Max Boot Upgrades His Network

Until very recently, writer Max Boot shared a political party with your Aunt Nutjob. After earning degrees from Berkeley and Yale he launched a writing career that placed his work everywhere from the Christian Science Monitor to the New York Times. His writing and research focused almost entirely on his neo-conservative foreign policy. Under Bush II he’d been a major proponent of intervention in Iraq and elsewhere. He served as a foreign policy advisor to both the McCain and Romney campaigns. Currently he is the Kirkpatrick Fellow at the Council of Foreign Affairs.

Max Boot is not a moron, yet until the Trump campaign in 2016 he at least nominally adhered to the same political platform as your average right wing loon. For the remnant of the old anti-Soviet bloc of the GOP, Trump was a bridge too far. After battling authoritarians overseas for decades, this narrow and dwindling wing of the party could not make peace with an American Kleptocrat. Boot would leave the party over Trump. Then a fascinating process began, a process we’re seeing play out among many Republican refugees.

When our networks change, so do our opinions. Boot is delivering a live demonstration of how we form and re-form viewpoints. Human beings do not, in fact, arrive at decisions in a fully individual, rational manner. Most of our opinions are shaped or even dictated by our networks, our social interactions. In short, we reason socially. Boot is demonstrating how this process works and what happens when our networks break down and re-form.

Max Boot spent the last couple of decades writing apologia for the foreign policy ambitions of right-wing Republicans like Dick Cheney. In a quick review of his work, it’s hard to identify a US military adventure he didn’t support. Seldom, if ever, did he explore or question the rest of the Republican Party’s agenda. In fact, you won’t find tons of introspection anywhere in his work. Here’s a representative sample, from a 2003 piece in the Weekly Standard:

I went to Iraq in August, the day after a bomb had ripped through the United Nations compound in Baghdad, killing 23 people including the U.N. special envoy. I came home the day after another massive car bomb exploded at a mosque in Najaf, taking more than 95 lives including that of a leading cleric. Yet I returned more optimistic than when I went.

So, that’s who you’re dealing with.

The rise of Trump not only repudiated his policy ambitions, but threatened Boot at the level of his personal identity. As a Jew and an immigrant, racial hatred fanned by Trump was aimed squarely at people like him. In a career that bounced from one coastal enclave to another, it’s unlikely Boot had ever spent much time with the actual voters, mostly in places like Mississippi and Texas, who deliver the electoral heft beneath Republican politics. Trump was a stunning, unexplainable surprise, a cold introduction to reality.

Re-emerging recently at the Washington Post after leaving the party in 2016, Boot is now penning paragraphs like this:

Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the history of modern conservative [sp] is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism…But there has always been a dark underside to conservatism that I chose for most of my life to ignore. It’s amazing how little you can see when your eyes are closed!

His recent articles have explained that the GOP is a monster that must be destroyed, human-induced climate change is a serious threat, white privilege is a real thing, and that the Republican Party is essentially a vehicle for Neo-Confederates. Max Boot, a grown-ass man with many college degrees, is just now waking up to the realization that climate change is real and the Confederacy remains a looming influence on US politics.

Why are Boot’s eyes suddenly opened to these realities? For two decades he shared an agenda with a group of people we commonly think of as “low information voters,” folks who thought Jade Helm was a dark conspiracy and Obama was born in Kenya. Is he suddenly smarter than he was in 2015?

Something interesting happens when our network connections change. For clues, look at the transformation we’ve seen from other dissident Republicans. Bill Kristol fought Republicans’ effort to repeal the ACA. It’s tough anymore to identify any opinion Jennifer Rubin holds other than opposition to Trump. With the positions they are now taking, you have to wonder why they weren’t Democrats all along.

Has Max Boot been quietly harboring doubts about Republican climate denial for the past decade? Perhaps, but probably not. Why do I believe in climate change while my goofy cousin out in East HeeHaw doesn’t? We’re tempted to write it off as stupidity. Deniers are “idiots” who “don’t understand” climate science.

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t understand climate science and neither does Max Boot, either in his present 2.1 version, or in his classic pre-Trump edition. I have no capacity whatsoever to personally judge the merits of the thousands of research papers being submitted on climate science. I haven’t read the most recent UN climate report, or any of the prior ones. In fact, when I argue the matter with my hayseed cousin he brings up supposed facts I’ve never heard of and don’t know how to evaluate.

My acceptance of basic climate science is not a product of my grand intellectual superiority. Thanks to education, travel, life choices and yes, to a small extent perhaps, intellect, I’m participating in a great many networks of far higher quality than my erstwhile relative who works down at the Tractor Supply. I don’t understand climate science, but I participate in networks that include people who do, and I rely on those networks for guidance in this and many other matters.

These networks are not fool-proof. Within these same networks I’ve been treated to lectures from bright people on the healing power of essential oils and the dangers of vaccinations. But on the whole, access to smarter networks yields valuable insights on everything from politics to investing.

Meanwhile Cousin Boondocks is limited to some pretty sketchy networks, heavily influenced by predatory data pollution engines like the Daily Caller, Breitbart and the rest of the rightwing media vampire squid. The impact of these poor networks extends beyond politics, as he lost a worrying sum of money buying gold coins during the Obama Administration. He still refuses to participate in his company’s 401K because banks and other investment vehicles are tools of the international globalist elite. Data networks are evolving into a form of capital, and not all capital is equal.

For years, Max Boot was tied into a data network of poor and consistently declining quality, a network in which I also participated. His loyalty to that network was critical to maintaining access to powerful people. We seldom waste energy looking inward at our own assumptions. All the focus is on the other side. Self-examination amounts to criticism of our own networks, and questioning the assumptions of our social groups is dangerous.

Critical thought is least costly for those with a lot of resources, a strong assumption of personal safety, and exposure to many social and information networks. Critical thought is unthinkably dangerous for people isolated in only a single network, with access to few resources, or among those who perceive themselves, accurately or inaccurately, as under threat.

Boot broke loose from his Republican network allegiance when that network turned on him. Very quickly, his views evolved in closer conformity to the larger networks in which he still participates. He is adopting viewpoints consistent with the rest of his identity as a highly-educated, affluent resident of a deep-blue coastal city.

That kind of introspection isn’t so easy for lower income whites tied into low-quality networks with few alternatives. Breaking with prevailing propaganda could cost them vital support and even impact their income. Losing their place in a church or community group could have serious material consequences. If they are experiencing doubts based on tiny threads of dissonant data, they’ll probably suppress those doubts waiting for a general collapse of that network, rather than accept the risk of independent action.

When the Trump era ends, likely soon, we’ll be faced with the challenge of piecing this nation back together. Central to that challenge is a problem we’ve seldom considered and little understand – network isolation. How do we build bridges across barriers of demographics and geography which are reinforced by data bubbles? In time, we’ll likely recognize malformed social networks as a problem on par with income inequality or rural poverty. Ironically, the same social media technologies that helped create this problem probably hold our most promising solutions.

13 Comments

  1. This timely New York Times data journalism article is more economic than social, though the two may bear some intertwining relation. After all…occupation is a major part of life, and I don’t think the (100%) telecommuter version is an apt substitute. The title says it all: “The Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy”

    https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/12/14/opinion/rural-america-trump-decline.html

    I’d probably approach with a mix of things: relocation assistance bonds, job matching agencies, regulating away certain “network” advantages (bring back the Obama fiduciary rule on investments, have public retail banking infrastructure), and research into building affordable, pleasant, sustainable communities and employment paths to be useful within them: the cost structure of maintaining most rural areas is just too high.

    In general, I think the latter-most priority may be one of the most important areas for government research of our time, combining sociology, economics, urban planning, architecture, and civil engineering, in this era of climate change, migration, and even internal rapid and pleasant re-settlement. Wealthy cities struggle with a version of these problems also, but can paper over it with their prosperity.

  2. So, yet another demonstration of the utter failure of the Dem’s.

    They could have stopped the outrage of the fascists adding wording to a farm bill protecting the Saudi’s. The bill had wording added blocking a floor vote on ending assistance to the Saudi led genocide in Yemen. 5 Dem’s voted for keeping the wording, and there were 17 fascists absent for the vote.

    The Dem’s are incapable of fighting fascism, therefore it falls on the people to do what the politicians can’t, or won’t.

  3. I live in the boundary area of rural America and urban America. My career involved practical application of scientific knowledge and method. I rubbed shoulders with high skilled engineers, scientists and technicians. We are located by a major University. That created access to very sophisticated networks. I also live among very ignorant rural white folks and access their networks. In that kind of context sophistication wins. That is why I think broadband is essential for rural America along with virtual schools. Simply put if people can choose steak over bologna they will over time chose steak.we We can change rural America over time with education. And we need to do so to safeguard our Democracy.

    1. Rural broadband is essential, yes. But the issue with getting it to where it’s needed revolves around the manner in which ISPs, through greed and corruption and the fact that broadband Internet and its infrastructure aren’t conducive to regular market principles, have captured both the market for broadband and the FCC, the regulatory agency that’s supposed to keep them in check. Ajit Pai is a Trump-appointed corporate puppet that well bend over backwards to do anything for ISPs.

      What needs to happen before rural broadband can truly flourish is the reclassification of ISPs as Title II Communications services, the reinstatement of Net Neutrality, and the elimination of corporation-written laws that prevent local competition and prevent municipal broadband.

      The Internet has evolved to become a core utility essential to countless people’s daily lives. It’s about time we started treating it as such whilst delivering some payback to some of the greediest people alive.

  4. Great read. I’m still digesting, but I’m struck by the generational (read: technological) divide among those who are less tech-savvy (Or throw the lack of rural broadband as a technological challenge in into the mix) and as a result have a harder time using available tools to cross-check and debunk false information that comes their way.

    I also find this to be timely: https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2018/12/12/tennessee-mark-green-vaccine-autism-cdc-congressman-anti-vax/2288164002/

  5. I too have noticed the change in Max Boot. Whereas, I used to completely dismiss his writing, I now read it. I did not realize the evolution, but it is typical of the process that some of the hard right wing neo-cons have gone through – at least the ones who have broken with Trumpism.

    Your last paragraph is particularly interesting. Piecing the civic discourse in this nation back together is going to be a challenge. Perhaps intelligent use of the various social media platforms, will be part of the solution. I am much aware of the problem of network isolation and the attendant bubbles. Forgetting that we live in bubbles, is too easy. That is particularly true for me living in a Left Coast Blue City with my daily contacts largely with people having similar outlooks as myself. Being retired I am no longer exposed to the more conservative people in a typical engineering office.

    I take some exception to the the life of Trumpism – I presently expect it is going to last until January 2021, that is not soon. My best guess is that the House will undertake thorough investigations. They may or may not embark on impeachment. If they do send Articles of Impeachment to the Senate, I cannot see how the Senate will ever confirm them. Afterall, approximately 20 Republicans would have to vote against their own President. Regardless, I think Trump will lose the election in 2020. Perhaps, if the prediction of Jennifer Rubin comes true, Trump will resign sometime between the election and inauguration. Pence would then pardon him – that would allow Trump to keep his real estate empire intact. That would also make Pence’s laughable thought that God has told him that he would be President true, even if it is just for a few days.

      1. Pence is far from being the innocent lamb, as which he tries to portray himself. He did get caught using campaign finance funds for personal mortgage payments. Manafort did not arrange for Trump’s plane to have “mechanical” problems, so Trump would have breakfast with Pence out of some altruistic motive. I suspect there is some elusive tie to the Russian connection, although the public does not yet know what those might be. In short, my cynicism tells me that Pence is involved in the Russian or financial shenanigans in some way.

  6. Max Boot was interviewed by Houston Matters:

    https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/shows/houston-matters/2018/12/11/314955/why-conservative-stalwart-max-boot-left-the-gop/

    You make an excellent point about the safety of critical thought. I despise willful ignorance, but you give me a needed reminder that I’m in a position of privilege. I’m White, I have an advanced STEM degree and decent job security, and my profession discourages bigotry and xenophobia. So I’m not risking as much in taking a stand. So how can we reduce the risks for people with more to lose?

  7. My problem with people who are climate change deniers is simple. Aside of the fact most are either not too bright or politicians taking advantage of the first category for their own power grab, there is what is called the risk/reward rule!

    In investing, one does not risk a lot to make a little.

    If i see/read the mass of opinions, the 97% of scientists who say climate change is a huge problem, the Pope who calls on everyone to do something about the earth’s environment, the news that the seas are rising, etc, and I ignore all that, and if i am wrong, the consequences are catastrophic, then I am risking a whole lot for virtually no reward. I am risking my grandchildren’s quality of life.

    The reward for my being right is negligible but the risk of my being wrong is incredibly huge!

    it is as simple as that!

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