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Tuesday, June 26, 2012


The first two comments below (The Honourable Husband and Boba) vanished when I attempted to approve and post. Fortunately, copies were still in my email where copies are automatically forwarded. These are cut and paste reposts, so everything is accurate except the time stamp.

From Turley's comment re: Althouse I do not expect such ill-informed and uncivil attacks from a fellow academic. While Althouse writes a conservative blog and has been something of a lightning rod in the past, I would have thought that she would do a little research before going after another professor. Obviously he doesn't read Althouse and has far too much confidence in the integrity and competence of his peers. I thought scientists were this bastion of reason and logic too, then I started working with them. I soon discovered they are as mean-spirited and petty as the rest of us.

Our nature, as humans, is a funny thing. We are the only species, perhaps, which is sentient enough to be able to resist our own nature. Sometimes, that can do us good. On the other hand, not to respect and honour our own nature leads to misery, even madness. As a therapist, I imagine that you see this all the time. We used to have a good old-fashioned concept known as wisdom, which allowed us to reconcile these two elements in our lives. Sadly, I haven't heard the word "wisdom" in public discourse for quite a while, except to diss the idea by putting the word "conventional" in front of it. Time for us to revisit the notion.

Honourable Husband:

Your perceptive comment on wisdom brought me back to an old post on reactions to the construction of Cordoba House, an Islamic center planned for lower Manhattan, in the World Trade Center neighborhood.


So with whom should Obama side?

I've heard some opponents of Cordoba House describe Obama as an "out-of-touch" president because he is oblivious to the passionate feelings of a majority of Americans. I don't think he's oblivious, but in any case, majorities, even passionate majorities, are far from always right. I noted in a post last week that the wisdom of the crowd often gives way to the madness of the crowd. The feelings of the majority are not a reliable indicator of the wisdom of a particular decision.

Besides, the word "wisdom" mischaracterizes even the best crowd decision-making. Crowds might be better than individuals at guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar, if we average the estimates of all individuals in a crowd. But wisdom is more complicated than estimation.

Wisdom has more to do with taking the long view, informed by a deep understanding of flawed human nature.

Wisdom requires patience, humility and a degree of equanimity.

Wisdom recognizes that decisions are rarely unipolar in their effects. Choices often bring good news and bad news, which is a difficult notion to grasp when passions are inflamed.

Wisdom also appreciates uncertainty. The wise know when they don't know enough and that, sometimes, it's impossible to know enough. We don't need certainty to act, but uncertainty can arise because we've given a matter thoughtful consideration.

Impassioned crowds embody none of these characteristics of wisdom. Crowds endorse unipolar certainties. Rather than being temperate, crowds build steam under the heavy influence of confirmation bias. Crowds see the wise as out-of-touch wafflers because the wise see beyond the immediate, pressing passions of the crowd. Foolish crowds rush in, where the wise deliberate.

I don't know whether Obama has a private opinion on the wisdom of building Cordoba House. Perhaps his refusal to comment on the wisdom of building Cordoba House is based on cold political calculation. Politicians in both parties have been known to adopt politically calculated positions. We whine about this, but we won't elect candidates who don't make politically calculated decisions. Candidates are constantly compelled to mollify mad crowds.

Perhaps Obama sees some sort of wisdom in refusing to express his opinion, even a wisdom that extends beyond cold political calculation. Don't know.

It's also possible that, like me, Obama has no opinion on the wisdom of Cordoba House because, no matter what happens at this point, there will be both bad news and good news in the construction of Cordoba House.

What I do know is that presidents can't talk to the American public about the complexity of such matters. Well, they can, but the crowd doesn't like complexity. The crowd accuses those who articulate complexity of impotence or, even worse, nuance. Remember that the crowd ranted against Obama for failing to renounce his longtime pastor and friend who sometimes says things that offend people. When Obama offered a rather nuanced response, he was accused of throwing his grandmother "under the bus" by the same people who demanded that he throw his friend under the bus. My point is not to defend Obama, but to emphasize that angry crowds can't be reasoned with in any complex or nuanced manner. Inevitably some foul dope grabs an isolated word or thought within a complex argument, and shouts something idiotic and context-deficient, setting off a chain reaction that, except for the lack of slurred speech, sounds like an uncontrollable, ranting drunk.

Back to Cordoba House.

So now it seems that everyone is angry at Obama. On the left, there is anger at Obama's alleged lack of clarity because he distinguishes between rights and wisdom, can and should. On the right, there is anger at Obama because he doesn't express moral opposition to Cordoba House, because not being in unalloyed agreement with that crowd is allegedly a despicable thing.

Perhaps this state of affairs means that Obama has been unwise in his handling of Cordoba House. It could also mean that he's caught between two mad crowds and that he sees an element of folly on both sides.

Where Althouse was brutal in her criticism of Turley was in tearing apart his Bentham analogy -- and, it was pretty bad.

I don't mean this to be a defense of Althouse -- she does not handle criticism well and always seems surprised when others don't like being criticized. Also, the addition of comments on her blog either changed, or coincided with, a change in her style of writing. There's another change coinciding with her marriage. These changes are noticeable to me mostly in an increasing unwillingness to ever ever admit she's wrong.

I have become an "Althouse watcher" in much the same way that you are a "Madmen watcher".

What's not mentioned so far, is that Turley got as close to an apology as he's ever likely to get from Althouse in this post of hers:

There, after making fun of the number 19 for a while, in the last two paragraphs she gets serious and acknowledges his point.

In her first post, she does something she often does -- writes a sentence that can be interpreted two or more ways. I find that amusing because she also writes a lot about how important clarity is. She now has clarified (a little bit) that it's the Washington Post's editorial intent to push reform of the SC, no matter which way the opinion goes on health care and that both the WP and Turley want changes because they disagree with some of the opinions.

I suspect she's going to write something akin to 9, 19, or 1900 on the court won't change disagreements with their decisions and won't change the "power" of swing votes.

It will be interesting to see if she addresses any of Turley's other recommendations. I would bet not. And that's a shame as they do deserve discussion.

As for the civility bullshit being tossed back and forth, Turley is looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses in suggesting that we've ever had civil "civil discourse" in this country.

Though you'd have to be a long-time Althouse watcher to get the full impact of her "civility bullshit" tag, Turley sort of fell into a trap with that. She's right (overall) that calls for civility are, in essence, a way of changing the subject to personalities -- exactly what Turley is doing while bemoaning it. And what Althouse often does, as well though she is better at disguising it.

Interesting, Donna. I don't read Althouse unless I come across a specific link that looks interesting. I vaguely recall that she married one of her longtime commenters--obviously after the two met in person. Am I making that up, or is that right?

That's correct. Meade is now her husband. It was really sort of sweet -- she was writing about movies and he asked in a comment if she'd go to a movie with him. He apparently emailed her with full name and ways to identify him.

Anyway, they went to the movie and started dating. I don't remember how long the dating lasted, but they've been married several years now.

The NYT did a write-up on the marriage.

I was wrong about what her next Turley post would be about. It's all about civility and she doesn't think Turley is being civil. I was right about Turley falling into her trap. Now that he's there, she's giving him her full attention.


I've only skimmed that piece -- it's one of her longer ones. You may or may not be interested.

Thanks, Donna. Turley gets one thing out of it.A heck of a lot more traffic than usual.

There was a column in our local newsrag, oh, maybe seven or eight months ago. The columnist was one of the usual writers, in the top 20 or so, who are privileged to air their opinions and get paid well for doing so. His piece said that civility does not matter. I was puzzed by the position and remain so. My thinking then, and now, was/is: this guy must not get out much. Or if he does, he has an army of security, protecting his every move...

Best and Warmest Wishes, Doc
the Carpenter

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