Saturday, January 27, 2007

Simplistic models and dinner
Thesis sentence: Models are not reality; they are metaphors, which are useful in a specific context and that rapidly fail to be meaningful outside that context.

Anyone who thinks about politics in an academic way for any period of time will eventually discover that the ubiquitous left-right model of political belief is flawed. Certain anti-authoritarian or libertarian ideas are not well represented on that scale. The next step in thinking about politics is to add a second axis to the political belief chart, making it a grid rater than a line. The new (vertical) axis is authoritarian to anti-authoritarian. Once they have figured this out, a smaller group of thinkers try to figure out just what is meant by leftness or rightness on the original (horizontal) axis of the chart. The earliest version of the two-axis chart that I have seen was a book about the post-revolutionary struggles in the Soviet Politburo (that I can no longer locate) written in the late 1950s.

When I went through this exercise between 1977 and 1980, I decided the original axis went from collectivist to individualist. It worked fairly well. As I saw it then, contemporary communism sat in one corner as authoritarian and collectivist, fascism sat in another corner as authoritarian and individualist, classical European anarcho-syndicalism sat in the third corner as anti-authoritarian and collectivist, and the American Libertarian Party sat in the last corner as anti-authoritarian and individualist. At the time I was rather enamored by a vaguely understood Kropotkinist form of old-style anarchism.

At that time, the prevailing presentation of the left-right scale was based on the totalitarian theories of Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski. In their theory, left-wing extremism and right-wing extremism eventually came to resemble each other so much in tactics that the underlying justifications became meaningless. The popular bastardization of this theory was the idea of a virtuous golden mean, surrounded by bad extremists.

We see this concept all of the time in American politics, especially as presented by the inside the beltway pundit class (or strata or interest group, depending on your preferred sociological vocabulary). This idea is a favorite of Americans who believe that they are the exemplars of "common sense" moderation. Any idea that offends both extremes must be good. Of course, political marketers have long since figured this out and know that they can sell any idea, no matter how extreme, as long as they can find or create someone more extreme to condemn it and make it appear to be in the reasonable middle. Or, more commonly, they sell an extremist idea by condemning any criticism as extremist in the other direction and thereby claiming the middle ground for their policy. Notice how the White House and its allies always condemn any criticism of the President as "far left extremism."

That is how the ideal of a golden mean is exploited in the propaganda sphere. In the sphere of tactical politics, we have a good example of one group cynically exploiting this ideal in the tax cut policies of the early Bush administration. In 2001 they demanded a 700 billion dollar tax cut; the Democrats compromised and gave them half of that amount. Every year since then, they have returned and demanded another tax cut, and convinced the Democrats to compromise again until the total amount of Bush administration tax cuts has far exceeded their original barganing position of 700 billion. And they continue to ask for more.

The role model for this strategy was the "salami strategy" used by the Communist parties of Eastern Europe in the immediate post-war era to seize power.

The best presentation that I ever saw of this idea, as it was taught in the mid- to late-seventies, appeared on the back cover of a political science book I had as an undergraduate. Rather that the traditional left-right scale, it showed poltical philosophy as a circle with actual national governments located on the scale. At the top, in the position of the moderate golden mean, was the United States. As the sides of the scale curved down to the left and right, the left went through the social democracies of western Europe, to Scandinavian welfare states, to Yugoslavia (a kinder, gentler communist dictatorship, to the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, to Soviet allies in the third world (Cuba, Angola), to Red China (as we called the mainland in those days), North Korea, and finally Albania. the right went to post Franco Spain and post Salazar Portugal, to Latin American military juntas, to Burma. Burma and Albania were shown as passing each other in opposite directions at the bottom of the loop.

It was contemplating this loop that made me think of my own two-axis scale. If all of the existing political practice led from a golden mean of American democracy as the privileged middle position, which decayed downward into indistinguishable totalitarian states, where did the ideal of a more libertarian society that mid-seventies America fit? I drew a second scale upward, decided the figure eight looked silly, and flattened the whole thing out into a two axis chart.

But this brings me back to the whole question of what is the correct measure of the rght-left scale. Collectivity? Religion? Some sort of economic activity? I was starting to suspect that the best descriptor would not based on a political philosophy; it would be based on an emotional or psychological state. It was at this point that I discovered the theories of Lakoff a few years ago. I still don't think his explanation is the only correct description of political philosophy, but I think it is a good metaphor for how Americans act in certain circumstances.

Lakoff uses the word "metaphor" to describe the way in which we organize our beliefs. By this, he means that certain language choices are more effective at convincing people at the gut level. I believe that "metaphor" is the right word to describe the way we organize ourselves. Lakoff created a scale that established a metaphor of a stern father on one end and a nurturing androgynous parent on the other. Those who want superior leaders to command and get results or issue punishment sit at one extreme. Those who want a loving figure to issue convincing arguments and deliver rewards sit at the other end. Most people believe in both ideals and the key to politics is to use a language that will appeal to the correct parental yearning at the right moment.

My current belief is that none of these schemes are a correct description of "reality." An accurate description of political realty would require a scale with more axes than it is possible to represent on a printed page, or even in any manner that our minds gan easily grasp. Who can really understand a six axis graph and visualize it in a way that they can emotionally embrace? No one. The only answer to distilling politics to a graphable system is to emphasize the aspects that are relevant to the current problem and dismiss the rest. This means that the system I use to describe the scale of belief systems related to environmental preservation might not resemble the system I use to describe the scale of belief systems related to abortion. Sometimes the line is best, sometimes the loop is best, sometimes the two-axis graph is best. None of these is reality; they are only tools we use to describe reality.

Someday I plan to expand on this, with a plethora of graphs and charts to illustrate my points. Today, the reason I'm bringing this up is that I have seen a few good examples of how different descriptive schemes are better for different problems. In particular, what set me off is this piece at Pandagon that was pointed out to me by Coturnix.

PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) is an extremist animal rights group. Their tactics involve a large amont of street theater and harassment to achieve their goals. In Lakoffian terms, the primary divide between left and right is that the right is more motivated by arguments that establish a rightful hierarchy and the left is more motivated by arguments that appeal to feelings of empathy and an egalitarian form of fainess. According to this schema, PETA should be firmly established as a member of the Left. In fact many on the Right are convinced that PETA's ideal of animal rights and vegitarianism should be articles of faith on the Left. But they are not. Many on the Left loathe PETA and would rather put as much distance between themselves and PETA as possible. I'm one of them, but I've never really thought about why I dislike them so much, except to say that I dislike their tactics far more than i disagree with their goals.

Amanda Marcotte has finally managed to describe just what it is that liberals, like I, dislike so much about PETA. PETA's tactics almost exactly mimic those of pro-life groups like Operation Rescue. She has a point by point list of their similarities. I can't disagree with a single one of her points.

To get back to the correct metaphor for political analysis, Amanda is not using the two axis scale that so many of us have painfully worked out. She is not using the psychological language of Lakoff. Amanda is deconstructing PETA with something very close to the half-century-old totalitarian theory. And it appears to be the right theory to describe PETA and why so many of us are uncomfortable with them. The usefulness of totalitarian theory, or of the moderate-extremist metaphor is that these schemae are still the best way to describe people whose driving ideology hs become nothing more than " the ends justify the means." The means always seem to be the same, violence, intimidation, and complete subjugation of the individual to the cause.

The problem with this theory, is there are far fewer extremists who really fit the mold than there are accusations of extremism. For every authentic extremist nut, there are ten garden variety demagogues ready to call anyone who disagrees with them an extremist nut. Take for example, today's exchange between John McCain and Arianna Huffington at Davos. McCain equated those who opposed the escalation in Iraq with "the far left." When Huffington asked whether he considered Sam Brownback part of the far left, McCain cut her off and said they could have a civil discussion if she'd only let him finish his answer instead of interrupting.

This sort of propaganda only works if the audience absorbs it without question. The more we are aware of the tactics, the less effective they are in fooling us. PETA is an extremist group and "straight talking" John McCain is a garden-variety demagogue. Although they might occasionally bring up a good point, both of them are so dishonest that they deserve only our contempt. It doesn't matter what method or theory you use to arrive at that point as long as you free yourself from their dishonest arguments. McCain and PETA are united in their contempt for the intelligence of the rest of us. Call their bluff. We deserve better.

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