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March 28, 2004 - The Meme of the Month

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If Descartes were alive today these neoconservative guys would kick that evil French fellow in the shins and beat the snot out of him, in moral outrage, or just for the fun of it.



In the magazine last Sunday I had that item on logic - The Limitations of Empiricism in Politics with the subheading “Try this little investigation of how the need of those in power to maintain their power trumps this empiricism business.”  That’s here.

What I was getting at was simple.  Building on an item by Tim Noah in Slate the current anti-empiricist line of attacking problems became clear to me. 

Someone studies something and his or her conclusion suggests your war may be whole lot more expensive and messy than you’d like?  You don’t want to know.  It would be unpatriotic to know such things, or at least it would be so negative to think that way.  A positive attitude works wonders?  Maybe. 


The second example was what if someone has financial facts that would mean you’d lose the vote because the damned Medicare bill is too expensive?  Let that someone know if any member of congress asks him for the numbers, and he tells them the truth, he’ll get fired. 


The third example, the EPA one, was what if the proposed regulation of something toxic might cost your political contributors a bundle?  Make sure the science isn’t done – forbid any studies on the matter.  All this happened with the current administration. 

Their implicit position?  Facts?  Who needs them?  Ignore them as “defeatist.”  Or make sure they never get out.  Or make sure they’re never developed at all. 

And I commented that although I’ve always been kind of fond of empiricism it is clear that I am living in the wrong century. 

So Tim Noah got me revved up.  And he seems to have started a meme. 

A meme?  You will find the term defined at Tech Target:


A meme is an idea that is passed on from one human generation to another.  It's the cultural equivalent of a gene, the basic element of biological inheritance.  The term was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene.  Dawkins speculated that human beings have an adaptive mechanism that other species don't have.  In addition to genetic inheritance with its possibilities and limitations, humans, said Dawkins, can pass their ideas from one generation to the next, allowing them to surmount challenges more flexibly and more quickly than through the longer process of genetic adaptation and selection. 

Examples of memes might include the idea of God; the importance of the individual as opposed to group importance; the belief that the environment can to some extent be controlled; or that technologies can create an electronically interconnected world community. 

Today, the word is sometimes applied ironically to ideas deemed to be of passing value.  Dawkins himself described such short-lived ideas as memes that would have a short life in the meme pool.


Okay, then. 

This current meme – that the neoconservative ideologues who control what George Bush thinks, says and does (and are the ones who are really running the country) loathe the Enlightenment tradition of empiricism – seems to be the current “meme of the month.”  These neoconservative fellows would, if Descartes were alive today, kick that evil French fellow in the shins and beat the snot out of him in moral outrage, or just for the fun of it. 

Well, that’s the general idea. 

It’s not just Tim Noah and me.  This meme is spreading.  To the Washington Post now!

See The Professionals' Revolt
Harold Meyerson, Wednesday, March 24, 2004; Page A21

Meyerson reviews how it seems odd that no one has actually thanked Richard Clarke, whose book Against All Enemies is causing such stir.  Well, Clarke bluntly says Bush and his team ignored the real threats to the country and waged a foolish war to take over Iraq for some greater good.  Clarke had been doing his Cassandra thing for years, screaming about al Qaida and how they were coming to get us.  Well, perhaps he thinks of himself more as some sort of heroic Paul Revere rather than that flaky Cassandra woman.  But the problem is, really, he was right. 

And no one listened.  And they screwed things up.  And no one even turned to him and said, “Gosh, Dick, I guess you were right.  Thank you for being so on the ball.”

Well, that expectation is a ridiculous misreading of how the current crew in power deals with disagreement.  Ask the French.  Ask Hans Blix. 

Anyway, Meyerson does a number on this idea that the guy might be worthy of some acknowledgement – and then launches into the meme of the month:


But Clarke did receive a huge if unspoken acknowledgment on the morning of Sept.  11: National security adviser Condoleezza Rice declined to run the so-called principals meeting in the White House Situation Room, choosing Clarke instead to coordinate the urgent information-gathering and to formulate the security responses to put before the president. 

Rice repaired, with Dick Cheney, to the White House basement's bomb shelter.  A hijacked plane over Pennsylvania was headed toward Washington, and the rest of the White House evacuated at full sprint - with the exception of Clarke and a handful of security professionals, who remained in the West Wing to continue their work. 

But the security professionals who stayed at their station on Sept. 11 soon found they had philosophical differences with the neos in the shelter.  They were empiricists: They took in as much information as they could and derived their conclusions on that basis.  And, as Clarke and many of his fellow professionals were soon to discover, this has been a tough administration for empiricists.


Ah, Meyerson takes the bait!  The meme continues replicating!


Step back a minute and look at who has left this administration or blown the whistle on it, and why.  Clarke enumerates a half-dozen counterterrorism staffers, three of whom were with him in the Situation Room on Sept. 11, who left because they felt the White House was placing too much emphasis on the enemy who didn't attack us, Iraq, and far too little on the enemy who did. 

But that only begins the list.  There's Paul O'Neill, whose recent memoir recounts his ongoing and unavailing battle to get the president to take the skyrocketing deficit seriously.  There's Christie Todd Whitman, who appears in O'Neill's memoir recalling her own unsuccessful struggles to get the White House to acknowledge the scientific data on environmental problems.  There's Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, who told Congress that it would take hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to adequately secure postwar Iraq.  There's Richard Foster, the Medicare accountant, who was forbidden by his superiors from giving Congress an accurate assessment of the cost of the administration's new program.  All but Foster are now gone, and Foster's sole insurance policy is that Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress were burnt by his muzzling.


Yep, that’s everyone’s list. 

Meyerson’s point? 


In the Bush administration, you're an empiricist at your own peril.  Plainly, this has placed any number of conscientious civil servants -- from Foster, who totaled the costs on Medicare, to Clarke, who charted the al Qaeda leads before Sept. 11 -- at risk.  In a White House where ideology trumps information time and again, you run the numbers at your own risk.  Nothing so attests to the fundamental radicalism of this administration as the disaffection of professionals such as Foster and Clarke, each of whom had served presidents of both parties. 


Meyerson’s point is that this revolt of the professionals poses one huge problem for the Bush presidency - precisely because “it is not coming from its ideological antagonists.”

The meme point here is that the "common indictment that these critics are leveling at the administration is that it is impervious to facts."

Is this playing fast and loose with the basic facts enough to put the election of George Bush to another four-year term in peril? 


Probably not. 

We, as a people, don’t much care for facts.  After all, what really determines the outcome of an election where we give one guy power and send the other guy packing?  There’s image, and likeability, and that illusive quality of being the right guy to run things because you don’t seem any smarter at all than the average fellow. 

What did Adlai Steven say when he was about to lose in his last run for the presidency?  Someone asked him if it pleased him that the “thinking people of America” were all going to vote for him.  His reply was quite honest and straightforward – “No, I’d rather have the majority.”

Sigh.  Anyway, keep an eye out for this meme.  It's amusing. 




Oh yeah, Jack Beatty picks it up in the March 25, 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, but give it a religious spin.  See The Faith-Based Presidency, with the subheading “You can question Bush's veracity, his grip on reality, and the rationality of his policies, but not his faith.”


Beatty is without much mercy here:


George W. Bush has made rationality an antonym of Republican. His is the first faith-based presidency.  Above the entrance to the Bush West Wing should be St. Paul's definition of faith—"the evidence of things unseen."

So much of President Bush has to be taken on faith.  His integrity, for example.  You have to trust the evidence of things unseen to believe him, for the visible evidence indicates a disposition toward deceit.  Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the cost of his prescription-drug bill, the effect of his tax cuts on the deficit, the number of lines of stem cells available to scientists after his restrictions on research.  You name it—from who hung the Mission Accomplished banner up behind him for his "victory" strut on the USS Abraham Lincoln to his claims that on September 11 he, not the Air Force Chief of Staff, was the one to order the military to highest alert—he's lied about it.

Alternatively, Bush could be seen as what Al Sharpton called "an unconscious liar."  He asks us to accept his feelings about something as evidence of the something.  In this view, he's not deceitful; he's innocent of the procedures of rationality—he can't think.

Or his troubles with truth arise because he bases his thoughts on authority not reality. …


And he goes on for pages.  The idea here is Bush doesn't explain his policies because he can't - and because they don't make sense.  And Beatty explains that.  And once you wade through all that you get this:


You can question Bush's veracity, his grip on reality, and the rationality of his policies, but not his faith.  Turning to Jesus to escape from drinking was the turning point in his life.  Sincerity, unreservedly giving your heart to Jesus, is the fulcrum of life-altering faith, say people who have experienced it.  Reason, skepticism, critical thought, irony, argument - all threaten this sustaining emotional purity.  You owe your life to a miracle, and it will go away if doubt creeps in.

All lives have the kind of soul-trying trouble that nearly cost George W. Bush his marriage.  Some people see psychiatrists; others take medication; many turn to faith.  And for many of this last group, I suspect, Bush's sins against reason, his privileging of his heart over his head, make up no small part of his appeal.


Well, that’s cheery thought.  Bush’s mass appeal is that he doesn’t think – he FEELS and BELIEVES.  Oh yeah, great.


I have a friend in Paris who needs a roommate.  Time to get out.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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