Saturday, December 31, 2016

Roll Over, Lady MacBeth — The Famous Line Should Be "Out, Damned -Spot- 2016!"

No better way to say au revoir to the most miserable year in memory than a Pop Quiz! Today's Quizmaster is the NY Fishwrap's Krait. (For newbies, The Krait (explanation of this blog's nom de plume here) is actually one of the NY Fishwrap's opinionators — Gail Collins.) The Answer Key follows Q13, but no dishonesty — even though it's the last day of 2016. If this is a (fair & balanced) farewell to the worst year in memory, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Year’s End Quiz
By The Krait (Gail Collins)

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Happy almost New Year! Wow, we’ve been through a lot. Let’s take a look back on 2016 and see how much of the silliness you remember. We’re not going to talk about Hillary. Too sad. But here’s an end-of-the-year quiz about:


It’s been a long year for Chris Christie, but he made history when…

A) The National Governors Association voted him “Least Likely to Succeed.”

B) A Quinnipiac poll in New Jersey showed his job disapproval rating at 77 percent.

C) He did the tango on “Dancing With the Stars.”

2. Ted Cruz said that when his wife, Heidi, became first lady

A) “She’ll put prayer back in the prayer breakfast.”

B) “Michelle Obama’s garden will become a croquet court.”

C) “French fries are coming back to the cafeteria.”

3. Marco Rubio’s ad about how “It’s Morning Again in America” made news because

A) It was an excellent depiction of why he is truly a Reagan conservative.

B) It was filmed in a way that made Rubio appear to be more than six feet tall.

C) It opened with a shot of the Vancouver skyline.

4. In a debate, Ben Carson said that when a president vets potential Supreme Court nominees, he should consider

A) “How they’d look in the group picture.”

B) “The fruit salad of their life.”

C) “Legal things.”


This year Rick Perry, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of energy …

A) Lost the paso doble competition to Vanilla Ice on “Dancing With the Stars.”

B) Came up with some new ideas for combating global warming.

C) Said his earlier reference to Trump’s campaign as “a barking carnival act” was simply “one of my ‘oops’ moments.”

6. Retired Gen. Jim Mattis, Trump’s selection for secretary of defense, is nicknamed

A) Mad Dog.

B) Cranky Corgi.

C) Sullen Setter.

7. Linda McMahon, Trump’s pick to head the Small Business Administration, has known the president-elect a long time. McMahon’s husband, Vince, once paired with Trump in

A) A professional wrestling production in which Trump shaved off McMahon’s hair.

B) A Build-the-Wall golf match in which they tried to see who could hit the most balls into Mexico.

C) A public service announcement warning young men about steroid abuse.

8. Trump’s choice for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, is a fast-food franchise baron who once said

A) “Vegetables are much more dangerous than people realize.”

B) “I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American.”

C) “Everybody has a minimum wage. Mine just happens to be $1 million a year.”


Trump won the Electoral College by one of the lowest margins in American history, and got nearly three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton. Afterward, he referred to his victory as …

A) “God’s will.”

B) “A gift from the founding fathers.”

C) “A landslide.”

10. In a TV interview, Trump said that when he looks in the mirror he sees

A) “Orange skin.”

B) “Fantastic hair.”

C) “A person that is 35 years old.”

11. Trump said he didn’t need a daily intelligence briefing because

A) “I’m, like, a smart person.”

B) “The C.I.A. is out to get me.”

C) “Putin’s people give me plenty of information.”

12. Trump’s doctor, who wrote the famous letter declaring Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” gave an interview in which he said it had never occurred to him that Trump, at 70, would be the oldest president-elect. But he added

A) “70 is the new 41.”

B) “If something happens to him, then it happens to him. … That’s why we have a vice president and a speaker of the House and a whole line of people. They can just keep dying.”

C) “Bronzer keeps you young.”


In a Seattle suburb, Dane Gallion was so unnerved by stories of mass shootings that he armed himself before going to see the movie “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” Watching the film with a handgun tucked into his waistband, Gallion

A) Became a hero when a disturbed man waving a rifle walked into the auditorium.

B) Became a hero when he stopped an armed robbery at the snack bar.

C) Accidentally shot the woman sitting in front of him.

Answer Key (No Cheating!)
1. B
2. C
3. C
4. B
5. A
6. A
7. A
8. B
9. C
10. C
11. A
12. B
13. C ###

[Gail Collins joined the New York Times in 1995 as a member of the editorial board and later as an op-ed columnist. In 2001 she became the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times editorial page. At the beginning of 2007, she took a leave in order to complete America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines. Collins returned to the Times as a columnist in July 2007. She received a BA (journalism) from Marquette University and an MA (government) from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Gail Collins’s newest book is As Texas Goes...: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda (2012).]

Copyright © 2016 The New York Times Company

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Friday, December 30, 2016

This Blog Might Not Be Worthy Of A Sidney Award, But At Least It Deserves A Sapper

The quiet chortling and snorts of joy you may hear in the background of today's double-post come from this blogger. It is gratifying to find a number of essays that appeared in this blog have been recognized for a Sidney Award by BoBo Boy (Davide Brooks) in his annual celebration of good writing. If this is (fair & balanced) self-congratulation, so be it.

Vannevar Bush HyperlinkBracketed numericsDirectory]
[1] The 2016 Sidney Awards, I (BoBo Boy /David Brooks)
[2] The 2016 Sidney Awards, II (BoBo Boy / David Brooks)

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[x NY Fishwrap]
The 2016 Sidney Awards, Part I
By BoBo Boy (David Brooks)

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Perry Link once noticed that Chinese writers use more verbs in their sentences whereas English writers use more nouns. For example, in one passage from the 18th-century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin uses 130 nouns and 166 verbs. In a similar passage from Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens uses 96 nouns and 38 verbs.

This observation is at the core of his New York Review of Books essay “The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?” which is the first winner of this year’s Sidney Awards. I give out the awards, named for the philosopher Sidney Hook, to celebrate some of the best long-form essays of each year.

Link notes that Indo-European languages tend to use nouns even when verbs might be more appropriate. Think of the economic concept inflation. We describe it as a thing we can combat, or whip or fight. But it’s really a process.

Link takes this thought in a very philosophical direction, but it set me wondering how much our thinking is muddled because we describe actions as things. For example, we say someone has knowledge, happiness or faith (a lot of faith or a little faith, a strong faith or a weak faith); but faith, knowledge and happiness are activities, not objects.

If that last point needed underlining, go to Christian Wiman’s beautiful essay “I Will Love You in the Summertime,” in The American Scholar. As a small child, Wiman used to sneak into his parents’ room in the middle of the night and peel open their eyelids in the hopes that he could see what they were dreaming.

But the essay is mostly about the things children know, the things adults know and the process of reaching beyond everyday perception. It’s better to quote a few passages:

“People who have been away from God tend to come back by one of two ways: destitution or abundance, an overmastering sorrow or a strangely disabling joy. Either the world is not enough for the hole that has opened in you, or it is too much.”

“I suggested she pray to God. This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide), since I am not a great pray-er myself and tend to be either undermined by irony or overwhelmed by my own chaotic consciousness.”

“As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish.”

Wiman also nicely quotes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord, and you gave them to me.”

These two essays are not about the events that shook the world in 2016. I’ll get to more of them in the next batch of Sidneys, but in the meantime, the most important — and best crafted — essay of the year was probably Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine” in The Atlantic. It’s a classic not only on Barack Obama’s mind and the world situation today, but also about the act of foreign policy making.

Nathan Heller’s “Letter from Oberlin: The Big Uneasy,” in The New Yorker, captured the moral awakening (or mania) that is sweeping college campuses. That essay, too, generated an enormous amount of conversation and is worth revisiting.

I’ll end this batch of Sidneys with another perception-altering essay, Charles Foster’s “In Which I Try to Become a Swift,” from Nautilus. Foster writes about swifts, a family of birds a bit like swallows.

Swifts are violent, acrobatic and ethereal. They eat 5,000 or more insects a day. When they hunt for bees they select only the stingless ones. They can select the wasp mimics from actual wasps, even while traveling 50 feet a second.

But the essay is really about Foster’s efforts to enter into the swift experience. Once while driving to a day care center, he saw a group of them exploding from some tree tops. He scrambled up a tree, where “I swayed in a fork just below the top and pushed my head out into the killing zone of the delta. I saw a tongue, squat, gray, and dry; I saw myself, pinched and saucer-eyed. … I snapped a mouthful of nymphs and spat them onto the roof of a brand new Mercedes dropping off a child from a house 300 yards away. It was the closest I ever got.”

Foster enters into the different ways swifts experience air and time, and like all these writers, undercuts the normal way we see the world.

More winners are coming Friday [See below]. If you want essays like this all year, I have to again recommend the website The Browser, edited by Robert Cottrell, which gathers eloquence from far and wide day after day. ###

[See BoBo Boy's bio below.]

Copyright © 2016 The New York Times Company

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[x NY Fishwrap]
The Sidney Awards, Part Deux
By BoBo Boy (David Brooks)

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Every December I read hundreds of long-form essays to select the Sidney Awards, and every year I regret that I spend so much of the other 11 months reading online trivia. Then, every January, I revert to Twitter.

Andrew Sullivan got sucked into the online addiction in a big way, yanked himself away from it and wrote a brilliant essay on the process for New York magazine called “I Used to Be a Human Being.”

Sullivan was the superstar of what I guess we can call the blogging era, consumed with online volleying all day, every day. Everything else — health, friendships — atrophied: “Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.” He also came to understand that we don’t really control our time online. Our clicks are seduced by technologists superbly able to suck us in.

There is also something emotionally comforting, if cowardly, about life through the screen: “An entire universe of intimate responses is flattened to a single, distant swipe. We hide our vulnerabilities, airbrushing our flaws and quirks; we project our fantasies onto the images before us.”

Sullivan cut the cord, went to a silent retreat center and promptly collapsed. Issues from his traumatic childhood flooded back. “It was as if, having slowly and progressively removed every distraction from my life, I was suddenly faced with what I had been distracting myself from. Resting for a moment against the trunk of a tree, I stopped, and suddenly found myself bent over, convulsed with the newly present pain, sobbing.”

Sullivan’s essay marks an important turning point as more people realize that smartphones have made online life so consuming as to become a monster.

Martha Nussbaum is one of America’s most brilliant philosophers, her work often focusing on the content and nature of emotions. Rachel Aviv’s wonderful New Yorker profile, “The Philosopher of Feelings,” opens with Nussbaum writing a lecture while flying to see her dying mother:

“In the lecture, she described how the Roman philosopher Seneca, at the end of each day, reflected on his misdeeds before saying to himself, ‘This time I pardon you.’ The sentence brought Nussbaum to tears. She worried that her ability to work was an act of subconscious aggression, a sign that she didn’t love her mother enough. I shouldn’t be away lecturing, she thought. I shouldn’t have been a philosopher. Nussbaum sensed that her mother saw her work as cold and detached, a posture of invulnerability. ‘We aren’t very loving creatures, apparently, when we philosophize,’ Nussbaum has written.”

The profile is a subtle exploration of a woman who is extreme at both ends of the sense and sensibility spectrum, who is almost fanatically organized and professionally accomplished, but also deeply emotional and open to the things in the world that can leave you shattered.

I have left the election largely out of the awards, named for the philosopher Sidney Hook, since we’ve been so consumed by the madness all year. But I should mention a few deserving political essays:

In “How American Politics Went Insane,” in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argues that generations of well-intentioned reformers have destroyed the informal structures of politics, like parties, congressional hierarchies and pork barrel spending, that make government work. The reformers saw insiderish corruption, but these mediating structures held leaders accountable to one another. Without them, we are left in a world of chaos, political dysfunction, atomization and demagogy.

The economist Tyler Cowen of the Marginal Revolution blog excellently suggested that I include a pro-Trump essay, to give the winning side its due. I’ve picked “The Flight 93 Election,” from The Claremont Review of Books, by the person who writes under the name Publius Decius Mus. The core argument is that modern conservatism has failed at everything except its self-preservation, that a figure like Donald Trump could arise only in deeply corrupt times and that only the radical shift he offers can protect the nation from utter destruction.

Some sort of prognostication prize should go to Ronald Brownstein for “Is Donald Trump Outflanking Hillary Clinton,” also in The Atlantic. One week before the election, Brownstein wondered why the Clinton campaign was spending its energies on states it didn’t need to win, like Florida, while neglecting the “Blue Wall” states it absolutely had to win, like Wisconsin and Michigan.

Finally, to lift our eyes to the heavens, let’s throw in Alan Lightman’s “What Came Before the Big Bang?,” in Harper’s. Lightman describes current thinking about the creation of the universe. He suggests that the universe moves from tidiness to messiness, that the entire universe may have once been like a subatomic particle, that before-and-after, cause-and-effect thinking might be a human construct that prevents us from understanding cosmic events.

Lightman’s account of cosmology explodes our mental frameworks and normal categories, and thus serves as a good preparation for 2017. ###

David Brooks became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. His column appears every Tuesday and Friday. He is currently a commentator on “PBS NewsHour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He is the author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000), On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (2004), and The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (2011). Most recently he has written The Road to Character (2015). Brooks received a BA (history) from the University of Chicago and he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.]

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Today, An Elegy To 11/9/2016

The Butcher (Frank Rich) hit one clinker in his response to the Disaster of November 8, 2016: the US Attorney General (if confirmed) will NOT be the ever-loyal Rudy Giuliani. Instead, Il Douche has annointed the junior US Senator from Alabama (Jeff Sessions) to be the nation's top law enforcement official. Other than the mistaken assumption that Il Douche would be loayl to his friends, The Butcher's meat-cutting is elegant. If this is a (fair & balanced) political abattoir, so be it.

[x NY 'Zine]
President Trump’s America Already Looks Different
By The Butcher (Frank Rich)

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“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America,” said Barack Obama a dozen summers ago. “There’s the United States of America.”

RIP, the sweet audacity of hope.

We’ve lost a lot of illusions during the resistible rise of Donald Trump. An entire political culture has been leveled; it’ll be a long time before we hear about the virtues of a “ground game” or the nerdy brilliance of data-driven poll analysts without laughing (or crying). The “values voter” is dead, and so is the quaint conviction that newspaper and magazine editorials might somehow save the world. But some of these illusions were due for demolition anyway. What makes this election soul-sickening is how it has crushed our most romantic ideals about America itself.

We now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is still a white America, and not exclusively red-state or blue-collar, that will fight to the end to retain its ancestral status over the non-white Americas rising all around it in a fearsome new century. And that there is still a goodly portion of male America that will do the same to retain its own fraying prerogatives. And that there is a major political party that cynically pandered to both these reactionary movements so it could retain the power to — do what, exactly? Mandate more tax cuts for its donor class? “Privatize” the safety net? Outlaw abortion? Roll back same-sex marriage? Bar America’s gates to immigrants? Well, the GOP can now try to do it all. It has all three branches of government in its grip. Its leaders, most crucially Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, remained steadfast to their candidate through Election Day, undeterred by his blatant racism and nativism, his history of sexual assaults, his affinity for Vladimir Putin, or his embrace of an anti-Semitic and white-supremacist alt-right movement. They will remain Trump’s toadies once he inhabits the White House — or at least until he inevitably sends them packing to install even more slavish lieutenants.

For those of us on the losing side of this election there will now be a hunt for scapegoats, with the media and James Comey no doubt at the top of the list. But they are newcomers to this fiasco. The Republican Party owns this. It has cynically exploited the backlash to the civil-rights and feminist movements for more than half a century. The kindling was there to be lit, and so it was once a black man ascended to the White House. Trump is nothing if not the unabashed apotheosis of the nihilistic Party of No, and Palin, and birtherism, and “You lie!”

But that’s not the whole story. Not every Trump voter is a racist. More than a few of them just despise elites, and elitists, regardless of race or creed. Against all odds, a guy who is famous mainly for being a wealthy autocrat persuaded those voters he could be their champion. How? Part of it, I think, is that he dissed his own party’s elites, not just liberals, and pounded the press and Wall Street. He has a knack for crude populist language even if he may not even know what populism is. (What does he know?) He was also fortunate to have Hillary Clinton as an opponent. The national-security threat represented by her emails may be close to nil, and her use of a private server was, as the FBI man said, careless rather than criminal. But she was too slow to speak about the issue with honest circumspection as opposed to circumlocution. The email brouhaha came to stand for a regal sense of entitlement that was reinforced by the Clintons’ obscene buckraking, however worthy their foundation’s charitable causes. To this day I do not understand why Hillary Clinton gave speeches at Goldman Sachs for eye-popping sums when she knew she was going to run for president. The speeches themselves, once revealed, were as innocuous as most of the emails. But that’s not the point. She had given Trump — a con artist who breaks rules and possibly laws routinely — an opening to deaccession some of his own, far vaster sins on to her candidacy. Her air of entitlement gave some key voters in the Democratic base a reason not to vote.

What also became clear along the way is that the Clinton campaign, many Clinton supporters, and many Clinton-friendly members of the elite press — like the GOP primary field before them — had little sense of what they were dealing with in the case of Trump. They famously underestimated his chances right up until November 8, and they seemed baffled by much of his flock. As #NeverTrump opinion pieces in the best publications became more and more apocalyptic in recent weeks, I kept thinking: Well, I agree with everything they are saying, but is there a single Trump voter even reading these columns and editorials, let alone being swayed by any of them? Many of those voters subscribe to a whole separate culture, online and on the airwaves. (Fox News may be the least of it.) That culture has delegitimized the Establishment culture in the eyes of its consumers, even as the Establishment culture remains largely oblivious to the insurrectionist culture in its midst. To me, nothing symbolized the culture gap of this election year more acutely than the stunt of a liberal Times columnist interviewing an “imaginary” Trump voter rather than a real one.

Where this divided America ends up I have no idea. This was no 9/11. The terrorist attacks on America, after all, did not come from within, and for a while at least, they brought the country together. What awaits us now looks very much like a protracted civil war — indeed a retread of our previous Civil War. We have a Supreme Court whose Chief Justice has already hollowed out the Voting Rights Act, giving permission to the voter-suppression efforts that went off the charts in 2016 and that now will continue unchecked. We have a president-elect who has seemed to endorse discrimination by race, religion, and ethnicity, and who wants to give police more sway over the “inner cities.” Next up: Attorney General Rudy Giuliani.

I keep thinking of that old "Twilight Zone" episode where the panicking neighbors on a bucolic all-American Maple Street become so fearful of an alien invasion that they start shooting each other and destroy their neighborhood before any invaders arrive. Not even when the towers came down did America feel as vulnerable as it does on this 11/9. ###

[Frank Rich joined New York magazine in June 2011 as Writer-at-Large, writing monthly on politics and culture, and editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. Rich joined the magazine following a distinguished career at the New York Times, where he had been an op-ed columnist since 1994. He was previously the paper's chief drama critic, from 1980 to 1993. As a theater critic, he was known as "The Butcher On Broadway." Before joining The Times, Rich was a film critic at Time magazine, the New York Post, and New Times magazine. He was a founding editor of the Richmond (VA) Mercury, a weekly newspaper, in the early 1970s. Rich is the author of a childhood memoir, Ghost Light (2000), a collection of drama reviews, Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (1998), The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson (with Lisa Aronson, 1987), and The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (2006). Rich is a graduate of the Washington, DC public schools. He earned a BA degree in American History and Literature from Harvard College in 1971.]

Copyright © 2016 New York Media

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Tao Of Jack Reacher Is The Tonic For Our Time — "Hope For The Best, Plan For The Worst"

Any reader seeking an "Optimism Bias" in this blog has it all wrong because this blog is the home of the "Pessimism Bias." If this is a (fair & balanced) cry of despair, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
The Psychological Research That Helps Explain The Election
By Maria Konnikova

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At the end of most years, I’m typically asked to write about the best psychology papers of the past twelve months. This year, though, is not your typical year. And so, instead of the usual “best of,” I’ve decided to create a list of classic psychology papers and findings that can explain not just the rise of Donald Trump in the US but also the rising polarization and extremism that seem to have permeated the world. To do this, I solicited the opinion of many leading psychologists, asking them to nominate a paper or two, with a brief explanation for their choice. (Then I nominated some stories myself.) And so, as 2016 draws to a close, here’s a partial collection of the insights that psychology can bring to bear on what the year has brought about, arranged in chronological order.

Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper’s “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization”

In 1979, a team from Stanford University—Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper—published a paper [PDF] that made sense of a common, and seemingly irrational, phenomenon: that the beliefs we hold already affect how we process and assimilate new information. In other words, we don’t learn rationally, taking in information and then making a studied judgment. Instead, the very way we learn is influenced from the onset by what we know and who we are. In the original study [PDF], Lord and his colleagues asked people to read a series of studies that seemed to either support or reject the idea that capital punishment deters crime. The participants, it turned out, rated studies confirming their original beliefs as more methodologically rigorous—and those that went against them as shoddy.

This process, which is a form of what’s called confirmation bias, can help explain why Trump supporters remain supportive no matter what evidence one puts to them—and why Trump’s opponents are unlikely to be convinced of his worth even if he ends up doing something actually positive. The two groups simply process information differently. “The confirmation bias is not specific to Donald Trump. It’s something we are all susceptible to,” the Columbia University psychologist Daniel Ames, one of several scholars to nominate this paper, said. “But Trump appears to be an especially public and risky illustration of it in many domains.” (Ames and his colleague Alice Lee recently showed a similar effect with beliefs about torture.)

A closely related paper [PDF] by Ross, Lepper, and Robert Vallone, from 1985, found that the polarization effect was particularly powerful among strong partisans. When looking at perceptions of the 1982 Beirut massacre, they found that more extreme partisans saw the facts as more biased, and recalled the media coverage of the massacre differently. They saw more negative references to their side, and they predicted that nonpartisans would be swayed more negatively against them as a result—thus increasing their perception of being assaulted and solidifying their opinions. The more knowledge of the issue they had, the greater their perception of bias. American politics has grown only more partisan since the eighties, and this finding can help explain some of the backlash among Trump supporters to press outlets that reported critically on him.

Dan Kahan’s “Cultural Cognition”

Over the last decade, Dan Kahan, a psychologist at Yale University, has been studying a phenomenon he calls “cultural cognition,” or how values shape perception of risk and policy beliefs. One of his insights is that people often engage in something called “identity-protective cognition.” They process information in a way that protects their idea of themselves. Incongruous information is discarded, and supporting information is eagerly retained. Our memory actually ends up skewed: we are better able to process and recall the facts that we are motivated to process and recall, while conveniently forgetting those that we would prefer weren’t true. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, one of several to nominate Kahan for this list, said that his theory is best called “political and intellectual tribalism.” Like seeks like, and like affirms like—and people gravitate to the intellectually similar others, even when all of their actions should rightly set off alarm bells.

Trump, Pinker said, won over pretty much the entire Republican Party, and all those who felt alienated from the left, by declaring himself to be opposed to the “establishment” and political correctness. And this all happened, Pinker wrote to me, “despite his obvious temperamental unsuitability for the responsibilities of the Presidency, his opposition to free trade and open borders (which should have, but did not, poison him with the libertarian right), his libertine and irreligious lifestyle (which should have, but did not, poison him with evangelicals), his sympathies with Putin’s Russia (which should have, but did not, poison him with patriots), and his hostility to American military and political alliances with democracies (which should have, but did not, poison him with neoconservatives).”

Karen Stenner’s “The Authoritarian Dynamic”

Research published a decade ago by Karen Stenner provides insight into a psychological trait known as authoritarianism: the desire for strong order and control. Most people aren’t authoritarian as such, Stenner finds. Instead, most of us are usually capable of fairly high tolerance. It’s only when we feel we are under threat—especially what Stenner calls “normative threat,” or a threat to the perceived integrity of the moral order—that we suddenly shut down our openness and begin to ask for greater force and authoritarian power. People want to protect their way of life, and when they think it’s in danger they start grasping for more extreme-seeming alternatives. In 2005, Stenner offered a prediction that seems clairvoyant now. In response to the increasing tolerance in Western societies, she wrote, an authoritarian backlash was all but inevitable:

[T]he increasing license allowed by those evolving cultures generates the very conditions guaranteed to goad latent authoritarians to sudden and intense, perhaps violent, and almost certainly unexpected, expressions of intolerance. . . . The kind of intolerance that springs from aberrant individual psychology, rather than the disinterested absorption of pervasive cultural norms, is bound to be more passionate and irrational, less predictable, less amenable to persuasion, and more aggravated than educated by the cultural promotion of tolerance.

John Tooby and Leda Cosmide’s “Groups in Mind: The Coalitional Roots of War and Morality”

In 2010, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara, best known for their work in evolutionary psychology, published a paper [PDF] on the use of outrage to help mobilize coalitions. Their main claim is that humans, like other animals, are predisposed to coalition-building: in order to best protect ourselves, we co√∂perate with those we see as within our coalition, and we fight those we see as outside it. One of the ways coalitions can be galvanized to action, the authors showed, is by uniting them against a perceived outrage—and this dynamic played out repeatedly in the Trump campaign, both with Trump supporters and the opposition. Play up the outrage factor and suddenly groups bond together like never before—and prepare to attack like never before.

Michele Gelfand’s “Cultural Tightness”

In a series of recent papers in Science [PDF] and PNAS [PDF], Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, demonstrated a concept that seems particularly relevant not only to Trump but to the seeming polarization of politics more globally: in surveys conducted throughout the United States, in one case, and in thirty-three countries, in another, combined with historical analyses and personality assessments, she found that when people perceive higher threat levels and are under stress, they flock to leaders who promise tighter rules, greater strength, a more authoritarian approach. Gelfand calls this “cultural tightness”: a desire for strong social norms and a low tolerance for any sort of deviant behavior. As threat perception increases, even looser cultures—those with high tolerance and lower norms—begin to tighten up.

Throughout the election, Trump himself stoked the feeling of threat and fear, so that he became a seemingly more and more fitting leader. In Europe, rhetoric about terrorism, immigration threats, and the like is doing much the same thing. The greater the perceived threat, the tighter the culture becomes. Indeed, Gelfand has found that the strongest supporters of Trump were also those who thought the U.S. was under the greatest threat.

Tali Sharot’s “Optimism Bias”

So why didn’t anyone see this coming and try to reverse any of the trends? In ongoing research, the psychologist Tali Sharot is investigating something known as “optimism bias”: we think the future is going to be better than the past. We tend to dismiss things we don’t particularly like, or that we find disturbing, as aberrations. Instead, we assume that the future will be far more promising than current signs might make it seem. We are, in a sense, hardwired for hope. And so that’s what we do. Until the very end, some supporters of Hillary Clinton held out hope that the Electoral College would somehow, for the first time in history, reverse the results of the election, just as some people had held out hope that Trump wouldn’t get the G.O.P. nomination and, once he did, that he wouldn’t accept it. Now many Trump opponents hold out hope that once he assumes office he will act differently than he has on the campaign trail. People keep hoping for the best, even in the face of great odds. And it’s a hope that helps us survive, even when those great odds defy us. ###

[Russian-born Maria Konnikova came to the States with her parents at age 4. Konnikova is a contributor to The New Yorker (online), where she writes a weekly blog focusing on psychology and science. She is the author of both Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013) as well as The Confidence Game (2016). Konnikova received a BA (psychology and creative writing, magna cum laude) from Harvard University and a PhD (paychology) from Columbia University.]

Copyright © 2016 The New Yorker/Cond√© Nast Digital

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Wohlstetter Legacy: Kudos To Roberta For Explaining How Pearl Harbor Happened & Brickbats To Albert For Sending The Likes Of Paul Wolfowitz And Richard Perle To The Pentagon

The appearance of a recent book about post-Viet Nam US defense policy — The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter (2016) — arrives when the POTUS 44 and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe jointly honored the those who died at Pearl Harbor 75 years after Japan's attack on Hawaii. Ironically, the best of the so-called "Defense Intellectuals" was Roberta Wohlstetter whose most influential work was Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision which received the Bancroft Prize in 1963. Her work was a model for the 9/11 Commission and staff in writing its Report [PDF] to the nation. If this is a (fair & balanced) mixed legacy, so be it.

[ x CHE]
Beware Of Defense Intellectuals
By Thomas Meaney
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing

created at

Powerful nations and empires enjoy a certain luxury in how they make decisions. Herodotus tells of how the Persians, when confronted with a question of foreign policy, would first consider the problem sober, then consider it again when they were drunk. A courtier aiming to sway Louis XVI could not rely on appeal to necessity; counsel had to be laced with wit. Bon mots, wisecracks, and puns ruled the day.

If you are tempted to think that the United States operates in a more reasonable fashion, Ron Robin’s The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter (2016) will disabuse you. The Pentagon is no more immune to claims of form and style than was Versailles.

Robin’s book is about a rabid form of foreign-policy thinking that speaks with placid assurance about "reality," that presents itself as "pre-emptive" but takes the form of outright aggression, that claims to be "strategic," but is often more enamored of tactics than actual strategy.

Robin, a cultural historian and president of the University of Haifa, has written a dual biography of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, a couple who loomed large among policy thinkers during the Cold War. Albert’s early biography reads like the CV of many New York intellectuals: born in an outer borough; educated at City College, where he seems to have developed left-wing sympathies that soon faded; further study at Columbia with worthies like Ernest Nagel and Meyer Schapiro.

Then he went down an idiosyncratic path. In 1956, the couple moved west. Roberta got a job reviewing books for a new think tank in Santa Monica, the Rand Corporation. She got Albert to do some consulting, through which he discovered a talent for writing apocalyptic memos about American security. Decision-makers at the Pentagon liked Albert’s essays. They came studded with references to Milton and Shakespeare, and offered clear counsel to a nation that Wohlstetter cast as indecisive, Hamlet-like.

Albert radically and convincingly inflated the capacity and number of America’s enemies. What Robin calls the "Wohlstetter Doctrine" — an offensive, not merely defensive, nuclear strategy — started making gains on concepts like "containment" that had originated with a more subdued cadre of Americans strategists, namely George Kennan. Wohlstetter attacked the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, the premise of which was that the United States and the Soviet Union would never go to nuclear war because it would mean the mass death of each of their populations. Wohlstetter leaned on a valid point about the immorality of MAD — which necessitated each Cold War adversary targeting each other’s civilian populations and cities — in order to press for a more confrontational policy of outspending the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons, and advocating the tactical use of them in places where that could be done without the threat of retaliation. His dream of nuclear invincibility and total security culminated in Reagan’s Star Wars missile-defense system and George W. Bush’s pre-emptive war in Iraq. (Albert died in 1997; Roberta in 2007.)

More intriguing than the substance of the Wohlstetters’ arguments is why they found such favor in Washington. Albert and Roberta were prototypical "defense intellectuals," a unique type of American thinker who advertises a grasp of some deeper reality that the desk workers at the Pentagon and the State Department, consumed with the day-to-day, cannot detect. Defense intellectuals litter their prose with evidence of their liberal educations. It’s a style that aspires to be at once straight-talking and lyrical, learned and casual.

Many considered Roberta more brilliant than her husband. She came from a diametrically different background from Albert, growing up in a WASP family from Massachusetts, daughter of a Harvard law professor. (Her brother was the historian Edmund S. Morgan.) In 1962, she wrote Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, which won the Bancroft Prize. She argued that the United States had collected all of the necessary data that could have warned of the Japanese attack, but had failed to analyze the data correctly. The book included no historical dimension or any analysis of the run-up to December 1941. But it speaks to her belief — shared with her husband — in an America on a permanent offensive footing, with the utopia of perfect security within reach.

The Wohlstetters would be period pieces were it not for their disciples. One of the few things that Robin could have investigated more is how Albert Wohlstetter, who spent most of his career at the University of Chicago as a professor in the political-science department, managed to turn his office into a one-man policy shop, staffed with graduate students. Histories of "the Cold War University" tend to stress the formal tensions between campuses and the Pentagon that began in the 1950s, but Wohlstetter, operating in a more informal fashion, was turning out Washington-bound students well into the 1980s.

The second half The Cold World They Made details the paths of Albert’s more notable disciples. In Richard Perle, one of the most articulate defenders of the war in Iraq, Robin finds Albert’s ideas about overwhelming offensive force finally put into action. In Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as American ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration, Robin finds an essentially conventional academic whom Wohlstetter helped turn into a chief proponent of substituting global terrorism for the Soviet Union as an all-present American foe.

But the most intriguing disciple is Paul Wolfowitz, former dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and deputy secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration. Wolfowitz shared not only Wohlstetter’s views, but also the form. Both couched their worldviews in a brittle moralism combined with an unremitting sententiousness.

One passing anecdote in Robin’s book is revealing. As a young man, Wolfowitz drove from Chicago to New York with his friend and fellow budding defense intellectual Charles Fairbanks Jr. Wolfowitz, Fairbanks recalls, "had just been reading Livy’s history of Rome. He was obviously somehow in love with political greatness. I think in the same way as the young Lincoln was. He talked for hours at a time about the ancient Romans, about what kind of men they were and what they achieved." Consider how much is on display here. The dewy-eyed reference to the Romans; the shameless, absurd comparison to Lincoln; the fetishization of "greatness" as a barren abstraction.

One would think that after the Iraq War — the gravest strategic blunder in more than a generation — American elected officials would have lost their appetite for pseudointellectual courtiers and their pandering. But the liberal arts continue to be a useful device for signaling class or moral solidarities in the foreign-policy establishment. They are another medium through which a self-flattering elite takes refuge from actual strategic thought, as well as from knowing other languages and cultures too intimately.

Beware the policy intellectual who comes armed with a bit of Livy... or Herodotus. ###

[Thomas Meaney received a BA (history) from the University of St. Thomas (MN) and curretnly is a PhD candidate (ABD) in history at Columbia University. In 2017, he will be a fellow at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany.]

Copyright © 2016 The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Roll Over, Robert Browning And Mies Van Der Rohe — Make Way For Tom Tomorrow's Homage To Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans" (1962)

When this blogger opened the e-mail containing today;s cartoon from "This Modern World," the blogger had a WTF-moment.The usual 9-panels were replaced by a single image to aymbolize 2016: The Year In Review." If was a single commercial dumpster — afire — against a Warhold-like college of 72 images of Il Douche in full-throat. In truth, Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins) captured the essence of 2016 with dumpster set ablaze. If this is a (fair & balanced) tribute to minimalism, so be it.

[x TMW]
2016 In Review: A Comprehensive Look Back
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political blog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. More recently, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning. Even more recently, Dan Perkins was a runner-up for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.]

Copyright © 2016 This Modern World/Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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