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Can We Talk?

A Trump supporter watches a speech by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in Manchester, N.H., February 9, 2016. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
Everything simple is false.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Nicholas Goldberg argues that Fox News is “a danger to this country,” as the headline put it. Goldberg is the editorial-page editor of the paper, and he offers the familiar lament: “We live in an era in which Americans are being encouraged to disregard or dismiss factual information, research and established sources of information in order to stay in ideological comfort zones. Trump encourages this, as does Fox, but Republicans in Congress do it too.”

Over at the New York Times, there’s a kind of companion piece hailing “The Age of the MSNBC Mom: For liberal women whose retirement years coincide with the rise of Donald Trump, there’s one place for solace and righteous indignation: cable news.” That piece is by Kat Stoeffel. (Those familiar with the cliché-ridden writing about the interests of rich white women in the New York Times will know without being told that “a ritual glass of 5 p.m. wine” figures in this account.) Goldberg in Los Angeles follows convention and puts in a little “this happens on the left as well as the right” disclaimer, but Stoeffel in New York is having none of that: “An evening with Ari, Chris, the other Chris and Rachel isn’t just about licking the wounds of 2016,” she writes. “It shores up progressive bona fides called into question by both-sides-ism and liberal hand-wringing.” Democrats apparently have had their fill of liberal hand-wringing: The lead-off letter in the current issue of Harper’s, written by Fred Kramer of Richfield, Minn., insists that what’s wrong with our politics stems from the fact that “Clinton and the Democrats were too magnanimous after Trump’s win.”

It is not obvious to me that what’s wrong with American political culture is excessive magnanimity — and I thought they were supposed to be nice in Minnesota! — but that kind of black-hats/white-hats simplification is terribly seductive.

Stupid, but seductive: It’s the Sharknado 2 of democratic discourse.

We are back to Paul Valéry’s maxim: “Everything simple is false. Everything complex is unusable.” In the world of computer modeling, this is known as Bonini’s paradox: The more realistic a model is, the more it becomes as complex and difficult to understand as the real world; the simpler and more user-friendly a model becomes, the less accurately it represents the underlying system. Mass democracy and mass media on the American model work to impose on the complex reality of American public life the simplest possible model of politics, aggregating all of political reality into two variables: Us and Them.

Mass democracy and mass media on the American model work to impose on the complex reality of American public life the simplest possible model of politics, aggregating all of political reality into two variables: Us and Them.

Another way of putting this is that the unstated task of cable-news journalism on the Fox/MSNBC model — along with practically all political talk radio, 99.44 percent of social media, and a great deal of inferior writing about politics — is transmuting intellectual complexity into moral simplicity. Even that isn’t quite right: The moral simplicity offered by the “Everybody Who Disagrees with Me Is Hitler” school of analysis is a false simplicity — simplicity for the truly simple, as opposed to what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. described as “the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”

Goldberg’s po-faced prose, representative of the typical American newspaperman’s tedious “moderate, sensible, voice of reason” posturing, is useful here for its deficiencies. He writes: “Obviously, if people can’t agree on basic truths (such as whether climate change exists or whether vaccines are dangerous or whether immigrants are a net benefit or net loss for the country), they can’t work together toward substantive solutions.”

But there is nothing basic about any of the truths related to, to take two of Goldberg’s examples, climate change or immigration. That the political dispute surrounding climate change is primarily a scientific question about whether it exists is pure nonsense, cheap but effective rhetoric deployed by left-leaning activists who want to use the well-earned prestige of science as a cudgel in what is principally a dispute about risk management, economic tradeoffs, democratic processes, and national sovereignty. It is entirely possible to accept the conventional scientific view of climate change and to reject the policies favored by Al Gore et al. on the grounds that they are unlikely to provide benefits that are worth the cost of imposing them—a view that is in fact much more common among right-leaning thinkers on the issue than the cartoonish view that Goldberg would prefer to consider.

The only “basic truth” here is that treating this as a straightforward question of “basic truth” is basically bulls**t.

Likewise immigration. Immigration is not purely an economic question, but the economic questions alone are vastly complex and, in all likelihood, impossible to model or forecast to any degree of meaningful reliability. The usual mechanism by which immigration is said to provide a net economic benefit to the country is poorly understood even by most of the people who write about immigration on a professional or semiprofessional basis. I don’t think I’ve encountered more than six people able to explain it. I’d bet 50 bucks that Nicholas Goldberg isn’t one of them. Because if he did understand how that works — new immigrant workers put downward pressure on the wages of previous immigrant workers, driving down the prices of some goods and services and thereby raising in price-adjusted terms the nominally stagnant wages of native-born workers — he wouldn’t write about it as though it were a simple question. Because it ain’t.

Even the vaccine question he mentions, which does bring out the kooks, isn’t actually all that straightforward, which is why we have a gigantic scientific and regulatory apparatus dedicated to the very question of figuring out “whether vaccines are dangerous.” Is the SAV001 vaccine for HIV dangerous? Probably not, as it turns out, a fact known to subscribers to Retrovirology as of September 2016 but not in wide circulation among journalists and the general public. Is the familiar, time-tested smallpox vaccine dangerous? It’s complicated. For the vast majority of people, it’s safe and effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but “between 14 and 52 people out of every 1 million people vaccinated for the first time experienced potentially life-threatening reactions.” Between 14 and 52 people out of a million sounds like a pretty small number, pretty good odds, but not everybody does the risk calculus the same way. How likely is an American to be killed by a jihadist at home? Even the lower number of 14 in 1 million suffering potentially life-threatening reactions from the smallpox vaccine produces a higher figure (4,550 out of 325 million Americans) than the number of Americans killed in terror attacks from 1995 to 2016 (3,658, including the 2,910 killed in 2001).

Does that mean we should stop taking smallpox vaccines? No, it means that we should stop writing about complicated things as though they were simple.

Reality is complex. “Don’t listen to them thar kooks what don’t believe in vaccines an’ the climate change” is simple. And, per Valéry, useless. And further, as Goldberg writes, bad for democratic discourse. But it isn’t only the cable-news mouth-holes that are engaged in the reverse alchemy of turning the gold of genuine inquiry into the dross of political rhetoric. We — we the media, and We the People — commit the same sin every time Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly insists that the economy does better under Democratic presidents without getting laughed at for the same reason we laugh at the rooster who thinks he alone can awaken the dawn.

Rachel Maddow’s show is entertainment. So is The Real Housewives of New York. It may be the case that Real Housewives does less damage to the culture and to the country than Maddow et al. do, inasmuch as it is impossible to cheapen that which already is cheap. It’s snobbery to begrudge other people their amusements and the little pleasures that they find in unlikely places, but here I sympathize with that poor old snob Mrs. Sinclair, who was so proud of her Cambrian blood and who could not see why claret should not be held in higher esteem than ditch-water.

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