Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance, Mark Sanford and the Current Republican Electorate

In modern psychology, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel "disequilibrium": frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety .  . . . Cognitive dissonance theory explains human behavior by positing that people have a bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality. According to Festinger, people engage in a process he termed "dissonance reduction", which can be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors.[6] This bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior. (Emphasis added)


I have not seen anyone yet discuss the role cognitive dissonance might have played in yesterday's special election in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, an election that saw the self-confessed philanderer and disgraced former governor Mark Sanford win over Elizabeth Colbert Busch (ECB). The district went overwhelmingly for Romney in 2012 (by 18 percentage points), so I think it fair to label the district a pocket Republican borough. And yet, Elizabeth Colbert Busch lost by only 9 points, only one half the margin by which Obama lost in 2009. Why is that?

Cognitive dissonance theory offers one explanation for why Sanford managed to win but also why ECB managed to halve the margin by which a Dem last lost the district.

In short, Republicans in the district were faced with two conflicting "ideas, beliefs, [or] values." Specifically, Sanford was and is a self-confessed adulterer who used public money to finance his extra-marital excursions while keeping his own staff and the people of his state unaware of his whereabouts. This much is well known and thus should need no further elucidation. One can be sure that white male Republicans in the First District knew only too well about Sanford's sordid past. Against this, though, ECB offered herself to voters as a representative of, if not a progressive, then certainly a pro-choice, pro-LGBT, pro-government position.

And so cognitive dissonance enters into the arena. Republican voters felt massive anxiety, because the misogyny they manifest daily and felt toward ECB conflicted with someone (Sanford) who had violated the 'family values' those same Republican voters publicly proclaim each Sunday when they go to church and, for many, throughout the week.

Festinger hypothesized that cognitive dissonance (or the anxiety produced thereof) could be reduced -- brought into consonance -- if one of the discordant beliefs lost some of its importance. I would argue that this is exactly what transpired in SC's 1st yesterday. Republican voters reduced the importance they gave to 'family values' while maintaining their misogyny full-blown. To the extent ECB was viewed as a proxy for Obama, Republican voters maintained their racism full-blown. To the extent ECB was viwed as a proxy for non-hetero sexual identity, Republican voters maintained their homophobia full-blown.

It is easy to dismiss Republican voters as 'hypocritical' for loudly and publicly proclaiming 'family values,' while simultaneously voting for a scalawag like Sanford. By the same token, though, one must then explain why that hypocrisy exists at such an obvious level; I think cognitive dissonance explains the obvious hypocrisy better than do appeals to Republicans' innate 'evil,' 'ignorance,' and so on. Don't get me wrong: Republicans are evil and ignorant, but that does not explain why they are such obvious and public hypocrites.

I am unsure what, if any lessons, this race and its outcome hold for Democratic and Progressive strategists, nor how those strategists could exploit cognitive dissonance to achieve electoral successes. But I think there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Because cognitive dissonance cuts both ways. If many Republicans reduced their anxiety by devaluing 'family values,', I think large numbers of Republican voters reduced their anxiety by changing their views on gun control, LGBT issues and government's role in our lives. Remember that the Mormon Romney won the district by 18 points in 2012 (a cognitive dissonance story in itself), but a mere year later Sanford only won by 9 points. This result tells me that some voters reduced their cognitive dissonance by lowering the importance they ascribed to ECB's ideological stances. In other words, ECB seems to have convinced some voters previously inclined to vote Republican that her election would not herald the Apocalypse.

My musings above prompt some additional questions:

Is it fair to say that the Republican Party today is misogynist, racist and\or homophobic?

Had Democrats run a white male espousing an identical platform to ECB's, would he have fared any better against Sanford?

By the same token, would a black male espousing a platform identical to ECB's have done worse?

How might progressives exploit cognitive dissonance in coming elections to win progressive victories?

And finally, if Republican voters have reduced the importance they give to 'family values,' might this create an opening to drive a stake through the hearts of the demagogues and charlatans nurtured by such appeals to "family values"?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Zach Galifianakis and Me: A Memoir

Here's something you'll never see in Braille: "If you see something, say something."

Zach Galifianakis, Saturday Night Live, May 4, 2013


In 1998, I began playing covers and newly written original songs each Monday evening at an open mike in Santa Monica, CA at a wonderful venue on Pier St. called simply 'Creativity.' The venue had an enormous stage and seating for about 50-75 audience members. I was an amateur on the pop music scene and had only recently begun writing my own songs, so the Monday open mike was a chance to play before other musicians and stand-up comedians, all of us trying to break in to our respective entertainment fields and all searching for that key to unlock entry to the entertainment world.

The venue Creativity seemed tailor-made for my efforts, as its proprietor kept the Open Mike strictly acoustic. (Although this occurred during the hey-day of the "Unplugged" fad that swept alternative rock, I suspect the devotion to acoustic had as much to do with the proprietor not wishing to pay ASCAP and other fees.) The stand-up comedians at the time were practicing a new form of comedy called 'Alternative Comedy" or "Alternative Standup". Rather than recite a pre-canned and memorized routine, the stand-up comedians would stand on the stage holding little notebooks or pieces of paper with their observations of funny things that had happened to them just that day or that week.

One night, a mild-mannered and diminutive figure took the stage. Short and a little overweight, he seemed to pause briefly as he squinted at the tiny notebook he held in his hands. I no longer remember what he said next. But Zach Galifianakis proceeded to set the room on fire in the next 5 minutes. Keep in mind that this was a room half-full of professional stand-up comedians and, still, it is fair to say, Zach had the entire room convulsing in the type of hysterical, transformative laughter one associates with a Jack Benny or Robin Williams. I mean, everyone in the audience is laughing non-stop and I am laughing so hard my sides hurt.

Zach did not show up every Monday night. In fact, among the performers at Creativity, Zach was probably one of the more irregular of performers. (No doubt, his professional career in show-biz was already beginning to take root.) But every time he came, the room hushed in anticipation of his latest observations. Each time, the room would be reduced to that same level of existential laughter I witnessed on his first performace. And all this from a tiny little spiral notebook filled with mundane observations.

The venue Creativity eventually folded, unable to pay the sky-high Santa Monica rents from the meager offerings of its entertainiment and the poverty of its clientele. Many of the comedians subsequently relocated to a new open mike at the Gypsy Cafe, a restaurant in Westwood, CA, just down the street from the UCLA campus. This was a comedy-only open mike and no musicians were ever featured there. But I had made so many friends among the comedians at Creativity that it was only natural that I would migrate there to see the comedy open mike.

I saw many of my favorites at the Gypsy each week. There was the very funny and profane Arthur Montmorency, who went on to write for That 70s Show. (I heard later on the grapevine that Arthur died of a drug overdose, a victim of his own success perhaps.) There was Maria Bamford, who has gone on to enjoy success of her own. There were so many other hilarious comics whose names and routines have now escaped me over these past 15 years. And there was the positively Dickensian Lean Gene, a hugely obese man who was unable to ever elicit a single genuine unforced laugh from the audience, partly because he was so grotesque but mainly because he was so desperately unfuuny and so pathetic in his desperation to be loved by the audience and failure to understand how unfunny he really was. (I heard on the same grapevine that Lean Gene died of a massive coronary, brought on by his morbid obesity. But maybe also by a broken heart that none of us knew existed?) Every once in awhile these days, I will see a name in the media and will say to Alma, my wife, "Hey, I knew so and so back at the Gypsy or Creativity." For the most part, though, the names and acts of these stand-up comedians have faded into obscurity.

About this same time, I had pushed my songwriting and performing career in its natural trajectory for a singer-songwriter, as I styled myself at the time. I had entered the studio of one of my associates from the open mike circuit and begun recording some of my songs. Before I knew it, I had 15-20 songs recorded in the studio and so, the next logical step was, make my own CD. Audio CDs, to the un-initiated, are (or were) the coin of the realm among aspiring musicians on the circuit, a sort of audio business card, if you will, a way to generate a little revenue off mostly non-paying live gigs, a way to get your work "out there," bascially a rite of passage for any serious aspiring original musician.

In April of 2000, my CD Living in the Shadows finally came out. Ah, what delusions of grandeur I had as I placed my order for 1,000 CDs (getting a nice per-CD volume discount in return for my hubris). I proceeded to sell a few copies on, a few copies at gigs I was playing around town, and a few to my friends and acquaintances from the open-mike circuit.

Here's how I know that Zach is not just a great comedian, but a wonderful human being to boot. I happened to bump into Zach in March of 2001 at a local coffee shop in Santa Monica (right next to the now-defunct Creativity performance space). He was sitting there by himself alone, with a cup of coffee in a disposable cup, working on a personal digital assistant as I recall. His face brightened when he saw me and I sat down next to him. "So what have you been up to?" he asked. I told him I had come out with the CD and was trying to sell it. He immediately without question reached into his pocket and pulled out $10 (my asking price at the time). I gave him a CD and then I asked him what he had been up to. "Well," he said, "I was just asked to audition to be a writer for Saturday Night Live and my agent thinks I should. But I don't know."

Had I been more of a decent human being and less a star-struck publicity whore myself, I might have probed Zach just a little bit to find out the cause of his reservations. Instead, I thought to seize the opportunity and said, "Hey, let me give you another CD so you can pass it along." He took the 2nd copy of the CD, stuffed in in his satchel with the first and his PDA, and we left to go our separate ways. I learned later that Zach's misgivings were not my imagination and that his writing stint with SNL lasted only two weeks. I have often thought back on that encounter as not one of my finer moments and, while I doubt that Zach ever remembers it, I hope he does not go "Ugh" should a memory of it ever cross his horizon.

Now I do not watch many new movies in theatrical release and, after September 11, 2001, music seemed to fade out of my life, replaced with new activism in the progressive and anti-war movements that would occupy much of the next decade. Truth to tell, I don't think I was ever good enough to deserve the big break that is required to make it in show biz. I was talented, but the streets and restaurants of Los Angeles are littered with the resumes of the merely 'talented.' I certainly was not dedicated enough. One of my piano teachers, Richard Cass, once told me, "You have to give it 100% all the time. Because there are many others out there just as talented as you who are giving it 100%." Mr. Cass must have been able to see into my soul, to see that I lacked that certain fortitude, that willingness to stick with it long enough to get my name in the bright lights.

I don't think I thought of Zach once in the next several years. I never saw him after that night when I sold him a CD. But a few years later, while renting a movie, I happened to see his name on the case for The Hangover."Hey, Alma," I said to my wife, "I knew Zach. He was easily the funniest stand-up comedian I ever saw perform on the open mike circuit."

Last night, May 4, we turned on the television to watch Saturday Night Live. Wouldn't you know it? Zach Galifianakis was guest-hosting. The weird thing is that I think the funniest part of the show was Zach's opening monologue from which the joke at the top comes. Zach's performance as an ensemble sketch comedian did not match the comic heights of his best solo work, although he did have some funny moments in the M&M Store routine where he plays a racist and sexist employee trying to apologize to his co-workers or the sketch where he tries to record himself meeting new friends at his house for the first time.

Zach, it seems to me, is funniest as a solo comedian where he has a one-on-one relationship with his audience, unmediated by any distractions. After last night, my wife agrees that Zach is best as a solo performer. I told her that his monologue last night was not nearly as good as the solo Zach I remembered from Creativity and the Gypsy so many years earlier.

I'm not much of a practitioner or participant in the cult of celebrity. My wife all too frequently has to tell me who the latest star or starlet is and what he or she is famous for. I seldom even watch much television any more, aside from current episodes of The Good Wife and re-runs of Cold Case. But I can honestly say that Zach Galifianakis and I once shared the same stage and that I feel honored and privileged to have done so with one so young and manifestly gifted as he. Zach, if you're out there in the blog-o-sphere or one of your assistants reads this, please accept this greeting from years and performances gone by. (The email address on the back of my CD is still valid, if you want to get in touch.:) It is all too fitting that you 'made it.' If any of us were going to 'make it' in the 'Biz,' I am glad that the universe saw fit to reward you for your hard work, dedication and comic genius.

And, Zach, I've never seen any of your movies, so maybe it's time I returned that gesture of generosity you displayed to me so many years ago and rented one of your movies. But, after you have accumulated enough loot and swag from Hollyweird and its offshoots, the open mike circuit desperately needs your talents again to light up a room with unforced and hysterical laughter, to remove all of us -- if only for an all-too-brief moment -- from the hum-drum banality of our existence, if only by rubbing our noses in it.  Life is too short and, Zach, we miss you out here in La-La land.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Whither the Social Contract?

A startling new poll was released yesterday by Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind:

Startling poll results

FDU surveyed 863 registered voters nationwide and discovered that 29% believe an armed revolution may be necessary in the next few years to protect 'our' liberties. Buried within those aggregate numbers was an even more startling statistic: 44% of Republicans think an armed rebellion may be necessary. (Somewhat more reassuring, albeit still alarming, 18% of Dems felt that armed revolution may be necessary.)  In other words, more than 2 out of 5 registered Republican voters now thinks armed rebellion may be necessary.

Keep in mind these are not undocumented immigrants or even permanent residents. These are American citizens and registered voters, fully enfranchised within the existing system, who now see violence as a possible solution.

I think we should be very alarmed by this.

Historically, Americans have resolved their political differences at the ballot boxes and to a lesser but still significant measure through the courts. The only time large numbers of people in the nation has resorted to open, armed rebellion (1861-65), some two million Americans were killed and many more wounded.

What these new poll numbers tell me is that the social contract may be starting to break down, that unwritten contract that says we may disagree and disagree vehemently but we resolve our differences peacefully and without violence. We have other examples in the recent past to counsel us: Rwanda and Bosnia. Those are examples of societies that eschewed the non-violent political process and instead turned to violence to resolve differences. One shudders to imagine an America that devolves to that. But 44% of Republicans think it may be necessary to become just that.

I am not sure what can be done to reverse this now. My thoughts ramble and do not cohere. I would like to see President Obama, Vice President Biden, Speaker Boehner, Minoority Leader Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell convene to tell all Americans, Dem and Repub alike, that political violence is unacceptable, no matter whence it originates and, more important, is ineffective. And to warn that 44% of Republicans that, just like in 1861, any armed rebellion will be met by an implacable and unified federal resolve to suppress it.

But, for all I know, Boehner and McConnell are part of that 44%. That's what truly scares me.