How Much Respect Do Authoritarians Deserve?

Someone recommended an article called “Authoritarianism Is Not a Momentary Madness, But an Eternal Dynamic Within Liberal Democracies”. It was written by two psychologists, Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt, and appears in a collection of essays called Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein. I read it. .

The thesis of the article comes in two parts. The first is that roughly one-third of Americans have an “authoritarian” personality. By this, they mean that a certain percentage of human beings consider values like uniformity and obedience to be extremely important.

Authoritarianism inclines one toward attitudes and behaviors … concerned with structuring society and social interactions in ways that enhance sameness and minimize diversity of people, beliefs and behaviors. It tends to produce a characteristic array of … stances, all of which have the effect of glorifying, encouraging and rewarding uniformity and disparaging, suppressing and punishing difference. Since enhancing uniformity and minimizing diversity [affects other people] and requires some control over their behaviors, ultimately these stances involve actual coercion of others (as in driving a black family from the neighborhood) and, more often, demands for the use of group authority (i.e., coercion by the state).

… Authoritarianism is far more than a personal distaste for difference. It becomes a normative worldview about the social value of obedience and conformity (versus freedom and difference), the prudent and just balance between group authority and individual autonomy. This worldview induces bias against different others (racial and ethnic outgroups, immigrants and refugees, radicals and dissidents, moral “deviants”), as well as political demands for authoritative constraints on their behavior. The latter will typically include legal discrimination against minorities and restrictions on immigration, limits on free speech and association, and the regulation of moral behavior (e.g., policies regarding abortion and homosexuality, and their punitive reinforcement) [184-185].

Personally, I don’t think this is an acceptable outlook on life. It sounds misguided, stupid, even immoral.

The authors don’t see it that way. They view the existence of a substantial subset of human beings with this personality type as a fact of life. It’s just the way some people are. One of the authors, Linda Stenner, puts it this way in the first sentence of her book, The Authoritarian Dynamic: “Some people will never live comfortably in a liberal democracy”. By “liberal democracy”, she means a nation like ours, a “nation of immigrants”, in which we, the majority at least, celebrate individual freedoms (as stated, for example in a “Bill of Rights”) and the diversity of our fellow citizens.

This brings me to the second part of the authors’ thesis. They argue that the rest of us should treat the authoritarian minority’s views with more respect.

Democratic enthusiasts and multiculturalists sometimes make the mistake of thinking we are [all] evolving [into] more perfect democratic citizens. This is why the populist “wave” strikes many observers as a momentary madness that “comes out of the blue”, and why the sentiments that seem to fuel these movements are often considered merely the products of frustration, hatred, and manipulation by irresponsible populist leaders — certainly not serious, legitimate preferences that a democracy must attend to.

When authoritarians raise concerns about, say, the rates or sources of immigration, they are not actually saying “I’m scared I might lose my job”, but in fact, “This is making me very uncomfortable and I don’t like where our country is headed”. Moreover, “Nobody will let me say so, and only [this Trump-like figure] is listening to me”. Our sense is that if Trump had not come along, a Trump-like figure would have materialized eventually….

The gleeful reactions of Trump’s supporters to his “strongman” posturing attested to their anger and bitterness regarding the “political correctness” of the “liberal elite”, and the pleasure they seemed to derive from watching someone like “us” finally sticking it to “them” [211-213].

All right. It’s pretty clear that a third of our fellow Americans are uncomfortable living in a liberal democracy and would prefer that more of us looked and behaved like they do. In practical terms, what should the rest of us do about it?

In the case of immigration, the authors suggest that current immigration policy doesn’t take into account that millions of Americans, the authoritarians among us, would prefer less immigration or more tightly-controlled immigration.

If citizens say they’re concerned about the rate of immigration, we ought to at least consider the possibility they they’re concerned about the rate of immigration [and not racists]….Common sense and historical experience tell us that there is some rate of newcomers into any community that is too high to be sustainable… some newcomers are more difficult to integrate than others… some might, accordingly, need to be more carefully selected, or more heavily supported…. Ignoring these issues is not helpful to either the hosts or the newcomers. It is implausible to maintain that the host community can successfully integrate any kind of newcomer at any rate whatsoever, and it is unreasonable to assert that any other suggestion is racist [213-214].

One problem with this paragraph is that hardly anyone, nobody in Congress anyway, maintains that we should allow in “any kind of newcomer at any rate whatsoever”. To claim otherwise is to adopt the Republican lie that Democrats are in favor of “open borders”. The fact is that we already have lots of border security and many restrictions on who can live here. The debate concerns the amount and type of border security and the number of people who should be allowed to immigrate, from which countries, and with which restrictions, as well as what to do with immigrants who don’t have permanent resident status (“green cards”).

Another problem is that the authors suggest there is a golden mean that will be broadly acceptable to the American people, whether they have authoritarian personalities or not: “Frank consideration of these matters is the key to broad acceptance of immigration policy” [214]. It isn’t clear at all that opponents of immigration, especially immigration from the president’s “shithole countries”, would approve of immigration policy that is acceptable to the majority of the population. All authoritarians may not be racists, but a good percentage of them must be. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so uncomfortable with people who are “different”. Seriously, isn’t being uncomfortable with masses of people because they don’t look like you or speak your language a pretty good definition of “racist”. So what kind of immigration policy would be acceptable to the average authoritarian Trump supporter, racist or not, and how would it differ from current policy?

If there is one thing we could do in order to foster broader acceptance of immigration policy, it would be to make the facts about immigration clear to more people. Having a president who constantly lies about immigration and immigrants doesn’t help. Neither does having “news” channels that broadcast those lies over and over. If more people knew how legal immigration works and understood the facts regarding illegal immigration, we might achieve broader approval of immigration policy. But it will never be possible to convince large numbers of people who are made uncomfortable by “difference” that a reasonable immigration policy is a good idea. We should be able to live with that, however, as long as we have elections and our representatives do their jobs.

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The Battle of the Bands

Brian Wilson has a website. On that site, there are music lovers who have been playing a game for the past nine years. It’s called “The Battle of the Bands”. Someone posts videos for four songs. Usually there is a theme that ties the songs together. People then rank the four songs. They also post their own videos. There is discussion. It’s almost always very polite. Each battle lasts one week. You have to register on the site in order to participate. It’s free and nobody will bother you with annoying advertisements or solicitations. The whole thing is kind of fun.

Oh, one of the four songs has to have a connection to Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys. 

This week’s battle is called “It’s Over”. These are the four songs.

The Everly Brothers — “Crying inthe Rain” (1962). Co-written by Carole King.

The Miracles — “Ooo Baby Baby”(1965). Co-written, produced and sung by Smokey Robinson.

Neil Young — “Like a Hurricane”(1977). This is a live version from 1982. The studio version is equally long. 

The Beach Boys — “I Just Wasn’tMade For These Times” (1966). Co-written with Tony Asher. It’sthe end of innocence? optimism? faith in one’s fellow human beings?


In case you’d like to visit and maybe even participate, please go here. The people who do participate are very nice and will thank you for showing up.

(Plus, we rarely discuss politics. Although it’s sometimes hard to resist, considering the present situation.)

The “Caravan” That Made It All the Way to Pittsburgh (8 Days)

Quote

Quote from Adam Serwer of The Atlantic:

“The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election. There is no political gesture, no public statement, and no alteration in rhetoric or behavior that will change this fact. The shooter might have found a different reason to act on a different day. But he chose to act on Saturday, and he apparently chose to act in response to a political fiction that the president himself chose to spread, and that his followers chose to amplify.”

“As for those who aided the president in his propaganda campaign, who enabled him to prey on racist fears to fabricate a national emergency, those who said to themselves, “This is the play”? Every single one of them bears some responsibility for what followed. Their condemnations of anti-Semitism are meaningless. Their thoughts and prayers are worthless. Their condolences are irrelevant. They can never undo what they have done, and what they have done will never be forgotten.”  

More about how it happened and who’s responsible at An Ingenious Device for Avoiding Thought.

An Ingenious Device for Avoiding Thought

Not having come close to saving the world (since 2012) and finding that, in recent years, this blog has mainly dealt with things I’ve read, I’ve decided to stop posting here, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently.

Instead, I’ll continue to update a blog I’ve had since 2010 called “An Ingenious Device for Avoiding Thought”. Up to now, it’s consisted of brief comments on books I’ve read. I might as well use that blog to discuss other things as well, including other things I’ve read, instead of discussing them here.

Thus, I might discuss these recent articles over there: 

“Scientists Identify Four Personality Types: Sophisticated Psychological Algorithm Confirms That Some People Are Jerks” at The Washington Post

“The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience” (on TV, in college lecture halls or elsewhere) at The New York Times

“Are We All ‘Harmless Torturers’ Now?” also at The New York Times

“Civility as a Reciprocal Public Virtue” at 3 Quarks Daily

“My Modest Proposal for Solving the ‘Meaning of Life Problem’ — and Reducing Global Conflict” at Scientific American.

I could discuss them over there, but probably won’t.

If you’re interested in following An Ingenious Device, or just want to give it a look, please click here.

This Is Happening Right Now

Like other governments, the government of the United States has sometimes separated children from their parents, but our government has never done it like this until now. (There is a monster living in the White House.)

Jonathan Chait summarizes:

The Trump administration is holding the children of migrants hostage, in both the literal and the figurative sense. Literally: The children are taken from their parents in order to leverage the behavior of adult migrants. And figuratively: The administration is leveraging the suffering of these families in order to pressure Democrats into capitulating to the administration’s policy demands. President Trump, reports Axios, “views the issue as leverage, and will try to get funding for a border wall or other concessions for a rollback of the policy.”

The hostage strategy arises from a profound internal division within not only the Republican Party but the Trump administration itself. The administration originally enacted a policy of separating child migrants from their parents in order to deter those families from entering the country. Chief of Staff John Kelly defended family separation last month as “a tough deterrent.” Also last month, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen laid out the tough policy: “If you are single adult, if you are part of a family, if you are pregnant, if you have any other condition, you’re an adult and you break the law, we will refer you. Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family.” To justify this powerful new deterrent, the White House “interpreted a 1997 legal agreement and a 2008 bipartisan human trafficking bill as requiring the separation of families,” an interpretation neither of the previous two administrations supported.

Unsurprisingly, the policy of separating children from their parents has proven unbearably cruel in practice. Not everybody within the Republican Party or even the administration itself is still willing to defend its own handiwork. And so the administration’s public explanation of this policy toggles between three mutually exclusive positions.

One, the policy exists and is good (“It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry. Period,” says Stephen Miller.) Two, the policy does not exist. (“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” insists Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.) And third, the policy does exist, and is bad, and the Democrats are to blame (“I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law,” declared President Trump.)

A recent poll finds the public opposed to child separation by a 56/37 percent margin, but Republicans somewhat in favor (46/32 percent). Another finds even more stark differences — the public opposes family separation by a 66/27 percent margin, but Republicans favor it, 55/35 percent.

Horrible events are coming to light every day. For instance, this from a few hours ago:

ProPublica has obtained audio from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, in which children can be heard wailing as an agent jokes, “We have an orchestra here.”

The desperate sobbing of 10 Central American children, separated from their parents one day last week by immigration authorities at the border, makes for excruciating listening. Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream “Mami” and “Papá” over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.

The baritone voice of a Border Patrol agent booms above the crying. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he jokes. “What’s missing is a conductor.”

You can read more and hear the recording here, if you can stand it. I only listened for a few seconds. Unlike the unidentified Border Patrol agent, most of us don’t enjoy children being abused and traumatized. (Would it help if the president were forced to listen to that recording? I’m wondering how it would affect a powerful sociopath.)

There is a bill in the Senate designed to end this barbarism. Every Democratic senator has announced support for the bill. None of the Republicans have, although some have expressed concerns about the administration policy. There is no indication it will even come to a vote, given Republican control of the senate. Only the president can end this today, although he can’t erase the traumatic memories. Nor can he change the fact that thousands of children will still be separated from their parents, perhaps forever, given the circumstances of their lives and the way government agencies sometimes do their jobs. 

Some final thoughts from David Roberts, who writes for Vox.com:

Look at what US conservatives are able to justify to themselves — relative to what you thought was sane, normal politics just 2 years ago. Now ask yourself: if the permission structure were in place, do you have *any* doubt that they would support much worse?

US institutions may at some point provide a backstop, halting the slide. But do you have any remaining illusions that anyone or anything *within* the conservative coalition would stop it? That they would draw the line at, I dunno, cancelled elections or ethnic purges?

Of course, it sounds ridiculous & hysterical to talk about cancelled elections today — just as, a year ago, it would have sounded ridiculous & hysterical to talk about concentration camps for immigrant children. That’s kind of how this works.

One truth that’s held steady in US politics for my entire adult life: the US conservative movement will always get worse — more lawless, intolerant, heedless of norms or decency. Always. At every stage, there’s a temptation to think it’s as bad as it can get. It isn’t.

PS: Sure, our government has waged unjust wars, destroyed the lives of countless American Indians and supported the terrible institution of slavery, but treating people who want to come here in this way has no precedent.