The mind-body problem lurks at the heart of every life. You face it when you swill a glass of vodka moments after vowing never to drink again, when you squelch the urge to watch gay porn on the Internet, when you yearn to quit your soul-crushing Wall Street job and abandon your thankless family and write novels in a cabin in the woods, when you scream at that vicious voice in your head to shut up, when you see a shrink, swallow an antidepressant or pray to quell your despair, when you fear death but don’t see the point of life, when you’re lost, with no idea who you really are.
Each identity crisis is a microcosm of humanity’s identity crisis. For millennia, we have dreamed of a world in which there are no more identity crises. We have discovered the Supreme Story, the final, true answer to the mind-body problem, the riddle of the human condition. We live together in harmony, with no more conflict, inner or outer, because we all know who we really are. We call this perfect world Paradise, Heaven, Shangri-La, Nirvana–or, if you prefer a less woo term, utopia.
Utopia, defined as a world in which we all share a common vision of who we are, is the most sublime idea ever invented–and the worst. We are never more dangerous than when we know, beyond all doubt, who we really are, and when we insist that others believe as we do. People gripped by this kind of certainty can become monsters who subjugate and slaughter others with self-righteous zeal. Faith in Supreme Stories has inspired crusades, inquisitions, slavery, genocide and countless wars, religious and secular. In the 20th century, utopian dreams of fascists and communists culminated in Auschwitz and the gulag.
In our era “utopian” has become, with good reason, a derogatory term, meaning naively idealistic. Does that mean we should abandon the concept? Not at all. If you dislike the world as it is, you should have a vision of it as you would like it to be. That is your utopia. Imagine your utopia, your ideal world, then imagine how we can get there. All progress begins with this sort of wishful thinking. Ideally, your vision will be reasonable, not delusional. It will be based on what we have learned about ourselves from science and from history. Given our biology, and our past, is it reasonable to hope for a future without war? Poverty? Tyranny? Injustice? These, too, are mind-body questions.
Other experts in this book have dwelled on mind-body riddles like consciousness, the self, free will, mental illness, morality and the meaning of life. Economist Deirdre McCloskey, the heroine of this penultimate chapter, has focused on the knotty, practical question of how we should govern and sustain ourselves. What political and economic system gives us our best shot at communal happiness? McCloskey thinks she has found an answer. Or rather a story, one that works pretty well, that might help resolve our ancient, communal identity crisis.
Before I get to that big-picture story, I need to tell you McCloskey’s personal story. As I hope will become apparent, the two stories are not unrelated. In her memoir Crossing, published in 1999, McCloskey reveals that she was born in 1942 a boy, whose parents named him Donald. McCloskey refers to both Donald and Deirdre in the third person, as though her authorial persona is yet another self, which of course it is. In one of her earliest memories, Donald was five and his mother took him to an ice cream shop in Harvard Square. McCloskey writes:
After a hot fudge sundae and a watery Coke [Donald] had to go to the bathroom, so she took him into the ladies’ room. It was nothing out of the ordinary. She wasn’t going to leave her five-year-old son in a strange men’s room when he needed to wee-wee, not even in the safe world of 1947. What’s not ordinary was Donald’s sharp memory of it, the ladies in the tiny room speaking kindly to the boy as they straightened their seams and reapplied their lipstick.
Donald grew up tall and barrel-chested, with broad shoulders. He was captain of his high school football team, for which he played lineman. He was intellectually ambitious, not surprisingly, since his mother was a poet and his father a professor of government at Harvard. Donald earned a bachelor’s and doctorate in economics at Harvard, and in 1968 he landed a job at the University of Chicago, a bastion of free-market economics. In 1980 he moved to the University of Iowa, where he remained for 19 years and his crossing took place.
He made a name as a “tough-guy economist,” a defender of free markets and critic of his field’s methods who wrote with literary flair. At 22 McCloskey married Joanne, a nurse who eventually became a professor of nursing. They had a son in 1969 and daughter in 1975. Professionally and personally, McCloskey seemed to have all a man could want, but he had a secret. He liked wearing female clothing. He donned his mother’s panties when he was 11 and felt “a rush of sexual pleasure.” In his teens he snuck into neighbors’ homes and tried on crinolines, garter belts and other “equipment of a 1950s girl.”
McCloskey kept crossdressing after his marriage. When he confessed his secret to his wife, she wasn’t thrilled, but she accepted it, because she loved him, and he was a good husband, father and provider. He married Joanne and raised children with her because he truly loved her, not because he was trying to prove his masculinity. But he compensated for his sexual confusion by acting macho. He could be ruthless in seminars and at conferences.
In the early 1990s his crossdressing intensified. He dressed in drag not only in private but also, increasingly, in public. He visited gay bars and attended gatherings of crossdressers, some of whom had gone to drastic lengths to prove their masculinity. One volunteered during the Vietnam War to be a “tunnel rat,” who carried out search and destroy missions in tunnels dug by the Vietcong.
Driving away from one of these meetings in 1995, McCloskey had an epiphany. “I am not a heterosexual crossdresser,” he thought. “I am a transsexual… I am a woman.” Many psychiatrists and other so-called experts insist that men who crossdress and fantasize about being women are homosexuals. They are wrong, according to McCloskey. Donald had rebuffed homosexual advances. “He wasn’t gay,” McCloskey writes. “He loved gals, not guys. He would rather have been gay than a gender crosser: it was less bother.”
When he told those close to him he planned to change gender, some, especially his wife, reacted with shock. Others were surprisingly supportive. Crossing has a scene in which McCloskey tells his dean about his plan (and passages like this might explain why McCloskey has irked feminists):
Gary sat stunned for a moment. They were both economists, conservative by academic standards, free-market enthusiasts. Then:
“Thank god….I thought for a moment you were going to confess to converting to socialism!”
[Donald] laughed, relieved. The dean was going to act like a friend.
“And this is great for our affirmative action program — one more woman, one less man.” More laughter. More relief.
“And wait a minute — it’s even better: as a woman, I can cut your salary to seventy cents on the dollar!”
Donald had his facial and body hair removed and underwent hormone injections and surgery on his face. McCloskey’s younger sister Laura, then teaching psychology at Harvard, had Donald forcibly committed to a mental hospital, twice, to prevent him from getting surgery. On one occasion, police detained Donald at an academic conference. Laura threatened to sue any surgeon who operated on her brother.
To her humiliation, McCloskey had to defend her sanity in court before she could get the surgery. The experience left her with a disdain for psychiatrists, some of whom testified against her. In psychiatry as in her own field, she realized, ignorance often postures as expertise. “Since we know so little about the economy, or about gender crossing, better laissez faire,” she asserts. Eventually she got the surgery, completing her transformation. She called her new self “Deirdre,” “wanderer” in Old Irish and the name of a legendary Irish heroine.
As I read McCloskey’s memoir, she struck me as a real-life version of the Greek mythological figure Tiresias, whom the Gods turned from a man into a woman. Like Tiresias, McCloskey has lived on both sides of the boundary between male and female, which for most of us is impermeable. The crucial difference is that McCloskey chose to cross that boundary. She didn’t submit passively to her biological destiny, the way most of us do.
I’ve never been more curious before an interview than before I met McCloskey. In 2000, she left the University of Iowa and took a job at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Although she retired in 2015, she still lives in Chicago in a two-story loft with high ceilings, bare brick walls and huge windows overlooking her neighborhood. And it is a neighborhood. Her lawyer and dentist live down the block. Across the street is her church, where she attends services every Sunday morning.
When I visited her in the summer of 2016, she greeted me wearing a silky salmon shirt, jeans and drop earrings. Her hair was blond, the nails of her jeweled fingers red. She is six feet tall, with broader shoulders than hips. Although her surgically sculpted chin and nose are delicate, her face remains strong-featured. She sat, stood and walked stiffly, aftereffects of old athletic injuries.
During her transition, McCloskey had an operation on her vocal chords to feminize her voice. The procedure didn’t work. She sounded hoarse, as if her throat were sore. A stutter that has afflicted her since childhood seized her now and then. Snagging on a P or S, her mouth clenched, her eyes lost their focus, as she strained to get the damn word out. But McCloskey barreled past her speech impediments, as she does most obstacles.
McCloskey invited me to spend the night in a guest bedroom rather than a hotel. I arrived late on a Saturday morning and departed late the next morning. Except for bathroom breaks, dog walks and sleep, we talked nonstop, through two meals at local restaurants. The conversation ebbed and flowed but never ceased.
I had expected our encounter to be awkward, because, well, just because. But I felt at ease with McCloskey, or as at ease as I feel with anyone. Hours into the interview, I asked if she needed a break, and she shook her head. “Here it is, 20 years after my gender change, and I still like to talk about it. You would think you’d get bored, but hey, it’s about moi. How can I get bored? We are all not quite at Donald Trump level, but there is a Narcissus–or Narcissa–in all of us.”
She gave me a tour of her living room, noting that “everything in this room is emotional.” She identified objects of particular affection. A model of a 17th-century Dutch merchant ship, which reflects her admiration for Dutch industriousness. Busts of her heroes Athena, Dante and Socrates. A statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, a marionette of Frank Lloyd Wright. “When I was a kid, I liked marionettes,” she explained. “I think they were a substitute for dolls.”
She told me lots of things I didn’t know. Marilyn Monroe was a stutterer. “That’s why she talked in that funny way,” McCloskey said, imitating Monroe’s breathy baby voice. “If you talk in a funny way, you don’t stutter.” Many engineers are crossdressers. “It’s almost that, if you know an engineer, he’s likely to be crossdresser.” (This assertion got me wondering about engineering professors at my school.) Some feminists are hostile toward transsexuals, accusing them of piggybacking on real women’s hard-earned progress.
Lesbians love throwing Super Bowl parties. The first time McCloskey attended such a party, she was fascinated by how it differed from male football gatherings. “They are lesbians, but they are women, so everyone brings a covered dish. No man would bring a covered dish. They would bring a couple of six packs.” Most of the women talked during the game. Only McCloskey and an especially butch lesbian watched it. Her laugh, recalling this scene, was deep and throaty.
McCloskey introduced me to her tiny roommates, William Shakespeare, her dog, and Virginia Woolf, who belongs to her sister Laura. McCloskey was taking care of Virginia Woolf while Laura was traveling. When I expressed surprise that she is caring for her Laura’s dog, McCloskey replied, half joking, that she is grateful to her sister. Crossing, her memoir, “would have been very boring” without Laura’s interventions.
Did Laura ever apologize for her actions? McCloskey mused for a moment before replying, No, but that was okay, because she forgave Laura long ago, and they get along fine now. McCloskey has turned down proposals to turn Crossing into a play or film, because she worried Laura would be “the heavy.” She wants Laura to move to Chicago, so they can serve as each other’s companions, eating out and going to plays, opera, movies together. “We joke. Am I her older sister or her younger sister? I’m 11 years older chronologically, but as her sister I’m younger than she is.”
Other family bonds dissolved. Throughout her crossing, McCloskey never stopped loving her wife and wanted to remain married. Joanne, who “was grievously injured” by the crossing, insisted on a divorce and has shunned McCloskey ever since. McCloskey understands her ex-wife’s rejection. She has a harder time accepting that of her son and daughter, who were young adults when she crossed. She has grandchildren she has never met. But if her children walked in the door at this moment, “I would hug them and pretend” they had never been estranged.
Like Alison Gopnik, who discovered her bisexuality during her mid-life crisis, McCloskey emphasized the fluidity of sexuality. Studies of heterosexual crossdressers, she said, indicate that after hormone therapy and surgery “a third go on loving women, a third come to love men and a third are asexual.” Only after she got hormone therapy did McCloskey start finding men sexually attractive. Slipping into economic jargon, she joked that she saw men as “consumption items rather than as competitive suppliers.”
After she began taking hormones, she watched Pride of the Yankees, in which Gary Cooper stars as Lou Gehrig. When Cooper/Gehrig, dying of a neurodegenerative disease, tells fans in Yankee Stadium that he is the happiest man alive, McCloskey wept. “I never cried at movies as a guy, no matter how sad they were,” she said. She stopped taking hormones long ago, but sad films still make her weep. (I told McCloskey that films, television and even sentimental ads make me weep, but real life rarely if ever.)
Deirdre differs from Donald in other ways. She likes cooking more and sports less. She has gotten worse at telling jokes, which requires “a little-boy assertiveness that she finds less attractive now,” as she put it in Crossing. She takes the side of women embroiled in disputes with men. She is neater, less single-minded and impatient. She dotes on children. She drives less aggressively.
Could aging have caused some of these changes? Of course! McCloskey replied. When she gives talks, she likes to say that she feels wiser since her crossing, but she’s not sure if it’s because she’s older or because she’s female. She chuckled. Women usually laugh at this line, while men “look kind of annoyed.”
Feminists have accused her of propagating stereotypes. “They say, ‘Oh, you’re dealing in clichés about men and women.’” She just tries to report what she sees and feels as honestly as she can. Her observations of herself and others have convinced her that females care more about relationships, romantic and non-romantic. “When I was a guy I was about average for men in my interest in relationships. Now I am above average for men but below average for women.” She laughed. “So still the drag of my XY genes is there.”
McCloskey has not had a sexual relationship since her crossing. After her divorce, she went on a few dates with men, but none worked out, and eventually she abandoned her search for romance. “I would like to have someone cherish me, but I don’t feel it strongly enough.” Her genital surgery also left her with complications, which have required follow-up treatment. She no longer feels arousal, either psychological or physiological, she said, pointing to her head and crotch. “My sexual drive is zilch,” she said. “I have no deep problem with that, because, as you know, sexual desire is kind of a pain in the neck.” Also, she was married to the love of her life for 30 years. “I’ve had that, been there, done that.”
McCloskey’s crossing wasn’t easy. It was an emotional, physical, legal, medical and financial ordeal. She estimates that she spent almost $100,000 on medical and legal bills. But she has no regrets about crossing. None. “I have been a woman for over 20 years. And since the day in August of 1995 that it hit me, that I could do it and I was gonna do it–I called it an epiphany–from that moment, I have not had a moment of doubt.” Most transgender people, she said, are happier after they change. “I am a very happy person.”
Before crossing, Donald often felt shame about his sexual confusion and feared it would be discovered. Echoing Elyn Saks’s attitude toward schizophrenia, McCloskey said that if someone had offered Donald a pill that deleted his compulsion to crossdress, he would have taken it. But then Donald became Deirdre and revealed her true self to the world. “I got no secrets,” McCloskey said, grinning. “I’ll tell you anything.”
She expressed ambivalence about crossing only once, when envisioning her obituary. She hopes it doesn’t dwell too much on her gender change. She wants the final reckoning of who she was and why she mattered to highlight her scholarly accomplishments, and especially her ideas about the “Great Enrichment” (which I’ll get to soon). She’d love to win a Nobel Prize in economics before she dies. That would surely push the crossing down a sentence or two.
Listening to her, I felt awkward, because her crossing, more than her economic views, had brought me here to Chicago. I wanted to know, What would it feel like to be a woman who was once a man? But here’s the irony. After a few hours with McCloskey, I was so immersed in her enthusiasms and aversions, her jokes and anecdotes and insights, her upbeat view of humanity’s past and future, that her crossing seemed, not unimportant, exactly, but just one more aspect of her capacious, irreducible self. I didn’t think of her as female, male, transgender. I thought of her as a person, as stubbornly herself as anyone I’ve ever met.
McCloskey revels in her multiple selves. “I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, I’m a friend, a church lady, a professor, teacher, writer,” she said. She likes to call herself “a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man.” Her gender isn’t fixed. “Sometimes I dream I am still a man and protecting my wife,” she told me. “Sometimes I dream as Deirdre. It doesn’t seem to matter. I drift between one and the other.”
* * * * *
McCloskey, who has written 18 books and hundreds of papers, kept working throughout her crossing. Asked how becoming a woman influenced her scholarly outlook, she once replied, “The virtue of Love, it seems to me, belongs in any serious science of economics.” Given this remark, you might guess she drifted left. But far from renouncing her free-market faith, she reaffirmed it in The Bourgeois Virtues (2006), Bourgeois Dignity (2010) and Bourgeois Equality (2016). Collectively called The Bourgeois Era, the trilogy is an epic, 2,000-page love poem, dense with facts and statistics, dedicated to that class of peddlers, inventers, investors, manufacturers, managers, traders and hustlers called, usually disparagingly, the bourgeoisie.
Our species, McCloskey notes, has undergone countless crossings since its emergence in Africa a few hundred thousand years ago. One of the biggest was our transformation from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers, who settled down and accumulated surplus goods. Civilization soon followed, and yet for most of history the vast majority of humans lived a hand to mouth existence.
Only toward the end of the 18th century did humanity rise from its crushing poverty, first in Western Europe and then across the globe. Between 1800 and 2000 average incomes around the world, including the poorest as well as richest nations, grew by a factor of ten. In affluent western nations, average incomes multiplied 30-fold. This is the Great Enrichment, which McCloskey calls “the most important secular event since the invention of agriculture.”
Economists have attributed the Great Enrichment to various factors: The discoveries of Galileo, Newton and other scientific revolutionaries and the institutionalization of science. Steam engines, railroads, mass-manufacturing and other inventions that drove the Industrial Revolution. The rise of aggressive nationalism, along with wars of conquest, imperialism, colonialism.
McCloskey traces the Great Enrichment to the cluster of ideas, sometimes called liberalism, enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence and other Enlightenment manifestos. We are all equally deserving of respect and dignity. We all have the right to pursue our happiness, material as well as spiritual, as we see fit. We all matter, as Rebecca Goldstein would put it. If you give people freedom, McCloskey assured me, “you encourage them, you honor them, and pretty soon you get the Great Enrichment.”
McCloskey sees capitalism as the economic manifestation of our freedom. Actually, she doesn’t like the term capitalism, because it focuses on wealth rather than the activities that produce it. She prefers “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange among all the parties involved.” Or, if you find that too wordy, “trade-tested betterment.”
Another crucial cultural shift was growing respect for pursuit of wealth. Well into the Industrial Revolution, many artists and intellectuals–McCloskey calls them “the clerisy”–disparaged the bourgeoisie as soulless, money-grubbing materialists. Actually, McCloskey asserts, trade-tested betterment has enriched us culturally, morally and spiritually as well as materially. Self-cultivation is hard if you’re an illiterate peasant struggling to survive.
Some prominent economists contend that war catalyzed the Great Enrichment by promoting innovation and economic growth.1In 2014 economist Tyler Cowen talks about the upside of war in a New York Times essay, “The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth.” The “possibility of war,” Cowen asserts, “focuses the attention of governments on getting some basic decisions right–whether investing in science or simply liberalizing the economy. Such focus ends up improving a nation’s longer-run prospects.” Cowen worries that a recent downturn in war—at least compared to the apocalyptic first half of the 20th century—was leading to economic “laziness.” Cowen tries to distinguish between preparation for war—or what I would call militarization–and war itself. This distinction, I argue in an angry response to Cowen’s piece, yields an absurdly one-sided analysis. You could construct a similar argument for the benefits of cancer by pointing to all the terrific research and innovation and high-end jobs resulting from cancer and neglecting to mention the death and suffering it causes. McCloskey hates this “fascist” idea. “Killing people and burning down their houses is usually not very good for them,” she said archly. If World War I could have been averted, “we would have had a very different 20th century.” We would have averted totalitarian communism, fascism and World War II, and the Great Enrichment would have been greater. Far from fueling the Great Enrichment, war imperils it.
She acknowledges that the Great Enrichment has always been terribly incomplete, benefitting some races and places far more than others. But if we can avoid major wars, McCloskey said, the Great Enrichment will expand. Automation will continue to drive down the cost of goods, just as it has driven down the costs of food production. Since 1800, the productivity of the average agricultural worker has increased 300-fold.
During a recent stay in Sweden, McCloskey visited a Volvo factory. “It was wonderful to behold, all these machines welding, and some guy standing around in a white coat looking at dials. That’s how they make cars these days!” Just as farmers displaced by modern technology have found other means of employment, so will modern workers replaced by robots and computers. We will adapt to climate change, too, not by scaling back our consumption but by inventing more energy-efficient technologies and methods for removing carbon from the atmosphere. “Let’s not close down industrial civilization and go back to Walden Pond.”
Democracy and free-market capitalism are imperfect, McCloskey acknowledged, but they are vastly preferable to communist, fascist or theocratic systems. She likes political scientist John Mueller’s comparison of capitalism and democracy to a store in Lake Wobegone, the fictional town of the radio show “Prairie Home Companion.” The store is called “Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery,” and its slogan is, “If you can’t get it here, you can probably get along without it.” Our system of capitalism plus democracy is “pretty good,” McCloskey said. “By historical standards what we have is incredibly good.”
Just to be clear: McCloskey is saying that we have already answered the collective version of the mind-body problem, which asks what we are, can be and should be. The answer is that we should be bourgeois. And just to be really clear: I agree with her. So, I’m pretty sure, do all the other subjects of this book. Some of my lefty friends no doubt will react to this chapter by saying: You end your big inquiry into what humanity should be by saying we should be… bourgeois? That’s the payoff? They will point out that my subjects and I are all white, American academics. Of course we love bourgeois culture! We’re its beneficiaries!
But the answer to humanity’s identity crisis isn’t bourgeois culture per se, it is the commitment to freedom that produced it, which has benefitted people worldwide. Our pretty good liberal utopia is the inverse of the monomaniacal ones that have gotten us into so much trouble in the past. Liberalism is a meta-mind-body story, even an anti-story. It rejects the ancient dream of a Supreme Story, a single, final, absolutely true answer to the question of who we are.
Far from eliminating identity crises, liberalism enables them, even encourages them, by giving us lots of options. It does not tell us who we are. It gives us the freedom and means to figure that out for ourselves. “It’s strange to have been a man and now to be a woman,” McCloskey writes. “But it’s no stranger perhaps than having once been a West African and now being an American, or once a priest and now a businessman. Free people keep deciding to make strange crossings, from storekeeper to monk or from civilian to soldier or from man to woman.”
Do systems superior to democracy-plus-capitalism lurk out there in the multi-dimensional space of possible systems? If humanity went through an annealing process—triggered by a nuclear war, warming-induced surge in sea levels, viral pandemic, or pandemics of fascism or militant fundamentalism–might we crystalize into a better system for promoting self-exploration? Perhaps, but I hope never to see that conjecture tested. After violent disruptions, large societies often collapse into an inferior state, at least for the short-term. Look at the bloodbaths that followed the French Revolution and communist seizures of Russia and China.
McCloskey chided left-leaning intellectuals, the modern clerisy, for wallowing in pessimism about “growth or consumerism or the environment or inequality.” She envisioned a world in which everyone is bourgeois. Over the next century, developing nations in Africa, South America and elsewhere will catch up to the first world. “They are all going to get as rich as us, and we are going to get a massive number of people searching night and day for trade-tested betterments,” she said. “It’s going to be wonderful.”
* * * * *
Listening to McCloskey extoll the bourgeoisie, I kept thinking of my father. He grew up poor during the Depression, but he got a free education from the U.S. Naval Academy. After serving on a destroyer in World War II, he worked his ass off to create a good life for me and my four siblings, and I reviled him for it. I showed my contempt for his bourgeois values by decorating my bedroom with communist iconography, brawny, rock-jawed workers gripping hammers and sickles and gazing bravely into the utopian future. Around that time, Soviets troops were crushing democratic uprisings in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.
America’s glorification of material wealth galled me, and so did the Cold War, the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War. Our leaders mouthed platitudes about peace and freedom while bombing Southeast Asia and tolerating racism at home. I fantasized about an apocalyptic war, from the ashes of which would arise an anarchist hippy paradise. To my parents’ dismay, after graduating from high school I refused to go to college, which I disdained as a factory for turning out bourgeois dicks. I spent years wandering around the country working odd jobs, trying to figure out who I was.
I didn’t finish college and graduate school and get my first job as a science writer until I was 30. I’m bourgeois now, a journalist and college professor with a Prius, flat-screen TV and retirement fund. My father and I made up decades ago. I admire him as much as anyone I know, and not just because he helped pay for my education. He is a good, big-hearted man, altruistic toward kin and non-kin alike.
So long before I fell under McCloskey’s spell, my aversion to bourgeois values had subsided. Marx, of all people, helped me appreciate the charm of the bourgeoisie. A decade ago, I started teaching a freshman humanities course, a required text of which is the Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels complained that the bourgeoisie tramples all values in its quest for profits. Everything, including humans, becomes a commodity. Capitalism leads to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”
But like McCloskey, Marx and Engels acknowledged capitalism’s creative power, cultural as well as material. Capitalism has undermined the authority of religion, nations, aristocracy, even families. It has liberated us from “ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions.” It has attracted people to cities and hence “rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” It has fostered “a world literature” and countered “narrow-mindedness.”
Marx and Engels even foresaw how capitalism would liberate women. “The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labor… the more is the labor of men superseded by that of women.” The decline of aristocracies, religion, nationalism, “venerable prejudices” and “idiocy”? The rise of literacy and gender equality? Sounds pretty good!
And how has Marx and Engel’s alternative to capitalism worked out? Some scholars estimate that communist regimes were responsible for the deaths of more than 100 million people in the 20th century. China, the major remaining communist state, which still curtails freedom of speech and other basic rights, has become an economic powerhouse by allowing its citizen to practice a restricted form of “trade-tested betterment.”
Marx’s messianic language was the source of his persuasive power, but it was also his tragic flaw. He spoke, no, he preached with the fervor of a prophet who knows who we really are and should be. He has discovered the true, final answer to the collective version of the mind-body problem. His vision inspired devotees into taking action–and turned many into murderous zealots.
Ideologies like Christianity, Islam, Social Darwinism, eugenics and free-market economics have also inspired lethal zealotry. The lesson is clear. When we talk about our hopes for humanity, what we can be and should be, we should be humble. We should heed the advice of Owen Flanagan: Doubt yourself. We should think like engineers. Instead of seeking the final, absolutely true solution to our problems, we should just look for something that works.
McCloskey is humble, in her ebullient way. In her 1985 book The Rhetoric of Economics, she urges economists to acknowledge the subjectivity of their judgments, and their reliance on rhetoric. Economics will thereby become “more modest, tolerant and self-aware” and hence more honest and effective. Writing about the Great Enrichment, McCloskey cites plenty of empirical evidence, but she never pretends to be wholly objective. Her affection for the bourgeoisie is clearly a matter of taste as well as truth.
I still lean sharply left. I loathe my country’s moronic militarism, its persistent racism and sexism, its veneration of the super-rich and callousness toward the poor. Capitalism still leads to the “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” that Marx and Engels deplored. In 2016 I brought the socialist firebrand Naomi Klein to my school. She argued, persuasively, that unrestrained capitalism spawned global warming, which has brought us to the brink of disaster. If we don’t curtail our mindless pursuit of economic growth and consumption of fossil fuels, civilization might collapse.2In 2015 I brought historian of science Naomi Oreskes to my school, and she, like Naomi Klein, warned that global warming, which is the product of unrestrained capitalism, has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Capitalists are digging their own graves, as prophesied by Marx. To dramatize this point, Oreskes wrote a mordantly ironic novel about a future in which the U.S., because it could not abandon its laissez-faire faith, collapses. Communist China, which took steps to cope with climate change, becomes the world’s lone functioning superpower.
But neither Klein nor any other left-leaning intellectual I know wants to abolish capitalism. They advocate reform, and so does McCloskey. At one point during our conversation, I confessed that in my youth I fantasized about a cataclysm that would sweep everything away, so we could start fresh. “I can remember the feeling of wanting a revolution,” McCloskey said, nodding. She sang, in her hoarse, scratchy voice, an old anarchist song:
Anarchists in garrets, narrow and thin,
smell the smoke of nitroglycerin.
It’s sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb.
The last one was thrown by Brother Tom.
Mama’s aim is bad,
and the Cop-skis all know Dad.
So it’s sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb.
We must give up these nihilistic “enthusiasms,” McCloskey said, without giving up our hopes for a better world. Some day, we might even create a pluralistic utopia like the one Marx envisioned. Communism, Marx wrote, would free us from bondage to a single job or identity. You can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
At the beginning of this book, I said I’d propose how we can create a more peaceful world, in which we all have a pretty good shot at happiness. My proposal is simple. Everyone, including those who put their faith in science, would accept once and for all that there is no Supreme Story, no single, objectively true answer to the mind-body problem, which tells us who we are. We would recognize that our belief in Supreme Stories has been harmful, the cause of tremendous suffering. At the very least, I’d love to see people reject mind-body stories that flagrantly contradict science and curtail our collective freedom. Like: God created humans 6,000 years ago and gave my race, and my gender, dominion over yours.
But in a pretty good liberal utopia you can, if you like, believe in a Supreme Story. You can be a Christian, Sufi, Orthodox Jew, Buddhist monk or Amish farmer. You can be a Luddite, survivalist, communist, transhumanist or libertarian. You can even be a fascist, racist, sexist dick. You are free to create your own community of like-minded souls–as long as you remain peaceful and don’t force your beliefs on others. You are free to give up your freedom, but not to take freedom from others. My pretty good utopia is better than yours if mine allows yours and not vice versa.
We still face lots of tough questions. How do we protect ourselves from violent apocalyptic cults, or corporations that subvert democracy to boost their power? How can we raise the standard of living for all people without despoiling nature beyond repair? Should we fear or welcome technologies that can enhance our cognitive powers, maybe beyond recognition? Should those technologies be available for everyone or just those who can afford them? How do we ensure that everyone has a shot at becoming who she wants to be, as McCloskey did? Solving these problems will be hard, and we will no doubt make mistakes, but I’m confident we will keep creeping, lurching, stumbling in the right direction.
* * * * *
On Sunday morning I woke up in McCloskey’s guest bedroom filled with irrational exuberance. I overflowed with affection for humanity, for the bourgeoisie, for my father, for McCloskey. What a wonderful subject! I jotted down impressions in a notebook. “She has no secrets, nothing to fear,” I wrote.
Cowardice compels most of us to accept the destinies thrust upon us by biology and upbringing, nature and nurture, but not McCloskey. Soldiers dodging bullets and bombs are doing what their culture demands. Their courage pales beside what it took for McCloskey to attend a crossdressers’ convention in the Poconos, to submit to genital surgery, to walk up to a podium at an economics conference and give a talk for the first time in a dress. Listening to her, I kept thinking, What would it feel like to be that brave?
Before I met McCloskey, I wasn’t sure how I would end this book, or if the ending would be happy. McCloskey and her crossing gave me my happy ending. Brave souls like her make it easier for the rest of us to explore ourselves. They expand our freedom, our choices. Her crossing was hard, but the fact that she succeeded is yet more evidence of our moral and material progress.
Later Sunday morning, after McCloskey walked Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, we sipped coffee on her big red couch and resumed our conversation. McCloskey, who was dressed for church, seemed subdued. When I told her how much I admired her courage, she smiled and shook her head. She isn’t that brave, she assured me. She hates talking over the telephone, because her stutter sometimes grips her. During every writing project, large or small, she passes through a “dark night of the soul” when she fears she has lost her power of expression. She worries about death and decrepitude. “I fear there is a stroke in my future,” she said.
Temperamentally, and as a matter of principle, she tends to be upbeat. “If you’re not optimistic and don’t have a sense of humor,” she said, “don’t change gender, because it’s not going to be all fun.” She abhors literature, like T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” that rubs our noses in life’s ugliness and meaninglessness. She loves artists like Matisse and Chagall, who see the beauty in spite of everything. “Chagall was an eastern European Jew. His family died in Holocaust. He had every reason to be pessimistic.”
But you can be too optimistic, McCloskey said. She worries about humanity’s future, because she is a realist. She does not believe humanity is “basically good,” and that “everything is going to turn out okay.” She disagreed with Socrates that deep intellectual inquiry makes you wiser and more virtuous. “I’ve known ignorant people who were saints,” she said. “I have known learned people who were devils.” Enlightenment intellectuals like Kant and Jefferson, who preached equality, viewed non-whites and females as biologically inferior.3After visiting Jefferson’s Virginia estate Monticello in 2016, I wrote a column about his “egregious hypocrisy.”
One third of the officers in the German SS had advanced degrees in humanities. The film Schindler’s List dramatizes this irony. In one scene, McCloskey noted, a German officer supervising the arrest of a Jewish family plays “some marvelous piece of Mozart” on its piano.
McCloskey, who was baptized at an Episcopalian church in Iowa City shortly after her crossing, views humanity as sinful. She compares her faith in God to her faith in democracy. She doesn’t necessarily believe “it’s all going to work out.” God gave us free will because He doesn’t want us to be “puppets,” McCloskey said. “Free will would be meaningless if there were no opportunity costs.” (Note her insertion of an economic term, “opportunity costs,” into a theological remark.) So we live in a world with disease, aging, earthquakes, tsunamis and infinite varieties of human cruelty.
It was late morning, time for me to head home and for McCloskey to attend mass. We walked out of her apartment together and stopped on the sidewalk outside her building. She advised me to walk to the end of her block to catch a cab to O’Hare. We shook hands. Then she pecked me on the cheek, said “Goodbye, dear,” and crossed the street toward her church.
* * * * *
What many of us want from a mind-body story, above all, is assurance that everything is going to be okay. McCloskey, for all her optimism, shores up her faith in the bourgeoisie with faith in God. Other subjects of this book also have doubts about humanity’s future. Alison Gopnik pointed out that many Americans do not accept basic liberal values, such as tolerance for homosexuality. Rebecca Goldstein was distraught over the resurgence of racism, sexism and “competitive mattering,” the idea that some people matter more than others.4Robert Trivers, when I asked if he was optimistic, replied, “I’m just fucking ignorant, man. Am I a pessimist or an optimist? I would say… neither? I don’t see any point in either of them.”
Christof Koch, in spite of his cheerful temperament, might have the gloomiest view of the future. He worried about nuclear terrorism, environmental catastrophes and disruptions triggered by artificial intelligence. Machines might eventually outsmart us and take all our jobs, he said. “It’s something to worry about.” A year after I spoke to him in Seattle, he proposed in The Wall Street Journal that humans can and should boost their cognitive capacities with brain implants to keep up with super-intelligent machines.5In a blog post, I raised several objections to Koch’s proposal.
Rebecca Goldstein said intellectuals have a responsibility to be realistic, not optimistic. But at any given moment, the world offers infinite reasons for feeling good or bad about the future. It comes down to a choice: optimism or pessimism? As a young man, I was profoundly pessimistic. After the Cold War ended and I became a father, I swerved toward optimism.
I like to think my optimism is rational, based on truth more than taste. The first step toward creating a better world, I tell myself, is believing it is possible. But to be honest, my optimism is based on faith, a gut feeling. Robert Trivers and Douglas Hofstadter, who look unflinchingly at the brutality of nature, especially human nature, would no doubt find my optimism sentimental, and perhaps they are right. I might be suffering from gladsadness, delusional happiness. Sometimes I feel like a silly old fool for thinking that things are going to be okay.
On January 21, 2017, I took an early morning train from Newark to Washington, D.C. There I met Robert, an old pal I hadn’t seen in years. Nostalgia as well as outrage brought us together. Robert and I went to Washington to protest Bush’s inauguration in 2001, and we wanted to relive that adventure. At one point we got swept up in a mob in black boots, pants, hoodies and facemasks racing through the streets. They smashed windows of shops and cars, obstructed traffic, knocked over garbage cans, detonated M80s (or some other powerful firecracker) and fought with helmeted, club-wielding, mace-spraying police. Robert and I managed to escape the melee un-harmed. Later we found ourselves marching beside young anarchists waving a red and black flag and shouting, “Fuck the bourgeoisie!” I wanted to tell them, Hey, come on, that’s me you’re talking about.
I was glad to get back to my students in Hoboken. When I told them about my trip, they seemed amused, especially by the anarchists chanting, “Fuck the bourgeoisie.” My students want to join the bourgeoisie, not overthrow it. They want to be engineers, computer scientists, physicians, financial analysts, inventors, entrepreneurs. But they worry about whether things are going to be okay. They fret over melting ice caps, viral epidemics, nuclear terrorism, robots taking their jobs.
To boost their spirits, I give them my utopia pep talk. A utopia must do more than make everyone happy, I tell them. You can easily imagine a society in which brain implants, drugs or genetic engineering make you feel good but your life is meaningless because you have no choices. Right? That’s what Brave New World was about. Freedom is essential. The more freedom a society gives its citizens, the closer it is to utopia. Making freedom your core value comes with complications. Some people might find freedom overwhelming. They might think there is such as a thing as too many choices. A free society can choose to become less free. That’s the paradox of freedom.6I sometimes begin class discussion on utopia by writing a formula on the whiteboard: LimS (C → ∞) = U. I made up this formula in 2007 after an online forum, Edge.org, posed the following question: “What is your formula? Your equation? Your algorithm?” I ask my students to guess what the formula means. After a few brave souls guess wrong, I spell it out: If utopia (U) is the ultimate, unimprovable state, or limit, of a society (LimS), then a society approaches utopia as the choices (C) of its citizens approach infinity. Then I read the blurb that I wrote about my formula for Edge: This formula reflects my conviction that a world without choice is meaningless and hence dystopic, no matter how happy we think we are. Is utopia an asymptote we can never attain? Probably. But that may be for the best, because a world with infinite choices is as meaningless as one with none. I read this with a smirk, so my students know that I know it’s pretentious.
But most of us want freedom, the more the better, and the good news is we’re getting it. When I was a kid, abortion was illegal in some states. So was inter-racial marriage and homosexuality. You could end up in prison for having consensual gay sex. Laws prohibiting abortion, miscegenation and homosexuality have been abolished. Now gay people can get married.
You can do things unimaginable a century ago, I tell my students, because of advances in science and technology. You can microwave frozen pizzas and take hot showers whenever you feel like it. You can fly across oceans and continents. With a few swipes of your smart phone, you can access virtually infinite knowledge. When you get out of this school, you can work to solve the problems that oldsters like me have dumped on you. You can help design better solar panels, electric cars, gene therapies, desalinization plants.
Because I like bragging about cool people I know, I mention a big-shot economist I once interviewed who has a really upbeat view of the world. She thinks we have so many choices, compared to almost everybody who has ever lived, that we already live in a kind of utopia. And that’s not the only interesting thing about her. When she was in her 50s, she had a sex-change operation. Her ability to do that symbolizes, to my mind, how far we’ve come, medically, legally, politically, morally.
So don’t despair, I tell my students. Imagine the future you want, and create it, and your kids will have even more choices than you do. I mean, if you want kids, no pressure. I ask them to write down answers to this question: What’s your utopia? Answer in any way you like, I say, serious or light-hearted. Here are answers from a freshmen class I taught in 2017.
Ryan: Some of the conflict that comes from an imperfect world makes it better. I wouldn’t want scientists, philosophers and other intellectuals to have all the answers. They should have different views, because debates are often entertaining and make life more worth living. Competition can also give meaning to life. Utopia should have a certain amount of inequality to make things interesting, but not a staggering amount to where people suffer because of it. Utopia isn’t a completely perfect world, but a world with the perfect amount of imperfection.
Jesse: My utopia is a world where the rat race no longer exists. Why is it that people find it normal to slave away all their lives for a minuscule reward in the end? Why is it that wanting to enjoy life and take breaks is frowned upon? We have followed the same pattern for centuries, but it is time for a change. Instead of one long and boring retirement at the end of our lives, why not enjoy mini-retirements throughout our lives?
Amanda: My utopia would be one with no death. I’ve dealt with so many deaths of family members in the past 4 years. Every time, I feel a little more alone, and a little more like life sucks. People always tell me that good things will happen to good people, and bad things to bad. But my grandpa, grandma and uncle were selfless people who had a hard life. Time and again I would see them in pain, and then in the end I lose them to cancer. Why? I don’t understand and I want it to stop. This is my unicorn and rainbow-like utopia.
Anjali: Everyone will keep their front doors open to let in the fresh air. There will be no harsh winters. A little snow is okay for Christmas. When it rains, the clouds shouldn’t be all gloomy, and there will be no pollution or acid rain. Everyone’s house will have a compost bin and a garden. No families will be separated because they are across the border in another country. Everyone should be able to visit other countries without visas. This can be possible if everyone has a good heart.
Nazrin (a young woman who wore a head scarf): I imagine a world without greed, hunger, thirst, violence, but with subtle pains that make our happy moments even more valuable and precious. I imagine a feeling of love and welcoming no matter who we are or where we go. I imagine a world where numbers don’t define us, and where everyone is free to roam without holding a mask (or several) in front of his or her face. I imagine a world where sicknesses are cured by love and the desire to live.
Here’s my utopia. We will recognize how stupid and wrong war is and end it once and for all. With the money we save from shrinking our armies we will end poverty, too, and come up with inventions that help us thrive without wrecking the rest of nature. And we will keep giving ourselves more freedom, more choices to explore. My children and students and other young people and their children and grandchildren will find new ways to be human, to live good, meaningful lives, ways we can’t even imagine now. Our identity crises, our swerves and explorations and crossings, will never end. No ending is the happiest ending.7As I finished this book, Eddie, an old friend and professional photographer, showed me the draft of a book he had been working on for almost two decades. It was a sequence of black and white shots he had taken during several car trips across the western half of America. The photos showed tough, lonely men, women and children, white, black, Hispanic, Native American, in motels, trailer parks, bars, gas stations, laundromats. The stark beauty of the settings offset the solitude and sadness of the people, but the realism was almost too much to bear. The photos moved, more or less, from east to west. The last photograph showed a homeless, faceless person curled up under a blanket at night beside Ocean Avenue in Los Angeles. No other human is visible. The streetlights in the background made the night seem even darker. I looked at Eddie and said, only half kidding, I was hoping for a happy ending. He shook his head and said he couldn’t end his book any other way. He had no choice.
Listen to McCloskey talk about God and free will, Chicago, August 6, 2016.
Watch me and McCloskey talk on Meaningoflife.tv after this book was published.
NEXT: So What? | Wrap-Up