Mind Matters: Stupidication: That Sinking Feeling - II
by Michael Brenner on 27 Apr 2021 0 Comment

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 feature of human behavior alluded to above: the ‘stupidication’ phenomenon.


Let’s begin with the elementary observation that the largest part of human behavior is habitual. 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 William Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at their meeting with senior Chinese officials at Anchorage 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 designed) “rule-based” system of institutions and practices as a precondition for establishing a non-hostile relationship. Yet, it is the United States that is the world’s leader – by objective measures – in the breaking of formal rules: from the invasion and occupation of Iraq, to the infringement on Syria’s sovereignty and outright theft of its oil, to sponsor coups in Ukraine, Bolivia, Honduras, Venezuela, Paraguay etc., to the arbitrary imposition of sanctions in violation of international treaties, to abusive administration of the SWIFT financial transactions system, to imposing political factors onto IMF and World Bank terms of conditionality, 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 – and feed popular nationalist sentiment. That is 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.


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 crude 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.


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 into his performance in reaction to some unexpected verbal ejaculation 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. 


(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 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).


Conclusion: 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!”  He’d be required to speak the exact words that Humphrey Bogart did.


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, Venezuela, Assad and whomever else is on our hit list. We are hard-pressed to tell them apart on the transcripts alone. Today, our ambassador is professional 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.


So, why bother to probe deep into their mentality or track minutely their brain waves when it manifestly makes no difference? Here were have a “Bombs Away” Cold War jingoist, an Obama protégé of color via Sidwell Friends and Oxford, a bleeding-heart Responsibility to Protect (R2P) humanist (Houthis and Palestinians excepted), a sharp-elbowed Sikh turned born-again Christian who hears Jesus beckoning her from the Oval Office, and now a cool career diplomat: all behaving like clones who never saw a non-conforming leader they weren’t ready to insult.  


Thinking? – quaint but so retro!




P.S. The sudden, surprising Biden volte face on the self-generated Ukraine crisis - simultaneously with the decisive move to leave Afghanistan require comment since - on the surface - they appear to contradict much of the analysis presented above. Apropos these events, there is an opportunity to elaborate a couple of important points.


1) The first thing to emphasize is that these are not tactical shifts. For they have wider strategic implications for the United States’ position in global affairs. World views do not change overnight - so, how do we explain this drastic turnaround?


2) Cognitive dissonance is the concept that first jumps to mind. Two contradictory needs/ interests pulling in opposite directions generate stress that the mind has difficulty in handling. However, the conventional psychological mechanisms for coping exclude revolutionary alterations of fundamental beliefs or entrenched behavior patterns. Normal responses move through a sequence that begins with avoidance, then reiteration of established ideas and practices, and minimal amendments to both that seek to safeguard core convictions.


Obviously, that is not what occurred in this case. The shift in tack was swift, taking a week or so. Let’s bear in mind that the built-up of the anti-Russian campaign focused on the Ukraine had steadily mounted for months, that the ground was prepared over years of threat-mongering about Russia and Putin in particular, that just days ago Biden went out of his way to insult Putin as a “killer.” On the ground, Washington had given Zelensky (and whomever pulls this professional comedian’s strings) the green light to prepare for a major assault on the Russian-held Donbass region using heavy arms provided by the U.S. and strike forces trained by the U.S. Army.


3) There is one explanation that we can quickly dispose of: the ‘Road To Damascus’ hypothesis. No stroke of brilliant insight struck either Biden or his senior advisers spotlighting their missteps and illuminating the path ahead. That is not plausible behavior - especially for this bunch who are more likely to fall on their ass than off their ass when dealing with external problems. Even in a longer time frame, they are intellectually and psychologically incapable of the requisite strategic reflection. Moreover, there is no one in the vicinity of the White House - whose voice might dimly be heard - whose views diverge from the pervasive narrative about Russia.


4) The key intervening factor was the series of moves by the Kremlin that boldly flashed the message that Russia would not be intimidated into passive acceptance of a Western backed occupation of the Donbass. The magnitude of their troop movements accompanied by the blunt statements of Putin, Lavrov and General Shoigu made that unmistakably clear. No Nazi flags (as greeted Zelensky at the front) would ever again fly in Lugansk or Donetsk. 

(See the excellent article by Ray McGovern which explains all this in detail  



5) So, to go ahead with the planned Ukrainian assault was suicidal. Its army would be quickly crushed, the pro-Western government would collapse, Moscow would be the political power broker in reconstituting it, the U.S. would be humiliated and discredited, NATO exposed as an American marionette, and Biden derided at home. The alternative? Send in American troops and initiate a major war with Russia; probably alone - since Merkel and Macron already had made known publicly that they wanted a peaceful settlement. After all, Berlin and Paris were god-parents to the Minsk accord that Kiev had refused to implement for 7 years - even if they allowed Obama to elbow them aside and played deaf & dumb thereafter.


Why hadn’t Biden et al thought this through before embarking on their adventure with the Ukrainians? See above.


Why did they suddenly see the light? Well, an imminent hanging does indeed focus the mind. Expediency can overcome inertia of all kinds if the stakes are high enough. The stakes in this instance, I believe, were more POLITICAL than strategic. I very much doubt that Blinken, Sullivan, Austin or Harris has either the gumption or integrity to tell Biden convincingly that he was on a fool’s errand. All of those types of careerists are too absorbed with self-image to admit mistakes or to venture onto dangerous territory.


One could bet one’s invitation to the Harris Inaugural ball of 2025 that it was the political advisers in the White House who got Biden’s ear and told him in no unmistakable terms that he was jeopardizing his entire Presidency by courting war with Russia over the Donbass. It is a little discussed fact of contemporary American political life that the persons closest to any President are the public affairs officers, spokesmen, political advisers and privileged politicos with his private number. For them, policy counts little - except as it affects political fortunes.


Their message to Biden is easily envisaged: there is nothing to be gained on Ukraine but enormous risks, same in Afghanistan on a much smaller scale; you’re riding high now because of your big moves on the virus and domestic programs (we even managed to plant in the media the nutty idea that you are the reincarnation of FDR); all of that can turn to ashes were the U.S. either humiliated or got itself onto another Cuban Missile Crisis in a place nobody cares about. It may have been reinforced by Biden’s wife, Jill; we’ll never know. Biden reacted as any sane man would.


What does this portend for the future orientation of American foreign policy? NOT MUCH – I’m afraid. This episode records a case of political expedience. No reflective strategic thinking occurred. It soon will be forgotten in the country’s kaleidoscopic politics. Powerful interests retain great intellectual and career stakes in preserving the status quo. So, on China, on Israel and the Middle East, on throwing our weight around generally – little if anything will change. Business as usual. Oh, Afghanistan? Isn’t that the strange looking dog that shows up every February at the New York Kennel Club meet?



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