Saturday, April 29, 2006

Fictional Characters Can Change the World

The message of my book can be summarized in one sentence: can .

In fact, we require fictional characters to change the world because apparently we can’t do it ourselves. Consider this. In 1983 I started working as an activist to rid the world of . Lots of my friends did so at the same time. Guess what: 23 years later, there are still enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization. In fact, nowadays we have additional looming dangers that also threaten human survival: global warming, the end of oil, pollution, the depletion of natural resources, the hole in the ozone, the extinction of species – you name it. We’re failing, friends, and we’ve run out of time.

So what can we do to meet these challenges? We need to create a world-wide social movement in which people change their personal habits and urgently demand structural changes in society too.

People know the facts. It’s not a matter of educating them, for they are already well informed. The problem is, knowledge and rationality are not enough. What is missing is something completely different-- . Psychologists tell us that cognition and motivation involve different parts of the brain. Motivation doesn’t come from information, it comes from – sentiments, affects. It comes from . It comes from emotional human .

Ordinary human beings are not very emotional. We laugh only about fifteen times a day. We cry only a couple of times a week, if that. We hardly ever scream with terror or rage. We fall in love only a few times in our whole lives. That unemotionality is mostly a good thing. It allows us to be steady, reliable individuals. But it means that we’re not very good at stirring up each other’s feelings. are disruptive. For example, recall the last time you fell in love. Remember how it put a swerve into your whole life course, making you re-think who you were and what you wanted to be and do? Strong feelings do cause new motivations. Nothing else does.

If we are going to save the world, we need to motivate billions of people by making them care passionately about something – care enough to break out of their old patterns and demand that the whole world change with them. You and I can’t do that. I can educate students and magazine readers – I spent my whole career doing that – but I cannot motivate billions of people. I can't communicate with so many people, and when I do, they don’t react to me with strong feelings. Nobody has fallen in love with me for ages. So how are we going to touch billions of human lives? Who can do that?

Answer: characters in movies, novels, and – especially -- television series Almost everyone watches TV. Maybe not you or I, but others do. The World Cup soccer matches are seen by 4.5 billion people. Every week about 1.1 billion people watch a defunct TV show called , which I have never seen once. And the remarkable thing is that ordinary people experience more emotional connection to these fictional characters than they do to their own close friends and family. Good scriptwriters and actors can make us care about characters. You have more intimate knowledge of many fictional characters than you do about your own son or daughter or spouse.

Our everyday lives are casual, matter-of-fact, and pragmatic. Fictional characters, on the other hand, are expressive and highly motivated. That’s a requisite for drama. To write a play, you create at least one character who fervently wants something that he doesn’t have. The rest of the play is about how he tries to get it. If it’s a good drama, we’ll identify with him. We’ll empathize; we’ll feel his emotions along with him, we’ll root for him to get what he wants. We’ll make his motivation into our own – at least temporarily.

But the impact of emotions may also be sustained. We take aspects of that relationship into our own motivations. By empathizing with the characters we learn how to act in situations like the ones they have demonstrated. We don’t have to learn from our own mistakes; we can learn from theirs. And what kind of things do people learn?

Occasionally, the deliberately set out to influence us. For example, a Harvard public health professor brought together 250 TV writers and asked them to popularize a new notion: the so-called “.” Soon the term was in the dictionary and polls showed that most people had actually performed the role of designated driver. In the United States, fatalities dropped by 50,000. What a lot of lives were saved by such a simple, obvious social innovation!

Mostly, however, fictional characters exert their influence inadvertently. For example, all around the world, birth rates are dropping in places where theoretically they had not been expected to drop. There will be one billion fewer human beings on the planet than had been projected a few years ago, apparently because people are watching small families on TV and deciding to limit their own family size. Likewise, in 1989, people around the world got rid of communism, virtually without bloodshed. They had studied the movie a few years before and had taken lessons from it. The film made us care about the Mahatma, and he inspired us. If they’d make a movie about successfully getting rid of nuclear weapons, we might get someplace with that project too.

Emotions have visceral bodily effects. They can make you sick or healthy. If you watch the battle scene in Saving Private Ryan, your circulation will be reduced by 35 percent for an hour. If you watch the comedy Something About Mary, your circulation will be improved by 22 percent for an hour. Your immune system is affected too. As Norman Cousins famously established, laughing at old Marx Brothers movies can heal supposedly fatal illnesses. The emotions – positive or negative -- that we experience vicariously by empathizing with fictional characters are physiologically identical to those arising from real life situations. They have the same health effects, good or bad. We need to be more aware of the impact of the movies and television shows that we choose to watch.

Relationships with fictional characters also influence our political, social, and spiritual sensibilities. We can enhance global culture by fostering the production of television series about outstanding, lovable characters working hard to solve the world’s problems -- protecting the rainforests, making peace instead of war, eliminating nuclear weapons, educating girls and women in refugee camps, and so on. Because we come to care about such characters as we follow them throughout several seasons, we want them to succeed, and we’ll try to help them. Every such series can have a web site where the audience can discuss the global issue that its characters are working to solve, and where NGOs can recruit new members.

Of course, what I’m proposing is a daunting challenge, especially in a world where decide what stories will be broadcast, and where cultural products are considered mere commodities. We must change the storytelling industry — not by censoring bad productions but by fostering good ones. Cultural products are subsidized everywhere, but we can change the basis of the subsidies. Instead of just paying for those shows that we want to consume for our own pleasure, as we pay for our own personal shoes or computers, we need to think of culture as environment that we all share and that we are responsible for protecting. For example, although I rarely go to the ballet or to national parks, I want there to be ballets and parks in my society, so I’m glad to subsidize them.

That suggests a way to support shows that inspire and motivate whole populations. Let’s allow every taxpayer to allocate, say, $200 per year of her taxes to a fund for the kind of independent cultural productions that she believes in supporting. We can influence billions of human beings by supporting productions that are gripping, entertaining, and fun. The is our most powerful human resource. Let’s stop wasting it.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mixing War and Peace

and are entirely different activities. On the other hand, during the transition from peace to war or vice-versa, there are activities that don’t fit the rest of the prevailing situation. Often this is a deliberate policy, maintained against strong opposing pressures, as a matter of conviction or strong intent. For example, the try to function in as if challenging the reality or inevitability of war – a risky attitude to take, as we have seen in the case of the CPT of that ended only recently. Equally, there can be deliberate war-making in situations of peace, as when hatemongers deliberately go around trying to instigate conflicts. A friend of mine claims that are always started deliberately by traveling emissaries of trouble who have reasons of their own for wanting to stir up civil strife. As a preventive measure, my friend , a peacekeeping officer and trainer in the , promotes efforts to bring local groups together for cooperative plans to impede the effectiveness of these traveling war-makers. He did so with occasional effectiveness in , though a lot more could certainly be done to strengthen civilian groups in their building of community “fire walls” to protect zones of peace.

Thre are two antithetical approaches to peacekeeping: first, the of vulnerable citizens against up-and-coming and insurgents, and, second, the resolution of conflicts between antagonistic groups in a population where violence may otherwise occur. Everyone realizes that these two approaches can be combined only with great difficulty, and yet there is often a case to be made in favor of both methods. Take , for example. The classical peacenik will point out that poverty, combined with a history of experienced and affronts to the dignity of Islam, are major sources of ongoing violence. For every insurgent killed, ten new ones can be recruited. New violence cannot put an end to the conditions that generate war; only social assistance, coupled with concerted programs of conflict resolution, can reduce those tensions and ultimately establish a stable democratic government. Accordingly, there are many international NGOs in Afghanistan, providing education, health care, social relief to widows with children, and rebuilding the infrastructure.

Yet Canadian troops also are in Afghanistan now, fully authorized by the to protect citizens against the attacks of warlords and to enable the elected Afghan government to function. Canada has been one of the main countries promoting the new doctrine, “,” which morally obliges nations to intervene abroad militarily whenever necessary to protect vulnerable populations. So far, the Canadian troops, mainly based in Kandahar, have carried out security functions as a police force, without pursuing the warlords to punish them for their attacks on the people. Nevertheless, the warlords regard the Canadian soldiers as fair game and are killing an increasing number of them.

It seems that Canada, having take certain irreversible actions in Afghanistan, is morally obliged to remained engaged in that country until its problems are solved. Both approaches – protecting security, and alleviating suffering and humiliation — are required for the creation of genuine peace in that country. Yet any mixing of these functions is perilous. Most NGOs are particularly worried about the dangers of doing so. , for example, adamantly insists on keeping a wide distance from the military, if only for their own safety, which has been compromised during the past decade. Previously, were generally able to move about in a war zone because everyone recognized that they would assist partisans of all sides according to their need, not their political commitments. In recent years, however, foreign humanitarian workers have been killed because they are perceived as connected to military units that are clearly defending one conflict group against its opponents.

For their part, the military have sometimes tried to appropriate some of the respect that humanitarian workers have earned. Thus a soldier may drive up to a house in Afghanistan, carrying a box of groceries, hand it to the surprised housewife, and drive away. The next day, a real relief worker may come to the area and get shot, since the local people no longer can tell who is offering genuine assistance and who is attempting to buy off opposition to a military operation. Soldiers who resemble aid workers only jeopardize the hard-won respect accorded to the latter.

In the spring issue of , offers a policy for Canadians working in Afghanistan. He recognizes both approaches to peacekeeping as necessary – an opinion that most Canadians probably share. Yet there are unresolved dilemmas in his recommendations — problems that do not lend themselves to ready resolution. Regehr clearly wants to curtail any “war-fighting” operations on the part of the Canadian Forces, limiting their activities to protective “policing” functions, creating an expanding zone of stability that will enable the government to become more effective and thereby win the loyalty of the whole populace. This refusal to retaliate, even when treated as a combatant enemy unit, is a remarkable challenge for military personnel to sustain. The rules of engagement in any war situation almost always allow soldiers to fire in self-defense, even when they are not supposed to take sides in a civil war. However, the policy, however precarious, is an admirable one.

Regehr does not, however, distinguish clearly between the humanitarian, conflict-resolution program that he regards as central to the real peacebuilding operation, and the protective military program. In reality, the two operations need to be kept distinct and carried out by different personnel. The peacebuilders should be unarmed civilians, while the security work should be carried out by uniformed and lightly-armed military personnel. Regehr may actually agree with my opinion on this matter, but his article did not say so. It needs to be made explicit. Even though the Canadian taxpayer may be footing both bills, the invoices — and especially the personnel — should be kept entirely distinct. Moreover, if there is an expansion of these functions, the main room for growth is in the area of peacebuilding, not military operations. There is a great need for brave civilian peaceworkers who will actively reach out to the , listening to their grievances and seeking ways of reducing hostilities. Whether or not these conversations are constituted as formal “peace negotiations” or only as private, furtive consultations, they can provide the only real basis for new levels of harmony within Afghan society.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Miscommunicating Communications Programs

I spent today looking up all over the United States. I want to know what kinds of they offer. I’ve probably searched about 40 different web sites now, with mounting frustration. There’s an enormous variation in the ease of finding information.It takes far too long to find out what you need to know.

In the old days, I’d have gone to a library and thumbed through 40 and maybe I’d have been better off doing that even today. The organization of those books was virtually standard. After some introductory matter describing the geographical and cultural beauties of the college , plus basic facts about the likely expenses of enrolling, they got right down to business, with organized alphabetically, and within each department a cheery little blurb, plus the list of members, ranked by status and alphabet. Then you’d get the complete list and description of courses, including (usually) the name of each expected instructor.

No more. Now you go to the web sites, which differ in every possible way. The most peculiar thing is that they hardly ever show the address. Several times, I’ve given up a search because I could not determine the town where the university was located. Most recently I gave up on , which seems to occupy several different campuses, some of which are identified as “University Park, Pennsylvania.” But is that where the school of communications is located? I couldn’t even find the name of the building or any phone numbers.

One trick the page designers seem to enjoy is their capacity to hide things from us. You have to wave your cursor across all the buttons, and sometimes a sub-topic will appear on the screen. Then if it's a category you want to choose, you have to pounce on it quickly, but usually it will have vanished anyway before you can select it.

Then there’s the challenge of connecting faculty members with courses. Very few universities tell you who will teach the course. Most departments do give a list of faculty members but you may have to hunt for five minutes or more to find it. A few schools even tell you something about the research interests of faculty members, but that’s pretty much limited to prestigious universities such as (see photo). In less stellar departments, the blurb just tells you where each scholar got her degrees and how long he has taught. Occasionally there will be a personal tidbit, such as the fact that he likes camping trips and gooey desserts. The great universities, on the other hand, may tell you a lot about each person’s ongoing . That’s beautiful, but it may not help you figure out who will teach any particular course next fall, which is what I want to know so I can contact the relevant faculty members to offer them copies of my book, in the hope that they will recommend it to their classes.

Most colleges combine communications with other programs. You might major in “” and combine it with either, say, or “.” In general, these appear to be singularly untheorized. There’s not much speculation about the nature of , for example. And there’s hardly ever any discussion of the of films or fiction on the viewer. What comes across is a long series of categories that will be covered during particular phases of the course. These are boxes, waiting to be filled with information – not with questions, but with factual answers. There’s plenty of training, but not any evidence that stimulating or controversial questions are going to be addressed.

Yet communications studies seem to be booming – unlike my own poor discipline, , which is a shadow of its former self. Nobody reads sociologists anymore. I had thought it was because we had all become so boring, but that cannot be the explanation. The courses in communications are certainly not very appealing intellectually, when compared to the sociology courses of my youth – or even of my senior years. Maybe it’s because these courses offer the pretense that you’ll get techniques and know-how from the communications programs. Some people may prefer that.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Falling in Love

Have you ever — someone in a , , or (I suppose) even a ? Last night I attended a potluck dinner for women working in media, calling themselves the Browning Group.” Only a few of them knew each other well, and about half were newcomers. The hostess, my friend Susan McClelland, tapped on her wineglass and announced the pregnancy of one member, then invited me to say a bit about my new book,.

I talked about the immense power of , and the fact that we are failing to make good use of it – especially . I talked about ways in which films, novels, and television shows have influenced around the world, without being recognized as the driving influence. And I gave an explanation: regular information does not mobilize people to become because it’s just ; it takes emotions to get us stirred up and ready to engage with such problems as , world , pollution, and warfare. The only media that arouse people’s passions in a sustained way are dramas or stories, especially prolonged ones in which you read installments or see episodes over a long period of time and then talk with other people who have also seen them. for example, are more powerful in the world than films that are executed equally well or even better. This is because the characters we see over a long stretch become our friends, or even our loved ones. It is common for viewers even to fall in love with a TV character.

I asked, “How many of you have ever fallen in love with a fictional character?”

You could have heard a pin drop. Finally one woman with both red and orange hair put up her hand. The others asked whom she had loved. “,” she replied. They groaned.

Never having watched , I had nothing special against J.R. personally, though I believe he was a bad guy until someone famously “offed” him. What surprised me was that only one of the fifteen guests admitted to having had such an experience. That was a lower ratio than usual. I’ve asked this question quite a few times, though not often enough to reach any generalizations about the frequency in real life. I imagine the women hesitated to come out with their own stories because they didn’t knew each other well enough. (I’ve been part of this group a few times before and have always felt that there was a certain reluctance to talk about fraught topics. Indeed, these women do not even talk about their jobs, though they are all in magazines, radio, TV, films, public relations, or some other related medium. (I don’t know what’s fraught about that topic, but their work seems to be avoided. The woman with the red-and-orange hair had already struck me as unusually bold. She had uttered controversial remarks as soon as she arrived, and I liked her for that.

I could not tell these women how common the experience is in everyday life, but I’d bet money that they’d each tell me about a memory of their own if we were chatting alone. I’d actually like to have a fuller sample. If you want to send me your story about loving a fictional character, I’ll appreciate it. Send it either as a comment to this blog or as an ordinary e-mail. Tell me how many times, if you can remember.

I realize that this is a sensitive question. Last year I joined a Yahoo group that reads one of’s novels per month and discusses it by posting on an e-mail list. It’s a huge club. I get about fifteen e-mails per day, though it has been running for years. I’ve belonged to a lot of similar lists devoted to different topics, but most members of this one seem to be friends, though the occasional newcomer is usually treated in a friendly way. However, I made a big mistake. I told the two women moderators of the group why I was interested in the group: that I am curious about the number of women who have fallen in love with Sayers’s main protagonist, the aristocratic amateur detective . My curiosity arose from the fact that a woman friend of mine disclosed her crush on Peter, and recounted a dinner party thirty years ago with four female anthropologists. They had all been in love with Wimsey. Upon hearing this, I remembered that I too had entertained fantasies about him in my own younger days. So I wanted to join this list, not only to discuss the Wimsey mysteries, which I dutifully re-read, but also to gather clues about this business of falling in love with fictional people.

I am still a member of the list. About a third are men. None of the members mention their emotional attachment to Lord Peter. However, both of the leaders are fiercely hostile to me. I was astonished the first time I encountered their rudeness. I had encountered “” on other lists as well – indeed, had even been largely responsible myself for starting an acrimonious exchange some years ago – but I’d never seen moderators do flaming themselves. Yet I persevered, quietly amused by the nasty replies my posts elicited. I kept putting out civil, moderately interesting comments on topics quite unrelated to love, but was informed that my remarks were worthless and would not be posted. Actually, I rather enjoyed baiting these ladies by uttering innocuous remarks that invariably provoked their paroxysms of fury. It seems to me (though perhaps not to the other list members, who after all have not seen their retorts to me) that these two women are in love with Lord Peter and feel horrified by the possibility that I’ll refer publicly to such feelings. Although I was getting a kick out of it, I’ve been too busy lately to carry it on. Perhaps it is genuinely painful for them to have their deepest sentiments observed unsentimentally by someone identified as a social scientist.

Two other questions about love were also on my mind as I fell asleep last night : one that I’ve never explored before. First: what is it like to “”? Of course, most of us have experienced it, but people don’t talk about falling out of love. In fact, I can hardly remember my own instances. How long does it take, on the average? I understand that “being in love” normally lasts about two years, but how long after that is the tapering off period? Or is it a sharp drop-off in some cases? It is supposedly affected by the amount of uncertainty about the prospects of a relationship with the love-object. Can it also be terminated by a shocking disappointment in the love-object? It is clearly a condition. When you’re in love, a scan of your brain will show a spot that “lights up” when you see a photo of your beloved. That brain effect is matched by the production of biochemicals throughout the body, with delightful sensations in the chest. I think that when you’re no longer in love, you cannot intentionally generate the same brain or other peptide responses. You just have to wait until Cupid strikes again. But I’m not sure.

Finally, while wondering whether the is a continuous curve or a cliff, it occurred to me that some such curves may not be “monotonic.” That is, some people may fall slightly out of love, then renew the spark, and then lose all feeling for each other, then – say twenty years later – fall in love again in a big way. I have never experienced anything like that. For me, once it’s gone, it never resumes. But I was reading an article about Italian men in their fifties. It seems that they are sitting ducks for a new . And the authors said that it was sometimes with a new woman and sometimes with their own wives. Really? Of all the times you’ve been in love, how many were with a person whom you’d loved before, with diminishing feelings? If you want to tell me your experiences, even anonymously, I’d love to hear them. Who knows: You may provide data for my next book

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Antiheroes in “Thank You for Smoking”

I just saw a delightful movie: Thank You for Smoking. It was funny in an unusual way. It made us laugh at completely reprehensible characters without breaking . There was, I think, not a single character in the story who was not morally flawed to an extreme degree. They were all – especially the protagonist, the guy who would normally be considered the hero. He was the world’s biggest , a guy with stupendous talent with deceptive rhetoric.

The whole story was a funny exposé of the logical convolutions involved in justifying the tobacco business – as the support of “.” The film was brilliant, and at the same time its moral message came across. Nick, the lobbyist, (see photo) gave the best arguments possible to justify big tobacco, engaging in pluralistic , sometimes against his naïve young son, sometimes against a morally outraged senator. One might have worried that his smooth reasoning might actually sway unsophisticated members of the audience, but actually, that outcome was never a possibility.

Most plays with messages can be divided into two categories: first, those that are heavy-handed, displaying the wrong-headed characters as who must be destroyed in the end, or, second, those portraying the dismissively as ridiculous, laughable. Either way, the audience knows better than to empathize with them. I personally dislike films of the second type, when I am supposed to enjoying feeling superior to a subnormal character’s folly. , for example, is of that type. I cannot laugh at people for whom I have . On the other hand, a hero who is too perfect is not interesting either.

The remarkable thing about Thank You for Smoking was that Nick’s flaws are exaggerated, yet we like him. We admire his intelligence, and even identify with him as he exercises his “moral ,” as he describes himself. He’s a perfect anti-hero.

Antiheroes can be great moral instructors. We learn to be less judgmental and rigid from caring about them, even though we know they are wrong. Fortunately, Nick did not fool himself, even when he was consciously trying to fool everyone else. He knew how many people were dying as a result of tobacco. In fact, he met regularly for lunch with two other lobbyists, the self-styled “,” who promoted liquor and , and he boasted that his particular job killed vastly more people per year than theirs did. Nor did he seem to have any inner qualms. His debating skill was a sport and, when he justified playing at it, he merely said that it was “paying the mortgage.” In no way do we let Nick off the hook for his sleazy deeds – yet we like him and wish him well. We can laugh at him in a friendly way, seeing our own comparable manipulativeness mirrored in his actions. I am Nick sometimes, and so I can forgive him and enjoy him, even when he is wrong. You are Nick sometimes too. Antiheroes are mirrors that reveal our own not-so-great qualities, yet with a light enough touch to allow us to feel affection for them.

There were jokes elsewhere in the film, yet I didn’t laugh at Nick much. I smiled at him, with affection, as I might smile at my own foibles. Eventually he takes a principled step, thank goodness, by quitting his job as tobacco lobbyist. There’s a moment of for him – but only a moment. In his next job, he is training other lobbyists in the evasion of scientific evidence about a new public health risk: .

This is the kind of film I want to see more of. It has a message that definitely gets across; nobody will take up because of it and probably lots of people will quit. Yet it allows us to feel good, to extend our empathy beyond our normal everyday limits. It gives us laughter, affection, and a number of peptides that are good for our health and good for our society. Hooray for this film! This kind of movie, if executed well and often, can save our world – one social problem at a time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Globalization and Global Collapse

I don’t know how much to feel disheartened by ’s excellent article in the April 27 issue of the New York Review of Books. It’s a “good news/bad news” kind of report that gives the good news first. Gray covers three books on globalization by , Suzanne Berger et al, and Barry C Lynn, paying most attention to Cohen.

Here’s the good news – and it’s probably true. Contrary to widespread popular belief, the world is not converging toward a single unified type of economy. It never was converging, and today’s rapid does not mean that it is now either. Different societies are different. Moreover, there’s not a single type of economy that is so much better than all the others that the whole world will have to adopt it just to keep up. One the contrary; societies continue to differ, and so do even corporations. For example, some successful most of their production, while other companies manage the whole operation from start to finish. It’s not clear that one style is superior to the other.

Gray accepts Daniel Cohen’s opinion that the whole globalization kafuffle has been overblown anyhow. has indeed expanded during the last thirty years, but most of it is between rich countries. Global trade is beneficial economically, but it is the rich who are trading and benefiting. Regrettably, globalization is not helping economic development in the poor countries much. Those countries are remaining poor because they have so little that rich countries want to buy. He writes,

“The poor of the world are not so much exploited as neglected and forgotten. At the same time the press and television are drenching them with images of the riches they lack. For the poor, globalization is not an accomplished fact but a condition that remains to be achieved. The irony of the current phase of globalization is that it universalizes the demand for a better life without providing the means to satisfy it.”

This may not sound to you like “good news,” but I think it is. What Gray is accepting here is Cohen’s opinion that globalization is a good thing, though many people assume otherwise. Or rather, it would be a good thing if it were to happen to the poor of the world, which so far has not occurred.

The bad news is, as Gray points out, that it is never going to occur. He criticizes Cohen for omitting an adequate recognition of the limitations imposed by geographical and climatic factors. The depletion of natural resources, the growth of population, and the melting of the will mean that the poor of the world can never catch up with the rest of us – and indeed that we rich folks are going to become less prosperous as well.

This is very bad news indeed – especially since Gray believes that it is inevitable. Nothing is going to replenish the fossil fuels that have made industrialization so efficient. Indeed, despite his admiration for Cohen’s upbeat thesis, Gray criticizes his conventional economic belief that in a market economy will save us all by creating new solutions to our material problems. The impending fossil fuel depletion would be enough to cause a crash, and even if it were not looming in the foreseeable future, the global warming that these fuels cause will wreak havoc. We can’t win.

I don’t disagree with Gray (I wish I could) and the strongest argument that I can marshal against him will not provide any hope that his pessimism may be unwarranted. We have to acknowledge, I think, that the planet’s physical limitations are going impose painful constraints on our standard of living.

My only question about this article is conceptual, not substantive. That is, I think Gray may be mixing up to historical phenomena that are really different processes. What is globalization? Is it necessarily the cause of the world’s geographical and climatic crisis?

To be sure, and the consumption of scarce material resources are the cause of the impending crisis. But international trade is what we mean by globalization. It is conceivable that the world might industrialize on a fairly local basis without increasing international trade at all. In fact, the socialist countries were doing so throughout the cold war. Industrialization was using up natural resources and heating up the atmosphere, even in the absence of globalization. Our wasteful lifestyle, not international trade, is causing the environmental crisis.

Still, that distinction is mere hair=splitting if we are going to collapse anyway because both of them are occurring together. Halting globalization, even if it could be done, would not solve the problem. Let’s hope that Cohen, not Gray, is right, for the only promising help must come from innovation. Nothing else is left to hope for.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Hiding From Nice People

My friend has a slogan at the bottom of every e-mail. It says: “kth Law of Cyberspace: We are all, as individuals, in over our heads.”

We sure are. That explains why people are having to hide from each other. Good ole Earl prints his address and phone number right there in plain sight, despite his apparent anxiety about being too much “in demand.”

I am easy to contact too, but that does impose extra burdens. I have to spend far too much time weeding out and . And I’m just a normal individual. Imagine the burden placed on and . No wonder they hide from us. You don't expect to get the address or phone number of a movie star, of course, but you cannot even contact the of most magazines. Go to their web sites and you’ll not find their location, e-mail address, or phone numbers. Articles, yes. But ? No way. If you want to submit an article, for example, tough luck! I have just now spent over one hour searching for the book review editor of . Eventually I gave up. Even the New York phone directory cannot find them.

Consider my university. Twenty years ago my department had a secretary whose main job was to answer the phone. Then came voice mail. I was chairing the department but my office was downstairs. To get information that I needed right away, I had to walk upstairs. In fact, there was not a single phone number on the whole campus that ordinarily would be answered by a person. I once phoned on the morning of a big snowstorm to ask whether the parking lot had been cleared, but I couldn’t reach anyone to ask.

The same goes for government offices. I was running a conference a few years ago and some of my European speakers had urgent problems requiring a wire from the authorizing their visit. That building in Ottawa (see photo) contains some 6,000 employees, but there is no one who answers the phone. You have to enter the name of the person on your keypad, and if you don’t know who is covering, say, the Bosnia desk, there’s no way to find out. I spent two hours trying, that morning. Eventually I phoned the secretary of the foreign minister at parliament, not the ministry. She made some phone calls for me, bless her heart.

It is entirely understandable why people and organizations want to protect their time from useless junk communications. Yet by sparing themselves this unwanted contact, they waste the time of perfectly nice people such as you and me. The total amount of time they save is far less than the amount of our time they by making us wait in or even search for addresses and phone number.

I call this a . is wonderful when it works. It is now too hard to master. My technically savvy assistant has spent all week trying to set up a new computer system for me. It’s still slower than the old system because it’s too complicated. But then if the technology works, it should be making life easier for us but that very ease encourages people to send messages frivolously. We bother each other so much that everyone has to hide. Two weeks ago I bought a handbag on eBay. Today there were messages from the seller, from eBay, and from the Chase Bank, some of which imply that some of the other messages are designed to get me to supply my PIN number and password, which in fact I think I have done. I can’t tell who is lying and who’s authentic. I’ll probably have to change my password on a lot of accounts. I wish I had never bought anything on eBay. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in paying for the purse, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a as a dishonorable customer because I cannot figure out how to fill in the forms they required.

What’s the answer? Honesty would help, and self-restraint in communicating. But the creators of technology need to recognize the value of . I cannot learn to use my cell phone. It’s just too complicated. I cannot play the DVD tonight; something complex has happened to it too. The is unfathomable. My wireless laptop is not working because of interference by someone in this apartment building. has become far too complicated. I am using an old version because the newer ones give me grief. They even change what I have written into different words that I never meant to say.

But besides simplifying technology, we have a right to expect some people to make themselves available. Private citizens have the right not to have e-mail or even telephone service, if they so choose. But we have a right to expect more from businesses, universities, and government agencies. It should always be possible to get through to a human being within one minute. What we need is a demanding that kind of accessibility from every organization with whom we do business.

You start it and I’ll join it.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Wanted: A Good Theory of Memory

I wish someone would give us a good to explain the workings of . Since I’m not a , maybe someone has and I just missed hearing about it. Why do people remember certain things and forget certain others?

Sure, there’s the simple fact that is, indeed, short-term. If the phone book is on the other side of the room, I have to rush to the phone, saying the number aloud until I get a chance to punch it into the keypad. Even then I sometimes get it wrong. But that is normal. I don’t think I’m necessarily slipping in that aspect of short-term memory.

Yet in other ways I am slipping. Ken Simons, my worthy right-hand man, often reminds that he had given me some significant information about which I can recall nothing at all. And when I think of a new chore that must be handled, I can rush to the to-do list to write it down, but lose it before I get there.

Memory clearly has something to do with . I had no opportunity to explore my unwelcome cognitions on 's lumpy but, like everyone else, I prefer to forget them. I can't always do so. Sometimes an embarrassing gaffe will erupt into the present, arousing about some trivial foolishness of sixty years ago – such as one silly dispute I had with high school friends about whether to eat ice cream with a fork or a spoon. That particular memory often evades my strategies for repressing it.

Yet other memories are welcome and vivid. Chatting with a friend yesterday, I recounted in exquisite detail a conversation that I had three years ago with about , , and Israeli culpability in the conflict with Palestinians. I remembered his exact words. Why? Partly because the topics were fraught with . Partly because Rob Morrow was a salient person in my world at the time. And partly because I liked the opinions he expressed in that conversation. Had it been disagreeable, I probably would have tried to forget.

An attempt to forget is an emotional project. A few days ago I received a gratuitously hostile letter from a guy whom I had previously liked. Ouch. I knew that it would take two days before the hurt would diminish. Throughout those two days, the event was front-and-center in my , a nasty cognition that was being processed. I was deciding how to deal with him hereafter, and it took time for my ambivalence to settle into a clear intention. As the memory became manageable, the pain subsided.

Sometimes it is indeterminate whether a cognition is really a memory, as opposed to an , a hunch, or perhaps even a . For example, I cannot recall when two of my aunts died. I know they are dead, and they must have passed on within the past 15 years, but I’ve forgotten the particulars. They lived in California and I hadn’t seen them for many years. They were quite old. Death came as no shock, hence it evidently escaped my attention. Is that the explanation?

Today I came across the name of a colleague whom I haven’t seen in eight or ten years. I think he has some potentially fatal ailment, but I don’t actually remember what disease it is or how I heard about it – if, indeed, I actually did hear. Perhaps it’s not even true. Perhaps it was only a blip of imagination that crossed my mind today. But it still feels true. He’s a nice man. Maybe I’m trying to repress that because I like him and want him to live. Is that the explanation?

Repression doesn’t work very logically, if that is what’s behind forgetfulness. Yesterday I had a conversations that involved two unpleasant memories. My old friend Linda called to discuss her marital troubles. It seems that her husband Arnold has had a mistress, Paula, for many years, though Linda hadn’t found out until recently. Yes, it’s true that decades ago she had seen them kissing, but after a stormy confrontation she had forgiven Arnold and put the memory aside. She hadn’t exactly forgotten, but she had no longer thought about it and never suspected that it was continuing. Now she knows that it was.

As I listened to all this, I wondered how she had managed to trust Arnold. There had been earlier grounds for suspicion. Finally, I gently reminded her. “Of course, there had been that scandal before your marriage,” I said. She had told me about it herself. Arnold had been involved inappropriately with another woman while they were engaged, but though she learned about it, she had not broken the engagement.

Now she has forgotten that. Nothing of the sort ever happened, she said, sounding genuinely mystified. Oh my. Repression. I decided to skip it, not press her to recall.

But then she caught me in a of my own. She reminded me that Arnold had once brought Paula to my home. They stayed a week, presumably attending a conference in Toronto. He had intended to share a bedroom with her, but I had put my foot down on that subject. Linda was my friend and I would not go along with such a betrayal of her. Indeed, I had told her what had happened.

“You said that Paula had whorish eyes. You didn’t like her,” Linda said.

I was astonished. I don’t remember ever meeting Paula. I don’t recall that Arnold brought her to my house. Knowing Arnold, I wouldn’t put it past him. But for a whole week? How could I forget a thing like that? I suppose I put it out of my mind as part of my accommodation to Linda, since she chose to stay with him. But why did she retain those particular unpleasant memories and repress others that seem equally unpleasant?

Why did I repress the memory of Arnold’s and Paula’s visit, yet recall the memory of Arnold’s philandering before the marriage? There’s no obvious logic behind it.

I don’t want a perfect memory. Painful recollections remain painful. The only thing to do is manage them. Freud wanted, above all, for his patients to have available to their conscious recall everything that was troublesome. He wanted to transfer all the contents of the into the conscious mind. I am skeptical about that ambition, for in my experience the pain does not diminish. You just get to remember throughout your lifetime your stupid insistence that ice cream should be eaten with a fork. And every time you think of it, you cringe. Ten thousand times, you cringe. And that’s nothing, compared to some other memories I could tell you about.

Freud was wrong. But who has a better theory?

Friday, April 07, 2006

What Does TV Do to Kids?

Yesterday and today I have read articles about the effects of television on children. ’s column in today’s Globe and Mail argues along familiar lines: that children aged eight to 18 spend, on the average, six hours and 21 minutes per day watching TV, with effects that are often pernicious. The more they watch, the fewer friends they have, the more calories they eat, and the more likely they are to engage in sex at a young age. Those who play violent video games have higher blood pressure and more anti-social behavior.

Despite these dark findings, one can also see (as Picard himself does) another side, as articulated by Dr. , a researcher who wants the more promising to be studied. “Their potential to enrich the lives of our children are, in fact, enormous and that potential needs to be explored,” he wrote.

“The ,” Picard suggests, “are an intimate part of our lives — no matter how young or old we are. We need to understand their effects, and how to make them more positive than negative.”

My new book, Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society, addresses primarily the effects of mass entertainment (especially storytelling) on adults, not children. However, I do pay attention to the effects of viewing TV — which can be either negative or positive, depending on the content of the stories. It is true that there are physiological consequences of sitting too long instead of running and playing, and there are also social consequences of from playmates too much. Such immediate, inevitable effects of prolonged viewing are certain to be deleterious. Kids need a certain amount of exercise, fresh air, and play with friends that will preclude.

However, the other effects of television depend mainly on the content of the programming, and cannot be defined either as good or bad without reference to the quality of the shows. That applies to both the health effects and the that come from exposure to them. The health impact mostly comes from the experience of with fictional characters who are going through emotions that are either positive or negative. When we , or feel joy, love, or appreciation of beauty, our and cardiovascular systems benefit. When we feel anger, anxiety, disgust, fear, or grief, there are measurable health effects too.

And TV shows also have major social impacts. Like Picard and Christakis, I believe that it’s immensely important to produce entertainment with beneficial content. Children imitate. Violent, anti-social behavior and sexual displays predictably evoke similar behavior in viewers — especially young viewers. Everyone learns by vicarious experience. Providing to millions of youth at a time is an enormous opportunity, as well as a potential disaster. No one imitates everything that is observed; we are selective. We imitate the behavior of those with whom we identify emotionally. Hence a who wishes to encourage a particular attitude should manifest it in a likeable character, not a villain. For example, not all televised violence affects viewers in the same way. If the violence is committed only by unlikable persons, a viewer is less likely to copy it than if the himself resorts to violence. Anyone studying the effects on children should, therefore, carry out some kind of , counting — just for starters — the ratio of anti-social acts perpetrated by the likeable and unlikable characters. There are also numerous other factors to take into account besides the simple quantity of exposure to TV.

In fact, there are methodological problems with the research that measures simply the amount of exposure. In the current (April 10) issue of Forbes Magazine, reports some research of his own that differs from the usual line of research. He points out the flaws in most other studies that show overall negative academic effects on children. Such studies, he complains, “measure how much television is watched by a sample of children, then ask whether those who watch a lot do worse than those who watch less.” But children are heavy viewers differ in other ways from those who view TV less. They are poorer, with less educated parents, and so on. Hence it is impossible to determine what is causing these children to do poorly in school – the TV or their other handicaps. Gentzkow and his colleague Jesse Shapiro decided to look instead for an event that was not related to children’s but which changed the amount of TV that young children watched. What they chose to study was the introduction of television in the US around 1950. Some cities got TV as early as 1945, while others got it as late as 1953. They were able to compare the performance of children on given in 1964, then compare the children who had TV when they were young to those who got it later.

Gentzkow writes, “Our analysis conclusively rejects the hypothesis that TV had a negative effect. In specific areas like reading and general knowledge (geography, science, current events and so forth), the evidence suggests that kids who grew up with TV scored higher. The size of the gain on these tests was of a magnitude roughly equivalent to 25 points on the verbal SAT.”

This research actually seems consistent with another unexpected finding that I mentioned in my book, and that has argued in much greater detail in Everything Bad is Good for You, television may be increasing the of viewers. Around the world, intelligence is increasing at the rate of three points per decade. (The tests themselves are always re-standardized so that the mean is 100, but this requires “raising the bar” continuously.) The best explanation for this welcome worldwide change is the introduction of television. Johnson also argues that video games improve intelligence levels by giving kids a mental “workout.”

None of these benefits should be celebrated in a simple-minded way. There are almost certainly both harmful and benign effects of television. What needs to be done now is much more careful research to demonstrate just what helps kids develop, and what does not.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Who Ya Calling “Neo-Con?”

says he’s no longer a , and he’s getting a lot of publicity for writing a book announcing his defection from that political persuasion. For example, Saturday’s Globe and Mail offers, not only a book review by but also a lengthy article by . Both articles are well written, but they leave me uneasy. My problem is this: I’m not sure that what they are talking about even exists.

If something has a name, it must exist — right? Not really. Most writers seem to define neoconservatism by listing certain doctrines that supposedly go together and that are shared by almost all the ranking members of George W. Bush’s team, plus the numerous Americans who agree with them. The difficulty is this: I know some of the people whom they are calling neoconservative and, so far as I can tell, they don’t see eye to eye on many issues at all. In fact, I cannot recognize any cluster of attitudes and values that those people do have in common – at least not the views that are being attributed to them. Although claims he is leaving the fold, I doubt that there’s any fold for him to leave.

His book, , does trace the history of this supposed movement but, for the sake of clarity, it is necessarily somewhat reductive. Ian Brown buys into his account, whereas he might contribute more by criticizing it. (A more accurate depiction of neoconservatism is available on Wikipedia.) Brown and Fukuyama are not unique in pointing out that the core neoconservative intellectuals were the sons of who, as students at the , became followers of , an apostate who abhorred Stalinism and Nazism equally. The other putative father of neoconservatism was , though there was little or no interaction Between Shachtmanites and Straussians during their formative years. It is true that a number of former CCNY Shachtmanites became prominent leftist intellectuals; the ones with whom I studied include , , , and (see photo) for whom I worked five years as a research assistant. Most of them have rejected the neoconservative identity, a term that was apparently coined in 1973 by another former Shachtmanite, , who remained a , as did and their ally, , previously an organizer for . However, some former socialists (e.g. , Feuer, and ) did become famously conservative.

Fukuyama does not define neoconservatism in terms of economic and social policies, for to do so would reveal the disparate, incoherent nature of the movement that he treats as a single political orientation. He and many other writers do distinguish it from old- fashioned (or “paleo”) , which favored “small government.” However, the main qualities that they impute to neoconservatism are shared foreign and . Neoconservatives are defined as great believers in democracy and in the promotion of it through interventionist, militaristic American leadership. Presumably they are united in their skepticism about multilateral, . They allegedly favor the use of military force to impose democracy around the world, most conspicuously in Iraq. (Yet all along, Fukuyama had numerous allies among the so-called neoconservatives in objecting to the .)

It is surprising that some fine, humane intellectuals have failed to protest against being called neoconservative. Among these people, I know Lipset best. His health is irreparably broken, so he can no longer speak for himself. However, in 1996 he wrote in a memoir:

“Intellectually I moved a considerable distance, from believing in Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism to a moderate form of democratic socialism and finally to a middle-of-the-road position, as a centrist, or as some would say, a conservative Democrat. In recent decades, leftist critics of my writings and subsequent politics have placed me in that category known as neoconservative.”

What were his “subsequent politics?” I would call him a . He wrote speeches for ’s presidential campaign. He was one of the world’s foremost scholarly proponents of democracy. His stroke preceded the war in Iraq, so he wrote nothing on that subject, but he was (and officially remains) a director of the , which published papers strongly criticizing that war. He worked patiently for a mutually acceptable solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, serving as president of the American in the Middle East. As a member of the , he co-chaired the .

What shocks me is the absurd assertion that the support for democracy is a “neoconservative” doctrine, regardless of the nature of such support. I myself am a left liberal and my fervor for democracy is almost limitless. I want all democratic societies to sponsor the spread of democracy throughout in the world — but without imposing it on anyone by force. That criterion makes an enormous difference.

Political views come in such ill-assorted packages that it is often misleading to apply a single category to any one of them. Thus at official functions honoring Lipset, I have met other former socialist “neoconservatives,” who differ as widely on foreign policy issues as any other random collection of Americans. There was , for example, who had once been a herself but had become a hard-nosed militarist famous for supporting those right-wing dictatorships that aligned with the United States against communism. There was , a somewhat younger former Shachtmanite who is often called a neoconservative these days, but who heads the , dispensing money to help democratic opposition movements get rid of nonviolently in , Georgia, Ukraine, and other repressive regimes. (What a difference makes!) There was also Francis Fukuyama himself, who also had been a protégé of Lipset’s and who delivered the second annual Seymour Martin Lipset Democracy Lecture. Fukuyama disavowal of his neoconservative identity was mainly because he disapproves of the Bush Administration’s Iraq adventure. Plenty of his erstwhile allies had the same misgivings all along.

One of Lipset’s closest friends during the last decades of his professionally active life was , who had also been my mentor. I wrote to him recently, seeking to test my own understanding of Lipset against his own. He had never perceived him as a nneoconservative, nor did he ever think of himself as such. (“I am a child of the Roosevelt era,” he explained.) In fact, he believes that he and Lipset had both been recruited from Harvard to Stanford’s Hoover Institution because they were both more liberal than most of the other scholars there: “I think our ideas and goals were essentially libertarian, liberal, welfare state, democratic, anti- totalitarian, tolerant of experimentation in art and life styles, opposed to the politicization of social science.”

Excellent. So let’s insist on calling those values “liberal,” not neoconservative! If, as widely assumed, neoconservatism consists of the willingness to impose democracy on other countries, a lot more people would be more appropriately identified as liberal, especially those of us who love democracy and want to help the whole world attain it — but only when they request .