May. 17th, 2017

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This is kind of long, because I want to bring a couple different lines of thought together. Yesterday I was talking to an unfailingly polite old friend of the conservative persuasion, and he said some borderline-paranoid conspiracy-theorist things about the "Deep State" manufacturing scandals about the president - while implying that he wasn't fully on board with it, just thinking about it - and I suddenly saw a common thread to a bunch of other things I've seen over the years. But let me go at it a little obliquely.

A couple of years ago I was watching a video of Senator Rand Paul questioning a deputy secretary of, I think, education. The context was the budget, of course, and the secretary was defending a request for X million dollars (let's say 50 million) for a specific program - I think it was for a certain sort of disadvantaged-areas education program. The specific amount of money or specific program don't matter for what happened.

Paul asked her "why fifty million dollars?" She gave a professional explanation - that fifty million would see a return of about three times as much in improved economic conditions and reduced need later; the additional education had been projected to result in X amount of increased income, Y amount less government support, Z amount less crime, down the road, for the students enrolled in the program.

Paul said two amazing things. One was pure rhetorical nonsense - "only in government do you see people arguing that by spending money they're saving money." That's such a nonsensical piece of bullshit - he has never heard of investment, never heard of preventative programs (I sure wouldn't want him as my dentist; he'd never admit buying a toothbrush could prevent a root canal) - that I almost missed the other thing he went on to say. And that's the thing I want to talk about.

He went on to say "if you say you can do good with fifty million, why not ask for ten times as much? Why are you only asking for this amount?"

This understandably confused the secretary, who nevertheless tried gamely to suggest what might be done with ten times as much, but said that she knew there was a limited budget and she had to prioritize.

Paul persisted in the question, thinking he was making a point. And it suddenly struck me - he's a true believer. He thinks he's a Randian superman, facing a Randian moocher. He not only didn't believe what she was saying, about the good the money could do - he didn't believe that she believed it either.

It's not just that he was assuming that the money she was asking for would be better off not being spent. That's a common conservative position. It was that he was completely convinced a priori that she thought so too. That she was asking for money for no reason other than that it was her job to ask for money, and to try to get as much money as possible. Not to accomplish any task, not to help people, not to fulfill the priorities of her department. Just to get money. What he was saying could only make sense if he was assuming she thought everything she was saying was distracting nonsense.

Maybe I noticed it just because it was during the three-year-long book review of Atlas Shrugged being done by the daylightatheism blog, and so the mindset was front and center in what I was thinking about. But the lack of empathy and the curious blindness about the perspective of others made me sit back and blink a lot.

It's a peculiar sort of world blindness. It's not only a buy-in to a particular worldview's morality play, it's a failure to recognize that others are not seeing the same morality play. That the villains in your story do not see themselves as the villains of your story.

I don't know if I described that right. It's the difference between thinking that what someone is saying is wrong, and having the unquestioning conviction that the other person also knows that what they're saying is wrong.

It got me thinking. There's another place you see this - a subset of religious conservatives, the ones who (among other things) consume the Left Behind novels. There's a specific attitude a lot of them have about religion: not only are they completely convinced of the rightness of their faith, they have the unquestioned assumption that everyone else in the world knows the Christians are right, and simply operates out of a choice to deny the obvious rightness of their view. They literally do not understand someone who follows some other religion out of an equally sincere commitment to a different faith. They believe, completely, that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and everyone else knows that they are following "pagan" faiths that deny the obviously-real divinity of Christ. That not only is the divinity of Christ obvious to them, but that it is obvious to everyone.

Phrased that way it's then easy to see why they think everyone who isn't Christian lacks such fundamental virtues as honesty and trustworthiness.

The lack of appreciation that others simply do not accept the paradigm you accept is the common thread.

This brings me back around to my conservative friend. His conspiracy theory about the "Deep State" is that the entire US government bureaucracy is committed to one thing only, its self-preservation. It is not there to provide services, to keep us out of wars, to protect the environment, educate the country, stop foreign spies, safeguard our nuclear materials, ensure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, establish justice, or anything else. He assumes it is all there to perpetuate itself. And what's more, he believes that everyone with a job in government holds the same view. There's no room in his conspiracy theory for idealism, for patriots who want to make their country better, dedicating their careers to government work. He assumes all real patriots go into private industry.

Because there's no other way his Deep State conspiracy theory could work. His conspiracy theory is that the scandals that plague the current president (and others like him) are the work of bureaucrats desperate to protect their own livelihoods against a political movement that seeks to (his most telling words) "cull the herd".

For the conspiracy theory to work an immense number of government bureaucrats need to be in on it - and not a single one is willing to blow the whistle and reveal the deception.

It's not just a belief that what the government does is worthless. It's a worldview where he has to assume everyone working for the government also believes that what the government does is worthless.

It's an inability to see a different worldview.

Do I think this is confined to the Right? Well, actually, not exactly, but that's mostly for another long essay. I do think that when people on our side say "conservatives want people like me to die", or "there are no honest conservatives", I think they're doing something that's at least a little similar. As I say, that's for another time.


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