Friday, January 05, 2007

Dialogue With Ideologues

I recently persuaded a close relative to read a little book by Paul Krugman entitled Fuzzy Math: The Essential Guide to the Bush Tax Plan. When in past discussions the issue of the Bush tax cuts came up, I was invariably frustrated by what seemed a complete lack of understanding of all aspects of the Bush plan, to the point where no meaningful dialogue could be had. I thought this little book could shed some useful light on the subject.

The experiment seemed worthwhile. My reader was intelligent, well educated, and--I still hoped--capable of reasoned analysis and logical thought. While we might not ultimately agree, he'd surely have something useful to say.

So when I recovered the book I asked him what he thought of it. Not much, he said. Why not? I asked. Well, he said, I noticed that the author writes a column for the New York Times.

I was stunned. I choked out the question: That's how you decide what to believe?

He seemed a little embarassed, and if he wasn't he should have been. Grasping for something, anything, he offered that the book had been written prior to 911, and no doubt things have changed since the terrorist attacks. And that was the end of it. At that moment I realized that we had nothing to talk about.

There were so many things we could have discussed, but for want of an open mind. Apart from being a columnist for the New York Times (that bastion of liberal propaganda), Krugman is a well known economist, an economics professor at Princeton, and an accessible, cogent writer. I would have liked to have known: Did Krugman persuasively show that 40% of the budget cost of the tax cuts accrued to the richest 1% of the population? What about his argument that the heavy back loading toward the out years belies the administration's claim that the cuts were needed to provide fiscal stimulus during a recession?

The book makes clear statements of fact that could have been accepted, doubted, or refuted. Were they credible? If not, why not?

Krugman's reasoning is straightforward and accessible. Is his logic sound? If not, why not?

But none of this matters, not one bit, because Krugman is a columnist for the New York Times. From that follows the obvious conclusion that his book is at best suspect and not to be taken seriously.

Apart from being personally disappointed in my reader, I was dismayed at the larger revelation that it might not be possible to reach consensus on matters of fact, for the simple reason that some people have their minds made up; for them facts are an irritant, a nuisance to be avoided. As Sam Harris said in a somewhat different context, the problem with faith is that it's a conversation stopper. Ideology, it seems to me, is a kind of faith. When ideology displaces reason, there's really not much to left to say. What basis is there for saying anything at all?

How, I wonder, shall we ever agree on what is mutually important, when so many of us are not willing to be engaged? When evidence doesn't matter? When ignorance is cultivated? When rational thought is a threat? When the ideologues among us keep their ears plugged and eyes screwed shut? When petty prejudice dictates world view? Although the pursuit of truth motivates me profoundly, in my darkest moments I fear there's something about--not truth--but about the human condition, that makes truth unattainable.

That is disappointing enough. But even worse, when dogma and ideology rule over rationality, all that's left is to fight over who gets to control the levers of power. And that fight, it seems to me, is what we're increasingly all about.

Copyright (C) 2007 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved