Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Politics, Opinions and Lies

"You can't talk to the ignorant about lies, since they have no criteria"

-- Attributed to Ezra Pound*

"A lie ain't a side of a story. It's just a lie."

-- Terry Hanning, The Wire, Season 5, episode 8

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts."

-- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

I just returned from a visit (a very lovely one) with some relatives. One of those relatives is a die-hard Republican, and we had, as is our wont, a number of political conversations over the weekend. These have led me to a few thoughts about the politics of the moment, which, this being my blog and all, I thought I would share.

(I should emphasize that what I am presenting here are my interpretations and recollections of what my republican relative said; given the drastic difference in our worldviews, I have to assume that he would remember things differently. Further, we were just talking, in a family setting which lends itself to hyperbole (e.g. on some occasions there may have been wine). So anyone who knows whom I'm referring to should take care in attributing these views to him; and anyone who doesn't should take into account that this is all filtered through my own biases and originated in an informal context. Since I speak at great length here about the importance of objective facts, it seems appropriate to note that my presentation of my relative's statements and views are not necessarily accurate (although they are as accurate to the best of my knowledge.))

We spoke about a lot of things, some of which I may return to in a future post -- I was particularly interested in, and discomfited by, his views on torture and the Iraq war -- but what struck me most was the underlying epistemology of what he believed and how he saw the world.

Our conversations became most heated when I referred to the McCain campaign's recent blizzard of lies. (Heated to the extent that we couldn't talk about it as much as I'd like, since others there kept stopping us, feeling like things were getting too genuinely angry -- although, so far as I can tell, we both basically enjoyed our arguments and never forgot the genuine love that persists beneath political disputes among relatives.) My relative reacted extremely strongly to this charge, and his response was, I think, quite illuminating.

The first element of his response was, I think, a tribal one. It's hardly a new observation to say that American politics is deeply tribal; certain social, ethnic, cultural groups always vote one way, others vote the other. Many liberals decry the Republicans' ability to appeal to the tribal affiliations of voters (e.g. poor whites) whose economic interests would be far better served by Democrats; occasionally you'll see the opposite complaint about, for instance, African American voters' lack of receptivity to Republican cultural values arguments, despite many of them being fairly conservative on those issues.

But for my relative, this issue of tribalism was slightly different. He's not (e.g.) an evangelical Christian, who thinks that Republicans respect his tribe while Democrats don't. Rather, for my relative -- near as I could tell -- the tribe in question was his identification of the Republican party. The tribe which he felt was being disrespected was the Republican tribe -- one which he has long felt an allegiance to.

This meant that the basic pitch I tried to use (a little bit; I didn't really get much chance to push it) -- not that he should become a liberal, but that he should see that the current Republican party has disgraced the tradition of conservative beliefs that originally drew him to them -- fell entirely on deaf ears. He not only didn't agree with, but, so far as I could tell, didn't even hear the argument that the nature of the Republican party has changed. (Call this the "Andrew Sullivan" argument.) He simply heard these claims as yet another in the long series of liberal-conservative arguments.

(Of course, as a self-identified liberal (who would probably be called a "socialist" by my relative), I am a terrible messenger for this view, since, after all, I would have tried to talk him out of supporting conservative views even if the party purporting to advocate them was doing so in a remotely honest and consistent fashion. For that matter, I suspect my relative would say that I am as tribal about Democrats as he is about Republicans; and while I don't think he's right, I also don't have a great deal of confidence in that judgment. At any rate, he wasn't going to hear this from me. If my relative were to be convinced of this, another disaffected republican would have to do it; although even then I doubt that he would be persuadable.)

Thus, when he expressed outrage about the charge of "lying" against McCain, he heard it not as an argument about the facts, but as an insult towards a group he identified with. It was like the reaction a believer might have to Richard Dawkins's saying that faith is a delusion: the feeling of insult overcame any possible consideration of the argument.

Nor did it help that the facts about McCain's lies (yes, facts: I am as opposed to epistemological relativism as I am to anything, and I shan't agree that this is an issue of point of view) are beginning to get real traction in the mainstream media. The New York Times article which the left side of the blogosphere decried as infused with balance at the expense of accuracy and excessive delicacy about calling a lie a lie was, to him, a ludicrous insult. Worse: it was further proof that the "mainstream" media was liberal, biased against his views and his party. All those commentators who are turning against McCain will convince my relative of nothing -- it doesn't matter if Richard Coen accurately describes himself as having been "in the tank" for McCain; he is a (self-described and editorially-presented) liberal, and what he says won't mean anything.

So instead of exposing McCain, the recent eruption of articles about McCain's mendacity have instead, for my relative, confirmed his view of the media as biased against him.

(This raises the question of what his response would be to Fox News calling McCain a liar, or Karl Rove doing so (Dday considers the question on how these things will effect conservatives in an interesting post here). Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to talk about that. My guess would be that the calling would have to be far more frequent, far more blatant, far less hedged than the two examples to date to have any effect.)

Now, I'm not saying that all this means that calling McCain's lies what they are is not worth doing. That (accurate) description is intended for people who are either undecided or persuadable; my relative is neither (no more than I am in the other direction, as he would, correctly, point out). My relative is going to vote Republican regardless.** What interests me here is not the specific issue of how to appeal to voters in a climate of unprecedented deception -- that's the problem facing the Obama campaign, and I hope they're on it, but I don't have any particular insight into how best to accomplish it -- but rather the broader issue of the politicization of epistemology.

So how does my relative view the barrage of lies from McCain?

First and foremost, he saw what McCain was doing in other terms -- "exaggeration", "distortion", or, in other cases, his simply being misinformed (that was his response in particular to McCain's lie about Palin having accepted no earmarks as governor). In the former cases, he saw -- as nearly all neutral observers have not -- the supposed hook upon which McCain has hung his various lies (that Obama called Palin a pig, called Iran tiny, etc) as sufficient to make the lies simply exaggerations. In the latter cases, he dismissed the false statements as, essentially, errors and not deceptions.***

Then, with those understandings in place, the next step is to see what the McCain campaign is doing as equivalent to what Obama is doing, and to what all campaigns do. Every politician, my relative suggested, lies; and this is no different. (Call this the "Ross Douthat defense" of mendacity.) All politicians distort; McCain is simply distorting. The fact that people are suggesting otherwise shows that they are biased against his side.

The notion that what McCain is doing was in fact different -- in scale and in kind -- that he is lying more blatantly and more frequently than even most Republican campaigns (which tend to be very dirty -- yes, dirtier than Democratic ones, to the despair of a fair number of Democrats -- but not quite so baldly mendacious as McCain is being) was simply not one he could or would hear. Any ill-doing was -- almost by definition -- equally shared by both sides.

(Note that I am committed, in contrast, to there being a fact of the matter as to whether or not McCain's various statements and ads are true or false; and whether or not these lies are more prominent and blatant than the lies of past campaigns. And, as is true of anyone who is committed to their being a fact of the matter apart from our perceptions, I am open to new evidence about these issues. But so far as the record shows so far, the question seems quite clear.)

Now, all of this might be a temporary issue -- McCain is conducting a campaign of unprecedented dishonesty, but it's a time-limited phenomenon that will end, one way or another, in early November -- save for the other indications that this is indicative of a broader pattern of politicized epistemology.

First, at one point my relative declared all sources untrustworthy -- The New York Times is crap from one point of view, The Wall Street Journal from another, he said. Which may even be true as far as it goes: but the reasonable response to this is not to give up, but rather to say that one needs to dig deeper -- go to the studies and the experts and the facts and the statistics that both sources present, and find out the truth for oneself. Or find people who you can trust to do so and report honestly.

But my relative, as he spoke of it, saw this as a reason to give up. Reality was how we interpreted it. End of story.

But second, and far more disturbing to me, was a brief conversation we had about global warming.

My relative admitted that global warming was happening, but denied -- like Palin before her recent post-nomination conversion -- that it was due to human activity. This denial was attached to a few things -- suggestions about possible global cooling that he'd picked up somewhere, and those few scientists who have been paid by oil companies to dissent from the overwhelming consensus. But for the most part, the denial seemed to be due to the claim's political implications.****

When I pointed out the overwhelming nature of the scientific consensus about the human-driven causes of global warming, he said -- and this is close to an exact quote -- that it was a conspiracy by European socialists, and American socialists, to regulate the economy and institute socialism.

And this is where we lose sight of the ordinary back-and-forth of politics, and reach a level of epistemological relativism that is truly dangerous and disturbing.

My relative is a well-educated man -- he holds a law degree from Harvard, and is quite cultured, being a long-time lover of art and music and having a particular love for architecture. But he has become so suspicious of science that he sees a basic, nearly-unanimous scientific finding as a socialist conspiracy. Because the findings support liberal policies.

If all understanding and knowledge is thus interpreted in political terms, there is little that can save us from disaster.

But this is not a quirk of my relative. This is, rather, a fundamental piece of the contemporary conservative movement (one of the aspects in which the professed ideals of conservatism have been abandoned by actually existing conservatism, to the dismay of Andrew Sullivan conservatives). Kevin Drum describes a recent study which suggests that being exposed to the debunking of standard conservative claims makes many conservatives believe them more, not less. See his post for the study's author's interpretation of these findings; but here is Drum's own take:
Reifler suggests it's because conservatives are more rigid than liberals. Maybe so. If I had to guess, though, I'd say it's because right-wing talkers have spent so many years deriding "so-called experts" that they now have negative credibility with many conservatives. The very fact that an expert says a conservative claim is wrong is taken as a good reason to believe the claim.
We have reached a point where one of the two major American political parties is committed in principle to a denial of objectivity -- a denial of science, a denial of knowledge, a denial of expertise. And while proponents of Andrew Sullivan conservatism might claim that conservatives have respect for facts, actually existing conservatism is the driving force behind this denial.

Why? How did we get here?

That is probably the subject for another blog post, if not for a large bookcase full of scholarly monographs. But I think the key can be found in Stephen Colbert's telling joke that "reality has a well-known liberal bias". On too many issues reality simply goes against conservative beliefs and principles. Rather than abandon their beliefs, conservatives have chosen to abandon reality. (I should note that I think that this development was evolutionary, not conspiratorial: I think they were led to do that position by a combination of memetic and social pressures, rather than adopting it out of malevolence. But whatever the path, the result is equally damaging.)

In fact, it's worse than that: on most (although not all) issues, the liberal position is not only in better accord with the facts, but with most Americans' policy preferences. Not only does reality have a liberal bias, but so does the American people.

It's been noted that Bush ran in 2000 as a different sort of Republican, a reformer -- in other words, with an implicit acknowledgement that the old-style Republicans were politically unpopular. And he presented himself as a moderate, one who would seek conservative solutions to problems long identified with liberal politics. The reason he did so is that if he'd run as the hard-right reactionary he is, he'd have lost. So he ran on distortions and lies.

Now, eight years later, the results of Bush's reign have been clearly shown, to almost the entire citizenry, to be disastrous. So McCain has to run as a different sort of Republican, a reformer. It's harder to do now, though, since instead of running against the incumbent party, he has to run as the new representative of the incumbent party. Thus the distortions and lies are of a whole new order of magnitude. Necessarily.

McCain can't run on reality, he can't run on his real politics or his real record, because he'd lose in a landslide.

So he's lying. It's all he has left.

The disturbing thing is that my relative is representative of far too many conservatives: rather than abandon false beliefs, they're abandoning any genuine adherence to the real. And the media, ever-diligent in its presentation of both sides of every story, the true and the false, will continue to equivocate. And even if they don't, it may not matter.

Unless we can recommit, as a culture, to the objectivity of facts regardless of bias -- unless we can call a lie a lie, unless we can see science as reflecting our best understanding of the world, unless we hold people to the reality of their records -- there is no way we can dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in.

And we can't do that unless we confront the fact that there is a deep strain of denial of reality in half of our political debate (one abetted by the way that debate is presented by the media).

But who can tell them that that they'll believe?

How can we show them, if the very presentation of evidence will persuade them to the contrary?

How can we speak to them of lies, if they have no criteria?

I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

-- Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Post Scriptum: Somehow I managed to get through this whole post without working in a link to this post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, so I'm linking to it now. Read it; it's good. She answers the question my relative asked, of why it's important to call these statements lies and not simply misrepresentations or deceptions.

* I don't have the time to track this down right now, but a quick google search on this quote indicates that it has (what looks like to me) all the signs of it being erroneously attributed, and possibly wholly spurious. And, incidentally, I don't mean there to be any suggestion that my relative is ignorant in my use of the quote; after all, he isn't. Rather, what interests me is the point that one needs criteria to talk about lies -- and that my relative (for reasons wholly different than ignorance) lacks that.

Update to footnote 1: Nope, the quote is real. It's from the beginning of Pound's essay "The Constant Preaching to the Mob" (from the June, 1916 issue of Poetry). See here. Thanks to commentator Steven, who left the link.

** The parallel here with the Dawkins's claims of believer's delusion are perhaps worth pointing out. Dawkins isn't trying (at least I hope he isn't) to convince fully-committed believers that they're wrong. What he's trying to do is to put things in a way that will move the uncommitted, or further damage the faith of those who are weakening. He is trying, in other words, to reach those who are in some sense ready. For Dawkins, I would guess, the outrage of the faithful is, at best, collateral damage.

*** The difference, in case anyone needs me to spell this out, is that in cases where (e.g.) Obama has made an error, his campaign has rapidly corrected the matter, and Obama hasn't repeated the claim. The McCain campaign has not corrected his lie about Palin's earmarks, now many days later. And (in other cases, although not to my knowledge this one) the McCain has repeated widely-debunked claims. These are the marks of liars, not people who are simply ignorant of the facts.

**** Another key point about this conversation is that my relative constantly portrayed the two possible responses as doing nothing and "going back to a stone age economy". He was frankly incredulous when I suggested that there was a great deal we could do that would have comparably minimal economic effects. This framing -- that any action would require a complete renunciation of any technological progress post-10,000 BCE -- was obviously an important one in his response: if the solution is quite so terrible, easier to disbelieve the problem. Which is one reason that liberals need to keep hammering home that what we're calling for will have some effects, but that they'll be minor -- certainly compared to the disruptions caused by global warming.


Anonymous said...

Not to lapse into my habitual pessimism, but I wonder what, in recent American or indeed world history, inclines liberals to believe that politics is a clash of reason and reason, rather than brutal instinct and fear.

Put another way, any observer of professional sports knows that the team that finds itself saying "How can they do that? That isn't fair! That's against the rules! That excuse doesn't make any sense! Why isn't anyone listening to me?" is the losing team.

Anonymous said...

"Lose" is what happens when you don't get enough votes in an election. "Loose" is what happens when you don't tie your shoelaces tight enough.

Stephen said...

Thanks, anonymous -- it's now fixed.

Unknown said...


An amazing post, one that unfortunately I find quite familiar. My father-in-law, whom I love and respect, also seems to not be persuaded by facts and behave and talk in the same way as your relative, although I don't know about his views on global warming.

Your post immediately brought to mind a column by Matt Miller from a few years ago that expressed this concern


Al Gore's recent book, which I have not read, but by its very title, seems to also express this concern.

I also wonder whether or not Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas? alludes to this at all (I read about a third of it) but one would think it would come up.

I too am quite worried that reason, argument and persuasion seem to be slipping away from public life and that it portends grave things for our republic.

But in a nod to the first poster, is there an era or time when it was actually otherwise.

This may also be an instance of a larger inquiry as to whether human beings are mainly rational and act in their best self-interest as opposed to emotional and not always interest maximizing. Obviously there has been a lot of work on this in behavioral economics which unfortunately suggests that reason and true self-interest cannot prevail.

thanks again for a really great, thoughtful post.


Christopher Sly said...

I know it's an old post.. but perhaps you'll see this. I got here through googling the Pound quote, and it seemed like you might appreciate the source: http://books.google.com/books?id=uOQMlH_zYNAC&lpg=PR1&pg=PA64#v=onepage&q&f=false

Stephen said...

Steven: I did indeed see it, and thank you very much for the citation (which I also added to the post itself). I appreciate your taking the time to leave it for me.