A nation deceived

October 27, 2004|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

WHY WILL so many Americans buy images of national leaders that are so at odds with so much evidence?

This troubling question is crucial because the American democracy was founded on the notion that the truth will emerge in the deliberations of a free people.

Fear is surely a factor, especially so since our country came under attack three years ago. When we're afraid, we lose our tolerance for ambiguity. Black-and-white thinking is in: You're either for us or against us. When in the grip of fear, we crave certainty, because uncertainty magnifies the feeling of vulnerability. So a leader who shows no doubt, who doesn't even entertain second thoughts, is comforting for the fearful. The more afraid we are, the more we shift into a part of the brain where rational analysis does not govern.

It is when people do not think critically that they are most manipulable, and fear is but one force that has eroded America's capacity for critical thought. Over recent generations, the most mighty of our "educational institutions" - advertising - systematically has worked to teach us to mistake the appealing image for the reality, the sizzle for the steak. Those taught to buy cigarettes to make themselves glamorous can be persuaded to buy incompetent leadership to make them safe.

Many Americans more recently have been still further trained away from habits of critical thinking by the powerful subculture of intellectually irresponsible right-wing media.

For more than a decade, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has taken millions of Americans on a daily excursion that panders to their prejudices, never challenging them to reconsider their ideas, always encouraging them to blame all their problems on identifiable others.

The voice leading them on these excursions radiates the aura of certainty, despite the vast ignorance underneath, and shows no scruples about distorting facts to reach a desired conclusion. These daily forays into comforting falsehoods have forged in the minds of millions of Americans a path down which fine-sounding messages unmoored from reality could more readily travel.

But there are still older paths in the American psyche that have been available for adept political manipulators.

One of the most powerful ways of bypassing critical rationality in America has long been the posture of religious piety and moralism. "These leaders must have integrity, they're so religious," I heard on a radio call-in show. People who have been betrayed by the false piety of the Jimmy Swaggarts and Jim Bakkers of the world will still assume that one who speaks often enough of his great faith can be trusted.

There is another venerable template in American political culture: the pattern of rhetoric by which governing elites inflame peripheral issues to distract their followers from seeing the truth of their exploitation.

In the South, race long served as the inflammatory distraction to enable the few to dominate the many. In our times, the pseudo-alliance to preserve white purity has been largely replaced by a pseudo-alliance to maintain moral purity. What's not noticed is that while the leaders just keep these hot-button moral issues (such as abortion and gay rights) festering, unresolved, they make sure that the agenda of the rich and powerful (the regressive tax cuts, the dismantling of environmental regulation, etc.) actually gets accomplished.

While the con itself is not new, the scope of today's successful deception of the American people is unprecedented.

The powerful used to just take what they wanted by the sword. The rise of democracy required the powerful to trade in the sword for the con job: Just manipulate the people into choosing against their true interests. It is only when the people can see through the lies that they can reclaim the power that is their birthright as citizens of this American democracy.

Andrew Bard Schmookler's books include The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.

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