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April 27, 2005

How Our Monkey Brains Work

One of the most amazing things in Nixon's White House tapes is a conversation between him and Bob Haldeman on June 12, 1972. In it, they discussed the famous picture (which had just been released) of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack. This is what Nixon said:

"I wonder if that was a fix."

In other words, Nixon's immediate reaction was that the picture was a hoax.

What's so fascinating about this is the 29,000 pounds of self-deception it reveals. Certainly this was Nixon's honest reaction: he was speaking in private to his closest crony.

Yet he didn't say something ugly but rational, such as, "That's horrible, but it's the reality of war." Or something even uglier but still connected to reality like, "I want us to start claiming that picture's a hoax, whether it is or not." Instead, his first instinct was to escape into a fantasy world.

I believe this is standard in people at the pinnacle of power. They engage in extraordinarily gruesome crimes—and in the abstract, aren't bothered by this. After all, regarding Vietnam, Nixon had previously told Henry Kissinger, "You're so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don't give a damn. I don't care."

However, when brought face to face with the results of their actions, leaders refuse to accept them. In this sense, Nixon is similar to Saddam Hussein, who after being captured was visited in prison by several of his main Iraqi political opponents. When asked about his victims in Iraq's mass graves, Saddam learnedly explained, "They were thieves." He also revealed that he had been a "just but firm ruler."

So, why do leaders act this way? Why didn't Nixon look at the screaming little girl, and say, "Well, that's life"? Why didn't Saddam say, "I killed those people because I wanted to stay in power"?

The answer lies in our little monkey brains, which require us to always believe we are good people, no matter what the evidence. Even Hitler thought he was misunderstood.

Richard Nixon: Just but Firm

Posted at April 27, 2005 08:12 AM | TrackBack

I often feel that I'm misunderstood.

Does that mean....?

Posted by: alexis S at April 27, 2005 08:51 AM

You know, Alexis, I'd been meaning for a while to tell you you're one of history's greatest monsters.

So I'm sure glad you figured it out on your own. That kind of thing's always so awkward.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at April 27, 2005 09:28 AM

If he had said, "It must be a fix," I'd agree with you. Wondering if it was a fix... I might wonder the same thing. So many things in the media and politics are a fix, and Nixon knew that. For example, that South Vietnamese general got his prisoner and walked him outside right in front of Eddie Adams before shooting him. Some photos show a statement, not a fact.

I believe in the whole "if Hitler was an actor, he was one who believed in the part" theory, but the human failing I see here isn't self-justification but the natural tendency to disbelieve facts just because they support your opponents' position.

Posted by: Noumenon at April 27, 2005 09:33 AM

Thank God the girl is now all right and living in Canada...

Posted by: En Ming Hee at April 27, 2005 09:44 AM


the human failing I see here isn't self-justification but the natural tendency to disbelieve facts just because they support your opponents' position

Well, aren't these essentially the same thing? Or at least closely related things?

Also, while I can't find the actual transcript anywhere online, note that in the CNN story there's no indication Nixon actually was interested in finding out whether it was a hoax or not. He just brought it up as long as it was something he had to consider, and then apparently lost interest.

Or think of it another way: imagine a recording of Saddam Hussein discussing a picture of Shiite mass graves. He would have just as much reason as Nixon to wonder about hoaxes—after all, we fabricated the whole babies-thrown-out-of-incubators story. But it would still say a great deal about Saddam and human psychology generally if his immediate reaction was "I wonder if that was a fix" and then didn't express any further interest.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at April 27, 2005 09:54 AM

Excellent post, Jonathan. This is a really important point and one that I feel much of the antiwar movement often misses. There's a tendency to evaluate top officials as simply rational amoral actors working out a logic based purely on the cash register -- or, at best, based on some combination of the cash register and detached calculations of power and hegemony.

In fact, such people are not so far different from normal people who believe things that make them comfortable and disbelieve things that do otherwise.

To me, understanding this has nothing to do with exculpating these people, just with understanding how policy is made and how people perceive it. You can't understand the occupation of Iraq without seeing the administration as captive of its own ideology. What's interesting is trying to figure out exactly what that ideology is.

Posted by: Rahul Mahajan at April 27, 2005 11:29 AM

And Kissinger's "concern" had to do with how it would reflect on Nixon/the U.S. rather than anything like compassion.
from Ellsberg's "Secrets", pp 419:
…Nixon observed to Kissinger: "The only place where you and I disagree is with regard to the bombing. You're so godammed concerned about the civilians and I dont give a damn. I don't care."
Kissinger responded: "I'm concerned about the civilians because I don't want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher…"

Posted by: mk at April 27, 2005 02:07 PM

And what about Madame Secretary "We think it's worth it" Albright? Acknowleging that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children were dead from our sanctions, she glibly and categorically justified the price. Sometimes I look back wistfully on Nixon. At least he was unstable enough to self-destruct. The cool, calculating ones can often be more frightening.

Posted by: mk at April 27, 2005 02:20 PM

Nixon, Albright, Hussein, etc..they all have the same defensive reflex of considering their victims as abstract figures, as part of a greater, «nobler» scheme. Otherwise they would have to acknowledge their responsability in the tragedy of each and every single death they have caused, and that is impossible.

Posted by: Sickduck at April 27, 2005 02:49 PM

Well, I was listening to Atlantic's Robert Kaplan on c-span the other day, and he was talking about world's leaders morality vs. everyday morality. He calls it 'realism'.

I googled his name and here's what I found:
ROBERT: Well, first of all, realism has a specific definition in foreign affairs. Here are a few parts of the definition. Realism in foreign affairs assumes that domestic politics operates within the confines of law. Foreign policy, though, operates in a lawless realm. The kind of morality we apply overseas in dealing with our adversaries is a more limited, sadder morality than we apply at home. Realism also means that all moral questions of human rights, democracy, etc. are ultimately questions of power. Realism assumes that sometimes you have to perpetrate a certain amount of evil in order to do a greater amount of good. These are all aspects of realism in foreign affairs. I think the United States, right now, under President Bush, is what I would call a classically realist foreign policy.

Posted by: abb1 at April 28, 2005 03:55 AM

Kaplan's style of pompous bootlicking and childish notions of realpolitick never go out of style.

Posted by: Harry at April 28, 2005 05:11 AM

Noumenon, are you serious?

Posted by: Elayne at April 28, 2005 06:35 AM

Yeah, I'm serious. I am always turning the other cheek when it comes to giving people the benefit of the doubt. There are still plenty of completely inexcusable things to get angry about.

"the human failing I see here isn't self-justification but the natural tendency to disbelieve facts just because they support your opponents' position"

Well, aren't these essentially the same thing? Or at least closely related things?

Well, I read a whole lot into your two examples. From Saddam I heard, "They were thieves! They deserved to die!" [self-justification] and from Nixon, "(that would mean I'm evil if it were true, so...) That can't be true, can it?" [self-serving denial.]

Basically because I could imagine Nixon's words coming from my mouth, I was loathe to judge him for them, even though he has nothing like the same thought processes I do (I hope). I guess I have a fallacious Occam's Razor that says, "If you can explain someone's behavior by assuming he thinks like you, don't bother figuring out how he really thinks."

Posted by: Noumenon at April 28, 2005 09:00 AM

It's just that the level of paranoia, the detachment from one's own action that the hoax line of thinking implies, makes me remove Nixon from the cast of people who make reasonable decisions, one's we might recognize as rational. For example, Putin now is removing power from all of the states that formerly broke with the Soviet Union. It is causing much trauma and violence and he has been condemmed internationally, by the U.S., for one. But it makes sense because he's actually trying to build a new empire. It's a terrible idea, but I *understand* the thinking that fuels his decisions. I am not so clear on "Hey, we dropped Napalm on these villages, sure, but I don't believe it really hit anyone."--that seems like crazy-making insane denial.

Posted by: Elayne at April 28, 2005 10:39 AM

We probably need to call on some outside help to get countries out of this "realism" kick -- after all, it's been going on for centuries.

There was a Latin-American Marxist thinker in the 1950s (can't remember his name at the moment) who held that the flying saucers were actually intergalactic socialists who were coming to save us. He reasoned that, in order to get across such huge distances, they would have had to develop a very advanced industrial civilization, and that could only be done under socialism.

That theory is looking better and better all the time.

Posted by: Jon J at April 28, 2005 12:03 PM

I am not so clear on "Hey, we dropped Napalm on these villages, sure, but I don't believe it really hit anyone."--that seems like crazy-making insane denial.

I think that's because their thinking does not focus on scorched people; they're thinking in terms of number of sorties and tons of napalm necessary to acheive such and such objective.

Running naked children just don't belong, not a part of the calculations. And when it happens, they feel confused. Cognitive dissonance or something like that.

Probably doesn't take long to snap right back to the number of sorties, how to neutralize the media, usual stuff like that.

Posted by: abb1 at April 28, 2005 02:29 PM