Sunday, January 13, 2008

Are They Really That Bad?

I had a fascinating conversation with my brother when he was up after Christmas. Our reasoning and imaging remains remarkably similar despite our different professions and years of infrequent contact – a couple of visits and a couple of phone calls a year. Even email has been relatively infrequent for us over the last decade. I send links. Sometimes he comments.

Yet he is likely to vote for Kucinich if Dennis is still a working number by the time primaries get to North Carolina, and Kucinich only because Gore isn’t running – and he’d really prefer Barbara Boxer most of all if she’d run. Nonetheless, I’m not at all kidding when I say that our thinking remains similar. We grasp each other’s arguments immediately, and proceed in the same fashion. I’ll bet this happens more than people imagine. We hear of siblings who turned out differently, so that we wonder how they grew up in the same family, but this same thinking/different conclusions is not often mentioned. I wish I could give examples, but can only say that I seem to recall running across this more than once in reading biographical information about thinkers and literary figures: philosophers, mathematicians and the like.

As humans love simple narratives, it is tempting to think that had we exchanged a few key experiences, we would have ended up in the other’s place – the stuff of sci-fi alternate universe novellas. I doubt that this is remotely so. If he had had my experiences and I his, there would not have been an exchange of brains but two new people entirely, recognizable to both of us but distinct. It’s that whole Black Swan unstable universe again. Events are far less predictable than we would like.

Someone should study this, though. I think there must be some neurological similarity in our thinking which would be interesting to pin down. Steven Pinker, what do you think is afoot here?

All this by way of introduction. In our arguing about the corruption, secretiveness, and deception of Republicans versus Democrats, I mentioned the FBI files on their political enemies that the Clintons had brought over to the White House. “That’s just outrageous! That’s banana republic stuff!” I complained. “Yes it is,” he agreed “but we’re not a banana republic. So that should make you think.” As we had been talking earlier about certainty versus probability of claims being true, I took his point immediately. Yes it is certainly possible that the worst construction of a given incident is true – but is it likely? When something is inherently unlikely, shouldn’t we require a higher standard of evidence before jumping to that conclusion? He went on to add that if the Clintons were banana-republic corrupt, they would be far better at covering their tracks. More likely, these things are errors or overreaches, even ill-meant ones, rather than part of a pattern of extreme corruption. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as Carl Sagan said.

Leaving that particular incident aside, I would like to look at the larger issue and a related one. Conservatives collect anecdotes and make tally marks in their margins about how often some influential groups, thought by liberals to be generally reliable, are in fact highly biased and well wide of the mark on important issues. Academics, professional journalists, European intellectuals, career diplomats and spooks – how likely is it that all of them are largely wrong on foreign policy or the economy, and in the same direction? Is it not more likely that while individuals can be terribly wrong, and groups can lean one way and miss a bit, that the multiple groups who spend their waking hours thinking about these issues are generally right?

I hear your sputtering. Stop that. It’s a perfectly good question. We are not looking at whether it is possible for whole classes and professions to go wrong, we are asking if it is likely. Conservative writers have explored how thorough is the wrongness of the chattering classes and offered explanations why it occurs. But for those progressives for whom it is not proven that it occurs, speculations why it occurs are not very compelling.

I suspect that despite the fevered nutroots we encounter in comments sections and the lefty blogs there are many progressives who are starting from something like this premise: Sure, the Democrats in general and the Clintons in specific might be corrupt. So are some Republicans – lists available. But how likely is it that the Dems are significantly worse – ten times worse on this score? Certainly, the press might generally lean a bit one way, but how likely is it that they are outrageously, dangerously slanted? Academics may have something unrealistic about their approach that frames their view of events, but how likely is it that historians are that far off about history? Isn’t it more likely that the critics are making too much out of individual anecdotes, however true, and the professionals are nearer the mark?

My answer: yes, I think the Democrats in general and the Clinton presidency in specific was not only corrupt, but far more corrupt than Republican equivalents – even recognizing that there are Republicans who set that bar pretty high. I think that professional journalists and academics and European government types are not only mistaken but badly mistaken, for similar reasons. But it’s going to be fun for me to actually try to make the case over the next few days or weeks – a set of arguments in which the single anecdote might not mean much.

This belief is no longer a stretch for me. I read confirming evidence every day. But I imagine progressives have a similar impression about what they read.


David Foster said...

Reminds me of a couple of things:

1)Antoine de St-Expupery, reflecting on people he met in Spain during the civil war:

"One man finds that his essential manhood comes alive at the sight of self-sacrifice, cooperative effort, a rigorous vision of justice, manifested in an anarchists' cellar in Barcelona. For that man there will henceforth be but one truth--the truth of the anarchists. Another, having once mounted guard over a flock of terrified little nuns kneeling in a Spanish nunnary, willthereafter know a different truth--that it is sweet to die for the Church."

2)Ayn Rand's character Kira, a fervent anti-communist, speaking to her friend the dedicated communist (and secret police member) Andrei:

" see, if we had souls, which we haven't, and if our souls met - yours and mine - they'd fight to death. But after they had torn each other to pieces, to the very bottom, they'd see that they had the same root."

Anonymous said...

First, let me compliment you on an excellent blog; I was sent here by a long-time and very dear friend. I stop by frequently, but this is my first comment. I hope it isn’t nut root.

In response to ”He went on to add that if the Clintons were banana-republic corrupt, they would be far better at covering their tracks,” I would only observe that it seems to me that the Clinton’s have done an excellent job at covering their tracks. I will be the first to admit that the GOP made a significant error when they impeached Mr. Clinton for high crimes and misdemeanors; clearly the only real crime—and this was later rectified, was the GOP’s erroneous definition of the word “is.” I have no first hand knowledge of any shenanigans attributed to the Clintons, but even if half are true — both should have been prosecuted long before now. They weren’t, so obviously those tracks are well covered.

The observation” . . . is it not more likely that while individuals can be terribly wrong, and groups can lean one way and miss a bit, that the multiple groups who spend their waking hours thinking about these issues are generally right?” is an interesting take, but there is yet another explanation and not so far from being very plausible. First, identify individuals, groups, and multiple groups and answer, what were they doing in the 1960s? What schools did they attend? Whether these individuals are publishers, managing editors, affiliated with the ACLU, leading educationalists, college professors, or liberal politicians — there is one common denominator. Every one of them were influenced by American hating college professors, supported extremist groups (e.g., Black Panthers), and bled profusely for liberal immigration policies. Two served in the military, but not without some controversy, one of those repudiated his service, and none believed then or now that America has any redeeming values. So I think there is an explanation about how entire groups can get it wrong, and I can say that in another 50 years, these same kinds of people will be working just as hard to discredit the land of their forefathers.

Your statement that ” . . . and the Clinton presidency in specific was not only corrupt, but far more corrupt than Republican equivalents.” suggests some level of comfort with relative corruption. I should say that I generally do not like politicians, consider them a necessary evil only because I cannot think of anything better to replace them (other than that vanishing breed we used to call statesmen), and I don’t trust them when they are out of sight. Having said that, we are well past the point in history where our choices are limited to dumb, or dumber . . . bad, or worse . . . indicted and pending trial. Of course, the reason we do not have a better field of politicians is that no bright person is willing to lower him or herself to that standard. I have hope for the future, but I must confess that it dims with each passing election cycle.

Thank you for an excellent blog and for the opportunity to comment here.