The dangers of loyalty based on personality, not policies

This quotation is directly about politics, but it’s about anyone – or even anything – we emotionally attach ourselves to.

From Glenn Greenwald’s “My friend the president” (Salon: 8 December 2009):

Those who venerated Bush because he was a morally upright and strong evangelical-warrior-family man and revere Palin as a common-sense Christian hockey mom are similar in kind to those whose reaction to Obama is dominated by their view of him as an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual. These are personality types bolstered with sophisticated marketing techniques, not policies, governing approaches or ideologies. But for those looking for some emotional attachment to a leader, rather than policies they believe are right, personality attachments are far more important. They’re also far more potent. Loyalty grounded in admiration for character will inspire support regardless of policy, and will produce and sustain the fantasy that this is not a mere politician, but a person of deep importance to one’s life who — like a loved one or close friend or religious leader — must be protected and defended at all costs.

The conspiracy mindset

From Alex Koppelman’s “Why the stories about Obama’s birth certificate will never die” (Salon: 5 December 2008):

But according to several experts in conspiracy theories, and in the psychology of people who believe in conspiracy theories, there’s little chance those people who think Obama is barred from the presidency will ever be convinced otherwise. “There’s no amount of evidence or data that will change somebody’s mind,” says Michael Shermer, who is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American, and who holds an undergraduate and a master’s degree in psychology. “The more data you present a person, the more they doubt it … Once you’re committed, especially behaviorally committed or financially committed, the more impossible it becomes to change your mind.”

Any inconvenient facts are irrelevant. People who believe in a conspiracy theory “develop a selective perception, their mind refuses to accept contrary evidence,” Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates who studies such theories, says. “As soon as you criticize a conspiracy theory, you become part of the conspiracy.”

Evan Harrington, a social psychologist who is an associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, agrees. “One of the tendencies of the conspiracy notion, the whole appeal, is that a lot of the information the believer has is secret or special,” Harrington says. “The real evidence is out there, [and] you can give them all this evidence, but they’ll have convenient ways to discredit [it].”

Whatever can’t be ignored can be twisted to fit into the narrative; every new disclosure of something that should, by rights, end the controversy only opens up new questions, identifies new plotters.

Bush’s Manicheanism destroyed him

From Glenn Greenwald’s “A tragic legacy: How a good vs. evil mentality destroyed the Bush presidency” (Salon: 20 June 2007):

One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness — who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil — is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. Those who have become convinced that they are waging an epic and all-consuming existential war against Evil cannot, by the very premises of their belief system, accept any limitations — moral, pragmatic, or otherwise — on the methods adopted to triumph in this battle.

Efforts to impose limits on waging war against Evil will themselves be seen as impediments to Good, if not as an attempt to aid and abet Evil. In a Manichean worldview, there is no imperative that can compete with the mission of defeating Evil. The primacy of that mandate is unchallengeable. Hence, there are no valid reasons for declaring off-limits any weapons that can be deployed in service of the war against Evil.

Equally operative in the Manichean worldview is the principle that those who are warriors for a universal Good cannot recognize that the particular means they employ in service of their mission may be immoral or even misguided. The very fact that the instruments they embrace are employed in service of their Manichean mission renders any such objections incoherent. How can an act undertaken in order to strengthen the side of Good, and to weaken the forces of Evil, ever be anything other than Good in itself? Thus, any act undertaken by a warrior of Good in service of the war against Evil is inherently moral for that reason alone.

It is from these premises that the most amoral or even most reprehensible outcomes can be — and often are — produced by political movements and political leaders grounded in universal moral certainties. Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.

That is the essence of virtually every argument Bush supporters make regarding terrorism. No matter what objection is raised to the never-ending expansions of executive power, no matter what competing values are touted (due process, the rule of law, the principles our country embodies, how we are perceived around the world), the response will always be that The Terrorists are waging war against us and our overarching priority — one that overrides all others — is to protect ourselves, to triumph over Evil. By definition, then, there can never be any good reason to oppose vesting powers in the government to protect us from The Terrorists because that goal outweighs all others.

But our entire system of government, from its inception, has been based upon a very different calculus — that is, that many things matter besides merely protecting ourselves against threats, and consequently, we are willing to accept risks, even potentially fatal ones, in order to secure those other values. From its founding, America has rejected the worldview of prioritizing physical safety above all else, as such a mentality leads to an impoverished and empty civic life. The premise of America is and always has been that imposing limitations on government power is necessary to secure liberty and avoid tyranny even if it means accepting an increased risk of death as a result. That is the foundational American value.

It is this courageous demand for core liberties even if such liberties provide less than maximum protection from physical risks that has made America bold, brave, and free. Societies driven exclusively or primarily by a fear of avoiding Evil, minimizing risks, and seeking above all else that our government “protects” us are not free. That is a path that inevitably leads to authoritarianism — an increasingly strong and empowered leader in whom the citizens vest ever-increasing faith and power in exchange for promises of safety. That is most assuredly not the historical ethos of the United States.

The Bill of Rights contains numerous limitations on government power, and many of them render us more vulnerable to threats. If there is a serial killer on the loose in a community, the police would be able to find and apprehend him much more easily if they could simply invade and search everyone’s homes at will and without warning. Nonetheless, the Fourth Amendment expressly prohibits the police from undertaking such searches. It requires both probable cause and a judicial warrant before police may do so, even though such limitations on state power will enable dangerous killers to elude capture.

The scare tactic of telling Americans that every desired expansion of government power is justified by the Evil Terrorist Threat — and that there is no need to worry because the president is Good and will use these powers only to protect us — is effective because it has immediate rhetorical appeal. Most people, especially when placed in fear of potentially fatal threats, are receptive to the argument that maximizing protection is the only thing that matters, and that no abstract concept (such as liberty, or freedom, or due process, or adhering to civilized norms) is worth risking one’s life by accepting heightened levels of vulnerability.

But nothing in life is perfectly safe. Perfect safety is an illusion. When pursued by an individual to the exclusion of all else, it creates a tragically worthless, paralyzed way of life. On the political level, safety as the paramount goal produces tyranny, causing people to vest as much power as possible in the government, without limits, in exchange for the promise of maximum protection.

Bruno’s memory structures

From Laura Miller’s “The heretic” (Salon: 25 August 2008):

Still, the mental powers of Bruno and his fellow memory artists seem almost superhuman today. The basic principle, Rowland explains, is simple enough, “to link words with images.” Nevertheless, the structures employed were mind-boggling: vast, elaborate patterns and nested wheels within wheels (like the color wheels used by visual designers) that could be used to juxtapose and rearrange huge quantities of information without recourse to any extra-mental form of storage (like writing). This ability makes the minds of Renaissance intellectuals radically different from our own, almost incomprehensibly so.

Religion & evolution

From Salon’s “Religious belief itself is an adaptation“, an interview with Edward O. Wilson:

Religious belief itself is an adaptation that has evolved because we’re hard-wired to form tribalistic religions. Religion is intensely tribalistic. A devout Christian or Muslim doesn’t say one religion is as good as another. It gives them faith in the particular group to which they belong and that set of beliefs and moral views. …

You cannot explain the patterns of diversity in the world, the geography of life, the endless details of distribution, similarity and dissimilarity in the world, by any means except evolution. That’s the one theory that ties it together. It is very hard to see how traditionalist religious views will come to explain the meaning of life on this planet. …