Thomas Sowell offers superb Exhibit of the Right-wing Mind

Espousing two blatantly contradictory ideas at once is a common device among those devoted to authority.


Glenn Greenwald
September 3, 2007 4:52PM (UTC)

(updated below - updated again)

Thomas Sowell, from his Townhall column today:

We all believe that people are innocent until proven guilty. Some on the left believe that they are innocent even after being proven guilty.

Thomas Sowell, March 2007, on Lewis Libby's conviction on four felony counts:

In the course of this pointless investigation, it turned out that some of Scooter Libby's statements conflicted with the statements of some reporters. So Libby was prosecuted for perjury and obstruction of justice -- and a Washington jury convicted him.

Not only did Libby's recollections differ from that of some reporters, some of those reporters differed among themselves as to what had been said and some differed in their later testimony from what they had said in their earlier testimony.

The information about Joe Wilson's wife was so incidental and trivial at the time that it is hardly surprising that it was not fixed in people's minds as something memorable. Only later hype in the media made it look big.

With Libby handling heavy duties in the White House, there is no reason for his memory to be expected to be better than that of others about something like this -- much less to convict him of perjury. . . .

A man's life has been ruined because his memories differed from that of others -- whose memories also differed among themselves -- and media liberals are exulting as if their conspiracy theories had been vindicated.

Or, put another way, Sowell -- like most of the Bush-following movement -- believes Libby to be innocent even after he was proven guilty. My favorite example, from right-wing talk radio host, National Review contributor, and rule-of-law tough guy Mark Levin: "The way I see it, Lewis Libby was about to become a political prisoner and the president prevented that."

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My second favorite example comes courtesy of Fred Thompson, whose stump speech throughout the Summer included both a stirring sermon regarding the Critical Importance of the Rule of Law and a demand that convicted felon Lewis Libby be pardoned because he did nothing wrong. Here is Thompson in the very same speech:

People will be able to rely upon the rules, usually long established, and their consistent application. This engenders respect for the law. It is a sad irony that a nation that is so dedicated to the rule of law is doing so much to undermine the respect for it. . . .

I didn't know Scooter Libby, but I did know something about this intersection of law, politics, special counsels and intelligence. And it was obvious to me that what was happening was not right. So I called him to see what I could do to help, and along the way we became friends. You know the rest of the story: a D.C. jury convicted him. . . . I have called for a pardon for Scooter Libby.

And this to say nothing of the whole slew of right-wing political figures who have been convicted of crimes yet defended as innocent and kept in right-wing political power circles -- from Oliver North to Eliot Abrams to John Poindexter. Yet, fascinatingly, Sowell can still write this sentence without any of this occurring to him: "Some on the left believe that [people] are innocent even after being proven guilty."

Neither Thomas Sowell nor this specific episode, standing alone, is particularly significant, but I cannot help being endlessly amazed by the capacity of right-wing authoritarians so blatantly to hold and espouse completely contradictory thoughts at once without realizing they are doing it. This is yet more evidence that Psychology Professor Bob Altemeyer, in his book The Authoritarians (.pdf), has provided the definitive account of the psychological impulses driving right-wing followers:

A high [right-wing authoritarian] can have all sorts of illogical, self-contradictory and widely refuted ideas rattling around in various boxes in his brain, and never notice it. . . .

Research reveals that authoritarian followers drive through life under the influence of impaired thinking a lot more than most people do, exhibiting sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and -- to top it all off -- a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic.

As Altemeyer acknowledges, everyone of every type is prone to contradictory and self-interested reasoning. But, as his research demonstrates, those whose primary allegiance is to authority figures and whose identity is centrally grounded in their authority-based political movement have, as their overarching goal, a defense of their movement and attacks on the enemy. Holding blatantly contradictory thoughts at the same time, like the ones expressed here by Sowell, become normalized -- mere tools for achieving the only goal that matters.

When Sowell went to write the sentence "some on the left believe that [people] are innocent even after being proven guilty," a basically functioning brain should have alerted him to the fact that he and his ideological comrades constantly do exactly that, and did precisely that all year long with regard to the conviction of Lewis Libby. Somehow, though, that function fails, and Sowell -- without realizing he is doing so -- accuses the "left" of doing what he himself and his political movement just did in the most prominent criminal case of the year. That is but a vivid illustration of how warped and removed from basic logic is the "reasoning" of this political movement.

UPDATE: Remarkably, Sowell's two sentences from today actually contain another completely separate contradiction. His claim that "we all believe that people are innocent until proven guilty" would likely come as quite a surprise to Jose Padilla and scores of other people imprisoned for years with no charges and no trial based on the belief among Sowell's political comrades that those accused of being Terrorists by the Leader should be presumed to be guilty and no trial is necessary even in order to imprison them indefinitely.

The political movement of which Sowell is a part actually believes that its loyal members who are convicted of crimes are innocent, while those who have been convicted of nothing but who are accused by the Leader should be presumed guilty. In just two short sentences, Sowell espouses two standards which are the very opposite of the ones he and his political movement actually embrace.

UPDATE II: Our country's authoritarians are glorifying the Leader today like it's 2003, all for his very brave (and covert) sneaking into Iraq. Jules Crittenden (cousin of David Frum) uses language typically reserved for Jesus to describe Bush's every movement:

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NPR reporting he's landed, enroute to an econmic summit in Australia. Web reports now coming in.

AP: He's in Anbar, landed at Al-Asad. . . . he's expected to meet with al-Maliki and Sunni tribal leaders who've joined the United States and the Iraqi government against al-Qaeda.

He is risen. This is the same Jules Crittenden who, back in January on the day of the President's speech unveiling the Surge, began his post this way: "George Bush will address us tonight, and show us the way forward." He will show us the way forward.

Similarly, Blue Texan notes that Glenn Reynolds -- in addition to linking to the Crittenden post above -- also linked to a post which began this way: "Unlike the last Commander-in-chief, is there any doubt that the men and women who serve our country love President Bush." Finally, Fred Kagan, writing in National Review, declared that Bush's trip "should be recognized as at least the Gettysburg of this war" -- at least -- and that the Leader's Glorious Visit "could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror."

He is Jesus. He is Lincoln. He is beloved by Our Troops. He "shows us the way forward." He is Our Leader.


Glenn Greenwald

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