Jonestown 2020

Supreme Court decision 201211

If you’re keeping score, at last count it’s 56-1 — the win/lost record for suits filed and suits eligible to be heard in the ongoing effort to end the democratic process. The most significant to date is this three-sentence decision issued by the US Supreme Court yesterday. This would be follow-up to an election victory by several million votes, the subsequent certification of vote counts by all states, and the increasingly Chaplin-esque, slapstick performances that are the challenges to same, best placed in the monologues of late-night talk show hosts.

Screen Shot 2020-12-12 at 12.02.03 PMA truly head-scratching question: how many more times will the cat come back? And infinitely more disturbing: what are the long term implications of the widespread and shamelessly political — and populist — support for these challenges?

In November 2016, I’d begun a piece built around ‘Social Learning Theory’, a relative latecomer to the annals of how patterns and styles of behaviour find their way into the repertoires of certain individuals. It posits that, far from needing to be rewarded (operant conditioning) or associated (classical conditioning), we can simply learn by watching — and modelling or imitating what we see — and by the direct instruction issued by the model. The potency of this process is believed to be influenced by the observer’s take on the model: his/her perceived level of power / authority, how respected they are, and a number of qualities that are attributed to the model by the ‘watcher’ (attractiveness, trustworthiness, perceived competence, similarity to the observer).

The piece was triggered by an, at the time, significant uptick in attacks on minority groups immediately following the 2016 election. Endorsement of and fomentation by a ‘potent model’, a newly elected president, to engage in such acts were seen to be underlying, contributing factors. So how to make sense of the 2020 reprise of the above scenario, no longer limited to ‘minority targets’ — but a continuing assault on the process that underpins not just our governing bodies, but our way of life, our value system: democracy?

For four years, the characteristics of ‘model 1’ have been regularly eroded, challenged, disputed, and pilloried. Trustworthy, truthful, competent, attractive are no longer, and for many never were, terms that could be applied to DJT. This should have sufficiently undermined the credibility, the influence of the model as to diminish his impact to the inconsequential. The reverse appears to be the case. The openly expressed fears, anxieties are now framed in the most dire of terms: coup, sedition, autocracy. Questions around how 106 political representatives could willingly buy tickets on this train are wildly more catastrophic than the tragic, but isolated actions of a few marginalized and disenfranchised trolls.

Enter the Stockholm Syndrome. Long identified as an ‘explanation’ for how an individual could behave in ways that not only contravene social norms, but his / her own values. Typically isolation and indoctrination (often via forced commission of acts that are utterly inconsistent with one’s value system) are the levers. The development of sympathy for one’s ‘captor’, the vilifying of and open resistance to authoritative voices of reason challenging one’s ‘captor’, and the identification with a perceived overlap in goals and values are the result. Hmm.

This is not Jonestown or Waco. 74 million voters are not being held hostage in some remote compound, forced to rob banks. The social isolation, alienation is just as palpable, divisive; and the disinformation just as tailored, toxic. The Kool-Aid is just as real — just as lethal.

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