Correlations with Patriotism

Post hoc ergo propter hoc – correlation does not imply causation. A correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply that one causes the other – two things just happened at the same time. That your team wins every time you wear that funky old flannel shirt doesn’t mean that funky old shirt causes your team to win – but you wear it anyway. It couldn’t hurt and it feels good to embrace the logical fallacy. Everyone embraces such nonsense because it’s comfortable, or comforting – and it’s cool to see patterns, or at least trends, no one had noticed before. That means you’re supremely aware of the world around you and amazingly insightful, and it probably means you’re a sucker for conspiracy theories. The Rothschild family is not working to take over the world in some vast Jewish conspiracy, no matter what Henry Ford might have thought, even if he ignored the Rothschild clan, and Obama doesn’t seem to be a Muslim-Atheist-Communist-Fascist Kenyan fellow, still mad about British colonial rule back there long ago, who also hates all religion, who wants to make us all worship Allah and abandon capitalism, to fight global warming, because he hates America. That didn’t cause him to push for universal healthcare. Glenn Beck thinks so, as do Donald Trump and a few others, but they’re connecting dots that aren’t there. Glenn Beck even used a whiteboard to do that on national television, before the folks at Fox News got exasperated and they both agreed that he do that sort of thing with his imaginary dots elsewhere. Correlation does not imply causation, and Timothy McVeigh, that fellow who blew up that federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing all those people, probably imagined that all of America’s woes were caused by ZOG – the Zionist Occupation Government that really runs this place – although no one knew what the hell he was talking about most of the time. He just wanted America to wake up. Something really bad is going on – connect the dots, people! There were no dots. He was executed. Glenn Beck lost his gig at Fox News.

All this might be seen as pattern-recognition, a key human skill necessary to survive, in an evolutionary sense, gone wild. We all have to make sense of the world around us, or we’ll get killed, metaphorically or literally, but imagining what’s just not there can get us killed too. After all, a lot of Americans died in Iraq due to faulty overenthusiastic pattern-recognition. Our stern and deadly prudence turned out to be no more than an odd and misplaced paranoia. There never had been any correlation between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, implying causation, and the dots we were connecting – those aluminum tubes and mobile chemical weapons labs and so on – weren’t dots after all.

Oops – but no one lied to us. Key people just forgot anything they ever knew about the easiest logical fallacy to fall into, one where you end up calling anyone who points out your sloppy thinking a coward or a fool, or a sniveling Neville Chamberlain appeaser, or a traitor. It’s easy enough to laugh that off when Glenn Beck is calling you names. When it’s Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld, and most of the media, everyone tends to shut up. It’s the patriotic thing to so. Leave discussion of logical fallacies to the French, who have been blithering about such things since Descartes was a pup. We’re patriots. We laugh at your pathetic logic. And we don’t eat snails either.

This can cause no end of trouble each year on the day that Americans must do their patriotic duty – April 15 – Tax Day. That’s the day everyone has to pay their share, more or less, depending on your tax bracket and accountant, to keep the country running, and defended against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Everyone has to chip in by that date, although for most that’s working out what you’ve been chipping in all along for the past year and seeing if you get a refund. Everyone hates that day of course – a lot of the money you earned will be gone forever – but patriots shouldn’t. Few people ever run for office, to set public policy and assure we have a going concern here, but this is the day when everyone else chips in to keep the country running. That’s patriotism, and by a curious coincidence, last year Tax Day was also Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts – but they didn’t plan it that way. It was a random correlation, this year only, implying no causation. People seldom correlate taxes with patriotism.

The two don’t mix. Taxes really are a pain in the ass, and Dick Gregory, in the midst of the civil rights struggles of the late fifties and early sixties, once put it this way – “I wouldn’t mind paying taxes, if I knew they were going to a friendly country.”

The black experience in America changes things – but he did pay his taxes. He loved his country, warts and all, as they say, but it seems different on the right these days. Tea Party Republicans, who say they are the super-patriots, the only ones who really love America, really don’t want to pay their taxes, or pay taxes at the rate that’s been the norm for years. They love America and its system of government so much they think there should be far less of it than ever before, so everyone is free at last. Their avatar has always been Grover Norquist, who famously said he wanted to shrink the size of government so small that it can then be drowned in the bathtub. Who needs government anyway?

Fine, Grover Norquist loves America so much he wants to get rid of what defines it, its government. What would be left is three hundred million armed individuals somehow, by chance, located in a specific geography – but he’s not an outlier. Ted Cruz, who will tell you he’s the most patriotic American who has ever lived or will ever live, says that he wants to abolish the IRS – and the national debt, and he is also sure, if everyone does what they should, he can repeal Obamacare, every last word of it, while making sure everyone is heavily armed. He said all that on just before Patriots’ Day weekend, next door in New Hampshire at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Citizens United inaugural Freedom Summit. Everyone cheered.

To be clear, Cruz is not an anarchist – he just sounds like one. He’d replace the IRS with something more sensible, because someone’s got to pay his salary, but the general idea is clear. True patriots hate almost everything their government does, because government, in and of itself, restricts our basic freedoms. The odd thing is that is quite true. Governments, even those of the people and by the people and for the people, create laws. You can’t own slaves anymore. You can’t shoot anyone who vaguely irritates you, except in Florida. You have to wear a seat belt. Governments exist to set boundaries on acceptable behavior, here by mutual agreement when we can work that out, and then they make you pay a big chunk of your income to fund the mechanisms used to enforce those behaviors. Everyone has to chip in, and if you love freedom, that’s a problem. If you love freedom you want to edge your government, which you also love, closer and closer to anarchy, but not quite there, just near Grover’s bathtub, not in it, but that’s when the correlation between freedom and patriotism breaks down. The one does not cause the other.

Jonathan Chait sees it this way:

Nobody likes writing checks to the government. At best, it’s something people tolerate. At worst? It’s a source of resentment and anger. Either way, it’s a political fact of life – one that imposes narrow boundaries on what policymakers in this country can do.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Sure, there are plenty of principled, intellectually honest reasons to think taxes should be lower. But one reason for the rage against them – and the perception that they are larcenously high – is that the act of paying them is so divorced from the act of receiving the benefits that they finance. You might not like paying a lot for groceries, clothing, a car, or a house. But it feels a lot better because, once you’re done with the transaction you know what you’re getting for it. You’ve taken care of a basic need – there’s food on your plate, a roof over your head, and, if you’re lucky and can afford it, a Camaro in your driveway.

Taxes do the same thing. That payroll tax taken out of everybody’s check? It’s buying you Medicare and Social Security, which means a more secure retirement free of crippling medical bills. Your federal income tax? Its effects are a lot more diffuse. But chances are pretty good that you’ve already used some infrastructure today – whether it was a road or railway you took to work, or maybe the information technology connections you’re using to read this article. Federal, state, and local taxes helped pay for that. Is your water and air clean? Are you safe from threats, domestic and foreign? Then you’re getting something valuable from the Environment Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. Your tax dollars paid for those, too.

Sometimes, of course, your tax dollars pay for supports and services you won’t use. And you might resent that. But even taxes that pay for someone else’s benefits can benefit you. Why does the U.S. not have the massive underclass that characterizes many third-world countries – or the incipient danger of violent upheaval that accompanies it? The safety net your taxes purchased, tattered as it is, buys a degree of social harmony, too.

One must consider the downside too:

Simply reducing what government spends on these programs, in order to allow for lower taxes, would mean cutting a lot of people off from supports on which they literally survive. That’s what the Paul Ryan budget would do – end government-provided health insurance, housing vouchers, and food assistance for millions. Maybe you don’t care and maybe think that has nothing to do with you. If the latter is true, you should consider the possibility that, someday, you could be one of “those” people. You could lose your job or suffer a debilitating injury or encounter some other, random act of chance that would throw your life into instant turmoil and make you, too, dependent on the welfare state to get by.

Maybe you have no objection to paying for the welfare state in principle. Maybe you just don’t like the way government does it – by squandering money on poorly designed programs, or giving help to people who don’t need it. That’s fair. Lots of government programs are inefficient. Some are even prone to corruption. But, just so you know, there’s probably less waste than you think. The food stamp program, for example, is a model of efficiency – with low overhead and fraud rates.

Chait goes on from there, in predicable ways which would appall Ted Cruz, who laughs at such logic, and Chait ends with this:

Naturally, there are arguments to be had over how high taxes should go, exactly who should pay more, and what form those levies should take. Personally, I’d opt for some combination of taxes on wealth and taxes on carbon, figuring it’d be good to fight inequality and stop global warming. And while taxes should go up for most people, they should be a little lower for some of the working poor.

But having that discussion feels a little silly, given that higher taxes are nowhere near the political agenda right now. That’s why the first step towards a more sensible conversation about economic policy and our priorities in general is to admit that taxes can be a good thing, as long as they pay for worthwhile things. I still think they do.

But if nothing’s worthwhile because everyone should take personal responsibility, and grab a gun, then what?

Ed Kilgore tries to work that out:

Almost all of us can identify some government activity we would change or terminate if we were given that power. But relatively few of us claim that power, and those who do so without warrant of law are clearly risking a stint in the hoosegow, along with the poor opinion of our fellow-citizens, above whom we are arrogating ourselves. Call it “individualism” or “libertarianism” or whatever you want, but those who declare themselves a Republic of One and raise their own flags are in a very literal sense being unpatriotic.

That’s why I’m alarmed by the support in many conservative precincts for the Nevada scofflaws who have been exploiting public lands for private purposes and refuse to pay for the privilege because they choose not to “recognize” the authority of the United States. Totally aside from the double standards involved in expecting kid-glove treatment of one set of lawbreakers as opposed to poorer and perhaps darker criminal suspects, fans of the Bundys are encouraging those who claim a right to wage armed revolutionary war towards their obligations as Americans. It makes me really crazy when such people are described as “superpatriots.” Nothing could be more contrary to the truth.

To recap, Matt Ford reported on the incident that outraged the folks on the right:

Twenty-one years ago, rancher Cliven Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees.

Bundy does not recognize federal authority over land where his ancestors first settled in the 1880s, which he claims belongs to the state of Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management disagreed and took him to federal court, which first ruled in favor of the BLM in 1998. After years of attempts at a negotiated settlement over the $1.2 million Bundy owes in fees failed, federal land agents began seizing hundreds of his cattle illegally grazing on public land last week.

But after footage of a BLM agent using a stun gun on Bundy’s adult son went viral in far-right circles, hundreds of armed militia supporters from neighboring states flocked to Bundy’s ranch to defend him from the BLM agents enforcing the court order. The states’-rights groups, in echoes of Ruby Ridge and Waco, came armed and prepared for violence. “I’m ready to pull the trigger if fired upon,” one of the anti-government activists told Reuters. Not eager to spill blood over cattle, the BLM backed down Sunday and started returning the livestock it had confiscated. The agency says it won’t drop the matter and will “continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially.”

His cattle had been illegally grazing on public land for years and years, and he refused to pay the required fees for using public land for that, but he had his reasons – “I abide by all of Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”

That’s what he said, and folks on Fox News are cheering him on, and Kilgore add this:

Painful as Tax Day might be, and however unhappy we may be with this or that policy or practice of the federal government, this is indeed our government, and there’s no “country” beyond its jurisdiction to which we may pledge allegiance. So today’s a day for flag-waving, not just tax-paying, and one for rededicating ourselves to engagement in the civic and political processes, not seceding to some imaginary Republic of our own devising.

Kevin Drum takes it from there:

The details of the Bundy case have gotten a lot of attention at conservative sites, but the details really don’t matter. Bundy has a baroque claim that the United States has no legal right to grazing land in Nevada; for over a decade, every court has summarily disagreed. It’s federal land whether Bundy likes it or not, and Bundy has refused for years to pay standard grazing fees – so a couple of weeks ago the feds finally decided to enforce the latest court order allowing them to confiscate Bundy’s cattle if he didn’t leave. The rest is just fluff, a bunch of paranoid conspiracy theorizing that led to last week’s armed standoff between federal agents and the vigilante army created by movement conservatives.

The fact that so many on the right are valorizing Bundy – or, at minimum, tiptoeing around his obvious nutbaggery – is a testament to the enduring power of Waco and Ruby Ridge among conservatives. The rest of us may barely remember them, but they’re totemic events on the right, fueling Glenn-Beckian fantasies of black helicopters and jackbooted federal thugs for more than two decades now.

Mainstream conservatives have pandered to this stuff for years because it was convenient, and that’s brought them to where they are today: too scared to stand up to the vigilantes they created and speak the simple truth. They complain endlessly about President Obama’s “lawlessness,” but this is lawlessness. It’s appalling that so many of them aren’t merely afraid to plainly say so, but actively seem to be egging it on.

MSNBC’s Krystal Ball tries to connect the dots here:

Mr. Bundy denies the legitimacy of our republic. And though he’s been found guilty twice by courts in Nevada, he seems to want to pick and choose the laws that he feels like obeying. But to many on the right he’s a hero, a patriot. In fact, the word patriot has become almost synonymous with right-wing anti-government views. On the fringe, “patriot” groups are grounded in extreme anti-government doctrine, conspiracy theories and fear of impending government violence. They have names like 22nd Field Force Alabama Militia, American Patriot Party and the John Birch Society.

Many of the protesters drawn to Cliven Bundy’s ranch with firearms ready to do whatever it takes to keep Cliven Bundy from complying with federal law were militia members, part of that patriot movement. In more mainstream political thought, the word patriot has become so closely associated with the political right that it was on the now infamous IRS BOLO list, the implication being where you find the word patriot you will likely find a politically active conservative group.

In fact, though, a lot of what is done under this banner of patriotism is really anything but. Cliven Bundy is no patriot for threatening armed insurrection over his refusal to pay money for his use of our land. The Wisconsin Republican party is not patriotic for supporting a resolution, enabling the state to secede from our union.

And the contempt that some on the right feel for their fellow citizens – Mitt Romney’s famous 47%, the takers, the welfare queens, the young bucks buying T-bone steaks, Paul Ryan’s generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work – that contempt for your fellow country men and women is anything but patriotic.

We on the left should not allow conservatives to get away with appropriating patriotism, bastardizing it and claiming it as their exclusive domain. We should not accept their loaded rendering of the term because real patriotism should be grounded in the recognition that from the highest heights of power down to the homeless veterans sleeping on the street, we are all Americans bonded together through our citizenship in a country that at its best day stands at its tallest as the land of opportunity.

Real patriotism is grounded in striving to make more perfect that ideal, that ideal of a fair shot for all so your station at birth does not determine your station at death. And real patriotism means making the country ever more democratic so that the franchise is expanded and power is distributed to all the people, not just the ones who can afford to buy into the system. These are all liberal ideals that are frequently undermined by those claiming the mantle of patriotism.

And so on and so forth – but she’s fighting a losing battle here. Bundy is a hero on the right now, where correlation and causation long ago got all confused, regarding freedom and patriotism. But the two never could coexist easily. Remember the Patriot Act the folks on the right loved so much, that systematically stripped away lots of freedoms? Logic is hard, and fallacies are easy.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Correlations with Patriotism

  1. Rick says:

    Just two quick observations:

    (1) I think Jonathan Chait deserves credit for doing something that, for some reason, few people actually do — that is, explaining what we’re buying with our federal tax dollars — and does a pretty good job at it, too. Still, I have a small problem with one thing he says:

    “The safety net your taxes purchased, tattered as it is, buys a degree of social harmony, too.”

    That leaves the impression that, if we don’t bribe the needy with a social net, they might riot and and wreak mayhem.

    Yeah, I suppose they might do that, but the real reasons for our safety net have to do with, first of all, (a) just being charitable to people who need it; but second of all, (b) the overall health of the nation at large — that is, when poor people are a drag on the rest of us, the economy, and therefore the country itself, get dragged down.

    And contributing to that second point is the fact that there are some people, temporarily in need of society’s help with a leg up, who they might never get a chance to come back and become contributors once they get back on their feet without it. Famous examples of this are J.K. Rowling, who, according to Wikipedia, “progressed from living on state benefits to multi-millionaire status within five years” as the author of the Harry Potter series, and Mitt Romney, who’s parents, after escaping Mexico, “subsisted with other Mormon refugees on government relief in El Paso, Texas, benefiting from a $100,000 fund for refugees that the U.S. Congress had set up”, eventually allowing them to work their way up from the lower 47 percent to the upper 53.

    (2) In my computer’s resident dictionary, patriot is defined as “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.”

    Whether or not he does refer to himself this way, calling this guy Cliven Bundy a “patriot” reminds me of “newspeak”, the fictional language of George Orwell’s “1984”. Since he doesn’t even believe in the existence of his country, he’s actually the opposite of a patriot. Not only should the U.S. Bureau of Land Management not give him his cattle back, they should arrest him and put him in jail for being a stupid and traitorous asshole.

    Okay, maybe being an anti-patriotic asshole who also happens to be stupid is not actually a crime, but maybe it should be.


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