Why the right hates American history - Salon.com
Glen Magnuson, Jr.
- A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.
In my old age, I hope to found a new university, called rather unimaginatively the New University, with funding from one or another imprudent billionaire (a prudent billionaire would turn me down). In contemporary universities and colleges there is often a division among the natural sciences, social science and humanities. In my New University, there would be only two faculties: natural sciences and the humanities. The social sciences would be abolished.
Social science was — it is best to speak in the past tense — a mistake. The dream of a comprehensive science of society, which would elucidate “laws of history” or “social laws” comparable to the physical determinants or “laws” of nature, was one of the great delusions of the 19th century. Auguste Comte formulated a Religion of Humanity based on “the positive philosophy” or Positivism. Karl Marx went to his grave convinced that his discovery of laws of history had made him the Darwin or Newton of social science.
Positivism mercifully had little political influence, except in 19th-century Brazil, to which it contributed the national motto “Order and Progress.” In the 20th century Marxism split between a revisionist branch which became indistinguishable from welfare-state capitalism and communist totalitarianism, which survives in pure form today only in North Korea, and from the devastating effects of which Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam and other countries are slowly recovering.
By the mid-20th century, the utopian fervor that had inspired earlier attempts at comprehensive sciences of society had burned out. But within post-1945 Anglo-American academic culture, more than in continental Europe, the ambition to emulate the methods of the physical sciences in the study of human beings persisted.
Economics, for example, grew ever more pseudoscientific in the course of the 20th century. Before World War II, economics — the field which had replaced the older “political economy” — was contested between neoclassical economics, which sought to model the economy with the methods of physics, and the much more sensible and empirically-oriented school of institutional economics. Another name for institutional economics was the Historical School. After 1945, the institutional economics associated in the U.S. with John Kenneth Galbraith was purged from American economics faculties, in favor of the “freshwater” (Chicago) and “saltwater” (MIT) versions of mathematical economics, which focused on trying to model the economy using equations as though it were a fluid or a gas.
While “physics envy” has been most pronounced and destructive in economics, pseudoscience has infected other disciplines that study human behavior as well. The very term “political science” betrays an ambition to create a study of politics and government and world politics that will be a genuine science like physics, chemistry or biology.
In the late 20th century, an approach called “Rational Choice” spread through American political science departments like oak blight through a forest. The method (or, to use the ugly word preferred by pseudoscientists, the “methodology”) of Rat Choice, as this school is known to its detractors, was borrowed from pseudoscientific neoclassical economics. Culture and institutions were downplayed, in favor of attempts to explain political outcomes in terms of the strategic self-interest of rational individuals.
While studies of domestic politics have been damaged by Rat Choice, the field of political science I know best, International Relations, has been warped by a different kind of pseudoscience. Much of the discipline has adopted the approach to the scientific method of the late Imre Lakatos, a Hungarian émigré who sought to provide an approach to scientific reasoning that would be an alternative to the explanations of the scientific method by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, among others. Lakatos, who died in 1974, was a mathematician and physicist, and might have been surprised and dismayed by some of the uses to which his thinking has been put. Stilted and ritualized language about “Lakatosian scientific research programs” mars the published work of many otherwise thoughtful and insightful IR scholars.
I once asked a leading American IR theorist who had become a major figure in a presidential administration if any IR theories — including those of the sub-school that he led — had ever come up in discussions within the government about foreign policy. “Not once,” he said.
You might think that the ancient humanist discipline of law would be more resistant than others to pseudoscience — and you would be right. Still, legal theorists afflicted with physics envy and economics envy have made attempts to turn law into a social science. The most important was the late 20th century “law and economics” movement.
Within the academy, a growing number of scholars are speaking out against the degeneration of social science disciplines into pseudoscience and scholasticism. In a recent essay, “Breaking Discipline and Closing Gaps? — the State of International Relations Education,” Francis J. Gavin of the MIT Political Science department laments the state of his discipline and adds: “It is important to recognize that these concerns are not limited to any one discipline: Sociology, for example, has struggled with these issues, while my own discipline, diplomatic history, has almost completely abandoned any effort to contribute to serious discussion of national and international security. Nor is it clear what constitutes success. Economics graduate training is plagued by (and arguably responsible for) many similar pathologies, yet it has, albeit controversially, much influence in the policy world.” Gavin notes the trend toward reorienting IR scholarship toward policy relevance and accessibility to policymakers, manifested by efforts such as American University’s Bridging the Gap project and interdisciplinary studies programs at many campuses.
In 2000, students in France disgusted with otherworldly equation-building rebelled and established the Post-Autistic Economics (PAE) movement. The movement spread across the Atlantic and its name was changed to the Real-World Economics movement, because comparing them to neoclassical economists was insulting to autistic people.
In economics, there is a growing reaction against what Noah Smith calls “mathiness.” New organizations, like the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) and Erik Reinert’s Other Canon foundation, and new publications, like the Real-World Economics Review, are enlivening the dismal science with heterodoxy and a renewed interest in the world beyond the blackboard. Ha-Jon Chang among others has revived economic history, a discipline that declined during the decades when economics became fake physics.
In my New University economics, political science and law will be part of the humanities, studied by humanist methods, supplemented, when it is appropriate, by statistics and other useful mathematical tools.
The difference between the natural sciences and the humanities is the difference between motion and motive. Laws of motion can explain the trajectories of asteroids and atoms. The trajectories of human beings, like those of any animals with some degree of sentience, are explained by motives. Asteroids and atoms go where they have to go. Human beings go where they want to go.
ASTEROIDS AND ATOMS GO WHERE THEY HAVE TO GO. HUMAN BEINGS GO WHERE THEY WANT TO GO.
If you want to stimulate the economy, you can cut taxes and hope that individuals will spend the money on consumption. But they may hoard it instead. Such uncertainty does not exist in the case of inanimate nature. If you drop a rock from a tall building, there is no chance that the rock will change its mind and go sideways, or retreat back to the top, instead of hitting the sidewalk.
All human studies are fundamentally branches of psychology. That is why the great German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey distinguished theGeisteswissenschaften — the spiritual or psychological sciences — from theNaturwissenschaften — the natural sciences.
Dilthey argued that the essential method in the human sciences or studies isVerstehen, “understanding” in the sense of insight based on imaginative identification with another person. If you want to understand why Napoleon invaded Russia, you have to put yourself in Napoleon’s place. You have to imagine that you are Napoleon and look at the world from his perspective at the moment of his decision. The skills that this exercise requires of the historian or political scientist are more akin to those of the novelist or dramatist than those of the mathematician or physicist. Hermeneutics — the interpretation of the words and deeds of human beings by other human beings on the basis of a shared human psychology — is the method of all human studies, not the scientific method, which is relevant only for the natural sciences.
“Macro effects” can also be explained without the need to posit pseudoscientific things like “social forces” comparable to physical forces like gravity or electricity. Unintended consequences — like depressions that are prolonged when everybody hoards money at the same time, or elections in which the division of the vote among many candidates ends up electing a politician whom most voters don’t want — are still the result of individual decisions, albeit individual decisions that interact in an unforeseen and counterproductive way. In most of these cases, the unintended results must be explained in terms of institutions — economic or electoral — that interact with individual motives in a way that cannot be explained if the institutions are ignored.
In my New University, the worthwhile scholarship found in modern-day economics, political science, law, anthropology, sociology, psychology and other contemporary social sciences will be separated from pseudoscience and incorporated into the new humanist disciplines. The faux-physics will be tossed out.
The distinction between the reorganized humanities and the traditional natural sciences will be strictly enforced. Any professor who explains anything in domestic politics or international affairs as the result of a Social Force will be summarily dismissed. The same fate will await any natural scientist who attributes motives to inanimate objects — for example, a geologist who explains that a volcano erupted because its long-simmering resentment finally boiled over into public anger.
Architectural styles and dress codes will be enlisted to further accentuate the distinction between the humanities and natural sciences. All human studies are historical sciences. To acknowledge this, the buildings of the Humanities departments on the campus of the New University will be constructed in an eclectic and somewhat repulsive mixture of historical styles — Greco-Roman classicism, traditional Chinese, Muslim, Gothic and Tiki Bar. The buildings that house the natural sciences will be ultra-modern glass and steel boxes. Humanists will be required to wear togas, scientists white lab coats.
As on a traditional campus, at the New University a spacious quad will divide the buildings of the humanists on one side from those of the natural scientists on the other. But the buildings in each row will turn their backs to the buildings of the faculty on the other side. To enter either row of faculty buildings, you will have to go around to the outward-facing facades. To symbolize the absence of methodological contamination, the interior quad will take the form of a moat, with a spiked palisade on each side. A few crocodiles might add some scenic interest.
I haven’t settled on a mascot for the New University yet. Obviously it would need to have two heads. •
Nothing is more crucial to the survival and independence of organisms—be they elephants or protozoa—than the maintenance of a constant internal environment. Claude Bernard, the great French physiologist, said everything on this matter when, in the 1850s, he wrote, “La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition de la vie libre.” Maintaining such constancy is called homeostasis. The basics of homeostasis are relatively simple but miraculously efficient at the cellular level, where ion pumps in cell membranes allow the chemical interior of cells to remain constant, whatever the vicissitudes of the external environment. More complex monitoring systems are demanded when it comes to ensuring homeostasis in multicellular organisms—animals, and human beings, in particular.
Homeostatic regulation is accomplished by the development of special nerve cells and nerve nets (plexuses) scattered throughout our bodies, as well as by direct chemical means (hormones, etc.). These scattered nerve cells and plexuses become organized into a system or confederation that is largely autonomous in its functioning; hence its name, the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS was only recognized and explored in the early part of the twentieth century, whereas many of the functions of the central nervous system (CNS), especially the brain, had already been mapped in detail in the nineteenth century. This is something of a paradox, for the autonomic nervous system evolved long before the central nervous system.
They were (and to a considerable extent still are) independent evolutions, extremely different in organization, as well as formation. Central nervous systems, along with muscles and sense organs, evolved to allow animals to get around in the world—forage, hunt, seek mates, avoid or fight enemies, etc. The central nervous system, with its sense organs (including those in the joints, the muscles, the movable parts of the body), tells one who one is and what one is doing. The autonomic nervous system, sleeplessly monitoring every organ and tissue in the body, tells one how one is. Curiously, the brain itself has no sense organs, which is why one can have gross disorders here, yet feel no malaise. Thus Ralph Waldo Emerson, who developed Alzheimer’s disease in his sixties, would say, “I have lost my mental faculties but am perfectly well.”
By the early twentieth century, two general divisions of the autonomic nervous system were recognized: a “sympathetic” part, which, by increasing the heart’s output, sharpening the senses, and tensing the muscles, readies an animal for action (in extreme situations, for instance, life-saving fight or flight); and the corresponding opposite—a “parasympathetic” part—which increases activity in the “housekeeping” parts of the body (gut, kidneys, liver, etc.), slowing the heart and promoting relaxation and sleep. These two portions of the ANS work, normally, in a happy reciprocity; thus the delicious postprandial somnolence that follows a heavy meal is not the time to run a race or get into a fight. When the two parts of the ANS are working harmoniously together, one feels “well,” or “normal.”
No one has written more eloquently about this than Antonio Damasio in his book The Feeling of What Happens and many subsequent books and papers. He speaks of a “core consciousness,” the basic feeling of how one is, which eventually becomes a dim, implicit feeling of consciousness.1 It is especially when things are going wrong, internally—when homeostasis is not being maintained; when the autonomic balance starts listing heavily to one side or the other—that this core consciousness, the feeling of how one is, takes on an intrusive, unpleasant quality, and now one will say, “I feel ill—something is amiss.” At such times one no longer looks well either.
As an example of this, migraine is a sort of prototype illness, often very unpleasant but transient, and self-limiting; benign in the sense that it does not cause death or serious injury and that it is not associated with any tissue damage or trauma or infection; and occurring only as an often-hereditary disturbance of the nervous system. Migraine provides, in miniature, the essential features of being ill—of trouble inside the body—without actual illness.
When I came to New York, nearly fifty years ago, the first patients I saw suffered from attacks of migraine—“common migraine,” so called because it attacks at least 10 percent of the population. (I myself have had attacks of them throughout my life.2) Seeing such patients, trying to understand or help them, constituted my apprenticeship in medicine—and led to my first book, Migraine.
Though there are many (one is tempted to say, innumerable) possible presentations of common migraine—I described nearly a hundred such in my book—its commonest harbinger may be just an indefinable but undeniable feeling of something amiss. This is exactly what Emil du Bois-Reymond emphasized when, in 1860, he described his own attacks of migraine: “I wake,” he writes, “with a general feeling of disorder….”
In his case (he had had migraines every three to four weeks, since his twentieth year), there would be “a slight pain in the region of the right temple which…reaches its greatest intensity at midday; towards evening it usually passes off…. At rest the pain is bearable, but it is increased by motion to a high degree of violence…. It responds to each beat of the temporal artery.” Moreover, du Bois-Reymond looked different during his migraines: “The countenance is pale and sunken, the right eye small and reddened.” During violent attacks he would experience nausea and “gastric disorder.” The “general feeling of disorder” that so often inaugurates migraines may continue, getting more and more severe in the course of an attack; the worst- affected patients may be reduced to lying in a leaden haze, feeling half-dead, or even that death would be preferable.3
I cite du Bois-Reymond’s self- description, as I do at the very beginning of Migraine, partly for its precision and beauty (as are common in nineteenth-century neurological descriptions, but rare now), but above all, because it is exemplary—all cases of migraine vary, but they are, so to speak, permutations of his.
The vascular and visceral symptoms of migraine are typical of unbridled parasympathetic activity, but they may be preceded by a physiologically opposite state. One may feel full of energy, even a sort of euphoria, for a few hours before a migraine—George Eliot would speak of herself as feeling “dangerously well” at such times. There may, similarly, especially if the suffering has been very intense, be a “rebound”after a migraine. This was very clear with one of my patients (Case #68 in Migraine), a young mathematician with very severe migraines. For him the resolution of a migraine, accompanied by a huge passage of pale urine, was always followed by a burst of original mathematical thinking. “Curing” his migraines, we found, “cured” his mathematical creativity, and he elected, given this strange economy of body and mind, to keep both.
While this is the general pattern of a migraine, there can occur rapidly changing fluctuations and contradictory symptoms—a feeling that patients often call “unsettled.” In this unsettled state (I wrote in Migraine), “one may feel hot or cold, or both…bloated and tight, or loose and queasy; a peculiar tension, or languor, or both…sundry strains and discomforts, which come and go.”
Indeed, everything comes and goes, and if one could take a scan or inner photograph of the body at such times, one would see vascular beds opening and closing, peristalsis accelerating or stopping, viscera squirming or tightening in spasms, secretions suddenly increasing or decreasing—as if the nervous system itself were in a state of indecision. Instability, fluctuation, and oscillation are of the essence in the unsettled state, this general feeling of disorder. We lose the normal feeling of “wellness,” which all of us, and perhaps all animals, have in health.
If new thoughts about illness and recovery—or old thoughts in new form—have been stimulated by thinking back to my first patients, they have been given an unexpected salience by a very different personal experience in recent weeks.
On Monday, February 16, I could say I felt well, in my usual state of health—at least such health and energy as a fairly active eighty-one-year-old can hope to enjoy—and this despite learning, a month earlier, that much of my liver was occupied by metastatic cancer. Various palliative treatments had been suggested—treatments that might reduce the load of metastases in my liver and permit a few extra months of life. The one I opted for, decided to try first, involved my surgeon, an interventional radiologist, threading a catheter up to the bifurcation of the hepatic artery, and then injecting a mass of tiny beads into the right hepatic artery, where they would be carried to the smallest arterioles, blocking these, cutting off the blood supply and oxygen needed by the metastases—in effect, starving and asphyxiating them to death. (My surgeon, who has a gift for vivid metaphor, compared this to killing rats in the basement; or, in a pleasanter image, mowing down the dandelions on the back lawn.) If such an embolization proved to be effective, and tolerated, it could be done on the other side of the liver (the dandelions on the front lawn) a month or so later.
The procedure, though relatively benign, would lead to the death of a huge mass of melanoma cells (almost 50 percent of my liver had been occupied by metastases). These, in dying, would give off a variety of unpleasant and pain-producing substances, and would then have to be removed, as all dead material must be removed from the body. This immense task of garbage disposal would be undertaken by cells of the immune system—macrophages—that are specialized to engulf alien or dead matter in the body. I might think of them, my surgeon suggested, as tiny spiders, millions or perhaps billions in number, scurrying inside me, engulfing the melanoma debris. This enormous cellular task would sap all my energy, and I would feel, in consequence, a tiredness beyond anything I had ever felt before, to say nothing of pain and other problems.
I am glad I was forewarned, for the following day (Tuesday, the seventeenth), soon after waking from the embolization—it was performed under general anesthesia—I was to be assailed by feelings of excruciating tiredness and paroxysms of sleep so abrupt they could poleaxe me in the middle of a sentence or a mouthful, or when visiting friends were talking or laughing loudly a yard away from me. Sometimes, too, delirium would seize me within seconds, even in the middle of handwriting. I felt extremely weak and inert—I would sometimes sit motionless until hoisted to my feet and walked by two helpers. While pain seemed tolerable at rest, an involuntary movement such as a sneeze or hiccup would produce an explosion, a sort of negative orgasm of pain, despite my being maintained, like all post-embolization patients, on a continuous intravenous infusion of narcotics. This massive infusion of narcotics halted all bowel activity for nearly a week, so that everything I ate—I had no appetite, but had to “take nourishment,” as the nursing staff put it—was retained inside me.
Another problem—not uncommon after the embolization of a large part of the liver—was a release of ADH, anti-diuretic hormone, which caused an enormous accumulation of fluid in my body. My feet became so swollen they were almost unrecognizable asfeet, and I developed a thick tire of edema around my trunk. This “hyperhydration” led to lowered levels of sodium in my blood, which probably contributed to my deliria. With all this, and a variety of other symptoms—temperature regulation was unstable, I would be hot one minute, cold the next—I felt awful. I had “a general feeling of disorder” raised to an almost infinite degree. If I had to feel like this from now on, I kept thinking, I would sooner be dead.
I stayed in the hospital for six days after embolization, and then returned home. Although I still felt worse than I had ever felt in my life, I did in fact feel a little better, minimally better, with each passing day (and everyone told me, as they tend to tell sick people, that I was looking “great”). I still had sudden, overwhelming paroxysms of sleep, but I forced myself to work, correcting the galleys of my autobiography (even though I might fall asleep in mid-sentence, my head dropping heavily onto the galleys, my hand still clutching a pen). These post-embolization days would have been very difficult to endure without this task (which was also a joy).
On day ten, I turned a corner—I felt awful, as usual, in the morning, but a completely different person in the afternoon. This was delightful, and wholly unexpected: there was no intimation, beforehand, that such a transformation was about to happen. I regained some appetite, my bowels started working again, and on February 28 and March 1, I had a huge and delicious diuresis, losing fifteen pounds over the course of two days. I suddenly found myself full of physical and creative energy and a euphoria almost akin to hypomania. I strode up and down the corridor in my apartment building while exuberant thoughts rushed through my mind.
How much of this was a reestablishment of balance in the body; how much an autonomic rebound after a profound autonomic depression; how much other physiological factors; and how much the sheer joy of writing, I do not know. But my transformed state and feeling were, I suspect, very close to what Nietzsche experienced after a period of illness and expressed so lyrically in The Gay Science:
Gratitude pours forth continually, as if the unexpected had just happened—the gratitude of a convalescent—for convalescence was unexpected…. The rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of seas that are open again.
The hepatic artery embolization destroyed 80 percent of the tumors in my liver. Now, three weeks later, I am having the remainder of the metastases embolized. With this, I hope I may feel really well for three or four months, in a way that, perhaps, with so many metastases growing inside me and draining my energy for a year or more, would scarcely have been possible before.