Monday, February 14, 2011



It seems he's really gone. "President Hosni Mubarak succumbed to the demands of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen Friday and resigned from office, bringing to an end three decades of autocratic rule," The Wall Street Journal reports.

For the moment, at least, autocratic rule is giving way to military rule: "Because of the current circumstances in the country the president . . . has decided to step down, and the higher command of the army is taking control of the country," Vice President Omar Suleiman announced.

The announcement was supposed to have been delivered yesterday by Mubarak himself--or at least so everyone thought, including Leon Panetta, the U.S. director of central intelligence, who testified yesterday before the House Intelligence Committee. "Panetta helped touch off an avalanche of erroneous expectations Thursday when he testified that there was a 'strong likelihood' that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would step down by the end of the day," the Washington Post reports.

How did that happen? According to the New York Times, "American officials said Mr. Panetta was basing his statement not on secret intelligence but on media broadcasts."

[botwt021111] Associated Press

Hold your applause for Clapper.

This reminded us of the incident we wrote about Dec. 22 in which James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, gave an interview in which he revealed his ignorance about a major terror-plot bust in England earlier that week. As we noted Dec. 23, John Brennan, the White House's top counterterrorism adviser, defended the DNI by saying: "I'm glad that Jim Clapper is not sitting in front of the TV 24 hours a day and monitoring what's coming out of the media." Panetta's misstep makes Brennan's defense of Clapper seem more plausible than it did at the time.

One wonders, though, what Brennan might make of Clapper's latest foul-up. As reports, Clapper testified on the same panel with Panetta yesterday and, as Politico notes, he said this:

"The term 'Muslim Brotherhood' . . . is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam," Clapper said. "They have pursued social ends, a betterment of the political order in Egypt, et cetera. . . . In other countries, there are also chapters or franchises of the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is no overarching agenda, particularly in pursuit of violence, at least internationally."

Now, this columnist does not claim to understand the Muslim Brotherhood. Much of what we heard and read from its critics on the right has a paranoid tone to it, which arouses our suspicions.

Even so, Clapper's statement that "there is no overarching agenda, particularly in pursuit of violence, at least internationally" is so heavily hedged that it is hard to imagine it could be anything other than an attempt to conceal an unpleasant truth. And his claim that a group called the Muslim Brotherhood is "largely secular" is preposterous on its face. (One imagines an Egyptian liberal with a bumper sticker on his Volvo: "The Muslim Brotherhood is neither.")

Politico reports that Clapper is "backing away" from the "largely secular" statement:

"To clarify Director Clapper's point--in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood makes efforts to work through a political system that has been, under Mubarak's rule, one that is largely secular in its orientation," a spokesman for Clapper, Jamie Smith, said Thursday afternoon. "He is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization."

This column has largely stayed away from the subject of the Egyptian revolution. It's a complicated story, and we weren't sure we had anything to say that would be strong and original without a significant risk of being wildly wrong.

Not that we're looking for a job, but it sounds as though we're well qualified to serve as a top intelligence official. Or rather, we would be if only we could become more confident in our ignorance.

Newspaper as Echo Chamber
John Tierney, who writes about science for the New York Times, is unusual--a Times writer of libertarian bent, one who challenges his colleagues' prevailing political assumptions. The other day he had a column about a Tierney-like academic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, who spoke at a recent conference:

He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.
"This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity," Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a "tribal-moral community" united by "sacred values" that hinder research and damage their credibility--and blind them to the hostile climate they've created for non-liberals.

One Adam Bevelacqua of Brooklyn, N.Y., took issue with this in the comments section of the Times's website:

I find it difficult to take Dr. Haidt's argument seriously, given the climate of today's American society. While I agree that no academic field based on the scientific process should push an ideology, the lack of conservatives in the Social Sciences (and a few graduate students' shy emails) do not imply a general hostility toward conservative ideas. Instead, their absence highlights how far to the right the contemporary conservative movement has traveled and how out of sync it is with evidence-based reality. Since most conservative social policy revolves around religious belief or long-disproven ideas--the most obvious to point out would be the anti-gay rhetoric about curability, recruitment, etc--it makes perfect sense that conservatives gravitate away from the social sciences and Academia in general, especially when those fields contradict their core social beliefs. . . .
Social science has existed as an important way to analyze often misunderstood minority communities, such as blacks and gays, and the idea that the field needs more conservatives to keep up the perception of diversity makes no sense. The social sciences have helped change many people's biases about certain populations by communicating truth based on factual evidence. These academic pursuits have aided the advancement of social progress by dispelling misinformation (such as stereotypes). If academic facts contradict today's conservative status quo regarding social issues, we need not correct that. Instead, it might be time for people to re-evaluate what it means to be a conservative.

The obvious point here is that Bevelacqua is engaging in exactly the sort of stereotyping of which he accuses conservatives. His example, "anti-gay rhetoric about curability, recruitment, etc," is not exactly central to American conservatism in the second decade of the 21st century.

But the interesting point arises from one further fact: Bevelacqua's comment is the most "recommended" by readers on the Times site. The second-place comment asserts that "closed-minded conservatives don't make very good scientists." No. 4: "Most thinking people are not very likely to be what you call 'conservative.' "

As we write, the top five comments are all hostile to conservatives, and the top six are unsympathetic to Haidt's argument. It seems Haidt's description of the world of academic psychology as a liberal political monoculture also fits the New York Times's readership.

That may explain why the Times's staff is a monoculture, though we'd say it's more likely that the internal biases of the Times attract readers who share its ideological bent and repel those who don't. This may make sense as a marketing strategy, but it explains why the paper's authority as a neutral source of news has been gradually diminishing.

1 comment:

  1. I just did a random Google search of myself, and I am flattered to be quoted in a blog, and I am flattered that the New York Times readers recommended my comment the most (I did not know this).

    I think the idea that non-conservatives -- I am not a typical "liberal" and vote pretty moderately -- have a problem with stereotyping conservatives is disingenuous. Stereotypes suggest an irrational opinion without supporting evidence, such as "blacks are lazy" or "gays are sex addicts." However, anti-gay policy is central to modern conservatism, even though you sound uncomfortable with this reality. Santorum is one of the most virulent ant-gay politicians alive today, and he essentially tied Mitt Romney for first place in the Iowa Caucus. I do not know how much more mainstream that this anti-gay candidate can get before you realize how central social conservatism is to the modern Republican party!

    Many conservatives tend to not like newspapers -- study after study shows that a disproportionately large amount get their news primarily from talk radio and Fox News -- and so this explains why many newspapers do not have large Republican readerships.

    In today's off-the-deep-end Republican party, which is much more extreme than in the past, people do not like facts that challenge their world view.