George Sarant

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PARTISANSHIP, IDEOLOGY AND TRUTH

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It is troubling how partisans of each side predict a win in tomorrow’s election for their candidate based upon differing favorable polls. This is at best wishful thinking because no one really know what is going to happen. There are simply too many variables, in terms of who turns out, in what numbers, etc. Predictions of decisive victory are mostly based upon a best case scenario for their candidate, which seldom ever happens any more than the worst case does. What is disturbing is that while people are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts, as Senator Moynihan once said- or are they? 

Increasingly we find people in many fields seeking out facts to support their preconceived notions or preferences. These things may in and of themselves often be factual, but taken out of context, or ignoring contradictory evidence makes their veracity highly questionable. This happens even in scientific pursuits, and is one of the main reasons why so much innovation is brought about by individuals who are not bound by the conventional wisdom. This sort of fact mining is especially bad in social sciences, where studies are concocted to prove that other people, (especially conservatives) are crazy. But when I hear a social psychology professor has conducted a study to prove great similarities between conservatives and Nazis, it makes me wonder about the value of “social psychology,” to the extent that it can seriously entertain such ideologically biased nonsense. This does not mean that truth is just relative, or that there is no  objective truth, but rather that you can only begin to perceive it when you dispense with all blinders. 

Fact-mining  is at its worst and most obvious in political campaigns. Even where there are “fact checkers” they may also bring their own biases into the process. The reality is that people are predisposed to believe the “facts” conjured up by someone they agree with, less due to the facts than due to their own preferences. The root of all of this is more emotional than rational. People’s sense of right and wrong is based less upon information than feelings, and that sense is at the root of political ideology, for those who are driven by it. Most people are not that political, otherwise we would all be at each others’ throats all the time. Many people do have crypto-ideological predispositions they may not be aware of, so the goal of political campaigns is to try and bring them to a conscious level, or at least to the point where individuals intuit that someone is saying the right things. Others simply are unaffected, if not uninterested, and these are the ones who make up the bulk of the “undecideds,” who ironically often decide the election outcome. 

It disturbing how much of this election is predicated on one side getting out “their” people to vote as opposed to the “other,”  often motivated by a fear of what the other might do if they get power. This has lead many observers to bemoan the extent of “hyper-partisanship,” although to me it does not appear to be especially different from the past. Obviously things would be more congenial if there were a broader appeal, but we don’t get there by laying all or most of the blame on one side, as does a coterie of intellectuals formerly associated with the right, much to the glee of liberal media. They have spun a new myth, that it is all the fault of congressional Republicans, largely because they don’t like some of the things many of them, or more particularly their supporters, believe in. In this category are people like Norman Ornstein of the supposedly conservative American Enterprise institute, David Frum, and the editors of the British magazine The Economist, who get off on pompously lecturing us on what we ought to be doing. I personally do not agree with some of the social positions now attributed to the party, but I find the notion that one side is mostly to blame for this preposterous. All these observers are doing is expressing their own biases. 

Underlying this sort of thinking is the notion that things would be fine if those other people would just disappear. But life is never that simple, and that sort of thinking was the foundation of the murderous totalitarian excesses of the last century, where regimes actually did “disappear” perceived enemies. In a democracy what you have to do is try and reach some kind of consensus, starting with the things you may agree upon. For in reality many of the most daunting problems we face don’t have that many options and whoever is in power can only act within certain parameters. Other things are totally unexpected or beyond our control so that anyone in office is inevitably constricted by the circumstances they find themselves in. Approaching these things through the prism of ideology just leads to more problems, as we have seen over the past several years. 

Given that we are handing over power to someone else to see to things that may affect us, the real choice we have should depend on character and judgement, since no one knows what particular events are likely to occur in the future. My own view is the less they stir the pot the better, because every action has unanticipated consequences, and when it comes to government they are usually not good. That said, there are important  differences and I am supporting the candidate of my choice, but I don’t begrudge anyone else who thinks differently. 

 

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Written by georgesarant

November 5, 2012 at 10:05 PM

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