Monday, October 18, 2010

Things people believe

Well, there's no denying it now, campaign season is upon us. You noticed, right? The election coming in two weeks and a day?

Some wonder if the campaigning ever ended, others are so exhausted with perennial lies and blather that they've flipped the la-la-la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you switch.

Here in California, tied-for-332nd-richest-in-the-U.S. candidate for governor Meg Whitman has, last I checked, put $119 million of her own money into a campaign to defeat Jerry Brown (who is a former governor, son of a former governor, former Mayor of Oakland, and current Attorney General, but who didn't make the Forbes 400 list).

In this largest state in the union, it's only possible to ignore the campaign if you (a) turn off the radio; (b) turn off the TV; (c) refuse to answer the phone at any hour; (d) stay away from the internet; (e) don't even think about newspapers; (f) let the mailbox overflow. That is to say, it's impossible.

And paying attention to some of the BS being peddled as Facts One Should Know strikes a person with wonder. I mean, who believes that stuff in campaign ads? Sometimes, dazed and confused by the o so many media channels, I wonder about that. And then I think again.

Consider The Onion. Not the bulb, but the newspaper. The Onion published one of their best parodies ever on 22 September, titling it Poll: 1 In 5 Americans Believe Obama Is A Cactus. There you have it, in an onion skin.

I mean, if a person is willing to believe that a native U.S. citizen was born in Kenya, a neo-liberal capitalist is a socialist, or a practicing Christian is a Muslim -- let alone all this about the same neo-liberal, capitalist, Christian U.S. citizen, if you know who I mean -- why not believe a POTUS is, as The Onion put it, "a water-retaining desert plant"?

The very next day, the New York Times published an article titled Recalls Become a Hazard for Mayors. Michael Cooper reported that recalled-mayor Daniel Varela Sr. of Livingston, California "was booted from office last month in a landslide recall election" because he "had the temerity to push through the small city's first water-rate increase in more than a decade to try to fix its aging water system, which he said spewed brownish, smelly water from rusty pipes."

Hmmmm. Fixing broken infrastructure. Isn't that what we elect mayors to do?

What does the recalled mayor have to say for himself? "Those are unpopular things, not things that anyone likes to do, but sometimes in a community you have to step up and do what has to be done," Mr. Littlefield said. "I hope that the recall environment does not become so pervasive that it discourages people from doing the right thing."

I'm not saying that running crooks out of office isn't ever the right thing to do. As a citizen of the state that contains the city of Bell within it's borders, that would be foolish. Have you heard about that Orange County locale's Mayor Victor Bello -- a case of nominative determinism if I ever saw one -- and his city manager Robert Rizzo? Rizzo stands accused of siphoning even more than the $800,000 (sic!) salary he was paid to run a city of 40,000 (ack!!). According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "the complaint said Rizzo made $4.3 million by paying himself through different employment contracts that were not approved by the City Council."

The mind reels.

But look again at the Times article: "Over the last two years, failed recall campaigns have sought the ouster of mayors in Akron, Ohio; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Flint, Mich.; Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; and Toledo, Ohio, among other cities. Next month the voters of North Pole, Alaska, 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle, will vote on whether to recall their mayor."

What kool-aid are people swallowing that is causing them to kick up that much dust? Remember, people, we live in a nominal democracy. These mayors were elected. And they face re-election, every four years in most cases, sometimes two. Sure, there are exceptions to the general rule that it makes sense to wait 'til it's time to vote laggards out of office. But ... so many exceptions? All at once?

The sad fact is that people swallow kool-aid in a lot of flavors, both here in the U.S. and internationally. Some of the new century's favorite flavors:

  • Same-sex couples who marry are a threat to heterosexual relationships
  • Nothing consequential will happen if humans continue to burn lakes of oil and mountains of coal, and dump tens of thousands of tons of plastic into the deep blue sea
  • A few cranks disagree with thousands of educated scientists -- whose desirable, professional standing depends on their impartial evaluation of empirical evidence about climate change -- and this constitutes a 'rift' in the scientific community
  • Eliminating federal estate tax and lowering taxes paid by earners of more than $250,000 per year is going to improve the lives of 99.9% of taxpayers who will get the short end of the stick if former-Prezident Shrub's tax cuts are made permanent (Paul Krugman calls this a "War on Arithmetic").

Of course, the twenty-first century isn't the first in which people proved P.T. Barnum's point (though it may have been someone else's) that there's a sucker born every minute. In the previous century, we had a senator from Wisconsin who believed the U.S. government was 'riddled' with communists, and, with millions of suckers at his back, ruined thousands of lives. Before him, we had The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a plagiarized pastiche of satire framed as antisemetic lies and peddled by hateful liars.

Heck, in the 17th century people paid guilders for tulip bulbs that would have bought as much as 50,000 pounds of butter in the shop next door.

Modern fascination with Holland's Tulip Mania is discussed in a book published in 1841 by Charles Mackay, a copy of which was given to me by a friend a couple of decades back. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, more recently published as Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, is great stuff if you're a misanthrope. If not, the volume might just convert you.

Don't forget to vote next month! If you fail to exercise your franchise as a citizen, imagine what extraordinary delusions will carry the day.

Thanks to CharlesFred for the flowers.

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