Ignorance is Bliss

Reading George Will’s column in the Washington Post, a funny thing happened. I found myself agreeing with him. He writes in response to a survey:

A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that conservatives are happier than liberals — in all income groups. While 34 percent of all Americans call themselves “very happy,” only 28 percent of liberal Democrats (and 31 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats) do, compared with 47 percent of conservative Republicans. This finding is niftily self-reinforcing: It depresses liberals.

I don’t have trouble believing this. Liberal Democrats have to deal with reality as it is, not as they wish it to be. Not to mention that, and here I speak from personal experience, having to sit through a State of the Union address that actually mentioned the urgent problem of human animal hybrids did not make me particularly happy. In other words, I don’t see a huge amount in the world to be happy about. I would call this perceptiveness. Will, however, has a slightly different theory:

Conservatives are happier than liberals because they are more pessimistic. . . . Conservatives understand that society in its complexity resembles a giant Calder mobile — touch it here and things jiggle there, and there, and way over there. Hence conservatives acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is: The unintended consequences of bold government undertakings are apt to be larger than, and contrary to, the intended ones.

Watch carefully. Will’s argument could be restated as:

  • Conservatives acknowledge that things are very complicated
  • This complexity means that it’s awfully hard to tell what results will obtain from a given action
  • Therefore, big government is bad

While this argument is delightfully old-school conservative (never touch the machine! Who knows what might happen!), I don’t think it actually makes any logical sense. Luckily, Will clarifies his statement in the next graf:

Conservatives’ pessimism is conducive to their happiness in three ways. First, they are rarely surprised — they are right more often than not about the course of events. Second, when they are wrong, they are happy to be so. Third, because pessimistic conservatives put not their faith in princes — government — they accept that happiness is a function of fending for oneself. They believe that happiness is an activity — it is inseparable from the pursuit of happiness.

But George, I thought it was hard to tell what the results of things were going to be? How, then, are Conservatives “right more often” than they are wrong? That’s only true if you assume they are making some vague, non-predictive guess, like, “the outcome of Medicare Part D is likely to be complicated.” Well, duh. I’m not sure that’s “right” in any meaningful way.

Will has discovered something that I’ve mentioned before though: Conservatives need not be bound by evidence. Will’s argument here is that Conservatives are happier because they’ve decided that it’s impossible to enact meaningful, positive change in the world. Barring that, they pursue happiness in the self-serving, small-minded way that remains–by enjoying luxuries and advancing their own personal standing in the world. He concludes with a list of the things that Liberals fail to enjoy, assumedly implying that Conservatives are happier because they can derive pleasure from immediate sources while pretending that the larger system in which they operate is so complex that it is pointless to wonder about any impact upon it:

But, then, conscientious liberals cannot enjoy automobiles because there is global warming to worry about, and the perils of corporate-driven consumerism, which is the handmaiden of bourgeoisie materialism. And high-powered cars (how many liberals drive Corvettes?) are metaphors (for America’s reckless foreign policy, for machismo rampant, etc.). And then there is — was — all that rustic beauty paved over for highways. (And for those giant parking lots at exurban mega-churches. The less said about them the better.) And automobiles discourage the egalitarian enjoyment of mass transit. And automobiles, by facilitating suburban sprawl, deny sprawl’s victims — that word must make an appearance in liberal laments; and lament is what liberals do — the uplifting communitarian experience of high-density living. And automobiles . . .

I mean, all of that is true, but Liberals worry about those things because those things are worth worrying about! We all live on Earth, after all, and the health of our planet has been declining lately.

Will’s column is a mirror for my own thoughts. In his mind, being happy justifies what you do, which is an ironic twist on the old chestnut they’re always tossing at liberals: that we promote a do-what-feels-good mentality. What other way can we read Will’s column? He concludes with a clever

You see? Liberalism is a complicated and exacting, not to say grim and scolding, creed. And not one conducive to happiness.

Sure. But being happy doesn’t make you right, and being clever doesn’t either. I’ll take an ideology that acknowledges the challenges we face, and that requires us to search for solutions, over an ideology that obviates any need to do so because doing so would be complicated.

The Case of Facts v. Bush

One thing that makes arguing with Republicans so hard is that they don’t seem to care that much about the facts. Even though we all inhabit the reality-based community, they apparently do not. It’s like beating your head against the wall–if the wall wanted to rework the Bill of Rights and legislate everyone’s personal ethical choices for them. The brutal effectiveness of telling people they don’t need to worry about the facts, thus freeing everyone to basically do whatever they like, has been demonstrated in the last few elections.

There is, however, an Achilles Heel to this irritating Right Wing tactic. Clues like the existence of the Discovery Institute (Challenging Darwin’s Theory of Evolution), the promulgation of the “just a theory” meme, and the endless repetition of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” actually serve to demonstrate that facts do still matter. That’s why Republicans exert so much effort to confuse issues and character assassinate their critics: they know that authoritative facts are their enemy, and our ally.

The Case of Global Climate Change


Global Warming

Study this graph. Do you notice anything about it? For example, it has what we might call an upward trend. A rather striking one at that. This graph shows that the global temperature has been above its 30 year mean by increasing amounts for the last sixty years or so. You’d think, then, that the claim that the globe is getting warmer would be obvious. Yet we see that Republicans are not interested in doing anything about it.

The secret is this: they rarely dispute that the temperature has been warming lately. Instead, they obfuscate, and talk about warming cycles, and solar radiation, and natural variance, and a bunch of other invented jargon that makes it seem so boring and complicated that no one remembers what they were talking about in the first place. Republicans know that they don’t have to win the argument, they just have to make it so complicated that people decide it’s okay to just keep doing what they are doing.

The Case of the Iraq War


I created this graph with data from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count website. Now, George W. Bush said, in the 2006 State of the Union,

I am confident in our plan for victory; I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people; I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military. Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning.

Umm, how are we winning? Certainly not in the sense of reducing our casualties in any meaningful way. Indeed, as above, the Republicans can’t fight the facts directly, so they obfuscate and confuse the issue by citing the brutality of the enemy, or the virtuousness of our struggle, or, sometimes, the traitorousness of dissent. Yet the fact remains, they avoid a head on conforntation with the facts, and just do what they can to muddy up the issues so that people don’t know one way or the other.

Counter Strategy

The solution to this problem, in my opinion, is to step back from the wall. Wipe the blood and sweat from our foreheads. When you think about it, the facts are overwhelmingly liberal. No one wants to privatize Social Security. Everyone wants the government to make an effort to help them if there is a natural disaster. The War in Iraq was a mistake and people know it.

We do them a favor when we keep trying to debate the facts. All they have to do is make everything seem confusing until the viewer changes the channel. We have to short-circuit their tactic by granting that they may be right. We know they are not, but that’s not the point. Once we grant that they may be right, we can use the power of the facts to make a pretty strong case anyway. Imagine this hypothetical talking heads exchange on TV:

Liberal: You know, I think Global Warming might be–

Republican: (interrupting) That’s all just junk science and you know it. You know it! Dr. Chester Fothergill has shown this just to be the result of cosmic radiation.

Liberal: You may be right. The climate is a complex thing. But I know that the weight of the facts we have now implies we might be headed for trouble, and over 90% of climatologists agree. If I take my car to the shop and 90% of the mechanics tell me I’ve got a serious problem, I don’t think I’d just drive away with a smile. Would you?

Republican: Well, I, I mean, cars are complicated, and, and ERROR FUNCTION NOT FOUND


Liberal: (Wipes brain goo off face)

See, isn’t that fun? I really think this is a strategy that could work.

And as thanks for staying with me to the end, here’s a final graph:

Bush Approval


What’s that? Why, it’s George W. Bush’s plummeting popularity. That’s a fact we can all be happy with.