Another Week Ends

1. I’ll admit it: I’ve been trying to lay off the David Brooks, at least […]

David Zahl / 3.2.12

1. I’ll admit it: I’ve been trying to lay off the David Brooks, at least in the Weekend columns. As insightful as he frequently is, there are plenty of fish in the digital sea, are there not? Well, to paraphrase a Pacino, every time I think I’m out, he pulls me back in. That is to say, giving anything top billing other than his NY Times column from yesterday, “The Machiavellian Temptation,” would be dishonest. It’s getting to the point where I suspect we’re being punked a la Candid Camera. Anyway, this time around Herr Brooks is contrasting recent breakthroughs in social psychology–particularly unconscious Charles Duhigg’s research on habit formation, which we tried to tackle last week–with the 19th century conception of the human being, which majored on willpower and exhortation. Of course, what he and the social scientists he cites are actually championing is more of a 16th century model than a 21st one, the sort that Thomas Cranmer (and Luther & Melanchton before him) famously hit on, i.e. “what the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.” Take it away:

The 19th-century character model was based on an expansive understanding of free will. Today, we know that free will is bounded. People can change their lives, but ordering change is not simple because many things, even within ourselves, are beyond our direct control.

[Duhigg’s habit formation] research implies a different character model. If the 19th-century model implied a moralistic captain steering the ship of the soul, the new character model implies a crafty Machiavellian, deftly manipulating the neural networks inside.

I’d just emphasize something that peeps in and out of Duhigg’s book but that is often lost in the larger advice culture. The important habitual neural networks are not formed by mere routine, nor can they be reversed by clever triggers. They are burned in by emotion and fortified by strong yearnings, like the yearnings for admiration and righteousness.

If you think you can change your life in a prudential way, the way an advertiser can get you to buy an air freshener, you’re probably wrong… As the Victorians understood (and the folks at Alcoholics Anonymous understand), if you want to change your life, don’t just look for a clever trigger. Commit to some larger global belief.

2. In the Good Job Internet!/Inspired Procrastination department, there’s the ingenious Lutheran Insult Generator, ht JD, JZ, EL, MS, etc etc!

3. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Richard Holloway published a beautiful tribute to Graham Greene in The Guardian this week that encapsulates the great writer’s genius in remarkably sympathetic terms, ht KW:

I loved him then and love him now because his art deals with the spiritual loser’s lust for redemption… Being a broken man himself, Greene knew how to probe the pain and romance of faith and its failed practitioners better than anyone else. Even those of us who never ended up in a prison in Mexico waiting for execution, like the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory, knew what his self-disgust felt like. We knew what Greene was on about when he described the sadness of missing happiness by seconds at an appointed place. A little more self-discipline and maybe our tormented hearts would have ceased tormenting yet. But we also knew somewhere inside that it was our failures that kept us human.

4. This week marked the death of beloved Monkee Davy Jones. My appreciation of the man and his band has grown by leaps and bounds since making the switch to vinyl a few years ago, and finally getting my hands on all those late-period Monkee records. Yes, Headquarters is great, but so are pretty much all their other albums. By far the best piece to come out thus far is Jesse Jarnow’s “Why We Needed Davy Jones” over at The Atlantic. My shavin’ razor’s cold and it stings:

As soon as the notion of authenticity became introduced into rock, the fully manufactured rock group became not only inevitable but utterly necessary… The least conflicted member of the group, Jones was probably the purest as well, the Monkee least likely suspected of authenticity. The bulk of his most famous songs were unapologetic pop—rock music in vague presentation only. In that way, Jones was never pretending at all… But if he increasingly seemed like the most calculated member of the band, Jones was paradoxically also able to remain the most innocent.


5. Speaking of the dearly departed, in The Wall Street Journal’s “Gary Carter Showed Me How To Play the Game” the Mets catcher, received a touching eulogy from Andrew Klavan. As a child of the tri-state area who grew up in the 80s, Carter was something of a deity to yours truly. Turns out his divine ordinance didn’t stop on the field, ht BG:

Carter was a devout Christian with just the bright, inspiring Tim Tebow sort of personality our media can’t stand. He was forever thanking Jesus Christ in postgame interviews. He once remarked that he could see the smiles curdle on the faces of unbelieving journalists when he did it, but he felt he had to tell the truth.

I was not a Christian then—not yet—and if Carter had preached religion at that moment, it would have gone right past me. But he didn’t. He said something else, something much simpler but also true. I don’t remember the words exactly but a fair translation would be this: “Sometimes you just have to play in pain.”

Carter’s words somehow broke through my self-pitying despair. “Play in pain?” I thought. “Hell, I can do that. That’s one thing I actually know how to do.”

6. On a slightly less uplifting note, David Dobbs’ issued a pretty hilarious take-down of Ron Gutman’s TED-approved book SMILE: The Astonishing Power of a Simple Act, entitled, you guessed it, “The Astonishing Destructive Power of Positive Thinking.”

Other social science articles worth taking a look at this week are “The Case for Recess”, something of a follow-up to their recent piece on decreased playtime, and “Are the Rich Completely Undeserving of Sympathy?,” both in The Atlantic. The latter piece, by Megan McArdle, is particularly good (and provocatively compassionate), and not just because of its Downton Abbey undertones.

Go here for more info about the above ridiculousness.

7. The third season of Parenthood came to a close this week, and The A/V Club did a terrific job of summing up what has made the second half of this season so good (and so incredibly ripe for discussions and illustrations of Law and Grace):

As the season went on, it became clear why showrunner Jason Katims and his writers were sticking with these stories and others that initially seemed like non-starters: They wanted to consider just what the line is between trying to change someone and accepting them as they are…  The characters on Parenthood are all likable, sure, but there’s also something eminently hate-worthy about every single one of them. They’re exasperating and hard to deal with in the manner of your real siblings or children, and when they screw up, it’s tempting to throw up your hands and say, “Well, that was possible to see coming from a mile away.” This has been a deal-breaker for some curious about Parenthood, who would like a show that isn’t so deeply invested in portraying the ways that these people enervate and annoy each other in such thorough detail. But after three seasons of the show, that quality has also subsided. Crosby, Julia, Adam, and Sarah do stupid, stupid things and screw up mightily, but by now, we know them so well as to be ready to forgive them even before they’re making a mess of things.

Also in television, I’m about as excited for HBO’s Veep as one could possibly be. Armando Iannucci, he of Alan Partridge and In The Loop fame, has teamed up with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Tony Hale for what I can only imagine will be the funniest show on television, though Girls looks like it could give it a run for its money (Chris Eigeman plus Tiny Furniture equals amazing). Anyway, the Veep trailer dropped this week and it’s hilarious – slight language warning of course:


8. Not much to say about the Oscars, except a big bravo for Rango, my personal second-favorite film of the year after Win Win, which, true to the Academy’s transparently nonsensical/payola-ified raison d’etre, wasn’t even nominated (for anything!). That said, you’ve got to hand it to The Help star Viola Davis, whose pre-Oscar interview with Travis Smiley was nearly as brave the characters in the film. Around the four minute mark, she lets loose, ht MM:

“That very mindset that you [Travis] have and that a lot of African-Americans have [that a role’s sociopolitical purpose supercedes the artistic one, i.e. that all high-profile roles must ‘serve the community’ in a positive way] is absolutely destroying the black artist. The black artist cannot live in a place—in a revisionist place—a black artist can only tell the truth about humanity and humanity is messy, people are messy…We as African-American artists are more concerned with image and message and not execution, which is why every time you see your images they’ve been watered down to the point where they where they are not realistic at all, it’s like all of our humanity has been washed out.”

Watch Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

Finally, a big thank you to everyone who welcomed us at LIBERATE last weekend! It was a joyful and highly encouraging event. The DVD of all the talks will be available later this month, so stay tuned for that. Also, do be sure to sign up to receive updates on the launch of their site – it’s going to be pretty awesome. And speaking of launches, our Publications Store is officially open for bizness! Oh and we sent out a big e-newsletter this morning, which you can read here.

P.S. This Fall is shaping up to be quite the creepy stop-motion extravaganza:



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