On the Fringe

CapitolReflectionvia_WilliamBeemIt’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.

Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.

That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.

I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”

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Crossing Political Divides

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“I can’t help but feel like, this is our last chance to get it right.”

It is Martin Luther King day, a day when we honor a man and a movement for civil rights unique in our nation’s history, and so it is appropriate that I am spending today contemplating the civil rights we so desperately need. The event, Crossing Political Divides, is an attempt by many of us in the area to find a way over the gulfs that seem wider every day. Some 45 of us have gathered in a classroom at the School for International Training to see if those divides are too great, or if we can still reach across.

As a beginning, we are watching a short clip of Van Jones, a black man with political power, discussing politics with a family on the opposite side. The man who says it is our last chance is white, and a Trump voter, and a man who, in that moment, I entirely agree with. This is our last chance to get it right. We are both patriots. We both see the needs of our country. We both feel, desperately, that things cannot go on as they have.

And yet, if we get any more specific than that, we cannot agree. What he feels is progress, to me, feels like loss. What I think is righteous, to him, feels like weakness. What we both think is patriotism, to the other, seems like treason.

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Political Fiction

libertystorm_viastaceybramhallAnd here we are, marking the passing of one era into another. I want to be optimistic, but I can’t. I can see how some people are, because for them, this was the last chance. They’ve been watching their jobs and communities withering away, and they blame regulation and government and outsiders. For them, this seems like a hopeful moment, when maybe something will change and the days will return when all you needed to get a good job was a high school degree and determination.

Those days will not return. It wasn’t government that took them, nor regulation, nor outsiders: the world has just changed, and it changed as a direct consequence of those days. America, as much as any nation, has insisted on a global role, and yet being an economic “leader” in the world doesn’t mean good jobs anymore—it means cheap jobs, and money concentrated in the hands of the powerful, and the rest of us are just grist.

Trump can’t fix this world any more than Obama could. Obama said “yes we can,” but his best wasn’t good enough. Trump says a bunch of vague things about how he will, and people believe him. They believe him because they want to. As a consequence of that deep and understandable yearning, an entire section of the country is embracing a great fiction. Here is the fiction:

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The Revisionists

4714006087_42e0da5f08_b“People are pouring across our borders.” “Immigrants are taking our jobs.” “Unemployment is the worst it’s ever been.” “Refugees are coming in and we have no idea who they are.” “The second amendment is absolutely under siege.” “Islamists want to conquer this country and impose sharia law.”

If there is a single narrative at stake for America, this is it—“they’re coming for you.”

And if you’re thinking “that’s the other guys,” flip the script—don’t just look at the words of one particularly unfiltered and untruthful demagogue, look at the narrative overall.

“Money is pouring into politics and controlling our elections.” “Corporations are destroying our jobs and our health.” “Chemicals are ending up in our food and we have no idea what they do.” “Christians want to take over the government and impose their restrictive beliefs.”

Whether you frame it as a story of fear or a story of heroic resistance, the core is the same: we’re under attack by dangerous, insidious people who have come to take what we have, and if we don’t fight back, we’ll watch our way of life disappear. So stand up and fight, or be prepared to lose your freedom.

Except… every single one of those statements is a lie. Every. Single. One. Some of them are motivated lies, and some of them are ignorant lies, and some of them are exaggerated lies, but they are all lies.

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Little White Lies

fingers_crossed_viadanielgiesPeople lie. People lie pretty much all the time—but most of those lies aren’t the sort of lies that matter. They are untruths that we expect and reinforce socially. They are lies that are, in a sense, required.

“How are you today?”

“Fine, how are you?”

I have trouble with things like that because I always want to answer truthfully. It took me a while to accept that it’s not a real question so much as a script, and that the answer is part of the script, and that because the answer doesn’t convey real information, it isn’t really untrue. It’s not really a lie. I may not be fine, but if I say that I am, that’s fine.

That’s a lie that isn’t really a lie, repeated for the benefit of a social script. We like social scripts, and they make us feel better. They make us feel like we understand the world. But there are lies we tell ourselves, too. There are social scripts we repeat to ourselves, and others, that are deeply, fundamentally, untrue. And while most of us know that “fine” doesn’t really cover it when the lie is about ourselves, it’s easy to forget that the scripts don’t really cover it about anyone else, either.

Especially if they have a different experience. And especially if the script is a script for those of us with social privileges. Like, say, if you’re white.

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The Wisdom of a Fiction

Windmill_viaJavierLineraWhen Don Quixote tilted madly at his windmills, imagining them to be giants, he did so in defiance of reason and evidence. He did so without any sane expectation that he could be correct, yet also with deep nobility and desire to see the world beyond the trappings of society. He rejected one frame of reference, and replaced it wholly with another that transformed his vision. He wasn’t correct in any sense of the word—but he was audacious, and, in Cervantes’ imagining, something more than mad.

There are people out there who believe monumentally foolish things. They believe them in defiance of reason, decorum, and evidence. They tie their identities to those beliefs and go out of their way to both evangelize and condemn all who believe otherwise. Yet, too, their freedom to believe foolishly is a fundamental part of our societal freedom. Without it, we would never be free to examine or embrace the absurd; to critique and recompose our perspectives; or to imagine new things that fly far and freely beyond our current knowledge. Continue reading