Category Archives: Random Blogging

Religion Or Cult?

A few weeks ago, the Washington Post ran a column by Michael Gerson, examining the reasons for and consequences of Evangelical Christians’ embrace of Donald Trump. Gerson himself is a conservative Republican, an Evangelical Christian who served as speechwriter for George W. Bush; he has been a consistent critic of both Trump and those of his co-religionists who have enabled and supported Trump.

Gerson wrote that Trump’s “naked attempt to overturn a fair election”– despite testimony by Republican state officials rebutting charges of “rigging,” consistent rulings from Republican-appointed judges, and even the rejection of the Big Lie by Big Liar Bill Barr of the Justice Department– ” has driven some Trump evangelicals to the edge of blasphemous lunacy.”

“I’d be happy to die in this fight,” radio talk-show host Eric Metaxas assured Trump during a recent interview. “This is a fight for everything. God is with us. Jesus is with us in this fight for liberty.”

Elsewhere Metaxas predicted, “Trump will be inaugurated. For the high crimes of trying to throw a U.S. presidential election, many will go to jail. The swamp will be drained. And Lincoln’s prophetic words of ‘a new birth of freedom’ will be fulfilled. Pray.”

Just to be clear, Metaxas has publicly committed his life to Donald Trump, claimed that at least two members of the Trinity favor a coup against the constitutional order, endorsed the widespread jailing of Trump’s political enemies for imaginary crimes, claimed Abraham Lincoln’s blessing for the advance of authoritarianism and urged Christians to pray to God for the effective death of American democracy. This is seditious and sacrilegious in equal measure.

Actually, I think it’s less “seditious and sacrilegious” than bat-shit crazy, but then, I’m not religious. (Or tolerant of manifest stupidity.)

Gerson’s concern is that the embrace of what he terms “absurd political lies” gives us nonbelievers every reason to conclude that Christians are prone to swallowing equally absurd religious lies as well. As he says, if we encountered someone who sincerely believed in the existence of both the Easter Bunny and the resurrection of Christ, “it would naturally raise questions about the quality of his or her believing faculties.”

No kidding.

Gerson wrote his column about these concerns before CPAC unveiled the “Golden Calf”–a gold statue of Donald Trump. I can only imagine his reaction to that sacrilege.

I am not making this up. As Vox describes it, the biblical story trended on Twitter after someone involved in the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) wheeled out a golden statue of Trump, evidently to cheers from conference attendees.

The snarky sub-head read “Apparently CPAC attendees missed the part of the Bible about the Golden Calf.”

The Golden Calf is one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament. The Israelites, newly freed from Egyptian slavery, have a crisis of faith while God is speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai. They melt down the golden jewelry to construct a physical god — a statue in the shape of a calf — to worship in place of their abstract, invisible deity. It’s a story about the allure of idolatry, how easy it is to abandon one’s commitments to principle in favor of shiny, easy falsehoods.

Gerson agonizes over the behaviors exhibited by his fellow Evangelical Christians, because he realizes that those behaviors are likely to repel reasonable people. The “Golden Trump/Calf ” proves his point; it encourages–actually, it practically demands— the mocking and dismissal of these particular believers as just another cult.

Gerson acknowledges that  a need for faith in a “higher order” doesn’t make that faith true, but he insists it doesn’t make faith false either.

So how do we decide? If Christianity were judged entirely by the quality of Christians, it would be a tough sell.”

Ya think?

 

Don’t Rest In Peace

A witticism attributed to Mark Twain has always resonated with me. (I tend to be bitchy.) Twain is quoted as saying “I’ve never wished for a man’s death, but I’ve read several obituaries with pleasure.”

Precisely my reaction when I learned of Rush Limbaugh’s demise.

There has been no dearth of columns/obituaries marking the death of this truly horrible man, and ordinarily I wouldn’t bother to add to their number–had I not been in the middle of The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, and had I not come across this article from Vox.

I referred to The Sum of Us a few days ago, reporting on Michelle Goldberg’s column describing the book. I can now attest to its importance; McGhee paints an absolutely devastating–and overwhelmingly documented–picture of the ways in which racial animus has hurt not just the Black and brown objects of that animus, but everyone else. Racism, as she amply illustrates, is why Americans “can’t have nice things,” the none-too-veiled reason for the country’s disinvestment in public goods and refusal to construct an adequate social safety net.

Limbaugh, of course, was one of the loudest and most effective purveyors of that racism–along with generous amounts of misogyny, homophobia and Christian Nationalism.

Which brings me to the Vox article, which traces the considerable role played by “Christian” radio stations in abetting Limbaugh’s rise. The article reminds readers that Limbaugh “didn’t emerge from a vacuum.” He and his toxic message were part of a “Christian-based radio ecosystem” that promoted his message and allowed it to thrive.

The late Rush Limbaugh’s far-reaching and toxic impact on conservative America and the Republican party is well-known and well-documented. Still, there’s one aspect of his legacy, specifically his cultural dominance in the 1990s, that’s difficult to convey in the post-internet era: Limbaugh’s pivotal role in the ascension of conservative talk radio and the pivotal role that conservative radio played in emboldening modern conservative populism.

For many years throughout the Clinton era, Limbaugh’s daily radio program, The Rush Limbaugh Show, was synonymous with conservative political media and part of a larger burgeoning conservative radio ecosystem. The show, which aired for three hours each afternoon across America, began syndicating nationally in 1988 — incidentally the same year that famed evangelist minister Billy Graham delivered the benediction for both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. If you can’t imagine that happening today, it’s due in large part to the political polarization Limbaugh himself helped engender. In fact, Graham’s brand of evangelical Christianity spread across many of the same airwaves that also aired Limbaugh’s brand of toxic conservative bigotry.

That radio ecosystem also featured Dr. James Dobson’s daily Focus on the Family spots,  promoting “pro-life,” creationist, and anti-gay political opinions. Dobson was then the head of the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as an extremist group.

It was within this pervasive atmosphere of pumped-up, aggressively combative evangelism and overtly polarizing political messages that Rush Limbaugh gained popularity. His show was another piece of the rapidly coalescing image of America’s new conservative — one in which Limbaugh’s lack of Christian empathy somehow became a feature, not a bug, of the modern conservative movement.

For at least three decades, Limbaugh and his ilk have been the public face of conservative “Christianity.”  It took a long time for those I consider to be authentic Christians to speak out–to publicly reject the hateful and aggressive politicized version of the religion that was repelling young people and Americans of good will. Those dissenting voices have become stronger, but whether they can counter the appeal of the White supremacy/Trumpian version of Christianity remains to be seen.

As the Vox article makes clear, the effect of Christian conservative radio on America’s political discourse has been profound– well before the 2016 election, the format played a huge role in shifting the views of once-centrist Republicans toward the far right. As the author notes, “Many of us haven’t listened to Rush Limbaugh in decades, but we’re all still feeling his influence daily, like it or not.”

His voice will most definitely not be missed.

 

The Appeal Of Extremism

There was a meme going around on Facebook a couple of weeks back to the effect that conspiracy theories appeal especially to people who don’t understand how the government works. (It was phrased in a more pithy manner, but that was the gist.)

That insight was consistent with research on people attracted to various kinds of fundamentalism: religious, political or even nutritional. In a complicated world, there is something very attractive–even restful–about a world cleanly divided into spheres of black and white. This is good, that is bad. This is what God (or nature) demands, and that will send you down the road to hell (or kill you before your time).

No agonizing involved. Just respect the bright line–and try to get the government make your neighbors do likewise.

The attraction of those bright lines– good versus bad, right versus wrong, no shades of gray–goes a long way toward explaining the political figures who go from one extreme to the other. Those of us of a “certain age” still remember the members of the so-called intelligencia who were enamored of communism, then–after being “mugged by reality”–became just as devotedly and rigidly rightwing. These are folks who desperately need the clarity that comes with a very oversimplified view of reality.

The Guardian recently reported on a study confirming the nature of that appeal. It found that people who embrace extremist attitudes tend to perform poorly on complex mental tasks.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge sought to evaluate whether cognitive disposition – differences in how information is perceived and processed – sculpt ideological world-views such as political, nationalistic and dogmatic beliefs, beyond the impact of traditional demographic factors like age, race and gender.

According to the study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers found that ideological attitudes “mirrored cognitive decision-making.”

A key finding was that people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps, said lead author Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology.

“Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.

The researchers found that participants in the study who were prone to dogmatism – which they defined as “stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence” actually had problems with processing evidence even at a perceptual level.

For most people, through most of human history, life was comparatively simple. Not easy, certainly, but far less complicated than it can be in the environment we now inhabit. Constant changes in technology challenge us. Globalization and vastly improved methods of communication confront homogeneous communities with the radical diversity of the earth’s population. The Internet constantly highlights the vastness of human knowledge–and reminds each of us that our individual ability to understand the world is pretty limited.

And of course, we are constantly reminded of the threats we face: climate change, pollution, terrorism (foreign and domestic), assaults on democratic governance, evidence of multiple institutions that aren’t functioning properly…It’s all pretty daunting, and making sense of the connections and contradictions is more daunting still, even for people emotionally and intellectually able to deal with the degree of ambiguity and complexity involved.

That said, we also need to recognize that the inability to deal with complexity isn’t some sort of IQ test–it appears to be the result of an interplay between personality and intellect. We can’t simply shrug and attribute acceptance of QAnon and the like to stupidity, or substandard education. We desperately need to understand the nature of this inability to accept and process complexity–the reasons for some people’s resistance to life’s inescapable ambiguities.

We especially need to figure out how to address the seductive appeal of dangerous simplicities–including the siren calls of conspiracy theories.

 

 

 

Who Believes The “Big Lie”?

As America slowly emerges from the chaos of the last five years, many of us remain mystified about the significant number of people who still support Trump and Trumpism. Virtually every political conversation includes sentiments of bewilderment: who are these people? What explains their devotion to someone so personally repellent? What accounts for their willingness to believe a blatantly illogical fabrication promoted by a documented liar?

The evidence produced at Trump’s second impeachment trial–and especially the films showing the insurrection– prompts most rational observers to wonder what could have motivated those who participated in the horrific assault on the nation’s capitol? The problem with efforts to understand that motivation is that it can lead us to categorize disparate people, to define “them” as a group sharing particular personalities or bigotries, and of course, it’s never that simple.

That said, what do we know? What similarities do “they” possess, if any?

One of the confounding elements of the assault that has been widely remarked upon was the number of middle-class participants without a history of violence or lawbreaking who joined with the Q crackpots and the Proud Boys and their ilk. What impelled their behaviors?

Academic researchers investigating those participants are finding some intriguing and suggestive commonalities. As a Washington Post article reported,

Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.

The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.

Clearly, there is no single factor that accounts for someone’s decision  to join a mob assaulting the seat of government. But what pundits call Trump’s brand of grievance politics “tapped into something that resonated with the hundreds of people who descended on the Capitol in a historic burst of violence.”

“I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. “And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away — mobilized a lot of people that day.”

I have seen the term precarity used increasingly in articles describing the effects of America’s huge economic disparities. It’s a term that gets beyond superficial comparisons of poverty and wealth, and for that reason, it is especially useful. When people feel that their position–whatever it may be at a particular time–is precarious, it is unnerving, unsettling. Those feelings of threat and insecurity are consistent with another finding of the research–the larger-than-expected number of participants who had been involved in episodes of domestic violence.

Research into the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the 1950s linked that rise not to  impoverished people, but to people who felt that their positions were precarious–that they were losing status and power. The Post cited a 2011 study that found household income wasn’t linked to whether a young person supported the extreme far right in Germany. “But a highly significant predictor was whether they had lived through a parent’s unemployment.”

Insecurity. Precarity. Fear of loss, and resentment of those identified as the cause or beneficiary of that loss. It doesn’t excuse anything, but it explains a lot.

 

Why America Elects Moral Midgets

I haven’t previously posted about the Impeachment trial. Initially, I figured that, since virtually everyone who has an opinion has written, spoken and generally fulminated about those opinions, there wasn’t much of value I could add.

Most of the commentary has–quite correctly–pointed to the cowardice and lack of integrity of all but seven Republican Senators. Columns and editorials have especially zeroed in on the breathtaking hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell; in his speech immediately after the vote, he made it clear that he knew Trump was guilty as charged. The fig leaf that McConnell and his spineless colleagues  were frantically trying to hide behind was an utterly unpersuasive opinion that a President who no longer held office could not be constitutionally impeached–an opinion rejected by virtually all constitutional scholars.

It also didn’t escape notice that McConnell was the reason the trial had been delayed until after Biden was inaugurated.

Suffice it to say that the overwhelming hypocrisy and dishonesty in the face of what everyone in that chamber clearly knew was astounding–and it has all been the subject of widespread condemnation. What hasn’t been adequately analyzed, however, is how we got here–“here” being a legislative chamber containing so many Senators clearly unworthy of public office.

I am convinced that the pathetic performance Americans saw last week was the result of forty-plus years of denigrating the very existence of government and belittling those who serve in it.

Reagan started the incessant attacks, and Republican dogma ever since has been that government–far from being an important tool for collective action addressing America’s problems–is always and inevitably a threat that must be constrained and hobbled.  Republican messaging has been sneering and dismissive of the very notion that government might be an essential mechanism for achieving the common good. It has been years since I heard a Republican politician employ terms like “statesmanship” and/or “public service.”

When I saw that both of Indiana’s undistinguished, moral-pygmy Senators had (predictably) voted to acquit, I could almost picture them spitting on Dick Lugar’s grave…

The Republican demonization of government has largely succeeded in changing the identity of the GOP. The political culture that produced statesmen like Dick Lugar and Bill Hudnut has been replaced by the slimy “what’s in it for me” opportunism of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump–and Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and too many others.

Honorable, talented people are attracted to careers that those in their particular tribes consider prestigious and admirable. When government employment is denigrated and mocked–“couldn’t get a real job?”– when political actors are expected to be corrupt, and when politics is widely considered the refuge of blowhards and scoundrels, blowhards and scoundrels are who it will attract.

It’s instructive to emphasize that these persistent attacks on government and public service have come overwhelmingly from Republicans. Democrats have been far more likely to defend the importance and worth of  America’s political institutions, and I don’t think it is just happenstance that as a result–as we can see at the federal level– Democratic officeholders these days tend to be considerably more public-spirited, honorable and impressive than their Republican peers.

Today’s Democrats have Jamie Raskin; Republicans have Marjorie Taylor Green…