14 February 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 86

"I am getting tired of this conversation. It's like a political argument:
it has no end, no possible way to persuade the other person. Ellen wants to be frightened.
She is much more comfortable being frightened than she is being reassured.

Why, I wonder, is that?"

-- Michael Crichton

Before Crichton wrote about global warming in State of Fear, he wrote about AIDS in the essay Panic in the Sheets. I thought it would be an appropriate link to share on St. Valentine's Day. =P

There are interesting parallels between Crichton's friend Ellen and his character Peter Evans, but my favourite part of the essay is his suggestion that some people obsess about AIDS because it gives them a great excuse not to worry about intimacy. I buy it, but now it makes me wonder what the global warming crowd are trying to distract themselves from. What does an intense focus on saving the planet (from something that may not even be a danger) help to distract us from?

Pages 311 to 401

As you can see, I'm still following my proposed reading plan! And it turns out that this is another really good place in the plot for us to take a pause. (Or as we say in my German class, Pause machen.) For something significant has just happened to our protagonist Peter Evans: he has survived a rite of passage.

. . . He would have expected his native caution to take over--a series of killings, possibly murders, he was an accomplice or at the very least a material witness, he could be tied up in court, disgraced, disbarred . . . That was the path his mind usually followed That was what his legal training had emphasized.

But at this moment he felt no anxiety at all. Extremists had been discovered and they had been killed. He was neither surprised nor disturbed by the news. On the contrary, he felt quite satisfied to hear it.

He realised then that his experience in the crevasse had changed him--and changed him permanently. Someone had tried to kill him. He could never have imagined such a thing growing up in suburban Cleveland, or in college, or law school. He could never have imagined such a thing while living his daily life, going to work at his firm in Los Angeles.

And so he could not have predicted the way that he felt changed by it now . . .

The last time the "Two or Three" Book Club talked about rites of passage, we were discussing Stephen King's Pet Sematary--and there really were only two of us. (Hi, Angie!) Crichton is not as subtle as King, and I find Evans's character development a little mechanical. But it really helps State of Fear to work as a novel that our protagonist doesn't simply have his mind changed by new information, but gets to grow through adversity.

This may be how most of us change our minds: not by changing our thinking, but by changing our being. Those people who are easy to convince and who "see reason" immediately were probably already on your side before they heard what you had to say. Everyone else needs about five years, according to ecologist and population-control advocate Garrett Hardin (Is this an irony?) and any marketers who have studied buyer behaviour with respect to new products. Now the question is whether the more skeptical readers of State of Fear, who did not have anyone try to kill them, can be changed vicariously through Evans's experience. The answer is a measure of Crichton's literary skill.

I'm really enjoying the action-packed parts of the story, but it's the politics of global warming that got me to start reading. So let's also chew on the food for thought we get in the taped discussions between John Henley and Nicholas Drake.

Drake paced. He looked unhappy. "But it just doesn't make sense," he said. "It's not logical to say that freezing weather is caused by global warming."

"What's logic got to do with it?" Henley said. "All we need is for the media to report it. After all, most Americans believe that crime in their country is increasing, when it has actually been
declining for twelve years. The US murder rate is as low as it was in the early 1970s, but Americans are more frightened than ever, because so much more airtime is devoted to crime, they naturally assume there is more in real life, too." Henley sat up in his chair. "Think about what I'm saying to you, Nicholas. A twelve-year trend and they still don't believe it. There is no greater proof that all reality is media reality.

Now, I'm not going to check the statistics on crime in America, but wouldn't it be a riot if this were another of Crichton's subliminal Orwellian tricks? His way of pointing out that we will believe something we get from the media (such as a novel) more than we will believe our own experiences? I hope it isn't, though, because I'd like the decline in crime to be one of the footnote-deserving facts.

Finally, it's worth pointing out one last bit of plan-in-the-sand synchronicity. If I had known in advance that the main event of this part of the readalong would be Evans's rite of passage, I would have stopped us at page 397--right after Sarah notices the change in him as well, just in time for a golden sunset. But because I wanted to read "half of 'Snake'," we get another scene to serve as an epilogue. And boy, am I glad about that, because it has two of the best questions of the entire novel.

"Do you spend much time worrying about what might happen a thousand years from now?"


"Think anybody should?"


"There you are."

And here we are! Whether or not you agree with what Crichton asserts are the moral answers, I think we can all admit that he pared the politics down to the right questions.

Discussion Questions:

1) What kind of adversity or outlets of symbolic death were available to you in the place where you grew up? 
2) Why do you think the media can make us deny what we see before our very eyes?
3) To paraphrase John Kenner, do you think anyone should spend much time worrying about what might happen a thousand years from now?


DMS said...

I think it is fascinating that it takes 5 years for people to change their minds about things they are exposed to that they originally disagree with. That makes sense because we hold firmly to our beliefs, but still gives me a lot to think about.

I don't necessarily worry about what will happen 1000 years from now, but I do worry about things that will happen in my lifetime.

Glad you are enjoying the book and it is making you think about so many things! :)

r said...

I think my only advantage as a thinker is that I go through the mind-changing process quite a bit faster than average.

Enbrethiliel said...


Jess -- The exact Garrett Hardin quotation is, "It takes five years for a willing person's mind to change." An unwilling person would presumably take even longer!

R -- My point is that there's no such thing as a pure mind-changing process.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

"She is much more comfortable being frightened than she is being reassured.

Why, I wonder, is that?"

I stumbled across this passage from Jody Bottom today. He's writing about the spiritual anxiety of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, but it seems to me his response about people being driven by spiritual concerns is exactly the answer to the question Crichton poses.

"I … couldn’t finish the assignment. I could feel a spiritual anxiety about modern civilization radiating from nearly all of them, but I could find no easy way to explain it.

Now, two years later, this book is my answer: Not just those protestors, but nearly everyone today is driven by supernatural concerns, however much or little they realize it. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives—together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation of individuals desperate to stand on the side of morality—anxious to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.

The trouble, of course, is that we’ve lost any shared cultural notion of what exactly that goodness might entail."
Why are people more comfortable being frightened than reassured? Because they are materialists and while on some level they might recognize the spiritual essence of things still, they have no spiritual hope and so fear is indeed the proper response when you have no savior. The world truly is a scary place when there is no higher power you can look to. I think in some ways the anxiety over AIDS or global warming or Wall Street is displaced anxiety about the moral order.

cyurkanin said...

Melanie wrote: "Because they are materialists and while on some level they might recognize the spiritual essence of things still, they have no spiritual hope and so fear is indeed the proper response when you have no savior. The world truly is a scary place when there is no higher power you can look to. I think in some ways the anxiety over AIDS or global warming or Wall Street is displaced anxiety about the moral order."

Pretty great statement.

Many temporal causes are simply excuses to avoid the true causes of spiritual aridity. I am not diminishing the validity of the issues so many people champion, just the ordering of them.

It reminds me of a quote from a book I was recently reading by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn: “The great pagan sadness of modern man is largely due to his premonition of ultimate disaster.”

Enbrethiliel said...


Melanie -- That's a great point! The great anxiety we've seen over all these temporal issues is rooted in a materialistic view of the world. But even those who would deny the spiritual are apparently still oriented toward eternal life: they just want it to be something they can measure. Like a thousand years into the earth's future.

I find this especially interesting in the light of one complaint I hear a lot about religious people: that we let our hope in Heaven be an excuse not to solve immediate problems on earth. And they don't mean global warming or similar fears, but the actual sufferings of people who don't have enough to eat or to live. Of course, this doesn't bear up when we recall that most charitable organisations are run by religious people. But it's interesting to compare the orientations of people who have different concepts of "eternity."

Christopher -- There's a lot of displaced anxiety into temporal causes even among spiritual people--as I'm sure you've seen many times! I'm kind of watching it happen on another blog, but not really getting involved because I have my own stupid issues. =P

Sheila said...

Yes, crime has been on the decline here for some time. A few well-publicized sniper attacks and school shootings mean a lot more to the average American viewer than, say, 100 fewer robbery/murders in a year. And not to be cynical, but I'm afraid Americans take notice a lot more when the victims of violence are white.

In the same way, most parents are terrified of child abduction and wouldn't dream of letting their kids walk to the park alone. However, children are more likely to be struck by lightning TWICE than abducted .... it's just that when it has happened, it's been all over the news. And then there are the parents who carefully check over their children's Halloween candy because they "know" people stick poison and razorblades in it. How often has that ever happened? Try never. It's just something that stuck in the popular imagination. Some people also believe what they've seen in fictional movies happens all the time in real life, just because it captured their imagination so much. It's fascinating to read actual statistics of your risk of various things and realize that what people fear (terrorist attacks, violent murder, kidnapping) is usually much less likely than the things they don't think twice about (car accidents, developing diabetes, medical errors).

On the question of fear: in a world that has so very much evil in it as ours does, I admit I really have to be afraid. If I don't feel afraid, I worry it's because I'm closing my eyes to reality .... and sure enough, I am!

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, it's good to hear that about the US crime rate! Of course, this doesn't make the isolated events any better.

One general idea I'm getting from State of Fear is that we get into trouble when we try to think and to act on an international scale. The things I think it's reasonable to worry about--like the devaluation of my savings or my risk of developing a lifestyle disease--seem to have come about because a handful of people half a world away couldn't mind their own business and decided to meddle with economies and markets they may never even see. And it becomes harder and harder to care for my corner of the world, and the people I have proper ties to, because others think it is a good thing to be as "global" as possible.

Sheila said...

Think globally, act locally, right? Think of how your actions will affect people a world away ... and then choose not to do that stuff.

Your paragraph is one of the wisest things I've read in some time.

Last week I read Fast Food Nation, which is an upsetting and depressing book about how fast food has ruined America, ruined farms, ruined local food, ruined the meat industry, ruined neighborhoods, and ruined all our health. That was bad enough. When I got to the chapter about how the US has exported fast food to all the corners of the globe, I didn't even want to keep reading. Can't we even contain our own mess?

There was a line by the person who invited McDonalds into Japan, saying, "If we eat like Americans for a hundred years, we will grow taller, our hair will become blond, and our eyes will turn blue." Well, they are looking more like us .... fatter. Ugh. Why does everyone want to be like America? It's no great shakes! I've been raised all my life to see America as "the greatest nation on God's green earth," and it's been startling to find that in terms of health, education, wealth distribution, and so forth, we are falling further and further behind. And attempts by other countries to "be like us" usually just result in being exploited by us, which is not at all the same thing anyway.

I don't want to be an American. I want to be a townie -- a citizen of *my town.* That is a world plenty big enough for me to manage.

Enbrethiliel said...


Going by your definition, I'd love to be a townie, too! Funnily enough, the first time I heard that term, it was on a British sitcom in which members of a rural community were upset about "townies" buying up country estates and only using them a few months of the year. The locals wanted real neighbours who cared about the community, not "townies" who couldn't stay where they belonged! =P

But in fairness to McDonalds . . . I remember reading someone's reflection that one of the best things about living in Los Angeles is going to McDonalds for Saturday breakfast. He admitted that he hates seeing McDonalds wherever he travels in the world, but it seems to belong in LA, like a gemstone in the right setting. While I agree that fast food is pretty unhealthy, I think that it grew organically (Ha!) out of a certain pocket of American culture and so has a proper place there. Although fast food is a economic, even exploitative option in other places (like, you know, my own), I think it became so only through being forced where it didn't belong. It's an invasive species here, but probably not in LA.

Sheila said...

Oh, I don't know about that. Sure, the original burger stand in Oakland had nothing wrong with it. But when they started replacing skilled cooks with underpaid workers running fancy machines to do the cooking, the next thing you knew they really *had* to expand to a monstrous size. The potatoes for the french fries have to be made offsite (because the workers can't be trusted to slice a potato), which means a huge potato factory and a monopoly on potato buying (can you have a buyers' monopoly?) which forces farmers to accept starvation prices ... and similar "economies of scale" for meat which make the meat low-quality and not very safe.

McDonalds isn't just culturally inappropriate; it's unjust by pretty much any measure. But sure, at its founding it wasn't so bad! An American hamburger is a wonderful thing; but a real one will have to come from a real American burger joint. Our local one is called Spelunker's and is really something. The burgers and fries are made fresh, and you can really tell. I believe they also treat their workers better.

"Townie" is maybe a little derogatory .... but, well, I *do* live in town, so there it is. There's no adjective for people who live here besides that .... if you knew the name of my town you'd see it simply wouldn't work.

Enbrethiliel said...


You may be right. I'm definitely not a fan of the fast food mentality leaching into the food production arm of the industry.

Could you expand a little more on what you mean by McDonalds "having" to expand? My understanding of your comment is that the switch to hiring unskilled workers to operate machines directly led to the expansion, but I don't see why it would.

Belfry Bat said...

I think what Sheila means by that (what a fun game we're playing!) is that, once a profitable franchisable operation is sufficiently cheap to set-up and run, not building another one or two or a thousand is (to an investor's eyes) lost royalties.