Thursday, April 2, 2009

The GOP Outrage Industry is At It Again

We're all preoccupied with our daily lives, plus many of us are also devoting whatever extra time we have to mobilizing support for President Obama's budget, health care reform, etc. There are so many problems to deal with and so little time. Amidst all this, the travails of one of President Obama's appointees may seem a trivial matter, but it's part of a larger pattern—one which, if allowed to continue unchecked, will not only hamper the Obama administration’s ability to function, but will ensure that decent, principled people avoid government service like the plague.

You may remember from the Clinton presidency that the GOP's outrage professionals and their echo chamber essentially smeared and catcalled many of Clinton's appointees and policies into collapse. Now that the GOP is out of the White House, the same old tactics are coming back with a vengeance. The way it works is this:

  1. Some GOP hack distorts or completely manufactures "facts," and accuses a nominee of harboring extreme views.

  2. The accusation is picked up by the GOP outrage industry, which repeats the charge endlessly.

  3. The mainstream media (you know, the ones who’re supposedly biased against the GOP), mindlessly picks up on the story (after all, it involves conflict) and reports on it, thereby perpetuating the charges & giving them huge exposure. Or, the media just ignores what’s going on, allowing the hysterical charges to become THE story.

  4. Yet another intelligent, decent person is hounded out of a job..

Barack Obama has nominated Harold Koh, Dean of Yale Law School, to be legal adviser to the State Department. The outrage industry is claiming (falsely, of course) that Koh believes Sharia law should be used in the U.S. The mainstream media is so far silent on this. The same thing, by the way, is being done to Dawn Johnsen, who Lithwick terms "one of the most qualified candidates ever tapped to head the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department." She now faces a filibuster in the Senate because no one moved a muscle to protect her from right wing smears.

That leaves it up to a network of obsessive, argumentative loudmouths (i.e., people like me) to grab a lantern, jump on a horse, and wake up everyone in the countryside.

People—Please read this excellent post by Dahlia Lithwick about the situation.

Then write/blog/call your friends, anyone with contacts in the media, etc. Let’s clear the air & expose the GOP’s outrage industry for the sham that it is. Smear tactics are repulsive and a threat to democracy.

Here’s why it’s important to respond to this stuff quickly:

A great deal of research in cognitive psychology has shown that:
  1. People tend to use their first impressions of something as a cognitive template for categorizing other, seemingly similar things.

  2. Thus we expect things apparently similar to things we perceived previously to be the same as the original objects.

  3. When we expect something, the expectation (or template) tends to override our perceptions. In other words, we tend to “find” what we expect.

  4. Repetition of a message, by making that message part of one’s day-to-day cognitive “background,” leads the listener/watcher to accept the message as ordinary and in a sense, natural. It is easy to assume that, as is the case with many other messages we receive repeatedly, that the message is in a sense "normal."

Because of the templating phenomenon, it matters greatly who defines the situation first. As W. I. Thomas put it, "If men [sic] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." Or, as Gang of Four put it,
We’ve all got opinions—where do they come from?
Each day seems like a natural fact
And what we think changes how we act.

It has been said that you get what you accept. Let’s not accept this.

UPDATE: Here's an excellent post by Monica Youn at Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, with a lot more detail on Harold Koh's career and actual positions on the issues.

UPDATE 2: Scott Horton reports that the Congressional GOP is threatening to block all of Obama's appointments if the administration makes public the torture memos. I guess the GOP has an awful lot to be afraid of there, because this certainly smacks of desperation.

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