April 19, 2008


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 130

April 18, 2008


"Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2" video game, courtesy of wikipedia.

"We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it." That's how Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing, describes the desensitization for violence occurring in much of popular culture.

Grossman's observations about contemporary culture are based on his study of how soldiers deal with combat. As noted in previous posts, WWII era military officials were mortified to discover that only 15-20 percent of troops in battle fired at their opponents. This led to modifications in the way military training was conducted.

Targets became more realistic. Killing became a major topic of speech (and shouts) in basic training. By a combination of basic operant conditioning and social learning, the military was able to dramatic increase firing. By the time of the Vietnam War, around 95 percent of soldiers shot at opponents. The trauma this caused both then and now is well known and well documented.

Grossman is concerned that the same desensitization that soldiers underwent in military training is now a part of popular culture via realistic and violent video games and the mass media. These lack the traditional elements of discipline that goes along with military training. The result, he argues, is a coarsening of culture which creates a climate where violence can spread.

He is also aware of how other social problems, such as poverty, racism and social fragmentation can increase the social distance that helps to enable violence.

While some may dispute his argument, it is hard to deny that social violence today often tends to escalate to the lethal level. Instead of going from fist to stick to knife to gun, to paraphrase the title of Geoffrey Canada's book on violence, people often jump straight to gun.

At any rate, I would highly recommend Grossman's book to anyone interested in reducing the level of violence at all levels. The things we don't like don't go away when we ignore them.

ALL THE HAPPINESS WE CAN AFFORD. New research is revisiting the connection between income levels and happiness.

AFFORDING LESS HAPPINESS. The recession means fewer hours and less money for many working people.

COMFORTABLY NUMB is the title of a new book about America's pharmacological pursuit of happiness. Here's an interview with the author.

SUPREME JOKE. I missed this when it first came out on the 15th, but here's a commentary from the NY Times about the WV Supreme Joke--I mean Court--fiasco.

JUST IN CASE, here are 10 common first aid mistakes, according to Newsweek.


April 17, 2008


The ghost of Hamlet Sr. urges revenge, courtesy of wikipedia.

Lately Goat Rope has been exploring violence in warfare and other settings. If this is your first visit, please consider clicking on earlier posts.

While most normal people have a strong resistance to hurting or killing others at close range, distance—physical or emotional—makes it easier. Yesterday’s post looked at how perceived cultural distance or seeing the opponent as the Other does this. Another kind of distance that facilitates violence is moral distance.

As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes in On Killing,

Moral distance involves legitimizing oneself and one’s cause. It can generally be divided into two components. The first component usually is the determination and condemnation of the enemy’s guilt, which, of course, must be punished or avenged. The other is an affirmation of the legality and legitimacy of one’s own cause.

It’s easier to kill people when they are seen as evil. In such cases violence can be rationalized as simple justice. Revenge for past acts of aggression, real or imagined, is often a component of moral distance. But as psychologist Roy F. Baumeister noted in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (search this blog for more on that), revenge is often out of proportion to the original act of provocation.

The reason for this is what he called “the magnitude gap.” Simply put, this means that acts of aggression seem worse to the victims than the original perpetrators. Retaliation, therefore, tends to escalate the violence. And sadly, given that much of world history is a game of Got You Last, it’s not usually that hard to come up with some kind of slight to avenge.

Grossman comments that the danger of this kind of rationalization is that “every nation seems to think that God is on its side”—and as Dylan sang, you don’t count the dead when that is the case.

MORE THOUGHTS ON TAX DAY. Here's a good op-ed by Holly Sklar on the Bush administration's tax cuts for the wealthy over the last several years. Here's the beginning:

WHEN IT COMES to cutting taxes for the rich, President Bush can truly say, “Mission accomplished.” The richest 1 percent of Americans received about $491 billion in tax breaks between 2001 and 2008. That’s nearly the same amount as U.S. debt held by China — $493 billion — in the form of Treasury securities.

HOUSING MESS. The credit/housing crisis is causing serious problems for millions of Americans. Here's economist Dean Baker on the problem and some suggestions for solutions.

SPEAKING OF PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS, here's a new paper by the Center for Law and Social Policy about how the current recession is hitting low income workers and families and what could be done to improve the situation.

"FREE" TRADE, UNFREE WORKERS. Labor and human rights groups in the US and Colombia are joining to oppose a proposed Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Here's more on the subject from the American Friends Service Committee.


April 16, 2008


In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says

All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death.
All love life.
See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?

Part of the secret of unleashing violence on others is precisely countering the ability of people to see themselves in others, in eliminating empathy. Often this involves seeing the other as the Other--someone totally different from oneself.

In his book On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman refers to this as "emotional distance." Often, this is done by means of emphasizing cultural distance, which creates what he calls "emotional hooding."

As he puts it,

It is so much easier to kill someone if they look distinctly different from you. If your propaganda machine can convince your soldiers that their opponents are not really human but are "inferior forms of life," then their natural resistance to killing their own species will be reduced. Often the enemy's humanity is denied by referring to him as a "gook," "Kraut," or Nip." In Vietnam this process was assisted by the "body count" mentality, in which we referred to and thought of the enemy as numbers. One Vietnam vet told me that this permitted him to think that killing the NVA and VC was like "stepping on ants."

The best known example of a militaristic policy based on cultural distance is the Nazi idea of the master race, but it has shown up many times in many guises. Obviously, this kind of thinking can promote atrocities.

Grossman notes, however, that the use of cultural distance to promote killing often rebounds on those who promote it. If one does something to one's opponent, one should not be surprised if the opponent does the same given the opportunity.

RETAIL RECESSION. According to this NY Times article, a number of retail chain stores are heading for bankruptcy.

IRAQI LABOR LAWS. Thirty seven members of Congress have signed on to a letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urging that Iraqi workers be guaranteed the right to organize. Saddam Hussein-era laws restricting independent labor unions apparently remain in effect. The letter says in part that

We believe that the promotion of fundamental worker rights is essential to ensuring that the exercise of human rights becomes a reality for the people of Iraq.
BIOFUEL VS FOOD. The move to make fuel from crops is driving up food prices and contributing to hunger in poor countries.

AUTOMATIC PILOT. A new study suggests that many of our decisions are made before we are consciously aware of it.

MASSEY. Some Massey Energy shareholders are pushing for greater disclosure of the company's political activities. Meanwhile, the compensation of CEO Don Blankenship is up by 35 percent.

URGENT KOMODO DRAGON UPDATE. If you've ever wondered just how Komodo dragons with lightweight skulls and not much biting power can kill and eat big critters, click here.


April 15, 2008


Greek phalanx, courtesy of wikipedia.

There are any number of tragic features of human life, but one of the main ones is the duality of our social nature.

One the one hand, people can only become fully human and develop their potential in and through society. Infants raised in social isolation suffer devastating consequences. Even adults who are subjected to social isolation develop serious mental problems.

On the other hand, groups often bring out the worst in human nature. As Konrad Lorenz once said "man is not a killer, but the group is."

Group identification and absolution is a factor that Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing, identifies as a factor that can contribute to violence and killing.

He notes that

A tremendous volume of research indicates that the primary factor that motivates a soldier to do the things that no sane man wants to do in combat (that is, killing and dying) is not the force of self-preservation but a powerful sense of accountability to his comrades on the battlefield.

When people are powerfully bonded under stressful conditions, peer pressure is amplified and an individual can come to care so much for members of the group and what they think that they would rather kill or die than let them down. The 19th century French officer and military theorist Ardant du Picq considered this factor, which he called "mutual surveillance," to be of decisive importance on the battlefield. This tendency increases with identification with and proximity to the group.

The group effect, however, is not limited to organized warfare but can also occur with gangs, mobs, and other kinds of groups, which can give people a sense of anonymity and permission to do things they would never do alone.

Nietzsche may not have been far off the mark when he said that "Madness is rare in individuals - but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule."

TAX DAY. The American Friends Service Committee is urging people to call Congress today to ask that resources now spent on the war in Iraq be redirected to meet human needs.

SPEAKING OF TAXES, here's a snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute that shows how corporate taxes have declined over the last 60 years.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, a new report by Citizens for Tax Justice shows that Tax Day has become easier for the wealthiest Americans.

LOW DOWN. Here's Jim Hightower on the damage the Bush administration has done to the U.S. economy.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, here's last week's Nightline coverage of the WV Supreme Joke--I mean Court.

THE GROWING GAP between the wealthy and everyone else is bigger in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia than many other states.


April 14, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

When all is said and done, El Cabrero would wager that most of the sins of the world are not those of rebellion but of obedience. Far more people have been killed or injured by fairly "normal" people following the orders of authority figures than by sadists or sociopaths, who are fortunately rare.

[Note: a while back on this blog, I did a series about the classic and shocking (literally, sort of) experiments of Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority. You can find it by searching the archives.]

Even though normal people have strong resistance to killing or hurting others, especially at close range, authority figures can overcome that resistance. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, the following factors contribute to the likelihood that soldiers in war will obey authority figures and engage in lethal violence:

*the proximity of the authority figure. During World War II, for example, Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall found that nearly all soldiers would fire when their leaders were present and encouraged them to do so. But when the leaders left, the firing rate dropped to 15 or 20 percent. Similarly, in Milgram's experiments, subjects were more likely to shock the victim when the "scientist" was in the room giving orders to do so rather than when the orders were given over the telephone;

*the respect for the authority figure. Known and respected leaders are more likely to be obeyed than unknown or discredited ones;

*the intensity of the authority figure's demand for killing; and

*the perceived legitimacy of the authority figure's authority and demands. As sociologist Max Weber noted, in the modern world authority is legitimized by bureaucratic laws, rules and procedures rather than by tradition or charisma. Socially sanctioned authority figures giving lawful orders are more likely to be obeyed than random individuals.

In such cases, as Milgram noted, people often stop functioning as autonomous moral individuals and enter into what he called the "agentic state" in which they function as a small part of a larger group. The effect is amplified with training that emphasizes unquestioning obedience.

The sad truth seems to be that most people taken one at a time are fairly harmless. Put them in a group based on hierarchy and command and all bets are off.

THE GROWING DIVIDE. A new study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute looks at inequality on the state level. Here's a brief summary and here's the data on El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia.

ON A RELATED NOTE, here's Krugman on consumer attitudes as the economy tanks.

CONSUMPTION AND HAPPINESS don't necessarily go together.

SAY WHAT? Can cell phones help combat global poverty?

IS THIS BIGFOOT SEASON? The hunt is on in WV.