There’s a good reason we are promised a freedom to “pursue happiness” and not happiness itself. That good would, then, always hang out of reach.
Earlier, I linked to Johan Norberg’s discussion of happiness. He tells us “Apparently, a sense of competence and efficacy gives us happiness—a sense of being in control in complex situations. This is not surprising since it is difficult to imagine a trait that has helped mankind to survive and procreate better than this, but the implications are interesting.” Autonomy gives us happiness. So does a sense that things are improving – no matter how low or high the base we use.
We suspect felicity is not likely to accompany a sense of entitlement, which arises from a sullen sense that not only are things not improving but that is because we have no control – the world does not appreciate our true worth. As prescient as Henry Adams was, his tone wears. It must have been hard to be a fourth generation Adams – his heritage was to govern. When he found himself (and, worse, was considered) unsuitable, he faults his “education”—that left him unprepared for the dynamos with which the nineteenth century greeted the twentieth. That he failed, he implies, says more about his times than him. Two hundred years before, Cotton Mather (third generation) found himself in a similar position. Feeling an abject failure because he couldn’t become, as his father had, president of Harvard, he retreated to compile histories of a better time, when a Mather’s true worth was appreciated. Well, such is life. We sympathize – life is hard when the past weighs a bit too heavily. Genteel poverty is characterized by a certain bitterness, a prideful entitledness. But we move on. We know greater tragedies.
With his own bitterness, purchased by long acquaintance with what is beneath “The Veneer of Civilization,” Dalyrmple looks at the looters of New Orleans. We are struck by a comparison that would surprise both: the passive, gentle, even solipsistic and often wise Adams has little in common with that sullen violence.
Most of the looters look bitter, angry, resentful, and vengeful as they go about what British burglars are inclined (in all seriousness) to call their “work.” The gangs are reported to have used racial taunts during their depredations. In all probability, the looters believe that, in removing as much as they can from stores, they are not so much stealing as performing acts of restitution or compensatory justice for wrongs received. They are not wronging the owners of the stores; on the contrary, the owners of the stores have wronged them over the years by restricting their access to the goods they covet and to which they believe they have a right. The hurricane has thus given them the opportunity to take justice into their own hands and settle old scores.
But they share a sense of entitlement. Adams is modern man – conscious, passive, cerebral. These are modern man unconscious. Adams creates; they destroy. But understanding his irony helps us understand their violence. Not that we haven’t seen these quite unself-conscious and quite self-absorbed arguments before. We know what led people to complain that all they got in the flood zone were military rations; we know what led people to consider the contents of those empty houses theirs. Twain’s Pap would think that way. We’ve read Faulkner and we know how the Snopes think. We’ve read Shakespeare and we know how Iago thinks. All look on society as bitter outsiders, full of anger and envy, self-righteousness and sullen bitterness. They hate the world – not realizing, of course, that they are in it, not realizing to hate the world is to hate our selves. Embittered, they destroy even the means to their own profit, prefering to despoil. And, always, they justify themselves. We see them eaten up with the bile of envy, the acid of hate. Iago tells us he isn’t even sure his motives are true – still he hugs his anger, his jealousy to himself, feeding it. The grounds for his passion shift, but the passion, the jealousy and bitter hatred remain. Much as each day we find more (and even irrational) reasons to love, he daily & easily finds reasons to hate.
But that obsession needs to be replaced with the more mundane interests that give real pleasure. Bush clearly sees Katrina as opportunity as well as tragedy. Less opportunistic than practical, I think he has a pretty good idea of what works — perhaps because he learned to sober up and take responsibility relatively late. We know home ownership is important to a family and a community. We know creating small businesses gives a lively sense of community as well as of independence. We know getting up each morning and smiling as we greet customers isn’t all that bad – soon, we find, that smile we’ve pasted on comes from inside; our conventional good cheer is returned and we feel the satisfaction of a job well done, a customer satisfied, a minor civil bond established. The structure of our workday, meeting a mortgage, paying off a loan – small burdens and pleasures of responsibility make us happy.
Of course, Bush’s plan may end up like the New Deal or the New Society—or worse. I can understand why people have doubts. I wouldn’t be surprised but will be sorry if they are right. Money from my paycheck anywhere within reach of the quite sticky fingers of Louisiana politicians is not my idea of a good, for instance. Still, we know what punctures bitter alienation–autonomy. We need our choices to have consequences. Responsibility without authority makes us unhappy, but I suspect that authority without responsibility isn’t all that bracing, either. (Who do you think is happier, in a deep and quite personal way, despite the human pull of sympathy for those caught in the tragedy that surrounded each – Giuliani or Nagin? Pataki or Blanco?) We are pretty sure surly activity and passive disdain isn’t the way to happiness.
Instapundit notes another response: Aaron Brown believes that expecting each of us to take responsibility for our lives is “lame.” But, as Reynolds observes, that way isn’t just disastrous in a disaster – it is disastrous in living our lives. We don’t have to be getting rich and I doubt we have to be accruing all that much power—we just need to be the first responder to our own lives. We observe that Adams’ passivity didn’t destroy others’ lives but seems to have saddened his own.
Some people are hard cases – they may never see themselves as responsible. Bush’s plan may not work. But when the values of Twain’s Pap take over a larger culture, the result is dangerous as well as immeasurably sad. And so we are brought to the thoughts of the quite remarkable and thoughtful Neo-neocon. She discusses an article over forty years old that we wish was hopelessly dated but is not. Hers is one of the most useful and disturbing and powerful posts I’ve read lately: ”The Palestinians: the more things change, the more they…..” . In it she quotes freely from an October 1961 essay in Atlantic Monthly, “The Arabs of Palestine.” We think of the context – Hemingway’s third wife writes an article before many of the Chicagoboyz were born. But in the last couple of weeks, we can see that the culture she describes has only grown more and more rotten, more and more bitter. Its self-hatred is now as destructive as its hatred of Jews. Greenhouses given by Jews to the Palestinians were a homestead in the desert. They offered purpose, work and represented generousity, blooming gardens. But, as the Israelis withdrew, the Palestinians looted & destroyed, much as they destroyed the synagogues. Such hatred can’t see love; such nihlism can’t create. This is probably even less pragmatic than healthy. But such choices are the natural outgrowth of the culture Gellhorn describes.
Take it straight – ”The Palestinians: the more things change, the more they…..” . Much that follows is me heavily quoting her heavily quoting Gellhorn.
It reminds us of what we have done but must continue to do in terms of assimilation; we have not been without flaws. And Europe has certainly not distinguished itself – those Arab ghettoes in Paris are not shining successes. The not so comforting truth, however, is that few have done as badly as UNRWA.
Martha Gellhorn undertook a “series of interviews . . . with residents of Palestinian refugee camps, and talks with Israeli Arabs, as well.” Neo-neocon quotes deeply from Gellhorn:
The unique misfortune of the Palestinian refugees is that they are a weapon in what seems to be a permanent war. Alarming signs, from Egypt, warn us that the Palestinian refugees may develop into more than a justification for cold war against Israel…today, in the Middle East, you get a repeated sinking sensation about the Palestinian refugees: they are only a beginning, not an end. Their function is to hang around and be constantly useful as a goad.
Neo-neo con observes,
They have certainly preserved that function, haven’t they? Over forty years after Gellhorn wrote these prescient words, the Palestinians are still hanging around as refugees, and still a goad.
The camps, then as now, were administered by UNRWA. Gellhorn visited eight, along with a Palestinian translator, and talked to many of the residents.
Gellhorn observes the lack of autonomy, arising from decisions of the Arab states not to allow these refugees to assimilate. As she observes,
Although no one knows exactly how many refugees are scattered everywhere over the globe, it is estimated that since World War II, and only since then, at least thirty-nine million non-Arab men, women, and children have become homeless refugees, through no choice of their own….The world could be far more generous to these unwilling wanderers, but at least the world has never thought of exploiting them. They are recognized as people, not pawns. By their own efforts, and with help from those devoted to their service, all but some six million of the thirty-nine million have made a place for themselves, found work and another chance for the future. To be a refugee is not necessarily a life sentence.
This was a decade before Black September. Sometimes memories are long and sometimes short.
Of course, between 1961 and now we have known many new refugees. We have gone to school with Cuban refugees and our children have gone to school with Vietnamese; we’ve seen these families work hard, learn English, learn new customs, and smile proudly as their children walked across the stage, graduating with honors. We’ve worked beside Mexican immigrants, laughing with them as they found a place in what had been our world and now was theirs as well. We’ve watched the Taiwanese and Chinese eye each other a bit warilyi in American classrooms–and on American faculties. But Palestinians remain isolated.
Their jailers, their fellow Arabs, keep poking through their bars with red hot irons – murmuring of entitlements, murmuring a song of bitterness. Their captors spin stories, telling of the cause of all unhappiness; without the Jews, without the West, the Palestinians would be without pain, not only free but wealthy. They would have autonomy, be respected as they deserve. And those Arab brothers seem to have come to believe it themselves–and about themselves. Meanwhile, Josef Korbel arrived and settled in Colorado. This refugee who thought teaching women wasn’t a great idea – they’d soon be married – changed in this country and his daughter became the first woman Secretary of State; his protégé the second. My colleague escaped the terrifying experience of the killing fields, earned her doctorate, teaches biology; she nurtured her frail mother and sent her daughter off to grad school. I was shocked to hear that some believed describing the people of New Orleans as refugees was disrespectful. For many of us, that status draws sympathy and often respect. Perhaps others associate the word with those camps, forty-four years after Gellhorn visited.
And she could little know how much her observations have held true, indeed, enlarged. Neo-neocon quotes Gellhorn’s summary:
I had appreciated and admired individual refugees but realized I had felt no blanket empathy for the Palestinian refugees, and finally I knew why…It is hard to sorrow for those who only sorrow over themselves. It is difficult to pity the pitiless. To wring the heart past all doubt, those who cry aloud for justice must be innocent. They cannot have wished for a victorious rewarding war, blame everyone else for their defeat, and remain guiltless….
Arabs gorge on hate, they roll in it, they breathe it. Jews top the hate list, but any foreigners are hateful enough. Arabs also hate each other, separately and, en masse. Their politicians change the direction of their hate as they would change their shirts. Their press is vulgarly base with hate-filled cartoons; their reporting describes whatever hate is now uppermost and convenient. Their radio is a long scream of hate, a call to hate. They teach their children hate in school. They must love the taste of hate; it is their daily bread. And what good has it done them?
Thanks to G ewirtz for recommending neo-neo con—she is great. And so is Gellhorn.
Another perceptive post is “So what’s in it for me?–making political hay out of disaster”. I, too, cannot remember when such an attitude was the response to tragedy, when we had so lost our sense that “we’re all in this together.” But I suspect that was because we all valued loyalty and duty – we were close to the forties and fifties. One aspect we don’t always realize is that humility accompanies loyalty and duty – such humility is unconscious; it merely and quietly assumes the it isn’t all about me, that putting oneself first is often not appropriate. (Neither a man nor a woman out of the forties would weep as Blanco did; we still admired the stiff upper lip. I think the loss of that admiration is not particularly good, even for our psyches.)
4 thoughts on “Neo Neocon Looks at the Misery Index in Palestine”
There is a biochemical reason permanent happiness will always be out of reach.
If your body is flooded with endorphins (or heroin if you are of that persuasion) the brain will grow new receptors.
We are not designed for permanent happiness. If we do get a lot of happiness it will take more and more to maintain the feeling.
FWIW, I’ve been a happier person — not as in “beaming 24/7” but as in “looser, more benign, easiergoing, nicer” — than I once was since I started taking yoga a couple of years ago. Two years — that’s a lot of happiness I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. So, while there may well be such a thing as a genetic setpoint for happiness in every individual, maybe you can experience that “set point” more or less cheerfully. If that makes any sense…
I am a happier person when I don’t pay close attention to daily politics. Some things in life, unless you either don’t care at all or are making a living from them, fall into the category of “stress without benefit.” Politics is, for me, such a thing. And since politics strikes me increasingly as a confidence game played by insiders at the expense of the rest of us suckers, I usually feel better when I can ignore it all for a while. I don’t think I will ever approach Michael Blowhard’s level of relaxedness, however.
I am happy when I am busy doing something I don’t actually hate, including work, fairly often. I am happy when I am doing something with my children and they are behaving in a non-barbaric fashion. I am happy when I am reading something good. I am happy when I get to spend time with my wife. I am happy when I get to spend time with my friends.
I’m happy most of the time.
But I’ll never be as relaxed as Michael Blowhard.
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