The Closet Moderate: February 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Openness v. Progress

When President Obama campaigned for a more open government, it was one of the few things I agreed with him about (to be fair, McCain said a lot of the same things). But as this health-care "summit" approached, it occurred to me that having it on television was the worst possible idea. It's unlikely anything would have been accomplished anyway, given that Obama already released his proposal and the Republicans are determined to start over completely. Still, any value the meeting might have had is negated by the cameras. Now, instead of speaking to each other, they'll just talk to their own supporters and accomplish nothing.

I don't know if there are any smoke-filled rooms still allowed in Washington, but that's the only place from which an actual compromise might emerge.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

In praise of the Olympics

This blog does not only represent those from the left and the right, but also those from the sports-watching world and those from without. While I may pin down a middling-left political stance, I can say with honor that I am the far end of the sports-ignoring spectrum, with the possible exception of Waldorf.

And, in light of this, I wish to praise the Olympics.


You see, every four years, we all have to put up with commentators, and now bloggards, saying "Every four years we have to learn about how curling works and pretend to care and then go back to our regular lives". And what's more, they say this as if it is a bad thing. Let me explain.

For a sports geek, I can only assume that the idea of learning about the mechanics of a sport only to see the last few minutes of the most-upper echelon of competition expertly over-narrated by the great Bob Costas is somehow sacrilegious. Where are the years learning about the subtleties of the Detroit Tigers bench? Where is the blood and sweat, discussing managerial decisions by FC Porto? While I realize this is the true fan's way to appreciate sport, it is not the only way. Those of us from outside the sporting zealotry actually enjoy ignoring the minutia of the game until only the best of the best remain. Like real sports fans, we too are annoyed by the over-hyping of the Apolo Ohnos and Lindsey Vonns of the year, but when we know just enough about a sport to understand when something exciting has happened, and who to root for, it makes for a few enjoyable evenings of television. I love that these obscure folks pop into my life for a few weeks every few years and I get to make them into makeshift, temporary heroes.
So here's to curling, luge, super-G and the rest: I'll be so excited to think about you again in 2014.


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Narrative and Counter-Narrative

Leon Wieseltier has a charming ability to let it all hang out, as he does in his latest screed against Andrew Sullivan. As Matt Yglesias notes, the two have some history that may inform this exchange. It's a long article, so a brief summary is in order:

  • Part I: Christian theology and Jewish theology are different
  • Part II: Stereotypes bad, Charles Krauthammer OK to Good-ish
  • Part III: Andrew Sullivan hates the Jews
  • Part IV: Andrew Sullivan is a lazy thinker, Muslims are crazy


I like to make fun of things. Every now and again, a thing comes along that is so self-evidently stupid, so utterly confused that it almost overwhelms my urge to mock it. It's a lot like signing on for a quick fat joke and finding yourself face-to-face with a treatise on political philosophy written by Karl Rove. What do you do? You strap the fuck in, that's what you do.

Wieseltier has one solid knock on Sullivan: he deals in broad strokes when it comes to Israel, and a lot of the things that Wieseltier objects to flow from that. The larger issue, though, is that Andrew's posts are a distillation of an idea that Leon dislikes: that we should view Israel less as "the America of the East" and more like a regular ally or client state. If Israel is just another ally, the thinking goes, why do we take so much shit from them? Why do we allow Israel to imperil our regional interests without incurring substantive costs? The Israel Lobby by Walt and Mearsheimer offers an explanation rooted in the actions of Jewish advocacy groups in Washington D.C., and Sullivan is clearly swayed by the overarching paradigm, if not the particular account offered by W&M.

Sullivan's broad characterizations notwithstanding, those are claims that someone could, theoretically, evaluate. You could present aid figures, make an attempt to assess the supposed damage our interests have suffered, and weigh that against the benefits (however defined--but yes, they must be defined) we reap from our support of Israel. That would be a productive way to argue the point.

Given that simple reality, Wieseltier's decision to tar Sullivan as an anti-Semite is shameful. In place of a narrative he doesn't like, Wieseltier decides to substitute a narrative that's more amenable to his perspective. In short, he opts to attack Sullivan's lack of nuance using a similarly lazy, Manichean device: Andrew Sullivan secretly hates Jews. Wieseltier does have one thing going for him, though. His narrative is far more established than Andrew's, and his rambling, fact-free screed is aimed at the heart of Jewish insecurities about Israel.

Is Andrew Sullivan a nefarious Jew-hater who will, if unchecked, end up emboldening Israel-destroying Arab fanatics? In the world according to Leon, probably. To his credit, Wieseltier is charitable enough to allow that Sullivan may not mean to do so. But that, of course, is the inevitable consequence of his transgression against Leon's (entirely legitimate) feelings about Israel. The reality is that Sullivan also has strong feelings about America's relationship with Israel, but not, perhaps, the highest level of erudition on this issue. For that he is a labeled as a contemptuous gentile.

The result is that the reader is tasked with choosing sides rather than evaluating arguments. And we choose sides based on non-substantive criteria. Rather than educate, Wieseltier opts to polarize and wield a story that has been told time after time, across 5000 years of history, in service of a personal vendetta. That's not a defense of Israel, that's a defense of Wieseltier. And a shitty one, at that.

Also, Leon, you can't diss bloggers for "[exempting] themselves from the interrogations of editors" when your own piece clearly never saw either end of a red pen.

Edit: Daniel Larison makes similar points. Read it.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Speculative Politics: Narrative [2 of 2]

A recent poll found that Fox News is the most trusted name in news. You should've already filled your britches, and not because Fox News is partisan, or chockablock with shallow megalomaniacs. You could say that about many TV news outlets. The reason you should be scared is that Fox News--and the GOP generally--has figured out how to make storytelling the dominant mode of information consumption. In 2004, a Bush aide said this to a Ron Suskind, a reporter for New York Magazine:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Though the phrase "reality-based community" is still much-mocked in liberal circles, that aide was exactly right. [Cont'd.]


To wit: earlier this year there was a hullabaloo because the White House communications director flat out said that Fox News was partisan, not, as their motto argues, "fair and balanced." Fox wasted no time casting this as a "War on Fox," which is, make no mistake, a story. The fact of the matter could be summed up as "A said B about C, based on D." In other words, she was making the argument that Fox had a history of partisan statements and distortions that made them, in effect, an outlet for GOP talking points. You can evaluate those claims using higher brain functions. But by framing that statement as part of a war on Fox, the network was able to dodge the whole issue of whether the statement was accurate. Instead, they cast themselves in the role of aggrieved victim of unjustified belligerence on the part of an entity that had no right to such aggressive action. That is a story, not an argument, and was designed to arouse tribal anxieties. It worked. The press corps, already shaken by the decline of traditional media and associated prerogatives, was incensed by the White House's interference.

That episode, in and of itself, is not particularly significant. But what it represents--the primacy of storytelling--has some explanatory significance when we're trying to figure out why our legislative process is gridlocked. The story that the Republican Party has told Americans for the last 30+ years is, essentially, "government can't do anything right." At this point, the worst thing they could do is change their story.

There are a couple of tangled threads here, all based around the the three factors I mentioned in the previous entry. First, there's the issue of cognitive fluency. A short way of restating the linked article is that, in most cases, familiar things are more readily accepted and subject to less scrutiny than strange things. In other words, over the course of a generation the GOP has conditioned their base to accept stories about the uselessness of government.

It follows that Republicans have an interest in making government appear to be useless. After all, that validates their story. Now, it's indisputably true that the perceived uselessness of government is due to the GOP's shameless abuse of Senate procedure. But that doesn't matter. Given the low information nature of the relevant audience (only 26% of Americans know 60 votes is required to break a filibuster), it's a useful tack to take. People shouldn't have to give a shit about the procedural ins-and-outs of their government in order to produce a working legislature. They ought to be free to elect Scott Brown a senator without halting all legislative action on Capitol Hill, but that's not the government we have.

I don't know to what extent this was conscious, but the Republicans have uncovered (and abused) a powerful reality of modern existence: most of us just don't have time to process things outside of our core areas of interest. So we have coping mechanisms: frequency becomes a stand in for accuracy. Received wisdom from a trusted source replaces inquiry. Narrative replaces argument. Yes, that's always been true of human existence, but the rate of issue turnover has accelerated in unprecedented ways. By the time I'm done dealing with relevant thing X, relevant thing Y has already eclipsed it. Storytellers are always spinning the next tale by the time fact checkers have finished with the previous one. And the value that novelty carries in the age of digital media means that the new hotness will almost always overshadow its predecessor, with little regard for the merits of either.

That's the brilliance hidden behind the baldness of the reality-based community quote. The judicious study of reality simply can't keep pace with the invention of new stories and new realities. Thus, the only form of permanence is the creation and reinforcing of an identity--a relationship between storyteller and audience. The nominal separation of the interconnected sources of the GOP, Fox News and the wider right-wing noise machine exist entirely to create and foster an identity by abusing the coping mechanisms of their audience. By moving in concert from one story to the next, they never provoke "cognitive disfluency." The result is a remarkably homogeneous base of Republican voters.

The bottom line is this: Democrats need to become better storytellers if they want to move their agenda through Congress. So far, they haven't, and Obama seems less enthusiastic about being the Storyteller in Chief for the rest of the party.

Edit: This article makes a similar point about information overload and how we cope with it.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Speculative Politics: Narrative [1 of 2]

When a reporter starts talking about narrative, reach for your wiffle bat. Talking heads, political commentators, reporters, the whole D.C. media establishment (the "filter" or "village" for short) are paid to write and talk. In short, they're paid to fill space. People who fill space shouldn't get to weigh in on the character of the space they're filling.

There are two types of discourse that I'm concerned with here. First up: making an argument. An argument states a position, produces evidence, and then argues that, if you accept the evidence as valid, the conclusion follows. What matters in an argument is the quality of the evidence and the extent to which the conclusion follows from it. An argument that produces a lot of evidence for the proposition that the sky is blue, but then tacks on "therefore pigs can fly" is a bad argument. So is an argument that reaches the same conclusion based on the fact that you once saw a pig with cardboard wings taped to it.

However, the second type of discourse is more common in political circles, and more pernicious: narrative, or storytelling. Narrative, it turns out, is a very useful tool when you have a lot of empty space to fill and are rather thin on actual things to fill it with. It also has nothing to do with argument--when you're telling a story, the most important thing is the relationship between the narrator and the audience. Three aspects of that relationship matter: [Cont'd]


The first factor is the ease of acquiring and understanding contradictory evidence. If my story is "the sky is always green" then I'm not going to get a lot of love from the audience, as they can look up and see that the sky is not green. However, if my story is "5,000 years ago, the sky was green" then we're in a whole different realm. There isn't one member of my audience who has access to firsthand knowledge of that time. Alternately, if the contradictory information is sufficiently obscure, I may be able to tell a story that flies in the face of that information. Creationism is a classic example of that kind of story. There's plenty of evidence out there that it's total bullshit, but that evidence requires a lot of time and effort to assimilate. Therefore, we fall back on what we believe.

That brings me to the second aspect of storytelling I'd like to discuss: repetition, or "priming the pump." A lot of what we accept as true is based on the amount of times we've heard it. I have never experimentally verified the existence of the nucleus, but I've been told by a lot of people that some Rutherford guy bounced alpha particles off a sheet of gold, and that this confirmed the existence of the nucleus. I don't know if that's true, but a plurality of sources I trust (father, chemistry teacher, textbooks) have asserted that it is, so I take it on faith that the world is so. As a result, I'm more likely to accept a connected story (say, "the story of radiation") than I would be to accept a wholly separate narrative.

I hinted at the third aspect of the audience/narrator relationship in that last example: trust. If I've heard the same story from a number of sources, and I haven't found or understood any contradictory evidence, then those sources become trusted sources. That means that I'm predisposed to believe unrelated stories that they tell. Parents do this all the time when they give pre-pubescent children "the talk." If they time it right, they're drawing on the trust they've built up with previous stories and the lack of information on the part of the child to establish a narrative around the opposite sex. Put another way, in elementary school I learned a song called "teach your children well." It really ought to have been titled "program your children early and well, and establish your narrative before they access to contradictory information."

In short, storytelling, or narrative, is a way around the critical thinking process. To think critically about something, you have to have access to two rare commodities: time and information. Research, a fancy term for "acquiring information" requires time. After you've invested that time, you need additional time to process that information and figure out how it relates to the issue in question. While we all do this to a certain extent, we don't (and can't) do it for everything we encounter, so we rely on experts or trusted sources.

In the next entry, I'll explore the unfortunate consequences that has for American politics.