Back in the early nineties those of us working in information technology rolled our eyes when anyone started throwing about the term metadata. Yes, that’s data about the data, or data about that data, and when you’re building a data warehouse, another odd term, you have to get those higher levels straight. But the term metadata just seemed pretentious – so you had complex indexed tables that determined how the lower level databases, where the actual data resided, were related, and indexed databases of rules for relating the two, or three or four levels. Big deal – that was just how you had to set up things. Giving necessity a fancy name seemed a bit excessive.
Data-mining was what you were up to – another formerly cool name for having your rules tables set up so you could search for possible relationships no one had yet noticed. Hey – if you have enough data all sorts of things pop up, as our government knows and has been actively pursuing for some years, and seems to fall outside all the ways one could think about search warrants based on probable cause. Yes, they really don’t know just what they’re looking for – but they’ll know it when they see it. It would thus seem that Fourth Amendment alarmists should not only worry about the telecom folks gleefully providing all data streams to the government, but should also want to know something about the meta-data. That’s what could land you in Guantanamo.
Perhaps all of life is like that – each of us wants to know not only what our relatively short life means in the grand scheme of things, if anything, but we’d also like to know the rule-based systems that determine that this thing is pretty meaningless and that thing certainly is not. We want to be clued in on the meta-data. For some that’s the Bible or the Koran, of course. Others find those sources puzzling and not of much practical use. Meta-data should not be ambiguous and open to various interpretations that have led to wars and such. Atheists and agnostics have a simple question – “That’s it?” They are disappointed. They look elsewhere. All of existentialism was about that.
Metadata is an interesting concept, of course, but we system folks had lots of terms back then that, common now, were puzzling at the time – software, firmware, hardware and wetware (the eccentric wild-eyed systems engineers and the pasty and peculiar programmers coding the systems). Metadata – the systems behind the systems – may yet catch on and be just another bit of shorthand for a useful concept. Theologians might not like the term, but they can speak for themselves.
Now all of this, of course, is a round-about way of excusing what follows, a discussion of what is happening this year, another presidential election, and what was happening on the evening of Tuesday, February 5, as the preliminary results of primaries and caucuses in twenty-four states and American Samoa rolled in.
Nothing was decided, or not much – this state or that seemed to fall for this candidate or that, but the big prize, California, three time zones displaced from the media centers in New York and Atlanta, would not fall one way or the other until long past the networks’ primetime window, or for another day what with the millions who voted by absentee ballot out here, leaving things in the hands of the US Postal Service. Political junkies watching CNN, Fox and MSNBC were no doubt frustrated with the breaking news, as it was breaking slowly, in dribs and drabs. An endless parade of “experts” and political operatives and pundits and campaign spokesmen (and spokeswomen) explained what it all might mean, as before our eyes, it hadn’t really happened yet. Well, not exactly – it was happening very slowly and there would be no resolution before sunrise, if then. Fox News brought out their latest expert political analyst, Karl Rove himself, but he was tap-dancing to the hypothetical, as it were, all evening.
If you enjoy watching the self-important discuss what might or might not be happening, but really hadn’t happened yet, it was a wonderful evening. Otherwise, it was a good evening to consider the metadata.
What metadata? You could go back and think about what David Runciman wrote in the Boston Globe over the weekend, Vote Hypocrite. Runciman knows his stuff. He’s the senior lecturer in politics at Cambridge University and has a new book coming out, Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond. You’ll have to wait until May to get your hands on a copy, but the Globe item is a useful preview. The thesis seems to be that in times like these, America needs a politician who isn’t afraid to fake it.
He does note that right now the air is thick with accusations and counter-accusations that the candidates don’t practice what they preach. It’s the usual – “the leading contenders are desperate to pin on one another the toxic label of hypocrite.”
You know the drill:
Mitt Romney, the scourge of illegal immigrants, turns out to have hired a private gardening firm that employs many of them. John McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts on the grounds they favored the rich; now he insists they be made permanent. Barack Obama is stoutly against the Iraq war but voted to fund it as a senator; Hillary Clinton, similarly, is now running against the very war she gave the president authority to wage.
In fact, none of the plausible candidates is immune to the charge of adopting positions that don’t square with some aspect of their past. Some candidates, like Clinton and Romney, attract particular suspicion because it is so hard to know what they truly believe – every pronouncement seems to have been market-tested in a way that ensures the underlying personality, the true beliefs of the person uttering the words, never come through at all. Our politics seem awash with hypocrisy, which leads us to suspect that honesty and integrity are increasingly rare qualities in public life.
But he argues that political hypocrisy isn’t that bad:
Hypocrisy may not be an attractive human quality, but in politics, it is often a desirable one – and may sometimes be better than the alternative.
Hypocrites, in constructing an electable persona for themselves, are clearly demonstrating that they understand their personal limitations. They recognize the need to adapt what they happen to believe to what is politically prudent. So it’s possible to see hypocrisy as evidence of politicians who will do what they say once in office because they set no special premium by their private preferences.
So our instinctive dislike of hypocrisy can get in the way of seeing what is really at stake when it comes to choosing a leader and we might even make better decisions about these folks if we could realize “that far from being a liability in a leader, hypocrisy is an essential part of democratic politics.”
We need to see the metadata, but history gets in the way:
The original hypocrites were the stage actors of ancient Greece, who wore masks and made a profession of pretending to be something they were not. Ever since, politicians who have tried to conceal some part of themselves – their checkered past, their private habits, their personal beliefs – have found themselves accused of hypocrisy. Since most politicians have something to hide, the accusations keep coming.
So we think hypocrisy is a deal-breaker, but that is precisely our problem:
Part of our dislike is a visceral response to being taken for fools. In a democratic society, as Tocqueville was one of the first to notice, the worst vice of all is condescension because it makes a mockery of our desire to be treated as equals by our elected leaders. Hypocrites appear to be excepting themselves from the standards they see as fit for public consumption.
But behind this is a deeper sense that hypocrisy is not just a form of condescension, but a kind of deception, and is symptomatic of a secretive and duplicitous personality. Anyone who wears a mask, after all, makes it impossible to know what the person behind the mask is really like.
So when we see a mismatch between private actions and public appearances, as with Romney and his gardeners, we get all bent out of shape. But this is part of the times, what with the internet and round-the-clock news – it’s far too easy to know such things now.
But isn’t a hypocrite a person who hides his or her true beliefs behind a façade of useful platitudes? That’s what we hate:
If politicians mouth platitudes to get elected, how can we trust them to do what they say once in office? We also sense that they be unworthy of the highest offices: We want to believe there is an honesty at the heart of our politics. Hence our innate suspicion of politicians who put an artificial face forward.
When the hypocrisy is flagrant enough it can bring down a candidacy – even if the deception is completely irrelevant to governance. Joe Biden’s 1988 campaign for the Democratic nomination never recovered after he made a speech recounting the sincere personal pride he felt in his family history, which turned out to have been plagiarized from the family history of the British Labor leader Neil Kinnock. Despite a distinguished career in the Senate since then, Biden’s miserable showing in the recent Iowa caucus shows that he still hasn’t recovered.
We don’t forget. We don’t forgive. And that may be shortsighted:
Effective leadership is about good judgment, foresight, and the ability to adapt to whatever the world might throw at you. Being possessed of personal integrity does not necessarily guarantee any of these other qualities. Sometimes, the hypocrite looks like a better bet.
We may want consistency, but that may not be inherently desirable:
Hypocrites tailor their public face to suit the needs of the moment, true. But at heart, that amounts to adaptability – a crucial trait in a political leader.
By contrast, politicians who set great store by personal consistency have to do one of two things, both of which may be worse. They can maintain their honesty by constantly changing what they actually believe to suit changing political requirements. A politician whose true beliefs shift so easily never needs to lie about them, but may be far less reliable than the hypocrite.
The other alternative is the leader whose beliefs are simple enough to run through everything they say. If we don’t want our politicians to change their minds, we have to ensure that their minds are uncluttered by anything that might force them to rethink. An uncluttered mind is occasionally an aid to clear thought and effective decision-making, but it would be naive to see it as the supreme qualification for leadership.
See George Bush, of course.
But don’t we want, at the very least, sincerity? We may not want that either:
When Hillary Clinton welled up in a cafe in New Hampshire at the low point of her campaign, the question everyone wanted answered was whether the sudden display of emotion was genuine. For all those who believed that it was, this was a clear plus point, the moment when the real Hillary came through. For everyone who thought the tears were fake, this was just more evidence that Hillary was a hypocrite, and nothing about her candidacy could be taken at face value.
But the ability to deploy outward signs of emotion while remaining in control of feelings that lie beneath is a political gift, not a political weakness. This was a theme that ran through the career of one of England’s greatest politicians, but also greatest hypocrites, Oliver Cromwell, the man who defeated Charles I in the English Civil War and became lord protector of England. For Cromwell’s enemies, his readiness with tears, particularly at moments of political crisis, was a sign that he was deeply unreliable. But for his admirers – who would later include American founders like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – Cromwell’s distinguishing characteristic was his mastery of the requirements of personal leadership, which he used to advance the cause of freedom. He understood that popular politics needed displays of emotion, but that effective politics required self-control.
As they say out here in Hollywood, if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made. You can use it to your advantage. Is that so bad?
Here’s the key metadata:
Perhaps we should ask not what this says about the politicians but what it says about us. We can dress up our dislike of hypocrisy in principled terms, and spout pieties about the importance of trust and integrity. But we need to recognize that along with hating hypocrisy, we love it as well – that is, we love seeing it exposed. Who hasn’t watched with satisfaction as a politician is hoisted by his own petard? But part of the pleasure, if we are honest with ourselves, is schadenfreude, and comes from our relief that we are not subject to the same standards.
Which parent, or employer, or friend, can truly say that they always practice what they preach? Yet which of us thinks that we should therefore be disqualified from telling other people what to do? Our aversion to hypocrisy when it comes to politics coexists with a widespread tolerance of hypocrisy when it comes to ourselves. That means our anti-hypocrisy is ultimately self-defeating, because it makes hypocrites of us all.
That’ll make your head hurt, but he gets practical:
It is not a good idea for a politician to rail against gay rights if he can’t keep his feet to himself when using a stall in a public bathroom. But this is a bad idea not because it is hypocrisy, but because it suggests self-delusion rather than self-awareness.
So some hypocrisy in politics simply doesn’t matter much – Mitt Romney’s difficulties with his gardeners. It says nothing about the kind of president he might make. And some hypocrisy in politics is obviously beneficial, “as when politicians hold back some part of themselves from the prying gaze of the public, and aren’t afraid to let go of their own convictions when the evidence suggests they might be wrong.”
So we need to understand the metadata:
Hypocrites who spend time preparing a mask for themselves that can survive whatever politics throws at them may be better equipped for leadership than politicians who think that the most important thing is to let the voters see their true face. Elections shouldn’t be about sifting out the hypocrites in an elusive search for the candidates of integrity. They should be about deciding which sort of hypocrite we prefer, and which sorts of hypocrites we want to be ourselves.
Cool – cynical, but cool. And it makes sense.
It makes more sense than what you find in Daniel Engber’s Obama Builds Lead Inside Voters’ Brains! That’s a riff on this video clip from CNN – neuroscience explains why we vote the way we do, and what we don’t know about ourselves:
In a video segment that first aired this morning, reporter Randi Kaye tries to avert a replay of the New Hampshire polling fiasco by getting at what’s going on inside the minds of California’s undecided voters. “Voters may say they prefer one candidate,” she explains, “but the brain actually knows better. It’s not a lie, but an inarticulated truth.”
Kaye is reporting on a “neuromarketing” firm called Lucid Systems, the folks who claim that that we all lie about our preferences – to pollsters, to friends, even to ourselves. They say they can get to the “unspoken truth” in our minds. It’s exciting, or nonsense. Engber notes that CNN.com was pushing the story on its homepage under the tabloid headline, “Machine reads voters’ lying minds.” One does think of the headlines in the National Enquirer you see as you wait in line at the supermarket.
But if you watch the segment, CNN and Lucid tested eight undecided voters, including two who claimed to favor Obama and Clinton equally. But we find out that those two were secretly “negative” for Clinton. CNN’s Kay says, “One of them isn’t even aware of [his bias] until we ask him to dig deeper!” Amazing! Astounding! The metadata!
No, says Engber:
Of course, it might not have taken a brain scientist to figure that out. It turns out the researchers weren’t really looking at brains at all for three-quarters of the test group. Instead, they measured just two things: skin-conductance response – with the fingertip electrodes that have been used in conventional (and unreliable) lie detectors for at least 100 years – and movements in the corrugator supercilii muscle that furrows the brow when you’re displeased. Taken together, these signals give a rough sense of how intensely a voter dislikes a particular candidate. It’s a bit harder to tell if a voter secretly liked a candidate.
And you have to consider the source of this silliness, Lucid Systems:
The company’s chief research officer, Baruch College professor Jennifer Mangels, has a history of donations to the Democratic National Committee. And company founder Fernando Miranda – formerly of Johns Hopkins – shows signs of Huckabee-style creationism. At one point during the CNN segment, he explains the adaptive value of quick, unconscious decision-making by imagining our prehistoric forebears: “You don’t get to think about how fast you’re going to run away from a dinosaur – you really have to run!”
Note: The Flintstones was not a documentary. The dinosaurs were long gone by the time our ancestors were strolling about.
And CNN gets some heat here:
The network shamelessly inflated this rather old-fashioned study with the image of a mind-reading computer that can predict tonight’s outcome at the polls. “Call it a neurological lie detector test,” says Kaye at the end of the segment. “It may prove to be better than polling at determining what a voter does in the voting booth.”
Some metadata is better than others.
Still, the whole world was watching so CNN needed to capture their share of the audience.
The whole world was watching? Yes, as this came by email from Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis:
Super Tuesday in France – France-Info radio news bulletins all about the contest between Clinton and Obama, as if there are no Republicans. It’s like a horse race, football match, World Series.
Same thing with the TV-news – nightly reports from French reporters in the United States tell us, show us, how the race is going. Clinton rallies, Obama rallies, and very occasionally, a McCain rally. For your interest in Sarkozy and Royal last spring we return the favor.
The Democrats have it all. A white woman, a black man! For either to win – revolutionary. McCain, the best the other side can do – stupid white man, boring.
Today’s Le Parisien – who would win the vote in France, Clinton or Obama? It’s the UTubing of politics. It’s a game anyone can play. Super Bowl, Super Tuesday, it’s the big game. To tide us over until the rugby starts. Go Dems!
Ah, excitement… but understandable.
See Anne Applebaum – Sarkozy Weds, Plunges in Polls. The subhead is – “The French president’s whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness.”
It seems France did not attend to the relevant metadata in their last election. They didn’t see this coming. Sarkozy married that singer/supermodel, Carla Bruni, in a short civil ceremony at the Élysée Palace – just family and a few others, and they make a nice couple, if that matters. It doesn’t. The man is in trouble:
Already on a downward trajectory, support for Sarkozy’s presidency has plunged. From a high of 67 percent last July, the percentage of Sarkozy supporters in France had dropped to 54 percent in January. As of Feb. 3, this number had slipped to 41 percent, with more than three-quarters of the French pronouncing themselves annoyed by their head of state’s very public private life in a poll taken both before and after the presidential nuptials. For a country that treated news of Sarkozy’s divorce last year with a shrug of Gallic indifference, this is incredible.
Of course, this photograph didn’t help – the new first lady quite naked but for the black leather boots and a wedding ring, posing provocatively on her back, gazing intently at the camera. Do not think of Laura Bush – your head will explode. Now the French aren’t prudish at all, and many women there, and here, have no doubt enjoyed being photographed in such a manner, and been glad the anonymous many enjoyed their efforts.
But something is amiss in this case:
The fact is that the private peccadilloes of public figures loom largest when they seem to confirm his or her other character flaws. The Monica Lewinsky affair hurt Bill Clinton because it reminded everyone of the president’s reputation for political slipperiness. Sarkozy’s whirlwind romance is damaging because it reminds everyone that his public behavior is no less wacky and unpredictable than his private life.
How wacky is that? Very:
Certainly, this is true on the international stage, and especially in Europe, where diplomacy normally moves at the sedate pace of a Viennese waltz, and where Sarkozy’s penchant for whirling off in all directions at once is, shall we say, unsettling. Indeed, “controlling Sarko,” as one Scandinavian politician put it to me, has now become a task for the entire European diplomatic corps. At times, this requires straightforward damage control. The French president seems, for example, to be obsessed by Turkey, whose accession to the European Union he wants to prevent at all costs. Allegedly, he reads his foreign ministry’s Turkey dossiers personally and intervenes personally to prevent any language suggesting possible Turkish membership from appearing in any official document. Since barring Turkey isn’t actually European Union policy yet, others are left to pick up the pieces.
His colleagues have enough work just keeping track of him. Since becoming president, Sarkozy has opened a new military base in the United Arab Emirates, conducted (unsuccessful) peace negotiations in Lebanon, invited Muammar Qaddafi to Paris (where the Libyan leader cheerfully told the press that he had not discussed any human rights issues with his French host), and promoted French nuclear energy technology while simultaneously pushing Iran to halt its own nuclear development. So far, he’s visited 20 countries. One French newspaper gleefully quoted King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia declaring that “President Sarkozy resembles a dashing and high-spirited thoroughbred, but like all thoroughbreds, he should submit to be reined in to find his balance.”
Yipes! They didn’t know what they were getting. And there’s this – the French president has, since coming to office, “decided to launch a ‘Marshall plan’ for the suburbs, to ban advertisements on state television, to found ten universities, to reform the 35-hour week, to protect French banks from sovereign wealth funds … and to tax mobile phones.” It also seems that Sarkozy has asked economist Amartya Sen to find a way of including “quality of life” in French statistics, and philosopher Edgar Morin to outline a renaissance in the “politics of civilization,” and socialist Jacques Attali to come up with “300 decisions for changing France.” The man is out of control.
Maybe this whirlwind of hyperactivity will eventually add up to something; certainly it makes a welcome change from the somnolence of the later Chirac years. But it definitely provides an uneasy context for a public romance. If Sarkozy were a staid and predictable politician, his tabloid love affair and abrupt marriage might be joyously embraced by a dewy-eyed nation. In present circumstances, it looks like one more madcap adventure to add to the growing list.
You have to attend to the metadata. And we get McCain and, it seems Hillary Clinton – by midnight here the results had firmed up a bit. Will we be surprised because we didn’t think about the reality behind the reality.