I’m compelled on (a regular basis) to run reality checks on my perceptions of things. Today that involved tuning my truck radio to the AM dial, and listening to Rush Limbaugh. I know people that listen to Rush. It is because I know these people (some of whom I consider friends and human beings I’d want on my side in a bar fight) that I have a desire to understand what they are finding in Rush. I listened long enough to get the idea that Obama’s true agenda is to ruin in four years the America that we and our forefathers took two hundred years to build. Rush said that we can’t look at what’s going on now in the “normal” way that we’ve always evaluated politics. This is something different, something unprecedented. Rush’s opening comment was a rhetorical question: “Let me get this straight: we can’t identify the illegal aliens in this country, but we can require everyone to buy health insurance?” (adding the tag that “If you don’t, Reid and Pelosi will track you down and throw you in jail” — a fiction as there is no criminal penalty for non-compliance with the Health Care Reform Act). Every Limbaugh sentence was seasoned with dramatic pauses, heavy sighs, and every vocal cue that Rush was wearing himself out trying to point out this web of conspiracies to true Americans and thereby single-handedly save this great nation.
It got me thinking. In an odd moment of understanding, I realized that the “conservatives” (as represented by Rush and the TEA Party members) are actually the more utopian of the two idealogical camps we describe with the popular duality of “liberal” versus “conservative”. The conservatives are deeply convinced that — left to their own devices — the rich and the powerful will act in the best interest of “the common good”. The real problem is government, and too much of it.
I’ve come to think that if “liberals” are guilty of overestimating the rationality and moral potential of our species, the “conservatives” are equally guilty of underestimating our potential for selfish behavior and general mayhem. Liberalism sees governance as a means of protecting as many of us as possible from the rapacious behavior of the (inevitable) dangerous few. In a sense this is a blend of optimism with pragmatism. The TEA Party view seems to be a mix of disparate elements in search of a synthesis: they want to abolish government and yet abhor anarchy; they call any government involvement in healthcare “socialist”, yet find no inner conflict in utilizing veterans TRICARE, or Social Security and Medicare.
There is in me a pull toward finding connections with my fellow citizens. I look for a common reference point — something we agree on. Once established, both parties know their starting point and can get their bearings. But each time I try to approach the inner workings of my upset conservative fellow-citizens I run into obstacles I cannot readily surmount. Although I am able to enter into many of the feelings of those who fear domination by an aggressive government (I am an American, after all — it’s in our character to be wary), I am blocked by a boulder-field of odd and irrational beliefs that inhibit my progress toward meaningful, rational connection.
I think it’s safe to say that a high percentage of the TEA Party folks are “god fearing”, and being such, are already exhibiting an increased capacity to believe in things for which there is no more evidence than another’s word on the matter. How can I find common ground with someone who really believes, deep in their heart, that our sitting President is not an American citizen (despite proof to the contrary), or that he is bent on destroying our economy instead of trying to fix it? The imagined conspiracies fly so fast and so thick that it is, literally, dizzying.
There must be a certain thing about our minds that is draws us to notions of vast conspiracies. As a friend pointed out to me, such beliefs engender a feeling of powerlessness (as in the forces arrayed against one are far too great to be overcome, so there is no point in actually trying to engage “it”). I keep thinking of the “Baloney Detection Kit” video from Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, where one of the ten testing points is the question: “Does this fit in with what I know about how the world works?” From time to time I get a letter from the left hinting at vast conspiracies on the right, and a little sensor in my head jumps to life and says “wait a minute — this sounds pretty conspiratorial to me”. My response, in such cases, is to not take it seriously unless (and until) I get corroborating evidence (and the evidence had better be good for such a large claim). I’ve learned to ferret out the 5 or 10 percent that is truth and disregard the soaring, rickety edifice of conspiracy that is inevitably built upon an original thin sliver of truth. I’m calling people on this sort of stuff all the time. It’s maddening, because I’m just one voice giving one friend shit for some piece of internet crap that they forwarded to their entire e-mailing list without taking two minutes to see if it was bogus or not.
Once again, I think we overestimate our abilities as humans. The more I try to keep up with science and politics and world events, the more feeble my brain seems. Rush Limbaugh seems to think we are all super humans being held in check by Liberal-Secular-Humanist-Socialist force fields. Every mis-step (or perceived mis-step) or lack of immediate overwhelming result from any administration initiative is held up like the severed head of a martyr by some demagogue or another.
One thing about holding a naturalistic, Darwinian view of life is that I take humans being for what we actually are: not what the Bible tells me we are, or the mystics say we are capable of. My brand of magical thinking is to carry the rosy hope that I have the potential power to bring insights to people in a way that will make them leave aside some of their irrationality and thereby be of more practical help in the heavy lifting of managing the global and local societies we live in. Embedded in that hope is a belief that humans are capable of becoming ever more rational the more educated they become. Clearly, there is evidence to the contrary. Recent survey’s show that a high percentage of the TEA Party membership is college educated. Which makes it all the more baffling that they believe in so much crazy stuff.
But perhaps I’m unfair to pick on one self-selecting group of politically-motivated people, except insofar as they are perfectly representative of any other group of humans that are drawn together by a particular orthodoxy of irrational ideas. This seems to be a perfectly common pattern in our species: otherwise rational people who function smoothly in their work and family lives retain for themselves one corner of their thinking for a completely loony idea: the CIA killed Kennedy; the Twin Towers was an inside job; Pterosaurs still live in a remote lake area in Africa; Noah’s Ark rests on a mountain side in Turkey; President Obama is a Kenyan agent bent on destroying the Constitution.
It is this propensity of the human mind that has me running my reality checks — as a sort of a self-diagnostic — looking for mental “spam” or the virus of a bad idea. Of course the power of a CRAZY IDEA is that it can never be completely disproved (and of course Science is not in the business of obliterating ideas, only showing where the weight of evidence points us — which is enough for a reasonable person). The CRAZY IDEA demands that it be not just shown to be unlikely, but proven to be completely impossible. This is where the CRAZY IDEA’S brilliance and durability lies. This is why so many people can still deny the evidence for Evolution and Natural Selection with questions that Darwin answered fully over 150 years ago.
This phenomenon of belief is wonderfully skewered by Bertrand Russell’s famous Celestial Teapot analogy:
“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”
Of course Russell here is famously going after the idea of God, but leave off that final sentence about ancient texts and you could be talking about the 10 to 20 requests a week to the Hawaii Health Department for President Obama’s (previously verified to the satisfaction of all reasonable people) birth certificate. Of course, I could be wrong. Obama could be a Venusian cyborg, perfectly designed to appeal to our human need for a political savior. Now that would be a CRAZY IDEA. But somewhere, sometime, I could just about guarantee you, there is a human brain that would (or does) believe it. How would you or I talk to such a person?
I have no idea. I don’t speak Venusian.