Ever had the bejesus scared out of you?

In this posting, I discuss some scary books that were made into movies. What are some of the scariest books you have read or movies you have seen?

I have frequently observed that there is a great deal of difference between reading a book and seeing a movie based on a book. When it comes to “scary” books, there is all the difference in the world.

Here are some books that, if you have the patience, will creep you out unlike any  of the movies that were made of them.

The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty

You’ve either heard about or seen the 1973 movie with its rotating heads and levitational hijinks–and it was a scary film. But the thrills were quick and made you jump out of your seat. Reading the 1971 novel by Blatty, a former Jesuit, as I did, late at night, left me with the slowly realized yet oppressive sense of evil that accompanies a nightmare. The story is based on an occurrence in St. Louis, MO in 1949 that is still part of the local lore. Reading Blatty’s novel is truly a creepy experience, and if you dare give it a try some night when you are alone.

Oh, and as far as movies go, one of the most frightening scenes in any film I have seen occurs in Exorcist III, when something wicked appears suddenly out of nowhere in the background at an insane asylum with a pair of breastbone shears that are about to remove someone’s head off-camera. You don’t see the beheading: you don’t need to. Your pants have already been filled. Exorcist III is based on Blatty’s follow-up novel, Legion. 

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

This old saw? You have to be kidding me?

Frank Langella

Frank Langella’s portrayal of the Count probably most closely approximated the evil of Stoker’s bloodsucker–and the seductiveness.

No, actually I am not kidding. Ever since Bela Lugosi brought the character to life in black in white (1931), the horror of Dracula as envisioned by Stoker was lost. Even the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t Bram Stoker’s; nowhere in Stoker is the name Vlad the Impaler associated with the horror from Transylvania.

Dracula is an epistolary novel, i.e., one that is told through letters and journals of those involved. I first read it it when I was a sophomore in high school, and it chilled me as I read it at night. True evil doesn’t jump out at you, it seduces and eventually smothers you: it isn’t Jason or Freddy, it’s crystal meth.

We have become so inured to the evil in our world, I think, that we don’t recognize it any more and so we laugh at what we used to find frightening (or we romanticize it–don’t get me started on the Twilight series). Yet if you read Stoker’s original, in the quiet of your home, late at night, perhaps you will once again find that the absence of goodness leaves you with a chill somewhere deep down.

I’m not the only one who thinks Dracula is worth a second look: Another blogger, Peter Galen Massey, has taken a look at Dracula’s legacy this month, and it is worth a read!

Here’s a little video you might enjoy. It will relax you.

Happy Halloween!

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Coulter’s world of ugly truths

Mugged – Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama, by Ann Coulter (Sentinel HC, 2012, 236 pages)

Cover of Mugged (2012), by Ann CoulterCoulter is loudly excoriated by some on the “left,” and sometimes physically attacked by them, because of her acerbic wit and sarcastic approach to political issues. “Sarcastic” is a good word in her case, because it stems from the Greek, “sarx,” which means “flesh;” her sarcasm can draw blood. But she can also make you laugh at times, in spite of yourself, as she is the master of the reductio ad absurdum.

But … and this is a big but … there is always some truth to what she says which is why it is dangerous to write her off as a fanatic. In her latest book, she deals with a subject that most people don’t want to talk about: racial attitudes in the United States. She cites disturbing and high profile examples of how people were called racist since the 70s when, in fact, there was no racism involved. Liberals–couldn’t let go of the opportunity to create a society of victims and victimizers, but the OJ verdict changed all that. After that, Coulter claims, white guilt was expiated: a black murderer of two white people was acquitted, just as once they would have been found gulity by an all-white jury in states like Mississippi. Who was the villain in the OJ case? Mark Fuhrman–a Los Angeles detective who lied about using the “N” word in his past. A sacrificial red herring appeared in time to save the day, and OJ walked.

After white guilt couldn’t be played any longer, Coulter says, liberals hijacked the Civil Rights Act for any and all of their pet projects, from gay marriage, the right to a partial birth abortion, or to free birth control pills. Call it a “right,” and you don’t have to argue any further, and those who oppose you are rights-opposing-bigots (formerly, racists).

Love her or hate her, it’s not wise to ignore Coulter. She is probably the nearest thing we have to a “gadfly;” and Socrates, if he were alive, might tell you that gadflies are important for a well-thought-out society–but are also an endangered species. If you’re on the other side (or “far side”–as she is) of the aisle, you need to understand her arguments instead of simply shouting her down. If you’re on her (far) side of the aisle, you will be nodding in agreement throughout. If, like me, you bridge the gap between the two, you will read her cautiously. But you will take to heart the underlying theme of her book: there are those who, since the 1960s, have been working to bring about major changes in the way we think and behave as a nation–often with the best of intentions but frequently with adverse consequences. Maybe, maybe not. But if so, it is more important than ever that we never stop thinking for ourselves.

Mugged is a very disturbing and sometimes ugly book to read. There is truth here, as well as conclusions jumped to too hastily. But it is the truth in here that frightens me, and makes me more aware than ever that the times may have changed some for the better, but the undertow of hatred still threatens to pull us under and  into a place I don’t want to be.

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

Killing Kennedy: “…a riveting period in history.”

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.

French author Marcel Proust once wrote a soporific epic called Remembrance of Things Past in which he made much of taking a bite of something called a “Madeleine” cake. What was special about this supposedly tasty treat was that it caused an explosion of “involuntary” memories, opening vistas in the mind of times, places and people from his past. Reading Killing Kennedy – The End of Camelot, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (Holt, Henry & Company, Inc., 2012), had the same effect on me. It opened up hurts and hopes long thought quieted by time. It brought the whole panoply of exciting, colorful, inspiring and horrifying events to my consciousness afresh. I was fourteen years old again, saying to myself—pleading with the authors to tell me as once I pleaded with a grainy black and white Walter Cronkite: “Please, please, say it isn’t so.”

O’Reilly and Dugard’s first collaboration, Killing Lincoln, has been on the New York Times non-fiction best seller’s list for 54 weeks (as of this writing), and is currently number 6 (see my review of Killing Lincoln). In its first week of publication, Killing Kennedy is number 1. Their success, as near as I can tell, comes from being able to write a relatable narrative that informs and touches on a very basic level. Neither is an historian. Their books are not scholarly. They just tell a riveting story. O’Reilly, of course, is a conservative lightening rod because of his role as a commentator on Fox News, but anyone who doesn’t read Killing Kennedy because of that is guilty of an ad hominem reaction that may serve to do little but deprive them of a special experience.

There are no earth shattering revelations in this book, nothing that will change a conspiracy theorist’s mind or cause a “one man, one gun” theorist to shift opinions. This is quite simply a narrative of a magical time in our storied past, beginning with PT 109 and leading to that awful day in Dallas when America changed forever.

History is essentially a narrative, and this is a well-written one that capsulizes the Camelot years, focusing on events and persons whose names are all familiar to anyone who lived through the period—many of whom had every reason in the world to want JFK dead. This is not hagiography however; O’Reilly / Dugard go into great lengths to address Kennedy’s legendary womanizing (“Sex is John Kennedy’s Achilles’ heel.”). There is no excusing Kennedy for his authorization of the debacle of the Bay of Pigs; Kennedy did not excuse himself, appearing on national television to accept full responsibility for a decision which he made. Oddly, his approval rating soared to over 80 percent in the wake of his television address (his average approval rating never dipped below 70 percent). He may have screwed up at the Bay of Pigs, but he learned many things in the process—things that would later help him avoid a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis a year later.

It is probably naïveté on my part, but I am a firm believer in the role of Providence in history and in the role that leaders play in that history. Lincoln came out of nowhere to become the man who held this nation together in a time of its greatest crisis. Kennedy should have lost to Nixon, but won by the slimmest of margins. I have always believed that in Kennedy, God raised up a man to ensure that the world would not dissolve into a fine white powder in October 1962. One thing that does come across clearly in this book is that in the face of danger, good leaders must be decisive and stand up to national security threats. On national television, he advised a terrified country of his resolve:

“Aggressive conduct, if allowed to grow unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word. Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western hemisphere.”

“If anything shows how much JFK has grown since taking the Oath of Office,” O’Reilly writes, “it is this resolve, at this moment.”

I have been waiting for such resolve from the Obama White House as I read about ongoing nuclear development in Iran. And waiting. And waiting.

Jacqueline Kennedy and her children, Caroline and John, walk down the steps of the Capitol to follow the funeral cortege of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, on November 25th 1963. The nation watched on grainy black and white televisions. Image: Wikipedia

This is not a conspiracy theory book. Like me, O’Reilly / Dugard are fairly certain that there was only one gunman in Dallas, and that he fired from the Texas School Book Depository. It’s a hard pill to swallow, which is why so many are still dedicated to a two or three-shooter hypothesis—even though none of the facts bear it out. It is just hard to believe that one “loon” with a rifle and a very disturbed mind can have such a devastating effect on the lives of so many. As with the “loon” who shot Gabby Gifford, it’s easier to stomach if it is part of some grand conspiracy. But life is sometimes that absurd. One lone loon can change history. Oswald did more than kill Kennedy: he altered the character of a nation.

When I finished this book, I was fourteen again. I could recall how one of my fellow students at Our Saviour’s Grade School came back late from lunch. At first, he was in trouble—but he had a good excuse: when he was home, he had heard on the radio that someone shot the President. What followed was surreal: a quick trip across the street for benediction, where there was sobbing in the pews and disbelief; early dismissal from school, and then an entire weekend in front of a small black and white television with rabbit ears watching live broadcasts. The president’s return to DC in a casket, the news reports about Oswald, the murder of Oswald on Sunday morning, and the heart-breaking funeral on Monday were all played out for a nation in shock.

It hurt to read this book. I suspect that some others who lived through this will feel that hopelessness once again. There has never been a president since Lincoln who captured the spirit of the country or the hearts of its people like John F. Kennedy. For all of his flaws, he was a man with a vision, a man with strength, intelligence, and grace. All of this comes through in O’Reilly’s book. And that makes it worth reading—I don’t care what you think of the author and his political leanings.

Camelot ended November 22, 1963. Killing Kennedy reminds us once again of what we had, what we lost, and what we have never seen since.

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

The Righteous Mind: a paradigm-shifting look at how we behave ethically

This is a guest review of  The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon, 2012, 448 pages) by John Scarbrough, Ph.D., a professor of Psychology and Sociology at Lincoln Land Community College, Springfield, Illinois. It is, however, more than just a review. It is a thorough analysis of a paradigm-shifting book that may foster the integration of philosophical ethics with psychology, sociology, anthropology, and perhaps even biology in college curricula of the future. It purports to help those with left political leanings understand those who lean right a little better, but this is not just a book about political leanings. It is a book about how we are motivated ethically, and it is well worth the attention of thoughtful people everywhere.

A Tale (Tail) of Two Elephants
Louise and Ralph are elephants tied together at the tail. Louise, the mommy elephant, almost always turns left but in a forward direction often in disregard of what her tiny rider Logic instructs her to do. Ralph, the daddy elephant, almost always turns right and aims backwards, usually in disregard for what his little rider Facts directs.

And, of course, if they are standing still, there is tension from the opposite pulls. But when they try to go somewhere or get something done they pull and strain and get red and blue in the face. Well Louise generally gets blue in the face and Ralph generally gets red in the face. And they snort and holler and almost trample one another in frustration. Louise accuses Ralph of not listening, not seeing nuance, not stopping to smell the flowers but worst of all, Louise accuses Ralph of being a dunderhead pachyderm low on empathy and not caring for others at all. Ralph bellows that Louise is soft in the head, illogical and always giving away everything they own and not requiring the recipients to work for it. Louise loves change and hope and anything new and Ralph hates disruptions in his hard working routine, despises rule breakers and particularly hates new elephants coming into his territory, particularly ones that are taller or browner or believe in a different elephant god. How dare they?

Book Summary

Part I “Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second”

“The mind is divided, like a rider and an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.”(p. xix)
The elephant is made up of successful, evolved emotional and intuitive reaction modules which have served us well and have helped us survive as a species. The rider is a later add-on who generally isn’t as rational as we believe him to be, but rather rationalizes what the elephant has already decided to do. This backs up Hume’s view of human nature and strongly disagrees with Plato’s views of our rationality. And it agrees with Wilhelm Wundt’s experiments in his 1890’s psychology laboratory.

It’s all based on research, including fMRI’s of people’s brains while making decisions. The activity goes to the amygdala and other emotional centers first, actions are initiated and then the information goes to the “thinking” neo-cortex.

But the rider does convince the elephant sometimes and is most often successful when he is among a group of supportive peers whom he admires, respects and whose approval he wants. The elephant is most likely to listen when these people are gently questioning the elephant’s conclusions. But when either Louise or Ralph is scared, they both react with fear and become more conservative. Even bad smells and tastes can make the elephant more judgmental and more likely to push her further into her entrenched position.

Later in the book, he adds that group rituals, group marching and music helps us change the direction of our hard-headed elephant.

Morality partially grew out of an innate distinction between the worship of the sacred on one end and the violation of the sacred resulting in disgust on the other. We have a “face-finding module” in our brain which takes amorphous stimuli and constructs the perception of a face, perhaps an angel or an elf. Added to this is a built-in module to seek agency. The kitten who is chasing your hand under the covers is not thinking about the cause but only attacking the effect. We construct great searches for the cause and often have concluded gods cause the rumblings of nature. Whether it be the farmer in Kansas praying for rain or the Hawaiian trying to placate the volcano goddess Pele, we humans have looked for lots of supernatural causes. Whether there is a god or not is another question, but we certainly are tuned to look for her.

Morality is intuitive first and second socially learned to acquire the continued interaction of peers we value. Morality, according to Haidt, is not about the search for truth. And this tells us a great deal about why liberals and conservatives yell right past one another.

We lie, cheat and with the help of our press secretary (prefrontal lobe) are so good at it that we easily convince ourselves. Two of our “logic” tricks are special twists of confirmation bias: “Can I believe that?” is used when our elephant already has a strong emotionally based belief and we want to believe it. “Must I believe that?” is used when someone else is trying to persuade us and we don’t want to believe it. If 99% of climate scientists conclude global warming is largely the result of humans and we believe it is not, then all we need is to find one scientist (or more often, one politician) who disagrees to enable us to hang onto our belief.

Part II “There is More to Morality than Harm and Fairness”

The rider is reason; the elephant, intuition / inclinations: who is really in charge? Image: Startuplokal.org

Are you liberal and WEIRD (western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic)? If so your values tend to narrowly emphasize individual rights and fairness. If you are conservative and non-WEIRD, your moral systems emphasizes these but also emphasizes the importance of the community and things sacred. Conservatives emphasize a broader set of values in making judgments while liberals focus so much on individual rights that they minimize the importance of tradition, rule of authority as well as the divine and religious. No wonder a woman’s rights trump the sacredness of the fetus for the liberal and the words “God and country” ring so many bells for the conservative.

So both the liberal and the conservative elephants’ moralities are based in a continuum of at least these five dimensions: care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Individualistic cultures emphasize care and fairness while communitarian societies emphasize all five. Isn’t it interesting that liberals tend to be individualistic and conservatives tend to emphasize the group? Just the opposite of how many political arguments play out in America today.

Haidt argues our moral foundations arose to help us survive in groups. Care/harm evolved to enable us to take care of children; fairness/cheating evolved to make cooperative groups work and help keep members from being exploited; loyalty/betrayal arose from making and keeping coalitions; authority/subversion came from establishing relationships in hierarchical groups; and sanctity/degradation came first from avoiding bad food and later from avoiding pathogens and parasites. I’d say these are interesting but not proven. And, of course, much of his argument hangs on these issues. But whether they evolved biologically or not, it seems fair to argue that these moral traits exist and came about to solidify people within groups.

As a result of his research, Haidt added the Liberty/oppression moral foundation and altered the Fairness/cheating moral foundation to emphasize the proportionality of fairness, or at least the perception of proportionality. In other words, his respondents wouldn’t have liked Jesus’ story of the worker who came late to the vineyard and received the same pay as those who worked all day. Liberals and conservatives both emphasize proportionality of effort, although, as you can guess, they interpret this very differently.

In his own studies, Haidt demonstrates that liberals score much higher on care and fairness and conservatives score more highly on loyalty, authority and sanctity. Much of this data comes from people filling out questionnaires and answering questions on the web site, YourMorals.org. It’s not clear if these large samples are truly representative of U.S. adults. And this may be a big problem for the research. Others have found that the extreme left and the extreme right are both authoritarian and closed minded. Are these findings the result of a sample bias?

Further, he argues that these results fit nicely with Emile Durkheim’s vision of how society works collectively and interdependently. Durkheim was the great sociological thinker and researcher from the latter part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century who showed how suicide was not primarily an individual act but varied enormously by how tightly one was integrated into meaningful social groups. And this evidence goes against such great thinkers as John Stuart Mill who championed individuality to the point that he argued the only true reason the state could restrain someone was to prevent harm to others. Mill presents a utopia of individualism and Durkheim presents a reality of interdependence of peoples. And that interdependence is cemented by social rituals, tradition, observance of authority and loyalty to one’s group.

Haidt is the first psychologist (other than me) who I’ve ever heard mention and appreciate the great ideas of Durkheim. Indeed psychology and sociology are respectively marked by an emphasis upon the individual or upon the group.

Part III “Morality Binds and Blinds”

Charles Darwin argued that group level selection for group survival traits was essential to understanding evolution. From the 1970’s to the present scientists like Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) have argued that Darwin was wrong and that there is no mechanism except for the individual organism to compete and survive on an individual basis with traits gradually emerging or disappearing based on large numbers of individuals. And from this it was inferred that individuals are naturally selfish. Remember back in college when your professor did all kinds of twists and turns to “prove” that people who give to charity are doing it for selfish reasons?

Haidt disagrees and says that humans, bees, ants, wasps and termites and a few species of other critters, including some shrimp and beetles have evolved genes for ultrasociability. It’s called multi-level evolution and is supported by a few scientists, including no less luminaries than E. O. Wilson and G. Holldabler from their studies on evolution of insect groups to help feed long dependent offspring and to aide in inter-group conflict.

Bees build hives and have specialized labor and humans build tribes and corporations and complex societies with specialized labor. Is all of this the result of biological evolution? No, it’s the result of the co-evolution of genes and society. Our groupishness is the root of our success as a species and the root of our conflict between groups. And that trait did evolve on a group selection level. Or did it evolve on an individual level which benefitted the group? And groups with more individuals with these traits survived better. Either way, the result, according to Haidt, is ultrasociability.

According to Tomasello, a primate researcher, “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” But we humans do that and much more all the time.

“Bees construct hives out of wax and wood fibers, which they then fight, kill and die to defend. Humans construct moral communities out of shared norms, institutions, and gods that, even in the twenty-first century, they fight, kill and die to defend.” (Haidt p 207)

He goes on to argue that massive co-evolution of genes and culture has occurred in the last 12,000 years. We are not genetically identical to our hunting and gathering ancestors and some of the modern genes evolved to prepare us for war as well as for co-existence within our groups. We also evolved to suppress aggression, to aide in territorial defense and prevent free-riding of lazy group members. A moral community was born.

So we are a lot like chimps but shared intentionality and a moral community made us a little like bees with a “hive switch.” Symbols and threats flip that switch. Flags, flag pins, Iranian nuclear facility building, immigrants and political parties all trigger our groupishness, trigger our hive switch and make it much more likely the elephant and not the rider will respond to such threats and symbols. We were all Americans for a few days after 9/11.

He goes into the role of mirror neurons, oxytocin (the chemical that binds) as well as dopamine and other feel good neurotransmitters. And he covers transactional leadership and advises leaders to use our knowledge of human groupishness to get a group to work. Leaders should help diverse peoples feel like a family, use synchrony like singing together, marching together (to flip the hive switch) and use healthy team competition, not individual competition to motivate.

He asks, can’t we all get along and love each other unconditionally? Nope. Evolution didn’t prepare us for that. The most we can accomplish is love within our groups based on similarity, fair dealing with free riders and “… a sense of shared fate…may be the most we can hope to accomplish.” (Haidt p 245)

And then Haidt tells us religion is not a waste of time and resources. Like so many other social activities it builds social capital and moral capital and, like Durkheim told us long ago, with all of its failings, religion binds us together into a community of believers. It unites us within our group. “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (Haidt p 270)

He says that thinking about religion as nothing but beliefs about the supernatural may lead you to conclude that at best it is delusional and a waste of resources and at worst the path to the downfall of human culture. But if you think about it as Durkheim did, you will see that it is a great cohesive force within groups and thinking about it from a Darwinian perspective may lead you to believe is the result of multi-level selection and the basis for binding humans together. God may or may not exist but religion is a powerful and basic force binding people together.

Review of the Book

This book may be a game-changer; it may start a paradigm shift helping liberals and conservatives to better understand the focus of each other. Clearly, without any doubt, Haidt demonstrates that we are not solely rational creatures absorbed only in our economic self-interest but we are highly emotional beings who are great at rationalizing ideas and behaviors which our elephant already supports. And our self-interests are based on six inherited moral foundations of care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Whether these moral foundations are biologically inherited through individual selection, group selection or developed socially is important but whatever the source, these foundations of morality clearly emerge from the data and are part of us. But why do conservatives emphasize all six and liberals only two or three? And are people born that way? Yes, about 40% of our conservative or liberal leanings are in our genes, genes waiting to be shaped by experience.

It seems that we need liberals to explore, innovate and come up with changes that may help our societies survive. And we need conservatives just as much to put the brakes on and keep us from changing too quickly.

But, as Michael Lynch points out in the New York Times (“Opinionator,” Sep 30, 2012), there is something contradictory about spending a couple hundred pages of rational, well documented discourse using hundreds of scientific studies, in other words, reason, to convince us through logic that we are not really creatures of reason. So, while this book is greatly insightful, it must only be one part of a very complicated picture.

Under what conditions, other than with peers, marching, moving in sync to music and doing Japanese corporate style exercises does our elephant respond to reason and change its point of view? Haven’t we measured the cumulative effect of a university education on broadening the outlook of students over a four year period? I suspect the fMRI studies of decision-making in the brain, as fascinating and illuminating as they are, aren’t capturing the full range of decision-making over time. Plato cannot be completely wrong about the role of reason and he and Hume don’t completely disagree about the role of passion in our thinking. After all, didn’t Plato argue that reasoning well was a difficult thing to acquire and that usually only the philosopher-kings became really good at it? And surely I haven’t spent forty years teaching people to think critically, to no avail. At least my elephant hopes not.

And what about the well documented birthers, anti-science, anti-evolution, anti-acceptance of-global warming folks who make up about 30% of the Republican Party (see The Republican Brain, by Chris Mooney)? While their actions make sense within Haidt’s model (science causes change and threatens world views which are based on tradition, authority and the sacred and “Obama isn’t one of us.”), aren’t they too traditional? Aren’t the Tea Party followers so reactionary that they are blinding us to decisions which need to be made to save our country and perhaps the whole world?

If conservatives are much lower on measures of empathy than liberals, how does this all fit in with measures of sociopathy? But aren’t far left authoritarian figures just as low on empathy as the far right? Sociologist G. William Domhoff in an online posting “Who Rules America” (June 2009) documents the many studies which note there is a “right” and “left” way to most things we perceive. And his research, unlike Haidt’s, finds remarkable authoritarian aspects to personalities drawn to the far left and the far right. How can these separate sets of finding be reconciled? Is there a third piece missing or are Haidt’s samples biased, particularly the ones taken on the Internet?

And aren’t the New Atheists (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens and others) and other anti-religion people of the left and the libertarian party ignoring important traditions of sacredness and respect for hierarchical authority which has built our societies by creating social and moral capital?

Then there are the conservative’s fears of immigration and religions unfamiliar to them. While understandable using Haidt’s framework, is it workable in a fast changing society? Our society is changing at such a dizzying pace that Toffler (Future Shock) might be shocked! And Haidt tells us that fast change can generate fear and fear is the one emotion originating in the amygdala which makes both liberals and conservatives more resistant to change and therefore, even more conservative.

What about the northern European societies who are 90% atheist? How will they build social and moral capital? And how are they meeting the needs which religion has always served?

If we evolved to bond with our in-group, how do we expand that in-group to include all of humanity? Or is that past our abilities? Didn’t the United States of America arise out of colonies?

Didn’t the city-states of Italy merge to become Italians? Didn’t the European Union form out of many countries? But, of course, we are now seeing that union threatened.

So one question is: How far can we push group solidarity and respect? Will it take an alien invasion to get us to cooperate with cultures very different from our own? And are things changing too fast for the evolved abilities of the human species? Can our elephants handle it?

Closing the Allegory

And, as Louise and Ralph struggle and wrestle and bump each other, they edge ever closer to the ragged cliff. If they fall, neither will survive. And gone will be Louise’s dreams of a perfect future as well as Ralph’s memories of a perfect past.

We need both but will they fight and bruise one another so badly that they force a stalemate while other nations surge forward and dominate the world? Or maybe they’ll fight until they fall off the ragged cliff causing our society to collapse. There is a sobering third choice and that is working out a compromise based on the understanding that both are natural and necessary and deserve respect*.

Will the “Mommy party” and the “Daddy party” benefit from marriage counseling or will they continue on the path to divorce?

Whatever happens, the world won’t stop changing as the great but, I think deluded, William F. Buckley hoped when he said his position was, “standing athwart history, yelling Stop.”

*Go to civilpolitics.org for Jonathan Haidt’s specific suggestions on how to handle similar situations and personalities in our homo sapiens ‘duplex’ (a classification he frequently uses…part chimp, part bee colony) world. In short, take a look at what personal and political changes he suggests we make before we fall off that cliff.


Dawkins, Richard (1989). The Selfish Gene (2nd ed.). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Domhoff, G. William, June 2009 “The Left and the Right in Thinking, Personality, and Politics” Internet: Who Rules America?

Haidt, Jonathon, 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon.

Holldobler, B, and Wilson, E. O. 2008. The Superorganisms. The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies. W. W. Norton, New York.

Lynch, Michael, “A Case for Reason” September 30, 2012 article in the online New York Times Opinionator

Mooney, Chris, 2012 The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality. New Jersey: Wiley.

A little Goodfellas, a little Agatha Christie-a great read!

Jimmy the Stick is a debut novel by Michael Mayo (MysteriousPress / Open Road, 2012), a film reviewer and heretofore non-fiction writer, that is well written and artfully plotted. If Mickey Spillane had written a book with Agatha Christie, and gotten some input from Nicholas Pileggi (Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family-aka Goodfellas), they might have come up with a character like Fast Jimmy Quinn, alias Jimmy the Stick. Simply said, this is a damned good read.

The book is set against the backdrop of the Lindbergh kidnapping, but this is a red herring, a plot device to set up the story. Jimmy lost both parents at an early age, and was raised by an aunt, or so he thought, who put him to work on the streets stealing stuff. Eventually, Jimmy met some of the most notorious gangsters in New York, guys like Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, Arnold Rothstein, “Lucky” Luciano, and Meyer Lansky. Jimmy went to work for Rothstein and Lansky as a “runner,” a fast kid who could deliver “messages” (envelopes stuffed with money) between Rothstein and his “business associates.” Along the way, Jimmy made some acquaintances who would play a part in this drama, among them Walter Spencer (“Spence”)–who actually was a friend–but also guys like Sammy “Spats” Spatola–a henchmen of Coll’s who had a serious dislike for Jimmy–and a guy called “Chink,” who would spell real trouble later in the story.

I should mention that the name “Jimmy the Stick” was what he went by after he severely injured a knee while trying to escape some bad guys. “Fast Jimmy” had to find other ways to survive, and his cane became a deadly weapon.

After the Lindbergh kidnapping hit the newspapers, Spence bails Jimmy out after Jimmy’s speakeasy was raided. Spence wants a favor. He wants him to stay in his mansion in New Jersey to protect his wife, Flora, and their baby boy, Ethan. After getting away from the mob, Spence married into a family that earned its money the old fashioned way: with oil. After the death of the family patriarch, Jimmy took over the business and was living very well. Flora, Spence says, is hysterical after the Lindbergh kidnapping because she fears that kidnappers will come after their baby. Spence is going out of town on business, and wants someone at the house he can trust. Spence takes the assignment, and quickly learns that things aren’t at all as they seem.

After Spence leaves, Jimmy starts noticing things like strange trucks scouting the mansion, and a pale human presence outside his window. Then, an obnoxious neighbor, a man given to drinking and doping too much but whom Spence’s wealthy mother-in-law still finds otherwise tolerable, is shot dead in the woods and nailed to a tree. As for Spence’s young wife Flora, she is neither a good wife nor a concerned mother, but a self-indulgent party girl who brings guys–and a particularly bothersome female friend who seems more enamored of Flora than of any of the men in the room–in for loud parties that sometimes get raucous.

As the days pass, Jimmy learns more and more about the family that Spence has married into, and soon discovers that what he doesn’t know may cost him his life. He will soon learn, too, that Spence hadn’t been entirely honest with him about the true nature of the business that took him out of town, and the stage is set for a rollicking confrontation with some undesirables when Spence returns. Among those undersirables is “Spats” Spacola, who still has it out for Jimmy.

The writing throughout this novel is solid, and the plot quite ingenuous. There is a surprise twist at the end involving Flora’s formerly deceased sister that caught me off guard, even though I was being led down that road all along.

If you like crime stories about mob guys, lmayhem, old houses with hidden rooms behind bookcases, and plot twists, you will love Jimmy the Stick. Somehow, surprisingly, it all works.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

“Liberal Arts” The Movie; Liberal Arts in Life

Dr. Lisa Winkler

The following is a guest article by Lisa K. Winkler. It first appeared on her blog site Septmber 16, 2012. Ms. Winkler is the author of On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy Rides Across America (Createspace, 2012), which was reviewed on this site April 30, 2012. Her review of Freeman, by Leonard Pitts, Jr. appeared on this site on 08/02/12.

What do you do with a degree in religious studies?” my dinner companion asked, referring to his son, a Kenyon College senior and friend of my daughter’s, an American Studies major.

“Get a job, we hope,” I said.

We were attending an event planned by the college to see Liberal Arts, the movie written, directed and starring Josh Radnor, who graduated from Kenyon in 1996.

Radnor plays 35-year-old Jesse Fisher, who works as a college admissions officer in New York City and returns to the campus to attend a retirement dinner for one of his favorite professors, played by Richard Jenkins. He meets Zibby, a 19-year-old student (Elizabeth Olsen) and they begin a hand-written letter correspondence, where they discuss literature, life and music (she had given him a mix-tape cd based on her music survey course.) On a return visit, he confronts the 16-year-age difference, and fends off an intimate encounter, only to succumb to another former professor played by Allison Janney, (Kenyon’82).

Filmed on campus, and in the surrounding Gambier, Ohio, sprinkled with references to literature and music, the movie celebrates liberal arts;  its purpose and relevance that many convocation and graduation speakers address. The concept dates to the Greek and Roman philosophers who identified the Seven Liberal Arts or pillars of wisdom: The Trivium- the verbal arts comprised of logic, grammar, and rhetoric; and the Quadrivium, or numerical arts, consisting of mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy.

To study liberal arts, one is expected to achieve well-rounded, diverse exposure to many topics. The degree prepares one not for a specific vocation, but hopefully infuses the ability to think critically and creatively. Survey courses in art and music stay with you forever, informing cocktail party conversation and inspiring cultural tolerance.

The film is particularly relevant to me right now. I have a daughter about to graduate college, anticipating entering the workforce, and two nieces and a nephew, high school juniors beginning their college hunts.  The 16-year-olds are deciding: do they want a large university or a small school? City or country? East or West Coast? Distribution requirements or complete freedom? Will they be able to play sports.




After the movie, I joined another set of parents on the subway. They wondered what their daughter, an International Studies major, would do with her degree. We joked. “Liberal Arts! They can do many things!”

(I wrote about jobs and college graduates here.)

If you’re a parent beginning this process, you might like this book. I have an essay in it.

Copyright 2o12 Lisa K. Winkler

Reprinted with permission

The Alamo: “Here heroes died….”

In 1983, I visited the Alamo. The only part of the old mission that remains is the church–which is considered a “shrine” by Texans–and the long barracks, part of which served as a hospital and once saw horrific slaughter in its darkened rooms. As you enter the building, you immediately become aware of how serious Texans are about the place: a sign near the main entrance reads, ““Be silent friend here heroes died to blaze the trail for other men.” If there is anything in the United States that could be thought of as a temple of liberty, it is this place where, in 1836, around 200 Americans died fighting a dictator who, at one time, threatened to march his army all the way to Washington, D.C.

The truth about what happened during the 13 day siege quickly dissolved into myth after news of the massacre spread across the United States, and the myth has taken root in the hearts and minds where it still resounds today. Movie makers have fed the myth (what baby boomer doesn’t remember Fess Parker swinging away with Old Betsy, or John Wayne swinging away with a torch?), and books have been written and continue to be written about this American Thermopylae, all of which suggests that the issues underlying the occurrences in South Texas in 1835-36 are still very much alive.

And, indeed, they are. Today, as the furor over immigration and what to do about our porous southern border continues, some have latched onto the story of this country’s history with our neighbor to the south, some with revisionist intent and others with the hope of restoring the glory that we once perceived in our battle for liberty. In the process, more truths are forthcoming, some of which suggest that the battle of the Alamo wasn’t so much about glory than about something less honorable, other of which suggest that–just as we suspected all along–it was something heroic waged in the face of tyranny.

The newest entry into the literature of the Alamo, The Blood of Heroes – The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo–and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation, (Little, Brown and Company, 2012, 500 pages) by James Donovan, revisits the story and leaves us once again proud of what occurred and of the men who gave their lives.

I couldn’t find a lot of information about author Donovan, who lives in Dallas, TX, other than that he is a literary agent and historian. I have, however, read his previous work about another battle-turned-myth, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn–the Last Great Battle of the American West (Little, Brown and Company, 2009). I was impressed with his scholarship there, and am likewise impressed with his more than 100 pages of appendices, notes and bibliography in The Blood of Heroes.

Revisionist historians have claimed that the myth of the Alamo was fueled by racism, that Americans who lost to the Mexicans got back at them by painting Santa Anna and his troops as vicious and largely unworthy of our respect. Only sheer numbers made it possible for them to overcome the likes of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and William Barrett Travis, and the 200 or so other frontiersmen who could shoot the fly off a branch with their long rifles.

Wayne’s libertarian vision of the historic battle was only occasionally historically accurate. Yet, it captured the spirit of what the Alamo was all about. Image credit: Wikipedia (low-res).

Not so, says Donovan. While it is true that the Americans did not fear the regular army, it had nothing to do with the fact that they were Mexicans. It was because many in the army were poor men, or convicts who were pressed into service and whose level of dedication was poor at best: many were but one snowstorm away from desertion. But Americans knew full well that it was nigh near impossible to defeat Santa Anna’s feared cavalry who, with their seven-foot lances, were well capable of taking out any number of men with long rifles–and in fact did just that at the Alamo. The Mexican army was filled with men who were as patriotic as were the men inside the fort, men who were decent, who fought for principle, and who lived and died with honor.

Inside the Alamo, there was a score of Tejanos–Mexicans descended from the original Mexican and Spanish inhabitants from the 1600s–who died fighting for the same reason as their American counterparts: they chafed at the attack on their liberty that Santa Anna represented. The famous knife fighter, Jim Bowie, was known in Mexico as Santiago Buy, the Anglo who had married into one of the foremost Mexican families in San Antonio, was a Mexican citizen by choice. Another defender at the Alamo, who left as a courier and later fought at San Jacinto, was a prominent citizen of Bexar named Juan Seguin. Seguin would be regarded later as one of the heroes of the Texan Revolution.

This wasn’t about race. It was about liberty.

Residents of Texas at the time were citizens of Mexico. Most of them were content with that arrangement, and few wanted to rock the boat. Santa Anna’s rise to power, and his increasingly tyrannical posturing, drove more and more to rebellion, and the taking of San Antonio de Bexar in December 1835 by the Texians was a challenge that Santa Anna could not let stand. Still, before, during and after the 13-day siege and massacre at the Alamo, only a handful of men would come to the aid of the embattled garrison of the old mission. In truth, it wasn’t the Alamo that tipped the scales in the Texas revolution, but the subsequent slaughter of nearly 400 Texans by Santa Anna in Goliad. The men there had surrendered and were promised parole. His excellency ordered no quarter, any promises made notwithstanding. Many–if not most–of his officers vehemently disagreed with the executions but eventually had to follow orders. It was this slaughter of helpless men, as much as the tragedy at the Alamo, that made inevitable the slaughter of Santa Anna’s men at San Jacinto and the birth of the Republic of Texas.

Some authors have argued that the freedom that the Alamo defenders died for was the freedom to own slaves, after the emancipation of slaves by the Mexican government in 1829 made the practice illegal. True, Mexico had outlawed slavery, and many negroes were enlisted among the fighting men who attacked the Alamo. But if the Texas Revolution was about slavery, then so too was the Revolution in 1776, since among the freedoms anticipated by many of our founding fathers was the freedom to continue the practice of slavery. Since many of the Alamo defenders came from the South–Bowie, Travis, and Crockett among them–slavery was a part of their culture. Still, only a small number of the Texicans who fought against Santa Anna owned slaves themselves. If anything, what brought Americans to Texas in droves was the possibility of obtaining land. Generous grants of land were made available–and there was plenty of it in Texas–to any who would come and servie the provisioal Government. Land equated to liberty, and that liberty (and all that it entailed, not just slavery) was being threatened by a ruthless and dangerous man who fancied himself the “Napoleon of the West.”

Donovan points out the hypocrisy of the Mexican government which, while it outlawed slavery, did nothing to change its peonage system. Peons in Mexico were treated as harshly as slaves, and were virtually the property of their overseers, yet nothing was done to alleviate their suffering. Peonage in Mexico was integrated into their economic system as slavery never was, so the concern for human rights by the Mexican government was selective at best, and opportunistic at worst. Peons in Mexico continued to live in slavery, and no one seemed to care.

Donovan addresses some other controversial topics in his book. Did Crockett surrender, or die fighting? Did Travis draw a line in the sand? Did a man named Louis “Moses” Rose fail to cross that line, and leave before the battle? And did a large number of men actually try to escape from the fort during the attack, only to die in the open field southeast of the mission walls?

Billy Bob Thornton’s role as David Crockett in the 2004 movie “The Alamo” was probably as close as anyone has come to depicting the frontiersman as he was: simple, kind, determined, and decent. Image credit: Entertainment Weekly

Donovan cites considerable evidence in support of the fact that Crockett did die fighting, and that the basis for the story of his surrender is suspect. And yes, Travis probably did give a speech and draw a line in the sand, over which all but one crossed. And Moses Rose? He was a real person, he escaped from the mission, and was taken in by a family who cared for him and corroborated the story years later. Finally, a large number of men did leave through the picket wall on the southeast side of the mission, hoping to make it to the nearby Alameda and make their way to Gonzales. Unfortunately, Santa Anna had anticipated this and had his lancers waiting. All of the defenders who left–some 60 to 80 men–died at the hands of the cavalry. Were these men cowards? Hardly. They were frontiersmen who knew that staying penned in was certain death, and who decided it best to take their chances in the open. Actually, it was the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, they were outnumbered and outgunned.

The Alamo is rightfully a shrine to those who sacrificed, fought and who died in defense of liberty, but we can’t forget that many of the supporters of Texan independence were Tejanos who were as opposed to tyranny as the Americans alongside whom they fought.

Texas would cease to be Republic and be granted Statehood in 1845, and the subsequent war with Mexico (1846-1848) would gain for the Unites States the rest of what is now the southwest United States, establishing a border along the meandering Rio Grande. Yet, echoes of a time when the Mexican flag flew over Texas are still present in our not-too-distant memory, a time when values clashed and freedom beckoned, a time when people were willing to suffer and die in their pursuit of happiness. The shoe is on the other foot: in the 1830s, Americans were flocking to Mexico in search of a better life. Now, hundreds of Mexicans sneak across our border in search of the same thing.

Would it help for us to hearken to the cries of the men who fought at San Jacinto, and “Remember the Alamo!” or “Remember Goliad!” Revisionist historians say no, that’s the worst thing you can do. But James Donovan would probably disagree. In the walls of that mission lived–and died–some of the finest that America had to offer–Mexican and American alike. They found something they could agree on, something that transcended race.


Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris