Reading Obama's Mind.

Not to harp too much on Dinesh D'Souza's incredible Forbes cover article about how all of Barack Obama's presidency can be explained by the fact that his absent father injected him with an ideology of "Kenyan anti-colonialism" that to this day determines his every decision, but this bit of wingnuttery actually can be instructive for all of us as we think about the information and opinions we use to understand the political world on an ongoing basis.

First, you should read what Adam has to say about D'Souza. Now that you're back, let's think about a passage like this one:

It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son, the President of the United States. That is what I am saying. From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father's position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder. Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America. In his worldview, profits are a measure of how effectively you have ripped off the rest of society, and America's power in the world is a measure of how selfishly it consumes the globe's resources and how ruthlessly it bullies and dominates the rest of the planet.

We are all sometimes guilty of committing what psychologists call the "fundamental attribution error," in which we attribute our own decisions to circumstance but attribute the decisions others make to their innate (often negative) nature. I cut that car off in traffic because I didn't see him in my blind spot; that guy cut me off in traffic because he's a jerk. Those of us who write about politics can easily fall prey to the temptation of explaining our political opponents' actions by citing their dark twisted hearts. Even in its milder form, we often make what are essentially guesses about their motivations and intentions. After all, we can't read their minds, and there are lots of things we don't have access to -- like their private discussions with advisers -- that might give us insight, but in their absence we go ahead and make conclusions anyway. I've certainly done this myself.

But as a reader, one should be on guard against broad, sweeping speculation about how a politicians' character explains everything he does, particularly if that speculation leads one inevitably to the conclusion that everything the politician has ever said, or anyone who knows him has ever said about him, is a lie. Once you start accepting this kind of thing, you lose your ability to think clearly about anything that happens in politics.

D'Souza's piece is an extreme example of this tendency, but it shows how it works. You'll notice in the above passage that D'Souza says, "Obama learned...He came to view...He adopted his father's position...Obama grew to perceive...In his worldview..." D'Souza speaks with certainty about the contents of Obama's mind without the barest evidence to support any of it. That's how it works -- the opponent's character is the bridge between the mundane reality of policy and the hysterical, apocalyptic warnings necessary to convince people that the current opponents are the worst threat in history and must be opposed with all the venom we can muster. How do you support a charge like the one D'Souza begins the article with, that "Barack Obama is the most anti-business president in a generation, perhaps in American history"? The policy record doesn't really support that rather fantastical claim, but you don't need the policy record if you know that in his heart of heart, Obama is a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" looking to wreak vengeance on the white oppressors. It explains everything, even (or especially) things that haven't actually happened.

To repeat: Anyone who writes regularly about politics and has opinions will now and again speculate on motives and intentions. But when you read someone saying about a politician, "What he really wants" or "What he really believes," remind yourself that the writer probably has little or no idea what the politician wants or believes, and you should be as skeptical as you can.

-- Paul Waldman

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