American impasse and the limits of tribal empathy

So why in America can’t we progress? Because there are about ten to fifteen percent of the country that sees no point to the American experiment if it doesn’t guarantee White superiority.

The good news, I suppose, is that it’s only ten to fifteen percent. But that is not evenly distributed. They are almost all Republicans, so that means 20 to 30 percent of the GOP. That’s too many to ignore, and no Republican presidential candidate has won by ignoring or defying them. Not only that, one Republican candidate has won (barely) by playing to them almost exclusively. Look at McCain: he lost to Obama the moment he said to that person at a town hall, No, you’re wrong, Obama is a good Christian man. That defiance was the end. Romney did not play to that slice of the base, though I donˋt think he opposed them. Bush and Reagan played to them more or less subtly, and catered to them more or less during their terms.

Because of Trump’s victory, however on the margin, the GOP has a new playbook and everyone thinks this is how to win. You play to that tranche, and you win them solidly, and you can win others who do not believe what they believe but feel defensive of them. Then you may also win others who like to see a unified team. You will lose a tranche who opposes these beliefs, but I speculate those are the other end of the bell curve, about ten to fifteen percent of the party. Those are Republicans who are ideologically committed to equality and fairness. They are ideologically very similar to some Democrats, but for tribal and cultural reasons will not flip.

It’s a good question to ask what is going on with this group. What is in their mind that makes them so devoted to this idea that seems to toxic to others. I think it is probably not, for most of them, hate. I think people are driven by positive motivations. When blatant White supremacists say they are driven by love for White people (however defined, and however that definition has changed over the decades), I think we can take them at their word. They want the people they love to do better than others. Nobody really, in their heart of hearts, wants a fair shake for their kids, they want their kids to have unfair advantages. Your kid misbehaves in class? It’s a rare parent who doesn’t want endless second chances for their kid. Of course, that word “second” is funny when it really means nth. Your kid doesn’t work hard or just isn’t that clever? You still want them to do well… of course you do! You love them!

We don’t want the ones we love to get what they deserve, we want them to get more than they deserve. If we consider ourselves fair-minded (and who doesn’t) we want others to get what they deserve, and no less than that. But fairness does not, I don’t think, extend to the ones we love. We love them no matter what. We make excuses — he’s a fine young man, he’s good at heart, she didn’t mean it, she was kidding.

So if your tribal feelings extend only to those who are very, very similar to you, and no further, you can easily, in a very human way, be a supremacist. I speculate (wildly) that only for about ten to fifteen percent of the population, they are unable to empathize with anyone who does not resemble them closely. I’m no neuroscientist, but my mental picture is there is a dial in the brain that allows tribal feelings to extend to those who are more or less similar. For a very few people, it extends to all humanity if not all sentient beings. There may even be difficult religious practices designed to extend and foster that ability. On the other end, there are a few people who can not feel empathy for anyone but themselves; sociopaths or psychopaths (I’ve never been clear on the difference). Those are the ends of the curve. Climb up the wings of the bell curve, and you get a larger group who can empathize with not just themselves, but only people very similar to themselves, at one end, and not all sentient beings but wide swaths of humanity, at the other end.

Note, above, there can be supremacists in every group; humans are human, and if there is a dial in the brain that establishes the boundaries of empathy, that exists for all people, and with a similar range of options. It is only because of the particular makeup of the American population and history and government and structure that White supremacists have the power to threaten and dominate that they have. I suppose that any authoritarian government depends on a supremacist movement — people are clearly willing to surrender personal freedom if they can dominate others, and establish a system in which that dominance is passed on to their offspring.

[there’s more to come, but I can’t do that right now…]

In America, we live better than the Nobles of Europe!

I remember my father saying something like that. I believe it was in reference, hilariously and trivially, to Wonder Bread (which he loved). White bread being an expensive luxury in Europe. He came over from Germany with his parents in 1933.

But there is a more sinister way this is true, in that European nobility were not only unusual in their luxurious tastes, but in their position in a social hierarchy — without peasants or servants or people of some sort over whom you have authority, being a nobleman is pretty meaningless. Also, it’s the passing on of the privilege to one’s offspring, and protecting that position over generations.

I suspect that many Americans cherish their “equality” as long as there is someone below them. In other words, their status as Free Americans depends on their having someone they can push around. If I’m right about that, then maybe if follows that ever since Civil Rights, restrictions on being able to push people around feels like a restriction on liberty. I mean, technically it really is a restriction on liberty. I don’t have a quote, but I believe Benjamin Franklin mocked those Southern slave lords who went around bleating about libertad, when the liberty they craved included the liberty to own humans and have life-or-death power over them. (Of course, Franklin had two household slaves and no farming operation.)

Culturally, there seems to be no middle ground between being able to push around fellow citizens and being pushed around. The idea of “freedom” while not being allowed to be a bully is just cognitively dissonant to so many. This dissonance is coped with by redefining the bullying as being harmless. So it’s not enough to say you won’t wear a mask, you have to also believe that Covid is harmless. The personal cost in lost freedom (however trivial) of Covid being a genuine, deadly illness is just too great.

Anyway, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss people’s attachment to this power structure as simply wicked; it’s worth examining and finding if there is some way the need for status can be addressed (it’s a basic primate need after all; we are hierarchical apes) while also addressing the cost to others.

[This all came from reading Paul Krugman’s newsletter, and the term “dynastic wealth” stood out to me. The reason the Scandinavian countries have the most social mobility and the greatest ability to get rich is that they have (a) taxed dynastic wealth out of (most of its) power and (b) offered free college to all.]

In Europe, there is more suspicion of nobility, and perhaps less desire to emulate their worst aspects. This is a reason I think the French Revolution, for all its failings, did not fight to keep 20% of the population in servitude.

Communities’ acceptance of other communities

That whole topic was brought to mind to me yesterday in a podcast (driving more, so listening more). The topic was trans things, and the speaker said that Facebook and other social media operations were banning trans people’s posts, even when they were in private areas, and how unfair that was and how it harmed the trans community. I immediately thought of far-right communities, and how I want them to be surveilled to within an inch of their life (and an inch beyond). [Yes, sure, “far-left” too, to the extent they exist; that’s dozens of people, DOZENS! I just don’t see “far left” as a violent threat. They are a cultural threat in that they have a LOCK on tiny theater productions.]

I’d like to see someone (I don’t think it can be me) define “right” and “left” in terms of how they see a nation’s or the world’s communities. On the right, there’s a hint in how it is descended from feudalism via royalism, though it likes its “barons” (whatever that may be at any stage in history) to have a lot of leeway to exercise their power independently of a king/president (see the Magna Carta and Federalism). Nobody should interfere with their oppression of their serfs/slaves/employees/subordinates. Unfettered power is the sweetest power, even if it is the power to put fetters on someone.

How does the “left” define its community? Sometimes internationally, as in workers of the world. I think it can also be nationally, but without regard to traditional social hierarchy. So the ideal “liberal” order would be like what we had after WWII for 20 years, with high marginal tax rates and high inheritance taxes to create more financial equality, and good public schools (in English with introductory (i.e., 1 year) help for non-English speaking children; this is the area I would be considered “right-wing”) and free college for all who want it to create a ladder of social ascent. Why is there more social mobility in Scandinavia than in the US or Europe? High taxes + free schools and college. Because of the draft in the pre-Vietnam era, everyone was all White people men were “equal” and the government successfully created a White middle class, which was a shining example to the world.

Except for the racism and the sexism, America was great then! And we should Make America Greater!

***
Okay, so that’s a stab at how the L and the R identify our “communities”. How do they deal with other communities? Ethnic, religious, other. America had a “melting pot,” which has more or less charitable definitions (over a couple of generations, you can be full Americans and we’ll be gentle in the meanwhile, maybe just mocking your accent or facial hair; OR Assimilate quickly, become invisible or we’ll discriminate against you and maybe lynch you).

I remember a trope a few years back about people moving to Bible Belt communities. At the local watering hole, someone would ask, as one does there, Where do you go to church? You’d better have an answer, because if you didn’t go to church, you were considered a threat. How do we know you won’t just KILL people? What’s stopping you, if not our Lord Jesus? You remember, this was a real argument. How can they trust you, if you don’t go to Church, and preferably, their particular Church?

And this is the suspicion of Jews — they’re not part of my community, they’re part of their own community. Who do they answer to? What are they up to? And if you start thinking that, you will notice other small differentiating characteristics: facial features, hair, clothes, accents… Never a shortage of ways to notice differences.

Another community that has suffered a great deal of discrimination are the Roma. Persecuted in Germany, sullenly tolerated elsewhere. Now, I don’t know much about the Roma, but I believe the stereotype is that, unlike Jews, they have historically been suspected of not participating in the overall economy, but rather in the grey or black market. So they have the same suspicions levied against them that Jews have, but Jews participate in the at-large economy so can have a great claim to be “mainstream.”

What about communities that discriminate to the point of violence against those who are really hard to distinguish as “other”? In France, there was (is still? I don’t know!) the community of Cagots. Indistinguishable from other French people except by their names, they had special entrances to Churches, and it is said that priests would give them communion with tongs. But know who was and who was not a Cagot was vital, to the point that when a fire broke out in a government building that had files of Cagot’s names, the community went to rescue the files, just so they could keep track of whom to oppress!

And of course the famous 1950s 60s reaction to men’s long hair: “You can’t tell the boys from the girls!” Why, again, do you need to? To know whom you can harass, what form the harassment should take, whom you should hire or not, whom you can batter or (maybe) flirt with.

The Final Word on American History

To all the fearful bleating about how to teach our history, I offer the following approach. Remember, the favorite tactic of the Right, at this point in history, is to run down the clock with blather, then declare righteous victory (cousin of the Gish Gallop, I believe). So my approach may seem controlling, and it only works if the other party allows it. The way to pressure them to allow it, is for each step to be so obvious that arguing it is idiotic, even from their point of view.

  1. Was there an institution of slavery at the Founding? Well, sure AND WE ARE AGAINST IT.
    • You may get into a Whole Thing about Lincoln here. The point, as I said, is to waste time while shouting “Lincoln!” over and over. You could say, Yes, but the Founders. May work, may not.
  2. Okay, good. What percentage of our population was enslaved? (this is a number question, so answering it righteously is hard) About 20%. In Virginia, in 1790, about 40% of the population was enslaved Black people (see here). About 2% were free Blacks. (NOTE — you’ll find that talking about numbers at any length, say three numbers, throws some sand in the gears of righteousness).
  3. Were slaves granted freedom to worship however they chose? No. Could they pick whichever job they liked? No. Could they speak out or publish? No. Could they freely assemble? No. Could they pick whom they married? No. What do we call this kind of society? It still exists, in North Korea. Soviet Russia even resembled this. We have a name for it: Totalitarian Dictatorship. 20% of the population was being subject to Totalitarian Dictatorship. Not so cute when you put it that way.
    • You could compare slaves lots with Soviet Russians. Worse off? Insufficient data… My Old Friend would try to steer this by comparing. An effective counterargument is, Compared to What? Slaves were badly off… compared to what? Soviets were badly off… compared to what? And he would say that comparing them to each other is somehow Not Fair.
  4. What were the anti-colonialists fighting for? Um… taxes? That’s the usual answer. But also ideals! Lofty ideals. That certainly helps the image of what might otherwise seem kind of mercenary. I mean, colonists had every freedom granted British citizens, except they did not have a vote for Parliament. Arguably, they had more freedom than a British citizen in England, in that the Crown was months away by sea. My non-historian’s impression is that they were fighting for not a whole lot. Look at Canada — they did, and are doing, just fine

So, what we get is that people running, or profiting from others’ running, a Totalitarian Dictatorship were fighting a war to keep from paying taxes (if you were rich) and for High Ideals (if you were not rich; the poor always get the High Ideals while the rich get the money).

So that’s the Story of our Founding™. A whole separate and much more difficult question is how to teach this to children. My Old Friend says, correctly, that a nation’s history is supposed to be a binding story for its citizens, starting in childhood. So the question is, how much lying is OK, how much omission is OK, how much distortion of emphasis is OK? I mean, if we can lie in order to make little patriots, why not tell them that their ancestors battled Sauron in Mordor for the freedom of Middle Earth? As a story, it works.

Let’s agree that’s too far. How about a nice little White Lie? Like the rickety structure of lies that eventually led to Gone With the Wind? That has traditionally been considered an acceptable pack of lies, because it doesn’t deny the existence of the institution, it just makes declarations about things that are hard to check, like intent, attitudes, and moods. Since so little documentary evidence exists about slaves’ feelings, and none at all about the internal mental states of, well, anyone really, you can say whatever you like. And if anyone argues, you can always be indignant!

Note that it took Germany 20 years to start teaching about its shameful history. A whole generation of Nazis had to die off before the paradigm could shift, to use Kuhn-speak. To its national credit, they then did teach it, resulting in much gnashing of teeth and the (I suppose) inevitable push-back, resulting in the Alternativ für Deutschland party, a neo-Nazi party wearing an anti-immigrant fig-leaf.

More to come…

The Power of Hyperbole

I used to listen to Sam Harris’s podcast. I had admired his atheism books, at the time when teaching evolution in schools was a whole thing, and he, along with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett were the 4 Horsemen of the New Atheism.

His podcast was interesting, until, I speculate, he interviewed Charles Murray. He was then accused of being, if not a White Supremacist himself, at least in league with them or at the very least, one of their Useful Idiots. In any event, after that, whenever he had a woman on, he would, kind of whinily, ask whether she thought he was a White Supremacist… he wasn’t, right? How could anyone think that! It became a whole thing.

Around that time, he became quite alarmed at the rise of what we now call Cancel Culture, and bemoaned that when he tweeted something a lot of people didn’t like, he’d get a lot of very negative responses (Is it being “ratioed”? Not sure about the term…). He called this a Twitter Mob, and said it was like “public defenestration.”

As I was driving to or from work and heard this, my first thought was, no it’s not. It’s nothing like public defenestration. Okay, it’s public, but you survive a Twitter flame war. You walk away. He used other comparisons, too: guillotining, lynching. And… no. It’s not like being guillotined, because that KILLS YOU. Having people call you a douchebag, unpleasant as it certainly must be, doesn’t kill you.

I became disenchanted with him, unsubscribed from the podcast.

He was using a rhetorical technique called hyperbole. Exaggeration for effect. Except, it’s also a lie. If he had said, I was so upset I wanted to die, that might be hyperbolic but still true. But using defenestration is a bit unfair to people who have been publicly defenestrated. What would they say? Wow, that was terrible; just like being the target of mean tweets. Doubt it.

During the pandemic, we have seen similar hyperbole on the part of those who don’t want to wear masks or get vaccinated, but still want to visit stores and restaurants. For them, it’s either like slavery or like the holocaust. Like that rather dim lady who sold yellow stars with “vaccinated” on them.

I never meet people like that, here in West LA, but when I read about them, I suppose they have to use hyperbole, because if they didn’t, they’d seem like idiots. If they carried signs that read, I don’t like wearing masks, they’re uncomfortable and make me sweat! Or I don’t want to get vaccinated, because my tribal affiliation makes that a difficult choice! that would be honest, but they wouldn’t seem quite as heroic.

If I ever meet one of these people, and my family is not around, I would go up to them and say, I understand you’re upset, but whatever the thing is like, it’s not like slavery or the holocaust. Rather, it’s like something you don’t want to do for reasons that have more to do with tribalism than anything else. Put that on your sign.

American History for Dummies

I can’t say I never learned American History, but I learned it in a weird way. I went to a French school, the Lycée Français de New-York, so American History was an afterthought. In fact, one year, we learned about it in French! There were no American History textbooks (at that level) written in French, so our history teacher wrote one, and it was published by the same firm that did our yearbooks; so it was that format — oversize and floppy. I wish I still had it; what an oddity.

Also, neither of my parents were Born in the USA™. My mother was Canadian, and left Quebec City… not for Freedom in America, but for Culture in New York. And she kept her Canadian citizenship her whole life. So while I would hear about American Revolutionaries struggling for Freedom against the Tyranny of the British crown, I also heard about how Canadians did pretty well without a revolution and made themselves a really nice country, all things considered.

My father was born in Germany of Austrian Jewish parents. Because my paternal great-grandfather, Arthur Basch, got US citizenship in 1867, when he came over to sell wine to San Franciscans during the Gold Rush, my grandparents and my father were US citizens and, I suspect, not citizens of either Germany or Austria. So when they, like quite a few Jews in that part of the world, decided to go somewhere else, they came to the US. Not for Freedom — they would have been just as free in Palestine or England or Australia or any number of other places — but because that’s where Arthur had gone, because that’s where the Gold Rush was.

So I learned about American History from a remove. And yet I never questioned, or thought much about, frankly, the claims that the revolution was fought for Freedom. I never thought, but wait! What about the 20% of people here who were slaves? What about their freedom?

My old school friend CK, who studied history in college and is one of the more patriotic people I know, says that this conception of American History, due to the 1619 Project, namely that the Revolution was fought in large part to preserve the wealth produced by slavery, has the wrong context. He says that slavery was a constant through human history until the Enlightenment, and vigorously promulgated by Islam (among others). Only in the European West was it even possible to conceive of an end to slavery. So, instead of thinking of the American Revolution as a battle to preserve slavery, think of slavery in the West as a slowly crumbling institution, thanks to the necessary precondition of the Enlightenment; the institution of slavery finally collapsed, albeit with resistance, because of the Civil War. After all, among the 13 colonies, there were states that abolished slavery in ~1776; Vermont was the first. And they also fought the Revolution, though obviously not to preserve slavery, which they opposed.

Sidebar: The idea that there was no opposition to slavery except European and only after the Enlightenment may have a lot of truth. It may also be the result of our cultural preconceptions — because we didn't learn Islamic history in school, we wouldn't have learned about any Islamic abolitionists. Same for Indian or Chinese or anything else. See this handy Wikipedia page on abolition. So there may be some confirmation bias. Of course, while apparently there were Islamic abolitionists in the 17th Century, I don't know how effective they were, and they may (I guess it's obvious I don't know much about them) have been responding to the European Enlightenment. Note that the last country to outlaw slavery was Mauritania in 2007, and apparently it is still a struggle. And the last time a slave was in the White House, I believe, was when an Arab potentate visited the White House with his entourage (I think this was in the 20th century). Time and progress are neither a circle nor an arrow, but a big chaotic complicated mess.

Of course, conservative voices (whatever that even means these days) have resisted the casting of shade on the Founding Fathers with the argument that, “Be Fair! While we know better now, you can’t judge people then by our standards! Slavery was perfectly normal then!”

Of course, that argument is inconsistent with the one above about the Revolution — it is not fair to judge the slave-owning Founders by our modern standards, but how about if we judge them by contemporaneous New England standards? If states then were abolishing slavery, then slavery was hardly completely normal and not worth mentioning.

I’m (obviously, maybe?) not a historian, but I have studied human behavior (I was an actor and a playwright). As I look at the period of the founders, I detect ambivalence and cognitive dissonance. After all, our founding documents don’t mention slavery, yet they included many provisions which enabled and strengthened it, such as the 3/5ths rule or the 2nd Amendment.

That’s an interesting argument, that the 2nd Amendment was drafted to protect the rights of slave States to have militias to crush slave rebellions; Patrick Henry certainly said that. Other Founders said other things too, so the best gloss I can put on it was that crushing slave rebellions may not have been the only reason we have the right to bear arms, but it was certainly one of them. I don’t know that the people of Vermont were especially worried about Federal troops coming into Montpelier, while Georgians were certainly concerned.

And given the ambivalence I detect in the Founders’ attitudes about slavery (they didn’t want to get rid of it, but they didn’t want to explicitly acknowledge it either), I wonder if the non-slavery-crushing justifications for the 2nd Amendment were feeble post-hoc rationalizations. Maybe, maybe not; would be an interesting American History PhD project for someone.

Given all of this, it is fair to de-romanticize the Founders and the Revolution. By the standards of the time, the (slave-owning) Founders were morally repugnant slavers, and the Revolution was fought, at least in part, to preserve a police state. Gradually, states began to abolish slavery, but the remaining slave states fought fiercely for their right to impose tyranny, using the glorious Constitution as their shield and sword.

I think one can still love one’s country, though in a mature adult way — not by imposing a mythic gloss on it, so that nothing done in its name was ever bad or wrong, but in accepting its flaws and trying to remedy them. As we grow up as individuals, we sometimes learn to do that with our parents: Dad may have been a superhero when we were children, but we might learn that he cheated on Mom, that he gambled away our college fund, that maybe he slacked off at work, that he drank and hit us… there is a gamut of human frailty and even sin to which we and our parents and loved ones are subject. But we love them anyway! Same is true about ourselves — I think we can love ourselves despite our faults and flaws, and only if we do that can we make the effort to improve.

The same can be true of our hometowns, our states, our religions, our ethnic groups, or any other groups with which we feel affinity. We don’t have to find them blameless to love them. It can be a struggle: as the President of Germany once said, sometimes you can only love your country with a broken heart. I feel drawn to Israel, but not because it’s perfect or beyond criticism, even fierce criticism. NB: I’ve never been, and have no plans.

That’s all well and good for grown-ups. But how do you teach children who may not be able to process all that nuance? My friend CK says that, traditionally, history classes are taught as a way to bind children to their country and each other. I guess I see that, but I didn’t experience it myself — my history classes were all about the French Revolution and Napoleon. I didn’t feel “bound” to much at all. And yet I am proud to be an American, though I have no illusions about the terrible things it has done, starting with slavery and its treatment of indigenous peoples. Keeping that in mind (using the “yes, and” of improv, maybe the best argumentation technique ever), we can still be aware of a complex, contradictory panoply of people, characteristics, and events.

But… none of that helps the children. I think there are two possible approaches, the first hard, the second much easier.

(1) Do not deny the wickedness of the slave system and do not deny its existence: instead, emphasize the slaves’ courageous attempts to free themselves, while not ignoring the Bad White Men who moved to stop them. In other words, do not interpret them as victims requiring rescue by Good White People; the “virtuous victimhood” trope is quite as sickening as that awful actress, formerly of The Mandalorian, saying that she’s not anti-Semitic, why, if she had been in Germany in WWII, she would have used her martial arts skills to protect the “gentle Jews!” Ugh, ptui. I’d rather talk about the Warsaw Uprising. If ever there were Good Guys and Bad Guys, the Southern slaveholders must be seen as Bad Guys. Too comic-booky? We are talking about primary school, and any attempt to frame them as other than Bad Guys is sickening. You could say, well, to be fair, they were getting very rich off their slaves, so what do you expect; not a good lesson for kids. So sentimental portrayals of the antebellum South are out. Gone With the Wind? Out. Song of the South? Out. Benjamin Franklin on abolition, not just that kite business and a printer? In. Northern states that abolished slavery in the first decades of the Union? In. George Washington and securing his wife’s slaves in PA? In. Kids should not be protected from contradiction. And we should completely expunge Parson Weems‘ hagiographical fictions.

(2) Forget about it; US History can’t be taught as a binding experience, because that just propagates lies. Avoid stories and narrative entirely. Teach names, dates, places, and maps as a memorization exercise. Give no stirring tales of the wonderful Rise of Freedom, because they are not actually true and the lie is too obvious to be convincing; if you’re going to lie to your children, make it convincing at least. Also don’t tell sickening one-note horror stories. Just names/dates/places/maps. Be sure to include non-Whites, women, and the First Peoples. And don’t just focus on Great Men, also heavily weight stories of regular people.

It seems more and more obvious to me that the American Revolution fight for “freedom” was also a fight to protect the evil twin of America — the slave-owning South was a totalitarian dictatorship and police state. Its elites, yes, even those Founders who owned slaves, knew this; even as they grew rich off this system, they were influenced by the Enlightenment. So I suspect they were in the grip of a powerful cognitive dissonance, morally, and resorted to lying and dissembling, probably justifying it to themselves every step of the way. They had to find non-slavery-justifying text for every measure they took to protect slavery. We see that same tendency today, using fiscal arguments to justify denying government largesse to non-Whites.

A Theory about modern trends in the Republican party

Imagine a child of distant, busy parents, who is desperate for love and approval. What skills might this child develop? I think they would try to say and do things that make people react in an approving way. They would become very sensitive to people’s reactions to them.

If they were clever, they might learn that you can say a bunch of things quite fast, one after another, and look for reactions. When there is a positive reaction, double down on whatever statement got that reaction. If there is a negative or no reaction, just jettison that line. It’s a simple evolutionary algorithm.

Thus is born a bullshit artist and con man. That’s how we get a Trump.

I guess it’s an effective tactic to get people to have positive reactions. I think the twin skills, rapid bullshit generation coupled with hypersensitive reaction assessment, are pretty rare. A lot of Republican politicians are trying to emulate him, with varying success. I think the trend is to try to craft bullshit in private based on some kind of ideology, which only captures a piece of the art. Yes, Trump didn’t give a rat’s ass about whether what he said was “true”, but he also didn’t really care whether it was ideologically correct. His imitators have learned that lying doesn’t matter, but they are constrained by caution and by ideology, as well as by the limits of their own imagination.

And the perfect response to being called on for a lie: Outrage! How DARE you! Seems to work. Kavanaugh was a kind of field test, and now it’s used far and wide.

Final note – this is part of the skillset of a mentalist! That’s how they convince you they’re reading your mind: they say a lot of things that might be true and read your reactions. If something doesn’t get a reaction, they quickly move onto the next thing, maybe with a slight headshake, like “where did that signal from beyond come from.” If they do get a reaction, they double down and try for detail. I’ve seen mentalist acts, and it is uncanny (which is the whole idea). Naturally, people get the idea that the mentalist is “saying what I’m thinking”, and it feels intimate and moving.

It’s a neat trick.

The Perfectly Good Business (PGB)

There is such a thing as a Perfectly Good Business. It provides a Perfectly Good profit for its owners, a Perfectly Good living for its workers, a Perfectly Good product for its customers at a Perfectly Good price. It is a Perfectly Good neighbor to its community.

Obviously, the people running this PGB are total suckers. If a private equity (PE) firm sees such a business, you’d have one of those sequences from old cartoons where the PGB suddenly looks like a lollipop or a T-bone steak. Or maybe a pigeon.

I mean, if they’re providing a Perfectly Good living to its workers, clearly too much is going toward labor and those workers need to make less. If they’re unionized, the anti-union arsenal needs to be brought into play to crush the union.

If they’re providing a Perfectly Good product, there is money that can be squeezed out there. Can’t we reduce the quality? Why should it be Perfectly Good? Can’t it be made crummy, but spend some more on IP lawyers and marketing to mask that?

And, worst of all, if it’s a Perfectly Good member of its community, there’s certainly money to be made there. Why can’t it dump its waste into the groundwater, if that would save some money? After all, the people around are too poor to sue if they get cancer, and our lawyers can always twist the statistics to hide the cluster.

And all that money that comes from impoverishing the workers and denying their bargaining power, from reducing quality, from being a bad neighbor, all that new wealth and profit can go to some douchebag on Sutton Place who was clever enough to see this opening.

Lies and Belief

Lies are quick and easy, truth is slow and laborious. Lies are fun and sticky and quick, truth is complicated, counterintuitive and boring.

What is a lie? What is belief?

I think we know why people have the feeling we call “belief” — either a statement conforms to what we already believe (confirmation bias), or believing it somehow profits us (motivated thinking); we tend to believe things that are easier to remember (availability bias and the illusion-of-truth effect); we believe statements by people who resemble us (need citation); we trust and believe people whose names are easier to pronounce (need citation). We believe thing that create adherence to a group to which we belong. None of these have anything to do with a belief being what eggheads call “true.”

True, sometimes we believe statements after checking them against other statements that have passed a gantlet of tests. That’s much of science and scholarship. Nobody can know everything, so one relies on a body of credentialed individuals and an accepted body of knowledge; and we might know enough to judge whether a bit of knowledge is crazy or believable, even if we don’t understand all the details. But this is a niche definition of belief, mostly used for academics. I was going to say, for “business and academics,” since you’d think that business decisions would be driven by concern for adherence to what we like to call “facts,” but my speculation is that this is a sometime thing.

There is a belief about business that, due to the profit motive, everyone is somehow on peak performance and efficiencies are optimized. But the point isn’t to maximize to an ideal degree, but to surpass competitors. And anyone who thinks there’s not a ton of loafing and goldbricking in successful companies hasn’t worked for one. Even, maybe especially, in the C-Suite.

But anyway. There are flavors of “belief”, so when Don Jr says things about the “Democrat governor of Texas”, many people will believe that and repeat it. How many I don’t know. Would be interesting/horrifying to find out.

The power of the lie is that it is quickly made with little effort. Liars will apply a heuristic evolutionary algorithm, which is just fancy talk for come up with many lies, one after the other, with no concern for consistency, and some of them will die on the ground where they fall, and others will sprout and reproduce, like Dawkins’ memes or mustard seeds. If you only get one in a hundred or one in a thousand to take off, they are so cheap to do that this can be a successful tactic.

Telling the truth can be complicated and counter-intuitive and take energy. Telling a lie is instant and easy. See the old cliché, A lie goes around the world before the truth can put its boots on.

Just as there are people with an uncanny ability to remember and tell jokes or to tell stories in an entertaining, memorable way, there are those who are better at lying than others. Look at #45 — here is a compendium — and the various flavors of lie. Simple statements of exaggerated numbers, when few people know the real numbers. Or memorable fables of strong men weeping tears of gratitude. Compare that with Don Jr’s ham-fisted lie about the “democrat governor of Texas”.

What about the most recent Big Lie about Biden shutting off power to Texas? Where did that originate? How many people believe it? What would be actually involved in doing that?

But maybe you don’t need to be a good liar any more. Just a liar.

There is an element of religion in this acceptance of lies, as there is in the Qanon phenomenon. If you go to a religious service, and the leader of the congregation makes a statement about, say, the sea parting, it would be a serious breach of protocol to raise your hand and ask, Really? How do you know that? When the congregation is supposed to “repeat after me,” they just do; to do otherwise would be hideously disrespectful.

When I was little, my parents would send me to a friend’s house (the Kemps, if you must know) for Seders. I remember, during the ritual, asking if the story of the Exodus actually happened and everyone stopped and looked down as if I had farted. They kindly explained to me that that was not the kind of question one should ask. The question of “truth” was a rude question. Being a polite and cowardly little boy, I knew when it was time to shut up. But I didn’t understand why I had been rude for many years.

So, what does the religious right want? I mean, that it doesn’t already have…

Listening the the 538 Politics Podcast, the recent episode, What Could the GOP’s Future Look Like? Very interesting, quite right-leaning panel. One of them (I think Henry Olson) said that the clear center of the Republican Party included religious people who wanted to fight for a country where they did not feel cast out into the wilderness. They want to express their beliefs openly and in public. I paraphrase, I don’t have a transcript.

My first thought was, who’s stopping them? Anyone who wants to pray can pray, they want to tell everyone their beliefs, they can. They already have that. I suppose what they don’t have is the reaction to that that they might prefer, which is of course approbation. Not everybody will react and think, What a good person — they’re a fervent Christian, so they must be good and I’ll listen to what they have to say and (if I can get over my inner wickedness) maybe even be persuaded.

So they’re not getting the reaction they want. This is a fairly common whinge on the right (though not exclusively), where they say, What about my freedom of speech, as they’re speaking freely. What they mean is they don’t like the reaction they get to their speech, which, I emphasize, they are doing freely. The speaking I mean.

Another component is they want to feel differently. That I can’t help with. They want a country in which they feel differently… more in charge, perhaps? I would say they’re too in charge as it is. But I think that the sentiment that they want to feel less cast out is code for, they want to be more in charge and inspire subservience, if not fear, on the part of others.

I can see how a tribe held together by a belief in their ultimate victory in an eternal sphere, in which their Big Boss (God) defines morality by burning it into the very fabric of the universe, so that all those who believe differently then they are, by definition, to one degree or another, immoral. And what kind of world would it be, I ask you, if the moral did not try to impose their beliefs, by force if necessary, on the immoral? This is not a new stance. We’ve seen something like this since the dawn of religion, or with the dawn of cities, which is where this unitary punishing God took shape as a necessary adaptation to get groups greater than 150 to cooperate.

And it was a successful invention! The partisans of these religions took over in a Big Way.

So, when someone complains about not having something, and you give them the thing, and they still complain, something else is going on.