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Thursday, May 25, 2017

GENIUS VS ILLNESS - GREATNESS VS GOODNESS

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato, quoting Socrates at his trial.

A few years ago while I was trying a capital case in the Los Angeles, I spent lunchtimes in the 13th floor attorney lounge. A visitor there was Phil Spector, the legendary pop music producer who happened to be on trial for murder.  He was a strange looking elderly man, coiffed and dressed as if the 60’s were still in style, shoulder length brown hair (a wig?), frock coat, flared trousers, high-heeled boots. I knew that Spector was considered by many to be a “genius” who had revolutionized rock and roll by his imaginative recording innovations called “The Wall of Sound.” He had worked with many artists, including The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, who admired his talents and puzzled at his eccentricities.

Spector had been described as suffering from severe mood swings, impulsivity, bouts of rage, misogyny, feelings of inferiority. He was eventually convicted of murdering a woman who he had invited to his house. 

During the trial the most emotion he showed to me was when he told me that he was annoyed that the prosecutor had described him as a has-been. Spector asked me rhetorically, “Were Einstein or Mozart has-beens just because their most recognized success came when they were young?”

At the time I took it as a residue of his sturdy ego that he compared himself to those geniuses, but in his field, Spector was often dubbed with that overused title.

The Great vs The Good

Greatness and goodness often seem to be mutually exclusive qualities. Two recent dramas, both coincidentally titled “Genius” confirm the idea. The film with that title released in 2016, starred Jude Law as the novelist, Thomas Wolfe, and Colin Firth as master editor Maxwell Perkins. The movie is based on A. Scott Berg’s biography of Perkins, called “Editor of Genius.” (This is a double entendre, meaning Perkins was a genius of an editor and and editor of geniuses.) Featured characters in the movie are Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose lives also prove the point. Perkins is depicted as an exception to the rule: brilliant, intuitive as well as kind, gentle, loyal and selfless.

The other “Genius” is the currently airing (on the National Geographic Channel) ten-part biography of Albert Einstein, directed by Ron Howard. The drama focuses more on Einstein’s failings as a student, employee, professor, son, and especially as lover, husband, and father, than the intellectual products of his mind that revolutionized science. This yields soapy operatic episodes that expose the misery of his first wife, Mileva Maric, sure to be attractive to a wider audience than dry complex science can attract.  

Howard’s style is old-fashioned in its use of transparent devices. He is fond of teasing by foreshadowing, such as ending an episode when a colleague is shown a piece of paper by a pleased Einstein, and gasps, in admiration. The viewer is shown the famous formula (as if merely seeing the equation would be shocking). 

To underscore his theme of Einstein’s misogyny, he compares the minimizing of his wife’s contributions with Pierre Curie’s insistence that his wife, Marie, be given equal credit. In other scenes, the inspirations for Einstein’s discoveries are shown to be his infant son, a spider, a casual remark by a friend, a ride in an elevator. 

These scenes are overly simplified variations on anecdotes relating to Einstein’s “thought experiments” that he described in his writings but they come across as almost comical. It reminds me of  the old joke about Beethoven’s mother saying, “I inspire you? Don’t make me laugh! Ha-Ha-Ha Haaa!

Howard is used to “biographical drama,” and “based on true events” filmmaking that takes license with facts. In both “Cinderella Man” and “A Beautiful Mind,” the director omitted serious character flaws and actions of his heroes that would have detracted from their heroism. 

At least, “Genius,” is consistent with the book that was his source material in its focus on the prurient and perverse, rather than the dull science that shook the world.       

This series is based on Walter Isaacson’s book, “Einstein His Life And Universe.” Isaacson is no physicist and according to book reviews, it shows in his biography, which is light on the science and heavy on the cultural impact, politics, philosophy, and especially on his domestic life (i.e., sex life) with his wives and mistresses.

The historian benefits from the recent discovery of a cache of Einstein’s love letters. They expose his sentimental and romantic side (Einstein’s poetry skills show a lack of genius in that art). The letters also reveal a rather creepy side to his seduction techniques, exclaiming love and making extravagant promises and in the next breath (or letter) making demands for obedience and loyalty, detailing tasks she is to perform in order to satisfy him.

 Isaacson joins recent biographers to correct the perception that Mileva was not more than the great man’s sex partner, housekeeper, and nursemaid to his children. She was a brilliant physics student in her own right, who helped her husband to write his early papers. How much she contributed has been a matter of debate, but it was certainly more than Einstein himself was willing to admit. The correction of this record in a popular history is a worthy goal, even if it does pander to our modern sensibility in a blatant attempt to attract a female audience.  

The defect in the drama results from the self-conscious pandering to the target audience that the script and acting pound home with repetitive annoyance. In scene after scene, Albert takes advantage of Mileva’s trust – deflecting her nagging for r-e-s-p-e-c-t by disingenuous patronizing hugs and ardent assurances, after which he goes on to his singular quest for fame by solving the complex puzzles of nature.

The notion that a genius may comprehend the mysteries of the universe but lack any understanding of other people is not revolutionary – in biography or drama. In fact, it seems to be so common that it may be one of the essential ingredients of understanding genius.

The mind of the artist

Another observation may be related to this phenomenon. There seems to be a correlation between some forms of “mental problems” and artistic creativity. I put quotation marks around the phrase to underscore its admitted vagueness. Researchers agree that mental illness is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity. However, there is research to suggest a link between mental illness and creativity.

While people suffering in the throes of serious mental illness are usually dysfunctional; i.e., unable to coherently create, other forms of mental distress seem to stimulate creativity.

An area of the brain called the precuneus affects personal memory and self-consciousness. Researchers find that it is more active in creative people even while they are performing other concentration intensive tasks. The inability to suppress the seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity aids the creative process by linking ideas that reside in disparate neural networks. The increased activity found in the precuneus also is seen in those with schizotypal personalities.

Schizotypy is not schizophrenia, a debilitating psychosis. It is a state that contains a constellation of symptoms, most of which exist in everyone in some degree. These include “unusual perceptual experiences, thin mental boundaries between self and other, impulsive nonconformity, and magical beliefs.” Negative schizotypal traits include “cognitive disorganization and physical and social anhedonia.” Such people may be introverted, emotionally flat, asocial. 

I can imagine a common sense reason for this. Creativity demands self-awareness.; ditto mental and emotional turmoil. Poets like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell have spent enormous energy analyzing their emotions, their perceptions, their relationships.

Of course, Ezra Pound,  T. S. Eliot’s friend [see below] who is also considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century, was a vocal anti-Semite, even making propaganda broadcasts from fascist Italy during World War II. Pound was clinically mentally ill, paranoid and eventually hospitalized, but whether his paranoia led him to the “Jewish conspiracy” or was a co-incidental presence in his mind along with his artistic talent is in doubt.

Risky Behavior

On the other end of the spectrum from schizotypy is the “Type T personality.” Originally described by Jung, these are risk takers. They tend to be extroverted and creative, crave new experiences and excitement. Sociopaths have some of these traits. So do some intellectuals, including Einstein and Galileo, as well as extreme athletes. Ernest Hemingway, self-described as bipolar, combined features of this type. Drawn to danger in war, sports and violent entertainments, his masculine self-image demanded risk while his creative mind wove imaginative novels.

The Rare Great AND Good:

Admittedly, the notion of "goodness" is subjective. I mean it in the moral sense and that is a slippery concept. 

“If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” Dorothy Day, Catholic social activist (1897-1980)   

It was not just as a mother that Dorothy Day exercised her faith. After living a self described selfish existence as a young liberated woman in the 1920’s, including affairs and an abortion, Day sought meaning to life and found it in Catholicism and radical activism during the Depression. 

Day was a sinner who found a cause in the Catholic Workers Movement, doing good works and writing about her faith. She was a prolific do-gooder who actually did a lot of good. She was a prolific writer, speaker, and organizer. As one who converted to her faith through ardent and serious reflection and then seriously tried to live up to its ideals, she influenced many Catholics and others by her example and her activism.

By that measure, Dorothy Day qualifies as “great” as well as “good.” (Within the Church that she often resented for its conservatism, she is now being considered for sainthood, along with another modern good and great woman, Mother Teresa.) 

But in general, it seems that most of those who strive to be great must sacrifice something that ordinary people enjoy, such as  . . .  a family.

Recently I have been reading Deborah Lipstadt’s book about the trial that formed the basis of the movie, “Denial”. Her lawyer (solicitor in British parlance) was Anthony Julius, who, in addition to being a terrific lawyer, also held a Ph.D. in history. His Ph.D. thesis had become a controversial best seller. 

It examined how T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism was expressed in some of his poems. Julius’s thesis conceded that Eliot was an exceptional poet, although he held a despicable personal view toward Jews, which he was not reluctant to reveal in his art.

So there it is, again. In my view, anti-Semites cannot be called “good” in any sense of the term; it is a disqualifying character flaw. I feel the same way about racists and sexists, as well as other forms of bigotry, although I do concede that there may be gradations of defects, and also acknowledge that some leeway is owed to the culture in which the person acted.  Wagner was a great composer of music, but a world-class hater of Jews.

This last point is sticky, because it should not be used to excuse one who adopts the view of his society when others in the same position shout against the notion. An example for me would be Edgar Degas, who spent much of his time with ballet dancers but took pains to urge the guilt of Dreyfus and blamed all French Jews.

I don’t mean to imply that anti-Semitism is the only character trait that detracts from goodness among great artists. In the fore-mentioned movie, “Genius”, Thomas Wolfe is shown to be a self-centered user and abuser of those who helped him, including his mistress as well as his editor. He discards both after he achieves fame. But Wolfe was not an anti-Semite. In fact, he spent enough time in Nazi Germany in 1936 to see what they were doing, and returned to write about the despicable treatment of Jews there.


Steve Jobs is another example of the high achiever, creative and imaginative innovator, who was driven to excellence to the detriment of his relationships with friends, co-workers, lovers, children. His example does not seem to be unique in the record. Great? Certainly. Good, not so much. Genius? By many definitions, yes. Mentally ill? Obsessive, neurotic? Well, he has been diagnosed by observers as cyclothymic.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Trump Conning Tower

   
         Trump is a consummate con man. But is that so bad?     
            We were amazed that so many American voters couldn’t see through Donald Trump’s bluster. We likened him to the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Emperor’s New Clothes. He was called P.T.Barnum. Some even went so far as to compare his ranting tweets to hysterical speeches by Musolini or even Hitler.
            These analogies were apt. He was and is an authoritarian populist. He is megalomaniacal, egotistical. He is a carnival barker who plays the media to hype his celebrity image as brilliant deal-making billionaire entrepreneur and builder. Exposure of the truth of the myth behind the hype, which was belatedly dragged out by the media that created him, did little to change the minds of those who had already bought the product.
            They bought his pitch—he was a breath of fresh air in politics, who would shake things up by being a strong leader, who says what he believes. No amount of proof that the emperor was naked, or that his products were bogus, would cause the customers to spurn this product.
            We were shocked each time he made a claim against his opponent that actually applied to him. They were lying, picking on him; they had short fuses, had poor temperament; they were unqualified; they were criminals, sexists, racists. He had gall to accuse others of his own defects. Like Hitler claiming the Jews were the threat to world peace.
            His claimed prowess in business was contradicted by his bankruptcies, and the lawsuits by contractors. His claim to create American jobs was disproved by his outsourcing of products that bear his name. His refusal to show his tax returns undermined his claim to be charitable, a good citizen, even his claim of great wealth. (Need I mention his chutzpah in claiming to respect women?)

            None of that mattered to the voters who were anxious to swallow his bluster whole. Maybe the reason was that the other candidate / salespeople offered even more unattractive products, but the fact is that his advertising campaign hit the gullible customers in their angry, frightened hearts, if not their minds. He pandered to the worst in us, and his gamble paid off.

            Yes, he was a brilliant confidence man, who carried off the greatest swindle in American history. He took power, trampling the founding fathers’ claim of a democracy guided by an informed and educated electorate. He laughed all the way to the White House and to immortality.

            Those of us who were standing on the edges of the parade shouting vainly that the emperor was naked are terrified about what the inevitable comeuppance will do to the future of the nation. We are sure that if he carries through with the wrongheaded ideas he espoused in his ranting campaign, it will result in eventual ruin. 

            He cannot bring high paying manufacturing jobs back to the rust belt states that gave him his win: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. We are certain that his policy against Mexican and Muslim immigrants will be ruinous. We dread the changes his party will make to the Supreme Court and reverse progress in individual rights, including the right to health care and education.  We think we are right and he is wrong. We think given enough time, the American public will come to its senses and through the rascal out, along with the others in his party who kowtowed to him in to further their own ambitions.  

            But what if we are wrong? 

There have been other swindlers who sweet talked their way to power. We have three huge examples in my lifetime. In 1933, FDR was elected in the depths of the Great Depression, when the country was on the verge of revolution because of bank failures, 30%+ unemployment. 

There were calls for a military coup, dictatorship, a communist uprising. So, FDR, the crippled son of privilege, who was considered a second rate intellect and superficial glad-hander by professors and columnists, made his first speech on the Capitol steps. What is remembered from the speech is the phrase, “We have nothing to fear . . . but fear itself.” Huh?

            At the same time in Germany, things were even worse. The nation had been crushed twenty years earlier, losing millions of lives in a disastrous war, and then humiliated into signing a treaty that stripped its resources, put it into debt, placed all the blame for the world war on their shoulders. The Great Depression struck Germany even more harshly than here. Inflation was rampant, unemployment unstoppable.
            And Adolph Hitler is chosen to lead, by claiming that he—and only he—could bring his country back to its previous greatness. He presented himself as a savior, a powerful leader whose vision and faith was strong enough to carry the nation’s burdens. There was nothing in his past to support this except in his words, and the power of his rhetoric and self-belief. These had gathered an army of sycophants to adore him. 

Now the rest of the nation would yield to him. Opponents pointed out that he was a failed artist, architect; a rabble rousing race baiting lunatic, who wasn’t even German. None of that meant anything to those who were willing and anxious to believe his promises, even though to a rational mind, they seemed far fetched.

            By the summer of 1940, Hitler’s army had conquered Poland and France, and threatened to invade England. The smart money bet on victory within a few months. American public opinion bet that way, as did the American ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, and America’s hero flyer, Charles Lindbergh.
            So, England turned to a failed politician, whose ego and bluster had been rejected long before. Winston Churchill had been thrown out of the cabinet in 1915 after the Gallipoli fiasco. Since then, he had been an outsider who cared about preserving Empire and Crown, opposing communism and fascism. He wrote books, made speeches; he was an entertaining speaker and writer, and was ignored in parliament.
            By that summer, they gave him the reins of a government that most people expected to be forced to surrender; many thought Hitler would offer generous peace terms. (He had allowed a French government to govern over the southern half of that country, keeping his military forces in the occupied north.)
            Churchill would have none of this. His broadcast speech included eloquent words of defiance:

“. . .Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old

                        Many saw this intransigence as foolhardy as well as illogical. “The Empire beyond the seas” he referred to consisted of colonies such as India that would have welcomed the defeat of their Imperial masters. As for the “New World,” meaning the USA and Canada, his hope was more a pipe dream than a real likelihood.

            It is true that great leaders in times of crisis often show the traits of swindlers: resolve in the face of reason, an aura of self-assurance that calms shaking nerves. They are master bullshit artists, salesmen of exceptional skill and courage. The 20th Century was a high point in the production of such figures. The advent of mass media allowed for The Big Lie to be pervasive. A power could control all major sources of information: news and opinion for the use of propaganda leading to a new concept: “totalitarian rule.”
            The tools of advertising and marketing that sold commodities translated well to politics. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to manipulation of the marketplace by clever minds. Polling, surveys, focus groups, testing, psychological profiling, all are useful in persuading large numbers of people to buy something they don’t need. 

They can go further—creating images that make bad people seem good, and dumb ideas seem brilliant. People can be made to buy things that aren’t good for them. They can be led to enthusiastically support policies that are, in fact, contrary to their own best interests.

            Celebrities have always existed in every culture: royalty, religious prophets, warriors, athletes, beautiful women, talented artists of all kinds. With the invention of pervasive media, promoters have been able to create the illusion of celebrity that makes it really happen. Barnum did it with his attractions; Ziegfeld did it with his discoveries just as the century began. For instance, he posed the singer, Anna Held, in a bath filled with milk and called in the photographers, scandalizing society but intriguing the public, who had to pay to see her perform.

            In the 21st Century, we have come further, first creating celebrities who are famous merely for being famous, and making millionaires out of them. With the worldwide scope of social media, international celebrities emerge overnight from obscurity to marketability for no greater talent than performing a stunt on a bicycle or getting hit in the face with a bag of feces.

            With all of this background, we should not have been surprised by Trump’s election as president of the United States, following in the footsteps of Washington (whose mythmakers had tossing coins over the Potomac, admitting to his father that he cut down a cherry tree), Lincoln (the simple frontier woodsman who was actually a wealthy corporate lawyer), FDR (who convinced the press to never mention the fact that he was physically helpless), JFK (who winked at the press so they wouldn’t reveal his many mistresses), or Bill Clinton (who swore that he never had “sexual relations with that woman,” because her mouth on his prick was didn’t fit his idea of “relations.”)

            Linclon supposedly said, “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” To which another wit might add, But if you work it right, fooling some all the time and all some of the time can make you a hero, a star, wealthy, . . . and / or a president.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

November 8, 2016, a date which will live in infamy.

AN ACCUMULATION OF MY FB POSTS AND TWEETS FROM BLACK TUESDAY UNTIL TODAY:

Denial: check. Anger: duh! Bargaining: not fucking yet! Depression: yeah. Acceptance: NEVER!

For those of you devising strategies for the future, please consider the following. It was incomprehensible to us that people would vote for Trump in the face of overwhelming evidence that they should not. The answer lies in what I discovered in 45 years as a trial lawyer: most people act on FAITH, not EVIDENCE. They have "gut feelings," rely on "common sense" and beliefs that lead them to ignore facts, no matter how evident. Now, it must be said, liberals are not immune from this. (How else was OJ acquitted?) But generally, we believe in science, documented proof, data while they rely on prejudice (which just means pre-judging things based on bias). THESE THINGS ARE DEEPLY CULTURAL and inbred, encouraged by strong religious values. GOOD NEWS: they are weakening, very gradually, through education, exposure to OTHER IDEAS AND DIFFERENT PEOPLE. It has resulted in PROGRESS, but the opposition is stubborn. Good luck and be patient and persistent. OUT.

Ronald Reagan’s simple ideology allowed him to be certain and clear about every issue: lower taxes, secure defense, less government, American domination of foreign affairs, strict Christian morality and adherence to normative lifestyles.

Trump adds hostility to non-WASP male dominance. QUESTION: CAN LIBERALS STATE OUR PRINCIPLES AS CLEARLY AND SIMPLY?

I think it is hard to do: we don't work on faith rather than evidence. Our tolerance and reason demand temperance not passion. Our motto is often: "It depends." We don't hate the other, but want to understand her POV and feel their pain. Should we be more like them - Bernie wants a revolution. Is he wrong?.

Hey take heart. Trumps admin is DOA. He can't do what he promised. High pay manufacture jobs won't come back. He can't stop globalization. If he sends US troops to Mid East he will be Bush III. If Iran goes nuclear Israel will moan. Dismantling Obamacare will be a disaster (his favorite word). Corruption and incompetence will be rampant. The real lasting damage will be the Supreme Court which was always the real prize.

Work for 2018. Hard.

The blue collar rust belters bought a final con. Trump will get their high pay manufacture jobs back from Mexico? They are about to get another education - in Trump U!

Californians kept the death penalty in fact voted to expedite executions Then celebrate by getting high on weed.

An old man's survival advice: the last time this sort of thing happened (1968-1992) - we found refuge in family and friends who share our values. Wish the same now.

The white uneducated racist sexists won their country back. Lets see how they make it white and dumb again.