A reply to Jacob Weisberg – a true public man

11 February 2010

When I write on this blog for the benefit of my readers – I’m thinking of christening you Wahlberg’s Wankers – I’m always pleased when I produce something I think to be frantically, gallantly unpopular. The ability to anonymously slag off the Greats and Not-So-Greats of society may be the great scourge of the Internet, but it must be a little counterbalanced by the chance to stick unsuspecting masses in the eye with total impunity. Hitting the “Publish” button feels a bit like embarking on the Charge of the Light Brigade – mad, but bold, and potentially poetry-inspiring.

Though on reflection I usually wish I’d left the Russians alone.

I came upon a brilliant example of that low art today. I don’t read Slate often, as it’s usually both bougeois and wetly revolutionary and I find it annoying. But Jacob Weisberg’s attack on, well, Americans was a bit too much to pass up. And I must say that it was an immensely satisfying read. It feels good sometimes to, as my grandmother would say, “have a bit of a carry-on.”

As long as you leave it there. I’m not sure Weisberg does.

He takes aim at “the childishness, ignorance and growing incoherence of the public at large,” and marshals to this end… polling numbers. But for a certain masochism about me I probably would’ve stopped here, as he bangs on about the expressed desire of the public at large to have lower taxes, lower deficits, and smaller government combined with maintained (and indeed enhanced) public services across the board. An American Idol-obsessed America, he suggests, basically lives in Candyland, expecting everything but willing to pay for nothing.

Incidentally, I’m thinking of changing the title of this blog to “I think South Park did an episode about that“. So much of what I say could be avoided by keeping up with it.

To be fair to Weisberg, here’s his argument as best I can summarize it. What he says is:

1) When polled, broad majorities of the American people endorse measures X Y Z;

2) When polled, broad majorities of the American people reject measures A B C;

3) Without measures A B C the realization of measures X Y Z is impossible;

4) There must be something wrong with those polled as they fail to connect the necessity of A B C in view of the desirability of X Y Z.

Now this chain of argument fails Occam’s Razor. Simpler if more obscure than the explanation that “People are stupid” is one that lays the blame at the feet of polling. Any pollster will – should – tell you that a given poll is at best an imperfect snapshot in time and that one man’s poll is not necessarily comparable to anybody else’s. Pollsters are themselves people, remarkably fallible ones than that, and worse are concerned with distilling broad and heterodox currents of opinion into a result – a vote for X or Y. This sort of compromise is electorally necessary and a fact of all politics and hence all life; but it does not justify painting 300,000,000 people with such a very broad brush.

Let’s tap into that logical chain again. The immediate problem I see is that the form of measurement – the poll – is badly unequal to the task Weisberg’s given it – the construction of a system of ideas. I think a video from Yes Minister illustrates this best:

The problem is this: a person can’t respond to the questions you don’t ask. Most pollsters are not asking, in sequence, “Would you support measure X?” “What if measure A was necessarily to realize it?” “What about measure B?” They’re asking things like Gallup’s question: Do you think President Obama is spending too much money in his attempt to address major problems?

It’s a compound question. Left unanswered are “What are the major problems?” “How much money is being spent?” “How much is being proposed?” “How much is Obama himself spending?” “Where is the money coming from?” Failing to ask these questions, or separate them, mean that even a citizen cognizent of these problems are forced to pack them up to distill a specific answer. And indeed, in this struggle to reduce the specific to the general, I think a person usually will do their best to pick the specific – and since “too much money” is a more specific idea than “major problems,” I’d be likely to answer yes.

When you ask a different question – “Do you favor or oppose Congress passing a new $775 billion economic stimulus program as soon as possible after Barack Obama takes office?” – you get a different answer. Packed in here are questions like, “What has the effect been of the first stimulus?” “On what is the money to be spent?” “Where does the money come from?” “Why is it necessary to wait until the inauguration of Barack Obama?” “Why must it be immediately upon his accession?” But you need an answer, so the specificity of the proposal lends itself to a yes on this diametrically opposed inquiry.

Follow the logic of each in turn. The latter:

1) The country is faced with a great recession (I think it’s safe to assume people knew this regardless of the question);

2) The problem is urgent and escalating;

3) A $775 billion stimulus is proposed as a countermeasure;

4) I should answer yes.

The former:

1) The country is faced with “major problems”;

2) A great deal of money is being spent in an effort to combat them;

3) I don’t know where this money comes from;

4) This threatens to itself become a major problem;

5) Fewer major problems are better than more major problems;

6) I should answer yes.

One finds it difficult to argue with either line of logic – without more information. But a pollster certainly isn’t there to inform you. They’re there to count heads. So you do the best you can and lodge your answer.

This is the criteria that Weisberg uses to condemn America as an inconstant, fickle mob. It is a strangely technical, technological and deterministic one. Even passing conversations – with people I agree with and don’t – convince me that the diversity of opinion is far greater and that people do realize that we face broad, compound choices with uncertain outcomes. People broadly divide based on their opinions of these choices. In the so-called “mushball middle” are a few who through indifference, ignorance or lack of time don’t have enough information to process these complexities. Pollsters call these people, though the system has a way of segregating them itself: They don’t participate. They don’t vote, they certainly aren’t at Glenn Beck rallies and their access to news is passing at best. They’re susceptible to giving conflicting answers based on who’s asking, but we’re all like that sometimes, and most make up for it by not really pursuing one issue or another. When not being polled, they’re generally let alone. Call them what you will, but it’s not inconsistency.

What Weisberg is offering is an overdetermined conception of the “people” – semi-detached, roboticized “voters” – which looks more like a natural disaster to be weathered than an active force shaping the political landscape. It’s an egregious remnant of the technical underpinnings of the Rational Man of liberalism that can only admit or decline singular, atomized participants in a society rather than dealing with variations in people. But this is ridiculous. Like any active, human force, voters are subject to their power being harnessed or diffused; like any group of people, it’s subject to varying degrees of passion or diffidence, conviction or uncertainty, depending on the character of its members and their own state.

Like any such force it’s public, not private. My Mom, and several family friends of varying closeness, direct their questions about how to vote towards me. This is up to and including big offices – Congress, President – and despite my being 1,000 miles away. Are they stupid? No. They’re busy and nobody gives them time to vote, much less be constantly politically involved, so they figure that I’m bright and honest and politically aware and they trust me to advise them true. Here’s the key – trust. This is what politics are all about. But too often neither do people trust politicians nor politicians their people.

I sense that Jacob Weisberg was an Obama voter. More than that I think he was probably an Obama crusader, preaching to his friends and donating money and knocking on doors and quietly sniggering about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. I think this not from bias, though I’ve got a lot of it, but because Obama voters were true believers who by and large abandoned their conceptions of the possible. They had been waiting their whole lives for a Kennedy and Obama gave them that, dare I say, hope.  Now the dream has come crashing down and blame must be assigned. You cannot blame yourself – I didn’t do it – nor can you blame Obama, which is tantamount to admitting you were at fault. Can’t really blame Republicans, either. Only the darkest shroud of cognitive dissonance could camouflage their irrelevance throughout most of the last sixteen months. There’s no one left to blame but America itself.

Need I say this is as dangerous as it is wrong?

Weisberg doesn’t have it all wrong. I think he’s right that people – in general – have an ability to blame their leaders without looking inwards. Anyone who says “Well what do you expect; they’re all crooks” is saying only that they live in and contribute to a society so reprobate that it’s impossible to deliver from its number a sufficient number of good people to lead, and ought to ask themselves why they don’t step forward. Weisberg is right to suggest that we stop blaming officeholders but rather look to ourselves when the question is “What’s happened to America?” But to say instead that America itself is the answer is not just meaningless, it’s reactionary. It fails the same test a pollster’s answer does: There can be no response to the constructive reply, “What do I do about it?”

It’s one thing to offer a modest proposal. It’s another entirely to toss into an article a barrage of the most silly drivel that is as poor at apportioning responsibility – not blame – as the phenomenon you are yourself railing against. It’s still worse to be snooty about it. Weisberg manages to be as irrational as the people who – well, as the people. And he’s only got one to bring in line.

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