Another Week Ends

1. In need of a little (heart)warming on a cold winter’s day? Look no further […]

David Zahl / 3.1.13

1. In need of a little (heart)warming on a cold winter’s day? Look no further than the spontaneous act of mercy that occurred on a high school basketball court in Texas last month, ht JD:

2. Phillip Lopate ponders the declining place of Doubt in an essay for The NY Times, evidence perhaps of deeper denials, ht SY:

Despite periodic warnings of the essay’s demise, the stuff does continue to be published; if anything, the essay has experienced a slight resurgence of late. I wonder if that may be because it is attuned to the current mood, speaks to the present moment. At bottom, we are deeply unsure and divided, and the essay feasts on doubt…

Whether writing essays or just going about daily life, I am constantly second-guessing myself. My mind is filled with “yes, buts,” “so whats?” and other skeptical rejoinders. I am forever monitoring myself for traces of folly, insensitivity, arrogance, false humility, cruelty, stupidity, immaturity and, guess what, I keep finding examples. Age has not made me wiser, except maybe in retrospect. My wife sometimes complains that I will never admit I am wrong. Of course I do — granted, less than I should, but it’s not just because I am stubborn and hate to concede a point in the heat of argument. The main reason is that a part of me always assumes I’m wrong and at fault, to some extent; this is so obvious to me that it needn’t bear stating. In any case, I often forget to say it aloud. But I certainly think it.

Strangely enough, doubt need not impede action. If you really become friends with your doubt, you can go ahead and take risks, knowing you will be questioning yourself at every turn, no matter what. It is part of living, a healthy evolutionary adaptation, I would imagine. The mistake is in trying to tune out your doubts. Accept them as a necessary (or at least unavoidable) soundtrack.

-13. As it is wont to do, The Atlantic reports on a couple of relevant new social science studies (how long they’ll remain relevant remains to be seen), “Volunteering May Improve Cardiovascular Health” and “The Benefits of Optimism Are Real”. The latter title is a little misleading, as “optimism” here entails anything other than complete despair in the midst of adversity. Faith, in other words, would definitely come under the “optimism” rubric, even if we would consider the two things to be very separate. Of course, from a vertical perspective, a lack of resilience may not be such a bad thing, i.e. a more sober outlook brings us to our knees much more quickly than an inflated one, does it not? On a somewhat conflicting social science note, the Freakonomics podcast from a couple of years ago on “The Upside of Quitting” is very much worth the listen, a terrific study of the crushing power of the Churchillian Commandment “Thou Shalt Never Quit” and the freedom that is often found on the other side of failure, ht TB.

4. Next, The New York Review of Books has a provocative article about Sarah Conly’s new book on paternalism, Against Autonomy, which takes serious issue with John Stuart Mill’s canonized “harm principle”, i.e., the conviction that the role of government is to prevent people from harming one another, but not oneself.” Conly’s point being that human beings have an astonishingly poor track record of being able to act in their own best interest, that self-defeating behavior and/or short term “present bias” is the much more common modus operandi, and that governments should therefore consider how best to protect people from themselves. It’s an interesting if admittedly dangerous question, especially if our decision-making skills are as hampered as she suggests they are (not to mention this mockingbird’s humble conviction that coercion, while successfully preventative in certain cases, has never changed anyone’s heart), ht JF:

Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging. For example, many of us show “present bias”: we tend to focus on today and neglect tomorrow. For some people, the future is a foreign country, populated by strangers. Many of us procrastinate and fail to take steps that would impose small short-term costs but produce large long-term gains. People may, for example, delay enrolling in a retirement plan, starting to diet or exercise, ceasing to smoke, going to the doctor, or using some valuable, cost-saving technology. Present bias can ensure serious long-term harm, including not merely economic losses but illness and premature death as well.

Until now, we have lacked a serious philosophical discussion of whether and how recent behavioral findings undermine Mill’s harm principle and thus open the way toward paternalism. Sarah Conly’s illuminating book Against Autonomy provides such a discussion. Her starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that Mill was quite wrong about the competence of human beings as choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds.

5. Speaking of the intersection of agency and identity (and indulgence!), Co.Design explores the advent of “secret menus” at fast food restaurants like Starbucks and In-And-Out Burger, ht RJH. As we all know, the lure of personal validation–of being an insider, even at some place as ridiculous as Chipotle–is a potent marketing tool. Anyone else up for a quesarito?! I know this guy is:

6. Also on the not-terribly-flattering consumerism tip, Salon takes the addicting new show House of Cards as a jumping off point to reflect on whether Netflix Is Tuning Us Into Puppets. Essentially a further frontier of the filter bubble phenomenon, which seems almost tailor made to illustrate the theological concept of incuravtus in se, ht JL:

It will be fascinating to find out how many people gorge themselves on all 13 episodes this upcoming weekend. (Netflix data shows that’s how we like to consume our TV series now — in great gulps and marathons — so that’s how it will give them to us.) But one does end up wondering: What will the Big Data approach mean for the creative process? If Netflix perfects the job of giving us exactly what we want, when and how will we be exposed to things that are new and different, the movies and TV shows we would never imagine we might like unless given the chance? Can the auteur survive in an age when computer algorithms are the ultimate focus group? And just how many political dramas starring Kevin Spacey can we stand, anyway?

7. Splitsider posted The Annotated Wisdom of Louis CK, and as with all of Louis’ stuff, if you can get past the obscenity (fair warning), there are some real gems in there. For example:

The meal is not over when I’m full. The meal is over when I hate myself.

Watching Malcolm X speeches –a guy who’s saying to these people, “Nobody’s saying what you want to hear. I’m saying it cause I’m one of you. And I’m one of the worst of you.” That’s just huge. That’s what it is I think to be a comedian.

It seems like the better it gets, the more miserable people become. There’s never a technological advancement where people think, “Wow, we can finally do this!”… And I think a lot of it has to do with advertising. Americans have it constantly drilled into our heads, every [cotton-pickin’] day, that we deserve everything to be perfect all the time.

8. Music: David Bowie’s first new record in 10 years, The Next Day, is now available for free streaming on iTunes, and me likes what me hears. Pretty and paranoid, thank God. Also, a new recording from Mbird heroes The Replacements can be heard over on Pitchfork, their cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin'”. And speaking of Pitchfork, they just put out a wonderful documentary about one of the most wonderful records from one of the most wonderful bands in the whole wide world:


9. In film, New York Magazine asks “Why Do Women Hate Anne Hathaway But Love Jennifer Lawrence?” and it’s a surprisingly pertinent question. Clue: it has less to do with the ladies in question and more to do with how they make us feel about ourselves. Overeager performancist perfection (and mega talent!) vs. self-deprecatingly vulnerable and almost accidental success. Condemnation/irritation vs. comfort/identification. Not that any of these poor actresses will get out of the game alive in the long run, backlashes and paparazzi being what they are:

2wdPLKxUnlike our neighbors or co-workers, we convince ourselves that famous actors, by dint of making their living entertaining us, have chosen to be judged. And judge we do. (This isn’t just a byproduct of our Twitter-enforced instapundit culture, either: “Let’s get Entertainment Weekly and play my favorite new game: Love Her/Hate Him,” exclaims Will in a 1999 episode of Will & Grace.)

For someone who’s managed to win our seemingly arbitrary love, look no further than Hathaway’s fellow winning actress from Sunday night, the universally adored Jennifer Lawrence. She’s self-effacing and funny. She seems like an excellent party companion, taking just about every opportunity to mention how many shots she’s had (before appearing on Jimmy Kimmelbefore the red carpet, after winning the Oscar for Best Actress). She doesn’t seem overly serious about Hollywood, and gently chided Hollywood royalty Jack Nicholson, “You’re being really rude,” when he interrupted a post-win interview. She doesn’t pretend that punishing body standards are anything but horrible. When she jokes about sucking in her stomach on the red carpet or her publicist hating her for eating a Philly cheesesteak (“There’s only so much Spanx can cover up!”), it feels real, not designed to fool her fans into thinking she’s not one of those salad-but-hold-the-dressing girls. Lawrence said she ordered McDonald’s on the red carpet at the Oscars. Hathaway is a vegan.

Also in film, the proverbial “they” just unearthed a very cool documentary on the making of Empire Strikes Back:


10. Finally, a major thanks to everyone at Liberate for hosting a few of us last week! It was an incredible event–click here for a round-up–and be sure to keep an eye/ear open for the sessions, which they’ve told me should be available fairly soon on their new website(!). For those unfamiliar with our Floridian friends, here’s a little taste of what they’re up to:

Distinguishing Law and Gospel | Jono Linebaugh and Tullian Tchividjian from Coral Ridge | LIBERATE on Vimeo.

P.S. We sent out our semi-regular Mockingbird e-newsletter this morning, which you can read here. To be sure you get the next one, sign up for our mailing list.