Things We Read Today (38), Wednesday

Groupthink and Inverted Tolerance

Yesterday, National Review writer and music critic Jay Nordlinger wrapped up part two of a three-part series of collected thoughts generally on the topic of politics and culture with this anecdote:

… Every so often, musicians will “come out” to me. They will confess their conservatism to me. But they swear me to secrecy, lest they get in trouble — lest they lose their jobs, or otherwise be outcasts.

Why should this be? Why should politics matter in music? So what if an oboist believes in lower marginal tax rates, missile defense, or school choice? What does that have to do with oboe playing? What should her colleagues care?

They just do. If they knew, they would know she was a Bad Person. And she might have trouble keeping or getting work.

If you doubt me, you can talk to the people I’m talking about — or, actually, you can’t: because they would be afraid to open up to you.

I think this is a sick, sick situation — the power of this groupthink. I would like to think that even some on the left would agree — some people like that kindhearted professor, who agreed to advise the College Republicans, Democrat though he was.

Right after the latest election, I heard from a surprising number of people in a variety of occupations who found the next few days at work to be difficult, because they suspected that they shouldn’t let on that they were deeply discouraged by the results at every level of government.  They were, in a way, like the as-yet-unsnatched folks in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  For Millennials: that means they had to show no strong emotions lest they be outed as non-pod-people.

Another interpersonal trend I’ve noted with increasing regularity, lately, is a notion among progressives (and people whom I suspect at least of being progressive sympathizers) that would seem to mark a contradictory trend from the above, but I don’t think it does.

Namely, I’ve gotten the strong impression, lately, that more and more people believe it is a personal insult to tell somebody that you believe him or her to be incorrect, as if “you’re mistaken” were equivalent to “you’re less than human.”

At first blush, this appears to be misplaced tolerance, or rather, tolerance that has gone over-ripe until all opinions must be taken to be equally valid. On closer inspection, however, the effect is to make it more difficult for those who dissent from the reigning orthodoxy to express themselves.  It’s awfully difficult to say “I disagree” without at least implying “you’re incorrect,” except perhaps with an overdone layering of “I may be wrong.”

More profoundly, the total effect of new internally imposed restrictions on expression is to make ideas subordinate to social (mainly emotional) definition of what positions require one to collect clues of agreement prior to speaking.

 And Then There Are the Eavesdroppers

Quietly approaching a recklessly conservative townsman in the parking lot after church to express agreement may be a safer option than finding his online address and emailing him.  I say that having just read this frightening interview with NSA whistleblower William Binney:

… the FBI has access to the data collected, which is basically the emails of virtually everybody in the country. And the FBI has access to it. All the congressional members are on the surveillance too, no one is excluded. They are all included. So, yes, this can happen to anyone. If they become a target for whatever reason – they are targeted by the government, the government can go in, or the FBI, or other agencies of the government, they can go into their database, pull all that data collected on them over the years, and we analyze it all. So, we have to actively analyze everything they’ve done for the last 10 years at least.

The interesting thing about online data that makes it, in a way, different from prior information technologies (in which I include spoken words, analog recordings, written texts, and so on) is that it’s both disconcertingly ephemeral (as anybody who’s lost a term paper can attest) and disconcertingly eternal (as anybody who’s gotten caught up in a social media controversy can attest).  That is, if it gets stored and backed up on some physical medium, somewhere, then it’s nearly permanent, but if it’s doesn’t, then it’s gone forever.

It doesn’t take paranoia to think that a government with seemingly limitless resources would have strong incentive to make sure that it doesn’t miss capturing anything important in the flow of digital communication, especially as storage becomes less and less expensive.  Why not store it all… just in case.

As in the first section above, the key for citizens becomes not being noticed — ever — because the record of communications is out there.

Policy Cause, Meet Employment Effect

Providence Business News reporter Rebecca Keister notes a Kids Count report finding that only 50% of Rhode Island youths are employed in some capacity:

The employment rate for Rhode Island teens fell over the last decade from 63 percent in 2000 and nationally youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II without about 50 percent of young people holding jobs across the country last year.

Per my RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity report back in June, covering related ground, some portion of this decrease in employment is likely attributable to the mounting minimum wage.

Economists across the political spectrum debate how much effect minimum wage laws have on employment overall, but there’s relatively strong agreement that it does have an effect on limited populations — young adults, most conspicuously.  That the public debate in Rhode Island is so limited is disappointing.  As the Kids Count report shows, we reap what we sow.

Or rather, the young and soon-to-flee in our state reap what the powerful and well connected have sown.

Tying It All Together in a Hopeful Bow

I recall one of my music history/theory professors suggesting to his class that classical music will never fade.  He noted arguments that classical music had a “graying” audience, and then he noted evidence — old paintings chief among them — that the audiences for such music have always been older.  Real appreciation of classical music takes time, patience, and prior knowledge, and the number of music lovers with those qualities increases as a generation gets older.  (Duh!)

I thought of that while reading Michael Medved’s buck-up-conservatives article suggesting that liberal expectations of a permanent majority are overly optimistic:

These figures conclusively rebut the progressive hope that youthful liberals generally maintain their fervent commitment to liberalism as they age and mature. The voters who lean Republican in middle age and beyond are the same people, after all, who leaned Democratic in their younger years. For all their diabolical cleverness, Karl Rove and other cunning conservatives haven’t yet developed a scheme for creating new voters in a lab who emerge pre-aged to a seasoned 65 with an unstoppable instinct to vote for members of the Bush family.

I remember quite fondly — as one of the most profound dramas of my life thus far — the gradual discovery that everything I thought I knew as a teenage radical, drawing on what I’d been taught to believe, was wrong.  Of course, cultural and under-the-government-wing developments may be helping younger generations to postpone the day of adult reckoning.  My timeline of hard manual labor at 19, marriage at 24, children at 26, and home-ownership at 28 is being pushed even further toward middle age, delaying the life circumstances that tend to increase the odds of maturity.

On the other hand, the public policies that make that delay possible just. don’t. work. And the consequences are real.  The troubles that Rhode Island faces, particularly young adults in Rhode Island, may indicate that there’s a splash of cold water involved in the process.

The key for conservatives is to affirm that it is appropriate to flinch from cold water… and that there is a way to dry off.