Shibboleths

by John Quiggin on February 17, 2011

A recent report on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers”, with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.

Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.

But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.

Rather, birtherism is a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe. (The original shibboleth was a password chosen by the Gileadites because their Ephraimite enemies could not say “Sh”.) Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth.

It’s clear, as Dave Weigel points out, that beliefs of this kind are a marker for partisanship, as witness the high correlation between stated birtherist beliefs and approval of Palin. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the statement isn’t actually believed. Rather this is an open question and an important one for agnotological understanding of the emergence of comprehensive culturally induced ignorance as a marker for the Republican tribe.

In this context, it’s worth noting that birtherism is only a minor part of Obama-related Republican agnotology. The belief that Obama is a secret Muslim is similarly widely held, as is the view that he sympathises with those seeking to impose sharia law.

It’s also worth distinguishing such stated beliefs from statements like “Obama is a socialist”, in which what matters most is the interpretation of the term “socialist” (AFAIC, the most common US meaning is “Democrat with spine”). Compare “Bush is a war criminal”. In these cases, facts about what Obama (or Bush) has actually done are less relevant than judgements about the appropriateness of labels.

My feeling (derived largely from observations on climate change and creationism, which raise similar questions) is that we can distinguish numerous different belief states that go along with birtherist answers to opinion poll questions. There are lots of nuances, but most are combinations of the following

  • A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs
  • Partisanship as suggested by Weigel in which Republicans choose to give the most negative answer possible about Obama as an affirmation of tribal identity.
  • Doublethink in which people are aware that in some mundane sense Obama was born in Hawaii, but also believe that Republican ideology is true and implies the birtherist answer
  • Conformism, in which people know the truth but give the culturally preferred answer, or choose some evasive form of words, as with John Boehner recently.

Does all this hurt or help the Republicans? In short-run electoral terms, I think it helps. A base of loyal supporters who, for one or other of the reasons mentioned above, are immune to factual evidence has to help win elections. There are, however, two big costs

  • First, people have noticed that Republicans have a problem with reality. That perception, which undermines the rationale for all sorts of thinking about policy, will take a while to sink in, but it will also be hard to erase once it is generally accepted. In the long run, this has to turn off a fair number of Republican-leaning independents and any remaining Republicans with a capacity for embarrassment.
  • Double-think is very difficult, and people will start to act on the basis of their beliefs. If those beliefs are ludicrously false, trouble is likely to follow.

{ 138 comments }

1

N NUMBER OF COMMENTATORS 02.17.11 at 1:08 pm

Ignorance turned out to be a major result of specialization. Decision makers give up their knowledge of the whole as they seek full and complete knowledge of their particular piece of the whole. But ignorance is not only a correlative of specialization. It is almost a condition for peaceful coexistence among specialists.

Ignorance tends to be meaningfully distributed throughout the heierarchies. There was more ignorance at the center than at the periphery…..This brings our particular concern into focus. Ignorance at the scale that we observed could not have occurred by chance alone. Ignorance at this scale involving scientists — that is, men dedicated to knowledge above all else — had to be deliberate.

– Poliscide, Theodore Lowi et. al., Macmillan, 1976, p. 282.

2

lemuel 02.17.11 at 1:13 pm

I don’t think we are supposed to assume that the Republicans are the only ones afflicted, so what would you consider to be a potential Democratic shibboleth?

3

Matt McIrvin 02.17.11 at 1:25 pm

The Democrats are currently an ideologically broader lot, so to look for real shibboleths of this sort you have to go to sub-factions. Most of the ones professed by Democrats who are prominent on a national scale are softly right-wing shibboleths professed as markers of centrism, e.g. “we have to cut the budget now to shrink the deficit”.

4

Matt McIrvin 02.17.11 at 1:33 pm

…But actual left-wing ones are not unknown: the spectacular ones tend to be fringier, and rejected by most prominent Democrats. “The plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11/2001 did not exist” is one of them. “Vaccinations are bad” has some following at the Huffington Post, though it’s also got right-wing followers.

A common feature of people who hold these ideas is a kind of projection in which the people who believe the opposite–“anthropogenic global warming is real”, “there is no evidence that black Africans are genetically less intelligent”–are held to be the ones with the real shibboleth. So you’ll see these things come up whenever someone asks for irrational left-wing beliefs.

5

Tim Worstall 02.17.11 at 1:42 pm

“a potential Democratic shibboleth?”

Capital exploits labour?

Markets inevitably mean a race to the bottom?

Isn’t high speed rail a great idea in a very large and sparsely populated country?

But of course manicurists need to be State regulated!

(Those last two tend to turn up at Yglesias’ all the time, the first in the posts, the second in the comments, after Matt has argued against the proposition).

6

Pretendous 02.17.11 at 1:43 pm

I am not sure there is much need for a shibboleth among groups that are in power. Sure, there are the assorted liberals who make little effort to distinguish between the actual dumb things that Palin has said and the dumb things attributed to her in the spirit of parody, but I suspect that has more to do with laziness than in-group signalling.

We may need to look back to the 2004 Democratic presidential primary race to learn about their shibboleths. Biden’s “Bush is literally [sic] brain dead” and Gephardt’s “Bush is a miserable failure” immediately come to mind.

7

Steve LaBonne 02.17.11 at 1:46 pm

Capital exploits labour?

You don’t know a hell of a lot about the Democratic Party, obviously. The notion that Marxist ideas are in any way current in it is every bit as stupid as birtherism. The party as it exists today is well to the right of Richard Nixon, for chrissakes.

8

Tim Worstall 02.17.11 at 2:02 pm

@ 7: I agree that the first two are probably more to do with my experiences of the Guardian’s comments sections than the Democratic Party.

9

Bill Gardner 02.17.11 at 2:07 pm

“to look for real shibboleths of this sort you have to go to [Democratic Party] sub-faction[s]”

Agreed. How about great concern about the risks of genetically-modified organisms?

10

darren 02.17.11 at 2:11 pm

“Capital exploits labor” isn’t a claim of fact, it’s a tautology. Whether, how, and under what circumstances exploitation should be moralized is where the reasonable and inevitable conflict lies. Everyone, including diehard libertarians, moralizes some of it, although they would frame the complaint differently. This isn’t close to being a shibboleth.

11

Talleyrand 02.17.11 at 2:14 pm

On this subject, have you seen the paper Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation by Timur Kuran and Cass R. Sunstein? The main point is:
“The driving mechanism involves a combination of informational and reputational motives: Individuals endorse the perception partly by learning from the apparent beliefs of others and partly by distorting their public responses in the interest of maintaining social acceptance. Availability entrepreneurs– activists who manipulate the content of public discourse– strive to trigger availability cascades likely to advance their agendas.”

12

Chris Adams 02.17.11 at 2:16 pm

One major problem related to your second conclusion is that the GOP has unusually trended heavily toward being the party of the elderly and rich for awhile and there are fair odds that many of their current voters will be dead before the consequences are obvious. Breaking the idea of concern for the future is in some ways worse than the actual problem.

13

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.17.11 at 2:16 pm

Hey, a bit of zealotry never hurt any movement.

14

Chris Adams 02.17.11 at 2:21 pm

Tim: the fact that those are the best examples illustrates the groupthink differential – there’s currently nothing close too as unified on the democratic side as birtherism, anti-Muslim or immigrant paranoia, etc. The strongest one is probably union-backed opposition to free trade and that’s quite far from universal, especially across age groups.

15

Bill Gardner 02.17.11 at 2:24 pm

“to look for real shibboleths of this sort you have to go to [Democratic Party] sub-faction[s]”

That said, what you treat as a sub-faction is is a matter of perception. My right wing friends tend to react as if it an unfair rhetorical blow on my part to mention Palin, creationism, and so on. They have in mind a mental distance from wing-nuts that preserves the idea of an intellectually serious conservative movement.

16

Steve LaBonne 02.17.11 at 2:27 pm

The strongest one is probably union-backed opposition to free trade and that’s quite far from universal, especially across age groups.

And it has very little following at all among Democratic politicians apart from a few members of Congress from the rustbelt.

17

Matt McIrvin 02.17.11 at 2:40 pm

Here’s a low-stakes one that persists relatively widely among liberals: “We all need to switch to using the Peters Projection world map, for social justice.” An episode of “The West Wing” gave it a lot of exposure.

In that case it may just be that the initial argument sounds superficially reasonable, and the issue is low-bandwidth enough that the somewhat technical debunking (there are other, better, widely-used equal-area maps, and Peters’ has many undesirable properties) doesn’t get much penetration.

There are also the issues where there are legit arguments in favor, and legit arguments against, but the balance is out of whack for tribal reasons, bad arguments abound and in practice it functions more as a shibboleth. Opposition to nuclear power and GMOs probably falls under that to some degree.

(Careful, though; a popular corporate obfuscatory tactic is to muddy the waters so that things that are really quite clear-cut–secondhand smoke, AGW–seem to fall under this last heading. So I’m not entirely sure about my own categorizations there.)

18

Ben Alpers 02.17.11 at 2:43 pm

It’s also worth distinguishing such stated beliefs from statements like “Obama is a socialist”, in which what matters most is the interpretation of the term “socialist” (AFAIC, the most common US meaning is “Democrat with spine”).

Actually, the post itself has identified here one of the chief Democratic shibboleths of recent years: the notion that the chief problem with the Democratic Party is that it “lacks spine,” i.e. that, in their heart of hearts, most Democratic elected officials are progressives who for some unknown reason simply lack the courage of their convictions. This is the 21st-century U.S. version of the Imperial Russian peasantry’s belief that if the Tsar only knew of their suffering, he would act to improve things.

And for precisely that reason, I don’t think “socialist” = “Democrat with spine.” The notion that “Obama is a socialist,” like “Obama is a Muslim,” is a statement about the supposed hidden intentions of the President and his party. And I’d disagree, just a bit, with this description of:

A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites…are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative.

In fact, the awful alternatives are repeatedly specified, though in ways that contradict themselves: Sharia Law, liberation theology, socialism, etc. etc. It’s any and all of these things.

“Obama is a socialist” isn’t, therefore, GOPer for “Obama has spine” (to believe this is, I’d say, a kind of Democratic projection), but rather “Obama is secretly plotting to undermine America.”

19

chris 02.17.11 at 3:00 pm

@7: I think that’s a bit harsh. Capital *does* exploit labor, but it also generates more wealth that can be (although it isn’t always) used to benefit everyone, so it can be useful to have capital around anyway, although it has to be carefully watched. I don’t think that view is out of the Democratic mainstream.

Similarly, markets often mean a race to the bottom, but not necessarily — again, if they are carefully watched.

The US is sparsely populated *on average*, but its population density is extremely variable and HSR proposals are concentrated on linking major cities. Nobody (that I know of) is suggesting building a HSR line across Montana (still less Alaska, whose massive area is included in the denominator of the average-density calculation when it’s calculated for the purpose of showing how rural the US supposedly is — indeed, the belief that rural areas with low density are the “real US” practically qualifies as a right-wing shibboleth itself).

But Democrats aren’t real big on conformity (or on oversimplified slogans, as my above revisions of Tim’s strawmen demonstrate) so IMO they don’t have any “shibboleths” in the sense it’s being used here. And demanding that they must is nothing more than Broderism. Of course we shouldn’t *assume* that the Republicans are the only ones to have shibboleths, but if the evidence turns out to point that way, or to say that they have more of them and value them more highly, then we shouldn’t refuse to accept it either.

Having said all that, I’ll propose one anyway: a death from unsafe working conditions is just as tragic, and should be just as much a matter of public concern, as a death from terrorism. (Do normative statements even count for this? Come to think of it, 3/4 of Tim’s proposed examples are normative too.)

20

Jonathan Mayhew 02.17.11 at 3:02 pm

I am a democrat but have never heard of some of these democratic shibboleths at all. Manicurists? Peter projection? Not only do these not figure in my party identification, but they don’t even register with me as issues. I must have missed that episode of the West Wing. The shibboleth I hear the most is that most Republicans are birthers, so that lends a kind of circular dimension to the discussion.

21

Tim Worstall 02.17.11 at 3:05 pm

“Tim: the fact that those are the best examples”

Well, no, they’re a random selection I scribbled down in a blog comment after a minute or two of thought (as you all know, a quite excessive amount of such for myself).

I will admit to a certain sympathy for birtherism: I did have to go and check that Obama was indeed born two years after Hawaii became a State :-)

Creationism and some of the others are quite barking of course. But I’m equally certain that, for exactly the reasons that John Q gives (as a tribal marker, identification of belonging) we could find similar for all political persuasions, not just Reps or Dems. Indeed, I find the American insistence that all politicians must believe in some flavour of the Sky Fairy entirely mystifying.

22

chris 02.17.11 at 3:08 pm

Actually, the post itself has identified here one of the chief Democratic shibboleths of recent years: the notion that the chief problem with the Democratic Party is that it “lacks spine,” i.e. that, in their heart of hearts, most Democratic elected officials are progressives who for some unknown reason simply lack the courage of their convictions.

I don’t see how this can be a shibboleth when it’s perhaps *the* hot issue in left-left conflict (whether this is true, or whether the party is deliberately selling out the base, or fighting some of the good fight and winning partial victories, or something else).

23

Matt McIrvin 02.17.11 at 3:17 pm

Like most of the others, it’s factional rather than partisan.

24

rea 02.17.11 at 3:28 pm

I will admit to a certain sympathy for birtherism: I did have to go and check that Obama was indeed born two years after Hawaii became a State :-)

Statehood doesn’t enter into it–people born in Hawaii when it was a territory rather than a state were still US citizens at birth. See, for example, the Canal Zone-born John McCain.

25

bob mcmanus 02.17.11 at 3:29 pm

An excellent post, with the least interesting parts the Republican-bashing. Really, the only other big blogger I could remember working on this level of generality recently was Steve Randy Waldmann.

Endogenize Ideology

“However, many of Krugman’s professional colleagues really do treat ideology or “political constraints” as given, and perform the exercise that economists perform reflexively, starting with their first grad school exam: constrained optimization.” ..SRW

Everybody has, and must have, “shibboleths.”

26

Matt McIrvin 02.17.11 at 3:41 pm

Right, I’m sure many of the things I believe, I believe because people like me believe them. The right response, though, is to keep making the attempt to examine your own beliefs critically. It’s hard, which is why science is hard, among other things.

The thread got onto this because just bashing benighted people for their epistemic closure is not very interesting, though it’s important to recognize that that’s what’s happening in cases where you might otherwise be tempted to go and rationally argue them out of their delusion. (Debunking shibboleth-like beliefs can still be useful, though, to deconfuse parties who are just encountering them for the first time.)

27

roac 02.17.11 at 3:56 pm

It is laudably high-minded, I guess, not to mention “fear of black people” as a major ingredient of the tribal identity under discussion.

28

Salient 02.17.11 at 3:59 pm

A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs

In my experience, no one falls into this category, and people who seem to fall into this category probably belong in the more accurate category “people who think folks on the left are as hateful as themselves, and who posit destructive motives in others that mirror their own internal sense of antagonism.”

This isn’t so much conspiracy-theory as it is an implicit theory that most people feel the same spectrum of emotion when contemplating politics that they do, and extrapolating accordingly. I propose at least entertaining that category, if not swapping out category 1 for it.

29

Marc 02.17.11 at 4:19 pm

Why do we end up talking about bullshit false equivalence whenever the reality-challenged nature of the Republican party is raised?

30

Steve LaBonne 02.17.11 at 4:21 pm

Why do we end up talking about bullshit false equivalence whenever the reality-challenged nature of the Republican party is raised?

“Both sides do it” is a shibboleth of the Moderate tribe.

31

rm 02.17.11 at 4:28 pm

Double-think is very difficult, and people will start to act on the basis of their beliefs. If those beliefs are ludicrously false, trouble is likely to follow.

I think the Birther beliefs are rationalized so much that this problem will not happen to many people. I agree that birther folks mostly know that Obama was really born in Hawaii, but they see it in a cultural framework that values blood and breeding more than address. It matters a lot more to them who your people are than where your momma happened to be living when you were born. From that perspective, Obama doesn’t have the proper roots, and his people are his father’s people, regardless of the fact that he only met his father a few times. Bill Clinton was a lesser example of this — they knew who his people were, and his people were white trash. (Which explains the Clintons’ great popularity among less affluent white Democrats in a swath of the country stretching from Arkansas through Appalachia, even while the affluent Republicans of this region keep a special hatred for the Clintons. I suspect some of these Clinton Democrats are also birthers, because, you know.)

The other problem — more and more sane people are driven from the Rs — has been happening for around ten years. It’s definitely a hopeful sign.

32

Jonathan Hopkin 02.17.11 at 4:36 pm

From here in Europe, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could believe that the Democratic party is left-wing – even ‘with spine’ it merely approximates what passes for vaguely centrist social/christian democracy over here.
But I think the fact that we can’t easily find a Democratic shibboleth might explain why the party has such trouble mobilizing support from the middle- to low-income Americans who should be voting for them. If you’re not passionate in your beliefs and hedge your bets by agreeing with your opponents, it’s hardly surprising that voters go with the ones who seem to believe what they’re saying.

33

roac 02.17.11 at 4:40 pm

I think rm’s analysis is dead on, as applied to the South. But birtherism is not solely a regional phenomenon.

34

Walt 02.17.11 at 4:44 pm

To be fair, Steve, liberals also like to indulge in “both sides do it” so that they can feel like they’re being fair-minded.

35

phosphorious 02.17.11 at 5:27 pm

Another conservative shibboleth:

“Liberals do it too.”

No matter what you accuse a conservative of, it can be asserted without proof that liberals do the same thing. Liberals are the real racists, atheists are the real fundamentalists, and on and on.

36

Martin James 02.17.11 at 5:41 pm

Aren’t all moral beliefs (along with a belief in free will and choice) shibboleths of almost all humans that have no scientific underpinning?

37

Keith 02.17.11 at 6:04 pm

“Bush is a war criminal” is not an apt comparison at all to “Obama is a X” (where X= Socialist, Muslim, Foreigner, etc. ) Bush clearly id something wrong during his presidency and may have violated a few international laws. Whether or not he is guilty of war crimes would be for an international court to decide. It’s an accusation that at worst is hyperbolic, but may actually have some basis in reality, unlike “Obama is a socialist”, which is, as you say, a tribal marker rather than a real accusation based on reality.

38

Keith 02.17.11 at 6:11 pm

Bill GArdner @15:
My right wing friends tend to react as if it an unfair rhetorical blow on my part to mention Palin, creationism, and so on. They have in mind a mental distance from wing-nuts that preserves the idea of an intellectually serious conservative movement.

Have these friends of yours ever mentioned where this intellectually serious conservative movement is hiding? Because I don’t see any more evidence for their existence than I do for Bigfoot.

39

CharleyCarp 02.17.11 at 6:13 pm

You can’t be a liberal unless you believe in Fairness to the Other. The shibboleth is that Fairness to the Other is not only morally correct but, in the long run at least, self-interested.

I had a fun time this morning describing some of our tribal conflicts here to out of town guests: creation and expansion of wilderness areas, shutdown of the timber industry (logging and then milling), introduction of the wolf, judicial rejection of Administrative short-cuts to manage the wolf specifically and the forests generally. Hikers v. Mountain Bikers v. ATVers. We didn’t even get to our local equality ordinance, currently under attack by a preacher-legislator from out on the plains. It sometimes seems like every one of us is on the front lines in the Culture war: it’s a small town, and most of us are directly and consciously affected in one way or another by how it’s all playing out.

Fortunately we mostly wear uniforms, and a local version of the Geneva Conventions is usually observed.

40

CharleyCarp 02.17.11 at 6:19 pm

Whether or not he is guilty of war crimes would be for an international court to decide.

I’d be satisfied to see him and his cohorts indicted in a federal district court — let them argue reliance on the Yoo memos, and whatever other defenses they think they have, to a regularly constituted court, not just to Broder and his cohort. And let the President pardon them, if he would: he can be held accountable for this, and no one who accepts a pardon should brag about it as a legal vindication.

41

Kenny Easwaran 02.17.11 at 6:44 pm

Martin James – actually, the existence of free will and choice are some of the most supported beliefs we have. It’s clear that some actions are externally compelled, but that most others are internally determined. The only thing unscientific about the belief (or perhaps even anti-scientific) is a belief that free will and choice would require a suspension of the laws of physics, which is apparently widely enough held that you seem to agree with it too!

As for morality, I’ll leave it to someone from the Michigan philosophy department to try to explain why that’s either scientific, or at least compatible with science.

42

Patrick 02.17.11 at 6:57 pm

“A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs”

Wrong. This world view can itself be a shibboleth. And I’m pretty sure it is.

The people who profess to hold it rarely behave as if they actually do. Instead they engage in fantasy play like Left Behind novels and flatter themselves that they are striking a blow for freedom by listening to Glen Beck. Their behavior holds a lot more similarity with a rich imaginative life than with a matter of actual belief.

As with any shibboleth belief, there are outliers who don’t recognize that the group has adopted an unstated gulf between purported beliefs about the world and actual anticipation of real life events. These outliers either side with anticipating the future normally, in which case they become apostates, or with the purported beliefs, in which case they become nutters.

For the record, this is why atheists and fundamentalists are so similar. Both are treating religious belief as actual belief, instead of as a shibboleth. What lessons should be taken from this I cannot say.

43

Steve LaBonne 02.17.11 at 7:03 pm

For the record, this is why atheists and fundamentalists are so similar.

A shibboleth of the Moron tribe.

44

Ebenezer Scrooge 02.17.11 at 7:05 pm

Two comments:
1. The most prevalent Democratic shibboleth I know is “nukes bad”–granola power is somehow better. However, I’m not sure that this shibboleth commands even majority support among Democrats.
2. I wouldn’t say that “Obama is a socialist” is a good example of agnotology. If you are a certain kind of deontological libertarian, that statement makes perfect sense. Most Democrats like capitalism, but do so mostly for utilitarian reasons. If the utility of capitalism changed, so would their opinion of economic liberty. A deontological libertarian likes capitalism, not because it works, but because liberty (which they define to require capitalism) is good in itself. Such a libertarian cannot see a significant difference between Democrats and socialists–they both view economic freedom as a matter of utilitarian calculus, and the only difference between them is parametric.
Where these deontological libertarians start to wallow in agnotology is when they fail to accuse the Republicans of being feudalists.

45

Patrick (not the same one as above) 02.17.11 at 7:06 pm

I was an undergraduate in the Michigan philosophy department, and I’d be astonished if someone there claimed that morality is or could be scientific. “Incommensurable,” would be the word they’d use. Mind you, that was a while ago.

46

rm 02.17.11 at 7:17 pm

Keith,

Yes. These two statements are likewise also not comparable: “The 2000 Presidential election was stolen by Jeb, the Republican Party, and the Supreme Court” and “The 2008 Presidential election was stolen by ACORN and the Democratic Party.” One of these is arguable but based in facts; the other is a paranoid racist fantasy promoted by people that must actually know better. But in our Official Discourse they are equivalent statements.

Where is the reasonable, intellectual conservative movement hiding? In the past, of course.

47

Dirty Davey 02.17.11 at 8:07 pm

Whenever I see the term “agnotology”, I wish it had been derived from “Agnew”.

48

Matt McIrvin 02.17.11 at 8:19 pm

Why do we end up talking about bullshit false equivalence whenever the reality-challenged nature of the Republican party is raised?

It’s not false equivalence; I think a fair comparison just reveals how inequivalent the cases are. You have to look hard to find something on the left even vaguely reminiscent of, say, the requirement for Republicans to disbelieve in anthropogenic global warming, or the need to leave openings for agreement with birthers and young-earth creationists.

49

Ludovic 02.17.11 at 8:25 pm

what’s most amazing to me is that someone could write such a piece and not mention the race of the sufferers of agnotology, the race of the person they don’t/can’t believe, racism, white supremacy or any of those relevant facts and lenses. the second most impressive thing is that it took 27 comments for someone to mention racism.

even people who talk about white denialism suffer from it.

50

Keith 02.17.11 at 8:31 pm

Patrick@41:
For the record, this is why atheists and fundamentalists are so similar. Both are treating religious belief as actual belief, instead of as a shibboleth.

Wrong. Atheists do treat religious beliefs as a shibboleth. In fact, I’d argue that this could even serve as a working definition of atheism: the attitude that religious beliefs are nothing but in-group identifiers that change flavor depending on social and cultural context.

Fundamentalists, meanwhile, think all other religions and atheism are just shibboleth but that their religious belief is something magical beyond rational criticism. Fundies exclude themselves form analysis under the false assumption that they are exempt from cultural influence.

51

Ottovbvs 02.17.11 at 8:37 pm

Tim Worstall 02.17.11 at 1:42 pm
Who alas demonstrates some of the symptoms of agnatology. In this case gross oversimplification and misprepresentation of entirely sensible beliefs. For example: because it makes sense to regulate the financial or oil industries this doesn’t imply a similar belief in the regulation of manicurists. Or because high speed rail makes sense for linking major urban centers (New York and Washington) hardly suggests liberals want to see high speed links between Fargo ND and Billings MT.

52

Keith 02.17.11 at 8:37 pm

rm@45:
Where is the reasonable, intellectual conservative movement hiding? In the past, of course.

Ah! Another conservative shibboleth: the lost golden age of the recent past. I hate that one most of all because it is so insidious. It sometimes even affects liberals, especially of the activist hippie generation who complain about how great the 60s were, and how far we’ve fallen today and let down the Cause.

53

Jacques René giguère 02.17.11 at 8:39 pm

■First, people have noticed that Republicans have a problem with reality. That perception, which undermines the rationale for all sorts of thinking about policy, will take a while to sink in, but it will also be hard to erase once it is generally accepted. In the long run, this has to turn off a fair number of Republican-leaning independents and any remaining Republicans with a capacity for embarrassment.
Well, in the long-run all Germans became good democrats. The short run road was quite rough though…

54

Aulus Gellius 02.17.11 at 8:47 pm

For the record, this is why atheists and fundamentalists are so similar. Both are treating religious belief as actual belief, instead of as a shibboleth.

Wrong. Atheists do treat religious beliefs as a shibboleth. In fact, I’d argue that this could even serve as a working definition of atheism: the attitude that religious beliefs are nothing but in-group identifiers that change flavor depending on social and cultural context.”

Statement! Opposing statement! The cut and thrust of debate!
And yet, perhaps the two claims can be reconciled. Could there, by chance, be several different atheists in the world, and might these atheists, conceivably, not all have exactly the same attitude toward religion?

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Glen Tomkins 02.17.11 at 9:09 pm

Don’t overthink this.

A large % of Rs believe that Obama might not actually have been born in the US, despite the massive conspiracy this would require among all sorts of elites in the US, including his political rivals bot D and R, because it simply is quite credible that elites in the US would engage in a massive conspiracy of inaction against a fellow member in good standing of the elite.

“Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?”, Matt Taibbi asks. Well, because of a massive conspiracy of inaction on the part of elites in the US, who should and would, if the system actually policed itself, be willing and eager to start the investigations that would probably put key Wall Street figures in jail for fraud. This is not some Left shiboleth. People believe it because it’s reasonable.

It is quite true that the birther idea is not reasonable. But if you’re not paying careful attention, if you don’t study the patterns of delicate interplay between kabuki competition and the extension of professional courtesy, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the system let Obama take office despite a basic disability for that office simply out of the same professional courtesy that has Obama “looking forward, not backward” when it comes to the official crimes of his predecessors in office.

The real problem here is the lack of trust, a fully justified lack of trust, by the electorate in the institutions of governance in the US, not some tribal identity dynamics. Well, the lack of trust may soon mean that government in this country gives way to warring tribes, but it’s the lack of trust that is logically prior.

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mrearl 02.17.11 at 9:11 pm

“I agree that birther folks mostly know that Obama was really born in Hawaii, but they see it in a cultural framework that values blood and breeding more than address.”

Let’s be candid and substitute “race” for “blood and breeding” there. Likewise a “special hatred” for Bill Clinton is (or when he was in office, was) not confined among Republicans to their affluent and his popularity among “less affluent southern white Democrats” would by definition, in presidential elections anyway, be among a subset of a subset of a minority (Clinton never got a majority of the southern white vote) and was proportionately exceeded by his popularity among African-American voters, in contradiction of what “blood and breeding” might suggest for “white trash.”

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piglet 02.17.11 at 9:19 pm

The right-wingers contributions are as always amusing. How many people have ever heard of the Peters map, and how many among those who think it is useful (that would include me) have ever claimed that it is the only useful one? And witness how influential the Peters map cult is within the Democratic party. Remember all those primary challenges mounted against candidates that failed to endorse the Peters map?

Worstall’s examples are just meaningless. I’m genuinely disappointed because Worstall can and sometimes does better than that. High-Speed rail is only proposed in dense parts of the country. The Northeastern Megalopolis is a huge land area about as densely populated as Europe. There is nothing that a priori would speak against European-style rail service for that area. Worstall knows that. It’s not that this hasn’t been discussed before. Is that even you, Tim?

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Patrick, the one who isn't the one who isn't me 02.17.11 at 9:26 pm

Aulen Gellius- Its even easier to reconcile than that.

My statement referred to the way that atheists (myself included) tend to treat religious claims- as if they are statements about the real world that are either true or false. So humans were either created from dust and breathe, or not. So Noah once built an arc, or not. So there exists a tripartite yet unified divinity, or not. So humans exist in a state of sin that justifies their suffering, or not. So God healed your Great Aunt’s gout, or not.

Fundamentalists (I’m using the term in the modern vernacular sense rather than the religious denominational sense) tend to do the same thing. They actually believe that God healed their Great Aunt’s gout. The atheist actually believes that this did not occur.

The middle ground is occupied by people for whom the statement “God healed my Great Aunt’s gout” is a shibboleth.

Which is why Keith isn’t really disagreeing with me. Its the same issue with other shibboleths- a matter of perspective and how you choose your terminology. For example, I do not view the statement “Obama is not a citizen” as a shibboleth. I view it as a statement that is either true or false, and in this case, false. But I acknowledge that it is a shibboleth to certain other people. And I suspect that amongst those for whom we might think it is a shibboleth, there are some who actually believe it- some for whom it is not a shibboleth.

Whether something is or is not a shibboleth makes sense only in reference to its relationship to a particular person or group, and most likely I did not write clearly.

As for Steve LaBonne- I think I made clear which trait I was comparing between atheists and fundamentalists- a tendency to treat religious matters as questions of truth or falsehood rather than as a sort of muddled, group identity laden mix of professed beliefs and actual beliefs and unwritten lines between the two… ie, as a collection of shibboleths.

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Bob 02.17.11 at 9:32 pm

A left wing shibboleth would be that all corporations are evil, or immoral entities, when in fact the corporation itself is amoral, and, as it is driven by humans, may be directed in more or less moral directions by its leadership.

Nuclear = bad is another.
GMO = bad is quite a common shibboleth of the left.
Natural = good is another popular lefty shibboleth.

There are certainly some hot buttons on which proud lefties lose their ability to objectively evaluate a situation, but I think that, objectively speaking (or as objectively as I can speak, as a progressive myself), the right falls prey to them more often.

60

Ben A/baa 02.17.11 at 9:41 pm

According to this Rasmussen poll, 35% of Democrats queried in 2007 believed Bush had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, with 26% ‘not sure':

http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/current_events/bush_administration/22_believe_bush_knew_about_9_11_attacks_in_advance

Most often when the topic of ‘crazy poll results’ are raised, it’s in an explicitly partisan context. As in “look at how crazy those guys are.” I wonder what evidence would actually be required to answer the settle the question of which side in US politics has more crazies (or is more willing to sign on to implausible in-group Shibboleths) Sounds like a good academic research topic…

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piglet 02.17.11 at 9:42 pm

What we are debating here is a very important issue and I don’t think we have gotten very far at even describing the phenomenon adequately let alone explaining it. What is so unnerving about the intellectual closedmindedness, the resistance to empirical reality that characterizes not just the fringe but a large part of the contemporaneous right-wing movement in the US is that it shares these symptoms with earlier fascist movements.

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bianca steele 02.17.11 at 9:42 pm

The difference between shibboleths on the right and the left is that the latter are associated with support for specific campaigns to get specific results, and to persuade people of the basis for those campaigns. That can’t be said about birtherism, which AFACT is a combination of talking smack (“I don’t like him so what bad things can I say about him”) and fascination with conspiracy theories (“‘birthplace’ is an interesting concept so let’s apply it to our target because it might say something interesting even if it isn’t true or minimally comprehensible to any group”).

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bianca steele 02.17.11 at 9:48 pm

@53
Actually I think the NE US is more densely populated than Europe, which is exactly why high-speed rail is an impossibility in some of the most heavily used parts of the system. It isn’t possible to have the trains run fast enough because of requirements imposed by the lines’ running through existing towns.

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You're the best, now take the test 02.17.11 at 9:49 pm

A truly highly intelligent and erudite post!

However, perhaps someone could explain something to me. I’ve been conducting an “AntiBirther” smarts/integrity test for over five months and it’s gotten thousands of views. I’ve challenged dozens of the TopThinkersOnTwitter to take the test and those few who have got it wrong.

In fact, after five months and thousands of views, just one (1) “AntiBirther” has more or less passed the test. The test has just one question and it has a clear answer. Yet, just one “AntiBirther” has gotten it out of thousands.

Maybe John Quiggen would care to give it a try. See my name’s link for the test.

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xian 02.17.11 at 10:00 pm

one Democratic shibboleth is that all opposition to Obama is, at heart, racism.

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joel hanes 02.17.11 at 10:01 pm

35% of Democrats queried in 2007 believed Bush had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, with 26% ‘not sure

Well, you know, there was that President’s Daily Briefing that led off with “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Within United States” — the one that W contemptuously dismissed as pre-emptive ass-covering. I can see where a detail like that might mislead 35% of people to think that W had “prior knowledge”, since he’d been explicitly warned ahead of time about a terrorist attack by Bin Laden.

Of course, the date and means of the attack were not explicitly predicted, and every President undoubtedly gets many warnings about threats that never materialize, etc. Nevertheless, it takes a fairly detailed remembrance of the exact circumstances and contents of that PDB to accurately decide the question “Did W know ahead of time”?

It all depends on what the responder uses as the operative definition of “know”.

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James 02.17.11 at 10:09 pm

The left equivalent of the birther movement is ‘Bush Knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.’ The Rosie O’Donnell liberals.

High speed rail is not currently possible in the US due to external costs associated with getting permission to build and obtaining ownership of the land. The local city and county governments have a lot of power over local zoning. NIMBY lawsuits are frequent even when it is a project that the residents would normally support. This would need to be streamlined to make some regional high speed rail service cost effective.

The idea that Bush is a war criminal. The affective reach of the ICC does not include any country on the permanent UN security council unless that country allows it. It’s really a non-issue what the ICC thinks. The US Government thinks war crimes are what the US Government (or US Supreme Court) defines as war crimes and any other entity can go… Currently the US Government does not believe US Presidents can commit war crimes.

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James 02.17.11 at 10:12 pm

joel hanes @58. “Well, you know, there was that President’s Daily Briefing that led off with “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Within United States”—the one that W contemptuously dismissed as pre-emptive ass-covering”

The Sudan government offered to turn over Bin Laden during the Clinton Presidency. The same people saying Bush Knew seem to manage to give President Clinton a pass.

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Ranger 3 02.17.11 at 10:14 pm

The “Bush is a War Criminal” mantra on the left isn’t necessarily a shibboleth. There is a case to be made that President Bush did illegal things in the prosecution of his nation’s military operations. But then there are similar cases to be made for declaring LBJ and FDR war criminals, yet we hear little about that. It’s not a question of whether or not Bush violated the law, but rather it’s the fixation on Bush specifically which is the shibboleth. Another way of saying it would be that, the belief that pursuing George W. Bush for war crimes isn’t a completely pointless waste of effort, as well as being politically stupid… is a liberal shibboleth.

Many commenters have made the point about false equivocation. Well it isn’t really false. The difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that their respective ideological bases are not the same in size. Nearly 70% of the base (in terms of actual voters) of the GOP are movement conservatives. Less than half of the Democratic base are liberals. In fact conservatives outnumber liberals by about 2 to 1 in the US population. The Democrats remain competive by receiving the support of nearly all of the black vote and increasingly large majorites of the hispanic vote. These voting blocks aren’t necessarily that much more socially or fiscally liberal than the genreal population, but they form much of the Democrat’s base.

This is significant. Because liberals are not the majority in the Democratic Party, they have less influence. There is less peer pressure on non-liberals to embrace liberal shibboleths. This makes liberals who do hold them less aggressive in pushing them. If the situation was reversed, all sorts of ridiculous liberal shibboleths would stand unchallenged amoung Democrats. Some examples…

9/11 was in inside job. People still believe this, which is remarkable. A few years ago it was common for liberals to at least openly question the findings of the 9/11 Commision Report.

Iran have free and fair elections. This one persisted for awhile even after the obviously rigged elections in 2009.

40% of women in the US are raped. A difficult subject, to be sure. But more than a few left wing academics have advanced this one using research based on cooked numbers, and it is considered at best rude to call bullshit on this one. A specific example of this would be how quick folk on the left (and elsewhere) were to believe the accusations made against the 3 Duke Lacrosse players a few years back. Indeed, if you check the comments of prominent feminist blogs you will find that members of that tribe refuse to accept that virtually everything that was brought against them was either verifiably false or taken out of context.

The above bleeds into a narrative that women in the US are oppressed, and there are many manifestations of this. Now to be clear, women have been disadvantaged in many ways in the past. But it has been projected that women will own a majority of the wealth in the UK as soon as 2025. Women are doing better than men in school. Misandry is now the norm in the media. Let’s not even get into Family Court. However liberals insist that western societies are sexist against women, not men.

Israel is more unjust than it’s adversaries. Note that I didn’t say that Israel is perfect or that her policies are beyond reproach. I am merely noting that it is absurd to say that Israeli society is anywhere near as brutal and repressive as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran or Syria. Yet many liberals believe Israel (and by extension the US) are actually the villians in this conflict. An extension of this is the belief that when Arabs do things which are beyond defending, it’s somehow the fault of the US/Israel. I saw an example of this on Daily Kos, recently. When someone advanced the theory that the horrific rape of Lara Logan was carried out by Mubarak’s thugs, ostensibly guys who only exist due to US finanbial support of the ousted regime. This act is not represenative, the writer argued, of the way men in Egypt generally treat women.

The rich deliberately tanked the US economy as part of some sort of world domination plot.

The US military killed millions of Iraqis. An extension of this would be the resistence to the idea that the US military is in fact the best trained, most disciplined military in the world… as opposed to a bunch of murderous thugs. Try to compare and contrast the behavior of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with the behavior of Russian forces in Chechnya. Alot of liberals will claim that there is no distinction, or that the US is actually worse.

Wikileaks. No real need to get into this one.

In closing, I must stress that I do not equivocate any of the above with birtherism, creationism or any of the rest of right wing shibboleths. They aren’t anywhere near as widespread. But that’s because there are enough moderates in the Democratic Party to prevent these ideas from really taking hold. You are much more likely to read this stuff in online left wing echo chambers than you would be to hear it said in public. Alot of this stuff does get challenged and is therefore muted. The same thing would happen on the right if there were more moderates in the equation.

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varmintito 02.17.11 at 10:15 pm

Religious faith as shibboleth can be tough to trace, simply because of the substantial number of adherents who sincerely believe what they espouse, regardless of how much it conflicts with evidence and logic. A conspicuous espousal of religious orthodoxy that the speaker privately doubts or disbelieves, used as a tribal marker, is undoubtedly a shibboleth. The first examples that come to mind are (mostly GOP) politicians who “discovered” their doubts about evolution at precisely the moment that the creationist right became a bloc that needed to be placated.

Of course, even among the devout, there is a certain amount of espousal as tribal marker. I bet an awful lot of Catholics don’t REALLY believe the Pope’s ex cathedra statements are infallible divine revelation, or that most modern popes performed actual miracles (some of the claimed miracles are pretty lame, but a bona fide confirmed miracle is a firm prerequisite to canonization). They mumble the words because that’s what you’re expected to do to fit in with the group.

As for protestants, I can’t even state the ostensible theological differences between Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and Episcopalians. I bet most adherents coudn’t either. This seems mostly an exercise in group membership, with the differences in the groups based far more on things like politics, wealth, geography, history, pre-existing friendships and enmities, etc.

Judaism is an interesting case, because it is explicitly based on tribal identification, but offers different varieties of theology depending on one’s degree of orthodoxy, ranging from Haredi (most familiar in this country as hasidim) to conservative, to reform, to secular/culturally identified.

Interestingly, reform and secular jews are overwhelmingly liberal democrats, and the haredi are overwhelmingly conservative republicans. I leave it to the reader to judge which group requires espousal of shibboleths as a marker of group membership (hint: they’re the ones that think god commands them to dress and groom themselves identically, that god commands them not to eat certain foods, that god commands them to separate men and women in the temple, etc.). A good friend is an orthodox jew who lives in a community that is overwhelming orthodox. He keeps kosher, wears his fringes out, covers his head. We’ve discussed it, and he freely concedes that there is little logical basis for any of it (bacon ain’t exactly health food, but neither of us think that’s why it’s traif). It is about who he is, not what he can explain.

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Matt McIrvin 02.17.11 at 10:15 pm

The right-wingers contributions are as always amusing.

It’s true, I’m a Republican troll.

The Peters map thing, obviously, is incredibly minor. As I said, I’m not trying to demonstrate any equivalence here; rather, the asymmetry is apparent if you have to stretch that far.

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nick s 02.17.11 at 10:20 pm

Whenever I see the term “agnotology”, I wish it had been derived from “Agnew”.

He’s not that bad, even if you might prefer CMJ.

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nick s 02.17.11 at 10:23 pm

The same people saying Bush Knew seem to manage to give President Clinton a pass.

No credible offer, no credible evidence. Try again: you might get through the entire playbook of zombie lies by Easter.

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piglet 02.17.11 at 10:23 pm

Matt, I thought you were serious about this. Now it seems that maybe you were not but I’m not getting your point (Peters brought attention to the areal distortion inherent in most world maps in widespread use at the time. He may be accused of a bit of hyperbole but that’s a far cry from living in a fantasy world).

Bianca 57: maybe I shouldn’t bite but I will anyway. So do you think European highspeed trails aren’t running through “existing towns”?

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CharleyCarp 02.17.11 at 10:25 pm

Currently the US Government does not believe US Presidents can commit war crimes.

You have a cite for that? I’m genuinely interested.

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John Quiggin 02.17.11 at 10:25 pm

@James Thanks for illustrating the point. The claim that Sudan offered to turn over bin Laden to Clinton is yet another example of rightwing agnotology. Once such a claim has been made, even by a source with zero credibility (Curveball, anyone?), and accepted on the right, it is impossible for them to admit error when it is refuted, as this claim was by the 9/11 Commission. So, it continues as a zombie lie, ready to be picked up when needed.

http://www.factcheck.org/2008/01/clinton-passed-on-killing-bin-laden/

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Marc 02.17.11 at 10:25 pm

#54: you have to be careful about how you word such questions. For example, I think that Bush was *warned* about the danger of attacks *like* the 9/11 event and ignored them. I think it’s ludicrous to think that he engineered them. But you could easily see how a large fraction of people could interpret the question in a manner where a reasonable answer (Bush was negligent) could be interpreted as a conspiracy theory.

The discouraging thing about the republican party today is that the ignorance remains when the questions are well-designed. Things which are factually wrong, for example Obama not being an American citizen, are specifically and incorrectly believed by large groups of people.

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John Quiggin 02.17.11 at 10:26 pm

@Nick S Snap! Our posts crossed.

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Dennis 02.17.11 at 10:43 pm

#8, The idea that one’s leaders “lack spine” is not a shibboleth–which must serve to distinguish members of an in-group–but rather a common belief of all partisans.

Check out the RedState comment section sometime.

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bianca steele 02.17.11 at 10:44 pm

piglet@64
I mean that in New England (i.e. between New York City and Boston), the rail lines run through residential neighborhoods for almost the whole length of the line, not just at the stations. They have to run slow so they don’t hit people and cars, and they never get up enough speed to cut the length of the run down much below what you’d get from a car. They managed to shave about an hour off when they modernized the line (they got a lot more south of NY though): from six hours to five, which is competitive with flying if you count in traffic, parking, and waiting in line, but not with driving unless you’re going from downtown to downtown. Unless in Europe the trains don’t have to slow down when they run through the middle of towns or across heavily used roads, I would guess the high-speed lines are running between cities, not within a single megapolis where the suburbs of one big city blend into the suburbs of the next city over.

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Duncan 02.17.11 at 10:57 pm

“Unless in Europe the trains don’t have to slow down when they run through the middle of towns or across heavily used roads,”

In Europe the rail tracks are fenced off – and yes trains run at 150mph through the middle of towns and across barrier controlled road junctions

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Keith 02.17.11 at 10:59 pm

I wonder what evidence would actually be required to answer the settle the question of which side in US politics has more crazies (or is more willing to sign on to implausible in-group Shibboleths) Sounds like a good academic research topic…

It’s a non-contest. The sheer volume of Right Wing shibboleths gave birth to the Tea Party movement. Nothing comes close to that on the Left. The Tea Partiers are practically a walking catalog of all the crazy tribal identity memes that the Right has brought to the public attention in the last decade (and some, like the “Democrats are going to take away my guns!” crowd go back to at least the 80s).

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Keith 02.17.11 at 11:07 pm

Aulus Gellius @50:
Could there, by chance, be several different atheists in the world, and might these atheists, conceivably, not all have exactly the same attitude toward religion?

Sure, but none that I know of follow the Fundie shibboleth that atheism is a religion. We may not agree on anything else but every atheist starts from the proposition that religion is not their bag. And the false equivalency between outspoken atheists and fundamentalists of all religions is another of those lopsided “they do it too!” arguments. I like Richard Dawkins, but he’s not the Pope of me.

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Salient 02.17.11 at 11:19 pm

Actually “Bush knew [about 9/11 in advance]” is a kind of anti-shibboleth on the left, in that making that assertion gets one shunned and ostracized (assuming that folks were bothering to pay attention to the speaker in the first place).

Such a statement is emoting, in the same way that asserting “Obama’s a muslim” is emoting (that this statement communicates emotional rather than factual content is why people can assert it and then complain about Obama’s longtime pastor in the next breath, then complain about Obama’s atheism moments later). But the two statements have opposite social effects.

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James 02.17.11 at 11:44 pm

John,

Fair enough. On the question of Sudan turning over Bin Ladin, Fact Checked changed their stance from YES to NO with additional information provided by the 9/11 report. I can do the same. Unfortunately President Clinton is not completely cleared in regards to his actions.

http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/05/opinion/oe-scheuer5
“I do not profess a broad expertise in international affairs, but between January 1996 and June 1999 I was in charge of running operations against Al Qaeda from Washington. When it comes to this small slice of the large U.S. national security pie, I speak with firsthand experience (and for several score of CIA officers) when I state categorically that during this time senior White House officials repeatedly refused to act on sound intelligence that provided multiple chances to eliminate Osama bin Laden — either by capture or by U.S. military attack.”

“…Because of classification issues, I argued this point only obliquely in my book “Imperial Hubris,” but it is a fact — and fortunately, no American has to depend on my word alone. The 9/11 commission report documents most of the occasions on which senior U.S. bureaucrats and policymakers had the chance to attack Bin Laden in 1998-1999 (my emphasis).”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Scheuer

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Barry 02.18.11 at 12:16 am

Matt McIrvin 02.17.11 at 2:40 pm

” Here’s a low-stakes one that persists relatively widely among liberals: “We all need to switch to using the Peters Projection world map, for social justice.” An episode of “The West Wing” gave it a lot of exposure.”

I call bull. The only time I’ve heard anybody mention the Peters Projection was in an ArcGIS class.

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Colin Reid 02.18.11 at 1:01 am

I’d have thought the big thing that left-wingers in the US agree on is the idea that the very rich (top 1% by income is a typical definition) have become parasitic on the rest of society and have hijacked a large part of the political system to siphon more and more money into their pockets, having more or less complete control over the Republicans and a lot of influence over the Democrats. Whether you think this has a big following in Congress seems to depend on how much you think Democratic politicians have also been ‘bought’ by big business. The basic difference between this and the ‘liberal elite’ right-wing version is that the liberal elite is assumed to have some deranged ideology, whereas the business elite is often simply assumed to consist of amoral hoarders of wealth. (There are versions of this story where the religious right plays a bigger role, though.)

A left-wing conspiracy theory would be along the lines that the US wages wars as an excuse to give taxpayers’ money to the already rich owners/CEOs of arms companies, or to manipulate the price of raw materials (especially oil) in some nefarious way that benefits the oligarchs.

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Matt McIrvin 02.18.11 at 1:28 am

The thing about Peters was, he was attacking the wrong people and setting up a false dichotomy. Lots of wall maps sold in the mid-20th century and used in education used the Mercator projection, and it was a terrible choice for all the reasons Peters gave. But he specifically implied that cartographers were behind this, when professional cartographers (as opposed to map publishers) had already been telling people not to do this for a long time.

And then he promoted his rediscovery of the Gall cylindrical projection as the only sensible alternative, when actually it was a pretty poor alternative and better ones that had the same desirable property of displaying areas correctly were long known and used in thematic maps. And he managed to get exposure for this through political means, painting it as himself versus the ethnocentric cartographers who were pushing the Mercator projection, and it led to a few NGOs and such officially adopting a suboptimal map.

Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and I guess the whole controversy was a lot more obscure than it seems from my nerdly perspective, but it did happen. The last bit was what reminded me of the “shibboleth” business.

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Brett Bellmore 02.18.11 at 1:59 am

“Agnatology” itself would be an example of a liberal shibboleth: The belief that the people who disagree with you are somehow mentally compromised. “What’s the matter with Kansas?” That disagreement with liberalism can’t, just can’t, be a result of reason. Opponents have to be insincere, or mental, or the victims of diabolical corporate mind control rays…

Now, if there’s a shibboleth concerning war crimes, it’s not that Bush is a war criminal. It’s that Bush is a war criminal, and Obama somehow isn’t

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Steve LaBonne 02.18.11 at 2:10 am

Uh, no, Brett. Agnotolgy is about deliberate, self-inflicted ignorance. I know that Saint Ronald said facts are stupid things, and that the right takes this as gospel, but that doesn’t make it so.

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Keith 02.18.11 at 2:36 am

Colin Reid@80:

So what you’re saying is, Left Wing conspiracy theories are plausible while Right Wing conspiracy theories are blatant hogwash.

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Bruce Wilder 02.18.11 at 2:44 am

Brett, the whole premise of this thread is that the idea that conservatives are reality-challenged remains a curious feature of our politics, a surprise to liberals and progressives, which they wish to examine and explore.

My default assumption about my political opponents is always that they are my opponents — that what they want opposes what I want. But, lots of liberals default to thinking, “we all want the same things, and just disagree about the means”, which is silly and naive, at best, and Obama at his worst. “diabolical corporate mind control rays”??!? I haven’t run into that particular liberal assumption.

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Bruce Wilder 02.18.11 at 3:07 am

“Conspiracy theories”, classically, serve two functions. One is that they allow simplified narratives, with personal intention and purpose, without having to marshal a lot of evidence or to deploy an understanding of complex mechanisms of social action. The other function is far more subtle: conspiracy theories serve as psychological defenses against an undesired awareness, undesired perhaps because of the emotions entailed. A realistic description of the state of affairs might be “dismissed” as a conspiracy theory, because “conspiracy theories” can be assumed to be, by definition, delusional. Alternatively, a psychologically troubled person might adopt a delusion to block his own awareness.

The set of Left beliefs described by Colin Reed at 80 are summarized in Kevin Philips’ American Theocracy and Bad Money, lengthy books by a non-liberal, which employ fairly sophisticated analyses of political and institutional action and marshal lots of evidence. So, they don’t really qualify either as peculiarly liberal or as conspiracy theories, per se.

Calling them conspiracy theories, however, might serve the second function, of denying awareness, to avoid uncomfortable emotions and awareness.

It seems to me possible that something of the functional psychology of “conspiracy theories” may apply to the Tea Party.

First, the typical Tea Party follower — as opposed to its shadowy leaders and financiers — appears to be a political unsophisticate, in the extreme, ill-equipped with factual knowledge or an understanding of how the political world works. That millions might regard Glenn Beck as a trustworthy professor and educator says something about their state of prior knowledge, does it not?

Second, the Kevin Phillips’ view is, necessarily, a fairly pessimistic one. It implies that the powerful in American politics and society really are out to get the little people, and drain them dry. If you are one of the little people, you have few effective defenses in reality; maybe, having one in delusion is an improvement. It is not unlike a child, who has to avoid the full realization that a parent is evil and untrustworthy, just to maintain a psychological equilibrium outside of a state of permanent panic.

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Salient 02.18.11 at 3:34 am

A left-wing conspiracy theory would be

Did you feel a twinge when you typed ‘would be’ instead of ‘is’ and realized you were projecting?

Now, if there’s a shibboleth concerning war crimes, it’s not that Bush is a war criminal. It’s that Bush is a war criminal, and Obama somehow isn’t…

Ok, there’s a bit of truth to that jab, and it bites. There has been a lot of “throw our hands in the air, we give in, we’re just fucking fucked, aren’t we” in response to, say, drone attacks of dubious legality [or insert whatever other Obama war crimes you were thinking of here, if you prefer]. And tell you what, if the Tea Party ever get around to criticizing Obama for his extrajudicial assassinations and execution of dozens of innocent Pakistanis by flying robot attack, I’ll go ahead and join them and probably a sizeable chunk of the American left will too. But it’s not like Obama’s war-criminality is widely acknowledged outside of the left wing, so it’s not a shibboleth regardless.

95

Max 02.18.11 at 3:54 am

This is a kind of a retro issue, but consider this shibboleth: it’s a good idea to put medicine in the public water supply (“flouridation”). Nobody ever really thought it was a good idea, but you had to support it, because otherwise you would be marked as an uncouth right-wing conspiracy theorist.

96

phosphorious 02.18.11 at 4:10 am

But it’s not like Obama’s war-criminality is widely acknowledged outside of the left wing, so it’s not a shibboleth regardless.

Ooooo. . . this reminds me of my very favorite-est of the republican shibboleths: that liberals “worship” Obama and never, ever criticize him about anything.

It’s my favorite because it involves a heady mixture of ignorance (read any liberal blog. Any one at all) and projection (read any conservative blog during the Bush years. Any one at all).

97

John Quiggin 02.18.11 at 4:34 am

“Nobody ever really thought [fluoridation] was a good idea”

I do, as do the overwhelming majority of Australians from what I can see. And not for the reason you suggest – the Australian opponents of fluoridation, have no particular political alignment. True also for vaccination.

98

ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 4:50 am

Back to this again!

I think the Birther beliefs are rationalized so much that this problem will not happen to many people. I agree that birther folks mostly know that Obama was really born in Hawaii, but they see it in a cultural framework that values blood and breeding more than address.

Some of you may recall the discussion regarding one of Henry’s papers which purported to show that “liberals” were actually a lot more “liberal” than they let on. One obvious objection – the one I made in fact – was that the questions used to generate the data didn’t necessarily have a lot to do with the ideology of respondents and that this really needed to be thoroughly checked.

Now, I used as an example for why this was dicey the question of whether or not Elvis was still alive and which some people said they found confusing and irrelevant; it strikes me that here we have a perfect, real-life, living specimen of exactly what I was talking about.

Does anyone in their right mind really think that whether or not Obama is a native-born U.S. citizen is actually a question that is susceptible to an ideological analysis? Or is it more likely, as the poster I quoted above suggests, that this is some sort of phatic communication amongst and between tribalists?

Fascinating questions btw, and important ones, worthy of more research. The distinction between agnotology and shibboleths is a relevant and topical one.

99

ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 4:54 am

The Sudan government offered to turn over Bin Laden during the Clinton Presidency. The same people saying Bush Knew seem to manage to give President Clinton a pass.

This is weird. Even if the first statement is true – and of course, as most people know, it’s not – the second sentence makes absolutely no sense as a followup. AFAICT, there is zero logical connection between the two declarations.

100

John Quiggin 02.18.11 at 5:00 am

As regards the West Wing episode on Peters, my recollection is that they were presented as the archetypal earnest group pushing some idea that seems OK but that hardly anyone can be bothered listening to. I can’t recall accurately, but didn’t they luck out by virtue of some random conjuncture that made their proposal useful as part of some bigger package?

Going further OT, my enjoyment of rewatching WW recently was substantially diminished by the thought that Josh was Rahm Emanuel.

101

ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 5:01 am

“Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?”, Matt Taibbi asks. Well, because of a massive conspiracy of inaction on the part of elites in the US, who should and would, if the system actually policed itself, be willing and eager to start the investigations that would probably put key Wall Street figures in jail for fraud. This is not some Left shiboleth. People believe it because it’s reasonable.

There’s that problem again. This is a moderate opinion as I define it, namely, what beliefs most people express on the subject. And if this is an opinion held by the majority of the American people, how could anyone claim this is some sort of “left” shibboleth?

To claim that this is so a “leftist” shibboleth because in point of fact a lot of people at that end of the spectrum believe this would lead one to conclude that the sky is blue is also a leftist belief/shibboleth/what have you. Yet, somehow, I don’t hear anyone making this distinction also opine that the belief that the sky is blue is leftist cant ;-)

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ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 5:08 am

And then he promoted his rediscovery of the Gall cylindrical projection as the only sensible alternative, when actually it was a pretty poor alternative and better ones that had the same desirable property of displaying areas correctly were long known and used in thematic maps. And he managed to get exposure for this through political means, painting it as himself versus the ethnocentric cartographers who were pushing the Mercator projection, and it led to a few NGOs and such officially adopting a suboptimal map.

Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and I guess the whole controversy was a lot more obscure than it seems from my nerdly perspective, but it did happen. The last bit was what reminded me of the “shibboleth” business.

Well, actually, you and I and a few others posting here could probably get into a lively debate about whether or not mapping the Earth to the projective plane was a better representation than mapping it to the complex line plus a point at infinity :-)

103

ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 5:10 am

Oops:

And then he promoted his rediscovery of the Gall cylindrical projection as the only sensible alternative, when actually it was a pretty poor alternative and better ones that had the same desirable property of displaying areas correctly were long known and used in thematic maps. And he managed to get exposure for this through political means, painting it as himself versus the ethnocentric cartographers who were pushing the Mercator projection, and it led to a few NGOs and such officially adopting a suboptimal map.

Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and I guess the whole controversy was a lot more obscure than it seems from my nerdly perspective, but it did happen. The last bit was what reminded me of the “shibboleth” business.

Well, actually, you and I and a few others posting here could probably get into a lively debate about whether or not mapping the Earth to the projective plane was a better representation than mapping it to the complex line plus a point at infinity :-)

104

Alex Catarino 02.18.11 at 6:11 am

#83
Steve, Reagan said “facts are STUBBORN things”. As a matter of fact, he was quoting John Adams.
I give it to Brett another win. If Bush is a war criminal, so it’s Obama…

105

JulesLt 02.18.11 at 6:32 am

There’s a great Stewart Lee stand-up routine where he talks about challenging the racist opinion of a cab driver, who responds with (and he claims in his book this is a rare case of not having to make the truth any funnier/more tragic) – “You can prove anything with facts”. Which has to be the trump card of any argument – I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not going to respond to facts or rationalism.

106

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.18.11 at 8:25 am

This is a two-party system, where both parties have little (if anything) popular, of substance, to offer. In this political environment, hatred for the other party is the main driving force.

107

Tim Worstall 02.18.11 at 9:11 am

“Worstall’s examples are just meaningless. I’m genuinely disappointed because Worstall can and sometimes does better than that. High-Speed rail is only proposed in dense parts of the country. The Northeastern Megalopolis is a huge land area about as densely populated as Europe. There is nothing that a priori would speak against European-style rail service for that area. Worstall knows that. It’s not that this hasn’t been discussed before. Is that even you, Tim?”

Piglet, apologies for quoting from my own blog but:

“So, California is going to build it’s first high speed rail line…..It’s going to go from Borden (so small it’s not even incorporated, doesn’t seem to actually have a population in Wikipedia), through Corcoran (pop 25,000, of whom half are prisoners and thus not likely to be frequent travellers) to Bakersfield (population 340,000 or so).

And they’re going to spend $5.5 billion on this.”

Having lived near there for a few years I’ll agree that the general perception of the Central Valley is that it is dense: but not densely populated, which is rather what is needed for high speed rail.

108

Tim Worstall 02.18.11 at 9:15 am

“Actually I think the NE US is more densely populated than Europe, which is exactly why high-speed rail is an impossibility in some of the most heavily used parts of the system. It isn’t possible to have the trains run fast enough because of requirements imposed by the lines’ running through existing towns.”

There’s another problem in this area (which I would agree on other grounds would be suitable for such a scheme) and that’s the political log rolling. Each Congressman wants the trains to stop in his/her district. But acceleration and deceleration times mean that you cannot actually have high speed rail if it keeps stopping at every town along the route. Sure, the train might be able to do 125 mph or whatever, but so what if it keeps stopping and starting?

Not sure how much weight to put on this, but I’ve certainly heard it used as a reason why the Amtrack services aren’t as fast/useful as they could be with the kit and lines they’ve already got.

109

Tim Worstall 02.18.11 at 9:18 am

“But it has been projected that women will own a majority of the wealth in the UK as soon as 2025.”

I thought this was already true: widows and women generally living longer?

110

Tim Worstall 02.18.11 at 9:30 am

How about a real shibboleth on the left?

“Corporations should pay more taxes”.

When we know, absolutely, that while corporations might hand over the cheques, corporations no more pay taxes than flightless wildfowl do. Taxes are paid, the economic burden of them falls, on people only: in the case of taxes on corporations on some mixture of shareholders in lower returns, customers in higher prices or workers in lower wages.

To argue that capital, or shareholders, capitalists, should pay more taxes is just fine, but to argue that corporations should is a very dangerous shibboleth indeed, for it’s ignoring who it is that is bearing that economic burden at present. Rather depends who you want to believe but the general view seems to be from some to a majority by the workers at present.

111

Colin Reid 02.18.11 at 10:39 am

@Keith #84: It’s difficult to think of anything that a) represents a clean break with reality and b) is believed by a large proportion of the left. (It seems that most of those further to the left just believe a more extreme version of the same story: the current US political system is as oligarchic as any before in the history of civilisation, slavery and colonialism continue in all but name and have expanded to include everyone outside the elite, nobody with real power is actually religious, they just use religion to brainwash their goons…) But then I’m saying this as someone who thinks the ‘centre ground’ in the US is already way to the right, certainly relative to the economic interests of the average American, so those who want to pull it leftwards mostly consist of people who ought to be considered moderates. Describing CEOs and owners of large companies as parasitic may not be an absurd proposition, but it’s still a controversial one and puts you to the left of the ‘mainstream’ discourse as framed in the media and by the political parties.

112

Seth 02.18.11 at 10:55 am

Ebenezer Scrooge @43:

Where these deontological libertarians start to wallow in agnotology is when they fail to accuse the Republicans of being feudalists.

Yes. Instead of backing out of the objectively pro-feudalist political coalition they have with the embarrassingly mis-named “Republican” party, they just keep spouting the party line. They haven’t yet adopted the obvious “Leninist” slogan, but perhaps they’ll eventually get around to it: “All Power To The Corporate Boards!”

113

Steve LaBonne 02.18.11 at 11:09 am

Alex #104, he was TRYING to say that, but it’s not what came out of his mouth. As Yogi Berra would say, you could look it up.

114

CaptainMongles 02.18.11 at 11:25 am

How would it benefit Republicans to believe that Barack Obama was born in the USA?

115

Brett Bellmore 02.18.11 at 11:59 am

“Steve LaBonne 02.18.11 at 2:10 am

Uh, no, Brett. Agnotolgy is about deliberate, self-inflicted ignorance.”

I know what agnotology is: It’s a legitimate, but minor discipline, which is popular among a certain set of liberals because you really dislike admitting that substantial numbers of people disagree with you for legitimate reasons. It’s not a discipline you’d look to for an explaination of, say, why liberals so commonly think windmills a superior source of baseline electricity to nuclear plants, or are convinced gun control is an effective crime control measure. Because everything YOU believe you reasoned your way into based on valid premises, it’s not like anybody misled you into some of your beliefs.

116

Walt 02.18.11 at 12:13 pm

Well thank God Brett is here to clear up our confusion.

117

Jonathan Hopkin 02.18.11 at 12:27 pm

‘I’d have thought the big thing that left-wingers in the US agree on is the idea that the very rich (top 1% by income is a typical definition) have become parasitic on the rest of society and have hijacked a large part of the political system to siphon more and more money into their pockets, having more or less complete control over the Republicans and a lot of influence over the Democrats.’

I think Colin Reid would benefit from checking out Emmanuel Saez’s neat chart here:
http://www.stateofworkingamerica.org/pages/interactive#/?start=2002&end=2008

This left-wing Shibboleth might be wrong of course, but I think zero income growth for the bottom 90% is an interesting observable implication.

118

Jonathan Hopkin 02.18.11 at 12:48 pm

Looks like Colin wasn’t arguing that that was a Shibboleth – I got the wrong end of the stick.

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Colin Reid 02.18.11 at 1:34 pm

No, to be a shibboleth it would have to be somehow symbolic rather than substantive. I think you do need to go to subgroups because the American left has relatively little by way of unifying rhetoric. For the feminist left for instance, one might be the use of the word ‘anti-choice’ in an abortion debate, with the implication that anti-abortion groups are primarily motivated by a desire to oppress women; another, a blanket use of the word ‘patriarchy’ (or the more extreme ‘kyriarchy’) in situations that don’t obviously revolve around male power. But I don’t know how common these shibboleths actually are.

120

Jonathan Hopkin 02.18.11 at 2:09 pm

I guess the broadly liberal slant of most of the posters here would make hard for us to detect our shibboleths if they existed, but there’s not much getting around the fact that the strong religious and nationalistic traditions of most forms of conservatism make it that bit easier to mobilize around symbolic, identifying myths.

121

Ron Barron 02.18.11 at 2:38 pm

It would seem to me that the 800 pound gorilla in the room is the decline in party identification. Shouldn’t it stand to reason that, as the numbers of real, as in officially affiliated Republicans declines the concentration of ideologically hardcore members might go up? I would love to see a study looking into whether there is a correlation between declining party identification, closed primaries (which presumably would protect the radical element from being diluted) and the success of radical conservative ideology.

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ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 2:41 pm

No, to be a shibboleth it would have to be somehow symbolic rather than substantive. I think you do need to go to subgroups because the American left has relatively little by way of unifying rhetoric.

This ties in with why the U.S. is a center-left country: the American “left” has been defined almost entirely by the “right”. Being the rigid authoritarians they are, anyone who doesn’t toe the party line is Cast Out to become “leftists” themselves.

And if that’s the only unifying characteristic, of course there’s not going to be much cohesion with regards to shibboleths or agnotology.

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ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 2:46 pm

I guess the broadly liberal slant of most of the posters here would make hard for us to detect our shibboleths if they existed, but there’s not much getting around the fact that the strong religious and nationalistic traditions of most forms of conservatism make it that bit easier to mobilize around symbolic, identifying myths.

I don’t see most people here as having a broadly liberal slant. But in keeping with my previous comment, the shibboleths (as defined in this discussion) of some subgroups should be relatively easy to observe by other subgroups of this broad coalition of “The Left”. So we should be seeing at least a few examples come up that are worth seriously entertaining. So far, I haven’t seen any.

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ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 2:52 pm

Uh, no, Brett. Agnotolgy is about deliberate, self-inflicted ignorance.”

I know what agnotology is: It’s a legitimate, but minor discipline, which is popular among a certain set of liberals because you really dislike admitting that substantial numbers of people disagree with you for legitimate reasons.

Good thing I buy my irony meters in job lots of 144. Even the sturdiest and most sophisticated ones that I can get a hold of seem to explode with distressing regularity.

Though I will say that Brett has been known to occasionally agree with me – code for having been right in the past a time or two.

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ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 3:03 pm

To argue that capital, or shareholders, capitalists, should pay more taxes is just fine, but to argue that corporations should is a very dangerous shibboleth indeed, for it’s ignoring who it is that is bearing that economic burden at present.

Why is it I get the impression that most of Worstall says here is just something thrown up to see if it will stick?

“The economic efficiency of recycling is an example of agnotology on the Left because those studies which reach this conclusion don’t take into account the opportunity costs of the five minutes a week the extra effort costs.”

“Capital exploits labour.”

“Markets inevitably mean a race to the bottom.”

“High speed rail is a great idea in a very large and sparsely populated country.”

“Manicurists should be regulated by the State.”

And the last four I mentioned are not only not demonstrably true, several of them aren’t even shibboleths even if the assertions themselves were correct!

And you can see the smirk behind the words ;-)

126

Matt McIrvin 02.18.11 at 4:28 pm

Actually, the Riemann mapping to the projective plane is the polar stereographic projection, often used for maps of the polar regions. Like the Mercator, it’s conformal rather than equal-area.

127

y81 02.18.11 at 4:40 pm

“zero income growth for the bottom 90% is an interesting observable implication.”

Interesting, but not something that signifies without interpretation. Is taxable income an appropriate measure? What if high payroll taxes were used to fund a gold-plated single-payer health care system? The bottom 90% would arguably be much better off, but their taxable incomes would not go up.

128

piglet 02.18.11 at 4:56 pm

Worstall is being a fool today. Whatever.

I’m still mystified by Matt’s obsession with the Peters Map. So you disagree with some of what Peters said and you think his map is “suboptimal” (of course, as is every map). Why would anyone mention such an obscure issue in the same context as creationism and Global Warming denial? I guess we all like to feel smart from time to time and postulating some obscure issue as a widely believed “myth” that then can be “debunked” is a nice way to prove one’s superiority.

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ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 5:21 pm

Actually, the Riemann mapping to the projective plane is the polar stereographic projection, often used for maps of the polar regions. Like the Mercator, it’s conformal rather than equal-area.

Aha! So you do think this a better representation than a mapping to the complex line plus a point at infinity! You’re obviously a Philistine as well as having no sense of aesthetics to boot, so there! :-)

On a more serious note, the always engaging Martin Gardner had a piece on usual and unusual maps in his SciAm column, which you can read here, starting at about page 194. This was actually what prompted my posting; I was wondering if Gardner was cognizant of Peterson’s obsession when he wrote this, given his well-known interest in scientific cranks and their hobby-horses. I’m betting that he did; Gardner didn’t need no stinking internet to Know Stuff.

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ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 5:24 pm

I’m still mystified by Matt’s obsession with the Peters Map. So you disagree with some of what Peters said and you think his map is “suboptimal” (of course, as is every map). Why would anyone mention such an obscure issue in the same context as creationism and Global Warming denial?

If I’m reading him correctly, his point is that you have to really reach to come up with any sort of interesting examples, let alone ones that loom as large as what you see commonly expressed by those coming from the right.

131

Keith 02.18.11 at 5:27 pm

Colin Reid@111:
…But then I’m saying this as someone who thinks the ‘centre ground’ in the US is already way to the right, certainly relative to the economic interests of the average American, so those who want to pull it leftwards mostly consist of people who ought to be considered moderates. Describing CEOs and owners of large companies as parasitic may not be an absurd proposition, but it’s still a controversial one and puts you to the left of the ‘mainstream’ discourse as framed in the media and by the political parties.

So does this mean that shibboleths are tribal identity markers that lay just outside the Overton Window (or on either side, if we want to use the Right/Left cartography of American politics)? If so, do they become something else when they fall inside the window? Conventional Wisdom, perhaps?

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ScentOfViolets 02.18.11 at 5:38 pm

I guess we all like to feel smart from time to time and postulating some obscure issue as a widely believed “myth” that then can be “debunked” is a nice way to prove one’s superiority.

I would also suggest that given Matt’s posting history, there is no good reason to impute any sort of mischief [1] (though some others surely deserve that treatment.)

Why not just take what he wrote at face value and except that in his own little splinter of “The Left”, this was indeed something of a cause celebre? It’s a big tent :-)

[1]For something obscure and trivial but which apparently once meant a great deal to those involved, check out those old and very serious proposals to convert not just to a different system of measure like the metric system, to but another another arithmetic base (different than base ten) entirely. The merits of switching to base 12 (duodenary) and octal and hex to a lesser extent have a certain amount of retro charm, given the ferocity with which those arguments pro and con were once debated. These wouldn’t be your canonical leftists – though I’m sure they were all that as well – but those guys who once styled themselves with that musty old title “Futurist”. You know, the Buckminster Fuller types who wanted us to live in geodesic domes and drive three-wheeled cars.

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Matt McIrvin 02.18.11 at 6:49 pm

It would have been amusing if we’d all switched to the metric system and to base 12 simultaneously.

134

praisegod barebones 02.18.11 at 7:06 pm

Two observations, each rather inconsequential on its own. Juxtapose them and I think you get something quite interesting

1. It’s quite often said (and has probably been said somewhere here )that some of the odder beliefs on the right involve projection (ACORN tried to steal an election etc). It seems to me that Birtherism fits right into this pattern. The fact that McCain was born in the canal zone was, iirc, sufficiently problematic that Congress actually passed an act declaring him to have been born in the USA. The fact that anyone bothered to do this suggests that there was a legally colourable case that he wasn’t eligible to be POTUS,

2. In another context, there’s a name for an irrationally held belief which is entirely impervious to evidence.

135

roac 02.18.11 at 7:40 pm

@ 132: You would think that the original (Italian) Futurists would have made the word radioactive by signing up for Fascism as soon as it went on the market, but in fact a search reveals an active publication called “The Futurist.” It is published by something called the World Future Society. Its political leanings seem to be techie rather than leftist. Ray Kurzweil is a prominent member.

136

James Wimberley 02.20.11 at 7:10 pm

Possible left-wing shibboleths: nobody seems to have picked up on political correctness, the idea that avoiding language infected with the slightest taint of prejudice against [women, ethnic minorities, gays, disabled people…] is the litmus social test to demonstrate the speaker’s freedom from that prejudice, and far more important than action to improve the situation of the discriminated group. Words make reality, right?
As Pinker observes, you’ll know the prejudice has gone when the language used to express and avoid it stops shifting.
BTW, I’m not suggesting that any language goes.

137

Chrisb 02.20.11 at 11:02 pm

If you’re President of the United States, being a war criminal is part of the job description. It’s thus necessary to have measures within that that can distinguish greater and lesser culpability.

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gmknobl 02.23.11 at 8:00 pm

As far as Bush is war criminal – let me give an example. If you mean war criminal in that he ordered the rape and pillaging of a group of people in a war, then no, he is not. If you think starting a war on statements that were demonstrably trumped up or at the very least, later proven to be false AND where responsibility for using torture on specific people was considered appropriate, well, then, you have some basis for calling Bush a war criminal.

But what IS the ACTUAL definition of war criminal? I believe that answer varies and isn’t so easily described. However, I am of the belief Bush could be tried on the basis of ordering possibly torture, for extraordinary rendition and for false claims leading to war.

On your last part that because of double think and that republican denying reality and facts so easily will lead to problems has already occurred. Witness such acts as sending budget surpluses to big business and elite rich friends by forgiving debt, reducing taxes then saying “whoops, we don’t have enough money to operate!” That’s foolish if you want any government to operate long term (which they don’t) or unless you want to destroy government (which they do). It’s also obvious when they blame *lower paid* than private sector equivalent public employees for costs exceeding income when they got rid of the income themselves. And, lastly, it’s obvious when they yell and scream for heads to roll then act in false shock and horror when someone actually tries to murder someone.

The bad results of 30+ years of deliberate misgovernment have already occurred and will only get worse.

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