Sunday, August 19, 2012

A $50 lesson?

I recently got a whiff of the story below on Facebook. I couldn't help but notice, to the point of nausea, how many others thought it was persuasive, reminiscent as it is of other calls to mindlessness, such as "god said it, I believe it, that settles it."

There is, I would argue, much cognitive processing in common between those who think the $50 lesson represents reality and those inspired by the above tautological hairball. Here, in its entirety, is what passes in Republican circles as political gospel.
The $50 Lesson 
Recently, while I was working in the flower beds in the front yard, my neighbors stopped to chat as they returned home from walking their dog. During our friendly conversation, I asked their little girl what she wanted to be when she grows up. She said she wanted to be President some day. Both of her parents, liberal Democrats, were standing there, so I asked her, "If you were President what would be the first thing you would do?" She replied... "I'd give food and houses to all the homeless people." Her parents beamed with pride! "Wow...what a worthy goal!" I said. "But you don't have to wait until you're President to do that!" I told her. "What do you mean?" she replied. So I told her, "You can come over to my house and mow the lawn, pull weeds, and trim my hedge, and I'll pay you $50. Then you can go over to the grocery store where the homeless guy hangs out and give him the $50 to use toward food and a new house." She thought that over for a few seconds, then she looked me straight in the eye and asked, "Why doesn't the homeless guy come over and do the work, and you can just pay him the $50?" I said, "Welcome to the Republican Party." Her parents aren't speaking to me anymore.
What is it with conservatives and their simplistic bromides? The underlying assumption at the end is that the liberal parents are at a loss of words, silenced by Republican wisdom. More likely it is because they realize their neighbors are freakin' idiots. There are entire books devoted to the harms of conservative economic dogma, such as outsourcing, deregulation, free trade, wage suppression, and, as always, another round of tax cuts for the wealthiest. Responding to the $50 lesson, from the standpoint of policy and that stuff they call data, is like picking low-hanging fruit. It is why progressives often consider conservatives to have low self-awareness, as personality inventories often show. Or to use technical jargon; "Are the actually persuaded by this tripe?"

That would be a fact-based approach, one that wonkish progressives are inclined to follow. But arguing the economic evidence, the way, say, Paul Krugman would, misses the point. Much of what pushes a conservative's button is piss poor economics; the mistake is in believing that a quest for good policy that benefits as many as possible is what motivates those on the right as it does for the left.

It doesn't. We are talking about how conservatives tend to interpret the world. They traffic in these asinine tales because they are starkly simple, comforting, and supportive of their identity, the same way they pound devotional material into their heads, or attach great importance to symbolic acts, such as flag-waving. The $50 lesson and other "just so" stories are a staple of the American right wing because they strike a moral note; usually with symbolism as blunt as a Disney movie. They are feel-good formulaic stories that moralize and reinforce biases through use of inane and unambiguous tales. They are usually not very accurate, sometimes insanely misleading, but accuracy--and fairness-- are not the objectives; moral reinforcement is.

The similarity to the religious right's jaw-dropping theological claims is not a coincidence. Televangelists never tire of saying evolution is a fraud, insisting, for example, there are no transitional fossils, even as evolutionists find them time and again. The evidence is ignored, explained away, or even, bizarrely, blamed on Satan.

Literate, scientifically minded, and modern Americans often have a difficult time confronting a reactionary right, one that is disproportionately powerful in government, business, and religion. Many of us fail to realize that for the religious right, just as it is for so many conservative Republicans, it is about perpetuating a belief system and the moral basis of an authoritarian culture; learning and accepting scientific realities is not the primary motivation, in church or in government.

Jesus and Mo are especially good at making my points.

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