Sunday, March 29, 2015

DILI, EAST TIMOR — I ought to be familiar with the Houthi, the Shia militia that’s now conquering most of what’s worth taking in Yemen. After all, the Houthis started in Saada Province, just a few miles due south of Najran, Saudi Arabia, where I was living a few years ago.

But the truth is Yemen was totally closed off to everyone in Najran, and no one except a few networks of smugglers and spies who, from what I heard, had a very high attrition rate, dared to cross that border. None of us expat goofs even knew the name of the Yemeni Province across from us. Yemen was that country from whose bournes no traveler returns, unless he’s hoping to get rich from an SUV full of weed—and what with the, you know, beheadings for drug dealing and all, we were pretty much a straight-edge crew in our time there, figuring to make up for lost time when we got home. We knew nothing about what was over the border except that every day there seemed to be a new convoy of car-carriers loaded with brand-new Land Cruisers with the logo of the Saudi Border Patrol rolling into town. The Saudi authorities were clearly nervous about that border, even back in 2011.

There was no road connecting Najran to Yemen. Instead there was a sheer, mile-high mountain wall that marked the Yemen border. The only Yemenis you met were beggars in the streets. One of them rolled up to me while I was waiting for the school van, said in English, as if we’d been chatting for ages, “My friend, eight years I Yemen…and so, you give ten riyals.” I gave him 20. In his spiel, “Yemen” summed it up, verb and noun, sufficient reason for his demand.

The only place I ever saw Yemenis who weren’t begging was the Najran Dam, the world’s most ridiculous tourist attraction. That Dam kind of sums up relations between Yemen and Saudi in a very cinematic way. You approach the dam up a canyon, through a checkpoint. They’re looking for Yemenis at the checkpoint; they wave you through, and after being stopped a few more times by nervous paramilitaries in Land Cruisers, who also check for Yemeni faces and wave, you reach the top of this huge, magnificent dam.

You walk across the little road over the top, expecting to look out on something like Lake Powell in Vegas, and see…nothing. Desert. Yemen. There’s no water except a tiny creek. There are boats marooned halfway up the rocky hillsides, but there’s no water, nobody can remember when there ever was water, and nobody expects there ever will be any water.

It’s still a tourist attraction, though, and one of the reasons is that you can see into Yemen. On one memorable occasion, we actually saw something much rarer: Yemenis, visiting Saudi with permission.

We didn’t notice them at first. We did our usual stroll across the top of the dam to the little picnic ground, where in theory you could sit, though you wouldn’t want to—and there was a huge family there. Not Saudis, but not South Asian or Western either. They didn’t look like anyone we’d seen. They were in a defensive circle, sitting on the grass. The men were on the outside of the circle, protecting the women. The women were in black, but not a Saudi-abaya black. They were thinner, shorter than Saudis, more alert—much more alert. And every single one of them was looking at us with an intensity you’d never see on a Saudi face.

We had no idea why they were staring at us like that, as if we were great white sharks instead of a gaggle of miserable TESOL mercenaries. Our van driver nodded towards them, said, “Yemen.”

There was never anything about Yemen in the Saudi press. Lots about “infiltrators” and “smugglers,” who were understood to be Yemeni, but nothing about what was actually going on on the other side of that mountain wall. Yemen equals trouble; that was the Saudi view, and all you ever got.

From this report in Al Akbar, it sounds like not much has changed since we left Najran. The Saudi authorities are still spreading hate against the Shia of the Southwest, and no one actually knows much about what’s going on south of the border:

“stories…tell of criminal activity by foreigners sneaking through the Yemeni borders, harassing and attacking homes along the Assir mountain range.

“The people of the south know very little about Yemeni politics and do not really understand the Saudi political approach toward Yemen. All they know is that a threat has emerged in Yemen.”

The Houthi are being bombed now by the Saudi AF, which is in a way the sincerest form of Saudi flattery. The Saudis are afraid of these Shia Yemeni. One of the reasons that “…people of the [Saudi] South know very little about Yemeni politics” is that the Saudi rulers make sure they don’t get any information. The last thing the Saudi authorities want is for the Shia of SW Saudi Arabia to remember that they were once part of a huge, powerful Shia kingdom that stretched south to the Indian Ocean. Najran was once part of that kingdom. It’s only been Saudi territory since 1934, when the Saud family leased the province from Yemen on a 20-year term. They kept it when the term expired, because by that time Saudi Arabia was rich and closely allied with the US and Britain, while Yemen was weak and poor.

The Saudis, with sleazy friends in Langley and unlimited cash to throw around, have incredible control over world media. They do such a good job of suppressing news about their long war with the Shia of Yemen that, until I lived there and got the story first hand, I didn’t even know that the Shia of Najran had actually risen up in armed rebellion in 2000. And it was an incredible story of a glorious, though doomed, rebellion.

In 2000, the Shia of Najran got sick of being told by their Saudi Provincial Governor (a Saudi princeling, naturally) that they were rafidii (“nay-sayers”) and takfiri (“apostates”). The Najrani grabbed their guns, scared off the Saudi national police and drove Prince Mishaal into hiding in the Najran Holiday Inn. You can still see the Holiday Inn; it’s as good as a Gettysburg monument to the locals, though the bullet holes have, unfortunately, been covered over.

That unknown rebellion ended with massive Saudi secret-police reprisals—more holes in the desert than a Joe Pesci golf tour. Once they’d killed off the ringleaders, the Saudi authorities went back to slower, less bloody methods. As I explained in 2012, they planned to neutralize the Shia threat in the southwest by buying the region a new demographic profile:

“Twelve years [After the Najran revolt of 2000], the Sauds are winning in a slower, smarter way. The locals have no friends, no money; their religion is slowly being Wahhabized, just like Islam in Indonesia and all the other places the Sauds are doing their best to make a little meaner and more rule-crazy in their own image. They’re doing it with demographics now, importing Sunni settlers from Yemen to tip the balance. There are rumors of a huge new city going up in the desert near the town I worked in, supposedly a ‘campus’ for the local university, but it’s twenty times bigger than that would ever need to be. It’ll be a Sunni city, a Wahhabi city.

“Meanwhile the local Ismaili Shi’ites try to stay alive and maybe even get a tiny piece of the tsunami of money that’s flowing over the rest of the country. They get very, very little of it, and most of what comes to the province goes for mosques—Wahhabi mosques, naturally. But they fought back when their beliefs were directly insulted, and to them, that still means a lot. In the meantime, they do what people in their position always do: they grovel when they have to, fight when there’s no choice, and have a lot of kids.”

Yeah, but that was in 2012, when the Saudis thought they had a lid on this thing. It’s all changed now, thanks to the Houthi victory in Yemen.

And it all began just a few miles south of that dam—in Saada Province, home of Hussein al Houthi, founder and martyr of the “eponymous” movement. (When did it become socially acceptable to use the word “eponymous”? I feel dirty.)

Houthi was of the Fiver Shia sect called Zaydi, theologically moderate but fierce when committed to war. The Southwestern wedge of the Arabian Peninsula has always been largely Shia. The east, which spreads northeast toward Oman like a sun-baked brick, is almost uninhabited inland toward the Saudi border, but what population there is is Sunni, and chronically in conflict with the Shia wedge to the west.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is powerful there, helped and betrayed by turns by the Saudi security police, trying to hide from the American drones that occasionally drop a Hellfire missile on any AQAP pickup truck they can identify on the road.

The Shia have always been stronger and more numerous than the Sunni Yemenis in the east, but the last century wasn’t a good one for them. The Saudis, who were once “the ignorant Arabs,” got the oil, and Yemen got smaller and poorer.

Saudi Shia are barely tolerated, and consistently ignored by the Saudi media. The only way I found out that Najran was a Shia city was that none of my students showed up one day. Empty classrooms. I asked a colleague who looked around very carefully, then whispered, “Ashura.” Ashura is not mentioned in Saudi Arabia. They’re religious fascists and not shy about it.

And that’s what led to the forgotten rebellion in Najran, which was part of the long, slow struggle between the Shia of Yemen (Greater Yemen, which used to include Najran and everything up to Abha) and the other power in the Peninsula, the Wahhabi of the Najd.

The Saudis’ strength comes from three provinces , Al Qassim, Ha’il, and Riyadh—that make up the Najd, the uplands, the turtle-back of the Arabian Peninsula. What’s happening now, as Saudi planes bomb Houthi bases, is the latest of a long, chronic war between the Najd and Yemen.

Oil made the Najd strong in the 20th century, but even before it was discovered, Yemen was weakened by invasions, first the Ottomans and then the British. The Sunni of the Najd were lucky enough to be ignored—what did they have that was worth taking, before the oil was found?—whereas the Yemeni had two very valuable, stealable assets: coffee, and ports along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

There was a time when Yemen was the world’s only coffee exporter (Mocha is a town in Yemen, on the Red Sea) and though coffee was banned as a dangerous drug by Murad IV, he couldn’t make that Prohibition work, because the Turks were addicts from their first sip. They needed that caffeine buzz to help them look over maps and think about new provinces to conquer. And when they looked at Yemen, they saw a 2,000 km long coastline that could be dotted with Ottoman naval outposts, and they drooled—probably drooled coffee grounds all over the map. They wanted the coast. That was them all over; show them a landscape painting and they were calculating how many Janissaries it’d take to conquer it, how many new taxes they could squeeze out of their kaffir subjects to raise a new army and seize whatever your hotel-room artwork showed.

And they didn’t mind casualties. You can rank armies by their aversion to KIA; the IDF clearly goes at the top (it’s their great, fatal har-har weakness), and the Soviets and Ottoman rank near the bottom for sensitivity to body bags coming home. The Pashas started ordering their unlucky Egyptian lieutenants to make grabs for Yemen in the early 1500s. They made the classic mistake in judging the odds of going into Yemen, thinking that because it was localized and anarchic that it must be weak. Early in the 16th century a half-smart Ottoman pasha made this “cakewalk” prediction:

“Yemen is a land with no lord, an empty province. It would be not only possible but easy to capture, and should it be captured, it would be master of the lands of India and send every year a great amount of gold and jewels to Constantinople.”

Wrong on all counts. In the first half of the 16th century, the Empire sent 80,000 troops to Yemen. Only 7,000 of them ever came home.

The Ottomans had their own 16th-century version of the US Army’s “lessons learned” ritual after a failure, and their review of this debacle was brutal:

“We have seen no foundry like Yemen for our soldiers. Each time we have sent an expeditionary force there, it has melted away like salt dissolved in water.”

Army prose was a little more literary back then.

The Ottomans kept trying, sending one doomed army out from Egypt after another. They always were a land-hungry, over-extended empire, jerking off to maps rather than consolidating what really mattered.

Yemen wasn’t nearly as easy to take as it must’ve looked to the Ottoman policy-pasha wonks looking over a map of the Peninsula in Constantinople.

By 1634, the last Ottoman forces were permitted—“permitted,” you’ll note—to leave Mocha, the Yemeni coffee-packing port they’d coveted for almost a century. The Shia of Yemen, who seemed so leaderless and weak, had defeated them completely, though the endless wars with the Turks had also weakened the Yemenis.

What the Turks never got was that the Shia highlands of Yemen weren’t a “land with no lord,” but a land with a hereditary Imamate, a theocratic military leader like Hassan Nasrullah of Hezbollah. Nasrullah is a perfect modern Imam, a sectarian icon, which may be why he looks like Gerry Adams after six months on an all-donut diet. Moqtada al Sadr in Iraq has a similar role.

An Imam isn’t supposed to interfere too much in clan business in normal times. His most important job is to unite the sect when it’s under threat. The Imam is a mobilizer above all, which the US found out the hard way when they messed with Moqtada in Baghdad.

When the Shia of northern Yemen mobilize, like they have now, they always move outward from their stronghold in Saaba Province in the same directions: either North toward Najran and Abha, or West to the Red Sea (Jizan), or South to Aden.

As long as they stick together under a strong Imam, they’re hard to beat. But after the Turks left in the mid-17th century, the Yemenis faced a much smarter empire: the British. Very few countries held off that Empire for long. Between the Americans’ victory in 1783 and Irish independence in 1922, not one country was able to eject the Empire. Tens of millions died trying — brave, brilliant empires like the Sikhs and the Zulus; no one succeeded. We forget that now, because . . . well, you know that amnesia flash device from Men in Black? It was actually the British Empire that invented that thing, and asked the world to smile and say cheese when it decided to dissolve itself around 1960. And like Tommy Lee Jones in that movie, their last act was to use the flash on themselves, so they could say in all truth, “Empire? What Empire?”

But in 1840, at their peak, the British were beautiful to watch. They were masters at handling a complicated, clannish country like Yemen. They never made the mistake of rolling in and claiming the whole place as the Turks had. That only united the locals. Instead, they did what they were good at: using proxies, fomenting divisions, creating distractions—the original force multipliers. And even when they lost battles or campaigns, they left their enemies weakened, often for good.

In 1840, they realized they could use Aden as a coaling port for the fleets that kept their Indian operation, the big money-maker, in business. And that was that; they needed Yemen, and they were going to get it. They landed at Mocha almost exactly two centuries after the Turks evacuated it.

The British used another Imperial strategy now forgotten: forced immigration by subject peoples. Aden, the focus of their ambitions in Yemen, became a “world town” in the 19th century, with about a thousand Arabs swamped by South Asian, SE Asian, and African immigrants. Those were the perfect inhabitants, with no links to the locals and entirely dependent on the Empire’s protection to avoid being killed by the angry Yemenis.

Aden stayed fairly quiet, in Yemeni terms, until the 1960s, when Britain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia fought a dirty, complicated Yemeni war. Aden blew up, with grenade attacks on British officials, who had a witty riposte in the form of torture centers that pioneered many of the techniques you’ll remember from Abu Ghraib, with emphasis on sexual degradation and nakedness.

The British got called on these torture centers—they were a little sloppy, not in form, during the 1960s—and left in 1967. The real action moved up north to Houthi territory, where Nasser, hope of the Arab world in the 1960s, decided that a modern, Arab-nationalist regime in Yemen would be a big move for him, Egypt, and the Arabs.

Arabs were getting very “modern” at that time. It’s important to remember that. You know why they stopped getting modern, and started getting interested in reactionary, Islamist repression?

Because the modernizing Arabs were all killed by the US, Britain, Israel, and the Saudis.

That was what happened in the North Yemen Civil War, from 1962-1967. After a coup, Nasser backed modernist Yemeni officers against the new Shia ruler. The Saudis might not have liked Shia, but they hated secularist, modernizing nationalists much more. At least the Northern Shia kings ruled by divine right and invoked Allah after their heretical fashion. That was much better, to the Saudi view, than a secular Yemen.

And the west agreed. To the Americans of that time, “secular” sounded a little bit commie. To the British, it sounded anti-colonial and unprofitable. To the Israelis, it raised the horrible specter of an Arab world ruled by effective 20th-century executives. States like that might become dangerous enemies, while an Arab world stuck in religious wars, dynastic feuds, and poverty sounded wonderful.

Why do you think the IDF has not attacked Islamic State or Jabhat Al Nusra even once?

So all the factions we call “The West” jumped in to destroy these Yemeni officers: British commandos and pilots, Israeli military advisors, CIA bagmen, NSA geeks, and mercenaries from all over the world.

That was the all-star lineup fighting “for Allah and the Emir,” as the idiots at Time Magazine enthused in a 1963 article.

And of course that lineup won easily, against a clique of officers and a half-trained Egyptian expeditionary force. Egypt lost something like 25,000 soldiers in Yemen; you don’t fight a British/Saudi/American/Israeli/Islamist/Royalist coalition like the one they were facing without losing big. After the Six-Day War in 1967, when it lost the Sinai, Egypt had no interest in bothering about Yemen and called its surviving troops home.

If you look at a control map of Northern Yemen in 1967, when the war ended with Egypt’s total defeat, you see that the Egyptian forces and their Yemeni allies still controlled some of the southern areas around Taiz (which was just taken by the Houthi last week), while the Royalists, the conservatives, controlled all of Saada Province and the north, the areas across from Najran.

So the Houthi, whose core strength perfectly maps the Royalists’ areas of control in 1967, draw their strength from these same conservative areas. As for the modernist, secular Yemenis, they’re just gone. Emigrated, or died, or saw their children seduced by the madrassi.

That scenario was repeated all over the Middle East during the Cold War, and it has a lot to do with how messed up the place is now. “For Allah and the Emir”; when Time ran that headline in 1963, that slogan sounded quaint and kind of touching. . . . It sounded like a nice alternative to Nasser, nationalism (and its much more dangerous corollary, nationalization) or, worse yet, Communism.

So the West put its weapons and its money in on the side of “Allah and the Emir” over and over again, against every single faction trying to make a modern, secular Arab world, whether on the Nasserite, Ba’athist, Socialist, Communist, or other model.

It worked very well . . . or badly, if you prefer. It left Yemen festering, like most of the Arab world, with a weak royalist regime in the north and an even weaker socialist state in Aden. In 1990, after the collapse of the USSR, that southern Yemen state dissolved, taking the last of its fading “socialist” posters and slogans with it. Yemen was reunited, in theory; a poor, sectarian, anti-modern nightmare state.

By that time, “For Allah and the Emir” was pretty much the only slogan anywhere in the Arab countries. It had gone from quaint and quirky to universal. The only option left was to choose which version of Allah, and which corresponding emir, you were going to back.

The Houthi are as conservative and devout as the Saudis who are using every plane they’ve got to bomb them at the moment.

In fact, their favorite poster is a devoutly blood-thirsty souvenir of Tehran in the Khomeini years:

God is great.

Death to America.

Death to Israel.

A curse upon the Jews.

Victory to Islam.

Of course, the Houthi, as Shia, worship the wrong version of Allah, from the Saudi perspective. But that didn’t bother the Saudis, or the Americans, or the British, or the Israelis, back in the 1960s when they all joined hands (in a very non-peace-and-love way) to wipe out the modernizing Yemeni.

Arabs are reduced to choosing which Allah and which Emir to support because a half-century alliance between the worst oligarchies in the West and the most reactionary elements in their countries wiped out the alternative. That’s why it’s so grotesque to hear right-wingers blaming the Arabs for the lack of commitment to democracy and even more ridiculous that Leftists demand respect for fascist thugs like Islamic State, as if they were the voice of the Muslim people.

These sectarian wars are what’s left when you’ve killed everybody else who was attempting to provide Arabs with an effective, secular, modern existence.
Gary Brecher
Gary Brecher is the War Nerd.

James Levy March 29, 2015 at 11:45 am

When one group of people own and control everything in society not directly under government control, it is mighty hard to rule without them. This is why right-wing parties are the natural rulers of society; it’s not that the Left “doesn’t want to govern”, as has been thrown around on this site, but that the Left has to either govern with those who already own and control most of society or they have to displace them, and nowhere is there a consensus to displace them. If you’re the Labour Party in Britain and you move into Number 10, you will see that the land, the banks, and the corporations are owned and controlled by perhaps 10,000 people, and they are well aware of what their interests are. You can either divide them (tough but at times it works), negotiate with them, capitulate to them, or dispossess them. Those are the options. If they are feeling particularly paranoid or angry, then you are faced with a crisis of governance, and most of the time if you live under the rule of law and support the idea that people have a right to the things they own then you’re over a barrel and will have to give in. Leon Blum was a really nice guy and ostensibly a Socialist but when he needed to boost armaments production in the run-up to World War II he knew he could either follow the path of least resistance by giving the capitalists what the wanted (an end to the 8 hour day and a rounding up and silencing of the “troublemakers”) or he could take them on directly and face a repeat of what was happening in Spain at that very moment. He turned on the working class and gave the capitalists what they wanted and they gave him his weapons. I don’t like this reality, but it clearly is the reality we live in.

Sunday, March 08, 2015


Lifted from salon

Thursday, Mar 5, 2015 9:05 PM UTC
The right has f***ked up minds: Meet the researcher who terrifies GOP Congress
His theory caused so much tumult that right-wingers pondered defunding the entire field. Here's the latest
Paul Rosenberg

Topics: Conservatives, Neuroscience, Psychology, News
The right has f***ked up minds: Meet the researcher who terrifies GOP CongressTed Cruz (Credit: Jeff Malet,

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, a wide range of thinkers, both secular and religious, struggled to make sense of the profound evil of war, particularly Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. One such effort, “The Authoritarian Personality” by Theodore Adorno and three co-authors, opened up a whole new field of political psychology—initially a small niche within the broader field of social psychology—which developed fitfully over the years, but became an increasingly robust subject area in 1980s and 90s, fleshing out a number of distinct areas of cognitive processing in which liberals and conservatives differed from one another. Liberal/conservative differences were not the sole concern of this field, but they did appear repeatedly across a growing range of different sorts of measures, including the inclination to justify the existing social order, whatever it might be, an insight developed by John Jost, starting in the 1990s, under the rubric of “system justification theory.”

The field of political psychology gained increased visibility in the 2000s as conservative Republicans controlled the White House and Congress simultaneously for the first time since the Great Depression, and took the nation in an increasingly divisive direction. Most notably, John Dean’s 2006 bestseller, “Conservatives Without Conscience,” popularized two of the more striking developments of the 1980s and 90s, the constructs of rightwing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. A few years before that, a purely academic paper, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” by Jost and three other prominent researchers in the field, caused a brief spasm of political reaction which led some in Congress to talk of defunding the entire field.

But as the Bush era ended, and Barack Obama’s rhetoric of transcending right/left differences captured the national imagination, an echo of sentiment appeared in the field of political psychology as well. Known as “moral foundations theory,” and most closely associated with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and popularized in his book “The Righteous Mind,” it argued that a too-narrow focus on concerns of fairness and care/harm avoidance had diminished researchers’ appreciation for the full range of moral concerns, especially a particular subset of distinct concerns which conservatives appear to value more than liberals do. In order to restore balance to the field, researchers must broaden their horizons—and even, Haidt argued, engage in affirmative action to recruit conservatives into the field of political psychology. This was, in effect, an argument invoking liberal values—fairness, inclusion, openness to new ideas, etc.—and using them to criticize or even attack what was characterized as a liberal orthodoxy, or even a church-like, close-minded tribal moral community.

Yet, to some, these arguments seemed to gloss over, or even just outright dismiss a wide body of data, not dogma, from decades of previous research. While people were willing to consider new information, and new perspectives, there was a reluctance to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were. In the most nitty-gritty sense, the question came down to this: Was the rhetorical framing of the moral foundations argument actually congruent with the detailed empirical findings in the field? Or did it serve more to blur important distinctions that were solidly grounded in rigorous observation?

Recently, a number of studies have raised questions about moral foundations theory in precisely these terms—are the moral foundations more congenial to conservatives actually reflective of non-moral or even immoral tendencies which have already been extensively studied? Late last year, a paper co-authored by Jost—“Another Look At Moral Foundations Theory”—built on these earlier studies to make the strongest case yet along these lines. To gain a better understanding of the field as a whole, moral foundations theory as a challenge within it, the problems that theory is now confronting, and what sort of resolution—and new frontiers—may lie ahead for the field, Salon spoke with John Jost. In the end, he suggested, moral foundations theory and system justification theory may end up looking surpsingly similar to one another, rather than being radically at odds.

You’re most known for your work developing system justification theory, followed by your broader work on developing an integrated account of political ideology. You recently co-authored a paper “Another Look at Moral Foundations Theory,” which I want to focus on, but in order to do so coherently, I thought it best to begin by first asking you about your own work, and that of others you’ve helped integrate, before turning to moral foundations theory generally, and this critical paper in particular.

So, with that in mind as a game plan, could you briefly explain what system justification theory is all about, how it was that you became interested in the subject matter, and why others should be interested in it as well.

When I was a graduate student in social psychology at Yale back in the 1990’s I began to wonder about a set of seemingly unrelated phenomena that were all counterintuitive in some way and in need of explanation. So I asked: Why do people stay in abusive relationships, why do women feel that they are entitled to lower salaries than men, and why do African American children come to think that white dolls are more attractive and desirable? Why do people blame victims of injustice and why do victims of injustice sometimes blame themselves? Why is it so difficult for unions and other organizations to get people to stand up for themselves, and why do we find personal and social change to be so difficult, even painful? Of course, not everyone exhibits these patterns of behavior at all times, but many people do, and it seemed to me that these phenomena were not well explained by existing theories in social science.

And so it occurred to me that there might be a common denominator—at the level of social psychology—in these seemingly disparate situations. Perhaps human beings are in some fairly subtle way prone to accept, defend, justify, and rationalize existing social arrangements and to resist attempts to change the status quo, however well-meaning those attempts may be. In other words, we may be motivated, to varying degrees, to justify the social systems on which we depend, to see them as relatively good, fair, legitimate, desirable, and so on.

This did not strike me as implausible, given that social psychologists had already demonstrated that we are often motivated to defend and justify ourselves and the social groups to which we belong. Most of us believe that we are better drivers than the average person and more fair, too, and many of us believe that our schools or sports teams or companies are better than their rivals and competitors. Why should we not also want to believe that the social, economic, and political institutions that are familiar to us are, all things considered, better than the alternatives? To believe otherwise is at least somewhat painful, insofar it would force us to confront the possibility that our lives and those of others around us may be subject to capriciousness, exploitation, discrimination, injustice, and that things could be different, better—but they are not.

In 2003, a paper you co-authored, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition” caused quite a stir politically—there were even brief rumblings in Congress to cut off all research funding, not just for you, but for an entire broad field of research, though you managed to quell those rumblings in a subsequent Washington Post op-ed. That paper might well be called the tip of the iceberg of a whole body of work you’ve helped draw together, and continued to work on since then. So, first of all, what was that paper about?

We wanted to understand the relationship, if any, between psychological conservatism—the mental forces that contribute to resistance to change—and political conservatism as an ideology or a social movement. My colleagues and I conducted a quantitative, meta-analytic review of nearly fifty years of research conducted in 12 different countries and involving over 22,000 research participants or individual cases. We found 88 studies that had investigated correlations between personality characteristics and various psychological needs, motives, and tendencies, on one hand, and political attitudes and opinions, on the other.

And what did it show?

We found pretty clear and consistent correlations between psychological motives to reduce and manage uncertainty and threat—as measured with standard psychometric scales used to gauge personal needs for order, structure, and closure, intolerance of ambiguity, cognitive simplicity vs. complexity, death anxiety, perceptions of a dangerous world, etc.—and identification with and endorsement of politically conservative (vs. liberal) opinions, leaders, parties, and policies.

How did politicians misunderstand the paper, and how did you respond?

I suspect that there were some honest misunderstandings as well as some other kinds. One issue is that many people seem to assume that whatever psychologists are studying must be considered (by the researchers, at least) as abnormal or pathological. But that is simply untrue. Social, cognitive, developmental, personality, and political psychologists are all far more likely to study attitudes and behaviors that are normal, ordinary, and mundane. We are primarily interested in understanding the dynamics of everyday life. In any case, none of the variables that my colleagues and I investigated had anything to do with psychopathology; we were looking at variability in normal ranges within the population and whether specific psychological characteristics were correlated with political opinions. We tried to point some of these things out, encouraging people to read beyond the title, and emphasizing that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to being high vs. low on the need for cognitive closure, cognitive complexity, sensitivity to threat, and so on.

How has that paper been built on since?

I am gratified and amazed at how many research teams all over the world have taken our ideas and refined, extended, and otherwise built upon them over the last decade. To begin with, a number of studies have confirmed that political conservatism and right-wing orientation are associated with various measures of system justification. And public opinion research involving nationally representative samples from all over the world establishes that the two core value dimensions that we proposed to separate the right from the left—traditionalism (or resistance to change) and acceptance of inequality—are indeed correlated with one another, and they are generally (but not always) associated with system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation.

Since 2003, numerous studies have replicated the correlations we observed between epistemic motives, including personal needs for order, structure, and closure and resistance to change, acceptance of inequality, system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation. Several find that liberals score higher than conservatives on the need for cognition, which captures the individual’s chronic tendency to enjoy effortful forms of thinking. This finding is potentially important because individuals who score lower on the need for cognition favor quick, intuitive, heuristic processing of new information, whereas those who score higher are more likely to engage in more elaborate, systematic processing (what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 1 and System 2 thinking, respectively). The relationship between epistemic motivation and political orientation has also been explored in research on nonverbal behavior and neurocognitive structure and functioning.

Various labs have also replicated the correlations we observed between existential motives, including attention and sensitivity to dangerous and threatening stimuli, and resistance to change, acceptance of inequality, and conservatism. Ingenious experiments have demonstrated that temporary activation of epistemic needs to reduce uncertainty or to attain a sense of control or closure increases the appeal of system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation. Experiments have demonstrated that temporary activation of existential needs to manage threat and anxiety likewise increases the appeal of system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation, all other things being equal. These experiments are especially valuable because they identify causal relationships between psychological motives and political orientation.

Progress has also been made in understanding connections between personality characteristics and political orientation. In terms of “Big Five” personality traits, studies involving students and nationally representative samples of adults tell exactly the same story: Openness to new experiences is positively associated with a liberal orientation, whereas Conscientiousness (especially the need for order) is positively associated with conservative orientation. In a few longitudinal studies, childhood measures of intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity as well as sensitivity to fear, threat, and danger have been found to predict conservative orientation later in life. Finally, we have observed that throughout North America and Western Europe, conservatives report being happier and more satisfied than liberals, and this difference is partially (but not completely) explained by system justification and the acceptance of inequality as legitimate. As we suspected many years ago, there appears to be an emotional or hedonic cost to seeing the system as unjust and in need of significant change.

“Moral foundations theory” has gotten a lot of popular press, as well as serious attention in the research community, but for those not familiar with it, could you give us a brief description, and then say something about why it is problematic on its face (particularly in light of the research discussed above)?

The basic idea is that there are five or six innate (evolutionarily prepared) bases for human “moral” judgment and behavior, namely fairness (which moral foundations theorists understand largely in terms of reciprocity), avoidance of harm, ingroup loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards. My main problem is that sometimes moral foundations theorists write descriptively as if these are purely subjective considerations—that people think and act as if morality requires us to obey authority, be loyal to the group, and so on. I have no problem with that descriptive claim—although this is surely only a small subset of the things that people might think are morally relevant—as long as we acknowledge that people could be wrong when they think and act as if these are inherently moral considerations.

At other times, however, moral foundations theorists write prescriptively, as if these “foundations” should be given equal weight, objectively speaking, that all of them should be considered virtues, and that anyone who rejects any of them is ignoring an important part of what it means to be a moral human being. I and others have pointed out that many of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed not merely in the name of group loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards, but because of a faithful application of these principles. For 24 centuries, Western philosophers have concluded that treating people fairly and minimizing harm should, when it comes to morality, trump group loyalty, deference to authority, and purification. In many cases, behaving ethically requires impartiality and disobedience and the overcoming of gut-level reactions that may lead us toward nepotism, deference, and acting on the basis of disgust and other emotional intuitions. It may be difficult to overcome these things, but isn’t this what morality requires of us?

There have been a number of initial critical studies published, which you cite in this new paper. What have they shown?

Part of the problem is that moral foundations theorists framed their work, for rhetorical purposes, in strong contrast to other research in social and political psychology, including work that I’ve been associated with. But this was unnecessary from the start and, in retrospect, entirely misleading. They basically said: “Past work suggests that conservatism is motivated by psychological needs to reduce uncertainty and threat and that it is associated with authoritarianism and social dominance, but we say that it is motivated by genuinely moral—not immoral or amoral—concerns for group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity.” This has turned out to be a false juxtaposition on many levels.

First researchers in England and the Netherlands demonstrated that threat sensitivity is in fact associated with group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity. For instance, perceptions of a dangerous world predict the endorsement of these three values, but not the endorsement of fairness or harm avoidance. Second, a few research teams in the U.S. and New Zealand discovered that authoritarianism and social dominance orientation were positively associated with the moral valuation of ingroup, authority, and purity but not with the valuation of fairness and avoidance of harm. Psychologically speaking, the three so-called “binding foundations” look quite different from the two more humanistic ones.

What haven’t these earlier studies tackled that you wanted to address? And why was this important?

These other studies suggested that there was a reasonably close connection between authoritarianism and the endorsement of ingroup, authority, and purity concerns, but they did not investigate the possibility that individual differences in authoritarianism and social dominance orientation could explain, in a statistical sense, why conservatives value ingroup, authority, and purity significantly more than liberals do and—just as important, but often glossed over in the literature on moral foundations theory—why liberals value fairness and the avoidance of harm significantly more than conservatives do.

How did you go about tackling these unanswered questions? What did you find and how did it compare with what you might have expected?

There was a graduate student named Matthew Kugler (who was then studying at Princeton) who attended a friendly debate about moral foundations theory that I participated in and, after hearing my remarks, decided to see whether the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of moral intuitions would disappear after statistically adjusting for authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. He conducted a few studies and found that it did, and then he contacted me, and we ended up collaborating on this research, collecting additional data using newer measures developed by moral foundations theorists as well as measures of outgroup hostility.

What does it mean for moral foundations theory?

To me, it means that scholars may need to clean up some of the conceptual confusion in this area of moral psychology, and researchers need to face up to the fact that some moral intuitions (things that people may think are morally relevant and may use as a basis for judging others) may lead people to behave in an unethical, discriminatory manner. But we need behavioral research, such as studies of actual discrimination, to see if this is actually the case. So far the evidence is mainly circumstantial.

And what future research is to come along these lines from you?

One of my students decided to investigate the relationship between system justification and its motivational antecedents, on one hand, and the endorsement of moral foundations, on the other. This work also suggests that the rhetorical contrast between moral foundations theory and other research in social psychology was exaggerated. We are finding that, of the variables we have included, empathy is the best psychological predictor of endorsing fairness and the avoidance of harm as moral concerns, whereas the endorsement of group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity concerns is indeed linked to epistemic motives to reduce uncertainty (such as the need for cognitive closure) and existential motives to reduce threat (such as death anxiety) and to system justification in the economic domain. So, at a descriptive level, moral foundations theory is entirely consistent with system justification theory.

Finally, I’ve only asked some selective questions, and I’d like to conclude by asking what I always ask in interviews like this—What’s the most important question that I didn’t ask? And what’s the answer to it?

Do I think that social science can help to address some of the problems we face as a society? Yes, I am holding out hope that it can, at least in the long run, and hoping that our leaders will come to realize this eventually.

Our conversation leads me to want to add one more question. Haidt’s basic argument could be characterized as a combination of anthropology–look at all the “moral principles” different cultures have advanced—and the broad equation of morality with the restraint of individual self-interest and/or desire. Your paper, bringing to attention the roles of SDO and RWA, throws into sharp relief a key problem with such a formulation—one that Southern elites have understood for centuries: wholly legitimate individual self-interest (and even morality—adequately feeding & providing a decent future for one’s children, for example) can be easily over-ridden by appeals to heinous “moral concerns”, such as “racial purity”, or more broadly, upholding the “God-given racial order.”

Yet, Haidt does seem to have an important point that individualist moral concern leave something unsaid about the value of the social dimension of human experience, which earlier moral traditions have addressed. Do you see any way forward toward developing a more nuanced account of morality that benefits from the criticism that harm-avoidance and fairness may be too narrow a foundation without embracing the sorts of problematic alternatives put forward so far?

Yes, and there is long tradition of theory and research on social justice—going all the way back to Aristotle—that involves a rich, complex, nuanced analysis of ethical dilemmas that goes well beyond the assumption that fairness is simply about positive and negative reciprocity.

Without question, we are a social species with relational needs and dependencies, and how we treat other people is fundamental to human life, especially when it comes to our capacity for cooperation and social organization. When we are not engaging in some form of rationalization, there are clearly recognizable standards of procedural justice, distributive justice, interactional justice, and so on. Even within the domain of distributive justice—which has to do with the allocation of benefits and burdens in society—there are distinct principles of equity, equality, and need, and in some situations these principles may be in conflict or contradiction.

How to reconcile or integrate these various principles in theory and practice is no simple matter, and this, it seems to me, is what we should focus on working out. We should also focus on solving other dilemmas, such as how to integrate utilitarian, deontological, virtue-theoretical, and social contractualist forms of moral reasoning, because each of these—in my view—has some legitimate claim on our attention as moral agents.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

My take:
The problem I see with this theory is that we aren't really much better than baboons, and that includes the liberals. Kindness and compassion may seem better than in group loyalty and such but both basically exist to serve the group.

Saturday, March 07, 2015


drone pilots

Jim Haygood March 6, 2015 at 8:00 am

‘I felt like a coward.’ — drone pilot

The pilot is echoing a widespread social consensus that drone attacks are a lot like shooting someone in the back without even a verbal warning. Lee Harvey Oswald would have made an ace drone pilot, with his uncanny ability to hit moving targets.

If asked what you do for a living, do you say ‘drone pilot’? These guys get tired of either dissembling, or seeing the dismayed look they get when they answer truthfully.

No program (or Nobel peace prize) can change social disapproval of activities that are distinguishable from Mafia hits, only in that the Mafia makes sure their extralegal rubouts hit their intended target.
Reply ↓

Stolen from a thread at Naked Capitalism here

Monday, March 02, 2015

Bruce Wilder 03.01.15 at 8:17 pm

Lee A Arnold @ 182: What is your practical response to realist assessment?

Personally, I think I’m insignificant, so no ego involvement on my part.

My concern about left activism on the issues of climate change/energy change/environment/economic development is that we’re not “tough” enough in framing the limits. I think any realistic path forward has to involve a substantial constraint on energy use, a program of fairly radical energy conservation involving the outline of an infrastructure that would accommodate that. So, for example, I think we should be envisioning rail instead of airplanes and automobiles. All the advances in computing technologies can be applied to make rail even more energy-efficient than it already is, and it doesn’t involve much of a hit to anyone’s lifestyle or welfare. Rail permits much denser living, much less land-use by sprawl, while also leaving economic development possibilities for small towns and villages that simply aren’t there for air travel (which flies over a lot of people). I fear that people put way too much faith in the shiny tech of people mover systems that are not really all that practical or in electric cars that do not have anywhere near the order-of-magnitude potential for resource conservation in energy (both transport and structures) and land-use. We can maintain a high degree of specialization and scale of production with a rail system. But, without a collective commitment to rail infrastructure as a constraining device, I think the Jevons effect dominates and most of the potential of technological advance to reduce energy and resource use while maintaining a high level of human welfare and productivity will be lost.

Given the increasingly hard limits on resource use, an elite will continue to increase its profligacy and masses of people will find themselves cut off by depression and deflation and failed governments and war.

What I think is happening right now, in the absence of a collective consciousness of the need to radically conserve, an absence fed by unrealistic optimism about both the plug-compatibility of solar or wind electricity generation and the upfront investment requirements for renewables, is that the global plutocracy is putting the screws to marginal populations. I don’t buy the Clash of Civilizations rhetoric: I think the Arab Spring was mostly about masses of people being cut off from economic resources by a remorseless neoliberalism. Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela, Greece — global resource consumption is being reduced by pushing the lemmings off the cliff. I’m not saying there’s a global conspiracy, though some of those orchestrating this are pretty cynical; I’m saying that in the absence of a realistic vision of collective, inclusive, socialized efforts of sufficient and realistic scale, what we are going to get from neoliberalism is oppression through abandonment and war.

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