Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Snowden's Name Sounded So Familiar

As soon as I heard Edward Snowden's name revealed yesterday as the source of the most recent revelations about NSA domestic spying, I knew the name sounded familiar. I went traipsing through the smoke rings of my mind and, sure enough, in the file labelled 'Best (American) Novel Since 1945," I found the answer.

In Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Snowden was the tail-gunner in Yossarian's plane who gets killed in Yossarian's arms while on a bombing run over the French city Avignon. One could argue that Snowden's death marks a crucial turning point in the events of the novel and in Yossarian's state of mind (or lack thereof, as the case may be).

I've copied one relevant portion of Catch-22. Wouldn't you know it, the snippet also has a major intelligence (used with all the ironic suggestions Heller would have seen in the word) twist to it:

'Why me?' was his [Doc Daneeka's ]constant lament, and the question was a good one.
Yossarian knew it was a good one because Yossarian was a collector of good questions and had used them to disrupt the educational sessions Clevinger had once conducted two nights a week in Captain Black's intelligence tent with the corporal in eyeglasses who everybody knew was probably a subversive. Captain Black knew he was a subversive because he wore eyeglasses and used words like panacea and utopia, and because he disapproved of Adolf Hitler, who had done such a great job
of combating un-American activities in Germany. Yossarian attended the educational sessions because he wanted to find out why so many people were working so hard to kill him. A handful of other men were also interested, and the questions were many and good when Clevmger and the subversive corporal finished and made the mistake of asking if there were any.
'Who is Spain?'
'Why is Hitler?'
'When is right?'
'Where was that stooped and mealy-colored old man I used to call Poppa when the merry-go-round
broke down?'
'How was trump at Munich?'
'Ho-ho beriberi.'
all rang out in rapid succession, and then there was Yossarian with the question that had no answer:
'Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?'
The question upset them, because Snowden had been killed over Avignon when Dobbs went crazy in mid-air and seized the controls away from Huple.
The corporal played it dumb. 'What?' he asked.
'Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?'
'I'm afraid I don't understand.'
'O— sont les Neigedens d'antan?' Yossarian said to make it easier for him.
'Parlez en anglais, for Christ's sake,' said the corporal. 'Je ne parle pas fran‡ais.'
'Neither do I,' answered Yossarian, who was ready to pursue him through all the words in the world to wring the knowledge from him if he could, but Clevinger intervened, pale, thin, and laboring for breath, a humid coating of tears already glistening in his undernourished eyes.
Group Headquarters was alarmed, for there was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions they wanted to. Colonel Cathcart sent Colonel Korn to stop it, and Colonel Korn succeeded with a rule governing the asking of questions. Colonel Korn's rule was a stroke of genius, Colonel Korn explained in his report to Colonel Cathcart. Under Colonel Korn's rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything (Emphasis Added)
A couple notes: The question: "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" alludes to the medieval French poet Francois Villon's 1462 poem "Ballade (Des Dames du Temps Jadis)" where the question "But where are the snows of yesteryear?" ("Mais ou sont les neiges d'anton?") forms a refrain that ends each stanza. That sets up Yossarian's hilarious-tragic attempt at franglais: "Ou sont les Neigedens d'antan?"
 I found myself thinking that all one really needs to do is substitute the names of a few current players (Colornel Cathcart might be current DNI General James Clapper, for example) and this passage would read like contemporary journalism.

What is the moral of this post? That advanced degrees in English aren't much good for anything, maybe. Oh, yeah, and maybe that we should hope that the fate of the fictional Snowden does not befall his real-life counterpart. For now, at least, Yossarian's question has finally got an answer. Snowden lives.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance, Barack Obama and the Current Democratic Majority

If your household is anything like mine, over the past few days you've done nothing but discuss (not necessarily in this order): Bradley Manning, Barack Obama, the NSA and Glenn Greenwald.

If your household is anything like mine, over the past few days the following words to describe emotions have received prominent play:

Pissed Off

Well, this morning, while making my coffee, I had a minor epiphany. Back on May 8, I had published a diary about Mark Sanford's election to the House and how the psychological concept of 'Cognitive Dissonance' might have played a role in explaining, among other matters, why Romney won the district by 18 points in 2012 but Sanford only won by 9 points:

Cognitive Dissonance, Mark Sanford and the Current Republican Electorate

That diary did not receive an overwhelming response and I'm not sure it should have, given the convincing rebuttals in the Comments section. But that does not mean that Cognitive Dissonance does not play a role in social psychology and might not be a useful tool to contribute to our understanding of other political events.

Ah-ha, I thought to myself this morning. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Might not Cognitive Dissonance also be at play here and might it not also explain the relentless sniping and circular firing-squad-ism on display these last few days at DailyKos, DemocraticUnderground and other progressive spots?

For those who do not spend a lot of time with psychology and social psychology, the Wikipedia article does a great job of defining and discussing Cognitive Dissonance broadly speaking:

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. This bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior.
Cognitive Dissonance Defined

To put it bluntly, I think the Democratic majority is experiencing a massive outbreak of Cognitive Dissonance right now. The two competing 'cognitions,' if you will, can be condensed down to the following:

A) Barack Obama is a good (or "decent") guy who has my best interests at heart and the best interests of those I care about


B) Barack Obama is a bad (or "devious") guy who is spying on me and those I care about.

Talk about your basic recipe for inducing a massive bout of anxiety. What's an ordinary, decent Democrat to do?

Well, I know how I have reduced the anxiety I'm experiencing: I published a diary on DailyKos yesterday that provided me with some catharsis:

Boy, was I a Schmuck

In short, I reduced the importance of one of the discordant factors by basically negating Cognition A above. What is weird (and I hope the professional psychologists and social psychologists reading this will weigh in heavily on this) is that I would still secretly like Cognition A to be true and have only ruefully and wistfully reduced its importance in my belief structure.

I really would like for Barack Obama to be a 'good' (or "decent") guy who has my best interests at heart. But how can I reconcile that desire with the evidence of my own two eyes? 

Boy, was I a schmuck

(Candidate) Obama 2007:

"When I am President, one of the first things I'm going to do is call in my Attorney General and say to him, 'I want you to review every executive order that's been issued by George Bush; whether it relates to warrant-less wiretaps, or detaining people, or reading emails, or whatever it is-i want you to go through every single one of them.' And if they are unconstitutional, if they're encroaching on civil liberties unnecessarily, we are going to overturn them."

(President) Obama 2013:

"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls . . . What you’ve got is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress. Bipartisan majorities have approved them. Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted. There are a whole range of safeguards involved. And federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout."

(Candidate) Obama 2008:

"We only know these crimes took place because insiders blew the whistle at great personal risk ... Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal."

(President) Obama 2011:

"Bradley Manning broke the law."


Boy, was I a schmuck. I won't get fooled again.