HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 13, 2008
From Liberty Street

Belief and Truth

John Turner


At a neighbor's garden party yesterday, whenever the talk turned to politics, the constant question was, "How can people believe things that are obviously not true?"

Among people who respect learning, that ability appears bewildering. I see them clutching at their temples when it appears.

I find it's an advantage to have grown up among people with little formal education. It helps me to understand my country better than my liberal friends do.

The habit of not paying attention to anything other than what's required by daily activities is powerful. It forms the mind in more ways than most people can imagine. For many, the idea of surveying evidence before making up one's mind on a question of public policy is so foreign as to be inconceivable. They know what they know, and to be asked how they know is intolerable. Anyone asking such a question is revealed as subversive, disloyal, and disgusting.

Think of the man at the recent McCain rally who exploded in anger because he thinks the country is being taken over by socialists. I can't be sure of this, but I suspect if you were to ask him what a socialist is, you wouldn't get anything approaching coherence. And if you were to ask why we should not want the country to be taken over by socialists, you would be risking a punch in the teeth.

For such persons, thought is no more than reacting to code words. And the codes elicit not more thought, but pure emotions. Many people are almost purely controlled by their limbic brains.

For most of the guests at the garden party yesterday, the impulse on meeting such persons would be to say, "Let's sit down and talk about this and see if we can come to understand one another better." It would be, in almost all cases, a futile appeal. I'm not arguing that it's impossible to reach persons who think in codes, but it is extremely difficult to get into a situation with them so that rational conversation becomes possible. Ordinary life in America does not provide us with settings of that character. In fact, the American way prescribes avoiding rational conversation whenever possible. It is regularly denounced as just talk, and talk, as the national ethos has it, is completely inferior to action.

When one has avoided critical conversation all his life, he feels reduced in its presence, and his first impulse is to get away from it by screaming.

It's easy to forget how wildly impatient the average American citizen is. His ordinary life is divided up into tiny bits of time. Most of his work involves jumping from one thing to another every few seconds. He is eager to get on to the next bit. The notion of contemplating one subject for hours strikes him as effete. It doesn't go with who a strong person is. Strength in the American mode means not having to decide anything because one knows everything already, or, at least, everything that counts. And what one does not know has long since proven itself to be both worthless and enervating.

You might almost say that the person who thinks in codes is a completely religious being. He calls his knowledge faith, and faith, obviously cannot be challenged because it comes from a source that's unchallengeable.

The press, lately, has taken to calling the passionate people at Republican rallies unbalanced. And though most figures in the press who use that term don't know what they mean by it, they have stumbled on a truth. The lady at another McCain rally who said she didn't trust Obama because he is an Arab, has no critical thought to temper or balance her primitive urges. She could not begin to ask herself how she knows he's an Arab, and the question of why, even if he were, that would make him untrustworthy is so far beyond her mind, I doubt she could know what was meant by having it asked.

People who are influenced only by codes, or by beliefs as they would put it, are a tempting political target. All a politician has to do with them is use the right terms and he, or she, gets their votes, regardless of whether the terms make any sense. It's only logical to expect a political movement to grow up around that tactic, and in America it's called the Republican Party.

Democrats, of course, try to use code words also. But they have been widely criticized for being notoriously bad at it. It runs against their character.

You might say that the political fate of a nation is determined by the percentage of its citizens who are code thinkers. If they become a majority of the population, the nation, inevitably falls into the hands of manipulators. I have thought that in the United States, recently, about forty percent of the people react to simplistic signals alone. Some of my friends and family members tell me I'm too optimistic. The upcoming election should tell me how off I am.


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