an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Lessons from the Trump travesty?

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Consider this passage from The moral landscape, by Sam Harris:

As we better understand the brain, we will increasingly understand all of the forces – kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression, etc – that allow friends and strangers to collaborate successfully on the common projects of civilisation…

These are indeed, and surely, the forces, or traits, we should want in order to have the best social lives. And they involve a richly interactive relationship between the social milieu – the village, the tribe, the family, the state – and the individual brain, or person. They are also, IMHO, the sorts of traits we would hope to find in our best people – for example, our political leaders, regardless of which political faction they represent.

Now consider those traits in respect of one Donald Trump. It should be obvious to any reasoning observer that he is deficient in all of them. And I mean deficient to a jaw-dropping, head-scratching degree. So there are two questions worth posing here.

  1. How could a person, so obviously deficient in all of the traits we would consider vital to the project of civilisation, have been created in a country that prides itself on being a leader of the free, democratic, civilised world?
  2. How could such a person rise to become the President of that country – which, whether or not you agree with its self-description of its own moral worth, is undoubtedly the world’s most economically and militarily powerful nation, and a world-wide promoter of democracy (in theory if not always in practice)?

I feel for Harris, whose book was published in 2010, well before anyone really had an inkling of what was to come. In The moral landscape he argues for objective moral values, or moral realism, but you don’t have to agree with his general philosophical position to acknowledge that the advancement of civilisation is largely dependent on the above-quoted traits. But of course, not everyone acknowledges this, or has ever given a thought to the matter. It’s probably true that most people, in the USA and elsewhere, don’t give a tinker’s cuss about the advancement of civilisation.

So the general answer to question one is easy enough, even if the answer in any particular case requires detailed knowledge. I don’t have such knowledge of the family background, childhood and even pre-natal influences that formed Trump’s profoundly problematic character, but reasonable inferences can be made, I think. For example, one of Trump’s most obvious traits is his complete disregard for the truth. To give one trivial example among thousands, he recently described Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, as ‘nasty’, in a televised interview. In another televised interview, very shortly afterwards, he denied saying what he was clearly recorded as saying. This regular pattern of bare-faced lying, without any concern about being found out, confronted by his behaviour, or suffering consequences, says something. It says that he has rarely if ever been ‘corrected’ for breaking this commandment, and, very likely, has been rewarded for it from earliest childhood – this reward being likely in the form of amusement, acclamation, and encouragement in this practice. Since, as we know, Trump was a millionaire before he was old enough to pronounce the word, the son of a self-possessed, single-minded property shark, who bestowed on the child a thousand indications of his own importance, it’s more than likely that he grew up in a bubble-world in which self-interest and duplicity were constantly encouraged and rewarded, a world of extreme materialism, devoid of any intellectual stimulation. This is the classic ‘spoilt child’ I’ve already referred to. Often, when a child like this has to stand up on his own feet, his penchant for lying, his contempt for the law and his endless attention-seeking will get him into legal trouble, but Trump appears to have stayed under the wing of his father for much longer than average. His father bailed him out time and time again when he engaged in dumb business deals, until he learned a little more of the slyness of white-collar crime (including learning how to steal from his father). His father’s cronies in the crooked business and legal world would also have taught him much.

Trump is surely a clear-cut case of stunted moral development, the darling child who was encouraged, either directly or though observation of the perverse world of white-collar crime that surrounded him, to listen to no advice but his own, to have devotees rather than friends, and to study and master every possible form of exploitation available to him. Over time, he also realised that his habit of self-aggrandisement could be turned to advantage, and that it would continue to win people, in ever greater numbers, if effectively directed. Very little of this, of course, was the result of what psychologists describe as system 2 thinking – and it would be fascinating to study Trump’s brain for signs of activity in the prefrontal cortex – it was more about highly developed intuitions about what he could get away with, and who he could impress with his bluster.

Now, I admit, all of this is somewhat speculative. Given Trump’s current fame, there will doubtless be detailed biographies written about his childhood and formative years, if they haven’t been written already. My point here is that, given the environment of absurd and dodgy wealth to be found in small pockets of US society, and given the ‘greed is good’ mantra that many Americans (and of course non-Americans) swallow like the proverbial kool-aid, it isn’t so surprising that white-collar crime isn’t dealt with remotely adequately, and that characters like Trump dot the landscape, like pus-oozing pimples on human skin. In fact there are plenty of people, rich and poor alike, who would argue that tax evasion shouldn’t even be a crime… while also arguing that the USA, unlike every other western democracy, can’t afford universal medicare.

So that’s a rough-and-ready answer to question one. Question two has actually been addressed in a number of previous posts, but I’ll address it a little differently here.

The USA is, I think, overly obsessed with the individual. It’s a hotbed of libertarianism, an ideology entirely based on the myth of individualism and ‘individual freedom’, and it’s no surprise that Superman, Batman and most other super-heroes were American products. It’s probable that a sizeable section of Trump’s base see him in ‘superhero’ terms, someone not cut in the mould of Washington politicians, someone larger than life, someone almost from outer space in that he talks and acts differently from normal human beings let alone politicians. This makes him exciting and enlivening – like a comic book. And they’re happy to go along for the ride regardless of whether their lives are improved.

I must admit, though, that I’m mystified when I hear Trump supporters still saying ‘he’s done so much for our country’, when it’s fairly clear to me that, apart from cruelly mistreating asylum-seekers, he’s done little other than tweet insults and inanities and cheat at golf. The massive neglect of every aspect of federal government under his ‘watch’ will take decades to repair, and the question of whether the USA will ever recover from the tragi-comedy of this presidency is hard to answer.

But as to how Trump was ever allowed to become President, it’s all about a dangerously flawed political system, one that has too few safeguards against the simplistic populism that the ancient Greek philosophers railed against 2500 years ago. Unabashed elitists, they were deeply concerned that ‘the mob’ would be persuaded by a charismatic blowhard who promised everything and delivered nothing – or, worse than nothing, disaster. They were concerned because they witnessed it in their lifetime.

The USA today is sadly lacking in those safeguards. It probably thought the safeguards were adequate, until Trump came along. For example, it was expected – among gentlemen, so to speak – that successful candidates would present their tax returns, refuse to turn the Presidency to their own profit, support their own intelligence services and justice department, treat long-time allies as allies and long-time adversaries as adversaries, and, in short, display at least some of the qualities I’ve quoted from Harris at the top of this post.

The safeguards, however, need to go much further than this, IMHO. The power of the Presidency needs to be sharply curtailed. A more distributed, collaborative and accountable system needs to be developed, a team-based system (having far more women in leadership positions would help with this), not a system which separates the President/King and his courtiers/administration from congress/parliament. Pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers, power to select unelected officials to high office, power to appoint people to the judiciary – all of these need to be reined in drastically.

Of course, none of this is likely to happen in the near future – and I still believe blood will flow before Trump is heaved out of office. But I do hope that the silver lining to the cloud of this presidency is that, in the long term, a less partisan, less individual-based federal system will be the outcome of this Dark Age.

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2019 at 5:00 pm

random thoughts 1

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Ilhan Omar

Bogus claims of anti-semitism veil the real issue

It seems Ilhan Omar, a new member of the US congress, is getting a lot of stick over there because of some comments she made about the power and wealth of Jewish lobbyists, but she is surely correct. I’ve not followed this in detail, but I know enough to say that the US political process is very much a captive of these lobbyists vis-à-vis the treatment of Israel. I agree with Paul Heyward-Smith, an Australian supporter Of the Palestinian people, that what is happening in Israel today is worse than what was happening in South Africa under the apartheid system. Never did the white minority in that country seek to ethnically cleanse South Africa of its native non-white population. Zionist monoculturalism is contrary to all the humane values of modern western culture.

hard times for feminists in China – their government rarely allows any demonstrations

On speaking the language of hostile foreign powers

As part of their harassment of feminist activists in China, feminists are regularly interrogated by MSS thugs as to what ‘hostile foreign powers’ they are working for or in collaboration with. This regular, automatic conjoining of ‘hostile’ and ‘foreign’ speaks volumes for the mindset of the current political elite. It speaks to the attempted inculcation of a xenophobic nationalism, at a time when the Chinese nouveaux riche are travelling more widely than ever before, and their children are learning English – in China – from the age of 4 or 5. Yet English is virtually never spoken in the country. So why bother to learn a ‘hostile foreign language’? It seems there’s something in the international power and reach of that language that the Chinese, or at least their government, wants to utilise, in its muddled or maybe not so muddled way, for its own expansionist ends.

women, Afghanistan

a world turned upside-down

Currently some 14% of the world’s political leaders are women – or is it 14 out of the 190 or so leaders? No matter, women are vastly in the minority, in politics and in business. Maybe less so in science and academia, but probably not much less so. Men dominate. So what if the world were turned upside-down and men were vastly in the minority in all these fields? It isn’t crazy to consider this counterfactual any more than it’s crazy to see our social world as it is. Would the world be a better place? It would surely be very different. And maybe the time is coming, or has come, for this difference to begin to appear. We’ve achieved dominance of the biosphere, now it’s time for a better collaboration with its other inhabitants. Women are no less smart, inventive and competitive, and it all depends in any case on context and social positioning, the best environment for blossoming. In general, women form groups more naturally and readily, sharing ownership of goals and production. A woman’s world would be calmer, less volatile, more supportive. I feel sad that I’ll never be able to experience it.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2019 at 8:41 pm

more on the slo-mo train wreck – just look at the USA

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much truth in this, sadly

What is the greatest weakness of democracy?

The answer has been the same for over 2500 years. The possibility/likelihood of demagoguery and mob rule. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t have direct democracy – though there’s something close to a version of it in the USA. We have representative democracy, which is actually a check on ‘too much democracy’, because the representatives who are then voted on by the people (and I’m talking here about our Westminster system and to a lesser extent the US congressional system) are given their opportunity to serve in parliament/congress by an ‘elite’, or an in-group (of course there are problems with in-groups which I won’t get into here). Often they’re tapped on the shoulder or receive a late night phone call from a party apparatchik and told ‘X is retiring at the next election and I notice you’ve been active in that electorate and have held position A and B for the party, would you be interested in running for the seat?’ It’s likely the apparatchik isn’t operating on her own initiative – party officials have been observing the prospective candidate and how many party boxes she’s been ticking. So there’s this behind-the-scenes selection process going on before anything ‘democratic’ occurs. And this, IMHO, is a good thing. You don’t want just anybody even helping to run the country, let alone running it. I mean, just look at the USA.

Under the Westminster system there no Presidents, Vice Presidents or powerful unelected officials selected by the President. Yes there are chiefs of staff, private secretaries and advisors in official and unofficial capacities, but there is no unelected Secretary of State, Defence, the Treasury and so forth, who all owe their jobs to the President, albeit subject to some review.

Under the Westminster system there is a head of state whose position is entirely ceremonial. Everything she signs is at the direction of the party elected to power. That party has a leader, the Prime Minister, the first minister, primus inter pares, first among equals, the captain of the team. She works in the parliament, sitting alongside her colleagues, opposite her opposite number, consulting, sparring, winning debates, losing debates, triumphing and being humiliated on a daily basis. There’s no separate ‘executive’ space, there are no veto powers, shut-down powers, special executive powers and the like. Pardoning powers are limited, and not granted to the Prime Minister. In Australia, that power is granted to the Attorney-General, in Britain to the Lord Chancellor, but decisions are made in consultation with the whole of government. Power, in short, is more distributed under the Westminster system, and this is surely a good thing. I mean, just look at the USA.

Under the Westminster system there is only one set of national elections, not two. Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the four primary predominantly English-speaking nations who use the system – all vary as to electoral terms. In Australia, elections are held approximately every 3 years, but on no fixed dates (but elections are always held on a Saturday, and voting is compulsory). These elections are roughly similar to the US mid-term elections. People vote for their local member, based on that member’s campaign, her personal qualities, and the platform of the party she belongs to, if any. There are two major parties, of the right and left, and each party has its leader, elected by elected members of parliament. If that party holds power, she will be the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister therefore holds her position at the behest of the governing party. If the governing (or any) party loses faith in its leader, they can oust her through a vote of no-confidence, after which they will hold an internal round of voting for a new leader. The ousted leader then may or may not hold another cabinet position in government, or go to the ‘back bench’ as an ordinary elected MP. Thus, a Prime Minister may be removed from office between elections, though this is generally inadvisable as it is seen by the public as destabilising. It is a very different case, however, from removing a President from office, about which there appears to be no clear guidelines. The heavy reliance upon a President and his powers and duties appears to have created a degree of paralysis when it becomes clear that the President is manifestly unfit for office and has engaged in criminal activities before becoming President, during his campaign, and while in office. Under the Westminster system such a person would have been removed from office well before now, and it’s unlikely that such a person would ever have been placed in that office in the first place, since her appeal would not be directly to the people but to the party she is a member of. A person with an extremely shady reputation would be unlikely to appeal to a political party obsessed with the lack of rectitude of its opposite number, and therefore with its own rectitude.

A note on the separation of powers. The idea originated with Montesquieu (1748) who separated the duties of government into three, the legislative, the executive and the judicial. However, under the Westminster system, the legislative and executive branches are essentially fused. This may have strengths and weaknesses, which are alleviated through oppositional and bicameral scrutiny, as well as the democratic process. The executive and the legislative forces of government are always in dynamic interaction, so that too much fusion and too much separation can be inimical to good government. In the USA, the physical separation between the legislative and the executive appears to be the source of a wealth of political problems.

Under the Westminster system there is no direct election of any person or persons by the whole nation, either through an electoral college or by means of a first-past-the-post nationwide vote. This is a useful if not essential curb to the dangers of demagoguery. Although there is no official screening of candidates (as I believe there should be), by means, for example, of a basic political literacy test, involving an understanding of the nation’s political and legal structures, its political history, the separation of powers and other pertinent matters (scientific literacy might be included), there is at least some screening to ensure party loyalty and understanding of party policies and goals. The Presidential electoral system involves no screening, formal or informal, a fact which some people appear to view with pride.

There is no immunity from criminal prosecution for a Prime Minister in Australia, Britain, Canada or New Zealand. The Queen as titular head of state, and her representatives (the Governor-General in Australia) may be immune, but that’s hardly an issue for government. There are some protections from civil proceedings while in office, but it would be an expectation that criminal acts of politicians would be treated like those of anyone else, or even more expeditiously considering the position of public trust they hold. Although such criminal proceedings would be scandalous, they need not affect government to a debilitating degree because of the distributed nature of political power and the flexibility of government roles under the Westminster system – unless, of course, the criminality was spread throughout government or opposition ranks, which would be a rare thing. In any case, look at the USA for comparison.

Under the Westminster system there is, of course, no such thing as impeachment. That’s because illegal conduct is dealt with by the law, and other ‘conduct unbecoming’ or conduct contrary to party ideology or ethics is dealt with by no-confidence motions. A no-confidence motion needs no external justification other than that the leader has lost the confidence of her party. If the electorate as a whole disagrees with the motion it will make its view clear at the next election, or at by-elections, which can serve to restrict the power of government, or send a message by reducing its majority.

Finally, there appears to be another, perhaps less tangible difference between Westminster system countries and the Presidential system of the USA. It is rare to hear residents of Westminster system countries representing themselves as partakers of the world’s first and greatest democracy, leaders of the free world, the light on the hill and so forth. Nationalism and jingoism appears to permeate US society like no other. Such parochialism isn’t conducive to self-analysis and reform. It needs to be pointed out, if we wish to talk of ‘true democracy’, that no nation was ever anywhere near full democracy until it granted full voting rights to the female half of the population. On that very reasonable basis, New Zealand was the first true democracy. Australia, Britain and Canada all granted women the right to vote before the USA did – though in Australia, Aboriginal people of both genders weren’t granted the vote until 1962, so Australia cannot be considered a true democracy till that date. But the US Presidential system, in its difference, also represents something else – US individualism, as represented in many Hollywood movies in which one quasi-superhero saves the world more or less single-handed in the teeth of official lethargy, incompetence or corruption. It can be argued that nations can be found on an individualist-collectivist spectrum, with the USA somewhat at one end of the spectrum, the individualist end, and a country like Japan close to the collectivist end. The problem with individualism is a lack of trust in government – if not a lack of trust in each other – resulting in poor support for collective action on education, health and other social goods, and also high incarceration rates. Collectivism suffers the opposite problem, lack of willingness to speak out, to criticise, to behave differently, to seek reform when needed, though it also tends to mean reduced crime rates and genuine respect for others.

What this means for the genuine crisis the USA finds itself in is anyone’s guess. Having allowed a person with no moral compass and little understanding of the world to bypass the checks and balances of party allegiance and teamwork by appealing to a sector of the population which he actively despises (people who actually work for a living, or try to) in order to become their all-too-powerful President, the USA has deservedly lost a great deal of standing in the global community. And because of the way their system operates – so very differently from the Westminster system – the slow-motion train wreck which began with this person’s ascension to the Presidency is very far from over, and one really begins to wonder if this is the beginning of the end of the US ascendency. I for one hope not. The USA is a great, flawed nation. It can do better than this. It can recover. It can reform itself. It might look, for starters, at the Westminster system.

Written by stewart henderson

March 3, 2019 at 8:38 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? – part 1

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He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity… manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. 

Trump, when asked who he consults with on foreign policy

You might be forgiven for thinking the above description is of the current US President, but in fact it’s a 19th century account of the change wrought upon Phineas Gage after his tragically explosive encounter with a railway tamping rod in 1848. It’s taken from neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. A more fulsome analysis is provided in Antonio Demasio’s landmark work Descartes’ Error. The 19th century account is provided by Gage’s doctor.

Due to an accident with blasting powder the iron tamping rod blew a large hole through a part of Gage’s brain, exited through the top of his skull and landed some eighty feet away ‘along with much of his left frontal cortex’ (Sapolsky). Amazingly, Gage survived, though with great changes to his behaviour, as described above . Before the accident he had earned a reputation as a highly skilled, disciplined and reliable railway team foreman.

I was quite happy to be reacquainted with Gage’s story this morning, because in a recent conversation I was expounding upon Trump’s pre-adolescent nature, his tantrums, his solipsism, his childish name-calling, his limited language skills, his short attention span, his more or less complete ethical delinquency and so forth, about which my companion readily agreed, but when I suggested that this was all about a profoundly underdeveloped frontal cortex, she demurred, feeling I’d gone a bit too far.

Of course, I’m not a neurologist, but…

Any full description of Trump’s apparently missing or severely reduced frontal cortex needs to be evidence-based, but Trump is as likely to submit to any kind of brain scan or analysis as he is to present his tax returns. So the best we can do is compare his behaviour to those we know to have frontal lobe impairment.

Sapolsky tells us about the importance of the frontal lobe in making the tough decisions, the kinds of decisions that separate us from other primates. These are decisions in which our emotions and drives are activated, as well as higher order thinking involving a full understanding of the impact upon others of our actions.

Interestingly, in the case of Gage, his personality transformation meant that he couldn’t continue in his former occupation, so for a time he suffered the humiliation of being an exhibit in P T Barnum’s American Museum. I find this particularly intriguing because Trump has often been compared to Barnum – a showman, a con-man, a self-promoter and so forth. So in some ways – for example in Trump’s rallies, which he clearly loves to engage in – Trump has a dual role, as exhibitor and exhibit.

More importantly though, and this story is I think far more important than his injury and humiliation, Gage recovered almost completely over time – a testament to the brain plasticity which has recently been highlighted. On reflection, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Gage had been a person of rectitude and responsibility for decades before the disaster, and the neuronal pathways that his habitual behaviour had laid down, perhaps since early childhood, had only to be recovered through memory. It’s astonishing how this can happen even with subjects with less brain matter than ‘normal’ humans. Different parts of the brain can apparently be harnessed to rebuild the old networks.

The case of Trump, though, is different, as these higher order networks may never have been laid down. This isn’t to say there isn’t something there – it’s not as if there’s just a great hole where his frontal cortex should be. It’s more that his responses would map onto the responses of someone – a teenager or pre-teenager – who reliably behaves in a certain way because of the lack of full development of the frontal cortex, which we know isn’t fully developed in normal adults until their mid-twenties. And when we talk of the frontal cortex, we’re of course talking of something immensely complex with many interacting parts, which respond with great variability to different stimuli among different people.

But before delving into the neurological issues, a few points about the recent New York Times revelations regarding Fred Trump’s businesses, his treatment of young Donald and vice versa. The Hall & Oates refrain keeps playing in my head as I write, and as I read the Times article. What it suggests is a gilded, cosseted life – a millionaire, by current financial standards, at age eight. It seems that right until the end, Fred Trump covered up for his son’s business incompetence by bailing him out time and time again. This adds to a coherent narrative of a spoilt little brat who was rarely ever put in a position where he could learn from his mistakes, or think through complex solutions to complex problems. Trump senior clearly over-indulged his chosen heir-apparent with the near-inevitable result that the spoilt brat heartlessly exploited him in his final years. Fred Trump was a business-obsessed workaholic who lived frugally in a modest home and funnelled masses of money to his children, especially Donald, who basically hoodwinked the old man into thinking he was a chip off the old block. In the usual sibling battle for the parents’ affection and regard, Donald, the second son, saw that his older bother, Fred junior, was exasperating his dad due to his easy-going, unambitious nature (he later became an alcoholic, and died at 42), so Donald presented himself as the opposite – a ruthless, abstemious, hard-driving deal-maker. It worked, and Donald became his pretend right-hand man: his manager, his banker, his advisor, etc. In fact Donald was none of these things – underlings did all the work. Donald was able to talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk – he had none of his father’s business acumen, as the Times article amply proves. In the late eighties, with the stock market crashing and the economy in free-fall, Trump made stupid decision after stupid decision, but his ever-reliable and always-praising dad kept him afloat. He also bequeathed to his son a strong belief in dodging taxes, crushing opposition and exaggerating his assets. The father even encouraged the son’s story that he was a ‘self-made billionaire’, and it’s not surprising that the over-indulged Donald and his siblings eventually took advantage of their ailing father – enriching themselves at his expense through a variety of business dodges described in the Times article. By the time of his death, Fred Trump had been stripped of almost all of his assets, a large swathe of it going to Donald, who was by this time having books ghost-written about how to succeed in business.

Of course it can be argued that Trump has one real talent – for self-promotion. This surely proves that he’s more than just a spoilt, over-grown pre-teen. Or maybe not. It doesn’t take much effort to big-note yourself, especially when, due to the luck of your family background, you can appear to walk the walk, especially in those rallies full of uncritical people desperate to believe in the American Business Hero. Indeed, Trump’s adolescent antics at those rallies tend to convince his base that they too can become rich and successful idiots. You don’t actually have to know anything  or to make much sense. Confidence is the trick.

It’s not likely we’ll ever know about the connections within Trump’s frontal and prefrontal cortices, but we can learn some general things about under-development or pre-development in those regions, and the typical behaviour this produces, and in my next post – because this one’s gone on too long  – I’ll utilise the chapter on adolescence in Sapolsky’s Behave, and perhaps other texts and sources – apparently Michelle Obama brought Trump’s inchoate frontal cortex to the public’s attention during the election – to explore further the confident incompetence of the American president.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm

the Vietnam War – liberation, ideology, patriotism

with 2 comments

a heartfelt cliché from the land of the free

I’ve been watching the Burns and Novick documentary on the Vietnam War, having just viewed episode 6 of the 10-part series and of course it’s very powerful, you feel stunned, crushed, angry, ashamed, disgusted. There are few positive feelings. I have in the past called the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18 the Stupid War, from which we surely learned much, but this was yet another war whose only value was what we learned from it about how to avoid war. That seems to be the only real value of war, from which such unimaginable suffering comes. People speak of ‘collateral damage’ in war, but often, at the end of it, as in the Thirty Years’ War, the Great War, and I would argue the Vietnam War, collateral damage is all there is.

Over the years I’ve taught English to many Vietnamese people. Years ago I taught in a Vietnamese Community Centre, and my students were all middle-aged and elderly. They would no doubt have had many war stories to tell. In more recent times I’ve taught Vietnamese teenagers wearing brand labels and exchanging Facebook pics of their restaurant and nightclub adventures. For them the war is two generations away, or more. Further away in fact than WW2 was from me when I was a teenager. Time heals, as people die off.

Of course Burns and Novick provide many perspectives as they move through the years, as well as highlighting historical events and characters I knew little about, such as the Tet Offensive, the South Vietnames leaders Thieu and Ky, and North Vietnam’s Le Duan and his side-lining of Ho Chi Minh. But it’s the perspectives of those on the battlefields, wittingly or unwittingly, that hit home most.

When I was young, Vietnam was a major issue for Australians. My older brother was suspended from high school for participating in a Vietnam moratorium march in 1970. I was fourteen at the time and had no idea what ‘moratorium’ meant, except that the marchers were protesting the war. I also knew that my brother, three years older, was in danger of being conscripted and that I might face the same danger one day, which naturally brought up the Country Joe McDonald question ‘what are we fighting for’? Why were Australians fighting Vietnamese people in their own country, killing and being killed there? The unconvincing answer from government was that we were fighting communism, and that we were there to support our allies, the USA. This raises further obvious questions, such as that, even if communism was odious, it was even more odious, surely, to go to faraway countries and kill their inhabitants for believing in it. The Vietnamese, whatever their beliefs about government, were surely not a threat to the USA – that was, to me, the obvious response to all this, even as an adolescent.

Of course, the situation was more complex than this, I came to realise, but it didn’t really change the principles involved. At about this time, 1970, I happened to stumble upon a Reader’s Digest in the house, from around ’67. It featured an article whose title I still vividly recall – ‘Why not call China’s bluff in Asia?’ Written by a retired US general, it argued that the enemy wasn’t Vietnam so much as China, the root of all communist evil. China was acting with impunity due to American weakness. The USA would never win in Vietnam unless it struck at the heart of the problem – China’s support and enabling of communism throughout Asia and elsewhere. The general’s answer was to show them who had the real power – by striking several major Chinese cities with nuclear bombs.

Killing people was wrong, so I’d heard, but apparently communism was even more wrong, so the ethics were on this general’s side. Of course I was disgusted – viscerally so. These were apparently the kind of people who ran the military. Then again, if people are trained to kill, it’s tough not to allow them the opportunity… and they’re only Chinese after all.

I must make an admission here. I don’t have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve just never felt it, not even slightly. Okay, sure I support Australia in soccer and other sports, just as I support local teams against interstaters, insomuch as I follow sport. But I’ve never in my life waved a flag or sung a national anthem. When I first heard the Song of Australia being sung at school assembly, as the national flag was hoisted, I noted that the words extolled the wonders of Australia, and presumed that other anthems extolled the virtues of Guatemala, or Lesotho, or Finland, and I could have been born in any of those countries or any other. It all seemed a bit naff to me. Maybe the fact that I was born elsewhere – in Scotland – made me less likely to embrace the new country, but then ‘God Save the Queen’ – could anything be more naff than that little ditty?

So the idea of my possibly being forced to fight in a foreign war just because I’d landed up in a country whose rather vague ANZUS obligations supposedly entailed an Australian presence there seemed bizarre. I couldn’t look at it from a nationalist perspective (had I known the term at the time I would’ve called myself a humanist), which freed me up to look at it from a more broadly ethical one. From what I gathered and am still gathering, the US intervention in Vietnam, which began with Eisenhower and even before, with US military assistance to French colonial rule in Indo-China, was fueled first by the essentially racist assumption that South-East Asians weren’t sufficiently civilized to govern their own regions, and then by the ‘better dead than red’ ideology that caused so much internal dissension in the US in the fifties. The idea, still bruited today, that the ‘rise of communism’ was a direct threat to the USA seemed far-fetched even then.  The Vietnamese, it seemed obvious, had been fighting off the French because, as foreigners, they had little interest in the locals and were bent on exploitation. Naturally, they would have looked at the Americans in the same way. I certainly had little faith in communism at a time when Mao and the Russian leadership seemed to be vying for ‘most repressive and brutal dictator’ awards, but I didn’t see that as a threat to the west, and I also had some faith that a fundamentally unnatural political system, based on a clearly spurious ideology, would die of its internal contradictions – as has been seen by the collapse of the USSR and the transformation of China into a capitalist oligarchy.

So it seemed to me at the time that the Vietnamese, whatever their political views, aspirations and allegiances, were above all bent on fighting off foreigners. They were seeking autonomy. The problem was that foreigners – the Americans and their allies, as well as the Chinese and the Soviets – were all seeking to influence that autonomy to their own national and ideological benefit. Of course, the Vietnamese themselves were ideologically divided (as is every single nation-state on this planet), but the foreign actors, and their military hardware, gave those divisions a deadly force, leading to Vietnamese people killing Vietnamese people in massive numbers, aided and abetted by their foreign supporters.

War, of course, brutalises people, and some more than others. That’s where the nationalism-humanism divide is most important. That’s why, in watching the Vietnam War series, I’m most moved by those moments when patriotic bombast is set aside and respect and admiration for the courage and resolution of the Vietnamese enemy is expressed. It’s a respect, in the field, that’s never echoed, even in private, by the American leaders back in Washington. So often, patriotic fervour gets in the way of clear thinking. I was watching the last moments of the sixth episode of the series, when Hal Kushner, a doctor and POW in Vietnam, was speaking in a heartfelt way of his experience there: ‘we understood that despite different backgrounds’, he said, ‘different socioeconomic backgrounds, different races, different religions, that we were… Americans.’ I actually thought, before he uttered that last word, that he was going to make a statement about humanism, the humanity of all parties, at last saying something in stark contrast to his patriotic pronouncements up to that point. But no, he wasn’t about to include the Vietnamese, the enemy. Of course, Kushner had had a bad time in Vietnam, to say the least. He’d been captured and tortured, he’d seen many of his comrades killed… I could certainly understand his attitude to the Vietnamese who did these things, but I could also understand the rage of the Vietnamese, equally patriotic no doubt, when they saw this horde of fucking foreigners coming over with their massive weaponry and arrogance and fucking up their country, destroying their land for years, bombing the fuck out of village after village without discrimination, killing countless babies and kids and young and old folk, male and female, all to prevent the Vietnamese from installing a government of their own choosing just in case it wasn’t sufficiently in keeping with the will of the US government. If patriotism blinds you to this unutterable inhumanity, than it’s clearly a sick patriotism.

I look forward to watching the rest of the series. I wonder who’ll win.

Written by stewart henderson

August 5, 2018 at 8:41 pm