Rightwing Rewrites Reality

John Tenniel illus. from "Alice through the Looking Glass"

Yesterday I wrote about how Samuel Johnson’s depiction of the astronomer in Rasselas provides a good restorative to bloggers who have lost perspective. The astronomer, living in a bubble, comes to believe that he can influence the weather.  Today I want to apply this episode to what I see as the reality problem of the Republican Right.

At the moment, ideologues on the right appears to believe fantasies.  (For the sake of balance, do I need to acknowledge that in the 1970’s leftist ideologues had a reality problem of their own?)  They claim that tax cuts will pay for themselves and that the U.S. failing to pay its debts will not be an economic disaster and that taking a morning after pill is comparable to killing a “baby” and that the earth is not hundreds of thousands years old and that homosexuality can be “cured” and that the president is a Kenyan-born Muslim who “wants to take away our guns” and that American Muslims are a threat to institute Sharia law in this country and that the founding fathers did not protect slavery in the American Constitution (they did) and that Thomas Jefferson believed in the risen Christ (he did not) and that the earth is not undergoing climate change. They appear to believe their vision of the world is true simply because they say, repeatedly and loudly, that it is true.

They not only believe this vision but practice the Humpty Dumpty approach to communicating it: “I said it very loud and clear. I went and shouted in his ear.” (Humpty’s poem can be read in its entirety here.)

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty is also relevant to today’s discussion because he is one who claims that he can make words mean whatever he wants them to mean.  As he puts it, “The question is, who is master?”

So these people think they have found a way of mastering reality and have dragged much of the Republican Party with them, prompting conservative columnist David Brooks to observe that the G.O.P. has been taken over by “an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation.”

You won’t hear such common sense from any of the Republican candidates for president, however. Why rile up potential allies?

Samuel Johnson, who believed in calling things as he saw them regardless of the consequences, has a warning for such enablers.  An alternate reality can become fixed in the mind if it is not exposed for what it is.  As Rasselas’s teacher Imlac says, “Such are the effects of visionary schemes. When we first form them, we know them to be absurd, but familiarize them by degrees, and in time lose sight of their folly.”

Such folly may be contributing to some of America’s current failures to engage in the art of compromise, and we are seeing the results in Congressional budget talks and various state governments. (Minnesota’s government services, for instance, have closed down) The issue here is not lone astronomers but something comparable: some have noted that we are living in “information silos” where we just tune in to people who think like us and refuse to acknowledge those who don’t.  As a result, there’s no countering our thinking when (to repeat the Rasselas passage I quoted yesterday), our mind

recurs constantly to the favorite conception, and feasts on the luscious falsehood whenever she is offended with the bitterness of truth. By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed; she grows first imperious and in time despotic. Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish.

Courage and clarity are called for in today’s politics.  Ironically, courage in today’s Republican Party would include acknowledging that, in one way, Johnson’s astronomer is right: we are influencing the weather.

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  1. Hieu
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I love reading your blog. You’re a great writer. What a great “punch line” that you have for today’s post, especially in view of how thoroughly you had covered Rasselas’ folly yesterday.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks a lot, Hieu. Johnson, by the way, has some profound observations on mental instability, which you as a counselor would appreciate.

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