There's an argument that suggests that the entire edifice that is modern commerce basically revolves around a relationship between granting the opportunity to pursue uniqueness within a common denominator that allows for cohesion in society. Take for example buying a pair of shoes, and I don't know whether you've ever dared go into a shoe shop, but if you have, you'll notice that it's not in the least straightforward. First of all there are millions of shoes, they don't all look alike, some are more expensive than others, many of them have absolutely nothing to do with foot comfort. There might have been a time when shoes were about feet, more likely in the current iteration of the way we are shoes are about granting a person his chance to feel unique, unusual, different, richer poorer or whatever. Then when I see two people dressed identically pushing the same cart in the grocery store, I kind of think there must be something seriously wrong with them, which suggests a narcissism of small differences is very well engrained in the tapestry such that you kind of need to see differences otherwise things aren't quite right. There's the suit and tie brigade, each minute difference vital to self esteem, the color of the lining, the cut of the waist and so on, and it's almost a joy to see a suit that fits so badly clearly it's wearer doesn't give a fat damn, or maybe it's their specialness. But it's something like the episode in Charlottesville, it was a uniform, white shirts and identical hairstyles, torches and chanting, an uncompromising ugliness of a narcissism of small differences that finds satisfaction in us against them. There are three Toads in the vegetable garden, each one reacts slightly differently to our confrontations. Stranger thing is the Toad that hangs out near the Asparagus has all his or her toes, and is the most skittish around me.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Stress, Leon Festinger, Cognition and Dissonance

Your correspondent is inclined to use the word stress in a most random manner, it's also true that aging brain cells tend to revert and stress is one of the words that sounds right for a fourteen year old looking for a reason to avoid visiting his cousins. The professionals, however, have indeed defined stress as a feeling of pain and pressure. Stress can be motivating, in the sense of  adaption and reaction to the world you live in. And the pain and pressure of stress can be mentally and physically debilitating. In many ways it's how you deal with stress that marks the distinction between Eustress which is positive stress and Distress which is negative, more destructive stress. And certainly it's an easy distinction to make from the comfort of a bubble bath with a good view of a distant calamity in an ant heap, yet in the area of cognitive dissonance, I'd argue Eustress and Distress are necessary areas of consideration. Prior to the 1950's people reckoned on thinking in terms of Behaviorism, which basically says that our behavior is a response to stimuli within the environment and we determine our behavior based on our past experiences and the various reinforcing mechanisms of behavior that surround us. Then a man called Leon Festinger. and others. suggested with us people the whole response to stimulus and reaction thing was considerably more nuanced, so much so we people are downright diabolically devious. They'd studied an Apocalyptic Cult that had been much influenced by Hubbard's Dianetics, which is all about getting rid of that source of every ailment physical and mental. The Reactive Mind, they argue, is an unconscious stimulus/reaction response and a part of the mind that should be totally ignored. For cult members, the end of the world was nigh on December 21st 1954, people had sold their possessions, got all ready for it, but nothing happened, no rapture, no flood, same old same old. Far from discouraging the cult members, the failure of the prophecy served to reinforce cult members belief in their leader, who claimed the world had obviously been saved by the 'force of good and light' and cult members became ever more fervent in their determination to spread the word about the majesty of their calling. Many would just say the gullible are anomalous, and you can't really build useful theories around people who could be totally Nuts.

Not Festinger and his collaborators, because the cult they'd studied was a real world thing that happens far to often. In the book When Prophecy Fails, Festinger and his collaborators reached five conclusions about how and why it was the cult didn't drift off into nowhere, it's actually still around today, and you can certainly still find Hubbard's Dianetics happening in Scientology. The first conclusion, was that the Belief had to be held with conviction and the belief had to be motivating in terms of the believers actions and behaviors. Secondly, the belief had to have produced actions and behaviors that were difficult to undo, you sell all your stuff and your option is to either react to the stress by feeling like an idiot, or carry on believing in your 'firmly' held conviction by finding other reasons why it makes sense. The belief has to be sufficiently specific so that when something happens that runs entirely contrary to the belief it has to be obvious that something went wrong, i.e. the end of the world didn't actually happen. Finally believers have to have support from other believers, so they can scurry around like ants trying to put the eggs back in the bowels of the Ant heap where they could be kept safe from little boys with sticks. From this work, Festinger proposed the idea of Cognitive Dissonance. A person, he argued, likes to feel a good balance between his or her beliefs, ideas and values, it's a satisfied feeling, nothing wrong with me, and the high odds are that all of us have contradicting beliefs, ideas and values. "Though Shalt not Kill" "Nothing wrong with a bit of an eye for an eye even if some might by mentally disabled or innocent." Festinger suggested that when the mind contains contradicting, beliefs, ideas or values it gets stressed out when presented by in you face facts or events that challenge a persons beliefs, ideas or values. So what does a mind, (the cognition) do to relieve the pain and pressure of the contradiction (the dissonance)? Eustress, good stress, would be to add new parts to cognition, try to make sense of it all, adjust to the circumstance cognitively and that way ease the pain. Distress, a more negative response, would be to avoid the awkward facts and circumstances, just carry on in a "let's not talk to them shall we" kind of way, which could well serve to increase the magnitude of Cognitive Dissonance, and soon enough you're living in Fairy Land which is not necessarily an adequate response to the longer term demands of the ever changing and very real environment we have lived in and whether we like it or not will have to continue to live in. I'm told Scientology is big in Hollywood, where dreams come true.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Kitten

The Kitten was missing this morning, a downward spiral for the Primary Caregiver who is an early riser, pops up like toast and is raring to go. The Secondary Caregiver has to stumble around for a good half an hour before reacquainting himself with the anything like a capacity to comprehend, a bit of a burden for others in moments of intense stress, the sort of thing that produces a little more than a raised eyebrow in a significant other. It's not that the Kitten doesn't go missing on a fairly regular basis, it's just that each time she does go missing the behavior from caregivers follows a predictably pattern from which there is no escape. I blame Bald Eagles and go directly to Franklin's excellent reasons for not choosing the Bald Eagle as a National Bird, unlike the Turkey, Bald Eagles are lazy, unprincipled thieves, but there again who knew there'd be retardation of one of the Nations Political Parties, a predictable retreat from a valuable definition of greatness into something so puerile it'll be laughed at by future generations, should there be any, inevitable really that momentum flounders, trips over itself and starts punching itself in the face in an attempt to hasten extinction, we're all doomed and it's perfectly natural, the Kittens lucky, hope it was quick. The Primary Caregiver visualizes death by Coyote in horrible detail, a terrifyingly vivid imagination that includes Coyote puppies learning to kill, and lonesome the heart becomes that searches for tufts of grey fur, if there was a corpse there'd be something to mourn, could be in the tick infested longer grass.

Then, following a brief period of self loathing, it's all my fault, she should never have been allowed to go outside, what were we thinking, nothing wrong with a cat pan, something like stability returns. It's little reminders, the stain on the carpet where the Kitten vomited, there's her food bowl, how noisy she was when she wanted something, her incredibly aggravating habit of sharpening her claws on the kitchen rug. It's a line of thought that proceeds to a variety of acceptance bolstered for me a little by things like "at least I'm not going to have to fight for my chair anytime I want to sit down."  Soon after these elements of mental gymnastics there are hints of silver linings, a visit to the pound with the grandchild, bound to be a little kitten and nothing like a bright eyed little kitten chasing a feather to warm a little girls heart, and it's all kind of mawkish in a revolving kind of way, sentiment goes round and round in decreasing circles, it's just no wonder we're doomed. Then at 8.30 am there's a presence in the kitchen, it's four paws are damp from heavy dew, a stick-tight or two that really should be carefully combed out before partaking of breakfast, which is after all the most important meal of the day even if I just want to sniff at it, and you know I can't settle on the day bed unless I know it's there.  In the Caregivers there's a huge sense of relief, followed by a period of castigating, it's like finger wagging only with curse words and dire, entirely meaningless threats.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Etiquette, Communication, Scoundrels and Samuel Johnson

 ".....As his political melancholy increases, he tells, and, perhaps, dreams, of the advances of the prerogative, and the dangers of arbitrary power; yet his design, in all his declamation, is not to benefit his country, but to gratify his malice...." Declamation is an artistic form of public speaking, a dramatic oration, hand gestures and sometimes set to music, Mussolini and others were very good at it.  Often pretty pointless just quoting something ripped from a long essay, or pamphlet. For example what is the context of the writer's reference to 'political melancholy'? The title of the essay is Patriotism and the essay was written by Samuel Johnson in the year 1774. My own purpose for going to the essay was to better understand Boswell quoting Johnson who apparently had said "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."  The essay also contains a masterly use of semi-colons in this passage "...These, however, are the most honest of the opponents of government; their patriotism is a species of disease; and they feel some part of what they express. But the greater, far the greater number of those who rave and rail, and inquire and accuse, neither suspect nor fear, nor care for the public; but hope to force their way to riches, by virulence and invective, and are vehement and clamorous, only that they may be sooner hired to be silent...." My own appraisal is that for Johnson patriotism was ill defined, appeals to it were both good and bad, and best to think of the motives behind calls for Patriotism before leaping to conclusions, however, in Johnson's view the odds were most appeals to patriotism fell foul of upright, honest and in the Public Interest. In short, for Johnson, appeals to patriotism were no substitute for reasoned argument and open handed debate. Yes indeed, Johnson had high hopes for a rational civic society and you got to love him big time. He died in 1784, he was 75 years old. His dictionary went toward formalizing word use in language enabling disparate language users to communicate with fewer misunderstandings. It can be argued that etiquette had a similar origin for a delicate species prone to both misunderstandings, taking things personally, rampant self aggrandizement and heavy duty sulking.

When Johnson was writing Patriotism around 3% of Britain's population of around eight million had the vote. They voted for Members of Parliament. One of the issues was that new growing towns with dramatically increasing populations such as Leeds and Manchester didn't send anyone to Parliament, whereas a little country village in the middle of nowhere like Dunwich with a population of around 30 people did send someone to parliament. Of interest Dunwich used to be the Capital of the East Anglians, a big important town on the coast, sadly for Dunwich, soon after its mention in the Doomsday Book of 1086 most of the town that once numbered 3000 very important people disappeared, swallowed up by coastal erosion. Not sure what Johnson's position was on universal suffrage, he was a Tory, but he had high confidence in what he called advances in the "Science of politics" which these days includes Sociology. I do know that Johnson is supposed to have said, "Man alone is born crying, lives complaining and dies disappointed." I also know that it was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United states who recently attacked computer literate scientific studies of gerrymandering presented to his court  with the expression "Sociological Gobbledygook." The question of course, did the Chief Justice understand the science, or was his remark based upon a 'ditsy' knee jerk pompous ass reaction to a failure of comprehension, or was it something else? And here, a man called Mathew Motta, a Social Scientist in the field of communication, has argued that the growing negative affect popular anti-intellectualism has on science and opinions of experts can be mitigated by improving verbal intelligence, which is language based reasoning, otherwise everything cleaves toward a blind trust in the propaganda arm of this or that capricious, or whimsical, political movement. Brexit, Wallace, Trump. So probably better when the scientifically literate are explaining scientific investigations to something like a gathering of Supreme Court Justices not to get all carried away by the non-kindergarten assumptions implied by the Nancy Gowns of the court and just go ahead, hand out Sippy-Drinks, employ cartoons, Disney Characters, lots of colorful pictures.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

War, Board Games and Chainmail

It was a while ago, but one of the things about the Vietnam War was that if you volunteered for the National Guard or the Reserves you wouldn't necessarily be sent to the front line in Vietnam, but if you got drafted odds are you would be sent to the front line in Vietnam. In 1970 the current National Security Adviser for the United Sates, joined the Maryland Army National Guard. His argument was that by 1969 he knew the war was lost and had no real desire to die in a paddy field. Another of his explanations included his assertion that he had no desire to participate in a war for a territory that would be returned to "people I might have died to take it away from." A mustachioed and very convoluted way of saying you're far too important to be wasted, but it was a while ago, people get older, they become right wing politicians, yet you got to wonder at the Board Game, bluffing, counter bluffing, huffing, puffing and strutting, until someone starts moving tiddlywinks around, then whatever they say, nothing is calculable.

In the age of Chivalry as it was called, the order of battle, until English Kings started cheating, was fairly well established. Knights were expensive, beautifully dressed, well armored and skilled. A suit of armor was heavy, chainmail and weapons all added up. For the knights it was always possible to die in battle, but much more  likely you'd get knocked off your horse, you'd fall to the ground, lie there like an upside down turtle and you'd get captured. Once you were captured you were worth more money than you would be if you were dead. Good chance your armor would be taken, but you yourself, especially if you came from a well landed family would be held for ransom. It was good money to be made. Then if your side happened to win the battle and you distinguished yourself as a mighty warrior, others thought you rather fantastic, girls tossed wimples and kings took notice of you, gave you something like a special hat and a province to run.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Vote as a Tool of Labor

Toward the end of the Middle Ages the Guild System was increasingly attacked by the new understandings within Capital. The Guild System of production limited the number of apprentices a Master could employ, but a Master could employ limitless day labor for certain limited, unskilled tasks at a regulated daily rate. Other rules required prices to remain constant, so following something like a terrible storm, Roof Tile makers couldn't raise their prices to take advantage of the increase in demand and what with one thing and another no one got rich as a maker of things. Merchants, Traders and Money Lenders got rich. Some Masters resented the limitations placed upon them by the Guild System and along with the increased pace of technological advances there was a movement toward using new technologies to make things. The trouble was a Master rarely had the resources to invest in the new technologies because extra money all belonged to Merchants, Traders and Lenders all of whom had a long practice of appraising the potential of investing money in anticipation of making more money. The whole Guild System became a fuddy-duddy thing of the past, nor did this happen quickly, it happened slowly over time.

One of the traditions in the Guild System was the rules and regulations within Guilds that regulated the rights and responsibilities of Masters and their Apprentices. In the early Days of Capital those rights and responsibilities didn't exist in the newer manufacturing enterprises, labor was primarily a resource limited not by custom and practice but by supply. In the early days Labor Unions were unrecognized by law, they were called Combinations, they were much frowned upon by Owners who saw them as a monopolistic interference which could leave Owners at a disadvantage in the free movement of free markets, and Owners had some terrible things to say about labor organizers especially when Owners were discussing the state of affairs with the Political Class. One of the things that used to often happen with Combinations was they'd endure the hard slog, manage a degree of good faith organization, get a sense of their dignity and objectives, begin to get their act together, achieve an idea of their possibilities in the matter of improving conditions of employement and whoop the treasurer would disappear in the night taking the Combination's working funds with him. I guess these days, Doctors, Dentists and so on, are in the traditions of Guilds. The NRA and so on are in the tradition of Combinations. What the Guild System called Day Laborers, these days can, or could, vote in elections in an attempt to preserve or improve or change their conditions.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019


Sad, sad day for a Nation when sports writer Rick Reilly can refer to "an orange blotch on the golf course" and a substantial percentage of citizens know exactly who he's talking about and they know why. Margaret Thatcher had a huge number of nicknames, my favorite is Attila the Hen. I guess too some society's have less reverence for their political leaders than others. Tony Blair had a number of nicknames one of which was Bliar. President Johnson was Light Bulb Johnson for some, not so much for his brilliant insights but because he got kind of ratty when people left lights on. I was around for Dutch, Poppy, Bubba, Dubya, No Drama and whatever kind of fruiting body we got now. 

It was down to a French Teenager to call Emanuel Macron, the French President, by his nickname which is Manu. It was one those meet and greets politicians are so fond of, a chance to prove how down to earth and sensible you are. And sure, the teenager in question was a kind of scraggly character, but President Macron reacted poorly, he got a little upset and he directed the teenager to call him Monsieur Le President. A perfectly normal reaction for an older person around teenagers, but I think the incident grants insight into what inevitably happens when people achieve power. Never was I a fan of Dubya but when he called Vladimir Putin, Ostrich Legs, I had to give 43 a smile.