Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Wellness apps can't cure our digital dehumanization

Wortham describes the surge in the use of wellness Apps as we have shifted our entire lives indoors this past year and notes that they can't address the real problem of the alienation of 21st-century work as email, social media, and zoom are making us increasingly miserable. (see, for example, Newport's description of how in an attempt to work more effectively, we've accidentally deployed an inhumane way to collaborate (email) that causes verbal overload, and Bailenson's arguement that nonverbal overload is one of the root causes of the Zoom fatigue that is experienced by many of us.)

Wortham notes that the pandemic fatigue resulting from shifting our lives indoors and online, blurring even further the distinction between work and everything else, has resulted in a huge increase in the use of apps to help in coping with increased stresses:

Mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace, Fabulous, Rootd and Liberate all surged over the past year, downloaded by people in search of reprieve from the crushing anxiety of the virus. Even the mere act of tapping Calm open has a narcotic effect: You can hear a thick, sonorous hum of crickets and see a picture of a serene mountain range and peaceful lake. Last April, as the world moved into a global lockdown, more than two million people paid $69.99 for an annual subscription to the app, which includes a selection of “daily calms,” or short talks on things like the beauty of mandalas and de-escalating conflict, breathing exercises and soundscapes with titles like “White Noise Ocean Surf” and “Wind in Pines.”
Wellness, the way our culture chooses to define it, has become synonymous with productivity and self-optimization. But wellness isn’t something that can be downloaded and consumed, even if the constellations of sun-drenched photos on your Instagram feed indicate otherwise.
Our attachment to our devices and what we see on them is often the cause of our angst...research suggests that our fixation on our smartphones contributes to headaches, bad posture, fatigue, depression and anxiety... Endlessly scrolling through Netflix and checking social media notifications is not just a byproduct of boredom; it’s a function of design intended to be so persuasive that it feels urgent and impossible to stop. Technology is doing more than capturing our attention — it’s extracting whatever data it can get from us and monetizing it. Shoshana Zuboff, a social psychologist and professor emerita at Harvard, describes this as “surveillance capitalism,” the mining of private human experiences for raw behavioral data that can be sold to advertisers eager to anticipate trends in the marketplace.
Social media monetizes the urgency of wanting, and there are economic incentives for keeping us engaged, unhappy, seeking, convinced there’s something more to consume, something better to do, learn or buy. Buddhism teaches that there are no quick fixes, and apps like Calm are better at advertising relaxing services — and profiting from them — than they are at actually providing them in a meaningful way. Mindfulness is less about reducing stress and more about reducing dissatisfaction through direct investigation of our experience. But marketing stress reduction is more successful, and definitely more likely to win a download or corporate account.
We’re already isolated from our communities, and pandemic fatigue is pushing us even farther away from one another. Corporate wellness strategies mimic the most problematic parts of wellness culture, equating care with a Wi-Fi-connected bike rather than finding ways to work together and form new models of health and care-taking that don’t automatically ascribe our value to how much we can do. For many of us, work is not responsible for our freedom or even satisfaction: It shouldn’t dictate our well-being, either.




Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Avoiding psychological biases that trick your brain.

The monthly Austin Rainbow Forum discussion group which I help organize meets on the first Sunday afternoon of each month, and I thought I would pass on background material for a talk and discussion March 7 by Paul McNamara titled "Avoiding psychological bias." I also want to point to an excellent article on cognitive biases and faulty heuristics by Ben Yagoda that appeared several years ago in The Atlantic. Here is McNamara's summary that I just sent out to the discussion group's email list: 

"How we look at the world and make decisions about the ways we live our lives can be profoundly affected by many of the psychological biases which we're all susceptible to. We'll discuss thirteen common types of bias, all beginning with the letter “c”. This presentation has been adapted from the The Center for Action and Contemplation’s podcast series Learning How to See. For those who are interested, here’s a link to the six episodes podcast series: "

The thirteen biases are: 

1. Confirmation Bias: The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resist information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks. 

2. Complexity Bias: The human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth. 

3. Community bias: It is very hard to see something your group doesn’t want you to see. This is a form of social confirmation bias. 

4. Complementary bias: If peope are nice to you, you’ll be open to what they see and have to say. If they aren’t nice to you, you won’t. 

5. Contact bias: If you lack contact with someone, you won’t see what they see. 

6. Conservative/Liberal bias: Conservatives and Liberals see the world differently. Liberals see through a “nurturing parent” window, and Conservatives see through a “strict father” window. Liberals value moral arguments based on justice and compassion; conservatives also place a high value on arguments based on purity, loyalty, authority, and tradition. Our brains like to see as our party sees, and we flock with those who see as we do. 

7. Consciousness bias: A person’s level of consciousness makes seeing some things possible and others impossible. Our brains see from a location.

8. Competency bias: We are incompetent at knowing how incompetent or competent we are, so we may see less or more than we think. Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average. 

9. Confidence Bias: We mistake confidence for competence, and we are all vulnerable to the lies of confident people. Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth. 

10. Conspiracy Bias: When we feel shame, we are vulnerable to stories that cast us as the victims of an evil conspiracy by some enemy “other.” Our brains like stories in which we’re either the hero or the victim ... never the villain. 

11. Comfort/Complacency/Convenience Bias: Our brains welcome data that allows us to relax and be happy and reject data that require us to adjust, work, or inconvenience ourselves. 

12. Catastrophe/Normalcy Bias: Our brains notice sudden changes for the worse, but we easily miss slow and subtle changes over time. We think what is now normal always was and always will be. Our brains are wired for what feels normal. 

13. Cash Bias: It is very hard to see anything that interferes with our way of making a living. Our brains are wired to see within the framework of our economy, and we see what helps us make money.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Humans are animals - get over it. Let go of 'the purpose and meaning of it all'

Philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell does a piece discussing how relentlessly Western philosophy has strained to prove we are not squirrels:
...It’s almost as though the existence of animals, and their various similarities to humans, constituted insults. Like a squirrel, I have eyes and ears, scurry about on the ground and occasionally climb a tree...Our shared qualities — the fact that we are both hairy or that we have eyes or we poop, for example — are disconcerting if I am an immortal being created in the image of God and the squirrel just a physical organism, a bundle of instincts.
“The moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality,” writes Immanuel Kant in “Critique of Practical Reason.” In this assertion, at least, the Western intellectual tradition has been remarkably consistent...The connection of such ideas to the way we treat animals — for example, in our food chain — is too obvious to need repeating...Further trouble is caused when the distinctions between humans and animals are then used to draw distinctions among human beings...Some of us, in short, are animals — and some of us are better than that. This, it turns out, is a useful justification for colonialism, slavery and racism.
When we restrain or control ourselves, Plato argues, a rational being restrains an animal...In this view, each of us is both a beast and a person — and the point of human life is to constrain our desires with rationality and purify ourselves of animality. These sorts of systematic self-divisions come to be refigured in Cartesian dualism, which separates the mind from the body, or in Sigmund Freud’s distinction between id and ego, or in the neurological contrast between the functions of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
This dualistic view is a disaster, as was noted in my series of posts on Barrett's book on emotions. I like very much the views of Sam Harris' on the great questions of religion and philosophy (which animals can't ask) that seek to establish the purpose and meanign of our lives. Here are some fragments and edits from the "Mindfulness and meaning" lecture in his "Waking Up" app, in which he argues for abandoning the philosopher's search:
What does it all mean, what is the meaning of life? What is our purpose here? These are the great pseudo questions of religion and philosophy. We need not ask them. There is assumption of a massive void in our lives that must be filled by something if we do no have answers to these questions, as from myths, superstition, religion. This is an illusion, an imaginary problem, a pure confection of thought...image the cosmos, evolution of life, DNA, consciousness as it exists in wolves and eagles, but no humans. What you don’t have are all the existential doubts to wonder what does it all mean? No temptation towards teleological thinking, purpose driven thinking. You wouldn’t say a wolf is so important that the universe must have had a higher purpose in producing it. Nor would its beauty be diminished once you acknowledged there is no higher purpose that brought it into the world. The same is true in a world filled with anatomically modern human beings, 10,000 years ago before the advent of language or complex material culture, and conversations like we now have, before anyone could articulate a concern about what does it all mean. Imagine a world with those people. Where would the temptation to wonder about the purpose of it all come from? You, standing outside, wouldn't say 'there must be a higher purpose here'... the world is what it is. Everything is simply appearing on the basis of prior causes.
The meaning of life comes from finding good enough reasons to be deeply immersed in the present moment and people around you, not brooding over past and future. What there is to notice is the intrinsic freedom and openness of consciousness in each moment. Everything is simply appearing and you are the condition in which these things appear...The question of how to live a meaningful life is fairly simple to each moment we have an opportunity to connect with the contents of consciousness, with the sights, sounds, sensations, and ideas that constitute the actual character of our lives, or we can be lost in thought, that is, thinking without knowing that we are thinking, then we are fully at the mercy of whatever thoughts arise, and as you know, the character of so much of our thinking is unhappy, the mind becomes a sort of theater of doubts and anxiety and regret, and it only in this theater that one can get concerned about what it all means, and to get lost in the false questions of philosophy or religion. This moment does not, can not, and need not mean anything or have any purpose, one can only "think" otherwise. And, thinking seems to introduce a crisis of meaning. Mindfulness is the capacity to break this spell and actually connect with experience in the present moment. But it doesn't come naturally, as you may have noticed. So.... that's why we practice it

Friday, February 26, 2021

The life cycle of a new social network

Kevin Roose does an interesting article on Clubhouse, the hot new audio social network, which has a nice chunk of writing I want to pass on:
Every successful social network has a life cycle that goes something like: Wow, this app sure is addictive! Look at all the funny and exciting ways people are using it! Oh, look, I can get my news and political commentary here, too! This is going to empower dissidents, promote free speech and topple authoritarian regimes! Hmm, why are trolls and racists getting millions of followers? And where did all these conspiracy theories come from? This platform should really hire some moderators and fix its algorithms. Wow, this place is a cesspool, I’m deleting my account.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Music and Medicine

Amy McDermott does an open source article on how music is increasingly being employed as a medical therapy. Here are some clips from the article:
...growing evidence points to a range of musical medical benefits for ailments from stroke to Parkinson’ mechanically ventilated ICU patients relaxing, slow-tempo classical music reduced patients’ number of delirium days... music has been part of medicine, in one way or another, from the earliest efforts to heal the sick...since some 35,000 years ago...around the time that humans began painting animal figures in ochre and black on cave walls, shamans used bone flutes and animal skin drums in healing and funerary rituals. Fast forward to the 20th century, and musicians took up the mantle of healers after the First World War by playing for wounded soldiers in veteran’s hospitals. Anecdotally, the soldiers responded so well that hospitals brought in musicians; the National Association for Music in Hospitals was born in 1926, according to the American Music Therapy Association. In the decades that followed, hospital musicians developed an accreditation system and became known as music therapists, as their work became increasingly tailored to patients experiencing a range of disorders. Today, music therapists work in settings from hospitals, to outpatient clinics, to nursing homes, where they are typically members of a patient’s interdisciplinary treatment team along with medical doctors, neurologists, and psychologists.
The article proceeds with McDermott's summary of a number of clinical trials attempting to rigorously investigate the therapeutic effects of music.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Real-time talking with dreamers during REM sleep

A fascinating new window for reserach on dreaming has been opened by four collaborating but independent laboratory groups. The summary of the open source article from Konkoly et al.:
Dreams take us to a different reality, a hallucinatory world that feels as real as any waking experience. These often-bizarre episodes are emblematic of human sleep but have yet to be adequately explained. Retrospective dream reports are subject to distortion and forgetting, presenting a fundamental challenge for neuroscientific studies of dreaming. Here we show that individuals who are asleep and in the midst of a lucid dream (aware of the fact that they are currently dreaming) can perceive questions from an experimenter and provide answers using electrophysiological signals. We implemented our procedures for two-way communication during polysomnographically verified rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep in 36 individuals. Some had minimal prior experience with lucid dreaming, others were frequent lucid dreamers, and one was a patient with narcolepsy who had frequent lucid dreams. During REM sleep, these individuals exhibited various capabilities, including performing veridical perceptual analysis of novel information, maintaining information in working memory, computing simple answers, and expressing volitional replies. Their responses included distinctive eye movements and selective facial muscle contractions, constituting correctly answered questions on 29 occasions across 6 of the individuals tested. These repeated observations of interactive dreaming, documented by four independent laboratory groups, demonstrate that phenomenological and cognitive characteristics of dreaming can be interrogated in real time. This relatively unexplored communication channel can enable a variety of practical applications and a new strategy for the empirical exploration of dreams.

Monday, February 22, 2021

So...whatcha gonna offer me for this cell phone I stole from you?

Macaque monkeys have learned how to drive a hard bargain.They have learned to barter for food with humans to return stolen possessions according to how highly an object is valued. Here is a brief description by Vignieri of work by Leca et al.:
The use of tokens as a bartering tool in nonhuman primate studies has taught us much about the willingness of nonhuman primates to engage in economic transactions. The question of whether it reflects a phenomenon that might emerge in natural conditions has received less attention. Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) living in a Balinese temple regularly steal visitors' possessions and then barter for food with humans anxious to regain their belongings. Leca et al. discovered that they preferentially steal items of high value (for example, digital devices and wallets) over those with low value (for example, empty bags or hairpins) because higher-value food rewards tend to be offered for items that humans value more. The ability to identify high-value objects increases with age and experience, as does the macaques' skill as thieves. The animals in this group have been stealing and trading for more than 30 years, suggesting that the practice is culturally transmitted.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Why cats like catnip...

Interesting work from Uenoyama et al.:
Domestic cats and other felids rub their faces and heads against catnip (Nepeta cataria) and silver vine (Actinidia polygama) and roll on the ground as a characteristic response. While this response is well known, its biological function and underlying mechanism remain undetermined. Here, we uncover the neurophysiological mechanism and functional outcome of this feline response. We found that the iridoid nepetalactol is the major component of silver vine that elicits this potent response in cats and other felids. Nepetalactol increased plasma β-endorphin levels in cats, while pharmacological inhibition of μ-opioid receptors suppressed the classic rubbing response. Rubbing behavior transfers nepetalactol onto the faces and heads of respondents where it repels the mosquito, Aedes albopictus. Thus, self-anointing behavior helps to protect cats against mosquito bites. The characteristic response of cats to nepetalactol via the μ-opioid system provides an important example of chemical pest defense using plant metabolites in nonhuman mammals.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

MindBlog Outage

Greetings from Austin Texas, where I live. Winter storm Texas can't handle. Third day of massive power outage, looks like at least one more day to go. One working burner on kitchen gas stove keeping interior at about 50 degrees. No posts until power restored. Roads are solid ice this morning. No further posts until power returns.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The gut microbiome can instruct brain cells to fight neuroinflammation.

I perk up whenever I see a reference relevant to 'inflamaging,' the slow rise of cellular inflammation that accompanies - as I am too well aware in my own case - aging. Neuroflammation is an underlying component of dementias and alzheimer's disease. Sanmarco et al. at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston have now discovered a new subset of brain cells that fight inflammation with instructions from the gut microbiome. Here are excerpts from their research brief that are a bit easier to follow than the technical abstreact of the article:
Astrocytes are the most abundant type of cells within the central nervous system (CNS).. Researchers have long assumed that astrocytes’ primary function is to provide nutrients and support for the brain’s more closely scrutinized nerve cells; over the years, however, increasing evidence has shown that astrocytes can also actively promote neurodegeneration, inflammation, and neurological diseases. Now, a team led by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has shown that a specific astrocyte sub-population can do the opposite, instead serving a protective, anti-inflammatory function within the brain based on signals regulated by the bacteria that reside in the gut.
The researchers used refined gene- and protein-analysis tools to identify the novel astrocyte subset. The astrocyte population resides close to the meninges (the membrane enclosing the brain) and expresses a protein called LAMP1, along with a protein called TRAIL, which can induce the death of other cells. These features help the LAMP1+TRAIL+ astrocytes limit CNS inflammation by inducing cell death in T-cells that promote inflammation... They found that a particular signaling molecule, called interferon-gamma, regulates TRAIL expression. Moreover, they found that the gut microbiome induces the expression of interferon-gamma in cells that circulate through the body and ultimately reach the meninges, where they can promote astrocyte anti-inflammatory activities.
Understanding the mechanisms driving the anti-inflammatory functions of LAMP1+TRAIL+ astrocytes could enable researchers to develop therapeutic approaches to combat neurological diseases, like multiple sclerosis. For example, they are exploring probiotic candidates that can be used to regulate the astrocytes’ anti-inflammatory activity.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Personal experiences bridge moral and political divides better than facts

From Kubin et al. in PNAS: 


All Americans are affected by rising political polarization, whether because of a gridlocked Congress or antagonistic holiday dinners. People believe that facts are essential for earning the respect of political adversaries, but our research shows that this belief is wrong. We find that sharing personal experiences about a political issue—especially experiences involving harm—help to foster respect via increased perceptions of rationality. This research provides a straightforward pathway for increasing moral understanding and decreasing political intolerance. These findings also raise questions about how science and society should understand the nature of truth in the era of “fake news.” In moral and political disagreements, everyday people treat subjective experiences as truer than objective facts.
Both liberals and conservatives believe that using facts in political discussions helps to foster mutual respect, but 15 studies—across multiple methodologies and issues—show that these beliefs are mistaken. Political opponents respect moral beliefs more when they are supported by personal experiences, not facts. The respect-inducing power of personal experiences is revealed by survey studies across various political topics, a field study of conversations about guns, an analysis of YouTube comments from abortion opinion videos, and an archival analysis of 137 interview transcripts from Fox News and CNN. The personal experiences most likely to encourage respect from opponents are issue-relevant and involve harm. Mediation analyses reveal that these harm-related personal experiences increase respect by increasing perceptions of rationality: everyone can appreciate that avoiding harm is rational, even in people who hold different beliefs about guns, taxes, immigration, and the environment. Studies show that people believe in the truth of both facts and personal experiences in nonmoral disagreement; however, in moral disagreements, subjective experiences seem truer (i.e., are doubted less) than objective facts. These results provide a concrete demonstration of how to bridge moral divides while also revealing how our intuitions can lead us astray. Stretching back to the Enlightenment, philosophers and scientists have privileged objective facts over experiences in the pursuit of truth. However, furnishing perceptions of truth within moral disagreements is better accomplished by sharing subjective experiences, not by providing facts.

Friday, February 12, 2021

You've gotta watch this - A billion year journey of Earth's tectonic plates

The article by Andrews in the New York Times describes the history of tectonic plate theory and brings into vivid focus how us humans are just a transient eye blink in the history of our planet. I pass on a YouTube version of the fascinating animation in the article:


Thursday, February 11, 2021

MindBlog keeps the blood pumping

Discussion of the therapeutic effects of exercise has been one of the topic threads in MindBlog since its beginning...reporting effects of different styles of exercise on metabolic health, gene expression, markers of aging, etc. Two recent fads have been the "7-minute exercise' and ever more brief forms of intense interval exercises. Parker-Pope now points out the perfect exercises for a 78 year old fart like myself who wants to get up from his computer every hour or so to move and get the blood stirring a bit, but doesn't want to be bouncing  up and down off the floor multiple times. Trainer Chris Jordan now offers the Standing 7- inute workout, suited to bodies of any age, size or fitness level. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Sensing the presence of gods and spirits across cultures and faiths

A fascinating open source article by Luhrmann et al. showing that what feels real to our senses is shaped by our culture.

The sensory presence of gods and spirits is central to many of the religions that have shaped human history—in fact, many people of faith report having experienced such events. But these experiences are poorly understood by social scientists and rarely studied empirically. We present a multiple-discipline, multiple-methods program of research involving thousands of people from diverse cultures and religions which demonstrates that two key factors—cultural models of the mind and personal orientations toward the mind—explain why some people are more likely than others to report vivid experiences of gods and spirits. These results demonstrate the power of culture, in combination with individual differences, to shape something as basic as what feels real to the senses.
Hearing the voice of God, feeling the presence of the dead, being possessed by a demonic spirit—such events are among the most remarkable human sensory experiences. They change lives and in turn shape history. Why do some people report experiencing such events while others do not? We argue that experiences of spiritual presence are facilitated by cultural models that represent the mind as “porous,” or permeable to the world, and by an immersive orientation toward inner life that allows a person to become “absorbed” in experiences. In four studies with over 2,000 participants from many religious traditions in the United States, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu, porosity and absorption played distinct roles in determining which people, in which cultural settings, were most likely to report vivid sensory experiences of what they took to be gods and spirits.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

How LSD tweaks our brain synapses to promote social behavior.

For the subset of MindBlog readers that is into the detailed Neuroscience of our behavior, I pass on an interesting article by De Gregorio et al. who use a mouse model to probe LSD's reported enhancement of empathy and social behavior in humans. Here is their significance statement, which is quite technical. If that's not enough for you, click on the link.
Social behavior (SB) is a fundamental hallmark of human interaction. Repeated administration of low doses of the 5-HT2A agonist lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in mice enhances SB by potentiating 5-HT2A and AMPA receptor neurotransmission in the mPFC via an increasing phosphorylation of the mTORC1, a protein involved in the modulation of SB. Moreover, the inactivation of mPFC glutamate neurotransmission impairs SB and nullifies the prosocial effects of LSD. Finally, LSD requires the integrity of mTORC1 in excitatory glutamatergic, but not in inhibitory neurons, to produce prosocial effects. This study unveils a mechanism contributing to the role of 5-HT2A agonism in the modulation of SB.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Timing matters when correcting fake news

 From Brashier et al.:

Countering misinformation can reduce belief in the moment, but corrective messages quickly fade from memory. We tested whether the longer-term impact of fact-checks depends on when people receive them. In two experiments (total N = 2,683), participants read true and false headlines taken from social media. In the treatment conditions, “true” and “false” tags appeared before, during, or after participants read each headline. Participants in a control condition received no information about veracity. One week later, participants in all conditions rated the same headlines’ accuracy. Providing fact-checks after headlines (debunking) improved subsequent truth discernment more than providing the same information during (labeling) or before (prebunking) exposure. This finding informs the cognitive science of belief revision and has practical implications for social media platform designers.

Friday, February 05, 2021

MindBlog's 15th birthday

Mindblog has been chugging along for 15 years, it's contents reflecting what I find interesting and am reading about at the moment. It seems a waste to not pass on stuff I like, in the hope that others find it interesting. A few of the posts are my own ruminations, but most are large re-tweets or clips from articles, sometimes with a few comments thrown in.

There have been 5,056 posts. I don't follow the analytics, but for the occasion of this post I've clicked "Stats" in the Blogger menu and see that ~1,000 people view MindBlog each day. Feedburner indicates ~1.8 million total views (but when I looked several years ago it said ~4 million, so go figure...). Every week I get several emails requesting advertisement, external article, or link placements -  to which I reply with my boilerplate 'no thank you' response.

In previous birthday posts I've occasionally gnashed my teeth over whether I should continue doing the blog, and focus my time on longer projects.  I realize, however, that even if readership dropped to zero I would probably continue to do postings, because this provides a disciplined and simple way to archive my thinking and reading over time.  I have found the search box in the left column to be an invaluable tool when I want to recall ideas or get background material relevant to starting up a new talk or project.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Moonstruck sleep: Synchronization of human sleep with the moon cycle

From Casiraghi et al.:
Before the availability of artificial light, moonlight was the only source of light sufficient to stimulate nighttime activity; still, evidence for the modulation of sleep timing by lunar phases is controversial. Here, we use wrist actimetry to show a clear synchronization of nocturnal sleep timing with the lunar cycle in participants living in environments that range from a rural setting with and without access to electricity in indigenous Toba/Qom communities in Argentina to a highly urbanized postindustrial setting in the United States. Our results show that sleep starts later and is shorter on the nights before the full moon when moonlight is available during the hours following dusk. Our data suggest that moonlight likely stimulated nocturnal activity and inhibited sleep in preindustrial communities and that access to artificial light may emulate the ancestral effect of early-night moonlight.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Underlying forces that are determining America's future governance.

I want to pass on clips from a few recent commentaries on current dissonances in U.S. politics and governance. I've collected these as background material for a meeting of the 'Austin Rainbow Forum' - a group that meets on the first Sunday afternoon of each month to discuss current topics and ideas. The discussion this Sunday is titled "So we've had the election. Now what?"  I'm hoping the discussion will focus on the underlying forces at play in determining our future style of governance. 

John Edsall collects numerous quotes from writers describing the Christian nationalism that drove the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol:

...It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious. Understood in this light, Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively ‘Christian’ from top to bottom — in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values and public policies — and it aims to keep it this way.
...a certain narrative about American history. In rough outline: America was founded as a Christian nation; the Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians; the Nation’s laws and founding documents were indirectly based on “biblical” principles, or even directly inspired by God, Himself. America’s power and prosperity are due to its piety and obedience...Christian nationalists use a language of blood and apocalypse. They talk about blood conquest, blood sacrifice, and blood belonging, and also about cosmic battles between good and evil. The blood talk comes from the Old Testament; the apocalyptic talk from the Book of Revelation. members of the Christian right have become angrier and more adversarial, some to the point of violence, their decline from dominant to marginal status has bred a provocative resentment that is serving to spur the very secularization processes that so infuriates them. If the evidence of the Capitol attack and its aftermath is any guide, this vicious circle does not bode well for the future.

Another column by Edsall presents ideas of several political scientists on why millions of Americans continue to actively participate in multiple conspiracy theories.

...nearly a fifth of American adults, 17 percent, believe that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.” Almost a third “believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election.” Even more, 39 percent, agree that “there is a deep state working to undermine President Trump.”...The spread of these beliefs has wrought havoc — as demonstrated by the Jan. 6 assault on Congress, as well as by the overwhelming support Republicans continue to offer to the former president.
It is fascinating reading, and I like the evolutionary rationale provided by Van Prooijen, that:
...conspiracy theories evolved among ancestral humans to prepare for, and hence protect against, potentially hostile groups. What we saw here, I think was an evolutionary mismatch: some mental faculties evolved to cope effectively with an ancestral environment, yet we now live in a different, modern environment where these same mechanisms can lead to detrimental outcomes. In an ancestral world with regular tribal warfare and coalitional conflict, in many situations it could have been rational and even lifesaving to respond with violence to the threat of a different group conspiring against one’s own group. Now in our modern world these mechanisms may sometimes misfire, and lead people to use violence toward the very democratic institutions that were designed to help and protect them.
Charles Blow does an Op-Ed piece on how population shifts mean more political might for relatively fewer people, with the influence of black people increasingly diminished:
...By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent...If you think it has been hard to get this Senate to embrace policies like reparations or voting rights that stand to benefit Black people, imagine how much harder that task will be before a Senate that continues to tilt toward smaller states...Furthermore, a Pew demographic analysis has found that by 2065, Hispanics in America will nearly double the population of Black people, and Asians will overtake Black people as the nation’s second-largest minority...if Hispanics and Asians vote then the way they vote now — a third of each group voted for Trump — their combined votes for Republicans will eclipse the Black vote for Democrats.
Goldstone and Turchin argue that the elites are committing three cardinal sins:
First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality. Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who had already succeeded...Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts....Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government.

An interview of Sen. Rob Portman by Steve Hayes has comments on the role of the media in making it hard to get things done in Washington:

...the media plays a big role in this. I have a hard time; I do a press call every week, and I get through my 15 minutes of talking about all the policy things we’ve done, and usually I’ve got two or three bills I’ve either gotten introduced or gotten passed into law in a week. And they don’t care. Their questions are all about Donald Trump, and all about putting me on the spot between the Republican Party and Donald Trump. I mean, honestly, that’s been our pattern for the last four years, is that we’re talking about substantive policy, and the media only wants to talk about the latest Trump tweet and how to put me in a tight spot...I don’t have an answer to it in terms of the business model; I do have an answer to it in terms of journalism school or wherever people learn how to be a reporter or an editorial writer, is that there is an accountability here that ought to go with the media, that they’re accountable for actually helping to correct this problem by actually reporting on policy, and who is doing what. This year I’m the fourth-most bipartisan member, last time I was the second-most bipartisan member—no one in Ohio knows that, because no media will report it, because that’s not considered interesting or good, I guess.

I also point back to Monday's post describing an article by Zuboff that argues that we can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.

And finally, to end on a less pessimistic note, I point to David Brooks' column "The Case for Biden Optimism"