Saturday, October 23, 2004

Wandering the blogs, part three

Updated This is kinda a threefer. The original source is a report done by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), available here in .pdf format, which was reported on by Winning Argument - from where it was picked up by Daily Kos, which is where I saw it.

What it found was an astonishing gulf between what Bush supporters believe and reality. This list is as presented by Winning Argument:

- 75% believe Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda.
- 74% believe Bush favors including labor and environmental standards in agreements on trade.
- 72% believe Iraq had WMD or a program to develop them.
- 72% believe Bush supports the treaty banning landmines.
- 69% believe Bush supports the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
- 61% believe if Bush knew there were no WMD he would not have gone to war.
- 60% believe most experts believe Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda.
- 58% believe the Duelfer report concluded that Iraq had either WMD or a major program to develop them.
- 57% believe that the majority of people in the world would prefer to see Bush reelected.
- 56% believe most experts think Iraq had WMD.
- 55% believe the 9/11 report concluded Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda.
- 51% believe Bush supports the Kyoto treaty.
- 20% believe Iraq was directly involved in 9/11.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. With the possible exception of the belief that most experts think Iraq had WMDs (assuming that meant in the runup to the war; obviously Iraq did have chemical weapons in the past), every one of those is simply factually, demonstrably, wrong. (I note for the record that I include the statement that Bush would not have gone to war if he knew there were no WMDs. To be precise, while they had no good reason to believe there were WMDs, that's not the same as saying they knew there weren't any. But the argument here is that WMDs were the reason for the invasion and the White House not only has not claimed that, it has denied it.)

Now, most of the attention to this is going to be focused on "oh, those dumb Bush supporters." But that's actually not entirely accurate: The same survey showed significant numbers among John Kerry's supporters sharing some of those beliefs. For example:

- Nearly one in five agree that experts believe that just before the war Iraq had WMDs.
- Almost a quarter maintain that the Duelfer Report said the opposite of what it did.
- 30% say that Iraq was directly involved in 9/11 or gave al-Qaeda substantial support and 27% hold that the 9/11 Commission reached that conclusion.
- Similar numbers, generally 25-30%, could not identify Kerry's positions on the landmine treaty, the test ban, including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements, or Star Wars systems - and a majority had his position on defense spending wrong.

Those percentages are clearly below those of Bush supporters but they still represent a pretty good number of people. So I'm actually concerned with a somewhat different issue than "ignorant Bush supporters." That is, how is it that so many people can believe so many things which are simply, straightforwardly, clearly, unarguably, factually wrong? This even goes beyond the old business of the remarkable - to me, embarrassing - number of people in this country who refuse to accept evolution or who are convinced the moon landings never happened. This is insisting on believing things that the very source you rely on says are wrong.

How can a majority of Bush sympathizers believe he supports the Kyoto Protocol when he pulled out of it? How can so many believe the Duelfer report said the opposite of what it said? How can anyone remain convinced Bush supports the landmine treaty or the test ban treaty when he has specifically rejected both? How can such a large number of people, including a significant portion of Kerry supporters, believe Iraq was "providing substantial support" for al-Qaeda when even the White House has admitted it wasn't? Why are we as a people such political ignoramuses?

Writing in the October 18 "Nation," columnist Patricia Williams has much the same lament. (No link because it's available online to subscribers only.) She was describing a conversation she recently had with a 12-year old French boy while on vacation in rural France.
We talked some more. He was from Nantes, and when he discovered I was born in Boston, he asked, "Where Mr. Kerry is from?"

"That's right," I said, impressed - and was more impressed yet when he observed that Kerry's foreign policy was very close to "that of Mr. Clinton, no?" and then went on to compare them in some detail.

I've thought a lot about that conversation since. Perhaps he was an exceptional child, but I don't think so. In my limited travel experience (to Western Europe, South Africa, Canada and Australia) almost anyone I run into has a better sense of our political system and its carryings-on than any given audience member of The Tonight Show. What struck me with great force as I chatted with that boy was the way our media keep saying that Kerry "hasn't defined himself." Yet here was a random kid in a random shopping mall in suburban western France who could define Kerry - and Bush for that matter - better than some American news anchors. ...

Why, I wonder, is our political life so marginal to daily life and to average citizens? Why is our educational system so dismal, our civic discourse so diminished, that schoolkids abroad sound as though they have better-informed opinions about our wars than the "security moms" whose sons are marching off to fight them?
I don't accept the notion, advanced by some, that there is some organized, conscious plot involving all the media to deliberately keep us stupid. (I will not say the same about certain political and economic forces.) I believe rather that our culture and our economic system combine to willy-nilly drive social and political awareness and involvement off our personal agendas.

We as a people celebrate the individual, the "go for yourself" entrepreneur, we admire the so-called "self-made man," we like to imagine ourselves the Marlboro man on his horse (although likely without the cigarette these days), independent, in no need of help from anyone, certainly not the government: Welfare, after all, is a "crutch" and for many, even among those who qualify for it, a sign of humiliation and failure. As a result, government and the actions of government seem removed from our lives, not relevant except for those occasions when they touch us directly.

Meanwhile, there aren't big bucks to be made in public affairs programs, and the drive for corporate profit and the continuing concentration in the media industry have turned news programs from what some decades ago was looked on as a public service into just another profit center. Our media have failed us terribly, those in it that even now like to imagine themselves "journalists" having become little more than official scribes to power and gossip mongers.

But even at that, it's not all their fault: They become gossip mongers because that's where the money is, and it's where the money it because, despite our protestations to the contrary, it's what we buy. And it's what we buy because it provides some relief from daily life: The fascination with gossip, with scandal, is hardly a new thing. But the more we buy gossip, the more we get of that and the less we get of substance - and the less we get of substance, the more distant, the more meaningless, the more isolated the doings of government become and the less we feel we can do anything about them. And the less we feel we can do anything about them, the more we feel that even to the extent that we care we are still irrelevant - and to that extent we withdraw from the public sphere further, further into scandal and rumor and gossip, and the cycle continues.

Our political life - and I don't say this lightly - is in jeopardy. And I don't mean from the election of George Bush. One of the things the figures above reveal is that significant number of Americans reject Bush's actual policies! They are supporting him because they have somehow convinced themselves that he believes in the same things they do. No, the threat to our political life comes from our own collective ignorance, our preference for foam over beer, froth over substance, image over reality. And I'm afraid that will be a much tougher opponent to overcome than Shrub will ever be.

Updated to include the stuff about Kerry supporters.

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