Sunday Reads … and now for something completely differentPosted: April 1, 2012
I’ve spent some time wondering how a few segments of our population seem to have lost track of reality. We all have access to libraries and the world’s combined knowledge on our little laptops these days. Still, we seem to be surrounded by folks that are reading books in some alternate reality. So what’s the deal? Can you point to some one like Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum and then find something in their brains or their genes that’s not like ours? Or, did something go horribly wrong with them at some point in their life so they just prefer to live a life of fact denial?
Scientists have been looking at brain chemistry and composition and genetics and have found that certain traits tend to run in certain kinds of individuals that tend to do things a specific way. Take this example from Crime Times linking brain dysfunction to the traits of risk-avoidance or thrill-seeking and criminal behavior. Many of these kinds of behaviors have been linked to genes and certain regions of the brain.
Richard Ebstein and colleagues, at Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem, studied 124 unrelated Israelis. The researchers administered a test, devised by C. Robert Cloninger, which evaluated four personality traits: novelty seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence, and persistence. They found that many subjects with high novelty-seeking scores had a slightly longer form of the D4 dopamine receptor (D4DR) gene than deliberate, reflective subjects. According to Ebstein, “this work provides the first replicated association between a specific genetic locus involved in neurotransmission and a normal personality trait.”
Jonathan Benjamin and colleagues, at the National Institutes of Mental Health, conducted a similar study involving 315 subjects who were evaluated on five personality measures: extroversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. None of these traits showed any association with the D4DR gene. Novelty-seeking, however, was again associated with the long version of the gene.
Behavior researchers note, however, that the D4DR gene variant accounts for only about 10 percent of the variation in the trait of novelty-seeking. Cloninger suggests, also, that each personality trait is modified by other traits; thus, a thrill-seeker who is also biologically inclined to be reward dependent, persistent, and optimistic may be a successful business executive, while a thrill-seeker who is low in both reward dependence and anxiety may turn to criminal pursuits.
Are there similar kinds of things at play in the brains and behavior of Bachman and Santorum? Here’s a preview of a book by Chris Mooney in a MoJo article titled “Diagnosing the Republican Brain”. Mooney shows some of the more looney tune entries in Conservapedia. It’s the right wing answer to Wikipedia and it’s just full of baloney science. There’s even some arguments that against the theory of relativity. Is absolute belief in absolute nonsense a medical or mental condition?
Take Conservapedia’s bizarre claim that relativity hasn’t led to any fruitful technologies. To the contrary, GPS devices rely on an understanding of relativity, as do PET scans and particle accelerators. Relativity works—if it didn’t, we would have noticed by now, and the theory would never have come to enjoy its current scientific status.
Little changed at Conservapedia after these errors were dismantled, however (though more anti-relativity “counter-examples” and Bible references were added). For not only does the site embrace a very different firmament of “facts” about the world than modern science, it also employs a different approach to editing than Wikipedia. Schlafly has said of the founding of Conservapedia that it “strengthened my faith. I don’t have to live with what’s printed in the newspaper. I don’t have to take what’s put out by Wikipedia. We’ve got our own way to express knowledge, and the more that we can clear out the liberal bias that erodes our faith, the better.”
You might be thinking that Conservapedia’s unabashed denial of relativity is an extreme case, located in the same circle of intellectual hell as claims that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and 9-11 was an inside job. If so, I want to ask you to think again. Structurally, the denial of something so irrefutable, the elaborate rationalization of that denial, and above all the refusal to consider the overwhelming body of counterevidence and modify one’s view, is something we find all around us today.
Kevin Drum also looks at the idea that “conservatives” are just plain wired differently from the rest of us. I have always been at a loss for words for the number of stubborn believers in things that have been completely disabused by facts. The worst examples are the number of republicans that insist that Obama is a foreign born Muslim despite all evidence to the contrary. Drum thinks there has to be more than that because it seems that most of are worst examples appear to be American. Is there something uniquely nutty about our American Nuts?
I’ve long been sold on the idea that liberalism and conservatism are at least partly temperaments, and it’s those temperaments that lead us to different political conclusions rather than any kind of rational thinking process.
But the problem I have with Chris’s piece is this: temperament is universal, but Republicans are Americans. And it’s Republicans who deny global warming and evolution. European conservatives don’t. In fact, as near as I can tell, European conservatives don’t generally hold anti-science views any more strongly than European progressives.
I’m going to keep this post short because, as I said, I haven’t read the book. Maybe Chris addresses this at greater length there. But in the MoJo piece, at least, he doesn’t really address the question of why differences in brain wiring have produced such extreme anti-science views in American conservatives but not in European conservatives. So consider this an invitation, Chris. Is your contention that American conservatives are unique in some way? Or that American brains are wired differently? Or am I wrong about European conservatives?
Let me tell you a secret about Bible believers that I know because I was one. Most of them don’t read their Bibles. If they did, they would know that the biblical model of sex and marriage has little to do with the one they so loudly defend. Stories depicted in the Bible include rape, incest, master-slave sexual relations, captive virgins, and more. Now, just because a story is told in the Bible doesn’t mean it is intended as a model for devout behavior. Other factors have to be considered, like whether God commands or forbids the behavior, if the behavior is punished, and if Jesus subsequently indicates the rules have changed, come the New Testament.
Through this lens, you find that the God of the Bible still endorses polygamy and sexual slavery and coerced marriage of young virgins along with monogamy. In fact, he endorses all three to the point of providing detailed regulations. Based on stories of sex and marriage that God rewards and appears to approve one might add incest to the mix. Nowhere does the Bible say, “Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you.”
Furthermore, none of the norms that are endorsed and regulated in the Old Testament law – polygamy, sexual slavery, coerced marriage of young girls—are revised, reversed, or condemned by Jesus.
Yup. Polygamy is the norm. Most of the big patriarchs had concubines which are basically sex slaves. Is that what literalists like Pat Robertson see as our proper path?
Biblicalpolygamy.com has pages dedicated to 40 biblical figures, each of whom had multiple wives. The list includes patriarchs like Abraham and Isaac. King David, the first king of Israel may have limited himself to eight wives, but his son Solomon, reputed to be the wisest man who ever lived had 700 wives and 300 concubines! (1 Kings 11)
Concubines are sex slaves, and the Bible gives instructions on acquisition of several types of sex slaves, although the line between biblical marriage and sexual slavery is blurry. A Hebrew man might, for example, sell his daughter to another Hebrew, who then has certain obligations to her once she is used. For example, he can’t then sell her to a foreigner. Alternately a man might see a virgin war captive that he wants for himself.
In the book of Numbers (31:18) God’s servant commands the Israelites to kill all of the used Midianite women who have been captured in war, and all of the boy children, but to keep all of the virgin girls for themselves. The Law of Moses spells out a purification ritual to prepare a captive virgin for life as a concubine. It requires her owner to shave her head and trim her nails and give her a month to mourn her parents before the first sex act (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). A Hebrew girl who is raped can be sold to her rapist for 50 shekels, or about $580 (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). He must then keep her as one of his wives for as long as she lives.
Rape, incest, sexual slavery, and polygamy are all biblical values.
So, let me go back a moment to the widespread Republican notion that President Obama is some kind of Muslim Manchurian Candidate. TruthDig features an article on this by writer John Feffer. Once again, we have evidence that points to something completely different. More brain chemistry perhaps?
Despite right-wing charges, Obama has maintained a tight relationship with Israel and the Israeli leadership. As former New Republic editor Peter Beinart concludes, “The story of Obama’s relationship to [Prime Minister] Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies is, fundamentally, a story of acquiescence.”
It’s no surprise, then, that surveys in six Middle East countries taken just before and two months after the Cairo speech in 2009, the Brookings Institution and Zogby International discovered that the number of respondents optimistic about the president’s approach to the region had suffered a dramatic drop: from 51% to 16%. A 2011 Pew poll found that U.S. favorability ratings had continued their slide in Jordan (to 13%), Pakistan (12%), and Turkey (10%).
And yet, perversely, the hard right in the U.S. maintains that the Obama administration has behaved in quite the opposite manner. “There’s something sick about an administration which is so pro-Islamic that it can’t even tell the truth about the people who are trying to kill us,” Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich typically said while campaigning in Georgia.
Pro-Islamic? That’s news to the Islamic world.
But it’s nothing new to the world of the U.S. right wing, which portrays Obama as anti-Israel and weak in the face of Islamic terrorism. At best, the president emerges from these attacks as a booster of Islam; at worst, he is the leader of a genuine fifth column.
Although the administration’s policy on Iran is virtually indistinguishable from those of his Republican challengers, they have presented him as an appeaser. The president who “surged” in Afghanistan somehow becomes, through the magic of election-year sloganeering, a pacifist patsy. Although Obama never endorsed the location of the “Ground Zero mosque,” his opponents have suggested that he did. Although he was slow to withdraw support from U.S. allies in the Middle East like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, Republican candidates have accused the president of practically campaigning on behalf of the Islamist parties that have grown in influence as a result of the Arab Spring.
Barack Obama, the right wing has discovered, does not have to be Muslim to convince American voters that he has a suspect, even foreign, agenda. They have instead established a much lower evidentiary standard: he only has to act Muslim.
So, we’ve had some discussion about the relationship between Republicans and worship of Ayn Rand. George Monbiot insists that Rand wrote “A Manifesto for Psychopaths”. Ah, it’s the brain chemistry argument once more.
Rand’s is the philosophy of the psychopath, a misanthropic fantasy of cruelty, revenge and greed. Yet, as Gary Weiss shows in his new book Ayn Rand Nation, she has become to the new right what Karl Marx once was to the left: a demi-god at the head of a chiliastic cult(4). Almost one-third of Americans, according to a recent poll, have read Atlas Shrugged(5), and it now sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year.
Ignoring Rand’s evangelical atheism, the Tea Party movement has taken her to its heart. No rally of theirs is complete without placards reading “Who is John Galt?” and “Rand was right”. Ayn Rand, Weiss argues, provides the unifying ideology which has “distilled vague anger and unhappiness into a sense of purpose.” She is energetically promoted by the broadcasters Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santelli. She is the guiding spirit of the Republicans in Congress(6).
Like all philosophies, Objectivism is absorbed second-hand by people who have never read it. I believe it is making itself felt on this side of the Atlantic: in the clamorous new demands to remove the 50p tax band for the very rich, for example, or among the sneering, jeering bloggers who write for the Telegraph and the Spectator, mocking compassion and empathy, attacking efforts to make the world a kinder place.
It is not hard to see why Rand appeals to billionaires. She offers them something that is crucial to every successful political movement: a sense of victimhood. She tells them that they are parasitised by the ungrateful poor and oppressed by intrusive, controlling governments.
It is harder to see what it gives the ordinary teabaggers, who would suffer grievously from a withdrawal of government. But such is the degree of misinformation which saturates this movement and so prevalent in the US is Willy Loman Syndrome (the gulf between reality and expectations(7)) that millions blithely volunteer themselves as billionaires’ doormats. I wonder how many would continue to worship at the shrine of Ayn Rand if they knew that towards the end of her life she signed on for both Medicare and Social Security(8). She had railed furiously against both programmes, as they represented everything she despised about the intrusive state. Her belief system was no match for the realities of age and ill-health.
So see, Kevin, there are some of these nuts over on Monbiot’s side of the pond. Maybe they just haven’t gotten as well funded or well organized as our nutters. Which reminds me, there is some of this poor little oppressed-by-the-government me narrative that really bothers me. I can’t for the life of me figure out how the death of Trayvon Martin has been turned into a whining opportunity by white people who think that are really oppressed by pointing out institutional racism. It’s kind’ve like those silly people on Fox crying over the US having THE highest corporate tax rate while ignoring the effective corporate tax rate is THE lowest in the world. It’s the same with the people screaming about how every one is persecuting the faithful of the majority religion. Facts completely bear witness to these falsehoods, yet we can’t get rid of them and their silly hairshirts.
I guess they have a complete news channel and a lot of AM radio time to shill and recruit. Plus, there is all that Koch Money floating around just dying to fund phony science and economics. Maybe it’s because many of our nutters have air time and money. So, is it brain chemistry and genes? Vulnerability to hype? Mental Illness? Rational or irrational ignorance? I have no idea. But, I am getting tired of it. Oh, and btw, that’s a bacon cup, sauce and spoon up there at the top. It’s there to remind me that I need to read a few escape novels and think about something completely different for a change.
What’s on your mind, reading, and blogging list today?