Christopher Hitchens on Facing Death

Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer less than a year ago, and tells us in this CSPAN interview that his disease has unfortunately progressed to stage 4.  How he is facing cancer, and how he is facing death, is a topic he addresses with the same candor, wit, intelligence and realism that has been his trademark style for the better part of three decades. This interview is 53 minutes long, but if you can spare the time I strongly encourage you to watch it.

I'm a Pattern, You're a Pattern, Wouldn't You Like to be a Pattern Too?

"Meaninglessness and Chaos" by Michael Rowe

One of the confusing things about randomness is its apparent conflict with meaning. If you tell someone that we’re subject to random occurrences every day we breathe on this planet, you’re liable to get a quick retort that you’ve just made an argument in favor of the meaninglessness of existence (yikes!).  From that comes a deluge of angry sneers and additional arguments pushing your innocuous observation off the cliff of inadvertent nihilism.

Fortunately, the confusion is not difficult to clear up, and the apparent conflict disappears under the light of simple analysis. Let’s tackle this in two parts.

Part the first, a brief rewind to my childhood.  I was an only child until I was 10, when my parents, thankfully, adopted my sister. Until she arrived, however, I was often alone and lost in my imagination, pathologically reflective, and compulsively in search of patterns. 

Like most things I did as a kid, I have no idea why I was addicted to pattern finding, but I found them everywhere. Staring at grass, at wallpaper, at sand, at the sky, at wooden fences, at dirt, at pavement, at trees, at swarms of mosquitoes—everywhere. The game I played was to find the most detailed patterns possible. I’d tell myself that I needed to find the face of a tiger in a shag carpet, and after staring around at the floor for several minutes I’d almost always find it. The cool thing was that the pattern was never exactly as I imagined it in my mind’s eye, but it was that thing nonetheless. 

A few observations can be made about this.  One, I was a weird kid (I’ll grant that one). Two, either I was able to mentally organize the randomness of whichever garbled thing I was staring at, and pull from it a pattern matching the requirements of my mind game—or, some external force was working on my behalf to supply me with a pattern fitting the bill, drawing my attention to the particular bits and pieces of the thing I told myself I would find.

Three, either the lines, dots, cracks, swirls or whatever else comprising the thing I was staring at contained information to make the patterns I was searching for (in other words, they were actually designs embedded before I started looking—which implies that an external force put them there), or I imprinted a certain “meaning” on the elements such that they’d satisfy the requirements of the game. 

Two and three sound similar, but there’s one essential difference: two necessitates that an external force colluded with me, without my knowledge, to find patterns in randomness (sort of like a ghost controlling my fingers as they turned the wheels of an etch-a-sketch). Three simply necessitates that an external force—let’s say God—planted patterns in everything, and anyone, if they stared long enough, would find them. 

The biggest problem with that part of the third observation is that before I started looking for the patterns, I told myself what I needed to find. So, for example, God might reasonably embed a pattern of a smiling donkey in a brier bush, and if I stared at it long enough I’d see God’s happy donkey staring back at me. But since my game was all about finding something I designated, it seems unlikely that I’d miss God’s donkey and find something else entirely. 

The ghost-collusion part of the second observation has merit, if you believe that unannounced external forces enjoy playing mind games with children. If you do, go ahead and stop reading now because we’ve probably gone as far as you’ll care to. 

If you don’t, then let’s pull out the parts of the observations that do not include unknown external forces: (1) I was able to mentally organize the randomness of whichever garbled thing I was staring at, and pull from it a pattern matching the requirements of my mind game, and (2) I imprinted a certain “meaning” on the elements such that they’d satisfy the requirements of the game.

Minus the peculiarities of an introverted child, I submit that we all engage in those two activities every day.  We have to, because finding patterns is not just a lonely kid’s game, but a biological coping mechanism that we use to stabilize ourselves in a tumultuous sea. Without this evolved ability, we’d truly be lost, and really, really scared—because, let’s face it, randomness is frightening. 

Going back to an earlier post, consider the horror of routinely stopping at a red light and moments later being flash fried in your front seat. Or consider the misfortune of standing in the lobby of an office building just as a man who you never saw before in your life walks in, pulls out a gun and starts firing, and you happen to be the first person he hits (another real life example I was unfortunately too close to recently). Any example you can think of like these hinges on a mixed medley of factors, each happening at just that moment, in just that place, in just that way. 

You can tell yourself that an external force has ordered these elements to result in an atrocious outcome, and if you do then you’re left with a truly bizarre and, I’d argue, irreconcilable devotion to a malevolent force.         

Or, you can accept that we are, in fact, creatures deigned to chaos—but not only that, because we’re also creatures with tremendous faculties of pattern imprinting and meaning creation.  

If randomness were antithetical to meaning, then we wouldn’t even be able to have this discussion, because neither you nor I would have the ability to weave together a schema—which is just another way of saying a mental pattern–of “stuff” to reach a mutually acceptable basis for communication (even if we end up disagreeing on outcomes).  We impose meaning on our communication—both via our evolved abilities and our internalized knowledge and experience—or else it’s little more than a pile of sand blowing in the wind.

Part the second of this discussion will make a showing in the next post.

Calling Out Rush Limbaugh and Other Narcissistic Psychopaths

rush_limbaughBy now we’ve all seen the news about the white kid in Illinois who was beaten up on a school bus by a black kid, and we’ve all heard Rush Limbaugh’s take on the matter.  If you haven’t, here are a few quotes (pulled directly off his website):

Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now.  You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,” and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white.  Newsweek magazine told us this.  We know that white students are destroying civility on buses, white students destroying civility in classrooms all over America, white congressmen destroying civility in the House of Representatives.

I wonder if Obama is going to come to the defense the assailants the way he did his friend Skip Gates up there at Harvard.  I mean the assailants are presumed innocent due to the white racism we all know runs rampant in America. 

Look, this thing on the bus cannot possibly be a hate crime.  The cops are probably lying about what happened even though we have the video.  The video was probably doctored and edited.  We all know that cops are liars, racist pigs and that the white kid deserved it.  I mean that’s modern 2009 going into 2010 America.

You can read the entire transcript if you’re a masochist, but the quotes above provide a flavor.  I mention them for a few reasons.  First, it’s important to note that Limbaugh is exploiting an unfortunate incident involving children to draw attention to himself.  It’s not possible to discern any genuine concern in his comments for the child who was beaten. The situation is merely a convenient prop for shifting the spotlight’s direction. 

Second, it’s useful to note that Limbaugh shamelessly frames his comments to highlight the races of the children involved. He focuses on one element of the incident above all others because it’s the most incendiary, and the one that he can exploit most completely.

Third, to further support the contention that Limbaugh doesn’t really care about the child involved in the attack, he strings his comments in with a larger diatribe involving rapper Kayne West’s drunken Video Awards antics–as if the incidents are even remotely comparable–and paints all of his remarks with the same racially charged brush. The one common element: race as a political prop to advance Limbaugh’s spotlight position as a thought leader among conservatives.  Further, he gleefully revels in the barrage of criticism he’s received since making his comments.

Collectively, these observations point to someone who is (1) shameless, (2) unempathetic, (3) irresponsible, (4) self absorbed, (5) manipulative, and (6) ruthlessly ambitious.  In other words, and consistent with DSM definitional criteria, they point to a narcissist with psychopathic tendencies. 

If the second part of that description sounds radical to you, that might be because of our common presuppositions about psychopathy, most of which are wrong.  We typically think of an extreme, homicidal version of the psychopath, but there’s ample reason to believe that we rub elbows with psychopaths of various forms every day.  They likely live in your neighborhood and work in your office, and more than likely will never be arrested for murder or other deviant behavior. 

Psychologists studying the more common dimensions of psychopathy have coined a variety of terms to describe it.  Martin Kantor used the description, “psychopaths of everyday life.” Robert Hares calls them “subcriminal psychopaths.” Donald Black made popular the title, “successful bad boys.” And Hervey Cleckly offered the moniker,  “mild psychopaths.”

The one consistent theme that runs through the experts’ descriptions is a strong link with narcissism.  Many in the psychology community view narcissism and psychopathy as sides of the same coin.  The disorders share common core elements, and diagnosis often involves both in tandem. When they join in personalities that succeed in ascending to power (cult leaders, for instance) they catalyze cults of personality, some of which turn out to be quite dangerous.

Limbaugh is an example of an especially successful narcissist, and via his remarks he continuously displays psychopathic traits of the “mild” variety.  And he’s not by any means alone on the public stage.  We can find similar examples in both political camps, with views ranging the spectrum, though few with Limbaugh’s robust pedigree and clout. 

What’s most important is that we identify the manipulative tactics of narcissistic psychopaths who have risen to the high alter of media and call out the methods they are using to keep themselves in the spotlight, where they compulsively crave to stay.