I. “This collapse is due to internal infirmities in our national body corporate:” Popular Science, Their Conspiracies, and Agreement is All We Need

[The introduction to this argument is here.]

Many people look back at Hitler and believe someone like him could never sucker them because, they believe, he pounded on a podium shouting for the extermination of Jews on the basis of what everyone could recognize as rabid and irrational racism. They recognize that Hitler relied on charismatic leadership, but they think they’re immune to it.

Hitler didn’t begin by arguing for extermination of the Jews. He told his audience that Germany, which should be great, was in a state of political, economic, and moral collapse because it was weakened by the presence of those people. He said we’re weakened by disagreement, and the disagreement is purely the consequence of them. He said the solutions to the major problems of the era were simple, and he could (and would) enact them immediately. Germany was trapped by procedural quibbling, “parliamentarianism” (by which he meant that everything had to be argued in the equivalent of Congress), liberals who just want to slow everything down, experts who try to tell people like you and me that our beliefs are wrong, Marxists who want to destroy what we have, and Jews who are all terrorists.

Weimar Germany was (like most of Europe) profoundly antisemitic, ranging from “they’re okay as neighbors, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one” through “it sure would be nice if they all went away” to “we should kill them all.” That last group wasn’t especially large, but the other versions were widespread. (And, as history would show, the “milder” ones could be morphed into exterminationist.) The Jewish stereotype (in literature, film cartoons, even songs) was that Jews were clubby, greedy, crude, and damned to Hell. Sometimes that stereotype was presented as though it were positive (G.K. Chesterton’s antisemitism fits into this category, and Wyndham Lewis’ Are Jews Human is another apt example).

Many people decide that a claim must be true if it’s repeated in their informational world a lot, if it’s repeated by people they respect, unanimously supported by their in-group, and especially if it’s contested by one of their out-groups. This process is sometimes called “social knowing” (you know something because it’s taken as a given in your social group). Basically, this whole long discussion of Hitler could be compressed in my saying that approaching decisions purely through social knowing is what enabled Hitler (and Stalin), and so anyone who approaches decisions that way doesn’t get to pretend s/he would have recognized Hitler or Stalin as evil. Nope. Congratulations: if you reason that way about politics, here is your death’s head symbol!

Karl Marx was Jewish, and many of the people in Lenin’s close circle were Jewish, and almost all of the Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda equated being Jewish and being Bolshevik. Thus, and this is important to remember, the Nazis presented their policies of exclusion and disenfranchisement (and, eventually, extermination) as politically necessary–this wasn’t religious bigotry, but a necessary response to the terrorism that necessarily came about if Jews were part of the community.

Of course, most Jews weren’t Bolshevik, and not all Bolsheviks were Jews, but people engage in very sloppy reasoning when it comes to an out-group. Since we have a tendency to assume the out-group is essentially evil, then the bad behavior of some of them seems to typify all of them. By the early twentieth century most of the major financiers were not Jewish, but the Rothschild family came to be the symbol of international finance.

Thus, a large number of people were willing to blame Jews for Bolshevism, capitalism, the loss of WWI, entry into WWI, and anything else that needed a scapegoat. Sometimes that stereotype was presented by an author as though it wasn’t unreasonable—a hero or narrator might grant that not all Jews were involved in a worldwide conspiracy, but assert that all conspiracies were Jewish (an assumption so widespread that it amounted to a cliche in thrillers).  A fair number of people also blamed Jews for draining blood from Christian boys, killing Jesus (a particularly pernicious claim), stealing consecrated hosts. Many people, especially those who had made it through the near Soviet-style revolts in some German cities, were deeply opposed to Soviet-style communism (a not unreasonable concern) but a lot of anti-communist propaganda equated Bolshevism (as it was called) and Jews. It’s important to understand that connection, otherwise it’s easy to miss why Nazism was so successful.

Jews were thoroughly marginalized in Czarist Russia, and, so, compared to the number of Jews in the general population, it could be argued that there was a disproportionate number of Jews in Lenin’s immediate circle. But he also had a disproportionate number of close advisors from Georgia, and no one wonders about the disproportionate number of New Yorkers in the official and unofficial cabinet of a New York President. We expect that people will rely heavily and work with people in their social circle; it’s only if that circle is marked by out-group membership (especially by race or religion) then we decide there is a causal correlation. Since Jews were marked as out-group, then the Jewishness of any participant in Lenin’s revolution or cabinet was marked and assumed to have some kind of causal relationship to Bolshevism. (That most supporters of Lenin were not Jewish is ignored.)

Here’s one way to think about that. If a person wearing a t-shirt showing they support a politician, religion, or sports team you loathe treats you badly in line at the grocery store, you’ll attribute their being a jerk to their being in your out-group. They did that jerky thing because they’re Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and we all know how they are. That incident will confirm your sense that Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are inherently evil. If someone behaved exactly the same way but had a t-short that showed they shared some kind of identity important to you, if you are Wisconsin Synod Lutheran for instance, then you would attribute their behavior to something else (they’re wearing someone else’s shirt, they’re having a bad day). Unhappily, therefore, a depressing number of people who self-identified as Christian equated “Jewish” with “atheist Bolshevism” (the same way that many people now equate “Muslim” with “politically motivated terrorists”).

Thus, in Weimar Germany, many people were willing to believe that Bolshevism was Jewish, and while people were willing to grant that not all Jews were Bolshevists, they believed that enough of them were that the entire “race” (and keep in mind, Judaism isn’t a race) should be removed from Germany. It was the peanut analogy—if you know that some peanuts are poison, you would throw out the whole bowl, or at least keep more from entering.

Let’s be clear: the attempt to “cleanse” Europe of all sorts of identities (Jews, Romas, Sintis, Poles, intellectuals, Marxists, union leaders, liberals, homosexuals) began as an argument that was framed as “it’s best for all of us if they go elsewhere.”

Hitler’s policies regarding stigmatized groups could be framed as reasonable throughout his career because he would appear to have been just on the edge of acceptable racist discourse. He would have appeared crude to a lot of people, but also a lot of of his followers would have found his “honesty” on “what they all knew” to be refreshing. And he didn’t immediately call for extermination; he called for refusing to allow more immigrants. Initially, his claim was that Germany needed to protect itself against parasites (takers), immigrants, peoples not capable of being really German, groups that were inherently criminal, his political opponents, and that meant more purity in the culture, more rigid actions on the part of police, less concern about due process and fairness, and a more open equation of German-ness and a particular political group.

Hitler persuaded a large number of people that he was them, that he cared about them, and they needed to throw all their faith onto him, and he persuaded others (who were appalled at the liberalism of Weimar Germany) that he was their only choice to undo the liberal policies of Weimar politics. Many people voted for him for those reasons, even ones really uncomfortable with his tendency to engage in bigoted claims about various races and religions. They believed that democracy was dead, as was shown by the inability of the Weimar democracy to make the situation better (it actually had done a pretty good job, but the main problem was that compromise and deliberation were demonized, but that’s a tangent I’ll avoid).

My point is that Hitler’s genocidal policies wouldn’t have seemed to his audience as purely racial; it would have seemed to his audience as though the groups he was targeting really were political and economic threats. A lot of people really did believe that Jews were intent on imposing communism everywhere and they could name acts of terrorism and revolution in which Jews participated, and they could point to all sorts of media, common discourse, and “walking down the street” experience to say that some groups are just useless takers—Polack jokes, getting “gypped” by someone.

There were terrorists who were Jewish; there were criminals who were Sintis. Therefore, “normal” people could “know” that a group of Jews or Romas would include terrorists and criminals, and so they defined the essence of Jews and Romas as terrorist and criminal. Germany had a lot of terroristic violence, with a lot of it (most?) committed by Nazis and other volkisch groups. But many people wrote off that violence as either justified (as self-defense against the Jews) or inessential. The US, right now, has a lot of terrorism, most of it committed by white males who self-identify as Christian. Yet, how many people worried about terrorism are worried about white male Christians? They engage in the no true Scotsman defense, and only worry about out-group violence, and, as too many people in Weimar Germany did, they are willing to generalize about the essence of another religion, while engaging in considerable cognitive work to keep from admitting that most terrorism is in-group.

I’m not saying that the Jews of the 1917-1933 are just like Muslims of 1996-now. I’m not making a claim about facts; I’m making a claim about how people in a moment understand things. And how they understand things largely depend on the media they consume. In Weimar Germany, a time of highly factionalized media, people were really worried because of events that had actually happened (the communist uprisings), but also ones that hadn’t (desecrations of the host, Jews having killed Jesus, but they decided those events were the consequence of identity (Jews) and not policy (the German commitment to winning WWI) or process (that there was no way for the country as a whole to get good information about the war or influence decision-making). Weimar Germany media was, all at the same time, rabidly factionalized (if you read this newspaper, you only heard about terrible things they did and never about terrible things your group did), agreed that the mistakes of WWI wouldn’t be usefully debated (but just factionalized), and agreed that significant dissent is unpatriotic.

Hitler accepted a narrative about civilization and race that was popular in some circles and also accepted among many experts (especially the new science of genetics). The idea was that evolution is progressive, so that a “more evolved” species is better in every way than a less evolved one (Gould’s Mismeasure of Man remains a really good introduction to all that discourse, even with some disagreements as to his argument on brain size measurements). In this view, “immorality” is more common among “lower” species, so that higher animals (like humans) behave in a more moral way than lower animals (like apes). In addition, dominant genetics said that there were sometimes “throwbacks” in evolution (called atavism), so that humans are sometimes born with characteristics genetically connected to earlier (and lower) stages in our evolution, such as babies born with tails. Races, many of these people argued, functioned as species, and so there are races that are closer to animals, and they are more inherently criminal, and essentially incapable of autonomy. This version of genetics was simultaneously deeply flawed and very popular. And it’s important to understand both parts to understand Hitler’s popularity.

Since morality is just as much genetic as a tail, this argument ran, and the more genetically advanced are more moral, then immorality is also an evolutionary throwback. Groups that are more immoral are more like animals in every way, and it’s because of their genetics.

The last bad idea in this cornucopia of bad ideas is that we should think about human genetics the way we think about breeding racehorses, bunnies, or chickens. Notice that throughout this discussion I haven’t defined “morality,” nor terms like “higher” or “better.” Here I’m following how geneticists wrote–they began their research by assuming that there was perfect agreement on those terms, and thereby enabled themselves not to see the circularity in their arguments. Most people charged with crimes were recent immigrants or criminalized ethnicities, and, since crime is immoral, they concluded that those ethnicities were genetically criminal. (We still make this mistake, by assuming that rates of arrest are perfect representations of rates of commission of crime.)

So, what they didn’t notice in their own research was that their own standards of “better” were actually pretty odd. They tended to equate, without noticing, market value with better. A racehorse is “better” than a drafthorse insofar as you pay more for the former than the latter, but a racehorse is a terrible draft horse. To get the fastest horse, breeding two fast horses is a good choice, but a fast horse is not always the better horse. The research on chickens and bunnies is unintentionally hilarious (with horror about the monstrosity of a bunny with one ear upright and the other floppy). It’s also contradictory, since, as mentioned above, market value was often taken as a pure measure of goodness, and market value is often enhanced by genetic oddities. Or, in other words, purebred, and inbred are pretty similar, as shown in the Hapsburg Jaw. I love Great Danes, and even I will admit that a purebred Great Dane is not a better dog than a mutt–it’s much more likely to have terrible problems. But early twentieth-century genetics assumed that purity is always better, except when it didn’t.

What’s odd to a rhetorician about the genetics rhetoric is that it was so obviously wrong, even in its era. Anthropologists, linguists, and even a lot of biologists took issue with geneticists’ arguments in the first decade of the 20th century (that’s why geneticists had to form their own organizations–they couldn’t stand the critiques). Anyone familiar with the Habsburgs knew purity wasn’t good, and genetics simultaneously assumed that purity was better AND condemned inbreeds like the Jukes family.

Early twentieth century genetics was just a muck of contradictory assumptions. For instance, it was a convention to say that a cross between a higher and lower was halfway between the two, but, of course, even royal families had their “lower” babies–epileptics, hemophiliacs, homosexuals. And anyone even a little familiar with breeding dogs or horses knew that not only did you often get a dud from two great individuals, but that there were always surprises from less than stellar lines. That it was muddled is an important point, because when a particular sustained conversation (that is, a bunch of people who have created a kind of argumentative ingroup—a subreddit, Fox News, DailyKos, analytic philosophers, native plant gardeners—sometimes called a “discourse community”) have an argument that doesn’t have internally consistent arguments, then you know you’ve got an ideologically-driven discourse community.

That point might seem a little pedantic, and it’s important for understanding when the Hitler analogy is and isn’t relevant, so I should explain it a little more. In rhetoric, it’s common to talk about enclaves, which are little safe spaces in which like-minded people can huddle together and do nothing but agree how awesome they all are.

Enclaves are great, and we all need them, and so every life should have at least one. Enclaves are places where we all agree, and we go to feel that we are part of a group that is entirely right, and entirely good, and entirely powerful.

Enclaves are useful for motivation, and, really, it’s just lovely to be in an enclave. Everything is clear, and everything is comfortable and no one will tell you that you might have fucked up.

Enclaves can be politically important. Lefty women relegated to making coffee and working the mimeograph literally got together and discovered they all shared similar experiences. Our Bodies, Our Selves came out of an enclave. The Tea Party is an enclave-based movement, as was Earth First. Within your enclave, deciding that loyalty to that group is important makes perfect sense. The institutional goal of an enclave is to make people feel safe within a group. Enclaves are also good for motivation—before putting on a show, or playing a competitive sport, and in those circumstances it wouldn’t be helpful for someone to say, “Well, maybe the other team is better, and really should win.”

But all the research on decision-making is clear that it isn’t good for a large institution or community to make decisions from within an enclave, largely because of that enclave emphasis on loyalty to the group being such a high value. Good decisions require good disagreement, and criticism of the in-group is generally perceived as disloyalty. And, so, while it’s common for political agenda to be brainstormed within an enclave, and it’s healthy for all of us to retreat to one from time to time, political agenda should be subject to criticism, worst-case scenario thinking, assessment of weaknesses and challenges, and honest assessments of previous failures. So, at some point, that political agenda needs to be shared outside of an enclave.

Determining processes and policies within an enclave is challenging, because of the value on loyalty, and so it’s common for enclaves either to splinter into sub-communities on which everyone agrees, or to begin threatening dissenters with violence and exclusion. Unhappily, the more that an enclave values loyalty, the more likely it is to devolve into smaller communities, or become a community in which people can’t disagree.

Genetics ended up being an enclave expert discourse. Instead of respond to the serious objections and criticism of eugenics made by contemporaries, they created their own journals and departments (and as in the case of Franz Boas, tried to get really threatening critics fired). And what eugenics had to say could be defended with complicated charts and statistics (which was a relatively new field at that point), and it confirmed everyday and very popular racism. But it was popular, and it was powerful–even college textbooks endorsed it. That science was used to rationalize the US forced sterilization of 60k people, the extraordinarily restrictive 1924 Immigration Act, Japanese internment, anti-Asian immigration/naturalization rules and statutes, antimiscegenation laws, and segregation in the US. Every claim of that kind of genetics was rejected by methodologically sound research in anthropology, linguistics, and biology, but my point is that it was easy for racists to find apparently expert support for their racist policies (see Science for Segregation).

The most problematic claims of eugenics were that “race” is a biological category (the history of debates over “whiteness” show that isn’t true); that races exist on a hierarchy of civilization (some races are essentially more gifted with intelligence, morality, strength, and all the virtues that merit higher status and pay–other races are given the virtues, such as being good with children, that are connected to lower status and pay); that the “mixing” of races results in children who are closer to the “lower” than the “higher” race; and that the “white” race (sometimes Nordic, sometimes Aryan) is responsible for all the great civilizations in the history of humanity, and those civilizations fail when the white/Nordic/Aryan race stops being pure. Race-mixing, these people say, weaken civilizations. Hitler used this narrative to argue that “lesser” races had to be exterminated, and that punishing ‘race-mixing’ with death was justified. Even after the war, supporters of segregation cited the same shitty “science” that justified Hitler’s genocide–that line of argument figured into the lower courts’ rulings on Loving v. Virginia in the 60s.

So, while we look back at Hitler’s racism and see it as insane, and while the most methodologically sound scholarship of the era had long since shown it to be ideologically driven, people who wanted to believe that some racial groups were inherently more dangerous, more criminal, more prone to terrorism, more genetically driven to be poor could find experts who would tell them that they were right. Hell, they could find entire departments at some universities who would tell them that.

What made Hitler’s “science” bad wasn’t that it now looks bad to us, nor that it was a fringe science, nor that it didn’t have supporting evidence—it did. What made it bad was the logic of their arguments—their failure to define terms, to put forward internally consistent arguments, and to define the conditions that would falsify their claims. For instance, eugenicists never came up with a definition of “race” that they used consistently—sometimes they meant nationality, sometimes language group, sometimes, as in the case of “the Jews,” they talked about a religion as though it were a race (the same thing is happening now with people who refer to the “Muslim race” or who assume that “Muslim” and “Arabic” are the same).

In Germany, the “science” was slightly different, as was the religious rhetoric. In the US, there was a lot of support for “science” that said that African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, and Asians deserved their economic, political, and cultural situation because it was the natural situation. In Germany, there wasn’t as much political need to rationalize the oppression of African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, or Asians, but Jews, Sintis, Romas, various central and eastern European groups filled that same role, and there was the same rhetorical need to naturalize their oppression. Hitler’s long-term plan was to establish the same kind of plantation system in eastern Europe that England had in places like Rhodesia (Kershaw’s biographies of Hitler are especially good on this).

Although he called himself national socialist (meaning not the international socialists–that is, Marxist socialism), what he meant was European colonialism. In his era “socialism” meant redistribution of wealth, and he imagined a racial redistribution of wealth. Central and eastern Europe would become the Rhodesia of Germany. So, once Europe was Jew-free, then the other lesser races would behave in the ways British colonialism used Africans. Poles, for instance, would act as workers, perhaps even managers, for the large estates run by Aryans.

Hitler’s plans were more extreme that most of the dominant rhetoric of the era (which was still pretty racist), and so he was clever about keeping it out of the larger public sphere. But he meant it, as is shown by his deliberations with his generals (a different post entirely). Briefly, his military decisions were grounded in his understandings of races, and since his understandings of race were wrong, they were bad decisions. Again, that’s a different post (involving the Hitler Myth).

For this post, what matters is that German (European, to be blunt) cultural rhetoric provided a lot of support for essentializing the evil of those groups (lefties, homosexuals, Sintis anbd Romas, union leaders, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “mentally retarded”) because that rhetoric assumed that there was a clear distinction between “them” and “us” and that the differences were biological (that is, grounded in genes and incapable of genuine change).

But, as in the US, while people would support the lynching here and there of out-group members, disproportionate incarceration rates, polite racism (social exclusion, racist employment practices, shunning people in intergroup marriages), the same people who believed that that group is essentially evil balked at government-sponsored violence in front of their eyes (Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution is elegant on this). Prior to the war, most Germans didn’t want all the Jews in Europe to be killed, and they probably wouldn’t have supported Hitler in 1933 had he said that was what he would do. But he didn’t say it, and they supported his putting in place the systems, policies, and processes (especially one-party government, an openly politicized and authoritarian police force, and personal loyalty to him being the central value—more on all those below), because they were okay with the kind of expulsions and restrictions they thought Hitler had in mind for those kind of scary Others.

I’ve given so much background on eugenics/genetics because I think that one mistake that people make when they think they would recognize Hitler and resist (or believe that comparing their beloved authoritarian to Hitler is a ridiculous analogy) is that they think Hitler started off by calling for genocide based on wacky science. He didn’t initially explicitly call for genocide (or, at least, people didn’t hear him saying that, and he gave himself a lot of plausible deniability), and most of his intended audience wouldn’t have seen the science as wacky.

So, when we’re worried about whether this leader is like Hitler in troubling ways, we shouldn’t be looking for someone who will use early-twentieth century genetics to argue for exterminating Jews. We also shouldn’t be looking for someone who will cite obviously whackjob “science” or fringe experts to support the bizarre notions of some marginalized group. We should worry more about a leader who is citing experts whose “science” can’t withstand the rigors of academic argument, who have had to form their own journals and organizations, but whose claims are attractive both to authoritarian leaders and to most people because they confirm common beliefs. The most important failure of those experts (and the propaganda supporting and promoting them) is that neither they nor their supporters can make arguments that are both internally consistent and apply the same rhetorical/logical standards across groups.


[image from wikimedia commons: http://wikivisually.com/wiki/Ludwig_Cr%C3%BCwell]

“I cannot explain why it does not affect me:” How to make a Hitler comparison (Introduction)

Godwin’s Law is a reasonably good statement about internet arguments–that the argument is over when someone accuses the other side of being just like Hitler–because “Hitler” is what rhetoricians call an “ultimate term;” that is, all connotation and no denotation. It’s a word that powerfully evokes a set of closely associated ideas, the precise connection of which is surprisingly vague (“freedom,” “terrorist,” “political correctness”). People think they’re making a clear reference, but they aren’t (as you can tell if you ask them to define the term precisely-they just get mad). Since the invocation of Hitler is simultaneously powerful, apparently clear, but actually unclear, comparing an opponent to Hitler ends a conversation because there appears to be no useful way to refute or support the comparison.

So, what would it mean to try to have a reasonable conversation about Hitler, who he was, what he did, and how he got a fairly normal country to hand over all power to him and support him in a policy of ethnic cleansing that involved “cleansing” Europe of every member of lots of religions, ethnicities, and behaviors AND take on almost every other European power and every other major industrialized nation.

If we want to know whether a leader is like a current Hitler in some significant way, then we need to look at how Hitler looked in the moment, and not just through the lens of what we know was revealed about him later. Knowing how things played out, and what we now know, is useful, but it’s just as useful to understand why people didn’t predict those things, or didn’t know what we know. And I think a good place to start for thinking about why people didn’t worry as much about him as we think they should have is his March 23, 1933 speech to the Reichstag. Talking about that speech requires some background on Hitler and his context, and talking about comparing a current leader to Hitler requires at least a little bit of an explanation about Hitler analogies.

Everyone is like Hitler in some way–they have a two-syllable name, they’re charismatic, they like dogs, they eat pasta. An argument about a historical comparison needs to be about whether the analogy is apt, if the similarities are causally important to the outcome we want to avoid (Hitler didn’t destroy Germany because he liked dogs).

After all, Hitler did a lot of things–he was vegetarian, a dog lover, a shitty painter, a racist, a lame architect, an authoritarian who was cozy with the industrial class, a poseur art critic, a millionaire who dodged his taxes, a traditionalist when it came to gender roles, a charismatic leader. We worry about whether a current leader is just like Hitler because we’re worried about whether that leader will drag a country into authoritarian government, unnecessary war, an ultimately disastrous economic policy, the jailing of all political opponents, and genocide.

And so we need to figure out which of his characteristics are causally related to those outcomes. Being a dog owner wasn’t one of them. Being authoritarian, racist, and a charismatic leader (not a leader who is charismatic) was causally related to those outcomes, but they aren’t necessarily related (in the logical sense–not all racists engage in genocide, so the two aren’t necessarily related). Genocide is always racist, but not all racism ends in genocide.

So, how did he do it? Hitler didn’t take a nation of tolerant and peaceful supporters of democracy and wave a word wand that magically transformed them into racist warmongerers. He did four things. First, he rode various very powerful cultural and political waves in Weimar German culture to power. Second, when in power, he transformed Germany into a one-party state. Third, between 1933 and 1939 (by which time it was incredibly dangerous to oppose him), he made things better for a lot of Germans. Granted, he did so in ways that would only work for the short term, but people tend not to ask about the long term. Fourth, and the one I want to talk about here, he made his authoritarianism look like not authoritarianism by reframing it as decisiveness, a stance that was helped by his carefully controlling his public image and public rhetoric, looking more reasonable than anyone expected–he had set a low bar–and saying that he just wanted peace and prosperity. He had a rhetoric that made people feel they could trust him.

And so what was that rhetoric?

Pt. I: “This collapse is due to internal infirmities in our national body corporate:” Popular science, their conspiracies, and agreement is all we Need

Pt. II: “A source of unshakeable authority:” Authoritarian rhetoric

Pt. III: Immediate rhetorical background

Pt. IV: “Decide for Peace or War:” Hitler’s March 23, 1933 speech before the Reichstag

Reagan and Trump


A few years ago, I was talking to one of those young people raised to believe that Reagan was pretty nearly God, and he said to me, “At first I was mad when people said Reagan has Alzheimer’s but then I decided that it didn’t matter.”

I thought that was interesting. He wasn’t mad because it was false; he was mad because it seemed mean. He didn’t change his mind about it because he went from thinking it was false to thinking it was true; he changed his mind because he found a way to explain it as non-trivial.

This was in 2005 or so, but it perfectly reproduced my experience of arguing with Reagan supporters in 1980. Reagan said a lot of things about himself and his record that were untrue. He might have sincerely believed them or not–I think he did–but if you pointed out he was saying things that were untrue, his fans said you were mean. He declared his candidacy literally on the site of one of the most appalling pro-segregation murders of the 1960s, and said he was in favor of states’ rights, and his supporters were apoplectic if you said he was appealing to racism. “He isn’t racist,” they’d say. “He’s a good man.”

If you tried to point out that the economic model on which he was going to base US policy was thoroughly irrational in that it was completely unfalsifiable, you were rejected as some kind of egghead.

When I asked a few more questions (such as, if your policies are best advocated by a person with Alzheimer’s, maybe there are problems with the policies), it became clear that he saw Reagan’s failure to be able to grasp complicated things as a virtue. That’s what made Reagan go for simple solutions, he thought, and he thought that meant that Reagan cut through the bullshit.

That, too, was my experience of Reagan supporters in the 80s (except the Marxists I knew who voted for them because they said he would bring about the people’s revolution faster, and the Dems who voted for him as a protest vote against Carter and then Mondale). They liked that he didn’t seem to understand the complexities of political situations. They sincerely believed that political issues aren’t really complicated, but are made so by professional politicians and eggheads just trying to keep their jobs, and so a person who looked at things in black and white terms would get ‘er done.

I think we have the same situation now. Clearly, the WH is made up of people who don’t understand the law about any of the things they’re trying to enact or the things they’re doing (whose defense is that they don’t and never did), who never had clear plans for any of the things they said they would achieve, who don’t understand how government actually works, who don’t understand what it means to be President, who are mad that they’re being treated the way they treated the previous President, and who are just engaged in rabid infighting.

People with even a moderate understanding of history are worried because this never works out well (for anyone, including his own party). People with a cherrypicked version of history don’t think it matters because they think he’ll enact the GOP agenda (and they think that’s great). And his base thinks it’s great because they think that a person who doesn’t think anything is complicated and isn’t deeply informed is exactly what we need.

Let’s reinvigorate the charge of religious bigotry

In the US, the term “bigot” is used interchangeably with “racist,” but its use for a long time involved religious, not racial, bigotry. At a certain point, it became more broadly used for someone who could not be persuaded out of a belief, religious or political. The OED gives the first three definitions as:

A religious hypocrite; (also) a superstitious adherent of religion; A person considered to adhere unreasonably or obstinately to a particular religious belief, practice, etc.; In extended use: a fanatical adherent or believer; a person characterized by obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs. (OED, Third Edition, December 2008)

The OED notes that Smollet in 1751 condemned the political discourse of his era by referring to “The crazed tory, the bigot whig.”

And that’s what’s wrong with our political discourse. It isn’t whether people are “civil” or “hostile” or even “racist.” Our problem is that our political discourse is dominated by bigoted discourse. And a lot of those bigots pretend that their views are reasonable ones related to Scripture.

Democracy works when most people are open to persuasion, and it doesn’t work when too many of us are bigots. Being open to persuasion doesn’t mean that you’ll change your mind every time someone gives you new information (the test apparently used by some studies about persuasion), but it does mean that you can imagine changing your mind, and, ideally, you can identify the conditions under which you would change your mind.

A.J. Ayer famously argued that some beliefs are falsifiable (which he described as scientific) and some aren’t (which he defined as religious). I think he was wrong in the notion that science is always falsifiable and religious never is, and there are other quibbles with his claim, but, having spent a lot time arguing with people in academic, nonacademic, fringe, and just fucking loony realms, I have come to think, while there are lots of good criticisms of the specifics of his argument, his general point–that we have beliefs we open to change and we have beliefs we will not change—is a useful and accurate description. (In fact, a lot of descriptions about whether an argument is useful or not begin with exactly that determination—are you open to changing your mind about the argument? Are you arguing with someone who is?)

A bigot is someone who cannot imagine circumstances under which she might change her mind. Or, more aptly, a bigot is someone who imagines himself as never wrong, and always able to summon evidence to support his position. What he can’t imagine (and this is what makes him irrational) is the evidence that would prove him wrong, and she condemns everyone who disagrees as so completely and obviously wrong that they should be silenced without ever having carefully listened to their argument.

I do believe that Jesus is my savior, and in a God who is omniscient and omnipotent. That belief is not open to disproof. And I am comfortable with calling that a religious belief. And, so, in that regard, I am a bigot. On the other hand, I’ve read the arguments for atheism, and various other religions, and I don’t think advocates of those beliefs should be silenced.

In addition I don’t believe that those two claims necessarily attach me to beliefs about slavery or segregation—and it’s important to remember that, for much of American history, there were entire regions in which it was insisted that being Christian necessarily meant supporting slavery and segregation. When Christian scholars of Scripture pointed out that the Scriptural based defenses of slavery and segregation were problematic, they were condemned as having a prejudiced and politicized reading of Scripture by people who insisted the Scripture endorsed US slavery practices. The notion that Scripture justified slavery as practice in the US South, especially after 1830 or so, was a bigoted reading of Scripture—not because I think it was wrong, but because its proponents refused to think carefully or critically about their own reasons and positions. They could “defend” slavery in that they could come up with (cherry-picked) proof texts, but they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) argue fairly with their critics, and they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) articulate the conditions under which they would change their minds. There were none. It isn’t what they argued, but how they argued, that earns them the title of bigot.

Furthermore, they banned criticisms of slavery, enforcing that ban with violence. So, they had both parts of the bigot definition—their views weren’t open to disproof, and they advocated refusing to listen to criticism of their views. They were bigots on steroids, in that they advocated violence against their critics.

Right now, we’re in a situation in which a lot of very powerful people are insisting you shouldn’t listen to criticisms of the current GOP political agenda, and they’re claiming that their views are grounded in Scripture, and they are implicitly and explicitly advocating violence against their critics. You should read them. (You can start with American Family Association, or Family Research Institute, or any expert cited on Fox News. Really—go read them.)

They call themselves conservative Christians. But being theologically conservative in Christianity does not necessarily involve the current GOP political agenda. For instance, there are conservative Christian arguments for gay marriage, for women working outside the home, against patriarchy, against the argument that charity should be entirely voluntary, and even the connection between conservative Christianity and abortion is fairly new. I’m not saying that true conservative Christians have this or that view–I’m saying that being conservative theologically doesn’t necessarily lead you to the GOP political agenda. After all, it was, for a long time, argued that being a conservative Christian necessarily led to endorsing slavery and segregation, and conservative Christians don’t make those connections anymore–why assume that current “necessary” connections (made with the same exegetical method as the “necessary” connections to slavery and segregation) are any better than those? And even many conservative Christians who argue for positions more or less in line with the current GOP political agenda don’t do so in a bigoted way. So, there’s nothing about being a conservative Christian that requires religious bigotry.

So, let’s stop using the term “conservative Christian” for people who insist that being a true Christian so necessarily means believing that the GOP agenda is right that everyone who disagrees should be threatened with violence till they shut up. “Conservative Christian” for what is actually authoritarian bigotry is strategic misnaming. Whether the Founders imagined a Christian nation is open to argument; whether they imagined a nation without disagreement is not. They valued disagreement; they valued reconsideration, deliberation, and pluralist argument.

People who pant for a one-party state, who tell their audience not to listen to anyone who disagrees, and who threaten (or justify threatening) their critics with violence are not only violating what the Founders said our country means may or may not be Christian (since they’re explicitly violating the “do unto others rule” I think that’s open to argument) but they are showing themselves to be anti-democratic authoritarian bigots.

And here is one last odd point about people like this (since I spend a lot of time arguing with them). They have a tendency to equate calling them authoritarian bigots with calling for silencing them, and that’s an interesting and important instance of projection. They believe that people who disagree with them should be silenced, so they really seem to hear all criticism of their views as an argument for silencing them. But that’s just projection.

We shouldn’t silence them. We should ask them to argue, not just engage in sloppy Jeremiads. I think our country is better if there are people who are participating in public discourse from the perspective of conservative Christianity. I think that’s a view that should be heard, and it can be heard without insisting all other views should be threatened into silence.

[The image at the top of the post is from a series of stained glass celebrating the massacre of Jews.]

Neoliberalism, liberalism, neopurconliberalism and why some people hate the ACA (pt II)

This was originally part of another post, but I cut it from that one. There’s a bunch of stuff floating around these days about how we shouldn’t use the term neoliberalism, as well as a lot of flinging the term at fellow lefties with whom we disagree, though, so I thought I’d go ahead and post it.

Elsewhere, I argued that the GOP objection to the ACA is grounded in the just world hypothesis—the notion that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people–and so good things (money, healthcare, food) should only be given to good people. If people want healthcare, for instance, they should get a job. If they don’t have a job, they aren’t a good person, after all.

There’s also the argument that many of the GOP objected to ACA only because it was Obama who supported it. And that’s a reasonable argument. It was based, after all, on the recommendations of a very conservative think tank and Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan in Massachusetts. The argument is that they didn’t want any Democratic plan to succeed because our political landscape is so rabidly factionalized that parties are willing to do harm to the country as a whole rather than let the other side succeed.

And that rabid factionalism certainly mattered, but I think there is also a sincere ideological objection, having to do with hostility to third-way neoliberalism (explained below), and the rise of what might be called neopurconliberalism because it’s a muddle of various philosophies.

Loosely, Obama’s healthcare plan was a classic example of his tendency toward what political theory folks call “third-way neoliberal.” Although in popular usage, “liberal” means people who believe in a social safety net (and tend to vote Dem or Green), in political theory, “liberal” means people who accept the Enlightenment principles of universal rights (especially property, due process, and fair trial), a separation of church and state, minimal interference in the market, and a separation of public and private. Until very recently (the 2000s, really), most GOP and Dem voters were liberal, and it was the dominant lay political theory (meaning how non-specialists explained how a government should work). There were lots of arguments as to what “minimal interference” meant, and what is private (for instance, for years, wife-beating was considered a private act, and outside the realm of government “interference”). So, most people agreed on the principle but disagreed as to how the principle plays out in specific cases.

The other category that matters for thinking about hostility to Obamacare is democratic socialism, which is often used to describe systems in which the government is democratic (little d) and the government provides an extensive safety net. Democratic socialist countries tend to have high taxes and excellent infrastructures.

In the 1970s or so, a lot of economic theorists began arguing for what is often called “neoliberalism,” which is not “liberal” in the common sense–in fact, it’s deeply and profoundly opposed to the principles of someone like LBJ, JFK, or FDR. Neoliberalism says that the market is purely rational, and we should take as much as we can away from the government and put it into the private sector. Neoliberals don’t vote Dem, and they don’t fit the common usage of liberal–they tend to vote GOP or Libertarian. Supporting neoliberalism requires ignoring the whole field of behavioral economics and all the empirical critiques of the fantasy of the rational market, but neoliberalism and neoconservatism both got coopted by people whose political and economic theories are purely ideological (in the sense that their claims are deduced from their premises, and their premises are non-falsifiable–that is, there is no evidence they would accept to get them to reconsider their premises).

On the far right, there emerged an ideology that might be called neopurconliberal, a reemergence of one very specific aspect of early American Puritanism (that wealth is a sign of saintliness), entangled into the neocon assumption that the US is entitled to dictate to all other countries how they should do things–an entitlement that should be enforced through a domination-oriented “diplomacy” and the continual threat of intervention (so, shout a lot and carry a big stick)–and the neoliberal notion that as many social practices should be thrown into the market as possible (so there is no such thing as public goods that should not be sold). Or, more accurately, the far right thoroughly and completely endorsed the “just world hypothesis” (that everyone in this world gets exactly what we deserve).

Neoliberals (who aren’t necessarily religious at all) and neopurconliberals found common ground on public policies like deliberately underfunding public schools, universities, the arts, the USPS, Social Security, and Medicare–the neoliberals because they believed (in a non-falsifiable way) that the market is always better, and the neopurconliberals because they won’t want a secular government that provides goods, and want the goods of the world (healthcare, education, retirement benefits) connected to being what they consider a Christian.

Third-way neoliberalism has two defenses. One is that, given that we are in a post-Citizens United world, no one can win without a lot of money because low-information voters are persuaded by ads, no matter how misleading or rebutted. And while it might be nice to imagine that a political figure could get elected by getting all the necessary money from the 85% and members of the 15% who happen to be committed to democratic socialism (probably not a large number), the pragmatic solution is to make sure that the Dem candidate can make large numbers of very wealth people believe that they will thrive under Dem policies. So, the pragmatic version of third-way neoliberalism says it is a compromise we need to make.

The other version says that the information economy changes everything, and that the Democratic values of honoring workers, having a strong social safety net, being inclusive, having a bright line between religion (private) and secular activities (public), investing in infrastructure, creating stable and productive relationships with other countries, and enabling social mobility can be achieved in partnership with the kinds of industries that would also benefit economically from such values being common.

If you think about it in terms of healthcare, you can see how these ideologies play out. Democratic socialism would have in place single-payer health care, most healthcare provided by the state, and paid for by taxes of some kind. Neoliberalism would leave it all up to the market with little or no governmental control of insurance companies or healthcare providers. Third-way neoliberalism would try to develop a system that created profit incentives for insurance and healthcare providers to serve everyone—more governmental control (such as mandates) than neoliberalism, but not by providing the insurance or healthcare directly (as would happen in democratic socialism).

I really like Bertrand Russell’s argument for socialized medicine. Here’s the problem every healthcare plan faces: it’s the problem of a gambling establishment because insurance is just legalized gambling If you are running a casino, you need to make a prediction as to how much you will pay out, and you need to ensure that you will take more than you have to pay out. So, you have to have a system that collects enough from losers to pay out the winners.

Russell’s argument was exactly right: casinos work because losers pay into the system more than the winners take out. And that’s how insurance works. You have a lot of people who pay to play on the grounds that they might be someone who later gets a lot. You pay a dollar for a lottery ticket, not because you’re certain you’ll win the lottery, but because you’re willing to pay for the chance that you might win. You pay into a benefits pool, not because you’re certain you’ll win, but because you think you might.

The argument about healthcare is an argument about how to gamble. Russell saw that.

What Russell didn’t predict is how ingroup/outgroup preferences would impact healthcare decisions. We always see outrageous expenses on the part of beings with whom we identify as justified. The GOP made a big deal about death panels at the same that it was the party that had put such panels in place http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/428426/death-panel-futile-care-law-texas by reframing the issue as Obama would kill your grandmother, and many in their audience believed it because Obama is outgroup. They either never mentioned the GOP-supported death panels, denied they existed, or characterized them as just fiscal responsibility.

Looking at the issue the way Russell describes means just doing the math, and not worrying about whether the people winning at the tables are good or bad people, whether we think they “deserve” to win. Neoliberals hate the ACA because it doesn’t leave things to the market, and neopurconliberals hate it because it is not grounded in an obsession with whether healthcare is only going to people who “deserve” it.

So, this is also an argument about what we think the government should do, and how we should think about policies—in pragmatic terms, or in terms of punish/reward. Whether third-way neoliberalism is inherently bad or good from the perspective of social democrats is an interesting question, if not engaged in a purely ideological way. Can it be a bridge? Can it lead to social democratic policies? The right certainly thinks it can, and that’s why they oppose it. And we should engage the argument in pragmatic ways.

Why not having insurance can be framed as a freedom

Over at The Resurgent, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) explains why he would not support the compromise health care plan, even with the (amended) amendment he and Cruz proposed. And I think that Lee is perfectly sincere in his argument, and I think that his argument shows why a lot of lefty critiques of Trumpcare just don’t quite work, but I’ll explain that after I try to be really, really fair to his argument.

Lee’s objection to ACA is that: “Millions of middle-class families are being forced to pay billions in higher health insurance premiums to help those with pre-existing conditions.” He calls it a “hidden tax,” since it’s “paid every month to insurance companies instead of to the government” and he maintains that hidden tax is: “one of the most crushing financial burdens middle-class families deal with today.”

Lee’s proposals is not, as many say, that people with pre-existing conditions and expensive medical costs would get thrown off insurance entirely. Instead, this plan would split insurees into two groups: people who already have high medical costs, and are bad risks for insurers, and people who have not yet developed expensive medical costs (whom Lee consistently identifies as “the middle class”–that’s an important point, since it implies that he thinks the middle class and people with serious medical costs are different groups). The people with high medical costs, Lee argues, shouldn’t be protected through price-fixing: “We don’t have to use price controls to force middle-class families to bear the brunt of the cost of helping those who need more medical care. We could just give those with pre-existing conditions more help to get the care they need.” So, insurers are “free” to charge whatever they want, and consumers are “free” to get insurance or not (hence the name “Consumer Freedom Amendment”), and this plan will not put the financial burden of healthcare of others on “middle-class families.”

There are a few points about Lee’s plan that are interesting. The first is that my social media has had a lot of criticisms of Trumpcare and this amendment, and none of them explained it correctly. The main criticism has been that this will throw large numbers of people with serious medical issues to the wolves–that millions will be unable to get insurance. The impression I had gotten from various articles was that Cruz, Lee, and others were cheerfully and knowingly ensuring that millions of people would lose access to their healthcare. And that isn’t quite right, and I think it’s important to get opposition arguments right (both because it’s more rhetorically effective, and because it’s more important for policy deliberation).

Jordan Weissman has a nice article at Slate that does an unusually good job of explaining the various proposals, especially Lee’s argument: “Lee doesn’t believe that healthy Americans should help pay for sick ones through their insurance premiums, and he doesn’t want to put his name on a bill that might—in theory, depending on regulatory decisions, maybe, one day—allow that to happen.”

So, what’s at stake for Lee (and many others) is the notion that paying for healthcare is paying for someone else–for a different group. The really tragic failure here is the failure to imagine an “us” that includes all Americans.

Lee’s argument is a little inconsistent on that point, though. He admits that the subsidies will be paid for in taxes, so the healthy will, in fact, still be paying for the unhealthy. Even if it’s done through tax breaks rather than subsidies, we all pay, since we will pay in the form of less infrastructure and lower funding of all public “goods.” While I do think I understand (but don’t agree with) the reasoning behind the insistence that people who don’t have jobs don’t “deserve” healthcare, I’m not sure I understand this theme that comes up a lot in current conservative talk about public goods–it’s as though they don’t understand that publicly-owned things aren’t owned by no one; they owned by everyone. And public goods aren’t given to them; they’re given to us.

The math on how healthcare expenses work out is not complicated. It might be worrisome ( e.g., how can we pay for an aging citizenry), but it isn’t really complicated: for ever person to who takes a dollar out, there must be someone who puts slightly more than a dollar in (so the insurance company can make some money, and let’s all start with the fact that they’re all doing pretty damn well). That dollar in/out might be direct (it’s a thing on your paystub, and you put it in) or it might be indirect–sales tax, user taxes, sin taxes, but (and this is important) if health care happens, someone pays for it.

A US Senator recently told this story. He was mowing his lawn, and a constituent came up to talk to him (because he is the kind of guy who sees every resident in his state as a constituent, unlike, say, Ted Cruz). That guy said he should be forced to pay for health care because he never got sick. “Oh really,” said the Senator. “You’ve never been to the ER?” “Oh, sure,” the constituent said, “but that’s free.”

That’s an important story–that you are not charged in the moment does not make a service free. Lee hasn’t learned that lesson. (And here I’ll make a generalization and say that I’ve yet to argue with a neoconservative who understands that point–you can see it in the twitterfluffle over Grover Norquist’s failure to explain taxes to his daughter.)

It doesn’t matter if someone (even a middle class person) has medical costs that are paid for by the state or by an insurance company. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. All costs in a nation will end up being shared by everyone in the nation; the only interesting question is whether that sharing is “fair,” and that’s the whole issue with someone like Lee. Fairness might mean “everyone gets the same treatment” or it might mean “people get what they deserve.” People who self-identify as “liberal” tend toward the former, and people who self-identify as “conservative” tend toward the latter–they think it is “unfair” for people like them (their ingroup) to pay, in any way, for people like them (their outgroups). It’s unfair because they believe “people like us” have worked hard for what we have, and they haven’t. And, so, what they want are policies that presume an absolute and easy distinction between good and bad people and that magically restrict the goods to good people.

I don’t think that’s practical, as I don’t think it’s possible for public policy to make such clear distinctions between good and bad people, and I certainly don’t think that Lee’s “middle class” versus “people with pre-existing conditions” distinction is sensible. But, it’s an attractive argument to a lot of people because it’s simple, satisfying, and has just enough punitive spice in it to be pleasing. And, as in all us v. them rhetoric, it’s flattering. If we’re going to try to argue against these sorts of policies, and I think we should, we need to do it while understanding what their argument is, and it’s more complicated (and attractive) than is being acknowledged in a lot of lefty rhetoric.



What happens in an era of a rabidly factionalized media

In May, where I work, a young man with mental health issues stabbed several people (including a person of color). He was immediately subdued by some police officers who arrived quickly because they were on bikes. The politically useful narratives of this event arrived just about as fast as the police officers.

In July of 1835, some gamblers were lynched in Vicksburg, Mississippi, after a typical pre-lynching “trial.” An early account says it was because they behaved badly at a fourth of July celebration. There were later other versions.

The incident at my university quickly became a datapoint about the victimization of white males, the inherent violence of black males, and the failure of the liberal media to be sufficiently alarmist about the black/liberal conspiracy to exterminate white males. That it was such a datapoint was proven by several other claims that turned out to be false (the attacker went after “Greek” white males, there was another stabbing of a “Greek” white male at the same time—the attacker stabbed a non-white, wasn’t targeting “Greeks,” and the other attack never happened). The incident of the gamblers involved gamblers morphing into abolitionists, and then getting glommed onto a non-existent conspiracy of a guy called Murrell.

These two incidents seem to me extremely similar, and the similarity between them is why I’ve been worried for some time about American political discourse—the way the public “knows” things is worryingly similar to the rhetoric that got us into a war.

That’s obviously a strange argument, but not deliberately perverse. I mean it.

The short version is that how both incidents were quickly renarrated and used signifies larger problems with the normal political discourse of the day. I could have picked another pair—the Charleston pamphlet mailing and Benghazi, for instance—and the similarity would remain. The similarity isn’t about the incidents, but about how they were transformed into an entirely and obviously false narrative that resisted all attempts at refutation. It’s about the easy demagoguery of everyday politics.

This is a sort of complicated argument in that there is so much demagoguery about demagoguery that I have to do a lot of clearing before I can make the argument I want to make. And I worry about starting with a statement of my argument, since my whole point is that what caused the Civil War was that a large number of people refused to listen to anything that might contradict their central beliefs. The Civil War is, unhappily, a great example of how the narration of historical events gets glued on to current issues of ingroup identification (so that whether a particular narration is “true” is determined by whether it is loyal to the ingroup).

In a culture of demagoguery, all issues are reduced to a competition between the ingroup and outgroup. A claim is “true” if it shows that the ingroup is better than the outgroup.

Popular understandings of the Civil War (really, a failed revolution) are dominated by ingroup/outgroup thinking. For many people, admitting that secession and the firing on Fort Sumter were bad ideas would entangle admitting that ingroup members behaved badly. There isn’t a way to look clearly at primary documents about slavery, the declarations of secession, the proslavery provocation of war, segregation, and “the South” that doesn’t involve acknowledging that “the South” (an instance of strategic misnaming, explained below) judged things badly.

The South—that is, the entirety of people in the southern regions of the US–never supported the fairly bizarre system that was US slavery. While Native American tribes in the southern regions had slaves, the system was nothing like the dominant version (which was primarily lucrative because of selling slaves); it’s reasonable to think the large number of slaves didn’t support slavery; Quakers and others were sometimes opposed to slavery, and often opposed to the dominant system (which, by the 1830s, largely prohibited teaching slaves to read the Bible, and which violated property rights by the amount of state control over what slaveholders could do with what law said was their property). The equation of “the South” and “proslavery” is an example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, in which disconfirming examples are simply not counted.

[This is NOT to say that the large number of white politicians who criticized slavery opposed it, by the way, since many of the were making either the “necessary evil” or “wolf by the ears” argument. The first of those was that slavery was bad, but it was necessary for some vague greater good, and the second (most famously promoted by Jefferson) was that slavery was a crime against Africans, and they were so justified in being angry about slavery that we couldn’t free them. Slavery enabled us to hold them down, and any release of that hold would result in their killing whites in an act of justified rage. So, we must maintain slavery.]

When we talk about “the South” we generally mean the white proslavery political leaders, and their motives in secession were absolutely clear: they were protecting and promoting slavery. And that is what they said, over and over, every time the issue came up. Speeches in Congress, speeches for secession, declarations of secession, speeches at fourth of July celebrations, sermons, judicial decisions—the South was about slavery.

So, anyone who wants to argue that the Civil War was about “states rights” and not slavery has to argue that the people who wrote the declarations of secession and the people arguing in favor of secession were lying. [They also have to explain how the Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Laws respected the principle of states’ rights—I’ve always found it entertaining how a CSA apologist will, when presented with that argument, either go silent or threaten violence—both responses are admissions that they have no rational response.]

There is a more complicated argument about secession not really being about slavery per se, but about how Southern political and intellectual leaders wove slavery into Southern culture. That argument is that proslavery rhetoric had become a staple of American politics, with oneupsmanship about loyalty to slavery requiring that Southern politicians (and their non-Southern allies, called “doughfaces” because proslavery politicians bragged they could make them have any emotion they wanted) get increasingly extreme in arguments about what should be done to ensure the expansion of slavery. So, it wasn’t slavery, but rhetoric about slavery that caused many slave states to engage in the extraordinarily unwise and unnecessary act of secession.

What people often don’t realize is that slavery was safe, even under Lincoln. Slavery was well-ensconced in US politics, with a majority of the Supreme Court, Congress, and the Presidency. Lincoln’s election was a glitch, in that he was only able to win the Presidency because the proslavery forces split. And he was willing to support a constitutional amendment to protect slavery in the existing slave states. The rational choice on the part of slave states would have been to sit tight until the next election, resolve their internal divisions, and elect another proslavery President.

Thus, were the secession really about slavery as an economic institution, it wouldn’t have happened—slavery as an economic institution was safe, unless you believe the evidence (which is pretty compelling) that slavery was not an economically efficient way to grow sugar or cotton. There are some who argue that slavery was deliberately uneconomic in that owning slaves wasn’t about making money, but it was a marker of success. So, just as driving an unnecessarily large car with poor gas mileage is a marker of masculine success in our culture, and not a rational economic choice, so owning slaves was a marker of masculine success in the antebellum south. A different argument is that slavery wasn’t profitable as an economic system, but it was profitable as a sales system—the profit in slavery came from selling slaves, so slavery was only profitable as an economic institution if there were expanding markets for slaves. If you put both these arguments together, then the otherwise irrational behavior of proslavery rhetors makes more sense, in that, while Lincoln was willing to allow slavery to exist eternally in slave states, he wouldn’t let it expand. Certainly, a lot of primary documents of the era insist on the importance of opening new markets to slavery. (If you want to see a longer review of scholarship on this argument, and my own take, see Fanatical Schemes.)

Whatever the motivations—and perhaps all three arguments are right about some set of people—from the 1820s until the Civil War, proslavery rhetoric was consistent: every single political issue was about ingroup (proslavery) and outgroup (not proslavery), and any success on the part of the outgroup meant the extermination of the ingroup. And that is our situation now. And while all parties engage in it too much, not all sides do so to the same degree.

And, no “both sides” aren’t equally guilty because saying there are two sides is part of the problem.

I’m saying that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, per se, but the consequence of proslavery rhetoric. Slavery can’t cause a war, but how people value it, what they connect it to, what it means to them, how central it is to their sense of identity, how they think they would look if they were seen as not supporting slavery—all those things can cause people to go to war because those things cause people to believe that their identity is threatened with extermination if this policy passes. And that’s what pro-secession rhetoric said (which went back into the 1820s): if we don’t get this policy passed, then the Federal Government will send troops into the South and force abolition on us and then we’ll have race war (it’s disturbingly similar to NRA rhetoric about the Federal Government knocking down doors, taking guns, and then the riot of criminals that will ensue).

In a world in which you’re hearing the same claims and same kind of claims repeated everywhere, the fact that none of the are true doesn’t matter as far as the kind of impact that those rumors can have. There is a Chesterton story in which Father Brown says that people think that 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 equals more than 0, and I’ve always thought it’s a sweet description of how antebellum proslavery rhetoric worked (and how much rhetoric works now): a long series of non-events is taken as proof of something for many people simply because the series is so long, and they forget it’s a series of false predictions. If the media we’re consuming is repeatedly wrong, the rational choice is to abandon it as unreliable. But, if the media keeps making predictions we want to be true, then the fact that those predictions are always false doesn’t make us mistrust the media—we trust them more because we perceive them as media that want the same things we do. [I’ll mention two examples: Charles and Camilla breaking up, the world ending this year. The fact that those predictions are always wrong doesn’t destroy the credibility of the predicting media for many people because those media keep making the prediction—that the media is always wrong triggers the cognitive bias of no smoke without fire.]

Tremendous numbers of people who didn’t financially benefit from slavery personally identified with slavery, and so they sincerely believed that an end to slavery meant an extermination of their identity.

And none of that was true: Lincoln wouldn’t end slavery; the end of slavery wouldn’t mean race war; as was demonstrated in the non-slave states, it was quite easy to maintain white supremacy without slavery. But the proslavery claim that it was either support slavery in the most extreme ways possible or there will be race war would have seemed true to someone reading southern newspapers because those papers were full of reports of events that never happened. And that argument signified what was, to me, the most striking characteristic of antebellum Southern newspaper rhetoric—it was rabidly factional.

It wasn’t a binary. In the 1830s (the era in which I dredged deep), there were multiple parties. And each party had its newspaper system, and each system reprinted articles from others in the system. Some reports were shared (fabricated reports about abolitionist conspiracies would be reported in all the factions hoping to benefit from anti-abolitionist fear-mongering, for instance), and some weren’t, but an article was printed or not on the basis of whether it helped the faction. And all those papers had mottos like “free of faction.”

In rhetoric, that’s called strategic misnaming. You simply declare that you’re doing the opposite of what you’re doing. It works to a disturbing degree, mostly with people who make political decisions on the basis of political faction (or ingroup favoritism).

Someone reading southern newspapers could list all sorts of times that abolitionists engaged in conspiracies of extermination against them. The very real incidents of mass killings of “them”—Native Americans, African Americans, anyone accused of abolitionism—were not mentioned, or were not framed as incidents of ingroup violence. They were self-defense, even if the incidents that supposedly justified the revenge hadn’t actually happened (and that was common). Consumers of that media couldn’t have a reasonably accurate understanding of who was committing violence against whom. There were in the antebellum era (and in the postbellum) communally insane acts of violence against the bodies of Others (mostly African or Native American, but with other kinds of Other thrown in), all of which were rhetorically rationalized as self-defense, and none of which were. Some, like the gambler incident, had nothing to do with politics, and some were political only in the sense that the people enacting the rhetorically-framed “revenge” violence were motivated by a politics of racist or pro-slavery politics. So, in the antebellum era, everything was politicized. And even, as in the case of the gamblers, the correct version of the incident was available to the media, the false version lumbered around the public sphere, crushing any accurate version.

And here we return to the tragedy of my campus. The incident on my campus was not racially motivated, and it was not part of some massive conspiracy against privileged white males. The notion that it was part of a May Day revolution, that an antiracist group had anything to do with it, or that there were other attacks has been thoroughly and completely refuted in any media open to reason. But we live in a world so rabidly factionalized that many of the media that promoted the false version either continue to repeat the false one, or have never repudiated the false one. And so the fear-mongering one lumbers around the internet confirming people in that informational cave that black people and liberals are conspiring against them, that whites are the real victims here, and that the “liberal media” won’t report the truth about the war on whites. And so, as in the antebellum public sphere, there are people roused to violent levels of self-defense over incidents that never actually happened.

In other words, those two incidents worry me because they indicate eras with similar ways of arguing about politics. Then, as now, many people believe that you should get all your information from people who are like you, who share your values, and who remain in a state of permanently charged outrage about them. You only trust people who, like you, insist that we are inherently and essentially good and they are inherently and essentially bad.

Since the dominant method of political argument didn’t play out well in the antebellum era—it ended in a war that was unnecessary–maybe we should rethink that we’re doing it now.


How not to make a Hitler analogy

Americans love the Hitler analogy, the claim that their political leader is just like Hitler. And it’s almost always very badly done—their leader (let’s call him Chester) is just like Hitler because…. and then you get trivial characteristics, such as characteristics that don’t distinguish either Hitler or Chester from most political leaders (they were both charismatic, they used Executive Orders), or that flatten the characteristics that made Hitler extraordinary (Hitler was conservative). That process all starts with deciding that Chester is evil, and Hitler is evil, and then looking for any ways that Chester is like Hitler. So, for instance, in the Obama is Hitler analogy, the argument was that Obama was charismatic, he had followers who loved him, he was clearly evil (to the person making the comparison–I’ll come back to that), and he maneuvered to get his way.

Bush was Hitler because he was charismatic, he had followers who loved him, he was clearly evil (to the people making the comparison), and he used his political powers to get his way. And, in fact, every effective political figure fits those criteria in that someone thought they were clearly evil: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, Reagan, Bush, and Trump, for instance.

He was clearly evil. In the case of Hitler it means he killed six million Jews; in the case of Obama it means he tried to reduce abortions in a way that some people didn’t like (he didn’t support simply outlawing them), in the case of Bush it was that he invaded Iraq, for Lincoln it was that he tried to end slavery, and so on. In other words, in the case of Hitler, every reasonable person agrees that the policies he adopted six or seven years into his time as Chancellor were evil. But not everyone who wants to reduce abortions to the medically necessary agrees that Obama’s policies were evil, and not everyone who wants peace in the middle East agrees that Bush was evil.

So, what does it mean to decide a political leader is evil?

For instance, people who condemned Obama as evil often did so on grounds that would make Eisenhower and Nixon evil (support for the EPA, heavy funding for infrastructure, high corporate taxes, a social safety net that included some version of Medicare, secular public education), and many of which would make Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and the first Bush evil (faith in social mobility, protection of public lands, promoting accurate science education, support for the arts, an independent judiciary, funding for infrastructure, good relations with other countries, the virtues of compromise). So, were the people condemning Obama as evil doing so on grounds that would cause them to condemn GOP figures as evil? No—their standards didn’t apply to figures they liked. It just a way of saying he wasn’t GOP.

Every political figure has some group of people who sincerely believe that leader is obviously evil. And every political figure who gets to be President has mastered the arts of being charismatic (not every one gets power from charismatic leadership, but that’s a different post), compromising, manipulating, engaging followers. So, is every political leader just like Hitler?

Unhappily, we’re in a situation in which people make the Hitler analogy to everyone else in their informational cave, and the people in that cave think it’s obviously a great analogy. Since we’re in a culture of demagoguery in which every disagreement is a question of good (our political party) or evil (their political party), any effective political figure of theirs is Hitler.

We’re in a culture in which a lot of media says, relentlessly, that all political choices are between a policy agenda that is obviously good and a policy agenda that is obviously evil, and, therefore, nothing other than the complete triumph of our political agenda is good. That’s demagoguery.

The claim that He was clearly evil is important because it raises the question of how we decide whether something is true or not. And that is the question in a democracy. The basic principle of a democracy is that there is a kind of common sense, that most people make decisions about politics in a reasonable manner, and that we all benefit because we get policies that are the result of the input of different points of view. Democracy is a politics of disagreement. But, if some people are supporting a profoundly anti-democratic leader, who will use the power of government to silence and oppress, then we need to be very worried. So the question of whether we are democratically electing someone who will, in fact, make our government an authoritarian one-party state is important. But, how do you know that your perception that this leader is just like Hitler is reasonable? What is your “truth test” for that claim?


  1. Truth tests, certainty, and knowledge as a binary

Talking about better and worse Hitler analogies requires a long digression into truth tests and certainty for two reasons. First, the tendency to perceive their effective political leaders as evil because their policies are completely evil is based on and reinforces the tendency to think of political questions as between obvious good and obvious evil, and that perception is reinforced by and reinforces what I’ll explain as the two-part simple truth test (does this fit with what I already believe, and do reliable authorities say this claim is true). Second, believing that all beliefs and claims can be divided into obvious binaries (you are certain or clueless, something is right or wrong, a claim is true or false, there is order or chaos) correlates strongly to authoritarianism, and one of the most important qualities of Hitler was that he was authoritarian (and that’s where a lot of these analogies fail—neither Obama nor Bush were authoritarians).

And so, ultimately, as the ancient Greeks realized, any discussion about democracy quickly gets to the question of how common people make decisions as to whether various claims are true or false. Democracies fail or thrive on the single point of how people assess truth. If people believe that only their political faction has the truth and every other political faction is evil, then democracies collapse and we have an authoritarian leader. Hitlers arise when people abandon democratic deliberation.

That’s the most important point about Hitler: leaders like Hitler come about because we decide that diversity of opinion weakens our country and is unnecessary.

The notion that authoritarian governments arise from assumptions about how people argue might seem counterintuitive, since that seems like some kind of pedantic question only interesting to eggheads (not what you believe but how you believe beliefs work) and therefore off the point. But, actually, it is the point—democracies turn into authoritarian systems under some circumstances and thrive under others, and it all depends on what is seen as the most sensible way to assess whether a claim is true or not. The difference between democracy and authoritarianism is that practice of testing claims—truth tests.

For instance, some sources say that Chester is just like Hitler, and other sources say that Hubert it just like Hitler. How do you decide which claim is true?

One truth test is simple, and it has two parts: does perceiving Chester as just like Hitler fit with what you already believe? do sources you think are authorities tell you that Chester is just like Hitler? Let’s call this the simple two-part truth test, and the people who use it are simple truth-testers.

Sometimes it looks as though is a third (but it’s really just the first reworded): can I find evidence to show that Chester is just like Hitler?

For many people, if they can confirm a claim through those three tests (does it fit what I believe, do authorities I trust say that, can I find confirming evidence), then they believe the claim is rational.

(Spoiler alert: it isn’t.)

That third question is really just the same as the first two. If you believe something—anything, in fact—then you can always find evidence to support it. If you are really interested in knowing whether your beliefs are valid, then you shouldn’t look to see whether there is evidence to support what you believe; you should look to see whether there is evidence that you’re wrong. If you believe that someone is mad at you, you can find a lot of evidence to support that belief—if they’re being nice, they’re being too nice; if they’re quiet, they’re thinking about how angry they are with you. You need to think about what evidence you would believe to persuade you they aren’t mad. (If there is none, then it isn’t a rational belief.) So, those three questions are two: does a claim (or political figure) confirm what I believe; do the authorities I trust confirm this claim (or political figure)?

Behind those two questions is a background issue of what decisions look like. Imagine that you’re getting your hair cut, and the stylist says you have to choose between shaving your head or not cutting your hair at all—how do you decide whether that person is giving you good advice?

And behind that is the question of whether it’s a binary decision—how many choices to you have? Is the stylist open to other options? Do you have other options? Once the stylist has persuaded you that you either do nothing to your hair or shave it, then all he has to do is explain what’s wrong with doing nothing. And you’re trapped by a logical fallacy, because leaving your hair alone might be a mistake, but that doesn’t actually mean that shaving your head is a good choice. People who can’t argue for their policy like the fallacy of the false division (the either/or fallacy) because it hides the fact that they can’t persuade you of the virtues of their policy.

The more that you believe every choice is between two absolutely different extremes, the more likely it is that you’ll be drawn to political leaders, parties, and media outlets that divide everything into absolutely good and absolutely bad.

It’s no coincidence that people who believe that the simple truth test is all you need also insist (sometimes in all caps) that anyone who says otherwise is a hippy dippy postmodernist. For many people, there is an absolute binary in everything, including how to look at the world—you can look and make a judgment easily and clearly or else you’re saying that any kind of knowledge at all is impossible. And what you see is true, obviously, so anyone who says that judgment is vexed, flawed, and complicated is a dithering weeny. They say that, for a person of clear judgment, the right course of action in all cases is obvious and clear. It’s always black (bad) or white (good, and what they see). Truth tests are simple, they say.

In fact, even the people who insist that the truth is always obvious and it’s all black or white go through their day in shades of grey. Imagine that you’re a simple truth tester. You’re sitting at your computer and you want an ‘e’ to appear on your screen, so you hit the ‘e’ key. And the ‘e’ doesn’t appear. Since you believe in certainty, and you did not get the certain answer you predicted, are you now a hippy-dippy relativist postmodernist (had I worlds enough and time I’d explain why that term is incredibly sloppy and just plain wrong) who is clueless? Are you paralyzed by indecision? Do you now believe that all keys can do whatever they want and there is no right or wrong when it comes to keys?

No, you decide you didn’t really hit the ‘e’ or your key is gummed up or autocorrect did something weird. When you hit the ‘e’ key, you can’t be absolutely and perfectly certain that the ‘e’ will appear, but that’s probably what will happen, and if it doesn’t you aren’t in some swamp of postmodern relativism and lack of judgment.

Your experience typing shows that the binary promoted by a lot of media between absolutely certainty and hippy dippy relativism is a sloppy social construct. They want you to believe it, but your experience of typing, or making any other decision, shows it’s a false binary. You hit ‘e’ key, and you’re pretty near certain that an ‘e’ will appear. But you also know it might not, and you won’t collapse into some pile of cold sweat of clueless relativism if it doesn’t. You’ll clean your keyboard.

It’s the same situation with voting for someone, marrying someone, buying a new car, making dinner, painting a room. You can feel certain in the moment that you’re making the right decision, but any honest person has to admit that there are lots of times we felt totally and absolutely certain and turned out to have been mistaken. Feeling certain and being right aren’t the same thing.

That isn’t to say that the hippy-dippy relativists are right and all views are equally valid and there is no right or wrong—it’s to say that the binary between “the right answer is always obviously clear” and hippy-dippy relativism is wrong. For instance, in terms of the assertion that many people make that the distinction between right and wrong is absolutely obvious: is killing someone else right or wrong? Everyone answers that it depends. So, does that mean we’re all people with no moral compass? No, it means the moral compass is complicated, and takes thought, but it isn’t hopeless.

Our world is not divided into being absolutely certain and being lost in clueless hippy dippy relativism. But, and this is important, that is the black and white world described by a lot of media—if you don’t accept their truth, then you’re advocating clueless postmodern relativism. What those media say is that what you already believe is absolutely true, and, they say, if it turns out to be false, you never believed it, and they never said it. (The number of pundits who advocated the Iraq invasion and then claimed they were opposed to it all along is stunning. Trump’s claiming he never supported the invasion fits perfectly what with Philip Tetlock says about people who believe in their own expertise.)

And that you have been and always be right is a lovely, comforting, pleasurable message to consume. It is the delicate whipped cream of citizenship—that you, and people like you, are always right, and never wrong and you can just rely on your gut judgment. Of course, the same media that says it’s all clear has insisted that something is absolutely true that turned out not to be (Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, voting for Reagan will lead to the people’s revolution, Trump will jail Clinton, Brad Pitt is getting back together with Angelina Jolie, studies show that vaccines cause autism, the world will end in 1987). The paradox is that people continue to consume and believe media who have been wrong over and over, and yet are accepted as trusted authorities because they have sometimes been right, or, more often, because, even if wrong, what they say is comforting and assuring.

But, what happens when media say that Trump has a plan to end ISIS and then it turns out his plan is to tell the Pentagon to come up with a plan? What happens when the study that people cite to say autism is caused by vaccines turns out to be fake? Or, as Leon Festinger famously studied, what happens when a religion says the world will end, and it doesn’t? What happens when something you believe that fits with everything else you believe and is endorsed by authorities you believe turns out to be false? You could decide that maybe things aren’t simple choices between obviously true and obviously false, but that isn’t generally what people do. Instead, we recommit to the media because now we don’t want to look stupid.

Maybe it would be better if we all just decided that complicated issues are complicated, and that’s okay.

There are famous examples that show the simple truth test—you can just trust your perception—is wrong.

For instance, there is this example.


If you’re looking at paint swatches, and you want a darker color, you can look at two colors and decide which is darker. You might be wrong. Here’s a famous example of our tendency to interpret color by context.

Those examples look like special cases, and they (sort of) are: if you know that you have a dark grey car, and there is a grey and dark grey car in the parking lot, you don’t stand in the parking lot paralyzed by not knowing which car is yours because you saw something on the internet that showed your perception of darkness might be wrong. That experiment shows you might be entirely wrong, but you will not go on in your life worrying about it.

But you have been wrong about colors. And we’ve all tried to get into the wrong car, but in those cases we get instant feedback that we were wrong. With politics it’s more complicated, since media that promoted what turns out to have been a disastrous decision can insist they never promoted it (when Y2K turned out not to be a thing, various radio stations that had been fear mongering about it just never mentioned it again), claim it was the right decision, or blame it on someone else. They can continue to insist that their “truth” is always the absolutely obvious decision and that there is binary between being certain and being clueless. But, in fact, our operative truth test in the normal daily decisions we make is one that involves skepticism and probability. Sensible people don’t go through life with a yes/no binary. We operate on the basis of a yes/various degrees of maybe/no continuum.

What’s important about optical illusions is that they show that the notion central to a lot of argutainment—that our truth tests for politics should involve being absolutely certain that our group is right or else you’re in the muck of relativistic postmodernism—isn’t how we get through our days. And that’s important. Any medium, any pundit, any program, that says that decisions are always between us and them is lying to us. We know, from decisions about where to park, what stylist to use, what to make for dinner, how to get home, that it isn’t about us vs. them: it’s about making the best guesses we can. And we’re always wrong eventually, and that’s okay.

We tend to rely on what social psychologists call heuristics—meaning mental short cuts—because you can’t thoroughly and completely think through every decision. For instance, if you need a haircut, you can’t possibly thoroughly investigate every single option you have. You’re likely to have method for reducing the uncertainty of the decision—you rely on reviews, you go where a friend goes, you just pick the closest place. If a stylist says you have to shave your head or do nothing, you’ll walk away.

You might tend to have the same thing for breakfast, or generally take the same route to work, campus, the gym. Your route will not be the best choice some percentage of the time because traffic, accidents, or some random event will make your normal route slower than others from time to time (if you live in Austin, it will be wrong a lot). Even though you know that you can’t be certain you’re taking the best route to your destination, you don’t stand in your apartment doorway paralyzed by indecision. You aren’t clueless about your choices—you have a lot of information about what tends to work, and what conditions (weather, a football game, time of day, local music festivals, roadwork) are likely to introduce variables in your understanding of what is the best route. You are neither certain nor clueless.

And there are dozens of other decisions we make every day that are in that realm of neither clueless nor certain: whether you’ll like this movie, if the next episode of a TV program/date/game version/book in a series/cd by an artist/meal at a restaurant will be as good as the last, whether your boss/teacher will like this paper/presentation as much as the previous, if you’ll enjoy this trip, if this shirt will work out, if this chainsaw will really be that much better, if this mechanic will do a good job on your car, if this landlord will not be a jerk, if this class/job will be a good one.

We all spend all of our time in a world in which we must manage uncertainty and ambiguity, but some people get anxious when presented with ambiguity and uncertainty, and so they talk (and think) as so there is an absolute binary between certain and clueless, and every single decision falls into one or the other.

And here things get complicated. The people who don’t like uncertainty and ambiguity (they are, as social psychologists say, “drawn to closure”) will insist that everything is this or that, black or white even though, in fact, they continually manage shades of grey. They get in the car or walk to the bus feeling certain that they have made the right choice, when their choice is just habit, or the best guess, or somewhere on that range of more or less ambiguous.

So, there is a confusion between certainty as a feeling (you feel certain that you are right) and certainty as a reasonable assessment of the evidence (all of the relevant evidence has been assessed and alternative explanations disproven)—as a statement about the process of decision-making. Most people use it in the former way, but think they’re using it in the latter, as though the feeling of certainty is correlated to the quality of evidence. In fact, how certain people feel is largely a consequence of their personality type (On Being Certain has a great explanation of that, but Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is also useful). There’s also good evidence that the people who know the most about a subject tend to express themselves with less certainty than people who are un- or misinformed (the “Dunning-Kruger effect”).

What all that means is that people who get anxious in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty resolve that anxiety by feeling certain, and using a rigid truth test. So, the world isn’t rigidly black or white, but their truth test is. For instance, it might have been ambiguous whether they actually took the best route to work, but they will insist that they did, and that they obviously did. They managed uncertainty and ambiguity by denying it exists. This sort of person will get actively angry if you try to show them the situation is complicated.

They manage the actual uncertainty of situations by, retroactively, saying that the right answer was absolutely clear.[1] That sort of person will say that “truth test” is just simply asking yourself if something is true or not. Let’s call that the simple truth test, and the people who use it simple truth testers.

The simple truth test has two parts: first, does this claim fit with what I already believe? and, second, do authorities I consider reliable promote this claim?

People who rely on this simple truth test say it works because, they believe, the true course of action is always absolutely clear, and, therefore, it should be obvious to them, and it should be obvious to people they consider good. (It shouldn’t be surprising that they deny having made mistakes in the past, simply refashioning their own history of decisions—try to find someone who supported the Iraq invasion or was panicked about Y2K.)

The simple truth test is comfortable. Each new claim is assessed in terms of whether it makes us feel good about things we already believe. Every time we reject or accept a claim on the basis of whether it confirms our previous beliefs it confirms our sense of ourselves as people who easily and immediately perceive the truth. Thus, this truth test isn’t just about whether the new claim is true, but about whether they and people like them are certainly right.

The more certain we feel about a claim, the less likely we are to doublecheck whether we were right, and the more likely we are to find ways to make ourselves have been right. Once we get to work, or the gym, or campus, we don’t generally try to figure out whether we really did take the fastest route unless we have reason to believe we might have been mistaken and we’re the sort of person will to consider that we might have been mistaken.

There’s a circle here, in other words: the sort of person who believes that there is a binary between being certain and being clueless, and who is certain about all of her beliefs, is less likely to do the kind of work that would cause her to reconsider her sense of self and her truth tests. Her sense of herself as always right appears to be confirmed because she can’t think of any time she has been wrong. Because she never looked for such a time.

Here I need to make an important clarification: I’m not claiming there is a binary between people who believe you’re either certain or clueless and people who believe that mistakes in perception happen frequently. It’s more of a continuum, but a pretty messy one. We’re all drawn to black or white thinking when we’re stressed, frightened, threatened, or trying to make decisions with inadequate information. Most people have some realms or sets of claims they think are certain (this world is not a dream, evolution is a fact, gravity happens). Some people need to feel certain about everything, and some people don’t need to feel certain much at all, and a lot of people feel certain about many things but not everything.

Someone who believes that her truth tests enable certainty on all or most things will be at one end of the continuum, and someone who managed to live in a constant state of uncertainty would be at the other. Let’s call the person at the “it’s easy to be certain about almost everything important” authoritarian (I’ll explain the connection better later).

Authoritarians have trouble with the concept of probabilities. For instance, if the weather report says there will be rain, that’s a yes/no. And it’s proven wrong if the weather report says yes and there is no rain. But if the weather report says there is a 90% chance of rain and it doesn’t rain, the report has not been proven wrong.

Authoritarians believe that saying there is a 90% chance is just a skeezy way to avoid making a decision—that the world really is divided into yes or no, and some people just don’t want to commit. And they consume media that says exactly that.

This is another really important point: many people spend their consuming media that says that every decision is divided into two categories: the obviously right decision, and the obviously wrong one. And that media says that anyone who says that the right decision might be ambiguous, unclear, or a compromise is promoting relativism or postmodernism. So, as those media say, you’re either absolutely clear or you’re deep in the muck of clueless relativism. Authoritarians who consume that media are like the example above of the woman who believes that her certainty is always justified because she never checks to see whether she was wrong. They live in a world in which their “us” is always right, has always been right, and will always be right, and the people who disagree are wrong-headed ditherers who pretend that it’s complicated because they aren’t man enough to just take a damn stand.

(And, before I go on, I should say that, yes, authoritarianism isn’t limited to one political position—there are authoritarians all over the map. But, that isn’t to say that “both sides are just as bad” or authoritarianism is equally distributed. The distribution of authoritarianism is neither a binary nor a constant; it isn’t all on one side, but it isn’t evenly distributed.)

I want to emphasize that the authoritarian view—that you’re certain or clueless—is often connected to a claim that people are either authoritarians or relativists (or postmodernists or hippies) because there are two odd things about that insistence. First, a point I can’t pursue here, authoritarians rarely stick to principles across situations and end up fitting their own definition of relativist/postmodern. (Briefly, what I mean is that authoritarians put their group first, and say their group is always right, so they condemn behavior in them that they praise or justify in us. In other words, whether an act is good or bad is relative to whether it’s done by us or them—that’s moral relativism. So, oddly enough, you end up with moral relativism attacked by people who engage in it.) Second, even authoritarians actually make decisions in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity, and don’t use the same truth test for all situations. When their us turns out to be wrong, then they will claim the situation was ambiguous, there was bad information, everyone makes mistakes, and go on to insist that all decisions are unambiguous.

So, authoritarians say that all decisions are clear, except when they aren’t, and that we are always right, except when we aren’t. But those unclear situations and mistakes should never be taken as reasons to be more skeptical in the future.


  1. Back to Hitler

Okay, so how do most people decide whether their leader is like Hitler? (And notice that it is never about whether our leader is like Hitler.) If you believe in the simple two-part truth test, then you ask yourself whether their leader seems to you to be like Hitler, and whether authorities you trust say he is. And you’re done.

But what does it mean to be like Hitler? What was Hitler like?

There is the historical Hitler who was, I think, evil, but didn’t appear so to many people, and who had tremendous support from a lot of authoritarians, and there is the cartoon Hitler. Hitler was evil because he tried to exterminate entire peoples (and he started an unnecessary war, but that’s often left out). The cartoon version assumes that his ultimate goals were obvious to everyone from the beginning—that he came on the scene saying “Let’s try to conquer the entire world and exterminate icky people” and always stuck to that message, so that everyone who supported him knew they were supporting someone who would start a world war and engage in genocide.

But that isn’t how Hitler looked to people at the time. Hitler didn’t come across as evil, even to his opponents (except to the international socialists), until the Holocaust was well under way. Had he come across as evil he would never have gotten into power. While Mein Kampf and his “beerhall” speeches were clearly eliminationist and warmongering, once he took power his recorded and broadcasted speeches never mentioned extermination and were about peace. (According to Letters to Hitler, his supporters were unhappy when he started the war.) Hitler had a lot of support, of various kinds, and his actions between 1933 and 1939 actually won over a lot of people, especially conservatives and various kinds of nationalists, who had been skeptical or even hostile to him before 1933. His supporters ranged from the fans (the true believers), through conservative nationalists who wanted to stop Bolshevism and reinstate what they saw as “traditional” values, conservative Christians who objected to some of his policies but also liked a lot of them (such as his promotion of traditional roles for women, his opposition to abortion and birth control, his demonizing of homosexuality), and people of various political ideologies who liked that (they thought) he was making Germany respected again, had improved the economy, had ended the bickering and instability they associated with democratic deliberation, and was undoing a lot of the shame associated with the Versailles Treaty.

Until 1939, to his fans, Hitler came across as a truth-teller, willing to say politically incorrect things (that “everyone” knew were true), cut through all the bullshit, and be decisive. He would bring honor back to Germany and make it the military powerhouse it had been in recent memory; he would sideline the feckless and dithering liberals, crush the communists, and deal with the internal terrorism of the large number of immigrants in Germany who were stealing jobs, living off the state, and trying to destroy Germany from within; he would clean out the government of corrupt industrialists and financiers who were benefitting from the too-long deliberations and innumerable regulations. He would be a strong leader who would take action and not just argue and compromise like everyone else. He didn’t begin by imprisoning Jews; he began by making Germany a one-party state, and that involved jailing his political opponents.

Even to many people willing to work with him, Hitler came across as crude, as someone pandering to popular racism and xenophobia, a rabble-rouser who made absurd claims, and who didn’t always make sense, whose understanding of the complexities of politics appeared minimal. But conservatives thought he would enable them to put together a coalition that would dominate the Reichstag (the German Congress, essentially) and they could thereby get through their policy agenda. They thought they could handle him. While they granted that he had some pretty racist and extreme things (especially his hostility to immigrants and non-Christians, although his own record on Christian behavior wasn’t exactly great), they thought that was rabble-rousing he didn’t mean, a rhetoric he could continue to use to mobilize his base for their purposes, or that he could be their pitbull whom they could keep on a short chain. He instantly imposed a politically conservative social agenda that made a lot of conservative Christians very happy—he was relentless in his support for the notion that men earn money and women work in the home, homosexuality and abortion are evil [2], sexual immorality weakens the state, and his rhetoric was always framed in “Christian terms” (as Kenneth Burke famously argued—his rhetoric was a bastardization of Christian rhetoric, but it still relied on Christian tropes).

Conservative Christians (Christians in general, to be blunt) had a complicated reaction to him. Most Christian churches of the era were anti-Semitic, and that took various forms. There were the extreme forms—the passion plays that showed Jews as Christ-killers, who killed Christians for their blood at Passover, even religious festivals about how Jews stabbed consecrated hosts (some of which only ended in the 1960s).

There were also the “I’m not racist but” versions of Christian anti-Semitism promoted by Catholic and Protestant organizations (all of this is elegantly described in Antisemitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust). Mainstream Catholic and Lutheran thought promoted the notion that Jews were, at best, failed Christians, and that the only reason not to exterminate them was so that they could be converted. There was, in that world, no explicit repudiation of the sometimes pornographic fantasies of greedy Jews involved in worldwide conspiracies, stabbing the host, drinking the blood of Christian boys at Passover, and plotting the downfall of Germany. And there was certainly no sense that Christians should tolerate Jews in the sense of treating them as we would want to be treated; it simply meant that they shouldn’t be killed. As Ian Kershaw has shown, a lot of German Christians didn’t bother themselves about oppression (even killing) of Jews, as long at it happened out of their ken; they weren’t in favor of killing Jews, but, as long as they could ignore it was happening, they weren’t going to do much to protest (Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution).

Many of his skeptics (even international ones) were won over by his rhetoric. His broadcast speeches emphasized his desire for peace and prosperity; they liked that he talked tough about Germany’s relations to other countries (but didn’t think he’d lead them into war), they loved that he spent so much of his own money doing good things for the country (in fact, he got far more money out of Germany than he put into it, and he didn’t pay taxes—for more on this, see Hitler at Home), and they loved that he had the common touch, and didn’t seem to be some inaccessible snob or aristocrat, but a person who really understood them (Letters to Hitler is fascinating for showing his support). They believed that he would take a strong stance, be decisive, look out for regular people, clear the government of corrupt relationships with financiers, silence the kind of people who were trying to drag the nation down, and cleanse the nation of that religious/racial group that was essentially ideologically committed to destroying Germany.

There were a lot of people who thought Hitler could be controlled and used by conservative forces (Van Papen) or was a joke. In middle school, I had a teacher who had been in the Berlin intelligentsia before and during the war, and when asked why people like her didn’t do more about Hitler, she said, “We thought he was a fool.” Many of his opponents thought he would never get elected, never be given a position of power.

But still, some students say, you can see in his early rhetoric that there was a logic of extermination. And, yes, I think that’s true, but, and this is important, what makes you think you would see it? Smart people at the time didn’t see it, especially since, once he got a certain level of attention he only engaged in dog whistle racism. Look, for instance, at Triumph of the Will—the brilliant film of the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremburg—in which anti-Semitism appears absent. The award-winning movie convinced many that Hitler wasn’t really as anti-Semitic as Mein Kampf might have suggested. But, by 1934, true believers had learned their whistles—everything about bathing, cleansing, purity, and health was a long blow on the dog whistle of “Jews are a disease on the body politic.” Hitler’s first speech on the dissolution of the Reichstag (March 1933) never uses the word Jew, and looked reasonable (he couldn’t control himself, however, and went back to his non-dog whistle demagoguery in what amounted to the question and answer period—Kershaw’s Hubris describes the whole event).

We focus on Hitler’s policy of extermination, but we don’t always focus enough on his foreign policy, especially between 1933 and 1939. Just as we think of Hitler as a raging antisemite (because of his actions), so we think of him as a warmonger, and he was both at heart and eventually, but he managed not to look that way for years. That’s really, really important to remember. He took power in 1933, and didn’t show his warmongering card till 1939. He didn’t show his exterminationist card till even later.

Hitler’s foreign policy was initially tremendously popular because he insisted that Germany was being ill-treated by other nations, was carrying a disproportionate burden, and was entitled to things it was being denied. Hitler said that Germany needed to be strong, more nationalist, more dominating, more manly in its relations with other nations. Germany didn’t want war, but it would, he said, insist upon respect.

Prior to being handed power, Hitler talked like an irresponsible war-monger and raging antisemite (especially in Mein Kampf), but his speeches right up until the invasion of Poland were about peace, stability, and domestic issues about helping the common working man. Even in 1933-4, the Nazi Party could release a pamphlet with his speeches and the title Germany Desires Work and Peace.

What that means is that from 1933 to 1939 Hitler managed a neat rhetorical trick, and he did it by dog whistles: he persuaded his extremist supporters that he was still the warmongering raging antisemite they had loved in the beerhalls and for whom Streicher was a reliable spokesman, and he persuaded the people frightened by his extremism that he wasn’t that guy, he would enable them to get through their policy agenda. (His March 1933 speech is a perfect example of this nasty strategy, and some day I intend to write a long close analysis of it.)

And even many of the conservatives who were initially deeply opposed to him came around because he really did seem to be effective at getting real results. He got those results by mortgaging the German economy, and setting up both a foreign policy and economic policy that couldn’t possibly be maintained without massive conquest; it had short-term benefits, but was not sustainable.

Hitler benefitted by the culture of demagoguery of Weimar Germany. After Germany lost WWI, the monarchy was ended, and a democracy was imposed. Imposing democracy is always vexed, and it doesn’t always work because democracy depends on certain cultural values (a different post). One of those values is seeing pluralism—that is, diversity of perspective, experience, and identity—as a good thing. If you value pluralism, then you’ll tend to value compromise. If you believe that a strong community has people with different legitimate interests, points of view, and beliefs, then you will see compromise as a success. If, however, you’re an authoritarian, and you believe that you and only you have the obvious truth and everyone else is either a knave or a fool, then you will see refusing to compromise as a virtue.

And then democracy stalls. It doesn’t stall because it’s a flawed system; it stalls when people reject the basic premises of democracy, when, despite how they make decisions about how to get to work in the morning, or whether to take an umbrella, they insist that all decisions are binaries between what is obviously right (us) and what is obviously wrong (them).

And, in the era after WWI, Germany was a country with a democratic constitution but a rabidly factionalized set of informational caves. People could (and did) spend all their time getting information from media that said that all political questions are questions of good (us) and evil (them). Those media promoted conspiracy theories—the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for instance—insisted on the factuality of non-events, framed all issues as apocalyptic, and demonized compromise and deliberating. They said it’s a binary. The International Socialists said the same thing, that anything other than a workers’ revolution now was fascism, that the collapse of democracy was great because it would enable the revolution. Monarchists wanted the collapse of the democracy because they hoped to get a monarchy back, and a non-trivial number of industrialists wanted democracy to collapse because they were afraid people would vote for a social safety net that would raise their taxes.

It was a culture of demagoguery.

But, in the moment, large numbers of people didn’t see it that way because, if you were in a factional cave, and you used the two-step test, everything you heard in your cave would seem to be true. Everything you heard about Hitler would fit with what you already believed, and it was being repeated by people you trusted.

Maybe what you heard confirmed that he would save Germany, that he was a no-bullshit decisive leader who really cared about people like you and was going to get shit done, or maybe what you heard was that he was a tool of the capitalists and liberals and that you should refuse to compromise with them to keep him out of power. Whether what you heard was that Hitler was awesome or that he was completely wrong, what you heard was that he was obviously one or the other, and that anyone who disagreed with you was evil. What you heard was the disagreement itself was proof that evil was present. And heard democracy was a failure.

And that helped Hitler, even the attacks on him . As long as everyone agreed that the truth is obvious, that disagreement is a sign of weakness, the compromise is evil, then an authoritarian like Hitler would come along and win.

There were a lot of people who more or less supported the aims he said he had—getting Germany to have a more prosperous economy, fighting Bolshevism, supporting the German church, avoiding war, renegotiating the Versailles Treaty, purifying Germany of anti-German elements, making German politics more efficient and stable—but who thought Hitler was a loose cannon and a demagogue. Many of those were conservatives and centrists.

And, once Hitler was in power they watched him carefully. And, really, all his public speeches, especially any ones that might get international coverage, weren’t that bad. They weren’t as bad as his earlier rhetoric. There wasn’t as much explicit anti-Semitism, for instance, and, unlike in Mein Kampf, he didn’t advocate aggressive war. He said, over and over, he wanted peace. He immediately took over the press, but, still and all, every reader of his propaganda could believe that Hitler was a tremendously effective leader, and, really, by any standard he was: he effected change.

There wasn’t, however, much deliberation as to whether the changes he effected were good. He took a more aggressive stance toward other countries (a welcome change from the loser stance adopted from the end of WWI, which, technically, Germany did lose), he openly violated the deliberately shaming aspects of the Versailles Treaty, he appeared to reject the new terms of the capitalism of the era (he met with major industrial leaders and claimed to have reached agreements that would help workers), he reduced disagreement, he imprisoned people who seemed to many people to be dangerous, he enacted laws that promoted the cultural “us” and disenfranchised “them.” And he said all the right things. At the end of his first year, Germany published a pamphlet of his speeches, with the title “The New Germany Desires Work and Peace.” So, by the simple two-art truth test (do the claims support what you already believe? do authorities you trust confirm these claims?) Hitler’s rhetoric would look good to a normal person in the 30s. Granted, his rhetoric was always authoritarian—disagreement is bad, pluralism is bad, the right course of action is always obvious to a person of good judgment, you should just trust Hitler—but it would have looked pretty good through the 30s. A person using that third test—can I find evidence to support these claims—would have felt that Hitler was pretty good.


III. So, would you recognize Hitler if you liked what he was saying?

What I’m trying to say is that asking the question of “Is their political leader just like Hitler” is just about as wrong as it can get as long as you’re relying on simple truth tests.

If you get all your information from sources you trust, and you trust them because what they say fits in with your other beliefs, then you’re living in a world of propaganda.

If you think that you could tell if you were following a Hitler because you’d know he was evil, and you are in an informational cave that says all the issues are simple, good and evil are binaries and easy to tell one from another, there is either certainty or dithering, disagreement and deliberation are what weak people do, compromise is weakening the good, and the truth in any situation is obvious, then, congratulations, you’d support Hitler! Would you support the guy who turned out to start a disastrous war, bankrupt his nation, commit genocide? Maybe—it would just be random chance. Maybe you would have supported Stalin instead. But you would definitely have supported one or the other.

Democracy isn’t about what you believe; it’s about how you believe. Democracy thrives when people believe that they might be wrong, that the world is complicated, that the best policies are compromises, that disagreement can be passionate, nasty, vehement, and compassionate–that the best deliberation comes when people learn to perspective shift. Democracy requires that we lose gracefully, and it requires, above all else, that we don’t assess policies purely on whether they benefit people like us, but that we think about fairness across groups. It requires that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, that we pass no policy that we would consider unfair if we were in all the possible subject positions of the policy. Democracy requires imagining that we are wrong.




[1] That sort of person often ascribes to the “just world model” or “just world hypothesis” which is the assumption that we are all rewarded in this world for our efforts. If something bad happens to you, you deserved it. People who claim that is Scriptural will cherry-pick quotes from Proverbs, ignoring what Jesus said about rewards in this world, as well as various other important parts of Scripture (Ecclesiastes, Job, Paul).


[2] There is a meme circulating that Hitler was pro-abortion. His public stance was opposition to abortion at least through the thirties. Once the genocides were in full swing, Nazism supported abortion for “lesser races.”

Terrorist Peanuts and Immigration

When I teach about the Holocaust, one of the first questions students ask is: why didn’t the Jews leave? The answer is complicated, but one part isn’t: where would they go? Countries like the US had such restrictive immigration quotas for the parts of Europe from which the Jews were likely to come that we infamously turned back ships. And, so, students ask, why did we do that?

We did it because of that era’s version of the peanut argument.

The peanut argument (more recently presented with a candy brand name attached to it, but among neo-Nazis the analogy used is a bowl of peanuts) has been shared by many, including by members of our administration, as a mic-drop strong defense of a travel ban on people from regions and of religions considered dangerous because, as the analogy goes, would you eat from a bowl of peanuts if you knew that one was poisoned?

People who make that argument insist that they are not being racist, because their objection is, they say, not based in an irrational stereotype about this group. They say it is a rational reaction to what members of this group have really done. And, they say, for the same reason, that they are not being hypocritical: as descendants of immigrants, they are open to safe immigrant groups. These immigrants, unlike their forbears, have dangerous elements.

What they don’t know is that every ethnicity and religion that has come to America has had members that struck large numbers of existing citizens as dangerous—the peanut argument has always been around. And it’s exactly the argument that was used for sending Jews back to death. The tragedies of the US immigration policy during Nazi extermination were the consequence of the 1924 Immigration Act, a bill that set race-based immigration quotas grounded in arguments that this set of immigrants (at that point, Italians and eastern and central Europeans) was too fundamentally and dangerously antagonistic to American traditions and institutions to admit. Architects of that act (and defenders of maintaining the quotas, in the face of people escaping genocide) insisted that they weren’t opposed to immigration, just this set of immigrants.

At least since Letters from an American Farmer (first published in 1782), Americans have taken pride in being a nation of immigrants. And, since around the same time, large numbers of Americans who took pride in being descended from immigrants have stoked fear about this set of immigrants.

Arguments about whether Catholics were a threat to democracy raged throughout the nineteenth century, for instance. Samuel Morse (of the Morse code) wrote a tremendously popular book arguing that German and Irish Catholics were conspiring to overthrow American democracy, which appealed to popular notions about Catholics’ religion being essentially incompatible with democracy. Hostility towards the Japanese and Chinese (grounded in stereotypes that their political and religious beliefs necessarily made them dangerous citizens) resulted in laws prohibiting their naturalization, owning property, repatriation, and, ultimately, their immigration (and, in the case of the Japanese, it led to race-based imprisonment). After the revolutions of 1848, and especially with the rise of violent political movements in the late nineteenth century (anarchism, Sinn Fein, various anti-colonial and independence movements), large numbers of politicians began to focus on the possibility that allowing this group would mean that we were allowing violent terrorists bent on overthrowing our government.

And that’s exactly what it did mean. Every one of those groups did have individuals who advocated violent change.

A large number of the defendants in the Haymarket Trial (concerning a fatal bomb-throwing incident at a rally of anarchists–photo left) were immigrants or children of immigrants; by the early 20th century, people arguing that this group had dangerous individuals could (and did) cite examples like Emma Goldman (a Jewish anarchist imprisoned for inciting to riot), Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (Italian anarchists executed murder committed during a robbery), Jacob Abrams and Charles Schenck (Jews convicted of sedition), and Leon Czolgosz (the son of Polish immigrants, who shot McKinley). Even an expert like Harry Laughlin, of the Eugenics Record Office, would testify that the more recent set of immigrants were genetically dangerous (they weren’t—his math was bad).

History has shown that the fear mongerers were wrong. While those groups did all have advocates of violence, and individuals who advocated or committed terrorism, the peanut analogy was fallacious, unjust, and unwise. Those groups also contributed to America, and they were not inherently or essentially un-American.

Looking back, we should have let the people on those ships disembark. Looking forward, we should do the same.

[image: By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14782377875/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/christianheralds09unse/christianheralds09unse#page/n328/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42730228]

Demagoguery and Democracy

John Muir and environmental demagoguery

One of the most controversial claims I make about demagoguery is that it isn’t necessarily harmful. When I make that argument, it’s common for someone to disagree with me by pointing out that some specific instance of demagoguery is harmful. But that isn’t refuting my argument because I’m not arguing for a binary of demagoguery being always or never harmful. I’m saying that not every instance of demagoguery is necessarily harmful. Whether demagoguery is harmful depends, I think, on where it lies on multiple axes: how demagogic the text is; how powerful that media is that is promoting the demagoguery; how widespread that kind of demagoguery is.

(Yeah, yeah, I know, that means a 3d map, but I honestly think you need all three axes.)

And the best way to talk about the harmless demagoguery is to talk more about one of the first examples of a failed deliberative process that haunted me. One spring, when I was a child, my family went to Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. My family mostly tried (and failed) to teach one another bridge, and I wandered around the emerald valley. Having grown up in semi-arid southern California, the forested walks seemed to me magical, and I was enchanted. One evening, my mother took me to a campfire, hosted by a ranger, who told the story of John Muir, a California environmentalist crucial in the preservation of Yosemite National Park. The last part of the ranger’s talk was about Muir’s final political endeavor, his unsuccessful attempt to prevent the damming and flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a valley the ranger said was as beautiful as the one by which I had been entranced. The ranger presented the story as a dramatic tragedy of Good (John Muir) versus Evil (the people who wanted to dam and flood the valley), with Evil winning and Muir dying of a broken heart. I was deeply moved, and fascinated. And years later, I would come back to the story when trying to think about whether and how people can argue together on issues with profound disagreement.

The ranger had told the story of Good versus Evil, but that isn’t quite right, in several ways. For one thing, it wasn’t a debate with only two sides (something I have since discovered to be true of most political issues). In this case, it is more accurate to say that there were three sides: the corrupt water company currently supplying San Francisco that wanted to prevent San Francisco getting any publicly-owned water supply; the progressive preservationists like John Muir, who wanted San Francisco to get an outside publicly-owned water supply, but not the Hetch Hetchy; and the progressive conservationists like Gifford Pinchot or Marsden Manson, who wanted an outside publicly-owned water supply that included the Hetch Hetchy.

And a little background on each of the major figures in this issue. Gifford Pinchot was head of the Forest Service, with close political ties to Theodore Roosevelt. Born in 1865, he was a strong advocate of conservation—that is, keeping large parts of land in public ownership, sustainable foresting practices, and what is called “multiple use.” The principle of conservation (as opposed to preservation) is that public lands should be available to as many different uses as possible, such as foresting, hunting, camping, and fishing. The consensus among scholars is that Pinchot’s support for the Hetch Hetchy dam was crucial to its success.

Marsden Manson was far less famous than Pinchot. Born in 1850, he was an engineer (trained at Berkeley), member of the Sierra Club who had camped in Yosemite, and, from 1897 till 1912, was an engineer for the City of San Francisco, first serving on the San Francisco Drainage Committee, then in the Public Works Department, and finally City Engineer. It was in that capacity that he wrote the pamphlet I’ll talk about in a bit. He was an avid conservationist.

John Muir is probably the most famous of the people heavily involved in the controversy, and still a hero among environmentalists. Born in 1838 in Scotland, his family emigrated to the United States when he was around ten, to Wisconsin. He arrived in California in 1868, and promptly went to Yosemite Valley (which was not yet a national park). He stayed there for several years, writing about the Sierras, in what would become articles in popular magazines. His elegant descriptions of the beauties of the Sierra Nevada mountains were influential in persuading people to preserve the area, creating Yosemite National Park. He was the first President of the Sierra Club (formed in the early 1890s) which is still a powerful force in environmentalism. Muir was a preservationist, believing that some public lands should be preserved in as close to a wilderness state as possible.

Perhaps the most important character in the controversy is the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Part of the Yosemite National Park, it was less accessible than Yosemite Valley, and hence far less famous. Like many other valleys in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it was formed by glaciers. Two of its waterfalls are among the tallest waterfalls in North America.

The story the ranger told was between right and wrong, good and evil, and, even though I disagree with the stance Pinchot and Manson took, and believe that the Hetch Hetchy Valley should not have been dammed (and I believe they used some pretty sleazy rhetorical and political tactics to make it happen), I don’t think they were bad people. I don’t think they were selfish or greedy, or even that they didn’t appreciate nature. I think they believed that what they were doing was right, and they had some good arguments and good reasons, and they felt justified in some troubling rhetorical means because they believed their ends were good. I don’t think they were Evil.

After all, San Francisco had long been victimized by a corrupt water company, the Spring Valley Company, with a demonstrated record of exploiting users (particularly during the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake). San Francisco had a legitimate need for a new water supply, and the argument that such public goods should not be subject to the profit motive is a sensible argument. The proponents of the dam argued that turning the valley into a reservoir would increase the public’s access to it, and the ability of the public to benefit. The dam, it was promised, would provide electric power that would be a public utility (that is, not privately owned), thereby benefiting the public directly. Thus, both the preservationists and conservationists were concerned about public good, but they proposed different ways of benefitting the public.

Although John Muir was President and one of the founders of the Sierra Club, not everyone in the organization was certain the dam was a mistake, and so the issue was put to a vote—the Sierra Club at that point had both conservationists and preservationists. Muir wrote the case against, a pamphlet called “The Hetch Hetchy Valley,” which, along with Manson’s argument, “Statements of San Francisco’s Side of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Matter,” was distributed to members of the Sierra Club, and they were asked to vote.

For Muir’s pamphlet, he reused much of an 1873 article about Hetch Hetchy, originally written to persuade people to visit the Sierras. He kept much (but not all) of his highly poetical description of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, especially its two falls. His argument throughout the pamphlet is that the valley is beautiful, unique and sacred; it isn’t until the end of the pamphlet that he added a section specifically written for the dam controversy, and in that part he resorted to demagoguery, painting his opponents as motivated by greed and an active desire to destroy beauty, in the same category as the Merchants in the Temple of Jerusalem and Satan in the Garden of Eden: “despoiling gainseekers, — mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, etc., eagerly trying to make everything dollarable […] Thus long ago a lot of enterprising merchants made part of the Jerusalem temple into a place of business instead of a place of prayer, changing money, buying and selling cattle and sheep and doves. And earlier still, the Lord’s garden in Eden, and the first forest reservation, including only one tree, was spoiled.” Muir presented the conflict as “part of the universal battle between right and wrong,” and characterized his opponents’ arguments as “curiously like those of the devil devised for the destruction of the first garden — so much of the very best Eden fruit going to waste; so much of the best Tuolumne water.” Muir called his opponents “Temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism,” saying, they “seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the mountains, lift them to dams and town skyscrapers.” And he ended the pamphlet with the rousing peroration:

Dam Hetch-Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man. (John Muir Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. VI, No. 4, January, 1908)

Muir’s argument is demagoguery—he takes a complicated situation (with at least three different positions) and divides it into a binary of good versus evil people. The bad people don’t have arguments; they have bad motives.

But this, too, is a controversial claim on my part, and it actually makes some people really angry with me for me to “criticize” Muir. The common response is that I shouldn’t criticize him because he was a good man and he was fighting for a good cause. In other words, the world is divided into good and bad people, and we shouldn’t criticize good people on our side. And I reject every part of that argument. I think we should criticize people on our side, especially if we agree with their ends (and especially if we’re looking critically at an argument in the past) because that’s how we learn to make better arguments. And I’m not even criticizing Muir in the sense those people mean—they mean I’m saying negative things about him, and that I believe he should have done things differently. The assumption is that demagoguery is bad, so by saying he engaged in demagoguery he’s a bad person.

Like Muir’s argument, that presumes a binary (or even continuum) between good and bad people. Whether there really is such a binary I don’t know, but I’m certain that it isn’t relevant. The debate wasn’t split into good and bad people, and we don’t have to make our heroes untouchable.

And, besides, I’m not criticizing Muir in the sense of saying he did the wrong thing. I’m not sure he did. His demagoguery had no particular harm. While his text (especially the last part) is demagoguery, and he was a powerful rhetor at the time, the kind of demagoguery in which he was engaged (against conservationists) wasn’t very widespread, so he wasn’t contributing to a broad cultural demonizing of some group. And I’m not even sure that his demagoguery did any harm (or benefit) to the effectiveness of his argument.

Muir was trying to get the majority of people in the Sierra Club—perhaps even all of them—to condemn the Hetch Hetchy scheme on preservationist grounds, so he already had the votes of preservationists like himself. What he had to do rhetorically is to move conservationists (or, at least, people drawn to that position) over to the preservationist side, at least in regard to the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

A useful step in an argument is identifying what, exactly, is the issue (or are the issues): why are we disagreeing? Called the “stasis” in classical rhetorical theory, the “hinge” of an argument points to the paradox that a productive disagreement requires agreement on several points—including on the geography of the argument: what is at the center, how broad an area can/should the argument cover, what areas are out of bounds? The stasis is the main issue in the argument, and arguments often go wrong because people disagree about what it is. In the case of the Hetch Hetchy, an ideal argument about the topic would be about whether damming and flooding that valley was the best long-term option for everyone who uses the valley—such a debate would require that people talk honestly and accurately about the actual costs, the various options, and as usefully as possible about the benefits (of all sorts) to be had from preserving the valley for camping (this is a big issue in California, in which camping is very popular).

It’s conventional in rhetoric to say that you have to argue from your opposition’s premises to persuade your opposition, and that would have necessitated Muir arguing on the premises that informed conservation.

Muir’s rhetorical options included:

  1. condemning conservationism in the abstract, and trying to persuade his conservationist audience to abandon an important value;
  2. arguing that conservationism is not a useful value in this particular case, and that this is a time when preservationism is a better route;
  3. arguing that damming and flooding the valley does not really enact conservationist values (e.g., it’s actually expensive).

But, to do any of those strategies effectively, he’d have to make the case on the conservationist premise that it’s appropriate to think about natural resources in terms of costs and benefits. And Muir’s stance about nature—his whole career—was grounded in the perception that such a way of looking at nature is a unethical.

Muir paraphrases (in quotes) the conservationist mantra: “Utilization of beneficent natural resources, that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation grow great.” While I’ve never found any conservationist text that has that precise wording, it’s a fair representation of the basic principle of conservation; i.e., “greatest good for the greatest number.” And, certainly, conservationists did (and do) believe that there is no point in preserving any wilderness areas—all forests should be harvested, all lakes should be used, all areas should be open to hunting. But they didn’t do this out of a desire for financial gain, as much as from a different (and I would say wrong-headed) perception of how to define “the public.”

The conservationist argument in this case was pretty much bad faith, in that they claimed that they would improve the beauty of the valley by making it a lake. Muir argued they would destroy it. I agree with Muir, as it happens, and so my argument is not that Muir is factually wrong; the valley was destroyed by the damming. I also think some of the dam proponents—specifically Manson–knew that it would be destroyed, and Manson was lying when he described a road, increased camping, and other features that, as an engineer, he must have known were impossible. But many of the people drawn to the conservationist plan didn’t know that Manson was describing technologically impossible conditions, and they believed the proponents’ argument that the resulting reservoir would not only benefit San Franciscans (by providing safe cheap water and electric power) but it would have no impact on camping; it would, the conservationists claim, increase the accessibility of the area without interfering with the beauty of the valley at all. Again, that isn’t true, but it’s what people believed. And part of Aristotle’s point about rhetoric, and its reliance on the enthymeme, is that rhetoric begins with what people believe.

Manson’s response was fairly straightforward, and grounded, he insisted repeatedly, on facts. He argued:

  • San Francisco owned the valley floor.
  • Construction would not begin on the Hetch Hetchy dam until and unless San Francisco first developed Lake Eleanor (a water source not disputed by the preservationists) and then found that water source inadequate.
  • A photo he presented showed what the lake would look like when dammed and flooded—very little of the valley flooded, with no obstruction of the falls that Muir praised so heavily, a road around the edge enabling visitors to see more of the valley—so, he said, the valley will be more beautiful, reflecting the magnificent granite walls.
  • Keeping the reservoir water pure will not inhibit camping in any way.
  • The Hetch Hetchy plan is the least expensive option, and it will provide energy, thereby breaking the current energy monopoly.

Muir’s arguments, he says, “are not in reality based upon true and correct facts” (435).

Marsden Manson was City Engineer for San Francisco, and had done thorough reports on the issue. And so he had to know that almost all of what he was saying was “not in reality based upon true and correct facts.” San Francisco had bought the land, but, since it was within a national park, the seller had no right to sell it. Construction would begin immediately on the dam, flooding the entire valley, making the entire valley inaccessible, including the famous falls. It was not possible to build the roads that Manson drew on the photo and, being an engineer, he must have known that. The reservoir inhibited camping, and, most important, the Hetch Hetchy plan was the most expensive option available to San Francisco. Manson had muddled the numbers to make it appear less expensive.

In other words, either Manson lied, or he was muddled, uninformed, bad at arithmetic, and not a very good engineer.

Manson’s motives in all this are complicated, and ultimately irrelevant. He may have expected to benefit personally by the approval of the dam project, as he may have thought he would build it. But it would have been a benefit of glory but not money; I’ve never read anything to suggest that he was motivated by anything other than a sense that dominating nature is glorious, and that public projects providing water and power are better than preserving valleys. (He is reputed to have suggested damming and flooding Yosemite Valley.)

In other words, what presented itself as the pragmatic option was just as ideologically driven as what was rejected as the emotional one (I think the same thing happens now with arguments about the death penalty, welfare “reform,” the war on drugs, foreign policy, the deficit—there is a side that manages to be taken as more practical, but it might actually be the most ideologically driven).

Muir’s rhetorical options were limited by his opponent, an engineer, making claims about engineering issues that neither Muir nor his supporters had the expertise to refute. It took years for someone to look at the San Francisco reports and determine that the numbers were bad; preservationists didn’t know (and, presumably, many supporters of the dam didn’t know) that the numbers were misleading, and it was the most expensive option.

But would Muir have argued on such grounds anyway? To argue on the grounds of cost would have confirmed the Major Premise that public projects should be determined by cost—to say that the Hetch Hetchy should not be built because it is the most expensive would seem to confirm the perception that you can make natural cathedrals “dollarable” in Muir’s words. In other words, Muir rejected the very terms by which the conservationist argument was made—he rejected the premises. To argue on premises (except in rare circumstances) seems to confirm them, and so he would, in order to win the Hetch Hetchy argument, have argued against what he had spent a lifetime arguing for: that we should not look at nature in terms of money. Wilderness areas are, he insisted, sacred. And so he railed against his opposition.

As I mentioned above, I’m often attacked by people who think I’m attacking Muir. And I think that misunderstanding arises because of a particular perception of what the discipline of rhetoric is for: rhetorical analysis is often seen as implicitly normative; we do an analysis to say what a person should do or should have done. So, to say that Muir’s rhetorical strategies didn’t work is to say his rhetoric was bad, and it should have been different. Coupled with the notion that good people promote good things, if I say that Muir’s rhetoric was “demagoguery,” then I am saying he cannot have been a good person. There is, here, a theory of identity: that people are either good or bad; that good people say good things, and that bad people say bad things; that demagoguery is something only bad people do. That whole model of discourse and identity is wrong in too many ways to count, and I am not endorsing it.

I think Muir was a good man–he is a personal hero of mine—but that doesn’t mean he was perfect, and it certainly doesn’t mean we can’t learn from him. Muir did well within the Sierra Club (the Sierra Club vote was about 80% on Muir’s side and 20% in favor of the dam) , but ultimately lost the argument. And I think what we learn from his failure to persuade all conservationists to vote against the Hetch Hetchy project is not about Muir’s personal qualities or failings, but about rhetorical constraints and models of persuasion.

I’m arguing that, for Muir to have persuaded his opposition, he would have had to rely on premises that he rejected. This is sometimes called the “sincerity problem” in rhetoric. To what extent, and under what circumstances, should we make arguments we don’t believe in order to achieve an end in which we do believe? Muir didn’t argue from insincere premises; that may have weakened his effectiveness in the moment. But it definitely strengthened his effectiveness in the long run. His Hetch Hetchy pamphlet continues to be powerfully motivating for people, perhaps more motivating than it would have been had he compromised his rhetoric in order to be effective in the short-term. Muir’s demagoguery did no harm, and it may have even done some good. Demagoguery isn’t necessary harmful.

Demagoguery and Democracy

[image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hetch_Hetchy#/media/File:Hetch_Hetchy_Valley.jpg]