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A Yankee Notebook

February 17, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I’m pretty sure that it’s a fantasy of all bloggers, commentators, op-ed piece writers, preachers, and their ilk that their productions will actually influence people’s opinions and behavior. Likewise I’m pretty sure they have about as much effect as a stone thrown into a passing stream: There’s a bloop, followed by briefly spreading rings that move downstream and disappear long before they’d be out of sight. Virtually all of what we write or speak simply reinforces the opinions of those who agree with us, and arouse the ire of those who don’t.

So why bother to continue? A brief scan of the Internet reveals probably tens of thousands of news, opinion, and scientific pieces being generated each day – by everyone from skinhead and neo-nazi groups to the Huffington Post to Paul Krugman to The New York Times and The Journal of Philosophy – along with both readers’ responses to the articles and often vile comments about each other. Each web piece operates at a particular level of sophistication and aspires to appeal to a particular audience. Each of us readers enters this supermarket of information by a different door. I, for example, find myself not only bored, but bewildered by discussions of Heidegger’s metaphysics or, in the natural world, the Standing Stone Amphybolite geologic formation of central Vermont. I’m revolted, and a little frightened, by the paranoia of the American Nazi Party, whose web site blatantly exploits the primal fears of white Americans who feel their future threatened by the immigration and fecundity of mongrel races. So I enter the market through a door somewhere in between – usually via links posted by Facebook friends – and it’s always a pleasure to see Krugman or Robert Reich or The Guardian waiting in there when I do. If Charles Krauthammer or Cal Thomas pops up nearby, I read him, too, but with less pleasure and a vague feeling of having been called a disagreeable name.

Driving across Maine, as I occasionally do, I’m never sleepy, because WVOM, a powerful radio station calling itself “The Voice of Maine,” broadcasts the talk shows of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Listening to them savage the federal government, the “Liberal media,” and Barack Hussein Obama (they never leave out the middle name) is an anti-soporific at least as strong as any modern caffeine-reinforced canned drink. It ranks right up there with the pain of listening to some earnest, donation-soliciting evangelical preacher mangle the Book of Deuteronomy to suit his purposes. The effect lingers long after I’ve gotten to where I was going.

Two things occur to me as I listen. First: How can anybody believe this stuff? Are the so-called dittoheads so credulous and simple that they don’t pick up the inaccuracies, the mislabeling, the innuendoes, and the appeals to religious and racial prejudice? Do these broadcasters speak so precisely to preexisting biases that they only reinforce them, rather than provoke critical thinking? Second: Why is nobody – surely there must be at least half a dozen progressives in Maine outraged by the programs – calling in to protest or argue?

I’ll answer the second one first. Very few dissenters call in, because their calls are first screened by assistants who decide who gets through; and if someone who disagrees does get put through, he or she in a matter of moments is being battered and bullied by a “host” who ridicules every objection. Reminds me of a quotation from Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “There is no arguing with Johnson: for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” In short, most liberal-leaning objectors fear being intimidated. Hang onto that idea.

Now to the first question. Yes, they do believe it, hundreds of thousands of them out in the Heartland. Even some members of my own extended family mutter darkly that our President was born in Africa, is secretly a Muslim, and is dedicated to the destruction of the United States. Fired by the buncombe of Donald Trump (who must know better) and the encoded racism of former Speaker Gingrich and Senator McConnell, conservatives are buying personal weapons at an unprecedented pace to protect themselves when Big Government comes for them. You have to wonder at what point deeply held convictions such as these become psychopathology.

And yet no one seems to be expressing this out loud. There’s a reason. We liberals are by nature more sensitive and (let’s admit it) wimpy than our loud-shouting and gun-toting fellow citizens. Threatening e-mails and phone calls frighten us, if only for the sake of our families, and cause us to pull many of our punches.

In the February 7 issue of The Guardian. writer George Monbiot expresses what many of us have felt, but haven’t dared say. “Conservatism is linked to low intelligence; but the real idiots are the progressives letting it win....Tied up in knots of reticence and self-doubt, they will not shout stop. Doing so requires an act...for which they no longer possess a vocabulary.”

Monbiot cites a recent article in Psychological Science presenting empirical evidence from a Canadian study “that people with conservative beliefs are likely to be of low intelligence.” Research indicates that low intelligence in childhood predicts, for example, racism in adulthood. Conservative ideology is a bridge to simple, satisfying positions for those unable or unwilling to apply cognitive abilities to grappling with dissonance in adulthood. This is not the kind of statement that’ll change anything, much less win any friends; I present it myself with private glee and public trepidation. But like the commentators and preachers who seem so rarely to change anything, I hope against hope that we progressives will take note, in this important election year, that if we don’t vigorously attack the weeds in our gardens, we’ll soon have nothing else.

Photo by Willem lange