Monday, October 13, 2008

The Smears Hit Home

Politics often make me angy. Fox News often makes me even angrier. But it's pretty rare that either makes me legitimately upset.

Then I saw this. I warn you, this is not for those with a weak stomach:

Obviously this makes me sick. It should make anyone sick. But sometime while I was watching this, a truly horrifying thought drifted through my head:

Oh my god. My dad is watching this.

It was a little like when you look at a burning building and realize someone is still inside. It's all too easy to dismiss Fox News and write off its viewers. It's a lost cause, a bastion of rednecks and fools, a discredited cesspool of hopelessly biased talk for by and for the brainwashed. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

But three million people watch this garbage, and more to the point, my dad is one of them. And my dad is going to believe every word. There's nothing I can say or do, no way I can pull him out of the burning building. He simply does not and never will trust me, the New York Times,, any of it, as much as he trusts Sean Hannity.

My dad is not an inherently political creature, nor a lifelong conservative. He just started listening to O'Reilly and Hannity and all of those assholes on the radio some years back, and thought they were pretty entertaining. Opinionated and argumentative, these guys sound great to people with unsophisticated political views. Now, he watches them every night. He's utterly brainwashed.

And I wrote this off. He's in New York, so his vote doesn't really count (thanks, electoral college!), and having an argument with my dad is an excruciating experience in the best of circumstances. So what the hell. In the end, it's basically harmless, right?

But then you see something like this, and it doesn't seem harmless at all. In recent weeks we've seen McCain's rallies devolve into truly scary lynch mobs. McCain, at least, seems unnerved by the strain of hate he's seeing, but Sean Hannity apparently has no such moral compass. This goes beyond letting a crazy person* spread lies on TV. That's basically par for the Fox News course. What Hannity is doing is fostering a racially-charged fear of a man who could be the first black president of the United States. I never used to believe that Obama was going to be assassinated, but given the current tenor of McCain rallies, it seems scarily plausible. That Hannity is fomenting this stuff, letting a certifiable nutjob say on TV that Obama was "training for a radical overthrow of the government," kind of makes him a king among scumbags.

Nor are McCain's hands clean in this. Like I said, he seems somewhat horrified by what he's wrought, but make no mistake, he wrought it. Blather about Jeremiah Wright is titillating, but relatively harmless. But when no less a person than your vice-presidential candidate tells the world that your opponent has been "palling around with terrorists," you've taken things to a different level. You are making of your opponent a boogeyman, a black (no, Arab!) terrorist.

Of course, thanks to Hannity's special guest, they also believe he's a Secret Muslim.**

These things do not go away when McCain (knock on wood) loses the election. For a certain segment of America, for the three million people who watch Hannity's show, for my dad, the President will be a secret Muslim uppity black terrorist who hates America.

That someone has gone out of their way to create this alternate reality for so many Americans infuriates me. That this other America will be lurking alongside us for years terrifies me.

That my Dad will be among those masses truly depresses me.

Dad. If you are reading this - and I know, you found this blog once - I am begging you not to believe this. This is not reality.

In reality, Barack Obama was just an innocuous community organizer, guilty of nothing more than having a kind of thin resume.

In reality, Barack Obama is a Christian.

In reality, Sean Hannity is the world's biggest douchenozzle.


*And make no mistake, the guy is crazy. The NYT ran a full story on Andy Martin this morning in which we learn that, among other things that:

1). He couldn't become a lawyer because the bar psychologist found in him a
"moderately severe character defect manifested by well-documented ideation with a paranoid flavor."
2). In one of his many futile political campaigns, he had a committee whose officially documented purpose was "to exterminate Jewish power."
3). He's filed so many frivolous lawsuits that he is barred from doing so in Federal court.

** Yes, the NYT gives Martin credit for beginning that delightful smear.

1 comment:

Greg said...

I just want you to know: you're not alone. I was just talking to my dad, and he said something that made it pretty obvious he doesn't believe that Obama's relationship with Ayers was/is harmless. Thanks, Fox News: I had been feeling lately like journalism was uncharacteristically responsible.

I'd like to share with you what disturbs me most about this whole thing. There is a very obvious difference between real TV news and fake TV news: cheesy dramatic music. It's a difference so simple Pavlov's dog could learn it. And yet we humans, with brains far superior to those of our canine friends, cannot wrap our heads around such simple, consistent logic. Rather, we are simultaneously confounded by both our emotions and the machinations of our brains.

See, before we ever get to ponder the differences in presentation between fake TV news and real TV news, we hear that music, which evokes an emotional, primal response, and those neurons fire off signals much sooner than the logical, rational, thinky-neurons way up in the front. So before we can sit back and consider that such an overly dramatized presentation probably indicates that the information itself is being [gasp!] overly dramatized, the music has us engaged. This story is automatically compelling, regardless of its content. Mankind: 0, dissonant chords: 1.

And that actually isn't the worst part, because it can be overcome with a little post-processing -- once the segment ends, we're free to consider the information presented and conclude that, "Hey, that all sounds a little over the top." But wait! There's more...

When presented with information, a number of factors combine to determine the overall impact it will have on our internal models of "the truth:" its consistency with what we already regard as true, our willingness or desire to believe it, and, if it gets past those filters, maybe we'll consider it from a logical standpoint (plus maybe there are some other factors too; whatever). In addition to this, the brain is lazy and likes to use shortcuts, and one of its favorite shortcuts is clustering. We find patterns in anything and everything, regardless of how much information there is from which to build them. We love clustering data and finding patterns because clusters reduce complexity, making them far easier for the brain to deal with than raw information. Have a new data point? Hold on, let me just shove that into a category I've seen before because then I already know how to process it, no real thought required.

So where am I going with this? I'm trying to present a high-level, and possibly conjecture-heavy, metacognitive explanation for some of the phenomena that come painfully to light during election season: things like why anyone could possibly believe that stupid Fox News clip. Here we go...

People are pre-disposed to believe that which aligns with what they already believe. This is a useful trait when building truth about one's environment from sensory input: you can't build a concept of truth if you let every piece of information in, regardless of how conflicting, and if you can't build truth, then you can't expect or predict, and these are some of the key foundations of self-supervised learning. Basically, we wouldn't be intelligent if we didn't behave like this. Furthermore, people are pre-disposed to believe that which they already want to believe. I think this is the manifestation of emotion gumming up the works of reason. But all of this figuring out if we believe stuff can be hard work, so our brains institute a little clustering. When the inputs are "facts" from various sources, one of the most obvious features on which to build categories is the source. Why expend all that effort to determine if we believe every little piece of information, when we can just decide if we trust the source?

So, Kev, I think what's really, truly disturbing about this Fox News Obama segment is not that three million Americans watched it and probably believed it, and it's not that two of them were quite likely our dads. It's that before most of those three million Americans were even consciously aware that they just decided to flip over to Fox News, some little switch in some part of their subconscious brains went off and said, "Everything I'm about to hear is true."

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