Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Putting People in Boxes

On May 2, Jay Jamison, our local columnist, wrote that I think Americans are stupid, too stupid to manage their own affairs. He didn’t mention me personally, but his column repeated several times the idea that “the left views Americans as too stupid to make informed decisions.” Since I’m sure he puts me on “the left”, I get lumped together with everyone else he disagrees with. Too bad he didn’t ask me what I really think. He might learn something.

I think that putting all your political opponents into a box labeled “stupid”, “unpatriotic”, or any other nasty characterization, is a substitute for thinking. If everybody on the other side is incompetent or evil, then you don’t have to think about what they say. All their analyses of society must be wrong and their policy proposals defective.

That easy way out leads to troubling consequences. When I was young, each side of the argument about American involvement in Vietnam created boxes for their opponents. Many anti-war protesters labeled the police “pigs” and assumed every man in uniform was a blind tool of “the system”, willing to do violence to peaceful citizens who offered legitimate criticisms of our foreign policy. But some policemen had children in the anti-war movement; others recognized the futility of our involvement in Vietnam and the duplicity of our government’s claims about how we were winning. But it was easier to call them all pigs.

Many police, and those who gave them orders, put all protesters into a different box – long-haired pot-smoking hippies who had no discipline, no ambition, no guts. So the ideas of the anti-war movement must be drug-induced fantasies, the motivations of protesters must be juvenile. In fact, the war was protested by housewives and grandmothers, doctors and professors, soldiers and veterans. But it was easier to swing a billy club at protesters, if you thought they were all unworthy.

This tendency to denigrate all political opponents led to the worst excesses of both sides. The FBI assumed that Martin Luther King was a communist, so they tried to undermine the civil rights movement. Anti-war militants planted bombs in government buildings and killed innocent people. Before the Ohio National Guard pointed their guns at unarmed students at Kent State and shot them, they put all protesters in a box labeled “dangerous radicals”.

In fact, it’s pretty easy to see that “the other side” is just like us. Some are smart and some are not. Some are motivated by a generous desire to help others, and some are just self-interested.

So does “the left” think Americans are stupid? A big claim like that needs a lot of evidence. Jamison gives exactly zero examples. He cites an article by Bobby Jindal, the Republican Governor of Louisiana, as sufficient evidence, without telling us its content. Jindal isn’t much of an authority on Democrats: he is a professional partisan and is among the nation’s least popular governors. The article that Jamison cites provides the usual Republican talking points about the Affordable Health Care Act. Maybe Jamison doesn’t actually cite any evidence from Jindal’s article because it doesn’t prove his point about “the left” at all; see for yourselves at cnn.it/1kohkdd.

Of course, it’s easy to find examples of Democrats saying things that imply they think that voters are not well-informed. Politicians do it all the time. Many positions of leading Republican politicians are founded on their hope that voters have no idea what’s going on. Think about “death panels”, or their claim that global warming is a hoax, or their contention that massive election fraud is a justification for voter ID laws.

Shall we alter Jamison’s claim slightly to say that “the right” assumes the average American is ignorant? No. That would be falling into the same we/they, evil/good dichotomy that makes his article analytically useless. Some people on both sides say dumb things or say things which imply that voters are dumb. Others say smart things and treat voters as able to distinguish true from false. Blanket condemnations of the other side, by politicians or columnists, show little respect for the intelligence of readers or voters.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 13, 2014

1 comment:

  1. While it's always open season to bash Mr. Hochstadt over at the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, apparently his critics are protected from being challenged.

    On May 30, Jay Jamison wrote a rebuttal to this column. I posted a comment in response to Mr. Jamison's essay, which is reproduced below. The JJ-C did not allow it to be published.


    First, Mr. Jamison needs to put his thesaurus on the ground and step away slowly. Any guide to good writing will advise never using big words when simple ones will do the trick. When I was hit in the face with "a dilemma is an argument form that draws as its conclusion a disjunction" my eyes actually crossed. I had to check the masthead to verify I was still reading the Journal-Courier and not a critique found in Bill O'Reilly's favorite academic publication, the Journal of Disputatious Bloviation.

    More importantly, I don't understand Mr. Jamison's point and I've read the column three times. He seems to be taking offense at Mr. Hochstadt taking offense at Mr. Jamison's May 2 column where he quotes Gov. Bobby Jindal (my eyes are crossing again) about Democrats "being the party that thinks Americans themselves are stupid." Hopping on Gov. Jindal's back, Mr. Jamison charged into battle against "the left" who are apparently a well-organized army of cynical snots who think they are better than thee and me. Mr. Hochstadt objected to such black-and-white thinking, and now Mr. Jamison is poking at him with the sharp end of quotation marks and claiming, oh, I wasn't AGREEING with Gov. Jindal, I was just asking WHAT-IF, and Mr. Hochstadt is a dimwit for not properly recognizing the antecedent of my conditional statement. I think I have that mostly correct, but there are subplots and I now apparently have a permanent vision problem.

    Anyway, what burns my cheese is that Mr. Jamison now writes, "Jindal never claims to be an authority on Democrats." In truth, he is constantly posturing that he is exactly just such a know-it-all. In the underlying column to this kerfluffle, Gov. Jindal's subject was exposing supposed proof of hypocrisy by the Obama administration, "the left" and "Washington liberals." In a column that appeared June 18, 2013 in Politico, he even included a laundry list of what he knows "the left wants." A small sample: "...They believe that money grows on trees...people of faith are ignorant and uneducated; unborn babies don't matter; pornography is fine; traditional marriage is discriminatory...the IRS should violate our constitutional rights; reporters should be spied on; Benghazi was handled well; the Second Amendment is outdated..." Sure sounds to me like he's claiming to be Mr. Expert. He certainly couldn't be a fear-mongering political hack, could he?

    In the column above, Mr. Jamison winds it up by quoting his earlier conclusion, which only makes matters worse. The original was hard enough to follow through the weeds, but offering here just the final sentence is like tossing away a sign that reads, "Danger: Quicksand."

    I THINK Mr. Jamison's point was/is this: EITHER the "left" is correct and people are so "stupid" they need a functional government OR people are so smart that everyone can manage just fine without "nanny state" rules and regulations. Do I have that right? If not, maybe he could write another column or three explaining why--and this time, please also explain why this is not a textbook example of the fallacy of the "false dilemma."