10/10/16: on fear–no, wait, sorry, anxiety

This week, Rolling Stone absolutely kills it with an October 20, 2016 article from Neil Strauss on “The Age of Fear.” In short, the article asks how it is that Americans can be living in the statistically safest place at the safest time in human history and still be so scared, to which my general sense is that it’s because of how well off we are–i.e., those who have much to lose are constantly in fear of losing it. Rather than generalizing, however, Strauss sticks to facts and possible symptoms, speaking with neurobiologists about the way in which the brain, a “stress-reactive machine,” can be easily manipulated into fear. One author calls this “amygdala hijacking,” in which inflammatory content bypasses the logical parts of the brain and attacks the emotional part. Another suggests that this isn’t fear at all so much as anxiety: fear is an immediate response to a clear and present threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of the future. The former is hard to manipulate, although it can be triggered (by scary movies, haunted houses, etc.), but the latter is dealing with uncertainty, and while a physical assailant may be dispatched, the imaginary monsters unsettlingly persist.

Perhaps that’s why politics is so scary: when running for office, a candidate can do nothing but talk about the future, about the things that might happen, and it plays to their strengths to get people nervous about what will happen if they aren’t elected. In many ways, politicians are running a psychic protection racket: “Nice country, it would be a terrible thing if something were to happen to it.”

Continue reading

10/6/16: on the importance of tone (sorry!)

In the October 10, 2016, issue of The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar investigates how a once-solidly Democratic county now comes to be voting overwhelmingly for Trump. It’s a misleading lede, since the article clarifies that this trend began when W. ran for office in 2000, and that it was largely because the coal-based West Virginian county of Logan would have been economically devastated by Al Gore’s environmental proposals. But there’s a larger, deeper concern in there, which has to do with the way in which we talk to those who disagree with us, and how we present our views.

Although Obama’s and Clinton’s immigration policies are pretty similar, the way they talk about the subject is quite different. In a speech at the end of last year, Clinton suggested that wariness of immigrants was a sign of bad character… She described immigration as a matter of universal human rights.

When Obama gave a speech on immigration in the fall of 2014, he spoke first about America’s border–how he had secured it, and how illegal crossings had been cut by more than half. When he spoke about people who opposed his policies, he said he understood them…. “We don’t like the notion that anyone might get a free pass to American citizen ship. I know some worry immigration will change the fabric of who we are, or take our jobs… I hear these concerns… and I believe it’s important that all of us have this debate without impugning each other’s character.”

Of course, Obama doesn’t have to prove his anti-racist bona fides in the same way that Clinton does. But it is also Obama’s style to talk like this. He likes to reconcile, to draw people in, to minimize the differences between them. Clinton, on the other hand, always describes herself as a fighter, and it is her style to draw sharp lines between right and wrong–between people who are being oppressed and the people doing the oppressing. This style can make it sound as though she thinks people who disagree with her on immigration are probably racists.

Do take the above with a grain of salt: for all his reconciliation and understanding, there are many who are still vehemently against him, and Logan was so against Obama that in 2012’s Democratic primary “Obama was soundly defeated by Keith Judd, a Texas felon serving a seventeen-and-a-half-year sentence for extortion.” That is, a lot of people who are anti-Hillary may in fact have misogynistic motivations. But beginning a conversation that way, or outright dismissing concerns about Hillary because of how awful (you feel) Trump is, only serves to widen a divide between people, to entrench them in their own beliefs. Let’s talk, then, about the disagreements that have been made public, and not our characters, which are generally private.

10/5/16: on the nature of reality

A lot of us throw around the term “brainwashing” when we talk to those who like something that we don’t. We operate from the basic premise that we are smart, rational people, and that therefore, if someone disagrees, they are either not also a smart, rational person or they have been somehow tricked, bamboozled, or outright brainwashed. (We do this especially often when it comes to religion and culture, ignoring entirely whether the person is actually happy.)

In reason‘s October 2016 issue, Trevor Burrus makes the following observation:

What do we achieve by arguing that parts of American culture are somehow fake? The music industry took a band called the Pendletones, renamed them the Beach Boys, recorded a few dozen songs about surfing, and then pushed a saccharine vision of California beach culture…. Should [that] therefore be looked upon with skepticism? Can the “fake” ever turn into something “genuine”?

The answer, simply put, is yes. And vice-versa: something we’ve long held as a truism can eventually erode to the point at which we see it as the fraud it’s long been. (Politics comes to mind, but also, on a gentler point, certain scientific facts like the “geocentric” model that have been revised over time.) Skepticism has a very healthy place in allowing us to personally decide an object’s sincerity and worth, but it is as irrelevant to another person as a debate over a color or Magic Eye print that we might view with differing degrees of depth. We should freely, often, and readily express the things that we disagree with and be ready to make a hearty defense of them, but it serves nobody to insist that someone else’s opinion or interpretation is wrong. For all that “we” might see the flaws and frauds of a Donald J. Trump, there are also many who are convinced that his inability to self-edit or recollect basic facts somehow makes him more genuine. Rather than discussing him, let us look at how his policies would actually affect us, and let that motivate us to act.

10/4/16: on basic fairness

You’d think that, of all people, the president would be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. And yet, Jacob Sullum, writing for reason‘s October 2016 issue, makes a viable point when he notes that the FBI recommended not bringing charges against Hillary Clinton because her actions were not intentional–essentially, that she did not know she was acting against the law. Sullum also reminds us that the federal code has 5,000 criminal statues and 30,000 regulatory violations, so it’s more than plausible that, especially for some of the more arcane statues on the book, we’ve only accidentally transgressed. In these situations, especially with our overburdened legal system, the courts should choose not to prosecute unless there is abundant evidence of willful misconduct (for instance, it’s a second infraction, or something the defendant has been previously warned about).

Incidentally, the argument used against mens rea (“guilty mind”) reform is that rich, white-collar criminals and executives would much more easily be able to escape prosecution; and yet, they already seem to have no trouble doing exactly that, at great expense (of time and money) to our overtaxed legal system. Lawyers may benefit, but the rest of us are far worse off. Continue reading

10/3/16: in defense of the undecided

I’ve seen the following David Sedaris quote about his contempt for Undecided voters cycling around for the last week or so, which I find hilarious, since it was originally written for Obama v. Romney (10/27/08):

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?” To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

I understand the joke, but I think it’s a dangerous oversimplification and not everything should be reduced to a bon mot, no matter how appetizingly it might jive with your personal opinion. Choosing who you vote for shouldn’t be an easy decision. If I have contempt for anyone, it’s for the so-called yellow dog Democrats who will always vote their party’s ticket without doing a single ounce of research or soul-searching. (I obviously feel the same for those on the right.) Yes, in this particular election, Trump’s prideful ignorance represents a clear and present danger, and an endorsement of him would be an endorsement of so many backward ideas (i.e., racism, sexism) that we almost *have* to vote for anyone who can defeat him.

But there’s another reason people might still be undecided. Continue reading

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