Monday, March 15, 2010

Caveat: Some things are black and white

So the day after I start a blog that is intended to criticize the growing use of cognitive shortcuts, I see an Op-Ed in the NY Times by Ross Douthat that does this very thing:
Our nation might be less divided, and our debates less poisonous, if more artists were capable of showing us the ironies, ambiguities and tragedies inherent in our politics — rather than comforting us with portraits of a world divided cleanly into good and evil.
At first glance, you might think that Ross could easily be my wingman in the effort to denounce the use of the cognitive shortcut; to try and stop people from thinking so much in pure black and white terms. You'd be wrong, however.

What Ross was arguing about (and I encourage you to read the whole thing) is that Hollywood, and especially the new Matt Damon action flick The Green Zone, is just being too unfair and unforgiving to the Bush administration and their hawkish friends for the whole Iraq situation. He argues that the anti-Iraq war Bush critics are being too overly simplistic and that a civilized discussion about the decision to invade Iraq should be much more nuanced.

So how could a guy who started a blog called Cognitive Longcuts argue against that, you ask? Well, I think the reaction to Ross' piece from Daniel Larison of The American Conservative pretty much sums it up (the whole body-slam of a take-down is highly recommended reading):
Yes, the problem might be that we do not have artists capable of rendering contemporary architects of a war of aggression that was based on shoddy intelligence, ideological fervor and deceit in a sufficiently subtle, even-handed manner. If only Hollywood were better at portraying the depth and complexity of people who unleashed hell on a nation of 24 million people out of an absurd fear of a non-existent threat! Life is so unfair to warmongers, is it not? Then again, the reason our debates are so poisonous and our nation so divided might have something to do with the existence of utterly unaccountable members of the political class that can launch such a war, suffer no real consequences, and then reliably expect to be defended as “decent” and “well-intentioned” people who made understandable mistakes. The unfortunate truth of our existence is that villains do not have to come out of central casting for comic book movies. They are ordinary, “decent” people who commit grave errors and terrible crimes for any number of reasons. Many great evils have found their origins in a group’s belief that they were doing the right thing and were therefore entitled and permitted to use extraordinary means.
Ouch! He goes on to explain that yes, in general, it is important to appreciate nuance and complexity in political arguments but when you are defending an action (i.e., the invasion and occupation of Iraq) that essentially occurred because of one hugely consequential set of cognitive shortcuts ("good vs evil", "with us or against us") based on a completely unfounded fear of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the whole nuance and complexity point goes out the window.

So okay...what does this mean for what I'm trying to accomplish here. Well, it turns out that some things are pretty black and white. In the USA (and other democratic countries, of course) we have a profound respect for the rule of law and our system of justice that protect and uphold the universal rights of all humans. In any political discussion, the notion that you are for this system is a given. It is the very foundation of our country; inscribed in our most important founding documents - the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.") and the Constitution ("We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.") These basics are fundamental to our society and are not negotiable.

Now I am going to avoid a lengthy discussion of the legality of the Iraq war (even though I largely agree with those that have concluded that it was illegal according to international law) but instead I would just argue that the invasion and occupation of Iraq along with the whole War on Terror are completely counter to the fundamental principles of liberty and justice. I'll be exploring that topic much more in the future but, for now, I'll let James Madison explain:
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied : and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals, engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Those words were written over 200 years ago and, yet, today they could not be any more poignant as we are still very much in the middle of a war based squarely on unapologetic deceit and irrational fear.

So to conclude, too many Ross Douthat's out there may seem like they are all for decreasing the use of the cognitive shortcut so that we can have a more civilized political discourse. Talking heads in the media love to spout about the Fairness Doctrine, which means giving equal time to both Democratic and Republican views (as if those are the only two possible views to have). They worship the idea that the best policy lies somewhere half-way in between these two "reasonable" views. But sometimes the views that some are arguing in favor of are so blatantly counter to our bedrock values and principles as Americans that they should be clearly reminded of that. Some things are black and white.

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