Cruelty is wrong

Cruelty is a line for me. It’s a one-strike-you’re out policy. We will not be friends.

Cruelty is a moral stain. Something we need to outgrow from childhood to become a member of society. As a form of sadism, it does basic disrespect to the natural rights of persons and flouts the core ideals of democracy. Cruelty is antisocial behavior, and will not be tolerated.

I will speak up for those being crueled. And speak out against those crueling.

The Authoritarian Personality: Deference to a higher power

Sociologist Theodor Adorno created the “F scale” in a 1950 seminal work entitled The Authoritarian Personality — to rank the level of predilection to fascism in an individual both during and shortly after World War II.

The defining traits of the Platonic fascist (or the ur-Fascist as Umberto Eco would later call them) include the following:

  • conventionalism — following the rules; “this is how we’ve always done things”; fundamentalist thinking; dogmatic philosophy; intolerance of ambiguity (and intolerance in general)
  • authoritarian submission — follow the Ruler; the Ruler is always right, no matter how obvious the lie or big the myth. only ingroup authority figures matter, though.
  • authoritarian aggression — “send in the troops,” “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” “dominate the streets”
  • anti-intellectualism — distrust of experts; paranoid politics; intellectualism is unmasculine
  • anti-intraception — a dislike of subjectivity and imagination: “the fact is…”; black and white thinking; dislike of flamboyant self-expression; monoculture
  • superstition — conspiracy theory; anti-vaxxers; QAnon
  • stereotypy — racism, sexism, classism, ageism, all the isms; homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, all the phobias
  • power and “toughness” — obsessed with dominance and submission; rigidly pro-hierarchy; solves problems with violence; values physical strength
  • destructiveness — dismantle the Federal government; remove environmental regulations; pull out of international alliances; weakening America’s place in the world, abandoning the EU, and kowtowing to dictators around the world
  • cynicism — “both sides do it,” whataboutism, all politicians are bad, conscience (non)voters
  • projectivity — everything is Obama’s fault, almost literally; claims Biden is corrupt; Hillary’s email server (though they all used and continue to use private email servers, every single one of them); claim that the Clinton campaign started the birther controversy; accuse everyone else of lying
  • exaggerated concerns over sex — anti-abortion; homophobia; excessive taboos; excessive shame

We are seeing all of these traits today. We see it in our leadership, we see it in our communities, and we see it surging around the world.

We see it in a much larger percentage of our populace than many of us might have imagined. People of good character far outnumber the Right-Wing Authoritarians, but they can be subjugated, emotionally manipulated, strong-armed, abused, intimidated, made cynical by the RWAs. And the RWA personality is driven to actively hate outgroups in many outrageously twisted and depraved ways, from pettiness to genocide.

Right-Wing Authoritarian personality type

Refined by psychologist Bob Altemeyer in 1981, the Right-Wing Authoritarian scale (RWA) addresses some of the limitations of the F scale and exhibits more predictive power in identifying individuals exhibiting authoritarian personality.

The authoritarian personality is associated with all of the following traits, beliefs, actions, and patterns:

  • extreme obedience
  • unquestioning respect for and submission to a chosen authority
  • forceful insistence on hierarchy
  • striving for dominance in social hierarchies
  • supremacy
  • wolves vs. sheep worldview
  • Manichaean struggle
  • punitiveness; vengefulness; malignant envy
  • destructiveness
  • extremism
  • subordination to the collective
  • tribalism
  • cult of personality
  • traditionalism
  • conservatism
  • fundamentalism
  • less openness to experience
  • aggression towards minority groups
  • resistance to change
  • justification(s) for social inequality
  • Libertarianism
  • police brutality
  • psychological abuse
  • hypocrisy
  • projection
  • magical thinking
  • disciplinarian
  • control freak
  • mass surveillance
  • repression
  • a primary drive to achieve relief from uncertainty, even at the cost of individual freedom

Maybe we could offer up the RWA test as a “good faith” gesture, if one is interested in participating in civic discourse with credibility and authenticity. It would help us identify those individuals who are going to be unlikely to play by the rules of the game or have no intention of behaving fairly.

Although we have bot tests, we don’t really have great ways of measuring and identifying human beings with deceptive agendas. If we could screen people as authoritarians via “honorable challenge,” we could save so much time by not wasting it on the lost causes whose power trip runs so deep it can never be exposed. It could serve as a way to drag out into the light any number of intolerable, anti-democratic sentiments masquerading as “strict Constitutionalism.” We can pry open the doublespeak and arm ourselves with the secret decoder rings of understanding RWA dogwhistles.

And maybe we can finally change the conversation by more easily identifying friendlies from foes from the start, without having to wade through every minefield.

Just maybe.

War of the Worldviews: Hierarchy vs Fairness

This is the dominant Manichaean struggle of our age, and perhaps every age before it: shall we structure our society with a strict hierarchical system of highs and lows, with power concentrated at the top? Or shall we have an egalitarian society where truth, justice, and fairness rule the day?

There are a lot of stories, myths, and narratives centered on this question: hierarchy or fairness? Cultural wars and actual wars have been waged — numerous times throughout history.

We are fighting a new incarnation of that war now in our nation, as civil unrest spreads following yet another extrajudicial murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — who knelt on the neck of George Floyd for a jaw-dropping 8 minutes and 46 seconds: 2 minutes and 53 seconds beyond the point where Floyd lost consciousness and 1 minute and 54 seconds past the point fellow officers checked to confirm he had no pulse.

That is a staggeringly long time.

There is simply no credibility to the typical excuse that Chauvin somehow feared for his life — from an unarmed, handcuffed, prone, unconscious, and then lifeless George Floyd. Arrested over an allegedly counterfit $20 bill. Meanwhile Congress appropriates hundreds of billions and even trillions for big business and last I heard, no arrests had been made. Curious.

It starts in childhood

Psychologists like Alice Miller and Darcia Narvaez attribute this troubling mentality — this mentality that exhibits complete disregard for human life — as originating in our child-raising “techniques.” At one time corporal punishment for youth was the rule and not the exception; not uncoincidentally, the Hitler Youth of Germany had been largely raised under the “advice” of Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Shreber who advocated beating babies from a young age so the importance of obedience would be drilled into them early on.

It wasn’t until much later we learned that traumatized and neglected children display severe lesions affecting up to the 30 percent of the areas of the brain responsible for controlling emotions. In other words, “traditional” child-rearing in the fundamentalist religion style of “spare the rod, spoil the child” produces emotionally crippled adults — who tend to enact the revenge fantasies of their internal repressed rage as adults later in life. They simply need be provided with an “authorized” scapegoat.

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt

Miller goes on to suggest the psychological survival mechanism of denial employed by abused children to survive their situation leads them to develop the kind of emotional blindness in adulthood that will turn the other way when witnessing violations of another person’s humanity — or may even be induced to carry them out. We’re all familiar with the Adolf Eichmann “defense” of why he should be exonerated for behaving like a robotic killer: “I was just following orders.”

Teaching children to be obedient or be emotionally abandoned — whether through physical abuse or emotional abuse or both — is the key to unlocking this mystery of the appeal of hierarchy and authoritarianism which is seeing a resurgence not just in the United States but around the world — especially in Europe as well. Miller calls it “poisonous pedagogy” — not just parents but many other forms of authority indoctrinate youth in this vicious cycle and benefit from the creation of obedient individuals by amassing and maintaining power.

The kicker is we are not supposed to recognize this process — and if we do, we most certainly are not supposed to speak up about it. We are supposed to remain unaware that our deference to authority is merely a construct; a thin veneer over the insecurity of power that hopes desperately to continue wielding absurd moral authority over the masses. This collective and complicitous denial keeps us all locked in the dance of abuser and abused — essentially pretending it isn’t happening all around us including in our own homes.

The Founders advocated fairness

For all the right wing enjoys brandishing the Constitution as fundamental law, they tend to often miss the forest for the trees — that the founding fathers wrote extensively on their views and consideration in constructing a new nation towards the end of the 18th century, and that those views were decidedly against the arbitrary rule of kings and the strict striations of class as seen in the empires of Europe. They sought to get away from the cult of personality paradigm of the divine right of kings, believing that the rule of law should hold sway and that men ought to govern themselves through a political process with enough checks and balances to ensure no single branch or individual could wield too much power over others.

James Madison especially was a big believer in the “wisdom of crowds” to arrive at a better, more morally appropriate solution to legislation and problem solving. Moreover they were extremely uncomfortable with the role of slavery at the founding of the nation, despite being simultaneously apiece with the times and not entirely living up to those professed ideals.

Nevertheless, the role of ideals is to move us forward towards better times; to continually improve our individual and collective characters to get closer to living them out. Taking the ideals of fairness and equality as the guiding north star of a new nation and falling short is, in my humble opinion, still leagues farther along than giving in to the indulgent impulse towards supremacy and hierarchy and calling it a day. It’s the essence of progressivism as a vehicle for a narrative of self-growth — as opposed to the narrative hierarchy offers, which is static; dead; inert. There can be no change, no dynamism to a system which defines a priori everyone’s place in society.

Hierarchy is the politics of death.

The Rule of Law vs. the Cult of Personality

The rule of law is a moral force — an ethical tour de force that’s been hard-fought and won in democracies around the world beginning with the French Revolution and still going on today, everywhere citizens are struggling to achieve political power and equality.

When justice holds sway, there is a true objective arbiter and an ethical framework to hang society off of — imperfect though its actual execution by actual humans may be, the rule of law provides a fundamental basis for agreement on what is right, what is wrong, and how best we shall live in our societies.

The Right-wing and the rule of law

The right-wing faction once gave lip service to the rule of law — when they still had a monopoly over it. Now that they no longer do, the extreme right has abandoned it in favor of a venal power grab in the form of an essentially fascist idea: the Cult of Personality.

In Donald Trump and in authoritarian leaders around the world, the Cult of Personality reigns. These leaders go out of their way to flout the law — to allege or assert that they are above it; that they are special. So special that they are immune to application of the rule of law that applies to other citizens.

When the justice goes dark, trouble brews. When the cult of personality holds sway, entire societies become vulnerable to propaganda, disinformation, gaslighting, fakery, and lies of all kinds. Without a grasp of the truth — and mechanisms within the structure of society to champion it and root it out — societies cannot make informed decisions, cannot effectively self-govern, and cannot wholly wield the political power a democracy is meant to endow them with. Without the rule of law, freedom is not just imperiled — freedom is dead.

It is most certainly a dark and stormy evening.

Mass death is actually a bad thing for the economy

This past week we had a serious, unironic “debate” about whether or not senicide is a reasonable “plan” for handling the coronavirus crisis. This under the pretense that the other course of action — following the advice of medical professionals and epidemiologists to stay home and socially distance ourselves to curb the spread of covid-19 — is tantamount to shutting down the economy, which is tantamount to killing more people than the virus will.

Meanwhile, Congress passed a $2 trillion relief package, one quarter of which will go to the billionaire class with precious little oversight as to how it can be spent — and still apparently no one seems to have the slightest bit of confidence that the world’s richest economy can possibly weather the storms of depressed consumer demand for even several weeks much less the potentially many months this pandemic will rage across the planet. Perhaps this reveals that The Economy simply isn’t as robust as we tell ourselves it is during better times.

Dead Men Pay No Taxes

The proposed Sophie’s Choice between weeks or months of physical separation and allowing many people to die all around us is a false frame.

Millions of people dying is bad for The Economy in a very similar way to how having ICE eject millions of people from the economy is bad for The Economy. Insofar as economies require a labor force, and insofar as governments require revenue from taxation to pay for the infrastructure upon which The Economy rests, having millions of people depart from them is not a pathway to improving the economy — it is the opposite.

However, perhaps The Economy itself has become a contested concept. There may be a class-based and/or ideologically-based difference of opinion on what this concept means. Perhaps there is now:

  • the economy: the traditionally-held view of economies as markets in which individuals labor and contribute value, and trade assets in mutually beneficial ways to allocate resources efficiently
  • The Economy: a sort of shell game played by the right-wing authoritarian cohort in which the Plebes are starved of infrastructure and resources to the point of being mired inside an Eternal Present — in which we lurch from crisis to crisis — that brokers no hope for the future and no actual policy being made, other than the “policies” which continue to print money from the Federal Treasury for the purposes of propping up the precariously fragile billionaire class whose claims of meritocratic supremacy are stretched thinner and thinner each time the shells are moved yet again

Starving the Beast kills it: Feature or bug?

On paper, “Starving the Beast” is passed off as deeply held ideological libertarianism regarding the fundamental goodness of small government. In practice, starving beasts tend to die of preventable causes — and if governments are to retain the kind of power needed to be a check and balance on a growing hypercapitalist economy, they must indeed grow as well.

But beyond the general case, our specific circumstances of global pandemic lead us to a reasonable question: if laissez-faire capitalism and the free hand of the market is supposedly both sufficient to solve all human problems and vastly superior than the socialist hand of government at doing these things, then why are we in such a pickle? Why hasn’t the Invisible Hand managed to come up with its own solution to the mass death we are currently experiencing?

Or is the answer we might hear one that is too grim to bear — having been provided a clue this week in the grumbling of sacrificing the old to save the young — that a certain part of the political spectrum believe this is the market working as intended. That mass death is an acceptable “negative externality” of laissez-faire capitalism and that we bleeding-heart liberals ought to suck it up and grow thicker skin, rather than demand that governments step in to prevent preventable human atrocity.

Not only am I afraid of the answer — I’m afraid we’ll never get a straight answer in the world of political ketman we seem to have blundered into. In this world, right-wing elites including numerous elected officials continue to give lip service to a democracy that has been systematically hollowed out since the redoubling of the conservative movement in the 1970s to present, to currently resemble a geopolitical reality closer to that of modern Russia than to anything James Madison or Alexander Hamilton would have recognized.

It is technically possible that psychologically speaking, they themselves are actually unaware of this seismic shift in ideological views from that of democratic power and Constitutional authority to one of authoritarian rule and total technocratic control — but I think it’s more likely they’re simply not saying it out loud.

Inequality and the Creep of Fascism

Some people like to argue that more economic inequality is a good thing, because it is a “natural” byproduct of capitalism in a world of “makers and takers,” “winners and losers,” “wolves and sheep,” [insert your favorite Manichaean metaphor here]. However, too much inequality is deleterious for both economics and politics — for reasons that are intertwined.

Those who amass exorbitant wealth often increasingly use a portion of their gains to capture politics. While the mythological promise of trickle-down economics is that we must not have progressive taxation, because giving more money to the already wealthy is the only way to spur economic investment and innovation and create jobs — in actual fact the majority of tax cut windfalls go to stock buybacks, offshore tax havens, regulatory capture, political lobbying, and campaign donations. All this is a runaway amplifying feedback loop that tilts the playing field further away from equal opportunity, social mobility, and democratic process.

Wealthy elites seek to preserve the power structures that have benefitted them, and keep them (and their descendants) in the ruling class. It is a slow recreation of the aristocratic societies of old Europe that we fought a bloody war of independence to separate ourselves from. Yet the erosion of civil values, public engagement, and collective will — largely as fomented by the conservative elite over the past 50 years in America — and the ascendancy of the myth of “rugged individualism” have conspired to create a perilous condition in which corruption operates so openly in today’s White House and Wall Street that democracy itself is in great danger.

Moreover, we have learned these lessons once, not quite a century ago, yet have forgotten them:

“Where there is a crisis, the ruling classes take refuge in fascism as a safeguard against the revolution of the proletariat… The bourgeoisie rules through demagoguery, which in practice means that prominent positions are filled by irresponsible people who commit follies in moments of decision.”

— Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind

Putin’s Playbook: Pull factions apart from center; exacerbate democratic crisis

While we wring our hands in the United States over whether or not such a strategy is even conceivable, the erstwhile President of Russia has been running this playbook out in the open in Ukraine and Eastern Europe for some time. With help from Propagandist-in-Chief Vladislav Surkov, Putin has leveraged the open secrets about the psychology of crowds we learned in the late 19th and early 20th century to stir up emotional antagonisms within the political spectrum — to predictable results.

It’s no accident that fascism is on the march in America. The conditions have been brewing for some time, predominantly since the Conservative movement began breaking away more militantly from democratic principles and towards authoritarian philosophy (elite rule by force: preferably invisible force via economic hegemony for the middle and upper classes, and violent force / the carceral state for The Undesirables) in the late 1970s and 1980s. All Putin had to do was make use of available prevailing conditions and tools — the rise of social media in the 2000s counterintuitively blew a gaping wide security hole in the American persuasion landscape that Cold War Soviet operatives of the 1960s would scarcely have believed.

Today, as in parts of Europe between the world wars, the U.S. has partisan gridlock within The Establishment sector of politics; this exacerbates the impatience with and contempt for the status quo (aka the Liberal world order) that in some sense naturally congeals at the far right and far left margins of the political spectrum as a simple consequence of the Normal Distribution (the Median Voter Theorem captures this tendency quite succinctly). Under such conditions, an influence campaign like the one Russia wielded against the United States during the 2016 election season was tasked merely with tilting the playing field a little further — a task that platforms like Facebook and Twitter were in some sense fundamentally engineered to accomplish, in exchange for ad revenue.

New World Order? Be careful what we wish for

“Both Italian and German fascists had done their best to make democracy work badly. But the deadlock of liberal constitutions was not something the fascists alone had brought about. ‘The collapse of the Liberal state,’ says Roberto Vivarelli, ‘occurred independently of fascism.’ At the time it was tempting to see the malfunction of democratic government after 1918 as a systemic crisis marking the historic terminus of liberalism. Since the revival of constitutional democracy since World War II, it has seemed more plausible to see it as a circumstantial crisis growing out of the strains of World War I, a sudden enlargement of democracy, and the Bolshevik Revolution. However we interpret the deadlock of democratic government, no fascist movement is likely to reach office without it.”

— Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism

100 years on, it feels like we’re back at the start.

Trump’s trial balloons

Mike Flynn leading chants of “lock her up!” from the RNC podium was a test for tolerance of persecution of political opponents. We don’t do that in this country. At least, not in modern times we haven’t.

Each new boundary pushed is a test for when we’ll snap, or when the base will have finally gone too far. We haven’t hit it yet. They’re snarling; out for blood.