Category Archives: Random Blogging

The Threat Of Ambiguity

Comments to previous posts to this blog have focused on the role played by religion in the polarization that characterizes today’s America. I’d like to put a slightly different “spin” on that conversation.

As Len Farber noted, it is unfair to lump all religions together–there is, as my youngest son has noted, a great deal of difference between religions that help adherents wrestle with the “big questions” of life and those that dictate an infallible answer. That difference extends beyond the worldviews we label “religion.” Back in the days of the communist USSR, it was often remarked that communism was a religion of sorts, and that observation can be enlarged to include pretty much all rigid belief systems.

Which brings me to one of those “there are two kinds of people” generalizations. (Obviously, a dangerous overstatement, but bear with me…)

We live in a world that can seem incomprehensible; confronting our complicated reality can range from exciting to intimidating to extremely frightening. Most of us (I hope, at least, that it’s most of us) muddle through, recognizing and coming to terms with our human limitations and making what sense we can of a complex world. But for a not-insignificant number of our fellow humans, keeping oneself open to change, to reconsideration–a necessary attribute of living with ambiguity– is intolerable. Shades of gray are terrifying. Such people are desperate for bright lines, clear rules–for certainty.

Enter some–not all–religions and other belief systems, including conspiracy theories that “explain” the inexplicable and bring clarity to messy reality.

If you are an older white male in today’s America, you were probably born into a society that promised you a future in which you would be a part of the dominant caste, a future in which you wouldn’t have to compete with–or share importance with– uppity women and minorities. That future didn’t unfold as promised. It’s understandable that you might want someone to blame for the social changes that cost you the reality you had the right to expect.

It was probably the fault of the “libs” or the “femi-nazis” or Blacks, or maybe the immigrants from “shit-hole” countries.

As I have tried to understand how any mentally-competent American could look at Donald Trump and see someone who belongs in the Oval Office, I have become convinced that an inability to cope with the ambiguities of modern life explains a lot.

There is, of course, a lot of research telling us that “racial resentment” is the most prominent predictor of support for Trump. There is also ample research suggesting that feelings of inadequacy and fearfulness–characteristics of an inability to cope with the ambiguities of life–are predictors of “racial resentment.”

Cristina Bicchieri is a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the lead author of a paper with the intriguing–if somewhat challenging/incomprehensible– title, “It’s Not a Lie If You Believe the Norm Does Not Apply: Conditional Norm-Following with Strategic Beliefs.”

In a discussion with Thomas Edsall, Bicchieri attributed one of Trump’s strengths to the fact that “people hate ambiguity,” and if there is one thing Trump is not, it’s ambiguous. “Trump’s ability to convey conviction, even when saying things that are demonstrably false, is critically important in persuading supporters to believe and vote for him.”

There’s an old saying “It isn’t what you don’t know that hurts you; it’s what you know that ‘just ain’t so.'” Too many Americans prefer to cling to certainties–theological, ideological or conspiratorial– that “just ain’t so.”

I think it was Bertrand Russell who said, “What men want is not knowledge, but certainty.”

 

 

 

 

 

Encouraging Converts? Or Hunting Heretics?

The headline on this post came from Guardian interview with the Democratic consultant Paul Begala–an interview that was chock-full of similarly true, pithy statements. Even the title of the piece–“Nothing Unites the People of Earth like a Threat from Mars”–encapsulates a truism about human nature in the face of a common enemy.

When Begala summed up the points he’d made during the interview, he drew a comparison between political parties and churches:

“There’s two kind of churches. Those that seek out converts and those that hunt down heretics and right now Joe Biden’s leading a party that’s seeking out converts. Even George Conway and Bill Kristol are on the same side I’m on. I love it.

“But meanwhile, Trump is leading a hunt for heretics.

(Since a heretic, for Trump, is anyone who is “disloyal” to him personally, that really widens the field…)

The observation reminded me of an old political truism: politics is the art of addition.

Begala drew on his years as a political consultant to underline the importance of focusing on what an election means for voters. Joe Biden is campaigning in an environment where the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests, and online disinformation are met with Trump’s countless falsehoods.

In that environment, voters want to know what the candidates intend to do for them. Begala pointed out that Trump’s “gift” or “talent” is “spectacle, it is just show, it is just a Twitter war with Rosie O’Donnell like when he was a TV star but now it’s a Twitter war with Colin Kaepernick or Nancy Pelosi.” When voting for president has literally become a life-and-death matter, spectacle and effort to reignite divisive social issues are unlikely to be enough.

Begala describes himself as a “middle of the road” Democrat, but he took pains to compliment the activists on the party’s left flank

An old political saw holds that Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line. Some have blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 on bitter infighting between moderates and progressives who voted for Bernie Sanders. There were fears of a repeat in 2020 but Biden won the primary with room to spare and now the party appears remarkably united behind him.

He is consolidating the base and that’s for two reasons,” Begala says. “He’s doing his job but you know what? The left is doing theirs. I come from the Clinton wing, I’m a more moderate guy, but I got to tell you, the left of my party has been terrific in rallying to Joe and people like me need to note that and salute that.

As he says, nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars.

When he was reminded of the Trump campaign’s efforts to portray Biden as an old man losing his mental and physical fitness, Begala pointed out that Biden “Isn’t the guy telling people to drink bleach.”

The interview was upbeat– until it came to the discussion of correcting the monumental amount of damage that Trump has done, especially to our international stature.

Begala acknowledged what we all know: once the election is over–once the Martians have been defeated–Democrats’ current intra-party unity will disappear. Factions will argue for dramatically different approaches and policies. Government agencies that have been stripped of knowledgable, effective personnel will have to be reconstituted. Allies will have to be convinced that America has learned its lesson and will not elevate someone like Trump in the future.

And what about that future? What has divided the country and distorted our political system and gotten us to this point? Begala didn’t really answer that question, although it is hard to disagree with his observation that it is pretty one-sided.

I do think it’s asymmetrical. The crisis in America is not both sides. It is one side that’s gone insane and seems to be consuming itself with hatred. My party has its problems, believe me, but it is not both sides. This negative partisanship from the right: they will do anything to ‘own the libs’.”

Historians will perhaps invoke Caligula, King George III and assorted authoritarians of the 20th century. But they will surely also dwell on how the Republican party both produced Trump and succumbed to his will, and ponder what it says about human nature.

I know one group that is “pondering” that question right now: Those of us who were Republicans back when the GOP still welcomed converts and didn’t see everyone who refused to drink the Kool-Aid as a heretic to be expelled.

 

“Play Ball!” A Sad Story

As November 3d gets closer, Trump’s behavior gets more bizarre. (I know, that seemed impossible…)

Just in the past couple of weeks, he has retweeted “medical advice” from a doctor who warns people against having sex with demons and thinks the government is preparing to vaccinate people against religion. Oh–and she also says that pharmaceutical laboratories use alien DNA in formulating their medications. (Maybe the opponents of “Big Pharma” know something??)

Trump also invented an invitation–which he then “declined”– to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees game, evidently because he was jealous that Dr. Fauci had been asked to do so. The invitation reportedly came as a surprise to both the Yankees and the White House.

Trump’s abrupt announcement was reportedly prompted by his irritation that Fauci, who has clashed with the President’s rosy framing of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S., had been invited to throw out the opening pitch.

The President walked back his announcement on Sunday, tweeting that plans to throw the first pitch were cancelled due to his “strong focus” on COVID-19.

This would all be pretty funny if we weren’t talking about the President of the United States. 

In an article originally from Salon, Chauncy DeVega interviewed a psychiatrist who had previously written that Trump is a psychopath. Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and has more than 40 years of experience in psychoanalysis. His most recent book is “Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President.”

I am not unmindful–nor dismissive– of professional concerns about “distant analysis,” but Frank has been joined by a significant cohort of other psychiatrists expressing concerns grounded in Trump’s very public behaviors.

DeVega prefaced his interview with a summary of those psychiatrists’ conclusions:

Through his public behavior Trump has repeatedly shown that he is mentally unwell. His apparent pathologies include malignant narcissism, delusions of grandeur, an attraction to violence, sadism, a lack of impulse control, utter disregard for rules and norms, and a pathological tendency to lie. In sum, our president can be reasonably described as a psychopath or a sociopath.

As DeVega notes, mental health professionals have repeatedly warned the public that Donald Trump’s mental health makes him a danger to the United States and the world, and we are seeing that danger play out in very public ways as the election nears. I found the following insights from Dr. Frank’s interview particularly illuminating.

He has always had a split mind. It is split between two sides. This is called “binary thinking.” In this way of thinking a person is either right or wrong. You like me or you hate me. You’re loyal or you’re disloyal. Trump’s world is very clearly demarcated. Now he is likely upset by Fox News because of his interview with Chris Wallace. In his mind, Fox News is now a very difficult organization. How is he going to place them? Good or bad? Friend of foe? A person develops binary thinking as a way of protecting themselves from anxiety. Trump has made his world very simple. If anyone questions or challenges him they are “nasty” and must be retaliated against. That’s how his world is.

I was previously unfamiliar with “binary thinking,” but it explains a lot.

Frank attributes Trump’s seething hatred of Obama primarily to the fact that Obama shamed him at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011.

“It was very upsetting to Trump. I believe those feelings were converted in Trump’s mind from humiliation and shame immediately into aggressive hatred. The problem with binary thinking is that unless you learn to think complex thoughts, you have a very limited range of responses to adversity or trouble.”

The interview with Frank was lengthy, and it is worth clicking through and reading in its entirety. He and DeVega discuss Mary Trump’s book, Republican cowardice, and the public’s various reactions to Trump, but the observation that I thought was the saddest–and most illuminating–was this:

The most painful thing about Trump to me is that he really envies people who are loved. Trump hates people who are loved. Trump hated Obama not just because he made the mistake of being president while black, Trump also hates Obama because he was loved.

On a personal level, this is tragic, because the more Trump “acts out’ in an effort to be loved, the more he displays how defective and unloveable he is.

If he hadn’t done so much damage–and if he didn’t have the nuclear codes–I would be a lot more compassionate….

 

 

Covid And Right-Wing Media

The damage done by America’s loss of truly mass media–and especially the loss of trusted local newspapers–isn’t confined to government and civil society. Health officials are now reporting that people who get their “information” from rightwing media sources like Sinclair and Fox are putting themselves at far greater risk from Covid-19.

Sinclair Broadcast Group is less well-known than Fox, but it operates almost 200 television stations. It has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic, and recently published an interview with a conspiracy theorist claiming that Dr. Fauci “created the coronavirus using cells.” 

Meanwhile, Fox News pundits continue to question the seriousness of the virus, and to promote untested “cures” touted by Trump and other non-experts.

It isn’t just Sinclair and Fox. Earlier this week, Trump and Don Junior both retweeted a video they evidently got from Breitbart, in which a group of “doctors” said that masks were unnecessary and that Trump’s favorite drug– hydroxychloroquine–cured the virus. (Real medical experts say hydroxychloroquine is useless against Covid and masks are essential.)

One of the “doctors” quoted by Trump is Stella Immanuel, the spiritual leader of Fire Power Ministries, which the Washington Post calls “a pronouncedly non-orthodox church.”

Endometriosis and other potentially dangerous gynecological conditions are the residue of sexual intercourse with demons, Immanuel teaches. These demons, known as “spirit husbands” and “spirit wives” (you might prefer their pet names: Incubus and Succubus) once walked the Earth in physical form. After they drowned in Noah’s flood, however, they carried on only in non-corporeal form. They visit humans in sexy dreams, which aren’t dreams after all but spirit spouses making a booty call.

According to Immanuel, the demons are responsible for a wide variety of problems, including male impotence, most financial troubles and marital discord.

So who are you going to believe? That downer Fauci, or “Doctor” Immanuel?

There are obviously a number of reasons why the U.S. has fallen so far behind other rich countries in containing the virus. The number one reason, of course, is Donald Trump, and the lack of anything approaching a thoughtful, co-ordinated national response managed by medical professionals who actually know what they are doing. Another is the significant minority of our population who justify selfish (and self-destructive) behavior by braying about “freedom.”

But a not-insignificant cause of our failure to contain the virus is the prevalence of right-wing media sources unconstrained by journalistic ethics or professionalism. Fox and Sinclair are the most pervasive, but millions of Americans also read–and believe–sources like Infowars and Breitbart. 

Crazy people have always been with us, but the Internet and social media have dramatically amplified their reach. Radical news media–left and right–have always been around, but they have rarely exerted the influence of Fox and Sinclair.

As Max Strasser put it in the introduction to a recent New York Times newsletter (no URL), 

Canada, Japan and much of Europe have no equivalent to Sinclair — whose local newscasts reach about 40 percent of Americans — or Fox News. Germany and France have widely read blogs that promote conspiracy theories. “But none of them have the reach and the funding of Fox or Sinclair,” Monika Pronczuk, a Times reporter based in Europe, told me.

Fox is particularly important, because it has also influenced President Trump’s response to the virus, which has been slower and less consistent than that of many other world leaders. “Trump repeatedly failed to act to tame the spread, even though that would have helped him politically,” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has written. 

What we are experiencing is a perfect storm: a mentally-ill President receptive to conspiracies peddled by cynical–and profitable– propaganda mills, with few if any local newspapers remaining that could provide non-political, trustworthy information alerting citizens to the dangers of misinformation–or explain that the President is quoting a “doctor” who believes that alien DNA is used in many therapeutic drugs and that government scientists are developing a vaccine to prevent religious faith.

Alex Jones And Donald Trump

One of the blogs I read regularly is Juanita Jean’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor, Inc. “Juanita Jean” is really a Texan named Susan DuQuesnay Bankston. She’s a longtime Democratic activist in her part of Texas, and a wit who reminds me a lot of the late, great Molly Ivins.

Bankston’s husband and son are both lawyers (these things tend to run in families), and her son recently represented parents of children who were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, in a suit against Alex Jones.

As many of you are probably aware, Alex Jones is a truly vile, probably crazy conspiracy theorist who spent years making life hell for those parents–telling his depressingly large and equally crazy audience that the massacre never happened, that it was a “false flag” operation conducted by the government, and that the parents were really actors. Followers of his constantly harassed and threatened the parents. Bankston sued Jones on their behalf and in a deposition, got Jones to admit that the massacre had been real and the children had actually been murdered.

Partly due to negative publicity generated by the lawsuit, Jones has been removed from the larger Internet platforms–Facebook, Twitter, etc.–although he evidently remains on the “dark web.”

These details are prologue: recently, Juanita Jean blogged that her son would be on an upcoming PBS Frontline show about Jones, The United States of Conspiracy. So I watched it.

You all need to watch it too. It explains a lot about ugliness and fear and hate, and where America is right now.

The fact that someone like Jones–who certainly seems visibly deranged, whether that’s a schtick or real–could amass literally millions of viewers (presumably equally deranged) is depressing enough. The danger posed by Jones’ devotees is very real; Frontline showed a video made by the listener who believed Jones’ “Pizzagate” conspiracy and proceeded to shoot up the pizza parlor where Hillary Clinton was supposedly running a child porn ring out of its (non-existent) basement. It showed him hyping several other, equally bizarre conspiracies–including 9/11 and Obama “truther” fabrications.

The really eye-opening revelation was the show’s documentation of the relationships between Jones, Roger Stone and Donald Trump. It is not too far-fetched to think that Jones’ exuberant embrace of candidate Trump–an embrace which included Trump’s appearances on Infowars and his public praise of Jones–resulted in thousands of votes Trump wouldn’t otherwise have received.

Jones’ audience of conspiracy-believers obviously form a significant part of Trump’s base–and while that explains some things, it’s also terrifying.

Far and away the most spine-curdling part of the documentary were the repeated instances in which Jones would be shown making a wild, unsupported and frequently bat-shit crazy statement–followed by a clip showing Trump echoing that statement.

We know that Trump doesn’t listen to Dr. Fauci (or any experts, for that matter). He does, quite obviously, listen to Alex Jones.

Anyone sane who has followed politics in the United States the past four years knows that Donald Trump is both appallingly ignorant and seriously mentally ill. We’ve seen that he can be receptive to conspiratorial theories. But it’s impossible to watch this Frontline presentation without realizing how much closer to the edge he is than most observers have recognized.

I also didn’t realize how many Americans aren’t just close to that edge, but well over it.

Watch it.