Saturday, October 10, 2009

Looky here!

This past Sunday, Crooks and Liars posted a clip of Rep. Alan Grayson on CNN's Situation Room which included conservative pundit Alex Castellanos attacking Grayson's charge that GOPpers have no health care plan by asking him "Which particular Americans do you think I'd like to die? Can you name some?"

Grayson refused to get sidetracked, to his credit, but I had an immediate (and I actually do mean immediate) reaction to the Castellanos ploy. I thought:

"No, I can't name you particular people because if I could, if I could present you with real people with real faces, real names, real voices, you wouldn't want them to die. It's precisely because those people can be faceless, just 'out there' somewhere, existing to you only as statistics, as numbers on some actuarial sheet, that this can go on."

I thought a bit later of the proposal made some years ago that the codes to launch nuclear weapons be implanted in the chest of a Secret Service agent. The idea was that if the president wanted to order a launch, he/she would first have to kill the agent to get at the codes. It was thought an outrageous idea on the grounds that the president would be unwilling to do it and so would never issue the order - which of course was the point: How can you even think of justifying the deaths, the slaughter, of hundreds of millions of people when the thought of killing one is so heinous?

The underlying point is that the agent is a real, living, breathing, identifiable person who by virtue of that is "realer" - and whose death is thus a "realer" event - than the faceless masses about to be incinerated. Having to kill the "real" one directly in front of you in order to kill the faceless many who are not, making death a real event, not a political calculation, drives home just what it is that is being undertaken.

This in turn raises the discussions of the differences in how people on the right and people on the left think. There has been the much-noted work of Dr. Robert Altemeyer on the authoritarian mindset. And a few years ago researchers at UCLA aimed to determine the way Democratic and Republican brains differ in how they interpret political images. Additionally, I recall first reading years ago - well before the Internet, so I have no link for it even if there is one - that the one common thread that ran through the psychological profiles of all those who described themselves as politically conservative, consistent across considerations of age, gender, race, education, and economic class, was a fear of change. The greater the fear, the stronger the conservatism.

That idea was confirmed more recently - recently in this case being 2003 - in a metastudy of research literature about the psychology of conservatism. (A metastudy is one that doesn't do new research but tries to synthesize the results of previous research on a particular topic.) The researchers found that "at the core of political conservatism is the resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality" and common psychological factors include "fear and aggression," "dogmatism," "uncertainty avoidance," and "terror management."

Additionally, a study from 2007 found that "liberals are more likely than are conservatives to respond to cues signaling the need to change habitual responses" and that "conservatives tend to be more persistent in their judgments and decision-making, while liberals are more likely to be open to new experiences." Finally, an even more recent study, this one from last year, suggests that both righties and lefties have their fears but they are of a very different sort: In brief, those on the right fear chaos while those one the left fear "emptiness," that is, a life without meaning.

The bottom line here is that there is more than ample evidence that conservatives and leftists think differently, view the world differently, and react to new circumstances differently: In the face of such, those on the left are more willing to embrace change while conservatives are more likely to stiffen their resistance. That was a theme I commented on in a letter to a friend nearly 16 years ago:
Whenever the present looks stressful and the future doubtful, there are those who find their security in a dimly recalled and largely imaginary past. Change is frightening to many ... and history has the virtue of being - or, more properly, seeming - sure.

Are we really to think, for example, that it’s coincidence that the right wing gained strength in the wake of the ‘60s, which challenged previously “self-evident” beliefs on an unprecedented scope and demanded people rely on their own wits to judge moral and ethical questions? Are we likewise to think it coincidence, to return to an earlier theme, that Puritanism gained strength and adherents during a time when not even one but two supernovas visible in broad daylight occurred (1572 and 1604), so thoroughly shattering the centuries-old and blindly accepted Aristotelian notion that the heavens were eternal and unchanging that even the Catholic church hierarchy couldn’t maintain it? [Note: I had been writing about the Church of England and Puritanism earlier in the letter.] I’ve for a long time argued that the great emotional attraction of conservatism in all its forms is its certainty: You don’t have to decide if something is fair or unfair, right or wrong, good or bad. You just have to know what someone else told you. It’s already been decided. The doubt, the fear, the questions, the responsibility are all gone.
Just recently, there has been renewed consideration of the issue because of the way the health care debate has played out, with folks on the left increasingly bemoaning the tactical brilliance of the right in coming up with phrases like "death panels" and "government takeover" that are easy to repeat, easy to remember, can be used in the course of imagining you understand what's actually going on, and are helpful in ginning up the fear on which the wingers are depending. That, too, is not a new concern: In response to a column by John Leo of what was then called US News & World Report which had been sent to me by a former student, I wrote more than 20 years ago that
Leo is, however, right about one thing: Leftists “tend to be straight-ahead rationalists who do not respond much to symbols or calibrate their power.” (In other words, we think.) It’s the rightists’ sensitivity to manipulation of symbols that is the source of much of their power - even when the symbols, such as “community,” are concepts in which they do not believe, which, in fact, they destroy even as they celebrate.
The notion of "death panels" is just that: a symbol, an image that suggests a much wider range of associations. The effectiveness of such tactics shows that while my flip comment that "In other words, we think" was not inaccurate, it did brush off the significance of the point much too lightly.

However, and this not only brings me back to the C&L post but arrives at the real point of this somewhat rambling discussion, in thinking of the Grayson-Castellanos exchange and my own reaction to it, I recognized what I believe is yet another, related, difference in the way the left and the right think: I very strongly suspect that there is a marked difference between the right and the left in the ability to reify abstractions, to in our imagination, our understanding, turn numbers, charts, and statistics into the actual human beings they represent. More specifically, those on the left can do it (and do) and those on the right can't do it (and don't).

To the right, the 44,000 people who die every year, the 122 who on average die every single day, from lack of access to health care aren't truly real. They're just stories, it's just a number, and as such has no intrinsically greater value than any other number. But to us, that 44,000 who die every year is 44,000 very real human beings whose lives have been unnecessarily cut short.

It's 44,000 mourning families; 44,000 tearful fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters; 44,000 financial crises for struggling families; 44,000 funerals that shouldn't have happened; 44,000 causes for the pain and grief of loss for friends, relatives, coworkers; 44,000 plans uncompleted, dreams lost, hopes undone. It's the high school graduation with a parent missing, the empty spot at the table at Thanksgiving dinner, the repeated jolt when for the tenth or the hundredth time you think "I should tell them about this" the instant before you remember, again, that they're not there anymore; it's the house that's too quiet, the bed that's too wide, the toys that don't need to be picked up, the "special vacation next year" that will never happen in the next year that will never come.

We feel the tragedy which that number represents, which it describes, the utterly unnecessary tragedy, in a way that quite bluntly most people on the right, for all their sloganeering about caring, simply do not because they simply cannot. The real suffering of real people is unreal to them if it is merely one step removed from their direct experience.

And it's all deeply depressing because I have no idea how to get past that. Never mind the leaders of the right wing, a noxious concoction of liars and nutcases who fit into one of two categories: charlatans or beyond hope. I'm thinking rather of the coworker who quotes Glenn Beck and the neighbor who relies on Fox News and the in-law who thinks police cameras on every corner are a terrific idea because how else are you going to keep us safe from the terrorists. I have no idea how to get past their wall of fear, how to appeal to people who close off the world because they see it changing in ways they never anticipated and don't understand.

But maybe the first thing to do is to realize that they simply do not see the same world we do because, tragically, they simply are not capable of seeing it as we do.

Even so - than what?

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