Stuck in Hogwash

Years ago I read that if you wanted to change someone’s mind you had to do it within the construct of his existing belief system. You had to take what was already in his brain and build on it. You could never hope to take someone 180 degrees in one try, but if you made alterations repeatedly, over time you might make some progress and eventually he’d see the light.

Perhaps the opposite of this is true. Perhaps if you want to cement what is in someone’s brain, even if it’s false, you can continually reinforce those falsehoods. Over time you will have someone with such an entrenched belief system that he will require no introspection and he will brook no contradiction. This is how you get people who are willing to believe untruths. Because the untruths fit into their already established narrative.

It’s stunning to me that so many people believe hogwash. I am trying to understand why. As recently as August, 2016, a poll showed 41 percent of Republicans still thought Obama was born outside the U.S. A boatload thought he was Muslim, too. These things are demonstrably untrue. So why do people persist in believing them?

I was talking to a retired professor of botany at a small Midwestern university. I remarked on the freezing March weather. A staunch, life-long Republican, he used my anecdotal observation as an opportunity to put down climate change. He is a scientist who refuses to believe in science. Because entrenched belief systems are more powerful than truth and logic.

Another friend says that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Yes they are. But facts are facts. And if you believe things that aren’t true, the world will continue to turn without you, regardless of what you believe. You will have spent tremendous energy resisting truth, hanging on by your fingernails, and for what? You will be left behind. The only comfort may be others in your tribe who share your beliefs. Secure in your belief system that’s designed to defy change.

And this is where the anger comes in. Perhaps they are insecure in these beliefs deep down. Perhaps, for example, those who brandish the Confederate flag know that despite generations of loyalty to their heritage, they are wrong to defend it. But to admit that would be to admit their ancestors have been wrong, that things they learned growing up were wrong. It is too much to admit, because that is their identity. It is who they are. So they are threatened. And angry.

I don’t know what can be done about it. Do you?

The Enemy of the American People

When the president said the media is the “enemy of the American people,” alarm bells clanged so loud in my head I could barely hear myself think. Maybe that was the idea.

Of course presidents have always had adversarial relationships with the press. That’s as it should be. And it’s the main reason I could never find the will to pursue a career in the news once I received my coveted bachelor of journalism degree. I didn’t want to be confrontational. I didn’t want to make enemies. I didn’t want to wheedle and annoy.

And I didn’t think it was much fun to be doggedly and thoroughly as objective as possible. That’s what we pledged to do back in the Pleistocene age. Back when network news was not required to make money, so ABC, NBC and CBS could live by veracity, not by ratings. It was a time when people paid to read newspapers and revenue could go toward hiring crack investigative teams who spent months uncovering stories. And reporters had actual travel budgets to go where the story took them. To track down the truth wherever it was.

There was plenty wrong with the media decades ago, but then as now, it was critical to our democracy. The press is the Fourth Estate—fourth after the three branches of government the press monitors to ensure there’s no abuse. The Fourth Estate is the only counterbalance we have when two out of three branches are staunchly conservative and the Supremes are split four-four, soon to tilt to the right, five-four. Our government has lost its balance and its checks have checked out.

Which is why, when the president rudely orders reporters to sit down, when he repeatedly refers to them as the dishonest press, and he blusters that respected media outlets are fake news, well, the clappers on the alarm bells begin to clink. When the president’s press secretary banishes major journalists from The New York Times, the LA Times, the BBC, CNN, and The Guardian, among others, then alarm bells ring even louder.

But now, when the president says the press is the enemy of the American people, I can only wonder who the real enemy is here. It is not the reporter trying to do his job. It is not the citizen who votes his conscience. But maybe we each need to look at our parties and our politics and try to understand why our country is careening into unknown territory.

Maybe we should remember a character who is just as obsolete as old-fashioned journalism—Walt Kelly’s Pogo. It was this befuddled creature who uttered the immortal words, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Taking the Long View

There are times when even I can admit my optimism is unwarranted, and this may be one of them. But we must suffer delirium before the fever breaks. We must sink to our lowest and then even lower before we are motivated to change our ways. And now just might be that time.

Recovery is never a straight road upward. There are missteps. There are times when we fall and must get up again. Maybe, as a nation, we have finally fallen as far as we can go. And maybe Trump voters were right that we needed to shake up Washington. That out of this Trump turmoil and chaos some good can come. And ultimately we will rebuild into a better nation.

Let’s face it. If Hilary Clinton had won, we would all remain comfortable and the wheels that turn Washington would continue on. There would still be corruption, as there always has been, uninterrupted through both parties’ administrations. You can argue some are worse than others, but basically, under Clinton, it would have been business as usual.

There would have been no unprecedented marches clogging streets across the nation. There would have been no outrage. There would have been no reason to examine how those who govern have gotten so out of touch with the people of this country. Why so many are so angry. And how We the People can be so polarized.

I feel that as a country, we’ve taken two steps forward and now we’re taking one step back. In only a few weeks, we’ve seen how our values can be imperiled. How the bedrock of our nation—an educated citizenry—can be threatened by undermining our public schools. How our environment—the very air we breathe—can be threatened by a climate denier as head of the EPA. How regulations that protect us from another catastrophic financial collapse can be rescinded. And on and on. Some of these issues, most notably healthcare, can mean the difference between life and death. The political gets very personal very fast.

But we have coasted for a long time. We have not been compelled to get off our behinds and march, or call our senators, or write our congressmen, or run for office, or pay attention to local politics. Or even just speak up. Our activism is long overdue if we want to protect our freedoms.

The very slogan, “Make American Great Again,” implies going backward. But we know it’s not possible to go back. At least not permanently. Pandora’s box has been opened, and the lid will not shut. Women and minorities can vote and hold positions of power. Globalization has taken root and cannot be undone. Worldwide communication gives even the smallest among us a voice. Technology makes everyone more intelligent, more interconnected, more equal.

We may have set backs now and again. But as MLK said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And that is why, in the long run, I can’t help being optimistic.

Thank You, Badass Badlands

I feel like I’m in the eye of the tornado, with so much debris swirling around that I can’t fathom it all. And I don’t know what to latch onto to gain any sort of stability. Or what issue to address first.

But I feel compelled to pick something, so I’ll start with suppressing the free flow of information.

When someone tells me to be quiet and “keep my mouth shut,” that makes me want to do the opposite, alarm bells clanging. Now nobody’s said that to me—yet. But that’s what Steve Bannon told the media. It was a definite threat against the free press, that, with all its flaws, is needed now more than ever.

An assault on the press is like an assault on me, because the press must be my voice. Yes, I know. They are rat bastards not to be trusted. That is a credible narrative because it’s true in some cases. But many are committed to reporting truth, and that is essential when all three branches of government are controlled by one party, it doesn’t matter which. The press is an integral part of democracy, and I am part of that too. When Bannon tells the press to be quiet, then he is shutting me up too. And that’s just when I feel most compelled to speak up.

So when the current administration gives gag orders to the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Park Service—all with a pretty obvious attempt to keep the truth about climate change from the people—I am alarmed. It means, of course, that the truth is something the administration fears because they have an opposing agenda. This is not what happens in a democracy.

The good news is that a total media blackout cannot work in this age of social media, even when so many news outlets are controlled by corporations pushing their own propaganda. So I was heartened when South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, in defiance of the gag order, tweeted facts about climate change. Yes, the tweets were later deleted, but not before they had be retweeted many times.

So, to whoever went rogue up there in South Dakota, keep up the good work. We need truth and the courage to speak it now more than ever.

Why did so many people march?

“Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear…”

                                                                                                     --Buffalo Springfield, 1966

I did not want to make this blog political. I did not want to have to spend my time fighting against undoing all that we’ve done. I did not, really.

But yesterday I and some friends carpooled to Asheville to join the march. I would have liked to have said this was a pro-women’s rights march, which is was. But it was also an anti-Trump march. And it was even so much more than that.

We arrived early on Pack Square, which was not yet packed. So we had an opportunity to wander about and look at everyone’s signs. “Viva la Vulva” was one standout. But the messages on the signs were all over the place, even within our small group of 13 women. They were for women’s rights. For LGBTQ rights. For the environment. For civil rights. For good health care. For planned parenthood. For equal pay for equal work. For immigrants. For love, not hate.

And then there were the anti-signs, a lot of which made me blush as they made me laugh. Quite a few references to Trump’s pussy remark. And what else would you expect from a crowd wearing pink pussy hats? At least the women were having fun with it, always a good thing. “Grab this pussy and I’ll scratch back.”

Was there one overall, unifying message? I couldn’t articulate it yesterday, but today I’d say we were fighting for social justice. For American values. (Okay, don’t make me come up with what they actually are.) A man asked to take our photo with our signs and we were happy to comply. Then he asked why we were there and we all answered differently.

But I do think there is a uniting fear—the greatest motivator of all—that we cannot allow our government to take us backward. To undo all the work that has been done to make life in this country equal for all races, genders, religions. To make life better with good health care and a clean environment. To bring out our better natures as the kind, compassionate people we really are.

Still, I wish I’d carried the sign I ultimately decided against because I thought it was too negative. It was, and is, what’s in my heart:

I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.

 

Choosing the Right Words

Here we are. In an era where I feel compelled to speak out when I really don’t want to, and that’s a rarity for a writer. But the thing is, if you say something I know to be patently false, should I let it pass? Should I let that wrong thing, possibly a lie, hang out there in the atmosphere?

And while I don’t know if it’s a lie—that implies that you intended to deceive—I feel I must call you on it. Are you deliberately lying? Trying to mislead? Or are you ignorant? You don’t know what you’re saying is untrue. Either way, for a person who avoids conflict like polyester pant suits, I don't want to make that unhappy choice. I don’t want to speak up, so please don’t make me.

But that irritating little inner voice says, “Mer, it’s your duty. Words are important. Truth is important. Framing the issue properly is important.”

Crap.

I don’t want to, but you see what you make me do? It’s NOT that I have a conduit to truths everywhere all the time. I know I make mistakes and I’d like to say I want to be corrected, but not always. Not really. Although I do want to know the truth eventually. When you point out I’m wrong, I’ll try to take it with good grace as long as I’m not too embarrassed.

So now I feel compelled to say what I know is true in this crazy time when the truth seems so elusive. Recently, at a dinner party, a friend said Bernie Sanders was a communist. I sighed. But I had to say Bernie is not a communist. And really, the dinner was ruined for me. And I s’pose other people would say I ruined it for them. But I could not remain silent, and even though I thought I politely, but firmly, objected, unhappy words were exchanged.

Here's the thing. A communist is not a socialist. And a socialist is not a democratic socialist, which is what Bernie Sanders says he is. These words are important. Choosing the correct words is important.

That’s what this blog is all about. Choosing the right words.