Sunday, April 8, 2018

On Political Moderation (In Moderation)

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
- W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Photo by kevint3141, Wikimedia Commons
If you read the news or follow social media in these polarized times, you might get the impression that moderates are a dying breed. The right marches farther right, the left marches farther left, while the center seems to have vanished entirely. And some people at both ends of the political spectrum think that's fine, because they don't really care for moderates. They think of them as wishy-washy fence-sitters who lack firm convictions. Personally, I admire moderates.

Well, I admire some of them--the ones who believe what they believe out of principle, not apathy or convenience. I'm glad there are still people hovering around the political center. While I'm worried sick about the country descending into Trumpian authoritarianism, I'm equally worried that growing polarization will tear the country apart. If "the center cannot hold", then things really are in danger of falling apart. That's why I believe a country needs a political center, even though I'm a moderately left-leaning independent. In our current situation, where the two sides react to each other by growing farther apart, the growing centrifugal forces could spiral out of control and plunge us into mere anarchy (or authoritarianism if one side wins). So I think we need people who aren't rushing to one side or the other. We need the center to hold.

But I want to be clear about what I mean. I don't admire all moderates and centrists. Some people are moderate just because they don't particularly care about politics, and don't want to rock the boat in one direction or the other. There are politicians who aim for the center just to maximize their popularity. These things aren't particularly admirable. What is admirable, though, is taking a principled, thoughtful stance that happens not to align with the orthodoxy of the right or left. That stance probably isn't in the dead center, either, but it's somewhere between the two ends of the political spectrum, and may therefore be considered "moderate".

And why do I admire people who take such stances? Because it shows independence, and it shows guts. It's easy to adopt the standard liberal or conservative stance to fit in with your peers. It's a lot harder to think for yourself and draw your own conclusions. It's harder intellectually, because it requires that you wrestle with the issues, and it's harder socially, because if you're going your own way, you don't have a comfortable group of like-minded people to hang out and agree with. You don't have a tribe to belong to, and that's hard and lonely. As the poet and children's book author Phyllis McGinley put it:
How comfortable to rest with the safe and armored folk
Congenitally blessed with opinions stout as oak.
Assured that every question one single answer hath,
They keep a good digestion and whistle in their bath. 
[...] But I sleep cold forever, and cold sleep all my kind.Born nakedly to shiver in the draft of an open mind
People who are somewhere in the vast middle area between the left and right don't have this comfort. What's more, they're often scorned, not just by the other side, but by both sides. As the western writer Elmer Kelton said, the middle "can be the most dangerous place of all. People shoot at you from both sides." As a moderate liberal, I know that's true. People on one side say you're not liberal enough, and people on the other say you're too liberal. Moderates who really are in the center must feel a kind of identity crisis, because these days the right sees them as liberals while the left sees them as conservatives. I suspect people think there's no such thing as a moderate these days. It's an understandable conclusion, but it's not true. According to annual polls by Gallup, the number of moderates has declined a little since the early nineties, but 35% of Americans considered themselves moderates in 2017. That's equal to the percentage of conservatives (35%) and substantially higher than the percentage of liberals (26%). So, there are still a lot of moderates, and I think that's a good thing, because I honestly think they will help hold our country together.

But I don't mean this post as a hymn to political moderation, because I don't think the moderate answer is always the right one. Growing up, I always liked the phrase, "All things in moderation" (I was a strange child). When I got to college, I read about Aristotle's Golden Mean, and about the Taoist idea of balance and harmony between opposing forces--between Yin and Yang. I read about how the Buddha renounced extreme asceticism when when he heard a music teacher tell his student, "If you make the string too tight, it will break. If you make it too loose, it won't play." After that, he formulated his idea of the Middle Path between unhealthy extremes.

All these ideas seemed sensible to me, and still do...for the most part. But later on, I read Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. In it, points out the limitations of the Golden Mean/Middle Path by asking if we should aim for moderation when it comes to truth. Think about it--should we seek a middle path between truth and falsehood? Well, of course not. I mean, maybe we shouldn't be so devoted to truth that we go around telling ugly people how ugly they are, but clearly the proper balance between truth and falsehood is much closer to the "truth" end than the "falsehood" end. The right answer isn't in the middle.

But it's not at the absolute extreme, either, and that's common. In many cases, it seems to me that the right answer isn't to be found at one extreme or the other, or in the exact middle. In politics, though, I think the right answer is often to be found somewhere relatively close to the center. Often, but not always. But how do we know when the middle path is really the right one? That's what I want to examine here, by looking at some pros and cons of political moderation. Isn't that just like a moderate to do that?

Points in Favor of Political Moderation
  • Perhaps the main reason I think moderate policies, and politicians who favor them, can be a good thing is that we live in a democratic society. In a properly-functioning democratic society--where everyone across the political spectrum has a voice--most policies will naturally tend toward the center. This isn't necessarily how things go in the United States, but our democracy hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders lately.
  • A related reason is this: what if neither side is right? What are the chances that, in this particular country, at this particular point in history, one side or the other finally has it all figured out? Quite low, if you ask me. What seems far more likely is that thoughtful people at many points on the political spectrum have part of the truth. What if it's like the old Indian story of the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant? In the story, each blind man is wrong about what elephants are like, but if they had talked to each other, they might have realized that they were feeling parts of a greater, more complex truth. The limitation of this analogy, of course, is that our society is full of people who think they are experts on elephants, and haven't even managed to touch the elephant yet. In any case, none of us should be too smug about thinking we see the whole elephant.
  • The philosophers throughout history who sang the praises of moderation and balance really were on to something. In politics as well as life, the answer is more often "some" than "all" or "none". I don't want all the hot sauce in the bottle on my tacos, and I also don't want no hot sauce at all. I want the right amount of hot sauce.
  • The country needs a political center to keep from tearing itself apart. Recently, many on the far right and left seem to want to destroy the system entirely. The far right wants to destroy the "deep state" or New Deal-style government, while the far left can more and more be heard saying they want to destroy capitalism or other systems they see as perpetuating oppression. As a moderate liberal, I think some systems should be destroyed (institutional racism) or reigned in (capitalism), but we need to consider what we will put in their place. What good is reform if we destroy the country in the process? Capitalism has its issues, but it's better than lawlessness or war.
  • Too much power concentrated on either the far right or far left can lead to an erosion of civil liberties. Today we have students at liberal universities shutting down conservative speakers, and conservatives talking about jailing journalists and peaceful protesters. I don't want either of these factions to be unopposed enough to get their way. The so called "Horseshoe theory" posits that people on the far left and the far right can be closer to each other than the center in many ways, such as opposition to the free exchange of ideas. There's something to that, I think. Extremists don't like people disagreeing with them.
  • The left/right political spectrum is arbitrary, anyway. Where did we get the idea that the complexity of politics could be represented in one single dimension? Why can't people lean left on some issues and right on others, or have opinions that don't neatly fit on the spectrum at all? These folks might be better called "independents" than "moderates", but they don't fall neatly into one camp or the other, and here's the thing: we live in a country where you don't have to.

That last point was more an argument for independence than moderation, so maybe that's a sign that I've run out of arguments for moderation, and need to look at arguments against it.
  • Just as the right answer isn't necessarily (or even likely) at one extreme or the other, it isn't necessarily in the center, either. In these polarized times, it's common to hear the false dichotomy fallacy, where people imagine there are only two possible answers to a question. Just yesterday, someone told me that people eventually have to "pick a side" when it comes to politics. Well, that assumes that either one side or the other--either the left or the right--is correct. That's a false dichotomy. Maybe neither side is correct? But there's another fallacy called the middle ground fallacy, which assumes that the right answer must lie in the middle. And that's a faulty assumption, too.
  • What about justice and injustice? Is the middle ground the right place to be there? When he was sitting in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King wrote his famous letter to people who were telling him his methods were too extreme. He said,"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." Those words stop me in my moderate liberal white dude tracks, because he was right. The Jim Crow laws he was fighting were utterly unjust, and his methods (which were resolutely non-violent) were certainly not too extreme. So, to be a fence-sitter in the face of grave injustice is certainly no virtue. That doesn't mean we have to become extremists--Martin Luther King didn't join the Black Panthers because of his issues with white moderates--but it does mean the moderate answer isn't always the right one.
So where are we? When we add up all the pros and cons, is political moderation a good thing or not? The answer, I think, is "often, but not always". There is certainly a place for moderates our our society, and I think they serve the very important function of keeping us from breaking into two warring camps. Many moderates have principled positions that they've developed by carefully considering points of view on all sides, and they deserve more respect than they are often given. But moderation isn't always the answer, either. Martin Luther King was right to call out the people urging him to be more moderate in the face of a grave injustice. As the cliche goes, "All things in moderation, including moderation." What it comes down to is that there are no easy answers. The left doesn't hold all the answers, the right doesn't hold all the answers, and the center doesn't hold all the answers. None of us knows everything, and many people across the political spectrum have reasonable points to make, and the right to make them. And if saying that makes me sound like a moderate, well, I'm OK with that. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Certainty, Censorship, and the Spirit of Liberty

The best thing I've read in the past year is a speech that Judge Learned Hand gave to a group of immigrants who had just become American citizens. He began by pointing out that most Americans are either immigrants or descended from immigrants; from people who gave up their old lives to try to make it in an unfamiliar new country. Then he asked why they took such a perilous step.

His answer: "We sought liberty; freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves. This we then sought; this we now believe that we are by way of winning." (This was during World War II.)

Then another question and answer: "And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias."

Lots of big ideas there, but what really grabs me is the idea that the spirit of liberty is "not too sure that it is right".

So many people these days seem so sure they're right. That might be the one thing that unites the two far ends of the American political spectrum: they're both full of people who are sure they're right. Some are so sure of themselves that they've lost sight of the spirit of liberty, and started trying to suppress the free exchange of ideas. They see opposing views as unpatriotic, blasphemous, politically incorrect, or more recently,  "problematic". They often state opinions on complex, value-laden issues as though they were empirical facts. This degree of certainty and intolerance seems dangerous to me, especially when the two sides keep reacting to each other by pulling harder in opposite directions, as the center starts to pop and fray. What happens when it breaks?

Besides, should either side be so sure they're right? Sure enough to censor those they consider wrong? What are the chances that one political group, in this one particular country, in this one particular moment in time, finally has it all figured out?

And who am I to pontificate? What about that speck in my eye? I can be too smug in my opinions, too, but when I really think about it, the list of things I'm certain about is a short one: I'm fairly certain of verifiable facts and well-supported scientific theories. I'm reasonably sure a few arguments are logically sound (the Pythagorean Theorem and such), and that others are fallacies (and popular ones!). I'm sure we shouldn't trash the planet we live on, or destroy old, irreplaceable things (except stuff like smallpox). I'm sure hard truth is preferable to comforting falsehood, because falsehood causes suffering.

I guess what I'm most sure of is something I can't prove. I'm sure that other humans (not just other Americans or people otherwise like me) have pleasures, pains, and hopes as real to them as mine are to me. So I'm sure I should try to treat them as I would want to treated: with fairness, decency, and compassion. And I'm sure people who destroy good things, lack compassion, and disregard truth should be opposed.

And...that's really about it. I've always had a mad desire to learn as much as I can about this vast, weird, ancient universe in the brief flash of time I'm in it. But I'll never get very far. My brain is just so much smaller than the universe, and my senses so feeble. Reality won't fit inside my head--only a distorted, childlike sketch of it will.

So I guess that's one last thing I'm sure about: that there's a lot I don't know, and a lot I'm probably wrong about. And that's why I have no business trying to script the way others think, speak, or act. Yes, I'll call out unkindness, destructiveness, or dishonesty, and I may show rude people the door, but I shouldn't try to suppress an honest, well-meant opinion because I disagree with it. Argue against it? Sure. Censor it? No. Who am I to be that sure that I'm right?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Russian Bots and Our Own Worst Enemy

Last night I did a silly thing. I wrote a long, hotheaded, self-righteous Facebook rant urging people to be less hotheaded and self-righteous. I even began by saying, "I started writing, and it turned into a diatribe. Eh, damn the torpedoes." Eventually, my head grew somewhat cooler and I realized that my own impassioned righteousness was a great example of the frame of mind I was warning other people to watch for. So I deleted my rant and decided it would work better as a blog post.

The bee in my bonnet this time was Russian bots and troll farms, and how they've worked to undermine American democracy. I was catching up on the story after the House and Senate Intelligence committees grilled lawyers from Google, Facebook, and Twitter about Russian meddling using their platforms. I try to follow stories like this, because in my job as a reference librarian I teach a class about recognizing fake news and other misinformation. I had honestly fallen behind on this story, though, and I was pretty gobsmacked by some of its details. Hence, the rant below:

Two things in particular were really stunning to me: 1. Russian Facebook pages posing as American activist groups, across the political spectrum, were able to organize actual protests. Using nothing but computer terminals in St. Petersburg, they were able to get people in the United States to leave their computers and go march for various causes. One protest in New York had at least 5,000 people show up. In Houston, pro-Muslim protesters and anti-Sharia-law protesters clashed outside a mosque, and BOTH groups were manipulated into doing so by Russian Facebook pages. 2. Russia is trolling both sides. That's the second thing I hadn't fully realized. Russian trolls, bots, pages, and ads on social media were (and are) posing as partisans at each end of the political spectrum.

But why play both sides like that? Like most people, I had heard that Putin favored Trump over Clinton, and I knew that Russian intelligence and propaganda organizations had tried to influence the election (that's not my liberal bias; it's the conclusion of the American intelligence community, as outlined in this brief from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.) But I hadn't realized that Russian trolls and bots had posed as partisans on the left as well as the right. What was their goal? Apparently it was to make democracy weak and chaotic; and to appear weak and chaotic, both to Americans and to Russians who might sympathize with pro-democracy movements there. Yes, they wanted Trump elected, but their broader goal was fostering division and weakening democracy in the United States. And they did a pretty good job of it. Just how good, we don't know yet.

But what we can conclude right now is that Russians aren't the only ones to blame. All they did was add fuel to a fire we lit ourselves. American civility, unity, and critical thinking were already in decline. We had already let ourselves become hyper-polarized and fearful of each other. The internet had helped us cluster into little tribal bubbles of ideology until anyone outside our bubble seemed insane and evil. Many of us had already begun thinking of other Americans as our enemies. I've certainly been guilty of these things. Russia just fanned the flames, and they did it by playing on our hotheadedness, our gullibility, and our partisan tribalism. On both sides, we're so sure we're right that a foreign government can count on us to share false information without questioning it--often without even reading it--if it outrages us enough and fits our pre-existing beliefs. And if it fits the pre-existing beliefs of the like-minded people we've surrounded ourselves with. They can't count on everyone to share it, but they can count on a certain percentage of us to. And again, that's true across the political spectrum.

And that's a big problem. Hyper-polarization, gullibility, ideological absolutism, and demonization of decent people who disagree with us--these things are like cyanide to a democracy. Judge Learned Hand once said, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias." If he was right, then we've lost sight of the spirit of liberty, which in my opinion is also the spirit of democracy.

I guess what I'm saying is, things won't get better unless we as Americans take a hard look at ourselves. We're too gullible, too hotheaded, too divided, and too sure of our own tribe's righteousness. Sanctions against Russia and increased diligence from Silicon Valley can only go so far. As the great sage Pogo once observed, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

So that was my rant. It's not that scathing, but after an hour or so I realized it was, in fact, rather hotheaded and self-righteous. Not only that, but it was written in the same emotional frame of mind that causes people to share false stories without checking them. In an article I read a couple of days ago, a college professor who teaches media literacy said, "When you feel strong emotion — happiness, anger, pride, vindication — and that emotion pushes you to share a 'fact' with others, STOP." Now, I hadn't shared any false information--the Russian troll farms are all too real--but as the professor says later, it's a good idea to recognize strong emotions in yourself, and take them as a cue that you're not in the most reasonable frame of mind. He's right. My emotional state blinded me to the fact that I was being hotheaded and self-righteous just as I was warning others not to be.

Plus, I was offering glittering generalities. It's easy to say we should be less hot-headed, less gullible, and less "Us-vs-Them" partisan, but it's a lot harder to offer concrete steps to achieve those goals. So, what steps can we take? That's something I need to think about more; something we all need to think about more.

In terms of dealing with attempts to by Russian troll farms to weaken democracy, there are a few things we can do, I think. One is to recognize the problem and how serious it is, and to understand how this kind of Russian propaganda works. This video is an excellent summary, which defines terms like "bot" and "troll farm" that many people may be fuzzy about. It also has advice on how to recognize when you're dealing with one. But it's not easy. With many of the Russian-generated memes, the graphics are lurid and the grammar is bad. Often there are no definite articles like "a" and "the", apparently because those aren't used in Russian. But many memes generated by Americans also have lurid graphics and bad grammar. Maybe a better idea is to distrust any hyper-partisan page, ad, or meme with these features. If it's not the Russians, it's people who are more interested in appealing to your fear and outrage than in getting you to think critically. There's a place for outrage, and even a place for fear, but we shouldn't let people use either to manipulate us.

Another thing we can do is refrain from arguing online with people we don't know, especially people we have no mutual friends with. Those people may be sitting in a troll farm in Russia, getting paid to rattle our cage. Or they may not be people at all. There are computer programs sophisticated enough to make people think they're a real person. People have even fallen in love with bots on dating sites, thinking they were real people. I don't know about you, but I would hate to find that I had wasting an hour arguing with a computer program. Maybe I have already? In any case, the way to avoid that is not to argue with strangers on public pages, especially if they seem to be arguing just to argue. What's the point of arguing with people you'll never meet, anyway? The chance you'll convince them of anything are about the same whether they're in a warehouse in Russia, their mom's basement in Pasadena, or inside a computer, existing only as lines of code.

There are probably many other steps we can take, and I need to learn them, but this post is long enough. One thing I know we need to do is realize that the threat to democracy is real. Russian troll farms are real, and they're only going to get better at what they do. But they can only weaken democracy if we let them push us in directions we were already moving in.

It seems to me there are two things that are absolutely essential in a democracy. 1. Citizens have to be reasonable and informed enough for a government by the people to be viable. This means they can't be too gullible, too uninformed, or too blinded by in-group and confirmation biases. 2. Citizens with different points of view have to be able to coexist. And that means we have to compromise--not about everything, but about many things. Living in a democracy means not always getting your way. And maybe we shouldn't get our way, because we were wrong in the first place. None of us knows everything, or has it all figured out. I certainly don't, and I can be as hotheaded and self-righteous as anybody. But one thing I'm pretty sure about is this: if Americans keep thinking they can't be wrong, and that other Americans with different opinions are their enemies, then we'll tear our democracy apart without any help from Russian trolls.