Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Craziness of Craziness-Talk

Although I disagree with Tea Partiers about a lot of politically crucial things, I tend to dismiss talk about their “craziness” as either partisan hyperventilation or a symptom of the status anxiety of smug elites. When you call other people “crazy,” you’re saying not just that you disagree with them strongly, but that they’ve lost their grip on reality. Crazy people are not just wrongheaded; they lack command of the techniques that reasonable people use to tell rightness from wrongness by showing a decent respect for other people's opinions. They’re the sort of people with whom you can’t reasonably disagree because, psychologically speaking, they're coming at you from a different world but don't know it.

On its face, the idea that any decent-sized group of people has gone crazy is possible (think of the mass suicide at Jonestown) but improbable. How likely is it that the Tea Partiers, a group comprised of millions of people who seem perfectly reasonable in innumerable nonpolitical respects and have proven themselves politically adroit enough to take over a major political party, have lost touch with reality rather than taken a contentious view of it? That thought is made more unlikely still by the fact that it’s so pleasantly self-serving to the people giving voice to it.

Yesterday, I was moved to say something about Republican craziness despite myself. I stand by the proposition that it would be “crazy” for House Republicans not to get behind John Boehner’s debt-ceiling plan. I say this not because I think much of the Boehner plan on its merits or claim any special insight into the Tea Party worldview. I merely take the Tea Partiers at their word when they say that they want, above all, to shrink the size of government in the name of liberty and fiscal rectitude and conclude that their cutting the legs out from under Boehner is self-defeating from their own standpoint. My confidence in my choice of words is enhanced by the fact that people sharing a lot more of the Tea Party worldview than I do are speaking in similar terms. The editors of the Wall Street Journal, for example, are getting at the same thing I was when they call passing the Boehner plan in the House “[t]he GOP’s Reality Test.”

Yet it’s one thing to say that House Republicans have lost their mind when it comes to political tactics, but something entirely different to say that their objectives are not merely misguided, but “crazy.” Let’s stop for a moment to ask ourselves what any judgment to that effect means and what it says about the people making it.

How can people, who disagree continually among themselves about what’s real, tell when they themselves or other people have lost touch with reality? The answer is endlessly complicated, but it has to involve their appreciating the difference between the rightness/wrongness of a belief (whether one’s own or someone else’s) and its reasonableness. A crazy belief is not just wrong (indeed it could be right, as it were, by accident), it’s so deeply unreasonable that no sane person could believe it. A crazy person can't tell the difference between his own standards of rightness/wrongness and the more impersonal standards of reasonableness employed by his peers.  That leaves him unequipped to resist the temptations of dogmatism inasmuch as he lacks the conceptual wherewithal to contemplate the possibility that he's wrong. He’s not just wrongheaded, but crazy in exactly the way Tea Partiers are accused of being crazy; he lacks the self-consciousness to determine for himself whether he’s losing his grip on reality.

That brings me to Paul Krugman’s over-the-top complaint against the mainstream press (my emphasis):
“We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

“So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

“The reality, of course, is that we already have a centrist president — actually a moderate conservative president.”
Krugman thinks, reasonably enough, that the Republicans’ take on raising the debt ceiling is deeply misguided as a matter of economics and morals. But he can’t resist turning his own perfectly defensible convictions in that regard into a measure of Republican sanity. That’s especially rich inasmuch as he’s also deploring the fact that the whole political spectrum, including a president widely known for his exemplary rationality, is moving to the right on fiscal issues. Most people wouldn’t take the fact that Republicans are bringing Democrats around to Republican economic doctrine as evidence of Republican insanity.  If Republicans are crazy, what does that make the Democrats gravitating to economic views "far to the right of public opinion"?

It’s bad enough that Krugman's confusing “insanity” with “wrongheadedness.”’ Worse, he’s exasperated that the mainstream press hasn’t adjusted its standards of reasonableness to his standards of wrongheadedness.  From all appearances, he's determined to obliterate any standards that would enable him to distinguish what's right by his lights from what's reasonable by other people's lights.

I'm happy to grant that there are respects in which the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party is letting its ideological zeal overwhelm its sense of political reality.  If you want to be unkind, you can call that "craziness."  But how does Krugman know that he has a firmer grip on reality than the Tea Partiers?  The fact that like-minded people are constantly complimenting him on his superior rationality, and deploring the craziness and/or corruption of everyone who disagree with him, isn't an answer.


Anonymous said...

Krugman is crazy.

Lone Wolf said...

Put differently, ideologues' way of going crazy collectively is by politicizing the standards of reasonableness. Both sides are doing a good job of it.

Anonymous said...

To Lone Wolf's point:

Then everyone's crazy but me.