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.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Postmodern Condition

It’s already been ten years or so since I suggested that it was time for the local bookstore to start a Used Postmodernism section. The folks at Green Apple didn’t think that was very funny, but whatever point I had is perhaps a little less over subtle in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s death. The amorphous set of themes and assumptions formerly known as Poststructuralism and then Postmodernism is indeed long in the tooth.

Of course the philosophical interesting ideas of the French never really circulated as such. The influence of serious thought is surely indirect; what appears in public is a crude parody of the original. The parody can be significant in itself however. Postmodernism really doesn’t name a philosophy; but perhaps it identifies a historical condition; and it may be that historical condition rather than any fragments of credible philosophy that lingers on and on.

The philosophers, at least the pros among ‘em, may have decided that there is something outside the text and that no amount of sociology can dissolve the results that crystallize out of the sciences. They’ve taken notice that you can do things with words but also realized that you can’t do very much—the effectiveness of performative utterances such as the universally invoked example of the “I do” depends upon the pre-existence of an entire system of laws and customs and has no force outside of the tribe. Being married is merely a legal state, not a natural fact.

Only God Almighty is able to bring a world into existence by a WORD. “Let there be light,” works for Him. For us, “Let there be a terrible rumpus!” is more like it. To listen to the television, however, you’d think that what people wish or intend or decree is what creates all the facts, especially in politics. The talking heads endlessly rediscover that appearances are more important than realities and retail this profound truth to an audience that is supposed to be surprised by an idea that had been banal for two generations in 399 B.C. Let us not criticize this venerable sophistry, however; but ask instead the why it seems so apropos circa 2004 A.D.

If the Postmodern condition is one in which the realities that matter are cultural artifacts and what’s important is simply what people think, we must be somehow be insulated from realities that are non-human or at least alien to our own society. Under what circumstances can the physics of the atmosphere can be ignored in relationship to global warming? How can we get away with ignoring arithmetic in deciding a fiscal policy? In which universe do the opinions of the rest of the world have no relevance for American foreign policy? The presidential aide interviewed by Ron Suskind in an already celebrated article supplied the answer. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” But if we’re really going to create a new reality and revalue all values by virtue of our redoubtable Will to Power, we’re going to need not merely the belief that we have the power, but the power itself.

Children can live in fantasy worlds because the adults protect them. Nobody’s protecting us, but we’ve inherited a splendid playpen. We’re able to conduct our politics by the postmodern rules of fantasy, if only temporarily, because it has fallen out that we acquired a huge advantage over the other nations. Our military preponderance, for example, though universally overestimated, is quite real and all the more formidable because we are crazy enough to use it. More importantly, we haven’t maxed out the credit cards yet, so we can go on imagining that we’re wealthy even though we’re obviously going bankrupt. We can also outrage the environment, not because we can repeal the laws of nature but because technological karma works with a time lag. A dying man can eat anything. On the other hand, as the German’s say, “Erst Kommt das Fressen, denn der Moral.” (= I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!)

Monday, October 18, 2004

Antibiotic Resistance

Inadequate doses of antibiotics have the predictable effect of promoting resistant strains of bacteria by natural selection. Which is why all those pill bottles bear a tag encouraging the patient to finish the prescription. I think we should take this advice to heart in our military policy, but half measures seem to be the rule both in Afghanistan and Iraq where we are running what amounts to a training program for terrorists. We certainly don’t have the overwhelming presence that would be required to put down the multifaceted rebellion by main force, and it’s a good bet that our enemies will gradually figure out how to evade or defeat the military technology we are so dependent upon. Many right-wingers think of themselves as military philosophers, but they seem to have forgotten the rule of thumb they themselves formerly invoked to criticize previous administrations: only the long-term application of a considerable numerical advantage can defeat a popular insurgency. Absent that, random violence and torture merely toughens and strengthens the opposition. We are breeding a generation of superbugs.

At this point I should insert a bit of boiler plate about how the Bush strategy in Iraq is of a piece with many other policies based on a principled contempt for the lessons of experience. These folks are addicted to wishful thinking.