Friday, December 16, 2011

Atheists, Asperger’s Cases, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Other “Crazy” People

I.  Christopher Hitchens, fellow atheist, died last night around the time I was:

(A) talking to economist Bryan Caplan and others about whether a religious person – or indeed anyone at all – qualifies as mentally ill (likely encountering more than one Asperger’s case over the course of the evening, itself an ambiguous diagnosis from a moderate-Szaszian perspective – the evening began at an event about the collapse of the Euro and ended at a dinner full of libertarians, after all)

(B) hoping to find a place to crash this weekend in NYC for a visiting Catholic friend (especially if among her fellow Catholics – but let me know if you’re feeling hospitable regardless)

(C) preparing to host at my own place another friend who wasn’t religious the last time I saw him but, absent my guidance since that time, has now decided he’s a Christian (and is already posting his regrets online about Hitchens not seeing the light, etc.).

The above is not a multiple choice quiz, by the way.  I mean I was doing all these things – and in between was retrieving from a cabal of polyamorists and flight attendants a copy I had misplaced of the book Debt by money-abolishing left-anarchist David Graeber, which will help me prepare not only for a book club in which I’m supposed to participate but for the n+1 party tonight at Verso Books’ loft for the release of the book Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America.

II.  But to get back to the crazy crazy people for a moment:

I have known a couple flat-out schizophrenics, mourned a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, and in general think the brain is just as prone to severe dysfunction as, say, a kneecap – but I will admit that the term “crazy” can be applied over-broadly.  Caplan leans toward the Szaszian view that most insanity is merely socially-disapproved eccentricity that shows the “insane” person has highly unusual preferences (like deciding to wear a Ron Paul button to an econ event where I was seated with diplomats, a Council on Foreign Relations guy, and Commentary editors – all of them quite likable – to return to last night for a moment). 

Nearly a decade ago, Caplan noted his disagreement with the moderately anti-Szaszian essay I wrote for ACSH about whether insanity exists and whether smoking is truly an addiction (regardless of that question, it’s truly the leading preventable cause of death, so you’re at least an idiot, in the conventional sense, if you don’t quit, and I am quietly steeling myself to mourn you an average of a decade earlier than my non-smoking friends).

Ironically, though, I’ll be in trouble if I convince Caplan that he is himself crazy, since Jacob Levy apparently declared him very mentally similar to me years ago when they were at Princeton.  I had forgotten that...but Caplan sort of reminds me of Levy.  Blind leading the blind, maybe.

III.  But the people noted above are mostly males (not coincidentally, I’d say), and in a few days American moviegoers will be in love...with a crazy chick.

Lisbeth Salander, the main character of the thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a reminder that people can seem crazy while being products of
circumstance – in her case some combo of “borderline”-like anger-management problems and Asperger’s (theorized by Simon Baron-Cohen to be a sort of hyper-maleness and thus perhaps making female cases seem androgynous, pleasingly so to some geek males wanting to talk about, say, math, philosophy, and the membership of the Justice League but with a chick – and in Lisbeth’s case deployed like a super-power to do hacking and thug-fighting). 

But you can’t blame her for inheriting certain genes – nor for enduring the assault that made her distrust males (abuse seems to be a great way to render people psychologically abnormal, as Todd-ex Dawn Eden will discuss in her book coming out this spring about abuse survivors who become intensely religious – and abuse often seems to result in a shaky balance between anger and passivity, or between wild behavior and rigidity).

IV.  But can you trust normal women?  (h/t R. Brent Mattis for the comedy clip from the Mystery Team)

While sorta-Third Wave types such as Jen Dziura (more or less) struggle with post-feminist questions such as whether women, rather than being equal-without-trying, ought to act tough and even emulate men in the process, I have some other acquaintances who lean to the “PUA” (pick-up artist) perspective that, long story short, centers on the view that women want males to be dominant, even when feminism (and in some ways traditional chivalry as well) has taught them to say otherwise. 

I think we are morally obligated to be kind and respectful to all humans (absent wrongdoing on their part) no matter what consequences it has for dating strategy, career advancement, comedy, street cred, or anything else – but I will grant the PUA types this: Women do seem strangely oblivious to their own (often predictable) motivations at times. 

I had a striking conversation with three women recently, all of them angrily insisting that the “women like jerks” hypothesis was rubbish – until one admitted (1) that she, personally, is mainly attracted to jerks even if other women aren’t.  While I tried in vain to get the other two women to talk to that one, one of those two gradually admitted (2) that her current boyfriend is nice but is an exception to her usual pattern and that she has always dated jerks in the past (yet she actually declared that looking back unhappily at the relationships with jerks demonstrates that women don’t “like” them –and in an earlier conversation had even insisted that having sex with jerks doesn’t constitute “liking” them, which merely shows that women may be using the word “like” in a different way than males are, and I will adjust semantically for this in future conversations – while women head off to have sex with jerks).  I was now left with only one especially angry argumentative foe – who suddenly remembered (3) that although she has a track record of dating nice guys, all of her female friends are mainly attracted to jerks.

I take no pleasure in this picture of human psychological dynamics – nor do I even regard it as sufficient justification for behaving like a jerk – but there seems to me far more to be learned from investigating these sorts of psychological issues in an honest way than continuing down the fiction-making feminist road of trying to deduce human mental patterns from political wishful thinking. 

If people (of either gender) are irrational (or just strange and surprising), it’s time we started honestly exploring and mapping how they are irrational, not just shaking our fists in the air or pretending they are otherwise.  Indeed, I predict that point will seem obvious to people of the distant future, who will think our lack of self-awareness, whether about religiosity, sexual dynamics, or the true nature of nerdhood, is as unimaginable as operating on pure predatory animal instinct without using language now is to us. 

In the meantime, I’ll try not to anger people at the Occupy! party tonight too much – despite being curious whether they’ll react more positively to my territory-marking Ron Paul button than the Foreign Policy Initiative crowd last night did, much as I would like to see everyone just get along.  


Franklin said...

Bryan Caplan's kryptonite is his dualism, manifesting here in his Szaszian skepticism (I'm so tempted to say "denialism") of mental illness, as if the mind were just a ghost in the machine and incapable of malfunctioning in as frequent and mundane a fashion as my bad back. Otherwise, he's probably the second-wisest living person in libertarianism, after David Friedman.

Todd Seavey said...

Actually, David Friedman and his wife came up -- not only because of the talk of where one draws the line between nerdhood and Asperger's but because I noted I have a friend who is so anarcho-capitalist he considers David Friedman a sellout and possible impediment to the an-cap cause (too mushy and utilitarian, apparently).

I recall Virginia Postrel (speaking of where to draw these lines) saying years ago that a definition of "libertarian" too narrow to include _Milton_ Friedman probably has something wrong with it -- and now, among a rising generation, you know you're hardcore when David Friedman doesn't fully qualify as an "anarcho-capitalist." This may actually constitute progress and a raising of standards of some sort -- but I am consequentialist-utilitarian enough myself that I'd be far more heartened to see a certain libertarian-enough-for-government-work candidate mentioned above kick ass on January 3 in Iowa (if we all just pull together and nudge the Iowans on this -- I'm nudging at least _one_...and she in turn knows Laura Ingraham...and every little bit helps...).

Franklin said...

Having gone to Auburn University and spent most of my formative years around Mises Institute types, I can assure you there are lots of young and youngish libertarians who think David Friedman isn't "an-cap enough," and argument I didn't buy even when I was full-on into my misguided flirtation of Kantianism. Of course, Rothbard himself would regard me as a sellout, insofar as he's already address pretty much the same path to apostasy re: Herbert Spencer. Basically, evolutionary psychology has made me a lot less sanguine about libertarianism, although my Humean empiricism is all for as many experiments in government as possible, so I'm all for charter cities and seasteading. Let the an-caps prove themselves in the marketplace for governance.

Todd Seavey said...

Oh! I didn't want to leap to the conclusion that an Alabama libertarian was tight with the Mises folk, but since you like them _and_ Hume, you may be exactly the right person to answer the question touched on in an earlier blog entry, namely whether I should read this book:

Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium

And on the seasteading front, I also heard this week that Patri Friedman himself is moving away from seasteading to work on the (likely more imminently-implementable -- and land-based) "charter cities" front.

Maybe Alabama could use a charter city or two, get the Mises folks involved, spend more time with Patri, synergy, etc., Ron Paul.

Franklin said...

Isn't Patri directly involved in the Honduras project now? I can't keep up; we're friends on Facebook, but all he talks about is his paleo-food diet. Patri and David Friedman actually both spoke at a Mises Institute Brazil conference in the past year. It was like a great an-cap convergence, but apparently one that can only occur outside North America.

Charter cities in Alabama is a wonderful idea, but we don't even have charter schools here, and we actually have some of the most restrictive anti-home rule laws in the country. All sorts of piddling local decisions have to go through the state Legislature and then be put on the ballot for a statewide vote. State government in Alabama is more centralized than the Politburo, which is a pretty big freakin' irony given how popular "states rights" is 'round these parts.

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar enough with Livingston's Hume book, so I can't say. I've wondered before myself whether it's worth the time and money. I've been getting my revisionist Hume of late via Patricia Churchland, who finds areas of commonality between Hume, Aristotle and Darwin, and I suspect she's right because she confirms my preexisting bias.

Jacob T. Levy said...

You and Bryan remind me of each other still-- one's the anti-matter version of the other with respect to having kids, and you're restrained where Bryan enthuses and bubbles. But otherwise you remind me of each other about as much as any two complex people can.