Are Your Great Ideas Just Knee Jerk Reactions?

You know how the doctor checks your knee for reflex by tapping it with the rubber hammer? Is it possible our greatest ideas are similarly predictable? And is that depressing? Or just boring?

Case 1. The Governor Paterson to-do. Governor Spitzer goes down in flames, whereupon the newly appointed governor confesses to his own giant-sized passel of moral turpitude. (For the humorous angle, check my last posting).

On the serious side, here are two letters to the editor of newspapers: Match the opinion to the geography of the writer:

A. We Americans are a more forgiving lot than you’d think when it comes to sexual morays; what we can’t abide by is getting conned.

B. So Paterson and his wife have told the public of their infidelities. So what? Is that supposed to make it better or go away? Cheating is like pregnancy—you’re not a little bit cheater. You is or you isn’t.

OK, which writer was from (1) Redwood City, California (on the peninsula, near Palo Alto, and which from (2) Califon, New Jersey (central NJ, 60 miles outside of NYC). (Answers: A1, B2 just in case).

Too easy? OK, Case 2: the subprime mortgage debacle. Match the editorial opinion to the publication:

A. Maybe financial regulation will mean less financial innovation. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

B. Do not ban financial instruments. The pariahs of one age—program-trading, short-selling, junk bonds—are usually reborn in respectable garb in the next. The system…rarely makes the same mistake twice.

Which was (1) The Economist, and which (2) Newsweek? Not too hard either, I suspect. (A2, B1 in case I’m wrong).

I’m not saying this predictability is surprising. I’m reminding us it’s not.

Pollsters know this well. So does anyone who cares to take note of his commonsense observations. We are all quite familiar with the notion that others’ opinions are linked to other patterns, hence easy to predict.

Yet we’re also very fond of the idea that our opinions are different. We hold the Keys to the Truth.

(Or to be more precise, I hold the keys to the Truth. You, on the other hand—not to be rude about it, just stating the facts—only have opinions. Which, given who you are, are quite predictable. No offense—I’m just saying.)

And of course we (me too, in this case) tend to prefer the company of those whose opinions are enlightened (i.e. resemble ours). If you can’t remember which bloviator is O’Reilly and which is Limbaugh, then you probably don’t hang out with those who do. I mean, why bother listening to the unenlightened, right?

And when the inability to see others’ perspectives is brought face to face with our tendency to behave very predictably, we all get bent out of shape about it. Because while we see consistency on big issues as a virtue, we see predictability on said issues as an insult.

Case in point: Obama’s recent comment about “typical” white people. Let me be clear about my own opinion: he was speaking about the belief systems of the majority culture, which happens to be white—and in that sense, he was completely, 100% correct about what he described. Hence, typical. (Bad majority culture politics, but quite accurate use of the English language).

“Typical” majority culture behavior is to equate majority norms and perceptions with “normal.” And it is equally predictable—typical, you might say—that this view drives minority culture people nuts. ("You tell me that’s a Top 40 song? And just whose Top 40 did you have in mind?")

It drives them about as nuts as majority culture people are driven when someone points out to them the utter predictability of blind spots in majority culture people.

Part of the reason racism is so intractable is that we so easily impute beliefs to others—with a great deal of accuracy, by the way—at the same time we resist so strongly the idea that another person’s idea might be as legitimate as our own.

To a majority culture person, it is hard to imagine Obama equating in the same paragraph his grandmother’s mildly racist statements to his minister’s outrageous comments. Yet to a minority culture person, it is hard to imagine how someone could ignore the minority/majority context—Grandma’s mild reaction was proportionate to the mildness of her experience of racism; Jeremiah Wright’s response was equally proportionate to his far-more violent personal experience of racism.

As an evolving species, my guess is the way to “I’m OK, You’re OK” must first go through “I’m an Idiot, You’re an Idiot.” The first step is to admit there’s a problem. That requires listening to one another. Arguably the hardest thing to do.

What New Hampshire Voters Really Said

What a kerfuffle!

The press anoints Obama in Iowa, then gets caught smirking by the re-ascendance of Queen Hillary in New Hampshire. Is the press getting its come-upance?

That’s the story if you watch John Stewart lampooning Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs and any network besides Comedy Central.

That’s also how Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal article “Thomas E. Obama" sees it, invoking the flawed announcement of Dewey’s supposed defeat of Truman:

Here’s a simple explanation for what happened in New Hampshire. In the 96 hours between Thursday’s victory by Barack Obama in Iowa and Tuesday morning, enough election output poured over voters to fill the entire Truman-Dewey campaign of 1948. This thunder said: Barack Obama is the party nominee, a new era has dawned on American politics and the election is now about "change." Like Dewey, he can’t lose. New Hampshirites did what normal people do. They pushed back.

Lesson learned: In elections yet to come in the Internet Age, it will be the habit of the media to overdo it. As is their wont, the voters will undo it.

But the “voters revolt” theme has one big flaw: the polls blew only the Democratic primary—they nailed the GOP results. Did only Democrats revolt?

What about New Hampshire residents’ preferred view—their streak of stubborn independence (“we’re not gonna let a bunch of corn farmers tell us how to think”)? But that requires us to believe that all voters lied to the pollsters. Like most conspiracy theories, this one overstates humans’ ability to organize.

Let’s throw three other factors into the hopper.

One is race.

And if your nose just crinkled in a scowl at the above line, then you must go read a most thoughtful article by Shelby Steele (in Time magazine, of all places) called The Identity Card.

It deftly explains why white and black America alike are ensnared by wishes and denials about race—and how Obama is a lightning rod for all who hope we have transcended it. A good example could be seen on George Stephanopoulos’ ABC News roundtable Sunday: George introduced the race hypothesis, then instantly led the rush to distance himself from the idea—closely followed by everyone on his roundtable but Claire Shipman.

I don’t know how race may have affected the vote—I’m just suspicious of the rush to deny its relevance. Race is, simply, omnipresent in America. The wishful rush to deny it is understandable, but suspicious of itself.

The second factor is Hillary’s “crying.” Maureen Dowd, Gloria Steinem, the Republicans—everyone piled on immediately, staking out positions on gender, emotion, power, class.

And everyone’s theory probably differed a bit from your own, personal, immediate reaction. Instantly, the pundits were telling you what to think about something very personal—not just a vote, but a feeling—and how it explained you politically.

Now add the third factor—what I’ll call the Personal Heisenberg Principle. In physics, at a subatomic level, the act of measuring something can actually affect the measurement itself. At a human level—the same.

It’s one thing to tell me who everyone else is voting for. Annoying? Maybe. But it’s not particularly personal.

But mix in the personal. Throw in race and gender; tell people how they should feel about each.

Tell them publicly, statistically, with rhetorical flourish, from the anchorman’s desk, hours before going to the polls, that their innermost psyches are predictable, categorizable, and easy to segment int politically predefined categories. All the while claiming it’s about “change” and “experience.”

It’s one thing to tell me I’m going to vote like people in another state. It’s another to claim to objectively predict my innermost feelings, unclear even to myself, about some of the more complex issues in society today—like race and gender.

Which, of course, were only on display in the Democratic primary.

I know it’d irk me. I’d go and vote for—for—well, the opposite of whatever they told me I was going to vote for. Just to piss ‘em off.

When you pretend to know me, and you don’t—I don’t trust you.

Take that—all y’all. That’s what the voters were saying.

At least, I think so.