Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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April 02, 2007
Credo quia absurdum

Jonathan Chait, in the LA Times and TNR, this past week reminded us all of a fascinating psychological phenemonon: The one whereby, sometimes the more evidence we have to refute a belief of ours, the more strongly we hold the belief.

The less interesting
["interesting" is, as always, defined for pointless TiR purposes as "capable of generation of higher numbers of webpages to look at"]
way to look at the phenomena is merely as an example of cognitive dissonance.

Though that way is certainly interesting nonetheless. We could, for example, go through and check off each of the cog diss preconditions stated in When Prophecy Fails that apply to the House GOP, especially on the global warming issue that is Chait's focus, including the precondition that "the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another."

The cog d-centric lens provides additional fun because of the number of areas of human life in which applications of the theory manifest themselves. Under the pretense of self-education about the phenomena's various facets, you get an excuse to engage in the cyber version of people watching, by examination of how we and others think.

For example, you could look at:

CD on the part of investors who lose money, at links here and here (.pdf).

A survey of information-avoidance mechanisms used by people who fear that they might have a life-threatening disease is here.

A discussion of the "reptile brain" information screen that may explain why some people continue to believe that Saddam was behind 9/11 is here.

A fascinating paper about how CD seems to show up in the mentality of white people in post-apartheid South Africa is here.

A sales guy who applies the theory of CD to marketing concepts has a piece here. He says that each of us has "a big rubber band inside you." Cog diss stretches the band further and further, until, without a relief in the tension, it will reach a breaking point.

And then there's the paper by Bob McCue, entitled "How Denial Works," available here (.pdf). The paper is a spectacular, comprehensive (e.g., includes Bourdieu) and impressively autodidactic examination of the CD mechanism. McCue grounds it throughout in the personal story of his spiritual journey away from the Mormonism of his youth. I suppose that Mormon psychology -- if there is such a thing -- or beliefs could be good for more people in the USA to learn more about, given that folks with that belief system seem to have some clout in DC right now.

Through the cognitive dissonance lens, we could view our present situation as a battle to the death within the minds of the climate change skeptics in US government, between two propositions:
1. the new, incursionary, potentially liberating idea ("Global warming is both man made and preventable") that poses a threat to the system of dogma and wilful ignorance, and

2. the more deeply rooted, familiar, cherished, foundational, orienting and purportedly all-serious Principle That Must Never Be Questioned ("Al Gore is fat.").
But maybe the best part about thinking about cognitive dissonance is when you stop. Or, better put, go beyond it. Then you can wonder about denial. And yes, "to wonder" means "to look at more websites," if you're TiR and no longer remember how to have an independent thought without resort to the internet. And to wonder about denial opens up the door to further, intriguing speculations.

Denial, we discover, is not a single, simple state, as the Kübler-Ross stages might suggest. Rather, denial seems to be itself subdividable, into further sub-stages. You can break denial down, say some, into the sub-stages of "simple denial," "minimisation" and "transference."

Part of TiR would love to learn that the sub-stages within denial are further breakdownable into sub-sub-stages, then into sub-sub-sub-stages, et cetera. We would love to extend logically the will to resist factual reality of the global warming deniers in US government & religious circles for as long as possible, to watch the rubber band further stretch, then further still. We'd linger and witness a demonstration of denial that would be the equivalent of Achilles' pursuit of the tortoise, that pushes belief in paradox to asymptotic lengths. TiR wonders what it would be like to try to prolong the moment of aerialist absurdity forever, so as to float around inside it, to inhabit the space.

On an intellectual level, we would love to see a worship of the impossible that goes beyond all "rational" or psychologically explicable bounds, until it becomes something almost metaphysical. TiR would like the absurdity and paradox of the position to be embraced. And, the more openly absurd the position became, the more facts that were piled up against it, to see it embraced more tightly. Proudly. Defiantly. For its own sake. Then to see what happens next.

Viewed from one perspective, from a stance "within" the will to adhere to a truth that cannot exist, there seems to be something very deeply American about it. The stubbornness has a rugged, pioneering beauty to it. It seems to inherit the tradition of heroic American loners who adhered to their personal, inner vision of reality, of individuals who refused to listen to "reason" as defined by others. The tradition of Roger Williams, of Thoreau and John Brown.
[Run that last link by me again? Does a blog devoted to abolitionist John Brown really exist? Yes, and its homepage is here.]

Maybe someone like Rep. James Sensenbrenner, to pick just one of the global warming skeptics (see also the Sensenbrenner Watch blog, here), sees himself as heir to that nonconformist legacy. While the NYT might see Sensenbrenner as "big-bellied curmudgeon with a taste for old Caddies, pontoon boats and enormous cigars," perhaps he views his character with much more humble romanticism, as defined by his lone bravery (or as Human Rights praised him, "his stubbornness in the defense of carefully thought-through right-minded positions"); by his championing of the underdog individual (often defined from contemporary GOP government perspective exclusively either as a fetus or as the individual taxpayer, the latter to whom JS is a hero); and as one who stands up against the conformist mob (maybe mobs like this one).

Is not such individuality, in some ways, a beautiful thing? Is there not something almost holy in denial that says, "The more that other people stand against me, the more the facts contradict me, the more that external reality conspires to trick and confuse me, the more correct I must be?"

We can imagine the fervor in the devotee's heart, the exitement with which they look forward to yet another instance in which their cherished belief will be refuted utterly, trounced, crushed into the dust. Each such occasion will merely afford them yet another opportunity to show their loyalty, their undying devotion to a treasure that no one else will protect.

A sense of self starts to appear that's sufficiently obdurate -- wilfully deaf, dumb and blind to the world -- that it merges into its opposite, and looks downright fragile. It's almost touching.

Kierkegaard may have captured this best. He reflected on why belief in absurdities, the more absurd the better, could be considered the highest form of human reasoning, which we could recognize as the germ of each of our thoughts, and how it partakes of an arrogance that shades into humility:

However, one should not think slightingly of the paradoxical; for the paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity.

But the highest pitch of every passion is always to will its own downfall; and so it is also the supreme passion of the Reason to seek a collision, though this collision must in one way or another prove its undoing.

The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think. This passion is at bottom present in all thinking, even in the thinking of the individual, in so far as in thinking he participates in something transcending himself.
Sören Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments, chapter 3

(see also here, which includes some great remarks on SK and boredom, how "those who bore themselves entertain others," etc.)

Actually, heaven knows what SK actually thought -- or Jim Sensenbrenner thinks, for that matter. TiR is just riffing here, basically being silly and making things up as we go along.

But we can say that further evidence of the beauty of belief in the absurd appears as a rich tradition in the history of American popular song. Sometimes the celebration takes the form of praise for being a "dreamer" (see, e.g., the Monkees), at other times for the power of wish fulfillment (e.g., the Disney corporation's theme song and entire worldview).

The classic example may be Warren & Dubin's 1934 "I Only Have Eyes For You." Here, the singer's romantic sensibility has transported him so deeply and all encompassingly into a world of delusion that he has lost any ability to make reliable statements about the concrete particulars of his physical surroundings. Far from being a cautionary tale that makes his state sound scary, the song portrays his Cloud Nine world as wonderful, like one to which each of us should aspire to move. Only a hardened cynic could listen to the song and not want to travel there too.

Comparatively fewer (but better) popular songs seem to exist that view the opposite side of the coin, written from the perspective of someone who is -- or has just given up -- trying to break through the brick wall of someone else's denial, delusion or paranoia.

Talking Heads gave this an understated shot in "Mind" (1979):

I need something to change your mind.
Drugs won't change you.
Religion won't change you.
[Byrne mutters: "What's the MATTER with you?"]

Science won't change you.
Looks like I can't change you.
I try to talk to you, to make things clear
but you're not even listening to me. . . .
I need something to change your mind.

Does not the above read as if the Democrats on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming could be singing it to their Republican counterparts? However, because Talking Head's approach here was characteristically detached, their song blunted the full emotional force of the sometimes frustrating, harrowing, exhausting and depressing nature of exposure to those who wilfully cherish absurdity.

Bob Mould took the story one step further, in one of his best songs, "If I Can't Change Your Mind" (1992):

How can I explain away
Something that I haven't done?
And if you can't trust me now
You'll never trust in anyone.

Mould deserves praise for trying to portray the limit case of absurd belief. However, his song suffers from the malady characteristic of a lot of American popular art. Audiences here refuse to comprehend statements about philosophical situations or spiritual/moral/ethical problems, unless the statements are personalized and/or sexualized, in keeping with our national, schizophrenic/conjoined twin obsessions with carnal sin and finger-wagging morality, and simplistically recast in the form of a domestic quarrel between two lovers.

The American artist knows: Try to talk about ideas and people will think you're talking about romance. So perhaps it's better just to throw up your hands and try to approach the ideas backwards, by transposing them into romantic terms, in the hope that the audience will accidentally absorb the ideational message, by osmosis, as if the audience members were gulping down cans of soda pop that have vitamins sneaked into them. Here again, the recent interview with Gore Vidal is handy in that it demonstrates this blinkeredness on the part of artists and audiences:

The one [book of mine] that I wish everybody would read is Creation. I spent years on that book, and anyone who reads it from beginning to end will learn about the Buddha, about Confucius, about Zoroaster, about Mahavira and the Jains. It's very popular in countries which offer, more or less, classical educations.

In the US, practically nobody knows about it because it's not about family life, it's not about marriage and divorce. Those seem to be the only subjects that American writers touch.

But of course the best American song that sums up the relationship between global warming scientists and the Congressional GOP is probably the one written by one of America's greatest storytellers (and psychologists), Hank Williams Sr.:

Yet you're afraid each thing I do is just some evil scheme.
A memory from your lonesome past keeps us so far apart.
Why can't I free your doubtful mind
And melt your Cold, Cold Heart?

[Of the above three examples, Williams' is the best, for our present silly purposes, because he shows the dialectic of the impasse as dynamic, not static:
The more I learn to care for you, the more we drift apart.
The stubbornness of the skeptic hardens the more it is shown to be unnecessary -- or, at least, unnecessary for the purposes that the skeptic claims it to be necessary.

In an inversion of the usual rules of logic, the presentation of additional, buttressing factual support for a proposition makes it less and less proven. More proof of innocence constitutes increased evidence of guilt.

Poor Hank. He is Tantalus cast in a play by Kafka.

                                                                                      Or by Dürrenmatt.]

Indeed, what memory from the lonesome past haunts the global warming skeptics in government? What buried trauma or sad heartbreak is at the root of their resistance? Maybe if they could open up about it and have a good cry for the Congressional Record, all would be resolved.

Then again, maybe not.

For, not only are huge amounts of money at stake, but the problem is more intractable than could be solved merely by the removal of a few bad apples from government. Last fall's very depressing issue of Social Research, devoted to the widening gulf between science and politics in the creation of policy in the USA, made this plain.

As Dr. Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists, stated right up front in the introduction:
It is easy to say that all of these problems could be easily corrected with a few elections. But in fact the difficulties are deep and structural.

It will not be easy to rebuild the apparatus of science and technical advice in a way that can serve the needs of twenty-first century America.

Which brings TiR to the unsurprising conclusion that everything we've written here is meaningless nonsense. This would not be the first time.

It would be harmless intellectual fun to sit back and half-humorously aestheticize, as we've aspired to do above, the anti-science bloc in American government, but for two apparent realities that make such blitheness impossible:

1. Such persons are not lone, solely privately funded, romantic aesthetes whose sole function is to contemplate philosophical and spirtual questions for their personal moral and intellectual entertainment, but, on the contrary, they are paid by the public fisc to enact policy on behalf of the general, national welfare;

[Sensenbrenner is no Thoreau, and Exxon is no Emerson.

That is, the corporate personhood embodied in the Exxon stock that helps support the Wisconsin representative's lifestyle, while he also draws a $165k annual, taxpayer funded salary, is not the same kind of personhood that was possessed by Emerson, who, as Susan Cheever discusses in her recent American Bloomsbury, helped financially support Thoreau.]


2. More clues emerge every day to suggest that the global ecology is going to hell in a handbasket.