Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why Does This Dog Still Hunt?

Part of the preparation for writing my new book involves studying evolutionary psychology. A review of a book by David Livingston Smith, "The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War," published in the journal "Evolutionary Psychology" (2008, 6(1):3-12), reminded me of right-wing Republicans in general and Dick Cheney in particular.

The mechanisms of evolution include both "selfish" self-preservation (required in order to pass along one's genes) and cooperation. The former can include violence, including total destruction of other human beings. Thus, modern homo sapiens can be considered "reluctant killers." According to Smith, reconciling these opposing tendencies requires an advanced capacity for self-deception and the ability to dehumanize the enemy.

A few months ago, in a weak moment, I actually watched a few minutes of Sean Hannity's show on Fox "News." In one segment a guest of Hannity's whose name I don't remember criticized President Obama (less than 100 days into his administration) for not keeping all his campaign promises. The guest's final point (I guess she thought she was saving the best for last) was that Obama had not kept his promise to help Americans replace thousands of energy-hungry old-style light bulbs with their more environmentally friendly cousins. Moving seamlessly into the next segment, Hannity introduced Karl Rove, who proceeded to criticize Obama for working on too many projects simultaneously. If Hannity noticed the contradiction, he did a good job of hiding his concern over the dichotomous nature of the juxtaposed criticisms.

More recently, according to Keith Olbermann, Fox News stated that Obama refused to use the word "democracy" in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo. Olbermann then showed actual video from the speech, in which the word "democracy" was used at least four times.

I am amused by Dick Cheney's recently-discovered love of open government. As you know, he wants documents that he claims prove the effectiveness of torture to be declassified. I wonder -- is he also now ready to reveal the identities of the members of his early-first-term energy task force?

Can supposedly intelligent people really not understand, or be concerned about, such hypocritical behavior? According to Smith, the human brain actually has the capacity to divide itself into segments that lack the ability to communicate with one another! Hypocrisy is thereby banished from existence.

The vitriolic nature of political debate, historically present to be sure but especially noticeable in the last decade, is characterized by intense dehumanization. You don't need me to name the people who engage in such behavior; if you're reading this blog, you already have your own favorites. But Dick Cheney comes to my mind (among others).

According to Smith, one of the best tactics for dehumanizing an enemy is to inspire among one's followers "hate, fear, or repugnance" in said enemy. And what kind of talk would be more inclined to do so than to charge, as Cheney has, that President Obama is making this country less safe? Cheney is doing nothing less than playing on our most personal fears -- ironically also evolved from our desire for self-preservation. Also ironically, it is our "advanced" language capability that permits such behavior.

Dick Cheney's eight years as "shadow President" have put the country at great risk. Now he doesn't even show the courtesy of letting the winners of the election implement their mandate without constantly sniping from the sidelines. I guess he can't help himself -- that's the way he "evolved." What an adventure the flies on the membranes of Dick Cheney's compartmentalized brain must have!

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