Category Archives: Random Blogging

Picking and Choosing– Benghazi Edition

Every so often, I’m reminded of an experience I had right after publication of my first  book, What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?  (Republicans were very different back then.) I was on a radio call-in show in South Carolina, and a caller challenged my defense of the Establishment Clause by “quoting” James Madison to the effect that “God gave the Bill of Rights to people who live in accordance with the Ten Commandments.”

When I (very politely) informed him that this quote had been debunked many times, that it was not only bogus but inconsistent with everything Madison did say, he yelled “Well, think it’s true!” and hung up.

Increasingly, it seems, we live in that man’s world.

A few weeks ago, I was at a dinner party; one of the guests was a local judge whom I have always admired. The wine flowed, and as it did, she shared her contempt for the President and the “liberal media” which– unlike “real news” sources like the Drudge Report (!)– had failed to tell citizens the truth about…wait for it…Benghazi!

Last Friday, what I believe to be the eighth Congressional investigation of the Benghazi tragedy–an investigation controlled and conducted by Republicans–once again found no cover-up, no administrative bad faith or lying. As CBS reported

WASHINGTON — The CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a Republican-controlled House committee has found. Its report asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration officials.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the two-year investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

It is highly unlikely that this will change the minds of those–like my dinner companion–who prefer to believe in conspiracies. Slate recently reported recent research on the psychology of conspiracy theorists; as the story noted, millions of Americans believed that George W. Bush had engineered 9/11, despite the fact that:

To believe that the U.S. government planned or deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks, you’d have to posit that President Bush intentionally sacrificed 3,000 Americans. To believe that explosives, not planes, brought down the buildings, you’d have to imagine an operation large enough to plant the devices without anyone getting caught. To insist that the truth remains hidden, you’d have to assume that everyone who has reviewed the attacks and the events leading up to them—the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, scientific organizations, peer-reviewed journals, news organizations, the airlines, and local law enforcement agencies in three states—was incompetent, deceived, or part of the cover-up.

If believing in a conspiracy requires one to accept a long list of highly improbable/practically impossible things, why do so many Americans believe them?

Clearly, susceptibility to conspiracy theories isn’t a matter of objectively evaluating evidence. It’s more about alienation. People who fall for such theories don’t trust the government or the media. They aim their scrutiny at the official narrative, not at the alternative explanations. In this respect, they’re not so different from the rest of us. Psychologists and political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that “when processing pro and con information on an issue, people actively denigrate the information with which they disagree while accepting compatible information almost at face value.” Scholars call this pervasive tendency “motivated skepticism.”

Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility.

I guess that explains my James Madison caller. But it doesn’t make me feel much better about either my dinner companion or the U.S. Representatives (like Indiana’s Susan Brooks) who clearly know better but are willing to play to the paranoia.

Mississipi–Still Number One

Every once in a while, I worry that voters in Mississippi will grow up, maybe read something other than the bible, and join the 21st Century. That would be really bad for Indiana, since in so many categories, Mississippi  is all that stands between Hoosiers and utter ignominy.

Silly me–I shouldn’t have worried.

Here’s an upcoming ballot initiative from the Magnolia state:

The State of Mississippi hereby acknowledges the fact of her identity as a principally Christian and quintessentially Southern state, in terms of the majority of her population, character, culture, history, and heritage, from 1817 to the present; accordingly, the Holy Bible is acknowledged as a foremost source of her founding principles, inspiration, and virtues; and, accordingly, prayer is acknowledged as a respected, meaningful, and valuable custom of her citizens. The acknowledgments hereby secured shall not be construed to transgress either the national or the state Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Um–hate to tell you this, Mississippi voters, but saying this language shouldn’t be “construed” as violating the Bill of Rights would be a lot like saying that if I fatally shoot you, that shouldn’t be “construed” as murder.

“Principally Christian and quintessentially Southern….”

Too many Hoosier lawmakers would feel right at home.

Short-Term, Long-Term

A post-election article from the Houston Chronicle begins with a provocative projection that will comfort people depressed about the midterms:

Few things are as dangerous to a long term strategy as a short-term victory. Republicans this week scored the kind of win that sets one up for spectacular, catastrophic failure and no one is talking about it.

What emerges from the numbers is the continuation of a trend that has been in place for almost two decades. Once again, Republicans are disappearing from the competitive landscape at the national level across the most heavily populated sections of the country while intensifying their hold on a declining electoral bloc of aging, white, rural voters. The 2014 election not only continued that doomed pattern, it doubled down on it. As a result, it became apparent from the numbers last week that no Republican candidate has a credible shot at the White House in 2016, and the chance of the GOP holding the Senate for longer than two years is precisely zero.(emphasis mine)

The article follows this declaration with a matter-of-fact rundown of the electoral college votes–where they are and what a winner will need. His bottom line:

The next Presidential election, and all subsequent ones until a future party realignment, will be decided in the Democratic primary. Only by sweeping all nine of the states that remain in contention AND also flipping one impossibly Democratic state can a Republican candidate win the White House. What are the odds that a Republican candidate capable of passing muster with 2016 GOP primary voters can accomplish that feat? You do the math.

The key to understanding that paragraph (not to mention our toxic political environment),  is “What are the odds that a Republican candidate capable of passing muster with GOP primary voters”….

As the article convincingly demonstrates, the crazies who appeal to the GOP’s current base  are winning in bright red, frequently gerrymandered, mostly rural districts. The problem is, those crazies have now become the (embarrassing) face of the Republican party nationally–making it impossible for the party to win national elections.

We ought not take too much comfort from that.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again–this country needs two adult, sane political parties. Right now, the GOP is controlled by a base that is neither adult nor sane. Unless the remaining Republican grown-ups (whose ranks are thinning) can reassert control, there will be no rational “loyal opposition” to keep Democrats focused and honest, no healthy competition to ensure that all ideas get thoroughly vetted, and no place to go–no alternative to vote for– for the disaffected.

America needs a rational GOP. We had one once, and I miss it.

 

 

 

 

Beating That Dead Horse….

I know, I know….this blog has become a venue for breast-beating and hand-wringing and other elements of my increasingly curmudgeonly analysis of our collective civic IQ. (Ironically, if the people who comment here are representative of those who read my rants, they don’t need the lectures. I guess it’s the ultimate “preaching to the choir.”)

Still.

A reader sent me a link to an NPR story that makes a really important point about the content of civic knowledge.

According to the National Council for Social Studies, the goal of social studies is to promote civic competence, or the knowledge and intellectual skills to be active participants in public life. Yet, engaging with the most complex public issues of our time—biodiversity, climate change, water scarcity, obesity, energy, and HIV/AIDS—also requires a deep understanding of the scientific process.

I’d settle for a cursory understanding of what science is. And isn’t.

Turn on your television, or even worse, read the letters to the editor in your local paper, and you will encounter–ad nauseum–mindless repetition of the “evolution is just a theory” meme, displaying total ignorance of how the use of the term by scientists differs from its use in everyday language. Ask students what falsification means, and you will get blank stares.

Ignorance of the most basic definition/methodology of science may not have been problematic back when most Americans were still on the farm, and the policy issues we faced did not require a working understanding of things like net neutrality, climate change, the human genome, etc. It is more than problematic now.

And scientifically illiterate voters have just empowered a bunch of aggressively scientific illiterate politicians to decide those policies and make those decisions.

It’s truly terrifying.

I’m Laughing So I Won’t Cry….

Increasingly, the most trenchant commentary on what passes for a political landscape these days comes from avowed comedians–especially satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Satire is really hard these days, what with walking self-satirists like Sarah Palin, Louie Gohmert, et. al. I find myself looking at headlines and saying “Surely that’s from the Onion…)

When it comes to climate change, Stephen Colbert may have delivered the best put-down ever of the “motivated reasoners” who deny that anything untoward is happening.

“I am not a scientist” is so worth watching!

If Nero could fiddle while Rome burned, we’d might as well laugh as the water rises….