Gaslighting

New Orleans     Gaslighting is an interesting concept, but when I first heard the term, frankly, it meant nothing to me.  Talking to psychologist and attorney Bryant Welch on Wade’s World gave me a much clearer understanding of the concept and its dangers.

According to Wikipedia “the term owes its origin to the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play Gaslight and its 1940 and 1944 film adaptations, in which a man dims the gas lights in his home and then persuades his wife that she is imagining the change.”  The experience is common enough, but since none of us use gas powered lighting inside our homes anymore, the reference doesn’t prompt an immediate, “oh, yeah!” when you hear it.  The term has become a standard in psychological practice and research studies, making it easier to morph into the polarized political environment of our times.

I had associated the term more with the Fox News and Breitbart crowd, but Welch persuaded me that this was the state of play on all sides of the political spectrum.  His book State of Confusion:  Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind was released in 2008 opening the window wide into the partisan divide around Obama’s election, but he has reissued the volume now perhaps to even more relevance in the Age of Trump.

Welch would not be the first psychologist to argue that Trump is somewhere dangerous on the mental health spectrum, but his argument is more pointedly about how some of what seems so bizarre about Trump and his tactics, lies in his masterful attempts at gaslighting the public, particularly his base.  Take for example the constant lying.  Rather that that being simply a manifestation of Trump’s amorality and at best his tangential relationship to reality, it really is his ongoing gaslighting project in trying to replace reality with his own fantasy.  In chapter after chapter Welch makes this case for why the basic Trump insecurities bend him so firmly in this direction.

Not that any of this is news, even if there’s now a better name for it all.  Welch makes the case for the chicanery of Karl Rove and provides vivid examples from the McCain campaign against Obama as well.  In the Cold War generation, the “big lie,” is much the same thing.  A fundamental of propaganda was that repeating the same lie often enough made the lie more real than the truth.

Gaslighting, big lies, and other manipulations, including the Facebook mayhem from the Russians and now almost every country, are all part and parcel of the same problem.  People can be easily manipulated by falsehoods in the hands of haters or authoritarian leaders.

Now that we know the problem, how do we find the solution?

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Europe Really is Different than the United States

in line for donations in Athens by Crete farmers

Thessaloniki   The point is so obvious that it almost seems trivial.  Of course, Europe is different from the United States and every country within the European Union is also different from the others in history, culture, and often language.  No visitor fails to remark about the feeling in Europe of walking in ancient footsteps. Walking by a Greek column that is not a replica but an artifact is as common as remnants of construction during this Roman emperor or another.

Yet, the differences I notice are so much more than that the longer I stay and the more I travel.  If the wealth of an England or France seems eye to eye with the United States, Greece seems more like Mexico or even Paraguay.  Here people grudgingly say that the economy is slightly improving, but still talk of “the crisis” in Greece as the daily occurrence that they still feel everywhere.  University professors’ shop at the co-op store, not just because of a political persuasion but also because with their salaries have been cut to shreds, it is what they can afford.  Students who once enjoyed free education are now having to cobble together money to stay in school.  A sign in the men’s washroom, written in English, said perhaps too much about the situation, as the letters shouted “We Need Toilet Paper!”

The social welfare system is an entitlement for the unemployed in a way that US workers would find unimaginable.  Talking by Skype last week to a young man in Frankfurt, Germany about organizing a tenants’ union there, it was not a surprise that he was on public assistance while he tried to pull these pieces together.  For students the same is true and reduces the panic of joblessness and opens the door to opportunity to find a place whether in Greece or Scotland or France.

The political diversity of multi-party experience may seem fractured, but is actually invigorating.  Casual introductions that include the fact that so-and-so was a former Communist city councilman or that this one or that were key activists in the anarchist community or that this tavern owner or landlord or even neighborhood were well-known as anarchist strongholds.  In the United States such a comment would seem extraordinary, possibly subversive, and the subject of a special feature on Fox News, but in Greece it is so commonplace that it hardly bears mentioning.  Politics of almost all persuasions seems mainstream rather than marginal.  In a multi-party politics rather than a two-party system one has to cultivate a certain tolerance because it is impossible to predict where the party slightly left or right might end up your coalition partner in government or opposition.  The choices can both make or break politicians and parties, raising some up, and destroying others.

The nuances are almost impossible for a stranger visiting from afar, as I am, to navigate without constant guides who prove their worth by the paths they point both away from trouble and to the company of friends.  Being accused of having an “American perspective” is an insult and a caution.  Listening and watching for the clues is constant, because the lessons are everywhere and the learning curve is steep.  To assume something is the same in Europe as in America is a guarantee of falling over the cliff.

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