The Poison of Certainty

A neurologist named Robert Burton postulates that the sensation of certainty is entirely disconnected from actually knowing anything. He wrote in Salon:

… despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of primary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of rationality or reason. Feeling correct or certain isn’t a deliberate conclusion or conscious choice. It is a mental sensation that happens to us.

The importance of being aware that certainty has involuntary neurological roots cannot be overstated. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas — from opposing religious or scientific views to contrary opinions at the dinner table.

As I understand what Dr. Burton wrote, the sensation of certainty is generated in a sort of invisible field created by the neurons throughout the brain. The important point is that it not generated by those parts of the brain associated with cognition and reason. Certainty feels like a thought, but it isn’t.

I have a post up about this on the Buddhism blog, but here I want to relate it to politics.

Certainty as an involuntary sensation unrelated to actually knowing anything explains the Bush Administration, big time. But in recent weeks, as the activist Left and the Left Blogosphere have divvied up into Clinton and Obama camps, it’s broken out here in our neighborhood as well. I believe most of us, and I include myself, have allowed sensations of certainty to color our views of both candidates.

Let me make my case: My preference for Obama comes less from his oratory and more from his strengths as a campaigner and the fact that he’s bringing new people, especially young people, into politics. I doubt that he can heal the nation’s sick political culture by himself, but an overwhelming tide of public opinion might do the trick. And I think a lot of the young folks get this better than some of us geezers do.

I second what E.J. Dionne said about historic opportunity:

During the past two months, Democrats in large numbers have reached the same conclusion that so many Republicans did in 1980: Now is the time to go for broke, to challenge not only the ruling party but also the governing ideas of the previous political era and the political coalition that allowed them to dominate public life.

In those few places where he and Senator Clinton disagree, I actually have a slight preference for her positions over his. I’ve voted for her both times she’s run for U.S. Senator, and I met her once and thought she was charming.

But she has a long history of betraying progressive interests for her own political interests, and her strengths lie less in shaking up the system than in finessing it, sort of. Her claims of being ready to lead on “day one” have been belied by the fact that her campaign is a mess, and it’s a mess largely of her own making. She listens to the wrong people; she’s been slow to replace incompetent staff; she often seems tone deaf to public mood. Further, I think her resume is way too padded and her senatorial legislative accomplishments are way too thin. She fights and fights, yes, but she doesn’t win much.

Now, those are reasons. But I know that underneath those reasons is a strong sensation of certainty that I really, really do not what Senator Clinton to be the nominee. I’ve had this sensation of certainty since the last presidential election, when the bobbleheads began to talk up Hillary as the sure-fire Democratic nominee in 2008. A big part of that sensation came from her Iraq War resolution vote and her early support for the Iraq War. She was one of the most hawkish Dems in the Senate for a long time after the 2002 vote. When we really needed her, she let us down.

But I know another part of it is long-smoldering resentment for the Clinton Triangulation Strategy, in which both Bill and Hillary often dissed the Left to mess with the Right. And the whole “inevitability” narrative really burned me. Since early 2005, if not sooner, Chris Matthews et al. have been chirping at us that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee. Like us little citizen-persons had nothing to say about it.

So that’s my confession. Now I’d like to see some equal-time soul-searching on the part of Clinton supporters.

There are solid and sensible reasons to prefer Clinton to Obama. But I rarely see those reasons. Instead, what we get from Clinton supporters increasingly borders on psychasthenia. (I would have used the more common word, hysteria, but one rabid little Clintonista has declared war on me for being a sexist and anti-feminist because I used it elsewhere. Well, thanks for the traffic, toots, but you don’t get a return link.)

I’m not going to catalog all of the wild conclusions about Obama to which Clinton supporters have jumped, but Lance Mannion does a good job of answering some of them.

IMO the biggest reason the Right is mostly still pulling its punches regarding Obama is that the Clinton supporters are doing their work for them. (I’d send you to some links, but I’ve got enough of ’em pissed off at me already and I don’t want to start a blog war. If you hang out much in the blogs, you probably know who I’m talking about.) They’re frantically throwing every bit of mud at Obama they can find, oblivious to the fact that they’re doing to Obama what the Right did to the Clintons all those years — unquestioningly believing everything bad they hear, jumping to conclusions that may or may not connect, and blowing it up into a Big Deal. Sure, some accusations contain some facts, but so did most of what the Right said about the Clintons. And if anyone really wanted to do it, enough facts could be dug up about Senator Clinton to generate new smears to tarnish her just as robustly.

They’re right that Clinton has gotten worse press — lately. She wouldn’t have been a candidate at all, however, had the media not built her up into Miss Inevitability for so long.

Clinton supporters have a strong sensation of certainty that Hillary Clinton should be the nominee, as do I that she shouldn’t. The difference between us is that I admit I’m listening to my guts. Few Clinton supporters I’ve run into are able to be that self-honest. There really is a vibe coming out of many of them that Senator Clinton was entitled to the nomination, and who is this Obama upstart to take it away from her?

Jennifer Nix has a good column at Huffington Post, in which she accuses the Clinton campaign of magical thinking:

This reasoning is pinned at present on diaphanous evidence, threatened lawsuits and some audacious fear-mongering. It is rooted in the Clinton campaign’s emotional investment in a host of great expectations–to finish what Clinton started on the health care front in the 90s, to restore the Clinton legacy, and to elect the first woman president in U.S. history– ideas which have lost their luster in the Democratic, and perhaps American psyche, since those golden days of inevitability.

As Joan Didion wrote in her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about her mental and emotional state after her husband’s sudden death, this kind of thinking can set in when grief is too great to bear, and one cannot deal with the reality of death. “I had entered at the moment it happened a kind of shock in which the only thought I allowed myself was that there must be certain things I needed to do.”

With Clinton’s inevitability turned to dust and her losses in eleven straight contests pointing to the likely end of her campaign, the candidate and her staffers are busying themselves with ominous tasks to fend off the shock.

The question is: At what cost to the rest of the Democratic party, and the nation?

It’s a good column, and I suggest you read all of it.

Tomorrow is primary day for Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island. Latest polls say that Senator Clinton will almost certainly win Ohio and Rhode Island. Obama is ahead in Vermont, and Texas is dead even.

I understand it’s close to mathematically impossible for Clinton to suprass Obama in elected delegates. But if Clinton wins Ohio and Rhode Island, she’s going to fight on, no matter the actual delegate count and no matter what she’s doing to the party. If she wins Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas, there’s a chance she’ll get her way and force the party and superdelegates to give her the nomination.

I have a strong sensation of certainty that this would be a huge mistake.

Update: Rush is urging Texas Republicans to vote for Clinton. Make of this what you will.

Update 2: John Aravosis:

Hillary’s campaign has already said that they are throwing the kitchen sink at Obama. They will discuss, are discussing, all the bad things that the GOP will throw at Obama in the fall.

So, what will the Republicans throw at Hillary in the fall?

Lots. But I’m not going to detail those things today because I’m, surprisingly, still pulling punches with regards to what I write about Hillary. I don’t want to damage Hillary should she become our nominee, as increasingly unlikely as that appears. I don’t want to write about very real scandals in Hillary’s past, scandals that we will be forced to revisit for the next 8 months, and 8 years. I don’t want to write about the rumors about Bill that no one has written about to date, even though the rumors include lots of details which are at least just as true as Obama being a Muslim. While Hillary’s campaign is pushing known lies about Obama, such as the “Muslim” connection, most of the stories about Hillary are anything but lies. They’re real stories that she will have to discuss publicly, again and again and again, to her and our party’s detriment.

But I’m not going to be discussing the details of those stories today because I don’t want to make our candidate damaged goods in the fall. You will notice that neither Obama’s campaign nor Obama’s official, or unofficial, surrogates are talking about the Clintons’ past or present scandals, the Clintons’ negatives, what a Clinton run for the presidency will to Democratic congressional races and governor races across the country. The Clintons are counting on the fact that none of us will write about their negatives, because we’re too nice. So they can get as dirty as they want, with impunity.

Well, come Wednesday, if Hillary doesn’t win 65% of the delegates in Ohio and Texas, and still insists on staying in the race and ripping our party in two, it will be time to start treating candidate Clinton with the same golden rule she is using for candidate Obama. Why? Not for revenge, but for the sake of our party and the fall election. Hillary and her campaign are in the process of turning Obama into damaged goods in the fall. They didn’t have to go there, but beating Obama became more important to them than beating John McCain. So, the first question for Hillary come Wednesday, should she decide to continue risking our chances of winning in the fall even though the math says it’s over, will be the question she’s asking Obama today: What negatives will the Republicans throw against you in the fall? And as I’ve noted repeatedly, there are some negatives out there that most of you don’t even know about – but everyone in Washington knows about them, in detail. That’s because even Democrats who don’t love Hillary, don’t go there, for the good of the party. On Wednesday, the good of the party may dictate that we do.

18 thoughts on “The Poison of Certainty

  1. Well she sure seems to have the media on her side lately, lots of talk today about, Tony Rezko, Canadian NAFTA gaff by an Obama aid, even the Obama is a Muslim shit is being thrown against the wall again on all the cable channels. Maybe the MSM is starting to get shit scarred that Obama may actually win, oops what did we do!

    The media is only fueling the fires that will perpetuate this race for as long as possible, good for business. I could swear just a couple weeks ago the common theme amongst the talking heads was that if Hillary didn’t win Ohio and Texas she was toast for sure (in fact Bill said it as well), today I hear most of them saying if she wins Ohio and is close in Texas she still has a chance? Yeah right!

    I for one was a Edwards supporter and did not have a real preference between Hillary and Obama until after Iowa. After Iowa she really turned into a nasty “Roveian” campaigner. I have so soured on her that I will welcome Nader into the race as a third party candidate, only because it will save from voting for McCain!

  2. Maha – If Bill Clinton had run on your agenda, he’d never been elected, and, even if by some unknown he did get elected, he could have never gotten your agenda approved. Politics is the art of the possible and democracy is about comprise – nobody gets things their way.

  3. Ken — It’s a different world now. What was not possible before Bush is possible now. It’s a moment to be seized.

  4. What’s most distressing in all of this is the hijacking of the old Nixon meme that somehow the press is “kicking her around” and the final appeal seems to come down to a) a vote for Obama is a vote for killing your children in their sleep, and b) they’re being mean to me because I’m a GIRL!

    Which is, frankly, cunningly reverse-sexist and a pretty vile kind of playground accusation (you’ll get my kids killed!).

    I agree with your analysis above on nearly all point, most especially in negation that we can judge the two (three) campaigns on how they’ve been run. McCain and Clinton have both melted down and shown extreme ineptitude in the POLITICS of campaigining, while Obama has been extremely effective in organizing, communicating and avoiding the mindless attack politics that we are all so sick of.

  5. the sensation of certainty is generated in a sort of invisible field created by the neurons throughout the brain.

    Come on, Maha, you are way more intelligent than to write something like this. I will only accept high-quality writing on your blog, not what may have been written by some creationists.

    All sensations are processed by “neurons throughout the brain”, and I don’t know where this “invisible field” business comes from.
    What Dr. Burton means to say, is that the feeling of conviction comes from those brain structures that are responsible for lower-level information processing, such as the limbic system, which is believed to be responsible for some sensory and motor functions, emotions, and long term memory. He is also trying to say that it must be possible to consciously recognize and control the feeling of certainty, as it is not the result of high-level cognitive processing.

  6. What Dr. Burton means to say, is that the feeling of conviction comes from those brain structures that are responsible for lower-level information processing, such as the limbic system, which is believed to be responsible for some sensory and motor functions, emotions, and long term memory. He is also trying to say that it must be possible to consciously recognize and control the feeling of certainty, as it is not the result of high-level cognitive processing.

    That’s not at all what he said. Did you read the article?

  7. Iraq: A Hopeless Cause

    It has been far to long and I am sick and tired of our country fighting a war we don’t need. With all the problems in our country, why are we concerning ourselves more with others. It has been 4 1/2 years too long and we need to take action NOW!!!! The Bush Administration needs to take a closer look at their Bible, “remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5) While America has been paying attention to every other country, the U.S. has been experiencing economic problems, unemployment, a stalled housing market, and a growing deficit. Every day we fight this war all of those problems listed worsen, and as they worsen our country fails it’s citizens more and more. If we don’t end this war now it will never end. The world is moving to fast for us to waste time on meaningless conflicts.

  8. I have already stated many times that I will support the Dem nominee. I am a Hillary Clinton supporter because I think she would be the best leader for AMERICA . Now you may ask .. who is AMERICA ? America is a mixture of cultures and classes and rich and poor , but mainstream America is middle class, middle aged and middle of the road, ( with a little middle aged spread , lol ) like the many fine people I work with. Hillary would best serve their needs and hopes and dreams.
    Obama is trying to re-invent politics, it may be possible to elevate the discourse, to make us more polite , to make us more tolerant by example , but he cannot ” change ” anything without Congress, and he has not been in the Senate very long to have even made relationships there. He will be a good leader in time, after he is tested more, not now. His followers are young , idealistic and rude mostly. They are passionate and will brook no faltering thoughts or even slight criticisms of their anointed one. This is evident on Daily Kos etc. (Maha is the exception here) . I am glad to see young people involved in politics , I really welcome it , but I do not want the big let down when its discovered he is not Santa Claus, and politics is just hard work, daily slogging and mostly mundane watchdog activity to keep the Constitution strong.
    Hillary has many faults, she appears ” corporate” , meaning she has friends there , so did Bill, but it worked out mostly ok. I do not like to see such loathing for the Clintons , Bill Clinton was the only Dem elected 2 times since FDR ,,, does this count for nothing ? Now we are supposed to think a Clinton is a ” loser ” and should bow out ? and make way for the ” new kid on the block ” …. why?
    How soon we vilify our own…. while ” they ”
    canonize a mediocre Pres Ronald Reagan,,, how soon we are drawn to the Reb . playbook of ” Clinton rules ” ….

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  10. Lucy — I don’t mind your expressing a preference for Clinton, but if you ever again issue wholesale insults to Obama supporters you will be banned from commenting on this blog.

    and make way for the ” new kid on the block ” …. why?

    Because he’s getting more votes. This is a democracy, not a monarchy.

  11. “Feeling correct or certain isn’t a deliberate conclusion or conscious choice. It is a mental sensation that happens to us.”

    He seems pretty certain of this….based on evidence…not to say he isn’t right, but I do love me some irony.

  12. I wish folks who support Clinton, such as Lucy, above, would stop making assumptions about who supports Obama, and why. I am 62 years old and a woman, no political novice, and I support Obama for many of the reasons Maha laid out, plus others. This “experience” narrative is nonsense. The least experienced President in our history was one A. Lincoln.

  13. Wow, this post has evoked so many reactions in my brain, emotions and gut that I just have to express my views. I am usually shy about this because diplomacy is not my strong suit. However, I have a new puppy and he is definitely bringing me “down to earth”.

    I have mentioned before that I spent 25+ years as a psych nurse. Today, I am retired from nursing and spend my time as an acupuncturist and hypnotherapist. In addition, I have explored other mysteries of life. I mention this not to bore you but to give you an idea where I’m coming from.

    Certainty, emotions, gut feelings. How do humans make decisions? I have long felt we do not make decisions entirely rationally no matter how much we praise ourselves for our intelligence. It would be ideal if we could maintain a balance between thinking and feeling. You know, the balance of yin/yang. The problem is that it rarely happens and I personally believe a lot of how we make decisions is based on “how we feel”. I don’t know if this is what Dr. Burton means by a sense of certainty or not.

    I also believe there is a way of knowing that comes from the higher forces. My spiritual beliefs are eclectic so you can interpret higher forces however you want.

    I support Obama because he evokes a feeling in me that he is sincere and he truly wants to do what is best for the country. And I am not a flag-waving patriot nor a bible-thumper. I do not think Clinton would be a bad president but she is trying too hard to do it “the male way”. If she could truly let her hair down and be a woman, I would have more faith in her because I feel we need a more yin attitude in the government. But they would really tear her apart if she did that. Also, as for fighting on if she does not win big today, why not? Why should she do what is best “for the party” unless she believes that what is best for the country is to elect a Democrat. Perhaps she truly believes she is the best person for the job. That seems a little egotistical to me but then she is a politician. I definitely do not want McCain because all he can think about is war and military. We get what we focus on and I want to focus on something besides “winning, completing the mission and never surrendering”.

    As for Obama’s followers being young, idealistic and passionate, I say more power to them. It is time to focus on something besides war, war, war. How can we ever have peace when all we think about is war? We need someone who can turn this country around and travel in a different direction. It’s true, Obama cannot do it by himself and I realize he will encounter a lot of opposition but if he has the people behind him, maybe, just maybe his dream and mine can come true. I’m willing to take the chance. There’s an old saying that it’s okay to have your head in the clouds as long as your feet are planted firmly on mother earth. If we don’t dream, how can we ever realize anything?

    I apologize for rambling on. I am usually a woman of few words. But like I said, I have a new puppy and my whole routine is disrupted and I am sleep deprived.

  14. FYI, Lucy just got banned for whining that Obama supporters are mean to her. The fact that she’s being an obnoxious, insulting ass is, of course, not the reason Obama supporters are mean to her.

    I swear, way too many Clinton people absolutely cannot see themselves at all. Utterly oblivious.

  15. For me it’s honesty. The difference between what I see and what I hear.

    The other day Hillary had a post up on the Huffington Post. She expressed her undying love and selfless devotion for the welfare of children in her 35 years of service to the public. One commenter to her post pointed out in a particularly indicting and well documented manner the inconsistencies between her words and her actions in regard to the invasion of Iraq, the containment of cluster bombs through legislation, the use of phosphorus in Fallujah, her un-questioned support for Israel in their tactics in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and her continued support for funding the war in Iraq. Her Rose law firm and corporate pursuits?
    When you look at those issues mentioned above in the light of really caring for children, who truly suffer as a result of those issues..Hillary doesn’t appear to be the friend of children she claims to be.

    For me, she’s talking out both sides of her mouth, and it doesn’t draw me to her. She comes across as a panderer, and I have difficulty putting my trust and faith in her.

  16. Your reasons for coming around to Obama are a lot like mine — thanks for putting the case so well.

    That and the war — reading this article about the candidates’ foreign policy teams a while back gave me the sense of a real difference. It makes me fear that this story in today’s New York Sun (which is getting zero attention) is true.

  17. THANK YOU MAHA. It’s been said that it’s not so much what Obama is, it’s what he isn’t that attracts voters. I have no background in logic, but how can one be for, or attracted to an ‘isn’t? Might be an example of a ‘mental sensation’?

    The Clintons are masters in the art of self-deception, probably as good at it as George. The effects over the last 7 years of such a personality at the helm should sound alarm bells before voting the Clintons back into office.

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