Friday, January 16, 2015

A Pox on Vox Populi

I recall a student who once told me that he thought all opinions were equal.
I must have sighed the exasperated sigh of a
 long-suffering curmudgeon when I replied that, no, he was confusing the principle that everyone is entitled to an opinion — which is certainly true — with the idea that all opinions must therefore be of equal value, which is obviously false.
If it were true, then you'd go to a meat cutter instead of a physician when you required surgery. Save yourself a lot of money that way.
Or, if we’re discussing evolution, let us say, then the opinion of a biologist with a doctorate is worth infinitely more than that of some religious fanatic with no scientific background.
And, if all opinions are not of equal merit, then it follows that a vast accumulation of wrong opinions is therefore nevertheless worth less than one single correct opinion.
And that conclusion impels me to violate one of the great taboos of the popular media and politicians, who must always pretend that public opinion is wise, reliable and valid, and never permit a whisper to the contrary. Public opinion polls are reported breathlessly, as if they were the pronouncements of the Oracle at Delphi.
On the air, politicians and the popular media pander ceaselessly to public opinion. Off the air, they laugh at it. In fact, as they well know, public opinion is
often thunderously ignorant.
Even after the Duelfer report to Congress confirmed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, 72 percent of Bush and Cheney’s  supporters continued to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major program for developing WMD (25 percent), according to a study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes. Fifty­six percent assumed that most experts believed Iraq had actual WMD and 57 percent also assumed, wrongly, that Charles Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program.
And of those who watch television news, the most misinformed on that topic were of course the Fox News viewers. That's because Fox prefers to pander to viewers' prejudices rather than refute them.
Thus, on Fox, Barack Obama and Barbra Streisand are always wrong, a Bush is always a godsend, the French are always diabolical and Iraq WMD are “discovered” again and again and again (subsequent admissions that the “discoveries” were all phony are always buried).
The threadbare nature of public opinion is well illustrated by public taste. Consider the “reality” programming that captured the American public's fancy. That amounts to a parade of boorish billionaires, beautiful young people who were willing to sell themselves for a big pile of bucks and ordinary people who were encouraged to stab each in the back for a financial prize. How inspiring.
Take the sickening, long-running “reality”
show “Cops,” which invites tasteless Americans to leer and jeer at even more tasteless Americans in their trailer parks. “I come home and grabbed me a couple beers and then me and her got into it,” is an example of the show’s lyric dialogue.
"On the day that the defense rested in the military trial of Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr. for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, American television news had a much better story to tell: ‘The Trouble With Harry,’ as Brian Williams called it on NBC,” noted Frank Rich in the New York Times. “The British prince had attended a fancy dress costume party in Wiltshire (theme: ‘native and colonial’) wearing a uniform from Rommel's Afrika Korps complete with swastika armband.”
“(I)f you stood back for just a second and thought about what was happening in that courtroom in Fort Hood, Texas. — a task that could be accomplished only by reading newspapers, which provided the detailed coverage network TV didn't even attempt — you had to wonder if we had any more moral sense than Britain's widely reviled ‘clown prince.’
“The lad had apparently managed to reach the age of 20 in blissful ignorance about World War II. Yet here we were in America, in the midst of a war that is going on right now, choosing to look the other way rather than confront the evil committed in our name in a prison we ‘liberated’ from Saddam Hussein in Iraq."
In other words, in terms of American public opinion, posing in a fascist outfit is a terrible thing, while actually practicing fascist torture may not be so bad at all.
It's not so much that many members of the public are stupid as that they're willfully ignorant, which is worse. You can’t help it if you're stupid, but you can help it if you’re ignorant. And if you celebrate your ignorance, as much of the public does, then you're both insufferable and dangerous.
Why dangerous? Because even when public opinion is invalid, it’s still powerful. In 1930s Germany, public opinion supported Hitler. In this country, public opinion once supported slavery and genocide of the Indians.
In 1633, the Inquisition condemned Galileo Galilei for daring to contend that the Earth moves around the Sun. Public opinion, church authority and the power of the state were united in insisting that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
And yet the Earth took no notice of majority opinion, and went on blithely whirling around the Sun, just as it always had. How very elitist of the planet.

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