Krippendorf’s Tribe the Novel

Krippendorf's TribeAs you may know, I’m a fan of the film, Krippendorf’s Tribe. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that I’m an apologist for it. I wrote about it recently, Why So Down on Krippendorf’s Tribe? It’s a silly and sweet film. But you can see the level of my enthusiasm when I wrote, “But the issue at hand is not whether Krippendorf’s Tribe is a great film. The question is whether the film works on its own terms. And I think it does, although not spectacularly.” So I was very interested to read Frank Parkin novel Krippendorf’s Tribe, that the film was based upon. They really aren’t very much alike.

Having now read the novel, I feel like the woodcutter at the beginning of Rashomon, “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.” It is extremely funny but also disturbing. I mean, really: disturbing. It is like a combination of A Confederacy of Dunces and Lord of Flies, but with more cynicism about human nature.

Most novels tell you a great deal about themselves in their first sentences. Krippendorf’s Tribe is no exception. Consider:

Krippendorf sat on the edge of his daughter’s bed, sniffing through a pile of her multicolored knickers. He felt reasonably sure that his sole motive for doing this was to sort out the ones that needed washing.

The operative word there is “reasonably.”

James Krippendorf is an unemployed anthropologist. So he is stuck managing the house and the children, while his alpha wife Veronica is a documentary filmmaker who spends most of the novel in various far off locales filming this or that tragedy. At some point before the novel starts, Krippendorf has decided that it isn’t necessary to actually do fieldwork. He can make contributions to anthropology by observing his own family and making up the Shelmikedmu tribe of Amazonia. This little con has been going on for a while, since he is already two years overdue in producing his report for a research grant, “The Hegemony of Myth: Social and Symbolic Reproduction among the Shelmikedmu.”

Reminders don’t seem to motivate him. But money does. He is contacted by the new editor of the British Journal of Structural Anthropology. He has decided to “give the old Journal a bit of a face-lift.” It is being renamed, Exotica, and he is wondering if Krippendorf could give him “two thousand words on clitorectomy.” Before long, there really are no words and the whole thing devolves into a girly magazine. Although Krippendorf is very serious about his work, he realizes he has to get photos of naked young women so he goes about seducing and then photographing young ethnic women.

What’s curious about all of this is that to Krippendorf, this is all work he’d rather not be doing. One of the girls complains that if he won’t have sex with her, she won’t do the photographs anymore. Now if this all sounds like it is over the top and kind of unpleasant, I have news for you. First: it is very funny. Second: this is the first half of the novel and is not even close to what is actually disturbing. In the second half of the novel, Krippendorf turns his household into the Shelmikedmu, resulting in the practice of (at first) unintended cannibalism and Shelley, Krippendorf’s barely post-pubescent daughter, becoming pregnant due to her brother (the Shelmikedmu practice incest).

I did not find the second half of the novel very enjoyable. But it continues with the same breezy satirical style, that still manages to be funny. And it is amazing how things that went before become normalized. When the sister and brother appeared to start their sexual relationship, I thought back fondly to the part of the novel when they were just eating the accidentally killed housekeeper.

As satire goes, I have to return to my original comment, “I don’t understand.” Krippendorf’s Tribe doesn’t seem satire so much as a pure exercise in cynicism. It isn’t that Krippendorf hates everyone. But it is hard to resist the conclusion that Parkin does. In particular, the novel is misogynistic. There are only three older women in the novel, all of which are commanding and abusive. The three younger women might as well be prostitutes, but without as much self-respect. And then there is Shelley who is treated to Krippendorf’s experiment, which reminds me of a non-scatological The Human Centipede.

Thematically, the novel seems to put our species in a double bind. We can either be happily detached emotionally, like Krippendorf. Or we can be angry and engaged like Veronica. Consider the following very amusing scene from the fun half of the book that demonstrates this choice:

Veronica sounded her horn angrily at the car which had just cut across in front of them and whose four occupants were now leaning out of the windows waving beer bottles. “Think of a game to play,” she said. “Anything to shut them up while I’m driving.” Her face was damp and flushed and she blew periodically down the front of her open blouse.

Krippendorf shut the road atlas. “Right,” he said. “A quiz. There will be a prize for the contestant who has accumulated the greatest number of points by the time we have seen our third road accident starting from now.” He took a pound note from his wallet and held it up for the children to see. The screaming and fighting in the back quickly subsided and he waited until Edmund was able to retrieve his leg before commencing.

“First question, for five points: name any tribe in sub-Saharan Africa whose kinship system is based on the principle of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage.”

The children shrieked in protest.

“Second question, for seven points,” Krippendorf said above the din. “In not more than twenty-five words, and not repeating any word save for the definite and indefinite articles, explain the theory of surplus value.”

A collective howl of rage rose from the back seat. “Ask us something we know about,” Mickey yelled. “Like they do on Adolesent Brain of Britain.”

Krippendorf thought for a while. “Very well, a Walt Disney question. Name any sixty of the One Hundred and One Dalmatians.”

Most of the book is like that, and although the same “disengaged sarcastic dad” routine gets a little old toward the end, it works well enough. I could have kept laughing through the cannibalism. It disturbed me, but I pushed through it, hoping for the best. But the incest was just too much for me. And if this means that I’m just bourgeois and the whole point of the book was to show the limits of my thinking, that’s fine. I already knew that, but it’s fine. The problem is, I don’t think that’s what the book is about. I just don’t understand. And I fear that Frank Parkin didn’t either.

Beware Libertarians Offering Basic Income Guarantees

Matt ZwolinskiRegular readers know that I believe in a guaranteed basic income. Not only would it solve a lot of problems, it is what we should do ethically. We simply are too rich to allow people to be desperately poor. Two hundred and twenty years ago, Thomas Paine laid out the basic logic: every human is born with an equal right to the resources of the planet. We have created a system that allows some people to do far better than this natural state would dictate through the use of laws and history. At the same time, poor people do worse than they would in the natural state where they could just farm and hunt as they wanted. Therefore, some amount of redistribution is called for to make up for the fact that our economy is rigged. (See: Inequality: the Monopoly Analogy.)

But I wasn’t happy to hear that libertarians like Matt Zwolinski were writing things like, The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Guarantee. The reason is that Zwolinski isn’t interested in the question at hand. This is just a provocative way of saying, “Look: the government doesn’t work!” At this point, I’m to the breaking point of dealing with disingenuous libertarian “arguments.”

If you spend any time arguing with libertarians, you will run into the “local is better” argument. This is the idea that local governments are better because they are more responsive to the needs of their people. There are many problems with this. For example, when the United States was formed, its population was less than four million people. This is roughly one-tenth the population of California today. Is it really true that the federal government was less responsive to the needs of its people than the state government is today? Also, what we’ve seen is that state and local governments are generally too responsive to the “needs” of certain people leading to discrimination. Over the last half century, the worst government abuses toward individual rights have been at the state and local level.

Of course, the whole idea of pushing “local is better” is to allow libertarians to do in a circuitous way what they can’t do in a direct way: destroy the government. We see this with the general conservative obsession with block grants. The idea is that the federal government just gives money to the states to use as they will. Of course, what will happen over time is that federal support for these grants will decrease. Why should federal politicians support giving money for programs when they have no control. When we decide we have to balance the federal budget, the block grants would be the first things cut.

Mike KonczalSo when the John Galt crowd starts arguing in favor of a guaranteed basic income, you know it is not because they care about the poor or that they’ve been reading Thomas Paine. It is just a ruse to push more of their anti-government and “makers vs takers” ideology. Luckily, Mike Konczal is on the job in an article yesterday, The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Doesn’t Add Up. He takes the argument far more seriously than I do. He goes through the numbers and shows that we couldn’t replace all the welfare programs with a minimum income without costing more in taxes—something that no conservative would agree to.

But to give you an idea of just how disingenuous Zwolinski is, one of the programs that would be cut would be Medicaid. Poor people don’t need no stinking medical care! Of course, he never even mentions Medicaid. It is central to his argument, but it isn’t stated because even the most gullible of readers would notice that a basic income of $10,000 per year would not allow someone in our country with its broken healthcare system to get the care they need.

It doesn’t matter though. All the calculations and bright ideas are meaningless. Zwolinski doesn’t care about fixing anything. He is only interested in making the argument that the government doesn’t provide welfare efficiently. It is yet another “government is the problem” argument. But as Konczal shows in the following graph, the government is actually very efficient in providing welfare:

Welfare Program Administrative Costs

None of this reflects on the basic idea of a guaranteed basic income. I’ve never thought that such a program would eliminate the need for other welfare programs. For example, it seems to me that poor families with children would have extra needs. And it is certainly true that universal healthcare would be necessary. What Zwolinski is offering is an actual smart man’s version of Paul Ryan’s poverty plan. This is the same old thing with conservatives: they have a certain bag of tricks that they apply to every problem, because they aren’t interested in solving the problem. They are interested in using the problem as an excuse to push their existing agenda.

Learning from Jean Piaget

Jean PiagetOn this day in 1896, the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget was born. He was very interested in how especially children learn. And what makes him interesting compared to, say, Freud, is that he didn’t see humans as just a bag of dysfunction. There is a tendency in psychology generally to focus on the abnormal, or even worse, to define the normal as abnormal. I always think of him along with Abraham Maslow as having a more positive view of human psychology.

Piaget is best know for his four developmental stages: sensorimotor (0-2 years); preoperational (2-7); concrete operational (7-14); and formal operational. There are two general, but connected, developmental aspects to this, although I’m sure an expert on Piaget would find this a great oversimplification. First, there is the development of empathy. Second, there is the development of abstract thought. I’m not sure exactly how these interact, but clearly abstract thought is necessary for empathy. For example, psychopaths are capable (often even brilliant) at abstract thought but do not have much in the way of empathy. But as a child grows, it develops empathy before it has fully mastered abstract thought. I think this means that empathy is a primitive form of abstract thought and much more fundamental to who we are as a species. But it makes you wonder about the “Let him die!” crowd.

Piaget himself was an incredibly precocious child. He was very interested in zoology when he was young and published a number of papers on mollusks by the age of 15. In college, his interests turned to philosophy and psychology. He got interested in developmental psychology while working at a boys school in Paris. While grading “intelligence” tests, he noticed a pattern that younger boys tended to get certain kinds of questions wrong that longer boys did not. This led to the startling insight that younger children think in a different way from older children. Up to that time, it was generally thought that children were just less experienced adults, who were otherwise the same.

On a practical level, I think there is much good about the old way of seeing children. Today, children are too often “protected” from the adult world. I’m not suggesting that children ought to be forced to see the harsh realities of the world. But there is much good that comes from allowing children to interact with adults intellectually. In other words: children should be seen and heard. I also think that our obsession with not allowing children to know about sex and coarse language is a mistake. I always remember this great Julia Sweeney story about dealing with her daughter’s question about frog reproduction. By and large, I think it is a good overview of how one should interact with children. And how the occasional tactical lie might be useful.

Piaget had a long and distinguished career. He was also probably the greatest constructivist thinker, where he pioneered new ways of looking at education. The basic idea is very simple. We create models of the way the world work. And as we acquire new knowledge, we integrate it into those models. I like this idea very much because it completely explains the way I think and how I go about learning new things. I think everyone does this, but of course, we are usually too involved using the process to think about it.

Happy birthday Jean Piaget!