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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Anatomy of the "thought" process of Bush defenders

(updated below with Glenn Reynolds & Hugh Hewitt book figures - updated again)

As much as anything else, Bush defenders are characterized by an increasingly absolutist refusal to recognize any facts which conflict with their political desires, and conversely, by a borderline-religious embrace of any assertions which bolster those desires. It's a world-view which conflates desire with reality, disregards all facts and evidence that conflict with the decreed beliefs, and faithfully embraces any assertions and fantasies, no matter how baseless and flagrantly false, provided that they bolster the mythology.

Thus, things are going really great in Iraq - just as we predicted they would. When we invaded, Saddam had WMD's and he was funding Al Qaeda. Oil revenues will pay for the whole thing, we will be welcomed as liberators, the whole war will be won quickly and easily. A large military presence is unnecessary because there is no insurgency. Bush is a popular and beloved President. All but a handful of radical fringe subversives in America support the war and believe terrorism is the overarching problem. Americans want to militarily confront Iran, want illegal warrantless eavesdropping, and are happy with how the country is being governed.

It never matters how much evidence arises demonstrating the falsity of these beliefs. They are not susceptible to challenge or reconsideration because they are the by-product of faith and desire and not a critical or rational assessment. They believe these things because they want to believe them, they have to believe them, because the whole world-view on which their identity and purpose has come to be based -- the brave, heroic President leading the great conservative nation in glorious, epic war-triumph over the evil Muslim enemy -- depends upon believing these myths. No facts can shake these beliefs because they aren't grounded in facts and aren't the by-product of rationality.

Yesterday, a relatively unimportant -- though particularly stark and instructive -- example arose which, to me, vividly illustrates how this fantasy-based "thought" process works. It began when Matt Drudge, probably the single least credible and most demonstrably dishonest source for information on the planet, wrote an undocumented, typically error-filled item claiming that the new book by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong, Crashing the Gate (which Drudge referred to as "DAILY KOS"), was a huge flop because, according to Drudge, the book "has sold only 3,630 copies since its release last month." Drudge claims that his source was "Nielsen's Bookscan," whose "figures do (sic) include online sales from AMAZON.COM, and others." Since Nielsen's Bookscan does not include online sales, I assume Drudge meant to say "do not include online sales."

There are so many data holes and misleading omissions in this item that it is literally and wholly useless in determining whether the book is a success. I want to emphasize that what matters here is not whether the book really is a success (I have no idea if it is or isn't), but how the baseless Drudge assertion became gospel fact among Bush followers, a distorted and corrupt process which generally governs how they come to think about the world with regard to virtually every issue.

The uselessness of the Drudge item is self-evident. The most glaring and gaping hole is that the figures do not include online sales. Markos and Jerome are known almost exclusively for their work online. People who know them -- and who would therefore buy their book -- are almost certainly people who spend a lot of time online, and who therefore likely buy their books online. Given that their most noteworthy accomplishments are as bloggers, I would guess that the vast, vast bulk of people who buy Markos and Jerome's book order it online, not in brick-and-mortar bookstores. To try to analyze the success of their book by excluding online sales is blatantly and staggeringly dumb. It would be like trying to determine the success of the next Ann Coulter book by only looking at sales in Berkeley and Madison, Wisconsin.

Beyond that towering omission, one would need to know an array of facts that the Drudge item ignores in order to even make an educated guess about whether the book is a success. How many books were purchased during the lengthy pre-ordering process, when Kos readers were encouraged to order? What is the budget for the book, and how many units were expected to be purchased by now? And how does it compare to other comparable political books -- such as those recently published by Hugh Hewitt and Glenn Reynolds? Drudge (as well as Hewitt and Reynolds) are, revealingly, deafeningly silent about those comparisons.

In short, based upon the very partial slice of data Drudge provided (assuming it's even accurate), there is simply no way to know -- or even rationally speculate about -- whether the book is doing well or not. The item does not provide any rational person with the ability to make that assessment. And, as Markos pointed out, there is plenty of data Drudge left out which suggests the opposite conclusion.

Despite all of that, Drudge's baseless and deceitful proclamation -- that Crashing the Gate is a flop -- was immediately and mindlessly ingested as unchallengable fact by those whose mental processes are centrally guided by fantasy and desire, and it will forever remain as unshakable, conventional wisdom among them that the book failed, no matter how many facts in the future undermine their faith that it's true. Believing this provides emotional satisfaction for them, confirms the myths to which they desperately cling (Bush is popular, liberals are hated), and they therefore adopt it is a belief even though it does not correspond to reality. That really is a snapshot of what one, without hyperbole, could describe as the psychological imbalance that has driven the policies and actions of our government for several years.

The Drudge claim spread like wildfire among Bush followers yesteday. The delusional anchor was Roger L. Simon, who dribbled out some observations about what he called the "pathetic sales figures" for CTG, linking only to Drudge's inane item. Simon also asserted, literally without a single citation to anything, that the book by Glenn Reynolds -- whom Simon reverently describes as having "remarkable respect in the blogosphere for his integrity and intelligence" -- "is selling much better." He says this even though the only publicly available data that relates to that comparative assessment -- the Amazon rankings -- shows that CTG is at #33 (#24 yesterday), while Reynolds' book is at #1,006 (#1,157 yesterday). What rational person could possibly claim that Reynolds' book "is selling much better" than CTG?

These twin items by Drudge and Simon -- equally baseless, fact-free and misleading on their face -- were mindlessly recited as fact by countless Bush followers all day yesterday. The always fact-free Powerline John dutifully recited the claim that CTG "has sold an astonishingly low 3,630 copies," and even repeats Simon's fantasy-driven fiction "that Glenn Reynolds' book is selling well." Right Wing News drools: "it's really nice to see Kos's book nosedive into the pavement." The Bush zombie at BlogsFor Bush echoes the script: "I've stopped laughing long enough" to note that "there is no mention of the pathetic book sales of Kos's book on the site's front page." And PunditGuy, after celebrating the "failure" of CTG, says this:

Kos claims that Drudge’s numbers aren’t on the up and up. What-ev-eh.

Doesn't that pretty much capture the whole sickness? "There are facts that suggest that what I am saying is not actually true. What is my response do that? 'What-ev-eh.'" As in: "Some people claim there are facts that show that things in Iraq are not going really great. Something about civil war, sectarian hatred, anarchy, widespread violence, a total lack of security. What-ev-eh."

Don't they have somewhere lurking in their brain any critical faculties at all? For the sake of one's own integrity and reputation if nothing else, who would read an undocumented assertion on Drudge -- no matter how much of an emotional need they feel for it to be true -- and then run around reflexively reciting it as truth, writing whole posts celebrating it and analyzing it, without bothering to spend a second of time or a molecule of mental energy trying to figure out if it's really true?

This intellectually corrupt syndrome goes back a long way and has been festering for a long time. Nuggets of deceitful, fact-free fantasy get planted in some cesspool like Drudge and then mindless followers who want to believe it start repeating it as fact, and then it gets ossified forever as conventional wisdom and can never be dislodged from their minds. That's how Al Gore came to "claim that he invented the Internet," how Howard Dean became a far left radical pacifist, how Jessica Lynch had a heroic shoot-out with Al Qaeda and was then rescued by gun-blazing Marines, how Moveon.org produced commercials saying that Bush was Hitler, how Saddam funded Al Qaeda and personally participated in the planning of 9/11. It's even how the lesbian, Hillary, killed Vince Foster in order to ensure that their affair (or whitewater crimes or drug-running landing strip) would be kept quiet and, to this day, it's how Bill Clinton was a wildly unpopular president.

Soon after 9/11, the Bush movement became driven by much more than a set of political beliefs. It provides its adherents with much more than just a vehicle for political activism. It gives them purpose and a feeling of strength and power that they otherwise lack. In that sense, it is not dissimilar to a religion, and it is therefore unsurprising -- but nontheless ugly and destructive -- that their beliefs and convictions are not grounded in facts and reality but in a resolute faith that cannot be shaken by facts. Every event is interpreted so as to bolster the faith, facts are disregarded which undermine the faith and fact-free assertions are embraced which confirm the faith.

The way in which it became an instantaneous certainty that CTG is a failure (and Glenn Reynolds's book is a grand success) -- a "fact" that will endure in those circles forever, literally -- reflects a process that repeats itself over and over, with a whole range of issues. That is the process that led us into Iraq and not only kept us there, but ensured that we remained immoveably wedded to policies which were so plainly producing nothing but horrendous failure. Being able to pick and choose what facts you want to believe based upon which ones feel good or vindicate your desires can be emotionally satisfying, but there is no more destructive and dangerous mental approach than this for determing how the world's sole superpower will be governed.

UPDATE: Like Drudge, Patrick at Making Light has access to the Bookscan sales data. Unlike Drudge, Patrick not only published the sales figures for Crashing the Gate but also for Glenn Reynolds' book Army of Davids:

As of this morning, for Reynolds’ An Army of Davids (February 2006), Bookscan reports 1716 retail sales and 2609 “discount” sales, for a total of 4325.

As of this morning, for Armstrong and Kos’s Crashing the Gate (March 2006), Bookscan reports 2598 retail sales and 1804 “discount” sales, for a total of 4402.

In other words, despite the fact that it’s been available for four fewer weeks, Kos and Armstrong’s book has now clocked Bookscan sales in excess of Reynolds’. Notably, several hundred more full-price sales. This is leaving aside the fact that Kos and Armstrong’s book is currently at #40 on Amazon, whereas Reynolds’ is at #801.

So not only is CTG outselling Reynolds' book -- by far -- on Amazon (as well as on B&N), it has also sold more copies according to Bookscan -- Drudge's chosen source -- even though Reynolds' book was released before CTG. Patrick clearly understands the publishing world and his whole post is worth reading.

All of the available evidence shows that CTG is selling better then Reynolds' book, and yet, in the mind of the Bush follower, Reynolds' book is a grand success while CTG is an embarrassing failure. What else can that be called other than delusional?

UPDATE II: According to a source I cannot reveal but whose credibility is sky-high with me, these are the Bookscan figures for Hugh Hewitt's Painting the Map Red:

1712 - retail
931 - discount
2643 - total

How come Roger Simon, Powerline and Drudge aren't talking about what grotesque flops the books are by Reynolds and Hewitt? At least according to the Bookscan data they were venerating yesterday, those books make Crashing the Gate look like The DaVinci Code.

UPDATE III: In this post, I identifed multiple reasons why no rational person could form a conclusion about the success of CTG based on the information provided by Drudge, one of which -- and only one of which -- was that the Bookscan data does not include online sales from Amazon. Thereafter, I listed the specific sales figures showing that contrary to the central point made by the likes of Roger Simon and Powerline yesterday, Crashing the Gate, by every available measure, is significantly out-selling Glenn Reynolds' book (not to mention Hugh Hewitt's book, which is lagging even further behind).

According to Pat at Brainster's Blog, who also left comments here to the same effect, the sales data from Bookscan does include Amazon sales, and Pat posted a chart sent by Bookscan. In the posts I linked to above, both Markos and Patrick at Making Light said Bookscan does not include Amazon sales, a point Patrick bolstered here. That the Bookscan data really does include all or most of the Amazon sales is something I highly doubt, and whether it does is not indicated by the chart or by Pat's claims about the statements from Bookscan.

Nonetheless, if Bookscan includes all or most of the online sales from Amazon - and that is far from proven - that would mean that that specific criticism of Drudge's statement was in error. All the others are accurate, and more importantly, the central claim made by Bush followers -- that CTG is a failure and that Reynolds' book is doing much better -- is demonstrably false. If Pat were really as interested in securing apologies for misleading statements, there would be several e-mails from Pat in the in-boxes of Roger Simon, Powerline John and Drudge -- all of whom made patently false statements yesterday -- demanding such apologies. Why is it that I know that there aren't any such emails?

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