Fact Checking Glenn Beck’s Ancient Roman History Lesson
December 4, 2010

I normally don’t plug my work at Media Matters in this space, but I had a lot of fun with this one. It’s always nice when one of my geeky fixations unexpectedly overlaps with my work.

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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 Rally
October 31, 2010

As a piece of entertainment, it wasn’t quite as funny as your average episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Nor do I think it could have been. Stewart and Colbert were working in an unfamiliar format for a crowd of unprecedented size under the watchful eye of a commentary class hungry to jump on anything they could paint as inflammatory. The result was a program that was silly and lighthearted but also scrupulously inoffensive. I think the presence of Sheryl Crow and John Legend, two people who have made a career out of being competent and inoffensive, says it all.

Plus there’s the fact that 99.9% of the crowd could have gotten a better view of the proceedings from their living room. I was about halfway through the crowd, and even at that distance my arms were pinned to my sides by the people around me. The stage wasn’t visible, and the nearest jumbotrons just barely. Behind me, every once in a while, I could hear a crowd roughly the size of two packed football stadiums chant, “Louder! Louder!”

That was more striking than the show itself: the size. Estimates put it at around 200,000, or roughly 2.5 times the size of Glenn Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally. I think most people who showed up were there mostly to see each other all massed in one location. It was certainly something. Unsurprisingly, the assembled masses weren’t all, or even mostly, stoned hipsters or shrieking Code Pink members. For the most part they seemed to be polite, reasonable, middle class people with generally leftish political leanings and similar taste in late-night comedy. I wouldn’t call them the silent majority, but they’re certainly the silent statistically significant demographic. When the rally disbanded, there wasn’t a single restaurant in downtown DC without a line leading out the door. I’ve never seen a crowd of comparable size anywhere in my life, and it seems possible that I never will.

But why? Was there a point? Yes, and I was a little too glib yesterday in suggesting that this was just a piece of entertainment upon which others had impressed their own views. Jon Stewart made the point in his earnest closing remarks, which turned out to be the least showman-like and most worthwhile part of the entire program. Here’s the video:

And here’s the transcript.

I’m not so sure that this will one day, as Charli Carpenter suggests, ”be considered among the greatest political speeches of our country’s history,” but I was certainly impressed. “Jon Stewart gets serious for a moment” could easily have been a grievous miscalculation, an unfunny piece of pseudo-messianic sermonizing from an ex-funny funnyman who let the high ratings get to his head. But Stewart didn’t lose his sense of humor, least of all about himself, and that saved the entire speech.

Good thing, too, because he’s absolutely right. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m more wholly in the tank for Jon Stewart than for virtually any pundit or political figure, but this speech, I think, vindicated my unreserved admiration. Beyond that, I’m unsure what else it did. One event like this certainly won’t restore sanity, if we ever had it in the first place. But the message was impossible to ignore. The audience who turned up to hear it was too big. Maybe, for that reason, we can look forward to just a sliver of contrition and self-examination from some of the people Stewart, directly or indirectly, called out.

Honestly, though? I sort of doubt it. Instead, I’m just going to keep my fingers crossed that their reaction is so misguided and indignant that it finally persuades a chunk of their audience that Stewart was right all along. If we can’t convert them, maybe we can hit them in the ratings.

September 2, 2010

Glenn Beck by Gage Skidmore
Image via Wikipedia

My Salon column for this week is up, and it’s about—what else?—Glenn Beck’s massive cult of personality.

If you have a single emotional or intellectual need, Beck promises to fill it.

As if to underscore the point, this week saw the launch of the Blaze, a Huffington Post-style news and opinion aggregator. Now Beck’s fans can get their window into the political world exclusively from a Beck-approved outfit, and then tune in at night to hear Glenn Beck’s thoughts on what Glenn Beck said earlier that day. This is epistemic closure taken to new, dizzying extremes: It offers people the opportunity to voluntarily enter into an arrangement in which their political views, religious attitude, and even fundamental life philosophy are constructed and mediated by a single pseudo-messianic figure.

Read on.

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Culture War 2.0
August 20, 2010

Glenn Beck
Image via Wikipedia

I was initially skeptical of Adam’s assertion that we’re in the midst of a new culture war, since the battle lines are drawn more or less the same way they always were: those who believe in American pluralism and equality of opportunity versus a group of predominantly Christian conservative white folk fueled by class and race resentment. So what if this time around, the white supremacist rhetoric is a little more subdued and euphemistic?

But on further reflection, I think Adam’s spot on. The clash on first principle grounds may be more or less the same, but there is something new and undeniably peculiar about the right-wing culture warriors self-image as a guerilla revolutionary. You can see it in everything from the silly Tea Party tricorner hats to Glenn Beck’s confounding claim that he and his followers are going to “reclaim the civil rights movement.

This isn’t just a matter of posturing, but a matter of policy. The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a radical, historic pivot point in American history. The Dixie Democrats and others who opposed the civil rights movement (the same one their ideological descendants now want to “reclaim”) were fighting to maintain the status quo.

Now the situation is more or less reversed, if not exactly. When progressives aren’t playing defense, they’re pushing reforms which, while deeply important, likely won’t register on the great richter scale of history the way the Roe v. Wade decision, or the rolling back of the Jim Crow laws, did. The new right-wing cultural warriors may lace their rebuttals with references to the America of their childhood, or America the way the Founders intended, or some other platitudes about a grand, bygone Golden Age, but they’re not really advocating a return to some prior status quo. Instead, they’re advocating a radical, sweeping revolution.

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Racism is the New “Enhanced Interrogation”
July 31, 2010

Arguing with Idiots was published by Simon and...
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I take no joy in writing this, but if the latest column from the always-frustrating Charles Blow is an indication, then Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart and their comrades are winning the racism debate.

Well, that’s not exactly true. They’re winning insofar as there’s a debate in the first place, once which, predictably, plays out like so in Blow’s column:

Americans are engaged in a war over a word: racism.

Mature commentary on the subject has descended into tribal tirades, hypersensitive defenses and rapid-fire finger-pointing. The very definition of the word seems under assault, being bent and twisted back on itself and stretched and pulled beyond recognition.

Many on the left have taken an absolutist stance, that the anti-Obama sentiment reeks of racism and denial only served to confirm guilt. Many on the right feel as though they have been convicted without proof — that tossing “racism” their way is itself racist.

And so on. This is how it plays out, and will continue to play out, in every major newspaper and on every major television network: “Both sides are calling each other racist! What a crazy debate! And who am I, just a humble columnist for the most prestigious Op-Ed page on the planet, to evaluate their claims against one another? All I know is that they’re both being very, very indecorous.”

If that pungent aroma you smell is bringing back memories of the Bush era, it’s because the right has used this exact same tactic before—most famously when they successfully obfuscated the meaning of the word “torture,” and passive, compliant news agencies played along. Now they’re doing the same thing with “racism,” and even “lynching” (For those keeping score at home, “to lynch” now means “To criticize a white person on the Internet.”).

I have slightly more respect for the nihilists who at least admit their complete lack of moral principles. This is something different: Rather than ever admit to violating a moral principle, or even engaging in a debate over whether or not they violated a moral principle, they instead argue over the meaning of the words used to articulate that principle.

It’s pretty amazing how far they’ve taken it, but I think they could go further. If Breitbart were ever caught beating an unarmed homeless man to death, he could probably extend the trial by at least a few months by calling it, “enhanced robust preemptive self-defense,” and accusing liberal bloggers “high-tech murder” for condemning his actions. Then Charles Blow could write a column about how nobody can agree on the definition of the word “murder,” and we should just agree that no American is a murderer anymore, ever.


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One Quick Note On the Shirley Sherrod Fallout
July 24, 2010

The Shirley Sherrod fiasco (background here) is regrettable for a number of reasons, but one consequence that’s stood out in my mind is a particularly disingenuous new meme being promulgated by defenders of the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative factions and figureheads that feed off of racial resentment. Here’s a taste from Michael Moynihan:

But the unfair charge of racism, fascism, and Nazism, correctly denounced when spouted by Glenn Beck, seems something of a regular feature on Journolist.


But false (or flimsy) accusations of racism abound—they are everywhere one looks—though they rarely provoke the level of outrage seen in the Sherrod affair.


All of this will soon be forgotten, thankfully, and the charming and efficient pundits of Washington, D.C. will go back to observing the “racist” Tea Party movement and that stupid conservatives aren’t stupid but “neo-fascists.”

And so on and so forth. It’s actually pretty clever: you concede that Sherrod was unfairly maligned, and then say, “See? Both sides have to deal with unfair accusations of race-baiting.” It’s a pretty exemplary model of false equivalence done well.

Of course, the difference comes down not to the accusation itself, but to context. Sherrod’s remarks weren’t just taken out of context—they were deliberately manipulated in the most misleading way possible, and most of what has been said in her defense was all about simply stating the real context. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, just provided her full speech with minimal comment.

Moynihan and others, on the other hand, defend folks like Beck and Limbaugh by kvetching disingenuously that their remarks were “taken out of context” without actually explicating the context. And there’s a good reason for that: the context just makes them look even worse.

So a word to my conservative friends: I’d caution you think really hard about what you’re doing here. I’m sympathetic to reasonable conservatives upset with having their entire movement painted as racist; may I suggest that those same reasonable conservatives can do something about this by condemning and ostracizing overtly racist elements on the right. At the very least, refrain from circling the wagons around them. How hard could that be?

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June 28, 2010

I am trying to decide what the creepiest thing about this video is (via Ben Smith).

  • The way in which Barber blithely equates taxation to pay for social welfare programs with slavery.
  • Zombie Abraham Lincoln.
  • The juxtaposition of standard-issue Tea Party ranting about taxation and liberty with PHOTOS OF AUSCHWITZ HOLY SHIT.
  • The David Lynch-esque musical interlude.
  • The militia of well-armed aryans, plus a lone black guy in the front row to prove that this isn’t, like, a race war or anything.
  • The fact that the ad ends with Barber taking a jab at Glenn Beck for being insufficiently crazy.

See, this is what I talk about when I fret over the corrosion of any kind of basic national consensus in this country. The public and its elected representatives don’t need to agree on everything—in fact, it’s better if we have substantive disagreements on a lot of things—but at the very least we should be able to agree that there’s no moral equivalence between the modest health care reform and, say, the Holocaust. Because, remember, the general consensus is that armed insurrection directed towards the goal of preventing or ending the Holocaust is morally permissible. And if a small but politically significant chunk of the electorate believes the same thing applies to incremental expansions of the welfare state, well, that’s a problem.

An even bigger problem is that I think Barber is actually sincere, and not just irresponsibly stoking populist rage to further his own advancement. Contrast that with a man who like Nixon, who was fundamentally sociopathic in the lengths he was willing to go to further his career, but also sufficiently cognizant of reality to be an effective manager. What he failed to account for—and this is perhaps among his biggest sins—is that the people to whom he was serving cups of kool-aid would eventually run for office themselves.

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