Archives for the 'Human Nature' Category

Good News: 9/11 Didn’t “Change Everything”

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and DC, things are going much better than most of us dared hope in the initial aftermath of that horrible day. We’re still a secure, prosperous, and relatively free country, and the fear-poisoned atmosphere that governed American politics for years after 9/11 has thankfully receded.

Not everyone’s thankful, however. Boisterous cable gabber Glenn Beck laments the return to normalcy. The website for Beck’s “9/12 Project” waxes nostalgic for the day after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a time when “We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.” Beck’s purpose with the Project? “We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.”

My God: why in the world would anyone want that? Yes, 9/12 brought moving displays of patriotism and a comforting sense of national unity, but that hardly made up for the fear, rage and sorrow that dominated the national mood and at times clouded our vision.

But Beck’s not alone in seeing a bright side to national tragedy. Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.”

One of the things that got Brooks giddy was liberals’ newfound bellicosity. That same week, liberal hawk George Packer wrote:

What I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines….”The only thing needed,” William James wrote in ”The Moral Equivalent of War,” ”is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” I’ve lived through this state, and I like it.

There’s something perverse, if not obscene, in “dreading” the idea that Americans might someday get back to enjoying their own lives. “Private consumption!” “Restaurant lines!” The horror! The horror!

Like Brooks’s National Greatness Conservatives, a good many progressives thought 9/11’s national crisis brought with it the opportunity for a new politics of meaning, a chance to redirect American life in accordance with “the common good.” Both camps seemed to think American life was purposeless without a warrior president who could bring us together to fulfill our national destiny.

That’s why prominent figures on the Right and the Left condemned George W. Bush’s post-9/11 advice to “Enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” As Jeremy Lott notes, “in his laugh riot of a presidential bid,” Joe Biden repeatedly condemned Bush for telling people to “fly and go to the mall!” A little over a year ago, asked to identify “the greatest moral failure of America” John McCain referenced Bush’s comments when he answered that it was our failure sufficiently to devote ourselves “to causes greater than our self interest.”

True, Bush’s term “destination spots” is a little redundant; but otherwise, for once, he said exactly the right thing. And of all the many things to condemn in his post-9/11 leadership, it’s beyond bizarre to lament Bush’s failure to demand more sacrifices from Americans at home: taxes, national service, perhaps scrap-metal drives and War on Terror bond rallies?

National unity has a dark side. What unity we enjoyed after 9/11 gave rise to unhealthy levels of trust in government, which in turn enabled a radical expansion of executive power and facilitated our entry into a disastrous, unnecessary war.

In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama condemned those “who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” “Their memories are short,” he said, “for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

Riffing off of Obama’s remarks, Will Wilkinson wrote:

Can you recall the scale of our recent ambitions? The United States would invade Iraq, refashion it as a democracy and forever transform the Middle East. Remember when President Bush committed the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”? That is ambitious scale.

Not only have some of us forgotten “what this country has already done … when imagination is joined to a common purpose,” it’s as if some of us are trying to erase the memory of our complicity in the last eight years—to forget that in the face of a crisis we did transcend our stale differences and cut the president a blank check that paid for disaster. How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?

Oddly, even Glenn Beck seems to agree, after a fashion. The 9/12 Project credo celebrates the fact that “the day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States, or political parties.” And yet Beck has called on “9/12’ers” to participate in tomorrow’s anti-Obama “tea party” in DC.

On the anniversary of 9/11 what’s clear is that, despite the cliche, September 11th didn’t “change everything.” In the wake of the attacks, various pundits proclaimed “the end of the age of irony” and the dawning of a new era of national unity in the service of government crusades at home and abroad. Eight years later, Americans go about their lives, waiting on restaurant lines, visiting our “great destination spots,” enjoying themselves free from fear–with our patriotism undiminished for all that. And when we turn to politics, we’re still contentious, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and increasingly skeptical toward their grand plans. In other words, post-9/11 America looks a lot like pre-9/11 America. That’s something to be thankful for on the anniversary of a grim day.

(cross-posted at Cato@Liberty)

Posted on Sep 11, 2009 in Conservatism, Executive Power, Foreign Policy and Defense, Human Nature, Liberalism | 9 Comments

“The Ghosts of Those Unlived Lives”

Robert McNamara’s death reminded me of one of my favorite editorials ever, from the New York Times a decade and a half back. The occasion was McNamara’s release of his Vietnam memoir In Retrospect. In the book, he confesses that he too thought the war was a tragic mistake, but felt hamstrung from speaking out by loyalty to the administration he served. The editorialist would have none of his apology. I don’t think I’ve ever read a finer example of tightly controlled, exquisitely expressed contempt. I’ll quote parts of it here:

Comes now Robert McNamara with the announcement that he has in the fullness of time grasped realities that seemed readily apparent to millions of Americans throughout the Vietnam War. At the time, … Millions of loyal citizens concluded that the war was a militarily unnecessary and politically futile effort to prop up a corrupt Government that could neither reform nor defend itself….

It is important to remember how fate dispensed rewards and punishment for Mr. McNamara’s thousands of days of error. Three million Vietnamese died. Fifty-eight thousand Americans got to come home in body bags. Mr. McNamara, while tormented by his role in the war, got a sinecure at the World Bank and summers at the Vineyard….

His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers. The ghosts of those unlived lives circle close around Mr. McNamara. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.

Mr. McNamara says he weeps easily and has strong feelings when he visits the Vietnam Memorial. But he says he will not speak of those feelings. Yet someone must, for that black wall is wide with the names of people who died in a war that he did not, at first, carefully research or, in the end, believe to be necessary. .

Everyone should see Errol Morris’s mesmerizing documentary about McNamara, “The Fog of War.” It’s the portrait of a reflective, self-aware, “civilized” 20th-century man who knows that through his long career, he’s been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. No, his regret could not have been huge enough to balance the books, but you can’t doubt that through his long life he periodically experienced something very like Hell. I’ve never seen a movie quite like it.


Posted on Jul 7, 2009 in Foreign Policy and Defense, Human Nature, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Pogo Principle

The public wants to fend off our impending fiscal apocalypse by (1) cutting the space program (less than $18 billion) and (2) raising taxes on booze and cigarettes. That’ll cover it.

Posted on May 24, 2009 in Human Nature | 17 Comments

“Ponytail Guy” and the Presidency

Ah, the town-hall debate format: that wonderful Oprah-style arrangement in which a hand-picked audience of allegedly normal Americans gets to lob questions at the candidates, who perch awkwardly on directors’ chairs, trying to look warm and approachable. What could be phonier?

Well, maybe a town-hall debate with rules like the ones in force tonight (hat tip Matt Yglesias):

–The questions will be culled from a group of 100 to 150 uncommitted likely voters in the audience and another one-third to come via the Internet. Brokaw selects which questions to ask from written queries submitted prior to the debate.

–The Gallup Organization makes sure the questioners reflect the demographic makeup of the nation.

–An audience member isn’t allowed to switch questions and will not be allowed a follow-up either. His or her microphone will be turned off after the question is read and a camera shot will only be shown of the person asking — not reacting.

–The moderator may not ask followups or make comments.

–McCain and Obama will be provided with director’s chairs, but they’re also allowed to stand. They can’t roam past their “designated area” marked on the stage and are not supposed to ask each other direct questions.

Even so, these things occasionally give rise to memorable moments. My favorite, in terms of revealing how far we’ve drifted from the Framers’ modest, limited conception of the president’s role, was the “ponytail guy” incident from a 1992 town-hall-style debate. This chopped-up YouTube clip will give you a little sense of what that was like.

But to really do it justice, you’ll need the transcript (or, better yet, the book):

The demand for presidential salvation hit its rhetorical nadir in the 1992 presidential debates, when a ponytailed social worker named Denton Walthall rose to ask Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and President Bush the following question:

“The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it….”

“You name it,” indeed. Walthall followed up by asking,

“Could we cross our hearts; it sounds silly here, but could we make a commitment? You know, we’re not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the United States to meet our needs, and we have many, and not yours. Again, I have to repeat that, it’s a real need, I think, that we all have.”

Denton Walthall came in for a fair amount of criticism on the op-ed pages and talk radio airwaves. Yet under the hot lights, none of the candidates risked chastising him, however gently, for having an overly capacious view of presidential responsibility. Instead, they accepted his premise. Ross Perot said he’d take Walthall’s pledge, “no hedges, no ifs, ands and buts.” Governor Clinton argued with Perot about who was more authentic and less dependent on “spin doctors,” and noted that as governor, he’d “worked 12 years very hard… on the real problems of real people.” “It depends on how you define it,” President George H.W. Bush stammered his reply to Walthall,

“… I mean I — I think, in general, let’s talk about these — let’s talk about these issues; let’s talk about the programs, but in the Presidency a lot goes into it. Caring is — goes into it; that’s not particularly specific; strength goes into it, that’s not specific; standing up against aggression, that’s not specific in terms of a program. So I, in principle, I’ll take your point and think we ought to discuss child care, or whatever else it is.”

It’s hard to blame H.W.’s stammering on the Bush family’s notorious difficulty with words. Sad as it is to contemplate, the Bush-Walthall colloquy accurately described what by then had long been the dominant conception of the president’s role in modern American life. That role contains multitudes.

It’s “not specific.” It’s “strength” “caring” “housing” “crime” “standing up against aggression,” “child care—or, indeed, “whatever else it is.” It’s a conception that’s fundamentally incompatible with limited, constitutional government.


Posted on Oct 7, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Executive Power, Human Nature | 5 Comments

Presidential Book Recommendations

The NYT Sunday Book Review editors asked a gaggle of writers and intellectuals to recommend books for the candidates (and, by extension, the next president). The only one that stood out to me as particularly useful was a recommendation by Steven Pinker. He offers Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), in which “renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.” And that’s true–everyone else I know is exactly like that. Anyway, I thought I’d join others in blogland and offer my own recommendations.

It would be pompous to recommend my own book (which you’ll buy if you love America even a little bit). So instead I’ll offer a few in the spirit of the Pinker rec. These are books that influenced me a lot in writing my own. And there’s at least some chance they’d help anyone taking office to keep their bearings, assuming that person isn’t delusional, which is probably not a safe assumption because if so why are they running for president.

In any event, the first is Twilight of the Presidency by former LBJ aide George Reedy. Here’s what I wrote about it in my book:

In his 1970 book The Twilight of the Presidency, George Reedy warned that the environment surrounding the chief executive was enough to make even a well-grounded person delusional. Reedy arrived at that conclusion through close observation, having served as Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary from 1964-65 and later as special assistant to the president in 1968. It seems that Reedy did not entirely enjoy the experience. As a boss, Johnson was a “colossal son of a bitch,” oscillating unpredictably between sadistic abuse and kindness. Reedy has left us a painfully honest—and, at times, bitterly funny— depiction of the sociology of power. Former Nixon aide John Dean, who knows something about the darker side of the West Wing environment, calls Twilight “the best book on the presidency.”

As Reedy writes in Twilight:

There is no position in the United States in which the isolation from equals is so complete as the presidency. To be the absolute superior in status to everyone else encountered throughout the day is an effective form of isolation…. In many respects, it is an even more effective form of isolation than physical confinement. The prisoner doing a spell in solitary knows that he is cut off from other human beings. The president, however, is surrounded by large, adoring groups that give him the illusion of human contact when all they really do is act as an echo chamber for his thoughts.

Gerald Ford recognized that Groupthink and the Arrogance of Power were threats to a sanely administered presidency, and required that his top staffers read the book as a cautionary tale. Alas, given that two of his top staffers were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, it seems not to have worked.

My second recommendation is hard to find: Bruce Buchanan’s The Presidential Experience: What the Office Does to the Man (1978). The psychological analysis in it is dated, long-distance, and not performed by a psychiatrist. But it’s an interesting exploration into/speculation about, the various pathologies that can accompany becoming “the most powerful man in the world” and still finding yourself powerless to meet expectations.

Finally, Theodore J. Lowi’s The Personal President: Power Invested, Promise Unfulfilled (1985). I hadn’t read Lowi’s book until halfway through my own, and discovered that he’d said almost everything that needed to be said about the modern presidency. Luckily he’d said it over two decades ago. Here’s a good summary of Lowi’s thesis:

In his new book Mr. Lowi shrewdly describes the Presidency as an increasingly ”plebiscitary” office. Its occupant uses television and polls to commune directly with the masses, bypassing such mediating institutions as Congress and the political parties. Having given our Presidents big power, we expect big things of them – especially in terms of ”service delivery,” which, Mr. Lowi writes, has displaced representation as the test of democracy and legitimacy. Despite the aggrandizement of the executive branch at Congress’s expense, though, there are still ”built-in barriers to presidents’ delivering on their promises.” The result is a dangerous cycle – substantive failure, followed by frantic White House efforts to create false images of success, followed by adventurism abroad, followed by further public disillusion – all of which forces the next President to turn the rhetorical heat up even higher.

Is it really too much to ask the candidates to check out these three books? I don’t think so. After all, our current prez reads around 90 books a year!

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Posted on Jun 4, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Executive Power, Human Nature | 21 Comments

One Thing at a Time

(Or none). In “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” Walter Kirn explains why the only time I really seem to get anything done anymore is when I’m crammed into a tiny coach seat, forbidden to use electronic devices, and faced with the choice between doing some work and watching a Katherine Heigl movie.

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

The next generation, presumably, is the hardest-hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music. “I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17-year-old quoted in the study.) They’re the ones whose still-maturing brains are being shaped to process information rather than understand or even remember it.

This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly.

Speaking of flying/multitasking: about a week ago, I was in the bathroom at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, when a guy comes in quacking away on his bluetooth device, sidles right up next to me at the urinal, and continues talking (apparently to an assistant/employee) about an upcoming meeting, treating his associate to a cascading liquid symphony punctuated by autoflushes.

Posted on May 11, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Asides, Human Nature, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Wow. That’s Punk.

The New York Times reports that some months ago, a GOP political consultant had his lawyers inform the FBI about rumors of Eliot Spitzer’s trysts with high-priced hookers. I don’t care about that, but this detail about the consultant really leapt out at me:

Mr. Stone, who has referred to politics as “performance art,” is a longtime Republican consultant known for hardball politics and a cloak-and-dagger sensibility. He started out as a teenager in the campaign of Richard M. Nixon, and has a tattoo of the former president’s head on his back.

Posted on Apr 9, 2008 in Human Nature | 5 Comments

You Had Me at “Live Lobsters”

So my dad, who, like me, is a fan of pulpy noir detective novels and shows, sends me an email telling me to set my Tivo for this. I click the link and read:

In the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh, corrupt cop Brendan McCabe is being drowned in a tank of live lobsters.

That is perhaps the best sentence I’ve ever read.

Posted on Oct 6, 2007 in Arts and Culture, Asides, Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Executive Power, Foreign Policy and Defense, Human Nature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Uncategorized | 1 Comment