The topic of the psychological effects of violence is an intriguing topic with much potential, particularly when addressed by a professor of psychology who is also a career military officer, but ultimately that potential is what made On Killing so disappointing.
With verbatim repetitions throughout, it more resembles a collection of essays than a book. The most serious issue though, is the presence of speculative and sweeping assertions, such as the claim that, what is hubristically described as a previously undiscovered aspect of psychology (revulsion to killing), may have been responsible for the election outcomes of wartime Presidents forced to go to the polls immediately after the end of hostilities. To the author's credit he does acknowledge that last assertion might be extending his work too far.
It is clear when evidence is offered, such as frequent references to B.F Skinner's (at best) obsolete work, that Grossman didn't do his homework. Most troubling, however, is the study on which Grossman rests his thesis; S.L.A Marshall's survey of World War II soldiers claiming to show only 25% will fire at an exposed enemy. The soldiers supposedly interviewed later denied ever being asked about their firing rates, a fact which has been known to military psychologists for over twenty years. It would be interesting to buy the physical copy of this book to see the bibliography.
The number and severity of basic errors costs makes the reader wonder if the author knows what he is talking about, and that's a shame given the enormous potential and relevance of this topic. On a positive note, the narration was good.
Contrary to its subtitle, The Political Brain offers scant examination of the psychology of political thought, and it is anything but objective or scientific. Nor is it, as suggested by the euphoric reviews of Bill Clinton and Howard Dean, a masterpiece of political science, the author misidentifies Minority House Leader John Boehner as a Senator. The book, nonetheless, is made worthwhile by its profound, if unintentional, insights into the workings of the U.S political system.
Westen clearly intends his book as a strategy guide for Democratic candidates. The problem, he explains, is that Republican, while incompetent in every other respect, have masterful political strategists who understand, unlike the Democrats, that voters cannot comprehend rational appeals and must therefore be pandered to on an emotional level.
The party of Old Hickory, Westen counsels, needs to follow the party of Lincoln in abandoning any pretense to rational, issue based campaigns. Instead, they must pander to the emotions of voters, who unlike elites such as Westen, are either too dumb or too impulsive to make informed decisions. The children's Story The Little Engine that Could, not well thought out and publicized policies, he advises, is an ideal framework for speaking to voters.
Westen's skills as a propagandist and insights into the minds' of voters are debatable. The unintentional insights his book offers into the cynical and self-justifying world of the partisan ideologues who choreograph American political culture are not. The cynical counsel of an esteemed, albeit publicly unknown, partisan apparatchik reveals more about American politics than any textbook or criticism from even the most astute observer could. This book is a must read, though not for the reasons the author intended.
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