“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, September 29, 2003


"I distinctly remember an incident at Boston University�one of those you always remember�when the psychology department chair called me into his office one day, closed the door, sat me down, and proceeded to dress me down for doing palm reading, for taking people�s money under false pretenses, that there was nothing to this paranormal stuff, etc. I sat there listening to him and after he calmed down I said, �would you like me to read your palm?� So he stuck his hand out and I did a reading on him. Then I left. Two weeks later he called me back into his office, shut the door, sat me down, stuck his hand out, and said �tell me more�! This really showed me how powerful this stuff can be.

"And in another one of those unforgettable incidents, the late Stanley Jaks convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this woman�s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example, I said, �well, you have a very strong heart,� that sort of thing. In this particular case, though, it was really spooky, because she just sat there poker faced. Usually I get a lot of feedback from the subject. In fact, I depend on the feedback, and this woman was giving me nothing. It was weird. I thought I bombed. But it turns out the reason she was so quiet was because she was stunned. She told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had. So I did this with a couple more clients, and I suddenly realized that whatever was going on had nothing to do with what I said but with the presentation itself. This was one of the reasons I went into psychology�I wanted to find out how it was that people, including myself, could be so easily deceived --
Interview with Ray Hyman

One of the great myths in America is that you can't con a con. Of course you can. Usually they come pre-conned, believing at least half of their own lines.Ray Hyman is a psychologist who has done a lot of work on what is known as the "Barnum" or "Forer" effect. Forer was a pychologist who gave a personality test to his students in the forties, and returned an analysis to each student that was copied out of an astrology magazine. He then had the students rate the accuracy of the analysis. It rated accurate to extremely precise with a large majority of the students. (Personally, we think that Forer did not explore one aspect of this: the assymetry between authority figure and student. It has long struck us, from experience with students, even very smart students, that they carry a firm belief in the one to one nature of their relationship with their professor. That this isn't so -- that a professor deals with hundreds of students -- says something profound about the legitimation of authority, we think. But we will close this parenthesis with just this small note).

We liked Hyman's anecdote about reversing his palm readings because, in a large sense, that is precisely the M.O. of the Bush administration. Again, this isn't to say that Bush doesn't believe every word that comes from his mouth -- he does. He is, alas, the most gullible man elected to the presidency since Harding. Maybe more than Harding. But gullibility has an odd relationship to the deceits involved in confidence games. As Hyman says, he became a believer in his own palmistry powers, in spite of his skepticism about religion and irrational belief systems. The experiment of inverting his responses cured him of his palm reading beliefs -- but a similar pattern of using equal and opposite reasoning to legitimate projects, which has been endemic among the Bushies, seems to have had no such therapeutic effect.Take the recent blogger meme that started with a report about John Pilger's tv show on the Iraq war. Pilger, an industrious left leaning British journalist, found two creamy little CNN interviews from the pre 9/11 period. Both Rice and Powell were caught on camera bragging about how the US policy of sanctions and vigilance had denied Saddam H. the capacity to make or deploy weapons of mass destruction. Rice even, commonsensically, pointed to Saddam's inability to retake the Northern section of his own country. This obvious geo-political fact got somehow lost in the shuffle as he became enemy no. 1 last January. The palm reader reverses the reading. Suddenly, Saddam packs an awful punch, threatening to pulverize us in 48 hours -- a story that Tony Blair has gratuituously stuck to. Or take the current status of our occupation. Palm reading one: look at all the good things that are happening in Iraq! Right on time and on target, too. 3,000 projects in Kirkuk alone! Palm reading two, however, is that inexplicably, there's a hold-up on the turning over the power to the natives project. In fact, it will take +87 billion more dollars. Plus extended National Guard deployments. Plus you can't take seriously the proposal by the French that Iraqis should take at least symbolic control of the "Coalition Authority" -- even though that was the original Defense Department plan. And so it goes, from taxes to deficits to the war on terror. Of course, the right wing intelligentsia turns on a dime as this stuff comes down. They have various excuses. The justification for the war didn't depend on anything like a threat, for instance (thus extending the meaning of pre-emptive to a subjective extreme that wholly depends on the whim of the powerful). But Bush does not strike the observer as possessing even this minimal intellectual distance. Rather, this is a man whose gullibility is ironclad. This is a man who believes that fact must correspond to what he desires -- even if his desires get expressed in two equal and opposite claims. Like the victims of the alchemist in Jonson's play of that name, he has the ability to generate excuses for those inconsistencies that press upon him.

Further along in his interview, Hyman confesses that disabusing the victims of various spiritual scams bears a price. He quotes a student who told him that Hyman's course was entirely convincing, and "I hate your guts." It is tricky, negotiating the emotional rage that comes with enlightenment; this is what the Bushies count on. They shouldn't count on it too much, though. After the 87 billion dollar speech, even the most credulous are starting to wonder what happened. And as the odds start kicking in, they are going to be wondering a lot more. We have bet the house on the most unlikely combination of events in Iraq, and in our economy. We are just starting to pay the price for that bit of faith-based fervor.

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