Saturday, September 4, 2010

Cognitive dissonance

I haven't posted much about politics lately because the level of magical thinking, scapegoating, and nonsensical sound bites tends to give me a headache if I pay too much attention to it.  It also does not help that way too many politicians are becoming contortionists in their efforts to pander to an extremely small segment of the populace.  Here in Georgia, for example, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes decided to leap on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.  It's really hard to work up much enthusiasm to vote for someone who's decided a good electoral strategy would be to join the "I hate Mexicans just as much as all you other redneck Georgians" chorus.  (I am keeping my fingers crossed that John Lewis doesn't manage to say or do anything wince-worthy between now and November -- I'd like there to be at least one candidate on the ballot I can vote for without feeling vaguely nauseous in the process.)

The bizarre part with all the anti-immigrant hype is that while everyone is busy bashing the federal government for not doing anything about illegal immigration, the data show that the Obama administration has done more in less than 2 years than Bush did in 8 to slow the flow.  Part of it is the economy, of course, but another big chunk is increased enforcement:  more raids on large employers, more deportations, an increased Border Patrol presence.  A lot of the enforcement makes me pretty queasy -- the assembly line token hearings, the well-documented abuses and mistakes by ICE (a fair number of US-born citizens, in some cases persons who didn't even have a Latino appearance, accent, or name, have found themselves swept up by ICE and stuck on a plane or bus to Mexico) -- but nonetheless the numbers don't lie.  There are fewer "illegals" in the U.S. now than there were two years ago. 

Of course, the whole anti-immigrant hysteria is loaded with contradictions.  Undocumented immigrants are simultaneously stealing jobs and sucking off the welfare teat; coming here and staying for years and years and years and just dashing across the border just long enough to drop an anchor baby that will return many years later as a terrorist; and so on.  When it comes to immigration, way too many people seem totally capable of believing two directly contradictory things at the same time without ever seeing the contradictions.  I'm moderately surprised we don't see more people's heads literally exploding.

On the other hand, I have to wonder just how many people still bother to actually think. There have been a number of articles recently about the general stupidity of the American populace -- the dumb things people believe, the apparent inability to look at anything logically, the demands for instant answers and magical solutions, and so on.  I got accused of elitism recently (and unfriended on FaceBook) when a long-time acquaintance, someone I'd know since elementary school, got all worked up about the mosque mess in New York City.  I asked a simple question:  why do you care?  He couldn't answer it, and accused me of calling him stupid.  As far as I could tell, the only thing I'd done was ask him to think.  We've all gotten so used to thinking in sound bites that when someone asks a person to justify whatever line it is they're parroting, most people can't do it.  (And when they realize they can't do it, they get really, really pissed off at the person who asked them to try.)    

I've seen a few discussions on the topic of American gullibility and willingness to swallow sound bites as gospel that place the blame on the current sad state of the educational system.  But that's an example of a contradiction in itself:  if the public school system used to be good but sucks now, how do you explain the geriatric Glenn Beck cheerleaders, the folks who can remember Franklin Roosevelt but are now chanting "no socialism!" while cashing their Social Security checks and using Medicare?

No, I'm coming to the conclusion that the answer to our collective stupidity lies in our collective history:  the generations of immigrants who came to the United States looking to get rich quick, seeking fast, easy answers to their problems, going back all the way to Jamestown (colonists wanting to make a fast buck by ripping off trading with the natives and/or growing tobacco) and the Mayflower (half the folks on that boat were interested in business opportunities, not religious freedom).  We're the product of evolution, generations descended from the gullible, the naive, and the greedy.  I've seen the advertising the steamship companies and railroads distributed in 19th century Europe:  they may not have shown streets paved with gold, but they came close.

The sad truth is that we Americans have never been noted for our ability to think clearly about much of anything -- "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people" (H. L. Mencken) -- and we're not likely to change any time soon.


  1. So sad and so true. This is a great post, Nan. I'm tweeting it to share.

  2. As for politics, you may find my Sunday post interesting.

  3. You know? It's really scary..when you stop and think of the amount of butthead stupid some of these people the hell did they manage to get this far?..just mind boggling..


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