Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Pertains to discerning authentic truth, bias, and achieving the civil discourse essential to democracy.

The MAGA Bomber

Thirteen small but potentially deadly bombs were mailed to left-leaning celebrities critical of President Trump. The reaction of media commentators and social media echo chambers will provide much for social scientists and journalism professors to study and write about in the future. The sequence of events as new facts emerged reveals how irrational people become when confronted by information that is not in harmony with their tribal beliefs.

View from the Left

Most of those not aligned with the right immediately blamed President Trump for publicly encouraging hate and violence and for conspicuously being slow and tepid about condemning it. They also noted that the characterization of leftist demonstrations as “violent mobs” deepens the fear and animosity felt by both sides.

One theme in several articles was “Stochastic Terrorism” – a theory that suggests that there are always a certain number of unstable people among any political group that may be moved to act by hearing rhetoric that suggests hate and violence. Thus, although no specific call to action was made, the law of averages kicks in, and a susceptible person commits an act of terror.

View from the Right

It was clear from the start that there was a partisan motive behind the targeting of the bombs. The right-wing commentators (Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, among others) promptly seized the opportunity to speculate that it was a liberal plot, a “false-flag” ploy, invented on the eve of the midterm elections, to drive voters away from GOP candidates. “Republicans just don’t do these things,” Limbaugh opined.

The Accused’s View

As I write this, I don’t have a quote from the accused bomber himself.  His lawyer says that he saw Donald Trump as a father figure. His van is plastered with partisan pictures that extol GOP leaders and Trump, and show prominent Dems with cross-hairs superimposed. As it turns out, he is something of a celebrity at Trump’s rallies, having been frequently photographed enthusiastically waving placards.

It’s clear the accused is what he appears to be – an over-the-top right-wing zealot whose passions drive him. Fortunately, the bombs didn’t explode, and the bomber left fingerprints and DNA that authorities were able to trace. Although police sought to cover the van’s incriminating artwork, it was so over-the-top that several individuals came forward with photos made long before the bombing.

The Silence

Those who were pushing the idea of a left-wing conspiracy have fallen silent and turned their attention to other matters. The late night comics made jokes about everyone knowing that the Dems are not well enough organized to pull off such a conspiracy. But even the conservative Weekly Standard couldn’t resist calling out the lords of loud on their implausible false-flag spin of the bomb threats.

What’s to be learned?

I offer a video sent to me by a North Carolina GOP partisan. She evidently found it very persuasive and forwarded it to show me how she feels and what she finds credible. This video is viral in her network with over one million (1,000,000) views logged. What about it makes you skeptical?

 

Journalistic Credibility

If you’ve been following my writing, you know that I have my attention of what allows ordinary people to judge what’s credible in the flood of information and the limitless sources we have access to these days. I speak on the topic and other posts in this blog share what I’ve learned so far.

The CEO of  Mother Jones published an essay that is remarkable in its candor about her own thought process. As an amateur, I has assumed that career writers had all this sort of philosophical stuff sorted out. Clearly this is not so.

“Our journalism comes from somewhere. It comes from a passion for justice, fairness, and a democracy where facts matter and all can participate. That’s not a partisan agenda, because these values are bigger than party. But it is a point of view.

Monica Gauerlein, CEO Mother Jones 

In her essay Stand for Something she makes a case for journalism NOT coming from nowhere, not being without a clear viewpoint. She distinguishes this from bias.

Credibility

(My Presentation on 10/9/2018)

I made 100 copies of the handout expecting to have about half of them left over – we ran out!  At 7 o’clock when we started most of the seats in Penn Hall were filled. I talked for about 50 minutes and was gratified to see people’s attention riveted. Comments afterward revealed that they too are very interested in finding ways to judge the authenticity of information that comes their way.
Here are the links for the videos in the Slide Show

Cult or Just Cult-like

The glorification of Donald Trump as a savior who will make America great again justifies calling his supporters cultish. The zeal they show and their stubborn refusal to acknowledge his many gaffes and character faults strongly remind me of cults I have known.  This set me to looking for an objective checklist to test “is he a cult leader?”

Here is what I came up with.

Cult Checklist

 

What do you think?


Doubling Down?

The Washington Post reports that President Trump has uttered a total of 4229 false or misleading statements. They observe that in the last six months he has succeeded in doubling the record-setting first year. (The Toronto Star pegs it at 2,083 as of 7/28, but Toronto is a long way from the source.)

This mendacity may be a common human frailty writ large, as is so much that The Donald does. He has long been known for a curious relationship with the truth. He gets an idea, he envisions it to be true, he declares it to be true, and he then believes that it is true even when confronted with objective facts that contradict what he “knows.”

Entrepreneurs can be very single-minded, and difficult to dissuade once they lock on to an opinion or a course of action. They usually have consummate confidence in their “feel” or intuition in the absence of complete facts. That is, I suggest, why entrepreneurs arrive first at new opportunities — it’s also why three out of four new ventures fail.

Trump isn’t likely to be accused of overthinking anything. He’s used to making big plays where the stakes are high. His dad taught him that in life and in negotiation he must never voluntarily yield or admit error. That only diminishes his leverage.

Not overthinking and not admitting mistakes is an exceedingly poor learning model.  The natural process of learning is to form a vision of the needed actions, take action, observe results, update the vision, and keep on.  Leave out the observation bit, and it’s easy to go way afield of reality. We are seeing that pattern in Washington.

Presidents preside over stuff. That should be obvious. The President of the US presides over vastly more than he or she can possibly personally track. The nature of the job is to choose good subordinates, delegate, be an astute observer, and manage people well — not strong talents of The Donald. The rapid turn over, the flood of critical books by ex-White House insiders, and the large-scale blunders speak for themselves. The Whitehouse under Trump is far from the agile learning organization that the country needs.

Reality is undeterred by being ignored and has a nasty way of whacking us up the side of the head if we try.

 

What’s Energizing Immigration Drama?

The Wall and now the administration’s treatment of undocumented people are far more energizing symbols to the Trumpist than any realistic evaluation of the underlying social problems immigrants bring.  The rhetoric suggests people who don’t look like “us” (descendants of white northern European immigrants) and don’t speak our language (English) bring crime and are a social burden. But the facts say otherwise: they work, pay taxes, and abide by the law. Indeed they contribute more than they take.

So what’s the hidden problem here?

This meme taken from a Facebook post on a conservative’s newsfeed is core to the bedrock fear of Trumpists: their vision of the good life in America is being eroded. They see immigration as a threat.

When I saw this the words “… impose their culture and beliefs upon this country while at the same time destroying or removing the traditions and beliefs we call dear …” I remembered a viral email I wrote about two years ago.  I think that email captures something that progressives can’t or won’t see: a cultural identity issue.

 

 

Here is the link to that 2016 pre-election essay. I think it is just as relevant now as then, and I’d only change one paragraph. I’ll let you see if you can identify what I would revise…

The “Silent” Minority

Americans Are Being Played

GOP political strategists are good at what they do and they have been at it for at least four decades culminating with our forty-fifth president.

Lee Atwater is credited with coining the phrase “Perception is reality” back when Michael Dukakis fell to the Willie Horton weak on crime meme.  Atwater worked with Karl Rove, Paul Manifort, and Roger Stone who devised a set of strategies that have given the GOP a lock on winning elections across America. This is not a conspiracy theory, it’s crafty application of combative propaganda techniques in a political culture where winning is the only option and nobody who counts cares how it’s accomplished.

Here’s how perception is manipulated to play the media and the American people, to game our democratic systems, and to get a lock on the levers of power.

Lies to Truth in Ten Steps

Here is Robert Reich breaking down the steps:

It is a progression that muddles people’s ability to distinguish truth by creating an illusion that many people accept and believe what started as an easily disproven lie.  Lie … disputed fact … partisan divide … alternative fact.  When people rely on what they think others find credible perception shifts. Truth becomes a perception and not a rational assessment made by weighing the evidence.

Gaming The Media

Manipulating the media has become a profession in our age of ratings and for-profit news coverage. Keeping the numbers up is a survival issue for print, radio, and TV.  Fox News has demonstrated that news as entertainment captures and holds audiences. Outrage and drama fuel good ratings. Authenticity, fact, and nuance – not so much. Here is Reich again to illustrate how deception can prevail even with the best efforts of our free and independent press.

By creating the perception that the media is unfair and biased, all criticism becomes suspect allowing bold lies to persist.

It is no accident that public funds for non-commercial radio and television have been cut by GOP legislation. It’s also intentional that Sinclair Broadcasting has been allowed to acquire rural radio stations across the nation. Control of the media is control of perception.

Fostering Corrosive Doubts and Fears

Doubt and fear fog the intellect and cause humans to fall back on more primitive coping mechanisms.  This opportunity is exploited by human predators to get over on others.  Sociopaths and domestic abusers commonly “Gaslight” victims using the tactics Robert Reich attributes to Authoritarianism in this clip:

The Impact on Individual Perception

The effect of all of these tactics is very personal. By messing with our perceptions, by playing us, our mood and our general outlook is altered.  In this last clip Reich characterizes four syndromes…

Robert Reich is a gifted teacher and an experienced political insider who is very self-aware and who now has a large following of youthful progressives. He is doing great work to show what’s behind the curtain in the political theater we are bombarded with daily. He’s worth following on social media.

Liberal Agenda vs. Conservative Agenda

Cultural identity — or,  more accurately, an existential fear that white privilege and culture may cease to exist in an increasingly multicultural society, is the gut issue driving radical conservative politics. The “Liberal Agenda“, any way you choose to define it, does not allay that fear – in fact, it stokes it.

Frank Bruni, the NY Times columnist, interviewed Ann Coulter, a Fox News commentator and outspoken Trump advocate. She expresses disillusion with Trump’s failure to move his border wall forward. The wall is one huge symbol of preserving the sort of national purity that Coulter desires.

ppp

Read the full interview here – (click)

The willingness of evangelicals to forsake the most basic of Christian values is also rooted in white cultural identity fears.  The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary says:

The “value proposition” displayed by white evangelicals in the 2016 election, and the definition of what constitutes “moral values” and what doesn’t, is inextricably related to the nation’s upcoming demographic shift—the fact that, by the year 2044, the United States is expected to become majority nonwhite. This has significant implications for the wider faith community regarding issues of race. Much more may be at stake than the leader of the Christian foundation was able or willing to recognize.

Here Douglas refers to the leader of a Christian foundation who explained his support of Trump by saying:

… he told me to consider the “moral values”—such as pro-life concerns—that he said prompted, if not demanded, white evangelical support of Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Douglas argues that the evangelicals are heirs to Puritan beliefs:

… the Puritans and Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic with a vision to build a nation that was politically and culturally—if not demographically—true to their “exceptional” Anglo-Saxon heritage.They saw this as a divine vision.

They traced their Anglo-Saxon heritage through the ancient woods of Germany back to the Bible. They considered themselves the “new Israelites,” carrying forth a godly mission. Central to this mission was building not simply an Anglo-Saxon nation but a religious nation—one that reflected the morals and virtues of God, which in their minds were synonymous with the unsullied ways of their freedom-loving Anglo-Saxon ancestors. “The Lord will make [America] a city upon a hill,” Puritan leader John Winthrop preached in 1630, “[with] the eyes of all people upon us.” [Read the full Douglas article here – (click).]

President Ronald Regan spoke of America’s Capitalist Democracy in similar terms, though I hesitate to suggest that he or his speechwriter made the connection.  But the notion that America is set apart and above those outside its boundaries is clear.

Dave Shelman, in a letter to the editor of Sojourner Magazine, cautiously observed striking similarities between the Christian support of Hitler and of Trump:

… particularly the ease with which evangelical Christians, in America today and in Germany then, accepted populist movements and their nationalistic programs. In both cases, the populist forces were able to exploit societal anxieties and make a sentimental appeal to a cultural form of Christianity that served its purposes.

The slogan of the Nazified German Christians was “Germany our goal, Christ our power!” Based on a distorted interpretation of Lutheran theology, a group of theologians at the time issued a document, known as the Ansbacher Ratschlag, opposing the Barmen Declaration. It was addressed to the National Socialist Evangelical Union of Pastors and included this statement: “… we as believing Christians thank the Lord God that in this hour of need he has given our people the Fuhrer as a ‘good and faithful sovereign,’ and that in the Nationalistic Socialist state he is endeavoring to provide us with disciplined and honorable ‘good government.’” This distant mirror of attitudes—and even words—that are with us today should give Christians great concern. The vulnerability of the American church did not come about in the presidential election of November 2016. The present political quagmire has only exposed it.

Understanding and taking seriously cultural identity fear is key to understanding why radical conservatives are refractory to reasoned arguments and willing to subordinate their basic morality values for a powerful champion who says he’s with them.  It’s about the survival of their personal identity myth.

There are human needs that take on an importance greater than life itself as Paul Chappell asserts when he enumerates the needs that Maslow overlooked.  A person’s life and identity are inseparable from the quest to meet these needs. When frustrated, bad behavior happens.

We bond and identify with others to fulfill these needs, and once we bond our values are profoundly intertwined with our social affiliation.  Certain conditions foster bonds.

When I consider these factors it’s easier to understand how a group that is bonded by a shared extreme belief becomes refractory to any contrary evidence.  When all of those you count as friends are bonded by a shared orthodoxy,  it takes super-human self-assurance and courage to break away no matter how implausibly warped the shared perception is. Reality doesn’t change the belief that bonds.

Denial, selective listening, strategic lying, and many other self-destructive (soul-destructive?) behaviors are understandable when seen in this frame.


Post Script

Here is a TED talk where an ex-skinhead reveals what got him into the movement, and what got him out of it.  I think it confirms what I’ve said above. Perhaps it also points to the resolution of our differences.

 

 

Useful Scoundrels?

Does the end justify the means?  Can a scoundrel serve a good purpose? Many great dramas have been written and filmed around these great questions. Some politicians’ actions say that their personal answer to both questions is “yes.”
Here’s an analysis of that phenomenon: The Scoundrel Theory.
Here are some more perceptive articles.
Rolling Stone Magazine: “Trump’s Republican Party has taken on the attributes of a cult” – Sean Wilentz
Time Magazine: “Unifying values, around speech and civility, freedom and fairness are shredded by rising tribal furies and passions. We have a president for whom division is not just a strategy, it’s a skill.” — Nancy Gibbs [Former Editor and Chief].
NY Times: “The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve.” – David Brooks.
We are in a time when our fundamental ethics and mores are being called into question.  What exactly is the “American Way” these days?