Jul 262003

“To generalize is to be an idiot,” William Blake famously generalized. Blake has sympathizers at Crooked Timber, where Brian Weatherson and Henry Farrell, rake Randy Barnett over the coals for his j’accuse to “the Left,” which has apparently been “living a lie,” en masse, and now more than ever:

Since the 2000 election, however, I have begun to realize for the first time that the Left really and truly lives in a socially constructed world — a world where “truth” is their own construction. In their world:

Al Gore was elected president. Bush was selected. The Supreme Court “decided the election” (rather than reversed a rogue Southern state Supreme Court and restore the rulings of local, mainly democratic [sic], election officials). Bush is in the pocket of the oil companies. Dick Cheney really runs the country. Bush’s energy plan would destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I could go on and on. These are not disagreements about “values” or ends, but disagreements about facts. Once you notice this phenomenon, you see it everywhere. Now the Left is lying about Bush to make him appear to be a liar because they cannot catch him in any actual lies.

Henry, in reply, takes a meta-approach:

Big Dumb Generalizations like Barnett’s have two dead give-aways. First of all, they talk in grand terms about the Left (or the Right) as if it were some sort of groupthink monolith, where all speak for one, and one speaks for all. This rhetorical trick allows them to take some fringe notion advanced by an Indymedia crackpot as incontrovertible evidence that everyone to the left of Barry Goldwater is living on Pluto. Second, as Kieran [Healy] makes clear, their tendentious generalizations are usually reversible so that its trivially easy to swap around the good Right and the bad Left. For example, a leftie could just as easily write an agitprop article about how the Right was living in a dream world in which the administration hadnt made false claims about Iraqs nukes and al Qaeda links, Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, John Lott had real figures to prove that more guns equal less violence, &c &c.

Henry first objects to “Big Dumb Generalizations.” Barnett’s is Big, certainly; Dumb, possibly, although neither Henry nor Brian deigns to say why; but mostly the trouble seems to be that it’s a Generalization. The objection is to generalization as such. One wonders exactly what kind of generalizations, if any, about “the Left” and “liberals,” or “conservatives” and “the Right” for that matter, Brian and Henry would consider valid.

If I were to claim that the Left supports more business regulation than the Right, I would seem to be on solid ground. Yet Marx, for one, vigorously opposed business regulation, which he thought would meliorate the harsh effects of laissez-faire, lull the proletariat into false consciousness, and postpone the glorious day of the socialist revolution. Have I, too, entered the Land of the Big Dumb Generalization?

And yes, such generalizations, like playground taunts, are reversible, in the I’m-rubber-and-you’re-glue sense. It does not follow, however, that their reverse is equally true. Randy says that “the Left” claims that Gore was elected and Bush was selected. You can quibble over how much of the Left is implied in “the Left,” but anyone who reads blog comments knows that some of the left claims exactly that. But if a leftie, by Henry’s hypothesis, wrote a mirror-article in which he claimed that “the Right” believes that Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, he would be laughed at, because no one, to my knowledge, has ever said any such thing.

Barnett has a real argument, which Brian and Henry do not bother to extract, that runs as follows: Leftists are apter to believe in “socially constructed” reality. (This much strikes me as obvious. Of course not all leftists believe in “social construction,” but everyone who does is a leftist.) People who believe that all reality is “constructed” are apter to construct their own. QED.

One could answer by claiming that few people on the left believe Barnett’s litany; this, alas, requires recourse to grubby facts. Or one could answer that “Left” and “Right” are essentially meaningless terms and ought to be retired, the way Jacques Barzun tried to retire “classic,” “romantic,” and “modern.” I’d sympathize with either approach. But to object to a generalization on the grounds that it’s a generalization — what are you guys trying to do, put us bloggers out of business?

  2 Responses to “To Be an Idiot”

  1. More than a matter of putting bloggers out of business, I think. Any type of critical analysis depends on generalizations to determine general trends. In fact, while generalizations can be wrong, oftentimes they are not in the way that people choose to attack them. An abstraction of a trend, or belief system is not refuted by the existence of specific counterexamples unless those counterexamples are sufficient in number or quantity to refute the abstraction itself.

    I, for example, am not a leftist, but struggle with the ideas of constructed reality regularly. My existence doesn’t really have any bearing on your generalization except in my specific circumstance. (I reject social constructionism even though I feel compelled to try and establish a basis for doing so. In general though, social constructionism seems to provide its adherents with a sense of power. Unfortunately they don’t see, as an Oracle does not see, that they themselves are a part of a system, and that even though they imagine themselves outside of the system they examine, they are still really trapped within it.)

    The absolutist mathematical rigidity that is so often used against generalizations is, in my opinion, just an attempt to disable critical thinking from recognizing the general patterns [in this case, of the Left’s political motivations and strategies].

  2. There are those on the liberterian right who take undue excpetion to "generalization" (i.e., claims to knowledge which would amount to any kind of wisdom). I was taken to task once by Viriginia Postrel for writing that conservatives had become intellectual lightweights (I cited WFB’s attempt to refute Randian ethics by claiming it had "all been said" in the Sermon on the Mount; also that Dinesh D’Souza could write a book about "The Virtue of Prosperity: How to Find Values in a Time of Economic Plenty" without once mentioning that the whole problem or "opposition" between virtue and wealth is a creation of Christianity. Postrel’s response was to dismiss the criticism as "broad brush."

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