Inflation Prophets

Around 2008– that is, for the non-USAns, two presidential election cycles ago– I remember a lot of dark muttering around various dinner tables about the “messianism” of Obama supporters. People on the left, that is, and some of the most philosophically and historically alert ones, were afraid that the expectations lifting the candidacy of the previously little-known senator from Illinois were going to swerve into something sinister. As it happened, nothing less messianic than Obama’s presidency could be imagined. Obama has governed within the limits of the law, not even testing those limits; far from that, he has failed to take a lot of opportunities that the law would have allowed him, and that would have made possible a deep change in our political culture (such as allowing war-crimes investigations to go ahead for the Bushocracy, before he got too deeply involved in the criminality of war himself). In Max Weber’s terms, he has let routine, not charisma, run the show. That’s the sign of a virtue. Maybe not the virtue we needed foregrounded for all of the last eight years. But a virtue nonetheless.

Messianism is certainly something to worry about. It is a symptom of an impatience that wants to throw off all legal restraints, the very restraints that make possible the “freedom” that Americans, those masters of paradox, trumpet loudest when they are trying to anoint someone as lord and master over them. For this we have historical parallels.

Countless “saviors of the twenties”… achieved a position of “great significance especially in the years of inflation from 1919 to 1923 and then again during the Depression of 1929 to 1933″… In 1922, a Berlin correspondent for the Kölnische Zeitung described these “prophets of the street” as follows: “For the past one or two years, the advertising boards in Berlin have been covered with announcements of disciples of the future and prophets who are advertising their lectures (often at considerable admission prices). Catchwords and quotations from the Bible always play a role in the advertisements. The old constellation of ideas surrounding the apocalypse has gained new life, as it did in earlier times of crisis… The existence of such prophets is a dangerous symptom of the mental state prevalent in Germany today.” (Klaus Schreiner, “Messianism in the Weimar Republic,” 311-362 of Peter Schäfer and Mark Cohen, eds., Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco [Leiden: Brill, 1998], 338-339.)

The important thing about these saviors is that they promise to suspend all existing laws, treaties, and institutions, and simply “emerge as the bearer[s] of divine powers of mercy and fate” (337). One enthusiastic student essayist wrote in 1920:

In our misery, we long for a Leader. He will show us the way… The true Leader surely has no selfish motivation, just one, regal motivation, that he must be the Leader because he is it by nature…. The Leader is not guided by the masses, but by his mission; he does not flatter the masses; he proceeds harshly, uprightly, and ruthlessly, in times of good and evil. The Leader is radical; he is wholly that which he is, and he does wholly that which he must. The Leader is responsible; that is, he does God’s will, which he embodies…. God grant us the Leader and help us to achieve true fealty. (Käthe Becker, “Führerschaft, eine Rede vor der Vereinigung ‘Deutsche Jugend,'” in Deutschlands Erneuerung, vol. 4 [1920]: 563, cited in Schreiber, “Messianism,” 336.)

I have replaced “Führer” in Schreiner’s translation with the more ordinary term “Leader” in order to downplay the connotation that the word “Führer” has acquired in English as applying to one moustachioed individual only, because the date of the quotation proves that it’s not a matter of a manipulative individual or an evil genius, but of the fervent passivity of a mass movement begging to be led, pleading to be dealt with “harshly and ruthlessly.” There was a demand for a Führer, a howling demand, already years before the author of Mein Kampf stepped upon the stage. A well-prepared stage. I blame the preparers: the ones in Versailles as well as the pamphleteers, flag-wavers and revanchards.

And if someone had dealt with the root causes of the frenzy in a timely manner, perhaps the hero cult would have subsided. Inflation prophets will arise. They aren’t the evil itself but “dangerous symptoms” thereof. It shouldn’t be impossible to tap the top tax bracket, employ a few million people in infrastructure repairs, have an honest discussion about race, immigration and exclusion.

I didn’t worry too much about messianism in 2008. Perhaps I should have worried about disappointed messianism. But I do worry about it in 2016.


Rosy-Fingered Barbara

One morning a few years ago, I was riding to the office after dropping off the kids at school. Slightly ahead of me, somebody opened the door of a parked car without looking back. I swerved, so the door didn’t hit me, but the kid trailer tangled with the edge of the door and left a scratch on it. Nobody was hurt. I stopped to size up the situation. It was obviously the driver’s fault– you’re supposed to look in the mirror before you open a door on a public street– but she wanted very much to put the matter on another footing. “You bicyclists!” she started out. “You guys just run all the stop signs and act like you own the streets. You must think having a fancy bicycle gives you the right to break the law! And I’m sick and tired of it! And now here you come along scratching my car! You’re going to pay for the damage!”

I tried to point out the irrelevance of these remarks and to get the discussion back to its main point, as I saw it, which was that we’d been lucky nobody got hurt and I hoped she would look in the mirror next time, and too bad about the scratch but it wasn’t something I was responsible for.

Eventually we exhausted our stock of pleasantries and I got back on the road. But the exchange reminded me quite specifically of something I usually try to avoid, but can’t entirely ignore. Namely, public discussion in the era of the comments page.

Continue reading


Recidivism in weight loss

Nice article from NY Mag on the psychological and physiological adjustments that come with having lost large amounts of weight.

Cultural fantasies of weight loss present a tidy, attractive proposition – lose weight, gain self-acceptance – without addressing the whole truth: that body image post-weight loss is often quite complicated. Perhaps that helps explain why the rate of recidivism among people who have lost significant amounts of weight is shockingly high – by some estimates, more than 90 percent of people who lose a lot of weight will gain it back. Of course, there are lots of other reasons: genetic predisposition towards obesity, for one. For another, someone who’s lost 100 pounds to get to 140 pounds will need to work harder – including eating much less each day – to maintain that weight than someone who’s been at it her entire life. (Tara Parker-Pope’s excellent piece “The Fat Trap” explains these physiological factors in much greater detail.) But what about the psychological? Who would be surprised if a person – contending with both a new body that looks different from the one she feels she was promised, and the loneliness of feeling there’s no way to express that disappointment – returned to the familiar comfort of overeating? At least its effects are predictable.

Two thoughts: first that the last bit is of a piece toward a more general understanding of how psychologically difficult deprivation is, and how things like being fat or being poor change the wiring of our bodies and our brains. Beginning from that understanding makes compassion for the choices others make far easier (and moralizing judgment oriented around disgust more difficult).

Second is that Iwonder if anyone’s ever done a comparative analysis of the disappointment one feels after losing a great deal of weight and the post-pregnancy/childbirth body. Both are situations in which one does not return (unless one is a certain sort of celebrity, I suppose) to the status quo ante; in the case of weight loss this is exacerbated or made more weird, of course, by the fact that the new status quo may never have been ante. I was 6’1″, 215 pounds at age 16, 6’3″ 240 at 18, and 6’3″ 278 in summer 2002. Since 2007 I’ve bounced between 190 and 200 (I was at 184 at one point, but never again) and I’m still not used to it.


The Problem With Recognition

Hegel, as you know, started his account of social life with the struggle between master and slave. The master’s dependency on the slave meant that ultimately the slave was stronger. Alexandre Kojève (born Kojevnikoff) read this struggle as a combat for recognition, in which only humans could engage. Need a definition of “the human”? Recognition makes us human. At the ends of the spectrum of which ordinary human consciousness occupied the central band, you had pre-human animality (mere struggle for resources) and post-human dandyism (purely aesthetic competition, with no material stakes).

This always seemed to me a heretical revision of the Marxist-materialist account of society. But an immensely successful one. Napoleon used to marvel at how he could make men brave death for the sake of little plaques of metal tied to bright ribbons. By choosing to translate economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy into the common currency of recognition, Kojève launched a lot of ships, including a certain Lacanian armada and multiculturalism in its Charles-Taylorish version.

But there’s a problem with recognition: it works all too well.  Continue reading


The doldrums

Back after the break, and my life isn’t really that hard these days. Nonetheless I and everyone around me seem exhausted. No one knows what to blame; it feels, over the days, most like a collection of small things: the weather, the death of a not-very-well-known colleague’s son, the shorter-than-usual break, the MLA, 10 days without daycare, a lack of exercise, two job searches, one of which turned out to be emotionally very difficult.

None of these amounts to anything on its own. In a list they together don’t amount to much either.

This is the shape of a first-world, rich-person problem, I know. Too mild to be depression, it’s why the Cheever characters swim through strangers’ pools, why everyone on Mad Men is perpetually lubricated, why I am feeling snappish and dull.

First step: get back to writing and working. The communists were at least right about that, for me.


Attention is a resource

This piece at Marginal Revolution draws our attention once again to the ways in which being rich benefits the rich twice–once in terms of a direct access to wealth, and once in terms of how it allows the wealthy to preserve cognitive resources that allow them to make decisions that benefit their long-term self-interest.

Thus, SMS [the researchers] show that poverty (over)-stimulates attention to urgent problems which results in less attention given to important problems–thus, reduce some day to day urgencies and people may become more open to devoting attention to important problems like deworming or hygiene or paying the rent which would in the not-so-long-run result in greater benefits.

Crucially, notice that SMS’s experiments are about the effect of poverty not about the poor. In other words, at least some of our discussion of the poor may suffer from the fundamental attribution error.

That bit about fundamental attribution error seems crucial. And this sort of research, which we have seen more and more of in the last decade, seems to me to offer–via rationality and science–the best non-ethical, non-moral arguments for things like affirmative action that I can imagine being put forward. No idea if they’ll change anyone’s mind but it’s good to know, as always, that social science will help “prove” things that I have known all along were “true.”



The following clip (discovered for me by René, already a transportation theorist at 2 years 8 months) seems to me allegorical of just about everything. White guy in nice shirt drives around Johannesburg destroying things for the camera! Early on, White Guy in Nice Shirt says something like “On the one hand, I worry about bumping into things. On the other hand, I don’t have to worry about bumping into things,” which is worth ten volumes of moral philosophy and analysis of the spirit of the age. The bit where the SUV drags away the police tow truck rather nicely encapsulates the culture of impunity which will be even harder to extirpate in the case of a Romney win. Meet the Marauder. “A struggle with the earth…”


The practice of happiness

Since many people seem to me to be too unhappy, and since I like being happy (and believe, therefore, that other people will like it too), I thought I would share with you a couple tricks I have for recognizing the good in my life, in the hopes that you might become happier by using them.

(1) Every once in a while I take a few minutes to imagine in a quite serious way how I would feel if a member of my family died. This is, honestly, hard to do vividly. Nonetheless worth it, as it fills me with a tremendous appreciation for the living presence of my loved ones. It occurs to me writing this that I should try doing this with my friends as well. I got this practice from William Irvine’s book on Stoicism, which I recommend to everyone.

(2) A related, but happier, practice: I occasionally take a few minutes to see my good friends as their loved ones see them. Today in the car I spent some time imagining how my friend Colleen seemed to her now-husband (and my friend and riding partner) Lee the first time they met; then I flipped it around and imagined Lee from Colleen’s point of view. I ended up feeling a little bit in love with each of them myself, happy for them, and happy that I know them.

Both these practices mitigate against the tremendous danger of complacency about one’s own good fortune (earned solo or, more likely, acquired with the substantial help of others), the slow slide into ungratitude and habituation that accompanies the status quo. These exercises are designed to disrupt the stability of that status by reminding you of how fragile it is: in fragility it was obtained, in fragility it can all be lost. Every minute that it sustains itself is a small boon from the universe, a continuous miracle whose miraculousness lies precisely in its insane continuity, as you move through now, and even now… and still now! … and nothing has gone wrong that would destroy it. Isn’t that wonderful?