Zeitgeist

Free the Cognitive Dissidents

July 17, 2008

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I’ve never been one for ruthless consistency. I learned young the fine art of emotional doublethink, from the experience of being at one and the same time:

      
  • An orthodox Catholic who mentally assented to official Church teaching on sexuality, according to its 1917 formulation in the old Catholic Encyclopedia.
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  • A teenage boy.


  

You needn’t read James Joyce to understand the game of existential Twister this entails. Incessant trips to confession (those poor, bored priests), sweaty brown scapulars, visions of hell-fire…. There are worse ways to spend one’s teenage years. At least I didn’t edit the yearbook, or sing in my high school’s peppy production of Godspell. Indeed, apart from founding the War Game Club, I avoided every extracurricular activity that might have advanced my college applications.

When the alumnus interviewing me for my long-shot, first-choice college asked me what I’d done throughout high school, I truthfully answered: “Not much. Mostly, I just prosecuted my religion teachers for heresy.”

He chuckled. “No, seriously.” Then he saw the look on my face—and whipped out his note pad.

I recounted how I’d compiled a dossier on two of our religion teachers, who’d repaid my parents’ tuition by denying… pretty much everything which any martyr has ever died to affirm—from the virginity of Mary to the authority of the pope, from the bodily Resurrection to the Eucharist. I explained how I’d moved from confronting them in class, to notifying the principal, then the bishop, then at last the Papal Nuncio—the pope’s ambassador to the U.S.

“What did your school do?”

“They threatened to expel me. But I had my attorney draft a letter warning them we’d sue. They backed down after that.”

“Where’d you get an attorney?”

“My mother met him at one of her poker games. You know, at the church.” I told him how at that time in Queens, the diocese made up its deficits by holding all-night, high-stakes poker games at Catholic grammar schools. The Irish cops wouldn’t crack down on them, so the games metastasized, and soon filled up every parish in driving distance. And my mother attended so many, that to this day when I hear phrases like “St. Sebastian” “St. Rita,” “Most Precious Blood” and “Corpus Christi,” my first thought is: “Oh crap, another poker game. We’ll be eating Spam again this week.”

All this took place in the late days of the long-lived, much-loved, semi-retarded Bishop Francis Mugavero—who died in 1991 with a spotless record: He’d never turned down an annulment.

I described how the cafeterias at schools from Astoria to Glendale filled up three nights per week—including Fridays in Lent. On one of these sacred evenings, when the priest who sold the chips started handing out bologna sandwiches, my mother rebuked him: “It’s bad enough you’re having this game two days before Palm Sunday,” she rasped. “And bad enough that I’m here. But now you’re serving us meat?” So the pastor stood up and gave every poker player in the room a “special dispensation” to eat his sandwiches. I described these lunchrooms filled with addicted housewives, compliant cops, and shady gents of Mediterranean background with pointy loafers. The middle-aged attorney was fascinated.

“Were they… Mafiosos?”

I shrugged. “Or wanna-bes. All I know is that whenever they used profanity, my mother would reprimand them: ‘Hey! Watch yer mouth! You’re in the presence of a lady.’

“They’d stare at her, swallow…then apologize. They realized what they were dealing with.”

He must have decided that I offered Yale something… distinctive.

Anyway, growing up in such environs—tormented on the one side by the fear of Hell, and on the other by butch, Sandinista nuns who denied that the place existed—taught me a certain psychological flexibility. You might call it cognitive dissonance. (My girlfriend, a one-time psych major, keeps on saying “cognitive dissidents,” which I like better since it evokes tiny Solzshenitsyns and Walesas running around inside my head.)

And such flexibility has served me well. If the only ideals someone is willing to defend are those he can actually (right now, today) fully attain, chances are good that he either:

      
  • Is a scary inhuman ideologue out of Joseph Conrad, or Lenin in Zurich, whose mind work likes a meatgrinder.


  

Or:

      
  • Has very low standards, and lives up to them quite easily. As Homer Simpson explained to Lisa when she urged on him an apple instead of a jelly donut: “Purple is a fruit!”


  

Neither type of hobgoblin appeals to me. Instead of a highly efficient Teutonic machine, my psyche works much more like one of Rube Goldberg’s old inventions, creaking along in the manner of the Habsburg monarchy, with Turks and Croats side by side, with Sigmund Freud and Karl Lueger smoking cigars at the same café. And that’s how I like things, thank you very much.

So it wasn’t really a shock when I discovered—during a rare moment of introspection—that in certain ways I’ve been leading a double life. Specifically, when it comes to technology, acquisition, and the accoutrements of bourgeois life.

On the one hand, I’m an old friend of Eric Brende, the funny, self-deprecating, and mostly persuasive critic of technology. A school mate of mine, he went on to study the history of technology at MIT, then chose to become beyond a doubt the lowest paid graduate of that school in its history. To make a living today, he writes books, and pedals a bicycle cab in St. Louis. And his wife crafts wonderful home-made soap, which he barters for other goods—for instance, he sent me a raft of the stuff in return for critiquing his latest book proposal. I was quite won over by Eric’s first book, Better Off, which details how he put his skepticism about technology to the test: He and his wife went off for a year and lived with the hard-core Amish. The book is witty and winning, and makes a persuasive case. It inspired me to resist acquiring more devices than I needed. Indeed, apart from essentials like rent, whiskey, and ethnic restaurants, I tried to spend no money at all.

I took a quiet pride in refusing to adopt the same doodads as my peers. As of 2007, when I still lived in New York, I would feel a tiny bit smug that I possessed:

      
  • No cell phone
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  • No laptop
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  • No iPod
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  • No television
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  • No car
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  • No driver’s license
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  • No exercise equipment (beyond a bike)
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  • No wristwatch, and
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  • No comb.


  

I didn’t own a suit that cost more than $60 at the thrift shop, and slept on the same $300 mattress I’d bought reconditioned. Which means, I guess, that they deloused the thing and pulled out all the bullets, but it suited me just fine.

For many years, I got along comfortably—watching Netflix sometimes on the PC which I used to work from home. Using payphones when I needed to make a phone call while on the road. Cadging rides on those rare occasions when I needed to leave the City (for instance, to go pick up yet another rescue dog). At events that called for formal dress, I’d wear a turtleneck—and experience a tiny frisson of “artistic,” rebellious bravado.

I’ll admit, I even felt a little condescending towards my friends who carried Blackberrys to beaches and bars. When their pockets hummed and they had to interrupt our conversation to answer an email, squinting and pecking at that tiny little keyboard, I thought, “How free I am. How bohemian….” In fact, it simply meant that the work I did was neither urgent nor important enough for any boss to insist I be reachable. Whatever it was they needed from me, it absolutely could wait. Sometimes for days. If I died, they might never notice.

Of course, my ascetical attitude sometimes caused inconveniences to others. Once I was called down to visit Ron Maxwell (director of Gettysburg and Gods & Generals) to work on a screenplay project. When I spoke with his assistant who was to pick me up at Dulles, he asked for my cell phone number. “I don’t have one,” I said with a smile in my voice. “We’ll just find each other.” Annoyed, he pointed out that neither of us had ever seen each other’s face, and this process could last for hours. At last, I agreed to wear a green Tyrolean hat. Since this was springtime in Virginia, I explained, chances were that I would stand out. And indeed, I did.

My beloved has wasted, cumulatively, hours, driving around the Dallas airport waiting for me to emerge from baggage claim. Sometimes I would simply pester some stranger to use his or her cell phone. The person would always agree, but stare at me—suspicious that I was in fact an extraterrestrial or a pervert. Then carefully swab the phone with an antibacterial wipe.

And so on. Over the years, I have surely put friends and family to enormous inconvenience in my pursuit of simplicity. I have certainly overlooked a hundred subtle or blatant hints, and shaved a few months off their lifespans with the stress I blithely inflicted—all the while patting my very own, turtlenecked back for my Franciscan austerity.

But my regime has broken down—caved in like some post-Communist cabinet in Hungary. In the past six months, I was forced to surrender on every front:

      
  • Trapped in a large house five miles from the nearest microbrewery, spending sometimes $40 daily on cabs, I have finally purchased a car—albeit a 1990 Chevy Caprice that would earn derisive snickers in Havana.
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  • Unable to drive it legally, I’m taking driver’s ed—paying $45 per hour for some guy to hold my hand as I merge on the freeway.
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  • For my teaching trip in Italy, I had to buy a Samsung. The pay phones in Rome look just like the condom dispensers, and are just as uncomfortable when you speak into them.
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  • For the same trip, I had to buy a laptop—and use it every day to pour out the 2,000 words I was writing then for Takimag. Since Internet access was hard to find, I even had to spring for a satellite modem—which let me upload my columns from Orvieto.
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  • Surrounded for three months in a foreign country by American college students, I had to buy an iPod to drown them out.
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  • Ordered by my doctor to lose some 40 pounds, I’ve bought an elliptical trainer, and set it up in front of my new… television. Which gets Dish Network. So I can bribe myself to work out with reruns of Law & Order. And by the way, I’ve found a less frightening doctor, one who will prescribe the harmless, wonderful appetite suppressant Meridia (instead of a trip to a concentration camp). I now only need to eat once a day, and am losing a pound a week.


  

But I still haven’t sprung for a suit.

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