Friday, April 16, 2010

Don't Believe the (Tax) Hype

One of the things that fascinates me is the ability of people to believe something despite all evidence to the contrary.  Some chalk this up to stupidity, but I think it's usually more complicated than that, involving attempts to resolve cognitive dissonance, a desire to forward an agenda, and a lust to make the world comprehensible (among other things). This is one reason I ended up doing my dissertation on conspiracy theories--what purpose does it serve to rhetorically construct an alternative reality that bears little to no resemblance to the known facts?  Why, for example, despite overwhelming evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald (and no one else) shot President Kennedy, do the majority of Americans no accept this explanation?

This interest resurfaced this week with the tea party/teabag tax protests.  Despite the caterwauling about the "socialist" tendencies of the current administration and the huge tax burden faced by the American people, the fact is that the tax burden for the overwhelming majority of Americans is lower than it's been in a long, long time.  That's right: unless you are ungodly rich, your federal taxes have gone down in President Obama's first year, not up. 

That's so contrary to the conventional wisdom and the narratives spun by not only the teabag crowd but by the mainstream media that it surprised even me.  Yes, I follow the news, so I knew that Obama campaigned on and delivered a modest tax cut to middle-income Americans.  That put me ahead of a lot of my fellow countrymen and women, but I was honestly surprised at the historic nature of this dip in taxes. 

It's a testament to the power of narrative that even someone disinclined to believe them and who probably reads more news than the average bear found himself surprised at this news.

Not that these facts will substantively change the worldview of those people who have invested in the "Obama is a socialist" worldview.  Facts won't matter in this case any more than they do in the plethora of other cases where huge amounts of data are dismissed as irrelevant because they don't fit a particular narrative (e.g., evolution, climate change, WMDs, the Iraq-9/11 "connection," healthcare reform . . . the list goes on).

And on one hand, it's easy to lampoon and ridicule those who seem so insistent on ignoring facts.  On the other hand, I also remind myself that to dismiss such thinking as merely ignorant is to miss some key parts of the dynamic behind these beliefs.  And it's also the case that *all* of us see and understand the world through our own narrative frames.  Not that there aren't real, qualitative differences among these frames.  There certainly are, and the consequences of seeing the world through a frame that distorts the facts about the world in important ways (see the list above) can have catastrophic consequences.  

Yet, none of us has unmediated access to the truth.  We're all blind men feeling the elephant.  One of the roles of rhetoric, I think, is to serve as the tool with which we can share our differing perceptions and attempt to create a more perfect understanding of our reality.

It's because of this that I catch myself when I start writing off folks like the teabaggers as nothing more than fools.  As mistaken as they are in so many ways, I assume there must be something to gain from thinking about why they choose to believe what they do.  My hope is that they, in turn, will look at facts such as the truth about current tax rates and acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, they haven't cornered the market on truth either.


1 comment:

  1. You rock! I love the tone of this piece.