Saturday, July 30, 2005

"Learned Helplessness"

In this op-ed piece in today's Guardian, Barbara Ehrenreich discusses the impact of living in a world where punishments and rewards appear to be distributed randomly rather than rationally. After commenting on the rewards lavished on CEOs who run their companies into the ground, Ehrenreich turns to politics, including the torture scandal:

Of the top perpetrators in the various prisoner abuse scandals, Donald Rumsfeld still holds his post as defence secretary; Condoleezza Rice has been promoted to secretary of state; and torture-memo lawyer Alberto Gonzales has moved up to become the US attorney general. Only one general with a hand in the abuse--Janis Karpinski, the former head officer at Abu Ghraib--has suffered a demotion. Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of US forces in Iraq, is being considered for promotion to four-star general, and Maj Gen Barbara Fast, his head of intelligence-gathering in Iraq, has been given command of an Arizona army base where soldiers are taught interrogation techniques.

Ehrenreich goes on to note that in an experiment with dogs, the random distribution of electric shocks led to what psychologist Martin Seligman called "learned helplessness," a condition in which the dogs eventually stopped trying to avoid shocks altogether. Ehrenreich is wrong, though, if she thinks that's where critics of the Bush administration are heading. The administration, rather than being randomly irrational, is predictably irrational, as the promotion for Condoleezza Rice and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for former CIA Director George Tenet demonstrate.