Monday, January 12, 2004

David Brooks on Neocons and the Great Unhinging

[This subject is probably passé by now in the ‘sphere, but I wrote this last week and just now got back from the Land of Virtually No Web Access.]

[Hey: this post is also at Blogcritics, so you can go there to comment on it. I WILL have comments here soon.]

In the 1/6 edition of the NYT, David Brooks addresses a problem that could be called the unhinging of contemporary American political discourse. This is one of the problems I’m most concerned about, and I’ve discussed it here several times. In fact, my last post urged people to re-read Hamilton’s “Federalist 1” and Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and I recommended them in large part because they help to inoculate us against The Great Unhinging. So unsurprisingly I find much to agree with in Brooks’s essay. There is, however, much that is reprehensible in it too, and it would be a mistake to completely ignore those things. At first I was convinced that what is good in Brooks’s essay outweighed what is bad, but on a second read I came to believe that I was just so happy to see someone address the unhinging problem that I had underestimated the importance of his errors. Still, there is no real need to make some kind of overall judgment about his essay. There are really good parts and really bad parts. I’ll address the bad parts first, because I’m more interested in the good parts.

Liberals might be disinclined to recognize Brooks’s “unhinging” point because he seems to use it as a lemma in an argument for the conclusion that neo-cons are less influential (ergo less dangerous) than many liberals think. For those who are suspicious of Brooks’s motives, his warning against this unhinging can seem like a mere gambit in an argument that aims primarily to cloak the influence of neo-cons. This could be true, but speculation about his motives should not blind us to what he gets right. At any rate, I suspect that we have better reason to fear the unhinging of which Brooks writes than we have to fear neoconservatives. (Note: this doesn’t mean that I am not concerned about the influence of neocons.) First, our reasons for thinking that this unhinging is a powerful force in contemporary American politics are at least as strong as our reasons for thinking that neoconservatism is a powerful force. Second, this unhinging is a deeper problem, a problem that creates and exacerbates so many other problems that it is more important than many problems that seem (or are) more immediate.

Liberals might, of course, also be irritated by the fact that the unhinging of public discourse did not seem to bother conservatives during the Clinton administration, when the charges made against Clinton were generally less well-grounded in fact than those currently being made against president Bush.

All of these things are off-putting to me as well. Nevertheless, I recommend a differential treatment of baby and bathwater. In the next section I’ll comment on the latter, saving the former for last.

The most despicable part of Brook’s essay is his attempt to equate opposition to neoconservativism with anti-Semitism (“con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’”). Brooks ridicules the idea that a “tightly-knit neo-con cabal” associated with the Project for a New American Century and people like Richard Perle have “insidious power over administration policy.” But:

“I’ve been told by senior administration officials that he [Perle] has had no significant meetings with Bush or Cheney since they assumed office. If he’s shaping their decisions, he must be microwaving his ideas into their fillings.

It’s true that both Bush and the people labeled neocons agree that Saddam Hussein represented a unique threat to world peace. But correlation does not mean causation. All evidence suggest that Bush formed his conclusions independently. Besides, if he wanted to follow the neocon line Bush wouldn’t know where to turn because while the neocons agree on Saddam, then disagree vituperatively on just about everything else.”

Some thoughts on this in no particular order:

(a) If true, it would be good news that Perle has had “no significant meetings” with Bush or Cheney.

(b) However, given this administration’s penchant for secrecy and mendacity, we can’t be sure that the crucial claim in (a) is true. This isn’t just a general worry; rather, this administration has lied about this particular kind of thing (meetings and their significance) before, claiming that Rice had not been briefed by Sandy Berger about the threat from al Qaeda. Furthermore, given this administration’s record we can’t let the hedge word ‘significant’ pass here. “Sure, they meet with Perle, but don’t worry—the meetings aren’t significant…” I’m not inclined to believe such claims from this administration. Since they did meet, microwave communication is unnecessary.

(c) Right: from ‘neocons believe x’ and ‘Bush believes x’ it does not follow that ‘Bush believes x because the neocons convinced him of x’. But (i) nobody has ever made that argument. It’s a blatant Straw Man. No one who worries about neocon influence worries about it on the basis of this absurd argument. Rather (ii) see (b) (above) and (iii) Perle is not the only neocon. (iv) Ever hear of Paul Wolfowitz? I understand he has some position of authority in the Administration… Again, no microwaves are required to explain neocon influence. (v) Compare the argument Brooks ridicules to his own argument which I reconstruct somewhat tendentiously as follows: ‘anti-Semites distrust neocons, liberals distrust neocons, therefore liberals distrust neocons because liberals are anti-Semites.’ This argument is awful not merely on logical grounds but one moral ones, too. He’s suggesting (though I can’t believe that he really thinks it) that those who oppose him are all bigots. Irresponsible charges of bigotry are about as low as you can get, being only about one step up from bigotry itself.

(d) “All evidence suggests” that Bush doesn’t arrive at ANY conclusions independently. During the campaign of 2000, we were told that Bush would be our first “CEO president.” Sure, he didn’t know many, you know, facts, and sure, he wasn’t a very good, you know, reasoner, but he’d surround himself by good advisors. And recently we found out that he doesn’t even read the papers, but gets his information from those advisors, too. Leading one to wonder: why, exactly, does Bush need to be a part of the decision-making process at all? Either he follows the advice of his advisors to the letter, in which case he is basically irrelevant to the process or he deviates from their advice in which case the decision is made by the uninformed person rather than the informed people. Oh, and one of those advisors is Wofowitz (see C (iv) (above)).

(e) Neocon disagreement about non-Middle East matters is irrelevant. They agree in large part about Iraq, and that’s the subject about which they seem to have inordinate influence. They may disagree about, say, corn subsidies, but I don’t see how that’s relevant.

None of this is to say that Brooks isn’t right when he says that neocons are less influential than they are widely thought to be. But it IS to say that the arguments above don’t do much to prove his point. What I found most encouraging of all his arguments on this point was his claim that PNAC only has a staff of five people. I’ll admit, I tacitly believed that the operation was rather more extensive.

Bad as the bad parts may be, what’s good in Brooks’s essay is very good. He writes:

“There’s something else going on, too. The proliferation of media outlets and the segmentation of society have meant that it’s much easier for people to hive themselves off into like-minded cliques. Some people live in towns where nobody likes President Bush. Others listen to radio networks where nobody likes Bill Clinton.

In these communities, half-truths get circulated and exaggerated. Dark accusations are believed because it is delicious to believe them. Vince Foster was murdered. The Saudis warned the Bush Administration before Sept. 11”

Brooks mentions several problems here, problems that I’ve discussed here previously. I’ve got more space than Brooks does, so I’ll divide them up a little more; Brooks may or may not agree with this way of doing it:

A. The “hiving” problem:
The proliferation of news (and opinion) sources allows us to seek out those with which we tend to agree, making it easy—perhaps almost irresistible—to “hive [ourselves] off into like-minded cliques.”

B. The exaggeration problem:
We have an inclination to exaggerate the failings of those with whom we disagree, and to exaggerate the virtue of those with whom we agree. There is, of course, a corresponding inclination to minimize the virtues of those with whom we disagree and the vices of those with whom we agree. There is—also of course—an inclination to exaggerate the strength of the evidence for conclusions with which we agree and minimize the strength of objections against those conclusions.

C. The problem of half-truths:
One way to construct a good lie is to put some truth in it. Among other things, this allows those who would like to believe the lie something to seize on. Eric Hoffer says somewhere: “propaganda does not deceive us; it allows us to deceive ourselves.” Those inclined to believe the false part of the half-truth will be inclined to focus on its true half. And half-truths need not be lies in order to deceive us. We can, for example, seize on them of our own accord and be honestly deceived by them.

[Note: this seems to be at odds with the opinion of one of humanity’s greatest experts on and practitioners of mendacity, the renowned A. Hitler, who famously advocated the “big lie” strategy. Both strategies might work, though. It’d be interesting to see what cognitive and social psychologists have to say about this.]

D. The problem of believing what it is satisfactory to believe
This is a huge problem that I’ll basically ignore in this post. It’s a more general form of the problem of believing what you want to believe, and a less general form of the problem of believing on non-epistemic grounds. Brooks’s locution is particularly apt when he writes of the “delicious” thrill that drives us to believe some new tale of depravity on the part of those with whom we disagree. We may not really want to believe the tale, but our attention is drawn to it as to a car wreck.

These problems interact in certain pernicious ways (how could those ways NOT be pernicious?), almost adding up to the fifth problem that I’d like to discuss. They aren’t strictly identical with the fifth problem, but separating them out might only be of purely theoretical interest. If trying to draw a distinction between A-D (above) and E (below) seems needlessly pedantic to you, you might be right, but this won’t affect any substantive point I might have. At any rate, the fifth problem is

E. The problem of incestuous amplification.
I pilfer this term from Paul Krugman, who pilfered it from military planners. If I am using the term correctly, incestuous amplification is what happens when, having hived ourselves off from those with whom we disagree, we come to see our preferred conclusion as more and more obviously true, and we tend to exaggerate them in our preferred direction. Having intentionally sought out or constructed a community of people who are inclined to think that, say, going to port rather than starboard is usually the best solution, we find ourselves in a community that habitually overestimates the strength of reasons for going to port. We end up going to port more and more often until we find ourselves going in circles. (But at least we’re not a bunch of mindless ideologues like those starbordists...!...)

B, C, and D are problems even if incestuous amplification does not occur. I don’t see that A would be an epistemic problem, however, if it didn’t contribute to incestuous amplification; however, because it does, in fact, seem to be a major cause of incestuous amplification, it is worth thinking about. (If I’m right about the stuff in this paragraph, then E IS a distinct problem from A-D—but, again, that’s a more theoretical issue that most readers may not be interested in.)

At any rate, I think it may be the problem of incestuous amplification that Brooks is really worried about, and, since I consider that to be a very serious problem, I’m happy that he has raised the issue in such an important venue. It seems clear that a proliferation of news and opinion sources is a good thing, and it seems that the internet is a good thing in part because it has allowed news an opinion sources to proliferate. The downside of these things, however, seems to be hiving and the resultant incestuous amplification of opinion.

[Note: “seems to be.” This is an empirical sociological hypothesis. Our casual observations about such issues are frequently wrong. I hope I’m wrong about most of the above. I’m probably not, but the only way to really find out is do some science.]

So the question is: how do we avoid the trap of incestuous amplification? One obvious way is to nip the problem in the bud by avoiding the hiving problem. Once we have ideologically cleansed ourselves by hiving ourselves off into relatively monolithic communities of opinion, it is probably too late; at that point, I suspect that incestuous amplification is unavoidable. This means, among other things, seeking out the opinions of those with whom we disagree. It also means being more critical of the positions we already hold, and of people with whom we tend to agree. As C. S. Peirce noted, one thing about which I can be very sure is that I am wrong about a great many things. Of course I’m also right about a great many things, but the problem is that I’m not sure which things are which. Two routes are open to me: I can either engage in real inquiry in an effort to discover what I’m wrong about, or I can seek to insulate myself from the evidence in an attempt to maintain the beliefs I happen to have right now. If I choose the latter course of action, one of the best means to my end will be to hive myself off with like-minded individuals. Such hiving strategies have worked well to enforce uniformity of opinion throughout much of human history. The hiving strategy failed in its early incarnations in part because uniformity had to be enforced on everyone in a given geographical location (think of the Inquisition); but the internet has overcome this problem. We can now choose the community of thought to which we will belong. This wouldn’t be a problem if our choices were always rational, and if we didn’t develop tribal allegiances to the communities we have already chosen--allegiances that prevent us from agreeing with the conclusions of other communities when this is demanded by reason, and which prevent us from changing communities when this is warranted by the evidence.

Not to put to fine a point on it: all these things apply to liberals just like they apply to everyone else. We are, no doubt, wrong about a great many things, and conservatives are right about a great many things. Unsurprisingly, I think that American liberals tend to be right about more things than American conservatives, otherwise I wouldn’t tend to identify myself with the former group rather than the latter. Perhaps I flatter myself in thinking that more thought or new evidence might make me a conservative—perhaps I’m as locked into certain liberal ways of thinking as, say, Rush Limbaugh is locked into conservative ways of thinking. Such tribalism is, to some extent, unavoidable. But only to some extent. We can reduce the effects of tribalism by reflecting long and hard on those effects, learning to recognize them for what they are, and resolving to resist them. For liberals, this means learning to resist the infamous knee-jerk inclination to agree with liberal orthodoxy. (I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives are any less susceptible to this reaction; in fact, I think that they are usually slightly more susceptible to it.) The flip side of this strategy is to make a conscious resolution to evaluate reasonings as objectively as possible and to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even—especially—when it leads to conclusions that are unorthodox in our community of thought. But more to the point, it is extremely difficult to resist ideological tribalism without entering into cooperative dialogue with reasonable people who hold conclusions with which we disagree. And for us, this means conservatives. (Entering into combative dialogue with unreasonable people probably only serves to harden the conclusions we already hold, and to deceive us into thinking that those on the other side of the issue are ALL dogmatic idiots. This is why it is probably counter-productive for liberals to listen to people like Ann Coulter.) So to do their part to combat the Great Unhinging, liberals must listen to reasonable conservatives with an open mind. And here’s a fringe benefit: if we more frequently listen to reasonable conservatives and genuinely consider their points, more of them will genuinely consider ours. Everybody wins, the Great Unhinging is halted. Furthermore, liberals should think that liberals have even more to gain politically than conservatives, since liberals think that liberal ideas are stronger than conservative ideas, and, consequently, will have a greater chance of winning out in the marketplace of ideas. This does not, of course, mean that we will agree about everything. It certainly does not mean that we should automatically agree with everything said by conservatives. Nor does it mean we should merely engage in some ridiculous true-for-you/true-for-me sharing of feelings. Rather, it means that political discourse should emulate scientific discourse by beginning with an explicit recognition of our own fallibility and an explicit recognition that our only hope of reaching the truth is to allow ourselves to be guided by reason and evidence, even when these lead us to conclusions we are not antecedently inclined to believe.

I end with a quote from Emerson. I’ve posted this quote several times before, but, as with many important thoughts, it’s important to encounter this one more than once:

"A man must consider what a blindman's-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side,--the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right."


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