Monthly Archives: January 2013

Principles of Language I

George Orwell’s estate has decided to make an occasion of the anniversary of his death, on January 21, 1950, and The Guardian and other British papers have been publishing reflections on Orwell this past week. Orwell’s most famous essay may be “Politics and the English Language,” which he published in 1946. In it, he makes the surprising argument that bad writing can be immoral and dangerous. Vagueness and imprecision allow people to write knowing exactly what they want to say. As a result, they tend to think less carefully, which can have real consequences in writing about politics. Orwell was particularly concerned that worn-out imagery and ready-made abstractions allowed writers to conceal from themselves the horrors of what they were defending — Stalin’s regime, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Orwell insists that writers avoid abstraction and rely constantly on mental images. Simple, concrete writing would make for more humane policy.

This principle has a limited application today. Our political debates are about entities that have no concrete existence whatsoever, but aren’t any less important for that reason, such as the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff. These metaphors are stale and misleading, to be sure, but you can’t make any progress by trying to picture what they mean in your mind or by coming up with a particular example to illustrate them. Likewise, everyone supports “reducing the size of government,” an abstract goal that can mean completely different things to different people. Still, a description of the federal budget in truly concrete terms would be endless and utterly bewildering. To say anything useful about something so complicated, you can’t avoid making generalizations.

In monetary policy, the debate is even more abstract. When the Fed says it intends to maintain interest rates at a certain level, it is not only describing its policy, it is also putting it into action. There are no bridges being built or weapons being shipped. The most concrete expression of monetary policy is the announcement itself. Instead of writerly introspection as Orwell recommended, the way we approach these debates is by constructing models, testing hypotheses, and the occasional econometric survey, all of which involve even more abstraction. At some level, of course, the numbers are composed of people doing ordinary things — going to work in the mornings, buying milk, and building houses. Yet it doesn’t look as though we would have better monetary policy if economists had better prose.

Beyond this specific advice, however, Orwell’s central contention that language is not “a natural growth” but “an instrument we shape for our own purposes” is now universally accepted, probably more as a result of experience than of his influence. How we talk affects how we think. How a question is phrased affects how people will answer. We fight constantly over labels — “fiscal cliff,” “fiscal curb,” “austerity crisis.” Our use of language is political, and we can use it as we like to achieve our aims.

If we can use language for political ends, can we use it for other ends as well? Could we improve our understanding of the world around us or of ourselves by speaking more precisely? Since we know from experience that how we use language affects how we think and feel, could we encourage our listeners to recognize their shared humanity? Could we make ourselves more humble, attuned in every sentence to the lessons of history?

In this series, I’ll consider these questions and more by examining the most innocuous, everyday questions of style. I hope I’ll convince you that our language is thoroughly political, and that you should choose your words with care.

“Cult of Objectivity”

In These Times published a provocative column by Bhaskar Sunkara last week. He says that in choosing policy over politics, data over convictions, and objectivity over ideology, liberal wonks have not only abandoned the workers’ revolution, but also unwittingly transformed themselves into a race of soulless cyborgs. He concludes:

As science fiction foretells, when faced with cybernetic revolt, organic life prevails through the use of emotions and guile to exploit the rigid, mechanical thinking of the synthetic mind. Many of those celebrating President Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney will share this fate. Liberals pore over data and cite demographic trends favoring the Democratic Party and its dominant “vital center.” Similar optimism pervaded the pundit class following Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. But the Right had a long-term vision: building social forces, reconstructing a political ideology, recruiting a B-list actor, changing the country. That wasn’t a policy revolt; it was a revolution.

I agree in principle, and I outlined my argument in a long entry last week. That said, I’m troubled by the way Sunkara dismisses objectivity as a “cult,” as though facts were unnecessary to politics and the pursuit of them inherently harmful. Marx took that position, but it seems incoherent to me, because an unvarnished view of society’s unpleasant facts has always been the source of progressive zeal, including Marx’s own.

The problem is that if facts are interesting or relevant at all, they are usually inconvenient for someone. Sunkara goes after Dylan Matthews for his coverage of the teachers’ strike in Chicago, even though Matthews’s only offense was parsing data to find the median salary for teachers in the district. Matthews concluded that the opponents of the strike were using better statistics, and that the median was higher than the union had claimed. Matthews even tried to absolve himself of sins against the Party:

None of this is to say anything about whether the average teacher’s salary is at the right level. It’s just to say that a fair read of the numbers suggests that $71,017 is a much more accurate estimate of what a typical Chicago public school teacher makes than $56,720.

Sunkara doesn’t really support state censorship. He only wants to point out that because “Beltway liberals today prefer to tout their expertise and talk raw facts,” they neglect “moral and ethical appeals to voters,” which are also important. He’s right, but facts are important, too, and to achieve its goals, any political program must account for facts. They have a pesky habit of getting in the way of things.

Ezra Klein is the most prominent exponent of this new liberal coalition of the factually minded. Ryan Cooper described his maturation from digital firebrand into Establishment darling, and the aspiration to objectivity he seemed to discover when he moved to The Washington Post. Sunkara quotes Klein, who said, “I don’t think of the blog as making an argument for liberalism. At this point in my life, I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. That’s not the project I’m part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do.”

Klein was being a little disingenuous. The facts — those reclusive, mysterious amphibians of the American political wildlands, rarely sighted and poorly understood — never take anyone anywhere. To decide that one public policy is preferable to another also requires having an opinion about what government’s aims should be.

Yet Sunkara is wrong to accuse Klein and others like him of lacking “a coherent worldview.” The pursuit of objectivity is a coherent worldview. It is itself an ideology, one based on the principle that by presenting and interpreting evidence gathered according to transparent, replicable procedures, we can create useful knowledge that allows us to predict and manipulate our circumstances. People who believe in objectivity believe that all parties to a debate, including political actors, should adhere to facts established in this way. Objectivity thus isn’t neutral — it sets norms for political discourse. That apparent contradiction explains Klein’s obvious discomfort when he found himself forced to criticize Rep. Paul Ryan for intellectual dishonesty:

Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation… It doesn’t look “fair” when you say that. We’ve been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame. I’d personally feel better if our coverage didn’t look so lopsided. But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal. So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.

Instead of ending his column there, Klein should have gone on to explain why the facts are worth pursuing, why they represent an ideal worth upholding, even for politicians. That is the kind of moral argument the left neglects too often. Consider the Iraq war and climate change, the two most significant issues in national policy in the last decade. Journalism has failed the country in both cases because no one’s persuaded that bare facts are worth paying attention to — not even journalists. They have focused on reporting the claims of political actors instead, retreating into the amoral agnosticism of the Washington press corps.

The problem is that the public has been too easily persuaded by Marx’s argument against this ideology of objectivity, which Sunkara repeats. Journalists doubt their own ability to establish the facts and to present them impartially, so they simply report contradictory claims and leave the decision to the reader, who lacks any resources to determine which side is more truthful. Since political actors see that facts themselves are a kind of manipulation of reality that depends on a specific scientific and rational worldview, they mistakenly conclude that being factual and being ideological are morally equivalent.

The project of the liberal blogosphere, you might say, has always been to counter the conservative reaction of the last several decades by advancing a different worldview, the ideology of objectivity. The blogosphere has always been partisan in this sense. Yet the project hasn’t succeeded, and Sunkara’s as well as Klein’s point of view is an obstacle. Both write as though as though it were possible to report the facts without involving oneself in interpretation and judgment. The boundary between fact and interpretation is not so clearly delineated. Facts themselves are rarely neutral, so the recording angels of the press who limit themselves strictly to reporting the facts confront a dilemma. They must choose between self-censorship and partiality.

Of course, journalists get around this dilemma all the time by going beyond the facts — by providing context and analysis and weighing opposing claims and arguments against each other. Yet just because facts are often difficult to separate from interpretations in practice, it does not mean that there is no difference between the two, or that facts are not still valuable for their own sakes. The blogosphere needs to explain that distinction, as well as the value of objectivity, and that project is indeed more than an ordinary policy debate.

Ezra Klein, Technocrator

Ezra Klein made an intriguing claim in his column for Bloomberg last week:

The progressive project of building a decent welfare state is giving way to the more technocratic work of financing and managing it. How government is run, more than what exactly it does, seems set to be the main battleground of American politics in coming years.

In a technocratic debate, everyone agrees on what the goals are, and the question is how best to achieve them. Klein’s view is that the liberal movement has largely won the debate against conservatism, that popular opinion has forced the Republicans to accept a state that attempts to provide for its most vulnerable, and that the problem now is how to achieve that goal. In other words, the debate is merely technical — in the sense in which Max Weber used that word at the beginning of the last century in his theories about bureaucracy.

This isn’t the first time this kind of claim has been made. “The central domestic issues of our time,” President Kennedy said in 1962, “relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals — to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.” He added that what confronted the nation was “not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion but the practical management of a modern economy.” Using Weber’s word, he called for “technical answers” to “technical questions.”

Speaking just a few years before the violent upheavals of the era of civil rights and Vietnam, Kennedy could hardly have been more wrong. The country would soon be arguing not over the government’s means to its ends, but about what those ends should be.

Kennedy’s speech was insightful. He saw that the federal government had become far more complicated even than it was during the New Deal, creating the need for a new kind of political debate. His error, however, was in seeing a consensus when none existed. “The national interest lies in high employment and a steady expansion of output, stable prices, and a strong dollar. The declaration of such an objective is easy,” he said. Aside from the tight-money rhetoric, there were many who would have found this statement of purpose for the national government inadequate. Kennedy was unaware of their dissatisfaction.

As Kennedy did then, Klein spends most of his time talking to powerful people in business and government. When he writes about the “broad consensus that undergirds our contentious politics,” is he making the same kind of mistake that Kennedy did?

“Consensus” is not the right term. Armistice, truce, ceasefire, mutual exhaustion, possibly, but not consensus. There is no agreement on what purposes government should serve, only the recognition on both sides that cutting Medicare or substantially raising taxes are politically infeasible.

That calculus could change, so to suggest, as Klein does, that the major questions in future debates will be merely technical seems premature — and self-serving, since that would mean people with Klein’s particular kind of expertise would become more prominent in political life.

As to whether societal disruptions on a large scale are likely this decade, any prediction turns on Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Were these movements ultimately insignificant failures that represented the views of a few isolated malcontents, or do they indicate broader, deeper frustrations and anxieties? Klein does not ask that question, but time will tell.

Brooks Teaches Humility

This week David Brooks begins teaching a course at Yale on humility. Humility is the operative principle in Brooks’s worldview, the source of his conservatism and what his critics call his class apologism. It is also one of the few things on which everyone in American political life is agreed, a quality as important to the left as it is to conservative thinkers such as Brooks. So many candidates, especially men, are described as being “humble,” you might think humility was a prerequisite for seeking elected office in this country. The commentaries on Brooks’s new appointment reveal this consensus. Humility, the left jokes, is a virtue solely lacking among Yale students, so it’s good that the school is offering a course on the subject. If only they had found someone better qualified to teach it.

Our attachment to humility is not just superficial. Appearances to the contrary, Americans today tend to be thoroughly humble, and a sense of our limitations determines how we look at the world. For that reason, what’s been said about Brooks’s spring term curriculum is revealing.

People such as Brooks insist that we respect our limitations with regard to our knowledge of the facts about any situation, our ability to describe the world scientifically, our capacity to change things according to our intentions, and most of all, our sense of right and wrong. Brooks calls this “epistemological modesty.” People like him are concerned about the unintended consequences of social interventions. They believe that the fabric of society is fragile. They blame the totalitarian horrors of the last century on a small group who wanted to improve on  traditional ideas about justice and morality and who thought they could create a new society and a new humanity through their revolutionary insight. Brooks reads about Hitler and Stalin and says to himself, “There but for the grace of God.” On this view, the arrogance of contemporary technocrats, including the current administration, differs only in degree from the dictators’. This may seem excessive, but the capacity to see oneself as just as human as those men, and no less prone to catastrophic error, is a remarkable kind of humility. The left really should respect that attitude more than it does.

People who don’t live in Washington and who don’t read the news often share Brooks’s worldview in its essential form. They respect received norms, question scientific authority, and are suspicious of attempts to significantly alter the structure of society. That’s why people think “Guns are part of our way of life” is a legitimate defense of laws that abet murder. These tendencies are not simply symptoms of ignorance. You can also see them as manifestations of a common experience of our human limitations.

This experience has other consequences among well-educated people. It leads them to conclude that individual biases, prejudices, and affections must be subordinated to the rigor of various scientific and professional methodologies in order to create a reliable description of the world that compensates for any one person’s weaknesses. Journalists work nights and weekends to compile databases and establish facts. Researchers painstakingly construct models and test hypotheses. Businesspeople search constantly for more detailed and accurate ways of understanding their firms and their customers. The work of the professional class requires patience and discipline, and our society’s most influential members are engaged in perpetual introspection and self-abnegation. As they spend the countless hours of their brief periods on earth annotating financial statements or counting larvae under a microscope, they are teaching themselves to abandon their own insight and judgment, to put the facts before their emotions, and to accept counterintuitive conclusions. Their peers encourage them, confronting them about the leaps of logic made out of their desire for a particular result. They all strive simply to be led by the evidence. This is instrumental rationality, and as Weber first observed, reason requires its practitioners to be humble. The chart is the best example of the peculiar kind of description of the world that this humility ultimately produces. We all have our favorite connoisseurs of charts, writers whose sites are like galleries of modern painting where a chart hangs on each wall, a visual experiment in primary colors, tangled lines, and disconcerting shapes that is not only an aesthetic object, but also a social critique.

There is far more data now than there was historically, but the recognition that science can indeed form the basis of a better society is as old as Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor, as progressive reformers looked for ways to apply their advances in industrial management to politics and society. In Europe, that recognition is even older. One of the most humble thinkers in modern history is Karl Marx, whose thoroughgoing empiricism anticipated the direction of modern social science. Reading his work is to witness the tormented convolutions of a mind that refused to flee from the painful knowledge of human limitation, spiritual and physical. He made notes in the margins of Engels’s draft of “The German Ideology,” which they never published:

Hegel. Geological, hydrological, etc. conditions. Human bodies. Needs, labor.

You can imagine him writing hurriedly, obsessed, worried the thoughts will slip from his mind: earth, water, desire, work. Almost the exact same words appear again later in the manuscript. They could be a fragment of a lyric on human powerlessness and frailty, or of a polemic against Hegel, whose influence Marx resisted throughout his work. He seems to have felt Hegel’s philosophy could not account for the stubborn facts of people’s natural, physical existence and of individual suffering. Marx refused to indulge the German academy in its fanciful idealism, and instead insisted that the way to understand the modern world was to go out and take a long, hard look. Marx never claimed to be objective, however. He saw the concept of objectivity as a tool an instrument of class domination, and he acknowledged his proletarian allegiance. He and his wife often lived in poverty, and he worked tirelessly to promote the working man’s revolutionary consciousness. Yet in contrast to Hegel, Marx did not think of himself as having an important place in world history. “The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer,” he and Engels wrote in “The Communist Manifesto.” If he had never lived, Marx believed, there still would have been what we today call Marxism. He would have been appalled by the worship he would later receive, along with the many crimes that would be committed in his name and in the name of universal brotherhood.

Despite Marx’s deep humanity and passionate empiricism, his work became a source of legitimacy for inhumane regimes that erected airy castles of ideology, abstracting suffering and individuality into nonexistence. Was this irony due to some failure of his humility, or was he never really humble at all? What is humility, really? Should we view it as unambiguously positive?

Different people have different feelings about what it means to be humble, and neither view of humility can easily be called more modest than the other. If analyzing data and drawing conclusions sometimes forces people to be too confident in their methods, it isn’t obviously less arrogant for someone else to argue against their conclusions in defense of her favored set of values. Yet however it is defined, humility can be a dangerous thing to have. Marx’s sense of the fallibility of human intelligence, particularly of how susceptible it is to the influence of economic interest, led him to unduly discount the achievements of his predecessors. For conservatives, humility can be no more than an excuse to cherish their prejudices, as Burke wrote, and to defend unjust social structures. When liberal rationalists abstain from moral reasoning as unscientific, they risk ceding the field to their opponents.

Consider Rick Santorum, who stood in front of a crowd of college students last year and patiently explained why gay marriage is analogous to bigamy (and by the extension of his argument, to bestiality). The only way to make sense of Santorum’s apparent conviction that his audience would find this reasoning persuasive is by pointing to the absence of an audible counterargument. Intelligent conservative writers have spent a long time defending heterosexual marriage as an important cultural institution and validating feelings of repugnance and disgust as necessary bases of moral action. While the philosophical case in favor of gay marriage is much more cogent, no public figure or major institution, from Lady Gaga to the Center for American Progress, bothers to make it forcefully or in detail. Instead, the left has responded with kiss-ins and scientific papers demonstrating that gay people do indeed know how to take care of children. Setting the facts straight, though it shouldn’t be necessary, will never put this question to rest, and today’s civil rights movement has forgotten that a robust framework of ideas supported the protests of the past. The American left today has invested all of its intellectual capital in data analysis and policy expertise. Barack Obama won reëlection with a technologically sophisticated, evidence-based campaign, but every constituency in the diverse coalition that supported him has a different idea of what he and his party stand for. We have neglected the moral argument for liberalism.

Perhaps humility can be an obstacle to morality. People are ungenerous and disingenuous and fearful, and those lonely souls that aim to do what’s right will always be mocked for thinking they’re better, whether the question is one of political significance or of quotidian honesty. They will experience what Christ did when he returned to Nazareth and declared that a prophet is never accepted where he grew up, presumably because his family and childhood friends find him overweening, puffed-up, and holier-than-thou. As Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov observed, Christ is not a figure of humility. Perhaps we would live in a better society if we could all be a little less humble, just enough to believe in our own sense of justice; to risk being mistaken sometimes; to stop simply presenting the evidence and letting the people decide, and to begin arguing for what we think is right; to think that the country our parents left us could be better; and to know that our society’s problems are real, but to believe that we can solve them.