The week (March 31st): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the fedora to the late, great Jimmy Cannon…nobody asked me, but…

HOW CAN YOU not root for underdog George Mason University in college basketball's Final Four? And GMU is now benefiting from the Doug Flutie effect as t-shirt sales climb and prospective students focus on the school.

FOR THOSE WHO question the claim that the New York Times is the world's greatest daily newspaper, kindly peruse VOL. CLV. No. 53,535 (Friday, March 31, 2006). It's a marvelous read, filled with intriguing stories, provocative features, and food for continued thought.

The front page stories are particularly engaging. There is a column one story about 9/11 (with an intriguing comparison between the FBI and Al Queda); a report on attempts to battle trachoma, a blinding disease found in the Third World; the latest on the release of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll; an update on college admissions angst; a medical study on the power of prayer; a story on how blacks are bridging the digital divide; and a surreal photo of President Bush at the Chichen Itza ruins (can someone on the White House staff encourage W. to learn the Alexander Technique so he won't look so stiff and uncomfortable in his own body?)

The Gray Lady has had her tough times of late (Jayson Blair, the weapons of mass destruction episode, the recent Abu Ghraib victim misidentification), but she still is, as the Brits say, top class.

THE UPROAR OVER the Duke lacrosse party–with allegations of a brutal sexual assault–provides an ugly reminder that frat boy hijinks can quickly degenerate into acts of appalling insensitivity, if not criminality.

Lawyers for many of the players claim that the rape charges are false. Even if that proves to be true, it doesn't absolve those involved in the party of responsibility for their sordid actions. Duke University is right to have forfeited several games in response to the underlying boorish behavior of the players. Alpha male jock culture has become notorious for incidents of misogyny and violence against women (vide scandals at Nebraska, Colorado, St. John's). Let's hope that every athletic director in the country is employing this shameful situation as a "teaching moment" with coaches and student-athletes.

BRITISH IRANIAN COMIC Omid Djalili is a post-modern wonder, mixing physical comedy, impressions, song-and-dance and mordant humor about the Middle East, American attitudes about race, Islamic and Christian fundamentalism and Iranian disco dancing. Check his tight-rope act out on HBO if you can.

WHEN ACTRESS SHARON STONE, "star" of the recently released "Basic Instinct 2", paused during her publicity tour in Paris to attack the controversial French First Job Contract labor law–"I absolutely understand the reasons for the protests, because obviously the law is clearly inappropriate and lacking in integrity,"–was she looking to curry favor and join Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke in the pantheon of Gaul's most-admired American performers?

VICTOR HANSON DAVIS is right, I think, about the potential for backlash over the waving of Mexican flags in California and elsewhere by demonstrators protesting tough immigration proposals in Congress.

Hanson argues: "If many thousands of illegal aliens marched in their zeal, many more millions of Americans of all different races and backgrounds watched–and seethed. They were struck by the Orwellian incongruities–Mexican flags, chants of "Mexico, Mexico," and the spectacle of illegal alien residents lecturing citizen hosts on what was permissible in their own country."

DOES ANYONE ON the Web do a better job of aggregating political opinion than Real Clear Politics?

FILE UNDER "You don't say?" the report by the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department that "airports didn't have equipment critical to security and communications because the Transportation Security Administration mismanaged" a $1 billion contract with Unisys. Would anyone who has travelled through an American airport since TSA took over security be surprised?

And I am not making this stuff up….


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Conspiracies, bunkum and the Paranoid Style in American Politics

Bunkum floats

A bit of a role reversal this week: Charlie Sheen fronts for 9/11 conspiracy theories while Sting labors to bring a strip club to New York. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? (Columnist Marina Hyde in the Guardian Unlimited has great fun with this, and manages to get a dig in at Tom Cruise as well).

It’s too easy to mock the Hollywood and rock stars who fall prey to the lastest bunkum conspiracy theories. The continuing appeal of these paranoid fantasies, however, does not bode well for the American body politic. The Internet has fueled the spread of wild rumors and theories, and “evidence” of any given conspiracy (the assassinations of JFK or RFK; 9/11; Bush and fabricated WMD intelligence) can be found on numerous websites. More disturbingly, there are signs in national polls that popular attitudes and beliefs are being formed by some of this bunkum.

For example, the “Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction (WMD)” meme has become accepted Gospel for many on the fringe left ­and, sadly, many closer to the Democratic mainstream ­who argue for a “multifaceted conspiracy that included not only as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice, but also Colin Powell, then serving as secretary of State; British Prime Minister Tony Blair; the CIA; British intelligence; and even the Clinton administration, all of whom maintained that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD.”

What are the facts? As Patrick Chisholm pointed out in a recent Christian Science Monitor piece, the claim doesn’t hold up:

“The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, the Robb-Silberman Commission report, and Britain’s Butler report found that the Bush administration did not lie, distort, or prod intelligence agencies to alter their findings on WMD. Robb-Silberman concluded that it was “the paucity of intelligence and poor analytical tradecraft, rather than political pressure, that produced the inaccurate pre-war intelligence assessments.”

It is not hard to find fault with the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy (want the list? do you have all day?); yet it is not necessary to assume the worst–­a conspiracy to lie the U.S. into war, or some nefarious plot to wrest oil riches from Iraq. An even more unappetizing version of this particular paranoid fantasy, recently surfaced by an unlikely provocateur, the dean of Harvard’s JFK School, floats the idea that a small cabal of neoconservatives and the “pro-Israel lobby” are controlling American foreign policy and had steered the U.S. to attack Saddam to protect…Israel.

As the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, a reflection prompted by the Age of McCarthy, those who fabricate convoluted conspiracy theories do not let the facts get in the way; their fantasy world becomes satisfyingly coherent, “since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities.”

Hofstadter had focused on the far Right of 1950s, but his observations were timeless. He looked back at the paranoid style in American political history (including the anti-Masonic, anti-Mormon and anti-Catholic movements, and elements of abolitionism, etc.) and at the anger of the fringe Right after World War II and concluded:

“The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest–perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demand–are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”

Sound familiar? Now it is the angry American Left that has seen its favored national candidates defeated, its favored social and economic policies ignored or rejected, and has been shut out of power. Thus the turn to the paranoid style.

Hofstadter also noted that those who adopt the paranoid style are convinced of their own righteousness and see themselves as “the Elect, wholly good, abominally persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph.” He concluded that “to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.”

Real conspiracies

Conspiracies do exist. They can be kept secret (although usually not for too long). They involve small groups of dedicated people, are commonly limited in scope and time, and are most successful when focused on a single, or discrete, action or outcome.

Examples? Iran-contra. Soviet espionage efforts to steal A-bomb secrets in the late 1940s. Watergate. The attempt on Pope John Paul’s life. What distinguishes real conspiracies from the paranoid conspiracy theories is their simplicity.

Real conspiracies conform to Occam’s Razor, the principle of parsimony: they are not complex, following the idea that “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.”

In contrast, the conspiracies dreamed up by conspiracy buffs are rarely simple. They tend to be global, all-encompassing, complex. They explain the major shifts in history as a function of plots by the powerful or hidden-hand conspiracies. A fundamental flaw in this thinking: it presupposes that large numbers of people will go along with (usually) illegal, immoral and covert activities and remain silent.

Take the Area 51 conspiracy: the idea that the U.S. government has covered up its knowledge of UFOs and aliens for more than 50 years. How could a secret of that magnitude be kept for that long a period of time? In today’s tabloid world, wouldn’t the lure of a big-money book and movie deal loosen the lips of those in the know about the aliens? (As an aside, why do UFOs only show up in lonely and remote places? Are aliens anti-social? Why don’t flying saucers ever buzz Times Square?).

Another example: the idea that the U.S. government, Mossad, the “international Jewish conspiracy,” the CIA, or other “nefarious” organizations somehow staged 9/11, and that they have been able to keep this monstrous deed quiet, is absurd. A few weeks ago Porter Goss, head of CIA, complained in the New York Times that, ­in essence,­ the U.S government couldn’t keep anything secret because of leaks and these disclosures were hurting the war on terror. How could a conspiracy of the size and scope imagined by the “9/11 Truth” groups remain secret? (Unless, of course, “everyone” is in on the cover-up. That sort of paranoia calls more for treatment than debate).

Conspiracy theorists overestimate the competence of the supposed conspirators, both in carrying out their plots and in their ability to keep them secret. As Hofstadter noted, more likely explanations ­which might involve human error, stupidity, incompetence, or chance ­are always discarded in favor of the overarching and elaborate theory.

Is there any long-term danger with this? That a sizeable minority of the American electorate might cling to explanations that rely on fantasy and paranoia for events and policies they don’t like is troubling. This worldview may satisfy certain psychic needs, as Hofstadter suggests, and it may provide great material for late-night comics to mock the latest Hollywood ignoramus, but it doesn’t make for sound political debate, or a healthy Republic.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (March 24th): Nobody asked me, but…

With a nod to the late, great Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HOW CAN you not admire the way Gonzaga's Adam Morrison plays basketball passionately, like every game is his last? Or the grace of UCLA's Aaron Afflalo and Ryan Hollins in helping Morrison to his feet after the All-American had collapsed at center court, sobbing, devastated by the Zags' last-second NCAA loss to the Bruins?

AS A FIRST AMENDMENT advocate I will defend New York magazine's right to publish "The Ground Zero Grassy Knoll – A New Generation of Conspiracy Theorists are at Work on the Secret History of 9/11," however dubious that decision was. That said, it's bad journalism. Did New York's editors run the piece largely for its shock value? Since there is no "secret history," what is the point? Newsstand sales? What does that say about journalistic and ethical standards at the magazine? Spare me the specious argument that New York published the theories linking Mossad or Jews to 9/11 (outright anti-Semitism on the order of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion) in order to debunk them. It only serves to encourage the witless (vide Charlie Sheen) or the evil.

ONE THING you can say about Tory pols: they ain't mealy-mouthed. MP Michael Gove offered the following in a column in The Times of London: "Recently in the House of Commons I reminded the House that 'Scientology is an evil cult founded by an individual purely in the interests of enriching himself and sustained by those who are either wicked or wayward'." Not much nuance there, I'd say.

INDY MUSIC group October Project has finished its album "Covered," a limited edition compilation of OP songs (by Emil Adler and Julie Flanders) recorded by other artists. You can pre-order the album at OP's website.

FROMA HARROP's column on gambling in the Providence Journal spotlights the sleazy and cynical hypocrisy of governmental efforts at preserving the state monopoly over "gaming." Legislators shamelessly seek to protect government-sanctioned gambling–including state lotteries, slot machines and casino gambling–from competition. The truth is that such gambling is nothing more than a damaging regressive tax targeted at the gullible and the poor.

THERE IS a deep-structured grammar to the love songs of whales, or so say the scientists. Who would have thought humpbacks were so properly romantic?

WOODY ALLEN was having fun lampooning the health nuts in his sci-fi spoof "Sleeper" when a doctor in the year 2173 explains that steak, cream pies and deep fried food "were thought to be unhealthy — precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true." Maybe he was closer to the truth than he realized. Now it looks like eating fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids may not help your health as scientists once maintained. T-bone steaks, anyone?

And I am not making this stuff up….


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Is the past a different country?

Is the past a different country?

Or is it more familiar territory than we may, at first, want to admit?

Do we hold much in common with the ancients? Are there aspects of the human condition that remain unchanging, hard-coded into homo sapiens, elements that transcend time and place and culture?

We like to think of ourselves as modern, advanced, endowed with a sophistication and understanding beyond that of our ancestors. (My father used to wryly note, for example, that every generation believed it had discovered sex.)

We are wrong, of course, as famously noted in Ecclesiastes: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

Once in a while we are reminded of this connection with the past, how the ideas and words of those long dead can still speak to us across the centuries.

In his Sunday Washington Post Poet’s Corner, Robert Pinsky notes that modern love poetry is still influenced by the 7th century Greek poet Sappho.

Pinsky quotes Mary Maxwell’s graceful modern translation of a previously unknown Sappho poem. I found these verses stunningly timeless:

I was lithesome once, but time and age have taken my body in their grasp,

and from glossy blackness my hair has been turned by them to brittle white.

No one can question how the world has changed since the time of Sappho’s or Homer’s Greece, or Shakespeare’s England, (or Li Po’s Imperial China for that matter). Technology rules; human life spans are longer; the Internet and air travel make the world a smaller place; slavery is gone; women and children are no longer regarded as property.

Yet on matters prosaic and profound these writers still speak to the human heart.

Literature captures the eternal: the longing and desire of separated lovers; the bittersweet regrets of late middle age (caught by Sappho so perfectly); the love of parents for their children; our ambivalence about war; and our curiosity about the deeper existential questions of meaning and purpose.

The much touted scientific wonders of our age–genetic engineering, space travel, miracle drugs–can not alter our common humanity. Which is why Sappho’s lines feel as if they could have been written…today.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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The week (March 17th): Nobody asked me, but…

With continued apologies to the late, great Jimmy Cannon…nobody asked me, but…

NEWSPAPER VETERANS HAVE ALWAYS maintained that publishers fall into one of two camps: those who published a newspaper so they could make money, and those who made money so they could publish a newspaper. The break-up of Knight-Ridder raises this question: which camp will McClatchy, the initial purchaser, fall into? Gary Pruitt, chairman and CEO of the McClatchy Company, is making the right sounds. What will the follow-on purchasers for the 12 newspapers McClatchy plans to jettison (including those in Philadelphia, Miami and San Jose) see as their mission? A sad cartoon by Chip Bok of the Akron paper has journalist-friendly John S. Knight's Royal typewriter being dropped onto the scrap-heap.

Capitalism does employ creative destruction as its engine: witness the rise of the Internet and other new forms of communication. Newspapers aren't exempt from these forces. What democratic societies need (in fact, what all societies should have) are journalists and reporters who seek to chronicle the world around them "without fear or favor of friend or foe." Whether that reportage ends up as ink on paper, or bits and bytes, is less important (although I love my broadsheet in the morning).

PERHAPS CONGRESS SHOULD QUICKLY declare lacrosse as our national sport, since it’s the only one we can be pretty certain of winning against all comers; it’s foreign teams vying for the baseball and basketball world championships these days. On the other hand, while Mexico eliminated the U.S. from the World Baseball Classic, we've been beating them in soccer.

THEY CAN'T PUT SLOBODAN MILOSEVIC ten feet under in his backyard soon enough for my tastes. So much for efficient and timely Euro-world justice. Give me the Anglo-American Nuremberg approach—a swift trial presided over by a panel of seasoned judges, due process for the defendants (a chance for evidence to be heard, witnesses cross-examined) and then the hangman for those convicted of crimes against humanity.

WHY HASN'T THE ACLU filed suit over the tape-recorded welcome from Mayor Tom “Mumbles” Menino that greets arriving travelers at Boston Logan’s airport? It’s cruel and unusual punishment to impose Menino’s diction on unsuspecting travelers, and, arguably, a form of torture of the spoken word.

HARD TO IMAGINE JOHN McCAIN ever “renouncing” a major Senate vote he cast. Somehow I think McCain would rather lose the 2008 Presidency than trim on his support of the Iraq war, which he sees as vital to American national interest. Americans currently don’t agree, according to the lastest Gallup Poll, where support for the war has fallen to all-time lows; and some Republicans are beginning to question the Bush neo-Wilsonian desire to spread democracy globally.

Meanwhile, Democrats are scrambling to distance themselves from the entire endeavor. John Kerry and John Edwards had renounced their votes on going to war in Iraq according to the Boston Globe, seeking the support of the Daily Kos wing of the Democratic Party. How long can Mrs. Clinton avoid this ritual recanting of her pro-war past, and the kissing of the rings of the liberal lords of the blogosphere?

WOULD DAN BROWN EVER HAVE BEEN hauled into an English court to face charges of copyright infringement if "The DaVinci Code" had languished in obscurity? The answer is obvious. Contrary to some huffing and puffing by some in book publishing circles, there are no high principles involved. Aussie Alan Attwood has it right: "For envy is at the root of the London case. Deep down, the authors of a book dealing with a subject not dissimilar to Brown's hate the fact that it's him, not them, making a killing at the cash registers." (Note bene: the alliteration of "Aussie Alan Attwood" was a conscious, original literary choice.)

WHY ARE THE ABSURD LEVELS OF American CEO compensation seemingly off limits for hard scrutiny and Congressional intervention? Could it have something to do with the way we finance campaigns? To call the disparity between compensation and performance obscene has become a cliche. The latest proposed solution is greater disclosure and transparency in annual reports, etc. Why not a luxury tax instead? Tax the corporation when executives are paid more than, say, 7 times what the lowest paid worker receives (the relative level in Japan). That might rein in the 300X and 500X levels that are de rigueur in today's executive suite.

HAPPY ENDINGS ARE lovely. Apparently many Brits prefer novels with happy endings, like Pride and Prejudice, to those which close sadly. The Times of London informs us that: "The majority of women felt that Tess of the d’Urbervilles would benefit from a happy ending, while male respondents wished things had turned out better for Winston in George Orwell’s 1984."

What about Ahab and Moby Dick? Couldn't Herman Melville have figured out a happy ending–maybe Ahab, Ishmael and Moby Dick collaborating on some sort of SeaWorld gig?

And I am not making this stuff up….


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I’m not deaf, can you stop yelling?

My oldest son struggled with advanced algebra in high school. His teacher was part of the problem. Whenever he asked for help in understanding a difficult concept, he later explained to his concerned parents, his teacher’s response would be to repeat her original explanation–word-for-word–in a much louder tone of voice.

The national Democratic establishment seems to have embraced a similar approach: the “all we need is more volume to sell our message” strategy in courting American voters. While a message of social and cultural liberalism, vague or dovish national security positions, and half-hearted economic populism hasn’t brought the Dems either the White House or Congress in the past several elections, apparently sound levels is the real problem.

The party’s putative front-runner for 2008, Hillary Clinton, seems to be veering in this direction, away from the successful triangulation of her husband and Dick Morris, and more towards the liberal orthodoxy that wins early Democratic primaries and scares away voters in the general election in those crucial swing states.

Want more evidence? Look no further that Matt Bai’s intriguing cover story in The New York Times Magazine on former Virginia governor Mark Warner entitled “The Fallback.” Warner, a centrist with moderate-to-conservative social views (e.g., he supports the death penalty and opposes gay marriage), is being touted as an alternative to Mrs. Clinton by those Democrats worried about her electability.

Bai’s profile makes disturbing reading, more for what it says about the elitist heart and soul of today’s Democratic Party than about Warner, an earnest, pragmatic Southern governor who didn’t let the Republicans corner the “good ole boy” NASCAR vote in his state and, by all accounts, turned out to be a solid administrator, a talented negotiator and a skilled politician during his tenure in Richmond.

What Bai surfaces, however, in the course of his piece on Warner, is the tone deafness of the Democratic elite. One telling vignette: when Warner confronts some ideological “true believers” in northern California and discovers that he has entered an Alice-in-Wonderland world where all that matters is checking off the right boxes in the social policy litmus-test. Bai’s account is sobering:

Warner may have glimpsed a piece of his future when he attended a dinner of wealthy Democrats last summer at the Bay Area home of Mark Buell and his wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, well-connected contributors and close friends of the Clintons. Warner made some introductory comments about “the Virginia story,” but the first several questions were not about taxes or schools or health care, but about gay marriage (which he’s against), the death penalty (which he’s for) and abortion (he’s in favor of parental notification but vetoed a bill banning all late-term abortions). Warner thought his liberal guests would be interested in his policies to improve Virginia schools and raise the standard of living in rural areas; instead, it seemed to him, they thought that they understood poverty and race in an intellectual way that he, as a red-state governor, could not. Like a lot of politicians, Warner can be snappish when he feels he isn’t being heard, and the dialogue quickly grew testy.

At the end of the evening, according to people who were there, as some of the guests walked Warner to his car, one woman vowed to educate him on abortion rights. That was all he could take. “This is why America hates Democrats,” a frustrated Warner blurted out before driving away. (Still piqued a month later, Warner, speaking to The Los Angeles Times, summarized the attitude of the assembled guests about their plans to save the country: “You little Virginia Democrat, how can you understand the great opportunities we have?”)

After reading this story, it’s not hard to have some sympathy for Warner. All he had done was break the Republican electoral stranglehold on Virginia, broker a number of creative political compromises, and leave office with soaring popularity ratings. All of this accomplished in the real world. Did I mention that he also built a successful high tech company? In the real world.

What apparently matters most to the activists, however, is that Warner accept the orthodox positions established by his, well, his intellectual and moral betters. That Warner, a man in his early 50s with three daughters, needs to be “educated” about “abortion rights” says it all. (Perhaps “re-educated” would be a better verb.)

Bai’s piece also makes it clear that he sees Warner as a long shot in 2008. Unlike 1992, when Bill Clinton captured a devalued nomination (who thought George Bush would be vulnerable?), there isn’t much room for an insurgent candidacy this time around.

Democrats smell victory in the next two elections. The Bush presidency has hit a low point and the Republican leadership in Washington appears exhausted and compromised. Expecting John McCain to cure all ills is unrealistic.

That won’t help Warner. Even if Mrs. Clinton falters along the way, there is a growing list of orthodox Democratic contenders waiting in the wings, including John Kerry (who surfaced in the Boston Globe recently talking about the margin of victory in Ohio in 2004), John Edwards, and even, some (like Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman) say, Al Gore.

And yet…

Underestimating the disconnect between elite Democratic values and those of mainstream America is a recipe for another 16-state performance in 2008 (the wrong 16 states electorally). If the Democratic presidential candidate (be it Mrs. Clinton or another orthodox standard bearer) is boxed into a two-issue candidacy– say, demanding unilateral withdrawal from Iraq and abortion on demand–it’s not hard to see how defeat can be snatched from the jaws of victory. Unless you believe the problem is that you haven’t been yelling loudly enough.


More:

Hard also not to identify with Warner when Bai repeatedly cites his “huge headedness.” As one who finds a 7 7/8 size baseball cap a comfortable fit, it’s reassuring to know that a “huge head” is not considered disqualifying.

Note to Al Siegal, conscience of the New York Times: is it possible to reconsider the front page photo policy for the Sunday magazine? Yes, I know it is somehow deemed more artistic to run close-up, strangely cropped photos of political and cultural figures and give them a seedy, fun-house cast (Warner’s photo is particularly off-putting, with his bared teeth as the focal point). But is this a fair representation of reality? Aren’t the weird, trendy photo spreads in the Style pages of the magazine enough?


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Middle of the what?

Scott Sala, posting in the blog Urban Elephants, recently called your faithful correspondent “a self-described middle-of-the-roader,” when citing my comments on the troubles ahead for New York’s Republicans in challenging Senator Hillary Clinton.

Since to my knowledge I have never described myself anywhere as a “middle-of-the-roader,” I was amused by Sala’s categorization.

What was Sala thinking? Could he have been misled by the title of this blog? I would have thought “Neither Red nor Blue” and a subhead that says “independent commentary,” would be the description of…an independent thinker…someone not partisan—which doesn’t necessarily translate to “moderate” or “middle of the road.”

So why should it matter?

Only that such labeling reflects a deeper problem in American politics today, the near-obsessive desire to tag and categorize. It seems that the partisans of both the (self-described) Right and Left are eager to play this game, often so they can dismiss the views of those not in their camp.

I don’t wish to play. Or if you are going to tag me, put me in the camp of the mavericks.

All fine, you may say, but what really are your political views?

Tell me first: what is the question?

Depending on the question and the issue, my views may strike you as radical, or libertarian, or conservative, or liberal, or—horrors—perhaps even middle-of-the-road.

I plead guilty to being very American in this pragmatic approach.

Consequently, at times, I’ve found myself agreeing with–to name a few–John McCain, Warren Beatty, Tipper Gore, Congressman Chris Smith, Jennifer Granholm, Ice Cube, Chris Dodd, and Sam Brownback on, respectively, the use of torture, Hollywood’s vapidity and greed, rap misogyny, the need to act on Darfur, toughening high school academic standards, the continuing racial divide in America, a federal shield law for journalists, and the virtues of American exceptionalism. I heartily disagree with this cast of characters on other questions.

What does that make me? Confused? Conflicted? Or like many of you, skeptical of ideologically driven answers, unconvinced that any political party or ideology holds a monopoly on truth.

In my experience, strong partisanship distorts vision. Partisans crave reinforcement of their preconceptions, and often reject any evidence to the contrary. In fact there is some scientific evidence of this phenomenon. As Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee noted in his column entitled “Is partisanship a biological dysfunction?”:

Using scanners to measure brain activity, researchers at Emory University have found that rigid liberals and conservatives simply shut down the reasoning portions of their brains when exposed to facts that don’t square with their prejudices.

In 2004, a presidential election year, a team headed by psychologist Drew Westen assembled a panel of 30 men evenly divided between those who identified themselves as committed Democrats or Republicans. The men were hooked up to brain monitors and then subjected to a series of statements by President Bush and challenger John Kerry in which the rival politicians appeared to contradict themselves on issues.

Researchers found that when confronted with facts that conflicted with their beliefs about either of the two candidates, the men essentially shut down the reasoning portions of their brains, rejecting any input that undercut their preconceived assumptions.

It’s not just politics. In one famous psychological experiment Dartmouth and Princeton students viewed a film of a football game between the Tigers and (then) Indians and were asked to assess whether the referees were impartial. Not surprisingly, each group thought the officials had been skewed against their team.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing against political parties; we need dedicated partisans (with a small “p:”) to make the system work. But how about more civility in our political discourse, and perhaps a dash of humility? Aren’t cookie cutters best left in the kitchen.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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