Our Prisoner’s Dilemma

Scott Deshefy


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Against a panorama of autumn poplars and Lepidoptera in flight, a poster from my college days has this annotated gem of eastern philosophy: “A butterfly counts not days but moments and has time enough.” In my late teens, perspectives on longevity antithetic to that poster were weak competition for “be in the moment” vibes of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now, as I’m older, those bygone pop alternatives begin to hold sway. Take, for instance, Neil Diamond’s brilliant “Done Too Soon,” released in 1970, connecting famous lives ranging from Fanny Brice and Henry Luce to Ramar Krishna, Sholom Aleichem, Henri Rousseau and Albert Camus. And each name dropped “had one thing shared. They sweated beneath the same sun, looked up in wonder at the same moon, and wept when it was all done for being done too soon, for being done too soon.”

It’s not surprising we die, of course. That we ever live at all is the incalculable long-shot. For every organism running the viability gauntlet, first and succeeding cell divisions are an incredible crap shoot. Even life forms with large numbers of chromosomes relative to our own species, including some duplicates in their genomes, aren’t necessarily conferred bulletproof resilience against aneuploidy or some deleterious mutation turned fatal. We humans have 46 chromosomes forming 23 divisible pairs, but many organisms have considerably more. A protist (Oxytricha trifallax) has about 15,600 chromosomes (nanochromosomes more specifically). Adder’s tongue ferns (Ophioglossum reticukatum) have 1,440 chromosomes arranged in 720 replicating pairs. Agrodiaetus shahrami butterflies have 268 chromosomes, and red viscacha rats 102, considered tops among us mammals. Even the corn genome has 10 chromosomes but 12,000 more genes than we have encoded in them.

Estimates suggest 300 million exoplanets in our own Milky Way galaxy could have “Goldilocks orbits,” and temperatures and chemical compositions conducive to life. Further calculations, based on searches of the cosmos conducted with NASA’s Kepler satellite, suggest one-fifth of all stars could have planets in habitable zones. A 2016 paper published in the scientific journal Astrophysics, supported by empirically valid probabilities generated by the Drake equation, calculates a universe of 2 x 10 to the 22nd power stars could have tens of billions of habitable planets. Yet, even in a 14 billion year old, immeasurably expanding, galaxy-laden universe, where life as a foregone conclusion evolved billions of times, the enormity of space makes such generative occurrences rare. As such, life is not to be wasted scrutinizing political rants of individuals in congress or self-absorbed, dimwitted rhetoric of candidates unfit to either hold or debate competitively for elected office. At least our judiciary may eliminate some deadwood.

The “prisoner’s dilemma” is a game theory experiment involving two rational agents, each of whom can either cooperate with another criminal with whom they partnered in crime, potentially receiving a small and equal sentence, or rat-on the other prisoner and receive no sentence at all. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating or exchanging messages with the other perpetrator. In lieu of a lesser charge and reduced punishment for lack of evidence, police offer each prisoner the Faustian bargain of going free if they give state’s evidence on their partner. Long of interest to ethologists and evolutionary biologists, and now a staple of sociology and TV cop shows, the prisoner’s dilemma models many real-world situations and cost-benefit strategies.

In environmental crises such as global warming and climate change, all countries benefit by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet some are hesitant to take global leads in such reductions. They fear other countries will temporarily gain an economic advantage by unabatedly polluting with fossil fuels. Vampire bats are social animals that engage in reciprocal food exchange, and guppies inspect predators as coordinated schools, equally distributing risk. In both cases, non-cooperative individuals are punished by those loyal to the group. Closer to home, multiple indictments against Donald Trump, including alleged efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss (in Georgia) and business fraud (in New York) for which he could be fined $250 million are case studies of the prisoner’s dilemma unfolding before us. With Trump’s indictments comprising 91 felony counts, we’re already seeing alleged co-conspirators plea bargain and cut deals with DAs for lesser and suspended sentences. Conversely, Trump’s elder sons both testified that, despite their powers of attorney, they were clueless statements they signed falsely reported Trump company finances in efforts to commit fraud. Despite misrepresentations bearing their names, both blamed $168 million of financial fudging on hired accountants and lawyers. Deflecting questions, Eric Trump even went so far as to say his primary involvement with the company was not financial assessments, but working in construction and pouring concrete. I’d wage Eric Trump’s had less to do with cement bags than Mack the Knife.

Trump-supporter belief systems currently hang on their cult leader’s martyr complex, efforts to stay out of prison and pursuit of the White House to self-pardon. When Trump took the stand in New York, he turned his testimony into a political rally complete with narcissistic obstructions and skirting of truth (even under oath), spewed insults and partisan narratives. The same violations of courtroom protocol would have landed you and me in jail. Trump’s express purposes in running for office now are personal gain and exacting retribution against those who criticized and failed to abet his West Wing violations of the Constitution. Recent revelations show he’s surrounding himself with sycophant lawyers intent (should Trump win in 2024) on invoking the Insurrection Act and using the DOJ and military to suppress opposition. Also out of dictatorial playbooks, they plan to circumvent judicial and legislative branches of government, concentrating power in the Oval Office. Getting even follows control. So targets are being preemptively.

Rather than accede to authoritarian dictates, 14 Cabinet members left the Trump administration. Among them, U.S. Attorney General William Barr calls Trump unfit to serve as president, pointing (among other things) to his limited vocabulary and inability to execute policies. Ex-Chief of Staff John Kelley also criticizes Trump for disparaging U.S. service members and veterans, calling fallen soldiers “suckers” and “losers.” When presidential aspirants and former New Jersey and Arkansas governors, Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson, hammered Trump in Florida recently, members of their audience booed. Christie, to his credit, was quick to characterize their “anger against truth” as “reprehensible.” Fear of fact has so become an underlying GOP theme Christie and Hutchinson have joined Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeff Flake and other prominent Republicans desperately trying to save their party from misfits such as Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Michael Flynn, Mike Johnson, Rudy Giuliani, Matt Gaetz, and other dangerous extremists divorced from reality.

In 1954, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was finally brought down by Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now interview followed by McCarthy’s 30-day-long televised anti-Communist “Army hearings.” The latter proceedings not only exposed the Wisconsin senator’s estimates of Communist infiltrators in U.S. government as sheer fantasy, but viewers could plainly see that McCarthy was losing to a more formidable foe ─ alcoholism. The coup de grace, however, which ultimately led to McCarthy’s congressional censorship in December that year, came from an unlikely source. When McCarthy cavalierly tried to destroy a young lawyer in the firm of Joseph Welch, an esteemed 63-year old Harvard-trained lawyer, GOP-member and counsel to the army, Welch in defense of his sullied colleague struck a chord with American viewers. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” Welch said. “Have you no sense of decency, sir.”

Trump’s “Have you no sense of decency?” moment should have been his verbal attacks of Khizr and Ghazala Khan in 2016. The Gold Star parents, who lost their son (a Moslem-American U.S. Army captain killed in the line of duty) in Iraq, accused Trump because of his anti-Moslem, xenophobic rants of never having read the Constitution or visiting Arlington Cemetery. Trump supporters never held him accountable for his dispassionate, cruel response to the Khans just as Sarah Huckabee Sanders got away with indifference towards separated immigrant families when queried about her lack of empathy by CNN. Trump and those of similar ilk lack decency because they have no sense of shame, misgiving or impropriety, so long as they derive personal benefit by catering to their base. To drive a metaphoric stake through their hearts, making their political dissolution complete and permanent, needn’t require another Welch, or Murrow, another Paul Robeson, or Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Josephine Baker; Shirley Chisholm. Those progressive heroes are gone, but cadres of champions aren’t necessary to stop the likes of a Trump, Greene, Boebert, Gaetz and their enablers, only a few respected Republicans willing to stop mollifying them in order to save their party.

McKay Coppins has written a book called “Romney: A Reckoning” about how Mitt Romney and other Republican luminaries were privately belittling Trump’s nescience and destructive tendencies as far back as 2016, pegging him a grifter with zero respect for either the U.S. Constitution or democracy. Publicly, in exchange for their own reelection and potentially putting Trump in the White House, they chose to remain silent. By the time Trump gained a following, political opportunism and misplaced team loyalties turned to fears of tribal expulsion, even as it became clear Trump’s impeachment charges warranted conviction. By then, respected GOP members of Congress, mustering collective will to oust Trump from their party, encountered resistance. Colleagues of like mind, some vehemently opposed to Trump’s demagoguery, flinched over likely retribution for trying to rid the party of radical right elements. Now, the cult-like metamorphosis of that wing has driven the GOP to either irrelevance, due to its intellectual dissociations and estrangements from science and reason, or a taste for authoritarianism that’s percolating down from Trump to his acolytes.

Encapsulating human conflict at all levels, some of us nod agreeably with the line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit” that “hell is ─ other people.” Most folks, however, deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. Their emotional experiences tell them happiness and enhanced survival can be derived from bonding with others who share some amount of genetic kinship, moral beliefs, language and geography, or social purpose. Yet, it is this tribalism, not relaxation of basic moral tenets such as reverence for all life, that makes otherwise good people do abominable things. One of the unintended evils of substituting creation stories for the fact of biological evolution is that supernatural narratives explaining how we humans came to be, instead of the uncomplicated grandeur of natural selection, form bases of arrogance at tribalism’s core. Each tribe is assured its members are favored over all other life forms, other humans included, by some celestial nonentity of omnipotent powers in which they trust. Exploiting that notion, many politicians gain favor by keeping their minions messianic hopes alive, frequently invoking God to bless the nation and referencing prayer. In more secular societies, “faith” tends to be transmutable into religious-like political ideologies and cultural identifiers. Still, the old rule attributed to the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger remains valid that religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.

However agnostic they may be, trust in gods and assuring voters they “believe” is pretty much compulsory for viable candidates these days, the driver of that pandering being tribalism in which the band becomes an extended family. That’s a powerful lure for the socially isolated, who frequently become ardent group supporters, even malleable lone wolf fanatics. Humans are somewhere between eusocial insects (i.e. bees, termites) and oft-solitary sharks on the zoological spectrum of social commitments (staunch capitalists more individualistic and less altruistic perhaps than social democrats). Exclusion, let alone forced expulsion from a tribe, such as a political party to which someone belonged and identified for decades, is understandably disturbing. That retributive threat now faces principled Republicans who see Trump, Greene, Johnson, Boebert and Gaetz as clear and present dangers to democracy and corroborative reason, but know Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney, both of whom served laudably, were victims of reprisals for saying so.

Chris Hedges has used “Christian Fascism” to describe America’s new aesthetic for violence. Buffoons advocating that “movement” make it easy to dismiss as an existential threat except that our democracy is fast-becoming anemic. Trump and his cohorts seek to exsanguinate our institutions, preaching prosperity gospel and martyrdom. Venerated national symbols and myths that historically cloaked Fascism may be downplayed at times, and contemporary adherences to race purity ─ border walls, “replacement theory,” Moslem bans, “kung flu” ─ seem timid by comparison to 1930s precedents. But this new iteration of Fascism need only sell the idea of culture war and White victimization to resurrect its earliest sinister trappings, this time minus historical bulwarks against simmering violence, drumbeats of mass shootings, and uninterrupted building of rogue militia arsenals

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.