PoW: Shootouts, shutdowns, shamans, and other curious phenomena

This evening, I cooked my dinner (meatballs and spaghetti, if you must know) while listening to NPR's excellent radio show Talk of the Nation, which discussed the new biography of Malcolm X. The author, Manning Marable, worked on the biography for 20 years, only to die three days before it was published. Well, at least he finished it. Marable apparently drops some truth-bombs in his biography. First of all, he questions the myth, which Mr X helped create in his Autobiography, that X was saved by the Nation of Islam from a hardcore gangsta life. Turns out, Malcolm X wasn't that gangsta.

Secondly, the book explores Malcolm's disappointment with the Nation of Islam, and particularly with its spiritual leader, Elijah Mohammad, who was apparently a 'sexual predator' who impregnated several of his secretaries. Third, Marable suggests the FBI and New York police knew that Islamic radicals were planning an assassination attempt, but they seem to have sat back and let it happen. Clearly, he scared the hell out of white America in the 1960s. And when you listen to his speeches, it's not hard to see why. Listen to this excerpt.

In his less bloody moods, however, Malcolm X sounds more like a self-help philosopher. This is him in his famous Ballots versus Bullets speech: "We need a self-help program, a do it yourself philosophy, a do it right now philosophy, an it's already too late philosophy. This is what you and I need to get with..." Why...he's the black Alain de Botton!

Meanwhile, the fruit of the civil rights movement - Barack Obama - is in a bit of a jam. The American political system is on the verge of a shutdown, as the Republicans and Democrats can't decide whether the budget should be $5.7 trillion or $4.7 trillion. What does a Federal shutdown mean? Well, the mail will still be delivered, the Army will still get paid...but 800,000 federal workers will get an indefinite holiday. One bit of good news for president Obama is that one of his most virulent enemies - Glenn Beck of Fox News - has just been shut down by Fox. The real question is, why did Rupert Murdoch ever give that nutter a platform in the first place? Anyway, to commemorate his passing, here is a funny cartoon about Glenn Beck.

Here in the UK, we don't call it a shutdown. We call it a 'listening exercise'. David Cameron has pressed pause on health minister Andrew Lansley's ambitious NHS reforms, which would have involved the handing of fiscal power to 'health and well-being' boards at the local authority level. Sounds like local authorities were all in favour of getting this power handed to them, but others were worried about service providers bidding for wellbeing board funding - including therapists. What's the worry? Just find out what the market wants, then offer it. I, for one, intend to offer my services as a bongo-banging aromatherapist-shaman.
In the new issue of Psychologies, positive psychologist Martin Seligman is interviewed by Julian Baggini - it's not online, alas. A fairly innocuous and inoffensive interview, I thought, in which Seligman mentioned that there's too much focus on happiness, and that really people want a more eudaimonic concept of wellbeing involving justice and meaning. Cue media pandemonium. 'Happiness guru recants', shrieked The Week, continuing: 'In an instance of spectacularly bad timing, the controversial plan to introduce a 'happiness index' has been effectively disowned by the psychologist who inspired it more than a decade ago.' Bit of an overstatement...

Across the Atlantic, another of Seligman's political initiatives, the resilience-training programme he designed for the US Army, has also provoked a lot of controversy, because it pushes soldiers to improve their 'spiritual fitness', which some solders have taken as a demand that they get religion - as I report in next week's Spectator. I think Seligman is perhaps beginning to realize quite how hostile and partisan modern politics is. It's nice to think of a benevolent government loftily orchestrating our well-being from on high. But the reality of modern politics is it's "civil war by other means", as Alasdair MacIntyre puts it.

Another psychologist not afraid to roll his hands up and get involved in politics is the neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the incredibly good novella, Sum, which imagines fifty different versions of the after-life. Eagleman is in London this week, promoting his new book, Incognito, which looks at how our identities are defined by unconscious and automatic neuro-physical mechanisms. Eagleman raises questions about our notions of free will, and justice: if you have time, watch this great talk he did on neuroscience and justice at the RSA from last year, and listen to this excellent edition of Start The Week, with Eagleman debating with the head of the Catholic Church in Britain (and finding quite a lot on which to agree).

Eagleman is not a complete pessimist when it comes to human free will. He seems to believe that we can become slightly more free, by training ourselves to control our impulses - he's testing out neurological technology that helps people see when they're resisting the impulse to have a cigarette, and he wants to use this technology to help train prison inmates as well. (Quick question: why do you need incredibly expensive neuroscanning equipment to see when someone is successfully resisting the urge to smoke. Surely it's...obvious.)

Another very talented and literate neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer, ends his column in Wired Magazine this week with this rousing call to arms: "We can dramatically improve our self-control and impulse regulation, if only we practice. Consider a 1999 study by the psychologists Mark Muraven, Roy Baumeister and Diane Tice. The researchers asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks. Instead of slouching, they were told to focus on sitting up straight. Interestingly, these students showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control, at least when compared to a group that didn't work on their posture. Why? Because they practiced a little self-control, just like those kids trying not to display their tics. And practice makes perfect."

As I have argued many times on this site - and as I argued again in this post for the School of Life's website - it seems to me that neuroscientists like Lehrer and Eagleman are, in fact, returning to the ideas and techniques of ancient religious philosophy. The ancient Greeks didn't say we were all born free, rational, moral creatures. They said we might possibly become so, through training (or askesis, as they called it). This will involve the return in our culture to the idea of asceticism, self-discipline and monasticism. Yes, it's a new age of austerity and hair-shirts! Pass the cat o' nine tails, I feel a purge coming on.

Finally, I presume you're familiar with Rebecca Black? You know, the tween American pop singer who makes Justin Bieber look like Marilyn Manson. Well, if you haven't seen the true nihilist horror that is her pop hit, Friday, watch the vid below (100 million views already!), and then read this - a brilliant exploration of the radical critical levels to the song that you probably missed, first time around.

See you next week,