The Journal of Applied Impossibility
Note: originally posted on my personal site. Date changed here to reflect original posting date as I migrate my blog here.
I want to discuss politics on this blog, but in order to do so I need to develop a vocabulary. I have a meta-political pet peeve which I believe I can name and explain through a discussion of the parlance of magic. In honor of Penn and Teller, I’m going to try to make the world a slightly better place by giving away a secret to a magic trick. This is a big no-no in some parts of the magic world, and so I’m sorry to magicians everywhere. It’s for the greater good...
In addition to this appeal to a kind of utilitarian claim about the greater good, I would offer the following justifications. First, I am confident that almost no one will read this -- so the damage will be minimal. Second, one of the premises of contemporary magic is that audiences are sophisticated enough to understand that there is a trick. Many contemporary magicians are up front about this fact, and it doesn’t ruin the trick because, as the saying goes, the audience wants to be fooled. If you do a good enough job with this trick, it won’t be ruined.
But before I ruin the trick, I thought I might gratuitously exploit modern technology to render a very crummy version of it for your entertainment. It will also help you to get a sense of what's going on when someone pulls this off.
You can experience it in the form of an interactive survey. Take the survey, and when it's time to reveal my prediction (but not before), click on the spoiler button. To get the full effect, don't go back through the trick until you get to the end.
Experience the trick here:
Highlight below to see my prediction (no Peeking!):
You will select the Yellow Ball.
O.K. -- what happened?
This trick works on a principle known as "magician's choice." This is often used in magic and mentalism routines. If you click "back" through the form and make the other choices, you will get a sense of how things play out.
The Magician has an outcome in mind (That you will choose the Yellow Ball), and is working in order to get you to arrive at that outcome. Your actions are being interpreted as your choice. But while you get to act freely, the Magician gets to do the interpreting. If you leave the yellow ball on the table, the Magician will interpret that as your having chosen the yellow ball by leaving it on the table. If you pick up the ball, then you will either choose the ball by handing it to the Magician, or by keeping it for yourself. The Magician already knows that you will choose it. What's up to you is how you end up choosing that yellow ball. The magician words things very carefully -- this skill is, appropriately enough, called equivocation.
II.b [ an aside that can be completely skipped ]
Mentalists use some of the same methods magicians use: misdirection, sleight of hand, and of course, equivocation. One difference between them is the alleged source of the powers through which they work their effects. If the philosophy of materialism has accomplished anything worthwhile (a doubtful claim!), it has been to give magicians less reason to lie. They are no longer able bill themselves as wizards able to control forces of the other realms, but as rationalists who are wise to the deceits of charlatans, and able to expose them. The Amazing Randi is the patron saint of this shift in the moral landscape of the magic world.
This change is so widespread that I am unaware of any current magicians who present their magic as genuinely paranormal. It is universally performed as entertainment: "I am going to fool you," they say. "I will not show you the mirrors through the smoke, but you can rest at ease that I am not really sawing anyone in half. I cannot really fly, and no mortal can produce something from nothing."
There are, however still those who present themselves as hypnotists, psychics and mediums. (A mentalist might be said to be one of these who admits to being a magician of a certain flavor,) Such performers have a longstanding history of bilking credulous marks and preying on the emotions of lovers and mourners. For only a few hundred dollars, you can communicate with your dead relatives or have a romance charm. In an age of allegedly increasing skepticism, mentalists are able to present their routines under the nebulous rubric of "social engineering." Mentalists too are getting in on the act of benign fooling, rather than taking advantage of the naïve. But the malicious manipulation of others for personal gain has been an enduring theme among some practitioners (e.g. Uri Geller, who was exposed by the above-mentioned James Randi).
I want to suggest that something similar is going on with certain elements of our political discourse -- that a kind of "magician's choice" is being used as a rhetorical weapon in defense of something I'm calling a priori politics. A priori politics is what happens when our political interpretation of an event occurs before the event itself.
You have seen this in action whenever someone performs the cliché trick of asking someone from Party A to evaluate a political proposal without properly identifying the author of said proposal. This trick is alternately presented as "What do you think about this plan from Party B [which is actually the latest from party A]?" or, "What do you think about this plan from Party A [which is actually the latest from Party B]?" It turns out that members of Party A detest the former and adore the latter. (N.B.: You have also very likely experienced this personally when you have found that such clever trickery only goes to show what fools those Party A people really are. Clearly no one from the respectable party to which you and I belong would fall so easily for such a thing.)
Partisans engaging in a priori politics do not evaluate a policy on its merits any more than a magician predicts the free choice of a yellow ball from a group of objects on the table. Someone who has decided in advance to like party A and dislike party B, will like anything party A proposes and dislike anything party B proposes. The "gotcha" interview simply tricks partisans into revealing their true methods.
Sadly, there has been no great debunker pointing out the unscrupulous methods of political charlatans. I believe this is In part because, despite rumors of decreasing credulity among the masses, the people who will notice the bogus routine are few. Note that I said, "will" rather than "can." Surely there are plenty who are perfectly capable of spotting nonsense, once they have been alerted to the possibility, and quite a few more who could join their ranks with a bit of proper training. Sadly, there are those who are more-or-less willfully ignorant: the group to which the old saw applies, "You cannot wake someone who is pretending to be asleep."
But the most pernicious fact is that once one sees how the trick is done, it becomes far more profitable to employ it oneself than to expose it. It is much easier to abuse one's neighbors through their ignorance than it is to disabuse them of that ignorance. Honesty is thankless, flattery ingratiating. Mentalism routines, when presented as something beyond entertainment allow the manipulation of others' minds. In the world of politics, mind control is real. It may not take the form of a Manchurian candidate, but it is mind control all the same. Someone who supports the piece of legislation when it's presented as originating from Party A, and hates it when it's presented as a plan from Party B is a mark, and is being hustled, just as surely as if she were at a cold-reading or a séance.
It remains perhaps to show some examples of the magician's choice applied to political ends, and it certainly remains to say what can be done about it. To the former, I will say that I intend to point out instances whenever I write about them (to which end, I will make use of the characteristic medium of our time and provide links to this post). To the latter, I will say that simply being aware of the magician's choice as a gambit with political force can help to combat some of its abuses. We should make our best good faith effort to root out our own proclivity toward a priori politics whenever we can. Simply by acting in good faith, one puts forth an effort to ward off despair.
I have already given one example of someone making a similar move, albeit not in the context of politics. Further examples will require more extensive analysis. They are likely to be controversial, and are certainly worthy of lengthy discussions on their own. In order to focus (for some definitions of that word) the topic here, I will have to provide a simple promissory note regarding such examples. They are, I promise, forthcoming.
I write about all sorts of things. This is one of the places where I do it.