Thursday, August 23, 2012

Behavior Change And Its Discontents

Post-enlightenment Western society is built on the belief that reasoned argument should be able to change people's minds about a given issue.  It is understood that if a case is made clearly, factually and without pejorative; it should be able to sway the opinion of similarly rationally minded others.  This, like the myth of permanent social progress, is a fallacy. More often than not, it represents another form of wishful thinking.

In a previous piece, I addressed both the cognitive difficulties we experience associated with rational thinking (we are much more likely to "intuit" the world than to rationalize our way through it) and the problem of verification bias (by which we reject data that competes with deeply held views out of hand), however neither of these completely describe the extent to which behavior change is difficult to implement. Indeed, it can be said that people change their minds about major issues with some frequency, people evolve their belief systems and our brains are endowed with incredible neuroplasticity, allowing us to change almost anything about ourselves.  As neurons that wire together also fire together, is behavior change simply not a measure of developing alternative repetitive cognitive programming? Should sufficient exposure to an alternative script not simply create new neural connections that spring a cognitive frame around that script?

Unfortunately, it is not that simple.  Just as research seems to indicate that increased exposure to negative political advertising does not really seem to affect people's voting choices, simple exposure to a particular ideology is unlikely to result in prescribed behavior shift. Further, increased cognitive sophistication does not increase self-awareness, and thus capacity for behavior change. As a study (brought to my attention by way of the now disgraced Jonah Lehrer) in The Journal of Personal and Social Psychology indicates,  cognitive sophistication may actually serve to mask cognitive blindspots.  Thus, smart people (the cognitively sophisticated) may be more likely to believe in fallacious information as they have increased neural capacity to self-delude.

While this helps to explain the enduring popularity of certain counter-factual ideologies, it does not answer the questions of why we have trouble eventually shifting to an alternative script. Daniel Kahneman may have a response to this in noting that we are very poor at thinking statistically and much better at thinking intuitively, thus a data driven script is not one that we are particularily wired to latch on to. We are extremely poor at making meaningful snap judgements in the face of complex data, regardless of what Malcolm Gladwell might tell us. We also, arguably, tend to dramatically overestimate our capacity to be swayed by rationale argument, requiring alternative means of pushing behavior change. In my earlier pieceI spoke to some of the strengths and limitations of community-based social marketing as a means of affecting behavior change and so, will not rehash them here. What is interesting about all of this is that our process of accessing data and coming to new positions is slow, collective and incremental.

While certain early adopters may adhere immediately to a new ideology, and repetition tends to blunt the ability of a message to get through, eventual social conditioning to an idea may eventually drive acceptance of that idea.  My observation has tended towards noting that once something has happened, we are more likely to be willing to repeat that process even if the first case ended in failure or catastrophe. I recently used the case of "liberal intervention" becoming mainstream across the political spectrum, which I think is a clear case of collective acquiescence to a formally controversial concept in the face of repeated exposure to the outcomes of that concept.  I have not encountered any research that completely substantiates this exact point, though there has been some work on the subject.  

Further, it may simply be the case that if things don't go as badly as some would predict, or if a situation seems to have been salvaged in some way, our natural tendency towards optimism will allow us to count an idea as a success, even if it was not one per se.  This is the same principle at work as that which sees us fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect- we overestimate our abilities in fields we lack expertise in because we lack the knowledge to meaningfully access our skills in those fields. Dunning-Kruger may tell us more about ourselves than we would like to believe.

Behavior change can also often by rendered through the construction of narratives that tap into the emotional rather than the rational.  By creating a good versus evil dialogue around a given topic, and creating a clear sense of heroes, victims and villains, the dialogue around a given issue can be altered.  This does not necessarily work around all issues - many are likely to prove resistant to this form of framing.  This process of reshaping and dictating the dialogue is close to the recommended by George Lakoff in his pamphlet: Don't Think of an Elephant and in the various pronouncements of the Republican speech writer Frank Luntz.  Both believe that the way the enact behavior change around a particular issue is to actively adjust the cognitive frame through which people understand an issue. Lakoff in particular has been a pioneer in the theory of how this works in his seminal The Metaphors We Live By (written with Mark Johnson), while Luntz has been a master of implementation.

The problem that is implicit in the sort of issue framing that Luntz and Lakoff recommend is that it tends to obfuscate the issue.  While Luntz has fatuously compared himself to George Orwell, claiming that his approach to political discourse is perfectly in line with Orwell's prescription put forward in "Politics and the English Language", in effect, issue framing achieves the exact opposite.  Luntz is correct when he paraphrases Orwell as noting that honest political speech requires the speaker:
“(S)peak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening… and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.
That said, Luntz (and for that matter Lakoff's) suggestions that politicians alter the language used to allow only one particular 'frame' or avenue for discussion around are given topic are far closer to another Orwellian construction: "newspeak". In the novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the forced lingua franca, "newspeak" worked by limiting vocabulary in order to suppress dissent altogether by simply eliminating the ability to put that dissent into language.  

This practice is precisely the tone that much political speech has taken on, however it is unlikely to drive successful behavior change as people that do not share the belief system implicit within a given frame are likely to ignore that frame or simply to ignore the issue.  The internet and speciality cable news channels have further given people the ability to increasingly select which media, and thus world view, they consume, which further limits the effective of trying to fight it out for dominant framing device in the court of public opinion.  Beyond this, the shift in the way we consume media means that there is no longer a singular, consensus news 'court of public opinion' where these matters are decided (if there ever was one to begin with).  This shift away from "framing" has been seen to play out increasingly in the business-end of political practice.  Most leading political thinkers have quite suddenly grown very quiet about "framing" issues despite the topic having been very much in vogue just a few years ago.

So, if simply controlling the language by which an issue is addressed or using a community-based social marketing mechanism are both insufficient to enact behavior change, what works?  I'm increasingly of the belief that most behaviors are generationally learned.  To that end, it often takes generational shifts in order to drive social change.  Younger generations grow up with greater exposure to particular issues that are of the moment and at an age when their brains are at their most plastic.  As a result, they have significantly greater capacity to question and diverge from prior generations' thinking patterns. Further, no ones wants to replicate the mistakes of their parents generation.  While some repetition does occur, a certain degree of generational backlash frequently occurs resulting in different sets of belief systems or outlooks that are generationally determined or the product of generational rebellion.  While nature and nurture are both important,  many cognitive neuroscientists increasingly argue that nurture is increasingly key to determining thinking patterns.  Different important cultural events or touchstones can also help to inform the views of a particular generation depending on when they occur and the wider social impacts of said event.  Thus the norms of a society and of our generation have important impacts.  We tend towards not only "group think" but also "generation think" and these tendencies can result in different paradigms or beliefs predominating across different generations.

Also of value in encouraging behavior change is the capacity of some for scientific thinking.  The ability to think scientifically, alter belief systems in response to data and actively falsify predictions or theories is an important cognitive tool.  It is also one that is criminally underrated.  One of the reasons many Americans seem to cling to beliefs or belief systems that are factually insupportable likely has something to do with a general public incredulity and even hostility towards science.  Scientific thinking encourages greater flexibility in thinking patterns and as a result can serve as a vehicle for behavior change.  The ability to analyze data in a rational, comprehensive away, utilize research statistics and other features of a basic scientific education cut away the limitations of dogmatic thinking and encourage cognitive flexibility.  To this end, if one is used to using data to prove or disprove theories, then one is less likely to adhere to a rigid ideology when it comes to personal or social matters.  In that regard, science may be, once again, one of our most precious assets as a species. It may also be the most important tool we have when it comes to trying to encourage behavioral or cognitive shifts.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

'Hit'ch Piece

Disclosure: Post-mortem character assassination is not the aim of this writing. The goal is simply to demonstrate how varied the thinking of the late Christopher Hitchens could be.  I feel that enough time has passed following Hitchens' death that I can write a more nuanced piece about his beliefs, strengths and weaknesses as a intellectual.

"I will not be reconstructed!" - Shane MacGowan 

“The enemies of intolerance cannot be tolerant." - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens once accused me of being soft on fascism.  This happened after I had expressed reasonable doubts about the Iraqi-Niger "yellowcake" link- a particular canard of the Bush administration that Hitchens treated repeatedly as a smoking gun rationale for liberal intervention in Iraq.  As part of his refusal to admit miscalculation in Iraq, Hitchens could never quite give up on the Niger yellowcake claim, even after evidence emerged revealing that members of the Bush administration acknowledged the speciousness of said link as early as 2002. The claim itself has been well-proven false while the documents purported to have supported it  were themselves exposed as forgeries.

The great irony of the argument came that the venue at which Hitchens' elected to attack my unwillingness to to agree to magical claims regarding Nigerien yellowcake and Iraq was at a conference whose purpose was the promotion of freedom from Religion.  So here was Hitchens, the great champion of atheism, engaging in deeply ideological, determinist, and in its own way, 'religious' thinking in lambasting me for not sharing his faith in a war of choice.  I bring the issue up only because it speaks to a certain contradiction within Hitchens' character.  I doubt that someone of Hitchens' intelligence could possibly have meant everything that he was saying, however, there certainly came a point with the man where it proved to be anathema to doubt his faith in the belief system he espoused. This point was echoed by Noam Chomsky regarding Hitchens' proselytizing for foreign military action to destroy "Islamism".  Hitchens' tendency to take certain ideological beliefs on faith also showed in his strange affinity for Trotsky and Lenin despite the pair's well documented roll in laying the ideological, intellectual and policy groundwork for later Soviet atrocities.

With Hitchens, there seemed a certain need to believe in ideological revolutionary thinking, regardless of the facts supporting the ideology.  In this way, Hitchens was never the intellectual heir to Orwell that he seemed to perceive himself as.  Certainly, Orwell was committed to causes, but never to ideology. In fact, the great narrative of Orwell's career is, in many ways, his extrication of  himself from ideological systems (well-illustrated by his eventual anti-communist stance).  Hitchens himself, in his excellent book: Why Orwell Matters, described Orwell as a naturally conservative and inherently biased with the predilections of the British Middle class of a particular period who, through education and exposure, managed to talk himself out of many of these petty biases.  Thus with Orwell, we see active moral assertions but tempered by a strong mechanism for self examination.  Orwell increasingly stepped further and further away from ideology and previous beliefs, denouncing first colonialism, then Marxism and antisemitism.

With Hitchens, we do not see this same flexibility, but rather a strongly held belief in the inherent rightness of his initial positions.  A New Yorker profile on Hitchens went so far as to title the somewhat unflattering piece, "He Knew He Was Right".  The narrative of Hitchens' political education is a sort of Orwell in reverse - early extreme pragmatism followed by the engorgement upon ideology, culminating with Hitchen's  unshakable belief in the moral rightness of the Iraq war. Beyond this, Hitchens sought, to his dying day, to expand the war against Islamism, demanding the opening of new fronts in Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere, while framing the debate as part of a greater war between fascism and civilization.

There was always the element of the flat-track bully about Hitchens.  We see evidence of this in the misogynistic attacks Hitchens takes on the political predilections of two women in the profile, "He Knew He Was Right". He refers to said women sarcastically as "honey" and "sweetie" and generally gives the impression of the barroom bully and tremendous bore. Further, the slightly dubious claims of wishing he had been able to serve in combat and the mental exercise of equating ongoing support for the Iraq war with a battle for civilization, remain troubling.  Hitchens slight megalomania even went so far as allegedly claiming of the Iraq War"It is glorious and it is my war because it needed Paul Wolfowitz and myself to go and convince the President to go to war."

The veracity of this claim is questionable, bordering on self-delusional. The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), within which many of the advocates for the war within the Bush administration had received their intellectual foundations, had long advocated for the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Beyond this, following 1998's Operations Desert Fox and Desert Storm, the official policy within the United States government was regime change in Iraq.

This is not to say that Hitchens was not actively critical of the Bush administration. He did refer to Bush's America as a "banana republic": stunted by incompetence and ideology. This was a nice blast of the old Hitchens - the one who actively criticized systems of power and authority rather than providing unflinching support for the policies of them - yet much of this also seemed opportunistic.  In 2004, Hitchens had endorsed Bush over Kerry, identifying himself  as a "single-issue voter".  His later criticisms of Bush, while in line with the thinking of the old pre-9/11 Hitchens, had the ring of the well-documented 2006 divorce of neoconservative intellectuals from the war in Iraq on the grounds that the Bush administration was ill-equipped to adequately carry out the lofty policy goals proposed.  Thus, like Hitchens after them, these neoconservatives did not so much as acknowledge past errors, as simply state that their policy was too perfect and beautiful for the harsh realities of the world.  

The position is, of course, an intellectually disingenuous one- allowing these thinkers to have their cake whilst simultaneously stuffing it down their gullets. On Iraq and the wider war on terror, Hitchens proved to be fundamentally neoconservative in his prescriptions - effectively joining the very group he had formerly lambasted as hucksters and peddlers of American imperialism. Indeed, the decision to attack in print two of the great intellectuals of the left and popular targets of neoconservative thinkers: Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, demonstrated that Hitchens had an innate understanding of neoconservative ideology and how he could announce his joining of the group.  While Hitchens was always careful to avoid labeling himself as a neoconservative individually, it became increasingly clear from the friends he kept where he now stood ideologically.

With Hitchens, it is also hard to say where his new found hatred of Islamism suddenly emerged from. Hitchens stated that much of it resulted in response to the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie.  He claimed that his compassion for Rushdie was  instrumental in his realizing that Islamists were targeting civilization itself.  Rushdie himself notes that Hitchens had not really been a close friend until after the fatwa and that Hitchens had made the effort to tie himself to Rushdie in partial response to said fatwa, so there may be something to this, however it seems altogether too facile a rationale on it's own.  

Beyond the Rushdie explanation, the historian Tony Judt had some profound thoughts on the strange death of liberal America and the seemingly mainstream acquiescence to liberal intervention. Judt's explanation goes some way in explaining what may have happened to Hitchens, but, as with the Rushdie explanation, it does not tell the full store. Curiously, Hitchens also wrote a hit piece about Judt, for Judt's protestation in the face of Israeli policy - a position that Hitchens' both historically and at the time of his attack on Judt, shared. This said, beyond simply Judt's outlined wishful thinking as a result of neoliberal ideological domination, or even fraternal compassion and outrage resulting from the fatwa placed on Rushdie, there must have been something further feature driving this shift in Hitchens' thinking. The most likely suspect: shameless self promotion.

Hitchens appears to have jumped on the Iraq bandwagon and an opportune moment - aligning himself with liberal interventionism just as it became fashionable following the public perception of successful military action in Bosnia and Kosovo.  While Hitchens' latter day militarism may derive from the experience of his father, a deeply conservative man who had served as a low-ranking officer in the British Navy, a shift later in life towards macho posturing has disturbed many of Hitchens' old allies on the Left who knew him as a staunch critic or the Vietnam and First Gulf Wars.  

In a way, Hitchens' pro-war position was careerist.  Hitchens was excellent at predicting social trends and perhaps saw a way to tie his atheism to a controversial but increasingly socially accepted rationale for conflict.  Hitchens himself called himself a "contrarian" and sought to be unpredictable, but despite this, his contrarianism was never that outside of the realm of the mainstream.  The case can be made that Hitchens sought to recast uncontroversial though slightly unconventional beliefs as edgy in order to feed into a cult of celebrity. He realized that the anti-Clinton bandwagon he had shackled himself to throughout the 90s (a position seen as controversial only because Hitchens self-identified as being explicitly of the left) had reached a natural expiry date as Clinton left office. Hitchens needed to reinvent himself do so in a way that would seem unpredictable in order to retain his outsider credibility.

This is a point noticed by Norman Finkelstein (of all people) and quoted below in a piece on Hitchens' triangulations:

Norman Finkelstein at the time explained that Hitchens was forever attempting to be unpredictable. Finkelstein contrasted this with Chomsky, who is quite predictable in terms of the positions he takes but is read because he marshals evidence and facts that one learns from.

Hitchens' advocacy for the War in Iraq was a way to take a controversial (for a self described Trotskyite) stance on an issue that would dominate the coming decade but would be palatable to great portions of mainstream society. Must as with Oscar Wilde's edict that the only thing worse than being talked about is not talked about, Hitchens found a way to controversially insert himself into the regular ebb and flow of cable news chat shows. The arch-liberal intellectual turncoat - armed with a glass of whiskey, the memorized complete works of Blake and soaring moral conviction.  This position seemed novel following the great moral relativism that so completely characterized the end of the Clinton years.  9/11 served as the great catalyst to recast good and evil for the American public and Hitchens star rose. Around this time, he gave up his position as a columnist with The Nation opting instead for the wider, and more mainstream readership of Vanity Fair.

While the war on terror and soon, in Iraq, was extremely popular among pundits when first prosecuted, Hitchens' decision to hold to the moral justifications for intervention  war after it had been abandoned as a failure by many of its original supporters further insured that we would be talked about - further drawing linkages from the Iraqi insurgency to Salafist militants as a means of also promulgating upon his equally controversial (in America, at least) uber-atheist credentials. It was this that catapulted Hitchens to celebrity "public intellectual".

That said, this is not to discount the importance of Hitchens on issues outside of the scope of the war on terror.  If Islamic terror was a topic on which Hitchens seemed to take leave of his gift for rationality, it did not seem to affect his other work as a brilliant social critic. As John Gray makes clear in a review of Hitchens' collected journalism:

To fasten on [Hitchens'] role as a celebrity journalist (as many of his critics have done) is to underestimate his achievements, because, when he leaves behind the certainties of ideology, he is an incomparable truth-teller.

Hitchens' best work has always included polytechnic prose, deep critical thinking, compassion and an unerring appreciation for comic irony.  Some pieces that immediately spring to mind include Hitchens' promulgations on the death penalty, "Scenes from an Execution" (which along with Camus' "Reflections on the Guillotine" should be considered the last word on capital punishment), his response to the modern banalities of a heavily commercialized Route 66, the examination of Karl Marx's career as a journalist, the brilliant books on OrwellHenry Kissinger and the Elgin Marbles.  As I mentioned in my immediate reaction to Hitchens' death,  the man was also extremely generous with his time and genuinely seemed to care about the thinking and well being of his readership.  As embodied in his best work, the man's prose could be absolutely stunning. Hitchens had a kinetic, full-voiced style of writing. He disparaged cliché and mined the English language and literature for always just the right turn of phrase.  It may have been, ironically, that horror of cliché that lead to Hitchens to take some of his more ludicrous and reactionary stances.  

The defection of Hitchens to neoconservatism seems to have brought out the very worst in him.  Many of his later pieces on Iraq war and on Islamic terror have a somewhat deflated feel about them. In some ways, Hitchens came to resemble the reactionary latter day Evelyn Waugh. Unlike Hitchens; however, Waugh at least had the good sense at self parody, writing what Hitchens himself called  his 'own literary obituary' in Basil Seal Rides Again:

His voice was not the same instrument as of old. He had first assumed it as a conscious imposture; it had become habitual to him; the antiquated, worldly-wise moralities which using that voice, he had felt himself obliged to utter, had become his settled opinions.

If there is a clear summary of Hitchens' views post 9/11, this is it.  Full of bluster, pressed with sound and fury and saying nothing - but also, at the same time, saying everything about Hitchens himself.  Hitchens' gifts as a writer and as a thinker were prodigious, but so too was his gradual intellectual dilapidation.  If there is any justice, he will be remembered more for all the good than for the bad.  However, justice would also dictate that the unknowingly self-parodying and self-imposed asterisks of ideological thinking will always remain as a blemish on his legacy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why Ideas Matter

I've been writing a lot about ideas recently. The tendency has become to overlook ideas and the theoretical basis that drive people to make decisions and instead focus on the outcomes of those decisions. This is a jaundiced view, increasingly taken in much modern analytic work, presuming that the motivations for action should be ignored as long as the outcomes eventually line-up with our desired world view.  While I do agree with the case for pragmatism in the construction of public policy - there is a necessity to work with a broad set of actors who may have radically different motivations for their actions - it is also wrong to ignore the ideologies that drive people to act. Further, the semi-predictable outcomes of our decisions may often have their seeds in the ideologies that informed these actions. People in general, and particularly political scientists, may be poor forecasters of the future, but the shortcomings of our ideas and the "propaganda"-driven frames we use to interpret the world  have a roll in shaping those outcomes all the same. Belief in an ideology paves the way to a set of outcomes that may have otherwise been off the table.

In an interview, the filmmaker Adam Curtis, summarizes what he sees as the importance of ideas:

...I believe that ideas have consequences. And why I like people like [19th century conservative sociologist, Max] Weber is because they are challenging what I see as that crude left-wing vulgar Marxism that says that everything happens because of economic forces within society, that we are just surfing, our ideas are just expressions—froth on the deep currents of history, which is really driven by economics. I’ve never believed that. Of course, economic forces have a great effect on us. But actually, people’s ideas have enormous consequences. And to be honest, if you had to reduce what I do, I spend my whole time just looking at how ideas have consequences, not necessarily what the promoters of them intended, because I think that’s a really big thing in our time. (emphasis added)

I think that Curtis articulates a very important point here. Just because our limitations at making predictions are very real does not mean the ideologies that we use to make those predictions will not have some resonance upon the outcomes.  No one would initiate grandiose mechanisms of social upheaval if they did not intrinsically believe that their ideology would result in a desired impact. Stalin did not agriculturally collectivize the Ukraine with the goal of starving millions of his own citizens, he did it because he believed that he was implementing a scientifically derived socio/political framework that would help deliver the Soviet Union to a greater degree of resource independence. It was in part, because of the near religious nature of the prescriptive Marxist dialects involved that the policies were implemented on the scales that they were and resulted in the level of destruction that they did. The same case can be made for the decision of the Khmer Rouge to return Cambodia to the technological stone age or by neoliberal economists to subject developing economies to the cruelties of structural adjustment throughout the 1980s.  The beliefs themselves shaped and determined the outcomes, even if they were not the outcomes predicted.

Further, the extent to which ideas have shape the values of a society will help to determine how resilient a society is in the face of systemic shock or crisis. Jared Diamond, in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, makes a case for culturally determined ideological factors that can equip societies to fail or succeed shortages regardless of preexisting resource conditions. The ideas that shape these societies and the values that the societies hold will help determine ability to adapt and withstand shock. Cultural ideas determine how effectively resource management can operate within a particular society. Within this context, ideas, and how they are constructed and implemented, can mean the difference between life or death. While environmental conditions may to some extent drive cultural distinctions or ideas, the belief in how a society should be structured or operate cannot in and of itself be dismissed.

While it may seem too ideologically inflexible to insist that people and particularly political leaders do the right things for the right reasons - perhaps it is enough that they merely do the right things - rationale will always guide implementation. Rationale must also always be given to build public support. It can be difficult to get someone to implement a policy they do not believe in unless they can be coerced in some way: whether this is through propaganda, threat of force or bribery. While ideology should not be inflexible, people need to understand the reasons they are being asked to act. It is in this explanation for action that ideas become so powerful. Some of the worst excesses of 20th century ideologies - Nazism, Soviet Marxism and American Neoliberal Capitalism -were all derived from an erroneous belief in Social Darwinism. This idea proved to be pervasive and allowed for systematic destruction of societies and their reconstruction around absolutist systems on a scale never before imagined. Ideology and the widespread public acceptance of that ideology can result the full-scale reshaping of society. None of the results of the dramatic social shifts of the ideologies of the 20th century could have been achieved simply by "muddling through".

Ideas remain important and will likely remain, in response to environmental or resource conditions, the underlying engine that drives social, political and structural transformation. This is the raw power of ideas. While the outcomes of an ideology may not always be easily predictable, those outcome often lie as a shard within the very core of the idea itself. Ideas may be the most powerful dictators of human action that exist. We should bear this in mind as we plan the future of our societies.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Problem of Political Labels

The standard and often interchangeable political labels that continue to underpin many conversations about politics are ill-suited to the political realities of today. Notions of liberal and conservative no longer hold their historical precedents. As the historian Tony Judt pointed out in his book, Ill Fares the Land, the left has lost much of its radical bent, while the right, particularly the American Right, has become increasingly revolutionary.  As a result, modern would-be leftists, or those who believe in the preservation of the social state and public institutions, have more in common with traditional conservatives such as Edmund Burke. Meanwhile it is the radical right, with its ideology of repealing 'entitlement' programs and eliminating the roll of the state in public life, that represents a new strand of revolutionary thinking. There is good reason why the Tea Party has co-opted 18th century radical, Thomas Paine, to it's cause, even if Paine would have been at odds with much of the Tea Party agenda.

Modern political distinctions becomes all the more confused when we further consider the political triumph of  economic neoliberalism throughout most of the Western economies.  While it may be a fallacy, as John Gray notes, to speak of "The West" as unified place, it is true that ideals centered upon deregulated markets, privatized industries and the like have become the dominant paradigm throughout the American and European world.  While the current economic crisis has demonstrated the fallacies of neoliberalism, the dominance of this economic/political ideology has not been slowed. This is partially due to a lack of politically implementable alternative. Social Democracy and the social state persist in several Western European (particularly Scandinavian) states and as vaguely autocratic neo-Marxist holdovers in parts of Asia and the Americas, however, the notion of developing new and meaningfully implementable ideologies from these frameworks seems to be impossible.

The lines have been further blurred to with the emergence of a consensus around liberal intervention and that ideologies close alignment (acknowledged or otherwise) with neo-conservatism. The distinction in the position of someone such as Christopher Hitchens regarding the case for War in Iraq and those of neo-conservatives who orchestrated the war, such as Paul Wolfowitz are so minute, they represent the parsing of the very finest of hairs. This is also true of other liberal interventionists, such as Samantha Power who is, according to consensus, the intellectual architect of recent US action in Libya. Indeed, the speed with which the United States along with many of European states jumped to intervene in Libya last year - despite gross exaggerations as to the nature of the situation on the ground in Benghazi and sensationalist intelligence marshaled in favor of intervention that was acknowledged as bogus at the collection level at the time it was being peddled - speaks to how liberal intervention has become politically uncontroversial. The ease with which modern states are willing to go to war-  largely in part as a response to the new found mechanization of warfare, allowing for most killing to be done by way of remote controlled drone aircraft or long-range bombing - has further erased barriers between right and left.  

The remnants of radical militarism inspired by ideologies of the old left seem to have ended with the Soviet Union, while former Marxist radical groups like the militant wing of the PFLP or the SDS collapsed.  This shift is best dramatized in the French miniseries on Ilich "Carlos the Jackal" Ramírez Sánchez, Carlos, in which we see an aging Carlos realize he has become truly irrelevant, finds himself persona non grata in his old client state of Syria and eventually finds himself in Sudan, where the Khartoum authorities eventually sell him to the French for the long-standing bounty.

What is likely to emerge may be a new paradigm of culturally divergent forms of capitalism that compete with one another.  As the English political philosopher, John Gray, notes in his shockingly clairvoyant book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, the variety in culturally determined forms capitalism is enormous and there is no reason to expect, as much neoliberal economic theory suggests, that any of the emerging and soon to be dominant world economies will necessarily take on Western characteristics. Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Russian and Japanese capitalism all have their own important traits and characteristics which are likely not reproducible outside of  their cultural contexts. Thus, while economists may criticize Japan for its years of apparent economic stagnation, the Japanese economy may be far more robust than many Western neoliberals may realize, or as Gray points out, may be simply returning uniquely Japanese development of high standard of living at zero economic growth. The irony of globalization is that, while it drives deregulation internationally, it also manages to strengthen certain culturally determinant characteristics of societies and economies.  It has also internationalized the actions of new types of internationalist militant organizations, such as Al-Qaeda that are simultaneously products of modernity while reacting against it.

If and how a Western political left may re-emerge is difficult to tell.  It may take the form of the mass civil society uprisings that the Occupy Wall Street movement and Stéphane Hessel agitate towards, however there is a question of if it can even re-emerge amid the new Western neoliberal consensus. Especially as this consensus, technology and entertainment industries take center stage, appears to increasingly conform to that Neil Postman forecasted in his seminal Amusing Ourselves To Death. Political alternatives may very likely proliferate in different cultural settings or contexts, however it remains to be seen how these alternatives will be able to be translated cross-culturally. Political conflict, in the United States at least, has been transformed such that, as David Bromwich points out, one political party: The Democrats have won on the cultural issues, while the other: The Republicans, have won on the public policy and economic ones.  Both parties, however, remain largely preoccupied by political tribalism without articulating a clear view of the public good. This distinction is important and is rarely acknowledged in mainstream political discourse.  Until there is some consensus as to which public services are valued by society - and that these services historically represent the backbone from which functional civil societies are built - the dominance of a dehumanizing and destabilizing neoliberal economic theory will continue to go unchecked.

So what of our political labels then? Without the above-mentioned shift away from neoliberalism, they remain absolutely meaningless.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

How Our Cognitive Shortcomings Drive Utopianism

Humanity's attempts at utopia have ostensibly failed.  Instead, hubris has been the ultimate outcome of most human attempts at social engineering.  We have a marked tendency, as a species to embark on grandiose projects driven not by rationality or data, but rather by ideology or magical thinking.  Often, these ideologies are masked by pseudo-scientific rationale or portrayed as necessary, albiet painful steps towards a public good.  Some of these projects can exist for cultural reasons: the ridiculous opulence of Dubai, for example, while others may simply be utopian thinking: Biosphere 2 or Soviet, (and later Chinese), efforts at agricultural collectivism spring to mind.  The question becomes, what drives much of this ideology?  Where are the rationale checks that should prevent our leaders from pressing the self destruct button?  Two observed tendencies in neuroscience seem to hold some form of explanation.

The first of these tendencies is that noted by Cognitive Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his recent book: Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for proving (along with his now late collaborator, Amos Tversky), that people do not make rationale decisions under uncertain conditions, particularily in markets (market rationality has long been regarded as a necessary condition for markets to function by many economists).  Kahneman notes that our thinking is determined by what he calls two systems. System 1, which is our instinctual, immediate response tends to predominate, while System 2, which is our rationale decision making system, has to be cajoled or forced to activate.  Because of this, though we tend to delude ourselves into believing that we are rationale actors, instead, we tend to make most of our decisions based on immediate, emotional or intuitive reasoning rather than using reason.  As a result, the types of ideas that are likely to appeal to us are those that seem to hold a form of intuitive logic.  We are very poor at thinking statistically and as a result, we have a hard time of making decisions in the face of data.  As a result, ideas that may appeal on emotional grounds but be difficult to verify via data have greater pull societally.  

Kahnemans work also indicates why planning, and particularily social planning, are so difficult for us as a species.  It explains why Sir Peter Hall's wonderful history of planning policy, Cities of Tomorrow, can almost be read as a history of failed ideas and why necessary actions, such as the development of a comprehensive climate management plan, or even some system of governance to comprehensively manage resources is likely beyond us as a species.  Sadly, how we make decisions and engage in planning seems to further make a case for a deeply Malthusian view of the world and society.  In the face of our cognitive inabilities to engage in long effective range planning, we act as little more than bacteria, actively overusing resources until such a point that we manage to make the environment we operate in sceptic to ourselves. As Kahneman himself laments, despite all the work his on the subject, he has been unable to dramatically change the way he intuits the world and is as susceptible to over-use or over-dependency on System 1 thinking as the rest of us.

The second notable explanation for our tendency towards persisting with magical thinking comes from the researchers Brenda Nyhan and Jason Reifler.  In their study, When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions,  Nyah and Reifler look at what is called the "verification bias" and its impact on political thinking.  The verification bias indicates that when given data, no matter how compelling, that contradicts a strongly held viewpoint, rather than rationality integrate this data into our understanding of the world and use it to change our beliefs, we instead have a tendency to simply reject the data and then use this act of rejection to actually strengthen our initial underlying misconception. As a result, many political arguments are intractable even when one side may have a factual basis for believing what they do, while the other operates solely on conjecture.  This tendency appears to render much meaningful behavior change impossible.  As a result, new fields have spring up, including that of community-based social marketing dedicated to finding alternative means of subverting an embedded ideology. While efforts can be successful, they frequently involve dramatically changing the nature of the discussion around a given issue and can have mixed success. That said, the approach by no means guarantees results and calls for cultivating agents within given ideological communities who are receptive to change in order to cultivate different beliefs within that wider community.  This can, in some instances, be seen as manipulative.

The neurological fallacies outlined above appear to be inextricably linked to how our minds function.  As a result, there appears to be something innately human in attempting to intuit the world around us while rejecting unwelcome truths.  There is a reason, after all, that Aristotle and Plato are the fathers of modern Western philosophy while uber-rationalists such as David Hume and Karl Popper seem to inhabit a lower spot in the pantheon.  It also seems to explain why we will continue to make decisions about society strongly linked to ideological belief systems rather than developing true data driven public policy.  The question becomes, will sufficient self-awareness of these limitations result in dramatic changes in how we see the world?  In light of human history thus far, it would represent a wildly optimistic wager.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

In Praise of Sublime Frequencies

I recently stumbled on this interview with Alan Bishop from the sadly now defunct Arthur Magazine.  Alan is probably best known for founding, along with his brother (guitar genius) Sir Richard Bishop and drummer Charles Gocher, the seminal group the Sun City Girls. The Sun City Girls were insufferable punks from Arizona who enjoyed taking the piss and played an unpredictable mixture Arabic, Asian, Gamelan, hardcore punk, and free jazz, (or occasionally incredibly sloppy covers of classic rock numbers) depending on how their modds.  The SCGs came to a sad end when the groups when Gocher died of a mysterious illness, leaving Richard to his solo career and allowing Alan to focus on his other love: recording other people's music.

Alan Bishop (along with his brother, Richard) founded the label Sublime Frequencies, which periodically issues what can best be called travel soundtracks.  They will record stuff they heard in markets, right of the radio and elsewhere and then walk around accosting the locals or anyone who will listen until they figure out who recorded what, and where they can find more.  The label has put out everything from Tuareg music from northern Niger to Burmese pop music to Syrian wedding music to North Korean radio.  Suffice it to say, they tend to capture stuff that no one else in the West is listening to. The labels' Group Inerane release: Guitars From Agadez Vol. 1 is a burst of seemingly impossibly loud guitars, hand clapping,  feedback and aggression that makes Black Flag sound like Pat Boone.

What I think is great about Sublime Frequencies is that they edit bizarre and  exotic stuff in a completely non-Orientalist way. The music is not treated as fetish properties or overly scholarly documents but rather as a collection of sounds presented within the context that they were (a) heard and (b) aspects of the culture they emerged from.  The label does this without losing its sense of humour.  When song names are unknown (which is frequently the case), the label invents their own, often irreverent but still descriptive English titles.  The liner notes also frequently make intuitive sense, though would never be the type of narrative expressed by ethno musicologists or most reissue labels.  For example, Alan Bishop's notes to Princess Nicotine: Folk And Pop Sounds Of Myanmar
How do they do it? Are they smarter? Are they better? How can it be ignored or denied? How is it possible that one of the most unique, perfectly composed and performed, intense and awe-inspiring musical legacies the world has ever known is looming north of the equator physically tucked-between world cultural giants India, China, and Thailand, without more than a whisper from ethnomusicologists or those who define themselves as “purveyors of world music”? Not only are the roots of this music unique, but so are the results after incorporating outside instrumentation from modern colonial and (unavoidable) international influence. What the Burmese have done with a piano is so precise in the adaptation to their existing form and melody that one would think they invented it. Burmese music has a very distinct sound and whatever instrument is assimilated into its core only seems to magnify the original intent without depending upon outside ideas relating to each component utilized.
And a clip from the music described below:

Or from the liner notes to the Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra compilation:
The equator runs through only ten countries on earth and I bet that you cannot name them all without consulting a map. Indonesia is one of them and the only nation in Asia with the equatorial stripe impaling it. There are so many different cultures spread-out on this chain of islands that it would take several lifetimes to experience them all properly. Within this umbrella of diversity is one of the world's richest and most dazzling sound museums.
In a way, what is being achieved with Sublime Frequencies is something very much akin to what Alan Lomax was trying to do: namely to document various musical forms, stemming from sources both folk and professional.  Like Lomax, Sublime Frequencies is a vehicle for exposure to new musical sounds and ideas from people who are genuine enthusiasts for the music.  The judgements are left to the listener.  Further, Alan Bishop appears to be well aware of the political dimensions that music can take on, and specifically the political dimensions behind many of the SF releases.

An example of this can be found in the quotation below.  Alan Bishop is discussing a couple of (then) recent compilations of music from North Korea and Iraq that the label had decided to release following Bush's 'Axis of Evil' Speech.  Where questioned about whether people would obviously add political anecdote to their discussions of these discs, Bishop responded: 
We don’t worry about that. It is what it is. Everybody plays the role of an unqualified judge, so all that is routine now. When people start worrying about what other people will say about their work, they are dead and successfully under hypnotic control. Most people are not qualified to even discuss politics because they mimic what any dolt could hear from pundits on television. They are mimics, not free thinkers.
We can see this continued engagement with representing aspects of musical culture from other Countries the US remains at odds with.  A recent SF release features surf pop instrumentals from Pakistan in the 60s and 70s:

The type of music that Sublime Frequencies releases is not necessarily going to appeal to everyone -  a lot of it has been released because it consciously sounds alien to Western audiences.  That aside, it is impossible to deny the quality of much of it and it is great to see these musical ideas made available.

The final clip, below is from the Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman's live album.  Souleyman plays a combination of traditional Syrian folk music and electronic music.  His long travelling group includes an electric Saz player (a middle eastern string instrument - sort of a compact Oud) a keyboardist with sampler, and a poet and writer who whispers poetry into Souleyman's ear (while in performance) which Souleyman then transposes into song lyrics live.