Sunday, 18 July 2010
If you live in America, you've no doubt noticed something quite frightening. People are frothing at the mouth over universal health care, protesting non-existant tax hikes, and cursing the presence of smarty pants intellectual elites in the Government who think they're better than others because they can use big long words. Suddenly after a hundred years, "torture" has become a legitimate debate again, and evolution has joined climate change as a "fringe theory". Any objective outsider could be forgiven for thinking that some kind of time-warp has somehow sent America back to the 1800s, but in reality we are simply witnessing the rise of Idiot America.
So what is idiot America I hear you ask? Well let me give you a few examples.
I recently had a conversation with a politically enthusiastic friend of mine, let's call him Mr. B, a centrist sort who typically votes Democratic on the national level, but Republican on the local stage. He would describe these lively debates he used to have with a more conservative friend of his where they would discuss the role of government and human rights, and even though they seldom agreed with one another they would enjoy the civilised discourse and often exchange books and articles to read and discuss.
Well following the election of Barack Obama, he seems to have lost his mind. Apparently this friend posted some comment on Mr. B's Facebook wall about how the Affordable Care for America bill was "a holocaust for America". Now Mr. B is Jewish so understandably he points out how offensive such an off the wall comment can be interpreted and presses his friend to explain his issue with the bill. The friend's response? "Fuck you and your muslim President. This is the end of this country." De-friended.
A different friend of mine, Mr. F, has a similar story. He had a friend on twitter who was posting the same one liner about "Obummer and libtards" and how she prays for someone to murder them, every few minutes all day long. Apparently it was because they are "destroying America", and when Mr. F asked why, all he got in response was "with all the taxes". Now unless this friend of his earns over $300,000 dollars per year, she's had her taxes lowered, so this is the equivalent of the French peasantry in 1789 taking to the streets of Paris and shouting "Marie Antoinette must have more cake!" Upon pointing out the statistic of people who have had taxes lowered, this friend proceeded to change the subject to personal insults about Mr. F's education and background, and accused Mr. F of simply not understanding (with no further elaboration).
I had a personal friend, a college educated man, who was positively enraged at Obama's description of Al Qaeda as terrorists rather than "Islamo-fascists". When I explained the quite rational reason why Obama, along with every other western Government, liberal or conservative, is trying to disassociate terrorism from Islam, he blocked me amid a fury of epithets and personal insults and called Obama a "retarded terrorist sympathiser".
Another example I would like to point out is this video of Congressman Alan Grayson responding to the protests of a clearly out of her depth tea partier. Note how as soon as he rationally and calmly responds to each one of her talking points, she immediately jumps to a completely different topic rather than respond.
I've got an acquaintance who does this all the time as well. (S)he'll make some unsubstantiated claim like the often quoted falsehood that Obama had the lowest first year approval ratings of any President. Of course you don't have to look very hard to see that Ford, Reagan and Clinton all had worse and Carter and Truman had very similar approval ratings. But i'll send him/her a link of historical approval ratings showing Obama with relatively decent approval, and half of the time, without missing a beat (s)he'll immediately change the topic to torture, when I refute that (s)he'll immediately jump to the economy, never following up a statement (s)he makes with any kind of elaboration. The other half of the time his/her response will just be name calling and spitting anger, because apparently facts and numbers are part of some elitist east coast intellectual conspiracy (yes, I've heard people claim exactly that).
This is not just an isolated number of incidents, it's a phenomenon that has been widely discussed by pundits on both ends of the political spectrum. A range of politicians on the right, from Lindsey Graham to Bob Bennett to Bob Inglis to David Frum, have spoken at length about the worrying disconnect between reality and those on the far right.
The scary thing is that these are not just fringe lunatics from some insulated rural state, these are reasonably educated, formerly sane people who have overnight turned into an irrational, incoherent bubbling pot of blind hatred and prejudice.
What's striking from these examples is the ignorance as well as the absurdly disproportionate rage and paranoia. And there is a LOT of ignorance; numerous polls have demonstrated that those who disapprove of the healthcare bill simply don't know what's in the bill, and another recent poll has shown that Obama's opponents mystifyingly believe that the bailout was passed under his Presidency.
But more interesting that simply being misinformed, there seems to be an unwillingness to adjust one's views even when presented with the truth. A 2008 study put this to the test by surveying groups of different ideological positions and feeding them incorrect evidence, for example the claim that Iraq had WMDs, and then refuting them with comprehensive evidence, for example the Duelfer report. It was found that while most people took the new information into their thinking, in some cases with conservatives presenting irrefutable evidence actually tended to strengthen their belief in the misinformation. A similar test involved people who believed that Obama passed the bailout being shown newspaper articles and official documentation that the bailout was passed months before Obama was elected, under Bush, after which they were even MORE adamant that the bailout had been passed under Obama.
This is called the "backfire" effect. It is the phenomenon of certain individuals who for whatever reason are so attached to their beliefs that even when they know they're wrong they will still cling to them even tighter. A bizarre trait that on the surface makes little sense to most of us.
So we have the disproportionate rage, the erratic incoherence, we have the denial of reality, but the last thing that strikes me as bizarre about these reactions is the pure childishness. You may have picked up on the puns and childish name calling like "libtards" and "Obummer" and the tendency to resort to personal and irrelevant insults in the absence of the understanding that is required to engage in the conversation.
So what is happening here? It would seem that some kind of temporary insanity has gripped a good portion of the country, David Horowitz describes it as "Obama derangement syndrome", a term which has since been used by a number of pundits, but what is the cause?
Is it a question of ideology? Certainly not in itself, as I know many conservatives and even some Republicans who don't subscribe to this absurdity and are generally quite embarrassed by the behaviour of fellow conservatives. For that matter a lot of people think of me as reasonably conservative on a number of issues. Is it a matter of racism as many seem to claim? Certainly in some cases racism plays a part, particularly with the racially charged tea party protests, but that's not it; I know conservatives who have taken up the art of insanity without ever muttering a racist remark, instead one gets the impression that many of the racist epithets are merely a byproduct of anger/fear with an inability to better verbalise said emotions. Is it a question of stupidity then? Well partly, there certainly seems to be a distinct anti-intellectual angle to the mayhem, but it's more complicated than that.
A lot of people blame outlets like Fox News, who have become so noted for taking propaganda to new heights that they no longer even refer to themselves as a "news" network. But misleading infotainment like Fox News is not the cause, it's merely a symptom of the larger problem.
You see, Fox News operates on the basic principles that perception is reality, that if you say something loudly and frequently enough it becomes true, and that truth is determined by what the majority believes. Of course this is not how the real world works, but none of that matters to the viewers of Fox. They realise they can't control reality, but believe by being noisy and over the top they can control perception.
The reality is that people don't tune into Fox for the news, they don't watch to find out what's happening in the world. They tune in for self validation, to have someone parrot back their worldview to them and feel just a little bit better about themselves. Ultimately all this anger and hate is an issue of fear and insecurity. There is only one "news" network in America that caters to this fringe demographic, which means they pretty much have a monopoly, guaranteeing high TV ratings and lots of advertising revenue.
So let's look at this from the start. You have this person, likely someone of moderate intelligence at best who has been raised all his life by his parents to believe one thing. He's been picked on at school, he's not achieved much in life, and deep down he feels inferior to others, whether or not it's deserved. He tries to rationalise it all, he's a victim of circumstance, he's unlucky, he could do more if he wanted to, but people won't give him a chance, and those people are all wrong.
He feels unfairly persecuted every time someone tells him he's wrong or mistaken. The world is full of arrogant privileged people who think they're better than him and are just waiting for him to slip up or make a mistake so they can rub it in his face and make themselves feel smarter. For this reason he can't afford to be wrong about anything, and he clings to those beliefs with every fabric of his being. They become so ingrained into his core that to question any of them is to challenge his very identity, his sense of self. So anything that even slightly contradicts one of his beliefs is taken personally and must be fought and argued against like his life depended upon it.
On a fundamental basis, who we are and how we interpret the world is governed by these schemata, clustered ideas of pre-conceived notions. If something contradicts these ideas, the natural reaction is to reject them and push them away until they can no longer be ignored, in which case existing schemata must be modified.
But when these schemata are built around faulty assumptions problems can develop, and inevitably these ideas will be challenged. For these people, self esteem is so non existent that to admit fault is the most offensive notion imaginable, so what they do is build a new set of faulty schemata to try and justify their previous notions. This process repeats itself over and over until these people are nothing but a tangled mess of contradictory, interlocked schemata, one that even a gifted psychologist would take years to unravel. All of this is based around the central self concept that the individual is smarter than others, and that all the people who have looked down upon him their entire lives are wrong. To accept one's own shortcomings would cast doubt upon a worldview that has been designed to rationalise the harshness of reality in such a way that it reassures the individual.
At this point it is impossible to question even one of these preconceived notions without risking the whole damn construct tumbling down around it, their entire interpretation of the world teetering on the edge of collapse. If these people overreact to even the tiniest issues as if the world were coming to an end, it's because to them that's quite literally the case.
So look back at the type of discourse we've been seeing. Complete incoherence, these people rarely seem able to delve deeper into an issue than the one liner they get from the Fox News round up. Name calling and inappropriate anger, because they have no rational complaints to verbalise, only the fear and insecurity that governs these emotions (and for some reason they seem to think that the 'clever' puns make them sound smarter and more authoritative in the absence of any real understanding of the issues). Lastly the denial in the face of even the most concrete of facts, because when you get right down to it, truth is simply not relevant and perception is reality. If it seems like these extremists are adopting astonishingly indefensible talking points, like justified torture, then don't worry because they don't really believe a word of it.
The unavoidable reality is that these ranting, foaming at the mouth protesters don't care about what's true or what's real. They simply want the perception, and in their minds therefore the reality, to be that they are right and have always been right so that they can defend their identity and permit their tangled worldview to make sense.
In case you're wondering how America has become a country dominated by people with psychological issues the answer is simple. It hasn't. The tea party simply isn't as numerous as they would have you believe. Anti-intellectualism may be noisy, but don't confuse that with mainstream. Most polls show that a plurality now approves of the Affordable Care for America act, while tea party candidates are starting to flounder in the polls even in states they should be winning easily this November. Make no mistake, these hysterical fantasists are firmly in the minority, and few people would even pretend otherwise anymore.
So next time you hear a formerly sane Republican devolve into a ludicrous fit of expletives and racist epithets over the colour of Obama's tie, don't get annoyed, feel sorry for them. Ultimately it's the only way they know how to cope with reality.
Check back soon for my full preview to this year's midterm elections, including the key races to watch.