Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Unknown Known: What You Didn't Know You Didn't Know: A Film by Errol Morris

“My goodness, what should we think of such a film?” I can hear Donald Rumsfeld saying it now. His good-natured, awe-shucks language serves as a veneer on this most ambitious and arrogant man. 

For those of you who may have forgotten, Donald Rumsfeld served as the U.S. Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush. On the filming and questioning end, we have the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, whose documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara is among my favorite films. Indeed, I savored the anticipation of comparing the McNamara experience with Rumsfeld’s, but the comparison fell flat.

Someone likened McNamara to the Flying Dutchman, sailing from port to port in search of redemption. In The Fog of War, we see McNamara trying to come to terms with the tragedy of Vietnam, the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, the harrowing experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the loss of innocence (if that’s the right term) caused by the assassination of JFK. He came across as genuine and conflicted—not an evil man. He believed in his calling, and he remained loyal to the memory of the two presidents under whom he served. McNamara did only one stint in government: Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and Johnson (excluding military service in WWII for the Army Air Corps under Curtis LeMay) .

Rumsfeld doesn’t generate sympathy; he generates perplexity. His smile and charm are like the smile of the Cheshire Cat: he hides behind it. Morris lets us know that when Rumsfeld took the helm at the Pentagon for the second time (he held the job under Gerald Ford as well) he had the reputation of a consummate Washington player. One gets the sense from his resume and from keeping pals like Dick Cheney that he never went into anything naively.

We learn in the film that Rumsfeld is a memo-maker, writing notes to himself and others incessantly. “Snowflakes”, he (or someone) came to call them. He thinks on paper, or at least seems to think. But here's the enigma: the man who tried to reason out his votes as a young congressman appears immune to real reflection—at least by the time that he’s serving in the Bush Administration. One takes away from the film no admission of misjudgment or mistake and only a cursory admission of uncertainty about the whole Iraq War undertaking.
I’ve read recently about human reasoning as a vehicle for persuasion rather than a process for reaching truth. Sperber and Mercier have proposed the Argumentative Theory of Reason that claims that humans developed reasoning skills to persuade others. (Their paper here and summaries here & here.)  In a group with open discussion and the ability to examine and criticize others, reasoning can work well. However, when we attempt to reason on our own, our reasoning goes astray under the influence of the confirmation bias and other self-interested motives. Iain McGilchrist in his RSA Animate short and in his book The Master and His Emissary makes a related point about the brain. McGilchrist argues that the right brain, which perceives experience in context and dynamically, is undercut by the static, abstract, and tightly focused left-brain that is dominant (but not exclusive) in the production of language. McGilchrist writes: 

Sequential analytic ‘processing’ also makes the left hemisphere the hemisphere par excellence of sequential discourse, and that gives it the most extraordinary advantage in being heard. It is like being the Berlusconi of the brain, a political heavyweight who has control of the media. Speech is possible from the right hemisphere, but it is usually very limited. We have seen that thought probably originates in the right hemisphere, but the left hemisphere has most syntax and most of the lexicon, which makes it very much the controller of the ‘word’ in general. Coupled with its preference for classification, analysis and sequential thinking, this makes it very powerful in constructing an argument.

McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 6099-6104). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

I mention this because watching this film seems to lend so much support to this perspective. In appearance and in language (oral and written), Rumsfeld comes across as the consummate thinker and reflector, but in reality, it’s all so much bull shit. He makes no connection between the realities in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Guantanamo and his words. In print and briefly in the film, Morris notes that Rumsfeld was very taken with the issue of Pearl Harbor and how the Japanese were able to attack U.S. bases when the U.S. knew that an attack was likely. (In articles appearing in the New York Times, Morris further discusses Rumsfeld’s interest in the work of Roberta Wohlstetter and Thomas Schelling about Pearl Harbor.) In fact, we learn that in July 2001 Rumsfeld wrote a memo about how such an event might occur again and (presumably) how to avoid it. But he makes no substantive connection with the events of 9/11. This happened on his watch. One plane crashed into his Pentagon. All words, no connections.

The film takes its title from one of Rumsfeld’s most famous utterances. You must watch to the end of the film to unpack what he said and then attempt to figure out what he means. In the end, it just seems to have been words, words, words.

At the conclusion of The Fog of War I felt sympathy for McNamara and I said to friends at the theatre, “they should send this to the Bush Administration”. I don’t think anyone in the Bush Administration watched that film before heading off into the war in Iraq. Alas, at the end of The Unknown Known, I can't feel sympathy for Rumsfeld. I feel sorry for us. I think we got suckered.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Risk Agent by Ridley Pearson

Several years ago at the Iowa City Book Festival, I heard Ridley Pearson speak in the Old Capital. Like many a writer, he started off in another calling, but he couldn’t resist attempting a book. He eventually received recognition (sales), and he's made a career of it. He related that, among other things, he participated in a rock bank (“The Rock Bottom Remainders”) with Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Dave Barry (along with others). But mostly Pearson talked about writing and his book, The Risk Agent. The Risk Agent arose out of a teaching stint in creative writing he did at a college in Shanghai. He reported that you could learn a lot about life in China from the essays of 20 year-olds. 

The Risk Agent centers of two characters, one is a brash, use-your-fists American with a wary eye and a soft heart. He’s brought to China to try to resolve a kidnapping, and his employers match him with a young, American-educated Chinese woman who’s trained as a forensic accountant. The plot gets thick with the Chinese police (local and state security), an American corporation doing business—perhaps some shady business—in China, a rival Chinese corporation, and lots of thugs. The setting is in and around Shanghai. Pearson weaves in many local landmarks and brings in as much local and Chinese culture as he can. For instance, we learn that there’s a Shanghainese language besides the standard Mandarin. (Our American hero, of course, speaks both.)

Pearson’s book is a romp. The plotting is extensive and takes the two protagonists to the tops of Shanghai’s mushrooming glass-box high-rises, into back alleys, and then concludes with a brief trip into the countryside. There’s lots of movement and action here. The characters are tolerably rounded, and we can easily tell the good guys (and gals) from the bad guys. Thus, if you’d like a view contemporary Shanghai and environs with a prototypical American and classy Chinese woman who can throw a punch and remain inscrutable, you can enjoy this book. I listened to it via Audible. I thought it went on too long. The dénouement could have come sooner for me. But if you’re looking for a romp through contemporary China, join the ride.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Case of the Love Commandos: A Vish Puri Mystery by Tarquin Hall

Readers of this blog will know that I’ve become quite a fan of Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri books. They satisfy on a couple of levels. They are neat little mysteries. One blurb calls Puri “the Indian Hercule Poirot”, while others compare him to Alexander McCall Smith’s “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series set in Botswana. Fun plotting (and sub-plotting), along with insights into Indian culture, make the books work. In fact, it’s this later point about the insight into Indian culture that make the books so fun for me. Hall is an outsider who’s peaked behind the curtain or at least one who’s bothered to look. His comments on roadways and traffic, unique Indian phrases, Indian snacks, arranged marriages, exams—I could go on, but you get a catalogue of life here. For someone still trying to figure things out, observations that confirm my own thinking or that elucidate the strange are most welcome, especially when shared in such a fun format. 

This book in the series deals with arranged marriages, “love marriages” (not arranged), caste, and political corruption—issues that remain at the very heart of Indian society today. Vish Puri, long-time husband in an arranged marriage, isn’t convinced that the trend from arranged marriages to love marriages is necessarily a good one (nor am I entirely), but he nevertheless gets involved with an effort to the thwart an arranged marriage goes awry. Having gone down the rabbit hole, Puri finds himself dealing with the Dalits (once known as “Untouchables”), the lowest rung on the caste rung, which isn’t supposed to exist, but does persist still in varies guises. Throw in genetic testing and a large scientific research enterprise—well, you should have the picture by now. 

Vish Puri has once again not only cracked the case, but he’s cracked many a smile on my face. Informative, fun, and insightful, this book is a great read for understanding India while following the intrigues of the ace detective (and his mother!). 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

Author Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage is a fine thriller, full of the intrigue of espionage and the attendant moral quandaries that the best writers in the field, Greene, Ambler, and Le Carre, do so well. Set in post-WWII Istanbul, the Second World War has only recently ended, but already the intrigues of the Cold War have commenced. Germany and Eastern Europe have unearthed not only Jewish refugees hoping for a secure future by passing to Palestine (then a British protectorate), but also war criminals, some of whom know things valuable to the U.S., the Soviets, and maybe even the Turks, who are caught between the two new superpowers.

The central character is an expatriate American businessman turned sometime spy. Leon Bauer is mostly a courier, but then on “one last mission” things go astray. Far astray. Now Leon, who speaks Turkish and knows his way around the famed city, must use wits and guile that he’d never had to use before to try to turn things toward . . . what? Leon isn’t just presented with issues of tactics, but some troubling moral questions, too. Whom is he helping? Who’s trying to get him? Why should he help a likely war criminal? Besides the atmospherics of Istanbul and Ottoman intrigue, Kanon keeps his readers wondering about what will happen next, whom to trust not to trust, and what Leon can do to preserve some sense of moral rectitude that we know that he seeks. 

#JLF 2013 speaker Kanon whom I heard in Durbar Hall. Thanks again, JLF!
I was a little reluctant about this book because I’d seen a film version of this book, The Good German which didn’t work for me (or many other viewers either, it seems). But while the film didn’t work for a variety of reasons, I know now how the book could. Kanon has staked out an era (the immediate post-war) that is fertile for intrigue and moral quandaries, much as Le Carre did with the Cold War and Alan Furst (with less moral tension) in the immediate pre-war and early war period. He’s worth another read.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama & Paul Ekman

Leading psychologist Paul Ekman received an invitation to a Mind and Life Conference with the Dalai Lama in 2000. He went because he knew it would it please his daughter, an admirer of the Dalai Lama. Ekman himself had no great knowledge of Buddhism and no religious beliefs or practices of his own. What happened as a result of this initial encounter changed Ekman's life, both personally and professionally. He hit it off with the Dalai Lama, experiencing a warmth and openness that affected him emotionally and that puzzled him as a scientist. And he learned things about the Buddhist tradition that triggered new perspectives and research agendas from him about the emotions and how we humans can learn to better cultivate them. This book records conversations held between Ekman and the Dalai Lama over several years. These transcripts and sidebars become a treasure-trove of insight into this most basic human (and animal) phenomenon that Buddhism has explored more than two millennia via introspection (meditation). Now science is taking a closer look at, especially with the advances in neuroscience and other techniques that provide us new ways of viewing and testing emotions. This book allows any reader can come away with a better understanding of how we live our emotional lives, and how we can cultivate those emotions for our own good and the good of those with whom we live. No small accomplishment.

The first two of the Four Noble Truths espoused by the Buddha state his assessment of the human condition. The First Noble Truth: Life is unsatisfactory. (More often, we see the original Sanskrit or Pali translated as “suffering”, but I agree that this word is perhaps too aggressive in its portrayal of the original insight.) The Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering [or unsatisfactoriness] is attachment. Attachment, as you learn, can mean craving for something (greed), craving to escape something (aversion, hatred), or ignorance of the situation (delusion). So what has this to do with emotions? Via natural selection, mammals, and especially humans, developed emotions that refined our ability to approach or avoid. Mixed with our hyper-sociability (Jon Haidt), we developed a wide variety of emotions that attract or repel us from various perceived situations. Natural selection armed us over millions of years with these mind tools, but with the advent of civilization (living in cities instead of small hunter-gatherer groups), our array of emotions, such as anger and hatred, for instance, could lead us astray. Robert Wright argues in his course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology (now offered on Coursera) that Buddhism is an antidote to some aspects human behavior instilled in us by natural selection. Instead of acting on our feelings of attachment (“Yum, doughnuts! Let’s feast”) or aversion (“Your rotten SOB”), we learn to get between our emotions—developed for quick perceptions and responses—and our actions. This is a fundamental insight shared between HHDL and Ekman, each coming at the issue from their different traditions but finding a lot of agreement. Ekman calls a pause in our reactions a “refractory period”, which may be micro-moment, or—with cultivation—something much longer. 

After spending time defining emotions—different from moods, we should note—the two discuss how we might learn to tame them (and not, as some think Buddhism suggests, eliminate them). Here we learn of the benefits of meditation as a mechanism for developing awareness, a meta-awareness (B. Alan Wallace) that allows us to observe the development of an emotion within us and thereby make a conscious decision about how we shall (or shan’t) act in response to the impulse. This ability, along with the conscious cultivation of compassion, allows us to take ourselves in happier and more sociable directions than the naturally selected traits of our emotions might push us.

The above is just a taste of what the book covers. In addition to insights into basic and ongoing Western scientific research about the emotions and the Buddhist insights cultivated over 2000 years, we learn about the participants, especially Ekman. Ekman’s insight that he changes over the course of these conversations (estimated at about 39 hours) is really moving. Ekman grew-up with a very difficult father, and Ekman shares insights he gains about himself and that relationship. Ekman’s growth of insight and appreciation gives the book an emotional (in a very good way!) valence that adds spice to the wonderful scientific and Buddhist knowledge and wisdom that we garner through it. 

The emotions are an endlessly fascinating topic. The quality of our lives is a function of our emotions. Much of morality and ethics revolve around our emotions and how we handle them. Indeed, not just Buddhism, but all of the Axial religions and philosophies—later Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Socratic philosophy and its progeny, especially Stoicism, Confucianism, and aspects of Taoism and Hinduism—are efforts to re-direct human conduct from older, more atavistic (and now less well-adopted) traits vested in humans via natural selection. These religions and philosophies (philosophy, that is, “as a way of life”, in the words of Pierre Hadot) developed in response to a very different environment (civilization) than that of the hunter-gatherers from whom we descended. The challenge to us is to use the wisdom of these traditions and refine them (no more required, I suspect) to best fit our contemporary needs. This book goes a long way in forwarding that project. We must thank Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama for their courage in reaching across traditions to help us find our way.

P.S. This is a second take on this book. Indeed, blog 5/682 (i.e., near the beginning of my blogging) addresses my listening to this as an audio book. It was definitely worth a second take!