Saturday, July 10, 2021

Why I chose silence

I abruptly stopped writing about politics two months ago. For those who wondered what was up, I apologize. But I couldn't explain what was happening because I didn't know myself. All I knew was that the effort to research topics to write about felt pointless. As has often happened in my life, I figured that eventually an explanation would emerge...if I followed my instincts and listened. 

A piece by Ibram X. Kendi, one of those recently maligned "critical race theorists," finally pulled it all together for me. His point is that the Republican operatives who are fear mongering about critical race theory are arguing with themselves.

There are differing points of view about race and racism. But what we are seeing and hearing on news shows, in school-district meetings, in op-ed pages, in legislative halls, and in social-media feeds aren’t multiple sides with differing points of view. There’s only one side in our so-called culture war right now.

The Republican operatives, who dismiss the expositions of critical race theorists and anti-racists in order to define critical race theory and anti-racism, and then attack those definitions, are effectively debating themselves. They have conjured an imagined monster to scare the American people and project themselves as the nation’s defenders from that fictional monster.

Kendi goes on to give several examples of people discussing his work in a way that is at odds with anything he's ever said or written. As he says, they're conjuring up an imagined monster. So what's the point of engaging.

What we write doesn’t matter to the people arguing with themselves. It doesn’t matter that I consistently challenge Manichaean racial visions of inherently good or evil people or policy making. It doesn’t matter that I don’t write about policy making being good or evil, or that I write about the equitable or inequitable outcome of policies. It doesn’t matter that I’ve urged us toward relative equity, and not toward perfect equity...

How should thinkers respond to monstrous lies?...Because restating facts over and over again gets old. Reciting your own work over and over again to critics who either haven’t read what they are criticizing or are purposefully distorting it gets old. And talking with people who have created a monologue with two points of view, theirs and what they impute to you, gets old.

And yet, silence comes with a price. As Kendi writes, "democracy needs dialogue. And dialogue necessitates seeking to know what a person is saying in order to offer informed critiques."

While Kendi's piece is focused on the fear mongering about critical race theory, it is also true of all of the lies being told by right wingers about Democrats more generally. As just one example, this week they're freaking out over something HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said recently. The editorial staff at the Washington Examiner wrote about it in a piece titled, "The wretched Xavier Becerra wants to control your life."

“We need to go to community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, oftentimes, door to door — literally knocking on doors to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus,” Biden said last week.

Asked on CNN whether it’s “the government's business knowing who has or hasn't been vaccinated,” the cultural warrior turned Biden proxy replied, “Perhaps we should point out that the federal government has spent trillions of dollars to keep Americans alive during this pandemic. So it is absolutely the government's business. It is taxpayers' business if we have to continue to spend money to try to keep people from contracting COVID and helping reopen the economy.”...

The answer was both stupid and clarifying.

...It was clarifying because it revealed one of the Left’s motivations in expanding federal spending: It wants more control over your life.

Every time Democrats say they want the government to pay for something, they mean they want the government to control that part of your life.

Becerra revealed that he and his ilk want the government to be your health insurer so that the government can micromanage your diet, your exercise, and probably your family size.

They want the federal government to fund education from pre-K through college so they can dictate the curriculum.

They want to pay the piper so that they can call the tune. Big government is the Trojan horse for an all-out culture war.

How do you engage in dialogue with people who go from money spent on vaccinating people during a pandemic to "micromanaging your diet, your exercise, and probably your family life?" It would be possible to do so if you were engaging people who sincerely wanted to listen in order to truly understand your position. But we all know that's not the case. At this point, even facts and evidence are irrelevant because they are dismissed as nothing more than partisan lies. 

In some ways, this kind of distortion has always been part of politics. What's new is the way that social media and right wing news outlets have not only propagated conspiracy theories, but have inoculated their followers against ever having their perceptions challenged. Last year Julian Sanchez explained that his concept of epistemic closure goes far beyond merely being an echo chamber.

The idea of “epistemic closure” was that you WOULD hear new and contrary information, but you have mechanisms in your belief system that reject anything that might force you to update your beliefs…

I bring this up now, because the Trump ecosystem has developed a pretty sophisticated set of epistemic closure mechanisms that work to reject new information that might otherwise pose a problem.
The closure mechanisms the right has installed in order to inoculate their followers include references to things like the deep state, fake news, and the swamp. Once people buy into those, they can reject any information that comes from those sources. Recently Trump said that painting the news media as corrupt will go down as one of his greatest achievements. That is precisely how he inoculates his followers against reality. 

But it doesn’t end there. As Sanchez explains, they “effectively judo-flip [contradictory information] into confirmation of the preexisting narrative, rather than new contradictory data.” In doing so, the right actually turns those who challenge them into targets that reinforce their delusional lies.

So—like Kendi—I'm wondering what's the point. 

Beyond all of the specific issues, policies, and politics that are on the table these days, this is the most important meta issue we are facing. For democracy to survive, we're going to have to figure this one out. But as far as I can see, no one has an answer to this one. I don't either...which is why I went silent.

3 comments:

  1. Makes sense. No point in talking when talking seems pointless.

    Even so, if you're looking for a reason to speak up, I'll offer three:

    1) There is still a value in making sure the simple, honest truth is said by somebody somewhere. Very few people do a better job of that than you.

    2) In theory, some number of people are going to snap out of epistemic closure, as they decide that being a Trumpling and a Republican just isn't working for them like it used to. That's when your words may make a difference in someone's life.

    3) Over on the Left, there are people equally dishonest who need to be called out; if your heart isn't in it to going after the Trumply-inclined, there is always the analogous wing on the Left, whose modus operandi seems to be to be critical of Democratic accomplishments no matter what. Some people light a candle, others curse the darkness, and still others curse those who light candles ... that last group is worth calling out, always and without fail.

    But! -- do whatever suits you best. You are made out of awesome, and any decisions you make are likely to be good decisions.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for this characteristically thoughtful and incisive post. Yours is one of the voices I've relied on over the past decade or so to help me think through what's happening in our politics and our society, and it's been missed these past two months.

    I think one of your talents is writing not so much to counter and demolish the extremists as to illuminate the debates so that those who might be influenced by the extremists are better equipped to resist them. I hope you continue to find ways to do that.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have been commenting on sites for decades, and did quite a bit of canvassing until I had to stop for health reasons, and I have never felt it at all reasonable to talk to the other side. It's not just the past two months, it's decades that it's been true that there is no point talking to them, for all the reasons you cite so cogently.

    The reason to talk politics is to talk to the people of common sense and common decency on our side who are actually listening. I never criticize the Rs in anything I write, or anything I would say to voters while canvassing. They are beyond redemption by sense and reason. In what I write I only question and criticize what our side is doing, because only our side has any potential for the shame over wrong or stupid public policy that might get us to change public policy.

    In this piece you have started to do that, at least implicitly. Why is any time at all spent on our sites castigating Rs? That's a waste. What we do need to worry about and discuss among ourselves, what is the only legitimate set of questions for us to examine, is why the hell our side isn't doing better at throwing these bums out of office. Oh, okay, maybe in the last 2 months (more like 6 months really, since January 6) that question has evolved to "why the hell isn't our side throwing the bums in jail?". That's a depressing and alarming evolution, but there it is.

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