Tuesday, September 08, 2009


I've been having the hardest time getting back to blogging about American politics (or anything else) since returning from vacation. The difficulty is based in what I can only call a deep dismay.

The US from the other side of the planet indeed looks like an economic, military and cultural powerhouse, but this isn't necessarily important to anyone other than governments seeking favor, military leaders, and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The US from this distance is a country that doesn't have much to do with anyone's daily life. Of vastly more importance are, of course, what one is actually doing in one's daily life, what's happening in the politics and economics of one's own country(-ies), what's occurring in the region (e.g., Southeast or Southern Asia). Of infinitely more importance is work and play and the daily worship of Buddha or Allah or God or Murtis. While in the US many believe the entire world is always watching us for cues on what to do next, it's usually only a very small elite elsewhere that really cares or knows much about quotidian politics in the US. The politically-conscious American traveler or expat slowly begins to view his/her own country more in terms of that longer view of the "arc of history" and the US' place among other countries with usually richer histories and cultures, where the question of who's shouting loudest in the US at the moment becomes at most an insignificant blip on that arc. After a few weeks, this American traveler may even start to view what's happening in the country he/she is in, the region, etc. as of much greater importance than the gradually dissipating din of shouty politics back home.

Here in the states, however, one finds a current political dialogue that is absolutely ridiculous, even more so than four weeks ago. Americans seem to have been drugged or hit over the head with the silly hammer.

We're capable of all sorts of idiocies, but how has it come to pass that we're reduced to this kind of "discourse"? How has this happened?

After decades of criticizing public schools as places where hardly anybody learns anything, suddenly conservatives are upset that a 15- to 20-minute Web cast in schools might teach too much. That's because the Web cast is by President Barack Obama. His critics fear he might teach something that they'd rather not have our schoolchildren hear.

The quarrel began after Education Secretary Arne Duncan e-mailed principals that the president would speak on Tuesday over the Internet, on C-SPAN and via satellite “directly to the nation's schoolchildren about persisting and succeeding in school.”

Somehow that useful message, coming amid the heat of an unrelated health care debate, was immediately interpreted by Obama's conservative critics as a sneaky way to enlist children into promoting his political agenda.

Or, as Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, put it, “As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology.”

It's not that we ought to try save the poor bastards who with bated breath follow the incessant drumbeat of their media and political demagogues. That's a waste of time, as is trying to point out the deep immorality of the demagogues (the supposedly reasonable Charles Grassley and John McCain as well as the astonishingly cockeyed Glenn Beck and Michele Bachman). Many of these people are long gone.

Unfortunately, I've seen the intellectual and moral carnage, the effects of this demagoguery, firsthand (similarly, here). Contrary empirical evidence right in front of the acolytes often has no effect on their views. I had discussions with ultra-conservative family about the healthcare bills earlier this summer during which I presented them with the actual texts of the congressional bills in order to try to allay their fears of "elderly people being booted to the curb" or "left to die." To imagine in the first place that any US president or any political group intentionally seeks such a thing as a matter of policy is to hold a paranoid picture of who you believe are your political foes. Many of these people believe that the liberal truly is the evil. And then in response to the empirical evidence of things like, say, the best and most comprehensive current scientific data or an actual text like the Senate healthcare bill that's being described as saying something it is clearly not, the response is "well, Obama is a Marxist." My own family discussions were with otherwise highly educated, world-traveled, economically comfortable people. But they now listen to Rush Limbaugh and other rightwing talk radio most of the day, radios constantly shouting from different rooms of the house and the garage, always within earshot.

These people read and listen to things that confirm beliefs they already hold. Perhaps some of those beliefs will be borne out over the test of time and experience. But many of them will also end up having little to do with reality. If someone is telling you to run headfirst into concrete walls, experience will eventually inform you that this isn't a good idea. That's not what they seem to be after, however - trying to figure out which beliefs are true and which are not. Rather, the beliefs are already true and all that remains is to listen only to those messages that redescribe those beliefs as true. If you believe the sun rises in the west, and the liberals and socialists of the world are insisting that it rises in the east, then you go to whatever source will tell you reassuringly that, yes, the sun really does rise in the west. The problem is that the idea was planted in the first place by those who are now reassuring you. The world becomes a hermetically sealed circularity.

This is part of the effect of people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. They sustain their influence by alighting upon reality and reason just often enough to lend legitimacy to the propaganda, while the latter makes subtle use of the fallacies of missing the point, petitio principii (begging the question), quoting out of context, ignoratio elenchi (red herring) and straw men, appeals to authority and ad hominem, and slippery slopes in order to render poor political arguments more influential. The fallacies are documented daily. But the ongoing, cumulative effect is, frankly, frightening.

This is all like a hint-hint, wink-wink joke that has gone horribly awry, spreading throughout the population like a virus that converts those merely in on the joke to people living entirely within the confines of the joke.

After all, it's possible to hold basic, reasonable conservative views.... You might, for instance, disagree with policies such as sending financial aid to corporate America or pushing forward on universal healthcare. You may think that there should be no intervening government attempt to staunch the US automobile industry's collapse under the weight of its own inefficiencies, lack of imagination, and dwindling competitiveness in the market. You might believe in the "creative destruction" of capitalism and may even deem that the jobs that would be lost and the small businesses that would shut down along with the giants would all be a tragic consequence of what must necessarily occur for the longer-term health of the economy. You may be concerned, and quite reasonably so, with the rapidly growing national debt, acknowledging that the Bush administration added most of it, but criticizing Obama's apparent inattention to this debt. You may even be wise enough to recognize that most economic policy contains some element of this tragedy - that when policy is directed at maintaining robust and growing economies and avoiding helping those many who are marginalized and spit out of market economies many people will indeed be hurt badly. You might be taking the position that the longer-term greater good for both domestic and international society should outweigh the concerns of any particular individual or group of individuals. You might even grant fallibilism, that we work with the best tools we have at a given moment, knowing that there's always the possibility we are mistaken in our analyses and our policy assessments.

Why is that so hard? But what we are seeing, many of us firsthand, are families torn apart and a confused but growing national discourse of carrying out political violence fantasies.


Anonymous said...

...cognitive dissonance...

electric said...

Perhaps I can name the cause of the political ennui you're describing- Totalitarianism.

Less authoritarian but defiantly slinging a powerful ideology.