“When the soul is opposed to knowledge, that I call folly.”
By Michael Rowan
In the Orwellian year that I worked with Barbara Tuchman on a presidential campaign, which was 1984, “The March of Folly” was published. In it, she documented a pattern in human history which is more common than you might think.
Tuchman, who won two Pulitzer prizes in the 20th century, distinguished folly from more obvious behaviors such as tyranny, vaulting ambition, incompetence or decadence. Folly is more dangerous than any of those evils because it’s a magic show. Folly is a con-game. Few will admit it, but people love to be deceived every day.
Folly is a perversity of the mind whereby a course of action against one’s self-interest is selected over alternatives factually in one’s interest, while being cheered on by a populist leader and a large base in the society, who stick with folly no matter what factually happens.
Tuchman’s book recounts why the Trojans opened their defensive walls to accept the gift of a very large wooden horse with attackers inside; how a series of Renaissance popes needlessly provoked the Protestant secession from Catholicism; how the British senselessly lost America; and how America betrayed its own repugnance of colonialism, in Vietnam.
The pandemic of 2020 is the perfect time to recall the March of Folly in the USA and Venezuela, two countries that have fallen head over heels for it. USA
You may be old enough to remember how the “malaise speech” of Jimmy Carter buried his pessimism in the 1980 election (Ronald Reagan won). But by 2016, the USA was not just ready for malaise, they went full bore for carnage. It was time for folly.
In 2016, Donald Trump claimed that the USA, which totals only 5% of the world’s population but produces 25% of its GDP, was a “carnage,” and a surprising 47% of voters agreed. Because of the undemocratic Electoral College, 47% was enough to elect Trump even though he lost the national vote by almost three million votes.
In his first term as president, Trump cut taxes by $1.5 trillion, 82% of which went to the very rich and only crumbs to help his base of working-class voters, who nevertheless stood by him loyally. He could do no wrong even when he was not making his own base great again.
In 2020, the pandemic hit America hard but Trump effectively denied its existence in hundreds of magical Tweets and TV snippets. Facts showed that the pandemic was crippling America but folly suggested it was just a common cold, forget about it.
Facts showed that in mid-March, 2020, both South Korea and America similarly had 90 virus cases but produced extraordinarily dissimilar results in April: South Korea had only 85 virus deaths while the USA had 60,000 virus deaths. South Korea had a fact-based strategy, the USA had a gut-based feeling. To the true believers in folly, facts don’t matter even if their grandma dies in a nursing home gasping for breath.
Trump declared victory. “We have prevailed!” he said. He suggested snake-oil treatments which scientists warned could kill a lot more people. Nonsense, Trump’s 47% base said, sticking with folly and drinking Trump’s Kool-Aid. As 33 million Americans filed for unemployment and the economy sank to historic levels, Trump’s 47% laughed off the “Fake News” and cheered wildly for their anti-government savior.
If Trump getting re-elected president in 2020 seems as improbable to you as dinosaurs voting for the asteroid that destroyed them thousands of years ago, you are living in the world of facts and not in the magical world of folly. You may be factually correct but you’re not understanding what’s going on.Venezuela
Welcome to the country that went all-in for folly twenty-two years ago. Factually, it’s a mess of pig vomit, but by folly, it’s heaven on earth.
Venezuela’s revolution promised to wipe out poverty, corruption and colonialism. Factually, the revolution produced extreme poverty, corruption and colonialism.
The richest country in Latin America is now the poorest. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been stolen from the treasury by insiders. Cuba, Russia, China and even Iran have colonized the place. Venezuela has more refugees fleeing its borders than Syria.
But seeing is not believing; believing is seeing. To those imbued with folly, believing determines what is seen. The “facts” about Venezuela are lies told by the enemies of the revolution.
Likewise, the opposition to the revolution is similarly imbued by magical thinking. In 2002, the opposition’s 48-hour coup installed a guy tagged as “Pedro the Short” (because that’s how long he lasted), who mimicked the despotic dictates of the revolution he had supposedly replaced, prompting the military to replace Pedro back with the real thing (Chavez). Learning nothing from this misadventure, the opposition placed its hopes in magical thinking about another savior for the following 18 years, which is a long time waiting for the Second Coming.
The latest escapade was in 2019, when the opposition was recognized as the legitimate government of Venezuela by 58 nations which cumulatively control most of the world’s power, wealth and global institutions. Instead of using that powerful recognition to form and fund a liberating army and government in exile – as Bolivar once did – to destroy the narco-terrorist gang ruling Venezuela as if it was their private country club, the opposition has waited supinely in Venezuela house-arrest for someone else to do it, hopefully Trump.
But all they got was a Three Stooges coup attempt by a Green Beret who boasted about his military prowess in Iraq and Afghanistan (Umm, those war failures were his qualifications for the job?) who promised to abduct the revolution’s leaders with a small boat of untrained mercenaries with few weapons, who of course were slaughtered as they arrived at the shore by some of the million-plus militia fighters for the revolution who have been training and waiting for the oft-predicted U.S. invasion since 1999.
Self-deception is an amazingly powerful act of the mind. It makes complex realities simple. It makes unpleasant facts go away. It reduces science, law and reason to piss and poop.
Have an economic depression in Venezuela? Put chickens on your roof.
Have a coronavirus infection in America? Drink Lysol and you should be OK.
If you don’t like facts, folly is your bar pal. Sing along: Don’t worry, be happy. Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America and the just released How to Prevent Trump from Doing to America What Chavez Did to Venezuela, published by Amazon Books.