Re: Where's the Brake?


Improve eduation: yes.

But as to the context in which you make this argument, Ogged: no. Europeans parrot their national line just the same as Americans do. French media says US media is biased (they do say this, flat out), so my French friends constantly harp on US media bias. Chirac argues against intervention on the pretext that it will violate international law, when his real concerns are that the US is becoming too powerful and that the overthrow of the Saddam government will leave France without several lucrative, sleazy and quite possibly internationally illegal oil contracts. So my French friends parrot his stated arguments to me, even though I know full well they are aware of Chirac's true motives. The BBC harp on in their self-hating way about all of the failings of coalition policy and the war in Iraq, dwelling at length on the many civilian casualties. They dramatically underweight the side of the reporting that would highlight the positive aspects of the invasion. My British friends then hector me with this line.

The list goes on and on. China's government demonizes the US for the spy plane incident and the embassy bombing, and guess what? Crowds turn out to stone our embassy.

People all over the world are moved by the arguments they hear through simple force of repetition and appeal to authority. It's a function of basic human psychology. Counteracting it is a matter of encouraging people to be aware of the problem and engaged in determining the truth. In fact, educated people are quite vulnerable to failings of judgment in evaluating these arguments. It is often less highly educated people who make judgments more strongly connected to reality. They are less wound up in impressing their intellectual friends, and less tangled in complicated balancing of theoretical arguments.

So your education dollars will be well-spent, but will not solve the problem you identify. I'm not sure there is a solution to it.

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 04-10-03 6:45 PM
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But none of your counterexamples is analogous to what I think happened in the US. If you look at Kevin's post and this post, I think it's pretty clear that people are believing plainly false assertions (and even false things that weren't asserted!) Repeating the "national line" isn't necessarily bad: presumably democratically elected leaders at least sometimes really do speak for their people (especially in foreign policy where rallying-round seems to be the universal response). But, on most issues, it seems to me (and this is based solely on my own travels and anecdotes) that Americans are on the whole more susceptible to specious arguments than people in other Western democracies.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 04-10-03 7:10 PM
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You know what, that last part about "more susceptible to specious arguments" just isn't true. I take it back. The level of sophistication and complexity of the arguments is much lower in the US but I can't honestly say Americans are more susceptible to bad arguments. More on this later on the blog.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 04-11-03 6:18 AM
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You made a statement I have heard before:

"The level of sophistication and complexity of the arguments is much lower in the US"

Can you make some attempt to convince me of this? I find it insulting and patronizing, an argument typically made by Europeans who make a habit of puffing themselves up by trashing Americans as unsophisticated, or by Americans puffing themselves up by associating themselves with those Europeans. But nobody ever makes a convincing case.

Not only am I inclined to think this is prejudiced and simple-minded bunk, but I find it insulting since you're basically calling my family a bunch of idiots.

Note: I'm actually not trying to flame you, but I want you to understand how insulting this statement is. And if you have evidence, I want to know about it so I can see whether my reaction to this kind of comment is justified.

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 04-11-03 4:02 PM
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What kind of evidence would you like? Since I don't speak French and my German is rudimentary, I'm having trouble finding good interviews with politicians from those countries online. I can tell you that I had just about given up the notion that the discourse was so different here and in Europe until I heard a German politician interviewed on the radio a few weeks ago and was honestly amazed both by the nuance and precision of his statements and also the fact that he was obviously comfortable with the language of ideas and works of philosophy and political theory. One way to take my argument is as the latest lament of the anti-intellectualism of America. Do you deny that it exists?

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 04-11-03 5:35 PM
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You have made a claim about the behavior and character of Americans. I would assume that to make the claim you have some observations based upon which you have developed confidence that the claim is true. I'm wondering what they are, because I have made the same observation during a period of extensive travel to other countires.

My observations: in countries around the world I was hectored in a simple- and closed-minded way about the simple-mindedness and closed-mindedness of Americans. In many cases by people with essentially no data about the intelligence or intellectual interests of Americans.

Therefore I have concluded that even if your claim was originally made based upon true and fair observations of the differences between Americans and non-Americans, it has clearly transcended rational argument and become one of the great tropes of our age.

I believe I am challenging it in the same spirit in which I challenge other negative stereotypes of groups.

Your example is of a German politician who made nuanced and precise statements, and who was "comfortable with the language of ideas and works of philosophy and political theory". I have two reasons for not accepting this as proof of your claim:

1. Obviously this is too limited a sample and suffers from severe selection bias.

2. A speakers willingness / ability to reference works of political theory and philosophy can as easily reflect an obsession with a superficial form of sophistication. (The classic and easy example is that making "sophisticated" references to political theory is nothing in the face of mountains of empirical evidence against the failures of communism. Likewise, neat theory and philosophy in the world may back up incredibly naive arguments that reflect a deep lack of sophistication about the way the world actually works.) Further, there are cultural differences that cause Americans not to try to impress their audiences by demonstrating their high level of education. I'm not saying our approach is better, but we speak differently because culturally we celebrate people who make things more than we do people of learning.

So your point, to me, seems superficial and unconvincing.

I just don't understand the basis for this claim. I can't tell you what evidence to use. What evidence did you rely on when forming this opinion?

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 04-11-03 5:53 PM
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Wait a second, you say "culturally we celebrate people who make things more than we do people of learning." That is my claim! At least, insofar as I think that cultural tilt has observable ramifications for political discourse.

Let's focus on the way politicians speak so that we're not comparing professors to cab drivers and because I'll assume that politicians speak the way they do because that's what their audience wants to hear. (And I granted that decisions that issue from a sophisticated discourse aren't correct by virtue of their nuance.) But there remain good reasons to lament the lack of sophistication in American discourse and here are what I take to be a couple of examples and their consequences.

First, GWB, early in his administration, plain-spokenly undermined decades of US policy on Taiwan when he eschewed "strategic ambiguity" to say that the US would do "whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself." This sent government spokespeople scrambling for days to re-ambiguate the US position. What is that but a dangerous lack of nuance and sophistication?

Second, during the recent budget battles, GWB used the argument that his proposed tax cuts would result in "an average savings of $xxx per taxpayer," disingenuously using the mean when the mode gave a much more accurate picture of the effect of the cuts. He repeated this claim several times even though his tactic had been exposed in several places, because he could safely assume that the mass of people wouldn't read or understand the criticism.

And now that I look over this thread, I can see that I didn't introduce the comparison with foreign countries, you did. Let's get rid of that aspect, since I don't think it goes to the original point: Americans as a group (singled out not because they're alone in this, but because it's the sample set of which we have the most knowledge) are incapable of sophisticated analysis and that handicap has serious consequences.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 04-11-03 6:28 PM
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If your claim is that more education is better, then I agree. Let's have more education.

If your argument is that GWB is poorly spoken to the point of a) duplicity and b) dangerous errors of policy, then I also agree.

However, at least some other politicians and leaders in the US make more sophisticated arguments, so your selection of GWB is unfair. Examples: Moynihan, Clinton, Greenspan, even McCain. Not that each of them (beside Alan G.) didn't dumb things down from time to time, but they do make sophisticated points that balance the real tradeoffs and account for the nuances of the problems involved.

So I'm much more willing to consider this point, but I'm not fully convinced. Yeah, we have our Ross Perots. But then we also have George HW Bush, Robert Rubin and so on.

I think it's difficult to imagine a world in which all people are deeply thoughtful in their evaluation of the issues -- as a matter of too little time, interest or intelligence. That's a reason why we have representative democracy.

What annoys me is that the choice we had to make in 2000 was between a class a faker, AG, and a mumblemouthed frat boy. I think the problem to tackle is the institutional machinery that is producing crappy candidates.

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 04-11-03 10:33 PM
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Far be it from me to reject your conciliatory comment, but let me get back to the original post by asking a couple of questions. Do you think that far too many people (as evidenced by the polls cited by Kevin Drum and Atrios) supported the war for false (or at least very weak) reasons and that that support is likely due to a lack of sophistication/education? If so, what would you do about that?

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 04-11-03 10:39 PM
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> Do you think that far too many people

> (as evidenced by the polls cited by Kevin

> Drum and Atrios) supported the war for

> false (or at least very weak) reasons and

> that that support is likely due to a lack of

> sophistication/education?

Yes. Because I think that at least one person supported the war for the wrong reasons. And even one is too many.

The reason? I do not think that lack of sophistication or education was the reason. This is a complicated matter, but let me try to tease out the different issues, and please take it easy on me if I fail to scope it completely or clearly:

1) It is impossible to get all of the facts about the War on Terror and the War on Iraq. It's impossible for anybody, but for us normal citizens is impossible by a long shot. We rely on newspapers, who have agendas and make mistakes. We rely on leaders, who have agendas, have a national security requirement not to disclose certain information, and who make mistakes. As ordinary citizens the best we can do is to read widely of history and current events, then make a bet about who to trust and to what extent.

That's roughly the process for me, at least. I decide that it is unlikely that Saddam DID NOT have a WMD program, because I believe it unlikely that my government and the British government would lie to themselves and to us to such a tremendous degree. I include all sorts of factors, such as that no other governments seriously challenged this contention, etc... But let's face it, I'm just making an educated guess, putting my faith in the judgment of others.

However, I also judge it unlikely that there was a significant Iraq-al Qaeda connection, thus marking the limits of my trust of my government. When I made the calculation that I should support the War on Iraq, I factored in the likelihood that an unchecked Saddam would develop nuclear weapons, and that he would definitely use them to threaten the middle east's oil supply and/or Israel; I also factored in the lack of other means to check Saddam's ambition and the benefits for the Iraqi people (I'm serious -- if any read doesn't buy this point, there's not point in having a discussion about it because I think you're unreasonable). These are subjects I learned about by reading Pollack's book and several articles in leading journals.

So to come to my decision required a lot of effort, and still I had to rely on other people's analyses and information, including those from the US government.

When someone else looks at this question with far less time on their hands (I'm unemployed) and with far less interest (I enjoyed reading these materials), I understand them choosing to trust the judgment of their President and their government. Hell, my nuanced position ultimately relies on a similar leap of faith, though for a more limited part of my decision-making. Trusting others is unavoidable.

So to me the issue is: there are people out there who trusted George W. Bush's claim that an al Qaeda or other terrorist link was a major reason for a war on Iraq. You seem to think this is total bunk. I think it's close to total bunk. NONE OF US KNOWS THE ANSWER. Does these other people's decision to trust GWB come from a lack of sophistication / education?

I don't seem room to claim that it stems from a lack of education. On this specific issue of the al Qaeda-Iraq link, I can't see what additional education would have made the difference. It's highly likely that many of these people are aware of Watergate and Viet Nam, so they have reason to be cautious in trusting their president. Yet they choose to trust him.

So then maybe it's a lack of sophistication. However, the details of this are so convoluted and so largely hidden from the view of any ordinary citizen, that resorting to trust in the president is not an unreasonable step. Thus I don't think this is a strong case for the lack of sophistication of the US public. They had to choose to trust somebody...

I continue to assert that the damning indictments are of our election machinery for having brought us bad candidates that left us electing GWB, and I would add our media (but just because I think most journalist are lazy and stupid and so they provide less information, less reliably than they ought...).

> If so, what would you do about that?

Do you think it's possible for every person in the country to fully evaluate all of the variables involved in reaching the correct conclusion about Iraq? I contend not. It was an incredibly complex situation, and basically none of us was dealt a full set of information.

So I'm still all for education spending. I think it never hurts. I'd start with increased statistics and business education, personally. However, I think you're bumping up against the human condition here -- the limits of knowledge and time.

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 04-11-03 11:47 PM
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Here's the line from the LA Times article that Atrios links to that blew my mind:

"60% of Americans say they believe Hussein bears at least some responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks a charge even the administration hasn't levied against him"

What can you say to that?

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 04-12-03 12:04 AM
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That would seem to be a very negative result. In the past such polls have been shown to be misleadingly constructed, so I tend to be skeptical.

Note that there have been articles linking Saddam and the first WTC bombing. And the Prague meeting still seems to be clinging on to the possibility of being true, so are you so certain this is a completely unreasonable opinion for people to hold? The information available to us is awfully confusing.

Don't believe me? Try this.

We don't know as much as we think we do. You might respond: this is from 9/19/01, relies on Israeli military intelligence, and is still speculative. I agree! My pont is only that it's not completely unreasonable for people to hold the view as cited, and it's even possibly that they're right and we're wrong.

This argument is running up against a principle I try hard to support: don't believe in theories that hold most everyone else to be less smart than you are...

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 04-12-03 2:09 AM
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That's a fine principle but I haven't said anything about intelligence. If intelligence were the problem, education wouldn't solve it. And my original post granted that those with bad reasons may advocate the correct course. But in this case, even if Saddam was behind 9/11, I would say that it's completely unreasonable to believe that. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence indicates that he wasn't involved. Even granting that the Prague meeting occurred doesn't change that. My point in the post was simply this (and recall that I support this war): polls show that many people were convinced to undertake the most momentous action a nation can undertake by very poor reasons. The implication is that reasoning as such cannot be relied upon to keep other momentous, and potentially disasterous, courses of action from being pursued. I think we need to do something about that and so I made my proposals.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 04-12-03 2:53 AM
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Fair enough. I want to note that you're misusing the poll data. Quoting you:

"'60% of Americans say they believe Hussein bears at least some responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks a charge even the administration hasn't levied against him'"

1) The test involved here is incredibly easy to meet -- that Saddam bears "at least some" responsibility? So if he at some point aided al Qaeda in a way that supported its viability as an organization, then the test is met. If he at some point sheltered some of the specific members of al Qaeda, or some other terrorists who aided members of al Qaeda who contributed to the 9/11 attack, then the test is met.

So what you are setting up as unreasonable is actually not. There has been publication of reasonable evidence that Saddam has been involved in encouraging terrorist attacks against the US. In that web of activity is it possible, or even likely that he contributed in some way to the chain of events that led to 9/11? I'd say it's possible.

I used overly general language when I said that I believe in not assuming oneself to be smarter than most everyone else. What I meant was, it's best not to assume oneself to be better positioned to make a judgement.

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 04-12-03 7:06 PM
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"End all farm subsidies (read here to understand that this can work) and redirect those funds to primary and secondary education."

I don't see any reason to take this money from agriculture when you can take it from the Pentagon, which has a vastly larger budget. And I mean vastly.

Posted by: John Isbell | Link to this comment | 04-13-03 6:02 PM
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I considered proposing a cut in the defense budget, but, no matter who you blame for the situation, it seems pretty sure we're entering into a long and uncertain period of foreign involvements and I'd just as soon have the military happy and well-equipped (I'm not gung-ho on the huge military budget, I just wouldn't cut it now). And cutting farm subisidies puts money back into the budget and has the salutary effects of getting rid of inefficiencies in agriculture as well as undermining the influence of states that recieve most of those subsidies; states that have influence in the electoral college and the Senate far out of proportion to their population.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 04-13-03 7:25 PM
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