Saturday, October 09, 2010

A good example of self-deception

My fundamental criticism of the American self-identified "intellectual" is that -- as is the general law across the human race as a whole, though the tendency is greatly exaggerated amongst our chattering classes -- his level of rationality tends to be inversely proportional to his self-satisfaction. There's a lovely, lovely bit of unintentional self-revelation in the interview David Remnick grants to Der Spiegel here. The whole article is instructive in its illustration of Advanced Techniques of Self-Deception, but I thought I would pull out just one bit. As it happens, Remnick adores Fellow Intellectual Barack Obama and despises Unwashed Proles Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin; but this same pattern of obvious self-deception can be found anywhere you find a person who is proud of How Smart I Am, of any political stripe; and my interest is the psychology and mechanics of self-deception, not the political affiliations in this particular case.

Notice how far Remnick reaches to avoid having to admit the moral force of Hillary Clinton's complaints about Obama's dishonesty on the campaign trail, which complaints he implicitly treats as absolutely true -- that is, that the things Obama said about his own life were contrary to the actual facts, and that Obama knew them to be contrary to the actual facts when he said them...yet somehow Remnick has to reassure himself that this does not mean they are lies. (I remind the Gentle Reader that the focus here is not on Obama's deliberate dishonesty, but on Remnick's desperate self-deception.)

Remnick: I think it's intermittent. Even if that happens, it will help Obama in the long run that he is also a "shapeshifter." He speaks in a different way in the Oval Office to the entire nation than he does in Selma, Alabama, speaking directly to the African-American community, or to union workers in Ohio. That is another one of his gifts and I think it will help him find a way to reach out to angry voters.

SPIEGEL: Has that gift to adjust also undermined his credibility? In your book, you quote a Hillary Clinton aide who complains that Obama basically changed his life story in the presidential campaign, depending on the audience he spoke with. Does he not stand for anything?

Remnick: I quoted the Clinton aide not to agree with him but to get the point of view of the Clintons, how helpless they felt during their campaign against Obama. Do I think Barack Obama manipulated his life story in some pernicious way? No, I don't. Do I think he gave it its full poetic force? Yes.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?

Remnick: He did what politicians have done for centuries. They take the facts of their life and try to make it embody a national drama at a certain point in time. Lincoln did this. Obama did that when in his book he describes his upbringing as that of a disadvantaged African American even though he actually grew up under rather comfortable circumstances.
Lest there be any doubt that the exact same behavior from, say, Glenn Beck would cause Remick to call him a "liar" rather than a "shapeshifter" who gives his (bogus) life story its "full poetic force," here is Remnick later in the interview:
"People like Glenn Beck are not political analysts, they are circus barkers, fantasists trafficking in bogus history and ugly conspiracy theories. And, unfortunately, he has real influence on millions of people."

If it's the person Remnick agrees with with who is deliberately misleading people by telling stories about her own life that she knows to be nonfactual, then she will be a "shapeshifter" who is "giving her life story its full poetic force." If it's the person Remnick disagrees with, on the other hand, then the prevaricator is a "circus barker, a fantasist trafficking in bogus history." Were Remnick's prejudices conservative -- or even if he were liberal but a die-hard Clintonist -- we can be sure that he would be calling Obama something like "a fraud and a con man, trafficking in bogus autobiography;" were his prejudices conservative then we can be sure that he would be excusing any similar dishonesty from Glenn Beck as the skillful "shapeshifting" of an embodiment of the popular will, "giving his political philosophy its full poetic force."

I hope you can see the technique, and I hope you, Gentle Reader, can understand the general principle that the wise man applies when listening to pundits. Words like "true" and "lie" and "factual" and "contrafactual" are straightforward and simple. You don't have to be very smart to understand that it is wrong to tell somebody something that you know is not true in order to get them to do what you want them to do. So the self-deceiver takes refuge in big but vague, noble-sounding but gaseous, phrases like "full poetic force." What Remnick is of course saying is that Obama is a gifted liar, and that he is very good at being able to change his story from audience to audience so that each audience hears what its itching ears want to hear, and that he is not constrained by ordinary ethics that govern the lives of honest people. (Elsewhere in the piece Remnick says bluntly, "He is a politician. This fact should come as no surprise to anybody who examines his very first moments in politics. The first thing he does when he applies for office in Chicago is to get a competitor off the ballot with legal tricks. I don't know if Mahatma Gandhi would have done that.") But "liar" is such an unpleasant word. So instead he is a "shapeshifter," and he isn't "telling audiences whatever they want to hear without worrying about whether what he's saying is true" -- he's "giving his life story its full poetic force."

Now let me ask you something: what does "full poetic force" mean? The answer, of course, is that it means...well, not very much, specifically. In this particular context we can deduce that it means "telling audiences whatever they want to hear." But "full poetic force" doesn't mean anything actually concrete. The phrase is used not for the sake of its meaning -- but for the sake of its positive connotations. "Poetry" is a good thing...that is, when we hear the phrase "full poetic force" we naturally feel predisposed to approve of whatever is being spoken of. And this is one of the telltale signs that you're being lied to (or that you're listening to somebody lie to themselves): when the words they use have strong emotional content but don't actually mean anything specific. In such cases you should always dig into what concrete meaning is hiding under the positive vibe. The same rule holds for denotationally empty, but connotationally loaded, negative phrases such as "fantasists trafficking in bogus history".

And that's ESPECIALLY true when you hear YOURSELF using phrases like that.

By the time Remnick is done, of course, he's managed to talk himself into not even knowing what the word "facts" means. Compare these two sentences, which are part of what Remnick fondly believes to be some sort of logical argument:

"They take the facts of their life and try to make it embody a national drama at a certain point in time...Obama did that when in his book he describes his upbringing as that of a disadvantaged African American even though he actually grew up under rather comfortable circumstances." Isn't it instantly, blindingly obvious to anybody (except Remnick himself, of course) that by Remnick's own admission, the facts of Obama's life were precisely NOT what Obama was trying to make embody a national drama at a certain point in time? What Obama tried to make embody a national drama were his contrafactual fantasies about his life, not the actual facts of his life -- but it is Glenn Beck, not Obama, who is the "fantasist."

In short Remnick's whole exculpation of Obama is, in the most literal sense of the term, incoherent. That does not keep Remnick from thinking he has said something impressively indicative of profundity of thought.

What is pitiful about Remnick, and his self-impressed peers in the chattering class, is that, while Obama certainly knows that what he was saying to his target audiences was untrue, Remnick himself is blissfully aware of his own dishonesty. For Obama was only lying to other people. Remnick is lying to himself.

That is, after all, what the American self-identified intellectual does best.


Post a Comment

<< Home