evolutionary psychology

A moral master of prose style

April 25, 2017 | 8 Comments

Making Notting Hill’s long list

March 29, 2017 | 14 Comments

A year and a half ago, I wrote about my excitement at having drafted an essay in which I relive accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. That’s the main story, but the essay really explores the complex relationship among memory, story, and imagination as I relive that trip and some other early memories. What happened to provoke it was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery two summers ago. That reminded me of a cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, over 55 years later. Why?

I found out late last week that my long complexly braided essay, “The Founder Effect,” has made the 2017 long list for the prestigious Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British-run worldwide biennial competition. They pay $20,000 and publish the winner, and publish their short list of top finalists. Two friends also made the long list: Jill Christman, who teaches at Ball State University, in Indiana, and Dave Madden, who teaches in the MFA program of the University of San Francisco.

I don’t expect my essay to go further—I’m counting the long list as its award. What an honor and unexpected achievement. It’s hard to remember what I was thinking when I sent it in. For great reading, go to the 2015 long list and search your chosen authors and their titles—these “losing” essays have since appeared in an array of journals, and many are readable on line.

My essay will soon be three years old, and I’m still fiddling with it. After my first year of working on it, I had it so messed up. I quit it and dashed off (in comparison, at least) an essay on my crazy dog that was well received on Longreads. I actually used in the dog essay something I was trying in “The Founder Effect,” which is showing how I jump to conclusions about people and situations from mere scraps. I think that’s common, and says something about the operating system of the human mind: stories.

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We can fix a sexist blip

November 16, 2016 | 16 Comments

I flipped over journalist H.L. Mencken’s delicious syntax, in 1980, when I was a young reporter at Today in Cocoa, Florida. A few years later, I made a pilgrimage to his lifelong domicile, a rowhouse in Baltimore. Aside from delighting in his sturdy, witty sentences, I found him hilariously hateful to American anti-intellectualism. Now, what he warned about our republic’s strain of dumbass Babbittry has come true. All the same, I’ve always been suspicious of his hatred of the “booboisie.” He was an elitist Germanic autocrat, a man blinkered for all his brilliance—he looked kindly upon the rise of Adolph Hitler. And here’s what I keep reminding myself:

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote!

I feel like the little boy found upending the dirty stable, who said, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony here somewhere!” But America is too special and too important to despair just because (not quite half) of our fellow voters gave Trump the barn despite his mountainous preexisting dung heaps. Many Americans have only temporarily forgotten why they appointed Barack Obama to shovel us out after George Bush.

The likely right-wing Supreme Court appointment(s) and the probable loss of progress on fighting climate change upset me. But I return to my original point: a majority of American voters chose Hillary Clinton. Trump lacks the mandate of a landslide. Without the Electoral College—thanks, Alexander Hamilton! Love the brilliant musical, not so much the brilliant Republican—Trump wouldn’t have won at all. As a people, we’ve been trying to move in a gently progressive direction, as befits a nation with such progressive ideals. Our mistakes, tragedies, and setbacks notwithstanding, we’ve stacked up a lot of justice since America’s founding.

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The case for Hillary

November 2, 2016 | 10 Comments

Puzzled by her aversion toward Hillary Clinton, former Bernie Sanders supporter Sonya Huber accepted an offer to quickly write a short book exploring why. In The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Huber assesses fair and unfair criticisms of Clinton. I found Huber’s look from the Left balanced and interesting—and, more to the point, useful. With her historical overview, Huber clarified my own mixed feelings as a moderate progressive. The bottom line, however, is that we’ll both be voting for Clinton. I’ll be doing so with more confidence after Huber’s inquiry, which convinces me that the false narratives that dog Clinton do cloud our view of her.

I’d forgotten so much that Huber reminds me of, including Bill Clinton’s conservatism as a “New Democrat.” In the wake of Ronald Reagan and under pressure from a new breed of militant conservatives, Bill sought to out-Republican the Right. As Huber puts it,

“This was Jimmy Carter with brass knuckles, a party that had to get tough to rescue the southern white male vote by promising to enforce a series of belt-tightening bootstrap policies that would end up glorifying the Republican ideals of free trade agreements, destroying welfare, and enacting an era of mass incarceration in the name of a War on Drugs.”

Bill appointed Hillary as chair of the Task Force on National Healthcare Reform, making her the public face of the effort. This was an unusual move, and Huber’s research indicates that Hillary was far from the plan’s architect though she was demonized by the GOP and left holding the bag for the initiative’s failure: “It’s amazing, really—the evil power that this narrative has given her. It wasn’t profit interests that derailed healthcare reform: it was a woman.”

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She wore white

October 26, 2016 | 15 Comments

By the final presidential debate, who could deny that our nation’s howling retrograde armies have assumed the bodily form of Donald Trump? In the face of ignorance and evil, Hillary Clinton acquitted herself almost flawlessly and looked fantastic. Her white suit alluded to the long struggle by women in America for equal treatment—and thereby stood, as well, for justice for all. In contrast, Trump was his usual vile self, and the Women of the House of Trump dressed in black—Melania capping her ensemble with a “pussy-bow” blouse, as if to refer dismissively, from the summit of haute couture, to her husband’s vulgarities. Symbolism has never had it so good.

There’s been so much inspired ink on what Trump’s surprising level of support means. The dominant narrative, of course, is that it springs from economic pain among America’s middle- and lower-middle classes. But clearly in this backlash there’s also a strong racist, sexist, misogynistic, nativist, homophobic component. Trump’s sole gift as a leader may be, in stirring the embers of fear and pain, to kindle rage. As a progressive who fervently believes in American exceptionalism, I’m worried. A proven cure for angry, unexamined feelings is education, which leads to consideration of others’ viewpoints and to self-inquiry, but that’s a slow process.

As for Clinton’s steely pragmatic nature, similar doubts might’ve been sounded about Abraham Lincoln, who worked as a tough, amoral lawyer. He represented a railroad. Who could have predicted his rise to personal and political greatness? That is, besides pretty much the entire South?

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Politics & our narrative impulse

October 11, 2016 | 11 Comments

Many writers possess a visceral antipathy to politics, or at least to politicians. This may be because of politicians’ storied lack of integrity. But we know the constraints they face in our republic of laws, of soaring ideals, and of humanly selfish interests. Still, we’ve seen recently how shockingly low some can go. Yet what a politician does at her or his best is the same magic trick to which writers aspire. Which is channeling and kindling, through all America’s murk, our core truths flickering in overused platitudes. Those verities reflect historic and still-evolutionary ideals that are still evolving. Yes, America is exceptional. But our past is no guarantee. Hence our latent respect for our politicians who try to affirm and foster the best in us. Or in whom we intuit that, under the right circumstances, they will try.

Even though on that score this presidential contest should be a boring no-brainer, writers have nonetheless ascended right and left—well, mostly on left but some on the right—to great work. Roger Cohen, a former foreign correspondent who writes columns for the New York Times, wrote a stunning news feature back in early September, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’: Views From Trump Country,” subtitled “Appalachian voters know perfectly well the candidate is dangerous. But they’re desperate for change.”

The author of a memoir about his mother, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, Cohen went into the rural mid-South and Appalachia to interview and portray Trump supporters. He talked to a woman in Paris, Kentucky—a burg in horse country, right across the river from Ohio, that you drive through to Lexington—who voted for Obama in 2008 but now supports Trump. She operates a boot shop. Cohen’s interview with her, as with others in these travels, was sensitive and searching.

Although now a columnist, here Cohen was functioning as an “objective” journalist. Which usually means in practice that the writer isn’t free to state his thesis as his own but has explored it, tested it. And here, the notion seems simply an honest question. To ask, on our behalf, How can decent, tax-paying, idealistic Americans vote for a man who is anything but? These folks may trend conservative, but they try to be good—they aspire to macro ethics—yet many have supported Trump, the ultimate micro ethicist.

In the exquisite calculus of mainstream objective journalism, Cohen’s writing so freely and drawing so clearly on his research crossed a line, however mildly he furrowed his brow. Lest readers not recognize his article as containing such cautious, informed opinion—and bending over backwards to be fair—editors met their objective format’s standard with an “Opinion” label.

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Two titans of prose

July 20, 2016 | 8 Comments

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, born on the same day in 1809, changed the world with their actions and their ideas. That they continue to influence our lives and perspectives today proves their historic and even evolutionary importance. And it actually all rests on their writing ability, argues Adam Gopnik: “They matter because they wrote so well.”

In Angels and Ages, an engrossing history and analysis of Lincoln and Darwin as writers, Gopnik calls Darwin’s On the Origin of Species “a long argument meant for amateur readers.” But the book is “so well written,” he adds, “that we don’t think of it as well written, just as Lincoln’s speeches are so well made that they seem to us as natural as pebbles on a beach.”

Both loners, Lincoln and Darwin cut through the cant of their day with original thought expressed in compelling sentences. We also get to know Lincoln and Darwin as men whose identities seem inseparable from their prose. The shrewd Lincoln, who had a “tragic sense of responsibility,” was an unbeliever who evolved during the Civil War toward an “agonized intuitive spirituality.” The hypersensitive Darwin possessed a “calm domestic stoicism,” his own private code, but agonized over the effect of his ideas on the faithful—especially on his beloved wife, who was grieving their loss of their daughter.

Lincoln served as an avenging angel who loosed a bloody sword, but his puzzled spirituality in response seems a distilled expression of our species’ very essence—as does the transcendent goal of his tragic bloodletting, justice for all, black and white alike. Darwin also is emblematic, an avatar of our species’ restless spirit to know itself. Darwin’s genius cracked the foundation of the church, as he feared it would. Yet his insights did not destroy religion, broadly defined. He actually deepened religion’s animating mystery, human nature: what is it? where did it come from? why are we mostly good? why does evil exist?

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