Thursday, May 5, 2016

Threatened Worldviews and Extremism

© Charles D. Hayes

In 1990, Walter Truett Anderson published Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-To-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. The subtitle is discerning. Anderson’s stunning observations offered cultural insight into the new century we were fast approaching in the same way Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had been prescient twenty years earlier.

The 1990s saw the term postmodernism bantered about by people whose trouble defining it was crucial to its meaning. For many well-educated people postmodernism seemed to rest on casting doubt on the ability to know anything with any degree of certainty.

Postmodernists pointed out that language itself evolves from a foundation based on arbitrary assumptions. The notion resembled eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s proposition that we do not experience things in themselves but only as representations of themselves dependent upon the frailties of our cerebral architecture. The result of such thinking did little but escalate pretense on one side of the argument and contempt on the other.     

Now, in a recent article titled “Despair, American Style” in The New York Times, Paul Krugman has written about the angst of white people and their difficulty in coping with life today amid the turmoil of growing cultural diversity and economic uncertainty. He quotes a source who suggests some Americans are suffering from a loss of narrative in keeping with their sense of reality. Hold this thought. 

A half-century ago, Richard Hofstadter published his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In it he said, “At an early date, literature and learning were stigmatized as the prerogative of useless aristocracies.” But disruptive ideas were all the rage in the 1960s, prompting Hofstadter to declare in 1964 that we had reached a point where “anti-intellectualism could be discussed without exaggerated partisanship.”

Come forward to the present, and Hofstadter’s assertion sounds absurd. Anti-intellectualism is now thriving in exaggerated partisanship. What went wrong? The answer in a nutshell is this: People today are experiencing future shock from the unsettling notion that reality bears little relation to the narrative that most of us internalized growing up.

We know now that our brains don’t work as we’ve always believed they do. Rather, we are rigged for self-deception, seeing what we want to see, and we are born masters when it comes to easily tuning out or shielding ourselves from contrary information. And all the while, our beliefs are setting up like concrete.

Cultures serve as shelters from reality. Some people adopt worldviews very much like read-only software, often internalizing a creed so rigidly that they do not hear, see, or even acknowledge contrary views as having any legitimacy whatsoever. As a result, a significant number of people seek the refuge of echo chambers and block out all contrary opinion.

Cultures also serve as ideological pressure cookers for the formation of beliefs. We are only a few generations beyond a time when many Americans were determined to fight to the death in support of slavery. Our cultural traditions remain so deeply rooted and so tenaciously entrenched that a residue of racial prejudice from the Civil War is still with us.

In many ways the profuse ideas of the 1960s represented a backlash to an overly conformist and authoritarian culture. In the two decades that followed, a strong sea of resentment for secularism and tolerant ideas led to an increase in opposition and to the growth of traditional enclaves and think tanks based on religion and traditionalist ideology. Take this smoldering anxiety globally, and the antics of terrorists begin to make sense.    

It’s hard to get an objective sense of the cultural differences among the peoples of the world. In America, most of us grow up with an unrelenting emphasis on and about the ethos of individualism. This attitude shapes our worldview and the way we relate to other people.

But consider the ideas we Americans have about family and morality, and then contrast these feelings with those of cultures where the custom of honor killing is currently practiced. The moral gap here is so profound and so wide that people on either side of this issue cannot fully comprehend the point of view of the other.

Incidents of clashing social customs and values are increasing today as never before, and the future offers no letup. We’re experiencing lives mediated by technologies that border on magic. Society is both ripping apart and coming together at the same time, causing many people to be driven by fear and a thirst for security.

Alvin Toffler asserted that there are limits to the amount of change we can endure without psychological injury. He echoed William James’ observation that “lives based on having are less free than lives based on doing or on being.” The threat of losing one’s affluence is bewildering, especially when it happens as technology actually increases one’s life choices in superficial ways with new gadgets one can acquire on the way to lower and lower rungs on the economic ladder.

When worldviews unravel, so does the psyche of individuals. In some cases, the angst generated festers and results in conflict that leads to violence among people whose worldviews allow no room for contrary opinion. Although psychologist Steven Pinker has offered compelling evidence that violence globally is actually diminishing, our media’s focus on if it bleeds it leads makes this observation seem hard to believe.   

My point is that we have reached uncharted territory. Our species has always had individuals who see the same things and reach different conclusions, and for centuries our political divide has been sharp or even hostile. As Walter Truett Anderson once observed, the fundamentalists fear the loss of faith while freethinking liberals dread surrender to those who promise certainty.

In today’s world, communication technology is effectively retribalizing the world at a pace we aren’t prepared to deal with. Echo chambers serve as obstacles for finding common ground and as battle stations on stand-by to detect cultural insults and acts of disrespect.

The more contentious the ideological divide between academics and average citizens, the more attractive an anti-intellectual worldview becomes to some. As the rate of change skyrockets, the felt need to seek simplistic solutions and the shelter of consensus increases. At the same time, technology is rapidly fueling the power of radicals to retaliate against society at large.

In short, everything that can happen is happening, only faster, while the disconnect between perception and reality gets bigger. As a result of this chaos, groups seek refuge in associations tenuously held together by ancient customs and supernatural beliefs. Out of desperation more and more of their members assume that those who disagree with them are evil and double down on their convictions when challenged. Moreover, when a culture’s sacred beliefs seem so bizarre that outsiders view them as preposterous, the passion required to defend them is likely to be fierce.

Barring a natural disaster or global catastrophe, the speed of change is not going to let up. Neither is seething cultural conflict as worldviews collide and insecure individuals and groups resist, believing themselves to be facing mortal threats by the mere existence of those who disagree with them about the nature of reality. People who express angst because they believe their symbols and icons are being disrespected are but the first signs of shattering worldviews. ISIS represents the extreme.

It is in the nature of human tribalism to assume one’s culture represents the pinnacle of humanity. When you find out what each culture believes is sacred, you expose a hypersensitive nerve that, when pinched, prompts fear, anxiety, and acts of irrationality. When handled with tact, that nerve holds a key to the radicalization of a group’s members.  

If we are going to defuse some individuals and groups of their fear and achieve a more peaceful society with fewer acts of terrorism, we need to focus on strategies to help people cope with disorder without feeling that the escalating change in the world is a personal attack on their identity and thus their very existence.

If we put a lot of thought into this enterprise, we could call it education with the caveat that the way it is presented may be as important as its content. Education has never been more essential because ideas are the only way to dismantle ideologies. People who are incapable of creating their own narrative without the need for hatred as the cultural adhesive to hold their respective associations together are easy candidates for those who seek to recruit fanatics.

There is one clear and profound point to be made here which we ignore it at our peril: Violence begets violence, and if we have any hope of stamping out terrorism, it won’t be with bullets.
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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Gun Safety: Common Sense, Not Politics

© Charles D. Hayes   

I’ve been a gun owner since I got a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas in 1948 at age five. I still have it. My grandfather laid out all of the ways in which the use of guns required common sense. Since then I’ve served in the Marine Corps and as a police officer.

In February of 2015 I caught a burglar in my home and held him at gunpoint until a state trooper arrived. The burglar pointed a pistol at me. I had a shotgun and convinced him to drop his. He was a second or two away from dying before he put the gun down. In all of my years with firearms I’ve never shot anyone accidently or on purpose.

The current social uproar over gun rights is endemic of the overall political divide facing the country. Common sense has been abandoned strictly on identity based political grounds. In other words, this is not an example of reasoning, it’s a manner of relating as in my group has a stake in this, so we must win at all costs. Not to be confused by facts.

The irony in the rhetoric is breathtaking. Surely a Christian God would deem it a moral blasphemy and an outrage to forbid women and children refuges shelter from possible physical harm on the chance that some might someday pose a terrorist threat, but then cry foul by asking that those purchasing a firearm must be checked against a no-fly terrorist list. Think about the utter insanity of such a dogmatic position as it exposes levels of hypocrisy that are off the charts of any objective standard of human decency, religious morality aside.

Taking the position that no laws are effective in keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and that more people having guns is a deterrent to violence is a complete abandonment of common sense. And don’t offer me a quote from John R. Lott Jr’s book More Guns Less Crime because his data has been thoroughly debunked and discredited.

Think hard about what the politicization of gun safety has done to pervert logic. The more people swim, the fewer drownings, the more people drive, the fewer the accidents, and the more children there are who play with matches, the fewer the burns. The more marriages, the fewer the divorces. The more people with guns, the fewer the shootings. This is insanity on steroids and it has no business being a political issue.

We require driver’s licenses to keep bad drivers off the road and it is ludicrous not to take reasonable measures to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics. Granted not having a valid driver’s license doesn’t stop some offenders from driving, but it does deter enough to make a statistical difference in traffic fatalities due to DUIs.

From my experience, there is a grain of truth in the notion that a person is less likely to pull out a handgun and start shooting people if they believe there is a good chance they will themselves be shot. But this pales in comparison to the likelihood that if more people are armed that minor conflicts will result in an increase in the use of firearms and you only have to witness a few examples of road rage to fully appreciate this reality.

I understand and I sympathize with those who have affection for firearms, but take a walk through your town or visit your local Walmart and tell me you think it would be a good idea that everyone you meet should be armed, some of whom you must admit are not capable of playing with a full deck.

My point is that common sense gun regulations have been made nearly impossible for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the reality of public safety, but everything to do with partisan politics, as if us vs. them is the only thing that matters and that if “they win we lose.” Moreover, this divisiveness is purposefully spurred on by the firearms industry, the very people who profit from the paranoia. No wonder there is an ammunition shortage nationwide.

Arguing that common sense firearms regulations have no positive effect at all on human behavior is patently absurd and the only basis to deny the statistical evidence that regulations do have a positive effect is political posturing that’s completely out of touch with reality. An extrapolation of such ideology would suggest that because some people are lawbreakers we don’t need any laws at all about anything because after all, some people won’t obey. This is nonsense!

Our nation is founded on the premise that most people are law abiding citizens which most people are and this is why it is possible to have a government and a civil society in the first place. Gun safety requires a slug of sanity and some double barreled reasoning with politics set aside.
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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Fourth-Down Punt Economics

© Charles D. Hayes

Imagine what would happen if the referees calling penalties in professional football were paid exorbitant salaries by only the richest teams. One thing is sure: we would deem it a sham. If the game was obviously rigged, most people would stop watching. Ironically, that’s precisely what we have today in American politics. Our elected representatives (our supposed economic referees) are being openly bribed because not enough of us are watching and so many of our citizens don’t vote.

Both of our major political parties are unduly influenced by moneyed special interests; one is just more blatant and ideologically open about it than the other. Unfortunately, the reason many people don’t pay attention to politics is that they know the system is corrupt and they feel powerless.

Because of special interest lobbying, corporations never have to punt. They own our referees. Through legislative influence they have effectively devastated labor unions while enabling banks to charge excessive fees for administering customer accounts and to move away from traditional services to casino-like investments where profits are capitalized. They take big risks, fully confident that, because of their size, catastrophic losses will be socialized.

Some of our largest and most profitable businesses pay poverty-level wages with the assurance that taxpayers will support their employees with food stamps. The sheer amount of corporate profits in offshore banks to escape taxation is breathtaking, while lobbying by the military industrial complex is so effective, our generals and admirals can’t even cancel the manufacture of weapons they don’t want or need.   

Inequality has been escalating at record rates for decades, a direct result of legislation on behalf of those with an economic advantage and the power to leverage their influence at every opportunity. One strategy has been to incite public anger at the poor for not pulling their weight and appearing to game the system by getting something for nothing, even when the evidence shows that’s not true. This feeds people’s inherent tribalistic tendencies because blaming the poor allows one to identify vicariously with the rich and powerful.

Capitalism is an incredibly dynamic system capable of both good and ill, but today’s economic playing field is not in any sense level. Capitalism works best with strictly regulated competition. In professional football, we don’t hear arguments about a minimum wage because teams have to compete for players, causing compensation to soar.

The same principle applies to the workplace. Capitalism only works effectively for working people when business has to compete for employees. To assume that human beings should work full time for poverty wages in the richest country in the world is as absurd as it would be to play football without protective gear.  

The notion that free markets magically arrive at fair wages for work performed is a fairy tale. Nothing is free, and our laws for business and labor are biased by design. The commercial usage of natural resources does not remotely reflect its environmental costs. Moreover, elected officials’ dependence on private donations means legislation is never free of partiality. And finally, far too many of the rules and regulations we live by are created in secret.         

Football, of course, is just a game and may seem to be of little significance, but we are drawn to it precisely because of our tribalistic instinct for belonging. Sports fans display near fanaticism in their insistence that referees be fair when calling penalties. Notice how upset they get when a penalty appears unjust. But building an economy where people can earn a decent living is more important by orders of magnitude than scoring points in a game. That we insist on fairness in sports contests, and not in matters where so much more is at stake, reveals a tragic flaw in human behavior.

The only way we will ever achieve a level economic playing field in which the interests of average citizens are matters of real political concern is to publicly fund elections and forbid the bribing of our elected officials. Until this is accomplished, the ideologies of the Left and Right will always matter less than the degree of corruption we’re willing to accept.

The first order of business is to stop cheerleading with the mindset of the 1950s. The American aspirations for hard work and self-reliance haven’t changed, but our methodologies for contracting and compensating wage labor have been radically degraded and diminished over the last half-century. The rules, regulations, and taxes that created the middle class have been slowly but steadily altered beyond recognition.

If professional football had kept pace with our politics these past five decades, the Wall Street team would take the field with equipment and talent comparable to what the New England Patriots have today. The opposing team representing working people, however, would be an assembly of high school B-stringers, who would show up without helmets or shoulder pads. Every time they got the ball, it would automatically be fourth down with a fifteen-yard penalty tacked on and no time-outs remaining.

In November 2016, it will be time for a new lineup of referees to take the field. Let’s make sure they have an edict for public funding of elections and are individuals who will strive to overturn Citizens United legislatively. Let’s elect representatives who will look out for average Americans with an implicit understanding that, if they fail, they will be held accountable. The penalty will be that they’ll be deemed off sides, out of bounds, and soon out of office.         
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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Literature, Philosophy, and the Alaska Highway

© Charles D. Hayes

My fascination with Alaska began in Irving, Texas, in the 1950s, when my fourth-grade teacher read to her class every day from Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Some sixty years later, I’m now a resident of Alaska and have been for more than four decades. Perhaps it’s my fate that, as a result, I would have the opportunity to drive the legendary Alaska Highway, not once, but seven times, four of those times by myself. I never tire of the drive and always look forward to another trip.

Constructed in 1942, the year before I was born, as a war measure in America’s defense against Japan, the highway extends 1,390 miles through the Yukon to the heart of Alaska. It traverses wilderness so breathtaking and spectacular that at times it doesn’t seem real, almost like something created by the special effects department for a movie production. My experience has been that if you have a philosopher-self hidden beneath your consciousness, it will likely surface when you travel this road alone.

Not surprisingly, the fiction I write is largely shaped by these influences. More than two decades ago, while studying Alaska history and philosophy, I began crafting a futuristic story featuring the Alaska Highway. In 2003, eight years after I began, I published Portals in a Northern Sky, a science fiction novel envisioning a revolutionary technological breakthrough that allows people not to travel back in time per se, but rather to look back in time and observe any location on earth during daytime hours on a cloud-free day at any time in history.

The Gadsden Times, a newspaper in the Deep South, described Portals as “a science fiction novel, a history lesson, a guided tour of North America’s beauty and a thought-provoking work of philosophy.” In places like Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, Summit Lake, Whitehorse, and other key locations along the highway route, characters in the novel discuss the rewards of reading literature. Among other classics, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick features prominently in the conversation.

As part of a philosophical exploration into the notion of fate, one of the protagonists offers an intriguing comparison of the lives and works of Herman Melville and Jack London. These two authors were obsessed with the concept of fate, and their novels reflect their fascination. They were deeply aware that both wilderness and the sea dramatize and magnify mankind’s fear, frailty, and sense of existential insignificance.

London was born out of wedlock, Melville with a pedigree. Both men’s mothers had been raised in wealth, only to marry into hard times, and would ultimately rely on their sons for support. Both men were drawn to the sea at an early age, and both signed aboard vessels as deck hands or common sailors. As one character in Portals points out, the sea makes us radically aware of our profound insignificance as individuals, even as it amplifies the mystery of the vast knowledge we store beneath consciousness.

Both of the authors were self-educated, voracious readers who wrote to earn a living, each thinking they were capable of greater work than the public demanded, especially Melville. He lived to write, while London wrote to live. Each of them earned money by lecturing. London was a skilled self-promoter; Melville was not.

At the same time, both men were moody and prone to depression, frequent disillusionment, and cynicism. Both had detractors who declared they were insane. Still, both were capable of writing the kind of prose that penetrates the public psyche in ways that stir an emotional response as not much else has before or since.

London and Melville had a way of exaggerating every aspect of our lives to compensate for the important little things that so often go unnoticed. They were also very much aware of how often we are influenced and motivated by our shadowy and immensely mysterious unconscious. Both men were involved in butchery: Melville with whales, London with seals. Both witnessed human brutality at its worst.

These men produced work with deep allegoric implications beyond their own understanding of the connections they were making. Both created magnificent, original, larger-than-life authoritarian sea captains, Melville’s Ahab and London’s Wolf Larson, who afford us a vision of all that is right and wrong with humankind.

Melville captured the human predicament and the psychosomatic essence of the American experience in Moby-Dick, making all of us passengers on a metaphoric ship named Pequod. Although it was written in 1851, Moby-Dick has been described by author Nathaniel Philbrick as a book written for the future because it contains “the genetic code of America.” He characterizes the novel as “America’s Bible,” declaring that every time we encounter a new crisis in this country, Moby-Dick is relevant.

Jack London read the works of Herman Melville, and his stories transport Melville’s epic primordial struggle with the unconsciousness symbolism of the sea to the wilderness of the far north, where the brutality of the natural world takes center stage: the weak perish and the strong survive.

Politically, Melville was a capitalist who clung to the economic security of civil service employment. London was a socialist who despised human inequality and railed against arbitrary authority until the end of his life. It should be pointed out, however, that he held racist views common to his time and place. And although he was a socialist, he lived like an extravagant capitalist.

Melville died in obscurity at 72, having struggled financially most of his life. His recognition as a novelist smoldered in fits and starts, but his work didn’t really take off until after his death. London died famous at age 40, having achieved almost instant rags-to-riches wealth and celebrity.

As fate would have it, I once heard Alaska Congressman Don Young say that it was Jack London who brought him to Alaska, echoing my own reasons for choosing the forty-ninth state as my home. So, when I heard him being interviewed on a local radio show, I took the opportunity to phone in. I asked Congressman Young if, as a conservative Republican, he found it ironic that he was in Alaska because of a socialist. Thinking I had him in a bind, I wondered how he would talk his way out of it.

Not missing a beat, Young said, “Jack London? My father knew Jack London.” I was the one who was speechless.     

London’s work confirms John Muir’s observation that “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Indeed, London claimed that he found his perspective for becoming a successful writer in the wilderness of the Klondike. In the same way, I’ve observed that ideas and the Alaska Highway go hand-in-hand. The awe-inspiring scenery, the isolation, and the absence of available radio signals invite deep contemplation.

The sweeping and at times overwhelming scenic grandeur puts our human frailties and our brief existence into a stark light. The natural beauty of the landscape is so formidable as to give an appearance of permanence in contrast to our fleetingly short lives, and feelings of insignificance often follow. It’s an existential dilemma that begs perspective.

Portals in a Northern Sky is set in 2021. The sequel, A Mile North of Good and Evil, takes place in 2028, seven years into widespread use of the Portals technology. In this story, the Alaska Highway serves as the hunting ground for a serial killer whose behavior represents the personification of evil. The malevolence of his crimes gives rise to penetrating questions about whether his nature qualifies as an inevitable part of the natural world. In a concurrent storyline, an impending doomsday scenario offers a group of individuals, as well as every reader, a unique perspective on morality and mortality.

This second book took me twelve years to complete, which means the two works together were on my mind for a full twenty years. During that time, the only things I can relate to that haven’t changed dramatically are the Alaska Highway and the beauty of Alaska.

In September 2015, I made the drive again, all the way from Dallas. Except for the highway having been paved, the trip was much like my first one more than forty years earlier. Services and facilities are still few and far between, giving the pervasive sense that one is detached from civilization. The wilderness remains a clear summons for philosophical reflection.

In both of my novels, most of the action takes place in interior Alaska near Mount Denali, a landmark symbol worthy of its own genre of philosophic contemplation. Seeming to represent permanence, or even eternity, the majestic mountain elicits thoughts about mortality, morality, and fate, eternal questions at the heart of the human condition. Considering these ideas with Alaska wilderness as the backdrop offers a perspective with philosophical echoes that can last a lifetime.

Drive to Alaska, visit Mount Denali, and you will see what I mean.   
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Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Tax of Social Media

© Charles D. Hayes

The pace of change has always delineated differences among generations. As often as not, each generation longs for something they grew up without. For this reason, in my view, the not too distant future promises a rediscovery of the rewards of solitude as something that will suddenly seem astoundingly meaningful because it affords so much time for thought. With thought comes perspective, and with that comes wisdom worth passing on.

Most of us know people whose interest in life seems to grow richer and stronger with age, coming ever closer to achieving a level of awareness that we commonly think of as wisdom. We also know people whose lives seem to shrink with time, gradually becoming less and less of who and what they once were.

Life stage researcher Erik Erickson characterized the years north of middle age as a tipping point, with one direction moving toward perspective and the other toward despair. Twenty-first century technology is ratcheting up the process for many people, pushing us further and faster in whichever direction we are leaning.

My observations suggest that openness to new experience is a key characteristic for those who strive for perspective as they grow older. Watching friends and family members withdraw into a shell of growing angst and despair is one of life’s great disappointments. When this is someone’s chosen path, efforts to get the person to change course are rarely successful.

We know the effects of change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were astonishing. Generations who grew up traveling by horse and buggy died witnessing rocket ships and satellites in space. Now, in this century, we are experiencing even faster change with communication technologies effectively having nullified geographic distances, resulting in a retribalized world based more on ideology and political class than ethnicity.

The solitude of daily life experienced by earlier generations has been replaced by unrelenting communication and media distractions. Thoughtful correspondence is increasingly overwritten by tweets. Time spent looking at snippets of text on small screens is overtaking time spent reading serious books. In-depth reading is giving way to Cliff Notes and one-page summaries.  

Nevertheless, if we don’t keep current with technology, the world seems to pass us by. We have less and less in common with younger generations. Our music, tastes in fashion, and preferences in entertainment are deemed obsolete and out of touch, and as aging friends and family pass away, we become ever more isolated.

Each of us can probably relate to having family members who never signed on with computers. Now they are likely alienated from social media. I’ve used computers since they came on the market, but only just recently did I change from using a flip phone to a smartphone. For a short time, it was a traumatic experience as I felt a complete loss of control over my ability to use a telephone. (I’m over it now.)

We can easily lose sight of the fact that Marshall McLuhan was right when he said, “The medium is the message.” In other words, our tools shape our behavior. Facebook, for example, has created an environment where we are subtly and not so subtly encouraged to like things. The downside is that doing so makes us much more aware of what we dislike, so much so that Facebook is adding a Dislike feature. This existential experience tends to motivate people to seek out echo chambers where political viewpoints narrow and contempt escalates and smolders.

Needless to say, for a species as tribalistic as we human beings are, manipulative media is something to be constantly aware of, simply to keep ourselves from being unduly influenced. Social philosopher Eric Hoffer was correct in declaring that hatred is one of our greatest unifying forces. And thus, the strength of communications technology is also its weakness: it brings people together while it alienates and ostracizes others. 

Some people take pride in not watching or even owning a television, not having a cellphone, or not using computers. On the other hand, some people express pride in not reading books. But purposeful isolation and alienation of any kind shortchanges perspective. Without common frames of reference, relating to others becomes more difficult.     

Now that I’m accustomed to my new phone, I view it as something short of magic. It’s the equivalent of having a personal assistant 24/7. Social media and smartphone apps for seniors are tremendous aids for keeping in touch with family and assisting with medical issues. Even so, today’s political environment suggests the world needs much less chit-chat and much more thoughtfulness and deep reading.                         

Ralph Waldo Emerson put our current dilemma in perspective more than a century ago, pointing out that “every advantage has its tax.” So, if you are feeling alienated by your lack of technical savvy, Emerson is still good company. His work is all about gaining and maintaining perspective. Read his essay “Compensation,” and you will be rewarded with a riveting example of thoughtfulness.

In Emerson’s time, solitude was a big part of life. If you read the letters and prose of ordinary citizens during that period and compare them with today’s social media, you may perceive that we need to rethink and relearn the importance of solitude.

The tax for using the media available to us is paid in lost opportunity for thoughtful reflection. Wisdom these days will likely be found by discerning and maintaining the right balance between technological wizardry and enough silent contemplation to keep from being manipulated politically and to maintain a level of perspective that makes life worth living.  
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Friday, September 11, 2015

Education for Civilization’s Sake

© Charles D. Hayes
“Education is a defense against culture,” said educator and critic Neil Postman. An education that doesn’t result in a lifelong desire for knowledge is an education that didn’t take. If one’s efforts cease, the battle is lost to those who use political anxiety to manipulate vulnerable people.     

Consider John, the accountant, police officer, engineer, attorney, welder, electrician, or any other occupation that requires learning, skill, and talent. He sailed through school with ease, taking the hard subjects and shunning electives as a waste of time. At work, he stands out; most everything he does is judged to be quality work. John’s political views are fairly black and white. His worldview is heavily influenced by his occupation and the geographic region where he lives. He has little patience with people who do not seem to be doing what is expected of them.

As he ages, John is increasingly more comfortable in his work and less in his element at home. His wife has her own career, and over time their interests grow apart, leaving them fewer and fewer things to talk about. After a hard day’s work, John loses himself in televised sports and watches just enough biased political reporting to have developed a slow-burning level of contempt for all the people he believes are ruining the world.

Simply put, John is more of a human doing than a human being. All of his life, he has been told how to do things, mostly without asking why. He is like a satellite put into orbit and set to spinning with such velocity that he can’t stop or spin in a way that goes counter to his cultural indoctrination. Does this sound like anyone you know, male or female?

Most of us grow up constructing a worldview so heavily influenced by our geography and our social affiliation that we believe our personal outlook constitutes straight-up reality. Some of us are virtual prisoners of an internalized regional ideology, which means broadly that we’re certain who the out groups are—namely, the people we imagine are keeping us from living better lives.

The target may be immigrants, welfare recipients, or the ethnic outgroup of the moment. The list is long, and the irony is that many citizens allow those in power to rig the system to their own advantage, often through the process of vicarious identification. They delude themselves into believing that they have more in common with the very rich than with those who are struggling to survive.

 For decades I have been arguing that what citizens need in today’s politically partisan and fast-changing world is an existential education. By this I mean a deep level of knowledge that’s based on immersion in the humanities and behavioral sciences. Such an education enables a person to fully appreciate the range of differences within our species and to recognize that, as mortal beings, we are subconsciously aware and upset that we are going to die. It teaches us to deal with these harsh aspects of the human condition without the need to find scapegoats to distract us from this mostly unconscious but smoldering anxiety.

In other words, an existential education enables a person to create one’s own meaning in life with some genuine independence from the conformist demands of one’s culture. It also fosters sufficient reasoning ability to dissipate the inevitable angst that comes with being mortal.

A fundamental goal of an existential education is the ability to burst rigid conformist worldview bubbles and to prevent new ones from forming. The idea is to increase one’s capacity to discern a more objective sense of reality, while remaining fully cognizant that we are locked in an inescapable mode of subjectivity, the only solution being nonexistence.

An existential education should enable a person to deconstruct the collective lies and cultural myths we grow up accepting as absolute truth and to see through the pretense of manipulative advertising and political ploys designed to have us act against our own interests. It teaches us to always be alert to the reality that, more often than not, things are not as they appear and to be autonomously impervious to the perception that human beings have value only in economic terms.

Curiosity lies at the heart of a successful existential education by cultivating a continuous thirst for knowledge and for a better appreciation of our subjective existence. Understanding that we will never nail reality to the wall, we know that if we quit trying, our perspective suffers and our anxiety festers.

Without the benefit of an existential education, we, like John, are apt to see the world exclusively in terms of our respective means of earning a living, and our local economic concerns will likely trump the interests of anyone we consider outsiders. If lumber is the primary industry, then those whose income depends on it don’t want to hear about the need to save trees. If it’s oil, they don’t want to hear about global warming.

If people are unfamiliar with the divergent customs of others the world over, they are less likely to empathize with those whose interests conflict with their own. They’ll be eager to believe everything negative that they hear about those they consider to be the opposition.

History makes it crystal clear that studying the humanities won’t humanize those whose attitudes and predispositions don’t allow it, but the inquiry most certainly helps those who strive to be better human beings. I know this to be true, not from theory, but from personal experience. Some people can alleviate existential angst through religious faith, but for others, such conviction has the opposite effect and leads to tribalism at its worst. 

One thing we know for certain is that no ethnic group, no country, no nationality, no religious affiliation has a lock on morality and virtue. Even so, most everyone assumes their own culture is superior to all others.

Growing up with a narrow worldview and without the ability to expand one’s understanding is to be a prisoner of time and place. It sets one up to be easily manipulated by those with a political agenda, as evidenced by the current state of politics in a country where inequality is growing fast by lobbied design.

Clinging to a constricted or parochial worldview is a recipe for engendering the kind of contempt that offers relief only when it’s redirected as scorn toward others. Uncertainty fosters bigotry among ignorant people. Through collective contempt, people let their kind off the hook from bearing any accountability for their illiteracy. To place blame is to effortlessly escape responsibility.  

When worldviews clash, an existential education offers alternative points of view for reflection, comparisons, other possibilities, and the knowledge that even cultures with very different customs share fundamental values and have similar needs. A deep resource of accumulated knowledge can diffuse pent-up anxiety by supplying something else to consider besides the usual arbitrary accusations that come with our tribalistic predispositions.
In a nutshell, an existential education can help human doings become better human beings. Our penchant for tribalism appears to be innate, and existential contempt remains the Achilles heel of our species. This needn’t be so if we seek the knowledge and the will to dissipate our own cultural angst.                                  
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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Depleted Soil Economics

© Charles D. Hayes

A strong middle class is like a vegetable garden, requiring a rich economic environment in the same manner that a garden needs fertile soil. We do not say to seeds, “It’s all up to you. Don’t worry about the PH factor or the nitrogen or the potassium in the soil. Just do your thing, seeds.” But this is precisely the economic policy that many people advocate.

Vegetable gardens require constant care. If their soil is depleted, testing may be necessary to ensure the right ratio of nutrients. An economy for human beings is infinitely more complicated than a garden, but vital ingredients like education, living wages, and hard and soft infrastructure, which are essential for growing and sustaining a society, are often the first areas that trickle-down proponents suggest for cost cutting. Rather than testing the soil, they accuse the seeds of lacking the motivation to grow.

Now let’s move metaphorically from the garden into the garage where the car is parked. If the car battery is dead, we don’t drain more voltage, we jump-start it with a powerful charge. If the car idles briefly but runs out of gas, we have to get fuel from another vehicle before we can drive. To do this, we prime a syphon hose with a rush of liquid to get the fuel moving from one tank to the other. Merely getting rid of the fumes does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Far too often in our political disputes we lose sight of the fundamental purpose of our efforts to thrive.

By all existential measures of human decency, an economy is not more important than its reason for existence. Its engines need adequate fuel, and our metaphorical garden has to be sustainable. This means that its long-term viability is more important than any single harvest or any individual or group.

Thus, the constant political cry to elect business executives to run the country often misses the point. The economy is far, far more important than business, although running the government in a businesslike manner is desirable. To reify capitalism, as if it is more essential than its reason for being or the people it is supposed to serve, is a recipe for dysfunction at best and oppression at worst. Sadly, this misguided ethos lies at the core of our inability to achieve political equilibrium.          

The whole methodology of reengineering, rightsizing, downsizing, and creating a workforce of temporary employees was a legal strategy to avoid paying employee benefits. In our garden analogy this might appear to be efficient, except the result over time has been extreme soil depletion. Not enough of the profits excised at harvest are getting back into the ground.

Our garden is not working for all of us, and the abundance at harvest time is unjustly distributed. Political power trumps the labor of those whose efforts made the bounty possible. Claims that unskilled labor is not worthy of a living wage reflect the smoldering arrogance and contempt of tribalism: Our garden, not theirs. We are deserving; they aren’t. We have the power to legislate; they don’t.

The U.S. Tax Code is a finely tuned political instrument shaped with unrelenting influence by moneyed interests. Slowly but surely, over a period of decades, the tax burden has shifted to those less able to pay. Fortunes are made via insider trading. Supercomputers skim the cream off the stock market.

Financial institutions bleed 401K retirement plans with nickel-and-dime fees that amount to huge sums of money by the time the funds are actually used for retirement. The banking industry applies new rules to customer accounts with whack-a-mole frequency by dreaming up new service charges and hidden fees. Banks can legally charge eighty dollars for a five-dollar overdraft.

Government subsidies for big business increase every year. Big Pharma’s lobbying efforts have succeeded in making it illegal in some cases for the government to negotiate drug prices. Student loans are guaranteed profit centers that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy, but corporations routinely use Chapter 11 as a trustworthy way of shedding debt.

The promise inherent in the American spirit of self-reliance and faith in hard work obscures the reality of a system meticulously rigged with carrot-and-stick hype in which the waving of the stick hides the fact that the carrot is more apparent than real.

Consider the European experiment with austerity or the state of Kansas, where the governor’s tax cutting has nearly bankrupted the state. Nothing like the ideology of low, low taxes and small, small government exists anywhere in the world with a sustained middle class because it’s analogous to planting a garden in sand.

Our history offers an indisputable record of how the financial sector has effectively severed the reward connection between productivity and compensation for work performed. Our technological future promises a steady increase in the numbers of white-collar and professional jobs being replaced by software and robotics. 

Simply put, if an individual’s duties can be reduced to an algorithm, they can be replaced with an app. Moreover, there is nothing on the horizon, save the power of organized labor and an informed and activist public, to keep the middle class from perpetual, if not exponential, decline.

Following admirable instincts emphasizing individual responsibility, lots of people believe in trickle-down economics. They are not entirely wrong. Individual responsibility is very important. But over-focusing on the virtue of individuals is inadequate for our garden economy. Most of us have little difficulty in determining that our own families are more important than the business of business, and yet there are many who have great difficulty in applying the same standard to others. This bias serves as a tool for political manipulation.

The historical economic record and current state of the economy are proof that trickle down leads to a disproportionate rate of trickle up. In today’s world, small government is a euphemism for big corporations with the power to do as they please.

The garden analogy for our fiscal policy is a reminder of how our social and ecological interconnectedness is critical for our long-term sustainability. Our growing rate of inequality demonstrates that we need to plow deep and rethink our garden economy.
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