Note: These are a few of the excerpts from what we’ve been reading lately. Or watching. You know, because it’s the weekend.
Brett McCracken offers a fascinating and important reading of Malick’s The Tree of Life:
The triumph of grace over the despair of nature in the film doesn’t happen by accident. As we see through a close read, the Guide is present throughout the film–embodied but also implicit and unseen–helping these characters in their spiritual journeys and guiding them through grief, sin, and the constant battle with their errant impulses and prideful nature.
Considered in the broader context of the film, the nearness and presence of a benevolent guiding force represents the immanence against which the “where are you?” perceptions of a distant God are juxtaposed. The film’s 20 minute creation sequence–sandwiched as it is between one Texas family’s intimate pains on one hand (a son’s death) and joys on the other (a son’s birth)–establishes the bigness of the universe and the smallness of man. It’s a massive, cold, ruthless universe, magnificent and beautiful in its ambivalence toward the individual life (one dinosaur spares another, but in the next scene nature–or God?–destroys them all by hurling an asteroid to earth). And yet the pastoral adventures of Jack’s youth and spiritual epiphany that follows do not bear out this dire assessment.
Conservatives have found Haidt’s conclusions congenial, free of the condescension and tendentious research that characterize so much of this Science. It’s disappointing to learn that many of his findings are drawn from a highly self-selected sample of participants. Haidt hosts a website called YourMorals.org, where 250,000 web surfers have come to fill out questionnaires about their personal views and habits. A collection of a quarter of a million people is a sample so large that it’s not properly a sample. And the self-selection problem is unavoidable. For one thing, respondents are restricted to people who have a computer and are willing to surf the Internet until they stumble across Haidt’s website. Studies show that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like to fill in Internet questionnaires for an hour or more, and those who don’t. The second kind of people—eminently rational, typically busy, possessing a life—will be left out.
The real problem with Haidt’s psychopunditry is that it shares with other kinds of determinism a depressing moral impoverishment. Haidt’s own centrism is an artifact of his Science. If the appeal of one idea versus another is explained by a man’s biology (interacting with a few environmental factors) rather than its content, there’s really not much to argue about. Politics is drained of the meaning that human beings have always sought from it. Haidt criticizes his peers for using psychology to “explain away” conservatism, and good for him. Unfortunately, he wants to explain away liberalism too, so that our politics is no longer understood as a clash of interests and well-developed ideas but an altercation between two psychological and evolutionary types.
For various reasons, though, the specialist era is waning. The future may belong to the generalist. Why’s that? To begin, our highly interconnected and global economy means that seemingly unrelated developments can affect each other. Consider the Miami condo market, which has rebounded quite nicely since 2008 on the back of strong demand from Latin American buyers. But perhaps a slowdown in China, which can take away the “bid” for certain industrial commodities, might adversely affect many of the Latin American extraction-based companies, countries, and economies. How many real estate professionals in Miami are closely watching Chinese economic developments?
Secondly, specialists toil within a singular tradition and apply formulaic solutions to situations that are rarely well-defined. This often results in intellectual acrobatics to justify one’s perspective in the face of conflicting data. Think about Alan Greenspan’s public admission of “finding a flaw” in his worldview. Academics and serious economists were dogmatically dedicated to the efficient market hypothesis — contributing to the inflation of an unprecedented credit bubble between 2001 and 2007.