Okay, Let’s Talk About Crime

I’ve forgotten the name of the old-time pundit who first summed up the biggest problem we humans face, but Mark Twain is often credited with a variation of it. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

That observation has never been more apt. In this, our age of the Internet, it’s the things Americans “know” that just aren’t so that have given us our polarized, fraught politics. Think of the things so many Americans wrongly think they know: the 2020 election was stolen, climate change is a hoax, vaccines cause autism and don’t ward off disease, President Biden can control the prosecutor and jury in a state-level trial, the economy is in recession …the list goes on.

Here in Indiana, anyone unfortunate enough to have weathered the vicious and fact-free food fight that was the Republican primary contest for Governor heard increasingly ridiculous claims about crime in the United States. (I’m surprised that anyone listening to–and actually believing–those claims had the courage to leave their homes.)

It really isn’t easy to be and remain this uninformed, but quite obviously, lots of folks manage to believe what they want to believe, easily ascertainable facts be damned.

I recently came across some data on crime, and those facts tell a rather different story than the one being peddled by the GOP.

Despite false claims by Donald Trump that crime has increased under President Joe Biden, PolitiFact confirms that in 2022, the violent crime rate neared a 50-year low.

That’s not all. Preliminary statistics for 2023 indicate the lowest levels of violent crime ever recorded, dropping below previous records in 2014 and 2019. And that’s still not all, because right now it appears that 2024 is still trending down…

There are fewer violent crimes now than there were in 1971 under Richard Nixon, despite a population that has increased by over 100 million people. Today we are experiencing not simply fewer crimes per person, but fewer crimes overall. According to FBI statistics, there were over 5 million fewer violent crimes in the United States last year than in the final full year of Ronald Reagan’s “tough on crime” administration.

After peaking in 1991 under George H. W. Bush, violent crime has been slowly declining year over year. There have been a few exceptions: Some categories of violent crime, including murder, were up in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic. Even then, those numbers didn’t come close to the levels seen in the 1980s or 1990s.

The numbers in the quoted article–together with their links to official sources of the data– directly contradict one of the GOP’s major talking points. That was the barely veiled racist claim made in virtually all of those nasty commercials, the claim that it is immigrants who are generating this invented “crime wave.” (“Be very afraid of those Brown people”…)

Since the statistics show that crime is actually going down, Trump has also jumped in with a false attack on FBI crime statistics, adding “fake numbers” to the list of things he can dismiss when they don’t fit his narrative. Fox News has also been leading the charge to undercut the truth by pushing an evidence-free claim from a recently formed right-wing group insisting that America has suddenly developed an issue with counting crimes.

Well, when the evidence fails to support one’s preferred world-view, I guess the only thing you can do is attack the veracity of the evidence. Or–as the linked article suggests–revise your definition of what constitutes a crime.

Only 18% of Republicans admit that Jan. 6 insurrectionists were violent and 45% believe punishment of those who fought with police, smashed their way into the Capitol, and tried to capture members of Congress has been too harsh. An eyebrow-raising 86% of Republicans don’t hold Trump to blame for any of it. But then 85% of Republicans don’t believe Trump should be prosecuted for any of the crimes he’s been charged with so far. It turns out Republicans are soft on crime—so long as it’s Republican crime.

I guess if a Republican does it, it isn’t a crime.

Also, the increasing incidents of violent weather aren’t evidence of climate change, the stock market hasn’t recently reached unprecedented highs, unemployment isn’t at a 50-year low…

As that old saying goes, it isn’t not knowing (and knowing that we don’t know) that gets us into trouble–it’s knowing things that “just ain’t so.”

Give these partisan ideologues credit. It isn’t easy avoiding fact-based reporting in order to double down on those preferred “alternative facts.” Of course, listening only to Faux News helps….

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Don’t Argue With The True Believers

A recent column by Frank Bruni addressed an issue to which I often refer: the growing gap between GOP rhetoric (and presumably, belief) and that fact-based thing we call reality.

Bruni wrote:

When it comes to manipulating the information space, getting inside people’s heads, creating alternative realities and mass confusion — he’s as good as anyone since the 1930s, and you know who I’m talking about,” said Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the 2021 book “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.” Rauch characterized the stolen election claims by Trump and his enablers as “the most audacious and Russian-style disinformation attack on the United States that we’ve ever seen” and questioned whether, under a second Trump administration, we’d become a country “completely untethered from reality.”

A post to Daily Kos elaborated on that lack of a tether, quoting Stephen Colbert for the often-repeated line that “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” and pointing to the myriad ways in which reality deviates from the preferred Republican version.

Trump really did lose in 2020. But it goes far beyond Trump and and his 30,000+ lies. Slavery really was an unredeemable horror for Blacks. Anti-abortion laws really are killing women. Gender dysphoria really exists. Same-sex marriages really work. Racism really is systemic in the United States. Jews really don’t control the world (if we did, we’d do a better job!). The economy really is doing much better under Biden than under Trump. The Earth (which really is 4.5 billion years old, give or take) really does revolve around the sun.

The post also linked to an article in the Atlantic–behind a paywall–in which the author, son of a preacher, told of the congregation’s outrage when his father’s successor preached a sermon about Christians’ obligation to protect ‘God’s creation’ from climate change. Although many Christian denominations acknowledge the reality of climate change and the need to address it, in churches like his father’s, climate change denial is part of being a “real” Christian.

Fundamentalist Christians used to avoid politics. No more. In fact, in a very real sense, for many of them, being Republican has become their version of being Christian.

The reverse is equally true: large numbers of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans have transformed what was formerly a political identity into a quasi-religious one. Political lies and conspiracy theories have morphed into something akin to theological doctrine. The absence of proof–the lack of any empirical or factual support–is irrelevant. (You can’t prove the existence  or non-existence of God in a laboratory, either.)

I asked a psychiatrist friend to tell me what happens when such people come face to face with well-documented evidence debunking their beliefs. Evidently, the four most likely reactions are: denial (true believers simply deny the facts or dismiss them as false or biased); cognitive dissonance (they experience the discomfort that arises when a person holds conflicting beliefs); resort to confirmation bias (true believers seek out information that supports their original beliefs, or provides an excuse to discount the evidence before them); and what is called the “backfire effect,” in which they become even more entrenched in their preferred version of reality.

Least likely is a change of opinion to accord with the evidence.

Instead, these “true believers” perceive the contradictory information as an existential threat to their identities or world-views, a threat that is much more likely to trigger a defensive response than a change of opinion.

Recent headlines report that some 25% of Americans now believe that the FBI was responsible for the January 6th insurrection. Those Americans are the true believers;  I would characterize such a political opinion–a conviction so divorced from reality and contrary to all available evidence– as quasi-religious. However we characterize such departures from reality, however, we need to understand that those who cling to these beliefs are unmovable. Time spent arguing with them, or showing them evidence to the contrary, is time wasted.

The only way Democrats will win elections in 2024 is by voting in sufficiently large numbers. Poll after poll shows that large majorities of voters agree with Democratic policy positions, and that rational Americans outnumber the true believers.  The problem is: far too many of the inhabitants of the real world–for one reason or another–fail to vote.

We don’t need to waste time trying to convert the denizens of never-never land. We need to put all of our efforts into getting out the vote.

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The GOP Race To The Bottom

I rarely quote material from sites like Daily Kos–not because I worry about their essential veracity; I don’t. Despite Republicans’ dishonest insistence on equivalence between media spouting right-wing fantasies and those engaging in leftwing spin, factual assertions on sites like Daily Kos are almost all independently verifiable. They do, however, report from a decidedly liberal perspective, and since this site isn’t intended to cheerlead for any particular political perspective other than my own, I rarely cite to them.

I’m breaking that rule today, however, because I was intrigued by a recent post. File this under “be careful what you wish for.”

The article began by tracing GOP conspiracy theories–fluoridated water, Eisenhower as a committed Communist, etc., through QAnon and Jewish Space Lasers (which is evidently a real theory kicking around in wacko circles, and not simply another Marjorie Taylor Greene mental seizure.)

Apparently, however, there’s a political downside to encouraging your base to disdain anything remotely resembling reality. As the post puts it: When you’ve taught your base to believe nothing but the crankiest of crank conspiracies, how do you get them to listen when you need them?

In the last week, Republicans have noticed that the up = down machine has put them in a position where 90% of the people dying from COVID-19 are their people. That’s because 90% of Democrats are already vaccinated and 99.5% of those dying are unvaccinated. Who are those unvaccinated? Oh, right, the Republican base that’s been taught scientists, doctors, and experts can’t be trusted.

Over the course of that week, Republicans who still think of themselves as party leaders have begun to get louder about suggesting to their followers that maybe, just maybe, taking five minutes out of their day to not die would be a good thing.

The post then took a couple of paragraphs to explain the Republican dilemma:

For Republicans who ever actually cared about the traditional Republican agenda, eh. That’s all gone. For those who care about nothing but their own personal power, they’re out of luck as well. Just ask former Rep. Scott Tipton. Tipton was a conservative Republican who checked all the boxes. He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He frequently angered environmental groups with a push to privatize public lands. He was solidly against reproductive rights as well as gay marriage, supported by wads of cash from the oil and gas industry, and he easily won election for 10 years. Then Tipton was knocked out of his primary by a woman who claimed to have inside knowledge about Hillary Clinton’s upcoming arrest as well as secret documents that would reveal the QAnon truth about the pizza-ordering  cannibals in Congress.

Marjorie Taylor Greene didn’t step into a seat that was formerly held by a Democrat. She ousted Rep. Tom Graves, who had one of the most conservative ratings in the House. Cawthorn took over Mark Meadows’ former seat in a district freshly gerrymandered to make it super Republican safe, but in doing so Cawthorn actually defeated well-funded conservative businesswoman Lynda Bennett, who was the choice of not just Republicans in the state party but also endorsed by Donald Trump. It’s easy to say that Cawthorn won in spite of posting an Instagram photo celebrating his visit to Adolf Hitler’s vacation residence while explaining that a visit to see “the Führer’s” home was on “my bucket list.” But a more truthful framing would be that Cawthorn won because of his unabashed adoption of white supremacist positions.

What most Republicans in leadership positions today are just beginning to discover is that they are the alt-right. The white nationalist agenda that was cautiously courted along the fringe a decade ago is now the mainstream. If there is still a pro-business agenda, it exists only so much as it locks in racism. If there’s still a social conservative agenda, it survives only as a means of tacking a halo onto actions of hate. And the media outlets that Republicans were counting on to keep the base in line have discovered that it’s even more lucrative to feed them to the volcano god who pays Tucker Carlson’s bills.

As the post concludes, “There’s always another Boebert in the weeds.” No matter how obediently crazy the incumbent, no matter how slavishly devoted to Trump and/or the “big Lie,” there’s always someone willing to mount a primary challenge–someone even more anti-reason, anti-science, anti-Black, anti-Semitic–someone even less-tethered to reality.

These days, the crazier the candidate, the more likely s/he is to win a Republican primary–and in most places, the less likely to win a general election. Even with the GOP’s frantic rush to gerrymander everything in sight, there is a limit to how many red crazy districts they can carve out.

Isn’t there?

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An Epistemic Crisis

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Epistemic may not be a word we commonly use, but I think it was entirely appropriate in this Vox headline: “With Impeachment, America’s Epistemic Crisis has Arrived.”

The Vox article focuses on what it calls a “stress test,” and considers whether the right can shield itself from “plain facts in plain sight.”

Unlike Mueller’s report, the story behind the impeachment case is relatively simple: Congress approved military aid for Ukraine, but Trump withheld it as part of a sustained campaign to pressure Ukraine into launching an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden’s family. There’s a record of him doing it. There are multiple credible witnesses to the phone call and larger campaign. Several Trump allies and administration officials have admitted to it on camera. Trump himself admitted to it on the White House lawn.

It’s just very, very obvious that he did it. It’s very obvious he and his associates don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. And it’s very obvious there is something wrong with it. Holding US foreign policy hostage to personal political favors is straightforward abuse of power, precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they wrote impeachment into the Constitution.

It’s a clearly impeachable pattern of action, documented and attested to by multiple witnesses, confessed to multiple times, in violation of longstanding political precedent and a moral consensus that was, until 2016, universal. Compared to Mueller, that is a much more difficult test of the right’s ability to obscure, distract, and polarize.

The article asks the question that all sane, “reality-based” Americans have been asking ourselves: Can the right-wing propaganda machine successfully keep the right-wing base believing an alternate reality–at least long enough to get through the next election?

Earlier in 2017, I told the story of Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowing and coming to know things — what counts as true, what counts as evidence, how we accumulate knowledge, and the like. It’s where you find schools of thought like skepticism (we can’t truly know anything) and realism (the universe contains observer-independent facts we can come to know).

Tribal epistemology, as I see it, is when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.

When tribal interests overwhelm standards of evidence and internal coherence,  what is seen as “good for our tribe” becomes the primary determinant of what is true. Who is “part of our tribe” becomes the test of who to trust.

A decades-long effort on the right has resulted in a parallel set of institutions meant to encourage tribal epistemology. They mimic the form of mainstream media, think tanks, and the academy, but without the restraint of transpartisan principles. They are designed to advance the interests of the right, to tell stories and produce facts that support the tribe. That is the ultimate goal; the rhetoric and formalisms of critical thinking are retrofit around it.

It began with talk radio and Fox, but grew into an entire ecosystem that is constantly working to shape the worldview of its white suburban/rural audiences, who are being primed for what the author calls “a forever war with The Libs, who are always just on the verge of destroying America.”

The article is lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety, but the following paragraphs graphically describe what that “epistemic crisis” will look like over the next year:

This is the story of American politics: a narrowly divided nation, with raw numbers on the side of the rising demographics in the left coalition but intensity and outsized political power on the side of the right coalition. Put in more practical terms, the right still has the votes and the cohesion to prevent a Senate impeachment conviction.

On the downslope of a fading, unpopular coalition is not a great place for Republicans to be. It doesn’t augur well for their post-2020 health as a party. But it is enough to get them through the next election, which is about as far ahead as they look these days.

All they need to do is to keep that close partisan split frozen in place. Above all, they need to ensure that nothing breaks through to the masses in the mushy middle, who are mostly disengaged from politics. They need to make sure no clear consensus forms, nothing that might find its way into pop culture, the way the entire nation eventually focused its attention on Nixon’s impeachment.

It’s a kind of magic trick they’re going to try to pull off in full view.

If it succeeds, reality and America both lose.

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Denial Isn’t a River in Egypt

I recently read a sobering report on climate change; apparently, the pace of the predicted rise in sea levels is accelerating. The effects will not be uniform–some areas will see a more rapid rise than others. As the introductory paragraphs noted,

polar ice is melting and the seas are rising faster than at any time in at least 2,800 years. The sea level has climbed by up to nine inches since 1880 and by three inches since 1993, according to research published in Nature.

For Americans living near the coasts and wondering how long before their homes are inundated, a new NOAA report — released on the last day of Barack Obama’s administration — offers region-specific predictions to help them prepare.

I was struck by the matter-of-fact tone of the article. The authors were scientists who obviously believed that they were communicating with readers who would respect settled science based upon verifiable fact and evidence.

Fact and evidence are critically important to human survival.

Because distinguishing fantasy from fiction is so important, we cannot afford to ignore Donald Trump’s constant assaults on reality. That point was made–cogently and emphatically–by Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in a recent essay for Time Magazine.

You really need to read the entire essay, which is a defense of the importance of objective fact by a conservative journalist.

We honor the central idea of journalism — the conviction, as my old boss Peter Kann once said, “that facts are facts; that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded and diligent reporting; that truth is attainable by laying fact upon fact, much like the construction of a cathedral; and that truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.”

And we honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.

Stephens is defending not just reporting, but the importance of credible sources of information in a world where misinformation is a weapon wielded by the unscrupulous.

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

As Stephens notes, Trump has a habit of defending questionable or clearly false assertions by saying that “lots of people” agree with him.

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention than certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.

For Trump, truth is what you can sell, what you can get away with. For those of us who are astonished by the obvious fact that Donald Trump has gotten away with lying about virtually everything, Stephens has an explanation:

If a public figure tells a whopping lie once in his life, it’ll haunt him into his grave. If he lies morning, noon and night, it will become almost impossible to remember any one particular lie. Outrage will fall victim to its own ubiquity. It’s the same truth contained in Stalin’s famous remark that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic.

We all know people who prefer to live in their own realities, no matter how divorced from demonstrable fact. Donald Trump appears to be one of them, and the danger that poses for the nation is–or should be– obvious.

The seas are going to rise whether the new EPA Secretary believes in climate change or not. Home-grown terrorists will continue to pose a greater danger than imported ones, despite Trump’s insistence on blaming Muslim refugees. A “wall” won’t stop the significant percentage of undocumented immigrants who fly into the country legally but then overstay their visas. Protectionism isn’t going to save American jobs that are overwhelmingly being lost to automation, not trade.

To paraphrase Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the thing about facts is that they’re true whether you believe them or not. Basing policies on fantasies rather than evidence is a recipe for disaster.

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