The neocon mind by mattsteinglass
June 22, 2009, 12:23 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Iran

Andrew Sullivan has a good letter from a reader explaining why it’s so infuriating to watch neocons, as stupid as ever, imagine that the events in Iran somehow vindicate their position, when in fact the opposite is true. Of course, the opposite is always true: everything is always constantly refuting neoconservatism, much as everything is always constantly refuting Aristotelian mechanics, Maoist economics, and various other completely wrong doctrines.

I just wanted to note that for me, the kernel of untruth that replicates into a totality of error in neoconservative thought is the…well, actually, there are two kernels. I was about to write that the kernel was the identification of “America” with “freedom”, such that anyone who loves freedom, which is everyone, must ipso facto love America. Hence everyone loves America, and anyone who doesn’t love America is some kind of abomination inimical to the universe, and must be destroyed.

But in fact there’s a deeper kernel to the neocon mind, and that is an inability to cope with the ambiguity of information; or, to say the same thing, the ambiguity of reality; or, to say the same thing, the multiplicity of human subjectivity. The neocon mind is binary: Saddam either does or does not have WMD. If he has WMD, we must invade. The Iranian people either do or do not support their government. If they do not, then they will welcome American efforts to overthrow it. Neocons find it difficult to handle the discounting one must apply to large quantities of complex information drawn from different sources in order to come to a reasonable conclusion. They don’t work with a good theory of mind that allows for comparing unreliable info (from Curveball, say) to reliable info (from Hans Blix, say). And because they don’t recognize the ambiguity of the underlying info, they have no room for accepting the fact that different people have different perceptions of that info, and that actions have to adjust to the reality of varying perceptions. They can’t accept that some people, say, might believe with justification that the US is not altruistic and freedom-seeking; people like that, they think, are simply wrong, so we don’t need to pay attention to them. They live in a world of Newtonian ballistics, where the state of the world is exact and knowable, where bad guys are bad in the way that an 8-ball is black, and a given bankshot either will or will not sink it in the corner pocket. And so the solutions they apply to the world’s problems tend to be ballistic, as well. So far, they have a success rate of 0.0%. That’s a piece of hard data which even a neocon ought to be able to process; but for some reason they never do.


25 Comments so far
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Well said. To be fair, can any of us claim to always be open to the heterogeneity and instability of the truth? Doesn’t every strong emotion call on us to bifurcate and simplify? Will we be smart enough to recognize the moment when even a concept as pure-black as ‘neocon’ is no longer serving us well as a way if dividing up the political world?

Comment by Jarrett

True. I fear the moment when I have to find a new foil, and one’s political ideas do tend to ossify as one gets older.

Comment by mattsteinglass

There’s a single word that nicely describes the Neocon mentality and temperament: Reactionary.

Comment by Rod Proctor

[…] Steinglass unpacks it: [T]here’s a deeper kernel to the neocon mind, and that is an inability to cope with the […]

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Bear in mind also how difficult it is to keep multiple possibilities in mind, to live with uncertainty, and to constantly face the possibility that one has been wrong, or misinformed, and to adjust accordingly.

Comment by davidsanger

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong” – Richard Feynman

Comment by bill Kale

I’ve been pondering this inability to deal with ambiguity as a feature of conservative thinking in general.

I believe it underlies a whole host of conservative attitudes. For example, it helps explain conservative opposition to the theory of evolution. The notion that species are not stable categories, but dynamic populations that change, branch, die out, etc. is anathema to the conservative mind.

Comment by MaximusNYC

I’ve never seen two sides prematurely and simultaneously jump to conclusions about each other

Comment by advocatus diaboli

Hans Blix has proven to be just as unreliable as curveball

Comment by advocatus diaboli

I think many extremists on both sides, sadly, misidentify complexity and ambiguity as an attempt to obfuscate the stark, black and white truth. They believe that underneath the multitude of facts and deceptions lies absolute right and wrong, and that anyone who denies that is trying to deceive or steer you wrong for their own agenda. The acceptance of moral ambiguity, complexity, the need for balance and the need to constantly readjust one’s assessment of the situation, drives one towards the practical center.

Comment by a lens

Or to put it yet another way, the neocon mind doesn’t do nuance, finesse, complexity or objective reality.

Comment by Suzanne Greene

There is one important element that is not being discussed, namely, the Neocon agenda is about having power and keeping it. In other words, they are quintessential reactionary conservatives, which makes them conservatives of the worst kind, and, moreover, if history is any guide, bound to fail. Governments change, customs change, power relationships change: the conservative goal is to guide these changes with some common sense, slowly, and with an eye to tradition and continuity. Reactionaries are about preventing any change by force, and in the case of the Neocons, about preventing any change in the international or regional Middle East power relations by force or the threat of force.

Right now, the Iranian revolution is really just about trying to bring about change in the public and private sphere: this is about personal freedom, personal choices, a more secular and open culture. This is not about trying to change the political or economic structure in Iran. This is not about trying to forego the development of nuclear power. This is not about making peace with Israel or with the vastly larger Sunni Moslem world, nor is it about rejecting the obvious attempts by Iran to make Iraq its proxy.

Suppose the revolution succeeds: good for the Iranian people. Yet the reasons why the Neocons want to bomb Iran have nothing to do with the personal freedoms of Iranians, and everything to do with perceived threats to American and Israeli interests in the region. That is why this popular uprising is such a nightmare to the Neocons. Regardless of how it turns out, the nation of Iran will still be a threat to Neocons, but how can anyone advocate the bombing of a nation of beautiful and courageous young people? Don’t worry, they’ll figure something out.

Comment by Steve Moore

Andrew Sullivan cheer-led us into 2 wars, wrote about responsible sex and was caught trolling for unprotected sex, and is wrong most of the time (except when he steals ideas from others). For crissake, he WAS a neocon for most of Bush’s presidency, when it was cool to be one.

Did you forget all that?

Comment by Christopher Wing

No apparent sense of irony in criticizing a group for failing to understand ambiguity while simultaneously presenting that group in the most absurdly cartoonish manner possible: “anyone who doesn’t love America is some kind of abomination inimical to the universe, and must be destroyed.” Oh, come on. Neoconservatism has a long intellectual tradition in American foreign policy, and like all other broad-based foreign policy ideologies, it has been on the right side of history and on the wrong. I would say it was mostly wrong in opposing detente and underestimating the Helsinki Accords, was mostly right on withdrawing support for Markos in the Philippines and supporting free and fair elections in Chile, was really wrong on Iran-Contra, was right on Bosnia and Kosovo, was wrong on advocating a more confrontational approach towards China, and was rash on Iraq (though I think people tend to underestimate how intractable a problem Saddam Hussein really was). I am ambivalent on their views on Afghanistan, but the Obama administration seems to be on board (drone strikes, more troops, open-ended commitments, etc.). The reality is that these days “neoconservative” and “neocon” have essentially lost any substantive meaning and can now just as easily be defined as “anyone whose foreign policy views are to the right of my own.” Andrew Sullivan even manages to accuse “neocons” of actually wanting Ahmadinejad to win, while he criticizes them for advocating stronger American support for the opposition groups.

There is much to criticize about neoconservatism. But it is essential to criticism that one must first be capable of accurately describing the opposition’s view. While your critique has the air of analysis, once you get past the overwrought metaphors (Newtonian, ballistic, and otherwise), it is yet another “neocon as bogeyman” trope.

Comment by John Farmer

First, America is a beacon of hope and freedom in the world. Not when we go around killing people for senseless reasons, but I have heard a number of Iranians talk about how they are looking for freedom – just like America has. If you want a shining example of freedom in the world, both economic and political, America is a damn fine choice.

Second, glossing over the absolute arrogance and disgusting triteness of your comments, you need to take a long hard look in the mirror. You just went on and on about how “Neocons” can’t handle information asymmetry, the complexity of human decisions, large population samples, etc. However, “liberals” are so found of micromanaging and regulating every facet of an inconceivably complex market economy. Did you ever think that maybe the government has absolutely no ability to manage the economic choices of 300+ million people?

I don’t know for sure whether all Iranian think of America as a beacon of freedom, but I do know one thing: this blog is not a beacon of the hope and cooperation promised by Obama and the new Democrats.

Comment by Patrick

France and the UK are beacons of hope and freedom in the world. I’ve heard many Russians and Vietnamese and Togolese talk about how they are looking for freedom — just like France and the UK have. Except then there are also those Russians and Vietnamese and Togolese who for various reasons hate or distrust France and the UK for perfectly valid reasons. Similarly, there are a lot of Vietnamese and Mexicans and Indonesians and Palestinians who despise and mistrust the US for perfectly valid reasons, and who bristle when they hear an American say “America is a beacon of hope and freedom in the world”. Because to them, it isn’t, and they expect the claim to be used as a justification for broad latitude in unilateral self-interested American policy in their region of the world, as it often has been in the past.

Comment by mattsteinglass

Excatly! And this propensity stems from their religous training in which on is either “saved” or not.

Comment by Kurt

Neocons are traditionally not religious.

Comment by Spaniard

Right. No manichean thinking here, right? Sheesh. The amen choir is even more embarassing.

Comment by Sean Healy

I put the strong undercurrent of fundamentalism down to America’s embrace of modernity. The country is built on the principles of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, cornerstones of modernity – but modernity is a very confused, and very confusing, philosophical standpoint. Those who can’t hack it appear to retreat to a premodern view of the world, characterised by its lack of flexibility relating to the way the world is, and fundamentalism is a way to take just the premodern aspects of religion and use them as a shield. The way you describe it, neoconservatism might well be similar, although personally I’m wary of throwing around arguments that suggest those who disagree with my politics are mentally defective.

Comment by Merus

You do indeed capture the mindset of many on the right. But I don’t see anything particularly conservative about that way of thinking. Am I to believe that the left is a pillar of nuance and intellectualism? Am I to forget the mindset that I saw from many on the left that any idea was evil if it came from Bush? More recently, am I to forget the suggestion of many on the left that if we could only do away with profits, the world would be better off? (Nothing says job creation like a little demonization of business). Am I to forget how the left rallied around Obama for saying he’d meet with Iranian leaders with no preconditions, and ridiculed the right for being too arrogant for suggesting perhaps that would give them too much standing? How about this for a pre-condition: stop murdering your citizens. Apparently the left is now realizing that there perhaps was more nuance there then they originally thought.

Of course not everyone on the left is making such assertions, but neither does everyone on the right fit your caricature.

No, simple-mindedness does not have a political bias.

Comment by adelinesdad

[…] Matt Steinglass has written that these folks suffer from “an inability to cope with the ambiguity of information; or, to say the same thing, the ambiguity of reality. … [They] find it difficult to handle the discounting one must apply to large quantities of complex information drawn from different sources in order to come to a reasonable conclusion.” […]

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[…] Matt Steinglass has written that these folks suffer from “an inability to cope with the ambiguity of information; or, to say the same thing, the ambiguity of reality. … [They] find it difficult to handle the discounting one must apply to large quantities of complex information drawn from different sources in order to come to a reasonable conclusion.” […]

Pingback by Conservative Brain, Liberal Penis* « DEMO

Problem is not that they are “mistaken” about the understanding of liberty which other people have. In reality they know everything as good as we do-they are just plain sick bastards. To prove it to yourself just check how each notable neocon was voting and whom they were supporting in key events regarding liberty in the World. Check neocon icon, big Dick Chane advocate and torture defender Dana Rohrabacher for instance, the vigilant watcher of the Islamic fundamentalists. You know what was his position on Taliban before Bush appointed them to be bad guys of the World? Well according to him Taliban was only force capable of building up a disciplined society in Afghanistan. Yes sure, they had plenty of discipline if you ask me…
Take anyone of them, Dick Chaney, Rush Limbaugh, Bush, Rumsfeld, anyone of them, you will find a same hatred, racist, arrogant, ignorant, greedy and sadistic mind set which just has this purely criminal attitude of given others what they want to hear to get away with all this…

Ramsfeld was concerned with Weapons of mass destruction in Saddams Iraq… Yeah sure, he gave it to him to squeeze Kurds back in 80-s…

Comment by gabrichidze

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