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Crusaders, Haters and Common Ground

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Who knew the Crusades were such a live issue?

No, I don't think many people are contemplating whether to take up the cross and join Richard the Lionhearted on his quest to the Holy Land. But over the past few weeks, following President Barack Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, there has been a spirited back-and-forth over whether the Crusades were a gross festival of barbarism, a just response to aggressive Muslim invasions of Christendom, or something more complex that doesn't make for good throwaway lines in political speeches. 

My former colleague Ross Douthat has taken the third stance, and it is closest to what I myself believe. There were grotesque evils done in the name of Christ during the Crusades that cannot be defended by any decent person. But reducing "the Crusades" to its barbarisms is, as Douthat points out, no more true or useful than reducing Islam to Islamic State, or African nationalism to the atrocities of the continent's various civil wars -- or the U.S. to its own many shameful acts. Most of us agree that World War II was "the Good War" despite the internment of the Japanese, the firebombing of Dresden, and the various suspensions of civil liberties. It is not necessary to either downplay the wrongs or focus on them to the exclusion of the fact that we defeated two brutal regimes that committed unspeakable atrocities against people in the territories they occupied and, in the case of the Germans, on their own citizenry.

But I want to focus on something specific that Ross says about the particular sentence that brought Obama so much grief: "And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ." Ross makes the point that this pulls the neat trick of sounding like a bit of self-criticism while not actually being very self-critical. Few people in America of any religion strongly identify with the Crusades or the Inquisition, but particularly not people of Barack Obama's (progressive, Protestant) persuasion. This is, in fact, not much different from condemning the far-off strangers who have murdered Christians in the name of Islam. 

This is a common trick in public discourse, and one that is far from confined to religion. "Scott Alexander" of Slate Star Codex made this point last year, in a column on what you might call radically intolerant tolerance -- in which complaints about your own group, and its lack of tolerance, are in fact complaints about a group that you don't identify with at all, and in fact, consider yourself to be fighting in a long twilight struggle for the soul of civilization. He compares the liberals in his Facebook feed who tut-tutted over people who celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden, because celebrating anyone's death is barbaric -- only to joyously celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher a little while later :

Most of us (though not all) can agree, if the question is posed explicitly, that Osama was a worse person than Thatcher. But in terms of actual gut feeling? Osama provokes a snap judgment of “flawed human being”, Thatcher a snap judgment of “scum”.

I started this essay by pointing out that, despite what geographical and cultural distance would suggest, the Nazis’ outgroup was not the vastly different Japanese, but the almost-identical German Jews.

And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

The Red Tribe, of course, heartily returns the favor.

Alexander points out that this solves the mystery of why so many people spend so much time criticizing "their own people" and conspicuously embracing "the other," even though this is, as he says, "a total reversal of everything we know about human psychology up to this point." In fact, they're mostly criticizing other people, people who are different and entirely too close for comfort.

Ross points out examples Obama could have chosen that would have more nearly gone after people like him: "how New Deal liberalism made its peace with Jim Crow or how the liberal Christianity of the Victorian and Progressive Eras often went all in for 'scientific' racial hierarchies or how progressive clergymen became fascinated with eugenics." Like Ross, I don't think that's an accident. Criticisms that actually land on your own people, rather than some you-adjacent people with whom you share some superficial characteristics, are really hard, for the same reason it's hard to write an essay about how your mother's a drunk. It's painful, and it's likely to be personally costly. So small wonder that he chose his examples exclusively from groups with whom few of his supporters actually identify.

On matters of race, President Obama has shown a rare talent for those sorts of difficult remarks. He has angered his fair share of conservatives with some of his speeches, but he's also angered prominent liberals who say he should be focusing on systemic racism, not the supposed behavior of black people. I'm not going to either criticize or defend his remarks here, for that is beside the point. The point is he said things about a community he identifies with and has provided his most fervent political support in two elections. That's hard and brave, even if you think he's wrong.

Nor am I accusing Obama of some sort of special blind spot about religion. What I'm saying is that I'd like to see him say hard, brave things more often, on other topics. That's a little utopian, however, since the guy does have to win elections and try to help his party keep the White House in 2016.

But most of us are not running for office, and we could say hard and brave things to our ideological compatriots if we wanted to. And we should, because "self-examination" of the sort that the president offered at the prayer breakfast is pretty much useless. The people who agree with you nod and say "Isn't it great that we're not awful, like those crusaders?" And the people who disagree get all mad and stop listening.

A few years back, I wrote a piece about structural bias and how it works in institutions. The reason I wrote this piece was that I had penned a previous post about liberal bias in academia, and I found the comment section was rapidly filled with academics explaining to me that of course academia wasn't biased -- it was just that conservatives were too stupid, narrow-minded and/or money-grubbing to make good professors. Moreover, they personally had never had a meeting where everyone solemnly agreed not to hire any stupid conservatives, so obviously, I didn't know what I was talking about.

Now, this assertion is at odds with some pretty good social science. It's at odds with my experience of talking to conservatives in academia, who deliver rather anodyne center-right remarks and then say "please don't use my name -- I need to get tenure first." It's also at odds with the way this same group of people from left-leaning social sciences would react to the evidence that any other group was wildly underrepresented in their profession. Seeing such powerful skews, which Jonathan Haidt identifies as more than 250-to-1 in social psychology, most people would assume that some sort of discrimination was at work. But when it came to conservatives, suddenly these people were as blind as ... well, as 1950s executives explaining that they're not biased against women -- why, I'm married to one! It's just they don't make good managers.

Now, I belong to two tribes: blue-state urban professionals and folks of a right-leaning bent. And I combine the beliefs of both tribes: I think that structural bias exists, and it's powerful, and it means that we do not have a colorblind society, no matter how loudly we state our nominal commitment to same. I also believe that structural bias exists in the academy, and it is one powerful reason that conservatives are underrepresented in academia. And I have long found it frustrating that my two tribes could both see structural bias -- but only when it flattered their particular set of political beliefs. So I thought I would write a long post talking about how structural bias works, both against racial minorities, and against conservatives who think they might like to be professors. What I hoped for was that both sides would come to agree that this thing they were describing really happened -- and it didn't just happen to folks they liked.

With the academics, I pretty much completely failed. Their response consisted of repeating LOUDER and SLOWER that Cooooonnnnnserrrrvativves are tooooooo stuuuuuuupid and naaaaarow-miiiiinded to be academics. And more than a few conservatives got mad at me for suggesting that American society was still racist.

But a few conservatives said, either in the comments or in private e-mails, that they'd never thought of it that way, and that when I compared it to what conservatives were going through in liberal elite institutions, they started to think seriously about structural racism for the first time. I'm not saying I started a revolution or anything. But I did convince a few people of something that is really, really hard to make anyone believe: that their own beloved society, composed of nice people like them, really might be treating others badly, even if it's not as overt and ugly as Jim Crow.

Before I break my arm patting myself on the back, the point is not that I scored a microvictory for anti-racism. The point is that the only reason I was successful at all is that I was speaking to them from their side of the fence. A nice progressive activist could have written the exact same essay and it wouldn't have had the same effect, because it wouldn't really have been an attempt at self-improvement, however thoroughly it tried to cloak itself in that disguise. It would have been an attempt at other-improvement, a project that history assigns very dubious prospects for success. Though the nice progressive activist might have had a lot more success with the liberal academics.

But making those arguments means making friends angry, and no one likes to do that. So it's easy to default to criticizing folks that you already don't like very much. The problem is that there's pretty much a one-for-one trade-off between "easy" and "effective at changing minds." And I wish we weren't all so eager to make the wrong trade. The world needs fewer crusaders and more reformations.

  1. Full disclosure: I tut-tutted celebrating bin Laden's death. However, I didn't go on to celebrate anyone else's death. I think death is terrible, no matter who it happens to, maybe because I'm actually super-tolerant, and maybe because I'm morbidly afraid of dying.

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