Lizard Brains

The blogosphere exploded on Tuesday with the rumor that President-Elect Barack Obama might ask Sen. Hillary Clinton to be our next secretary of state.

Immediately, pro- and anti-Hillary comments lit up the Web. Personally, I can't wait for her to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in the meantime, welcome to the next eight (I hope) years, where fractious Democrats, liberals, progressives, libertarians and even a few conservatives -- opinionators each and every one of them -- create a cacophony of comment over every move Obama does or doesn't make.

This is why I'm bewildered by a comment made by conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan last week. "There is joy to be had in being out of power," she said. "You don't have to defend stupid decisions anymore. You get to criticize with complete abandon."

What stupid decisions did you have to defend in your influential column, Peggy? Perhaps invading Iraq? If you thought that was dumb, why didn't you speak out before more than 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, numberless people were wounded or displaced, and our national treasury was looted? What other wisdom did we miss from the woman Brian Williams nominated this year for a Pulitzer Prize?

But perhaps this illustrates one of the interesting differences between liberals and conservatives. Liberals argue over almost everything. They're the ones who gave us the phrase, "circular firing squad."

But for the past eight years, conservatives have marched in lockstep to defend the indefensible. Just about everything that President Bush and his administration have done has been endlessly praised, defended and echoed. In fact, in their arrogance, Republicans have described Bush's actions -- to an increasingly skeptical populace -- as creating its own new reality.

I'm thinking of the unnamed Bush official who, in 2005, told reporter Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Now that most of America has rejected Bush's version of reality, you have to ask, what were these people thinking?

Was it the lizard brain in action? That's the amygdala, an almond-sized part of the right side of the brain that generates fear and blocks out the logical left side of the brain. When presented with a life-threatening situation, the amygdala kicks into gear in the classic "flight or fight" mode. Reason becomes impossible and the subconscious looks for any nonverbal cue that communicates safety and security.

Since 9/11, the lizard brain of the white heterosexual male appears to have been in charge of the national psyche. Fear -- of terrorism, of "the other," of pointy-headed do-gooder liberals out to take your Bibles and guns away, of homosexuals and feminists and black people -- has been steering the ship of state. No questions allowed.

We like to think that this election was a triumph for the reality-based, multicultural community -- the people who didn't believe we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq and who suspected that cowboy capitalism might not advance the greater good.

Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN (formerly the New Democratic Network), recently described the fix the GOP is in right now.

"I really believe there is a strong argument to be made that the GOP is further from power, more discredited and more out of touch with the American people than any time since the days of FDR and Truman," he said. "The GOP's challenge isn't a moderate-conservative one, a North-South one, a black-white-brown one - it is a forward/backward one... Their government failed at a level that has done grave and lasting damage to their brand, and their leaders seem firmly grounded in an old politics that is simply no longer credible in this new day."

The GOP will have to completely reinvent itself, he said.

"They will have to develop a new argument that meets the emerging challenges of the new century head on; a new electoral map; a new coalition that at some point begins to accept our fast-growing, nonwhite population; and competency in a whole new set of media and tech tools. They will have to shed the exploitation of race that has been at the core of their domestic politics; shed their raging intolerance of people not like them; of their comfort with politics and theater over governing; of the binary simplicity of the Cold War and the limitations of free market fundamentalism... This task is a big and complex one, harder perhaps than anything the right has had to do since the founding of the National Review in 1955."

Or, at the very least, can we hope that instead of finding new leaders who will tell them what to think, Republicans will start thinking independently again? There's a great new conversation going on, and their voices would be welcome.

Yes, there will always be people out to get us. But give the old lizard brain a rest.

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