24 November 2020

Deprogramming Trumpanzees for fun and profit

[I suspect not many people will be convinced by my main point here.  I'm writing this more in a spirit of hoping that ten or fifteen years from now, some readers will recall this post and think, "well whaddaya know, he was right."]

Since the election, a common theme on liberal blogs has been, "How the hell are we going to deprogram these people?"  Some large chunk of the US population, evidently in the tens of millions, has been brainwashed into what I call the "fever dream" -- an alternate reality of conspiracy theories, bizarre baseless beliefs, cultish loyalty to Trump, fantasies of armed violence, disdain for science and logic, hostility toward anyone who doesn't subscribe to the alternate reality, and avoidance and rejection of any source of information that contradicts it.  The most prominent and consistent feature of the fever dream is a sustained tone of hysteria and paranoia -- it's less a belief system than an attitude.

Getting so many people out of this state of mind seems impossible.  How do you argue with or persuade people who dismiss logic, insist on made-up facts, reject any conflicting source of information as "fake news", believe almost everything outside their own alternate reality is part of some vast evil conspiracy -- and cling to all this with the kind of fanatical passion normally associated with religious cults?  Surely it can't be done.  Experience shows it's pointless to try.  Many cultists will abandon and attack even figures they trusted who turn against the fever dream in some way.  Some cling to a cherished delusion like "covid-19 is a hoax" even while dying of it.

But deeply-held beliefs and attitudes, even religious ones, can change, and surprisingly fast.  We've seen it happen.  A couple of decades ago the taboo on homosexuality was still deeply entrenched in the US; today it has eroded to such an extent that even gay marriage, once barely imaginable, is now accepted by at least two-thirds of the US population -- even widely accepted in the South.  Preachers who still rant against homosexual "sin" are generally seen as fringe bigots similar to the KKK.  Twenty years ago "nones", people with no religion, were negligible in numbers in the US and often viewed as weird and suspect.  Last time I checked, we've reached 26% of the population and still growing fast -- and in some parts of the country and some social levels, being non-religious is not only accepted but practically the default assumption.  (Comparable changes are also happening in seemingly-unpromising places like the Arab world.)

This is more relevant than you might think.  I've argued before that the ultimate roots of the wingnut fever dream mentality are religious.  For decades fundies and their ilk have cultivated a disdain for science and evidence and expertise in order to preserve their belief in concepts like creationism, Noah's flood, and a 6,000-year-old Earth which were long ago refuted by science.  Once entrenched, that disdain for evidence was easily expanded to reject global warming, the immutability of sexual orientation, and any other unwanted fact, the latest example being the seriousness of the covid-19 pandemic.  Rejection of evidence to sustain one irrational belief can and will eventually metastasize to sustain any irrational belief a person or population cares to embrace.  Trump didn't cause or start the fever dream -- most of it has been in place for much longer than five years.  It has embraced him because he embraced it, calling it out of the shadows by offering it legitimacy and a high-profile voice, stepping into the role of its advocate, its prophet.

We can't argue tens of millions of people out of this world-view any more than we argued them out of homophobia or argued a quarter of the population away from religion.  People weren't argued into those things in the first place.  Religion and bigotry are mostly imparted in childhood, by parents and community.  The wingnut fever dream was built up and inculcated over time by the dank ecosystem of talk radio, Fox News, and far-right internet sites and forums of varying degrees of lunacy.  Neither case involved logical persuasion or argument.

I've long observed that political junkies are foolish to disdain mass pop culture.  The latter, in one form or another, reaches most of the population, including the substantial majority that doesn't follow politics closely and hardly looks at political news or ads.  If you're not familiar with the case I make on this point, please read this, this, this, this, and this.  The drastic decline of homophobia and religious belief over the last two decades was not mainly caused by people reading and being persuaded by logical arguments against those things.  Rather, they were eroded by the steady, subtle, almost subliminal effect of movies, TV, popular music, etc. presenting gay characters as normal and likeable, showing religious extremists and traditional values and prejudices as weird, comical, or menacing, and otherwise depicting a new reality and set of attitudes as an existing default.  People naturally absorb their attitudes and values from their cultural environment, and pop culture is so vivid, colorful, and attractive that it can to some extent form a kind of substitute cultural environment, swaying those attitudes and values little by little.  Younger people are more malleable to such influences, so the younger generation even in conservative regions of the country has developed more progressive views than their elders, and generational turnover is part of the process of change.

It's a slow process.  It has to be subtle, because people react to being preached at by putting their guard up.  Any hint of explicit politics or argumentation would kill the effect.  It works because pop culture is light, fun, colorful, entertaining, and non-political.  And its reach is nearly universal.  Fundies and Trumpanzees actively avoid MSNBC, CNN, liberal blogs, or anything else that explicitly reminds them of the reality outside the bubble -- but except for those few who are in literal cults, nearly everyone consumes some kind of pop culture.  The global reach and popularity of American (and Japanese) mass culture has even helped foment such changes in attitudes in regions like the Middle East, Latin America, and parts of East Asia.

And the enemy has no power to fight back in kind.  The talent and skill are simply not there.  Efforts to create a countervailing wingnut pop-culture scene -- "Christian movies", "Christian rock", PureFlix, etc. -- have produced nothing but clunky, preachy embarrassments with no appeal beyond the circle of those who already believe.

I believe the people who create and shape mass culture know exactly what they're doing and have a fairly consistent agenda, even if there is no overall leadership or coordination.  It's not a conspiracy; shared values and aesthetics make a conspiracy unnecessary.  Dismantling the wingnut alternate-reality bubble hasn't been a priority, but now that the Trump episode has made clear the magnitude of the danger lurking in the hinterlands, I expect that we'll start to see the same kinds of influences and imagery that have been eroding homophobia and fundamentalism brought to bear against the various delusions and attitudes which comprise that threat.  It won't be fast.  It won't be obvious.  It will hardly be noticeable.  But over time -- not with all of them, but with many -- it will work.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

When you started with this:
"an alternate reality of conspiracy theories, bizarre baseless beliefs, cultish loyalty to Trump, fantasies of armed violence, disdain for science and logic, hostility toward anyone who doesn't subscribe to the alternate reality, and avoidance and rejection of any source of information that contradicts it"

It seems insurmountable. Really. The religulous mind (and the conservative mind at large) love the idea of totalitarianism. It fulfills the dream of being able to give up responsibility along with the peace of mind that comes with always finding a scapegoat. But you are right, attitudes shift. Slowly but surely. The Nones and same sex marriage are good examples. Here's for change.

I just hope it does not take twenty years. Ugh.


24 November, 2020 04:38  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

This is enlightening and optimistic; and from my personal view, true.

My own experience is in seeing understanding, acceptance, and change in my and my own extended family (with the exception of my Trumper brother who lives in Tennessee).

I'm first generation Italian (My blognym is a pun.) and yet through my own grandchildren and those of my siblings and their children, we've embraced gay marriage of a niece, a gay nephew, a transgender grandchild, and less controversial now, but what would have been so in an immigrant Italian family, a bi-racial grandchild, and my own grandson's and a sister's granddaughter's future marriage to a mixed racial young woman and young man, respectively.

Some of my extended family still embrace religion, but the majority, who were raised Catholic, have left the Church and religion behind (my brother, however, has joined the Evangelical Trumpers.) :(

This is why Infidel753 is correct in saying: "But deeply-held beliefs and attitudes, even religious ones, can change, and surprisingly fast. We've seen it happen."

I've seen it happen in my own lifetime.

24 November, 2020 07:56  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

I absolutely agree with you about the cult nature of the "fever dream," as you call it, and the role of religion in fostering it. I agree as well that pop culture can be a powerful countervailing force. However, I think you overstate its power. In the case of homophobia, its decline resulted from the decades-long mass political action of "coming out" (and bearing all the punishment that came along with that) which taught people that everyone in fact knows someone who is gay. Gays are people's friends, family, sons, daughters, parents, etc. Coming out destroyed the homophobic myth that gay people are rare, exotic, "not like us" and therefore could be safely persecuted as "other." THIS change is what pop culture reflected. Pop culture did not ORIGINATE it. Before the political action and sacrifice of the LGBTQ community, pop culture all too happily reflected and promulgated the homophobic myths.

24 November, 2020 08:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Religion is the Ultimate Conspiracy Theory.

24 November, 2020 08:23  
Blogger Mary said...

This is your best post to date. I am impressed and you speak exactly how I feel. I will keep this and look back in a few years, if I’m still among the living😊

24 November, 2020 08:58  
Blogger anne marie in philly said...

I don't wanna see/hear/touch/smell a trumpturd EVER! they are a waste of DNA; it's like talking to a brick. I wanna crush them all under a steamroller!

24 November, 2020 09:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: Unfortunately such changes do take a long time. We're still in for a few more nail-biter election cycles. The shift of the Republicans toward explicit totalitarianism is alarming, though probably inevitable due to their take-over by the Christian Right. I think it's going to lead to a lot of internal dissension within the right wing, though.

Shaw: Thanks. It's a good example of generational change (not that you yourself are any less enlightened!). Racial attitudes are another example. Some states still banned interracial marriage (!) within my lifetime. It's inconceivable now.

Debra: I should have said explicitly that mass culture isn't the only force of enlightenment at work, and in the West, the kind of "from the bottom up" actions of gay people as you describe certainly played a major role as well. But "from the top down" influences of popular culture also have an effect. There have been varying degrees of improvement in attitudes in regions outside the core Western countries, where such campaigns of visibility by gay people themselves would have been impossible because the local national laws were far too harshly repressive (and in many cases remain so despite advances in tolerance among ordinary people), but where Western and Japanese popular culture are widely followed and have an influence. In the case of deprogramming Trumpanzees, it's hard to see what the equivalent of gay coming-out and visibility would even be, so there's not really an opening for a similar strategy.

Anon: There's a lot of truth in that.

Mary: Thanks! I hope we'll both be among the living for a long time.

Anne Marie: Understandable. The advantage of letting things work out as I describe is that we ourselves don't need to actually do anything. The more we stay away from them the better, for many reasons.

24 November, 2020 10:08  
Blogger Mike said...

"Younger people are more malleable..."
That's why the military wants them to join right out of high school. So they can bend, break, and mold them as they see fit.

24 November, 2020 10:21  
Anonymous NickM said...

I'll second Mary here. An excellent post! I think you tackle a very tricky issue very well. Rates of cultural change do fascinate me and they are somewhat odd. The acceptance of homosexuality as normal is probably an outlier. In a heck of a lot of places (such as England - for the record where I've lived basically all my 47 years) I am astonished at the rate of change. There were 1200 kids at my secondary school and not a single one was openly gay - they'd not have fared well. How long ago did Dr Who introduce openly gay characters? Quite a while back and nobody but utter nutters twisted their panties over Captain Jack. Sometimes things change very quickly. My Mum who was very anti-gay a couple of decades back... Well, the last two weddings she went to were gay weddings. I think she even baked a cake for one of them! But somethings are slower. I suspect religion in some sense is one. People seem more likely to retain attached to the cultural aspects in some ways without actually going to church/mosque/temple/whatever... I know a few "Christians in name only".

24 November, 2020 10:24  
Anonymous anynameleft said...

With hope I want to agree with you.Example I would cite would be those massive infringements of "freedum" such as banning smoking in theatres or seatbelt laws.
Both were opposed at the time of infringements upon an individuals right to engage in risky behavior that others would end up paying for.
Now they are hardly a blip on the Freedum's caucus.

24 November, 2020 13:53  
Blogger Rawknrobyn.blogspot.com said...

I agree with your thoughts on this, Infidel. And I don't think it's a matter of "reprogramming," so much as it's a matter of focusing on kindness and decency. We'll see more of that modeled for us, and hopefully that will take hold on a broad scale.
Be well.

24 November, 2020 15:04  
Blogger Jimmy T said...

Excellent post. Also check out Mahablog's excellent post...


I'm old enough to remember when showing same sex attraction could get a kid institutionalized. Then one day in 1973 The American Psychological Association declared homosexuality to be a normal human condition. Of course the wingers knew the APA was a communist organization, and disputed the assessment with whatever muck they could rake. But the point is/was evolution of thought is a slow process that sometimes takes a big step forward. Same with the "I Spy" TV show starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, that portrayed a black man on a prime time spy show who somehow wasn't playing football. Yeah I know Mr. Cosby fell from grace, but he was the media's face of racial normalization, at a time when the legacy of MLK, Sidney Poitier, and everyone else in on the good fight needed a boost...

There have been serious setbacks along the way. When Reagan was elected much of the GOP refused to deal with the AIDS epidemic, often referring to it as the "Gay Plague," as if it was ok. I worked in a hospital lab at the time and remember a young lawyer couple who were infected. Her previous husband was an IV drug user, she rejected him and found the love of her life. They died a week apart from the "Gay PLague." So it goes...

Also during the Reagan era, the Oregon Citizens Alliance arose, with the sole purpose of spreading propaganda about gay men recruiting children off the school grounds. This was the source of a number of violent attacks against the gay and lesbian community. My parental unit was still alive at the time and went into full conservative evangelical mode. Yes Thanksgiving was interesting in the 1980's...

But I think your point is well taken. We move forward sometimes imperceptibly and struggle to make gains, but looking back at what we've accomplished is remarkable. In retrospect we've taken some big steps...

25 November, 2020 10:01  
Anonymous Esme Cloud said...

Excellent post, so well observed and crafted, and as someone else said, it's a positive, hopeful at least outlook which I applaud as it's also quite plausible. There has been a progression towards what I personally believe something that has the balls to call itself civilization should live up to; it's quite painfully slow for those of us who knew same sex marriage would be legalised and perfectly accepted one day (we aren't quite at that day, which proves my point somewhat) in the same way others knew homosexuality and racial inequality would/will one day get there. There have been huge steps forwards but taken over such a long time (relative I know) they seem as baby steps whilst on rage the fatheads in their indignation at the very concept of people being allowed to love as they wish, look as they wish and be treated on a par with their peers regardless of race, gender, sexuality and onwards, and heaven forbid save the planet and its inhabitants (all of them). Many give not a shiny shilling (would have been a rude word but I'm not on home turf here *tips her hat*) about the future of mankind because they simply want it all now, all the money, the influence the power, the glitter, the perceived glory, and think those who do care for those who shall continue this race (rollercoaster ride - see Bill Hicks) long after they have gone up in smoke are weak and foolish.

In the words of a popular band at present - 'This snowflake's an avalanche.' We just happen to move at a glacial rate.

Forgive any (many likely) mistakes as I find the Blogger format for comments tricky on the eyes.

But then again, I do have tricky eyes.

- Esme Cloud

25 November, 2020 12:45  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mike: It's probably wise to wait to make such a decision.

Nick: Thanks: I think change was slower in the past, but now we have mass media and mass entertainment shaping the cultural landscape, and visual media like TV and movies probably have a stronger effect than purely print media. Religion is a tough nut to crack, but by the time it's reduced to "cultural aspects" without much real belief, it's 90% defanged, and is hardly religion any more at all. Eventually it just becomes a smattering of customs and habits with no real meaning.

Any: Good point. Essentially nobody except the most crazed libertarians complains about restrictions on smoking any more, but I can remember when it was a constant struggle to avoid the stench, just a few decades ago. I've read that Gene Roddenberry came under a lot of pressure from TV executives to show the characters on Star Trek smoking, but he stood firm that he was not going to do it. Just imagine how dated it would look now if Kirk and Spock were smoking cigarettes on the Enterprise!

26 November, 2020 01:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Robyn: I hope kindness and decency prevail eventually. All that hate and rage and fear that the wingnuts seem to be consumed by must get exhausting. Hopefully in the end they'll just get tired of it. Or all have strokes because of it.

Jimmy: Good points. That's another area where Star Trek was innovative, showing an ethnically-mixed future -- today it seems natural, but this was back in the days of the Cold War and segregation. And I remember those attitudes about AIDS being common at the time. Reagan wasn't too far removed from the conventional attitude back then.

I wasn't living in Oregon in the 1980s, but I remember when Multnomah county started allowing gay couples to marry in 2004, only to have it quickly banned in a state-wide referendum. Hard to believe that was only 16 years ago.

Esme: Thanks! That means a lot coming from a poet. I view enlightenment as an ongoing journey -- there's no final state of perfection we'll eventually reach, but things will continue to improve. And the fatheads will continue to rage. But eventually things reach the point where we can laugh at them instead of worrying about them.

Religious nuts often seem to get upset at the thought of other people not feeling miserable and guilt-ridden over harmless things. It's very odd.

26 November, 2020 01:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone else see the irony in using a mosin nagant to "neutralize" the communists?

26 November, 2020 19:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Didn't catch that -- I don't know a lot about guns.

27 November, 2020 03:05  
Anonymous Annie said...

I find this a thoughtful, insightful, and happily optimistic essay. I do agree with Debra She Who Seeks that homosexuality was accepted so readily because it jelled with people’s lived experiences: the pop culture glommed on to sentiments that were becoming evident. I also think it’s important to point out people and incidents that are galvanizing events: Harvey Milk encouraging gay people to leave the uncomfortable safety of the closet; Larry Kramer forcing the public to look directly at the impact of AIDS; and the horrible murder of young Matthew Shepherd. I am hoping in our time, the video images and stories about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others will lead to the kind of lasting changes in social justice that we had hoped the Civil Rights movement had secured. Near term, however, with a Supreme Court that places church attendance above the sanctity of life and a Republican Party bent on obstruction, we know we have our work cut out for us.

27 November, 2020 08:49  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Annie: Thanks. See also my response to Debra -- to understand the causes of change, one needs to look at the range of societies in which it's happening.

The Black Lives Matter movement has won widespread support, but there needs to be a clear proposed solution to the problem that a majority can get behind. That stupid "defund the police" slogan probably cost us a lot of votes. It was like an early Christmas present to the Republicans.

27 November, 2020 21:13  

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