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The mom supremacy

America’s “mama grizzlies” – homely, conservative women with their hearts set on power – are easy to

In Douglas County, Colorado, lives Lu Busse - mother, grandmother, activist and the original "mama grizzly". Long before Sarah Palin conjured up the image of a mother bear "that rises up on its hind legs when somebody's coming to attack their cubs", Busse had been calling herself "Grizzly Granny Lu" on her blog. "I always said that if we give up on the Republican Party and start a new party, we're going to be the Grizzly Bears," she tells me. "These donkeys and elephants, that's ridiculous. In America, if you're not a grizzly bear, you're not really American."

Busse founded her local 9.12 Project group in April last year, just a month after the Fox News presenter Glenn Beck launched the national project based on nine principles and 12 values (numbers one and two: "America is good" and "I believe in God and He is the centre of my life"). Busse now chairs the statewide coalition of 9.12 groups, and works closely with the Tea Party movement. Locally, female membership is dominant; Busse says that around 60 per cent of the activists she works with are women. It mirrors the national picture. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in March this year suggested that 55 per cent of Tea Party sup­porters are female. And they are growing in power. In the past few months, a string of ultra-conservative female candidates, such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Kristi Noem in South Dakota, have won in the Republican primary elections.

Palin calls it a "mom awakening", a movement of newly empowered conservative women who are anti-government, anti-establishment and seeking to destabilise a political system they perceive as elitist and remote. The appeal of candidates such as O'Donnell is their lack of political experience: they are traditional, homely mothers. Yet the ambition of activists such as Busse is huge. She wants to change "the whole direction of the way the country's moving" - and believes she can.

When I ask her if she feels part of a women's movement, Busse reflects for a moment, and then says: "It's not a women's movement in a way that the movement that generated feminism is. This is a movement that wants our country to be the country we grew up in - we want that for our children and our grandchildren. So it gets to our motherly instincts. It's not about women's issues."

It is a telling distinction. For Busse and others like her, feminism is a word laden with alien liberal values, wedded to a time of sexual liberation and immorality. Instead, their bond is motherhood, as reflected in an expanding behind-the-scenes network of activist organisations: As a Mom; Concerned Women for America; Moms for Ohio; Homemakers for America; American Mothers.

Palin gave her "mama grizzly" speech at a breakfast meeting of the Susan B Anthony List in May this year. Founded in 1992 and named after the 19th-century civil rights leader who campaigned for women's suffrage, the List works like an engine room behind conservative female candidates, providing financial backing and mobilising supporters. With 280,000 members, it has funded and campaigned for O'Donnell, Noem and about 25 other candidates across the US. It also has one specific aim, says the group's chair, Marjorie Dannenfelser, which is to "help elect and involve pro-life women in the political project": to end the practice of abortion.

“What we're seeing," Dannenfelser tells me, "is a correction of the term feminist, an editing - women who feel very strongly about the talents and skills and power of women, but who don't feel that abortion is an avenue to that." For Kathleen Blee, a professor of sociology at Pittsburgh University, the idea that women such as Dannenfelser describe themselves as feminists is extraordinary. "It's a terrible distortion," she says. "It strips most of the meaning away from feminism . . . They don't support equal rights, they don't support abortion - you name the feminist issues, they are on the other side." Dannenfelser says that the election races she gets most excited about are those featuring "women running against women where there's a clear contrast between the type of feminism the two candidates represent"; as in, one is pro-life, the other pro-choice. It's
a strange kind of sisterhood.

Conservative feminism in the US is hardly new. One of its early incarnations was the Women's Christian Temperance Union, established in 1880 as part of the temperance movement campaigning for the prohibition of alcohol (a movement in which Susan B Anthony was heavily involved). According to Blee, early rightist women's activism often had a racist tendency. Those involved in the pro-suffrage movement, for example, were galvanised to ensure that white female voters could out­number black men. A number of those women, Blee says, became an influential presence in the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership included at least half a million women at its peak in the 1920s.

Women were also involved in the pro-fascist movements in the Second World War, and in anti-desegregation campaigning during the civil rights movement. But rightist women's movements "exploded", Blee says, with the emergence of an organised Christian right in 1979, the year the pastor Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority.

As an evangelical movement that coalesces around issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the Christian right has played a significant role in US politics ever since. The Republican strategist Karl Rove's direct appeal to its base was seen as a deciding factor in George W Bush's re-election in 2004.

The Tea Party has proved to be a magnet to the Christian right, and has been infused by the movement's socially conservative values, even though its original objectives were ex­clusively fiscal. (Busse is typical in citing the bailout of the banks after the 2008 financial crisis as the trigger for her activism.) For Tea Party purists, the infiltration by Christian groups is not necessarily welcome. One activist I spoke to felt their preoccupation with moral issues was potentially divisive, and diluted the Tea Party's central messages around tax and spending. But Dannenfelser sees it differently. "There is so much overlap in the Tea Party movement between economic and social issues that there is really no discontent," she says. "It is simply a matter of emphasis."

For activists such as Dannenfelser, who have been fighting abortion for decades, the events of the past two years have been a perfect storm: the financial crisis, the election of Barack Obama and the consequential birth of the Tea Party have given social and Christian conser­vatives a wave to ride and, in the form of Palin, a ready-made, pro-life, "hockey mom" leader with a direct line to Fox News and, some seem to think, God.

Mum's the word

There is, as yet, no Concerned Women for Britain, or Mums for Basingstoke. Perhaps the closest thing we have to a mass women's movement is Mumsnet. But while the social networking website has political influence - all three party leaders raced to interact with its 1.1 million users before the last election - it is resolutely non-partisan. Its co-founder Justine Roberts tells me she can't imagine the site ever aligning itself with a party or ideology, given the diverse political views held by the mothers who contribute to its discussion forums.

Yet Britain, like America, has a history of conservative women's activism. The British Women's Temperance Association was formed at almost exactly the same time as its US counterpart. With campaigns for sexual purity and chastity, it played a central role in the women's suffrage movement. And Margaret Thatcher (a "heroine" to Palin) is a role model of sorts for British conservative women - although the feminist writer Natasha Walter argues that Thatcher was an anomaly, and one of her own making: "She didn't put in place any policies to encourage equality or to encourage women."

Today, Theresa May is conspicuous as the only woman in a senior cabinet position in the new government. Lower down the ranks, however, there has been a shift. A raft of new female Tory MPs entered parliament at the last election - up from 17 to 49. One, Louise Bag­shawe, chick-lit author and MP for Corby, says this is partly a result of May's efforts to alter the gender balance of the party by starting the Women2Win campaign in 2005. Bagshawe defines herself as a feminist and describes May as the "godmother of a movement".

Like some of her American sisters, Bagshawe is also anti-abortion. "I've never had a problem with being pro-life and a feminist," she says.
“I don't consider them to be at all incompatible." She reveals that she is a member of a prominent US pro-life lobby group, Feminists For Life, and that she admires Sarah Palin. "I watched her acceptance speech at the Republican party conference and it seemed to me that it was a glorious moment, a birth of a new political star." Bagshawe acknowledges that the campaign exposed "various problems" (such as a glaring lack of policy knowledge), but is impressed by the comeback Palin has achieved since the 2008 election, and the power she now wields. "She's a remarkable figure."

Bagshawe's adulation is echoed by one of her colleagues in parliament, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries (who is also pro-life and has campaigned vocally for a reduction in abortion term limits). "I think Sarah Palin is amazing," Dorries says. "I totally admire her." She particularly likes how Palin has spoken up for a certain type of woman - the same women, she believes, who are ignored in Britain today. "Do you know the people who have no voice in this country? Who are never written about, who journalists never talk about? The mums. Mums who decide that they will give up their careers and stay at home and look after their children."

She directs me to a blog post she has just written, "The Invisible Woman", which contains a link to a video of a motivational speech given by an American woman, Nicole Johnson. The central message is one from God to mothers: "You are not invisible to me. No sacrifice is too small for me to notice. I see every cupcake baked, every sequin sewn."

Dorries says she has been inspired by recent events in the US - the primary victories of O'Donnell and others. With a new government in place, she senses a "wind of change" in the political atmosphere in Britain. In the last parliament, she says, it was "very difficult to talk about the family unit, and to talk about mothers and children . . . as the foundation of society, because it was seen as a very unsexy, untrendy thing to do and the opposite of what a woman should be doing". Now, she feels these issues can be discussed.

Her assessment is borne out by Walter, who tells me of a recent meeting she attended with coalition ministers in which they discussed the sexualisation of children. The ministers said they felt it was their duty to provide moral leadership to the country. "That's something I am not comfortable with," Walter says. "But I can see that a Conservative government would think that's where they have to lead."

It is certainly what Dorries thinks. And not only that. Given the sympathetic political climate, she sees an opportunity to mobilise a perceived constituency of ignored, stay-at-home mothers. "I think it's time somebody started to represent those mums," she says.

Not to be dismissed

Since the Tea Party rose up across the US in 2009, a common response to its more extreme factions and candidates has been amusement. Conservative female politicians such as O'Donnell are routinely dismissed, even by leading figures within the Republican Party. Karl Rove recently described O'Donnell's rhetoric as "nutty". Yet the mass appeal of these women is already translating into votes and victories. To discount them is to underestimate their growing power, and also makes for ineffective opposition. As Blee says: "People here do not take women very seriously, they do not take the Tea Party as a whole very seriously, and I think it's clear that's a mistake."

The point on which all the women I spoke to agreed, whatever their shade of politics or feminism, was how often female politicians of all parties and ideologies are patronised. "I wouldn't want to claim Sarah Palin as a sister," Walter says, "but I don't like it when she is despised and trivialised simply for being a woman." And it's not just the Americans. Parliamentarians such as Dorries (nicknamed "Mad Nad") are derided and disregarded as a matter of course.

The "mama grizzlies" are undeterred as they gear up for the midterm elections in November. Dannenfelser is optimistic, pointing out that she has "four strong viable pro-life women who are running [for the Senate] and could win, and three governorships in the same situation". Blee, however, is doubtful about the Tea Party's political longevity. She suggests that the range of views and motivations within the wider movement will make it hard to sustain. Electoral success in the midterms, she believes, might precipitate a collapse by exposing factions and splits.

Nonetheless, uniting all these women and issues is one woman, a de facto leader who appears to be on her way to the very top. "The prospect of Sarah Palin as a presidential candidate is not worth discounting," Blee says.

But could she win the presidency? "Yes, as crazy as that is." As Lu Busse says, laughing, just before she hangs up the phone: "The folks in Washington ought to know that they're in real trouble . . . They've got the women after them now."

Sophie Elmhirst is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge