Saturday, January 30, 2021

Build Back Better, Without Caste, But How?

I wanted to write this earlier in the week, but I couldn't. Now it's Saturday and I might have the head space to bring together several things.

First, Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste, which I just finished last weekend. 

Second, an essay by Umair Haque called This is how you recover from fascism — and America's not doing any of it.

Third, of course, the Big Lie about the election, the January 6 violent insurrection, and what has come after it, including our most recent information on members of Congress with their weapons and seditionist thinking, and apologias from other members like Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham.

Fourth, the Republican Party's inability to deal with any of that, whether at the national or state level, and indeed the overt embrace of it in multiple states and at the national RNC.

Fifth, my recent close encounter with believers in the Big Lie on Facebook.

That's a jumbled list, I know, and this will probably be jumbled, too, but that's what it's like, living in the lead-up to what appears to be a civil war. 

As its title says, Haque's essay sets out three things needed to recover from fascism: 

  • Justice (in public, on the scale of the Nuremberg Trials)
  • A Marshall Plan to prevent the economic underpinnings that destabilize society and make openings for fascism, and
  • A transformation of social and cultural norms to make racism and bigotry not okay

And that's where Wilkerson's book comes in, because it clearly shows how the U.S. had already failed in any of these steps when it confronted its earlier instance of fascism: the white supremacy that made it acceptable to enslave huge numbers of people. Once a civil war was fought that legally freed Black people, Reconstruction was soon disavowed and transformed into the "obviously misbegotten" failure we were all taught about in school, as statues of the enslavers and Confederate insurrectionists were erected everywhere, and U.S. military bases were named after them. While Black people were driven out of office, kept from voting, and lynched. While the system of caste — which I for one didn't even know we had in this country when I learned that word about India as a high school freshman — was being further entrenched. And Hitler and his henchmen used ideas from the American Jim Crow South to build the Third Reich.

None of what is happening right now makes sense without recognizing that we live in a country with a caste system, even if we believe it was somewhat improved for a few decades after the Civil Rights movement. Why else would the Right have been getting more and more unhinged since the late 2000s when Barack Obama became president, and news stories have been talking about white people becoming less than the majority of people in this country? It's fear among some large proportion of white people of losing our caste dominance. 

A society built around caste by definition relies on dehumanizing the lowest caste people, which Wilkerson amply demonstrates in the three countries she describes, the U.S., India, and Germany during the Nazi era. In our current moment, dehumanization is being amped up in the language of the Right and has been part of Trump's m.o. from day one. I've been thinking about the Rwandan genocide, and especially a program I heard about how radio shows were used to spread the idea that the Tutsis were cockroaches. I can't find it now, but this Atlantic article gives the same content. Checking the language of many of the January 6 insurrectionists (and some of our members of Congress), you'll find plenty of dehumanizing language about Democrats, liberals, and so on. Rush Limbaugh has been doing this for decades, too.

I so hoped that Republican candidates across the country and up and down the ballot would lose big in November 2020 in order to send a clear message to the party that they are wrong and need to change direction (or be replaced with something else altogether!). But that didn't happen. Trump clearly lost — though he's managed to convince his base otherwise — but way too many Senators and representatives won, not to mention state legislators, as happened with the Minnesota state senate. As Bill Lindeke put it in his Five Grim Takeaways from the Recent Election, "The election reveals how the deep grip of America’s self-delusional, 'reality' show, pyramid scheme narcissism is stronger than our media or government institutions."

A recent episode of the NPR/WAMU show 1A, about the future of the Republican Party, had some good insights, particularly from journalist McKay Coppins. Personally, I don't understand why anyone would want to be aligned with this party in the first place (since the Reagan era, anyway), but at the rate it's going their structures of power are being left in the hands of people who are willing to align with Nazis, so someone needs to stay and either fight for the party to not become Nazis or tear the metaphorical building down so it can't be used by Nazis. Abandoning the party, leaving the smaller and smaller number remaining with the structural power awarded by our two-party system, doesn't seem tenable. The party doesn't have a platform except the obvious but unstated one of white supremacy and voter suppression. The Lincoln Project and other ex-Republicans, no matter how many ads and billboards they make, don't seem to be having much effect on the party structure itself.

Which brings us to the role of Right-wing media in this. My Facebook encounter and the huge number of people still backing Trump and believing the Big Lie about the election are clearly driven by their media exposure, whether talk radio, Fox News, or its successors at OAN and NewsMax. Or social media, of course.

A couple of writers I wanted to quote on possible solutions to this are Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) and Dave Roberts (@drvolts).

On January 22, Giridharadas wrote on Twitter:

It’s time for this question to be front and center: Should Fox News be allowed to exist? Brain-mashing as a business model shouldn’t be legal. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t understand why you’re not allowed to manufacture bucatini that doesn’t have a certain threshold of iron in it but you can broadcast brain-mashing falsehoods and goad people toward terrorism. If the Fairness Doctrine, applying to broadcast, was constitutional, why would a new Fairness Doctrine, applying more broadly, be a violation of that same Constitution? Twelve percent of Americans supported the terrorist insurrection on the Capitol. After the fact. You cannot pin this only on leaders. This has been institutionalized incitement in which the media played a giant role, and democracy is endangered by it.

Are there huge questions of a slippery slope? Of course. Could this regulation be abused? Of course. These are the hard things we'd have to figure out. But none of that means, to me, that a business model of incitement and falsehood is absolutely protected.

At an earlier point, Roberts had an epic thread that I can't find (he seems to have deleted his posts from before January 8?) about the Right-wing media ecosystem that has been funded by billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, the Kochs, the Mercers, and others, and how there is nothing comparable (nor should there be) from the left or just from... facts. I wish I could quote it in full, but from a space perspective maybe it's better that I can't find it. He didn't have an answer. The angst was palpable.

On January 8, two days after the Capitol insurrection, Roberts wrote this:

"How he was radicalized" is not a mystery, y'all, whether you're asking about the insurrectionist in the Capitol or your cranky uncle. The right wing has spent the better part of 50 years building a machine custom-designed to radicalize people. Nothing was hidden. It is radicalizing tens of thousands of people in the exact same way, even now, as we are speaking.

(He also had a long thread that same day on whether the insurrectionists bear moral responsibility for their acts, since they have been subject to media indoctrination.)

Then on January 12, he wrote this:

You'd think that Republicans dropping all pretense and literally launching armed assaults on government would settle the both-sides stuff, but I've already seen multiple "yes, but the left..." responses, both online and in real life. I sincerely wonder what it would take to end those.

Which we now know is the path the Republican Party and many members of Congress have chosen, post January 6.

On January 17, Roberts wrote:

I don't think we really reckon enough with the fact -- as supported by the vast bulk of the research -- that "deprogramming" cult members is a labor-intensive, individualized affair. There's just no way to do it at scale. ...we've basically lost a generation of older white Americans, to say nothing of the younger people (especially suburban women) being pulled into this shit today. Some individuals can be saved, but there's no lever we can pull to bring them all back. They're mostly gone.

Two big implications: one, we'll be dealing with these folks and their distorting effects on politics for the rest of our lives. This is not a "solve" thing, it's a "manage" thing. Second, the top imperative must be cutting off the production of new cultists. 

The only scalable solution is reducing supply -- preventing people from being exposed to this toxic shit in the first place. And that raises all kinds of difficult questions about free speech, elite gatekeeping, etc. etc. 

No one really loves thinking about that stuff. But that's the only route to a scalable solution. Once you create these cultists, you are, for all intents and purposes, stuck with them.

Which sounds a lot like what Giridharadas was saying about deplatforming Fox News.

And then separately on the same date, Roberts wrote:

It just can't be emphasized enough that "you have an obligation to acknowledge empirical truth, no matter its effects on your social or emotional well-being" is a profoundly unnatural, modern idea that tacks directly against centuries of evolution.

Believing what your social group believes, echoing and affirming its common binding precepts, is adaptive. It brings social protection, belonging, and status. What does "believing the truth," in and of itself, get you? Nothing. Why would evolution select for it?

So that's what we're up against, remember: our brains (all of our cognitive biases) and evolution. It's not our fault, though it is our responsibility if we want anything to be different. "Build back better" is even bigger than we thought. Just as the scientific method builds in ways of dealing with human bias, or the balance of powers in the Constitution tried to wrest power from a unitary group or person, we need to build in structural boundaries more broadly now that we know more about our collective faults.

We need to work with what we as humans are because we know how we can go wrong, how we have gone wrong. And as is usually true in this country, a big part of that is listening to Black and Indigenous people, because they've suffered among the most from the consequences.

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