I vowed on September 26th not to say anything on my blog about politics until the election was over. I succeeded, and it’s a lot harder to NOT speak out than it is to vent. The election lingers, but the voting is over. I just have a small observation or two.
The vast majority of people are basically good. For example, I’ve been teaching English in Asia for around a decade, and I can count the number of students I’ve had that I can confidently say were bad people on one finger, and not even the whole finger. But I’m hearing that roughly half of Americans are Nazi Einsatzgruppen resurrected from the grave in order to manifest hatred and bigotry in the name of Literally Hitler. And the other side are portrayed as a lethal brew of anarchists and communists who want to destroy America, and instill an authoritarian regime straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. Nope. Not even close. Both sides are made up of predominately decent people with a different belief system, based on access to different news sources, different facts, different misleading content, different ideas and concepts…
You might have seen the woman shouting at a NYC police officer, “F_CK YOU, FASCIST! F_CK YOU, FASCIST!” and spitting in his face. Depending which side of the fence you find yourself on, she could be a hero standing up to enforcers of the authoritarian regime, or she could be a radicalized ideologue venting her misbegotten rage at a working class fellow trying to do his job to keep the peace. The one thing that I can be sure of is that she believed what she was screaming.
I don’t personally think the officer or the woman are bad people. I could be wrong, and one or the other, or both, could be the exception to the rule, but if I had to bet, I’d go with them both being basically OK. I’ve protested in the streets before — against the war on Iraq — and so I can easily imagine being in her position. If I believed the cops were the enemy stormtroopers, I might spit in their faces too, if I got the chance. And I can also imagine being the officer, on the clock, doing a stressful stretch of my daily grind, and having to endure insults, gesticulations, profanity, and spittle projected at my hated visage.
People are acting the way they do, and voting the way they do, because of what they believe. And while we may be quick to blame those on the other side as morally and mentally inferior for believing in their party of choice, most likely they quite simply believe the story they are exposed to in their confirmation bias echo chambers, which become their comfort zones. Of course, people can be enormously sophisticated, knowledgeable, intelligent, and still fall solidly on either side of the spectrum, but most of us are going to be swept along in a wave, and are a bit of useful idiots for a cause we are unwittingly socially engineered to support. In regards to the current election, we are largely seduced into being pawns in someone else’s war for their personal gain.
There’s something really, really weird about our political system in America, where we have to choose between two sides which are necessarily vehemently opposed to each other. Your choices are this one-sided belief system, or that one-sided belief system. If you even half believed both candidates, you’d conclude the they were both evil imbeciles, unfit to drive a bus, let alone run a country, because that’s what they say about each other with absolute conviction. In order to put your faith in one side, you need to completely demonize and disbelieve the other, and doing so means your perspective is refined, fine-tuned, and radicalized.
If you were to now look at a conservative and a liberal news source — ex., watch Tucker Carlson, and watch Amy Goodman of Democracy Now [I’ve done it] — you will find that both firmly believe that the other side is trying to “steal the election”. Different news sources provide a completely different world view; cherry pick stories to fit their agenda; appeal to different experts and authorities; provide different evidence; and conveniently omit anything that doesn’t fit the fiction they want you to believe is reality. Both will convince you if you only get their side of the picture. There is nothing in the conservative news about Steve Bannon being banned from Twitter for saying that he’d have Stephen Fauci beheaded, along with the F.B.I. director, and their heads displayed on spikes. I gather they are embarrassed about this (though I think Bannon was using hyperbole]. Meanwhile the liberal news is pretending that Hunter Biden’s laptop, and what it contains, doesn’t exit, or is irrelevant. The sins of omission are as startling as is the cherry-picking, and on both sides, and how!
The recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, includes interviews with higher-ups from Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest confessing the overwhelming influence of social media in formulating peoples’ world views without their knowledge or consent. Algorithms will decide what search results you get when you Google a topic, such as climate change, which will differ from what someone else gets based on their geographic location, browsing history, etc. The underlying driving force is advertising, and thus what YouTube recommends to you, what shows up in your feeds and your searches, is designed to keep your attention, and steer you to clicking on ads.
The best way to keep your attention is, they’ve discovered, to outrage you. The inevitable consequence of channeling people to content that will infuriate them, is that the population is perpetually on the edge of its leash, snarling at the perceived evil other, enemy, communist or Nazi…
When you combine this with an election season, where there are two obligatorily diametrically opposed parties, you get a country artificially corralled into two hostile camps who hate each other with a passion. One of the most successful tactics to get your team to win, when your candidate is uninspiring or unpopular, is to demonize the other side to all hell, and convince your audience that if the opposition wins, it’s the end of the country as we know it. Each election becomes the most important in our lifetimes, because it is imperative we defeat the evil enemy on our own soil.
The left will say that the Bogey Man Trump is dividing the country with white supremacy, and the right will say that the left is escalating racial tensions with lighter fuel in order to get the black vote. Race war in America is now a self-fulfilling prophecy initiated by the media and the political class. Americans don’t hate each other; white supremacists are a fringe group that are not accepted into polite society; and non-radicalized people of color have no interest in ending western civilization by any and all means necessary. It is merely convenient, perhaps even necessary for an election, that we be divided against each other, and believe our caricatures of evil incarnate are our neighbors, with their families, friends, lovers, and pets.
The people responsible for the engineering of social media are the first, and the most passionate, about its negative impact on society. Everyone is being steered away from the center, and the news is so pathetically biased that there is hardly even a pretense of objectivity. You are not allowed to decide for yourself anymore. You are spoon-fed carefully selected, crafted, and contextualized tidbits in order to move you in the desired direction of political belief and affiliation. It is probably impossible to get anything like an accurate picture of the news without deliberately seeking out what both sides of the spectrum choose to portray. Most of us would rather listen to nails across a chalkboard than give a listen to what the other side has to say. The result is that we increasingly become one-sided ideologues with slogans instead of arguments, convictions instead of ideas. What those ideologies are, and how destructive they are is another discussion. While simplistic belief systems — with enemies who need to be obliterated embedded in them — are a big problem, it is the algorithms operating in the service of amoral business interests, and political gain, that are giving them the superpowers they don’t deserve and wouldn’t otherwise have.
The solution is to stop rewarding the most extremist rhetoric and implausible conclusions from both sides; to seek a broader viewpoint in the middle; and to compromise. It’s always easier to sit in the shallow ends of the river than to swim in the deeper current in the center with a view of both shores. Painful as it may be, we need to find that middle ground, where we aren’t battling caricatures; and we need to give up some of our breezy, self-serving conclusions, and stop blaming everything on the evil other while entirely exculpating ourselves of guilt and responsibility. We are all humans, narrow-minded human psychology is the problem, and we all suffer from it.
If we believe that we are the ones on the right side of history, and we can’t admit that we are susceptible to the social engineering of social media; that we are cozily snuggled in our confirmation bias echo-chambers; and that we can be wrong and probably are about some things, how the hell can we expect the other side to do so? If we are the good guys, and we can’t compromise or be the bigger person, we certainly can’t expect the bad guys to be more noble and generous than we are.
There’s a tendency to think the most extreme voices are at the forefront of history, leading us into progress — they are the ones with slogans that can fit on a sticky note — when they are more likely driving us out onto a limb. The last century has shown that either extreme leads to authoritarianism: characters like Pinochet and der Führer on the right, and the likes of Pol Pot and Chairman Mao on the left. The way forward is not to steer off the road into a ditch or off a cliff, with the pedal to the metal, but to move steadily ahead.
Some will say we are doing that by defeating Trumpism, but at the same time we are seeing the left make lists of “Trump enablers” with the intent of punishing them, crushing their job prospects, etc. Compiling lists of people who disagree with you on politics, in order to go after them and destroy their lives, is not a democratic tactic by any stretch of the imagination. Just consider for a second that the Trump team did NOT do that to Clinton enablers. We need to reel in the lunatic fringe, whichever side they are on, or at least not follow their lead. The people calling for metaphoric heads on spikes [Bannon], or rosters of people to target for elimination [AOC], are not being good roll models, but examples of “don’t let this happen to you”. We should not be cheering them on. We should be talking them away from the ledge. The leaders, if any, we should look toward, should manifest broad-minded, comprehensive, complex, and nuanced views, and not be hammering home one-liners about who the enemy are against which they distinguish themselves as virtuous, in their simple-minded, ideological purity. [Hint: In the new millennium, the terms “radical” and “revolution” are not the presumed good many of us associate them with, but are much more likely red flags signaling that someone has oversimplified answers with drastic measures to achieve them, including scores of innocent people being sacrificed in the name of the greater “good”.]
We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song
I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again~The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” 1971.
This year, we particularly believe that our candidate will help us vanquish the evil enemy, who hates us, and who we hate in return. We aren’t a country made up of 50% bad people. It’s a half century since The Who wrote “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and we’ve been fooled again.
We don’t really hate each other. It’s just good for business and political parties to convince us that we do.