Wednesday, January 28, 2015
I received this as a Christmas gift, which wasn’t a big surprise since I’d mentioned I wanted it. My new favorite cookbook. Straightforward, cheerful, just right. I want to make almost every recipe in it, and was happy to see that one of my favorite recipes - pizza with butternut squash, apples, spinach, caramelized onions and a garlic-white bean sauce (the sauce has also proved to be a big hit when I’ve made it alone as a dip for potato chips) – is hers. I can’t remember where I found it on the internet, but I hadn’t previously noticed the source.
I often think about the possibilities for a vegan show on Food Network or Bravo or the like. I’m sure someone at the networks must have given the possibility at least a moment’s thought – we’re a growing segment of the population, and therefore a growing market, which is what they care about - but they’re in kind of a fix. The problem, I believe, is that it’s not just another type of cuisine or niche like sandwiches or grilling. It fundamentally calls into question all of the nonvegan shows (like including representatives of atheism in nondenominational events). It could potentially draw people away from carnism and that fact could alienate the animal-products sponsors, who seem to be the majority.
So I’m not holding my breath. But if they did decide to go ahead with a vegan show, Chloe Coscarelli would be a good choice for the host. She’s photogenic, easy to understand, and according to the cookbook already “divides her time between New York City and Los Angeles.”
A couple of posts at Butterflies and Wheels called to mind one of my favorite sections in Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her
[CHARLES DARWIN, 1809-1882]
If Darwin’s ill health was not, as some seem to think, a pretext to isolate himself with his work, neither was it, as Darwin had right to fear, an insuperable obstacle to his work. One reason why it did not prove fatal to his ambitions was the devotion and sympathy of his wife.Beginning early in the day, after taking breakfast alone, and a walk, he worked in his study from eight until nine-thirty in the morning. Then he went into the drawing room with his family; he looked over the mail, and sometimes listened as a novel was read aloud, he resting on the sofa. (‘All that we can do’, he wrote, ‘is to keep steadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio…) He returned to his study at ten-thirty and emerged again at noon. (…that each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation, or at intervals, has to struggle for life or suffer great destruction…’) Then he took another walk, past the greenhouse, perhaps looking at an experimental plant, and then onto a gravel walk encircling an acre and a half of land, taking a specified number of turns, perhaps watching his children play, observing a bird, a flower. Or before he took too many spills, taking a canter on an old and gentle horse. (‘What a struggle must have gone on during long centuries’, he wrote, ‘between several kinds of trees each annually scattering its seeds by the thousands, what war between insect and insect – between insects, snails and other animals with bird and beasts of prey - ) After this, lunch was served to him. And then he read the newspapers and wrote letters. If they were lengthy he dictated them from rough drafts. At three o’clock, he went to rest in his bedroom, smoked a cigarette, lay on a sofa, and listened again to a novel read aloud to him by his wife. ( - all striving to increase, all feeding on each other, or on the trees, their seed and seedlings, or on the other plants which first clothed the ground and thus checked the growth of trees!’) This reading often put him to sleep so that he complained he had missed whole parts of books. His wife feared the cessation of her voice would wake him. (Of the Formica refescens, he wrote, ‘So utterly helpless are the masters, that when Huber shut up thirty of them without a slave…they did nothing; they could not even feed themselves and many perished of hunger’.)
GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution
At four he took another walk, and worked for one more hour. Then after another period of listening to a novel, he ate his dinner, played two games of backgammon with his wife, read some of a scientific book, and when tired finally, lay back again to listen while his wife read to him or played the piano. When he retired at ten or ten-thirty, he often lay awake for hours afterward in pain. On bad days, he could not work at all. (Of the process of selection he wrote: ‘…the struggle will almost invariably be most severe between individuals of the same species, for they frequent the same districts, require the same food and are exposed to the same dangers’.)
In a letter to Lyell he claimed that he was bitterly mortified to conclude that ‘the race is for the strong’, but that he would be able to do little more than admire the strides others would make in science. (‘…the swiftest and the slimmest wolves’, he wrote, ‘would have the best chance of surviving and so be preserved or selected’.) Because of his own ill health, and that of his grandfather and his brother, and mother-in-law and aunt (And he wrote: ‘…so profound is our ignorance and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being, and we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms…’) and because of the sick headaches which his wife suffered (‘natural selection acts only by preservation and accumulation of small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being…’ he wrote) he feared for the health of his children, of whom one died shortly after birth, one died in his childhood, and others suffered chronic illness.
In 1844, of his discovery of evolution, he recorded: ‘At last gleams of light have come and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that the species (it is like confessing a murder) are not immutable’. (145-6)
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Tonight’s All In with Chris Hayes (I’ll post the video when it’s available)
Updated - here's the video:
featured a report on the grotesquely deferential trip made by Barack and Michelle Obama and a twenty-hypocrite contingent from the US to honor the dead Saudi Arabian king. Hayes showed video of Michelle Obama, in reportedly a planned gesture, stepping back to allow her husband to walk in front of her and greet the new king [!] and his delegation first. It also shows them in a sort of receiving line where, in another planned move, Michelle Obama waited for each Saudi Arabian man to make a move to shake her hand first rather than reaching out her hand (too aggressively!) and expecting all of them to shake it as they had her husband’s. Several of the men passed by without shaking her hand.
Imagine, just imagine, if the US government had requested that some of its representatives defer to similar attitudes about black people, expecting them to walk behind white people and to accept that white people might not wish to shake their hands. All of this,* including the transparent rationalizations for obsequiousness toward this oppressive regime - a slap in the face to the women, LGBT people,…, and democratic activists in the country – reminds me of Reagan’s policy of so-called “constructive engagement” toward apartheid South Africa.
An informational 2011 interview with US foreign policy historian David Schmitz concludes with this exchange:
Would you argue that Reagan’s foreign policy extended the life of the regime in South Africa?This is especially relevant given that Obama has argued that it was his opposition to this very policy that drew him into politics. Speaking to students at the University of Cape Town in 2013, Noah Rothman reported,
Yes. It gave it life. It gave it hope that the United States would continue to stick with it. It gave it continued flow of aid as well as ideological support. It delayed the changes that were going to come. Then you had the big crackdowns in ’86 and ’87. So there was harm in the lengthening. There was harm in the violence that continued.
I think a lot of well-meaning people in the United States bought the Sullivan principles and constructive engagement, because it seems reasonable. Reagan would say, “If we’re willing to talk to the Russians, why aren’t we willing to talk to the South African government?” We’re going to encourage them to moderate and reform — it sounds reasonable. But there was no real pressure. It was all talk. And it was exposed as that.
Obama told the South African students that, when he was a teenager, he was moved to abandon cynicism and engage in the political process in order to oppose his university’s and the American government’s support for the Apartheid South African government.I wonder how it feels to return to that youthful cynicism.
* Hayes also reported on the Department of Defense plan to establish an essay contest in honor of Abdullah at the National Defense University. Yes, you read that right.
For the record once again, my reading of fiction is pretty minimal. I always have a long list of books to attend to, and sadly (because I would love to read more) fiction keeps getting bumped off. So talking about the best fiction I read in a given year is a bit like talking about the best white truffle dish I ate that year. And then there’s my idiosyncratic choosiness, which leaves my few recommendations useful to a fairly limited audience. That established, I’m only going to talk about one novel and a single short story.
These are the fictional complement to the historical works I discussed in my previous post. Like good political history, good political fiction reveals the effects of political events – in this case, World War II and the Cold War – on people and their relationships. The first is a 1955 novel by May Sarton, Faithful Are the Wounds:
It tells of leftwing Harvard scholar Edward Cavan, his suicide in the midst of Cold War persecution (the character was based on F. O. Matthiessen),* and the ways his colleagues, students, relatives, and friends attempt to make sense of his death and to cope in its aftermath. There are probably too many characters for all of them to be fleshed out as fully as I’d have liked, but Sarton manages to present each of them sympathetically despite real political differences amongst them. She showed a real tenderness towards her characters (and settings!).
The story I enjoyed most last year impressed me with its moral self-awareness and self-questioning: Leó Szilárd’s 1949 “My Trial as a War Criminal,” in his 1961 volume The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories.
Szilárd presents an alternate history in which the Soviet Union, having later defeated the US by resorting to biological weapons, tries physicists like Szilárd and political leaders for their participation in the atomic weapons program and the bombing of civilian targets in World War II. In this and the other stories in the volume (which are generally wry, playful, and humanistic, and often prescient) he offers a model of humility and questioning, qualities which often seem dangerously lacking in today’s champions of science.
This post provides a nice summary of “My Trial as a War Criminal,” and this comment a thoughtful analysis of Szilárd’s artistic choices that resonates this month in particular. The author of that comment, a man named Gene Dannen, published literally yesterday a new article about Szilárd, his first love, and how he was forever changed by their relationship: “A Physicist’s Lost Love: Leo Szilard and Gerda Philipsborn.” Announcing its future publication a few months ago, Dannen wrote: “I don’t think anyone who reads the article will ever forget it.” In a lifetime of reading, I can’t remember any such claim made by an author about their own work, much less one made on a personal website, that turned out to be correct. However, having now read “A Physicist’s Lost Love,” I’ll be darned if it wasn’t so. It’s terrifically moving and inspiring, so thank you, Gene Dannen.
*There is now an F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality at Harvard.
State violence and repression during World War II and the Cold War and its ideological rationales are of more than historical interest. The arguments and techniques developed in this era have persisted in today’s security state, shaping contemporary politics and affecting, sometimes destroying, lives and social movements. The best books in history and fiction that I read in 2014 deal explicitly with the mid-twentieth century but they’re relevant to today’s world.
The first book - Alice Kaplan’s The Collaborator - I’ve already discussed here, so I won’t say more about that one.
The second, also about intellectuals and politics, Frances Stonor Saunders’ (2000) The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters,
describes how the CIA, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other fronts, worked during the Cold War to move intellectuals on the Left in Europe and the US in the direction of US strategic interests and to promote the voices of those more friendly to the US. Some digression is necessary: I learned of it reading Sonia Kruks’ introduction to Beauvoir’s 1955 article “Right-Wing Thought Today” in Simone de Beauvoir: Political Writings. In this introduction, Kruks condenses the main arguments in Beauvoir’s article:
What above all characterizes right-wing thought in the twentieth century, Beauvoir claims, is that it has become no more than a ‘counter-thought’. The optimism of nineteenth-century bourgeois thought, that of a class that was still rising, had begun to wane already by the First World War. Since the advent of the Soviet Union, the main task of right-wing thought has been to oppose itself to communism. To do so effectively, it must justify the status quo and preach passivity and inaction to those who might otherwise challenge the class order. Right-wing thought thus lacks a positive content: it is no more than a range of disparate and often inconsistent reactions; a mishmash of counter-assertions. All that these share is their common opposition to the coherent and forward-looking theory and practice of communism. Because its main task is to legitimize the privilege of the few, both in their own eyes and in those of the many, right-wing thought is essentially inconsistent. For, Beauvoir argues, the proper endpoint of thought is to seek truths that are universal, and which thus apply to all. But since right-wing ‘thought’ instead aims only at the legitimation of particular interests, it denies this endpoint and is, as such, intrinsically irrational. This explains why it may take on so many and such contradictory forms. (108)Kruks points to some criticisms of Beauvoir’s article: Its uncritical celebration of communism (this was her and Sartre’s phase of closest relations with the Communist Party) was inconsistent with her warnings against Seriousness in The Ethics of Ambiguity.1 Also, it lumps together liberal and ostensibly leftwing thinkers (or those who considered themselves leftwing and were generally seen as such) with far-Right ideologues.
She concludes (somewhat oddly – I agree with Tove Pettersen’s review which can be found here) that Beauvoir’s essay might be of “mainly historical interest” (110). She notes, however, that “elements…remain of enduring relevance” and “[i]t continues to offer prescient insights that still bear on debates about inequality, elitism, and privilege today” (111). In particular, Beauvoir is “highly attuned, well ahead of most other Left social critics of her day, to the Eurocentric and masculinist tones of Western elite thought, describing it as a thought that ‘monopolizes the supreme category – the human’ for itself” (110).
I found Beauvoir’s analysis of rightwing thought in the article absolutely brilliant and topical. Its value becomes even more evident when it’s read alongside not only works like Sartre’s “What Is Literature?”2 but The Cultural Cold War. Kruk’s concerns are valid, and of course, as she notes, Beauvoir’s turn toward Communist politics looks even worse in light of the trajectory of that movement; the philosophical inconsistency of her position with her earlier insights about Seriousness also had to be evident to her. And it’s true that seeing liberals and leftists grouped with vicious fascists is more than a little disconcerting, and had to have been offensive to many at the time.
That said, in a strange way her Communism and the suspiciousness and hypercriticality it engendered do seem to have sharpened her analysis of political thought and heightened her awareness of the forces at work. Regarding everything not Communist as rightwing does appear to reflect “a striking Manichaeism” (109), as Kruks says. At the same time, it enabled Beauvoir to draw out the rightwing elements of what were commonly seen as Leftist positions and arguments.
This is especially important because, as Beauvoir discusses in the article itself and Kruks and Stonor Saunders both note, she had strong suspicions about who was behind these rightwing tendencies on the Left, even specifically mentioning publications that, we can now show, were funded by the CIA. Stonor Saunders’ book vividly describes how the CIA and their accomplices carried out their manipulations of intellectual life in Europe and the US, a political project which went well beyond a few prominent European journals and encompassed major cultural events, art, music, movies, literature,… (There are writers whose rightwing tendencies always registered with me somehow but without ever really taking shape; seeing their work and its publication and promotion in this context adds another, indispensable level of understanding.)
There are two major ways in which this project was elitist and reactionary – the actual content of the ideas so incisively captured by Beauvoir, and the method: the process of manipulation from ‘above’, which was itself based on an extremely elitist ideology (it’s no accident that many of those involved were wealthy men recruited from elite universities and institutions: they shared the belief – inculcated since birth - that they should have the power and the duty to push “the masses” in the correct direction).
There can be no doubt that similar programs exist today and are operating around the world. Some have been covered fairly extensively while others remain largely in the shadows. Writers and intellectuals today, especially those on the Left, should read books like Stonor Saunders’ to better understand the political context in which they work. It’s common (and necessary) for people to point to the public attacks and the more or less overt censorship of McCarthyism, the Loyalty Program, and the like; but manipulations of the sort described by Stonor Saunders are equally pernicious, intellectually and politically.
Another excellent historical work that challenges the self-congratulatory, self-serving narratives of “Western” freedoms and rights is Carol Anderson’s (2003) Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955.
Anderson describes how the NAACP, in an extraordinarily hostile political environment, lost its struggle3 to advance social and economic rights – the broad human rights of the UN declaration4 - and were ultimately pushed to narrow their goals to political rights, with tragic consequences especially for black USians. I’ll quote from the introduction and the epilogue:
How could all of the blood, all of the courage, and all of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement still leave in its wake a nation where schools are more segregated than ever, where more than half of all black children live in poverty, and where the life expectancy of African Americans has actually declined? And how could a movement with so much promise still leave more than six million African Americans trapped and dying in the ‘underclass’? The answer lies, I believe, not so much in the well-documented struggle for civil rights, but in the little known, but infinitely more important, struggle for human rights. For too long, civil rights has been heralded as the ‘prize’ for black equality. Yet, those rights, no matter how bitterly fought for, could only speak to the overt legal and political discrimination that African Americans faced. Human rights, on the other hand, especially as articulated by the United Nations (UN) and influenced by the moral shock of the Holocaust, had the language and philosophical power to address not only the political and legal inequality that African Americans endured, but also the education, healthcare, housing, and employment needs that haunted the black community. (1-2)1 The Serious Person (or Man, as she describes him in the sexist noun/pronoun conventions of the twentieth century), is someone who has fled from freedom and responsibility by denying the openness of history and complexity of political action and identifying a cause, movement, or Party (Science, neoliberalism, “development,” the Greens,…) with progress toward the good and the just. Personal ethical responsibility for choices made and actions taken is thus relieved through identification with this progressive advance.
…The opportunity that World War II presented has long since passed. Nevertheless, it is important to remember what was lost and why so that when the Third Reconstruction begins, and it must, the unresolved work of the First and Second Reconstructions can finally be completed and a nation will arise with a true commitment to equality and human rights. That is the prize. (276)
2 A collection of or about the work of Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus on the role and responsibility of the writer and intellectual would be interesting….
3 If I had any major criticism, it would be that I wished the global context and relations with movements in the colonized world had been given more emphasis.
4 And let’s be clear: after centuries of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and genocide, and in the immediate wake of the rise of fascist European governments and a gargantuan conflict which claimed the lives of tens of millions of people through mass murder, war, starvation, and sickness and which followed closely on the heels of another horrific European war…a stated commitment to and declaration of universal human rights – even had it been meaningfully applied – would hardly be evidence of the higher development of human rights in the “West,” for pity’s sake.
Monday, January 26, 2015
It’s entirely possible that I’m one of the few people who didn’t know about this. Evidently, The Morning News has an annual book competition modeled after the NCAA basketball tournament, and this has been going on for 11 years.
The 16 competitors for 2015 were announced a few weeks ago; the brackets not yet. The tournament itself will be in March, of course. I like that they say that the selection and judging are arbitrary and capricious, that they have color commentators, and that a public discussion follows each of the judges’ decisions.
Amazingly, given my sparse reading of contemporary fiction, a book I posted about in December - Dear Committee Members: A Novel - made the long list. Of the 16 chosen for the tournament, a few interest me, and there’s one I might read soon, but only if I can (and want to) steel myself for it: Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.
Sunday, January 25, 2015
The films I liked most this year – unlike my favorite books of 2014, most of them actually are 2014 films (the English release at least) – tended to fit with the books I liked and to fall into two major thematic categories: existentialism and the arrogant-vindictive personality.
My taste in movies is maybe even more idiosyncratic than my taste in books, which is why I typically have trouble recommending either.* But with that warning out there…
First, the three movies I’d broadly classify as “existentialist.” Ida
directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and for Achievement in Cinematography. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Picture nominees and so can’t speak to whether it deserves to win over them, but independent of the specific competition it certainly deserves the award. The cinematography is also outstanding. Beautiful film.
The documentary The Last of the Unjust
directed by Claude Lanzmann is also haunting and heartwrenching.
Both movies – one fictional and one about a real person – address the Holocaust and its aftermath. They pose the starkest existential questions about the impossible dilemmas of people who retain some freedom of choice even as they’re victimized by oppressive political systems. They both present situations (I’ve read several interviews with Pawlikowski about Ida, and don’t know that he’d necessarily agree with this fully, but it’s my interpretation) in which there’s no escape that isn’t a political decision and in some sense a contribution to injustice. They’re both compassionate toward their subjects.
My third favorite is also an existential film, but an unusual one. While Ida and The Last of the Unjust follow in the existentialist tradition of presenting people in moral limit situations (what Sartre called “the literature of great circumstance”), Éric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale,
like his other works, is a refreshingly lighthearted exploration of existential themes – in this case, a study in bad faith. (I don’t think I’m reading too much into his work here: according to this obituary, Rohmer himself declared “I never talk about Sartre, but he was still my starting point.”**)
I recommend this movie to people who already know they like Rohmer’s films or who expect based on the preview that it would be to their taste. I don’t think they’re an acquired taste, but that people either love them or hate them based on very personal preferences. I generally find them both enjoyable and thought-provoking, but I like films with a lot of talking, especially those set at the beach. For some reason, I’ve also tended to see them in very pleasant circumstances (I saw this one on a cheery summer day in New York, left the theater and strolled along Central Park while some sunlight still remains,…), which probably also colors my opinion. But I’m certainly not alone in my fondness for them – he made popular movies for decades.
My other favorite films of 2014 looked at the arrogant-vindictive type described by Horney. One I’ve already discussed here: Alex Holmes’ Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story. The second is an HBO documentary - Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words. Even if you think you know the extent of Nixon’s viciousness, you’ll probably be surprised by this film. At the moment you can watch the whole thing here:
If that video is taken down for whatever reason, just look it up on YouTube. Even, again, taking into account what’s known about his vindictiveness, and even setting the man in his time, I’m still struck by the extent of his arrogance and meanness; the depth of his misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism; his projection (man, the projection!); and his utter contempt for democracy. I also think the film does a great job of presenting the central material – the audio recordings – in a clear manner that’s not too gimmicky or obtrusive; in other hands, that could have gone very wrong.
The Good Doctor
isn’t a 2014 film and I wouldn’t include it among the best I saw last year (nor would I necessarily want to see it again), but it’s an interesting fictional psychological character portrait.
* I will say that I finally watched The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire recently and enjoyed them both. I probably won’t ever get around to reading the books, but the movies were engrossing and I look forward to the next ones. So it’s not that I dislike mainstream or popular films reflexively or as a matter of principle. It’s just that those I do like tend to be few and far between.
** I’ve seen a few references to the quote but not the source, so I can’t confirm it.
Given the variety of philosophical books I read last year, it’s surprising that my favorites were written and edited by the same person and dealt with the same subject:
George Yancy, Look, A White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
and George Yancy, ed., What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question
Both are edited volumes, and so have the typical redundancy and unevenness in quality, and some of the chapters in second volume are…weak. But when they’re good, they’re great. The best philosophy – like the best psychology or history - should help us to look critically at ourselves and our culture, and especially to understand how, often without realizing it, we can be participating in oppression and harming others as well as ourselves. These books are valuable contributions to that humanistic tradition.
To clarify - these aren’t the best books of 2014. In fact, precisely none of them were published in 2014, and some were published decades ago. They’re the best books, from whenever, that I read in 2014. Technically they span the fields of psychology-psychiatry, history, philosophy, and fiction. But they’re all relevant, in a variety of ways, to enduring questions and to our current troubles.
First, psychiatry and psychology.
For several years I’ve described the harmful pseudoscience of biopsychiatry, and I have every intention of continuing to do so. One frequent response that saddens me probably more than any other is the plaintive question, “If this is false, what’s the alternative?” This question has become increasingly troubling to me as I’ve learned more about this great humanist, feminist, antiracist, anticolonialist, antispeciesist, anticapitalist tradition of psychological-psychiatric writing and activism which draws connections between liberation and psychological well-being. Decades of work and insights have been shoved aside, misrepresented, and forgotten, a situation sadly exploited by psychiatry and pharma. So it’s important to me to continue to talk about these books – to reclaim this neglected tradition and to begin to suggest alternatives.
Karen Horney’s New Ways In Psychoanalysis
is a fair, measured, fruitful examination of Freudian ‘theory’.1 What lends this and other works by Horney their power and relevance is their solid grounding in humanism, humility, compassion, and genuine curiosity. Even the most theoretical sections, furthest removed from therapeutic concerns, never give the impression that Horney is engaging in criticism as an intellectual game or that her arguments are exercises in spite, oneupmanship, or territory-staking. (In fact, there’s no indication in her analysis of the personal costs of her dissent with Freudian orthodoxy; these struggles are described in Susan Quinn’s A Mind of Her Own, which is also an absolutely worthwhile book.)
In this as in all of her works Horney is intent on preserving what she sees as the most plausible and useful ideas of Freudianism while discarding those that are empirically unfounded and ideological – particularly those precursors of Evolutionary Psychology that claim culturally specific traits as biologically fixed and immutable. I think it would be most useful to read New Ways alongside Fromm’s Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, and The Revision of Psychoanalysis. Horney and Erich Fromm lost – at least in the short term of several decades – the battle for academic inclusion and public recognition with the (other) Frankfurt theorists and orthodox Freudians, but it’s never too late for a renewed recognition of their contributions.
Alice Miller’s Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child
is an angrier book than Horney’s. It draws broadly from Freudian fundamentals in developing an argument about childhood abuse and its effects while condemning Freud for what Miller sees as his betrayal of children. I find some of Miller’s claims in this and other books wildly over the top and reject her suggestion that mothers should act as slaves to children (to be sure, developing a positive model of care and nurturing in a sociopolitical context in which care and nurturing are culturally and institutionally disempowered is complicated and difficult, but her demands on mothers are outrageous); but the book’s original insights outweigh these problems.
Like Fromm, Horney and Miller explicitly recognize the political and ethical implications of their psychological arguments. In the preface to the 1998 edition of Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, Lloyd deMause cites Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner’s 1988 The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe
as support for Miller’s arguments about the powerful personal and political effects of the treatment of children. The Altruistic Personality is an extremely insightful work and one which I’ve never seen cited in discussions of the roots of altruism or authoritarianism. It’s valuable as research in historical sociology, especially given that the window in which such a study could be conducted has since passed. And it’s valuable as a work of social psychology concerning the roots of morality and altruism and particularly the role of parenting in the development of the political personality.
The Oliners and their international team conducted extensive empirical research on the question of what led some non-Jews to rescue Jews (and others not to) during the Holocaust. Their concluding chapter, which I found most interesting, discusses the significance of their findings for understanding moral courage. They challenge the cultural script about the Moral Hero (a script which, not coincidentally, resembles the standard one about the Scientific Hero). This script holds that moral courage is a form or expression of autonomy and independence, born of parenting that instills noble principles and the toughness necessary to defend them. It’s a narrative that rests on sexist arguments (which can be found even amongst more humanistic writers like Fromm) about a mother’s role being purely nurturing and thus leading to egocentricity and moral laxness in the child if not complimented by a father’s inculcation of courage, independence, and dedication.
The near-exclusive emphasis on alleged “autonomy” and “independence” in beliefs about the foundations of moral courage is rooted in male supremacy – valued qualities like moral courage and rationality have long been seen as having their roots outside of the lesser-developed “feminine” sphere, dominated by impulsive and unreliable emotion and “animal” nurturing, and in fact are presented as the result of transcending this sphere and entering into complete autonomy and independence. The narrative, which unfortunately also pervades the animal liberation movement,2 claims the roots of morality in rational, abstract thought and “higher” principles. (It’s of course easy to see how such a narrative underlies the “civilizing” pretext of imperialism and colonialism.)
The Oliners’ findings lead them to very different conclusions about the roots of courageous altruism. “The importance of relationships in our analysis of what motivated altruistic rescue behavior during the Holocaust,” they describe, “contrasts with the emphasis on autonomy cited by numerous others as the basis for moral behavior generally and rescue behavior particularly.” In The Authoritarian Personality, for example, “Moral courage is…the conspicuous characteristic only of the independent, autonomous, ego-integrated liberal.” They suggest that
the emphasis on autonomous thought as the only real basis for morality continues to enjoy widespread acceptance. The lonely rugged individualist, forsaking home and comfort and charting new paths in pursuit of a personal vision, is our heroic fantasy – perhaps more embraced by men than women but nonetheless a cultural ideal. His spiritual equivalent is the moral hero, arriving at his own conclusions regarding right and wrong after internal struggle, guided primarily by intellect and rationality. It is this vision that underlies much of Western philosophy and psychology.Instead, they find the roots of the moral courage of rescuers in nurturing family and social environments. “Although no one developmental course inevitably produces an extensive person [one more likely to act with moral courage],” they suggest, “we can provide a composite portrait from the significant differences that distinguish rescuers from nonrescuers.” Basically,
…In a culture that values individualism and rational thought most highly, a morality rooted in autonomy is considered most praiseworthy. Those who behave correctly – ethically, in fact – but do so in compliance with social norms or standards set by individuals or groups close to them or because of empathic arousal are presumed to be in some way morally deficient. That few individuals behave virtuously because of autonomous contemplation of abstract principles – a finding that has been reiterated in numerous studies including Adorno’s and our own – has not deterred advocates of independent moral reasoning from advancing it as the most morally admirable style.
It begins in close family relationships in which parents model caring behavior and communicate caring values. Parental discipline tends toward leniency; children frequently experience it as almost imperceptible. It includes a heavy dose of reasoning – explanations of why behaviors are inappropriate, often with reference to their consequences for others. Physical punishment is rare; when used, it tends to be a singular event rather than routine. Gratuitous punishment - punishment that serves as a cathartic release of aggression for the parent or is unrelated to the child’s behavior – almost never occurs.A “benevolent cycle of warm parents, lenient with respect to discipline, and modeling caring behaviors” (similar, of course, to the parental ideal put forward by Horney) leads people to develop a basic trust in the world, ontological security, the ability to form healthy attachments, an openness to different people and experiences, a willingness to take risks, a sense of effectance, caring skills, and an experience of being an active part of the world. Altruism doesn’t result from a rational weighing of principles but rather forms a habitually ingrained way of being in and experiencing the world.3 And naturally, “A prototypical developmental course can also be outlined for those who are resistant to altruism, an orientation more typical of those whose lives have been characterized by constrictedness” - the childhood environment of nonrescuers in general was quite different from that of rescuers.
…Simultaneously, however, parents set high standards they expect their children to meet, particularly with regard to caring for others. They implicitly or explicitly communicate the obligation to help others in a spirit of generosity, without concern for external rewards or reciprocity. Parents themselves model such behaviors, not only in relation to their children but also toward other family members and neighbors.
…Because they are expected to care for and about others while simultaneously being cared for, children are encouraged to develop qualities associated with caring. Dependability, responsibility, and self-reliance are valued because they facilitate taking care of oneself as well as others. Failures are regarded as learning experiences, with the presumption of eventual mastery, rather than inherent deficiencies of character, intellect, or skill.
(A few important clarifications to limit the scope for misinterpretation: The Oliners, as mentioned above, don’t suggest that different forms of parenting automatically or inevitably produce different types of children, such that anyone who’s been raised in a “constricted” or abusive environment is destined to be a moral coward. They’re revealing patterns, not absolute cause-and-effect relationships. Further, they find that altruism-encouraging environments don’t vary by class. Finally, they note that when they speak of children’s developmental environments they aren’t talking narrowly about nuclear families, and that older people important in a child’s life who encourage and model caring and nurturing behavior aren’t necessarily parents, much less exclusively mothers.)
The political implications of the Oliners’ work are enormous. People are increasingly making connections between children’s development and political attitudes and identities. Although Oliner and Oliner don’t say much about how different parenting practices emerge from cultural and political ideologies, others (including, importantly, Alice Miller) have explored authoritarian parenting and pedagogical movements and their mutually reinforcing relationship with authoritarian politics.
The Oliners’ work fundamentally challenges the reactionary rationale for authoritarian parenting: that nonauthoritarian parenting produces “soft,” narcissistic children of weak moral fiber. In light of their findings, this has it exactly wrong.
1 I don’t use scare-quotes to indicate a categorical disdain for all Freudian ideas. I just prefer in such contexts to hold to stricter definitions of terms like “hypothesis” and “theory.”
2 I’ve referred to Brian Luke’s excellent chapter on this topic in Animals & Women; Luke expands on these arguments in his 2007 Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals.
3 Oliner and Oliner don’t, it should be noted, claim that abstract thought and principles negatively influence morality, though they do suggest that this approach doesn’t necessarily lead to moral attitudes and acts toward others – indeed, “[i]deology, grand vision, or abstract principles may inure them to the suffering of real people” and “[t]hose who argue that principled people are less subject to the vagaries of circumstances have little empirical evidence to support this claim.” In general, they hope their research findings will help to introduce some balance to the standard narrative:
Just as there are multiple styles of cognition and affect, so there are multiple styles for arriving at moral decisions. The virtue that may arise out of attachments, care, and affiliations with other people is no less meritorious or reliable than that which arises out of autonomous abstract thought.
…Empathy and concern with social norms simply represent alternative but equally profound ways of apprehending moral claims… According to our study, they are the most common ways. Like principles, they too can inspire heroic moral courage.