Friday, May 10, 2013

Un-cleaning a Brainwashed Mind

(Applesauce, by Pat Cunningham;
(Rockford Register Star)
Prefatory Note: I wrote this before the November election. I didn't publish it because I didn't want to offend our friends. They're not offended.

We had a young friend over. His parents, old friends, were delivering him and a tailer full of his worldly goods to Boston. A recent Master of Communication, he has finished his education and is beginning his professional life as a business analyst at a consulting firm on Boylston Street. It sounds very posh.

Our young friend is tall (6' 3"), fit (he ripped off 20 chin-ups, no sweat), handsomely blonde, and with all the confidence befitting such a picture of potential success. There's no evidence of the former delinquent behavior that landed the teenaged version of this boy in juvy. He was never violent, and as far as we know, his crimes were of the underaged-drinking and driving and smoking pot variety. But these were severe enough to get him thrown out of his public high school and placed in some sort of local rehabilitation program.

Amazingly, the program, for whatever reason, worked. Instead of a drop out, unemployable, substance abuser, our old friends have a son to be proud of, a son whose academic prowess needed time to find productive focus, a son whose path took distinctly unhappy turns. Yet the family persevered and all came out the stronger for it.

It's an impressive, if bland, story of turning one's life around, if it weren't for a nagging detail. Our young friend is a Republican! When asked ironically if he enjoyed watching the GOP convention, he replied, "Yes!" with a bit too much enthusiasm. His parents are much like us in finding the current incarnation of the Republican Party thoughtlessly callous and calculatingly dishonest. Their son, believes the lies, supports the calumny, and fails to understand that simple-minded slogans and overly-simplistic, short-sighted ideas are no match for the complexities of real-world governance.

There was a particular lack of compassion in the young man's parroted arguments, right down to his underlying belief in the rightness of "greed" as a necessary ingredient for successful capitalism. The weak die off, the strong survive! If you're hungry enough, there are plenty of good jobs, and if you don't like what you're doing, you should find another job. It became evident that these old slogans of past disastrous policies sounded sensible to the callow youth.

There were two particularly bothersome issues fueling the young man's opinions. First, the ever-linked corollaries of taxes being too high and government spending out of control. Second, the belief that it's better to help businesses make more money than it is to help individuals lead more fulfilling lives. Somehow, we should all be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; it's the all-American, freemarket way. There is no excuse for failure, and those who fail have no one to blame but themselves!

The obvious irony in this cruel viewpoint was missed. This is a young man who fell afoul of the system, but rather than discarding him as worthless, our society, through government-run, tax-supported institutions, gave the wayward youth help to mend his ways and opportunities to make the most of his talents. It sounds a bit too Horatio Alger to be credible, but the fearless young man we saw going off to undertake unknown professional trials, wouldn't exist without many years of publically-funded support, including community college and state-run college and University.

Why is it so difficult to see the greater good provided to society in general, and to our young friend in particular, of paying a graduated income tax? Paying taxes in no way limits greed, though it certainly makes the greediest feel resentment toward governments and the neediest. I understand this, but I still don't understand why it's okay to condone greed by lying, by ignoring the economic facts, and by concocting insupportable theories of prosperity, that amount to nothing more than an empty closet full of Emperor's New Clothes.

Despite my two-hour lecture on the history of taxes, the middle class, the Social Contract, Judeo-Christian morals, and the Apple versus Samsung decision, it seems unlikely that our blinkered young friend has in any way changed his mind. My hope is that he will begin to consider the ideas he accepts so readily with some skepticism. An ability to examine unsupported opinion under the light of factual data might even prove professionally useful to the young analyst.

On the other hand, faith is a powerful force, and no quantity of data can convince the faithful of any fallacy, no matter how overwhelming the evidence. Demagogs count on their faithful following, and the current Tea Party incarnation of the Republicans is particularly guilty of demagoguery. It would seem laughably stupid and naive if it weren't so scary.

Our friends seemed pleased that I was haranguing their golden boy, and I felt their support for my points. Clearly, they had tried to do the same, and with many of the same arguments and much the same result. Katharine asked me if I held out any hope, as if we were speaking of a sailor missing at sea. I've never experienced a missionary moment, where a poor heathen puts down his totem and joins the one true faith, but I continue to argue, cajole, badger, and ridicule the hopelessly misguided. I like to think that there will be some longer-term positive effect. That somehow, our young friend has been nudged toward a more thoughtful and compassionate view of his fellow humans.

But what should I do about my former colleagues and various casual acquaintances who declare their support for Romney and the Republican platform of social injustice and democratic regression on Facebook? There's no longer a convenient thumbs-down icon or Dislike button for me to register my protest. Is it wrong to do nothing? I wonder what The Ethicist would say?

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