I will not, as I can not, explain or mitigate the professionally annoyed and annoying creatures of this world whose allegiance to party or hatred of party is such that reason is a mere hostage in their daily dramas. For most of them, the market explains them, or personal pathologies do, but logic is of no use as an analytical tool. Rage radio gets more listeners by making anger, and the speakers may believe what they say or not -- it's irrelevant -- and logic is simply a tether that marks how far they may go before alienating their market and becoming the middle of the night conspiracy guy. The dedicated omphalus of rage -- a Hannity or the like -- may have some genuine psychological deviation in maturation or some trauma or some bit of malign experience magnetized to some center of joy, but logic will not pry such things loose from any distance.

However, the passing man, and it usually is a man, or the staid woman who is certain beyond discussion of the secret truth that is contrary to what you and I trade in can be understood, at least in impulse. Such a person is not bad, but there is a reason for the unreason. Part of it, I will argue below our cornice of orange, is due to the two phases of memory among Republicans -- the legendary and the oblivious -- and part of it is due to a simple frustration with logic itself.

If you don't know yet, I hate to be the one to bear the brunt of the argument, but logic is insufficient for human experience. See below, if you wish.

I'm a Jonathan Swift specialist, so when I met the existentialists saying that reason wasn't everything, I thought, "Duh!" Or perhaps I was an existentialist, so, when I read Swift, I thought, "Darn right, Bubba!" Either way, Swift illustrates the problem with relying upon reason rather ingloriously. I can argue that reason isn't sufficient, but it's probably better if I allow the Dean to show you.

I think the advantages by the Proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.
[21] For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the Number of Papists, with whom we are Yearly over-run, being the principal Breeders of the Nation, as well as our most dangerous Enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the Kingdom to the Pretender, hoping to take their Advantage by the absence of so many good Protestants, 24  who have chosen rather to leave their Country, than stay at home, and pay Tythes against their Conscience, to an idolatrous Episcopal Curate.
[22] Secondly, the poorer Tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by Law may be made lyable to Distress, 25  and help to pay their Landlord's Rent, their Corn and Cattle being already seazed, and Money a thing unknown.
I'm sure you know the source, but, if you don't, you can visit Jack Lynch's wonderful annotation here. (And Jack Lynch is every hero since the crack of time, if you ask me, for the work he has done.) Charles Beaumont and others pointed out that there is nothing illogical about the Proposal. It's perfectly reasonable to breed the poor for venison.

In Book IV of Gullivers Travels, Gulliver meets the non plus ultra of reason: the Houhynymns. They are planning a genocide of the Yahoos (humans) on their island, as they consider the creatures pests, and Gulliver sails away from their island sadly. They expel him, you see, and his boat has sails made of Yahoo skins, which Gulliver regards as just another hide.

Jonathan Swift does this sort of thing fairly often: he presents his intellectual readers with a "modern" and scientific proposition where they must reject the entirely rational solution because it is at variance with the human. In other words, Jonathan Swift, the clergyman, insists on moral values that cannot be quantified or subjected to rational analysis. (Nevertheless, philosophers would do just that, later. Kant's "moral absolute" and Bentham's extension of the social would put such instinctive moral impulses on the operating table.)

Ok, you may not be writing angry comments yet, except you may be wondering what this has to do with conservatives and fearing that I'm going to let them off the hook.

"I know I'm right"

Consider this: there are arguments that are easy to make regardless of their validity. You know this already, probably. All of us who watch or participate in politics are aware that anyone arguing for laws "getting tough on drunk drivers" has a slam dunk. Try arguing that the laws are too strict and see what happens. (It is possible that we should argue that people demonstrate probable cause before arrest, even in drinking and driving, where licensure denotes a privilege.)

So, imagine the arguments surrounding something like the death penalty:
Pro: To satisfy, one must show
1. Irredeemable individuals
2. Crimes prevented by the threat of execution
3. Restorative principles.
This bar is nearly insurmountable. From a rational point of view, the argument is a wounded duck.
Con: To show a bad side, all one needs is
1. Unfair implementation
2. One innocent person on death row
3. Remediation and restoration in a single instance.
As most of us know, this is pathetically easy to meet. It has been met, over and over again. Nevertheless, it is possible to believe in the death penalty. In fact, I sort of do. I cannot defend that believe rationally, but I "know" that there are instances where a person is recidivous to death, violent, and in pain. I do not believe in my own ability to determine such a person, however.

There are numerous issues where constructing a rational argument is either difficult or impossible, and these issues most emphatically do not always mean that the issue is in the wrong as much as that discourse, social convention, and the rules of logic may not permit a proof of the position. Most frequently, the issues that evade discursive proof are moral issues, and these are the ones most likely to involve either a) tradition, b) family, c) intuition, d) community, e) "categorical imperatives."

So, let's take a relatively "clean" argument like my position that police should not randomly roadblock for sobriety tests, but should, instead, have probable cause that a crime is in commission before stopping a person. Legally, my argument loses. Politically, people will hiss my position. Socially, people will suspect that I drive drunk. (I actually don't drink -- too expensive.) Thus, in every regard, I will find myself saying, again and again, "Police should need to see that a crime is being committed before they arrest a citizen!" and I will lose face and place.

It's enough to make a person hostile toward argument. It's enough to make one fold one's arms and say, "I'm right, and I know it. I don't care what you say."

Bible College and Fireworks Stand
For casual conservatives, things like abortion are simple matters of feeling or conviction. The same is true of issues of safety. They cannot argue these positions, even if they are articulate, and their intellectual champions are routed fairly regularly. They thus retreat into a position of hostility toward argument itself, if not toward reason.

Long Legends and Short Memories

Who won the 1960 Presidential election?

If you read textbooks or trust reality, then John F. Kennedy won the election. However, since 1960, there has been a seething, hateful, belief that Nixon won. You may not think about 1960 much, but it is accepted faith for the Republican Party that "dead people elected Kennedy" thanks to "Dailey's Democratic Machine in Chicago."

For Republicans, "Camelot" was the radicalizing insult. Santorum, as this article shows, isn't the only one still nursing the grudge. They not only felt robbed, but then insulted. This insult from the perceived sleight could not be appeased, either, by anything, because it functioned as a perpetual justification and warning: "They stole 1960, so I say screw 'em."

You and I think of JFK as a foreign policy hawk and domestic policy liberal. They think of him as "the 1960's" personified. Extramarital affairs, charisma, eloquence, education, dazzling logic -- all of the things they would have trouble mustering were in one package, and they were certain that America would never have chosen it.

It is an article of faith in the GOP that this Tammany Hall styled "Democratic Machine" existed and exists, that it steals elections, and that this justifies desperate responses. Part of this is a way of capitalizing on an even longer memory/legend in the South: the mythical Reconstruction legislatures that voted the way carpet baggers wanted. (Such a legend had, indeed, acted as justification for the Talmadge, Bilbo, Long and the others who established machines against them.) It is a similar article of faith that "Borking" means that partisan and arbitrary treatment of appointees is now "fair."

For Democrats, the insulting behavior of Ronald Reagan toward all who held different opinions radicalized many. (He made me radical.) I've been told that W. Bush has done the same for another generation, and the GOP will never realize that the 2004 "I'm gonna spend it" of Bush made a good many liberal kids into radical kids. However, what radicalized most of the left was an ongoing series of actions and overt dismissals that merely saw expression in Romney's "47%" comment or Ryan's "makers and takers" dichotomy. We've not only been called worse, but we've been called worse nearly every year.

For the long memory GOP the truth of historical injustice is irrelevant. It is mythic. It serves as a defining moment, like a flight from Egypt. Goldwater and Reagan rise to mountain sides because they are holy, not because they did or said or thought holy things. The truth value comes from the apotheosis itself.

Placing a 'fact' into the legend makes it true, just as placing a figure into the constellation of conservative heroes makes that person heroic.

. . . and the Short Now

The people who are committed, lifelong conservatives are angry at us because of historical injustices that are true because they are believed. They do not need for the injustices to have consequences, or for them to be met; they simply need them to be a sempiternal cause. (Viz. the battle against "Welfare" this year. You and I know that there is no such thing. Gingrich won in 1994, and Clinton capitulated, and there is no such beast. If the GOP base were polled, they would probably say that Welfare is a federal program that makes a comfortable living.)

Most folks are going through their day. They extrapolate from their senses and personal experiences. If there are clever ways to screw up, they don't spend time working through them. Hasty generalizations are par, and either/or thinking is a valid proposition for most of them. They have work to do, families to raise, and happiness to achieve.

For reasons mysterious, the amount of history carried in a person's mind seems to be getting briefer. This may be an illusion, but it is a convincing one.

Recently, I asked my students to read the very well written "Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Voter ID Laws" by Suevon Lee at Pro Publica. The students were supposed to evaluate it as informative writing. (It's really good.) The results surprised me. They changed the author's sex several times, which did not surprise me, but their view of the issue did.

The students all began with the view that "voter fraud is a very serious issue." Even though the article makes it clear that fraud of any sort is at a rate of 1 in 15,000,000 votes, they still came back to their foundational assumption that "It is important to make sure that only those with the right to vote do so." The students accurately noted everything -- got the picture that in person fraud doesn't occur, realized that the laws pushed for the GOP -- but still came back to how important it was to "stop" "vote fraud."

These students were and are political naifs. They are also quite typical of the short now. "I have a law to stop voter fraud: everyone has to show a driver's license" gets proposed, and the listener thinks, "Voter fraud would be very bad. I have a driver's license. Pretty much everyone does, don't they? Sounds good to me."

My formerly liberal cousin said, "Why shouldn't I buy health insurance from Texas and make them compete?" Again: "competition lowers prices, so more competition is good." No problem. I then asked him if there was collusion and if the Standard Oil effect would occur or merger mania like the banks. He hadn't considered that before, but he figured there was no competition now, so how bad would it be? I then asked him about bank influence in Congress now that there are only five of them.

Tolerating their rage

Should we be the bigger women and men? Well, yes, but that usually just means being the bigger sucker.

No yore awe dance
I suppose it means knowing why your uncle or sister is blowing steam out of every hole and emitting a moaning shriek that has sent the animals to their dens and set the local monastery to its prayers. If you have on your hands a Party Faithful, then that person is sure already -- long before this election -- that everything you are aligned with is thieving, stealing, and sapping strength for misbegotten ideals.

I would like to think that most of us find ourselves across from folks who have gotten a gullet of rage radio or simple solutions to complex problems. If the former, all I know how to do is duck (and hope that duck isn't on the menu). Since reason won't be involved in the construction of the complaint, your answer won't work, whatever it is.
Try this:

"Bob, you ever notice that those radio guys want you to be upset? Seriously, that's how they make their money. They're not getting elected, and they're rich, so what's it to them? They just want you really angry, and anger is a bad thing for a holiday."
Also, though, watch out for something else: if someone is arguing from convictions and morality, please don't try to make that person look foolish. That person's positions come from concerns over behavior and society, and anything you do that doesn't respect the other person's basic commitment to wanting a better world is a disservice and a failure. Reason may not guide us to the best solution, but conversation can help.

Reminding each other of the need for humility and the fallibility of we Yahoos never hurts, either.

Originally posted to A Frayed Knot on Wed Nov 21, 2012 at 11:34 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

Your Email has been sent.