Sunday, March 20, 2016

Stone Age Brains

I have just finished reading a fascinating book that helps explain the Trump phenomenon (though not in an encouraging way). It’s called Political Animals, How Our Stone Age Brain Gets In The Way Of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman. The thesis is fairly simple, though a bit startling: basically, we humans retain a brain that, despite outward appearances and our professed allegiance to reason, operates in a way suitable to our stone-age, hunter-gatherer ancestors of the Pleistocene (the age that lasted roughly from 2.5 million BCE to about 10,000 years ago). Given the rate of evolutionary change, that means that the mere 10,000 years from the Stone Age to complex civilizations isn’t nearly long enough for us to have evolved brains more suited to our current physical and social environment. As evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby put it in Shenkman’s book: “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind” (xvi). This means that in political situations, most voters do not behave as rationally as we like to think. All the labor to craft political messages embodying truth and fact make—for the majority of people—very little or no impact. Rather, most voters are moved by events, by the way a candidate looks, by their biases which they stick to with alarming persistence. They also use their brains, which Daniel Kahneman proposes work on basically two systems—the fast-thinking System 1 (mostly instinctive) and the slower-thinking System 2 (reasoning)—in an essentially stone-age way. They make quick judgments (System 1) that completely bypass reasoning or fact or information and rely on instinctive, mostly visual cues.
            Shenkman starts out with an analysis, recently done by Christopher Achen, of the election of 1916 in which Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election. In that summer, there were several shark attacks on swimmers at the New Jersey shore. Wilson won the election, but in the two towns—Spring Lake and Beach Haven—where the shark attacks occurred, the President’s support dropped by nine to eleven points. It was the same effect, Shenkman points out, that the Great Depression had on New Jersey voters in 1932. What happened? The huge drop was due to the fact that the voters felt threatened, regardless of the fact that Wilson had nothing whatever to do with it. Just the threat led voters to vote against the incumbent, Woodrow Wilson. And it wasn’t only in 1916 New Jersey. Achen and a colleague then analyzed the Florida vote in Bush v. Gore in 2000, to take into consideration negative weather events like drought and flood, and came up with the same startling pattern: “voters suffering from either floods or droughts registered a strong bias against incumbents.” In 2000, according to Achen, roughly 2.7% of the electorate, or about 2.8 million people “voted against Gore because their states were too dry or too wet” (xxiv). And this pattern was found to operate as far back as 1896: simple events that felt threatening to voters, regardless of whether incumbents could do anything about them or not, were blamed on incumbents. In short, politics in large part involves not what candidates promise to do or have done; it’s about how our stone-age brains are working at the time of an election.
            Now we have an election in which a billionaire named Trump is conducting a campaign that has most political observers scratching their heads. How can he be winning people over? How can his simple, and simple-minded message—“We’re going to be great again. We’re going to win, win, win. We’re going to build a wall and keep immigrants out.”—possibly persuade voters that this man is even remotely suitable, not to mention minimally prepared to be the most powerful leader in the world? The answer lies in those stone-age brains. In those instant, System 1 opinions. And lest we be too quick to condemn those who fall for this nonsense as “stupid,” Shenkman makes the important point that it is not ‘stupidity’ but ‘ignorance’ that is the problem. Being ignorant means lacking the information needed to make an informed decision. And why are most Americans ignorant? Because they aren’t interested enough to pay attention—and this, again, has to do with those brains suitable to the stone age.
            The Pleistocene, that is, was marked by humans who gathered in groups of 150 individuals, more or less. Why 150? It appears to be the optimum size of a group that the human brain can keep track of (there is a brain-to-network ratio that has been worked out about this). Our brains, like the brains of all primates, evolved their size to be social—to be able to keep track of and relate with and dominate as many other people as possible. That, in modern evolutionary thinking, is why human brains evolved to be so large. The brain size that evolution apparently favored was the size that could keep relatively solid track of 150 individuals. The problem in the modern world is that almost no one lives in a group or village of 150 people anymore. We live in megalopolises that number in the millions, and our concerns extend even further to millions of our allies and essentially the entire globe. But our brains are still operating at the 150-person level. So most of us simply cannot be bothered with all it takes to be well-informed. Instead, we get impressions from photographs, from TV ads or interviews or debates. And what the research shows is that an alarming number of people decide almost instantly about who is suitable and who is not, and once they’ve decided, stick to that first opinion. How fast are these key decisions made? Shenkman cites the research of a political scientist name Todorov who sought to find out. Todorov showed subjects a still photo of a political figure. He discovered, first of all, that it takes just 1/10 of a second to “draw an inference about someone’s traits.” One-tenth of a second. Given more time, subjects just grow more confident in the opinion they’ve come up with. Even more startling, Todorov found that we begin to form opinions about people from a photo in a mere 33 milliseconds, and that “we finish forming an opinion by 167 milliseconds” (62). A millisecond is a thousandth of a second! This is faster than it takes to blink, which takes 300 milliseconds at least. And needless to say, such opinions are formed subconsciously, before a person even knows he’s decided.
            So we should not be surprised that Trump supporters like the way he looks (people generally favor candidates with square jaws in times of trouble), or the simple way he sounds either. Because another series of studies shows that people don’t favor the candidate who seems smart or well-informed, but rather the candidate who makes them (the voters) feel smart. That is to say, according to social scientist Howard Gardner, stories are the gold standard for a politician: they “constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal” (135). And the best stories in this regard are simple ones, ones that represent the binary world view (good vs. evil; dark vs. light) of typical 5-year-olds. Why are these stories best? Because everyone can understand them. They make voters feel smart (‘I understand the story and hence the complex problems of the world around me’ is the idea). Ronald Reagan knew this. So, he used the simple name from the popular film Star Wars to name his solution to the nuclear threat everyone feared. Star Wars: the magical shield that would make us invulnerable to nukes. It was classic Good vs. Evil. America vs. the Evil Empire of the Russians. It was a brilliantly simple (and simpleminded) story designed to comfort those who were worried, and make them feel smart. U.S.A., U.S.A, we’re invulnerable, invincible.
            Now we have Donald Trump doing something similar. Worried about ISIS? We’ll bomb the shit out of them, not worrying about collateral damage like some politically correct egghead. Worried about immigrants taking your jobs, your country? We’ll build a wall on the border and deport the 11 million who’ve snuck in previously. Worried about your jobs going to China? We’ll just bring ‘em all back by force, threatening the foreigners, demanding the corporations do it or leave. It’s all simple and simple-minded, and those who are disaffected from the political process, from eggheads who are too afraid or too politically correct to “tell it like it is,” flock to his message and defend it and their choice against all contrary information or mistakes. He’s our guy, he’s got the balls to do what he says, he will save us from the evil (pick one: Russians, Muslims, terrorists, Ragheads, Wetbacks, Blacks, Chinks, etc etc.) ones who have taken our country from us.
            Stone-age brains. It’s oddly fitting when you think about it. Instead of us bombing the wogs (the North Vietnamese) back to the Stone Age, as General LeMay once put it, we find ourselves—at the apex of the modern world—following a philandering huckster down the path to Armageddon on the strength of our not-so-sophisticated-after-all Pleistocene brains.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, March 4, 2016

Scalia Disgraziato

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’d like to address the accepted public narrative about Antonin Scalia and his vaunted reverence for the U.S. Constitution. Repeatedly we are told that this man may have been sharp and sometimes cruel in his opinions and dissents and queries to petitioners, but it was always in the service of his deep and abiding respect for the great founding document of the United States. Most of us take this at face value, having too little understanding of constitutional law and too little time to look into either the law or Scalia’s many rulings to judge its validity. But Renata Adler, a renowned journalist who has written for the New Yorker and many other publications (and is by no means ‘liberal,’ skewering 60s leftists mercilessly), needed only one of Scalia’s major decisions—it was actually a concurrence in which he and the Supreme Court, in Bush v. Gore, essentially handed the election of 2000 to George W. Bush—to demonstrate that the armor of originalism in which Scalia cloaked himself was so full of holes it might as well have been cheesecloth, or something more scatological. The article, collected in a new book of Adler’s pieces entitled After the Tall Timber (NY Review Books: 2014), is titled “Irreparable Harm,” and first appeared in The New Republic on July 30, 2001. What Adler concludes is that the Supreme Court’s decision to stop the hand counting of votes in Florida, thus granting Bush’s petition for a “stay” and thereby handing him the election, was “the most lawless decision in the history of the Supreme Court.” In the end, this may have been most fitting: not only was George W. Bush the most lawless president in our history, he was made president by an equally lawless Supreme Court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
            But to get back to Scalia. First, we must know that the decision in Bush v. Gore was made by the Supreme Court per curiam: which means it was an unsigned decision by the whole Court, with no single justice writing the decision (and thus taking responsibility for it), but with “concurrences” by Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas. Scalia’s concurrence is what Adler goes after most severely, though she also slams Rehnquist’s words as well. She first points out that, historically, a “stay” was granted only in an emergency so dire that allowing someone to continue doing the act at issue threatened “irreparable harm” to the petitioner—harm that could not be undone. It also had to be the case that granting the “stay” would not harm the public interest. Thus, in his concurrence, this was the issue that the great Justice Scalia addressed. If the manual counting of votes in Florida continued, he wrote, it

“does in my view threaten irreparable harm to the petitioner [i.e. Bush], and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election.”

A quick look at what Scalia has written will explain why Renata Adler jumps on this like the proverbial dog on a bone. Scalia doesn’t write that the irreparable harm will strike the petitioner due to any objective or legal merit in his case. The alleged “irreparable harm” will come from what the petitioner [Bush] “claims to be the legitimacy” of his election. And the harm will take the form of “casting a cloud” over this claimed or alleged or premature (the vote count was ongoing) legitimacy. Adler’s scorn can hardly be contained: “Well there it is,” she writes:

The irreparable harm of “casting a cloud.” In the long and honorable tradition of injunctions and stays, this “irreparable injury” is a new one. Not just a cloud, but a cloud on “what he claims to be the legitimacy” of what he is claiming. By that standard, of course, every litigant in every case should be granted an injunction to halt the proceeding that offends him: the prosecutor casts a cloud on a claim of innocence; the civil plaintiff, a cloud on the defendant’s claim that he has already paid him. And of course vice versa, the defendants casting clouds on plaintiffs and prosecutors. The whole adversary system consists of a casting of clouds  (p. 185, Adler; Emphasis added).

In other words, what Scalia and his fellow justices have done is to essentially undermine the entire justice system of the United States and most of the world. That is because if this case were taken as a precedent, then every plaintiff and every defendant could start claiming that his opponent’s claim, if granted, would cause his own claim (of innocence or legitimacy) irreparable harm and should thus be stopped! (‘Your claim that I owe you money would irreparably harm my claim that I don’t.’) And this decision—whose actual consequences have been so catastrophic for both the United States and the world (think only of Bush nominating both Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court; of Bush invading Iraq and throwing the entire world into turmoil; of Bush presiding over the collapse of Wall Street and world financial markets)—was made by and on behalf of those conservatives who have ranted endlessly about their respect for the rule of law and the Constitution’s original intent and the sanctity of legal precedent. 
            But Adler isn’t through yet. Actually, legal precedent is an equally fundamental issue she goes after; because the decision in Bush v. Gore has a final element of judicial bullshit. That is, in order to limit the institutional damage it seems to know it is causing, the Supremes added this little disclaimer: 

“Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.”

This sentence drives Adler completely apoplectic. That’s not only because it makes almost no sense, but also because what it apparently says is that the decision in Bush v. Gore is not to be taken as a precedent for other cases. For this one case, the justices assert, precedent is wiped out, null and void. Adler really goes after this one. “If this were so,” she says (i.e. if precedent could simply be eliminated):
it would undermine, at one stroke, the whole basis of American and Anglo-Saxon law. That each case has precedential value, must have precedential value, is the bedrock of our system of justice. Otherwise, each case can be decided ad hoc, at the caprice of judges—non-elected, federal judges with lifelong tenure. The Constitution and even the Magna Carta would be superseded, the justices would be kings (488).

That pretty much says it all. What the conservative Supreme Court—the court that embodies the conservative objection to “activist judges” like the ones on the Warren Court that passed Roe v. Wade, and Brown v. Board of Education, and all those ‘liberal’ guarantees of due process that allow criminals to flourish—that court, with Scalia’s concurrence in the lead, had just shattered the principle of precedent: the “bedrock of our system of justice.”
            No wonder Adler calls it “the most lawless decision in the history of the Court.” No wonder she concludes that the Rehnquist Court, by taking the decision about who would be President of the United States not only away from the voters (who had made their decision which the count was trying to determine) but also away from those whom the Constitution has ordered to make the decision if it remains in doubt—the elected U.S. Congress or even the chief Executive of the state in question—by seizing power in this way, the unelected justices of the Supreme Court had also undermined the sacred (especially to them) separation of powers. The Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, that is, had usurped the Constitution and taken on the mantle of kings and despots. And the bitter irony of this is contained in Adler’s headnote. It is a quote from Antonin Scalia’s scathing dissent in Morrison v. Olson in 1988, and reads in part: “Without a secure structure of separated powers, our Bill of Rights would be worthless.” As it turned out, Scalia and the Court’s decision did, in fact, within a very short time, make the Bill of Rights worthless. It made a whole lot more worthless as well, when it selected George W. Bush as President by lawlessly, unconstitutionally stopping the manual vote count in Florida.
            So next time you hear encomiums about Antonin Scalia’s reverence for the law, for the Constitution, think about whether he more aptly deserves the old raspberry. Or the moniker he might get in Italian: disgraziato.

Lawrence DiStasi