Mind &/or Brain – I
by Michael Brenner on 14 Nov 2021 1 Comment

I. Ambiguous Intelligence


The question of what constitutes ‘thinking’ overlaps the issues of MIND/BRAIN. Defining, delineating and explicating self-awareness, rationality, and logic has been a perplexing challenge since time immemorial. ‘’Discovery’ of the subconscious has enormously complicated these tasks. Advances in neurology add a new dimension to the discourse. A finitude of time and competence precludes diving into that thicket. There is, though, something of a commonsensical nature that can be said about one common, if overlooked, feature of human behavior: the intelligence regression phenomenon.


Let’s begin with the elementary observation that the largest part of human behavior is habitual – when not purely instinctive. We don’t really think consciously about what we are doing or why. We just do it – whether the initial impulse arises from our reptilian brain, from socialization, or early training via a combination of inducement and coercion, i.e. manipulation of the pleasure-pain instinct. Beyond prosaic habit formation, many adults find themselves in vocations wherein their behavior is scripted. Think of the 800-callers from India, an even wider range of sales personnel making a pitch, even a candidate on the hustings delivering a stump speech. Or a priestly personage bestowing blessings.


Those ritualized behaviors we accept as a natural given the calling and function and setting. The ultimate script non-thinker, of course, is the actor. S/he literally memorizes volumes of dialogues and body movements as laid down in detail by the writer and the director. Indeed, too much thinking by the actors can mess things up.


What interests us here is that scripted behavior seems to be growing more common. Or. more accurately, quasi-scripted behavior in roles and places where it is counter-productive.  That phenomenon, I contend, can lead us to say and do stupid things – things that are either inherently illogical/self-contradictory or run counter to the goals sought.


A striking example is the prosecutorial show put on by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at their meetings with senior Chinese officials at Anchorage and Geneva a while ago. Let’s leave aside the outright lies and misrepresentations that have become standard fare and/or the fact that the actors have a domestic political audience in mind as much as they do their opposite numbers. 


First, an across-the-board denunciation of the regime your counterparts represent conveys the clear message that you view it as illegitimate, innately untrustworthy, not an interlocutor valable with whom you can do business. Since you have a long agenda of very serious items to talk about, what is the point of creating circumstances where it is near impossible to negotiate them? That is stupid. 


Second, you instruct them that they must sign onto the Western (i.e. American) American designed “rule-based” system of institutions and practices as a precondition of establishing a non-hostile relationship. Yet, it is the United States that is the world’s leader – by objective measures – in breaking formal rules: from the invasion and occupation of Iraq, to the infringement on Syria’s sovereignty, to the arbitrary imposition of sanctions in violation of international treaties, to the abrogation of arms control accords. In effect Washington is demanding that the PRC submit to our interpretations of their behavior while insisting on the prerogative of America to do whatever it pleases. Since it is self-evident that China never would accede to such dicta, what is the point of playing Athens in a modern-day Melian dialogue when the other side is the powerful PRC and not feeble Melos? That’s stupid. 


Third, the Chinese are ultra-sensitive about their national status, past humiliations at the hands of the Western powers, about ‘face.’ These feelings are deeply entrenched for well-known civilizational and historical reasons. So, the repeated insistence that China must accept tutelage from the West as to what is acceptable behavior domestically as well as externally in order to qualify for membership in the various international clubs run by the U.S., will immediately get their hackles up. That is stupid.


Fourth, the Biden government is considering deploying American military forces armed with tactical nuclear weapons to Taiwan. The aim would be to install what amounts to a tripwire designed to deter the PRC from an assault against the island. Ethnically and historically, Taiwan has been part of China for 1,500 years, excepting the brief interlude of Japanese occupation of ‘Formosa’ from 1896 to 1945.


The founder of the present government on Taiwan, Chiang Kai-Shek, always insisted that the island he ruled was an integral territory of a sovereign Chinese state. That principal was formally accepted by those two notorious ‘pinko’ doves, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, in 1972 – and then legally confirmed by the United Nations Security Council. If deterrence were to fail, and war to break out over Taiwan, the probable result would be a nuclear conflagration killing untold millions and crippling the United States’ existence as an organized society. Such a deployment decision by Washington would be very stupid.


Finally, a set of policies seemingly designed to place the U.S. in the role of marriage broker between Moscow and Beijing surely will be inscribed in the history books as strategic stupidity par excellence. Serial futile tries at the same objective over several months – without the slightest modulation of script – goes beyond simple stupidity; it is an ingrained pathology.


This pattern of anti-diplomacy by the most senior America officials has multiple causes. They include: ignorance, marination in the all-pervasive consensual thinking of the country’s foreign policy establishment, dogmatic faith in a cartoon version of American ‘exceptionalism,’ and political pressures back home. Question: are Blinken, Sullivan and their cohort all just ‘stupid?’ The results of an IQ test surely would indicate the answer is ‘NO.’ Indeed, I strongly suspect that were they given an exam in which their choices were presented in abstract, hypothetical terms, their responses might very well diverge from their real-world conduct. The answer likely lies elsewhere.


(Admittedly, an IQ exam taken in mid-life may well register a lower score than the one taken when 19. A plausible guess would be up to 10 points lower. That is due mainly to the mental clutter and debris accumulated over the years that impedes clear thinking. Secondarily, distractions of various sorts could result is less concentrated attention to the exercises. Imagine sitting for the exam just a few hours after watching a ‘debate’ among 16 would-be Presidential candidates struggling to close their neuronal junctions!)


We should view them as actors in a scripted drama. When the script was composed – over a period of 4 administrations – they themselves might very well have made some contribution to it. Whatever modicum of thinking was done, it happened at that stage. At this time, at this place, however, they are essentially actors whose words and moves have been laid down in advance. As to the interventions of their Chinese counterparts, they are anticipated and contingency plans made – and pains taken to ensure that any divergences from script as are necessary involve the smallest of verbal adjustments.


Like the Indian guy on the 800 number call who interposes a few unscripted words in reaction to some unexpected verbal ejaculation into his performance by the party at the other end of the line. What is exceptional about these on-stage/off-stage roles is that the actors play the part in their ‘real’ lives as well. They easily become the character on-stage because they previously already were, in effect, following a script, albeit with somewhat greater flexibility and latitude for improvisation for years – in other government posts, at think tanks, on the air.  


Like an actor in the Stanislavsky tradition, the script-bound official ‘lives’ the character. Blinken and Sullivan in this case surely don’t see themselves as playing a role. They implicitly assume that they have made an array of judgments and analyses that have led them to say and do what they are saying and doing. Perhaps reality is a blend of the two. That should not be encouraging.


The consequences of scripted behavior could be profound. However, its frequent occurrence should not surprise us. Its great attraction is that one is absolved from the effort and responsibility of thinking – in an age where thinking is out of fashion. The phenomenon is noticeable not just among politicos and their appointees. Think of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of University Presidents, corporate CEOs, economic ‘experts,’ baseball managers, New York Times columnists, etc., etc.*


The one exceptional group I can think of is composed of world-class classical musical artists. Most interviews invariability produce intelligent, original and rational conversation. Anybody have any ideas about this? If so, I’ll gladly pass them along.




Scripting obviates the need for thinking. An actor doesn’t think about his next words or movements; they’ve been memorized. If Ronald Reagan had accepted the offer to play Rick in Casablanca, he couldn’t have decided to alter those memorable lines to Ingrid Bergman: ‘We’ll never have Paris again. Time to find closure on La Gare de Lyon, erase it from your memory. Your future is Stockholm!” A far-fetched analogy? Not really. Reflect on the behavior of American Ambassadors to the United Nations.


Whether it be John Bolton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power or Nikki Haley – the same high-octane verbiage was thrown at Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, Assad and whomever else got in our way. We are hard-pressed to tell them apart on the transcripts alone. Today, our ambassador is career diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield who harbors no known political ambitions. Yet, her first forays into the Security Council ring match those of her Mixed Martial Arts predecessors.


* In the instance cited above, the analogy with scripted theatre gains verisimilitude from the appearance and mannerisms of the principal actors. Blinken and Sullivan look to have been assigned their roles by central casting. Blinken is Hollywood’s notion of what a Secretary of State looks like – a real-life incarnation of Matt Damon or Brad Pitt. Sullivan is the perfect pairing: the hard-driving, rapacious hawk with the lean and hungry look who knows how to keep his scruples in check – for the greater good of the nation’s security. These days, no film director could imagine portraying either a Secretary of State or National Security Director as an elderly man wearing a 3-piece suit to mask his bulging mid-section. We only see that in English films noirs from 1949 on You Tube. Then there is Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin as a facsimile of Admiral James Greer – James Earl Jones – in The Hunt For Red October.


(To be concluded…)

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