History will remember George W. Bush as the 43rd President of the United States, as the architect of the disastrous War on Terror, and as the man who signed the Patriot Act into law, destroying many of Americans’ civil liberties with the stroke of a pen. But he will also be remembered (I hope) for his hilarious bungling of the famous proverb “fool me once, shame on you… you fooled me, I can’t get fooled again!” Unfortunately, unable to break his losing streak, Bush turned out to be wrong here too. We can get fooled again, and again, and again.
It’s frustrating watching people fall for the same tricks year after year, especially when the ones doing the tricking are politicians with motives that range from misguided to downright evil.
America’s democratic system of elections was designed to allow the people a way to remove the incompetent and corrupt from office, but it doesn’t work when the voters can’t see what’s in front of their very eyes. Instead, they fall prey to simple acts of misdirection that would embarrass even an amateur magician.
Take, for example, the overt hostility many Americans feel towards anyone skeptical of the safety or efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. You don’t have to look very far to find accusations of no less a crime than murder directed towards those who don’t want the shot, for whatever reason. It’s not my purpose here to argue for or against the wisdom of getting the vaccine, merely to point out that one side of the debate has become social anathema to the other. It’s not hard to understand why the argument has become so heated, and why people have become so polarized on the issue. The narrative coming from both politicians and media figures is that the unvaccinated are a bunch of selfish, anti-science rubes who are endangering you and your family, and that they are reason why we can’t eradicate the COVID-19 virus and go back to life as it was pre-pandemic.
There are various reasons why I believe this accusation is unfair. Firstly, the idea that we can eradicate the virus if everyone gets vaccinated is a fiction. We haven’t eradicated the flu despite having a vaccine for that. In fact, we haven’t eradicated any virus with vaccines except those very rare ones that seem unable to mutate quickly. The flu has new variants every year, and it’s readily apparent that COVID works much the same way. Wishful thinking or not, COVID is here to stay and we have to learn to live with it rather than pretending it’s just going to vanish. There are also several rational reasons to not want the vaccine, such the reported side effects or natural immunity from a previous infection. We can debate whether these concerns are reasonable, but that’s not really the point.
The point is that we’ve successfully been manipulated into fighting each other instead of remaining focused on the real enemy.
It’s the oldest trick in the book. Divide and conquer, sow discord within the ranks of the opposition, create an imaginary foe to distract from the real one. From Sun Tzu to Machiavelli to Orwell, political and military thinkers have known about this strategy for millennia, and yet it continues to be effective. For over a year, presidents, governors, mayors, and congressmen have been shutting down the economy, destroying our businesses, disrupting the education of our children, implementing a police state, creating runaway inflation, and waging psychological warfare against the people by preventing them from seeing friends and loved ones, as well as bombarding them with conflicting medical advice (and openly lying about it). Any reasonable person would be demanding heads on pikes in response to such a gross failure of leadership and such an overt move towards totalitarianism. Instead, we’re squabbling with each other over vaccines because we’ve been successfully misled into thinking ordinary citizens, people with no power or influence, are the real villains.
The manipulations used to get us fighting amongst ourselves are so obvious that it would be funny if it weren’t so sad. But rather than see the trap laid before them, millions of Americans fell into it, never letting go of their sense of self-righteous certainty that they have not been fooled, as so many have been fooled before them.
On occasion, when I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I like to play chess. I don’t play regularly or well, but I have played enough to know that in order to get better, you have to stop making the same mistakes. If an opponent traps you with a clever tactic, it is incumbent on the student to remember the trap so as to be able to avoid it in the future. Those who don’t do this never make any improvement, and continue to lose game after game in the same way. This is a decent analogy for the American public’s relationship with politics. Every time a president or a governor delivers checkmate with some dastardly policy, we react with surprise and confusion, as if we haven’t seen the same move a thousand times before.
I’m reminded of the recalcitrant chess novice every time I see someone outraged about, for example, the new law in Texas restricting access to abortions. Many of the same people who are furious about this law have spent the last year championing unrestrained executive power, from the CDC’s alleged ability to ban evictions despite not remotely resembling a legislative body, to certain governors’ unilateral actions to decide which workers are “essential” and which are not. Not to mention how the whole “my body, my choice” argument gets dropped like a hot potato when it comes to vaccine mandates.
It’s as if people are genuinely shocked that the same government that can regulate your medical decisions in one way would never use that same power in ways they disagree with. Do they really believe that only good guys will ever be in power? Didn’t Donald Trump’s election disabuse them of that absurdly naïve notion? It would seem not.
Here again, we see the same mistake repeated again and again. Step one: vote to give supreme, unlimited political authority to some executive, and to abolish all restraints that might keep said authority in check. Step two: be amazed when someone you don’t like gains power and uses that authority against you. Step three: rinse and repeat.
A more savvy voter would realize that a government with the power to do the things he likes also has the power to do the things he hates, and would use that knowledge to limit the damage his enemies could do when they inevitably get their turn in the executive’s chair. Even if one lacks the foresight to predict that this will happen, he should at least be able to learn from experience when it actually does happen, repeatedly. But no, with every election we see him revert to a tabula rasa, unable or unwilling to apply the lessons of the past to the present to prevent history from repeating itself.
It’s time to break the cycle. Stop falling for the same tricks.
When the media tries to manipulate you, spot the tactic for what it is and defend against it. When politicians use their power for evil instead of good (which, incidentally, is always), don’t let them do that next time. Stop being a sucker. Instead, listen to the wisdom of The Who, or even of George W. Bush: Don’t get fooled again.