The heat that afternoon was intense. Weather maps across Iowa were deep red, and warnings flashed across the screen. A high school football player on the other side of the state had died from heat exhaustion the week before. Cornfields wilted and shrank into hills of despondent brown.
I was running late as I parked and shuffled to a dilapidated satellite classroom building. I introduced myself to a teacher sitting at a desk and told him that I was there to meet a 21-year-old man named “Scooter” — a childhood nickname, I’d later learn, that had stuck. (I’ve changed all names and some details to protect him and to comply with privacy laws.) I needed a summer job after my first year of grad school, and he needed staff.
My experience with autism had been limited to movies and anecdotes from friends who worked in “the field” — care industry shorthand for post-institutional residential and community-living nonprofits supporting people with developmental disabilities. (“We’re always looking,” the agency had said, and hired me without any sort of drug screening and a cursory, astonishingly fast background check. The drug screening was my only concern while filling out applications.)
The teacher looked like he was close to retirement age and wore a hearing aid. He asked about my experience working with people diagnosed with autism. “None,” I said, and his face dropped.
“Don’t stand directly in front of him,” the teacher said, “and avoid making eye contact. He might perceive that as a threat. He’s very keyed in on body language. Introduce yourself, but let me take the lead.”
As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa, to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel. There was one about a fellow passenger on the flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport:
“ ‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”
Then, during her layover at Heathrow:
“Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”
And on Dec. 20, before the final leg of her trip to Cape Town:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
The state of Massachusetts has passed a law against sushi—that is to say, you will be allowed to eat sushi only if it has first been either cooked or frozen, so ceasing, in effect, to be sushi. Why? A minuscule risk exists that sushi, in its normal condition, will make you sick. And this is a risk that the citizens of Massachusetts are no longer allowed to take.
Manufacturers of children’s playgrounds now predict that swings in public playgrounds will become a thing of the past, since safety regulations require prohibitively expensive padding beneath them. Indeed, the regulations surrounding children’s toys, clothes, and activities are now so strict that it is hard to have an adventurous childhood. In England it is even against the law to allow your child to walk down a country lane to school, since there is a one in a billion chance that he will be abducted.
In the past, the law made a distinction between those risks to health and safety that citizens might voluntarily assume and those from which the state should protect them. Since every act of protection by the state involves a loss of freedom, lawmakers assumed that only in very special cases should the state expropriate our risk taking. In matters of public hygiene, where the risks taken by one person also fall upon others, it seemed legitimate for the state to intervene: for example, the state could compel people to maintain standards of cleanliness in public places or to undergo vaccinations against contagious diseases. But it should not forbid a person to consume a certain product, merely because there is a tiny risk to his own physical well-being. For the state to extend its jurisdiction so far involves a serious invasion of privacy. In matters that affect the citizen alone and that have no adverse consequences on others, the citizen should be free to choose. The state can inform him of the risk, but it should not forbid the choice.
One night a few weeks back, I found myself gleefully removing the packaging of a KitchenAid stand mixer and clearing a place for it on top of the old dresser that functions as extra counter space in my Lilliputian apartment. I stepped back to admire it—bold, shining, beautiful—blood rushing through my veins like I was doing something illicit. And then I made a pound cake.
“Don’t you have to have a marriage card to get one of those things?” a friend asked (between bites of KitchenAid-made pound cake) a few days later.
That’s what I had been thinking, too. I have longed for a KitchenAid mixer for years, but always pictured myself carefully unwrapping the appliance of appliances from crisp white paper and a lacy bow at a nebulous bridal shower. The KitchenAid would be a harbinger of my new life, the cornerstone of my new home.
I had been tracking my sleep for three years when I discovered that even if I hadn’t periodically cheated, everything I thought about “quality” was, in fact, suspect. As multiple engineers, scientists, and designers who have devoted themselves to creating devices that track sleep with precision told me, Sleep Cycle — and, for that matter, any app or device that uses motion to judge sleep quality — is incredibly imprecise. As one researcher put it, “actionless sleep and good sleep are not the same thing,” a finding echoed in numerous scientific studies.
Weirdly, I didn’t feel betrayed so much as curious, because they aren’t the only ones in this emerging space: By 2018, there will be 60 million fitness trackers in use worldwide. In, outside, and around the body and our homes, the devices just keep coming — in part because the funding does as well: As of September 2014, $1.4 billion in venture capital funding has been directed toward the wearable and biosensing market; by 2018, wearable sales are expected to push $30.2 billion. Fitbit and Jawbone have attracted a significant percentage of that capital ($66 million and $470 million, respectively).
For most of the last 25 years, the internet concerned itself with taking existing information and organizing it in a way that made it instantly accessible; these new devices are capturing data that used to be inaccessible and turning it into something knowable. Yet talking with nearly two dozen companies, it seems clear that the molded plastic of the fitness tracker and the dubious findings of the sleep app are merely the rudimentary beginnings of an all-encompassing cultural groundswell.
When Wieseltier invokes “scientism,” he’s gesturing toward real concerns about the reductive materialism or naturalism that tends to underlie the work of popular polemicists like Dawkins, Dennet, and Pinker. He is not denying that our world and our selves can, in part, be explained through material mechanisms. I assume he enjoys the benefits of modern medicine like the rest of us.
But terms like “scientism” and “technologism,” however well-intentioned, can obscure more than they clarify. Those who bandy them about presume, as the historian James Schmidt lays out, a number of things. First, they presume that there are different ways of knowing the world. There are limits to a uniquely scientific knowledge. There are some things that cannot be fully explained by modern science. Second, they presume that they can discern what those boundaries are. And, finally, they presume that they can diagnose the deleterious consequences of these illicit boundary crossings.
I’m sympathetic to all three of these premises. But I’m much less confident in our ability to identify where science begins and ends than those who so diligently guard the borders of knowledge exclaiming “scientism!” when they suspect interlopers. Those who invoke “scientism”—and there is a long tradition of its use and occasional abuse as Schmidt has wonderfully documented—put themselves in the position not only of policing the borders of knowledge but also of distinguishing real science, a science that knows its place, from a false science, a science that engages in constant and illicit “border crossing.”
The Future, as everybody knows, is a subject of extreme importance to politicians, and we have several political packages that are almost irresistible—expensive, of course, but rare:
1. Tolerance and Multiculturalism. Quit talking bad about women, homosexuals, and preferred social minorities, and you can say anything you want about people who haven’t been to college, manual workers, country people, peasants, religious people, unmodern people, old people, and so on. Tolerant and multicultural persons hyphenate their land of origin and their nationality. I, for example, am a Kentuckian-American.
2. Preservation of Human Resources. Despite world-record advances in automation, robotification, and other “labor-saving” technologies, it is assumed that almost every human being may, at least in the Future, turn out to be useful for something, just like the members of other endangered species. Sometimes, after all, the Economy still requires a “human component.” At such times, human resources are called “human components,” and are highly esteemed in that capacity as long as their usefulness lasts. Therefore, don’t quit taking care of human resources yet. See that the schools are run as ideal orphanages or, as ideal jails. Provide preschool and pre-preschool. Also postschool. Keep the children in institutions and away from home as much as possible—remember that their parents wanted children only because other people have them, and are much too busy to raise them. Only the government cares. Move the children around a lot while they’re young, for this provides many opportunities for socialization. Show them a lot of TV, for TV is educational. Teach them about computers, for computers still require a “human component.” Teach them the three Ss: Sex can be Scientific and Safe. When the children grow up, try to keep them busy. Try to see that they become addicted only to legal substances. That’s about it.
In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method [Note: This essay was written in 1941.] is to assume without discussionthat he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.
I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.
Behind all of these things, it seems to me, there lies a deep crisis in contemporary masculinity, which in turn is a symptom of a crisis of contemporary society. Unfortunately, few people have put their finger upon this. The crisis of masculinity is in many respects prompted by economic and political factors, resulting from the combination of several developments: the movement from a production to a service-based economy, the rise of a unisex workforce and society, the triumph of the model of gender neutral companionate marriage between individuals, the movement from labour to consumers, the rise of the‘pink police state’ (with its aversion to risk and responsibility), the valuation of ‘empowerment’ over the responsible exercise and development of our own power (moving us from a population that responsibly exercises power in self-governance and over against other agencies to one that relates to state and business more as children might do to their parent), the ascent of a therapeutic understanding of human nature, the resistance to and diminishing of the figure and authority of the father, the shrinking of the size and realm of the family, etc.
The general effect of all of these things has been to infantilize the population and to create a situation within which masculine identity will find it hard to articulate itself. Whereas in most human societies masculinity is associated with adult traits, roles, and functions involving responsibility, agency, production, authority, protection, and provision, within our society masculinity and its associated forms of homosociality tend to be associated with an adolescent irresponsibility—with such things as sports, beer, ‘banter’, computer games, casual sexism and pornography. Masculine identity starts to become focused upon the things that we consume—the movies that we watch, the clothes that we wear, the music that we listen to, the beer that we drink, the games and sports that we follow, the pornography that we jerk off to—rather than upon the things that we produce and the responsibilities that we have. Even the ‘transgressive’ modes of masculine identity in our society tend to be puerile.
Cities across America – from Pensacola, Florida toHonolulu, Hawaii — have increasingly taken strong measures to discourage the homeless from making a home within their city limits. So it didn’t seem surprising when the media ran with a story last week about two pastors and a 90-year-old homeless advocate “Charged With Feeding Homeless.” As the AP reported,
To Arnold Abbott, feeding the homeless in a public park in South Florida was an act of charity. To the city of Fort Lauderdale, the 90-year-old man in white chef’s apron serving up gourmet-styled meals was committing a crime.
For more than two decades, the man many call “Chef Arnold” has proudly fired up his ovens to serve up four-course meals for the downtrodden who wander the palm tree-lined beaches and parks of this sunny tourist destination.
Now a face-off over a new ordinance restricting public feedings of the homeless has pitted Abbott and others with compassionate aims against some officials, residents and businesses who say the growing homeless population has overrun local parks and that public spaces merit greater oversight.
The story certainly sounds like an outrageous restriction on charity. But did the media get the story right?