Mind the Words You Read – Part One

I have just finished reading The Testaments, the follow-up novel by Margaret Atwood to the dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985. Two sentences in it stopped me cold with the depth of its insight. Atwood wrote:

“Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity.”

In some fundamental way, those insights explain everything. And they serve as a warning – fail to educate the people and the resulting void of understanding will fill itself up with falsehoods, fantasies and many other dangerous concepts. Idle minds are the devil’s workshop and all that.

As I thought more about how that insight works in the modern world, a couple of related thoughts emerged. First, we have believed that at least the developed countries left the Dark Ages behind and embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment. We chose science as the most valid way of explaining the physics, chemistry and, increasingly, psychology of our behavior. At least that is what I was taught a hundred years ago when I was in school.

Second, our ability as humans to evaluate the world around us, including the behavior of other people, is largely a function of our ability to communicate with each other using, mainly, language and, secondarily, mathematics. If we could not do so, our chances of understanding and acting to sustain our common interests would likely fall to near or actual zero.

Third, we now understand that most human behavior is driven by the unconscious part of the mind and that it must be this way to enable us to perform even the most mundane tasks (chewing gum while walking and taking notes while listening to a lecture come to mind). That principle in turn means that the unconscious biases we all have are constantly impacting our ability to understand what is going on right in front of us. Confirmation bias, for example, defined as the tendency to filter new information so that what is believed supports what was previously believed, makes it hard to change someone’s mind, including our own. We tend to be very attached to what we “believe” is true. And don’t try to tell me otherwise.

Finally, then, I began to be more and more disturbed by what I was seeing on both “sides” of the political aisle in media stories about the “facts” of political life in the United States. If you’ve traveled by train or subway, you are familiar with the rote warning to “mind the gap between the train and the platform.” In the present matter, the warning would be “mind the gap between the words you read and the truth.” Fail at that and you could lose your country.

Allow me to elaborate.

An October 9 Wall Street Journal article was entitled Trump Opens Door to Cooperate With House Impeachment Probe.” A better example of framing (another implicit biasing technique) and click-bait would be hard to find. The title is provocative by suggesting Trump had done an about-face on the House Impeachment process that he had repeatedly and viciously attacked.

The contrary truth, however, comes quickly in the form of the opening sentence that lays out the reality that Trump’s asserted willingness to cooperate was highly conditional:

“…. if the investigation was authorized by a House vote and if Democrats commit to following rules he views as fair, a sign of potential cooperation a day after the White House said the inquiry was unconstitutional.”

The article goes on to explain that Trump was adding a

“caveat to the White House’s eight page letter a day earlier that described the president’s broader refusal to cooperate with the investigation, citing the lack of a vote authorizing the probe amid other purported shortcomings.”

This, I suggest, whether intended or not, created a condition of cognitive dissonance in which the reader was primed to read about Trump’s acquiescing in an impeachment process when the actual story was that he had attached to his “offer” conditions he knew or had reason to know had already been rejected by House leadership.

Perhaps this slanting is to be expected from a conservative publication like the WSJ, but what about the venerable New York Times? (Disclosure: I subscribe to the Sunday Times and follow it daily through Apple News)

Someone on Twitter reported this NYT headline: “Someone Had a ‘Meltdown’ at the White House. Pelosi and Trump Just Disagree on Who.” My search of the NYT website did not find that title but it is not uncommon for the web version of newspaper articles to differ from print. And changes are often made online after initial distribution. I believe, therefore, that the source of the Twitter report was this: “Inside the Derailed White House Meeting,” by Katie Rogers. https://nyti.ms/2IZlwlT

The initial focus of the article is whether Trump’s insult of Pelosi was “third-grade politician” or “third-rate politician.” I’m not sure there is a difference or why it matters. This was the President of the United States addressing the Speaker of the House in a meeting to which she and other lawmakers were invited at the White House. To be clear, there is also a disagreement as to who asked for the meeting, but Trump indisputably made clear at the outset that he was a reluctant participant.

The meeting went downhill very quickly. Among other things, Trump took the occasion to condemn the military skill and performance of his own former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. Trump, attaining a new height of megalomania, claimed that he, Trump, “captured ISIS” in one month. Eventually, Speaker Pelosi told Trump that “all roads with you lead to Putin.” Since the report is admittedly second-hand, it is a bit confusing as to the precise sequence of events, but eventually Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, walked out of the meeting. The article reports the subsequent hurling of insults by both sides in more or less equal measure.

Thus, the article largely sticks to the facts, but I would be remiss if I didn’t report the subtitle for the piece: ““I hate ISIS more than you do,” President Trump said. “You don’t know that,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied. Here’s the rest of their exchange.” The implication is that Trump was acting like a child on the playground: “Teacher likes me more than you, ha ha.”

Judge that for yourself. The point is that the title reported on Twitter suggested an equivalence between two largely equal scenarios, each party insulting the other, but the article, again assuming it’s the right one, by setting out the key elements of the meeting makes clear that there were not two equal scenarios. The use of the word “just” in the Twitter version of the title minimizes what occurred and implies that nothing of significance happened, just a fair disagreement about who was more upset.

In fact, the article recounts unprecedented (likely) name-calling by the President of the country, using childish and belittling language, to the leader of one of the two houses of the bicameral legislature. It also records the slavering obeisance by the White House Press Secretary who claimed that,

“The president was measured, factual and decisive, while Speaker Pelosi’s decision to walk out was baffling, but not surprising,” Ms. Grisham said in a statement. “She had no intention of listening or contributing to an important meeting on national security issues. While democratic leadership chose to storm out and get in front of the cameras to whine, everyone else in the meeting chose to stay in the room and work on behalf of this country.’’

I understand one cannot look too deeply into political gesturing like this, but this is a classic case in which the imperative that White House staff overcompensate for the childish and erratic behavior of the president leads to ridiculous outcomes. The Press Secretary is simultaneously baffled and not surprised. She can read the mind of people like Nancy Pelosi [“She had no intention….”]. And, of course, the “important” meeting that “everyone else” stayed for has had no meaningful output, at least none I could discover.

[continue reading in Part Two of this post]

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