The Gaps Between Beliefs and Reality

Items today about how Americans treat Presidents’ Day and other holidays; about more Republicans lying on their resumes; why Fox News viewers don’t care the network is lying to them; and why Putin’s fabulations about his war in Ukraine appeal to conservatives’ own fabulations. And how reality might eventually come crashing down.

NY Times, Alexis Coe, 17 Feb 2023: George Washington Would Hate Presidents’ Day

The writer worries over historical details, but this comment —

“How do you observe Presidents’ Day? Most of us accept a day off from work (or are forced to do so by our national child care crisis), while the rest of us phone it in with little to no imagination or guidance.

— gets closer to my problem with Presidents’ Day, and for that matter Labor Day and Memorial Day and MLK Day and so on. Americans don’t actually celebrate the ostensible honorees of those days. They like the holidays because they get days off from work when they can watch sports and go shopping. In America, virtually all holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, are oriented around consuming more and more. (“Memorial Day Sales Event!” and so on. Black Friday. Cyber Monday.) Americans take this for granted and don’t realize how perverse this is, as other nations have noticed.


Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin, 20 Feb 2023: Opinion | More Republicans seem to have lied about their resumes. Who’s surprised?

It keeps happening. Republicans are no longer just lying about the world around them — about climate change or vaccines or voter fraud — they’re increasingly lying about themselves.

Now it’s Anna Paulina Luna, Florida, and Andrew Ogles, Tennessee. I’ve noted before that conservatives seem to have different notions of truth and honesty than other people. They possess some kind of self-righteousness about a higher cause that excuses mundane resume “exaggerations.”


Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 21 Feb 2023: Fox News texts reveal the truth: The Big Lie was a con — that the viewers were in on, subtitled “Texts prove Fox hosts knowingly lied about the 2020 election — here’s why they won’t lose viewers”

Key point is end of subtitle. Viewers *want* to be lied to? Marcotte writes,

It’s not just that Fox News audiences don’t care if they’re lied to. Lies are what they crave. They tune into Fox News because lies are exactly what they want to hear.

I’m going to indulge for a moment in told-ya-so: I’ve long written about my view that Republican voters don’t really believe the Big Lie, even as they claim they do to pollsters. Instead, I’ve argued, it’s less a sincere belief than a collective lie Republicans tell together, as a power play and a show of tribal loyalty. In other words, Republicans aren’t fooled by Trump’s claims he “won” the 2020 election. They just think they’re in on the con. Yet every time I write about this, I get serious pushback from people insisting that Republicans “really” believe this stuff.

Well, if that were true, then audiences would be angry at Fox News for lying to their faces. That isn’t happening, and no one expects it to.

Again, this aligns with my working thoughts about how conservatives (or many people who happen to be conservative) don’t think of the world in terms of evidence and reason, honesty and reality, but in terms of stories and tribal identity. While it’s the minority, who has understood reason and evidence, that has build our modern world through science and technology.


These same observations about conservatives living in a sort of fantasy reality mesh with their support for Putin and his war of aggression in Ukraine, as he constructs a fantasy reality in which it was the “West” who started the war! (Also, Putin’s deeply conservative stance in matters of religion, gays, and so on. Conservatives applaud his stances on such matters and so support him, even if it means sanctioning his war against Ukraine.)

Washington Post, Editorial Board, 21 Feb 2023: Opinion | Biden’s address projected resolve. Putin’s speech twisted reality.

The opening:

The split-screen dissonance in Tuesday’s speeches by President Biden and Vladimir Putin, delivered hours apart, was the latest signal that the deepening East-West conflict, triggered by the Russian dictator’s war in Ukraine, is at its most dangerous juncture in decades. Mr. Biden’s address in Warsaw, a day after he made a stirring surprise visit to Kyiv, was a tough-minded pledge to stick by Ukraine despite the peril. Mr. Putin’s speech twisted the reality of his unwarranted imperial aggression against a smaller neighbor into a self-righteous litany of lies claiming Russia was the aggrieved victim of a predatory West.

Putin’s fabulations appeal to American conservatives’ fabulations.


Again — the broad theme here is to wonder how a culture can survive when so many of its members believe things that are flatly wrong. The base explanation is about human psychology, in the modern sense. Culture survives through social groups who share myths, true or not, for the purpose of binding them together. Most of human history has had nothing to do with the reality of the universe, whether the earth is flat or not, whether long term trends like climate change are real or not. It’s because trends like the last are beginning to happen within a single lifetime, that it’s more and more urgent to understand why people believe untrue things, and how to overcome that tendency and summon mass cooperation in order to avoid existential calamities.

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