Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Authoritarian journalism

See my follow-up post to the one below, Authoritarian journalism, over at The Cucking Stool.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Propagating a dishonest narrative

Democracy depends upon an informed electorate - that is the main reason the Minnesota Constitution mandates primary and secondary education. A polity cannot make rational decisions about self-government without reliable information about the country and state, along with citizens who can make sense of that information. It is one of the reasons we have the First Amendment.

In the field of education discourse, the notion of an informed electorate is in the trash bin, as it has been since 1983, when the Reagan Administration issued its erroneous and inflammatory Nation At Risk study, which implied that without big changes in our education system the country would be on a downward trajectory. That was the first insult to honest discourse in education.

The second came eight years later, when the first president Bush and some of the nation's governors, taking Nation At Risk seriously, commissioned a comprehensive study of American education, charging the reputable national lab at Sandia with putting its quality and effectiveness in historical and international perspective.

But the Republicans didn't get what they expected from the researchers at Sandia. Contrary to the chicken-little proclamations of Nation At Risk, it turned out that education in this country was basically excellent - and had been improving for 20 years. Indeed, said the Sandia report:
To our surprise, on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends.
Not only that, but
America's on-time high school graduation rate has remained steady for more than 20 years, hovering somewhere between 75% and 80%
Perhaps most significant was NAR's lie that the future workforce was threatened:
Our research on the technical work forces of various nationals also reflected well on the U.S. education system...the overall technical degree attainment by the work force is unparalleled in the world.
Nation At Risk had turned statistics on their heads. For example, NAR stated that SAT scores had been dropping. But it failed to note they were dropping because more students - from lower echelons of high school attainment - were now taking the test, and bringing the mean down. If researchers controlled for high school attainment the drop in scores disappeared.

When Sandia got ready to submit its report a firestorm erupted in the Republican government in Washington and the report was buried. It wasn't published until two years later, in 1993, in an educational journal, where it was almost completely ignored in traditional media (although those in deep education discourse took notice), making it Project Censored's number three most ignored report for 1993.

Which is a shame, because in one sector of the report, titled "Status of educators," the authors worried not that bad teachers couldn't be fired, but that regular teachers would be demoralized by unfounded attacks based on faulty assertions:
We believe that the low opinion educators hold of themselves and the poor public perception of teachers are based on misinterpretations of simplistic data...
This unfortunate cycle of low self-esteem, followed by unfounded criticism from the public, raises the specter of a downward spiral in future educational quality.
So the report on the accusations contained in the the Nation At Risk study basically said it was bunk, and that a public worked up into a frenzy against public school teachers could actually hurt primary and secondary education. But as I said, the Sandia report had virtually no impact on public discourse. It didn't advance the right wing narrative that our schools were going to hell in a hand basket, taking our children with them, and the fault lay with those nasty teachers' unions, and so it was ignored.

Twenty years later and we know the results of the efforts of the so-called reformers of the 80s, 90s and aughts: They have failed. The experimental schools they proposed - voucher and charter schools - do a worse job of educating children. At the same time public school teachers have been under relentless attack. The predictions of the Sandia study have come true.

Even hard core supporters of NAR and school choice have now admitted their errors - Diane Ravitch being the most obvious example. Even the scientific racist Charles Murray now admits the experiment failed. And yet - we continue on. Now a Democratic - Democratic! - president is advancing this false narrative, seeking to create more failed charter schools and pushing for loosened teacher certification standards. The president seems to think that all that time teachers spend in college learning how to teach is worth nothing.

Given the false narrative propagated of both failing public schools and the supposed culpability of teachers' unions in their failure it should come as no surprise that politically driven traditional media would jump on this bandwagon. It is simply too much to ask that popular media either resist or correct false narratives that pander to important media constituencies such as advertisers, who tend to be conservative, or vocal institutional critics such as those setup by conservative philanthropies.

So it is that the Star Tribune in Minneapolis should be on a permanent campaign against regular public school teachers and their unions, from dishonest op-eds, to dishonest editorials, to dishonest stories in its news pages - the narrative is always the same - our public schools suck, and the reason is teachers' unions.

I can imagine the conversation in the Star Tribune newsroom a few weeks back as it launched its latest broadside, "State's Bad teachers rarely get fired", against public school teachers, starting with editors charging reporters with the task of proving that the state's school districts suck because they cannot fire bad teachers. Normally good-government reporting would start with having to prove that the issue they were addressing - a supposed decline in the quality of public primary and secondary education, in this case - was truly a problem.

In the case of education reporting, however, the narrative is all that matters. Reporting in the Strib never comes close to analyzing if there really is a problem with public primary and secondary education. It jumps right over that step, and several others as well, right to the headline, "State's bad teachers rarely get fired." Editors know that readers understand the underlying narrative that has been blasted at them for years.

Are there really a lot of bad teachers in Minnesota? The story admits this question is nearly impossible to answer. How much does teacher quality affect education, anyways? And is it really difficult to fire bad teachers? This is where the Strib story really gets into false narrative.

Since there is no real scientific proof that our schools are failing horribly, or that teachers' unions are the reason, when media looks for "experts" to ratify the prevailing narrative they most often turn to the people who ramped up the attack in the first place.

In the Strib's case they turned to something called the "National Council on Teacher Quality" to corroborate the author's own assertion that
"...overwhelming evidence...shows how important good teachers are to student learning. Minnesota has been hammered by one national study after another in recent months for not doing enough to fire bad teachers and having no system to evaluate them."
The charges from the NCTQ were alarming, to say the least:
In January, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave Minnesota an "F" in "exiting ineffective teachers" on its annual report card on state teacher policies. The council also cited the state as one of 23 having no state policy for getting rid of bad teachers.
But what is the National Council on Teacher Quality? Despite using the NCTQ as a bedrock source,  the Strib doesn't qualify it in ANY way - it merely implies the organization's apparent objectivity.

It turns out, though, the NCTQ is a right wing outfit funded by usual conservative philanthropies that have agitated against teachers' unions using changing rationales for decades, including the loathsome Bradley Foundation, the virtual fount of the movement. Its board is filled with the people who populate right wing think tanks funded by those same philanthropies, who have plotted and carried out the dishonest attack on public schools.

One notable person on the board is Chester Finn, perhaps one of the most important voices in the attacks on public school teachers. Finn has been advocating for school choice for decades. When someone finally asked him how competition would help the left behind schools, he basically had no answer. The magical market would do the trick, he ridiculously asserts.

So in order to justify its entire story, the Strib relied on an organization funded and staffed by right wing Republican critics of public school teachers, without ever informing readers of the nature of that organization. How does that happen? The writers of the censored Sandia report had specifically warned about "..unfounded criticism [of school teachers] from the public [that] raises the specter of a downward spiral in future educational quality." It's as if the reporters at the Strib had read the Sandia report and decided to make the researchers' worst fears come true (of course in all likelihood the reporters have never even heard of the report).

The story then goes on to make an even more simplistic and ignorant assertion that
Meanwhile, Minnesota recently lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal "Race to the Top" competition for schools, partly because its teacher quality policies were deemed inadequate.
In fact, as the authors could easily find out, the whole Race To The Top "competition" was a fraud, and the outsourced authors of Minnesota's application - paid for by some of the same philanthropies that support the NCTQ - wrote a piece of junk, lacking required data and making other fundamental errors. Not that it would have mattered - the "competition" - if that's what you want to call it, was bogus. A report from the Economic Policy Institute- a liberal think tank (which might explain why Strib reporters have never heard of it), stated:
“...examination [of the applications for Race To The Top funds] suggests that the selection of Delaware and Tennessee was subjective and arbitrary, more a matter of bias or chance than a result of these states’ superior compliance with reform policies.”
And that
“The necessary subjective judgments required both for category selection and weight assignment makes a fair competition practically impossible, even if the competition is undertaken with great care.”
But of course the notion that Race To The Top might be a joke, or that someone other than school teachers are responsible for Minnesota not "winning" the competition doesn't fit the narrative of public school teachers being the bane of education's existence.

The story never actually proves the headline's baseless accusation that teachers cannot be fired, by the way, as pointed out by the superintendent of the Richfield public schools, who replied in a letter following the story's publication. It turns out, he writes, that the fake issue of "firing bad teachers" is a canard:
School districts in Minnesota already "weed out" many low-performing teachers. The Star Tribune's article stressed how few teachers are fired. It did not calculate how many teachers are let go in the first three years of their contracts. Districts in Minnesota (and Wisconsin) hire carefully. And they use the first three years to identify the very few substandard teachers they do hire. If a district is doing a good job (and I can attest to the fact Richfield and Mequon are), it will very seldom have to fire a teacher after three years.
So the very premise of the Strib's story "..bad teachers rarely get fired," first, isn't true, and second, is a meaningless statement given the methods used to hire teachers. The experts the story cites to justify its attitude turn out to be right wing operators who have been attacking teachers' unions for decades, only the Strib doesn't tell its readers this crucial fact. Nevertheless, reading the story, and the comments from readers, it is clear that it will be believed, and added to the arsenal of falsehoods used to attack teachers' unions.

This is what true advocates of public education are up against: a poisonous narrative that paints a deliberately false picture of education in America in order to gain political advantage, supported by a complicit and ignorant traditional media. Make no mistake about it, the more success the so-called "reformers" have the worse our education system will be. That is the true impact of today's journalism.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Changing rationales for 'school choice'

For decades now conservatives - and some liberals - have decried the state of American primary and secondary education, citing selected test scores that compared US students to those in other countries,  comparing scores among US schools themselves, and also citing racial disparities in educational outcomes.

For conservatives especially this concern for education was never really about educating students. Instead they were motivated by extending the "free market" religion to education, despite there being no real "market" for schools, and for de-funding their Democratic political opponents by obliterating one of the last bastions of unionism - public school teachers' unions.

The campaign against public schools picked up steam when the alarmist Nation at Risk study hit our collective consciousness in 1983.  Since then such numbers of our supposed deficiency  have been effectively used in political arguments that consistently place blame with public schools, and particularly public school teachers' unions. I don't need to rehash the facts about this - education is not the ticket to prosperity it once was, and educational attainment - as measured by test scores - is about what it was in 1983. The real point is that education cannot hope to remedy what "free market" economics has destroyed .

Nevertheless, test scores - as flawed a tool as they are for measuring human development -  have been the coin of the education realm since this debate began. Unfortunately for conservative education reformers, their suggestions for injecting "choice" into primary and secondary education have not borne statistical  fruit. If anything, charter schools and vouchers do a worse job of educating students, overall, than regular public schools. It turns out that all that bureaucracy surrounding regular public schools is there for a reason - it makes them better and more accountable.

Now that their rationale for destroying teachers' unions has itself been debunked by experience, conservatives had two honorable choices: The first would be to admit they were wrong about their concept that school choice is a way to better schools, like Diane Ravitch has done, and try to help undo some of the damage they have done. The second would be to admit that the real goal all along has been to eliminate teachers' unions, in which case to hell with the kids' educations, and press on with more charter schools, vouchers, and loosened teacher standards.

Admittedly the second choice is merely a thought exercise on my part - conservatives would never confess to the naked political ambition that underlies their education strategy. Perhaps the biggest strength of the school choice movement is the notion that it exists to benefit children, not Republicans.

Now the ever-creative Charles Murray, writing in the New York Times, has suggested a third way for school-choicers: Forget about the numbers, says Murray - they never really captured the fullness of educational achievement anyways. No - the great thing about charters and vouchers is that the parents are happy.

Thus it is with Republicans: The endpoints are always the same - "political war" in the words of David Horowitz - beat the unions, free the corporations. The current rationale doesn't matter - only that it works, politically, now. Leaders need not worry that any change in argument is a direct contradiction of decades-long held positions; all they need do is whip up the Wurlitzer to erase that history.

When George W. Bush first came to office in 2001 welcomed by huge budget surpluses he said we needed tax cuts to productively invest the money; later when the economy slowed and the surpluses were disappearing, Bush advocated the same policy, tax cuts, only for different reasons: to stimulate the economy. Same policy, different reason.

But back to Murray.  Does the New York Times deny the outright racism of Charles Murray, the man who wrote a book dressed up as science, filled with lies, that sought to prove  that blacks are genetically intellectually inferior to whites, with no chance of remediation? Or does the Times endorse Murray's view? Certainly the Times would never publish the writings of a raving anti-Semite; why do they do that with a racist and intellectual fraud?

One thing that is really maddening about Murray's duplicitous change of rationale for school choice is the reaction by some in the Reality Based Community, specifically the usually reliable Daily Howler website, which in critiquing Murray's arguments essentially endorsed his view that charter schools should be expanded, despite the lack of empirical evidence they do a better job of educating children. But the Howler went even further, actually spreading misinformation about the purported success of those schools in closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities, and implicitly equating any educational gains over the past 30 years with the advancement of high-stakes testing and school choice.

The Howler, in its typical dismissive tones, wrote that "liberals" are in denial about the "success" of that regime:
Does Murray know that black kids and Hispanic kids have actually shown large score gains in reading and math (especially math) in the past dozen years?...Most liberals have never heard that fact.
It seems strange that the Howler would introduce questionable numbers about the academic achievement of students in response to the racist Murray admitting that school choice is a bust. The Howler leads off his criticism by citing writing done by Ravitch, who, the Howler must admit, is "technically accurate."

In fact, here in Minnesota, at least, the advance of "school choice" and the wrong-headed No Child Left Behind law have left minorities further behind whites in academic achievement. That is not an assertion - it is the conclusion of  a study done by the University of Minnesota Law School. Charters in Minnesota - the state where they were invented -  do a particularly bad job of educating minorities
“Rather than being a solution to the educational problems faced by low-income students and students of color, charter schools are deepening these problems.”
I wish I could say that the discovery by real researchers that school choice has been an academic bust had turned the nation away from charter schools and vouchers, but that wouldn't be true. Instead, our pundits and opinion leaders - for their own personal reasons - sadly including The Daily Howler - have either ignored or misinterpreted the results. Charles Murray's admission, and the Howler's half-hearted agreement with the scientific racist that charters are justified even without evidence that they better educate students, are just the most recent examples.

ADDING: It is particularly disappointing to see Democrats (Obama included) stay on the charter school bandwagon long after they have been discredited academically, especially when the issue should be both a policy and politics win. Policy because getting rid of charters would improve the education of more children, while freeing up funds for their schools. Politics because many charter schools don't require union membership, thus the expansion of charters means fewer teacher unions, which are a predominant Democratic constituency. By pushing charters the Democrats are actually shrinking their own base in order to make schools worse.

UPDATE: Not to put too fine a point on it, or to put too much stock in prostitute toe sucker Dick Morris, but his most recent outburst spells out in clear detail what Republicans would like to do to public education: 
Huge Republican Gains are Going to All But do Away With Public Education.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

High in denial

As I wrote in a previous post, harsh child rearing practiced in the U.S. and around the world, combined with child sexual and physical abuse, leads to denied feelings of shame, helplessness and rage that are played out over the lifetime of the abused. These denied feelings lead to authoritarian personalities and punitive politics, which in the US is associated with conservative political views.

Milburn and Conrad, writing in The Politics of Denial, point out that politically authoritarians are essentially  a subset of conservatives:
“The majority of authoritarians fall on the conservative end of the political spectrum…virtually all authoritarians are politically conservative, but not all political conservatives are authoritarians."
Might some people high in denial, along with the politicians and media that exploit that denial play a part in the low level of public discourse in the US?

Denial is a legitimate and needed psychological defense. However, it can often be taken to unhealthy levels - some so extreme that it can prevent its practitioners from making even the simplest logical or perceptual conclusions.

This is not to say that denial is a psychological trick only practiced by conservatives -  the prevalence of denial is as you might expect is spread over the entire population. Research has shown, however, that authoritarians are more likely to describe themselves as conservative in the US. The reason is that, as I described above, abused children have hidden negative feelings that punitive conservatives tap for electoral purposes by projecting them onto selected out-groups such as blacks, gays, communists, immigrants, etc. As Milburn and Conrad write
"We have seen that authoritarians' denial of the pain of childhood abuse leads to glorification of the punitive parents and uncritical adoration of other authority figures. It is also likely to produce over-reliance on external controls on behavior."
Adding up the denial involved in today's conservative movement involves a long and varied list of issues, and includes not just outright denial of facts, but also the minimization of realities which impose on those denials. Because of the nature of deep conservative ideology it is sometimes difficult to parse out where actual lying and deception are taking place, and when conservatives are in denial. Certainly there is overlap.

One of the most important conservative ideologists of the 20th century - Leo Strauss - believed that any level of lying and deception was justified to keep the populace in line with his authoritarian vision, specifically endorsing religion as a technique of control, even though he and his fellow political philosophers personally didn't believe in it. Nevertheless in order to use religion and lies to control the population followers - and many leaders - had and have to have high levels of denial to keep their narrative afloat.

Denial of racism

Perhaps the most consistent and pernicious of these is the conservative denial and minimization of racism. Attitudes in the south where slavery was practiced have been passed through the generations of both blacks and whites, leaving us with a legacy of negative emotion.

Slavery required southern whites to accustom themselves to a punitive and abusive treatment of blacks. Part of the socialization of a young slave owner was to initiate him into the authoritarian culture of righteously physically abusing blacks, a culture which required him to treat people like property, to deny any feelings of compassion and empathy he might feel for his victims,  and to despise those who sought to upset this favorable economic order.

With the abolition of slavery during the civil war southerners had to find new ways to continue the structure of race relations through legal and illegal means, including Jim Crow laws and institutionally violent organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.  Lynchings occurred in northern cities as well, as late as 1919 in Duluth Minnesota.

It wasn't until the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed separate but equal that outward talk about race changed. Throughout the 1950s the tone of racial discourse morphed from one of outward racism to one of coded language. The new dog whistle of the old racists was "state's rights," a rallying cry to overturn federal civil rights laws and allow them to return to the Jim Crow era.

Ronald Reagan exploited this practice when he chose to start his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964. In his speech that day, Reagan gave a "ringing endorsement" to states' rights - the ideology of the southern whites who had killed the civil rights workers - and a pursuit popular among Republicans to this day.

Fast-forward to 1994, when Charles Murray, working for various conservative think tanks, published his error-laden tome "The Bell Curve," which claimed to scientifically prove that blacks are genetically intellectually inferior to whites.

As I wrote on
"...[the book] is filled with mathematical errors, logical errors, and the misuse of statistics (i.e. the purported "IQ" test actually has questions on subjects as involved as Trigonometry, thus measuring educational attainment, not innate intelligence).
Stephen Jay Gould, author of the 1981 bestseller "The Mismeasure of Man," added a chapter in the 1996 reprinting of his book, specifically dedicated to critiquing The Bell Curve.  Gould described the book in terms of "dis-ingenuousness" - it was disingenuous in its content, argument and program. The proper perspective for understanding The Bell Curve, Gould wrote, is as its role as but one new venture in a long line of attempts by whites of European descent trying to find a genetic basis for their supposed superiority over other races and peoples.

In other words, Murray was a crass racist who wrote a book dressed up as science to justify a moral belief that is was only rational and right that blacks would occupy a lower level of our society. Think about it: What Murray was effectively denying is that blacks are full human beings, that they are capable of the same kind of intellectual fulfillment as whites. He wasn't saying this with the authority of science, as he pretended, but with lying bullshit.

It was and is a truly reprehensible, ignorant and stupid position and argument, but because by 1994 the conservative think tanks had gained a strong foothold in the US traditional media, and because we had embarked into an era of truthiness, Murray's book got wide and much favorable treatment.

The American Enterprise Institute, which paid for Murray to write the book (with a $90,000 grant from the Bradley Foundation), stage-managed its introduction by providing copies of it to friendly reviewers long before the public release, then flying friendly opinion leaders to Washington for a private sit-down with the authors.

When the book finally arrived on bookshelves the only people who had actually seen it were the conservative flexians previously privy to it, so media critics were left to speculate about what the book actually said. It wasn't until later that social scientists began to find the deep flaws in the book's thesis. But by then the damage had been done and a certain part of the public had their racist views reconfirmed in a powerful ideological way.

People - opinion leaders, no less - still believe that Murray was right. When I interviewed Mitch Pearlstein, proprietor of the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, for an article I was writing in 2000, I asked him about Murray, because he had lectured and written for the Center many times. I pointed out to Pearlstein the monumental errors and mal-intent inherent in Murray's writing, but he would have none of it. "But isn't it interesting!" he exclaimed while handing me copies of Murray's own response to his critics.

Blacks, conversely, understand which political party contains the racists and is most invested in denying racism in this country: 96 percent of them voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In fact, blacks have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats ever since the advent of the Republican southern strategy in 1964.

Denial of deserving poor

Conservatives are also quick to deny that the modern capitalist state creates deserving economic victims who become poor not because they are indolent or unskilled, but because laissez-faire economic and political policies have devalued them. They deny that high unemployment and rising personal costs have pushed the vaunted "freedom" proclaimed by conservatives into the realm of myth. If the poor are poor, so goes the denial, it is purely their own fault.

The denial must be all the greater when it is learned that college graduates saw their actual wages fall during the aughts. The denial has reached astronomical heights recently as the real unemployment rate approaches 20 percent, yet congressional Republicans stymie efforts to extend relief to the unemployed, and Republican politicians startlingly proclaim that unemployment benefits cause further unemployment.

To Ronald Reagan the poor were particularly undeserving of government help. He repeatedly pointed to so-called "welfare queens" who were allegedly living a life on luxury on the government's dime, yet he and his administration could never point to one. During the 1980s Murray wrote another book, Losing Ground, which argued that since the government had spent billions on welfare, and there were still poor people, the programs had failed, and that welfare programs actually hurt the people they were trying to help. By that argument's lights, modern medicine is a complete failure after the expenditure of trillions of dollars, since EVERY patient ever treated eventually dies.

Other conservative denial

Parts of the conservative coalition vehemently deny that Barack Obama is a rightful US citizen; many parts of the coalition routinely call him a socialist or communist; they deride his policies as government takeovers when they are in reality corporatist.

They deny their movement is racist, yet the roots of Republican and conservative power rest in making alliance with southern racists - the so-called "Southern Strategy." Members of the conservative coalition called him a terrorist during the presidential campaign. They sing the praises of the so-called "free market," denying that over the past century laissez-faire economics have led to repeated economic collapses.

Up to this date Republicans deny that George W. Bush and his administration lied the country into war on Iraq. Bush policies had Orwellian names loaded with the denial of their true purposes - "clear skies" meant letting polluters do what they wished; "healthy forests" meant clear-cutting.

They claim to be the party of law and order, but every time they get into power they pretend there is no law. Richard Nixon went so far as to say that when the president does it, it isn't illegal.  When Ronald Reagan got caught trading arms for hostages, he insisted he did no such thing. Even when he had to admit it was true his explanations were so thick in denial that he seemed flabbergasted by their revelations. Dick Cheney told the country that "there was no doubt" that Saddam Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction.

In some important aspects it seems that the very core of the nation's politics over the past 70 years have been filled with denial. After World War Two we became obsessed with communism, even though there only a few thousand communists left in the country. We denied that communism was dead as a political movement in the US.

We became obsessed with denying that the Soviets were primarily concerned with protecting their own country after two devastating wars left tens of millions dead. Instead, we chose to believe a self-serving lie that the USSR was bent on global domination. This denial about the true nature of the Soviet Union and communism in general would cost us deeply in Vietnam, where we mistook a nationalist movement for a communist one.

Even as the Soviet Union was fading in power - by some accounts its economy was shrinking by the mid 60s - we denied its actual decline. In the 70s the CIA was estimating that the USSR was in economic decline, as was its military. But the Neocons were in full denial of those facts because it didn't fit their narrative or political needs.

Instead they created their own intelligence network, culminating in the creation of "Team B," which declared that precisely because it could not be shown that the USSR was creating new weapons that proved they were! We were just too inept or weak to prove it. Those denials led to the Carter and Reagan military buildup (and concomitant budget deficits) of the 1980s, and the foolish surprise expressed by policy makers and pundits when the USSR finally flew apart in 1991.

Denial in the George W. Bush era

In the George W. Bush era Republican denial reached even new heights. Perhaps the best statement of this mindset was the statement made by a Bush aide to reporter Ron Suskind in 2004:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'' 
Richard Wirthlin, pollster and strategist for the Reagan campaign in 1980, had written something very similar in a memo, declaring,
"People act on the basis of their perception of reality; there is, in fact, no political reality beyond what is perceived by the voters."
The Bush administration only pushed this very idea to an extreme, believing they could advocate any vision of reality they wanted,  and deny any reality that conflicted with their version, regardless of actual facts. This denial led to any number of disasters, such as the prediction that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or that we would be greeted as liberators in  Baghdad, or that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the US. Denial of the unsustainability of forever rising housing prices helped lead to a real estate crash, and denial that financial markets needed regulation ironically led some its adherents to be deregulated out of existence, and the biggest economic setback since the Great Depression. Authors argued that Republicans were waging a"war on science."

Denial and impairment of thinking

In their book authors Milburn and Conrad show how the use of denial leads to an impairment of thinking:, linking it to a "psychic numbing," or, constricted emotion:
"...when individuals deny the emotional component of an experience - for example, the fear, pain, and anger of childhood punishment - the meaning of the concept abuse is lost and the person has great difficult accepting or understanding information relating to such abuse."
In the most extreme of cases where a person cannot experience any emotion, "...then all concepts lose their meaning." Milburn and Conrad cite this type of denial as being a common condition
"...among individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, whether resulting from combat, childhood abuse, natural disaster, or some other very frightening event. Denial of emotions - denial that one has any emotional reactions at all - is one way to avoid being overwhelmed by terrible experiences."
People high in denial are especially susceptible to a corrupt news media that plays to their subliminal feelings in a way that both exploits and enhances their denial.  When television news is dramatized, fragmented, and personalized, report Milburn and Conrad,  it is essentially turned into "melodrama," " ...[requiring] figures of good and evil, the hero and the villain," a method that essentially "operates as a kind of thought suppressor."

Worse, in the melodrama that is US TV news, the emotions evoked are often "simplistic and false." As if describing Fox News, the authors write that "In television news myth is perpetuated by the careful selection of stories that fit within a culturally defined world view." In the case of Fox, that world view  is the one of Roger Ailes, who cut his teeth as a media guru for Richard Nixon.

Needless to say, as many polls have shown, Fox viewers are the highest in denial involving any number of important issues. A 2003 study by The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found Fox news viewers to be three times more likely than consumers of other traditional news to believe false versions of three important issues concerning the war on Iraq: Whether or not weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq (they were not); whether the US had "clear evidence" that Saddam Hussein had been "working closely with al Qaeda (we didn't); and whether there was international support for the US invasion of Iraq (there wasn't).

Implications of denial

What does it mean to a nation's discourse when one of the two political parties contains within it a sizable proportion of people who are high in denial, and when that denial is used to politically manipulate them?

In short - it gives certain politicians license to say virtually anything, as demonstrated by the hubris of the Bush aide who spoke with Suskind. Milburn and Conrad write that liberals may engage is some denial, but  it is usually the type that denies the aggression in others. Indeed, the ideas of the traditional liberal, based on the principles of the Enlightenment, posit a world where  "reason [is] advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority," NOT the activation of hidden negative emotions.

Recently in the press and on the Internet we've seen a lot of writers try to come to grips with something that's been called "confirmation bias," a  hypothesis that holds there "is a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true." And there is evidence to suggest the functioning of confirmation bias, but, curiously, the notion that certain populations might experience more of it than others - depending upon psychological and other factors - is rarely discussed. Reason would suggest that people high in denial would be more prone to confirmation bias, since they would more easily discard competing versions of the truth merely by denying them. In this construction it would be conservatives and Republicans who would express more confirmation bias in our discourse.

Anecdotal evidence bears this out. Recent polls of so-called "Tea Party" people - really older, white, hardcore anti-government Republicans, confirms the notion that conservatives contain a sizable minority capable of, and in, deep denial. Something like 80 percent of them believe president Obama is a socialist, when in reality he is a corporatist - caving to the agendas of the war, drug insurance and financial industries.

They are known as an ant-tax movement, yet 52 percent believe their own tax burden is fair, and that taxes are at their lowest level since World War Two. People have been quoted at their rallies saying things like "Keep your government hands off my medicare," a statement in deep denial about the true nature of medicare and indeed the government itself. They are a movement that thinks they are populists, yet they are manipulated and funded by billionaire industrialists. Many of them watch Fox News, which aids and abets their denial with their sexed-up, melodramatic presentations that leaves false impressions.

This analysis of the role of denial in conservative politics and general discourse in the US should not be taken to mean that all conservatives are in denial, or that denial is the only reason for the polarized and false politics in this country. It does suggest, however, that denial, fed by the abuse of children and the exploitation of repressed feelings by unscrupulous politicians plays a role in the inability to have rational discourse. It also points to a possible new understanding of the notion of "confirmation bias" discussed by various pundits and commentators, given that denial may be more pronounced in conservative than in liberal discourse and politics.

UPDATE: Here's a good interview with Michael Milburn, one of the authors of The Politics of Denial, where he talks about the American soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Graib.

Race To The Top fraud

See my Race to The Top fraud at Cucking Stool.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I am Minnesota Public Radio

Today the Star Tribune reports that Stephen Hemsley, the CEO of UnitedHealth received $102 million in compensation in 2009. Earlier Huffington Post reported that he also holds $744 million in unexercised stock options.What kind of guy is Hemsley? Well, earlier he got caught backdating stock options that bilked stockholders, and had to return $190  million in options. He previously was Chief Financial Officer at Arthur Andersen, the firm that covered for Enron while it made off with grandma's retirement funds.

His bio at Wikipedia describes him as "a trustee of the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, and as a trustee of Minnesota Public Radio."

Doesn't that say it all about Minnesota institutions? St Thomas is the  Ann Coulter loving university in St Paul, and MPR is the Allina-protecting Pravda on the Mississippi, so it really is in keeping with the character of those two institutions to have a professional skimmer like Hemsley at the top of their organizations. Far from being atypical, Hemsley is representative of the kind of flexian plutocrats who run Minnesota's premier media, educational and social institutions.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Turning it up to 11

The Drudge Report, April 10, 2010: