October 18, 2017

1. Bowling Alone

One of the tragedies of American history has been the difficulty of transplanting democratic institutions. Why is it so difficult to transplant these institutions to countries like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan? Didn’t these institutions take root in Germany and Japan after World War II?

Since the time of Tocqueville, scholars have argued that democratic institutions rely on “civil society” — volunteer groups, neighborhood organizations, etc. Civil society is sometimes referred to as “social capital.” The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam argued that social capital is eroding in the U.S.

Putnam noticed that Americans were bowling frequently, but not in bowling leagues, as they once did, they were bowling alone. Putnam wrote a much-discussed essay, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” (1995). In 2000, he expanded his essay into a book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam’s ideas struck a chord with many readers; he was invited to the White House to talk to President Clinton, and later he met with President Bush. Putnam even discussed civil society with the Libyan dictator Gaddafi.

Like Ed Banfield, Putnam did some of his early research in Italy; like Banfield, Putnam tried to find the cause of poverty in southern Italy. Banfield said that the cause of poverty was “amoral familism” — a preoccupation with one’s own family at the expense of neighborhood and community.1 Similarly, Putnam argued that

northern Italy’s history of community, guilds, clubs, and choral societies led to greater civic involvement and greater economic prosperity. Meanwhile, the agrarian society of Southern Italy is less prosperous economically and democratically because of less social capital.2

Why the difference between northern and southern Italy? According to Putnam,

the north-south difference dates from the 1100s, when the Normans established a centralized, autocratic regime in the south, and a series of autonomous republics arose in the north. The southern system stressed what Putnam called “vertical bonds”: it was rigidly hierarchical, with those at the bottom dependent on the patronage of landowners and officials rather than on one another. In the north, small organizations such as guilds and credit associations generated “horizontal bonds,” fostering a sense of mutual trust that doesn’t exist in the south.3

Putnam says that, in a diverse society, there’s less trust and cooperation — between groups, and also within groups.

In recent years, Putnam has been engaged in a comprehensive study of the relationship between trust within communities and their ethnic diversity. His conclusion [is] that, other things being equal, more diversity in a community is associated with less trust both between and within ethnic groups.... Putnam describes people of all races, sex, socioeconomic statuses, and ages as “hunkering down,” avoiding engagement with their local community — both among different ethnic groups and within their own ethnic group.4

Perhaps one way to study anti-social behavior is to observe littering. Who litters? What neighborhoods have the most litter? Another topic that deserves study is courtesy. In an earlier issue, I wrote,

It would be interesting to study intersection behavior — that is, how drivers behave at intersections. Is intersection behavior different in different neighborhoods? How often do drivers wave to another driver, implying “you go first,” and how often do drivers wave back, implying “thanks for letting me go first”? Intersection behavior exemplifies courtesy between strangers.

Putnam is a lucid and lively speaker; click here for an interview with Putnam.

2. Killing Alone

The recent shooting in Las Vegas has prompted many to ask, Why? It’s difficult to understand the shooter’s motive. Did he want fame? Did he want his own Wikipedia page? David Brooks suggested that we shouldn’t discuss him, shouldn’t mention his name, shouldn’t give him fame; Brooks said we should “anonymize” him.

Perhaps one reason why mass murder has become common in the U.S. is that, as Robert Putnam argues, we’re isolated, we’re lonely. We bowl alone, we murder alone. Perhaps isolation creates a hunger for fame.

Perhaps the LasVegas shooter (Stephen Paddock) wanted to die, and once he decided to kill himself, he wanted to bring others with him. The impulse to commit mass murder often begins with a decision to end one’s own life. About 6 months ago, a man in Mississippi killed eight people, and then said that his goal was to be killed by the police: “Suicide by cop was my intention.”

Paddock spent much time in Las Vegas hotels. He was very smart, and made millions gambling. Perhaps, a few years ago, he looked out his hotel window, saw a crowd at a concert, and suddenly realized that this was the perfect opportunity for mass murder. Perhaps the impulse to kill himself came after the impulse to kill others.

Paddock’s father was a career criminal who was once on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. If a boy gets his super-ego from his father, as I argued elsewhere, Paddock grew up without a super-ego, without a conscience. Paddock’s goal was to become rich, and he reached this goal as an owner/manager of apartment complexes, and later as a gambler.

But once he became rich, he seemed to have no purpose. He had a long-term girlfriend, a Filipino woman, but no children. He was a loner with few connections to neighbors/friends. He spent much of his time staring at a screen, playing video poker, a game he had mastered. He gambled at night, slept in the daytime, and never went in the sun. His life seemed to have no religious/philosophical/cultural meaning. He had no sense of community, no contact with nature.5

People are asking, Why did he do it? Why did he kill 59 people, and wound 546? Wikipedia says, “Paddock’s motive for the shooting is currently unknown.” Here we have one of the central questions of philosophy, and one of the most pressing questions of our time, What is the origin of evil?

Jung said that the “the evil principle prevailing in this world” must be “counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man... isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil.”

3. Finding Connection

In an earlier issue, I mentioned that the New York Times columnist David Brooks had written a book called The Social Animal (2011). I was interested in Brooks’ book because it emphasized the unconscious, the non-rational, the spontaneous. According to Brooks, “the French enlightenment view of human nature, which emphasized individualism and reason, was wrong.”

Brooks argues that, on a subliminal level, people are connected:

The nice thing about being human is that you never need to feel lonely. Human beings are engaged every second in all sorts of silent conversations — with the living and the dead, the near and the far.... We’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships.

This reasoning leads to telepathy and the occult, and to the larger truth that everything is connected — not just people but animals, too; not just animals but plants, too; not just plants but non-living things, too. The basic ingredient of matter is sub-atomic particles, and quantum physics has demonstrated that particles are connected — connected in ways that are mysterious, telepathic, occult, connected in ways that Einstein called “spooky,” connected in ways that make scientists uncomfortable and make mystics jump for joy.

After writing The Social Animal, Brooks taught a class at Yale on humility, and he wrote a book called The Road to Character (2015). In this book, Brooks says that young people strive to achieve, strive to build a résumé, strive to do something they can be proud of. Brooks calls this the First Mountain. Young people experience an “annunciation moment” when they discover their project, their mission. (Click here for a talk that Brooks gave at the Aspen Ideas Festival.)

Brooks says that young people want a project that’s difficult, challenging, hard. I was reminded of Nietzsche’s “three metamorphoses of the spirit.” The first stage, according to Nietzsche, is the camel, who wants the heaviest burden. “What is the heaviest thing, you heroes? so asks the weight-bearing spirit, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.” Nietzsche’s camel is similar to Brooks’ First Mountain.

One of the architects of Islamic terrorism, Sayyid Qutb, said that true Muslims could look forward to lives of “poverty, difficulty, frustration, torment and sacrifice.” Qutb’s words resonate with young Arabs who want a challenging project, who want to be heroes, who want to carry what Nietzsche called the heaviest burden.

Brooks says that after a person has climbed the First Mountain, he realizes that something is missing. Brooks says that Tolstoy is an example of a person who climbed the First Mountain, then turned against it, and went in a different direction. When Tolstoy was climbing the First Mountain, he strove for perfection, strove to do things he could be proud of. The Second Mountain, on the other hand, defeats the ego and attains humility. Tolstoy experienced this metamorphosis when he was about 45.

When Brooks himself was about 45, he experienced a similar metamorphosis. Brooks decided that he had spent “too much time cultivating what he calls ‘the résumé virtues’ — racking up impressive accomplishments — and too little on ‘the eulogy virtues’, the character strengths for which we’d like to be remembered.” Brooks said that he wrote The Road to Character “to save my own soul,” to make sense of his own life.

Again there’s a parallel between Brooks and Nietzsche. Nietzsche begins Zarathustra thus:

When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he had the enjoyment of his spirit and his solitude and he did not weary of it for ten years. But at last his heart turned.... I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it. I should like to give it away and distribute it.... I must go down.... I love mankind.6

Brooks uses similar language, he speaks of going down into the valley, “pouring forth,” giving away. He says that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural exemplifies the surrender, grace, and humility of the Second Mountain.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Brooks tells a story about Lincoln visiting McClellan, and McClellan keeping him waiting for hours. Lincoln waited patiently, bore the insult patiently, because he had set aside his ego, he had attained humility.7

Brooks says that people who are imprisoned lose their career, lose their First Mountain, and have no choice but to climb the Second Mountain. As an example, Brooks mentions Viktor Frankl, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and other camps, and later wrote Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl describes a conversation with a bed-ridden woman, a woman near death. The woman found consolation in a tree outside her window. She said she spoke to the tree every day, and the tree replied, “I am here, I am here, I am life, I’m eternal life.” This woman gave up her ego, her First Mountain. The boundaries of her ego dissolved, and she connected with the outside world, with all life, with the universe. Here we have a link between Brooks’ earlier book and this book — the discovery of meaning through a feeling of connectedness.

Is this feeling of connectedness only available to someone who’s on the verge of death? Or is it available to all of us, regardless of our age/health? Could Stephen Paddock have felt connected before he committed mass murder? Perhaps it helps if we subscribe to a philosophy that teaches connectedness. If our mind, our intellect, believes that the universe is connected, perhaps our feelings will follow. Also, there are various techniques, in various religions, to shrink the ego, dissolve the ego, and thereby foster connectedness. As I wrote earlier, “Zen is a school of humility. Meditation is humbling because no one is ‘good’ at meditation, and no one becomes ‘better’ at meditation by doing it.”

4. Alan Jacobs and Group-think

David Brooks is impressed with behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, and Richard Thaler. When Thaler recently received a Nobel Prize, Brooks called it “extremely well deserved.” Brooks says that economists like Thaler describe how people act irrationally, but their work focuses on individuals, not on groups, not on “peer pressure.”

Thaler took an obvious point, that people don’t always behave rationally, and showed the ways we are systematically irrational. But Thaler et al. were only scratching the surface of our irrationality. Most behavioral economists study individual thinking.

Brooks says that economists like Thaler throw light on the marketplace, but to understand the political arena, we need to study peer pressure, group-think. (The term “group-think” comes from Orwell’s term “double-think,” which is one of several terms that Orwell coined in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.) Brooks says that a new book is coming out that deals with thinking as a group activity. The book is called How To Think, it’s by Alan Jacobs, and Brooks calls it “absolutely splendid.”

According to Jacobs, “many of our fiercest disputes occur because the people involved simply aren’t thinking: they’re reacting or emoting or virtue-signaling or ingroup-identifying.” Jacobs is a Christian and a conservative. He’s an English professor who focused on W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis (both Christians). Jacobs formerly taught at Wheaton College in Illinois, and currently teaches at Baylor (both Christian colleges).

Perhaps a conservative like Jacobs is more aware of peer pressure because, in academia, the peers who exert the pressure are generally liberal. Orwell noticed that English intellectuals were generally liberal:

To be anti-American nowadays is to shout with the mob.... I do not believe the mass of the people in this country are anti-American.... But politico-literary intellectuals are not usually frightened of mass opinion. What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group. At any given moment there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry which must be repeated, and in the more active section of the Left the orthodoxy of the moment is anti-Americanism.8

But times are changing, and if the media was once liberal, it’s now split into two camps. The result, says Jacobs, is “agitated hostility.” The purpose of Jacobs’ new book is to calm these turbulent waters, to increase “mutual comprehension,” to demonstrate how our current polarization is the result of bad thinking.

5. Gordon Wood

I read an essay by Gordon Wood on the craft of writing history. The essay was published in 1995 in the American Historical Review, which Wikipedia calls “the premier journal of American history in the world”; the American Historical Review (AHR) was founded in 1895.

Wood says that the philosophy of history, my specialty, was regarded by American historians as “our ancient enemy.” The philosophy of history was pioneered by Hegel, and resurrected by Spengler, but it’s given a “cold shoulder” by professional historians. Professional historians also gave a cold shoulder to sociology, which they regarded as related to the philosophy of history. Wood says

The founding generation of historians.... believed that sociology, with its penchant for generalizations and overriding schemes, was simply “the ghost of our ancient enemy, the philosophy of history.” Sociology was formulaic; it tortured the facts to fit hypotheses; and it drained all individuality, all particularity from life.

American historians had no use for grand theories, such as Hegel and Spengler created. American historians sought hard facts, and they intended to take a scientific approach. They believed that history should be

carried out in accord with the scientific method as understood by Francis Bacon. That is, they intended to be as strictly empirical as they could. They wanted... a scientific history “which shall remorselessly examine the sources and separate the wheat from the chaff; which shall critically balance evidence; which shall dispassionately and moderately set forth results.”

I would argue that the goal of science, and of human thought in general, is to find patterns in facts, to develop theories from facts. We shouldn’t ignore the philosophy of history; we should have equal respect for fact and theory. We should venture to make generalizations, but we should also be receptive to new facts.

If historians have been wary of sociology and grand theories, they’ve been receptive to anthropology and “thick descriptions.” Contemporary historians have been influenced by ethnography/anthropology, by works such as Clifford Geertz’s detailed description of an Indonesian cockfight.

Called at various times microhistory or ethnographic history, this kind of intimate history takes small events in the past involving inconspicuous people and a limited number of sources and teases out of them stories and meanings that presumably throw light on the larger society.

Wood seems fond of microhistory. He says that it offers “ever smaller and more intimate snatches of history, some of which, like Ulrich’s study A Midwife’s Tale and John Demos’s book The Unredeemed Captive, are truly marvelous to behold.”9 Wood also has high praise for Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790: “Rhys Isaac’s reconstruction of a lost eighteenth-century Virginia world beautifully demonstrates what an ethnographic approach can do.”

Concerning political correctness and multi-culturalism, Wood writes thus:

The new emphasis on diversity and the new racial, ethnic, and gender consciousness have diluted and blurred a unified sense of American identity and have led to less and less emphasis on the nation as a whole in historical research and writing.

This was written in 1995. In recent years, Wood has become more alarmed about the effect of political correctness on history departments.

© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. See Banfield’s 1958 book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. back
2. Wikipedia back
3. Atlantic article. Putnam apparently ignores the Arab influence on southern Italy; the Arabs controlled southern Italy before the Normans.


4. Wikipedia back
5. Paddock called himself the “biggest video poker player in the world,” and he said that, in 2006, “I averaged 14 hours a day, 365 days a year.” CNN and others are showing a clip of Paddock falling (Paddock sued the hotel where he fell). It looks to me like a fake fall; the judge apparently dismissed Paddock’s suit. back
6. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Zarathustra’s Prologue” back
7. In Brooks’ Aspen talk, some of the quotes and anecdotes are excellent, but sometimes one feels that there are too many quotes, and one feels that the quotes were collected by a researcher. Also, one sometimes becomes confused by the various mountains and stages that Brooks discusses. back
8. I discussed group-think in an earlier issue. George Bernard Shaw said, “The fashion in which we think changes like the fashion of our clothes, and... it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period.” back
9. Demos won the Bancroft Prize for Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. Another writer on witchcraft is Carlo Ginzburg, author of The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ginzburg is a major figure (a macro figure?) in micro-history.

The American Historical Review (AHR) is published by the American Historical Association (AHA). The AHA gives out various awards, such as the Beveridge Award for the best book on American history, and the George Louis Beer Award for the best book on modern European history. back