2008 US election, John McCain, politics, Sarah Palin, United States

The Frightening Logic of Irrationality

I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly;
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed,
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

Titus Andronicus, Act V, Scene i

There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.

Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, 27 January 1838

I’ll let you in on a little secret: My maternal Grandmother (who passed away last year) was born in Chicago, Illinois. I was fortunate enough to know her mother, my Great-Grandmother, who grew up in Chicago during the Twenties, and experienced the antics of Al Capone and others as she entered her teen years. I listened to her stories of her youth with great interest, and I regret not listening much more. I still have relatives in the United States, and, as a result, I feel a certain slight kinship with, and a little bit of affinity to, my American cousins.

Which is why I am moved to put down a word or two about what I fear may be a logical next step in the Republican politics of hatred and division. We’ve all seen the video, and read the accounts of the results of the slander and innuendo levelled at Barack Obama, who, in my opinion, is as noble an American as has been produced. The cries of, “Kill him!”, and “Off with his head” from the rabid crowds at the Republican rallies have been documented, and are in part to blame for the increasing level of disaffection for the McCain-Palin machine, even among conservatives. The tenuous grasp of issues and clear evidence of corruption aside, that the Republicans can still be considered competitive in any sense is troubling. I have, as a student of collective behavior, been increasingly troubled by the emotional, anti-intellectual path the GOP has been taking. The debates, such as they are, are increasingly polarized, with no grey area allowed in the black/white dichotomy offered by Palin in particular.

Crowds are unusual, irrational organisms, within which the individual members can lose any semblance of an internal conscience or conception of appropriate restraint. All it takes is for one member of the group, whipped to a frenzy by sufficient emotion (or troubled enough by a mental illness), to take a step over the boundaries of rational society, and the anonymity of the collective will remove the usual constraints on the behavior of the others. This one individual, the passionate or psychopathic follower, that becomes the catalyst for the wave of collective emotional frenzy inherent in the uncontrollable mob, has been responsible for a litany of terrors, miseries, injustices, and abuses throughout human history. The ‘caster of the first stone’ is the fulcrum upon which the worst of human history rests.

The message implicit within the McCain/Palin rhetoric is, as it has been throughout the Bush presidency, an appeal to fear. Fear of terrorism, fear of death, fear of loss of prestige, fear of the unknown brown-skinned ‘other’. The anti-intellectual mantra that creates the feeling of desperation felt by many, particularly in the conservative lower-middle classes, is not based on an analysis or understanding of issues, but on the search for comfort and safety and sameness offered by the Republican fear-mongers. The repeated meme of the false dichotomy, the “with us or agin’ us”, has been discussed clearly by my colleagues, I don’t need to describe it. What the Republicans have created is a large, anonymous, faceless, emotionally volatile, thoughtless, ignorant monster. Which is the source of my current anxiety as an observer of American politics. I have one very basic fear of what may happen, based on the emotional volatility of the campaign and the societal vulnerability of America during the current economic crisis. This may be as irrational as every other manufactured fear, and I sincerely hope that I’m wrong, but the pattern is not necessarily a new one:

A Democratic candidate. A Senator. One who has ideals and the will to see them come to fruition, who appeals to the disenfranchised and provides a vision of hope during a troubled time in American history. All is well, and it seems that maybe, just maybe, hope has a chance to triumph over fear and discord.

And then, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on June 4, 1968.

This is what I fear most. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen soon. If an attempt on Senator Obama were unsuccessful, the wave carrying him to the White House would likely be unstoppable. If successful… America is so fundamentally polarized that it may find itself embroiled in an ongoing war of racial and class hatred such as the world has never seen.

The creation of the irrational monster described above from the pool of willfully ignorant followers of hateful demagogues (who, I would expect, are part of a rather similar demographic to the NRA), as well as those evangelicals who may easily be exhorted to do god’s will, is the creation of a deadly weapon with no conscience, no restraint, and the ability to see the murder of Barack Obama as desirable, if not necessary.

As always, as history rolls on, we can only hope for the best, and hope that Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” win out for our American cousins.

Note: On the suggestion of  reader Tide Waters, I have changed the title of the post slightly to better reflect its content.


3 thoughts on “The Frightening Logic of Irrationality

  1. Am sympathetic to the content of your post and largely agree with your sentiments. However, the title immediately got my attention because of its having given the emotions a bad rap.

    Without the emotions, any behaviour intended to be guided purely by the workings of the pre-frontal cortex would be paralysed.

    It isn’t human emotion which is at fault in the scenarios you describe. It is those who would manipulate such a necessary survival mechanism.


  2. Good point. Probably should have indicated that I was also referring to extreme emotion – I have also excluded empathy and compassion, which might have precluded this whole scenario.


  3. Isn’t “manipulat(ing) such a necessary survival mechanism” at the heart of advertising? I note that the McPalin campaign has begun ratcheting up the “Obama is a socialist” theme. I don’t want this type of shit to work, but I fear it will. I’m still holding on to the fear in the pit of my stomach that Obama loses next week.


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