Immune to Evidence

Our political polarization and dysfunctional public debate is largely driven by convictions and worldviews immune to contrary evidence and expertise.

— Tom Allen, Dangerous Convictions (2013)

This week everybody was talking about the Tsarnaev brothers, Chechens, and Muslims

One measure of prejudice is how easily an individual can be reduced to a group stereotype, so that he shares the collective guilt of his people and passes his guilt on to them.

I’m old enough to remember the 1980s, when the Irish Republican Army was one of the most feared terrorist groups on the planet. (An engineering conference I attended in Brighton was originally slated for the Grand Hotel before the IRA blew it up. You can get the flavor of the times by watching the classic 1980 film “The Long Good Friday” in which an English gangster learns that the ordinary rules of gang war don’t apply when you cross the IRA.)

Know what I don’t remember? Public discussions about whether the Irish are terrorists by nature or Catholicism is a religion of violence. (I’d love to hear Irish Catholic Bill O’Reilly respond to those questions.) That’s the measure of our prejudice against Muslims and Chechens, or perhaps of the privilege our society accords Catholics and the Irish.

In fact, many of the loudest Islamophobic politicians today winked and nodded at IRA fund-raising in the US then. Anti-Muslim Congressman Peter King went even further, speaking at a pro-IRA rally in 1982.

Right-wing Christians have committed acts of terror in the US, such as the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas. (I call this terror rather than just murder, because the point wasn’t merely to kill Tiller, but to intimidate any doctor who might think about replacing him.) Tiller’s murderer is revered as a hero by the Army of God. If they were the only Christian group you ever read about in the newspapers, what would you think of Christianity?

The measure of Christian privilege in America is that Christians and Christian churches don’t have to comment on such crimes unless they want to. But the Cambridge mosque the Tsarnaev brothers had a tangential connection with did feel obligated to issue a denunciation of the bombing. Even so, no matter how often such denunciations happen, American Islamophobes won’t hear them and will claim Muslims “remain silent“.

As a native-born white American male, I never have to worry that somebody might hold Adam Lanza or Jared Loughner or Don Blankenship against me, or wonder why I haven’t denounced their crimes loudly enough. That’s the measure of my privilege: Unlike Muslims or Chechens, I have the right to be judged as an individual; I can’t be reduced to the stereotype of my group.

Interesting finding from sociologist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame): Religious beliefs are not correlated with public-spirited virtues like generosity, but commitments to a religious community are. The people to worry about are not the members of the Islamic Society of Boston, but the intensely committed believers (of any faith) who are unsocialized by a church, synagogue, mosque, or whatever institution draws people of that faith together.

John Cassidy imagines how the public discussion would be different if the Tsarnaevs had used assault rifles rather than bombs.

which led to a discussion of conspiracy theories

many of which have been inspired by the Boston bombing.

Rachel Maddow did a great piece about the mainstreaming of right-wing conspiracy theories. Stuff that responsible conservative leaders would have ostracized a generation ago (as William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater ostracized the John Birch Society in the 1960s) is now getting the hearing it doesn’t deserve. What used to be “crazy” is becoming merely “controversial”.

Steve Benen points out:

This just doesn’t happen on the left. This is not to say there aren’t wacky left-wing conspiracy theorists — there are, and some of them send me strange emails — but we just don’t see prominent, center-left media professionals trumpet such silliness or Democratic members of Congress racing to take the nonsense seriously.

It’s hard to know what to do with crazy theories like Boston-was-a-false-flag-operation or Obama-protected-the-Saudi-bomber. Arguing against them in some way validates that they’re worth arguing about — that the theory is controversial, not crazy. As you undoubtedly know if you have a friend who sends you such stuff, it’s easy to get sucked into the details of bizarre theories, and the conspiracy theorists love it when you do. Whatever psychological need conspiracy theories fill, nothing scratches that itch better than arguing obscure details with a doubter.

Conspiracy theories attract because they make life more interesting; they let the theorist be an insider, superior to the sheep who accept conventional views; they simplify the bewildering complexity of events and are strangely reassuring — better to believe the world is controlled by an evil conspiracy than face the fact that it’s out of control altogether.

So when Uncle Dave sends you that link to some talking-head “proving” something ridiculous, your response (if any) should be boring and not provide any opportunity for him to demonstrate his superior knowledge. Here’s what I suggest: Return a link to this video of a talking head making sense about conspiracy theories in general.

Send the same link every time: This is my response. I’m going to keep giving the same answer as long as you keep making the same mistake, no matter how many different ways you make it.

Make sure he realizes you wasted no time at all figuring out how to address the unique issues raised by this particular theory. Be repetitive. Be boring. Don’t scratch the itch.

But I wrote about the dysfunctionality of Congress

Or rather, former Maine Congressman Tom Allen did, and I reviewed his book.

We also heard a lot about the George W. Bush legacy

The new Bush Library opened in Dallas Thursday. And so began a predictable attempt by conservatives to whitewash the memory of one of the worst presidents of all time.

I don’t have to list and refute all their arguments, because Alex Seitz-Wald already did on Salon. And wruckusgroink on Daily Kos asked the right question: What if (instead of all the incompetent and evil things he did), President Bush had done nothing? What if he had just put the government on cruise control with the peace-and-prosperity policies Clinton had in place? “All Bush had to do was NOTHING to have a successful presidency.”

On the idea that historians will eventually give President Bush more credit (as they have Truman and to a lesser extent LBJ and Nixon), I stand by what I wrote as Bush was leaving office:

What happens when historians re-evaluate a president? Picture the events of a presidency as weights on a two-pan scale: a success pan and a failure pan. Even with the advantage of hindsight, an event seldom jumps from one pan to the other. Bad things stay bad; good things stay good. All that changes is our estimate of how much the events weigh.

… Now picture future historians re-assessing W. The weights may grow or shrink, but they’re not going to jump from one pan to the other. Nobody’s going to conclude that, in retrospect, Bush handled Hurricane Katrina well, or that he really did capture Bin Laden. Ignoring terrorism until 9/11 and turning a $200-billion surplus into a $1.2 trillion deficit are never going to seem like deft moves. The lies he told to start the Iraq War will not to stand to his credit, no matter what awaits in Baghdad’s unforeseeable future. Torture and illegal wiretaps are always going to stain Bush’s record, just as the Japanese internment stains FDR’s and the Palmer raids stain Wilson’s.

That’s the failure pan. So what NATOs, Marshall Plans, Berlin Airlifts, China breakthroughs, or Voting Rights Acts sit in Bush’s success pan? What accomplishments can future historians re-weigh to shift the balance in his favor?

I don’t see any likely candidates. That’s why I expect Bush to wind up more like Herbert Hoover than Harry Truman.

So far, that prediction is holding up. But I will admit to being surprised by this: The post-Bush Republican Party has gone so far off the deep end that W doesn’t seem nearly as radical as he did at the time.

In other Bush-related news, the Constitution Project’s bipartisan report on detainee treatment after 9-11 came out. “The most important  or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.”

and you also might be interested in …

Having spent the last several years watching the final decline of both of my parents, I can testify that this is a very important article: If this was a pill, you’d do anything to get it by Ezra Klein.

An experimental Medicare program in Pennsylvania does something radically low-tech: It identifies old people with chronic illnesses and sends a nurse to visit them once a week. The nurse answers questions, straightens out confusions about medications, notices if the patient suddenly looks worse, and so forth. The goal is to catch problems before they require hospitalization, because spending time in the hospital is bad for chronically ill old people. The program’s architect says:

Being in the hospital for three days or five days sets them back to a point where they’ll never regain what they were. That’s where the scales tip. That’s where people end up needing a nursing home.

Turns out, the program works, as proved by randomized trials over more than a dozen years. The patients are healthier, stay out of the hospital, and so cost less for Medicare to cover — even after paying the nurse. If you’ve spent any time with chronically ill people in their 80s, none of this should surprise you.

So is Medicare taking the program national? No, they’re shutting it down in June. Says one expert:

There is a bias in medicine against talking to people and for cutting, scanning and chopping into them. If this was a pill or or a machine with these results it would be front-page news in the Wall Street Journal.

The Daily Show’s John Oliver was at his best in this segment, in which he compares the Australian politicians willing to implement gun control even at the cost of their careers to American politicians whose definition of “success” fails to mention the public good.

“Never again,” he says, “will a political career end in a senseless act of meaningful legislation.”

BP lied twice about the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill: It claimed the spill was about 1/10th of its actual size, and it told the clean-up workers that the dispersant they were exposed to was safe. Now we have the safety manual they were supposed to distribute, but didn’t.

The NYT Magazine’s “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer” points out an inconvenient truth: Raising “awareness” isn’t actually moving us any closer to a cure.

Poor Todd Akin has had to relive his “legitimate rape” comment over and over again. It must be tough to have such a traumatic experience and then wonder for the rest of your life if you might have avoided it somehow. If only our society had more compassion for people who suffer through things like that.

In addition to Afghanistan and Iraq, President Obama may be winding down another war: the war on drugs. “While law enforcement will always play a vital role in protecting our communities from drug-related crime and violence, we simply cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.”

The White House report calls for prevention through education. Let’s hope that means accurate education, rather than the anti-drug propaganda I remember from high school. Here’s what I learned from my high school drug programs: Adults would spout any kind of BS to get me to do what they wanted. That lesson stuck with me.

The Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job (about Wall Street’s role in creating the housing bubble that started the Great Recession) is available for free on YouTube. In HD, no less. Based on Charles Ferguson’s outstanding book Predator Nation, narrated by Matt Damon, free on your computer right now — what’s not to like?

The Bangladesh disaster and follow-up on the Texas factory explosion will have to wait until next week.

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  • Abby Hafer  On April 29, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Though I’m not now nor have ever been a fan of the GW Bush presidency, here is one actual good thing to put in the good thing pan: his AIDS policy in Africa. It was actually good, and generous.

  • Andy  On May 2, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    I’m a huge fan of this blog. Love the writing and the insight. 1 small friendly suggestion, make your links default to opening to a new tab or window. Frequently, when reading your posts, I’ll follow a link and sometimes will lose track of the original post as a result. Please keep it up! 🙂

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