The Russia-Right Wing Talking Point Cycle

How insidious talking points spread in the modern media environment.

Yesterday, a former Army colleague who I admire greatly posted a link on his Facebook page with the comment, “Great read on how the destruction of history is proceeding…..and why is Russia Today the only one with the nerve to point this out?”

My rejoinder was, “Because they’re Putin’s propaganda arm and working very successfully to exploit divisions in US society to further weaken us.”

He scoffed at that and countered that the Democrats are doing far more to divide us than the Russians.

After a bit of back-and-forth, we agreed to let it go. But my point here isn’t our follow-on conversation but how successful the RT propaganda effort is.

The story in question had the headline “Attacks on ‘white & male’ Moon landing prove no US achievement is too big for liberals to destroy” and was published at 15:59 17 July. It’s bylined Igor Ogorodnev, who is described as “a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.” It’s not particularly well-argued.

Attempts to diminish the triumph of Apollo 11 and to reassign credit don’t just taint the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, but presage the technological decline of the US if it persists with identity politics.

With the Founding Fathers now rarely mentioned in the media without side notes about their slave ownership, and the Betsy Ross flag offensive to Colin Kaepernick and Nike, there is nothing new about liberal attempts to strike at the very heart of American identity.

But – leaving aside the conspiracy theorists – the moment Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969 was objectively such a universal milestone that to qualify it seems a fight against human endeavor itself.

It would seem like the more logical route, for those who resent that this was a feat of white un-woke America, would be to try and diminish their role in favour of supposedly unsung heroes.

Hidden Figures, the Oscar-winning film from 2016 was the perfect archetype of this revisionist history, exaggerating and fictionalizing the role of a cadre of politically suitable black women, who did an entirely replaceable job and were no more important than thousands of others involved.

This way everyone would get to celebrate their own role models, even though in time such worthy changes of focus can end up with grotesque urban myths, like Crick and Watson stealing the Nobel Prize from (the actually dead) Rosalind Franklin.

But while this unifying narrative, where people of different races and varying attainments are placed alongside each other in anniversary pieces, a more sour, radicalized note has begun to surface, compared to celebrations even five years ago, in the prelapsarian era of Barack Obama.

It is not yet dominant, but persistent enough to be more than a coincidence.

“The culture that put men on the moon was intense, fun, family-unfriendly, and mostly white and male,” tweeted the Washington Post, over a behind-the-scenes look at the life of those involved in the program.

“In archival Apollo 11 photos and footage, it’s a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ exercise to spot a woman or person of color,” it continued in the article itself.

“We chose to go to the moon. Or at least, some did: watching [documentary film] Apollo 11, it is impossible not to observe that nearly every face you see is white and male,” left-wing magazine New Statesman wrote in a recent piece.

A recent Guardian review of the documentary Armstrong features the writer talking about “good ol’ boys from NASA – elderly white men every one of them, who you suspect are still pining for the days of American life when men were men and women waited by the phone in headscarves,” though no evidence is given for the assertion.

This is not just bigoted, but astonishing in its unfairness.
Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins could not have helped being white at birth.

George Mueller and Max Faget were not proverbial “mediocre white men” – their deeds are tangible.

No one at NASA could have helped living in 1960s America, or made its social structures, workplace roles, and demographics fit in with 2019 journalists’ conceptions. For God’s sake, many were Germans who had served the Nazi Party with varying degrees of reluctance during World War II, before being whisked away through Operation Paperclip – how do they fit into 21st century privilege hierarchies? Could Wernher von Braun have been an African-American woman from Louisiana?

Or would it have been better to stay on Earth until US society advanced enough to send the right people into space? Or perhaps let the Soviets get there first, since for all their class-based ideology they didn’t want to handicap themselves in the space race.

And handicap becomes the key word.

Rewriting history is a crucial weapon in the long-term culture war for the left, disappointed so often at the ballot box. But the implications of this go far beyond the past.

At the very edge of technological and scientific progress is a meritocracy – you can’t make someone a genius by appointing them. And for all the social changes, the key innovators at NASA and, more importantly, Silicon Valley, remain men, and predominantly white (though more often Asian). Whether it is more due to their superior opportunities, education or creativity, Elon Musk or Larry Page look just like the fathers of the space program.

Yet to avoid ever producing a picture like the sea of white shirts and black ties and pale arms at Launch Operations Center fifty years ago, there are demands for rectification, for diversity, essentially for positive discrimination.

But picking people for posts on the basis of historic justice, skin color and chromosome combinations is a recipe for uncompetitive organizations, where the most talented never succeed, or merely drag along the quota-fillers.

And America’s rivals are not standing still – not just Russia now, but China, India and others. They would have no better chance to overtake the US in whatever is this century’s version of the space race, than if that nation decided to spit on its own achievements, and replace them with dogma.

While there are bits and pieces of that I agree with, it’s a disjointed mess of half-truths, pet peeves, and race-baiting.

The same day—there’s no timestamp, so the order is unclear—the Washington Times published a column by Victor Davis Hansen that uses many of the same loosely-connected grievances to make pretty much the same argument, albeit more lucidly. The headline and subhed: “The war over America’s past is really about its future: If ‘progressives’ can convince the American public that the country is flawed, they can gain power to remake it.”

[….]

Nike pitchman and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick recently objected to the company’s release of a special Fourth of July sneaker emblazoned with a 13-star Betsy Ross flag. The terrified Nike immediately pulled the shoe off the market.

[…]

During a recent speech to students at a Minnesota high school, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Minnesota Democrat, offered a scathing appraisal of her adopted country, which she depicted as a disappointment whose racism and inequality did not meet her expectations as an idealistic refugee. Ms. Omar’s family had fled worn-torn Somalia and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before reaching Minnesota, where Ms. Omar received a subsidized education and ended up a congresswoman.

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team won the World Cup earlier this month. Team stalwart Megan Rapinoe refused to put her hand over heart during the playing of the national anthem, boasted that she would never visit the “f-ing White House” and, with others, nonchalantly let the American flag fall to the ground during the victory celebration.

[…]

Such theater is the street version of what candidates in the Democratic presidential primary have been saying for months. They want to disband border enforcement, issue blanket amnesties, demand reparations for descendants of slaves, issue formal apologies to groups perceived to be the subjects of discrimination, and rail against American unfairness, inequality and a racist and sexist past.

In their radical progressive view — shared by billionaires from Silicon Valley, recent immigrants and the new Democratic Party — America was flawed, perhaps fatally, at its origins. Things have not gotten much better in the country’s subsequent 243 years, nor will they get any better — at least not until America as we know it is dismantled and replaced by a new nation predicated on race, class and gender identity-politics agendas.

In this view, an “OK” America is no better than other countries. As Barack Obama once bluntly put it, America is only exceptional in relative terms, given that citizens of Greece and the United Kingdom believe their own countries are just as exceptional. In other words, there is no absolute standard to judge a nation’s excellence.

About half the country disagrees. It insists that America’s sins, past and present, are those of mankind. But only in America were human failings constantly critiqued and addressed.

He ends ominously:

We’ve seen something like this fight before, in 1861 — and it didn’t end well.

At 12:30 PM on 19 July, The Hill published a similar column by Joe Conchin, headlined “Media cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite.”

Once upon a time in the world of cable news, a guest or host or anchor calling anyone a racist would have considerable impact.

From what we’ve seen this week, when it comes to that word, those days are long gone. A person simply can’t turn on the news or scroll Twitterfor even more than a minute before hearing the word “racist” or “racism.”
For example, CNN and MSNBC said the word “racist” more than 1,100 times from Sunday to Tuesday, according to a tally conducted by Grabien Media, an online media production and news prep service.

[…]

Everything seems to be racist or soaked in racism these days, even the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.

“America may have put the first man on the moon, but the Soviet Union sent the first woman, the first Asian man, and the first black man into orbit — all years before the U.S. would follow suit,” wrote the New York Times on Thursday in a piece marinated in identity politics titled, “How the Soviets Won the Space Race for Equality.”

But the Times’ perspective on the Apollo moon mission pales in comparison to the Washington Post’s on Tuesday. “The culture that put men on the moon was intense, fun, family-unfriendly, and mostly white and male,” opined the Post.

There’s an old children’s book we’ve all read called “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

Now we’re seeing it again — and again, and again. Thousands of times in the past week we’ve heard or read to the word “racist” or have seen it blatantly implied.

Call it, “The Media That Cried Wolf.”

And we all know what happened to the boy who cried wolf too often: People stopped listening.

Granting that I was primed by my conversation about the RT piece to look for similarities in the other pieces, which I encountered in fairly close proximity afterward, the commonality is certainly there. Whether RT provided the talking points or Hansen and Conchin discovered them independently is impossible to say given the way information spreads in the current environment.

Regardless, it underscores why achieving common understandings of what’s happening around us is so difficult. To supporters of the President, RT is inarguably a more reliable source of news than the New York Times or Washington Post. His opponents, meanwhile, would never read the Washington Times, an obvious propaganda rag.

Further, the racial grievance theme is incredibly effective. My former colleague and current Facebook friend is an incredibly bright, decent man. He graduated West Point, put in decades of honorable service to his country as an Army officer, and has been an exemplary husband, father, and grandfather. He’s several years my senior and an avid Trump supporter but, if he harbors racial animus to non-whites, he’s done an outstanding job of hiding it. And he finds the notion that Trump is a white nationalist or that his “if you don’t love America, go home” tweets and chants are racist simply absurd.

Rather clearly, huge numbers of Americans, particularly white men over 40, are simply fed up with being told they’re bigots for believing what mama and daddy taught them to believe. And the stridency of Kaepernick, Rapinoe, and “The Squad” have provided useful fodder in stoking that resentment. In particular, refusing to stand for the National Anthem and dropping the American flag on the ground were bound to backfire, despite the justness of their cause. The predictable response was presaged by the philosopher Merle Ronald Haggard not long after the moon landing:

They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me
Runnin’ down a way of life
Our fightin’ men have fought and died to keep
If you don’t love it, leave it
Let this song that I’m singin’ be a warnin’
When you’re runnin’ down our country, hoss
You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me

That the people on the other side, who were “talkin’ bad about the way they have to live here in this country” and “Harpin’ on the wars we fight,” were on the right side of history didn’t matter in the moment. It didn’t take long for most Americans to recognize that there was indeed great injustice in our social conditions and that the war in Vietnam was a massive waste of human life. The people Haggard spoke for—who, incidentally, were doing a disproportionate share of the dying in Vietnam—never got over their bitterness.

And that was in a country where pretty much everyone watched one of the three nightly television newscasts. This was the heyday of Uncle Walter Cronkite and “that’s the way it is.” I can’t even imagine how we’re going to heal with everyone getting their news from their preferred viewpoint.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Media, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    At the very edge of technological and scientific progress is a meritocracy – you can’t make someone a genius by appointing them. And for all the social changes, the key innovators at NASA and, more importantly, Silicon Valley, remain men, and predominantly white (though more often Asian). Whether it is more due to their superior opportunities, education or creativity, Elon Musk or Larry Page look just like the fathers of the space program.

    The first great programmers were women. “building the hardware is men’s work, programming it is women’s work.” I can name half a dozen. But once the job got some prestige, the men with the power gave those jobs to other men and now “everybody knows” men are better.

    Women in Computing

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Teve: Yes. I was fortunate to hear from then-Commodore Grace Hopper as an 18-year-old plebe. She was an old lady (77 or 78 years old and still on active duty!) then but still enormously impressive.

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  3. SenyorDave says:

    How much of the problem comes down to the fact that white males are not the center of the universe? Right after the 2016 election I saw a show where Thomas Friedman made the point that if you were a white male in Minnesota in the 1950’s you almost had to try not to succeed. The system was gamed for you. Now we are certainly closer to a level playing field. And some people don’t like it.

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  4. Teve says:

    @SenyorDave: and the feelings of white racists are still privileged over the victims of the racism.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @SenyorDave:

    How much of the problem comes down to the fact that white males are not the center of the universe?

    I think that’s part of it. And it’s perfectly normal. Humans are exceedingly loss averse. So, the removal of an unfair advantage will almost always be seen as an outrageous theft.

    @Teve:

    and the feelings of white racists are still privileged over the victims of the racism.

    Yes. But I think we need to be careful of lumping all these people together as “racists.” More of them are than would admit it. And there’s also what I term “soft white nationalism” out there. So, Asians who assimilate are seen as more “American” than Mexicans who continue to speak Spanish in public or Muslims who wear the hijab.

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  6. Moosebreath says:

    “the people on the other side, who were “talkin’ bad about the way they have to live here in this country” and “Harpin’ on the wars we fight,” …”

    Funny, but I don’t recall anyone suggesting people who opposed interventions in Kosovo or Libya or the government imposing workplace protections or companies adding diversity training are unpatriotic and should leave the country. So I take this whole line of thought as a conservative’s way of saying liberals have to accept the conservative point of view as legitimate while the reverse does not apply.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath:

    So I take this whole line of thought as a conservative’s way of saying liberals have to accept the conservative point of view as legitimate while the reverse does not apply.

    Maybe. But I think it’s more a matter of changed expectations. In 1970, serving in the military is just what decent men did. (It wasn’t really. Lots of men who could get out of it did. But it was still the social expectation in much of America.) By the 1990s, that simply wasn’t the case. Men in Trump Country are still disproportionately likely to serve but it’s been an all-volunteer force since 1973. (Then again, many conservatives were angry at those who opposed the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, which is a point in your favor.)

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  8. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “In 1970, serving in the military is just what decent men did.”

    And look at the difference between how Clinton and Trump were treated by people like your friend for not serving during Vietnam.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath:

    And look at the difference between how Clinton and Trump were treated by people like your friend for not serving during Vietnam.

    Yes. And, partly, that’s partisan hypocrisy. Partly, though, I think Clinton simply moved the Overton window. Remember, Dan Quayle’s “service” in the National Guard was a huge issue in 1988 but George W. Bush’s was largely a non-issue in 2000, minus some quibbling about how often he showed up. Both were Republicans. By 2016, I think it was legitimately a non-issue.

    EDIT: Indeed, starting in 1992, the candidate with the most impressive military credentials lost.

    • 1992: Draft dodger Bill Clinton vs Distinguished Flying Cross winner (and architect of Desert Storm) GHW Bush
    • 1996: Draft dodger Bill Clinton vs. severely wounded Bronze Star and Purple Heart Winner Bob Dole
    • 2000: Absentee Air Guard Fighter pilot George W Bush vs combat journalist Al Gore (granted, Gore slightly won the popular vote)
    • 2004: Absentee Air Guard Fighter pilot George W Bush vs Silver Star winner John Kerry
    • 2008: Barack Obama (never-served) vs legendary POW John McCain
    • 2012: (Neither Obama nor Romney served)
    • 2016: (Neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton served)
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  10. Scott O says:

    Can someone who is spreading hatred be described as a decent man? Can an avid supporter of a President who encourages hatred be described as a decent man?

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  11. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    Interesting, isn’t it? The relationship between a draftee military and the public, is rather different than that between a professional army and the public. In the first case it’s literally, ‘our boys.’ But now it’s much closer to the sort of relationship ship we have with cops or firemen – we may admire their courage and proficiency, but basically, they are government employees. Civil servants with guns.

    In the more backward parts of the country they don’t seem to have figured that out. They still want the whole mawkish ‘our heroes’ routine. Yes, some soldiers genuinely are heroes, no question. But the vast majority are men and women just doing a job. And the notion that they are in every case ‘defending our liberty’ is just nonsense.

    People need to get past the WW2 model. That was a one time thing, unlike any other war we have ever been a part of. Those guys defended liberty and saved the world. That’s what they did, that is not what American soldiers were doing in the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, WW1, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Panama, Iraq or if it comes to it, Iran. I’d make the argument that Afghanistan is what the cops would call a ‘righteous shoot,’ but our liberty? Ehhh, not really.

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  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Scott O:
    No.

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  13. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: Yes, we’re in agreement. Even many of my students are uncomfortable with that argument. They’re just not as special as they think.

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  14. Kit says:

    I pity everyone, Right and Left, who look at Apollo and only see racial or sexual politics. For the good ol’ boys of the 60’s, it was all about putting a man on the moon. Motivation is complicated, but I bet most were burning with the damn, audacious adventure of the whole enterprise, not with making some statement about the patriarchy. And the undoubtedly more diverse bunch at today’s NASA are passionate first and foremost about being able to push the boundaries of science and exploration. The heart-stopping wonders that have come to light, and continue to come to light, thanks to the space program, are an invitation both to bow our heads in humility, and to also swell with pride. The images have been beautiful, and the stories behind the images often even more so. Still, some, on both sides of the political spectrum, will always insist on focusing on the dung heap rather than on the rose growing out of it. To hell with them.

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @Scott O: @michael reynolds: I’m honestly just torn on this. What Trump is seems obvious to me, a longtime supporter of the party he now heads. But people who get their news through a Trump-filtered set of outlets likely think he’s just a little on the wacky side but genuinely trying to Make America Great Again.

    I don’t know how you rationalize the concentration camps, for example, but lots of people manage to do so. “Sure, it’s unfortunate, but do we want open borders?” is just a weird response to me but so common that I don’t think we can dismiss all of them as evil.

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  16. Jay L Gischer says:

    Having a conversation like you describe would make me feel sad. I guess the thing to remember is that people can, and do, change, even older people.

    I have to laugh at complaints that “they let the flag drop”. I saw some chairs made in the pattern of an American flag just the other day. So you can sit your butt on the flag, but don’t let it drop? Most of the commercial uses of the flag, to my mind degrade it. But it’s a free country, they get to do that.

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  17. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner:

    Yes. I was fortunate to hear from then-Commodore Grace Hopper as an 18-year-old plebe.

    Hopper gave my wife’s commencement address. Yes, very impressive. And Kevin Drum named a very cute cat after her.

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  18. Jay L Gischer says:

    By the way, I take very strong exception to Ogorodnev’s riff on “replaceable”. Just about everyone and everything is replaceable. I’m replaceable. He’s replaceable. We think of people like Alan Turing or John Von Neumann (really important figures in computing) as “irreplaceable”, but the fact is, if they hadn’t thought of it, someone else would have.

    Eighty percent of everything is showing up.

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  19. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I have to laugh at complaints that “they let the flag drop”. I saw some chairs made in the pattern of an American flag just the other day. So you can sit your butt on the flag, but don’t let it drop? Most of the commercial uses of the flag, to my mind degrade it. But it’s a free country, they get to do that.

    Even as a young lieutenant, much more conservative and even reactionary than I am now, I understood that the reason people burning the flag in protest pissed me off while people burning the flag because it was tattered was because of the content of the speech. And that, therefore, I was bound by my oath to defend that speech. But most people aren’t intellectuals. Viscerally, dropping the flag to show distaste is simply different than honoring the flag in a distasteful way.

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  20. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Yes, I agree that it’s a stupid argument. I think the movie almost certainly gave way more credit to the ladies in question than they were due. But, then, they had gotten zero credit previously, so I didn’t much mind.

    I was, however, always amused by people on my Twitter feed saying “It’s outrageous that we didn’t know their names before now!” I mean, name me the white dudes at NASA who worked behind the scenes. The people who got famous were the astronauts and a minor handful of brilliant scientists.

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  21. Kit says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    the fact is, if they hadn’t thought of it, someone else would have.

    Eighty percent of everything is showing up.

    While I’m broadly sympathetic, you push this too far. If everyone is replaceable and most of what anyone has done is simply show up, then why celebrate anyone or anything? At its core, this outlook is nihilistic, and plenty of people would be happy to take it up. Tubman on the $20? Why bother getting people upset by changing over to someone who just happened to be at the right place at the right time? You see where this leads?

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  22. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    Most Nazis never knew about the death camps. But they supported the movement and ideology that led to the death camps. Were they decent? No, they were not. Were they simply misinformed? No.

    I judge historical figures by contemporary beliefs, by what they could have or should have known. And somehow quite a number of people knew that the Nazi ideology was evil. Quite a few were killed for that awareness. So why didn’t some others know? How is that a few Dutch families were so convinced of the fundamental evil of Naziism that they risked their own lives and the lives of their families to shelter the Frank family? And meanwhile in the Third Reich there were ‘decent’ people still not quite sure? No, that’s bull.

    People are lied to because they insist on being lied to. For example, no one actually believes in life after death, but they want to believe it, and they insist that others feed their fantasy. They become enraged, abusive, if you speak the truth because it’s a danger to their preferred set of lies. Ditto flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, Holocaust-deniers, lovers of trickle-down economics, people who believe in ‘magical’ foods and on and on and on.

    Trump succeeds because he is a shameless liar who feeds bigots what those bigots want to hear. The bigotry is a pre-existing condition, not something Trump did. By being a scumbag himself, Trump simply liberated scumbags who previously thought they had to pretend not to be scumbags. When we get the inevitable revelation that Trump was a participant in Epstein’s little child rape world, a vast number of people will, similarly, feel liberated, able at last to admit that they, too, like to fck underage children. Yay!

    You cannot be a decent person and condone tearing children away from their parents, caging and then losing them. Not possible. But that’s what’s happening. You cannot be a decent person and watch approvingly as a demagogue leads a frenzied chant of ‘send them home.’

    Way back in November 2016 I said that the core problem was not Trump per se, but Trump voters. It’s taken a looooong time for the media to start to catch up, to recognize that it’s not just Trump, it’s all Trump supporters. They are bad people. It’s that realization, the revelation that there is still so much deliberate ignorance, so much hate in this country, that sent me edging toward depression and the desire to GTFO of the US.

    I had a tradesman come by the other day to estimate a job. He’s very good. But he’s also a Trumpie and I got rid of him. I would no more knowingly give a dollar to a Trumpaloon than I’d give a dollar to a Klansman. I won’t have those people around me.

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  23. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I think that’s a perfectly reasonable viewpoint but I just don’t think it’s as black and white as this:

    For example, no one actually believes in life after death, but they want to believe it, and they insist that others feed their fantasy. They become enraged, abusive, if you speak the truth because it’s a danger to their preferred set of lies. Ditto flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, Holocaust-deniers, lovers of trickle-down economics, people who believe in ‘magical’ foods and on and on and on.

    Most people just aren’t intellectuals and they’re extremely open to some forms of persuasion. A shocking number of military officers I know, many with intelligence superior to mine, are deeply religious. I can’t explain it but know it to be true.

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  24. Teve says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    By the way, I take very strong exception to Ogorodnev’s riff on “replaceable”. Just about everyone and everything is replaceable. I’m replaceable. He’s replaceable. We think of people like Alan Turing or John Von Neumann (really important figures in computing) as “irreplaceable”, but the fact is, if they hadn’t thought of it, someone else would have.

    that’s one of the things that irritated me when I was in physics, we have this kind of Culture of Genius. We Revere Einstein, and Feyman, and Schrodinger, etc., but often the people who get the lion’s share of the credit or the naming rights just happened to be the guy who did the last little bit of the work, or did it six weeks before this other guy independently did it, or stole it from some woman who worked under him, or a million other things. Every once in a while something really does seem to require some ridiculous genius (GFLP Cantor comes to mind) , but nine times out of ten it didn’t. Sure, special relativity was brilliant. But show me special relativity without already knowing about Michelson-Morley, and Poincare, and Lorentz, and Maxwell’s equations…

    “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.”

    stigler’s law of eponymy

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  25. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    You know what people believe in? Gravity. You never see people trying to ignore it by, say, stepping out of a tenth floor window. Unless it’s a suicide, in which case they clearly still believe in gravity.

    But somehow people who profess a belief in God have absolutely no problem ignoring his clearly-expressed preferences. Disobey gravity? Nope. Disobey the creator of the entire endless universe even in the face of threats of eternal torment? Sure.

    There’s what people want to believe, and then there’s what they really believe.

    Every time a so-called believer bankrupts his family with medical bills just to cling to the misery of a slow death by cancer and avoid heaven, you know what that person really believes. Every time a Christian soldier fires a gun at an enemy he knows to be doomed to hell unless he can be converted, you see what that soldier really believes. You cannot convert the dead, and in that soldier’s mind he has just permanently removed a person’s chance at salvation.

    These people don’t believe, they just pretend. They play-act. And the instant the things they really believe in like death come into the picture, it’s out the window with the things they merely pretended to believe.

    Here’s what I believe. I have been extraordinarily lucky with my health, I’ve never had surgery, never had a serious illness. But I’m about to turn 65, and I know it’s coming. In my not-too-distant future there will be some nasty disease that will eat me from the inside, or blow up an artery in my head, or corrupt my mind until I am no more. I will die. That’ll be it for me. End of the Michael Reynolds story. And I actually believe that, and you know what? So do you, and so does everyone pretending to believe in eternal life.

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  26. michael reynolds says:

    @Teve:
    I love that last quote. It’s a point I’ve tried to make when debating ‘cultural appropriation.’ There are no clear lines of delineation between this culture and that culture, they are inevitably interwoven, each culture appropriating and absorbing and evolving, and that’s a good thing.

    I’ve offered the example of the song By The Rivers Of Babylon, by the Jamaican group The Melodians. I love the song. In its current version, it is a piece of Jamaican cultural patrimony. It is also plagiarized. There is no Babylon in Jamaica. No Zion. The slave story told movingly in that song is a cultural appropriation by Jamaicans of a Hebrew story. The song conflates two slaveries.

    It’s not bad that Jamaicans use ‘my’ people’s experience to sing about their own, it’s a good thing. That the story of Babylonians and Jews resonates with the African diaspora is a good thing. It’s how culture works, how civilization works, by adding some of what I’ve got to some of what you’ve got. Culture, like scientific invention, is invariably a group project.

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  27. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Kit: I see your point. And, I think it’s perfectly fine to celebrate people for what they did, which took skill and dedication. I just am very skeptical of “irreplaceable”. That mindset gets you into all kinds of trouble.

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  28. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: We’re in probably 99% agreement here. I’ve made similar arguments: People don’t believe “God is everywhere” in the same way they believe “My mom is in the room,” because they’ll masturbate when God is ostensibly watching but not when mom is actually watching.

    I guess we differ in that I think people’s ability to fool themselves is just amazingly more powerful than you do. They just don’t see the obvious contradiction in the way that we do.

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  29. Jay L Gischer says:

    @James Joyner: I know literally hundreds of engineers who worked on some very groundbreaking products, and if not for the work they did, those products would not have been successful. Some of them are women, some of them are non-white, some of them were gay, some were trans, whatever.

    I think it’s great for some of them to get some recognition.

    I also recognize a potential for jealousy and resentment in that I would have liked to get a bit more recognition. I get that I had easier access to jobs and more money, and those ain’t beanbag. But they aren’t the same thing as recognition either. There are maybe 5 films in total that show the kind of life I’ve had.

    But resentment is bad for you. I would rather celebrate a sister engineer/mathie get some recognition.

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  30. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    People don’t believe “God is everywhere” in the same way they believe “My mom is in the room,” because they’ll masturbate when God is ostensibly watching but not when mom is actually watching.

    Mom will eventually leave the room. If she didn’t, people would eventually masturbate in front of mom.

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  31. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: Ha. I must admit, that hadn’t occured to me.

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  32. OzarkHillbilly says:

    He’s several years my senior and an avid Trump supporter but, if he harbors racial animus to non-whites, he’s done an outstanding job of hiding it.

    Actually no, he hasn’t done a good job of hiding it. His continued support for trump is all we need to see to know what he thinks of people not like him. Jeebus I am tired of having to explain that the difference between a racist and somebody who just doesn’t care is not a whit.

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  33. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    I can’t even imagine how we’re going to heal with everyone getting their news from their preferred viewpoint.

    I don’t know how you rationalize the concentration camps, for example, but lots of people manage to do so. “Sure, it’s unfortunate, but do we want open borders?” is just a weird response to me but so common that I don’t think we can dismiss all of them as evil.

    I think we start to heal by being absolutely clear that the Trump-filtered news outlets ARE what is genuinely evil. While I agree with Michael that to stay ignorant is a deliberate act, it takes two to tango. The willful dupe is pretty benign until their empty vessel is filled with lies and hatred and then that bile is activated.

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  34. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer: As noted upthread, most great scientific achievements of the modern age have been team efforts, either in the literal sense (a giant assemblage of people at a research lab working on the project), the relay sense (the guy who got the credit simply added one insight to hundreds that came before), or both. But the popular conception of science remains what we say in the movies: Lone genius Tony Stark figures out time travel through sheer grit and determination out of his beautiful mind.

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  35. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t know how you rationalize the concentration camps, for example, but lots of people manage to do so. “Sure, it’s unfortunate, but do we want open borders?” is just a weird response to me but so common that I don’t think we can dismiss all of them as evil.

    Maybe the world would make more sense to you if you didn’t believe people were good at heart. The Good Germans weren’t so much different from the rest of us, nor were the Tootsies or the Hutus (I cant remember who was killing who), or the Khmer Rouge or the American settlers who really didn’t care where the Natives went so long as they went away.

    Dehumanizing the Other to not have to care is so common in human history that I think we have to consider whether that is the natural state, and whether ideas such as “treat others are equals” are weird and unnatural. It’s an intellectual effort to not give into our worst impulses.

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  36. Kit says:

    Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius–Conan Doyle

    I suspect that the backlash against the elites has sink deep roots into our intellectual culture: one side refuses to think that anyone can really be that smart, while the other side refuses to believe that anyone at all is smart.

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  37. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    In 1970, serving in the military is just what decent men did. (It wasn’t really. Lots of men who could get out of it did. But it was still the social expectation in much of America.)

    Let me guess — in 1970 you lived in the South?

    In 1970, serving in the military is what conscripts did, as far as “much of America” was concerned. The POV that you consider ‘normal’ was highly regional and driven by the tiny minority of multi-generational military families.

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  38. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    The POV that you consider ‘normal’ was highly regional and driven by the tiny minority of multi-generational military families.

    I turned 5 at the end of 1970 so didn’t have much of a contemporaneous view (although my dad served in Vietnam and served 20+ years as an enlisted soldier). I’m describing what I understand the attitude to have been in the parts of America that strongly objected to Clinton’s draft dodging and yet seem not to care as much about Trump’s.

    There are conflicting stories. On the one hand, a much smaller percentage of those who served in Vietnam were draftees vice their “Greatest Generation” counterparts who served in WWII. Roughly a third were draftees in the Vietnam, vice two-thirds in WWII. But that was skewed by people trying to avoid being drafted into the Infantry. But, yes, there were large swaths of America who saw military service as something for the losers who couldn’t get out of it.

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  39. DrDaveT says:

    @Kit:

    I pity everyone, Right and Left, who look at Apollo and only see racial or sexual politics.

    But of course this is a complete strawman, because there can’t be more than half a dozen such people on the planet.

    The problem is not the people who see only racial or sexual politics; the problem is the people who cannot, must not consider the sexual or racial inequities because that would somehow wholly negate the accomplishment. Greatness must be unblemished, in their eyes — everything is black or white, perfect or rubbish. Thus, for example, to them pointing out that slavery was a stain on the new United States of America is tantamount to saying that the founding of the US was a bad thing.

    This is precisely the “love it or leave it” mindset’s founding principle. Wanting to fix America, to make it better, requires admitting that it is not already perfect. If your brain can only encompass “wholly for” and “wholly against” as possible positions, this translates into hating America.

    I often wonder how these people really feel about their children…

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  40. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, yes, there were large swaths of America who saw military service as something for the losers who couldn’t get out of it.

    That’s not really where I was going. In my memories of the time, if you said ‘soldier’ to most people, their immediate mental image was a draftee, not a volunteer (and certainly not an officer or career enlisted person). That radically changes everything about how society relates to the military — it simultaneously makes the soldiers more Us than Them, but also negates the cachet of military service.

    I think WW2 really has to be treated as a unique case, especially after Pearl Harbor. Korea is a better baseline to compare against.

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  41. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: I grew up in Seattle, and here going into the military was what guys that couldn’t get into college did.

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  42. An Interested Party says:

    And look at the difference between how Clinton and Trump were treated by people like your friend for not serving during Vietnam.

    If true, even that is hypocrisy…as we were told that this person supports Trump but I bet he didn’t support Clinton…

    The relationship between a draftee military and the public, is rather different than that between a professional army and the public.

    Of course, that is the reason why the War in Afghanistan has lasted so long and why we are involved in so many military activities all over the world…when most people don’t have anyone in their families or even really know anyone who is in the military, all the military activities that are going on don’t really affect them…

    …and finally, when will most people not allow themselves to be influenced by Russian propaganda? Is this how the Cold War really ends? Not with us “winning” but, rather, with nefarious Russians influencing Americans to give in to their worst impulses…I was watching an episode of Frontline last night talking about the Mueller Report and it replayed that scene with Trump and Putin where Trump was saying that he actually believed Putin rather than our own intelligence services…can you imagine how Republicans during the height of the Cold War would have reacted to a president saying that…

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  43. Ken_L says:

    If ‘progressives’ can convince the American public that the country is flawed, they can gain power to remake it.”

    What an astonishingly unaware observation by Hanson. It is a pinpoint accurate description of Trump’s whole campaign for the presidency.

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  44. Gustopher says:

    The Saudis and the UAE were also offering to help Trump with social media, using pedophile George Nader as a go-between.

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2018/05/19/us/politics/trump-jr-saudi-uae-nader-prince-zamel.amp.html

    All these pedophiles are not doing their kind any favors associating with Trump…

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  45. Davebo says:

    In the end, Haggard got it right. It pissed off his fans, but he didn’t care.

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  46. MarkedMan says:

    I think part of the disagreement between James and Michael is that they are both focusing on racism in and of itself. But racism is just one variation of inability to have empathy for others coupled with the degree to which someone divides people into us and them. So James could be right when he says his friend doesn’t appear to be racist, but I bet he nonetheless draws the circle of “us” versus “them” pretty small. James happens to be in that circle, but I suspect the friend would unconsciously exclude many, many more people than James would or I would or Michael would.

    And thinking of people as “other” has a huge impact. How many Germans were really anti-Semitic? How many of them had even met a Jew? But the Jews were “other” and therefore not their problem. Inasmuch as their conscience troubled them they assuaged it by buying into the demonization of the Jews. Of course, they wouldn’t utter a word in protest against the genocide but there was that Christianity thing… oh, but wait, it turns out Jews are evil so, yeah, everything’s okay.

    James, I think the odds are good your friend would be one of those Germans. It doesn’t appear that he has much trouble ignoring his government stealing children from their parents and putting them in sketchy orphanages. He is able to rationalize putting desperate people in cages. So he could be one of those Germans. But what if his wife was Jewish? Well, she is inside the circle and I wouldn’t be surprised if he became part of the resistance and gave his life trying to smuggle Jews out. He could be a good and noble man, courageous and true, but only for those he sees inside his circle. That’s true of all of us, but some of us just have larger circles.

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  47. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: I think you have this exactly right.

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  48. michael reynolds says:

    @MarkedMan:
    I use a sort of WW2 framework to look at morality, a bit facile, obviously reductionist, but useful for me.

    Category 1: At the top of the moral hierarchy are people like the non-Jewish Dutch families that risked everything to protect Ann Frank’s family. Righteous among the nations.

    Category 2: Then there are the reluctantly decent, the people who may not wear themselves out being righteous but will, when push comes to shove, do the decent thing.

    Category 3: Below that come the Good Germans, the people who never yelled ‘kill all the Jews’ but gosh, they could understand how some people might think that and hey, who knew there would be death camps? Besides, what can ya do, huh?

    Category 4: And then there are Nazis.

    To be clear, I am not in category 1. Those people are better and infinitely braver than me. I would fit in a very small sub-group, call it the Einstein/Princeton category: 2a. People smart enough to know things are going south, and too much a survivor to hang around and either watch passively, collaborate or fight. Not a noble bunch of humans, just a bunch of survivors.

    If this country consisted largely of Category 1, this would be a wonderful country. I used to believe Americans were mostly Category 2 – reluctant heroes who’ll do the right thing even if they whine about it. Sadly, no, we are mostly Good Germans and Nazis, with very few heroes and not enough reluctant heroes.

    What is depressing about Trump for me is that he made clear to me that for all my misanthropy and cynicism, I was still wildly optimistic about my fellow Americans.

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  49. DrDaveT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    What is depressing about Trump for me is that he made clear to me that for all my misanthropy and cynicism, I was still wildly optimistic about my fellow Americans.

    Yeah, same here. Or perhaps #MeToo.

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