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The Paradox of Self Deception

The Strange Case of the Liberal Ostrich

by ALAN NASSER

Elementary logic seems to demonstrate that self deception should be impossible. Deceiving others is not comparably paradoxical. When A deceives B, A causes B to believe what A believes to be false. Happens all the time. But how can anyone deceive herself, i.e. make herself believe (to be true) what she in fact believes to be false? She’d have to be both deceived and not deceived at the same time. Yet this happens all the time. How is it possible?

Let’s tackle that brain teaser by reflecting on what is probably the most conspicuous examples of its operation in politics, the person who holds a position she tacitly knows to have logical implications she would disavow, and the person who puts forward plainly counterfactual descriptions of salient political realities. In both cases we find the kind of lesser-evil thinking that has become in these times indispensable to the true-believing Democratic Party liberal. I begin with the odd logic of lesser-evil thinking, and then move on to a remarkable recent instance of political self deception which almost certainly employs lesser-evil thinking as a means of disguising the incoherence of the political self deception at work.

The Logic of Lesser Evil Thinking

It’s too bad that the most familiar examples of lesser-evil thinking have to do with voting behavior. We can’t help caring about elections, which are the most common occasion for extended political discussion. But as the Obama presidency makes clear, the president is not as important as some think. He typically relies on his advisors on the big issues; it is their politics that counts. Every time we enter the dialogical fray about whom to vote for, we reinforce the highly misleading but ubiquitous conceit that politics is about voting. That said, voting decisions do serve as the clearest example of lesser-evil thinking. Thus, I will use voting to illustrate the logic of lesser-evilism.

We will hear it said countless times that while president Obama has indeed been a colossal let-down to his initial boosters, voting for him next November is imperative “given the alternative.” He may be “a disappointment,” but the other guy will be much worse. This is surely the reasoning behind the AFL’s (Richard Trumpka’s) recent strong endorsement of Obama’s candidacy. Let’s spell out the logic at work here. The thought pattern is clear enough to represent in the form of a deductive chain of reasoning from premises to conclusion:

1. The world of politics is coextensive with the range of possibilities permitted by the Democrat-Republican Party system. (To think otherwise is unrealistic, utopian, naïve and, worst of all, unpragmatic. The idea is to win, and right now the only possible winner is a Democrat or a Republican. To vote otherwise is to “throw away your vote.”)

2. Therefore, when voting the choice is always and only between a Republican or a Democrat. TINA.

3. There are no finite limits to the possibilities of greater badness. (However bad a policy might be, it could always be worse. ‘Worst possible policy’ is like ‘greatest possible number’. No such thing.)

4. However bad the Democratic candidate may be, the Republican will be worse. (well confirmed empirical generalization)

5. The lesser evil is always a better choice than the greater evil. (self-evident tautology)

6. Therefore, when voting the best choice is always the Democrat. (follows from 2-5, and note that when the only choice is between a greater and a lesser evil, the lesser evil is not only the better choice, it is the best choice)

7. However bad the Democrat is  -and there are no limits to how bad he can be [cf. 3 above]-   it’s always best to vote for him. (follows from 4-6)

8. It doesn’t matter how bad the Democrat is, I’ll vote for him. (follows trivially from 7)

9. Actually, I need know nothing more than that a candidate is a Democrat to  justify voting for him. Being sufficiently informed about a candidate’s politics just is… knowing whether he’s a Democrat! (follows from 7 and 8)

This little exercise in Logic 101 does not suggest that the voter is Mr. Spock, always and only moved by unadulterated reason. Outside of philosophy class no such creature is recognizably human. Still, though reasoning in accord with logical canons is not sufficient to render one’s thinking impeccable, it is necessary. Our lesser-evil liberal is unassailable on this ground: his conclusion does indeed follow from his premisses. (Let’s ignore for the moment the problematic premisses.) What is relevant to self deception is that the liberal pays a heavy price for constructing a valid inference from his premisses to his desired conclusion, 6 above, that it is always best to vote for a Democrat. For the same line of reasoning that got him to 6 also sticks him with 7, 8 and 9, claims he will surely wish to disavow. (Ok, there are probably a few Democratic votaries out there who would, as the philosophers say, “swallow the reductio.” Since these specimens will have voluntarily embraced absurdity, we allow them to hold their peace.)

No one will unabashedly aver that he would vote Democrat whatever policies the latter might endorse. Nor would any liberal admit that the mere fact that a candidate is a Democrat is sufficient to win his vote. Perhaps especially in politics, we feel obliged to give reasons for our choices, and “just because he’s a Democrat” doesn’t make it as a reason one would present to a challenger.

The Psychological Strategy of Self Deception

What then would our liberal say were he presented with the above chain of reasoning and reminded that he has plainly commited himself to the very claims  -7, 8 and 9-   he disavows, i.e. that he has contradicted himself? He might simply choose not to think about it. This is the kind of thing we do unobjectionably all the time. As I type this article there is the sound of kids playing loudly outside my window. While I take account of the noise by trying to block it out and by focusing more intently on my computer screen, I do not pay attention to it lest I become distracted from the task at hand. The situation is so common that this mental strategy has become habitual; blocking out and focusing more intently is second nature to me when I write. It is a habit that I have become (for all practical purposes) unaware of. The self deceiver does this same thing with regard to swallowing contradictions or refusing to face recalcitrant facts (see below on banishing the embarrassing fact). He relegates these to the margins of his awareness and diverts his attention away from them. This is a political species of mental “avoidance behavior.” He focuses his attention on something else, like the fact that the other candidate is worse than the bad one he feels obliged to protect.

Here is Todd Gitlin’s version of this way of thinking, from his book Letters to a Young Activist: in the presidential contest between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, Humphrey “would have phased out the war,” as opposed to Nixon, “who proceeded to extend the Vietnam war for five years.” Gitlin takes the lesson to be clear: “You either vote Democratic, or submit to the rule of the Republicans…The Democratic Party is the inescapable field where we either win, lose or draw.”

I have described a familiar mechanism for coping with incoherence and unpleasant facts. But even more is at stake. Our liberal sees the political world as coextensive with the world of the two-Party system, and he correctly rules the Republicans out. Thus, were he disallowed to commit to the Democrats, he’d be left with no politics at all. He’d be deprived of the linguistic and conceptual resources he has limited himself to, the cognitive means, to think about the political. He will perceive your heterodoxy as making political choice impossible for him. This can’t be tolerated. If accepting the self-contradictory or counterfactual implications of one’s politics is the price to pay for having any politics at all, then so be it.

A Paradigm Case of Political Self Deception: Obama As New Deal Liberal

An example in neon of political self deception can be found in an article, “Obama: The Conservative in 2012,” in the Washington Post (Dec. 25, 2011) by E.J.Dionne, a prominent liberal columnist for Commonweal, The Washington Post, and formerly The New York Times. The title of the piece is meant to be ironic. We ordinarily think of a conservative as a right-winger, but Dionne wants to draw on the original meaning of the term: a conservative seeks to preserve a hallowed tradition under attack by radicals. What is astonishing is that the venerable tradition Dionne alleges Obama to be working to sustain is “the consensus that has governed American political life since the Progressive era… a tradition that sees government as an essential actor in the nation’s economy, a guarantor of fair rules of competition, a countervailing force against excessive private power, a check on the inequalities that capitalism can produce, and an instrument that can open opportunity for those born without great advantages.” Romney and the rest, we are told, would overturn the revered tradition of the New Deal and Great Society, which Obama is dedicated to nourish. Contrary to Obama’s own protestations to the contrary, we are to believe that he is a champion of Rooseveltian liberalism, a fierce oponent of “excessive private power,” and a staunch egalitarian.

Obama, writes Dionne, “is the candidate defending the modestly redistributive and regulatory government the country has relied on since the New Deal, and that neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush dismantled.”  But Obamanomics is not merely “modestly redistributive,” it is massively so, and in the opposite direction intended by Dionne. We’ve experienced the greatest transfer of income to the very rich from the rest in human history. Is Dionne unaware that Obama, in The Audacity of Hope and in multiple interviews, has described the liberalism of FDR and LBJ as “the old-time religion”? He’s averred that of all postwar presidents, his greatest admiration goes to Ronald Reagan, who understood that in a commercially globalized world economic policy must follow “a fundamentally different path.” He’s repeated the mantra that government may respond to severe unemployment only by offering bribes to companies (tax breaks) and banks (injections of liquidity) to hire and lend. Hiring and production are the business only of the private sector.

In the FDR/LBJ tradition, Social Security was refered to as “the third rail” of American politics. It was inconceivable that any Democrat would consider touching it. Your political career, be you Democrat or Republican, would be over were you to suggest either reducing benefits or extending the retirement age. Even the Tea Party seems to be in step with that. But Obama isn’t. Recall, it wasn’t the Republicans who “put Social Security on the table” during the silly debt ceiling controversy. How could Dionne and many other Democratic stalwarts think of Obama as a champion of the New Deal legacy? Whether Obama is a liberal in the post-Depression pre-Carter sense of the term is not  a matter of theory or ideology. It is a matter of fact that he is not. Dionne and others of his kidney must know this, in the cognitively attenuated sense of ‘know’ required by the self-deceptive psychodynamics described above. But paying attention to it would wipe out the framework they depend on to think about politics at all.

In confining the political to the Republocrat consensus, the liberal exhibits a common political vice that needs to be called for what it is: a deficiency of historical imagination. The logic that says one should vote only for someone who can win is self-perpetuating. If it’s good advice now it will necessarily be good advice next time around, and the time after that, and the time… The bare possibility that the Democrat-Republican, liberal-conservative dichotomies may be historically obsolete in these neoliberal times is ruled out a-priori. The present moment is frozen in time. This is a poory disguised version of the End of History thesis. We turn out to inhabit what is in effect the only possible world, which must be, if you think about it, also the best possible world. The liberal as Panglos. The late historian Tony Judt expressed the loss of historical imagination this way:

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?…Our shortcoming—forgive the academic jargon—is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things.” Tony Judt, The New York Review, 2009

There is a lesson in all this. The Left has excelled in identifying the contradictions of capitalism and the way these manifest themselves in the political system. But we have done much less to provide the historical imagination with material for its task of creating an image of an alternative future. What would a democratic economy and polity actually look like? How might it work? A detailed description of a post-capitalist order is impossible, since it is the process of getting there that will determine the specific contours of the outcome. But a critique of the existing order without at least a rough outline of what a genuinely democratic economic system (for example) might look like can breed cynicism. “Another Future Is Possible.” And…?

Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. This article is based on themes in his book in progress The “New Normal”: Persistent Austerity, Declining Democracy and the Globalization of Resistance. He can be reached at nassera@evergreen.edu