“We’re all smart.” In one of my favorite scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini, right) gives an aide a terse lesson on the limits of being smart, a lesson a lot of us who debate politics online could benefit from learning.
I don’t know most of my students’ political leanings. My general sense is that the majority of them, maybe even all of them, aren’t thinking much about politics these days. They have other things on their minds and their time is taken up with all the work and studying they have to do. They’re honors students, carrying at least two majors and a minor and taking course overloads. I had a better idea of where the students stood in my Digital Commoners class last fall because our discussions were more openly political---Jamelle Bouie was one of our guest lecturers, after all.---and most of them were for Hillary. Well, they are honors students and that means they’re oddballs among their generation. But I think they identified with her because they saw her as a fellow honors student.
These are kids who value not just hard work, but extra-hard work. They got where they are by putting in the effort. They do the research. They prepare. They're organized. They're detail-oriented. They are driven, disciplined, responsible, and, maybe to too great a degree, dutiful---they believe that once you’ve agreed to play by the rules, you then play by the rules. What’s more, from their own experience, they know that the rules are what they are for reasons and that following them usually gets you where you need to go. In short, they are, like Hillary, pragmatic and realistic, words, by the way, many Bernie supporters can’t use without contempt.
But as I mentioned a couple weeks back, I try to steer clear of politics in the Wired Critics class. It’s not been easy to do and it wouldn’t be right to do it completely, considering that four of the movies we’ve watched in class were 42, In the Heat of the Night, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Searchers. (The other two films on the syllabus are Silver Linings Playbook, which we watched at the beginning of the semester, and Bringing Up Baby, which is coming up as the feature in our final class meeting. I don’t know what they’ll make of Bringing Up Baby, but one of my students astutely spotted the gender politics at work in Silver Linings.) The other day, though, I brought up politics myself and not in relation to any of the movies we’ve watched or books we’ve read. I talked about the presidential primaries.
I didn’t do it to give them my views or to find out theirs or to start any arguments. I did it in order to warn them about some of the intellectual pitfalls of life online. Since everything they write for the class is intended to be read online (and we have a class blog), in fact, since most everything they write in their academic and professional careers will find its way online, it’s important they know what they’re getting into.
There’s a lot of fallacious, specious, tendentious, meretricious, mendacious, illogical, wrong-headed, and just plain bullshit reasoning on display. Nowhere more so than in the political “discussions” taking place online, with the Clinton vs Sanders back and forth being as bad as any I’ve ever seen, maybe even the worst, because there are no arguments more vicious than those between smart people who basically agree on everything but the minor details.
Smart is key.
One of my favorite moments in Zero Dark Thirty is in the scene after the one in which CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) meets with a group of analysts to ask them one by one what’s the percentage that it’s Osama bin Laden hiding in that compound in Abbattobad. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is the only one in the room who thinks it’s 100 percent. Panetta is impressed but later when he’s getting on an elevator he asks the aide with him what he thinks of Maya.
“She’s very smart,” the aide says.
Panetta’s not impressed.
“We’re all smart,” he says.
The point being smart isn’t enough. A good lesson for honors students to take to heart, I think, because it’s not just that smart people have a habit of being too impressed by their own smarts and biased in their own favor to the point they don’t question themselves and take it for granted that they’re right as a matter of course and that other people should too---”Why aren’t you as impressed by me as you ought to be?” It’s that smart people are adept at outsmarting themselves.
They’re skilled at constructing arguments that sound smart, so smart they fool themselves: "An argument this well-constructed must be true!"
David Halberstam wrote a whole book about how that works.
But there was something else I wanted them to be aware of.
Much of the online debate between Hillary people and Bernie people has included revisiting the 1990s. This has been mainly driven by the Bernie people who have to attack Hillary’s past because, for one thing, that’s what she’s running on, her experience is her past. Bernie himself doesn’t have the experience to run on. He can't run on what he's done in the past, so he’s running on what he hopes to accomplish in the future. Since the future is vague and unpredictable and therefore a campaign based on promising it will be wonderful if only you vote for Bernie isn’t exactly convincing, they have to show that her past counts against her more than his lack of a past full of her sort of experience counts against him. Naturally, Hillary’s people have to show the opposite.
The trouble is that both sides are arguing from memory and, as my students were quick to point out when I asked them what the problem is with that, memory is unreliable. Memories are incomplete. They get fuzzy over time. Things get mixed up in the remembering. We all "remember" things that didn’t happen, at least not in the way we remember them, and forget plenty of things that did happen. And our memories aren’t digital recording devices with infinite storage space. Things are stowed away in bits and pieces in different corners and cabinets in our mental attics and they have to be reconstructed every time we call up a memory and they’re reconstructed according to the plan we used the last time we called up that memory. This means we’re not actually remembering something. We’re remembering the last time we remembered it.
And in the process of reconstructing a memory, we can correct it. We can add to it. Fix it. Improve it. That is we can make it tell a better story.
On top of all this, it’s suggestible. We can be talked into “remembering” things. If enough people around us remember something one way, there’s a good chance we’ll find ourselves “remembering” it that way too.
This means if you spend enough time with Bernie people, you’re likely to start "remembering" the 1990s one way, and if you spend enough time with Hillary people you’ll start "remembering" it another. The term for this is received memory. Since most liberal members of my students’ generation are rallying around Bernie, they’re receiving memories of the time when they were children---and not paying attention to politics so they don’t have any real memories of their own---that are biased in Bernie’s favor.
And that’s more to the point.
Memory is selective and it’s convenient. We often remember what we want to remember and remember it the way it’s useful to remember it.
It’s useful to Bernie’s cause that the 90s be remembered one way and useful to Hillary’s that they be remembered in another (or even not remembered at all).
This is where I stopped with my students and got back to matters at hand, which was the influence on The Searchers on George Lucas.
But if I had kept going I probably wouldn’t have been able to start making my own political case.
Bernie’s supporters have a stronger motive for having the 90s remembered their way. Hillary’s supporters can be and have been more willing to let history (as opposed to memory) speak for itself, even when it says things that aren’t to their liking. For one thing, they don’t believe what happened twenty and more years ago should be a major deciding factor in this year’s presidential election. For another, she wasn't the president then. But, beyond that, they believe history is biased in her favor, not just in that she has a history of doing well and doing right, but in that one of her claims on being the best qualified candidate is she has a history of learning and growing, personally and politically, as time goes on. If Bernie is what he was 50 years ago when he marched with Martin Luther King, Hillary is what she’s become after a lifetime of learning and growing and changing and adapting. She may not like admitting to her mistakes, especially when admitting them implies criticism of Bill, but she learns from them. So to bring up where she went wrong in the past is to bring up where she’s gone right since. As far as Hillary’s concerned, an honest discussion of her failures opens up an honest discussion of her successes. At least it ought to. But Bernie’s case depends on her past disqualifying her from the presidency. And it’s not sufficient that she’s shown to have demonstrated bad judgment. She has to be seen as having been a moral failure as well.
Fundamental to the “revolution” is that its leader is the Last Honest Man.
Everybody else, then, is dishonest and corrupt, particularly the Clintons, but the indictment extends to the whole “corrupt Democratic establishment.”
Bernie supporters can’t seem to keep it in mind that the Democratic establishment includes their supposed heroine, Elizabeth Warren. I say “supposed” because she’s not really a heroine to them. She’s merely cover. They invoke her name whenever they’re called on the sexism inherent in many of their preferred attack lines on Hillary.
“We’re not against the idea of a woman president. We’d gladly have voted for Warren if she’d run and we’ll gladly vote for her to succeed Bernie.” It always comes to a shock when I point out to my online Bernie guy pals that Warren’s 66 years old and that if Bernie serves the two terms they hope he will, she’ll be 74 in 2024 and 82 when she finishes her two terms. In other words, she’s not likely to ever run for president. But the fact that they haven’t considered this means they haven’t really considered her as anything other than a symbol of their own righteous cause.
At any rate, it is in Bernie’s interest that Hillary be “remembered” as not just having been wrong but bad. Bad as in a bad person. Evil, in fact.
For many of the Bernie supporters of my online acquaintance, it’s not enough for Clinton to be evil herself. She has to be Evil incarnate, the root of all evil and cause of all that’s wrong with the country and all that electing Bernie would fix. The way they go at it in their tweets and posts it’s as if she was at least co-president through Bill’s two terms, that George W. Bush was president for just long enough to lie us into the war in Iraq, at Hillary’s urging, after which she took over, guiding and prolonging the war from her seat in the Senate, where she did nothing else---Lilly Ledbetter? Never heard of her.---until Barack Obama became president, when once again she assumed the role of co-president, making all his foreign and military policy decisions until she left the State Department to prepare for her coronation as Queen-President in her own right.
But even among the more sensible, reasonable, and less doctrinaire, Bernie’s purity is generally proven by Hillary’s corruption and for that work history must be “remembered” accordingly. And the ones taking the lead in the misremembering are middle-aged men---almost all the Bernie people I know online are Bernie guys and middle-aged Bernie guys at that---old enough to have been politically aware adults during the years of Bill’s presidency and Hillary’s time in the Senate but who apparently didn’t take notes and haven’t bothered to do the homework needed to make up for it.
But not only are they arguing from their own selective and convenient memory, they’re deliberately, consciously, and conscientiously working to plant false memories in the minds of the younger Bernie supporters. That is, they are knowingly rewriting history.
Ok, maybe they’re not doing it knowingly. Maybe they’re just being smart in that way I described above.
They’ve talked outsmarted themselves into “remembering” an incomplete, un-nuanced, and useful version of history and now they’re teaching it to the kids.
And in teaching that “history” to the kids they’re also giving them a very wrong and dangerous idea of how politics and government work. Not to mention a misguided and self-destructive conception of morality in which purity is of the essence and moral purity is synonymous with political purity and that such purity is desirable as an end itself. Getting things done, however good those things might be, doesn’t matter as much as maintaining one’s moral purity. Better, then, to fail completely than to allow yourself to become tainted by even incremental successes.This kind of thinking leads one of two ways: to withdrawal from society or to purifying it through witch hunts and purges.
Puritanical morality aside, the kids are being taught that politics is a matter of True Believership, that change---revolution---happens because enough people of good heart and good will come together and shout about it. All it’s going to take to make the world better and their futures brighter is to put the right man at the head of the march and let him do the most of the shouting.
Funny thing about populist movements. Even though they’re meant to express the common people’s collective interests, they all seem to require the people to rally behind a single loudmouthed demagogue.
None of this I said to my students. Like I said, I stopped where I said I did, with talking about the problem of arguing from memory. But I didn’t go right into talking about The Searchers and Star Wars. I got a little bit political. Even a bit partisan.
I told them that if they found themselves caught up in the arguments about what went on in the decade during which they were born and grew to pre-school and kindergarten age to keep in mind that the Clinton Administration wasn’t a New Democratic dictatorship. President Bill Clinton had to deal with a Congress that for the last six of the eight years he was in office was solidly in Republican control. Right Wing Republican control. Whatever he did or didn’t do, whatever he did right or did wrong, he did while having to deal with that fact. He also had to deal with...life. Things happen that presidents can’t predict or plan for. A great deal of presidenting is reactive and improvisational. There’s often not the time or the money to solve problems as they come up in the way they need to be solved. And then there’s the matter of voters.
People have to be taken into account. Not just their needs and interests but their wishes. They're reacting improvisationally to problems in life too and they have ideas about how those problems should be handled and when and in what order---usually NOW and FIRST!
All the issues of the past we’re arguing over---the crime bill, welfare reform, NAFTA, Iraq---have a history. That is, they came up within the courses of certain events and, whatever problems they’ve caused for us in the present, they were in their own time effects of causes arising within those times and from their pasts. NAFTA didn’t cause the decline of American manufacturing; it was an attempt to bring it back. Welfare reform happened because the welfare system needed to be reformed. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act wasn’t intended to lock up all young black men---It’s debatable that it contributed greatly to the mass incarceration crisis. Very few criminals wind up in federal penitentiaries since very few criminal commit federal crimes.---and it included things that need to be considered when arguing about it, particularly the Violence Against Women Act, the assault weapons ban, and federal laws on hate crimes and sex crimes.
It can be argued that those things were done with all the best intentions and did some real good and that whatever harm they caused were unintended consequences that couldn't have been foreseen. It can also be argued that those consequences not only should have been foreseen and could have been foreseen but were foreseen but even if they weren’t there were other, better plans for dealing with the problems. But neither argument should be made from memory.
You have to do your homework, I said to my students, as if they need to be told that.
There’s one more piece of history from the 1990s that hasn’t made its way into the debates much, except salaciously through the invoking of one name. Monica.
On December 19, 1998, against the wishes of the vast majority of the American people, the Republican controlled House voted to impeach the President of the United States. On February 12, 1999---the House managers acting as prosecutors thought they were being funny---all but a handful of Republican Senators voted to convict him.
Think about this, I said. We came this close to throwing a president out of office because he lied about cheating on his wife.
How crazy is that?
But here’s the craziest part. Those Republicans then are the Republicans now. They’re the generation the political press refers to as the GOP establishment, the ones who are supposed to be the sane and sensible adults desperately trying to prevent the nomination of Donald Trump. And what they did back in the 1990s was attempt a coup.
And that, probably more than anything she might have thought or said about the crime bill, welfare reform, or free trade, tells you what kind of president Hillary Clinton is likely to be when it comes to dealing with the Republicans she’s accused by fanatical Bernie supporters of being no different from.