Tuesday, September 25, 2012

All The World's a Cult, Mr. President

We all know that cults are dangerous; they trap people in an artificial world where they can be intimidating into doing evil things.  In PJMedia Jeanette Pryor writes about her own experience in a cult.  She explains the difference between reality and cult reality.
Our interaction with the world and sense of its meaning depend heavily on individual discernment and personal analysis of cause and effect...

Cults promote a non-human way of knowing that bypasses both the sensory evidence we gather and the individual's rational processing. Cultic knowledge is a body of truths not acquired by experimentation and reasoning, but by virtue of the authority of initiated leaders.
But I think this overstates the difference between cult membership and ordinary societal or religious membership.

As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind, we humans are "groupish."  Here is how I wrote about his ideas in relation to corporate groupishness.
Humans love to belong to "teams", according to Haidt, from families to tribes to religions, and we do our best work when we work as part of a team. The most notable kind of team is the military squad, and it turns out that parade-ground drilling helps form the bond of the band of brothers, the critical bonding between soldiers that prompts them to sacrifice for each other. Rhythmic dancing is similar to rhythmic marching; it helps promote a "groupish" feeling.
But when we work as a member of a team we have to repress our "individual discernment and personal analysis of cause and effect" and accept the "authority of initiated leaders", otherwise there is no team.  We are social animals, designed to work in part as individuals and in part as team members.

In all parts of our lives we balance our invididual knowledge with the knowledge that we pick up from our groups and take on trust.  It's obvious that this extends to politics.  In the 2000s most Republicans accepted on faith President Bush's agenda to invade Iraq and build democracy there.  Democrats were firmly against.  Now with President Obama in the White House we have Democrats accepting on faith that the rich should pay a little more and that ObamaCare will improve health care.  Republicans don't believe a word of it.

The question for November 2012 is: when should you break with your group and leave the cultish atmosphere?  In 2008 Republicans were disgusted with the fallout of the Bush years and stayed home in the election, whereas Democrats were enthused with thoughts of Hope and Change.  What about in 2012?  We know that Republicans are a lot more enthusiastic about voting and that Democrats not so much.

The problem for the managers of Obama's reelection campaign is to keep enough people believing and enthusiastic to get over the finish line.  Thus, President Obama has a narrative that encourages his supporters to believe there is light at the end of the tunnel.  He goes on the Dave Letterman show and says that the debt is not a problem, short term, but it is a problem, medium and long-term.  We can solve the problem by asking the rich to pay a little more and reforming those programs that don't work any more.

The Wall Street Journal, of course is selling the opposite proposition, that you can't believe the president.  They run his words expressed on 60 Minutes with footnotes.
"When I came into office, I inherited the biggest deficit in our history.1 And over the last four years, the deficit has gone up, but 90% of that is as a consequence of two wars that weren't paid for,2 as a consequence of tax cuts that weren't paid for,3 a prescription drug plan that was not paid for,4 and then the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.5

"Now we took some emergency actions, but that accounts for about 10% of this increase in the deficit,6 and we have actually seen the federal government grow at a slower pace than at any time since Dwight Eisenhower, in fact, substantially lower than the federal government grew under either Ronald Reagan or George Bush.7"
The gist of the Journal's editorial, detailed in the footnotes, is that every word is a lie, including "and" and "the".  But the purpose of the president's narrative is not to persuade the Journal but to keep the wavering members of the Obama "cult" from leaving.

So the president pushes out a plausible narrative, and mixes it with attacks on his opponent to show that he is a man you wouldn't want to trust.  Also necessary is a fear campaign to remind people just how scary life would be outside the Obama cult.

Of course, Americans are not lemmings that will follow the leader over a cliff.  But every one of us, every day, makes the decision whether to stay with a group or leave it.  Some people leave at the first sign of trouble, and some people go all the way and commit suicide with with the leader in the Berlin bunker.

What will happen in 2012?  It is telling that the Republican convention was trying to reach out to independents, while the Democrats were trying to excite their base and remind them, with Michelle Obama, that Barack was a wonderful leader, and with Bill Clinton, that Republicans were cheats and liars.

But there is this.  The closer that politics gets to the kind of "cult" that Jeanette Pryor once belonged to, the more we should worry about America.

1 comment:

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