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Archive for March 2017

Truth, Justice and the American Politician

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There seems to be a lot of confusion and selective hearing about truth, particularly when it comes from politicians. Let’s step back and try to unpack all this.

Hillary Clinton Goes to Bosnia

Here is an excellent case study. In 2008, Hillary Clinton claimed:

I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.
— Hillary Clinton, speech at George Washington University, 2008.

In fact, nothing like that happened. Here is a video of Clinton’s arrival in Bosnia in 1996.

So did she lie? I do not believe that she did. Here rendering is not truthful, but I don’t believe it deserve the status of a lie.

Why do I say that?

I believe that Clinton had an image in her mind of the person she wanted to be, and she remembered what happened at Bosnia in 1996 in those terms. What actually happened was irrelevant.

Cognitive Dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first put forward by Leon Festinger in 1957. At the time, the idea was truly revolutionary, as psychology was in the grip of behaviorism. Festinger found behaviors that behaviorism could not explain. Subjects would change their opinions to achieve consonance with their previous behaviors.

Festinger, with Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, had written When Prophecy Fails, a book recording the beliefs of a small cult who had predicted a flood would destroy the world on 21 December 1954, both before and after the non-event. Not only did many cult members refuse to abandon their beliefs when the flood did not occur; they committed to them even more intensely.

Both women were greatly upset by the disconfirmation of the  morning of December 21, Edna Post being hit especially hard. Nevertheless, throughout the period of disconfirmation both these women unquestioningly accepted the messages, predictions, and rationalizations that Mrs, Keech and Dr. Armstrong worked out for the group. Both of them simply repeated the rationalizations of disconfirmation that the leaders elaborated and glowed over the wonder and beauty of the plan. Their faith, too, remained firm all through the time that we maintained contact with them. On January 24, Daisy while en route to Virginia wrote to one of the authors, saying, “Believe me, we certainly have had divine guidance all along the way. We get orders from ‘upstairs’ en
route.” And “Give our ‘best’ to the other two from Minneapolis, Tell them we know the future is ‘rosy.’ We’ve been promised many wonderful things and we still know who our Director is. We go as his guests — his representatives.”
— Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails (1956), p. 195.

The behavior of various public figures is often attributed to lying and covering up, but cognitive dissonance offers a better explanation and one that does not require mendacious intent.

It takes some degree of ego to run for national public office. A candidate has to appeal to others, raise funds for the campaign and prevail against hostile counteraction from competitors and their supporters.

Consider a newly elected Senator, arriving into what is often called “the world’s most exclusive club.” There will be overwhelming pressure to believe that he deserves to be there, reinforced by the bubble of staff that the Senator has accrued through the campaign. The realities of politics require that the Senator will have built a narrative about himself, his motives and his actions that can survive the attacks of others, armed with opposition research and seeking to show the voters inconsistent behavior in the Senator’s history.

Now, the Senator will not be able to obtain everything he wants; he must engage in barter and log-rolling, giving his vote on some issues on which he does not agree in order to obtain the support of others for items of higher priority. He must bring home patronage to influential constituents if he is to be re-elected. All these pressures reinforce the need for a narrative that can preserve his own self-image in the face of inconsistent behavior.

Thus, I find it hardly surprising that Clinton remembered herself coming into Bosnia under fire or that Jeff Sessions did not remember conversations with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings. These people construct narratives about themselves, remembering incidents in terms of the self-image they want to have. What actually happened is irrelevant.

It would seem a damn fool behavior to willfully lie about episodes that can be researched by the press or have video evidence on YouTube for anyone to find. I don’t believe the processing ever gets past the brain stem. The politician first deceives herself. She squeezes her memory of events, forcing them to fit the story about herself that she not only wants to tell others, but needs to believe about herself.

What’s Good for Me Is Good for America

I do not mean to exonerate people for this behavior. If my explanation is accurate, it is actually more disturbing than if the people involved had simply lied. It is saying that they can’t tell truth from falsehood. They have commingled their identities with the country. It speaks to delusions of grandeur.

The problem is not limited to government; private sector organizations also have to contend with it.

Billy Graham had a man named Grady Wilson who yelled “Horseshit” — however you say that in Baptist — at him whenever he took himself too seriously. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Graham organization has been so successful. I had a Chairman of the Executive Committee who used to blow a launch-caller at me. Every chief executive should find someone to perform this function and then make sure he can only be fired for being too polite. Since the leader must lead the battle against institutionalization, it’s to the leader that you should look for early signs of losing the war. Is he getting confused about who’s God? Polishing up the image instead of greasing the wheels? Preoccupied with the price of the stock? Listening to the public relations department? Short-tempered with honest criticism? Are people hesitating before they tell him?
— Robert Townsend, Further Up the Organization, p. 107.

In my experience, it takes an person of unusual moral strength to accept Townsend’s advice. The key difference being that when private sector organizations go senile, they ultimately fail and are replaced. They don’t take the whole country with them.

There is a great howling right now about truth and facts, but a failure to understand the human behavior that leads to the incidents we have observed. Perhaps it is comforting to think that we have been lied to and ill-served. We the People can believe a narrative about ourselves, that we have been taken advantage of by malicious operators. Throw the rascals out and get in a new lot. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Cognitive dissonance is not limited to people in power. Even nice people like you and I are susceptible.

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Written by srojak

March 6, 2017 at 5:22 am

William Pitt the Elder

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William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), later 1st Earl of Chatham, was a chief minister of Great Britain (there was still ambivalence to the title of Prime Minister). He was bombastic, mercurial, confrontational and he may have been manic-depressive.

He changed Anglo-American politics forever. If you live in Pittsburgh, Pittston, Pittsboro or various Pittsfields or Chathams, your place of residence was named in recognition of William Pitt.

Paymaster of the Forces

Between 1746 and 1755, Pitt served as Paymaster of the Forces, effectively the treasurer of the British Army. At that time, the office was extremely lucrative for the holder, with two principle perquisites:

  • Ability to skim the interest in army funds, including the soldiers’ pay;
  • Ability to skim the profits of sale of military assets, such as the sale of old military supplies.

Although Henry Pelham, who has previously been paymaster of the forces, had refused these perquisites, he had been private about it. Pitt publicly renounced them. This example initiated a change in the way we conceive of the conduct of a political office holder. What had been looked upon as standard operating procedure, and remained so in many other countries, became viewed as corruption in the Anglo-American tradition.

Pitt initiated this change, and he did it not through introducing laws or launching a crusade, but by the simple force of his own example.

The Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War began in 1756 and initially went very badly for Britain and her allies. The Braddock Expedition had been smashed in 1755. In the early years of the war France took Minorca, Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry. Hanover, allied to Britain through the King, was forced to withdraw from the war.

I know I can save this country and that I alone can.
— William Pitt, 1756

In 1757, Pitt entered into a coalition government with a man who had been his enemy: Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle. They divided their responsibilities: Pitt managed the war against France in their colonies, while Newcastle managed the war in Europe. Pitt obtained the funding to support world war, while Newcastle handled the patronage needed to keep the coalition in power.

Our bells are worn threadbare with the ringing of victories.
— Horace Walpole, 1759

1759 is remembered as an Annus Mirabilis for the harvest of victories over the French. In North America, Britain captured Fort Ticonderoga and Quebec, and drove the French from the Ohio Country after taking Fort Duquesne the previous autumn. British forces captured Guadeloupe. In Europe, the Navy destroyed the French capacity to launch an invasion of Britain, establishing itself as the dominant naval power, and Britain with her allies won the Battle of Minden. In India, British forces relieved the Siege of Madras.

For the remainder of the war, Britain consolidated and expanded on these gains, collapsing French holdings in India and North America east of the Mississippi.

The American Colonies

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1763

Britain had become concerned about how to pay for the enormous army it had created during the Seven Years’ War. Sons of powerful landed families had purchased commissions as officers in new regiments. It would have been unthinkable to buy them out, but how were these regiments to be supported financially? A plan for an excise tax on cider, which would have landed principally on the country gentry, had gone down to dramatic defeat in 1763, taking George III’s favorite, the Earl of Bute, along with it.

George Grenville then became first minister, and sought to solve the problem by taxing the American colonies through the introduction of Sugar and Stamp Acts. More odious than their tax effects was their intent to bypass colonial legislatures in imposing taxation. Townshend and his allies maintained that the colonies had “virtual representation” in the British Parliament.

The Stamp Act led to riots in America and attacks on British agents who collected the taxes. By January, 1766, there was sharp division in Parliament. Grenville had worn out his welcome with the King, who replaced him with Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who brought Edmund Burke along with him as personal private secretary. Rockingham wanted to repeal the Stamp Act, but a substantial number of MPs were unwilling to yield the conceptual right of Parliament to impose taxes. Virtual representation was also seen as essential; the same doctrine addressed the representation of cities such as Manchester, which had no representatives of their own in Commons.

Pitt was not buying the idea of virtual representation, and foresaw the future of reform:

This is what is called the rotten part of the Constitution. It can not continue a century. If it does not drop, it must be amputated. The idea of a virtual representation of America in this House is the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man. It does not deserve a serious refutation.

The Commons of America represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of the exercise of this, their constitutional right, of giving and granting their own money. They would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed it! At the same time, this kingdom, as the supreme governing and legislative power, has always bound the colonies by her laws, by her regulations, and restrictions in trade, in navigation, in manufactures, in every thing, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.

After this, Grenville rose to voice his objections, and then Pitt returned in reply.

The gentleman tells us, America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.

Pitt concluded:

Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the House what is my opinion. It is, that the Stamp Act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately. That the reason for the repeal be assigned—viz., because it was founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time, let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend to every point of legislation whatsoever; that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever, except that of taking money from their pockets without consent.

[Full text of speech and rebuttal: http://www.bartleby.com/268/3/23.html]

The distinction between binding their trade and taking money from their pockets without consent escaped many of the members in attendance.

If you understand the difference, it is more than I do, but I assure you it was very fine when I heard it.
— Lord George Germain, 1766

Whigs were always having to navigate the treacherous space where liberty and order met; it would ultimately undo them. But that was more than a century in the future.

Rockingham yoked a Declaratory Act, asserting the theoretical right of Parliament to tax the colonies, to repeal of the Stamp Act, recognizing the impracticality of doing so in this manner.

Chief Ministry

Being responsible, I will direct and will be responsible for nothing I do not direct.
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1761

His time as chief minister was short: 1766-1768. He selected a cabinet of very capable men, but there were no precedents by which he could require them to work together or to all pull in the same direction. Pitt himself was too obstinate and too much of a loner to do the backstairs politicking that would have been necessary to bring the group together as a team. His term as chief minister is generally considered a failure.

In 1767, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the Revenue Act of 1767, first of a series of bills remembered to history as the Townshend Acts.

Pitt himself, now Earl of Chatham, had gone into seclusion in 1768. Only in 1770 did he return to his seat in the House of Lords. He was still an intermittent participant. Without his leadership, his allies — Rockingham, Burke, the Earl of Shelburne — were in disarray the government’s back-and-forth measures in America spun out of control.

Weakened by illness, Pitt played an increasingly marginal role in British politics, until he finally collapsed on the floor of Parliament in 1778.

Nevertheless, he had a profound effect on our political traditions.

Written by srojak

March 4, 2017 at 1:23 pm