FRIDAY, JANUARY 25, 2013
Part 4—We name-call, the other tribe wins:
Do “we the people” really believe the various things in Obama's address? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/22/13
And not only that:
If we the people believe all those things, why have we the liberals had so much trouble getting legislation passed? Why do prospects for Feinstein’s gun bill look shaky, to cite one example?
Answers: Actually, very large portions of we the people don’t
believe the various things Obama listed in his address. Nor do they the people pay much attention to us the liberals.
Can you completely blame them? In Monday’s address, Obama asked for all the “name-calling” to stop. We the liberals quickly assumed that he was describing the other
But what about our own name-calling—name-calling through which we tend to promote the other tribe’s view of the world?
Yes, we liberals do name-call! One day after Obama’s address, Adele Stan offered a comical review of the speech. By rather obvious implication,
she dropped our favorite weapon, the R-bomb, on every Republican’s head.
We liberals love
this card. It often seems like the only political play we know. Routinely, we aren’t very subtle—or even real smart—when we please ourselves with it.
But then, we love to name-call the other tribe—and even the American people! For an example of what we mean, consider Chris Mooney’s recent book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality.
In his book, Mooney explains how the other tribe’s brains make them deny reality! That makes us
the smart, nuanced tribe, in case you hadn't noticed.
A bit of background:
Back in November, we awoke one morning to find the analysts badly shaken. Their favorite, Paul Krugman, had written this post,
in which he belatedly praised Mooney’s book. This was part of the overblown episode in which we liberals acted like Marco Rubio had made the world’s dumbest statement concerning the age of the earth.
In fact, Rubio’s statement wasn’t especially dumb, although the reaction of some liberals was. Now Krugman was praising Mooney’s book—a book we thought was quite poorly argued when we made the analysts read it earlier in the year.
Due to Krugman’s post, we reread Mooney’s book over Christmas. For today, let’s consider one small part of the book—Mooney’s discussion of the large percentage of we the people who are “authoritarian.”
Modern history makes the A-word a rather unflattering term. Sensible people might be cautious about putting it to widespread use. (Some of the social scientists Mooney cites specifically refer to this problem.) But after spending many pages praising us liberals for being so smart, Mooney devotes a chunk of his book to the widespread incidence of authoritarianism among them the American people.
Mooney’s discussion strikes us as weak on the merits—and it’s politically clueless. On the other hand, it does provide a fair amount of unintentional comedy. By the time the discussion begins, Mooney has established that we liberals “like to think, in an effortful and self-challenging way, and take great pride is doing a good job of it.” We liberals are marked by “intellectual flexibility, curiosity, a willingness to entertain new ideas, and a toleration of different perspectives and values.”
(We invite you to try to locate such traits in Stan’s review of that speech.)
Meanwhile, Mooney has established that conservatives have their own corresponding virtues; conservatives like to be on time and they keep their offices clean! It’s hard not to laugh at such a taxonomy, especially if you’ve ever watched Roots or Planet of the Apes, in which the dominant tribes are constantly constructing such one-sided maps of the world. (BET aired Roots last week. We watched.)
Yes, we know—according to Mooney, this comically overblown tribal taxonomy is backed by sound social science. People who take pride in their effortful, nuanced thinking will perhaps be skeptical of such familiar claims.
In November, the analysts were shocked to see Krugman endorsing this book. He has been their hero for more than a decade. They think he's sharper than that.
In those earlier semi-comical passages, Mooney describes the mental and moral superiority of his own political tribe, while sprinkling in persistent claims that he’s doing no such thing. But when Mooney starts dropping his A-bombs around, they get dropped in more general fashion.
In the following passage, Mooney attributes a very unpleasant-sounding trait to almost half the American people. We think it's a strange thing to do:
MOONEY (page 71): [W]ithin the conservative fold, there is one group that exhibits the traits just discussed—closed-mindedness, low integrative complexity, very low Openness—to an extent that is hard to say anything good about: so-called authoritarians. They’re not all conservatives, but they’re surprisingly prevalent in the United States. Based on one recent study, nearly half of the public scores a .75 or higher on a 0 to 1 scale...
What a remarkable statement! According to Mooney’s somewhat murky prose, nearly half of we the people score high on a scale of authoritarianism! This seems to make them part of a group "that is hard to say anything good about." (These high scorers aren’t all
conservatives, Mooney charitably notes.)
Authoritarian! Given the ugly provenance of that term, a sensible person might want to be careful about making such an implausible statement. But as he continues, consider the basis upon which Mooney says he is making this claim:
MOONEY: Based on one recent study, nearly half of the public scores a .75 or higher on a 0 to 1 scale (which is typically measured by asking whether one would prefer to have obedient and well-mannered children rather than independent and curious children).
Nearly half the county is authoritarian! Mooney knows this based on a rather fatuous question about the traits them the people prefer to see in their children.
Presumably, there’s more to the clinical study of “authoritarianism” than that. But Mooney cites no other basis for his remarkable claim. According to Mooney, nearly half the country is authoritarian—became they want their children to be well-mannered! We think that’s a very strange thing to say. But then, we love complex thinking.
In our view, this is second cousin to a type of Very Bad Liberal Politics—a type of bad politics which has dogged progressive interests over the past fifty years.
Soon, of course, Mooney is telling us that the other
tribe is full
of authoritarians. Our tribe favors “complex deliberations.” Sadly, their tribe doesn't.
To see how he knows this, read on:
MOONEY (page 73): In another work, Markus Kemmelmeier, a social psychologist at the University of Nevada-Reno, tested whether right-wing authoritarians were more inclined to process information based on “quick and dirty” heuristics or intuitive cues (System 1, in other words) rather than more complex deliberations (System 2). As a result, Kemmelmeier found that authoritarians performed worse on two classic tests designed to trip up intuitive and emotional reasoners. Consider, for instance, a test in which you’re told that out of all the families in a city that have six children, 72 of them had a boy-girl birth order of GBGBBG. When then asked how many families had an order of BGBBBB, heuristic processors are more likely to jump to the conclusion that the second sequence is less likely to occur than the first, though it isn’t. Right-wing authoritarians performed worse in Kemmelmeier’s study, suggesting that they were more reliant on System 1 reasoning.
...The authoritarians are inclined to give this ‘reasoning light,’” says Kemmelmeier. “They don’t reason it through. The implication of his study, therefore, is that authoritarians may “jump at superficial information and not really understand what’s behind it.”
Those right-wing authoritarians! They’re more likely to get that question about birth order wrong! (How much
more likely? We aren’t told. Apparently, we liberals aren’t inclined to ask, despite our love of complex reasoning.) And when they get that question wrong, it shows that they jump at superficial information without really understanding what’s behind it! They don’t
engage in “more complex deliberations,” the way we liberals do!
(For the record, the second “classic test” of “emotional reasoners” is never described.)
On the basis of this gong show, Mooney encourages liberal readers to glory in the power of their tribe’s mental strength. Goofus jumps at superficial information without really understand what’s behind it! Gallant loves complex thinking and different perspectives! Of course, we liberals are
jumping at superficial information when we swallow this presentation just because Mooney hands it to us. The analysts moped after Krugman affirmed this weakly reasoned book.
Tribal groups have formed such portraits of The Other since the dawn of time. In modern times, they've often boasted that they have the backing of science—science which is superficially presented and understood.
It’s comical to see the ways Mooney praises the wonder of his own tribe while denouncing the faults of the other. From this next passage, the reader can perhaps derive a small mordant laugh:
MOONEY (page 72): Authoritarians are very intolerant of ambiguity, and very inclined toward group-think and distrustful of outsiders (often including racial outsiders). They extol traditional values, are very conventional, submit to established leaders, and don’t seem to care much about dissent or civil liberties. They are known for their closed-mindedness, and, indeed, their Manichean view of the world—good and evil, right and wrong, saved and damned, white and black. They have a need for order. Conversely, they can’t tolerate uncertainty. In America, they are often religiously conservative fundamentalists who believe the Bible is the unedited word of God.Authoritarians
are known for “their Manichean view of the world?” Authoritarians
are “very inclined toward group-think”—are “distrustful of outsiders?” Fair enough—but couldn’t that also be a description of Stan’s recent piece in Salon? If you can find an ounce of nuance there,
let us know where it is.
We liberals slept in the woods for a very long time. Ever since we emerged from our slumber, we have been inclined to engage in a fair amount of name-calling. We drop R-bombs on the other tribe; in his book, Mooney drops the A-bomb on half the American people! Behind this instinct, there often lies a vast disdain—and an instinct for engineering endless political defeat.
In this piece in The Daily Beast,
Michael Tomasky presented his own review of Obama’s address. In the following passage, he defines one of the basic divides of our failing political culture:
TOMASKY (1/21/13): Obama set some very high goals for himself in this speech. He wants to end once and for all the era of what I call default conservatism, so that average Americans, people in the middle who aren’t strongly committed one way or the other, think “better together” as their first instinct instead of “leave me alone.”
Indeed. Obama praised the power of collective action, in which we perceive ourselves as a national people and proceed accordingly.
As Tomasky notes, the current “default conservative” world is built around a different vision. In this vision, we happen to be a bunch of individuals and smaller tribes stuck together on a massive continent.
In this era of “default conservatism,” many members of we the people simply want to be left alone. They don’t
see themselves as part of a collective enterprise, as part of a national people.
Does Obama want to end that? We don’t exactly know. But every time our Manichean leaders drop their bombs on them the people, they make it harder to advance the idea that we’re really One National People. Persistently, we keep telling them the people that they’re viewed with substantial disdain.
Stan’s piece came straight from a fever swamp; it’s very
poorly reasoned. And yet, we pseudo-liberals love this game. We pseudo-liberals simply love to toss our bombs around.
The people described in this front-page report
hear us doing it every time. It stiffens their spines, increases the odds that Feinstein’s bill won’t pass.
A comical epilogue—Mooney praises our tribe