Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Perils of Stripping away Illusion

After decades spent trying to get Americans to confront the country's crimes, Wallace Shawn find that the results of greater honesty are not what he hoped for:

Now that I’m seventy-six, when I remember the way I used to feel—when I think about how important it once seemed to me to tell people the truth about the crimes in which we all were implicated—well, that all seems quaint and sad. It turns out that by the time the American public learned the sorts of things I’d felt they needed to learn, by the time they came to look in the mirror, what they saw there didn’t look so bad to them. And so, yes, an awful lot of people don’t get upset when they hear Trump talk.

On the contrary, they seem to feel a great sense of relief. Trump has liberated a lot of people from the last vestiges of the Sermon on the Mount. A lot of people turn out to have been sick and tired of pretending to be good. The fact that the leader of one of our two parties—the party, in fact, that has for many decades represented what was normal, acceptable, and respectable—was not ashamed to reveal his own selfishness, was not ashamed to reveal his own indifference to the suffering of others, was not even ashamed to reveal his own cheerful enjoyment of cruelty…all of this helped people to feel that they no longer needed to be ashamed of those qualities in themselves either. They didn’t need to feel bad because they didn’t care about other people. Maybe they didn’t want to be forbearing toward enemies. Maybe they didn’t want to be gentle or kind.

I worry about this, too. If you convince people that their ancestors were not the noble heroes they imagine, but were in fact guilty of violence, racism, and sundry other barbarities, some of them will not turn against their ancestors. Instead, they will decide that violence, racism and barbarity are good things.

In general, attacking people is a terrible way to change them. It almost always makes them double down in defense of themselves and their kind. I firmly believe that nothing helps Trump and his ilk more than constant criticism of "white people."

Inspiring people to do better is the only way, if possible by pointing out their ancestors' virtues and calling on them to build on that past. That's what FDR did, and Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama. It's how the leader's of Swedish socialism and the British Labour Party created the modern welfare state in the 1940s and 1950s. Not by criticizing people, but by appealing to the best in people, and the best in their past.


Shadow said...

What a fustian bore he is.

G. Verloren said...


"Inspiring people to do better is the only way, if possible by pointing out their ancestors' virtues and calling on them to build on that past. That's what FDR did, and Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama."

And what actually came of those attempts?

Sure, FDR secured the New Deal and helped WWII to be won, but those weren't issues of criticizing vs. inspiring people. FDR himself didn't unite Americans all that much - the bulk of that work was done by the existential crises we faced.

People didn't accept the New Deal because Roosevelt appealed to people's better natures - they accepted it because it was the only solid proposal offering relief from the ravages of The Great Depression.

America didn't turn against the Axis Powers because Roosevelt inspired people with his speeches and principles - he quietly (and at times illegally) shored up our military capacity as a precaution, but he was resigned to the fact that the populace at large had little interest in opposing Fascism, and that he was never going to change people's minds by inspiring them to be better.

It was only the shock and outrage caused by Pearl Harbor - Americans banding together against an imminent external threat - that changed popular opinion enough to make war feasible. Even then, we were only really interested in getting revenge on Japan at first - if the Germans hadn't declared war on us in defense of their Japanese allies, we might well have left the Nazis to conquer Europe while we focused solely on the Pacific. For many, we had no quarrel with Hitler.


What did Martin Luther King actually accomplish? And more importantly, how?

His crowning achievements were the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but those didn't secure rights for minorities by inspiring people to be better - they did so by granting the federal government the power to force the southern states into compliance with the law.

Conservative whites didn't listen to King's speeches and say to themselves, "Ya know, he makes good points! I'm going to have a change of heart and stop being an intolerant racist bigot, and instead embrace African Americans as my equals!" They ranted furiously about the tyranny of the federal government trampling over States' Rights; they carried out lynchings, dynamited churches, and threatened the lives of de-segregated schoolchildren to such a degree that the National Guard had to be called into defend against the armed mobs.

They complied with the new laws because they had little choice, but they never forgot, they never forgave, and they never stopped clinging to and trying to spread their hatred and bigotry, no matter how civil and noble and inspiring King acted. They passed on their beliefs to their children, and to their children's children, and the specter of Jim Crow persists to this very day!

King made it harder for white racists to oppress and disenfranchise African-Americans, but he didn't solve the root of the problem. And in the half century and more since then, the bigots have simply developed new methods of suppression. They weaponized our criminal justice system, intentionally creating laws and conditions that disproportionately fill our prisons with minorities; they refined voter suppression tactics to new heights of sophistication and effectiveness; they actively work to sustain and expand institutional inequity at every level, to make life for minorities harder and keep them poor, uneducated, and disorganized.

And nothing King ever said or did in his entire life has ever given these people pause or cause to reflect on whether they should change their ways. If anything, King simply hardened their resolve - caused them to dig their heels in harder, embrace their delusions more fully, and resent African Americans (and allies of theirs such as the Liberal side of the White population) ever more deeply.

G. Verloren said...

{Correction For The Prior Post - I erroneously referenced the National Guard being called in to desegregate. It was actually the US Army. Units of the National Guard were deployed by segregationists to prevent the integration, which in turn provoke the use of federal troops.}


And as for Obama?

Well, he was a very solid president, but what lasting impact did he actually have on society? He went out of his way to be bipartisan, accommodating, civil, and uplifting, but how many hearts and minds did he actually change?

Most of his opponents didn't give a damn how presidential he acted, or how principled he was, or how much he tried to reach across the aisle, or anything else. They saw a black man in the White House, and that was enough for them to decide they would never have the merest scrap of respect for him, and would abandon all dignity to attack him on the most ridiculous of grounds.

The right wing media routinely had a hysterical field day over the most inconsequential of things - they vehemently criticized Obama for wearing a tan suit; they claimed he disrespected America by eating a hamburger with mustard but no ketchup; they objected to his choice of a paper clip to hold together multiple pages of a proposed bill he introduced in a press conference.


There's just no reasoning with that kind of person. You can't change their hearts and minds through leading by example. In fact, trying to do so just makes them think less of you. They don't respect people who try to inspire them to be better - they reflexively mock such people as weak, effeminate, and unfit to lead.

Some people only respect barbarism. Some people are just psychopaths.

You can't reason with a troll. You can preach to them all you want, but you'll never inspire them to be better people, because they simply don't give a damn. They think it's funny that you care about being a good person. They think it makes you weak and stupid, and they laugh at your attempts to get them to care about anything. They know that you're wasting your time preaching a sermon to them, and they think that's absolutely hysterical.

Despite his principled and inspiring leadership, Obama ultimately didn't make the country a better place - his tenure sparked a wave of conservative backlash unlike anything we've seen before. For all his good intentions and noble behavior, he achieved less than nothing in terms of combating barbarism.


And that's ultimately the entirety of the disconnect between your position and mine.

You advocate for trying to reason with people and change their minds. I do as well. But you don't seem to think there's a limit beyond which you aren't actually doing any good, and are in fact simply wasting your time, to your own massive detriment.

I've said it before, I'll say it again - some people are just psychopaths. Some people just don't give a damn. And you can't just keep insisting on trying to win such people over to your side. It won't work.

Little Rock wasn't integrated "by pointing out their ancestors' virtues and calling on them to build on that past". It was integrated by pointing automatic rifles at their chests and ordering them to disperse under threat of death.

Some problems can only be solved by force, because that's all some people respect.

David said...


:0 How can you say that??? This is Vizzini we're talking about here! Also, the guy who had dinner with Andre! He's sacred!

David said...

On the merits of the issue, I'm with Verloren on this. You're dealing with basics of regional culture and personal character, and I think a lot of the folks on Trump's side don't have much in the way of better angels to appeal to--not without adding so much comically tender care for their hair-trigger rage that the appeal becomes virtually meaningless. It's like living with an abusive family member. They can be quiescent if not challenged, or enraged if they are, but they can't be changed. And the challenge is often there no matter how much you try to soften it, as in the case of Obama. As I remarked in an earlier post, the extremely hostile reaction to Obama developed almost instantaneously. Remember, Joe Wilson's "You lie!" came less than a year into Obama's presidency. That kind of disrespect comes from something deeper than policy differences. And it can't be soft-stroked away.

Susi said...

Most folks just want to get along. They believe the propaganda because it’s easier than making their own minds up. Indifference is easier than activity. There is a percentage of each group who like activity, dragging some of the indifferent along with them. It takes a lot to get a populace to rebel, but once they do, it’s the active members who “ride” the mob, trying to guide them in the “right” direction. When the fires of anger burn out, the mob turns into tired people who just want their hot hands around a cold beer again. They look at what they’ve done, shake their heads and settle back down. Did the trajectory of their civilization change? Maybe just a fraction. That fraction, over time, will enlarge and, until the next outburst, will head on a new tangent. No civilization changes direction fast, but incrementally, in spurts and stops. These are my conclusions from reading history, YMMV.