OK, So Mitt Romney Despises Us. But Maybe Other Pols Do Too.

OK, So Mitt Romney Despises Us. But Maybe Other Pols Do Too.

Shakespeare's Caius Martius Coriolanus isn't really suited to politics, but his family and friends urge him on, and so he makes a game effort at putting up with the smelly common people and their ridiculous electoral rituals, hiding his contempt. His tragedy hinges on the moment when he cracks and goes off-message—when he calls the electorate a "common cry of curs, whose breath I hate/As reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize/As the dead carcasses of unburied men/That do corrupt my air," and (as Mitt Romney might say), so on and so forth, if you will. In this video Romney is now revealed as the capitalist Coriolanus. He talked too much, too often, in too many places about us miserable curs, and now we know him as the epitome of every boss-man we've ever hated. Clearly, there is something about this man that is unsuited to politics in a democracy. But this latest demonstration of his contempt for elections and the electorate has left me wondering if he's really so different from other candidates. I wonder: Is Romney a terrible politician because he has these feelings of disdain that are unique to him? Or is it just that he's failed to hide feelings that many politicians share?

Granted, Romney's contempt for people and institutions does seem extraordinarily vast and various. It includes workers banding together to protect their interests (speaking of "cleaning house" in the government after getting elected, Romney said "I wish they weren't unionized, so we could go a lot deeper than we're allowed to go" (that's in part 2 of the Mother Jones videos, around the 6:45 mark). He laughs at the notion that diversity can add value to a group (at one point, Romney jokes that he'd have a better chance of winning the Presidency if his father had been Mexican, instead of an American born in Mexico (hard-de-har-har). And, now-famously, he shows contempt for people who aren't like him: he said nearly half the population will vote for President Obama because they're people who "are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it." Where he goes on to say "my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

I don't buy the notion that this is a "real Romney" letting his hair down with his $50,000-a-plate bros. As Philip Bump pointed out over at Atlantic Wire yesterday, sucking up to $50,000-a-plate donors (by appearing to take them into the backstage of campaign strategy) is just as much of an act as sucking up to us unwashed masses. The attitude in the video strikes me as authentic because it does not differ from other versions of Romney. The candidate who once said "I'm not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support," the one who said "I'm running for office for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals," is the candidate whose behavior in the Republican debates dripped scorn for his opponents and for the process itself. He's transparently disdainful of the whole business of vote-seeking, as he explains elsewhere in the video: "Discussion of a whole series of important topics typically doesn't win elections," he says, before explaining that his campaign is in the hands of "a very good team of extraordinarily experienced, highly successful-- consultants. A couple of people in particular who've done races around the world." In other words: Getting elected involves a strange and distasteful set of procedures, I've got some guys on it. Like when we called the exterminator that time.

All in all, pretty insulting to us, the great American people. Yet I find myself wondering if Romney's feelings are really rare among office-seekers. After all, anyone who has to respond to the needs of strangers, or who simply has to repeat the same thing over and over to people s/he doesn't know, develops a certain weariness with human beings. If you've ever been a waiter, worked at a counter, canvassed door-to-door for anything, run the door at any sort of event, you will know what I mean. You begin by seeing individuals; inside of an hour you see types (who, annoyingly, don't realize that they're types, and that you've heard their jokes/whines/complaints/apologies before).

That's generic to dealing with the public in any way. But there's an extra stress in being a politician, which is nicely captured in Michael Lewis' new piece in Vanity Fair about Obama: We want our leaders to do more than solve problems, and do more than merely sympathize. We want them to resonate to our emotions, embody them and reflect them back to us. That means high office as Lewis writes, involves "bizarre emotional demands. In the span of a few hours, a president will go from celebrating the Super Bowl champions to running meetings on how to fix the financial system, to watching people on TV make up stuff about him, to listening to members of Congress explain why they can’t support a reasonable idea simply because he, the president, is for it, to sitting down with the parents of a young soldier recently killed in action. He spends his day leaping over ravines between vastly different feelings. How does anyone become used to this?"

As it happens, there are researchers trying to answer that question. They've been at it ever since the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild proposed the concept of "emotional labor"—the work of getting your own feelings to line up with the requirement of your job, so you can get others' feeling what you need them to. To illustrate why this is work, Hochschild tells the story of the passenger on a long plane trip who asks a flight attendant to smile. "You smile first," she says. He does. ""Good," she replies. "Now freeze and hold that for 15 hours."

Emotional labor often is studied in unprestigious jobs (Hochschild's book discussed flight attendants, who have to be nicer than normal people, and bill collectors, who have to make themselves nastier than normal). But who has to do more emotional work than politicians? Is Romney the only one who, 15 hours into a typical campaign day, comes to resent the demands of the job, and therefore the common cry of curs who make those demands? I doubt it.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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