Friday, November 27, 2020

Victim-Blaming With a Human Face


Gloria Swanson in Lewis Milestone's/Richard Rosson's Fine Manners (1926).

David F. Brooks fries up some tasty leftover turkey and stuffing ("The Rotting of the Republican Mind"):

In a recent Monmouth University survey, 77 percent of Trump backers said Joe Biden had won the presidential election because of fraud. Many of these same people think climate change is not real. Many of these same people believe they don’t need to listen to scientific experts on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

We live in a country in epistemological crisis, in which much of the Republican Party has become detached from reality. Moreover, this is not just an American problem. All around the world, rising right-wing populist parties are floating on oceans of misinformation and falsehood. What is going on?

Many people point to the internet — the way it funnels people into information silos, the way it abets the spread of misinformation. I mostly reject this view. Why would the internet have corrupted Republicans so much more than Democrats, the global right more than the global left?

Why indeed? Brooks goes to the well of journalist and Brookings fellow Jonathan Rauch, who became well known after the 1993 appearance of his Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks of Free Thought, which explained in the nicest, most clubbable possible way how the project of "political correctness"—the idea that one should refrain from using language that demeans and abuses and hurts members of racial, ethnic, sexual, and other kinds of groups less powerful than one's own—was in spite of its "wonderful moral clarity" actually "inherently deadly, not incidentally so—to intellectual freedom and to the productive and peaceful pursuit of knowledge". No, that's not the one Brooks is citing today. Today he's talking about Rauch's 2018 essay "The Constitution of Knowledge", which examines the relative success in misinformation-spreading of Trump and his army of "epistemic trolls" and points at—well, he points at the Internet, actually, like the other many people Brooks mostly rejects, but you have to read well over 20 paragraphs of the piece to find that out, and that's not the idea Brooks wants at the moment.

The idea that Brooks wants from Rauch for his own argument is the concept of a kind of international epistemological community existing since the beginning of the Enlightenment, of people—scientists and attorneys, journalists and philosophers, sociologists and spies—who may disagree wildly about what is true but agree on a particular set of techniques for finding out, including absolute freedom ("any hypothesis can be floated"), social testing (truth is determined by the judgment of the community), and respect for traditions that have survived a long time (including the ancient Greek rules of inference that gave us Euclidean geometry, number theory, and other truly unshakeable monuments):

The results have been spectacular, in three ways above all. First, by organizing millions of minds to tackle billions of problems, the epistemic constitution disseminates knowledge at a staggering rate. Every day, probably before breakfast, it adds more to the canon of knowledge than was accumulated in the 200,000 years of human history prior to Galileo's time. Second, by insisting on validating truths through a decentralized, non-coercive process that forces us to convince each other with evidence and argument, it ends the practice of killing ideas by killing their proponents. What is often called the marketplace of ideas would be more accurately described as a marketplace of persuasion, because the only way to establish knowledge is to convince others you are right. Third, by placing reality under the control of no one in particular, it dethrones intellectual authoritarianism and commits liberal society foundationally to intellectual pluralism and freedom of thought.

With which I pretty much helplessly agree, to tell the truth, but with some uneasy reservations, starting with wanting some recognition that the quantity of information the world accumulated this morning before breakfast isn't close to having the quality of what remains of the pre-Galileo product but almost entirely as trivial as it is vast. And the person-hour speed of really valuable developments seems to me to have slowed down immensely in the decades since 1960 or so, though some tasks can still get performed remarkably quickly just by using incredible quantities of persons (graduate student slaves whose ability to contribute personally to the discussion is radically limited by the need to devote all their time to the mechanics of their supervisors' experiments) as well as the truly amazing development of computer power. Also, the gee-whiz tone tends to encourage the belief that this system works like a kind of planned utopia, as if Aristotle had drafted its constitution, when it is in fact an ecology that has evolved over the centuries on the basis of random mutation and selection, with no intrinsic moral value at all, and we have no equivalent apparatus for finding out what is justice, no moral constitution, and too many vital tasks don't get performed anywhere because the needs aren't part of the calculus.

Brooks's complaint is that the knowledge ecology favors certain kinds of communities over other ones, the Blue over the Red in point of fact, Coastal Elitists over Hillbilly Elegists:

Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.

While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.

And it's this general "unhappiness" that causes them to believe that climate change is a hoax and Trump really won the election. Which he naturally blames not on the way states invest or fail to invest in higher education, which makes a huge difference as shown in exquisite detail (for example) in this very recent study from the New York Fed

Our analysis is conducted separately for two-year and four-year students, and we analyze individuals into their mid-30s. For four-year students, we find that state appropriation increases lead to substantially lower student debt originations. They also react to appropriation increases by shortening their time to degree, but we find little effect on other outcomes. In the two-year sector, state appropriation increases lead to more collegiate and post-collegiate educational attainment, more educational debt consistent with the increased educational attainment, but lower likelihood of delinquency and default. State support also leads to more car and home ownership with lower adverse debt outcomes, and these students experience substantial increases in their credit score and in the affluence of the neighborhood in which they live. Examining mechanisms, we find state appropriations are passed on to students in the form of lower tuition in the four-year sector with no institutional spending response. For community colleges, we find evidence of both price and quality mechanisms, the latter captured in higher educational resources in key spending categories. 

but on us elitists being mean to the subjects—you know how us city dwellers constantly travel out to the sticks to make fun of the natives: 

People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.

In the fervor of this enmity, millions of people have come to detest those who populate the epistemic regime, who are so distant, who appear to have it so easy, who have such different values, who can be so condescending. Millions not only distrust everything the “fake news” people say, but also the so-called rules they use to say them.

Ironically, if I try to stop you from casually insulting black people or lesbians or Sufi practitioners, I will be destroying intellectual freedom and the productive and peaceful pursuit of knowledge, but if I say something unkind about my old woodchuck friends from Deadend, New York west of the Catskills, I'm creating an insuperable epistemic crisis.

Also, microaggression is a fiction except when white men experience it.

Indeed, if anybody's laughing at them I'll bet it's their kids. Whenever I explain my skepticism about the "economic anxiety" theory of the Trump vote—the voters are mostly over 50 and earning over $100,000 a year and they're the least economically anxious sector of the population—people tell me, but they're anxious about their children. If so, why aren't the kids voting for Trump? One reason (whether they're voting Democratic or not voting at all) would be that they think their parents are idiots. This is a situation Brooks is likely to be familiar with, though he's not even slightly economically anxious, since his children are known to follow their mother politically, well to Brooks's left, and by now I expect they think of him as that wingnut who dumped Mom. Poignant to think about, him drafting this essay in the course of a Covid-era Thanksgiving, which means relatively lonely for most of us.

The one thing Brooks absolutely doesn't mention, of course, is the people with high incomes and college degrees who serve as sources for the false stories, like the former Speaker of the House Newton Leroy Gingrich (Ph.D. Tulane '71), the distinguished lawyer and author Dr. Jenna Ellis Esq. and former New York US attorney and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Senators Theodore Cruz and Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany (BS Georgetown, JD Harvard Law). Lou Dobbs (BA in economics, Harvard '67) to Laura Ingraham (BA Dartmouth, JD University of Virginia). Pastor George Pearsons of the Eagle Mountain International Church in Texas, who

claimed that people in heaven—as well as ballots—are "crying out" about alleged voter fraud in the 2020 election, saying that "angels have been dispatched."

and the American Association of Evangelicals

If election theft has occurred in any districts or cities, if Americans have been defrauded in any way, then we must find restitution in 2020. The war for truth is now, not in future elections. Theft of a nation must never be rewarded but exposed and punished by law. America will not recover from such an unconscionable crime, as the funders, social engineers and perpetrators of vote manipulation well know. Why should so few have so much power to harm our nation?

(Happy to report evangelical congregations seem to be pulling back from the Trumpery, and I imagine the pastors will be smart enough to follow eventually.) 

So I don't think it's my college degree that makes them discount what I say, and it's definitely not my power and money.

I don't know why we have to think it's so strange Trump voters believe this garbage, given where they're getting it from and the amount of background knowledge they have. Why wouldn't regular people (obviously I mean white people, but still) over in that flyover country, not following politics critically, radios tuned to Sinclair and TVs to Fox, not that they're necessarily paying a whole lot of attention to those either, having real life personal issues to deal with as we all do and brought up to believe you don't need to spend your life worrying about what's going on in "Warshington, DC"—why wouldn't they believe them? 

Let's stop being amazed by the beliefs of voters with limited information sources and no training in critical thinking, and start thinking about the wealthy and powerful, college-educated Republican "thought leaders" who have been working on creating this attitude ("liberal elitists are mocking you while they rule the world, including all that immoral TV entertainment") since William Safire (a graduate of my son's high school, Bronx Science, but a college dropout, from Syracuse U.) was writing Spiro Agnew's speeches and Richard Viguerie mastered the direct-mail propaganda strategy, and of course they've always included people like David F. Brooks. People like Brooks now. thinking they're so smarmy-sympathetic about these benighted individuals, are exercising a kind of victim-blaming with a human face, because only the deepest possible emotional distress could ever explain somebody believing Lou Dobbs. 

It's not deep emotional distress. These are just the victims of a con, which obviously makes them less attractive, all the more so because you have to have some pretty nasty views of humanity to fall for it; but Brooks is distracting us from the actual criminals, the rich and powerful coastal elite of the conservative movement who push the disinformation.

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