Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Allow me my own alternative fact...

This cartoon by Liam Francis Walsh, which appeared in the February 22, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, is both brilliant and funny. Who doesn’t remember those terrors in the night, worrying that if you put your feet on the floor, something under your bed would grab you? I was lucky with both my dad and mom who were there to reassure me there was nothing lurking in my bedroom...nothing to grab me and eat me, anyway. My imagination was very powerful.

Copyright 2016 The New Yorker

Based on current events, seeing the cartoon again the other day gave me a completely different spin. Just 7 weeks into the Trump presidency, I see the monster as Trump, carrying off innocent citizens who have done nothing wrong, and the dad peering under the bed being representative of those Trump fans who refuse to see the monster in him.

After all, we had example after example in nearly two years of campaigning that a belligerent Trump has only a passing acquaintance with truth. He believes that when something, no matter how outrageous, comes out of his mouth and gets reported, that makes it true. Then when the fact checkers get through with him, he just blames the news media for being “fake.” (Dictionary makers take heed: there is now a whole new definition of the word “fake.”) Trump gets his information from people online or on cable TV that we think of as total screwballs. That may be unprecedented in modern history.

I have so many questions about Trump, most of them unanswered for what I think are legal reasons: people who know the worst things about Trump are probably silenced by having to sign non-disclosure agreements. I am sure his ex-wives have signed them, and I wouldn’t doubt that even his children and current spouse have signed them. We know nothing of Trump’s medical history. Sometimes I wonder if he is on drugs, or exhibiting signs of dementia. Is there some requirement that a president take a physical? A quick check shows that no, there is not.

There are so many things we are able to observe about Trump which make him seem the most unlikely and unqualified person in America to be its president. Yet he still has millions of fans who think he is doing just great.

With all of that weighing on my mind at the moment maybe you'll understand why I looked at the cartoon and saw an “alternative fact” for its meaning.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We think we know way more than we actually do

The New Yorker for February 27, 2017, has an article, “That's what you think” by Elizabeth Kolbert. It is why humans think the way we do. Hint: it has to do with evolution, and fitting into society.  One of the parts of the article especially  intrigued me. Students were given a questionaire, asking them to describe how a toilet works.
The assignment, according to the author, “revealed to students their own ignorance . . . (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

“Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Stanley Ferbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, are also cognitive scientists. They, too, believe sociability is the key to how the human functions or, perhaps more pertinently, malfunctions. They begin their book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, with a look at toilets. . . [they] see this effect, which they call the ‘the illusion of explanatory depth,’ just about everywhere. People believe they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We've been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”
That is fascinating, because I realized  many years ago what they are saying. The article did not mention cars, because I think I know a lot about cars, but I understand I know the functional, not the mechanical.  I can drive a car, maneuver in traffic, brake, read speed limit signs, traffic semaphores, and after 56 years of driving I have developed a sort of sixth sense of what other drivers are doing or are about to do. But if the car breaks down I need someone else’s expertise. All of the extra senses in the world won’t get a car running if the timing belt is broken, or the starter motor goes out. But then, unlike the toilet, which depends on gravity and some very easy to understand principles of plumbing, cars nowadays are full of computerized parts. Even the car experts need external help to figure out what’s wrong. I think most people understand they don’t know enough about modern cars to fix them...no more shade tree mechanics, for instance.

But the part about the toilet struck me, because I thought I knew what made a toilet work. When I looked it up online I was surprised at how simple it is, but someone had to think of it first. That person was most likely a genius in their time. “How Toilets Work”.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

New Yorker: Eating a dog

(You all know how to click on a picture to make it bigger.)

Years ago, watching the PBS series, The Last Place on Earth, the story of the first explorers to reach the South Pole, I remember feeling revulsion when they ate their dogs to stay alive. I sometimes project myself into a situation if I am watching in a movie or on television. I thought I would rather starve than eat a dog.

Dogs and cats are sacred to Americans. Most of us, anyway. I know one guy who objects to spaying and neutering animals because we'll need to eat them when we are in the midst of the apocalypse. I excuse him; he is what I call quirky.

Because of our feelings for domestic animals, a cartoon like this from the December 14, 1940 New Yorker, would probably not be published today. It would provoke outrage. Carl Rose is the cartoonist behind this eye-opener. He’s an artist who has been mostly forgotten,* but he was an award-winner, and did illustration work as well as gag cartoons.

My guess on how this dog cartoon came about is when he (or the editor, who may have assigned it to him) read the article in the November 25, 1940 issue of Time. His imagination ran free on how a food editor might experience what a dog tastes like. It’s appalling, but funny in a sick sort of way. Still, no boycotts of me, please. I am just showing it as an example of what we can’t show today. (That makes no sense, I know.)

*Hairy Green Eyeball has a couple of collections of Carl Rose’s work, including a fictional cartoon history of a heroic war dog.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Is the current president of the United States a sociopath?

I am writing this just one month since Donald Trump took the oath of office. With the constant uproar coming from Washington it has seemed like a long month, but overall, not all that surprising to those of us who have carefully watched Trump’s character quirks. When the plea went out after the inauguration to “give the guy a chance,” we thought about his insults during the campaign, his lying, his incredible ego, and we said, “Show us he can change.” What he shows us is more of the same as during his campaign. After the inauguration we were told to overlook the president’s bizarre takes on what is truth and what is fantasy. We were asked to consider his realities “alternative facts.” We said, “Fat chance.” There are facts, and there are not-facts, and no one has the right to confuse them.

What I have seen so far is a man who is begging for attention, which accounts for the bizarre sight of him still campaigning, four weeks after his swearing-in. A couple of days ago he held a rally and once again listed his triumphs, which are skewed to his core believers. They believe everything he tells them, and love the way he tells it.

We hear from someone within his inner circle that the president has cabin fever. He regrets being cooped up in the Oval Office. He misses his free-and-easy life as a bon vivant who has dinner in his favorite restaurant with his pals, a group of the anointed, those fit to sit at the table with Trump. Basking  in his tales of glory and his alternative facts. One would ask, did he not know this would be his life if elected? It is what he signed on for, and now having buyer’s remorse really isn’t an option for him, is it? (If he wants to quit, I say, go for it, Donald!)

For me, this month has been one with many other Americans, trying to figure out why Trump acts like he does. He is 70.  He won’t change, except to get worse with age. Like others I have asked, does Trump have dementia? He produced some letter from a doctor during the campaign explaining he was in good health, but what about an examination by a physician working for the people, not for Donald Trump? What would that show?

I have also wondered if Trump is on drugs, prescription, or over-the-counter, or even illegal? What do we know about him, anyway? He was a rich young guy during the swinging years of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Was he snorting coke with other members of the Who’s Who of the Rich and Cool? If he was, is he still?

My belief is that people in Trump’s inner circle, if not sworn to secrecy, are probably bound by legal confidentiality agreements. They have been paid, or have signed a document not to tell what they know about him. That would account for why we haven’t heard anything from his two ex-wives. We have heard from some people who have had some business dealings with Trump (mostly bad), which Trump can dismiss with a wave of his hand. He can claim they came away from his deals on the short end, that they are “whiners and complainers.” And perhaps they are, except that Trump’s dealings with the American public have left a lot of us with the broader sense of what must go on with him behind closed doors. Nothing good, I think.

I am reading The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. The book was published in 2005 and is not about Trump. Not directly, anyway. He isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text, but several things Dr Stout has written seem to shout out “Trump”  to those of us in 2017.

Dr Stout describes a sociopath as a person without empathy or a conscience. She gives us the statistic that one in four people are sociopaths. People who kill without any remorse are sociopaths. People who run con games are sociopaths. People who sabotage fellow workers for their own benefit can be sociopaths. The list goes on. You and I have probably worked with sociopaths, have a sociopath or two in our families, or wondered about some public figures. Trump, for instance.

What first caught my eye, quoting directly from the book:
“. . . sociopaths have a greater than normal need for stimulation which results in their taking frequent social, physical, financial, or legal risks.” Also, “. . . as a group they are known for their pathological lying and conning [confidence games].” [Page 7]
A fascinating section of the book called “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” deals with leaders who scapegoat other races or groups of people, called “others” or “its” in the book:
“Using fear-based propaganda to amplify a destructive ideology, such a leader can bring the members of a frightened society to see the its as the sole impediment to the good life, for themselves and maybe even for humanity as a whole, and the conflict as an epic battle between good and evil. Once these beliefs have been disseminated, crushing the its without pity or conscience, become an incontrovertible mandate.

“Why do we continue to allow leaders who are motivated by self-interest, or by their own psychological issues from the past, to fan bitterness and political crisis into armed confrontation and war?” [Page 59]
The section that I think is an apt description of a person like Trump:
“Benjamin Wolman, founder and editor of the International Journal of Group Tensions, writes, ‘Usually human cruelty increases when an aggressive sociopath gains an uncanny, almost hypnotic control over large numbers of people. History is full of . . . sociopathic megalomaniacs who managed to obtain support . . . and incited people to violence.’ Insidiously, when such a “savior” abducts the normal population to its purposes, he usually begins with an appeal to them as good people who would like to improve the condition of humanity, and then insists that they can achieve this by following his aggressive plan.” [Page 93]
Trump is doing nothing more than other world leaders have done in the past, pointing at certain groups, Mexicans or Muslims, and declaring them enemies of what is good and right about America.

Luckily, Trump’s approval ratings are around 39%, as I saw on television last night. But that is still too many people who are buying into his distorted message.  History teaches us that leaders like that don’t do well when their history is written. In looking back, there have been several leaders, maybe some of the most damaging in the history of the planet, in the twentieth century. All of those who scapegoat Jews, Muslim, or foreigners, have come off on the wrong side of history. So why are we still electing people like Trump? I assume it is because a certain segment of the population believes that “its” or “others” should be persecuted and shut out, and some just don’t know history at all.

So, my answer to my own question, “Is the president of the United States a sociopath?” is, in my mind, yes. People laughed at Hitler; they made fun of him. But then for years he got the last laugh. It was only when forces drove him from power that he could be held up as an extreme example of what happens when a sociopath leads a group of fellow sociopaths in their destructive ways. People laugh at Trump. They take him as a joke. The problem is, in a couple of years, will his ways still seem funny?