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.