Stone Age Brain is the blog of Rick Shenkman, the founding editor of the History News Network. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rickshenkman.
This is a blog post about Iran. Which is why I want to talk about Pearl Harbor. Let me explain.
At his news conference on Wednesday President Trump dragged George Washington into the fight over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. This is what Mr. Trump said:
Historian Manisha Sinha Got Death Threats After Writing an Article Comparing Donald Trump to Andrew Johnson
On Friday this stark tweet drew gasps from across Twitter:
A psychological mechanism inclines us toward consistency, especially when our beliefs and behavior are in conflict. While we often hold contradictory views, obvious contradictions make us feel uncomfortable. By nature we aren’t Walt Whitmans. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” Whitman says in his poem “Song of Myself.” But that’s not how the brain operates. The human brain does not like cognitive dissonance—as social psychologist Leon Festinger dubbed the phenomenon in the 1950s. Rather than live with contradiction, we figure out a way to reduce it. How far are we willing to go to do this? Pretty far.
Nothing seems more natural to an American than to venerate the patriotic symbols that represent America. They are virtually sacred. Scornful as we are of the candidate who wraps himself in the flag, it is often the candidate who fails to do so who loses.
When will the people of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, those stalwart Trump voters who believe he’ll be bringing back coal jobs, finally figure out they’ve been had?
Raise your hand if you believe the following: 1. Facts matter in politics. 2. A good argument should sway your opinion. 3. Elections should be about issues. I’ll assume your hand went up. That means congratulations are in order. You have earned an A in civics. Now that we have that out of the way, we should talk about the real world.
Recently, Fox revived “The X Files” and in the latest show there was a lesson for people who follow politics. The episode featured a horror-movie scene in which billions of people come down with life-threatening illnesses traceable – ready conspiracy nuts! – to an evil vaccine. This a laughable storyline. Fox would have been within its rights to refuse to broadcast the show on the grounds of implausibility. But in modern-day America there’s a ready appetite for anti-science thinking of this sort. The lesson for political junkies is that ignorance runs rampant through our society.