How can you tell if someone is messing with you? What’s the exact process you go through in your mind to determine what’s true and what isn’t?

It’s an important tool of survival. Every human being needs the ability to acquire and evaluate information, not merely accept someone else’s assertion uncritically. In Ronald Reagan’s words, “Trust, but verify.”

What happens when people lose confidence in their own ability to verify the truth of something that’s asserted? They look around for someone they trust, and they take their word for it.

One method of defrauding people is the “confidence game,” in which victims are persuaded to trust someone who will exploit that trust to scam or harm them.

Politics lends itself to this type of “con game” technique on a grand scale. Fanning fear and feigning trustworthiness will get people elected every time, if nothing is done to expose it. Then the tendency of government officials to seek more and more power can lead to a perpetual state of “crisis” that, we’re told, can only be addressed by allowing government officials to grab more and more power.

How much of what we are told is based more on political ambition than accurate analysis? The answer may be in an NBC News poll conducted a few weeks ago. It found that voters now greatly prefer Republicans over Democrats on every issue except climate and COVID, where Democrats have a narrow lead. In California, nearly all elected officials are Democrats, so let’s be honest, there is political gain to be had in daily warnings that climate change is an existential threat to human life if COVID doesn’t kill us all first.

It’s a different story in states with Republican governors. Those politicians can gain politically by focusing attention on other issues, such as the economy and the border. There’s no political benefit to be had from imposing mandates for electric vehicles, or masks on elementary school students.

What tools do voters have to determine the actual degree of threat and to evaluate what can or should be done about it? Under our constitutional system of government, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, there are checks and balances on government power, and the people are sovereign — their elected representatives vote on laws and then answer to their constituents every two years at the ballot box.

But alarmingly, government power is growing right through the constitutional limits that are supposed to hold it in check. To cite just two examples, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed another executive order extending his one-man rule under a “state of emergency” through March 2022, and President Joe Biden instructed U.S. employers to proceed with enforcement of an “emergency” OSHA regulation requiring mandatory COVID vaccines or regular testing at companies with 100 or more employees, even though a federal appeals court issued an order blocking the rule while legal challenges are heard.

Your personal reaction to those decisions is likely determined by whether you trust those government officials or not. It’s unusually difficult to find information on which to base your own independent judgment. Major social media platforms and large news organizations increasingly apply the term “misinformation” to describe any statement or viewpoint that is not approved by or in agreement with government officials, even when past statements by those government officials are shown to have been in error.

It’s not exactly totalitarianism, but I wouldn’t want to live on the difference.

In order to control the entire population of a country, totalitarian regimes need more than force, because the population might fight back and even win. What’s needed to preserve totalitarianism is a reliable method of ensuring that the population doesn’t fight back.

All totalitarian regimes engage in censorship and rely on propaganda. These are tools that eventually can cause people to doubt the evidence of their own senses. If you perceive something happening in the world but never see it mentioned in news reports or on social media platforms, and instead all you see is a contrary story repeated endlessly, seemingly everywhere, it’s easy to think you must be wrong about what you perceived.

Millions of people can have that experience simultaneously, each of them feeling isolated, powerless, and filled with self-doubt. It’s a state of mind that is vulnerable to fear and exploitation.

Sometimes this process is called “gaslighting.” The name comes from a 1944 movie, set in the 19th century, about a husband who attempts to drive his wife insane by telling her that she’s imagining things. When she observes the gaslights going brighter and dimmer, he solemnly informs her that this is not actually happening. He gradually isolates her, telling her it’s for her own good.

Of course, he was secretly dimming and brightening the lights himself, and there was nothing wrong with her mind. In the story, her husband was manipulating her to hide his own crimes.

In December 2019, “Gaslight” was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry, honored, in the words of Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, as part of the “important record of American history, culture and creativity.”

Perhaps this year it will win an award for “Best Instructional Video.”


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