Sunday, October 24, 2004

Empire, Empiricism, Empowerment: Contributions to Political Cryptozoology


David Brooks is so predictable. Every week or so, he comes up with a new scheme to explain the polarization of America. Each time he uses what seems to be different criteria, but are really just different terms. The funniest (and the worst) so far was the division into "spreadheet" and "paragraph" people (link: http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/opinion/9660863.htm?1c ). This week, he came up with yet another one (link: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/23/opinion/23brooks.html?ex=1256270400&en=57a0ffc212bb9ceb&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland), ably dissected by Julie Saltman (link: http://saltman.blogspot.com/2004_10_17_saltman_archive.html#109855459130688176), about "belief" vs. "rationality" - that's the theme of the week in the media (finally!), proded by Suskind's article in last Sundays NYT Magazine (link: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?oref=login&oref=login&pagewanted=print&position ), and many others, usually commented on by Chris Mooney (link: http://www.chriscmooney.com/blog.asp?Id=1258) and well dissected, as usual, by Publius at Legal Fiction (link: http://lawandpolitics.blogspot.com/2004_10_01_lawandpolitics_archive.html#109807154263633496).

Here is what Brooks says:



"Republicans, from Reagan to Bush, particularly admire leaders who are
straight-talking men of faith. The Republican leader doesn't have to be book
smart, and probably shouldn't be narcissistically introspective. But he should
have a clear, broad vision of America's exceptional role in the world.
Democrats, on the other hand, are more apt to emphasize such leadership skills
as being knowledgeable and thoughtful. They value leaders who can see
complexities, who possess the virtues of the
well-educated."
---------------------------------------
"It just so
happens that America is evenly divided about what sort of leader we need: the
Republican who leads with his soul or the Democrat who leads with his judgment."


This is very typical of Brooks' writing. His articles, on superficial reading, seem "fair and balanced", giving equal credence to both the conservative and liberal ideology. On closer inspection, however, it becomes obvious that he thinks the conservative view to be superior. Little things, like choices of words and examples, reveal his bias. But in this last article, he is really having a hard time with it. He is trying so hard to become a rational erudite scholar, yet in this piece he is putting down rationality in favor of strong dogmatic belief. He must be suffering from strong cognitive dissonance and concomittant nightmares. He wants rationality to win, yet when he realizes that he is on the wrong ideological side of the chasm, he recoils and feels a need to defend his faith. The belief overpowers the ratio. He must be distressed over this. Oh, how he wishes Bush was a rational kind of guy....

Of course, don't expect Brooks to ever mention Lakoff's explanation for the division. After all, Lakoff's thesis has a lot of empirical data supporting it, and the conservative view is uncovered to be out-dated and empirically wrong, even bad (as its self-defense mechanism thwarts progress).

But there is something more profound about the difference between Brooks' folk-sociology and Lakoff. The former assumes that the two ideologies are just superficial differences in opinion on various issues. Lakoff correctly notes that the differences are deeply ingrained, as well as internally coherent (not disorderly smorgasbords of opinions on different topics).

Difference between Homo politicus conservativus and Homo politicus liberalis reminds me of differences between Prairie voles and Montane voles. The only physical difference is the part of the brain that expresses arginine vasopressin receptors, yet the effects on behavior are huge: they do almost everything different, one being monogamous, the other (serially) polygamous; they differ in the care of the young, defense of territories, relationships between siblings etc.

I am not suggesting there is anything genetically different between the two groups of humans, (although a few wackos do, see here for various views on this: http://www.reason.com/rb/rb102004.shtml and http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000568.html). As I have described before, one's ideology is shaped by early childhood environment, i.e., parent's childhood practices. The way a conservative family raises children models and molds the next generation of conservatives who will, in turn, raise the next generation of conservatives, the main point here being that the process is not learning but the effect of the immediate social environment (parents' behavior) affects the ontogeny of behavior of offspring. The same goes for liberals raising young liberals. Since the trait-complex is a result of interaction between environment and ontogeny, it is possible to change it later in life. This happens a lot, in both directions: liberals become conservative, and conservatives become liberals.

It is often said that young people tend to be liberal, while older people are more conservative, suggesting that people, as they age, shift from liberal to conservative worldviews. This may be the case for some people, but I believe it is the other way around: the society as a whole keeps moving towards the Left through history, leaving the previous generation behind (a relative Right).

Under great stress and duress, during deeply disturbing existential crises, some people, no matter what their upbringing, will join groups that offer stability, mostly very rigid, dogmatic and hierarchical groups (e.g., religious cults or the GOP), based on obedience to the authoritarian leader. Such crises act as re-setting points in one's ideological ontogeny. The stress erases the effects of childhood rearing, and the group provides the much needed formal structure and the perception of endless stability. This may be the most frequent way for a liberal to become a conservative. Belonging to a small, closed group is necessary for preservation of the conservative worldview (see the movie "The Village" through the lenses of this article: http://www.alternet.org/story/19514/).

Abandoning conservativism and becoming liberal happens to people who venture outside their "village" and join a community that is egalitarian, vibrant, fluid and dedicated to self-improvement and change. Various movements may fit this description, but the main nexus of such change is The University. What is (or should be - strange things are happening these days) a University? It is a Library (a huge repository of information) which serves as a magnet for knowledge-hungry people. Such people read, suggest books to each other, and discuss them. The older, more experienced and learned members ("faculty") help the younger, newer members ("students") in the quest for knowledge. A good warm coffee shop across the street from the Library is essential for such interactions.

Once the books are balanced in every generation, many more people go to the University than go through existential crisis requiring one to join a cult. Thus, net change is from conservativism towards liberalism (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/10/lakoff-in-space-and-time.html). Dogmatic belief gives way to rational fact-checking, and the academic world is the avant-garde of this historical trend.

It is no coincidence that a Republican Administration abandoned all reason and rules by "gut feeling", "instinct" and "faith". Can you imagine a Democratic President thinking in this way? Of course not. Dogmatism is the key element of conservativism, while learning and rationality are the core values of liberalism (which is why one needs to take a huge radial diversion away from the liberal core in order to be a postmodernist or an animal rightist, see: http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/10/why-are-post-modernistsdeconstructioni.html).

That is why articles like Suskind's, the comments in the blogosphere, and the recent stump speeches by Kerry and Edwards should be effective: there are more Americans who are rational (truly liberal even if they do not think they are) than Americans who are irrational (truly conservative to the point of feeling abandoned by the semi-modernity of the GOP), and such a skew is getting more and more pronounced. This may be the last time that a "faith-driven" person is allowed by the electorate to become a President.

The recent study from the University of Maryland (link: http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/Pres_Election_04/html/new_10_21_04.html#1) suggests the same thing. If anyone wanted to test Lakoff's model, asking direct questions about, for instance, childrearing, would not be useful. Asking about perceptions of reality, as the PIPA study did, confirmed Lakoff's system quite nicely. Like David Brooks, many Americans understand the value of rationality and want to be rational, but belief still trumps rationality whenever the facts contradict some very core and basic beliefs. Abandoning those beliefs is treason to one's group/cult/party, thus a very scary thing to do. It takes huge courage to do this. Experience in doing that before, e.g, during college years, may help.

I have written about this before (about midway down the long post here: http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/conservative-america.html) and what follows is a short excerpt. The first article link is, as far as I know (and I was looking for and waiting for one at the time, and was very happy to see that one when it appeared) , the first one chronologically to explicitly compare Bush's faith-based decision-making process to the empirical thinkig of most of the rest of us.


"Now, read these three articles (there are several more on the same topic,
but these three will suffice for now):
http://slate.msn.com/id/2095160
http://slate.msn.com/id/2097369/
http://slate.msn.com/id/20972
What the first article argues is quite perceptive (unlike the comments by
readers on the bottom), although technically wrong. Bush is not Platonic in the
sense of Plato, nor are we all Aristotelian in the sense of Aristotle. Bushies
are Platonic in the 19th century sense of the word - i.e., essentialist in the
sense of early 19th century. What we, who consider ourselves rational are, is
not Aristotelian, but Darwinian. What????!!!!! Forget Darwin's contribution to
biology, or the misuse of his name by eugenicists and social-Darwinists of all
kinds. The greatest contribution of Darwin is the way we in the Western world
THINK! We require data! Give me information! Empirical proof! Statistics! At
least give me polls! Before Darwin, people thought their great ideas in the
seclusion of their homes and published books. It was my word against your word.
Many philosophers became famous this way. Descartes and others started, earlier
on, asking for empirical proofs but nobody provided them. Darwin did - he showed
how philosophy is done! There were evolutionary theories before him, written by
Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Chambers and others that were laughed out of court.
Everyone took "The Origin" seriously because it provided a consilient set of
proofs: not just internal logic of the argument (many earlier philosophies had
that) but a link to the reality of the world. That was the Day One of the Age of
Rationality. If asked who my favourite philosopher was, I would have said Darwin
and lost the Presidency that very moment! But it is true. The Western world
lives in a Darwinian worldview - the worldview of empiricism. But not all....
some are still in pre-Darwinian era. They are ultra-conservatives."




A bunch of people in this country have missed The Enlightement (Publius on Legal Fiction has written several posts on this topic over the past year or so). They were hiding in the hollers while Renassaince was sweeping over the world. They are, quite literally, children left behind - the Civilization left them behind. And of course they are aggressive and unscrupulous. They know that the demise of their worldview is coming nearer every day.

To use another biological analogy: two human subspecies (and don't you just feel they are like aliens when you try to talk to them?) are trying to fill the same ecological niche. In such a situation, competition for resources is fierce. If possible, one emigrates and establishes itself elsewhere, but in this crowded world there is nowhere for the dying breed of conservatives to go (perhaps that is why Bush wanted a station on the Moon and then Mars). This is a case of competitive exclusion. The niches are so tightly overlapping that coexistence of the two sub-species (with current population numbers) is impossible - one is going to go extinct, and it seems that the Liberal worldview is winning here, just like it won in Europe and many other places. It is like cooperating groups of small smart mammals driving big lumbering individualistic Dinosaurs extinct. Think of 9/11 as the Yucatan meteor - a precipitating event that speeds up the already ongoing replacement of Dinosaurs by Mammals. Now think of November 2nd as the final blow - the last T.rex roaring its final dying roar. Let's do it (in).

Update:

I bet Mick Arran would agree with me. His post hints at the direction the history is moving:

The Militarization of Imperial America: The Commander-in-Chief
http://netpolitik.blogspot.com/2004/10/5-militarization-of-imperial-america.html

Update 2:

Thank you for the link and comments:
http://ajbenjaminjr.blogspot.com/2004/10/interesting-set-of-posts.html
I use the terms "conservative" and "liberal" because they are the easiest labels - everyone knows what that means. The fact that GOP does not belong exactly at the core of conservative model, nor the Democrats in the liberal core is a different issue. The terms "authoritarian" and "non-authoritarian" are good and strong, but place emphasis on just one aspect of moral politics, thus takes attention away from other important issues. Lakoff himself wrote somewhere (Elephant?) that he is not particularly happy with the two terms, but is almost forced to use them, as no other set of terms is as useful, as readily recognizable, or as clearly defined, as Conservative and Liberal. If Lakoff can do it, I gather I can do it, too. I wish there were better, less loaded terms.


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