Moses said to the people in his final charge "I put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life...Be strong and resolute..for the Lord will not forsake you" Deut. 30 and 31. Former US National Debate Champion and Ordained Rabbi tackles issues of Public Policy, Israel, Islamic Terrorism, Antisemitism, Jewish Wisdom and the Chicago Bears
Saturday, June 24, 2017
How did it become widely believed in the first half of 2017 that a U.S. president committed treason with Russia?
1. Tens of thousands of Americans have done business with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, not to mention before. 2. In 2009 President Obama made the first of his two trips to Russia with a gaggle of U.S. business leaders in tow. 3. Every president for 75 years has sought improved relations with Russia. 4. Russian diplomats live in the U.S. and rub shoulders with countless Americans. 5. innocuous, incidental and routine Trump associations interspersed with claims from the Trump dossier to make the innocuous, incidental and routine seem nefarious. By
Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
Americans won’t be really good citizens until they read Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein’s 1999 law review article about “availability cascades.”
Their launching point is the process by which we (i.e., human beings) decide to believe what others believe, and judge the truth of a proposition by how familiar it is. Such “availability cascades” drive government policy in good ways and bad, but usually bad. An example the authors analyze in detail is 1989’s fake “Alar” cancer scare that devastated U.S. apple growers.
Which brings us to today’s question: How did it become widely believed in the first half of 2017 that a U.S. president committed treason with Russia?
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Consider what has passed for proof in the media. Tens of thousands of Americans have done business with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, not to mention before.
In 2009 President Obama made the first of his two trips to Russia with a gaggle of U.S. business leaders in tow.
Of these many thousands, four were associated with the Trump campaign, and now became evidence of Trump collusion with Russia.
Every president for 75 years has sought improved relations with Russia. That’s what those endless summits were about. Mr. Trump, in his typically bombastic way, also promoted improved relations with Russia. Now this was evidence of collusion.
Russian diplomats live in the U.S. and rub shoulders with countless Americans. Such shoulder-rubbing, if Trump associates were involved, now is proof of crime.
The Alar pesticide scare only took off when activists whom Messrs. Kuran and Sunstein label “availability entrepreneurs” peddled deceptive claims to a credulous “60 Minutes.” We would probably not be having this Russia discussion today if not for the so-called Trump dossier alleging improbable, lurid connections between Donald Trump and the Kremlin.
It had no provenance that anyone was bound to respect or rely upon. Its alleged author, a retired British agent named Christopher Steele, supposedly had Russian intelligence sources, but why would Russian intelligence blow the cover of their blackmail agent Mr. Trump whom they presumably so carefully and expensively cultivated? They wouldn’t.
Yet recall the litany of Rep. Adam Schiff, who declared in a House Intelligence Committee hearing: “Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence?”
His litany actually consisted of innocuous, incidental and routine Trump associations interspersed with claims from the Trump dossier to make the innocuous, incidental and routine seem nefarious.
Maybe Mr. Schiff is a cynic, or maybe Harvard Law sent him back into the world with the same skull full of mush with which he arrived. But ever since, every faulty or incomplete recollection of a meeting with a Russian has been promoted in the media as proof of treason by Trump associates.
The president’s obvious irritation with being called a traitor is proof that he is a traitor.
Whether the Russia incubus did more harm to Mr. Trump’s vote or Hillary’s vote during the election is impossible to know. But Mr. Trump won, so under the hindsight fallacy his victory is now proof that he conspired with Russia.
The term “availability bias” originated in the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, whose Nobel Prize-winning research gave birth to the field of behavioral economics.
Mr. Kahneman went on to write 2011’s indispensable “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” and I’m here to tell you that journalists especially pride themselves on their fast thinking—the kind that mistakes randomness for pattern, confuses correlation with causation, and gives excessive rein to emotional and cognitive biases.
Notice I don’t say reporters and editors are so dumb they can’t free themselves from such errors. I say that such errors are their stock in trade.
The original allegory of fast thinking, of course, is the old folklore tale, “the emperor’s new clothes.” In his 1922 book “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann explained how journalists reduce complex, novel realities to off-the-shelf “stereotypes.”
Or as a colleague once said of Stalin, “[He] tries to force life into a ready-made framework. The more life resists . . . the more forcefully he mangles and breaks it.”
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad way of describing how the D.C. anthill has reacted to the unexpected, exotic, high-risk, possibly providential experiment of the Trump presidency.
We mean every descriptor. His very unsuitability, the mood of the American public that elected him, the obscure impasse of American politics that brought him to power—all these signs deserve more respect than they’re getting.
His Torquemadas don’t and can’t know whether our democracy, in the improbable Mr. Trump, found a lever to move us forward, and there’s something repugnant in their desire not to find out.