One of my all-time favorite quotes is from The African Queen, that great 1951 Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn movie directed by John Huston.
In the film, Hepburn’s character, the schoolmarmish Rose Sayer, pours overboard all the booze of her antagonist and eventual romantic interest, Charlie Alnut (Bogart’s character), after another incident of his boorish, abusive behavior toward her.
Waking up hungover from yet another night of excessive drinking and finding his beloved hooch being poured unceremoniously into the river, Charlie protests: “A man takes a drop too much once in awhile, it’s only human nature.” To which Rose sternly replies:
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
This is a fundamentally important notion, particularly at this American cultural moment, as it applies not only to religious belief, which this blog tries to discourage, but also our demagogic, raging politics of nonstop, in-your-face propaganda.
In both respects, we need to “rise above” nature, as it were, (1) to control the powerful emotional impulses of our primitive brainstems at the expense of reason, and (2) to allow our more analytical, rational prefrontal cortexes to dominate our interpretation of immediate reality.
When the natural human capacity for rationality is lacking — when people surrender not the “better angels of our nature” but their most savage demons — is when fearful people superstitiously believe in invisible deities and only listen to the loudest, most hateful political voices.
This compulsion to emotive abandon is humankind’s true original sin. It is what has led to perpetual ignorance among Homo sapiens, endless wars, millennia of human social misery, and countless other ills that the absence of adequate well-informed, fair-minded thoughtfulness has long inflicted on our species.
In other words, mankind’s inability to rise above the intuitive, combative, competitive, often murderous impulses that were presumably our proto-species’ primary drivers in ancient pre-history, is our recurring downfall. These flaws in our character, so to say, are inherent in the brainstem, which is more about turbo-charged instincts for survival than methodical, thoughtful analysis.
It’s important here to point out that our prefrontal cortex and other brain lobes only evolved later, giving modern humans their massive brain compared to other primates.
But still, the brainstem — like Donald Trump turbo-charged with steroids and superpowers — seems the main, even overwhelming, driver of our behavior when over-stimulated.
Unfortunately, “The Donald” knowns this.
A ‘demagogue’ and ‘fascist’?
The hazard this poses to our democracy was underscored in a fascinating panel discussion about demagogic propaganda and fair-minded rhetoric I watched on C-Span cable channel today hosted by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
One of the panelists was Jennifer Mercieca, who writes about and teaches courses on the use and abuse of rhetorical strategy in public discourse. She wrote about the paradoxes of Donald Trump’s presidency in an interesting article in the journal The Conversation, titled “The rhetorical brilliance of Trump the demagogue.” In the article, she asked:
“Trump possesses an arrogance and volatility that makes most voters recoil. So how has he maintained a grip on a segment of the Republican base that – at least, for now – seems unshakable?
“And how has his support persisted, despite the fact that some have called him a demagogue and a fascist, or that political observers have found parallels between him and polarizing figures like George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Father Coughlin – even Hitler?”
This is how she answered the question:
“Donald Trump appeals to voters’ fears by depicting a nation in crisis, while positioning himself as the nation’s hero – the only one who can conquer our foes, secure our borders and “Make America Great Again.
“His lack of specificity about how he would accomplish these goals is less relevant than his self-assured, convincing rhetoric. He urges his audiences to “trust him,” promises he is “really smart” and flexes his prophetic muscles (like when he claims to have predicted the 9/11 attacks).”
Mercieca further explains that although the president’s narcissistic, self-inflating rhetoric is often seen as “the least attractive quality” of a potential American political leader, his braggadocio is so utterly consistent, that a large number of Americans view it as “authentic” — interpreting it as “his greatness is America’s greatness.” He achieves this also with an avalanche of false smears, ad hominem attacks and an astonishing outpouring of not only bald-faced lies but easily provable ones.
Note that the dissemination of religious propaganda, which is wholly targeted at people’s emotions and longings because it is largely fact-free, is another form of this kind of mass deception.
The great one-two punch of Mr. Trump’s success is (1) the worrisome tendency of many people to ascribe truth to any relentless onslaught of propaganda that appeals to their biases (remember pre-WWII Germany) and (2) their very limited tendency to discern fact from fiction.
There’s not much to be done about the first, but with appropriate education in critical thinking throughout a child’s pre-college schooling, it’s reasonable to assume a more thoughtful, discerning electorate would emerge.
Indeed, that was one of the questions from the audience: How might improved high school educational curricula be part of the solution to Americans’ continuing gullibility to political hucksters and demagogues?
Panelists agreed it was an excellent question but difficult to implement. One panelist advised that students should be taught the “tools” with which to “deal with propaganda in the modern world — and also how to persuade fairly and effectively themselves.”
Mercieca stressed that all Americans would be better served by learning to “think about who is trying to manipulate you and why” and to become “more mindful consumers” of all messages we receive.
Another panelist advised people to become more aware of their emotional responses to the messages they receive, often anonymously online without attribution.
“If you’re becoming outraged (by info you receive),” one panelist pointed out, “someone is trying to use propaganda against you.”
In the end, all the panelists advised, we need to learn as Aristotle said, to “entertain an idea without accepting it.” To discern fact from flim-flam.
Or as “Rose Sayer” said, to “rise above” our base instincts rather than surrender blindly to them.