Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Passover 2008: The End of Reason
In search of noetic peace, of a worldly understanding that might quell the distance between what I see and what I understand, I started reading Freakonomics. A 2005 bestseller co-authored by the economist Steven Levitt and the journalist Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics is a 207 page eugenic purge against conventional wisdom, classic economics, and just-plain-dumb culturalism. With a healthy dose of data crunching, simple psychology, and manic curiosity, Levitt and Dubner answer such pressing questions as, “Why do drug dealers live with their moms?” and “How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?”
The answer to the first—mainly, that except for a few top-tier crack-cocaine “executives,” most pushers and corner-hawkers subsist on less than minimum wage—is revelatory. The solution to the second—that both groups manipulate information to create advantage and fear—is less gripping.
Yet, neither addresses the vicious water upon which these questions are floated, the primordial foundation upon which people might think that real-estate agents are always honest or that all crack slingers sit on fortunes:
Why do people think what they think?
Sure, Freakonomics susses out reality from illusion, but it doesn’t speak to why people think those illusions in the first place. Mysteriously, maddeningly, well-educated individuals with access to the Internet and a host of didactic tools bury their heads in the factual sand, relying on a bizarre combination of folklore, hunch, and rumor.
For instance, there is an e-mail circulating in Orthodox Jewish circles (typically very well-educated and hyper-informed) indicting Barack Obama in anti-Semitism and virulent anti-Israel-ism. Far be it from me to politic—I couldn’t care less about elections and I’ve already derided Obama for the vacuous hole that stands where most people have personalities—but both these accusations are wrong. Obama’s Congressional record is actually pro-Israel, and the anti-Semite claim roots in the talk—also untrue—that Obama is Moslem.
So, Steven and Stephen failed to ease my mind—they merely confirmed that people often think erringly. However, the true intrigue lies in deciphering why they do this.
So, I celebrated Passover.
Passover, like no other holiday, is rife with ritual and neuroticism. The two don’t necessarily overlap, but they often do. With a don’t-or-die ban (literally) on leavened bread—and attendant Sabbath-like restrictions—the first two days of Passover are a fine window into why people believe what they do. Faith? Family? Tradition? Trepidation? Bullying? Belief? Love? Lethargy? Perhaps some concoction thereof—but certainly, two breadless days could provide a representative sample for delineating root causes in rationale. Also, I like the Seder. So everybody wins.
After 48 carefully monitored hours, it seemed that some stupid beliefs germinate in a forced soil: faced with a potential conflict between faith, reason, hope, and communal/familial obligations, some people simply adopt the precious few philosophies that accommodate all of those pressures.
Freakonomics addresses this in passing. It quotes the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who invented the term “conventional wisdown:”
“We associate truth with convenience,” Galbraith said, “with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem…we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.”
This issue is infinitely complex, and is essentially epistemology—the philosophical field dedicated to knowledge, its methods and validity. However, what I could glean from Passover is that people aren’t the arbitrary victims of insularity and ignorance—rather, they are the perpetrators.
They make the cocoon so that they can live in it: though they have a butterfly’s physiology, they live as worms. I will never understand this.
Unless, of course, I’m just fooling myself.
Stay Seductive, Seder