We all hold beliefs we cannot justify; the vast majority of our beliefs are like that. It could hardly be otherwise. Even if we wanted to defend all that we believe, there isn’t world enough and time.
We therefore believe what authorities, experts on the question at hand, tell us. This is reasonable insofar as the authorities we rely upon are trustworthy.
Mainstream politicians are notoriously untrustworthy, and so are the bloviaters who promote their ideas. This is obvious on its face, and has been proven time and again.
The problem is not always, or even mainly, that politicians and pundits are morally or intellectually deficient or that their intent is to deceive. It is that Mammon rules in their corner of the world as much as in precincts that are more obviously mercantile.
Their careers depend on conforming to the expectations of the people they serve – not “we, the people,” but the people who bankroll them and whose corporate “persons” undermine what little democracy we have.
Expert witnesses in legal proceedings are much the same, and so are the experts corporations deploy to sway public policy in their favor; the tobacco, agribusiness, pharmaceutical and energy industries come especially to mind.
On the other hand, expert opinion is sometimes as reliable as can be. It is reasonable, for example, to trust what scientists say in their fields of expertise – especially when there are no pecuniary interests involved and when they all agree.
In the sciences, we can hope to reach a rational consensus; and when we do, it is usually sound. We can hope for a consensus in political and moral matters too, though the “arc of the moral universe” moves more slowly. It does move, however; to cite just one obvious example: chattel slavery is no longer acceptable anywhere.
Ideological commitments can block the formation of a rational consensus; greed can too, especially in capitalist societies. Ideological or greed-driven prevarication is therefore a constant menace. However, the enemies of truth seldom get the last word.
When scientific claims are in dispute, the obstacles are usually eventually overcome – though often not in time to forestall the damage that false beliefs can do.
Still, hardly anyone nowadays thinks that the earth is the center of the universe or that cigarette smoking does not harm peoples’ health or that carbon-based energy sources are not a cause of global warming.
The reason why is not that more people than before understand the science, but that when the experts speak with one voice, reasonable people are more inclined than otherwise to accept their authority.
Of course, there are many questions on which we cannot expect to reach any consensus; in all likelihood, some of them will remain unsettled in perpetuity. This is especially true in the political sphere.
In these cases, intuitions about contentious issues and about who the reliable authorities are — gut feelings – are often determinative.
But gut feelings are notoriously fallible.
Fallibility is an issue philosophers have investigated from time immemorial. As is typical of philosophical questions, definitive conclusions still seem beyond reach.
However, it is generally agreed that if there are any beliefs about which we human beings cannot be wrong, it is first-person reports of sensory experience; that if, for example, I experience pain, no one can gainsay the experience itself.
No one would attribute anything like that level of certainty to the testimony of experts, even in cases where the consensus in scientific communities is as secure as can be.
However, this is not the end of the story; not when practical knowledge, knowing how, is factored in, as it often must be in dealing with many issues, including contentious political and moral ones. Then knowing that is not always enough.
There is a difference between, say, knowing that “2+2 = 4,” or that “the earth orbits the sun” and knowing how to dance or improvise or perform any of a host of other human activities. Exercising judgment in political matters requires knowledge of both kinds.
Both kinds of knowledge can be cultivated. This is especially important in determining the reliability of experts. We have to learn whose views to trust.
People with sound political instincts exist and can sometimes be identified. However it is easier to identify those who are reliably wrong.
Needless to say, there are no algorithms for this. But there is a reliable rule of thumb that right thinking people, who already have a good sense of whom to trust, would do well to take on board.
The people it picks out may not be infallibly wrong in the strictest, philosophical sense. But they provide a good enough practical approximation.
The experts I am thinking of are not the people who come immediately to mind: the politicians and pundits who, in America, call themselves “conservatives,” an honorable term that they have taken over and debased.
They are reliably wrong too, but it is inconceivable that they would have anything to say that would dispel, much less settle, questions a sensible person would find perplexing.
It is different with self-described “liberals.”
Not all liberals, by any means; arguably, not true liberals – but liberals who put their liberalism to work servicing noxious causes.
Whether they are phony liberals or whether their liberalism reveals flaws with liberalism generally, or with particular strains of liberal theory and practice, is a discussion for another time.
What matters, for now, is what they are good for – dispelling reasonable doubt. For those who are already somewhat informed and whose moral and intellectual capacities are unimpaired, they offer the promise of moral certainty.
* * *
An example will clarify what I mean.
Consider the Meredith Kercher murder in Perugia, Italy in 2007. What should we think about the role, if any, of Amanda Knox and her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito?
Because she was an American student abroad, and because, through no fault of her own, she has become tabloid fodder, attention, in the United States and elsewhere, has focused overwhelmingly on Knox.
Of course, there are more momentous political issues that are at least as perplexing; I will mention a few presently.
But the Knox case is especially instructive because Alan Dershowitz, by inserting himself into this tragic saga, has turned her plight into a generalizable lesson that illustrates the wisdom of concluding precisely the opposite of what self-identified authorities – ostentatiously professing liberalism – proclaim.
Knox’s is a story that never ends: she was tried and sentenced for murder — allegedly during a “sex game gone wrong” — in 2007; released from prison when the trial court’s decision was overturned in 2011; then charged again when Italy’s highest criminal court overturned the acquittal last March; and subsequently retried, in absentia, and found guilty again.
This time the prosecution changed its theory of the case: the sex game gone wrong story is out, replaced by an argument over the condition of the bathroom she, Kercher and other roommates shared.
If the Supreme Court of Italy upholds this latest ruling, and if she is extradited (as she probably then would be), her sentence will be for twenty-eight years and six months.
From the beginning, I thought that she and Sollecito were innocent in part because the theory – now theories — of the case that the prosecutor pursued seemed preposterous, and because it seemed that the two of them had been railroaded from Day One.
But I never followed the case very closely, and that was not the only reason why I used to worry about my gut feeling.
The concern is hidden bias: after all, she is white and middle class – and also young, pretty, well spoken, and seemingly nice as can be.
Perhaps she was more sexually adventurous than the average twenty year old – but since when is that a crime? She was certainly flustered by the situation she found herself in, and she cast suspicion on herself by speaking injudiciously. But guilty of murder? Not likely.
It now seems plain that forensic evidence of her guilt is non-existent. And it is very nearly as plain that the Italian authorities, like authorities everywhere, have been more interested in saving face than in justice.
Therefore, my view, now more than ever, is that she should never have been charged in the first place.
But the specter of bias remained; therefore, I could not be sure.
Then I learned that Alan Dershowitz has been all over the media – again — going on about how the Italian court that reversed her acquittal had gotten it right. I saw him going at it on the BBC.
I was therefore able to conclude with the utmost confidence that Amanda Knox is innocent, QED.
How do I know? The same way a dancer knows where to put her feet. Knowing that is part of the story, but not the whole part; not even the main part. It’s a matter of intuition; not blind intuition, but intuition that has been properly cultivated.
I know that the man has axes to grind and agendas to promote; this isn’t exactly news.
Taking advantage of the cachet he gets for being a Harvard Law professor, Dershowitz has long been among the most conspicuous defenders of the Israeli ethnocracy in the United States. His other specialties include defending celebrities in criminal trials and offering his views on legal matters to any media outlet willing to publicize them.
Socrates berated the sophists for making “the lesser argument appear the stronger,” irrespective of the truth. Lawyers do this too when it suits their purposes. Dershowitz is a past master at it.
He is also good at destroying careers and people. Witness how he set about hounding Norman Finkelstein out of academia.
Finkelstein famously found flaws, to put it mildly, with Dershowitz’s methods and veracity; he wrote a long tome, Beyond Chutzpah, scrupulously documenting his case. But in his capacity as President of Harvard, when he still was, Larry Summers ruled that Dershowitz did no wrong. Now Finkelstein is out of academia, as is Larry Summers, and Dershowitz is as omnipresent as ever.
But none of this is enough to warrant the idea that, for all practical purposes, Dershowitz can be taken for an infallible guide. That conclusion comes down to intuition – to knowing how to take what he says.
For me, the revealer is the populist veneer he assumes when he is at his most nefarious. On the BBC, it was all about how poorly the legal system in the United States treats the poor and persons of color.
True enough, but so what? He was not there as a friend of the poor. His aim was to invest his cause du jour with inflections dear to the hearts of a liberal audience.
At least he didn’t try to bring Israel’s rectitude into it. To that end, the best he could do was to take a swipe at Iran. It seems that Italian justice is better than Iranian justice too.
Making a case for Israel out of Knox’s travails would have been a stretch even for him. But her story is serviceable for making a case for Dershowitz.
There are plenty like him out there, though few are so blatant or so reliably at the ready when controversies beckon.
It is worth seeking them out because nothing works as well for resolving political perplexities as a Dershowitz-equivalent.
I was hesitant, for example, to read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath. Then I read Eric Alterman’s attack on it in The Nation, and I knew I had to read that book.
I had been afraid that reading about Israeli-Palestinian relations today would be like reading accounts of animal cruelty – depressing but not especially enlightening if only because what more is there to say. I was wrong.
Blumenthal’s book sheds new light, not just despair, on the settler movement in occupied Palestine and on rapidly growing proto-fascist elements in the Israeli state and civil society. It also offers a compelling account of the contradictions and shortcomings of liberal Zionism.
Goliath combines detail and context in ways that convey a sense of what things are like on the ground; it is splendid journalism.
Now, on the face of it, Alterman is hardly a Dershowitz. He can even be interesting, from time to time, when he skewers mainstream media. But, where Israel is concerned, especially now with the BDS movement on the rise, forget about subtlety and nuance. He and Dershowitz are on the same page.
But that isn’t why he works as a Dershowitz for me. My gut feeling there has more to do with the way Alterman has been hauling water for the Democratic Party establishment for as long as I can remember.
This has long made me wary – even before he did his best to savage the Nader campaign for President in the year 2000. With each passing column in The Nation, the feeling becomes more entrenched.
His liberalism is not a veneer, but he is not beyond pressing it into service in behalf of noxious causes.
Or, to take one more example, consider the doyenne of liberal imperialism, Samantha Power.
Unlike the actual Dershowitz, she wears a kind heart on her sleeve. But it doesn’t take much to stoke up her enthusiasm for “humanitarian interventions” that suit the empire’s purposes.
And there is nothing that can overcome her indifference towards the atrocities the empire and its minions dish out towards those who defy its will or towards the suffering that results.
I was therefore grateful for her September 7 speech at the Democratic Party’s think tank, the Center for American Progress.
The topic was Syria; needless to say, she favored intervention.
Now it doesn’t take much to realize that if there is anything in the world to be wary of, it is American interventions – undertaken directly or by proxy – in the affairs of other countries. The evidence is overwhelming.
And the more American meddling comes wrapped in good intentions, the greater the need to beware.
But the situation in Syria is so dire; and, for the foreseeable future, the prospects are so grim. It is hard not to feel that something must be done; and who is there to do it except the United States?
Moreover, the idea that humanitarian interventions are always wrong, wrong in principle, cannot be right – to think otherwise would be to make a fetish of national boundaries.
When, then, are interventions acceptable? There is no obvious answer because we have no general theory to guide us.
The only remotely plausible one would be to intervene only in ways sanctioned by international law.
But the United Nations, the presumptively competent international authority, is hopeless. The problem is not just American dominance; it is also that it can only act when the five permanent members of the Security Council agree – in other words, when Russia and China acquiesce to America’s demands.
But the situation in Syria is now dire enough that acquiescence has actually become tempting. But when Power came out for it, I knew it was a temptation to resist.
She and Dershowitz share more than just a flair for self-promotion. They share an instinct to represent their most nefarious commitments in a liberal guise.
That, again, is the revealer. If Power says “go in,” the right answer must be “stay out.”
This works too on situations that are less dire, but more perplexing – for example, what to make of Pussy Riot.
On the one hand, what is there not to like about anti-authoritarian blasphemers who overflow with animosity towards Vladimir Putin?
Yes, he is protecting Edward Snowden from the vindictiveness of his American counterparts. But in the spectacle that opened the Sochi Olympics, the man airbrushed the Russian Revolution out of Russian history. To forgive that is asking a lot.
And then there is the sexual politics of his government. Much of the brouhaha in the Western media is tainted, transparently, by pro-American and pro-European pink washing. But there are indeed serious human rights problems concerning homosexuality in Russia today that are not easily dismissed.
For all these reasons and others, I was inclined to think, along with almost everyone else, that maybe Pussy Riot is OK.
But then Power met with them in New York and voiced support. For me, that put the question to rest.
Is Pussy Riot a force for good in Russia itself? The jury is out on that. But support for them in the West is a different story.
Thanks to Power, we can now be certain that theirs is not a cause to endorse.
With that thought secure, the way is open for thinking about more complicated and yet more perplexing quandaries: for example, what to think about the Russian government itself. Is it, on balance, a positive factor in world affairs?
We know what Samantha Power would say about that. And that carries a lot of weight.
The lesson is plain: when in doubt about how to think about a perplexing situation, find a self-identified liberal do-gooder doing bad, a Dershowitz-like figure, and feel the perplexity dissipate like a fog.