Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Best of times? Worst of times? Or is Fate around the corner, slipping the lead into the glove?

Writing at Good As You, Jeremy Hooper has been sounding an almost triumphalist note since the Obergefell decision. His latest observations:

By the time you read this headline, we'll be ten more seconds beyond stagnant anti-gay 'culture wars'

Since it's summer vacation time, perhaps you've found yourself at a theme park. And at said theme park, perhaps you've found yourself sitting on some sort of tram watching the tableaus of an attraction play outside your moving window. When your car stops and the tour guide is engaging you and your fellow passengers in the show, you might have observations or opinions or debates with your fellow riders or whatever else about the subject matter in front of you. You paid for your ticket; you're immersed in this world. Perhaps it's even one of those 4-D type deals that manages to temporarily lessen your comfort with something that's wet or foul smelling. If it's a good ride, you'll feel enough of an involved party to form and share your reactions. If it's a bad ride, you might just snark at it.
But good or bad, your car soon moves on. When it does, you take the experience and lessons and memories and possibly even nausea with you, but you too move on to the next adventure. Others will follow behind and have their own run-ins with the past, but they too will move on soon enough. And so on and so forth, day after day and season after season. After all, the cars only run in one direction.
And this is what the militant, dogged, increasingly desperate anti-LGBT activists don't realize. They are now a frozen-in-time scene from a much larger human experience, and the vast majority of us—including many of the "us" who flirted with their positions at one time or even currently—are all zooming right past to what comes next.
Yes, right now, pro-discrimination organizations like The Family Leader can get mainstream Republican candidates to join their little summit. Yes, right now people like Ryan Anderson can find an audience for a book insisting that the marriage debate isn't really over. Yes, right now a number of anti-gay conservatives can find a niche media outlet willing to entertain their views. Yes, right now far-right politicians like Kansas governor Sam Brownback can even sign executive (dis)orders that enshrine discrimination. They can even still use marriage and related fear mongering to drive up some electoral support. The conservative movement has been building up its infrastructure for years; that doesn't just disappear overnight.
But all of this is happening in a stagnant swamp. These ideas—their ideas—are old, musty, failed ones. Their conversations are part of a previous generation's "culture war." It's not only that their policy ideas are notions that will either go nowhere or will ultimately be overturned. It's more than that. The ideas themselves, with stopping marriage equality chief among them, are now historical remnants. The notions are themselves dated, with archivists already boxing them up for planned museums and future university study. Their ways, once politically viable and menacing, are now regressive scripts for ever-repeating animatronic characters to act out within an unchanging diorama.
And there is simply no way to upgrade them for a new generation. It's not just that their policy ideas are broken; it's much deeper than that. The very notions that they are pushing (e.g. the "right" to overturn minority rights via majority tyranny, the "right" to exalt discriminatory faith views against LGBT people against civil policies and inclusive faith views, the "right" to limit people's lives in unfair ways simply because of who they are) are false values and flawed notions that the changing tide is sweeping off the table of consideration. It's not like the consensus—the majority of the public, young people, corporate America, the media, universities, intellectuals, power brokers from all walks of life—is saying "Rework this whole lesser-than status thing and we'll see if we can hash out a deal." We are saying to those who made discrimination their bag: "You're drunk with intolerance; go home."
If that sounds dismissive of me, then good. Because it is. Unapologetically so. Proudly so.
With every passing minute, the right (as in correct) side of the debate is distancing itself from a non-moving, non-compromising, non-evolving attempt to justify patently unjust discrimination. A movement that was once a great nuisance in the lives of millions of Americans is now becoming a fading curiosity, at best. By autumn, more so. By next year, even more so. By the time the 2016 election is over (and particularly if it goes one certain direction), I think we'll all be shocked by how much the 21st century gay rights battles seem more like documentary footage than the brutal thing that we all lived.

On the other hand, there is this comment, by the economist Tyler Cowen, at Marginal Revolution:

What makes the Very Serious People so very serious?

I mean that question quite um…seriously.
Paul Krugman, who I believe originated the concept, recently defined it as follows: “…someone distinguished by his faith in received orthodoxy no matter the evidence.”  I would rather have something less normative and also more specific.
I think of it this way: the People are Very Serious if they realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics.  At least if voters are watching.
So what is common sense morality in this context?  It embodies a number of propositions, including, for instance (with cultural variants across nations):
1. Political decisions should be based on what people and institutions deserve, based on their prior conduct and also on their contributions to the general good.
2. Economic nationalism.
3. Traditional morality, based on respect for authority, repayment of debts, savings, and hard work.
4. Inflation is bad, in part because it violates #1 and #3, and in the case of the eurozone it often violates #2 as well.
5. “I don’t care what you all say, the government should be able to find some way of arranging things so that I don’t have to suffer too badly from this.”
Now here’s the thing: common sense morality very often is wrong, or when it is right that is often with qualifications.
Therefore at the margin there is almost always a way to improve on what the Very Serious People are pushing for.  The Very Serious People realize this themselves, though not usually to the full extent, because they have been cognitively captured by their situations.  They see themselves as “a wee bit off due to political constraints,” instead of “a fair amount off due to political constraints.”  So there is usually some quite justified criticism of the Very Serious People.  Common sense morality is needed at some level, but still at the margin we wish to deviate from it.
That said, it is a big mistake to try to throw the Very Serious People under the bus.  The Very Serious People understand pretty well how to deal with a public which believes in some version of 1-5, and furthermore they often know that such public beliefs, whatever their limitations, are useful too.  Anyone else trying to manage the situation may come up with some favorable breakthroughs, but also may make a total hash of it, as was the case with Syriza.  Syriza failed to realize the import of 1-5 for both domestic and foreign politics,and so they drove the Greek economy to the point of total desperation.  There is a nested game going on, where the public has a big say on the heavily publicized issues, and the politicians must in some way heed that.
If you want to try the “replace the Very Serious People” game, and assume the subsequent risks, that is a judgment which can be made.  The mistake is to think that the partial wrongness of the Very Serious People is necessarily a reason to take matters out of their hands.
Addendum: Via Tim, here is the entry on Very Serious People on RationalWiki, it seems Atrios first put forward the concept.  And here are the remarks of Tsipras.

Henry Farrell has weighed in at Crooked Timber, and his thoughts are always worth a read:

Tyler Cowen argues that the concept of “Very Serious People” refers to people who “realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics.” I’m not either the originator nor the popularizer of the term, but I think that’s wrong. As I understand it, the theory underlying the concept of Very Serious People is as follows.
1. Everyone has a mix of beliefs, some of which are right, and some wrong.
2. Everyone co-exists in a social system that tends to value, heavily reinforce and widely disseminate some people’s beliefs while disparaging, heavily discounting, and tending to limit the circulation of certain other people’s beliefs. This bias is not random, but instead reflects and reinforces existing power structures and asymmetries.
3. People whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong, are Very Serious People. The system provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred, even when their mistakes have devastating consequences.
Or: Shorter Theory of Very Serious People.
1. Being Tom Friedman Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.
Unless my memory is badly mistaken (it might be), Duncan Black arrived at the concept of Very Serious People during the intra-US Iraq War debates. Duncan, Paul and others (including many of us at CT) were very, very unhappy with how debate on the Iraq War was conducted. Those who advocated the pro-invasion case were treated as serious thinkers, of enormous gravitas, who were taking the tough decisions necessary to protect America’s national security. Those who disagreed were treated as flakes, fifth columnists, Commies and sneaking regarders. As we know, despite the agreement of the Very Serious People that the Iraq war was a grave and urgent necessity, it turned out to be a colossal clusterfuck. As we also know, many of the People who were Very Serious about Iraq still continue to be Very Serious about a multitude of other topics on our television screens and in our op-ed pages.
Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position that tends to reinforce, rather than counter, one’s innate biases and prejudices. Put slightly differently, the Very Serious Person theory is one that is at least as much about collective structures of opinion as it is about individuals. We all err, sometimes very badly. The theory says that VSPs face less incentive either to second guess their errors as they are making them, or to think through their errors after they have made them, because collective structures reinforce their tendency to think that they are right in the first instance, and their tendency to think that they ought to have been right (if it weren’t for those inconvenient facts/specific and contingent circumstances that meant that things didn’t go quite as predicted just this once) in the second.
My version of the VSP problem would hence lead one to focus more on the weaknesses of collective structures of error correction than on trying to correct individual biases. We all have biases which lead us to understand the world in particular ways.
These biases, however, can be valuable as well as problematic. I’ve been looking for years for a Joseph Schumpeter quote that I think I saw once, but may have inadvertently reconstructed for my own convenience, to the effect that our vision is blinkered because of our ideological biases, but that without these ideologies we would not be able to see at all. As Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have argued, individual biases, together with a certain degree of pigheadedness can have advantages for group problem solving, as long as people have a minimal capacity to come around to recognizing the advantages of a better perspective, however grudgingly, and (my addition) as long as collective structures of decision making do not systematically entrench certain kinds of bias.
This is the advantage of democracy when it works; it harnesses mulishness and rancorous dispute, to reveal the information that is latent in the disagreements between our various perspectives on the world (which are inextricably intertwined with our value judgments). However, when certain people’s perspectives are privileged, the value of democracy is weakened. Their perspectives will continue to prevail, even when they are wrong. Weak arguments that they make will be treated as strong ones, while strong arguments made by their opponents will be treated as weak ones.

One implication of this argument is that centrist opinionators – those whose opinions are closest to the social core and hence most likely to be reinforced by the social system they live in – are especially likely to be prone to VSP syndrome. So too, perhaps, are people (on left, right or center) who believe that their reasoning capacity makes them more likely to be free from bias than those around them – Mercier and Sperber convincingly argue that reasoning evolved less as a way to figure out the world than to defend one’s one biased view of it and hence to win arguments. The problem with VSPs is not that they are biased (we all are) – it’s that the systems around them magnify that bias, reinforce it, and reflect it, creating the risk of vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance (as in the Iraq war).

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