Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray

John Gray is an English political philosopher. He took the title for Straw Dogs, published in 2002, from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs”.

In the first line of the book’s acknowledgments, Gray says is trying “to provide a
view of things in which humans are not central” [page ix]. He is generally thought to be an opponent of “humanism”, but he has a distinctive definition of the term:

Humanism can mean many things, but for us [?] it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive [4].

It might clarify his position by contrasting it with a description of humanism from the Humanists UK website:

Roughly speaking, the word “humanist” has come to mean someone who:

(1) trusts the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)

(2) makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals

(3) believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

Regarding (1), Gray is an atheist, so no difference there, but he thinks science and the scientific method are overrated. He admits science has contributed to impressive technological progress, but doesn’t think scientists are especially rational and certainly doesn’t think science can solve all of, or even most of, our problems, a view he seems to attribute to all humanists and most citizens of the modern world.

Concerning (2), Gray doesn’t think highly of ethics either. He blames Christianity for pushing the idea that there is one set of rules that everyone should follow. He says “humans thrive in conditions that morality defends” [107], “moral philosophy is very largely a branch of fiction” [109] “justice is an artifact of custom… ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions of hats” [103] and “values are only human needs, or the needs of other animals, turned into abstractions” [197]. According to Gray, being ethical is nothing more than getting along with other people, and getting along depends on their expectations, which may or may not correspond to what people in other cultures and circumstances, including religious figures or philosophers, expect.

Finally, Gray agrees with (3) that the universe has no discernible purpose. He would probably agree that seeking happiness and helping other people can give (some) people a sense of meaning, but he denies that there is any particular or any preferred way to be happy. He argues that we don’t have free will and are no more able than any other animal to control our behavior or make ourselves happy.

Gray seems very sure of his positions. He writing is like a series of pronouncements. If I had to characterize his point of view in one word, it would be “pessimism”. We are no better than other animals. In various ways, we are worse. He twice refers to our species as homo rapiens. We excel at eliminating other species. Progress, aside from scientific or technological progress, is an illusion. Overall, the hunter-gatherers who lived thousands of years ago had better lives than we do.

I really don’t know what to make of this book. Reading it is like getting a punch in the stomach. In the end, I’d say that Gray makes a convincing case that homo sapiens is an especially troublesome species. But the fact that we write and read books like Straw Dogs indicates that we have special talents that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Perhaps those special talents have allowed us and will continue to allow us to make more progress than Gray thinks.

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The Good Times by Russell Baker

Russell Baker wrote a column for The New York Times for many years. At least at the beginning, it was called “Observer”. He presented his observations, usually humorous, on whatever he felt like writing about. I loved it. That’s why I read his first memoir, Growing Up. It dealt with his boyhood in America before World War 2. I loved Growing Up too.

When he died last month at the age of 93, reading his obituary in the Times made me want to read his second memoir, The Good Times. It sounded really interesting. After college, he got a job as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He worked his way up to being the paper’s London correspondent, and then covered Congress and the White House for the Sun and the Times. The story ends when he began writing his column in 1962 (something he did for the next 36 years).

I didn’t enjoy The Good Times as much as Growing Up. Baker’s wartime and college experiences weren’t that interesting. Neither was his job as a reporter in Baltimore. I thought he’d tell great stories from those days, but he mainly discusses his relationships with his demanding mother and the imposing editors he worked for.

It doesn’t even sound like he had a good time until he and his family moved to London. That’s when the book got interesting, maybe because London and Washington are more interesting than Baltimore. If I had to do it over again, I’d start with the second half of the book.

One other thing. Reading the book, it wasn’t clear why he called it The Good Times. Baker never seemed to be have a very good time except for his year in London. Then I got to this passage at the end of the book. He contrasts his career with the careers of the great reporters who covered the war, which, from a journalistic perspective, was a “great story”:

Well, of course, in my time as a reporter, which was from 1947 to 1962, there were not many great stories to broaden a newsman and deepen his character. Those were the good times, from the summer I started at the Sun in 1947 to Dallas in 1963, at least compared to what had gone before and what came afterward. They were especially good times if you were young, ambitious, energetic and American. Being young makes all times better; being American in that brief moment that was America’s golden age of empire made it the best of any time that ever was or will be. Provided you were white. Good times, though, are not the best times for a reporter.

The White Album by Joan Didion

The White Album is a 1979 book of Joan Didion’s essays. She wrote them between 1968 and 1978. They mostly chronicle her life in Southern California during that weird decade. Among the topics are a Doors recording session, a business that grows orchids, life in Malibu, how movies are made (it’s all about the deals and money), California’s water supply, the Hoover Dam, the women’s movement, Honolulu past and present, Georgia O’Keefe, Doris Lessing and the Manson murders. One of the topics she doesn’t write about is the Beatles’ White Album.

I’ve read quite a few of Didion’s books. She is a great writer. Sometimes I’ve had trouble understanding the point she is making. I didn’t have that problem this time. In the first few pages of the first essay, she explains her point of view:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live … We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling…. I appeared, on the face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another, a signer of contracts and Air Travel cards, a citizen… I made gingham curtains for spare bedrooms, … put lentils to soak on Saturday night for soup on Sunday, made quarterly F.I.C.A. payments and renewed my driver’s license on time…

This was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no “meaning” beyond their temporary arrangement…

She made it through this especially disordered period, which lasted six years or so, but the fact that she went through it at all made it easier for me to understand her perspective on things. In these essays, she views the world from a distance, remarking on the interesting things she observes, some of which resist understanding. Shares her observations with us. It’s an excellent book.

Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, etc. by Galen Strawson

This is a book of nine essays by the English philosopher Galen Strawson. The essays aren’t technical. Two were originally published in the London Review of Books; two were published in the Times Literary Supplement.  One is a shortened version of a lecture given at Oxford University.

I don’t think death, freedom or the self actually bother Strawson. What bothers him are certain ideas people have expressed on those topics and a few others. The idea that bothers him the most has to do with consciousness.

What is the silliest claim that has ever been made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-is-it-like” of experience. Next to this denial — I’ll call it “the Denial” — every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green [130].

As far as I know, no philosophers have ever denied that people are conscious of things like feelings. What some of them are saying is that consciousness isn’t what we think it is, and therefore, in some sense, it is an illusion or doesn’t exist. Strawson argues that no serious person has ever said anything as silly.

Strawson also argues that we don’t have free will in the most important, meaningful sense; and that, as a result, we are never ultimately responsible for our actions.

Why does the dear old agent-self decide as it does? … The general answer is clear. Whatever it decides, it decides as it does because of the overall way it is. And this necessary truth returns us to where we started: somehow the agent-self is going to have to get to be responsible for being the way it is, in order for its decisions to be a source of ultimate responsibility. But this is impossible: nothing can be causa sui in the required way [i. e. “the cause of itself”]. Whatever the nature of the agent-self, it’s ultimately a matter of luck [105].

Another philosophical position Strawson argues for is that, as far as we know, all of reality may be mental in some sense. That’s because the most compelling evidence we have for what the universe is made of is what we are most aware of, and that is our consciousness. So he thinks rocks and other inert objects might be somewhat conscious too.

I should mention that some of the essays are more personal. Strawson rejects the idea that stories or narratives about ourselves are necessary to live a full life. He doesn’t view his own life as a story at all. He also thinks that the prospect of a painless death, even within the next few minutes, shouldn’t bother us, except for the effect it might have on other people. It’s not as if we lose anything by dying, since we never had a future something to lose (after all, we weren’t guaranteed that we’d live so many years or have certain future experiences). He ends the book explaining what it was like to be a teenager and a young man in the 60s and 70s when he attended Rugby School (the famous one founded 450 years ago) and Oxford. He traveled a lot and loved rock music and sometimes got into trouble. It was apparently good training for his future career as a philosopher.

Salvador by Joan Didion

Joan Didion and her husband spent a few weeks in El Salvador in 1982. It was a dangerous place to be. Salvador is a short book about their visit. The book begins with a passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is fitting, given what it was like to be in El Salvador in 1982:

Terror is the given of the place. Black-and-white police cars cruise in pairs, each with the barrel of a rifle extruding from an open window. Roadblocks materialize at random, soldiers fanning out from trucks and taking positions, fingers always on triggers, safeties clicking on and off. Aim is taken as if to pass the time. Every morning “El Diario de Hoy” and “La Prensa Grafica” carry cautionary stories….A mother and her two sons hacked to death in their beds by eight “desconocidos”, unknown men….Same morning, different story: the unidentified bodies of three young men … their faces partially destroyed by bayonets….

This is how the book ends:

In the week that I am completing this report, … the offices in the Hotel Camino Real in Sal Salvador of the Associated Press, United Press International, …. NBC News, CBS News, and ABC News were raided and searched by members of the El Salvador National Police carrying submachine guns; fifteen leaders of legally recognized political and labor groups opposing the government of El Salvador were disappeared; … [the American ambassador] said that he was “reasonably certain” that these disappearances had not been conducted under Salvadoran government orders; … and the State Department announced that the Reagan administration believed that it had “turned the corner” in its campaign for political stability in Central America.

I’ve read a lot of Joan Didion’s journalism over the years, but have often felt I didn’t understand the point she was making. In an article called “The Picture In Her Mind”, Paul Gleason agrees that her “political meaning” often “remains obscure”. But he has an explanation:

Didion’s journalism from the Sixties and Seventies seems newly relevant because then (as now) American history had taken a few alarming turns, and everyone wanted to know why and what to do about it. While crossing the nation on book tour she heard the same question from every TV and radio host: “Where are we heading?” Today, the questions remain the same. “Why is this happening?” And: “What can we do to change it?” But Didion regarded answers to these questions with skepticism, bordering on contempt. At the heart of grand narratives about who we are and where we are heading she saw self-deception in the face of meaningless disorder. Instead of trying to change the world, Didion was content, as she writes in “South and West”, “to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind”….

Didion had concluded “something about the stories people live by”:

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.

In Salvador, she reports what it was like to be in El Salvador in 1982, but makes it clear that what people there commonly referred to as “the situation” was too senseless to make sense of.

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

The title pretty much sums up the book. In five chapters, the author discusses five dangerous illusions that beset the United States. They’re the illusions of:

  • Literacy — crap like professional wrestling and reality TV and the distractions of celebrity culture in general)
  • Love — the popularity of pornography, especially the kind that demeans women
  • Wisdom — how colleges have been turned into glorified vocational schools
  • Happiness — the “positive psychology” movement that offers false promises and promotes conformity
  • America — how the “greatest democracy” on Earth is actually a militaristic empire in the service of corporate capitalism.

He often exaggerates how bad things are, but the book serves as a good corrective to the idea that this is a healthy nation. Some of the negativity derives from the fact that Empire of Illusion was published in 2009 during the financial turmoil of the Great Recession. For example, Hedges casts doubt on the idea that the Obama administration would make any improvement to our health care system, such as making sure that more of us have adequate health insurance.

Even if he overstates some of the problems, he criticisms all have a basis in reality. A brief sample:

Individualism is touted as the core value of American culture, and yet most of us meekly submit, as we are supposed to, to the tyranny of the corporate state…. There is a vast and growing disconnect between what we say we believe and what  we do. We are blinded, enchanted and finally enslaved by illusion…..[p. 182].

The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode. As the collapse continues and our suffering mounts, we yearn, like World Wrestling Entertainment fans, or those who confuse pornography with love, for the comfort, beauty and reassurance of illusion….And the lonely Cassandras who speak the truth about our misguided imperial wars, the economic meltdown, or the immindent danger of multiple pollution and soaring overpopulation, are drowned out by arenas of excited fans….[pp. 189-190].

I expect Mr. Hedges would offer our demagogic president’s scary political rallies as further confirmation of his thesis.

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Most of South and West is composed of notes Joan Didion took during a month-long road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970. She intended to publish something about the trip after returning to California, but didn’t. Now selections of her notes have been published. She’s such a good writer that her impressions are worth reading, but I can see why she didn’t finish the project. 

She hated the place. 

I’ve read a few reviews of this book but none of them conveyed her intensely negative feelings about the landscape, the weather and the culture she encountered along the Gulf Coast and in the Deep South. It’s a region she’d never been to. She makes it feel like a unpleasant foreign country that she couldn’t wait to escape. She even claims that she and her husband avoided big cities because if they’d been near an airport, they would have immediately flown to California or New York. If you don’t think much of the South, this book will confirm your attitude, even though the its word were written almost 50 years ago.

The book concludes with a small selection of notes from another project she didn’t complete. She had agreed to write about the Patty Hearst trial in 1976: 

I thought the trial had some meaning for me – because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.

I enjoyed this part of the book too. It’s mostly random thoughts and memories about growing up as a privileged young woman in Sacramento, mixed in with some thoughts about San Francisco, where the Hearst trial took place. Having grown up in California, I like reading about it and nobody writes better about California than Joan Didion.