Links and Comments: Socialism, Conspiracy Theories, Religion, Rationality, Liberalism, William Barr, Republicans

First, a David Brooks column from back in December: I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked.

I was a socialist in college. I read magazines like The Nation and old issues of The New Masses. I dreamed of being the next Clifford Odets, a lefty playwright who was always trying to raise proletarian class consciousness. … The best version of socialism is defined by Michael Walzer’s phrase, “what touches all should be decided by all.” The great economic enterprises should be owned by all of us in common. Decisions should be based on what benefits all, not the maximization of profit.

But then,

My socialist sympathies didn’t survive long once I became a journalist. I quickly noticed that the government officials I was covering were not capable of planning the society they hoped to create. It wasn’t because they were bad or stupid. The world is just too complicated.

This is precisely why communism failed, as far as I understand; and why conspiracy theories are bunk. These vast conspiracy theories — by the FBI to assassinate JFK, by the government to stage 9/11, and so on — would require so much precision planning without anyone involved giving the game away, for years and years afterwards — that they are unbelievable. Compare how large construction projects *never* come in on time or to budget; coordination among so many planners and workers never goes to schedule or budget. And I recall a comment somewhere years ago, which unfortunately I didn’t capture, by a political operative in Washington DC, that after two weeks working in government, observed that nothing gets done efficiently in government, let alone vast conspiracies.

At the same time, Brooks observes, unbridled (unregulated) capitalism is not the simple answer.

Today, the real argument is not between capitalism and socialism. We ran that social experiment for 100 years and capitalism won. It’s between a version of democratic capitalism, found in the U.S., Canada and Denmark, and forms of authoritarian capitalism, found in China and Russia. Our job is to make it the widest and fairest version of capitalism it can possibly be.


Slate: The Bible That Oozed Oil: A small Georgia town, a prophecy about Donald Trump, and the story of how a miracle fell apart.

Long article describing the familiar generalization of how the most gullible are the most religious. Anyone with any ounce of savvy about how the world really works would have suspected fraud from the very beginning.


Contrary to William Barr and other religious moralists, increased religious faith and social prosperity do not go together.

Jerry Coyne: Religion doesn’t improve society: more evidence

In numerous measures including per capita GDP, unemployment rate, homicide rates, life expectancy, etc., the top 10 most religious countries in the world score worse than the top 10 least religious states. Data!


On the other hand, from Aeon: Why Religion Is Not Going Away and Science Will Not Destroy It. Subtitled, Social scientists predicted that belief in the supernatural would drift away as modern science advanced. They were wrong.

Human nature will out, and wins by default in the absence of active education.


This piece makes a distinction between being rational and being reasonable.

Vox: Is rationality overrated?. Subtitled, Sometimes, it’s better to be reasonable.

Citing Kahneman & Tversky and Sunstein & Thaler, the idea that humans are basically rational creatures (a chief assumption of traditional economics) has been undermined. A new study suggests that people are more frequently reasonable, which they define thus:

[T]here’s rationality, where you focus on maximizing the chance of getting what you want, and there’s reasonableness, where you strike a balance between what you want and social norms.

The example that occurs to me is that a rational person might understand that there’s no reason to take the metaphysical claims of religion seriously, but a reasonable person might know not to say that out loud and instead pay lip service to community standards that give them credence.


From 2016, NPR: Why Are Highly Educated Americans Getting More Liberal?

Not only are the better-educated more liberal than others, they’ve been getting *increasingly* liberal over the last couple decades. Suggested causes: polarization; more women getting degree; insularity (living alongside like-minded people). Conservatives have gotten more conservative too, but not because of education.


Daily Kos via AlterNet: Logic versus emotion: Understanding the mass psychology of the Christian right

My take before reading this: religious fundamentalists, believing in an authoritarian god who’s issued strict rules about all manner of behaviors (via the 10 Commandments and the strictures of Leviticus), are naturally attracted to authoritarian leaders, who tell them what to believe and what to do so they don’t have to think, and are uncomfortable with the freedoms and options available in liberal, democratic societies where people are able to reason what’s best for themselves and make decisions different than those made by the primitive desert tribes who wrote the Old Testament.

But let’s see what the article says.

Whatever one likes or dislikes about the Democrats, their appeal to voters is primarily to logic. Whereas the Republicans long ago learned to appeal to the dark side of people’s emotions, since they had no logical or progressive policies to sell. So the Republicans have become the party of hate, misogyny racism, bigotry, homophobia, war, and anti-immigrant sentiment affixed to a false and extremist Christian face. They now, and have been for some time, openly organizing people around these negative emotions and behaviors.


People who have fallen under the influence of an authoritarian or religious leader will hold on furiously to their dependence. They have invested their self esteem into the identity and success of these leaders, and by supporting them, they have built up their own self worth. One of the reasons right wing religious leaders can get their members to send them so much money for such ridiculous and scandalous reasons.

This is actually a rather haphazardly written article, but it makes important points.


As an example of the above, a NYT Opinion piece by Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, from Dec. 29th 2019. Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell. Subtitled, And he’s on a mission to use the “authority” of the executive branch to stop it.

In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.

This form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.


Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.

This is why conservative Republicans are basically lawless: they presume they can cheat any way they need to in order to achieve their higher purposes. Democrats who play by the rules are wimps.

The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.

There are many examples every week of fundamentalist preachers who see every perceived malady in the world as due to the gays, or abortion, or same-sex marriage. They are fixated on interpreting the world based on things they don’t like.


AlterNet: Outlandish conspiracy theories didn’t start with Trump’s presidency. Republicans have been promoting ‘fringe crackpots’ for decades: political historian.

Citing a Washington Post article by Matthew Dallek.

“The intellectual life of the American right since Sen. Joe McCarthy’s rise to prominence in 1950 can be seen partially as a series of flirtations with conspiracists and a dedicated reluctance to read fringe crackpots out of its ranks,” Dallek explains.

The John Birch Society in the 1950s, promoting conspiracy theories much like those that Alex Jones promotes today. The many crazy Clinton conspiracy theories.

“Ultimately, Trump was the logical consequence of a posture followed for decades at the top echelons of the conservative movement: the batty screeds are silly, but since they help us, we won’t work zealously to purge them,” Dallek observes. “Trump’s conspiracy-based capture of the GOP has less to do with him and his perspective than with a party that sought and often won the support of people who believe those notions.”

This entry was posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Humanism, Psychology, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.