Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Mortal Happiness

Martian happy face
Thomas Jefferson showed some insight when he listed among inalienable human rights “the pursuit of happiness.” Not happiness, mind you. He didn’t perceive any right to that: only to the pursuit of it.

That is just as well, since repeated surveys show that citizens of the nation he helped create have been growing unhappier for more than 40 years. This feels correct to me: I personally remember people smiling a lot more four decades ago than today. My anecdotal evidence has the support of the Harris Poll, among others. A few years ago a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research got quite a bit of press from its conclusion that women in the US are not only less happy than they were in the 1970s but are less happy than men – in the 1970s they self-reported as happier than men. Those who care about such differences may note that the gap has narrowed again. According to Professor Jean M. Twenge (well-known for her studies of Millennials), since 2010 men’s happiness has plummeted, too; so, now there is little difference between them and the gals.

All those statements are vast generalizations, of course. As always, there is a range of individual differences. There always are people who are cheery by nature or grumpy by nature, and no amount of fortune or misfortune seems to alter their fundamental dispositions. Yet there is such a thing as a zeitgeist, in which folks on average may be more or less cheery. There are also different kinds of happiness. Wealthy people (unsurprisingly) report themselves happier in a general way than do poor people in the same country. Yet if you ask “Are you happy today?” or “Were you happy yesterday?” there is no difference at all in the responses of the rich, the poor, or those in between. What the rich really mean when they report being generally happy is that that they feel more secure. Security is definitely a valuable thing, but it does not translate into day to day cheerfulness. On any given day a rich person is as likely to be depressed as a poor one, and we live day by day. Furthermore, the wealth effect works only within nations. Populations of wealthier countries do not self-report as happier than those of poorer ones. For what it’s worth, the cheeriest populations (on that daily basis) are in Central and South America. The US rank is 33, which frankly is higher than I would have guessed.

Studies led by Twenge of 1.3 million Americans from 1972 to 2014 indicate an age correlation to happiness, and it is one that has changed over time. Four decades ago happiness rose pretty steadily with age. No longer. Nowadays, Millennials under 30 are a cheerful bunch: they are the one group happier than their age-counterparts were in the 1970s. People over 65 are pretty happy, too, as they were then. Those in between, however, are more miserable than they ever have been. Twenge speculates that Millennials feel good about the high expectations instilled into them until they realize they won’t be met. While a substantial minority of Millennials do in fact wind up with extraordinary salaries and lifestyles, the majority underperform to put it mildly. Most of their lives turn out not so amazing after all, and they take it hard. The folks presently 30-65 (older Millennials, all Xers, and younger Boomers) have not had a good four decades, at least by their own judgment – and not just economically.

Twenge doesn’t much address the happiness of senior citizens, but the curious complacency of this group has attracted the attention of psychologists for over a century. One might think the nearness of death would make them fearful or depressed, but it doesn’t. My personal opinion (as someone who will be in the age category soon enough, thank you) is that this is related to Loss Aversion, which is the economic and psychological principle that people dislike losses far more than they like equivalent gains. This makes no sense in standard game theory, but it is how people behave. It is why stock market crashes happen in a matter of days (or hours) while booms are comparatively slow motion affairs lasting months or years: people scramble to sell in falling markets in order to limit their losses but buy much more hesitantly into a rising one. (“Animal spirits,” to use Greenspan’s term, do inflate bubbles, but bubbles rarely just deflate again: they pop.) We fret about potential losses, not only of property but of pride, social standing, friends, and so on. The key word is “potential”: we’re pretty good at accepting inevitable loss once we’re convinced it is in fact inevitable.

I remember a local judge back in the 1970s who was a friend of my dad. When diagnosed with terminal cancer he underwent a complete personality change. Formerly of conservative demeanor, he took to dressing in white suits, opining on art, and being a “character.” Why? Because he had nothing to lose. So what if anything he said or did damaged his career or his status? With a far bigger loss inevitable, the rest hardly mattered. He simply stopped giving a damn and was happier for it – for the 18 months or so he survived. Most seniors don’t have as clear-cut an expiration date as he had, but they know it isn’t so very far away. They don’t have as much reason to fear loss other than the inevitable one, so they worry less.

Are there any lessons in this for the unhappy 30-65 crowd? Yes. In the grand scheme of things, we aren’t here for much longer than our elders. Maybe that thought can help us not give a damn, too.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Grownup Dystopias

YA (young adult) dystopias are all the rage and I’ve delighted in my share of them. Sometimes, however, one feels the urge to leave one’s inner teenager behind while still contemplating the ride to hell in the proverbial handbasket. My urge was satisfied last week by Angela Carter and Vladimir Nabokov. There are a handful of novelists whose prose is so artful that one suspects even their shopping lists are a joy to read. Carter and Nabokov are among them. Both write with a richness and complexity that are fine dining compared to YA fast food. I have enjoyed both over the years, but somehow had missed two dystopic servings until now.
In Angela Carter’s scifi The Passion of New Eve (1977), the young Englishman Evelyn grows up with an enormous crush on silent film legend Tristessa. All grown up, he moves to New York for a professorship, but his timing is awful. American civil society is collapsing. Crime in New York is beyond rampant while identity politics escalates into full-blown civil war along lines of race, gender, and ideology. California secedes, at least according to the proclamation of one of the warring factions there. Evelyn’s job vanishes. He nonetheless finds time to become involved with a pole dancer named Leilah whom he uses and callously abandons. He drives west to escape her even though a flight back to the UK surely would have been wiser.

In the Western desert Evelyn is captured by an armed band of women who are worshippers of Cybele – and skilled bio-engineers. They take him underground to meet the Mother, their leader, who surgically has turned herself effectively into Cybele. There, Evelyn is re-engineered into a woman – not just superficially but fully functionally. She is able to bear children, which is what the Mother has in mind for her. Evelyn, renamed Eve, is an extraordinarily beautiful and feminine woman at that; with her deep understanding of male fantasy, she is effortlessly alluring, which proves to be very much a mixed blessing. Eve escapes the Mother only to be captured again, this time by a Charles Manson-ish lunatic named Zero who lives on a desert ranch with his sycophantic young wives. Zero is sterile and somehow has got it into his head that this is the fault of Tristessa, the silent film goddess who had been Evelyn’s boyhood crush. Tristessa is still alive and lives nearby in a bizarre glass house. Zero and the gang including Eve invade the home, but while torturing Tristessa the homophobic Zero is shocked to discover Tristessa is actually a man. Eve escapes again and more adventures follow including warfare in LA, a re-appearance of Leilah, and an encounter with an old senile drunk woman who might be a vision of Eve’s future.

Angela Carter is often called a feminist writer, but, to steal a line from Wolfgang Pauli, that is “not even wrong.” Sex is at the core of all her fiction, but in a complex way that is deeper than politics. It is clear she sees power in femininity even where it seems to be absent. Zero seems to keep his women literally enthralled, for example, yet they outnumber him eight to one, so he doesn’t do so by force; only Eve is held by force, and she only by the force of the other women. “But his myth,” Carter writes, “depended on their conviction; a god-head, however shabby, needs believers to maintain his credibility. Their obedience ruled him.” She says something similar in her non-fiction The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978), which is sympathetic both to Sade and porn. Angela Carter died in 1992 at age 51.
Bend Sinister (1947) by Vladimir Nabokov is far less surreal even though it is set in the imaginary city of Padukgrad in an unnamed country with heavy Slavic and Germanic influences. The official ideology of the state is Ekwilism, a quirkily metaphysical blend of fascism and communism, which Nabokov viewed as two sides of the same coin. In the name of community and equality the state is tyrannical in ways petty and grand. The protagonist, philosophy professor Adam Krug faces it all sardonically, whether he is stuck on a bridge because the guards at each end dispute his privilege to pass or if he is threatened with execution.

Krug knew Paduk, leader of the totalitarian "Party of the Average Man," when they were both schoolboys. Paduk wants Krug, an internationally respected philosopher, to endorse him and his party. Krug resists until his son David is taken into custody and threatened. Krug gives in, but through sheer bureaucratic incompetence rather than malice the wrong David is returned to him. It turns out the right David was killed while in custody. Paduk makes Krug another offer: he will release 24 political prisoners (including some of Krug’s friends) if he will co-operate.

There is a grim graveyard humor to Krug. It is a coping mechanism probably best understood by those who have lived in such a regime. There is no happy ending except for a reminder by Nabokov that this is fiction. This, too, is a grim joke, for in the 1940s it wasn’t so very fictional – nor is it in some spots today.
While teen angst is all very well and good, both of these books provide some grownup and thoughtful dystopian visions. Recommended.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fifty Years of Gray

Not all writing is of a piece. There is no guarantee that a writer who is good at one genre will be good at another. An essayist might have no talent for short stories. Though song lyricists and poets seem to do something very similar, that something isn’t exactly the same for each and there is remarkably little crossover as Steve Allen amply demonstrated six decades ago by reading rock lyrics as though they were poems. A writer of science textbooks might write terrible novels. A skilled novelist might be an uninspired screenwriter, e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some authors can and do cross genres successfully. One has to grant the novelist Faulkner his success with the screenplays To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Gore Vidal wrote well in any format. But they are more the exception than the rule.

So, I had no high expectations for a scifi novel written by Albert Brooks, whose thoughtful comedic screenplays I’ve enjoyed in the past. Yet, he transitions pretty well in 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. Brooks originally envisioned 2030 as a screenplay but decided the fx budget alone would be bank-breaking, so he opted for a novel instead.

Since before I was born, doomsayers have warned that “our children” would face dire consequences from the ever ballooning national debt. Every now and then the US federal debt becomes a major political issue but the issue always fades as disaster fails to materialize for one generation of children after another. Yet, consequences, if not a disaster, are at least being felt in the current generation. As interest on the debt takes an ever larger share of the budget, the federal government simply doesn’t have the money to do what politicians of either the Right or the Left want it to do. The military is smaller than at any time since the (short-lived) near-total demobilization after WW2 while new infrastructure and social spending stalls for lack of cash. Tax increases, even if politically possible and whether narrowly or broadly based, cannot possibly keep up with already built-in entitlement and pension commitments and with growing interest on the existing debt. Elected officials of any ideology have surprisingly little room for real maneuver; they can make a difference only at the margins and usually for the worse. All of this has an impact on the economic circumstances and prospects of Millennials. The US is far from alone in this self-imposed bind.

In Brooks’ 2030, federal debt service alone eats up 3 trillion dollars per year – a number which might not be far off from reality. Meanwhile, in this near-future, cancer and many ailments of the elderly are at long last defeated; this sounds wonderful but it means that the elderly population grows and grows with Boomers (my people) in particular likely to hang on to 120 while chewing up ever more health care expenses, social security, and whatever remains of the federal budget – and by their numbers dominating political power. Effectively, young people pay for all this with low wages, enormous private debt, high taxes, mandated purchases, and a far lower standard of living than their parents and grandparents. The young begin to respond violently; extremist youth groups and “lone wolves” launch terror attacks against the old. There already was no money to deal with ordinary expenses and the effects of climate change, but when the Big One hits California, as it will one day, doing 20 trillion dollars in damage and collapsing insurance companies, federal leaders are in a quandary. China is the only country with the resources to lend that much money but is not willing to do it. Brooks presents all of this via several parallel stories about individuals. Primary characters include a young woman struggling with her father’s expenses, a rich (and therefore personally unaffected but ideologically committed) young terrorist, a billionaire who made his fortune on health cures for the old, an assisted suicide doctor, lobbyists for AARP, a survivor of the California ‘quake, and the President and his staff. I might be making this sound like a polemic, but it is not. The stories are told with Brooks’ characteristic low-key fatalistic humor. He ends (very mild *spoiler*) on an upbeat note, which is probably the screenwriter overwhelming the novelist: Hollywood endings and all that. But that is a minor complaint – if indeed it is a complaint – about an otherwise well-executed scifi novel.

Boomers are no strangers to the Generation Gap. We invented the term. We were ungenerous to our parents in the 1960s, and overly sappy when we started to lose them in in large numbers in the 90s. Our parents grew up in the Depression and fought the Second World War; they’d had enough excitement from those experiences and wanted nothing more than security, a Cape Cod home with a picket fence, and a Ford in the driveway. The radical social changes (very much including shifts in gender roles) of the 1920s-40s not only stalled but were reversed in the 1950s. We didn’t cut them much slack for this. The Boomers’ 60s rebellion against it was very much needed, but we failed to acknowledge just how much our rebellion was financed by the surpluses created by our parents. We haven’t left similar surpluses to the generations after us, so if they aren’t angry at us perhaps they should be. Millennials expect a lower standard of living than we had – the first time this has happened in US history. Whether this leads to the sort of conflicts in Brooks’ 2030 remains to be seen. They are not inevitable, but they are credible.

The Zimmers –  My Generation

Friday, February 5, 2016

The War Without

Any author who chooses “aliens invade earth” for the plot of a book or a screenplay displays a either courage or hubris, for it has (as the phrase goes) “been done.” HG Wells’ 1897 novel War of the Worlds alone has been brought to the screen more than half a dozen times. Coming up with some original twist or perspective is getting ever more difficult. Wave after wave of new fictional aliens continue to wash over us nonetheless. Some presently are doing just that in theaters in the suitably titled The 5th Wave, based on the Young Adult novel of the same name by Rick Yancy.

In YA fiction, dystopias are the order of the day. Teen readers don’t seem to view their futures as very bright – or at least they have no patience for fiction that does. Whether they are right about that or not (there are credible arguments either way) novelists such as Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), Veronica Roth (Divergent), and James Dashner (Maze Runner) have tapped into their sentiment as have the movies based on them. They also tap into distrust of adult authority and disgruntlement at a world with too many rules. The protagonists, naturally enough for YA fiction, are teens – and nowadays they usually are young women. (F. Paul Wilson’s Jack series is one of the few to buck that trend.)

Chloe Grace Moretz plays the protagonist Cassie in the film adaptation of The 5th Wave. When the alien party-crashers arrive at earth they trash the house. They want the whole planet for themselves, but they want to scrape off the humans while still leaving the place livable. So, after killing off a bunch of humans in four massive but not planet-destroying ways, they turn the survivors against each other in order to exterminate the last of them. Cassie just wants to survive all of this and to reunite with her little brother from whom she was separated. As for romance, YA films – other than deliberately raunchy comedies – struggle with the current paradigm of gender relations among young people in which male initiative in romantic matters is problematical. The screenwriters for The 5th Wave handle this playfully. The two young men to whom Cassie is attracted consist of one who is clueless and one who longs for her but who is a paragon of restraint. In one scene there is a reversal of the old trope of a male character voyeuristically peeking at women bathing in a lake: Cassie hides in the bushes and spies on the pretty bathing Ethan (Alex Roe). The guys in the movie who do ogle without comment a hard-nosed young woman soldier (not Cassie) are appropriately punished by her.

Moretz is an appealing and competent young actress who is no stranger to off-beat parts, e.g. Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, the vampire in Let Me In, a werewolf in Dark Shadows, and Carrie in the remake of Carrie. By comparison her character in The 5th Wave is almost normal, and she handles it about as well as it can be handled. The film doesn’t try to be deep in any way and it doesn’t explore epic themes other than the heroine’s journey, which is hard to avoid in the circumstances. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable adventure/disaster flick with likable actors.

The 5th Wave is not near the top of the best YA dystopia list: The Hunger Games still occupies top spot. But it’s not at the bottom either. It is reasonably good workaday scifi: not great but not awful. Two sequels are planned, though ticket sales, as always, will determine the ultimate fate of the series.

A casual Thumbs Up

Trailer – The 5th Wave

The Pretenders – Space Invader (1979)

Monday, February 1, 2016

The War Within

One of the better animated features to come out of Pixar (parent company: Disney) in 2015 was Inside Out, now available on Netflix and DVD.

Plot: Young Riley tries to adjust to her new life when her parents, who have their own reasons to be stressed, move from Minnesota to San Francisco. We see personifications of five emotions (Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness) vying for control of the console in her brain. The part of her that is Joy struggles to dominate the controls, and in particular to sequester Sadness, but Sadness cannot be controlled so easily. Sadness starts touching core memories. When Joy tries to intervene, both get lost in the inner structure of Riley’s mind. In their absence from the command center, control is handed over Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Riley becomes surly and erratic, and her personality is damaged. Can Joy and Sadness find their way back?

The message, of course, is that we cannot repress any natural human feeling without consequences. We have to learn to integrate them all into our personalities. Accordingly, Inside Out is more thoughtful than most animated films, but since it is aimed primarily at kids – and be warned that it most definitely is aimed at kids – it is a simplified and sanitized version of the real internal war inside each of us.

Moving beyond Disney for a moment, it is a curious development that perceptions of the human psyche among so-called intellectuals are more apt to be shallower today than they were a century ago. They tend today to be thoroughly politicized, and there are few better ways to drain a subject of real significance. The insights of Nietzsche and Freud are tossed aside whenever they offend political correctness, which they do at every turn. (Camille Paglia adds the Marquis de Sade to those two as another key philosopher; having read the bulk of his surviving work, I see her point, but I’m not quite ready to pay homage to a practicing… well… sadist.) Lately we even have re-invented thoughtcrime, from which Fred and Sig had done so much to free us by acknowledging both the arbitrary origins of morality and the predatory aspects of our underlying natures. There are no thoughtcrimes, only crimes of action. Nietzsche: “I laugh at those who think themselves good because they have no claws.” The fact that we can be predatory (and are aware of the fun in it) doesn’t mean we have to be; the capacity is what makes refraining from using it noble. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud explicitly argued that thwarting the death instinct’s destructiveness was necessarily a cause of individual unhappiness but was the worthwhile price of civilization.

A version of Inside Out that featured a Freudian struggle between the libido (Eros) and the death instinct (Thanatos), among other motivations, might make an interesting flick, though it surely would not be for kids. Strangely, one film series that does include primary characters with complex personal motivations is Star Wars despite the simplistic Manichaean universe which they inhabit, but that is a matter for another blog: perhaps a matter for someone else’s blog.

So, given the age range for which it is intended, I’m still giving Inside Out a Thumbs Up.

Theory of a Deadman – World War Me