In a post yesterday, I complained about a remark of Matt Bivens’ to the effect that Iraqis seemed to be voting for Islamic theocracy. A commentator took that up and (as I interpret it) implied that I was underestimating the strength of support for religious extremism in Iraq, particularly the South.
I should be clear that I don’t want to deny that there is support for religious leaders in Iraq, including many who give me the willies. What I do want to deny is that it’s especially helpful to fall for reductive explanations of what is happening in Iraq, or for that matter, anywhere else. If Iraq moves in the direction of an Islamic theocracy, or civil war, it won’t necessarily be because the majority of people wanted it, or even necessarily because it was anyone’s first choice (though, obviously it will be the first choice for some people). What happens will have very much to do with who has bigger guns, better organization, a head start, better intelligence, support from outside actors, etc. It’s no good to imagine that we can just aggregate personal preferences and – presto – figure out which way things will go. That’s why poll-driven optimism is so often misguided. But conversely, we can’t look at the way things go and then try to extrapolate from that to what the individual preferences of the actors were.
In general, I think we do a very bad job of understanding how group behaviour is related to individual preferences.1 Part of that is the effect of all the simplistic talk we’re accustomed to hear about democracy and group preference. We’re constantly hearing about what the voters wanted, mandates, and so on. Much of this is perfectly sensible, but it’s also potentially misleading. And I get especially worried when assumptions about group behaviour and individual preference get tied up, as they so often do, with notions of collective responsibility.
To give one example, I (think I) recall a high ranking American official saying at the time of the Kosovo war that Yugoslavia basically deserved to get pummelled because Milosovic had won elections – as if hundreds of thousands of moderates hadn’t marched in the streets against Milosovic for years; as if barriers to information weren’t high; as if the very limited options on offer didn’t force difficult choices on people; and so on. This isn’t to sidestep difficult questions of collective responsibility for ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, but it is to reject accounts of collective responsibility that rest on the faulty assumptions I’m complaining about here. Certainly the high ranking American official was being a jackass in this case.
Anyway, I hope this explains why I’m allergic to a lot of the talk about what Iraqis want – at least when it’s not loaded up with nuance and qualification. Poll away, but interpret with great care.
1. For a wonderful recent example of this, stunning in its obviousness, and yet almost completely neglected in the commentary, see this point about the Spanish elections made by John Quiggin.
Howls of outrage (2)