Thursday, February 9, 2017

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

There must be something of the nineteenth century in my character, given the number of nineteenth-century-books on my list of books that I’d say materially altered the way I think about the world. Some titles, you could probably guess on your own: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Leaves of Grass, and Tolstoy’s Resurrection are all there, although possibly not in the order you’d have predicted. But those are all works of fiction—fiction at its most sublime, yes, but fiction nonetheless—and there are non-fiction books on my list as well and among them is the book I wish to write specifically about today, Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

It’s a remarkable book, even 176 years after it was first published in 1841. And it had a profound effect on me, one that altered my thinking in every way, even theologically, by bringing me to the realization that truths can elude almost everybody, that things that everybody “just” knows can just as likely be false as true, and that falsehoods can easily masquerade not merely as true statements but almost as societal axioms—that is, as the kind of “common knowledge” facts that people are made to feel foolish even to question, let alone to deny. It’s a big book (almost 700 pages in the edition I own), but it’s well worth the effort and the time necessary to read—indeed, almost every chapter is eye-opening and interesting. Mackay was a Scot who spent most of his working life in Belgium and England, where he worked as a lawyer without ever losing his predilection for writing. He was apparently the first to compile a dictionary of the language then called “Lowland Scotch,” the dialect of Gaelic spoken in the Scotland in his day. And he wrote Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, his masterpiece.

One by one, the author goes through beliefs that were either current in his own day or in some earlier time and shows how they achieved nearly universal credence despite the fact that there was no convincing evidence—and often no evidence of any sort at all—to support them. Let me quote the opening passage from the preface to the 1852 edition:

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.

And then he goes on to demonstrate that, to cite his own words, “men…go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

Mackay and his book have repeatedly come to my mind as I have been contemplating the nation-wise brouhaha concerning the President’s Executive Order barring refugees from everywhere but Syria from entering our country for the next 120 days, refugees from Syria from entering indefinitely, and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering for the next ninety days. It may seem odd to reach back to a book written almost two centuries ago for insight regarding events happening now, but I have to say that I can’t recall ever hearing more people say more things that they somehow “just” know to be the truth without bothering to say how exactly they know themselves to be right, let alone unarguably true. And the more such “facts” are bandied about as though they were not groundless assertions but self-evident truths, the more I regret that Mackay isn’t around to prepare a twenty-first century edition of his book.

The President’s ban has maddened people because it was apparently promulgated without being formally vetted in advance by officials at the Justice Department or the Department of Homeland Security. I’m hardly an expert on these things, but that feels like a huge misstep: the people responsible for enforcing the President’s directive on the ground should probably have been given maximal, not minimal, time to prepare. But the specific problems connected with enforcing the two bans are not really the issue here…and it is precisely outside the issue of how exactly to enforce the ban that people on both sides seem to be campaigning for a place in an updated edition of Mackay’s book.

For people who support the Executive Order, the challenge seems clear. We are surely all in agreement that our government should not admit terrorists or criminals to our country merely because they present themselves as peaceful immigrants or refugees. And so, that being the case, the only convincing argument in favor of a ban on entering our country on the scale of the President’s Executive Order would logically have to be that the system to vet would-be refugees and immigrants that we already have in place is not working properly and that, time and time again, those charged with keeping our nation safe have failed to recognize dangerous, or potentially dangerous, people for what they are and so have naively and ineptly admitted them. That argument sounds persuasive, but it needs to be grounded in reality. Where is the list of those bad people we inadvertently let move here? Where is the list of terrorist acts, ones actually carried out or thwarted by law enforcement officials before they could be carried out, that people whom we incompetently let cross the border into our country either did manage to pull off or else clearly intended to pull off? If we have been screening people applying to enter our country ineffectually and inexpertly, where is the proof of that incompetence on the part of the very people being paid to keep us safe—proof that could only really be constituted by a long or even short list of bad people who somehow slipped through despite their best efforts to prevent such people from doing so. But there is no such list…or at least there has not been published any such list that I have seen.

That being the case, all those people insisting that the system is broken need to be asked a simple, pointed question: if the system is letting terrorists and criminals slip into our country, why can’t you list some of their names as proof positive of your assertion? And if the system isn’t actually broken, why do we need to fix it?

But the people on the other side of the aisle have their own unanswered questions to address…because so many assertions coming from the “opposed” camp also seem unsubstantiated and naïve. The President’s Executive Order is not a ban on Muslims per se, which fact is more than adequately demonstrated by the fact that there are dozens of Muslim nations not on the list and whose Muslim citizens are, therefore, not affected at all. Nor are non-Muslim citizens of the countries that are on the list free to enter our country: there was a story carried by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency just the other day about Jews from Iran and Yemen whose visas were cancelled before the Executive Order was put on hold by the courts. So it’s hardly true that the President has banned Muslims from entering our country…and yet I have heard and read people say exactly that now for days and days as though it were a self-evident truth.

Moving along, the assertion that we don’t have anything to fear from radicalized Muslims seems, to say the least, naïve. Perusing the Wikipedia page on “Islamic terrorism” (click here), it’s more shocking how many of these incidents—instances of barbarism that have led to thousands of deaths even just in the last twenty years—have been almost totally forgotten or are at least not regularly referenced in public discourse or in the press. So when people say that the President is behaving irrationally by worrying about the special security issues related to the admission of Muslim refugees or immigrants to our country, that seems, to say the very least, a bit naïve. The key, I think, is to avoid careening away from thoughtful caution and intelligent watchfulness towards xenophobia and the kind of blanket condemnation that makes it harder, not at all easier, to identify the bad guys: all Muslims are surely not terrorists, but there are large, well-funded groups of radical Islamicists out there who express themselves through violence and terrorism…and the foundation of whose worldview is precisely their particular version of Islam. Particularly bizarre, I should add, is hearing Jewish people who claim to feel a deep sense of allegiance with Israel—including, I am ashamed to say, some rabbis—who appear to feel called upon for some obscure reason not to take note of the phenomenon of radical Islamicist terrorism in the world and, just to the contrary, to brand as racist anyone who does. These people too deserve a chapter in Mackay’s book.

Our world would be a lot easier to negotiate if the prerequisite for being quoted in the press or appearing on television was that you had to read Mackay’s book and internalize its lessons. The basic facts in evidence are not only clear, but more or less universally agreed upon. All Muslims are not terrorists, and people who claim otherwise are simply wrong. There being versions of Islam that do promote the concept of worldwide jihad and for whom terrorism directed against innocents is fully acceptable, however, we need to guarantee that no Muslims admitted to our country are future terrorists because they do subscribe to the version of Islam that animates ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Shabaab, the Jemaah Islamiyah, Islamic Jihad, and the like…and people who do not see the cogency of that obligation really do belong in Mackay’s book as well. If the system we have in place to vet people from other lands who seek to enter our land to visit or to settle is not working, it needs to be fixed. But the burden of proof in that regard would normally have to rest with the people making that assertion…and just asserting it without being able to present any evidence to bolster such claim is also worth a mention in the next edition of Mackay.

It makes no sense at all to talk about excessive diligence in keeping our country safe and our co-citizens secure—if we were talking about keeping your children safe, would you recognize a level of “excessive” diligence? On the other hand, a former president of our congregation, a physician (and we’ve had several), once pointed out to me that doctors can cure any disease if it’s not considered crucial that the patient survive the curative procedure, but that this is generally not considered the very best way to practice medicine…even despite the 100% cure rate.

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