July 12, 2008


AFOOT and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.

The earth—that is sufficient;
I do not want the constellations any nearer;
I know they are very well where they are;
I know they suffice for those who belong to them...

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all great poems also; I think I could stop here myself, and do miracles;
(My judgments, thoughts, I henceforth try by the open air, the road;)
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me;
I think whoever I see must be happy.

From this hour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute,
Listening to others, and considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

I inhale great draughts of space;
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought;
I did not know I held so much goodness...

From "Song of the Open Road," Walt Whitman

July 11, 2008


Lucifer. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

When the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse story became public, government sources were quick to say that the whole unfortunate affair was caused by a few "bad apples." Those at the lowest levels paid the heaviest price, while those who set up the situation and the system that made it possible have so far gotten a free pass.

It may be comforting (and self serving, in the case of the Bush administration) to put all the blame on a few bad individuals. If that were so, good people like us could never do such things no matter what. In reality, however, the line between good and evil is permeable and normally good people can cross the line when placed under extreme situational and systemic pressures.

History and the social sciences show plenty of examples of otherwise decent people who have done horrible things under certain conditions. Some of the things that make evil thrive and grow are obedience to authority, pressure to conform, ideology that justifies treating others with violence, anonymity, dehumanizing and labeling "the other," a slippery slope of gradually increasing aggression, huge power inequalities, unfamiliar situations, role identification and environmental stressors.

The situation that the untrained guards at Abu Ghraib faced--such as lack of training and supervision, ambiguous orders ("soften up" prisoners for further interrogation), physical danger, heat and cold, lack of adequate food and resources, lack of accountability, etc.--created a climate conducive to disaster.

This is one of the key arguments of Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. As mentioned in earlier posts, Zimbardo designed the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, in which psychologically normal students were randomly assigned to play the roles of guards and prisoners. The experiment rapidly deteriorated. Rampant abuses by the "guards" caused the experiment to be terminated in less than a week--and those conditions were almost ideal compared to the ones in Iraq.

In the real world, there are some bad apples, but the real danger is caused by bad barrels.

The point of all this is not to excuse the behavior of anyone, but rather to point out that situational and systemic factors can often override our ordinary moral restraints. Sadly, those who created the system and situation and who most deserve to be held accountable are protected by power and privilege.


TO BE MORE SPECIFIC, 343,000 homes were lost in the last six months.

WILL SANITY PREVAIL in dealing with Iran? El Cabrero is not a betting person, nor would I be inclined to bet on this one if I was.

PREVAILING WAGE LAWS that require decent wages on public construction projects make good economic sense according to the Economic Policy Institute.

THIS ISN'T A GOOD TIME TO SELL YOUR LIFE according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Apparently, the "value of a statistical life" has gone down by $1 million in the last five years.


July 10, 2008


Have you ever noticed that when people do things that irritate us we tend to think they do it because they're jerks? And that when we mess up, we usually excuse ourselves by saying that something caused us to act that way?

In psychology, this is called fundamental attribution error and it was classically demonstrated in an experiment in which subjects were asked to read essays for and against Fidel Castro. The writers were told in advance which way to slant their essays. The readers tended to believe that those who were assigned to write pro-Castro essays really were pro-Castro, even though they were only carrying out an assigned task.

In other words, they didn't recognize that it was the situation of the writers that caused them to write that way.

We often tend to attribute the actions of others to their disposition rather than the situation--especially the actions we don't like. But when the roles are switched, we change the rules. The dog ate our homework! If a driver cuts into our lane, they're an idiot. We, on the other hand, had to get over there and were under a lot of pressure.

In war, the enemy--whoever it is at the time--deliberately kills innocent civilians. We occasionally inflict collateral damage. When "they" do something bad, it's because they're evil. When our side does it, mistakes were made.

Fundamental attribution error seriously inhibits our ability to understand and deal with human evil by causing us to ignore the situational factors that encourage evil behavior. It also blinds us to our own potential for evil.

I don't mean to get preachy, but this is probably why Jesus--who knew a thing or two about a thing or two--told people to take the log out of their own eye before trying to remove the speck from their neighbor's. Whether we're religious or secular, it's always easy to locate sin in the other.

INEQUALITY, HEALTH AND MORE are the subject of this interesting piece from Harvard Magazine.

"FREE" TRADE, REVISITED. This item from the UK Guardian looks at NAFTA's casualties.

CHENEY KNOWS BEST. The VP who puts the "vice" in vice president tried to muzzle climate change testimony.

BRAINWASHING. Those old enough to have lived through the Cold War may remember the widespread fear of Communist "brainwashing." That turned out to be pretty much a dud, although the Bush administration tried some of the tricks of that trade in its dalliance with torture.

THERAPISTS OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS have their own problems, according to this NY Times item. That's life in Richistan.

CAUGHT ON THE WEB. Has the internet cut into your reading time...you know...with real books?


July 09, 2008


Lucifer in Gustave Dore's illustration of Paradise Lost.

One reason why we often fail to understand or counteract human evil is that we often think of it solely in individual, personal or dispositional terms. An extreme example of this kind of thinking has been supplied by the Bush administration, which holds the view that evil people do evil things because they are evil (it's no surprise that such folks are blind to the evil they have unleashed on the world).

As social psychologist Philip Zimbardo amply demonstrates in The Lucifer Effect, a great many evil acts are committed by normal individuals in abnormal situations which are created and maintained by systems of power.

According to Zimbardo,

Most institutions in any society that is invested in an individualistic orientation hold up the person as sinner, culpable, afflicted, insane, or irrational. Programs of change follow a medical model of dealing only at the individual level of rehabilitation, therapy, reeducation and medical treatments, or punishment and execution. All such programs are doomed to fail if the main causal agent is the situation or system and not just the person.

Rather than focusing solely on killing, warehousing, or treating individuals,

We need to adopt a public health model for prevention of evil, of violence, spouse abuse, bullying, prejudice, and more that identifies vectors of social disease to be inoculated against, not dealt with solely at the individual level.

SALUD! A national campaign to promote health care for all kicked off yesterday.

SPEAKING OF HEALTH, the economy doesn't have a surplus of that at the moment. Here's economist Dean Baker's analysis.



ORANGUTAN UPDATE. This great ape species is in danger of extinction. The Wired Science item linked here also notes that the Spanish parliament approved a resolution granting something like human rights (life and freedom) to the great apes. It is the opinion of El Cabrero that we should give them voting rights in presidential elections too. They couldn't do much worse.

GOAT UPRISING. Arcadia S. Venus, the caprine first lady of Goat Rope Farm denies any responsibility for the following news report. But she approves...


July 08, 2008


Lucifer falling. Gustave Dore's illustration of Milton's Paradise Lost. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Let's start with an unsolicited product endorsement. El Cabrero officially recommends that anyone interested in making the world be a little less nasty should get their hands on a copy of Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo's book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. It's not just a useful and important book. It's a page turner.

For starters, you can go to the book's informative website right now.

Zimbardo has been a leading figure in social psychology for decades. He is best known for the disastrous but illuminating Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), in which psychologically normal students were randomly assigned to prisoner and guard roles for an anticipated two week experiment. The mask quickly became the face and the roles became real. Guards began abusing prisoners within 36 hours and prisoners began to show signs of acute mental distress. The experiment had to be called off in less than a week.

In his 2007 book, Zimbardo not only recaps the SPE but generalizes its conclusions and summarizes other relevant research, with all too many illustrations from recent events.

There's a lot to unpack there, but here's a start. Most of the evil acts from human history haven't been committed by sociopaths but rather by normal people. As C. P. Snow put it,

...you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.

Usually, when we try to explain evil behavior, we look at the individual psychology or disposition of the people who engage in it. But this misses two other factors that exert a much greater influence on what happens: the situation and the system that underlies it.

More on that tomorrow.

STATING THE OBVIOUS. Oil may have had something to do with the unnecessary war in Iraq.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE. On a related note, many Americans are rethinking their love affair with the car.

THE PROPER MEASURE of poverty and what to do about it is discussed herein.

TWO MILLION VIOLATIONS. A Minnesota judge ruled that Wal-Mart made employees work off the clock and skip breaks over 2 million times. Workers were granted back pay to the tune of $6.5 million. This fall, a jury will consider punitive damages.

LET THEM EAT ETHANOL. A recently leaked World Bank report blames biofuels for the global spike in food prices.


July 07, 2008


For many years, mortality rates in the developed world have dropped while life expectancy has increased. These changes probably have a lot more to do with improvements in public health--things like sanitation, clean water, sewers--than with advances in medicine, as important as the latter have been.

The differences between the public health and medical approach are pretty clear. With the medical model, you treat the person with the disease; with a public health approach, you try to remove conditions that cause the disease to spread. Obviously, we need both, but the promise of the public health is vast.

Aside from these two approaches, there is another one, which is pretty popular these days but totally useless. It's the moralistic approach, which condemns things as bad and tells people not to do them. You can find the moralistic approach across the political spectrum, from the religious right's abstinence only approach to sex education to peace activists who condemn violence and war without making any effort to understand the conditions that contribute to them.

It is El Cabrero's opinion that the public health approach promises the best way to understand and reduce violence, whether at the personal, collective or structural (economic) level.

More on that to come...

SPEAKING OF PUBLIC HEALTH, check out this fascinating NY Times Magazine article on suicide and its prevention.

JOBS DECLINE. Here's economist Dean Baker on the job scene. On the bright side, Congress finally extended unemployment benefits, something some of us have been advocating for months.

CARVED IN STONE. An ancient tablet is sparking debates on Christian origins.

A PESSIMISTIC MOOD pervades the country, according to this AP piece.