The Limits of Shaming and Guilt-induction as Argumentation Tactics

Kevin Drum has written a doleful, observant pair of posts about certain argumentation tactics he observes among leftists. In the first he addresses guilt:

let’s be honest: We really do rely on guilt a lot. You should feel guilty about using plastic bags. About liking college football. About driving an SUV. About eating factory-farmed beef. About using the wrong word to refer to a transgender person. About sending your kids to a private school. And on and on and on.

We all contribute to this, even when we don’t mean to. And maybe guilt is inevitable when you’re trying to change people’s behavior. But it adds up, and over time lefties can get to seem a little unbearable. You have to be so damn careful around us!

In his second post, Kevin discusses the “brutal” intersection of shaming and social media. He quotes Freddie deBoer:

If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person.

I am grateful to Kevin for having the integrity to bring this problem up, not least because in doing so he risks being exposed to the shaming/guilt-induction tactics that he is describing. The norms under which we engage each other in debate matter enormously for the health of our democratic republic. If it’s okay for liberals to reflexively accuse everyone who disagrees with them of being insensitive/racist/sexist/a bad person etc. then it’s also okay for Sean Hannity to label everyone who disagrees with him an unpatriotic, freedom-hating terrorist stooge.

Across the political spectrum, we are capable of better than this. We can make arguments for why we believe what we believe without resorting to the non-argument that our personal opinions and moral worth are isomorphic. Accepting that truly good people can disagree with you is part of becoming a contributor to civil society. It’s also part of growing up.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Body and Soul

garfieldMany fine movies have been set in and around the boxing ring. Most of them borrow from the subgenre’s touchstone, which is this week’s film recommendation: The 1947 classic Body and Soul.

The hero of the story is up-from-nothing Charley Davis (John Garfield), a scrappy boxer looking for a shot at the championship. Unfortunately, that means throwing in with the criminals who control the whole rotten enterprise and exploit everyone in it. As celebrity and money go to his head, Charley is drawn away from the decent values and people from his old neighborhood and towards the glamorous but amoral people who spend their lives in society’s upper echelons. Charlie thinks he is on top of the world. But then the bosses order him to throw a big fight so that they can cash in by betting against him, pushing him to the point of emotional and ethical crisis.

This movie suffers a bit from the Hitchcock problem: Its elements have been aped so many times in subsequent films that they may come across to modern viewers as cliched. But try to get past that unfair but understandable reaction and feast yourself on a sharply-written, unforgettably photographed and acted piece of cinema.

The rewards for viewers are many. Garfield is superb as Charley, bringing alive his character’s mix of toughness and boyish vulnerability. It’s a complex performance of impressive maturity from a fairly young actor (who unfortunately never got to become an old one, he died just a few years later). Abraham Polonsky’s memorable script creates a triangle around Charley, with the other two points being strong, well-rounded female characters: Charley’s long suffering fiance Peg and his mother, Anna. These roles are brilliantly essayed by Lili Palmer and Anna Revere, respectively. In particular, the scenes of the three of them together in Anna’s house are absolutely riveting. These confrontations are also beautifully blocked and lit as the three performers move from the kitchen in the foreground to the small bedroom in the background which has a window where there really ought to be a wall (Realistic architecture maybe not, but the effect is so striking that you will not care).

Body and Soul Wong HoweThis film is also justly legendary as a showcase for my favorite cinematographer, James Wong Howe. The boxing scenes are astonishing in their vividness. Until I saw this photo I wondered if it were just a Hollywood legend that Howe shot them on rollerskates! Howe also shines outside the ring, given the viewer a gritty, realistic cityscape in which this dark story unfolds.

Although on the surface this movie is of course about pugilism, at a deeper level it’s about low-income outgroups (Jews and Blacks) trying to make good in a corrupt, oppressive and money-grubbing system. Virtually everyone involved in the production were members of the hard left and would soon be persecuted by McCarthyites as a result. But they had a free hand here for their pro-underdog politics, and they pulled no punches.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Hitch-Hiker

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Ida Lupino was a central figure in the breaking of the all-male lock on the Hollywood director’s chair. While she was looking for a new project to make with her then-husband Collier Young, she met one of the men who had been kidnapped and forced to drive through Mexico by spree killer Billy Cook. That inspired her (and co-screenwriter/producer Young) to make this week’s film recommendation, the first film noir directed by a woman: 1953′s The Hitch-Hiker.

The plot is straightforward and crisply told. Wonderfully, there is none of the extended, needless expository “set-up” of the characters and story of which too many film makers are enamored. Rather, the movie opens with a solitary figure walking slowly along a highway, looking for a ride. His face is off-camera. A car stops to pick him up, and moments later we see the same car on a dark side road, with dead bodies next to it. The solitary figure, face still obscured, harvests wallets and jewelry from the corpses. And then we see two pals on a fishing trip pick up a hitchhiker, who draws a gun and tells them to drive to Mexico. Somewhere along the way, he announces blandly that he is going to kill them too. From there, the movie is a three-handed nail biter, with William Talman as the hitchhiker and Frank Lovejoy and Edmund O’Brien as the luckless captives. Lupino keeps the brutal tale moving quickly and tells it an unromantic, unadorned style reminiscent of one of her mentors, Raoul Walsh.

Like most people, I only knew William Talman as the Prosecuting Attorney who got his head handed to him every week by Perry Mason. But there was more to the man than the role of Hamilton Berger let him show. As the gun-toting, sadistic Emmett Myers, he’s truly chilling. Yet like most bullies, he conveys an undercurrent of weakness and fear. It’s a pity Talman’s addiction to tobacco took him away from us at such an early age, leaving The Hitch-Hiker as the only big screen work for which he is even occasionally remembered.

HH2O’Brien is credible as the more macho of the kidnappers, who chafes at Talman’s psychological terrorism and keeps looking for a way to confront him. But the more complex performance is by Frank Lovejoy, whom Lupino seems to have coached to play his part more like O’Brien’s wife than friend. He cooks, he tends injuries, he loves children, he counsels patience and he better endures Talman’s taunts that the captives are soft and unmanly. Yet when the need arises, Lovejoy is heroic. I wonder if Lupino saw herself this way. In any case, I doubt that a male director/scriptwriter would have crafted Lovejoy’s part in this complex and compelling fashion.

The film is also a master class in noir cinematographer, with Nicholas Musuraca behind the camera. The eerie shots of Talman’s menacing face floating in the dark in the back seat with the two terrified captives harshly lighted and staring at the camera are unforgettable. But Musuraca also puts paid to the idea that film noir camerawork has to be all about shadow. Noir is a mood and not just a lighting style. The lonely, glaring shots of the car rolling through the bleak desert utterly isolated under the burning Mexican sun are just as much iconic noir as are all the dark scenes. Musuraca is revered in film noir uber-buff circles, but not widely respected beyond that, perhaps because his oeuvre was so enormous that he inevitably worked on some zero-budget tripe. But with this film, the trend-setting noir Stranger on the Third Floor and his movies with Jacques Tourneur (also once unappreciated), he has the basis to accrue a stronger reputation over time.

The Hitch-Hiker is a minor classic of the noir genre and a feather in the cap for Lupino, Young and everyone else involved. After this gripping movie, you may find yourself hesitant to ever again slow down and pick up that guy with his thumb out on the side of the road.

My dinner with Julian

A few weeks ago, I got to have dinner with Julian Bond.  We have a friend in common, who asked me to recommend a play for when “my friend Julian Bond” came to town. “Did you say ‘your friend Julian Bond?’” I squeaked into the phone; whereupon she invited my boyfriend and me to join her and her husband and Bond and his wife for dinner.

As I drove our star-struck way downtown, I listened to Michael read from Bond’s biography on Wikipedia, even as I pretended to ignore him: “Honey, they’re not going to give us a test!”  But after he rolled through the familiar list of credits–leader in the American civil rights movement, helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, twenty years in the Georgia legislature, University of Virginia history professor, past chair of the NAACP–Michael said, “Oh, listen to this.  His father got one of the first PhDs granted to an African-American by the University of Chicago.”

“Really,” I said.  “I wonder if he was a Rosenwald Fellow.”

You’ve probably never heard of the Rosenwald Fellowships, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of many of the Fellows: W.E.B. DuBois, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, James Weldon Johnson, Ralph Ellison and nearly every other African-American artist and scholar active in  mid-Twentieth Century America.  The Rosenwald Fellowships, like the MacArthur genius grants which succeeded them, gave no-strings-attached cash to scholars and artists to continue their work; but unlike the MacArthur grants, the Rosenwalds went almost exclusively to African-Americans.

The fellowship program was part of Julius Rosenwald’s one-man campaign for racial justice, a campaign which led him to build the Rosenwald Apartments in Chicago and YMCAs in other Northern cities to provide housing for African-Americans moving up from the South.  It also led him to construct 5,000 schools for black children who were kept out of public classrooms occupied by white students.  The Rosenwald Schools provided primary education to one-third of the South’s African-American schoolchildren between World War I and Brown v. Board of Education.

So why haven’t you learned about any of this?  Because Julius Rosenwald, who made a fortune as the president of Sears, gave much of that fortune away during his lifetime and directed that the rest be spent within ten years of his death.  So his legacy isn’t a foundation with a big building giving out the occasional grant and the frequent press release; it’s the thousands of people educated and housed by his generosity.  But no good deed goes unpunished: for failing to make perpetuity his highest concern, Rosenwald has largely been forgotten.

Not by all of us, though.  I learned the story several years ago when the Spertus Museum in Chicago put on an exhibit of work by Rosenwald  Fellows.  One item in the exhibit was enough to persuade me of the Fellowships’ significance: a kinescope of Katherine Dunham performing new dances influenced by her Rosenwald-funded trip to the Caribbean.  As I watched the motions and the gestures, I recognized the origins of Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations.”  Ailey was Dunham’s student; and so, from Rosenwald to Dunham to Ailey, we have perhaps the premier work of American dance.

Thus, after a pleasant dinner in which we talked about theater and travel and the demographic transformation of Washington–Bond’s wife Pam said, “Yes, Julian calls our neighborhood Upper Caucasia”–I turned to him and said, “So, your father was a Rosenwald Fellow?”

He seemed equal parts surprised and gratified to encounter someone who knew about the Rosenwalds, and what an honor it was to receive one, and told the following story:

During a trip South in the mid-1930s to do research as part of his fellowship, Horace Mann Bond drove his car into a ditch.  Apparently a pair of rural African-Americans made their living digging holes in the road and then charging hapless motorists to tow their cars out of them.  While the two entrepreneurs were hooking up the tow truck, one of them observed Mr. Bond’s elegant city clothes and the new car he was driving, and asked how a black man came to have such luxuries.  Mr. Bond explained that he was a Rosenwald Fellow and that the fellowship had paid for the clothes and the car as well as the research he was about to do.  His interlocutor smiled: “You know Cap’n Julius?”  He hoisted the car back onto the road.  “No charge.”

Later, over coffee, Julian showed me an iPhone photo of himself seated next to an extremely elderly white lady who was holding his hand in both of hers.  “Do you know who this is?” he asked.  “In 1961 her book outsold the Bible!”  It was, of course, Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird; and on one of his recent trips South, Bond had gotten to meet her.  “I’m so excited, I’m stopping people on the street to say, ‘Look at this!  I had coffee with Harper Lee!’”

Which is, of course, just how I feel about my dinner with Julian.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Pickup on South Street

Pickup on South Street (1953)Many films have been set in seamy settings where everyone is on the make, believing in nothing and exuding cynicism until something comes along to drive one person into moral behavior (e.g., The Third Man, Casablanca, The Mission). Sometimes what makes the worm turn is romance, sometimes it’s an attack of conscience, sometimes it’s religious faith, but in this week’s film recommendation, it’s hatred of Commies!: Pickup on South Street.

Samuel Fuller’s 1952 hard-boiled masterpiece is set in the urban world of schemers, grifters, prostitutes, cops and robbers that he knew so well. The film’s perfect opening sequence, which is dialogue, backstory and exposition-free, shows cool as a cucumber pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lifting the wallet from the kind of woman a respectable young man’s parents hope he never brings home (Jean Peters). The theft is observed by two men who turn out to be federal agents. They’ve been trailing the woman because she has been unknowingly passing military secrets to the Reds at the behest of her lover/co-conspirator (Richard Kiley). Meanwhile, the clever Skip soon figures out that the piece of microfilm he found in the stolen wallet is extremely valuable. Skip decides to sell it to the highest bidder, politics notwithstanding, thereby throwing himself into conflict and intrigue with the cops, the feds and the Reds.

pickup-on-south-street-2The entire cast is on fire here, and all of them are well-matched to Fuller’s pulpy tone and visuals. Even though she hated playing the sexy bad girl, Jean Peters electrified a generation of men when this film was released, which was just before women of her physical type were largely pushed aside by Hollywood producers in favor of curvaceous blondes like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Richard Widmark, who might remind modern audiences of a young Jack Nicholson, exudes cocky charm, which is an ideal foil for Kiley’s more restrained performance as a desperate Communist agent.

But despite all the thespian talent put on display by the leads, this film is nearly stolen by Thelma Ritter in a supporting performance as Moe, an aging, raffish stoolie/ragwoman who just wants to save enough money for a nice funeral. She will sell almost anyone out — even her surrogate son Skip — but she draws the line at helping Reds. And Skip, otherwise amoral, draws his own line in the sand when Moe becomes a target.

Pickup on South Street is a rough, tough tale of the city which features corruption, disloyalty, double-dealing, licentiousness and some savage physical violence (I would not be surprised if both Peters and Kiley got some bruises making this movie). In short, for fans of Fuller and film noir more generally, what’s not to like?

To give you the flavor of this movie, I embed below one of my favorite scenes, which is representative of the whole. Jean Peters’ character is looking for the “cannon” (slang for pickpocket) who stole her wallet and believes that someone named Lightning Louie can facilitate her search.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Pub Quiz

Due both to being an amateur film reviewer and to observing the process through which my wife’s writing was made into the movie, I often surf Internet Movie Database and read its brief descriptions of various films. Here is the one for Casablanca.

Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

Sometimes, the films described are so strange sounding I can hardly believe they are real, and that is the seed from which this quiz grows. Below are 5 short film descriptions of the horror/sci-fi genre. Three of them are real descriptions from IMDB whereas the other two I made up. Try to guess which is which. Answers after the jump. As ever, please post scores and any critiques/comments/corrections at the end.

1. A lesbian college couple becomes stranded in the middle of nowhere with a pack of orphaned Nazi zombie breeders hellbent on their demise.

2. When an island off the coast of Ireland is invaded by bloodsucking aliens, the heroes discover that getting drunk is the only way to survive.

3. Two awkward Martian teenagers infiltrate the Texas Chili Cook Off and try to reunite their squabbling parents at the same time.

4. After making a pact with a witch to win a high school tennis tournament, the class nerd is terrorized by blood-sucking tennis balls that can only be defeated by a magical silver racket.

5. Aliens resurrect dead humans as zombies and vampires to stop humanity from creating the Solaranite (a sort of sun-driven bomb).

Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Three Musketeers

Be prepared to buckle your swash and save the day in this week’s big-budget movie recommendation, as we’re going back to the 17th century in Richard Lester’s take on The Three Musketeers (1973).

The plot is well-trodden ground: the feisty and ambitious D’Artagnan (played by Michael York), son of a dispossessed nobleman, dreams of joining the ranks of the famed musketeers, the King’s personal guard. He travels to Paris, oafishly making enemies along the way with the powerful Cardinal Richelieu’s henchman de Rochefort (played by Christopher Lee), and three dissolutes named Porthos, Aramis, and Athos (played by Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, and Oliver Reed, respectively). Resolving himself to the restoration of his honor, D’Artagnan challenges the last three to a duel and bides his time with de Rochefort.

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It turns out that Athos, Aramis, and Porthos are themselves musketeers, and could use D’Artagnan’s help repelling the Cardinal’s men. Meanwhile, the Cardinal (played by Charlton Heston) is busy hatching a dastardly plot to expose the Queen of France’s infidelity to the King with the Duke of Buckingham. D’Artagnan endeavors to foil the power-hungry Cardinal’s plan, although we suspect he does so more to impress his fellow musketeers and his new paramour Constance, the Queen’s maid played by Raquel Welch, than as a matter of fealty to the King.

The premise of the plot takes some time to set up, and for good reason. As far as adaptations of books go, this one is pretty faithful to the original. Dumas’ book, it should be noted, is not spare on plot details; as was common for serialized novels at the time, galloping plotlines held readers’ attention more effectively than did profound character development, which resulted in a sizeable book with an excess of intricate details of exposition. That meant that Lester was left with an abundance of material far beyond what could be fit into a single feature length film – so the producers from the Salkind family split the reel into two, and released the sequel (The Four Musketeers) a few months later. When Welch expressed consternation that her work was creating un-remunerated profit, other actors joined her in a legal suit, the product of which is the ‘Salkind Clause’ requiring up-front declarations of how many movies are to be made from filmed footage.*

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The production is a little difficult to place: at times, it feels like a fanciful and carefree family film; at other times, it is pretty desperate, raw stuff. For example, Lester has an eye for slapstick, as is evident in the many thigh-slaps, coquettish Benny Hill female caricatures, and maladroit stumbles and trips over the furniture. But there’s also a real sense of toil and struggle in Musketeers, given that it’s an early work of gangbanger fiction. Nothing quite shows how empty the lifestyle really is of people living in squalor as the effortless transition from the most detached luxuries of King Louis’ palace to the slop of Constance’s home; nothing quite captures the meaninglessness of honor violence as the sweaty, tortured, and quite frankly sad duels between the musketeers and the Cardinal’s guards; and nothing is quite so pathetic as the pretense to nobility among over-dressed henchmen stealing meals from the starving owners of a local inn.

Fear not, though. Musketeers won’t leave you worried about your conscience. It succeeds at what it was intended to do, which is to provide a fun conspiracy romp across France (even though the landscape is actually Spanish), some dazzling swordplay, and 17th century costumes replete with lace, pearls, and feathers. What’s not to like, really? The big name ensemble is certainly up to the task, although highlight performances include those by Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed, both of whom (correctly) bring a touch of psychopathy to their roles. Thank goodness Lester didn’t pursue his original idea to cast the Beatles as the musketeers, following from his earlier films (e.g., see Keith’s review of Hard Days’ Night).

En garde!

* As it happens, the Salkinds were hardly put out by the legal imbroglio; the huge profits garnered from Musketeers would go on to fund Brando’s colossal paycheck in their next film Superman (see review here), but that’s a story for another day.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Trotsky

Rise, comrades, from your slumber! A rousing film of the people awaits you this weekend! Ok, maybe not. But at least it’ll give you a good chuckle. This week’s movie recommendation is Jacob Tierney’s recent offbeat independent Canadian film The Trotsky (2009).

Leon Bronstein, played by the stoner-comedy staple Jay Baruchel, is a quirky high school student in Montreal. He’s a bright kid with a peculiar dress sense, theatrical flair, and fervid empathy with the plight of the worker. Understandable, really, when you consider that he’s the re-incarnation of Leon Trotsky. Ok, again, maybe not. But even if his belief is misplaced, he certainly takes it seriously: he takes his impassioned effort to cultivate class consciousness to the oppressed laborers at the local factory, where he hopes to organize a hunger strike.

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There’s a small hitch. Leon’s dad (played by Saul Rubinek) is the oppressive factory owner from whom Leon petitions for the liberation of the workers. When the hunger strike barely crosses over from nuisance to inconvenience, dad sees a teachable moment. He pulls Leon from his plush private school and enrolls him in public school. This is all for the best, as it gives young Leon a ripe opportunity to sharpen his wits against the oppressive regime of Principal Berkhoff, played by Colm Feore, who sports an uncanny resemblance to Lenin. The rest of the film is about Leon’s efforts to rise to the occasion for which he feels destined, and this includes unionizing the school pupils, falling in love with an older woman named Alexandra, and hopefully being exiled from his home.

Part of the comic conceit is that young Leon’s efforts to emulate the life of the real Trotsky so obviously take priority above actually making good on the promises Trotsky might have made – when all’s said and done, if there’s a choice between gaining publicity for himself and liberating the oppressed, Leon seems to care more about the former than the latter.

Nonetheless, one of the heartwarming take-away messages is that the difference between boredom and apathy – the accurate diagnosis of which preoccupies much of Leon’s interactions with his fellow schoolmates – is that between people who are either yet to be roused to action, or those who cannot be so roused. If boredom is the affliction, then Leon fancies himself as the man capable of delivering the necessary message. And while Leon’s efforts throughout the film certainly seem self-indulgently theatrical, there’s a charm in his fanciful charade. For this, the role of Professor McGovern (played by Michael Murphy), a political theorist who’s wistfully nostalgic for his days of agitation at Berkeley in the ‘60s, is a useful foil: by the end of the film, the older characters are forced to wonder when they decided that the kind of futile idealism that Leon characterizes switched from something they encouraged to something they now view as pie-in-the-sky petty insurrection.

Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 11.20.13Part of the fun in a film such as this is placing the references: some of them are straightforward (Trotsky’s search for an intellectual soul-mate by the name of Vladimir who will fill the role of his Lenin), while others are less so (the positioning of the characters is sometimes a little artificial, and held just long enough to evoke a propaganda poster). But the film does a good job of playing to different audiences with varying levels of familiarity with Trotsky lore. The lower threshold of audience familiarity with communist history is set invitingly low to ensure that only very few people will feel left out. If you’re one of those people whose knowledge of the real Trotsky’s life extends only as far as ‘something about a czar’ and ‘something else about a pick-axe,’ don’t worry: the bulk of the rest is covered within the film itself. There are, however, plenty of inside gags for those with more than merely a passing interest (a recurring nightmare of Leon’s, usually stimulated by some interaction in which another character has made him feel infantilized, is a nice witty reference to Battleship Potemkin). But there are plenty of base guffaws littered throughout to keep anyone entertained.

The supporting cast is wonderful, with particular highlights from Leon’s father and Principal Berkhoff. Sure, it’s a high school comedy, but the audience extends far beyond the usual stoner crowd that forms the main draw for most films of that ilk and for which Baruchel often appears as a principal character.

Tangled-web Dep’t

Julia Ioffe, reporting on the insane theories about the Malaysian jetliner peddled on Russian TV and in Russian newspapers, points reports that Vladimir Putin is now caught in a trap of his own making.

Russian mass media is now dominated by an extreme-nationalist lunatic fringe, built up by Putin and his cronies but no longer under their detailed control. And the alternative reality presented there influences not only mass public opinion but also elite opinion, since to stay in touch people with real decisions to make have to pay attention to the prolefeed. If Putin wanted to act responsibly, he’d be swimming against the tide. Yes, it’s his tide, in the sense that he made it, but Ioffe – quoting a Karl Rove/Mark Penn figure named Gleb Pavlovsky, who fell out with Putin after helping to engineer his last election – suggests that he cannot control it in detail.

It’s a scary picture.

What’s scarier is that, if you change the names, it applies to the relationships among the plutocrats, the GOP apparatchiki, and the world of the Murdochized press, the Koch-driven think-tanks, and Red Blogistan.

Orwell was right: there are historical moments when insisting that 2+ 2 = 4 is a radical political act.

Does socialism cause dishonesty?

Here’s an interesting natural experiment.

For external, historical reasons, workers in one half of a culturally and linguistically unified but politically divided country had the right to organize unions to defend their interests against employers, while in the other half of that country workers’ organizations were state-controlled in the interests of management, and genuine union activity was punished by firing if not worse.  After that country was reunified, randomly chosen people from the union half and the non-union half were subjected to a standard psychological test measuring the propensity to cheat.  Those who had grown up under conditions were ordinary people could defend themselves openly from oppression by their bosses turned out to be more honest than their peers from the non-union part of the country.

Conclusion: Unionization makes people behave well, while union-busting makes them behave badly.

Of course, it’s not an entirely clean experiment. The non-union side (East Germany) was under foreign control, with a secret-police network that recruited as much as one-third of the population as informants. So possibly dishonesty is caused by living in a world of fear and distrust, rather than by the absence of workers’ rights alone.

Worse than that, the non-union half was systematically looted by the occupying power, while the union half was treated much better by its conquerors and became rich. So maybe it’s scarcity, rather than or in addition to denial of workers’ rights, that makes people dishonest.

Still and all, the result is what it is: a strong labor movement is associated with improved morality.

Only somehow that’s not the conclusion the authors of the study (including Dan Ariely, a perominent behavioral economist and the author of a good semi-popular book on the subject, Predictably Irrational) decided to draw. Instead, they focused on the fact that West Germany had, alongside wealth, the rule of law, personal freedom, and a strong trade-union movement, a primarily market-based economy, while East Germany was under the Soviet system – what Orwell accurately labeled “oligarchic collectivism” – with arbitrary government, no rule of law, and no respect for human rights; residents could be and were shot for trying to emigrate, and many tried to leave just the same.

Using a definition favored only by Bolsheviki and fans of plutocracy, Ariely et al. elect to call the East German tyranny “socialism,” and pretend that their study shows that living under “socialism” worsens the morals of a population.

Having reached an extreme conclusion from a single poorly-defined case study, Ariely and his colleagues then stop, without trying to test their conclusion out of sample. Sweden, for example, has great personal liberty, honest government, and the rule of law, but much more state ownership of enterprise, more tightly regulated markets, and a far more redistributive tax-and-transfer system than Germany.  Swedes are also (if we restrict our attention to mostly-Lutheran Northern Germany) culturally similar to Germans.

Would Ariely and his co-authors be willing to bet that Swedes are less honest than Germans (or Norwegians, living under a regime closer to German mixed capitalism than to Swedish social democracy)?  If so, I’m happy to take the other end of the bet.

The same applies if we were to compare Israelis raised in explicitly socialist kibbutzim to other Israelis, or  Englishpeople raised before the Thatcher era with those raised after, or Canadians with Americans. (After all, the same people who use the word “socialist” to describe Stalinist tyranny also use it to describe national health insurance.)

Of course in all of those cases one could name other factors that might influence the outcomes. But that’s precisely the point: the same is true of the German case. Yet Ariely and his co-authors seem to think they’ve proven something, and the Economist and Alex Tabarrok (who certainly knows better) at Marginal Revolution and Mark J. Perry at AEI (who may not know better) swallow it whole, without raising a single methodological red flag. “When it comes to ethics, a capitalist upbringing appears to trump a socialist one,” trumpets the Economist, hoping that its readers will vote to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer while “reforming” union power out of the labor markets.

To call this a “mistake” would, it seems to me, be far too generous. A blunder that extreme only happens when the people making it want to fool themselves and others. It’s an example of what Dan Kahan calls “motivated cognition.”

Do the thought experiment for yourself.   Imagine that the results had come out the other way: say, showing that Chileans became less honest while Pinochet’s minions were gouging out their opponents’ eyeballs and Milton Friedman was gushing about the “miracle of Chile”? How do you think the paper would read, and what do you think the Economist, Marginal Revolution, and AEI would have had to say about its methods? 

I know that some of my libertarian friends consider my views of their movement uncharitable, but honest to God, the combination of high IQ and good formal economics training with great willingness to believe and repeat obvious nonsense that characterizes that group is really hard to take.  Of course con-cons and professional lefties also believe some truly stupid sh*t,  but neither group is as good as the glibertarians at pretending to be Serious Social Scientists.

Here’s a Pro Tip: If you never reach and publish a conclusion that doesn’t support  your prejudices, no one has any reason to take any of your results seriously.