Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Bullying Of American Opinion And How We Let It Happen

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre of grade school children the president spoke for most Americans and spoke well and clearly. He decried gun violence, which this was. He expressed sadness that our system was not permitting changes to make Americans safer. But he did it calmly, not as a demagogue. The moment would have been perfect for a demagogue. We are most easily persuaded when we are horrified but we are wise to keep our heads, and a wise leader respects that. Discussing these things calmly is the American Way.

His main points were vehemently opposed and rejected by the Republican Party who were devoted to guns and gun rights and gun manufacturers. Two opposed points of view. We need to choose. Were the two points of view equally valid? Were they equal in light of our values?

Did President Obama fail us here? Should he have whipped up our emotions and forced a change over the violent objections of many Americans? This is exactly what those opponents have warned he would do. They say it so loudly it seems to many that he has done what he has not. Obama did not do what George W. Bush did after 9/11. President Bush exploited our anger to start a war against a nation that had nothing to do with the attack of 9/11. The attackers did not come from Iraq. President Obama did not use Sandy Hook or his considerable oratorical gifts to create a frenzy of anger against the NRA or gun owners, nor did he demonize the sick individual who had perpetrated the attack, he didn’t demonize the mentally ill or gun owners or teenagers or anyone. He did not use the opportunity of national horror to parade his concern for the survivors and their families on national television.

The response among his critics was what it always has been, that he doesn’t care enough, because he doesn’t flaunt his emotions or exploit the emotions of the mourning. Instead he met with the families as they would have wished, as any of us would have wished, away from the prying glare of television and media. There is modesty and decency in this. Of course his critics found fault with modesty and decency. Because he respected their private mourning Republicans and the folks at Fox said he didn’t care enough. Today I saw this article about Obama visiting Sandy Hook. There’s been a decent interval since that horrible day. We now know more about his personal response to the families.

We have two parties in this country, clearly opposed in values and goals. One is an armed camp. The other is less so. One is prone to whipping up violent irrational emotions. One is calmer and more deliberate and is criticized for it. (It took Democrats a few years to determine that the war in Iraq was sold with fraudulent arguments. Deliberations can save you from bad decisions but it can make it harder to oppose them.) One party is a bully, one is quieter. Is quietness the same as weakness? Does it mean the values are not as strong or valid? One party shouts what is on its mind immediately, without thinking things through. The Democratic Party is called dithering because it consults and discusses and listens and doesn’t blurt whatever is on its mind at any given moment, especially at angry moments. The GOP has many angry moments. I have sometimes used the old Goofus and Gallant canard to describe this striking difference.

So I read this article about a quiet respectful president visiting the bereaved out of the public eye.

And this is the top article Facebook recommends I read after I read the article about President Obama's response to Sandy Hook. Point and Counterpoint. It’s implied that both stories are equally true. Facebook is how America sorts its feelings and opinions today. It’s how we sift fact and fiction, right and wrong.

What does this say about us, about what is becoming of us, about what is being done to us?

Are we becoming binary? Either we love and totally believe someone or something or a set of values or we hate them and dismiss them. I think this is the problem Obama has faced from day one: the opposing party decided, its leaders swore a solemn oath on this, to oppose everything he tried to do and everything he said. This filters down to the average person as a command from on high.

When a Republican candidate makes irrational and racist claims and demands it licenses the worst kind of instincts in his followers. Donald Trump’s and Ted Cruz’s and other candidates’ ugly remarks about Muslims and refugees from the chaos we created in the Middle East encourages individuals to confront Muslims they meet on the street and vent their previously suppressed hatred. That hatred was previously unacceptable in public, now it has the Republican seal of approval and everyone who identifies with that party feels he is right to vent those ugly opinions in the faces of anyone they suspect might not be as “American” as they are.

In 2001 President Bush said “You’re either with us or against us.” But he was emphatic that most Muslims are our friends and many are our fellow citizens deserving of respect. Why was that civility and decency discarded? Possibly because of the oppositional nature of the Republican Party that swore to oppose Obama’s presidency at every turn. If this president said peaceable righteous Muslims deserve our respect the Republican attitude needed to be, or at least turned out to be the absolute opposite. Whatever President Obama says has to be disputed and opposed. Binary politics.

Computers are binary, everything reduced to a zero or a one, no ambiguity or nuance. It’s either yes or no. Humans are smarter than that. This Yes/No, either/or evenhandedness expresses itself in different ways. To a computer both zero and one are valid, but Americans increasingly see Yes or No. And the arbiters of the public conversation tend to keep their judgments to themselves. Journalists are barred from having a political affiliation. Which means they must––MUST––write every article in an evenhanded manner… to the point of saying that every point of view, every opinion even an unfactual or unscientific one, is equally valid. Thus articles are built on false equivalencies. If the first paragraph sets out the truth the second paragraph is obligated to set out the opposite, the falsehood, the superstition, and there is no appropriate place for any journalistic judgment. The reader must decide. And that decision is most often made according to team affiliation or inherited prejudice. The reader chooses the version he or she “believes in”––it doesn’t matter which is true or which is a deception or which is paid for by a fossil fuel billionaire or which is cynically expressed by a candidate who wants to harness the hatred in people’s hearts to win power. There is no judgment, only feelings matter. False equivalency, by giving equal status to error and poorly formed opinion encourages that wrongheadedness, endorses it. False equivalency validates falsehood and discredited beliefs by saying they are just as true as truth and enlightened values. So hateful prejudice and fair-mindedness are equally valid today. Right and wrong are equally OK, you get to choose.

And now, it appears, Facebook has embraced this false equivalency laziness. Because they are not a newspaper or broadcast outlet there is no place to point out the flaw in their system. There are no letters to the Facebook editor. There are no retractions of stories they push on us. And Facebook now stands as the absolute standard. This is now how we decide things by giving equal status to our worst instincts and letting the volume of our shouting decide which set of values is valid. This is democracy, of a kind. But absolute majority rule, brute democracy, the democracy of the mob, doesn’t give a damn about the minority. Hitler was elected by a democracy, a German republic, with a congress and parties. His brownshirts hustled and bullied the majority into following its worst instincts, or the worst instincts of its worst members. We know what resulted. Hitler was put in power by powerful men and corporate power who saw a benefit in erasing the individual and creating a mob they could control, but they were unable to control Hitler and his mob. They went along with that mob until the bitter end.

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