Saturday, May 22, 2004

Conative Dissonance

Because judgments of probability are made on the basis of prior knowledge, the same piece of information can either confirm or disconfirm a given hypothesis depending on one’s presuppositions. This is not a theoretical possibility. It happens all the time and goes a long way to explaining how contradictory political views can persist in the face of uncontroverted evidence. Different judgments reflect different values, but they are also rooted in contrasting factual beliefs.

The application: right-wingers not only believe that America ought be the unquestioned paramount power in the world; their foreign policy proposals only make sense if we are and will remain vastly more powerful than the other nations for the foreseeable future. Recent events have shown that this notion is at least questionable. In theory, the contrary evidence might change minds; but in practice, believers in American exceptionalism are more likely to explain away failures by recourse to ad hoc supplementary hypotheses. Recall the precedent of 1918. When defeat on the battlefield challenged the presumption of their invincibility, the Germans could have acknowledged that they had been overmatched. Instead, they devised the Stab-in-the-Back story. The analogous salves to pride are currently under construction in the conservative think tanks, and prototypes are tested nightly on Fox News. The narrative about domestic cheese-eating surrender monkeys will make it possible to interpret each new disaster as further proof that we were right all along. After all, it’s obvious that only a womanish failure of nerve and a neurotic obsession with legalistic scruples stands between us and ultimate triumph.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Karma Yoga

The complete collapse of the administration’s credibility has led to a baroque profusion of conspiracy theories, but there is another reason why almost any screwy hypothesis can get traction in these later days. The administration is full of people who love intrigue and skullduggery. The propensity of excitable bloggers to detect plots is matched by the right-wing propensity to hatch them. The ruling Republicans are the same people, after all, who cooked up Watergate and Iran Contra. They like that sort of thing; and, between the Straussian doctrine of premeditated dissimilation and the general glorification of political crime as machismo, they have found a wonderfully elastic excuse to do whatever they want and lie about it with a good conscience. So one shouldn’t be too hard on the conspiracy theorists. Discovering complicated schemes is surely no nuttier than contriving them. There’s more than one way to acquire a tin-foil hat.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Spoilers R Us

I feel somewhat unqualified to review Troy since I’ve actually read Homer. Checking out other reviewers, it was pretty clear that they hadn’t, which probably explains why the movie version of the story didn’t strike them as peculiar. I mean I expected a movie to play with the legend upon which it is built if only because there is too much narrative content for a single movie in the matter of Troy. The Greeks themselves played dozens of variations on the tale, including one version in which the real Helen never went to Troy at all because as Zeus’ daughter she was a little too grand or holy to hook up with a feckless pretty boy like Paris. Myth, as Levi-Strauss correctly understood, lives in ceaseless transformation so there’s no reason to complain if a new rendition is faithful to the original—the Iliad wasn’t the original either. There are, however, versions and versions. To meld a structuralist with a Texas way of putting things, the movie is only a semi-coherent transformation of the epic. Hector has no business stabbing Menelaus to death on the second day of the war. An Agamemnon shaped like Homer Simpson isn’t very Homeric. And allowing Helen and Paris run off to Mount Ida reminds me of the joke about the test audience that liked Titanic but didn’t want the ship to sink at the end.

Sarcasm aside, I was more surprised at what worked than what didn’t. Brad Pitt wasn’t a bad Achilles at all. I wasn’t even put off by his kung fu moves. The war itself was appropriately grim and gory. Allowing for the exigencies of film, the sequence in which King Priam begs Achilles for the body of his slain son actually has some of the pathos of the Homeric account, though its brevity points up how much is lost because of the driving tempo of popular movies. Some of the nonsense in the movie was also memorable in its own way, though the utterly inadequate Helen struck me as an insult to young audiences who are apparently supposed to find an insipidly pretty blond a credible cause of tragedy. On the other hand, I can only salute sublime absurdity of the scene in which Achilles ravishes the virgin priestess of Apollo even though she has a dagger at his throat. Somebody should have let him know that sex is not necessarily safe just because you’re using a Trojan.
Arresting Voltaire

I sympathize with the journalists and politicians who avoid Noam Chomsky. A George Will or Charles Krauthammer arguing with Chomsky could only provide a Nicholas Berg moment if not something far worse like the sadistic fantasy of President Bush suddenly required to substitute for Tony Blair at Question Time. Chomsky made his chops shooting down the likes of B.F. Skinner in a famous series of intellectual duals. There’s an entire book, Challenging Chomsky, dedicated to documenting his spectacular polemical ability on his home turf of theoretical linguistics. Being smart, obviously, is not the same as being right, at least for us empiricists; but in its superlative degree it does make you the scariest gladiator in the arena, especially to mental midgets brandishing tin swords. Respecting or even fearing Chomsky, however, is not the same thing as agreeing with him.

For all of its undeniable strengths, Chomsky’s way of thinking has at least one fatal defect as an instrument for understanding the current situation, a failing it shares with much of the non-Marxist left. It is drastically unhistorical. Chomsky has been elaborating the same indictment of the ruling world system for most of my lifetime as if nothing had changed in the underlying economic, military, and political structure of the world except the names of the members of the board of directors. But things have changed. Bush the Second is not the same as LBJ or even Bush the First. America as the leader of the Cold War coalition is a very different proposition than America as an erratic and lawless hegemon. The nature of the world economy has likewise undergone a huge mutation. A dogmatic analysis that cannot detect these earthquakes does not inspire a great deal of confidence. It also promotes a sort of cosmic Naderism that discourages the compromises and alliances the times require.