Forgiveness and Reckoning: Preserving American Democracy in the 21st Century

On January 6, 2021, a mob of frenzied insurrectionists, fueled by the lies of Donald J. Trump and his allies in the Republican Party, stormed the U.S. Capitol building. Their aim, it has become clear, was to overturn the outcome of a free and open election by force of violence. 

Most of us are still processing what happened. It’s going to take a while—certainly months, quite possibly years. But the path forward, whatever shape it ultimately takes, must begin with a clear and honest accounting of what is actually happening in the United States. 

That reality is ugly. Among its many hideous facets: the fact that millions of Americans willing voted for a would-be autocrat, and that one of only two viable political parties in the United States—the Republican Party—has spent the last few decades displaying what can be most charitably described as an increasingly gleeful indifference to representative governance and the rule of law in the United States.

The Voters

Even a slim sampling of real-world Trump supporters and Republican voters will tell you that they are not the monsters they appear to be in popular media. Only the most extreme examples of the breed are ever put on film. For the most part, they are ordinary humans with conservative political preferences. Indeed, many of them are good, admirable people. The sort of folks who will pull over to help a stranger stranded in a blizzard. Class acts, through and through.

They have also shown themselves to be precisely the sort of people who will give power to someone like Adolph Hitler. And, yes, Donald Trump is like Hitler. Like Hitler, he is in the class of leaders fully indifferent to the public good and the rule of law—a deranged demagogue willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants; a power-worshipping menace who sees brute force as a viable political tool. 

Of course, there’s an argument that, in extremis, such a beast—ready to abandon all principle and throw support behind the right kind of monster—lurks in many of us. That’s a big, scary maybe for most. For those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, it’s a dead certainty. 

But even those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 aren’t without blame. Back then, his nature was already obvious. His entire biography up until that point had been a self-made portrait of greed and selfishness. Politically, he was a screaming ignoramus, completely oblivious to the most basic workings of American government. And, just as a person, his monstrous nature was equally undeniable: a serial adulterer, profligate liar, renowned cheat, and boastful sexual predator. 

Hardly shocking that such a man would adopt an approach to governing more akin to an Idi Amin or Muammar Gaddafi than an Abraham Lincoln or even a Ronald Reagan. Again, these aren’t precise analogies. We’re just grouping like with like. 

So what happened? That, to a significant degree, is an open question. Explanations abound, from anxieties over demographic replacement and cultural change to raw economic distress and the rise of siloed political ecosystems, completely overrun with lies and misinformation. Few of these explanations are mutually exclusive. For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter. None of the concerns that might have motivated a Donald Trump—alone or in combination—is sufficient to justify a vote for the man. At every point, a vote for Donald Trump was a vote against America’s constitutional order, the rule of law, and the ideals behind the American Experiment writ large. 

And this is the first ugly truth with which we must reckon: the men and women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 abrogated their responsibility as citizens. Maintaining the American system of governance isn’t just a mandate for elected officials—it is a responsibility shared among all voters. Everyone who voted for Donald Trump unambiguously failed in that charge. We must recognize this. Say it out loud and write it into the history books. And then, once all that is done, we need to unreservedly forgive them. 

The Party

In reckoning with the legacy of Donald Trump, we cannot afford to absolve the Republican Party. Their hand-wringing in the wake of January 6’s disgraceful chaos is purely performative. Many of them cheerily spread the lies that incited the violence. Plenty still do. In fact, even after the violence had ceased and the insurrectionists had been expelled, 147 Republicans—that is, the majority of Republicans in congress—still voted against certifying President-elect Biden’s lawful victory.

It is a cold, cutting reminder that Donald Trump didn’t happen by accident. Decades of calculated Republican politics paved the path for his ascension. There is no reason to believe they won’t continue to engage in the same kind of politics once he is gone. 

When Trump won the Republican primary in 2016, plenty of people were shocked. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can see Trump’s victory for what it was: an inevitability. He won the Republican nomination for president in 2016 because he is an open and honest avatar of the ethos Republicans have been preaching with escalating fervor since at least the 1980s. That ethos? Nothing beats raw, rugged self-interest.

This, again, is no surprise. The intellectual roots of modern conservatism are set in harebrained ideologies about the optimality of rational self-interest. In today’s GOP, the idea that the government should get out of the way and let the rich get rich while everyone else squabbles over scraps is fully de rigueur. Turns out, the party that spews devotion to country like it comes cheap really only follows one doctrine: have no allegiance beyond thyself. It’s the slogan Donald Trump has lived by his entire life. 

It’s not a new development. As early as the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea that the United States was falling victim to a glacial socialist coup was beginning to gain traction in conservative intellectual circles. There, the libertarian views of folks like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James M. Buchanan, and Milton Freedman* were increasingly in vogue. What started as suspicion—that things like environmental protection, workplace safety regulation, social security, medicare, minimum wage laws, and public lands management were fundamentally illegitimate uses of government power—gradually blossomed into conviction. 

Not only is this worldview ethically repulsive, it also lacks any solid intellectual footing. In its most pristine and abstract form, this a worldview rooted in demonstrably false ideas, equally detached from any kind of scientific understanding of human behavior and the raw facts of human history as visions of a communist utopia.

Indeed, the communist movements of the early and middle 20th century supply one of the modern GOP’s most illuminating historical parallels. Both are what happen when people forcefully substitute a picture of what reality is actually like with a picture of how they would like it to be. Throughout the twentieth century, many serious, intelligent people bought into communist ideologies and became thoroughly convinced they had found humanity’s best way forward. As a result, they willingly supported authoritarian regimes and participated in unspeakable atrocities. 

Much the same is true of the modern GOP. The ideology is radically different, but its intellectual footings are equally unhinged and the promised utopia just as ill-conceived. Simply spelled out, they believe that humans, freed from the burden of taxation and pursuing their own individual self-interests in a fully deregulated free market, will spontaneously build the best possible society, both in terms of fairness and resource distribution. It is, of course, an insane vision—and a far cry from the Millsian governmental restraint of classical liberalism. And it only gets worse from there, as more extreme members of the Republican Party liberally season their Ayn Randian libertarianism with white nationalism and an incongruent dose of theocratic authoritarianism. 

Since first gaining traction, this radicalism has only spread. Billionaire ideologues like Charles and David Koch organized a vast network of plutocrats and funnelled tens of millions of dollars into deliberate indoctrination campaigns. They used organizations like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Federalist Society to preach the good word of rational self-interest and unfettered capitalism to anyone willing to listen. Meanwhile, they groomed future judges and funded hardline primary challenges to unseat moderate Republicans, building a coalition of converts that has been increasingly successful at putting theory into practice. Public goods have been privatized, regulations rolled back, taxes cut on wealthy Americans and massive corporations, oligarchic influence granted constitutional protections—all with a zealot’s faith that these actions would build the best possible world for everyone.  

Increasingly convinced that taxes and regulations represent a slow walk into Soviet-style tyranny—and that the United States should function as a white, Christian theocracy—Republican politicians, thinkers, and media figures became more and more recalcitrant. During the 1990s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich made treating the opposition like an existential threat—now standard practice in the Republican Party and a direct cause of January 6’s violent insurrection—an official GOP policy. At the same time, entrepreneurs in cable news and political talk radio learned to monetize political grievances by flattering conservative political biases, thereby radicalizing many American conservatives in the process. 

All extremely corrosive to representative governance in the United States. All perfectly consistent with the doctrines of greed and selfishness that form the core of 21st century Republican politics. For decades, with varying degrees of opacity, Republicans have been advancing the argument that the best way forward for America is for each and every American to do whatever they can (barring, prior to January 6, 2021, direct violence to people or property) to secure their own best interests. With straight faces, activists like Grover Norquist—who badgers and cajoles virtually every Republican politician into signing a clownish anti-tax pledge—argue that taxation is equivalent to slavery** and basic entitlements like social security and Medicaid represent an outright pinko assault on individual liberty. 

It’s a perverse, historically illiterate, and ethically vile perspective, essentially arguing that financial support for public goods is a human rights violation. But these absurd notions—that a government taking money from private citizens to build roads, fund education and national security efforts, and provide a safety net for the vulnerable is morally equivalent to slavery; that government regulations aimed at protecting natural resources and mitigating the harmful byproducts of industry are tyrannical—were common currency in the Republican Party long before Trump tossed his name into the ring as a presidential candidate. In 2016, the Republican electorate simply confirmed that they had bought everything the Grand Old Party had been selling. They just wanted it in an honest package, fully stripped of the appeals to public spiritedness, mutual toleration, respect for democratic norms, and basic human decency you might get from someone like Mitt Romney. Donald Trump was no aberration. He is the living, breathing distillation of everything the Republican Party has preached for at least forty years. 

For most Americans, these ideas are unpalatable. But rather than shape a platform with broader appeal, the Republican Party has instead labored to amplify the obvious structural flaws in the U.S. Constitution that give acreage a voice alongside voters. Just consider: California has a population 68 times larger than Wyoming, but in the electoral college, a citizen in Wyoming has 52 times more representation than a citizen in California. This is a problem the Founding Fathers did not anticipate or appreciate. It benefits Republicans massively, allowing them to secure political influence that grossly exceeds their numbers, such that both of the last two Republican presidents came into power on fewer votes than their opponent (hundreds of thousands for Bush, millions for Trump). Meanwhile, the majority Republicans maintained in the Senate between 2019 and 2021 represented around 20 million fewer voters than the Democratic minority. Elected Republicans cheerily embrace this anti-democratic imbalance, acting as if the framers of American government were not humans but infallible oracles. 

The unfiltered reality here is that the Republican Party has been an open threat to American democracy for quite a long time. This is true even if you set aside their strange embrace of the screamingly obvious design flaws the Founders left in the Constitution and focus only on their recent legislative track record. Over the past two decades, Republicans have worked to make voting harder and harder for people unlikely to vote for them. Meanwhile, they have appointed “originalist” justices to the Supreme Court, who have handed down rulings like Citizens United vs. FEC and McCutchen vs. FEC that give wealthy individuals and corporations increasingly exaggerated influence over the shape of our elections and the legislation they ultimately produce. Throughout 2020, they enthusiastically supported a president who refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, thereby undermining a cornerstone of representative governance and the rule of law. American democracy has eroded in recent years. The Republican Party—together with the deranged and rapacious carnival barkers in the conservative media echo chamber—has been the chief instrument of that decay. 

Living in the Painful Wake of Truth

Nations that have been gripped by turmoil, instability, violence, and tragedy, sometimes form truth and reconciliation committees. Ultimately, what this amounts to is a process of finding out precisely what went wrong, who did what and why, and then moving past it. In a way, it’s political group therapy. Painful and difficult, but also useful and, often enough, essential, truth and reconciliation committees supply a template for overcoming vast sociopolitical difficulty. 

The United States should establish a formal truth and reconciliation committee. But ordinary citizens need not wait for some official proclamation to start the work. In fact, given the nature of our national emergency, we can afford no delay. We must talk, freely and openly, about the forces that have nearly crippled our capacity to function as a representative democracy.

The events of January 6, 2021 were disgusting, shocking, and disgraceful. The Republican Party, as an institution, played a massive role in causing them—not only spreading malicious fabrications about the security and legitimacy of the 2020 election, but working steadily for decades to undermine public faith in the basic human capacity to use governments as instruments to solve problems and better people’s lives. Indeed, even after a raving mob of conspiracy theorists stormed through the Capitol building, 139 Republicans in the House of Representatives—that is, the majority of them—and 8 in the Senate voted against certifying election results in Pennsylvania and Arizona. Their stated motivations have no basis in reality. These are simply people who have no respect for representative governance or the rule of law. Every atom of pain caused in the January 6 insurrection is on their hands—and the hands of the people who voted for them. 

This moment could hardly be more precarious. But we aren’t going to be able to back off this ledge and move forward absent an honest reckoning with how we got here. The Republican Party and conservative media are directly—and chiefly—to blame for the dismal state of American politics. Meanwhile, millions of our neighbors have shown us that, under the right circumstances, they will send a would-be tyrannt to the White House. 

We have to forgive our neighbors this transgression. Not, to be clear, those who actively took part in an insurrection against American democracy. They should be punished to the fullest extent of the law—and be made subject to whatever social sanctions their friends, family, and employers deem appropriate. But the ordinary Americans who voted for Donald Trump and otherwise went about their lives made a mistake. Provided they can admit as much, they deserve a pass. Complete absolution. 

For Republican leaders and media figures, the situation is far trickier. For decades, the Republican Party has operated in a climate of political hysterics, hoping to build their extremist vision of capitalist utopia.*** The true believers really see democratic governance as an existential threat to their way of life—a slow crawl to some kind of socialist hellscape. But the party of rugged self-interest has also attracted plenty of unprincipled crooks and sycophants—men like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, Duncan Hunter and Lindsey Graham—who don’t seem to believe anything at all—save, of course, that they can and should do whatever they can to gain personal power and profit, irrespective of the consequences. Barring an embarrassingly small handful of exceptions, that is the Republican Party of 2021—a party of gibbering ideological extremists and conspiracy theorists, liberally seasoned with reflexively perfidious and self-interested goons. 

Indeed, despite his pro-democracy rhetoric in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, Senator Mitch McConnell has built a career around defying democratic norms in pursuit of myopic political ends, working with Donald Trump to install ideological zealots—men and women sympathetic to the extreme doctrines outlined above—on courts throughout the nation. In 2016, he blocked President Barack Obama’s constitutionally mandated supreme court appointment, and marked the full sweep of President Obama’s tenure with an open commitment to derail his entire agenda—and, by extension, the will of every American who had voted him into office. It’s possible an insurrection was enough to shake McConnell and cause him to rethink his behavior. It’s also highly unlikely. 

Point being, we would be fools to give the Republican Party a second chance. For years, they have championed a platform rooted in cynical, predatory appeals to people’s worst instincts—superstition, fear, paranoia, greed, self-interest, xenophobia, tribalism, bigotry, religious mania—and watched their brand become less and less attractive to more and more Americans as a result. In response, they have not moderated their views, but instead doubled-down on a strategy of minority rule. Recognizing this, it becomes clear that preserving representative governance and the rule of law in the United States will involve both crushing the Republican Party out of existence and forgiving everyone who ever voted for them. 

*As with Karl Marx, one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. These men were mostly intellectuals. A subset of their ideas spawned extremist political movements. But, as always, one should treat the full scope of the work, character, and lives with a proper mix of curiosity, charity, and context. I hope future generations will do likewise for me if any of my bad ideas inspire a movement that threatens representative governance and the rule of law after I’m dead. 

**Noteworthy here is the simple fact that someone upset about the tax code in one state or country can move to a place they find more amenable to their financial interests. Slaves who decided grinding their bones into dust as a piece of private property—particularly the Black chattel slaves directly insulted by this line of thinking—never had that option. Many of those who tried to take it anyway were brutalized and murdered as a result. 

***Capitalism, to be clear, is not some kind of abject evil. Generally speaking, open markets and economic liberty are a good thing. But the extreme position—that individual humans pursuing their personal interests in a market stripped of everything save the most basic protections on life and property is a route to the best possible society—is absurd.

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Jeffrey Guhin was Absolutely Right About Neil deGrasse Tyson and Absolutely Wrong About Science

Writing rebuttals to the random thoughts that emerge from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s twitter feed has become something of a cottage industry of late. He appears to make a game of trying to cram profundity into 140 characters. The results might be generously described as mixed. His most recent misfire came in the form of a proposal to build a virtual nation called “Rationalia”, where all policy decisions are adjudicated by evidence.

In response, sociologist Jeffrey Guhin entered the ‘rebut Tyson’s twitter feed’ industry with a perversely ill-conceived takedown. The flaws with Tyson’s reasoning are rather elementary and simple to articulate. Brass tacks, a nation in which policy was dictated by the weight of evidence wouldn’t be able to make much policy. While it’s hard to think of an issue where evidence is entirely immaterial, there are plenty of issues where the weight of that evidence is far less than decisive. Choices about what kinds of policy to enact on issues like abortion, capital punishment, and resource redistribution can and should be informed by evidence, but they are ultimately decided by the ceaseless competition among changing value systems.

It’s clear that Guhin has some sense of this, but instead of driving the point home, he turns to an attack on the entire process of scientific discovery and the veracity of the results it yields.  In doing so, he reveals an embarrassing misunderstanding of the way science works and the reasons for which it is granted special credence as a knowledge-gaining activity. Indeed, it’s difficult to read Guhin’s piece without coming away with the impression that he literally does not understand science at all.

Guhin’s primary gripe with science seems to be that scientists are people and, like all other people, they are driven by irrational impulses and blinkered by unexamined prejudices. This is an extraordinarily mundane observation, but it has long provided fodder for assaults on science from people in across the “other ways of knowing” spectrum, from eastern spiritualists to vehement anti-vaxxers. In terms of originality and impact, it might fit somewhere between the observation that rocks tend to be hard and you’ll die if you don’t eat.

The fact that scientists can be just as biased and irrational as anyone else is precisely why science, as a process, eschews appeals to authority. General relativity isn’t considered a powerful scientific theory because the man who came up with it, Albert Einstein, was a well-respected scientist. It’s considered powerful because its predictions match observable reality with incredible precision. Other scientists checked Einstein’s work, making observations and performing experiments to test how closely it aligned with reality. Their results indicated that general relativity is an immensely successful explanatory framework.

This is the feature of science that Guhin really overlooks. Much of the rationality of science emerges from the structure of scientific communities. Guhin’s ignorance of this fundamental point suggests he spends more time cataloging the perceived moral infractions of science than actually thinking about how science works. Myriad researchers compete and cooperate with one another in the shared pursuit of new knowledge. Though any individual scientist might be blind to the flaws of her experimental methods or pet hypotheses, plenty of her peers will gladly assist her in uncovering every point of error. The community structure of science serves as a course-corrective for the subjective biases, irrationality, and dogmatism exhibited by any of its individual constituents.

So when Guhin points to social Darwinism and phrenology as scientific failures, he neglects to mention that their eventual dismissal is a clear indication that the process of scientific discovery works just fine. Those ideas fell out of favor because the cold arbitration of observable reality, in concert with the relentless scrutiny of peer review, found them wanting. Recognizing that they didn’t do any explanatory work, scientists cast those ideas aside, where they joined the colossal dust-heap of failed scientific ideas.

As Guhin rightly suggests, the history of science is, more than anything else, a story of failure. In the long run, most scientific ideas turn out to be wrong in some way or other. Many just need to be tweaked, but others are discarded outright. Usually the results are pretty innocuous. J.J. Becher’s phlogiston theory of combustion never hurt anybody, nor did Joseph Priestly’s recalcitrant defense of it.

Indeed, almost all of the failures Guhin seeks to cast as instances where science grossly violated the bounds of human ethics are really nothing of the sort. Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalinist Russia labored to present a veneer of scientific credibility, but never really exhibited anything of the sort. Both were expressions of state religion, where ideological fundamentalism and political fanaticism actively stifled scientific research and trampled many of the values most esteemed in science. Other sins Guhin tries to pin on science, like scientific Marxism, were dismissed decades ago because they were never really scientific in the first place.

It’s absolutely critical to remember that every time a scientific idea has turned out wrong, it has been a scientist or a community of scientists that discovered its faults. More importantly, in the quest to understand the nature of reality – to construct reliable explanations of how the real world actually functions – science is the only thing that has ever worked. Measured against its litany of failures, the halls of successful scientific explanations can seem rather sparsely populated. But science is also the only process capable of landing a robot on a comet and building enormously sophisticated pocket computers. It’s the only source to turn to when you want to explain the structure of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in a giraffe or pluck information about the origins of the cosmos from data on the temperature of empty space and the Doppler shift of distant galaxies. It’s the only method for identifying the causal linkages between patterns of global climate change and human behavior. It’s the only tool for uncovering the causes of diseases and successful methods for treating them. With the right kind of belligerent myopia, it’s easy forget that all these things are the product of science. Though it might only do so rarely, science is literally the only method for uncovering truths that transcend the boundaries of language and culture.

Given all this, it might be possible to see a nugget of truth beneath Tyson’s otherwise unrefined suggestion. It points to a more modest claim: that in any decision-making process where scientific evidence can be brought to bear, that evidence absolutely should be granted special emphasis. It’s not that values don’t have a role to play. It’s that values independent of reason and evidence are a recipe for unmitigated disaster.

 

Cliven Bundy, the Nevada ‘Ranch War’, and a victory for militant jackasses everywhere

Last week, long standing tensions between a Nevada rancher and the Bureau of Land Management began to escalate toward a good old fashioned ‘Merican dust-up. Like Gary Cooper facing down the gang of outlaws in High Noon, rancher Cliven Bundy stood alone to defend life and liberty and against the forces of evil and exploitation.

First, a little history.

Cliven Bundy is the rancher at the epicentre of the fracas. According to Cliven Bundy, in the latter half of the 19th century a group of Latter Day Saints (Bundy’s progenitors included) settled parts of the inter-mountain west. It would seem this was done under the divine instruction and direct supervision of God, the infinite and almighty Creator of the Universe and ghost writer of the United States Constitution. Thanks to divine dispensation, Bundy’s ancestors have been grazing cattle on a sizable swath of the Nevada desert since the 1870s, peaceably and industriously carving an honest way of life out of the unforgiving high desert landscape.

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Cliven Bundy – Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Things changed when the Bureau of Land Management, a generally beneficial government agency that Bundy and his supporters apparently believe to be a tyrannical cabal of radical communists, decided to collect the land use fees Bundy had courageously neglected to pay for two decades. A quick internet search reveals that the mission of this shadowy government agency is to:

“manage and conserve the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations under our mandate of multiple-use and sustained yield.”

Nefarious. I quake in fear for the future of American liberty. Under the blasphemous pretense that natural resources are somehow perishable and ecosystems fragile, the BLM works to erode the freedoms of hard-working Americans by forcing “sustainable” management strategies down the public’s throat. These corrupt liberal parasites believe that some lands represent a type of public good. Implicit in this is the suggestion that wanton, short-sighted exploitation of landscapes, ecosystems, and the resources they encompass is somehow unethical.

Since 1993, Bundy has refused to pay the BLM for the right to graze his 900 cattle on 600,000 acres of public property. That is, he has refused to pay for access to lands held in the public trust and managed by the federal government. Here, it is worth taking a moment to consider the purpose of land management with respect to grazing rights. In the 19th century, the U.S. government actively encouraged Euro-American settlement of the Western Frontier. According to the Homestead Act of 1862, individuals who filed an application, noticeably “improved” a portion of land over a five year period of occupation, and filed for a deed could become the proud owners of a given allotment of acreage. Implicit in the act itself is the notion that the federal government owns the land. Things were dandy until it became apparent that unregulated land use (such as grazing) damages the landscape, harming plants, soils, streams, springs, and animals. This provided the impetus for the enactment of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which led to subsequent improvements in range land productivity and watershed quality. With the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the BLM’s mission expanded to include the protection of resources additional to the common interests of cattle ranchers. Since then, the BLM has worked to preserve things like riparian ecosystems and protect sensitive species of plants and animals. 

Presumably, Bundy and his family had been paying lease fees to the BLM since 1934. He inexplicably (in terms that conform to any known criteria of logic, reason, or historical precedent, anyway) ceased payments in 1993. Since then, he has been grazing his cattle on public lands for free. The ecosystem in which Bundy’s cattle graze is not well adapted to their generalist grazing strategy. Consequently, cattle grazing results in some amount of passive (but non-negligible) damage to the environment. Ranchers like Bundy pay the BLM for access to public lands as a way to offset the environmental cost of grazing. So for over twenty years, Bundy has been engaged in the destruction of public property – a resource held in trust for the enjoyment and use of all Americans and the creatures with which we share the land, present and future – without paying into the trust that supports sustainable management. Put more simply, Bundy hasn’t paid his rent in 20 years. Last week, his overly lenient landlords began eviction proceedings.

Depending on who you ask, Bundy owes between $300,000 (if you ask economist Cliven Bundy, PhD) and $1,100,000 (if you ask the BLM) in back rent. In order to recoup a little of their costs, the BLM hired wranglers to round up some of Bundy’s cattle. Here, Bundy drew a line in the sand. For years, Bundy and his family have struggled under the yoke of tyranny, asked to pay $1.35 per cow per month to graze on public lands. That’s right. Bundy was asked to pay that fee. Being the civil rights hero that he his, Cliven Bundy said no. Yet the government continued to ask. Bastards.

Having seen the kernel of truth at the heart of the ancient proverb, “shit in your left hand and hope into your right and see what fills up faster”, the BLM, apparently comprised entirely of timid apologists, decided to take action. This lead to some serious public outrage, inspiring a bunch of militant, right-wing nut jobs to grab their AR-15s and their fourth grade understandings of U.S. history and head for Bunkerville, Nevada.
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John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP

Under mounting public pressure (read: mounting pressure from ring-wing militants) and the growing threat of needless violence, the BLM backed down, capitulating to a man who says his personal interests take precedent over the interests of anyone and everything that might have some stake in the condition of that land, now or in the future. Contrary to standard U.S. policy, they also gave in to the demands of terrorists. That’s right. I said terrorists. Men and women who used the threat of violence and the fear it evokes to get their way. Terrorists. Ignorant yokels whose inscrutable sense of resentment and persecution has turned them into an active menace to the smooth and peaceful operation of a government agency whose work can – at the very worst – be considered innocuous.

In the final analysis, this will probably turn out to be a very small story. A footnote to a footnote in United States history. But it is a microcosm of the ignorance, paranoia, and selfishness festering in the minds of many Americans. As such, it should serve as a forceful lesson. A mob estimated to number somewhere around a thousand forced the U.S. government to allow a man to continue to break the law. That’s not to say the government should have continued to press the matter. Surely that would have lead to some backwoods jackass with an itchy trigger finger sparking a violent, bloody confrontation. I don’t think this affair would have been worth losing lives over. However, the fact that people are hailing Bundy as a hero is remarkable in all the worst ways. It is a position rooted in abject ignorance and the sort of livid, animal paranoia bred by a total blindness to differing opinions and the various methods by which information can be critically evaluated. It is the product of swaggering confidence, unmoored of sensibility, circumspection, incredulity, and civility.

By and large, dissenting opinions are good for democracy. I can live in a country where people disagree on how much influence government should have on the market, or whether or not a certain interpretation of the law is in line with the strictures of the U.S. constitutions. Civil, intelligent people can and do disagree. But the process of constructive debate and bipartisan compromise breaks down when a significant chunk of the population holds opinions justified only by their imaginations. The militants who gathered over the past few days in Nevada were there to defend a nation and a constitution they’d conjured out of thin air. And they were willing to hurt people to do so.

Additional reading and sources:

  1. http://abcnews.go.com/US/nevada-cattle-rancher-wins-range-war-federal-government/story?id=23302610
  2. http://www.newsweek.com/us-officials-end-stand-nevada-rancher-cliven-bundy-246038?piano_t=1
  3. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/04/12/cliven_bundy_feds_halt_nevada_cattle_seizure.html
  4. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/04/08/armed-fed-agents-and-snipers-the-decades-long-battle-between-the-govt-and-a-nevada-rancher-that-has-finally-reached-breaking-point/
  5. http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/grazing.html
  6. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Latest-News-Wires/2014/0410/Nevada-cattle-wars-Nevada-senator-sides-with-rancher-against-feds

 

 

 

White Conservative Christian Derangement Syndrome

Over at a site known as “World News Direct” a fellow named Joseph Farah has issued a rather mundane bout of anti-science rhetoric1. Now, as near as I can tell, WND appears to be a kind of support group for people caught in the grips of paranoid delusions associated with WCCDS (more on that shortly). It offers a safe place where they can share their delusions with other delusional people without fear of facts or information intruding and casting the shroud of scrutiny, critical thinking, and shrewd judgement they so often entail.

For the most part, Farah’s column is what happens when, lacking the professional expertise – or even a basic understanding – of a subject upon which to base an opinion, a person stubbornly forges on ahead anyway and conjures one out of thin air. It evinces a pitiable lack of critical thinking skills and sorrowful abundance of “White Conservative Christian Derangement Syndrome” (WCCDS). Though the ultimate causes of WCCDS are uncertain, it is believed to result from situations where an individual’s beliefs about the way the world is and ought to be differ significantly from available evidence about the way the world actually is. It is frequently accompanied by inexplicable feelings of persecution and a pronounced tendency toward tribalism. WCCDS is named for its prevalence among conservative members of the White-Christian community, the majority demographic in the United States.

Given Farah’s apparent affliction, addressing the particulars of his rant is more or less pointless. Characteristic of WCCDS, he thinks climate change, cosmology, and Darwinian evolution are hoaxes, sculpted in the absence of the scientific method. Clearly this is the product of a mind that either lacks access to factual information or an ability to interpret empirical results in light of the nuanced process of provisional discovery known as the scientific method. Alternately, Farah may have misapplied the term scientific method, thinking it relates to the process whereby one compares reality to the Bible and, where the two differ, chooses to reject reality in favor of the often opaque and internally inconsistent teachings of a book selectively compiled from the ramblings of the ancient inhabitants of the Iron Age Levant.

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I think only one of his points is worth addressing:

“When will everyone see through the fact that we now have a scientific establishment that is politically driven and government funded – a combination more dangerous than when the church was in charge?”

First, whether or not the “scientific establishment” is politically driven is a matter of perspective. To those on the Right, this might seem to be the case because liberally-minded folk seem to have empirical evidence on their side in both larger quantities and with greater frequency. That said, it should be noted that science can’t be politically driven. This is because scientific discoveries are emergent products of a continuous process, driven by patterns of both cooperative and adversarial interaction, where the veracity of results is ultimately arbitrated by the reliability with which they explain real-world phenomena. Individual scientists can certainly be politically driven, but the mutually constructive processes of peer-review, competition, and repeatability ensure that science as a whole can’t be.

Second, the notion that government funded science is somehow a bad thing is blatantly dangerous. People tend to forget that in a participatory democracy, the government is the people. That this ideal is not manifest is a product of government corruption, typically perpetrated by powerful market interests. Which, as it happens, are just the sort of interests conservatives so passionately defend as paragons of industrious self-interest and moral righteousness. In reality, their influence tends to inhibit the successful function of representative democracy. Why, if they were the primary source of scientific funding, should we expect that they wouldn’t corrupt science as well?

Indeed, insofar as it can be said that science is biased, it is biased by the urge to address hot-button issues and ignore informative negative results in order to secure a chunk of that government funding pie. If the funding of science were handed over to the private sector, things would be much worse. There would be no such thing as objective science – only science that serves the limited interests of for-profit entities like Exxon and Pfizer. The only results of interest would be those that help shareholders capture more and more profits. Explanatory science – science about how the universe was formed, how life evolved – would be forgotten. Science that exposes the deleterious consequences of corporate behavior – that deforestation and pollution are linked to devastating losses in biodiversity, that smoking causes cancer – would be forbidden.

So let’s all raise a glass to publicly funded science and, wherever and whenever possible, do what we can to keep it that way.

  1. http://www.wnd.com/2014/03/meet-obamas-favorite-astrophysicist/