Monday, March 18, 2013

Everything Looks Like a Nail

Pope Francis at the Vatican, 3/16/2013 - Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal by Mary Anastasia O’Grady is titled, “Behind the Campaign to Smear the Pope.”  Ms. O’Grady comes to the defense of newly-elected Pope Francis, who is the target of an international whisper campaign.

Ms. O’Grady refers to the work of Horacio Verbitsky, an editor at Pagina 12.  She describes the writings of Mr. Verbitsky as “propaganda.”

Here in the United States, Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post supports Mr. Verbitsky, describing him as simply a “left-leaning journalist.”

The point of view we support depends on our individual world view.  We more than likely are unaware of the work of Mr. Verbitsky, so we subscribe to either the opinion of Mr. Robinson or the opinion of Ms. O’Grady and move on.

I thought of that in the context of another point made by Ms. O’Grady in her article.  This sentence stood out:

Former members of terrorist groups like Mr. Verbitsky, and their modern-day fellow travelers in the Argentine government, have used the same tactics for years to try to destroy their enemies – anyone who doesn’t endorse their brand of authoritarianism.

I fixated on the word “authoritarianism” because it seems to be showing up in our popular dialogue more frequently.  Is authoritarianism good or bad?

Like the respective columns of Mary Anastasia O’Grady and Eugene Robinson, it depends on your world view.  An interesting example is the work of Bob Altemeyer at the University of Manitoba, who studies authoritarianism for a living.

Mr. Altemeyer has received an award for excellence in teaching, and characterizes himself as “a moderate on most issues.”  From pages two through five of his book, “The Authoritarians,” here is what a “moderate” Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Manitoba tells us…

Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves...

 …the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation...

 But why should you even bother reading this book? I would offer three reasons. First, if you are concerned about what has happened in America since a radical right-wing segment of the population began taking control of the government about a dozen years ago, I think you’ll find a lot in this book that says your fears are well founded...

The last reason why you might be interested in the hereafter is that you might want more than just facts about authoritarians, but understanding and insight into why they act the way they do. Which is often mind-boggling. How can they revere those who gave their lives defending freedom and then support moves to take that freedom away? How can they go on believing things that have been disproved over and over again, and disbelieve things that are well established? How can they think they are the best people in the world, when so much of what they do ought to show them they are not? Why do their leaders so often turn out to be crooks and hypocrites? Why are both the followers and the leaders so aggressive that hostility is practically their trademark?

All this is from the first chapter of Mr. Altemeyer’s book, and he is just getting started.  His passion is directed against “right-wingers.”  He has even developed “The Right-Wing Authoritarianism” scale (pages eleven and twelve).

Returning to the concept of world view, if you believe authoritarianism is the sole province of right-wingers, you might have a certain political outlook.

That political outlook would dictate whether or not you find it incongruous that people who believe in the rule of law, separation of powers, and checks and balances are grouped with people who subvert those principles to expand their power and authority.

Why does this not concern professor Altemeyer?  Apparently, when all you’ve got is a hammer…

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