Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Blogs, conservatives, and first-rate intelligences

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Henry Farrell reports on his interesting co-authored study of how blog readers use blogs to access points of view--their own or others'.

The results include:

[B]log readers seem to exhibit strong homophily. That is to say, they overwhelmingly choose blogs that are written by people who are roughly in accordance with their political views. Left wingers read left wing blogs, right wingers read right wing blogs, and very few people read both left wing and right wing blogs.

No huge surprise there--blog fans as well as blog detractors would generally agree on that. But this follows immediately:

Those few people who read both left wing and right wing blogs are considerably more likely to be left wing themselves; interpret this as you like.

Okay, I will.

It's a characteristic of the right-wing mind set that it is extraordinarily uncomfortable with holding two opposed ideas at the same time. It generally handles this discomfort simply by refusing to admit opposing ideas.

Note that I don't refer here to contradictory "facts," something more limited, along the lines of:

a. Gordon Smith says he's a moderate who values bipartisanship.

b. Gordon Smith has voted with George Bush 90% of the time.


a. John McCain says he's a straight-talking political maverick.

b. John McCain has publicly changed positions on a long list of political issues to ingratiate himself with the Republican base.

No, it doesn't take a first-rate intelligence to reconcile those; any self-respecting conservative can rationalize away six impossible contradictions like that before breakfast.

And, in fairness, many of their counterparts on the left are no less talented in this regard.

I'm more interested in the problem at the world-view level: The conservative mind set simply has a very difficult time looking at the world from the other's point of view--in fact, it regards the attempt to do so as a sign of weakness--and so it simply doesn't try.

The liberal mind set, on the other hand, is not only more comfortable imagining the point of view of the other, it considers doing so a moral good (often described in the language of footwear, as in "walking a mile in the other fellow's shoes").

As I've written (including here, here, and here), one of the places where this difference shows itself with painful clarity is in satire, irony, and humor generally. To function--and not be anything other than name-calling--satire has to be able to imagine itself in the other's position, or to recognize aspects of the other's position in its own. Even at its most ruthless, satire has to have some trace of charity and humility--Jon Stewart's bashing of John McCain come to mind--or else it becomes, as Molly Ivins famously said, merely vulgar.

Satire from the left has a reasonable chance of being funny; satire from the right will only make you squirm in embarrassment for them.

Conservative attempts at satire will never, ever, be first-rate--at least not the conservativism that's the dominant form in our country at the moment.

I think this same principle--the ability/inability to imagine the world from the other's point of view--also goes a long way in explaining why Congressional Democrats' attempts to find common legislative ground with conservative Republicans (and they're the only kind left in Congress) are doomed. And why the right-wing base has found its preferred medium in talk-radio rather than the blogosphere. But those are topics for another time.

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