The ‘agile dolphin’ plan: Boris Johnson’s meta-narrative vision for Britain

Say what you will about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – the man clearly grasps the political power of meta-narratives. Tom McTague profiled Johnson in the latest issue of The Atlantic, and concluded that to Johnson, “the point of politics – and life – is not to squabble over facts; it’s to offer people a story they can believe in. In the prime minister’s view, those who wanted to remain in the EU during the Brexit referendum didn’t have the courage to tell the real story at the heart of their vision: a story of the beauty of European unity and collective identity. Instead, they offered claims of impending disaster were Britain to leave, most of which haven’t come to pass, at least not yet. The story voters believed in was fundamentally different—in Johnson’s words, “that this is a great and remarkable and interesting country in its own right.” “People live by narrative,” he told me. “Human beings are creatures of the imagination.”

Johnson is right about several things.
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There are storms, and then there are “storms” — reassurance from the world of survey science

In yesterday’s Washington Post, columnist Karen Tumulty described her concerns about the Republicans’ failure to endorse the January 6 investigation for which they’d helped set the terms. Some of her worries are based on recent non-partisan polling. As she put it:
“Fully 20 percent of more than 5,500 adults questioned in all 50 states — and 28 percent of Republicans among them — said they agreed with the statement that ‘there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.’”

Without questioning Tumulty’s conclusions, or the accuracy of the polling, I do want to reassure all of you reading this that it’s probably not quite that bad. Years of experience in designing and conducting surveys about worldview beliefs have taught me something not obvious — when people are answering questions like that, they’re often not describing their thoughts and beliefs up to that point, but instead, just their emotional reaction to the question. And in this case, the question was emotionally loaded.

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On men understanding women, or, why Harry Potter’s gender mattered

Boys don’t read books written by women, said Joanne Rowling’s publisher, and they didn’t want her first name on the book, hence the “J.K.” by which we all know her. It’s good for her that she pictured Harry as a boy, because surely the publisher would have felt even more strongly about a female protagonist. Boys, so the stereotype goes, don’t read stories about girls.

This has been a perpetual problem for “girl’s literature.” As an example, let’s take Anne of Green Gables.


This enormously popular series of books went on to inspire a terrific Canadian mini-series in 1985. As one student put it, Anne is “most plausibly aimed at a female audience,” and although I don’t have data, it’s reasonable to guess that most of Anne’s readers and viewers are female.

gus_pikeFor the TV series, however, its Avonlea spinoff was probably designed to appeal across genders – although the main character was ostensibly Sara Stanley, an orphaned rich girl sent to live with her family on Prince Edward Island, the character who really captured our hearts and imaginations was Gus Pike, introduced in the second season, the earnest, poor, musically gifted son of a rascally pirate.

A Facebook post today by author Mary E. Lowd reminded me of a wonderfully illuminating study I read back in grad school. (I read so many cool things in grad school!) In this study by psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley, high school students read a story and were asked to mark an E in the margins whenever they experienced an emotion. Using the frequency of these emotional experiences as an indicator of involvement, Oatley found that girls were more “involved” in the story than boys and equally involved with male and female characters, whereas boys were emotionally responsive only to the male characters.

One interpretation would be that girls are more empathetic, but I don’t think that’s it. I think Continue reading

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“Bright Eyes” and La Dolce Vita

Although I finished my PhD years ago, I have the good fortune to continue to be welcome at the weekly lab meetings for my advisor, Gerard Saucier, where he talks with his grad students about the many interesting things he’s working on and thinking about. Today’s meeting covered what he described as a “smorgasbord” of topics, among them cultural differences in value hierarchies, or more simply put, what people believe is important.

Several philosophers have proposed their own hierarchies of values, like Francis Hutcheson and Jeremy Bentham. In general, at the very top of the hierarchies are more universal values: the well-being of everyone. Next comes the well-being of one’s own family and friends, then more abstract good things like art and science, then one’s own interests that don’t cause harm to others, and at the bottom, more selfish gratifications that may involve treating others poorly. In other words, if your highest principles are the public good, you could use this ranking to decide how to prioritize things you might be interested in doing.

But in his research, Gerard has learned something interesting, which caught my attention in the past, and which he mentioned today also – there’s another familiar value ordering that’s different from the philosophers’ hierarchies. It goes like this: At the very top, we have success – not necessarily money or material goods or with a disregard for others, but pursuing one’s ambitions with regard for intelligence, wisdom, family security, and self-respect. After that comes true friendship, enjoying life, being responsible, honest, and broad-minded, in a “world Continue reading

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The remarkable story of Little and Little (2021)

This morning I read a delightful academic paper, with an even more delightful backstory. The lead author, Sabine Little, is a professor at the University of Sheffield, specializing in “Languages Education,” especially multilingualism. Her native language is German. So when the Littles had a child, they naturally decided to raise him to be bilingual, with Sabine speaking German, and Toby’s father his native English. When Toby was 4, however, he asked his mother to stop speaking German to him. Then, when he was 6, he asked her to resume, as he had realized he wanted to learn German. He also asked if they could “do research together.”

I imagine that at the age of 6, Toby’s idea of “research” was that it was something potentially worth his attention because he knew it was important to Sabine. As a mother, I know how it feels when your child decides to try something because they see you doing it, although my own memories along these lines were much less consequential. I’m thinking of when my younger son was 2 or 3 and wanted to try some of the foods he saw me eating. His initial reactions to red salsa were pretty amusing, but in the end favorable; his conclusions about romaine lettuce went the other direction. Nevertheless, I was flattered.

Toby and Sabine, however, were making a much larger commitment. As they explain in the paper, “Through a joint research diary, we regularly and rigorously chronicled both language-related conversations and our emotions linked to the process of bringing back the heritage language.” Over two and a half years, that research diary ended up at 83 typed pages, or 25,450 words. And, “Since Toby had proposed the study himself, his desire to be involved in all Continue reading

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How China’s ruling story helped kill 2.6 million people, and counting

So far, more than 2,640,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19. Thanks to the vaccines, maybe the death toll won’t climb much higher, and maybe life will soon return to normal. But is there anything China could have done to nip this disaster in the bud?

This week I watched the PBS Frontline episode from February 2, “China’s COVID Secrets,” and I learned that the importance to the Chinese government of its Stability meta-narrative may have played a big factor.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that as far as I know, we have no basis whatsoever to disparage China’s rulers by implying that they’re indifferent to the pandemic and the toll it’s taken on the world. I don’t know them and I don’t have access to that kind of information about them, but I personally think it’s important – without solid evidence to the contrary – to assume that people (yes, even politicians!) are basically trying to do their best. (And all too often we do have solid evidence to the contrary, but one has to feel sorry for some public figures in this regard.)

I also want to make it clear that a great many Chinese people, especially the scientists and health care professionals, have worked very hard and effectively since the first days of the outbreak, doing what they could to understand the new virus and protect people from it.


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A thousand years of grievance? Here???

When I write about speeches that get people really riled up – as part of our research team’s ongoing study of genocide – one of my favorite examples is Slobodan Milošević’s Gazimestan speech. About a million Serbs showed up to hear this 1989 speech, which revitalized a 600-year-old grievance (the Serbian loss at the Battle of Kosovo, against the Ottoman Turks) and led to unthinkable violence (the Serbian “ethnic cleansing” and genocide against their Bosnian neighbors, who had largely adopted the Ottomans’ religion during centuries of occupation).

A 600-year-old grievance! That couldn’t happen here. Right? After all, the United States is less than 250 years old. The first permanent English settlement here wasn’t until 1620. And yet…

Let’s start with today’s partisan polarization. We have the Democrats, affiliated with an “urban elite,” and the Republicans, now dominated by a populist, nativist mindset most thoroughly entrenched in rural communities. And even though we often think of the split as epitomized by, say, New York City and Los Angeles versus “Flyover Country” in the Midwest, it’s also generally understood that the sense of grievance among Trump’s supporters is partly fed by unresolved resentments from the U.S. Civil War. This “Lost Cause” mentality fueled anger against plans to remove commemorations of Confederate leaders, flaring up at Charlottesville and shifting to a new Lost Cause in the January 6 riots.

What I hadn’t realized until reading a post somewhere recently was that the settlement patterns leading up to the North-South split in the U.S. Civil War had essentially mirrored the two sides of the English Continue reading

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The WWE model of American politics

dutch_savageWay back in the day, my Grandpa Ben was a big fan of Portland Wrestling. A quiet man otherwise, he’d cheer on Dutch Savage and boo Bull Ramos. I was maybe 10, and I didn’t see the appeal. Looking back, I have no idea whether Grandpa believed the theater or enjoyed the parody. He also liked Westerns, so maybe scripted drama was his thing; it’s hard to say from this distance.

Some 40 or 50 years from now, Americans will wonder the same thing about their Republican grandparents. What did they really believe, way back in the “Teens” and ‘20s? Did they honestly think Donald Trump and the many politicians in his pocket were sincerely fighting for their well-being (without any policies of their own except to oppose the Democrats at every turn)? Or had they all become so cynical about government as a means to make our lives better that they cheered on the Capitol rioters and the Congressional obstructionists “flipping the bird” at the American people in every vote?

Way back in 1988, Donald Trump got his start in show business with a WrestleMania event supposedly taking place at Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza. Who would have imagined, back then, that Trump would go Continue reading

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Hacking your mood with a Strawberry Letter

A couple of weeks ago, I popped into the First National Taphouse to pick up the dinner we’d ordered, and on their sound system was a song I hadn’t heard, or thought about, in years. It was the Brothers Johnson, singing their 1977 hit, “Strawberry Letter #23,” which has a fun, bouncy melody for the chorus, “A present froooom you, Strawberry Letter 22.” Or, alternatively, the line, “Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue.” Check it out!

The premise is that the singer/narrator and his lover have been exchanging “strawberry letters” as tokens of love, and having just received her Strawberry Letter #22, this song is his response, #23. It was confusing at the time – we all thought the song title should or did include #22, not #23.

Anyway! After that Taphouse meal, I wrote “Strawberry Letter #23” into my ongoing, multi-page do-list and now, whenever I scroll down and come across it, voilà! A cheery, bouncy tune begins playing in the back of my mind, infusing its positive energy into my day. (Alternatively, if pop-funk is too perky for you, try this extremely infectious sea shanty, a recent TikTok craze.)

It’s basically the same phenomenon described in this recent Washington Post article about rewatching old movies and shows – and the same thing I wrote about a month or two ago, about taking a mental stay-cation. We can hack our own moods by setting aside some time to deliberately put our attention Continue reading

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Fairness and the “R” word

Last week I shared my concern that efforts to hold the United States accountable for what our society has done to handicap some population groups could lead to some very negative side-effects. That is, our discussions of collective responsibility could lead to a backlash and a disavowal of democracy altogether. If we shift to a form of government where citizens are only minimally involved – an authoritarian style where we leave responsibility to the person in charge – some might find that liberating.

As an example of such accountability efforts, I mentioned the idea of “reparations,” such as the original plan to give the newly emancipated African Americans 40 acres and a mule, and more recent suggestions by Ta-Nehisi Coates.


One of my readers (RT), made the point that “if people are disadvantaged in the present, we have a collective responsibility to do something about it regardless of what happened in the past.” I agree! Unfortunately, as this timely op-ed by Heather C. McGhee makes clear, the United States isn’t doing Continue reading

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