Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

You're Intolerant of My Intolerance!

Discussions about gay marriage and other LGBT rights, as well as the recent Hobby Lobby decision with its issues of religious belief, have occasionally featured an argument that amounts to 'you're intolerant of intolerance.' Sometimes that argument appears verbatim, or almost so. For instance:

"I should be able to express moral views on social issues, especially those that have been the underpinning of Western civilization for 2,000 years — without being slandered, accused of hate speech, and told from those who preach 'tolerance' that I need to either bend my beliefs to their moral standards or be silent when I'm in the public square."

Kirk Cameron in 2012

"But you're saying we need to tolerate the intolerant!" — I see that objection every time I write something critical of liberal dogmatism and bigotry.

To which my stock response is: Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying — because that's what liberalism is, or should be, all about. Toleration is perfectly compatible with — indeed, it presupposes — disagreement. That's why it's called tolerance and not endorsement or affirmation.

Damon Linker in 2014

Although such arguments are often sincere, I'd contend they don't survive close scrutiny. John Holbo recently wrote a good post responding to Linker, and pieces earlier in the year from Henry Farrell, djw and Scott Lemieux (one and two) also cover the subject nicely. (The Cameron link above goes to a solid rebuttal by John Aravosis.) Here's another crack at the issue myself (cribbing from some older pieces), on the off-chance a different framework helps. Basically, I'm suggesting that the 'you're intolerant of intolerance' argument stems from a semantic disconnect, ignoring power dynamics and failing to distinguish between beliefs about personal conduct and beliefs about how the overall system should work. There's also confusion about a tolerant system (legal rights) versus public manners (social and cultural norms).

These issues have broader applications, but for the purposes of this post, I'm going to concentrate on gay rights and opposition to them, especially when that opposition is justified by citing religious beliefs. Meanwhile, Linker supports gay marriage himself, but views criticism of anti-gay social conservatives as "intolerant." For the purposes of readability, when I mention anti-gay social conservatives, I generally also mean defenders such as Linker (there will be some obvious exceptions), but the difference is duly noted.

Power Dynamics and Levels of Belief

A tolerant person says, "I will live my life the way I like, and you can live your life the way you like." An intolerant person will say, "I will live my life the way I like, but you must also live your life the way I want you to." These are not equivalent. Both people have beliefs, it's true, but one is seeking power over the other. This distinction is clearest in the private sphere. For instance, compare the viewpoint that whatever consenting adults choose to do in the bedroom is fine versus the notions that homosexuality should be criminalized or birth control should be outlawed. Power dynamics shouldn't be ignored, but in debates over "tolerance," they often are. We can visualize a tolerant society, with equal rights for all, like so:

(Click any image for a larger view. These groups aren't drawn to scale, of course, and most of the graphics in this post are pretty simple, but I hope they do the trick.)

Meanwhile, an intolerant society is hierarchical; one group can imposes its will on others (at least in some areas), and looks something like this:

A 2012 post offered a framework for discussing this further, and although it focused on claims about religious persecution, the same dynamics hold true for many arguments against gay marriage even when religion is not invoked, or really any issue involving some form of social conservatism or cultural dominance:

Most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean "privilege." Typically, they do not recognize this, because they view their preferred power structure as the natural order. Theocrats and other religious authoritarians will raise a great hue and cry about their religious freedoms being violated. Most will honestly believe this, but they do not truly seek freedom of religion, which they already possess. What they seek is power and preferential status, the ability to impose their religious beliefs on others. Consequently, to use a shorthand, it's important to recognize the difference between personal beliefs – for instance, an individual's specific religious beliefs or lack thereof, that affect that person – and system beliefs – beliefs about how our overall system should be organized, including whether religious faiths (as well as no faith) should be treated equally and neutrally, or whether a particular faith or faiths should be given precedence. These are not equivalent, and when we discuss "belief" and "tolerance," we must put them in context. Individual, personal beliefs that affect that person primarily are categorically different from shared, public policies that affect everyone. The First Amendment contains both an exercise clause and an establishment clause regarding religion; theocrats consistently ignore the latter (in fact, that's one of the defining characteristic of theocrats). While the law makes a number of accommodations for religious beliefs (and individual communities may make far more), as a rule religious beliefs do not trump the law; a murderer could not successfully argue that prosecuting him was a violation of his First Amendment rights because he belonged to the Cult of Kali. Understanding these distinctions is crucial.

For a slightly silly example, "Vanilla ice cream is the best" and "Strawberry ice cream is the best" are both personal beliefs, and a fair system that's ice-cream-flavor neutral (as the Founding Fathers intended) treats them as equivalent. There are no legal repercussions for preferring one flavor over another, and people are free to argue about the best flavor. However, "Vanilla ice cream is the best, and all other flavors must be outlawed" is not equivalent to "Vanilla ice cream is the best" or "Strawberry ice cream is the best" – it's a system belief – and if it were allowed to dominate, would result in an unfair system. Likewise, to turn serious, "We should all have equal rights" and "You should be treated as a second-class citizen" are clearly not equivalent. Unfortunately, we keep on seeing arguments that they are, as well as arguments that objections to bigoted system beliefs are a form of intolerance.

Here's another way of visualizing the situation. Let's start with a basic setup:

For demonstrative purposes, let's say that Person B's intolerance is bigotry against gay people; he's a homophobe. Now let's add each person's desired influence:

In our example, everybody agrees on some issues and society considers them settled (murder should be illegal, etc.). But Person B doesn't just want to decide his own private conduct or to have a say in the public sphere; he wants to dictate what others do privately, too, even when it doesn't directly affect him. (Whether he obsesses about others' private conduct is his choice, but he has no automatic rights over them.) Although Person A and Person C both desire some basic influence in the public sphere, including shaping social and cultural norms – for instance, perhaps they don't want bigoted slurs shouted at a gay couple in a restaurant – they're not seeking to dominate Person B's private conduct. He's free to rail against gay people in his home. If he belongs to a house of worship that believes that homosexuality is morally wrong, he and his fellow congregants are free to inveigh against it there. He's also free to express his opinion in more public places that he shares with Persons A and C – but he doesn't have a right not to be criticized. Other people can exercise their own First Amendment rights and disagree, including calling him a bigot.

Continuing with the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause can be regarded as a system belief that trumps the Free Exercise Clause, which covers personal beliefs. This is as it must be, given that personal beliefs on religion (including atheism) sometimes clash. The system belief of fairness is what creates the space for different personal beliefs and mediates conflicts. Although reasonable accommodations for personal beliefs can be made (and are, in the U.S.), when there's a significant clash, the Establishment Clause should win (not that the courts always agree – ahem). The opposite system is theocracy, where the "Exercise" rights of one group supersede the rights of everybody else. For the sake of argument, let's suppose that the system of neutrality expressed by the Establishment Clause occasionally causes harm; it certainly makes some people upset. It's possible to acknowledge such incidents yet still note that it's the fairest system possible; the tradeoff is worth it. (For another example, thinking a specific defendant is "guilty" or "innocent" are personal beliefs, but "due process" is a system belief. Things don't turn out well when someone tries to do an end-run around it.)

Pushing for gay rights, including marriage and protection from getting fired for one's sexual orientation, isn’t about seeking elevated status, but mere equality. This is a crucial distinction. Yes, the push for gay rights makes social conservatives upset, and yes, it entails a change from decades ago. It is not, however, an assault on their freedom, which has not changed, only a diminishing of their privilege, which they took for granted. Cultural norms have shifted and no longer support what they view(ed) as the natural order. The same thing happened with slavery and women's suffrage and Jim Crow laws – things changed, and frankly, progressed. To quote another old post that can apply to bigotry or cultural narcissism in general, "of course people of faith have a role in the public square, they just shouldn't have a privileged role. They can propose public policies, but they don't automatically get to have their way by citing their religion. They don't automatically get to win."

Real Life and Real Harm

It's easy to discuss these issues as "a low-stakes cocktail party argument" (to borrow a phrase from Jamelle Bouie on discussions about racism). In some circles, the notion that gay people deserve fewer rights than everybody else may be stated, um, "politely." (We’ll come back to that.) Regardless, plenty of places exist in the U.S. and the world where that is not the case, and public, negative statements about gay people create a hostile environment. In some cases, these amount to threats, bullying, and precursors to violence. The CDC states that:

A 2009 survey* of more than 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students aged 13–21 years found that in the past year, because of their sexual orientation—
● Eight of ten students had been verbally harassed at school;
● Four of ten had been physically harassed at school;
● Six of ten felt unsafe at school; and
● One of five had been the victim of a physical assault at school.

LGBT youth are also at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide. A nationally representative study of adolescents in grades 7–12 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. More studies are needed to better understand the risks for suicide among transgender youth.

A 2010 study by the Center for American Progress estimated that 5% to 10% of youth are LGBT, but among homeless youth, that range shoots up to 20% to 40%, often because they are runaways from unsupportive homes. Some of the other estimates, about the "higher rates of abuse and victimization," are also sobering.

Exact numbers can be elusive, but the American Association of Suicidology summarizes:

Many studies have found that LGB youth attempt suicide more frequently than straight peers. Garafalo et al. (1999) found that LGB high school students and students unsure of their sexual orientation were 3.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year than their straight peers. Eisenberg and Resnick (2006) found LGB high school students were more than twice as likely as their straight peers to have attempted suicide.

Meanwhile, opposition to anti-bullying efforts in schools has been lead by the religious right and other social conservatives because they believe that "All of it is being used as an opportunity to force homosexual teaching into the schools." It is their belief, whether justified by religion or otherwise, that it's important to be able to bully gay kids to enforce what they see as social norms and the natural order. (It also ties into their "gay cooties" theory, that it's contagious.)

Personally, I'd call the anti-anti-bullying efforts dangerous, asshole behavior, not tolerance. Let's grant that certain prominent anti-gay pundits and their defenders don't condone such behavior. But let's also note that feeling upset about being called a bigot, while unpleasant, is categorically different from facing the real threat of violence. Even with shifting attitudes, in the nation as a whole, hostility toward LGBT people is not theoretical. Anti-gay social conservatives may be verbally chewed out in some arenas, but there aren't wide swaths of America where they're routinely beaten up for their views or identity. (Not to mention that being a bigot, unlike being gay, is a choice, even if one makes caveats about upbringing.) If publically calling out not only anti-gay behavior but rhetoric is necessary to create a less hostile environment for gay youth (as it surely is on some level), but this comes at the cost of making some social conservatives uncomfortable, that's not a remotely hard tradeoff.

Not long ago, Josh Barro, who's both Republican and gay, tweeted that, "Anti-LGBT attitudes are terrible for people in all sorts of communities. They linger and oppress, and we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly." The last part's a bit inartful perhaps, but as Roy Edroso chronicled, right-bloggers jumped on it as a call for violence versus a call to speak out, and started invoking Kristallnacht and making other Nazi analogies, with no fucking irony at all. (As those who weren't asleep through history class will remember, the Nazis killed homosexuals, and the pink triangle branding they employed was repurposed as a gay rights sign in memory of this. Also: Godwin!) So, for those of you keeping score at home, in right-wing land, speaking out against anti-gay bigotry is just as oppressive as gay people getting murdered.

We'll get to more polite expressions of anti-gay sentiment in a second, but while those have their problems as well, let's note the standards of tolerance and discourse here, and make no mistake, this level of animosity is more common than the "polite" stuff. This isn't just a sense of privilege – it's ideological and cultural narcissism. It's a sense of entitlement so deep that they can act like complete dicks to other people yet still insist that they're the victims. (In other words, movement conservatism. The politics of tribal aggrievement have made Rush Limbaugh very rich.)

The Public Sphere

Can someone believe that another group, by virtue of some immutable characteristic, deserves to be treated like second-class citizens, yet be truly "tolerant"? I believe that Cameron, Linker and Ross Douthat, among others, would argue that there's a relatively polite form of opposition to gay marriage and other gay rights that represents "tolerance." I would argue that no, that position – that someone else deserves fewer rights (justified because of religion or tradition or personal discomfort or whatever) is inherently and inescapably bigoted. (Use "prejudiced" if you prefer, and want to designate gradations.) Such people may be pleasant enough on other issues, but it doesn't change that they do not support a system of tolerance.

Here's where I think it's useful to distinguish between tolerance on a system level (especially involving legal rights) and tolerance on the (inter)personal level, and what could be called "public manners." This chart is a bit tongue in cheek, but might be helpful:

("Liberal" is, as noted, liberal in the Enlightenment sense, which would include tolerant small "c" conservatives and the like, anyone who is committed in general to basic social equality.)

Using these definitions, both Cameron and Linker seem to be conflating (inter)personal "tolerance" in a social situation with support for a tolerant system. They can coexist but they are not the same thing. It's absolutely fine if they feel that, say, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins or Josh Barro (or yours truly) is an asshole on a personal level. But their complaint is about a social interaction, about speech in the public sphere. This group ("smug hipster asshole" in the chart) nonetheless supports a tolerant system (unless I've missed some public statement otherwise). They support the right of Cameron, for instance, to speak out, and would oppose him being jailed for his views. In this sense, they are tolerant of him (on the system level). However, they also will exercise their right to call him out on his bigotry. Flipping this, Mike Huckabee has a pretty amiable manner, but he opposes gay marriage. He may be personally "tolerant" in that he wouldn't use gay slurs when meeting a gay person, but he still doesn't support a tolerant system (he'd be a "friendly but misguided authoritarian" on the chart).

Using these definitions, (inter)personal "tolerance" isn't always a virtue, either – imagine a teacher who witnesses one student making a bigoted remark to another – a good teacher would intervene on behalf of the victim, which would necessitate being personally "intolerant" to the student making the bigoted remark while simultaneously upholding a tolerant system that protects the victim. That wouldn't mean the insulter was an irredeemable kid, either, and the teacher could work with him later. But in the immediate moment, the teacher's duty is to uphold a community standard, a system, of tolerance. Those who speak out against anti-gay bigotry in the public sphere, whether gently or bluntly, gracefully or clumsily, are essentially trying to do the same thing.

"Tolerance" can be a somewhat ambiguous term, unfortunately. For someone ignoring the power dynamics involved, it's possible to sincerely view bigots who believe that other people should be treated as second-class citizens as "tolerant" and people who object to that view and speak out about it as "intolerant."

There's something to be said for the more polite forms of bigotry – it's definitely better than violence, or bullying. It's the relatively, um, enlightened bigotry of a certain breed of missionary, that "you people are inferior, but you still deserve some degree of decent treatment." Social conservatives who adopt "the missionary position" can still screw things up royally, but admittedly, they're much better than their side's more belligerent and hateful wankers.

It might help to delve further into the concept of public manners. One last chart might prove useful:

(Click the image for a larger view, or you can read a text version here.)

The main points here are that some people will recognize prejudice in themselves, but nonetheless realize it's their own hang-up, trust "the better angels of their nature" and support equality for others. No one is really giving such people grief. On the contrary, activists for gay rights appreciate the support.

Other people will be prejudiced as well, but will oppose equality. They'll also keep this largely to themselves and only talk about it with a small few. Their bigotry, typically of a more mild form, is restrained in the broader sphere by their sense of "public manners." They might feel uncomfortable from time to time, but no one's really giving them grief either, because their discretion prevents it, as intended. Eventually, their side will probably lose the vote. Some may eventually change their mind.

The real conflicts arise from the more vocal opposition, when social conservatives bring their views into the public sphere but also expect them to dominate and go unchallenged. Basically, this is what Linker, Cameron, and others are asking for – special privileges for anti-gay activists in the public sphere. (Obviously they don't see it this way.) They want to define "public manners" in a way that allows anti-gay activists to express their bigoted views (sorry, there's no honest way around it) yet simultaneously prevents gay rights advocates from criticizing them on those grounds. Hey, they're free to make that pitch, but the boundaries of acceptable public discourse are an ongoing negotiation between different groups. (djw's post is especially good on these points. I'll add that "We get to win because of religion" isn't a convincing argument – it's not a good system belief – about how public discourse should operate.)

The Overdue Finale

As Henry Farrell points out:

Bigotry derived from religious principles is still bigotry. . . .

And if [Conor] Friedersdorf wants to defend his sincerely-religiously-against-gay-marriage people as not being bigots, he has to defend the sincerely-religiously-against-racial-miscegenation people too. They fit exactly into Friedersdorf’s proposed intellectual category.

The standard, the "system belief," proposed by Linker, Friedersdorf and others as an alternative to the liberal one of equality, where instead bigotry justified by religion gets special treatment, is fundamentally unworkable. As Scott Lemieux puts it, "I am not arguing that the religious beliefs are trivial; I am arguing that the burden on these beliefs is trivial."

Gay marriage makes Ross Douthat, Kirk Cameron and their fellow social conservatives uncomfortable, and they believe it harms society somehow. Okay, duly noted. Now let's weigh that against the happiness of gay couples and the sometimes significant financial burden that not being able to marry imposes on gay couples. That's not a hard tradeoff. Similarly, Kirk Cameron, Damon Linker and others don't like that social conservatives are called bigots, or intolerant – also noted. Let's weigh that once more against bullying, violence and general hostility against LGBT youth, and the value gained from challenging such behavior and attitudes. Again, it's no contest. It's not that the social conservative position hasn't been given a fair hearing – it's that it's not a good one, and an increasing number of people don't find it convincing. As this trend continues, and cultural and social norms shift, the freedom of social conservatives remains the same, but their privilege is being diminished. This is not a bad thing. But of course they don't like it, and not all of them are dealing with it gracefully.

Apologies for a long and somewhat repetitive post. (As it is, I didn't address some arguments, but I think the posts I linked at the start handle other points extremely well.) I do hope some scrap of this helps break through those recurring arguments about "tolerance," especially from the 'you're intolerant of our intolerance' crowd. It's vital to remember – they're not being oppressed. They're simply losing a fair fight (and some are whining about it).

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Fallacy of the Golden Mean

(A "Both Sides" Reader)

The bad argument's natural habitat is the political talk show. (Well, it's one of its natural habitats, anyway.) Nourished by a steady supply of moist bullshit in the studio and the heat of the 24-hour news cycle, bad arguments flourish, thrive and proliferate. Many a breed of bad argument can be spied, but one of the most common and pernicious inside Beltway blather pits is the fallacy of the golden mean (also known under other aliases). Basically, it entails that in any dispute between two parties, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle (generally roughly halfway).

Obviously this could indeed be the case, but the problem is that this conclusion is repeatedly forced onto situations where it doesn't apply, facts be damned. (It's a socially predetermined conclusion versus a logical deduction.) Calling things accurately to the best of one's ability and letting the chips fall where they may seems to be a foreign concept. Moreover, the fallacy of the golden mean – often expressed as "both sides do it" or "both sides are equally to blame" – and preferably delivered with a sage, thoughtful look or amused, knowing cynicism – is almost unfailingly invoked as a means of shutting down greater scrutiny and deeper discussion. It’s a beloved, go-to move of lazy pundits who don't want to spend their time studying those pesky facts or who desire to appear worldly and above it all. (It's also a useful maneuver for party hacks seeking to avoid accountability for their side. In such situations, it's not unusual to also see the superficial brand of tu quoque arguments beloved by conservative rearguard action specialist David Brooks.)

This position conveys the image of wisdom, but closer inspection almost always reveals it to be shallow and overly simplistic. One party could be mostly right and the other mostly wrong. Both could be mostly in agreement and also mostly wrong. One could take a position that's 40% corrupt but 60% useful, while the other position might be 10% useful, 50% corrupt and 40% insane. Other valuable points of view, beyond the binary opposition of establishment figures in the two major parties, might be excluded. (For instance, back during the Iraq War and the run-up to it, many news outlets represented the full range of opinion from the pro-war New Republic to the pro-war National Review, as Atrios and others noted.) When the goal is discussing real problems and actually trying to solve them, versus conjuring bullshit to fill air time, an amazing world of facts, substance, nuance and complexity opens up.

In the U.S. context, the fallacy of the golden mean is particularly misleading because the Republican Party has grown so extreme, in both its policy positions (see DW-NOMINATE scores) and its unwillingness to compromise. (It bears mentioning that prominent conservatives have long held similar views, but merely lacked the power to impose them.) "Centrist" and "moderate" tend to be viewed as positive labels among the pundit class, but what each actually entails tends to be defined in relative terms as a midway point between shifting poles. (For instance, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, appointed by Republican Gerald Ford in 1975, came to be regarded over time as one the most liberal members of the court, if not the most liberal. Yet he's never seen himself that way, remarking, "I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all. . . .I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative." He didn't change much; the power dynamics in his party did. )

It's hard to watch the news for long without spotting misleading false equivalencies, and the shallow, knee-jerk nature with which they're offered can be maddening. Recently, Roy Edroso chronicled the remarkable phenomenon of conservatives calling for Obama's impeachment, then pivoting and claiming they never did any such thing – it was Obama's fault! From "Rightbloggers to Obama: Why're You Impeaching Yourself?":

And here's where the real "sordid sort of genius," to steal from Douthat, comes in: As crazy as rightbloggers may seem to you and us, when their thinking correlates this perfectly with the conservative-Republican mainstream, there will always be thumbsucking MSM types who will look at it, pull their chins, and think, hmm, both sides seem passionate, and that the obvious solution is to split the difference and call it a draw. Thus, nutcases whose credibility should have been shattered around their three-hundredth call for impeachment are ridiculously afforded a place at the table, leaving advocates for common sense at a massive disadvantage, since most of their energy must be devoted to restraining themselves from screaming, "this is fucking bullshit."

Driftglass has been exploring the "both sides" dynamic for years, and a recent post, "Both Siderism Remains The Last Refuge of The Morally Bankrupt," quoted an older post from 2005, addressing the media (emphasis in original):

In your weird fetish to be “objective”, the Republicans learned the little trick that makes [the media] dance like organ grinder monkeys. Whatever goofy-assed idea they came up with, you’d reflexively cede them half the distance between the truth and their goal.

There was a book I loved when I was a little driftglass called, “Half Magic” by Edgar Eager, about a talisman that granted the user exactly half of what they asked for. Wish to be ten times stronger that Lancelot, you’ll get five. Wish for a million in cash, you get 500K. In the Mainstream Media, the Right Wing of the Republican Party found their Half Magic Charm. And each time you met them halfway, they moved the goalposts another twenty yards again...and you jogged right on along behind them, ten yards at a time.

Fred Clark offers a similar diagnosis in "Third Way-ism and Hegel’s Bluff":

Most of the time, when someone invokes a “Third Way,” they’re simply committing Hegel’s Bluff:

Simply find two extreme views roughly equidistant from your own along whatever spectrum you see fit to consult. Declare one the thesis and the other the antithesis, and your own position the synthesis. Without actually having to defend your own position, or to explain the shortcomings of these others, you can reassure yourself that you are right and they are wrong. Your position, whatever its actual merits, becomes not only the reasonable middle-ground and the presumably correct stance, but the very culmination of history.

Hegel’s Bluff is usually an exercise in self-reassurance. It’s a way of telling oneself that one is being reasonable. It works for that, well enough — well enough, that is, that Third Way-ers applying this bluff seem genuinely confused when others fail to perceive them as being as eminently reasonable as they perceive themselves.

But persuading others isn’t really what the Third Way of Hegel’s Bluff is designed to do. It rarely persuades. It fails to offer a persuasive argument mainly because it fails to offer any argument at all. That’s not really what it’s for. Arguments are made in support of particular conclusions, but this bluffery is more about just trying to reach that state in which any given dispute is concluded. That’s what it values most — that the unsettling argument be settled, not that it be resolved. It’s more about conflict-avoidance than about conflict resolution.

Having said all of that, please don’t misunderstand me as saying that no truth can ever be found “somewhere in the middle.”**

Back in 2000, Paul Krugman coined the phrase “Views Differ on Shape of Planet" to mock these dyanmics. In a 2011 op-ed, "The Centrist Cop-Out," he applied it to the media's unwillingness to call out Republican extremism and inflexibility on the debt ceiling. It's worth reading the whole thing, but his general critique remains sadly relevant:

The facts of the crisis over the debt ceiling aren’t complicated. Republicans have, in effect, taken America hostage, threatening to undermine the economy and disrupt the essential business of government unless they get policy concessions they would never have been able to enact through legislation. And Democrats — who would have been justified in rejecting this extortion altogether — have, in fact, gone a long way toward meeting those Republican demands.

As I said, it’s not complicated. Yet many people in the news media apparently can’t bring themselves to acknowledge this simple reality. News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of “centrist” uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides.

Some of us have long complained about the cult of “balance,” the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.” But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom?

The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault. . . .

Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing. . . .

So what’s with the buzz about a centrist uprising? As I see it, it’s coming from people who recognize the dysfunctional nature of modern American politics, but refuse, for whatever reason, to acknowledge the one-sided role of Republican extremists in making our system dysfunctional. And it’s not hard to guess at their motivation. After all, pointing out the obvious truth gets you labeled as a shrill partisan, not just from the right, but from the ranks of self-proclaimed centrists.

But making nebulous calls for centrism, like writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties, is a big cop-out — a cop-out that only encourages more bad behavior. The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse.

Lastly, here's one of my cracks at the subject, from 2012:

Both Sides Do It

As we've explored before, in most cases:

…saying "both sides do it" is a form of trolling. In almost every case, when a Very Serious Person says "both sides do it," "both sides are to blame" or any of its variants, it is to shut down discussion, not to bring it to a deeper, more nuanced level.

Among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults, the following are taken as givens:

1. Neither major party is entirely pure or entirely corrupt. You can find despicable and honorable people in both parties.

2. There is an inherent level of bullshit in politics. All politicians lie to some degree.

Naturally, the same crowd also holds that:

3. Nevertheless – actually, because of this – it's very important to take a closer look at politicians, parties, and their policies, and try to make an informed, comparative, qualitative judgment. Responsible citizenship and basic voting depends on it. Policy matters.

Strangely, most Beltway political commentators will endorse #1 and #2, but reject #3. The same media figures who sagely inform the public that politicians lie, as if this a revelation... will also refuse to fact-check their political guests. Instead of #3, they tend to hold the following views:

A. Wisdom lies precisely between the parties. One side cannot be significantly better/more correct than the other. It's impossible that one side can be overwhelmingly better!

B. It is rude to call out liars, or not invite them back after they lie.

C. Giving both parties a fair hearing necessitates judging that both arguments have equal merit.

D. Anyone saying harsh things about conservatives/Republicans clearly is closed-minded, hyper-partisan and not a Serious Person, regardless of the evidence.

All of this also entails:

E. Policy doesn't matter.

This mindset, whatever you want to call it – faux centrism, "sensible" centrism, centrist fetishism, establishment groupthink, bourgeois authoritarianism, the world view of Very Serious People, the Emperor's New Clothes, the ol' ruling class circle jerk – is absolutely fucking imbecilic. The people who shill it are often highly educated and have sterling pedigrees by Beltway standards, but they are shockingly shallow.

Saying "both sides do it," "both sides are equally to blame," or anything similar doesn't always spring from the exact same motives, however. There are three general categories (a future post may delve into more detail):

1. Social: The old maxim is that, in polite conversation, one should avoid discussing politics and religion. Beliefs on them can be strongly-felt and deeply personal (and sometimes irrational), so it's easy for people to fight. When this happens, a host or other peacemaker might offer "both sides do it" as a way to change the subject, de-escalate the situation and placate whoever's agitated. The person (more) in the right on the political dispute is expected to play the adult and let the matter drop in the name of comity. Strictly speaking, "both sides are equally to blame" is almost always bullshit, but it has its place in friendly social situations, where it can be well-intentioned, defensible, and useful.

All that said, politics and religion can be discussed among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults. It has to happen somewhere, and at gatherings whose express purpose is discussing politics (or religion), it's pretty ridiculous and childish to try to shut down adult conversation by insisting that "both sides do it." The issue is knowing the venue and the participants, and how candid and in-depth one can be.

2. Bullshitting: When someone says "both sides do it" or the equivalent on a political show, it's nearly always bullshitting. This does come in different flavors, however. Cokie Roberts will say "both sides do it" to fill time and collect her paycheck; it's insipid Beltway conventional wisdom, but to her fellow travelers and a certain audience, it sounds smart and will receive approving nods. The benefit is that you really don't need to know anything (certainly not any policy details) to say it, so it's a wonderful gift to lazy pundits. Thomas Friedman says "both sides do it" to affect the persona of a Very Serious Person and Sensible Centrist. It supplies the illusion of being independent and thoughtful to middle-information voters, even if anyone who knows the subject well knows you're talking out of your ass. (More on Friedman's shtick here.) Meanwhile, David Brooks and other conservative propagandists will say "both sides do it" as a rearguard action to minimize the damage to their party. The conservative movement and Republican Party have become so extreme and so irresponsible, it's hard to justify their actions. (This increasing extremism is why Brooks' hack arguments to defend his side have grown more obviously ridiculous, and have become more widely mocked.) The best tactic for this type of bullshitter is to hit the false equivalences hard, cherry-picking and pretending some minor incident or minor player in the Democratic Party is as bad as some glaring offense by conservatives/Republicans. It's possible to find Democratic hacks doing similar spin on individual news items, but they're simply not operating on the same scale. The rules of polite Beltway discourse, mirroring some of the "social" motives mentioned above, dictate that it is terribly rude to point out that Republicans are the (chief) problem.

3. Serious Analysis: This is the rarest form of saying "both sides do it," but it does exist, most often as a criticism of both the Republicans and Democrats "from the left." A good example is Matt Taibbi's work investigating Wall Street corruption and reckless greed, and political complicity with it from both major parties. Taibbi has been criticized for occasionally going slightly overboard in blaming both parties equally. (After all, the Dems passed relatively weak Wall Street reform in a climate where the Republicans wanted none at all, the Republicans have steadfastly opposed the Consumer Protection Agency and related appointments, conservative justices delivered the horrible Citizens United decision, and Republicans have twice blocked campaign disclosure requirements designed to minimize some of the damage from Citizens United.) Still, Taibbi and similar figures are qualitatively different from the bullshitters in that they want to stop corruption and encourage good policies and responsible governance, and they are willing and able to discuss detail and nuance. While saying "both sides are equally to blame" may be sloppy and overstated to make a point, for this group, it's normally meant as the start of a deeper conversation, not a trite conclusion to end it.

Another important note, related to bullshitting and serious analysis on political shows: pointing out significant hypocrisy in a politician or party generally isn't the same as a serious "both sides do it" assertion, although bullshitting pundits on the same panel will try to twist it as such. For instance, Paul Krugman has often pointed out that Republicans are not serious about deficit/debt reduction. The David Brooks of the world might pretend otherwise, but this does not mean that neither party is serious about deficit/debt reduction. (Pointing out bad faith, bad policies and bullshit in one party does not magically transfer those to the other party, just to make anxious wannabe centrists feel better.) While some individual Dems might be fairly criticized, colossal bad faith on the deficit/debt is a distinctly Republican failing – in fact, it's one of the defining traits of the party. If Krugman brings something like this up, it's to have a deeper, more accurate conversation, whereas a Brooks will try to shut it down.

Here's another way to break it down:

If you argue that wisdom often resides outside of conventional thinking, I'll agree with you.

If you argue that wisdom lies precisely between two poles of conventional thinking – which are moving, no less! – I'll say you're a fucking moron.

(It's terribly uncivil to say all this, I know, but I still think there's some truth to it.)

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Artificially Equalizing Unequal Views on Inequality

The mainstream political press has a horrible tendency to rely on false equivalencies and to conclude, far too simplistically and without nuance or detail, that 'both sides are equally to blame.' It would take much more effort, and seem like taking sides, to call things accurately to the best of their ability, or discuss policy positions in terms of facts and likely outcomes, or contextualize negotiations and other matters for their audience. Even important issues can wind up being poorly covered. Some conclusions, no matter how well supported, are deemed unacceptable; others are essentially predetermined, regardless of the pesky facts. A Washington Post piece from July provides a good example.

The Article

"A think tank wanted to study inequality. It couldn’t get conservatives on board" by Jim Tankersley covers an interesting tidbit. (Its subtitle, "If most of the research on a big economic question comes from one political point of view, can Americans trust it?" seems like an awfully loaded and misleading question, however. To be fair, editors often choose the headlines, not the authors – but Tankersley is listed as the editor for this and other "Storyline" pieces.)

The setup—a new Beltway think tank (Washington Center for Equitable Growth) wants to study an important issue:

What she wanted, [Heather] Boushey said, was to fund an intellectually honest investigation of arguably the hottest issue in American economics right now: the widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else. She wanted to learn more how and why that gap might hurt the nation’s overall economic performance.

The think tank has some members with a liberal background, but apparently it aims to be inclusive and is officially "non-partisan." Accordingly, it extends a wide invitation:

Boushey was hoping to sign up an ideologically diverse cross-section of thinkers to her effort. . . .

The grant recipients, she explained, would examine questions of inequality and growth from every possible angle, liberal and conservative. They’d report what was true and what wasn’t. Her think tank would live with the findings, whatever they might be.

The think tank's trying to be inclusive and strives to be empirical and data-driven. Sounds good so far. Next, proposals are submitted and grants are given:

There are no identifiably conservative economists among the grantees, however.

Uh-oh! That doesn't sound inclusive! What gives?

No conservative economists applied for grants, among the 70 submissions the center received, Boushey said.

...Oh. Well, it's rather hard to offer a grant to someone who can't even be bothered to apply. Not even one of the 70 applicants was a conservative? That seems remarkable. Why was this? Tankersley theorizes:

Perhaps that’s because the center has, in its early months of existence, engaged in some high-profile blog-and-social-media fights with conservatives over questions of data and policy when it comes to inequality.

Alas, no links are provided for this. This sounds a bit whiny, that the new think tank was mean, so conservatives didn't want to play. The think tank's twitter feed seems fairly anodyne and not combative. Back in May, Boushey did appear on PBS' NewsHour to debate Kevin Hassett of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) about Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the 21st Century, but it's a pretty polite exchange of disagreements. The most charitable possibility (for conservatives) would be that they judged that their contributions would be unwelcome. (It's a paid gig, though. And wouldn't getting paid to skewer a liberal position be tempting?) But Tankersley's speculating anyway, so let's move on. He floats another idea:

Perhaps it’s because it’s relatively rare in Washington for liberal and conservative thinkers to team up to pursue big questions – especially ones that, depending on the answer, could shake party platforms or basic ideological beliefs.

This is a much more convincing hypothesis, especially if one's familiar with the usual conservative stances on inequality. Tankersley continues:

It’s also true, in this case, that a lot of conservative economists have already decided that inequality – as opposed to mobility or the even broader “economic opportunity” – isn’t a problem.

Aha! Yes, this is much stronger, more accurate stuff – conservatives have often stated that inequality is overstated, or that it isn't a problem, or that efforts to ameliorate it cause more harm than good, or all of the above. Tankersley's link is to conservative AEI and its latest 117-page collection of essays, which argue all of these positions. This is good context for the reader.

This is the real challenge posed faced by Boushey, and her center, and the work that will now begin thanks to their grants: If most of the research into an economic issue is being conducted from one side of a political debate, consumers of that research could – and should – look skeptically on its conclusions, until persuaded otherwise. The burden is on the researchers, on their data and the stories they tell from it.

It’s a heavy burden. It would help to have a more diverse group of thinkers shouldering it.

Umm… what? Where did this come from? How does this follow? And a "diverse group" needs to include people who explicitly don't want to study the issue? I suppose "until persuaded otherwise" and the mention of "data" soften this a bit, but this is quite the sharp turn. It also ignores that there's a great deal of solid research on inequality already. For example, Thomas Piketty's aforementioned book, Capital in the 21st Century, is a new, major work in the field, and it's earned praise for its extensive research and synthesis of previous studies. (It's also received plenty of attacks from conservative outlets.) This think tank story, and discussions about inequality in general, do not take place in a vacuum. Let's recap Tankersley's account and conclusion:

1. A think tank wants to study inequality. It invites conservatives to participate.

2. Conservatives completely decline to participate (zero of seventy applicants).

3. It's mentioned but isn't emphasized in the piece that the think tank is sponsoring data-driven work. (A chart of the grantees and their paper topics is included. The findings of previous major studies on inequality are not mentioned.)

4. The conservative position is that inequality doesn't matter. (It's not really explored that justifications for this tend to be ideological versus data-driven. More on this in a bit.)

5. Conservatives have their own think tanks upholding their position.

6. Somehow… the new think tank's conclusions will be suspect and the burden is on its members, despite conservatives rejecting their invitation and rejecting their entire endeavor (not to mention rejecting the findings of previous studies).

Tankersley sure seems to arguing that if conservatives don’t agree with something, it can't be valid (or at the very least, that it must be viewed with great suspicion). There are several glaring problems here.

It's completely reasonable and fair to let different political factions have their say. It's utterly ridiculous, however, to automatically judge that their positions are equally valid and sound – especially when the facts say otherwise. Serious policy discussions require some level of qualitative analysis and judgment. Tankersley offers a variation on the usual predetermined "both sides are equally to blame" conclusion – in this case, he essentially lets conservatives veto the propositions that inequality matters and that it should be studied. He doesn’t provide much context for the reader, but essentially, he's falsely equating an empirical approach (and extensive data from it) by one "side" in a debate with a conservative ideological position against it. (For instance, conservatives will indeed argue that efforts to lessen inequality are ineffective or counterproductive, but their central, much more common argument is that such efforts are morally wrong.)

But Tankersley's conclusion doesn't even follow his own account. He links AEI's collection of papers arguing that inequality doesn't matter (and is overstated, etcetera). How is this point of view not represented, then? Why does the Washington Center for Equitable Growth specifically need to represent it, too? (Especially when they tried to, and offered an invitation that was rejected?) How the hell is this their fault?

Put another way, Tankersley's stated concern is about "research into an economic issue . . . being conducted from one side of a political debate." Based on his own account, either the other side has refused to engage in research, or the other side is already engaged. Yet somehow, the conservatives are still blameless and the fault lies with the more liberal – in this case, the intentionally centrist – faction.

Realistically, the news business is based on sales, ads, and page hits – content is churned out, and some of its quality will suffer. A short, quickly written piece won't give a full account of an issue. However, it should give a roughly accurate account of an issue and some basic context, and Tankersley's piece is striking for its abrupt and ill-fitting conclusion. It reads as if he was writing up an interesting tidbit, then realized he had to end by blaming "both sides," so he took a sharp swerve. He could have tried a familiar Beltway gambit – holding this incident up as an example of political intransigence and then bemoaning the lack of bipartisanship in Washington – and he kind of does this briefly (the less context on the issue one provides, the easier it is to pull off this move). But that route is slightly problematic here, because one "side" is investigating the issue and the other is refusing to do so – so fault must be invented in the name of "balance." Basically, the piece offers a socially driven conclusion versus an empirical or logical one.

The Bigger Picture

Tankersley's piece exemplifies some persistent problems in coverage of policy and political disputes. Let's return to that loaded and misleading subtitle: "If most of the research on a big economic question comes from one political point of view, can Americans trust it?"

This asks for a simple "yes" or "no" in a polarizing fashion, not for deeper reflection. (As Neil Postman put it, poor questions "insinuate that a position must be taken; they do not ask that thought be given.") Why does any political point of view automatically possess virtue, insight and accuracy? The stated attitude is also a major problem in "debates" about climate change and evolution, among other things. What if one "side" rejects empiricism and facts? What if one side consistently lies? What if one side had obvious reasons for arguing in bad faith? In the context of the paucity of conservatives in academia, PZ Myers has tackled this issue (emphasis mine):

Of course if [Jonathan Haidt] believes there’s no real difference between left and right, it’s a problem that the right is poorly represented in academia.

But what if there is a real difference, a difference of substance, in how left and right approach the evidence and how they respect the methods of science? I think the field of social psychology is suffering because they haven’t hired enough serial killers for their tenure line positions. They’d certainly do a good job of making psychologists question their assumptions about the importance of health, happiness, and security in human welfare, and also, someone would be around who could finally intimidate those prissy-pants on the Human Subjects Review Board. Should we complain about the deficiency, or should we recognize that some behaviors are antithetical to the cooperative and responsible pursuit of knowledge?

The problem isn’t that academia excludes conservatives. It’s that it is a rare conservative who doesn’t prioritize the moral foundations (to use Haidt’s own terms) of respect for authority and loyalty to the ingroup above breaking through conventions and assumptions to test the truth. Also, it’s the rare conservative who will accept a job with high admission requirements that also pays a pittance.

(As commenters in a Lawyers, Guns & Money thread on Tankersley's piece point out, conservative think tanks likewise probably pay much better than the new think tank's grants.)

Returning to the subject of inequality, it's not a secret that conservatives generally defend it and oppose efforts to lessen it; this is a core ideological principle. As conservative David Frum explained to Bill Moyers in 2009:

The Republicans are not the party of equality. They're the party of liberty and they're the party of efficiency. . . .

Liberty leads to inequality just as attempts to reduce equality lead to adoption of liberty.

The data don't always cooperate with the conservative position, however. Paul Krugman's written a great deal about inequality over the years, and a recent op-ed, "Inequality Is a Drag," summarizes some recent research:

It’s true that market economies need a certain amount of inequality to function. But American inequality has become so extreme that it’s inflicting a lot of economic damage. And this, in turn, implies that redistribution — that is, taxing the rich and helping the poor — may well raise, not lower, the economy’s growth rate.

You might be tempted to dismiss this notion as wishful thinking, a sort of liberal equivalent of the right-wing fantasy that cutting taxes on the rich actually increases revenue. In fact, however, there is solid evidence, coming from places like the International Monetary Fund, that high inequality is a drag on growth, and that redistribution can be good for the economy.

Earlier this week, the new view about inequality and growth got a boost from Standard & Poor’s, the rating agency, which put out a report supporting the view that high inequality is a drag on growth. The agency was summarizing other people’s work, not doing research of its own, and you don’t need to take its judgment as gospel (remember its ludicrous downgrade of United States debt). What S.& P.’s imprimatur shows, however, is just how mainstream the new view of inequality has become. There is, at this point, no reason to believe that comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted is good for growth, and good reason to believe the opposite.

Specifically, if you look systematically at the international evidence on inequality, redistribution, and growth — which is what researchers at the I.M.F. did — you find that lower levels of inequality are associated with faster, not slower, growth. Furthermore, income redistribution at the levels typical of advanced countries (with the United States doing much less than average) is “robustly associated with higher and more durable growth.” That is, there’s no evidence that making the rich richer enriches the nation as a whole, but there’s strong evidence of benefits from making the poor less poor.

(Hullabaloo has covered inequality quite a bit. My most extensive post on the subject is this 2010 one.)

The conservative American Enterprise Institute's aforementioned work on the subject is a collection of essays entitled, Opportunity for All: How to Think about Inequality. I'm not going to go through all 117 pages in detail (you can read it for yourself), but I did want to note a few key arguments. In AEI President Arthur C. Brooks' introduction, he states:

The conventional wisdom on inequality is built on three assumptions: (1) Income inequality is inherently unjust; (2) it is bad for the economy; and (3) government redistribution is the best way to remedy it. According to this narrative, narrowing the gap between what wealthy and working-class Americans earn should be our top political priority, and policies such as raising taxes or increasing the minimum wage are the answer.

It's not encouraging when the opener offers such a huge straw man argument (and tinier ones). "Income inequality is inherently unjust"? As Krugman and others have noted, some inequality is necessary and useful, but beyond a certain amount it is indeed "bad for the economy." Direct government intervention can work, as can indirect intervention, and whether it's the "best" option or not, sometimes it's the only real option (see the New Deal). That's the practical argument. The moral counterargument to Brooks is that, if the political will existed, it would be relatively easy to have a system that still featured inequality but also much more "equality of opportunity" and a higher standard of living for everybody. Compared to other industrialized nations, the U.S. does relatively little social spending. Income and wealth inequality have increased over the past few decades, and the rich are being taxed at low levels by historical standards; U.S. taxes could become far more progressive and the richest 1% would still be left immensely privileged, if merely filthy rich versus obscenely wealthy.

In the same vein as Brooks, AEI author Aparna Mathur writes:

Like most Americans, I believe in equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome, which is clearly neither desirable nor attainable.

This is both a false dichotomy and a straw man. (Throw in appeal to the majority, too. What efficiency!) Of course, liberals (and the think tank centrists from earlier) don't seek "equality of outcome"; this is a wearily common conservative straw man tactic, essentially attacking communism and pretending that it's what liberals or European social democrats (or centrists) want. The goals are to reduce inequalities of both opportunities and outcomes, not to eliminate them altogether. In liberalism, governing is a balancing act, and theory and practice inform each other. Outcomes aren't the only concern, but they can't be ignored, either. The entire point of empiricism is to collect good data, which, among other things, entails – duh – looking at outcomes, measuring them and trying to determine causes with greater acuity. If the data show great inequality of opportunity, and also show great inequality of outcome – and the perennially preferred conservative policies to address the former have been shown to be insufficient or simply ineffective – perhaps something else is needed, hmm? If the data show that greater government spending does help, but conservatives oppose that, shouldn't they have to give a good reason and not just their position? If slightly higher taxes on the rich would help fund that spending, why not do it? (And do we really have to pretend that conservative arguments against even slight increases in taxes are always in good faith and with sound reason versus self-interest? Some conservatives are at least forthright about it.) It makes sense that most national political coverage avoids discussion of motives and bad faith, but it's not as if it sticks to the data instead – on inequality, climate change and many other subjects, it's been proven acceptable (for conservatives, at least) to simply say the data don't matter. Only rhetoric (which it would be rude to fact-check) can be allowed to prevail.

"Debates" about inequality do not take place in a vacuum – a long history and context exists. As Krugman observed in a July op-ed, "On Inequality Denial":

Not only do the usual suspects continue to deny the obvious, but they keep rolling out the same discredited arguments: Inequality isn’t really rising; O.K., it’s rising, but it doesn’t matter because we have so much social mobility; anyway, it’s a good thing, and anyone who suggests that it’s a problem is a Marxist.

What may surprise you is the year in which I published that article: 1992.

(Krugman's far from the only one writing about this stuff, but he's awfully good at it.)

That's a fine summing up of the arguments from AEI and other conservative outlets. In the same piece, Krugman also covers criticisms of Piketty's work:

At the risk of giving too much information, here’s the issue. We have two sources of evidence on both income and wealth: surveys, in which people are asked about their finances, and tax data. Survey data, while useful for tracking the poor and the middle class, notoriously understate top incomes and wealth — loosely speaking, because it’s hard to interview enough billionaires. So studies of the 1 percent, the 0.1 percent, and so on rely mainly on tax data. The Financial Times critique, however, compared older estimates of wealth concentration based on tax data with more recent estimates based on surveys; this produced an automatic bias against finding an upward trend.

In short, this latest attempt to debunk the notion that we’ve become a vastly more unequal society has itself been debunked. And you should have expected that. There are so many independent indicators pointing to sharply rising inequality, from the soaring prices of high-end real estate to the booming markets for luxury goods, that any claim that inequality isn’t rising almost has to be based on faulty data analysis.

Yet inequality denial persists, for pretty much the same reasons that climate change denial persists: there are powerful groups with a strong interest in rejecting the facts, or at least creating a fog of doubt. Indeed, you can be sure that the claim “The Piketty numbers are all wrong” will be endlessly repeated even though that claim quickly collapsed under scrutiny. . . .

This picture makes some people uncomfortable, because it plays into populist demands for higher taxes on the rich. But good ideas don’t need to be sold on false pretenses. If the argument against populism rests on bogus claims about inequality, you should consider the possibility that the populists are right.

Exactly. But then both sides aren't equally to blame, and there's no good reason to oppose policies helpful for the middle class (and poor) that powerful groups do in fact oppose. That's awkward for media outlets that traditionally toe the establishment line.

Moral arguments have their place (and can have great value), but the honest use of data is extremely helpful for cutting through biases and grounding those arguments. 'My ideology states that I don't need to care' is a position, not a true argument, and shouldn't cut it in serious discussions. Validating it amounts to empowering the fanatic's veto – it isn't even-handed; it's irresponsible. Having an open mind entails giving someone a fair hearing, not ignoring all evidence, judging all opinions equally sound or turning off one's bullshit detector. False equivalencies do not serve the audience (but unintentionally or not, they do serve other parties).

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Calling Torture Torture

Digby's recently covered The New York Times' decision to call torture torture, Marcy Wheeler's summary of the issue, and possible reasons for the Times' shift.

It's worth remembering that The New York Times and many other outlets have been consistently pressed on their reluctance to use the term "torture" since news of U.S. torture first broke. A 2010 media study by Harvard students showed that, since the 1930s, major U.S. media outlets consistently called waterboarding torture when other countries did it, but changed their approach after 9/11, news about U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib broke and the subject became more widely discussed. The study's conclusion:

The classification of waterboarding is not unclear; the current debate cannot be divorced from its historical roots. The status quo ante was that waterboarding is torture, in American law, international law, and in the newspapers’ own words. Had the papers not changed their coverage, it would still have been called torture. By straying from that established norm, the newspapers imply disagreement with it, despite their claims to the contrary. In the context of their decades-long practice, the newspapers’ sudden equivocation on waterboarding can hardly be termed neutral.

Brian Stelter at The New York Times quoted some of the study as well as other criticism (to his credit), and also ran the response from then-executive editor Bill Keller. At Harper's, Scott Horton offered a scathing assessment:

The man who authored the New York Times’s doublespeak standards on torture, Bill Keller, responded recently to the Harvard University study of his paper’s use of the word “torture” with respect to specific techniques, including waterboarding, by saying:

I think this Kennedy School study — by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories — is somewhat misleading and tendentious.

Got that? It’s “misleading,” “tendentious,” and “politically correct” to point out that the newspaper of record uses “torture” to describe specific practices when used by governments other than the United States, but does not use the word when the same practices are used by the United States. In fact, of course, it is Keller who is being “politically correct.” He made plain in his comments to Brian Stelter that the Times decided not to apply the term torture to waterboarding because Vice President Cheney insisted that it was not torture. This is not merely being politically correct; it is being politically subordinate. This is particularly clear when we examine the work of a prominent Times reporter in the field: Bill Keller (hat tip: NYTPicker). Reporting on police brutality in the field from South Africa and the Soviet Union in the eighties, Keller had no compunction about using the word “torture.” Here’s a snippet from his reporting on Soviet police brutality that won him a Pulitzer Prize–describing the mistreatment of a factory worker in Petrozavodsk (Karelia):

A factory worker, according to the report, was kicked so severely that doctors had to remove a ruptured spleen. The medical report said doctors had found three pints of clotted blood in the abdomen.

Keller called this “torture,” and indeed it was. Soviet authorities insisted at the time that the conduct, while abusive, was not torture, yet Keller didn’t see fit even to bother his readers with their denials. Another major difference between the Soviet torture incidents and the more recent American ones is that the Soviet incidents, also covered in reform-oriented Soviet journals like Ogonëk and by the courageous Arkady Vaksberg in Literaturnaya Gazeta, were investigated by the office of the procurator general, with the investigations leading to dismissal and prosecution of the law enforcement officials involved. The idea that American officials of the Bush era who were involved in torture would be punished or prosecuted is, of course, simply unthinkable.

Bill Keller’s political correctness couldn’t be more clear cut. Aggressive interrogation tactics applied by a regime like the Soviet Union or South Africa in the eighties are “torture,” even though their officials insist they are not. But aggressive interrogation tactics applied by the Bush Administration cannot be called “torture” even if they are even more brutal, because that would offend Dick Cheney. This is precisely the sort of political manipulation of language that George Orwell warned against in “Politics and the English Language.”

Considering the crap that was flying publicly during the heyday of the Bush administration, when any pushback could earn an attack on the questioner's patriotism ("watch what they say, watch what they do" ), it's likely it was even worse behind closed doors. (Examples abound in Barton Gellman's excellent book Angler and Jane Mayer's The Dark Side; read them if you haven't.) After all, Bill Keller also chose to hold a story on the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic spying at the urging of the Bush administration (who wanted the story killed outright). When it came to torture, Bush officials surely did a full court press on The New York Times and other outlets, insisting (in some combination) that what they ordered wasn't torture, and/or that it was necessary, and/or the people who did it were patriots, and/or that the media were disloyal traitors and would be aiding the terrorists if they didn't toe the line. It's easy to imagine some hesitation from the top editors. Still, they had standards and history to drawn on, to help them decide between essentially two competing interpretations:

1. Magically, now that members of the Bush administration – Americans – were ordering it, waterboarding and other forms of torture were no longer torture.

2. The Bush administration was seeking to avoid accountability for wrongdoing that could include war crimes; this demanded further investigation.

(Hanlon's razor comes to mind, as does the value of a good bullshit detector.)

A later piece by Horton, "The Importance of Being Judgmental," covered that NPR, The Washington Post and most other U.S. media outlets took the same approach toward the word "torture." As Horton observed, "In this case, suspension of judgment was not neutrality. It was substituting euphemisms for the direct words that the English language furnishes."

Greg Sargent also wrote a good piece about this issue at the time (partially quoted by Stelter):

The Times' explanation is that once Bush officials started arguing that waterboarding wasn't torture, the only way to avoid taking sides was to stop using the word. But here's the problem: Not using the word also constitutes taking a side: That of the Bush administration.

That's because this debate wasn't merely a semantic one. It was occurring in a legal context.

The administration's critics pointed out that the decision to approve waterboarding was illegal under international law designating it torture. The Bush administration argued that waterboarding isn't torture in order to argue that it isn't illegal.

The decision to refrain from calling waterboarding "torture" is tantamount to siding with the Bush administration's claim that the act it acknowledged doing is not illegal under any statute. No one is saying the Times should have adopted the role of judge and jury and proclaimed the Bush administration officially guilty. Rather, the point is that by dropping use of the word "torture," it took the Bush position -- against those who argued that the act Bush officials sanctioned is already agreed upon as illegal under the law.

Think of it this way: We all agree that pickpocketing constitutes "theft." A pickpocket doesn't get to come along and argue: "No, what I did isn't theft, it's merely pickpocketing, and therefore it isn't illegal." Any newspaper that played along with a pickpocket's demand to stop using the word "theft" would be taking the pickpocket's side, not occupying any middle ground. There is no middle ground here.

The semantic battles are symptomatic of a deeper disengagement. Since the beginning of the torture "debate," I've been continually struck by how torture apologists and proponents refuse to engage honestly with the evidence. They've all but ignored The Red Cross Torture Report, the "Taguba Report," the Senate Armed Services Report and other accounts. As I've written before, torture apologists offer a set of descending denials: We did not torture; waterboarding (and the other things we did) are not torture; even if it was torture, it was legal; even it was illegal, it was necessary; even it was not necessary, it was not our fault. They will talk endlessly about Jack Bauer, ticking time bombs, and theoretical threats, but not about the very real torture and abuse of Mahar Arar, Binyam Mohamed and Dilawar Dilawar, among others. The crucial role of torture in selling the war in Iraq is also ignored. Some reporters and outlets have doggedly covered these subjects, but these issues haven't been popular with the Beltway establishment and most mainstream outlets. It's not as if they've been pushing for a more full investigation – mostly, they've sought to shut such efforts down. (Probably, as with the lead-up to the Iraq War, shame and culpability play a role in the lack of attention.) As usual, I'll say: the more you seriously study the subject of torture, the more likely you are to oppose it. And the more you seriously study the Bush administration's torture program, the less likely you are to accept the arguments of "good faith." (It's not as if they weren't warned at multiple stages.)

Releasing the summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report would be good, and releasing the whole report would be even better, preferably with minimal redactions (those that are actually necessary versus redactions due to ass-covering and embarrassment). There was a time South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was discussed as a possible model for investigating the U.S. torture program, but there's little desire for that from the Department of Justice, the Obama administration, or the mainstream Beltway press. (There's certainly no interest from the Cheney family, the rest of the Bush administration, or their allies.) Probably the most hopeful notion comes from one of Brad DeLong's readers, back in 2012:

I would urge people to think of accountability as a generational project -- this is how it has worked out in Chile, Argentina, South Africa... the thing that can be done now is create opportunities for more participants to tell their stories, put on record what was done and who did it and how, so that the record gets fuller rather than thinner over time.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lucky Duckies and Fortunate Sons

A high school teacher of mine told the story of playing a trading game as part of teacher training on race and social issues. The kicker was that the game was rigged. My teacher wound up in the group the game was rigged against. A competitive guy, he grew increasingly frustrated, and eventually stood off to the side and asked others to play his turn for him. Throughout the game, the group the game was rigged for downplayed or outright denied their own advantage and that the game was unfair. They urged him to keep playing (most in a kind manner, some gently upbraiding him for being a sore loser). They insisted that he was just unlucky, and that things could get better.

The lessons he took from this were:

1. People tend to grow discouraged when the game is rigged against them.

2. People benefitting from a rigged game are reluctant to acknowledge that the game is rigged.

The game from his story, StarPower, is more of an experiential teaching tool than traditional game. The Wikipedia entry provides some information and the webpage for the actual game is here. Donella Meadows wrote a good description of what normally happens in the game, while Carol C. Mukhopadhyay has written a lesson plan for it and a detailed description of the game pieces. The experience works much better if the participants go in not knowing the game's nature, and the game's replay value is limited. I haven't played it myself, but apparently the game has made a lasting impression on some participants.

From Meadows' account:

The game starts with players drawing colored chips from a bag. Different color combinations have different point values. The players trade chips, trying to increase their point counts. Very ordinary. Slightly boring.

After the first round, those with the most points are given, with much fanfare, badges with big purple squares on them. The lowest scorers get badges with demeaning green triangles. Those in the middle wear red circles.

Then comes the insidious part. For the next trading round the Squares draw from a bag laced with high-value chips. The Triangles' bag has low-value chips. After this round a few players change fortunes and switch to a higher or lower group, but mostly the Squares stay Squares, the Triangles stay Triangles, and the gap between them widens.

At this point the Squares are given the power to change the rules. They can reshuffle the chip bags, give away free points, do whatever they like. They can consult the other players on rule changes, if they want to.

They almost never want to.

Predictably, and usually gleefully, the Squares rig the game to favor Squares. The Circles concentrate on elevating themselves to become Squares, so they can bend the rules in favor of Circles. But the few Circles who do gain the hallowed status of Squares start to act like Squares.

The poor Triangles, with less and less power, wealth, or hope, first get angry, then apathetic. They sit around waiting for this dumb game to be over. They come to life only if they think up a way of cheating or of creating a revolution. Only subversion brings out their interest and creativity.

After about an hour the game is stopped and the players talk about what happened. There is usually an emotional outburst. "I can't believe how much I hate you guys!" a Triangle says to the Squares. "Why? We were managing things pretty well!" a Square replies in honest surprise.

The Squares seldom see how systematically they oppressed everyone. The Triangles are a mass of smoldering resentment. The Circles are shocked to discover that Triangles consider them materialistic sell-outs, while Squares look down on them as incompetent pseudo-Squares.

A simple, unpleasant game. A crude representation of a much-more-complicated world. Unforgettable to those who play. It's one thing to know intellectually about social classes. It's another to spend an hour experiencing the rage of a Triangle or the self-righteousness of a Square.

When tempers have cooled, I find that surprising insights remain. Having watched myself act like a Square or Triangle, I have to admit that my behavior depends greatly on where in the social structure I sit. Nearly anyone exposed to Square perceptions, pressures, and rewards acts like a Square. Nearly any Triangle gets apathetic.

Those few who don't are easily handled. Once I watched a Square try to convince her fellow-Squares to even up the rules. "This game is unfair, and unfair games are boring," she pleaded. The other Squares appropriated her points and demoted her to a Triangle. They weren't mean people, they were just Squares.

Suppose we could admit that most of us act as we do because of our places in the system. Suppose we turned our energy from blaming each other to blaming the structure of the games we play. Starpower games -- games in which the winners gain ever more power to win again -- occur everywhere, on both the Right and the Left...

My teacher's story about the board game stuck with me, probably because studies in the social sciences, life experiences and conversations with others about theirs have consistently borne out his conclusions. It's also persisted because those conclusions about the way people tend to react to a rigged game – discouragement or selective blindness – are pretty common sense, yet are vociferously denied nonetheless by significant segments in the United States.

Digby's noted before that Americans are more likely than Europeans to attribute poverty to a lack of character rather than to unfortunate circumstances. Racism often plays a role in these attitudes, but not always. The StarPower experience is somewhat reminiscent of Jane Elliott's Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment. Several more recent studies show that, as social psychologist Paul Piff puts it, "As a person’s levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases." (Interestingly enough, some of his studies have also employed rigged board games.) Piff performed another study that indicated that the poor were more charitable than the rich. Regarding the behavior of the Circles in StarPower, studies on last-place aversion are relevant. Meanwhile, social psychologist John Jost's multiple studies on system justification are also valuable.

(To counteract these negative dynamics, some programs do try to encourage the development of empathy. The chronically underfunded arts also have a fine track record in this regard. Discussing the social contract in more depth in our national political discourse could be nice, too.)

Some people (particularly conservatives) tend to get upset when they hear the term "privilege" in relation to themselves. I believe it's because it feels like an accusation that they haven't worked hard in their lives, and that often isn't the case. Yet acknowledging privilege doesn't disregard the presence of hard work or setbacks – it just recognizes consequential advantages. John Scalzi, in a good post (and two follow-ups) using a gaming analogy, called "straight white male" the "lowest difficulty setting." That doesn't mean a guaranteed win, or a life free from struggle, or a better outcome than everyone in a different demographic (being rich tends to be an awfully good trump card). Still, all other things being equal, the odds are better with some "settings" or starting positions than others. Horatio Alger stories of rags to riches can occur, but relying on them makes for poor public policy. A fairly recent study suggests that socioeconomic mobility in the United States hasn't changed much in decades, but also that it isn't great compared to other industrialized nations, and as John Cassidy points out, the study "doesn’t mean that the effects of inequality aren’t more serious than they used to be." (Since by definition there will always be a poorest 10% and 20%, perhaps it's wise to ensure that relative poverty is less dire and some basic needs are met for everyone.) Hard work and talent are indeed important, but the reality is that luck, and "choosing one's parents at birth," play an enormous role in success, and certainly prosperity. It takes a pretty cloistered life not to realize this.

Although cloistered, privileged, entitled wankers have always been with us, it does seem that in the last decade or so they've become more aggressive crowing about their own preciousness and expressing contempt for the (supposedly) lower orders. It's hard to keep up all the extremely wealthy figures indignantly insisting that a slight raise in their taxes would be like Hitler invading Poland, or Kristallnacht, or making similarly ridiculous claims. (Unsurprisingly, they won't mention that tax rates for the rich are lower than in earlier decades or provide context about the significant and increasing wealth inequality in the U.S.) We've seen periodic rants from egomaniacal Wall Street players that read like parody but have been linked approvingly by conservative outlets. Nor is it hard to find material that, for instance, praises Ayn Rand and insists that the '99% give back to the 1%' – countless pieces give voice to the persecuted privileged and promote the plutocratic, neofeudalist view.

Jonathan Chait's 2009 piece "Wealthcare" (about the conservative adoration for Ayn Rand) took a good look at this mentality:

Not surprisingly, the argument that getting rich often entails a great deal of luck tends to drive conservatives to apoplexy. This spring the Cornell economist Robert Frank, writing in The New York Times, made the seemingly banal point that luck, in addition to talent and hard work, usually plays a role in an individual's success. Frank's blasphemy earned him an invitation on Fox News, where he would play the role of the loony liberal spitting in the face of middle-class values. The interview offers a remarkable testament to the belligerence with which conservatives cling to the mythology of heroic capitalist individualism. As the Fox host, Stuart Varney, restated Frank's outrageous claims, a voice in the studio can actually be heard laughing off-camera. Varney treated Frank's argument with total incredulity, offering up ripostes such as "That's outrageous! That is outrageous!" and "That's nonsense! That is nonsense!" Turning the topic to his own inspiring rags-to-riches tale, Varney asked: "Do you know what risk is involved in trying to work for a major American network with a British accent?"

There seems to be something almost inherent in the right-wing psychology that drives its rich adherents to dismiss the role of luck--all the circumstances that must break right for even the most inspired entrepreneur--in their own success. They would rather be vain than grateful. So seductive do they find this mythology that they omit major episodes of their own life, or furnish themselves with preposterous explanations (such as the supposed handicap of making it in American television with a British accent--are there any Brits in this country who have not been invited to appear on television?) to tailor reality to fit the requirements of the fantasy.

The association of wealth with virtue necessarily requires the free marketer to play down the role of class. Arthur Brooks, in his book Gross National Happiness, concedes that "the gap between the richest and poorest members of society is far wider than in many other developed countries. But there is also far more opportunity . . . there is in fact an amazing amount of economic mobility in America." In reality, as a study earlier this year by the Brookings Institution and Pew Charitable Trusts reported, the United States ranks near the bottom of advanced countries in its economic mobility. The study found that family background exerts a stronger influence on a person's income than even his education level. And its most striking finding revealed that you are more likely to make your way into the highest-earning one-fifth of the population if you were born into the top fifth and did not attain a college degree than if you were born into the bottom fifth and did. In other words, if you regard a college degree as a rough proxy for intelligence or hard work, then you are economically better off to be born rich, dumb, and lazy than poor, smart, and industrious.

In addition to describing the rich as "hard-working," conservatives also have the regular habit of describing them as "productive" . . .

This mentality fits perfectly with Mitt Romney's infamous 2012 remarks about the "47 percent":

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. . .

Romney's claims were at best grossly misleading, and taken in larger context were outright false. Still, that didn't stop him from sticking by them (as did many surrogates), eventually apologizing, then making similar remarks and finally claiming he didn't say what he did. It's also worth noting that he said this behind closed doors, at a private event, which suggests that Romney really believed this bullshit himself or at the very least thought his donor base did. Likewise, for the past several years, Romney's running mate Paul Ryan has offered various plans to funnel more money to the rich while gutting the social safety net, an old con that never seems to go out of fashion with conservatives. The essential story of the past fifty-some years for movement conservatism and the Republican Party has been selling bigotry and delivering plutocracy, of the Southern Strategy and Reaganomics (also know as supply-side economics or trickle-down economics). The theme for one day of the 2012 Republican National Convention was "We Built It," referencing clumsy remarks by Barack Obama taken out of context, lacing them with resentment, and pushing any sort of "debate" about the social contract and the role of government to a petulant, childish and dishonest extreme. The leaders of movement conservatism agree that the game is rigged, but they deny it's for the benefit of the rich and powerful, instead offering scapegoats such as liberals, Democrats, feminists, ethnic minorities, gay people... (really, something for everyone – but then, that's why Republicans are the inclusive, big tent party).

In recent years, there's been an interesting variation on the ol' "I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps" claim. The stories to deflect charges of privilege and about the value of hard work from Rick Santorum, Ann Romney, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, among others, have focused on their fathers and grandfathers. Naturally, they don't come right out and say 'I'm not privileged because my (grand)father worked hard,' or 'I deserve it all because of my (grand)parents,' but that is the gist. (Apparently virtue, like money, is passed down through the generations.)

(I've focused on conservatives and Republicans here, but obviously, the Democratic Party has a significant plutocratic, corporatist faction, and that shouldn't be ignored when it comes to reform efforts. That said, the Republican Party is definitely more plutocratic and their rep in that regard is well-deserved. Despite several notable electoral defeats, it still doesn't have anything beyond lip service and dogma for the middle class, not to mention the poor – remember them? It certainly has nothing comparable to what the Congressional Progressive Caucus offers, policy-wise.)

Sadly, conservatives have become increasingly intent on screwing the poor and anyone fallen on hard times, with consistent attacks on food stamps forming one of the more glaring examples. More striking is the relentless demonization, including claims that Jesus hates the poor (who have it good), that Jesus opposes progressive taxation and social services, that the filthy homeless should stay out of the sight of their betters, that those who have lost their homes should be mocked, that food stamp recipients are akin to animals, and that that starving schoolchildren should dive into dumpsters for food.

The game is rigged. Some people are too cloistered to know it. A percentage of that group can be reached. But some people know the game's rigged, want to keep it that way and tilt the game even further. And some are so filled with hatred it's unlikely they'll ever significantly change their views. After all, in contrast with those lucky duckies they decry, theirs is a hard life, and it requires sustained cruelty for them to live with themselves.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Update: In September 2014, Mitt Romney offered yet another account of his "47 percent" remarks, that he "reflected back to the man" who asked him a question at the fundraiser. David Corn of Mother Jones offers a good account, and Daily Kos, Paul Waldman and Steve Benen provide more context, including the staggering number of falsehoods Romney spouted during his presidential campaign. (Fodder for its own post, perhaps.)