Sunday, January 29, 2006

Encounters with Berkeley Souls

Every day here I meet at least one memorable Berkeleyan who is struggling to reconcile apparent spiritual contradictions.

Take Arthur, for example — a graduate student in biochemistry who is finishing his Ph.D. research on the enzyme that unzips the double pairs of DNA helixes to allow cells to divide. He’s dedicated to promoting nonviolent resistance against dictatorships. We talked for several hours in a coffee shop about how to spread ’s alternatives to war. He’d tried to get some UC peace studies professors to endorse his nomination of Sharp for a but one of them told him that Gene had done a lot of damage in the world by separating from . According to Gene Sharp, you don’t have to be devout to practice nonviolence. That view had appealed to Arthur, who is apparently opposed to , which he equates to “superstition.” He’d balked at writings just because it was so linked to spirituality. Arthur disclosed these opinions only after I had acknowledged that I am religious in my own way, though I agree with Gene that spirituality is not a prerequisite for nonviolent action. Now at least I know the dimensions that our future conversations can take, and what issues I will allow to pass without comment.

Or take the elderly black woman jazz singer at the BART station. I had gone to the theatre to see “,” in which one woman plays nine different . It was a stunning, harsh drama set in the ruins of Baghdad and it ripped me apart with its portraits of bitter fortitude. As a political protest, it worked brilliantly. I was walking back to the hotel with my soul in tatters. But then I heard a voice that made me stop. There was a tall, gray-haired black woman in shabby clothes strumming her guitar and singing praises to God in an unearthly coloratura. “Precious Lord, Hold My Hand,” her clear soprano voice said, audible all the way down the block. I shivered in ecstasy and tears came to my eyes. A young man with a bike had stopped too, and we listened, marveling through two songs. People were throwing bills into her open guitar case. I wanted to give something back to her too. She finally ended on a high tone and opened her eyes, meeting my gaze. “Thank you,” I said. “It was magnificent.” Then I walked on slowly. The play had spoken to my heart, but her song had moved my soul.

Or take the young I met at the Center last Sunday. We both had shown up for instruction and talked during the break. Both of us signed up for this weekend’s complete program, so we went out for tea last night after the initial Friday meeting. He has just finished a masters degree at the art college. His thesis was a room-sized installation that you wander through, looking at signs that are posted along a path. The first signs are political. The middle ones are aphorisms about his personal life. The last ones are blank. “Emptiness, Buddhism,” he explained and then added, “Postmodernism.” The message is that there’s nothing to say anymore.

“That’s nihilism,” I replied. “I don’t like .”

He acknowledged that he doesn’t like it either – except that he accepts one of its points: that there is no truth. There’s only your truth and my truth, nothing beyond that.

“I believe in science,” I said. “They just discovered a today that is pretty close to the size of earth. That’s an objective . Some people know more of the truth than others do, and I think that’s a fine goal to pursue. Science is about getting closer to the truth. That’s what my professor said: .”

He did not recognize the name, which is natural. Popper died about ten years ago. Time moves on. We debated in a half-hearted way about whether there’s truth. He doesn’t believe much in science anyhow. He’s becoming more spiritual instead and is trying to unlearn about half the theories he studied in art school. They were just blah blah blah. He’s going through now as part of his unlearning. His psychotherapist advised him to take up meditation. His wife is working toward a doctorate in agricultural development economics, and they are expecting a baby. He phoned her and spoke briefly in Hebrew. Then we went back to the topic of science and religion.

He doesn’t believe in religion, but he’s becoming more “spiritual.” He’s taking the Shambhala class because it’s secular. , the maverick Tibetan founder, (see photo) wanted to create a practice for people who don’t want to become . In my young Israeli friend’s mind, Shambhala is not a religion, though it is in my mind. It’s a matter of definition, and my is losing ground to his. A religion, in his mind, is a set of rules about how to behave. He had despised religion because the “religious” Jews he knew originally are super-orthodox fundamentalists who have vast political power in Israel. But now he is becoming more “superstitious,” he said, as he learns that not all religious people are as rigid as those Jews. At least he is open to spirituality, even if not to religion.

I don’t like that new definition. I always define religion in terms, not of doctrines, but of its vital function: to help people find themselves in a meaningful, intelligently organized, beneficent universe. I don’t have any fixed beliefs but I have : the conviction that ultimate reality (though human beings can never understand it) is good. The trust that I’d be satisfied if I could understand it. The hope that I may get closer to the truth. Whatever people do to sustain such faith is religion. To him, however, that’s "spirituality," whereas religion is a narrow set of beliefs for rigid people. His definition is winning. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

“Some individuals draw a strong distinction between religion and spirituality. They may see spirituality as a belief in ideas of religious significance (such as God, the Soul, or Heaven), but not feel bound to the bureaucratic structure and creeds of a particular organized religion. They choose the term spirituality rather than religion to describe their form of belief, perhaps reflecting a disillusionment with organized religion (see Religion in modernity), and a movement towards a more "modern" — more tolerant, and more intuitive — form of religion. These individuals may reject organized religion because of historical acts by religious organizations, such as Islamic terrorism, the marginalization and persecution of various minorities or the Spanish Inquisition…”

Or take the young woman of Indian ethnicity with whom I had lunch today during our break from meditation. She’s a quiet person who came here from Houston to take a three-year training program in acupuncture. Only slowly did other biographical details emerge. She already has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from . At first she had worked on a project aiming to develop a quantum computer, but her advisor had given up that project so she had changed into working on Magnetic Resonance Imaging. She had not been happy with the social interactions in her work group and had not got along with the adviser well enough to win references or grants for a career in that field. Besides, she concurs with her adviser: She shouldn’t try to do that kind of work. She doesn’t have it in her. But the adviser called her research "deep and excellent" and gladly endorsed her Ph.D. degree.

I was shocked. Why would she give up a career in science for an unverified practice such as ? Because she doesn’t believe in science anymore. She recommended a book called , which argues that there’s no more to find out. We’ve done it all. Yes, there’s engineering; that has a future. Planetary exploration does too. But doesn’t. As an undergraduate she had taken not only science courses but also a minor in . She’d studied everything available about and now she wants to go into it professionally. She believes in it a lot more than she believes in Western science. After all, medicine is an art, not a science. It’s based on intuition more than knowledge.

“What about ?” I demanded. “Can anyone even prove that it exists?”

“No,” she replied smoothly. Nobody will ever be able to measure it. You can experience it but you cannot test it empirically. But she showed me a book she was studying. It was a skimpy thing written in high school level English, with simple, non-technical drawings of meridians and spinal columns. This is her faith. Maybe it’s also her religion. Anyhow, it’s her substitute for science.

I said I felt sorry for her. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” I quoted. She agreed that it was appropriate to feel sorry for her.

These are some souls inhabiting Berkeley nowadays. It’s the best place in the world to spend time with strangers. I don’t entirely agree with any of them, but their hearts are right out there for me to see – sometimes even to touch.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Saving the Situation in Iran

The most contentious trouble spot on earth nowadays is probably . Some say that Israel (or even the United States) is preparing a against its nuclear labs and production facilities. I haven’t seen proof of that, but one cannot dismiss it out of hand.

The first question that arises is: Is the newly elected President Mahmoud nuts? He has broken seals on his nuclear facilities that were installed by the . He is certainly spouting off in the most provocative way possible, threatening to destroy , as if actually inviting an attack. But in a Stratfor commentary on January 20, argued that he is entirely sane – just seeking goals other than the ones approved by Bush, who has disappointed Iran by not assuring a dominant position in Iraq for the Shia.

When the Shah was overthrown, Iran became the unmistakable leader of revolutionary Islam, creating Hezbollah, the organization that pioneered suicide bombings. But even before stole the leadership from the Iranians, Friedman notes, their position had been compromised. For example, they had accepted money from the US in the scandal, and had accepted weapons from Israel. The Wahhabis also had “outflanked” revolutionary Iran even before made its bold entrance onto the world’s stage. But now the goal for Iran is to rid itself of the taint of past collaboration with Israel by becoming stridently . Ahmadinejad (see photo) won the presidency mainly because he was the clearest descendent of the revolution. He is taking an outrageous position to demonstrate how anti-Jewish he is and also to set himself apart from the more pragmatic position of , whose strategy had been to divide the Americans from the Europeans. Other Muslims had objected to Khatami’s friendliness toward Europeans, whom Ahmadinejad went out of his way to offend (especially Germany) by denying the Holocaust. If that made him look idiotic in Europe, it made him look heroic among everywhere.

Ahmadinejad is going even further with the nuclear issue by showing his intention to acquire weapons. (Friedman does not believe he actually can get them.) He may get away with threatening to do so. Either the Israeli government will bomb him or they won’t, and he can benefit either way. Friedman writes,

“A lot of countries don't want an Iranian bomb. Israel is one. The United States is another. Throw Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and most of the 'Stans into this, and there are not a lot of supporters for an Iranian bomb. However, there are only two countries that can do something about it. The Israelis don't want to get the grief, but they are the ones who cannot avoid action because they are the most vulnerable if Iran should develop a weapon. The United States doesn't want Israel to strike at Iran, as that would massively complicate the U.S. situation in the region, but it doesn't want to carry out the strike itself either.”
In Friedman’s opinion, Iran is no longer jockeying for position against the United States, but rather is engaged in a “more radical, intra-Islamic diplomacy. That means that they might welcome a (survivable) attack by Israel or the United States. It would burnish Iran's credentials as the true martyr and fighter of Islam.”

But if the Bush administration is over a barrel today, it is mostly because of their own previous bad decisions. In yesterday’s New York Times, ’s op ed piece, “The Gulf Between Us,” reviews the events leading to the present impasse. Leverett is a Middle Eastern specialist who served on Bush II’s National Security Council until March 2003. He reminds us of the opportunities that have been squandered. After September 11, Tehran had offered to help overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, but President Bush rejected that option, dismissing Iran as part of the “.” Nevertheless, behind the scenes the Iranians continued making overtures, as for example by offering a detailed plan for negotiating their differences with the US administration. Indeed, in October 2003, Iran accepted the Europeans’ plan to suspend and engage in talks, but the Bush administration stood aloof from the European initiative, so the talks failed. Hence the present impasse.

Nevertheless, Leverett still sees hope. He mentions a statement by the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, , who reminded the Iranians that if they used a nuclear weapon against Israel they would also kill Palestinians. Faisal of course blamed the Israeli government for starting the nuclear arms race in the Middle East (who could deny that?) but he did not make that accusation into the central point of his proposal. Instead of insisting that the Israelis must get rid of their nukes as a precondition for any progress (a perfectly understandable, if unproductive, argument), he suggested that a new Islamic organization be created first in the region of the Persian Gulf. This would include Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the other Arab states, plus the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Through such a body, the US would pledge not to use force against Iran, so long as it “committed itself to regionally defined and monitored norms for (including a nuclear weapons ban), counterterrorism and human rights.” Leverett invests his greatest hope in Faisal’s proposal, and even suggests that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council should meet in Riyadh to discuss Iran.

Certainly Leverett knows a thing or two about the region and his opinions should be taken seriously. Still, there is a wide disparity between his views and those of Friedman. If Friedman is right, Ahmadinejad is in the saddle in Tehran and has no interest in placating the West – especially not by tactfully overlooking the Israeli nuclear arsenal temporarily, while promising not to acquire weapons of his own. For one thing, public opinion in Iran is said to be enthusiastic about the prospect of acquiring nuclear weapons. Still, there is no harm in trying Leverett’s approach.

Moreover, there is nothing in Leverett’s (i.e. Faisal’s) proposal that is incompatible with yet another, and vastly more satisfactory, approach: . The student population of Iran is ripe for resisting what is left of Khomeni’s revolution, and could be encouraged to carry out a different kind of revolution of their own. I had coffee yesterday with an outstanding young Berkeley graduate student, , who displays a refreshing ardor in favor of nonviolent sanctions to bring about . We shared stories about the “colored” revolutions that have taken place in the former Communist countries in recent years, and took pleasure in discovering how much we both revere for instructing and inspiring those movements. Arthur has worked to help the movement in (which seems to be going nowhere now) and is enthusiastic about the prospects for ushering democracy into the Maldives shortly. Naturally, he favors an effort on the part of the US government to support the dissident students in their nonviolent resistance to Ahmadinejad’s regime.

I fully concur. However, no movement of that kind can work unless a sizeable majority of the population wants it. I’m not sure whether that’s the case. By all accounts that I’ve read, the Iranians really want nukes, and are not in a mood to back off. However, Edelstein may be correctly assessing the present government as undemocratic and unrepresentative. In any case, time and effort will be required to create a nonviolent revolution in Iran. This is a good time to start that project – at the same time as the Leverett’s favorite approach is taken also – to create a Gulf Security Council that can begin negotiating solutions to the dangers in the region.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Elderly Radicals? I Don't Think So

Ted gave a book reading at tonight, well attended by cronies of his from way back. He’s about my age but in better shape. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him, though his fame came just before I was leaving Berkeley for Toronto. That popular book, The Making of a Counterculture, has been followed by about eighteen others, all of them less catchy. He couldn’t get a US publisher for this one, which was published in Canada. I could see why American publishers considered it old news. It was an outburst of anger against the , and was written not for an American audience, but to the rest of the world, proposing that the other countries join together to stop the United States. He didn’t say tonight exactly how this might be done.

As he recognized explicitly, he lives in , and Berkeleyans are entirely different from most Americans. Much of this book evidently consists of an exasperated examination of these political differences. He cannot understand the conservative position that accepts American — a term that he uses instead of “,” since it is not conservative at all but profligate in “” so that the liberals cannot get it and spend it. This “burning of money” consist primarily of the war in Iraq, which he says is being done intentionally. He attributes total irrationality to the government policymakers and almost as much irrationality to those who obey their decisions – even policies that are contrary to their own interests.

This mentality certainly requires an explanation. I want one too, though I cannot come up with any plausible theory. Roszak’s explanations satisfy me no more than those proposed from the audience. His explanation harks back to Adorno’s typology, which refers to the tendency toward fascism on the part of people who desperately crave more in life. They want to obey the rulers and want to force the rest of the world to do likewise. He quoted George W. Bush as saying, “They hate us. They hate our freedom and they want to destroy us for it.” (To this, famously replied, “If that were the case, I’d have attacked Sweden, not America.”)

Despite the liveliness of his writing, Roszak’s analysis lacked originality — with the exception of one novel observation toward the end. He said that he finds the basis for some hope in the of the world’s population, especially in the industrialized societies. Within a few decades, these countries will reach a unlike anything ever seen before on earth; the proportion of people over fifty will be larger than those who are younger. The baby boom will become a “,” but the Bush Administration is alienating the elderly. Ted thinks that’s where the new opposition will come from.

It’s an intriguing idea, but I don’t know of any evidence to support it. Naturally, I rushed to my computer to look up new papers on . Nothing showed up. I’ll need to search academic political journals, if I care enough to look — which I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone argue that people become more liberal as they age. As I recall the research on the subject, age per se makes no difference at all. Instead, one has to think in terms of generational cohorts. Whatever values you have as a youth you'll probably have throughout life. If your cohort is a big one, its predominant values will win elections, but there’s no way to predict what those values will be.

Several years ago I remember hearing one of the radical sixties celebrities on TV. (It wasn’t Roszak himself, I’m sure – maybe it was Timothy Leary before he died. I forget.) Anyhow, he predicted that there would be a new period of dramatic during the 1990s. Why? Because the had become parents and had raised their children to be rebels too. As soon as those kids hit college age, they too would be in the streets protesting. Well, it didn’t happen. And that’s the last prediction of its kind that I believe I’ve heard until tonight. I’m predicting that Roszak will also be wrong. The are no nicer or wiser than anyone else. We’re just older.

His other proposal was more promising: Organize the rest of the world to stop George W. Bush. It’s a great idea if anyone can figure out how to do it.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Esthetics of Pheromones and Jellybeans

I spent my day at the Fifth International Conference of . Having no idea what that was, I was attracted to it by sheer curiosity. The auditorium at the art museum was overflowing with an intelligent audience listening to a peculiar combination of presentations.

There were scientists explaining the and smelling. There was one erudite chap with a pony-tail whose reflections on his favorite beverage made me wonder whether he was putting us on. (Certainly not! He was sharing the most profound aspect of his life, I finally realized.) There was a chef who dripped onto little slips of paper for us to pass around and sniff. He suggested that we smear similar drops throughout our houses and even on our dogs. I am still shaken from his disclosure that the oil of white truffles for sale in California’s gourmet shops is synthetic, bearing no relationship whatever to real truffles.

We were invited to consume a little, courtesy of the other speakers. One very pregnant physiologist gave us each a jellybean to chew while holding our noses. This proved to us that only when we release the nose can we discern the flavor of the candy. There was a handsome Princeton professor who studies the causes of preferring . (He has learned that we cannot taste the difference unless we are told what we're drinking — but we believe we can.) There was a priest who gives cooking lessons. After intoning an appropriate prayer, he led us through a ceremony: eating just one potato chip. (We should not try this at home, he warned us.) And finally, there was a neurologist from Sweden who described her research on pheromones.

What an eclectic group! Most of them were truly highfalutin scientists. Their charts would impress anyone. I am sure they understood each other and I imagine they went to dinner together afterward and had a swell time swapping tall stories about their pursuit of truth. But they cannot have found anything in common with the non-scientific presenters, who for that matter cannot have much in common with each other. What would the zen priest and the winemaker talk about if seated together in a pub? Will the essential oil chef go on through life ceremonially eating just one potato chip at a time or chewing just one red jellybean while holding his nose? I doubt it. They had disclosed their most intimate experiences in public, but nobody was proselytizing anyone else. Especially the winemaker was not. He merely wanted to familiarize us with the phenomenon of ,” a spiritual attribute that only rare wines can acquire and that only rare wine tasters can perceive. Terroir is the “somewhereness” that can emerge in a particular local wine only when the soil and the familial lineage of have collaborated for generations to create a taste that is absolutely unique. Terroir cannot be perceived through chemical analyses but only through the spiritual sensitivity of great, great, great, great wine-drinkers.

I did learn some stuff today, though I cannot organize my learnings well enough to pass them on to you, since I nodded off regrettably often. The only speaker who commanded my full attention was the last one, a dark, glamorous Serbian neurologist in a red pashmina shawl from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who showed us bar charts about pheromones. I wondered whether the other scientist approved of her methodology, since she does her brain scans by Positron Emission Tomography, not s. But she seems to be closing in on the truth about human . The first challenge is to prove that they exist and the second is to prove that they do attract people to each other for sexual relationships. Clearly animals are run by their pheromones, but are we? The problem is that, whereas human beings do have “” for sensing these , we have no nerves running from our pits to our brains. Nevertheless, hard evidence exists that each sex reacts to the pheromones of the other – except for , whose brain scans resemble those of heterosexual women. Someone asked about the brain scans of but she declined to answer; she has submitted her paper for publication and her lips must be sealed on its contents until it comes out. But she hinted that male and female homosexuals are not alike. I am still mulling that over.

Unfortunately, responses to pheromones decline as people age. I guess I am too old now to react wholeheartedly to male sweat. And certainly it's too late for me to become sensitized to terroir. Surely, however, I can still master the single potato chip. Tomorrow I'll go to the Buddhist outfit around the corner and work on my mindfulness.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Empathy and Retribution Reconciled

There’s new research on , and I’ll bet and are happy about it. This study seems perfectly consistent with their own previous work. Nevertheless, what we have here is genuinely new.

It seems that Dr. of University College London studied 32 male and female volunteers, who participated in a monetary investment game, administered by confederates (actors, though they were not known to be actors) who either cheated them or dealt with them fairly. The volunteers then were placed in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which revealed empathic responses in their as they watched the confederates receive a mild .

Both male and female volunteers reacted with empathy when the fair confederate was shocked. When the cheaters were shocked, however, males did not react with empathy but apparently enjoyed seeing the bad guys receive their comeuppance; there was a surge of activity shown in the , the region of the brain that lights up when pleasure and are experienced.

The female volunteers, on the other hand, had empathy for both the fair and unfair confederates as they underwent pain. This did not mean that they liked the crooks. As Dr, Singer explained,

  • “During breaks in the tests you could tell from the body language that both the male and female volunteers did not like the actors who had cheated them. While women showed similar reactions in the same brain regions while viewing the cheaters being punished, it was more as if they were personally experiencing it themselves, almost as if they were feeling their pain. These results suggest that fairness in social situations shapes the nature of the emotional link we have to other people.” (This research was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.)

These findings fit together like jigsaw pieces with previous studies. Simon Baron-Cohen had already established that, in general, females empathize more than males. Moreover, Dolf Zillmann had shown several years ago that empathy is strongly related to one’s liking for the other person and, further, that one likes people primarily on the basis of their . On the whole, people dislike cheaters and don’t empathize much with them — only now we have Singer’s new research, which shows that women empathize even with cheaters whom they dislike. This discovery actually surprised her and must be followed up with larger studies.

The researchers questioned the volunteers in addition to scanning their brains. The questionnaire corroborated the surprising finding, for not only did males’ s reveal their satisfaction upon watching the cheaters being shocked, but on the questionnaire the men stated that they wanted more than women did. The more a man admitted wanting revenge, the more his MRI lit up in the brain’s reward center when he saw the cheater getting shocked. There was no such correlation in the women subjects.

This study received worldwide publicity yesterday, and the newspapers reflected some of the discussions about the meaning of the research, including the frequent comment that it makes perfect sense. After all, it's males, more often than females, who assume the job of exacting for wrongdoing.

One of the comments I read on the Internet was a virulently article that seized upon this research as proof of inherent psychological differences between the sexes. Moreover, it also was taken as proof that females are less than males, since is socially necessary and women are for the tasks of punitive enforcement.

I’m deliberately refraining from identifying the author of this scurrilous attack on feminists. (It’s nobody you’d recognize anyhow.) Nevertheless, if I delete the invective from his article I see some issues in it that call for reflection.

Perhaps it is true, as Singer suggests, that women tend to empathize , while men empathize only with people who deserve good treatment. That means, I suppose, that women are more likely to be merciful while men are more likely to be just. are incompatible, in practical terms, yet the world cannot get along without both. A world in which blame and retribution were imposed consistently would be a cruel place in which every misdeed would be avenged, and all vengeance would result in further retaliation. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth would leave the whole world, as Gandhi put it, "toothless and blind."

Yet the opposite kind of world would not work either. Mercy dispensed without regard to merit would betray all standards and accept slipshod performances and even evildoing. We need both empathy and justice, but the challenge is to find ways of combining them. All of us, both male and female, have to confront that antinomy.

One way of resolving the contradiction can be seen in the ancient . Whenever the protagonist committed a crime, it was the result of fate, not his own free choice. The audience felt pity for him and empathized with him until the end of the drama, when he met his terrible destiny. They did not blame him, but they could not release him from the penalty. His crime was considered a blameless misfortune, much as we consider an infectious disease a misfortune, but we nevertheless exclude the afflicted patient from society. The resolution of a tragic play should leave us feeling pity, according to . We accept the necessity of pain and punishment, even while we empathize with the tragic figures who must suffer it.

Both males and females went to Greek dramas, which they regarded as therapeutic. Now we know why. Empathy and retribution were reconciled there, as they cannot be in everyday life.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Jesus and Liam Neeson’s Lion

was a devout . His children’s books about are allegories about the Christ story — that much is clear. Never having read those books myself, I was prepared to explore his theology through the film when I went around the corner tonight to watch it in the local movie house.

Frankly, I didn’t quite get it. The trouble with the New Testament — and probably for almost all other holy books — is that you can pick out the message you prefer, while someone else will pick out antithetically different doctrines. I am religious, but whether I am authentically Christian can be contested by anyone who reads the Bible differently, including C.S. Lewis. This little essay can be neither film criticism nor theology nor even an analysis of Lewis’s understanding of ultimate reality. It is just my misguided attempt to squeeze more meaning from the film than it actually contains.

One cannot equate the film’s character to any on a one-to-one basis. Indeed, I have trouble translating the symbols with any consistency at all – though perhaps the books would be easier than the movie.

Four siblings — two little girls and two boys — go through a wardrobe into a strange snowy country, where they are challenged to save the society from an evil “,” who rules the frozen land. (Is this an inversion of the dark, male who rules a fiery hell?) There’s a lot of soft-edged violence. In fact, the whole point of the story is that the children (“sons and daughters of Adam and Eve”) must fight a , joining forces with her opponent, a named . The witch is plenty powerful, capable of turning her enemies into stone. However, the lion is a good guy. Speaking wisely with the mellifluous voice of , he is the only character who stands unmistakably for a biblical personality: himself.

Toward the end of the film the parallels between it and some biblical plots become transparent, if theologically opaque. One of the brothers betrays his siblings and endangers them all by his susceptibility to the White Witch’s influence. They rescue him and Aslan instructs them not to hold his misdeeds against him. (Okay, he must represent , but did Christ instruct his disciples not to hold a grudge against his betrayer?) Evidently the child learns his lesson, for he displays more integrity thereafter.

Next the White Witch comes to kill the Judas boy, quoting deep founding principles that prove her claim is legitimate. (Well, fair enough. The Bible does say that someone has to suffer for humanity’s flaws, which is why Christ sacrificed himself. However, I’ve never admired a god who would demand such a deal.) Anyway, Neeson the lion saves the boy by offering his own life instead. He takes a sad stroll through Gethsemane at night, then proceeds to the White Witch’s temple and surrenders, whereupon she slays him on a stone altar. The little girls watch him die, then mourn and start to depart, only to hear a great noise. They find that the has collapsed and the lion’s body has disappeared. Then, as the sky glows, Aslan reappears, again alive. It’s Easter, no doubt. He gives the girls a ride on his back as he races to the battle that their brother is leading against the army of the White Witch.

The remaining story is derived more from Hollywood action film tradition than from the Gospels. An overly long battle is waged between Aslan’s army (wearing costumes recycled, I guess, from an old production of Henry V) and the White Witch’s troops (recruits from Shrek and Dungeons and Dragons). That evil woman is about to slay the older of Adam and Eve’s male descendants, who has been commanding the army in Aslan’s absence, when the lion reaches the scene, pounces, and kills the witch while saving the youth. Afterward, he installs the four kids as kings and queens to rule his realm, bids them a Liam Neesonesque farewell, and strolls away, swinging his tail with cosmic satisfaction. It’s less dramatic than the account in Revelations of Christ’s departure in the clouds, but it’s pretty impressive for a lion.

This last part makes no sense as a Christian metaphor, but anyway they had already lost me back there on Golgotha. What is this war all about? Does the White Witch’s army represent Satan’s , or are they just supposed to be ? In the New Testament, there’s no battle. There are some Roman soldiers who crucify Jesus, but his disciples obey his instructions not to resist them. The early Christians were remarkably insistent about being . This plot runs completely counter to the central message of Christianity. And even if you're not a Christian, you may dislike it, especially if you read the newspapers.

I can only conclude that C.S. Lewis was (probably unknowingly) a . The whole plot of Narnia turns on the concept of a struggle between two eternal principles, . But that polarity did not characterize either Christian or Jewish theology. Manichaeism did not exist until the latter half of the third century, when a Persian fellow attempted to synthesize all religious doctrines, adding a few minor Christian features to the mixture.

Or is it only that is Manichaean? Perhaps so. After all, plots about the struggle between good and evil are a lot more exciting than stories about peace. I don’t particularly want to read the novels, so if some of you readers are familiar with them, please add a comment here and tell me whether C.S. Lewis believed that Christians are in a cosmic battle between good and evil.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Telling Stories to Save the World

Yesterday I flew down to Studio City to have lunch with , a tall, distinguished 80-year-old whose first successful career was in . For a number of years he was president of , which supports the production of TV and radio series for Third World countries to educate viewers about , , and the .

And boy oboy, are they successful! For example, they regularly reach 150 million and perhaps an equal number in China. (The most popular reach no more than 18 million viewers these days.) Not everyone in India or China owns a TV set, of course, so there’s a tendency for the neighbors to join in viewing and then stay to discuss the story, which boosts the effectiveness of the messages. There was one story about a little girl with AIDS. Her schoolmates wouldn’t play with her, for fear of catching it. They included the message that nobody catches the disease that way. There’s another story about a 14-year-old girl in India who is forced to marry, though she wants a career instead. After resisting consummation of the marriage for a long time, she gives in. She becomes pregnant and eight months later dies. Millions of Indian fathers decided they did not want their daughters to have to marry against their will.

My book covers only a bit of the research on the effects on public behavior, but Sonny told me of more evidence, largely authored by . One study compared the responses to drama and factual information in America. There was a story in about a character who gets AIDS. At the end of an episode, the actor looks straight at the camera and tells viewers to phone a certain number at the (I think it was) if they have concerns about anyone possibly being exposed to HIV. The same kind of announcement was made at the end of Sixty Minutes, which gets far more viewers. Where the usual response rate is about 95, the public did not respond much more than that to , but the peak after The Bold and the Beautiful was 1400. This differences is explained by the audience's greater identification with the characters.

Sonny himself is now a consultant on the purposeful uses of soap operas. He started a research project funded by a US government agency to see whether a story’s effectiveness is generalized or It was designed to last three years and compare responses in several different countries to the same show, but after one year heard of it and lambasted the “waste of taxpayers’ money” until politicians were forced to terminate the project. However, his one-year comparison did enable him to infer that you can’t expect an American film about American protagonists to influence people in a different society. If the story is too far from the realities of life in the foreign country, the viewers may enjoy watching it as entertainment and may even say, “I wish I could live that way, but I can’t.” Then they ignore the message. For example, they will say that they wish they could mention HIV in polite society, but they can't.

On the other hand, Sonny thinks it’s possible to be influential in other countries by creating characters with whom the locals can fully identify. For example, he mentioned a story (I’m not sure whether it was an actual one or only a hypothetical one) about an Iraqi doctor who moves back to his home country after living in the West. He’s fully Iraqi, speaks Arabic all the time, but has been ‘infected” with Western culture. Middle Eastern people will engage with his story and follow his journey as he tries to reconcile his traditions with his newer modern beliefs.

Sonny Fox has had invitations from diplomats in Washington to consult on the production of films. He mentioned in particular as keenly interested in finding alternative ways of . Naturally, the government has abundant funds for this approach if they choose to use it. He said he had agreed to help with one such project, on condition that they not expect it to make love America. If you want to do that, you’d better change the actual policies that harm and offend Muslims, he said. You can’t do that just through movies and television. He evidently expects one of the pending productions to be realized, though he didn’t elaborate. He suggested that I send Karen Hughes a copy of my book, because he knows she’s thinking along those lines.

I mentioned Participant Productions and Jeffrey Skoll’s new films. He has seen Good Night and Good Luck, as well as , but he expressed doubts about the impact of the latter. In fact, he thinks it may be counterproductive, since it shows an overwhelming problem without pointing out any solution. Viewers may be demoralized instead of inspired to act. I said that the web site does suggest actions for them to take, including lobbying government. Participants are supposed to download a list of things that they can do to reduce their dependence on oil. But I had to agree with him that the film would have been better if it had indicated a plausible solution. (I didn’t go into my main quibble: that the writers went too far with their “show, don’t tell” motto, expecting ordinary viewers to follow a more complicated plot than most of us actually can. This film resembles those contemporary TV shows that believes are . They probably do exercise the brains of people who try to follow those complex plots, but they don’t work for everyone. I just overheard a coffee shop conversation between two brilliant university students who couldn’t follow Syriana.) Nevertheless, I believe that Fox and Skoll have a lot in common and should meet to compare their approaches to saving the world.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Political Will and Solar Power

lectured last night at Berkeley's Congregational Church about his book, . His most interesting comment was an answer to a question. A chap who works for asked, “Is there enough time to prevent the collapse of our global civilization? How much time do we have?” Diamond’s answer may have been overly sanguine. There is great danger, he said, but there are lots of favorable signs too. The problems confronting us are of our own making. It’s not as if a giant meteor were headed toward earth. We created this crisis and we can solve it – with sufficient .

That’s an upbeat answer only to people who believe that political will can be stimulated with ease. In many places it does not occur readily — even in , where the polls predict that the next government will be formed by the , who say they intend to withdraw from the Accords. But here in , there’s political will aplenty.

Evidence: Today I went to a reception in San Francisco’s City Hall. The master of ceremonies was (see photo), the son of my good friends Arlie and Adam. The festivities were to celebrate a new initiative, adopted only this morning by California’s by a 3-1 margin. The mayor, two of the commissioners, and a business leader spoke, but it was really David’s big day. He and his co-worker, Adam Browning, had developed the scheme and stimulated the public support that enabled it to be adopted. The commission received 50,000 letters of support for it. I call that political will.

The plan will spend $3.2 billion on the development of solar power over the next eleven years. It will generate 3,000 megawatts of power on the equivalent of one million roofs. Never before on earth has there been such a huge project supporting solar . Each household will pay about $3 per year more, to support the development – a deal that Republican Governor Arnold supports. Moreover, it’s not just Californians who will benefit from the initiative. As Juan, one of David’s friends, explained to me, the price of solar panels is determined by the supply-and-demand relationship. By funding the supply of new solar installations in such large numbers, great economies of scale will result, which in turn will make solar more affordable to ordinary people, creating additional demand, and so on. People in other states and other countries will also benefit from these economies of scale. Solar will catch on everywhere. Today was a tipping point — a moment when the whole economic system just underwent an irreversible change in favor of renewable energy.

Everyone can recognize two of the interdependent effects that this initiative addresses: both the and also the crisis of . Yet there are even more effects that fewer people understand: namely, a probable impact on and on .

Whenever we’re dealing with a system, there are several different variables involved in complex ways. Whatever influences one variable will affect the others as well. In this case, whatever reduces the world’s dependence on oil will improve the prospects for democracy. This is true because all economies (i.e. those depending on the of raw material such as oil) can be dominated by a small social class that rules the country for their own personal gain. As John Bacher showed in his fine book, , almost all oil-producing countries are , whereas most of the other countries in the world are fully or partly democratic. Moreover, there is a causal relationship between democracy and the reduction of violent conflict both inside and between countries. The spread of democracy around the world has resulted in a decline in the number and severity of wars. Solar power will be distributed across millions of households and businesses. It cannot be controlled, as oil can be, by any single social class within a society. The dispersion of ownership of energy sources will foster democracy, both in California and in all the other countries that benefit from the economies of scale that California will create.

This does not settle the question that Professor Diamond was asked: Is there enough time to prevent the collapse of our civilization? Nobody knows the answer. But here in California tonight I can say this: It’s looking good. Thanks a lot, David Hochschild.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Old Schmoozers and Machers

I’m reading ’s book, , which argues that has declined in America. I’ll blog on that question after I’ve finished the book, but right now what fascinates me is his use of two words that I hadn’t known before. A macher is someone whom I’d have called an — a person who participates in that make things happen in society. “follow current events, attend church and club meetings, volunteer, give to charity, work on community projects, give blood, read the newspaper, give speeches, follow politics, and frequent local meetings.”

A , on the other hand, is someone who has an active but informal social life. As Putnam (see photo) describes them, schmoozers “give dinner parties, hang out with friends, play cards, frequent bars and night spots, hold barbecues, visit relatives, and send greeting cards.” Of course, some people are neither machers nor schmoozers, but don’t spend much time with others at all, whereas a few outgoing people manage to excel at both kinds of activity. In general, however, machers tend to be better educated and more affluent than schmoozers. In the past especially, and even to some extent today, more males were machers and more females were schmoozers. , for example, send out the vast majority of – and nowadays they spent more of their time sending e-mails than men do.

Not knowing any Yiddish, I would have described this distinction as a contrast between and social engagement. And, like Putnam, whereas I see both as rewarding aspects of life, I admire civic participation more than the alternative. That is how people address social and political problems, including the environment, energy, foreign policy, and the reform of such as health care or the criminal justice system. One is obliged to be a macher, if one can.

Putnam is concerned with showing the trends over time, claiming that both machers and schmoozers are becoming less active. Some other sociologists (especially Barry Wellman) question many of his conclusions, but the trends are not what interest me at the moment. Instead, I’m struck by the finding that these two orientations usually change during the . As an , that fact bothers the heck out of me. Putnam writes,

“Formal community involvement is relatively modest early in life, peaks in late middle age, and then declines with retirement. Informal social involvement follows the opposite path over the life cycle, peaking among young adults, entering a long decline as family and community obligations press in, then rising again with retirement and widowhood. Single people spend more time and energy in schmoozing.”
How depressing! But, damn it, he’s right. To some extent those changes inevitably occur during the life cycle. When people marry and settle down, their new situation spurs them to get active in, say, school board affairs or their political party. However, the subsequent shift toward private affairs is not inevitable, and it’s disappointing to see perfectly competent old people disengage from public life. Many of my friends are and retrenching to concentrate on private, informal social relationships with their families. Just when they have enough time (and should have enough wisdom) to contribute more in public affairs, they actually cut back their civic engagements.

I have a theory that it does not happen as much in as in , which is why I came here for the winter. I spent last evening with a woman friend whom I hadn’t seen for twenty years. We’re both grayer now, but discovered with pleasure that we’re both still keen on fixing society. We intend to remain machers as long as possible. We have more physical infirmities and memory lapses than before, but those are trivial obstacles so long as we can avoid becoming predominantly schmoozers. Thanks, Robert Putnam, for today’s Yiddish lesson.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

How They Did In Sharon

Not intentionally, of course. It was just the result of , according to Dr. Morris Wasserman, an elderly physician with whom I talked this morning at the local cappuccino café. I wouldn’t accept Dr. Wasserman’s opinion on most subjects (he’s a raving Marxist of the looniest sort) but as a retired , he probably knows his stuff. He says the doctors just wanted to show off by healing the most powerful man in Israel, but they goofed.

had a tiny hole between the left and right chambers of his heart. He’d had it all his life and it wasn’t a dire problem. Lots of people have it. Before we are born we don’t breathe, naturally, and our blood from the placenta has already been purified by our mother’s lungs. Logically, then, we don’t have to send the blood all the way around through the lungs before sending it back to the left chambers of the heart and out to the body. For good reason we are born with a Then when our lungs start to work, the hole normally fills in, though for some people it never does. It wasn’t a problem for Sharon.

But the doctors took pride in having Sharon as a patient, and decided to operate and close the hole. To do cardiac surgery, it is necessary to give drugs that keep the blood from clotting. They started administering these to Sharon days before his surgery. The dosage is supposed to depend on the . Sharon weighed 300 pounds, so his dose was calculated on that basis. But according to Wasserman, his “real” weight was 150 pounds – plus a lot of fat. That extra fat doesn’t have as much blood circulating through it as muscle tissue does. The overdosing of Sharon caused his . If they had left him alone, he’d still be an active man.

Is this true? It sounds plausible to me. Why haven’t we heard this explanation in the newspaper? That’s where Wasserman’s comes into play. To him, the explanation is simple: the system keeps the truth from being told. Wasserman himself “studies” the New York Times every day, trying to read between the lines and figure out what they are trying not to tell us. From this point in the conversation, he was off on a rant, which I will not share with you. As I left, he was calling out, urging me to get the Modern Library edition of Marx because I had not studied properly. But I said I had been on Marx in graduate school and am still recovering from it.

False Consciousness and Authentic Cheer

I used to know in my bones what was, but in Berkeley I find myself surprised several times a day – especially by but sometimes even by myself. I no longer know when one should feel entitled or when grateful. Yet the poorest people seem to know those things quite well.

There are far too many ragged street people here now. Probably it’s mainly a reflection of the growing in America. Or the poor may be particularly attracted to . I would choose this place if I were , if only because one can sleep out of doors without freezing. In part it’s also a continuation of the change that occurred 35 years ago when the were shut down and the patients were given drugs and sent out to fend for themselves. Many people in Berkeley still mutter to themselves or to passersby. Unlike the perfectly normal unemployed men who used to come to our back door for handouts during the , these people could not slip back easily into conventional society if they were given a job. They can never again perform any work, if ever they once could. They beg.

I think there are different communities of . The ones on seem younger than those on . They spend their time in packs and I feel a little fear when I pass them. Those on Shattuck are different. Although I haven’t seen any prosperous Berkeleyan contribute a cent to anyone on either street, the Shattuck Avenue beggars seem strangely satisfied. They sing, chant indecipherable phrases, or call out cheerful greetings indiscriminately.

I haven’t given money to anyone either, which I would have done in Toronto. If a Shattuck Avenue beggar asks for help, I say “sorry.” He replies, “No need to feel sorry. God bless you. Have a wonderful day.”

Today I said no to a Shattuck beggar who was overtaking me on the sidewalk. Next we both approached an old white haired blind lady who had probably been middle class, for she didn’t look like a street person at all. She had a white cane and asked for help. The man was ahead of me now and if I hadn’t just turned him down, I might have stopped to give money to the woman. I did not — but he did. Who was entitled to what? Why did he contribute when I did not? And am I questioning his attitudes or my own?

Certainly I have had to question my own attitudes yesterday and today. I a newspaper yesterday and tried to help a woman steal a paper today. Both of my actions astonished and puzzled me. Yesterday when buying cappuccino, I asked for lots of quarters; the New York Times requires four quarters per copy. Then I put my cup down on the outdoor table and approached the machine warily. On the previous day a different Times machine had kept one of my four quarters without opening up for me, so I didn’t trust this one. I was going to jiggle it before putting my money in – but it swung wide open at the slightest jiggle. I took out a paper, paused to consider whether to put money in or not, and decided against it. But I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering why I had stolen the paper. I have no sense of , no resentment toward the Times for past injustices. I would not have taken the paper from an unattended bundle on the sidewalk. (I am certain because I did indeed walk past such a bundle a few days ago without feeling any temptation.)

And this morning I wanted a Chronicle. Having duly fed the machine two quarters and opened it up, I saw a woman behind me, waiting her turn. This time I held the door open for her to steal a copy. She did not. In fact, she seemed puzzled by my gracious gesture. I shut the machine and went to my cappuccino, feeling more confused than embarrassed. Today’s near-theft was different from yesterday’s real theft. This time it sprang from a desire to be polite. On the front door of my Toronto apartment building there’s a sign warning us not to let strangers come in behind us. Nonsense. I will always let a in! I will never shut the door in her face! To be sure, my sense of obligation does not require me to steal or encourage others to steal, but if the same situation arises tomorrow I’ll feel ashamed if I don’t hold the machine open.

Entitlement and . Those poor street people have nothing. would approve if the lumpenproletariat developed class consciousness and started resenting the society that excludes them. Yet these people show and gratitude, even in the absence of anything to be grateful for. In this regard I think they have achieved something remarkable that I want to learn for myself.

I sat down on a bench by the sidewalk and a young woman came up and sat facing me. “Hi,” she said, smiling. “How are you today?” I said fine, but I felt guilty. I should have said Hi first. She was entitled to that much. Maybe more. Should I have offered to help her steal something? Of course not. But I’m feeling class resentment for her vicariously. What is the appropriate way to wage a class struggle ?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Smart Machines, Vicarious Love, and the Book Trade

The has not been hurt at all by competition with the , says my old friend, McGraw Hill Vice President Why not? Because no one likes to read books on computers. Even though his company has made books available on line for several years, only .01 percent of readers use that option. It’s a bit more agreeable to read than textbooks on a screen, since the stories have no graphs or tables and you have only one column per page. (A textbook is different; your eyes flicker across both pages, looking at images along with your reading.) But even novels aren’t popular on line.

So university instructors are not going to be replaced by . Apparently, students need to interact with a – at least through , if not in one-on-one conferences. They never read their assignments before going to class. Probably it’s more efficient to listen first, then read.

In one respect, however, electronic instruction is making headway: with . In most freshman and sophomore university courses, instructors assign problem sets but they don’t actually mark them, Ed says. It consumes too much time. Nevertheless, some knowledge is cumulative, especially in math, statistics, and the physical sciences. Students must learn how to solve each new skill in a predictable sequence, and they need to master each level before going on to the next one. It’s for these courses that publishers are developing electronic workbooks that professors are adopting with enthusiasm. Each student can be required to submit her problem sets on a regular schedule, and the computer marks them immediately and points out where her reasoning went wrong. Ed has high hopes for further advances in this of instruction, even while he denies that professors or books will become obsolete.

Inevitably, our chat turned toward the wider impact of technology on and ability — not so much in the use of machines for academic instruction, but in our playful use of them. Ed considers his grandkids smarter than we were at their age and attributes their sophistication to television and video games. He once got hooked on a himself. It was set to get harder as he went along, but when he failed, he didn’t want to quit. Instead, he just moved back one step and tried again. He’s sure it was making him smarter, and I didn’t doubt him, though I’ve had very little experience with (and even less interest in) video games. I just take ’s word for it that they are raising our IQ.

But when it came to episodic , Ed and I didn’t see things exactly the same way. We do agree that the new, challenging action stories require you to think fast in order to understand the plot. We even agree that this ability exercises the brain and augments certain that are particular aspects of intelligence. Where we disagree is about the value of this kind of skill, as opposed to other insights. I think the speed of the plot does confer certain kinds of aptitudes on the viewer – at a price. Ed is pleased, for example, that he can by following a plot while also reading the little messages that scroll along the bottom of the screen. I can’t do that very well and don’t really want to acquire such an ability. I prefer stories that involve reflection and that deepen my through hearing the characters discuss the meaning of their situations.

Our conversation was limited to appraising the intellectual impact of the new storytelling technologies – not their emotional or , which actually are just as important, though completely unrecognized (except in my forthcoming book). It is odd that films have been ignored as an influence on health, considering that scientists have been using them experimentally for decades. Their lab assistants stimulate particular emotions in subjects and measure their physiological and psychological reactions – ignoring the fact that those films can benefit or harm the viewer.

For example, only yesterday I received an email on a health list to which I regularly subscribe. It pointed out that , a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina, performed such an experiment with 38 couples. She had each couple discuss some happy event, then watch a five-minute scene from a , then . The result, described the latest issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, was lower levels of the stress hormones and and higher levels of in both men and women. Those shifts all contribute to cardiac health (especially reducing high blood pressure) and possibly even explain the longer of happily married couples as compared with people living without warm partners.

The same researchers acknowledge that there are other ways to compensate for singlehood. They suggest, for example, that people go around hugging their friends and acquaintances more. But there are limits to that solution. I am spending three months in California, away from my usual set of huggers. Californians are extremely expressive, but they would consider me decidedly weird if I went around hugging the people I encounter in coffee shops. My rate of hugging is definitely reduced by living here, but there are other ways of making up for that. Just as Dr. Grewen did in her experiment, I can watch sweet romantic movies on my laptop and TV set. And I can tell when I’m secreting oxytocin. I hunt precisely for films that are likely to have that effect. And I fall asleep every night hugging a pillow. Why don’t the experimenters themselves recommend such practices? Beats me. Maybe because “" is considered a ridiculous notion. It shouldn’t be. Almost every human being experiences it sometimes. We just have to acknowledge it as an important feature of our emotional world. So your assignment for today is to mention movies to at least one person as a valid supplement to their regular hugging relationships.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained…

PORTIA: The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

— The Merchant of Venice

Without being qualified, I recently sneaked into a Yahoo discussion group for and have occasionally posted a comment or question. Most recently I asked about ancient Hebrew teachings on the preferability of . Someone named Liz immediately challenged me to say why forgiveness is preferable to punishment. She argues that no society can exist without rules and a system that exacts obedience to those rules. Someone else on the list said that the prevailing preference for forgiveness or punishment varies according to whether people believe themselves to be in a regular historical period or in the last moments before the end of time. If the world is supposedly coming to an end, people may consider forgiveness a more appropriate way of living. Be that as it may, I feel obliged to reply to Liz, and I’ll collect my thoughts here on the matter.

answers her best. I myself think forgiveness is superior to punishment because it just feels better. Considered from the perspective of the victimized person, the psychological damage of a criminal act is the that it provokes. Without suppressing the rage, the challenge is to transcend it — overcome it by holding it in a more generous, compassionate perspective. Whether or not that helps the perpetrator, it certainly helps the victim if she can surmount the trauma and resume a fulfilling life.

Some victims, of course, prefer . It is natural to want to get even. Everyone feels that way at times. But in the long term, vengeance does not satisfy unless we go beyond it and restore feelings of harmony with the world and with society.

How should we judge whether to prefer forgiveness or punishment when a wrong has been done? I think that we need only be concerned about the perpetrator and the . (Admittedly, any distinction between the two is sometimes simplistic, but we need not address that issue here.) Ideally, the response to the wrongdoing will restore both the victim and the perpetrator to optimum functioning.

Liz rightly implies that it’s a bad idea just to ignore the wrongdoing and let the perpetrator get away with the misdeed. Indeed, in every society, normal adults are held accountable for their own actions. However, systems of justice differ. In modern , guilt is judged in the light of mitigating circumstances and the moral rehabilitation of the offender. For example, recently Governor Arnold was deemed cruel in his Austrian hometown for executing a murderer who had undergone a character transformation on death row. No doubt Schwarzenegger the politician was held accountable to the voters, who admire the justice of implacable punishment and view mercy as weakness.

Justice and punishment may be, as Liz suggests, functionally necessary for every society. But nevertheless, cultures vary. Many of them have managed very well without any notion of law. has offered a revealing history of these changes in European civilization. (See his Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald, 1995). For example, in the formal legal system of had been abandoned in favor of a system of . When someone harmed another person, there were countless different forms of mediation, aiming to force the culprit to acknowledge the damage he had done. An offence consisted, not in the violation of a law, but rather the harming of another person.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the church re-discovered Roman law and applied it in developing . Crime became a matter of against God, and the church took over the business of making formal laws, establishing guilt, and imposing penalties. Even torture was used. When gradually the states recovered more power relative to that of the church, the criminal justice system again became the domain of the government. A crime now was considered an offence against the state and its laws rather than harm done to a particular person. Therefore, any money collected from the offender was not given as to the victim but seized by the state. Punishment became normal, and there were only two possible degrees of culpability: guilty or not guilty. People came to think in categorical terms about blame. Instead of acknowledging some responsibility for their errors, defendants would usually deny any guilt.

Fortunately, there is one domain of law that is still treated more flexibly than the criminal justice system: civil law. When it comes to torts, individuals may sue others for compensation. When harm is done, the offence is judged in terms of degrees of liability rather than black-and-white guilt or innocence.

In recent years there has been a movement in favor of the older community-based justice system. This approach is fully recognized by some native Amerindian groups, who work with offenders in group meetings, seeking to find ways of repairing the damage done to the victim. The offender may be required to make restitution, but he will eventually be restored to the status of an acceptable person rather than consigned to the role of an outcast. In the end, successful results in forgiveness. The outcome of such procedures seems to be more favorable than the older forms of justice imposed by the state. For one thing, rates of are lower.

Of course, restorative or community justice are not merely a matter of tolerating lower standards of moral behavior. It’s redemption, but it’s not unthinking tolerance or uncritical mercy. I am not sure, then, whether it answers Liz’s question. But it helps me formulate vital questions in a more promising way.

And a Happy New Year to you all!