The Danger of Certainty

Saddam Hussein - Ace of SpadesAmericans are muddled thinkers. People are constantly pointing out how in polls, Americans contradict themselves. I do it myself. But it’s not the worst thing that as a nation we are confused. Americans are at their most dangerous when they are certain of things that just aren’t so.

Generally, I would not say that polls don’t matter. If you give people binary choices, polls are pretty reliable. Are you going to vote for Obama or Romney? People can make a decision. But most of life cannot be phrased this way and that is where we get into trouble.

The Terrorist

Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald wrote an article where he noted America’s contradictory thoughts on extrajudicial killing of American citizens on foreign soil. Americans are very much against this: Democrats and Republicans alike. Only 41% said we should do that kind of thing. But when it came to the specific case of killing US citizen and suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, 69% of Americans were in favor of it.

Think about that for second: it is really horrible. I can see it the other way: people think it is okay in the abstract, but when it is done to a real person, they are horrified. But this is seriously screwed up: people think it is wrong in the abstract, but when the government does it, they just accept the government’s word that it was a really bad guy they killed. Greenwald thinks it is just good old fashioned American racism. I don’t doubt that he’s right. But I think there is something even deeper going on.

The Deficit

Also yesterday, Kevin Drum reported on a Democracy Corps poll that asked people to name their two most important political concerns. Their answers: increasing spending and decreased spending. In particular, the top 5 things were: (1) protecting retirement benefits; (2) reducing the federal deficit; (3) cutting ineffective programs; (4) making sure education is affordable; and (5) fixing infrastructure to create jobs. You know: increase; decrease; decrease; increase; increase. Now, we know that Americans define waste as “programs I don’t like.” But in general, Americans want to spend as much as we have been (and in many cases more) on all programs except “foreign aid.” (Because politicians long ago demonized such aid, Americans think it takes up to a half of all our spending when it is usually less than 1% and most of that goes to the hugely popular state of Israel.)

In addition to these two examples, we have the polls that come out each election cycle that tell us that the voters just hate negative advertising. Pity the foolish politician who actually uses these polling results to run his campaign. People may hate negative advertising, but it effects them all the same.

The Secret Sauce

It isn’t that these polls are wrong. What is really going on is that Americans don’t think seriously about any of these issues. They don’t like the idea of the government just up and killing people—unless they are bad guys. They hate the idea of the government spending too much money—unless it causes any programs to have less money. And of course negative advertising is a terrible thing. But they want to know if a politician is fucking around on his wife. As you can see, all of this is not explained by ignorance and poor thinking alone. It requires the Secret Sauce!

The Secret Sauce is the propaganda machine that the combined media and government systems provide. Americans really do have a natural abhorrence to unjustified killing. But we are complete suckers for the public vilification of our alleged enemies. We did it to Saddam Hussein to justify war—twice! And we’ve done it to Anwar al-Awlaki. We never even question it unless there is some powerful source pushing back on the propaganda campaign. And there very really is.

Americans would never even think about the budget deficit if there weren’t a constant drumbeat from the media telling us that it is important. And even then, the only way we contextualize the federal debt is by analogy to our own budgets—which, of course, is invalid and leads to misunderstanding the issue. As for negative ads: we don’t like them but that doesn’t stop us from believing them. It must be true; it’s on the TV machine!

Naive America

This is one of the most terrifying things about modern America. We are a surprisingly naive people. In fact, we are so naive that most of us have no idea we are naive. We think we have a good bead on what’s really going on. I thought the Cold War was a great illustration of this. Most Americans couldn’t believe that people in the USSR accepted the obvious lies told to them by their government. (I hear the same things today regarding North Korea.) But the truth was that most of the people in the USSR were far more skeptical than the people of the USA. Among the people I knew, almost no one even questioned that the government or media would lie to us. And when these institutions were caught lying, it was always justified as a special case.

Now we have a whole network, Fox News, dedicated to pushing the idea that you can’t trust the regular news. That’s great. But what they provide instead is straight Republican Party propaganda. And again, their viewers are certain they are getting the Truth™. Of course, any news source is going to be biased. The problem is not the bias; the problem is the belief of the viewer that it isn’t biased. I’ve long said that the issue between Fox News and MSNBC is not that one is more biased than the other; the issue is that MSNBC viewers know that the news is biased; the Fox News viewers do not.

Too often, I find people either accept everything they hear uncritically, or they refuse to believe anything. This second group is even more problematic. You see, they aren’t as cynical as they claim to be. They use their cynicism as a filter to dismiss anything they don’t want to believe. In my experience, a large fraction of Fox News viewers fall into this latter category. And the worlds that they allow their filters to paint are often troubling indeed: bigoted, reactionary, simple-minded.

Polls provide a snapshot of what we as a people believe. And sadly, it is heavily skewed toward what we have been told to believe. I remember back at the end of Reagan’s administration when the Drug War was really gearing up. I read about a poll of CEOs of major corporations. They were asked what the most important issue facing their companies were. Less than 10% said “drugs in the workplace.” Six months later, the same poll found over 50% of the CEOs saying “drugs in the workplace” was the most important issue facing their companies. The only thing that had changed was six months of constant Drug War propaganda. Now if CEOs are this malleable about the issues facing their very own businesses, what can we expect from regular people asked about items on the federal budget or America’s enemies abroad?

The Danger of Certainty

Our biggest problem as a nation is how information flows to the people. With the right (wrong) flow of information the people will gratefully change our constitutional republic into a Job Creator Dictatorship. We could easily look back 20 years from now and think that these were the glory days. Confusion is not the worst thing. It is our certainty—like the certainty that Saddam Hussein was a serious threat to our nation—that gets us (and the rest of the world) into the most trouble.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “The Danger of Certainty

  1. The thing about polls — and any pollster worth her salt knows this — is that polls measure both what people believe and what they feel comfortable telling a pollster they believe. For example, you might not tell a human pollster on the phone that you’d never vote for one of them Negroids. While in fact your prejudice is so important to you that you’ll never vote for a Blackitudinous person. (Interesting that the one group Americans feel comfortable telling pollsters they distrust over any other isn’t Blacks, or Muslims, but atheists.)

    What the polls you cite suggest to me is the utter disconnect between American self-image and American reality. Much as the bigot claims to be open-minded but isn’t, Americans are grasping for that fanciful notion of themselves as a singularly moral and principled people while their country falls apart. (Having been run, for decades, by singularly immoral and unprincipled people, many of whom Americans voted for because they stood for "Values.")

    Of course we want programs that reduce our exorbitant cost of living. And of course, we don’t like federal spending — that goes to the other people, the lazy shiftless (differently-hued) ones.

    Notions like a balanced budget and "the Constitution" are like so much tattered toilet paper clinging to our shoes. We desperately want to believe we stand for something when all we stand for now is "someone, somehow, make it stop — and if you can’t make it stop for everyone, at least make it stop for me."

    I don’t mean to be too downtrodden, as anything can happen at any time, and the future may surprise us all. The disconnect, however, between what Americans think they believe in/value and what we really believe in/value may have never been more staggering. Even in our worst periods of imperial hubris harming others, there was a tone of "this is distasteful, yet necessary" written (hypocritically, to be sure) in the popular press. Now it’s almost as if we endure solely on the basis on fantasy and lottery dreams.

    Remember the old spiritual "ain’t gonna need this house no longer, I’m getting ready to meet the saints?" It was the song of beaten-down sharecroppers hoping for a better world on the other side of the grave. Good grief, but I fear the majority of Americans are beginning to share that sentiment — when they have a lot more they could do to better their condition than the average sharecropper. Unless they’ve given up. And the faux-populism of the right basically encourages them to give up, doesn’t it? Get outraged, Feel powerless. Don’t have time to fix the shingles, don’t have time to fix the floor.

    The only saint I’d want to meet would be Augustine — and only because I’d like to hear more of his sybaritic stories from before his conversion.

  2. @JMF – Having a bad day?!

    Actually, I think the faux-populism gives people hope. It gets them working toward something. Unfortunately, it gets them working for something that will only harm them. It’s sad. I wish there [i]were[/i] an afterlife.

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