“To be able to hold comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is the source of tolerance, openness, and, most important, a sense of humor, which is the greatest enemy of fanaticism.”
— from The End of Education, a 1995 book by Neil Postman.
In August, the CDC released figures on coronavirus death rates and comorbidities which right wing social media users chose to interpret as confirmation that only six percent of reported coronavirus deaths were ultimately due to the virus, leading the current president and his cult followers to howl that previously published death totals were wildly inflated, no doubt for no better reason than to make President Dumpster Fire look bad. Some misinterpreted the report out of ignorance, surely, but others who fanned the flames on social media chose to misinterpret it to suit their political agenda.
When a person gets stabbed to death by an attacker, the ultimate cause of death would be blood loss. That doesn’t change the fact that a knife wielded by a murderer caused fatal wounds to open up blood vessels which poured out the victim’s life. For that matter, every death could be attributed to lack of oxygen. But it’s not as if it’s an everyday occurrence that otherwise healthy people suddenly stop breathing and drop dead. There are contributing factors, and some less healthy people are susceptible to suffering catastrophic consequences from them when their body can no longer fight off an attacker. That attacker could be a coronavirus.
“Springtime for Hitler”, from the 1967 film The Producers, written and directed by Mel Brooks, and starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.
Social media consumers who jump on everything they see online that fits their distorted and often unreal worldview and then parrot it unthinkingly are not only a nuisance of the present era, but as the most important election of the era looms ahead such people are a menace to public safety. They read and digest vitriolic lies and then spew them out again, magnifying the reach of disinformation, much of it meant to cause harm. The most effective deterrents to the lies spread on social media by fools and evildoers are ridicule and facts. Hard as it may be in these times to keep a sense of humor, it is necessary not only for keeping one’s bearings, but for knocking down nonsense when facts alone won’t suffice.
No matter how incompetently the current president handles crises, from the toll taken on the nation’s health and economy by the coronavirus to the nationwide protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd, his supporters, followers, and enablers continue giving him a free pass. No evidence makes an impression on them.
The coronavirus is a plot by Democrats to make the current president look bad! No, he makes himself look bad, in the same way that those pants don’t make you look fat – your fat makes you look fat. And the George Floyd protesters need to be dominated in the streets, because that’s what a strong leader does! Never mind that it is the behavior of a tinpot dictator, not the leader of a nation of laws guaranteeing the freedoms of speech and peaceable assembly.
A Flat Earth map drawn in 1893 by Professor Orlando Ferguson of Hot Springs, South Dakota. Looks rather like a roulette wheel. From the collection of the Library of Congress.
There’s the word “peaceable” that reactionaries have hung their hats on for centuries as an excuse to violently quell protests. If only some of the protesters can be goaded into violence by agents provocateurs planted among them by law enforcement agencies or private reactionary groups, then the police employees in riot armor can have license to start swinging their clubs and firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into the crowds. In the ensuing confusion, it’s difficult for reporters or other independent investigators to locate and prove the identity of the provocateurs.
Boy making a rainbow with spray from a garden hose in Charleston, South Australia in January 2019. Photo by Photwik.
Too many people believe, in the end, only what they want to believe, and do not care to trouble themselves any further with truthful details. It’s simpler that way, comforting really. Observational evidence will not convince them to change their minds. To use an example from the natural world, through the years many gardeners and even some professional horticulturists have believed that watering plants in sunshine will scorch the plants’ leaves on account of a supposed magnifying lens effect from water droplets.
Not only has this myth been scientifically disproved, but the evidence there is no validity in it is plain for anyone to see who has watered annual flowering plants tightly packed in a hanging basket or pot. No escaping getting water on the foliage there, and those plants appear to get along alright, and better than they would if the worried gardener had withheld the spray of water waiting for a cloudy day. Yet many continue to believe, because they would rather believe the story their mind and culture invents for them than what the plants themselves are showing. We’re alright! Thanks for the water on a hot, sunny day! Here’s a rainbow for your trouble!
People fall into comfortable habits and routines through their adult years, depending on their circumstances and how they have adjusted to them. Some people live in partnership with another, while other people mostly live alone. For many people at some advanced point in adulthood it becomes difficult to imagine any other way of living than the one to which they have become accustomed.
A person meets another person, say an older man meets a younger woman, the difference in their ages amounting to 20 years or more, and at first the age gap seems an enormous obstacle to developing a romantic relationship, to falling in love. But once the “falling” begins, the difference in ages doesn’t amount to anything. If it presents any difficulties, they will come later as the relationship deepens.
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart together for the first time in To Have and Have Not.
Scientists and medical doctors have determined the physical symptoms of being in love, the chemicals in the body that produce those feelings, but they will readily admit there is something else at work beyond chemicals, and even beyond psychology. No one knows what causes us to fall in love; it is beyond science and technology to fully understand or manipulate a sensation, a sense of being that goes out from one person to the beloved and returns in kind from the beloved, enveloping both people.
Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and a leading researcher into why people fall in love, herself married a man 23 years older than herself. She and others involved in the field acknowledge there are special problems encountered in May/December relationships, mostly to do with children, both having them and raising them, though there can also be difficulties in acceptance of the age difference by friends and family.
From the 1997 film As Good as It Gets, directed by James Brooks, Jack Nicholson, 60, has an evening out with Helen Hunt, 34. Willingness to compromise is a sign of respect for another person, and while old habits die hard, there is love in accommodating change for the sake of greater happiness.
All difficulties can be overcome by a couple engaged in a mutually satisfying partnership. Science and technology may be of limited help in some ways that are not as important as they may at first seem, such as having children or in helping the older partner mitigate poor health due to advancing age. When we can’t completely change our circumstances to suit our outlook, it can be better to adapt our outlook to the circumstances, much as we did when first falling in love.
Remember that feeling and bend with it, and maybe just whistle, as Lauren Bacall advised Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. In real life, the two of them had quite a happy life together after meeting on the set of that 1944 film, until Bogart’s death in 1957. She was 25 years younger than he, and while 13 years together doesn’t seem very long, as they both attested, neither would have skipped the opportunity to be with the other for any reason.
“If I knew I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
— Mickey Mantle at 46.
Dan Robbins, inventor of paint by numbers kits, died recently at the age of 93. The kits Mr. Robbins invented became wildly popular for children and adults in the decades after World War II, and while sales faded in the last decades of the twentieth century, the kits never disappeared altogether. Now with the aid of the internet, paint by numbers kits have regained some popularity, and reproductions of works by famous artists such as Vincent van Gogh are available, widening the scope of painting kits available to hobbyists.
Portraits in the Countryside, an 1876 painting by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), depicting the artist’s mother, aunt, cousin, and a family friend. With its large areas of uniform color and uncomplicated design, this painting would lend itself well to the paint by numbers treatment.
It hardly matters whether people consider themselves hobbyists or crafters when they pick up paint by numbers kits, or ship modeling, or knitting and crocheting, because the main thing is they are occupying themselves with a satisfying activity that often results in a useful or decorative object. The result doesn’t have to be art, nor does it have to be perfectly made. The value is as much to the maker as it is to the thing made, and possibly more. A person engaged in a hobby or craft gives himself or herself the gift of peaceful hours during which their mind and emotions can heal.
People who sneer at the dubious artistic value of a paint by numbers painting or a Bob Ross painting miss the point of those works. Hobby painters are as interested in the process as they are in the result, which often feels ancillary and even something of a let down because it means the end of the process. If they somehow produce great art, then that’s a bonus. Most of what they produce will be schmaltz, but so be it. They are helping themselves and not hurting anyone.
Take a few moments to relax as Bob Ross paints an imagined landscape and imparts his views on life.
Mr. Robbins did a great service providing at least momentary joy and well being for millions of people over the years with his paint by numbers kits, one of many hobbies and crafts contributing therapeutic benefits to those who took them up, and the gooey sentimentality of some of the subjects of those paintings hardly matters in the grander view. Losing oneself in a hobby or craft is better than watching television, or any of the numerous other electronic screens commanding everyone’s attention in today’s world.
There are two phenomena related to hearing that have opposite reactions from listeners and that often originate from food ingestion noises, one called misophonia and the other ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response). People with misophonia react angrily to certain sounds, and the peculiar thing is that people who are sensitive to ASMR can react with pleasure to the very same stimulus. In both cases, food noises are often the trigger, even though other noises, such as tapping, can serve as well.
Misophonia sufferers must cope with their condition using psychology and physical methods like earplugs or headphones with music. People who have tapped into how good ASMR can make them feel are watching YouTube videos, listening to audio tapes, and downloading applications to their phones which promise to give them the pleasant sensations they seek. In the case of the YouTube videos, there are ASMR performers who are making five or six figure incomes uploading content featuring themselves leisurely and noisily eating various items like raw honeycomb or ramen noodle soup.
Scene in a Russian Hospital: The Ear Inspection, an 1890s painting by Emily Shanks (1857-1936). The sources of misophonia and ASMR, while related to hearing, are most likely found in the brain, not in an overly sensitive ear.
There is no cure for misophonia, and for ASMR apparently no cure is necessary since it is relatively harmless. Some ASMR videos can make the activity seem more perverse and fetishistic than is probably healthy, but otherwise they usually fall under the category of “to each his own”. Since neither condition appears to be related to any hearing disorder, they both must be entirely psychological. No one knows precisely what adaptive purpose they might serve, although of the two it seems ASMR would be more useful because it encourages people’s understanding of what is good to eat. It would seem that people with misophonia are turned off from eating what others are eating because they are annoyed or even enraged by listening to them, regardless of how much the eaters appear to be enjoying their meal.
These two conditions appear to be opposite extremes on a spectrum, separated by a wide area of appreciation or disgust for food ingestion noises, none of which trigger significant emotional responses. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but it is interesting that visuals of extremes comparable to the auditory extremes in question here don’t appear to provoke as visceral a response. All the senses have particular areas of the brain devoted to them, and in the case of the older primary senses, it appears they bypass the evolutionary later overlay of reason and speak directly to core feelings.
A clip from an October 2012 episode of the animated TV show Family Guy, created by Seth MacFarlane, who was also the voice actor for the Peter Griffin character.
Such is the case with the sense of smell, which evokes memories to which we then struggle to add words. It could be that with hearing we understand at a distance what we need to either welcome or dread, and for a minority of people that understanding has gone off kilter for ill or good. For everybody else, besides the usual annoying food noises of too loud chewing or slurping, there is the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard or the squeak of styrofoam, and it’s baffling what may be the adaptive purpose of shuddering at those noises even though the actions creating them do not necessarily threaten us, but nearly everyone can attest how those noises pierce them to their core. We know only how unpleasant it is to hear them, and we are at a loss to express why.
Being happily alone while encountering people in daily life who can’t imagine not being married or having family and friends around occasionally brings up conversations where the socially active people express concern for the ones who don’t share their interest in a busy social life. Those conversations are more frequent around the holidays at the end of the year, and it rarely seems to occur to social people that the others, the loners, are sincere when they say they don’t mind being alone. It’s even more tricky for a loner turning away an invitation without hurting the feelings of the social person extending the invitation.
It would all be simpler if socially active people understood that while they are in the majority and their attitudes appear to be the norm for human beings, loners who do not share their outlook are not morally or psychologically deficient, or acting superior, when they express asocial behavior. Asocial, not antisocial. There’s a difference. An asocial person, a loner, might be shy and reserved around others, or feel most comfortable in their own company, but such a person is not antisocial. An antisocial person can also be characterized as a loner, but one who may harbor hateful, vengeful, and possibly violent feelings toward the rest of humanity. An asocial loner is confident and happy being alone, and does not begrudge the rest of humanity in the way of an antisocial loner like Travis Bickle, the eponymous character played by Robert De Niro in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver.
Landscape of Khinalug Valley in Azerbaijan. Photo by Matthew Hadley.
Around Christmas, the misunderstanding between social people and asocial people is heightened by the increase in social gatherings and invitations to same. It can be hard for concerned social people to discern the difference between a happy refusal of an invitation and a disinclination to be the cause of pity. Does “no” mean no? Well meaning people who don’t mistakenly judge well-adjusted asocial peers as antisocial loners in need of companionship nonetheless have difficulty taking no for an answer the first time. Sometimes the real need lies with the social person asking others about their holiday plans, in hopes of landing the companionship they want for themselves. They can even be desperate, like people flailing in deep water who climb on top of another swimmer. They are people who fear being alone, and though their sociability places them in the majority, they are not normal or healthy.
Perry Como’s 1954 rendition of “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays”.
This Christmas, don’t be afraid to turn down an invitation because that might seem unsociable, and therefore deviant. And don’t push for an invitation out of fear of spending the holiday alone. This Christmas, try to be happy with the situation as it is, and if that means flexing the definition of home for the holidays, then find comfort in that because there are far too many who cannot find a home, in any sense of the word.
“Many a tear has to fall, But it’s all in the game; All in the wonderful game That we know as love.” — The opening lines of the song “It’s All in the Game”, music written by Charles Gates Dawes in 1911, and lyrics written by Carl Sigman in 1951.
Charles Gates Dawes was vice president of the Calvin Coolidge administration between 1925 and 1929, and before that he had a multi-faceted career as a lawyer, banker, soldier, and diplomat. He was also an avid amateur musician who wrote a song in 1911 that he called “Melody in A Major”, a song that Carl Sigman, a qualified lawyer himself, would write lyrics for in 1951 and rename “It’s All in the Game”. The singer Tommy Edwards was one of many performers who recorded “It’s All in the Game” in 1951 and in the years since, but it was his 1958 rendition that reached number one on the record charts and has become the most familiar to listeners. Two other interesting items to note about Mr. Dawes before moving along: He was a descendant of William Dawes, the man who made the midnight ride with Paul Revere in 1775, and he shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 1925 for his work rearranging the German reparations payments for World War I which had been crippling its economy.
Roses, an 1890 painting by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).
“It’s All in the Game” outlined the ups and downs of courtship, and as such would seem to have no bearing on Father’s Day. When we were growing up, we generally caught mere glimpses of the affection shared between our parents. Some people may have seen frequent displays of fondness, others none at all. Seeing our fathers as authority figures, probably the last thing that would have popped into our heads was the understanding that these were men who were seen quite differently, at least at one time, by their partners in marriage. For most of us, the idea would have been difficult to reconcile with the fellow we knew. Later in life, having grown up and gotten a more rounded view of things, we might learn to perceive the side of him our mother knew, and thus understand better why she married him, even though he may have been an ogre or a gent, or most likely a little bit of both and a lot in between. Then if our parents lived long enough while we attained greater maturity, we might get the opportunity to understand them better as people rather than merely as the totems of varying degrees of nurturing and authority we looked up to as children, and realize that the first lines of “It’s All in the Game” embrace us well.
Tommy Edwards sings his 1958 rendition of “It’s All in the Game.” The photo is from the set of the 1973 George Lucas filmAmerican Graffiti, a story about coming of age in the early 1960s.
In a perfect world where people are always well-behaved and courteous and the bluebird of happiness accompanies them throughout their day, the zipper merge would work as harmoniously as traffic engineers envision it working. In practice, the zipper merge rarely works well, and instead it becomes a place where jerks can take advantage of the polite behavior of others in order to cut in line. Everyone who drives is familiar with the traffic setup, but not everyone may be acquainted with the term “zipper merge”.
A zipper merge refers to the area of road where one or more lanes end, and all traffic must move into the remaining open lane or lanes, such as in a construction zone. A similar situation presents itself where one lane of a road becomes an exit, with warning signs posted that the lane is for exiting only. Traffic engineers refer to these areas as zipper merges because ideally that is how they want drivers to conduct themselves where a lane closes down or where an exit lane is about to leave the main roadway. Like a closing zipper, cars in adjacent lanes should politely alternate merging together into the one open lane, making use of the closing lane as much as possible.
Every driver recognizes these orange barrels as the lane markers in road construction zones, but not every driver reacts to them the same way, much as traffic engineers would like them to.
It’s a neat theory, and when it works as proposed it is a fine thing. “After you, sir.” “No, I insist, madam, you go first.” “Ah, very well, I shall do so then, and a fine day to you, sir.” “My pleasure, madam.” And a tip of the hat to you, too. Usually, however, most drivers who see the warning signs about a lane closure will move over to the through lane early, queuing up. The zipper merge happens in a sense, but farther back from the closure than engineers envisioned it. This polite behavior by most drivers is admirable because it invokes the manners ingrained in many people from early in life, but it has the effect of leaving a stretch of open road in the closing lane, and that is a temptation for jerks.
Not all drivers who take advantage of the open lane are jerks in their own eyes, because it is as hard for a jerk to recognize his own jerky behavior as it is for a fish to understand it is swimming in water. There are many rationalizations available to jerks, after all, the most prominent one provided by the traffic engineers who designed this scenario. The jerk reasons as he zips past everyone waiting patiently in line and then cuts in at the front “We’re supposed to use all of the closing lane up until the very end, but the idiot sheep lined up over there don’t understand that!” he would be more hesitant to try the same maneuver in a long store checkout line, but here in this situation traffic engineers have by default endorsed predatory driving, and therefore the jerk sees it as okay.
The exit lane situation is designed into the roadway, rather than being an ad hoc situation due to construction, but it promotes the same kind of selfish behavior. A multiple lane road in town loses one lane to an exit, and at times when the traffic is heavy there may be a long line of slowly moving cars in the lane which will eventually veer off the main road. The opportunistic jerk assesses the situation and, instead of dropping into line at the back, where cars are moving slowly and obviously intend to exit, continues at speed in the lane adjacent to the exit lane until he sees his opening near the front, shortly before the exit lane leaves the road, and swoops in, as often as not using his turn signal, as if that made his shark move alright. “Hey, I’m signaling! Let me in!”
There’s not much that can safely be done about zipper merge jerk behavior other than rage against it or hope that traffic engineers get their heads out of the clouds and figure out a better way to design merge zones, one that takes into account actual human behavior in the real world. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the auto mechanic brothers who conducted the Car Talk call-in radio program on NPR until 2012, when elder brother Tom’s failing health forced them to discontinue the show, had a caller on one show that they reran in 2015 who had a question for them about using the open lane in a zipper merge. The show was Episode 1538: “Aberrant Behavior Syndrome”, and the caller was Brian, from Kentucky, who called in at about the 11:30 mark of the show. Brian wasn’t absolutely a jerk, even if he did rationalize using the open portion of a closing lane at the expense of his fellow drivers, but Tom and Ray – especially Tom – set him straight in a most definitive and entertaining manner, and their reasoning goes beyond the misconceptions of traffic engineers and the pushiness of jerks who look out only for themselves.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
— President Lyndon Johnson to staff member Bill Moyers, on observing racial epithets on signs during a visit to Tennessee.
The terms “white trash” and “rednecks” are probably the only remaining instances where derogatory epithets are more or less acceptable in general society. Privately, of course, people of all stripes can and do use epithets of all kinds to describe others they don’t like, and it often matters little how different are the beliefs they express in public. The reason the labels “white trash” and “rednecks” may still be acceptable has to do with how, now more than ever before, they designate a voluntary lifestyle choice rather than an inborn condition. 100 years ago there was speculation among scientists and others that the condition had a genetic dimension, but since then the argument has been discredited along with the practical applications of eugenics, such as forced sterilization.
The white working class has attracted renewed scrutiny from politicians, the media, and academics after the perception of the 2016 election results as a resounding announcement from those ignored voters that they wanted their concerns addressed. By no means are white trash or rednecks any more than a minority of the white working class, and their votes comprise an even smaller percentage than that, since most of them do not habitually vote, or even register to vote. It is also untrue that white working class voters were the primary constituency of the Republican candidate elected to the presidency. There were not enough of them to install the Republican in office, any more than ethnic and racial minority voters alone made up enough of Barack Obama’s constituency to install him in office in 2008 and 2012. Nonetheless, politicians, the media, and academics unhappy with the 2016 election results have seen fit to blame the white working class, and by extension white trash and rednecks, for inflicting the current presidential administration of Supreme Leader on the country.
A 1937 photo by Dorothea Lange of two men walking toward Los Angeles, California. Ms. Lange took many photographs in her work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a New Deal agency.
There is no backlash to denigrating white working class people. Across the culture at the moment, it is a safe bet for people like academics who must otherwise be extremely careful in navigating the identity politics cultural minefield, lest they destroy the career in the bureaucracy. Certainly there are some people who deserve criticism, and perhaps as suggested earlier that would include people who have made a lifestyle choice to be vulgar and offensive. Making such a lifestyle choice now, when people have greater access to information than ever before, can be considered more than ever a conscious decision rather than a cultural or genetic backwater that a person cannot escape. But the information they seem to prefer is fake news over real news, and bolsters their apparent preference for ignorance over knowledge, bigotry over acceptance, and reality television over reality.
Near the end ofA Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal, the public gets a peek behind the mask of the demagogue, “Lonesome” Rhodes. There are many similarities between this film and today’s political and cultural environment, but there is one major difference in the ability of the public to register shock and disapproval for abysmal character flaws in its leaders. Some of the baser elements in today’s society would not only not be shocked by Rhodes’s revealing of his true character, but would approve of his remarks as a middle finger thrust upward on their behalf in defiance of elites.
Just about everyone seems to look down on someone else, to the point that it can be considered a universal human need. Elites are certainly not free from the need to look down on some other group, but in practice they have learned it is in their own interest to be circumspect about expressing their disdain, at least in public. Sneering at the white working class generally without first splitting off the subset of white trash and rednecks is a bad idea that serves to highlight the disconnected and arrogant nature of elites, and it is behavior that will serve to push white working class voters, once the foundation of the Democratic Party along with black working class voters, farther away from Democrats and more securely into the arms of Republicans, where they are given rhetoric they want to hear, but nothing of substance. Listening to people is the first step toward working with them, while loudly condemning them all as racist, misogynist white trash might demonstrate to everyone your purity for the satisfaction of your own smug self-righteousness, but it is hardly the way to win friends and influence people, a vocation otherwise known as politics.
Schadenfreude, a German term for taking joy in the misfortunes of others, has unfortunately become a predominant emotion in the public spheres of politics and media. After the 2016 election, some Republicans took more joy in the losses experienced by Democrats than in their own victories. There’s a difference there of feeling something based in negative views or in positive views. The experience of Schadenfreude also has shades of feeling, depending on whether the person laughing at someone else slipping on a banana peel is also the one who threw the peel to the ground.
In the first instance, the person is merely an observer, though that person’s laughter at another person slipping on a banana peel may be tinged with additional shades of meaning based on whether the two had any kind of relationship or whether the laugher’s joy comes from a pathetic affirmation of scorn for the unfortunate and a consequent boost to the laugher’s own low self-esteem. It is laughing at someone else’s expense in order to feel better about oneself. Throwing down the banana peel of course adds agency to the scenario, and more if it was done with the intention of victimizing another. The nasty twist comes when the person throwing down the banana peel manages to feel justified by claiming victimization from the person who will slip on it, and therefore in their eyes the person who slips gets just desserts. That is the scenario playing out in public discourse every day now.
A “Wet Floor” sign shaped like a banana peel at a shopping mall in Hong Kong in October 2017. Photo by Zhungwinsumtz.
It’s not hard to find examples, from the fallout of mass killings to the investigation into Russian election meddling; from hateful rhetoric about immigrants to hate crimes against brown-skinned people; from disparagement of liberal attitudes to intimidation of groups and individuals associated with those attitudes, such as Black Lives Matter or Gay Pride; and all of this done with the justification of being the victim. Not everyone who claims to be a victim seeks to redress the wrong they feel through negativity, an example being the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in which positive attitudes prevailed despite horrifying provocations. Many of the people claiming victim status now as justification for their Schadenfreude, for their trolling of others by tossing banana peels, do so with spurious reasoning springing from self pity over the degradation of their imagined superiority. Claiming their superiority came from God or some other vaunted source and that its erosion by societal forces is evidence of evil at work is magical thinking, and it is damaging everyone.