Jettison the Brain it No Longer Requires (A Flashback to 2009)

Image by Nick Hobgood

In March of 2009, I discovered the perfect metaphor for the GOP in the animal kingdom. Now that the presidential race is getting going, and fools like Donald Trump and George Pataki and every other yahoo you can imagine is lining up for the big brawl, I thought it might be fun to revisit this six-year-old post, very much at Republicans’ expense. (The original post itself is lost from the Web, but I found it in an old archive folder on my hard drive.)

Of course the references are dated (Bush was president, for one, and we still referred to the Tea Party as teabaggers), but I think the substance holds.

[Time-travel sound effects – March, 2009]

I am very much enjoying Natalie Angier’s witty science primer, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Little did I know that it would give me a brilliant insight into the decidedly nonscientific world of politics.
Witness page 173, where she describes the curious behavior of one particular creature:

. . . the tunicate, or sea squirt, is a mobile hunter in its larval stage and thus has a little brain to help it find prey. But on reaching maturity and attaching itself permanently to a safe niche from which it can filter-feed on whatever passes by, the sea squirt jettisons the brain it no longer requires. “Brains are great consumers of energy,” writes Peter Atkins, a professor of chemistry at Oxford University, “and it is a good idea to get rid of your brain when you discover you have no further need of it.”

Now, am I crazy, or is this not the the perfect analogy for the modern Republican Party? After many painful years of having to “justify” “beliefs” and “policies” with “reasons” and “evidence” — all of which requires energy-consuming thought — now they have Fox News to tell them to have teabag protests for no discernible reason. The point was to be angry, not thinky.

Unfair? Okay, well, you can’t possibly argue with the sea squirt as analogous to the Bush presidency. Prizing the informational processing power of his “gut” over his brain, relying on instinct and faith over data and reflection. Bush (I assume) never physically ejected his gray matter onto the Oval Office carpet, but he might as well have. For a guy who slept as much as he did, you can bet he was looking for ways to conserve energy. What better way than to shut down a major organ he wasn’t using anyway?

There’s something sublime about this sea quirt metaphor. The GOP’s wholesale rejection of the intellect, their disdain for the educated, their anxiety over science, none of it because they are bad, per se, but because they have adapted to the environment in which they live. Finding that their brains were doing them no good whatsoever, that thoughtful, intellectual discourse was getting them nowhere, they hit the eject button and got Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber, and Glenn Beck. Now they need waste no more precious energy on building neurons and firing synapses. They are a miracle of evolution.

[End time travel.]

Demonizing the Point of View of a Delicate Snowflake

Photo credit: ImageLink / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Rod Dreher, who fears gay equality at a visceral level, is very upset about a lesbian couple in Canada who demanded a refund on their purchase from a jeweler when they discovered that said jeweler was displaying anti-gay signage in their shop. The jewelers acquiesced, and it’s all just too much for Dreher. It’s the end of all things.

You understand, of course, that this is not about getting equal treatment. The lesbian couple received that. This is about demonizing a point of view, and driving those who hold it out of the public square. Just so we’re clear about that.

Yes, let’s be clear about that. Happily, part of free expression is that it is entirely okay to demonize a point of view. (Better to demonize a point of view than a person or a group of people, right?) For example, I think Rod Dreher’s point of view is backward, paranoid, exclusionary, and archaic. I’m happy to demonize his point of view, because I think it’s a very, very bad one.

He goes on (and on and on):

I bought some olive oil not long ago at a tiny grocery store owned by an Arab Muslim immigrant. If I find out that the merchant supports ISIS, am I entitled to declare my jug of olive oil tainted, and demand a refund?


Is a fundamentalist Christian permitted to send her osso buco back to the kitchen if she discovers that homosexual hands cooked it? Of course not.

Oh but yes! Yes they are. That’s the free market. Consumers can reject the goods and services they’ve been provided. That doesn’t mean they always get their way, of course. The proprietors of these businesses are themselves free to say, “Get bent, you got what you paid for, now leave me alone,” and the matter can be settled however it needs to be between adults, between customer and business. Individual consumers are not public businesses, and can spend their money, and demand it back, as they like (again, “demand” doesn’t always mean “get”).  That means a group of individuals can also decide to use their economic power for political ends and refrain from patronizing a business run by those whose ideas they find abysmal. (Dreher calls this “the mob” because he doesn’t agree with them, but I’d bet Christians who do the same in any parallel circumstance would be exercising their religious freedom.) The businesses themselves are public, and have to play by public rules. You sell to everybody, or you stop selling.

And let’s be clear about this sign that offended these women. It wasn’t a refrigerator magnet in a corner somewhere with some flowery Christian message. It’s a big, honking sign that says in bold, charred letters, “THE SANCTITY OF MARRIAGE IS UNDER ATTACK” on a flame-orange background, right at eye-level for all to see, plain as day. It’s a declaration of hostility, an expression of overt enmity.

It’s not a mere “opinion” about musical tastes or tax policy, it’s a proud expression of bigotry. It is an idea that should be demonized.

Dreher’s title for his post is “Heads LGBTs Win, Tails Christians Lose,” implying that this is an unfair state of things, that the game is rigged (and that it should be 50-50?). But the “Christians” in his headline-scenario should lose! It’s not unfair, it’s just that Dreher-approved “Christians” (the ones afraid of gay people) are, in fact, losing. We win. Good.

As for Dreher, a man who’s so bizarrely terrified of gay people (if he were Russian he would consider voting for Putin for his “[defense] of traditional Christian moral standards”) it’s laughable that he refers to others as “delicate snowflakes.” I mean look at this from another post:

…the greatest threat to religious freedom in our present moment: the advance of gay rights. …  it is impossible to talk meaningfully about the politics of religious liberty without discussing the pink elephant in the room.

He’s just about the most precious, fragile, feathery little ice crystal adrift in the whole cosmic flurry. It can’t be long before he just melts away.

Perpetual Dislocation and the Angst of Techno-Conservatives

Image by Shutterstock
Nicholas Carr is a thinker I struggle with. (I mean, I struggle with his thoughts as expressed in written form, I don’t struggle with him personally or physically. Just so we’re clear.) Ever since introducing the rhetorical question “Is Google making us stupid?” I’ve been skeptical of his, let us say “conservative” perspective on technology. By this I mean he is among those who have taken it upon themselves to serve as dampening pedals on the otherwise boisterous enthusiasm generally expressed for new technologies. This is an important role, and I don’t mean to diminish it – it’s at times when societies go barreling into uncharted territories with unearned confidence that we need smart people to counsel some moderation. And he’s good at it. I just also happen to disagree with him more often than not.

In reviews of his new book, The Glass Cage, I keep seeing this snippet about the ubiquity of things like GPS and Google Maps:

The more you think about it, the more you realize that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation.

I plopped it into my Evernote bucket-o’-things-to-consider-writing-about, and it grates on me every time I see it. It reads like a parody of an Internet alarmist. Hey man, if you don’t get lost, then you are truly lost. Whoa.

I needed more information, because there’s clearly more to whatever Carr’s argument is here. I don’t have the book, and I’ve been wondering if I’d give it a shot, but obviously I haven’t yet. So I went to Amazon’s look-inside-the-book feature to see this quite in a fuller context. And as I’m reading, this idea jumps out at me: This reads like a David Brooks column. I know, I’m predisposed to be pro-technology, and the few paragraphs to which I’m exposing myself are not a fair appraisal of Carr or his entire book, but it is nonetheless my reaction. You know what I’m talking about? The way Brooks seems like he’s going out of his way, and twisting his mind in all sorts of weird directions, to ensure that he feels uneasy about something that is pretty much entirely good. It’s tut-tutting progress for the sake of the tuts. That’s what it felt like for those few paragraphs.

But then I went back a little bit, to the run-up to the “dislocation” quote in question, and what I read made my jaw drop. And I saw it immediately after my David Brooks revaluation (emphasis mine):

A GPS device, by allowing us to get from point A to point B with the least possible effort and nuisance, can make our lives easier, perhaps imbuing us, as David Brooks suggests, with a numb sort of bliss. But what it steals from us, when we turn to it too often, is the joy and satisfaction of apprehending the world around us – and of making the world a part of us.

I know! Can you believe it! I mean, what are the chances? Again, I want to be fair to Carr, I do. But you have to admit, that’s kind of funny. Especially if you find comparisons to David Brooks funny. And I do. But it’s not that much of a coincidence, I suppose. Brooks and Carr both fulfill in their respective places the role of the conservative. Not in the Tea Party sense, but in the sense of “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” In other words, their role is to publicly suffer ulcers over the largely-positive changes and developments in politics and culture (Brooks) or technology and society (Carr). That can be a useful role, even if it does often induce eye rolls.

Fun aside, I want to give genuine credit to Carr, who, also like Brooks, is no slouch in turning a phrase, and poses serious questions. Before his citation of Brooks, Carr writes this, which deserves contemplation:

While we may no longer have much of a cultural stake in the conversation of our navigational prowess, we still have a personal stake in it. We are, after all, creatures of the earth. We are not abstract dots proceeding along thin blue lines on the computer screens. We are real beings in real bodies in real places. Getting to know a place takes effort, but it ends in fulfillment and in knowledge. It provides a sense of personal accomplishment and autonomy, and it also provides a sense of belonging, a feeling of being at home in a place rather than passing through it. … We may grimace when we hear people talk of “finding themselves,” but the figure of speech, however vain and shopworn, acknowledges our deeply held sense that who we are is tangled up in where we are. We can’t extract the self from its surroundings, at least not without leaving something important behind.

I take that seriously, the idea that place – both connection to a place and an awareness of where one is alien – is part of the fabric of who we are. Where I disagree is with the idea that these are crucial aspects of who we are, or that we are somehow undefinable or “less ourselves” without them. Place, like pretty much everything else our minds perceive, is a construction, just like the Internet. We imbue in with whatever value it possesses. It is not an innate value. In a future hypothetical time in which place truly has no bearing on our lives, we will still find ways to distinguish ourselves, still find ways to learn and enrich ourselves, and even become alienated. Place for now is part of our fabric, but it can be replaced by other fibers.

And as someone who has a terrible – and I mean abysmal – sense of direction and orientation, I’m literally liberated by both the ability to navigate to a near-universal extent, and the removal of “place” as a geographical construct brought by cyberspace. For many people (I assume including Carr), I have no doubt that this is jarring; that this really does feel like a kind of perpetual dislocation, and for them I feel sincere sympathy.

But for me, may this dislocation be indeed perpetual. I have plenty of other challenges in my life, and more than enough scenarios in which alienation builds my character. I’ve been lost quite enough for one lifetime, thank you very much.

The Lizard Brain of Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson has gone off the rails. Common wisdom holds that he’s one of the sane Republicans, a man of words and ideas rather than rage and wrath. I’m sorry, Mr. Gerson, we’re going to have to revoke your sanity card.

Gerson’s column this week is jaw-dropping in its pandering and its juvenility, betraying any claim he has to being considered a reasonable conservative voice. Sound strong? Go with me.

Gerson writes:

… President Obama has hit upon a closing argument.

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now,” he recently told a group of Democratic donors in Massachusetts, “and facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.”

[ … ]

Though there is plenty of competition, these are some of the most arrogant words ever uttered by an American president.

Really? Nothing in the annals of history, from the grandiose Teddy Roosevelt to maniacal Richard Nixon, reaches these heights? Nothing in the George W. Bush pantheon of idiotic verbal retches beats Obama’s observation? (Of course not; Gerson wrote a lot of Bush’s less-incoherent blather.)

Here’s what bothers him so about Obama’s words.

Obama clearly believes that his brand of politics represents “facts and science and argument.” His opponents, in disturbing contrast, are using the more fearful, primitive portion of their brains. Obama views himself as the neocortical leader — the defender, not just of the stimulus package and health-care reform but also of cognitive reasoning. His critics rely on their lizard brains — the location of reptilian ritual and aggression. Some, presumably Democrats, rise above their evolutionary hard-wiring in times of social stress; others, sadly, do not.

Can there be any doubt that this is, in fact, the case? Is there a single Republican policy proposal, a single tea-bagger regurgitation that is not one, some, or all of the following: uninformed, theocratic, fascistic, nativist, narcissistic, xenophobic, homophobic, corporatist, racist, or based on utterly willful ignorance? Even one?

If anything, Obama is being far too generous to those who follow the Republican line in the current political universe. By chalking up the rise in right-wing furor to economic fear is giving a lot of credit to the marching, bellowing hordes of imbeciles that make up the tea-baggers. It’s not liberals and Democrats threatening violence against voter registration organizations. It’s not liberals and Democrats trying to marry government and intolerant Christianity (except for this one). It’s not liberals and Democrats insisting that there be no government help for the poor, but live and die by their Social Security and Medicare.

The Democrats are a pitiful party politically, but they are the only game in town when it comes to those who are actually attempting to govern as opposed to the Republicans, who are, yes, trying to sabotage society to achieve short term political victories. “Lizard brain” is a compliment to a crowd like this.

Gerson’s not a fool. He knows all of this, but he’s doing a grotesque and pathetic version of what I call the Douthat Twist, when a more-or-less thoughtful conservative feels compelled to defend, somehow, the rottenness at the core of their movement. Almost embarrassed to be among the educated and informed, these conservatives must somehow justify their movement’s pandering and bone-throwing to the willfully ignorant, violent, and vindictive. When reason is no longer available to them, as it has not been for some time, they go for name-calling; they call these progressive politicians — their fellow Ivy League, cocktail partying, intellectual elites — snobs.

Gerson again:

One response to social stress doesn’t help at all: telling people their fears result from primitive irrationality. Obama may think that many of his fellow citizens can’t reason. But they can still vote.

Thanks for the political advice. One thing we agree on is that your mob is indeed going to show up at the polls on November 2, storm the gates, and pillage the town. But I promise you, “reasoning” will not be on the agenda.

Side note: I’m finished with the Washington Post as a standard of editorial integrity. Gerson’s nonsense coupled with the regular publishing of the pro-torture maniac Mark Theissen and the charmless fraud George Will, as well as recently hosting an intellectually dishonest, tone deaf, and morally reprehensible anti-gay screed by Tony Perkins, is too much to bear — and on top of that the firing of David Weigel just because he was nasty about Matt Drudge in a private e-mail. The Post has proven itself, in terms of national political analysis, to be beyond hope.