Tag Archives: paranoia

I Hope This Is Hyperbole…

Generally, when partisans of one sort or another pursue policies that are likely to have negative side-effects, those side effects are unintended. (Hence the term “unintended consequences.”) A recent report generated by The Institute for New Economic Thinking–a source with which I am unfamiliar, and for which I cannot vouch–asserts that the attack on teachers (about which I recently blogged) is part of a deliberate effort to “Groom U.S. Kids for Servitude.”

At least three people forwarded the paper to me. It references research by Gordon Lafer, Associate Professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, and Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT.  It describes a movement that is said to have begun in the wake of Citizens United, a “highly coordinated campaign” to destroy unions, cut taxes for the wealthy, and cut public services for everyone else.

Lafer pored over the activities of business lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – funded by giant corporations including Walmart, Amazon.com, and Bank of America—that produces “model legislation” in areas its conservative members use to promote privatization. He studied the Koch network, a constellation of groups affiliated with billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. (Koch Industries is the country’s second-largest private company with business including crude oil supply and refining and chemical production). Again and again, he found that corporate-backed lobbyists were able to subvert the clear preferences of the public and their elected representatives in both parties. Of all the areas these lobbyists were able to influence, the policy campaign that netted the most laws passed, featured the most big players, and boasted the most effective organizations was public education. For these U.S. corporations, undermining the public school system was the Holy Grail.

The obvious question is: why? These organizations and businesses need an educated workforce; why would they intentionally subvert education? I understand–and mostly agree with– the argument that their preferred policies would have that effect, but why would that be the motivation?

While Lafer acknowledges that there are legitimate debates among people with different ideological positions or pedagogical views, he thinks big corporations are actually more worried about something far more pragmatic: how to protect themselves from the masses as they engineer rising economic inequality.

As Lafer sees it, we are headed for a new system in which the children of the wealthy will be “taught a broad, rich curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers. The kind of thing everybody wants for kids.” The rest of America’s children will be trapped in large classes with a narrow curriculum taught by inexperienced staff —or through digital platforms with no teachers at all.

Most kids will be trained for a life that is more circumscribed, less vibrant, and, quite literally, shorter, than what past generations have known. (Research shows that the lifespan gap between haves and have-nots is large and rapidly growing). They will be groomed for insecure service jobs that dull their minds and depress their spirits…

In other words, dismantling the public schools is all about control.

The linked article develops these themes, and readers who want to explore them more fully are welcome to click through and do so.

I know that even paranoids have enemies, but this argument strains credulity. I don’t quarrel with the assertion that many of these “reforms” are wrongheaded and detrimental to the national interest. (Vouchers, for example, are supported mainly by people who think they can make a profit and religious zealots who want public money to support their parochial schools.) The unwillingness of so many “haves” to pay the taxes that support the social and physical infrastructure that enabled their good fortune is selfish and despicable, but the policies they are pursing can be debated–and their dangers exposed–on their own (dubious) merits.

The problem is, if the gap between the rich and the rest isn’t reduced soon, we are likely to see more overheated accusations along these lines–along with more class-and-race-based animosity.

We’re entering the social danger zone.

 

The New Powerlessness

Conservative pundit Bret Stephens recently had a column in the New York Times, cleverly titled “The Bonfire of the Sanities.”

Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is often cited but less often read, which is a shame because the landmark 1964 essay helps explain our times.

As an example of contemporary paranoia, Stephens recounted a speech in which Senator Ron Johnson had gone full conspiracy theorist, before it turned out that a text message he had found so suspicious was an office in-joke between two FBI agents who were having an affair.  Johnson was also forced to admit he had no idea what a phrase within the message referenced, “not that it prevented him from painting it in the most sinister colors. Maybe there was a scavenger hunt for Hillary’s missing emails.”

I wouldn’t bother posting about this particular bit of GOP embarrassment–it is only one of  many, and Stephens lists several other “breaking news” items that later turned out to be equally bogus, but I was struck by this observation:

None of this would have surprised Hofstadter, whose essay traces the history of American paranoia from the Bavarian Illuminati and the Masons to New Dealers and Communists in the State Department. “I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” What better way to describe a Republican Party that thinks America has more to fear from a third-tier F.B.I. agent in Washington who doesn’t like the president than it does from a first-tier K.G.B. agent in Moscow who, for a time at least, liked the president all too well?

Then again, Hofstadter might have been surprised to find that the party of conspiracy is also the party of government. The paranoid style, he noted, was typically a function of powerlessness. “Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”

As Stephens points out–and as we all know–the GOP currently controls all three branches of government, and then some: Robert Muller is a Republican. Jeff Sessions is a Republican. Etc. Surely the GOP is not powerless!

Except, it is.

Despite control of the government, the party cannot govern. It cannot head off standoffs like the recent shut-down. When its lawmakers make a deal–like the recent DACA agreement brokered by Lindsay Graham and Dick Durbin–they can’t predict whether their lunatic President will accept it.

Powerlessness, it turns out, is not solely a function of losing elections. There are a lot of reasons for the dysfunction that has turned the federal government into an exaggerated version of the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight–this blog has suggested a number of them. And although he has been a mighty contributor to GOP fecklessness, Trump is less a reason than a consequence.

When nothing is working properly, people look for a reason–usually, they look for someone to blame. When there is no one handy, they suspect conspiracies. They develop paranoia.

The principal lesson of paranoia is the ease with which politically aroused people can mistake errors for deceptions, coincidences for patterns, bumbling for dereliction, and secrecy for treachery. True conspiracies are rare but stupidity is nearly universal. The failure to know the difference, combined with the desire for a particular result, is what accounts for the paranoid style.

“Conspiracies are rare but stupidity is nearly universal.” Or, as a friend of mine used to say when we were all in City Hall: incompetence explains so much more than conspiracy.

Armed and Very Dangerous

The recent shoot-out in Waco, Texas, prompts me to share some observations about the ubiquity of guns in America, and the near-religious fervor with which an unrestricted right to bear arms is defended. (I’m well aware that I may regret writing this; my only previous foray into the issue, on this blog, prompted responses that were by far the most uncivil and threatening I have ever received. And I used to run Indiana’s ACLU.)

A couple of caveats: Perfectly reasonable people may have different opinions about the purpose and reach of the Second Amendment, and what restrictions on gun ownership are both socially prudent and constitutional. Many responsible people own firearms, for a variety of eminently defensible reasons.

This blog isn’t about those people.

In fact, even though this post was triggered by the motorcycle gang violence in Waco, it isn’t intended to be directly responsive to that event, either; rather, you might think of it as a meditation on America’s inability to approach even the most reasonable discussions of gun rights and public safety with anything other than hysteria and hyperbole.

This hasn’t always been the case. In 1968, for example, President Johnson signed a sweeping national gun control law; in 1993, Congress passed the Brady Act. There have been others.

But during the past few decades, these federal laws have been substantially weakened and the gun lobby has advanced multiple state-level initiatives expanding gun “rights” well beyond what my generation considered reasonable– measures to permit concealed weapons, to allow people to take weapons into businesses (including bars and despite the objections of the property owners), and to invalidate campus rules against weapons. Iowa even passed a measure allowing people who are blind to obtain gun permits.

Perhaps the most troubling element of this landscape has been the growth of so-called “open carry” laws. Want to sling your AK47 over your shoulder when you go to the grocery? Sure thing!  In the wake of passage of these laws, groups of heavily armed men have “exercised their constitutional rights” by showing up in the aisles of establishments like Target and Walmart.

These displays of machismo are not unconnected to the (increasingly bizarre) conspiracy theories that have mushroomed in the wake of President Obama’s election. “Obama is going to confiscate our guns!”  “Jade Helm is a plot—Obama is planning to bring in the U.N. and take over Texas!”

Racism is clearly a factor in these and similar conspiracies being promoted in the more fetid precincts of the Internet, but racism doesn’t explain all of the paranoia.

Fear does.

We live in a time of dramatic and unprecedented social change, with a corresponding loss of what scholars call agency. Agency is personal efficacy, confidence that we are in charge of our own lives, the masters of our own fates, in possession of a measure of control over what happens to us.

Americans wake up every morning to a world that is less familiar and more disorienting; a world resistant to attempts at control. Meanwhile, the Internet inundates us with evidence that our social institutions—especially but not exclusively government—cannot be trusted. People who’ve been told their whole lives that they’ll do well if they work hard and play by the rules—most of  whom have dutifully proceeded to work hard and play by the rules—have seen their wages stagnate and their life prospects dim.

Some Americans respond to this social landscape by “opting out,” by retreating from civic life. Others– frightened people trying to make sense of an unfamiliar world– take refuge in “explanations” for their distress: a War on Christians, welfare mothers, Sharia law…  At the extreme, folks with paranoid tendencies believe their lives depend upon their ability to arm themselves against the “enemy,” the United Nations, immigrants, terrorists, the federal government….and especially, the terrifying unknown.

So they swagger down the aisles of the local Target with guns over their shoulders and strapped to their hips, and tee-shirts that say “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Sad. And very dangerous.

 

 

Lone Star Lunatics

Okay–I really wanted to ignore this whole thing.

I mean, what can you say about people who are freaked out because the Department of Defense is mounting  a  military training exercise (with the admittedly bizarre name Operation Jade Helm)–because they think it’s all a plot to declare martial law and “take over” Texas?

Obama’s bringing in the U.N. or ISIS (depending on which loony you believe), and will round up Texans and put them in camps which are (inexplicably) located in abandoned Walmarts that are connected by underground tunnels that were somehow constructed without anyone noticing (and without, evidently, generating any large deposits of dirt to attract anyone’s attention).

And aliens have landed in Lubbock and are having sex with antelopes….

I suppose I should be over letting weird stuff that happens in Texas surprise me. After all, Texans keep electing Louis Gohmert, and the Texas legislature recently passed a bill to
“protect” churches from having to officiate at gay weddings, communicating to one and all that none of them had ever read the First Amendment, which already does that.

And it’s not even like Texas lunacy is new. I still remember Molly Ivins’ explanation of how members of the Texas “lege” had handled reports  that more Texans died annually from gunshots than on state highways. They raised the speed limit.

Still.

It’s bad enough when paranoia grips ordinary Texans (I started to say “ordinary citizens,” but ordinary, sane folks evidently live elsewhere. Like Utah, for example, where the menacing Jade Helm is also taking place, and everyone’s ignoring it), but Governor Greg Abbott has called up the Texas Guard (a group of interesting folks who probably shouldn’t be armed and shouldn’t be confused with the National Guard) to ensure that Obama won’t impose martial law. Then reliable nut job Ted Cruz promised to “look into it.” Because, if there were some plot, DOD would surely share that information with Ted Cruz if he asked nicely.

The utter insanity of all this boggles the mind.

News flash, Texas! You’ve already been assimilated by the Borg…er, U.S. (though I personally would like to reconsider the decision to make you a state–I wonder if Mexico would take you back?), so we have no reason to “conquer” you. And if for some reason the Army did roll in, do you really think your ragtag Guard could stop tanks and missiles?

I’d ask what you could possibly be thinking, if I thought you could think.

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart noted that similar military exercises seven or eight years ago had generated absolutely no reaction, saying “I wonder what’s different?”

A picture of President Obama flashed on the screen, and he said “Ah, yes.”

Racism explains a lot of crazy.

 

 

On the Other Hand….

Yesterday’s blog bemoaned the skepticism–and the sound reasons for that skepticism– with which so many of us have come to view media reports.  A couple of commenters noted what we might call “the flip side” of that phenomenon–people  distrustful of both government and the media who are anything but skeptical when it comes to wild and crazy conspiracy theories.

One of my regular reads is Juanita Jean’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc., written by a Molly Ivins-like Texan. A recent post began

If you haven’t heard, there’s going to be a large military exercise around the country from July 15th to September 15th. It’s called Jade Helm 15 because all military trainings have names and that one wasn’t taken, I suppose. Texas has five counties involved and the rightwing is damn sure that it means Obama is taking over and gonna put all them in a concentration camp Just! Like! Hitler!

The post included a local newspaper’s report of a public meeting in Bastrop County, where the exercise was to take place.

Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria answered questions for two hours from a crowd of more than 150 people at a special meeting of the Bastrop County Commissioners, hoping to allay locals’ concerns that the training operation is a way for the federal government to take over Texas and much of the Southwest. Instead, Lastoria was told that he couldn’t be trusted and was asked whether Jade Helm 15 will involve bringing foreign fighters from the Islamic State to Texas, whether U.S. troops will confiscate Texans’ guns and whether the Army intends to implement martial law through the exercise. (The answer for all three was no.)

As Juanita Jean noted,

Cowboy! Think about it. If the military wanted to take over, they would not ask your permission first. They would just do it because I do not care a hill of beans how many guns you have, they have tanks. And bombers. And stuff you have never even heard of.

How lost and terrified must people be in order to believe things like this? How paranoid?

And how much do they have to hate having an African-American President?