I was working my way through the New York Times Magazine story “Your Dog Feels as Guilty as She Looks” by Frans de Waal, a primatologist. It was a pleasant enough article, rife with references to bonobo monkeys and dogs and such. “The possibility of animal hope was experimented upon nearly a century ago,” deWaal writes, “by the psychologist Otto Tinklepaugh. He first let a monkey watch a banana being hidden under a cup, then allowed her into the room where this had been done. If she found the banana, everything proceeded smoothly. But if the experimenter had surreptitiously replaced the banana with a piece of lettuce, the monkey would frantically look around, lifting up the cup, while shrieking at the experimenter. Her expectations had been violated, for which she rightly blamed the sneaky experimenter.”
I confess that I quoted that particular paragraph just so I could work in the name Tinklepaugh.
The article meanders along until de Waal suddenly veers wildly off course: “Another human emotion that has been elevated to a special status is disgust. In his book ‘Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique,’ the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga views disgust as one of the five emotional modules that set us apart from all other animals. Here, too, dogs are a prime example, given that they eat feces and lick their testicles. This is taken as proof that dogs must lack disgust. But give your dog a cut lemon (not recommended) and you will see a full-blown yuck! response with curled-up lips, drooling and withdrawal from the sour smell.”
Yes, eating feces is disgusting, but who can ever forget the old joke, “Question: Why do dogs lick their own balls? Answer: Because they can.” So much for one of his two examples of supposedly universal disgust.
And then, suddenly comes this offensive, one might even say disgusting passage: “Disgust is an incredibly adaptive response. Every organism needs to avoid parasites and prevent the ingestion of harmful foods (citrus fruits can be poisonous to canines). Ignoring this mundane origin, however, psychologists have fallen in love with the moral connotations of this emotion. We are disgusted, for example, by someone who fakes a racist attack on himself to gain positive media attention. We ‘turn up our noses’ at such people, showing our typical disgust face with wrinkled nose and narrowed eyes.” [Emphasis mine]
First of all, this reference to Jussie Smollett is totally gratuitous and utterly lacking in empathy. Is de Waal trying to make his piece “relevant” to this week’s readers’ fickle, ever-changing interests? And did it not occur to any Times editors that placing Jussie Smollett, a human being, in the context of eating shit and parasites, was offensive?
Finally, please forgive my reliance on jokes this week, but I can’t help but think of the one about the Lone Ranger and Tonto trapped by hundreds of Indians, and the Lone Ranger says, “Tonto — what are we going to do?” And Toronto replies, “What do you mean we, white man?”
De Waal’s assumption that everyone in the world, every single human being alive, has the same supposedly natural disgust reaction he describes Smollett as generating is vile, And I object.
This isn’t science. This is projection. I can easily imagine someone reacting to Smollett’s recent indictment on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct with pity, sadness, disappointment, or compassion. If it seems like judicial overkill to you, you’re not alone. I think the charges against him constitute an insane overreation, and so does Smollett’s defense lawyer-to-the-stars, Mark Geragos. [In the interest of full disclosure, Geragos and I went to college together, but I didn’t know him.]
Eating shit and parasites, huh? Discussing Jessie Smollett in this manner is practically libelous, morally if not strictly legally.
“The biggest test yet of Fox’s journalistic standards is the impending showdown over Mueller’s findings,” Jane Mayer writes in a recent New Yorker. Her article is titled, “The Making of the Fox News White House.”
She continues ominously: “For two years, the network has been priming its viewers to respond with extraordinary anger should the country’s law-enforcement authorities close in on the President. According to Media Matters, in the first year after Mueller was appointed Hannity alone aired four hundred and eighty-six segments attacking the federal criminal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election; thirty-eight per cent of those segments claimed that law-enforcement officials had broken the law. In recent weeks, Hannity has spoken of ‘a coup,’ and a guest on Laura Ingraham’s program, the lawyer Joseph diGenova, declared, ‘It’s going to be total war. And, as I say to my friends, I do two things — I vote and I buy guns.’”
Total war, huh? Against whom? People who watch MSNBC? The whole rest of the population? Wouldn’t it be funny if the reign of Rump ended in a second Civil War? Yeah, a real laff riot.
Mayer’s article is fascinating and horrifying in pretty much equal measure. It is not news to see Mayer confirm that Rump gets most of his briefings not from his staff but rather by watching TV: “Fox & Friends” and Sean Hannity. Still, it is terrifying to see it spelled out in such extraordinary detail.
Kudos to Mayer for being so meticulous.
Follow @edsikov on Twitter and Facebook.