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Posts Tagged ‘history’

13 MARCH, 2014

March 13, 1964: What the Kitty Genovese Murder Teaches Us About Empathy, Apathy, and Our Human Predicament

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“How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do?”

In the small hours of March 13, 1964, a young Italian-American woman in Queens got attacked, raped, and stabbed to death seventeen times over the course of half an hour outside her small apartment house on Austin Street in Kew Gardens. Thirty-eight of her neighbors witnessed the attack. No one did anything to stop it. No one called the police. No one seemed to care. The murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese became one of modern history’s most unsettling and confounding conundrums for generations of psychologists, sociologists, and ordinary people alike. How can we accept that thirty-eight ordinary middle-class citizens — people with good jobs and good families and good homes, people with beige carpets — could slide so far down on the scale from empathy to apathy as to allow for such brutality to happen right before their eyes? What does this say about the human spirit, and how can we make sense of it without losing faith in humanity?

That, and its many complicated dimensions, is what A. M. Rosenthal, who would go on to become the most controversial executive editor The New York Times has ever had, explores in the slim but tremendously impactful book Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (public library). Rosenthal himself was responsible for bringing public attention to Genovese’s story in an era when the Times gave any murder in Queens no more than four paragraphs, a time when the invisible “relationship of color and geography to crime news” permeated the media. But Rosenthal, having just been appointed Metropolitan Editor of the Times after years at the paper’s foreign bureaus in India, Poland, and Japan, took it upon himself to get to know the men — for in that era, they were only men — who ran the city, from the Mayor to the bankers to the playwrights. One of them was Michael Joseph Murphy, the New York City Police Commissioner — a man “who looks like a tough Irish cop because he is a tough Irish cop but who also happens to be a man of knowledge and sensitivity,” a man who goes to the same restaurant for lunch, always sits with his back to the wall (an old police habit), and “orders shrimp curry and rice in the touching belief that the dish is somehow non-caloric.” (Yes, besides being a formidable journalist, Rosenthal, who died in 2006, was also an enchanting storyteller.)

Catherine Genovese

Over one such lunch near City Hall, hours after the murder had been reported, Commissioner Murphy shared with Rosenthal his preoccupation with this chilling case in which thirty-eight neighbors had failed to help a dying 28-year-old woman. Rosenthal first thought the details were an exaggeration, but the Commissioner wistfully assured him, “Yes, thirty-eight. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.” There and then, Rosenthal knew it would be an important story — not only for its newsworthiness in crime reporting, but also for the broader philosophical questions it raises about our human predicament. He was right — the Times ran the story the next day, and it was immediately picked up by other mass media. The case soon became “a stunning example of apathy — other people’s apathy.” But behind that veneer of otherness hide some of the darkest potentialities of our own selves.

Rosenthal captures the murder’s enduring haunt:

The Kitty Genovese story, the Genovese case, has become both a quick, puffy cliché for apathy and cowardice about the suffering of others, and an intellectual and religious puzzlement: what does it mean to me? To me, you, we.

That is the power of the Genovese matter. It talks to us not about her, a subject that was barely of fleeting interest to us, but about ourselves, a subject never out of our minds.

Catherine Genovese

Rosenthal wrote the book shortly after the murder and it was originally published at the end of 1964, partly as a reporter’s account of the precise details of the case, and partly as a philosopher’s meditation on the elements of human nature and social dynamics that made this brutality possible. In 1995, it was reprinted with a new introduction by Rosenthal, who had spent thirty-five years contemplating the case — thirty-five years during which social psychologists had come up with the influential theory of pluralistic ignorance and the bystander effect in trying to explain what happened. But for Rosenthal, the case, with its question of why thirty-eight witnesses refused to help, was still a microcosm of the choices we all make, every day, in how we relate to the world. He writes in the 1995 introduction:

As I was writing Thirty-Eight Witnesses, I felt the question should be reworded so: would I ever refuse again?

I knew most of us had refused in the past, so often that we had become unaware of what we were doing.

I have walked past lepers and beggars scores of times in Asia. Any help from me, the merest, would have been of importance to them. They were terribly sick; I saw their sores. If they were professional beggars, as I told myself, did that salve their sores or straighten the limbs of the twisted children they held up, rented or not?

[…]

But the mystery for all of us about the Genovese case was how could it have happened that thirty-eight people, thirty-eight, heard the screams and did nothing. Two or three, all right, maybe even a half dozen — it could happen. But everybody, all thirty-eight of them?

I was trying hard to be candid with myself, but not hard enough. Now and for some years I have realized that I failed to ask the question that might have answered the mystery of so many silent witnesses on Austin Street.

Who was walking with me on that street in Calcutta or New Delhi and not stopping to give help? Not thirty-eight people, but hundreds at any one moment, thousands in an hour.

In the middle of a cold night, thirty-eight people refused the risk of being stabbed or getting involved by answering a cry for help of a person they could not see. Is that a greater mystery, a greater offense, than that by light of day thousands on a single street withhold help to suffering people, when it would cost them virtually nothing and put them in no peril, even though they see their faces and sores?

It is a poignant question, and a prescient one, as we face a growing disconnect between the haves and the have-nots in the world today. For all those fighting global poverty, how many do nothing? And when one of the most fundamental human rights — the right to love — is being denied to a great many fellow human beings, how many raise their voices? How many perch out of our proverbial windows and look on as the tragedy of the “other” unfolds?

With equal poignancy, Rosenthal questions how we hide behind physical space and use distance as a currency of apathy — an observation all the more prescient in our day and age of military drones, where the combination of new technology and basic human psychology makes soldiers deadlier at a distance as they find it easier to kill someone far away than to shoot them at close range. Rosenthal’s closing words land like poison darts at our darkest, most self-conscious fears about what it means to be — or to fail at being — a good human:

How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do: stop doing business with the torturer, or just speak up for them, write a letter, join a human rights group, go to church and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the damnation of the persecutors, give money, do something.

Three stories up, a thousand miles, ten thousand miles, from here to Austin Street, or from here to the gulags or the dungeons for political and religious prisoners anywhere? How far is silence from a place of safety acceptable without detesting yourself as we detest the thirty-eight? Tell me, what question is more important than the one Catherine Genovese put to me for years when I sat down to write my columns for the Times — how far?

Thirty-Eight Witnesses is a remarkable read in its entirety — undeniably difficult, but undeniably important. Complement it with the equally disquieting Stanford Prison Experiment, then see psychologist David DeSteno on the psychology of good and evil in all of us.

Thanks, Andrew

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12 MARCH, 2014

Mary Roach on the Science of Masturbation and the Outrageous Vintage Pseudoscientific Techniques for Controlling It

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A cautionary tale of what happens when religious dogmatism attempts to subvert science.

Human sexuality has a long history of intellectual fascination, from the first ejaculation on Earth to Malcolm Cowley’s parodic vintage prediction for sex in the techno-future to Susan Sontag’s poignant meditation on the gap between love and sex. But the recent perusal of Mark Twain’s entertaining treatise on masturbation brought to mind the most intensely interesting and illuminating account ever published on the subject: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (public library) by science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach. Among a wealth of other phenomena, Roach examines the subject of Twain’s fascination, particularly the outrageous pseudoscientific techniques physicians, parents, and disciplinarians in the 18th and 19th centuries used to control the religiously abominable human urge — a tragicomic testament to society’s long and rather futile quest to judge and punish pleasure without understanding the underlying biology or the psychological repercussions of such misguided “treatments.”

Roach outlines the inhumane devices invented to abate the urge:

On the simple side, there was the Penile Pricking Ring. Invented in the 1850s, this was an adjustable, expandable metal ring slipped onto the penis at bedtime. If the sleeper’s penis begins to expand, it forces the ring open wider, exposing metal spikes….

Many of these devices included an option for daytime use, along with a lock-and-key mechanism. For the true target customer was not the penitent masturbator, but the worried parent and, even more so, the insane asylum caretaker. . . .

Happily, parents of K-through-8 masturbators were encouraged to try less drastic preventive measures. Little hands were tied to headboards, and trousers fashioned without pockets. Hobbyhorses were taken away, and climbing ropes removed from school gymnasiums. One of the biggest spoilsports in the antimasturbation crusade was American physician William Robinson. His 1916 Practical Treatise on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Sexual Impotence and Other Sexual Disorders in Men and Women includes a long chapter on preventing the premature awakening of the sexual instinct in children. “I strongly urge parents to keep their boys away from sensuous musical comedies and obscene vaudeville acts,” tutted Robinson … “Many of my patients told me that their first masturbatory act took place while witnessing some musical show.”

Jazz hands were not mentioned.

Illustration from Pixar's 'The Ancient Book of Sex and Science.' Click image for details.

Another antimasturbation crusader, a Dr. Crommelinck, prescribed “memorizing difficult passages on philosophy or history when overcome by the desire to masturbate.” And a book admonished citizens that masturbation could cause impotence, blindness, heart disease, insanity, stupidity, and “suppurating pustules on the face.” Even “mental masturbation” was strictly discouraged. Roach marvels at the pseudoscientific absurdity of it:

Truly it seemed that any activity undertaken — sleeping, thinking, eating spiced food, taking in a matinee of Mame — led the heedless male down the path to self-pollution. A man couldn’t even relieve himself without having to worry. Crommelinck urged gentlemen to avoid touching their genitals at all times, lest they inadvertently arouse themselves — even at the urinal. “Urinate quickly, do not shake your penis, even if means having several drops of urine drip into your pants.”

Those who could not manage to curb their impulses with philosophical tracts and antimasturbation gadgetry faced a withering assortment of brutal treatments. Robinson casually states that in two or three cases he applied “a red hotwire” to a child’s genitals.

In those days, masturbation was termed onanism — after the Bible’s Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground and was slain by God for this sinful transgression — and condemned as “self-abuse.” Applying hot iron to a child’s body was, evidently, not abuse but the cure for “self-abuse.” But beyond this gobsmacking moral irony lies a biological one. Roach circles back to science:

The bitter irony here is that regularly spilling one’s seed serves a valuable biological function. [S]perm which sit around the factory a week or more start to develop abnormalities; missing heads, extra heads, shriveled heads, tapered and bent heads. All of which render them less effective and headbanging their way into an egg. [Sex psychologist Rob] Levin speculates that that’s why men masturbate so much: It’s an evolutionary strategy.

The point, of course, isn’t that evolution explains everything or that our ancestors were ignorant brutes, but that the true power of science lies in illuminating, rather than controlling or punishing, the human condition so that we can live more intelligently and more freely, driven by a desire to understand rather than a blind righteousness.

Bonk is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with Dorion Sagan’s scientific history of sex and see Roach’s most recent book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

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11 MARCH, 2014

Orgasm Without Release: Alan Watts Presages Our Modern Media Gluttony in 1951

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A prescient admonition from the pioneer of Eastern philosophy in the West.

“If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss,” Saul Bellow wrote in his poignant 1990 essay “The Distracted Public.” Nearly a century earlier, in his funny and wise reflection on feeding the mind, Lewis Carroll admonished that “mental gluttony, or over-reading, is a dangerous propensity, tending to weakness of digestive power, and in some cases to loss of appetite.” And yet, cut off from both our bodies and our brains, we constantly oscillate between distraction and mental gluttony, seething in a cauldron of our own making, unwilling or unable to still our minds long enough for the truly meaningful to settle and coalesce.

This, of course, is far from a modern concern. In his altogether superb 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library), which gave us his invaluable meditation on happiness and how to live with presence, pioneering British Zen philosopher Alan Watts considers how our perilous compulsion for planning the future, coupled with our voracious appetite for distraction and escapism from the present, stifles our capacity to truly live.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Watts writes:

The root of [our] frustration is that we live for the future, and the future is an abstraction… The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

In language reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s admonition about the moving image, Watts — who, ironically, had a cameo in Spike Jonze’s Siri-centric movie Her — presages the modern mesmerism of screens, devices, and feeds, which, when used mindlessly, take us away from the present moment and become a “moronic inferno.” More than half a century before the technologies that most entice and entrance us today — especially the tyranny of perpetually flashing videos and animated GIFs — Watts observes the same worrisome effect in their then-modern predecessors:

The “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse –providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect “subject” for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. His eyes flit without rest from television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity — shock treatments — as “human interest” shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes along with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire.

And as if to seal the deal on his remarkable prescience, he adds a remark that applies with striking precision to our age of screens, data, and the quantified self:

The brainy modern loves not matter but measures, no solids but surfaces.

Watts, of course, was the opposite of a techno-dystopian — he was a champion of the human spirit and its capacity for freedom. His lament, all the timelier today, was thus not a curmudgeonly complaint but an expression of honest concern about the choices we’re making daily, and a gentle reminder that, as Annie Dillard put it, “how we spend our days … is how we spend our lives.” The rest of The Wisdom of Insecurity, which remains a must-read, explores how we can transcend our futile strategies for controlling life and surrender to its living essence. Sample some of it here, then see Watts on the ego and the universe.

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