Sunday, October 30, 2016

Defending Gary Johnson Against Stupid "Gotcha!" Questions

There is something missing from all the coverage of Gary Johnson’s “Aleppo moment.” Unless you actually watched the interview you wouldn’t know that he answered the question asked of him. As soon as he realizes they are talking about the Syrian civil war, he answers the question and explains his policy position. He expresses a non-interventionist worldview (if perhaps a bit inarticulately). It was clear from his answer that he’d given some thought to the issue and had a ready answer. So I think it’s totally unfair to peg Johnson as clueless, as if he’d never even heard of the Syrian civil war. I’d call this episode mildly embarrassing and his overall answer is a bit weak (at least poorly expressed), but I’m not buying the notion that this disqualifies him from the presidency. Clearly he had a well-formed opinion on the topic in question, even if he didn’t pass the interviewer’s geography quiz. I get almost daily news updates on the Syrian civil war, and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the significance of Aleppo, and I’ve heard/read something similar from a few other regular NPR listeners. So I certainly don’t buy the pretense that “all of us smart, informed policy wonks know the significance of Aleppo.” Especially considering this

And yet Johnson is hardly alone when it comes to Syria gaffes. Former Obama administration ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, followed Johnson on Morning Joe and mocked the former New Mexico governor's "blank stare." Hill predicted that "he will now be known as 'Aleppo Johnson'" and then called Aleppo "the capital of ISIS." In fact, Raqqa, not Aleppo, is widely considered the capital of the self-declared caliphate known as the Islamic State. The New York Times incorrectly referred to Aleppo as "the capital" of ISIS three times in its quick take on Johnson's screw-up before adding a correction to the bottom of the page. Even that correction required a correction, as it initially referred to Aleppo as Syria's capital, when it is in fact, Damascus.

In other words, in the rush to smear Johnson, his snide critics are fumbling on the factual details of Aleppo. So you’ll have to pardon me if I think this “everyone knows what Aleppo is” attitude is all a pretense.

I think people are applying a double-standard here. I can’t read people’s minds, and I can’t peer into the alternate universe where Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump get surprised with the same or a similar “gotcha” question. (My best guess is that Clinton would get it right, Trump wouldn’t, and on a random different day Johnson wouldn’t have brain-farted and supplied sleazy journalists with their “gotcha” moment.) But I’m pretty sure nobody would disqualify a candidate they liked over something this petty.

I’m imagining an alternative universe where Hilary Clinton is asked “What would you as president do about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?” and she stumbles to recall who that is or asks a clarifying question. Her critics pounce on her "ignorance" of foreign policy details, but her defenders understandably point out that it’s a stupid “gotcha” question. The interviewer did not intend for his average viewer to understand the context of the question, but was deliberately attempting to trip up the candidate and eventually succeeded. You might think that the intention of the interviewer is irrelevant. A mistake’s a mistake, and ignorance is ignorance, right? But this is wrong. If I know the interviewer was fishing for “gotcha”s, I’m going to think it’s less significant that he finds one. A gaffe is less embarrassing if we know that the politician was placed in a gaffe-generating environment; it’s more embarrassing if it happens spontaneously. What you’d like to know is a politician’s gaffe-propensity “in the wild,” their true “gaffe base-rate,” not their gaffe-propensity in an artificial gaffe-magnifying environment. 

To reiterate, none of this is to say he gave a great answer or that the incident was completely irrelevant. It's just that people are blowing it way out of proportion and not even acknowledging that he answered the goddamn question asked of him.

This is in contrast to the “name a foreign leader” incident, which many people have been dishonestly misrepresenting. The conversation that scrawled across my social media feed was: “Johnson was asked to name a foreign leader, any foreign leader, and he couldn’t name one.” Any  thoughtful person’s nonsense detector should have gone off. “Would an interviewer really ask such a pointless quiz question? Of course not! I should read more into this!” And such a thoughtful news reader might eventually discover what actually happened. In fact, he was asked to name a foreign leader he admired. That’s a question that requires some thought. It’s a legitimate stumper. Nonetheless, Johnson *had an answer*! His answer was Vincente Fox, although he did fail to recall Fox’s name on the spot. That might be mildly embarrassing if Johnson ever meets Fox face-to-face, but it’s hardly an indictment of his mental ability or his knowledge of world events.  The mischaracterization of this event is more serious than the Aleppo thing. It caused me to down-rate the credibility of some news sources and some people who I know personally. It’s a very shallow reading of the news, and I saw several people commenting on it as if the “Johnson was asked to name any foreign leader and failed” narrative was the correct one. 

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