When people on the far right say things that are obviously and outrageously false, liberals tend to conclude it's because they're either ignorant or dishonest. I think this is too easy -- and not very helpful.
Not that it's never true. On the one hand, you see the Tea Partier with the misspelled sign, who probably doesn't grasp how badly he's being played by corporate lobbyists. On the other hand you see Glenn Beck, who knows the facts but doesn't care. Trumping them both is Sarah Palin, effortlessly combining ignorance and dishonesty.
But these characters don't tell the whole story. Not all Tea Partiers are dupes, and not all Glenn Beck fans share his lack of integrity. It's worth remembering: If you think you're simply smarter or morally superior to your opponents, you're probably missing something important.
I believe we need to listen more carefully to the far right. In particular, we need to appreciate the deep sincerity with which many of them believe glaringly obvious falsehoods. Many are educated, moral people. And yet they passionately insist on fictions, despite any and all evidence to the contrary.
I think their problem is not with the truth. It's with reality.
I was struck by this while listening to a congressional candidates debate Saturday (10/23/2010) on KSCO-AM, a right-wing talk radio station here on the Central Coast of California. The Libertarian and Republican candidates, along with the host, made a series of claims along the lines of Congress being rife with socialists* or that we now live under "tyranny". The Democratic candidate, incumbent Sam Farr, characterized this nonsense as "toxic talk". (Disclosure: Sam Farr is a client of my firm's new media services.)
The right wingers appeared to be, and I think genuinely were, stung by Farr's comment. The host stated proudly his station would never, ever feature toxic talk. He then went into an extended promo for a live appearance by Alex Jones, whose syndicated program is on this station five days a week. Jones claims that President Obama is trying to turn America into Nazi Germany, that FEMA is setting up death camps, that the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks, and that the "New World Order", which supposedly includes our government, plans to exterminate 80% of the world's population.
The problem here was not ignorance. The host, who also happens to be the station owner, knows what's on his air every day. And I really don't think it was dishonesty. There was real conviction in his voice, and in those of the two right-wing candidates.
The issue here was reality.
Setting aside the hopelessly ignorant and the irredeemably dishonest, we need to engage with the many people in this country who just refuse to accept the reality we have, and who are pouring their energy into creating an alternate, fictional one.
Yes, oil companies and their mouthpieces will deliberately lie about global warming. And yes, some of their targets are people who were unable to make sense of high school science. But many global warming deniers are both sincere and intelligent. It doesn't matter how much evidence shows that people are contributing to climate change, these people don't want it to be true -- and they believe they can make it not true.
Similarly, they don't want to believe that America could possibly face challenges as serious as those the Obama administration is grappling with. And so, for them, America isn't in trouble at all, except from those they see as trying to change it.
I believe the opponent these people are fighting is not Democratic change. It's change itself.
As Manhattan Project participant Stanislaw Ulam and others have noted, the modern world is not just changing faster than it ever has before; the rate of that change is constantly increasing. It's as if we're riding in a runaway train that's accelerating at an ever higher rate -- from 50 to 100 in one moment, 100 to 200 in the next.
It's a terrifying experience. And what do terrified people do? They cover their eyes.
We're not going to get anywhere with such people by telling them they're ignorant or dishonest. We have to find a way to acknowledge their fear, and see if we can help them take at least a peek at the real world. It is a scary place, and we're going to need their help, too, in coping with it.
*The Libertarian, Mary Larkin, was citing the "Democratic Socialists of America" list that's being circulated in the right wing blogosphere -- though it likely originated with a corporate lobbyist, as so many of these things do. It actually lists not socialists but members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.