While most Americans do not have college degrees, the percentage of Americans holding a Bachelors degree (or greater) has been steadily increasing (reaching 30% in 2012). One reason is degree inflation: people now need college degrees to qualify for jobs that once only required a high school diploma. Another reason is the fact that a college degree is supposed to increase a person’s earning potential. To a lesser degree, there has been a push for people to get at least some college education. In fact, President Obama has repeatedly pushed for this. In general, the assumption held by many people is that people should go to college if they can.
While I am a university professor, I do think that it is worthwhile to address the question of whether or not everyone should go to college. Not surprisingly, I think people should become as educated as possible. However, this is rather different from attending college and this distinction is sometimes lost.
There are, of course, the somewhat cynical answers to this question. It might be claimed that everyone should not go to college because some people are simply not intelligent enough to go to college. While honesty compels me to admit that there is some truth to this, honesty also compels me to admit that people generally overestimate the amount of intelligence required to get through college. While a certain level of intelligence is required, getting through college is often more a matter of persistence and showing up than of intellectual might.
It might also be claimed that everyone should not go to college because not everyone can afford the cost of college. On the one hand, this is a reasonable answer. After all, people who cannot afford to go to college should not go to college, just as someone who cannot afford an expensive sports car should not buy one. On the other hand, the question could be looked at another way. To use an analogy, consider the question of whether a person should seek treatment for a disease. Even if the person cannot afford it (and thus, in one sense, should not seek treatment), it still makes sense to say that they should seek treatment for the disease. Likewise, even people who cannot afford college might be people who should be going to college. That said, the cost of college is clearly something that a person should consider when deciding whether or not she should go to college.
Continuing with the matter of cost, a rather obvious answer is that not everyone should go to college because, as a practical matter, it would not be possible for society to provide the educational resources needed for everyone to attend college. The obvious reply to this is that countries like the United States do provide universal public K-12 education and hence it would presumably not be impossible to extend the education system to cover an additional four years, especially if people are expected to pay at least some of the cost themselves. However, even if society committed to making it so everyone could go to college, this does not entail that everyone should go to college.
In terms of arguing why everyone should go to college, one option is to make use of the arguments as to why everyone should complete high school. These include the usual arguments involving being educated for employment and being educated to be citizens of a democratic state. There is, of course, an easy way to counter these sorts of arguments. As a counter, it can be argued that for most (or at least some) people a high school education would suffice for these purposes and hence not everyone should go to college.
However, even if high school would suffice for some people, it can be contended that this does not prove that not everyone should go to college. After all, the fact that basic food, water and shelter would keep a person alive does not entail that everyone should not have more than the very basics of survival. Likewise the fact that a high school education provides the basics does not disprove the claim that everyone should go to college. By analogy, just as everyone (or almost everyone) would benefit from having more than the basics, the same would hold true for college as well.
The obvious reply is that the fact that everyone would benefit from having more than the basics does not entail that everyone should have more than the basics. Likewise, even if everyone would benefit from college, it does not follow that everyone should go to college. After all, this would require that people should do what would be beneficial for them and perhaps this is not the case. There is also the concern that college might not benefit everyone. If this is the case, then it would seem reasonable to claim that everyone should not go to college. On the face of it, this would seem to be the most fruitful avenue of consideration.
In general, it could be argued that people should go to college if doing so would be beneficial to them. As noted above, it could still be countered that even if something is beneficial, it does not follow that people should do it (the usual “you cannot get an ought from an is” line of attack can be used here). However, it seems sensible to lay aside this somewhat esoteric problem and focus on practical matters. In a practical sense, it seems reasonable to hold that people should make a decision about whether to go to college or not based on the benefits relative to the costs.
In practical terms, the main question for most people would be whether or not a college degree would result in a better job, which is often defined in terms of better pay. In general, a college degree results in better pay than a high school degree. However, there are well paying jobs that do not require a college degree and thus the money motivation does not yield the result that everyone should go to college (especially when the cost of college is factored in). There is also the matter of job satisfaction: there are people who rather enjoy jobs that do not require a college degree. Some of these jobs do require a great deal of skill, education and intelligence and they should not be looked down on as inferior to the jobs that require a college degree.
There is also the matter of the role of college in preparing a person to be a citizen of a democratic state. However, as was noted above, perhaps a high school education suffices for this. After all, people with college degrees do not seem to thus be automatically better citizens than people with high school degrees.
As a final point, there is the value of college in terms of developing as a person and other intangibles such as knowledge for the sake of knowledge. There are two obvious counters to this. The first is that people do go to college without college contributing very much to their personal development. The second is that people obviously can undergo personal development and learn a great deal without a college degree. That is, as noted above, a person can be well educated without having a formal college degree. Although most of my friends are college educated, I also have many friends who did not complete or even attend college. However, they are generally well-educated.
Thus, it would seem that it is not the case that everyone should go to college. This is not to say that college is without value, but it is to say that not everyone needs to walk the same path to their life goals and their education.
The current narrative is that the Obama administration is floundering in three major scandals: Benghazi, IRS TPT (Tea Party Targeting), and the DOJ’s AP incident. I agree with Socrates’ view that the “gadflies” have a duty to keep the “horse” that is the state from falling into laziness and corruption. But, of course, I also agree with Socrates’ view that we should better ourselves rather than endeavoring to tear others down with deceits. As such, I believe it is rather important to find and properly consider the truth in these matters.
During the first four years of Obama’s administration, those who wished to attack Obama had to generally rely on made up and often absurd attacks, such as the infamous Birther and Secret Muslim movements. Obama was also charged with being a socialist, a communist, a tyrant and so on. However, these charges only seemed to stick within certain minds-those who wished to believe the worst of the president regardless of the evidence. Interestingly, real problems such as drone assassinations, the grotesque disparities in wealth, the endemic problems in the VA, and so on were largely ignored by most folks on the left and the right. Someone more cynical than I might suspect that the pundits and politicians work to focus public rage in what they regard as safe channels.
The start of the second term saw what the folks at Fox probably regarded as a gift from on high, given that they had been desperately flogging Benghazi with little effect: two scandals that might actually have some substance. Interestingly, even the “liberal” media jumped onto the scandal bandwagon. However, the question remains as to whether or not there is any true substance behind these alleged scandals.
Again, someone more cynical than I might suggest that the pundits and politicians are focused primarily on scoring political points against Obama rather than operating from a desire for justice and ethical government. After all, some of the conservative pundits who are expressing outrage at Obama are the same people who embraced contrary views when their favorites engaged in worse misdeeds. Peggy Noonan is, of course, one of the outstanding examples: when it came to Iran-Contra, she claimed that Reagan did not know and was failed by his people. In the case of Obama, she contends that the President is fully accountable. Such blatant inconsistencies nicely reveal the truth of the matter. Naturally, folks on the left do the same thing: many of those who railed against Bush give Obama a pass on the same matters, presumably because he is their guy and Bush was not. But, left or right, such inconsistency is intellectually and morally wrong.
Someone far more cynical than I might even spin a tale of conspiracy-that outrage is generated, managed and directed so as to divert attention from real problems. After all, if the media and the people are in a froth over the IRS or the DOJ, then they have little outrage to spare for such matters as the pathetic state of our infrastructure or the fact that congress engages in legal insider trading. But, to get back to the main subject, I turn to the IRS scandal.
On the face of it, the IRS scandal is being sold as the IRS specifically targeting conservative groups. The flames of the scandal certainly have been fanned by the fact that Lerner pleaded the Fifth before Congress. While she might have been reacting out of fear because of the inflammatory rhetoric, this sort of thing is rather like when Romney refused to release his tax information: it leads people to believe that the damage that could be done by whatever is being hidden is far worse than the damage done by trying to hide it. However, let us go with the facts that are actually available.
One key part of the narrative is that the IRS only targeted conservative groups. However, the numbers show that this is not the case: only 70 of the 300 groups looked at were tea party organizations. There is also the fact that the IRS is required to determine whether or not those applying for tax-exemption are “social welfare” groups or are engaged in the sort of political activity that is forbidden to such groups. As such, the IRS was actually looking for exactly what the law required. As far as why they flagged the 300 rather than everyone, this seems to be a practical matter: the IRS was apparently faced with a flood of documents.
Another part of the narrative is that the IRS harmed those targeted for this review. However, the tax exempt status is not actually contingent on the IRS approving it: such groups can operate with that status even before official approval. Somewhat ironically, the only groups denied this status were three progressive groups: Emerge Nevada, Emerge Maine, and Emerge Massachusetts. The reason they were denied approval was because they were created to support Democrats, a violation of the law. The IRS commissioner at the time was a Bush appointee.
The facts would seem to reveal that there is not much here in the way of a scandal. The IRS and the administration can, however, be dinged for their poor handling of the matter. The Obama administration does have a poor track record of addressing the “scandling” from the right. Most infamously, they threw Shirley Sherrod to the wolves without even bothering to check on the facts. As such, I would say that one true scandal of the administration is how it handles allegations of scandals.
Interestingly, some conservatives are still trying to turn Benghazi into a scandal, and ABC News’ Jonathan Karl apparently engaged in fabrication, only to be exposed by CNN. There real scandal here would seem to be on the part of those who are trying to make Benghazi into a scandal.
It might be countered that the Obama administration is so bad (perhaps a socialist, communist, Muslim tyranny) that all of these tactics are justified. That, for example, it is acceptable to manufacture a scandal so as to undercut Obama’s support (and pave the way to the White House in 2016). The easy and obvious reply to this is that if the Obama administration is truly as bad as claimed, then there would be no need to manufacture scandals. One would merely need to provide evidence of the badness and that should suffice.
I do actually think that there is considerable badness. However, this badness is of the sort that neither party wishes to expose or bring to attention of the public. Thus, we generally get a war of manufactured scandals while the real problems remain festering in the shadows.
There can, of course, be real scandals. However, what is to be rationally expected is actual objective evidence from credible sources supporting the key claims as well as a rational value assessment regarding the seriousness of the scandal. For example, the DOJ AP scandal might be a real problem-if so, a presentation of the actual facts and a rational evaluation of the wrongdoing should reveal the scandal. These rational standards are generally ignored in favor of partisan interests and the desire to keep the eyes of America looking a certain way.
During the Bush administration, I was critical of the misdeeds of government. Being consistent, I apply the same standards to the Obama administration.
While Obama failed to close the infamous prison and has run a drone assassination campaign of dubious legality and morality, his administration has largely avoided the volume of scandals that have hit previous administrations. While the same Republicans who said very little about 54 attacks on American consulates/embassies under the Bush administration worked tirelessly with the Fox News allies to make Benghazi into a scandal, it would seem that Fox News’ dream has come true: two true scandals on Obama’s watch.
The first involves the IRS which apparently flagged conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for special review. While it has yet to be proven that Obama was directly connected to this, I do hold that leaders are accountable for the actions of those who fall under their authority. This is, of course, can be mitigated by various factors such as reasonable knowledge and the extent to which the leader directly oversees those in question. For example, the CEO of GE is obviously not accountable for a low-level employee stealing office supplies in some office overseas.
While some claim that this scandal has been deflated, this matter probably needs more sorting out.
The second involves the Justice Department obtaining two months of the Associated Press’ telephone records. As happened so often in the Bush Administration, this apparent violation of rights was defended by concerns of national security. In this case, the concern was in regards to a criminal investigation of leaked information in a May 7, 2012 AP story about the CIA stopping an al Qaida bomb plot in Yemen.
During the Bush years, I was critical of using appeals to national security to warrant violations of rights and liberties. Being consistent, I must be critical of the same approach when it is used under Obama.
As I have argued before, such apparent violations can sometimes be properly justified by appeals to national security. In the AP case, there do seem to be legitimate grounds for an investigation. However, the handling of the phone records by the DOJ certainly seems to be excessive and unwarranted and it seems to have grotesquely violated the rights of the reporters and editors, not to mention assaulting the foundation of the free press. This is clearly an unjust act on the part of the department of justice.
Naturally, I cannot help but compare the views expressed on Fox News and by some Republicans when a Republican administration was engaged in violating rights (such as illegal wire tapping, illegal detention and torture) as well as other wrongful and/or incompetent behavior (such as the invasion of Iraq on the basis of lies). This time around, Fox News and I are sort of on the same side in that we are critical of the IRS and DOJ. However, I am acting on the basis of a consistent application of moral principle and the folks at Fox News are presumably following their usual approach of attacking Obama.
Somewhat ironically, during the 2012 campaign season the IRS decided to flag for review applications for tax-exempt status from groups whose names included “Tea Party” or “patriots.” Not surprisingly, this has created some furor. While an IRS spokesperson has claimed that the extra attention was not at the behest of the Obama administration and an apology has been issued, this matter certain deserves greater scrutiny.
As should come as no surprise, Republicans (and some Democrats) have already called for a congressional investigation and a review by the administration.
The obvious point of concern is that the IRS was involved in partisan politics. After all, groups with “Tea Party” and “patriot” in their names would generally tend to be anti-Obama (if not pro-Romney) and if they were singled out for special review, this would certainly suggest partisan motivation. What would be more damning would, of course, be evidence that the IRS denied tax-exempt status unfairly to groups with such names. As it stands, the IRS claims that none of the groups in question were rejected (at least not yet).
While such flagging for review would seem to be partisan, perhaps the motivation was not partisan. An alternative explanation is that the IRS folks involved in this were concerned that such groups might be more likely to have “problematic” applications because of the Tea Party’s view of taxes (that they are taxed enough already) and hence flagged them for more careful review on that basis. While such a motivation (if it actually existed) might be understandable, it would still be problematic in that it would still have the effect of targeting on partisan lines and the IRS should avoid even the appearance of being partisan.
It might also be the case that folks involved were concerned that such groups would be more likely to be involved in partisan politics, which is supposed to deny them tax-exempt status. However, if they only flagged “Tea Party” and “patriots” rather than any phrases or words that would be indicative of partisan politics, then they could be justly accused of focusing on conservative groups. This would, obviously enough, be unjust.
The IRS also endeavored to play the usual “rogue employee” gambit. In this case, the claim is that the targeting was the work of a few lower level revenue agents in Cincinnati rather than as a general policy taken by the IRS. If this can be proven, there would still be a problem-but obviously not as bad as having the IRS engaged in such behavior as a matter of general policy. If it can be proven that this matter reaches up the chain of command, it would be rather bad for the IRS and also for the Obama administration.
On a somewhat related note, there are also concerns that while the IRS flagged certain applications, the agency has been lax in enforcing the law forbidding tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups from engaging in partisan politics. While these groups can collect anonymous money and spend it on advertising, they cannot endorse candidates or parties. They can, however, engage in political advertising, provided they at least make a token effort at creating the illusion that they are non-partisan. Thanks to the absurd Citizens United decision, corporations can spend unlimited money in federal elections and they have certainly been doing so, to the detriment of democracy in America.
While I am concerned about the claim that the IRS has engaged in partisan politics, I am also concerned that the law essentially allows the creation of tax-exempt fronts for money to be funneled into “non-partisan” political advertising for the left and the right. As might be imagined, to not even properly enforce such a toothless law would be a serious failure on the part of the IRS.
The NRA recently released a video in response to Obama’s skepticism about its proposal to put an armed guard in every school. The gist of the matter is that Obama is accused of being an ”elitist hypocrite” because his two daughters have constant Secret Service protection.
The ad asks “Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?” It then, perhaps somewhat oddly, drags in the matter of taxes on the wealthy: “Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he is just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”
Obama’s view on the matter of armed guards in schools was presented on n NBC’s “Meet the Press” in December of 2012: ”I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools, and I think the vast majority of the American people are skeptical that that somehow is going to solve our problem,” Obama said. “And, look, here’s the bottom line. We’re not going to get this done unless the American people decide it’s important.”
On the face of it, the ad could be seen as a well-crafted ad hominem tu quoque. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:
- Person A makes claim X.
- Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
- Therefore X is false.
The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true – but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.
In this case, pointing out that Obama seems to say one thing (that he is skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools) while practicing another (having his two girls protected by the Secret Service even when they are in school) and then inferring Obama is in error would seem to be a clear example of this fallacy.
It is also well worth pointing out that Obama’s claim does not seem to be inconsistent with his daughters having secret service protection. After all, what he claims is that he is “skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools.” That is, he is skeptical that putting more guns in school and doing nothing else will solve the problem.
Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, expanded on the content of the video and seems to be making an appeal for a consistent application of a principle/practice: “The president and his family enjoy 24-hour-security from law enforcement at taxpayer expense, and this ad asks very real questions: If it’s good enough for the president, why shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest for us?”
A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. To fail to do this is to apply a principle inconsistently, which is what Arulanadam seems to be accusing Obama of doing. Inconsistent application of a principle is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.
Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently. Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application. Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.
Arulanandam does seem to make a reasonable point. After all, if such armed security for Obama’s children is acceptable, then consistency would seem to demand that the same protection be afforded to other children (or even everybody). Or, at the very least, that providing such protection for others would be reasonable.
Naturally, similar claims could be made regarding all the special treatment the President receives. For example, the president’s plane is maintained to a degree that vastly exceeds what is required for commercial airliners. Given Arulanandam’s view, it would follow that commercial airlines should be required to follow the same practices. Interestingly, Arulanandam’s view could also be applied to almost any special perks anyone receives. If this view were not being put forth by the NRA this view would certainly be seen as rather leftist.
The obvious reply to Arulanandam is to point out relevant differences between Obama’s situation and that of other Americans. Obviously, Obama is the president and this means his family is more likely to be targeted for harm than other families. As such, the difference in protection can be justified based on this relevant difference. Not surprisingly, other powerful individuals tend to secure more protection for their families on similar grounds, namely that they are more likely to need that protection than the average person. Thus, the difference in protection could be justified on the grounds of relevant differences.
One obvious counter to this is, as the NRA noted, that this sort of disparity seems elitist. After all, he and his family are protected around the clock by trained professionals, while the rest of us are mostly on our own (although we can call the police). He also gets to fly in his own wonderfully maintained plane in luxury while the rest of us generally have to fly coach in planes that are most likely maintained at the legally minimum levels (if that). Given the NRA remarks about taxing the wealthy, it is somewhat ironic that this would apply to all the elites who enjoy all those elite benefits that the rest of us do not receive. It, as the NRA contends, seems unfair that Obama and the other elites get so much while the rest of us get so little. Who would ever have suspected that the NRA would make what seems to be a leftist attack on the privileged elites in favor of what seems to be equality? Then again, maybe they are only concerned about equal armaments and not equality in general.
While the United States professes that all men are created equal and there has been talk of a post-racial America, race is still a significant factor. To use but one example, the 2012 Presidential election involved considerable focus on race. Some, like Bill O’Reilly, lamented what they seem to have taken as the end of the dominance of the white establishment. Others merely focus on the demographic lines drawn in accord with race and hope to appeal to those groups when election time comes.
Despite this unfortunate obsession with race, the concept is incredibly vague. There have been various attempts to sort out clear definitions of the races. For example, the “one drop rule” was an attempt to distinguish whites from blacks, primarily for the purposes of slavery. More recently, there have been attempts to sort out race based on genetics. This has had some interesting results, including some people finding out that the race they identified with is not the same as their genetic “race.”
In many ways, of course, these sorts of findings illustrate that the concept of race is also a matter of perception. That is, being white (or black or whatever) is often a matter of being perceived (or perceiving oneself) as being white (or black or whatever). In many ways, race is clearly a social construct with little correlation to genetics.
Getting back to genetics, many Americans are mixed rather than “pure.” This, of course, creates the problem of sorting people into those allegedly important racial demographics. After all, if a person has a mixed ancestry, they would not seem to fall clearly into a category (other than mixed). To “solve” this “problem” the tendency is to go with how the person is perceived. To use one example, consider President Obama. While his mother was white and his father black, he is considered black (after all, his place in history is as America’s first black president). The fact that he is considered black is thus a matter of perception. After all, he is just as white as he is black—although, of course, he looks black. As might be imagined, appearance is often taken as the major determining factor in regards to race. So, Obama looks more black than white, so he is black. Or so it might be claimed.
There is, of course, a problem in regards to people who are “mixed” but look “pure.” Interestingly enough, in the United States it is typically the case that a “mixed” person who looks “pure” means that they look white enough. After all, people who are “mixed” but do not look clearly white are typically classified as belonging to the “other” race. Like, for example, President Obama. People who look white enough are typically classified as white, despite their actual ancestry.
I can use myself as an example in this case. While my mother’s side is documented “white” all the way back to the Mayflower, my father’s side is mixed. While my grandfather’s ancestry is French and some Native American, we really have no idea about the specific mix. My grandmother, however, was at least 50% “pure” Mohawk. As such, I am mixed. However, I look rather white and I have consistently been treated as white. Since many official forms and job applications require that a person identify by race, I always pause and look through the categories—especially when there is supposed to be consequences for not being honest. When a form allows multiple selections, I go with “white” and “Native American” since that is true. If I can only pick one, I usually go with “other” and if that is not an option, “white.” After all, no one would doubt that I am white simply by looking at me. As such, I might “really” be white—at least in the way that matters most in society (namely appearance). However, the race categories continue to annoy me and I always worry a tiny bit that I will be busted someday for putting down the wrong race.
Much to the dismay of the fine folks at Fox (and to the delight at the marvelous mortals at MSNBC) Obama was re-elected president. In the face of this defeat for the Republican Party, there was a rush to explain Obama’s victory.
Bill O’Reilly, visibly shaken by the results, put forth a three part explanation falling under the general heading of demographic change. The first part is that 50% of the voters want free stuff and they voted for Obama because he would give it to them: “It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are fifty percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”
The second part is that there are more non-white people in America and they voted for Obama, presumably because he is only half-white and Romney was 100% white. The third part is that women (who may simply fall under people who want free stuff) voted for Obama: ”The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”
This explanation, which is a beautiful example of a rhetorical (or persuasive) explanation, certainly matches what could be seen as some of the uglier parts of the Republican narrative regarding people of color, women and the 47%. However, what is most striking about it is that O’Reilly said many true things.
First, he actually underestimated the percentage of voters who like free stuff. I would say that the figure is closer to 100% than 50%, given the extent to which Americans of all classes receive “stuff” from the state and seem to like that “stuff.” I know I liked getting my Pell grant. Now I like driving on public roads, running on public sidewalks, enjoying the protection of the state in the form of police and the military and so on. While I do not receive Social Security yet, I certainly would like to get that when I retire—after all, I have been paying into it for years.
Being somewhat more serious, O’Reilly’s main point seems to be that those who supported Obama did so out of a moral failing—they simply want to get free stuff from the state. However, the evidence that 50% of American voters are morally defective in this manner seems to be assumed by O’Reilly based on the fact that they voted for Obama rather than on the basis of significant and objective evidence. O’Reilly seems to have mainly just bought into Romney’s infamous 47% remark which was not grounded in reality but merely based in stereotypes and prejudices.
Second, he was right that most voters who are not white voted for Obama. Of course, plenty of white voters voted for Obama as well. While O’Reilly and others seem to be casting this as a moral flaw on the part of said voters of insufficient whiteness, he did point to an important reason Obama won: most black and Hispanic voters believed that they would be better off with Obama in office than Romney. While O’Reilly clearly buys into the old racial stereotypes that blacks and Hispanics are lazy spongers and presents this as a reason for Obama’s win, the real reason lies elsewhere. To be specific, the Republican party has made little serious effort to win over black and Hispanic voters at best and at worst some elements of the party seem to embrace views that are at least tinged with racism. This is not just a matter of immigration but of broader issues as well. As such, it is not just that Obama won these voters it is also the case that the Republicans lost them. While it is no doubt emotionally satisfying to put the blame on the black and Hispanic voters, this does them an injustice and also, ironically, serves to make the situation worse for the Republican Party in terms of gaining voters.
Third, he was right that Obama did very well with single women. As with blacks and Hispanics, the explanation seems to be that the women who supported Obama did so from their moral failings—that is, they want free stuff (presumably abortions and birth control). While this might be an emotionally satisfying narrative, it is at odds with reality. While it is true that Obama won over many women voters by doing things that benefit them (such as supporting equal pay for women), this hardly shows that these women merely want free stuff or that they are thus morally defective. If it does, it would seem to show that almost all voters are morally defective—after all, people tend to vote for the person they think will do what is best for them. In this case, women voters would be morally defective, but this would not be a special flaw on their part.
O’Reilly also seems to fail to consider that while Obama did win over many women voters, the Republicans also lost them. Rush Limbaugh denouncing Sandra Fluke as a slut surely did not help the Republicans. It is also likely that the “legitimate rape” and unequal pay episodes of Akin and Mourdock’s idea that being impregnated by rape is a gift from God did not win over women votes. The attempt to impose mandatory transvaginal ultrasoundon women seeking an abortion probably also pushed a few women voters away from the Republican Party. While I could go on providing examples, it should be clear that women had incentives other than getting free stuff to vote for Obama.
Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on knowledge: determining the nature of knowledge, sorting out what we can (and cannot) know and similar concerns. While people often think of epistemology in terms of strange skeptical problems such as the brain–in-the-vat and the Cartesian demon, it actually has rather practical aspects. After all, sorting out what is known from what is merely believed is important for the practical aspects of life. Also a significant portion of critical thinking can be seen in terms of epistemology: determining what justifies believing that a claim as true.
In very rough and ready terms, to know a claim is to believe the claim, for the claim to actually be true and for the belief to be properly justified. As any professional philosopher will tell you, this rough and ready view has been roughly beaten over the years by various clever thinkers. However, for practical purposes this account works fairly well—provided that one takes the proper precautions.
My main purpose is not, however, to do battle over the fine points of an account of knowledge. Rather, my objective is to discuss the Republicans’ epistemic problem to illustrate how politics and epistemology can intersect.
As noted above, a rough account of knowledge involves having a true belief that is properly justified. As might be imagined, the matters of justification and truth can be debated until the cows (if they exist) come home (if it exists). However, a crude view of truth should suffice for my purposes: a claim about the actual world is true when it matches the actual world. As far as justification goes, I will stick with an intuitive notion—that is, that the belief is properly formed and supported. To help give some flesh to this poor definition I will use specific examples where beliefs are not justified.
As I discussed in my essay on politics and alternative reality, political narratives are typically aimed at crafting what amounts to an alternative reality story. This generally involves two types of tales. The first is laying out a negative narrative describing one’s opponents. The second is spinning a positive tale about one’s virtues. While all politicians and pundits play this game, the Republicans seemed to have made the rather serious epistemic error of believing that their fictional narratives expressed justified, true beliefs.
While epistemologists disagree about justification, it seems reasonable to hold that believing a claim because one wants it to be true is not adequate justification. It also seems reasonable to hold that a belief formed by systematically ignoring and misinterpreting available evidence is not justified. That is, it seems reasonable to hold that fallacies do not serve as justification for a claim. Hence, it seems reasonable to hold that beliefs based on such poor reasoning do not meet the standard of knowledge—even if we lack a proper definition of knowledge.
One clear indicator of this was the shock and dismay on the part of conservative pundits such as Laura Ingraham. A bit before the election she said “if you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party.” Other pundits and spinions expressed incredulity at Obama’s ability to stay ahead of Romney in the polls and they were terribly shocked when Obama won the actual election. This is understandable. On their narrative, Obama is the worst president in history. He has divided the country, brought socialism to America, destroyed jobs, played the race card against all opponents, gone on a worldwide apology tour, weakened America and might be a secret Muslim who was born outside of the United States. Obviously enough, such a terrible person should have been extremely easy to defeat and Americans should have been clamoring if not for Romney, then at least to be rid of Obama. As such, it makes sense why the people who accept the alternative reality in which Obama is all these things (or at least most of them) were so shocked by what actually happened, namely his being re-elected. The Republican epistemic and critical thinking problems in this regard are well presented in Fox’s Megyn Kelly’s question to strategist Karl Rove: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is it real?”
After Obama’s victory, the conservative politicians, pundits and spinions rushed to provide an explanation for this dire turn of events. Some blame was placed on the Republican party, thus continuing an approach that began long before the election.
Given their epistemic failings, it makes sense that they would believe that the Republican Party is to blame for the failure to beat such an easy opponent. To use an analogy, imagine that fans of a team believe that an opposing team is pathetic but as the game is played, the “pathetic” team gets ahead and stays there. Rather than re-assess the other team, the fans are likely to start blaming their team, the coaches and so on for doing so poorly against such a “pathetic” opponent. However, if the opposing team is not as they imagined, then they have the explanation wrong: they are losing because the other team is better. Put another way, their team is not playing against the team they think they are playing against—the pathetic team is a product of their minds and not an objective assessment of the actual team.
In the case of Obama, the conservatives and Republicans would be rightfully dismayed if they lost to someone as bad as their idea of Obama. However, they did not run against that alternative Obama. They ran against the actual Obama and he is not as bad as they claim. Hence, it makes sense that they did not do as well as they thought they should. To be fair, the Democrats also had an Obama narrative that is not an unbiased account of the president.
It also makes sense that they would explain the loss by blaming the voters. As Bill O’Reilly explained things, Obama won because there are not enough white male voters and too many non-white and female voters who want “stuff” from the government. This explanation is hardly surprising. After all Fox News, the main epistemic engine of the Republicans, had been presenting a narrative in which America is divided between the virtuous hard working people and those who just want free stuff. There was also a narrative involving race (as exemplified by the obsessive focus on one Black Panther standing near a Philadelphia polling place) and one involving gender. Rush Limbaugh also contributed significantly to these narratives, especially the gender narrative, with his calling Sandra Fluke a slut. On these narratives, the colored people and women are (or have joined forces with) the people who want free stuff and it is their moral failing that robbed Romney of his rightful victory. However, this narrative fails to be true. While there are some people who want “free stuff”, the reality is rather different from the narrative—as analyzed in some detail by the Baltimore Sun. In response to such actual evidence, the usual reply is to make use of anecdotal evidence in the form of YouTube videos or vague references to someone who just wants free stuff. That is, evidence that is justified is “countered” by unwarranted beliefs based on fallacious reasoning. Ironically, the common reply to the claim that their epistemology is flawed is to simply shovel out more examples of the defective epistemology.
As might be imagined, while the Republicans had a good reason to try to get people to accept their alternative reality as the actual world some of them seem to have truly believed that the alternative is the actual. This had a rather practical impact in that to the degree they believed in this alternative world that isn’t, their strategies and tactics were distorted. After all, when one goes into battle accurate intelligence is vital and distorted information is a major liability. It does seem that some folks became victims of their own distortions and this impacted the election.
People generally tend to want to cling to a beloved narrative, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. However, there is a very practical reason for the Republicans to work on their epistemology—if they do not, they keep increasing their odds of losing elections.
I am writing this on election day, so I do not know who has won. However, no matter who is elected I will still hold to these words.
Congratulations on your victory, Mr. President. You have a tough time ahead of you. We are still involved in war. While the economy has improved since 2008, people are still suffering. We can also expect trouble from Iran and other parts of the world.
As always, you can count on me to support you when I have a good, logical reason to do so. My commitment has consistently been to the good of the country and not to a particular political party or ideology.
Naturally, you can also count on me to be critical when I have good, logical reasons to do so. I am not mindlessly committed to a party nor in the thrall of a specific ideology. As such, when I have a legitimate disagreement I will make it clear in a rational and fair way.
I want you to succeed in bringing America out of the economic trouble that remains and I want you to lead us safely and boldly through the times of trouble that are sure to come.
I believe in America and I believe that we can work together to do what must and should be done.
Congratulations-enjoy your victory, for soon you must get to work.
In an earlier post I discussed how politicians and pundits often present alternative realities of the science fiction sort. I also wrote a post about how some commentators were shocked that Romney was doing so poorly against the actual Obama when they believed they should have been easily trouncing the Obama-who-isn’t (that is, their straw man/alternative universe version of Obama).
During the Republican National Convention, New Jersey governor Chris Christie gave a rousing speech against President Obama and accused him of lacking leadership. In a rather clever analogy, he compared Obama to a man blundering in the dark, trying to find a light switch. Christie continued to ably serve in the attack role for his man Mitt Romney after the RNC. Naturally, this sort of political rhetoric is all part of the game and sensible folks know that such speeches are not about presenting the truth but about influencing emotions via presenting a narrative of a world that is not and of a world that probably never will be.
Then Sandy smashed into the east coast of the United States and hammered New Jersey especially hard. People died. Millions of people were left without power. Property was destroyed and damaged on a massive scale.
President Obama did what a president should do-he stepped into the crisis and got things done to help the people of the United States. Governor Christie did exactly what a governor should do-he stepped into the crisis and got things done to help the people of his state.
Reality had savagely slammed into the carefully crafted political narrative of an alternative reality in which government is almost always a problem and Obama is blundering in the dark. To Christie’s credit, he knew when the time to play at political narrative ended and the time to “get real” began. This was, of course, when Sandy hit his state. Christie also exhibited those rare but laudable traits: sincerity, a sense of moral duty and honesty. He praised Obama for his praiseworthy actions and made it clear that his concern was completely focused on the good of the people of New Jersey. This is how it should be and both men have done the right thing.
It is, of course, tempting to some to accuse Obama and Christie of playing a subtle political game. That is, their game is to create the illusion they are not playing the political game by doing what they should do rather than obviously playing for political points. The challenge is, of course, to prove this. After all, the behavior of a clever person playing a political game while skillfully avoiding the appearance of playing the game would look identical to that of a person who was, in fact, not playing a political game but doing what should be done. Naturally, if evidence is available to support the hypothesis that there is political game play going on (and not just the fact that both men are politicians and an election is coming up), then such evidence should be given due consideration. Naturally, even if both men are playing a clever game, at least they are playing it the right way. That is, at least they are acting like leaders.
While I have been pushed ever closer to cynicism, I am taking the words and actions of Obama and Christie as being sincere and not part of a brilliant game within a game. I could be wrong and I am sure there is a well developed narrative for the clever ploys allegedly being played.
While it took a disaster to make it happen, it is good to see leaders working across party lines to get things done. It is also refreshing to hear sincere praise rather than the usual venomous lies and distortions that make up most of contemporary politics.
It would be a good thing if we could maintain this spirit and work together with the real world, rather than retreating ever deeper into the distorted alternative realities that make up much of contemporary politics. It should, of course, always be remembered that these political narratives cannot stand up when reality intrudes, at least when that reality includes a massive storm.
While it is disappointing, it is not surprising that governor Christie is being attacked for his willingness to work with the president. Rush Limbaugh, for example, launched into an attack against Christie-even going so far as to imply that Christie has changed his sexual orientation. To attack leaders because they are willing to set aside petty political bickering to work together for the common good in the face of a major disaster shows moral bankruptcy and meanness of spirit. What we need is more honest cooperation and less ideological blindness.