Friday, March 27, 2015

The Telescopic Past

I know it is a long while past, but try to recall back when we first intervened in Afghanistan. Can you recall the criticisms raised by the Democrats? How this was the "next Vietnam", "a quagmire" and how getting involved would just create more terrorists? Remember how we were told we should have been seeking out al Qaida worldwide, not wasting time fighting the Taliban who had nothing to do with 9/11?

Now recall when we invaded Iraq. Suddenly we heard how Iraq was "the next Vietnam", "a quagmire", how it would just create more terrorists. We were told we should have dedicated our efforts to where the "real problem" was, Afghanistan, where we could find bin Laden and fight al Qaida, that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had nothing to with 9/11, unlike the Taliban.

At the time, I was inclined to dismiss this shifting, nonsensical set of positions as simply hypocrisy, to argue that wherever Bush concentrated, it would inevitably be seen by Democrats as the wrong place. And, for some, I am sure that was true, I am certain there were Democrats who simply dismissed the current was as a lost cause for strategic reasons, to set themselves up to blame Bush should another disaster strike, or should the body count rise.

However, I am now inclined to think there may have been something more to it, at least in terms of the rank and file Democrats. Unlike the leaders, or the extreme partisans who definitely had an agenda to pursue, the rank and file are, for the most part, relatively sincere. Granted, they may hold inconsistent ideas, may pursue certain goals more because it makes them feel virtuous than because it does quantifiable good, and so on, but by and large, the rank and file Democrats are just ordinary people and behave as you or I would, mostly honest in describing their motives, relatively straightforward in choosing their goals.

So, what allowed them to embrace this rapid, absurd shift?

It struck me today while reading some reviews of the failed Dr Who movie that Fox produced in the 1990s. To Dr Who fans, this movie was a disaster, to a man they denounced it as an abomination. And for a decade or more, there was little deviation from that assessment. However, since 2005 and the revival of Dr Who on television, more and more often we hear people finding reasons to forgive the flaws of the Fox movie, who will accept it as, if not good, at least as a sincere effort which was sabotaged by a number of very bad ideas.

In discussing this experience, a few fans on a website I visited had a good explanation. Before 2005, the tv movie was the last Dr Who fans expected to ever see, the last gasp at reviving the show, and so, when it went wrong, it was much more of a disaster than had the same flaws appeared in an episode in the middle of an ongoing series. Some compared it to Alien 3, which was horribly criticized by fans until Alien Resurrection appeared, at which time opinion seemed to become much more forgiving.

I think this explanation actually works to help explain why the opinion shifted so dramatically on Iraq and Afghanistan. As with the Dr Who explanation, the current happening is often exaggerated in our perspective. As I described in "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events" and "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative", whatever is happening now, in our lifetime, or even moreso at this moment, always seems much more dramatic, impressive, much larger than life. And so, for Democrats who were expecting Bush to lead us into a fiasco, it only made sense to see the current war in those terms, while imagining whatever war they have forsaken in favor of the current conflict must be the more important one. It is an absurd way to look at things, to always assume current events are much more significant than anything in the past, but it is also understandable. For better or worse, humans have a tendency to dismiss the past as unimportant and imagine the present is much more significant than it is.

I suppose for some this may seem self evident, a rather pointless discovery, or much ado over nothing. However, I think it is a very useful realization. It is something I have discussed before in a handful of contexts, but now, recognizing that it is close to universal, or at least has the potential to be universal, when humans do not trouble to make themselves evaluate things more clearly, it seems to me to be quite a useful means of explaining any number of common errors.

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