Transparency and accountability are essential virtues in a democracy, but they’re clearly not as viscerally appealing or as thrilling as their opposites, secrecy and impunity. The intelligence operative—especially the rogue spy flouting the law, from James Bond to Jason Bourne—is one of the most glamorized figures in the fiction and movies of postwar America. In Errol Morris’s new series, Wormwood, which blends documentary with dramatic reconstructions, he sets out to explore an episode in the history of US intelligence that is irresistibly sensational, the CIA’s cold war “mind control” program of the 1950s and 1960s. Code-named MK-ULTRA, the program involved agents experimenting with methods for gaining full control of a person’s thoughts and behavior using LSD, hypnosis, electric shocks, and other bizarre means—the films The Ipcress File (1965) and The Parallax View (1974) show cool, stylized versions. The thesis offered by Wormwood’s principal subjects is that, during the same period, the CIA ran an authorized, extrajudicial execution program of dissenting agents who were active in the agency’s secret operations.
From NYR Daily, May 12th 2017
“The sixteenth century boxwood miniatures currently exhibited at the Cloisters—thought to be in large part the work of a single individual in the Netherlands—are so breathtakingly intricate, the minuscule scenes in prayer beads and altarpieces rendered so exquisitely, that any viewer should be prepared to gasp, “How did they do it? The tiny little sheep! The tiny little angels! The tiny little spears no thicker than horse hairs! Elaborate gothic reliefs shrunk to the size of walnuts!” The exhibition plays to this sense of wonder but also reveals, after centuries, the secrets of their seemingly miraculous creation. Nonetheless, these diminutive objects have an impact for which the viewer who expects merely to marvel at technical virtuosity will be unprepared.”
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From New York Review of Books, April 20, 2017 issue
We are living in an age in which the behavioral sciences have become inescapable. The findings of social psychology and behavioral economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part. Aspects of human societies that were formerly guided by habit and tradition, or spontaneity and whim, are now increasingly the intended or unintended consequences of decisions made on the basis of scientific theories of the human mind and human well-being.
From NYRB December 14th 2016
The concept of evil has fallen out of favor in our disenchanted world. Its religious and superstitious connotations are permissible in horror movies, but otherwise often deemed embarrassing. Without some religious metaphysics it is hard to make sense of the idea that there are people who are intrinsically evil; it no longer seems plausible to many of us that people can be motivated by something that can be described as pure evil. Sustained cruelty is therefore often explained as sociopathy (the slick, psychopathic killers beloved of Hollywood), or a personality disorder stemming from some deep personal or social injury, or as some horribly warped conception of what is good. Even in the case of a mass murderer on the order of Joseph Stalin it has become part of his legend that he was emotionally scarred by having been a weak and sickly child with a brutally abusive father.
Martin Seligman, reply by Tamsin Shaw
NYRB, April 21st, 2016 issue
Martin Seligman has repeatedly insisted that he is an opponent of torture. He tells us in his letter that he “strongly disapproves” of it. If he found himself at the very center of the terrible episode in our recent history in which the United States inflicted brutal torture on detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison, the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and at CIA black sites, this was, he maintains, entirely unwittingly. And yet, since he was at the center of this episode, being in direct contact with the architects of the CIA’s torture program at the moment of its devising, there are some clear questions that a declared opponent of torture might have asked in his position.
Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, reply by Tamsin Shaw
New York Review of Books, April 7, 2016 issue
Tamsin Shaw replies:
Moral psychology is an invaluable aspect of human understanding insofar as it sheds light on the moral capacities and limitations of human beings. And this fact has indeed long been appreciated by philosophers (perhaps by none so much as Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings have been the primary focus of my own scholarly work). The findings of moral psychology have also begun to find a place in the public imagination, via prominent editorials and more popular psychology books. But current research by psychologists in this area has risen to prominence at the same time as an extraordinary moral crisis in their profession, a fact that inevitably lends their reflections a special significance that requires scrutiny.
From the New York Review of Books, February 25th, 2016 issue
In 1971, the psychologist B.F. Skinner expressed the hope that the vast, humanly created problems defacing our beautiful planet (famines, wars, the threat of a nuclear holocaust) could all be solved by new “technologies of behavior.” The psychological school of behaviorism sought to replace the idea of human beings as autonomous agents with the “scientific” view of them as biological organisms, responding to external stimuli, whose behavior could be modified by altering their environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 1964 Skinner’s claims about potential behavior modification had attracted funding from the CIA via a grant-making body called the Human Ecology Society.
Skinner was extremely dismayed that his promise of using his science to “maximize the achievements of which the human organism is capable” was derided by defenders of the entirely unscientific ideal of freedom. When Peter Gay, for instance, spoke of the “innate naïveté, intellectual bankruptcy, and half-deliberate cruelty of behaviorism,” Skinner, clearly wounded, protested that the “literature of freedom” had provoked in Gay “a sufficiently fanatical opposition to controlling practices to generate a neurotic if not psychotic response.” Skinner was unable to present any more robust moral defense of his project of social engineering.