Questions

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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Some things I’ve been wondering about, from the serious to its opposite and everything in between. Not all of them – or any of them – need be questions for you, of course.

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[1] Why is it that when you realize that someone you care about deeply doesn’t care about him or herself, you are inclined to care about yourself less?

[2] How can a fictional picture of yourself be so compelling that it leads you to deliberately immiserate yourself for years or even, forever?

[3] Why are so many adults today so loathe to exercise authority or worse, so eager to hand it over to children and adolescents? (I’ve been wondering about the second question since the bizarre Greta Thunberg “moment” that blissfully seems to be over.)

[4] Why do people allow political disagreement to destroy otherwise healthy and fulfilling intimate relationships and friendships?

[5] Why do people care so much about what complete strangers whom they encounter in online spaces – but will never meet or have anything to do with in their actual lives – think of or say about them?

[6] I can’t think of anyone who would plaster bus stops and train stations across the nation with flyers announcing their most personal and intimate details, feelings, and thoughts. Is the sole reason that so many are inclined to broadcast such things online that it is easy, or is something else going on?

[7] Where does the expectation that people we don’t know or have any involvement with should be interested in and affirming of all of our myriad self-identifications and self-conceptions come from?

[8] When and why did people start expecting total strangers (who are not nurses, hospitality workers, etc.) to make them feel “comfortable”?

[9] I find my capacity for moral outrage and related sentiments decreasing as I get older. Is there such a thing as moral enervation?

[10] Is the inevitable loss of one’s peers and alienation from one’s culture what makes getting old and dying bearable? The idea that this isn’t your world anymore; that there’s nothing left here for you?

[11] Why do so many people enjoy popular music, in which the vocals are run through devices that make them sound like robots singing? And why is the trend lasting so long?

[12] Why would anyone with any knowledge whatsoever of the history of comedy expect the genre to be “nice”?

[13] Will any amount of social, psychological, or other sorts of damage to young people and their lives be sufficient to trigger substantial, tough regulation of social media and internet technology? If “yes,” how much? If “no,” why not?

[14] Aside from a tiny number of anti-vaxxers, virtually everyone in the US is vaccinated against Polio, Smallpox, etc. as children. Millions get a flu shot every year.  Everyone seems to take a gazillion medications – prescription and over the counter – as a matter of course.  So why is there such opposition to getting a vaccine for something that in the US alone has killed a half million people?

[15] Do people ordinarily do deep-dive research into the efficacy/safety of the things the various experts in their lives recommend they do – whether mechanics, doctors, dentists, plumbers or what have you – so that they can “decide for themselves”?

[16] Why do people want tattoos?

[17] Why do people want weird piercings (septum, genitals, ear gauges, etc.)?

[18] If nation states are bad, why would a world government/state be better?

[19] Where did people get the idea that marriage is a kind of “dating forever”?

[20] Why do people choose spouses on the basis of intensity of romantic feeling, which is inconsistent, variable, and something that inevitably will wane?

[21] How and why did prostitution and pornography become something about which self-identified “progressives” are almost universally positive?

[22] Why has concern for the safety and well-being of women disintegrated so quickly?

[23] Why is conflation of the obligatory and the supererogatory so common?

[24] How do we manage to convince so many people that countries we could defeat with a single submarine or ship are grave threats?

[25] What is appealing about public self-flagellation and confession of sins to the person engaged in it?

[26] Why would you pay someone to tell you how awful you are, whether in person or print?

[27] How do people stay mad for as long as it takes to create intergenerational, national and international enmities? (I can’t stay mad about anything for more than five minutes.)

[28] Exactly what is a person supposed to get out of being “represented” racially, ethnically, or gender-wise, in a film or tv show about superheroes or fantasy creatures that don’t exist?

[29] Why do so many people living in places where there is virtually no crime want so badly to own pistols?

[30] What is the appeal of grand narratives over smaller, humbler, loosely connected ones?

98 comments

  1. Thought provoking!

    You’re right, they’re not all questions for me. #4 does jump out at me, though I’m not sure if what I have to say is pedantic or not, because it’s one of those “it depends” answers. Like Ralph Fiennes’s character in Grand Budapest Hotel said,

    “Well, you can say that about most anything, ‘it depends.’ Of course it depends.” and then “Yes, I suppose you’re right; of course it depends. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to throttle the little swamp rat.”

    The thing it depends on is where we draw the boundary around “political.” “Of course it depends!” you might say. But I had the same thought in hearing of Robert Talisse’s book Overcoming Democracy, which says we need breaks from politics, apolitical spaces, in order to from the basis of a functional society. That’s fine as far as it goes, I thought, but since November of 2016 politics now includes whether to believe in the basic facts of elections, whether liberal democracy is at all desirable, whether to take a vaccine or order a less proven medicine in the form of a horse dewormer online, etc. Talisse’s advice might be best heeded *before* societal breakdown, and much less applicable after.

    The kind of disagreements I mentioned above cut very deep. The way to maintain friendships and even sometimes close family bonds in those situations is often to indeed ignore the controversial topics, but then you have to take into account the physical risks of the pandemic, whether your children will be well served in playing around “their” children for a significant portion of their childhood, etc. and even then of course sometimes the topics come up and you don’t even share the right mores of communication to avoid wounding one another.

    Again, maybe that’s a pedantic point because of course all **those** items are worth going to the mat over, and it’s easy to see how trust and comity can be damaged in those contexts. But then again, I have had this thought many times since 2016, about how the political has taken over everything, and I’ve become a lot more careful and anxious about my relationships when it comes to such fundamental things, in a way that I wouldn’t have before 2016. And certainly the thought would not have occurred to me in the context we grew up in, Dan, when being a Republican often just meant hanging with the Chamber of Commerce crew, liking Alex P Keaton, etc., and being a Democrat could mean you were a center-right Southerner (those things still hold, but much less so than in our childhood). Again I have these reservations about Talisse’s counsel as well.

  2. Here’s a perhaps cynical stab at No. 3:

    The Greta Phenomenon may arise from (1) a failure to recognize the mixed character of human nature in favor of the view that, as human nature is “natural,” it is thus per se “good”; and (2) that, as that naturalistic quality exists in a pristine form among the young, the appetites and aversions expressed by the young are entitled to great moral weight.

    The broader refusal to exercise authority and establish standards with respect to callow, inexperienced youth constitutes a deflection of a principal responsibility of adulthood. Those who spurn the responsibilities of adulthood mistakenly believe they remain “youthful” thereby, failing to recognize that they merely make themselves failed adults—childish and self-indulgent.

    Embracing a naturalistic “freedom,” the sanctity of subjective “personal experience,” and untrammeled “self-expression,” they persist in a state incompatible with objective facts, failing, in varying degrees, to develop the judgment and skills necessary for managing the trade-offs and concessions inevitably imposed by an indifferent world.

    1. Fairly elaborate, exotic, and flowery psychological profile, but I don’t see why we need a seance of Dr. Freud to parse this out. The people who praised her are convinced of the scientific consensus on climate change, which paints a grim picture for our future. That picture throws a lot of shade on our slow-walking any significant action on this issue today and in the prior several decades. The generations now in adulthood have ignored the issue, consoled themselves that they won’t be affected, or convinced themselves it doesn’t exist. For people who think this is folly, the image of a young girl articulating her indignation on the part of younger generations is a harbinger of things to come. These people didn’t come to believe in climate change because of Greta. They already did. She’s just a symbol of the generations they genuinely feel will be worse off due to our collection inaction. One doesn’t really have to buy the underlying assumption that climate change is real to get this, and it doesn’t require any incredible feats of charity.

        1. Dan:

          “Lol. You never disappoint.”

          You’re welcome.

          What do you think is more likely? That those people liked Greta because, as a child, her “appetites” participate in the perfect harmonies of nature? (Presumably growing up in a world destabilized by climate change is the pralines and dick of ice cream flavors.) Or that they liked her because they think climate change is real, are disgusted at the ways our collective inaction will burden our children, and felt it was cathartic to see a child yelling at apathetic adults? That said, sorry the little girl and talk about the little girl annoyed anyone.

          1. I don’t see the relevance of any of this. Greta was simply an example. Replace her with anyone else.

            I specifically said, at the beginning, that “these may not be questions for you.” Perhaps you don’t wonder about adult abdication of authority and swooning before children and teenagers, but *I* do. Whether or not Greta is right about global warming/climate change/whatever you want to call it this week is completely irrelevant to the question.

          2. I’m not arguing that she’s right. I’m arguing that they agree with her, this being a question about their motivations and assumptions. You think it’s because they wish to abdicate their responsibilities to a child. Which responsibilities aren’t clear. To form judgments about climate change? They’ve already done that. To do something about climate change? But the whole point of their shared indignation is saying, “Let us, the adults, stop shirking our responsibility and actually DO something.” Your infantilization narrative doesn’t really fit here.

            The Books of Henry wasn’t a documentary. It was just an absurd movie.

          3. I don’t get how that’s supposed to work. If I say that centrists are fundamentally motivated by a desire to shirk responsibility, and you respond back, “I don’t think they are” for such and such reasons, saying the question wasn’t for you isn’t on the level.

          4. So, my question isn’t a question?

            Speaking of motivation, I must admit to not understanding yours. I have a question. You think it isn’t one. Why not drop it, rather than trying to convince me that I shouldn’t have the question?

            I — and many others — are seeing a substantial change in adult authority vis a vis children and adolescents. We think it’s a problem. You don’t. What else is there to talk about?

            Very odd.

          5. Not a question? No idea where this is coming from. You had a question and tossed in an example. KHM riffed on that example with some far-fetched speculations. I disagreed with the speculation. Pretty normal course for a conversation to take, these subsequent tangents notwithstanding. I don’t have any feelings one way or the other on the question itself. Enjoy your question. Quaff it. Savor it. Build a little house for it.

    2. Regarding No. 29, is new gun ownership due less to fear of conventional crime than to a broader loss of faith in local authorities to protect peaceful citizens and enforce civic order in the wake of rioting in scores of cities during summer, 2020?

  3. Some things I’ve been wondering about, from the serious to its opposite and everything in between. Not all of them – or any of them – need be questions for you, of course.

    Terrific. I found myself laughing, sniggering, snorting and crying as I read that list. It is not having the answer that matters but instead it is important to entertain the question. It is at the moment of cognitive dissonance, as we recognise the contradictions implied by the questions, that our mind is aroused from slumber. Cognitive arousal is the most important step towards realising the potential of cognition.

    1. Good point. The sheer breadth of the list and the gnarly, gristly difficulties that protrude like carbuncles from so many of the questions suggests a response to No. 10: Yes, it’s not just that our family members and friends have died (much less that our music has become passe). Our attitude towards dying changes because the world becomes unfamiliar, even alien, in more fundamental ways related to values, beliefs, attitudes, ways of being, relationships, communication, actions, etc. One is eventually ready to let go.

  4. I should add, it is an impressively varied list, tracking a great many immediate problems and issues in precise formulations. Reading it, I began feeling around for my worry beads.

  5. Re: [5]-[8], especially the ‘when’ question.

    If David Riesman (‘The Lonely Crowd’, first published in1950) is correct about the characterisitics of what he calls ‘other-direction’, then the answer to ‘when’ is the late 1940s, i.e. since before I (and probably most of the commentators here) were born.

    Why this kind of mentality genuniely seems to be something new and recent is an intriguing and puzzling question, and I don’t really have any answers. Perhaps it is in the nature of ‘other-direction’ to keep chagning and reinventing itself, to appear to be new even when it has been the prevalent form of social consciouness (in North America) for decades.

    1. Interesting aspect. As I understand Riesman’s formulation of other-directedness, however, it describes the individual’s surrender to the values, standards, etc. of the crowd—to blending in anonymously with the “others.”

      The issues raised in Nos. 4-8–concern with the perceptions of one by strangers online, public self-advertisement of personal even intimate aspects of oneself, the expectation of affirmation of one’s views and practices by others, and that one may expect to be kept“comfortable” by others–all these seem to be the opposite of other-directedness as I understand it. Far from other directedness leading people to seek to blend in, the expectations identified by Nos. 4-8 all seem to me to be more in the way of “Hey, look at me!” with the added element that such attention from other is due and enforceable.

      I think of the foregoing issues as the product of what I call “Oprah-culture”–the idea that over-exposure of oneself–revealing one’s disabilities, wounds, scars, tragedies, etc.–secures one’s victim status and the concomitant elevation and entitlement to deference, to being made “comfortable.” Of course, actual viewers eventually themselves identified with those on Oprah’s couch who were getting all the attention, and formulated their own views of themselves as hard-luck victims. Eventually, Facebook, et al. propagated versions of Oprah-culture’s version of the individual’s relationship with the world.

      1. I actually think ‘Oprah’-culture perfectly fits in with other-directedness. Blending in with the group and self-advertisment are two aspects of the same reality, if you think about it. Advertising oneself is done with the intention of gaining group approval of oneself and admitting group access to what would otherwise be considered as inner, private thoughts. I really think the two imply one another. You can really see this kind of thing in action if you have ever been to a mutli-level-marketing meeting (e.g. pyramid schemes – a close acquaitance of mine was really deeply into this stuff for a while). It’s all about the group, but very ‘confessional’ at the same time.

  6. 20. I’ve been “married” on the basis of intense romantic (erotic) feelings and without them, and in my experience it works better to “marry” on the basis of intense romantic (erotic) feelings. In the case without them she grew to hate me when she discovered that I wasn’t wild about her, just had made what I felt to be a “sensible and rational” choice
    (hell hath no fury like…), while when those feelings are there in the beginning, although they diminish, something of them remains, which keeps you bonded.

    9. Athough your moral outrage may have diminished, your general level of outrage seems above normal or you wouldn’t write a list of questions like you do above. Let’s call it “social” outrage.

    1. I don’t understand the last point. There is nothing outraged about these questions. They are things I genuinely wonder about.

      Re: the first point, in my view, the mistake I describe — and the one about dating forever — is one of the chief reasons for our absurd rates of divorce, which have been more socially devastating than almost any other social development.

      1. Quotation marks around the word “married” because while I have been legally married, most of my long-term couple relationships have not been legally ratified. In fact, the longest one, the current one, is not a legal marriage.

  7. Almmost all the questions appear relevant and timely.
    To me (getting older) # 10 carries a lot of weight and truth. There is a lot of melancholy in losing the world.

      1. Me too, but I’m just old enough to have also been affected by the death of Don Everly a few days before Charlie.

  8. 10. Why not adapt to a changing world?

    As a young person, you adapted to the world around you as we all do. Your points of view and tastes (as are mine) are the product of the zeitgeist you were brought up in. There is nothing special about your zeitgeist and tastes (nor is there about mine). If that is the case, why can’t you adapt again as an older adult? You’re not senile, neither am I.

    The father of a good friend is 95. His father uses whatsap, watches netflix, has a kindle reader, reads the latest middle brow best sellers (Harari, etc.) and converses happily about what’s “in” now. He’s even into Stoicism and reads the non-academic guide books to Stoic life like that of Massimo. That seems very healthy to me.

    1. Because one doesn’t decide what one likes.

      The rest doesn’t resonate with me much either. I’m not a free floating consciousness. I’m a rooted, connected, embodied being.

      As I said in the beginning: “These may not be questions for you.” Obviously, this is one of those in your case.

      1. “One doesn’t decide what one likes”.

        I’m not sure about that. When I was 12, I hated string quartets: I described them as “squeeky”.

        Now I listen to them for hours. What happened?

        A complex process to be sure, but part of it was that I wanted to become the kind of person who appreciated string quartets, that I developed new role models, very different than the role model I had at age 12, and one aspect of my new role model was liking classical music in all its forms.

        Partially consciously, partially unconsciously I re-educated myself and that is also true about my tastes in food and in drink.

        So in my experience, as one’s role models change, one changes ones tastes and likes.

        Now at a certain age one tends to reach a definitive stage of tastes and likes, the so-called mature adult self, but that is only because one has given up seeking new roles models. That’s an option to be sure.

          1. Dan,
            I am happy to embrace anything that’s new and is at least as good as the old or better

            Agreed. The moment we classify something as good/bad, etc, where tastes are concerned, we are prejudging all future experiences. And when we prejudge future experiences we are greatly narrowing our scope and potential for rewarding experiences.

    2. I also don’t agree with you regarding history. Certain eras are definitely more/less significant, better/worse than others, along any number of vectors.

      1. I ran across this article the other day Dan. You probably know about these types of issues: “Social physics: Are we at a tipping point in world history?” https://bigthink.com/13-8/tipping-point-history-social-physics For most of history oral or recorded most people did not live in times that indicated a world history shift. Then human beings have never been in such a risky business place as we are today in our evolution. I found it an intriguing notion.

    3. Learning to use newer electronic devices seems like a pretty superficial adaptation; and many members of the “Greatest Generation,” of which your friend’s father would be a member, would recognize the practical forms of stoicism that infused their lives.

      Moreover, the idea of adapting to the current zeitgeist seems to miss the significance of the differences of historical cycles and the effect of the advancement of technologies in accelerating those cycles. History reveals both periods of decay and decline in societies and those of growth and expansion, as well as how each is tied to the values and standards of the different eras.

      Notwithstanding their differences and frictions, Greatests, Boomers, and most GenXers shared a set of premises that extended back to Enlightenment principles. The “track record” of those principles is unquestionable considering the extent of human development and flourishing they brought about. One need only review the issues implicated on Dan’s list of questions to recognize the tectonic shift that threatens Western Civilization from within even as its democratic values are threatened externally, such as by China..

      Are we to adapt to the newer zeitgeist of incommensurable hatreds and destruction of relationships arising from simple political disagreements? Should we look for the bright spots in the threat to democracy posed by refusals to engage is rational discourse in favor of ritual character assassination. Regarding social media’s stoking of a “war of all against all,” should we just get with the program?

      Despite the vast gaps in our knowledge, we know some things to be true on the basis of objective experience. The problem today is not persuading those who come next, but getting them to recognize that there is a dispute worth having.

  9. [10] Is the inevitable loss of one’s peers and alienation from one’s culture what makes getting old and dying bearable? The idea that this isn’t your world anymore; that there’s nothing left here for you?

    The inevitability of getting old and dying is what makes it bearable.

    I am not feeling alienated. This is still my world. And there is still plenty to keep me busy (reading The Electric Agora is part of that).

    Yes, the world is greatly different from that of my youth. But I have mostly been able to keep up with the changes.

  10. “Why do people allow political disagreement to destroy otherwise healthy and fulfilling intimate relationships and friendships?”

    This one jumped out at me as well. (See Jay Jeffers above.)

    We are talking about the weighting which we, as individuals, put on the political in the scheme of things. When a society is losing its moral, social and cultural depth and coherence, politics and ideology tend to loom larger and are latched onto by many to fill a perceived gap. This, as Dan suggests, has unfortunate consequences.

    1. You don’t think reality shows exist?

      Or, wait: do you think they were originally meant to be documentaries? Do you think appending the qualification “reality” was meant to distinguish them from all those *other* shows that are staged?

      Oh, the poor dupes out there who have *no idea* that reality television is staged! (They’re probably the same dupes who think pro wrestling is not staged.)

      Please, be kind! Don’t let the word get out! Don’t pierce the veil! Let the unwashed masses have their illusions!

      1. Animal,
        You don’t think reality shows exist?
        You have the makings of a philosopher. Next question, you don’t think the world really exists?

        Do you think appending the qualification “reality” was meant to distinguish them from…
        This is a philosophy blog, not a science blog. So let’s not worry about the facts.

        Please, be kind!
        A wasted exhortation. This, as I stated above, is a philosophy blog.

        Let the unwashed masses have their illusions!
        I think the unsanitary habits of philosophers is outside the scope of this discussion.

        1. Ha! Touché.

          Though, in seriousness, I do find it important to investigate, philosophically and otherwise, the subtle shades of semantic and pragmatic meaning to which the word “reality” accrues in all sorts of contexts. It’s naive to think the word always functions the same way, no?

          1. It’s naive to think the word always functions the same way, no?

            Absolutely. Each of us are confined inside a thick cage of bone. Muffled reports come into this cage, purporting to be from some kind of imaginary world that exists outside this cage of bone. Bizarrely, some of the reports suggest there might even be other bony cages. I don’t trust these reports.

  11. “In fact, philosophy is at its best when asking questions and at its worst when purporting to answer them. This is why philosophical inquiry that continues much after the initial foray into a subject actually tends to become less relevant rather than more so the farther it goes.”
    – Daniel Kaufman, The Decline and Rebirth of Philosophy, 2019

    For those who love wisdom, the joy is in the questions. The asking invites a breaking open of the mind and a coming out of oneself to see new vistas of understanding.

    I’m enjoying the questions for their own sake. Thanks Dan.

  12. “[28] Exactly what is a person supposed to get out of being “represented” racially, ethnically, or gender-wise, in a film or tv show about superheroes or fantasy creatures that don’t exist?”

    I’m puzzled by the “that don’t exist” qualification here, because the appeal of audiovisually consumed superhero or fantasy productions — like the appeal of fiction generally — seems never to have presupposed the existence of their worlds.

    Is your question about the — not anachronism but — anacosmism (if you will) of our-world identities showing up in fantasy worlds?

    If not, I don’t see why your question wouldn’t simply be: Exactly what is a person supposed to get out of being “represented” racially, ethnically, or gender-wise in a fictional world?

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly perplexed, and perhaps you are too, about why being able to “see yourself” in someone requires that someone (fictional or not) either to embody or to put on a show of embodying the identities du jour. I’m just a little thrown off by that qualification there at the end of your question.

    1. I don’t understand the puzzlement, though perhaps the question is poorly formatted.

      So, here is another way to describe what my question is getting at.

      I understand why a person would care whether he or she “sees themselves” represented among, say, congresspeople.

      I don’t understand why a person would care whether he or she “sees themselves” represented among hobbits. Why? Because there are no hobbits.

      1. Maybe I’m importing weird assumptions about experiencing fiction. I would think that one pleasure of some fiction is finding a bit of yourself in one or more characters. Whether the characters have some kind of nonfictional counterpart is beside the point.

        1. Not sure what you’re getting at. As for fiction, I would think the appeal lies in the fact that it *isn’t* reality. So why would one look for oneself in it?

          1. Yah, I’m probably confusing “imaginatively putting yourself in the place of” with “seeing yourself in.”

            One problem here is that I’ve never experienced genuine pleasure in reading or viewing a superhero or fantasy work, so I literally don’t know what I’m talking about!

          2. Dan,
            – “As for fiction, I would think the appeal lies in the fact that it *isn’t* reality.” That has been the general idea for many centuries – fictional imaginings that would transport us to other times, other places, other people. However, I fear that today, what many people want from fiction is a ‘surroundsound” of (non)reality. (Tnhat also answers the question another commenter raised, ‘why ‘reality television?'” Exactly because it is not reality, but surrounds the viewer with illusions of the real – hyperreality, as Umberto Eco dubbed it.

  13. I haven’t read any of the answers, so here’s my untutored response:

    Re [3]–Why are so many adults today so loathe to exercise authority or worse, so eager to hand it over to children and adolescents?–the answer I see is that young people are much more confident than adults. Two theories as to why that is: (a) youths are better adapted to a rapidly changing culture than adults are, so, since technology changes the culture so quickly, youths retain their confidence, whereas adults don’t; (b) boomers managed to keep control of elite institutions for far longer than any other generation (maybe due to better medicine and performance enhancing drugs), and boomers saw themselves as fighting power, and as a result, gen-Xers didn’t develop the same level of administrative know-how and self-confidence that typical generations did, and their self-conception was to look down on fake rebels (who are in positions of authority).

    Re [4]–Why do people allow political disagreement to destroy otherwise healthy and fulfilling intimate relationships and friendships?–my only answer is that for many people nowadays politics are the main source of their meaning and self-identity, so people disagreeing with them on that feels to them like a threat to their meaning and identity, so they don’t want to deal with that. Just why politics is the source of meaning and identity, though, I don’t know. Maybe because of the Big Sort, where people are around, more than in a long time, people who are like them and don’t have to deal with people who aren’t like them?

    Re [14]–Aside from a tiny number of anti-vaxxers, virtually everyone in the US is vaccinated against Polio, Smallpox, etc. as children. Millions get a flu shot every year. Everyone seems to take a gazillion medications – prescription and over the counter – as a matter of course. So why is there such opposition to getting a vaccine for something that in the US alone has killed a half million people?–I think the vaccine is something a lot of people associate with an expert class. It’s mood affiliation. When it comes to the experts whom the media lionizes, well, a lot of people HATE those experts. Absolutely hate them, so anything they can do to oppose them is something they’ll do. Add to this the fact that there are all these media stories of “he denied COVID-19 was real, but hear him say to get the vaccine in his dying breaths”, and that just rubs salt in the wound. I suspect that such people do NOT think these stories are ones of the media class saying how sad they are that Trumpers are dying, so, please, everyone, get the vaccine! Rather, they see it as the media dunking on them. And there’s a lot more to say.

    I’d love to address your other questions. They’re great. But I have to get back to work!

    1. Thanks, there are some really interesting insights here, especially with regard to [1]. I never thought of Gen X as lacking confidence, but the point re: administrative authority is interesting.

      1. Yeah, I agree with you that cutting off your nose to spite your face is itself mysterious. That’s part of why I think that lots more needs to be said. E.g., they don’t believe that half a million are dead from COVID, because that figure itself is touted by the experts whom they hate. They think those dead are labeled as COVID deaths, but are in fact caused by something else. And yet they also think that COVID is a Chinese bioweapon. This happens, by the way, a lot of the time with conspiracists: Diana isn’t dead and she was killed by the royal family. What they probably mean is just: the official story is wrong; either she isn’t dead, or the royal family killed her, but the lying people whom I hate are covering something up.

        1. Don’t know about this. It’s not just CNN. Local news is reporting it too. Our local news broadcasts and papers report local numbers of infections and deaths. They interview nurses and doctors in local hospitals, etc.

          I guess if one stipulates mentally-handicapped, toddler levels of intelligence and acumen then it becomes comprehensible, but if that is the case, then we have an even more serious problem, concerning much deeper questions of citizenship, democracy, etc.

          1. My bad, it was awkwardly phrased.

            I was replying to this, from you:

            “they don’t believe that half a million are dead from COVID, because that figure itself is touted by the experts whom they hate. They think those dead are labeled as COVID deaths, but are in fact caused by something else.”

            I understand this as it applies to CNN, MSNBC, the NYT etc. But that’s not the only place people are receiving Covid data and science. They are getting it from their own, local health officials and media.

          2. “I guess if one stipulates mentally-handicapped, toddler levels of intelligence and acumen then it becomes comprehensible…”

            Bingo! sort of. There are always more marks then grifters and we do have way serious problems.

          3. Let me play the devil’s advocate here for a moment. It is perfectly rational for a healthy young person to decline vaccination. His chances of dying from covid are less than dying from suicide. He may not even have any symptoms or slight ones and will have achieved natural immunity. He may further argue that Covid is now endemic and everyone will get it sooner or later and that therefore those who are in the danger zone from it ought to get vaccinated so that their inevitable bout of it will not be deadly. It is up to them to look after themselves.

          4. ombhurbhuva
            On a previous comment thread you linked to an anti-vax conspiracy website, that was also anti-science. “It is perfectly rational” – not without the scientific foundation; reasoning based on irrational premises produces untrustworthy results.

            “It is up to them to look after themselves” – is this not your real bottom line? Others are not to be cared about as long as your beliefs remain unchallenged. And of course the individual’s will – or god – or some mysterious “Force” – will prevent the believer from suffering the consequences.

            I have no idea what to say to this, I know no one can either persuade or convince you otherwise. This is why politics has become so ugly, divisive and frustrating. Of course there is no argument against such belief, such faith, there is only staying away from those who hold to it as much as possible.

            Some anti-vaxxers have died of COVID, and others undoubtedly will, but as long as they remain in small groups, the odds are in their favor, no doubt. I just want them to stay away from those I care about. I’ve already lost one relative due to her own carelessness, and that of her son.

    2. Thought-provoking answers, particularly on adults shrugging off authority to the young.

      Surprised you see the young as confident. I’ve employed and supervised Millennials, and I see a lot of Dunning-Kruger Effect among them. Which is not to disagree with your observation.

      I think you’re correct to focus on GenXers as the cohort most avoidant regarding the exercise of authority. You see GenXers as having been prevented from developing managerial-administrative chops due to the Boomers’ long reign, and there’s something to that—like Prince Charles never getting to be king.

      But, I’ve come to regard GenXers as the most genuinely alienated of the three extant adult cohorts. Boomers certainly held influence over a long time, but I think their reputation for rebellion is overstated, (especially in regard to positive change) and that GenXers saw through it. Perhaps, in the GenX view, the Boomers stooped to conquer, becoming David Brooks’s “Bobos,” wanting to have it both ways—rebels in BMWs. Perhaps that hypocrisy deepened the GenXers aversion to authority and influence, born of a certain skepticism.

        1. Thanks very much—that’s a remarkable essay, including its concise survey of late 20th century American culture.

          Preliminarily, you had me, as they say, with Wetson’s: for reasons now lost to me, my HS circle favored the ultimately doomed Wetson’s over MacDonald’s (was it less flashy, more “genuine”?). And for some other mysterious reason, no one outside that circle has ever remembered Wetson’s upon my mention of it.

          Then Didion, that floating, piercing consciousness—relentless skepticism, but reined in short of pessimism because ,in her disabused and clear-eyed view, pessimism would suggest something to be pessimistic about; the possibility of an outlook inconsistent with what physicist Sean Carroll calls the “brute facts.” A view far removed from that of some, such as Shulamith Firestone, who imagine a New World, freed of such facts, and achieved through limitless overhauls and tinkering with the psycho-physical composition of humans. I have sensed in Didion a paradoxical connection with Orwell in their common ability to regard and inspect dismal facts squarely, without rationalizing, offering a soothing gloss, or an uplifting coda.

          As to your question—acknowledging that such deep skepticism would make GenXers non-political, why would it lead them to spurn “being in charge”—I’d restate my proposition that they are “the most genuinely alienated” of the three surviving adult cohorts, and add to it your quote of Didion from “On Morality” at 123-24, in which she runs through a cadence of various forms of political activities, and concludes:

          “It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with ‘morality.’ Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen . . . .”

          As GenXers reject politics, perhaps they see “being in charge” as entailing a type of politics, if somewhat veiled. “Being in charge” involves decision-making, competition and power relationships among individuals and groups, allocation of authority, resources, and status—all of which seems to amount to a fair definition of a type of politics, broadly conceived.

          Notwithstanding their bohemian, counter-cultural orientation, the Boomers ultimately went for the brass rings, and to compete successfully for positions of authority, qualms and reservations won’t do. An honorable career may be pursued honorably and with integrity. One need only review the daily news, however, to recognize what is required for one to be “in charge” in out of politics.

          So, in pursuing or exercising power, as in all other things, “[w]e tell ourselves stories,” and stories that what one is up to involves some sort of “moral imperative,” in Didion’s words, are the afterburners that put one in the C suite. Perhaps adoption of such stories as a condition of “being in charge” is another category of narrative GenXers are “not buying.”

          I should add, that in proposing this about GenXers aversion to authority, I am not claiming it a the product f a moral elevation. It seems rather to be visceral, a bleak aversion–that “not buying it” is as reflexive as recoiling from a rotting corpse. Of course, I’m just guessing.

          Thanks again.

      1. Ombhurbhuva:”Everyone will get it sooner or later.”

        Questionable. Great majority of those vaxxed unlikely to get it. Substantially all unvaxxed may get it.

        You’re describing the Free Rider problem in game theory.

  14. Apparently, I need to say this explicitly, so here goes:

    The point of this piece was to list a number of questions — from the serious to the not-serious to everything in-between — that *I* have been wondering about, some of them for quite some time.

    The point of listing the questions was to hear the thoughts of people *for whom they are questions, too*.

    The point was *not* to solicit people to tell me: “You shouldn’t have those questions.”

    I would have thought this obvious, and even made an explicit statement at the beginning to be absolutely clear about it. Apparently, it was insufficient.

    For those who think I shouldn’t have these questions, I suggest writing your own article that includes questions *you* have. I might even publish it here, if it’s any good!

    1. The fact that someone in a public forum would think that an appropriate response to your list of questions would be, ‘you shouldn’t have those questions’ is IN OF ITSELF an (important question). It implies a type of solipsism usually associated with very small children, for whom nothing exists outside of themselves. Is it not obvious that whenever one speaks of matters outside of those for which there is a pretty large consensus — ie generally accepted facts about the physical world or abstract mathematics — that one is always giving one’s own opinion, and thus, it isn’t necessary to start every utterance with, ‘I think…’ ?

  15. [3] Why are so many adults today so loathe to exercise authority or worse, so eager to hand it over to children and adolescents? (I’ve been wondering about the second question since the bizarre Greta Thunberg “moment” that blissfully seems to be over.)

    Your “bizarre Greta Thunberg “moment”” resonated powerfully with me. Regretfully, it is not over. The NY Times continue to give her outsize coverage.

    But what is really going on here? Greta Thunberg has only three assets. An appealing, gamin like face, youth, and standing behind her, parents who are public relations geniuses.

    On her own she is nothing, a nobody with no special talents except for her youth and an appealing face. For a child to gain such prominence there must be two things in place. One, parents savvy enough to tap into the zeitgeist and skilful enough to manage her public appearances. Two, there must be a substantial portion of the media who are looking for an appealing face to the message they wish to bring to the public.

    The media found in Greta Thunberg, the face they needed for the message they wished to convey and they found the necessary public relations management in her parents.

    Naturally I believe in the message but I find it repellent that they use a child as a face for the message. I can understand why they have done this. They are appealing to a public obsessed with youthful celebrity and believe that an attractive youthful celebrity is a good medium for the message.

    Greta Thunberg is nothing in herself. She is simply the creation of savvy parents and exploitative media. The truly sad thing about this is the lasting damage they are doing to her character development at such a sensitive and formative stage of her growth into adulthood.

      1. Agreed. The drama that has played out in Britney Spear’s life should be a warning of the damage that is being done to her.

      2. Strongly agree. She was a media freak show: a flat-affect scold with a disability that limits her attention to her own narrow concerns, set out by her parents to lecture humanity on a massive problem involving world changing trade-offs, and her message is basically “what’s taking you people so long,”

  16. [2] How can a fictional picture of yourself be so compelling that it leads you to deliberately immiserate yourself for years or even, forever?

    I was drawn to this question by your delightful use of the word immiserate. But beyond this you have asked a really important question. I take it that this question is important to you on a personal level.

    The same thing is true of me. I have reached an understanding of it. This might only be true for me but I will give an account in case you can relate to it.

    When my children were five and four years old, respectively, we drove to some kennels to drop off our dogs, prior to leaving on vacation. As we drove away I noticed that my daughter was looking more and more desperately sad. Concerned, I asked her what was wrong. Will we never see our dogs again, she asked? Horrified, I realised the vast gulf between her understanding of the context and mine. I stopped the car and carefully explained that we would pick up the dogs on return from our vacation. She now has no memory of this event but is still plagued by feelings of insecurity, originating from that day.

    She has a compelling fictional picture created by my thoughtless behaviour. I wish I could take back that moment.

    Turning now to what happened to me. When I was about seven years old, my mother, in passing, made a scoffing remark to my brother about how fat I was. I took that very, very seriously and for the rest of my life controlled my weight through obsessive(in extreme) exercise. In fact I was not, as I now realise, fat, but was instead a lean, muscular boy. She was only referring to my chubby cheeks, normal for a boy of that age. However I did not know that at the time and that remark burned itself into my psyche. Even today I cannot escape it. I still run two to three hours every day.

    My mother of course forgot that she had ever made that remark. It was just a jesting, playful remark but she had no way of knowing the impact it would have, just as I had no way of knowing the impact of my thoughtless behaviour would have on my daughter.

    My point here is that a lasting and powerful fictional image of oneself can be created by a passing, careless remark of a carer whose opinion truly matters. In my case I remembered the remark and thus could, much, much later deal with it. Now I run for the sheer pleasure of it. I look forward to it every day. My daughter cannot remember what happened and thus finds it hard to come to terms with it.

    I think we need to learn to be forgiving, of ourselves and others. We experience harm and we cause harm, but who is really at fault? I don’t think there is fault but only the accidental harm that we cannot help causing as we navigate our way through life. We need to stop perpetuating the harm by stopping harming ourselves.

      1. I was thinking more, however, of entirely self-created fictions.

        Is it possible that they can be entirely self-created? I grant you that one can create such fictions but normally their impact would only be transitory. For them to have the deep lasting effect you describe I would expect there to be a powerful external stimulus.

          1. I find it difficult to imagine how an entirely self-created fiction could have such force. On the other hand an external trigger could embed the fiction in the mind and give it force.

          2. I see.

            I am thinking of fictions in which one is exempt from inevitabilities, which then causes a person to behave in terrible, self- and other-destroying ways.

          3. I think I begin to understand. These are fictions that one maintains because they have desirable qualities. But these fictions are also like a veil, obscuring the consequences, so that one gains a temporary reprieve.

          4. I can think of one such example. My daughter had a friend, C, who was living with her boyfriend, CB. For reasons unknown, CB had a violent and unstable personality that was quickly triggered by small events in his life.

            Having a live-in girlfriend created many such small triggers that inflamed the inherent violence of his personality. He justified the violence by creating the fiction that C was a sluttish, unfaithful person. The violence escalated and he beat C to death. He is serving a life term with no parole.

            I knew C well. She was a frequent visitor to my home and you cannot imagine a sweeter, more loyal girl. This was a heartrending tragedy. CB created a fiction about C’s behaviour that justified the violence in him and that he could not control. He believed his fiction and it obscured the consequences of his behaviour.

    1. My wife once told our son that his feet were stinky. This was when he was four or five. Ever since that day, he wears socks as often as he can, and takes them off only to take a bath or swim. We’ve told him several times that it was just that one day, that his feet are beautiful, that they don’t stink, but to no avail.

  17. Dan,
    great list of questions. Haven’t answered much, and won’t, because for many of these questions I have answers that satisfy me, and I don’t want to sound pedantic or proselytizing (at least not here; perhaps in an essay of my own); others do not interest me, as you say, they are just not questions I ask; for some I find that responding “I don’t know” suffices. Some questions may simply be unanswerable. Some require consideration of psychology, others consideration of history, even when they seem ‘timely’ or topical, and such requires prolonged discussion (again, perhaps another essay). I also have suspicions concerning the future that may moot a question as events unfold, and I have some perspectives that suggest some questions simply need further questioning. None of which means that the questions are not worth asking.

    I feel tempted here to answer at least one question, but I will resist it, and return to my opening point: For many questions I have answers that satisfy me. Ultimately that is the goal – not finding the ‘right’ answer, not attaining the ‘ultimate’ answer, but merely arriving at some resting point where the questions cease to bear the weight or importance that they once seemed to have. I suppose someone will call me closed minded for this, but any such resting point can be undercut by new events or information, so I don’t feel particularly intimidated with such criticism. The benefit of aging is that what seemed monumentally important once gets smaller and ever more ridiculous by the day. As long as there are still days left, of course….

  18. Attempted answers to the first five.

    1. The things we care about make us who we are, and to care about something is to see it as valuable. So our value depends on the value of the things we care about. That includes the people we care about. By caring about them, we make the value of our own lives depend on the value of their lives. We also tend to trust other people’s judgments about the value of their lives. So if they downgrade themselves, we believe them, and by implication, downgrade ourselves as well.
    2. If recent psychology is to be trusted (and that’s a big IF), then every picture of ourselves is a fictional picture of ourselves. Thanks to our self-serving biases, most of those pictures are overly optimistic. The only group of people who rate themselves accurately are … the clinically depressed. So the answer is (perhaps) the person in question is suffering from something like depression.
    3. The rejection of adult authority is part of a larger trend — to see authority itself as the source of all our problems, and to imagine a world without any authority at all.
    4. People now see opposing political opinions as denigrating, and even dehumanizing them. Obviously the last President fed this perception, but now it extends to every political opinion — every opposing political opinion is a personal attack on ME.
    5. Social media is a Junior High / Middle School Cafeteria, and it seems to transform many of us into just such kids again — so what the other kids are saying about us is obviously very important.

  19. I think there is an answer to #14, about the vaccine, that is more charitable than the answers that are typically offered. The judgments of experts are sometimes shaped by their value judgments, and those value judgments lie outside their expertise. When that happens, if a lay person knows this, and also knows that the experts in question have very different values from their own, then the lay person will have a reason to doubt the experts’ judgments. Political polarization, together with the fact that much of the new divide is along lines of class, has given less educated people reason to doubt experts, because they believe (know?) that the experts belong to a class that has very different values from their own, and they suspect that those values are playing a large role in shaping the experts’ judgments. In sum, I think it’s another case in which political polarization has broken the trust between experts and lay people, in a way that isn’t just due to the faults of the latter.

    1. I’m sorry but this just sounds like a lot of excuse making. All you need to do is watch a local news broadcast, and you will see *local* doctors and nurses stressing the urgency of being vaccinated. If you don’t trust your own physician, then why do you go to him/her? Why do you accept all the *other* medical recommendations he or she makes?

      I call BS on this entire line of excuse. The real reason is a combination of stupidity, pig-headedness, and “own the libs” style imbecility.

      Vaccination should be federally mandated. No vaccine? No participation in public life. You can go live on a mountain by yourself.

      1. “If you don’t trust your own physician, then why do you go to him/her? Why do you accept all the *other* medical recommendations he or she makes?”

        There is a relevant distinction to make here — some of a doctor’s judgments are not motivated by any moral or political value judgment that the patient does not share, whereas other judgments can appear to some patients to be motivated by moral or political value judgments that the patient does not share. And I think that is relevant here. When people trust their doctors on other issues, it is because they do not suspect that their doctor’s judgment is motivated by values that they do not share, whereas with respect to the vaccine, many people suspect that their doctors are motivated by moral or political value judgments that they do not share. If we distinguish between an objective sense of rationality and a weaker, subjective sense of rationality, which is something like “blamelessness”, and we bear in mind that people with only a High School education are in a different epistemic situation from us, then I think we will see that they are less blameworthy than we tend to think they are. And that is because politics has seeped into every area of life, including, especially, everything related to Covid. So, for all they know, when it comes to the vaccine, the medical community is motivated by something other than their medical expertise.

          1. One more try. A rational person could be persuaded by the following argument.
            We are not obligated to make small personal sacrifices in order to save the lives of other people. If we were, then it would be immoral to buy a small luxury for myself, rather than give the money to charity. But that isn’t immoral. So we are not obligated to make small sacrifices to save the lives of other people. If we are not obligated to make small sacrifices to save the lives of other people, then we are not obligated to get an injection of a vaccine in order to save the lives of other people, since the latter obligation would just be a particular instance of the former obligation. So unless we agree with Singer and Unger, we should not believe that people are obligated to get the vaccine.
            The point of this argument is just that there are moral and political value judgments involved here, and there is room for for rational disagreement.

          2. Matters of significant public health are more than sufficient reason for mandates. You have no right to spread plague to the people in your community. Once one becomes a menace to public health one’s “liberty” is justly constrained, regardless of what anyone might think.

            It’s also irrelevant. It won’t be long before there is effectively a mandate. More and more institutions, businesses, etc., are requiring vaccination as a condition of entry. [I wouldn’t have allowed my daughter to return to school, were that not the case at IU.]

            What’s stupid is that we’ve waited this long to do it federally and cost over a half million lives.

    2. Gordon Barnes:
      If only the experts would agree amongst themselves about anything: masks, lockdown, herd immunity etc. Take Sweden which went against the consensus, they had no lockdowns, no mask mandate, no social distancing, just advice to the at risk co-morbid elderly to cocoon. Their excess deaths in the year 2020 (over the average of 4 previous years) was just 7%. They rank for that 21st out of 30 countries with excess death stats. Belgium and Spain are higher at 16% and 18%. Sweden’s vaccination rate is 54%, U.S.A. 52%. Have they achieved near herd immunity?

      D.K.:Sweden is a mountainy country.

      Kanthelpmyself:
      I don’t think they are free riders (healthy young vaccine decliners) in the way that those who don’t get measles vaccination might be. They stand a good chance of getting infected but offer the benign outcome of contributing to herd immunity as well as their own.

      1. That’s a fair distinction. Newer findings about long-term effects upon cognition, respiration, etc., of even less-than dire illnesses from Covid may, however, make that calculation much more risky.

  20. “You have no right to spread plague to the people in your community.”
    That sounds very persuasive, until you remember that Covid has killed a whopping two-tenths of one percent of the population. And now that we have the vaccine, the probability that someone who is vaccinated will die from Covid is very, very low. Those are the facts. Perhaps they will change, but right now those are the facts. So there is a genuine moral-political question here: exactly what probability of harm to others is sufficient to justify limiting a person’s liberty? (Since people have to work to survive, I think the question is what probability of harm justifies forcing a person to undergo an invasive procedure.). And that is a question on which reasonable people can disagree. (And one need not be indifferent to death to ask this question. By having a system of roads and automobiles we know that about 35,000 people will be killed in auto accidents every year. That doesn’t make us moral monsters for keeping our cars.)
    I actually suspect that your position is right, but I strongly disagree when you say that all those who disagree with you are “stupid, pigheaded imbeciles.” That simply isn’t true.

    1. Aside from a small minority for whom the vaccine is dangerous, refusing to get vaccinated in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed over a half million lives in one year is stupid, pigheaded, and imbecile.

      Not to mention reckless and disregarding of public health. Vaccinated people can still carry the virus to vulnerable populations. And unvaccinated people serve as incubators for dangerous variants.

      Look, this is one of those issues on which there is no reasonable opposition. Like polio and smallpox vaccination, this simply is something that everyone is going to have to do. I just wish it wouldn’t have taken a half million dead to do it.

  21. Fair enough. I want to be as charitable with people as possible. But I agree that there are limits to that, and maybe this is one of them.

    1. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t realize my view is controversial and probably a minority one. So, it’s all good. You press on!

  22. My favourite example of Dan’s thirtieth point is from the extraordinary novel ‘Under the Volcano’ by Malcolm Lowery. The young hero, Hugh, has spent an adventurous youth in the 1930s as journalist, seafarer, writer and much more,when he suddenly has a revalatory moment that:

    ‘far from having acquired through his experiences a wider view of existence, he has a somewhat
    narrower notion of it than any bank clerk who has never set foot otside Newcastle-under-Lyne.’

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