May 27th, 2011

The Last Time I Try to Read Tony Judt

I've blogged before about the crazily awful _Ill Fares the Land_. I picked it up again today, since I finished Jon Ronson's excellent _Psychopath Test_ (will review later). I thought I should give Judt one more try. I sort of wish I hadn't.

I've said before that virtually every paragraph in this book contains obvious factual errors. I'm going to give one example and then stop. It's an obvious, dangerous, ideological and stupid error.

From page 131: "The turnout in American presidential and congressional elections has long been worryingly low and continues to fall."

While you could debate what "worryingly" means endlessly, you cannot debate "continues to fall" in a book which was first published in 2010.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_turnout_in_the_United_States_presidential_elections

(1) This is not against registered voters; it is against the population over the age of 18.
(2) We've had _three_ presidential election cycles of increase.

Judt could have avoided this error in a large number of ways. He did not. It is one of numerous examples of his contempt for reality.

Judt rarely makes the effort to present evidence in support of an assertion; he just lists assertions. Further, his rhetoric does not progress -- there's little if any logical development. He just keeps restating himself. Here is an example:

page 129 "People who live in private spaces contribute actively to the dilution and corrosion of the public space. In other words, they exacerbate the circumstances which drove them to retreat in the first place...If public goods ... are devalued ... and replaced by private services ... then we lose the sense that common interests and common needs ought to trump private preferences and individual advantage."

On the one hand, I understand where he's going with this. If a lot of people decide the city is scary and move to the suburbs (or a gated community), then the city ....

But wait. He didn't say, then the city becomes more dangerous and there is social injustice. He didn't say that. That would have been a convincing argument. No, he said, then we will forget the city is more important than the suburbs (or the gated community). He doesn't point out any problem with this, other than that we "ought" not to do this. That's just an assertion; it isn't compelling. Which is _terrible_ because there is a really solid argument regarding a very important problem here and he's just blowing right over it.

These are _not_ isolated examples. I could provide comparable examples from every paired page of the first half of this book (I didn't read the second half. Even I'm not that stupid.).

Judt's book constitutes an awesome argument against being a liberal. I doubt this was his intention. But he's a sloppy writer. On those rare occasions he rallies some piece of evidence, it is either false in a way damaging to his argument, or true but better supports an opposing position. More typically, he rallies no evidence. The structure of his argument is sparse and to the extent it exists is deeply flawed.

I'm not sure what went wrong with this book or this man. But I will go this far.

Don't read this.
Discourage other people from reading this.
Try not to let Judt's arguments deter you from the liberal position in general.
And if you see a recommendation by Judt on something else, view it as a point against.

This from the Acknowledgements:

"my greatest debt is to Eugene Rusyn. He typed the entire book manuscript in less than eight weeks, taking it down verbatim from my rapid-fire and occasionally indistinct dictation for many hours a day, sometimes working around the clock. He was resonsible for locating many of the more arcane citations; but above all, he and I collaborated intimately on the editing of the text -- for substance, style and coherence. It is the simple truth that I could not have written this book without him and it is all the better for his contribution."

So avoid anything by "Eugene Rusyn" as well.

Honestly? This guy should be given a news commentary program on a cable news network or on the radio. It reads about like that, and we could still use some more counterbalance for the right wing crap out there.

Jon Ronson, _The Psychopath Test_

Subtitled: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

Publisher is Riverhead, which is a division of Penguin (a division of Pearson -- Penguin/Pearson is one of the Big 6 publishers).

I have read two previous books by this author, and will look forward to his next effort. (It looks like there is at least one book by him I have not read, which is a collection of his newspaper work.)

Ronson likes to write books about people who are crazy. _Them_ was about religious extremists. _The Men Who Stare at Goats_ is about certain US military programs that sound like stupid conspiracy theories but turn out to have actually occurred. _The Psychopath Test_ is about mental illness, its definition, people who might or might not have it, and the people who work on it either academically, therapeutically or in the criminal justice system. He's mostly focused on psychopathy/psychopaths as defined by Bob Hare's PCL-R.

Wikipedia has a really great article about it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hare_Psychopathy_Checklist

However, Ronson is also prepared to explore other aspects of mental health, changing diagnoses, etc. and how those interact with society in general.

Ronson has a couple of really strong attributes as a person and a writer. He feels things strongly, notices those feelings, and can describe them effectively in writing. Also, he is conscious of his fascination with things that are somewhat nutty: too nutty, and it's sort of sad. Not very nutty, and it's a little boring. His books, therefore, are _really fascinating_, because we're all interested in things that are the right amount nutty, and a lot of us like to connect emotionally with an author when we're reading.

If you want to learn about psychopathy per se, you're probably better off with the wikipedia entry. Ronson's approach tends to be a little bit scattered. He does a lot of really interesting interviews (obviously, given that he's looking for The Crazy) and he's very compassionate. His presentation is partly chronological, and partly thematic and unfortunately that is sometimes extremely confusing. Also, I'm still uncertain what all that stuff was about the weird book getting send 'round at the beginning of the book and towards the end. (I was deeply skeptical whether this was even true, and was starting to be suspicious of whether I should trust Ronson, but then I found this: http://muriloq.com/blog/2008/09/being-or-nothingness-marketing-viral-bizarro/). If you want an entertaining book that contemplates what it means to be mentally ill in a way that is dangerous to self and others, and very carefully avoids taking any kind of ideological or doctrinaire stance on the question, this is definitely for you.

Or, if you're just looking for some funny non-fiction.

I think the big take-away for me is that the internet is everyone's playground -- and that some of the participants really are very crazy, as in, not really entertaining any more, just destructive and/or sad.

A Bit More About Psychopathy

Reading Ronson's _The Psychopath Test_ immediately after James' _Popular Crime_ made me think about how I've developed related ideas.

I have a deep suspicion of charming people (yes, you read that correctly). I've believed since I was a teenager that mutual respect was the appropriate basis for human relationships, whether friendship, business, etc. Built into that idea of mutual respect was an assumption of trust. Trust is a feeling that tends to accumulate over time as a result of feeling good about social and other interactions, whether with a person or a business. However, that feeling can be engendered much more quickly by proxies (a good handshake, appropriate eye contact, certain vocal characteristics, grooming, etc.). If everyone who has certain characteristics turns out to be trustworthy, then someone who has those characteristics gets to benefit from that generalization.

And there are plenty of people out there who exploit that. When I see someone who has a certain kind of smile, that smile that makes me feel special right away, I _do_ feel special. For about a half second, and then every single alarm bell and alert system in my head starts wailing and I run the usual analysis (how are they dressed, how are they speaking, what's their hair style, blah, blah, bleeping blah, and of course, what are they saying and who are they focusing on) with deep suspicion. Lots of charmers are people who are networking because that works well for them and they really don't have any particular harm in mind -- their agenda is one that when I figure it out I'll have an opinion on it and I'll just be careful around them because I know that I'll always tend to find them more convincing than our actual relationship justifies.

But charm is a powerful thing, and people who figure out how to do it really, really well often also figure out that they don't actually need to do much of anything else they are "supposed" to do because charm gets them everything they want. That sounds evil, and it tilts in the direction of the psychopathy test, or at least narcissism. But if someone isn't particularly ambitious and is not particularly cruel, it might not be evil at all: it might just be unambitious, perhaps edging into lazy if you're married to them or you've hired them or you were hoping they'd help out at your barn raising or whatever.

Charm gets worse when it's connected to ambition and lacking in a strong moral core: this can become freeloading and worse. But it's still not evil if the person isn't _trying_ to hurt people. Person with a hammer, everything's a nail. I'm thinking John Edwards kind of thing. You don't want to be married to this person (or working for their campaign), by psychopathy seems ridiculous and really, narcissism might be a little too harsh as well.

Charm plus an attachment problem -- a big hole inside that nothing can fill because the lid is screwed down tight -- is dangerous. And I think at that point, you're looking at narcissism or worse. But attachment problems can be mitigated even in an adult, if the adult wants to work on the problem and is given access to information that can get them to open up and really connect. But it's really hard for a charmer, because that feels like going backwards to go forwards.

Charm plus cruelty (which may or may not be an attachment problem) is where it starts getting ugly. This is a person who can do awful things and get away with them, because it's hard to remember that they did the bad thing and easy to believe their (usually transparently ridiculous) excuses. Old French guy (hey, I'm not naming names. I'm _stereotyping_.) probably falls into this category, as does the Pillar of the Community who beats the spouse and kids to the point where they wind up in the hospital. Repeatedly. While holding elective office.

We cross the line into evil when all of this gets hitched to poor executive function. Then you have someone wandering around that we all trust instantly, who doesn't really care about anyone, who has a capacity for cruelty and the opportunity to exercise it. But even that isn't what really scares us about psychopaths. What scares us about psychopaths is that they are charming people who don't care about anyone, actively LOOKING for an opportunity to exercise their capacity for cruelty. There's a name for that which I've forgotten, but boredom/low response to stimulus of all kinds is a recognize problem that shows up really early in development. And it is _not_ always evil.

Now this _looks_ very similar to Hare's list. But the way I think about it leads in a very different direction when it comes to Things to Try to Fix These Problem People. If you take away the cruelty, the attachment disorder and the poor executive function, a person who is under responsive to stimulus/bored easily, who is charming, who is ambitious -- that could be any number of wonderful people, but I wouldn't be particularly surprised to discover some extreme sports athletes in that group, say, or an entrepreneur.

The cruelty and the attachment disorder are very reminiscent of James' remark about serial murderers being the children of prostitutes. He notes that it turns up so many times in so many serial murderer stories (true ones) that after a while you just start to expect it, even tho there doesn't seem to have been much analysis of this. There are a number of conceivable interventions to interrupt the creation of serial murderers and/or psychopaths, then: readily available birth control, parenting support, economic support, access to protection from law enforcement (I'm not saying decriminalize, but that's certainly one strategy). Once someone is on The Bad Road, however, there are ways to alter their course if we can see that the issue is an inability to attach.

The executive function problem is also serious, and goes a long way to explain the criminals who do horrible things and _literally_ ask to be caught so they can be stopped. But _lots_ of people have executive function problems that are resistant to solution. That by itself is, if not manageable at least it can be mitigated.

It's the whole freaking package that is incurable.

Like Ronson, I think you can use psychopathy as a lens to think about mental illness in general, altho in this case, it's a bit in reverse. I have a lens for thinking about mental health and what modules, skills, etc. go into being mentally healthy. I think it can be applied to psychopathy, and I would be interested to know if anyone has tried to dis-assemble the complex of failures that produces a psychopath with a view to helping that person get to a point where they won't re-offend (or, if they feel like they might, maybe turn themselves in until they feel better, a la rehab). I tend to think this way about a _lot_ of mental illness (viz. the "illness" is a collection of things, each of which is manageable, but trying to treat the collection as a unitary entity, perhaps with pills, does not work well); this could be my hammer making my world look full of nails.

ETA: I thought about making this a separate post, but I'd really just as soon not draw that much attention to it. Better to bury it in a postscript.

Ronson quotes a number of people who say, essentially, that if you read over Hare's diagnostic criteria and become concerned that you might yourself be psychopathic, that means you are not. Ronson took the list and had a really great conversation with Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap of Sunbeam and other infamy. This conversation was really okay with Dunlap (if Ronson is to be believed, and I do) and fits well within the general understanding of Dunlap's personality. Ronson's conclusion is that it's hard to know where the boundary is between some of these traits as "leadership" vs. pathology.

I think a better way to think about it is, if you're worried about whether you are a psychopath in the "worried" sense, you aren't. But if the criteria might make you think you are a psychopath and that is interesting but not exciting, you may be a psychopath -- but there's not a lot we can do to you and you're a low priority compared to the more chaotic ones anyway.

Seemingly unrelated

I was wasting [ETA: time] on a certain internet bookstore when I stumbled across this first sentence in a review:

"Fortune's Formula is a fascinating study of the connections between such seemingly unrelated topics as gambling, information theory, stock investing, and applied mathematics."

_Seemingly unrelated_?!? Shawn Carkonen could have done with two fewer words in that sentence.

I'm not sure if I really want to know how _anyone_ could think that gambling, information theory, stock investing and applied mathematics could be unrelated to each other. They are the _exact same thing_, or at least, if you made a Venn diagram of the territory covered by the four, there would be _substantial_ space shared among all four. But if you have a theory that is entertaining and/or plausible, I'll consider it. I think I would prefer entertaining to plausible, if I had to choose.

PECS

PECS is a trademarked/licensed product, so I'm not really talking about PECS. I am, however, talking about using little customized pictures as a way to communicate when talking isn't working so well for some reason.

T. had a binder with a bunch of little square pictures representing different things (nouns and verbs) that he and anyone else might want to communicate about. This binder was recently excavated to see if we could re-use some of it to improve A.'s ability to communicate to her service providers what she wanted (something to eat, something to drink, a diaper change, etc.). As with T., I can usually figure this out (combination of checklisting and past experience and the psychic ability enjoyed by caregivers who are around a lot), but she often leaves other people to ask me for something that the other people would have gotten for her if they had understood what she wanted.

It is working unbelievably well. She isn't just using the ones we got out for her -- she's going through the book to find other things to ask for. It's a little stunning. And good.