Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Better Definition of Racism

Jacqueminot Roses-
Martin Johnson Heade (c.1890)
An interesting fact: many Trump supporters voted for Obama in the past two elections. This would seem prima facie evidence that Trump's racism couldn't have held appeal for them.

However, we need to remember that most racism is not a conscious dislike of minorities. Most people who engage in racism do not identify as racists and legitimately believe they have no problem with them. BUT. Racism is a tendency to not treat minorities as equals. For instance, having higher standards for their behavior, or not trying as hard to put oneself in their shoes, or being quicker to judge them more harshly, or not cut them as much slack as they deserve. The classic example of this for me is the grammarian who hates it when blacks say "axe" a question and demands they speak "proper english", yet ignores they many ways whites engage in improper english, such as when as saying "ummana" instead of I'm going to. To the extent that one is applying a different standard to blacks, they are engaging in racism. And we all do it, in many ways, from major to minor biases. In this way I can see someone voting for Obama, but then buying into birtherism, or ideas that he he a Muslim, or that he hates white people. All of these depend simply on cutting him less slack as a member of a historically oppressed group which he has unconscious biases against.

I can see him becoming more and more incensed at the notion that illegal immigrants are parasites who are taking our jobs and suckling at the government teet, as opposed to desperate people who merely want the best for their families who are OK with breaking a few abstract rules in order to work hard to give them a better life, all the while paying taxes and receiving zero government assistance. And yet because they are Spanish-speaking, brown skinned, and not "his people", he finds it easier to be less empathetic, less kind, less compassionate: in other words behaving words towards them because of their ethnicity.

Ditto for Muslims. Ditto for gays.

The standard definition of racism is put thusly:
"the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races."
By this definition, most Trump supporters are not racists: they do not profess this belief.

But what is the moral problem with racism?  Sure, it is an incorrect assessment of the biology of fellow man.  It is an incorrect belief.  But isn't the real problem the actual way we treat one another?  When racism was enshrined in law, it had actual effects.  But that was only a formal oppression.  The daily lived harm came when minorities were not treated as equals.  Their foibles were not forgiven at the same rate.  They were held with more suspicion.  They were kept at arms length.  They were the other.

What if instead we were to define racism like this:
"acting as if all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races."

That is to say, to treat different races differently.  There need be no master plan.  There need be no calculations and tabulations.  There need only be thought and deed.  Or maybe just deed...

This is the racism we see perpetrated all across America everyday.  This is the racism that people are accused of, and then deny.  They're defense: they are not racists: they believe everyone is equal.  But like the lover who professes his love but doesn't show it, or the friend who pledges loyalty but acts otherwise, racism is deeds not words.  As the old phrase goes, everyone is above average.  Jerks don't believe in being jerks.  Assholes don't set out to be assholes.  They believe in kindness and consideration.

They just don't show it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Big Trouble in Little Iowa

I recently wrote at length on Trumpism viewed through a behavioral lens. I thought I'd post this as it's a more simplified, digestible version. 

What we've seen in this election, more than anything else, is the rural cultural identity of the white/Christian/heterosexual/gender-conformist reacting against the notion that they are no longer considered superior. This narrative has been playing out on the right for decades, growing in strength alongside the rise of multiculturalism, feminism, LGBT awareness and strength. To hear the mythology, one would think these different groups are somehow taking over and oppressing the WCHGCs. Yet examine the actual events and one finds no removal of rights, but rather modest requests for polite inclusion - bake a gay cake too, say happy holidays instead of Merry christmas, add a girls soccer team, build a wheelchair ramp, don't mention Jesus in your opening statement, don't bully a feminine boy, try to hire some more women and minorities. This is hardly oppression. 

As a behaviorist, I think of the term "exctinction burst". This describes the tendency for people to engage in maladaptive behaviors (anger, yelling, violence) when behaviors they have previously been reinforced for engaging in are no longer reinforced - or placed on "exctinction". It's a natural process, and ought to fade in time, as long as the reinforcement is withheld. Unfortunately, if people remain in social groups that cling to these chauvinist behaviors (we include thoughts as behaviors), they will remain reinforced, and in a perpetual state of anger. This is especially true as the cosmopolitan dominated media and academia remain dominated by progressive values that oppose chauvinism.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Strange Boots

I've struggled to place myself in the shoes of Republicans who disliked Trump, but voted for their party anyway.

I start with someone who believes in my core progressive ideology -  pro-choice, government services for the poor, regulations, climate change, healthcare, higher taxes, etc. - but then expresses paranoid, racist and misogynist sentiments.  I can kind of imagine it, however there's really nothing like that on the left, where on the right you have an entire culture devoted to it (the 50% polled who seemed to express similar feelings to Trump - the "deplorables").

I find it hard to imagine.  Much of what is frightening about Trump is not just his bigotry but his authoritarian tendencies, seemingly born out of a hyper-masculine machismo which I am also allergic too, yet which is also a popular disposition on the right.  By itself, machismo isn't necessarily problematic, but in the context of larger retrograde attitudes, it takes on a bullying, chauvinist quality.

So I imagine these non-Trumpist Republicans as disgusted by his racial bigotry (the homophobic policies I'm assuming they're quite amenable to), embarrassed by his dim-witted bloviations, his crassness making them wince.  But he's also likely much more of a recognizable type, the kind of fellow not uncommon in right wing circles, be it leather-upholstered backroom offices or at the opposite end of a construction yard.  They are used to seeing him, tolerating him, even appreciating his git-r-done brashness all-the-while shaking their heads and rolling their eyes.

So now he's been nominated and, well, as long as he's surrounded by enough good old boys, he'll generally continue policies we want: dismantle Obamacare, cut up climate change regulations, stand athwart the gun rack, appoint conservative justices who might just finally end the fetal holocaust, and with any luck nuke ISIS.

I take solace in the fact that, while I disagree with these policy choices, they don't necessarily represent moral monstrosity.  They don't actually want to violently march into neighborhoods and rip apart undocumented families.  They don't actually want to ban Muslims.  They don't actually want to waterboard-and-then-some.  They don't believe in crazy conspiracy theories.  They don't read Breitbart.

However, their party nominated someone who does.  They have to live with the fact that they are in bed with this movement, which has consumed them.  At what point do you decide to leave?  We'll see.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Reinforce the Behavior You Want

Currier and Ives print , 1894
If I could boil down everything I have learned in behaviorism to one piece of useful advice, it would be this:
Reinforce the behavior you want.

In radical behaviorism, everything we do is a behavior.  This includes our physical actions that can be observed by others, as well as our thoughts and feelings - the "private events" that can only be felt by ourselves.  The term reinforcement refers to any stimuli that occurs after we engage in a behavior that increases or maintains that behavior.  Common reinforcers in our lives are generally things that cause us pleasure - sweets, nice smells, soft blankets, pretty music, hugs, kisses, smiles.   Reinforcement can also come from the removal of something we don't like - for instance putting up an umbrella on a rainy day is taking away the cold rain and thus reinforces the behavior of putting up an umbrella.  Punishment is the opposite: a stimulus that occurs after a behavior that weakens or stops the behavior from occurring in the future.  But for today I want to focus on reinforcement.

As you can imagine, at any given moment, we are engaging in an enormous number of behaviors.  We are looking with our eyes, listening with our ears, feeling with our skin, pushing our muscles about into different positions.  Each of these actions takes place in interaction with the environment.  We see colors, we feel textures, push against objects.  We also feel physiological changes in our bodies, such as emotions, pain or pleasure.  Part of our awareness of this is of the physiological effects such as goosebumps, tightening of stomach muscles or quickening pulse.  But it is also the relationship between events over time: we are sad because we aren't deriving joy from normally joyful activities.  Or we are excited because we are jumping up and down.

In radical behaviorism, "we" aren't actually the cause of any of these behaviors.  Rather, our bodies take place in a continuum between past and future events in which our genetic make-up is interacting with the world around us, continuously forming a "learning history".  There is no "self", an entity somehow removed from the physical body that is processing information - "thinking" - and then choosing how to act.  Thinking is a behavior like any other, and it is a result of environmental and physical interactions.

An example: someone asks you what you would like to eat for dinner.  You say, "Just a minute, let me think about it."  At this point, there is no "you" who is processing information and then relaying it back to the physical world.  Rather, the verbal question is a series of conditioned stimuli - "like to eat" and "dinner" refer to activities you have previously experienced and/or made associations with.  These associations evoke in you a series of conditioned responses.  You are now under social pressure to answer - you have learned the consequences for not answering (there also consequences for answering).  So you are prompted to engage in the behavior of emitting verbal behavior to the questioner that relate to the verbal stimuli in the question.  "What" and "you" places emphasis on your responding.  "Eat" and "dinner" are the cues as to what associations to make.  You then engage in the learned behavior of associating - literally and briefly experiencing relative pleasure sensations of the places that you have eaten, were thus relatively reinforcing, and to which a value can be assigned according to which is more or less powerful.

Whew.  All of this is quite complex.  And I was only scratching the surface.  The truth is that we are all engaged in an incredibly complex series of behaviors, moment to moment, as we go about our day.  Engaging in verbal behavior, whether with other people or with books, magazines or other verbal materials, is the most complex behavior  - literally, in the universe.  The causal chain between stimuli in the environment over our individual learning histories in the past and our current behavior in the environment of the present is tremendously complicated.

 The science of behavior has identified predictable patterns of behavior in which responses are allocated according to the schedule of reinforcement over time in which we are living our lives.  Behaviorists will often refer to all of this this as a "sea of reinforcement".  We live our lives in this sea, little boats us, traveling about based on the environment in which we sail.

As members of society - friends, family, co-workers, voters - our actions have effects on others.  Indeed, the science of behavior tells us that the behavior of individuals is determined in large part by the society in which they grow up and live their lives.  From birth, they set sail on the sea of reinforcement.  How many hugs they get, how much time they spend ignored.  How many kind words they receive, or how many harsh threats.   More importantly, what behavior they were engaging before the stimuli occurred is or is not being reinforced.  If the child asks an inquisitive question about a novel item and is rewarded with attention - an explanatory response - they will be more likely to ask inquisitive questions.  (Indeed, their private behavior of "inquisitive thinking" will be reinforced).  If, however, they receive no response, this behavior will not be reinforced.  In behaviorism, this is called "extinction": a previously reinforced behavior that occurs yet receives no reinforcement will be less likely to occur.

(I've written on this blog many times before about the classic Hart and Risley study which developed longitudinal data on this very phenomenon among different socio-economic groups.  The study was landmark in pointing to the effects of socio-economic disadvantage on children's language development.  Todd Hart was a founding contributor to The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.)

Reinforcement isn't only about the behaviors you want.  It works just as well on those you don't.  When people engage in bad behaviors - we would call them "maladaptive" - these have previously been reinforced in their learning history.  They have learned these behavioral repertoires because they have been functional for them in some way; they have been rewarded for them.  Kids learn quickly how effective screaming can be to get what they want.  When that doesn't, a swift push or punch also does the trick.  All manner of attention-seeking behaviors can be observed in everyone from small children to adults.  Look at how much reinforcement Donald Trump receives for his antics.

This becomes difficult to understand when the bad behavior seems self-destructive.  Why does the school-yard trouble maker continue to goof-off in class and alienate himself on the playground?  Wouldn't doing his work and being kind earn the kind of accolades and friendship any kid would want?  Why does he "choose" to behave this way?  Classical terms for these children (and adults) are mentalistic - they originate cause in the "mind" of the individual, as opposed to the environmental learning history.  They place moral judgment on him for "choosing" to engage in maladaptive behaviors instead of appropriate behaviors.  We call him "lazy", "mean" or "hyperactive".  In assuming that he could have done otherwise, we allow morality to enter the picture, asserting that he has failed in his obligation to follow moral rules.  We place responsibility for his actions within him, as if he could have possibly done any different.  Of course, there is morality - right and wrong.  But the error we make as a society is in blaming the individual instead of the "sea of reinforcement" in which the individual is operating.

The science of behavior has established that this framing and use of mentalistic terms are unnecessary.  A parsimonious account of all behavior can be made that is deterministic and lawful, and is certainly at least as explanatory as an mentalistic account (which isn't really an account at all but rather an appeal to circularity: one is lazy because one acts lazy, which is the cause of one's laziness).   Behaviors are a function of and contingent upon schedules of reinforcement and punishment.  There is nothing about a mentalistic account that explains anything that a radical behaviorist account of actions cannot.  Of course, we will never have access to an individual's entire learning history.  However, we can review patterns of previous behavior, take stock of the current environment, and if necessary do a functional analysis.  A functional analysis involves manipulating environmental variables to isolate relationships between the independent variable (the environmental condition) and the dependent variable (the behavior).  For instance, if a behavior is maintained by gaining access to a preferred item, removing the item will increase the behavior while returning the item will decrease it.

For the troubled kid at school, the behavior is most likely not new, and takes place in a context of a learning history in which certain events in the environment trigger a behavior and then it is reinforced.  It could be a variety of things, but commonly with these kids it is escape from demanding tasks, and a desire for attention.  The bad behavior occurs and the demands are temporarily removed.  The behavior is then reinforced when the child is reprimanded.  A vicious cycle develops where the majority of social attention the child receives comes in the form of reprimands - or sometimes laughter from other students - which reinforces the bad behavior.  Years of this go by.  Often times home life isn't so good.  There are likely few times in the child's day in which he is being reinforced for good behavior.  No one pays attention to him when he is quietly sitting in his seat.  Teachers are likely happy no not have to be dealing with him for the moment.

Interestingly, many teachers are not trained behaviorally and end up reinforcing bad behaviors and then wondering why they continue.  The child typically stops when they reprimand him, giving them a momentary reprieve, which reinforces their reprimanding behavior.  The best thing for a teacher to do is likely to ignore the misbehavior and focus on the positive behavior.  Of course, it is difficult to do this in a classroom filled with other children.  But if the behavior is being reinforced by attention, we don't want to give it any.

However, what these children need is for their appropriate behaviors to be reinforced.  What is it we want them to be doing?  Listening quietly.  Raising their hands.  Tolerating demands.  Expressing themselves via words.  Being kind to others.  Sharing.  Caring.  They need extra reinforcement when they engage in each of these.  Ideally, we would be able to be continuously monitoring them and doling out the reinforcement for each of these behaviors.  We want them to increase and happen all the time!  We want to reinforce the behaviors we want to increase, and place the maladaptive behaviors on extinction.

The nice thing about good behaviors is that they actually do bring their own naturally reinforcing consequences - having learned to ride a bike, many new pleasures are now available!  Artificial reinforcement can then be thinned as the individual comes into contact with natural reinforcement.  But they have to occur often enough and consistently enough.  One schoolyard punch can harm many days of polite caring and sharing behavior.  But sharing and caring brings friendships, fun activities and lots of social praise.  Tolerating demands placed allows one to learn easier, faster, and with more joy.

So how does one reinforce the behaviors one wishes to see in others?  By making them happy, essentially, after they have behaved appropriately.  Social praise is the easiest and most common conditioned reinforcer.  Compliment them.  Show them how much you care.  Give them a friendly slap on the back.  Give them, a smile.  Give them a hug.  A classic teacher phrase ought to be applied throughout life: catch them being good.

In Applied Behavior Analysis, we focus on the positives.  Inappropriate behavior needs to be corrected, and there are specific ways of doing that that are simple and effective.  But even more important are the alternative, replacement behaviors that we want them to engage in instead.  These sometimes need to be taught explicitly.  But generally, people already engage in them yet may not be getting sufficient reinforcement to engage in them at a high rate.  The nice thing about focusing on the positives is that they feel good for both parties.  In relationships, a little positivity can go a long way.  A nagging partner can do everyone a favor and pay attention to when the correct behavior is emitted.  If the individual isn't taking out the trash frequently enough, try heaping on the praise when they do it.  This will increase the rate of responding.  Ditto for paying attention when the partner is talking.  When they do it, make sure to lean over and give them a kiss, a hug or a squeeze.  You don't necessarily need to use verbal language to communicate praise.  You just need to make them feel good.  The behavior will be reinforced.

This isn't always easy.  We operate under our own schedules of reinforcement.  Our behavior of reinforcing the behavior we want is itself a function of schedules of reinforcement.  Maybe we don't have a learning history of praising others, or showing them affection.  Maybe instead our behavior of nagging or finding negatives has been reinforced.  In men, showing affection towards other men is actually frequently punished in children: homophobic culture reinforces behavior that seeks to punish small boys who engage in affection towards one another at a relatively young age.  Social praise can be delivered in other ways, yet physical affection and compliments are often met with statements along the lines of, "what, are you gay or something!"

It also takes a lot of patience to ignore someone's bad behaviors and emphasize the positive.  I'm certainly no saint myself.  We have a long tradition in our religions of placing a high value on behaviors such as compassion, humility, generosity and turning the other cheek.  We venerate those who are able to remain dignified, and rather than seek immediate retribution, instead find the good in others.  This is what Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama are all known for.  The current pope Francis is widely beloved for just this sort of attitude.

But what is "finding the good in others", but reinforcing the behavior we wish to see?

It isn't easy, but it makes the world a better place.  We all help each other.  We all create each other.  We are all in this together and responsible for one another's behavior.  Ultimately, there is no you or I, only us.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tomato Sauce Fingers

Harold Pollock writes of his experiences with his brother-in-law with an intellectual disability.  He finds that lower-class restaurants seem more forgiving than those of the well-to-do:
I hate taking Vincent to pricey restaurants mostly filled with my own educational/income peers. People say all the kind things. Yet it’s not uncommon for customers at nearby tables to make us feel uncomfortable when a few chunks of Vincent’s chicken ends up on his shirt or to visibly fidget when he detracts from their elegant dining experience by allowing his fingers to migrate into the tomato sauce.
I was at an IEP meeting yesterday at a largely upper-SES middle school.  So far the child, who suffered greatly from anxiety, was having a terrific year.  The special education coordinator, new to the area, commented at how impressed she was by the tenor of the school: there was just a polite, friendly atmosphere among the students.  In fact, her friend, a substitute teacher, simply refused to take assignments anywhere else.

I was immediately reminded of the experiences I had teaching in various different schools, in various SES populations.  At the "nice" schools (read wealthier, whiter, parents more educated, etc.) one entered a campus of relaxed kids relatively calmly, playfully chatting before hustling up their well-organized bags when the bell rang.  At the "poor" schools (less income, less education, minority), the mood was tense, louder, argumentative, with negative comments and hostility in the air.  You can imagine how this carried over into the classroom.  Often the "best" teachers in the poor schools were those comfortable with an authoritarian, implicitly violent attitude that demanded (and got) obedience.  In the "nicer" schools, the teachers could be jovial, nurturing and compassionate and the students would generally respond in kind.

So these idyllic upper-SES communities are indeed delicate flowers in many ways.  The greatest irony of my life is for all my passion on issues of SES inequality, I send my two kids to upper-SES public schools surrounded by children who come from intact families, who were read to every night by parents who are doctors, lawyers, business-owners or otherwise highly educated.  Yet after having spent so much time in classrooms filled with children who come to school stressed-out, with not enough sleep, and not enough academic, emotional or cognitive preparation, and how this creates a learning environment in which a teacher is so overwhelmed in dealing with students with such need that s/he can only offer a lowest-common-denominator education, how could I in good conscience send my precious angels into such a mess?  I would be sacrificing my childrens' education at the altar of my political morality.

If everyone like me did the same, we wouldn't have this issue; the pain of inequality would be spread evenly.  But it is not.  I would vote for socio-economic integration in a heartbeat, because it would represent a collective will to change the system.  But there is a limit to one's personal political sacrifice, and this is especially true when the sacrifice is one's children.  Morally, I could do much to align my actions with my thoughts: go without most of my possessions, move to a poor neighborhood, volunteer my time for good causes, take in foster-youth, take in more shelter animals.  We could all follow Ghandi and live morally perfect lives.  I don't have the best answer for why I do not, other than to say I do what I can, and try to do more every day.

My children will grow up to be less comfortable with rough behavior.  Yet they will also grow up in many ways stronger for having been nurtured.  My hope is that they will thus be able to leverage their own strength to do better in the world.  In my own work, I deal with families who experience extreme hardship in caring for children with disabilities.  I do my best to relate my children my stories and experiences to impart the wisdom it has provided me - to be compassionate, accepting and supportive to the needs of others; to look past the discomfort, and to the beauty within us all.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Reed Dees Pook

I'm finally nearing the end of The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker.  I picked it up after reading Warner Hertzog praise it on a Reddit AMA.  An intense book about falcons.  I could picture his gravely, accented English languorously describing dark talons and feathers.

How delightful, I began reading.  

Yes, lots of talons and feathers here.  Each sentence is a real spurting climax of enthusiastic nature poetry.  Let's see, there are about 12 sentences per page.  There are 191 pages in this book.  That leaves the reader, sent up into Baker's blood red verbal sky, more than 2000 sentences to devour.  Or - oh no! - to be devoured by.  

The project began friendly enough.  But as the thing went on, I began to feel nauseated.  Plover.  So much plover...  Who knew there were so many ways to describe a passing cloud, or a country road, or the white bones sticking up out of a carcass?  No plot.  No knowledge (save for a few teasing sprinkles in the first few pages).  No character development.  No insight.  No reflection.  Just words.  

An endless, relentless torrent of damned words.  No shape, color, texture or anthropomorphic emotion was safe from Baker's incessant adjectival assault.  His metaphorical meandering bent a supposed natural world into a craggy mass of verbal gymnastics that resembled not so much the relationship of birds to limb and sky but Baker’s own solipsistic ambition.  The grand irony: a book so completely and utterly about nature that it becomes about nothing more than man.

I began to suspect the book was an act of terrorism: a bomb carefully designed to ensnare the poor human unlucky enough to be attracted to it's promise of beauty, yet it's real purpose to take the words of man and stuff them into his greedy, fallen throat.  Take that yee vile polluter.  Choke on this ugly human scum.  Read my book.  Read it!  

American Mind Control

Like everyone else this election, I'm obsessed with the answer to this question: what is driving Trump supporters?

Is it economic anxiety?  Is it loss of white, Christian identity?  Is it simple bigotry? Is it authoritarianism?

My own current theory is that it isn't based so much on any of these things, as so much as an ideological narrative that has been stewing and metastasizing for decades, propagating largely via conservative media outlets, but thriving in the oxygen-rich environs of isolated rural and suburban America - church to church, gun show to gun show, Cabellas to Cabellas, racetrack to racetrack.

Would it be possible, I ask, for an ideological narrative to develop that isn't actually based on facts in reality, but rather on facts that are assumed by its own mythology?

The clearest example of this is the world of conspiracy theories.  Despite no evidence - and often times direct evidence to the contrary - a certain type of person continues to buy in to the larger story.  The belief is thus sustained and maintained over time.

You also see this in religion, where certain areas of inquiry are immune to contradiction.  The more insular and extreme the religion, the greater the immunity.  The pure example of this is the religious cult, where almost all sense of normality is overridden by dogma.

In general, we view people who go down these rabbit holes as abnormal, and generally psychologically flawed in some way.  Yet how so?  I'm not very familiar with the literature here, but my guess is that there a lot of theories but nothing conclusive.  At any rate, these types of people have generally been considered a small, deluded, (yet strangely persistent), segment of the population.

Yet historically we can find examples of ideological movements that are not abnormal to the population, but rather the norm.  Nazi Germany comes to mind.  Anarchists at the turn of last century.  Fundamentalist Islam is a more contemporary example of an ideology that is quite popular in many regions of the world.

So how possible, then, might it be that contemporary conservatism has normalized a form of hysterical, at times conspiratorial thought?  I realize that this line of argument could easily become a cheap form of ad hominem dismissal of valid political arguments.  But what we have in Trumpism are not valid political arguments.  The bile that has been spilling from AM radio for at least 40 years - throughout the 1980's, 1990's, 2000's and 2010's is not valid argument but demogoguery and conspiratorial falsehood.  Fox news, and social media have only spread the narrative's reach.

Michael Savage:
"…You have to explain this to them in this time of mental rape that's going on. The children's minds are being raped by the homosexual mafia, that's my position. They're raping our children's minds."
Glenn Beck:
“President Obama, Tim Geithner, Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, all the other lawmakers are going after the blood of our businesses, big and small. Who's next? They have their fangs in the necks of everybody, and nothing's going to quench their thirst…There's only two ways for this movie to end: Either the economy becomes like the walking dead, or you drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers.”
Bill O'Reilly:
"I just wish Hurricane Katrina had only hit the United Nations building, nothing else, just had flooded them out, and I wouldn't have rescued them." --Bill O'Reilly on his radio show, Sept. 14, 2005
Sean Hannity:
"Halloween is a liberal holiday because we're teaching our children to beg for something for free. … We're teaching kids to knock on other people's doors and ask for a handout." —Fox News host Sean Hannity (October 31, 2007)
Ann Coulter:
"God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'"
Rush Limbaugh:
"A feminazi is a woman to whom the most important thing in life is seeing to it that as many abortions as possible are performed. Their unspoken reasoning is quite simple. Abortion is the single greatest avenue for militant women to exercise their quest for power and advance their belief that men aren’t necessary. Nothing matter but me, says the feminazi; the is an unviable tissue mass. Feminazis have adopted abortion as a kind of sacrament for their religion/politics of alienation and bitterness.”~Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought To Be, p.192-93 , 1992
The problem with people in cults or who buy into conspiracies isn't the specific beliefs they hold.  They are often innocuous enough.  Rather, it is the mental state within which they are interacting with the larger world.  The sense of measured, reasonable,  epistemological skepticism is gone.  Truth becomes "truth", and one becomes incredibly susceptible to manipulation, as long as the sense of anger, fear and often hatred, is fed.

It doesn't happen in a vacuum.  People just don't wake up one day and decide to join a cult.  But with enough isolation, social reinforcement, and limited knowledge, and desire for some kind of affirmation of values, the ideology seeps in, puttying the gaps with its insidious dogma.

The number one priority in cults is to develop in the individual a lack of faith in outside authority.  Don't trust your family.  Don't trust the government.  Don't trust outsiders.  This enables complete mind control.  Paranoid conservatism has slowly been developing a similar tactic: don't trust the government, the media, scientists, academics, or outside culture in general.  What is left is a form of mind control in which only paranoid conservatism has any authority.

So is it economic anxiety, bigotry, loss of White Christian identity, or authoritarianism?  We've all felt economic anxiety.  Having bigoted thoughts - fear of the "other" - is a natural part of being human.  We live in a pluralistic country that values personal freedom of religion and diversity.  Authoritarianism seems as much a value as anything else that becomes socially reinforced.

What stops us from allowing these things to rule our lives and destroy our objectivity is a faith in the outside world, a maintenance of continuity with our past, and trust in institutions that have stood the test of time.  There are certainly legitimate critique of the authority of government, media, science or academia.  But each are only as good as we make them, and themselves come from principles that we ignore at our peril: democracy, objectivity, empiricism, and study.  Cultish conservatism seems diametrically opposed to each of these.