If Politics is in the Gut, What Does That Mean for Democracy?

In the March 2019 issue, The Atlantic published a very interesting story about the differing reactions between liberals and conservatives to “disgusting” images. Summarizing a study by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, and his colleagues, the story reports that liberals and conservatives have measurably different responses to images such as “mutilated animals, filthy toilets, and faces covered with sores.” They found that, monitoring people’s reactions via MRIs, he could predict whether they were liberal or conservative with 95% accuracy. They further found that “conservatives tend to have more pronounced bodily responses than liberals when shown stomach-churning imagery.”

This is pretty amazing, if you ask me. It suggests that, to a large extent, our political views are not shaped by reasoned thought about the issues. Rather, they are strongly determined by neurological processes that we simply don’t control. “Gut reactions” to repulsive things. Regardless of which side of the proverbial aisle one sits on, if our beliefs are so strongly connected to primal reactions, what does that mean for democracy?

Democracy relies upon reasoned debate, with the goal of reaching compromise on complex issues. No one is ever fully satisfied, but to convince the other side to go along with your point of view, you have to persuade them that you have a solid argument. Debate is all about convincing the other side of your point of view. But, if your point of view is essentially a function of your gut, what is there really to convince them of? What is there to argue about? You can create arguments to support your belief, but that is building the scaffolding after you already have the core. Rather, informed debate should be about defending beliefs that you have based on reason. We shouldn’t be defending beliefs post-facto, but develop our beliefs based on the evidence around us. If our beliefs are founded on gut reactions, we are always going the wrong way.

To me, this has profound implications for democracy. We hope, that when our politicians are working, debating, arguing, fighting for something they believe in, even if they don’t agree with you or me, that at least they have strong reasons for their beliefs and that they are working to better society based on those beliefs. But, if they really don’t have any foundation for their views beyond their gut reaction, their neurological impulses, how solid can those beliefs and the subsequent arguments be? How well can they be tied to our best interests? If they are not based on evidence or reason, can they truly be the foundation of policy?

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

Beowulf is one of the oldest stories in the English language, describing the adventures of Beowulf, a Norse hero. He fights a monster called Grendel and then is attacked by Grendel’s mother, furious due to the death of her son. Beowulf also kills her. This poem, dating to some time around the year 1000, is a cornerstone of English literature.

The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley, is a twist on the classic tale. Taking place in modern times, it revolves around two women — Dana Mills and Willa Herot. These are very different women. Dana is a veteran of the wars in the Middle East, while Willa is the product of high society, having found her way as the wife of a powerful developer in the heart of a new community. Dana grew up in the same area but before it became gentrified. It’s why, when she finds herself inexplicably pregnant and then the mother of Gren, a boy that has some generally undescribed characteristics that set him apart (though it is mentioned that he is furry and has long claws), Dana escapes to the heart of the mountain that abuts Willa’s idyllic community.

Dana and her son Gren live in isolation, in the heart of the mountain, until Gren, now older, notices the kids down in the community. In particular, he becomes friends with Willa’s son Dylan (who goes by Dil). This unleashes a chain of events that neither woman can stop, try as she might. Both are fighting forces beyond their control. The story is about the consequences of their actions as they try to maintain some amount of control in their lives.

While the original poem focuses on Beowulf, the Beowulf-like character here is a relatively minor player. Dana and Willa are the true hearts of this story and events are described alternatingly from their points of view. Both are products of their world, not necessarily always willingly. They try to exert some control on their respective worlds, worlds they did not create but that they are now at the center of. Both women are also struggling in worlds created by men, though their worlds are very different. Dana comes from a world of war, while Willa is at the center of a world of power.

Through her narration, Dahvana Headley provides what I felt was some intriguing insight into the world at large, the place of women in our modern society, and motherhood, a big focus of the novel since both Dana and Willa’s roles as mothers frames a lot of their actions. The book centers around conflict, the conflict between the characters but also larger conflicts, including war and progress. Dahvana Headley comments on these through her characters. Some examples include:

  • “People never think, until it happens to their place, that all construction is destruction.”
  • “It’s international news, then national, then local. Tragedies happen every minute of every hour. The world is full of worse than anyone has yet imagined, and there’s only so much room.”
  • “You don’t really own anything. Nothing is yours forever, not your body, not your youth, not even your mind.”
  • “Here’s the truth of the world, here it is. You’re never everything anyone else wants. In the end, it’s going to be you, all alone, on a mountain, or you, all alone, in a hospital room.”

These kinds of comments about our world and society are peppered throughout the novel, providing both insight into the inner workings and feelings of the characters but also thought-provoking, if bleak, commentary on our world. If a novel gets you to think about something differently, that is a success. And The Mere Wife certainly does.

I would say that the structure of the novel, with the alternating points of view of Dana and Willa, and the way the story is essentially told as they think, can be a little disconcerting. It took me a little while to get into the flow. Once I got into it, though, it kept my attention and made me want to know what happened next. I knew, based on my knowledge of the original Beowulf, what I thought was going to happen, but how it all actually fell into place was still unexpected and engaging.

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

One of the primary conceits of Scooby-Doo is that there is a mundane explanation for all of the weird stuff that happens in their world. Carl Sagan praised this aspect of the show, lamenting how other shows glorified supernatural explanations. He liked how, in Scooby-Doo, “paranormal claims are systematically investigated and every case is found to be explicable in prosaic terms” (from his book The Demon Haunted World). But, what if, at least once, the paranormal turned out to be real?

That is the premise of Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero. A gang of kids spent their summer vacations in the coastal area of Oregon and stumbled on to some weird goings-on. They ultimately find that it was a man in a costume who was trying to scare people to get access to some ancient fortune. The kids — dubbed the Blyton Summer Detective Club — are heroes. But, it turns out, they also uncovered an ancient and real evil.

Now adults, they are haunted by the glimpses of that evil they saw as kids. They decide to confront it. The gang — Kerri, Andy, Nate and Tim, versions of Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby (I won’t say why Fred isn’t here) — head back to Oregon to figure it out.

I won’t give too much away, but I will say that while Cantero violates the idea of Scooby-Doo that Sagan liked so much — that there is a “prosaic” explanation for all strange phenomenon — he still does manage to give a scientific basis for a lot of what goes on. For example, the kids are wandering in a mine and Nate, the Shaggy fill-in, asks how the miners knew where to dig to find gold. Kerri (who is a bookish Daphne) explains that the miners followed a quartz reef as gold was often found inside quartz veins. Later, in reference to how an earthquake can cause a pressurized lake to essentially explode, Kerri describes a limnic eruption. This happens when a body of water full of pressurized carbon dioxide becomes agitated, perhaps via an earthquake or tremor, violently releasing the CO2 as a deadly cloud of gas. So, Cantero, in creating the mystery the kids must solve, has still used science to an extensive and creative degree. While the core of the mystery still has elements of the supernatural, the rest of it is based on science in a way that I think does service to the ideas of Scooby-Doo.

So, I learned something new reading this book. I also found it very entertaining. The characters aren’t simple mash-ups of the Scooby characters, they have their own traits and flaws that make them unique. The plot is engaging and the quick pace almost feels like a movie. And, ultimately, there are enough twists and turns to keep it fresh. I enjoyed Meddling Kids and will be looking for more from Cantero.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Quantum mechanics is weird. Probably the weirdest part is that it only makes predictions about the probability of what can happen. Newton’s laws say that, with a give force, an object will move this way. Quantum mechanics says that it is probable that it will move a given way, but there is a probability it will move another way. So, with quantum mechanics, we are always dealing with probability. When we measure something, one of the many choices is actually realized. But, this is at the heart of the weirdness: which one?

There are several interpretations of quantum mechanics that try to address this, but they are all, essentially, non-testable hypotheses. One is that all possibilities happen and we are living in one of those potential worlds. That is, whenever a quantum measurement is made, reality splits into different worlds, where each possibility has happened. This is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This splitting occurs whenever there is a measurement of a quantum system. Going even further, the many-minds interpretation says that any time a mind makes a decision, reality splits. It is this interpretation that is at the heart of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter.

Really, the many-minds view of quantum mechanics is just the backdrop, a vehicle to let Crouch explore ideas about the road not taken. We all have wondered “what if,” what if I had asked that girl out, what if I had gotten that other job, what if that special someone was still alive? We only get one chance at life and we make the best of it. But, what if there was a chance to redo it, to take that untaken road? Crouch’s main character, Jason, had promise as a brilliant physicist. His wife, Dani, was an up and coming star artist. However, they both put those plans aside when Dani becomes pregnant, to raise their son. While both are happy, both also have regrets. What if they had made different choices?

I won’t give away the plot, as there is a lot of daring-do and action to go along with the exploration of these themes. I’ll just say that, in the end, Jason learns a few important lessons:

  • And maybe I can let go of the sting and resentment of the path not taken, because the path not taken isn’t just the inverse of who I am. It’s an infinitely branching system that represents all the permutations of my life…
  • I thought I appreciated every moment, but sitting here in the cold, I know I took it all for granted. And how could I not? Until everything topples, we have no idea what we actually have, how precariously and perfectly it all hangs together.

Dark Matter uses some out-there physics to explore some fundamental questions of existence, doing so while telling an action packed story that has some really interesting plot twists. Crouch’s approach to writing took inspiration from Michael Crichton: “I realized that he wasn’t just coming up with cool plots. He was writing books that allowed him to explore topics that interested him. Writing a thriller as self-education.” And, by educating himself, Crouch provides a yarn that is both thought-provoking and full of action.

Clockwork Boys by T Kingfisher

The Wonder Engine is the first in a series of books, the Clocktaur War, by T. Kingfisher. It follows a band of misfits as they try to find the secret of the Clocktaurs, a group of extremely powerful and possibly mechanical soldiers used by an enemy nation to threaten the home of the heroes. Those heroes — Slate, a forger and thief who also has some impressive fighting skills; Caliban, a paladin possessed by a dead demon; Brenner, an assassin; and Learned Edmund, a monk who has been cloistered away who believes being near women will literally destroy him: “‘Learned Edmund is apparently afraid that if he sleeps on your floor, your feminine exhalations will cause his genitals to wither and his bowels to turn to water.’” — have to travel to the heart of the enemy and figure out what the Clocktaurs are and how to stop them.

Kingfisher has created a very interesting world where some of the very common tropes in fantasy are tweaked just enough to create something new. Magic exists, but it is much more subtle than in many worlds. Some people are born with certain magical abilities, but they can’t do anything more. Slate, for example, has an allergic reaction whenever she is supposed to notice something. Others have the ability of creating tattoos that will literally eat people if they disobey orders: “What kind of turns did a life have to take before you discovered that your personal gift from the universe was making carnivorous tattoos?” Demons exist, and paladins exist to fight demons, though the demons cause most of their damage by possessing people. But, maybe more importantly, the characters are well fleshed out, with very distinct personalities and foibles. None of the characters are perfect, most aren’t noble, and even the paladin, who is by definition a very noble character, has his major flaws. Half of the book is about these characters getting to know one another as they march toward their destination, discovering themselves and other oddities of their world in the process.

The characters and the plot are both highly entertaining. The world has its own uniqueness that sets it apart from the types of books I read when I was younger, where the poor orphan boy goes on to become the world’s greatest magician and saves the multiverse. To be honest, this reminds me more of Joel Rosenberg’s The Guardians of the Flame series, which was one of my favorites as a kid where the characters aren’t saving the universe, but just trying to survive. The characters are the story, and the plot is just a way of introducing us to them. Clockwork Boys feels similar in spirit.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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