Links from NYT recently, with Comments

Op-ed by Amy Sullivan in the New York Times, April 1 (posted March 31): Trump’s Christian Soldiers

The recurring, amazing fact that the self-righteous evangelicals support someone like Trump.

You could open a publishing press devoted to the theological and sociological explanations for this phenomenon — from the unlikely belief that Mr. Trump found Jesus on the campaign trail to the idea that his presidency is all part of God’s plan to the role persecution narratives and Christian nationalism play in the evangelical worldview. But the ultimate answer may be the simplest. Mr. Trump owes his continued high standing among white evangelicals to the fact that nearly 40 years after the Moral Majority’s founding, the partisan meld is complete. Decades of fearmongering about Democrats and religious liberals have worked. Eighty percent of white evangelicals would vote against Jesus Christ himself if he ran as a Democrat.

She mentions this curious fact in passing:

But no one is pro-abortion. The crucial difference is not between those who view abortion as good and those who don’t, but between vastly different approaches to reducing abortion rates. One party maintains the fiction that overturning Roe v. Wade will end abortion; the other promotes policies that have actually reduced the abortion rate to its lowest level since 1972. (That more Americans don’t know about this accomplishment has much to do with the fact that national Democrats don’t recognize “pro-abortion” as a slur and have steadfastly refused to take credit for plummeting abortion rates.)

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And from an editorial the same day, At Pruitt’s E.P.A.: No Studies, No Data, No Rules:

There’s another word: Fear. From the top down, the people who run this government seem absolutely terrified of scientific inquiry and the ways in which it could threaten Mr. Trump’s promise to ease regulations on fossil fuel companies and increase their profits, no matter the cost to public health and the planet. Think of it from Mr. Trump’s point of view. Why would he want a science adviser telling him that the link between climate change and the burning of fossil fuels is incontrovertible, that he should stick with the Paris agreement on climate change, that it’s a grave mistake to repudiate every one of President Obama’s efforts to slow the dangerous warming of the earth’s atmosphere?

Yet another example of how conservatives deny or ignore science (among many other fact-based professions) that would threaten their myths or, in this case, their business interests. (And more generally, an illustrated of the cognitive bias against taking long-term threats seriously.)

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Noted: The Evolution of One of Fiction’s Gay Liberators, about Alan Hollinghurst. I’ve read two of his previous novels; he is, as commentators say, one of the most beautiful stylists writing in English today.

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Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, with an op-ed in NYT on March 18: Stop Apologizing for Being Elite:

Our current political discourse is corrupted by two equally flawed narratives about the relationship between social class and politics. The first is a fable accepted by many intellectuals, who have found themselves guilty because just enough white working-class voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin handed Mr. Trump his Electoral College win in 2016. Many fear that this year’s midterm elections will once again result in a rejection of “elitism” by the same voters.

In a second, equally flawed narrative — adopted by a segment of both blue-collar workers and intellectuals — the American working class is so victimized that almost none of its members are capable of accepting the responsibility of civic self-education.

And

While some studies have indicated that people cling even more strongly to their deepest beliefs when challenged by contradictory evidence, it is also true that human beings frequently do change their minds — about everything from sexual behavior to marijuana to gun laws — if they are treated respectfully by those presenting the evidence.

And among her recommendations,

Second, educators must help turn students into educated voters. Too many schools fail to provide students with tools of logic that would enable them to assess the quality of information they absorb from every screen. All schools, for example, should have a curriculum that teaches children how to evaluate online information. …

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Science corner: Carl Zimmer on how ancient DNA helps us refine the history of humanity spread across the globe: David Reich Unearths Human History Etched in Bone, subtitled “The geneticist at Harvard Medical School has retrieved DNA from more than 900 ancient people. His findings trace the prehistoric migrations of our species.” With a cool map.

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New York Times Magazine, Jan 30th, Michelle Dean: It’s Getting Harder to Sort the ‘Credible’ from the Incredible

This piece struck me as capturing something essential about our age–something happening slowly enough we don’t realize how utterly different things are becoming. It’s the transition from a shared, consensual reality…

When I was at university, some 20 years ago, learning about the world was a tactile, toilsome sort of experience. I got up in the morning, put on my boots and, yes, trudged through snow to the library. I went through the stacks and pulled down texts older than I was. I don’t remember ever wondering how authoritative those texts might have been. After all, here they were, in a library — and a library, we were taught, was the High Church of “credible” authority. People who published books were assumed to be correct. They had proved themselves worthy of it, had cleared hurdles to put their words and ideas into wide circulation.

… to an era in which the internet makes the ‘credibility’ of anything problematic. There is no there there; no way of assessing any given propostion in a way that most people will agree upon. All Trump has to do is cry “fake news” and his followers (the millions of American who can be fooled all the time) will disbelieve it. Back to the essay:

The business of the country is now conducted like an argument on an unmoderated internet message board — an unceasing thread of squabbles, reversals and revisions.

It is easier than ever to address the world and say something true. But it is equally easy to tell the world something false. I remember what it was like before — being in a brightly lit library, feet on the floor, books in front of me, the High Church of authority very much intact. There seemed to be such clear limits on what was worth believing and what wasn’t. This is precisely the opposite of how it feels now, scrolling through the news each morning, the incredibleness of things screaming at you before you’ve even had coffee.

I need to write about re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four recently. In Orwell’s world, the government manipulated the official version of history, and current affairs, by constantly reprinting old newspapers and current books to reflect the new official reality. (Often at random, to distract people’s attentions from day-to-day problems.) People would change their understandings automatically; to do not so would be a “thought-crime.” Indeed, some autocrats do work this way in the real world: blatantly denying that this or that genocide or extramarital affair ever took place, for example, and expecting their followers to believe them. This is what Trump does. But something even more insidious is going on, in the modern world. There is no single reality, even if a fictitious one: there are innumerable versions of reality, depending on which political or religious tribe one belongs to. The old ways of being savvy, of understanding how the world works, how things happen in the world and which claims were more or less likely to be true, seem to no longer apply.

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