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.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Using generalizations to describe political groups

Whenever I write a post about the tactics and behaviors of Bush defenders, some pro-Bush bloggers invariably write responses accusing me of unfairly generalizing, trafficking in stereotypes and prejudices, and exhibiting anti-Bush fanticism. There were a few such accusations yesterday in response to my post describing how the pro-Bush bloggers' mindless embrace of the erroneous Matt Drudge item illustrates their practice of choosing which "facts" to believe based upon which ones bolster their desired beliefs.

First, some credit where it's due. In response to the tidal wave of data and arguments conclusively demonstrating how wrong Drudge was (and, therefore, how wrong those were who rushed to embrace his assertions), Roger L. Simon -- who led the pro-Bush blogger embrace of Drudge -- posted a very straightforward, undiluted, and commendable apology and retraction: "I will do the right thing . . . and apologize to Markos Zuniga (sic) for my snotty comments about his book sales." Simon explained why his comments were made without reliable information. Everyone -- especially bloggers who post every day, in good moods and bad, with no editors -- is going to make mistakes in fact and judgment sometimes. What matters isn't if someone errs but how they respond when they do. I have nothing but good things to say about Simon's apology.

Similarly, Instapundit, who originally linked to the Drudge item while expressing some mild doubt about its accuracy, last night repudiated the Drudge claim rather aggressively: "Drudge should know better than to report a decently selling book as stalled. As it stands, he’s misreporting the situation." At least with regard to the deceitful Drudge claims which had been spreading like wildfire, it's hard to ask for more than that.

Finally, Captain Ed wrote an unusually gracious post the other day congratulating me for the book and John Aravosis for the cell phone privacy legislation which Aravosis' blog reporting engendered, concluding: "Both men show that the blogosphere's influence and power continue to increase and therefore make the market better for all of us. Congratulations on your successes." Ed would likely disagree with most of my book and most of Aravosis' postings but found the common ground -- that bloggers with vasty different views still have a common interest: namely, establishing the credibility and influence of the blogosphere and defending it against both rhetorical and regulatory assaults. It's commendable for someone to be that gracious with people with whom they disagree politically with regard to just about everything.

I say all of that not in order to create a moment of blogospheric peace and harmony, but instead, to lay the foundation for what I want to say about the use of generalizations when discussing political movements.

It is impossible to avoid generalizations when discussing political groups and the rhetoric and tactics those groups use. Everyone who talks about political conflicts by necessity resorts to generalizations at some point. We organize ourselves, sometimes loosely and other times formally, by groups -- Democrats/Republicans, conservatives/liberals, Right/Left, Bush supporters/opponents, war supporters/opponents, etc. Those group adopt tactics collectively, take on general behavioral attributes, are motivated by common objectives or needs, and come to be governed by distinct and dominant group forces.

It is critical and unavoidable to talk about, and defend or criticize, the behavior and attributes of these groups as groups. These political groupings win or lose, persuade or alienate, create or destroy, all as a result of the tactics and attributes which come to predominate and define what the group is. If we avoided talking about groups as groups -- which necessarily includes all sorts of generalizations -- it would mean that we would avoid talking about some of the most significant influences on political events. It's impossible and completely undesirable to avoid the use of generalizations when talking about political matters.

As necessary as they are, generalizations are fraught with risks and dangers. In any group of any size, the generalized statements which accurately describe the group's behavior will be inapplicable to various individuals who compose the group. That's just the nature of generalizations, and while that means one should exert caution when using generalizations, it does not mean that they ought to be avoided. They shouldn't be and can't be.

When I talk about Bush defenders and Bush followers and the Bush movement, I am referring to the tactics and behaviors exhibited by those who lead that movement and to those who most prominently, influentially and loyally defend it. As is true with all generalizations, none of it is absolute. Some Bush defenders deviate now and then from those strategies. Some of the individuals who lead or defend the movement may be uncomfortable with some of the defining rhetorical tactics and even repudiate them. But none of that undermines the validity and accuracy of the generalizations, which, by definition, describe what a group does generally, not every moment, in every instance, without exception.

Individuals themselves are complex and can act with conflicting motives. The most vicious and amoral tyrant can engage in a periodic act of kindness and generosity. Highly dishonest people can have moments of unusual candor, while the most magnanimous and selfless person can engage in isolated acts of cruelty and deceit. But most individuals, like most groups, end up with attributes which predominate, and it is entirely legitimate -- and necessary -- to talk about those attributes even if there are deviations and exceptions.

Many of the criticisms made against Bush followers are not unique to them. Individuals on the Left, in the center and everywhere else can also be vulnerable to group think, the selective disregarding of facts which conflict with their beliefs, and the temptations to abuse power. That ought to go without saying. But the combination of factors and circumstances which have defined the Bush presidency -- an extreme event (the 9/11 attacks), extreme imbalance in our government (accounted for by pro-Bush domination of all three branches of government), and extremists at the highest levels of the executive branch -- have made the Bush movement uniquely radical and extreme.

The idea that one can't talk about those things because some people who support George Bush may be nice, good, honest people -- or because some Bush supporters are complex people with mixed motives that aren't susceptible to generalized descriptions -- is just absurd. The Bush movement is identifiable by overriding attributes, tactics and behaviors which have had an extraordinary impact in fundamentally changing our country. Of course that movement is going to be talked about as a movement, and it ought to be.

What determines the accuracy of these observations isn't whether they exist on the level of generality but whether they are supported by documentation, evidence, credible sources, etc. Those who make generalizations about groups based on nothing but emotion and prejudice are acting irresponsibly, but those who describe group behavior supported with data and documentation are engaged in necessary and valuable analysis.

Our country is not governed by the Left or by liberals at the moment, and hasn't been for some time. Almost every government institution -- including the entire Executive Branch, both houses of Congress, and large swaths of the federal judiciary, particularly at the highest levels -- is dominated almost entirely by individuals who are loyal to the Bush presidency, its worldview, and the defining and predominant items on its agenda. The "Left," or any other group, controls virtually nothing. Our country is governed with virtually no opposition by the Bush movement and its defenders, and as a result, the corruption, dishonesty and abuses of power which one finds among them are the ones which, in my view, are the ones most worth talking about and battling against.

I read numerous pro-Bush blogs and other sources on a regular basis -- The Corner, Powerline, Michelle Malkin, Instapundit, Weekly Standard, the New York Sun, and scores of others, big and small. When someone blogs every day, they necessarily reveal far more about themselves than is usually revealed by people you don't actually know. Reading someone's blog on a daily basis is almost like sitting with them at the breakfast table every day -- with them in a whole array of moods -- while they sit and read the newspaper and talk aloud in an unmediated, unedited way about their views on pretty much everything. If you have that level of raw exposure to someone's thought processes, you come to learn how they think and reason, what their level of intellectual honesty is, and what motivates them.

Much of what I have come to believe about how Bush defenders think, how they behave, what motivates them, what tactics they use, is based upon the insight one develops as a result of having that level of exposure to their thought processes. With almost everyone opining so regularly and continuously on the Internet, how Bush defenders think and what they believe is all right there to look at -- it's all out in the open -- and, as a result, it can be amply documented. Almost every post I write about Bush defenders is usually stuffed full of links to pro-Bush bloggers or other Bush-defending advocates because I try to ensure that any such generalizations are supported by ample documentation and are accompanied by abundant (and meaningful) examples (i.e., from influential and representative Bush followers rather than obscure and unrepresentative ones). That is what I think distinguishes responsible generalizations from irresponsible ones.

The Bush movement generates such intense responses on both sides precisely because it is unusual, extreme, and radical. Those who defend it think that its radical departures are justifiable and beneficial and those who oppose it think they are destructive and amoral, but most people work with the premise that this administration has forged its own new path.

For that reason, it is to be expected that the Bush movement is discussed as an entity unto itself. Arguments of that nature are not inherently invalid because they are comprised of generalizations. To say "oh, he's talking in generalizations" is not an indictment of someone's argument. Whether the arguments are valid is simply determined by whether there is rational and evidentiary support for those generalizations. When I describe the behavior of Bush defenders, I never simply assert the description but always provide what I believe is ample support for it. One can dispute the persuasiveness of the claims or the support, but one cannot, in my view, claim that those descriptions are somehow inherently invalid because they are made in the form of generalizations.


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