Sunday BS #4: 19.09.21
Behavioural Science Curios
Welcome to Sunday BS!
Striving for constant improvement (!), I have brought across my Sunday missives into the BS Podcast family. So now you can find all my output in one place. Good, right? Endless cross-promotion was becoming a little tiring. This said, if you want to remain subscribed to just one of either my podcast interviews or these weekend thoughts, you can adjust for that by clicking unsubscribe at the bottom where you’ll have options. I recommend hanging onto both as they regularly dovetail.
This week, I’m focused on BS in politics (complete the joke by all means) which takes me from a classroom cabinet reshuffle to political identity (thoughts here inspired by author, journalist and political advisor Danny Finkelstein - who I’m delighted to say is joining me for a podcast interview soon, so look out for that) to 9/11 and the CIA.
1) Random reshuffles
There is something of a primary school classroom atmosphere in the UK government cabinet. The start of the Michaelmas term is time for teacher to dole out new roles.
Kids with no superior expertise to the other vie for playground bragging rights in key decision-making posts like hand sanitizer, snacks and homework monitor.
Liz excelled last year both as recycling and supplies monitor so gets the promotion this term to line leader on class trips and peace keeper. Dominic didn't complete his school project while on Summer holiday, needs to focus harder this term, but teacher has wiped away the tears with the supplementary, if more symbolic, responsibilities of teacher's helper and table captain.
It will all start again next term.
2) Stand and (not) deliver
Donald Trump's government was a one-paced, full throttle offensive at all times; whether in pillorying the media, lambasting the 'morons' and 'losers' he himself had hired, fighting back against the Access Hollywood tape by dragging the Clintons back into the gutter, or his self-exoneration from the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the tempo was prestissimo, the volume fortissimo and it was clear what he stood for. Little nuance, minimal moderato and mezzo.
The shock and awe tactics, the inflammatory rhetoric, encouraged by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, worked. Trump felt indestructible and omnipotent. No deviation.
Beyond signing showpiece executive orders, disrupting world order and promoting his victimhood, he didn't 'do' a great deal.
Boris Johnson has borrowed from the Trump playbook. While mayor of London, he had said that a good reason for avoiding New York was the risk of rounding a corner and coming face-to-face with Trump. Once Foreign Secretary, Johnson became fascinated by him.
Kim Darroch, ex-UK ambassador to the US writes in his memoir 'Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump':
"While no supporter of most of the policies Trump was promoting, [he] was intrigued by his success, and in particular by Trump's use of language: the limited vocabulary, the simplicity of the messaging, the disdain for political correctness, the sometimes incendiary imagery, and the at best intermittent relationship with facts and the truth."
Boris's 'strategy' has different tempi. He initially had his own mini-Bannon, Dominic Cummings, first driving the Leave campaign, then propelling him to general election victory. A barrage of bombast and lies won the day. Each new storm or provocation could quieten its predecessor. But he couldn't govern by outrage alone.
Beyond the bluster, it has been difficult to discern what Johnson's government actually stands for. Reading between the lines was rarely necessary with Trump; the messages were abundant and clear, if displeasing. Cummings hit out this year at his former boss's indecisiveness, describing him as “a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”. But as Danny Finkelstein questioned insightfully in The Times this month:
"If it is true that the government lacks direction and people can see it to be true, why does the prime minister remain comfortably ahead in the polls? And if it has always been the case, as it has, that Johnson’s philosophy is hard to discern, then why is he one of the most successful political figures of the age?"
One could have said the same of Trump. Finkelstein puts forward the argument that most of us have a strong status quo bias; we like the idea of reform but really we don't want radical change or bold programmes. Boris's talk of 'levelling up' may be vague but who actually cares?
In the last few weeks, his tone has changed; dramatic social security cuts, increases in national insurance and four cabinet ministers fired. As Finkelstein says: “'Don’t just do something, stand there' is a powerful political strategy." But Boris has stood up and made his moves now.
Will his power and confidence soar or is it better doing not much after all?
3) Perspective blindness and 9/11
A week after the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I wanted to share author and journalist Matthew Syed's thesis, in his book Rebel Ideas, on the CIA's failure to avert the tragedy, its early dismissal of Bin Laden as a serious contender and why rigid credentialism and homophily (hiring people who think, and often look, like you) can lead to suboptimal outcomes, or disasters.
Solving complex problems in homogeneity brings perspective blindness. A CIA insider said the foremost US intelligence agency "could not believe that this tall Saudi with a beard, squatting around a campfire, could be a threat to the United States of America".
Richard Holbrooke, a senior official under President Clinton, put it this way: "How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world's leading communications society?"
Another senior official said: "They simply couldn't square the idea of putting resources into finding out more about Bin Laden and al-Qaeda given that the guy lived in a cave. To them, he was the essence of backwardness."
In years preceding 9/11, as the workplace diversity issue was already raging, the CIA openly condemned this political correctness, fighting for pure academic meritocracy in its recruitment, ignoring that their methodology may have severe fault lines.
With great irony, the CIA were reluctant to hire Muslims for fear of inside infiltration. While many still contest that the CIA did all it could, the agency's historically 'white-as-rice culture' will haunt it. Indeed, Syed says the attacks were 'a preventable tragedy' by an agency who were 'individually perceptive, but collectively blind.'
These are not only lessons for intelligence, but for any organisation around the world. We'll never know if slight deviations in action would have altered the trajectory of major future events.
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Have a great week!