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Column: An Assault on Our Most Basic Notions of Right and Wrong



For Los Angeles Times
Monday, July 09, 2018

To anyone who had eyes to see and a half-working moral compass in 1991, the Handycam video of Rodney King’s beating by four Los Angeles Police Department cops showed brutality, sadism and torture. The primitive violence insulted the heart.

But then came patronizing attorneys, media exploitation of racism, weird language and bureaucratic euphemisms. In the Simi Valley courtroom where the case against the police who beat King was heard, evil was relentlessly described as the height of professionalism.

Jurors came to doubt their gut sense of right and wrong, and they acquitted the cops.

There’s plenty of talk in Trump times about an assault on factual truth. But the more vicious attacks are on human perception, common sense and baseline notions of right and wrong.

The trauma of digitization, beginning in 1991 with the introduction of the World Wide Web, has not yet been tallied. But no job, no relationship, no way of life or form of knowledge has been untouched by it. We have had to adapt to pervasive changes in mental and moral life on an impossibly tight timetable.

Religious institutions, which at their best offer simple, workaday instructions on how to be good, now seem to represent ideological communities as much as spiritual ones. In particular, the elaborate contortions by many evangelicals to make a Christian hero out of Donald Trump have cost that branch of religion all moral authority. Baptisms in the Southern Baptist Conference, the biggest denomination of evangelicals, have fallen to the lowest point since 1947.

But what does that leave for those seeking both moral accountability and support? The church of Fox News, where the guiding principle is spite, doesn’t do much for you when your child is sick or your spouse dies.

Into this moral vacuum has poured a torrent of sophistry.

Tearing babies from mothers and caging them seems monstrous; in fact it’s pragmatic.

Kneeling before the flag seems like peaceful protest; in fact it’s treason.

Dodging taxes and military service seems like greed and cowardice; in fact it’s smart.

Guns designed for massacres lead to massacres; in fact we need more of them.

The Trump syndicate leverages this ludicrous stuff every day. It’s repeated and amplified by trolls and botnets, Fox News, far-right haranguers like Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos, and, of course, the president himself.

It gets loud.

And then the stupid inversions of reason are picked up by influential voices who should know better. Worse yet, they’re given a hearing, as American citizens are forced to sit for monotonous schoolings in the media conceit of “both sides.”

The argument that tearing apart families serves a worthy purpose, for example, should be rejected without debate, rejected by our very cells, as we’d reject rancid meat.

Some professional thinkers like to try out contrarianism because it’s a game their brains can afford. But for the cognitively vulnerable, it can be devastating. To take up sophistry and disavow, say, kindness, hope, prosperity, democracy and peace is a fast track to misery. You’d think for that reason only — to reduce their own suffering — people would stand by America’s self-evident truths.

Mary McCarthy, the great 20th century novelist and critic, offered insight into why some people are drawn to twisted, self-defeating beliefs.

In Artists in Uniform, the narrator meets a handsome Air Force colonel on a train who is intellectually insecure and eager to impress her. At sea in their flirtation, he mounts an argument he thinks is clever. Jews, he says, are Communists, traitors, liars and “chiselers.”

She recoils from his anti-Semitism, and he loses his shot with her. At the same time, she recognizes that his contempt for Jews is not primitive racism. Instead, he has cultivated it. “For the colonel, anti-Semitism was simply an aspect of urbanity, like a knowledge of hotels or women.”

In the dark racist fairy tales of the colonel, or a wingnut like Alex Jones, you can hear someone who thinks racism and xenophobia are intelligence, who thinks the distress of others is proof of his cleverness in seeing Nazis as fine people, shooting victims as paid actors and sadism as policy.

Intellectual insecurity — more even than economic insecurity — is a deeply dangerous thing to befall a people. When we’re tortured by doubts about our own wisdom and judgment, we can’t risk the humbling posture of actually learning. We become vulnerable to any nitwit belief that confirms that, whatever we lack in facts, experience or education, we make up for in innate mental firepower.

As bad money drove out good money in Weimar Germany, so bad ideas have driven out good ones in Trump’s America. The case is made ad nauseam for “critical thinking.”

But that’s a luxury now. Instead it’s time for triage: We need to back off the online cacophony and trust our guts again. Clubbing Rodney King was wrong. Jailing infants is wrong. Partnering with hostile powers against American allies is wrong.

We must hold these truths to be self-evident. Or the nation will belong to a swath of cognitively vulnerable voters anxious to style themselves as stable geniuses.

Hanover native Virginia Heffernan is a journalist, critic and author, most recently, of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.