Belmont Club

Procrustean bed

One of the most enduring political problems is finding a “legitimate” reason to do something convenient. When a crisis happens along that provides an excuse to gratify ambition, it is seized as an opportunity. If nothing turns up, then a justification can always be manufactured. The desire to make facts conform to desires is as old as antiquity. Green mythology tells the story of Procrustes. A blacksmith by day and a bandit when otherwise not employed, Procrustes “had an iron bed in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly because secretly Procrustes had two beds. Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus, travelling to Athens along the sacred way, who ‘fitted’ Procrustes to his own bed.”

The modern version of the Procrustean bed is the rigged consultative group and the stacked Town Hall meeting.  In these settings the facts can always be adjusted to fit the policy. At these gatherings, politicians hear what they want to hear. They have claques ready to egg them on a course they’ve charted for themselves. Even in foreign policy. The Jerusalem Post describes how the Obama administration is selecting a larger number of Jewish groups to advise it so that it hears what it wants to hear.

The organized Jewish community’s first official meeting with US President Barack Obama late Monday was set to include more liberal organizations than in years past, which groups on both sides saw as indicative of the White House’s interest in magnifying their voices. … “They’re looking to legitimize the more progressive parts of the pro-Israel community that seem to be more in line with where they seem to be going,” said one Jewish leader involved with the planning of the meeting, set to take place after press time and last about 45 minutes. …

… he continued. “He and his administration want to build up the relevance and the power of Peace Now and J Street, to help them spread their message louder and more credibly with the news media and the American Jewish community, because their vantage point is arguably more in line with the Obama administration’s vantage point.”

Rigging the popular voice is a tactic the administration has used in the discussion on health care. LA Times blogger Andrew Malcolm wrote that the administration’s attempts to “pack” the Town Hall meetings had grown so blatant that even Democrat stalwart Helen Thomas was scandalized.

As the Ticket reported yesterday, Obama answered questions at a town hall at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va., about protecting the uninsured, giving consumers a public option and converting medical records from paper to digital files. The White House portrayed the town-hall meeting as one in a series of public outreach events, a way for the president to keep his finger on the pulse of public opinion, and in turn to sway Americans on the complex and contentious issue.

This morning, the Washington Post is reporting that “of the seven questions the president answered, four were selected by his staff from videos submitted to the White House Web site or from those responding to a request for ‘tweets.’ ” And the three audience members he called on randomly? The Post says “all turned out to be members of groups with close ties to his administration: the Service Employees International Union, Health Care for America Now, and Organizing for America, which is a part of the Democratic National Committee.”

But perverting feedback mechanism always carries the risk of creating an echo chamber, which can undermine the management processes of the administration itself. Inside a media echo chamber people can come to believe their own lies. “The term media echo chamber can refer to any situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission inside an ‘enclosed’ space. One purveyor of information will make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again (often in an exaggerated or otherwise distorted form) until most people assume that some extreme variation of the story is true.”

This can be dangerous in foreign affairs. The Obama administration can as much afford to navigate the treacherous and possibly cataclysmic shoals of the Middle East as a submarine can thread its way through a mine field with its sonar rigged to register dangers only in convenient places. What the Jewish groups the administration chooses is one thing; what Israel may be forced to do is another. Procrustes kept trimming reality to his expectations until he ran up hard against something he couldn’t handle; and then it cut him down to size.


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