Friday, March 16, 2012

Pied Pipers

One of the things that I dislike about campaign season is that candidates for high office often demonstrate just how poorly they think of us. Another thing that I did like is how people often prove them right.

The American right sure seems to like stories about foreign countries killing their citizens. Most recently, leading GOP candidate Rick Santorum claimed that 10 per cent of the Netherlands' deaths were from euthanasia, 5 percent forced, and that "elderly people in the Netherlands don't go to the hospital" or, if they do, wear bracelets saying "do not euthanize me," all of which is false.
The Dutch Euthanize Their Elderly, and Other Scary GOP Lies About Europe
This hits upon my impression of the political version of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - namely Rage, Anxiety, Ignorance and Distrust. And to my mind, none of these are positives in campaign season.

(While you could just as easily termed Rage as "Outrage," to do spoils the acronym, so we'll leave it where it is.) It's easy to spark outrage through telling people that innocent people are being murdered by politically wrong-headed foreigners who simply don't have the morals to have any respect for life. On top of it, over the past ten or so years, many Americans have become used to being outraged at Europeans for one crime or another. But Rage is almost always a distraction from the point at hand. Because even if you consider it appropriate to be outraged about something, the act of being angry does not, in and of itself, lead to any sort of positive changes. When politicians see people as easily provoked to Rage, they also see them as easily distracted.

Politicians often seek to sow Anxiety, because when it comes to motivating people to make grants of power, fear is very successful. Not only do people tend not to think things through when Anxious, but they are often willing to concede quite a bit of authority, in return for being lead to a place of safety. Mr. Santorum is clearly seeking to frighten people with the idea that the American health care system ever comes to look like that of Europe, they, or their loved ones would never be safe when going to the hospital. But, from where I sit, it's difficult to look at people who squeak with Anxiety every time you prod them, and not come to think of them as being basically cowardly. Part of it is just an artifact of modern American society - we tend to see ourselves as having a lot to lose and that understanding of the world tends to make risk aversion into a virtue. But someone who understands themselves as being able to scare you on demand isn't likely to see you as someone willing to stand up when the going gets tough, regardless of what they tell you to your face.

But one of the biggest problems might be the political instinct to rely on the Ignorance, willful or otherwise, of voters. Rick Santorum has made some demonstrably false statements during his recent campaigning. For instance, the idea that President Obama said that everyone should go to college (for which Mr. Santorum labelled him a "snob"). Someone who makes a statement that some basic research will show to be untrue is convinced of one, or more of a few things: One) their audience won't know any better, Two) their audience won't actually go and verify the statement that was made and/or Three) that if someone else comes along and says "that isn't true," their audience will ignore them, or assume that they're now being lied to. It's difficult to see how someone who considers you some combination of uneducated, incurious and closed-minded can, at the same time, think highly of you.

The act of demonizing people in other nations is, perhaps, one of the simplest forms of spreading Distrust. It would be difficult to imagine that anyone who took Mr. Santorum's claim about Dutch hospitals at face value would be ready to take a Dutch politician at face value. And, of course, to the stereotypical conservative voter, who would be in favor of establishing a system like that of the Netherlands here in the United States? Those dastardly Democrats. Who are, of course, to be Distrusted. But again, what is the positive side of being able to provoke someone to distrust with so outlandish a story? While we don't often feel that it's a good think to trust everyone, being quick to Distrust anyone who can be flimsily linked to someone else that you've also been primed to dislike is often considered primitive and dysfunctional in the wider world.

Of course, for the most part, this is simply my cynicism talking. It's not like Mike Santorum (or Mike Daisey, for that matter) is going to go on the record with the idea that he thinks that his audience is a bunch of easily-manipulated schmucks. Heck, he may not even believe it himself. It's a safe bet that the people who go to political rallies don't see themselves as being looked down upon by the politicians that they vote for. So maybe, as they say, it's just me...

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