Friday, August 28, 2009

AmeriCorps: the most dangerous army in America

Have you ever worked in AmeriCorps? Do you have friends in Americorps? What about the Peace Corps? Here's what the Republican Party thinks about you:

Yes, because there's nothing more threatening than a bunch of granola-wearing college kids with paint brushes and potting soil. Better grab yer guns!

A couple of highlights:
  • Beck claims President Obama is increasing funding for AmeriCorps to "half a trillion dollars" a year (roughly what we spend on defense each year)--and the guests don't even correct him! You can tell the Heritage foundation guy was a little taken aback by the error from the way he pauses, but he just runs with it.
  • The guy on the left starts his critique by saying, "Now I'm not comparing the President to Saddam Hussein or Hitler"... before he goes on to compare the President to Saddam and Hitler. Classic doublespeak. Beginning with the words "Now I'm not saying..." allows him to place an outlandish claim in the viewer's mind while simultaneously pretending that he never actually meant it that way. Even Glenn Beck gets it.

Humans have evolved a variety of mechanisms for making quick decisions without having to resort to time-consuming rational thought. It makes sense - if a lion jumps out of the bush, you don't want to have to calculate the time it takes him to reach you versus the time it takes you to climb back up the tree, before deciding between fight or flight.

Similarly, in politics, most people evaluate candidates and issues through mental shortcuts. One of these shortcuts is party identification: you attach yourself to one party early in life, and subsequently filter out information that doesn't align to that party's positions.

Another shortcut is what I call the "laugh test." As we go through life, we develop a sense for the range of what is "normal," based on the experiences we collect and the stories we hear from authority figures and peers. When pols make claims about themselves or opponents, this gut feel helps us evaluate those claims as being true, merely possible, or completely outlandish.

So for example, when a TV host asserts that the President of the United States is plotting to turn a community service organization into a 21st century Nazi SS, such a claim falls outside the range of most people's ordinary experience; it does not pass the "laugh test," and we can quickly dismiss it as rubbish and move on with our lives.

Glenn Beck has 3 million viewers and growing. The Republican Party's most prominent leader, Sarah Palin, says he's doing "an extraordinary job." What does it say about people whose "laugh test" is so distorted that they could accept the possibility that the President is building a personal Nazi army? When those mental shortcuts are the same ones being used to inform these people's choices on a whole range of decisions, what does that say about the health of our democracy?

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