Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Fact Deficit

I’ve been unfair to many of Bush’s supporters, believing that they were being arrogant in dismissing foreign criticism of our policies. Like many others, I cited, at least in my mind, the phrase in the Declaration of Independence about “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” But this criticism assumes that the people are aware of what the world thinks. A recent study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) shows that the Bush base is largely unaware of the depth and breadth of anti-American feeling and even imagines that most Europeans and even Muslims support the war and have a high opinion of Mr. Bush. The Bush supporters are ill-informed in general, supposing, for example, that he is promoting a multilateral approach to global warming and other international issues and continuing to think that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and significant ties to Al Qaeda.

One should not be entirely surprised, though inevitably one is. It takes a huge investment of time and money to teach the alphabet and other basics to a reasonable proportion of the population; and at least in that enterprise the effort to inform is not opposed by a large and well-financed group circulating falsified multiplication tables. The human mind may not be a perfectly blank slate; but, to paraphrase a familiar maxim of the Scholastics, “Nothing is in the Intellect that is not first on Prime Time.” It requires real effort to create a society in which important matters of fact are generally understood by everyone—you certainly can’t expect the average person to exert even a tiny effort to find out for themselves. In this instance, however, not everything can be chalked up to the inertness of the public mind. Kerry supporters are far more aware of the state of the world and, crucially, have a much more accurate picture of the positions of their own candidate than Bush supporters. Why are they so much better at registering the facts of the case?

The authors of the PIPA study suggest that Bush’s supporters can’t hear evidence contrary to their high estimation of Bush because to do so would result in cognitive dissonance. If, as was famously proclaimed on the Daily Show, the facts are biased, so much the worse for the facts. People don’t want to accept that we invaded Iraq on false premises, and they certainly don’t want to admit that they were taken in. Bush, after all, had been made into the hero of 9/11. Indeed, if you recall the way the events were covered, he performed brilliantly in the aftermath even before he did anything at all, so strong was the imperative of the story line. Once you’ve decided that Bush is the necessary man, it’s easy to simply assume that he shares your opinions even when he obviously doesn’t because, to speak the language of physical chemistry, the default case is energetically favorable and, to speak the language of clinical psychology, you’re frightened and desperate to believe whatever Daddy says.

Snark aside, I don’t know whether the average Bush supporter is stupider than the average Kerry supporter. The more important difference may be that the greater insecurity of Bush supporters makes them easier marks for the cynical propaganda that exploits their fears and thus spreads disinformation. The deeper or rather the more important question here is how a large group of people gradually became so vulnerable to manipulation.

I’ve often written that it is the American public and not the Bush administration that will bear the responsibility for what we’re doing to ourselves and the world. In making this point, I’ve descended into prophetic denunciation from time to time. To be fair, I ought to make it clear that the relevant moral category in politics is karma, not sin. I love to dress up as Jeremiah, but what History is likely to punish is not the unrighteousness of the people but their stupidity and cowardice. While each of us has some responsibility for the kind of person we become, specifically ethical condemnation should mostly be reserved for the individuals in politics and the media who have self-consciously promoted popular ignorance and timidity for power and gain. Unfortunately, karma, a merely statistical tendency, often passes over the worst malefactors. Showered with honors, they die in their beds and wind up buried next to their libraries.

No comments: