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[politics] Flinging poo from the top of the progressive ladder

Sometimes people question why I bark so loudly at American conservatives. Yesterday I was asked on Facebook:

And yet, honestly, Jay, I like you. You’re a nice guy, but you’re pretty ruthless in the criticisms you make of anyone who’s not Liberal or progressive in ways that I’d have to wonder if you’d really say to someone’s face. I’ve had a hard time with posts of yours on FB and your blog to the point I’m very careful what I read.

To which I responded in part:

You’ll note that most of my criticisms of conservatives and the religious are rooted in responding to their own words and deeds. In other words, I’m not sitting on some progressive ladder flinging poo, I am looking at what people actually say and do, and being astonished.

Which got me to thinking about what it is that causes me to respond so viscerally to conservative rhetoric. I mean, really, liberal-progressives get it wrong a lot of the time as well. People from all walks of life and perspectives say stupid things to themselves and each other every day.

The problem, I think, is that the modern conservative position has become unreasonable, in a most literal sense, founded on a combination of willful ignorance and deliberate intellectual dishonesty. Many of the things conservatives say and do don’t arise from honest differences of opinion about the world and how it works and should be run. This isn’t about divergent views of policy or preference of philosophy. These issues don’t have two sides in any rational world, any more than a dispute about the existence of gravity has two sides. No, these foundational conservative opinions arise from flat-out lies. And based in lies, the conservative worldview then generates more lies in a vicious downward spiral of destructive feedback.

This offends me intellectually and morally, and it creates an enormous problem for government and politics in the United States.

To get to specific examples…

Evolution denial. 58 percent of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. (To be clear, so do 41% of Democrats, but the resulting social agenda has little sway within the Democratic party or liberal-progressive politics.) In order to hold the majority Republican view on evolution, you have to believe that 99% of the biologists, geologists, chemists, physicists, science teachers and science journalists are all engaged in a century-long conspiracy to cover up and obscure the Biblical truth with falsified evidence and slanted classroom instruction and biased journalism. You have to be willing to disregard the absolutely overwhelming web of interlocking physical evidence that supports the theory of evolution. In order to hold that worldview, you have to train yourself to habits of thought that are literally paranoid and delusional. These habits of thought in turn influence the rest of your worldview. And through conservative dominance of the public school system via school boards and textbook selection committees, evolution denial itself has direct, destructive consequences for education of all people everywhere, not just the children of religious conservatives. Not to mention fostering a profound distrust of science that colors all other opinions and decision making. All of this to support a minority viewpoint of one particular religious faith?

Global warming denial. 47% of Republicans deny the evidence of global warming. (Fewer than 20% of Democrats do.) Much like evolution denial, in order to hold the majority Republican view on climate change, you have to believe that 99% of climate scientists, atmospheric physicists, meteorologists, geographers, and science journalists as well as governments, research authorities and colleges and universities the world over are all engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to cover up and obscure the truth with falsified evidence and slanted classroom instruction and biased journalism. Again, though the scientific case for anthropogenic climate change is not as profoundly overwhelming as it is for evolution, you have to be willing to disregard the extremely substantial web of interlocking physical evidence that supports the hypothesis. Again, to support that worldview, you have to train yourself to habits of thought that are literally paranoid and delusional. These habits of thought in turn influence the rest of your worldview. Conservative control of the balance of power in American public policy means that climate change denial risks direct, destructive consequences that could range from trillions of dollars in property loss due to rising sea levels all the way to species extinction. All of this to support an anti-environmentalist political agenda?

The Iraq War. 63% of Republican respondents still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in 2003. (Again, to be fair, 15% of Democrats believe this.) This is flatly counterfactual. A blatant lie. There isn’t even the tiny amount of wriggle room that climate change denial has for intellectual skepticism. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. There weren’t when we invaded. There aren’t now. No one has ever found meaningful evidence to the contrary. Yet a majority of Republicans believe this. That completely false viewpoint causes them to see President Bush’s Iraq War as justified for America’s national security, and to see anyone who opposed or still opposes the war as obvious traitors working against the national interest. To hold this completely false viewpoint against all evidence is again paranoid and delusional. To hold this completely false viewpoint generates profound distrust of those who don’t.

President Obama’s religion. 45% of Alabama Republicans think Mr. Obama is a Muslim. In Mississippi, the same poll showed that a majority of Republicans, 52%, believe this. There’s never been a shred of evidence to back this up. Yes, he had a Muslim step-father. Yes, he lived in Indonesia as a child. I lived in Taiwan as a child, this didn’t make me a Buddhist or a Confucian. The president has a lifelong record of church attendance, one that become a significant campaign issue in 2008 due some of the pronouncements of his long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright. To believe that the president is a secret Muslim requires faith in an assertion with absolutely no objective evidence. That is again a paranoid, delusional worldview that endorses other paranoid, delusional worldviews about the president, and about liberal-progressives in general.

Taxes. More than 70% of Republicans believe that the tax burden on middle-class Americans has increased since Barack Obama became president. (20% of Democrats believe this.) In fact, taxes on the middle class have decreased during the Obama administration. The 2009 stimulus bill offered substantial tax cuts, including expanded tax credits for workers, people with children, college students, home buyers, and the unemployed. In 2010, a temporary reduction in the payroll tax was passed, and recently extended through 2012. To believe that the president has raised the tax burden on middle class requires a complete rejection of actual hard data in favor of an assertion which is another flat lie.

Guns. In a slightly less objective arena, that of Second Amendment rights, there’s a widespread belief among conservatives that Obama wants to take away their guns or restrict their gun rights. Yet Obama hasn’t proposed any anti-gun legislation in his first term, and has rarely mentioned the topic at all.

That doesn’t even get into the swamp of misrepresentations and flat-out lies that conservatives buy into on everything from healthcare reforms (Death panels? Really?) to women’s health (Blood spattered clinic floors?). Those areas aren’t as readily argued objectively, so while the conservative view seems just as insane to me as everything else cited here, the rebuttal is not quite so amenable to hard data.

Taking all this together, from a liberal-progressive perspective, half this country is literally nuts. Nuts in a way that leads to such arrant nonsense as the Texas GOP party platform opposing the teaching of “higher order thinking skills” — a curriculum which strives to encourage critical thinking — arguing that it might challenge “student’s fixed beliefs” and undermine “parental authority.” What sane person of any political persuasion wants to live in a society where imparting critical thinking skills to our children is seen as a bad thing?

How do you reason with people who insist on being so literally unreasonable? How do you have a useful debate on policy with people who simply reject out of hand the reality of the world around us all? Why should anyone take any conservative anywhere seriously, or extend intellectual credibility to them, when their worldview and their political fortunes are based on fostering and extending wholesale denial of reality? How is it possible for me or any other reasonable person to see these positions as anything but willful ignorance and intellectual dishonesty?

When liberals and progressives are wrong or misguided, it’s for a host of reasons, but it’s not usually because of profound bias in the foundational assumptions of their worldview. It’s because they’ve made a mistake about something. A reality-based error, if you will. The nice thing about reality-based errors is that they are amenable to correction through new evidence or logic. Faith-based errors (i.e., errors of thought which explicitly deny data or external reality in favor of a presupposed conclusion), the type which conservatives have committed themselves to whole-heartedly, are self-reinforcing and resistant to evidence or logic. Proof to the contrary of the erroneous position is just seen as further evidence of the conspiracy against the cherished truth. At this point, conservatism is so overwhelmed with faith-based and systemic errors that it’s impossible for someone outside their frame to distinguish what is sensible from what it is not within their worldview.

In other words, I don’t bark at liberals and progressives, because there simply isn’t the wholesale denial of reality in that wing of American politics and culture that there is on the Right. (With the partial and bizarre exception of vaccine denial; which I also bark at fairly often for the same reasons cited in this post.) People being wrong or believing me to be wrong or holding positions I disagree with is part of life. People being willfully ignorant and intellectual dishonest on a wholesale scale is another problem entirely.

Do I believe that individual conservatives are ignorant and mendacious? No, not in the slightest. At least, not those outside of the conservative political and media elite who create and foster these lies for partisan gain. Without exception, all of the conservatives I personally know in real life are kind, thoughtful people that I’m proud to call friends and relatives. But the beliefs they espouse and the evidence they refuse to examine about those beliefs is toxic to their worldview, and to the body politic as a whole. We all have to live with the consequences of distorted conservative thinking.

Like I said, I’m not sitting on some progressive ladder flinging poo, I am looking at what people actually say and do, and being astonished.

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