Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Confused about Liberals? Try a Reality Check

Burt Prelutsky has an article that is pretty typical of what one can hear about "liberals" from Republicans and those who support them with unwavering vigor. I am going to dissect his claims here for the purpose of showing:

1) The definition of "liberal" shifts conveniently depending on what point is being made.

2) The definition used most frequently is basically a convenient fiction.

3) Much of the bafflement of Prelutsky and people like him originates in his ignorance and insistence on clinging to outdated/disproven ideas, and consequently, on the "liberals" insistence on using the best information science has to offer.

4) Prelutsky, like so many conservatives, confuses speculation and differences of subjective evaluation with facts.

Prelutsky's beginning is revealing, but not the way he intends:

"I’ll come right out and admit that I understand Islamic terrorists far better than I do American liberals. After all, once you realize that young Muslims are taught by their religious leaders that our nation is militarily powerful and technologically advanced because we cut a deal with Satan, you can see where they’d be upset with us. But what is the deal with liberals? I'm serious."

That last part is what really scares me. This is what Prelutsky believes is behind the hatred of America by so many Muslims? Not our presence in and support of hated Israel, not our lifestyle that is radically sinful by their standards, not our multiple invasions and attacks of sovereign nations there (warranted or not), not our multi year occupation of Iraq, not our threats against Iran, none of that, but rather that we made a deal with the devil for our wealth and power? If so, I'd say no amount of confusion about liberals is going to match his confusion of Muslims. He goes on to ask a few questions about liberals:

"Why else would Americans so resent the United States having more influence in the world than, say, Luxembourg or Lichtenstein? Why do they seem to have no rooting interest in capitalism prevailing over all the other isms? Do they think that the reason they live so much better than the typical Russian or Turk is because they, themselves, are intellectually superior? Fat chance!"

This is, for all intents and purposes, a convenient fiction. Who are these liberals? Show me a quote and context for anyone prominent in American politics who believes such nonsense. It is no surprise to me that when people like Prelutsky make such claims there are never any quotes to support his contentions. Oh sure, there are still some out-and-out socialists out there, but they are either politically marginalized, or in Hollywood and should be. I'm sure Prelutsky would be up near the front of the line with me in thinking that entertainers should not be taken seriously per se in politics. He should stay consistent to that position and not use them to smear an entire group.

Far more realistic as to what mainstream liberals (really code for "Democrats" in this context), is that America sometimes overreaches in its influence in the world (a certain disastrous current military venture springs to mind), capitalism needs constraints in some arenas to avoid the tragedy of the commons, and that liberals are intellectually superior to conservatives for, well, the reasons every bit of data I've ever seen (check graduation rates in red vs blue states, for example), would suggest.

Such distortions indicate that Prelutsky isn't so much interested in understanding liberals as he is in demonizing them. If you need more evidence, here are the next round of questions:

"Why is it that liberals seem to believe that recycling cans is an important issue, but defeating terrorism isn’t? Why do they put so much stock in the blathering of Al Gore and Michael Moore? Why do they regard secondhand smoke as a bigger menace than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? What is wrong with these people?"

Here we see a conflation of two common conservative errors: confusing speculation with fact, and ignoring facts. Recycling cans, by which I presume he means taking care of the environment, is more important than defeating certain terrorist groups (remember terrorism is a battle technique, not a thing) because a ruined environment could destroy the entire human race. Terrorists are very limited in what they can do to us, that's why they're terrorists.

People put stock in what Al Gore says, again I'll presume Prelutsky is referring to global warming here, because he has the near unanimous support of the worldwide scientific community. The real question here is the reverse: why do Prelutsky and his ilk not put stock in Al Gore's global warming message? The answer comes with the examination of Michael Moore. His supporters support him in large part because he tells them what they want to hear. Likewise, Prelutsky has, I'll warrant, not done an exhaustive analysis of the science of global warming. He simply rejects what Gore has to say because it isn't the message he wants to hear. Ditto with Moore.

The second-hand smoke comparison with Ahmadinejad is another interesting case of a conservative pundit conflating a fact with a speculation and differences of subjective judgement. That second-hand smoke has a deleterious effect on people's health is now no longer in scientific doubt. So people smoking around me (a right I vigorously defend) is a threat to my health, and how much I deal with that is a subjective value judgement. We can argue the facts of the studies and the biology, but in the end the decision to worry about it, and how much, comes down to an intangible process. The same is true for Ahmadinejad, even more so since he has not been proven to be harm to anyone as has secondhand smoke. Sure, he has the potential to be worse, but how much so, and how much emphasis we place on him, is the same kind of subjective value judgement. I emphasize this because I see Republicans make this mistake over and over again, and they seem oblivious to the major category error they are making. The damage of secondhand smoke is scientifically evidenced. So is global warming, and evolution. Denying either is, scientifically speaking, wrong. Denying that Ahmadinejad is a major threat to our way of life is not in the same category at all, and it's high time conservatives like Prelutsky understood this. In the meantime, let's move on (heh) to Prelutsky's confusion of liberal views of immigration:

"Why will the same folks who’d call a cop if someone set foot in their front yard be so unconcerned about 20 million illegal aliens setting up camp in their country? And why will the same saps who work themselves into a tizzy if some small town sets up a Christmas tree in the public square defend a church’s right to provide a sanctuary for foreign nationals who have no business being in our country? "

These comparisons are akin to asking how one can be against abortion but for the death penalty, or for abortion but for animal rights, depending on which end of the political spectrum you want to attack. In either case the question reveals a lack of understanding of the differing underlying assumptions for each view. In the case of immigration, the answer to Prelutsky's comparisons is that many such liberals don't view immigration laws as equivalent to private property laws, or church/state separation, respectively. Do conservatives like Prelutsky really need it explained that an illegal immigrant who otherwise follows the laws and is a productive member of society is hardly in the same league of threat as a trespasser in my yard? It does seem to be the case with regard to church/state separation.

From here Prelutsky goes from asking inane questions to simply making shit up, rapid fire:

"Liberals would like to see us cut and run from Iraq. That’s because they enjoy seeing the American military lose. For them, Vietnam was positively rapturous. Their holy trinity consists of Jane Fonda, John Kerry and Walter Cronkite."

Really Burt? Who enjoys seeing America lose? Name them. I've not seen anyone in the mainstream press, or on the blogs for that matter, say anything like that. I've seen a lot of people who are sick of seeing America lose in Iraq, but none of them seemed happy about it. Are recognizing we are losing and wanting us to lose equivalent to Prelutsky? If so, its no wonder he is confused.

"They keep insisting that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11."

Uh, he didn't.

"What they refuse to acknowledge is that we are at war with Islamic fundamentalism."

Yes, or more to the point, they are at war with us. So obviously the intelligent thing to do was to attack the least fundamentalist nation in the area and destroy it's secular government so the radical Islamicists could move in. Then of course pretend they were there all the time, and that somehow our presence there prevents another 9/11, reasoning so flawed every conservative ought to be embarrassed by it. Speaking of embarrassing non sequitors, at this point Prelutsky launches into a series of them:

"I’m aware that liberals will tell you that the Islamics hate us because we’re over there, violating their sacred turf. But if that’s the case, why are they killing civilians in Holland and Bali, Indonesia and the Philippines, Russia and Spain?"

Uh, many Islamicists tell us that too, and have been for a very long time. However, it is important to remember that Islamicists are not androids marching in lockstep. Different groups have different agendas. The fact that some of them find targets elsewhere doesn't change the fact that our presence in that part of the world isn't helping matters. It's akin to saying "how can you say your dog bit me because I was in your yard when I know other kids who have been bitten by other dogs in the park."

"If we’re not at war with Muslim terrorism, why do I have to remove my shoes before I’m allowed to board a plane?"

So if we let you board with your shoes Burt, the war would be over? Seriously, we have these idiotic standards in airports for the same reason we are in Iraq: some people think we have to do something, even if it makes no sense at all.

"And if we are at war, why can’t airport security concentrate on Arabs of a certain age and quit behaving like a bunch of politically correct fatheads?"

Because Burt, we have a little thing in this country called the constitution, which conservatives are supposed to care about, and in which it explicitly states that we have the right to be secure in our person and possessions barring probable cause with evidence. Some people take the position that being the same race as the enemy doesn't qualify, and that it is inefficient, since 99.9% of the time the searches would turn up nothing. Were we at war with France, would we be justified in searching everyone with French heritage? Some also believe it would be a simple matter for the enemy to learn what standards we are using for the search and recruit agents outside that range.

Now there is certainly room for disagreement about many of those items, and I have my share. But to claim to not understand this line of reasoning borders on intellectual dishonesty.

That's really the core of it. Prelutsky doesn't honestly have a lack of understanding of where "liberals" are coming from. No one could be that dense. He is merely shilling, attempting to present the enemy, in this case the Democrats, as "liberals", a word that in some conservative circles is the end of the debate. It is also a word that conveniently shifts meaning depending on the speakers agenda, narrow when addressing the absurdities at the fringes, broad when attempting to paint everyone who deviates from the neocon agenda as some sort of wacko. Thus, the inevitable discussion of the Hollywood left, an easy target and one sure to rally the base. Of course, when denigrating someone else's intelligence, best not to make moronic comments like this:

"This village is filled with a bunch of idiots who, when they’re not busy getting drunk, shooting up and behaving like spoiled brats, can be found yammering about global warming and poverty in America."

Again, Burt treats differences in opinions and priorities as the equivalent of a factual denial, as if there were some objective analysis that says people shouldn't worry about these issues. The irony is rich, since his denial of the global warming problem is the position with the least objectivity behind it. Then he launches into another favorite red herring of the right, which I think of as the Al Gore gambit: the idea that hypocrisy negates a real problem, or put another way, that an individual promoting a group effort must first individually completely conform to the requested standards, else the problem doesn't exist:

"Oddly enough, those are two problems they could actually do something about. Assuming that carbon emissions actually have an effect on the earth’s temperature, might it not be beneficial if these clucks stopped chugging around in Hummers and limos, stopped heating and cooling houses slightly larger than the palace at Versailles, and grounded their private jets for the foreseeable future?"

Aside from the obvious ad hominem, the argument itself makes no sense at all. The proportion of America's pollution for which Hollywood is responsible is not likely significant. Hollywood could return to the stone age and the globe would keep on warming.

"As for poverty, the plain fact of the matter is that the only poor people these movie folks ever encounter are maids, gardeners, nannies and waiters. Well, if these overly pampered nincompoops were really serious about eliminating poverty in America, all they’d have to do is pay higher wages and leave bigger tips!"

Again, the GDP is simply not so dominated by Hollywood that this would be true.

Everyone like Burt who is confused by "liberals", I make the following suggestion. First, stop using the term "liberals". It means everything and nothing. Challenge individual people's individual arguments. Be specific. You will find the American political spectrum is not a binary conservative vs liberal dichotomy, but a broad mixture of views. Broad brushing everyone who departs from the neocon party line as a "liberal" may make for good guffaws among the converted, but it falls completely flat in persuading others, because it fails to deal with the real views held by real people. Second, deal in facts, not speculation. I find it highly ironic that so many deride "liberals" as being all emotion and no facts, because on so many issues: global warming, evolution, stem cells, the Iraq war, and so many other issues discussed above, the conservatives are all speculation and no facts.


JasonJ said...

Thank you for this post. I found it very enlightening. I bookmarked your blog a while back from comments on evolutionblog. I hope you don't mind the comments.

Having said that, I am reminded by your post here about a related topic that has bothered me about the current state of political discourse. The very language of conservative-vs-liberal in particular has bothered me for a long time and your post reminded me of a comment I made months ago on a friend's blog. Please allow me to reprint it here to clarify my point.

"Let me state here. I have been thinking about this for some time and something bothers me. I dislike the language of the new 'conservatism'. This is not consistent with the ready definition of the word. Wiktionary defines conservation as thus: The act of preserving, guarding, or protecting; the keeping (of a thing) in a safe or entire state; preservation. Logically following the form of the word to the verb meaning of conserve would mean to perform the act and conservatism should probably mean the ideology of the act of conserving.

Now, I think that is a fair observation so far. I find nothing inherently wrong with the notion of conservatism. Indeed, societies in general are conservative by nature. This is the foundation of modern sociological thinking. The question for us becomes if we are preserving norms or social values, then which ones are the ones worth saving and which ones should we allow ourselves to discard and erase from our collective memories. So what are the free wills worth wanting?

As it happens, the normative ideologies of any particular society are the norms of the faction that exercises the most consistent control over the society as an aggregate for the largest percentage of time. What is good for the goose is not always good for the gander. And what is normative for one society is not always workable in all societies. This is what makes all morality relativistic.

But I digress, what is important is what to keep and what to throw. Which values are the important ones. Should we keep slavery? Imperialism? Aristocracy? Democratic rule? The rule of law over the rule of man? Vice-Versa? Altruism? Rugged Self-reliance? These are all values that once or always have held sway over popular opinion in our country. It was once widely held that the Africa slaves were lesser beings than the white man and it was his lot in life to be subservient to the white man. I doubt anyone with an IQ over 60 would posit this argument today. And speaking of IQ's, it was also believed that IQ was a reliable measure of intellect at one time. Today we just regard it as an aptitude to be successful at taking standardized tests.

The point is there is nothing wrong with conservatism, but it begs the question 'cui bono'? Who benefits? Whose values are to be preserved? America was not founded on one ideology. It was not the express intent of our founders to impose a theocratic totalitarianism on the poor dupes who fought against the British Tyrant while they were busying themselves at the ballot box. The Supreme Court has consistently stated over the course of the past two centuries plus that the First Amendment to the Constitution was put in place, in the place it was put due to the primacy of the ideology it stood for. There should be freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to assemble and to have redress with our elected officials because these were core values of the men who fought and died to establish this government. I am personally tired to death of the merchant of death telling me that our founders were Christians and they meant to for a Christian state modeled after Christian law. This is a lie and a fabrication. We have learned the lessons of Eichmann and Rove. A lie no matter how many times repeated is still a lie.

But as far as Conservatism is concerned, I fail to see any inconsistency with another term. That being 'liberal'. This comes from the Latin word liber which means free. I have written much about liberty in my own writings which some may be familiar with. Rousseau spent a great effort distinguishing between what he called natural liberty and civil liberty. I believe liberty or freedom to be one of the founding ideologies of our nation. The balance of liberty and equality, this is fulcrum on which justice in America was intended. Is it not? I still find no inconsistency between this and the idea of preserving social values."

The point of this comment is the vulgarity of the language being used. I fear it is only indicative of an even larger problem facing our society. This is the lack of serious education and the apparent lack of critical thinking skills demonstrated by the supposed leaders of our society. My fear is that this situation borders more on the brink of crisis than annoyance. It is difficult to find workable compromises with a population consisting of parroting drones belting out 'I know you are, but what am I' through their megaphones so loudly they cannot even hear your words. Ok, perhaps this is a bit of a srawman attack, but is it?

I'm still waiting for a response from the intellectuals on the right.

ScienceAvenger said...

I am with you in large measure Jason. I find it sad that "intellectuals on the right" has almost become an oxymoron. Bill Buckley must be the loneliest man alive.