TCS Daily

Group-Thinking and The Angry Left

By Arnold Kling - October 27, 2003 12:00 AM

"...the neo-elite has not yet acquired all the characteristics of a viable leadership class -- in particular the capacity to represent and lead the rest of society... Precisely because the neo-elite is much larger than traditional elites, its members increasingly grow up having little direct contact with or knowledge of their non-elite fellow citizens... Members of the neo-elite increasingly owe their positions in life to long years passed in academia -- the closest thing in American life to a sanctuary from the non-elite.
--Walter Russell Mead


The other day, I wrote positively about the nonlinear thinking that I found stimulating at the 2003 Pop!tech conference. In this essay, I want to discuss something that was not so positive -- the elitist group-thinking and the attitude that went along with it.


At a conference that traditionally has been focused on the cultural and ethical implications of future technology, I was treated to a full-scale demonstration of the Angry Left. While I would argue that society could benefit from a discussion of new technology that crosses or ignores ideological lines, I felt that conservatives and libertarians were not at all welcome -- even though conference founder Bob Metcalfe is a conservative, and even though the speakers included Virginia Postrel and Gregory Stock, who espouse libertarian views.


I did not feel this sort of discomfort in 2000, which was the one other year when I attended Pop!tech. Back then, a conservative or libertarian attending the conference felt like a Jew among a group of tolerant Christians. This year, a conservative or libertarian felt like a Jew among a group of Christians whose main topic of conversation was the despicable nature of Jews.


Professor Lessig Shows a Video


One of the Pop!tech speakers was Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. As part of his argument against excessive copyright regulation, he illustrated the creative benefits of fair use by showing a video that combined audio sampling with motion-video sampling. The result was to make it appear that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were lip-synching a love song. The audience hooted and jeered in appreciation of the video and in derision of Bush and Blair. My guess is that a satire of, say, Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton would have been much less well received.


Later, I voiced my discomfort with the video in this blog post. In the comment section of the blog, Professor Lessig said, "I don't see why criticizing the effect of overregulation makes my message Left wing. When did the Right become a fan of regulation?"


In fact, this is exactly the point. I have made the libertarian case against copyright excess myself, several times -- in this essay, for example. I felt that by showing a video that primarily gave the audience a chance to vent hostility toward a conservative President and his main ally, Professor Lessig was sending a signal to the audience that one's position on the copyright issue should be connected to where one stands on the war in Iraq.


If professor Lessig were not trying to engage in left-wing rabble-rousing, he could have chosen an apolitical example to illustrate his point. Instead, the message that he sent by pandering to the Bush-bashers at Pop!tech was that he had no desire to see anyone on the Right included in a coalition to fight copyright regulation. It was Professor Lessig who made expressing opposition to overzealous copyright regulation a package deal with expressing tasteless, adolescent scorn for the President's foreign policy.


A Hostile Environment


As an isolated incident, the Bush-Blair video was trivial. In a less threatening environment, I might have found it amusing. However, it was in the context of a conference in which the majority of speakers made contemptuous, disparaging references to President Bush, in most cases with only a flimsy pretext.


Michael West, who spoke on therapeutic cloning, had a valid reason for bringing up political issues. However, it was interesting that he did so in a way that was more understated and level-headed than that of other speakers.


The informal discussions at the conference also were heavily laden with Bush-hatred. This began on the ride from the airport to the conference in a van that was shared by several of us attending the conference. In that group, I "outed" myself as not being on the left. However, as the days of the conference progressed and I sensed the anger in the hallway discussions, I began to withdraw from conversations. I stopped trying to introduce myself to other people, and instead I spent most of my time talking to people with whom I had established some previous connection.


No Discussion


Robert Wright, the author of Nonzero, spoke at the conference. He tried and failed to initiate a discussion on the subject of how to reach moderate Muslims. The lack of response might have been due to the fact that he was one of several speakers at Pop!tech who appeared to manage their time so poorly that they reached the end of their allotted 30 minutes without having gotten to their main point!


I assume that what Wright would have said can be found here. That essay includes this passage: "If, for example, unhappy Muslims overseas grow more unhappy and resentful, that's good for Osama bin Laden and hence bad for America. If they grow more secure and satisfied, that's good for America. This is history's drift: technology correlating the fortunes of ever-more-distant people, enmeshing humanity in a web of shared fate."


This raises the important issue of how to reduce the pool of radical Muslims. This is a complex question. For one thing, as Daniel Drezner pointed out in his TCS essay, it is not clear who is a moderate Muslim. It could be that a moderate Islamic movement in the sense that seems moderate to us has yet to be fully formed. As Wright points out, the President's policy in Iraq sometimes seems intended to produce a state that might model such a movement, but this goal appears to slip into and out of focus.


The group-think at Pop!tech cannot admit that the challenge of isolating and defeating Islamic radicals might be difficult -- or that it even has priority. They are certain that the world would be a peaceful, harmonious place if only the United States did not have a Republican President.


People can agree that it should be our goal to strengthen the forces of moderation within the Islamic world and yet disagree with the Administration on tactics. However, the approach of the group-thinkers at Pop!tech seems to be to give our President no acknowledgement of shared objectives, no benefit of the doubt, no margin of error, and no criticism that is phrased mildly enough that it could be regarded as constructive.


Political Trade Barriers


One could have a debate over whether the Angry Right came before the Angry Left. Regardless, I am not calling for an uprising by an Angry Right today. Quite the contrary.


I think that it would be a mistake to react to the current anger of the left by writing them off or by getting angry in turn. We ought to try as best as we can to discern the ideas of the group-thinkers, even if it means that we have to sift carefully through their rhetorical rubble.


I think that the main consequence of political rage is to shut out other opinions. I would argue that barriers against ideas are to politics what barriers against trade are to economics. An import tariff on goods hurts both countries, but generally does the most damage to the country imposing the tariff. Similarly, when one side puts up barriers to listening to the other side's ideas, then both sides are damaged, with the side that refuses to listen suffering the worst.


Open systems win. The Angry Left, because it is closed-minded, is in no condition to govern. Barring a catastrophe at home or abroad, I doubt that it will be given the opportunity to do so.


Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence, quoted at the beginning of this essay, was completed two months before September 11, 2001. Yet its final ten pages, which describe the gulf between the elite and the populist Jacksonians, sound as if they could be written today. All of us, liberal or conservative, would do well to heed what Mead says. I could quote the entire section, but let me just extract a few sentences in conclusion:


"To a greater extent than it likes to acknowledge, the American elite has a long way to go to regain the confidence of the American people... As always, the young women and men on the front lines in these interventions will not be drawn primarily from the homes of the elite, and Jacksonians are smart enough to know that the children of Wilsonian war hawks will generally stay far, far away from the slaughterhouses of our future wars. Jeffersonian squeamishness about American power and the use of force strikes Jacksonian sensibilities as weak and muddleheaded, while the Jeffersonian critiques of the motives and morals of American foreign policy seem almost anti-American."

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