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May 13, 2010

Kagan's Sexuality, the Prisoner's Dilemma, and the Politics of Personal Destruction

It occurred to me that questions which seem invasive and nasty smears come about due to the Prisoner's Dilemma.

The basics of the Dilemma are these: Two suspects have jointly participated in a crime, and have both been arrested, and are both held in separate interrogation tanks, unable to communicate with each other. They are both offered the same deal:

If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

The point is that it is strongly in both men's interest to refuse to betray, assuming a high-trust environment where they could expect the other to refuse to betray. But because neither man has full trust in the other (and can't work out a binding contract to this effect with the other), their "best move" turns out to be betraying the other, even though this results in a bad outcome for both men.

If they could communicate, establish trust, and forge a binding contract -- if they could cooperate -- they could both have the optimal result. But they can't, and that forces upon both of them a sub-optimal result.

It seems to me the dirtier aspects of politics are just like this. If both parties could really agree on what smears were out-of-bounds and forge a binding contract to avoid such smears, both parties could achieve what many long for, an optimal sort of politics, in which smears (and invasive questions) were not on the menu.

But the two parties can't cooperate, for a variety of reasons (including the fact that the parties can't actually control any of their millions of members, so any single person can decide to void the contract and go dirty, thus making any such contract between the parties meaningless).

So both are forced into a suboptimal solution in which each "betrays" the other with smears and arguably dirty tactics.

The trouble with sentimentalism about Elena Kagan's sexuality is Pete Williams' sexuality -- the former Pentagon spokesman was ruthlessly outed by committed leftist gays who claimed they served a higher purpose by exposing his (kind of open) secret to the world.

And as for keeping quiet about hot button issues: Miguel Estrada tried that, too, and the Democrats had none of that:

George W. Bush nominated Estrada to a position on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on May 9, 2001. He received a unanimous "well-qualified" rating from the American Bar Association. Democratic Senators opposed the nomination, noting Estrada's lack of any prior judicial experience at the local, state, or federal level. Democratic Senators also objected to the refusal by the Office of the Solicitor General to release samples of Estrada's writings while employed there.

A bipartisan group of former Solicitors General wrote a letter objecting to the Democrats' demand for memos that Estrada had written while he was with the office. While not addressing past instances where such memos had previously been released,[2] the letter argued release of prior memos by government employees to the public would endanger the Solicitor General Office's ability to provide confidential legal advice to the Executive Branch.

Leaked internal memos to Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin mention liberal interest groups' desire to keep Estrada off the court partially because "he is Latino," and because of his potential to be a future Supreme Court nominee.[3] Democratic spokesman for Durbin said that "no one intended racist remarks against Estrada" and that the memo only meant to highlight that Estrada was "politically dangerous" because Democrats knew he would be an "attractive candidate" that would be difficult to contest since he didn't have any record.[3]

Of course, when the Democrats aren't openly filibustering a highly qualified and "attractive" nominee specifically because he's a Latino, they're fabricating ridiculous charges of "racism" against men who aren't Latino.

In other words, maybe I could agree that if both sides agreed not to play this vicious game, it would be better for all; but I can't trust the other side not to play this game, so....

There's a frequent argument on our side about how to address this. Some urge being "better" than the other side, and abiding by certain rules, even while the other side flouts them. We ought to do this, it is said, because the right thing is always the right thing to do, and besides, the public will eventually recognize us for our forbearance and reward us for it.

I don't think 2 would ever happen, because you can never tell people "I knew X was gay but I didn't say anything out of a sense of fairness" without revealing the thing -- "X is gay" -- that you're supposedly so principled about not making an issue of.

And I don't know that the "right thing" to do to play strictly by the rules when they other team is throwing elbows and whipping legs and getting away with it. If the actual rules are that you can leg-whip and elbow and get away with it -- aren't those the real rules we should be playing by, too?

Another branch of game theory says that tit for tat is an effective strategy.

I think most people are like me -- whether you argue the "Get Almost As Dirty As They Are" side, or the "Be Better Than They Are" side, depends. It depends on the issue, and, frankly, it depends on your mood on a particular day. Most of us have tendencies towards one or the other, but in a bad mood, particularly angered at the loathsomeness of the other party's profit through egregious lies, pretty much anyone can flip over to the Dirty side.

I think most of the time I personally fall on the Dirty/Tit for Tat side. I endorse the exact same level of fairness and kind dealings towards my political opponents that they would extend to me -- that is to say, virtually none whatsoever, and I think I'll continue having this tendency until the left begins to start showing some trepidations about destroying inconvenient persons.

Jonathan Chait, the hyperpartisan best known for being a close friend and defender of serial fabulist Steven Glass and also penning the Mission Statement of the Left during the 2000's, The Case for Bush Hatred, actually has a conclusion I agree with on this topic. After whining like a bitch about the GOPs new outrageously outrageous slander of Dear Leader (that he's a "bully" -- feel the hatred), he concludes:

Why the incessant demands for civility and cries of foul play? Americans hate political conflict. In a 2002 book, political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse note that Americans fail to understand ideological disagreements between the parties. Voters think everybody should agree and interpret the lack of consensus as a sign of misgovernance.

The partiesí constant efforts to claim the rhetorical high ground and to blame the other side for all the nastiness is a pander to the publicís childlike belief in unanimity and concord. If they really wanted to raise the level of discourse, they would level with the public about the necessity of argument.

Well ignore that last sentence, because that's the silly thing you have to say to button a column. No one's leveling with the public, because the public doesn't want to be leveled with.

The public -- and when I say "the public," I don't mean all of the public, I mean the 20-25% "moderates" who are largely apathetic and apolitical and tend to vote according to things like gut-level reaction to a candidate's charisma and presentation -- does not like ideological spats and in fact prefers to believe that ideological spats flow only from emotional pique and meanness of character, and that, if everyone just coolly and amicably sat down together and rolled up their sleeves, such spats would disappear altogether, because they'd find a Magic Compromise which achieves all goals simultaneously while imposing no costs.

They refuse to believe that choosing one theory of governance will come with associated costs. They like the Republicans' idea of cutting taxes; they don't like the Republicans' ideas about cutting spending (except in theory).

They like the Democrats' idea of voting ourselves all a big raise in the form of new social spending given to almost everybody (except the ultrarich). They don't like the Democrats' plans about upping taxes, or, as Democrats call it, "investing in our future."

Choosing is an act that requires both intellectual effort and a certain amount of moral effort, too. If you decide to take money out of someone's pocket, or cut the subsidies they've grown accustomed to, you need a certain level of moral surety that you're doing the right thing.

Most people don't wish to invest much effort in politics, and don't like the idea that by choosing X they are affirmatively giving up on Y, and so they keep their options open, continuing to hope for that Miracle Solution that delivers both (and usually rewarding the party which comes up, this cycle, with the most plausible line of politicobabble bullshit suggesting they can have X and Y at the same time).

Since this crucial group of disengaged voters is not going to actually vote for an ideology -- they are going to continue to exercise their right to not choose and not decide and not really think about such matters very hard at all -- politics tends to become, of necessity, a war over personal characteristics.

Candidate A is a bad candidate because she supports Y isn't going to move these voters, because they support Y, too. They also support Not-Y, and X, and Not-X, and out-of-left-field Z, and not-Z, to boot.

In fact, they support nearly everything, and if you point out that their support of everything is highly contradictory and illogical, because some things, by necessity, come at the cost of something else, they will argue passionately with you stop listening altogether and walk away in order to update their FaceBook accounts because they really don't care to explore their beliefs and their consequences beyond the most superficial level and we really only having this discussion with you in the first place because they wanted to pretend they were engaged and also because it seemed "nice" to let you talk at them over something you seemed to care so much about.

So, for such voters, the main factor in driving decisions (to the extent they make them) is personality, and that means that the most effective line of persuasion isn't Candidate A has bad ideas about governance but rather Candidate A is a Bad Person, and it's always going to be that way, because marginal voters don't really give a crap about political ideology -- too "thinky" -- but of course everyone knows that Bad People shouldn't be rewarded.

It's not the parties' fault that they dress up ideological battles in the trappings of dramatic fiction, with White Hatted Heroes and Black Hatted Villains. It's the fault of a certain segment of the American public, who will not respond to any sort of persuasion except these crude, hastily-written Morality Plays we stage for them every couple of years.

Yeah, I'd like to deal with them as if they were adults and just say "Hey, here's their ideology, here's theirs; they're probably not bad people, on the whole, but their ideas are bad, and you have to finally chose their ideas or mine," but, on a political level, they're not adults.

They are in fact children, and you don't explain to a small child the moral consequences of lying or the nuanced cases in which a lie might be justified or inconsequential.

You tell a small child that if he lies, his Mommy and Daddy will cry, and hope that that blunt emotional messaging does the trick.

I'm a big believer in the idea that people get the government -- and the politics -- they deserve, and I'm very suspicious of criticism that lays he blame for childishness and sanctimony in politics at the feet of politicians. Don't hate the playa, hate the game, they say, and I can't get too upset over people playing the game according to its established and accepted rules.

Here's what politicians can never say, but I'm not running for office, so I can: There are a lot of fucking Dummies in this country and they're lazy to boot and the only way you can hope to engage them in politics is through Punch-and-Judy puppet-shows with lots of slapsticking and crude drama.

And if for a lot of these Dummies, the only question they're asking about Elena Kagan is "Is she a lesbian?" -- because it's a fun question like they often see on Melrose Place, except with much hotter women -- that is one more question than they were ever interested in as regards Sonia Sotomayor.

And because that's the only question regarding Kagan the Dummies have even heard of, that limits the actual political content of the debate they're willing to even hear to "Does that mean she supports a guarantee to gay marriage?"

It's not my fault, it's not your fault, it's not our politicians' fault. Frankly, I gotta say, it's often not even the Democrats' fault.

It's the Dummies' fault. Our politics is fundamentally stupid because those marginal voters that are the key to every election are fundamentally stupid -- at least as regards politics.

And here's where I say "And if America is ever to change this, people -- all people -- must inform themselves and do the intellectual and moral work of actually making tough choices," to button up the article, but I'm not going to say that, because that never has happened and never will happen and so there's no sense of saying it. I might as well say And we must all focus our psychic chi in order to gain the power of unassisted human flight.

So we'll continuing drawing brightly-colored political cartoons to get the Dummies to devote three microvolts of brain activity to important political questions with tangible impacts on their own and their children's lives, and this will continue until the Dummies start actually taking an interest in their own lives or until politicians stop pandering to their distracted disengagement, which is to say, this will continue, full stop.

Oh: Just because I may conclude that something is permissible doesn't mean I think it's politic -- nasty stuff about her sexuality from the base and especially elected representatives would be counter-productive, because people do -- rightly -- have a sense of fair play, and the Dummies are also not going to reward a party they believe is acting in a shabby and mean way.

My point wasn't we should do this or that. It's more that the game permits this or that -- but just because you can do something has never meant you actually should.

But at that point it becomes a question of maximum utility, not of morality or principle. That is, it's a cold-hearted calculation of what works the best, shorn of any sentimentality.

Over at Volokh, a conversation the writer didn't want to have, but feels compelled to note, for intellectual reasons -- just because you've "dated men" doesn't mean you're not a lesbian, or lesbian-ish, or bisexual.

I certainly don't think that a lesbian shouldn't be on the Supreme Court -- or even that a lesbian should be compelled to out herself as a lesbian to get on the Supreme Court.

I don't think that, in itself, is relevant.

But with a candidate who is so secretive by personal careerist choice... well, since she won't tell me what she thinks, I need to guess, and to guess, I at least need some basic data to base my guesses on.

So far all I know about Elena Kagan is that she is mammal.


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posted by Ace at 04:04 PM

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