Pardon me while I fumble around a little. I’m trying to understand something that is fundamentally at odds with anything that I would normally concede as being possible. I may have to toss out a few untested hypotheses.
I’d certainly be happier if Rick Santorum were just “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato,” as Dickens put it. If there were “more of gravy than of grave” about him, it would be a cause for celebration. But alas.
I’m contemplating three or four bits of indigestible Santorum at the moment. In a 2008 public appearance, he asserted that Satan is attacking America. He is on the record as claiming that climate change is a hoax, a position in which he is supported and encouraged by quite a number of other highly visible opinion-makers. According to a well-researched opinion piece by college president Brian Rosenberg in Huffington Post, Santorum wants to see fewer young people going to college, because colleges are “indoctrination mills”; in Santorum’s view, “The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.” The very act of educating young people is, in his view, dangerous. As if that weren’t enough, Santorum has stated in public (and quite erroneously) that forced euthanasia is practiced in the Netherlands.
We pause now for context: In the Republican debate this week, Newt Gingrich accused Barack Obama of infanticide. On what grounds? Who knows? Are rational grounds even needed any longer?
There’s no shortage of news items along these lines. I could go on for days. And that fact leads to the question I want to look at tonight: What’s going on here? How is it possible that a leading contender for the office of President of the United States can be so utterly out of touch with reality?
One possibility is that Santorum is actually smart — that he knows perfectly well he’s saying things that can’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny, and is banking on the likelihood that his loyal followers, being as stupid as rocks, won’t be able to tell the difference. He’s playing to the groundlings, and he doesn’t care what the rest of us think, because he has concluded by means of rational calculation that making outrageous claims will give him his best shot at the Presidency.
Another possibility, even more cynical, is that Santorum is a smoke screen. He is being trotted out and paraded around so that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, will look like an intelligent moderate by comparison. When ordered by his invisible masters, Santorum will stick a pin in himself and pop like a balloon (mixed metaphor — sorry), leaving Romney smiling and waving at the crowd.
Right now I’m leaning toward the idea that it’s even worse than that. I don’t think we can ignore the possibility that these people (Santorum being by no means unique) simply don’t know that reality exists. The only thing that is real to them is the stuff rattling around inside the huge echo-sphere of their own heads.
Not even day-to-day consistency is required. Santorum has no problem stating on Monday that he supported Title X (which funded birth control through Planned Parenthood) and then stating on Tuesday that he opposed Title X. Both statements were true, in his mind, at the moment when he uttered them, because the only test of truth is what his unconscious emotions are telling him at that moment. Checking a statement, any statement, for logical agreement with concrete external reality is not simply inconvenient or unnecessary — it’s inconceivable, because external reality does not exist.
We have a term for a society in which external reality does not exist. It’s called the Dark Ages.
In one of his books (possibly Coming to Our Senses) Morris Berman characterizes the Dark Ages with the phrase “the loss of interiority.” That is, people in the Dark Ages were unconscious of their own inner processes. Those processes dictated their behavior in an automatic fashion. Nobody reflected on what they were doing. They only parroted dogma.
The Catholic Church, which is the denomination to which Rick Santorum claims allegiance, has never quite emerged from the Dark Ages. Obedience to ritualized forms and abstract systems of ideation is still more important to the men who run the Catholic Church, as it was 500 years ago, than giving a moment’s consideration to reality.
The human capacity for self-delusion is, in all likelihood, boundless. We cannot assume that people of this sort can be swayed by any consideration whatever. Even if journalists were willing to ask them tough questions (and that’s a topic for another time), the questions would bounce off, leaving not a dent.
The entire Republican enterprise is about the raw exercise of power. And when you wed love of power to a complete refusal to look at reality … well, people like that tend to start wars and throw their opponents, real or imagined, into concentration camps, don’t they?