Thoughts and Opinions

The Bias Blind Spot

In my novel, Alemeth, I told the story of an ante-bellum family who ran a cotton plantation in Mississippi.  They owned sixty African-American slaves.  Their belief in the righteousness of the southern cause was based on their view that slavery was sanctioned by Holy Scripture.  Essentially, they believed that God had charged them with a duty to perpetuate the peculiar institution.

One of the mysteries that attracted me to this true story was how so many people could have been wrong about an institution which, today, nearly all mankind agrees is evil.  I wanted to understand how their wrongness came to be.  Of course, this family was not alone.  Their neighbors, their churches, their doctors, their lawyers, their newspapermen, shared their views.  At the risk of gross oversimplification, it is at least roughly true that about twenty million northerners thought slavery wrong, and five or six million southerners thought it right. 

I’m not talking about related questions, like whether slavery was worth going to war over, or whether it justified secession; I’m not talking about whether there were some in the north who supported slavery, or who were racists, or whether there were individual abolitionists in the south. I’m talking about whether people thought slavery was an evil that should be immediately abolished or that it was an economic necessity that ought to be preserved for the foreseeable future – and on that point, the people of the South showed amazing agreement with each other.  One indication of just how geographically lopsided the distribution of opinions was: the large number of Christian church denominations that split into separate northern and southern churches over the slavery question.

If every person had simply thought out the rightness and wrongness of it for himself, there’d have been a thorough mixture of opinions in every state, north and south. Differences as to details notwithstanding, the geographically lopsided distribution of opinions  as to the central question that was a necessary condition for civil war convinces me that something else was going on. 

How was it that nearly all the good white people lived up north, and nearly all the bad ones lived in the south? 

Okay, not really.  I know that couldn’t be true. So I wonder, how did it happen that nearly all the smart people lived up north, and all the stupid ones lived in the south? 

Okay, really, not that either.  While mulling this mystery over, my daughter Jen forwarded me a blog by someone I don’t know – his name is Sean Blanda – called “The ‘Other Side’ is Not Dumb.”  https://medium.com/@SeanBlanda/the-other-side-is-not-dumb-2670c1294063#.blt9vqmzr.   I think Sean is right.  On average, surely the people of the south were as good, and as smart, as their northern counterparts.  So perhaps, being “right” or “wrong” has little to do with how smart you are?  Or how good you are?

Was it self-interest, tradition and peer pressure that caused the people of the south to descend into such widespread error?   A sort of groupthink, perhaps, arising from common backgrounds and perspectives?.  Fair enough.  But what, then, about the beliefs of those in the North?  Was the correct position of the north regarding slavery due to an absence of groupthink, self-interest, and peer pressure there?  Was the south riddled with conditions that contributed to southern bias, while the north was able to arrive at the “right” answer because it was free of any such influences?

Maybe so.  Maybe we could all agree about the errors and biases of the south, now that we all agree about the evils of slavery.  But what of those controversies on which we don’t yet agree?  In political election cycles, the country always seems split fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats.  Is it possible that one side’s views are explained in terms of cultural bias, but the other side’s views are not?  According to the Pew Research Center, about 30% of the World’s population is Christian, and a similar portion (about 22%) is Muslim.  Is it possible that the 30% is simply better informed than the 22%?  That the 22% are smarter than the 30%?  That one view is the result of cultural biases and the happenstance of birthplace and family influence, but the other view is not?  Are the debates over gun control, abortion, global warming, Vegan diets and same sex marriage, debates between smart people and stupid people?  Between the good people and the bad people?

Finally, what are the odds that, on each and every issue, it’s ME who recognizes the truth (because it really is the truth), while my opponents’ incorrectness can be explained by bias? 

In Being Wrong (Harper Collins, 2010), Kathryn Schulz writes, “Let’s say that I believe that drinking green tea is good for my health.  Let’s also say that I’ve been drinking three cups of green tea a day for twenty years, that I come from a long line of green tea drinkers, and that I’m the CEO of a family-owned corporation, Green Tea International.  An impartial observer would instantly recognize that I have three very compelling reasons to believe in the salubrious effects of green tea, none of which have anything to do with whether those effects are real…  I have powerful social, psychological, and practical reasons to believe in the merits of green tea.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  In the example just given, Schulz is writing about what would be obvious to an impartial observer.  But more important is what’s obvious to partial observers – to those who are convinced that the other side is wrong.  If we’re talking about people we’re convinced are wrong (like those who supported slavery) it’s natural to believe that their views are shaped by – and therefore depend on – their peculiar life experiences.  Yet when it comes to the things we have decided we’re right about, we ‘re unable to see that our beliefs are a function of own life experiences in the same way.  Because we believe that the Statue of Liberty really towers above New York Harbor, we believe it is objectively real, regardless of our subjective perspective, culture, or bias. To us, everything that’s “obviously true” is like another Statute of Liberty. 

“Sure, it may be that my father was a civil rights activist and my mother worked for George McGovern, but I hold my liberal views because they are objectively right…”  Or, “Sure, it may be I grew up reading the Christian Bible, but my faith in Jesus has nothing to do with that happenstance; I have faith in Jesus because he has revealed himself to me…”  When people believe that something is true, they believe it not because of anything about themselves or their own backgrounds, they believe it because – well, because it’s true.

Simultaneously, because we believe that slavery was wrong, we are quick to conclude that those who supported it only did so because of such a cultural bias.  This readiness to see bias as being the reason for the (erroneous) beliefs of others, while being unable to see that bias may explain why we ourselves believe certain things, is something professional psychologists call the “bias blind spot.” A quick Google search on “the bias blind spot” reveals a host of scientific studies regarding this phenomenon.  Many have shown it to be true: we are quick to ascribe bias (from whatever source) to those we disagree with, while denying it in ourselves.

In a May, 2005 article in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Ehrlinger, Glovich, & Ross, “Peering into the Bias Blind Spot: People’s Assessments of Bias in Themselves and Others”), the authors explored two empirical consequences of the phenomenon: First, that people are more inclined to think they are guilty of bias in the abstract than in any specific instance.  (“Sure, I recognize that I’m capable of bias; but doggone it, not when it comes to this.”)  Second, that people tend to believe that their own personal connection to a given issue is a source of accuracy and enlightenment – while simultaneously believing that such personal connections by those who hold different views are a source of bias. 

I find the second point especially interesting.  Think about it:  As to the beliefs I hold most dear on some controversial subject, do I have personal experiences that are relevant?  If so, do I consider those personal experiences as giving me special insights into the matter?  Now ask the same question about the typical person on the other side of that issue.  Do the reasons for their error lie at least in part in their different experiences?  Do I not see those experiences as providing valuable insights, but as reasons to explain away their error?  Personally, I’ve been guilty of this double standard often. 

Schulz points out that when we try to understand how people disagree with us, our first tendency is to assume they don’t have all the information we have – something Schulz calls the Ignorance Assumption. So we try to educate them.  If our efforts to educate them don’t work, if they adhere to their mistaken beliefs even after we’ve given them the benefit of our own information and experiences, then we decide they must be less able than we are to properly evaluate the evidence.  (In other words, we decide they just not as smart as we are – Schulz’s “Idiocy Assumption.”)  Finally, if we become convinced they’re actually smart people, we find ourselves considering them morally flawed –selfish at best, just plain rotten at worst (Schulz’s “Evil Assumption.”)

At the end of the day, it might just be that I’m right about a few things.  But if so, I doubt it’s because I’m smarter, or a better person, than those on the other side.  And it’s certainly not because I have no cultural biases of my own.

I’ll end by quoting Schulz one more time: “If we assume that people who are wrong are ignorant, or idiotic, or evil – well, small wonder that we prefer not to confront the possibility of error in ourselves.”

– Joe

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Sweatshirt Photo

Now you can judge for yourselves.

My last post recounted our domestic controversy about the color of my wife’s sweatshirt. It all began when I made a casual comment that, based on our “matching” sneakers, sweatpants, and sweatshirts, she and I were dressed alike. When she replied that my sweatshirt was gray and hers was green, I readily acknowledged that the match was not exact, and I’ll now happily submit to a judgment that Karen’s is sand, or tan, or mushroom, or any other label that simply proves I was wrong ever to think of it as being “gray” like mine.

But admitting I’m wrong is one thing. Admitting my spouse is right? That’s far, far harder. Can I manage it? Well.. NO! I’ll DIE before I call it green!!!

Still, with so much controversy, I thought it only fair to post a photograph 0f the two. My gray shirt is on the right. Karen’s shirt — call it what you will — is on the left.

P.S. If anyone else says its green, I’ll — I’ll — well, I guess I’ll just have to count it as one more proof that there’s no such thing as objective reality.

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Karen’s Sweatshirt

Karen and I were about to leave for the gym when I noticed we were both wearing white sneakers, black sweat pants and gray sweat shirts.  When I casually remarked on the coincidence, she surprised me by disagreeing.  Her green sweatshirt was nothing like my gray one, she said.  Mine was a classic gray, with no color at all; we both agreed about that.  But hers, she insisted, was clearly green.

Astounded, I examined her sweatshirt in every light I could.  To my eye, her gray sweatshirt was different from mine only in that it had an extremely slight brownish tint to it.  In certain lights, I thought I might detect some blue sparkle amidst the gray, and in other lights, red or purple.  If I really stretched, I could persuade myself there were occasional flecks of yellow, the way sunlight reflecting off a field of freshly fallen snow might sparkle with microscopic pinpricks of various colors.  But as I saw it, that was it.  The sweatshirt was clearly gray, as clearly as snow is white, and the mix of other tones, each of them barely noticeable, combined to give its grayness a little more earthiness than mine – no more. It was still clearly gray.

Our respective workouts at the gym did nothing to resolve our different perspectives.  So as we were leaving, Karen asked three women behind the membership counter to tell us what color her sweatshirt was.  Sensing marital discord, one of the ladies tactfully declined to venture an opinion.  But when a second said Karen’s sweatshirt was gray, I chortled with glee to have my opinion corroborated.  Karen’s dismay was evident.  Picking up on Karen’s dismay, the third woman studied the shirt carefully and announced that it was “tan.” To my eye, there was a stronger hint of tan in the gray than green , so on the drive home, I enjoyed that heady feeling a man gets when other women agree with him, especially in disagreement with his wife.  My self-satisfaction was further enhanced when, arriving home, Karen asked our daughter Kate her opinion.  Her answer – “sand” – was music to my ears. I’ve never set foot on a green beach.

Now, we all know people can have different perceptions of the same thing.  But that’s not the point here.  At the moment Karen realized she didn’t have the support she’d expected, she blurted out, “Well.  It USED to be green!”

Aha!  For me, that explained so much.  The sweatshirt, nearly fifteen years old, had faded; Karen had clearly failed to notice the change..  In my very first WMBW blog, I’d told the story of two mistakes I’d just made on the golf course: one forming an incorrect belief about the location of my ball, and the other, more serious error, maintaining that belief thereafter, even in the face of evidence I was wrong.  If Karen’s sweatshirt had been green when she bought it, that would explain why she still thought it green.  She hadn’t noticed its gradual fading, so her once-green sweatshirt had always remained her green sweatshirt. 

I was reminded of the time, forty years ago, when I wrote on an application for a new driver’s license that my hair color was blond.  When the clerk who took my application handed it back to me, saying my hair was brown, I argued with her.  My hair had always been blond.  It wasn’t until a look in the mirror at home that I realized she was right.  Examining myself with “new eyes,” I wondered how long I’d been ignoring the evidence while continuing my long-held belief. 

I thought I might post my thoughts about this phenomenon – the way we cling to our existing beliefs despite contrary evidence – here on WMBW.  But later that day Karen came gleefully home with the report that another daughter, Jen, agreed with her that the shirt was green.  I was crestfallen. For two weeks now, I’ve been bothered by that report.   Was my theory wrong?  Was it simply a matter of differences in the rods and cones of different observers?  Whether my theory about the persistence of old beliefs had validity or not, I felt compelled to admit that Karen’s sweatshirt was not persuasive evidence of it.   I’ve already written about rods and cones. Karen’s sweatshirt, it seemed, deserved no place in WMBW.

But wait.  Alert as you are, you might now be asking yourself, “Why then is he wasting my time with these reflections about the sweatshirt?”  Great question.  The answer is that, just last night, I found out still more about the sweatshirt: namely, I learned that Karen actually has two of them, and they are identical.  Same size, same style, same brand, same color.  Bought at the same time, some ten to fifteen years ago. Bought from the same store, one by Karen and one by Jen. Jen – the only other observer to call the sweatshirt green – had worn the identical green sweatshirt for years, back in the day when it really was green, before she gave it to Karen.

So now I blog to report that of five people who’ve based their opinions only on current evidence, there’s been a single tactful abstention, one “tan,” one “sand,” and two “grays.”  In contrast, the two “greens” come from the two women who bought the same green sweatshirts over a decade ago, wore them for years, and formed their beliefs long before the sun and frequent washings had done their work. Five non-greens from people without prior beliefs,in contrast to two greens from people with prior beliefs.

Now, a sample size of only seven people may not be large enough to constitute statistical proof in support of my view.  That’s probably a good thing, because if a large sample size confirmed my theory, I might feel entitled to tell Karen I’d been proven right. (And that’s rarely a good thing for one spouse to say to another.) So this story is not one like my golfball post, about two mistakes, one the forming of an erroneous belief, the other of holding on to that belief without being willing to question it. And this is not even a story about my conviction that long-held beliefs (whether accurate or not) persist in the face of recent contrary evidence.  (There are reasons our marriage has lasted 47 years.)

Rather my point is simply that there’s always new evidence that can be brought to bear on one’s beliefs. In the case of Karen’s sweatshirt, when all I had was my own observation, that single observation was enough to persuade me that the shirt was gray. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it.”  The thing is, Karen, too, had built her story years ago, and based on the information she had at the time, the shirt was green.

For me, subsequent evidence (Karen’s perception that the shirt was green) was enough to get me looking closer, to question my perception, though it didn’t change my mind.  But next came evidence of the perceptions of others – proponents of tan, and sand, and another gray – that led me to a conclusion about retinal differences (not to mention to gloating that I was in the majority).  The next piece of evidence – that Karen had bought a green shirt long ago that had apparently faded – changed my understanding from a theory of retinal difference to one of believing that Karen was suffering from confirmation bias.  Next, with the evidence that Jen, too, thought the shirt green, I was thrust back in the direction of retinal differences.  Now, the most recent information – that Jen wore the identical shirt for years – has cast yet another light on the whole matter. Currently, I’m back to attributing this “minority view” to confirmation bias. But as for the continuing parade of evidence to consider, has it ended, or is there more to come?

Kahneman could have had my initial conclusion in mind (the simply story that the sweatshirt was gray because I perceived it as gray) when he wrote, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle.” Indeed, the more I learned, the more complicated the puzzle became. But I think Kahneman’s conclusion is profound: “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

I believe it’s natural for people to continue to believe what they’ve always believed, even in the face of contrary evidence.  And so, I suspect I’ll continue to believe that confirmation bias, aka close-mindedness, is a shared trait of our common human nature – at least until presented with contrary evidence. I only hope that I’ll be willing to consider that new evidence if it comes my way. I just don’t see any reason to believe that I already know everything about that sweatshirt that there is to know.

This morning, when I told Karen I was going to post my thoughts about all this, she looked me in the eye and said, “I STILL think it’s green.”   Well.  I still think it’s a sandy shade of gray. And I’m not calling Karen any more stubborn than I am, because she is a fantastic listener, always willing to consider new information. I only hope she feels the same way about me.

Best to all for the new year.

—Joe

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Dealing with My Biases

I like to remind myself that I may be wrong. As a natural born egotist, I think it helps to make me more humble. But I don’t like it so much when I hope I am wrong.  When I hope I’m wrong, it’s usually because I don’t like what I’m currently thinking.  Today may be one of those times.

No one sees all the reactions my posts provoke, since the posts (and the reactions they provoke) appear in numerous places. A few reactions have appeared on this website, but they’ve been joined by numerous others. And my predictions about the impeachment of President Trump sure did provoke reactions.

“Provoke” does seem the right word here.  Judging by comments I’ve received so far, it seems my predictions were taken by a good number of my friends and correspondents as indicating I’ve already made up my mind about impeachment, i.e., that I already think Mr. Trump should be impeached and removed from office.  I’m told, for example, that I’ve been “duped” by his opponents.

It’s as if predicting a tornado is the same thing as favoring one.

I said in a recent post that I hoped to keep an open mind on the questions surrounding impeachment.  However, I did predict that Mr. Trump would be impeached by the House.  I predicted that he would not resign, and so would be tried by the Senate.  (By way of contrast, I’ve made no predictions about whether the Senate will remove him from office.) I predicted that we’ll hear much in the coming months about the meaning of the constitutional standard for removal from office, i.e., “high crimes and misdemeanors,”  and I hope to add to that discussion.

The problem appears to be that I also predicted my own eventual position: that once all the investigations are finished, once all the charges have been fashioned and all the evidence received, I would support his removal from office.

As I saw it, that prediction was much like my 1978 prediction that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have yet another losing season.  And my 1988 prediction that our side would lose our case in the U.S. Supreme Court.  And my 1995 prediction that my mother would live to be a hundred.  In none of these cases was I predicting my hope, only my expectation. Two of these predictions proved true, and one did not.  A prediction is no more than that, a guess about a future state of affairs.  Of course the outcome of the Buc’s 1978 season would depend on a lot of things not yet known when the prediction was made.  All my predictions would depend on things unknown when I made them, including my prediction about how I’d eventually feel on the matter of Donald Trump’s possible removal from office.  It’s all those things yet unknown that make a prediction a prediction.

I struggled with whether to include a prediction of where I guess (now) that I’ll end up on the matter of Donald Trump and his presidency (many months from now).  There were several reasons I did so, but it now seems that the prediction was taken by many as an announcement that I’ve already made up my mind.  In addition to the accusation of being “duped,” I’ve been asked several times why I think Mr. Trump should be impeached.  The answer is that (present tense) I don’t.  I simply predicted that, eventually, he will.  In the meantime, I am undecided.  And as I said in the earlier post, I will strive to remain undecided until the House has brought its charges and all the evidence is in. 

I’m not sure what to make of those who act as if they already have their minds made up.  Because they feel a certain way today, can they say, with confidence, that they’ll feel the same way tomorrow?  If so, what distinguishes that stance from the very definition of close-mindedness?

I think those are legitimate questions. But those are not the current thoughts that I said, at the outset here, that I dislike, and wish I was wrong about.  What I don’t like about my current thinking is that I think others may have reacted as they did not only because I didn’t express myself well enough, but also because we’ve become so jaded.  Do we believe that anyone who writes a blog must have already made up his mind?  Do we ask, “If not, why on earth would he be blogging?”  Have we got to the point that genuine open-mindedness has gone the way of the dinosaurs?   That it’s not possible for a blogger’s agenda to be, simply, that he wants to “think out loud” publicly, in an effort to foster a dialogue that will help us learn from each other?  Put selfishly, to help him make up his own mind? 

I hope not.  I hope I’m wrong about the way people think these days.  And I hope this post will help clarify where I’m coming from.  I hope that there are others who, like me, have not already made up their minds.  I hope we can talk, can learn from each other, and maybe even learn from those who have already made up their minds, regardless of which “side” they’ve taken.

But I’ll make another prediction: that upon reading this post, some will dismiss my claim of undecidedness.  Some will think I’ve made up my mind already, whether I realize it or not.  I predict they’ll draw this conclusion because my prediction reveals an anti-Trump bias.  And I predict that some will think me a hypocrite for denying that bias.

If so, let me answer that charge now.

Of course my prediction reveals a bias

I’ve already written in this space that I didn’t vote for Mr. Trump.  That alone reflects a bias.  On the other hand, I’ve voted mostly Republican in my life – does that mean I’m biased in Mr. Trump’s favor?  What about the fact that I spent a career defending clients accused of wrongdoing?  Of pointing out all the reasons that accusations alone do not prove guilt? Of believing that people are innocent until proven guilty?  What about the fact that I think the media has often been unfair in its reporting about Mr. Trump? Which way do those beliefs and experiences bias me?

Here’s what I think about bias: Every experience we’ve ever had helps shape our interpretation of everything yet to come.  In other words, our experiences inevitably create biases.  In fact, I believe, it is these experiences and the biases they cause that define who we are (or at least the way we think about the world around us).  The same, I believe, is true for every one of us.  The way I see it, we can try to guard against and compensate for the biases we recognize in ourselves – but those we don’t recognize, we’re helpless to overcome.

Those who read my earlier post, “Asking the Ad Hominem Question,” may remember my thinking on this point.  If all our opinions are a reflection of our biases, it’s good to identify and acknowledge why we think the way we do.  I wonder which of the people who read this would claim that they are not already biased by the things they’ve heard and seen and experienced.

I intend to follow developments as they occur.  Now, even before the new Congress is sworn in, I’m trying to take stock of my biases.  Acknowledging my predictions for the end game is in part an effort to help clear the way for the desired objectivity of my own future thinking.  

I do have initial thoughts about the impeachment proceedings I predict will come.   But I hope they are not set in stone.   I expect to be giving a lot more thought to them in the weeks to come.  And I hope that my eventual views will be informed by the wisdom and perspectives of those who visit WMBW in the months to come – whether you agree with the thoughts I share or not.

— Joe

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Happy Holiday from WMBW

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The Impeachment to Come

First, a series of predictions: The U.S. House of Representatives will impeach Donald Trump.  He will not resign, so the Senate will conduct a trial on whatever charges are brought against him. The next couple of years there’ll be plenty of talk about the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”   At the end of the day, once all the evidence is in, I will approve of President Trump’s removal from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Until then, I will try (not always successfully) to keep an open mind.  I will view some participants and spectators as sharks in a feeding frenzy.  And I will not be able to restrain myself from commenting, especially when I think the street buzz fails to appreciate nuances or fails to put today’s events in historical perspective. 

Anticipating all that, and before the gavel brings the first meeting of the Impeachment Committee to order, I thought I’d ask a question intentionally broader than the eventual “high crimes and misdemeanors” question.  Namely, is Donald Trump the most independent, egotistical maverick who has ever served as president?

Perhaps he is.  Perhaps cabinet shake-ups, midnight tweets, criminal investigations and mounting criticism by members of his own party demonstrate that the man is out-of-control, a rogue who has lost all sense of attachment to the country and even to his own political party, an egotistical maverick who thinks he’s smarter than the combined wisdom on Capitol Hill and is prone to take the law into his own hands. 

But on the subject of mavericks, I thought I’d take a look at two pieces of historical data.  One of these is how often presidents have used their veto power.   An independent maverick willing to assert himself over the views of the Congress would seem likely to use the veto more often. 

The other is a president’s use of the Executive Order.  Bypassing Congress, presidents have sometimes attempted to make law by executive order.  The courts have often found that executive orders have exceeded proper presidential powers.   This is certainly not true of all executive orders.  The first such order recognized by the American Presidency Project was George Washington’s order that his cabinet members report back to him on the status of matters in their respective areas of responsibility.  There’s obviously a big difference between the executive activism suggested by that order and, say, Harry Truman’s order nationalizing the country’s steel mills.  So as a measure of presidential activism, the count of a president’s executive orders may be more problematic than a count of his vetoes.  As with vetoes, a president whose party is in control of Congress might be expected to use executive orders less than a president with an opposition party in power on Capitol Hill.  So there are obviously variables at play, not accounted for by the raw numbers  Still, one might expect a president who’s apt to take matters into his own hands, a president who tries to control the country personally rather than letting Congress do so, might be expected to issue more executive orders than a more docile, less activist president.

My thought was that the frequency of presidential vetoes and executive orders may provide at least some insight into the degree of ego and power various presidents have attempted to wield while in office.

In the following table, from FDR through Donald Trump, I’ve included the data for all the presidents.  Before FDR, I’ve included only those presidents who set new record highs for use of executive orders or vetoes.  I’ve used the president’s months in office to convert absolute numbers to monthly rates.  Here’s what I get, using data from the American Presidency Project and the U.S. Senate.

* Figures for Donald Trump are to date, i.e.,  December of 2018.

The numbers above don’t tell the whole story by any means. For example, hundreds of Cleveland’s vetoes were of private pension bills for Civil War veterans. Congress wanted to grant pensions to individual, named veterans after the Pension Bureau had investigated and denied them.  The bills presented the same issue again and again, and the result drastically inflated Cleveland’s total vetoes.

So the bare counts are no doubt subject to all sorts of explanations and interpretations.  But for me, the counts suggest a couple of things worth keeping in mind.

The first is that there have been two growth spurts in presidential activism as measured by these indicators.  The first spurt was when the country was being rended apart and put back together again over the slavery question. President Pierce nearly doubled the prior record of executive orders, Lincoln advanced it again, and after Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson and Grant, while trying to put the country back together again, more than doubled it again.  Meanwhile, Johnson and Grant each set new records for presidential vetoes, and did so by large margins.  It was certainly a tumultuous time.

The second spurt began with Teddy Roosevelt and ended with Harry Truman, a period spanning the Great Depression and two world wars.  That spurt is evident in both executive orders and vetoes, with FDR setting the all time record for both, despite the fact his party was in control of both houses of Congress for his entire presidency.  More tumultuous times.

Judged by that historical observation, in this time when the country is so polarized and divided, one might expect we’d have an activist president, at least as assessed by these measures.

The second observation I would make is more subjective, but I think important to think about, even so: namely,the correlation between a president’s “executive activism” as suggested by this data, and his reputation as a great president, as judged by history . To me, this will be important to keep in mind as we face the impeachment proceedings to come – not to argue that Donald Trump is a great president, but to help us remember what standard we’re judging him by, and if we remove him from office, what it is we remove him for.    

Putting Grover Cleveland aside, consider how history has regarded the other notables on the list:  Shortly after his election to office, President Lincoln ordered the arrest of several Maryland legislators who favored secession, right before a scheduled vote on secession, for the transparent reason of keeping Maryland from voting to secede.  (Now that was a bold display of executive activism!)  Yet history has judged that bold presidential action by all but forgetting it. 

Two years later, when Lincoln issued his most famous executive order (the Emancipation Proclamation) he took great pains to make sure it was “legal.” Lincoln disagreed with the U.S.Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Dred Scott case that, because slaves were private property  under state law, the federal government had no right or power to free them.  That decision was the law of the land, but Lincoln circumvented it by asserting that he did have power to confiscate property being used in rebellion against the federal government. So rather than having Congress do it, Lincoln freed the slaves by a stroke of his executive pen.  But recognizing the Supreme Court’s ruling, he only freed those slaves in the states that were in armed rebellion against the national government.  That respect for the rule of law is something Lincoln is much criticized for today.  Current progressive thinking would probably treat him better if he had contravened the law as then decided by the Supreme Court, and used his executive power to free all the slaves.  Lincoln was a maverick, but as judged by history, possibly not maverick enough.

Nearly a hundred years later, when President Truman used an executive order to place the country’s steel mills under federal control, the Supreme Court held his order unconstitutional. Truman is also third on the list of most active vetoers in history.  Yet Truman is highly regarded for his independence today.

Theodore Roosevelt, who set new records for issuing Executive Orders and established a reputation as one of the most egotistical mavericks to ever occupy the office, got his face enshrined on Mount Rushmore.   He is often considered one of the five greatest Presidents in American history.

And Franklin Roosevelt, who tried to pack the Supreme Court when too  much of his agenda was ruled unconstitutional, who set the record for issuing activist executive orders by a large margin, and who set the record for presidential vetoes even though his own party controlled Congress throughout his presidency, is widely hailed by many as the best president in history. He is certainly highly regarded by today’s “progressives” for his executive activism.

The point is that, as I see it, history has generally looked upon presidential activism with high regard  — at least when it approves of the goals a president  has pursued.  

So where does President Trump fall, on these measures of  ego and executive activism?  He has used the Executive Order more frequently than President Obama, but then, Obama’s use of the Executive Order was the lowest in modern times.  When compared to other modern presidents, Trump’s rate has been comparatively low.  And as for his use of the veto power, there have been 2,574 presidential vetoes since 1789 — not one of them by Mr. Trump.

There are a lot of ways to measure a President’s ego, independence, and executive activism. If measured by midnight tweets and rash statements made to the television news media, President Trump is surely the most arrogant President in history. (That’s an easy claim to make considering Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant had neither twitter nor TV.)   But measured by such quantifiable things as frequency of executive orders and vetoes, Mr. Trump has been far less of a maverick than either of the Roosevelts , Wilson, or Truman.  And as far as I can tell, being mavericks who were not always in line with their own parties had a lot to do with why such men have been regarded well by history. 

My point?  I simply hope that, as the impeachment proceedings progress, we keep in mind that impeachment was not designed to punish presidents for having policies and positions we disagree with.  Impeachment was not intended as a remedy for presidents with big egos, or even for those who run counter to the views on Capitol Hill or within their own political parties.  Let’s not impeach Donald Trump because he’s a maverick, unless we think that presidents yet to come who are cut from the mold of Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson and both Roosevelts  will deserve to be impeached for their  roguishness.  Let’s think long and hard, with a sound historical perspective, about the separation of powers, the presidency, and the best meaning to give to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

I may be wrong, but I predict I’ll have more to say in the months to come about that term.  But those are my thoughts for now.  I look forward to hearing yours.

— Joe

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Bad People?

Two years ago, I started this blog with the aim of being different from the usual internet sites where people hurl insults at each other.  I hoped for a forum where people who admit their fallibility could strive for humility and civility towards those they disagree with — where they could learn from each other, or at least effectively explain themselves for the sake of mutual understanding.  To do this, I thought it wise to keep my own political views out of it.

I’ve long been one to play devil’s advocate, trying to spur self-reflection by questioning strong convictions.  As a result, many of my liberal friends consider me a real right-winger, and many of my conservative friends think of me as a leftist.  It’s the price I pay for playing devil’s advocate — for thinking that, through discussion, analysis, and genuine listening, I might  better understand those who see things differently than me. That I might profit from remembering the sign I once put on my office wall:

“Agree with me once and I’ll like you.  Agree with me all the time and I’ll think you’re a fool. Convince me I’m wrong and I’ll be in your debt forever.”

In today’s polarized climate, advocacy for the devil is a risky business.  In a conversation last May, a liberal friend asserted that no thinking person could support Donald Trump.  I offered a few examples of people I thought of as “thinking people” who did.  This fellow promptly dismissed me as a Trump supporter.  In the same way, but from the opposite side, when I’ve told some of my conservative friends that there may be good reason to be concerned about climate change or gun violence or celebrating confederate warriors, I’ve been written off as a liberal and everything I have to say (on any subject) is thereafter dismissed as political correctness. Real discourse shuts down. The devil’s advocate is shunned as the devil himself.

After much reflection, I’m coming out of the closet.  Once and for all, I’d like to assure my conservative friends that I am no liberal, and to assure my liberal friends that I am no conservative.  PLEASE don’t label me just so you can dismiss me.  Meanwhile, I wonder if there are others like me who feel that partisans on both the left and the right are making the same kind of mistake — namely, cutting off their noses to spite their faces with respect to people “in the middle” like me.

The Dictionary of Cliches (James Rogers, Wings Books, 1985) defines that old expression about cutting off noses as “seek revenge for some pain or injury to oneself: a self-defeating action.” I like this definition because I think it usually is pain or injury that makes us seek revenge and renders us likely to disfigure ourselves.

The left and the right both want to win converts, right?  Why is it that, from my perspective, both sides do more to alienate those of us in the middle than to turn us into converts?

I suggest this Einsteinian thought experiment: start with a population of 100 people. Try to arrange them by the extent to which they agree or not, so that you get a sort of continuum in which  #1 and #100 disagree with each other about nearly everything.  While none of them think exactly alike, imagine that #32 and #33 agree on a lot of things, as do #75 and #79.

Now, as I see it, the nose gets cut off this way: #1, who doesn’t agree with #100 as to whether the sky is blue, sees the similarities at that end of the continuum and lumps everyone from #95 to #100 together as idiots.  She offers statements or behaviors by #98 and #100 as proof of how idiotic those above #90 are.  Because#92, #95 and #96 actually disagree with #100 about some of those statements and behaviors, they take offense.  

So they criticize #1 for lumping them together on the basis of things they don’t identify with.  But #1 lashes back, pointing to other things that they DO agree with #100 and #94 about.  #1 reiterates her point: everyone above #90 is indeed an idiot.  She then adds, “now that I think of it, a lot of those in the 80’s aren’t much different either, and by their silence, I have to imagine some of them are idiots too.”  

So now a response comes from #84, taking offense and pointing out the many points of difference among the 80’s and 90’s crowd, and lashing back at #1 for being oblivious to those important differences.

#2 and #5 come to the defense of #1.  As they see it, the charge of being “oblivious”amounts to calling #1 (and anyone who agrees with her) “stupid.”  #2 and #5, in agreement with #1,  resent being called stupid.  They demand  “Are you on our side (that of righteousness), or on their side(that of indecency)?”  

Seeking to restore civility, #65 says, “I’m not really on either side, or more precisely, I agree with some things from each side.”  But the answer comes back from #2 and #5, now joined by #8 and #11, “You admit you agree with #100 about things?  An intelligent person cannot agree with #100.  You, too, are therefore an idiot.”

Over time, this lumping together under derogatory labels has an inevitable effect, and it is not the one intended.  It does not win converts. Whereas people in the 80’s and 90’s formerly thought a lot about their differences with each other and with #100, pretty soon, they come to agree with each other that the “bigger problem” is the threat from “those stupid people below #30.”  They start to label them all together, solidifying them, so that #22 and #28 resent being thrown in with #1 under the label “stupid,” decide that those above #60 are the “bigger threat,” etc.   

Both sides end up with placards and microphones, parading through the streets chanting,”If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Your silence condemns you.”  And pretty soon, #45 through #55 get squeezed out, compelled to side with one side or the other in order to avoid being trampled by both.  At this point, everybody is somebody else’s deplorable.

Presenting this purely as numbers, as I have here, I’m curious how many people, right and left, would say, “well, of course that happens,” but not recognize  their “own side’s” role in the process.

Suppose, for example,that I mention one small part of my personal political beliefs: namely that Donald Trump has done a good job of representing American interests in negotiations with China, North Korea, and Mexico.  Or what if I mention that I approve of his judicial appointments?  Does that anger my liberal friends?  Am I now an “idiot” or a “Trump supporter” or a neo-Nazi because I approve of those particular actions?  

Frankly, I suspect so, in the minds of many.  Because of that realistic possibility, now, out of the closet I must come.  I started WMBW in the autumn of 2016 because I was aghast at the degree of polarizing rhetoric and incivility I saw in the country.  I wanted to work toward harmony between combatants.  The primary impetus was what I saw coming out of candidate Donald Trump. And while I hardly thought he had started the centuries-old process of polarization, and while I hardly thought he was the only arrogant and uncivil public figure around, I did think that some of his statements were among the most arrogant and uncivil  I’d ever encountered.  So I resolved not to vote for him. 

I mention my extreme distaste for the way Donald Trump campaigned –and I now add my extreme distaste for a number of divisive statements and actions he has made since his election — only because of what comes next: namely, my appeal, to my liberal friends and readers, not to cut off your nose to spite your face by driving me into Trump’s camp.  Please don’t alienate me, please don’t turn me into your enemy, by demonizing me as a “Trump apologist” just because I see some good in him and haven’t demonized him with all the venom you have.

Somewhere between #40 and #60, I feel like both sides treat me as their enemy.  The side that’s likeliest to win me over to their thinking is the side that’s going to treat me with respect, to listen to my thoughts, to share their own and to see if we can reach some sort of mutual understanding about the issues (not the people) that separate us.   What I don’t understand is why neither side does that.  What I hear from both sides seems, at times, to insult me, to treat me as an enemy because I sit somewhere in the middle.  Both sides demand my 100% loyalty.  Both sides tell me, in effect, that I’m either with them or against them.  Neither side respects my desire to engage in open-minded discussion of specific issues, whichever side of it I happen to be on

A few weeks back, I posted on this site a piece I titled “The Corruption that Stems from Performing Acts of Justice.”  The piece contained a number of posters created by graphic artist Jeff Gates.  I’d been attracted to the posters by their message that divisiveness and polarization were doing great harm to the country.  But my deeper look into Mr. Gates’s work revealed that the vast majority of his wrath was directed, not only at President Trump, but at the Republican Party as a whole — and that his attacks on them were highly insulting. 

This past Saturday afternoon, Mr. Gates posted a comment on this website in response to my piece.  His comment included a reference to an article he’d written last year, “Choking on Our Words,” which he said would explain his perspective in greater detail.  You can find his comment and its link to “Choking on Our Words” here on this website.   I encourage you to read both for yourselves.  Meanwhile I have my own observations to share about them.

First, there is much in them I like.  When Gates draws a distinction between “debate” (it “means you’re trying to win”) and “dialectic” (it “means you are using disagreement to discover what is true,”) he gives voice to the raison d’etre for WeMayBeWrong.  (Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more.)  When he writes, “Like many, I’m tiptoeing through a cultural minefield.  Both the left’s politically correct orthodoxy and the right’s intransigence are corrosive,” I feel I’m reading the work of a kindred spirit. When he criticizes the right and left for using phrases like “political correctness” and “racist”as marks of scorn that shut down intelligent dialogue, I want to cheer.  When he writes,“I’m fighting hard to make my way to higher ground, out of this filthy, smoggy air, to a place where we can communicate more constructively,” I want to ask him to dinner — or at least to create another poster, giving visual life to that feeling he has had that I so strongly share.

But there was a reason I titled my post “The Corruption That Stems from Performing Acts of Justice.”  Those of us who feel aghast at many of Donald Trump’s arrogant statements, who deplore the derisive and polarizing way he insults his opponents and detractors, who feel we’re performing an act of justice by criticizing those specific offensive behaviors — can be corrupted, I believe, by the very self-righteousness our condemnation of such conduct inspires.  We can feel so pained by the behaviors we deplore that we want to strike back, and we do – and that, I think, is when we risk cutting off our noses with tactics designed to win debates rather than get at truth through dialectic.

Mr. Gates writes that the bipartisan posters I liked were “from those early years when it seemed that bipartisanship was possible.”  He writes that there is “no equivalence between the behavior of the GOP and the Democrats.”  He writes that “the fact that the rest of the GOP is silent … is the saddest of all.”  He writes that, as a result, not only Mr. Trump, but the GOP as well, are “valuable subjects for critique and criticism” in a way that he apparently believes is not just a difference in degree, but in kind, from the excesses and failures of various Democrats.


I think it sad that Mr. Gates seems to have given up on bipartisanship. I and many Republicans who remain interested in bipartisanship feel many points of difference between us and our current President.  But the fact that we still agree with some of the things he has done and don’t demonize him in every possible respect, puts us at risk of being lumped together with him in every respect, due to our alleged “silence,” i.e., our lack of complete and total condemnation.  So the Gates posters now attack the entire GOP — and, may I say, insultingly so. To the extent that I (sort of) still consider myself a Republican, he has attacked me.

Am I to mourn the loss of someone who seemed so recently to aspire to bipartisanship?  Or, if Mr. Gates still really desires bipartisanship, should I wonder whether his insults directed at all Republicans are meant to bring them around to his point of view?  If so, I suspect he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face.  I don’t see how the insulting criticism of one’s opponents — and even those who occupy a middle ground between one’s self and one’s opponents — gains converts, rather than more enemies.

On November 26, the New York Times carried an opinion piece by Michelle Goldberg titled “Maybe They’re Just Bad People.”  In her piece, Goldberg wrote, “Trump is hardly the first politician to attract self-serving followers…  But Trump is unique as a magnet for grifters, climbers and self-promoters, in part because decent people won’t associate with him.”

Really?  What is the sole basis Ms. Goldberg offers for finding Trump  “unique”? Because “decent people won’t associate with him.”

Well, well. I gather that how many people are”indecent” or just plain “bad” because they associate with Trump depends on how you define “associate with.”  Maybe, Ms. Goldberg is only calling all of Trump’s immediate family bad.  Maybe it’s just everyone who works in the White House, or anywhere in the administration.  Or, more broadly, maybe it’s everyone who ever voted for him, worked for him, or said hello to him on the street one time.  Maybe I’m bad because I’ve approved of some of the things he has done.  Who knows? I know only that, according to Goldberg, decent people simply don’t associate with him, so if I do, I’m bad.

The wide broom that sweeps together anyone who even “associates with” your enemy is the tactic that energized the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials, and the worst excesses of McCarthyism — all movements I’d venture to guess Ms. Goldberg deplores.  It’s the wide broom of animosity toward all Muslims that drives some Muslims to become terrorists.  And since Mr. Gates says that Trump is woefully ignorant of the constitution, maybe he can remind Ms. Goldberg that the Constitution guarantees us freedom of association — and that inclusiveness is all about associating with people you may not agree with.  If liberals are so self-righteous in their condemnation of President Trump that they can’t look in the mirror and see this wide broom in themselves, then maybe Mr. Gates is right, maybe there’s no hope left for bipartisanship.   Gates writes that you can’t achieve bipartisanship “when one party refuses to participate.”  I wonder what he’d say about the example Ms. Goldberg appears to endorse.  

In my view, one way to combat polarization is for people on both sides to stop sweeping with such wide brooms.  To stop blaming entire political parties, or religions, or movements for the excesses of individuals among them.    That’s what drives moderates into the opposing camp.  If we don’t like Mr. Trump, or any other politician, let’s start talking about the specific statements and behaviors  we disapprove of — that is, the issues, not the people, or the “team,” we support or deplore.   When people of one party see polarization entirely as the fault of the other — and certainly when they suggest that anyone on the other side may just be “bad people”— then my question is, is any one party to blame, or is it just the difficulty we all have of seeing ourselves as others see us?

Best to all this holiday season,

Joe

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The Divide

“Sometimes, I want to reach right through the transmitters, WIFI’s and touch screens that divide us.  I want to reach through them and come after you with a vengeance.

“You know who you are – with your ridiculous politics, your seeming ignorance of human nature, and your arrogance.  You think all the evidence, all logic, all justice and morality are on your side.  You think anyone who doesn’t see the world the way you do is the victim of propaganda, guilty of stupidity, or worse.  You accuse others of being arrogant, when in fact, your arrogance is far greater than theirs.

“Yes, I’m talking about you.  Sometimes I want to reach right through the transmitters, WIFI’s and touch screens, grab you by the shoulders, shake you hard and ask, “What in the name of God do you think you’re doing?!”

“I’m sorry if this offends you, but sometimes, it feels good to tell you what I really think.”

Let’s face it: I’m not the only one who has felt  this way.  It’s a feeling practically every one of us has had, about somebody.  So I suspect you have felt the same way, perhaps about me.

That much we share.  Doesn’t that tell us something?

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The Corruption That Stems from Performing Acts of Justice

More and more, it seems to me that the problem with the extreme left is precisely the same as the problem with the extreme right: an inability to realistically self-reflect, an inability to see ourselves as others see us.

My case in point today is the Chamomile Tea Party.

I came across a reference to it in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.  (A book that’s definitely worth a read, if we want to understand why so many people disagree with us.)  At page 320 of the Vintage Books paperback edition, Haidt offered two images designed to express the  reaction many of us are having to increasing polarization and lack of civility in politics.  Haidt identified the images as posters created by graphic designer Jeff Gates for the “Chamomile Tea Party.”

Stop This Bickering

We're Losing Our Competitive Edge

I loved both posters.  The messages about disunity, about cessation of bickering, seemed right up my alley.  “What is this Chamomile Tea Party?” I wondered. “Have I finally found a civil, respectful, harmonizing, unifying political party I can identify with?”

Finally, this morning, I googled on the Chamomile Tea Party. At first, my reaction was positive.  I liked the tagline I came across, a quotation, “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress. – Joseph Jouber.”

As I read on, I started thinking how much the Chamomile Tea Party had in common with WeMayBeWrong.  Both seemed focused on restoration of civility.  I found more posters I liked.

Call Congress!

Your Animosity Hurts the Country

I was ready to join their fight to combat arrogance and incivility in the political process.  Ready, if I could, to register as pure Chamomile for the next election.

But as I continued to peruse the posters on the CTP website, I began to get a different impression.   As I looked deeper, it began to seem that the CTP has very clear views about where all the blame lies.  If you’re interested, check out some of the other posters with which the Chamomile Tea Party is working to restore civility to American politics.  Here are just a few:

Tie His Hands Tight: VOTE!

GOP, We'll Remember...

Trump: More Than an Inconvenient Truth

Visit the Isle of Anger and Unmet Promises

 

2017 National Scout Jamboree

Impeach

Hell Yeah He Colluded!

A Xmas Card from the GOP

There are plenty more on the website, but I’ll end this small sampling with my personal favorite:

Avenge Donald Trump

If posters like these will help to restore civility and close the political divide by assigning all the blame for today’s incivility on Trump and the right, I don’t get it; I must not have that “superior intellect” they’re talking about.   (Actually, the posters don’t put all the blame on Republicans.  There are also a few posters that put the blame on lobbyists, corporations, and capitalists.)

What is it about the offensive arrogance of our opponents that causes us to adopt offensive arrogance ourselves?  Can’t we see that “we” come across to “them” exactly as “they” come across to “us”?  That both sides were becoming increasingly hostile long before Donald Trump?   How are “our” attacks and insults intellectually (or morally) superior to “theirs”?

I mentioned above  how much I liked the quote I found on the CTP’s website, so I wondered who this Joseph Jouber was who pointed out the difference between victory and progress.  The brief Wikipedia article on the man (an 18th century appointee of Napoleon Bonaparte whose name is actually Joubert) included another quote by the man.  Maybe, having read nothing else of what he said, and maybe, not seeing these quotes in context, I misunderstand Monsieur Joubert completely.  But, standing alone, his other quote may tell us much about why  incivility on one side seems to induce reciprocal incivility on the other.

According to Wikipedia, Joubert also said, “There are some acts of justice which corrupt those who perform them.”  If I had to guess, Joubert, writing in the Napoleonic era,  was talking about the corrupting effect on executioners of letting guillotines fall, or something of that sort.  Maybe being an executioner leaves a person heartless and insensitive to death?  Maybe being responsible for punishing wrongs leads to arrogant self-righteousness?  Whatever Joubert meant, it strikes me that the same may be true of many who find Mr. Trump’s style of leadership so offensive.  Have they been so outraged by him, have they become so self-righteous in their condemnation of him, that they’ve become blind to how they come across to his supporters?

I’ve heard some vocal critics of Mr. Trump say their reaction is justified because “Trump started it.”  I disagree.  I think the Trump/Clinton election campaign was an escalation, not a beginning.  True enough, those of us who hoped Mr. Trump would become more presidential if elected have been disappointed, in at least some important respects.  (Calling a reporter’s question “stupid” doesn’t strike me as a path to unifying a divided country.)  But that doesn’t mean he is somehow solely responsible for the invention of political incivility.  And if the act of condemning him makes us feel self-righteous and superior, how far off can our own arrogance be?

So, no, I guess I won’t be joining the Chamomile Tea Party after all.  At some point, if we’re ever to escape from the downward spiral we’ve fallen into, someone has to rise above  insults.  I’m willing to bet that it won’t ever be “them” that do so, so if it’s going to happen at all, I think it will have to begin with us.

— Joe

 

 

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This Week’s Remarkable Arrogance

Regardless how you feel about the outcome of this week’s midterm elections, you  have to admit it’s been a great week in some respects. The mid-terms seemed to bring out the electorate rhetoric in record numbers.  For me, it was like watching a meteor shower. I mean, as far as I can see, it was a perfect week for reflection about the meaning of arrogance.

Did we see arrogance in others, but not in ourselves?

Personally, I thought the President was unusually insulting this week.  When he said to a reporter, “That’s a stupid question,” then repeated the comment a second time, then told her she had asked a lot of stupid questions, I saw that as extremely rude and insulting.  It was for that type of comment that I did not vote for him regardless of my expectation that I might agree with a lot of his policies.  When he answered a question about releasing his tax returns by saying that tax returns are complicated documents that most Americans would not be able to understand, I found the comment insulting to the American people.  But was either comment arrogant?

When Steven Colbert devoted his Wednesday night Late Show monologue to insulting the President, I thought him completely unfunny and boorish.  But was he arrogant?  If so, was his arrogance different from that of the President?

Many would say that Trump this week was even more arrogant than he usually is, while Colbert was funny, rather than arrogant.  Others would say that Trump was not arrogant, just “telling it like it really is” and that Colbert was an arrogant snob or an arrogant traitor (whichever is worse).  Bottom line, I think, is that we tend to find arrogance in the passions, attitudes and statements of those we disagree with – pretty much the same places we find stupidity.

Is the concept of arrogance capable of being objectively assessed?  Put another way, if Jack calls Jill arrogant, does that really tell me anything about Jill, or does it only tell me about how Jack himself feels about her?  Is it possible to define the word “arrogant” so that it gives me more reliable information about Jill than it does about Jack?

This has a lot to do with why I think the President may not be the only one who exhibited arrogance this week.

My edition of Webster’s defines arrogance as “offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.”  The O.E.D. defines it as “the taking of too much upon oneself as one’s right.”

Both definitions are highly subjective.  When President Trump said this week’s midterms were largely a referendum on him, would it be right to say the statement was arrogant if you didn’t consider it “offensive” (Webster) or “too much” (OED)?  But what is offensive to one of us doesn’t seem to offend the other.  Many observers have opined that the President of the U.S. is the most powerful person on earth.  If a president acts as if he’s the most powerful person on earth, is that offensive?  Is it taking too much on one’s self?   If a 2002 news analyst said that midterm elections have traditionally been referenda on whoever the sitting president is, we might have agreed.  Could we agree, yet still find Trump’s 2018 statement  arrogant?  When spoken by oneself, about oneself, can an accurate statement ever be arrogant?  I have the sense that it can, but only when I think it “offensive.”  And when Jack finds Jill offensive, I’m back to feeling it tells me as much or more about Jack as it does about Jill.

When Wednesday night’s Late Show moved from the monologue to Colbert’s conversation with CBS White House Correspondent Major Garrett, their conversation centered around the arrogance of “Trump.”  I had previously noticed how the news media now tends to refer to the president as “Trump.”  (With Eisenhower, it was sometimes Ike, with Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson it was FDR, JFK or LBJ.  But even with Nixon, and up through Clinton, Obama, and even the first year of the current presidency, I also heard the President called “the President.”  I haven’t heard the media call Donald Trump “the President” for months now.  Touting his new book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride,” Garret explained that when Trump began to campaign for President, his staff made very clear that they wanted him to be called “Mister Trump.”  Given Garrett’s explanation, it sounds to me as if the media’s repeated reference to him as “Trump” without the Mister is an intentional avoidance of Trump’s expressed desires, as if to irritate or disrespect him the way he irritates and disrespects them. Whatever one thinks on that subject, can the media’s statements about the people they cover ever reflect media arrogance?   Can their reporting imply an “offensive display of superiority or self-importance?”  Can their reporting of news suggest the taking of too much upon themselves, as their right?

During Wednesday night’s show, Garrett told Colbert that Trump’s attacks on the media had become so aggressive that it was time for the news media to ”lock arms” and support each other “because collectively, the First Amendment is what unites all of us.”  I am curious whether Garrett’s reference to “all of us” meant all Americans, or just all of us in the institutional news media.  Garrett was talking about the widely-viewed scene in which Trump told another reporter to sit down, he hadn’t been recognized.  The reporter refused, holding onto the microphone when a staffer attempted to take it away from him.  Was Trump arrogant for telling the reporter to sit down?  Was the reporter arrogant for refusing to yield the microphone?  Who was taking onto himself more than was his right?  Does your answer depend on your subjective views about politics, or Trump, or the news media?  Or is there something more objective involved?

Since Garret’s comment about “all of us” came in the context of saying that White House journalists had traditionally been in it entirely for themselves, but now had good cause to “lock arms” in dealing with Trump, I tend to think that by “all of us” he may have meant the White House Press Corps, and I was reminded of a question of law that has long bothered me.

Since my law school days in the 1970’s, I’ve heard the argument that because the First Amendment protects freedom of speech AND freedom of the press, the latter gives rights and privileges to the institutional media (“the press”) that the rest of us do not enjoy.  I think of journalists refusing to divulge their confidential sources and citing other privileges based on “freedom of the press.”   Some states give specific rights to professional journalists (such as a refusal to disclose sources) that us common folk don’t enjoy.   Is that what the Constitution really means?

I remember one childhood day when a VW beetle in which I was riding was stopped for speeding.  I had joined my friend’s family en route to a folk music festival.  When my friend’s father (the driver of the beetle) pulled out his press badge, he was quickly waved on by the trooper, who apparently assumed that the flashing of press credentials gave the man a free pass to exceed the speed limit – never mind that his children were packed into the back seat with a bunch of banjos, guitars and a neighborhood kid named Joe.  When this man joked about his success – at a tactic he acknowledged employing before – was he taking too much, as his right?

More generally, to some, “freedom of the press” seems to protect only those who carry such credentials. I don’t see it that way.   Thomas Paine, the revolutionary icon who authored Common Sense,  was a corset-maker, sailor and school teacher before publishing the pamphlet that helped birth our nation. But the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule explicitly on the question of whether the protections it has extended to the institutional media also protect the rest of us.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2014 case that an untrained, un-credentialed private blogger enjoys the same constitutional privileges as the institutional press.  It was good news for untrained, un-credentialed private bloggers like me.   I remain hopeful that, someday, the Supreme Court will agree.  As I see it, employees of big media corporations who get press passes to White House Press Conferences have no more right to insist on holding microphones than I would have, had I been invited to the White House.  I feel that if I’d been allowed into the briefing room and refused to give up the mike, I’d be taking too much on myself, as my right — which is to say, arrogant.  But I have the feeling that much of the institutional press – now “locking arms” against the President – would disagree.

So, yes.  while I may be wrong, I am one of those who thinks Donald Trump is at least as arrogant as any President before him, and very possibly moreso, which is saying a lot, since I can’t recall a president who didn’t seem arrogant.  But at the same time, I think that many institutional journalists have reached their own pinnacle of arrogance in this divisive time.  (I, for one, will refer to the President as Mr. Trump, if that’s what he wants, even as I plan to vote against him the next chance I get.)

I voted in several races and on two constitutional amendments this week without much confidence that I was voting the objectively “right” way.  Yet there was one candidate for whom I cast a very confident vote, and for a reason I don’t regret.  While I didn’t agree with her on every issue — maybe not even a majority of issues – her campaign ads shared a single theme: that she would work with any president, and any Congress, for what was best.  She ran no “negative” ads slamming her opponent.  She cast herself as someone who might listen to, and even respect, those she disagreed with.  When a buddy of mine asked if I thought she really would act that way, if elected, my reply was “Probably not; but that won’t change my vote.  We’ve got to start somewhere, and politicians will never behave with civility unless they’re willing to campaign that way.”

“Arrogance” comes from the Latin word rogare, meaning “to ask.”  The Romans gave certain tribes the privilege of making requests (voting) first, a practice that gave rise to our word for all sorts of “pre-rogatives.”  A press pass, or credential, is essentially such a privilege or prerogative – not a God-given right.  To insist on keeping something you don’t have a right to is to “ar-rogate” something to yourself, which is the etymological core of arrogance.  Yet Colbert and Garrett spoke of news reporter as if he were the victim of injustice — which I take as a sure sign of the media “locking arms.”  So, to members of the press (including those of us who are untrained and un-credentialed): for us, my prayer is that as we rail against the arrogance of others, let us be ever alert to our own.

“Be kind,” said the philosopher.  “For everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

From where I sit, it’s been that sort of week.

—Joe

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