What He Said

Here’s Prof. David Post at the Volokh Conspiracy describing politics through an analogy to sports (the easiest way to explain anything to me):

I then said something like – “but it does seem like the overall level of defense is improving all over – I see so many great plays these days . . .” before I recognized how stupid a comment that was.  Of course I was seeing more great defensive plays than I had 10 or 20 years before – because 10 or 20 years before there had been no Sportscenter (or equivalent).  In 1992 (or whenever exactly this was), I could turn on the TV and catch 20 or 30 minutes of great highlights every night, including 5 or 6 truly spectacular defensive plays; in 1980, or 1960, to see 5 or 6 truly spectacular defensive plays, you had to watch 20 or 25 hours of baseball, minimum.  [That’s what ESPN was doing, in effect – watching 10 or 12 games simultaneously and pulling out the highlights].  It was just my mind playing a trick on me; I had unconsciously made a very simple mistake.  The way in which I was perceiving the world of baseball had, with Sportscenter, changed fundamentally, but I hadn’t taken that into account.  Without thinking about it, I had plugged into a simple formula:  Old Days:             5 spectacular plays in 25 hours of baseball watching. New Days:          5 spectacular plays in ½ hour of baseball watching. And I had reached the obvious (and obviously wrong, on reflection) conclusion that the rate of spectacular playmaking had gone up.

I call it the ESPN Effect – mistaking filtered reality for reality.  We do it a lot.  All I hear from my left-leaning friends these days is how crazy people on the right are becoming, and all all I hear from my right-leaning friends is how crazy people on the left are becoming, and everyone, on both sides, seems very eager to provide evidence of the utter lunacy of those on the other side.  “Look how crazy they’re becoming over there, on the other side!” is becoming something of a dominant trope, on left and right.  It is true that we’re seeing more crazy people doing crazy things on the other side (whichever side that may be, for you) coming across our eyeballs these days.   But that’s all filtered reality; it bears no more relationship to reality than the Sportscenter highlights bear to the game of baseball.  My very, very strong suspicion is that there has never been a time when there weren’t truly crazy people on all sides of the political spectrum doing their truly crazy things. Maybe 1% or so, or even 0.1% — which is a very large number, when you’re talking about a population of, say, 100 million.  They didn’t get through the filters much in the Old Days, but they do now.  All this talk about how extreme “the debate” is becoming – how, exactly, does anyone get a bead on what “the debate” really is?  In reality?

The only thing I would add is that the media consumption choices we make can have a dramatic effect on how we perceive the world. To extend the metaphor, we decide whether to turn on ESPN or to just watch reels of bloopers on YouTube (look at how uncoordinated professional athletes really are!). The news marketplace is getting more and more splintered, and so it’s becoming easier and easier to focus on the 1% or .1%, if we so choose.

This was made rather clear to me the other day when I came across a post in which the author seemed to genuinely believe that mainstream conservatism was on the verge of advocating a military coup. I would personally put the likelihood of such an event at roughly .0001%, and that’s being generous. It’s in the same league as the nutty suggestions that Obama (and Bush before him) plans to cancel the next elections. But the author was insufficiently familiar with conservatism (and had presumably been reading only left wing blogs) that he thought this was something Catholics should be concerned about.  On a similar note, part of what motivates my dislike for Glenn Beck and talk radio/cable tv in general is that people get a very distorted view of the political process from those types of sources.  Most people recognize they are just entertainment, of course, but I do worry that it makes it harder for people from different perspectives to engage in rational debate.

17 Responses to What He Said

  1. I think there’s a lot to that — plus just that people have a short political memory. When you want to talk about sheer political bile, there’s nothing like the first 40 years of the country.

  2. John Henry says:

    Yeah, back when U.S. Presidents(!) wrote stuff like “the tree of liberty needs to be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

  3. Or when both parties made it a practice to openly question the parentage and sexual practices of the other party’s candidates in mainstream newspapers.

  4. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Said by Thomas Jefferson. I suspect if he had actually served in the Continental Army and participated in a battle or two he wouldn’t have been so glib about bloodshed.

    I think the political bile in our country probably reached a peak just before the Civil War. Of course it has never been particularly genteel. Truman would sometimes refer to some Republicans as fascists and Republicans would refer to Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, a strong anti-Communist, as the “Red Dean”.

  5. j. christian says:

    I agree with this theory, but an alternative view is: the anonymity of the Internet allows for more unvarnished airing of thoughts – ?

  6. Well, I think there are many things going on. But I also do believe that conspiracy theories are becoming quite popular and easily spread via the internet; and once you get the theory out, the solution is “revolt” or “coup.”

    If you want to see an example of this, read the following thread from Godlikeproductions (a rather freaky place, and yet, apparently of great influence on the dark corners of the internet):


  7. Blackadder says:

    An awful lot of politics is best understood by analogy to team sports.

  8. American Knight says:

    Is our team winning?

  9. Anon says:

    Henry, you do manage to dig up the weirdest stuff. Maybe it’s influential in your circles, but I doubt if anyone else here has ever heard of that website.

  10. Anon

    Godlikeproductions is currently in the throes of a major anti-Obama campaign, and is a source of many “tea party” and “Glen Beck” fans. It’s that kind of crowd. I run into all kinds of things and groups on the internet. But this is a rather big forum. I like looking at what the kook/conspiracy people are talking about — because, a few weeks later, much of what they say becomes talking points.

    I think it was someone there who originally made the first Obama-Joker poster, btw. I could be wrong, but I know that was the claim I saw.

  11. Plus, look at the number of page views a day — it’s huge. Currently: 381,411 with 762 users online — at one time. This is not a small place.

  12. American Knight says:

    I must admit I’ve never even been to this site and y’all didn’t get my curiousity up. I will observe one thing though. It is easy to write off the ‘conspiracy theorists’ but are we to assume all conspiracies are just kooky hypotheses? Is it possible that some are plausible theories?

    I don’t think that thinking aliens spawned man in the days before history, or even kidnapped people in the 1950s or simply blame it on the Jews is sane. Those are obviously kooky. I am referring to plausible conspiracies.

    Obviously the biggest real conspiracy is sited in Ephesians 6:12, but how is it manifested? Wouldn’t it make sense that evil men are conspiring to bring about Satan’s reign?

    McCarthy exposed the Communist conspiracy (it is still going on though). The Federal Reserve is a conspiracy. Watergate was a conspiracy. The diamond market is a conspiracy. There must be more. The difficulty is sorting the truth from myth, but I think we have to be careful not to dismiss all conspiracy theories as kooky. I am sure the conspirators like all the dissinformation and kooky theories becuase it provides them cover.

    For example Area 51, a favorit among UFO enthusiasts. I am fairly confident that their are no space aliens there, but something secret is going on. Maybe they developed the stealth technology there and used the alien cover up to keep the Sovs and other enemies confused. I’m OK with that, one of the few things I think government should keep secret is defense tech and defense intel, with Congressional oversight though – but we shouldn’t know about. That is a benign ‘conspiracy’ becuase it benefits national security. Are there others? Are some sinister?

    We have to be prudent and use proper discernment but I think outright dismissal is just as bad a mistake.

    I could be wrong because the Great Gazoo just dictated this whole post to me and he invented a machine that will destroy the space-time continuum.

  13. Henry,

    A forum that has 700 people online at a time may be “not small”, but in the context of the US population, it’s certainly not large either. Plugging it into Alexa and comparing it to sites like freerepublic.com and redstate.com, it looks like godlikeproductions.com has a fair amount of traffic, though much of it from the same people visiting again and again. Comparing it to several other political and news sites, it shows up, but it’s pretty small fries.


    As for who came up with the Obama as Joker image, that one was broken by the mainstream media: It was a Kucinich supporter in Chicago.


  14. DC

    When talking about big, it is of course in relation to the internet. Quantcast rates it 4992 in the top 5000, and says it reaches 325K people a month. godlikeproductions.com


    Second, that doesn’t say he is not a member of GLP.

  15. foxfier says:

    Another thing that might be playing into the effect you note is that folks are more and more willing to speak up with uneducated and/or poorly sourced opinions– for example, the other day I saw my dad get mad at the TV for the first time _EVER_ when he was looking for a news program to watch in some rare free time– MSNBC was doing a thing on the mustang roundups, and the “expert” they were interviewing stated that if these “wild animals” weren’t “saved,” they’d be butchered for dog meat right in that very state. It’s been illegal to butcher horses for years in the US, as dad knows because of the horrific abuse it results in.
    Dad didn’t get upset until the newscaster treated such a flat-ignorant statement as gospel truth– basic fact-checking should’ve stopped that, and it wasn’t even a live interview. They just couldn’t be bothered to fact-check the person they were interviewing as an expert.

    If a cable news company spreads such at best ignorant information, of course there’s going to be a lot more folks who believe deeply, honestly and honorably things that are in no way shape or form related to objective reality, just because they have a tainted information source. (Don’t get me started on Wiki…..)

  16. Henry,

    Ah, thanks for setting them up on quantcast (or at least, their data wasn’t available on there last night.)

    Interesting data on what other sites those folks are into:

    zetatalk.com 164.0x
    whatdoesitmean.com 134.0x
    urbansurvival.com 129.1x
    surfingtheapocalypse… 128.0x
    mt.net 100.4x
    rumormillnews.com 100.3x
    conspiracyplanet.com 94.8x
    theforbiddenknowledg… 91.5x

    Looks like it appeals to a pretty generic conspiracy demographic more than a right wing one, though that doesn’t mean that among conspiracy theorists they aren’t more right leaning than left leaning. (Though of course, when you get that fringy, the two wings tend to meet. For instance, the “what if McCain is a Manchurian candidate” meme you were interested in back during the election held appeal for both right wing and left wing crazies, as I recall. Indeed, now I look at it, one of your sources was NewsMax. Might want to find better reading material…)

    300k estimated people viewing a month is certainly a large number, though of course smaller than the 1 million people per month for NationalReview.com and the 8.8 million per month for FoxNews.com. (And showing where Americas real priorities are, a full 16 million hit ESPN.com every month and 82 million hit YouTube.)

    I’ll agree it’s disturbing that 0.1% of the US population per month bother with such conspiracy mongering, though I suppose we can hope that many of them are reasonable people who just happen to follow a google link and then high tail it away with disgust once they look around a bit.

    Still, that it gets any attention at all I suppose just goes to show why no one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

  17. foxfier says:

    I’ll agree it’s disturbing that 0.1% of the US population per month bother with such conspiracy mongering, though I suppose we can hope that many of them are reasonable people who just happen to follow a google link and then high tail it away with disgust once they look around a bit.

    Don’t underestimate the entertainment value, either– I adore “Coast to Coast AM” and “PID Radio” and “Cryptomundo,” among other hidden knowlege type media… of course, I also use to like buying “Weekly World News.” (Batboy!)
    Just because folks are visiting doesn’t mean they’re agreeing.

    I kind of wonder what the effect of identity blocking measures would be on the site metrics, too– if it’s raw click-throughs, then folks who are visiting the same page several times will inflate the number, while if it’s visits-per-IP-in-a-day, the folks worried about being tracked will inflate the numbers, as would folks who click through at work and home. The more fringe-ie folks are more likely to use measures to keep from being tracked….

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