So we can scratch one major problem off the list: Trump is history! He left much as he arrived, as offensively as possible. But fortunately, we’re still here, in one piece. He left us with a lot of problems, some of which he made bigger. But the day after our new president was sworn in, when I woke up, something felt different. I thought at first it was just relief, and then I realized there was something else — hope.
It was entirely in character that on their way out, Trump’s people pushed out a fake history effort they called The 1776 Project. Their idea seems to have been to counter The 1619 Project , a NY Times series that shined light on our long history of slavery and how that affects us today. According to news reports, The 1776 Project attempted to downplay slavery and compared progressives to fascists.
I had read The 1619 Project with great interest, and I braced myself to read The 1776 Project. However, President Biden, in his first day, took the thing down from the White House web site. Now (as opposed to earlier in the week) you could say, it’s history.
Rewriting history in an attempt to inculcate patriotism and discourage critical thought is nothing new. As Trump’s failed 1776 Project shows, the whitewashing project continues, though less and less convincingly.
If you’re historically inclined, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, which I recently reread. Loewen spent several years analyzing widely used American history textbooks, and discovered that most of what our children are taught consists of heroic myths, scrubbed of difficult truths. He gives several major examples, including Columbus, African enslaved people, and Native Americans, showing that most of us were taught a version of American history that had little to do with the facts. He also shows that reality-based history, though sometimes painful, is far from boring.
The storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters attempting to overturn the election is a strong reminder that there’s still a lot we need to figure out about our history and the new brand of right-wing fanaticism. Some of the fanatical elements are familiar, like extreme racism, fascination with gun violence, and paranoia. Even the bizarre conspiracy theories, like QAnon, are not entirely new. But the coordinated involvement of lots of seemingly ordinary people in creating such violent conspiracy ideas is something we haven’t seen before.
We already knew, from the mass-murdering authoritarians of the 20th century, headed up by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, that brute force propaganda works. Repeating false information over and over is effective, in the sense that it changes people’s beliefs, or in the alternative makes them understand they must keep quiet.
These old time propaganda efforts were top down criminal projects. But the new thing is at least in part bottom up — DIY propaganda. We’re seeing that there are large populations that not only won’t resist government lies — they’ll voluntarily and happily join in inventing them.
Not long ago, we might have thought that almost no one would voluntarily sit in front of a screen for long periods to receive, embroider, and pass along right-wing falsehoods. But it turns out that millions do, apparently happily. With easy-to-use social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Parler, some of these millions become participants of what may feel to them like a computer game, book club, or craft project. As they play, they garner likes and thumbs up, and feel like they’re part of a community. Gradually they disconnect from ordinary reality.
We’ve arrived at a surreal moment with well over half of the once conservative Republican Party believing that voter fraud by Democrats wrongfully deprived Trump of victory. News flash: this is a breathtakingly groundless lie. This “conservative” group is the breeding ground for a smaller subgroup that believes that it is reasonable to defy such an “illegitimate” government with violent opposition. The percentage of this subgroup prepared to act on such beliefs is still to be determined.
A key part of the new rightwing alt-reality is that Democrats want to impose a dangerous alien ideology — socialism, or some other ism — that will destroy the American way of life. This, too, is a groundless delusion. It may be that the new administration’s calmer, gentler tone and practical public-spirited agenda will defuse some of this paranoia, and help some of these people return to ordinary reality.
Let us hope so. If their extreme fantasies and fears lead them to real violence, we will face another threat to our democratic aspirations — how to address radical right terrorism without unnecessary violence and without devolving into a surveillance-heavy police state.
Trying to understand more about how human minds work is always interesting, and just now it seems time sensitive. Along this line, I recommend Lisa Feldman Barrett’s short and fascinating new book, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, which I just read for the second time. Barrett, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, summarizes recent research and presents some useful new ways of thinking about ourselves.
For example, she argues convincingly that the primary function of the brain is energy management, rather than conscious thinking. Behind the scenes, our brains keep the various body systems running — heart pumping, lungs breathing, monitoring and attacking invading bacteria and viruses, and much else. Whether to eat, sleep, or debate politics all depends on the brain exercising its professional judgment on resource management in processes we usually don’t perceive.
Barrett also shows that what is happening when we’re perceiving and analyzing the world is different from what we suppose. Our brains are shut away from the external world in a thick bone case, with only limited information from our sense organs to work with.
We’re constrained by the physical structure of our neural networks, and also by our culture that has bequeathed us all kinds of assumptions and biases. Yet with all these inherent limitations, our brains continuously spin up our reality and predict the immediate future. Given the nature of our brain systems, it’s no wonder we make a lot of mistakes. The amazing thing is we can learn from our mistakes, and can get some things right.
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The pictures here are of Sally’s orchids, which look like they’ll be happily blooming for a while.