Today, not only in peasant homes but also in the city sky-scrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcism … What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!– Leon Trotsky
the madness of crowds
Maybe I’m wrong and we do need a national “dialogue on race,” but my guess is that if Barack Obama figures out a way to turn the economy around and create some real paying jobs, a lot of this racial angst will disappear pretty quick. If you tune out the hottest parts of the Tea Party rhetoric and just focus on who these people are, what you’ll basically see are a bunch of middle-aged white people who spent their teens listening to Eddie Murphy albums and deep down are a lot more worried about their credit card debt than they are about ACORN taking over the government. Add a little more disposable income to that crowd and this whole debate will recede to tolerable levels. Or maybe not — but we can all hope, I guess.
Until I saw that the link actually went to Fox News, I seriously thought S.Z. was making up the quotations from Glenn Beck here. This was my favorite one:
The other thing this thing is about is incompetence. I mean, how many terrible decisions has this administration made? I mean really — ones that are destroying the country, it’s almost like they’re intentionally trying to destroy it? Oh, did I say that? I better take another swig of root beer.
(Update: Okay, forget Beck — this is my new favorite “destroying America” example, from the intellectual giant who brought us “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”. He even invokes Che himself!)
We would rather be ruined than changed.We would rather die in our dreadThan climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.– W.H. Auden
If you’ve won, why are you still whining?
The problem not only with fundamentalist Christians but with Republicans in general is not that they act on blind faith, without thinking. The problem is that they are incorrigible doubters with an insatiable appetite for Evidence. What they get off on is not Believing, but in having their beliefs tested. That’s why their conversations and their media are so completely dominated by implacable bogeymen: marrying gays, liberals, the ACLU, Sean Penn, Europeans and so on. Their faith both in God and in their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations with those people — and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.But here’s the twist. They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents. They are looking for facts that ensure them an ever-expanding roster of opponents. They can be correct facts, incorrect facts, irrelevant facts, it doesn’t matter. The point is not to win the argument, the point is to make sure the argument never stops. Permanent war isn’t a policy imposed from above; it’s an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom. In a way, it actually helps if the fact is dubious or untrue (like the Swift-boat business), because that guarantees an argument. You’re arguing the particulars, where you’re right, while they’re arguing the underlying generalities, where they are.Once you grasp this fact, you’re a long way to understanding what the Hannitys and Limbaughs figured out long ago: These people will swallow anything you feed them, so long as it leaves them with a demon to wrestle with in their dreams.
The search for meaning is dangerous when it spills over into politics. It’s not only dangerous when it produces the communists, the Jacobins and the Nazis, but also in the context of democratic or liberal meliorism, because it creates a preference for policies which satisfy this need for meaning rather than have an actual effect.
The belief that momentary feelings of unity or visions of perfection can survive permanently into everyday life this side of eternity is the ante-room of nihilism and fascism. Such beliefs give rise to ahistorical fantasies, which can never materialize beyond the notion. To the extent that they are relentlessly pursued, they progressively crush the moments of solace that precious moments of grace can in fact convey. Historically such fantasies have spawned generations of cynics, misanthropes and failed revolutionaries who, having glimpsed resolution, cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.
Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.– Lewis CarrollRecently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.
On Wednesday, Nihad Awad, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, released a statement on “Draw Muhammad Day” that begins, “I will be the first to defend anyone’s right to express their opinion, no matter how offensive it may be to me. Our nation has prospered because Americans value and respect diversity. But freedom of expression does not create an obligation to offend or to show disrespect to the religious beliefs or revered figures of others.”
Note the subtle shift: you’re free to be offensive if you want, grumble mutter blargh, but you’re not obligated to be that way, pointed stare, hint hint. Well, no shit. No one is saying they are obligated to offend other people’s religious beliefs or revered figures. They choose to do so, which is part of the whole freedom of expression thing. What was the problem again?
Ah, that’s right. You’re free to be outspoken on issues that I’m not personally invested in. Well, as Noam Chomsky so memorably put it long ago, Stalin and Hitler were in favor of free speech for ideas they liked. The whole reason for constitutionally protected speech is that almost everyone is tempted to want to carve out an exception when it comes to their sensitivities, and since everyone is grievously offended by something different, it wouldn’t be long before there was nothing safe to publicly talk about, except maybe the weather. No, wait, that might lead to volatile disagreements over climate change. Better scratch that too.
You can do it your own way
If it’s done just how I say
But no one is really saying it should be illegal to insult Muhammed, Jesus or Bacchus, they’re just trying their hardest to pressure people into choosing not to do so. I’ve been both bemused and amused at reading so many of the typical liberal responses to Draw Muhammed Day, some of which make me think that they’d secretly be glad to see a fatwa declared against Reason magazine. It’s nothing new; these are the exact same whining complaints about civility and mean ol’ jerks directed at the “New Atheists” (and the only thing new about them is the willingness to not be cowed by public disapproval of atheists who have the gall to not act ashamed of themselves). I particularly appreciate the patronizing efforts of so many liberals to appoint themselves enlightened spokespeople for all the moderate, tolerant Muslims of the world and inform the Prophet-sketchers that they are needlessly infuriating more than a billion people (whereas I suspect a great number of them are just like the tepid believers of any religion: too indifferent and concerned with worldly pursuits to really care one way or the other).
Speaking of obligations, you would think it would be so basic as to need no explication, but people who do not belong to your particular clubhouse are not obligated to demur and show respect to the things you stand for, either. If this isn’t obvious to you, then you’re probably not all that tolerant and moderate to begin with. See, as a somewhat reasonable person whose first instinct is to assume that other people are also somewhat reasonable, and not impulsive savages who are prone to violent outbursts at the slightest provocation, I want to assume that these moderate Muslims we speak of are capable of looking dispassionately at the situation and seeing that drawing stick figures en masse is an appropriately light-hearted, mocking response to fanatics physically attacking people, issuing death threats, and burning down houses, aimed at showing solidarity and a refusal to be intimidated, and ultimately incapable of affecting their faith in the slightest way unless they choose to let it. I emphasize “response” because this is not a case of someone deciding to gratuitously pick some group at random and do something deliberately offensive for the simple fun of being a dick. Contrary to what Mom always told you as she forcibly separated you from the sibling you were fighting with, sometimes it does matter who started it.
Going along to get along is a perfectly fine thing to do in many situations. Of course, in others, it’s more important to speak the truth regardless of the consequences and stand for principles no matter how it inconveniences people, and as Isaiah Berlin taught us, sometimes virtues can end up in conflict with each other. The gulf between them wouldn’t seem so vast, though, if people could keep one other thing in mind: being offended really isn’t such a horrible thing. Honestly. Take a deep breath, relax your death grip on your narcissistic self-importance, and remember that if your beliefs and sensitivities have any depth to them at all, they’re not going to be seriously threatened by someone making rude and/or ignorant remarks about them. Sometimes, in fact, offense can be a good way to be jolted into introspection that you might not have been inclined to pursue otherwise. I read writers every day that I don’t necessarily agree with because I still recognize that they’re capable of provoking me into thought that I wouldn’t find in an echo chamber.
This culture is morally hopeless.
…Real Americans don little tri-corner hats and carry on about “freedom” and “the constitution” but all they know about either one is what they learned at Disneyland. They are paranoid about a non-existent invasion of killer immigrants and are freaking out about a non-existent plan to send gun owners to Fema camps. They threaten to kill census workers who ask them how many times they flush their toilets.
But torture? Not a problem. Whether it’s administered by the CIA or some minimum wage security guard, they seem to think electric shock, waterboarding or any other sick form of coercion worthy of the worst low rent dictator in the world is just ducky. But only if the subject is unarmed. If anyone tried this with a guy who was packing, the screams of horror at “the government” trying to disarm a law abiding citizen would be heard for miles around. I give up.
I share Digby’s anger and despair here, even if I find a slightly more conservative view helps put this sort of thing in perspective. I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let me offer this general advice: reading the comments to videos on YouTube will always end in tears. Any thinking, sensitive person will be brought to immense grief by contemplating the legions of subliterate troglodytes with computer access out there. Remember, back in the mid-nineties, the panegyrics to the technocornucopia of the Internet, and how it would raise the general intelligence of all humankind, allowing ordinary folks access to the wisdom of the ages and the latest scientific advances? Did you hear anybody gushing then about how it would make it easier for people to steal music, jerk off to free amateur porn, and giggle at videos of fat girls flying over the handlebars of their bikes? Hold that thought; it segues fairly neatly into the next part.
In science, progress is a fact, in ethics and politics it is a superstition…Post-modern thinkers may question scientific progress, but it is undoubtedly real. The illusion is in the belief that it can effect any fundamental alteration in the human condition. The gains that have been achieved in ethics and politics are not cumulative. What has been gained can also be lost, and over time surely will be.
History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end. In fact, with human power increasing as a result of growing scientific knowledge, it can only become more violent.
The core of the idea of progress is that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge. The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and can be easily lost.
Many Enlightenment thinkers accepted that scientific advance might slow down or stop, as in previous periods of history; and in that case social progress would stall as well…What none of the thinkers of the Enlightenment envisaged, and their followers today have failed to perceive, is that human life can become more savage and irrational even as scientific knowledge advances.
So let me reiterate: yes, it’s abhorrent to see how casually people accept the idea that it’s okay for authority figures to jolt someone with thousands of volts of electricity, especially for the most trivial reasons. It’s lamentable that, more than two centuries after Benjamin Franklin stated that people who trade essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither, millions of Americans are just fine with other people being forced to show their papers on demand, because hey, it’ll never happen to them, fishbelly-white, patriotic, taxpaying, god-fearing citizens that they are.
And yet, and yet, when has it ever been otherwise? The majority of humankind has always been stupid, self-centered and unreflective. My former neighbor was ranting about illegal Mexicans ruining health care for all of us more than a decade ago, and I eventually started speaking to her less and less because I was tired of every conversation inevitably ending up on The Oracular Wisdom Of Lou Dobbs. Did I mention that she was an Irish Catholic, single mother, second-wave feminist? You’d think she’d have a little sympathy for scapegoats and ethnic minorities, but the urge to kick someone lower than you is a powerful one, and apparently very resistant to logic.
Humans have always understood the basic principles of ethics; the Golden Rule has appeared all over the world since time immemorial. The question has always been over who deserves the privilege of being treated with that consideration, and there has always been some out-group that doesn’t qualify. Right now, Mexicans – or brown-skinned people in general – are being demonized, but it won’t always be that way. Demographically, it can’t. And I might suggest that anger and hatred are always going to be louder, gaudier and more aggressive than love and kindness, but that doesn’t mean the latter aren’t still around. I’m sure there are just as many people out there who would be appalled at the spectacle of a teenager being tased to the cheers of onlookers; they’re just not the ones who hang around YouTube’s comments.
Deep breaths. There’s probably an asteroid out there that will render all this discussion moot one day, so until then, try not to take it all too seriously.
The end is near! Again!
A minor quibble: I can vouch that the “euthanizing old people” stuff isn’t believed exclusively by conservatives. About a week before this became news, I got one of those mass emails forwarded to me* from a professional acquaintance warning of this, and it took a few back-and forth exchanges before she finally either accepted that there was no government plan for euthanasia or just wrote me off as one of Them.
She’s not a doctrinaire conservative, although she is also a firm believer in La Reconquista being official policy of the Mexican government — for one thing, she can’t believe that the global warming denialists can be so stupid. She has no problem understanding that mega-corporations like ExxonMobil that make tens of millions in daily profits just might be tempted to lie and fudge data and generally be as obfuscatory as they can in order to keep those profits from being threatened by changes in our fossil fuel consumption (as opposed to the alternative of Al Gore being involved in a conspiracy with every reputable climatologist on Earth to destroy global capitalism and force us all to live in caves and forage for grubs and berries), but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that the for-profit health insurance industry might be similarly motivated (as opposed to the alternative that Obama really does have a Stalinist streak and sees a million premature old codger-deaths as just a statistic). It reminds me that Digby, some months ago, took issue with the conventional wisdom that says this country is too ideological and polarized. She suggested that often times, people aren’t ideological enough, meaning that in cases exactly like this, they haven’t even devoted a few minutes to establishing some ground rules, some basic pattern of principles underlying the rhetorical needlework of specific issues. They just go with their knee-jerk reactions. (For that matter, too often, this is also what passes for being an independent thinker, or – sigh – a “maverick”. Wild, superficial incoherence being mistaken for originality or independence.)
I believe the philosopher Forrest Gump’s maxim had it that “stupid is as stupid does,” and pace John Stuart Mill, I’m afraid I have to admit that conservatives don’t have a monopoly on stupid people (New Agers? Come on — they may be affably harmless, but have you ever met people with a worse case of reality-aversion syndrome?) Yes, different political philosophies seem to dispose one towards different types of conspiratorial thinking, but I think the underlying theme is one of being unable to think contextually, to be shockingly ignorant of current social and political realities, to think that certain events can happen like a bolt out of the blue simply because somebody wills them to happen.
*And while I’m thinking of it, how about you lazy fuckers delete the addresses of all those who received the email before forwarding it on to others? I don’t particularly care to know the last ten stops this piece of shit made before landing in my inbox. Thanks much.
This is why I say that they have retired the concept of hypocrisy. It goes far beyond double standards or duplicity or bad faith. There’s an aggression to it, a boldness, that dares people to bring up the bald and obvious fact that the person making the charge is herself a far worse perpetrator of the thing she is decrying. There’s an intellectual violence in it.
In a world in which the conservatives weren’t such post modern shape shifters, we could come to a consensus on certain issues in this country — like privacy, for instance. We could agree that it’s wrong for government employees to use private information for partisan purposes — or for the media, including bloggers, to stalk and publish private information of anyone who dares speak out for a political cause. But we don’t live in a world like that.
We live in a world where the right wing ruthlessly and without mercy degrades and attacks by any means necessary what they perceive as the enemy, and then uses the great principles of democracy and fair play when the same is done to them. They leave the rest of us standing on the sidelines looking like fools for ever caring about anything but winning.
It’s something I’ve been concerned with for a long time now myself. I would go so far as to say that it’s one of the most important issues of our age with regards to politics. Beyond all the minutiae and policy wonkishness, this theme is always there. What do you do, how do you proceed, when a very large percentage of people simply refuse to acknowledge a common reality? What does it mean when so many adults seem to reject the old truism about being entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts?
I’m certainly not a believer in what I think of as the “Golden Age” myth, where one imagines that things were better in some past Eden, whether the 1950s, pre-European-invasion America, or, if you’re an Earth First! type, the Stone Age. Even as far back as the ancient Greeks – the cradle of Western civilization! – they were complaining about how far they’d fallen since the good old days, and can you believe these damn kids today, and on and on. Ancient Chinese, same thing. It seems clear that what people are attracted to about the past is the fact that, well, it’s the past. We already know what happened. In the same way that a movie or book doesn’t have the same emotional impact the second time around, it’s easy to look back at a closed time period and imagine that the people living at the time had the benefit of your hindsight, that they were immune to the anxieties that accompany living in the moment.
And yet…I can’t help but wonder if this phenomenon that Digby describes is, if not exactly new, at least a more brazen, or perhaps even more malignant form of an anti-intellectualism that has always been a part of our culture. The gleeful hatred of anything resembling cosmopolitanism or education beyond the three R’s, the fascist-like obsession with repeatedly creating the world anew in one’s own image through sheer force of will – has it always been there, and we’re just lucky enough because of our system of mass media to be aware of every lunatic with something to tell us?
Being a huge fan of Nietzsche’s writing, and being a pessimist by nature, I’ve always felt like I appreciated the importance of the irrational or deceptive aspects of human psychology more than most do. I don’t believe in any sort of progressive teleology when it comes to human society, and I would think Nazi Germany proved for once and all that there’s no reason why tendencies like this couldn’t at least temporarily take over.
2005 was a very strange year for me. In my personal life, a thirteen-year relationship was disintegrating thanks to my partner’s descent into a form of this same impulsive irrationalism, and when I’d go online to gain a temporary respite from that drama, I’d see the same thing on the macro level – right wing publishing houses like Regnery creating a whole series of books devoted to filtering the world through a lens of a sort of political Lamarckism. (If I had any writing talent, maybe there would be an interesting novel to be drawn from that experience.) In addition to that, though, I saw the other members of my family, who spent the Clinton years getting in touch with their inner Patrick Henry, turn into gung-ho apologists for Bush’s authoritarian, mega-government police state with absolutely nothing to indicate a battle with their conscience, let alone a sense of embarrassment or shame for their hypocrisy. It all deeply affected me in ways I still haven’t entirely come to grips with, hence my possible hypersensitivity to this topic.