Franklin, Authority, Liberty

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little
security will deserve neither and lose both
. – Ben Franklin

 Ben, Ben, wisest of men. Remember “Early to bed…”? Or how as a young merchant he didn’t oil his wheelbarrow’s squeaky wheel, because he wanted his neighbors to marvel at how he was up and at ‘em at the crack of dawn? He was a bit of a scammer – when he was old, a wily scamp in Paris negotiating with the French. I feel an affinity with him. I think he would have readily admitted his jumping the traces when he was old. (John Adams used to write home to Abigail, scandalized by Ben’s late rising – and his misbehavior with the young Frenchwomen – quite likely harmless; he was very old by then.)

I deeply appreciate Adams’s contributions as a Founder, but can’t bring myself to like him. Too prissy. Man with a spastic sphincter, like Romney who, when he’s being spanked for his witless pomposity, vacuously grins like a baby who’s preoccupied with filling his diaper.

But Franklin understood us. He knew that when demagogues frighten us, we are quick to surrender our freedom. Glenn Greenwald’s piece, tagged below, explores our present situation concisely, and in the process cites two of my own lodestones, the postwar electric shock experiments of Stanley Milgram’s about mindless obedience, and Robert Altemeyer’s 2006 The Authoritarians, available free, online. Both are devastating explorations of some less attractive aspects of our nature. This is required reading. It will be on the test:

Martin Niemöller (German pastor who spent 7 years in one of Hitler’s camps) is best remembered for this quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Germany, humiliated and poverty-stricken, was ripe for one of those authoritarians. Niemöller, incidentally, later acknowledged his pre-war antisemitism; and Günter Grass (The Tin Drum) was criticized for taking a long time to admit that he had been recruited into the SS (at 16, for God’s sake!) toward the war’s end. Smug critics should walk a mile in their moccasins, and then shut up. We owe a great deal to the thousands of Germans who found the honesty to confront themselves, the wisdom to understand, and the courage to tell us about it. We can learn from them.

We like to think we would have been among the noble in a similar situation. But those people are rare in any population – why Ibsen said the minority is sometimes right, but the majority always wrong. The ominous danger to us mice is once again that we deceive ourselves about this, so that if our time comes, we will be caught by surprise, and unready to resist.

One of the stories from my catechism is germane: Even though Max Planck deserves applause for his aphorism that “science progresses one funeral at a time,” he later let himself in for derision for succumbing to his own curse. He and Einstein couldn’t stand the uncertainty in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and fought it for the rest of their lives. It’s important that we try to understand what happened to him. Here’s my guess:

In physics, he and Uncle Albert had been at the pinnacle, and were its gatekeepers. They could pronounce yay or nay on ideas for a long time. After one is idolized for that long, delusions of grandeur are evidently inevitable. Besides, I think of how I feel about my own ideas: They are not so readily dismissible. I have thought them through completely, and they are right. Someone without my unique intelligence and vast experience cannot possibly have more incisive discernment….


I choke it out: “I may be wrong…”

We are all dodgers; and we fool ourselves first, and best. (Richard Feynman said that the first responsibility of a scientist is not to fool himself, yet he is easiest to fool.) It is a great cognitive leap to get from seeing what’s wrong with others to acknowledging our own flaws. That leap is seldom taken; it’s almost impossible. (Cue Jesus, with his beam and mote. I’ve always liked the guy.)   Our cardinal sins: self-puffery; self-deceit.

And I can tell you myself, from my perch here in old age, that one of our great fears is that we become irrelevant. This is a very realistic fear, because we will become irrelevant! The golden years are mostly bullshit. Physically and cognitively, we begin receding, like the tide (but unlike the tide, we won’t be back). “I’ve never been so busy in my life as I have been since I retired.” (This too shall pass.)

For now, I have convinced myself that I have something to say; that after a lifetime of voracious reading and watching and trying to understand, and because I have been given gifts of intelligence and language, I may be able to synthesize something worthwhile. I sense in my mind a final fluorescence, and an intent to “tie it off,” and cast the bundle on the shore. Also, while my writing is indeed an attempt to show off and seem lovable, there is genuine merit in the idea of generativity – that I have all my life absorbed stuff from the culture cloud, and I may be able to give something back – to “pay it forward.” I want to believe that.

Yet I can no longer write in longhand; nor can I run. Worse, my eyes are beginning to betray me. Like Scarlet O’Hara, I try not to think about it.  (Anybody remember Red Buttons? “Strange things are happening!”)


It used to gladden my heart when my male in-laws set out to fish. They would catch the fish, clean the fish, and cook the fish – and then we would all eat them. They did what they liked to do (and I did not); yet I reaped the benefit in being able to eat them, which I did like to do. Seemed a bit unfair – but everyone was happy. That activity is like my relationship to science: others love figuring stuff out and writing about it; and I love consuming their writing, to wit, all the new stuff about neuroscience, evolutionary brain biology, and moral science.

Ayn Rand set off my own shit-detector big time when I was young, because I had already come to understand how we go to great lengths to justify what we want to believe in the first place. Rand offered an ideology that transparently rationalized sin (selfishness). She repelled me. Her natural audience is adolescents – as a way station on the path to maturity. It disgusts me that an acolyte of hers could be, and was, a candidate for vice president. (Ryan and Romney, by the way, seemed intent on testing whether there is any limit at all on how brazenly one can lie before it becomes counter-productive.)

E. O. Wilson is, to me, in the sciences what Harold Bloom is to the Humanities: “a giant who bestrides the narrow world like a Colossus.” Both have a breadth of learning, and a depth of understanding, that surpasses my comprehension. In their presence I feel like a dog contemplating a human. Wilson has just completed The Social Conquest of Earth, which I consider, and believe he considers, his magnum opus, the magnificent conclusion of his life’s work. (It begins with a riff on Gauguin’s own masterwork in art!) From a review:

From the most celebrated heir to Darwin comes a groundbreaking book on evolution, the summa work of Edward O. Wilson’s legendary career. Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first.

“What are we? Where are we going?” These are man’s pre-eminent questions. Wilson sees that the only rational way forward requires at its beginning that we learn to understand ourselves. Our culture can already provide the tools to do that, but we must consult them if they are to help us. The biggest self-deceptive obstacles are products of our tribalism: religion, and nationalism – which we spiff up as patriotism.

This causes us a big gulp, but I firmly believe it. However, don’t listen to me! Read these books: Wilson’s, and Robert Trivers’ Folly of Fools (about self-deception). They are a great intro to understanding ourselves, and what most needs fixing. Trivers in addition tells an honest story of our sordid national history, and Wilson of the nature of religion. These are good antidotes to the fairy tales from our tribal shamans, who are the most artful of spin doctors.

Those unused to dissent will think me a crackpot. I used to think that way myself. Blow by blow, that was knocked out of me. It would be less painful for you to take a shortcut, and avoid some of the blows! But we don’t seem to fully awaken until we’ve absorbed at least a few hard ones to the head.


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