The Underlying Disease

POST 1068

Second in a series (see Ignorance and Lies).

The Diagnosis

The slavish devotion of so many to worshiping ignorance and lies is baffling and the translation of that into violence is fraught with grave danger. It has been easy to criticize, saying those people are voting against their own interests, which is a high-minded way of pointing fingers and ridiculing. That’s only useful until the reality of the true danger lands with the force of an asteroid.

So I continue to try to understand the appeal of absurd and hateful conspiracy theories, the popularity of a con man with people who used to follow their common sense, and the anger and hatred that infect so many in our nation. At root it is all about trying to understand what seems, on the surface, to be both self-righteous and self-destructive. It is an existential challenge of our time.

It was in this quest that I came upon an interview in The Atlantic of Walter Kirn, my first brush with an outspoken and successful author, thought leader and iconoclast. The title of the piece is The Blindness of Elites: Walter Kirn and the empty politics of defiance, by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Kirn seems to speak for the people in “flyover country” who feel betrayed by, blown off by our “elites.” Note that even our use of the term “flyover country” declares our contempt for those who live there and demonstrates our elitist attitude.

I’ve written about the drivers of this sense of betrayal and have come to believe that there’s something there that, even after so many years of knee-jerk anger, we’ve hardly done more than knee-jerk right back. That’s not helpful to anyone, other than for momentary self-satisfaction. In other words, and to mix metaphors, all we’ve done is to repeatedly kick the hornets nest, never dealing with the the reasons for the swarm of angry hornets. Little wonder that we keep getting stung.

Try these short, non-sequential quotes from the essay:

Today [Kirn] regards Trump’s supporters not as the proverbial basket of deplorables but as more or less reasonable citizens with valid concerns. The movement around Trump, Kirn told me, is “an expression of American frustration on the part of people who feel like they got a really raw deal.” [i.e. betrayal]

.  .  .  his resentment against the tastemakers and gatekeepers is so unrelenting because it’s fueled not simply by dislike but also by real affection—a sympathy for Americans in unimportant places, people without power or influence, whose opinions and lifestyles he believes are often dismissed as retrograde or irrelevant.

.  .  .  the government’s attempts to manage the pandemic were a “behavioral-engineering enterprise, no longer having much to do with the truth, no longer having much to do with your right to desire what you wish or not desire what you don’t wish.”

Everyone, he suggested, was in on the game. “This group of legacy media institutions, along with a whole array of academic—what is called ‘civil-society organizations’—and frankly, Homeland Security, clerks of the government, got together and … ganged up to preserve this preferential cartel status for those [elite] groups and start shooting down the rebel ships.” [a reference to Kirn’s “Star Wars” metaphor}

You get the idea.

And even if at times Kirn seems to be contrarian only for the purpose of being a contrarian, he provides an insight into what America looks like and feels like from a non-elite perspective. The danger is that makes for easy pickings for a charlatan huckster promising to be the “retribution” for people who feel aggrieved.

The point is that what seems to be devilishly absurd actually has a sound footing in the realty of millions of Americans. It led to a first Trump presidency and over 74 million votes cast for him in the 2020 election. That’s bad news for democracy, but our collective ignoring of real grievances is leading to the possibility of a second Trump presidency and our continuing threat of dysfunction and violence.

If grievances based in reality are the underlying driver of otherwise sensible Americans electing a megalomaniac sociopath, what else are those grievances causing? Thom Hartmann put his finger on that recently, identifying inequity and inequality as the drivers.

So how does inequality provoke criminality? The research on the topic is pretty exhaustive, albeit poorly publicized, and the simplest explanation is among the most easily understood: humans are wired to rebel against unfairness. Unfairness thus destroys social trust.

Inequality causes crime because it destroys social trust, the core fabric of any society. It essentially makes us crazy. Without social trust, empathy and shared values weaken and culture begins to disintegrate. [emphasis original]

So, inequality provokes our social unrest, often called our “political divide” or “cultural divide” and that drives criminality. It drives our us-them animosity and makes us distrust our neighbors, demonize and attack all the “others” we can identify and in all ways rip apart our social fabric such that people are outright warning against and even promising a civil war.

Bernie Sanders is flamboyant and has crazy hair and a crazy manner, but,

He’s right about the inequity and unfairness baked into our American cake for decades.

For at least 50 years our poor and middle classes have been sending their wealth to the very rich via tax schemes that make golden promises for everyone but only benefit the rich. In 2010 our Supreme Court, rife with billionaire backed justices outright wrote legislation – they made it up themselves. Citizens United has allowed billions of big money bucks to buy our government and enrich already rich people. And that exacerbates our outrage over unfairness.

That is the diagnosis. Wealth inequity. Unfairness. Legalized cheating.

That is the betrayal, the rot. That is the primary source of so much of our social unrest. And that betrayal leads to anger and cruelty. From Mother Jones:

The relentless rot is exactly why huge swaths of the electorate do want [Trump] back. As it’s been said, the cruelty is the point.

The inequity and unfairness is tearing our country apart – that’s our national sickness.

Trump has already told us that if he wins the election he will further enrich the already fabulously wealthy. He will do this at the expense of everyone else and of our future generations.

We better get about moving past our swatting at symptoms – those angry hornets – and deal with the underlying disease. Our present abdication of that is what is driving this existential moment.

Your mandatory assignment: Read Hartmann’s post.

Today is a good day to be the light

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