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New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)

Saturday, September 13

happiness is a warm gun II

Previous posts on this subject include Happiness Is a Warm Gun (I) back on the 4th of July, and Positively Fourth Street, posted in March, 2006. It's a theme that never ceases to amaze and infuriate me. If you're perfectly happy being Happy, this one's going to really piss you off. Ready or not, here I come. Anybody around my base is it.

The following passage is from John Donne's Meditation XIII:

We say the elements of man are misery and happiness, as though he had an equal proportion of both, and the days of man vicissitudinary, as though he had as many good days as ill, and that he lived under a perpetual equinoctial, night and day equal, good and ill fortune in the same measure. But it is far from that; he drinks misery, and he tastes happiness; he mows misery, and he gleans happiness; he journeys in misery, he does but walk in happiness; and, which is worst, his misery is positive and dogmatical, his happiness is but disputable and problematical: all men call misery misery, but happiness changes the name by the taste of man.
Whether Donne's "positive misery" is any match for contemporary "positive psychology," his dates -- 1572 to 1631 -- demonstrate that people have been thinking about this sort of thing for a long time, never mind Chaucer or whoever wrote Beowulf. What led me to this meditation was meditating, myself, on a Washington Post review of Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, which (the review, that is) I thought quite hilarious. The bits that cracked me up are duplicated below.
Melancholia, by contrast, is "the profane ground out of which springs the sacred." To prove his point, Wilson takes us on a private survey course, retreading the lonely paths of Beethoven and Coleridge and Rothko and even Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon and Joni Mitchell. In each case, he finds the same equation of melancholy and creation. "Our sadness," suggests Wilson, "is not aberrant or unseemly or weakness but instead a call to interior depths, to cauldrons out of which will bubble new solutions, crimson and sweet and unforgettable."

As you may have guessed, Wilson's idea of melancholia is thoroughly Romantic and more than a little romantic. He's the kind of guy who likes to wander through solitary landscapes, thinking sad and beautiful thoughts. Unfortunately, once he's refracted his thoughts through the prism of his prose, they sound pretty goofy: "What is existence if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms?"

Even laughter, I'm afraid, eventually falters beneath the weight of Wilson's inflated sentences. "I'm trying to imagine poems more beautiful than the quiet cruising of devious sharks and symphonies more sonorous than those songs of the aloof birds of summer. I'm attempting to concoct a cosmos out of chaos." He's also attempting to repeat every consonant he hears. The hard "c" is a particular favorite -- "the crepuscular continuum between clarity and clarity" -- but there's also "mulling over moons" and "solipsistic silos" and "bizarre breathings" and "grimaced grin." If you weren't depressed before you started reading, a sentence like "Invisible potencies would actualize in the palpable" might just do the trick.

Even these stylistic horrors wouldn't matter so much if there weren't, lying beneath them, an unseemly preening. Sadness, in Wilson's eyes, isn't just good philosophy, it's good living. Not for him the gated suburb. "We melancholy souls," he writes, "love the beautiful ruins of aged buildings. We love the intricate architectural designs, the carvings and the mosaics and the rough stones. We love high ceilings and crown moldings. We love worn-down hardwood floors. We love the smell of rusting radiators. We love rickety windows that rattle in the wind. We also adore those ancient and lovely woodlands where we can walk alone and hear geese honking over the horizon." I see nothing here to distinguish melancholics from Martha Stewart.

The perspective represented here -- that of the book's author, not the reviewer's -- is typical of a certain "Liberal" turn of mind that I cannot stomach. It reeks of the Thoreauvian Waldenesque, an above-it-all arrogance that wallows in self-absorption got up to look like a love of Nature -- always capitalized, and most likely sentient, in the manner of some Gaia-induced faux-Hindoo pantheism. In short, it is the favored world view of the mystic bourgeois. Feh!

And of course (hyperlinkage and intertextuality being what they are), I was led to that book, in turn, by another reference somewhere entirely else. To wit: an article on Salon titled "Don't be happy, worry," wherein the writer cites, in the same breath as the above-mentioned Against Happiness, another book in a similar vein titled Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class.

If I find the "Liberal" view of Happiness odious, even less appealing is the "Conservative" position, one part of which (at least) is represented by this screed on the "Dark Side" of happiness. Interesting choice of words, as another recent book -- The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals -- looks at the problem from another perspective altogether. But we'll return to that momentarily.

In the meantime, how do I know -- not having read Word One of Artificial Happiness -- that it belongs in the (so-called) Conservative camp? Well, here's a clue from the author bio accompanying the book...

His essays on religion, medical science, and healthcare have appeared in The Weekly Standard, Commentary, Public Interest, and Policy Review. In 2000, Dr. Dworkin joined the Hudson Institute as a Senior Fellow...
Guilt by association? You bet! And well deserved. In refreshing my memory of precisely which species of snakes inhabit which of our major <koff> "policy research organizations," I learned the following...
The Hudson Institute is an American, non-profit, neo-conservative think tank founded in 1961 in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, by futurist, military strategist, and systems theorist Herman Kahn and his colleagues at the RAND Corporation.

Ah yes, Herman Kahn, great9th grandson of Genghis, who gave us the essential calculus of the Balance of Terror in his 1960 treatise On Thermonuclear War. His Hudson Institute page includes this gem...

Herman Kahn was a giant. He boldly confronted public issues with creativity and the conviction, in his case correct, that thought and analysis could help make ours a better world.

~Donald Rumsfeld

And of course the RAND Corporation needs no introduction. Or shouldn't. If it does, try Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire. Short form, think DOD, think CIA. Think: your tax dollars at work!

Hmmm, it seems we're getting a bit far-afield here (hyperlinkage and intertextuality being what they are). But instead of pulling back, let's press on, driving, like Rommel, deep into Egypt, or its contemporary symbolic equivalent. Let's look at another Rand, as seen by a guy whose work was funded by both the CIA and the Department of Defense (see my May 2007 post Noetic License). This is "remote-viewer" Russell Targ from his new book Do You See What I See?: Memoirs of a Blind Biker (no kidding). I have colorized some of the salient keywords...

At the the time of our marriage, I was deeply engrossed in the mid-Manhattan salon of the Russian-born novelist and libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand, which was held in her luxurious apartment. Alan Greenspan was also a regular -- and cranky -- attendee, already clad in his ubiquitous pinstriped suit. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times about her just-published, mammoth novel of capitalism, he wrote, "Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals of undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should." Rand and I quarreled over physics. As an "objectivist" she felt that she could not accept Einstein's theory of general relativity! (If you're an objectivist, nothing is relative.) Since physicists don't consider this a matter of belief, it became what is called an irreconcilable difference, of which Rand tolerated none.

At Ms. Rand's we were also taught to love and appreciate Tchaikovsky in all his shapes and forms. And the young women all learned to smoke cigarettes in long holders like their teacher. We had two other teachers besides Rand. There was the tall, charismatic psychologist Nathaniel Branden, and his beautiful slim, blonde wife, Barbara. Nathaniel was an outstanding teacher, but we were all in love with Barbara. Meanwhile he, according to his autobiography, My Years with Ayn Rand, was off having a secret love affair with our objectivist leader, while her husband dozed quietly in the corner of our large meeting room. Nathaniel tells us that he eventually figured out that this was not exactly rational behavior and separated himself from our little clan, going on to be an important teacher in the self-esteem movement, which Rand had pioneered. But such is the kingdom of libertarian heaven.

Here's a blurb for the book by someone you might recognize, from a place you might recognize (by now anyhow, if you've been reading this blog much)...
Russell Targ's autobiography stands as testament to the extraordinary capacities of human potential. From his role in the early development of the laser, to his systematic exploration of extrasensory perception, to the luminous insights of his spiritual vision.

~Michael Murphy
co-founder and chairman of the board, Esalen Institute

And here's the publisher's book description...
Russell Targ has been visually handicapped since childhood and yet he has performed groundbreaking research in lasers and optics. He is grounded in the world of science and yet co-created the Cold War spy program that became the real X-Files -- the CIA and NASA-sponsored work in "remote viewing" that has only recently been declassified.

OK, I admit it, I'm tripping here. But aside from attempting to demonstrate that nearly everyone in our recent cultural history has been totally fucking barking INSANE, note the above reference to Atlas Shrugged as "a celebration of life and happiness." Which statement, granted, is itself evidence of incurable dementia, but at least we're still (somewhat) on topic.

Now, I know this is hard, but remember that Salon article I mentioned up there some paragraphs ago? Yeah, the one called Don't be happy, worry. Here's another clip...

With the pills came books. Along with volumes about the new psychopharmacology like Peter Kramer's bestseller, "Listening to Prozac" (1993), there were Martin Seligman's "Learned Optimism" (1992) and "Authentic Happiness" (2002), which helped launch "positive psychology," a broader attempt to understand not illness but happiness.
Right, and before those there was Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control -- which is the one Jane Mayer talks about in The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (see, I didn't forget). In the July 14 issue of Harper's, Scott Horton poses Six Questions for Jane Mayer, Author of The Dark Side. This is Horton's second question...
You have patiently traced the torture techniques used by the CIA back to two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen -- you describe them as "good looking, clean-cut, polite Mormons" -- who reverse-engineered their techniques out of the SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) program used to train U.S. pilots in self-defense. In Dark Side, you identify an approach called "Learned Helplessness" as the model they used, and you note that its author, Prof. Martin Seligman, made a visit to the SERE school and spoke with Mitchell and Jessen as the program was being formed. Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), which is the sole association of health care professionals to buck condemnation of "The Program" and to resist calls that its members not be involved in it. Do you believe that Seligman's proximity to the torture program helps explain the difficulty that APA has in rejecting it?

In answer, Mayer says, in part...

It was completely fascinating to me to learn that Martin Seligman, one of the most esteemed psychologists in the country, a former head of the APA, was connected to the CIA after 9/11. Seligman is known for work he did back in the 1960's at the University of Pennsylvania in a theory he called "Learned Helplessness." He and colleagues conducted experiments on caged dogs, in which they used electric charges to shock them randomly. He discovered that the random mistreatment destroyed the dogs emotionally to the point where they no longer had the will to escape, even when offered a way out. Seligman confirmed for me, by email, that in the spring of 2002, as the CIA was trying to figure out how to interrogate its first major high-value detainee, Abu Zubayda, he was brought in to speak about his theories to a high-level confab apparently organized by CIA officials, at the Navy's SERE School in San Diego. He said his talk lasted some three hours. Seligman said his talk was focused on how to help U.S. soldiers resist torture -- not on how to break down resistance in detainees.

But, according to numerous sources (who are quoted on the record in The Dark Side), Seligman's theories were cited admiringly soon after by James Mitchell, the psychologist whom the CIA put on contract to advise on its secret interrogation protocol. Eyewitnesses describe Mitchell as quoting Seligman's theories of "Learned Helplessness" as useful in showing how to break the resistance of detainees' to interrogation. One source recounts Mitchell specifically touting the experiments done on dogs in the context of how to treat detainees.

Authentic happiness, check.

  • NOTE: For more in depth, see the video Authors@Google: Jane Mayer, YouTube, 55 minutes. If you don't feel like watching the whole thing, start at minute 24 for the stuff most relevant to this post. (See also @GoogleTalks, for quite a lineup of other speakers.)

---

Next time, if I can get it (and keep it) together, I'll tell you what I've recently learned about "systems justification theory" -- exciting stuff indeed -- which I've been meaning to post about since before penning that thing about John Dean and Robert Altemeyer (see last week's Self-Esteem and Right-Wing Authoritarianism). And perhaps we'll start that next one off with this provocative paper titled Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals? (HINT: because, like that "conservatively" labeled Happiness Class, they're willfully blind, stupid, or in some cases, just outright evil.)



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