Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Sliding toward fascism

In psychologist Jonathan Haidt's seminal talk "The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives," he makes an intriguing statement:  "The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve, it's really precious -- and it's really easy to lose."

While I buy Haidt's basic premise -- and you should watch the talk, his claims are fascinating and well backed up by evidence -- I can't help but feel that a significant fraction of today's self-styled conservatives have completely gone off the rails.  True conservatism entails a respect for the rule of law, and protection of the interests of one's own community, state, and country.

In the last few weeks, this has been replaced by a reckless disregard for anything but consolidation of power at any cost.

We have a president whose actions seem hell-bent on alienating every ally we have, and just in the last three days included his disrespectful phone call to the Prime Minister of Australia and a veiled threat to send the military into Mexico to deal with the "bad hombres" down there.  Worse still is the sense that Trump has no real understanding of history or knowledge of international policy; in a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, she had to explain to the President what the terms of the Geneva Convention are.

The most frightening thing of all is his capacity for whipping his followers into a frenzy, and their single-minded devotion to him.  People who have received national attention after criticizing Trump have received credible death threats.  Even smaller fish like myself have felt the backlash of questioning Dear Leader; one of my previous posts, in which I asked "what would it take to convince you that you were wrong about Donald Trump?", was vehemently labeled as "psychological manipulation" by one reader.  Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes, in an article in The Atlantic:
Authoritarianism needs that predator edge; that shared understanding that the leader’s body carries within it the potential for violence– and the power to make it difficult to prosecute him.  Trump’s attacks on women; his targeting of Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, and others as dangers to the nation; and the threats from his supporters against the lives of ordinary citizens that follow his criticisms of them on Twitter (such as the union leader Chuck Jones and the college student Lauren Batchelder) all go into the category of things it’s safer not to talk about.  Normalization is actually decriminalization, a willingness to forget that such things were once thought of as lawless behavior.
All of this is symptomatic of a trend I'm seeing toward cronyism and loss of transparency and suppression of dissent.  And if the signs themselves aren't scary enough, read the article "Wait Calmly," by Volker Ullrich, that appeared in the German news source Die Zeit yesterday.  It chronicles the responses of German politicians to the rise of Adolf Hitler -- and how, across the board, the general reaction was, "It'll be fine."  In early 1933, the newspaper Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung published an editorial in which the author stated that he was willing to wait to see if Hitler  would prove "whether he really had what is needed in order to become a statesman."  His ignorance of policy and law was excused, with his followers saying that it was more important that he rebuild Germany as a nation than it was for him to be well informed.

Even after Hitler became chancellor and began to purge the opposition, the "it couldn't happen here" sentiment was rampant. Theodor Wolff, the editor-in-chief of the Berliner Tageblatt, said that even if Hitler wasn't a nice guy, in Germany there was a "border that violence would not cross."  Germans, Wolff said, would protect the "freedom of thought and of speech," would create a "soulful and intellectual resistance" that would prevent Hitler ever from becoming a dictator.

Most appallingly, the chair of the Central Association of Germans of Jewish Faith said, "In general, today more than ever we must follow the directive: wait calmly."

This was printed on January 31, 1933.  Five months later, Hitler and his cronies had suspended the German constitution and fundamental human rights, eliminated political parties, required that radio and newspapers release news that was consistent with the National Socialist party line, and stripped Jews of their equality under the law.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

If that parallel isn't terrifying enough, consider a second one: the similarities between what is happening right now in the United States and the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.  As Andrés Miguel Rondón lays out in his article "In Venezuela, We Couldn't Stop Chávez.  Don't Make the Same Mistakes We Did," Chávez rose to power on much the same kind of wave that Trump has -- populism, nationalism, breaking off ties to allies who were perceived as exploitative or hostile, demonizing the opposition, and playing the role of a plain ol' guy who is just brutally honest and "speaks his mind."  Rondón writes:
The Venezuelan opposition struggled for years to get this. We wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid Chavismo was, not only to international friends but also to Chávez’s electoral base.  “Really, this guy? Are you nuts?  You must be nuts,” we’d say. 
The subtext was clear: Look, idiots — he will destroy the country.  He’s blatantly siding with the bad guys: Fidel Castro, Vladi­mir Putin, the white supremacists or the guerrillas.  He’s not that smart.  He’s threatening to destroy the economy.  He has no respect for democracy or for the experts who work hard and know how to do business.  I heard so many variations on these comments growing up that my political awakening was set off by the tectonic realization that Chávez, however evil, was not actually stupid. 
Neither is Trump: Getting to the highest office in the world requires not only sheer force of will but also great, calculated rhetorical precision.  The kind only a few political geniuses are born with and one he flamboyantly brandishes.
Chávez died in 2013, and Venezuela still hasn't recovered from the years of isolationism, corruption, and damage to the governmental infrastructure.  In October of 2016, it was declared by CNN Money to be "the world's worst economy" despite having some of the largest known oil reserves, and there are now widespread shortages of food, medicine, and other necessities, even among the former Venezuelan middle class.

The problem is, the message coming from the Trumpian populists -- I'm not going to slander actual conservatives by using that term -- has been amazingly successful, as Hitler's and Chávez's were before him.  Don't believe the media, they're lying.  Fight like hell against people who criticize Dear Leader.  Anyone who objects to what Trump, Bannon, Spicer, McConnell, Ryan, and others are doing is at best a "whiny, fragile snowflake," simply throwing a snit fit over having lost, and at worst a traitor to America.

In other words, don't question anything that comes from the Party, but ignore everything else.

People keep saying "it can't happen here."  We're not the Weimar Republic, we're not pre-Chávez Venezuela.  What terrifies me is that the same sentiments were widely spoken in the Weimar Republic and pre-Chávez Venezuela only months before dictatorship emerged.  Every democracy thinks it can't fail, can never be upended by fascism -- until it happens.

My own personal difficulty with fighting all of this is that I was taught by my (very conservative) parents to play fair, be nice, not pick fights, stay respectful, let others have their opinions.  But that, I think, is no different than the chair of the Central Association of Germans of Jewish Faith telling his constituents to "Wait calmly."  We can't be silent.  We have to challenge these people on their own turf -- while we still have a chance to.

I'll end with a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Two Towers that I've always thought was heart-wrenchingly poignant.  When King Théoden of Rohan is facing legions of Orcs swarming into Helm's Deep with the intent of slaughtering his people, he looks down on them in despair and says, "What can men do against such reckless hatred?"

And Aragorn replies, "Ride out to meet them."

To which I can only respond: Amen.


  1. Aragorn knew help was on the way . . . sadly, we don't have an army led by a white rider coming over the hill to our aid.

    Still, fight we must.

  2. It's fascinating how the left sees Hitler under every rock but is blind to the fact that it is, and always has been, far more authoritarian, totalitarian, and hate-filled than the right ever has been or could be.

    Haidt explains why this is so in The Righteous Mind, saying:

    "If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think?

    Reagan [conservatives] seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people. He’s more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.

    If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

    Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm)3

    One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic-who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living-to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own. Morality binds and blinds."

    1. Those are pretty sweeping statements . . . "than the right ever has been or could be".

      I guess it's a matter of perspective and what we choose to look at. One has to, after all, experience the brunt of someone's "authoritarian" efforts before they can pass judgment on them and the two camps, right and left, choose different focuses for their authoritarian and totalitarian efforts. It's never a direct comparison.

      Some, and I'll include myself in that group, can plainly see the similarities despite the different focus and when it comes to authoritarianism and hate, I don't see much different between the two, especially in the hate department.

      I do experience a kind of despair when one or the other group's best argument on their own behalf amounts to little more than "we harbor less hate than the other guys".

      Hate is hate, so gradations are rhetoric at best. The desire to control, no matter how well-intentioned, is present in both camps, and again gradation is irrelevant because it only comes into play when it affects a given individual.

      The one big different for me, is religion. That's what makes republicans far more dangerous to my mind than democrats will ever be.

      This is nowhere more clearly stated when candidates and holders to the highest government positions in the land clearly and proudly state their allegiance:

      1) God
      2) Country

      They take an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution while at the same time openly saying they hold a different set of writing as being both superior to and superseding the Constitution.

      There is one more difference between the two — although that line has blurred under the weight of politics — and that is the approach to and support of science.

      I will never be a fan of nor excuse ignorance. Willful ignorance being even more egregious to my tired eyes. In that, the Right has a solid lock.

      But, I understand; opinions differ.