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The Fraud of Big Picture Thinking

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Politicians, pundits, and others perennially invoke the “Big Picture.” Recognizing the role of the Big Picture is vital to understanding how contemporary democracies are going off the rail. The Big Picture provides preemptive exoneration for almost anyone who wants to kowtow and cheerlead for political power.

Fifteen years ago, there was a hullabaloo to denounce “politically correct” mandates and imperatives. But the biggest beneficiary of “politically correct” thinking may be political power itself. The politically correct attitude looks beyond the government’s past failings and current botches, and focuses instead on the idea of government.

The incarnation of this attitude is the Big Picture. The Big Picture is a type of abstraction or pseudo-abstraction. The Big Picture mindset ensures that hard facts rarely enter one’s conscious mental orbit — or, if they do, only as shooting stars. People are urged to “look beyond” or above banal political reality, and encouraged to keep their eyes on the clouds so they don’t see how many government-made potholes endanger their path.

The Big Picture immunizes policymakers from history. The Vietnam War was one of the clearest illustrations of the mental incorrigibility of “the best and the brightest.” Government policymakers became mesmerized by a few phrases and became impervious to real-world evidence that the phrases and theories did not apply. The CIA debunked the “domino theory” explanation for intervening in Vietnam by 1964 and assured Richard Nixon in 1969 that there was no threat of communist takeovers throughout the region as a result of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal. Yet, as the Pentagon Papers noted, “only the Joint Chiefs, Mr. [Walt] Rostow [Lyndon Johnson’s chief intellectual advisor] and General [Maxwell] Taylor appear to have accepted the domino theory in its literal sense.” These were men who had had vast influence in raising U.S. troop levels in Vietnam to half a million. Similarly, as historian Hannah Arendt noted, “The divergence between the facts established by the intelligence services — sometimes by the decision makers themselves (as notably in the case of [Robert] McNamara) and often available to the informed public — and the premises, theories, and hypotheses according to which decisions were finally made is total.”

In 1967, the Pentagon ordered top experts to analyze where the war had gone wrong. The resulting study contained 47 volumes of material exposing the intellectual and political follies that had, at that point, already left tens of thousands of Americans dead. After the study was finished, it was distributed to the key players and federal agencies. However, the massive study was completely ignored. When the New York Times began publishing excerpts in 1971, “the White House and the State Department were unable even to locate the forty-seven volumes.” New York Times editor Tom Wicker commented at the time that “the people who read these documents in the Times were the first to study them.”

One of the most important lessons of the Pentagon Papers was how the war strategists became misled by fixating on the battle “to win the people’s minds.” Arendt noted, “What is surprising is the eagerness of those scores of ‘intellectuals’ who offered their enthusiastic help in this imaginary enterprise, perhaps because it demanded nothing but mental exercises.” It was easy for the intellectuals “to remain unaware of the untold misery that their ‘solutions,’ pacification and relocation programs, defoliation, napalm, and anti-personnel bullets, held in store.”

Three decades after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, another president launched a “crusade” to win “the hearts and minds” of the world. Unfortunately, once again, the lessons of history were not permitted to stymie the salvation campaign. Arendt noted that the Pentagon Papers revealed how “sheer ignorance of all pertinent facts and deliberate neglect of postwar [i.e., post–World War II] developments became the hallmark of established doctrine within the Establishment.”

The Washington intellectual milieu

The Big Picture helps Washington intellectuals define issues in ways that buffer the federal government from any damage it inflicts. Much of the Washington establishment is devoted to maintaining the prestige of government as the single most important fount of their own personal prestige.

German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel captured the imperative of the political Big Picture: “In considering the idea of the State, one must not think of particular states, nor of particular institutions, but one must contemplate the idea, this actual God, by itself.” Big Picture statists rely on “transcendental math,” which always proves that no matter how much government appears to be bumbling it is actually a glorious success.

This is the same spiel courtiers used for centuries: the king is much greater than he appears to be, his bad judgments are not his fault, and veneration cures all. Throughout history, there has rarely been a shortage of intellectuals happy to hail the achievements of political power and disparage all who doubted its majesty.

Think tanks often help politicians pump hot air into the Big Picture. Clifford May, the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, commented in 2005, “It is the job of think tanks to create political capital. It is the job of politicians to spend it.” The pretense of ideas sanctifies the pursuit of power. (May’s think tank lavishly praised the Bush administration and politicians who favored military aggression against Arab and Muslim nations.)

The Big Picture is often a substitute for hard facts, and think tanks promote the slogans that suffice for reality. For instance, think tanks tied to the Pentagon played a major role in the “defactualization” of policy that helped create the quagmire in Vietnam. As Arendt observed, “No ivory tower of the scholars has ever better prepared the mind for ignoring the facts of life than did the various think tanks for the scholars and the reputation of the White House for the President’s advisers. In this atmosphere, defeat was less feared than admitting defeat.”

Intellectuals in Washington thrive by invoking politically profitable Big Pictures. The intelligentsia is perhaps the ultimate partner in power — given all the government consulting contracts and all the tenured gigs at government-subsidized universities (including private universities that depend on federal research grants and subsidized loans to students). As professor of philosophy David Ciepley noted, “Starting in the First World War, and much more so during the New Deal and World War II, American social scientists became part of the autonomous state themselves, helping staff the mushrooming government agencies.” Much of the expert class — including academics, editorial writers, and public intellectuals — are swayed by their aspirations for government.

The Big Picture is the great labor saver for intellectuals. There is no need to exert themselves understanding what the government does, since they already know what it means. Their disdain for mere details proves their profundity. Regrettably, it is often the intellectuals who are in the forefront, encouraging intellectual negligence toward public policy.

The Big Picture also perennially triumphs in the work of Washington journalists. The Washington press corps has long been derided as “stenographers with amnesia.” Actually, this epithet is going out of fashion because fewer people know the meaning of “stenographer.”

In Washington, the Big Picture rules in part because there is a surprising lack of curiosity about government. There is passionate interest about the latest budget proposals for government agencies, passing new laws, or creating new programs. But the actual operation of government, the details of what specific government programs achieve or inflict, is considered mundane. The less a journalist understands an agency’s policies, the more gullible he is for its propaganda.

Washington journalists’ reality is largely defined by government press releases, which often are built around the Big Picture. The media rarely look beyond the government’s proclaimed purpose for a program or policy. “Pack journalism” predominates — and the pack rarely strays from the government reservation. When journalists do stray, it is often in a group — after something has occurred or some pronouncement has been made signaling that it is okay to temporarily deviate from the official line. There is almost never any liability for Washington journalists who peddle false information received from the government, but they risk their careers if their criticisms of government turn out to be unsubstantiated. Sam Donaldson, the legendary ABC White House correspondent, observed of the Washington media, “As a rule, we are, if not hand-maidens of the establishment, at least blood brothers to the establishment. We end up the day usually having some version of what the White House … has suggested as a story.”

Those who invoke the Big Picture often have a vested interest in discouraging people from looking at grisly details. The Big Picture becomes the enabler of the Big Lie. The studied avoidance of the details of government policy makes it far easier for politicians to manipulate and deceive the public. The Big Picture allows governments to do as they please, confident that few people will pay attention to the details. And even when hundreds of thousands of people are killed, the government only needs to redefine the issue.

The Big Picture ensures that people learn little or nothing from the past and ignore the problems of the present. The Big Picture is the higher truth — and everything else is mere ephemera. Big Picture myopia empowers those whose schemes and ambitions would be thwarted if people understood their plans.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.