Trolling the Public Mind

Sometimes extremes can be a useful prod for one’s thinking. That has been the case with the troll I came across earlier this month. I can’t help but wonder what motivates such people. I could just dismiss them, not that it is likely once my curiosity gets going.

The question that comes to mind is: Does this troll actually believe in the position he promotes? I don’t have any reason to doubt it. He seems like a true believer who has become a committed activist to his cause, whether or not there is some kind of financial incentive behind that commitment. I doubt he is stupid and uneducated. In fact, he seems clever enough and that indicates some intelligence.

My suspicion is that he is like many people. He is probably a divided person, knowing and not knowing all kinds of things. Dissociation is a survival strategy in the complex modern world. It sometimes can be clear when someone goes to great effort to not know something that they are capable of knowing. Psychologists have studied this and shown how people can purposely not look at what they don’t want to see, while looking all around it.

The conflict isn’t between two sides of a debate, not fundamentally. The divide exists first and foremost within the human psyche. In trying to shut down debate and obfuscate the issue, the troll (or denialist or reactionary, whatever one wishes to call them) is trying to purge the feared content from their own mind. In order to undermine the science itself, these people have to understand the science, at least at a basic level. Their rhetoric is fairly often carefully structured in response to the known data. People know much of what they pretend to not know—as Cass R. Sunstein explained:

True, surveys reveal big differences. But if people are given economic rewards for giving the right answer, the partisan divisions start to become a lot smaller. Here’s the kicker: With respect to facts , there is a real difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe. […]

When Democrats and Republicans claim to disagree, they might be reporting which side they are on, not what they really think. Whatever they say in response to survey questions, they know, in their heart of hearts, that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

I definitely got the sense from that troll that he saw it as a game, a team sports competition. He was simply focused on getting his team to win. Still, I’m sure there is more going on than that. The competitiveness interpretation feels a bit superficial, even if it is an important factor.

This isn’t just about social behavior. It goes deep into human nature and collective reality. I had a bit of a strange thought, along these lines. What if there is something about public debate and social competition that easily elicits areas of non-rational thought that we would otherwise dismiss? I was specifically wondering about sympathetic magic. Let me explain.

Some people act like winning a debate and defeating an opponent, by fair means or not, is to prove they are right. Of course, for this mindset, defeating an opponent is winning a debate. In the ancient henotheistic worldview, when two societies went to war, it was perceived as a fight between the two ruling deities of those societies. So, it wasn’t just a people who won but a worldview that won, and it defined an entire reality. That worldview was reality, the reality of a particular culture and social order.

Those who deny the climatology science do so because they see the worldview it represents as a threat. It must be defeated, at any cost, because it isn’t just a threat but an existential threat. Naomi Klein understands this, and she argues that the denialists understand it as well. They realize that it goes way beyond mere science. If the climatologists are right, this very well may be the end of the world as we know it, collapse at worst and revolution at best. Either way, that means the end of the status quo and many people are heavily invested in the status quo.

Even most people on the political left feel wary about the challenge this forces upon us, and that is why so few on the political left put up much of a fight. Fighting for the reality of climate change is hardly inspiring. No one wants it to be true. Denial and dissociation is a normal human response to something so immense and overwhelming, something that is terrifying in its proportions and possibilities. We argue about it so that we won’t have to face the stark reality. This is a problem that our clever monkey minds can’t deal with. There is no positive outcome, no solution. No matter what we do, the world will change.

That is an uncomfortable truth for all of us, but it is most challenging to the political right. It simply doesn’t matter that they deny climate change, for it won’t stop climate change.

This got me thinking about Trump, the greatest troll America has ever produced. He is the king of trolls. He doesn’t even need the anonymity of the internet. He is pure arrogant bullying. It isn’t exactly anything new, just brought to its most extreme form. As Josh Marshall explained:

This is why Trump has so shaken up and so dominated the GOP primary cycle, at least thus far. As I’ve said, this kind of dominance symbolism is pervasive in GOP politics. It’s not new with Trump at all. Most successful Republican politicians speak this language

Trump will control, not be controlled. He will mock others ruthlessly. And he will destroy his enemies. One almost expects him to start thumping his chest.

He is just a variant of someone like Karl Rove. It’s a dominance mindset. These are powerful men who know they are powerful and aren’t afraid to use it. They have no shame because they consider no one else to be in a position to judge them. They are above it all. Take what Rove supposedly said back in the bad ol’ days of the Bush regime:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Power determines reality. Not the other way around. This is the attitude of someone who is used to getting their way and punishing those who get in their way. It is win at all costs. It matters not if this is an expression of Rove’s imperialism or Trump’s egotism—six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Rove’s comment connects back to my earlier point. There is something akin to sympathetic magic in this mindset. It is an almost magical belief in willpower. It is an assertion of one’s mastery.

This is seen in how religion relates to the political right. The rhetoric of dominance connects the tactics of apologetics to the behavior of reactionary trolls, bullies, egotists, and demagogues. To willfully assert one’s belief is to believe in the power of one’s will or simply in Will itself. Whether or not religion is directly involved, there is a god-like attitude in this.

It’s why apologists are so interested in history. And that is related to why right-wingers are so concerned about controlling what students are taught in history classes. Who controls the history books and textbooks will control the world. And, of course, it is the victors who get to write the history books, to determine what is taught.

The traditional Western worldview is built on a God of history. It doesn’t matter what the facts say but how the story is told and sold.

Reactionaries project their own mindset onto all of the world. They assume everyone is like them. As such, they can’t understand climatology as anything other than as a conspiracy of power and propaganda. In this worldview, there isn’t a clear distinction between the climate science and climate scientists. Reality has no independent existence and facts no objective validity. It makes one think of the relationship between postmodernism and fascism.

The sympathetic magic angle led me back to my ongoing thoughts about symbolic conflation. There is great power in this, and it continually amazes me.

Symbolic conflation requires issues that are visceral and emotional, socially relevant and politically potent, imaginatively compelling and symbolically multivalent. Simply put, what is needed is something that can’t be easily pinned down. This is the dark side of the mercurial spirit. The Trickster knows how to manipulate and con others, but he just as easily ends up fooling himself. The mercurial is about change, both transformation and destruction. But there are those who attempt to use this dark power for their own gain. Symbolic conflation is how this power gets bottled up. The con man gets taken in by his own con.

In this sense, I doubt the troll understands his own motivations. The greatest con of all is convincing yourself that you are more powerful than you are. But when one worships naked power, one becomes its servant, not its master. All attempts at social control are traps of the mind.

This isn’t about mere rhetoric. It touches deep into our psyche, far below the conscious mind. The stories we tell we eventually come to take as reality itself. And there is no more powerful force behind a story than that of fear.

I wonder if that is the Gordian knot of symbolic conflation, the cancerous lump on the collective imagination. It may seem like a lynch pin that could be easily removed, but what is interesting is that few people dare to tug at it to see if it will budge. Just because you can point to it doesn’t mean much. Fear of its undoing even makes the most radical of left-wingers reluctant to touch that raw nerve.

Whether climate change or war or abortion, such contentious issues open us up to a primal sense of fear. These are stark existential issues of life and death, of self and other. It’s not the ‘reality’ of these issues that matters. Sure, we can rationally discuss them, at least to some extent. Yet they remain political footballs thrown at the voter’s gut. They aren’t problems to be solved. They are psychological terrorism, their purpose being to enrage and divide… and ultimately to distract.

This is why Trump is no more interested in fair debate than is the internet troll and denialist. It is all spectacle, be it on the stage of mainstream media or the battleground of social media. It is ritualized drama, an emotional purging of our collective fears.

The Mystery of GOP Truthiness: what is the appeal?

An article from The New York Times discusses the low quality of GOP candidates:

“It is an ‘Animal House.’ It’s a food fight,” said Kenneth Duberstein, a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. “Honestly, the Republican debates have become a reality show. People have to be perceived as being capable of governing this country, of being the leader of the free world.”

It makes me wonder what these Tea Party Republicans want. I’ve talked to some of them. They like that these candidates aren’t polished as if that makes them more sincere, more real.

But why would anyone want to elect someone president simply because that person is as uninformed as the voter? Why wouldn’t they want a president who is smarter than they are? This is what distinguishes these GOP candidates from the likes of Obama. Whether or not you agree with Obama says, you realize that he at least knows what he is talking about. Then again, Tea Party Republicans apparently aren’t able to make that distinction.

The only thing these GOP candidates having going for them is confidence that could be described as blind arrogance. They feel their beliefs are equal or greater than the knowledge of others. They see no distinction between opinion and fact which makes one wonder if they can tell the difference between imagination and reality.

The Tea Party claims to be pushing for something new, but how is any of this new? This appears to be the same appeal that Bush had. Bush presented himself as a simple country boy who didn’t know much about that high falutin political stuff. Bush modeled himself as a compassionate conservative in order to speak to the far religious right and yet he also spoke the fiscal conservatism that appealed to libertarians. When Bush was elected, there developed a conflict that some described as the faith-based community vs the reality-based community. It was Bush or Rove who was reported as having said:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

When I hear the rhetoric of GOP candidates, I can’t tell any difference from the rhetoric of Bush when he was campaigning. The only difference is that Bush surrounded himself with evil masterminds.

By the way, it was Colbert who really brought this issue home with his coining of the term ‘truthiness‘. If you would like to have the full Colbert experience, he introduces the term in the video here and he takes it even further here in his roast of George W. Bush.

I ultimately don’t really care about the GOP. The fact that some Republican leaders fear that the GOP brand might be destroyed certainly doesn’t bother me. More power to them. Continue the destruction as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care about the game of partisan politics for either side. But I do care about our democracy. I would rather both sides were putting forth their best candidates with the best ideas to help improve our country. More importantly, I also care because I personally know some Republicans.

My parents are Republicans and both are drawn to the Tea Party. My parents are highly educated. My dad, in fact, spent much of his life as a college professor (the realm of the intellectual elite that right-wingers so often deride; i.e., those who can’t do teach). I would go so far as to say that my dad is smarter and more informed than the average GOP candidate. My parents aren’t mindless partisans, although they are life-long Republicans. They are just the typical older middle class Republican who still reveres Reagan, but they aren’t any happier about the hyper-partisan politics than I am. My dad thinks the right-wing pundits have gone too far and the lack of listening to the opposing side bothers him. Still, my parents are attracted to these hyper-partisan candidates. The reason seems to be the same for why they voted for Bush: the plain-spoken persona.

I don’t want to just dismiss this as being ignorant or stupid. I know my parents very well. They aren’t ignorant and stupid. I can somewhat understand this attraction toward the plain-spoken. There is nothing wrong with this.

I actually like people who are plain-spoken. It’s just I don’t see a conflict with being plain-spoken and being intelligent/educated/informed. The reason I like Chomsky is because is plain-spoken. The reason I voted for Nader was because he is plain-spoken. Nader, in a speech about a decade ago that I attended, explained that he intentionally didn’t rile up crowds. He said that when a crowd gets emotionally riled that it just leads to mindless groupthink rather than intelligent discussion. Nader cared more about real solutions than simply winning by cheerleading to the crowd.

This is what distinguishes this left version of plain-spoken from the right version (well, excluding the more mild-mannered Ron Paul). My parents really liked Cain. Why? Basically, because he was a straight shooter (as Cain explains it, he “shoots from the lip”). However, Cain isn’t mild-mannered or thoughtful in the way Nader is (or Ron Paul, although even the thoughtfulness of Ron Paul is less than that of Nader). What makes Cain any different than Bush? Nothing really. So, why do my parents think he would lead to different results than Bush? I honestly don’t know.

I find myself emotionally conflicted. I respect my parents. It was from my parents that I inherited my own thinking abilities, especially my intellect from my dad. I respect my parents in this basic way… and yet I don’t respect the candidates they support. Why can’t my dad see that he is smarter and more well informed than Cain? Why does my dad want to vote for someone less smart and less informed than he is? This perplexes me.

My dad would make a better GOP candidate than someone like Cain. My dad probably even has more real world experience and knowledge about the nuts and bolts of how businesses operate because my dad worked as manager of a factory, has advised many businesses in their operations, and has taught a generation or two of business leaders. It’s precisely because my dad left the corporate ladder of ruthless hyper-individualism that makes him so moral. Unlike Cain, he left that world of immorality/amorality in order to teach morality to students. Heck, I might even vote for my dad if he ran as a GOP candidate, despite my ardent liberalism.

I remember showing my dad the above linked video of Colbert roasting Bush. He thought it was mean-spirited. I was a bit surprised, even though maybe cynicism should have made me impervious to such surprise. Is someone who dismisses reality (if not outright lying/deceiving) in order to promote a war of aggression less mean-spirited than the person who points out that this person was dismissing reality? Why is my dad more bothered by the person who points out the untruth than by the person who promotes the untruth? Whatever the answer to that question is the mystery to phenomenon we are now watching in the GOP debates.

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Additional thoughts (11/18/11):

While at work, I was cogitating on this issue. I realized there is a deeper aspect to this. But first let me point out where my line of thought began.

I was specifically focused on the context of my dad and his support of Cain. In my mind, my dad is superior to Cain in all ways except for one. The one way Cain excels above more moderate, intelligent, knowledgeable, and moral conservatives is that he has an unquestioning sense of pride and self-confidence. He is the type of conservative who just knows he is right and just knows he is the right person for the job. It’s an unwavering confidence that inspires and demands respect from many conservatives. The plain-spoken aspect would be meaningless without this key element of pride, what to me seems like arrogant pride (maybe the element that Ron Paul lacks).

What someone like Cain knows how to do is be a salesman, selling himself while climbing the corporate ladder and selling the corporate brand. Cain sees the presidency as if it were the CEO of a massive corporation and the brand to be sold is ‘America’. The presidential CEO doesn’t need to know about the nuts and bolts of actual policies in the way a corporate CEO doesn’t need to know how a factory is run. The CEO is the symbolic figurehead, the charismatic leader, the man with a vision. CEOs don’t need to do anything practical. CEOs only need to know how to work with people, i.e., how to get people to do the work that needs to get done.

It’s just like how Bush ran the presidency. Bush wasn’t a Rhodes scholar like Clinton, wasn’t stupid but surely was no genius. He had no background in the legal profession (such as constitutional law like Obama had) and no experience in international affairs (other than being family friends with some of the wealthiest families in the world such as the Saudi royal family). In fact, Bush was a failed businessman born into wealth (who probably would have been a failure his entire life without the power and privilege that comes with wealth). What Bush had to offer was that he was a people person and he had the connections. Bush could make things happen because he was surrounded by people who could make things happen. Bush was just the figurehead. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know much of anything.

It’s obvious that I feel dismissive toward this type of person. Even so, I’m not dismissing the appeal that someone like this has for the average conservative or even the average American in general. Americans love leaders who are idealistic and optimistic, whether or not they have any other positive qualities. This is why both Kennedy and Reagan were equally popular presidents, both having spoke of America in terms so positive as to be patriotically grandiose. It doesn’t matter that Clinton had a brilliant mind and Bush didn’t. Average Americans don’t care about brilliance. They want a president that they can relate to, someone who will play the role as national cheerleader. Humility is the very trait that will destroy a campaign quicker than a sex scandal.

Americans have become known for our confidence (along with their egotism and obliviousness; i.e. the ‘loud American’). Americans want everything big including the egos of their leaders. On a less critical note, this has its roots in American religion. Americans are so positive and confident because of our beliefs, and American religion has tended to be very individualistic (actually, there is a less individualistic tradition such as Catholicism that is equally American but it is a much quieter tradition and so tends to get ignored; in the US, the loudest always wins even when they don’t, they win because they loudly declare they win and the MSM ignores everyone who isn’t loud). I’m not quite expressing this right. There is this essence of optimism, not necessarily loud even if often so.

Let me try to explain this in more personal terms to bring it back to my own family. My conservative parents raised my brothers and me in the Unity Church which is New Thought Christianity. It is a very liberal church, liberal to the point of being New Agey. So, why would my conservative parents raise their kids in a liberal church? It’s simple once you understand this essence of American optimism. Unity Church comes out of the evangelical tradition. Unity Church is just the liberal version of evangelical prosperity gospel (it also goes by many other names).

This religious optimism is the same attitude at the heart of the optimistic vision of capitalism as a ‘free market’. This is the reason why so many conservatives simultaneously promote capitalism and Christianity, both of these embodying that optimistic vision, both expressing a meritocratic vision of society that verges on social Darwinism. God punishes the bad and rewards the good. This connection between religion and economics isn’t theologically sound, but that isn’t the point. It’s an experience, an emotional understanding. It’s right because it feels right. It can’t be explained logically. It just is. Such optimistic confidence doesn’t need to be explained. The desire for explanation has a scent of doubt about it. Doubt is the only sin. Just believe with all your heart. Just know what is right. Just know God is on your side.

It’s hard for me to explain this. I grew up with a version of this optimistic Christianity. It isn’t all bad. I wouldn’t be who I am now if it weren’t for my Unity upbringing. My intellectual curiosity was fed upon this positive thinking. I was taught that the mind is an expression of God, is the creative force of God. Each of us is co-creating the world with the Creator. The world is participatory and we all are participants. There is no point in making excuses. Just believe in yourself and — like the Nike ads used to say — Just Do It! It is a very attractive worldview. If not for my depression, I might still be living in such a mindset… and maybe if my parents had experienced depression like mine, they might have left this mindset behind long ago. That is my fatalistic side peeking out. We all are who we are for reasons we don’t understand. For someone living in this optimistic vision, it is very compelling and the thought of living otherwise seemingly offers no benefits or advantages.

I was thinking about my dad’s experience of life. I connect with him in many ways. I understand where he is coming from. He took a Dale Carnegie workshop when he was young (which was taught by Carnegie himself), and it has forever influenced and inspired his life. I didn’t take a workshop, but I did read Carnegie’s book when I was young and it did have quite an impact on my young mind. I so much wanted to be that kind of person. Without depression having torn down my dreams, I might have gladly followed my dad’s footsteps in this direction of confident self-assertiveness, of demanding to be liked by others by liking others, of being a ‘good person’ doing good things. During my first years of severe depression, I kept wondering why I too couldn’t just be a ‘good person’, couldn’t just believe in myself, couldn’t simply help make the world a better place, couldn’t be kind and giving, couldn’t be successful and happy, couldn’t fit in to what the world said I should be. Everything felt impossible, the precise opposite of the positive thinking. The idealism and optimism I was raised with just magnified my depression to the point that I became cynical; the brighter the light, the darker the shadows. As George Carlin explained, “If you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”

My role in life has become that of the failure of the family and this role has now expanded into that of the weird bachelor uncle. “Ben had so much potential. I wonder why he never did anything with his life.” Obviously, I’m slightly bitter about my New Thought upbringing. People like my dad (confident, successful, popular, respected, sought after, etc) could never understand someone like me. I’ve come to think of myself as the shadow of my parents, the parts of themselves that they rejected. Arnold Mindell has this theory about the roles people play. If a certain aspects are denied by certain people, then some other person will be forced to play out those rejected aspects. The darkness cannot be refused, no matter how much it is ignored and suppressed. My parents fled to their conservative vision of righteous morality and optmistic self-certainty. What they left behind in the process became what the Bible describes as the sins of the father being visited upon his sons.

My dad believes God has guided him in some way in his career: divinity and materialism, the miraculous and the successful wedded together. This is what I’m forced to take seriously. Listening to my dad speak, I can profoundly sense the sincerity behind his words. He is communicating a very deep and personal truth. This is the tricky part. My dad has taken a subjective experience and used it to theologically validate a particular vision of society. Because God guided my dad, because he listened, this implies that anyone else who is a failure has failed to align their life with God which means they deserve their failure as punishment. This is the darkside of worshipping the God of success. The genuine spiritual experience easily becomes corrupted in its being used to rationalize away social injustice.

Much of American Christianity has come to worship Mammon (the vision of success embodied in capitalistic meritocracy). I remember my dad telling me that it never made sense to him the scene where Jesus throws out the moneylenders from the temple. Such an angry Jesus didn’t fit his vision of the emodiment of God. Why would Jesus be so angry with people doing business? How could moneylending (the very heart of modern capitalism) be bad?

I’ve gone off track a bit here. To bring it back to the topic at hand, this meritocratic optimism relates to the anti-intellectual confidence, Cain being the perfect representation of how these two fit together. To be fair, anti-intellectualism doesn’t just exist on the right. I can’t remember all the times I’ve been driven to irritation by the anti-intellectualism of left-leaning New Thought and New Age types. This anti-intellectualism, whether on the left of the right, annoys me to no end. There is no way to talk to people who have become enthralled to this attitude of confident certitude.

Still, there is a difference between the left and right that is quite significant. The left-leaning spirituality in America is heavily influenced by traditions such as Quakerism. Spiritualism, the forerunner of much of the New Age, was largely originated by radical Quakers. What differentiates Quakers from the prosperity evangelicals is that the former has a tradition of promoting education. The anti-intellectualism of the left-leaning spirituality is much more mild. In the Unity Church I was raised in, there was no lack of intellectual curiosity among the membership. In fact, Unity tended to attract very highly educated people. Unity goes the opposite direction from the right-wing evangelicals in that it encourages people to have minds so open that their brains might fall out. The right-wing evangelical tradition, on the other hand, is more in the tradition of the Scots-Irish which includes absolutely no tradition of promoting education. It’s from the Scots-Irish that average Americans get their disdain for the ‘Intellectual Elite’.

Anyway, this confidence in all its forms is what makes American culture what it is, the good and the bad. It’s because of this culture of confidence that such things as the present GOP fiasco of campaigning become sadly inevitable. As long as we place confidence above intelligence and knowledge, we will continue to get politicians who are confident despite their ignorance and misinformation. It’s not to say that most Americans are stupid. It’s just that even smart people like my parents end up voting for stupid people because our political system offers stupid candidates. We Americans come to think that politicians aren’t supposed to be smart and that smart people aren’t supposed to be politicians. This becomes so implicit that we stop even questioning all the stupidity. It’s simply the norm, the way things always have been, the way things are supposed to be. Stupidity will lead to more stupidity until at some point we will hit a crisis point, a SNAFU of stupidity… maybe we are already at that point.

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More additional thoughts:

I was thinking about this all last night, even as I was falling asleep. I just couldn’t get it off my mind because I felt like I wasn’t communicating my essential thought on the matter. To me, it isn’t about whether someone is smart or stupid, that of course being an overly simplistic way of looking at it.

Everyone has various talents and potentials, but not all talents and potentials are equal for all careers. Being a politician, especially in Washington and even more especially as president, requires a very specific set of skills such as a working knowledge of international affairs and of federal laws. I know that I don’t have what it takes. Why is there this myth among the right-wing that any random Joe could be president in the belief that the president is just a symbolic figurehead requiring no talent beyond being friendly and good-looking (along with the whole confidence thing)?

The problem I see with voting for someone who is equal or inferior to me in knowledge is that it is selling ourselves short. I don’t want average. I want excellence, the best of the best. America has a very large population. No one can honestly claim that the GOP candidates are the best that the conservative movement has to offer. Why not vote for the best? What is to be gained by running politics like a reality show? Is mere entertainment all that many Americans expect from politics?

To be clear, I don’t just blame Republicans. I certainly think Democrats could offer a lot more better choices. It just seems like the same thing again and again in both parties, both sides playing the same old puppet show. I don’t want to just blame the American public for the sorry quality of candidates. Obviously, the system itself filters out the people who are most qualified to help run the country well. Cenk nailed this in a recent video (maybe its better to end with Cenk words than with my own):