Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Finding hope in disaster

Knee-jerk pessimism was the default response among the intelligentsia for as long as John Stuart Mill could remember. “I have observed,” he wrote in 1828, “that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

Back then, life was short, nasty and brutish. Today, not so much for many of us. Yet the dark glass remains the lens of choice that many writers are unable to fully appreciate the deep reasons for optimism in their own work. Today’s example is A.O. Scott’s essay in the New York Times with the predictably chilling headline, “Facing a Pitiless Void.” It uses three new movies about people struggling to survive –  old man Robert Redford’s battle with the sea (All is Lost), Tom Hank’s struggle with Somali buccaneers (“Captain Phillips”) and Sandra Bullock’s lost in space adventures (“Gravity”) – to explore the changing nature of moves about catastrophes.

The piece pivots on a quote by Susan Sontag who was so wrong about so much and yet influential because so many people agreed with her. Scott writes: “ ‘Ours is indeed an age of extremity,” Susan Sontag concluded in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster.” “ ‘For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large ratios by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters.’ ”

Perhaps her quote had some resonance during the height of the Cold War, although “inconceivable terror” plummeted by orders of magnitude between 1945 and 1965. And one woman’s banality is another person’s good times.

The larger question is why would Scott trot this outdated analysis now? As his piece continues he shows how disaster movies increasingly reflect the reality that we live in a much safer world. The terrors and threats keep getting smaller. He continues: “Sontag’s essay appeared a few years before the rise of the disaster movie as a commercial genre in its own right, but if anything the arrival of “The Poseidon Adventure” and its cousins — “The Towering Inferno” and the “Airport” movies, which fed my youthful fear of flying and worship of Charlton Heston — showed the prescience of her analysis. This new genre also shifted the metaphorical terms in which disaster was imagined. … The doomed skyscrapers, ocean liners and jumbo jets were the products of human greed, hubris and corruption. Their destruction brought peril to a collection of people, a movie-star microcosm of the larger society in desperate need of rescue. Bravery, intelligence and self-sacrifice were mobilized (and celebrated) in the name of a commonwealth symbolized by a carefully balanced selection of generations, races, backgrounds and classes.”

In brief, the horrors go from Armageddon to local disaster (from World War II to 9/11). [Yes there are still many end of the world spectacles but that is not the focus of Scott’s essay].

Scott writes: “In retrospect, it is the utopianism of these films, perhaps more than their now-cheesy-looking special effects, that seems most dated.” Utopianism is the word choice of a pessimist; what these films did was describe the world as it is.

Scott makes this clear is his description of the three new movies: “They proceed from the assumption that things work pretty well: space stations silently orbit the earth; old guys relax on their sailboats; consumer goods glide through shipping lanes packed and stacked in giant, bright-colored metal boxes. When something does go wrong, it’s a temporary glitch, an accident, a dumb mistake.”

A little later Scott adds: “What could go wrong? The answers provide much of the entertainment in these movies — the suspense, the surprise, the identification with characters in distress. We enjoy being jolted out of our complacency. And we enjoy the vicarious pleasure of problem-solving that follows.”

We are not complacent; we are realists who lives are removed from such dangers. Notice the evolution Scott describes: from Armageddon to local catastrophes to personal trials. I’ll take that!

The world Sontag described is foreign to us – as Scott admits, existential threat has been replaced by “problem-solving.” Few of us stare into a “pitiless void” because we don’t have to.

At the end of the essay, Scott observes that the Redford and Hanks movies become morality tales – they suggest that well-off Westerners might be guilty of something because we have it so easy. That is serious business but it’s of a different order than nuclear annihilation.

It might seem like I am criticizing Scott for not writing the essay he actually wrote. My point is that he could have written a hopeful piece – “Armageddon gives way to personal disasters.” Instead, knee-jerk is so ingrained in so many writers that they can’t fully recognize the gist of their own argument. Hence the Sontag quote and the dark headline on what should be a sunny piece.


Do the rich really care less?

Let’s begin with the fact that Daniel Goleman is a relatively rich and powerful writer who often is a frequent contributor to the most influential newspaper in the country. That ought to put a smile on your face when you see the headline of his recent essay in The New York Times, “Rich People Just Care Less.”

One hopes that this will be a confessional piece about Goleman’s own hard-heartedness. Instead, he is talking about the other rich people; specifically those meanies in Congress who want to cut food stamps and Obamacare, not because they are concerned about our $17 trillion national debt, but because of a perceived empathy gap.

His article is tendentious nonsense that flies in the face of all common sense.

He writes: “A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power.”

Is this news? Does anybody (ok, there a few exceptions) spend their days worrying about those who can’t help or don’t threaten them? By definition people with power have fewer people who can exercise power over them. Why wouldn’t they focus more of their energy on that group? In theory (more on that later) the less powerful ought to be attuned – for the same self-interested reason – to the wider group of people who can help or hinder them. By necessity, they ought to have a wider vision, though in reality, many of them just tune out vast swaths of the world which is one reason why the poor and weak are less likely to vote than the rich and powerful.

Goleman continues: “The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.”

I haven’t read the studies this is based on – did they include 10 people or 10 million? But, even if true, Goleman’s effort to cast this as a form of moral superiority flies in the face of basic self-interest and common sense. Of course the less powerful are more compassionate towards the hardships experienced by those like themselves: after all, it is easier for them to imagine that they, too, might suffer the same fate. Of course someone who fears that they may not have enough money to feed themselves or take their children to the doctor should be more likely to express compassion toward those enduring such tragedies. This is why a cyclone in Oklahoma elicits more concern among Americans than one in Bangladesh and why a shortage of flu vaccines at home is more worrisome than the deaths of millions each year from very treatable malaria.

Goleman pretty much admits that self-interest is behind it all when he says a researcher has found “that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work.”

He runs off the rails when he follows that up with this: “The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.”

In fairness, Goleman fails to define what he means by interpersonal relations but does anybody believe that, as a group, the poor are better attuned to interpersonal relations than the rich? Does anybody truly believe that your average welfare recipient is a better people person than a successful reporter at the New York Times?

In our service-oriented economy, greater numbers of people – especially at the top – make their money through their people skills. Leadership rests, in large part, on the ability to think about others, to know their strengths and weaknesses and put them in the best position to succeed. To argue that poor people have mastered this essential skill – and still they struggle – while the rich have a hard time understanding and relating to others is absolute nonsense; so much so that you wonder how such an assertion could ever get published.

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