How Being a Right-Wing Creep Can Give Meaning to Your Life

Earlier today, I posted a Twitter thread by David Roberts regarding the so-called “War on Christmas”. He provided context with an excerpt from a New York Times article by Thomas Edsall that discusses some relevant research:

In their September 2021 paper “Exposure to Authoritarian Values Leads to Lower Positive Affect, Higher Negative Affect, and Higher Meaning in Life,” seven scholars . . . write:

Right-wing authoritarianism played a significant role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In subsequent years, there have been numerous “alt-right” demonstrations in the U.S., including the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that culminated in a fatal car attack, and the 2021 Capitol Insurrection. In the U.S., between 2016 and 2017 the number of attacks by right-wing organizations quadrupled, . . . constituting 66 percent of all attacks and plots in the U.S. in 2019 and over 90 percent in 2020.

How does authoritarianism relate to immigration? [Jake Womick, one of the co-authors] provided some insight in an email:

Social dominance orientation is a variable that refers to the preference for society to be structured by group-based hierarchies. It’s comprised of two components: group-based dominance and anti-egalitarianism. Group-based dominance refers to the preference for these hierarchies and the use of force/aggression to maintain them. Anti-egalitarianism refers to maintaining these sorts of hierarchies through other means, such as through systems, legislation, etc.

Womick notes that his own study of the 2016 primaries showed that T____ voters were unique compared to supporters of other Republicans in the strength of their

group-based dominance. I think group-based dominance as the distinguishing factor of this group is highly consistent with what happened at the Capitol. These individuals likely felt that the T____ administration was serving to maintain group-based hierarchies in society from which they felt they benefited. They may have perceived the 2020 election outcome as a threat to that structure. As a result, they turned to aggression in an attempt to affect our political structures in service of the maintenance of those group-based hierarchies.

In their paper, Womick and his co-authors ask:

What explains the appeal of authoritarian values? What problem do these values solve for the people who embrace them? The presentation of authoritarian values must have a positive influence on something that is valuable to people.

Their answer is twofold:

Authoritarian messages influence people on two separable levels, the affective level, lowering positive and enhancing negative affect, and the existential level, enhancing meaning in life.

They describe negative affect as “feeling sad, worried or enraged.” Definitions of “meaning in life,” they write,

include at least three components: significance, the feeling that one’s life and contributions matter to society; purpose, having one’s life driven by the pursuit of valued goals; and coherence or comprehensibility, the perception that one’s life makes sense.

In a separate paper, “The Existential Function of Right-Wing Authoritarianism,” [political scientists] provide more detail:

It may seem ironic that authoritarianism, a belief system that entails sacrifice of personal freedom to a strong leader, would influence the experience of meaning in life through its promotion of feelings of personal significance. Yet right-wing authoritarianism does provide a person with a place in the world, as a loyal follower of a strong leader. In addition, compared to purpose and coherence, knowing with great certainty that one’s life has mattered in a lasting way may be challenging. Handing this challenge over to a strong leader and investment in societal conventions might allow a person to gain a sense of symbolic or vicarious significance.

From another vantage point, Womick and his co-authors continue,

perceptions of insignificance may lead individuals to endorse relatively extreme beliefs, such as authoritarianism, and to follow authoritarian leaders as a way to gain a sense that their lives and their contributions matter.

In the authors’ view, right-wing authoritarianism,

despite its negative social implications, serves an existential meaning function. This existential function is primarily about facilitating the sense that one’s life matters. This existential buffering function is primarily about allowing individuals to maintain a sense that they matter during difficult experiences.

In his email, Womick expanded on his work: “The idea is that perceptions of insignificance can drive a process of seeking out groups, endorsing their ideologies and engaging in behaviors consistent with these.”

These ideologies, Womick continued,

should eventually promote a sense of significance (as insignificance is what drove the person to endorse the ideology in the first place). Endorsing right-wing authoritarianism relates to higher meaning in life, and exposing people to authoritarian values causally enhances meaning. 

Understanding the Non-Existent War on Christmas

David Roberts writes a newsletter about “the technology, politics and policy of decarbonization”. He also writes a lot on Twitter. A few days ago, he wrote about the meaning of the “War on Christmas”:

I’ve always thought it’s worth examining the WoC more closely, not because it’s particularly important, but almost the opposite: because it’s so obviously silly & the stakes are so low, it’s easier to see the underlying dynamics clearly, without strong priors getting in the way.

To review: once upon a time, pretty much all US stores & public facilities put up Christmas decorations & had clerks & employees say “Merry Christmas!” around the holiday season. It was a reflection of the total dominance of white Christian culture in the US.

Over time, demographics & opinions shifted, at least in some quarters. It became clear that centering Christmas excludes Jews, Muslims, atheists . . . all the many US subcultures that don’t celebrate Xmas. Some businesses/institutions became leery of alienating customers/patrons.

Some places replaced Xmas decorations & “Merry Xmas!” with more generic *holiday* decorations & “Happy holidays!” The idea was that the more generic approach would welcome Christians but *also* welcome other cultures — welcoming all, alienating none. What’s the problem?

Anyway, RW media got hold of this & spun it into a “War On Christmas,” telling listeners & viewers that it was the first step to eliminating Christmas altogether & part of a larger war on Christianity. . . . 

Why is this interesting? Because it makes the conceptual structure of the US culture war extremely clear. Most culture war struggles share this structure.

First thing to say: generic “holiday” celebrations & greetings do not hurt or diminish Christians or Christmas.

That’s crucial. Nobody’s targeting or trying to diminish Christmas. Everyone who celebrates it can continue doing so.

What generic-holiday does is *decenter* Christmas. It renders Christmas just one holiday celebration among others, Christianity just one culture among others.

In trying to accommodate everyone, generic-holiday implicitly says that Christians are not *special*. They are one group living among other groups, as equals, all of which are free to live their cultures as they see fit, none of which have a right to dominate or exclude others.

And that, of course, is precisely the problem for the reactionaries on the right. For them, on a deep level, being dominant — having your culture, your folkways, your needs, your feelings centered — is *part of* the culture. Without domination, the culture is nothing.

That’s why so much of the War On Christmas rhetoric is about how Christmas is being “destroyed” by this, or how Christianity will be “wiped out.” If they lose being centered, lose being dominant, then in a very real way they *do* lose a culture premised on hegemony.

“To those accustomed to domination, equality feels like oppression.” There’s a reason versions of this cliché are everywhere these days — we’re seeing it play out in arena after arena. To reactionaries, being told their culture is one among equals feels like erasure.

Silly as it is, the War On Christmas clearly exposes the fundamental struggle unfolding in the US.

To some of us, the essence of the US is as a neutral framework, where any culture can thrive, anyone from any background can succeed, all are treated fairly & with dignity.

Obviously the US has never lived up to that ideal, but as Obama said so eloquently, the struggle to come closer & closer to that ideal *is* America — it’s the most American thing of all. All those outsiders who forced the US to be more fair & open are the real American heroes.

Reactionaries, on a deep & fundamental level, do not share that vision of America. To them, America is a white, patriarchal, “Judeo-Christian” nation — a particular people, a particular culture. Sure, we’ll accept guests, Others can live here, but never forget who’s in charge.

In some sense it’s a trivial question: Do you say “happy holidays” & accommodate everyone or say “merry Christmas” & implicitly tell everyone who’s not a Christian to accept, without complaint, that they are secondary, subsidiary, peripheral — *less*.

But within that trivial question is embedded ALL the questions facing the US. Are we trying to be a genuine multiethnic, multicultural, diverse society, united by a framework of neutral rules that treat us all the same? Do we want everyone to feel welcome, with equal citizenship?

Or are we, at root, a white patriarchal Christian society that, at its discretion/whims, sometimes allows other kinds of people to live among us? Is the declining dominance of that subculture tantamount to America itself declining? Is diversity our enemy, as Tucker Carlson says?

That fundamental struggle is reflected, in a fractal way, in the silly fight over Christmas. It’s just one more way for the hegemonic demographic/subculture to tell the rest of us, “if we don’t get to dominate, we’re erased, and we’ll blow it all up before that happens.”

You’re seeing it everywhere now with rising right-wing violence & extremism. On some level, white patriarchal Christian culture already realizes that loss is inevitable — and it is fully ready to bring the whole structure down before it will live as equals among equals.

The real question this raises for me — the ultimate question of America, really — is whether it’s *possible* to have a true multiethnic multicultural society of equals. Is it possible for everyone to be happy even if no one gets to hear their special holiday greeting in public?

Or are there just too many reactionaries, too many people for whom the only alternative to domination is submission/humiliation, too many people who simply can’t *conceive* of genuine equality, for the thing to work? Can a country w/ NO privileged culture survive & prosper?

I dunno. (I used to be a confident Yes, a confident believer in the possibility of true democracy, but now . . . I dunno.)

Unquote.

Remember when they said allowing same-sex couples to marry would “destroy the institution of marriage”? 

I’ll say it again. When the authoritarians hear “we’re all in this together”, they think it’s a threat.

Identify This State

When we moved to the East Coast from California 30 years ago, I met someone who lived in New Jersey and told him that the state, from what I’d seen, was much nicer than I expected. He said “Yes, we like to keep that a secret”.

Of course, there are old cities and rundown neighborhoods, ugly factories and the challenging NJ Turnpike, but for such a small, densely-populated state (47th by size, 8th by population), there’s a lot of variety. We do have the most hazardous waste sites in the nation — a remnant of the state’s industrial past, when NJ also earned its nickname “The Garden State” because of the way NJ farms fed New York City and Philadelphia. New Jersey also has the 2nd highest income, 3rd highest percentage of college graduates and 3rd highest percentage of immigrants. Much of the Revolutionary War was fought here, Thomas Edison became “The Wizard of Menlo Park” here, researchers at Bell Labs developed radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the UNIX operating system and the C programming language here. Abbott met Costello here.

Much of the state away from New York City and Philadelphia is undeveloped. The coastline is beautiful. We’re in the top 10 in life expectancy. The public schools are highly rated. We get less back from Washington than any other state, compared to the federal taxes we pay (you’re welcome). And we avoid electing Republicans.

It was notable, therefore, that when 1,200 Americans were asked to choose America’s best states, New Jersey just barely beat Mississippi and Alabama, coming in 48th out of 50.

states-design-01

Maybe that’s because, according to generations of comedians, New Jersey is funny. “I’m from Joisey! You from Joisey? Which exit?”

Property taxes are too high. There are those toxic waste sites scattered around. And who knows whose remains are hidden in the Meadowlands, which is more swamp than meadow (and where the “New York” Giants and Jets play football, but won’t admit it)?

Fortunately, however, New Jersey and its state government have a sense of humor:

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The state of New Jersey. A well-kept secret.

Almost Inconceivable

I can’t believe this could have happened a few years ago. But then our politics was infected by a dangerously demented narcissist. From Susan Glasser of The New Yorker:

[President Biden] came into office promising an end to the pandemic and a return to competent, commonsense governance. . . . . But his first nine months in office have shown pretty conclusively that it is not possible to beat covid in a political environment that has arguably gotten worse, not better, since January.

Consider the news that now one in five hundred Americans has died in the pandemic; total deaths in the country approach seven hundred thousand. What’s worse, covid deaths—the vast majority of them preventable, avoidable deaths, now that science and the federal government have provided us with free vaccines—are continuing to rise across large swaths of vaccine-resistant T____ country.

This is not a tragic mistake but a calculated choice by many Republicans who have made vaccine resistance synonymous with resistance to Biden and the Democrats. The current average of more than nineteen hundred dead a day means that a 9/11’s worth of Americans are perishing from covid roughly every thirty-eight hours. To my mind, this is the biggest news of the Biden Presidency so far, and it has nothing to do with Afghanistan, or the fate of the budget-reconciliation bill, or Bob Woodward’s new book.

America spent twenty years fighting wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East because of 9/11. The 2001 attacks reordered American foreign-policy and national-security thinking for a generation. Does anyone believe that something comparable will happen as a result of the pandemic’s catastrophic death toll, which is far vaster than that of any other crisis in the modern era? It’s hard to imagine, especially because the continuing loss of life is a result of [Republican] political strategies that intentionally undermine the success of Biden’s policies. How can this President, or any President, reset from that?

Biden’s challenge seems all the more clear to me after spending a few weeks away from the daily noise of politics to work on a book about his divisive predecessor. T____ is out of office, but T____-style politics have decisively won over the Republican Party. A new CNN poll this week found that seventy-eight per cent of Republicans subscribe to T____’s Big Lie that Biden was not legitimately elected—more than in some polls in the immediate aftermath of T____’s traumatic exit. . . . [although I wonder how many of them really believe that vs. choosing to tell the pollsters that and thereby spread the lie further].

The partisan split has also translated into a deadly divide in vaccination rates—a tragedy given that vaccines are, for now, the only real way out of this mess. And no wonder this divide persists. It is not an accident or an immutable fact of American political life; it’s a fire built and stoked by T____ and his supporters.

Among the top stories on Fox News’ home page [last week], I could not find a single reference to the pandemic, and little sense that covid even existed, beyond a link to a video headlined “Liberal host torched for labeling GOP ‘COVID-loving death cult’ in bizarre rant.” As I was writing this column, I received an e-mail from one D____ J. T____. The subject was “Biden’s vaccine mandate.” “I totally OPPOSE this liberal overreach that requires Americans to be vaccinated,” T____ wrote. “The Left is working overtime to CONTROL you, Friend,” he warned. Biden, he added, “doesn’t care about you or your freedoms.”

As a matter of politics, of course, this is not necessarily a winning strategy for the Republicans. In California on Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom defeated a Republican effort to recall him by running a campaign painting the G.O.P. candidate as a T____-loving extremist who would undo public-health measures to fight the pandemic. . . . Then again, California is consistently among the most Democratic of Democratic states. . . .

The tragic triumph of T____ism is not that he has persuaded all Americans, or even a majority of Americans, to reject their way out of the pandemic; it’s that he has persuaded just enough of them to keep the disease wreaking havoc on the country.

The [Republican Party’s] desire to see Biden fail has become a willingness to let the country fail. Nine months into Biden’s Presidency, the bottom line is that the Republican war on Biden’s legitimacy and the war on Biden’s covid policies are now inextricably linked. The consequences of this are so hard to contemplate that we often do not do so: a politics so broken that it is now killing Americans on an industrial scale.

Unquote. 

It’s hard to find a lighter note on this topic. However:

photo_2021-09-22_12-03-01

Living Things Shaping the Earth Even Now

If climate crisis deniers understood how we living things helped create and maintain the conditions for life on this planet, would some of them come to realize that we are affecting those conditions right now? This is from The Economist:

The idea that Earth is in some way alive, or can be treated as if it were, is common to many mythologies and sensibilities, and has been a theme in science for centuries. Its modern form, though, dates from the 1960s and the insights of James Lovelock, a British scientist then working at jpl, a laboratory in California that is responsible for most of America’s planetary science.

In thinking about the detection of life on other planets Dr Lovelock turned to a broad definition of the phenomenon: one offered by physicists and based on thermodynamics, the science of heat, work and order. This is that life uses, or creates, flows of matter and energy that allow it to increase and maintain complexity within itself. In doing so it deals with the universe’s natural tendency to break down complexity, thus creating disorder (known in thermodynamics as entropy), by actively increasing the entropy of the rest of the universe while reducing its own—exporting disorder, as it were.

Armed with this definition, Dr Lovelock proposed detecting life elsewhere by looking for signs of order, particularly in the form of chemical disequilibria—namely, intrinsically unlikely mixtures of chemicals that would have to be maintained by the persistent export of entropy. He concluded that the most detectable such order, at a planetary level, would be found in the composition of the atmosphere.

On Earth, a variable amount of water vapour aside, 99% of the atmosphere is nitrogen and oxygen. Most of the last 1% consists of argon, helium and neon (“noble” gases that demonstrate their nobility by being inert and fundamentally pointless), and other trace gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

As Dr Lovelock pointed out, this mixture is way out of equilibrium. Oxygen and methane react with each other. Such reactions take place constantly in the atmosphere. For these gases to be present simultaneously requires active sources of one or both. On Earth, life provides these. Plants, algae and some photosynthetic bacteria produce oxygen. Single-celled archaea called methanogens produce methane.

What is more, with energetic encouragement (as offered, for example, by bolts of lightning), oxygen and nitrogen will react with each other too, creating nitrogen oxides. Again, it turns out that life provides a countervailing process which lets the levels of both gases stay constant, despite the lightning. De-nitrifying bacteria produce the energy they need by turning nitrogen-bearing compounds like those oxides back into gaseous nitrogen, thus continuously topping up the level in the atmosphere.

The atmospheres of Earth’s neighbours, Mars and Venus, provided a stark contrast to this picture of biologically driven instability. They contained no pairs of gases that, at concentrations observed, would be likely to react. They were in equilibrium. This led Dr Lovelock to two conclusions: that there was no life on Mars and Venus; and that Earth’s atmosphere was, to a certain degree or in a certain sense, alive. It was not made of cells or enclosed in a membrane. Nor could it reproduce. But the flow of energy and matter through the living bits of the planet kept the atmosphere in disequilibrium and held entropy at bay. Life’s imposition of order and disequilibrium thus operated beyond the boundaries of cells, individuals and species.

The first of these conclusions was not popular. Many scientists wanted to send robots to Mars to look for life. To be told from the off that such searches would be fruitless served no one’s interests. But fruitless they have proved so far to be.

The second conclusion led Dr Lovelock to hypothesise that Earth behaves, to some extent, as a living organism, in that biology-based processes provide it with a degree of self-regulation which the system as a whole uses in order to keep itself to life’s liking. This “Gaia hypothesis” was highly controversial in the 1970s and 1980s. The views of Dr Lovelock, his followers and his opponents have since evolved. The idea that life actively seeks to keep the environment to its liking, a crucial feature of the hypothesis in its early days, is not now widely held. It is, however, universally agreed that the composition of Earth’s atmosphere depends on biological activity and that various feedback mechanisms which maintain the planet’s habitability have biological components.

The idea of Earth’s environment being a creation of its evolving inhabitants, rather than a background against which they evolve, seems on the face of things quite unlikely. Earth’s living organisms are estimated to contain about 550bn tonnes of carbon. Add in the other elements and remember that living things are, by weight, mostly water, and you might get up to a few trillion tonnes all told. The atmosphere weighs 5,000trn tonnes. How could a thin green smear of life which weighs less than 0.1% of that be calling the shots?

The answer is that life is peculiarly energetic stuff. Expressed in terms of power (the amount of energy used per second), life on Earth runs at about 130trn watts. That is roughly ten times the power used by human beings, and three times the flow of energy from Earth’s interior—a flow which drives all the planet’s volcanism, earthquakes and plate tectonics.

Most of what life does with this energy is chemical: building molecules up, breaking them down and dumping some of the eventual waste products into the environment. And this chemical activity is persistent. The cycling which moves carbon from the atmosphere into living things (through photosynthesis) and back to the atmosphere (through respiration) has been fundamental to the planet’s workings for billions of years. The same goes for the cycling of nitrogen. The great biogeochemical cycles are older than any mountain range, ocean or continent. Their work mostly done by bacteria and archaea, they predate the dawn of animals and plants.

The composition of Earth’s atmosphere before the prokaryotes got their membranes on it is a subject on which there are few data. But the geological record makes one thing clear: it contained almost no oxygen. Significant amounts of free oxygen entered the air only after the relevant form of photosynthesis had evolved. At that point the level of bacterially produced methane—which, in the absence of oxygen, could be quite high—crashed. Because methane is a greenhouse gas, so did the temperature. Roughly 2.5bn years ago the “great oxidation event”, as it is known, plunged Earth into an ice age that saw ice sheets spread to the equator.

The subsequent history of the atmosphere, during which oxygen levels have increased episodically, is coupled to life in various ways. There seems to be a link between oxygen reaching a threshold level about 700m years ago and the evolution of the first animals—it is hard, perhaps impossible, to lead an energetically profligate animal lifestyle without the extra power that oxygen provides to a metabolism.

The advent of trees, which were able to store carbon both in greater quantities than previous photosynthesisers and in forms that were hard for other organisms to break down, saw carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere fall far enough to trigger another global ice age. The recovery and utilisation of some of that hard-to-get-at carbon, now transformed to coal, is seeing life alter the atmosphere in yet another way a few hundred million years on—again with climatic consequences.

Over the decades which saw this new understanding of the role life had played in Earth history develop, Dr Lovelock’s associated insights about atmospheres as signals of life elsewhere made little progress. This was partly because of a lack of atmospheres. Aside from Earth’s, the solar system contains only seven thick enough to count. There have been reports of out-of-equilibrium trace gases on Mars (methane) and Venus (phosphine), but in both cases the evidence is shaky. The most recent orbital survey found no evidence at all for methane in the Martian atmosphere.

Happily, the past two decades have revealed thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Telescopes that can examine the atmospheres of some of these which look promisingly habitable should be available soon. One, the much delayed James Webb Space Telescope, is supposed to launch this Hallowe’en. If any of the orbs it studies suggest Gaia has been working her magic there, too, then the ideas these briefs discuss may one day undergo an intriguing examination. Some will probably turn out to be universal biological truths. Others, though, may just be chance properties of life on one particular planet.