Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Our Better Nature

It’s basic human instinct to hope for the best and expect the worst. If we didn’t have that balance in our nature, the human race would have died out eons ago because we were either too trusting of others or ignorant of danger, or we would have killed each other off in a paranoid delusion that the only way to survive was to kill everyone else that approached us. Somehow, though, we evolved to the point of sentience and then some sort of intellectual capacity to observe and appreciate the fact that not all unknowns are threats, nor are we so tame or gullible that we believe everything we are told. Evolution has provided the programming to be axiomatic about it: “Better safe than sorry,” “Trust but verify,” “Keep your receipt,” and so on. It has kept us alive and yet optimistic. After all, as John Patrick noted in The Curious Savage, if humans weren’t by nature optimistic, we’d eat our young.

But there is still the basic distrust that is inborn in us. Lose your pen or misplace your wallet and your first response is that someone stole it. Let a natural disaster strike and the first response is not only to care for the injured and displaced but to provide security against looting. That’s not to say those reactions are wrong. To our human instinct, they are natural. After all, given the opportunity, would we not think first of our own needs before anyone else? It keeps us alive and gives us a sense of comfort: I’m okay, so now I can care about someone else. And it also gives us a sense of relief: It’s not my fault; someone else did it.

But there are some of us who take the opportunity to exploit both sides of our nature and use it to their own advantage. Optimism and paranoia are easily exploited: someone writes you an e-mail and tells you that you won the Irish sweepstakes worth ten million Euros; all you have to do is send them $1,000 to cover “handling fees.” Someone tells you that someone else is to blame for all your troubles and you believe that, too; send $100 to a political candidate and he or she will take all your worries away, vanquish the unnamed enemy, and look out for you; after all, they are just like you. We know in the logical part of our brain that both are lying sacks of dog-crap, but for a split-second our lizard-brain kicks in and we believe it, hoping that somehow, someway, some magic will occur and it will all be true. It is that split-second that the truly inspired exploiters make it last for much longer. That is how political fortunes are made. That is how a multi-millionaire senator can run for president and say he’s fighting for the middle class: “My friends, I’m just like you.” That is how a neophyte governor with the attention span of a goldfish and the intellectual curiosity of a houseplant can tell her rapt followers that she, with a six-figure income and guaranteed health insurance, is the pitiful victim of the “elites.” That is how a former vice president can call into question the resolve of the President of the United States to protect the country and in doing so, give comfort to those who wish to do us harm.

The sad part is that all too many of us are willing to listen to the paranoia that someone else is out to get us, and paradoxically, that someone has the magical answer to solve all our problems. It is sheer genius when they can balance the two and make it work. As Steve M notes at No More Mister Nice Blog, it is much easier and more effective to inspire anger in the gut than it is to inspire hope, and if you cannot as a leader find someone else to blame, then you are going to be the one who takes the blame for whatever happens.

Reagan spent eight years in office talking as if he were broadcasting from a samizdat radio station and the powers that be might get him any minute. He persuaded people that he was the outsider, even after he’d been in office for years. After a year of Obama, people may believe in their heads that Bush was the enemy, but in their hearts they blame Obama, because he doesn’t seem determined to define an enemy (Republicans? the bankers? the insurance companies?), except occasionally.

So the teabaggers have stepped in and defined him as the Big Kahuna, the guy who must be toppled if we’re to have change. Hell, they’re defining big banks as fellow insurgents.

And they’re winning.

I’m reminded of what Edward R. Murrow said more than fifty years ago when he looked at similar time in our history when fear, mistrust, and paranoia overcame our better nature. He was speaking about Sen. Joseph McCarthy, but he might as well have been speaking of a lot of people going around wearing tea-bags on their heads or striding through the halls of Congress hoping for the president’s “Waterloo”:

And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”