From the January 1995 issue of TLD


Cognitive vanity

or, You cannot know a politician’s heart


Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch.

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In 1976 I was a high-church Episcopalian. At my parish, Morning and Evening Prayer were read publicly every day, and Morning Prayer was followed by daily Mass — and that's what they called it, too. I was never self-disciplined enough to make it to Mass every morning, but I usually managed it at least twice during the week. After Mass, I would join the regulars in the kitchen of the parish hall, where a few of them would fix a fine breakfast of eggs, toast, and bacon. It was during that time that I met Richard Arnold, as pleasant a conversationalist and breakfast companion as one could hope to have.

I had no idea what Dick's occupation was at the time, but I suspected it had something to do with the law or government. I often didn't inquire too closely in those days, figuring that nearly everyone I met in the Episcopal Church in Washington would have some government job or other, and I did want to like the people I was eating with and (more importantly) worshiping with.

On January 20, our breakfast conversation turned to the subject that was doubtless being discussed all over the country. The result of the Iowa caucuses showed that big Democrat names Fred Harris, Birch Bayh, Henry Jackson, Morris Udall, and Sargent Shriver had been eclipsed by Jimmy Carter, and like most Americans we wondered, "Jimmy who?" Dick Arnold knew, and he told us a little about Jimmy Who — nothing about ideas, you understand, just where the man had been and what he had done. In the weeks that followed, Carter came in second in Mississippi, won in Maine, and tied in Oklahoma. [1] And then he won in New Hampshire. And on each following Wednesday morning, Dick Arnold seemed to be smiling a little more broadly. And he noted what many others noted at the time: that each time "Mr. Carter" won, his coverage got a little more favorable, and more voters thought they saw a winner. He also joked that when we prayed for "Gerald, our President" in the intercessions at Mass, maybe we could add "and Jimmy, our candidate." (The Reagan supporter at the table did not think that was funny.)

Shortly after Carter's inauguration, when appointments were handed down, we learned that Dick Arnold was going to be leaving us — to become a federal judge in Arkansas. I still didn't know what he had done for a living, but by then I could make an intelligent guess. I could also guess that he had not been just some Carter cipher-voter who stuffed fliers under windshield wipers.

My purpose in telling this story is not to indulge my name-dropping predilection, but to discuss what I have come to recognize as a common but dangerous propensity.

When Bill Clinton was wondering whom he would nominate for the Supreme Court last year, his choice came down to three candidates: Stephen Breyer, the toad Bruce Babbitt, and Richard Arnold. I hadn't thought of Dick Arnold in nearly 20 years; in fact, the news stories were about a week old before the penny dropped and I realized that I knew one of the potential nominees.

I found myself hoping that he would be nominated. Not so I could say I had breakfasted (often) with a justice of the Supreme Court (though some of my friends think they would never have heard the end of it), but because I felt I knew that guy, and he was a decent and prayerful man, faithful in his religious observances. I was sure he would make a splendid justice and that his opinions would display wisdom and impartiality, penetrating in their understanding of the human heart, and of justice and the good of society. It went without saying that the other potential nominees were morally inferior trolls who would merely rubber-stamp the statist-liberal program.

But then I came back to earth. Know him? What did I know? Had I ever read an opinion he had written? Did I know anything of his social or church life in Arkansas? Even supposing that he had persevered in his religious disciplines, what assurance did that offer that his mind was not corrupted by modern polity? I have often reflected how little I know of the secret life of my closest friends. How little they know of mine! What reason in all the world did I have to prefer Dick Arnold over anyone else?

Only this: that I had known him slightly and liked him without knowing much about him. It would be painful to think that that nice guy was a corrupt sleaze. And yet ... what can I say: he had  been on the federal bench in Arkansas. And every defense of the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater has echoed the refrain, "That's just the way things are done in Arkansas." Done by federal judges, too?

Well, I don't know. I am not prepared to indict Dick Arnold. But I am prepared to indict Ronn Neff, and anyone else who forgets that deceit is the basis of all politics. I remember before the Gulf War, I was talking to a Baptist seminarian who couldn't believe that Bush of Arabia had anything but the best interests of the United States at heart in preparing to make war. "I think he's a decent man," he said. On what basis? What we see or hear on television? I'd sooner trust Lynda Carter's endorsements of contact lenses.

Yet any vote cast in an election presupposes that the voter has some idea of what kind of person the candidate is. Even when local officials are elected from fairly large communities, voters sometimes think of them as neighbors, and think they know them and can trust them. How often it's just wishful thinking, indeed vanity. How nice it would be to personally know someone important. Not to try to get a job from him. Not to get a favor from him. But merely for the self-deluding frisson of being able to say, "Yeah, I know him. He went to my church. He's a good guy." "I was a year ahead of him at school." "His wife heads up a charity my sister works for." "His dad's a dentist back in my home town. He's a good guy."

The desire to believe good of someone is not the Christian virtue of charity. Charity is desiring someone's good. It is never in conflict with truth. Not so the desire to believe good of someone, which normally functions as a reverse filter, letting only muddy thoughts pass through and blocking clear ones. And when the desire becomes the positive act of belief itself — as it so easily does — then have we subverted our rational faculties. It's a vanity to believe something without evidence — as though one's faculties are more penetrating than, in the nature of things, they can be. A little like the vanity of name-dropping.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, I was one of a group of people who dined together once a week, some of them libertarians, most of them enthusiastic about the candidacy of Pat Buchanan. One — a conservative journalist — criticized libertarians who remained aloof from the Buchanan campaign by asking me: How can libertarians ever hope to attain their goals if they aren't willing to take part in real politics? Here is a man who should be mostly acceptable to them (the journalist's appraisal), and nevertheless so many of us will have nothing to do with his campaign.

I answered, not presuming to speak for other libertarians, that in 1932 the free-market candidate was Franklin Roosevelt. In 1964, the anti-war candidate was Lyndon Johnson. On what basis could people who didn't know Buchanan claim to know what he would do? What we could be sure of was that issues would emerge, complicated incidents would occur, that the next president would have to address — questions that, in early 1992, we could not imagine. To vote for Buchanan (or anyone else) was nevertheless to claim to have reason to believe that he would do the right thing. And that kind of evidence hardly anyone could ever have, for hardly anyone in the country would ever know Buchanan (or any other candidate) well enough to have that kind of confidence.

To imagine that you can know anything about a man from his speeches, the purpose of which is to win your trust, is just cognitive vanity. In real life, we never trust someone on the basis of what he says or does explicitly to win our trust. Only in politics are we expected to be such fools.

And while our beliefs may be of varying strengths, our actions are not. The person who voted for Buchanan halfheartedly acted no differently from Buchanan's sisters when they voted for him enthusiastically. Complete strangers had to express the same confidence in a man they would never see except on television as did women who had grown up with him.

To believe more than evidence gives us is a temptation like many others. But truth is more important than our vanity. Bad enough that the eternal beatitude of our souls is jeopardized when we corrupt our cognitive faculties in favor of the passing pleasure of vanity. But the temporal, political consequences of our self-deceptions are no small potatoes, either. Ω


Published 1995, 2000 by WTM Enterprises.

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