Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘psychology’

Pascal on the Trump era

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Blaise Pascal:

Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.

All the misery of mankind comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.

This is something I thought about a lot in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. People seemed excited that something important was happening. The significance of boredom in human affairs has been underestimated by political theorists.

Relaxing at Mar-a-Lago

According to the Washington Post Donald Trump had a miserable weekend, brooding over the mean-spirited press coverage of his remarkably successful first diplomatic initiatives toward Russia. Fortunately, his closest advisers know just how to lift his gloomy spirits:

That night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had dinner with Sessions, Bannon, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, among others. They tried to put Trump in a better mood by going over their implementation plans for the travel ban, according to a White House official.

If he gets really down in the dumps, perhaps they can cheer him up by screening video of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.

No laughing matter

Trump today:

A lot of people say, oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall. I wasn’t kidding. I don’t kid. I don’t kid. I watched this and they say I was kidding. No, I don’t kid. I don’t kid about things like that, I can tell you.

So what does he kid about?

Invading Mexico: “President Trump’s comments that he was ready to send US troops to Mexico to stop the “bad hombres down there” were “lighthearted” and not meant to be threatening, the White House said Thursday.”

Accusing President Obama of treason: “After repeatedly suggesting Thursday that President Barack Obama was the literal founder of ISIS, the terrorist group the U.S. is currently waging war against, Donald Trump called it “sarcasm” in a tweet Friday morning. The bizarre turn followed Trump’s assertion to a conservative radio host in an interview Thursday morning that he did not mean that Obama’s policies created the space for ISIS to flourish, rather that he was its actual founder.”

Destroying people who disagree with his policies: “President Donald Trump threatened to “destroy” the career of a Texas state senator after a Texas sheriff accused the lawmaker of getting in his way by promoting asset forfeiture reform.

“Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” Trump told Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas.

https://twitter.com/Acosta/status/829075389184081920

What Donald Trump is afraid of

Slopes and stairs, contradiction, and protests, according to one article in today’s Sunday Times, about government concerns related to the planned visit in June for the official handover of British sovereignty:

Members of Trump’s inner circle have warned officials and ministers that it would be counterproductive for Charles to ‘lecture’ Trump on green issues and that he will ‘erupt’ if pushed. They want the younger princes, William and Harry, to greet the president instead. Royal aides insist that  he should meet Trump.

Senior government officials now believe Charles is one of the most serious ‘risk factors’ for the visit.

Trump’s team is also concerned that he will face a wave of protests, with thousands of people taking to the streets to denounce him…

Downing Street officials claimed the president’s phobia of stairs and slopes led him to grab the prime minister’s hand as they walked down a ramp at the White House.

UPDATE (30/1/2017): I was mentioning this story to someone recently, pointing out that “phobia” is clearly a really bad euphemism for “too old and weak”, which the strongman obviously could not admit to. He replied, “Apparently it IS a phobia – he also has a phobia of slopes, apparently.” I asked what the source was. It came from one of May’s aides, he said. And how would they know? People really have to stop defaulting to the assumption that claims coming from Trump’s circle is more likely to be true than false. On the contrary, information from anyone that has been near Trump is likely tainted.

Racism and forgiveness

It reminded me of the aphorism, popularised by the journalist Henryk Broder, attributed by him to an Israeli (commonly understood to be the psychoanalyst Zvi Rex), but without an identifiable original source:

Auschwitz werden uns die Deutschen nie verzeihen.

The Germans will never forgive us for Auschwitz.

One interesting lesson of the past year’s politics, particularly in the US, was learning how angry many white people seem to be about the legacy of slavery and racism. For example, when Michelle Obama spoke at the DNC about living “in a house that was built by slaves”, I had tears in my eyes, even as I rationally found it slightly mawkish and oversimplifying the trajectory of progress. Other people reacted differently, first doubting that that was true, calling it slanderous to mention the fact, and then dismissing the significance of the implicit criticism by saying that the slaves  “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
One typical survey in June 2016 showed that most white Americans — and 59% of white Republicans — believe that “too much attention is paid to race and racial issues”, with 32% of white Americans saying that President Obama has made race relations worse. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, only 46% of Republicans say there is “a lot” of discrimination against Black people in the US, while 30% (and 45% of “Tea Party” supporters) say there is a lot of discrimination against White people. 64% of Republicans agreed with the statement “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

Locker rooms and Trump’s arena of masculinity

Among the many weird things about the Trump groping scandal is the defense of this vile banter as “locker-room speech”, by a man who avers that the closest thing he does to exercise is public speaking. But then, this is of a piece with his contention that he is a better military strategist than America’s generals. There’s nothing unusual about insecure plutocrats trying to associate themselves with conventional symbols of masculinity: buying sports teams, military medals, weapons, military-style vehicles. I imagine the dominance displays of business, being almost entirely verbal and symbolic, must leave a nagging hole of insecurity in the core of your average wealthy psychopath.

I am reminded of a book I read many years ago, The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex, about the role that sports play in the performance of masculinity in the US. It’s pretty far off my usual reading, but I picked it up off the new-book display at the Lamont Library at Harvard, and it was extremely helpful to me in trying to understand why people are so interested in sports (which had always mystified me), and why people are so interested in masculinity (ditto). Well, it didn’t get me very far. I mean, sociologists and psychologists like to talk about “fragile males”, constantly under threat because “masculinity” needs to be performed anew or it is lost, unlike femininity which (in this account) is an inherent quality. (Tell that to a mid-40s Hollywood actress…) (more…)

The sound of one invisible hand clapping

There is a Rand-ian trope (or Mises-macherei) that attempts to reverse the Marxian notion that labour is the unit of economic contribution, that working people are the creators of our world, and capitalists mere parasites. The opposing view — pushed by Ayn Rand, and advocated in increasingly stark terms by right-wing politicians, is that the capitalists and managers are “job-creators”, that everything exists because of their contributions. From Adam Smith’s idea that capitalism enables the private greed to be channeled into promoting the public good, we have come to the notion that private greed is itself almost a form of charity.

The reductio ad absurdum has been provided (of course) by Donald Trump, in the less commented upon portion of his bizarre attack on the family of killed-in-action Muslim American soldier Humayun Khan. Responding to Khizr Khan’s attack “You have sacrificed nothing — and no one,” Trump said

I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.

For Trump, a rich man’s “tremendous success” is itself a sacrifice, to be matched against an ordinary man losing his child.

Brecht’s take on this question is below. I cited it in the last US presidential election as well.

(more…)

Metathreats

Even in America it is illegal to attain political ends by threats of violence. But what about threats of threats of violence? From Florida:

“We began receiving complaints from voters,” she said Wednesday in an email to the Post’s editorial board. “Some felt uncomfortable voting at the Islamic Center. When we received a call that indicated individuals planned to impede voting and maybe even call in a bomb threat to have the location evacuated on Election Day…

I suppose this is familiar as a kind of protection-racket negotiating stance. “We’re just having a friendly chat here. Nobody is making threats. If you want to make threats, we can also make threats, but there’s no need for any of that.”

Utility of the Devil

I very much enjoyed reading Richard Thaler’s book Misbehaving, on behavioural economics and his own role in its development. It occurred to me that the basic lessons of that soi disante science may be summarised by a variant on a famous Rolling Stones song:

You can’t always know what you want…

But if you don’t try, most of the time

You just might find you want what you know.

The politics of impatience

What does it mean when someone who is himself significantly responsible for solving a problem expresses his “impatience” for a solution? I think of this because today’s Times has on page 2

George Osborne lost patience with the pensions industry yesterday, announcing action against insurers who blocked savers from accessing their cash.

And on page 4 we read of

news of a fresh delay of up to a year in publication of the Iraq inquiry, prompting Mr Cameron to say that he was “fast losing patience”.

Perhaps this outbreak of impatience is somehow related to the front-page story, which says

the very best they can expect is that it will take them time — but time is not on their side.

That one is about the pervasive decline in sperm quality due to plastics in packaging, sunscreens and cosmetics.

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