Saturday, August 27, 2011

The United States of Delusion

During my recent trip to America, I noticed something that has taken me a while to put into words. Ironically, David Brooks, mostly famous for being the most fatuously irrelevant and dense columnist to hold a slot in a major newspaper, expressed it perfectly:

(Rick Perry) does very well with the alternative-reality right — those who don’t believe in global warming, evolution or that Obama was born in the U.S.

Here in Australia, people still believe in stupid things. "Chinese" medicine is ubiquitous; astrology, homeopathy, etc. are still out there. But the amount of delusion is muted. I don't see psychic palm reading shops every few blocks, or ads for psychic readings on late-night TV. That, in itself, is not that remarkable. The difference lies not so much in New Age silliness as alternate history.

In America, perfectly reasonable people believe in facts so orthagonal to reality that they must come from some other planet. I have met wonderful, good, intelligent people who believe any or all of the following:

Social Security is unnecessary. Because apparently, in the good old days, churches and local communities took care of the indigent. Apparently in this alternate reality there were no Hoovervilles.

Taxes are theft. The concept of paying for the government services you receive does not impact this view, because in most American's minds they receive nothing from the government. They hold this view while driving on publicly funded roads, fueled by subsidized oil, paid for by a stable currency that is the envy of the world, in cars that are ten times safer than they used to be thanks to federal regulations. Literally like fish, they spend so much time enveloped by the benefits of the government that they don't know they exist.

Global warming isn't real. Or if it is, man's activities have nothing to do with it. The planet spent hundreds of millions of years sequestering carbon in the form of fossil fuels; we've spent decades releasing it back into the environment. But somehow that simple basic formula of 1,000,000 to 1 doesn't matter?

Evolution isn't real. Mind you, these same people are perfectly capable of holding an informed discussion on how antibiotics are having difficulty coping with newer strains of disease.

Obama wasn't born in the USA. This from a Democrat!

Giving tax breaks to the rich create jobs. Despite, you know, thirty years of evidence. And rich people like Warren Buffet saying, "No, it doesn't."

Government regulations are bad. Asbestos apparently never existed in this time-line. Nor did the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

Welfare queens are bankrupting the nation. Note that no one who worries about welfare queens ever, ever, complains about: the bloated, inefficient Defense industry, the wholesale theft carried out by Wall Street, or the fact that catching the welfare cheats that do escape the system would cost more than ignoring them.

Vaccinations are bad. Not just that they cause autism, but they are unhelpful and unnecessary. Because... I don't even know. Seriously, this is such a complete repudiation of the last hundred years of scientific medicine that I can't even guess what the hell they're talking about. Just look at an epidemiology chart. Any of them.

Obama is a: Socialist, Muslim, Atheist, Republican... I believe you could quite literally add any adjective to Obama's name, and find someone who believes it. Note that this delusion is not solely a feature of the Right: the Left has plenty of people who deduce the slightest nuances of Obama's character based on legislation passed by the Republican House. People project the most amazing conclusions, and the fact that they contradict each other (often at the same time!) has no more bearing than the fact that they contradict observed reality.

Again, I'm not talking about the ordinary issues of differing belief, like religion, UFOs, psychic powers, etc. I'm talking about history. Americans just seem more influenced by, and more certain of, histories that never happened. We're not arguing over the uncertain or the unknowable; we're arguing over recent history. Did polio retreat in the face of massive vaccinations? Did Bush or Obama pass TARP? Did Reagan raise taxes? These are things you can look up in a history book. Hell, most of these are things people lived through. And yet, their actuality seems fluid: their truth is either denied or declared irrelevant in the face of the desired narrative.

Invariably, I find that confronting these narratives with actual facts leads to argument, followed by silence. And the next day, I overhear the very same person reciting the very same narrative to someone else. The vitality of these alternate histories, their utter immunity to fact, is matched only by their convenience. Invariably the alternate history supports the conclusions of the speaker. This is standard psuedo-science nonsense, as practiced by every woo ever. The difference is that now it is practiced by ordinary citizens, on national politics.

Debt, war, racial tension, natural disaster: America can overcome all of those, in fact has done so repeatedly. But this? I don't know. This isn't a disease of the body politic, or poison, or traumatic injury; it is addiction.

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