WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2021
Are we ever that dumb Over Here?: The last few years have given the nation, and the world, some startling anthropology lessons.
These lessons emerge from the general realm of abnormal psychology and/or flawed cognition. They involve the ability of us the humans to believe any damn fool thing.
These lessons involve a remarkably widespread lack of basic human discernment. Within the past decade, the story can be said to begin with the rise of the birther tale.
We'll admit it! We were surprised by the early surveys which in large percentages of Republican voters said they believed the absurdly implausible birther tale. At one time, it was hard to believe that so many people could believe such a damn fool claim.
Alas! The spread of this absurd belief reflected a new reality. The rise of certain modern technologies and media—talk radio, "cable news," the partisan Internet, social media—were exposing us humans to crazy ideas on a scale our species never had to confront in the past.
In 2011, the situation got worse. Donald J. Trump decided to anoint himself our nation's Birther King.
On Fox News, Greta van Susteren served as his birther caddy. Year after year, Trump appeared on van Susteren's show to spread his ridiculous claims.
This included the claim that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to probe Barack Obama's alleged birth in that state. His gumshoes were shocked by what they had found, he even claimed at one point.
Van Susteren just kept letting it go. She would offer tiny peeps of performative protest as the con rolled along.
As Trump became the Birther King, the crazy idea spread and spread. This became an early case study in the lack of human discernment.
Concerning that widespread lack of discernment, the lesson would be this:
Human discernment can be extremely poor when crazy claims are being spread by TV stars on major TV channels. Also, when those same crazy claims are being spread by people's best friends on the Net.
Yesterday, another crazy claim was suddenly pushed to the fore. The crazy claim was being pushed by Republican senator Ron Johnson.
For years, Johnson has seemed to be the dumbest person in the Senate. Yesterday, in a widely televised Senate hearing, he offered his most ludicrous performance yet.
Is it possible that this ridiculous person could actually believe the ridiculous suggestion he was advancing? We don't know how to answer that question, but Willie Geist's attempt to tackle the logic of this question was heart-breaking on today's Morning Joe.
("Is he that corrupt, that he believes it?" the reliable sidekick said. As the analysts screamed and tore their hair, we only said this: "Bless his heart")
However you score it, Senator Johnson offered the world a ludicrous portrait of what happened at the Capitol building during the January 6 riot. At the Washington Post's web site, Katie Shepherd has offered a (somewhat belated) news report about what Johnson said.
As Shepherd notes, Johnson's ridiculous claim makes no sense at all. That said, have we mentioned our war-inclined species' widespread lack of discernment?
SHEPHERD (2/24/21): As security officials testified about the intelligence lapses that allowed an armed group of insurrectionists to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, Johnson repeated unfounded claims about the riot that have become a familiar refrain from those who want to minimize the event’s seriousness and distance the worst participants from Trump.
Quoting an article published on a far-right website, Johnson claimed the “great majority” of protesters had a “jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor” and blamed the violence that turned deadly on “plainclothes militants, agent provocateurs, fake Trump protesters, and disciplined uniformed column of attackers.”
In fact, more than 200 rioters have been criminally charged by federal prosecutors, including many who have self-identified as Trump supporters and who have documented ties to far-right extremist groups. Federal officials have said there is no substantial evidence of left-wing provocation or that anti-fascist activists posed as Trump supporters during the riot.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) promptly dismissed Johnson’s claims as the hearing drew to a close.
In fact, Klobuchar's dismissal of Johnson's presentation didn't come all that "promptly." Her end-of-hearing rebuttal came more than two hours after Johnson's inane public reading.
(On today's Morning Joe, Claire McCaskill criticized other senators on yesterday's panel for their failure to rebuke Johnson as those hours passed. On this C-Span videotape, Johnson's pitiful public reading begins at the 1:45 mark. Klobuchar contradicts him at the end of the hearing, more than two hours later.)
At any rate, Johnson read from that far-right website at considerable length. Truly, it can't get stupider.
Johnson has always seemed to be "dumbest in show" in the current Senate. Yesterday, he "repeated unfounded claims," Shepherd somewhat mildly says—unfounded claims which "have become a familiar refrain."
Now for a note on our failing national culture:
Misinformation and disinformation have become very big business over the past three or four decades. In part for that reason, many people will continue to hear that same "familiar refrain."
The lack of discernment takes over from there. According to anthropologists, the ability to believe any fool thing is hard-wired inside our species' brains.
That said, here's the problem:
At one time, it was very hard to hear presentations as transparently stupid as Johnson's. The rise in those modern media means that transparently stupid refrains are now a round-the-clock phenomenon.
The Crazy is just a click away. Our remarkable lack of discernment keeps taking over from there.
Was Barack Obama born in Kenya? In the past, surveys said that many millions of people came to believe that groaner.
Was the Capitol riot a "false flag" operation staged by a bunch of Trump-haters? Presumably, millions of people are going to believe that too.
As is becoming increasingly clear, you can't run a modern nation in the face of so much false belief. But false belief has become big business. False belief, even crazy belief, won't be going away.
We see no obvious way out of this burgeoning mess. Under the guidance of major experts, we're merely describing the forces at play as our transparently failing nation continues to slide toward the sea.
As we do, a question arises. Are we liberals ever that dumb in our own town, Over Here?
There's no truck scale to measure the relative lack of discernment put on display by the denizens of warring towns. But we'd have to say, a lack of discernment is also on wide display right here in Our Town.
We think we see it every day. In our view, it's quite widespread.
No, we don't expect that to change. As is always the case when war draws near, we've largely gone all in in Our Town, as the others have done Over There.
Tomorrow: Ezra Klein offers sound advice, Also, the way Tucker started...