Friday, October 24, 2014

#Cool and cooler

In the aftermath of the Ottawa attack, PM #StephenHarper made the obligatory utterances about maintaining Canadian resolve, liberties, etc. Substantively, his statement seemed well crafted. But he himself appeared removed and somehow untouched by all the drama that had unfolded – and after spending over 12 hours under lockdown in the parliament building. This, of course, could be seen as an expression of much needed, admirable, steadfast determination in the face of pure evil. Yet, I was reminded of #LewisMumford’s putdown of spineless #liberals at the start of WW II: “His first impulse in any situation is to get rid of emotion because it may cause him to go wrong. Unfortunately for his effort to achieve poise, a purely intellectual judgment, eviscerated of emotional reference, often causes wry miscalculations.Instead of priding himself on not being carried away by his emotions, the liberal should rather be a little alarmed because he often has no emotions that could, under any conceivable circumstances, carry him away.

Mumford’s essay was recently republished/reposted, and #DavidBrooks evoked it in the NYT to urge more decisive action against ISIS and Putin. Some liberal critics then criticized him for this deployment of Mumford’s argument. Also, Brooks himself appears in some of his writings (particularly in his neropop book, …) strangely blasé about some trends which, say, Aldous Huxley once found profoundly disturbing – though he observed those in much more embryonic form. So the liberal intelligentsia may not have a monopoly on the “emotional anesthesia” Mumford once decried.

Several years ago, I wrote a paper (to which I have probably referred before) arguing that rising to the top in politics and complex organizations a thick skin. And having such “down-regulation” of emotional response could then deprive leaders and decision-makers of the degree of emotional input needed for sound judgment (a danger exacerbated by the tendency of those exercising power to become even more self-absorbed and overconfident). With the risk of sounding overly judgmental, this problem now seems broader – as demonstrated, for example, by all the casual chatter and fake emoting on CNN; or by the comments of a construction worker in Ottawa who described – shall I say, indifferently – how he heard firecracker-like sounds, looked up, and saw “a man with a rifle shooting at a bunch of people.”

All this does look a bit strange – particularly to someone who is perhaps not “weird” enough. And this sort of detachment is likely to grow, as the trends highlighted by Thomas De Zengotita over a decade ago (“The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture as Anesthetic”) have only been accelerated.