Designer Reality

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Libertarians take great stock in the law of supply and demand. We understand that as long as something is in demand (as long as it isn’t a cure for cancer), there will generally be a supply of it. As it was with alcohol — the consumption of which only increased as a result of Prohibition — so, too, has it been with such drugs as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

Less obvious, perhaps even to us, is the driving force behind the seemingly unstoppable popularity of alternative reality. Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth? I don’t believe it can simply be explained as dissatisfaction with dystopia. There appears to be a general notion that people can believe whatever they want, and that reality is so subjective that it is mere clay, to be molded into whatever shape they choose.

In childhood, this is called imagination. If it persists into adulthood, it can become a form of mental illness. And instead of the remedy for dystopia, it appears to be the cause of it. Even a great many of those who never resort to alcohol or other drugs are addicted to designer reality.

Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth?

Nor are libertarians immune to the addiction. I recently made the mistake of involving myself in one of those pointless Facebook flame wars I keep resolving to stay out of. It was on a libertarian page, and some cocky young gun posted yet another of those dreary challenges to feminine patience: “Why aren’t there more libertarian women?”

Of those who jumped into this discussion on the commentary thread, at least half were women. Real live, flesh-and-blood women were saying that we did exist, explaining how we had come to be libertarians, and suggesting how more of us could be encouraged to follow. Not that this appeared to teach the young gun, or his buddies, anything of value.

The answer to every one of our comments was some variation of the same: “Libertarianism is a logical philosophy, and men are logical, but women are not. Women are emotional and cannot be logical.” It was basically only a slightly more mature version of “Girls are stinky and have cooties” or of that old playground taunt: “Girls go to Jupiter to get more stupider. Boys go to Mars to get more candy bars.” I suppose the goal was to get us to be more emotional, so they could prove their point.

The word “logic” kept being repeated, as if it were a magical incantation. I saw zero evidence that these guys were using much of it, but they seemed to think if they kept asserting that they possessed superior logic, they needed to do no more. They had their designer reality, it gave them a terrific high, and they could imagine nothing better. The possibility that if they stopped telling us how illogical we were, and actually made the effort to explain the libertarian philosophy to us, they might meet with more widespread results, apparently never occurred to them.

It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies.

Taking the chance that since they talked so much about logic, they might actually recognize it when they saw it, I attempted to reason with them. I pointed out that libertarians believe in the value of the individual. That one of their sages, Ayn Rand (herself — ahem — a woman), proclaimed that the individual was “the smallest minority” and stalwartly championed individual rights. And that they were speaking of women in a strictly collective sense — lumping us all together in a most unlibertarian way. They responded by casting Rand, and presumably any other woman who actually used logic, as a freak of nature who was at worst a horribly deformed woman, or at best some sort of an honorary man.

I have had this experience with nearly all the designer reality addicts I have ever engaged in conversation, no matter what pretty world they’ve chosen to inhabit. The cherished belief is doggedly repeated. Regardless of how good my argument happens to be, or how much evidence I present to support my position, it has no effect except to make them less logical and more — well — emotional. It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies. They seem not so much indifferent to the truth as afraid of it.

The problem does not begin with the seemingly endless variety of designer reality available to us. Its origin can be traced to an insatiable demand. And the lure is powerful. This is not because all designer reality is utter bunk, but because in almost every version, there is at least a grain of truth.

Women can be emotional. I know that after that online conversation with those male libertarians, I wanted to scream my head off. But the political powers-that-be can take a grain of truth, add a little yeast, and expand it into a monstrous blob of dough. Many women turn their frustrations with men into protest-marching, silly-hat-wearing, man-hating lunacy. Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

The big-government power structure functions as a duopoly, neither side of which is totally right or wrong. Most people choose the portions of truth they prefer and ignore the fact that the rest of what they’ve chosen is falsehood. The powers-that-be are basically telling us that we can have no more than part of the truth. That we are not entitled to the full truth. That we must be content with whichever lies we find the most pleasant — or at any rate, the least painful.

Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

A temptation to accept partial truth is, it seems to me, the contemporary equivalent of taking the apple from the Serpent. It is the fruit the State dangles before us. And when we get cast out of the Garden, we waste our time arguing over trivialities — such as whether to blame Adam or Eve. Or maybe Adam and Steve.

Liberty enables us to pursue the full truth. We certainly don’t all agree on what that is, but each of us who values freedom should never settle for anything less. When we waste our time bickering over whose designer reality is prettier, we sell our freedom short. And, so divided, we invite the potentates of big government to conquer us.




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The Brain, Explained

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"Don't think, feel!" Bruce Lee's character exhorts his young son in Enter the Dragon (1973) as he teaches him to trust his instincts while learning to fight. By contrast, Ayn Rand favored "Don't feel, think!" when she wrote, "People don't want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think." Like Plato, Rand proudly privileged reason over emotion. But which is the better approach for making decisions, Lee's feeling intuitively or Rand's thinking rationally?

According to Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide, they're both right. We humans would make better decisions if we understood how the brain reacts to various stimuli. The frontal cortex accesses different tools within its complex regions and uses that knowledge to choose when we should react intuitively and when we should figure things out rationally. Using fascinating real-life stories, studies conducted by respected psychologists and neuroscientists, and an entertainingly accessible style, Lehrer explains how the uniquely human frontal cortex sorts it all out and helps us decide.

For instance, Lehrer considers how quarterback Tom Brady surveys the position and forward direction of 21 moving players on a 5,000-square-yard playing field, anticipates where everyone will be next, and decides where and how fast to throw a football, all in less than two seconds, while other players are bearing down on him. Brainwave studies have shown that there isn't time for him to process the information and make a rational decision. The neural synapses aren't that fast. A quarterback's decision is made intuitively, through the part of the brain controlled by emotion. As Lehrer quotes Brady, "You just feel like you're going to the right place."

Lehrer also demonstrates what causes athletes, performers, public speakers, and everyday humans like you and me to "choke" on tasks for which we are perfectly prepared and skilled. He tells the stories of opera singer Renee Fleming, golfer Jean Van de Velde, and others to demonstrate the point. The problem comes from overthinking a task that the body has learned to perform instinctively. In short, the brain gets in its own way, as the reasoning synapses block the path of the emotional synapses. "A brain that can't feel can't make up its mind," Leher concludes (15).

Of course, mere feeling isn't sufficient for making the right decisions. A potential juror who says, "I can tell if someone's guilty just by looking at him" is more dangerous than a crook with a gun. Lehrer provides equally fascinating examples to demonstrate when the rational part of the brain needs to be in control. For example, he tells the compelling story of firefighters who tried to control a raging forest fire in the Rockies in 1949. When the blaze jumped a gulch and began racing toward them, most of them tapped into their brain's emotional side and tried to outrun the fire.

The captain, however, evaluated the situation rationally. He quickly took into account the dryness of the grass, the speed of the wind driving the fire, the slope of the hill they would have to run, and their unfamiliarity with the terrain on the other side of the crest. While his emotions screamed "Run!" his reason said, "Stop. Build a fire. Destroy the fire's fuel, and then hug the ground while the fire passes over you." He was the only man to survive. None of his young firefighters followed his lead. Today, building a firebreak has become standard training procedure because of this incident. But at the time, Captain Dodge's brain created the escape route entirely on its own.

Modern scientific tools, such as the MRI, electronic probes, and EEG, have made it possible to see exactly what the brain does when faced with a choice, a risk, or a dilemma. "Every feeling," Lehrer writes, "is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can't be accessed directly" (23). This means that you and I will make better choices if we understand which parts of the brain to access for different tasks, and how to satisfy or tone down conflicting stimuli.

For example, one study asked subjects to memorize a list and report to someone in a room at the end of a hallway. On the way the subjects passed a table where they were invited to take a snack. Those who had a long message to remember — one that required them to remember seven things — usually chose a piece of chocolate cake, while those who only had one or two things to remember tended to take a piece of fruit. The practical application? When the rational brain is working at capacity (and according to psychologist George Miller's essay, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," memorizing seven things seems to be the capacity), the emotional brain takes over, and the chocolate cake is irresistible. When the rational brain has less to remember, it can overrule emotion and make a wiser choice. No wonder we overeat and fall prey to other temptations when we have too much to do.

So when should we think rationally, and when should we act impulsively? Lehrer ends his book with several practical suggestions.

First, simple problems require reason. When there are few variables to consider, the brain is able to analyze them rationally and provide a reasonable decision. But when the choice contains many variables — as when one is buying a new house — "sleep on it" and then "go with your gut" really is the best advice. Overthinking often leads to poor decision making.

Second, novel problems also require reason. Before reacting intuitively, make sure the brain has enough past experience to help you make the right decision. Creative solutions to new problems require concrete information and rational analysis.

Third, embrace uncertainty. Too often, Lehrer warns, "You are so confident you're right that you neglect all the evidence that contradicts your conclusion." This is especially true in matters such as politics and investment decisions. He offers two solutions: "always entertain competing hypotheses . . . [and] continually remind yourself of what you don't know" (247). Certainty often leads to blindness.

Fourth, you know more than you know. The conscious brain is often unaware of what the unconscious brain knows. "Emotions have a logic all their own," Lehrer says. "They've managed to turn mistakes into educational events" (248–49). The reason superstars like Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Renee Fleming can rely on instinct is that they've been there before. Tom Brady has surveyed thousands of football fields and thrown thousands of passes; Tiger Woods has made thousands of putts; Renee Fleming has sung an aria hundreds of times. For them, the brain knows what to do, and thinking just gets in the way.

Fifth, think about thinking. Before making a decision, Lehrer warns, be aware of the kind of decision it is and the kind of thought process it requires. "You can't avoid loss aversion unless you know that the mind treats losses differently than gains," he explains. Knowing how the brain works will help us make better decisions in everything we do.

How We Decide is a book full of real-life stories, scientific experiments, and practical applications. It will help you understand how you make decisions, and will guide you to make better decisions in the future. Returning to Bruce Lee and Ayn Rand's conflict between thinking and feeling, Lehrer makes a strong case for "Think sometimes, feel sometimes. And make sure you know when to do which."


Editor's Note: Review of "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer. First Mariner Books edition, 2010 (Harcourt Brace, 2009), 302 pages.



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Love's Language

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If you’re reading this, you survived Valentine’s Day. I almost didn’t. I made the mistake of shopping for Valentine’s cards.

I love those cards. I’ve loved them ever since I was in second grade and we were encouraged to make them out of construction paper and exchange them anonymously with fellow students. I discovered that under the right circumstances you can learn, or at least imagine, that some unknown, mysterious person actually loves you. I still like getting Valentines, and sending them. I even sign my name.

The problem is that over the years, the cards themselves have been going downhill. Steeply. I now have to shop in four or five places before buying my annual quota of four or five. This year was the worst so far. In fact, I can hardly imagine a year that could be worse, unless Valentines start saying “I hate you and I want to kill you.”

The contemporary language of love is almost always treacly, sloppy, and sappy, with more than a tinge of creepiness.

The current problem isn’t the threat of violence. It’s the threat of serious illness, induced by the contemporary language of love. It’s almost always treacly, sloppy, and sappy, with more than a tinge of creepiness. And often (let’s face it) it’s just plain insulting.

Love used to be a personal emotion. Now it often comes at you in its most generic form. Here’s an example — a Valentine’s card that first announces that February 14 is, indeed, Valentine’s Day, then explains what you’re supposed to do about it: “Treat yourself to your very favorite things [whatever those may be], and celebrate all the happiness and love you have in your life.” Thanks, sweetheart, for telling me that someone, somewhere, probably loves me. That gives me “happiness.” And thanks for inviting me to spend Valentine’s Day by myself, “celebrating” my own life.

Actually, I plan to spend the next Valentine’s Day doing one of my very favorite things — tearing up cards like that.

But now I’m looking at another card, one that gets personal, but not in a good way. “Okay,” it starts, “so here’s the truth about us. Our relationship is not perfect.”

Please! On Valentine’s Day, couldn’t you permit me my illusions? Nevertheless, the truth must be told: “We drive each other crazy.” I guess that’s so. Anybody who sends me a card about how imperfect “we” are must be telling the truth. Of course, the “we” means me, but never mind.

But wait! Open the card, and you’ll find “the other truth” about “us”: “I love us — just the way we are.” Aw! Now that really warms my heart. We have a mediocre relationship, but at least we are the mediocre people who enjoy it that way. Wouldn’t change a thing!

Shortly, I’ll return to this inspiring theme of “just the way we are.” Right now, it occurs to me to specify that none of my friends was tasteless enough to send me the cards I’m discussing; I bought them myself, so I could put them in this column. That’s the way I am.

Here’s a third card. It’s various shades of pink, with flowers all over it. Yet its subject isn’t hearts and flowers; it’s ethical teaching, of a peculiarly earnest kind: “You’ve taught me so much . . . about relationships – the importance of respect, compromise, and . . . what a true, deep, unconditional connection feels like.”

In the words of old Ben Jonson’s love song,

The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine . . . .

Yes! And the vintage is . . . Respect! Compromise! A connection to someone whose standards are non-existent (unconditional)!

H.L. Mencken, reporting on a political convention, described one of the delegates as “the kind of woman who makes you want to burn every bed in the world.” I feel that way about these Valentine’s cards.

The closest thing to the anaphrodisiac Valentine genre is, of course, the genre of wedding vows. I mean write-your-own vows, the public oaths that are always supposed to be such unique and thrilling invocations of love. They have been with us for a long time. They first became popular at the end of (guess what?) the 1960s, when every one of America’s unique personalities (including me) was busy coming up with new and special things in which everyone could participate. Like all the other inventions of the 1960s, they now have a tattered, dog-eared quality, yet they retain their power to stun.

Everyone who reads these words has witnessed the agonizing scene: a man and woman standing at the altar, or under the palm tree, or at the beach, or at the zoo, muttering, giggling, and weeping through the recitation of their profoundest feelings — private “vows,” publicly delivered. Well, the feelings are allegedly profound. And allegedly their own — because these self-concocted acts of self-display have become exactly as routine and predictable as any traditional vows. They’re just not as literate.

Like all the other inventions of the 1960s, write-your-own wedding vows now have a tattered, dog-eared quality, yet they retain their power to stun.

The inspiration behind traditional wedding vows was the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I quote from the 1928 book: “I Mary take thee John to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”

That’s only 53 words, but it carries wedding promises about as far as any sane person would want them to go. And note: no odd stories are proffered; no private jokes are told; no incense is wafted toward the loved one, as if the whole thing would fall apart if he or she weren’t assured that “you are everything that’s good and pure and true and I worship you with my mind, body and soul.”

Those are the needy words of a sample wedding vow I found on the web today. There are hundreds of sites that offer such samples. Evidently there are many people here among us who cannot rest until they hear someone stand up in public and say, “May our hearts and very breath become one as we unite this day.”

“Our very breath”: that’s putting a lot of pressure on a relationship. But some people aren’t content with that. They’ve got to bring a lot of other things into it too. They’ve got to make the loving couple swear to solve all the political, ethnic, and “cultural” problems they can think of:

We will honor each other's cultures as we join customs to form a trusting relationship. We will protect, support, and encourage each other through life's joys and sorrows as we create a loving future. [Question: Does this mean you don’t have a loving present? Well, never mind. None of these words actually means anything.] We promise to establish a home for ourselves and our children shaped by our respective heritages; a loving environment dedicated to peace, hope, and respect for all people.

Imagine, if you will, growing up in a household where that promise was fulfilled. “Johnny, I’m sorry to say that by failing to eat your broccoli you are showing that you have not been shaped by the respective heritages of your parents, and that you have respect for neither the Estonians nor their neighbors, the Finns, nor any of the other diverse peoples who make up this world. I hope you will become more loving in the future. Peace out, Johnny.”

Even when international relations are not at stake, it’s quite a struggle, this quest for love and happiness — and contemporary brides and grooms are duty-bound to tell us all about it:

We have been together since the first day we met. We were so shy and scared back then, who knew our love could grow this strong. Freshman year i [sic] met you, you took my breath away. When your hand touched mine my heart fell to the ground.

You can almost hear the thud. Yet every up-to-date wedding-vow site assumes that no one will be happy unless a wedding ceremony includes enough good stories to stupefy the audience:

Write 2-3 of your favorite times together - the times when you laughed so hard you cried, or when s/he was there for you, or an inside joke, or something that happened long ago that you haven't thought about it in a long time.

That’s good. You’ve almost forgotten it, but it will be good enough for your wedding vows. And no joke can be too “inside,” if other people are being forced to overhear it.

You might also tell a dirty joke — sort of dirty, and sort of a joke. For instance: “May all our ups and downs come only in the bedroom.” While this is more amusing than “I promise to wipe away your tears with my laughter and your pain with my caring and compassion,” it’s sad to think that so many wedding speeches require standup comedy for their justification.

Sadder is the fact that so many brides and grooms find it necessary to spend their “vow” time complimenting each other. Sadder still, what they find to compliment.

“Compassion” is a favorite virtue. The general impression is that these people are mating with a therapist, not a partner, and that they badly need a therapist, if only to ensure that someone will always be around to feel sorry for (have “compassion” on) them. Another favorite quality is our old friend “unconditional” acceptance — a quality that therapists are paid to show, but that spouses often find difficult to work up, the third time the other person comes home drunk at 4 a.m.

The general impression is that these people are mating with a therapist, not a partner.

It’s interesting that this wedding psychobabble, which has been around a lot longer than most brides and grooms, should seem fresh and individual, special and personal, moving and inspiring, to anyone; that brides should wear away their evenings on the computer, looking for just the right sample jargon, and that grooms should then recite it with trembling lips and watering eyes.

One of my favorite wedding sites observes that you can either “rely on the traditional wedding vows, which by the way are cliche, or you can write your own wedding vows!” But in case you can’t find your very own words to express your very own, wholly unclich√©d, emotions, the site offers such “romantic” formulas as this — a masterpiece of modest expectations:

I promise to give you the best of myself and to ask of you no more than you can give. I promise to accept you the way you are. I fell in love with you for the qualities, abilities, and outlook on life that you have, and won't try to reshape you in a different image.

People whose hearts are warmed by contemporary Valentines will find this heartwarming too. It must be easy for two mediocre people to vow to be mediocre together. That’s the “best” of themselves.

Mediocre is next door to generic. It is characteristic of our time that serious psychological difficulties are regarded as normal: predictable, common, even healthy — generic in the best sense of that word. Try this sample vow, which addresses problems that, though obviously severe, must also be normal, since they can easily be reduced to a fill-in-the-blanks format:

I used to be afraid of falling in love, of giving my heart away. How could I trust a (man/woman) to love me, to give to me all that I wanted to give to (him/her)? (Name), when I met you, I realized how much we could share together. You have renewed my life.

Life renewal? Window 2A. Fill in Form C.

But that’s an idea that Hallmark can use in next year’s Valentine’s cards. Why not this:

I used to be anxious/afraid/terrified about love/closeness/compassionate relationship (choose one from each list). But (Name), when I met you, I realized I would have a sweetheart/wife/husband/sex buddy for the rest of my life/this afternoon/as long as it all remains unconditional. So happy Valentine’s Day, you beautiful/adorable/sexy/hunky/trusting woman/man/friend/panda bear/whoever. I love you!

This edition of Word Watch, however, offers no such multiple options. It isn’t even equipped with plastic hearts. It is a belated Valentine, to boot — if you’ll accept it. But I hope you will. It’s very simple:

Dear Reader, I love you.




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