Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fear of facts

Both Pam Spaulding and Ed Brayton are running a Blogger Interrupted video of a woman named Joy Atwood in Medina, Ohio saying that she thinks Obama is an "Arab" or at least would show "Arab tendencies" in the White House and that frightens her. She cites e-mails that her family and friends sent her as her source. She repeats the canard that Obama won't put his hand on his heart to say the pledge of allegiance. Tim Russo, the Blogger Interrupted interviewer, offers to send Atwood proof that Obama is a Christian who says the pledge.

I wouldn't make too much of the fact that Atwood confuses Muslim and Arab. It's a fairly common mistake in the US reflecting our widespread ignorance of the outside world and tendency to use the idea of nationalism interchangeably with citizenship, ethnicity, and religion. For example, most Americans think of Indian and Hindu as synonyms despite that fact that India is home to millions of Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, and more Muslims than Iran.

A week later, Russo returned to see how she responded to his proof. Atwood says she glanced at his e-mails, but didn't follow the links to his proof. That's just what you say, she says, I believe my sources. She still thinks Obama would show "Arab tendencies" and has a new. She has heard that he supports killing babies that are born alive if the mother wanted an abortion. Got that? She believes Obama wants to kill live birth babies. Her source is Concerned Women for America. CWA was founded in 1979by Beverly LaHaye, wife of Religious Right activist and "Left Behind" author Tim LaHaye, as a counter to the progressive National Organization of Women. CWA opposes abortion, gay rights, sex education, drug and alcohol education, Harry Potter books, and all forms feminism. They are a major player in the culture wars.

Russo asks Atwood if she would like to meet Obama and ask him about these things. She says no; she already knows enough about him. I think that was the most appalling part of either video. What she was saying in effect was that what she had heard had more credibility than any thing she might find out for herself. I've run into that attitude before. It seems to me to reflect an unhealthy lack of self-confidence, lack of curiosity, and, worst of all, submission to recognized authority. She seemed uncomfortable with the very idea of being in a position where she might have to rely on her own judgment instead of accepting "the truth" as given to her by her betters. She had been told what the truth about Obama was and quite literally didn't want to be confused by facts. Of course this kind of willing conformity to hierarchy is the hallmark of conservative psychology.

Before some conservative jumps in and says that's not true, they're an independent thinker, let me explain that last statement. This goes the heart of my own interpretive framework of American politics.

The American political spectrum is not based on coherent philosophies. There is no simple philosophical test that will tell you what the liberal and conservative positions will be on a new issue. Political liberalism and conservatism are based on membership in groups. People join the left or the right and cheer for their side. They believe what their side believes.* This doesn't mean that there isn't an underlying principle the American political spectrum.

The Rosetta stone of American politics is emotion. This is what George Lakoff is talking about when he writes about cognitive linguistics and metaphors in politics. Unfortunately, this brings me to an unfortunate problem of terminology. When I speak of liberalism and conservatism I mean two different things. Political liberalism and conservatism describes the two main teams of American politics; the left and right, the Democrats and Republicans. The people themselves who support those sides display emotional or psychological liberalism or conservatism as described by Lakoff's nuturing mother and stern father metaphors.

Liberal personalities respond to an ideal the state and society as a nurturing parent. The nurturing parent protects an essentially good child as it finds itself. The liberal personality is open to experimentation and discovery in most things and are very egalitarian in assigning value. A typical liberal anxiety is fretting over injustice and unfairness suffered by others. The downside to the liberal mind is that they often don't respect the accomplishments of predecessors and are prone to rush from one new thing to the next without much thought. Conservative personalities respond to an ideal the state and society as a stern father. The stern father knows the right way and is responsible for disciplining an essentially wild child and teaching them how to be good citizens. The conservative personality believes in a rigidly hierarchical world of value and power where everything has a proper place and rightful authority should not be challenged. A typical conservative anxiety is fretting over the loss of important values, order, and of their place in the hierarchy. The downside to the conservative mind is that they are natural born authoritarians and followers. Liberals and conservatives both believe in rights, fairness, and freedom, but they mean fundamentally different things by those words.

While the political and psychological liberalisms or conservatisms usually match up, they fail as synonyms on two counts.

First, is the political definition of positions on each side. What a side believes is based on shifting alliances between interest groups beyond the control (and out of the sight of) of most individuals. The decision makers on each side themselves possess psychological liberalism or conservatism but they must make those alliances based on principals of realpolitik and cost benefit considerations. Occasionally this leads to a side adopting a position that doesn't really fit with their underlying psychology.

In addition, the leaders tend to make partisan issues that really are not partisan. Consider the current science wars. Just a few years ago, the current wisdom was that conservatives were more friendly to science than liberals, who were supposed to be more friendly to unscientific alternative ways of thought. Now, because the religious right opposes stem cell research and teaching evolution and because corporate interests find the conclusions of climate research threatening to their bottom lines, the right has made science a partisan issue. When Ben Stein declares "science kills people" he speaking for the entire right. Hostility to science has suddenly become an article of faith on the right even though science as a whole is not intrinsically liberal or conservative.

Second, is the way in which people choose their side. People choose their group in late adolescence based on social ties. They stick with the side their parents belonged to, to one their friends belong to, or to the side of the social group they aspire to join. This selection process is not completely irrational or opportunistic. It is based primarily on a certain emotional comfort with a group and its language. But because other considerations come in when choosing a side with which to associate, it's possible for a person with an essentially conservative personality to join the liberal side and vice versa.

Sometimes these people can live their whole lives without that contradiction causing a crisis for them. Think of all the authoritarians who took over liberal movements during the twentieth century. In others the contradiction is brought to a head by major events and they suddenly switch sides. Think of the political liberals who discovered their inner conservative following 9/11.

This is what I mean when I say Joy Atwood exhibits a typical conservative mind. She was presented with an opportunity to explore and discover, but turned it down and retired behind a shield of comfortable authority. Atwood didn't even want to talk to Obama because he might challenge what she already knew, from her authorities, to be true. I can't imagine a liberal who would turn down a chance to meet McCain and have a look for themselves. They might not go out of their way to do it, but if someone indicated that they could arrange an intimate meeting, what liberal would say no thanks?

This is just a fragment of my whole theory of understanding American politics. Maybe I'll get some more chunks of it written up some day.

* Naturally, when I say people don't think much before deciding what they believe I make exception for you and me, dear reader. We are paragons of carefully considered, rational thought and philosophical consistency in all that we do and espouse. Though I do occasionally have my doubts about you.

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