Monday, April 25, 2011

HD Thoreau, my Hero (and Naylor for writing about him so well)

Refusing Allegiance to the State

Henry David Thoreau Versus the United States


There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual has a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

Henry David Thoreau, “On Civil Disobedience”

Henry David Thoreau, the iconoclastic, nineteenth century New England writer, has long been associated with simple living, solitude, independent thinking, environmental integrity, civil disobedience, nonviolence, and passive resistance. But few seem to have noticed that he was also a card-carrying secessionist.

Best known for its influence on Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the South African anti-apartheid movement, and the Eastern European anti-communist movement in the 80s, Thoreau’s famous 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” reads like a secessionist’s manifesto.

His two-year stay at Walden Pond near Cambridge, Massachusetts between 1845 and 1847, on which his 1854 book Walden was based, was little short of a personal secession from his village, his state, and his country. About personal secession Thoreau once said, “Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union. Why do they not dissolve it themselves—the union between themselves and the State?”

In 1854, when the population of the United States was around 20 million, Thoreau thought the country was already too large. “The nation itself is an unwieldly and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense.” He called for a “rigid economy” and “Spartan simplicity of life.” “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he said.

Thoreau’s principal grievances with the federal government were over its de facto support of slavery and its participation in the Mexican-American War, both of which he considered to be immoral.

When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country (Mexico) is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army (the U.S. Army), and subjected to military law, I think it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.

During the first half of the nineteenth century before the Civil War, New England was a political hotbed for secessionists, most of whom were abolitionists. Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering, a former high-ranking general in the Revolutionary War, was one of the most important leaders of the New England secession movement.

New England Federalists, who believed that the policies of the Jefferson and Madison administrations were proportionately more harmful to New England than to other parts of the country, thrice led independence movements aimed respectively at the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the national embargo of 1807, and the War of 1812. In 1814 New England secessionists expressed their opposition to the War of 1812 and the military draft of the Hartford Convention.

Thoreau, who was vehemently opposed to slavery, called for abolitionists to “effectively withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts.” He told them that, “if they had God on their side, even though they did not constitute a majority, that was enough.”

In response to the question, “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?” Thoreau presciently responded, “He cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” Clearly a man ahead of his time!

As for civil disobedience, of which secession is a special case, Thoreau said, “If an injustice requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the government machine.” Thoreau actually spent a night in jail for not paying his poll-tax.

No doubt many anarchists have taken note of the following two statements by Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience. “That government is best which governs not at all,” and “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”

If Thoreau were alive today, it seems unlikely that he would have an e-mail address. He was not convinced that we all had to be connected.

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New, but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

Perhaps the reason given by Thoreau as to why he escaped to Walden Pond says it all:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life.

Thoreau’s philosophy of secession was based on the premise that an individual’s moral principles have the first claim on his or her actions, and that any government which requires violation of these principles has no legitimate authority whatsoever.

One can only imagine what Thoreau would think of the United States today – a nation which has lost its moral authority and is unsustainable, ungovernable, and unfixable. What would he think of a government owned, operated, and controlled by corporate America and Wall Street? How would he feel about the illegal wars with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya? What about our unconditional support for the bellicose state of Israel? Would he condone the torture of military combatant prisoners? And, alas, the war on terror?

Henry David Thoreau was arguably the most thoughtful, nonviolent secessionist of the nineteenth century. Unlike well known southern secessionists such as John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee, Thoreau’s message was not tainted by the scourge of slavery.

Modern day New England liberals who summarily reject secession as a kind of racist conspiracy, should re-visit Thoreau. They just might be surprised at what they find.

Thomas H. Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University. His books include: Downsizing the U.S.A., Affluenza, The Search for Meaning and The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education

Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the USA, and The Search for Meaning.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Two new articles that make sense to me

Good Friday - Jesus Exposes the State for What It is Not

“What Roman power slowly built, an unarmed traitor instantly overthrew.” ~ Claudius Claudianus

When Rome's representatives and toadies mocked the “King of the Jews” and he silently mocked them for believing that temporal power was the essence of divinity, an imperial existential crisis was created that could not be cured by the Jew's execution—for the State no longer had any legitimacy.

Recently Barack Obama fruitlessly struggled to explain why Muammar Gaddafi no longer had any legitimacy. Over the centuries other rulers, and their philosophizing apologists, have struggled to explain what gives them (and not the leaders of other nations) the legitimate authority to confiscate and redistribute the property of their subjects along with the power of life and death over them. All this scrambling has been necessary ever since the mocking of Jesus Christ, which exposed, at least to the Western World, that the Emperor has no clothes.

In the ancient pagan world, leaders had no difficult establishing their authority and legitimacy. There was no question why leaders had the right to rule—they were gods. But, Jesus had already blown that idea apart, and that is why he found himself in Pilate's deadly after-hours kangaroo court.

It is said the audience “marveled” when Jesus brought their attention to the image of Tiberius Caesar ( a homicidal pedophile, who claimed the right, as a god, to enslave millions, including the Jews) on the denarius. When the rabbi uttered the now famous phrase "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's” it was revolutionary and treasonous. With that one skillful rebuttal, Jesus brilliantly pointed out that the claims of God and Caesar are mutually exclusive. If one’s faith is in God, then God is owed everything. But Caesar’s claims are necessarily illegitimate, and he is therefore owed nothing. However, if one’s faith is in Caesar, God’s claims are illegitimate, and Caesar is owed, at the very least, the coin which bears his image, along with an incription certifying his status as a god.

Stripped of his divinity Caesar Tiberius is exposed for what he really was—a sexually deviant mass murderer—who is owed nothing.

Later, with his life, Jesus would mock the State's concept of the divine. Pilate asked him if he was the King of the Jews. Jesus, made the legalistic point that it was the Roman Prefect of Judaea himself--- who had confirmed the accusation. The soldiers mocked the King of the Jews for claiming divinity, while obviously having no temporal power to get himself out of the humiliating and deadly situation inwhich he found himself.

What troubled Pilate was that the King of the Jews , did seem to have the qualities of a god king, but apparently had no worldly power. If this Jesus was divine, then the power, legitmacy and authority of Rome could not be based upon the divinity of Caesar.

For the next three centuries Rome persecuted the followers of Jesus—not because they worshiped the King of the Jews, but because they refused to acknowledge the divinity, and thus the legitimacy and authority, of Caesar.

And forever after it has been difficult for the state to claim legitimacy. For a long time they tried to claim legitimacy through Jesus Christ himself—a claim that always seemed hollow and inconsistent (who can help but laugh at the mention of the “Holy Roman Empire”—an entity which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire)---it just never had the same type of authoritativeness as the claim that the dear leader is, himself, an actual god.

So there have been other attempts, to establish the legitimacy of the State by virtue of the leader's divinity—a type of godliness conferred by such things as being the “embodiment of the people”, “embodiment of the fatherland”, “embodiment of the Revolution" and etc. But, in the end, democracy, fascism and communism have never delivered the same quality of gods as was the case in the Pagan world.

Jesus Christ exposed the state for what it is not, and never again would it be the same.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Zero Degrees of Empathy

This is a review of a book titled 'Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty'.

It informs us on current understanding on the subject of empathy which is naturally clouded with uncertainty.

I also think non empathic relationships evolve and progress to absurdity, when unchecked by natural social norms. The individuals can become blinded to their own behavior.

I want you to think about something. The entire culture of precontact Amazonia accepted cannibalism as an ongoing way of life and this was readily supported because the fecundity of the land made eliminating individuals an option. This meant that if you were captured, you accepted you fate as dinner. You also accepted that it was fine to execute a victim who up to the moment of death had the free run of the village. The only empathy shown in a report I read came in not allowing the victim to see it coming.

Now apply the ideas in this review.

Why a lack of empathy is the root of all evil

From casual violence to genocide, acts of cruelty can be traced back to how the perpetrator identifies with other people, argues psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. Is he right?

By Clint Witchalls


The Rwanda genocide: should evil on this scale be blamed on psycopaths or on the perpetrators' beliefs?

Lucy Adeniji – an evangelical Christian and author of two books on childcare – trafficked two girls and a 21-year-old woman from Nigeria to work as slaves in her east London home. She made them toil for 21 hours a day and tortured them if they displeased her. The youngest girl was 11 years old.

Sentencing her to 11-and-a-half years in prison last month, Judge Simon Oliver said: "You are an evil woman. I have no doubt you have ruined these two girls' lives. They will suffer from the consequences of the behaviour you meted out to them for the rest of their lives."

Most people would probably agree with Judge Oliver's description of Adeniji as evil, but Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, would not be one of them. In his latest book, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty, Baron-Cohen, argues that the term evil is unscientific and unhelpful. "Sometimes the term evil is used as a way to stop an inquiry," Baron-Cohen tells me. "'This person did it because they're evil' – as if that were an explanation."

Human cruelty has fascinated and puzzled Baron-Cohen since childhood. When he was seven years old, his father told him the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades and soap. He also recounted the story of a woman he met who had her hands severed by Nazi doctors and sewn on opposite arms so the thumbs faced outwards. These images stuck in Simon's mind. He couldn't understand how one human could treat another with such cruelty. The explanation that the Nazis were simply evil didn't satisfy him. For Baron-Cohen, science provides a more satisfactory explanation for evil and that explanation is empathy – or rather, lack of empathy.

"Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion," writes Baron-Cohen. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects.

Empathy, like height, is a continuous variable, but for convenience, Baron-Cohen splits the continuum into six degrees – seven if you count zero empathy. Answering the empathy quotient (EQ) questionnaire, developed by Baron-Cohen and colleagues, will put you somewhere on the empathy bell curve. People with zero degrees of empathy will be at one end of the bell curve and those with six degrees of empathy at the other end.

Baron-Cohen provides vignettes of what a typical person with x-degrees of empathy would be like. We're told, for example, that a person with level two empathy (quite low) "blunders through life, saying all the wrong things (eg, 'You've put on weight!') or doing the wrong things (eg, invading another person's 'personal space')."

Being at the far ends of the bell curve (extremely high or extremely low empathy scores) is not necessarily pathological. It is possible to have zero degrees of empathy and not be a murderer, torturer or rapist, although you're unlikely to be any of these things if you are at the other end of the empathy spectrum – level six empathy.

"You could imagine someone who has low empathy yet somehow carves out a lifestyle for themselves where it doesn't impact on other people and it doesn't interfere with their everyday life," says Baron-Cohen.

"Let's take someone who's very gifted at physics and they're focused on doing physics. They might not be interacting very much with other people but they are interacting with the world of objects. They might have low empathy but it's not interfering. In that respect it's not pathological and they don't need a diagnosis. They have found a perfect fit between their mind and the lifestyle that they have."

Baron-Cohen doesn't see very high empathy as potentially debilitating. He sees someone with level six empathy as possessing a "natural intuition in tuning into how other are feeling".

I was intrigued to read a different account of empathy overdrive. In a recent newspaper article, Fiona Torrance described the hell of hyper- empathy. She has a rare condition known as mirror-touch synaesthesia. She first became aware of it aged six when she saw butcher birds hanging mice on a wire fence. "I felt the tug on my neck and spine; it was as if I was being hanged," Torrance recalled.

Empathy excess, however, is much rarer than empathy deficit. And while people with empathy excess suffer alone, those with empathy deficits cause others to suffer. Or at least some of them do.

At zero degrees of empathy are two distinct groups. Baron-Cohen calls them zero-negative and zero-positive. Zero-positives include people with autism or Asperger's syndrome
. They have zero empathy but their "systemising" nature means they are drawn to patterns, regularity and consistency. As a result, they are likely to follow rules and regulations – the patterns of civic life.

Zero-negatives are the pathological group. These are people with borderline personality disorder
, antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. They are capable of inflicting physical and psychological harm on others and are unmoved by the plight of those they hurt. Baron-Cohen says people with these conditions all have one thing in common: zero empathy.

The question is: did people with these personality disorders lose their empathy or were they born that way?

One of Baron-Cohen's longitudinal studies – which began 10 years a – found that the more testosterone a foetus generates in the womb, the less empathy the child will have post- natally. In other words, there is a negative correlation between testosterone and empathy. It would appear the sex hormone is somehow involved in shaping the "empathy circuits" of the developing brain.

Given that testosterone is found in higher quantities in men than women, it may come as no surprise that men score lower on empathy than women. So there is a clear hormonal link to empathy. Another biological factor is genetics. Recent research by Baron-Cohen and colleagues found four genes associated with empathy – one sex steroid gene, one gene related to social-emotional behaviour and two associated with neural growth.

Does that mean, in the future, we will have gene-therapy to correct for low empathy?

"I'd be very concerned about those sorts of directions," Baron-Cohen says. "I mean, they are at least plausible from a science point of view, but whether they're desirable from a societal point of view is another matter. I would probably put more emphasis on early interventions – environmental interventions. I think empathy could be taught in schools for example."

The other side of the empathy coin is environment. John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who developed "attachment theory", was the first to point out the lifelong impact of early neglect and abuse. "We think children are very robust, they'll somehow adapt," says Baron-Cohen, "but Bowlby showed that children who had what he called insecure attachment – a lack of opportunity to form a strong bond with a caregiver – are more at risk of delinquency and they're more at risk from a range of personality disorders, which I translate into a lack of empathy because many of the personality disorders, like the psychopath, or people with borderline personality disorder
are just operating on a totally self- centred mode. Early attachment is one big risk factor for low empathy."\

With functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI) scanners, it is possible to look at the effect hormones, genes and the environment have on the brain. In his book, Baron-Cohen identifies ten interconnected brain regions that are part of what he calls the "empathy circuit". People who score low on the empathy questionnaire show less neural activity in these brain regions.

Science is beginning to unravel the mystery of why some people have less empathy than others and the implications are potentially far reaching, not least for the criminal justice system. "The hallmark of a compassionate and civilised society is that we try to understand other people's actions, we don't try to simply condemn them," says Baron-Cohen.

"There is even a question about whether a person that commits an awful crime should be in a prison as opposed to a hospital."

But if someone endures a neglectful upbringing and they subsequently grow up to be a violent criminal, should they be absolved of any wrong doing because an fMRI scanner reveals low neural activity in their inferior frontal gyrus? "When people do commit crimes there may be determinants to their behaviour which are outside their control," says Baron-Cohen. "No one is responsible for their own genes."

Indeed, but we are all capable of making moral choices. Making the right choice may be more difficult for people with compromised empathy circuits, but the choice still exists.
Baron-Cohen wants to move the debate on the causes of evil "out of the realm of religion and into the realm of science", but I wonder if he is going beyond science and into other domains such as moral philosophy and jurisprudence.

"I don't see that we have to keep them apart," he says. "What I'm hoping is that the book will be seen as: how can science inform moral debates. It might even have relevance for politics and politicians, that when we try and resolve conflict, whether it's domestic conflict or international conflict, issues about empathy might actually be useful. The alternative is that science just does science and doesn't engage with moral issues or the real world. I think that would be a backward step."

If you consider the big atrocities in history – the ones we think of as evil – the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, the slave trade, communist purges, Rwandan genocide, apartheid, etc, it took the support of the masses to make them happen. Can we blame evil on this scale on psychopaths (who comprise less than one per cent of the population) and narcissists (also less than one per cent of the population)?

Surely beliefs are a much bigger cause of evil than biology or upbringing? Negative memes are spread by the church or state about the outgroup until they become thoroughly dehumanised. And the thing to restore humanity to the outgroup is not drugs and therapy but re-humanising narratives.

"Whatever your causes of loss of empathy, it's the very same empathy circuit that would be involved when you show empathy or fail to show empathy," says Baron-Cohen.

He argues that our beliefs can have an impact on the empathy circuit. Our level of empathy isn't necessarily fixed for all situations and right across our lives. It can fluctuate, depending on the situation. When people are tired or stressed they may show less empathy than when they're calm and rested. Baron-Cohen wants to differentiate transient changes to empathy, where empathy can be restored, versus more permanent changes.

"If for genetic reasons, for example, you have low empathy, it might be much harder to restore it but I remain optimistic even in those situations that there are therapeutic or educational methods that could be tried to improve anybody's empathy," he says.

So far, science has made little progress in treating empathy deficits. Psychopaths, for example, are notoriously untreatable as are children who present with callousness/unemotional (CU) trait. And trying to improve the empathy of sex offenders is one of the least effective interventions, according to Tom Fahy, professor of forensic mentalhealth
at the Institute of Psychiatry.

As someone who works with violent criminals, I wanted to know if Fahy thinks zero empathy is a good explanation for cruelty. "It may be one of the ingredients," he says, "but it's not usually an entirely satisfactory explanation for cruelty or acts of serious violence."

Narrowing the focus down to empathy when trying to prevent repeat behaviour is not a very effective approach, in Fahy's view. "It's difficult enough, anyway, to reduce offending behaviour through complex psychological interventions," says Fahy, "but to put all your eggs in one basket is undoubtedly a mistake."

Although zero degrees of empathy is necessary for someone to do evil, it is not sufficient to explain it. As Fahy says, there is usually a "complex tree of experiences" that leads to a violent or cruel act. Also, not everyone who has zero empathy will commit evil acts – Baron-Cohen devotes an entire chapter to extricate himself from this dilemma. Zero degrees of empathy requires too many qualifications to make it a satisfactory explanation for evil. And trying to boost empathy using therapy and other non-drug interventions doesn't appear to have much effect.

I wholly agree with Judge Oliver's description of Lucy Adeniji as evil. That doesn't mean I want to shut the conversation down. I think it's important to know – from a biological, psychological and societal point of view – how someone like Adeniji came to be cruel and uncaring, but I also think it's important to condemn her actions. I don't see the two things as being mutually exclusive.

I agree with Baron-Cohen that we shouldn't use evil as an explanation for why people do bad things, and finding ways to improve empathy, can't be a bad thing. But, for me, replacing the idea of evil with the idea of empathy-starvation is a simplification too far.

'Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty' is published by Allen Lane on 7 April (£20). To order a copy for the special price of £18 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit