Cognition & Reality

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Racism In The Civil Rights Era

Filed under: Film,Race — drtone @ 1:10 pm

For anyone under the age of about 40, it would be difficult to imagine the state of race relations at the beginning of what is now called the Civil Rights Era. Witnessing the TEA Party and its attacks on President Obama, one is struck by the obvious, but veiled, racism at the back of the vitriol. That the racism is veiled, however, is perhaps the most important thing about it.

Not so long ago, the concept of a Black man in power might not even have occurred in the mind of the most dedicated civil rights activist, White or Black. In 1963, African-Americans had been second-class citizens for a century, and before that, had not, most of them, been citizens at all. Americans were used to the subservience of one race to another. When most Whites saw a Black person, it was as some sort of domestic worker. Black professionals served their own community; it was inconceivable for a White person to seek out an African-American doctor or lawyer, and I use the word “inconceivable” advisedly. No one was free of a racist understanding of the world. No one had ever questioned the position of Whites on top of a world in which those of other races existed to support Whites’ privileged existence, an attitude that extended beyond the borders of the United States and was reflected in the distribution of global power. The world literally belonged to Caucasians.

Everyone had grown up within a system that accepted and depended upon the dominance of White people. As late as the early 1970s, no African-American was in a position of authority over Whites. I have already used the word “inconceivable” and I will use it again: for a Black man or woman to be the boss of any White person was inconceivable, even by individuals who questioned the order of things. For example, we did not see Black head coaches and managers in the major sports until the 1980s. One need only watch either film version of “Imitation of Life” to grasp the how total was the acceptance, by both Whites and Blacks, of their unequality: The plot of the movie, which adopted a relatively progressive point of view, revolves around a young Black girl’s inability to accept how wrong it is for her to “pass” as White.

The inferiority of Blacks was taken for granted. It was, as I pointed out in a previous post, regarded as a matter of scientific fact, hardly questioned until the 1950s (and still accepted by some people to this day). The story is often told about American WWII POW camps, in which Black American soldiers had to sit in the back, behind German and Italian prisoners, when movies were shown. Although the injustice of the situation could not have been lost on many who were there, in the cultural milieu of the time, it could not have been any other way. The US Army itself was segregated, with Blacks mostly relegated to the dirtiest jobs, as many who are still alive remember. One questioned this racial hierarchy at one’s peril.

My purpose here is not to celebrate how far we’ve come. As far as I’m concerned, the United States, having been built by slavery, will always have a long way to go in putting its errors to rights. The point is that it is no wonder that, as I suggested in a previous post, the current view of the Civil Rights Era suffers from inadequate recognition of the circumstances that prevailed at the time.


Friday, 28 January 2011

Psychology In America

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 9:48 am

As I have been reading The Metaphysical Club, I have been struck with the way the author, Louis Menand, who is an English professor, portrays academic psychology. For him, it is of far greater importance to American letters than I am accustomed to imagine. In the period about which Menand is writing, the late nineteenth century, not only did William James, John Dewey, and even Charles Sanders Pierce, as well as several others who perhaps later either became philosophers, consider themselves to be psychologists, but also academic psychology (the New Psychology, as Menand calls it) was catching a fair amount of the limelight in the public imagination. Because James hated the laboratory, I shy away from using the term “experimental psychology” to distinguish the related disciplines of social, developmental and what would come to be called “cognitive” psychology from clinical psychology. I remember being aware, when I was a grad student that psychology had lost some of the robustness it seemed to have in previous times. During my era, and I think that the same conditions prevail today, psychologists have prided themselves on having, in effect, separated themselves from the previous era, dominated by “behaviorism.” The problem is that behaviorism was, if nothing else, the bridge back to psychology as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Something has been lost.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Polanski Mails One In

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 9:15 am

A couple of years ago, while Roman Polanski was fighting the efforts of the Swiss to send him back to the US for trial, he was also finishing a supposed thriller entitled “The Ghost Writer.” In spite of having received some excellent reviews when it was released about a year ago, this movie has an amazing dumbnitude. Although I recall wanting to see it when it came out, I watched it without knowing that it was a Polanski film. Having received it from Netflix, I put it into the machine, and watched it in its entirety, asking myself every five minutes or so why I didn’t turn it off, convinced that it had been cobbled together by a committee of know-nothing twenty-and thirty-somethings whose only value is slickness. When the credits rolled at the end announcing that it was directed by Polanski, I was therefore shocked, especially when I found that Polanski co-wrote the screenplay with the author of the book on which it is based.

To my mind, “The Ghost Writer” does not deserve an actual review, and I will not go into all the mindless twists it contains, nor the coincidences it involves that seem less like artful fictions and more like writing conveniences. Let’s just say that, for a “thriller,” it drags on from the first, introduces characters purely because famous actors agreed to play cameos, puts jarring grammatical mistakes in the mouths of characters who would not make such mistakes, and revolves around a “mystery” that is neither mysterious nor interesting. Sympathetic though I am with the political points it tries to score regarding the lawlesssness of the Bush Administration, the effort to make those points seems forced. As has been required of action-oriented movies for some time, “The Ghost Writer” includes the product placement of a high-priced vehicle, and spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the features of that car, a BMW SUV. The women in the movie are strangely miscast: because Olivia Williams, in her early 40s, plays a woman who, to satisfy the plot, must be in at least her mid-50, they give her a streak of white hair, which has the effect of making her seem younger, not older; meanwhile Kim Cattrall, who is in her mid-50s (but still has a first-rate ass, as one particular shot illustrates), plays a woman in her mid-30s. There’s a sex scene for which the word “obligatory” seems inadequate because it is so unnecessary, and is preceded by so little sexual chemistry. Ewan McGregor, the hero, appears to float  in outer space during every scene. Not that I’m a fan of horror movies or anything, but I would have expected Roman Polanski to make far better use of the obvious pun in the movie’s title. I could go on. I only hope that this clunker isn’t Polanski’s swan song.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Grocery Store

I have finally got round to reading The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand. It’s about William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and the development of pragmatism as an American philosophy. Of course, it’s interesting, but the most fascinating thing about it is that I’m learning that I, and others, have been reinventing pragmatism as a sort of adjunct to radical constructivism. The central point of pragmatism is that our thoughts are only thoughts, and any theory about the world is only a story made up of selections from individual experience. So much for ideas. So much for theory. For example, as one passage in the book explains, legal arguments about liability identify causal chains of events, although such chains are actually fabrications based on a given point of view.

In this connection, consider my experience of going to the grocery store and its relationship with what “actually happens” at the grocery store. There are typically dozens of people in the store, most or all of whom I do not know and do not know me. There are the clerks, to whom I am perhaps familiar in a shadowy sort of way if I frequent that supermarket. Other than that, it is rare for me to see anyone I know. The other shoppers and I are, in effect, independent observers of the events occurring before us. We all literally have our own points of view because we’re all standing in different places. Furthermore, we have come into the market carried along by our own stories about ourselves and our intentions in being there.

Let’s say I report to you about what it was like at the store. All I can tell you is a story entitled “My Visit to the Supermarket.” I can tell you the route I took around the store, what I bought, the number of people who were there, etc. If I were to give a detailed account, it might contain my impressions of my fellow shoppers, some of them at least, the number of checkstands that were open, the produce prices, the level of illumination, and the temperature in various parts of the store. What is the relationship of my report, however detailed, with what happened while I was in the store?

To begin with, there is  the question of events that happened while I was there, but that I did not or could not witness, such as the actions of shoppers in aisles I was not in when those actions occurred. Furthermore, my personal account must be silent regarding the experience of everyone else in the store, even supposing that one or two people spoke with me while I was there to comment on events as they happened. The chance are, moreover, that I would not appear as even a minor character in the report of any other shopper about her or his “visit to the supermarket.” As an expert in eyewitness testimony could tell you, if a crime had occurred while I was in the store, and I saw it happening, my report about it would vary in many details from the reports of other eyewitnesses. Even supposing that a crime did occur, and statements were taken, those statements, taken together, would still not constitute an account of what was happening, in total, within the store at the time I was there. Many more things than the crime were happening at any instant.

So where does this leave us? There was no place to stand in the store, no point of view, that would permit the creation of an individual report accounting for everything that happened during my visit. Standing in any place precludes standing in any other place. If we were to discuss what “everything that happened” means, we would find the same problem at another level, because your ideas about what constitutes a “fact” or “event” will almost certainly be at some variance from mine. For example, everyone in the store was breathing: Does each  inhalation and exhalation count as an event? Does every step that every shopper took? What about changes that were occurring at the molecular or atomic level? When asked what happened in the store, we might say, “God only knows,” and in some systems of philosophy the meaning of “God” is the point of view that sums or integrates all possible points of view. Were such a God to exist, however, neither you nor I would have direct access to her “experience.”

Let’s chew on that for a bit.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Roethlisberger Revisited

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 2:18 pm

At the beginning of the NFL season, I posted regarding Commissioner Roger Goodell’s reduction of the suspension he had handed out to Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback, for having raped a woman in Georgia. I joined the chorus complaining that Roethlisberger, his wealth and fame  standing between him and the prison sentence that any other man would serve for the same crime, should receive a year’s suspension from play, if not outright banishment from the league. There seems to be little question that he did rape the woman, and that he has raped other women. The man fairly glows narcissistic contempt for the world at large, and it seems likely that, his present reformed demeanor notwithstanding, he will rape again. The NFL, in its constant effort to generate new and higher forms of hypocrisy, has typically overlooked the facts, and has let him play because of his rare talents. I should add that in the game the Steelers won last week they faced  the Baltimore Ravens, led by Ray Lewis, among the greatest linebackers ever, and a murderer.

As of yesterday’s games, the Steelers will face the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, and Roethlisberger’s excellent play is certainly a major factor in his team’s success. Although he’s not considered to be quite as good as the Packers’ QB, Aaron Rodgers, Roethlisberger gives his team, which is built around running, what it needs: his ability to maneuver, despite his exceptional size, and his toughness, an object of great respect in football circles. Not long after his suspension ended, Roethlisberger fucked up one of his ankles, and has played ever since wearing a specially constructed boot. There is nothing–nothing!–football people (and other “athletic supporters”) like better than a guy who plays in obvious pain; if he is also extraordinarily talented, that’s merely icing on the cake. Therefore, and on account of his team’s having matriculated all the way to final game, Roethlisberger has gone from being something of a pariah when he returned from his suspension, to becoming once again one of the game’s most admired players. To me, he remains a rapist who should be locked up instead of being celebrated and paid truckloads of money.

I don’t pretend to be an expert and I’m not a gambling man, but if I did gamble, I’d put my money on the Steelers to win the Super Bowl, not least because of Roethlisberger’s ability to make the big play. Almost every season, I ask myself why I continue to watch this weird game, seemingly designed to produce horrible injuries and to promote bad behavior, both on and off the field. In spite of my disgust for the game’s extravagant hypocrisy, and in spite of my disdain for the awe-inspiring stupidity and waste of the Super Bowl, I remain a fan.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Science & The Church: An Addendum

Filed under: Attachment,Perennial Philosophy,Radical Constructivism — drtone @ 5:51 pm

Some may have found my entry of yesterday surprising because we are accustomed to think of science in opposition to religion. At least in part, this is because of science’s self-promotion as the only source of answers, demonstrating that it is indeed a child of the Church, whatever its current stance may be regarding religious doctrines. I have been struggling for some time with this sort of phenomenon, which I believe to be a function of closed systems: If a closed system has any products, those products retain the essential characteristics of the system as a whole. Possibly, this is what Varela and Maturana mean by autopoiesis.

Another area in which I think the same law or the same tendency applies is in the area of ego. Whatever it does, the ego’s products inevitably resemble the ego, a version of “You can run, but you can’t hide”: Whenever one enters the ego, one enters at the same place, with the same problems, concerns and beliefs, with the same attachments. At least, I think so.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Why Science Brooks No Opposition

Filed under: Propaganda,Science — drtone @ 2:58 pm

Recently, as I have sometimes expressed through my entries here, I have been annoyed at the way science is used to further political ends, such as in the so-called “debate” regarding climate change. It is such an unholy alliance, science and politics, with the latter inevitably polluting the former, which easily becomes a weapon in the hands of anyone with a regulatory, legislative or financial agenda. That said, science itself has an imperialistic cast that it cannot shed, and that should frighten the shit out of anyone attempting to use it to further a political argument.

A central feature of Western science is its claim to universality. Science has, in effect, issued a permanent IOU, promising that it will eventually explain everything, a conception of science that not only has deep roots in the philosophy of science, but also in the public consciousness. Consider the scientific studies of extra-sensory perception or the whole edifice of social science. Although there are competing systems of thought, principally within non-traditional and non-Western religious doctrines, to most people in the industrialized world the operation of explaining a phenomenon means giving it a scientific explanation. Even when what is in dispute is a key scientific construct, the opposition tends to function from a competing conception of science that preserves most of its main characteristics, as has happened with “intelligent design,” a supposedly scientific alternative to evolution by natural selection. Why should this be?

One need look no further for an explanation than to the history of science itself. Western science developed entirely within the walls of institutions controlled by the Catholic Church. Note that “catholic,” a term the Church began applying to itself almost from its beginnings as an establishment, means “universal.” Note, as well, that the institutions where science came into being and in which it remains are called “universities.” The claim to universality, central to Church doctrine, passed directly to science as it developed within the Church and at the centers of learning founded by the Church. Roger Bacon and William of Ockham were both English Franciscan friars, operating  under the discipline of the Pope and his bishops. Even after the Reformation, universities and the activities they housed remained under religious discipline, and were dominated by the study of theology until well into the nineteenth century.

It is not entirely a coincidence that science as we know it today emerged at the time when control of universities began to pass out of the hands of priests and ministers and into the hands of laymen. In Europe and America during the Victorian era, academic professors (a title that, BTW, derives directly from “professing” faith through the taking of religious vows), attained a high degree of autonomy from the religious authorities who, in effect, owned the universities in which they taught. Science was therefore freed from the direct interference of religion, but it was not freed from the forces that formed it, in particular from the claim of the Church to have an infallible hold on the Truth. Through constant exposure, you could say, science picked up the same habit, one so deeply ingrained as to be essential to its existence.

This is one of those self-evident truths that, once heard, cannot be dispelled. Science is a direct descendant of the Church. For that reason, it embodies the critical features of the Church, an imperialistic institution, in every sense of the world, founded upon and defined by its claim to infallible access to the truth. Although “Papal infallibility” as a separate doctrine is a late product of the counter-Reformation, the notion that the Church fathers have an exclusive channel to God and therefore both the right and duty to promulgate God’s Only Truth is as old as the Church, and inseparable from it. Science, which developed within that same Church, inherited those same “genes,” if you will, and therefore has as its central feature a claim to owning the Truth.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

“The Sopranos,” Gay Rights & The Velocity of Social Change

Filed under: Sex & Love,Television — drtone @ 11:47 am

I’ve been re-watching “The Sopranos” for some time. Occasionally, things emerge in the show that feel dated. After all, the first episodes appeared exactly twelve years ago, in January of 1999. Now I’m watching the sixth and final season. I had forgotten that one of the themes in several of the episodes revolves around the discovery that, Vito, one of Tony Soprano’s mob “captains,” is gay. The episodes in question appeared in April and May of 2006. Less than five years later, the issues they tackle already feel as though they’ve stopped mattering.

When Tony finds that Vito is gay, it offends his “old school” approach to the world. On further consideration, however, he realizes that Vito is  one of his hardest working and most loyal people. Tony’s other captains simply want to put Vito to death. forcing Tony  to take a courageous stand in Vito’s defense. As is often true in “The Sopranos,” the creators have taken a current social issue and explored it within the structure of the show, treating the Mafia, fairly or not, as a gloss on American corporate culture.

Not having a regular job, nor having my finger on the pulse of our society, maybe I’m all wet, but I suspect that, were these episodes of “The Sopranos,” written today, they would unfold differently: Instead of wanting to kill the gay captain, most of  Tony’s  other captains, although perhaps personally offended by homosexuality, wouldn’t care enough about the guy’s sexual orientation to be interested in getting rid of him; the plot would revolve around dealing with one or two captains who still want the guy “gone.” Translating this to real life, I have the impression that the issue of gays in the workplace has shifted from whether they are accepted at all to making a few adjustments in the attitudes of .the intransigent few who still cling to “old school” values. That is a huge change in only five years.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 12:37 pm

Attachment, on the other hand, involves identification with the products of the conscious mind, and concern for the later effect of actions done in the present moment. Instead of free play, attachment is therefore about constrained expectations of the future, hoping that the world will conform to my expectations about it, or wishing that it had already done so. Because it consists in wanting things to go my way, attachment is therefore a story about me, my past and my future. For that reason, attachment is little more than a dream, because neither the past nor the future exists.

Monday, 17 January 2011

MLK, Then And Now

Filed under: Memory,Propaganda,Urban Myths — drtone @ 4:07 pm

Today, we observe Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, although his actual birthday was 15 January and the actual reason that he is celebrated rarely arises in connection with his name. The word “ironic” is misused far more often than it is used correctly, but it is correct in this instance to call the national celebration of MLK’s birthday ironic. As if to demonstrate the malleability of memory, everyone honors him, but that he became a hero by drawing abuse from a thousand precincts has been airbrushed out of the American mind. In these latter daze, it is understood that the forces he faced were wrong or evil, but at the time, he opposed The Establishment, and The Establishment doesn’t take kindly to being opposed.

King is officially beloved. In his time, however, admired though he was by some, he was the most hated man in America. His haters were not sequestered in the Ku Klux Klan or in the White communities of a few Southern states. On the contrary, they freely vilified him on TV and in the press, they abused his name in Congress, and they threw him in jail. J. Edgar Hoover made it his business to use the FBI to turn King’s life upside-down. He was constantly accused of being a womanizer and  a Communist, either or both of which may have been true enough. It is also conveniently forgotten that exactly a year to the day before his assassination, he gave a speech, at liberal Riverside Church in NYC, condemning the War in Vietnam, a war that itself has been the subject of constant revisionism until it has become something good, rather than what is was, one of the worst chapters in the history of our nation. King condemned that war, just as he would have the condemned the twin wars we’re fighting  at this moment, and for much the same reasons.

If King were alive today, he’d be a controversial figure, the subject of continual attempts to marginalize him and his message of economic justice and practical pacifism. You can bet that the Republicans who today speak his name in hushed tones or praise him to the rafters would attack him with the same venom they apply to everything and everyone associated with progressive ideas and liberal causes. It is part and parcel with the success of right-wing propaganda that the official national consciousness does not include bright red notation identifying the forces of the Right as having fought the hardest against Martin Luther King, Jr., and everything he stood for. Hell, they fought against the establishment of a national holiday in his name.

In most instances, victors do have the privilege of writing history, but King’s victory was hijacked by the very forces he opposed, and they have whitewashed (so to speak) their role in his sainthood and martyrdom. As we hear young people, particularly young Blacks, talk about King, they mention his heroism, but they do not seem to grasp that he was a hero because he took on the very warp and woof of the prevailing order, and proceeded to unravel the fabric of society. He was, in this respect, a revolutionary, and paid every day of his adult life for being one.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at