Posts Tagged 'otherness'

The “transmission belts” Of Misinformation

I feel blessed that I am no longer responsible for launching an ICBM as I was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when John F. Kennedy was president and I do not envy those charged with that responsibility now. I trusted JFK to comprehend the enormity of launching even one nuclear weapon and basing any decision on clear reasoning and facts. I cannot even imagine trusting Donald Trump — he of the “alternative facts.” 

The world has heard alternative facts before, fed to receptive audiences by dictators on the rise. Hannah Arendt’s,  “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, is a primer for those wanting to understand how the democratic process unwinds from seemingly harmless origins and feeds on discontent. 

As techniques of government, the totalitarian devices appear simple and ingenious and effective. They assure not only an absolute power monopoly, but unparalleled certainty that all commands will always be carried out; the multiplicity of the transmission belts, the confusion of the hierarchy, secure the dictator’s complete independence from all his inferiors and make possible the swift and surprising changes in policy for which totalitarianism has become famous.

Trump’s alternative facts are the “transmission belts” of conflicting information that cause confusion and uncertainty.  We are directed to fear people we don’t know, have never met, and about whose culture and beliefs we know very little.  Throughout history there have always been necessary “others” to be pointed at, to be vilified and held responsible for popular discontent. We are told we are the victims of “others” and we marshal our resources against the onslaught of otherness, whoever those others may be.  The taxonomy of “otherness” is vast — color, ethnicity, language, social class, a foreign accent, whether a person is rural or urban, religion of course, national origin, occupation, age, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation.  The list is long and ever growing. You might even find yourself on the list — one never knows.

History has shown us this process before, the slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. This transformation has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of the public wanting to be saved from whatever. Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed, discredited, and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The so-called “elites”, whoever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people, while the true elites remain out of sight.

The world has been down this path many times before — we should know it by heart. Alternative facts are disseminated, cronies rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated are the most susceptible to pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who, without ethical or moral commitment to the truth, prey with a simplistic vocabulary. The target of those whirlwinds of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of a foundational social contract.

Our country has become a theater where politicians mouth carefully scripted, democracy-drenched syntax and promises all the while doing their best to deny voting rights and marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions. In Congress efforts are being initiated to undo banking rules, Social Security, health care, and other social programs. Meanwhile, the president cries “fake news” at anything that contradicts the alternative version of reality he is spinning for his followers. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The messengers of the press are vilified and perforce people don’t know what or who to believe. The inevitable confusion ensuing from all of the above lays the groundwork for social discord — fertile ground for a dictator to offer delusionary comfort via social control.

 

Would you obey an ICBM launch order from such a commander in chief akin to the commando raid in Yemen? You say, “It couldn’t happen here.” Don’t be so sure.

Crossroads Series: Kneecapping Democracy

A common thread running through today’s perceived social threats has been otherness. Historically otherness is second only to fear as a means to political ascendency. Exploiting fear and otherness has been an instrument of social control for centuries not limited to nations, but  to almost any polity or organization from religious groups to labor unions. Otherness exploits fear and vulnerability in uncertain times. In a most literal sense it creates isolation and disintegration followed by the dissolution of a functional social contract. Shared sense of community is no longer on the map; it becomes an “everyone for themselves” dynamic that opens a community of common interests to exploitation. Whatever was the initial integrating factor(s) becomes lost and replaced by socially destructive forces which ultimately attain influence and domination. Political and social integrity are exchanged for safety or general affluence. Societies which control themselves, are replaced by systems, which are controlled by overseers. In the final analysis this story has always been about the underlying motive  of greed; the mentality of acquisition of whatever commodity, political or material, beyond the dreams of avarice. There is no “enough”.

 As it was at the time of the Revolution against England, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War 2, and Vietnam, the US is at another defining and evolutionary moment in its history. Each of those junctures set a definitive course in the evolution of the American social contact.  The Revolution inspired the Constitution and Bill of Rights, established our foundational social ideals about individual rights as citizens, as human beings. Those ideas had to be clarified by the Civil War and the Civil Rights movements and remain a challenge to this day. The Great Depression inspired national social programs and the notion that the Federal Government has a legitimate role in defining and underwriting a minimum quality of life for its citizens, another idea that is still being challenged. By itself World War 2 played an enormous role in the process of creating a middle-class through the GI Bill and other social programs. For a while it seemed that America was on its way to becoming an integrated and well educated society at all levels – it was the nascent “American Dream” coming true.

 Of course, the American Dream had limitations and blind spots that led to the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war challenges mostly by middle-class kids in response to Vietnam. The Cuban Missile Crisis gave the nightmare of nuclear war its moment in the spotlight. American society, however, has demonstrated over and over again a short attention span and limited grasp of complex social issues. The latest ball game scores, a Dancing With the Stars contest, or a sociopathic TV series elicits more concentration, conversation, and attention from the public than civil-rights, homelessness, or hunger.  We continue to send young men and women abroad to fight wars in countries where we have no demonstrable legitimate national interests. Other than petroleum and supporting the arms industry in with wars the Middle East what else is there? Adding insult to injury, when these warriors return from the battlefield they are greeted by politicians like Paul Ryan who want to reduce and cut medical and other benefits for veterans. You may have also noticed, I hope, that in the absence of a national military draft anti-war protests have been virtually nil.  In place of “Hell no – we won’t go!” there has been conspicuous silence.

 We live in a country where 65% of adults cannot name one Supreme Court Justice but could very likely name the starting roster of their favorite ball club complete with “stats” for each player. This is a country where 30% of the adult population can’t name the Vice President but can tell you the latest gossip about Miley Cyrus. Then there is the 6% that is unable to find the 4th of July on a calendar but will eagerly give you an earful about why we shouldn’t have health care reform.  The foregoing tells you why billionaires are giving a great deal of money to politicians at the state level to privatize public education – a more gullible, more manipulable populace is in their best interests.

 At this crossroads I believe we must decide what it means to be an active participant in this society. We need to define what kind of country this will be for future generations. We must determine what the terms social justice and freedom mean or they will be happily defined for us by powerful financial and political interests. If we continue to allow the NSA to disregard the Constitution and monitor even our mundane conversations in the name of national security, political dissent and our still evolving democracy will be cut off at the knees – we will all have been redefined, not as citizens of a democracy but as a collection of others. If this sounds paranoid to you, you haven’t been paying attention – this is a lesson history has taught over and over again. Democracy must always, it would seem, be a work in progress. 


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