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10 things you need to know about Newt: Mehdi Hasan on the Gringrich

He’s been married three times and his middle name is Leroy. But that’s not the half of things.

On 9 June 2011, Newt Gingrich's campaign manager and half a dozen senior aides resigned en masse, citing "differences in direction" with their candidate. Politicians and pundits queued up to declare his campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential campaign "over".

Fast-forward seven months. Newt is now the only GOP candidate who can beat the front-runner, Mitt Romney, having won a decisive victory in the bellwether state of South Carolina on 21 January, amassing 40 per cent of the vote, and with polls showing him in the lead in the swing state of Florida. Some Republican voters are said to be excited at the prospect of bombastic Newt tearing shreds off Barack Obama, whom they hate, in the presidential debates.

“Conservatives . . . are saying, 'Let's nominate Newt because for four and a half hours of debates with Barack Obama - he'd be the best,'" one of America's leading conservative commentators, George Will, told ABC after South Carolina. "You're talking about giving a guy nuclear weapons for eight years perhaps."

So, just what should we know about Newton Leroy Gingrich?

1 His congressional career ended in failure
Newt is best known for having been Speaker of the House of Representatives between 1995 and 1999. Right-wing Republican voters adored his tax-cutting, welfare-slashing, anti-crime "Contract With America" and his shutdown of the federal government in 1995 and 1996. But it all backfired and he resigned in 1998, having failed to impeach Bill Clinton and remove him from office, and after one of the worst-ever midterm election results for the Republicans.

In a television interview on 22 January Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and one of the Republican Party's most popular figures, let rip against Newt's record. "He was run out of the speakership by his own party," he said. "This is a guy who has had a very difficult political career at times and has been an embarrassment to the party . . . I'm not saying he will do it again in the future, but sometimes past is prologue."

2 He has issues with ethics
One of the "embarrassing" episodes referred to by Christie relates to Newt's finances. During his speakership, a record 84 ethics charges were filed against him, and in 1997 he was reprimanded by colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives and ordered to pay a fine of $300,000. It was the first time in the 208-year history of the House that a Speaker had been disciplined for ethical wrongdoing.

Newt likes to claim that the charges were a partisan attack on him by opposition Democrats; yet the House voted against him by a margin of 395-28. It was a bipartisan decision - and the special counsel to the House ethics committee concluded that the man who now wishes to be president had violated tax law and lied to the investigating panel.

3 Family values aren't his strongest suit
One of the most remarkable features of the Republican race so far has been the way in which the party's voters, especially ultra-conservative, evangelical, female voters in South Carolina, have turned a blind eye to Newt's long history of infidelity. He is, after all, a serial adulterer. He cheated on his first wife with the woman who became his second wife, and on his second wife with his third. According to his former campaign treasurer L H Carter, Newt said of his first wife, Jackie (with whom he decided to discuss divorce terms while she was gravely ill and recovering in hospital from surgery): "She's not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of the president. And besides, she has cancer."
Newt's second wife, Marianne, claimed this month in an interview with the Washington Post that he had asked her for an open marriage in which she would share him with his mistress. As Speaker, he had an affair with Callista Bisek, a congressional staffer, while he was trying to impeach Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. (A straight-faced Newt later claimed his infidelity was "partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country".)

Does such hypocrisy matter? "[Newt] believes that what he says in public and how he lives don't have to be connected," said Marianne Gingrich in August 2010. "If you believe that, then yeah, you can run for president."

4 He is the perfect demagogue
Newt's strategy for securing the 2012 Republican nomination seems to be a shameless replay of the party's infamous "Southern strategy", popularised by Richard Nixon - that is, exploiting the racism and bigotry of some Southern white voters, as well as their fears of lawlessness and "big government". So he angrily denounces Washington "elites" and the mythical "liberal media", fearmongers about the rise of sharia law, and still sees reds under Democrats' beds. (In 2010, Newt published a book entitled To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine.)

At a debate ahead of the South Carolina primary, he attacked the CNN presenter John King for asking him about his infidelity. To loud cheers from the conservative studio audience, he said: "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."

Meanwhile, his constant - and factually inaccurate - refrain that Obama has put "more people on food stamps than any other president" helps conjure up negative images of a racial minority - specifically African Americans, as does his call for children from poor neighbourhoods to get jobs as janitors.

He is always keen to highlight the president's "otherness". He has denounced his "Kenyan, anti-colonial" world-view, has said that Obama is not "normal" and has declared that he does not want to "bloody [Obama's] nose. I want to knock him out."

5 He is the master of the U-turn
In 2004 the Democrat John Kerry acquired a reputation as a "flip-flopper", but the shoe fits Newt much better. Despite courting the anti-government, far-right Tea Party and claiming the support of Sarah Palin, Newt has backed measures that Palin-style conservatives say they despise: Obama-style health-care reform, comprehensive immigration reform, bank bailouts and subsidies for prescription drugs.

Over the past year, his very public U-turns and voltes-face have startled even the most cynical pundits. Take the war in Libya. On 7 March, Newt told Fox News that, if he was pre­sident, he would instantly and unilaterally "exercise a no-fly zone this evening", on the grounds that "slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable". Yet on 23 March, after Obama did precisely as he had suggested, the former Speaker switched his position. "I would not have intervened," he told NBC. "I would not have used American and European forces."

6 He is neither an insurgent nor an outsider, but the ultimate Beltway insider
Newt has spent four decades in Washington, DC as a legislator - and lobbyist. He first ran for Congress in 1974; he served on Capitol Hill from 1979 to 1999 and as Speaker for four of those 20 years.

Since leaving politics, he has "consulted" for various corporations and institutions, including the government-backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac, reviled by Republicans for playing a pivotal role in the sub-prime crisis. Gingrich, who initially claimed he had worked as a "historian" for the firm, ran a consultancy that was paid $25,000 a month by Freddie Mac in 2006.

The inconvenient truth is that he is a long-standing member of the Washington elite against whom he constantly rails. Or, in the words of the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg: "Gingrich has eaten from just about every trough imaginable inside the Beltway."

7 He makes George W Bush look like a peacenik
Neoconservative Newt pushed long and hard for a war with Iraq. Soon after 11 September 2001, he proclaimed that "if we don't use this as the moment to replace Saddam after we replace the Taliban, we are setting the stage for disaster".

These days his focus is on Iran's nuclear programme, which he hyperbolically describes as a Nazi-like "mortal threat". He supports the murder of Iranian nuclear scientists and has declared that America has "to take whatever steps are necessary to break its [the Iranian government's] capacity to have a nuclear weapon".

He is more belligerent, more dangerous even, than Dubbya. President George W Bush appointed John "Bomb Iran Now" Bolton as his ambassador the United Nations - but Newt has promised to make Bolton his secretary of state.

8 He is not just a hawk but a chicken hawk
Ron Paul, the anti-war congressman and a rival of Newt's for the Republican nomination, has repeatedly called him a "chicken hawk". "I think people who don't serve when they could and they get three or four or even five deferments . . . they have no right to send our kids off to war," said Paul during a debate in New Hampshire.

Newt got married at the age of 19 after his first year at university and quickly became a father; he then avoided the Vietnam war draft by staying on at college after his undergraduate degree to study first for an MA and then for a PhD. "Given everything I believe in, a large part of me thinks I should have gone over," he conceded in an interview in 1985, then added defensively: "Part of the question I had to ask myself was what difference I would have made."

9 He is the Likud Party candidate
As a sop to pro-Israeli Christian evangelicals, Republican candidates have fallen over each other to pledge their unconditional support for the Jewish state, but Newt has gone furthest.

Interviewed by the Jewish Channel, a US cable TV station, last December, he sparked outrage in the Middle East by referring to the Palestinians as "an invented . . . people".

The Arab League described his comments as racist; the pro-western Palestinian Authority premier, Salam Fayyad, pointed out that "even the most extremist settlers of Israel wouldn't dare to speak in such a ridiculous way".

Newt has been a personal friend and ally of the Likud leader and current Israeli premier, Binyamin Netanyahu, since his days as House Speaker. "I see myself as in many ways being pretty close to Bibi Netanyahu in thinking about the dangers of the world," he said in the TV interview. "So I see a much more tougher-minded [sic] and much more honest approach to the Middle East in a Gingrich administration."

For tougher-minded, read "bloody", and for "more honest", read "one-sided".

10 He isn't a popular politician
Right-wing Republicans like him. The rest of America doesn't. A recent CNN poll found his approval ratings stand at minus 28 per cent.
After becoming Speaker, Newt quickly established himself as one of the country's most reviled public figures - and became an electoral liability for the Republicans. According to the US online magazine Salon, he was the target of an astonishing 75,000 Democratic attack ads ahead of the 1996 congressional elections. "The more most people see of him," concluded Salon's Steve Kornacki, "the less they like him."

Or, in the words of George Will: "All across the country this morning people are waking up who are running for office as Republicans, from dog-catcher to the Senate, and they're saying, 'Good God, Newt Gingrich might be at the top of this [presidential] ticket.'"

The party elite - politicians, pundits, pollsters - want Romney as the candidate; but the base, if the conservative state of South Carolina is anything to go by, wants Gingrich. "He will destroy our party," says the Republican congressman-turned-cable news host Joe Scarborough. "He will re-elect Barack Obama, and we'll be ruined."

So perhaps we should all root for Newt.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

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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?

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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.

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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