evolutionary psychology

We can fix a sexist blip

November 16, 2016 | 16 Comments

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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Rhythm and blues

May 18, 2016 | 4 Comments

In the year after Barbara O’Rourke was diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer, in her early fifties, her 32-year-old daughter, Meghan, became engaged, got married, and then separated. She changed jobs, divorced, started dating a man on the opposite coast, numbed out, and melted down.

Meghan O’Rourke portrays this siege of anticipatory grief in her celebrated memoir, The Long Goodbye. The title refers to the fact that she was granted time with her beloved mother. Diagnosed in May 2006, Barbara died on Christmas of 2008. But it also refers to the fact that Meghan’s goodbye to her mother will never end. Living without her remains like “waking up in a world without sky.”

Barbara and her husband both worked for many years for a private school in Brooklyn, before Barbara became a headmaster in Connecticut. As Meghan and her two younger brothers were growing up, the family spent summers at friends’ forest cabins and rural retreats. In O’Rourke’s portrait, Barbara enjoyed motherhood and fostered independence, creativity, and healthy self-esteem in her children; she exuded serenity and yet was wry and feisty. Barbara gave her daughter a blank journal when she was five that helped turn her toward writing. Now an accomplished poet, O’Rourke evokes life’s hardest passage precisely. At the same time, she muses on its meaning and recalls the past, including the many bone-deep gifts of love that fueled her pain.

When Barbara’s time came, at age 55, after protracted medical ordeals, the family gratefully called hospice. While praising hospice as a balm in her mother’s passing, O’Rourke shows that’s also a relative measure—because nothing’s great when your mother is dying.

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Writers on our political rhubarb

May 11, 2016 | 6 Comments

Donald Trump’s political success has provoked in recent months some fine commentary, much of it from moderates and progressives. I’ve especially enjoyed the New York Times’s crew. Even Thomas Friedman, whom I’ve boycotted since his disgusting promotion of the Iraq war, rose, once, to an unexpectedly eloquent height. Republicans have seemed mostly inarticulate with rage over their primary’s winner, given that Trump’s record is of a pragmatic moderate. At last, however, the likable Andrew Sullivan has expressed the intellectually conservative view.

Published in the May 2 issue of New York Magazine, his searching essay “America has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny,” has gone viral. In this classical essay he’s fighting for—with every persuasive tool he’s got—what he calls “America’s near­unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility.”

Though Sullivan draws on a lifetime of experience, he notably cites Plato’s Republic, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, and Eric Hoffer’s 1951 tract The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Sullivan has come to critique our increasingly democratic (but perhaps less stable) political system that frightens him. He calls the Republicans’ fight to hold open a Supreme Court vacancy “another massive hyperdemocratic breach in our constitutional defenses.” And: “The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.”

As a man of good sense, Sullivan cannot help but cheer Barack Obama’s attainments. As a student of history who is by temperament a conservative, he cannot help but furrow his brow at the implications of such outsider politicians. Did Obama lead to Trump? Has our increasingly freewheeling democracy, inflamed by the internet and by growing economic inequality, led to both?

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