Splitting hairs or Splitting Reality?

I would encourage any American who sees themselves in the independent middle between the two major U.S. political parties to read Farhad Manjoo’s TRUE ENOUGH: LEARNING TO LIVE IN A POST-FACT SOCIETY.  I had mentioned the book in a blog a few weeks ago:  True-ish, Truthiness, and True Enough

“In this book I’ve explored how modern communications technology has shifted our understanding of the truth.  I argue that new information tools haven’t merely given us faster and easier access to the news, but that they’ve altered our very grasp on reality.  The pulsing medium fosters divergent perceptions about what’s actually happening in the world – that is, it lets each of us hold on to different versions of reality.”  (p224)

Manjoo gives examples from recent political events to show that “reality is splitting” for liberals and conservatives in America.  He examines some common political beliefs of the left and right, offers what evidence he could find from his research about “the truth” of the situation and then comments on how both the left and the right choose to believe what they want to believe and whom they want to believe no matter what the evidence might show.  His claim is that the modern media exacerbates the problem as partisan commentators repeat partial or distorted truths, or harp on one truth while ignoring everything else that is known about a situation.  And in the modern information age where everyone quickly becomes overwhelmed by the amount of information and the number of voices, people more readily turn to listen to those that are espousing views they already agree with.  People aren’t searching for the truth, they are looking for evidence that confirms what they already believe.   Thus on the right many choose to believe that John Kerry was not a war hero, on the left they believe that Bush stole the election from Gore, and a sizeable group of American conspiracy theorists still believe that the American Government or military staged the 9/11 attacks using missiles in order to justify going to war with Iraq.   In each case, when evidence is used to pick apart the beliefs held, “believers” hold to what they believe and don’t trust the evidence offered even when they can’t refute the evidence.   This is the sense in which “reality splits” and people see what they want even while looking at the same evidence.  Manjoo offers some psychological and sociological reasons from research studies  as to how the human mind works  regarding what we choose to believe and why; the bottom line is we really do pay more attention and give more credence to those things which reaffirm our already held beliefs. 

“Selective exposure, selective perception, the cult of fake experts, and the end of objectivity in the news: these are merely pistons in what has become, today, a powerful engine of propaganda, one that drives all the recent examples of our society’s unfettered departure from ‘the reality-based world.’”   (p 227)

Among the sociological findings regarding our selective listening:

  1. “We’d rather listen to the other side’s flimsy attacks on our side than our side’s flimsy attacks on theirs.”  (p 43)   This has an interesting effect in campaigns: our voting decisions seem wiser when the opposition presents weak arguments for its side.    Saturation type advertising can be counterproductive if it isn’t presenting compelling reasons for independent voters to change their minds, but might work to keep the party faithful, loyal.   However, Manjoo points out that liberals and conservatives react differently to campaign advertising according to studies.  Republicans  prefer to hear even flimsy messages that support their ideas  rather than listen to the weak arguments of Democrats, while the Democrats find the flimsy arguments of Republicans to be convincing evidence to vote Democratic. 
  2. “Republicans and conservatives are more ideological in their political posture…” (p 46).    Studies show Republicans prefer selective exposure – they don’t want to know both sides of the argument and prefer to hear only the view they agree with.  I’m guessing this is true because the conservative mind by nature tends to eschew change, so they want to know what is right with their ideas and aren’t looking to change them, whereas “liberals” by nature are more open to (or looking for)  new ideas and so are also less ideological bound and more willing to explore new/different ideas.  (see my blog What Biology Says About Your Politics)
  3. Studies show news anchors and “experts” can sway public opinion 3-4 percentage points on an issue.   Thus the battle to make networks more conservative or liberal can have an effect on elections.    But also, “…’reality’ splits when people selectively expose themselves to different facts, or when they interpret the same evidence in divergent ways.” (p 107)  So choosing to watch only one “biased” network will cause one to have a totally different view of reality than those who watch other networks.
  4. Studies show “each of us thinks that on any given subject our views are essentially objective…  then we think that reasonable people ought to agree with us.  And to the extent that people disagree with us, we conclude that they are not reasonable – they’re biased.”  (p 152)
  5. Studies in education show  “That American society prizes style over substance…” (p 116).   I consider this to be one of the most negative factors in American politics.  We continue to confuse entertainment with substance and so will continue to be attracted to entertaining/stylish/attractive candidates over people with substantive ideas who aren’t as good looking.   (Yesterday’s news: Connecticut GOP chooses former World Wrestling Entertainer Linda McMahon as their senate candidate). 
  6. Studies show that “Society works better  when people trust one another.” (p 222)  Unfortunately now we have “particularized trust” – we trust only those who agree with our point of view and so we are willing to blind ourselves to the negative aspects of the political views we hold.

Manjoo’s descriptive tour of America notes the effects of video news releases (manufactured “pseudo-news”; stories told from a point of view – even sales pitches – but presented as “news”; PR firm created videos intended to influence/deceive but offered as objective information).    Not only has it become easier to create news stories and releases, but the effect of millions of blogs/tweets/txt messages/etc means messages even false or pernicious ones spread the word at the speed of light.   This only furthers peoples’ distrust of information that they don’t like or don’t agree with which further enables people to hold to different realities.   In the end Manjoo sees the current effects of the information/communication age continuing for years to come.

Presidential Power

I read Garry Wills’ BOMB POWER: THE MODERN PRESIDENCY AND THE NATIONAL SECURITY STATE which I found to be a fast moving and interesting book, but one which led me to be concerned about the direction of our country.  This is the 2nd blog in a series based on Wills book, the first is Super Power: Is The Bomb America’s True or only strength?

A few quotes from the book:

“There were a large number of people in the State Department when I took over who were certain I did not know what was going on in the world, and they tried to keep me from finding out.”   (President Harry Truman)

“Accountability is the essence of democracy.  If people do not know what their government is doing, they cannot be truly self-governing.”  (Wills)

The above statement is one of Wills’ major concerns – the more secrecy the government undertakes, the less we the people know about what they are doing.  Some fear only what they see the government doing or what they fear the government is going to do.  So some fear the new health care proposals as creating even a bigger government.  But the government continues to grow, and truly in a “Big Brother” capacity, in its secrecy – both in what is kept secret from “we the people” and the amount that is being kept secret.  Some fear “socialism” creeping in through health care reform, but a form of big government/brother perhaps of bigger concern and threat to our freedoms is the huge and growing secret parts of our government:  secret weapons, surveillance, covert operations, secret trials and interrogations which much more closely resemble some of the worst aspects of Soviet socialism of the 20th Century.  

“And Truman found out what others would learn after him, that presidential wars may be easy to start but they are almost impossible to end.”  (Wills)

It quickly became apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material that there is massive overclassification, and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another.”   (Erwin Griswold, Solicitor General under President Nixon)

When Cheney became Vice President in 2001, he and his legal advisor, David Addington, asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to rule that the President, and he alone, has all authority over war – exactly the opposite of the constitutional grant of all such authority to Congress. …   Cheney said the Constitution was irrelevant to executive power.”  (Wills)

“It was (John) Yoo’s job to invent the legal rationales for actions universally seen as illegal before 9/11. Yoo came to the task with preformed certitudes about the limitless extent of presidential prerogative.  …  His President is ‘the sovereign,’ and sovereignty is by definition free of external control. …  Even in England, the sovereign was ‘the king in Parliament.’  Yoo would make the President more powerful than the monarch we renounced in 1776.”  (Wills)

Makes me wonder, all those who now fear big government – why not question the secret big government that Cheney advocates (“limitless power”!).  And with Obama in power, maybe that will cause neo-cons to recognize the blindness that their drive to empower the presidency with supreme power represents, and the threat to the U.S. constitution.   Why is the Tea Party silent on this form of big government. secretive operations and big government secretive spending? 

“A declaration that there shall be war is not an execution of laws: it does not suppose pre-existing laws to be executed; it is not in any respect an act merely executive.  It is, on the contrary, one of the most deliberative acts that can be performed… In the general distribution of powers, we find that of declaring war expressly vested in the Congress, where every other legislative power is declared to be vested, and without any other qualification than what is common to every other legislative act.  The constitutional idea of this power would seem then clearly to be that it is of a legislative and not an executive nature…. Those who are to conduct  a war cannot in the nature of things be proper or safe judges whether a war ought to be commenced, continued or concluded.  They are barred from the latter functions by a great principle in free government analogous to that which separates the sword form the purse, or the power of executing from the power of enacting laws.”  (James Madison, founding father of the U.S., “Father of the Bill of Rights,” President, commentator on the Constitution)

   Madison once wrote that those generations who declare war ought to pay for the entire enterprise and not leave expenses to future generations.  He thought this would curtail the desire to go to war.  He felt the problem with having a standing army is that the government will not be able to resist the temptation to put it to use.  No doubt he felt having the congress rather than the president be responsible for declaring and going to war would curtail the number of wars the country declared since it is harder to get a majority to agree than to have one executive officer engage in whatever adventurism he is wont to do.  Presidents in the last 50 years have found plenty of reason to go off to war, without the constitutionally mandated approval of congress.

Next:  Power:  Congressional and American

Remixing Lawrence Lessig’s REMIX

I read Lawrence Lessig ‘s  REMIX: MAKING ART AND COMMERCE THRIVE IN THE HYBRID ECONOMY  to learn something about copyright law and what constitutes “fair use” of material.  I am specifically interested in what this means for blogging, though probably the issue of biggest concern in our society is the file sharing of movies and music done by so many today because the Internet has made it so easy to do.  Not being much of a consumer of contemporary media, my interest in Lessig is certainly not mainstream. 

I really did enjoy his book and learned a great deal about the issues and problems which the electronic age has caused regarding copyright and fair use.  Lessig’s thoughts on how to reform law and culture in the electronic age made sense to me.  His use of the metaphor comparing a RO culture (read only) to a RW culture (read write – taking cues from modern electronic equipment) shed a lot of light on the topic. 

I intend in this blog  and the next to do a bit of amateur creative remixing – taking from his book an idea that was not his main purpose but which intrigued me to ask a rhetorical question about America’s war in Iraq.   Lessig is writing about the limits of government regulation in dealing with many issues and specifically as it might apply to government efforts to regulate the copying and creative use of copyrighted material (Lessig favors regulation on the use of copy but not so much on the copying itself).  He draws an example from America’s war in Iraq, which is what got me thinking about how Bush led us to war.   What follows is related to what became a mantra for conservatives in advocating smaller government and the deregulation of so many aspects of the economy.   On 20 January 1981, Ronald Reagan said:

“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” 

The anti-government attitude was in some ways a mix of 1960’s anti-establisment thinking with laissez-faire capitalism and conservative small government thinking.  It gets embraced in varying ways by Americans of all political stripes (from government should stay out of our bedrooms and leave sexual and reproductive decisions to individuals to government should not run the health care industry thereby socializing 17% of the economy (GDP); and on the other hand from both sides wanting government – legislative and judicial – to support and champion their causes and issues).

Lessig’s rhetorical question, which is not the main subject of his book (“This is not a book about Iraq.” p 282), made me wonder about what was the supposedly conservative Bush administration thinking when it invaded Iraq?   Lessig asks:

What reason was there to think that government power could succeed in occupying and remaking Iraqi society?

… I’m talking about everything that would obviously have to be done after the invasion – from security, to electric power, to food supplies, to education.  It was as if those at the very top simply assumed that the government could do all those things, without ever asking whether that assumption made any sense. (p 281)

The very philosophy supposedly influencing the conservatives was a distrust of the government to do anything right.  So why did they believe they could remake and run a whole society?   If government was not the solution to America’s problems why did they believe that the U.S. government could readily make right Iraqi society?

Of course the question might be faulty.  It is possible that they actually never thought much at all about rebuilding the country they were about to destroy because they saw themselves as only destroying “the government” and didn’t take into consideration that the whole Iraqi society would be the “collateral damage” in such a war.     Or perhaps they assumed in their Reaganesque thinking that since only the government is the problem, eliminate the government and the society will do just fine on its own – vastly underestimating that the total removal of government would push the people toward nihilistic chaos.  (One need only think about the scenes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina once it was apparent that the government had vacated the city leaving only flood waters to check people’s activities).

“A parent, an army, a government: they all must be certain that their devotion to truth does not blind them to the consequences of their actions.  There’s only so much a government can do.  Where we find that limit, we must then find other means to the legitimate end.” (p 287)

Next blog:  The War on Digital Piracy: A Cynical Response?

What Biology Says About Your Politics

Two articles that deal with one’s political views and biology.  The first was comes from Ted.com  and features psychologist Jonathan Haidt who spoke on The real difference between liberals and conservatives.   Haidt identified five primary categories of moral values:  1) Harm/Care  (includes compassion),  2)Fairness/Reciprocity, 3)In-group/Loyalty, 4) Authority/Respect, 5) Purity/Sanctity.   He then looked at studies which show which of these values  those who are socially/morally liberal or conservative honor the most.  Interestingly cross cultural studies throughout the world show the same basic patterns.   Both liberals and conservatives highly value the same ideals surrounding Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity.  These items might be somehow basic human values – the values which have allowed humans to socialize and form cities and nations.  But conservatives much more highly value Loyalty, Authority and Purity than do liberals. 

Haidt says that change and progress – which require paying less honor to loyalty, authority and purity – are driven by people who have a different set of values.   He uses the information to say that instead of liberals and conservatives seeing each other in an adversarial fashion, they might come to see the value in what they each contribute to society and to being human.  Liberals drive change, improvement, technology because they feel less loyalty to what is, to who is in power, to what others consider good or valuable.  Conservatives work to keep humanity together by defining limits of acceptability.  Both contribute to us being more human and better social beings.

As one small aside –  though social conservatives much more highly value purity than do liberals, Haidt notes that while this may be true when it comes to sex, contemporary liberals have come to form their own sense of purity – what we put in out bodies (right foods, drinks, etc) and liberals can be extremely puritanical when it comes to politically correct foods and drink.

 The second article connecting politics and biology was aired on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition 19 September 2008:  Could Political Views be Driven by Biology?    In a study done of people with strong political convictions, University of Nebraska researcher John Hibbing said his team could quite accurately predict political affiliation by the way people reacted to alarming images and sounds.  Conservatives reacted more strongly to threats than did liberals.  Interpreting the data proves a bit trickier.  The transcript of the audio article reads:

Hibbing and his colleagues found that they could predict what a person’s political beliefs would be based on how strongly the person’s body responded to the alarming images and sounds, according to a report in the journal Science.

“Those people who seemed to have a stronger reaction to threat were more likely to favor things like military spending, the death penalty, the Patriot Act,” says Hibbing.

He doesn’t think this study means that conservatives are essentially scaredy-cats.

“I think it’s just as easy to say that liberals are naive, and they don’t get it. They don’t understand it’s a dangerous world,” Hibbing says.