Tag Archives: sanity

The Masks Have Come Off

I’m not talking about masks against COVID–although the utterly bizarre fight against mandates protecting public health are certainly part of the picture. (I’m a pretty hard-core defender of civil liberties, but I never thought I’d see people arguing that the Bill of Rights gives them the “liberty” to infect and perhaps kill their fellow Americans…)

The mask that has come off of far too many American faces is the mask of sanity.

When we have former military officers promoting coups, millions of Americans agreeing that the country is being run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles, members of the U.S. Senate calling legislation to protect voting rights “partisan” and ideologues of every stripe self-righteously pontificating to their chosen “choirs” rather than participating in efforts to right the ship of state–what can we call that, other than insane?

Actually, a comment to this blog by JoAnn recently contained an excellent descriptor: these are “Twilight Zone Americans.” 

We haven’t come very far from 1919, when in the wake of the First World War, Yeats wrote The Second Coming, with its often-quoted–and still painfully relevant– lines “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” 

I would argue that today, the “best”–i.e., the sane (these days, the bar is low)–don’t necessarily lack conviction. They are  simply uncertain in the face of complexity and ambiguity.  On issues where they recognize shades of gray; they hesitate to act.

As an article on the subject of ambiguity explained, we need only look at history, recent and otherwise, for examples of catastrophic blunders made as a result of leaders’ inability to deal with contingency and ambiguity. And particularly when people are under stress,  faced with what they see as existential threats, their resistance to ambiguity grows strongest. 

We’ve all known people–some famous, some familial–who have gone from one political extreme to another with equally “passionate intensity.” A distant cousin of mine is a perfect example. In college, he was far Left; in later adulthood, equally far Right–and in both cases,  belligerently and rigidly so. These extreme shifts aren’t evidence that True Believers (at least, the leftwing variety) have been “mugged by reality” and come to their senses, as a popular saying a while back had it. Rather, they are people for whom certainty is critically important–the content of their dogma may change, but their need for purity, their need to be on the right side of a bright line, doesn’t. That need overwhelms recognition of inconsistencies (not to mention patently improbable aspects) of whatever worldview they are wholeheartedly embracing.

In 2016, before the election that gave us the assault on national sanity that was and is Donald Trump, The Atlantic had an article titled “How American Politics Went Insane.” The intervening years have underscored much of the article’s argument, especially this observation:

There no longer is any such thing as a party leader. There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon.

The article described the then-contemporary political reality as chaos, and it’s hard to argue that much has changed. 

Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.

 Normalizing chaos ensures that the people’s business cannot be conducted. It’s insane.

Recent reports of state-level political wars–almost all, it must be noted, within the GOP, since the multiplicity of constituencies within the Democratic Party forces Democrats to recognize complexity–are consistent with the described decline, and with the Twilight Zone. Idaho is just one example.

Indiana isn’t all that far behind.

Increasingly, American politics isn’t an argument between partisans who disagree about policy; it isn’t even “warfare without guns” as one popular description has it. It’s a battle between people who still live in the ambiguous and messy real world and the growing number of “passionately intense” Americans who are willing to take up actual arms in defense of demonstrably insane “explanations” of the world.

We live in a scary time.

 

 

 

 

 

The Inmates and the Asylum

Remember the old line about the inmates running the asylum? We’re so there.

Catherine Rampell’s recent column in the Washington Post spelled it out:

Time to trade in those red #MAGA caps, Trumpkins. If you want your headgear to fit in with the latest White House fashions, invest in some tinfoil.

From top to bottom, this administration has been infested with conspiracy theorists. Most appear to be true believers. Take Stephen K. Bannon and his anxieties about the “deep state,” or the recently ousted Michael Flynn and his propagation of suggestions that Hillary Clinton was tied to a child sex ring run out of a D.C. pizza parlor.

Others, such as Kellyanne Conway, appear to just be paranoiacs for pay.

Conway, as you’ll recall, says our microwaves are spying on us…. Then there’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney , who shared his suspicions of his predecessor’s job reports:

We’ve thought for a long time, I did, that the Obama administration was manipulating the numbers in terms of the number of people in the workforce to make the unemployment rate, that percentage rate, look smaller than it actually was,” Mulvaney told CNN’s Jake Tapper. Mulvaney declined to say exactly how the numbers were being manipulated, saying the explanation might “bore people.”

In case you were concerned about this numerical manipulation, you will be pleased to know that when the numbers made Trump look good (or so he believed–he actually hadn’t been in office long enough to have an effect on employment one way or the other), they suddenly/magically became credible.

Rampell points to others in the administration who hold–how to put this?–unconventional ideas. There’s Scott Pruitt, of course, who dismisses settled science on climate change. There’s  Curtis Ellis, an appointee in the Labor Department who has argued that Democrats engage in “ethnic cleansing” of working-class whites. There’s Sid Bowdidge, a massage therapist with no discernible relevant credentials, appointed to the Energy Department, Rampell tells us, “despite tweeting that Muslims ought to be exterminated and Obama was related to radical Islamist terrorists”.

It’s hardly just coincidence that the Trump executive branch is rife with beliefs that are wholly disconnected from reality. Such beliefs were a foundation of his campaign. Of course this would be the talent he attracts. Not scientists, experts or others who believe in weighing evidence, but people who heard Trump’s many malicious lies and reckless insinuations — that vaccines cause autism, that Ted Cruz’s dad was connected to the JFK assassination, that Mexicans are flooding over the border to rape and kill, that Antonin Scalia and Vince Foster may have been murdered, that 3 million people voted illegally, that our first black president was born in Kenya — and said: “Sign me up!”

Not long after reading Rampell’s funny-but-sad-and-scary enumeration of the Trump Administration’s nutballs and conspiracy-theorists, I came across a report confirming her assertion that many Trump voters shared and applauded these sentiments. And worse.

Maricopa County burnished its reputation as the Trumpiest in America last weekend as hundreds of locals, including heavily armed militamen, white nationalists and even a few elected officials, gathered to support the 45th president. The ensuing “March for Trump” was as horrifying as it sounds.

Aside from the predictable misogyny, the continued calls to “lock her (Hillary Clinton) up,” and angry rejection of the notion that America has any obligation to take in refugees, there was lots of that “old time religion” aka unrepentant bigotry.

Some even dared to tell Dan Cohen of the Real News Network how they’d make America great again now that Trump is in office. And Muslims weren’t the only religious minority unwelcomed.

“If she’s Jewish, she should go back to her country,” a 13-year-old Trump supporter said of a protester.

“This is America, we don’t want Sharia law,” one attendee explained. “Christian country,” he added.

One man insisted that Senator John McCain was a “secret communist.”

Beam me up, Scotty!

Today’s deepest political schisms aren’t partisan, and they aren’t political in the traditional sense of that word. Americans aren’t arguing about policies, about different prescriptions for solving problems, or conflicting interpretations of constitutional restraints.

The reason we are having so much difficulty communicating is because today’s divisions are increasingly between people who live in the real world, and people who have long since lost touch with it.

And guess who’s running the show?

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

The real question facing America right now is how long it will be before the lunatics outnumber sane folks.

I’m not talking about the recent spectacle of Todd Akin, or the ongoing self-parody that is Michelle Bachmann. If they were anomalies, they’d be entertainment; as it is, they are just two of a terrifyingly large number of political figures who reject science and reality–with very negative consequences for the rest of us.

A few days ago, Timothy Egan wrote a piece for the New York Times titled “The Crackpot Caucus.” In what he called a “quick tour of the crazies in the House,” he quoted Rep. John Shimkus–chair of a subcommittee that oversees climate-change issues–pooh-poohing the very notion of climate change, and explaining that “The earth will end when God declares it to be over.” More God talk came from Texas Rep. Joe Barton, who opposes wind energy because “Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Clean energy would slow the winds down and make it hotter.” Mitch McConnell is among those who dismiss climate change as “a conspiracy and a hoax.”

John Huntsman was the only presidential candidate running in the Republican primary who was willing to say he accepted the theory of evolution. Jack Kingston of Georgia rejects evolution because there’s no indentation where our tails used to be. I’m not kidding.

There are literally hundreds of similar examples.

In Atlanta, Tea Party activists are claiming responsibility for defeating a 1 cent sales tax add-on that would have paid for highway and transit improvements in a ten-county area. The measure was backed by a bipartisan, urban-suburban consortium, and ran afoul of another rampant conspiracy theory: the U.N.’s “Agenda 21.”

Agenda 21, also known as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, along with a  Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests, was adopted by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janerio in June of 1992. It’s a non-binding declaration of an intent to address climate issues, but it has sparked fierce resistance from the more loosely-tethered-to-reality fringes, who have labeled it a scheme to destroy private property rights and “urbanize” America. Alabama has actually passed a law forbidding its “implementation” in that state.

Now, despite the claims of the Tea Party, Atlanta’s transportation tax didn’t fail simply because some fearful folks bought into the Agenda 21 conspiracy. As Neal Pierce notes in “Region Shoots Self in the Foot,” decades of anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric, rural resentment of urban Atlanta, and poor strategic decisions all played a role. But these elements were mutually reinforcing, and the consequences for the region–where congestion is already a nightmare–are likely to be profound. In the words of the Atlanta Chamber president, failure of the measure spells “economic disaster for Georgia.” (But hey–they sure showed those “anti-liberty” internationalists from the UN!)

Modern life requires a level of cognitive ability and reason that is in dangerously short supply.

Large numbers of Americans, including uncomfortably large numbers of elected officials, believe in a variety of far-fetched conspiracies that defy elementary logic (exactly how did Obama’s “Kenyan” family manage to plant that birth announcement in Hawaiian newspapers 40+ years ago? How did they know he’d be President??).

In the case of the “birthers,” the conspiracy persists because it de-legitimizes a black man who somehow became President. Those who deny climate-change and evolution are rejecting ideas that make them profoundly uncomfortable–facts that challenge limited and rigid worldviews, or (in the case of some elected officials) run contrary to the interests of their bigger campaign donors. Those who see dark motives (and black helicopters) emanating from the United Nations probably need something concrete to which they can anchor free-floating anxieties.

There have always been reality-challenged people at the fringes of society. What is so terrifying is that they have been normalized. We elect them. Politicians who do know better pander to them. Pundits take them seriously, or at least act as if they do.

Sociologists and political scientists tell us that the past 25 years has seen a profound shift to the political Right. I don’t think that’s what has happened; I know many sound and sane conservatives, and they aren’t the ones who worry me. We haven’t gone Right; we’ve gone unhinged.

I worry that we aren’t very far from the day when the inmates control the asylum.

 

Those Commie Girl Scouts…

Yesterday, the media was filled with reports about Indiana Representative Bob Morris, who refused to sign a legislative resolution recognizing the 100th anniversary of the founding of Girl Scouts of America.

In case you missed it, the Associated Press report read in part as follows:

“… Morris said he found online allegations that the Girl Scouts are a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood, encourage sex and allow transgender females to join. He also wrote that the fact that first lady Michelle Obama is honorary president should give lawmakers pause before they endorse the Girl Scouts.”

Morris went on to say that Girl Scouts were being taught to be “feminists, lesbians and Communists.”

I’m going to resist the temptation to deconstruct this, or to note that using the terms feminist and lesbian to mean undesirable or unAmerican is itself unAmerican.

Instead, I want to talk about mental illness–as in genuine psychoses, not as in a snarky label to be thrown at someone with whom we disagree.

I know that we Americans have been going through some rough times. We’ve been involved in two unsettling, seemingly endless wars. The economy tanked, and people get more than a little destabilized in times of economic stress. There are unpredictable terrorist attacks around the world, and unthinkable as it is, some of those are right here in the USA. The pace of social and sexual and technological change continues to accelerate. If you are an older white guy (and this does seem to be the cohort most affected although it certainly isn’t the only one), you are trying to make sense of a world in which your wife is no longer submissive and dependent. Your unmarried daughter may be living with some guy–or worse (at least in your worldview) with another woman. There’s a black guy in the White House and a neighbor speaking Spanish. Your television showcases very different “lifestyles” from those you approve. Your grandchildren are playing with strange handheld devices, listening to rap music on their IPods, and texting their friends. It goes on and on.

It’s understandable that people who lack adequate resources to cope with stress and dramatic social change would be confused and even angry at finding themselves in such a strange new world. But a not-insignificant number of them have gone well beyond resentment and anger; they have responded by literally disconnecting from reality. And on Fox News, or the brave new world of the internet, it’s easy to find validation from someone who shares their worst fears and fantasies.

So Rep. Morris burrows into his conspiracy theories about Girl Scouts. Rick Santorum accuses Protestants who fail to share his religious zealotry of “leaving Christianity” and criticizes President Obama not for specific policies but for following a “false theology.” Republican Senators–men in powerful positions–find themselves pandering to a political base that rejects science and reason, demonizes the U.S. President and First Lady, and is terrified of the “socialists” who are conspiring to destroy the country by providing universal access to health care and raising the top marginal tax rate.

There are all sorts of websites and organizations trying to counter some of the more outrageous fantasies with logic and facts. The problem is, as a friend used to say, you can’t reason someone out of a position he didn’t reason himself into. Someone who believes that Adam saddled up his trusty dinosaur will not be amenable to learning about the science of global climate change. Someone who believes that God doesn’t want women to control their own bodies–who believes, like Rick Santorum, that contraception is morally wrong because it divorces sexuality from procreation, and allows people to do “wrong things”–is unlikely to read the research about the benefits of birth control or the dangers of overpopulation. Someone who believes that marriage has “always” been between one man and one woman, despite ample evidence to the contrary  (plural marriage, for example, remains legal in 50 countries right now) is simply not going to look at the evidence and support same-sex unions.

Withdrawal from reality–an insistent belief in things that are demonstrably untrue (think “death panels” and United Nations black helicopters and “Agenda 21”) is a sign of paranoia. I don’t know what psychiatrists call an irrational antipathy to people who are in some way different–gay people, immigrants, etc.–but as my mother would have put it, “a wellness it isn’t.”

The Girl Scouts aren’t learning to be lesbian communists. Sane people know that.

Barack Obama is not a Muslim Socialist who was born in Kenya. Sane people know that.

Teenagers will not become gay because the Indiana Youth Group gets to put a message on Indiana license plates. Sane people know that.

The Earth is more than 6000 years old and climate change is a fact. Sane people know that.

We need to do something about the not-sane people. But I don’t know what.

 

Reading the Signs

I’ll admit it–I have been reduced to looking for signs of possible social sanity–chicken entrails, anyone? And those signs are mixed, at best–on one hand, Fox has decided that Glen Beck is too crazy even for them; on the other hand, there’s The Donald, “birthing” all over my television.

Congress did finally pass a budget and avert a shutdown. But the sticking point was abortion, not spending. Tea Party Republicans were perfectly willing to harm thousands of poor people and women–real, live humans–in order to prove how “pro-life” they are.

I guess it’s a wash.