Friday, July 31, 2009

Doublethink and Its Role in Popular Opinion

While recently reading a biography of Che Guevara I came across a interesting passage. In it, a pro-United States friend of Guevara's was attempting to convince a young Che that that American foreign policy in regards to the whole of Latin America was primarily a product of incompetence, rather than deliberate malfeasance. The quote, which I have modified slightly to expand its original meaning is as follows:

United States policy in action is, more often than not, the bumbling creature of ignorance and error rather than the well-designed strategy of sinister intentions.

In contemplating this passage, I'm reminded of the kind of cognitive dissonance/doublethink that underpins both the way we view government and form our opinions as to the way it really works. Government, depending on the particular issue at hand, is either hopelessly incompetent or ruthlessly efficient. It cannot be both. To cite another example, we lament its inefficiency and dysfunction with one breath, while simultaneously holding a belief in its complicit role as part of some shadowy conspiracy perpetrated by shadowy people. Again, logically speaking, government cannot be either purely competent or purely incompetent---the two cannot coexist.

The Right and Left use different language, but the presentation is basically similar. At the moment, the Right is playing to populist fears by insisting that government bureaucrats (politicians) will force people who are happy with their health insurance coverage and happy with their doctor to switch to a government plan based on Washington, DC's, nefarious, meddling terms. However, they'll also be quick in the same breath to cite Reagan-era rhetoric implying strongly that the Federal Government is so massive and so useless that, taking their prior assertion into account, it couldn't possibly be capable of being competent enough to set terms for anyone, much less the American people as a whole.

We on the Left have at times been guilty of this very same thing, to some extent. We eagerly place our firmest certainty of the existence of the latest coordinated Republican effort towards evil, greed, and destruction when the latest batch of clear-cut evidence that reveals a party in a state of turmoil routinely becomes common knowledge. We discount and dismiss far-right fringe groups like The Birthers as a bunch of wishful thinking loonies, even though it must be said that several prominent Republican politicians have taken up that latest drumbeat of grasping at straws in recent weeks. Whether it was Hillary Clinton's claim that her husband's unfair treatment at the hands of the media and the GOP was a product of a vast right-wing conspiracy or, more recently, the conspiracy theory rumblings about the true political influence of The Family, the fact of the matter is that there must be something about humankind that likes to believe in the the idea of the man behind the curtain---the existence of modest sized groups of powerful people who are the ones secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes. Perception, as the saying goes, is 90% of reality. A corollary to that thought could be to never underestimate the power of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps also we like to hedge our bets. If, in fact, we might accept that we're giving government and our elected leaders too much credit in assuming their basic competence, we might also wish to prepare for the other extreme, just in case. In so doing, it would be easy to believe that government leaders really were as invasive into our personal lives and meddlesome in our own individual affairs as we had always feared they could be. The truth of the matter lies, as so much does, somewhere in between those two poles. But the fear of government and the fear of centrally concentrated power that disregards popular sentiment for its own selfish, exploitative purposes is an idea whose roots go well beyond the present day.


jadedj said...

I can't argue pro or con for the shirt color. There is no shirt.

I think that we know inherently, power does indeed corrupt. There's simply too much evidence confirming that. It is basically a question of degree.

Joel Monka said...

"Again, logically speaking, it can be all one way or all the other, but the two cannot coexist."

Logically, I don't see how you arrive at this conclussion. The Federal government is millions of people in thousands of departments; logically, some of them must perform better than others, therefore it cannot be all one way or the other.

Comrade Kevin said...

It's a worthy point, Joel. I'll try to qualify with an edit.

Comrade Kevin said...

Corrected now. If you see other logical fallacies, let me know. Sometimes I get in a hurry.