Wednesday, November 15, 2006

American Pragmatism versus Authoritarianism

My uncle was a bomber pilot in World War II. He didn't choose to be a bomber pilot. He got word that he was about to receive his notice to report for a physical so he looked at his engineering degree and headed for the Army Air Corp. During his training, they taught him to fly his plane as if he were driving a bus to Berlin. Or so he says. I've seen some of his military record and know a good part of what he's told over the years is true. But he never could resist a little embellishment.

But I do know that during my uncle's first mission, he decided that his odds of surviving his tour of duty had been somewhat exaggerated. My uncle is a conventionally religious man but he decided to take up the religion of hard practice just in case he hadn't covered all his bases or didn't understand precisely what his maker wanted of him.

So he practiced. He drilled his crew. Soon other crews wanted to practice with him. By his last five missions, he was the lead pilot for a thousand planes. And surviving. He even 'misinterpreted' an order once because if he had followed it literally, a lot more of our planes would have gone down (the order was later rescinded).

My uncle freely admits he was lucky to survive the war. He knew many people who did not. But he did everything in his power to improve his odds. He looked at the evidence and thought things through. He noticed the Germans were always changing their antiaircraft tactics. So he always kept changing his, and always had a Plan B if things didn't go so well. The more missions he flew, the more people there were who depended on his skills and judgment. And it took a toll on him. But he did his job, and did the best he could to accept the responsibility.

Now the real world of politics and complicated societies don't always yield nice engineering solutions (and no one should think that's how my uncle saw it during World War Two) but if the facts stare you in the face, it's easier to see a way to dealing with issues. Facts are important. When people start hiding the facts, our nation has a problem. Here's a story by Kelpie Wilson from Truthout about an attempt by the Bush Administration to bury the facts:
... In August, under the guise of fiscal responsibility, the Bush Environmental Protection Agency began closing most of its research libraries, both to the public and to its own staff.

The EPA's professional staff objected strongly, insisting that closing the libraries would hamstring them in their jobs. In a letter to Congress protesting the closures, public employees said, "We believe that this budget cut is just one of many Bush administration initiatives to reduce the effectiveness of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and to continue to demoralize its employees."

The EPA's precipitous move to close the libraries was based on a $2 million cut in Bush's proposed $8 billion EPA budget for 2007. EPA bureaucrats did not wait to see if Congress might restore the funds or shift budget priorities in order to save the libraries; it acted immediately to box up documents for deep storage, and shut the doors.

While the official EPA line is that all of the documents will be eventually be digitized and made available online, this will cost money that the agency does not have, so for practical purposes, all of the thousands of reports and maps that now exist only on paper or microfiche will be lost to the public and to agency scientists. They might as well just burn them. ...


Just before the election, Barbara Boxer and other senators sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee calling for restored access to the libraries. There is every reason to hope that the Democrats will follow through with their newly won power and get those libraries reopened. ...

Let's hope the Democrats waste no time getting the EPA information reopened and back in their libraries. And let's hope Democrats can get a whole lot of other information on the table. A government can't function properly unless it is informed. The last thing most Republican rubber stampers in Congress wanted the last number of years was to be informed.

The problem is the Democrats only control Congress and just barely; there are still people in the Bush Administration, Bush included, who do not want to be informed. They think they have all the answers.

A month ago, John Dean of FindLaw wrote about authoritarians in relation to Bush advisers who had been hired to handle faith-based issues and who apparently discovered that they were not held in high regard:
David Kuo, the former deputy-director of the Bush White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, recently published a book, Tempting Faith. The book's most controversial claim is that members of the Bush administration have been privately trashing some of the very Religious Right leaders who helped put them in power.


Altemeyer is a Yale-trained social psychologist who teaches and pursues his research at the University of Manitoba. Altemeyer has studied authoritarianism for the past 40 years, and is considered by his peers to be a leading authority on the subject, not to mention a cutting-edge researcher in the field.

Those who have read my latest book, Conservatives Without Conscience, will be familiar with his work, and the fact that I have been encouraging him to write about his research for the general reader. (I also discussed the theory of authoritarian leadership, in conjunction with the Bush Administration, in a prior column.) Happily, Altemeyer has recently completed a book-length work, The Authoritarians, which provides a non-technical account of his findings, suitable for the general reader.

Based on my exchanges with Altemeyer, I have assembled the following Q & A:


[Altemeyer:] ... There are people who become leaders in authoritarian movements, and there are their followers. The leaders have stronger drives for personal power and they are also pretty amoral. Compared with most folks, they admit, when answering surveys anonymously, that manipulating others, exploiting the gullible, intimidating, cheating, and being a hypocrite are all justified if they get you what you want. They say one of the best skills a person can develop is the ability to look someone straight in the eye and lie convincingly. They say the world is full of suckers who deserve to be "taken" because they are so stupid.


[Altemeyer:] ... Q: Why do these authoritarians follow amoral, hypocritical, deceitful liars?

A: Because of one of their great vulnerabilities, which the manipulative dominators exploit. Authoritarian followers have basically copied the ideas of the authorities in their lives. They haven't thought about things to any great degree and then decided what they believe in. To maintain their beliefs in a world of challenging discoveries and conflicting beliefs, they associate as much as possible with others who agree with them. They travel in small circles, getting booster shots of faith from one another. They rely upon social support, rather than evidence or logic, to keep on believing what in many cases they've simply memorized. But this makes them quite vulnerable to manipulators who tell them what they want to hear.

Great. The followers don't want to think and our president doesn't want to think. People want our government to be bipartisan and so far Bush is telling them what they want to hear. But there are signs that Bush intends to be anything but bipartisan. Democrats should not be the first to throw bipartisanship out the window but they should be prepared for a president who is notorious for the disconnect between what he says and what he does. Americans have been slowly learning in the last five years that George W. Bush is not the most trustworthy man in town and hopefully the lesson has been learned. Still, the American people should expect some hard work ahead in the next two years.


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