political psychology

2007 07 18
On the call for more of the same old rhetoric

Norm links approvingly to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on rhetorical responses to terrorism, the upshot of which is that Western leaders fail to engage in enough moral denunciation of terrorism, eschewing this for practical and “logistics-heavy rhetoric about getting to the bottom of each case.” Norm remarks: “Merely to read his proposal brings home how rare a language of forthright public condemnation of terrorist politics now is.”

This strikes me as mostly silly. The most obvious feature of, say, British and U.S. political leader’s responses to terrorism over the last six years has been a cynical attempt to exacerbate and exploit hysteria about possible future attacks in order to push unrelated agendas. If people are now coming to favour a more measured and practical approach to terrorism, surely this ranks as the most obvious reason for it, as opposed to, say, political correctness, which the author puts at the top of his list of explanations. And, contra the author of the piece, we’ve seen plenty of morally loaded language, much of it from bad politicians pursuing rotten agendas who want to obscure that rottenness by fulminating vaguely about evil and whatnot. Neither Norm nor the author bothers to mention the contraction of civil liberties in the U.S., the dishonest selling of the Iraq War, or the massively expanded use of torture and extraordinary rendition by the United States — all policies defended explicitly and repeatedly by hysterical appeals to the threat and insincere and hypocritical moralizing about its nature. I’m guessing these things made a bigger difference to public attitudes than the fear of offending terrorists.
Add to this the fact that terrorists want to terrorize, and one way of thwarting them is to not get too ruffled (which is perfectly compatible with taking the threat seriously). And so on.

Just to be clear, if you want to denounce terrorists as morally reprehensible, by all means go ahead. But it’s pretty weird to offer an analysis of people’s responses to political rhetoric that ignores the political context in which the rhetoric is employed. The context here involves the repeated abuse of the rhetorical tropes in question, so I hardly think it’s irrelevant.

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2007 01 10
More than half?

From Economists View:

The Kindest Cut, by Steve Mirsky, Scientific American: … A mathematician, a political scientist and an economist recently wrote a paper … in which they point out that, under special circumstances, two people can split something up and both feel like they got more than half. … The paper, which appeared in the December issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society, is entitled “Better Ways to Cut a Cake.”

The report … deal[s] with … the theory and method behind slicing up an object to maximize the satisfaction of those parties, … who will then receive the slices. “We use cake as a metaphor for dividing a heterogeneous divisible good, an item that people may have different preferences for,” explains the mathematician, Michael Jones of Montclair State University…

Traditionally, if two people are splitting a cake, the method is simple …: one slices, the other chooses. The slicer therefore wants to make the division equal, knowing he’ll get stuck with the littler piece if he botches the job.

But this system can break down with certain cakes. “For example,” Jones says, “if a cake is half chocolate and half vanilla, and one person likes chocolate a lot and the other person is indifferent, then there’s a way to have both people, in their opinions, receive more than half the cake.”

[Y]ou can see, in the chocolate-vanilla two-person example, that the chocolate lover will feel more than half-satisfied if he gets, say, 80 percent of the chocolate half, despite it being only 40 percent of the entire cake. Meanwhile his flavor-impartial buddy will be more than half-satisfied by getting the remaining 60 percent of the entire cake. And the cake maker will have an economic motivation to complicate his cakes and hike his prices…

Hmm, I dunno (as Chris is prone to say in response to many of my posts). I see why the one who ends up with 60 percent of the cake feels like he got more than half (–y’know, because he did get more than half). But why does the one who ended up with 40 percent feel this way?

The only thing that can be meant is that he feels like he got more than he would have had with a certain half, viz. the half mostly made up of non-chocolate cake. But if we’re looking for the “kindest” cut, why isn’t the right division the one that gives the chocolate lover the chocolate half, and the “indifferent” the rest? After all, any greater “satisfaction” that the indifferent gets with the extra portion would have surely been matched by the satisfaction that the chocolate-lover would have had with some more chocolate. So it’s not clear that the author’s solution uniquely “maximizes the satisfaction of those parties.”

Now, I can see why it would be “rational” for each to make the 40/60 cut if put in the cutter position. Assume the chocolate lover is the cutter. Then he should cut a smaller-than-half but all-chocolate piece to induce the indifferent to choose the larger piece (which the chocolate lover doesn’t want anyway). Now assume that the indifferent is the cutter. Then he should cut a smaller-than-half but all-chocolate piece, knowing that the chocolate lover will take that piece, leaving the rest (which the indifferent, being indifferent, prefers simply because it’s bigger).

In order to show that the 40/60 cut is the kindest or the fairest possible cut, we should be able to tell a story where the dynamics of the cut are not solely based upon the power relations between the two parties. Since it is assumed that the parties know one another’s preferences, it is clear that the indifferent is in a special position to induce the chocolate-lover to take the smaller piece. For in the case in which the indifferent is the cutter, the chocolate-lover feels like he got “more than half” solely because the indifferent had the power to determine the makeup of the relevant halves. And in the case in which the chocolate-lover is the cutter, the only reason why he would not make a 50-50 cut is because the indifferent might choose the chocolate half. But why would the indifferent do this, if he is in fact indifferent to makeup of his piece, knows that the other loves chocolate, and wishes to contribute to the “kindest” or fairest procedure? He wouldn’t; and so it’s clear that neither kindness nor fairness is the sole motivator here, and that the chocolate-lover makes the 40/60 cut in order to give the indifferent a reason to avoid being a dick.

The special feature of the old-school procedure is that it is suited to deliver perfect procedural justice, that is, it is a case in which there is both an independently establishable fair outcome, and a procedure that is sure to deliver that outcome. Economists love the fact that, in this case, the procedure makes use of parties’ narrowly rational desires formed in light of all risks and potential rewards. But this shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the independently right outcome is not determined by thinking about the issue in a narrowly economic way. Rather, the propriety of the procedure is wholly determined by the antecedent considerations of fairness. If those considerations change from situation from situation, so too should the procedure that’s designed to express them.

In contrast, the special feature of the new situation is that the independently fair outcome (i.e. 50/50 with a fully chocolate half going to the chocolate-lover) cannot be reliably reached through any procedure that seeks to harness the narrowly self-interested motivations of the parties. The authors’ mistake is to transfer the fairness of the rationale behind the old-fashion procedure to that sort of procedure itself. In the old-fashioned case, there were no differential power relations that could taint the fairness of the outcome (we assume the cutter won’t turn the knife on the chooser), and this is why the procedure that exploited self-interested motivations was recommended by the independent rationale. The new case differs from the old one in just this respect, and this is why the same procedure won’t deliver an outcome untainted by unfairness (or unkindness).

Now I shall await Chris’s own “Hmmm, I dunno”…

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 05 23
Families, divorce and voter turnout in the US

Yet another paper I’ll never have time to read . . .

Families, divorce and voter turnout in the US
Julianna Sandell and Eric Plutzer

Abstract: How large a role does the family play in civic development? This paper examines an important aspect of family influence by tracing the impact of divorce on voter turnout during adolescence. We show that the effect of divorce among white families is large, depressing turnout by nearly 10 percentage points. Using data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, we demonstrate that the impact of divorce varies by racial group and can rival the impact of parentsrsquo educational attainment, which is generally regarded as the most important non-political characteristic of onersquos family of origin. We attempt to explain the divorce effect by examining the mediating impacts of parental voter turnout, active social learning, income loss, child–parent interaction, residential mobility, and educational attainment.

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2005 04 11
Liberal Rights, Liberal Virtues

Last week Chris had a great post whose thesis was this:

A lot of political discourse seems to work this way. Facts that are uncontroversial, or ought to be uncontroversial, become politicized. When that happens we (often reasonably) end up paying as much attention to the role that citing them plays in our political discourse as to their truth.

Chris’s point is not that we start with a stock of truths and then try, in political discourse and debate, to determine their particular relevance for political purposes. That would be a healthy, constructive dialogue that should be welcomed by all parties. Rather, the point is that the truths that one side thinks are true and relevant are taken to be shibboleths by those who either reject the truth or (more likely) reject the views those truths are used to support. Chris notes a few examples, and you should go reread the post for those and his full discussion. But we’ve all encountered this, whether in the benign, professorial nod one can elicit when a “But what about…” is met with the other’s assessment that you haven’t yet thought the whole thing through yet, or when in the heat of debate the adducing of a commonly accepted empirical claim sparks a “NOT THAT OLD SAW!” response.

Along similar sociological lines, I want to discuss a phenomenon that can be observed when the ideas of political rights and political virtues are in play. This feature of political discourse can perhaps best be illustrated with an example. Consider Ralph Nader. While I am by and large sympathetic to Nader’s political outlook (his defense of Terri Schiavo’s parents notwithstanding), I was also sympathetic (at the start of the campaign season) to the view that he should not have run. Nader of course got quite a bit of media attention at the time–not, of course, for his rather reasonable positions on topics from economic justice to Israel, but for his recalcitrance in the face of pleas by many of his most staunch supporters to forego a candidacy. When confronted by journalists for his response to the requests, Nader expressed indignation at the thought that anyone would ask such a thing:

“It’s a marvelous demonstration by liberals, if you will, of censorship. Now mind you, running for political office is every American’s right. Running for political office means free speech exercise, it means exercising the right of petition, the right of assembly. And so when they say ‘Do not run,’ they’re not just challenging and rebutting; they’re crossing that line into censorship, which is completely unacceptable.”

Why was this response appropriate? As far as I can recall, no person, Democrat or Green or whatever, claimed that Nader did not have a right to run for president. He’s older than the requisite age, and he was born in America, and he has not been convicted of treason, and so forth. My guess is that Nader understood that the strict meaning of the sentences he was using did not jibe with the specific claim his detractors were making, but that he also appreciated that rights-talk weighs with people in sometimes knee-jerk ways. “This is America! I have rights!” Perhaps he thought the accusation that people were attempting to infringe upon his rights would distract listeners just long enough for his positive insights to take hold in their minds. And perhaps he was right. The important point was that one of our more intellectually sophisticated politicos was confusing (intentionally or otherwise) claims about rights and virtues.

The distinction between rights and virtues is familiar from daily life. We all believe that persons have some rights to perform actions that ought not be performed. This goes for political rights as well as moral rights. I have a political right to vote for racist candidates, but I ought not vote for him. And–to use an example from Philosopher Joseph Raz’s The Morality of Freedom–I may have a moral right to refuse my neighbor access to my telephone when he has locked himself out of his house, but surely a full appreciation of moral virtue, if not decency, would lead me to welcome him into my home (assuming, of course, that I know the guy’s not a threat to me).

I believe that a lot of this is pretty evident and not controversial. We all believe that there are political rights and political virtues counseling against certain invocations of those rights in action. It is perhaps just as evident that it can be a difficult task to determine which rights exist, and which virtues we ought to heed when contemplating action in accordance with those rights. It is interesting just how much political disagreement can be accurately described using these two concepts. Consider: pace many Republicans who love to invoke the US Constitution as an argument against liberalism, the US is a liberal constitutional democracy. There is a reason that Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom and F. A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom refused to cede the term “liberalism” to those who espouse left-liberalism instead of some libertarian version. The US constitution enshrines certain liberal rights guaranteed citizens because of their status as free and equal moral persons. Rights of free speech, expression, association, assembly, the vote, contract, etc. are all liberal rights because they give each citizen a sphere of liberty that cannot be infringed upon because more “good” could be done if some individuals’ rights were not as secure as others’. But given that reasonable people can disagree about not only the existence of certain rights, but also about the right way to adjudicate between them when they conflict, political disagreement about rights is inevitable.

Just as inevitable is the failure by some to maintain the important distinction between rights and virtues. Because of the soundness of the distinction, it should be a default position of citizens of a liberal democracy to wonder seriously whether their policy preferences constitute an objectionable predilection to forge virtuous citizens through the use of the coercive apparatus of the state. I think it is a part of most reasonable moral positions that true virtue cannot be engendered using the carrot-and-stick method. To use a phrase of Rawls’s, that would not be virtue for the right reasons.

But even that seemingly good reason may not be a good liberal reason so to refrain. For such a view would still have to be motivated by the endorsement by the government that it is the job of governments to make virtuous citizens. That indeed was Aristotle’s view, but it seems not to comport with the modern left- and right-liberal view that while government needs to rely upon some idea of what is good for citizens, it should not legislate on the basis of some view of the best-life-for-humans that hopes to answer most moral questions. The liberal view seems to be that those questions ought to be left up to citizens not just in the sense that governments might stymie their goals if they try to legislate virtue by force, but in the sense that those are not the right goals for governments. I shall write more on this idea later.

If anything along these lines is correct, one might reasonably wonder whether this story leaves any room to embrace left-liberalism. Isn’t insisting that corporations pay a living wage an objectionable legislating of virtue akin to forcing citizens to give to charities or donate to soup kitchens? That is, which rights can this view of liberalism vindicate, and which (if any) traditional social-democratic policies can it judge permissible for public policy? These are tough questions, and I understand that many politically active persons might refuse to stop to answer them. But I believe a full appreciation of the truth of liberalism must await their answer. Only then will we understand which bare-bones scheme of rights is consistent with the abstract idea of liberalism that most Americans–Republican and Democrat alike–endorse, and which robust left-liberal policies are at home in a liberalism that shies away, on principle, from the legislation of virtue.

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 04 02
Speaking of Zimbabwe . . .

Shortly after writing that last snarky post about Zimbabwe’s elections, I met a Zimbabwean at my wife’s show last night. An interesting woman. She works as a reporter for the U.N. here in NYC, in which capacity she interviewed Mugabe herself a few years ago. She told me that he emphatically declared in the interview that he wouldn’t run again. She laughed, a bit bitterly, at how that declaration turned out.

The conversation had an interesting dynamic. When I first mentioned the election, she seemed defensive, and a bit reluctant to criticize Mugabe. Most of her ire seemed directed at the opposition, whom she characterized as feckless and unwilling to address any of the structural problems that had brought Zimbabwe to its current crisis. But it became clear that her reluctance to bash away at Mugabe was a response to the function that Mugabe-bashing often seems to play in the Western media, and certainly not a reflection of any admiration for the man. She felt – and I think there’s something to it – that Mugabe-bashing can be entirely truthful and yet still play an objectionable role: that of whitewashing both the deep inequities in landholding in the country and, more importantly, the historical role of the British in the current crisis. It needn’t be that way, of course. But it often seems to be. (See this interesting post on Crooked Timber for an interesting take on the matter.) Once it was clear that I had no objection in principle to a view which casts blame more broadly, her reservations about Mugabe-bashing seemed to fall away, and she was quite frank about the terrible damage that he had inflicted on the country without any help from the British or anyone else.

A lot of political discourse seems to work this way. Facts that are uncontroversial, or ought to be uncontroversial, become politicized. When that happens we (often reasonably) end up paying as much attention to the role that citing them plays in our political discourse as to their truth. The most obvious recent example of this is surely the way that many of us have argued over how to understand and represent the depredations of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq. Opponents of the war are often accused to wanting to pass over this awful history in silence, since opposing the war meant, among other things, opposing a war that would finish off the regime responsible for the horrors.

Well, perhaps in some cases. It’s a big world, and there are a lot of consciences I can’t even hazard a guess about. But in a lot of cases, it seems to me that reluctance to dwell on the sordid history of the Ba’ath regime is more a response to the role that that history has come to play in the political debate about the Iraq War than a reflection of a guilty conscience. Often citing that history really means: Let’s not dwell on Western complicity in these or similar horrors. It means: Let’s not dwell on what this Western complicity in past horrors suggests for future involvement in the region. So I think I can understand the impatience that some people feel when the conversation is turned, yet again, to selected aspects of the history of Iraq, since the rhetorical force of the move is to push us away from an examination of other facts which are just as relevant to the debate. You can short-circuit a debate with the truth, as well as with lies.

For my part, I prefer another rhetoric about Iraq altogether. I prefer a rhetoric about Iraq and the Iraq War that puts the barbarity of the Ba’ath regime right up front. I think it’s a more truthful rhetoric, and also a more effective one. It’s more effective in large part because it helps to make the point that you can be perfectly frank about Iraq’s awful history and still have opposed the removal of the regime that did so much to make it awful. Skirting over that point can come to seem like an implicit concession that dwelling too much on the character of the Ba’athist regime would lead you to support it’s removal. And that’s not a concession that I’m willing to make, and not one I would ever want to imply.

Thinking about things this way leads me to wonder if the “other side” downplays certain facts (say, about the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East) not because they refuse to accept them (as I often assume), but because they object to the role that citing these facts plays in our political discourse about the U.S.’s role in international affairs. Some of our interlocutors might turn out to be more reasonable, and less dishonest, than they seem, if that is the reason for some of the selectivity and silence we see in their rhetoric. It isn’t the way I would go myself, but the motive here is less rotten than the one that I typically project on my interlocutors.

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 10 09
Admitting error

Matthew Yglesias writes:

NO MISTAKES. Once again, the president won’t admit to having made any mistakes (besides, perhaps, hiring Paul O’Neill). It’s simply an absurd point of view — even if you think the decision to invade Iraq wasn’t a mistake, it’s simply impossible to believe that the execution has been flawless. This is the mentality of a deeply, deeply deluded person who’s going to make mistake after mistake after mistake if given more time in office. And the really crazy thing is that he won’t even realize it.

I read this sort of thing a lot. And perhaps it’s true. But the fact is that it’s political suicide to admit mistakes, especially big ones, and everyone knows it. So it’s entirely possible – though, probably unlikely – that Bush bangs his head against the wall every night about all the things that Matthew Yglesias bangs his head against the wall about. But there’s no way that he could admit that, and it’s not just because lying comes so naturally to him. It’s because the entire political culture punishes admissions of error, since once a politician admits error, reporters stop doing the he said/he said thing and just shift to reporting the error.

Of course, I’m very receptive to the view that Bush can’t admit error, even to himself. But the fact that he publicly refuses to admit error just shows that he’s not willing to commit political suicide on national television. This is a tricky issue, because we need to call Bush on it every time he lies. But we also need to remember that the problem of how we deal with mistakes is deeper than that, and it won’t go away if Bush gets the boot.

Howls of outrage (6)

2004 06 15
I can’t shut up about the Chafetz review

First I reviewed a book review by Josh Chafetz. Then I couldn’t help getting another dig in. Before the men in white suits come to take me away, just let me make two more points. They are both tucked mercifully below the fold.
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2004 06 15
Footnote on Chafetz on Frank

Yesterday, I wrote about Josh Chafetz’s review of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas?. I just had one remark to add to that post:

If you’re a graduate student (as Chafetz is) and the New York Times offers you a book review, you bloody well take it, regardless of the book, it’s area, or whether that area has anything to do with anything you (supposedly – you’re a graduate student, after all) know about.

At the same time, if you write a book (as Frank did) arguing that many poorer mid-Westerners support a political party that essentially exploits them economically, and attempting to examine the phenomenon, I think you have a right to be angry when the New York Times assigns your book to someone who cheerfully admits in the course of the review that he doesn’t know anything about the economics of your central claim, and instead spends most of the review dilating on the theme of condescension in your book.

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2004 06 14
Chafetz on Frank

Josh Chafetz of Oxblog reviewed Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? in the New York Times Book Review this weekend. I haven’t read Frank’s book, so I’ll remain agnostic on it, but it’s still possible to make a remark or two about the review itself.
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Howls of outrage (2)

2004 05 23
Holbo on Goldberg

There are so many things to blog about, and so little time to do it. I’m afraid that I often end up writing short, reactive pieces for this blog instead of ever really working up the more substantive posts I dream up from time to time. Anyway, back a while ago when Jonah Goldberg wrote a monstrously silly post comparing conservatives and liberals on their respective attitudes to their intellectual roots, I thought that I – a raving liberal writing a dissertation on Aristotle – might try to write a reply. Alas, I was too lazy. Also, Goldberg was being so stupid, I wasn’t sure it was worth my time. But John Holbo isn’t lazy – or, at least, isn’t as lazy as me – and apparently it was worth his time. And so he has written this fine response to Goldberg.
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2004 04 08
I’m with stupid, or, Conservatives on the couch

As you, dear reader, probably know, I’ve been mulling over the roots of the whole George W. Bush debacle lately. Part of my ire is directed at the Republican party for choosing him in the first place. Hardly a responsible choice, in my view. How did so many people fall for a silly Prince Hal fairy tale – to the point that they would entrust their country to such an incompetent? Well, part of the thinking, I guess, was that intelligence is over-rated when it comes to political leadership.

Too many years of grad school have convinced this blogger that intelligence is indeed overrated. (More on this later.) But, obviously, that’s not the same as saying that it’s irrelevant. Here, as far as I can reconstruct it, is the thinking that leads us down this mine-laden road:

1. Intelligent leaders have failed to govern well (favourites here include Wilson and Clinton).
2. Therefore intelligence is not a sufficient condition for leadership.
3. Therefore intelligence is not a necessary condition for leadership.

Run the appropriate substitutions for other traits like “intellectual curiosity” and so on, throw in a smattering of loose talk about “delegating” and “management skills” and you’re ready to commit political suicide.

My reconstruction may seem unfair, because it attributes completely incoherent assumptions to my political opponents. I admit that it is always risky business to psychoanalyze one’s political opponents. Next thing you know, I’ll be allegedly pining for Gore because he’s an alpha male or something. But, honestly, it’s the best I can do here. I will add this qualification: I don’t mean to attribute this pattern of thinking to all of Bush’s supporters. It’s just my best guess about what’s behind a common reaction to Bush, and one which I have actually encountered myself. I strongly suspect that it’s a decent diagnosis, for example, of my father’s reaction to Bush. But if I say any more on this I really will be ready for some hostile blogger’s couch.

The error, once it’s set out, should be clear. The step from 1 to 2 is irreproachable. It is the step from 2 to 3 that is madness. A necessary condition is very different from a sufficient condition; confuse them at your peril.

And your nation’s.

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2003 11 16

I want to call attention to a little noticed irony in hawkish attitudes towards risk, and to use it to reflect a bit on a taboo in American political debate which has potentially serious consequences.

During the Cold War, hawkish attitudes to the risk of a confrontation with the Soviet Union were often alarmingly casual. I don’t mean that anyone actually wanted a confrontation. But hawkish rhetoric and strategizing flirted more openly with the risks of nuclear annihilation than many of us were comfortable with – and that includes many of those who supported standing up to the Soviets in all sorts of ways. (This isn’t a point aimed exclusively at Republicans, of course – think of McNamara’s advice to Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

It’s worth remembering how serious a risk we were all flirting with. A nuclear exchange would have wiped out life on earth.

Compare this to the threat of terrorism. What is the worst that a terrorist could do? Well, it’s pretty damn awful. In the worst case, a small nuclear device packed in a truck in Midtown Manhattan could kill hundreds of thousands, destroy the American economy, spread sickness and devastation, and render my favourite city in the U.S. uninhabitable. But this is still not as awful as the complete and final destruction of life on earth coldly contemplated by hundreds of pointy-heads in government and Think Tanks for the duration of the Cold War. And although this is a difficult judgment call, I think there’s considerably less risk of a worst case terrorist attack than there was of a nuclear confrontation.

It isn’t being cavalier about terrorism to point this out, since even less than worse case terrorist attacks are awful enough that we ought to be prepared to go very far out of our way to try to prevent them.

And again, I don’t mean that anyone intentionally courted disaster during the Cold War. I mean that the risk of nuclear annihilation was never considered an absolute argument stopper when policymakers were weighing risks of different sorts against one another.

The irony, then, is this: Hawks during the cold war went from excessive risk-taking in the face of a far greater threat, to a total refusal nowadays to countenance any course of action that involves an increased risk – however slight – of further terrorism.

Critics of the current administration have noted that many of the hawks who were gaming intelligence during the Cold War were up to the same old tricks during the build-up to the war on Iraq. And indeed, there is a depressing continuity both in actors and tactics here. But it has eluded critics that the underlying attitude towards risk has been completely reversed: The risk of terrorism is no longer considered a risk to be balanced against other risks in other areas. It is a trump card, a genuine argument stopper. It is now the case that to identify a plausible measure in the War on Terror is automatically to have a decisive reason to act, whatever the other consequences.

Now, perhaps this is more a feature of hawkish rhetoric than hawkish belief. Anyone who is serious about protecting Americans from future terrorist attacks should also be serious about adequate funding for homeland security, and this is not something which the Bush administration or its defenders have been serious about. Still, I have a sense that I’ve put my finger on a real article of faith in the administration and among its supporters. And anyway, it functions as an argument stopper in real political debate, so we might as well treat it as sincere and examine it accordingly.

It might also be objected that the nature of the threat has changed in ways that make this shift in attitudes to risk intelligible. But this overlooks the fact that, for one thing, the risks presented by further terrorism are less serious than the ones contemplated by policymakers and analysts in during the Cold War (What is the best case scenario involving a nuclear exchange?). I think this also overlooks the years of uncertainty during the Cold War about whether, in fact, the Soviets were deterrable. Don’t forget that this was once a very open question, especially over the years as each side postured to try to stare down and unnerve the other. But, more important, this objection misses the main point. The undeterrability of terrorist groups is part of the risk we’re considering. And what I’m comparing is the risk presented by these two very different kinds of adversaries and the attitudes of American policymakers to that risk.

Without our much noticing or debating it, this principle – the one that says that no risk of terrorism is acceptable under any circumstances, and can’t be weighed against any other sort of risk in formulating policy – has hardened into one of the firmest taboos in American political culture. It’s the explicit party line of the hawks, who trumpet it most loudly, but it’s also never been challenged effectively in the mainstream, as far as I know, and this has allowed it to enter the conventional wisdom by default.

Despite this, I think it’s a terrible principle, and one that is bound to mislead Americans. In fact, I think it’s bound to make all of us much less safe given enough time.

Let me explain this by describing one of the consequences of the principle in action. Consider the U.S.’s dealings with Russia. The relationship is complex, with all sorts of trade-offs, and I don’t want to oversimplify things. But one very prominent justification offered for the U.S.’s steadfast refusal to press Russia on Chechnya, or human rights in general, or the failure to respect the rule of law, or for generally behaving like France on the international stage, or for any number of worrying developments, is that Russia is an ally in the war on terror and provides intelligence cooperation on Muslim extremist groups. (And the same considerations apply to China, more or less, mutatis mutandis.)

Well, I’m sure it does, though I’ve not heard many stories of actual cooperation. On balance I rather doubt that the trade is worth it, even on its own terms. Russia’s behaviour in Chechnya has surely done more to inflame radical Muslim sentiment than its intelligence on radical groups could ever compensate for. But set this aside, and assume that the trade makes sense from the point of view of combating terrorism.

Also set aside – just for the moment – the moral question: Is Russian intelligence so good that it’s worth turning a blind eye to the wanton persecution of human beings in Chechnya? Hawks who like to brag about saving Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo might want to chew on that one for a while. It’s a bit deflating to add Chechnya – and the U.S.’s non-response to it – to this supposedly glorious story. Pooty-Poot is a war criminal, and anyone who stares into his beady little eyes and comes away without shuddering is a fool or worse. But let this go for a minute.

The most serious prudential point is that U.S. policies which subordinate the goal of fighting terrorist groups over everything else miss the fact that an increasingly unhealthy Russia is bad for the U.S. (and a lot of other people, like, for example, Russians) for all kinds of reasons quite unrelated to terrorism. Investment, a stable source of oil, a potentially reliable partner, an actor on the global stage which still has considerable influence – all these things are set at risk by the sort of political decay in Russia that the U.S. has so clearly declined to resist since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

This is a bipartisan criticism, by the way, and a problem in which – just to be clear – there are more factors than an interest in combating terrorism. I think Clinton’s coddling of Yeltsin for quite different reasons played a crucial, and very unfortunate, role in bringing things to this point.

But the War on Terror as an article of unquestioned faith has made things much worse, and now stands firmly in the way of a re-evaluation of the policy. Here, then, is the effect of the taboo: Our politicians (and indeed, most of the chattering class) now lack the vocabulary, and perhaps even the conceptual tools, that would help to evaluate the various risks and balance them sensibly. That’s because balancing them sensibly would require them to seriously consider the possibility that other considerations might, in principle, outweigh the risks posed by terrorism. It might make sense to accept slightly more risk in the War on Terror in order to achieve a more stable Russia, assuming for the moment that helping to bring about a stable Russia actually did require the U.S. to jeopardize a potential source of intelligence on extremist groups. In fact, I think this particular trade off would be worth it. And I live in New York!

Now, part of the solution here would be to try to figure out a way to frame the political debate which doesn’t allow this point to be distorted into the simplistic claim that critics of the assumption are soft on terrorism, and don’t take national security seriously. Perhaps you can figure this out. I’m not sure I can.

It’s important to rethink this mess of intuitions from the start. For the refusal to consider different sorts of trade-offs influences more than just foreign policy. It figures prominently in the debate over civil liberties, for example. People have assumed that Ashcroft and others are acting consistently with past positions when they balance civil liberties against terrorist measures and civil liberties come off worse for it. But in fact we’ve come a very long way from the days of “Better dead than red”. It would be nice to have just a bit more of that spirit back in the right. It would be better to have just a bit more of that spirit back in all of us.

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