The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

People can believe pretty much anything

This is something I may be posting on at length later, but Gary Olson has written a post that says much of what I’d say, albeit in a different way:

It can’t be emphasized too strongly that all brains are basically alike, with the same equipment,but differing cultural experiences contribute to shaping our brains, to how we think,including how we think about empathy. Here I’m mindful not to caricature Donald Hebb’s rule that “The neurons that fire together wire together,” but his emphasis on the roles of repetition and synoptic plasticity draws our attention to the critical role of culture’s neurobiological imprinting.

Recent compelling research within cultural neuroscience demonstrates that specific, repetitive cultural priming has a measurable influence on the brain and this neural signature begins in early childhood. Tellingly, it can even override hardwired traits.

Olson says this in the context of a discussion of neoliberal ideology and the measured decline in empathy over the past four decades.  This is important stuff, and you should read it.

Admin Note: I’ve added Dissident Voice to the blogroll and purged the blogroll, mostly of blogs that aren’t posting any more.  My standards on this are pretty low, after all, I don’t post much, but folks who haven’t posted in over a year are gone.


Start from common humanity


Snowden, Manning and the role of government secrecy


  1. jcapan

    I’m reading Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, and this passage eloquently speaks to what happens to societies bereft of empathy:

    “The human being and the citizen perish forever in the tyrant, and a return to human dignity, to repentance, to regeneration becomes practically impossible for him. What is more, the example, the possibility of such intransigence have a contagious effect upon the whole of society: such power is a temptation. A society which can look upon such a phenomenon with indifference is already contaminated to its foundations. Put briefly, the right given to one man to administer corporal punishment to another is one of society’s running sores, one of the most effective means of destroying in it every attempt at, every embryo of civic consciousness, and a basic factor in its certain and inexorable dissolution.”

  2. Formerly T-Bear

    Is it too early to go all OT and ask how Sterling is progressing?

    Fantastic catch jcapan.

    Am of the school that belief is like a flag on a pole, pointing whichever direction the wind happens to be blowing, whereas fact is like the towering rock upon which the wind-driven wave breaks from whatever direction, and knowledge is having the map of where these rocks are located so as to avoid wrecking upon them. FWIW

  3. hidflect

    So does this mean it’s acceptable to be a Culturalist instead of a Racist? To base a general discrimination on the assumption of the precepts of the country from which the person comes from? i.e. People from Arab nations are more misogynistic? People from Norway are more likely to be p1ss-heads?

  4. Carol Newquist

    You bet. People can, and do, believe anything, up to and including their own bullshit. For example, people believe Pat Lang is a good person and worth reading. Incredible, but there it is. I suppose it’s because he’s an empath afterall….a hard-hearted one, but still, empathic. So long as you felt sympathy for the village you destroyed to save it, it’s all good.

  5. alyosha

    I concluded toward the tail end of the Bush years, even while getting radicalized by these same years in the US, that had I been born five years after my real birthdate, and into a slightly different family, that I would likely have become a Republican, and one of the worst, uncaring kind. A real jackass. Wouldn’t have taken much. I consider it pretty miraculous karma that I grew up when I did – during the 1960s in the US.

    I completely agree with the thesis that our beliefs are very much a product of our conditioning. And while the dominance of neoliberal ideology is the easiest thing to point to as the source of this conditioning, I’m less convinced that this is absolutely the root cause. Could be, or it could be something deeper (of which neoliberal ideology is the result). But the plasticity of people is a given.

  6. Jessica

    “And while the dominance of neoliberal ideology is the easiest thing to point to as the source of this conditioning, I’m less convinced that this is absolutely the root cause.”

    I agree on both counts. Surely the degree of acceptance of neoliberal ideology begs for explanation.
    Some factors are easily visible: deliberate programs from the elite to inculcate that ideology, the collapse of the Soviet Union as a potential rival (however extremely flawed), the nearly universal decline of the labor movement. Perhaps a step deeper: the dispersal of many of the jobs that had been the base of the labor movement and automation in the first world, (in the US at least) the defunding and stripping of autonomy of universities.
    I see as pivotal the rise of a knowledge worker class large enough to split off politically from the classic (material) working class. In the US, this occurs with the movements of the 1960s. Before that, a left apart from the labor movement simply was not possible. Above all, the fact that so far this emergent knowledge worker class has politically sided with the elite against the traditional working class.
    There are many complexly interacting factors at work and many ways to try to grasp the process of neoliberal dominance well enough to have a handle for undoing it.

  7. ” Tellingly, it can even override hardwired traits.”

    Out of curiosity, what does he think those traits are?

  8. I’m going to ditto Alyosha and Jessica. Without an understanding of how predatory capitalism is stealing our labor and our time, Americans think TINA (there is no alternative). But there are alternatives. One of my favorite quotes is by Oscar Wilde on philanthropy over a hundred years ago. There were quite a bit of alternatives then.

    We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.

    Soon after this Edward Bernays and others started the marketing of Americans and citizens became consumers and personnel eventually became human resources. And neo-liberalism became a religion with its high priests from the University of Chicago.
    But without a real sense of what solidarity is by being part of bottom up unions like the I.W.W., or craft guilds, we feel adrift and alone out of the swirling seas. Without the formation of Mutual Aid Societies rather than charities, we crouch alone in our rooms.
    Surely it is time once again to be disobedient, ungrateful, discontented and rebellious.

  9. Ian Welsh

    At a guess, hardwired traits include both the drive for survival and empathy.

  10. Jessica

    “Surely it is time once again to be disobedient, ungrateful, discontented and rebellious.”
    Even more so, it is time to form “mutual aid societies”, some of which may look fairly different from how they looked in the past.
    Because “disobedient, ungrateful, discontented and rebellious” is still oriented toward the elites, but “mutual aid societies” can be oriented toward doing without our elites altogether.

  11. Celsius 233

    “… but “mutual aid societies” can be oriented toward doing without our elites altogether.”
    Now there’s a concept for which, the time has clearly come.
    Now, if you can just figure out how to find common ground between all of the fractured aspects of a no longer homogeneous society…

  12. jessica

    My guess is that the best path forward now is to be building our “mutual aid societies” on fairly small scales and that what will allow them to coalesce into something larger will arise out of the efforts and experience of building our “mutual aid societies”.
    At least that is my “small mammals stealing the dinosaurs eggs” approach to dealing with the current social structure, which is hyper-militarized, hyper-sensitive and aggressive to certain threats, but blind in many ways and in the end, unable to offer any way forward.

  13. Tony Wikrent

    If and when neuroscholars begin to probe the impact of economic neo-liberal culture on the neurological capacity for empathy, I expect there to be massive outcry and push-back when they begin focusing their lenses on violent video games and music.

    We already know that plants respond more positively, in terms of cellular growth, to Haydn or Bach, than Guns N Roses or Molly Hatchet.

  14. atcooper


    I’ve wondered about violent media’s influence n the culture at large, and by how I worded that, you may be ale to guess where I ended up on that question. It strikes me as a chicken and egg problem.

    The country has been on a more or less permanent war footing since World War Two. (Something like only a few months worth of peace when you add up all the police actions, public or not.)

    Americans are a war loving people by and large. I don’t agree with it at all, but what other conclusions about Americans can be had from the facts? Constant brainwashing and acquiescence only goes so far I think.

    The only out I have found and am internalizing as fast as I can is that I am a citizen of the world, and a subject of the tyranny of the majority here at home.

  15. Jessica, let’s do both. Occupy was fueled by discontent at Wall Street and what neo-liberalism had done to people’s dreams. They were rebellious in taking back the commons; their space. But as soon as they actually occupied the spaces, they discovered the need for mutual aid. It was quite wonderful to see those kitchens and libraries and the dancing and music.
    I recently went to a local appreciation picnic for a local charitable group. It has the potential to be a mutual aid society, but right now it is the typical do good organization of mostly elites who are helping the less fortunate. They have their token recipient of their largesse perform for them on the instrument they helped purchase. These are decent people but they don’t know the difference between mutual aid and charity. They have a board made up of all elites. Not one regular working man or woman. Again, they see the board as fund raisers and agenda setters. I’m not sure anybody has even challenged their thinking by asking them to expand the board to those they seek to help like working women. In Germany companies have to have the assembly line workers represented on the board or the janitor on the bank board. We don’t even do that.
    So I thought of infiltrating already existing groups and stirring the pot a bit. But you may be quite right about starting small and see if the idea catches on. At least it might start the conversation about what exactly a mutual aid society is.
    Chicken and the egg.

  16. someofparts

    I was looking at Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism this weekend. The sort of empathy-bereft people we are talking about here are born tools for the worst sort of purposes, if history is any guide.

  17. Jessica

    Yes, definitely.
    After a lifetime of hearing her quoted, I have been reading Hannah Arendt too. Not a coincidence, I am sure.

  18. alyosha

    I was wasting time, reading, with burning curiosity how Miley Cyrus Admits to Singing about Molly. Did some research on “Molly”, which is another name for MDMA or ecstasy, a drug that induces empathy. It makes sense that this would be the popular drug for our time, a way for people to break out of the culturally induced shutting down of empathy.

  19. Regarding violence. Perhaps we have always been a country of extremes like here in Montana. Here there was fierce resistance to the idea of entering W.W. I. It especially was pacifist in Butte, the richest hill in the world where the copper miners were opposed to a rich man’s war. Even a rancher in Rosebud County, Ves Hall, was arrested under the Sedition Act of 1917 for declaring that Germany had a right to sink the Lusitania if it was carrying arms and that we should not be fighting “A Wall Street millionaire’s war.” Fortunately there was a sensible judge, Judge Bourquin, who acquitted the rancher. He found the remarks “unspeakable” but weren’t seditious as they couldn’t possibly harm the military as they were uttered in a town of 60 people thousands of miles away from the battlefields.
    At the same time, Montana had set up “Councils of Defense” to weed out slackers, Wobblies, and traitors. With the Ves Hall verdict they went into full gear getting laws passed to outlaw history books that had favorable mentions of Germany and even banning the German language.
    (From the Book “Twentieth Century Montana; A State of Extremes” by K. Ross Toole. in a chapter called “The Inquisition”.)
    In “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America” by Colin Woodard, he makes a case that we are divided culturally and always have been by where our forefathers/mothers came from. A lot of Germans came here to escape being conscripted into the Kaiser’s armies and were anti war. In the Hill Country of Texas they made a monument to peace. In this book Woodard sees hope in the First Nation movement in Canada and the immigrant movement in Southwest U.S. and Northern Mexico. Maybe the rest of us have been hopelessly scrubbed of our immigrant memories of trying to establish a peaceful and just world and have allowed the warlike mountain people to take over.
    My small pockets of resistance are things like celebrating the 4th of July by serving Thai food and wearing purple. No one should be forced to make pledges of any kind, especially to some piece of cloth. And we should not have to applaud our military every time we take off in an airplane. Let’s applaud the teachers on board and the mechanics who inspected the plane.

  20. BlizzardOfOz

    “A Wall Street millionaire’s war.”

    The politics of this country are more complicated than advertised, once you scratch the veneer painted on by Wall Street’s media.

  21. Thank you for linking to Gary Olaun’s piece, Ian, and causing me to poke around a bit about mirror neurons, brain plasticity and empathy deficits in recent generations. I didn’t find even that totally convincing, as the theory seemed more about: physically mirroring actions observed, then *anticipating actions* than feelings, but who knows?

    As far as what’s hardwired, there seem to be a lot of theories, as there are concerning how consciences develop (or not), and what the relationship of empathy and consciences is, including the whole concept of ‘emotional cognition’. So much to learn, so little time…

    But it did occur to me that even if we agree that empathy is hardwired, as per the studies of two-year-olds being upset by small dilemmas that they could solve, and did…there also seem to be many reasons that brains can be negatively impacted in utero, as well, from missing nutrients, alcohol, massive prenatal stressors, probably toxic chemicals, etc.. Some authors like Jonathan Kellerman are convinced that more and more sociopaths are walking among us now that it’s now a feature, not a bug. Dunno about that, but in addition, think of all the ways our brains and nervous systems have likely been affected by: biotech zombie foods and their poisons, sincerely compromised water supplies, bigPharma gone-wrong meds, poisoned air (including mercury), radiation in dust storms and now the food chain (Fukushima, for instance), and the constant stressors of isolation by fear (including of ‘other’ tribes and teams, the oppressive hammers brought down on dissenters, and the lies and ‘alerts’ brought by mainstream news. Edward Bernays had it right, imo, in how to control the masses with ease.

    Olaun and friends may be right about neoliberalism as a cause, but I’d submit that it’s the propagandists selling the system, not just the system itself. In addition, I put a lot of stock in Alice Miller’s ideas of ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ and the drive to cause children to submit to authoritarian ‘honor thy father’ rule that may be part of the core cause. She speaks to the dangerous practice of corporal punishment and constant shaming and withholding of approval except for submitting to authority adequately, as we see in most schools, workplaces, and too often in our communities.

    I’d add into the lack of conscience and empathy causes: attachment disorders, which are very slowly being understood over the past couple decades as limiting empathy and human connections in some of the same ways fetal alcohol syndrome and its lesser degree, fetal alcohol effect do (although they may be related to bonding disorders as well).

    Sorry for the length, but I’ve been thinking about making a comment for several days, and this was the shortest version I could write. And the reason I decided to at all was reading the newest published names of 61 more children assassinated by drone in Pakistan in 2006 as per the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s new report, whether that makes any sense or not.

    @ Carol Newquist: I don’t understand your comment about Pat Lang. One diarist at my.fdl quotes him a lot, but I rarely read his stuff since its always in an unreadable format for my eyes.

  22. John Puma

    Olson’s critical comment is: “There is sufficient evidence that our potential for empathic engagement is being subverted by the dominant economic system and its ideology.”

    He leaves out, of course, that not it is only “our potential for empathic engagement” but also our species’s ability to physically survive that we are subverting by allowing the continued functioning of “the dominant economic system and its ideology.”

    Only when this message becomes THE “specific, repetitive cultural priming” does anything meaningful begin to happen.

  23. Interesting stuff (and neuroscience is a particular interest of mine), though I confess I found it hard to get past Olson’s academic jargon and desperately wanted to take a red pen to the thing. I’ll especially never get past “empathy” being preferred nowadays to the time-honored mot juste “sympathy.” Sorry, I know I’m an insufferable schoolmarm.

  24. someofparts

    Last week at work I took a call from a gentleman who was practically hysterical because he couldn’t find 22 caliber ammunition. This has nothing to do with what actually goes on at my office. It’s just that the place is huge and calls often get lost if what the caller needs isn’t easy to pigeonhole. I usually try to help callers like that, just to put an end to the shunting about from person to person they have already had to sit through. So, I put the guy on hold and called three or four places in town until I found one that had what he wanted.

    In the process of making those calls I got an education. People in the countryside around my city are stockpiling astounding reserves of ammunition. So far it looks like the results will be a variation on what happened in the inner cities decades ago. People will begin fighting each other instead of organizing against the ones really pulling the strings.

    In the world that I see taking shape around me for the near future, protecting the flicker of human sympathy feels like trying to protect a kitten in a den of wolves.

  25. “People will begin fighting each other instead of organizing against the ones really pulling the strings.”


  26. alyosha

    I’ll especially never get past “empathy” being preferred nowadays to the time-honored mot juste “sympathy.”

    It’s an important distinction, the two words are not synonymous. I’ve often had to explain this to incredulous right wingers – which forced me to think about it. My unschooled, seat of the pants definitions are: Empathy at least means you understand someone emotionally, where they’re coming from. Sympathy includes empathy but also means you’re with them, you’re willing to take sides. Empathy is about pure understanding alone.

    I can empathize with the guys who blew up the Boston Marathon and yet also believe they should stand for their crimes. Despite the gross horrors my country has inflicted on the Middle East, my sympathy for them is nonetheless limited. Empathy gives me some idea where they’re coming from. Sympathy would mean that I’m more willing to come to their defense.

    When talking with right wingers on this subject (which horrifies them), it helps to offer Sun Tzu and his famous dictum, “Know your enemy”. You can’t really know anyone to any significant degree until you can empathize with them. You don’t have to be for them, but it’s critical to understand them. Without empathy/understanding, your response to a threat is going to miss the mark, more so than if you actually understand where an enemy is coming from. Wingnuts kind of begrudgingly get the practicality of this argument, if not its actual practice.

    @someofparts – I’ve often thought that we’re going to be seeing some unfortunate consequences of that 2nd amendment we’ve got going in this country.

    @montanamaven – bookmarked “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America”. It sounds terrific, although my enjoyment at studying a detailed engineering diagram of the Titanic, however grand, is going to have to take a back seat to simply getting off the ship.

  27. alyosha, yes, I’ve heard/read all these things before. Sorry, I don’t buy it. “Empathy” is a term that was coined at the turn of the century and that didn’t start to come into widespread popular use until the 1990s. “Sympathy,” a lovely word that is nuanced and expressive in so many ways, was always understood to encompass what people now claim “empathy” means. “Empathy,” to me, is jargon. “Empath” and “empathic” are even more cringe-inducing and, in addition, have a meaning completely different from the way Olson uses them.

    But I know this is a lost battle. I know I’m in the tiny minority on this and I accept it.

  28. Carol Newquist

    @ Carol Newquist: I don’t understand your comment about Pat Lang. One diarist at my.fdl quotes him a lot, but I rarely read his stuff since its always in an unreadable format for my eyes.

    Do you have any knowledge of Omar Suleiman? He was Egypt’s Chief Torturer and the CIA’s go-to man for renditions to Egypt. He’s now deceased, but Pat Lang was once upon a time his counterpart in the U.S….meaning Lang was the Director of Human Intelligence once upon a time. He’s now retired and consults (one can only imagine what this constitutes). Pat Lang was personal friends with Suleiman and touted him often. Here’s an article that goes rather light on the subject. If you dig deep enough, the things they did as it relates to torture are sadistic and barbaric, and since Lang was involved in Special Ops for a good part of his military career and later Human Intelligence, you can be sure he was mixed up in, and ordered and condoned, these same kinds of atrocities. Lang is often read and quoted by Liberals because of his criticism of U.S. foreign policy, but especially his criticism of Bush’s occupation of Iraq. I don’t think his criticisms are magnanimous because I don’t believe he is a magnanimous individual. I believe he has been involved in what I would describe as numerous war crimes up to and including hunting down Che Guevara and assisting in Che’s execution. To make a long story short, he threatened me both on his blog and in email. This isn’t just some anonymous nobody threatening, this is the former Director of Human Intelligence. There are people who post to his blog, some of his young military fans, who have implied a military coup and him as the leader. No joke, someone said that once, and he didn’t discount them or admonish them. I could tell you in email more about the threats, and what went down, but the bottom line is Ian knows and still keeps the link to Pat Lang’s blog. There is no solidarity on the left. I can’t and won’t hang with that. Nobody has anyone’s back. Hell, they can’t even remove the link to a blog of a monster. It starts there. If you can’t even do that, it’s all a bunch of hot air.

  29. Ian Welsh

    If your idea of solidarity is taking someone off my blogroll…

    Lang writes some useful things. Those things are useful for people to understand. Blogroll links go to useful blogs (or my friends, Pat Lang is not a friend). You may rest assured that the amount of pressure any of my blogroll links exert is so close to zero that Pat Lang has made effectively no money from said link.

    Solidarity is when a sickly left-wing blogger needs money, and I give it to him so he can move to a better home and not die. And that, among other things, I have done.

    Pat Lang has made threats against you, he has not acted on them in any way I am aware of.

    You are becoming a one-issue commenter in my comments. And, in most cases, your issue is off topic for the thread.

    Don’t hang here if this is all you want to talk about.

  30. Carol Newquist

    Great, thanks Ian. Exactly what I expected. Yes, I won’t hang here. You are as bankrupt as Detroit and have no credibility whatsoever. Empathy, my ass. Hitler had useful things to say as well, no doubt, but I’m betting the Jews weren’t quoting his feigned intellectualism in the gas chambers at prison camps. Keep fighting that fight, folks, but don’t you dare claim it’s the good fight, because that couldn’t be further from the truth.

  31. someofparts

    Saw the movie about Hannah Arendt this week. Had no idea she was so vilified for the things she said about the Eichmann trial. Meanwhile, reading her work on totalitarianism this week, decades after she wrote it, I’m finding that her insights into the people in power in Washington right now is more useful, more insightful, than almost anything being written by my contemporaries.

  32. alyosha

    I also enjoyed Hannah Arendt (maybe I wrote about it here, don’t remember). Her life is a study in the distinction between empathy and sympathy. Because she was willing to understand the hated Eichmann – whom she realized was just a clown (her words), a boob in a machine – she caught furious hell from from all the Jews who hated him for his role in the Holocaust. They thought she was sympathizing with him, and so they turned against her.

    The same reaction plays out today whenever we try to understand our current “enemies”. I’ve often gotten the cold shoulder from my countrymen/women when I try to explain their actions. I must be “for” the terrorists, in their minds.

    BTW, “Hannah Arendt” is brilliant, not only because of the redoubtable Barbara Sukowa in the lead role, but because of the way it integrates actual footage from the Eichmann trial. You get to see the real Eichmann squirming and trying to justify himself, while on the stand in a literal glass box. You get to see in Eichmann what Arendt saw.

  33. someofparts

    One of the things I’m getting from reading her work is a worrisome sense that my cultural fellow travelers are misunderstanding the motives of our enemies.

    I wish we were as careful about unleashing dangerous people as we are about keeping dangerous dogs under control. Maybe we should start sending muzzles to some of our more dreadful politicians and see if they will take the hint.

  34. I first read Hannah Arendt over 30 years ago. Her books are still on my shelf and I still refer to them. My sig line used to link to a quotation of hers; I only recently changed it. Maybe I’ll go back to it.

  35. Celsius 233

    @ jcapan July 20, 2013

    Kudos to you for that post.
    I did read Gary Olson’s piece; very good as far as it goes.
    We’re a nation founded on/by violence against “other”.
    Once the Constitution and Bill of Rights were set to ink and codified; we the people have been manipulated, lied to, and generally led by the nose. This is history, from the beginning and we now expect to some how regain that which we never truly embraced?
    More mythology crammed down our throats as lost wisdom and general goodness?
    I do, however, agree we used to be more empathic; but rather towards the familiar; never towards the “other”.
    There is a hole that goes back to the tribalism from which we emerged; the “other” is dangerous, not to be trusted, flee from or attack it.
    We’ve never grown past that mentality; we’ve yet to mature as a species. We look for depth in a shallow pool.
    That is my considered experience, which I saw and experienced 60 years ago.
    I don’t see an appreciable difference today.

  36. Celsius 233

    I’m assuming that last post was a spam attack, yes?
    Seems this is getting more and more serious…
    I wonder in light of all of the revelations of late;
    could this be harassment? I’m having major problems with some sites, which never used to be problematic. Oh the paranoia; inevitable, given the times…

  37. Ian Welsh

    I get lots of spam, this one just made it through the filter.

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