Sunday, July 31, 2011

How cults work

I once had a friend who joined a cult. That's when I discovered how cults work on people, up close & personal. I mention it now because the Republican Party--and, to a lesser extent, the Democratic Party--has gained some of the features of a cult:

1. Create an alternate reality--a set of plausible, emotionally persuasive, internally consistent (at some level) narratives. Make it simplistic. All your problems and all your society's problems are due to X (something which isn't your fault). The solution is simple: Y (something which will require no sacrifice from you--or which you can be led to believe requires no sacrifice from you--even if the cult orders you to assign all your worldly possessions to the cult, you'll enjoy shared prosperity of some kind which will amply repay that investment).

2. Isolate cult members from anything and everything that might point out that the emperor has no clothes.
    a. Do so by offering alternate information sources that all agree with the cult's alternate reality.
    b. Get cult members to reject all information from any other source.
    c. If possible, get cult member to only socialize with fellow cult members.
    d. If the cult has taken the name of some heterogeneous organization, convince cult members that only the cult's members actually represent that larger organization, and that anyone else is trespassing--and your enemy.
    e. Get cult members to believe that the slightest compromise represents total failure--represents letting the camel's nose in the tent--that anyone who urges compromise is an enemy, even if they say they're fellow cult members.

3. Continuously get cult members to believe they're in danger from the cult's enemies---that is, keep them on  a permanent war footing. Do this even when real danger looms--either discount that real danger or ascribe it to a plot by the cult's enemies.

Who does this? In the Muslim world, the Salafists do this, to the extent of believing anyone who speaks against their Prophet should be killed on the spot--and "speaking against" means "not totally supporting the Salafists' interpretation of Islam.

And as I said, here in the America the Republicans--and the immensely wealthy handful of individuals who fund them--have managed to create something like a cult.


1. The President of the United States, Grover Norquist, elected in 2010 in a landslide (from a GOP perspective), and holding written oaths of fealty from a majority of Congressional Republicans, preaches that all of America's problems comprise The Government, which steals our money via taxes and spends it on People-Who-Aren't-Us (Mexicans, Kneegrows, Welfare Queens (mostly Kneegrows and Mexicans), Liberal Slackers, Foreigners (both here and abroad via foreign aid).

2. Fox News Channel provides a 24x7 propaganda outlet for the explanations of everything authorized by President Norquist and the Republican Party's paymasters, along with the vast majority of radio talk shows. Fox provides a wide spectrum of Right wing viewpoints, including Libertarian (John Strossel), Religious Right (Mike Huckabee), Tea Party (Hannity), faux Independent Doctrinaire Catholic (O'Reilly), Senate Republican (Van Sustern), Corporatist (Neil Cavuto), etc., but the best indicator is the putatively mainstream news programs put on Fox News every weekday morning, plus the Shepherd and Baier programs. Those are where the far right tilt can be seen without the distractions of hosts' charismatic personalities and particular concerns.

All of these programs regularly seek to delegitimize all other sources of news that don't hew to the far right line. They speak of "Mainstream News" with contempt, consistently, with particular emphasis on CNN being --according to them--a left wing operation. They also dump on self-declared nonpartisan factchecking organizations (especially and, as well as polling organizations other than the reliably right wing one, Rasmussen.

The result is that is you seek to bolster a criticism of any right wing assertion by alluding to any putatively nonpartisan source, the average rank and file Republican will tell you that such sources are highly suspect and require you to "prove" your point otherwise. Or they'll just say "I don't believe you."

Also along these lines, they'll frequently refer to "the American People" and "The Constitution" when they actually mean only American citizens who vote Republican (i.e. including the millions of self-declared Independents who just happen to always vote Republican), and only the parts of the Constitution that they like, and as interpreted by far right wingers (who claim of course that they aren't interpreting it at all)--hence the call for a balanced budget amendment. Calling for an amendment means you don't think the Founding Fathers had all the answers; that the Constitution they wrote wasn't the be-all and the end-all, and may even be wrong in places. So much for revering it as a perfect, sacred document.

"Compromise" means "surrender" in Republispeak. When referring to Republicans it means "shameful, totally unacceptable, abject surrender to the Enemy." Hence statements rejecting any and all compromise. Meanwhile, when Republicans claim the Democrats won't compromise, they mean "the Democrats refuse to surrender to us 100% and want 10% of what they'd asked for." So again "compromise" means "abject surrender" here as well, only in the other direction."

Several other factors contribute to Republican success, down on the process level.

One is the fact that Americans are sorting themselves out, moving to communities of like-minded people more and more, making Red and Blue regions Redder and Bluer.

Another is our winner-take all voting system, in which slight majorities confer total victory, making it unnecessary to build heterogeneous coalitions.

And another is our 24 hour news cycle combined with modern imaging technology, enabling newscasts to instill terror in viewers vastly out of proportion to the actual dangers involved, simultaneously blinding them to worse dangers that can't be imaged as successfully.

Thus you can use ultrasounds to make embryos seem sentient, while overpopulation statistics are dry piles of numbers. Every gory crime from anywhere in the nation can get wall to wall coverage for days, terrorizing people, while the rapid depletion of the porous aquifer is invisible and unnoticed (until it's too late).

The result of all this is that it's becoming harder and harder to have a constructive dialog with a Republican.
Often your only hope is to try to get under their umbrella of paranoia--possibly by arguing within the Republiverse to show how their position on something actually runs contrary to their own principles or is too extreme--by their lights--an extension of those principles.

Good luck with that. Trouble, the Republican Ministry of Propaganda is so well-financed voices of reason get drowned out by their giant bullhorn, which makes you look like an oddball outlier compared to what they believe is not just true but axiomatic, and thus not to be questioned.

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