130925_12362_dennett020.JPGThough the 1990s were dubbed, the “decade of the brain” by scientists, there is something extraordinary occurring in the present decade that shouldn’t be ignored. Some of the brain research done during the end of the last century has spurred scientists and humanists to think differently about many things. The leaders in this renaissance of brain science and philosophy are writing books and articles for a lay audience–so many it’s been hard to keep up with them (though I have tried my best to do so).

My favorite “brainiacs” in the field are Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, Eric Kandel, Paul Bloom and Merlin Donald. Each has written several books pressing society to more seriously consider new discoveries about the brain and its workings in our daily lives.

Damasio famously debunked Cartesian dualism (the mind-body problem) and unveiled the complex palette of emotions built into our nervous system. Dennett “explained” consciousness from both a philosophical and scientific perspective. Kandel gave us a masterpiece about the neuroscience of “memory” and subsequent books about art.  Bloom spent his career studying how babies develop an inner sense of “moral” judgment. Donald gave us a theory of how the human “mind” evolved from the brains of early hominids over hundreds of thousands of years.

I have just finished a new book by Dennett, entitled From Bacteria to Bach and Back. Dan has never been one to overlook a pun when it serves his purpose as a writer. In it he attempts to synthesize much of the brain science and evolutionary theory that have informed his philosophy. Reviewers have praised the book for its broad sweep and lively writing, and I found it fascinating, though too clever by half.

Two of the big ideas in BBB are intended to shake things up: the concept of “memetics” as a science, and the radical idea that consciousness is “an evolved user interface” with the outside world. For anyone interested in philosophy or cultural history, these perspectives are fascinating.

The news here is that brain scientists are pressing society to take note of the major discoveries that will change the way we live in the very near future–through advances in medicine, pharmacology, behavioral science, psychotherapy and other fields–transforming the world for the better. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is a case in point–a Stanford professor on the talk show circuit explaining the evolution of the human brain to TV viewers. A generation of brilliant researchers is breaking out of their laboratories and taking to the streets. Watch out, they’re dangerous, like wild baboons.

Service Records

January 30, 2017

How presidents served the U.S. before taking office (prior to 2016):

 

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt was secretary of war, governor of New York, and a loyal Democrat in New York City
  • Harry S. Truman was an officer in charge of an elite artillery unit during World War I, served as a U.S. Senator, and audited military spending as chair of a congressional committee, weeding out corruption and waste
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower attended West Point, became a career Army officer, and eventually presided over D-Day as commander of Allied forces in World War II
  • John F. Kennedy served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, commanding PT-109 in the Pacific Theater, and served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts
  • Lyndon B. Johnson served as a congressman, senator, and majority leader from his home state of Texas, and later vice president of the United States
  • Richard M. Nixon served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, later as both congressman and senator from California, before becoming vice president under Eisenhower
  • Jimmy Carter was a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine commander before and during the Vietnam war, and later became governor of Georgia
  • Gerald R. Ford served in the Pacific as an officer on the carrier USS Monterey, earning numerous medals for valor, before becoming a long term Michigan congressman and house majority leader, and finally, vice president under Nixon
  • George H.W. Bush was a Navy pilot during World War II, once ditching his plane during a crash landing on a carrier, was head of the CIA, and served as vice president under Ronald Reagan
  • Ronald Reagan served in the U.S. Army Reserve during World War II, was governor of California, and president of the Screen Actor’s Guild
  • Bill Clinton objected to the Vietnam war and the draft, but entered the draft after two deferments during his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford; he served as governor of Arkansas for more than ten years
  • George W. Bush served briefly in the Texas Army Reserve, then as governor of Texas
  • Barack Obama served in the Illinois legislature as a three-term senator before being elected U.S. Senator from that state in 2004

 

Donald Trump is the first president of the United States never to have served his country in either government or military positions prior to his election. He has filed for bankruptcy six times, been sued for discrimination against minorities in his real estate business, bragged about not paying U.S. income taxes for more than a decade, and settled a class action suit for business fraud in connection with Trump University.

Let’s look at what our current president thinks he is presiding over, because it doesn’t resemble what most of us would recognize as the country we reside in.

  1. It has the demographics of United States in the 1950s, when our president was growing up: majority white, middle class, and prosperous in contrast to much of the world, which is recovering from a terrible war.
  2. Canada, Mexico, Central and South America are insignificant, off the radar screen. They aren’t part of America.
  3. There are heroes and villains, and things are black and white.
  4. And speaking of black and white: blacks are all but invisible: segregation is the rule that people of color live by, and suffer under. Racism is tolerated in both the north and the south, though in different forms.
  5. America is an equal opportunity society, where hard work matters and many in the majority are able to afford college, a house, and a nice vacation.
  6. The working class is a viable force in labor and politics. Politicians respect labor leaders and must negotiate serious contracts for workers in most industrial markets.
  7. Congress works according to political machines that distribute power among elite groups like banks, businesses, industry, and real estate, as long as alliances are maintained, often with money under the table.
  8. The media is a quiet, silent partner in maintaining this fictional order, reporting on what elite leaders do and keeping silent about their moral shortcomings.
  9. American industry stands atop the pyramid of world production and quality; it has no serious competition. The same is true with the military, agriculture, banking, education, and culture.
  10. America is an imperialist superpower, with no threats to its hegemony. Even the USSR is puny by comparison (though many U.S. politician fear its leaders).

Our president believes in this fictional version of the country we live in. No wonder he can’t govern or recognize the challenges we face. His press conferences are part of this fake universe, as are his fiats and executive orders. He deals with a fake Congress and a fake judiciary. The media are presenting an alternate truth, and one that he can’t tolerate. Even the earth isn’t cooperating: fake temperatures are a lot cooler than those we feel every day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could live in fake America? It would be fabulous, great, awesome, huge.

I know that neuroscientists scoff at the idea that our visual cortex receives all the information that would allow us to draw a picture of the scene in front of us–our visual field does not represent reality. I also know that physicists are positing alternate universes that exist inside black holes, and that space-time is relative to our location in our universe. I like to read fantasy stories because they take me away from the harsh “reality” that I feel around me. These things are part of being alive in the twenty-first century.

There is something malevolent about the shifting ground of “truth” in our troubled political and media spaces. After the president-elect’s surreal news conference, many commentators were talking about an alternate reality that is being manipulated through the media, forcing even honest journalists to come to terms with lies so transparent as to beggar belief. During the horrible campaign many simply felt that whoever shouted loudest, no matter his/her veracity, would be “believed” by the dumbfounded “public.” Of course, Russian hackers were fully aware of this new media arena and deftly used it to tilt the election toward their candidate.

The “Alt-Right” has indeed created its own “Alt-World.” Yet even that world seems outside the consciousness of the one human being who, as the most powerful leader on earth, needs to be grounded in a “reality” that acknowledges the dangers and opportunities we face as a nation. It is truly terrifying to realize that he is in a world of his own, and doesn’t want to leave.

A Virtuoso for Our Time

November 29, 2016

Classical music has been buffeted by the same economic and social changes that have recast the rest of music industry–streaming services, YouTube, falling CD sales, smaller recording companies, etc. There have nevertheless been reliable conductors, orchestras and virtuosos with enough star power to sell out large venues throughout the world. Yo Yo Ma, Lang Lang, James Levine, Joshua Bell, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky are a few of the artists in the top echelon today. Some would argue that these virtuosos are not the equal of past giants like Segovia, Horowitz, or Heifetz, but most critics would disagree. There are magnificent performers in nearly every category who now can record their feats in high definition, digital formats for posterity to judge their greatness.

No contemporary virtuoso has changed the public’s view of his instrument so profoundly as Jordi Savall, the Catalan master of the viola da gamba, an instrument barely heard fifty years ago on any stage. A student of the great German early music master, August Wenzinger, Savall first made his mark with a movie soundtrack to the French film on the life of Marin Marais. His rendering of the haunting melodies of Marais’ gamba pieces was so powerful that many outside the world of early music sought out Savall’s recordings. He formed an ensemble, Hesperion XX, that could tour and record obscure repertoire from Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque composers, and vernacular sources.

That was over thirty years ago. Today Savall is recognized throughout the world as a conductor, soloist, record producer, scholar, and media star. His recordings, often based on themes or regional traditions, are top sellers and crossover hits. His performances are sold out in virtually ever city around the globe. If you haven’t heard him, take the time to view this brief YouTube video of Greensleeves. I think you’ll be convinced that this artist transcends labels. He is the world’s greatest instrumental virtuoso, and a fitting exemplar of our multi-cultural, multi-dimensional music scene.

Out of Reach

September 16, 2016

Langston Hughes remains one of the true heroes of American literature, a black poet who remained in Harlem after many in its “Renaissance” had decamped for Europe or returned to the south. The house in which he lived for more than twenty years remains standing, though vacant, on East 127th Street.

Though the building became a New York City Landmark in 1981, it now faces an uncertain future, since the owner has left it poorly maintained after unsuccessful attempts to sell it for over $1 million. According to the New York Times, poet Renée Watson has created a non-profit group which plans to rent and eventually buy the property, hoping to make it a cultural center and incubator for young writers. Her efforts, though heroic, may not succeed because preservation is becoming “out of reach” for many New Yorkers, according to experts quoted in today’s story by reporter Samantha Schmidt.

It’s a familiar story, not only reminding us of the struggle Hughes and his colleagues endured in Harlem during the early twentieth century, but also of countless efforts to save properties associated with marginalized or minority histories throughout America. Watson said that she felt like “our stories are being erased,” even if unintentionally, by the wheels of progress. In New York, as this blog has consistently shown, wealth and gentrification have threatened or destroyed many potential landmark properties, especially during the past thirty years.

Rather than lamenting their loss, our best hope is to find effective economic strategies for the reuse of these historic sites, eschewing the now tired process of embalming them and creating museums that cannot attract a paying clientele.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pope Francis and Poverty

December 25, 2014

Pope Francis’ startling Christmas sermon to the Vatican elite has echoed across the world, bouncing from one critical listener to the next like a squash ball in a closed court. When I heard it I thought first of his courage and toughness, wondering how he would fare after the powerful and patently evil curia digested his metaphors and oblique references to their laziness and corruption. He has no fear of their power. They will fade before his visionary leadership. He had a much more ambitious goal with this humble speech to the assembled laity at St. Peter’s. He sounded the alarm to the entire world: a transformation is upon us; embrace it or get out of the way. Change is coming.

For more than a quarter century the world has needed a religious leader with the courage, moral authority and clear vision to take on the increasingly cynical power elites who have controlled political, economic, academic and theological discourse during these troubled times. When John Paul II helped to bring down the Iron Curtain Catholics cheered, but were soon disillusioned by his narrow moral vision and authoritarian tenure in Rome. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church endured its most corrosive crisis in more than a century: the cover up of priestly sexual abuses, particularly in North and South America. Reeling from this blow, Rome stumbled with Benedict, but then elected the unlikeliest candidate imaginable as his successor.

Francis, like his namesake, is a man of peace who sees the plight of the world’s poor as the inevitable result of crony capitalism, authoritarian regimes, and economic inequality. Poverty is not simply a condition of the least fortunate, but rather a pervasive moral issue for the world today. Poverty of vision, poverty of ideas, poverty of spirit, poverty of leadership. Francis called upon his flock to struggle against this pervasive abnegation in their midst. The world is listening, and his words will bring a new ethic to those who hear their truth.

Robin Williams and Depression

September 3, 2014

Nanu nanu. Living with mental illness is a little like living on another planet, as many of us who suffer from depression know. Nobody understands what we are going through, or at least they don’t seem to get it except when something terrible happens. Like a suicide, successful or not. As Andrew Solomon has shown in The Noonday Demon, all depressed people think seriously about suicide. If they are treated, most don’t succeed at offing themselves. Artists still seem to live on edge of the abyss. The demon often takes over. E.T. can’t phone home because there’s nobody there.

Sylvia Plath chronicled her path to oblivion, and a few other artists have created similar poetic if harrowing memoirs of depression. Robin Williams spoke very little about his illness, and often made light of his demons–drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. His manic humor was extraterrestrial and at times incomprehensible, at least to those who don’t perform to get rid of their insecure sense of self. When you don’t have a solid sense of who you are it is easier to become someone else. Few humans have had the gift/curse of multiple personality imaginations like Robin Williams. Genius often comes close to madness, and this was surely a case in which the two were Jekyll and Hyde.

Since I grew up watching Robin Williams and often saw my myself in his characters, I feel a deep sense of loss now that he is gone. I don’t, however, feel surprised or mystified by his suicide.  All depressed people know a little about what he faced every day. Knowing that he got up and went to work, entertaining millions as no one else can ever do, inspires me to do what I can with my art. As Tolstoy said, “I would rather be the holy fool than any other human being.” Rest in peace, Robin.

Inequality Is Obscene

March 15, 2014

Today’s New York Times put America’s biggest problem in the starkest of terms: naked truth; moral turpitude; the kind of language used by the far right to describe just about anything it deems distasteful.

According to Charles M. Blow, the income chasm is “an obscenity” that is pulling the United States downward and threatening the quality of life of nearly every American. All, that is, except the .01 percent who control over 10% of the country’s income, and the 10% who can claim a 48% share.  Meanwhile, over 17% of Americans had trouble putting food on their tables last year. Millions struggled to maintain a “middle class” standard of living.

The U.S. now ranks number one in income inequality worldwide. I remember when our nation stood for fairness, opportunity, and self-sufficiency for all. I grew up during the 1960s, when most Americans believed in the common good, and aspired to the Americana Dream. Nearly everything in popular culture then was positive, future oriented, and confident.

Today popular culture is rife with the metaphors of greed, self-aggrandizement, and violent competition. When the American Dream is invoked, only the rich qualify for inclusion. Television is awash in reality contests that glorify money, fame, and screwing the little people in a race to the top.

The cultural landscape is changing dramatically and many Americans seem content to stand by while their core values erode. In so doing they open the doors to further exploitation by an oligarchy that hides behind prurient, conservative institutions such as the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Remember that though Spanish Inquisition was an organ of the Roman Catholic Church, its obscenities were patent.

We can stop this downward slide toward poverty and cultural bankruptcy. But first we need to change our complacency toward ethical standards, truth telling, and the Golden Rule. These things make equality possible.