How absolutely grand it is to have a great American institution like Bill Moyers back on our television airways? After reading about Moyer’s reasons for returning to the public sphere—he feels compelled to re-enter the national conversation at what he believes to be a dark and critical juncture in American civic life—I had been greatly anticipating Moyers & Company. So far, the series has not disappointed, with a discussion on crony capitalism with Reagan’s budget director David Stockman and ace financial journalist Gretchen Morgenson, and a conversation on “winner-takes-all” politics with Yale professor Jacob Hacker and Berkeley’s Paul Pierson. We’ve only got him for two more years—Moyers will retire again when he turns 80—but it’s great to see him back conducting these meaty, intelligent and engaged conversations. Moyers & Company is among the very best programming that PBS has to offer.
On the most recent show, Moyers interviewed University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who many DM readers might be familiar with from his 2008 TED talk on the moral values that liberals and conservatives hold the most highly and how this influences their politics, and from his book The Happiness Hypothesis.
In his upcoming book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion Professor Haidt aims to explain what it means when the other side “doesn’t get it” to both sides. He makes some terrifically good points during his interview with Moyers, especially when it comes to explaining how “group think” and “the hive mind” work on both extremes of the political spectrum in America (and in other countries, too).
As you can see in this piece, Haidt’s research is fascinating indeed, but I found that some of his premises and conclusions were extremely unsatisfying. Some seemed downright counter-intuitive. Unhelpful. Don’t get me wrong, I think this entire interview is worthwhile, thought-provoking—even essential—viewing no matter which bit of the political spectrum you might fall on yourself, but the more or less false assumption that seems to be at the heart of Haidt’s work—that both sides have come to their positions through equally intellectually defensible routes—made my face scrunch up in in an expression that some might describe as a look of “liberal condescension.”
You could say that “Well, isn’t that just what he’s talking about? You’re a socialist, so of course you’d see it that way!” but even if that’s true, let me offer up Exhibit A in a lazy, half-hearted—yet utterly definitive—argument-ending rebuttal: Orly Taitz, WorldNetDaily and the whole birther phenomenon.
How is it “balanced” to give obviously unbalanced people the benefit of the doubt? What would even be the point of that exercise? What purpose would it serve to a social scientist? If someone’s political positions can’t be reconciled with actual facts, then their political opinions are absolutely worthless.
Try having a rational political discussion with a LaRouchie sometime! It can’t be done.
People who have difficulty grasping the complexity of the world they live in should not be seen as coming to the table as equals with people who are not as intellectually challenged! This seems self-evident, does it not? The birther phenomenon among Republican voters was never some fringe faction within the greater GOP. It still isn’t.
It would be a waste of time to try to catalog every instance of ill-informed right-wingers who can’t spell “moron,” vehemently protest policies that would actually benefit their own lives, and who think that every single word in the Bible is the infallible utterance of God himself, but at least in this interview (his book isn’t out yet) Haidt fails to demonstrate why stupidity, superstition and flagrant lies about established historical facts deserve intellectual parity alongside of opinions borne of widely accepted science, common sense and a commonly shared national history, as opposed to the made-up one the Reichwing subscribes to.
The age-old trusim of “There are two sides to every story and the truth is somewhere in the middle” is no longer the case when you’re having a “philosophical disagreement” with a Drudge Report reader or Fox News fan who lives in their own private Bizzaro World where there is no difference between facts and Rush Limbaugh’s opinon . Internet comments that invoke conspiracy theories about Frances Piven, ACORN, the Tides Foundation, George Soros, Saul Alinsky, Van Jones or that comically conflate “Socialism” with “National Socialism” are dead-giveaways of a stunted intelligence on the other end of the keyboard. Teabaggers who want to pressure school textbook publishers to remove any mention of the Founding Fathers being slaveholders or Christianists who argue that Creationism is as equally valid as Darwin’s evolutionary theories should not be in a position to influence policy and yet in many parts of the country this is exactly what is happening, to the detriment of the school systems, the intellectual growth of the students who will be ill-prepared for higher education, etc. Does Haidt truly feel that these people who deny history and science itself came to their positions honestly and rationally? And if he doesn’t feel that way, wouldn’t that admission require a caveat so huge as to at least partially invalidate much of his take-away?
I’m intrigued by what his research has found, I’m far less impressed by how he interprets it.
I get that Haidt’s thesis must be presented in a manner which bends over backwards not to appear partisan, but when it’s been shown that a statistically significant percentage of lower IQ children tend to gravitate towards political conservatism in adulthood (read “Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice” at Live Science) I feel like Haidt might missing the boat entirely: What if the REAL revelation at the heart of his research is that there’s an unbridgeable IQ stratification in America due to our shitty public schools, and the malign influence of the churches and talk radio/Fox News that may have already rendered this country basically ungovernable. (Jonathan Haidt regularly asks his audiences to raise their hands to indicate if they self-identify as “liberal” or “conservative” and notes that when he’s speaking to an audience of academics, that over 90% tend to call themselves “liberals”—is this merely a coincidence? I should think not!).
I respect what Haidt is attempting to do with his research, but ultimately, watching this, I saw so many flaws in his assumptions and methodology (at least as he explains it here, which I suspect is adequate) that I can’t help feeling that someone else is going to come along later and take up some of the more valid points of his work, discard the less impressive parts and get it right. He’s on to something in a big way, but I have deep reservations with much of what he concludes.
Still, as I was saying before, this is some must-see TV. Most thinking people will find something of value here, for sure. If this is a topic that interests you, it’s a fascinating discussion.