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Dewey Square in Boston on October 15

On the topic of art and political activism (discussed in my earlier post here): Susana Viola Jacobson, consummate artist and critic, left the following response to that piece. Her thoughts were too good to not share.

Very thoughtful piece. I wrestled with this divide for years and finally realized that painting is generally not a very effective tool for the politics of change, though it has been at times. My painting definitely isn’t useful in that way.

But art too works very slowly and most often on a small audience. It does help people figure the meanings of things, of their lives, so in that sense helps them be more purposeful and clear about what they do and who they are. It reflects our best and worst manifestations as a species, even when it is primarily geared toward entertainment, as long as we look at it critically. It does require us to work to get more out of it than a past time.

I’ve often found topical art too short lived in its effect and in making a clear point. It challenges boundaries and can break them for the rest of us, but then it tends to quickly become out of date. I’m grateful to artists who throw the pointed spear and make the first breach but I’m also grateful to artists who come before and after those moments and provide places for us to ponder, contemplate, absorb and reflect within their work.

We need all of it.

A note about Susana Viola Jacobson: Formerly at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania where she was a professor of painting, Susana now lives in Salt Lake City Utah. We shared a loft together on the Lower East Side in the 70s.

“Diverse Evils and Accumulated Sorrows”, by Susana Viola Jacobson (on display at the Humbolt State University library)

October 15 march and protest in Boston

Aligning the work you do with the passions of your heart is not a given. My partner Dave worked for decades before he finally found a way to integrate his professional life with his personal desire to make the world a better place. (His organization, ReachScale, creates public/private partnerships to fund innovative social enterprises.)

But it isn’t so easy for me. I have not yet found a way to bring my political passions and my work as an artist into confluence.

I struggled with this discrepancy after 9/11. Other artists felt that same discomfort, and a number of thoughtful pieces appeared addressing that issue. If the work that emerges from your most authentic self is non-narrative, non-political, made by one person working alone, there just isn’t an easy alignment with ideology, at least not directly. So you do your work in one compartment of your life, and you advocate in another.

The Occupy movement has brought those bifurcated feelings to the surface for me again. This is a “finally!” moment for so many of us who were raised on believing in the power of bodies in the street and the impact of physical presence. This moment in time feels like a return to my roots. Like going home for a meal made by your mom—familiar and nourishing.

This showed up in Michael Kimmelman‘s piece in the New York Times, The Power of Place:

It so happens that near the start of the protest, when the police banned megaphones at Zuccotti Park, they obliged demonstrators to come up with an alternative. “Mic checks” became the consensus method of circulating announcements, spread through the crowd by people repeating, phrase by phrase, what a speaker had said to others around them, compelling everyone, as it were, to speak in one voice. It’s like the old game of telephone, and it is painstakingly slow.

“But so is democracy,” as Jay Gaussoin, a 46-year-old unemployed actor and carpenter, put it to me. “We’re so distracted these days, people have forgotten how to focus. But the ‘mic check’ demands not just that we listen to other people’s opinions but that we really hear what they’re saying because we have to repeat their words exactly.

“It requires an architecture of consciousness,” was Mr. Gaussoin’s apt phrase.

For me, living a few hundred miles from Zuccotti Park, it started with constant monitoring of the twitter feeds for #occupywallstreet, #ows, #occupyboston, #rootstrikers, #globalchange. Then Boston came on line. I expanded to helping out with donations and food. But on Saturday it moved out of virtual and into the visceral when I stood with thousands of others in downtown Boston to protest a dysfunctional world. How can you not want things to tilt towards a better direction, towards the creation of a world that is just, sustainable, good? How can you not be hopeful we can do better?

Designer Bruce Mau asked the same thing when he started the Massive Change movement several years ago. “I was troubled at the time by the mood of the day. What I saw was incredibly positive change, but the more I read [in the media], the more I saw people being convinced that the world is going to hell in a handcart.”

Then he found an extraordinary quote by the historian Arnold J. Toynbee:

The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.

I have found comfort in that quote for years, and now another good sign is Steven Pinker‘s exhaustively researched and important new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Is it counterintuitive to believe a better world is possible?

Our perceptions are deceptive. 24/7 news coverage is skewed to the negative. How can anyone get the full picture?

Several years ago John Cage was asked this question in an interview with Laurie Anderson:

“Are things getting worse or are they getting better?”

His answer:

“Of course things are getting better. It is just that it is happening so s-l-o-w-l-y.”

So it’s Monday. Back to work. On both fronts.

Skyline of the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake just after a cloudburst

Yesterday I heard an interview with an American journalist on NPR. She has spent most of the last 8 years in Afghanistan reporting on the war. In the process she developed a deep affection for the country and its plight, so much so that she just couldn’t bear to stay and watch as bad decisions and misguided policies have made things worse.

For the last few months she has been living on Cape Cod. Instead of reveling in the exquisite summer of that breathtaking landscape she has been restless and dissatisfied, stewing over her discomfort in being back in what was once her homeland. Her turmoil is more than missing the adrenaline of a war zone, she said. It is how much the United States has changed since she last lived here.

“Everyone I speak with now is deeply unhappy with the way things are going in this country. Everyone. They each have a list of what they think is broken, and their concerns vary. But every person I speak with is convinced this country has severe problems and that we are headed in the wrong direction.”

That is my experience as well, and it was brought home to me recently during a recent trip to the west. Two of my most spiritually-inclined friends live off the grid in the wilderness of New Mexico, and they announced to me quite unexpectedly they were very optimistic about the future. It stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t heard that kind of optimism from anyone. For years. At that moment I realized the deep divide between life 10 years ago and now. If I had polled my friends about their view of the future just 5 years ago, I would have seen a reasonable bell curve distribution ranging from “life is great!” to “everything sucks”. Now that response would just flatline.

Is this just a case of “end of the American empire” blues? The twilight of our self-professed hegemony and “best country in the world” mythos? Is it generational? Is it a proclivity particular to progressives and liberals (like me and 99% of my closest friends)? Is it a larger story, a global pessimism that transcends national boundaries or political beliefs? Maybe a case of e) all of the above?

I keep thinking about the cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien who spent 20 years living with indigenous people and learning about how to live from those who seem to do it with more joy than we do.* She was a keynote at a psychology conference a few years ago and told a thousand therapists, “You think you know all about addictions? Well maybe not. We live in a culture that harbors addictions so large you probably don’t even see them.”

Here is her list:

1. Addiction to intensity and drama.
2. Addiction to the myth of perfection.
3 Addiction to focusing on what’s not working.
4. Addiction to having to know.

This past week has been all about #3 for me. Every political update on MSNBC, Facebook and Twitter (and particularly exemplified by the hashtag firestorm of Jeff Jarvis‘ “#fuckyouwashington” last weekend) has been about what’s broken, what isn’t working. And yes, it does have an addictive quality to it. You get good at finding what’s broken, and what’s broken gets very good at finding you. It’s a reinforcing loop.

Being a hermit or doing a “Jonathan Franzen” (he wrote The Corrections wearing “earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold”, and for Freedom he shut down his Ethernet port with Super Glue) are options. But is it possible to shift to another lens for viewing the world? I am tired of feeling hopeless. Maybe that is part of the old wisdom that things sometimes have to get worse before they can get better. The saturation finally forces a shift.

No answers here, just a public pondering of what it will take to move out of this weather pattern.

* Angeles Arrien’s Four Fold Way, culled from her experiences living with several different indigenous populations:

1. Show up and be present.
2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning for you.
3. Tell your truth without judgment or blame.
4. Be open to outcome, but not attached to outcome.

His Springboard Resolve

For his firmness is most fog horn.
For he’s darning our fraying hem with fine thread; for he’s following a plan.
Be it a progression from detention to due process.
Be it a declaration of Middle-East and market collapse mazes unmazed.
Be it settled.

From this day forward, a little less fetus, a lot more science.
From this day forward, more angles, more angels.
Starting today, a taking on of the barely luggable.

In with the fluent, out with the foibles.
In with the factual, out with the fearfully furrowed.
In with fine-tuning, out with the cudgels, the slapjacks.

Today, we harness our harmony.
Today, we take on our bite-sized tasks; he takes on transparency.
Today, we look back at the wrangled, forward to the breakfast of bipartisan.
Today, we nibble the lucky coin of our own Vasilopita.

Today, the shimmery window of immediate.

More from those who pray in a mosque, in a temple. Less from the evangelical.
More service, less fretting.
More figuring, less guessing.
More giving, less getting.
No bitching.
Coming to a theatre near you, an outrageous congruity.
Coming to that theatre, an unprecedented logic.
Heretofore, only the most unavoidable imbroglios.
Heretofore, heads high for the man in the highest office.
Heretofore, inclusion.
Coming soon, endpoints.
Soon to come, time frames.
Soon, failure gets a time-out; endeavor gets a play date and a sleepover.

The sun is rising over rising water, over the desert’s drying, over the dead and the dying.
The sun is rising; let it inflame us.

–Martha Silano

This poem is from a blog to keep an eye on. Starting Today: poems for the first 100 days offers a blend of poetics and politics in a fresh manner. Silano (Seattle, WA), is the author of two books of poetry, Blue Positive and What the Truth Tastes Like. Her work appears recently or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, AGNI, Crab Orchard Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Two of the five poems that appeared on the New York Times op ed page on Wednesday, November 5, the first day of this new chapter in US history:

Election Black Hopes And Fears

When the Fog

When the fog burnt off this morning
Outsize JumboTron screens were hanging off the clouds,
Scores of them, huge, acres and acres of screen,
Images trembling,
Pixels the size of wagon wheels, damaged, flickering
Off and on, red, blue and green;
Faces, flags, county fairs — like pointillist cartoons,
Melting away, reconstituting,
A continuously mutating liquid crystal montage:

The old warrior’s frozen grin,
The popped, saffron Star Trek collar,
Critter lipstick,
Kawasaki 704 eyeglasses,
Disembodied, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile,
And there, the golden one, the adored, in silhouette,
Drinking it in behind bulletproof glass;
Crowds, crowds in hats, t-shirts, delirious,
With drumsticks and banners —
Galvanically us,
Us whom we’ve been waiting for,
All of it smearing into vibrating puddles of color,
Then dissolving, like jet exhaust, into the air.

While outside the streets were empty.
Who is to say where everyone has gone?
Only the occasional sound truck, its barked entreaties
Too garbled to make out.
Then quiet.
Two scrub jays making a racket in the honey locust.
Sky darkening as weather gathers off the coast.
Quiet as an abandoned summer playhouse.

–August Kleinzahler

Infomercial 2

The old mule delivers the goods.
Nugatory diddlings are on the decline.
Stateliness has its day.

There are indeed many encouraging signs
in the weather and in handshakes.
Still there are those who mistake dark clouds
for raffish hucksterism. They have never savored
the elation of an empty crystal ball.

To them I say, seconds will call upon you
in the morning. Tonight there are dreams to be thumbed through
before the complicated, awful business
of summoning beautiful particles after the horse is stolen.

–John Ashbery


I am speechless with joy. So is everyone in my world. A message this morning from my friend Thalassa said, “I’m in love with my country again.”

I know what you mean, and it feels intoxicating. The crowd in Grant Park. The euphoric celebrations everywhere, even overseas. The newspaper headlines (The Morgen Post in Hamburg featured a full page picture of Bush with the headline, “The Madness Has Ended.”) Wow, wow, wow.

My daughter Kellin is in Italy. How can I adequately explain to her what has happened here in her absence? This is a new kind of optimism, much deeper than the hopefulness I felt when Clinton won his first term in office. Imagine! We now have a president with a brain and a heart. A leader who wants to end this horrible war in Iraq. (Please, oh please make that happen.) A leader who has the savvy to comandeer one of the most successful political campaigns in this country’s history but does not carry the odor of drunken power lust that usually accompanies such stellar success. He is unlike any other political figure I have known.

There was a time when I was afraid none of my children would ever have the experience of feeling hope in their country. They endured 8 years of their early adulthoods living through the worst administration in our nation’s history. Their excitement at the sea change we have witnessed still makes me teary.

And how about that New York Times op ed page this morning? Five poems and one prose column. It seems a fitting response to a legendary night’s events.

The only fly in the ointment (as my grandmother used to say) is the passage of Proposition 8 in California. I can’t believe my home state would step back from the new world order of equality that we need to create. This is a major loss, to be sure, but the fight continues. I know justice will prevail eventually but let’s just hope it doesn’t take a generation.


Can you tell that I can’t think about anything other than this election? Until this contest is over, that’s the only channel I’m on.

To continue on the theme of my posting below, here is a provocative piece by John Stoehr from the excellent blog, Flyover. This adds yet another dimension to the discussion of the relationship between political orientation and the inner life. In this case Stoehr takes us into a discussion about art, empathy, artists, political orientation, inter alia.

I know it is another long read, but I found it particularly thought provoking:

You don’t hear about it much, but it exists — the role of art in the democratic process.

We’re a pragmatic country. We don’t care much for shades of gray. It’s easy to see how the cost of education and a housing crisis affect the health of the citizenry.

But reading a novel or watching a play? That’s not so easy to see. Hence, we don’t hear about it much.

Even so, there is a long intellectual tradition of making the case for the arts in politics. In *The Poetics*, Aristotle said drama doesn’t show us what has happened as much as what might happen. In the 20th century, Alexander Meiklejohn, an early advocate of First Amendment rights, said Americans need the arts precisely because we vote.

“The arts cultivate capacities of judgment and sensitivity that can and should be expressed in the choices a citizen makes,” wrote Martha Nussbaum, paraphrasing Meiklejohn, in her *Cultivating Humanity*.

We must nurture a “sympathetic imagination,” she adds in her own words, to understand “the motives and choices of people different from ourselves, seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other, but as sharing many problems and possibilities with us.”

For Nussbaum, art is a lens through which to understand other people, not a reflection of our political affiliation. Even so, most artists lean to the left.

Look, for instance, at contemporary American theater. You’d be hard pressed to find a play about conservative values.

“I don’t think I’ve come across one,” André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater for the past 16 years, told *The New York Times* two weeks ago.

No surprise then that Stephen Elliot, the novelist, asserted matter-of-factly that “literary fiction is character driven, and to write good characters you have to have empathy, and if you have empathy, you’re a liberal.”

It’s an elegant concatenation of logic, but is empathy really a result of politics? Or does one’s politics result in empathy?

Elliott’s remark was no doubt in response to eight years of “compassionate conservatism.” But it seems to reflect something more than one president’s enormous failings.

Rather, it speaks to the powerful political tensions that characterize American life.
For Andrea Studley, co-founder of the Deuce Theatre Company, Elliott is about right.

After all, liberals have become all but synonymous, in the potent words of linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, with “a tax-raising, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.”

And let’s not forget that liberals have been for nearly a decade “God-hating elites.” For Studley, whose political satire, *The Emperor Is Naked?*, continues this weekend, liberals need to reclaim the cause of empathy.

“Liberal values reflect caring for the have-nots,” Studley says. “Those values are liberal and Christian, but religion has been identified by the right for many years now.”

Is empathy needed to be a good artist?

Not really, says Conseula Francis, director of African-American Studies at the College of Charleston (and a *City Paper* contributor): “You have to be someone on whom nothing is lost,” she says, paraphrasing the novelist Henry James. “I don’t think you have to like people very much for that to be true.”

As for empathy leading to a political bent, that might depend on how you see the role of government.
If you believe it should help people, Francis says, you might be a liberal. If you believe government should yield to the compassions of churches and charities, you might be a conservative.

But all art is political, says Frank Martin, a professor of art history at South Carolina State University. So empathy is political.

You can’t get away from it, because art’s expression is grounded in a context that is inherently politicized.

“True empathy implies liberalism,” Martin says. “If I feel the pain of the other, that means the other cannot be exploited.

“Thus, empathy is inherently liberal.”

Though the artist’s context may be politicized, as well as his art, how we understand that context can be manipulated, says Tim LaPira, a CofC professor of political science.

Pro-choice advocates, for instance, have empathy for the mother. Pro-lifers have empathy for the unborn. Empathy, therefore, is psychological, sociological and rhetorical.

Elliott’s remark seems to reflect two assumptions deeply rooted in the U.S. Constitution, LaPira says.

According to Thomas Hobbes, author of *Leviathan*, human nature is intrinsically bad. Government is meant to protect our rights and property from the corruption of power.

According to John Locke, human nature is good if we can lift the chains of inequality and injustice. The Constitution, therefore, was designed to protect against tyranny but also to manifest humanity’s altruistic ideals.

So empathy is ideological, too.

Politics may explain why most artists are liberal, says JC Conway, who heads a late-night series at Footlight Players Theatre.

Conway is conservative, a rarity in theater. He believes his minority status has more to do with religious right “nut jobs” than neo-Federalists like himself.

“My personal preferences should not impinge on others,” says Conway, who opens *Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead* on Nov. 6. “Most artists are liberal, because they don’t want to be told what to do or how to live their lives.”

Social conditions, not art, shape one’s politics and one’s degree of empathy, says Lance Mannion (, a commentator living in New Paltz, N.Y.

Peer pressure and self-interest, he says, will challenge even the staunchest partisan.

“If a young conservative does set out to become an artist, I don’t think he’ll stay that conservative for long, for the same reason a young liberal who enters the military or investment banking won’t stay liberal for long,” Mannion says.

Still, art can create empathy, says Carol Ann Davis, a CofC professor of English and editor of the literary journal *Crazyhorse*.

Davis believes “empathy is and should be a great democratizing force in that it disallows a certain type of ignorance from flourishing.

“It opens the possibility for hope.”

Let’s assume for a moment that empathy is an inherent human trait and therefore apolitical.

Still, it may not serve well, as Meiklejohn asserted, the choices a citizen makes. The best empathy comes from a proper education.

A traditional view among metaphysical philosophers is that empathy has to be trained with “moral reasoning,” says Jennifer Baker, a professor of philosophy at CofC.

Otherwise, Baker says, “We act on behalf of those for whom we have empathy and forget about those for whom we have none.”

So empathy has a moral side as well.

In fact, we can empathize someone to death, says Mary Ann Kohli, a self-described liberal who heads the Clemente Project.

Her program offers free humanities courses, like philosophy and literature, to poor students, many of them battered women or former addicts, at Trident Technical College.

“You see it all the time in families with addiction,” she says. “You have to confront the issue, and that can be seen as cold. If you don’t, you can send them down the ladder.

“Destruction usually comes from within.”

So, to recap — does being an artist make you a liberal? Well … maybe. What if we reverse the question?

Does it make you a conservative?

Absolutely yes, says conservative blogger Ann Althouse (

“[A] great artist is inherently right wing. A great artist … may have some superficial, naive, lefty things to say, but underneath … there is a strong individual, taking responsibility for his place in the world.”

But that’s another story.

Election Day, finally.

I have lost personal access to the timbre of evenhandedness in this political season, so it was with fascination that I read Eve LaPlante’s feature piece in the Boston Globe yesterday. She explores current research that suggests the hard-wired, biological and somewhat predetermined nature of a political point of view. A correlation has been found between susceptibility to the perception of threats and a politically conservative orientation. It just may be that political dialog has less to do with persuasive arguments and rationality than I have supposed, which is not particularly heartening news.

If our political orientation is in fact a issue of biocoding, it seems that political campaigns in the future will have a different intent and methodology. Is is our biological destiny to be a nation divided? Who knows.

Here’s an excerpt from the Globe piece:

As we cast our vote for president on Tuesday, we may imagine that our choice is based on a thoughtful consideration of the issues, shaped, perhaps, by past experience and our circumstances, such as where we live and whom we speak with. In large part, we assume, our vote is something over which we exert conscious, mental control. Media coverage reinforces this assumption, with “Decision ’08” monikers and endless charts of candidates’ positions and party platforms. Indeed, our vision of democracy is founded on the belief that voters actually consider both candidates and make a rational decision as to which one is best for America.

Yet scientists are now discovering that our political attitudes have deep roots in our biology. Our place on the political spectrum – liberal, conservative, or in between – is powerfully influenced by genetics, new studies show. In the past year, researchers have demonstrated that the brains of liberals and conservatives are physically and functionally distinctive, suggesting that people on either side of the ideological divide are actually wired differently. And new research, published this fall in the prestigious journal Science, found that our immediate, unconscious reaction to threat – how much we startle at frightening images and noises – determines our political views on specific issues like gun control, national defense, the Iraq war, domestic surveillance, the torture of political prisoners, and even immigration.

“Political reactions are gut responses rather than a rational weighing of pros and cons,” said Kevin Smith, a University of Nebraska political scientist who coauthored the Science study. “Our research shows that these reactions are so deep-seated, they’re partly biological. Our biological makeup contributes to our political attitudes.”

The work of Smith and his colleagues is driving an emerging field, sometimes called “political physiology,” that challenges traditional views of politics. There is still room for a considered examination of issues. But the new research suggests we are not merely swayed, here and there, by emotional appeals. Our fundamental political framework is shaped by gut feelings with deep biological roots. Much of the research into political ideology points to the central role of the limbic system, which contains some of the brain’s oldest structures, in an evolutionary sense, and is responsible for such instinctive functions as smell, sexual response, and fear.

What emerges is a new view of politics as remarkably visceral and, to some extent, inherited, which may limit the possibilities for agreement across the classic divides – red state vs. blue state, conservative vs. liberal. When we debate issues, in other words, we do not so much argue a political position as assert who we are.

“Those who want an end to political bickering will have to come to terms with the fact that being conservative or being liberal is often genetically based and therefore unlikely to be jawboned or reformed away,” said John Alford, a Rice University political scientist who is involved in the new field.

As political physiologists study how political ideology works at its most basic level, they find that liberals and conservatives experience the world differently. Conservatives are more easily startled by threats, and when performing a habitual task they have more difficulty switching to a new response. Liberals, on the other hand, react less vigorously to threatening stimuli, and in performing a habitual task they are quicker to provide a new response.

“There is a seeming disjuncture between the popular belief that conservatives are strong and rational, and liberals are more touchy-feely – and increasing physiological evidence that the reverse may actually be true,” said Rose McDermott, a Stanford University political scientist.

Scholarly analysis of political ideology ignored biology until recently. From Aristotle onward, philosophers analyzed political behavior and other aspects of human nature from the outside, without venturing inside the functioning brain. Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers propounded models of society in which people make thoughtful decisions about how government should be run.

In the 20th century, scholars began to explore the influence of culture, economic status, and other environmental factors on the development of political opinions. Yet these approaches stopped short of including biology, in part because the tools (such as brain scans) were not available, said John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska.

Hibbing, a leading figure in the new field, said a turning point was a Rice University study of identical and fraternal twins, published three years ago in the American Political Science Review. Using data from a large-scale study of thousands of sets of twins, researchers discovered that identical twins are far more likely than fraternal twins to share political attitudes on busing, foreign aid, school prayer, gay rights, pacifism, nuclear power, and many other issues. “Political and social attitudes” are “40-50 percent heritable,” the study reported.

“Political orientations such as liberalism and conservatism,” the study concluded, have “a significant genetic component.”

John Alford, one of the study’s authors, said that these genetic study results, along with his reading of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate,” persuaded him and other scholars to embark on a quest to uncover the physical correlates of political ideology. Pinker’s book argues against the popular conception of the brain as a blank slate, which in his view skews research across disciplines, in favor of the notion that the brain possesses innate qualities that influence individual experience and opinions.

“To what degree are we political scientists guilty of implicitly assuming that the human brain is a blank slate?” Alford recalls wondering. Does political ideology have roots in biology? Could genes predict how someone might vote?

The next step for the young field was to look for ways that genetics and biology might affect social and political opinions. “We needed to find an actual path from genetics to how people feel about political issues of the day,” Hibbing said, “and then to see what physical systems are involved in these feelings about politics…”

After examining 46 such subjects, researchers found a strong correlation between subjects’ political attitudes and their physiological responses to threat. People who showed more “blink startle” and perspiration after a threatening stimulus tended to cluster on the right politically. They advocated capital punishment, school prayer, and defense spending, and they supported the Iraq war.

In contrast, liberals – who supported “less protectionist” policies such as gun control, open immigration, and increased foreign aid – showed significantly less physical response to the threatening stimuli. While education had some effect on the results, subjects’ blink and skin-conductance responses were much better predictors of their political attitudes. And the degree to which a person was startled by threatening stimuli indicated how much he or she advocated policies that protect society from external and internal threats such as wars and crime.

Our inborn response to threat underlies our political ideology, the study suggests. The researchers’ political questionnaire was limited to issues they could track along a spectrum of threats – that is, “whether or not something is perceived as corrosive of the social order,” Hibbing explained. In this way, support of school prayer, “biblical truth,” “patriotism,” and defense spending was more protectionist, whereas support for abortion, open immigration, gun control, foreign aid, pacifism, abortion, and same-sex marriage was less protectionist.

When researchers compared subjects’ physical responses with their political opinions, they found a striking correlation. “It was clear,” Hibbing said, “that some individuals have certain central-nervous-system reactions in the part of the brain involved in fear – there’s a genetic basis for this – and this brain activity underlies both their startle response and their political views…”

These studies mark the beginning of an effort to define brain functions and map brain regions that are involved in political attitudes. “Conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles,” Amodio’s Nature Neuroscience study concluded, “whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity, and novelty.”

Based on these two studies, then, conservatives are more sensitive to threats than liberals, and liberals are more responsive to new cues.

Ultimately, biological differences between people with divergent political views may turn on “something deeper” than the conventional liberal-conservative axis, said Nebraska’s Smith. Lacking further data, it’s hard to put into words. “It may be that some people are more ‘traditionalistic’ – they like stronger leadership, stick with convictions, and believe rule breakers should be punished, not forgiven or rehabilitated – whereas other people are more open to ‘out’ groups and new ideas. These fundamental orientations are found across cultures.”

Indeed, the finding that people who feel strongly about politics cluster at two ideological extremes may suggest that our two-party system has a biological basis, said Hibbing.

“This broad left-right orientation pervades American politics and exists across the world and across time,” he said. He speculated that “25 to 30 percent” of the population at large falls into each camp, liberal and conservative, leaving slightly less than half of the population in the middle. These are the independents, or swing voters, who influence close races.

Simply knowing that our political preferences have physiological sources “may make us a little more humble, a little less quick to say, ‘My opponent is simply stupid,’ ” Hibbing said.

In fact, viewed through the long lens of evolutionary time, it would seem that the two camps depend on each other. A person who’s hard-wired to protect himself from danger may be able to avoid getting eaten by an attacking tiger – while his neighbor, who’s hard-wired to adapt to change, may sense an impending Ice Age in time to escape.

This is the reassuring note offered by political physiology at the end of another long, divisive American presidential campaign.

“The biological variation between liberals and conservatives is itself adaptive,” Alford said. “As loath as the two groups are to admit it, the checks and balances provided by the presence of the other orientation may make society stronger.”

Kyle Gann posted this note on his blog, PostClassic:

Thank You, Sarah Palin

We in American music owe a great debt to John McCain and Sarah Palin. Those two have so cheapened and tainted the word “maverick” that it will be at least a generation, maybe two, before anyone will be able to use the word non-ironically again. And that means, surely, that there will be no more talk about the “American maverick composers.”

As I’ve written here before, the musicological purpose of the word “maverick” is to legitimize certain handpicked composers despite the unconventionality (as compared with alleged European norms) of their composing methods, and to do so without de-marginalizing all the other composers who share those methods. What we need is for the methods themselves to be legitimized, so that a true pluralism of aesthetics can be accepted into discourse. The “maverick” image of Cage, Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, La Monte Young as lone dissenters – composers who, after all, had teachers, friends, students, protégés with whom they shared ideas and developed their creativity collectively – was always a palpable fiction. And no one who watched Palin vacuously self-identify as a maverick at the end of the vice-presidential debate will ever be able to use the word seriously again, thank god.

“Maverick musicians” isn’t the only term that may be taken out of circulation. With only a few days to go, there are a few others with limited lifespans:

“my friends” (although better than “my fellow prisoners”)
mavericky (thank you Tina Fey and Seth Myers)
socialist (that’s so last century)
“spreading the wealth”
folkisms like betcha, doncha, gosh darn it
children’s names that are better suited for pets
“verbage” (not a real word, but conveniently rhymes with garbage…)
“community organizer” sneeringly used as a pejorative
hockey mom
lipstick (on anything untoward)


Sometimes the life force tank empties out. It’s a kind of ennui, an emotional exhaustion that often sets in about now, when the winter is still running its weather patterns even though the soul is ready for spring. I’m also feeling overwhelmed by the complex intensity of this political season and of course, football (do not go there, please).

This extract below, from a New York Times Book Review piece a few months back, surfaced mysteriously to the top of my desk pile. It is an apt description of my current state of mind. Which can, like the weather in New England, change rapidly:

“In ancient Chinese rituals,” Gray [author of “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia,” ] writes, “straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside.” That is our probable fate. He quotes Laotzu: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.” If we don’t wipe ourselves out first, the cosmos may do it for us.

Elsewhere, Gray has emphasized what he calls the modus vivendi: the possibility, beyond mere tolerance, of embracing the multiple forms of human life as a good thing in itself, since no single arrangement could ever realize the full range of ends that people pursue…“In the future, as in the past,” Gray writes in “Black Mass,” “there will be authoritarian states and liberal republics, theocratic democracies and secular tyrannies, empires, city-states and many mixed regimes.”

We may not like it, but we can get used to it. In “Straw Dogs,” he counsels a kind of neo-Stoic withdrawal from the whole mess: “Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments. … Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” Hitherto, the ideologues have sought to change the world. The point, for John Gray at least, is to put up with it.