Thoughts and Opinions

The Ice Tower

The aim of WMBW is to explore wrongness – ways of being wrong, reasons for being wrong, reasons we persist in wrongness, etc.  But ultimately, wrongness isn’t the only reason we should be humble.  Simple ignorance is another.

As children, we’re used to not knowing all the answers.  When a teacher or parent first tells us that bees make honey or that the moon revolves around the earth, we accept such revelations easily, because we haven’t already formed contrary opinions.  But as we get older, learning more and more about the things that comprise our daily lives, we start to learn new things less often.  That experience, I think, leads us to form a very false impression that we already know most of what there is to know. 

I mean, sure, maybe we don’t know about astrophysics and quarks, maybe not about the history of medieval Bulgaria or the tonal qualities of Mandarin. We acknowledge there are some things we don’t know.  But our daily lives don’t require us to know about quarks or the history of medieval Bulgaria.  What we do encounter, day in and day out, holds few surprises. I already know how ladders work, and traffic lights, and can openers, and flush toilets, and the hinges on doors. I already know my wife’s name, and what time we usually eat dinner, and where the trash can is, and – well, pretty much everything I encounter in my day to day life.

This adult “state of knowing answers” gradually comes to replace the childhood “state of ignorance.”  Especially if we’re parents, or teachers, we get used to informing our children or students about the way things are.  It’s the very definition, perhaps, of being an adult, that we know what we need to know about the world around us. 

Lately, I’ve enjoyed asking myself this question: “Of all the things in the universe that might be known, how much of it do I actually know?”  If I’d started asking myself that question at the age of six, I think my answer then might have been around 5%. If I’d kept on asking it, I think my answer might have risen to about 40 or 50% in my late teens. These days, I’d wonder how many scores of zeroes there ought to be between the decimal point and whatever nanogram of real knowledge I might have acquired about the world as a whole..

But helpful as it might be, the problem with that exercise is that it’s like standing on a beach,  looking across the ocean, and trying to estimate how big the ocean is, based on what we can see.  It’s hard enough to estimate the size of what we can see, as far as the horizon, but more fundamentally, it’s simply not possible to estimate the size of what we can’t see, beyond the horizon.  So the abstract question, “How much do I know of all there is to know?” is really of limited value.   We can’t estimate the size of what we don’t know.

Meanwhile, as I get older, my daily life encounters include fewer and fewer things that I don’t know anything about.  So inevitably, I think, I’m seduced into the false impression that I mostly understand the world. 

So, perhaps more valuable than pondering the scope of what we don’t know are those occasions in life when something falls from the sky, lands in our lap or smacks us in the face that we simply can’t explain. My recent confrontation with the ice tower was one of those things.

Karen and I love to watch the cardinals, chickadees, titmice and wrens that our back yard bird feeder and bird bath attract. The bird bath is an enameled metal dish, about two or three inches deep and about twenty four inches across.  It sits on a stand about three feet off the ground.  We clean the water of debris from time to time, changing it so the birds will have clean water to  drink and bathe in.  But when winter brings cold spells, the water freezes into a solid block of ice. 

In ten winters of looking at that bird bath, I’d often seen it freeze over, but I’d never seen anything like what I saw a few days ago.  Something was sticking up, vertically, close to the outside rim – maybe eight or ten inches higher than the rest of the ice.  My first thought was that it was a bird, light in color – like a dove or a mocking bird, perhaps – but it seemed whiter than white – almost clear, like an icicle.   And as I watched from the kitchen window, it didn’t move. Surely, no bird could have fallen asleep at the water’s edge and become frozen solid. 

Curiosity getting the better of me, I went outside for a closer look. What I found I couldn’t explain.  The birdbath was frozen, as I expected.  The surface of the ice block that now occupied the bath was a flat horizontal plane, as it had always been in the past, like a miniature skating rink – except for the vertical protrusion I’d mistaken for a white bird.  Closer inspection revealed that it was, in fact, a little cylindrical tower of ice, about an inch and a half or two inches in diameter, that projected vertically eight or ten inches above the horizontal surface.  A little ice sculpture model of the leaning tower of Pisa? 

I touched it to confirm that it was, indeed, ice.  I wondered what had caused the little tower to form, rising so high above the surface.  I took some pictures of it.

There were no trees, roofs or other overhangs above the birdbath, so I concluded the tower had not been formed from anything dripping from above, like stalagmites are formed. There were no cracks in the ice or other signs of fracture that would suggest the frozen tower had landed in the horizontal ice, sticking like a javelin in the ground.  There was nothing beneath the tower that would suggest it was rooted in anything but the ice block itself.  It wasn’t like separate pieces had become stuck together the way ice cubes might stick together in your freezer or in a bag of ice bought at the Quickie Mart.  Every surface was smooth. This little tower seemed at one with the block of ice from which it protruded, as if they’d been formed together.

But even if a waterfall can freeze solid in the midst of its descent, how could this water have frozen solid, in the tower shape it now held?  I called the grandchildren over, challenging them to explain the phenomenon we all could see, promising a prize for whoever could come up with a plausible theory.  In the process, we noticed what seemed at first glance like a feather in the middle of the tower, captured like some prehistoric bug in a piece of amber.  I took another photo, trying to capture the appearance of the “feather.”

Jacob theorized that the tower had been formed when a bird who’d come to bathe had gotten a wing stuck in the frozen ice.  When it pulled itself free, it had left that single feather stuck in the ice.  But the “feather,” I pointed out, did not appear to be arranged in a flat plane, like any normal feather.  Its parts radiated in all directions from the center, like the bristles of a bottle brush.  That, and the inherent implausibility of Jacob’s explanation, prevented me from awarding him the prize right way.  Doubting his “stuck bird” theory, I did wonder if an actual feather had landed in the freezing water, had remained upright, and had somehow been made to radiate like the bristles of a bottle brush as it got encased in the tower of ice.  After a couple of days, though, the whole feather theory melted away with the ice. There was no feather left behind when the ice departed.

So there we have it.  As of this writing, the tower remains a mystery to me.  My vague partial theory is that some sort of gas in the water (or from the enameled metal bottom of the bird bath) had started to rise in that particular spot just as the water froze.  That the gas kept on rising while the ice was still “semi-frozen” enough to be malleable.  The bristles of the bottle brush did look like paths taken by gas bubbles radiating from a central trunk, like the branches of a Christmas tree. But whether the “rising gas” theory makes any sense is beyond my understanding of what happens when ice forms, and why I’d never seen such a tower before, and what sort of gas might have formed bubbles in a bottle brush formation, and more.

Among the small but learned group of scholars and philosophers who read this blog, there’s probably a natural philosopher among you who can explain the appearance of the ice tower.  I am tempted to offer a prize, like I did with my grandkids, for the most plausible explanation. If you are as ignorant of such things as I am, I’m sure I’d be amazed at your creativity.  So please tell me what you think! 

Meanwhile, I’m not sure I really want to know the truth.  I mean, what good will it do me? Satisfy my craving for knowledge? Preserve my self-image as someone who knows what’s really going on in the world he inhabits? Perhaps the best explanation for my ice tower is that it came from the fairy world, a gift from some wise creature who figured I’ve gotten too old, that I already think I know too much.  Perhaps I should just hang the pictures above my desk as a reminder of the many things out there I can never hope to understand, even just outside my kitchen window. 

– Joe

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Precedential Impeachment

I was heartened this week that in the debate over the legality of the national emergency declared by President Trump, people are talking about the precedents such declarations set.   This has nothing to do with my feelings about immigration, but my feelings about precedent  – both those precedents set in the past, and whatever new precedent we may set by decisions made today. 

As we grow closer to issuance of the Mueller Report and the possibility of  impeachment – which I’m still predicting – I thought the time right to reflect on precedent.

I begin with a reminder of some precedents set by voters.  After Marion Barry, then a married Mayor of the District of Columbia,  was caught on tape in an FBI sting soliciting sex and doing crack cocaine with a girlfriend, he was convicted by a majority-black jury and did time for the crime.  Yet immediately after his release from prison, his constituency reelected him, first to City Council and then to Mayor.  His campaign slogan was, “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect for D.C.”  He won by large margins.

In his 1963 inaugural address as governor of Alabama, George Wallace, champion of the Jim Crow laws, declared that he stood for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”  Yet he was reelected Governor of Alabama several times and in 1968, carried five states in his third party campaign for President.

In 1969, Teddy Kennedy drove a young girl off a bridge, failed to report the fatal accident until others had already found her, and until any alcohol in his system had had time to dissipate.  He paid money to the girl’s family to make no public comments.  And yet, a year later, he was re-elected to his Senate seat by a 62% majority.  By the time he died, he’d been reelected six more times.  There was widespread support for his subsequent campaign for the Presidency.

I didn’t support any of these three politicians, but I’ve always supported the electorate’s right to be represented by whomever they desire.  American Democracy has survived in part bcause we have enough faith in our system that we’re content to wait until the next election cycle, to vote out administrations we find abhorrent.  As the cases of Barry, Wallace and Kennedy seem to make clear, we don’t require our political candidates to be free of wrongdoing.  The will of the electorate being supreme, it apparently includes the power to forgive, excuse, or simply ignore the misconduct of a candidate for office.  Misconduct is not, per se, grounds for disqualification, ineligibility, or removal.  If George Wallace had won the presidential election, would he have then been subject to impeachment for his segregationist views?   Should Ted Kennedy have been expelled from the Senate for his crimes at Chappaquiddick?  If he’d been elected president, would he have been subject to impeachment for those crimes?

With those questions in mind, I move on to the precedents Congress has set for removals from office.

Our Constitution permits Congress to expel its own members, on a two thirds vote.  Whereas presidents must be accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” there’s no similar standard set out before Congress can expel its own members.  One might imagine that with so many of them, there’s been a lot more crimes and misdemeanors committed by members of Congress over the years than by Presidents.  Yet only a handful of Congressmen have ever been expelled by vote of their peers.  The great majority of them were Congressmen from southern states expelled after those states succeeded from the union; they were expelled for “support of the Confederacy,” i.e., for conduct that essentially amounted to treason.  Clearly, others have left office voluntarily amid scandal and disgrace, but apart from those civil war rebels, there have apparently been only three members of Congress actually expelled.:

William Blount was charged with treason in 1797 after a letter in his handwriting proved that he was conspiring with Great Britain to take over Spanish Louisiana and Florida.  (As a major land speculator, Blount stood to profit from the predicted increase in land prices.)   Treason is often cited as the most obvious of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”. Interestingly, though, Blount’s home state of Tennessee continued to elect him to its state house; he served as its speaker until his death.

183 years later, Michael Myers of Pennsylvania was expelled for taking a $50,000 bribe from an FBI agent in connection with the Abscam scandal.  Proof, again, was rock solid. And in 2002, Jim Trafficant of Ohio was expelled after being criminal convicted on numerous counts of bribery, racketeering, and tax evasion. Again, solid proof.

Apart from that handful, that’s it.  My sense from this is that Congress has been amazingly cautious in expelling its own members.  By comparison, it has shown greater willingness  to go after presidents.  Still, it has only impeached two of them, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.  Since Nixon’s impeachment was certain if he hadn’t resigned first, let’s add Nixon to the mix and call it three.  In case we’ve forgotten, I offer an attempt to summarize them:

President Andrew Johnson wanted to replace his Secretary of War, William Stanton.  Having succeeded to the presidency as a result of the Lincoln assassination, Johnson, a Democrat, had inherited Republican Stanton from Lincoln.  Johnson and Stanton had very different views on reconstruction, and Johnson felt he had the right to a cabinet of his choosing.  The Republican-controlled Congress disagreed, passing a law that prevented the President from dismissing cabinet members without its consent.  Johnson vetoed the law.  Congress overrode the veto.  Johnson considered the law an unconstitutional interference by the legislative branch of government with the prerogatives of the executive branch, so he dismissed Stanton anyway.  For that, he was impeached.

Johnson’s view about the constitution turned out to be correct.  Years later, the Supreme Court decided  that the law in question, restricting the President’s right to dismiss members of his cabinet,  had been unconstitutional.  But in the meantime, the Republic-controlled House had already impeached the Democratic president for the “high crime and misdemeanor” of violating their law by dismissing his cabinet officer.  History has judged the impeachment as a highly partisan political squabble that paid little heed to the opinions of the public.   The case strikes me as an example of how not to use the impeachment power.

The articles of impeachment drawn up against Richard Nixon for his involvement in Watergate were for “obstruction of justice” and “abuse of power” (which boiled down to actions taken to cover up and impede investigation of an illegal break-in by his agents and supporters) and for “contempt of Congress,” i.e., failing to comply with Congressional subpoenas.   Personally, I wonder about that last charge – whether an executive failure to comply with a legislative subpoena is the sort of separation of powers dispute that characterized the Johnson impeachment.  But as for the first two charges, they were (1) for crimes by Nixon (perjury and obstruction), (2) in connection with investigation into another  criminal act (essentially a burglary), (3) committed during the President’s term in office and (4) presumably committed for the purpose of influence his reelection.   Unlike the Johnson case, there was no viable argument that the criminal laws violated were unconstitutional.  In my view, the impeachment articles proposed against Nixon offer a better example of an appropriate use of the impeachment process.

I also find it worth noting that at the time of his near-impeachment, Nixon was a highly unpopular president whose approval rating in public polls had dropped to the mid -twentieth percentile level. A lot of the sentiment against Nixon was actually due to matters extraneous to the impeachment charges, most especially, his conduct of the War in Vietnam.  But regardless of the cause for his low popularity, the Nixon case raises the question of the extent to which public sentiment should be a consideration in impeachment proceedings.  Thinking of Marion Barry, George Wallace, and Ted Kennedy, I’m reminded that we live in a democracy, in which the public’s right to representatives of their choice should not be lightly trifled with.  Any removal of an elected official from office serves to put Congress in the position of second-guessing the expressed will of the electorate.  And as you might suspect in a post on WMBW, any decision by a few people to override the expressed preferences of millions risks being nothing more than arrogance.  As noted in an earlier WMBW post, arrogance is the taking to yourself of authority not rightfully yours.  In a democracy, any time Congress removes someone elected by the people,  it’s hard not to ask whether they’re overstepping their bounds.  That said, why would popular sentiment not be an appropriate consideration in deciding whether to impeach?  If “high crimes and misdemeanors” ultimately boils down to a political question, is that necessarily a bad thing? 

The impeachment of Bill Clinton was for alleged perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones.  An Arkansas state employee, Jones alleged she’d been brought to then Governor Clinton’s motel room by state troopers, where he propositioned her and exposed himself to her.  She filed her sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton within the applicable three year period of limitations. 

In the Me Too era, it’s interesting that the Jones lawsuit was only dismissed because the presiding judge found she could not prove that Clinton’s conduct damaged her.  (Not that she hadn’t done so, but that she could not do so.) 

That quirk of history aside, Clinton was asked in the Jones lawsuit about his relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.  Clinton’s later admissions and public apologies remove any significant doubt that he did in fact have a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.  But in sworn testimony on multiple occasions, Clinton denied having any sort of sexual relationship with her, or even being alone with her.  The charge of obstruction of justice was for trying to influence the testimony of Lewinsky and Clinton’s own White House Secretary to support him in his sworn denials – efforts quite similar, it seems to me, to the obstruction of justice charges against Nixon.   

At the time, there were many who defended Clinton by minimizing the national significance of a President’s sexual activities.  Clinton complained that the inquiries were an invasion of his “privacy.” But the charges against Clinton weren’t for the sexual activity, they were for the alleged obstruction of justice that surrounded it, and for the perjury Clinton committed. (Nixon was widely considered a liar, but he was not charged with perjury, i.e., lying under oath, as Clinton was.)  As in Nixon’s case, there were two levels of misdeed – the underlying one (burglary, in Nixon’s case, sexual harassment in Clinton’s) and the subsequent misdeeds for which impeachment proceedings were brought – obstruction of justice and perjury.  The Democrat Clinton was impeached, but while Republicans split on the vote to remove him from office, every Democratic senator voted to acquit him of all charges, so conviction by a two-thirds majority failed.

In today’s environment. It seems unlikely that Clinton’s sexual activities would be dismissed as easily as many dismissed it in the 1990’s.  So, if public sentiment is a factor (and I think it is, whether it should be or not), the acquittal of Clinton might have come down differently today.  And that’s true, I think, even though public sentiment about perjury and obstruction of justice has not seemed to change from what it was back then.  It’s public sentiment about sexual abuse by people in power that have changed.

I certainly wonder, if President Trump were impeached for committing perjury and obstructing justice with respect to, say, his relationship with Stormy Daniels, Democrats would unanimously vote to acquit him, as they did with Clinton.

As with Nixon’s obstruction of justice, there was no question about the constitutionality of the laws Clinton was accused of violating.  As with Nixon, the charges against Clinton were for crimes committed during the term of office.  Since the misconduct by Clinton occurred during his second term of office, it was not designed to influence an upcoming election, as Nixon’s presumably was, so a removal from office could not be said to be any sort of remedy for election fraud.  But public sentiment was quite different than it had been in the Nixon case.  In contrast to Nixon’s abysmal public approval ratings, Clinton’s remained in the mid 60th percentile throughout his presidency, and reached a high in the mid 70th percentile after the impeachment proceedings.

Finally, I note that all three Presidential impeachments  so far have been brought by an opposition Congress – twice by Republicans against a Democratic President, and once by Democrats against a Republican President. No Congress has ever gone after a President of its own party.

Bottom line: there seems to be very little precedent for Congress to remove a president, or one of its own, from office.  Treason seems to be enough, and so does taking bribes, but there’s been a mixed record when it comes to perjury and obstruction of justice.  The differences seem better accounted for by partisan politics and by the political climate of the day, i.e., the popularity of the President accused.

I wonder whether, to some extent, this last factor is appropriate.  Other countries have procedures for recall elections.  In this country, we have them for other public offices.  Ultimately, in any democracy, one might think of impeachment and removal from office by Congress as a substitute for such a recall election.   I think the arguments are strong that Congressmen in red and blue states will, and should, be influenced in their actions by what they think their constituents want, and frankly, up to a point, I’m not bothered by that.  But Nixon should not have been impeached because he was unpopular, and Clinton should not have been acquitted because he was a Democrat.   There’s still precedent to be considered regarding the actual allegations made and proven.  And I strongly think it should be.

When Congress acts, I hope it doesn’t deprive us voters, collectively, of the right to be represented by the leaders we choose.  Otherwise, I may think them guilty of great arrogance. That said, I think there’s a point at which elected officials should unseat other elected officials, I just haven’t decided exactly where I think that point is. But as we try to sort such things out is, I hope we act consistently with past precedent, and with awareness that we’ll be setting precedent for the future as well.

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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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