Weekend Edition: 5-20

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • We need ecstasy and cocaine in place of Prozac and Xanax (“We’d rather stick to antidepressants of minimal therapeutic impact, not because they guard against addiction – they don’t – but because of a puritanical aversion to supplying unearned happiness and, along with it, a deep-seated belief that people who suffer emotionally should just get over it.”)
  • What Has Become of American Healthcare? (“Even if Obamacare remains the law of the land there will still be millions uninsured, still many families that will face abject poverty and no medical care in a country where $1.5 trillion dollars can be spent on a plane that doesn’t fly.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Practicing Law 101

  • Fucking bullshit” shouldn’t be uttered aloud when a judge overrules your objection

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.

John W. Campbell, Jr. (1965)

Book Review: The Trouble with Reality by Brooke Gladstone

It will be easy for Trumpists and conservatives to ignore Brooke Gladstone’s new book. Not only is she a member of the mainstream media, she’s spent the last 30 years working for two bastions of biased liberal media, WNYC and NPR. They’ll justify their dismissal of the book with fleeting perusals, its reviews or perhaps the subtitle. And even if they took the time to read it, they’ll dislike it because it invokes writers such as Hannah Arendt and discussions of demagogues, totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Yet such a lapse is indicative of what she believes is happening today.

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time is a succinct consideration of an era in which reality is the core of an “epic existential battle.” In assessing why this battle exists, Gladstone doesn’t lay blame entirely at the feet of Trump and his supporters (although they are assigned plenty). She builds her analysis using diverse sources, including Arendt, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, journalist Walter Lippmann, Thomas Jefferson, Philip K. Dick, Oliver Swift and 17th century poet John Milton. She believes human nature helped create our confused reality.

We mistakenly believe facts are reality, she says. Even when two people are presented with the same facts, though, they filter, arrange, prioritize and view them through their own values and traditions. Ultimately, reality “is not necessarily the world we would like it to be, … it is simply the kind of world we expect it to be.” Yet another part of the problem is that just as we sift facts, other elements of our political system affect what we sift.

As part of career spent covering the media, Gladstone has spent nearly 20 years co-hosting On The Media for years, a weekly radio program billed as examining how the “shapes our world view.” In the last election, the media fell victim to what she calls Trump’s “canny use of the demagogue’s playbook.” Using a number of Trump’s campaign statements and an analyzing his use of Twitter to “embed his realities,” The Trouble with Reality suggests the media’s approach to an unprecedented campaign style made things worse. Gladstone argues that the Trump campaign’s methods left the media “darting this way and that after shiny objects, too frantic to cull the crucial from the trivial, never pausing for the big picture that, in any case, they would not have recognized.”

Yet The Trouble with Reality may reinforce the growing lack of trust in the mainstream media. Gladstone correctly notes, for example, that “reporters should have laughed less and reported more” during the campaign. Perhaps more concerning is the suggestion that Trump’s hostility toward the press has created an animus that will create a new golden age of journalism. Trump’s election, Gladstone says, has “blocked the appearance of objectivity at all costs” and turned Washington reporters into war reporters. Yet one of Trump’s core arguments against the press is that it lacks objectivity. (Actually canceling press briefings would be a miscalculation as it would not only heighten the animus, but give “war reporters” more time to work on their marksmanship.) Perhaps it is just her phrasing that causes concern. It’s crucial the media change its conspicuous tendency to accept statements at face value and fail to fact check. Yet any hint that the press is discarding objectivity has significant ramifications for media credibility.

Of course, Gladstone also sees Trump as a significant source of “our reality trouble.” She seeks to explain what allowed Trump to so resonate with voters during the campaign. At the same time, the book regularly quotes and applies guidelines used to assess totalitarianism and demagoguery, suggesting Trump is both. As for what helps create reality for Trump supporters, she says he struck a “classic authoritarian deal” with them.

You can bask in my favor and recognition, in the promises I make and the license I bestow, and all I ask in return is that you believe whatever I say, whenever I say it. Even if it is false.

This certainly evinces a basis for people accepting the “fake news” and “alternative facts” motifs apparent since Trump’s inauguration. It also helps explain why she suggests that the path toward repairing reality isn’t agreeing on what it is.

Given that we each view identical facts from different perspectives, it is difficult, if not impossible, to agree on the truth, on reality. While Gladstone suggests that activism is a route for those so inclined, she believes gathering more facts from people and places with which we are unfamiliar is important. Even if those facts don’t change our minds, it may allow us to comprehend how or what another person accepts as reality. Whether she’s right or not, the suggestion is certainly better than viciously berating and maligning each other, whether publicly or online.

The laws of human nature do not provide for the triumph of reason.

Brooke Gladstone, The Trouble with Reality

Weekend Edition: 5-13

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

Being insanely busy all the time is not only bad for you; it also prevents you from discovering the human being you were meant to be.

Andrew Smart, Autopilot

Book Review: Beyond Bedlam’s Door by Mark Rubinstein

Although case studies are a well-recognized form of scholarship, in the nonfiction aisles of retail bookstores it can become a sobriquet for “war stories.” Their presence and popularity grew immensely with the popularity of books by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Many authors, though, have difficulty equalling his prowess.

Mark Rubinstein deftly avoids the many pitfalls of the genre in Beyond Bedlam’s Door: True Tales from the Couch and Courtroom, his second book of vignettes from his four decades as a psychiatrist. It follows the same format of his first such book, last year’s Bedlam’s Door:True Tales of Madness and Hope. Both tell the stories of a variety of patients, each followed by an “Afterword” addressing the particular issues or conditions at play. In this way Rubinstein seeks to not only make each patient’s story personal and relatable but to explain psychiatric conditions and their ramifications for the individual, their family and society.

Bedlam’s Door, a term used when an emergency room becomes “a revolving carousel of psychosis,” portrays patients Rubinstein encountered at various medical facilities. Beyond Bedlam’s Door is just what its title and subtitle suggest: accounts of his work outside the institutional setting, whether treating someone in private practice or as a forensic psychiatrist.

Rubinstein uses an almost parable-like approach in the 21 stories in Beyond Bedlam’s Door to illustrate the diversity of psychiatric issues and what psychiatrists do. Among the topics he explores are professional malpractice, the difficulty of treating adolescents, the importance of doctor-patient boundaries and the difference between crossing those boundaries and violating them. His method of recounting patient histories in the form of reconstructed conversations provides a foundation by which Beyond Bedlam’s Door intelligibly explains and demystifies a variety of mental health issues, from panic attacks to depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. More important, Rubinstein shows that the stories of his patients really weave “a tapestry of human thinking, feeling and behavior” in which “we see reflections of ourselves.”

Rubinstein’s background as a forensic psychiatrist — a psychiatrist who works with attorneys, courts, or other parties involved in actual or potential litigation — also allows him to provide an inside view of the interplay between law and psychiatry. He furnishes easy to understand explanations of various psychiatric issues in the law. For example, Beyond Bedlam’s Door concisely and coherently spells out the recurring question in workers’ compensation cases of “physical-mental” and “mental-mental” injuries. Likewise, he describes the job of an expert witness, the so-called “gunslinger” expert and how forensic evaluations differ from evaluating a patient for treatment.

Beyond Bedlam’s Door sporadically repeats information from Rubinstein’s prior book, at times verbatim. To be fair, that likely is simply the nature of the beast when it comes to describing and explaining mental health conditions. Some may also be put off by the fact that while the reconstructed dialogue makes the book more literary, it can also feel artificial. That said, Beyond Bedlam’s Door is a top-notch look at the reality and relevance of psychiatry in today’s America.

Where money and the law intersect, truth can sometimes be the victim.

Mark Rubinstein, Beyond Bedlam’s Door

Book Review: Buddhism for Busy People by David Michie

Consider this. Between 1979 to 2008, use of the word “mindfulness” in books published in the U.S. increased 807 percent. It’s become a buzzword for modern psychology, business consultants, employee assistance programs and the media. But it’s nothing new; it stems from centuries-old traditions, one of which is Buddhism, known for its deep-rooted meditation methods.

Mindfulness is often promoted for stress reduction, whether through conventional meditation or more informally taking time to clear your mind and pay attention to the present moment. This mass market mindfulness helps explain why it’s fashionable but it’s really a secularized element of one aspect of Buddhism. In an updated edition to Buddhism for Busy People: Finding Happiness in a Hurried World, British author David Michie uses what he calls an “unashamedly personal account” to explain core elements of Buddhism and their use in day-to-day life. First published in the U.S. in 2008, Michie’s book helps illustrate why mindfulness and Buddhism attract increased interest.

Affluence is a hallmark of modern western society. Yet those Michie calls “the luckiest 10 percent of the human population” also are plagued with “grinding dissatisfaction.” The situation hasn’t improved since Buddhism for Busy People was originally published in Australia in 2004. The internet, mobile technology and social media dramatically increased the demands on our time and attention.

Buddhism aims to shift the focus of busy people, Michie says. The goal is not to control what’s happening around us but to take control of our how we experience the world. This all proceeds from the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Buddhism for Busy People most closely comprehensively and comprehensibly the first two.

Dukkha, the first noble truth, is most often described as “suffering.” Yet, Michie notes, it embodies the concept that our underlying state of mind is dissatisfaction. That is explained by the second noble truth, samudhaya. According to Michie, we yearn for objects or goals but once achieved they don’t live up to our expectations or, if they do, it is short-lived. We think our happiness is dependent on some object, person or situation when, in fact, we alone determine our state of mind. Ultimately, we “keep deluding ourselves that the achievement of some particular milestone will represent a major personal breakthrough. But after sometimes the shortest of honeymoons we wake up one morning and discover we’re still just us.”

Michie details the purpose and goals of meditation, as well as particular exercises. Like virtually all books on the topic, though, it is much easier to write about specific practices than for the reader to successfully implement them. Other aspects of Buddhism and its practices are addressed largely through Michie’s own experiences. Sadly, only a certain percentage of readers have comparable firsthand access to Buddhist organizations, centers and teachers like Michie. He does deserve credit for his intriguing exploration of the concept of karma. In essence, “[t]he desire to give others happiness (love) or prevent their suffering (compassion) in the past was the karmic cause of our current life.”

Buddhism for Busy People also examines compassion and its role in finding happiness in daily life. Michie views “Self” as the most significant and deeply rooted obstacle.

We do our best to make [Self] feel special, brilliant, successful, popular, wealthy, powerful, enlightened or whatever trip he happens to be on. Most frightening of all, somewhere along the line we allow Self to so dominate our consciousness that we even start to think of him as our essence. Our true being. Our “real me.”

From a Buddhist perspective, this indulgence is responsible for “all our dissatisfaction, every last ache of suffering we experience.” The antidote, Michie says, is the altruistic bodhichitta. Instead of letting Self dominate the mind, bodhichitta calls for thinking of others with profound compassion in the hope of freeing all living beings from suffering. Like many Buddhist concepts, understanding what to do isn’t hard, it’s actually doing it that is most difficult. Michie suggests generosity, ethical behavior and patience are the keys to implementing it in daily life.

With both this and the concept of karma, Buddhism for Busy People ventures into the fundamental Buddhist tenet that when a person dies they are reborn and the process continues until they attain nirvana. Because each life is just part of our ongoing mind stream, today’s (and yesterday’s) actions and thoughts affect our future mind stream. While many of us may find this a dubious concept, Michie says that in Buddhism “it is what you do that counts, not what you say you believe.”

Michie is adept at using his own experiences and those of friends and colleagues to illustrate his theses, as well as Buddhist concepts and practices. The extent to which they assist understanding will be in the eye of each reader. Overall, though, Buddhism for Busy People concisely and distinctly provides a deeper understanding of how and why mindfulness and meditation are of such interest and practical advice on implementing the concepts into everyday life.

Michie’s ultimate and most fundamental message may be epitomized by his observation that “true happiness arises when we are able to change our minds rather than the world around us, when we loosen the bonds of self-focus enough to care more for others.” And one certainly need not be a full-fledged Buddhist to agree.

It is a simple but powerful truth that if we want to experience happiness, we must first give it. Generosity is the direct antidote to unhappiness.

David Michie, Buddhism for Busy People

Book Review: The Autobiography of Satan: Authorized Edition by William A. Glasser

The attention of many, if not most people, who see the title The Autobiography of Satan: Authorized Edition will be drawn to the word Satan. Actually, the key words are authorized autobiography. Autobiography is crucial because countless stories have been written or told about Satan’s life, motives and deeds. And while it would seem that any autobiography would, by definition, be authorized, the term here signals the deceit of the other stories and seeks to confirm this isn’t a fabrication.

We all should understand that even this authorized autobiography is fictitious. Yet a 2013 poll indicated that 57% of Americans believe the devil exists. In another poll that year more Americans expressed belief in the devil (58%) than evolution (47%). For William Glasser, president emeritus of Southern Vermont College, the time evidently seemed ripe for Stan to publish an autobiography.

Glasser, who combined his Ph.D. in English with a minor in comparative religion, advances a thoughtful premise. While certainly written from a freethinker’s perspective, The Autobiography of Satan isn’t predicated on some sort of grand clash of metaphysical beings. This is seen from the outset, as Satan flickers into existence when a prehistoric hominid puzzled over the spark created when he struck two rocks together. From this point forward, Satan’s story is that of and shaped by human history.

Even since prehistory, man faces the enduring shroud created by what we know and explaining what we don’t understand. For just as long, man has looked to gods for and as the answer to what mystifies us, including the problem of good and evil. Glasser traces the evolution of religious beliefs and how the unknown was transformed into and maintained as the exclusive province of the gods. Because this was outside human dominion, it was forbidden knowledge. And Satan contends that even the Garden of Eden, whether real or apocryphal, was conceived to keep man “distracted from becoming aware of your deplorable ignorance.”

In ceding the unknown, humans chose “to deify their ignorance.” And since the gods possessed all knowledge, some entity had to be responsible for enticing people to dare question or seek that which they — or their religions — considered beyond man’s ken. Moreover, since man deemed gods the source of good in the world, he needed to ascribe evil (the definition of which changed despite supposedly being the province of any particular religion’s deities) to some entity. Man piled all this on Satan’s shoulders, even though the reality was he was not cast out, waging war against any god or spawning evil in the world.

The only foe Glasser’s Satan has is “exalted ignorance.” And that is where hostility exists between Satan and religion. History as recounted by Satan is replete with efforts by religions to restrict knowledge and investigation because “they were fearful of what you might discover beyond the borders of their own beliefs.” According to Satan, considered by nearly all to be an expert in the field, the suppression of knowledge and free inquiry is “the true source of evil in this world.”

Satan’s recounting weakens as Glasser moves us into the present and even the future. Although shrewd and at times droll, the book also stumbles with perhaps too frequent, and occasionally trivial, interludes of dialogues between Satan and his scribe, Wag. Still, approaching Satan, or the concept of Satan, as a struggle over knowledge and not a battle between good and evil heightens the level of discourse over conventional notions of Satan. Granted, many will claim Glasser is simply vilifying religion. Yet anyone embarking on The Autobiography of Satan without preconceptions will find an intelligent, well-reasoned and insightful exploration of historical ideas and their evolution.

People will do anything to hide their own ignorance, particularly from themselves. Perhaps that accounts for why the pursuit of knowledge, throughout human history, has so often been twisted into something evil.

William Glasser, The Autobiography of Satan