Influencing the Right, Part VII

In the discussion about self-interest you are bogged down by an unproductive methodology. You are looking at self-interest on too atomic a level in trying to find the prime motivations of self-interest at its base. But Mother Theresa’s and Mother Bloor’s transcendance of their core biological self-interest is not THAT uncommon. We are all to act as though imbued with the highest Kantian ethical principles. But that is not an argument to be addressed to the w.p.

Of course if a w.p. challenges us to justify the higher morality, we are up the creek.

Mike Eisenstadt

No one said anyone ever abandons self-interest. Nor has anyone said we should all become altruistic. My contention was simply that self-interest, as opposed to group interest, is a poor principle around which to organize collective action. Sweet Jesus.

I guess I would disagree, though, with your contention that “At the end of the day, basically everything we do is founded in selfishness — no matter that it may be prettily dressed up as moral or ethical.” There’s a trivial sense in which this contention is true. Even if one does something entirely altruistic, like jumping on a live grenade, sacrificing one’s life to save one’s comrades in a platoon for instance, anyone can comment that this is simply self-interested behavior. It reveals a high preference for outcomes that further the goals of the platoon, and is thus self-interested.

The trouble with this is that it’s tautological. One can attribute absolutely ANY act to self-interest on this perspective. The trouble with tautologies, of course, is that they’re vacuous. Because it explains all behaviors, it doesn’t explain any. Consequently, this perspective is entirely unhelpful.

David Pratt-Hamiton should not read the rest of this. Here’s a citation.

Gavan Duffy

You say that some of us don’t know that we’re dealing in nonsense. You cite the below as an example of something that we’d attribute to self-interest, when it is not:

“There’s a trivial sense in which this contention is true. Even if one does something entirely altruistic, like jumping on a live grenade, sacrificing one’s life to save one’s comrades in a platoon for instance, anyone can comment that this is simply self-interested behavior.”

Are you older than me? (I am 59.) On reading your post, I recalled the grenade example, from my childhood in the 50s!

And then I said to myself, “when did that really happen?” I’m not sure that it ever did.

If it did:

1. The soldier threw himself upon a grenade because if he did not not, he, too would have died. He was a hero, which is better than being simply dead. If we’re all going to die unless someone makes a sacrifice, the person with the most concern for his memory, as it’s called, will throw himself upon the grenade.

2. The sacrificing soldier was saving a general or someone more useful to the war effort. Same argument as above.

3. The sacrificing soldier was saving a bunch of cowardly, pot-smoking, women-abusing scoundrels who were a disgrace to the uniform. Now that would be altruism! Jesus did that, the myth says, sacrificed himself for a bunch of rabble, namely us.

Without commenting on the motives of Jesus, I would say that the soldier may have been tired of life, or some such.

I’d also say that he hurt the war effort by destroying admirable human material to save shoddy human material. That’s not to be admired!

In any case, if that soldier existed and is to be taken as a model for us, we should look towards the skies — that’s where Jesus is, no? — or the Muslim world for leadership.

Dick J. Reavis

I said a bit ago that things happen and then there are the stories we make up to explain what happens. No better example of this than in our individual stories about the fate of the new left.

I must say I really appreciated Dick’s description of the fate of what he calls the Leninists — certainly much more than some of the more “theoretical” postings of recent days. It is that kind of reflection coming from Dick and many others on this list that keeps me reading.

Naturally, my “story” of that time — and what has happened since — is a bit different. I left Austin in 1970, after I was purged in the great Erwin purge that wiped out John Silber and Norman what’s his name, the President of UT. My sin was protesting ROTC and getting arrested for it. Couldn’t have me polluting the student body as a teaching assistant any longer. But, truth be told, I was ready to leave. I had become disillusioned with academia and was convinced that there was a “real world” out there that was different.

I didn’t give up on politics — or organization — however. I went on to Houston and Space City News, then off on a Venceremos Brigade expedition to cut sugar cane (got me on a FBI list for four years, an early precursor of what we can expect from the Patriot Act). Then there was the organized antiwar movement that built up to and followed the May Day protests in Washington. I moved to Atlanta, became an editor of the Great Speckled Bird, helped organize the New American Movement (NAM), which later merged with DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), was a founding editor of the national weekly In These Times (in Chicago) and later, after I moved to the DC area, worked with Citizen Action, the multi-state organization that was created by what Dick would call the old “right wing” of the new left.

These were all organized initiatives that worked to mobilize people around the values and vision that motivated us all in the ’60s and ’70s. So to say that organization disappeared with the fall of sds in 1969 isn’t quite accurate. In fact, the organizational legacy of the new left continues to exist all across the country in a multitude of forms. To be sure, it isn’t spouting the rhetoric of armed revolution, but it is working in hundreds of thousands of ways to change the fabric of the world in ways most of us could support. And it continues to have a very real and positive impact.

We may have been naïve to think back then that a mass movement would somehow magically emerge out of our efforts that would somehow fundamentally transform the structure and organization of our society. That clearly didn’t happen. Nor could it, in truth, because we didn’t have any idea of what kind of society we really wanted.

And when we thought we did, I fear it was not the kind of society most of us would want to have today. To me, that was the problem with those that chose the “Leninist” model Dick was talking about — those who went into PLP, RCP, CWP, SWP, etc. I have worked with many who took that path over the years. My little town of Mt. Rainier, a nice, traditionally working class community on the edge of Washington, seems to have attracted representatives from all of them. They are great people. Many continue to do good work. But the Leninist model never offered a vision of a society that could be sold to the people who live and work around them. And that’s why most of them gave up the “struggle” years ago.

But the movement that began in the ’60s continues. I have spent the last two days at a conference of several hundred people working in state legislatures around the county. Mostly elected leaders, they included many veterans of the new left. Men and women, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, gay and straight, from almost every state, who continue to fight to change things. They are part of a very real movement that carries on the kind of battles that motivated the Rag.

We underestimated the nature of the problem in the ’60s. There’s nothing new in that. It seems to be the lot of most revolutions. But the battle is not over when it comes to creating a better, more humane and more just society. I spent part of this afternoon, for example, listening to a panel of people outline how we will turn around the battle over the right for people to marry those they love regardless of sexual orientation. They acknowledged the defeats we have suffered, but they are also learning from them and are figuring out — precisely and strategically — how we can win people to our side by defining the issue in terms that people can understand and by applying our organizational resources effectively.

Last night, another panel talked about how the right wing has changed the nature of the debate in our nation over the last 20 years, deliberately and systematically by out organizing us and by doing a better job of telling their story of reality. We can bemoan that, but that leads nowhere. The challenge is to regain the initiative.

Another panel applied those lessons to question of how we organize people around global issues — the role of the US in the world and things like the war against Iraq. Building on real data and a serious examination of how people process information, it pointed to strategies we need to begin to use when it comes to explaining our positions to people who don’t necessarily agree with us — but could — the “persuadables” in other words.

I know from my personal experience that this kind of discussion is going on across the country in hundreds of thousands of communities, involving tens of thousands of people, working in a multitude of organizational contexts. That’s the legacy of the ’60s.

Doyle Niemann

At the risk of reviving what has been an over-extended discussion of “self-interest,” I have been pondering this question during my daily drive back and forth to work and have concluded that we have missed the real issue. It isn’t whether people are motivated by some kind of “self-interest” or not, but how they go about defining what their “interests” are. How they decide what is important to them.

This is a question amenable to scientific analysis. I certainly claim no unique expertise, but I have spent more than enough professional time in the world of mass communications to know that we know a lot about how other people think and how they organize information.

Market researchers, pollsters, brain researchers and others have spent a lot of time examining these questions. I’m not talking about the kind of research and polling in which you ask people what they think so you can parrot it back to them. Rather, it is the process of getting below the surface to see what is really going on in people’s minds. The folks who do high end market research are way ahead when it comes to this. They do in-depth interviews, continuing polling, long-term focus groups, brain wave and other physical reaction analysis, semantical analysis and a host of other techniques – as well as the analysis of decades of practical, measurable experience – to dig deep. They focus not on what people say they think about things, but how they respond and how they act.

They have found, for example, that people do not treat information the same. There is simply too much of it to process. Rather, each of us has developed a set of conceptual frameworks that we use to interpret and process data. We process and sort it and put it into pre-defined categories we have created (or inherited) so that we can understand it. We organize it in definable and relatively predictable ways.

To borrow some terminology from Landmark Education, I like to think of these frameworks as “stories.” For example, by now, most of us have a “story” about each other and how we all fit together. In the recent debate on this list, for example, we see a posting by Dick and we immediately try to fit it into the “story” we have made up about Dick, who he is (and was) and what he thinks. When it’s from Gavin, we fit it the “story” we have for him. When someone new says something, we place them in relationship to the “story” we have created for the entire discussion – or our “story” about the Rag and the left and the years gone by.

This is way too simplistic, but the point I want to get at is that the framework – the “story” – controls how we interpret what is said and done. We fit facts and information into it. If there is a conflict between the story and the facts, all-too-often the facts are discarded.

Translating this into the political arena, the right is far ahead of us when it comes to understanding this and using it to their advantage. They have spent decades crafting a series of messages – using issues, organizations, actions, strategies, personalities, campaigns and much more – to redefine the way much of the American populace thinks about a whole host of issues.

We, on the left, have been way behind the curve. We’ve tried to fight the battle with facts in a world where facts, alone, don’t count for much. Or we have promoted conceptual frameworks – stories – that haven’t had much popular appeal. Rather than figuring out how to get out point of view across in the conceptual terms that the people we were trying to organize actually use, we have, far too often anyway, insisted that they abandon those conceptual frameworks and adopt ours. It didn’t work. Surprise.

It’s not this bad, of course. But there is no question that to win the critical battles we confront for peace, justice, environmental sanaity, civil liberties and more, we have to get smarter. We have to learn to make our case to people in ways that move them to act with us.

Here’s a good example, borrowed from one of the workshops I attended this weekend. The right has been using gay marriage as a wedge issue. It cost John Kerry Ohio and guaranteed that George Bush would have four more years to screw up the world.

Eleven states passed bad ballot measures this year, including Texas. While we have won victories for equality, they have been few and close. So it is important for us to find ways to change the way people process this issue.

The Human Rights Campaign is in the middle of an intensive effort to figure out what messages work with people when it comes to gay marriage. To do that, they have spent a lot of time using the latest tools in conceptual research. While not complete, the messages they are crafting offer real hope when it comes to redefining the issue and winning rather than losing battles.

A few message suggestions based on their preliminary work:

* Love and commitment deserve protection. Many gay and lesbian couples stay together for years, sticking by each other through good times and bad. They are committed to each other and deserve protection.

* It’s not for me to judge. I may not believe in gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean it should be illegal. It’s not for me to judge other people.

* It’s not the government’s business. If two people want to get married, it’s not the government’s business to tell them they can’t – just like it’s not the government’s business to tell us what to read or think or do in the privacy of our homes.

* This is just another stop towards a more just society. We have made real progress towards ending discrimination and reducing prejudice. Good people support ending discrimination against gays and lesbians because that is the right thing to do if we want to have a just and fair society.

None of these is the magical bullet that will turn everything around, but they do appeal to concepts that reside deeply inside the conceptual frameworks that Americans use to interpret events and activities. As part of a comprehensive strategy that combines protest, legal action, lobbying, and mass communications, they offer hope when it comes to turning the tide of popular opinion.

There are other examples, but, once again, a short message has turned into a long one. Please excuse me for carrying on.

Doyle Niemann

Re: Gavan’s remark: “This is probably because I have no earthly idea what he means by “the scientific method. There’s way too much serendipity in science to speak of any scientific method.”

The scientific method is a method of evidence-based argument, not a method of discovery. Scientists indeed discover things by a serendipitous ad-hoc mixture of work, luck, insight, imagination (even dreams!), and fortunately-correct biases. But these processes produce wrong or useless answers almost all of the time — the trick is how to eliminate the chaff to find the very occasional new truth.

The critical feature is agreement that science consists of systematic observation and explanation. Since observation is central, assertions must include reports of the data on which they are based, including enough description of how the data was acquired to make it feasible for others to look for alternative explanations (and preferably to be able to acquire similar data). You can get your ideas from dreams, but not your data.

The authority structure of science is anarchic, with scientists deciding for themselves who and what to believe. The occasional data fakers, professors who tyrannize their graduate students, or national academies that install an orthodoxy pretty quickly get outrun by events. The result is an accumulation of theories (i.e., systematic explanations) that are better established than anything else in human experience (although still incomplete — perhaps with big holes in some areas).

I see this as quite relevant to political work. It is in our interest to urge people to critically assess the information they are given and to consider alternative explanations. That is, to think for themselves. We should enlist the prestige of science in this subversive task. The long association of socialism and science is no accident.

Note that American right-wingers have correctly identified this danger, and are mounting a broad attack on science. Of course, they have their knives out for artists as well, so we are in good company.

Hunter Ellinger

David Sonenschein asks: “With respect to your discussions about science and method, do y’all have any opinions of Paul Feyerabend’s anarchistic approach (would it be called “chaos theory” these days?)?

I do.

Paul Feyerabend’s critique of Imre Lakatos is on target. Since research programs can be falsified only in long hindsight, defenders of the program under attack can always ask us to wait a little longer. Lakatos thus offers no rational standard for selection among alternative research programs (and thus fails to save falsificationism from Kuhn’s critique).

Feyerabend celebrated this and advanced the view that, since falsificationism has failed, there are no such rational standards. This is unacceptable to lots of people because it implies that science is an irrational pursuit and that the theories and research programs that dominate do so as a consequence of the force of its adherents. Notice also that it denies any scope for reason.

In my view, Feyerabend’s compelling critique of Lakatos in no way implies the absence of any rational standard. Neither Feyerabend nor Lakatos adequately consider the pragmatic criterion of theory choice advanced by Pierre Duhem, W.V.O. Quine, and Hilary Putnam, among others. Invoking Quine’s expression, we accept (always provisionally) those theories as true that maximize the global coherence of our knowledge.

We typically make adjustments at the periphery of our knowledge to accommodate recalcitrant observations. Unless and until excessive disorder accumulates at the periphery, we avoid reformulation of knowledge as we move from the periphery toward the core. We wouldn’t want to reformulate our conception of physical law, for instance, in order to bring order to our knowledge of economics.

Feyerabend’s theory isn’t chaos theory, by the way.

Also, for evidence of sexism’s influenced the academy before the feminist successes of our generation, see the correspondence between Lakatos and Feyerabend, reproduced in Before and Against Method (U of Chicago Press).

Gavan Duffy

OF COURSE there are independent observers, with apologies to my PoMo pals.

Maybe a better term would be “disinterested,” but that doesn’t really capture the idea. Interested enough to squander an opinion but not interested enough to have a dog in the fight.

I am reminded of being interviewed by a Texan reporter about a farm worker strike (because I had just returned from the Rio Grande Valley and the Texan could not send a reporter to the Valley because the travel budget was earmarked for the College World Series–Hook ’em!).

She asked “How many workers are on strike?”

“Well, the union says about 3,000, and the growers say nobody is on strike.”

“You mean one of them is lying?!!?”


“No. They’re both lying.”

And it was downhill from there in terms of getting the situation reported…

Steve Russell

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