Understanding Michele Bachmann in the context of Human Evolution

Spread the love

The only thing harder to understand than Michele Bachmann is the Republican Party. Bachmann is hard to understand in this way: How can a person with her mind be an elected member of congress? The Republican party is hard to understand in this way: How can a party that is trying to become more rather than less relevant keep putting Michele Bachmann on the podium in places like the National Party Convention and, most recently, at CEPAC?

I can’t explain any of this, but I can at least redescribe the problem in reference to a theoretical construct for the evolution of the human mind. I endeavor to do this for three reasons: 1) To have a chance to briefly discuss these theoretical ideas; 2) To try to place Michele Bachmann and the Republicans (and by minor extension, by the way, Sarah Palin) in at least a descriptive, if not explanatory, context; and 3) because I get to use the word “meta” a million times throughout this essay. No, no, not really. The third reason is because I feel this nagging need to make the link between the fact that Michele Bachmann should not be in Congress with the fact that not only is she actually in Congress, but was recently re-elected to congress. Specifically, I will assert that there is not always cognitive dissonance where one thinks one sees it. Michele Bachmann was re-elected because she represents the majority of her constituents quite effectively.

There is a theory that what makes a good story is meta-osity. A story about a person and another person interacting is too simple. A story like this but where one of the people is secretly manipulating the interaction is a bit interesting. A story like this but where, unknown to the manipulator, there is a larger scale manipulation going on is a novel that might sell. And so on.

There is another theory that presumes this first theory to be essentially correct, and that the human mind is actually an evolved organ designed to manage these meta-meta-meta states. The reason for this is that much of the important stuff in life is meta-meta. Ultimately, in a human society where food- and sex-competitive apes are violating the basic tenets of competition by living side by side and cooperating and sharing within groups, reproduction and survival are socio-political meta-meta matters.

My personal “belief” (read: informed hunch) is that this is essentially true, but the proximate mechanism for the human mind being able to do this is a pretty simple (yet biologically costly) genetically mediated neuro-developmental process overlapping with and followed by a culturally and experientially mediated neuro-developmental process, with a large part of that arising during the unique (compared to other apes) human developmental phase we all “childhood.” (See The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain by Terry Deacon for a run down on this approach.)

Which leads me to Michele Bachmann, who recently said:

I just wondered that if our founders thought taxation without representation was bad, what would they think of representation WITH taxation?

Uffda. To put this in context, just spend a minute and a half reviewing this speech at CPAC:

[sorry to report, this speech seems to have disappeared from the internet]

OK, well, putting it in context didn’t help, did it? But along side the other statements made here and elsewhere by Bachmann, we are starting to see a pattern.

You know about Michel Bachmann’s other problems. The Blue Scare scenario comes to mind. Bachmann called for the investigation of all elected Democrats in the federal system for Unamerican-ness. If you don’t agree with me you must be the enemy, and I must fear you. All of us who fear you must treat you all the same and throw bricks at you, as children might do. And so on.

Now let’s talk about what all this means. Bachmann’s statement (above) about taxes is an example of not understanding even the first level of meta, the most basic nuance, of the original slogan. Bachmann’s placement of all people who disagree with her in the same category, so that enemies and colleagues of a different party are all the same, is an example of the inability to go beyond the most basic of relationships. Bachmann is unable to see that we can disagree with our colleague, but join our colleague to disagree with a third party (meta) and sometimes ally with a third party to disagree with yet another third party (meta meta) and sometimes find influence among allies in a distant third party to effect change in a colleague (meta meta meta).

(By the way, that this analysis is valid is underscored by Bachmann’s insistence that actual card-carrying Republicans who happen to disagree with her are not “real” Republicans.)

Bachmann does not get even the simplest nuance. In politics, she is just a dog barking at the shadows behind the fence, and everything is a shadow behind the fence.

We can show that many animals including dogs have this level of capacity and not much more. A meta-X level, where you have one set of complexities on top of basic relationships, is clearly a generalized primate capacity and may even be found in some social birds, but is not well developed in dogs or other carnivores.

The next level of meta … meta-meta-x … is probably exclusively human, and if Homo erectus was around today, perhaps we’d be saying “Oh, H. erectus can do that. Sort of.” (I’m guessing at that.)

Beyond this, the next level of meta … meta-meta-meta-x … is what most humans can do when they try and have certain experience or training, and that very smart people do a lot of, and real smart people are probably doing all the time. Most people probably achieve meta-meta-X much of the time, but probably mainly in regards to certain aspects of their life but not others. (Again, I’m guessing.) Meta-osity is a general feature of thought and thus could be conceived of as independent of empirical realities, but I don’t think this is the case. I think there is a real relationship between physicality and thought process. So a person may be meta-meta-X or even meta-meta-meta-X about the novels they read and their family relationships, but little else. A different person may be meta-meta-meta-X about their workplace relationships and the stuff they do as an engineer, or teacher, or crane operator, but be meta-X at best when it comes to politics. And I think, in fact, that this is exactly what frequently happens. It may be in the interest of certain politicians to keep the conversation at a meta-X (or lower) level.

Ideally, in careers, and especially careers that are important to other members or elements of society, we would like to see people be at least meta-meta-X, especially those in charge of important things. For example, physicians should be meta-meta-meta-X, if possible, regarding the workings of the body in relation to disease, personal behavior, treatment options, and so on.

Examples of meta-meta-meta-X thinkers in politics include Bill Clinton, Barney Frank, Newt Gingrich, Adlai Stevenson and Al Franken. One imagines Ted Kennedy, clearly a meta-meta-meta-X thinker, relaxing by sailing on Nantucket Sound, where to succeed he merely needs to achieve meta-X thinking regarding winds, currents, sails, and ropes. Meanwhile, the captain of the Nantucket Ferry, who in her job driving a modern ship rarely has to go beyond meta-X, enriching her own life by engaging in BBC style crime dramas on TV and playing chess with her buddy the Harbor Master in Harwich Port.

Examples of meta-meta-X political thinkers who did well because they were in the right place at the right time might include George Bush Senior, Harry Truman, and George Washington. Examples of meta-X thinkers who probably didn’t apply the meta to the X in their political lives might be …. Hmmm, hard to come up with too many examples of this. Most people at that level would never get far beyond student council. Let’s see, who would be a good examp…

Oh,right, how could I forget!?!? … Michele Bachmann!

Here’s the thing. The objective of a politician might be to manage the thinking of others such that you get those other people to do what you wish them to do: fund your campaign and vote in your favor. It is much much easier to do this if you keep the public level of discourse as meta-free as possible. Newt Gingrich is on my list of meta-meta-meta-X thinkers, but he was a master at engendering the populous with a penchant for non-meta reasoning. For example, Gingrich successfully gained support from the masses by promising to bring to the floor a vote on each of ten allegedly key Republican issues (the famous “Contract with America”). However, a) the House (where Gingrich promised to do this) has weak rules for bringing something to vote, and b) bringing something to vote does not equal passing it or, really, even actually voting on it. So, you see, it would be trivially easy to keep this “contract.” It was not logical to infer that the Contract with America was a meaningful political construct that would have real results, but it became an effective rallying point for the first midterm election during Clinton’s first term. The Contract with America was a dog barking at a shadow behind the fence and nothing more. (Expect this dog to be barking again in about a year from now.)

The re-casting of stakeholders in a given issue as “taxpayers” is often a de-meta-fication of the issue at hand. The conflation of 1960s radicalism with 21st century terrorism with being black, or being a democrat, or being from Chicago, or whatever, is de-meta-fication of a person’s (Obama’s) entire career and philosophy. Claiming that the fact that Soviet/Russian bombers would fly over Alaska on their way to bomb the rest of America makes the governor of Alaska a foreign policy expert is the de-meta-fication of so, so many things.

Years of training have converted much of the Republican base to a pack of dogs, chained to an ideological stake in a dusty gloomy yard, always ready to bark at the movement of shadows beyond the tall fence that surrounds them. Michele Bachmann’s congressional district is demographically as close as any district can be to this Republican ideal. This is why Bachmann can be who she is, get re-elected, and continue to be invited to speak at major Party gatherings. Michelle Bachmann is not Newt Gingrich. She does not grasp the overarching strategy. She is not a simpleton’s face hiding a brilliant political mind. She is just the simpleton. I doubt she is even taking marching orders from anyone. Michele Bachmann is merely one of the dogs, among many, barking at the shadows moving behind the fence.

Michele Bachmann is the best possible representative for her district.


Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
*Please note:
Links to books and other items on this page and elsewhere on Greg Ladens' blog may send you to Amazon, where I am a registered affiliate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, which helps to fund this site.

Spread the love

34 thoughts on “Understanding Michele Bachmann in the context of Human Evolution

  1. I’m not sure I like your notational system. You seem to be abusing the term “meta.” You say:

    “Bachmann’s placement of all people who disagree with her in the same category, so that enemies and colleagues of a different party are all the same, is an example of the inability to go beyond the most basic of relationships. Bachmann is unable to see that we can disagree with our colleague, but join our colleague to disagree with a third party (meta) and sometimes ally with a third party to disagree with yet another third party (meta meta) and sometimes find influence among allies in a distant third party to effect change in a colleague (meta meta meta).”

    This isn’t happening at different levels really. This is all happening at the same level. Human cognition doesn’t operate moving from different levels like this. This is the same problem with for example Tarski’s attempt to model sentence structure. Humans just don’t work this way. We aren’t formal systems. Different humans have different limits on how complex an idea they can hold in their heads at once or how complicated they can conceive of the world around them, but this is distinct from meta-state issues.

  2. Josh: Interesting comments. But there is more than one model out there and you are critiquing the meta-meta model on the basis of notation, but then comparing it to a strict alternative. Make up your mind.

    Personally, I think that there is X, meta-X, then meta-meta-X and all increasingly complex situations are symbolically elided, but there must be a capacity to do this elision, and i’m trying to keep the discussion relatively understandable.

  3. Placing the “meta-meta-meta” into the mere “meta” is very meta, and suggests to me that you are into semiotics.

    But in any case, the model you use is not vital to the argument that Republicans exploit and promote ignorance. I think Joshua is trying to distract us.

  4. @Ziggy: At some point she must embarrass even her benighted constituents enough that they don’t vote for her.

    But she did. And they didn’t not.

  5. Allow me to summarize: Michele Bachman doesn’t have the brains of a homo erectus.
    I was just discussing a related topic with my sis: How can Bobby Jindal be such an idiot? I mean, he’s a Rhodes Scholar. He must have the brain capacity to know that the speech he gave was laughable, right? Was that a meta-meta-meta- person trying to look like a good ol’ boy? Or is he a dog that has accidentally barked the right things until now?

  6. Your analysis is a good one as far as it goes. But it really doesn’t go far enough. To take your central thesis: most dogs who are not kept tied up in a dusty yard all t he time, don’t act like this. They don’t bark at shadows and everything else. If a dog is given plenty of opportunity to walk, meet other dogs, interact with the kiddies, exercise its doggy muscles, trained properly, etc., etc., it will bark appropriately(e.g. as a warning of things it doesn’t know, or at something odd). It won’t bark at everything! Similarly, their close relatives, the wolves, “know” when to give a warning of danger approaching the den where the pups are growing, howl to locate the rest of theTir fellows, “sing” together, etc., etc. They don’t have to make a lot of noise, either. In this sense, “Bachmann Republicans” are even less smart than wild or domestic canids. They don’t even know when it’s prudent to just shut up and get their job done!
    Anne G

  7. Another out of the park post answering the question of why do I send everyone to Greg to explain Minnesota politics rather than to a more obvious political site. No more do we need to stand tongue-tied when asked how on earth did Bachmann get reelected.
    Stupidity and its uses are metastatic. The sources can be identified, but who can predict the spread or the damage done? If light is scary because it reveals clarity and truth, what is left but shadows to bark at. The protective cloak of ignorance is much like the cover of darkness.

  8. I like this analysis, but why is “meta-” quantized instead of being on a continuum? Can’t one be a little more or a little less “meta-“? For example, seeing how people seem controlled by their emotions, and getting the idea, “Maybe I’m like that, too.”, doesn’t mean you’re not controlled by your emotions, but it is a step in that direction.

  9. A very thought provoking, mildly amusing, while at the same time rather disturbing, post.

    I believe I understand what you intend by your meta notation. It seems to correspond to what game theorists refer to as “Level-N Play”. In this notation, I think Bachmann would be described as a Level-0 player in the political game: conscious of nothing except party lines and the “correct” response to a set of key words. You might call this level of player a “pure reactionary”, operating little above the stimulus-response level.

  10. I can only assume that she either ran unopposed or her opposition was a corpse. I am not sure how its possible that such a shining example of dumb made it to office. Then again, maybe she qualifies as intelligent among mullets.

  11. Only vaguely on topic, this post forcefully reminded me of the first time I met a very “literal” person. I made a joke that he not only did not get, but that he took instead as an insult. (I was not aware until this point that he was “literal.”) So we were at daggers drawn until about two days later. He was a biker/surfer and his bike had broken down. I repaired it for him and all of a sudden he and I were BFF – he was doglike in his devotion. I had no previous concept of a person who had no metas at all. (I hadn’t yet read Of Mice and Men).

    Now, truth be told, this guy had a lot of fun riding, surfing, and fucking a rather large subset of the female population. That’s not to be dismissed lightly. It sounds like a good life to me (and this was before AIDS appeared, so the more so). As far as I know he had no political views, but he would have voted for Satan himself if I had asked him to.

    Scary. But blissful.

  12. Somehow this discussion reminds me of Samuel Delaney’s “Empire Star,” with its “simplex,” “complex,” and “multiplex.”

  13. So, you are calling her a bitch, right?

    That was the best, most drawn out and clever explication of the meaning of bitch that I have ever seen. I mean that.
    I am drooling and barking with envy, not only because the device was so well used( ‘the writer should not appear in the writing’), but also because all of those other beeyatches out there–especially the fauxminist leftists–won’t call you out for your use of “sexist language” considering that even they agree that Bachmann IS a cunt…

    And that was also a pretty admirable explanation of the meta3 as well, which very cleverly demonstrates that the author is a meta 3 himself….I am jealous…

  14. Michelle Bachman is just part of the clown show they put on for the rubes they get to vote for them. The dumber the better. The Republican Party uses the social wedge issues, Do you think they actually believe them?

  15. “I can only assume that she either ran unopposed or her opposition was a corpse. …” (sdg | February 27, 2009 4:10 PM)

    No, Bachmann had a living Republican primary challenger (me) who proved he was alive by walking the length and breadth of the 6th Congressional District (150 miles) last August.

    For the November general election, Bachmann had Democratic and Independence Party opposition and I jumped back into the race as a write-in candidate on Oct. 18, the day after Bachmann’s “anti-American” rant on “Hardball.”

  16. And, Bachmann’s Democratic opponant during the general election managed to raise something like an extra million bucks a few weeks before the election, bringing his war chest in line with Michele’s. Somehow.

  17. Boris: Bachmann was double digits ahead in the polls prior to her Oct. 17 anti-American rant. After the negative publicity, the race drew nearly even and she ultimately won by nearly three percentage points.

    The unendorsed Independence Party candidate, who garnered 10% of the vote, may have been the spoiler, but there’s some debate about that; it seems he took roughly equal numbers of potential votes from Bachmann and her Democratic opponent.

    See analysis at link below:

    The Unsinkable Michele Bachmann

  18. while your view of Bachmann seems pretty much on, I don’t know about your (over) use of ‘meta’.

    Meta is not usually just degree of separation as you use it but more of level of interpretation. i.e, I’m negotiating for a car and I guess what the seller is expecting to get (1 level meta), I may also be thinking: what is he thinking in response to my bid, does he think I am bluffing (another level meta), trying to figure how he will respond if he thinks I am bluffing (another meta level) etc.

  19. It seems Bachmann is misquoting Mark Steyn’s “representation WITHOUT taxation”.

    Taxation without representation as I recall referred to colonists being taxed without representation in British Parliament.

    Representation without taxation, according to Mark Steyn, refers to voters who collect public assistance of various sorts and can vote for more but do not pay federal income tax and if not working also do not pay payroll tax. They have representation in the federal government but are not contributing to it.

    Originally the US Constitution provided voting rights only to those who were property owners. While that is not a perfect arrangement, neither is having a majority of voters who pay no federal tax. They could then vote for candidates who give them the dollars which the government collected from the minority. Some see that as a serious problem.

    Michelle Bachmann may be a dumb barking dog who will not thrive politically.
    The power of citizens to vote for the government to give them dollars earned by others is a separate subject.

  20. Meta is not usually just degree of separation as you use it but more of level of interpretation

    I am definitely NOT using “meta” as a degree of separation. (Nor am I over using it.) I am using it as you suggest. Well, not level of interpretation but rather added point of view or analytical level. (Or to be more exact, one “meta” is the relationship between the symbol and the interpreter, or the interpretant. Which then collapses to sign state, and is then subject to becoming the base of yet another triad. The next interpretant is then the next level of “meta.” And so on)

  21. And my tax dollars are producing what, besides paying you to spend time blogging?? What have you produced? Whom have you hired? What service do you provide? Ah, you have produced your ego. The world is indeed improved, naturally.

  22. No, no, Ann. Greg is paid for blogging by a private company by the page view. That would be the free market at work.

    If you want to know what some infinitesimal fraction of your tax dollars pay him for, ask his students. There are even a few who hang out around here.

  23. Actually, my salary (not blogging salaray … that is as Stephanie points out, a private commercial affair) is paid by the University of Minnesota. The UMN gets a small part of it’s funds from the state, the vast majority coming from other sources such as tuition and so on. If you took away the part of my salary that is paid directly by the state I doubt my salary would change at all.

    A good chunk of the stimulus package may help people with higher ed. In order for them to do that, I have to be here doing my job teaching them, advising them etc. It will be an act of great patriotism on my part.

  24. Greg, I may not have had my mind made up because it wasn’t a completely well-formed thought. I should have thought more before making the comment. I’m not sure if my objection is completely notational or to some underlying idea.

    The notion that Bachmann has a lot of trouble understanding nuance or complexity of human relationships seems correct though whether or not the details of the model used are accurate.

  25. The trick to political activism is to convince yourself that you are motivated by fairness, love, the public interest, and inclusiveness; that your opponents are not; and that therefore you must hate them, keep them from the company of decent people, and defeat them by all means necessary.

  26. “Ideally, in careers, and especially careers that are important to other members or elements of society, we would like to see people be at least meta-meta-X, especially those in charge of important things.”

    That’s only true for a limited definition of “we”.

    Most people would just like to see someone they identify as a member of their tribe in charge of important things. That’s why someone like her is in Congress.

  27. So, possibly then whoever ran against her was *too* intelligent for the population in that district? Maybe you should dumb-down the campaigning next time around to a level like “I R SMART” and give out free cheeseburgers at your rallies? Its depressing on a level I hadnt realized to know that such a person would consider a role in politics, but to not onely become candidate, but win the office as well? Next thing you know we’ll have former beauty pageant winners as governors.

  28. My Neighbors And The Dogs From Hades!

    We had been having trouble for months with our neighbors and their dogs. The dogs will bark all day and all night and it does not seem to bother them.

    How can someone have a dog in their yard and not be bothered by constant barking? The barking is at least a hundred feet from me so I assume that it is a lot louder for the neighbors since it is right outside their window.

    I have tried everything from cursing at the neighbors to calling the cops but nothing worked and it seemed like the cops felt like they had better things to do.

    I finally found a solution to this problem and I could not believe how easy it was. Just go to http://www.antibarkingdevice.com and it will show exactly how to stop your neighbor’s dog from barking.

    I was totally floored when I used this product and found that it worked almost instantly! Please think about using this item instead of bark collars which are very inhumane.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *