This Is Your Brain on Partisanship—Any Questions?

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Politics can make even brilliant

people seem temporarily stupid, as a recent piece by probable genius David Gelernter shows.

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Professor David Gelernter at a conference in 2010. (Getty Images)

The psychology of partisanship is "potent enough to influence not only policy views, but our perception of broader realities as well," Ross Douthat once wrote in a column titled "The Partisan Mind." Under its thrall, he posited, external facts matter less than gut feelings. "Is there anything good to be said about the partisan mindset? On an individual level, no," he concluded. "It corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy. Honor belongs to the people who resist partisanship's pull." I've long agreed. And Douthat's words come back to me whenever I read commentary that is more in line with partisan thinking than observable reality.

Since 2009, Barack Obama has been the subject of more partisan writing than anyone in America. Often he is its beneficiary. As noted by voices as diverse as Dick Cheney and Glenn Greenwald, many Democrats excoriated President Bush for being a lawless war criminal, only to defend President Obama when he adopted some of the same controversial national security policies.

Though I am one of Obama's staunchest critics on executive power, civil liberties, and the ways that his domestic agenda has privileged insiders and special interests, I cannot help but see and lament the instances when he's been a victim of the partisan mindset too. When Andrew McCarthy of National Review alleges that he is allied with our Islamist enemies in a "grand jihad" against America, or Dinesh D'Souza insists that his actions are explained by Kenyan anti-colonialism, they aren't just being unfair to Obama personally, which is of little matter; they are misleading their conservative readers (who don't study this stuff for a living) about reality. In so doing, these very smart men have made our national discourse needlessly dumber.

Unfortunately, another conservative is joining their ranks, or so I fear after reading "What Keeps This Failed President Above Water," an essay by David Gelernter, the brilliant Yale computer scientist. You can read more here about his intelligence and contributions to American life. Nothing I say in this post should call his substantial accomplishments into question. But like previous victims of "the partisan mind," his work on matters concerning ideology often lacks the rigor of his other output, and now he's offered a critique of Obama focused less on his policies and actions as president than in an imagined account of who Obama really is. I'd forgo an argument about something as unknowable as that except for the fact that Gelernter's notion of Obama isn't just unprovable, it is contradicted by available evidence.

There's no excerpt more telling or discrediting than this jaw-dropping assertion (emphasis on weasel words added):

He is post-religious: he took his family to a church where the religion seemed to be America-hatred. There are no biblical echoes in his speeches, as there have been in the speeches of so many presidents, left and right, and such other American leaders as Martin Luther King. "Pandering to religious nuts" is the way PORGIs [post-religious, globalist, intellectuals] analyze such references. Another way to describe them is quintessentially American.

We are, after all, a biblical republic. The idea of America -- freedom, equality, democracy, and America as the promised land -- grew straight out of the Bible. Obama is the first American president to put all that stuff behind him. 

Skip past the reductive characterization of Trinity United Church of Christ. It is doubtless true that some GOP partisans believe Obama thinks religious people are nuts and has abandoned God. But how can a man as smart as Gelerntner possibly perceive and assert that there are "no biblical echoes" in Obama's speeches, and that unlike other presidents he has put all that God stuff behind him?

Obama came to national attention when he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention.

A few excerpts from that speech:

  • "...our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal... that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' That is the true genius of America, a faith..."
  • "It is that fundamental belief -- it is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work."

  • "The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states."
  • "Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead."

Skipping ahead to President Obama's inaugural address:

  • ...in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.  The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation:  the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
  • "This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny."
  • "Thank you.  God bless you.  And God bless the United States of America."

Those are arguably the two biggest speeches of Obama's career. Some would say his speech about race in America was the most important than he has given, so let's look at a long passage from it:

In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:

"People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note - hope! - I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope - became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish - and with which we could start to rebuild."

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.

For something more recent, here's President Obama speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast last February:

In my moments of prayer, I'm reminded that faith and values play an enormous role in motivating us to solve some of our most urgent problems, in keeping us going when we suffer setbacks, and opening our minds and our hearts to the needs of others.We can't leave our values at the door. If we leave our values at the door, we abandon much of the moral glue that has held our nation together for centuries, and allowed us to become somewhat more perfect a union. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel -- the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it...

I wake up each morning and I say a brief prayer, and I spend a little time in scripture and devotion. And from time to time, friends of mine, some of who are here today, friends like Joel Hunter or T.D. Jakes, will come by the Oval Office or they'll call on the phone or they'll send me a email, and we'll pray together, and they'll pray for me and my family, and for our country... I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God's command to "love thy neighbor as thyself"...for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus's teaching that "for unto whom much is given, much shall be required"...

...To answer the responsibility we're given in Proverbs to "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute." And for others, it may reflect the Jewish belief that the highest form of charity is to do our part to help others stand on their own.

There are dozens of other examples.

I go on at such length to demonstrate how incomprehensible it is for Gelernter to make that claim. The idea that Obama has abandoned the American tradition of biblical quotes, allusions, and invocations of God in his speeches may ring true to a certain kind of conservative Obama critic.

But it is totally ungrounded in reality. Were Gelernter to improbably miss the biblical quotes and allusions in Obama speeches, he would need only do a quick Google search to stumble across articles like this one about Obama's habit of drawing on the bible, or references to academic papers on the same subject. And yet he wrote and Powerline published the claim, "There are no biblical echoes in his speeches, as there have been in the speeches of so many presidents, left and right."

What save the distorting effects of the partisan mind could explain that?

Says Gelernter in the next sentence: "As for American Zionism, American Exceptionalism, the city on a hill--it is one part of the American creed that Obama simply rejects." As a reminder, here is President Obama's response when directly asked about American exceptionalism by a foreign journalist:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional. Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.

Whatever you think of that response, it is absurd to characterize it as a "simple rejection" of American exceptionalism. 

Gelernter offers these characterizations in service of a larger argument:

Obama perfectly fits the personal profile of the Culture Machine that runs so much of the American elite nowadays. The Machine is run by PORGIs, who are just like Obama: post-religious, globalist, intellectuals or at least intellectualizers (who talk and act like intellectuals even if they don't quite qualify themselves). And his being black, with an African father, an African name (icing on the cake) and a childhood spent in a Muslim nation (the cherry on top!) makes him beyond perfect -- makes him nearly divine.

Again, what can Gelernter be thinking?

There are a lot of ways that Obama is like a lot of other people in the American elite. He graduated from Ivy League schools, for example. And in many ways he is in fact a globalist. But the American elite is not, by any measure, run by people whose "personal profile" includes "a childhood spent in a Muslim nation" or "an African father" or "an African name." Gelerntner listed the very things that make Obama singular for a man of his position and attributed them to the whole "Cultural Machine."

Unfortunately, there's more. Obama "doesn't seem to read," Gelernter writes. Oh no? To lots of people, it "seems" like he does read. "Nowadays his smiles are ominous," he writes. "The grim satisfaction he takes in mocking, goading and heckling Romney calls to mind an Elizabethan bear-baiting."

Really? It just "seems" like he doesn't read, but his smiles "are" ominous?

All of this is beneath someone as smart as Gelernter. I have nothing invested in whether Obama wins or loses the upcoming election. Either way, the issues I regard as most important are going to be ignored. I certainly don't think he's a good president. But I find it depressing that one of America's great minds is squandering his time on this sort of content. A reader familiar with his reputation and unfamiliar with the speeches of Barack Obama could be forgiven for reading his article and coming away with a wildly skewed vision of Obama's public behavior.

In that way, the partisan mindset can be contagious.


UPDATE: David Gelernter has responded to this piece in a new post at Powerline. It begins as follows:

I appreciate Mr Friedersdorf 's generous references to my work: many thanks. But he hasn't shown me that Obama isn't "post-religious." Mr Friedersdorf is absolutely right that instead of writing "There are no biblical echoes in his [Obama's] speeches," I should have written that are almost no biblical echoes: I apologize to Power Line's readers and to Mr Friedersdorf. Of course the president refers to religion and Christianity occasionally; he is an American politician and no idiot. It's the gratingly superficial nature of these references that makes Obama seem as if he doesn't give a damn about Christianity or the Bible.
There's a lot more, and I encourage you to click over, read, and evaluate it for yourself. I submit that it's additional evidence that Gelernter is a) very intelligent; and b) led hopelessly astray by the partisan mind. I have many specific objections, of which these are the most important:

  • In my post, I include excerpts from Obama speeches in which he alludes to or directly quotes the Bible, to refute the notion that he doesn't do so. I also include general invocations of God and religion to refute the notion that he is post-religious. But in his response, Gelernter acts as if I was claiming that all the excerpts I included are biblical allusions. (For example, I quote Obama saying "We worship an awesome God in the blue states," evidence that he is not post-religious; and Gelernter points out that it isn't a biblical allusion as if he's scored a point.)
  • Gelernter also acts as if the excerpts I offered from Obama speeches are exhaustive. In fact, there are many, many more biblical allusions and quotes in Obama speeches, and it is inaccurate to say, as Gelernter does in his response, that there are "almost no biblical echoes." 

A bit later we get the most telling line of Gelernter's response:

Obama seems to have no religion, to be "post-religious." I don't pretend to know the man's inner life. But having known many religious Jews and Christians, I can say that Obama doesn't sound like one to me.

This is absurd in two ways. First, Gelernter does in fact pretend to know Obama's inner life. That is much of the problem. Obama says he's a practicing Christian and that he believes in American exceptionalism. After observing him, Gelernter says it isn't so -- he asserts that he is post-religious. Second, I call this passage the most telling because it captures what I asserted to begin with: Gelernter decided that Obama "doesn't sound like a Christian" to him, and so he set about asserting that he is not in fact a Christian. The partisan mind formed an impression of a politician, and that impression was then asserted as if it was fact. Supporting "facts" were even marshaled: "There are no biblical echoes in his speeches, as there have been in the speeches of so many presidents, left and right, and such other American leaders as Martin Luther King."

It just turned out that those "facts" were inaccurate and easily refuted.

I nevertheless thank Gelernter for taking the time to respond.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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