Understanding the Republican Cult of Personality

Paul Krugman explains what social science says about personality cults, such as, oh,  today’s Republican Party, and how these cults support dictatorships around the world:

. . . One paper in particular, by the New Zealand-based researcher Xavier Márquez; I found . . . revelatory.

“The Mechanisms of Cult Production” compares the behavior of political elites across a wide range of dictatorial regimes, from Caligula’s Rome to the Kim family’s North Korea, and finds striking similarities. Despite vast differences in culture and material circumstances, elites in all such regimes engage in pretty much the same behavior, especially what the paper dubs “loyalty signaling” and “flattery inflation.”

Signaling is a concept originally drawn from economics; it says that people sometimes engage in costly, seemingly pointless behavior as a way to prove that they have attributes others value. For example, new hires at investment banks may work insanely long hours, not because the extra hours are actually productive, but to demonstrate their commitment to feeding the money machine.

In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling typically involves making absurd claims on behalf of the Leader and his agenda, often including “nauseating displays of loyalty.” If the claims are obvious nonsense and destructive in their effects, if making those claims humiliates the person who makes them, these are features, not bugs. I mean, how does the Leader know if you’re truly loyal unless you’re willing to demonstrate your loyalty by inflicting harm both on others and on your own reputation?

And once this kind of signaling becomes the norm, those trying to prove their loyalty have to go to ever greater extremes to differentiate themselves from the pack. Hence “flattery inflation”: The Leader isn’t just brave and wise, he’s a perfect physical specimen, a brilliant health expert, a Nobel-level economic analyst, and more. The fact that he’s obviously none of these things only enhances the effectiveness of the flattery as a demonstration of loyalty.

Does all of this sound familiar? Of course it does, at least to anyone who has been tracking Fox News or the utterances of political figures like [Senator] Lindsey Graham or [House Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy.

Many people, myself included, have declared for years that the G.O.P. is no longer a normal political party. It doesn’t look anything like, say, Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican Party or Germany’s Christian Democrats. But it bears a growing resemblance to the ruling parties of autocratic regimes.

The only unusual thing about the party’s wholesale adoption of the Leader Principle is that Republicans doesn’t have a monopoly on power; in fact, the party controls neither Congress nor the White House. Politicians suspected of insufficient loyalty to T___ and T___ism in general aren’t sent to the gulag. At most, they stand to lose intraparty offices and, possibly, future primaries. Yet such is the timidity of Republican politicians that these mild threats are apparently enough to make many of them behave like Caligula’s courtiers.

Unfortunately, all this loyalty signaling is putting the whole nation at risk. In fact, it will almost surely kill large numbers of Americans in the next few months.

The stalling of America’s initially successful vaccination drive isn’t entirely driven by partisanship — some people, especially members of minority groups, are failing to get vaccinated for reasons having little to do with current politics.

But politics is nonetheless clearly a key factor: Republican politicians and Republican-oriented influencers have driven much of the opposition to Covid-19 vaccines, in some cases engaging in what amounts to outright sabotage. And there is a stunning negative correlation between T___’s share of a county’s vote in 2020 and its current vaccination rate.

How did lifesaving vaccines become politicized? As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein suggests, today’s Republicans are always looking for ways to show that they’re more committed to the cause than their colleagues are — and given how far down the rabbit hole the party has already gone, the only way to do that is “nonsense and nihilism,” advocating crazy and destructive policies, like opposing vaccines.

That is, hostility to vaccines has become a form of loyalty signaling.

None of this should be taken to imply that Republicans are the root of all evil or that their opponents are saints . . . But the G.O.P. has become something different, with, as far as I know, no precedent in American history although with many precedents abroad. Republicans have created for themselves a political realm in which costly demonstrations of loyalty transcend considerations of good policy or even basic logic. . . .

The Original Sin

These are the opening and closing paragraphs of a review in The New York Review of Books (the review is “Uncanny Planet” by Mark O’Connor; the book is Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade by Nathaniel Rich):

In the opening lines of the Bible, having brought forth the world and everything in it, God makes his inaugural address to Adam and Eve. “Be fruitful, and multiply,” he tells them, “and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” God’s first, foundational decree explicitly casts the relationship between humanity and nature as one of separation and control. The whole sorry business with the serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the banishment doesn’t come about for another two chapters, but if you were in the mood for a little heretical revisionism you might argue, just for fun, that the true original sin can be located not in man’s first disobedience, but in God’s first command.

The attitude toward nature that He defines and sanctifies with those words is, after all, precisely the attitude that led human beings to exploit nature so ruthlessly, and for so long, that the planet is now in danger of becoming unlivable for vast numbers of its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. Our adherence to this view of the world and our place within it, in other words, has amounted to its own kind of Fall. . . .

[The first line of Stewart Brand’s original Whole Earth Catalog — “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it” —] recalls Francis Bacon’s characterization of his scientific work, and by implication that of the scientific method itself, as rescuing humanity from its fallen state. Bacon saw science and technology as the means by which we could reclaim our former oneness with the divine. The “true ends of knowledge,” he wrote, were in

a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power (for whensoever he shall be able to call creatures by their true names he shall again command them) which he had in his first state of creation.

The path of knowledge that led us out of Eden will, if we follow it long enough, eventually lead us back. . . . 

Though Rich’s book is hardly what you’d call a polemic, the stories in it gather toward an argument, which could be seen as a less nakedly utopian version of Bacon’s aims. There are over 7.5 billion of us on a rapidly warming planet; the seas are rising, the forests are burning, and every year hundreds of species go the way of the passenger pigeon. There is no reversing the Fall. There is no going back to whatever might be meant by “nature.” We must become “as gods,” not in order to return to a state of prelapsarian wholeness, but to move forward to some kind of livable future.

Global Warming ➜ Heat Dome

From professor of atmospheric science Michael Mann for The New York Times:

. . . Though we’re only one week into official summer, the characteristically cool Pacific Northwest has turned into a caldron of triple-digit temperatures, with Portland, Ore., and Seattle reaching record highs of 115 and 108 degrees, respectively. That’s unseasonably hot — for Phoenix.

The western United States is currently under the influence of an epic heat dome, an expansive region of high atmospheric pressure characterized by heat, drought and heightened fire danger. It’s being called a once-in-a-millennium event . . .

[However,] all bets are off when one accounts for human-caused warming. It no longer makes sense to talk about a once-in-a-century or once-in-a-millennium event as if we’re just rolling an ordinary pair of dice, because we’ve loaded the dice through fossil fuel burning and other human activities that generate carbon pollution and warm the planet. It’s as if snake eyes, which should occur randomly only once every 36 times you rolled a pair of dice, were coming up once every four times.

Might a heat dome have developed out West this past week without climate change? Sure.

Might it have been as extreme as what we’re witnessing without climate change? Almost surely not.

If we step back a bit, we see a disturbing pattern. With this latest heat wave, Canada observed its hottest day on record: 116 degrees in British Columbia. Less than a year ago, the United States set its own record — the highest temperature reliably recorded on the entire planet, in fact — with a 130 degree reading in Death Valley . . .

Yes, the dice have been loaded, and not in our favor. If climate change were a casino, we’d be hemorrhaging cash. Wildfires, heat waves, floods and superstorms, many exacerbated by climate change, collectively cost the United States nearly $100 billion in 2020. As the climate advocate Greta Thunberg so poignantly put it, “Our house is on fire.”

We’ve long known that a warming climate would yield more extremely hot weather. The science is clear on how human-caused climate change is already affecting heat waves: Global warming has caused them to be hotter, larger, longer and more frequent. What were once very rare events are becoming more common.

Heat waves now occur three times as often as they did in the 1960s — on average at least six times a year in the United States in the 2010s. Record-breaking hot months are occurring five times more often than would be expected without global warming. And heat waves have become larger, affecting 25 percent more land area in the Northern Hemisphere than they did in 1980; including ocean areas, heat waves grew 50 percent.

These changes matter because extreme heat is the deadliest form of extreme weather in the United States, causing more deaths on average than hurricanes and floods, combined, over the past 30 years. Recent research projects that heat stress will triple in the Pacific Northwest by 2100 unless aggressive action is taken to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

Some still refuse to acknowledge the dire warning that Mother Nature is sending us. They say the science is too unsettled to take action. But uncertainty, if anything, is a reason for taking even more dramatic action to reduce carbon emissions. Uncertainty is not our friend. And the current heat dome is an excellent example of why.

The heat wave afflicting the Pacific Northwest is characterized by what is known as an omega block pattern, because of the shape the sharply curving jet stream makes, like the Greek letter omega (Ω). This omega curve is part of a pattern of pronounced north-south wiggles made by the jet stream as it traverses the Northern Hemisphere. It is an example of a phenomenon known as wave resonance, which . . . is increasingly favored by the dramatic warming of the Arctic.

By decreasing the contrast in temperature between the cold pole and warm subtropics, the amplified warming of the Arctic causes the jet stream to slow down and, under the right circumstances, like the ones prevailing now, settle into a very wiggly and rather stable configuration. That, in turn, allows very deep high pressure centers, like the current heat dome, to remain locked in place over a region, as it is over the Pacific Northwest.

Those climate models that the critics claim are alarmist do a poor job of reproducing this phenomenon. That means that the models do not account for this critical factor behind many of the persistent and damaging weather extremes we’ve seen in recent years, including the heat dome.

But there is a way out of this nightmare of ever-worsening weather extremes, and it’s one that will serve us well in many other ways, too. A rapid transition to clean energy can stabilize the climate, improve our health, provide good-paying jobs, grow the economy and ensure our children’s future. The choice is ours [i.e. humanity’s].

Does Consciousness Reside in the Brain’s Electromagnetic Field?

At bottom, it all seems to be a bunch of fields:

In the modern framework of the quantum theory of fields, a field occupies space, contains energy, and its presence precludes a classical “true vacuum”. This has led physicists to consider electromagnetic fields to be a physical entity, making the field concept a supporting paradigm of the edifice of modern physics [Wikipedia].

So maybe consciousness is a special type of field generated by brains. Johnjoe McFadden is a professor of molecular genetics in England. He’s written about his electromagnetic field theory of consciousness for Aeon:

Just how do the atoms and molecules that make up the neurons in our brain . . . manage to generate human awareness and the power of thought? In answering that longstanding question, most neurobiologists today would point to the information-processing performed by brain neurons. . . . This [begins] as soon as light and sound [reach the] eyes and ears, stimulating . . . neurons to fire in response to different aspects of [the] environment. . . .

Each ‘firing’ event involves the movement of electrically charged atoms called ions in and out of the neurons. That movement triggers a kind of chain reaction that travels from one nerve cell to another via logical rules, roughly analogous to the AND, OR and NOT Boolean operations performed by today’s computer gates, in order to generate outputs such as speech. So, within milliseconds of . . . glancing at [an object], the firing rate of millions of neurons in [the] brain [correlates] with thousands of visual features of the [object] and its [surroundings]. . . .

Yet information-processing clearly isn’t sufficient for conscious knowing. Computers process lots of information yet have not exhibited the slightest spark of consciousness [note: or so we believe]. Several decades ago, in an essay exploring the phenomenology of consciousness, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked us to imagine what it’s like to be a bat. This feature of being-like-something, of having a perspective on the world, captures something about what it means to be a truly conscious ‘knower’. In [a] hospital room watching my son’s EEG, I wondered what it was like to be one of his neurons, processing the information [from] the slamming of a door [in the hall]. As far as we can tell, an individual neuron knows just one thing – its firing rate.

It fires or doesn’t fire based on its inputs, so the information it carries is pretty much equivalent to the zero or one of binary computer language. It thereby encodes just a single bit of information. The value of that bit, whether a zero or a one, might correlate with the slamming of a door, but it says nothing about the door’s shape, its colour, its use as a portal between rooms or the noise of its slamming – all features that I’m sure were part of my son’s conscious experience. I concluded that being a single neuron in my son’s brain would not feel like anything.

Of course, you could argue, as neurobiologists usually do, that although a single neuron might know next to nothing, the collection of 100 billion neurons in my son’s brain knew everything in his mind and would thereby feel like something. But this explanation bumps into what’s known as the binding problem, which asks how all the information in millions of widely distributed neurons in the brain come together to create a single complex yet unified conscious perception of, say, a room . . .

Watching those wiggly lines march across the EEG screen gave me the germ of a different idea, something that didn’t boil down to pure neuronal computation or information-processing. Every time a neuron fires, along with the matter-based signal that travels down its wire-like nerve fibre, it also projects a tiny electromagnetic (EM) pulse into the surrounding space, rather like the signal from your phone when you send a text. So when my son heard the door close, as well as triggering the firing of billions of nerves, its slamming would have projected billions of tiny pulses of electromagnetic energy into his brain. These pulses flow into each other to generate a kind of pool of EM energy that’s called an electromagnetic field – something that neurobiologists have neglected when probing the nature of consciousness.

Neurobiologists have known about the brain’s EM field for more than a century but have nearly always dismissed it as having no more relevance to its workings than the exhaust of a car has to its steering. Yet, since information is just correlation, I knew that the underlying brain EM field tremors that generated the spikes on the EEG screen knew the slamming of the hospital door, just as much as the neurons whose firing generated those tremors. However, I also had enough physics to know that there was a crucial difference between a million scattered neurons firing and the EM field generated by their firing. The information encoded by the million discrete bits of information in a million scattered neurons is physically unified within a single brain EM field.

The unity of EM fields is apparent whenever you use wifi. Perhaps you’re streaming a radio documentary . . . on your phone while another family member is watching a movie, and another is listening to streamed music. Remarkably, all this information, whether movies, pictures, messages or music, is instantly available to be downloaded from any point in the vicinity of your router. This is because – unlike the information encoded in discrete units of matter such as computer gates or neurons – EM field information is encoded as immaterial waves that travel at the speed of light from their source to their receiver. Between source and receiver, all those waves encoding different messages overlap and intermingle to become a single EM field of physically bound information with as much unity as a single photon or electron, and which can be downloaded from any point in the field. The field, and everything encoded in it, is everywhere.

While watching my son’s EEG marching across the screen, I wondered what it was like to be his brain’s EM field pulsing with physically bound information correlating with all of his sense perceptions. I guessed it would feel a lot like him.

Locating consciousness in the brain’s EM field might seem bizarre, but is it any more bizarre than believing that awareness resides in matter? Remember Albert Einstein’s equation, E = mc2. All it involves is moving from the matter-based right-hand side of the equation to energy located on the left-hand side. Both are physical, but whereas matter encodes information as discrete particles separated in space, energy information is encoded as overlapping fields in which information is bound up into single unified wholes. Locating the seat of consciousness in the brain’s EM field thereby solves the binding problem of understanding how information encoded in billions of distributed neurons is unified in our (EM field-based) conscious mind. It is a form of dualism, but a scientific dualism based on the difference between matter and energy, rather than matter and spirit.

Awareness is then what this joined-up EM field information feels like from the inside. So, for example, the experience of hearing a door slam is what an EM field perturbation in the brain that correlates with a door slamming, and all of its memory neuron-encoded associations, feels like, from the inside.

But why? Whether neurons are firing synchronously should make no difference to their information-processing operations. Synchrony makes no sense for a consciousness located in neurons – but if we place consciousness in the brain’s EM field, then its association with synchrony becomes inevitable.

Toss a handful of pebbles into a still pond and, where the peak of one wave meets the trough of another, they cancel out each other to cause destructive interference. However, when the peaks and troughs line up, then they reinforce each other to make a bigger wave: constructive interference. The same will happen in the brain. When millions of disparate neurons recording or processing features of my desk fire asynchronously, then their waves will cancel out each other to generate zero EM field. Yet when those same neurons fire synchronously, then their waves will line up to cause constructive interference to project a strong EM signal into my brain’s EM field, what I now call the conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field. I will see my desk.

I’ve been publishing on cemi field theory since 2000, and recently published an update in 2020. A key component of the theory is its novel insight into the nature of what we call ‘free will’. . . . Most non-modern people . . . probably believed that [a] supernatural soul was the driver of . . . willed actions. When . . . secular philosophers and scientists exorcised the soul from the body, voluntary actions became just another motor output of neuronal computation – no different from those that drive non-conscious actions such as walking, blinking, chewing or forming grammatically correct sentences.

Then why do willed actions feel so different? In a 2002 paper, I proposed that free will is our experience of the cemi field acting on neurons to initiate voluntary actions. Back then, there wasn’t much evidence for EM fields influencing neural firing – but experiments by David McCormick at Yale University School of Medicine in 2010 and Christof Koch at Caltech in 2011 have demonstrated that neurons can indeed be perturbed by weak, brain-strength, EM fields. At the very least, their experiments suggest the plausibility of a wifi component of neuronal information processing, which I claim is experienced as ‘free will’.

The cemi field theory also accounts for why our non-conscious and conscious minds operate differently. One of the most striking differences between the two is that our non-conscious mind can do many things at once, but we are able to engage in only one conscious task at a time. [Try to] divide a number like 11,357 by 71 while concentrating on a game of chess. Our non-conscious mind appears to be a parallel processor, whereas our conscious mind is a serial processor that can operate only one task at a time.

The cemi field theory accounts for these two modes by first accepting that most brain information-processing – the non-conscious sort – goes solely through its neuronal ‘wires’ that don’t interact through EM fields. This allows different tasks to be allocated to different circuits. In our distant past, all neural computation likely took this parallel-processing neuronal route. . . . However, at some point in our evolutionary history, our ancestors’ skulls became packed with more and more neurons such that adjacent neurons started to interfere with each other through their EM field interactions. Mostly, the interference would have impaired function. Natural selection would then have kicked in to insulate neurons involved in these vital functions.

Occasionally, electrical interference might have been beneficial. For example, the EM field interactions might have conferred the ability to compute with complex joined-up packets of EM field information, rather than mere bits. When this happened, natural selection would have pulled in the other direction, to increase EM field sensitivity. Yet there was also a downside to this way of processing information. Remember the pebbles tossed into the pond: they interfere with one another. Different ideas dropped into the brain’s cemi field similarly interfere with one another. Our conscious cemi-field mind inevitably became a serial computer that can do only one thing at a time.