Monday, October 06, 2008

No Neutrals

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.

(from Bloody Harlan by Florence Reece)

One interesting--and irritating--feature of online argument, especially in an election year, is the routine assumption that everyone is on one side or the other and that which side you are on determines what you say. If you say something favorable about Governor Palin you must be a Republican supporter and are therefor obligated to respond to any argument offered against Senator McCain. If you say something favorable about Obama you must be a supporter of the Democrats and obliged to defend Obama against any and all arguments.

I am not supporting either ticket. When I commented on my blog that I thought Obama was the least bad candidate and offered some reasons why, with luck, he might actually do some good things, I promptly got labelled in a variety of places as having endorsed him. When I spent a number of blog posts here commenting on the election, some of them defending Governor Palin from blatantly dishonest quotations out of context, at least one blogger found it suspicious that I was saying so much in defense of the Republicans. In one recent online argument a poster simply refused to believe my statement that I didn't plan to vote for McCain. It was obvious to him that only someone committed to the other side could possibly question his side's version of the particular issue we were discussing.

In another argument on a different newsgroup, I pointed out that Biden had misrepresented the role of the Vice President as set out in the original Constitution. The poster who responded apparently thought I was defending Dick Cheney's claims as to where in the governmental structure he belonged and what privileges he got thereby. I have not actually paid much attention to that issue, and in any case the role of the VP may possibly have changed over the past two hundred plus years, especially after the Twelfth Amendment created our present system of electing a paired President and Vice President. Biden had cited Article I of the Constitution, Article I directly contradicted what Biden had said, and that told us something about Biden, whether or not it had any relevance to Cheney.

Part of the explanation of the pattern is, I think, the natural human tendency, probably hardwired, to view the world in terms of in group and out group, us and them. If I defend Palin or point out Biden's errors I am obviously not part of the Obama in group so must be on the other team.

There may be a second element. Most people are not very interested in political, economic, historical matters. But most people do enjoy cheering for their team. So political arguments, especially online during an election year, are populated by a lot of people who are arguing not because they are interested in the ideas but because it is a way of fighting for their side. It is natural enough for them to assume that everyone else is doing the same thing.


Daniel Reeves said...

Politics and group identification corrupts otherwise adequate thinkers' minds with a terrible and, to my knowledge, unidentified bias that causes people to be completely irrational toward views held by the other side that are commonsense. E.g. I'm sure more Republicans would be for legalization of gay marriage and more Democrats for free trade if it were not for the mud slinging contest between the two parties.

When you throw group association into politics, it becomes one big dichotomy. It's such a shame that politics has corrupted so many potentially brilliant minds with slogan-chanting madness.

Anonymous said...

What does it say about Mr Friedman that he misspells the Vice President's name? It is Cheney, not Cheyney. It's not that difficult to get right, is it?

Joe said...

You're far too generous :)

David Friedman said...

"What does it say about Mr Friedman that he misspells the Vice President's name? It is Cheney, not Cheyney. "

Thank you for pointing out the error--I have now corrected it.

The error did, at least, support my claim that I hadn't been paying much attention to that particular controversy.

Anonymous said...

I think the most destructive force in America today is the notion so many people have that anyone who disagrees with them on politics must be evil, stupid, or generally a bad person.

I think you're seeing the fallout of that. If you defend Palin, you must be a bad person. Therefore, you must believe all the other things that bad people believe.

I wrote about this phenomenon here.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is all the negative role models. The way to be successful as a professional pundit or think tanker is to pick a side and advocate for it, lawyer-like. So maybe some people look at that circus and get the idea that this is how normal people should behave.

Anonymous said...

"...Democrats for free trade..."

Republicans aren't any more for free trade than the Democrats.

Perhaps Friedman's observations can be more easily explained by most people are incompetent at arguing. Cheerleading is a lot easier than making meaningful critical arguments.

Margarita Mirasol said...

Well said.
Part of the reason why we get into these big messes with the governments is because folks only come out to cheer on the major elections having lost the plot over the previous 4 years and instead falling for the primative - you're with me, or against me - stance.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed everybody votes for a third party but hey, I'm dreaming. The Americans have been given the perfect opportunity to show their disappointment in the main parties for having got them into this big mess; the perfect opportunity. It's called using your vote to log your complaint. It's so easy to do. Vote neither of the Terrible Two.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, exactly. It makes a mockery of the sanctimoniousness and solemnity with which so many people (actually almost everyone) hold democracy to realize that almost everyone who pays attention to politics treats it in the same way sports fans treat a sports rivalry, except with a lot less perspective and civility.

Anok said...

I commented over on The Necro Files, but just in case he doesn't publicsh the comment: the article in which yuo are quoted is here:

And it says this:

Professor David Friedman describes himself as a “classic liberal”, who had a lively intellectual upbringing as the son of Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher’s economic guru.

“I hope Obama wins,” he said. “President Bush has clearly been a disaster from the standpoint of libertarians and conservatives because he has presided over an astonishing rise in government spending.”

Friedman believes Obama’s economic advisers, such as Austan Goolsbee and Jason Fur-man, a new appointee who has defended the giant Wal-Mart superstore chain for supplying cheap goods to the poor, “have new ideas about what it means to be on the left in a free market economy”.

He suspects that Obama is sympathetic to school vouchers, a key demand for supporters of a free market in education, although the Illinois senator kept quiet about them while wooing Democratic activists in the primaries.

Obama was clearly “uncomfortable” about compelling people to buy health insurance, Friedman noted, unlike Clinton, who attacked him mercilessly on the subject in the course of the Democratic election campaign.

Friedman has also been appalled by the erosion of civil liberties under Bush and remains a harsh critic of the Iraq war. So was his father, who died in 2006 at the age of 94. “I was under the impression he was not very happy with the Bush administration and, like me, thought the Iraq war was a mistake,” he said.

So you'll have to tell me if you were lying, if the newspaper made up the quote, or what.

Because when you say "I hope so and so wins" and you haven't said it about any other candidate, and you haven't retracted the statement, then you have endorsed a candidate.

David Friedman said...

Anok asks if the Times article misquoted me. I don't think so. The author turned "classical liberal" into "classic liberal" and overstated my optimism on the subject of vouchers, but the general account wasn't seriously inaccurate.

What he doesn't mention is that I have said several times that I don't plan to vote for Obama, which I think is sufficient to prevent my view that he is the least bad of the candidates from constituting an endorsement.

Anok said...

Thank you for answering, let me ask, do you plan on voting for any candidate, or, much like Chomsky, are just hoping that the least bad candidate wins?

In any case, you should probably let the author know that it wasn't an outright endorsement of Obama, because you are listed in several areas as outright endorsing him. Unless, of course, you don't mind the insinuation of endorsement.

I do find it refreshing, however, that some one such as yourself has, at the very least, noted that Obama is the "least bad", which, is really saying the best current choice, when many others are calling him a fiscal socialist, as opposed to McCain, who is considered a fiscal conservative, and de-regulation maverick.

David Friedman said...

In response to Anok:

I don't plan to vote for anyone for President this year.

I have responded to claims that I endorsed Obama on a variety of online forums by pointing out that I didn't. I'm afraid there is no way to respond to everyone who believes the contrary.

Anonymous said...

Obama did finally come out clearly against school vouchers when put on the spot in the debate.

The more I found out about Obama, the more it was clear he has been a classical Stalinist for most of his life. Any free market statements and associations now are just for show.

Few have time to research him properly, and the media is not doing an impartial job of reporting or researching. They really want a savior for the left. Sometimes religious behavior seems entrenched in our DNA, regardless of religious affiliation or stated lack thereof.

Do not count what Obama says for the TV - look at what he has done and who has supported him in the past. The rest is illusion.

Anok said...

@Laurie - from the debate:

Where we disagree is on the idea that we can somehow give out vouchers -- give vouchers as a way of securing the problems in our education system. And I also have to disagree on Sen. McCain's record when it comes to college accessibility and affordability.[...]I don't think America's youth are interest groups, I think they're our future. And this is an example of where we are going to have to prioritize. We can't say we're going to do things and then not explain in concrete terms how we're going to pay for it.

This is not him "concretely coming out against vouchers" but rather, disagreeing with the notion that vouchers are the savior of our education problems, and mainly for reasons of funding.

Much like this post - No Neutrals speaks to, please think critically and make sure you know what was actually said.

Anonymous said...

I'll be the first to admit I'm out of my usual league here, but I find most of what y'all are saying to be refreshing. I am all for a decent third party to be a viable alternative to the present miasma. And I thought I was the only one who saw some brand of Communism in Obama's rhetoric. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't it Einstein who said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results." I don't wish to see another four years of the same clowns in office that we have now, but I also don't wish to see steady erosion of constitutionally guaranteed rights. I'd like a candidate and/or party who will abide by the Constitution and its amendments as being applicable to individuals and not society as a whole. And if I vote for anyone, I will keep my choices personal. I'm not one for wearing buttons or other paraphernalia. Less arguments that way, I think. And to think I came to this discussion looking for plans for a rope bed......

Anonymous said...

"Where we disagree is on the idea that we can somehow give out vouchers -- give vouchers as a way of securing the problems in our education system."

That seems pretty clear to me. Obama does not see vouchers as a solution. He is against education vouchers.

You have to twist his words pretty hard to see it any other way.

Anok said...

Laurie, it helps to keep the quote in context. And, I think you've twisted your interpretation pretty hard as well. He never said he didn't support vouchers, only that he disagrees that they will fix all of the problems.

Obama goes on to say that there is no explanation of how we would pay for vouchers, or how it would be a viable system. Hence his apprehension. Vouchers are also not the be-all end-all solution to the huge and multiple problems facing our educational system.

Giving out vouchers isn't going to make everything better and, in the meantime without having the funds to create them, they may even make tings worse.

It' snot a ringing endorsement of vouchers, but it's not a definitive dismissal of them, either.