Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
They Said It:
Reading Mr. Malcolm Muggeridge’s brilliant and depressing book, The Thirties, I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed oesophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul, and there was a period — twenty years, perhaps — during which he did not notice it….
The gist of Mr Muggeridge’s book is contained in two texts from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity” and “Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man”. It is a viewpoint that has gained a lot of ground lately, among people who would have laughed at it only a few years ago. We are living in a nightmare precisely because we have tried to set up an earthly paradise. We have believed in “progress”, trusted to human leadership, rendered unto Caesar the things that are God’s — that approximately is the line of thought.
Unfortunately Mr Muggeridge shows no sign of believing in God himself. Or at least he seems to take it for granted that this belief is vanishing from the human mind. There is not much doubt that he is right there, and if one assumes that no sanction can ever be effective except the supernatural one, it is clear what follows. There is no wisdom except in the fear of God; but nobody fears God; therefore there is no wisdom. Man’s history reduces itself to the rise and fall of material civilizations, one Tower of Babel after another.
George Orwell, “Notes on the Way,” 1940.
CHAOS, THE ELITES, AND THE CLASH OF MORAL CODES.
As you may have heard, measles, which had been all but eradicated here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. up until a few years ago, has recently made something of a comeback. And while measles in the news these days, a handful of other all-but-dead diseases have also made comebacks, including mumps, which has ravaged the National Hockey League (NHL) this season. The “herd immunity” provided by mass vaccinations has failed of late, in the face of a growing scientifically illiterate “anti-vaccination” movement.
We blame Brian Williams.
We don’t really blame Brian Williams. Or at least we don’t blame him entirely. Still, he does provide a fine example of the type of behavior that has brought us to the point at which our society is bifurcating quickly and starkly, and at which there are no common heroes, no common beliefs, and no common values among the factions lumped together under the catch-all term “Americans.”
Williams, as you likely know, was caught in a lie on NBC News the other week, telling his handful of remaining viewers that he had spent the weekend in Cana, watching friends get married and turning water into wine. Or something like that. In any case, Williams went on TV the night after being called out for his dishonesty and apologized for having “misremembered” the incident in question. “Misremember,” of course, is a term coined by the former and future Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, several years ago, “misremembered” a similar incident, in which she described being fired upon by snipers as she landed at the American air base in Bosnia.
It is both fitting and unsurprising that the whole thing would circle around to Hillary. Before Williams’ lies, there were Hillary’s lies. Before Hillary’s, there were Bill’s. Before Bill’s, there were Hillary’s – enough of them that the staid and meticulous wordsmith and Pulitzer Prize winner William Safire called her a “congenital liar.” Before Hillary’s, there was Bill and Hillary’s – and the concomitant willingness of certain segments of the population to excuse them, to rationalize them, and to insist that they didn’t matter anyway. In a political sense, this is sort of where this whole business begins, although its intellectual roots date back much further.
Way back in January of 1992, you may recall, Bill and Hillary appeared together on CBS News’s “60 Minutes,” program to discuss the rumors of Bill’s infidelity. Bill admitted to having committed marital “wrongdoing” and to having “caused pain” in their marriage, while Hillary just smiled and held his hand. By the time the interview was over, Bill was back on track to becoming the Democratic nominee, and then the 42nd president of the United States. And the nation was on its way to deciding that character doesn’t matter, that lies are inconsequential when measured against ideology or policy preferences. And in turn, the anti-vaccine movement, along with countless other rejections of official authority, were born.
Throughout their eight years in the White House, Bill and Hillary lied interminably. They lied about big things. They lied about little things. They lied about the things in between. They lied, in short, about everything. And then, for good measure, they lied some more. Lies, piled upon lies, piled upon lies.
The Clintons were not, of course, the first politicians ever to lie. Indeed, lying was considered a big part of the job long before Bill or Hill were born. Still, the Clintons were the first big-time, national-level American politicians to lie with impunity. They were first who lied, were caught, and yet still got away with it.
You see, the Clintons’ lies were deemed essential, since they were produced not from whim or selfishness, but out of necessity, as part of the fight for all that was good and righteous against the forces of evil – which is to say Newt Gingrich. So Bill and Hillary lied. And the mainstream press tried to cover up the lies. And Democratic operatives excused the lies. And Democratic and independent voters ignored the lies. And then, at the height of the 1996 campaign, the Republican Vice presidential nominee, Jack Kemp, endorsed the whole lying business, declaring that he and his running mate, Bob Dole, did not intend to make character an issue in the race. Naturally, this was suicide for the Republican ticket, since character was their only advantage over Clinton and Gore. But it was also suicide for the republic, which agreed with Kemp that character is irrelevant, and hasn’t looked back since.
As far as we can tell, the disintegration of American society – of which the measles outbreak and the anti-vaccination movement are symptoms – has two chief causes, both of which have been staples of our discussions in these pages for a decade or more, and both of which have been extant in the American culture since at least the 1960s, but became especially conspicuous during the Clinton administration, after which they grew ever more significant and destructive.
The first of these, exemplified quite nicely by Bill and Hillary Clinton in particular, is the corruption of the nation’s elites. As we have written more times than we can count, the American ruling class is distressingly and regrettably homogeneous in education, profession, personal and political philosophies, and, most troublingly, behavior. The last President of the United States who did not attend Harvard or Yale was Ronald Reagan, who last stood for election 31 years ago. The last President of the United States who did not dedicate most of his professional life to “public service” was Ronald Reagan, who last stood for election 31 years ago. The last President of the United States who did not think that the role of the government was to “help” as many of its people as much of the time as possible was Ronald Reagan, who last stood for election 31 years ago. And so it goes.
Now, none of the others have had a personal life as sordid and depraved as was Bill Clinton’s, but that’s a fortunate exception, rather than the rule. As a group, the American presidents – as well as the American Senators, Congressmen, high-ranking bureau heads, journalists, business leaders, lawyers, etc. – are remarkably like each other. And they have similar foibles.
After it became acceptable for Bill and Hillary to lie, it became acceptable for everyone else in the nation’s ruling class to lie as well, as long as they did so for the right reasons. Algore lied about his accomplishments while trying to win the presidency in his own right. The media lied about the Florida recount that denied Algore the presidency and handed it to George W. Bush. The media and the Democrats lied again about Iraq and the road to war in that country. Dan Rather lied about Bush’s National Guard service and the documents that he claimed proved his charges. The world’s climate scientists lied as they tried to “hide the decline” in order to make climate change a greater and more urgent political threat. Barack Obama lied about keeping your doctor if you liked him and keeping your insurance if you liked it. Just this week, presidential adviser and campaign guru David Axelrod declared (admitted?) that Obama intentionally misled – which is to say lied to – the American public in 2008 with respect to his beliefs on gay marriage. The White House, the CIA, Susan Rice all lied about a movie causing the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Etc., etc., ad nauseam.
On the specific question of vaccines, Dr. Andrew Wakefield lied about his research and posited a correlation between vaccines and autism where, in reality, none existed. As the New York Times put it, “A British medical panel concluded [eventually] that Dr. Wakefield had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a ‘callous disregard’ for the suffering of children involved in his research.” The allegedly respected medical journal in which Wakefield’s study was published, The Lancet, insisted, even after it retracted his piece, that it had no prior indication that the study was anything less than scientifically significant, despite the fact that the entire report was based on the examination of a mere 12 cases.
In the United States, of course, the very definition of “ruling class,” the Kennedy family, played an important and – you guessed it – deceptive role in advancing anti-vaccine hysteria. As the Washington Post reported last summer, Robert Kennedy Jr., the present-day public face of the Kennedy clan, led the charge against vaccines in this country and, like his British counterpart, saw his “work” eventually retracted:
In the early 2000s, women started coming up to Kennedy at his talks on how mercury emissions from coal-fired plants contaminate the air and water. The women argued that “the real mercury was in vaccines,” and it was being ignored, Kennedy recalls.
At first he didn’t pay any attention, either, until one of his brothers introduced him to a clinical psychologist whose young son was autistic. She blamed thimerosal. “I said to her, ‘I’ll look into the science,’ ” he says. Kennedy threw himself into a debate just starting to percolate. Some would say he got lost in a rabbit hole.
In 2005, he published an explosive story for Rolling Stone magazine and Salon called “Deadly Immunity.” Kennedy wrote that he had uncovered evidence showing “how government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public.” At first, he was feted like a prizewinning muckraker. On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart praised him. On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough fawned: “Let’s get you running for a public office.”
Then came the backlash. Critics charged Kennedy with quoting material out of context. Rolling Stone had to make corrections. Enough doubts were raised that Salon eventually retracted the story. Unbowed, Kennedy stands by the piece and admits to only a few inconsequential errors. . . .
The more Kennedy talked on the subject, the more his rhetoric became hyperbolic. During one 2011 segment on his Air America radio show, he accused government scientists of being “involved in a massive fraud.” He said they skewed studies to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. “I can see that this fraud is doing extraordinary damage to the brains of American children,” he said.
Last year, he gave the keynote speech at an anti-vaccine gathering in Chicago. There, he said of a scientist who is a vocal proponent of vaccines and already the object of much hate mail from anti-vaccine activists that this scientist and others like him, “should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.”
What we have, given all of this is a political elite that is untrustworthy and is, therefore, not trusted. This is not to say that every member of Congress or every Senator or even every mainstream journalist is a liar or a creep. Indeed, we’d guess that most aren’t. It is to say, though, that enough of them are that they and their behavior dominate the public perception of the ruling class. The ruling class is perceived as self-interested, self-absorbed, and dishonest. Democratic voters don’t believe a thing that Republicans say. Republican voters don’t believe a thing that Democrats say. And the great mass of non-aligned or independent voters doesn’t believe a thing that anyone says. What we are left with, then, is a republic in crisis, a constitutional government that depends on the people’s trust of their leaders, but the leaders of which are not trusted by the people. Chaos results. National Review’s Kevin Williamson put it as follows last week:
Elites can perform a couple of different functions in society. In the ancient model, they simply rule, with political and social life dominated by hereditary aristocracies, titled nobility, clan hierarchies, and the like. That has not been entirely extirpated in the more modern and democratic model — think of the Bushes, Clintons, Pelosis, and others for whom public office effectively is treated as a kind of family entitlement, or of Mitt Romney, the millionaire businessman, governor, and presidential candidate whose father was a millionaire businessman, governor, and presidential candidate — but we today look (in theory) to our elites more to set an example: Part of the key to having a life as successful and rewarding as Mitt Romney’s is to live a life that is more like Mitt Romney’s and less like . . . take your pick. In that model, which is the liberal model in the best sense of that word, the function of elites is to transmit habits and mores that transcend the merely political. The truly civilized society does not need laws against cannibalism or parent–child incest, because such laws are superfluous, the prohibitions against such atrocities being written in the national soul rather than in the law books.
The prestige of the old elites was undermined by their excesses, and the prestige of the new elites — scientists, “experts,” politicians — has been undermined by their adventuring. One of the illuminating things about Twitter is its almost unique power to illustrate that people who are geniuses in their own fields — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Joyce Carol Oates — are ordinary imbeciles like the rest of us when they venture very far beyond them. The politicization of science has been particularly destructive. Recall Stephen Schneider’s essay in Discover in which he argued that scientists have a moral duty to lie about climate change, because the truth is so complicated as to prevent the emergence of the political consensus he believes is necessary to address the issue: “We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” Economists, physicians, and social scientists of all descriptions have been seduced by the same line of thought. And of course the scientists and economists have been spectacularly wrong about any number of things that they believed — and assured the public — were absolutely certain. It does not take too much familiarity with Vox to detect that expert consensus is very often a veneer covering other motives.
And scientists and other scholars are at the high end of the credibility curve. On the other end we have — what? Celebrity culture . . . Social authority is indeed in decline — and it deserves to be.
Anti-elitist rhetoric is very much in vogue on the right at the moment, because our elites are perceived — not without good reason — as being unreliable, destructive, self-serving, prone to daft and voguish enthusiasms, and ungrounded in any meaningful moral tradition. But we haven’t found a good replacement for them yet, either. Resistance to vaccination is a small part of that, albeit a small part with potentially large and destructive consequences.
The second cause of American society’s now pronounced decay is its schism into two separate camps, each with its own distinct and radically different beliefs about such things as right and wrong, good and evil, real and unreal. One side favors a traditional conception of such notions, while the other favors a newer, more contemporary, less constrained interpretation. One side believes that certain behaviors are good, certain behaviors are bad, and the two are immutable. The other side, by contrast, believes that good and bad are situationally determined, conditional, relative to the greater struggle.
This is, of course, our old, tried and true clash of moral codes. And again, the roots of the contemporary political crisis can be found with Bill and Hillary Clinton, as we have noted countless times before in these pages and as we wrote nearly seventeen years ago:
[Our] theory holds that the public controversy over whether Bill’s alleged ethical and moral transgressions “matter” can best be understood as a battle between two competing moral systems, in a war that has been going on in Western society for at least 700 years.
One side in this conflict can be described as traditional Judeo-Christian. The foundation of this belief system was established some 3,300 years ago with the receipt of the Decalogue by Moses at Mt. Sinai. Besides Old and New Testament teachings, interpreted and clarified by such scholars as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who integrated Platonic and Aristotelian concepts respectively, this system embraces a host of traditions, customs and mores that developed in Western society over many centuries. It is supported by a rich heritage of art and literature, and historic struggles, both religious and secular. The twin concepts of “sin” and “truth” help bind this system together.
The opposing system espouses beliefs that are often referred to today as “post-modern.” This system is roughly based on the concept that there are no ultimate, overarching truths, and that judgments about right and wrong are little more than the means by which some people control others, or as Nietzsche, an icon of the movement, put it, the outward expressions of will and power. The only “sin” recognized by adherents to this system is making judgments about the choices of others. The concepts of “right” and “wrong” are considered to be wholly subjective. Individuals are encouraged to make up their own minds about such things, and neither society nor any person has a right to “judge” those decisions.
Bill’s first Surgeon General, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, stated this view succinctly once when she was asked whether it was wrong for a teen-aged girl t to have a child out of wedlock. She replied, “No. Everyone has different moral standards.”
In the nearly two decades since we wrote these words, this conflict has only grown more pronounced.
A couple of weeks ago, a handful of writers on the Right had some good fun with an article written by Jonathan Chait, a liberal who writes for New York magazine. Chait, who is probably best known as the author of last decade’s Leftist cri de Coeur “Why I Hate George W. Bush,” is unhappy that the menace known as “political correctness” has turned against him and many of his fellow middle-aged liberals and is being wielded by ever more domineering and aggressive youngsters. The conservatives, of course, noted that Chait is just getting what he deserves and that it is quite entertaining to see the denizens of the Left turn on one another, and quite expected, given the radical drift of the Left in this country.
To the best of our knowledge, though, no one mentioned the fact that the phenomenon Chait describes is a constant and inescapable repercussion of the post-modern moral code. The Left has come to embrace a moral view that is premised on one enduring principle, that being the belief than empathy is the primary value of human existence and that a just political system compels that empathy. Everything else is malleable.
Once upon a time, America’s Progressives were ardently and evangelically religious. By the end of World War I, however, the religious sentiment had begun to wane. And by the end of World War II, it was dismissed altogether. Religious men and women were considered REgressive, rather than progressive. Once upon a time, the American Left was pro-Jewish, ardently supporting this incredibly valuable and incredibly oppressed religious and ethnic minority. By the 1970s, however, the Left’s support for the Jews had begun to wane, replaced by support for a “better,” more empathetic oppressed minority, the “persecuted” Palestinians. With the election of Barack Obama, the transition from Jewish to Arab sympathies was completed.
Once upon a time, the Left favored a feminism that argued that all people are equal, men and women sharing both the same virtues and vices, the same strengths and weaknesses. Today, however, the Left advocates a feminism that echoes the reactionary values of old. Women are weak; men are strong and seek nothing more than to inflict that strength upon women. All women are victims. All men are rapists. Once upon a time, Karl Marx was a revolutionary genius whose theories would transform the world into an egalitarian utopia. Today, he is nothing more than another in a long line of dead white males.
The problem which Chait and his fellow middle-aged, white liberals are discovering is one that derives directly from the rejection of all absolutes. If nothing is inherently good or evil, then those conceptions can and will change. What was good ten years ago is not necessarily good today, since the very definition of “good” depends on power relationships and manipulation of language. All that matters, as we said, is coerced empathy. And those who have power decide with whom and for what empathy must be coerced.
Two weeks ago, in a long and disoriented column, Thomas Edsall, the senior-most liberal at the New York Times, wondered how politics became “so personal.” The simple answer to the question is that politics is personal because the Left insisted that the personal be political. Beginning in the 1960s and especially with the advance of feminism, the Left advocated that everything in and about one’s life should be directed toward a political end. What you think, what you eat, where you shop, what you wear, where your kids go to school, and countless other facets of life should be determined by political considerations. Personal choices conveyed empathy. And since empathy was the paramount moral consideration and since moral considerations determined political preference, personal choices and political preferences became indistinguishable. Driving a Cadillac said something about your morality and therefore your politics. Wearing union made garment said something else about your morality and politics. Every personal decision became suffused with moral and therefore political signals.
The more complicated answer to Edsall’s question has to do with the impact on society when every decision, every choice, every facet of one’s life becomes a moral pronouncement, one indicating with or with what on sympathizes. Edsall cites political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood to make this point:
Political hostility in the United States is more and more becoming personal hostility. New findings suggest that the sources of dispute in contemporary life go far beyond ideological differences or mere polarization. They have become elemental, almost tribal, tapping into in-group loyalty and out-group enmity.
“Hostile feelings for the opposing party are ingrained or automatic in voters’ minds,” Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford, and Sean Westwood, a post-doctoral researcher at Princeton, wrote in a July 2014 paper “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines.” Partisans now discriminate against their adversaries “to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race.” The authors find that this discrimination pervades decision making of all kinds, from hiring to marriage choices.
In a separate 2012 study, “Affect, Not Ideology,” Iyengar and two other colleagues used a polling method known as a “thermometer rating” to measure how Democrats and Republicans feel about each other. The temperature scale goes from 1 to 100. One means the respondent feels cold toward the group; 100 implies that the respondent has warm feelings. Iyengar and his colleagues found in 2008 that Democrat and Republican ratings of the opposition party had dropped to just below 32 degrees. In comparison, Protestants gave Catholics a 66 rating, Democrats gave “big business” a 51, and Republicans rated “people on welfare” at 50.
One of the most striking findings of Iyengar’s 2012 paper is the dramatic increase in the percentages of members of both parties who would be upset if their children married someone in the opposition party . . . .
From 1960 to 2010, the percentage of Democrats and Republicans who said that members of their own party were more intelligent than those in the opposition party grew from 6 percent to 48 percent; the percentage describing members of the opposition party as “selfish” rose from 21 percent to 47 percent.
Iyengar and Westwood contend that the conflict between Democrats and Republicans is based more on deeply rooted “in group” versus “out group” sensibilities than on ideology.
Being academics Iyengar and Westwood use academic language to convey their meaning, which is to say that they couch simple terms in complex language, seeking to avoid offense. When they say that the conflicts are based on “more deeply rooted ‘in group’ versus ‘out group’ sensibilities,” what they mean is that the conflicts are based on moral judgments, on the differences between moral codes, which are intense and deeply personal convictions. Protestants and Catholics are fine with one another, largely because they know that religious people tend, more or less, to share the same basic moral code. Democrats are not hostile to Big Business, because they know that much of Big Business shares their goals, their ideas, and their morals. They know, for example, that Jamie Dimon may be a rich Wall Street wheeler-dealer, but he’s their rich Wall Street wheeler-dealer, a man who shares their values and properly understands the shifting nature of judgment and the supremacy of empathy.
Edsall continues, citing a widely discussed and wildly controversial study recently published by a group of scholars led by “Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Thomas Talheim, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Virginia.” Edsall writes:
Their paper, “Liberals Think More Analytically Than Conservatives,” was published online in December. It argues that
[P]artisans on both sides believe different facts, use different economic theories, and hold differing views of history. But might the differences run even deeper? Do liberals and conservatives process the same set of facts with different cultural thought styles?
The answer, according to Talhelm, Haidt and their colleagues: “liberals and conservatives in the same country think as if they were from different cultures.”
Edsall, clearly, thinks that the researchers are on to something, proudly proclaiming that liberals are more analytical than conservatives. We’re not sure we’d agree with this conclusion, though, since we’re familiar with some of Haidt’s previous work. Truly, liberals and conservatives see the world differently, but it strikes us that the difference is less “analytical” versus “holistic and intuitive,” and more about the nature of moral choices, and specifically about the narrowness of the leftist moral calculus. Just over a year ago, the law professor and blogger Todd Zywicki described Haidt’s previous findings as follows:
His [Haidt’s] basic idea is twofold. First, that people do not rationally choose their ideologies. You do not come into the political arena as a blank slate and then just examine all the moral and consequential arguments for different policies and pick the one that is most “correct.” Instead, you come into the political arena with subconscious, largely unexamined psychological beliefs. Initially for Haidt what he focused on was ideas of “disgust.” Over time that has broadened and he describes five key vectors or values of psychological morality: (1) care/harm, (2) fairness, (3) loyalty, (4) authority, and (5) sanctity. Haidt finds in his research that self-described “conservatives” tend to value all five vectors of morality (as he defines them). Liberals, by contrast, place a high value on “care” and “fairness” and a lower value on loyalty, authority, and sanctity. On the two values that conservatives and liberals both value (care and fairness) they do not define those terms the same way, although they both value them according to their different definitions.
The second part of Haidt’s argument is that once you have subconsciously chosen your ideology (you don’t rationally choose what the important factors are) you also do not rationally and objectively weigh the evidence as to whether your ideological views are “correct.” Instead, people tend to subconsciously sift the information that they take in: you tend to overvalue evidence that supports your predispositions and dismiss evidence that is inconsistent with it. As a result, “evidence” becomes self-justifying.
What this says, in brief, is that ideology is not chosen, but is derived from moral considerations, and moral considerations for liberals and conservatives are entirely different. Liberals tend, more or less, to derive their ideological considerations from “care” and “fairness” alone, which is to say from “empathy.” Conservatives, by contrast, derive their ideology from a broader, more comprehensive moral calculation, including more traditional calculations, including authority and sanctity, which is to say conventional religious sentiments. Therefore when Edsall states that liberals are more analytical and conservatives are more intuitive, what he means is that conservatives tend to “judge” the morality of situations, reactions, individual behavior, whereas liberals tend to believe that individual conditions or behavior are irrelevant and do not mitigate the need for empathy. This is the clash of moral codes to a “T.”
Given all of this, what we see developing is a society that is radically and irreconcilably bifurcated and, worse yet, mistrustful and fearful. Each of the two basic factions in the country thinks and feels radically different from the other. Each values different things and unconsciously assigns greater worth to different behaviors, thoughts, and predispositions. Moreover, each faction presupposes that the other is not merely wrong, but morally objectionable, which is to say evil. Each presumes the other is lying, that the other is trying to advance its own well-being, and to do so at its rivals’ expense.
In a practical sense, then, if government and pharmaceutical companies are united in an effort to end disease and to make the population as a whole healthier, then both sides believe they have reason to fear. One side fears the government and believes the state to be untrustworthy, while the other fears the pharmaceutical industry and feels that profit rather than general welfare must somehow be prompting the emphasis on inoculation.
And as Kevin Williamson concludes, “the only winner is chaos.”