Monday, November 30, 2015

Something for nothing leaves nothing

About a week ago, Vox contributor Dylan Matthews pointed out that the media has no idea how to deal with Donal Trump's constant lying. I have mixed feelings about Matthews' assertion, partly because he forgot that "media" is a plural noun.

While I agree that many journalists like George Stephanopoulos seem stymied, there are some media personalities that have a better grip on Americans' current infatuation with political outsiders -- which is a nice way to call someone unqualified. I'm partial to the Stephen Colbert approach: making fun of them. Humor, after all, is based in the absurd, and there are few things in this world more absurd than whatever Donald Trump says at pretty much any given moment.

Of course comedic figures like Colbert have a key advantage in that there's no real concern about appearing partisan. Were a journalist to truly take many of these candidates to task, he or she might be labeled as liberal and therefore biased. The moderators of the CNBC GOP debate learned that lesson the hard way. Still, I fail to see how asking about a candidate's proposed tax policies constitutes a "gotcha" question, or how CNN's Democratic debate was the love fest Republicans claimed.

But perceptions persist in the face of facts, and in many cases, exposure to facts actually strengthens the effects of misinformation. Cognitive dissonance lies at the heart of such effects. Once individuals identify with a particular position, they find it difficult to process information that contradicts that position. Rather than changing their stances -- which is psychologically difficult -- they simply double down on their stupid.

And this brings me back to the Matthews' Vox article, and in particular the third paragraph:
But Trump also has a tendency to use his appearances on TV news to spout flagrant lies about a variety of topics. His statements aren't false the way that, say, Marco Rubio's claim that he can cut taxes by $12 trillion and still balance the budget is false. False claims of that variety are a long and distinguished tradition in American electoral politics, and it's an established policy on programs like This Week to not challenge them too aggressively.
Double take. Say that again? Media -- journalistic media -- have an "established policy" not to question falsehoods, and that is somehow okay?

Most of what Trump says is obviously bullshit, meaning we as the public require less help from media in seeing it as such. But many other candidates operate using covert bullshit, and we need more help sniffing it out, not less.

From what I can tell, elections are based in fantasy, appealing contradictions, and careful maneuvering. It's more or less a constant peddling of nonsense. You can't pay for universal healthcare and universal college education simply by raising taxes on the top 1%. You can't cut taxes and increase military spending and claim to be fiscally responsible. You can't be for states' rights and against state laws legalizing recreational marijuana use. You can't be for smaller government and against gay marriage. You can't be for free speech and against flag burning. And so on, and so on...

But in a democracy, the behavior of our potential leaders may say more about us than it does about them. Politicians lie to us for one simple reason: we don't want the truth. We say we do, but we don't.

In his so-called malaise speech, Jimmy Carter warned us very clearly about focusing too clearly on materialistic goals:
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
But rather than working to restore a sense of community and deeper purpose, we ousted Carter and elected Ronald Reagan, mostly because he told us we could have everything without paying for it. Moreover, the two men who tried to address Reagan's disastrous fiscal legacy -- his 1984 challenger, Walter Mondale, and his 1988 successor, George H.W. Bush -- were marginalized and ultimately defeated for telling the truth: more tax money was needed to pay for the Reagan spending spree.

And despite my derision of conservatives, liberals don't fare much better. I was pleased to see a New York Times report this morning stating that two-thirds of Americans want the U.S. to join a climate change pact. Well, that is so long as we don't actually have to do anything:
Thinking about policies to reduce carbon emissions, Americans generally favor regulating business activity more than taxing consumers. The poll found broad support for capping power plant emissions. Half of all Americans said they thought the government should take steps to restrict drilling, logging and mining on public lands, compared with 45 percent who opposed such restrictions. Support for limiting mineral extraction on public lands rose to 58 percent among Democrats. But just one in five Americans favored increasing taxes on electricity as a way to fight global warming; six in 10 were strongly opposed, including 49 percent of Democrats. And support was not much higher for increasing gasoline taxes, at 36 percent over all.
There's no incentive to supply the truth when lies are in high demand. Accepting a fantasy is easy. It requires nothing from us. Living in reality is hard. It means making tough decisions, accepting tradeoffs, and dealing with opportunity costs. Americans have been running full speed from hard truths toward an impending dead end. Someday soon we're going to hit the brakes or hit the wall, and in large part, our willingness to accept ideological falsehoods may be the determining factor.

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