Russiagate, Cognitive Bias, Human Nature, and My Political Nihilism

After two years of investigation and constant media coverage, the Mueller Report is finally finished. While anyone outside the Justice Department has yet to read the full report, Attorney General William Barr has released a summary. The so-called Russiagate story is not yet over, however, as there are now calls for the entire Mueller Report to be made public. Exactly what the Russiagate story is and how it started is expertly told by Matt Taibbi in his “It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD” piece. What I’m more interested in is how this whole story is indicative of human nature.

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The Liberal Experiment: Are the Results In?

Liberalism, defined here in the classical sense of the enlightenment values of civil liberty and economic freedom, not a narrow left-leaning ideology, holds individual freedom above all else. In the U.S. both the left and right, except on the extremes of both, fall into the classical liberalism philosophy. Ideas that could be considered pre-cursors to liberalism began developing in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. But it was the American Revolution and French Revolution that put liberalism into practice. That means the experiment has been running for a little over two hundred years. Can we draw any conclusions from the results?

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The U.S. Does Not Need Israel

I’ve written an article on Medium looking at the U.S. relationship with Israel from a geopolitical perspective.

In the past week, Tweets by Minnesota’s 5th congressional district representative Ilhan Omar have sparked controversy about the link between antisemitism and criticism of Israel. Particularly Israel’s influence on American lawmakers through lobbyists. Due to the dark history of antisemitism being linked with conspiracy theories about Jewish control over banking and other financial arenas, this is a conversation that requires tact and nuance.

However, those are not the conversations I’m attempting to start here.

What I’m interested in is what the U.S. gains, in a geopolitical sense, from its association with Israel. I’m careful here to say association and not alliance, since there is no formal treaty-based alliance between the U.S. and Israel.

Click here to read the whole thing.

 

Should LGBTQ+ Characters in Literature Always Make a Cultural Statement?

I am a heterosexual, cisgender, white male. A character in my novel “Incarnate: Existence” is a Japanese transgender woman. For some people this is probably already ‘problematic’ – I, of course, do not and cannot know the experiences of a non-white and transgender person. That could certainly be an article all in itself, whether someone like me should be “allowed” to write this kind of character, and I’ve tangentially written about this idea before. But that’s not what this article is about. I’m interested if, in general, a character in a creative work (book, movie, TV show, etc.) who is LGBTQ+ should always and necessarily be written to make a political or cultural statement, or can the character exist as they are without attempting to make a statement?

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Your Truth, My Truth, Our Truth, Right Truth

In this day and age, with social media and politically biased news media, it seems that truth isn’t truth. Thus it has become popular to talk about ‘my truth‘ when people talk about their opinion. It’s interesting that people can believe wildly different versions of things that happen. From Russiagate to Uranium One, it all seems to depend what ‘our truth’ is for any particular group.

The alternative, unfortunately, is to have some version of a single, orthodox ‘right Truth’ that we all must agree on, possibly enforced by a Ministry of Truth or a Truth Force.

The problem with this is obvious: who gets to say what the Right Truth is? What are their motivations for saying that A is the Right Truth but B is not the Right Truth? Is it ever possible for one source to give the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

And, there are more ways of controlling what becomes the ‘Right Truth’ than just lies of commission. There is also the illusory truth effect and lies of omission.

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State of the Union

It has been a little under a week since Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union (SOTU) address. I didn’t actually watch the address, but I’ve watched and read commentary on it. Most of the stories I’ve seen first mention that Trump was uncharacteristically reserved and on script. He checked off the usual SOTU boxes – the state of the union is strong; we have to do more to unify and stop trying to divide our nation; congress has to be willing to reach across the aisle; the military is great but we can make it greater; immigration; infrastructure; etc. That’s all well and good – although those of us paying attention know that this is mostly feel-good gobbledygook that doesn’t actually translate into any real policy or changes in attitude. Interestingly, a look at George Washington’s first SOTU (1790), it appears they were concerned about very similar issues – the military, immigration, jobs, education.

However, I’m more interested in the tradition of the State of the Union in general than any particular president.

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Individualism and Collectivism

What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to do good things? Individualism would answer these questions by saying a good person, who does good things, is kind, fair, thoughtful, empathetic, and self-actualized; that they do things to better themselves (ie go to the gym, stay informed, eat right, meditate, and do things that will make them happy). Collectivism would say that a person is good if they belong to a good group and that their thoughts and actions are in alignment with that group and work towards the betterment and actualization of the group and promotion of its ideals over others.

Individualism is politically expressed through capitalism. The benefit of capitalism is that, ideally, each individual is in sole control of their own economic activity, thus the economy is defined by the interactions of individual agents all working toward their own personal good via rational self-interest – one spends one’s money on food, shelter, clothes, medicine, and entertainment for oneself; nobody else forces one into any particular form of economic activity. The problem seems to arise from taking this political philosophy on as a personal ethical philosophy – if it is morally good that I have personal control over my economic activity, then it is also morally good that I have personal control over my ethical activity. This can then descend into hedonism and moral relativism – what is “good” must be what makes me feel good, and who is anyone to say that what is “good” for one person must also be “good” for another?

Collectivism is politically expressed through communism or nationalism – the two use different rhetoric and emphasize different collectives, but are functionally similar. The benefit of collectivism as political philosophy (whether communism or nationalism) is that, ideally, everyone in the group (economic class, in the case of communism, or racial/ethnic group in the case of nationalism) is on equal economic footing – if you are within the preferred group, then there are no winners or losers, and therefore things like greed or envy of other in-group members becomes obsolete, and economic activity is simplified by relieving everyone of economic responsibility, because certain economic privileges become economic “rights” for in-group members. Their are inherent problems in collectivism as political philosophy, but further problems arise when collectivism is taken as an ethical philosophy: you end up with identity politics. In this case, every individual is pre-judged based on whatever group(s) one happens to fall into (racial, gender, class, etc.), and one is expected to adhere to a certain orthodoxy as established by said groups in order to be a “good person” as defined by that orthodoxy. The groups are then confronted by a dilemma: moral relativism vs might-makes-right. By the former, all groups are mutually exclusive, but equally valid, and therefore it is not acceptable to criticize another group by the ethical standards of one’s own, since one group’s ethics is only valid within that group, thus one is wrong to speak out against potentially monstrous beliefs and activities within other groups (ie who is one group to say that female genital mutilation is bad if it is considered “good” by those groups that practice it?). By the latter, universal “goodness” is dependent on which group can conquer, subjugate, or silence the others, thus it is “good” for one’s group to try and conquer, subjugate, or silence other groups deemed not to be “good” before they are able to conquer, subjugate, or silence one’s group (ie shouting down out-group speakers on college campuses or petitioning the government for laws favorable to one’s own group or unfavorable to the out-group).

So, the question is, how is humanity to determine a proper ethical framework? Religion used to attempt to fill this role. However, without a universally agreed upon religion, it will (and has) devolved into collectivism. There is also the issue that modernity has shown that God has taken a lesser role in the universe that once thought, or at least in people’s lives, if God exists at all. Because of the de-emphasis of religion for the formulation of an ethical framework, the above political philosophies have taken that role, and it has led to divisiveness, shallow materialism, and an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and drug/alcohol use.

Adhering to simple moral prohibitions – don’t lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder – although not perfectly practiced, are generally agreed upon, even if not always for the same reasons. Yet this doesn’t seem to be good enough to create a peaceful world of productive societies, made up of internally supportive and externally tolerant communities, each composed of happy, healthy, self-actualized individuals. How to achieve that is the question ethical philosophers must answer.

Something Worth Fighting For

Let’s say that someone you knew bought a 1968 Shelby Mustang GT500KR back when they first rolled off the assembly line. They loved this car and took very good care of it. Whenever a part began to go bad, it was immediately replaced before anything could damage the car. They kept this car for the past 50 years. Over that time, 90% of the parts in that car were replaced with new parts. They now want to sell the car to you, and they say that it is an original 1968 – are they telling you the truth? Or is it now a completely different car than the one they bought 50 years ago?

This, of course, is a modern re-telling of the Ship of Theseus. The reason I ask is because this applies to more than just objects, but also ideas. Ideas mutate and evolve over time. Some aspects become obsolete, emphases are changed, new thinking is added, and sometimes ideas are rejected completely. Like switching out the different parts in our muscle car, these changes are due to the emergence of new information and technology, along with the growing and shifting social, political, and philosophical milieu.

And when I say “fighting for” something, I don’t necessarily mean physically fighting for it, but also advocating and arguing in favor of, and being willing to align oneself and take a position for, a particular set of beliefs, ideals, and principles.

Christianity, for example, as it is understood nowadays, is very different from its original conception – so, is it still the same thing that the early followers had in mind when they were persecuted for their beliefs? Is Christianity still the same thing that the Medieval people had in mind when they persecuted others in its name?

What about the United States of America? Certainly the country is very different from the one the founders understood – now slavery is abolished, women have equal rights, our government involves itself in the affairs of every other country. So, when someone says they are fighting for America, what does that really mean?

And, more interestingly, will people in the future think what you believe is worth fighting for now had been worth fighting for at all?

What comes immediately to mind is the Confederacy during the American Civil War. They believed they were fighting for something noble and just, and now most people think their cause anywhere between misguided all the way to despicable. But what if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War – would their cause be seen as righteous and just, the way the Union is often portrayed? Which raises the question – will the way the future judges us be based solely on which ideas win out over the others, or will the future be able to judge what we fight for objectively and see an idea, even if it “loses” the fight, as better than one that may have “won” the fight?

f_la_statue_topple_170814.nbcnews-ux-1080-600

[Protesters in Durham, North Carolina, toppled a statue called the Confederate Soldiers Monument.]

It also brings to mind the people fighting during the 30 Years War – many atrocities were committed, thousands killed through warfare, disease, and starvation, ruinous destruction wrought on the people of Europe, and yet nowadays most people don’t even know that this war happened, much less what it was even about. But the people fighting it (or, at least, funding it) thought it worth the catastrophic consequences. Which raises the question – are your ideas worth fighting for is they will simply fall by the wayside in history, forgotten by posterity? What if they only remember what you did for your cause, but not why you did it? How will you be judged?

30_year_war_Grave

[Mass grave from Battle of Lützen, 1632, during the 30 Years War.]

What about humanities greatest experiment with implementing an idea – Communism in places like China and the Soviet Union? Untold millions suffered and died for this grand experiment, the world being brought to the precipice of thermonuclear annihilation, only to have it all fail. Now that we are in their future, with the Soviet Union in our past, would we deem Stalinist or Maoist Communism to have been worth fighting for? At the time, many people certainly believed in those ideals enough to kill and die for them. Now, it seems, all of that suffering was for nothing.

Great_Leap_Forward

[Propaganda poster from Mao’s Great Leap Forward program, which resulted in the government executing 550,000 people and an estimated 16.5 million to 40 million people starving to death.]

So how does one know what to fight for now, given that it may be forgotten by posterity, or deemed misguided or even evil? Is it worth killing for a cause that will be judged so harshly by our descendants? Worth dying for? What if the ideas you believe will make the world a better place get put to the test, and it turns out that they make things worse for everyone? And if these questions are paralyzing, what if not fighting for anything is even worse than fighting for the wrong thing?

Is there something worth fighting for?

[Featured image is from Kharkov in the Soviet Union, 1933, during the Holodomor, where estimates of 2 million to 10 million people starved to death due to Communist collectivization policy.]

Sweet Little Lies

Is it better to believe in pleasant falsehoods or unpleasant truths?

Having a sense of purpose in ones life leads to better cognition, resilience to trauma, positive self-image and lawful behavior, as well as longevity. This has been utilized by programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – the insistence on accepting a higher power and devotion to helping other struggling alcoholics and addicts is said to be the key to the success of these programs. What this doesn’t say is whether someone’s chosen purpose has to be true (or even morally good, but that may be a topic for another article). In other words, even if the purpose for which one has devoted their life is false, it could still have positive benefits for the individual.

Religious people have bemoaned the decreased emphasis on religion because it leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It’s also possible that this loss of higher purpose has led to sociopolitical woes – in the absence of higher meaning, people seek purpose in other, less healthy outlets, such as drugs and sex. But it could also explain the rise of identity politics – without a sense of higher purpose, people find meaning in their various intersecting identities. Being female, or male, or gay, or straight, or transgender, or black, or white, or working class, or disabled, or liberal, or conservative…these things begin to provide the meaning that people no longer get from religion. Unfortunately, as is playing out, these sources of purpose are divisive and provide no overarching, unifying narrative to give meaning and purpose to everyone as a whole. Instead, our chosen purposes put everyone at odds.

But what if something like religion is no longer able to give meaning? What if belief in a higher power that gives us an overarching, unified meaning is now obsolete or impossible? This may be the legacy of globalization, multiculturalism, and scientific progress – a strange concoction of moral relativism and materialistic reductionism. So we find out that God doesn’t exist (or, at least, has yet to intervene and set us straight on the issue at hand) and we are condemned to freedom. As such, people have come to different conclusions on how to live The Good Life here on earth – each of them the flawed brainchild of human beings in all our biased thinking, all of them equally valid without an ultimate authority, mutually incongruous, and yet unable to avoid one another in a world shrunk by globalization and constant connection, leading to polarization, division, and conflict.

So what’s the answer? Do we continue believing the truth – that there is no ‘right’ answer to the question “what is my/our purpose in life?” and that we are permitted to do anything, no matter how bad it is for ourselves and those around us? Or do we take the Leap of Faith that Soren Kierkegaard suggested – that, given what we know in our modern times, we tell ourselves Sweet Little Lies – that will make our lives better? The former has obvious real world consequences, as discussed above, but the latter requires us to commit what Albert Camus called philosophical suicide by attempting to make transcendental meaning out of meaninglessness (to his credit, I imagine Camus would also condemn something like identity politics as a source of purpose as philosophical suicide, too).

This discussion may seem somewhat academic, but I contend that it has very important ramifications. How will we reconcile the truth that meaning is merely what we make it with the need for a higher purpose? I hope I am being melodramatic when I say that our civilization may depend on this reconciliation, but more and more I feel like this isn’t too much of an exaggeration.

Divided States of America

Anyone who pays attention to the news in the United States will at least be vaguely aware of the sociopolitical rift that has opened recently (1) (2) (3) (4). Whether this rift had been hidden for some time and has only just recently been brought to the surface, or if this is a new phenomenon in American culture, no one can say for sure.

Political Polarization

When it comes to these issues, subjective truth is often more salient than objective truth. It doesn’t matter whether immigration – both legal or illegal – is up or down, whether this has consequences for job markets, crime rates, and terrorism, or whether there is a concerted, racially motivated effort to crack down on immigration. It doesn’t matter if high profile police shootings of black people is part of an epidemic indicative of long-standing institutional racism in America or just a false narrative perpetuated by those who hate police and law-and-order or simply want special privileges for particular groups of people. It doesn’t matter if all transgender people are beautiful and inspiring heroes who are deserving of our utmost admiration, a mixed bag of people just trying to live their lives in a way that best suits them, mentally ill victims in need of psychiatric attention to alleviate their suffering without mutilating their bodies, or menacing perverts who will sink to any level depravity to pursue their fetishistic desires. It doesn’t matter if everyone on the right is a money-grubbing, capitalistic, environment hating white supremacist or not, or if everyone on the left is a cis-hetero-white-male hating neo-Marxist identitarian slouching toward Sharia Law or not.

What matters, as far as social interactions, voting trends, and policy decisions are concerned, is that people believe these things are true, one way or the other.

But why do people believe the things they do? And why is there a divide? And what was it that brings people together in the first place? Lets go through these questions one at a time.

  • Why Do People Believe the Things They Do?

It turns out that there is a large biological component to why people have the sociopolitical views that they do. For example, a twin study, conducted in five democracies (Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and the US) using a sample size of 12,000 people over the years 1980-2011, found that genetics played a significant role in peoples political self-identification. These results have been confirmed in other studies (1) (2) (3).

In addition, political self-identification is strongly correlated with personality type using both the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and The Big Five (1) (2) (3).

Big Five Political BeliefsMBTI Political Beliefs

There are even brain imaging studies that show anatomical differences correlated to different political beliefs (1) (2) (3).

Figure1

This can be troubling, since people use what is called motivated reasoning when it comes to accepting different conclusions. This means that we start from preferred conclusions and then look for evidence to support those conclusions, as opposed to formulating conclusions based on the known evidence. In other words, humans are lawyers, not scientists. And once we reach a conclusion, our confirmation bias allows us to continuously find evidence to support those conclusions we’ve already accepted. The backfire effect makes it difficult for anyone to convince us otherwise, regardless of the facts. And our bias blind spot leads us to believe that we alone are immune to all of this.

Thus, having a genetic predisposition for certain sociopolitical beliefs, a propensity for motivated reasoning clad in the armor of confirmation bias, the backfire effect, and bias blind spot, can make it difficult to achieve reconciliation when divisive issues are given primacy in the national conversation.

  • Why Has the Sociopolitical Division Become so Large?

Studies show mixed results about how much the media effects political polarization (1) (2) (3), where there is a positive correlation for people who have a high interest in politics and in consuming traditional media, but it doesn’t fully explain the recent extreme polarization, especially since news media has been around for a very long time. One hypothesis is that social media, which is a new phenomenon compared to traditional media, is the driving force – whether through the creation of ideological echo chambers or the spread of fake news. However, the evidence doesn’t bare this out. The most extreme polarization comes from people who use social media the least (1).

So, what are some other possible explanations for the recent sociopolitical division?

In addition to more access to our own preferred narratives, the rhetoric has become more polarizing and divisive. When people who are political/ideological opponents are not just viewed as those who have the welfare of their fellow countrymen in mind, using a different approach of achieving that end, but instead are characterized as people acting in bad faith, or with malicious, self-serving, or spiteful intentions, it creates a whole new dynamic. In the former case, political and ideological opponents are people who can be engaged in dialogue, where ideas can be discussed and with whom compromises can be arrived. In the latter, political and ideological opponents are beyond the pale. They are not worth engaging in dialogue, since they will only do so in bad faith, and all that will result is giving legitimacy to ideas not worth considering, and in fact may be reprehensible. Thus, it is not necessarily that our information is being catered to our preconceived notions, but the atmosphere in which the information is being discussed. Instead of constructing a reasoned argument why a political or ideological opponent is incorrect or misinformed, all one needs to do is denounce them categorically. Virtue signaling trumps reasoned argument.

What we can say about the recent sociopolitical polarization, which may be a result of the divisive rhetoric, is that it seems not to come from increased extremism in one’s own belief in their own ideology, but an increased mistrust of those considered to be part of the opposition. Interestingly, mistrust of ones perceived ideological opponents is also correlated with a recent decline in trust for the government. What is also interesting is that distrust in the government leads to more calls for increased government regulation. It’s possible that the recent sociopolitical polarization could have something to do with each side perceiving the other as attempting to use the government as a weapon to impose their own ideology on others. As each side becomes more distrustful of the other, they more fervently attempt to stymie each others legislation, vote for people who will more vehemently oppose the other side, and enthusiastically support politicians who will use stronger verbiage to attack opponents. This leads to more distrust in the government, which results in calls for increased regulation as an attempt to reign in the other side.

But a primary driver of sociopolitical division is identity politics along with relative deprivation. The first aspect, identity politics, has been widely discussed lately. This is the phenomenon of viewing social and political interactions, decisions, and conceptual frameworks through the lens of one’s self identity. This alone isn’t enough to cause sociopolitical rifts. But along with relative deprivation – the fact or perception that one’s particular identity group(s) are being treated unfairly or having access to resources or political influence restricted by those outside the identity group – identity politics can result in division and conflict. This phenomenon has occurred on both the left and the right – the left focusing on the present and historical relative deprivation of minorities, the right focusing on the resulting relative deprivation of cisgendered, heterosexual, white males from this recent shift in ideological emphasis on the left. Where this initial ideological reorganization on the left originates is up for debate, but many issues may be contributing factors – changes in parental styles as a result of current scholarship, the relative lack of external threats to personal safety and well-being that results from living in a civilized soiety, the inevitable decline of national identity and subsequent replacement by moral decadence that befalls every hegemonic power, an extreme over-correction of past wrongs on account of guilt brought on by increased awareness, paternalistic government expansion that results in infantalizing the populace, etc.

  • What Brings a Population Together?

The identification of a population as a cohesive group is based on shared qualities of race, ideology, and culture. Race is an easy one to understand – people inherently identify with those who share common physical features (1) (2) (3). Ideology refers to a shared set of specific beliefs. For instance, in the United States, the belief that all people are morally and legally equal (ie despite obvious differences in intelligence or physical strength between individuals, it is just as wrong to deprive one of life as another, and each should be treated equally by the law), that we have the right to free speech, etc. Culture refers to a shared set of traditions, social mores/taboos, values, and language. For instance, in the United States, Christmas is widely celebrated, even by people who don’t believe in Christianity; money and material possessions are valued as a measure of social status and success; and most people expect those around them (at least while within U.S. borders) to speak English.

The U.S. was unique in that it did not have origins in racial similarity. Yes, the founders were white men, but the U.S. was and is a country of immigrants (both voluntary and involuntary). Even if the credo that “all [people] are created equal” wasn’t realized from the start, it was an eventual, and inevitable, destination. The U.S. instead originated from a shared ideology – namely, the ideology that all people are morally and legally equal – that resulted in a shared culture. A culture that valued chasing the vaunted American Dream – that one’s children will live a better life than they had.

What seems to have changed recently, on both the left and the right, is that this has been turned on its head. American, and more generally, Western culture has been demonized as inherently oppressive, through the denigration or appropriation of certain heritages. The ideology is held accused of being hollow and unequally distributed. Instead, we are told, race is what matters. Your rights are determined by your race (or, often times, sex) – whether you are white or non-white – and all conflict is based on the relative deprivation of certain races (or sexes). This will not result in national unification, but only further division. There are those who may see this as a desirable result, and in fact may be actively working towards these ends, but I don’t foresee this as resulting in anything good.

I don’t have any particular prescriptions for how to fix any of this. I can say, broadly speaking, that if the U.S., and the West in general, doesn’t find a common ideology and culture once again, that we will only further divide.