A neighbor of mine has become involved in the tea-party movement over the past few months. This is a fairly new thing for her. I’ve talked to her about god and politics on a few occasions. I have to say, she doesn’t do much to improve the image I have of the tea-party movement; quite the opposite – she comes across as sheltered, narrowminded, and short on facts.
The first time I asked her about why she supports the tea-party movement, it didn’t take long before she was almost yelling. This was certainly not due to any hostility on my part – in fact, I didn’t have a hostile tone and didn’t even respond, I honestly wanted to hear what she had to say so I was avoiding being confrontational. It was scary how quickly she was able to work herself into a frenzy about illegal immigrants, Obama, etc.
More recently, I was talking to her again about politics and religion. She’s gotten involved in a republican groups – which means she’s more surrounded by people who reinforce and polarize her opinions. I feel like she’s slipping into crazy territory, and is pretty hostile to anyone who thinks differently.
While talking to her, I told her that, while I didn’t completely disagree with ideas about fiscal responsibility (I’m more of an economic moderate, think that a national deficit and debt is bad), I didn’t really like the tea-party movement because of the other ideas floating around the movement. For example, one tea-party activist who won the Republican primary wants abortion outlawed even in cases of rape and incest. Another one thinks Denver’s bike program is tied to the UN, global-warming activists, and represents a threat to American liberty. I’ve seen the tea-party activists protesting in front of the capital, comparing Obama to Hitler and the USSR. I brought up the birthers (i.e. people who think that Obama wasn’t born in the United States – which would disqualify him as President of the United States). She immediately responded “why hasn’t he shown his birth certificate?” Oh, no, I thought – she even buys into the birther movement. I told her that he has, and that they’ve also shown the announcement in the Hawaiian newspaper about his birth. She seemed to suggest that maybe they faked it. As I would find out in discussions, this conspiratorial type of thinking came up frequently. Whenever some fact would contradict her viewpoint, she would immediately question whether it was some liberal plot to cover-up the truth. It’s a rather robust strategy – it allows her to disconnect from reality and believe almost anything she wants. Under this system, facts are no obstacal.
The Tea-Party in Colorado
I’ve looked up statistics on the tea-party movement in Colorado. 51% of Republicans in Colorado say they part of the tea-party movement. Two tea-party candidates won republican primaries recently. (Both of them barely squeezed by, but were considered long shots six months ago.) They’ve got some support from independents and something like 10% of democrats. Overall, the polls say that the tea-party has about 30% support in Colorado. This astounds me to think that 1/3rd of the state is positive towards the tea-party. This is actually much higher than in other states – their numbers are about 16% in the country as a whole.
She talked about how Obama wanted amnesty for the illegal immigrants, but illegal immigrants are harming the US economy by going to hospitals and getting free medical care. She complained that whites would be a minority in the United States any day now, and we needed to kick-out the illegals. I can understand the argument about stopping illegal immigrants from coming across the border, and I can sort-of understand the argument about getting all the illegals out of the country (though, I’d question the cost of actually doing it). Personally, I think illegal immigrants are a mixed-bag. On one hand, they do provide cheap labor. Some republicans actually like illegal immigrants for exactly this reason – they see them as providing cheap labor which helps the US economy. On the other hand, poor people tend to consume more tax-based services than they pay in taxes (which would be the argument from fiscal responsibility, although I’m unsure if illegals consume as many public services as poor Americans). I’m just don’t believe it’s the crisis that conservatives think it is. I think conservatives are actually more concerned about the language and culture of illegals. They seem them as the “other” who are edging out the “better” white majority in the United States. They want to preserve the things they like – the English language, the white culture, the white majority – which is why, on this issue, the issue of “whites becoming a minority in the United States” is always a step or two behind the illegal immigration issue.
She claimed that whites would be a minority in the United States within ten years because mexicans and blacks have so many children. I told her that whites and blacks have about the same number of children – about 2 per female, and mexicans have about 3 children per woman. Of course, she didn’t believe me. So, we opened a browser and looked it up. I also said that whites in the United States would not drop below 50% within the next ten years – rather, it would be another 30-40 years. Again, she didn’t believe me, so we looked it up online. This was a familiar pattern – she had some hyperbolic belief about the state of the country which was entirely false, but it reinforced her beliefs and her anger.
She complained that Obama wants complete amnesty. (Actually, Obama talked about a “path to citizenship”, although Republicans have argued that it’s all part of a sneaky plan to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.) So, I told her that her tea-party candidate had almost the same position on illegal immigration a year ago as Obama did. She said that her tea-party candidate hasn’t changed his position on illegal immigration – he’s always been fighting for sending the illegals back to Mexico. So, I looked it up online. Her initial response was that she said she probably wouldn’t believe what was written on the internet because “the media is liberal” and was, therefore, unfair to her candidate. I looked it up, and found a copy of her candidate’s website (one year ago) on the wayback machine. Her own tea-party candidate talked about a “path to citizenship” (same exact phrase as Obama used) for illegal immigrants who didn’t have a DUI or felony. At first, she didn’t believe it – questioning whether or not the wayback machine was accurately displaying the website. (Wow, I actually had to convince her that the screen-capture of *her own candidates website* was an accurate portrayal of her candidate’s position!) Her next response was to say that the “no felonies” part would immediately disqualify half the illegal immigrants. It seemed pretty unlikely to me that half the illegals were felons – but it would fit with her general tendency towards hyperbole that reinforced her own views.
It occured to me just how powerful the whole “liberal media” game was for conservatives – it enabled them to ignore anything they didn’t want to read or believe. It justified not listening to the “biased” otherside. Instead, they could justify getting their news exclusively from conservative sources. Those conservative sources could either avoid talking about negative facts about “their guys”, softpedal them, or twist-around the situation into something that it wasn’t. It allowed the conservative media to keep people in their own pocket. Of course, she claims that she reads outside of conservative news sources, but given her immediate hostility to believing anything said about her candidate on the web, I’d have to think that – even if she does read other sources – it’s from the perspective of “I can ignore anything they say, because those guys are probably liars anyway”. Even some famous conservatives have stated that the whole “liberal media” idea is exaggerated and inaccurate, but that it’s a really useful tool for conservatives:
“I admit it — the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.”
– William Kristol
Being very anti-tax, she had some libertarian leanings towards the free market taking care of everything. I don’t care much for libertarianism. I think economics and business are more complex than libertarians believe it is. Despite the libertarian mantra about the market taking care of itself, there are far too many ways for businesses to swindle money from customers, and too many externalities that fall outside businesses’ bottom line. For example, businesses have no incentive to lower the pollution put out by cars – air is a “shared resource” and it’s not something that they have a direct interest in preserving, and neither do their customers except from the standpoint of “social responsibility”. There’s an enormous amount of money-swindles that can be done on Wall Street – everything from pump-and-dump of stocks, to buying insurance on mortgage-backed securities that were designed to fail (and earning hundreds of millions of dollars doing it), to hedge-fund managers giving out fake reports (or no reports at all – “trust us”), or in the case of Standard Oil, lower the selling price of oil to drive out competition and gain a monopoly.
So, of course, I always have to ask the libertarian-minded person: “Do you think ponzi schemes should be illegal?” By libertarian thought, the market will adjust – i.e. once people get burned by ponzi-schemes, they’ll learn to avoid them, so the market will fix the problem. This seems terribly naive. Not only will it mean that people have to get duped before people learn (and sometimes experience is the worst way to learn a lesson), but there’s a million ways to swindle people. Do people in society need to learn all the millions of ways they can be swindled in order to avoid them? That’s putting quite a burden on the public. Furthermore, there’s always cases where people might get involved in stuff that they don’t realize is a ponzi-scheme. It’s like saying that all “medicines” should be legal (regardless of whether they’re effective or tested), and society will figure out from experience which medicines work. Nevermind that people can be notoriously bad at sorting out effective and ineffective medicine, thanks to things like confirmation bias and the placebo effect. According to libertarians, medicines that don’t work or are harmful will eventually get eliminated from the market. Now, we’re expecting everyone in society to become experts on finance and medicine in order to protect themselves against a million swindlers? The libertarian position is bad because it forces people to learn through experience – which can be the worst, slowest, most painful way to learn something. And, the whole time that learning process is occurring, swindlers are getting rich selling sham treatments for cancer or foisting ponzi-schemes on the public. It’s really a market where liars, con-men, and monopolists can earn a fortune.
In a lot of ways, I think the libertarian take on the free market is like someone who thinks the body can always heal itself. Sure, the free market can do quite a bit, and the body can heal itself quite well, but libertarians look at any kind of interference in the market as a distortion from the “perfect” solution coming from the market. This seems as absurd as someone who says that the body can always heal itself, therefore, antibiotics, medicine, and surgery are distortions of the body’s perfect healing system. There’s some truth to the core belief, but things go wrong when it’s seen as the perfect system and interventions are seen as distortions of perfection.
She couldn’t really give me an answer to the question of whether or not ponzi-schemes should be illegal. I’m assuming her mind was caught between the obvious fact that ponzi-schemes are a scam to enrich con-men (and should be illegal), and the libertarian belief that the market sorts everything out (and therefore, it’s okay for them to be legal).
God and Morality
At some point, the topic of Gene Simmons’ reality show came up. She talked about what a great businessman he was. I said that I didn’t like him because he came-off as being rather amoral – that he goes after what he wants and doesn’t much care much about people in the way. She responded with a “isn’t that the American way”? I wasn’t entirely sure if she was endorsing what he was doing, or what exactly she was saying. It wouldn’t surprise me if she was endorsing ambitious, amoral business practices. She then accused me of being amoral. Huh? I said that being atheist and amoral are not the same thing. She had a hard time believing that. (Oh great, I thought. This is pretty typical Christian-type thinking: that anyone who’s an atheist must be amoral.) She said that if I don’t believe in God, that I have no reason to be moral. “Sure I do. It’s just that if you always grew up believing that you’re supposed to be good because God says so, you start to believe that God is the only reason people should be good. If you didn’t believe in God, you’d start to think more deeply about it and realize that there are reasons other than God to be moral.” She said that God was the source of all morality, and therefore, by definition, anyone who doesn’t believe in God is amoral. This struck me as an odd argument – it doesn’t matter how I act, or how I think people should be treated. I am amoral simply because I don’t believe in God? I asked her: “Buddhists don’t believe in God. Do you think that Buddhists are amoral?” Yes, she responded. I just shook my head. It just all sounded so sheltered and narrow minded. It was like she couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that her belief system – which revolved around Christianity and conservative America – wasn’t the perfect one, and anyone who thought differently was deficient in some major way.
I told her that the fact that I don’t believe in Christianity doesn’t make me morally deficient, and my atheism was not some sort of decadent rebellion against God. There were plenty of good reasons to question Christianity. I said that God kills all the first born in Egypt, even the slaves. I said that the Old Testament teaches that rapists have to marry the woman they rape.
If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
How could “God”, the creator of morality, teach that women who are raped have to marry their rapist? “Those were different times with a different culture” she responded. I responded that those Old Testament laws are the creations of someone in a bronze-age mindset, and not the teachings of some perfectly moral deity. (Besides, how incredibly morally relativist can you get when you say that those laws are okay because “it was a different culture”? Funny how theists always throw the “moral relativist” stone at unbelievers.)
She said that atheism was a terribly depressing belief – it’s a belief that everyone ceases to exist when they die. She knew that she was going to heaven with her family. I said that Christianity is depressing because it says that some people will be tortured in hell for eternity, to which she replied, “Not me and my family”. That seemed like an incredibly self-centered response – it doesn’t matter if people suffer in hell for eternity, because it won’t be her or her family – therefore, it isn’t that important. Her attitude reminded me of this conversation from a sitcom:
Elaine: Oh. So, you’re pretty religious?
Puddy: That’s right.
Elaine: So is it a problem that I’m not really religious?
Puddy: Not for me.
Elaine: Why not?
Puddy: I’m not the one going to hell.
She seemed to flip-flop on the issue of who goes to heaven. At times, she would say that only Christians go to heaven. I responded that a perfect God would not create the system of Christianity. There were too many people who never heard of Christianity within their lifetimes. The God she believes in would not create a system where most of humanity would never hear of Christianity within their lifetime if God wants to save people. I pointed out the tragedy of the millions of Americans who (before Columbus) lived and died without hearing about Christianity – even though Jesus had already died on the cross, and therefore, could theoretically be saved. God had the power to bring Christianity to America, and mankind did not. The whole system, especially the part about people not knowing which religion is the true religion (and therefore, being condemned to hell for making the wrong decision) was just a bad system. No one makes a completely informed decision about which religion they follow, and therefore, it’s unfair that they should be punished/rewarded eternally for their decision. Chosing to follow Christianity is not synonymous with wanting to obey God. And chosing not to follow Christianity is not synonymous with not wanting to obey God. Therefore, the whole system is bad, and wouldn’t have been created by God. She argued “that life isn’t fair, and religion isn’t logical. You can’t use logical arguments to think about religion. Religion is faith. It wouldn’t be faith if you could figure it out.” I said again that faith isn’t a system that God would create – it’s really just saying that everyone has to make an uninformed decision, and then eternally punishing/rewarding them for their decision.
She responded by saying that God makes the rules, we don’t. This also seemed like a pretty bad argument. Essentially, she was arguing that “might makes right”. God, even if his system is dictatorial and unfair, is the one “in charge”, so we’d all just better get used to it. It sounded a awful lot like arguments for the monarchy — it doesn’t much matter if the king is fair or kind or just, we’d all just better decide to fall in line behind what he wants because he’s got the army on his side.
I will say that “faith” and “religion isn’t logical” is a pretty good way for religious believers to avoid criticism of their religion. It allows them to bulletproof their belief against things like logic and reason; a system of thought that allows them to avoid ever having to change their own minds, and can be used to reinforce any belief system (whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Scientology, or whatever). Any argument that let’s people reinforce any belief system that they already have is probably a pretty crappy argument.
More recently, she sent me an article about how the tea-party is taking over, the democrats are divided and in disarray, and Obama’s approval numbers have been falling like a rock this summer. I pointed out the flawed numbers used to legitimize the argument. In reality, Obama’s numbers have barely moved this summer (in fact, her article links to poll numbers that contradict its own argument). (And here’s another article saying the same while pointing out Obama’s numbers compare favorably to Reagan, Carter, and Clinton.), which promoted her to respond that she has a right to her own opinion. What an odd response – that pointing out factual errors in an article somehow amounted “depriving her of the right to her own opinion”. Although, I suppose in some sense, facts do deprive people of their own ignorant opinions. But, it seems like conservatives have found a solution to that “problem”.