Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Overriding Issue of Our Time

by Richard Crews
In ages past the overriding issues of the day were Ice Ages and Migrations, and the Spread of Civilization; later, Barbarians at the Gates; and in the 19th century, the Hegemony of the Sea which, in the 20th century gave way to the Hegemony of the Air.

The 20th century was also dominated by the Rise of Fascism, then Communism, and the Cold War, with the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation. Behind this was the Rise of the Military/Industrial Complex, with the Space Race leading into the Space Age.

Are we now in a era dominated by Islamic Fundamentalism, or Terrorism?

Some would say that the Explosion of Technology defines our age--especially Nanotechnology, Information Technology, and Artificial Biology. Or perhaps the remarkable advances in Materials Science that underlie those.

These have fueled an Era of Globalization with the coming rise of China and India to World Economic and Political Dominance. The U.S.--still far and away the world's leading economic, political, military, and cultural power--may seem to own Political Paralysis for now, but Cancerous Government encroaches on all fronts, East and West, driven by Income Disparity and Entitlement Burdens (related to Geriatrification of Populations and of Governments).

But more important perhaps is the Loss of the Western Soul: whereas once the U.S. and Europe were seen as the Beacon of Humanitarian Values and Progress throughout the world, they now Govern in Secrecy, Condone Torture, and preside over Worldwide Decline in Civil Rights including Mass Starvations and Genocides.

Perhaps our overriding concern should be the context: the Population Bomb, and growing Water and Food Shortages, and the Exhaustion of Natural Resources from fossil fuels to mineral deposits. Perhaps worldwide escalating Pollution of the Atmosphere, Land, and Seas, perhaps with Global Warming pushing the climate toward a tipping point.

But these are all brushstrokes in a single painting: Humanity has Overreached the Bounds of Balance of a Resilient Planet. Once the Earth was so large, its atmosphere and oceans and land masses so vast that a camp fire, even a forest fire, did not matter much; dumping wastes into the land, sea, and air were more than balanced--they were overcome by the enormity of the Mother Earth who nurtured and sustained us. But humanity and its effects, once a small blemish on the face of nature, have grown and spread into an enormous cancer which our planet can no longer hide, nor cleanse, nor cure.

Humanity has Overreached the Bounds of Balance of a Resilient Planet: that is the overriding issue of our time.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What's Wrong with Psychotherapy?

by Richard Crews
Half a century ago when I was in my early years of learning to be a psychiatrist, I was in psychoanalysis for a couple of years. Four days a week--on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons--I would ride my motorcycle over to Dr. Ivan Heissler's office and lie on his couch for an hour and say any damn thing that popped into my head. That's called "free association." It's the essence of psychoanalysis--and psychoanalysis is the grand daddy of all Western psychotherapies (the "talking therapies").

I knew a lot about psychoanalysis. I knew that all I had to do was associate freely enough and long enough--with a qualified psychoanalyst listening in (a psychoanalyst is someone who has learned to be very, very patient and to listen quietly no matter what)--and clarifying insights about my tangled mental processes would emerge, and the warm hand of healing would descend on me and my life.

There are several things wrong with that picture. In fact, my experience in psychoanalysis had very little effect on me other than relieving me of hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars that I really couldn't afford.

For one thing, nobody ever told me (and it didn't occur to me at the time) that it would behoove me as I prattled on to talk about things that bothered me, or at least puzzled me in my life. This seems so painfully obvious in retrospect that I am embarrassed to report it now. But the good doctor Heissler, in line with his years of training, never asked me, "What do you want to work on today?" or "So what's been bothering you lately?" Similarly, no friend, relative, or colleague ever inquired, "Whacha workin' on in analysis these days?" And I never thought to ask myself either. Regardless of whether I was discouraged or elated--suicidal or homicidal--as far as I can recall that never entered the analytic sessions.

Secondly, as far as I knew insights would just emerge from the tangled web of my thoughts. I didn't know that you have to hunt them down, puzzle them out, glimpse them hiding in the dark corners protected from scrutiny by every conceivable mental machination and self-deception. And then once glimpsed, once cornered, once grasped, you have to hold onto them with every fiber of the adult, reasonable parts of your brain lest they slip quietly back into the woods and continue their insurgent terrorism on you life. So it isn't enough to realize, "yeah, I guess I overeat to please my mother--so what?" or "whenever I think of homosexuality, I'm still secretly afraid my father will punish me--that's sort of interesting."

Which brings us to the third problem--dissatisfaction with the status quo and motivation to do something about it. This has worked its way into the popular mythology about psychotherapy. You probably recall the old saw, "How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer" "Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change."

The fourth way that psychotherapy often breaks down is in providing some mechanism for learning the change. This might be devising some verbal formulations that ring out the old ideas and ring in the new--mottoes and slogans to reshape your life--"eating is not a form of entertainment" or "my father (dead that he is) doesn't care what I do sexually, and never did." Or it might be lifestyle changes--eating a defined diet on a regular schedule; calling the boss by his first name.

The fifth (and final) problem with psychotherapy is perhaps captured by the response of the New York City cop who was asked by a tourist, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" The cop answered, "Practice, practice, practice!" Most people don't realize that the hard-won insight and the cleverly devised counter-strategy are only one-tenth of the battle. It is only through careful, attentive, determined, arduous practice of the new, healthy (workable, comfortable) point of view or way of behaving--practice stretching over many weeks, even months or years--that it comes to replace, permanently and automatically, the neurotic patterns we learned as children.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Here Comes China

by Richard Crews
In the 19th century Britannia ruled the waves. After the decimation of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon met his Waterloo in 1815), the United Kingdom was, in the words of one Prussian general, "mistress of the sea.... Neither in this dominion nor in world trade has she now a single rival to fear."

But a hundred years later, the United Kingdom "was too weakened by [the First World] war to remain an effective hegemon" (Charles Kindleberger). Thereafter the 20th century saw the ascension of the United States to become a world superpower--until finally, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was the ONLY world superpower.

In 2003, the historian Niall Ferguson noted that "the power of the United States today closely resembles that of the United Kingdom roughly a century ago--[is it] hegemony or empire?"

But at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. finds itself weakened by two costly wars abroad and political gridlock at home.

Meanwhile China has been coming on strong having invented a new form of capitalism--non-democratic (dictatorial) capitalism. This is based on the historical experiences--the tribulations and successes--of the Western World but with one far-reaching caveat: it is run by the firm and uncompromising hand of the communist government. When, for example, the government decided to build the largest hydroelectric dam in the world (at Three Gorges), there was no delay--no considerations of "eminent domain"--because the project involved relocating 1.24 million people and inundating a world of cultural artifacts and ecological treasures. When, for another example, the government decided to take control of world production of rare earth minerals (which are essential for modern electronics and numerous engineering purposes), they pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into subsidizing Chinese mining and production facilities, thereby driving foreign sources into bankruptcy; the Chinese now have about 15% of the world's rare-earth ores but now control some 97% of the world's production. (Rebuilding rare-earth mining and production is a costly and time-consuming business--it takes hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade or more.)

From currency manipulation and trade protectionism to land speculation and pollution control, the Chinese Communist government has pried its way with a heavy hand into world economics--and therefore politics--and even, therefore, culture. (When the Chinese wanted to control the terrible atmospheric pollution in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, for example, they simply decreed that even- and odd-numbered licensed vehicles would be banned from the city streets on alternate days--never mind the terrible disruption of commercial and civil life this caused. Also, by the way--since they wanted to make a good impression on visiting foreigners and press--it was made illegal for fat people to wear horizontal stripes, or anyone to wear white socks with black shoes, on the streets of Beijing.)

How far can this dictatorial, managed capitalism go? Can it propel China to world economic and political domination? An interesting question. We shall see. A few weeks ago China passed Japan to become the second largest national economy (in terms of GDP) in the world.

And can it progress--including with massive expansion of the consumer-driven middle class, of TV and Internet populism, and of multi-cultural foreign participation--without significant expansion of civil rights? We Western liberals hope not.

Obama 2.0 (Oct. '10)

by Richard Crews
In my opinion Obama has been brilliant as a president. He faced--and faced up to--a global financial disaster comparable to the Great Depression and was both carefully contemplative and heroic in the measures he orchestrated to address it. He inherited a disastrous decline in U.S. education (from 1st to 13th in the industrialized world over the past 20 years) and miraculously leveraged minimal funds into astonishing progress through his "Race to the Top" program. He dug U.S. international diplomacy out of a "cowboy bully" image and raised it to a position of "esteemed negotiator." He brought the U.S. into line with universal health-care goals and practices that are common throughout the civilized world although he had to overcome massive cavalier political opportunism to do so. He reversed the anti-scientism of the previous administration. He faced natural disasters with efficiency, alacrity, and compassion. He put U.S. infrastructural decline, energy mismanagement, and environmental pollution firmly back on the national political agenda. And more.

Where did he go wrong? In the first place, how did he get so far behind the cultural curve on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? And why has he seemed so slow and marginally effective in dealing with (and bringing to a close) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? I think that running an army and dealing with hardened, top military brass was all too new to him. In his relationship with the military he let himself be cowed.

Second, in dealing with Congress he approached the task as a Constitutional scholar respectful of "checks and balances." He did not take a strong enough active and directive hand. For example, he let the Democrats in Congress roll every pet progressive project of the past 20 years into the "stimulus" package (worthwhile projects, but an unworkable dilution of the primary mission). In addition, he (somehow) let the Republicans escape from responsible participation in governing into obstructionism and vapid political rhetoric.

But most of all he acted as if the presidency is not first and foremost a political office. Apparently he thought that if he governed the world's most powerful nation and administered the world's largest and most complex bureaucracy with ethics and efficiency, that the politics would come tidily following along behind. This proved not so. Putting on a show--a media tour de force--to cajole and satiate the great, preoccupied, American masses is unfortunately the first and constant job of the president.

I think the storied leaders of ancient Rome--the Senators and Caesars--came to understand this. They found they could craft a stronger state or, on the other hand, could neglect and pillage it as long as they gave bread to the starving masses and threw great Super-Bowl extravaganzas of slaughtered gladiators, slaves, prisoners, and beasts in the Colosseum.

So hopefully Obama 2.0 will continue the brilliant, ethical leadership that has characterized his first two years in office, but in addition he will realize that he has to stay continuously on the campaign trail.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Another Wall-Street Bonanza

by Richard Crews
I guess you heard--Wall Street is straightening its green eye shade, adjusting its armbands, and licking its pencil (and its chops) to start handing out $145 billion in bonuses this year. This represent a new, all-time high, beating the previous record set in 2007 just before the bottom fell out of worldwide financial systems.

And why the hell not? Didn't they earn it?

No, they didn't--and that's problem three (be patient--"one" and "two" are coming). Banking (in the broadest sense) is a service industry. They don't grow or manufacture or even transport anything. They manipulate (ok, ostensibly they "guard") other people's money. You simply don't pay more for the cop on the corner or your home security system or even an insurance policy than you do for food, a safe and comfortable place to live, an education for your kids, or the tools and resources of your trade. It's crazy. It's like "protection" money. It's economics on its head.

But we do. Thanks to historical circumstances such as globalization, exploding information technology, and laissez-faire deregulation (with a healthy dose of ingenuity and normal human greed thrown in), we divert a major fraction of our national wealth to what should be oiling the economic system.

Why is this a problem? Because the extent to which one is paying protection money, one isn't building up ones business--building inventory, trimming prices, tailor fitting customer needs--or securing and enhancing ones lifestyle--living in a cleaner, more comfortable, more secure home; saving for the kids' education and for retirement; etc. Put in national terms, when the money-service industry dines on thousand-dollar wine and butterfly tongues, roads and bridges and power lines fall into decay, the atmosphere gets polluted from archaic vehicles and dirty power plants, scientific research and education founder, health-care and retirement go untended, etc.

So reason "three" is that the Wall-Street bonanza diverts money from healthful and productive uses.

Reason "two" is a little subtler but in fact more important. I won't go into it or argue it in detail, but cultural pay patterns that increase the gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us weaken and undermine our economy--and hence our democracy and in fact our entire network of social systems. They decrease the buying power of the vast middle class and increase the rolls of the even-more-vast impoverished and disadvantaged beneath them. They bring our very beliefs and lifestyles into jeopardy.

But reason "one" is the real killer--one that is often overlooked and underrated. The Wall-Street bonanza drains the best minds as they graduate from college and graduate schools away from careers in science, education, engineering, health, and public service.

Every graduate these days makes a choice about where to apply their energy and talents and learning. And on one side of the balance is the lure to make millions--no, tens of millions--of dollars taking their math, law, science, language, or other skills to Wall Street.

That is the real tragedy of the Wall-Street Bonanza syndrome.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Passing Quietly

by Richard Crews
My point of consciousness seems significant to me--in fact, it seems like all there is. When I hear about things from other people or read about them in the newspaper, there is a different kind of reality associated with them--they seem more shadowy, more hypothetical.

Yesterday morning when I was walking in the woods, I stopped to rub some poison oak leaves on my arm. Bright, red-lacquered leaves they were--autumn's finest--which I have heard are particularly potent in bringing on the rash. I rubbed them hard against my arm. It's now been 36 hours and I've had no reaction to them.

I tell you this because the incident was a quiet, passing moment in my life. I did not plan it in advance; and I had no particular expectations for it. It could have been fraught with preliminary trepidation, or considerable lingering annoyance--but it was not. It will now fade from my memory as if it never happened.

Recently I had occasion to apologize to a young lady for a terrible, hurtful insult I leveled at her several years ago. As the anger of the moment subsided, guilt and sadness took its place. My apology was heart-felt--even laced with tears. But she said that she did not recall the incident.

My father died in 1963. Thirty years later I wrote a poem--

When I look back at the book my father wrote,
it is thinner than it was,
the pages fewer, the type fading,
the metaphors less vibrant year by year.

Soon there will be only a single page
with a single bleak and tired cliche
hardly visible among the wrinkled, acid-torn scraps.

Then he will be gone.

"Who?" people will ask if I chance to refer to him.

And I, when they ask--
I will not recall.

I wish I understood this stark dichotomy. My perceptions and recollections seem so vast--they fill up the world--they seem infinite. But they are also clearly zero.

I suspect that yours seem that way too.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Apocalypse Pending

by Richard Crews
On May 8, 1945, "Victory in Europe Day" (V-E Day), the World War II Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany and the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. I was seven years old. A remarkable change came over my family that day: I realized that my parents had been scared as long as I had known them and that they weren't scared any more.

But the end of World War II signaled the arrival of a new era of fear. Over the next few years it dawned on our consciousness that nuclear weapons--newly discovered, then enhanced and proliferated--could destroy our planet and our species (or any national segment thereof) and that the U.S.S.R. was aggressively bent on our destruction.

For the next 45 years until 1989, I (we) lived on the brink--second by second, minute by minute--of annihilation. Perhaps you remember this feeling clearly; perhaps you do not. It was very real. There was nothing hypothetical or emotionally detached about it. The Doomsday Clock hovered at a few minutes before midnight. A friend of mine in college (a straight-A student, a history major) seriously decided not to study for final exams because it seemed so likely--so clear--that the civilized world would not be around much longer.

Then in 1989 with a vast, worldwide, collective sigh of relief, the Berlin Wall came down. Those of us who had lived our entire lives under the second-by-second threat of nuclear annihilation--waiting for the blinding flash in the sky so that we could "duck and cover" before the shock wave hit so that we could prolong our lives a few minutes--a few hours--a few days at the most . . . we simply didn't know how to feel. We had never lived in a "safe" world and didn't know how to do it--we didn't know how to think, how to feel.

As we got used to it--as we began to learn to celebrate and to revel in it--it became clear that the "war" was not over. Terrorists with suitcase-size weapons of mass destruction (with "dirty" radioactive bombs or with chemical or biological agents powerful enough to kill millions) were all around us, driven by strange, violent ideologies. "Normal" business and finance had gotten so fast and massively global that a malevolent act--or a simple mistake strategically located--could bring the worldwide economy to its knees in a matter of minutes. Political paralysis and debt financing seemed poised and ready to destroy our civilized way of life. And behind it all "the wheels of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceeding fine"--pollution, global warming, the population bomb, famine, groundwater loss--or for those more sophisticated and "in the know," nanotechnology, biogenetics, the digital take-over....

Perhaps it has always been so. In millennia past, ice ages, droughts, predators, and the like have threatened our survival. (Some scientists believe, for example--on the basis of genetic studies--that at one point a million-or-so years ago the human race was nearly driven to extinction--reduced in numbers to a single small group--perhaps to a single breeding pair.)

In more recent centuries, plagues of disease or invading barbarian hoards (or even more local, adventurous potentates) have repeatedly hit the "reset" button and driven civilization as we (or "ours") knew it to the brink of destruction.

This essay--this stream of ruminations--may not have any "conclusion." Or for some it may be, "See, God has always looked after us and always will." For others, "If you put your head in the lion's mouth often enough, sooner or later you will lose it." (Even Steve Irwin did.) Or perhaps the amazing human intellect should merely cast all this as a fly speck in geologic or astronomic time.