Friday, February 10, 2012

Good For Consevatives, Bad For Liberals

If you were writing a book entitled Willful Blindness, about the tendency of people to repeatedly fail to see the obvious because they don't want to, what is the A-number-One thing you would try not to do?

You would try to make assurance double sure that you hadn't repeatedly overlooked something obvious, right?  The rule of correcting other people's grammar seems to dictate that you will make a grammatical error in the correction.  That's minor, humorous, and good for our humility.  But if you made repeated errors of the same type, what would people conclude?  I don't know...that you didn't really care about grammar, maybe.  Or that you didn't bother to proofread or get someone to go over your writing.  Or that you you were stupid or dishonest.  Lots of choices, none of them good.

Margaret Hefferman will tell you what went wrong in the priest abuse scandals and devotes a lot of energy to how the cultural meaning of the RC Church in Ireland contributed to the blindness, but has missed that other groups of men who work with children - groups that have nowhere near the cultural importance, and so are much less fun to blather about - abuse children as well.  The horrible dawning of reality for a mother who does not see, but later knows she should have seen, the sexual abuse by her husband of her daughter Hefferman describes with great poignancy - and leaves out the important but inconvenient information that these are stepfathers far, far more often than bio fathers. Those horrible dawnings, the sudden assembling of a hundred previously-unexplained details into understanding, does of course happen.  The problem is those aren't always correct either.  We can have that experience of dawning awareness even when we are dead wrong.

As a lot of the people she has interviewed seem to be.

She has a long list, and reports them with some skill, of things that went wrong which everyone should have seen, but didn't because the money or the prestige were too good: Enron, WR Grace, BP. She interviews many of the I-told-them-so's, and is quick to point out out what humorous, charming, scrumptious people they are. So you know they must be right and have no agendas of their own.  Hefferman knows it, anyway.  She rather gives away what creates believability for her.  The high point of this is quoting North Vietnamese foreign minister Thach explaining to Robert McNamara how the Americans had read history wrong, and that's why we misunderstood Vietnam. Because what possible reason would he have to be self-serving about that, eh?  What possible bias or need to delude himself, even though an even elementary reading of the facts disproves his comment?  But boomer liberals need to protect their narratives.

The examples are all post-hoc reasoning, and the strong bias all of us have to choosing examples which reinforce our prejudices - the entire point of her book - she misses entirely in herself.  Hell, we can do that all day.  Darn, if only we'd had a few more air patrols and gotten more warning about Pearl Harbor, why, we could have simply destroyed the first two waves of Japanese fighters coming in and crippled a third of their aircraft.  Sports fans could do that at length.  Actually, we already do that at length, and it's just about as productive.

Even better, you can argue post-hoc and ignore the other side of the arguments altogether. Why mention the deaths from slow approval or non-approval of new medical treatments when it's so much more fun to call Vioxx a massive cover-up?

Plus, as an added bonus, you can review Psychology 101 from decades ago and read about (at some length, mind you) the Asch Experiments, Stanley Milgram, and Philip Zimbardo - updated, of course, with Discover magazine-quality articles about new research in the field! Plus the usual bits of trivia that supposedly illustrate how unseen forces influence our decision-making: a disproportionate number of dentists have surnames beginning with "D;" people in Georgia are more likely to name sons George.  Not, you will note, that 50% of people with D surnames become dentists or Georgian boys get named George.  But (waves hands vaguely) it all proves something, somehow, that people don't think. This sort of shallowness, punctuated by occasional expose-journalism heavier research, permeates the book.

When she does move to the present, she gushes about an anti-bullying program that is unproven but just sounds like it should work, because the charming professor is so affable in describing it, and it fits existing pieties.  (Did you know that 88% of American children have witnessed bullying in their school careers, far higher than European children?  Which means of course that there must be more here, not that our kids are better at noticing, remembering, or reporting it.  Oh, and let's drag in Kitty Genovese as well.)

Here are the important take-aways.  No liberals ever get these things wrong. At least, there are no examples of it here, only evil corporations and conservative governments.  Non-profits, academic institutions, and social-help agencies are immune, somehow.  Regulatory agencies only get it wrong when they don't, in retrospect, regulate enough. The idea that the social pressures for conformity and selective bias in choice of examples could affect Hefferman and the people she likes she seems to not even be dimly aware of.  And so, being a boomer liberal American who has lived much in Europe, the fact that she has arrived at precisely the list of complaints that European liberals have about Americans escapes her entirely. Even though such foolishness is supposed to be the point of the entire friggin' book.

The book is not an entire waste.  She does identify lack of sleep as the cause of many errors, and the description of how it looks and feels when someone is aware of what is going wrong but no one will listen seems accurate, from my own experience.  I had thought, halfway through, that this book would be a good one for free-marketers, libertarian, non-regulating conservative types, as it does indeed provide a series of cautionary tales they should expose themselves to and take to heart.  On that framing, I thought this would be a very bad book for liberals to read, as it would reinforce rather than challenge their assumptions.

With two chapters to go I gave up on even that, but I still liked the post title, so I kept it.  If you see this book lying around, read two or three chapters.


Sam L. said...

Well, of COURSE liberals are alwayys right. They know best what's best for all of us. I know that because they continually tell me that. They don't much appreciate my laughing in their faces, though.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Come on AVI, tell us what you really think of the book!

Texan99 said...

Having grown up in the 50s and 60s, obviously the lessons of Nazi Germany weighed heavily on me. Throughout my life, I've wondered how Hitler could have come to power, how ordinary people should have known how to stop him before his power was so catastrophically consolidated. It's easy to write a science fiction story about strangling him in his crib, but harder to draw lessons from his later career that might lead us not to make that kind of mistake again.

Of course, books about how blind the Europeans find Americans to be make me laugh. Is it my imagination, or have there been some Americans trying to warn Europeans about the certain fate of their economic system and welfare state?

Most people drastically exaggerate their ability to predict anything at all about the future, which is why most people aren't Warren Buffet.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Prediction is hard, especially about the future.

Gringo said...

It's easy to write a science fiction story about strangling him in his crib, but harder to draw lessons from his later career that might lead us not to make that kind of mistake again.

One lesson from Hitler: The best way to deal with those who unsuccessfully lead a coup/putsch is to execute them. Hitler was imprisoned, and in the spirit of forgiveness,released from prison within several years.

There are at least two other examples of people like Hitler, who, having lead an unsuccessful coup/putsch, went on to take power, to the detriment of their countries. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present you with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

Many lives would have been saved had those three been executed instead of imprisoned for their unsuccessful coups/putsch.

Fidel Castro's History Will Absolve Me speech at hs trial is very similar to what Hitler said at his trial.

Georgie Ann Geyer wrote in Guerrilla Prince [see above link], her biography of Fidel Castro, “There is no question that Fidel’s last words came from his careful reading of Hitler’s Rathaus speech and , indeed the whole strategy of Moncada parallels in many ways Hitler’s failed Putsch.”

Texan99 said...

But you don't know which political opponents will go on to wreck their part of the world and which will not, so to be sure, you'd have to execute virtually everyone caught trying to change the status quo, which would have its own drawbacks.

Gringo said...

Texan99: coup de etat/golpe de estado/putsch. Not everyone: the head man.

Texan99 said...

But really, kill the leader of every attempt to undermine the regime? Sometimes in hindsight we would have found that we killed a more useful citizen than the leader he sought to depose. Isn't the trick to learn to identify the guy who wants to replace the status quo with something infinitely more horrible, rather than genuinely to improve it by our standards?

Gringo said...

But really, kill the leader of every attempt to undermine the regime? Sometimes in hindsight we would have found that we killed a more useful citizen than the leader he sought to depose.

No suggestion for action will result in perfect results. My suggestion that unsuccessful coup leaders be executed would probably result in some otherwise worthy leaders being executed. I would be interested in any counterexamples to my three examples of Hitler, Fidel, and Thugo.

I will acknowledge that some unsuccessful coup leaders like Natusch Busch - perhaps even most unsuccessful coup leaders- are klutzes who will do no further harm after their unsuccessful coup.

Given the choice to execute Natusch Busch, Fidel, Hitler, and Thugo, versus mercy for all four, the better course of action would be to execute all four. IMHO the scales of justice would still not balance the other way if one were to add 100 Natusch Busches- or a thousand- to the equation.

A further point is that if execution were the alternative for not succeeding, there would be fewer coupsters.

One might think that Latin America, for example, has rid itself of its attraction for the man on horseback. Venezuela, headed by a formerly unsuccessful coupster,shows that is not so. Argentina and Ecuador, with democratically elected leaders following "quick" autocratic solutions, give further evidence that the man on horseback is still lurking in the background. Morover, the autocrat in Argentina heads a party named for a man on horseback. Is it any accident that Evita III is following in the footsteps of autocratic Juan Domingo?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am going to guess that Texan99 was thinking more along the lines of the American Revolution, or the overthrow of communism in the late 80's and early 90's. Your strategy is a good practical one to continue in power, but it perhaps assumes that the current leader is the correct one.

Gringo said...

I am going to guess that Texan99 was thinking more along the lines of the American Revolution.

The American Revolutionaries won. Therefore my criteria do not apply to them. They were violent, so had they failed, my criteria would have applied. Ben Franklin agreed with me regarding the consequences of failing: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

or the overthrow of communism in the late 80's and early 90's

I was talking about a coup de etat/golpe de estado/putsch. Neither an army nor an armed band of irregulars was involved in the overthrow of communism in Europe. For example: while Solidarity was clandestine, it was not violent, so my criteria do not apply.

Repeat: I was talking about coup de etat/golpe de estado/putsch.