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Credulousness as a Problem

Credulousness as a Problem

By Dennis Loo (7/8/17)

I have written on several occasions in different ways about the problem of credulousness, both as a phenomenon that I see among undergraduates, and as a problem that we see broadly in society.

For instance:

People are a lot smarter than they’re allowed to be. If we want a better world we need to give them the chance to become sophisticated thinkers, not only our students but people of all ages. You cannot raise and train rigorous thinkers in a hot house. They have to be immersed in the rough and tumble of real contradictions and clashes between varying perspectives. Truth, as we say here, emerges through contention. I’m going to close with this excerpt from a major white paper that I initiated and wrote with a terrific team of California university faculty in 2011 entitled “Cooking the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs: California’s Public Higher Education System in Peril.” The American Association of University Professionals (AAUP)’s Journal of Academic Freedom published it in 2012.

Life does not come with an answer key. The correct and best answers to all questions are not always definitively known in life at any given point before the fact, and incomplete and indirect information is the norm rather than the exception. Primarily due to the influence of the privateers, the educational system is increasingly becoming one in which the main emphasis is memorization and giving back to the teacher what the teacher has dispensed as the answers in order to pass the tests. Students are not being properly and adequately taught how to analyze, weigh information, think holistically, decide between competing claims, and make wise choices based on frequently incomplete information. This grows all the more significant when there is a growing storm of false or misleading information emanating from people and organizations trying to seduce people into buying their wares, whether those wares are commodities or ideas. Should this trend persist it will mean that our society will become increasingly intellectually impoverished, because its citizenry has become vulnerable to being manipulated by hucksters, opportunists, and those who have more ready access to mass media by virtue of their owning media, possessing a lot of money, and/or having friends in high places.

The good news is that something can be done about this with students, since you have them for a while and they receive some training in my classes and some in their other classes on how to pick apart what you are exposed to. Even if you are told something untrue or mostly untrue, you have the means by which you can infer the truth, or at least, a part or even a lot of the truth. You can, in other words, be given malarkey and you can make marmalade with it. The saying that computer experts have of GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out - thus doesn't necessarily apply to humans. It is nevertheless true that part of people's training to do the preceding, however, does require exposing people to a whole lot that is true, so that they realize that a) lots of what they thought before was true, isn't, b) lots of what they learn instead is true, albeit often shocking, and c) that the ways they were thinking before needs to be subject to scrutiny and a good deal of it rejected, or else what they learn from you remains a few inconvenient facts, but they remain convinced that nothing can be done about anything anyway. 

Let me illustrate that last point: if you have been taught repeatedy that it is "human nature" to be greedy, self-centered, and that material incentives (or disincentives) invariably are what is exclusively or primarily true, and you believe it, then you may learn some discrete factoids along the way, and you will treat those facts as maybe even true, but your conviction of what "human nature" is remains unshaken because you have heard it as a truism so many times, from so many sources, that anyone challenging your view is surpassingly odd and out-of-touch with the real world. After all, perhaps you're thinking, how can something I have taken for granted for so long and repeated by everyone I know not be true? It is furthermore the dominant ideology preached by POTUS on down as the truth. Most of my teachers even preach it, so it must be true, right? 

This is why I sarcastically said in another article:

 Is this a widespread belief because millions of people have studied this question, looking at history and economic and political systems over the span of human societies’ existence and all arrived at the same conclusion after painstaking study and specialized training in the tools of social science?

Of course people, who subscribe to this article of faith have not done a study of this question looking at hundreds of years and millions of people using the best tools that social science can offer! It is funny that the relative few who teach anthropology and most sociologists rest their whole argument and their whole science on what so many others are convinced isn't true! LOL. 

It is true that POTUS and those who surround him in the White House and most of his supporters act and say they act based on the belief that everyone is out for themselves. And they do get the knives out for each other a lot and they use them, through among many other self-serving ways, leaks. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that people are all altruists and that there never is a time in anyone's life when they are thinking of themselves. Of course we all do to some extent. What I am saying is that with the exception of Trump and other sociopaths (many of whom know how to pretend to care for others and thus "pass"), the rest do most of the time show that we are team players and that we try to get along with others and take their feelings into consideration most of the time. Even in the most individualstic of societies, capitalism, people co-operate overall more than they "look out for No. 1." If someone really did this in daily life, what happens to them? We steer clear of them, don't we? This principle which works well on an everyday basis in our various social circles, does not work right when applied to systems such as poitical officials who take advantage of people's credibilty to tell outlandish lies.

Which brings us to the problem of Trump and his most ardent followers who will believe anything, even contradictory things, like Trump trying to make a point that Obama didn't take Russia seriously enough as meddling with the US with cyber-attacks at the same time that Trump ridicules the idea that Russia is meddling at all on his watch. I guess Putin was doing it under Obama but suddenly stopped when Trump ran? And when Trump publicly called for Russian involvement into Hillary's email we are supposed to not notice it

Let me give you another example of taking malarkey and making marmalade. This is from a 2013 article. To my knowledge, the last point of these three points is an area that I alone pointed out:

To understand what he is actually up to, you have to pay close attention to what he is saying and not be misled by his carefully surrounding what he’s doing with reassuring sounding words and phrases such as “the rule of law” and “transparency.” If you pay close enough attention to his particular phrasing, and to his actual policies and actions, you can clearly see the real meanings.

What Obama said in this speech was not that the WOT was going to end. What Obama is doing is rebranding the WOT and giving it a different focus from the path that Bush and Cheney followed. Whereas Bush and Cheney invaded two countries and began drones’ use in Pakistan (upon candidate Obama’s suggestion), Obama is treating the entire world as a battlefield, not just specific countries invaded and occupied by more traditional methods of waging wars with U.S. boots on the ground. [1]

Under Obama the emphasis is on the more extensive use of drones, an expansion in the definition of what constitutes being an enemy of the state (e.g., who is a “terrorist”), and expanded executive powers to act independently of any other branch of government or public scrutiny, even while claiming to be doing the opposite of each and every one of these things.

Let’s begin with the alleged limitations that he’s placing on drones. As the McClatchy news noticed, Obama has actually expanded the targets for drone warfare:

“In every previous speech, interview and congressional testimony, Obama and his top aides have said that drone strikes are restricted to killing confirmed ‘senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces’ plotting imminent violent attacks against the United States. 

“But Obama dropped that wording Thursday, making no reference at all to senior operational leaders. While saying that the United States is at war with al Qaida and its associated forces, he used a variety of descriptions of potential targets, from ‘those who want to kill us’ and ‘terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat’ to ‘all potential terrorist targets.’”

This brings up the matter of the ongoing shift in how the U.S. government is defining who can be killed by the POTUS. Presidential addresses are worded extremely carefully and people need to take note of the momentousness of this.

In my 2011 book, Globalization and the Demolition of Society I analyze the origins of, context for, and various manifestations of this new political order that Obama as POTUS is the current and leading political representative for. This new order reflects the supplanting of the Keynesian Welfare State by the Neoliberal State. Neoliberalism – aka free market fundamentalism - is the ruling doctrine today, adhered to by both the Republican and Democratic Parties in the U.S. This neoliberal state is governed by a specific logic – the logic of dispossession and disenfranchisement of the 99%:

Because neoliberalism produces growing disparities within the populace inside nations, between nations, and between regions, it demands and requires the increasingly generous application of force, intimidation, and deception to defend these disparities. Because persuading people to cooperate and follow the rules based on positive incentives is less and less an option since positive incentives themselves are being sharply cut back, negative incentives are necessarily being employed more and more to maintain social control. These negative incentives take two fundamental forms: fearmongering and coercion. Frighten the people about some external and internal enemies and strong-arm them into believing that extraordinary measures must be adopted to deal with these enemies, including unconstitutional and extralegal surveillance, detention, preemptive raids and invasions, rewriting laws to suit an unrestrained state, arrests of demonstrators before they demonstrate and exercise their First Amendment rights and charging them as “terrorists,” beatings, torture, murder, and assassination. These are the new politics, endorsed and employed by both major parties; they are used more explicitly by the GOP, but the distinction between the two parties is only of tone, not overall of kind.

Convincing people that they should support (or at least not actively oppose) public policies that are against their interests via ideological and political stratagems continues to be important, and the ways in which this is being carried out deserve their own chapter (see Chapter Six). But because of the increasing gap between the representation and the actuality, and because the winners in this game grow fewer and fewer relative to the losers (with the winners a fraction of the top one percent and the really big winners almost few enough to fit into a palatial mansion), propaganda can only go so far; coercion and intimidation must assume an increasingly larger burden in the exercise of social control. Moreover, persuasion itself has more and more taken on the form of cynical manipulation through fear-mongering and more extensive lying and censorship. Playing to and feeding the public’s fears fosters people’s primitive emotional states that supplant rational decision-making. When you are aroused by fear, your ability to think rationally is compromised. (GDS, pp. 97-98)

This explains how it is that a “terrorist” has been inflated to mean essentially whatever those in authority claim it to mean. As one example of this, until 2009 when I wrote about it and as a result of the furor about it that ensued led to cosmetic changes, the DoD was training all of its employees that “protest” was a form of “low-level terrorism.”

How could a president who touts his background in Constitutional Law be presiding over a military that is training its ranks to treat protest as a form of terrorism? Doesn’t that strike at the heart of the very thing that most Americans think distinguish America from other tyrannical forms of government – the right to free assembly and speech?

A new form of governance worldwide has become the norm since the early 1980s. It’s called public order policies (POP). POP feature ubiquitous warrantless state surveillance that treats everyone as a suspect. Anyone can be subjected to state coercion based upon what you might do, not just what you have putatively done. You can be punished, tortured, and/or killed because you pose a possible threat or because you have blown the whistle on the increasingly secret doings of the security state. This is why Obama has hounded and persecuted more than twice the number of whistleblowers than all prior U.S. presidents in history combined.

POP did not come about as a result of 9/11. It predates 9/11. 9/11 and incidents like it are the public rationale for POP but not the reason for POP. Tapping of all Americans’ phones and electronic activities such as email and web surfing began seven months before 9/11 in February of 2001, shortly after Bush and Cheney took over the White House. Why? If the basis for people to co-operate with authorities is constantly being undercut, then keeping people in line must requires both more state coercion and more deception about what is going on and why.

Reinterpreting protest and poverty as terrorism is a trend that stretches across continents and that includes all of the major political parties in the world’s nations. This explains what for many people is otherwise inexplicable: the perpetuation, further elaboration, and institutionalization under Democrat Barack Obama of the national security state measures that Bush and Cheney spearheaded. Obama and the Democratic Party leadership are continuing on the path that was already underway before Bush, dating back to the late 1970s. What Bush and Cheney did that was different was openly breach the wall of the rule of law.

The sensitivity and momentousness of this breach explains why Obama ran on a platform of restoring the rule of law, restoring habeas corpus, and ending atrocities such as torture: Bush and Cheney’s practices had been so widely reviled and were so fundamental a rupture from the previous social contract of governments with their people that reviving people’s confidence in their government had to be done lest fracturing and resultant upheavals ensued. What Obama has in fact done has been the repackaging of these practices.

When running for office and after taking office, Obama made a point of saying that he believes in, and is implementing, transparency in government:

Just weeks after taking office, the Obama administration adopted an unprecedented policy of sunlight, directing bureaucrats across government to “apply a presumption of openness” regarding the release of documents to the public, according to a memo by Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder.

Obama’s policy does not cover an important part of the White House: the Office of Administration, which oversees much of the day-to-day functions of the president’s own office and staff.

In 2007, then-president George W. Bush, whose penchant for secrecy was a reliable villain in Obama’s campaign speeches, became the first president to declare the White House Office of Administration off-limits to public inquiries. At the time, Bush was engaged in a heated court battle with good government groups over access to information about a massive batch of missing White House e-mails.

A federal court ruled in favor of the Bush administration, agreeing that the office was not technically an “agency” as defined by FOIA, and was not required to abide by the openness law.

Today, the Obama White House Web site announces that the Office of Administration “is not subject to FOIA and related authorities.”

In a May 21, 2009, speech at the National Archives, Obama said this about the “War on Terror”:

We’re going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who’ve received extensive explosives training at al-Qaida training camps, or commanded Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.

Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al-Qaida terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture—like other prisoners of war—must be prevented from attacking us again.

If the people he will not release cannot be released because the evidence against them is tainted—because they were tortured to obtain the “evidence”—then that is not the fault of the individual detainee; that is the result of criminal acts by the US government. This stands in direct contradiction to Obama’s campaign pledge that he would restore habeas corpus because holding innocents is “not what we do.” In his National Archives speech, Obama hastened to add that the decision to hold someone who has not been found guilty of any crimes should not be the action of the executive branch alone and that detention should not be open ended. “That’s why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category. We must have fair procedures so that we do not make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.” How does one square abridging habeas corpus with ensuring you are “in line with the rule of law?” How do you have “lawful standards” when you are breaking the law itself to do it? (GDS, pp. 155-157)

Obama’s continuing protestations that he wants to close Guantanamo because it is bad for the U.S.’s reputation in the world while falsely attributing his failure to release prisoners to Congress and while personally putting up roadblocks to prevent anyone being released and shutting the prison down is a concentrated example of what Obama really stands for. Obama says that he wants to do something and that he believes in doing something while actually doing the opposite.

The solution of this credulousness problem for the broader society is basically this - social movements have to battle for the majority, including some, but not all of those now under the right-wing's sway, and we have to delegitimize authorities' right-to-rule. They are, after all, taking us to past the brink.

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Elaine Brower 2

Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12