Thinking in an Emergency

Elaine Scarry, best known for her meditation on The Body in Pain, here offers a slim yet gravid essay that occupies a curious nexus.  It is partly a work of sociological analysis, on the order of Bowling Alone.  It is partly an appeal to the power of philosophy and rationality, akin to Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy.  It is partly a work of speculative neuroscience examing our thought processes, such as Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine.  It is partly a controlled rant (pardon the oxymoron) that seeks to speak truth and justice to power, along the lines of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience.  And it is partly a dry-as-dust work from some federal agency like the Congressional Government Accountability Office, documenting with reams of precise statistics why we should all eat more vegetables.  Luckily for the reader, the other four passionate actors in the troupe sit heavily upon this bluenose lecturer and only let him get in an intermittent squeak or three.


Thinking in an Emergency is the first volume in Amnesty International's "Global Ethics Series," and as such it seeks to address "transnational moral dilemmas" in a positive way.  Scarry's topic is how a citizenry and the individuals that consititute a nation act in an crisis situation, and why we seem inclined nowadays to live in a perpetual state of panic, where we abandon all rationality, debate and deliberation, allowing all-powerful rulers to take the reins of government out of our hands.  


Scarry begins by describing the six decades of nuclear madness—still persisting today, though hidden and ignored—which is best described by the familiar phrase "Mutually Assured Destruction."  She adds in recent undeclared wars and government-condoned torture programs to limn an off-the-rails domestic and foreign policy, where wild-eyed flailing about is substituted for discourse and seasoned response.  


Having painted such a grim picture, she next examines four instititutions that rely, during similar crisis situations, on engrained training and cooperation to succeed.  The first practice is the dissemination and practice of CPR techniques.  The second is mutual-aid contracts among rural Canadians.  The third is the Swiss program of fallout shelters for all.  And the final admirable model is the USA's oft-bypassed Constitutional mechanisms for declaring war.


Scarry's argument is that forethought and the inculcation of virtues form the only bulwark against panic when disaster strikes.  She hails forth the teachings of such philosophical savants as Aristotle, Montaigne and Locke to bolster her case for every citizen becoming forearmed, and ready to act out of savvy habit.  On page 90, she almost explicitly invokes Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000-hour rule" from Outliers, which maintained that in any field of endeavor it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become a virtuoso.  In essence, what Scarry is asking is for each of us to devote that ten thousand hours—or a reasonable fraction thereof—to becoming virtuoso citizens.


Although all of Scarry's preceptors are Westerners, it seems to me that she is essentially describing a Buddhist regimen.  The Eightfold Path and its ladder of right understanding and right intentions leading to right action seems identical to Scarry's plan.  If followed, we could all be like the Zen monk who famously kept his head during an earthquake and rescued all his peers, only to nervously refresh himself afterward by drinking a jar of pure soy sauce in a moment of post-quake distractedness.  The job would get done, but we would still be humanly fallible.



The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.



July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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