Notes on Notes on “Notes on Hype”
April 22, 2012

Rob Horning in The New Inquiry:

Hype already presumes that no one completely buys into it; the passive dope who just responds to hype with naive enthusiasm is obviously a straw man, the creation of which is hype’s chief achievement. Hype creates this stooge that makes us feel smart in being jaded about hype. Advertising generally works by trying to make audiences feel smart and insecure at the same time; it flatters us but makes us know that the flattery is conditional. Hype says: yeah, you are probably smarter than to fall unreservedly for this obviously overhyped thing, but still you better know about it so you know just why you haven’t fallen for it. As Powers notes, Through our engagement with hype “we are at once too savvy and not savvy enough.”

Rob’s talking about the private sector here, but is there any better way to describe avid campaign trail watchers than, “at once too savvy and not savvy enough?” It’s amazing, for example, just how closely Rob’s account of the life of a hyped product maps onto the arc of the “Obama ate a dog” meme. That meme doubtless enjoyed such a long time in the sun because the people who first hyped it wanted everyone else to buy it — but the savvy onlookers who mocked its insignificance and wove increasingly elaborate dog-eating puns surely extended the meme’s lifespan. In their hurry to show how smart they were for not falling for such a dumb story, they hyped it up some more.

But in that case, what’s actually being hyped? I would argue that what’s actually being sold — unbeknownst to the people doing most of the selling — is not one particular campaign meme, but a general assertion about the value of that genus of campaign memes. When Democratic pundit X tweets, “This Obama eats a dog story is really stupid and trivial” as if that’s news, they’re reinforcing the implicit assumption that it could have ever been anything but stupid and trivial. The dog-eating story is trivial, but Romney putting the dog kennel on top of the car is significant. George W. Bush clearing brush is trivial, but Hillary Clinton in sunglasses is an important reminder of how cool she is. And so it goes. When you hype a particular team, you’re also hyping the whole sport.

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Pelosi, Maher, and Cosmopolitan Bigotry
March 18, 2012

In the above clip (via Ta-Nehisi Coates), Bill Maher says, “When I see the toothless guy, as a liberal, what I say is, I want to help you get teeth. Why does that make me an asshole?”

Of course, wanting dental care for the poor is not what makes Maher an asshole. What makes him an asshole is that he feels compelled to add a crude imitation of a Southerner saying, “You damn Yankee, trying to get me teeth!”

That moment perfectly crystallizes everything that’s wrong with the above clip, in which Maher and Alexandra Pelosi (documentarian and daughter of Nancy Pelosi) take aim at “both sides” by portraying both poor white rural Southerners and poor black city-dwelling Northerners as equally grotesque, stupid and lazy. Maher may support policies that would ease the suffering of the poor, but he’s also roundly contemptuous of the poor’s experiences. Those experiences aren’t real and meaningful in the sense that the white coastal elite’s experiences are real and meaningful — instead, they’re just a canvass onto which Maher can impress his own moral sophistication and enlightened sensibilities.

The irony is that Maher and Pelosi’s “enlightenment” corresponds to a total incuriosity regarding the lives of people who don’t reside on their lofty socioeconomic stratum. While Pelosi might pat herself on the back for having, “intelligent conversations with these people,” (these people being poor white Southerners), the clips she shows of those conversations don’t tell us anything about them beyond their willingness to reiterate certain right-wing shibboleths. “This is what they believe,” she says, but she never bothers to explore the nature of their belief, the why of it, nor anything of the world in which they live. By the same token, she thinks she can score a point against the “entitlement culture” by showing a clip of a young black man in New York who admits he can’t find work because he has a criminal record. But she never asks why a young black man in a city with notoriously racist policing policies has a criminal record, or why that record might disqualify him from finding work.

But perhaps the starkest moment of willful ignorance comes when Maher uses a permutation of the “some of our best friends are black” defense as a way of excusing Pelosi from charges of racism (Pelosi actually uses the expression “welfare queen” repeatedly, evidently without irony). “I mean, I, after all, just gave my imaginary child’s college fund to Barack Obama,” he says, “and your mother is Nancy Pelosi.” The charitable reading of that defense is that Maher has absolutely no understanding of how racism perpetuates itself, and no desire to learn.

Moments like that make Maher’s mockery of poor Southern ignorance especially pungent. “Maybe it’s you,” he says, addressing the camera. Of course, there’s no way it could ever, in a million years, be him.

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About Last Night
January 25, 2012

From Obama’s State of the Union address (paraphrased):

In order to face the jobs of America’s future, we must job all the jobs in order to job more jobs. In short: jobs.

And from Mitch Daniels’ rebuttal:

The President’s jobs are not jobly enough. We need to jobs the jobs using a combination of jobs and jobs, but especially jobs.

As you can see, last night had a theme. But for all of the emphasis on job creation, neither speaker (I’m not counting Herman Cain here, for reasons that should be self-evident) devoted a whole lot of time to talking about what kind of jobs. When you’re measuring success by a generic “job” metric, 50,000 new jobs at McDonald’s counts for about as much as a salaried position with benefits. If all that matters is whether the manufacturing sector added jobs, the fact that those jobs are worth less and less money is no big deal.

It goes on. Working 50-hour weeks when you’re only getting paid for 40? Can’t join a union? Nowhere to go and nothing to do when the boss violates your contract and abuses his authority? At least you have a job! Be grateful, and give your leaders credit for helping you out like that.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what counts as populism in modern electoral politics. Guess Occupy can pack it up and toast to a job well done.

Dealing With Political Blind Spots
December 1, 2010

Ezra Klein had a great rundown yesterday on a psychological phenomenon called motivated skepticism:

 On the simplest level, American politics presents us with an incentives problem: McConnell — like most minority leaders — is an avowedly reflexive opponent of the president’s reelection. The president’s reelection campaign depends on an improved economy. That a rational actor working inside the system’s rules might prefer — and even be able to bring about — a weak economy should scare us, even if we don’t believe they’ll purposefully try and do it.

In part, that’s because the word “purposefully” doesn’t offer as much protection as we might wish. Humans have a funny way of following their incentives even when they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. McConnell doesn’t have to believe he’s hurting the economy in order to hurt the economy. Rather, if the incentives and distortions of heated partisanship leave powerful actors like McConnell unable to partner with the White House to help the economy recover, that in itself could do damage to the economy, particularly amid divided government (indeed, there’s some evidence that the economy performs better under unified government). And McConnell could easily do that while believing everything he’s doing is meant to help the economy.

Psychologists call the mechanism behind this “motivated skepticism.” When we’re faced with information or ideas that accord with our preexisting beliefs about the world, we accept them easily. When the ideas and information cut against our beliefs, however, we interrogate them harshly, subjecting them to endless scrutiny and a long search for contrary evidence which, when found, we accept uncritically.

 This concept seems pretty fundamental to understanding why people hold and advocate the beliefs they do. Yet so often our speculation about the motives of partisans and advocates gets reduced to who really believes what they’re saying and who’s a pure snake oil salesman. The reality is a whole lot messier than that: I don’t think Glenn Beck is trying to pull one over on his audience when he tells them to invest in gold, but Goldline advertising dollars wouldn’t exactly incline anyone to be more skeptical of gold’s value. Similarly, those on the left who expressed outrage at the Bush administration’s civil liberties abuses yet remain silent through Obama’s aren’t opportunists indifferent to the horrors of torture and indefinite detention. It’s just significantly harder to accuse someone whose success you feel invested in a war criminal.

Understanding how motivated skepticism affects your opponents’ positions is important. But I’d argue it’s even more important to be aware of how it affects your own positions. For example: Much of the time I’m a fairly predictable orthodox liberal. (You might have noticed.) My career path and social milieu, among other things, are both very strong incentives to adhere to orthodox liberalism as much as possible. Knowing that, I try as best I can to factor it into my understanding of policy matters. That means reconstructing conservative arguments own my own as best I can to make sure that I’m representing them to myself accurately, and treating liberal arguments with just as much skepticism, if not more.

At least, that’s the standard I try to hold myself to. We’re not really built to do that, but it seems to me like making the attempt to compensate for these cognitive biases is often the definition of good faith engagement.

Semi-related: You know what’s a great blog? You Are Not So Smart.

Crossposted at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

The Imperial Presidency
November 8, 2010

My latest Salon column was prompted, at least in part, by a post Conor Friedersdorf wrote last week, in which he asked why “the Daily Show left” seemed to have lost so much interest in protecting civil liberties now that they had their Democratic president. I question some of the premise — I have no idea who counts as part of the Daily Show left, nor do I think it’s Jon Stewart’s job to grill the president on matters of policy — but Freidersdorf’s point still struck a nerve. I can’t speak for the rest of the Daily Show left, but I am on the left, I watch The Daily Show, and for the past two years I haven’t been treating these issues with nearly the attention I think they deserve.

Anyway, I’ve made a resolution to rededicate myself to this The more people who do, the better.

Lifter Puller – Nassau Coliseum
October 24, 2010

http://assets.tumblr.com/swf/audio_player.swf?audio_file=http://www.tumblr.com/audio_file/1393535001/tumblr_latkubE50c1qc41pl&color=FFFFFF

A theory: Although this song appeared on 1997’s Half Dead and Dynamite, the entire story the lyrics tell is a metaphor for how John McCain felt a full eleven years later when large swaths of the mainstream press abandoned him and gave favorable coverage to Barack Obama. Meaning that Craig Finn — frontman for Lifter Puller and later, of course, The Hold Steady — is not only a crackerjack poet, but also a time traveler.

The Myth of the Non-Ideological Presidency
August 26, 2010

I’m traveling to DC this weekend, so further Nietzsche blogging will probably be on hold for a day or so—but in the mean time, here’s my Salon column for this week.

“It’s true that Obama often spoke in transformational terms about the practice of politics,” Scheiber writes. “But if you listened to the way he and his campaign discussed policy, it was always clear that they preferred a relatively pragmatic, non-ideological approach to some sweeping progressive vision.”

The offending word here is “non-ideological.” This isn’t the first time someone has used that term to characterize either Obama or his team: Scheiber did it himself in 2008’s “The Audacity of Data,” and others have pointed to the president’s supposed lack of ideology as both one of his greatest strengths and one of his fatal weaknesses.

But to describe anyone as non-ideological is nonsense. Data is non-ideological. Inanimate objects are non-ideological. People, however, are ideological creatures.

Bonus trivia from the piece: Obama is a Nietzsche fan! And a Sartre fan. If I were a paranoid social conservative, I’d be way more freaked out by that than all these “secret Muslim” rumors.

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“I think Socrates and Plato would have laughed themselves silly.”
June 23, 2010

This is a couple days old by now, but I’m still trying to figure out why exactly far-right Iowa congressman Steve King found it necessary to namecheck Socrates and Plato in the process of defending his claim that, to put it Kanye West-style, “Barack Obama doesn’t care about white people.”

As far as I can figure out, the reasoning goes like this:

  1. My argument is correct.
  2. Smart people agree with correct arguments.
  3. Smart people disagree with incorrect arguments.
  4. People laugh at what they disagree with.
  5. Smart people laugh at incorrect arguments.
  6. Socrates and Plato are famous smart people.
  7. Socrates and Plato would laugh at views that conflict with my argument.

Which is internally consistent I guess, but not, um, up to inclusion in the Republic.

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Visions of South Carolina, circa 2000
September 15, 2008

Well, this doesn’t sound very good:

Jewish voters are complaining of a poll that, after confirming their religion, asks a series of questions that appear aimed at alarming Jewish voters, including linking Barack Obama to Palestinian terrorist groups.

Which, of course, is remarkably similar to the deplorable tactics Karl Rove employed against John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

I can’t wait to find out where this is coming from.

Disrespectful
September 12, 2008

This ad is really stupid. And very inartfully phrased.

Just throwing this out there: If Sarah Palin really takes that much umbrage at being accused of lying, then maybe she should stop lying all the time. Insulting the intelligence of the American people is pretty disrespectful too.

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