Category Archives: Random Blogging

On The Other Hand…

Sometimes, this blog focuses so much on the crazy, the hateful, and the depressing that the whole human landscape seems bleak. I’m not going to apologize for pointing to the problems we face, because they’re real and we need to think long and hard about solutions. But an unremitting focus on the “dark side” can be misleading.

There are also bright spots in that landscape.

I’ve been subscribing to a Substack newsletter called PersuasionA recent one consisted of an interview with Yascha Mounk. Mounk is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and the founder of Persuasion. He recently published a book titled “The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure,” and it was the focus of an interview conducted by Ravi Gupta.

Mounk readily concedes that diversity makes democratic government difficult. The very human proclivity to prefer those with whom we share an identity makes civic equality a “really difficult thing to get right.” But then he says

I also want to make people a little bit more optimistic, because I think when you look at the injustices today, and you don’t have that perspective, you might think, “What’s wrong with us? Why are we so terrible?” But then when you compare it to other times and other places, you realize this is just a really, really hard thing we’re trying to do. Yes, we’re failing in certain respects, but we’re succeeding in other respects. We’re doing much better today than we did fifty years ago. We’re doing vastly better today than we did a hundred years ago. That, I think, can give you the hope to build a vision for the kind of society you want to live in, and to make sure that our society doesn’t fall apart, but actually thrives and succeeds.

At the conclusion of the interview, he returns to that optimism.

When I look at what’s actually going on in society, I don’t despair. America has become much more tolerant in the last decades. We have really rapid socioeconomic progress of minority and immigrant groups, in a way that’s rarely appreciated by either the left or the right. The best study suggests that immigrants from Central or South America, for example, are rising up the socio-economic ranks as rapidly as Irish and Italian Americans did a century ago. This shows that the far-right is wrong in believing that there’s something somehow inferior about them. But it also shows that parts of the left are wrong in thinking that our countries are so racist and so discriminatory that nonwhite people don’t have opportunity. Thankfully, actually, people have opportunity. We see that in the way in which their children or grandchildren in particular are rising up very rapidly. Now, there are also all kinds of sensible things we can do in terms of how we think about our country, the education we engage in, the kind of patriotism we embrace, the kinds of policies and acts of Congress that we should pass—and that’s important, too. But fundamentally, my optimism comes from the developments that I already see happening in society.

Mounk rests his argument on verifiable data; my own (occasional) optimism is more anecdotal and scattered. Just a few of my observations, in no particular order:

When I was still teaching, the university students who filled my classes were overwhelmingly inclusive and committed to their communities, the common good, and the rule of law.

The massive demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were multi-racial–the first time I have witnessed widespread diversity in racial protests.

Someone recently reminded me that eighty million Americans came out during a pandemic to vote against Donald Trump.

There’s constant progress on efforts to combat climate change– like recent development of a new, thinner and more efficient solar panel. 

Increasing numbers of out LGBTQ people are being elected to political office, and not just in blue parts of the U.S.

Ketanji Brown Jackson will join the Supreme Court.

For the past week, my husband and I have been on a cruise (we’re headed for Amsterdam to visit our middle son). We have taken previous cruises, and virtually all the couples we met on those trips were devotees of Fox News. I still recall some of the dismissive comments (and worse) leveled by these financially comfortable travelers about poorer (and darker) Americans. I am very happy to report that everyone we’ve had an opportunity to converse with on this trip has at some point indicated strong disapproval of what the GOP has become. Several–like yours truly–identify as “refugees” from the Republican Party.

It’s anecdotal, true…but encouraging.

 

 

The Cult Is Armed

Last week, Politico ran an interview with a scholar of autocracy.You really–really–need to click through and read it in its entirety, because I lack the space and ability to offer a coherent synopsis.

The scholar, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, had made accurate predictions about Trump’s likely refusal to concede his 2020 defeat, and she made them well in advance of the election. During the course of the interview, she made several other penetrating observations. Among them: the likely permanence of the changes Trump has effected to the GOP. She says that his sway over the party has permanently transformed its political culture, changing it to an authoritarian party in which you don’t only go after external enemies, but also after internal ones. Authoritarian parties don’t allow dissent

When somebody like Trump comes on the scene and holds office, it’s really like an earthquake or a volcano, and it shakes up the whole system by gathering in this big tent all the extremists, all the far-right people, and giving them legitimation. The GOP was already going away from a democratic political culture, but he accelerated it and normalized extremism and normalized lawlessness. And so the GOP over these years has truly, in my estimation, become an authoritarian far-right party. And the other big story is that his agenda and his methods are being continued at the state level. Some of these things were on the agenda way before he came in, like getting rid of abortion rights and stuff like that. But these states are really laboratories of autocracy now, like Florida, Texas.

Ben-Ghiat made a particularly important point about a favorite Republican talking point that she noted is a time-honored strategy of right-wing authoritarianism. Authoritarians like to label democratic systems as tyrannical. (Psychiatrists might call that projection.) According to Ben-Ghiat, Mussolini was the first to make the accusation that democracies are tyrannical, democracies are the problem. That introduced a whole century’s worth of the strategy of calling sitting Democrats dictators. “Biden as a social dictator, [is] a phony talking point. It has so many articulations from “They’re forcing us to wear masks.”

Her observations about the “Big Lie” were equally interesting, especially for those of us who have read psychological profiles of Trump.

The genius of the “big lie” was not only that it sparked a movement that ended up with January 6 to physically allow him to stay in office. But psychologically the “big lie” was very important because it prevented his propagandized followers from having to reckon with the fact that he lost. And it maintains him as their hero, as their winner, as the invincible Trump, but also as the wronged Trump, the victim. Victimhood is extremely important for all autocrats. They always have to be the biggest victim.

There are several other points in the interview worth pondering, especially her acute observations about Ron DeSantis, but the one that really struck home with me was her response to the question whether the U.S. faces a civil war. She began by saying that she thought it unlikely.

But then she made a point I’d not previously considered.

I think that it’s not out of the realm of possibility, because if the Republicans tried to impeach Biden and impeach Harris, there would be protests. Whether that becomes a civil war is very different because it’s predominantly only one side which is armed, first of all….

The wild card is guns. No other country in peace time has 400 million guns in private hands. And no other country in peacetime has militias allowed to populate, has sovereign sheriffs, has so many extremists in the military, and that matters because of these other things. And in fact, if January 6 didn’t bring out a massive protest, what is going to bring out a massive protest? Because that showed that groups of people who were there were people unaffiliated with any Proud Boys or any radical group. And Robert Pape, who studied them, called them middle-aged, middle class, but they were all armed. Some of them had private arsenals and they showed up at January 6. So that’s the wild card. That’s one thing that’s extremely American, that violence, that the population believes it has the right to rebel against tyrannical government. Like Matt Gaetz says: The Second Amendment is not just about hunting. And here we go back to the idea of Biden as a dictator. And that only works if your citizenry is armed and ours is to a degree that no other country is in the entire world.

The insanity of America’s gun culture has been evident for a long time. What hasn’t been evident is the fact that “only one side is armed.”

Read the whole interview.

 

 

Tan Those Genitals!!

The American Right just keeps getting crazier. Don’t take it from me; Dana Milbank, among several others, is reporting on Tucker Carlson’s current wacko campaign. 

As Milbank points out, now that the “hoax” of the pandemic is fading, “there are fewer occasions to swallow ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine or to inject oneself with bleach.
So what’s a Trump-loving, conspiracy-obsessed Fox News-viewing guy to do?”

He should stand naked and spread-eagle on top of a large rock at twilight and gaze heavenward as a red laser illuminates his genitals.

Believe it or not, Milbank is not making that up. Carlson is advocating “testical tanning” to address the problem of waning testosterone levels in men. If that “cure” seems….crazy….Milbank agrees.

To the extent declining testosterone levels are a problem, the correct solution would be to address a major cause: rising obesity. Instead of shining a red light on your private parts, dear Fox News viewer, turn off Tucker Carlson, get off the couch and go exercise…

Carlson sees testosterone collapsing in “American men” (it’s a worldwide phenomenon). There’s paranoia about the government: “The NIH doesn’t seem interested in this at all,” Carlson says, impersonating some presumed official from the National Institutes of Health saying “it’s not a big deal” (the topic is widely studied). There’s paranoia about the media: McGovern claims the benefit of red-light therapy “isn’t being picked up on or covered” and says “there’s a lot of people out there that don’t trust the mainstream information.”

Gee–I wonder why trust levels are even lower than testosterone levels…Could Fox “News” have something to do with that?

Milbank points out that Carlson’s recent obsession has a great deal in common with Trumpism: the celebration of a masculinity defined as aggression–a definition that has lately been promoted by Sen. Josh Hawley and former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka–and an unwavering belief in and celebration of junk science.

Actually, sketchy data makes sweeping conclusions suspect. But there’s little doubt testosterone levels are falling — and there’s no doubt obesity can contribute to this by facilitating the conversion of testosterone into estrogen.

Maybe Carlson will encourage his viewers (including one particular Florida resident who favors Big Macs and eschews exercise) to pursue healthier lifestyles. So far, his greenlighting of red-light therapy seems to be telling them that what they really need to be true men is more testosterone. And though testosterone supplementation will indeed increase a man’s “manly” aggression, it will also reduce his fertility.

Millions of Tucker Carlson viewers unable to reproduce? Maybe junk science isn’t all bad.

That last sentence does seem hopeful…

On the other hand, as a report for The New Republic put it,

“There is a real connection between these male supremacists and white supremacist networks,” says Kristen Doerer, managing editor of Right Wing Watch, a project that tracks extremist activity for People for the American Way. She points to Carlson’s concern for faltering manliness as just another version of the Great Replacement theory. “These men are concerned about the white race being destroyed, and part of that concern involves the need for controlling women and particularly white women, and an investment in them having white kids.” She warns that the manosphere is fertile soil for red-pilling, recruitment, and general crosspollination. “It’s not too hard to go from one scapegoat to another: ‘I’m going to blame all Jews, or all people of color.’”

Whatever the cause and/or cure of reduced testosterone levels, I am considerably more concerned about the evident, massive reduction in sanity levels and the associated growth in the credulity of the American public, exemplified by the tribalism and White Nationalism of the Tucker Carlsons of our world.

It isn’t just the “Big Lie.” Nearly half of self-identified Republicans in recent surveys say they believe that top Democrats in government are pedophiles. (I couldn’t find data on the percentage of GOP voters who believe that George Soros financed Jewish Space Lasers, but I’m sure it’s a non-trivial number.)

We are living in an extremely difficult era. We have all kinds of real problems, economic and social, all exacerbated by the very real possibility that climate change may decimate much of humanity. Rather than engaging in concerted, evidence-based efforts to solve those problems, a significant portion of our population has opted to reside in cuckoo land.

Maybe Milbank is onto something when he suggests that the crazies will adopt a worldview that will prevent them from reproducing. The other possibility, of course, is that their growing  numbers and influence will prevent all humans from reproducing–that their “solutions” and political preferences will end up erasing that thin veneer we call civilization and /or eradicating humanity altogether.

 

 

A Compelling Read

Jonathan Haidt is a well-regarded scholar who has written a compelling article for the Atlantic, titled  “Why The Past Ten Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” He begins by referencing the biblical story of Babel:

What would it have been like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the descendants of Noah built a great city in the land of Shinar. They built a tower “with its top in the heavens” to “make a name” for themselves. God was offended by the hubris of humanity and said:

Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.

The text does not say that God destroyed the tower, but in many popular renderings of the story he does, so let’s hold that dramatic image in our minds: people wandering amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension.

Babel, according to Haidt, is not a story about tribalism. Instead, he insists it’s a story about the “fragmentation of everything.” And he makes a point that is often overlooked:  this fragmentation isn’t just happening between those who see themselves as red or blue, but within both left and right, and “within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”

How have we come to this point? Haidt blames social media.The early Internet seemed to promise an expansion of co-operation and global democracy.

Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests, for free, and at a scale never before imaginable. By 2008, Facebook had emerged as the dominant platform, with more than 100 million monthly users, on its way to roughly 3 billion today. In the first decade of the new century, social media was widely believed to be a boon to democracy. What dictator could impose his will on an interconnected citizenry? What regime could build a wall to keep out the internet?

The high point of techno-democratic optimism was arguably 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement. That is also when Google Translate became available on virtually all smartphones, so you could say that 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than we had ever been to being “one people,” and we had effectively overcome the curse of division by language. For techno-democratic optimists, it seemed to be only the beginning of what humanity could do.

Then, he writes, it all fell apart.

Haidt references the three major forces that social scientists have identified as collectively necessary to the cohesion of successful democracies: they are social capital–defined as extensive social networks with high levels of trust– strong institutions, and shared stories. And he points out that social media has weakened all three, as the platforms morphed from a new form of communication to a mechanism for performing –for what Haidt characterizes as the management of ones “personal brand.” Communication became a method for impressing others, rather than a sharing that might deepen friendships and understanding. He blamed the introduction of the “like’ and “share” buttons–which allowed the platforms to gauge users’ engagement–as a critical turning point.

As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.

I encourage you to click through and read the entire, lengthy article, but if you don’t have time to do so, I’ll end this recap with the paragraph that struck me as a description of the most troubling consequences of our current use of these social media platforms.

It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular individual or organization is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.

Haidt’s very troubling conclusion: If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse.

I’m very afraid he’s right.

The Troops Of Takeover

The New Republic recently ran a chilling article. It was titled “Ten People You’ve Never Heard of Who are Destroying Democracy,” and it reminded me of Cold War allegations about the mechanisms of  communist “fifth columns” working to undermine the U.S.

Wikipedia defines a Fifth Column as “any group of people who undermine a larger group from within, usually in favor of an enemy group or nation…Clandestine fifth column activities can involve acts of sabotage, disinformation, or espionage executed within defense lines by secret sympathizers with an external force.”

The problem with suspicions of a Fifth Column, of course, is the credibility of the charge. After hearing from QAnon nutcases about pedophiles controlling the Democratic Party and the presumed evil intentions of the “deep state,” prudence dictates a healthy skepticism when such assertions are encountered.

That said, The New Republic is neither Fox nor OAN, and I actually was familiar with one of the ten I supposedly never heard of–and what I knew about that particular “soldier” of the Far Right was all too consistent with the article’s report.

The lede was worrisome enough:

In recent years, America’s democracy has faced countless challenges. Some seemed to materialize out of thin air, but many have been the fruit of secretive networks such as the 40-year-old Council for National Policy. Here are 10 individuals who have sown the seeds of disruption and disinformation—and who are setting their sights on the 2024 presidential election.

I encourage you to click through and familiarize yourself with the entire list, but the very first entrant was the President of Hillsdale College–a deeply ideological institution I had previously encountered.

For decades, Michigan-based Hillsdale has served as an academic partner for the religious right. The college has had a close relationship to the Council for National Policy, the secretive Christian right umbrella organization that directs so much right-wing activism, through Arnn and his predecessor, George Roche III (who left in a cloud of scandal). Hillsdale’s major donors have constituted a who’s who of the radical right, including the Koch network and leading figures from the CNP. Arnn has expanded Hillsdale’s role as a platform for the CNP’s network of megadonors, fundamentalist activists, and media outlets, providing their policy prescriptions with a thin veneer of academic respectability. The college enrolls around 1,500 students, but its leaves an outsize footprint in political messaging. Its highly politicized publication Imprimis is sent to more than six million recipients. Hillsdale operates the Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., where it has groomed young conservatives at the Capitol Hill Staff Training School, run by the Leadership Institute (see Morton Blackwell, below). Hillsdale is also playing a role in the current disruption of public education, which has been used for political leverage in Virginia and beyond. In 2020, Donald Trump appointed Arnn chair of the 1776 Commission, to promote a “patriotic” rebuttal to the 1619 Project’s racially inclusive approach to U.S. history. Hillsdale has led an ongoing campaign to politicize public schools, promoting anti–critical race theory campaigns and assisting in the launch of “affiliate” charter schools in 11 states.

Some years ago, I was contracted to write a history of an Indiana libertarian organization–the Remnant Trust. The Trust has collected first editions of rare and important historical books and manuscripts, and has created an educational display featuring those materials that it shares with colleges and universities around the country. Early in that effort, it had contracted with Hillsdale in a sort of joint venture (I no longer recall the details), and the Executive Director regaled me–at considerable length–about Hillsdale’s bad faith breach of that agreement in what he claimed was an effort to enrich the college at the expense of the nonprofit organization. He had been stunned and blindsided by behavior he hadn’t expected from an institution trumpeting what he’d thought were similar values.

Later, I had a couple of students who had matriculated at Hillsdale; their recollections (albeit far less accusatory) confirmed much of the New Republic’s description. I’m also one of the six million people who gets Imprimus (in my case, the slick publication goes straight into the trash.)

Most recently, I’ve been alarmed by the news reports that Hillsdale is establishing a nationwide network of charter schools.

Others on the list of ten “Fifth Column” actors were the CEO of Right Side Broadcasting, the  Daily Caller (Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel’s publication), the CEO of Tea Party Patriots, the founders of organizations called “America’s Frontline Doctors” and “The Leadership Institute,” and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Bottom line: there are a lot of “underground” people and organizations that have been working hard to undermine America’s social safety net, and reverse any progress toward goals of equality and inclusion.

Some Fifth Columns, it turns out, are real.