Sunday, February 13, 2011


Whenever a revolution succeeds in toppling a regime—especially a notable and big one like the recent one in Egypt—I can’t help but think of B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist. Back when his thought was carving up the landscape, I read his Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). Little of it remains in my memory now except the early chapters. In those he drew a dark picture of revolutions and of noble battles for freedom. Here is a man whose basic ideas I don’t share in the least. He was one in a long line of moderns who think that science can engineer happiness. Still, his characterization of revolutionary movements was down-right traditional, in other words descriptive. Human social life resembles waves. Waves have crests and troughs. The rising and falling periods are very much longer than the happy moment when, for a brief flicker of time, a wave is cresting.

A childlike fascination characterized media coverage of this event—and the more popular the medium, the more childish. As another wave, that of progressive thought, is now waning, the hope that progress isn’t entirely dead revives at times like these—and now the hope is that Egypt will transform itself into a society where the waves of conflict will be smaller but much more frequent. That’s what a democracy is. In a democracy the power is more distributed and the waves are smaller. Life turns more choppy, too. And all’s well while the wealth lasts.

Societies are also creatures of habit. Egypt has been under authoritarian rule as it were forever, back to the Pharaohs. I’ll be watching with curiosity how this thing actually evolves—while continuing my watch on Russia where, as best as I can detect it, the Tsar is still in power, and never mind details.


  1. Thought provoking. Skinner... almost forgotten. Thanks.

  2. Who could forget one named Burrhus Fredric Skinner?

    As a young mother and student of psychology, I secretly wished to have an air crib to test for myself the stimulus/response theory Dr. Skinner developed for infants. Alas, my daughter got to gurgle, grow and sleep in a regular sort of crib just like most other babies at that time.
    I still sometimes wonder whether I or she might have learned something from such experiment...

  3. Monique: An air crib is a crib without the usual blankets, pillows, rattles, toys, etc. The baby is laid in naked and allowed to sleep as in nature. Brigitte learned about it reading about a study. It showed that children are better off in such a natural environment.