An old column on the same subject as Sunday’s

As I was preparing the blog version of my Sunday column for this week, I kept thinking of a column I wrote a while back making a similar point. Working from home, my only way to search for it was on Lexis-Nexis (rather than our internal database). Oddly, I found where it had been reproduced in The Denver Post, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and the Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator — but not the original from The State.

Anyway, hoping not too much of it got edited out, I provide here the Denver Post version. I figure the more ways I explain my point the better. I put the sentence where I fully state the point in boldface:

The Denver Post
August 10, 1995 Thursday 2D EDITION
Jury’s wisdom beats ‘dittohead justice’
BYLINE: Brad Warthen
LENGTH: 861 words

Call it dittohead justice.
    For three days during the penalty phase of the Susan Smith trial, America Online asked its subscribers whether she should get the death penalty or life in prison for killing her two little boys.
    The result? A whopping 96 percent said she should die. Of course, only 77 people responded, a fact which wasn’t reported as widely as the percentage. When Princeton Survey Research Associates conducted a real, statistically valid poll on the same question, only 63 percent voted for the chair.
    But that’s still a sizable majority, and a far cry from the decision of the jury, which took 2 1/2 hours to decide unanimously on life.
    The difference is that no one participating in the America Online survey or the Princeton poll was required to know anything or read anything, or listen or talk about the trial before giving an opinion. They operated on the principle that opinions are like a certain part of the human anatomy: Everybody’s got one. Just point and click, and express yours to the world.
    The same principle drives some radio call-in shows: Hit a few buttons and sound off. Speak from the gut with no sober reflection to get in the way. Like those who call Rush and G. Gordon, the AOL respondents were self-selected — the sample consisted of people who had an impulse to sound off.
    Of course, they didn’t get to sound off in any detail; it was thumbs up or thumbs down. But AOL subscribers had the opportunity to elaborate in an electronic message folder in the ABC News section of the service. The folder quickly filled up; a second one had 288 messages at last count. Some of the messages on both sides were thoughtful. This seemed more typical: "guilty as sin should die in the lake strapped in the car and let it sink very slowly she is crazy like a fox its a good excuse but not one I’ll buy"
    Note how this individual’s need to spout allowed no time for punctuation. Dittoheads are impatient. Letting the killer sit in a cell and dwell on her crime is too subtle. Get it over with and make it irrevocable.
    Note that I use "dittoheads" in a generic sense (stay cool, Rush fans). I’m referring to anyone who is in a spout-off mode, who fails to take time to reflect on evidence that argues against initial impulses. In this sense, we’re all dittoheads sometimes. We get fed up and we want the offending thing or person removed from our lives: Fry her! Bomb them into the Stone Age! Crucify him!
    That was true of the people of Union, whose hatred of Susan Smith knew no bounds when they first learned she had killed the children they had frantically searched for. But then they learned more, and took time to think. Those who were chosen as jurors went further. They heard not about excuses, but about mitigating circumstances which caused a woman who was a wreck of a human being on many levels to be in an abnormal state of mind the night of the murders.
    Those circumstances in no way altered the horrible nature of what she did. The jurors empathized with David Smith in his grief as well as with Beverly Russell, the guilt-wracked stepfather who claimed a portion of the blame. They stared unblinkingly at the gruesome evidence of the little boys’ suffering in their last moments.
    They saw and heard it all, they took it in soberly, and they deliberated. Their verdict was sound on any level you consider it, legal or moral. In the end, no juror could accept defense lawyer David Bruck’s invitation to "cast the first stone."
    Stone-throwing is easy for poll respondents. But I believe there’s no fundamental difference between them and the Smith jurors. However vengeful our initial impulses, when confronted with all of the evidence, and required to sit down and soberly deliberate, most of us would do what the jury did.
    The bottom line is, calm deliberation based on full access to the facts beats gut reaction almost every time.
    There’s a lot of talk these days about how technology is making our form of government obsolete. Representative democracy was fine for the 18th century, but not for the age of the information superhighway. We’ll sit in front of our interactive home entertainment systems and pick our movies, plane tickets and groceries — why not our laws?
    Neopopulists say we no longer need city councils, legislatures or Congress to make critical decisions such as whether to raise or lower taxes, or what to do about Bosnia. We can be our own representatives.
    But with jobs, families and other activities constantly making it harder to find time to sleep, only people who have been duly delegated by the rest of us have the luxury to study issues and deliberate over them to the extent that they can make decisions of the quality shown by the Smith jury.
    When we make our judgments from our own living rooms (or editorial offices), and express them at a distance, we do so in a vacuum. Inconvenient facts can be ignored; competing interests need not be balanced.
    That’s why we need deliberative bodies, to give us something better than dittohead justice. Or dittohead democracy.
    Brad Warthen is an editorial page associate editor at The State, P.O. Box 1333, Columbia, S.C. 29202

37 thoughts on “An old column on the same subject as Sunday’s

  1. Gordon Hirsch

    Splain, please, Lucy. Why the dittohead column? And why now? I don’t get the relevancy here, so no doubt I’m missing something – again, perhaps because it’s late. Perhaps not. … Just how long did you deliberate on the decision to resurrect this jewell of ditto-speak, and for what purpose? … Are we to deliberate on our current state of dittodom and apply lessons learned to the greater understanding of our dittohead candidates, those poll-driven guardians of ditto-do, or better yet, ditto news flash this: Lacking due deliberation, and speaking yet again from the gut of someone else, unknown and unattributed, dittObama lifted still another line for his ongoing DC ditt-o-rama, acknowledging he had run out of lofty ideals of his own and so, for the remainder of the campaign, would limit his remarks to “ditto,” in recognition of the fact that it’s all been said before, by someone, he’s just not sure by whom.
    Was that your point, Brad?

  2. bud

    Brad, you’re onto something very important here but you just didn’t quite connect the dots. The point is not that people react without considering the available information that could lead them in a different direction. The big point here is that CONSERVATIVES make decisions based on emotion not facts. There is absolutely no reason for working class people to vote GOP, yet many do simply because they buy into the scare tactics as espoused by the blatherspere of talk radio. On the other hand, liberals tend to reflect more on how they vote. They are better education, read more from all sides of the issues and generally make more informed decisions. Sadly, the scare tactics work and the result is the disaster of George W. Bush. And all of us have paid the price for this knee-jerk voting behavior.

  3. Karen McLeod

    I don’t think the tendency to act on one’s impulses and cultural leanings is liberal or conservative. I’ve met rabid people on both sides of the fence (one reason why I sometimes hop to the other side). The key question is whether or not one is willing to truly seek out someone who can explain the other side’s desire for a particular action, and listen to and consider their arguments. All too many people seek only to hear their side, and attack anyone who espouses another side. That’s why I enjoy reading this blog. There are some people here who can explain their point of view cogently. Even if I continue to disagree with them, I can at least understand where they are coming from, and their views may indeed influence my point of view. I suspect that anyone who is reduced to epithets has run out of intelligent argument; this is one reason I don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh. Among politicians, I especially consider personal attack of another to be a sign of a poverty of ideas. In short, any campaign that involves a bunch of attacks on the opponents character inclines me strongly toward the person they’re attacking.

  4. Doug Ross

    What’s disappointing is that we have a governor who was elected TWICE by a large percentage of the residents of this state and yet the government is run by a bunch of non-term limited power mongers who were elected by a few thousand people. That’s NOT representative government.
    And then I read Governor Sanford’s clear explanation of his concerns with the endowed chairs program in today’s paper and I have to ask — what more proof does he have to offer than all the indisputable FACTS as to what’s wrong with the program? Apparently, facts don’t matter… read the editorial and tell me why Sanford is being anything but a faithful steward of the interests of the people of South Carolina.
    Let’s see Brad and Mr. Tennenbaum debate the FACTS of the issue, not just spout platitudes about the wonderfullness of it all. It looks more and more like a complete scam perpertrated by greedy legislators and unaccountable higher ed administrators.

  5. HWP

    When I think of Susan Smith now, mercy and compassion are not just words — they are a gift that has been learned “in a hard school.”
    Here is a favorite chapter from one of the all time great deliberators…
    If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. “Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered. In other words, it is hard for those who are “rich” in this sense to enter the Kingdom….
    If you are a nice person–if virtue comes easily to you–beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.
    But if you are a poor creature–poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels–saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion–nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends–do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all–not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)
    “Niceness”–wholesome, integrated personality–is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic and political means in our power, to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up “nice”; just as we must try to produce a world where all have plenty to eat. But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world–and might even be more difficult to save.
    For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.
    C.S. Lewis
    “Mere Christianity”
    Book IV Chapter 10

  6. Herb Brasher

    HWP, I’m not sure of the purpose of your quote from C. S. Lewis (whom I admire greatly), but since you put the subject over to Christian involvement, here’s a quote from Rev. Jim Wallis over at the Sojourners blog (I can’t tell for sure, since he only signs it “Jim”). But this illustrates some of the issue:

    We agree that cost/benefit must be considered. But make sure you are including all of the costs and benefits – on and off the books.
    The yield of a Social Security investment is lower than it could be, because the program was set up as a pay-as-you-go program rather than being actuarially based. To change now would require a higher premium and thus a lower yield to carry the people who are already disabled or retired, while investing additional money in actuarially sound investments. (My family benefited greatly from the disability insurance when my father was disabled while we kids were very young.) Of course we could dump those folks, and then our personal yield would dramatically rise. But then there is the question of “doing unto others …”
    Look at it as analogous to buying whole life insurance instead of a stock investment. The yield is lower because a significant part of the payout is going to the beneficiaries of people who aren’t as fortunate as us. But relying on the higher-yielding stocks without the insurance aspect will leave many vulnerable to disaster if they are disabled or die too soon before the investment can mature.
    Insisting that I must obtain the whole benefit is analogous to asking if I am my brother’s keeper, when we know that there is an insurance aspect, and that risk must be shared across the whole society.

    Every time an airplane goes down, I’m thankful for the fact that I’ve paid into some travel insurance that maybe will never help me, but will go to the aid of a surviving family. Why is it that paying some taxes in order to benefit the whole of society is so anathema to some people? Despite the fact that corruption in government will always be a problem, is corruption in individualism then non-existent? Have we not learned from the tyrannical would-be economic monopolists of history?

  7. Herb Brasher

    P.S. I suppose my comment is off the subject of representative democracy as well, and probably belongs a few threads below. But then, who is reading still down there?

  8. weldon VII

    “The big point here is that CONSERVATIVES make decisions based on emotion, not facts.”
    Bud, how can you believe such a flagrantly misbegotten generality could possibly pass the test of calm deliberation?
    Surely you didn’t calmly deliberate to reach such an absurd conclusion, else it might have dawned on you that the word “conservative” means “disposed to preserve existing conditions … or to restore traditional ones” and “relating to treatment by gradual, limited, or well-established procedures; not radical.”
    I submit therefore that conservatives are therefore less likely to leap like lemmings based on unconsidered urges.

  9. Herb Brasher

    Can’t locate it in a hurry, Karen, but we were discussing social security further down, and I got lambasted for calling it “a form of savings.” True, it isn’t technically, “insurance” would have been a better term.

  10. Lee Muller

    Social Security is a welfare program, which destroys the ability of working people to save their own money for a real retirement system.
    The Supreme Court ruled in several cases that Social Security is not an insurance program, not a retirement system, that there are no accounts, and no one is entitled to one penny of benefits. It can be adjusted or abolished at the whim of Congress.

  11. Lee Muller

    The major case law stating that Social Security is a mere welfare program are
    Helvering v. Davis, 301 US 619 ((1937)
    Flemming v. Nestor, 363 US 603 (1960)
    Social Security taxes “are to be paid into the Treasury like any other internal revenue generally, and are not earmarked in any way.”
    The Supreme Court also says, “To engraft upon the Social Security system a concept of ‘accrued property rights’ would deprive it of the flexibility and boldness in adjustment to ever changing conditions which it demands.”
    “It is apparent that the non-contractual interest of an employee covered by the [Social Security] Act cannot be soundly analogized to that of the holder of an annuity, whose right to benefits is bottomed on his contractual premium payments.”
    (As you can probably surmise, this is not the first time I have attempted to debunk the myth of Social Security.)

  12. HWP

    Re: “…not sure of the purpose of your quote from C. S. Lewis…you put the subject over to Christian involvement….”
    Source: From Mr. Warthen’s archived column:
    [Susan Smith had] “mitigating circumstances which caused a woman who was a wreck of a human being on many levels to be in an abnormal state of mind the night of the murders…In the end, no juror could accept defense lawyer David Bruck’s invitation to “cast the first stone.”
    Source: C.S. Lewis’s referenced narrative:
    “He [God] knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.”
    See the mental thread? Social security, and travel insurance never entered my thoughts.

  13. Lee Muller

    Corruption in government is nothing more than the sum of the corruption of everyone involved making, interpreting and enforcing laws.
    Big government is unaccountable, lack of accountability is a form of power, and power corrupts.
    The difference between buying insurance and paying is that insurance is voluntary. If the insurance company is being bilked by cheaters, the honest person will cancel his policy and seek to join a pool of honest policy holders like himself. The taxpayer has no alternative for services. he must pay and watch most of the tax money be soaked up by cheating non-taxpayers and the bureaucrats who enable those cheaters.

  14. HWP

    Corruption in government is the by-product of all of us turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to the red flags desperately trying to get our attention. To let us know someone is about to OD on power. They are literally w-a-s-t-e-d on playing the rest of us like toy soldiers. It becomes a real hunger, only temporarily sated by reaching deeper and deeper levels of depravity. Worst case scenario, this gratification quest leads them to commit a horrible crime, such as a carefully-orchestrated murder–which no one seems to want to call them on!
    Some kind of intervention HAS to happen — be it by God, who can do what we can’t even imagine, or by someone in authority who truly believes that this judicial “SYSTEM WORKS” — and is not afraid to expose the resulting wounds to the healing light of day.
    Look at the Orangeburg Massacre — still raw after 40 years because it hasn’t ‘healed in truth’. Cover-ups are no good for ANYONE, especially the next generation who continues to see the injustice, through even more hopeless eyes.

  15. Richard L. Wolfe

    Brad, John Adams would have been proud. He never quite got use to the idea of regular working people having a voice in their government either.

  16. Doug Ross

    I’m hoping Brad will address the specifics regarding the Endowed Chairs editorial by Governor Sanford from Sunday’s paper.
    Sure looks like a scam setup by the legislators. They set up a reasonable system and then have gamed the rules as they went along to progressively add more pork and reduce the requirements and oversight. Typical government bait-and-switch.
    And there’s $750,000 of tax dollars being paid to a lobbyist firm (wonder who they’re connected to) to wring even more tax dollars out of the public… it’s like paying a crook to rob your home. $750,000 would pay for a lot of meals and healthcare for kids who need it.

  17. Lee Muller

    Where did the $200,000,000 for these chairs come from, when the legislature, USC and Clemson claimed they needed to raise tuition and reduce student grants-in-aid?

  18. Doug Ross

    Read the editorial, Lee.
    Here it is:
    Sanford on Endowed Chairs
    The fact that one dime of taxpayer money goes toward supporting the Hundley while kids go hungry is a crime in and of itself. The rest of the endowed chair program is just a pure money grab and to be expected.
    It’s too bad The State editorial board ignores facts in pursuit of it’s anti-Sanford bias.

  19. Lee Muller

    If a government program is so great, why don’t they publish a list of every budget item showing where that $200,000,000 came from, and where it went.

  20. Brad Warthen

    And did anybody understand my point here? Richard didn’t; I could tell that. But even Gordon seemed confused, which surprised me.
    It’s about the importance of deliberation. That’s all.

  21. Doug Ross

    I don’t think I could effectively convey the depths of my cyncism when it comes to the inefficiency and corruption of our government. There’s too much supporting evidence. Just as they say it’s not paranoia if everyone is out to get you, it’s not cynicism when you can support your beliefs with facts.
    I’ll reference a quote from one of my all time favorite movies, “Broadcast News”. Holly Hunter is confronted by a television executive who says:
    Paul Moore: It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.
    Jane Craig: No. It’s awful.
    I see examples every single day of needless government involvement and unproductive government systems every day.
    For example, on Saturday morning I was helping out at our “Feed The Hungry” program at church. I was talking with a guy I’ve seen for the past couple months. He’s a homeless veteran (there’s a lot of them). He’s got a severe hand injury that requires surgery. You know how long he’s been waiting to get the surgery? ONE YEAR! He walks back and forth two hours each way down to the V.A. hospital to get treatment every week but he can’t get the surgery he needs because the waiting list is so long. This is the healthcare system we’ll have under single payer. Why you can’t see that baffles me.
    And I make it through every day just fine, thank you. I’m a very optimistic person. I trust people more than I do bureacracies. I believe from the very pit of my soul that this world would be a better place for everyone if we could remove as much government control from our lives as possible.
    So I got that going for me…

  22. bud

    This is the healthcare system we’ll have under single payer.
    No, no, no. This is the healthcare system we have NOW!

  23. bud

    What we have now is a hodgepodge of hospitals run by different entities, some for profit, some run by the government. In addition, we have a great variety of ways to pay including medicare, medicaid and private insurarnce. The end result is a huge mess, of which the VA is a part, that results in extrodinarily high cost which benefit only big pharma and big insurance, hundreds of thousands of untreated patients and not just those in the VA. Our life-expectancy is way shorter than France, Japan or Germany in spite of far greater per-capita expenditures on health care.
    Either of the Democrats will work to change the current system which, after all, is really REPUBLICAN health care. It’s way past time for a single-payer system. We can’t get there now but hopefully a Democratic president can lay the groundwork for future presidents to get us away from the GOP health care disaster that we suffer with now.

  24. Lee Muller

    Medicare is 20,000% over its projected growth.
    The unnecessary and unwanted prescription drug benefit just added a few years ago is already 400% over budget.
    Medical costs in the private sector have increased no faster than the general price inflation. All the increased costs in medical care are within the 56% of spending controlled by government.
    Only a fool would want to give the government more control of something they have already messed up.

  25. bud

    Medical costs in the private sector have increased no faster than the general price inflation.
    That is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. What planet do you live on Lee? That is totally absurd. As someone paying through the nose with private health care insurance I can assure you that is simply, utterly, completely not true, Period. End of story.

  26. Doug Ross

    How messed up was the American healthcare system BEFORE Medicare was implemented? What Medicare has done has been to create a population of price-controlled patients who pay significantly below market rates. The uncovered costs are then transferred to the privately insured.
    I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the system, just saying that handing over the responsibility for fixing it to the government (based on past and current performance) does not offer much hope for improvement. The government should be used to regulate the system and prevent insurance companies from using unethical practices (like dropping coverage) — but that’s it.

  27. Lee Muller

    I am a degreed, consulting economist and systems engineer who has designed medical practice systems, hospital computer systems, medical devices and medical insurance systems. That’s how I know what goes on in medical care.
    People like bud don’t offer any facts, or come to discuss. They just want someone else to pay for their medical care and other things.

  28. bud

    I am a degreed, consulting economist and systems engineer who has designed medical practice systems, hospital computer systems, medical devices and medical insurance systems.
    What an epiphany! Now I understand why health care costs have gotten so out of control. Eureka, we can just take Lee out of the loop and all our problems will be solved.

  29. Lee Muller

    Medical care costs are mostly “out of control” in the areas under government control. The rest of that economic sector has price increases right in line with the average Consumer Price Index.
    Obviously, the best way to reduce the cost of medical care and insurance is to take control away from politicians and bureaucrats.

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