The Favoritism Regime

As I often try to explain to students, there is an important difference between rights and privileges. The essential element of the rule of law–the characteristic that distinguishes it from the exercise of power–is that the same rules apply to everyone. If everyone doesn’t have rights, no one does. Some people may have privileges, but that isn’t the same thing.

The deal is, the person engaging in free speech who is saying something with which you disagree has the same right to voice his opinion as the person with whom you agree. If we don’t all play by the same rules, if some people have more “rights” than others, no one really has rights. They have privileges that can be withdrawn if they offend or oppose those in power.

The rule of law is fundamental to a constitutional government. It is glaringly obvious that Donald Trump does not understand either its definition or its importance. It is equally obvious that he wouldn’t respect it if he did. Like most autocrats and would-be autocrats, he is all about self-aggrandizement, the exercise of power and the ability to reward his friends and punish his enemies.

Trump’s lack of comprehension of, or respect for, the rule of law is one of the many reasons he is so unfit to hold public office.

What triggered this rant was an article about Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum–a decision he has evidently been reconsidering in recent days. (When your policy pronouncements emerge from impetuous impulses rather than considered analyses, they do tend to change on a day-to-day basis…) The article described the proposed tariffs and their potential consequences, and reported on the number of  U.S. companies that were scrambling to win exemptions to them.

As of the time of the article, the Commerce Department had evidently received 8,200 exemption requests.

Let’s deconstruct this.

Assume you owned a company that relied upon imported metal to manufacture your widgets. The government moved to impose tariffs, which would increase your costs and make your widgets less competitive with the widgets manufactured in other countries. Assume further that you applied for an exemption from the new rule, based upon some tenuous argument or plea of hardship. Wouldn’t you be likely to do whatever you could to curry favor with the administration dispensing those exemptions? You’d almost certainly dig deep to make a political contribution.

“Pay to play” is, unfortunately, nothing new in American politics. Engineers and others who bid on government projects know that a history of political donations may not be enough to get them the contract, but is necessary to ensure that their bid is one that will at least be considered.

That said, unsuccessful bidders who believe that a contract has been awarded to a company that didn’t meet the statutory criteria–a donor whose bid was not “lowest and best”–can sue. And win. It happens more often than you might think.

Of course, the ability to sue and have your complaint judged fairly requires that the country’s judicial system be both impartial and competent. That’s one reason this administration’s rush to fill judicial vacancies with political cronies is so pernicious.

In places where government agencies can confer benefits at their discretion–routinely the case in autocratic regimes–and there is no legal recourse, corruption is widespread and inevitable. (See: Putin’s Russia) Quid pro quo replaces rule of law.

That’s the path America is on right now. If the GOP enablers in Congress survive the midterm elections, the prospects for turning things around will be very, very dim.

 

Overthinking Mental Incapacity

Sometimes, a simple explanation is better.

A recent article in Alternet asked an important question: Why are some people so resistant to science and evidence?

Currently, there are three important issues on which there is scientific consensus but controversy among laypeople: climate change, biological evolution and childhood vaccination. On all three issues, prominent members of the Trump administration, including the president, have lined up against the conclusions of research.

This widespread rejection of scientific findings presents a perplexing puzzle to those of us who value an evidence-based approach to knowledge and policy.

Agreed. So far, so good.

The author of the piece, a psychologist, then notes that many people resist complexity and shades of gray; they live in an either-or, black or white universe, and are extremely uncomfortable with “non-dichotomas” thinking. He notes that this characteristic is a factor in depression, anxiety, aggression and, especially, borderline personality disorder.

In this type of cognition, a spectrum of possibilities is divided into two parts, with a blurring of distinctions within those categories. Shades of gray are missed; everything is considered either black or white. Dichotomous thinking is not always or inevitably wrong, but it is a poor tool for understanding complicated realities because these usually involve spectrums of possibilities, not binaries….

In my observations, I see science deniers engage in dichotomous thinking about truth claims. In evaluating the evidence for a hypothesis or theory, they divide the spectrum of possibilities into two unequal parts: perfect certainty and inconclusive controversy. Any bit of data that does not support a theory is misunderstood to mean that the formulation is fundamentally in doubt, regardless of the amount of supportive evidence.

Similarly, deniers perceive the spectrum of scientific agreement as divided into two unequal parts: perfect consensus and no consensus at all. Any departure from 100 percent agreement is categorized as a lack of agreement, which is misinterpreted as indicating fundamental controversy in the field.

The article goes on to explain that people whose minds work this way will latch onto any anomaly or disagreement, any “non-consistent” factoid, as confirmation that the entire theory–evolution, climate change, the efficacy and safety of vaccination–is bogus.

Where I part company with the author is his willingness to see this “conceptual approach” as a sign of a mental mal-adaptation, an indicator of other (generally mild, but troubling)mental illness. Although I’m certainly willing to concede that this may sometimes be the case, a couple of other explanations are more consistent with Occam’s razor– the principle that, when presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the answer that requires the fewest assumptions.

In other words, simpler is likelier.

Among the elected officials who dismiss climate science, for example, are a significant number whose campaign coffers are regularly replenished by fossil fuel companies. I suspect these lawmakers’ expressed opinions are more convenient than real.

And if I may be permitted a decidedly un-politically-correct observation, a genuine inability to understand the difference between the scientific method and religious dogma–the inability to recognize the difference between empirical evidence and a preferred and comforting world-view– may be a sign of limited intellectual capacity.

In other words, these people aren’t mentally ill. They’re just not very smart.

 

Meanwhile, Behind The Scenes….

Every day, a “Presidential” tweet or administrative outrage occupies the attention of the media and citizens who follow current affairs.

We are mesmerized by the slow train-wreck that Trump and his Keystone Kops are engineering, and for good reason. We rarely have a chance to catch our breath, or to wonder–as my husband often darkly does–what the truly vile people we don’t hear about are doing while our attention is  diverted by the ongoing public clown show.

Recently, my cousin the cardiologist (to whom I sometimes refer) sent me an example.

I have just been made aware that WomensHealth.gov has deleted much of its breast cancer web pages. But why?

It seems there has been a great reduction of breast cancer content on the website of the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), leaving just a single page with rudimentary information on mammograms and breast cancer. Most of the previous, seven-page content is gone.

The removal appears to reflect what my cousin calls “a broader agenda from the current administration.”

For example, under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act, breast cancer screening is offered free of charge for women meeting certain financial criteria, but that information has been deleted from WomensHealth.gov. Now, the information must be accessed on the site via a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which, in turn, requires a click through to yet another link.

Also, the “Government in Action” section of WomensHealth.gov previously contained information on federal programs that provide free or low-cost cancer screening, including clinical breast exams and mammograms. Known as the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, the entity offers screening to all “low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women.” That entire section of the site is now removed.​This information cannot be found elsewhere on the OWH website, or anywhere on the HHS site, despite the agency’s contention that it has been integrated into other parts of the HHS website.

Apparently, most of the breast cancer content on WomensHealth.gov has been deleted.

“Because breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in the US, affecting 250,000 annually resulting in 40,000 deaths a year, it is astonishing that important information about risks, prevention and treatment of breast cancer has been eliminated from the Office on Women’s Health site,” said Joyce Bichler, deputy director of Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco, California.

According to a report from the Sunlight Foundation, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog, the government’s justification for this removal was  “lack of use.” This is transparent bullshit; WomensHealth.gov was visited nearly three quarters of a million times in one recent month. An HHS spokesperson told ThinkProgress that the “pages were removed… because content was not mobile-friendly and very rarely used. Before we update any of the information…we engage in a comprehensive audit and use analysis process that includes reviewing other federal consumer health websites to ensure we are not duplicating efforts or presenting redundant information.”

More bullshit.

The spokesperson directed users to WomensHealth.gov/cancer, which presumably contained the “duplicated” material, but doesn’t even have a dedicated section for breast cancer. The same spokesperson said “sister HHS agencies…have the same information in a much more user-friendly format on their websites.”

This isn’t the first time that important health information has vanished without notice or explanation. The removal of breast cancer information is part of what the Sunlight Foundation calls “wider changes to the OWH website that include the removal of resources related to lesbian and bisexual health, minority women’s health, and other topics.”

“The specificity of these removals adds more evidence to a growing concern: that public information for vulnerable populations is being targeted for removal or simply hidden,” says Sunlight.

Bottom line: Important information intended to assist low-income individuals and people of color access healthcare has been removed from the website–even though the most common cancer in women is breast cancer–and at the same time, the administration is ramping up its assault on Planned Parenthood, an important provider of breast cancer screenings.

Don’t tell me that “war on women” is hyperbole.

Another Perspective On How We Got Here

Yesterday, I noted the ubiquity of efforts to understand what happened to the Republican Party. Equally predictable are the efforts to understand how America could have elected Donald Trump–how a man so manifestly unfit for the Presidency (or really, life in polite company) could have garnered millions of votes. True, he lost the popular vote, but that doesn’t negate the fact that millions of people actually cast ballots for him–and that even in the face of the damage being caused by his impetuousness and ignorance,  many of them continue to support him.

Amanda Marcotte, who writes for Salon, is out with a book that attempts to answer that question. Her conclusions in Troll Nation won’t surprise anyone who reads this blog with any regularity, but her approach is worth considering, as Andrew O’Hehir’s review makes clear.

“Troll Nation” is not about the election of Donald Trump. Amanda and I have certain areas of cheerfully-expressed political disagreement, but I think we share the view that Trump was the culmination of a long process, or is the most visible symptom of a widespread infection. Amanda’s analysis is, as always, calm, sharp-witted and clearly focused on available evidence. American conservatives, she says, used to make rational arguments and used to present a positive social vision. Did those arguments make sense, in the end? Did that “Morning in America” vision of the Reagan years conceal a vibrant undercurrent of bigotry?

The answers to those questions — “no” and “yes,” respectively — led us to the current situation, when conservative politics has become almost entirely negative….Most Republicans gleefully embrace incoherent or self-destructive policies designed to punish or horrify people they dislike, whether that means feminists, immigrants, black people, campus “snowflakes,” members of the “liberal elite” or (above all) Hillary Clinton. I am not the world’s biggest fan of Hillary Clinton, as Amanda knows! But what the hell she ever did to all those people to make them despise her so much is entirely unclear..

As O’Hehir notes, the self-proclaimed conservatives of the GOP have morphed from the “supercilious, upper-crust conservatism “of William F. Buckley Jr., whom he accurately describes as the dictionary definition of an elitist, to the delusional ignorance of Alex Jones and the small-minded hatred of Charlottesville.

The basic premise of Marcotte’s book is that Trump is not an anomaly. Much as we might like to believe that we are living in a time that is a departure from the trajectory of American history, Marcotte sees Trump as the logical conclusion of an undercurrent in conservatism that’s been going on for decades — attitudes and resentments encouraged by talk radio, Fox News and their imitators that have “reconstructed” American conservatism. Today, rather than political opinions or policy positions, it’s all about hate and bigotry and who doesn’t belong–who isn’t a “real” American.

Plenty has been written about Fox News, talk radio and other media that ranges from spin to propaganda, and the extent to which those outlets are implicated in the twisted worldviews of their audience, but Marcotte shares an important insight that often gets overlooked:

I want to convey in this book, and I hope in this interview, that conservative audiences respond to this kind of media because they want to. I think we underestimate how much people are going to do what they want to do and believe what they want to believe.

Blaming the propagandists and conspiracy theorists lets their audiences off the hook–it assumes a lack of moral agency. The people who parrot “Fox and Friends” choose their news, and they choose not to balance it with other perspectives. For whatever reason–impelled by whatever inadequacies and resentments–they choose to indulge in confirmation bias rather than resisting it.

It’s co-dependency.

Without their willingness to suspend critical thinking–their desperate need to believe in their own racial and/or religious and/or gender superiority, the Rush Limbaughs and Fox News blonds and purveyors of Pizza conspiracies would be out of business.

Faith-Based Politics

Among former Republicans of a certain age, “what the hell happened” is a popular topic of conversation. What turned a major political party composed of people with a reasonable range of respectable views into a cult imposing extremist litmus tests? What accounts for the rejection of evidence, disdain for science and rigid refusal to compromise even the most extreme positions?

When did the Grand Old Party go nuts?

In a new book, The Party’s Over: How Republicans Went Crazy ,Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted former GOP strategist Mike Lofgrin blames religion.

Having observed politics up close and personal for most of my adult lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism may have been the key ingredient in the transformation of the Republican Party. Politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes—at least in the minds of its followers—all three of the GOP’s main tenets: wealth worship, war worship, and the permanent culture war.

In retrospect, Lofgren sees Pat Robertson’s strong showing as a Presidential candidate in 1988 as the warning sign for what was already underway: the capture of one of the country’s major political parties by religious fundamentalists and fanatics.

The results of this takeover are all around us: If the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth, it is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party, and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary beliefs. All around us now is a prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science. Politicized religion is the sheet anchor of the dreary forty-year-old culture wars.

Lofgren takes aim at a theory that I have held for some time–the theory that the differences between what we used to call the “country club” wing of the GOP and the religious zealot wing would eventually cause a split. It seemed reasonable to assume that the socioeconomic and philosophical gulf separating the party’s business wing from the religious right would make for instability.

I’ve been predicting this split for at least twenty years, and I’m still waiting, so he may be right when he suggests that there really isn’t a basic disagreement between these factions on the direction  the country should go– just a quibble about how far.

The plutocrats would drag us back to the Gilded Age; the theocrats to the Salem witch trials. If anything, the two groups are increasingly beginning to resemble each other. Many televangelists have espoused what has come to be known as the prosperity gospel—the health-and- wealth/name-it-and-claim-it gospel of economic entitlement. If you are wealthy, it is a sign of God’s favor. If not, too bad! This rationale may explain why some poor voters will defend the prerogatives of billionaires. In any case, at the beginning of the 2012 presidential cycle, those consummate plutocrats the Koch brothers pumped money into Bachmann’s campaign, so one should probably not make too much of a potential plutocrat-theocrat split.

As for the supposedly libertarian Tea Partiers, Lofgren cites academic studies that identify them as authoritarian rather than libertarian. Over half of Tea Party members self-identified as members of the religious right and 55 percent insisted that “America has always been and is currently a Christian nation”—a higher percentage than non-Tea Party  Christian conservatives.

If Lofgren is right, it explains how we got here, and why government is broken. You can reason with someone who holds a political or policy position. You can negotiate a compromise– a “win-win” with someone whose ultimate goal is different from your own.

When a political position is held with religious fervor, however, it becomes immune to logic and evidence.

Did you all hear about the Republican Representative who attributed the ocean’s rise to the fact that rocks fell into it?

I rest my case.