The Religion of Unreason

I think it's safe to say that this period in history is one in which liberals have felt unusually exasperated with conservatives, perhaps more than ever before. I can say this with some confidence as a liberal who runs in liberal circles; it may well be that conservatives are also more exasperated with liberals than they have ever been. Our ability to feed that exasperation is driven by the fact that, for all the polarization of information sources, we're actually more aware of what people on the other side say than we ever have been before. Fifteen years ago, I would have had no idea if Rush Limbaugh said something offensive, but today (once it rises to a certain level of horror), Media Matters will record it and put it on their web site, the Huffington Post will put it on their web site, and half a dozen people in my Twitter feed will let me know it happened. So there are all kinds of new ways to become appalled with your opponents.

And there's nothing we liberals find more frustrating than the contemporary conservative aversion to facts, particularly on a few select topics, none more than health care. We like to think of ourselves as rational, thoughtful people, who arrive at our opinions after careful consideration, while the other side is fed by prejudices, insane conspiracy theories, and an inability to admit when the world doesn't turn out the way they thought it would. Conservatives find this to be an unfair caricature, but they can't deny that many, many people on their side are—let's be charitable and say unconcerned—with the truth of the world. Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen, Hillary Clinton didn't engineer Benghazi for nefarious ends, there were no death panels, the ACA doesn't explode the deficit, people did indeed sign up for insurance, a system where people get subsidies from the government to buy private health policies they can use at private doctors is not "socialism," and so on. And yet these ideas persist. With characteristic eloquence, Gary Wills explains why:

The irrelevance of evidence in the face of sacred causes explains the dogged denial of global warming, the deep belief that the Obama Administration was responsible for the killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi and that Obama is not a legitimate American. To go back farther, it explains the claims that FDR arranged for the attack on Pearl Harbor and gave much of the world away to Stalin at Yalta (an idea Joe Scarborough is still clinging to). Repealing Obamacare will eventually go the way of repealing the New Deal. But the opposition will never fade entirely away—and it may well be strong enough in this year's elections to determine the outcome. It is something people are willing to sacrifice for and feel noble about. Creeds are not built up out of facts. They are what make people reject all evidence that guns are more the cause of crime than the cure for it. The best preservative for unreason is to make a religion of it.

The priests of that religion are the media figures who pass down the injunctions from on high, telling their flocks what they should believe, whom they should hate, and what they should be angry about today. And the politicians? Some no doubt truly believe when they kneel at the altar. Others go through the motions, with an eye cast back over their shoulder at the pews to make sure everyone sees their piety. And some may even be looking forward to the time when a few of the religion's more absurd tenets fall by the wayside, so they can tell the congregants what they want to hear without feeling like they're feeding the madness of some unhinged cult. 

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