Tag Archives: Lakoff

The Root of All Evil

A Biblical quotation worked its way into the popular vernacular a long time ago: the love of money is the root of all evil. The quote is often abbreviated to “money is the root of all evil.”  I have no idea whether the attribution to Apostle Paul is correct, but I also don’t care. I don’t believe either version of it is true.

The love of money, like the love of many other things, both physical and otherwise, can certainly lead to problematic outcomes. But the opposite of love can equally lead to problematic outcomes. There are just too many problematic outcomes to assign all the blame on love of money or just on money. When I think about this, I am reminded of the wonderful Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

In my view, ignorance is the real root of all evil. Donald Trump once said, “I love the poorly educated!” He knew something that had apparently escaped the notice of even experienced political analysts. It’s not that the “poorly educated” are unintelligent. Many of them are quite intelligent and can perform many tasks effectively. They can be successful in many lines of commerce and in life generally.

On the other hand, the “poorly educated” may be susceptible to believing misinformation/false information because they have not been exposed to the discipline of education and have not undertaken to study on their own. But they are not alone in that, so being poorly educated is neither explanation nor excuse, despite Trump’s claimed admiration for them. During the height of the pandemic, we saw nurses and doctors embrace conspiracy theories, promote quack remedies for COVID and resist vaccination. And many members of Congress who support insane conspiracy theories and engage in traitorous and illegal activities are highly educated.

The problem is more complicated than the simple explanation that the “poorly educated” mistakenly thought Trump as president would be good for them. In trying to understand this, I have read numerous books, articles, theories, and studies. Most recently I discovered Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild, professor emeritum of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of many notable books. The book was a 2016 Finalist for the National Book Award. This work is based on her personal research conducted in post-Katrina, post-Deepwater Horizon coastal Louisiana. The date of publication, 2016, was just before Trump was elected president and all that ensued. The book nevertheless seems wholly predictive of everything that followed.

Hochschild defined her mission at the outset as an effort to explore feelings, the “emotion in politics.” Strangers at 15. Some of those feelings were disturbing – she notes that “reminders of the racial divide were everywhere.” Strangers at 20. She did not draw much on that fact of coastal Louisiana life but indirectly seemed to acknowledge its abiding and broad influence on political life there.

Strangers focuses on what Hochschild calls the Great Paradox, stated roughly as the massive disconnect between the economic and life interests of the local people and their devotion to the Tea Party which was in full flower in the period covered. The locals were adamantly opposed to regulation, especially federal regulation, that might help restore the opportunity to continue the livelihoods they had pursued for generations in fishing/hunting/farming the abundant natural resources of coastal Louisiana.

One of the Tea Party’s darlings was Bobby Jindal. As Hochschild notes at the end of the book, Louisiana was left a “shambles” after eight years of Tea Party-style leadership by Governor Jindal. Yet his support among locals never waned. They bought into the capitalism mythology completely. Such devotion also led to support for Republican congressman David Vitter who opposed all federal environmental intervention, voted to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency and more. Strangers at 48.

The author said she was struck by what political candidates avoided in their pitches to voters: “that the state ranks 49th out of 50 on an index of human development, that Louisiana is the second poorest state, that 44 percent of its budget comes from the federal government – the Great Paradox.” Strangers at 59. People with little to begin with worried more about what others were getting (“non-working, non-deserving people”) than about destruction of the environment or years lost to bad health conditions.  Somehow this was seen as a loss of “honor” and that was more important than more tangible issues. Strangers at 60-61.

They knew that Big Oil and Big Chemical had undeniably wrecked the local environment, but they adhered to the mythology that the companies also brought jobs and other economic benefits that could not be secured under any form of regulation. They concluded that the honorable thing was to muddle through, accepting their fate while continuing to assert their” principles.”

Hochschild notes three paths by which Tea Party believers arrived at their profound dislike for the federal government:

their religious faith (the government curtailed the church, they felt),

hatred of taxes (which they saw as too high and too progressive), and

the government’s impact on their loss of honor …. [Strangers at 35]

They bought into the belief that taxes went to lazy welfare cheats and “government workers in cushy jobs.” Id. They thought climate change was bogus science. They resented what they perceived to be bias against the “little guy,” meaning mainly the little white guy, and interference with the role of God in overseeing humanity. Strangers at 52. Those are easy myths for resentful people to embrace without having to make the effort to understand complex systems and ideas. Indeed, for many, the outcome was in the hands of their God and humans thus had little responsibility for outcomes.

In portents of things to come, Hochschild notes that at the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana meeting,

I heard a great deal about freedom in the sense of freedom to – to talk on your cellphone as you drove a car, to pick up a drive-in daiquiri with straw on the side, to walk about with a loaded gun. But there was almost no talk about freedom from such things as gun violence, car accidents, or toxic pollution. [Strangers at 71]

The perplexing reality is that people living with more pollution are more likely to believe in less regulation and more likely to be Republicans. Strangers at 79. This mental orientation set them up for manipulation and exploitation.

The initial tip to the problem of the book’s analysis comes at the beginning. Hochschild observes that the reason for population shifts in the United States had changed: people moved less to find better jobs, housing or (she didn’t mention this) education but rather to align more closely with people of similar political views. The sharpening of political division is, she says, attributable to the ‘right moving right.’ Strangers at 6-7. She recounts the dire economic conditions afflicting the southern states, Louisiana being among the worst of the worst:

Given such an array of challenges, one might expect people to welcome federal help. In truth, a very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states – in the case of Louisiana, 44 percent – do come from federal funds. $2,400 is given by the federal government per Louisianan per year.

But Mike S_____ doesn’t welcome that federal money and doubts the science of climate change. “I’ll worry about global warming in fifty years,” he says. Mike loves his state, and he loves the outdoor life. But instead of looking to government, like others in the Tea Party, he turns to the free market. [Strangers at 9]

He turns to the same “free market” exploited by Big Oil and others to wreak havoc on the state that Mike purported to love so much. Thus, again, the Great Paradox.

The other major theme in the book is the Deep Story, the myths by which social groups, or tribes, are developed and sustained. Strangers at 135. Here perhaps is the core principle at work. In coastal Louisiana the Tea Party promoted, and locals accepted, the idea that undeserving people were cutting into the line ahead of hard-working “true Americans.” While their perceptions of race are complex, older whites interviewed by Hochschild saw Blacks especially as a problematic class afflicted by special issues not shared by most white people.

Economic class distinctions tracked race and distinguished between “makers” and “takers,” with the latter being the “line-cutters” supported by the federal government, those people unfairly getting ahead of everyone else. This grievance was at the root of many white Louisianans’ attitudes unrelated to the reality of local social and economic standing. Strangers at Ch. 9, and at 157-159.

Despite noting the data showing that “the higher the exposure to environmental pollution the less worried the individual was about it” [Strangers at 253], Hochschild concludes that the continuation of the Great Paradox is not the result of ignorance. [Id.] But that view is remarkable because it’s not supported by most of the data cited in the book. One of dozens of examples is the belief that 40 percent of all U.S. workers are employed by the federal government. The actual figure at the time was 1.9 percent. Strangers at 161.

Such ignorance of economic reality was at the root of many local people’s vigorous resistance to all forms of regulation. Such interventions could have helped to restore the balance of nature and, along with it, the jobs and environment they claimed to cherish. Yet, by and large, they wanted none of it. Hochschild was aware of this because data in Appendix C to the book was often interspersed in the text to illustrate how the real facts refuted the central myths on which the resistance depended. Peoples’ explanations of their views were rife with classical political myths and massively wrong factual beliefs.

Locals that Hochschild interviewed appeared to believe that a woman’s role was to be completely subordinate to her husband. Strangers at 174. This attitude is consistent with the analysis of “what makes a Republican” in George Lakoff’s 1996 Moral Politics that, controversially, applies principles of cognitive science to politics. As summarized in Wikipedia:

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different central metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family.

Conspiratorial thinking was also rampant among Hochschild’s subjects. Few people believed science had made the case for global warming. Strangers at e.g., 183. They did not understand what the lives of the seriously poor were like, rejected much historical truth, adopted phantasmagorical solutions dependent upon the “free market” and adopted what has come to be known more recently as “replacement theory.” Strangers at Ch. 14.

In the end, it seemed to me that the author was profoundly fooled by the mannered façade she experienced in her research with the locals whose “good-hearted acceptance” of her, their “great personal warmth and famous Southern hospitality,” misled her to conclude that

in human terms, the [empathy] wall can easily come down. And issue by issue, there is possibility for practical cooperation. [Strangers at 233]

There is nothing in the buildup to the end of the book or in the data set out throughout it that would support such a conclusion. And, of course, the history under Trump’s presidency is the most profound refutation of the “we can all just get along” thesis. The author’s starry-eyed belief in future harmony and progress was, I believe, a grievous error by a researcher whose approach to her study was primarily based on just talking with locals, eating meals with them, and looking at the surrounding conditions that determine their lives and livelihoods.

The book confirms my suspicions in its treatment of the rise of Trump as a political power.

Three elements had come together. Since 1980, virtually all those I talked with felt on shaky economic ground, a fact that made them brace at the very idea of “redistribution.” The also felt culturally marginalized: their views about abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, race, guns, and the Confederate flag all were held up to ridicule in the national media as backward. And they felt part of a demographic decline; “there are fewer and fewer white Christians like us….”        [Strangers at 221]

Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land. The whole context of Louisiana – its companies, its government, its church and media – reinforces that deep story. [Strangersat 222]

Trump, consciously or otherwise, fed this sense of disaffection and loss.

His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated … in a state of rapture… no longer strangers in their own land. [Strangers at 225]

Rapture indeed. This degree of magical thinking is beyond imagining: a Pew Research Center 2010 study reported that “41 percent of all Americans believe the Second Coming “probably” or “definitely” will happen by the year 2050.” Strangers at 125. Hochschild labels them “victims without a language of victimhood.” Strangers at 131, a missing element that Donald Trump readily supplied.

My overall conclusion about this book is that the people it discusses suffer from a central fatal flaw: they mistakenly believed that the land belonged to them in the sense that the whole of it was their natural right. Anything that challenged that idea was alien, undermining their sense of “our land.” This, I think, is about as un-American a concept as you will find. It ignores history, economic reality, and the nature of democracy. The root concept that “this land is ours then, now and always,” meaning us God-fearing white people who have an entitlement that others are unjustly trying to steal, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the country, its origins, and its development.

This issue may be connected to education, but I suspect it’s much deeper than that. The possessory and superiority components of these cultural beliefs leave these people vulnerable to the “it’s ok to hate” message from a demagogue like Donald Trump who lacks any core value system of principles except greed. These people have less to fear from interlopers than from their own ignorance.

The problem, however, is that someone so ignorant is usually unaware of his ignorance and simply feels put upon by the forces of change. He just wants what he thought he had before, notwithstanding that the oil-based economy was a complete fraud on coastal Louisiana society, wrecking the environment while failing to deliver the economic benefits that locals were sure existed. It’s also often true that the ignorant are unwilling to learn; they lack empathy and see others’ gains mainly as their losses.

I don’t want to be told I’m a bad person if I don’t feel sorry for that [sick African child on TV with Christiane Amanpour]” Strangers at 128.

But even those who fancy ourselves as “not ignorant” are capable of delusional thinking. I have confessed multiple times to having fundamentally misunderstood the degree of disfunction in the country. I thought the election of Barack Obama was a sign that, overall, the country had changed. That was wrong.

The essential proof is that despite his record of lies, incompetence and corruption, Trump received 74 million votes in 2020. Joe Biden received many more, of course, but the thinnest of margins remains in both houses of Congress. People with short term concerns about things like inflation, and no or limited understanding of its causes, may drive the country back into an abyss from which democracy may not re-emerge. It can happen here. Only the voters can prevent it.

I heard recently from a reliable source that many young people, in their 20’s and 30’s, may not feel they are much affected by what is happening in politics. That absence of perceived impact often makes them indifferent to the outcome of critical issues. If that is true, we are in even more trouble than I imagined.

Republicans are highly motivated by their grievances and can be expected to turn out in large numbers in the 2022 mid-terms. If Democrats stay home, it’s game over. You have been warned.