Being Afraid of the Neighbors
I live on a hill, in a nice house, which my wife designed and built when the idea of marrying her was not in my mind. She was my oldest friend, the person I’d known longest who wasn’t a relative. On a typical morning I leave on a 7 mile hike, which includes climbing up a steep mountain trail where I get some interval training. I am 72 and have a flat belly because we do pilates a couple of times a week. Still, that last hill I climb seems unfair, coming as it does at the end of the hike. A couple of houses down from me there is a man who was in an auto accident many years ago which left him paralyzed. He is confined to a wheelchair. Today as I passed his house he was in the driveway, with AirPods in his ears, and I also wore AirPods. We switched them off to say hello. “I was just listening to how these Democrats are destroying out cities,” he began, and I nipped it in the bud. “I’m a Democrat, by the way, so I think black people are the canary in the coal mine when a police state is being established.”
We haven’t had many conversations but after the first one I knew he was not going to like talking about politics with me. I live in Prescott, Arizona, and politics here is a social thing, which centers around disliking liberals, a designation which I accept because it describes an Eisenhower Republican. Eisenhower had his own Trump problem, named McCarthy. Behind the scenes he brought together the more responsible elements of the party and advised them to ignore McCarthy. “He can’t stand that,” he wrote. Exactly right. McCarthy, like Trump, used his power to abuse people, and gain followers who also abuse people to experience a feeling of empowerment.
I walked to the top of the hill and clicked on my watch to open the door, and took off the AirPods. I had been listening to journalist Gerald Seib being interviewed about his book, “We Should Have Seen It Coming,” in which he traces how we ended up where we are today, anticipating a possible civil war. By the way, though it might seem like McCarthy terrified people and ruined their lives and reputations for a very long time, it was four years. Four long goddamned years. Imagine if McCarthy had been President. But then you don’t really have to. We’ve had four years of President McCarthy. I still like Ike. He was a shrewd observer.
What Eisenhower saw in Europe that he tried very had to warn us about, so that it did not happen here, was massive maldistribution of wealth, so that the societies were collapsing from the problems this causes. The biggest problem is that if you are alienated from the society, you have no real interest in defending it or those who are in invested in it. They are getting returns but you are not. In 1976 I wrote a full page in the Arizona Republic for the bicentennial, on what we might expect in the future. I read several books in the process, and what remains in my mind now is the prediction that if you alienate ten percent of the population, you have set the stage for revolution.
One of the consequences of the breakdown of societies when all the wealth goes to the top is that conspiracy theories proliferate. There are a lot of explanations as to why people believe conspiracy theories, but all of them have in common that, as with other fiction, a conspiracy theory requires the suspension of disbelief. David Hume wrote that he didn’t ever know a person who began investigating a conspiracy theory who did not end up believing it. This is easily understood by knowing what is the difference between the person who identifies left and the person who identifies right.
I don’t want to get down in the weeds today. Maybe tomorrow. ha. But the brain and the body are crosswired so that the right side of the body operates from the left hemisphere and vice versa. So the left hand is connected to what initiates, what knows directly without having to think about it. This is so that you don’t have to investigate some things. They are absurd on their face if you share a consensual reality with the rest of society, which is to say, you are not alienated from the society. As Hume observed, if you go into the conspiracy theory to determine if it is logical, of course it is. That’s why you end up believing it. I remember reading a post on Facebook which began well. It was sort of like inside information, like that Christianity was not the beginning of the Christian beliefs and so on, showing the Egyptian precursors and so on. And then it took a turn toward speculation founded on nothing, really. I didn’t have any trouble with it because I’m an Ericksonian hypnotist, and know the induction used. It’s like comedy, with the setup, setup, joke. You say something which can be easily verified, then something else, and then make a general statement, which is a suggestion, not verifiable but accepted as true.
For example, I look at you and see that your right arm is in the sun and your left isn’t, I can tell you that the right arm feels warmer, and you can verify that. I can tell you that you are breathing, your chest rising and falling, that your muscles feel heavy as they extend, and lighter as they contract. Each observation is verifiable. Then I might shift to suggestion, such as, you feel increasingly comfortable and safe. You will tend to accept that because what I have said before is verifiable. That was the same structure being used in what I later realized was a Q-anon post, because soon it was talking about child molesters among the elite. If I continued watching I knew there would be a logical structure built on an unverifiable suggestion. I dismissed it as nonsense instead of “investigating” by immersing myself in the conspiracy.
The person who dismisses absurdity up front doesn’t have an inclination to explore the logical structure, or, as Hume said, investigate nonsense. My wife laments that people are not required to study statistics in school, because they minimize what is dangerous and are afraid of what is hyped to scare them. They do not weigh how likely something is, up front, such as the likelihood that Hillary Clinton molests children and to hide her nefarious activity she uses code when she is ordering up a child. She pretends she is ordering pizza. This is conspiracy theory gone wild because the people who investigate it are not invested in the larger society. They are splitting into little societies of their own, which, like religious cults, are based on those on the inside, in the know, and those who are excluded. Because they are alienated from the larger society, it becomes like an ex-spouse after a contentious divorce. There is a satisfaction in things not going well for the existing structure.
When I was a child going to the bank with my father, there were posted interest rates, what they paid and what they charged. There was a law against usury. McCarthy was scaring people like Trump does now. My father was a smart guy, but he began to worry about the communists infiltrating our government. At the same time he refused to go to a Sinclair service station, presumably because of the Teapot-Dome scandal. Of Republicans, he observed that Herbert Hoover pronounced Americans too proud to accept handouts from the government. “People were starving to death,” he said. “When Roosevelt came in the first thing he did was feed people who didn’t have anything to eat.”
The middle class expanded because of these laws against usury, with banks being barred from speculation, and because there was a G.I. Bill and FHA loans to help people get a house. There was Social Security for the old people who had been going to the poorhouse to die. Then came Nixon and succeeding Republican administrations which preached the virtue of self-reliance and anti-communism. In other words, ideology, which is a pattern which you adhere to no matter what. As Stephen Colbert said about G.W. Bush at the Correspondent’s Dinner, “The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday, that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change, this man’s beliefs never will.” Part of this ideology is that if you are poor it’s your own fault, and that virtue is embedded in money. Self-reliance is often code for, don’t expect any of those taxes back in services.
What derailed an American future which would have provided for everybody was the owners’ belief that they were superior to the workers, an idea expressed by Ayn Rand with the same skill and black and white thought process of the cultural revolution in China, when there were morality plays in which the capitalist was the villain. Competing ideologies. Capitalism and communism were really rich families who owned things and workers who wanted to band together so that they could bargain for their labor.
Interestingly, Henry Ford, who started assembly line production, raised wages so that his workers could afford a Model T. He said the purpose of a corporation is to provide the best product to the most people for the lowest price. A court ruled against him in a suit brought by the Dodge Brothers, agreeing that the purpose of a corporation is to provide maximum profit to the shareholders.
That was where the giant sucking sound of all the wealth going to the .001 percent began to keep people awake at night, wondering how they were going to pay both the rent and buy the blood pressure medicine. I worked in public relations enough to know that what is being sold is public perception of a brand, including a political party. For example, abortion was not an issue because whatever you thought about it, you didn’t have the right to go tell the neighbors you and some friends have decided to set up a morals police to protect religious values. They would tell you to mind your own business, that this is not Tehran. We don’t have morality police. But of course, we do. There are six conservative Catholics on the Supreme Court now, though the right wing conservative Catholics such as the ones making up our Supreme Court are probably less than ten percent. They are morality police. Bill Barr, the Attorney General, is one of conservative Catholics who function as morality police.
But, if you are holding all the wealth, and want to win an election, you have to come up with an emotional issue which “moves the needle.” So you set up focus groups, find your issue, and then that becomes the center of attention because you can afford to buy lawmakers and judges, but you still need to add to the thirty percent of people who always vote for the most authoritarian candidate, to reach 50.01% in an election. Abortion moved the needle so they pushed it shamelessly, with the vision of dead babies, and the implication that these people who terminate a pregnancy are different in kind. It wasn’t that great a journey from there, to an international ring of left wing pedophiles operating out of a pizza parlor. Once you have accepted one suggestion as true, the rest is pretty easy.
With Trump the issue that moved the needle was immigration. He didn’t give a shit, it was Cambridge Analytics which decided on the issue. Trump just had to demonize the immigrants and scare people with the image of hordes of Mexicans pouring across the border to commit unspeakable crimes and destroy the peace and tranquility of the nation. That is where my neighbor is at. He is investigating nonsense, and he ends up believing it, just as Hume said. Around my neighborhood I see the Trump signs, but we don’t put out signs. We are aware that there are neighbors who consider us an enemy because we are not conservatives. My wife said that she had hopes there were a lot of Biden voters in those long lines because people were being polite and civil with each other. I thought the Trumpers were at least nice to each other, even if they think I should be shot, until two of them, a woman and her next door neighbor, got into a property line dispute. The woman was describing how he turned on her with an ugly rage, and she ended up selling out and moving. That’s another thing I’ve learned over my life, is that true believers end up turning on each other as viciously as they did on everybody else, like a fire running out of easy burning fuel.