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In a Time of Fear and Loathing: A Letter to My Sons

By Richard F. Parker Jr                                                                           

You have both asked why I am so worried and depressed about this election.  It’s because so many people and groups are using fear and emotion to manipulate the public.  This use of fear and appeal to emotion seem to work very well, because some people do not realize that these appeals often depend on distortions of facts – even misinformation and lies – in order to stoke people’s fears.  So the fear-approach often disparages truth, facts, and rational discourse.  This approach appears to work best among folks who are not very well informed, and whose anxieties, fears, and prejudices are easily aroused by such fear-mongering.

Our country is strong, largely because of our democracy.  A democracy depends entirely on an informed public (or electorate), to remain healthy.  But many studies have shown that our public is not well informed, and that a large portion is quite uninformed.  With increasing levels of misinformation, people are becoming more confused and therefore more easily misled and manipulated.  The implications for our democracy are ominous.

In the 1930’s, Germany allowed a fear-mongering authoritarian to gain control of the government.  He based his appeals on (1) fear (he blamed Germany’s problems on Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals; he scapegoated them), and also on (2) his promises that only he could return the country to past glories.  These appeals worked best with the less informed.  He led Germany down the terrible path to World War II, with totally disastrous consequences, not only for Germany, but also for the world: over 60 million people were killed, and many countries devastated.  There certainly are differences between then and now.  But the parallels between what happened then – with the rise of fascism, Nazism, and Hitler – and what’s happening now, in our own country, are frightful and ominous.

It’s hard for me to understand how so many people in this country can believe they have Christian values, like love and charity for all, and yet so readily resort to fear, intimidation, and abuse.  How can they so often express hateful and hurtful speech and behavior, and encourage intimidation and violence, consistently appealing to our most dark and base instincts?  Why are we not choosing people as leaders who encourage and bring out our best selves, rather than our worst selves?

We have become so polarized, based on fear and loathing, that rational discourse seems impossible.

So it looks to me like a race to the bottom.

And I don’t see any solution on the horizon.  I find that depressing.

If the public were to better understand how our unconscious minds work – for example, that:

  • “We choose the facts we want to believe.”
  • “We assess information in a biased manner and are unaware that we are doing so.”
  • “Because we pick holes in evidence we dislike, and plug holes in evidence we like, the net effect is to amplify disagreement.”

then perhaps we could more easily approach others – those with whom we disagree – with more civility and charity.  And perhaps this might move our discourse to a more rational level, away from intimidation and abuse.

A better-informed public would, I think, better understand: fear and how it is used to manipulate people, how the media contributes (TV, print, radio, and the web), how money in politics contributes, and even how our brains work – especially our unconscious.

You both know how many books I have read about these things. I wish everyone had the time and inclination to read some of the key ones, such as:

  • The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things
  • Merchants of Doubt
  • Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death
  • Breaking the News
  • Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior   (the quotes above came from this book; pages 218, 213, 209)
  • Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
  • What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters
  • The Paranoid Style of American Politics

This would certainly result in a more informed public.

But very few people have the time to do reading like that; they, like you, are busy working, trying to earn a decent living in a tough economy, and trying to be responsible, good parents, spouses, and community members – all of which leaves precious little time for enjoying life, let alone for extended reading.

A glimmer of hope that I do see is a local, concerted effort to defeat the incumbent U. S. Congressional Representative from my district, Darrell Issa, who has clearly and consistently put his own personal interests above that of his country, as well as those of his party (Republican). He is the richest member of Congress, and has been called one of its most corrupt members (by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in 2012).  He has been a significant contributor to the dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, and is an embarrassment to both our district and our nation.

Issa’s opponent, Doug Applegate, is a former U. S. Marine Colonel (retired) who has served both as an infantry officer and as a military attorney (Judge Advocate), as well as a civilian trial attorney.  He has the potential to help lead us out of this mess. At this point in the campaign, Applegate has an excellent chance of winning, and so I am doing everything I can to help him win.  I wish you lived in this district, so you could also vote for Applegate.

During this election season, lots of folks have asked for my opinion about Applegate, partly because they know I am comparatively well-informed about so many issues, but also because I am a former U. S. Marine infantry officer and veteran, who served two tours in Vietnam, with an elite Force Recon Company.  My two tours in Vietnam were very different, so I was fortunate to be able to experience the war from two quite different perspectives.  I saw firsthand our country’s use and misuse of military power.  As you know, I have been keenly interested in that issue ever since. I have watched with growing dismay as our civilian leaders have increasingly resorted to the use of military force to solve problems that were only made worse by a reliance on military force.  Ever since we invaded Iraq in 2003, our attempts to eliminate terrorists have created far more terrorists than we have killed.  This pathological dynamic is well documented and continues today.  I think this is largely because the public is so paranoid about terrorist attacks, their fears having been stoked for so long by so many – even though, as Americans, we have a greater chance of drowning in the bathtub, or being killed by lightening, than we have of being killed in a terrorist attack.  But when fear is paramount, rationality is lost, and ignorance abounds.

We have a clear need for a strong and competent military, but both our military and our country have been made immeasurably weaker by the continual use of military power in inappropriate situations.

But I digress: I get carried away when I try to explain myself, as you both know so well, particularly when I care deeply about these issues.

The Republicans in Congress (in both the Senate and the House) very deliberately did all they could to sabotage and oppose everything the President tried to do, solely to make him look unsuccessful, for their own benefit, regardless of what would have been best for our country.  They have consistently done this for nearly 8 years now.  This has contributed greatly to the gridlock and dysfunction that we are all now suffering from.

I am very hopeful that the American people – all of us, not just Democrats! – will remember how this has contributed so significantly to the pantheon of problems that we are all facing now, particularly in the middle class.  And that this will motivate them (us!) – mightily – to turn out to vote, and throw the bums out!

I also hope you will both try to persuade all your friends and neighbors to do their very best to get out the vote to defeat Congressional Republicans – and if they live in California’s 49th Congressional District, to be sure to vote for Doug Applegate – so that we will stand a better chance of getting out of this terrible hole we have dug for ourselves.

Love,

Your Old Pop

PS – California’s 49th Congressional District covers more than North County San Diego; it stretches along the coast from the northern tip of La Jolla to southern Orange County, where it includes San Clemente, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano, Ladera Ranch, and Coto de Caza.