Archive for June, 2007

This Is Your Brain On Politics

June 29, 2007

Ever wonder why fear-mongering seems to work so well at the polls—while appeals to reason often leave the electorate cold? A new book applies neuroscience to politics to figure out why the Democrats struggle to push the buttons in voters’ brains.


June 27, 2007 – Do you remember when candidate George W. Bush berated Al Gore during the 2000 presidential debates for alleged funny business in his fund-raising? Bush said, “You know, going to a Buddhist temple and then claiming it wasn’t a fund-raiser isn’t my view of responsibility.” It was a direct attack on the honor of a fellow Southerner, and Gore wasn’t taking it. “You have attacked my honor and integrity,” the vice president shot back. “I think it’s time to teach you a few old-fashioned lessons about character. When I enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War, you were talkin’ real tough about Vietnam. But when you got the call, you called your daddy and begged him to pull some strings so you wouldn’t have to go to war. So instead of defending your country with honor, you put some poor Texas millworker’s kid on the front line in your place to get shot at. Where I come from, we call that a coward.

“When I was working hard, raising my family, you were busy drinking yourself and your family into the ground. Why don’t you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt? Where I come from, we call that a drunk.

“When I was serving in the U.S. Senate, your own father’s government had to investigate you on the charge that you’d swindled a bunch of old people out of their life savings by using insider knowledge to sell off stocks you knew were about to drop. Where I come from, we call that crooked. So governor, don’t you ever lecture me about character. And don’t you ever talk to me that way again in front of my family or my fellow citizens.”

Don’t remember that reply? There’s a reason: Gore never said anything like it. Challenged by Bush on the temple fundraiser, he instead sidestepped the attack with a lofty but wimpy declaration about wanting “to spend my time making this country even better than it is, not trying to make you out to be a bad person.” The response-that-wasn’t-but-should-have-been is the work of psychology researcher Drew Westen of Emory University, one of many “what ifs” in his new book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” After reading them you won’t be surprised that Westen has been approached by the campaigns of “several” Democratic hopefuls (he is too discrete to say which) for advice on how to make use of findings about how the brain operates in the political arena. Why aren’t Republicans beating a path to his door? Because the GOP has already mastered the dark art of psych-ops—of pushing the right buttons in people’s brains to win their vote.

Westen’s thesis is simple. “A dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work.” That’s true when it comes to choosing a significant other, buying a car, and choosing a president. Madison Avenue has known this for decades. Democrats haven’t. Instead, their strategists start from an 18th-century vision of the mind as dispassionate, making decisions by rationally weighing evidence and balancing pros and cons. That assumption is a recipe for high-minded campaigning—and, often, electoral failure. But by recognizing the strides that neuroscience, psychology and, in particular, the science of decision making have made in recent years, Westen argues, politicians can tap into “the emotional brain” that guides most political decisions.

If you think your political decisions are coldly rational, think again. Even when we “rationally” assess a candidate’s position on, say, tax policy or immigration, emotions shape our judgment. (In 2000 the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, famously hostile toward federal intervention in state matters, overturned the decision of the Florida Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore and put the former in the White House. Go figure.) “Behind every reasoned decision is a reason for deciding,” Westen writes. “We do not pay attention to arguments unless they engender our interest, enthusiasm, fear, anger or contempt . . . We do not find policies worth debating if they don’t touch on the emotional implications for ourselves, our families or things we hold dear.” Something you “hold dear” can be, for instance, a principled position in favour of sending more troops to Iraq; you can tell yourself that that position resides in an emotion-free zone, but in all likelihood it reflects feelings of pride, fear, commitment and the like—emotions, all.

There is no shame in being motivated by wishes, fears and values. Emotions actually provide a reasonable compass for guiding behavior. Neuroscientists find, for instance, that emotions guide moral decisions, and do so pretty well. Although the political brain is an emotional brain, this doesn’t mean that voters’ basest instincts—racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, xenophobia—are the only or even the principle emotions in play. One can feel good about, say, a ban on capital punishment even if that position also has rational underpinnings.

Because emotions are central to beliefs and values, if an appeal is purely rational it is unlikely to tickle the emotional brain circuits that affect what we do in the voting booth. To the contrary: emotions can trump rationality. “People were drawn to Reagan [in the 1980 presidential race] because they identified with him, liked his emphasis on values over policy, trusted him, and found him authentic in his beliefs,” Westen writes. “It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions.” The same forces were at work in 2004, when pollsters found that voters in small-town America placed more weight on issues unlikely to directly affect their lives, such as terrorism and violent crime and gay marriage in Massachusetts, than on those that were, such as mine safety. Positions on issues matter to the extent they incite voters’ emotions.

Neuroscience research backs up the poll results. When voters are hooked up to brain-imaging devices while watching candidates, it is emotion circuits and not the rational frontal lobes that are most engaged. When voters assess who won a campaign debate, they almost always choose the candidate they liked better beforehand. The rationality circuit “isn’t typically open for business when partisans are thinking about things that matter to them,” Westen notes. Yet “this is the part of the brain to which Democrats typically target their appeals.”

Just as in the imagined response by Gore to Bush’s attack on his character, Westen has penned powerful sound bites and mini-speeches that Dems could use to justify their core positions on perennial issues. Abortion, and bills outlawing it (as GOP platforms have long called for) or requiring parental consent? “My opponent puts the rights of rapists above the rights of their victims, guaranteeing every rapist the right to choose the mother of his child. . . My opponent believes that if a 16-year-old girl is molested by her father and becomes pregnant, she should be forced by the government to have his child, and if she doesn’t want to she should be forced by the government to go to the man who raped her and ask for his consent.” Tougher gun restrictions? How about an ad showing a parade of Arab-looking men walking into a gun store, setting their money on the counter and walking out with three or four semi-automatics each, with this voice-over: “My opponent thinks you shouldn’t have to show a photo ID or get a background check to buy a handgun. He thinks anyone who wants an AK-47 should be able to buy one, no questions asked. What’s the point of fighting terrorists abroad if we’re going to arm them over here?”

Pandering? Maybe. Shades of the first President Bush’s infamous race-baiting Willie Horton ad? Probably. Effective? Let’s just say that if John Kerry had used Westen’s words to attack the Swift Boaters who impugned his war record during the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush might be clearing a lot of brush in Crawford these days. There’s more—on how Dems can frame affirmative action, flag burning, domestic wiretaps, tax cuts for millionaires, embryonic stem-cell research and gay marriage to engage the voters’ political brain. Read “The Political Brain” and you’ll understand why Westen is suddenly a very, very popular guy in Democratic campaign circles.



Justice Stevens: Smoking pot akin to drinking during prohibition

June 28, 2007


In his dissent on a recent free-speech case, Justice John Paul Stevens wades into the war-on-drugs debate, comparing modern-day pot smokers with “otherwise law-abiding patrons of bootleggers and speakeasies,” during the prohibition era.

Stevens, who the Washington Post notes turned 87 on April 20, said the current climate surrounding the war on drugs “is reminiscent of the opinion that supported the nationwide ban on alcohol consumption when I was a student.”

The Supreme Court this week ruled against an Alaska student who displayed a “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” sign at an event outside his high school, and Stevens wrote the dissent for the four justices who believed the student’s free-speech rights should be protected.

“Today the actions of literally millions of otherwise law-abiding users of marijuana, and of the majority of voters in each of the several States that tolerate medicinal uses of the product, lead me to wonder whether the fear of disapproval by those in the majority in silencing opponents of the war on drugs,” Stevens wrote.

Most debate over the efficacy of the war on drugs focuses on government crackdowns on users of medical marijuana, for whom the drug eases chronic pain. But in comparing pot smoking to social drinking, Stevens suggests that the drug could be legalized in all cases.

In his opinion, Stevens insists “no one seriously maintains that drug advocacy … can be prohibited because of its feared consequences.” Later, Stevens observes the shift in Americans’ views on alcohol since the 1920s and 30s.

“While alcoholic beverages are now regarded as ordinary articles of commerce, their use was then condemned with the same moral fervor that now supports the war on drugs,” Stevens writes.

In a 2005 case, Stevens wrote for the court’s 6-3 majority that upheld the federal government’s right to prosecute medical marijuana patients in states that have legalized medical use of the drug.

But his opinion was based strictly on Congress’s ability to regulate interstate commerce, and that opinion included mention that credible research showing marijuana could be medically effective would “cast serious doubt” on the government’s classification of the drug as a Schedule I narcotic. And he all but encouraged the advocates to take their argument directly to Congress.

Nick Juliano
Published: Wednesday June 27, 200

911 Time Line

June 22, 2007


September 1986: CIA Provides Afghan Rebels Stinger Missiles

Mujaheddin preparing to fire a stinger missile.

Mujaheddin preparing to fire a stinger missile. [Source: National Geographic]

Worried that the Soviets are winning the war in Afghanistan, the US decides to train and arm the mujaheddin with Stinger missiles. The Soviets are forced to stop using the attack helicopters that were being used to devastating effect. Some claim the Stingers turn the tide of the war and lead directly to Soviet withdrawal. Now the mujaheddin are better trained and armed than ever before.

[Ghost Wars: The Secret History of The CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet (New York, NY: Penguin, 2004)., 11, 149-51.’)” onmouseout=”return nd()”>Coll, 2004, pp. 11, 149-51; Against All Enemies: Inside America\’s War on Terror (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2004)., 48-50.’)” onmouseout=”return nd()”>Clarke, 2004, pp. 48-50]

1988: Bin Ladens Bail Out George W. Bush?

Bush during his Harken days.

Bush during his Harken days. [Source: Lions Gate Films]

Prior to this year, President George W. Bush is a failed oilman. Three times, friends and investors have bailed him out to keep his business from going bankrupt. However, in 1988, the same year his father becomes president, some Saudis buy a portion of his small company, Harken, which has never performed work outside of Texas. Later in the year, Harken wins a contract in the Persian Gulf and starts doing well financially. These transactions seem so suspicious that the Wall Street Journal in 1991 states it “raises the question of… an effort to cozy up to a presidential son.” Two major investors in Bush’s company during this time are Salem bin Laden and Khalid bin Mahfouz. [Intelligence Newsletter, “George W. Bush\’s Dubious Friends,” 2 March 2000.’)” onmouseout=”return nd()”>Intelligence Newsletter, 3/2/2000; Salon, 19 November 2001.’)” onmouseout=”return nd()”>Salon, 11/19/2001] Salem bin Laden is Osama’s oldest brother; Khalid bin Mahfouz is a Saudi banker with a 20 percent stake in BCCI. The bank will be shut down a few years later and bin Mahfouz will have to pay a $225 million fine (while admitting no wrongdoing) (see October 2001)). [Forbes, 18 March 2002.’)” onmouseout=”return nd()”>Forbes, 3/18/2002]

Entity Tags: Harken, Salem bin Laden, George W. Bush, Khalid bin Mahfouz

Category Tags: Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden Family, Terrorism Financing

Bee die off = Neonicotinoids

June 14, 2007


I walk my dog in the park everyday, and the only bee I see is an occasional bubble bee / carpenter bee.

most likely cause is the US anti-precautionary principle when it comes to pesticides/ chemicals and GMO crops.

The precautionary principle is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.

Robert Baer : Iraq Situation is Deteriorating

June 11, 2007