Why Do Politicians Act Like Children?

Politicians. What is wrong with them? They are supposed to be the best we’ve got. Government matters. So why, why, why do they keep giving me flashbacks of highschool? No. Primary school. Wait… he said what? Damn. Kindergarten?!

Arghhhh!

Why do politicians act like children?!

Well, as experts on children are quick to point out, most kids are actually better than that. Get it right dude.

Oh.

Okay.

Why are politicians acting so immaturely that calling them children is an insult to children?!

Arghhh!

Well… power perennially summons up certain beasts.  An ego the size of Mars is a good motivator to enter politics in the first place. That explains the toddler tantrums.

Politics is also a twisty business. Compromises. Machiavellian plots. From the outside it all looks like chaos and stupidity.

More importantly, politics cuts to the core  – identity, purpose, money. Politics pits opposing sides against each other. It triggers some instinctive craziness show-down reflex: two groups of baboons throwing poo at each other. It’s going to get messy. Throw in some polarization, or some chest-thumping ideologies and you’ve got a giant fracas of offense, irrationality, and day-time news. And fist fights. For real.

Yet, the biggest cause may be that thing we value most. In a monarchy the leader must exude god-like glory. Childishness is unbecoming. In a dictatorship the leader must live surrounded by an oil-slick of fear. Childishness is weakness. In a democracy…

Talk, talk, talk, and opinion polls.

Things get nutty. The leader must win elections. British politician Boris Johnson (foolishly?) gave us an insight into political campaigning by revealing Dead Cat Theory:

“Let us suppose you are losing an argument. …Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate”.

That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

Who’s that great Aussie campaigner he’s referring to? Probably Lynton Crosby. This Wizard of Oz has gained a reputation for campaigns that claw at the chair legs of society. Tornado-through-a-cattery amounts of dead cats. Whether or not his reputation is justified Crosby does believe one thing: people never vote based on policy. They vote out of emotion.

Therefore erudite discussions of flat versus progressive tax structures are pointless. Appeal to identity. Appeal to the gut. Appeal to whatever gets the key voters going – even if that’s a fear of immigrants.

Indeed, a vast array of competing policies is way too complicated for even well educated voters to grasp. Better, say people like Crosby, to tell a very simple story. Clown-like Donald Trump was no mindless buffoon when he endlessly chanted ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. This was strategy. Give ’em a choice: do you want greatness or a crook?

So the conundrum circles around. Politicians act like children because they believe we vote like children. When you hear childish madness you are hearing the well researched prejudices of your nation being fed back to itself. You get what you vote like – emotional and irrational.

This strategizing can get deep-nasty. Negative messages stick in the emotional gullet. Rile them up. Push the hot-buttons. And, never forget, anarchy is smart-weapon.

Wedge politics involves using controversial issues to fragment your opponents. Find an internal disagreement. Stab it. The opposition will spiral into vitriolic internal debates. Hopefully the losing side will be so pissed off they leave and join other parties. Chaos, anger, and insults – in exactly the right place.

The battleaxe of attack politics is the scandal. Virulent ad hominem attacks. Insults. Innuendo. Denigration. Lies. Hacks. Leaks. Scandals can be used to remove people from office, take them out of the race, and destroy, destroy, destroy.

Politics becomes the Thunderdome.

Two men enter!

One man leaves!

Two men enter!

One man leaves…!

As Boris kindly pointed out, you do this kind of stuff when you’re losing. Just pile-drive that other guy into the floor, and the voters will have no choice but to choose you. Voters do deserve to know the bad news too, but taken too far this tactic creates a political world in which only two kinds of people truly belong – psychopaths and sadists. I don’t know if they’re childish, but they sure aint models of maturity. Their politics becomes so off-putting decent people prefer not to touch it, voters disengage, and the attack-artists are left to grow like fungus on a dead cat.

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole

Boris Johnson in the Telegraph accusing other people of using Dead Cat Theory, here.

A free master class with Crosby, on Youtube here.

When Politicians Attack, action shots from ABC, here. (By attack, we’re talking fists to the face.)

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

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Would Jesus Work as a Christian Politician?

Read the Gospels and one thing quickly becomes apparent: Jesus looks like a hippy. He gave up his worldly possessions, traveled the country with his friends, talked endlessly about love, and peace, and forgiveness, and the end of the world. He criticized the authorities, broke the rules, hung out with poor people, and beat financial traders with a whip.

In short, Jesus looks nothing like a Christian politician.

Look at Christian politicians and one thing quickly becomes apparent: they are overwhelmingly right-wing. They are often wealthy. They talk a lot about war, and fear, and crime, and the end of the world. Their policies favor the rich and powerful, and when you do catch them hanging out with a prostitute they aint giving her a Bible lesson.

Of course, these views of Jesus and Christian politics are caricatures. Jesus would hardly have been into free-love, and plenty of Christian politics is about peace. Yet, these caricatures exist for good reason.

So why does Christian politics get so… unchristian?

It’s all about power.

To get power you need to make alliances. Making alliances forces groups to work together despite their differences. These differences lead to a lot of contradictions.

Typically,  on the Left, socialist leaning economics have teamed up with social progressives – a platform of free health care and gay marriage. Meanwhile, on the Right, free-market economics teamed up with social conservatives (often Christians) – a platform of tax cuts and abortion bans.

These alliances can occur within one person’s head, yet they are still combinations of choice rather than necessity. Our own local teams tend to have such ingrained identities that it’s easy to forget that the teams can be arranged in different ways. Yet take a look at other times and places and you’ll soon find economic conservatives advocating gay marriage, and socialists promoting family values. Many key ‘Christian’ policies, are actually the result of alliances. Hence why these policies can end up contradicting Jesus.

Next, what should a Christian do with power? Jesus never gave policy advice. The political entity he cared about was the Kingdom of God – and that seems to involve a lot of stuff that’s pretty hard for a merely mortal government to do. Should the army “Turn the other cheek”? Should the justice system apply the principle of “He who is without sin cast the first stone”? These questions have been giving Christians headaches for centuries. Thankfully the Bible has so much more than just Jesus. A common answer is to forget about Jesus and ask someone from the Old Testament. What would Moses do? Turns out Moses was the kind of leader that Machiavelli admired. Hence why some Christians are more into war and executions, than peace and love.

Speaking of Machiavelli we have another problem. Power corrupts. At the very least power is ethically compromising. As Machiavelli pointed out, being a good person doesn’t necessarily make you a good ruler. Sometimes you have to kill people. Yet, even good people want the power to do good things. As a result Christians have swung back and forth between two extremes: total political disengagement, and theocratic power grabs. In the USA some Christians have been visibly hanging around the grabby end of the spectrum for a while, hence all the ethical dubiousness.

Lastly, while religion doesn’t always want to get into politics, politics always wants to get into religion. The source of all political power is belief – getting people to believe that you ought to be in charge. And no one does belief like religion. Everyone from the Divine Pharaohs, to the Divine Caesars, to the divinely mandated Emperors of China, to the divinely chosen kings of Europe, to “I love the Bible” Trump has decided to tap into the political power of religion. You don’t have to be religious to play this game, in fact it’s better if you’re not. Hence more hypocrisy. And with Christianity that hypocrisy is all the worse for one simple fact: Jesus’s main claim is that he is king, not you. Awkward.

 

 

Further Down the Rabbit-hole:

For an example of a Christian political agenda see the Christian Coalition’s site, here. Note the frequency of policies with no direct connection to Christianity that aren’t very “Jesusy” e.g. boosting the military.

For an example of different places leading to different policy combos that might be political suicide elsewhere, see a New Zealand conservative politician’s viral “Big gay rainbow” speech on YouTube Here. Watch him discuss how this works with being conservative and still getting elected in NZ, here (at 2.36). (In essence, NZ conservatives don’t need fundamentalist Christian allies. Also, due to NZ’s voting system political Christians find it easier to start new parties than fuse themselves to existing ones. Republican + Religious Right style alliances don’t happen in NZ.)

For an example of how the Bible’s political models don’t automatically lead you to meekness and sweetness, read about Machiavelli’s take on Moses as an ideal leader, including the role of religion in power, in “Moses and Machiavellism” by Steven Marx. Here.

 

 

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

The News is Serious Business. It’s Hilarious.

We have a strange situation. The news has been overrun by comedians. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee…. A lot of people are relying on comedians for their news, despite the comedians repeatedly saying “We don’t do news!” The term “comedic journalism” has even been invented to explain this apparently new phenomena: comedians doing news.

Why do the comedians keep resisting the label of journalism when they look suspiciously like they are doing journalism? The answer is simple.

It’s not journalism.

It’s satire.

Close, but different.

All the claims of journalism, comedic journalism, or something new going on here are missing the mark. The current popularity of John Oliver or the Daily Show might be new, but satire is old. Very old. And it’s not journalism.

Imagine a cliché ye olde King’s court.

On one side of the throne is the herald. On the other side is the jester. The herald reads the news. The jester makes fun of it. The herald tells things as they are supposed to be. The jester tells things as they are not supposed to be. The herald proclaims the latest victory in battle. The jester points out that it was such a great victory that even the enemy is celebrating.

Satire isn’t like other forms of comedy, which is why people keep confusing it for journalism.  Satire is about the real world. Satire is always, deep down, serious stuff. Humor isn’t even in the definition. Satire is a form of social investigation, a probing, a prodding, a pulling at the threads, trying to figure out what’s really going on underneath. Satire exposes our illusions, and cuts quick to the heart of how society really works. Satire baits the powerful into exposing their own absurdity, like when Bill Maher made a joke about Donald Trump, and Trump sued him. The issue at stake: was Trump’s father an orang-utan? Trump says no.

Satire can even tell the future:

Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over’

 January 17, 2001 – The Onion

September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the financial crash hadn’t even happened yet. That’s the power of satire.

In contrast, journalism’s job is to report what happened. Simply. Objectively. Dispassionately. This can involve speaking truth to power, and it can involve reinforcing power. Satire, however, is always on the attack.

The herald and the jester might occasionally agree, but their jobs are very different. So why are people turning away from the herald, and towards the jester? The circumstances that would cause that to happen are not hard to figure out: people will prefer the jester when the herald’s truth sounds like bullshit, and the jester’s bullshit sounds like truth.

The heralds these days must have been speaking a lot of bullshit.

 

 

Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Watch John Oliver denying the repeated allegations of journalism. Here.

The Onion’s 2001 mock article on George Bush. Here.

Watch Bill Maher discussing his lawsuit with Trump. Here.

For some extreme cases of people not able to tell the difference between satire and journalism see literallyunbelievable.org.

 

 

© Under Obvious, 2016.

Is Post-truth True?

Whenever you say, “I live in a post-truth world.” you prove yourself wrong. You can say “we”, you can say “they”, but you can’t say “I”.

Why?

“Post-truth” is used to describe a world in which facts don’t matter. Emotion trumps truth. Yet, to say “post-truth” means that you care enough about the truth to point out the truth of post-truth, and that you have enough truth to decide that post-truth is true, all of which is very un-post-truth of you. Therefore, every time you describe our age as post-truth, you in some small way disprove yourself. Unless of course you are only using the word “post-truth” as an emotional wrecking ball, in which case you just proved post-truth is true.

It gets worse.

The sudden popularity of the word “post-truth” may simultaneously create and destroy the world it describes. Let’s start with the creation – “post-truth” leading to less truth.

1) Dividing the world into two eras, a “post-truth” and a pre-Trump “truth”, obscures the truth. Politics has been theatre for some time. Remember the Iraq war? Society and the media drifted off into a fantasy land of WMD and Al-Qaeda connections. In 2005 Stephen Colbert coined “Truthiness” to point out the same thing. The word “post-truth” was coined in 1992 by a writer describing what he called “Watergate Syndrome”: a preference for wilful ignorance.

Trump’s so-wrong-it’s-not-lying style is also not new. It’s called bullshit. That’s “bullshit” in the technical sense of the term. In 1986, Harry Frankfurt wrote “On Bullshit” pointing out the kind of talk where the concern is not with truth or untruth, but with impact. Trump is a bullshitter par excellence. And Bullshit is an art form as old as humanity.

2) If you believe the other side cares about truth, then you will try engage with them. But if you think the other side has gone “post-truth”? The solutions become rather different.

Drugs?

Hugs?

Bullets?

Yet both sides seem to believe in truth. We have at least two big problems that will get worse if “post-truth” becomes a conversation stopping label:

  • Historically, social networks have underpinned all manner of bizarre rumors. What’s new is that we are in a world of global hyper-rumors, spreading through splintered networks which never listen to each other.
  • On the right are many people who can be described as having a “Right-wing Authoritarian” personality which is defined by hostility, conformity, and over-submission to authority. Finding the truth consists of listening to the leader, copying your neighbor, and kicking the crap out of the enemy. The rise of post-truth represents not the decline of a concern about truth, but the mobilization of a block of people who are very easily misled. And when they’re led by a bullshit artist…. Some one has to keep them in touch with reality.

3) Point out all the bullshit and people will see bullshit everywhere. Trust in all sources of media will fall. Where will these people go? Some will retreat to the people they trust: their social circle, the world of hyper-rumor.

Now for the destruction. “Post-truth” reveals an extraordinary concern with truth. Fact checkers are popular. The big online players may start putting “truth” into the algorithms. The need for critical thinking skills, real journalism, and verified facts is being spotlighted like never before.  A fish doesn’t care about water until it’s on land. We didn’t care about truth until Trump.

In summary “post-truth” reveals the power of language. Naming is an act of creation. Not only of a word, but of a reality. What world the word “post-truth” will help create remains to be seen. If we are lucky, “post-truth” will destroy post-truth.

 

Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Watch Colbert on Post-truth vs Truthiness, plus some examples of a post-truth world in action. Here.

The Nation revisits 1992’s lesson on post-truth. Here.

Watch Harry Frankfurt discussing bullshit. Here.

Bob Altemeyer’s book on authoritarian personalities. Available for free here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2016.