The New York Times’ Resident Voodoo Statistician

Another rational liberal can’t think straight.

by Bruce S. Thornton

FrontPage Magazine

The New York Times’ resident voodoo statistician, Charles Blow, is at it again, using “scientific” polling data as an excuse to indulge ideological prejudice. The poll in question profiled people regarding the current health-care debate, and Blow doesn’t like the results. Seems that 56% of Republicans are following the debate “very closely,” while only 42% of Democrats are. More galling to Blow, while 80% of Democrats support Obama’s healthcare reforms, only 47% said they had a “good understanding of the issues involved.” On the other hand, 58% of Republicans claimed a “good understanding” of the issues, and only 19% supported Obamacare.

Now, these data could be interpreted in some interesting ways. This disconnect between some Democrats’ support and their understanding of the issue might just suggest that their support is merely an uninformed, partisan reflex. And the Republican lack of support could be a consequence of their greaterunderstanding that results from following the issue more closely.

But of course, such an obvious reading of the data doesn’t conform to liberal ideology and its bigoted view of Republicans as knuckle-dragging cavemen easily manipulated by the evil cabal of corporate hegemons, whereas Democrats are cool rationalists who base their positions on the careful study of the facts and coherent argument. So rather than deal with the challenge to his prejudices suggested by the data, Blow just takes off on a juvenile rant that adheres to the Democrats’ spin on the raucous protests greeting Democratic politicians at various town halls and other fora. You know the narrative: all these people daring to question their betters are really just Republican operatives or pliant dummies agitated by Republican internet screeds and FOX news propaganda.

Following that partisan script, Blow writes, “Not only are anti-reformists showing up, they’re terrorizing legislators with their tomfoolery when they do.” This muddled sentence reveals the irrational biases deforming Blow’s thinking. By any definition of “tomfoolery,” anyone over the age of 5 who would be “terrorized,” rather than merely, say, annoyed, by tomfoolery should never leave the house, let alone be elected to public office. Blow displays here the representative vice of most bad writers: starting a sentence in one register and then finishing it in another incompatible with the first. George Orwell identified this fault as a typical feature of bad writing, which “consists less and less ofwords chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrasestacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” Orwell linked this sort of bad prose specifically to political writing, which is used “for concealing or preventing thought,” just as Blow does by spraying the scary and distorting verbal aerosol of “terrorized” over the events he is describing.

After this rousing start, Blow works himself up into a rhetorical lather designed to avoid coming to terms with the uncomfortable conclusion — Republican support is predicated on greater understanding of the issue — suggested by the polling data: “Blinded by fear and passion, armed with misinformation and misplaced anger, they descend on these meetings and hoot and holler in an attempt to shut down the debate rather than add to it.” Let’s parse the various irrational prejudices and mental tics of the fundamentalist liberal. First there is the two-bit psychologizing: if someone disagrees with liberal dogma, it can’t possibly be because of an informed and thought-out opinion. No, such disagreement can result only from neuroses of some sort that usually afflict such people — “fear” of reform, or a “passion” for holding on to their safe, comfortable worldview in which their privilege is assured. Next, because they are so irrational and incapable of reasoned discourse, their response is to “shut down debate.” Apparently, to Blow “debate” in a public forum really means collective obeisance to whatever ideas or policy the politician is peddling, rather than questioning or challenging them.

Yes, some of the criticisms and questions have been voiced in a raucous or even rude manner. So what? Sometimes that’s what it takes to get a politician’s attention and get him to take you seriously. And that has ever been the way with public, democratic discussion, going back to ancient Athens, and evident in American history from the beginning. Politics involves beliefs and values that lie at the core of people’s identities, and when these beliefs collide, as they must in a large, variegated nation such as ours, sometimes the spectacle can become unpleasant. Nor does the passion expressed necessarily mean the opinion is irrational. But that unpleasantness and conflict are the price we pay for the right publicly to “speak truth to power,” and the opportunity to challenge our leaders and hold them accountable to the people in whom political power ultimately resides. Civility and decorum would be nice, but not at the expense of getting at the truth and holding our leaders’ feet to the fire when policies of such great import (and expense) are being proposed.

Worse yet, it takes a remarkable amount of shamelessness for a liberal like Blow to complain about a lack of “civility” after the last eight years of slander directed at George Bush, Dick Cheney, and the Republican Party in general. Blow brings up the “birthers,” those who have questions about Obama’s place of birth, as further evidence of Republican stupidity and meanness. Yet this silly diversion is mere tomfoolery compared to the false charges that were continually leveled at George Bush — the most despicable being that he fabricated evidence about Iraq’s WMD and lied to the people so he could start a war in which American citizens would die just to profit his corporate buddies. This canard was examined and exposed as false over and over, which didn’t stop many liberals from indulging it with an aggressive viciousness and brutality that make these townhall critics sound like ingénues discussing theirbeaus in a Jane Austen novel. Did Blow think that such “belligerence is the currency of the intellectually bankrupt” when Bush was on the receiving end?

But we know what this is really about: “Let’s face it. This is no party of Einsteins. Really, it isn’t.” Blow’s proof? “Only 6 percent of scientists said that they were Republicans”! There’s the fatal flaw of reasoning that lies behind much liberal thinking: because science is adept at discovering many truths about the material world, it is equally capable of discovering truths about the political, social, or moral world — something it hasn’t been able to do. Likewise, scientists can be geniuses when speaking about their area of research, yet complete idiots when they venture from it into realms such as the political. Look at all those brilliant scientists in Germany who sold their souls to one of history’s most inhuman, irrational, and destructive ideologies.

Contrary to most liberal thinking, politics does not require “scientific” knowledge as much as what the Greek philosopher Protagoras called the “political skill,” the wisdom about ends and means, goods and principles, and human nature that will not be discovered in a classroom or laboratory but that comes from tradition, experience, and sheer common sense. Such wisdom tells us that perfection in this world is a pipe dream, and anybody who sets out to create utopia usually leaves behind a huge mess, for life and people are too complex, conflicted, and quirky for the reductive schemes of social planners and “engineers of the soul.” Such wisdom is suspicious of those who claim otherwise, who promise perfect justice, perfect equality, happiness for all, or anything else they offer in exchange for more and more power.

I suspect many of those people exercising their right to free speech and to question their elected representatives are motivated not by “fear” and “passion” but by a political common sense that knows giving more power over their lives to the government is a bad idea. That sounds much smarter and more rational than Blow’s bigoted clichés and dishonest rhetoric.

©2009 Bruce S. Thornton

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