Thursday, October 6, 2016

Slouching Toward a Political Fukushima

© Charles D. Hayes
Day in and day out, confirmation that the political Right has reached a stage-four level of wing-nuttery is evident in social media, newspapers, radio, and television. Commentators of every political persuasion have grown weary of uttering the familiar refrain that “You can’t make this stuff up.” But people can. They are making up bizarre things to say, and other people are believing them. Every day we seem nearer to DEFCON 1 lunacy.    
Ultra-conservatives complained recently that a baker forced to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple would, in effect, be participating in a wedding. Strangely, they don’t think a gun store owner who sells a gun to a killer is participating in a murder. Such twisted logic seems to apply only when it feeds a particular agenda.
On the Christian Right, Pat Robertson claimed recently that smoking pot will make a person a slave to vegetables. Another evangelist warned believers to prepare for martyrdom if the Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage. Mike Huckabee said gays won’t be satisfied until there are no more churches.
The unhinged rhetoric just keeps ratcheting up in tenor, and it’s growing louder with the approach of the 2016 election. Kansas politicians have enacted laws to keep people from using food stamps on cruise ships, which simply amounts to an existential effort to humiliate poor people. No doubt they think Jesus would approve.
The paranoid antigovernment crowd is hyper-alert for evidence that government forces are out to get them, and their pattern-matching gray matter is up to the challenge of perceiving connections where any hint of cause and effect can be imagined. Accusations that stretch the very limits of the term irrationality are picking up steam over fears about Black helicopters, secret nuclear weapons, Muslim plots to take over the government, Communist conspiracies, elitist collusions, unseen sinister forces, and other bizarre rumors.
Perhaps it only seems that more and more people qualify as being certifiable, as we used to say, because more media outlets are giving them voice. The Internet and social media have provided conspiracy theorists a communication platform never before possible, with the result that irrationality feeds on itself like a python in pursuit of its own tail.
Conspiratorial paranoia stems in part from a deep-seated psychological dread of otherness, chance, change, and uncertainty because they are cousins to mortality. True conspiratorial believers share a visceral fear of chaos driven by a subconscious fear of death. To them the idea of a psychotic fiend pulling all of the strings that make the world go around is much more comforting and less frightening than the thought that no one is in control and anything can happen to anyone at any time. 
In a nutshell, what we are witnessing is the emotional angst of ill-educated citizens fearful of change they can’t understand, people they can’t relate to, and a future over which they have very little control. The reason the rhetoric sounds so bizarre and outlandish is that this is the playing out of identity politics: It’s us versus them on technological steroids, bouncing off the cyber walls of social media echo chambers. Save a national emergency to get everyone’s attention, there seems to be little we can do to stop the nonsense or even slow it down.
I’ve been writing about the critical need for self-education for more than thirty years, and the 2016 election rhetoric reminds me that we aren’t making all that much progress. The four-day Republican National Convention earlier this year amounted to a hate fest, driven by fear and fueled by deep-seated contempt. In effect, America has a black hole of ignorance in the heartland, where contempt for the unfamiliar metastasizes and citizens bond by way of shared derision.
It’s customary to think that people who are ignorant simply lack knowledge and what they need is the benefit of an education. But the vitriolic rhetoric at the 2016 RNC was a clear demonstration of the great barrier to the kind of learning that can dispel misguided cultural angst. What stands in the way for these ill-informed citizens is a virtual fortress of mistaken assumptions—toxic, absurd assumptions like the belief that President Obama is secretly a Muslim who hates America or that Hillary Clinton is the incarnation of evil, plotting to take away everyone’s guns and ammunition. It goes downhill from there.   
This barricade of ignorant assumptions is almost impossible to breach through the use of reason. The important thing to keep in mind is that these ridiculous beliefs were born in emotion, so they have to be dealt with at an emotional level in order to change. Reason is useless against emotional angst.
During the Cold War, liberals and conservatives shared an emotive realm with one another because of the practicality of dealing with a common enemy. When the Cold War ended, the common emotional connection was severed, and the vitriol between the political Left and Right has been escalating ever since.
A Donald Trump victory in November would be an overt declaration that insanity prevails, followed shortly by a nuclear-level fallout of angst when Trump’s voters finally discover that he is egregiously incompetent and has no clue how to put into practice his maniacal agenda to “make America great again.”
A Hillary Clinton victory, which I hope for and expect, is going to result in a misogynistic Fukushima. The big question is the extent and duration of the emotional fallout. Business owners have threated to close their doors if Hillary wins, while white supremacists threaten revolution. How long will it take after the glass ceiling is broken for misogynists to accept the new legitimacy of a woman as president? This is the existential question.
When President Obama was elected, the hope was that racism would subside. Instead there was a backlash. The effect of that election outcome, as the academics explained, was that it actually gave people permission to own their bias. If the same thing happens with misogyny, the question is, for how long and how severe? When will we grow up? Or are we doomed to forever engage in childish tribalism and call it politics?              

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