Media, Mystics, and Two Key Republican Obsessions

  • Two curious items from Facebook, about learning new media, and scientists as “mystics”;
  • Three items, one by Paul Krugman, about the Republicans’ naked obsession with benefiting the ultra-wealthy;
  • Three items, or maybe four, about Republican obsession with other people’s sex lives, and imposing their particular version of Christianity on us all.

Facebook, post by Farah Mendlesohn

Humans learned to see perspective
They learned to see blue
They learned to see clouds (surprisingly recently)
They learned to see through photographic manipulation.
We had the same problem with early photography. See Cottingley fairies. Our generation will struggle. Kids will look at us in a few years and say “but it’s obvious”. Because they will have visual skills those of us who grew up with hand made cardboard SFX don’t have.
Addendum: this is also why Twain noted the belief in anything in print by a generation reared mostly on the Bible and why the generation reared on v[ery] few and responsible news outlets were vulnerable to Fox news. No immunity. Yes there are young conspiracy theorists but they are actually a minority compared to the vulnerability of older generations.

This reads a bit cryptically, but contains some profound insights. Speculating exactly what she means a bit: early paintings (e.g. Egyptian) didn’t do perspective, but once introduced, people learned to see and understand it, in flat paintings on a wall. Same for depictions of clouds. Early languages didn’t have words for blue.

Better: early photography made everything in a photo seem equally real; thus the Cottingley Fairies that fooled Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle. I like the Twain observation; for centuries the Bible was the only book anyone knew, and therefore new books were taken as equally authoritative. And how the principle applies to TV news. When I grew up, there were three network new broadcasts on TV, and one on PBS, and they were all reliable. That led many (not all of us) to accept Fox News — which had a very different agenda — at face value as equally reliable. It may take a generation or two to understand how discriminate. Just as artists and photographers are learning to do now, with AI-generated images.

So this is good news. It’s plausible that when people encounter a new medium — a new way of viewing or interacting with the world — it takes some time to ‘learn’ how to use it. A famous example is one of the very first motion pictures, that showed a train roaring toward the camera. When shown in theaters, it sent the audience screaming for the exits. Similarly, perhaps there’s hope that half the population won’t continue to be swindled by social media once they understand where it comes from and who’s behind it. It takes a while for that to sink in.


Then there’s Damien Walter, whom I think I’ve managed not to mention until now. He runs a Facebook group called “Science Fiction”; he’s a journalist and does videos; yet he’s never been published in SF venues or has any presence in the SF community itself. Yet he grandiosely makes numerous provocative claims — that’s it, I would call him a provocateur, writing outlandish things to his group that I’m pretty sure he doesn’t necessarily “believe,” just to get a rise out of people. And his theme, near as I can tell, is that “science fiction” is just another mythic system, this age of science’s version of discredited religious myths. Thus, he insists, Stars Wars is as legitimately science fiction as anything else. And so is The Lord of the Rings.

Nonsense, says I, but I’m not going to address those points just now. But I will comment about this recent post, because it aligns with the essay I just finished. I think he has it completely upside down. (Again, he’s always stretching to dissolve the boundaries between sf and fantasy, science and mysticism, and so on. They’re all just grand narratives, to him.)

Facebook, Science Fiction, post by Damien Walter

On a long enough timeline all physicists become mystics.
Stephen Wolfram made it there.
This is one of the clearer(ish) explications of Wolfram’s “Ruliad” and computational irreducibility.
Then at the end Wolfram concludes with the two core statements of mysticism

1. there is an underlying reality that is not the reality we perceive
2. the nature of our perception and human consciousness means we can never understand the true reality

This is the first time I’ve heard him go there, but I always suspected that would be the final destination.

No no no. Yes, those two conclusions follow from an understanding of the limitations of human senses, as well as the psychological biases built into us by evolution to apply heuristics for survival in the natural world — but which conflict with the conclusions of actual, repeatable, self-checked science — but that does not make scientists who understand this “mystics.” He (Walter or Wolfram) is misusing words. Mysticism is concerned with the occult — all the religious and spiritual intuitions and conclusions that result from those limitations of senses, and psychological biases, but which are demonstrably not true by scientific standards.

There might well be an underlying reality to the universe that humans cannot perceive or understand. Humans don’t perceive or “understand” in the way other animals do ultraviolet or infrared light. But that is not the same thing as believing that the occult projects of human nature must therefore be true. The former is wisdom; the latter is mysticism.


Paul Krugman, NYT, 2 Nov 2023: Israel, the I.R.S. and the Big Grift

Republicans have no shame about supporting the wealthy, who finance their campaigns. They do it in plain sight, as if no one will notice.

Historians of propaganda are familiar with the concept of the Big Lie, a claim so extreme that many people end up accepting it because they can’t believe that authority figures would make up something so at odds with reality.

It often seems to me that we need a term to describe a somewhat similar phenomenon in policy debates, which we might call the Big Grift: policy proposals so corrupt, so obviously designed to benefit an undeserving few at everyone else’s expense that many voters balk at the notion that seemingly respectable politicians actually advocate such things.

A case in point is the current demand by House Republicans that funding for Israel in this moment of crisis be tied to budget cuts that would undermine the ability of the Internal Revenue Service to crack down on wealthy tax cheats. This should be a major scandal, but my suspicion is that many voters just won’t accept the idea that G.O.P. leaders would do something so cartoonishly villainous.

Krugman then reviews the history of Republican budget proposals. And why this latest one is absurd in many ways.

And now that conspiracy theorists have effectively taken over the G.O.P., it kind of makes sense that one of their overriding policy priorities is to deprive the government of the resources it needs to crack down on grifters and financial fraud.


Two more about this.

Slate, Adam Chodorow, 1 Nov 2023: The Trick Republicans Are Trying to Pull With Israel Funding, subtitled “If they cared about deficits, they would not be pushing this latest bill.”

To borrow a line from Ronald Reagan, there they go again.

Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American: October 30, 2023

The House Republicans’ $14.3 billion aid package for Israel claims that it will “offset” that spending by taking $14.3 billion from funding for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) passed by Congress in the Inflation Reduction Act. But this “offset” is nothing of the sort: funding the IRS brings in significantly more than it costs. For each dollar spent auditing the top 1% of U.S. earners, the IRS brought in $3.18; for each dollar spent auditing the top 0.1%, it brought in $6.29.

It’s almost as if Republicans don’t understand the idea of investing. (In the IRS.)


Another Republican obsession: other people’s sex lives. Three items.

Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 30 Oct 2023: “Sexual anarchy”: New House Speaker Mike Johnson showcases the incel-ization of the modern GOP, subtitled “The Louisiana congressman’s career has been centered around his bitter obsession with other people’s sex lives”

In true incel fashion, Johnson is haunted by all the erotic adventures he imagines the straight ladies of America are having when he’s not in the room. When New York’s Irin Carmon interviewed him in 2015, he blamed legal abortion for school shootings, saying, “When you break up the nuclear family, when you tell a generation of people that life has no value, no meaning, that it’s expendable, then you do wind up with school shooters.” Nor was that a one-off. In 2016, he gave a speech in which he blamed feminism, liberal divorce laws, and the “sexual revolution” for mass shootings.

In this view, Johnson agrees with mass shooters, who claim they were driven to it because of women’s sexual freedom. In the year before Johnson blamed male violence on women’s sexuality, the incel-identified killer Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in California, claiming he was forced to do it to “punish” the “sluts” who had sex with other men while he remained a virgin. Since then, there’s been a rash of violent incidents, some quite deadly, conducted by men who employ the same logic: Female sexual autonomy offends them, and must be punished with pain and death.


Boing Boing, Mark Frauenfelder, 31 Oct 2023: Sex-obsessed site run by House Speaker’s wife suddenly goes dark

A website run by the wife of House Speaker Mike Johnson disappeared yesterday. In operation since 2018, Kelly Johnson has operated a counseling service with an unusual and invasive interest in other people’s sexual lives, and compares homosexuality with bestiality and incest.

“We believe and [sic] the Bible teaches that any form of sexual immorality, such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, pornography or any attempt to change one’s sex, or disagreement with one’s biological sex, is sinful and offensive to God,” says the services operating agreement.

(Because conservatives just *know* what must be so. And they are confidant, fortunately, that God agrees with them.)


HuffPost, 27 Oct 2023: Mike Johnson’s Wife Runs Counseling Service That Compares Being Gay To Bestiality, Incest, subtitled “The newly elected Republican House speaker and his wife, Kelly, have long intertwined their political and business lives.”


And how this aligns with Christian nationalism and is anti-democratic.

Adam Lee, OnlySky, 2 Nov 2023: The Christian nationalism is coming from inside the House

In addition to his anti-evolution views, Johnson ticks every other box on the list of Christian “antis”. Like all fundamentalists, his worldview is defined by what he’s against: He is anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights, anti-feminism, anti-climate-science. He’s even anti-divorce—believing, as many religious conservatives are starting to, that it gives women too much power. In a bid to shore up the crumbling walls of patriarchy, he wants to abolish no-fault divorce so they’ll be forced to stay in unhappy or abusive marriages.

But, above all else, Johnson is a Christian nationalist. Like all Christian nationalists, he believes (falsely, based on right-wing pseudo-history) that America was founded as a Christian nation, and therefore a Christian view of law and morality should rule.

It hardly needs emphasizing that, when Johnson and his ilk speak of a “Christian” view, they don’t mean a generically Christian, ecumenical, big-tent view. They mean their own interpretation—a hardcore right-wing, patriarchal, anti-science, literalist reading of the Bible. They believe that this fundamentalist theology should reign supreme over every other interpretation of Christianity, not to mention all the other religions, philosophies, and worldviews in our multicultural melting pot.

The most disturbing aspect of Johnson’s view is that, because he believes America is a Christian nation, he holds that evangelical Christians like himself are entitled to rule regardless of elections. That’s why he’s against democracy.

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