Friday, December 11, 2009

Short-Circuiting History: How Rational Learning from Experience is Being Sabotaged Today

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By Barry Rubin

One of the main and most important distinctions between humans and animals is that the former are capable of evaluating experience as a group and passing on new lessons to each other and future generations. In human history, the ability to learn and draw proper conclusions becomes a matter of survival.

But what if that ability is blocked? What if there is a clear pattern of experience which points in a certain direction yet people are unable to reach the necessary conclusions?

How could this happen, I hear you ask. Let’s look at a two-track process for how the senses—including that most important of them, common sense—can be disrupted and amputated.

The first track relates to the transmission belts, the means by which experience is communicated. Modern democratic societies have developed a number of these but two vital institutions are the media and educational system. These, respectively, report developments and experiences to a wider audience, and train young people to comprehend them.

But what if the educational system and mass media are being used not only to teach wrong ideas and false experience but, equally bad, to teach people to disregard the promptings of reality and substitute an irrational system of thought?

Another important transmission belt is public discussion. People converse about everything; in public affairs they compete to be leaders and to persuade others to accept their ideas. It has been discovered—one of those lessons referred to above—that a free exchange of ideas and arguments is most likely to result, at least eventually, in the closest possible approximation of truth.

The second track includes the factors that guide how people think and reach conclusions. It encompasses such techniques as asking: what ideas have or haven’t worked before; which fit the available evidence; are they logical; do they contradict other principles one holds; do they protect or subvert our conception of democracy, liberty, and morality; are they able to predict future developments with a reasonable degree of accuracy?

What could short circuit this very good system for correcting mistakes, making life better, and even surviving?

Answer: Transmission belts can stop working properly well; debate can be censored; we can be taught non-logical ways to think so that the most accurate answers are weeded out.

Here are some ways people can be taught to reject possibly true ideas without subjecting them to real examination:

--They are defined as offensive to specific groups.

--They blame other countries or a group of individuals or set of ideas that just happen to belong to a different race, religion, nationality, gender , or cultural tradition. We are only allowed to blame ourselves.

--They are unfashionable, old-fashioned, held by people who live in small towns and cling to their guns and their own religion.

--They are patriotic, or based on a belief that one’s own culture and way of life is superior.

--They don’t take into account every real or alleged sin of one’s own country, culture, history, religion, gender, economic system, or way of life which supposedly disqualify them as positive models.

--Most effective of all, they are on the prohibited list.

--Most devastating of all, they are labelled in negative ways. Those who hold them are ridiculed. Not because their ideas are found wanting based on rational examination but merely because they are on the list of things to be laughed, sneered, or horrified at.

--If they are true they may lead to the election of people you (that is if you are members of the "new class" of journalists, professors, etc.) don’t want to win and policies you don’t want to see. This bias is supposed to be weeded out by professional ethics--you tell the truth as best you can without censoring yourself based on who it will help--but this is at present a very weak reed. It is itself on the censored list because the idea that anyone can or will make a serious attempt to be fair-minded and balanced is ridiculed as impossible.

Political Correctness is the doorway to factual incorrectness.

For me, these reflections were inspired today by one of many examples of this phenomenon I encounter. (It doesn’t matter if your examples are from a completely different part of life.) I was editing a bit of boiler-plate history, noting how Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, southern Lebanon, all the Gaza Strip, and part of the West Bank in the belief that these concessions would make the world realize that it really wanted peace and encourage the other side to make a real peace.

Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, these withdrawals (note: yes, peace with Egypt is very important and the withdrawal from the Sinai was worth doing) generally gave a perception of weakness to the Arab world and Islamists (promoting even more attacks) but were meant with indifference in the West (no credit is given).

Suddenly it struck me though that if one points out this simple set of experiences with the logical conclusion, the response is likely to be condemnation, disbelief, or at best the listener has never heard or seen this point before in the mass media.

Or if, as I’ve suggested in some recent articles, ttthe record shows the Palestinians—for reasons I have explained with evidence and in great detail—don’t want a stable two-state peace with Israel and that’s why there isn’t a comprehensive resolution of the conflict and a Palestinian state.

It is simply not permissible to say certain things in many places. And it is so impermissible that your points are not examined logically but rather just insulted and cast into outer darkness.

Let me give you a test to show how this all works. Here is the question: Why is the United States wealthier and enjoying higher living standards than most other countries in the world?

Consider the following choices (but don't look yet if you want to come up with your own answers).

A. This is a biased, indeed a racist and reactionary question because it leaves out all the poor and suffering people in America who don't enjoy these living standards [grade: A]

B. Because it stole raw materials and its wealth from other countries [grade: A]

C. A combination of A and B, and don't forget to throw in the Native Americans, slavery, and the War with Mexico [Grade: A+]

D. The United States was blessed with natural resources and both the founding generations and the pioneers worked and fought to make it both a large and a great nation. The key, however, is that the United States developed a democratic and free enterprise system, with a reasonable degree of regulation, which unleashed the potential of millions of people. They were allowed and encouraged to flourish. Innovation and hard work were rewarded. Competition served the consumer. Government controls were limited enough so as not to strangle small and big business alike. Other countries because of their systems or ideologies did not do so well. Communism failed miserably, for example. [Resulting grade: Uh-oh!]

You see, it's a trap. You cannot give the most accurate answer because on your way there you'll hit mines which will blow up in your face: How was America created (stolen land, based on slavery), was it democratic (how about class oppression, women not having the vote, reactionary laws) or free enterprise (you mean rapacious greedy corporations), what about imperialist plundering of the Third World? Are you saying that Americans are superior to others? Isn't that racist and Islamophobic. Can't we imagine another, better system? Isn't at best this system outdated? Doesn't government protect our rights and can run things best?

The person trained in this system won't likely ever get to answer C because that has already been censored out of the options' list. And even if that's what they think will they shut up to get a good grade, a good job, or a good fashionableness rating? A colleague tells me that lots of younger professors tell him in a whisper: We have to write this stuff in order to get tenure but then we can say what we really believe. By that time, he replies, I hope you remember what you really believe.

The guidelines of Political Correctness and multi-culturalism guide you to the "proper" answer. But if Americans or people in other countries don't understand what the real situation has been, how can they hope to duplicate its degree of success? Won't they go down a road that leads, at worst, off a cliff, and perhaps at best into a swamp?

I have no idea whether man-made climate change based on carbon dioxide emissions is true or not. But I do know one thing: When people say the debate is over and scientists are intimidated into shutting up, that is not the Enlightenment that I bought into.

Of course, those specific examples are just a starting point. Can dictators be appeased? Does massive unproductive spending end an economic depression? If you give mortgages to people who can’t afford to pay them will it lead to some problems? If you teach children to be ashamed of their free and democratic country will that have a good result? If an Islamist terrorist murdered American soldiers at Fort Hood should one insist that his own explicit statements about his ideology be buried and censor the story accordingly? Is Western civilization a bad thing? Should free speech limited only by the imminent danger of yelling fire in a crowded theatre a good thing? Doesn’t history show that America is one of the very greatest countries in world history? If you betray your friends and reward your enemies could this possibly make the former desert you and the latter hold you in contempt?


But remember the authors of the Declaration of Independence. They believed that some truths were “”self-evident,” that people could not forever be prevented from seeing them. We have seen in our lifetimes dictatorships using the most sophisticated ideology and technology to fool people and where is Communism today? In Iran, even the invoking of the divine has not managed to quiet inner voices of rationality and that thirst for liberty.

So perhaps that is the answer: seeing the ridiculousness of the lies is the best way to discover something more akin to the truth.

Some great mind today must come up with a modern updating appropriate for the age of “progressive” ideology and Political Correctness of Heinrich Heine’s great poem that denounced the censorship of his work in his native German-speaking land. Here is the poem in its entirety as Heine wrote it in 1827:

The German Censors —— —— —— ——
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—— —— —— —— —— —— —— —— —— ——
—— —— —— —— —— —— —— —— —— ——
—— —— —— —— —— Idiots —— ——
—— —— —— —— —— —— —— —— —— ——
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—— —— —— —— —— —— —— —— —— ——
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