Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On the Supposed "Hack Gap"

Mathew Yglesias is an A-list lefty blogger for good reason. He's smart. He writes clearly. Perhaps most importantly, while he is definitely a partisan of the left and the Democratic Party, he's not totally immune to rational argument from people with whom he disagrees. And he pretty much sticks to civil discourse, disagreeing with people but not insulting them. So there's a lot to like about Yglesias.

Nonetheless, he does share some of the faults of his comrades on the left side of the opinion-sphere, the most notable of which is a pronounced tendency toward self-congratulation. In my experience, folks on the left have a decided propensity to view themselves as being smarter, more noble, and more virtuous than their opponents.

This propensity toward self-congratulation is why many liberals fell so hard for the chart purporting to show that states which went for Kerry had a higher average IQ than those that went for Bush -- which of course turned out to be a hoax. Likewise, it's why former New York Times editor Howell Raines insisted that John Kerry must have a higher IQ than Bush, and that his standardized test scores and grades would leave Bush's in the dust. And yet, when blogger Steve Sailer dug into the matter, he found that Kerry and Bush had scored about the same on tests they took when joining the military -- with Bush having a very slight lead. It later turned out that their grades at Yale were nearly identical, again with Bush having a very slight lead.

This characteristic is on full display in this post, where he discusses the Mark Klieman post which I referenced earlier this week. To recapitulate: an idiot columnist named Stu "We Need Another 9/11" Byofsky wrote a column arguing that, well, we need another 9/11. Mark Kleiman wondered aloud why no A-List right blogger had bothered to denounce this justifiably-obscure columnist. Along the way, he used this as an opportunity cast aspersions on "our wingnut opponents."

Yglesias takes this theme and runs with it. You see, according to Yglesias, Kleiman has observed a real problem: the supposed "hack gap." The right (according to Yglesias) has "an army of people" willing to pretend that something like John Edwards' haircut "is the most important thing in the world." As opposed to the left, which, by implication, is unarmed in the hack-war. Which means that the right can create "pseudo-issues" that decide elections, while the left is stuck earnestly advancing good policy arguments.

I don't know how you would measure which side has more "hacks," but I think it's fair to note that the folks on the left certainly manage to gin up their share of absurd, stupid, trivial, exaggerated, or distorted stories. Remember the 2004 debates, when a bunch of lefty bloggers claimed, based on a wrinkle in Bush's suit, that he was "wired" to receive radio transmissions -- presumably from Karl Rove. One wonders why he didn't do a better job in the debate if he was being coached.

Or what about the whole "plastic turkey" controversy? Remember? Bush flew to Iraq and had Thanksgiving with the troops. At one point, he held up a turkey for all to see. But soon epople were saying it was a FAKE turkey, made of PLASTIC. The actual Washington Post report indicates it was a "display turkey" made of turkey, not plastic. What I get from reading the report is that it's not practical to serve three hundred troops a "family style" Thanksgiving dinner, so they serve real turkey from steam trays but prepare a decorative turkey for people to admire. Bush picked it up and smiled for the cameras. He probably didn't even know at the time that the turkey was for display. But even if he did, so what? The soldiers ate a turkey dinner. Why does it matter if they ate that particular turkey? (See more here if you care.)

Or consider CBS News and the "fake but accurate" documents. Think about it: a major television network -- supposedly staffed with serious journalists -- put obviously-forged documents on the air with the likely purpose of swinging a presidential election. And the truth is that, in the pre-internet era, they would have gotten away with it, because none of their fellow journalists would have been inclined to check.

Ironically, as Al, one of Yglesias' commenters, noted, Mark Kleiman -- you know, the guy who referred to "our wingnut opponents" and whose comments sparked Yglesias' meditation on the "hack gap -- had himself posted just the day before on whether Rudy Guiliani had used the Emergency Command Post at World Trade Center 7 as his "love shack." As Al succinctly put it: "Hack gap closed, Matthew!"

I honestly don't know whether the "left wing noise machine" is more powerful than the "right wing noise machine," or whether there are more hacks on the left or the right. Nor do I have any idea how, in principle, such a determination could be made. Both sides seem to believe that there is a "hack gap," but in precisely the opposite direction. Conservatives rail against left wing media bias, and folks like Matthew worry about the "hack gap" and "right wing noise machine."

I think that there are three reasons for that.

First, we all have a view of the world, and, no matter how hard we might try to be objective, that view is going to color how we evaluate factual claims. Somebody who already opposed John Kerry would be more likely to credit claims that he had fudged on his war record, while his supporters would be more skeptical. If I read an article about a government program which supposedly works, I am likely to be skeptical, while somebody who thinks government is great, like Mark Kleiman or Mathew Yglesias, is more likely to accept it at face value.

Second, our perspective can affect our judgment about whether something constitutes a real issue or a pseudo issue. Somebody who believes that President Bush was illegitimately elected and that the war in Iraq is illegal is more likely to be concered about Bush's National Guard record than a war supporter. Likewise, a skeptic of John Edwards' populist message is more likely to believe that his spending a lot on a haircut or a lavish house reveals a telling hypocrisy.

Finally, it is not unusual to exaggerate the importance of particularly egregious bombthrowers on the other side. Lefties love to rail on about Ann Coulter, for example. She says some pretty outrageous things, but she's not a conservative elected official like Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, or even Newt Gingrich; she's not a legal scholar like Richard Epstein or Justice Scalia, and she is not a conservative intellectual like William F. Buckley. Sure, she sells a lot of books and gets on TV a lot, but she is actually not particularly important to the conservative movement as a whole. Yet many on the left want to make her an important figure, largely because she is so outrageous. Or consider Kleiman's demand that A-list conservative bloggers condemn Stu "We Need Another 9/11" Byofsky. Maybe they didn't bother to condemn him because, like me, they had never even heard of him before.

Our friends on the left seem to become fixated on the least reasonable conservatives and to see them as representative. And of course people on the right sometimes do the same -- acting as if mainstream Democrats are all members of ANSWER, or demanding that everybody vaguely to the left of Hillary Clinton condemn obscure college professors.

The truth is that there are hacks on all sides, people who make bad arguments from time to time, who are careless with the facts, who lose criticial detachment. And such people span the political spectrum.

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