It’s the Amygdala, Stupid!

Last month I examined why we buy more goods from bad news cable than the goods we buy from good news cable:

The human neo cortex, in theory at least, calls on prior learning and objective processing to weigh options and make better decisions. Remember this the next time you get into a political discussion. The reason our fancy brain doesn’t work so well in political mode is its amazing lack of evidence, since the reptile brain pays more attention to office and bedroom politics and spun-for-TV sound bites than to news that matters and arcane issues of governance and human potential. Of course the cat brain is happy to provide all the emotion needed to get both parties lathered up over information they don’t have, since their respective brands of disinformation have been packaged and delivered so skillfully by the prosperous fear mongers on the nightly news.

It’s all the dragon’s fault. If something seems scary (suggested by tone of voice, excitement, stridency and sound track), our unblinking lizard brain pays close attention, while ignoring the more relevant news: green grass, skies of blue; people all around us, saying how d’ya do.

They’re just sayin’ I love you.

Arianna Huffington looked at the same issue recently in Appealing To Our Lizard Brains: Why Bush Is Still Standing. She had been wondering why people are so slow to reel in their bias for the Bushies’ War on Them. Her answer came from Dr. Daniel Siegel in his forthcoming book, Mindsight:

Dr. Siegel told me: “Voters are shrouded in a ‘fog of fear’ that is impacting the way our brains respond to the two candidates.”

Thanks to the Bush campaign’s unremitting fear-mongering, millions of voters are reacting not with their linear and logical left brain but with their lizard brain and their more emotional right brain.

What’s more, people in a fog of fear are more likely to respond to someone whose primary means of communication is in the nonverbal realm, neither logical nor language-based. (Sound like any presidential candidate you know?)
And that’s why Bush is still standing. It’s not about left wing vs. right wing; it’s about left brain vs. right brain.

Deep in the brain lies the amygdala, an almond-sized region that generates fear. When this fear state is activated, the amygdala springs into action. Before you are even consciously aware that you are afraid, your lizard brain responds by clicking into survival mode. No time to assess the situation, no time to look at the facts, just: fight, flight or freeze.

And, boy, have the Bushies been giving our collective amygdala a workout. Especially Dick Cheney, who has proven himself an unmatched master of the dark art of fear-mongering.

This fog of fear is the business end of the famous fog of war, the mass confusion that sets in about 3 minutes after you drop the starting flag on a flawless military strategy executed by the best-trained and equipped troops.

Any veteran will tell you that military training is mostly about overcoming your instinctive fears and doing the job you’re trained to do, regardless of the bullets flying or that you just watched your best friend’s face disappear. Here’s an example from combat.

Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator

In Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the essence of mental discipline in combat is revealed by an anecdote from the Korean war:

Combat had its own infinite series of tests, and one of the greatest sins was “chattering” or “jabbering” on the radio. The combat frequency was to be kept clear of all but strategically essential messages, and all unenlightening comments were regarded as evidence of funk, of the wrong stuff.

A Navy pilot (in legend, at any rate) began shouting, “I’ve got a MIG at zero! A MIG at zero!” – meaning that it had maneuvered in behind him and was locked in on his tail. An irritated voice cut in and said, “Shut up and die like an aviator.”

Now it’s time for We the People to control our fear and face the music.

If there is such a thing as right action, it places a demand on our resources whether or not our intellect or gut buys into it. That’s the essence of trusting our instruments rather than our inner ear. It also suggests that, when we must do things that seem threatening to our survival, it’s OK to keep our perspective.

In fact, it will improve the odds of survival.

The Grumman aircraft that scared pilot was flying was built before the hydro-mechanical fuel control, a kind of intelligent fuel injection for jet engines. In those days, the throttle was connected directly to a valve that dumped raw fuel into the engine, which was, essentially, a blowtorch. Dump too much fuel and the fire goes out.

Suddenly it’s quiet. Ruins your whole day.

Today, an F-18 pilot slams the throttle to max power and starts jiving. In those days, if you moved the throttle from cruise to afterburner faster than about 5 seconds, your fighter became an expensive glider.

Think about it: you’ve just been jumped by a faster, more agile MIG 15. Your job now is to tame your reptile brain and count slowly while advancing the throttle and jinking like a mothafucka (technical pilot talk for turning fast while under duress):

one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three, one thousand and four, one thousand and five.

Such suppression of one’s reptile brain requires behavioral modification at an early age. Now we, the front line combatants in the politically powerful War on A Noun, without the benefit of such training, need to keep our heads on straight and learn to fear only Fear Itself.

“Big Clock, Small Cock”

That was a cynical Air Force description of the pilot who sported an improbably huge aviator’s chronometer. The thinking was that a guy who so needed to advertise his profession was more interested in the role than his craft.

I suggest there’s a similar inverse relation between generalized bellicosity and grace under fire; that people who cheer for war fought by other people’s children are talking but not walking. However, we’re now in a technical world, requiring more (dare I say it?) sensitive behavior. Smart guys win battles, not blowhards. I can tell you from experience that people react far too fast in emergencies, not too slowly. Reacting like a lizard, they invariably hurt themselves and those around them.

There are a lot of scared people in this country, puffing out their chests and saying we should blow away everybody who hates us. Their state of mind is a fool’s paradise, as irrational as the virgin-rich nirvana sought by suicide bombers or the angel-rich rapture sought by the crazy Christians who actually believe that the sooner we bring on Armageddon, the sooner they’ll be raptured to their reward.

My God Won’t Beat Up Your God

The opposite of militaristic egotism is something called Christianity. Vengeful and apocalyptic doesn’t describe the God I learned to worship at Christ Episcopal Church in Manhasset, L.I. Our New Testament God was reasonable, sophisticated and, well, entrepreneurial. I never thought about Him that way before, but that was the sense I had, surrounded by strong, well-educated adults, most of whom had sacrificed mightily in WWII and Korea. Those veterans of serious combat advocated a humanistic, liberal education, exposing their kids to a broad range of historic, artistic and scientific information. Our hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, spoke for our community when he said,

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they never existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book.

Manhasset in the early 1950’s was a heady environment and Christ Church was the center of our community. My father had a rich bass voice so he was a stalwart of a quite excellent choir. I was a choir boy and an acolyte, and a fixture in Church School, receiving little medals for my regular attendance, even during the summer. This led me to study theology in college, where we still attended chapel on Sunday evening and said grace before meals, even as Wesleyan was becoming aggressively agnostic. However, I clearly was not wired for disciplined religiosity, and I certainly could not conduct a meaningful conversation with Akma on the gist of any of those courses.

I suppose I assumed our God was entrepreneurial because so many of the senior churchmembers were. There was John M. Fox, the guy who developed frozen orange juice in WWII and went on to found Minute Maid. The broadcast Paleys were there, and so was a sweet lady named Jesse Hicks, the church organist. She always hostessed the Church Christmas Party at her home, which looked like the setting for Sabrina (either one). Mrs. (not “Ms.” Hicks) was the widow of the founder of Union Carbide, and one of the many stalls in the long garage sheltered a Packard 733 Sport Phaeton that her husband had won from Jim Packard in a poker game. It had never been driven.

I mention this to suggest there are alternatives to Crackpot Christianity. The tradition this country was founded on was single-mindedly secular, even while based on the presumption that a pervasive Almighty embraces all creatures (AKA ‘Deist’). So it’s refreshing to come across this belief statement signed by about 200 serious theologians, at a site called Sojourners – faith, politics, culture. I’m compelled to quote it in full, for the same reason that prayer flags and wheels make sense to me. I hope you’ll go take a look at the list of signatories.

In reading their words, I’m reminded that courage is never comfortable or recreational. The thrill in your gut as you smite thine enemies is a sure sign that you’re up to no good. But what would I know? I was never a real soldier; I was a shootee, not a shooter.

Confessing Christ in a World of Violence

Our world is wracked with violence and war. But Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9). Innocent people, at home and abroad, are increasingly threatened by terrorist attacks. But Jesus said: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). These words, which have never been easy, seem all the more difficult today.

Nevertheless, a time comes when silence is betrayal. How many churches have heard sermons on these texts since the terrorist atrocities of September 11? Where is the serious debate about what it means to confess Christ in a world of violence? Does Christian “realism” mean resigning ourselves to an endless future of “pre-emptive wars”? Does it mean turning a blind eye to torture and massive civilian casualties? Does it mean acting out of fear and resentment rather than intelligence and restraint?

Faithfully confessing Christ is the church’s task, and never more so than when its confession is co-opted by militarism and nationalism.

  • A “theology of war,” emanating from the highest circles of American government, is seeping into our churches as well.
  • The language of “righteous empire” is employed with growing frequency.
  • The roles of God, church, and nation are confused by talk of an American “mission” and “divine appointment” to “rid the world of evil.”

The security issues before our nation allow no easy solutions. No one has a monopoly on the truth. But a policy that rejects the wisdom of international consultation should not be baptized by religiosity. The danger today is political idolatry exacerbated by the politics of fear.
In this time of crisis, we need a new confession of Christ.

  1. Jesus Christ, as attested in Holy Scripture, knows no national boundaries. Those who confess his name are found throughout the earth. Our allegiance to Christ takes priority over national identity. Whenever Christianity compromises with empire, the gospel of Christ is discredited.We reject the false teaching that any nation-state can ever be described with the words, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” These words, used in scripture, apply only to Christ. No political or religious leader has the right to twist them in the service of war.
  2. Christ commits Christians to a strong presumption against war. The wanton destructiveness of modern warfare strengthens this obligation. Standing in the shadow of the Cross, Christians have a responsibility to count the cost, speak out for the victims, and explore every alternative before a nation goes to war. We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies.We reject the false teaching that a war on terrorism takes precedence over ethical and legal norms. Some things ought never be done – torture, the deliberate bombing of civilians, the use of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction – regardless of the consequences.
  3. Christ commands us to see not only the splinter in our adversary’s eye, but also the beam in our own. The distinction between good and evil does not run between one nation and another, or one group and another. It runs straight through every human heart.We reject the false teaching that America is a “Christian nation,” representing only virtue, while its adversaries are nothing but vicious. We reject the belief that America has nothing to repent of, even as we reject that it represents most of the world’s evil. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
  4. Christ shows us that enemy-love is the heart of the gospel. While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8, 10). We are to show love to our enemies even as we believe God in Christ has shown love to us and the whole world. Enemy-love does not mean capitulating to hostile agendas or domination. It does mean refusing to demonize any human being created in God’s image.We reject the false teaching that any human being can be defined as outside the law’s protection. We reject the demonization of perceived enemies, which only paves the way to abuse; and we reject the mistreatment of prisoners, regardless of supposed benefits to their captors.
  5. Christ teaches us that humility is the virtue befitting forgiven sinners. It tempers all political disagreements, and it allows that our own political perceptions, in a complex world, may be wrong.We reject the false teaching that those who are not for the United States politically are against it or that those who fundamentally question American policies must be with the “evil-doers.” Such crude distinctions, especially when used by Christians, are expressions of the Manichaean heresy, in which the world is divided into forces of absolute good and absolute evil.

The Lord Jesus Christ is either authoritative for Christians, or he is not. His Lordship cannot be set aside by any earthly power. His words may not be distorted for propagandistic purposes. No nation-state may usurp the place of God.

We believe that acknowledging these truths is indispensable for followers of Christ. We urge them to remember these principles in making their decisions as citizens. Peacemaking is central to our vocation in a troubled world where Christ is Lord.

Taming The Beast

Each generation must learn anew that real strength lies in mastering oneself, and not in applying force to one’s imputed enemies. Sometimes it’s everything we can do just to overcome our inner dragon.

1:52:03 AM    

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