Sunday, November 04, 2007

How not to review a book

While I was in the library the other day attempting to find an internet connection, I noticed The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation by Emory psychologist Drew Westen on the New Books stack. It caught my eye because I've read Westen's introductory psychology textbook and thought it was extremely well-written and user friendly.

Unfortunately, I already have a gazillion books I want to read, so I did not check it out. But I did do a search for some reviews of the book. The first two that came up were this one from David Brooks and this one at Daily Kos from Susan G (who also previously reviewed Greenwald's A Tragic Legacy.)*

Even though I haven't read the book, it was fairly easy to see that there was something wrong with the review from Brooks (asides from the ad hominem and his lack of expertise in the field of neuroscience.) That being that he pretty obviously used it as a partisan opportunity to attack Democrats/liberals rather than to actually review the book. I had read the book jacket, and from that I was able to pick up the gist of the book - and what Brooks wrote did not seem to match.

But to see most clearly the head I win, tails you lose logic that Brooks employs to wave off criticism of the conservative movement that he has helped bring into power with op-eds and reviews like these, take a look at what Brooks had to say about Al Gore's The Assault on Reason.

Gore says that demagoguery is being used to shortcut rational debate which is a danger to democracy and Brooks writes a snide column accusing Gore of imagining a Vulcan utopia devoid of emotion. Westen argues that rational appeals that do not produce an emotional response are unlikely to motivate voters and Brooks writes a snide review saying that Westen holds reason and rationality in contempt.

That folks, is sophistry. And I see that I'm not alone in recognizing this.

The New York Times has itself published a couple of Letters to the Editor that concisely point out the problems with the review from Brooks.

In his negative review of Drew Westen's ''Political Brain'' (Aug. 26), David Brooks concludes, as an unsupported refutation of the book's thesis: ''The best way to win votes -- and this will be a shocker -- is to offer people an accurate view of the world and a set of policies that seem likely to produce good results.'' If Brooks actually believes that George W. Bush won his 2004 presidential campaign because he offered an accurate view of the world (through fear-mongering, inaccurately tying Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and condoning fabrications about his opponent's war record) and a set of policies that seemed likely to produce good results (the invasion of Iraq?), he should examine the emotions that overwhelm his own rationality.

Brooks discounts the power of deep-seated emotions: ''Emotions are produced by learning,'' he baldly asserts, citing the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. In fact, Damasio and many other neuroscientists have shown that basic emotions like fear and joy, hard-wired through brain systems like the amygdala, are innately set up by stimuli of evolutionary significance. Brooks accuses Westen of failing to understand that human emotions ''partner with rationality.'' To the contrary, the book's central psychological message is that human thought, rational and otherwise, is always anchored to emotion.

In drawing accurately on a wide-ranging scientific literature to buttress his claims, the author of ''The Political Brain'' never pretends to be nonpartisan. In this regard, Westen's impassioned book is much more honest than Brooks's sardonic review. Positioning himself disingenuously above the fray, Brooks paints Westen as a naïve academic. But the most naïve statement in the review comes from Brooks himself, when he writes that the best way to win votes ''is to offer people an accurate view of the world and a set of policies that seem likely to produce good results.'' Two decades after Willie Horton and just a few years post-Swift Boat, the only shocking thing here is that Brooks expects readers to take him seriously.
But I think Westen himself has written the best rebuttal.

My first response to David Brooks’s review of my book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” (Aug. 26), was mild amusement. The review was playfully sarcastic, and I must admit my own appreciation for that genre. And how else could you respond to a review that argues for objectivity in politics after beginning with the words: “Between 2000 and 2006, a specter haunted the community of fundamentalist Democrats. Members of this community looked around and observed their moral and intellectual superiority.”

Then once the e-mail started pouring in, asking how I could possibly have made the arguments attributed to me, it became clear that Brooks had succeeded in inoculating thousands of potential readers against a book that some effective political communicators (e.g., President Clinton) had enthusiastically endorsed because of the ways it suggests Democrats talk about abortion, gays, guns, terrorism, taxes, race and a host of other issues that have cost them at the polls.

As summarized by Brooks, my central thesis is that Democrats should campaign using “crude emotional outbursts” and guttural noises, preferably interrupting debates by “barking” and “exploding” about their opponent’s history of drinking if he has one (or, better yet, if he doesn’t). He then wonders how I might explain Howard Dean’s failure to win the 2004 Democratic primaries against the more emotionally subdued John Kerry. (Of course, he wouldn’t have had to wonder if he’d simply gone to the index and looked under the entry “Dean, Howard.”)

Brooks never mentions that the book is a 400-page scientific and historical argument against precisely what he offers as a counterthesis, expressed in this rhetorical question: “Is it possible that substance has something to do with the political fortunes of parties? Could it be that Democrats won in the middle part of the 20th century because they were right about the big issues — the New Deal and the civil rights movement? Is it possible Republicans won in the latter part of the century because they were right about economic growth and the cold war? Is it possible Democrats are winning now because they were right about whether to go to war in Iraq?” This all sounds so, well, “fair and balanced” — until you think about it.
Democrats’ stand on civil rights has cost them dearly since Richard Nixon discovered the race card in 1968. Al Gore lost despite an unrivaled period of prosperity and growth. And Democrats actually voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002 (perhaps convinced by the objective arguments of none other than Mr. Brooks) and won in 2006 only when they started to talk passionately about Iraq.

But for Brooks, the “core problem with Westen’s book is that he doesn’t really make use of what we know about emotion.” As a professor of psychology and psychiatry who has been contributing to the scientific literature on emotion for over 20 years, I don’t know who exactly “we” is, but I have to hand it to him: he put that knowledge to pretty good use in leaving readers with a bad taste in their mouths about a book they hadn’t read. Which illustrates the central thesis of the book: that a little knowledge about emotion can go a long way in politics.

That's actually a shorter and to the point version of the response that Westen wrote at the I don't know about you, but when I read the Brooks review and got to the part where he says that Westen wrote that Gore should have attacked Bush as an alcoholic during a 2000 debate I thought to have done so would have been wrong. But at the same time I found it very difficult to believe that Westen would recommend such a thing. It turns out that he didn't.

What Brooks knows as a writer is that the way you contextualize a passage has everything to do with the impression readers take away from it. Reading these quotes -- as woven together with colorful phrases such as "He wishes Gore had interrupted a presidential debate and barked at Bush [emphasis added], "he imagines Gore exploding [emphasis added], and later, "the sort of crude emotional outbursts Westen recommends" [emphasis added] -- the reader would have the distinct impression that I thought Gore should have repeatedly and viciously attacked Bush for his history of alcoholism. I happen to know that he was successful in leaving this impression in readers who hadn't read the book, because several of them emailed me to tell me why they thought attacking a recovered alcoholic would have been a terrible idea -- something no one who has read what I wrote in context -- including Bill Clinton, who found the same passages Brooks uses as negative examples particularly compelling -- came away thinking I was advocating.

So let's take a look at what I actually said. Here is the first passage, where I would, according to Brooks, have had Gore "interrupt a presidential debate" to "bark," seemingly unprovoked, about Bush's alcoholism:

In 2000, Gore faced what he and his advisors perceived to be a dilemma. The country had just gone through a year of scandals leading up to the impeachment trial of an otherwise very popular president...The question Gore and his advisors asked and answered to their own satisfaction reflected the kind of one-dimensional thinking we have seen repeatedly in Democratic campaigns. Is Clinton an asset or a liability to the Gore campaign? Is he a positive or a negative?

...The problem, though, was not the answer at which Gore and his advisors arrived but the question itself. Had they understood emotional associations, they would have asked a very different question: given that Clinton and Gore are inextricably linked in people's minds, how do we activate the positive associations people have formed to Bill Clinton over eight years and reinforce those links to Gore, and how do we inhibit the associations between Clinton's personal scandals and Gore's personal attributes?

Had they asked this question, they wouldn't have conceded all claims to the accomplishments of the Clinton-Gore years (and thus enjoyed none of the positive associations) while simultaneously tying their hands against all attacks for fear of invoking Clinton's name (accruing every negative association George W. Bush and Karl Rove threw at them).

Asked this way -- as a question about how to manage voters' ambivalence toward Bill Clinton the president and Bill Clinton the womanizer -- the answer is obvious. And the answer would have set Gore free at the start of the election or the first time Bush telegraphed that he intended to make the election a referendum on "character." The character charge made heavy use of guilt by association, essentially saying, "We need to restore integrity to the Oval Office" -- the room associated in people's minds with the Lewinsky scandal. Although Bush mentioned fund-raising "scandals" (such as the use of White House phone lines for campaign phone calls), those were just the conscious overlay, which had little emotional power on their own. The real message was that Clinton's sexual escapades had tarnished the dignity of the presidency, and what Bush-Rove hoped to do was to cast a wide associative net with "character" and "integrity" that would blur the lines between Clinton's personal indiscretion and Gore's integrity.

Unfortunately, blinded by his anger and feelings of betrayal, and surrounded by advisers either deaf to the rising character crescendo or unable to imagine a way to bring the concerto to a close, Gore let the charge fester. To answer it, he would have had to utter Clinton's name. He and his advisers seemed to think that if they just didn't talk about Clinton, the association would go away.

But as has been the case every time Democrats have turned to avoidance as a campaign strategy, the strategy backfired, for two very important reasons. First, whether Gore liked it or not, he was inextricably linked associatively to Clinton. He was Clinton's vice president for eight years, and their names appeared in two election cycles on bumper stickers as "Clinton-Gore." You can't get much more associated than that. Second, the other side was talking about Clinton, referring constantly to Clinton-Gore, and doing everything they could to create a network around "character" and "integrity" that made Clinton and Gore partners in crime.

Gore simply ceded the networks, allowing Bush to tell whatever stories he wanted about Clinton-Gore's integrity because Gore didn't want to mention that he had been Clinton's vice president. The irony is that although Clinton's poll numbers were low for personal integrity, his numbers were high for overall job performance -- remarkably high for a president who had spent eight years dealing with well-financed right-wing efforts to destroy him, supplemented by the Starr inquisition, financed handsomely by fifty million in American tax dollars.

So imagine if Gore had responded the first time Bush first uttered any words vaguely insinuating character issues with something like this:

George Bush wants to make character an issue in this election. Governor, I wouldn't go there if I were you because it's not exactly your strong suit.

But let me say something about Bill Clinton, so the American people know exactly where I stand.

No one in America, not you, not me, not Bill Clinton, is proud of what happened between him and Monica Lewinsky. A day doesn't go by that he doesn't think about the pain he caused his family, knowing that every time Chelsea turned on the television set for a year all she heard about was her father's affair. We are all well aware of the pain he and an out-of-control Republican Congress, determined to destroy the president no matter who they had to take down with him or how much filth they had to expose our children tfo on the evening news, caused this nation.

Am I proud of what Bill Clinton did with his personal life? Of course not. But I'll tell you what I am proud of.

I'm proud of what Bill Clinton and I have accomplished together over the last eight years. We began with an economy in disarray, left that way by Mr. Bush's father. We were deep into a recession that was costing Americans their jobs, with a federal government out of control, spending your grandchildren's money by the bushel, running up enormous deficits.

Now look where we are today. We've created millions of jobs, we've cut unemployment to historic lows, we've put a hundred thousand new police on our streets protecting our children, we've cut the number of people on welfare by more than half, and on top of that, we balanced the budget for the first time in thirty years. We've cut the numbers of abortions for the first time in twenty-five years, and we've given every woman in the United States the right to stay home for three months with her new baby without fear of losing her job. We've taken guns out of the hands of criminals while protecting the rights of hunters, and we've dramatically cut the crime rate.

If that isn't a record to be proud of, I don't know what is.

So Mr. Bush, let me give you a little word of advice. If I were you, I don't think I'd make integrity and values your campaign theme. If someone is going to restore dignity to the Oval Office, it isn't a man who drank his way through three decades of his life and got investigated by his father's own Securities and Exchange Commission for swindling people out of their retirement savings. If you want to be president, you're going to need to convince the American people that they should abandon everything Bill Clinton and I did that has made Americans safe, secure, and prosperous again, and instead vote for a man whose biggest concern seems to be that the yacht tax is too high.

Had Gore begun his campaign that way, he would have made clear that what united him and Clinton was not Clinton's handling of Monica Lewinsky but their administration's handling of the country. As importantly, he would have warned Bush and Rove that if they took off the gloves about character, so would Gore. The way you respond to your opponent's first attacks sends a crucial signal not just to the public but to the other campaign. A weak response does nothing but embolden the opposition. And a swift response to the character issue that included a brief reference to Bush's own moral failings would have prevented Bush, and ultimately the media, from framing the campaign as a contest between a man with questionable integrity and a man with questionable experience and intellect. Americans don't care much about experience and intellect, but they do care about integrity.
Unless Brooks is reading subliminal messages in my words that I can't see, I don't hear anything about interrupting a debate or barking. Nor do I hear anything about carping repeatedly on Bush's drinking. The comment about Bush's drinking is contextualized in a much broader story that has very little to do with his history of alcoholism.

It is difficult to see in Brooks' depiction of what I wrote anything other than the kind of deliberate deception we have seen repeatedly from the current administration, and precisely the kind of emotionally charged use of language (e.g., "interrupt," "bark") that, Brooks argues, has no sway on people's minds. If such language has no utility, it's odd that he chose to use it -- and to use it in precisely the deceptive ways I describe in the book as having no place in American political discourse.
If you read the rest of Westen's post, you'll notice that he also responds to the ad hominem and uses snide to describe the tone of Brooks. I thought that was kind of neat that we were on the same page in that regard (and for the record, I had written those things before actually reading what Westen had to say.)

*If you've been waiting for my review of the same, then you should check out Susan G's. Her review is more traditional and will give you a good summary of the book's thesis without having to wade through a long, convoluted post (which is what my review is.)


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Anonymous said...

Interesting post HG.

Westin has it exactly right. You can't let attacks stand without defending your character.

Brooks thinks that emotions are learned? How ignorant.