| Outlook |

Can’t Anyone Think Straight Here?

Without the ability to think, straight reasoned debate is impossible, and such discussion is the precondition for public policy making to address increasingly complex problems


Perhaps the greatest single threat facing the United States is a glaring deficit in people able to think straight. For without that ability, reasoned debate is impossible, and such discussion is the precondition for public policy making to address increasingly complex problems.

Nor is that deficit an accident. One source is identity politics, which turns on the identity of the “victim” group in any dispute rather than on the development of consistent principles to apply to like situations. Kat Rosenfield exposed one example of such shifts in argument in a piece in Unherd last week on the sad death of Jordan Neely, a mentally ill homeless man, who died on a subway train on which he was menacing passengers, after being put in a chokehold by an ex-Marine Daniel Penny, in order to restrain him.

Neely was on New York City’s list of top 50 homeless people in need of help, and had been arrested 36 times, at least four of which were for assaults, including punching and severely injuring a 67-year-old woman as she exited a subway car. Though he had been ordered to remain drug free and confined to a treatment house for 18 months, he walked away after 13 days and was never returned, despite a number of subsequent run-ins with the police. Shortly prior to his death, a number of passengers on the subway had contacted emergency services to report feeling threatened by Neely, who was shouting that he was ready to die or go to prison for life.

Rosenfield points out that at the height of the MeToo movement, ardent supporters rejected any suggestion that there was any level of untoward male behavior that a woman should ever tolerate, and that any male accused of such should be immediately read out of polite society, or rather the impolite society of the Internet, forever, and without chance of reprieve. The younger feminists angrily rejected any suggestion from older women that perhaps they should develop a little resilience.

But the effort to turn Jordan Neely into another saint in the George Floyd mold demanded that any suggestion that Penny had acted reasonably to restrain a threatening man must be rejected out of hand. NYU journalism professor Elizabeth Spiers mocked the notion that New York’s subways might be a dangerous place and suggested that “these imaginary monsters in your head are addressable with therapy.” Yet last year Spiers demanded that a reputable journalist be suspended without pay for retweeting a joke — which he quickly removed and for which he apologized profusely. According to Spiers, the quip was perceived by every woman with whom he worked as publicly demonstrating a lack of respect for women.

Rosenfield noted innocently: “If you argue that a woman can be traumatized by [crass] humor in the office… surely you would agree that she’s entitled to be fearful when trapped underground in a metal tube with an erratically behaving stranger twice her size.”

How to explain the failure to see the problem in believing otherwise? BLM is in; MeToo is out. On the scale of victimhood, blacks trump women. Everything else is irrelevant.

But there are other “victim” groups whose needs have now supplanted those of women, in a particularly flagrant fashion. All-American swimmer Riley Gaines has become an object of hatred for raising the issue of competing against a six-foot-one man who identifies as female. At the NCAA national women’s swimming championships, the two tied for fifth place. The NCAA official present decided, however, that the trophy must go to the competitor, without explanation as to why.

A SECOND SOURCE of the national deficit in thinking straight is hyper-partisanship. Arguments are framed not based on logic or critical investigation but solely according to whose ox is being gored. As former Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi has written, “Information that is true but doesn’t cut the right way politically is now routinely non-reported or actively misreported.” Taibbi went on to lament the waning of the liberalism of his youth, which “valued the free exchange of ideas, because a central part of a liberal’s self-identity was skepticism and doubt.”

That description is aptly supported by the mainstream media’s reaction to the report by Special Counsel John Durham on the FBI’s Russian collusion probe against Donald Trump. The report is devastating in its critique of the top FBI officials — Director James Comey and his top assistant Andrew McCabe, among others — and reinforces the suspicion that the top echelons of the FBI weaponized the probe either out of partisan bias against Donald Trump or, at the very least, out of the certainty that Hillary Clinton would be elected in 2016 and their desire not to antagonize their future boss.

The report (to which we will likely return in the future) should be of concern to every US citizen who cares about the state of American democracy. Much of what was included in Durham’s report was already known from the 2019 report of FBI Inspector-General Michael Horowitz: the almost total lack of predication for the launching of a full-scale investigation of the Trump campaign during a presidential election; the 17 egregious errors and violations of FBI guidelines in the preparation of applications to the FISA court for permission to conduct electronic surveillance of American citizen Carter Page, who was at the same time assisting a CIA investigation of Russian intelligence officials; the near total reliance on the fanciful Steele dossier, paid for by the Clinton campaign, in those FISA applications, while ignoring the refutations of Steele’s alleged sources.

Prior to launching Operation Crossfire Hurricane, the existence of which was soon leaked to the press, the senior FBI officials responsible failed to look at the Bureau’s own intelligence databases or consult its experienced Russian analysts. Nor did they seek information about Trump and Russia from the CIA, NSA, or the State Department that might have given even slight credence to the nonexistent evidence of collusion.

Perhaps the most startling finding in Durham’s report dealt with the total failure of the FBI to follow up on intercepted Russian intelligence that the Clinton campaign planned to stir up a scandal against Trump by “tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.” President Obama’s CIA director John Brennan thought the information was important enough to brief Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, the director of national intelligence, and FBI director Comey.

Yet both prior and subsequent to that briefing, the FBI relied on information whose source was the Clinton campaign — the Steele Dossier and information from campaign attorney Michael Sussman claiming that the Trump campaign had established a secret link to the Russians via the Alfa Bank. Two months prior to the election, both Clinton and senior campaign advisor and current National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan touted the latter as the clearest proof yet of Trump-Russian collusion. Sussman’s “evidence” has long since been conclusively refuted. Durham also revealed that Comey closed, without explanation, three concurrent investigations of the Clinton Foundation by separate FBI field offices.

Yet in the wake of Durham’s report, the New York Times did not return its Pulitzer Prizes for reporting on the Trump-Russian collusion, and multiple figures on MSNBC and other mainstream networks dismissed Durham’s report as a “nothingburger.” Yet none of those saying so made any attempt to refute Durham’s conclusions or address his findings.

THE MAJOR REASON for the media’s failure to do so is, as Taibbi wrote, hyper-partisanship and the lost journalistic ethos of truth-telling. But there is another reason as well. In his best-selling book, Think Again, Wharton psychologist Adam Grant cites research that the higher a person’s IQ, the more likely he or she is to fall for stereotypes. And the smarter one is, the more likely one is to struggle in updating his beliefs in light of contrary evidence.

“The better you are at crunching numbers, the more spectacularly you fail at analyzing patterns that contradict your views,” writes Grant.

Finally, smart people are more likely to fall into the trap of trusting in their own objectivity and less likely to perceive their own limitations in reevaluating their conclusions.

Let us stipulate that most mainstream media journalists are likely of above average intelligence. Having decided that Donald Trump was Russia’s version of the Manchurian candidate, they simply could not shake that belief in light of subsequent information.

Interestingly, Chazal were acutely sensitive to the vulnerability of the greatest minds to error. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, in his discussion of the preparations for Kabbalas HaTorah (cited by Chevron Rosh Yeshivah Rav Dovid Cohen), writes that va’yichan sham Yisrael hints not only to the unity of Klal Yisrael, but also to the unity of the Chachamim. They should not learn alone, but rather should sharpen one another in debate, and reveal different aspects of the Torah to one another, and in that fashion become k’ish echad for the receipt of the Torah.

In short, even the greatest genius cannot know everything, nor is he or she immune to mistake, and the best protection against each one’s limitations is opening oneself up to the wisdom of others and being willing to reexamine one’s previous conclusions in light of the criticism of others.

Thus, argues the Ohr HaChaim, another requisite for the receipt of Torah is humility. Torah was given in the Midbar, the desert, to teach us that just as water flows to the lowest point, so too does the Torah only flow to those who lower themselves. Even the greatest genius must open himself up to the possibility that another has something to teach him or can deepen his understanding before he can become a repository of Torah at the highest level. As Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes, there is no greater humility than seeking to learn from others and not relying solely on the power of one’s own mind. And that, in turn, is the source of wisdom: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.”

May we soon see a world filled with wisdom of Hashem, one freed from all the distorted thinking that is so widespread today.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 963)

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