Saturday, November 5, 2011


Radley Balko got quite a lot of hate mail in response to an article he wrote for HuffPo on Occupy Wall Street. One letter hilariously complains
I am appalled by your lack of integrity. You quoted someone from the Cato Institute but didn’t reveal that you also worked for them. You also didn’t reveal that while they pretend to be conservatives, they are really George Soros peacenicks, homos, and potheads (your probably all three) who wear ties to disguise themselves.
Peacenicks, Homos, and Potheads Who Wear Ties. It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Ed Brayton picked this up and reprinted it on his blog, where the first posted response was "Not to forget that Cato is financed in large part by the Koch brothers…" Brayton replied:
So is the ACLU. That doesn’t mean they don’t do great work on many important issues. Nor does the fact that they’re wrong on some issues. I think some people just don’t get the point of a think tank that looks at a large range of issues. They have scholars who specialize in entirely different subjects. Their scholars working on economic regulation issues may be completely wrong and their scholars working on Fourth Amendment or eminent domain issues (or any number of others) may be completely right. Heck, the same scholar may be right on one issue and wrong on others, or right on the overall issue while wrong on some particular facet of it. Welcome to the real world, where no one is right on everything (you and me included).
Following from my recent post on spokespeople.....yes. Of course groups are more complicated. Of course money changing hands encourages bias. Of course we have to decide whether a non-profit/think tank endorses our goals enough to justify supporting them financially. These concerns are all relevant. But an organization receiving money from sources you dislike is not rat poo in your ravioli. It doesn't irredeemably taint the group as a whole, and it doesn't make their conclusions false. Good luck finding a politically active organization to support which is funded entirely by people who agree with you. People have different interests, different goals, and if we're concerned with politics while too busy with life to be full-time activists ourselves, we have to figure out who is doing the closest thing to what we'd be doing if we were activists, and support them.  

If deciding that individuals in public life are your spokespeople and getting angry or denouncing them when they say something "wrong" is unreasonable and unrealistic, then surely doing the same thing with organizations is moreso. Actually thinking critically about the content of information disseminated and the value of acts committed is obviously more work, but it beats simply turning your brain off and putting your entire faith in a group or denouncing that group as evil in every way. Doesn't it?


  1. The possible underpinnings for this type of cognitive error also interest me--possibly the idea that wholesale group identification often trumps rational distinctions. Does that make sense?

  2. Yes, it definitely makes sense. I don't have evidence for this, but I can't help thinking it's a kind of essentialism-- the rat poo in the ravioli reference was meant to describe an intolerance for even the smallest amount of (apparent) corruption in a group if it is to be trusted or supported. In order to avoid sounding like I was describing a disgust response I probably should've used the example of a droplet of dark colored paint in container of light. The point is that people seem to have trouble not putting political activist organizations into categories of "good" or "evil" and once they've done so it's very hard work to change their perception. I have this problem myself and try to combat it, but am only occasionally successful.