When I put up my first post on social liberalism several weeks ago, I envisioned a series of posts that would discuss many of the implications of the fact that modern liberalism is more a social phenomenon than an intellectual one. I’ve done that in part, but have until now neglected to mention one of the largest implications of all, namely that most modern liberals make easy targets for propagandists of all stripes because their political identity is driven more by their feelings than by the facts, and so they rarely exert critical judgement over the memes and narratives of the moment.
Quite to the contrary: to exert critical judgement is automatically to invite suspicion, because it means asking difficult questions, seeking facts, pointing out fallacies, noting inconsistencies, all of which make modern liberals profoundly uncomfortable because those sorts of activities advertise the questioner’s willingness to dissent from the orthodoxy.
Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia from the depths of human memory. Madame Raphael had cut the picture out of the magazine and would stare at it and dream. She too longed to dance in a ring. All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church (her father was a religious fanatic), then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement (A child has a right to life!), then in the pro-abortion movement (A woman has a right to her body!); she looked for them among the Marxists, the psychoanalysts, and the structuralists; she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis, the nouveau roman, Brechtian theater, the theater of panic; and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.
To question is to step outside the circle, to resist the lure of the dance. And so the memes and narratives proliferate, pushed on by those who “feel moved” by them and are too afraid to question them.
Among the many liberals I know, this week’s meme is a viral video about “the wealth gap.” I first noticed a college acquaintance (and an enthusiastic Elizabeth Warren supporter) mention it on Facebook on Sunday, and have noticed at least three other references to it by others since then. The video is only 6 minutes and 24 seconds long, but if you’re like me, after about three minutes, it will seem like it is going on forever.
I’ve recorded some of my thoughts below the fold.
The first reaction I had to this video is one of disbelief that any intelligent person could take it seriously. The ominous graphics about “WEALTH INEQUALITY IN AMERICA,” the menacing music, and the oh-so-selective presentation of “facts” and details to make its case. The whole video seems like it was made by someone who read the book How to Lie with Statistics as a how-to manual rather than a cautionary guide.
The video’s starting point is a survey by Harvard professor Michael I. Norton about the beliefs of “Democrats, Republicans and Independents” about the distribution of wealth in America; I haven’t researched the study in question extensively, but, I suspect that if I did, I’d formulate even more questions about the legitimacy of its conclusion. (The above-linked article, though, identifies Norton’s work as having been “inspired by the work of Harvard philosopher John Rawls,” a fact which ought to set off alarm bells in the mind of anyone even remotely familiar with Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.)
For the time being, though, let’s stipulate that the study was done in a fair and reasonable matter, that there was nothing unreasonably biased in the way the questions were worded or the way the sample was selected.
Even if we concede that point, though, the next question is, “so what?” So a sample of the public at large doesn’t understand the realities of wealth distribution in our economy. What does that prove? This video starts from the premise that that proves our society is flawed, terribly, horribly, frighteningly flawed, and ramps up the music, the manipulated charts, and the slightly dramatized voice-over to hammer home that point.
A more cautious approach to the data would acknowledge that perhaps the public at large doesn’t fully understand economics, that even the implications of a precept as supposedly well-known as the 80-20 rule escape the grasp of the population (or at least of the sample that this Harvard professor surveyed).
One of the other major, flawed premises of the video is that what the surveyed group believes “should be” the case is, in any practical sense, workable or desirable. Just because the surveyed group believes that wealth should be distributed in a more even manner doesn’t mean that societies where wealth is distributed in that way are necessarily desirable or that they work more efficiently than societies where wealth is distributed unevenly. (Do you imagine that there could be a reason why this video isn’t a study in comparative economics? I do.)
But the filmmaker doesn’t let what should be two obvious flaws and weaknesses stop him from producing a major piece of propaganda. In fact, quite to the contrary, he makes a point of returning to the statistics from the Harvard survey time and again, superimposing them as lines on his charts about the actual realities of wealth distribution, charts which he’s careful not to scale adequately, just so he can complain about the concentration of wealth being “off the chart.”
Likewise, there’s the confusion of terms here. He interchanges talk about “wealth” and “income” so loosely that it’s hard to know what statistics he’s talking about at any given time. Anyone who lives in a state that has been hit hard by the housing bust and the foreclosure crisis should have familiarity with concepts like negative equity, the lack of savings, and the costliness of easy credit on the financial situations of so many Americans. In a world where rock stars and sports stars go bankrupt, the difference between income and assets really shouldn’t be that hard to grasp, and yet this video is doing its best to capitalize on the confusion.
And we haven’t even touched on the issue of class mobility which the video pretends doesn’t exist. In 1976–a year the video references at 5:09–the American economy was stagnant and moribund after years of price controls and runaway inflation, Warren Buffett was a successful investor (but a long, long way from being the richest person in the country), Bill Gates was a lawyer’s son who had dropped out of Harvard to start a new venture, Apple Computer was introducing its first product, and Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t even born yet.
We “just need to wake up” says the video, as it closes, with yet another ominous chord. Note that while it doesn’t propose a solution to the problem, it sure hints at one.
The video pretends to be balanced in its ominous invocation of “socialism” as if to say that what it’s advancing isn’t socialism but simply common sense. This is a standard diversionary tactic employed by the left for years–one which Obama employed with great success in 2008: talk about the necessity for “change” and make reference to “fairness” rather than calling overtly for socialism.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the problems inherent in the case made by the video, and yet the liberals who are promoting the video seem incapable of recognizing even those basic flaws.
Consider the kinds of tag lines they use to promote it: “All we have to do is to fix this, and we can get our economy working again,” exclaimed one.
Oh great. And how, exactly, do they propose we “fix it”? What fix can they propose that doesn’t involve confiscatory taxation, burdensome regulation, forced redistribution, and incentivizing all sorts of undesirable behaviors? Those sorts of fixes worked so well, after all, in the former Soviet Union, in China, in Cuba, and in North Korea. Naturally they won’t say because they don’t want to get into discussing the ugly details.
“I feel stunned and silenced by this video. I’m all choked up,” said another. Please forgive me, I’m tempted to say, if I fail to see your emotional inability to grasp some basic, simple premises of economics as a compelling reason to move towards an economic system that is known for its corruption, its brutality, and its certain collapse. To the social liberal, though, such a response would not only be unthinkable, it would be a horror; what matters is their feelings, and their intentions.
Anyone bold enough to step outside of the circle and question the sanctity of their feelings or intentions must be monstrous, or cruel, or worse, crazy. Emily Dickinson comes to mind:
Much Madness is divinest Sense –To a discerning Eye –Much Sense – the starkest Madness –’Tis the MajorityIn this, as all, prevail –Assent – and you are sane –Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –And handled with a Chain –