Monday, August 18, 2008

Anti-intellectualism in a book about anti-intellectualism.

One of my pet peeves is when I buy a serious, non-fiction book on a serious, important topic and it turns out to have a stupid blunder within the first couple of pages. This has happened to me before.

The latest example is in "The Age of American Unreason" by Susan Jacoby. For a book about unreason, it has some really dumb statements in it. Consider the following excerpt from pp. 9-10 (reference to footnote in original):
[Current president] Bush, after all, called himself the "education president" with a straight face while simultaneously declaring, without a trace of self-consciousness or self-criticism, that he rarely read newspapers because that would expose him to "opinions."*
The footnote reads:
On September 22, 2003, the Associated Press reported that President Bush scans headlines but rarely reads entire newspaper stories, which would expose him to nonobjective "opinions." He prefers that White House staffers provide him with a more "objective" digest of the daily news.
The inference that we are presumably supposed to draw is that president Bush is an unreflective, anti-intellectual moron because he reads briefs prepared by his ideologically biased staffers instead of the objective public news media. That the author of a book criticizing American anti-intellectualism can write this without the slightest trace of self-consciousness or self-criticism is itself proof of such a book's premise.

In any event, the behavior that President Bush is displaying could very well be entirely rational for a president to adopt. First, it is actually quite common for newspaper readers to skim over all of the stories of a newspaper while reading only the headlines. The reason for this is that many newspapers are written with strict adherence to a style that is extremely efficient at conveying a propaganda message to the reader. The reason why newspaper readers skip over the articles and read only the headlines is because that actual articles are absolutely unnecessary for conveying the intended propaganda message. The headlines alone are enough to produce the intended propaganda effect in the reader; one might even suspect that the articles are written to deter people from reading them in order to concentrate attention on the headlines.

Second, one might suppose that the President of the United States has access to slightly better sources of information than the newspapers possess. If the President wants to find out about, say, recent political developments in China, he could read "The New York Times" or he could just call the United States Ambassador to China and ask for a briefing. Given a choice between reading about the CIA in "The L.A. Times" or having breakfast with the Director of Central Intelligence every morning, what would you choose to be well informed?

Finally, it is well known that the information flow to the President is of critical importance, especially in a crisis. While it is entirely possible that decisions are being made within an atmosphere of "groupthink", or some other form of compromised environment, it is also entirely possible that the system is proving the right information to the right decision makers at the right time. In the absence of evidence, the a priori assumption that President Bush is being fed daily lies by his political handlers is unwarranted. Of course, this also suggests that the White House could be correct to rewrite information from newspaper sources into some other written form. The information priorities of effective Presidential decisionmaking are not necessarily the priorities for presenting information to the public possessed by newspaper editors.

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