Tag Archives: crisis

An Epistemic Crisis

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Epistemic may not be a word we commonly use, but I think it was entirely appropriate in this Vox headline: “With Impeachment, America’s Epistemic Crisis has Arrived.”

The Vox article focuses on what it calls a “stress test,” and considers whether the right can shield itself from “plain facts in plain sight.”

Unlike Mueller’s report, the story behind the impeachment case is relatively simple: Congress approved military aid for Ukraine, but Trump withheld it as part of a sustained campaign to pressure Ukraine into launching an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden’s family. There’s a record of him doing it. There are multiple credible witnesses to the phone call and larger campaign. Several Trump allies and administration officials have admitted to it on camera. Trump himself admitted to it on the White House lawn.

It’s just very, very obvious that he did it. It’s very obvious he and his associates don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. And it’s very obvious there is something wrong with it. Holding US foreign policy hostage to personal political favors is straightforward abuse of power, precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they wrote impeachment into the Constitution.

It’s a clearly impeachable pattern of action, documented and attested to by multiple witnesses, confessed to multiple times, in violation of longstanding political precedent and a moral consensus that was, until 2016, universal. Compared to Mueller, that is a much more difficult test of the right’s ability to obscure, distract, and polarize.

The article asks the question that all sane, “reality-based” Americans have been asking ourselves: Can the right-wing propaganda machine successfully keep the right-wing base believing an alternate reality–at least long enough to get through the next election?

Earlier in 2017, I told the story of Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowing and coming to know things — what counts as true, what counts as evidence, how we accumulate knowledge, and the like. It’s where you find schools of thought like skepticism (we can’t truly know anything) and realism (the universe contains observer-independent facts we can come to know).

Tribal epistemology, as I see it, is when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.

When tribal interests overwhelm standards of evidence and internal coherence,  what is seen as “good for our tribe” becomes the primary determinant of what is true. Who is “part of our tribe” becomes the test of who to trust.

A decades-long effort on the right has resulted in a parallel set of institutions meant to encourage tribal epistemology. They mimic the form of mainstream media, think tanks, and the academy, but without the restraint of transpartisan principles. They are designed to advance the interests of the right, to tell stories and produce facts that support the tribe. That is the ultimate goal; the rhetoric and formalisms of critical thinking are retrofit around it.

It began with talk radio and Fox, but grew into an entire ecosystem that is constantly working to shape the worldview of its white suburban/rural audiences, who are being primed for what the author calls “a forever war with The Libs, who are always just on the verge of destroying America.”

The article is lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety, but the following paragraphs graphically describe what that “epistemic crisis” will look like over the next year:

This is the story of American politics: a narrowly divided nation, with raw numbers on the side of the rising demographics in the left coalition but intensity and outsized political power on the side of the right coalition. Put in more practical terms, the right still has the votes and the cohesion to prevent a Senate impeachment conviction.

On the downslope of a fading, unpopular coalition is not a great place for Republicans to be. It doesn’t augur well for their post-2020 health as a party. But it is enough to get them through the next election, which is about as far ahead as they look these days.

All they need to do is to keep that close partisan split frozen in place. Above all, they need to ensure that nothing breaks through to the masses in the mushy middle, who are mostly disengaged from politics. They need to make sure no clear consensus forms, nothing that might find its way into pop culture, the way the entire nation eventually focused its attention on Nixon’s impeachment.

It’s a kind of magic trick they’re going to try to pull off in full view.

If it succeeds, reality and America both lose.

 

 

 

Whose Fake News?

Psychiatrists define “projection” as a defense mechanism employed by people who are having trouble coping with difficult emotions. They project their feelings of inadequacy or remorse over shameful behaviors onto someone else–accusing other people of undesirable or reprehensible actions of which the accuser is actually guilty.

For example, Donald Trump and “fake news.”

I’m not referring to Trump’s constant misstatements and inaccuracies (latest favorite: Trump said Harley-Davidson had lost sales because Americans were reacting negatively to the company’s impending move overseas. The company announced that move two weeks ago. Trump’s cited “evidence” was from 2017.)

He gets his facts wrong so often he could open an “Inaccurate-R-Us” franchise, but frequently, that’s simply because he is jaw-droppingly ignorant. His constant whining about “fake news,” however, is different. When he accuses reporters of manufacturing stories, he’s projecting, but he’s also playing to his base.

A recent example is this July 3d tweet

Just out that the Obama Administration granted citizenship, during the terrible Iran Deal negotiation, to 2,500 Iranians – including to government officials. How big (and bad) is that?”

Trump is absolutely obsessed with Obama (presumably because he can’t bear the fact that a black guy is infinitely smarter and classier than he is) and invents “facts” about him constantly. In response to the tweet, the Washington Post’s fact checker gave the allegation  Four Pinocchios.

As embarrassing as it is to have a President who lies whenever his lips are moving, Trump’s truly despicable use of fake news is in service of his bigotry, especially when it comes to immigration. These are “lies with purpose”–messages intended to keep his base terrified of those lawless and dangerous brown people coming over the southern border.

The view from that southern border is radically different from the stories Trump is peddling.

As a resident of that border recently wrote

The news over the past few weeks might make you think that places such as my hometown — McAllen, Tex., in the Rio Grande Valley — are under siege from waves of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, a crisis of lawlessness so extreme that drastic measures are needed. Tearing children from their parents, or, when that proves too unpopular, corralling families in tent cities. Then there’s the $25 billion wall that’s needed to safeguard the United States from the threat of being overrun.

The view from down here is different. In a 2018 rating of the 100 most dangerous cities in the United States based on FBI data, no border cities — not San Diego, not Texas cities such as Brownsville, Laredo or El Paso — appeared even in the top 60. McAllen’s crime rate was lower than Houston’s or Dallas’s, according to Texas Monthly in 2015. The Cato Institute’s research consistently shows that immigrants, both legal and undocumented, are markedly less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.

And as Kevin Sullivan recently wrote, in a story in the Washington Post, the town of McAllen is profoundly uncomfortable with Trump’s policy, and irate about the rhetoric he uses to defend it.

The policy is seen as unwanted and unfair in this border city of 142,000 whose population is 90 percent Hispanic and so fully bilingual that roadside anti-littering signs say “No dumping basura” (trash).

Far from being the criminal hell-hole described by Trump, McAllen is a thriving community, with an economy that is heavily dependent upon trade with its Mexican neighbors. Businesses welcome the customers who come over the border, and the town raises more sales tax per capita than almost any other Texas city — about $60 million last year, greater than its property tax revenue. Crime in the city is at a 33-year low.

There is a “crisis” at the border, but it is a humanitarian crisis entirely of Trump’s making.

Facts, evidence, accuracy, fairness–none of those things matter to this profoundly unstable and insecure man, so he evidently assumes that they don’t mean anything to anyone else, either. He projects his own dishonesty on others; he may even believe that everyone is as  pathetically self-aggrandizing as he is. He clearly doesn’t realize how obvious his lies and inadequacies are to everyone outside the small, devoted base that desperately wants to see itself as superior to black and brown people.

He would be an object of pity if he weren’t in a position to do so much damage.

 

The Law and the Debt….

I had lunch with an old friend yesterday–a former law school dean and noted legal scholar–and our talk turned to the current impasse over the debt ceiling. He asked me whether I was familiar with a 1935 Supreme Court case titled Perry v. United StatesI admitted I’d never heard of it.

Perry, it turns out, is pretty compelling precedent for the proposition that the United States cannot constitutionally be permitted to default on its obligations. The Court relied primarily on language in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, although it also cited Section 4 of the 14th Amendment. My friend sent me a legal memorandum that he had co-authored on the subject. That memorandum included the following paragraph:

In short, the core holding of Perry is that the constitutional “Power” of Congress “To borrow Money on the credit of the United States” carries with it a concomitant duty to pay ― and not to default. While some members of the Court held differing views on the correct factual resolution of the Perry case, all nine justices, including four dissenters, agreed that the United States could not, within constitutional limits, default on its financial or contractual obligations.

The case has been cited with approval by the Supreme Court several times–most recently in 2005.

My friend’s legal conclusion is blunt: If default would be unconstitutional, then the Debt Ceiling Act is unconstitutional if it is read to require default. Since there are a number of federal statutes that confer power on the President and Secretary of the Treasury to borrow money–statutes that are routinely used when the debt ceiling isn’t an issue– and since an unconstitutional Act is void, those statutes would (again, according to the memo) continue to authorize the President to pay the country’s debts.

Makes sense to me, but this is definitely not an area of expertise for me.

Of course, if the President were to follow Perry and pay the nation’s debts, the Obama haters would immediately move to impeach (they would impeach him for breathing if they could).

It’s hard to envision a successful impeachment for actions taken to avoid an international economic catastrophe–but then, it used to be hard to envision a Congress as insane as this one.