Friday, July 20, 2007

What we have here ... is a failure to communicate

Almost two years ago, I sent a private message to a friend and fellow science enthusiast who actually is a scientist (who now has her own blog about HIV research which mostly goes over my head) in regards to a forum that we both visited where anti-intellectualism coupled with hyper-jingoism ran rampant about how the authoritarian anti-"liberal” populist nationalism of the board was disturbing me. Most of the individuals I consider to have been brainwashed with right-wing propaganda … I pejoratively labeled them (in private) “Limbaugh’s Youth”. These folks had internalized all the worst of the conservative movement stereotypes and dogma… for them truth had become politicized. They were (and are) slipping into a parallel reality that conforms to an ideological orthodoxy being crafted in the noise machine. Any facts or reality that conflicts with that orthodoxy is “liberal" - which to them is a synonym for socialist and evil. Really, these are the types of folks that if you didn't know any better you'd swear they were the exact subjects that Robert Altemeyer must have worked with while compiling the research that became The Authoritarians.

The message I sent was:

I think my frustration comes not from them holding these views, but from my inability to communicate to them what is wrong with them.

My views are shaped from a wide variety of sources of information I've studied in my life, but I lack the skill to distill and articulate the essence of this knowledge into concise points of discussion.

Its like my response to ultra-nationalism would be Twain's War Prayer and Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. But how do you communicate that to
She answered:

Slowly and simply and patiently. Some people just havent been as lucky as we have been, they havent been exposed to alternative viewpoints-- Dont get frustrated, expose them to your ideas, whether they want you to or not!
That's good advice, and one of the original purposes of this blog was to write about the things that my political values are derived from, with the hopes that it would help me be able to communicate with these folks.

One of the most frustrating things for me is that I never considered myself liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. I've been a life long cynic in regards to politicians, and have been for almost my entire life apolitical. In fact, this is shameful on my part, but I did not really take notice of politics until March 2003. The invasion of Iraq got my attention, because it seemed to me to be an odd and unnecessary distraction from pursuing Al Qaeda. What's more, the President's rhetoric about having exhausted every option before going to war conflicted with my own personal experience.

From September 2002 through March 2003 I worked as a civilian contractor on one of the largest military bases in the United States, and from the very first day I started there was never any doubt within the company I worked for that we were going to war with Iraq.

But even so, my attention was still focused otherwise, and I didn't fully start getting involved in politics until late 2003. And once I started looking at the administration's behavior I concluded very quickly that it was anti-democratic. And so I started talking about it, which is when something strange started to happen. I'd get people dismissing me as a "leftist" or a "liberal", or responding "yeah, well what about Clinton doing ____" or saying something like "Democrats want me to pay into Social Security and not get anything back".

These sorts of responses were baffling to me because I didn't give a shit about any of that. "Liberal" or "conservative", Republican or Democrat ... it didn't matter. I disliked Bush because I thought he was a corrupt, incompetent, liar that was dangerous to democracy. Period. Yet, still I'd have these folks who were transparently firebreathing partisans accusing me of partisanship.
I quickly was struck with the way that these individuals seemed to argue and reason the same way that the creationists that I've known and encountered my whole life (having grown up in the Deep South Bible Belt) reason from a top-down ideological perspective. It was not long before I started to consider movement conservatism to be a quasi-religion in progress. A religion centered around a kind of "free market" orthodoxy (where, for example, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet can be viewed as a hero because he implemented Milton Friedman's economic theories) that reminds me of the lesson (that seems to be lost to most of the public) from Animal Farm about how communism or capitalism, when turned into rigid ideology, can work to oppress the public (this point, however, did not escape the attention of the CIA).

Now, from what we know about authoritarianism and fundamentalism, the road that that leads an individual down this path tends to be one that is limited in experiences, a life insulated from a diversity of views and opinions, one that doesn't provide for challenging ones views. As Altemeyer puts it in Chapter 2

I have discovered in my investigations that, by and large, high RWA students had simply missed many of the experiences that might have lowered their authoritarianism. Take that first item on page 59 about fathers being the head of the family. Authoritarian followers often said they didn’t know any other kind of families.And they hadn’t known any unpatriotic people, nor had they broken many rules. They simply had not met many different kinds of people or done their share of wild and crazy things. Instead they had grown up in an enclosed, rather homogeneous environment--with their friends, their schools, their readings, their amusements all controlled to keep them out of harm’s way and Satan’s evil clutches. They hadcontentedly traveled around on short leashes in relatively small, tight, safe circles all their lives.
Yet, (and this would seem like common sense) "Interestingly enough, authoritarian followers show a remarkable capacity for change IF they have some of the important experiences."

And this is where I believe the importance of literature comes in ... A.C. Grayling may have said it best in What Is Good?

It remains that the largest and richest store of reflection on all questions of importance about the good life for humankind is literature - the novels, poems, plays, and essays that distil and debate the experience of mankind in its richest variety. It does not matter whether a literature work is tendentious or not, that is, urges a point of view or enjoins a way of life; from that point of view literature is a Babel of competing opinions and outlooks. For the earnest enquirer that is a good thing, because the more viewpoints, perspectives and experiences that come as grist to his mill through the medium of literature, the more chance he has of expanding his understanding, refining his sympathies, and considering his options. That is the great service of attentive and thoughtful reading: it educates and extends the moral imagination, affording insight into - and therefore the chance to be more tolerant of - other lives, other ways, other choices, most of which one will probably never directly experience oneself. And tolerance is a virtue which no list of virtues could well be without, and without which no human existence could be complete or good.
Which brings me back to my original frustration. As I said in the (formerly) private message, its a lack of ability to communicate that gets at me ... its the missing common experience which makes discourse difficult. Which is why ERV's advice about patience and persistence is worth remembering.

Please permit me to digress for a bit.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Remarque. I read this when I was in the 6th grade ... I was either eleven or twelve. The book made a profound impact on me, it became a part of me. It is part of my personal identity. To this day, I consider it to be one of the most important novels that I have ever read. I beleive that this magnificent anti-war novel went a long way towards immunizing me against nationalism, as well as making me view war as something that can never be more than a necessary evil.

But the lesson I took from the novel extended well beyond the mere content of the book. Perhaps, what made an even greater impression on me was the background of the novel's author. Remarque had been a vetertan of World War I and published All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929 as the Nazis were coming to power. In 1933 the Nazis banned and burned the book for being seditious in their view. (Remarque had by this time been living abroad, anticipating what was happening to his country). They "discovered" that Remarque was Jewish, and that his real name was Kramer (Remark - his birth name - spelled backwards). He of course, was not Jewish but in fact Roman Catholic, but Nazism was very much centered around its dominant hate-ideology, i.e. anti-Semitism, so "Jewish" came to be used as a synonym for unGerman (and here you might be tempted to notice a parallel regarding the use of the word liberal by some of the more extreme fringe elements of the conservative movement).

Remarque was denounced as a traitor to his nation, but we can see that he was a patriot and a hero. I hope the lesson one might draw from that is obvious.

So where am I going with this? Let me see if I can tie all this together somehow.

Back in January, life long political conservative Rob Dreher revealed in a deeply personal oral essay at NPR that he had an epiphany and realized that his political ideals had been “shattered” by the debacle in Iraq.(h/t Glenn Greenwald) There is one passage in Dreher’s essay that I still find difficult to fathom:

As I sat in my office last night watching President Bush deliver his big speech, I seethed over the waste, the folly, the stupidity of this war.

I had a heretical thought for a conservative - that I have got to teach my kids that they must never, ever take Presidents and Generals at their word - that their government will send them to kill and die for noble-sounding rot - that they have to question authority.
To me, this is mind-boggling. I grew up being extremely skeptical of authority, be it Democrat or Republican. Taking leaders at their word – blind allegiance to authority – was antithetical to the values I considered to be fundamental political virtues. And yet Dreher had grown up and somehow internalized the opposite belief (at least as it applied to Republican authority.)

Commenting on Dreher pondering why he had failed to learn the lesson from Vietnam that authority should be questioned, Barbara O’Brien answered flatly: “because you were brainwashed.” And here you should see that I’m coming back full circle to the “Limbaugh’s Youth” who I believed had been brainwashed by right-wing propaganda.

Speaking of a generation that came of age as and after the right-wing p.r. infrastructure began to fully launch in the late ‘70s, O’Brien observed that:

they don’t recognize that the way mass media has handled politics for the past thirty or so years is abnormal. What passes for our national political discourse — as presented on radio, television, and much print media — is scripted in right-wing think tanks and media paid for by the likes of Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife, and more recently by Sun Myung Moon. What looks like “debate” is just puppet theater, presented to manipulate public opinion in favor of the Right.

In this puppet theater “liberals” (booo! hisss!) are the craven, cowardly, and possibly demented villains, and “conservatives” are the noble heroes who come to the rescue of the virtuous maid America. Any American under the age of 40 has had this narrative pounded into his head his entire life. Rare is the individual born after the Baby Boom who has any clue what “liberalism” really is.
This pretty accurately describes the "Limbaugh's Youth" I've encountered. The ones to whom I said I would hand a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front to as an answer to their ultra-nationalism.

In an act of serendipity, it appears that Mr. Dreher recently decided to read All Quiet on the Western Front. When he finished he had this this to say

It's impossible to be released from the world of this novel and regard one's own responsibility as a citizen of a democracy for the current and future wars with equanimity.

So many of us never served in combat, yet we rallied uncritically to the call of those who valorized martial prowess, extolled American power, and spoke of killing and maiming — and the risk of being killed and maimed — using words like "cakewalk." Did you? I did. And now look.
I don't know, I guess I'm taking this in partially for vanity's sake as a sense of vindication, but more imporantly, I'm chalking it up as a victory for the power of literature & the arts, and their importance to democracy. I already cited the Grayling quote in regards to how I feel about this matter, let's take a look at what Dreher says about literature at the end of his column

Another writer, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, recently told The Wall Street Journal: "I think that literature has the important effect of creating free, independent, critical citizens who cannot be manipulated." Just so.
So in the spirit of Mr. Dreher's newly discovered civic journey, I'll make another book recommendation, with the hope that someway, somehow it will have the butterfly effect of falling the scales from someone's eyes.

Babbit by Sinclair Lewis.

Written in 1922, this satire of the push for conformity within the then emerging middle class is as acute today as it was then, if not more so, as our culture has been commercialized to an extent that I'm not sure Lewis would have even predicted. (And you'll notice I snuck another book recommendation in.) What's more, in Babbit you are able to detect the seeds (the paranoid fear that capitalism and God at any moment will be overthrown and the need for conformity to prevent that from happening) that led to the birth of the pseudoconservative revolt that we now know as the conservative movement.


Tony said...

A moving, thoughtful post, and a stand-out for even your high standards. Thank you.

If I have one quibble, though, it's with your interpretation of Dreher's quote:

I had a heretical thought for a conservative - that I have got to teach my kids that they must never, ever take Presidents and Generals at their word - that their government will send them to kill and die for noble-sounding rot - that they have to question authority.

Many conservatives had no trouble questioning the authority of Bill Clinton.

Hume's Ghost said...

Thanks for the compliment, and regarding your quibble, I did note (in parenthesis) that it was Republican authority that Dreher had learned not to question.

Paul said...

"Interestingly enough, authoritarian followers show a remarkable capacity for change IF they have some of the important experiences."

That's something I wasn't aware of and which gives me hope.

I think I've spend too much time simply ignoring, as best I can, people with an authoritarian streak because I've not considered them capable of changing.

MICKY said...

Psychologically, thought and feeling aren’t separate, since they are both linked to the remembrance of things past and their projection into the future. In essence it is the binding quality of memory that is the limiting and fragmentary factor of the wholeness of the mind. To discover that nothing is permanent is of tremendous importance for only then is the mind free; then you can look, and in that there is great joy.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, just testing before I decide to comment for real (I hope I can delete this afterwards)