Prescriptions for Partisans

Posted: December 24, 2012 in Blogosphere, Debate, Politics
Tags: , ,

This is going to be long — much longer than the 3 to 4 paragraphs to which I normally limit myself. It’s also only the second time I reblog or quote someone at length to respond here than in the original venue (first time was here). In this case, I do so with permission from the source, Robert Hayes, whose blogging profile at Creative Destruction provides an ample self-description of his focus. I also do this honor to Mr. Hayes (as I’m given to calling him) as he was primarily responsible for inviting me onto our now-dead group blog, which required that I have this solo blog to get access. I continue to write The Spiral Staircase even though Creative Destruction has been abandoned, though even without updates the latter still gets more hits than here. So let’s get started. I apologize in advance for the wild mixture of metaphors. My responses are mostly interlinear, and I withhold all nitpicking about spelling and grammar. I have removed mention of several names that don’t belong here.

When civility was the rule of the day, and caricatures of POTUS as a shit-flinging chimpanzee had a textured nuance that bespoke a higher sentiment …

And we’re off to the races! Mr. Hayes is always entertaining. He fires lots of shots over the bow like this, which is his being a provocateur. Part of the reason I read his offerings is that he is such an accomplished writer, something quite apart from the value of the content or our ideological differences. Simply put, I admire his use of language, over the top as it is.

No, I but kid. I recognize the bizarrely cognition-free bashing of the current President; it’s the same kind of bashing as was indulged against Clinton in the 1990s. (Murder at Mena! UN black helicopters! Sex assault against poor white women!)

Well, the sex assaults panned out, but the ground was so poisoned by then that he could have been raping trailer park residents during the SOTU speeches, and it would have been impossible to get social consensus on seeing it. And that was the fault of people like me, I’ll fully admit — though I did demand data for my mill, the mill was set to “excoriate — full power” regardless of what the data might have described. (And in retrospect, in terms of economic policy, grasp of the entitlement nettle, and budgets/tax discussions … please God, send us more Clinton presidencies.)

Then the same kind of bashing overtook Bush pretty early on. Many … were and/or are guilty, though I suspect — like my revisionism concerning Clinton — at least a few have sobered up a bit. (For example, having a prison in Guantanamo Bay seems to have moved from War Crime Of The Century down to Charming Neocon Peccadillo, for all but a few stalwarts.) I believe … [someone was] arguing vociferously for the complete meaninglessness of “fighter pilot running insane personal risks” as a role in which one might serve one’s country.

It surprised me to recognize that “the sex assaults panned out,” but I have to admit it’s true. More importantly, Mr. Hayes takes some credit for dumping into the public sphere the full power of his excoriation, which has had a perhaps unintended effect. I want to give credit for this admission and also say that Mr. Hayes was among the first to help me appreciate that in our two-party system (a mistaken reduction to dualism of issues and ideas that are really multifaceted), each side needs the other in part to hone its own positions. What may have happened instead is that positions have hardened to the point that an increasing array of issues have become intractable (abortion, gun control, flag burning, death penalty, etc.) and picking one’s teeth with the bones of one’s enemy has become the standard objective rather than give-and-take wrangling over issues ideally leading to good government.

And now it’s Obama’s turn. And the themes are different (Marxist Kenyan atheist Muslim!) but the songbook seems to come from the same, idiotic, printer. I have a good friend who is … on Facebook. There is no way to describe her as a stupid person; she does high-level work at a major aerospace company and was once a contractor of mine who I found to be the least incompetent person I’ve ever employed … But concoct a fantasy that a three-year old child could find the logical holes in, put Obama in the villain spot, and she is a True Believer, even when it’s something where a moment’s thought would reveal the impossibility or implausibility of the underlying conspiracy theory, and where a moment’s fact-checking would reveal the stark wrongness of the theme.

For example, you can make a reasonable argument that the Obama administration is not the most steadfast ally of Israel out there, that they are more sympathetic to other players. But you can’t make that argument sensibly while claiming that the US has cut Israel’s military support (it’s the same as it’s ever been) and similar empirically-observable claims. She’s posted “Obama hates Israel and has cut them off and and and …” nonsense more than once in the last five years. Our friendship has been strained but not destroyed — mainly, I think, because she’s chosen not to shotgun-broadcast the latest idiocies where I and other critically-minded friends will see them.

So no party or ideology is immune, or uniquely susceptible, to this kind of nonsense. Right-wing idiots worried about Clinton staying in power after his eight years, left-wing bozos made the same kinds of babble-theories about Bush, and if you ask my friend when Obama’s term ends, she’s likely to darkly mutter “when his UN overlords tell him to make way for a different dictator” or something similarly cogent. Dumbass is a non-partisan value.

Here’s the thing, though. I have noticed, as an artifact of the Facebook era, a major upsurge in people putting together factoids (or more commonly, non-factoids), often with imagery, and distributing them among their social networks. On occasion these little visuals are purely opinion-driven and there isn’t much to critique, other than maybe the layout. But more often, they make truth claims, and most of the times the truth claims are not only wrong, but falsifiable with an absolute minimum of fact-checking. Their authors, in other words, were not attempting to make propaganda that would stand up as argument, they were creating propaganda for the emotional bonding of people who already believed the propaganda’s point of view, and who would not engage in (or be impressed by) fact-checking that disproved the particular point. A former friend — he defriended me after the twentieth or thirtieth time I posted the actual data that indicated his reposted-factoids were simply incorrect — would in fact grow extremely agitated when such a correction came across the transom, even if the correct data didn’t destroy the point of the piece and the piece would have been improved by having right data in it. (One example was a factoid about global poverty, in which the factoid claimed that 1 in 2 people in the world don’t have shoes. I believe the correct figure was something like 1 in 5 — still quite terrible as a number, and one worthy of attention, even in factoid form.)

I came to realize that he was not agitated that the facts were wrong, or that there was contrary data/argumentation out there. He was agitated that the safe emotional space he wanted to live in, one where the CIA Was Evil and the USA Is The Global Prisonkeeper and the Occupy Movement Are Saints In Human Form and the Corporations Are Murdering Us All Right Now etc., was not being accepted as self-evidently true by everyone in his social network and put outside the area of life where he had to think critically or accept the validity of contrary views. The fact that there are some data points supporting all of those themes, such that if you want to believe them it is possible to do so without forfeiting all reason, was irrelevant; he wanted them into the Everyone Knows category.

(And I have known people who believed the US Military Are Angels In Human Form and the UN Bureaucrats Want to Eat Your Children and the Gun-grabbing Minority People Are Stealing Your Constitution, who acted the same way … again, dumbass isn’t partisan.)

Here Mr. Hayes recognizes another fundamental of our collective situation: honest, verifiable, objective truth doesn’t matter to people whose primary processing mode is somewhat more, shall we say, emotional than rational. He takes several paragraphs to get to it, and it’s highly entertaining and well argued. I have no objections to register here (as though that were the only point: refuting what someone has to say). It’s worthwhile to recognize this dynamic because all of us with e-mail addresses are recipients of such reposted factoids in rich text format where the left margin is deep with forwarding/quoting lines no one (but me, when I reply) bothers to edit out. I get my share, and like Mr. Hayes, I sometimes reply-all with my rejoinders, which always elicit exactly zero response because discussion isn’t the objective. Rather, the objectives are sharing and spewing, usually with someone else’s poorly researched polemics at that.

A family member of mine moved to Arizona close to 20 years ago, and since that time, he’s taken to forwarding (unedited and without comment) right-wing hand-wringing and fulmination. When we meet face-to-face, which isn’t too frequently, he sometimes cranks up the rhetoric wheel and begins regurgitating well-rehearsed talking points and sound bites like a polemical kaleidoscope. (I’ve seen lots of pundits and politicians doing the very same in TV interviews.) I suspect he believes the stuff he says, but I don’t sense he really understands it, since we don’t actually discuss any of it. He just cycles through worn-out phrases he’s used to hearing. Prestige gestures such as throwing in a couple references to intellectual history (socialism, Marxism, etc.) doesn’t mean there is any understanding of the underlying ideas, and with alarming frequency, his or someone else’s argument mentions Germany in the 1930s, which is merely an oblique Hitler reference, a backdoor invoking Godwin’s Law. Not so clever, really.

I saw this kind of stuff in the pre-Facebook era, but it was much less widespread. One, making a pretty graphic even on a computer used to be a fairly big job, whereas now you go to a meme site, upload a background and type in your “fact” and have a semi-legitimate looking image. Two, back in the day, to send copies of such things in your Patriot Idiot Newsletter, or Granola Hippie Moron Update, cost real money so only the hardest core would bother. Now it’s free.

I don’t think all hope is lost. For one thing, with the ever-spreading “derp” of non-critically-evaluated rubbish, people of good faith (there are a lot of us!) are less and less willing to take such things at face value. For another thing, the availability of cheap fact-checking via the Internet makes it more and more obvious when someone is a bad-faith propagandist. My leftie friend with the idiot memes talks to an ever-shrinking circle of people “pure” enough for his taste. My rightie friend, having a bit more self-respect, stopped propagating memes that were obvious rubbish when people of her own opinion set (well, me) persistently but politely insisted on fact-checking them.

I’m not on Facebook, thank gawd, so although that may be one venue where the meme spinners mine, repost, and regurgitate others’ flawed arguments, it’s hardly the only way these things circulate. The ease of digital creation and reproduction actually predates Facebook somewhat, but further refinements are piling up now so that anyone with a mouse and an Internet connection can get in on the act. It’s one of the side-effects of the democratization of productions, where we all now participate to some extent in mass media instead of merely being broadcast to via print, radio, TV, etc. In the early phases of the computer era and the Internet, the word interactive was like magic, drawing moths to the flame. Never mind that the typical comments section of any website, be it a blog or a national newspaper, is positively filled with the most shameful, hideous, trolling invective, typically behind the shield of anonymity. We got used to being continuously goosed (as I argued here), and the paradox is that the effect is lost but we nevertheless seek ever more outrageous content to provoke outrage. Whoopee! Now back to Mr. Hayes:

For my own contribution to keeping the fires of civilization going against the social-media barbarians photoshopping pictures of dead kittens into Obama photo-ops and inventing new jokes on the name “Boehner”, I have been engaging in the following two behaviors, which I commend to all, young and old, black and white, liberal and conservative, cool ranch and spicy original:

1) I fact check things that I believe to be likely or true with MUCH more vigor than I fact check things that I find ideologically neutral or that go against my inclination-to-believe. Tell me the ice sheets have been shown to not be melting at all, and I want to see the paper-bound copies of the scientific journals and the glossy satellite photos and the video of the climate conference presentation where the claim was made. Tell me that Obama doubled the amount of money devoted to killing Communists from space, and I’ll take a mainstream newspaper clipping as a sufficiency of evidence.

The reason for this is simple: lies that my ideological opponent tell, or mistakes that they make, I am predisposed to find. It’s an automatic process. It requires no special effort; it just happens. Barry Deutsch [another fellow blogger now long gone from Creative Destruction] posts cute photos of his nieces, I start looking for the Photoshop artifacts that prove the event was STAGED because that is how he is, man. I read the NY Times article about communist fund-doubling, and I immediately spot the double-talk that shows it’s a doubling that follows last year’s 99% baseline cut.

But things that are consistent with what I believe don’t trigger that automatic process, so if I want to be well-informed and not duped by people on my own team – which believe it or not, does include people who are less than honest! — I have to make it a special effort. You should do the same, because your side is just as full of propaganda-spewing liars. Don’t make me name names.

2) When I find things that I believe are untrue — not just incorrect or misguided, as in an honest disagreement about values or priorities, but outright untruths which are either intentional and malicious, or unintentional and sufficiently important to be destructive of discourse — I speak up. I speak up when it is my own team doing it — and in that case I speak up from authority, with wrath and gravitas. (“As a lifelong admirer of Ronald Reagan, I tell you uncategorically that your statement that Reagan would have routed Obama out of the White House with a flamethrower is both wrong and stupid. He did not know how to use a flamethrower, and would have attempted to persuade the First Family that the residence was haunted, because he believed that black people were very afraid of ghosts.”)

These, then, are the prescriptions for partisans: (1) scrutinize one’s own beliefs with great vigor and (2) speak up when something is untrue. More on that at the end.

And I speak up when it is another team doing it, and in that case I speak up in fiery dissident mode, which is more fun than gravitas mode but also less likely to make an impression. (The reason people always highlight opposition figures who have come around to their own point of view is that such figures are inherently more impressive in rhetorical terms. Big deal, Ben and Jerry both say pot ought to be legal. Sarah Palin and a bunch of big-city police chiefs, a lot more striking and persuasive.)

Which leads me — at great length, for which I apologize — to the conclusion that what we all should do, other than the common-sense behavior of emulating me on all possible occasions, is *look for* fiery radicals assailing our own cherished viewpoints, give them a good-faith hearing, and — if we are persuaded by the bulk of evidence, rather than flattered by an appeal to commonality or a claim of superior virtue — buttress the fiery-radical with our own authority-and-gravitas. I pay attention when left-wingers tear down Republican policy ideas. I find that they are sometimes right, and when they are right, we ought to go with what’s right rather than what fires up the Cato folks. (To their credit, the two are often the same.)

I think, in other words, that all parties and ideologies and isms would do well to focus some energy on *being correct*, where such things are knowable.

To end this long diatribe with a bipartisan observation: one of the big problems the Republicans in Congress have right now is that they have become hostile to this corrective process. That’s on us. Across the aisle, one of the big problems the Obama administration has is that the people who ought to be fact-checking it — its political allies in the memetisphere and the putatively-neutral observers in the press — have almost completely skipped out on this duty. Say what you wish about the Bush administration, and whether or not it listened, but amidst the huzzahs for how great GW was from the right, there was also a steady trickle of honest, informed criticism. That criticism at least provided a reality check for administration figures who wanted one. Even if Obama’s team wants a reality check, it’s hard for them to get one; Chris Matthews is busy updating his knee tingles, while the opposition side — while happy to criticize, just as the left was happy to dump on Bush — isn’t speaking the right language.

All of which, of course, can be summarized as “the Kenyan communist Muslim Obama wants to flay the guns from the hands of upstanding white Christian patriots”. Someone should put a graphic behind that, and share it around Facebook. If you don’t agree, it’s because the UN brain-controlled you with orbiting microwave lasers.

The distinction between fiery dissident mode and authority-gravitas mode is wishful thinking in my opinion, but arguing the point isn’t really necessary. These last four paragraphs are probably just grandstanding, but Mr. Hayes is nothing if not grandiose. If you made it this far into this blog post, well, congratulations.

What struck me upon reading and reflecting on Mr. Hayes’ two prescriptions, made with abundant verbosity (which I rather enjoy when I’m not engaged trying to make a point), are three things:

  1. he admittedly shares some tiny part of the responsibility for the hyperbolic style of debate now infecting the public sphere
  2. many of the people who perpetuate unreasonable polemics are flatly unreachable by either reason, fact, or demonstrable truth, and
  3. the prescriptions bear a remarkable resemblance to the disease

The first observation above is simply the way things are right now. Historians can point to other periods of extraordinary fervor (e.g., pre-Civil War America) where rhetoric was overheated, consuming the minds of those who participated, sometimes eagerly, by fanning the flames. We cycle in and out of these phases, which is only slightly different from a cynical same-as-it-ever-was dismissal — a bored representation that there is nothing new under the sun. I’m guilty of arguing from time to time that this time it’s different after all, that the effectiveness of the scorched-earth approach, now catalyzed through mass media, has succeeded so thoroughly in both salting the earth and poisoning the well that we’ve arrived at community character being the second observation, which Mr. Hayes himself argues above. So it’s ironic, paradoxical, and pointless that Mr. Hayes’ prescriptions are just more of the same sickness that’s afflicting us. I don’t know whether a better response is disengagement or respite by reasonable folks while those with fire in their minds burn themselves out. Ceding the playing field to the worst rhetorical thugs has had some miserable results in the past, but I can’t see how doubling down ameliorates anything, either.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Mr. Hayes described himself in 2006 as “a follower of the partisan slugfest that is American politics.” I find he’s more focused on electoral politics, which is primarily about getting and staying elected by constant manipulation of the “memetisphere,” as he calls it. This requires adherence to ideas in the abstract, where participant don’t balance the public good with private interest or work to improve people’s lives so much as battle over every intermediate hill and valley in an ongoing rhetorical campaign on the way to some big chair in some cloistered room. It’s a classic forest-but-for-the-trees mistake.

What’s really going on? I have my suspicions, namely, that the world went mad — some time ago, actually — and we’re seeing some of the aftereffects now in the early 21st century. More specifically, critical thinking skills that would make one immune to such nonsense are no longer part of public intellectual life because, in short, there’s no profit in it. If one can flummox one’s interlocutors with doubletalk, then apparently the argument is won (or perhaps merely gamed). Never mind that participants often don’t understand what they’re saying. I plan to explore this theme — world gone mad — in other blog posts. Of course, my activity is too slow and limited to satisfy the demand for constant churning of ideas — something I’ve heard called “insight porn” — abetted by the voracious appetite stoked by the daily news cycle. But I intuit that larger cultural themes playing out over centuries and millennia are of greater ultimate concern than who wins some pointless battle of (nit)wits or who gets to sit in what chair at any given time.

  1. JonO says:

    Everybody sees the foibles and follies of the other guy. It is the beam in our own eye that we ignore while pointing out the mote in someone else’s.

  2. WJzF says:

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