Friday, January 13, 2017

America’s Celebration of Ignorance

© Charles D. Hayes
If you care about future generations and have reached an age when you realize the time you have remaining is short, perspective about what is truly important has a way of surfacing with a resounding sense of urgency. This is ironic because you realize at the same time just how little impact you have for influencing future events.

I grew up in a racist culture in the 1940s and 50s. Now in my eighth decade, I’ve spent more than thirty of those years writing about how the process of self-education radically changed my worldview and made me realize the utter immorality of bigotry and racism.

So, when I apply a big-picture perspective to the current state of life in this country, it’s clear to me that a very large percentage of our citizens are willfully ignorant and proud of the fact. A lot has been learned during my lifetime about human behavior, and yet we do not make good use of the knowledge we’ve gained.

Time and again, I go back to the writing of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who argued that leaving the subject of human behavior to experts “leads to a general imbecility.” Does it ever. To overstate the case would be difficult. I offer here three major concerns about what we have failed to learn and bring to bear for the public good. They’re all connected.

The first is about our identity, who we think we are. Who we identify with is easily determined by who we believe speaks for us, indeed, if anyone does. I’ve written ad nauseam about this subject, but not many people seem to understand it, even those who are supposed to be the experts. At least, if they do understand the fundamental nature of political identity, they tend to keep it to themselves.

In a nutshell, we human beings are tribalistic by nature. We evolved living in small groups, usually fewer than 300 people. We are so inclined to form these kinds of groups and so prone to conformist behavior that we develop distinctive accents in different regions of the country. We are so quick to group together that we readily adopt a passionate allegiance to sports teams. We can enter a room, chose up team sides by colors like blue and green, and in minutes begin to relate better to team members wearing our colors.

While tribalism is a complicated subject, my point here is simple: When it comes to politics, far too many of our citizens let the party they identify with speak for them. They are not knowledgeable enough to discuss major issues with any level of competence, which is why so many political discussions become emotionally incoherent. Democracy requires an informed citizenry and in fact cannot sustain itself without it.

The second concern is about values and the fact that the things we need most in life are in fact devalued in our society. The whole thrust of our economy depends upon our seeking and purchasing products we don’t really need, goods that, once owned, fail to satisfy, and purchases that often put our future at risk.

We can’t live without clean air, clean water, food, shelter, healthcare, family, society, and physical labor. But we take these things for granted, having created a mass of artificial needs that take priority over the things critical to our survival and well-being. In the meantime, we are degrading our air and depleting our water sources at an alarming rate.

We have created a society in which the things we need most are perilously undervalued, including our human labor, which used to be thought of as virtuous. If we don’t figure out how to reprioritize our economy, our children and grandchildren are going to pay a heavy price for our indulgence and indifference.

My third concern is the imbecility so apparent in law enforcement. Our criminal justice system is a planetary disgrace. Having been a police officer myself in my younger days, and having studied the psychology of human behavior for decades, I find it appalling that so much of what has been learned is still an open secret.

If per chance you watched the documentary Making a Murderer, it will be obvious to you how easy it is to get a person to make a false confession, especially a person with low self-esteem and a low IQ. We’ve known this for decades. That there are any law enforcement officers or prosecuting attorneys in the country who aren’t fully familiar with this phenomenon is, in my view, unacceptable. The war stories from the aging officers I knew as a police officer in the 1960s would curl your hair. I was in uniform when the Miranda Rule went into effect, and for many months we didn’t read people their rights because we thought doing so was silly.

Human brains are literally bias organs, and anyone who doesn’t fully understand this has no business in law enforcement. Moreover, people who wear a badge and a gun experience an increase in testosterone, becoming alpha males and females by nature of their positions. For some, the nature of their experience will likely hook them on spiked adrenaline rushes, prompting them to unconsciously escalate acts of confrontation for the sake of the added excitement. I find it mind-bending that the issues above are not a standard part of police behavioral training. 

These three concerns, of course, are only a sample of the problems we face, but fully addressing them in public discourse could go a long way toward creating a more equitable society, one that would be much more like a democracy than the one we’re experiencing today.   

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Pledge of Allegiance or Pledge of Obedience?

© Charles D. Hayes

The early European settlers who first came to America were a diverse lot, but they had one thing in common. They shared a history in which feudal and monarchical authority had a way of encroaching upon those who failed to follow the protocols of deference to the signs and symbols of their time. As I explained in Existential Aspirations, the perils for misinterpretation included the gallows, the rack, having molten lead and sulfur poured into one’s open wounds, and in some cases, being drawn, quartered, and pulled apart by horses.

Today, when Americans observe students of Wahhabism endlessly reciting from the Koran, some see it as brainwashing. But when American students daily recite the Pledge of Allegiance, these same people seldom see a connection with behavioral conditioning, even though both are a means of indoctrination.  Symbols can indeed bring people together, but, as often as not, they are used as wands of authority. The power to fix meaning represents absolute power.

As I see it, the Pledge of Allegiance amounts to a pledge of obedience. While obedience is important to a civilized society, genuflecting in rote submission before symbols and icons is incompatible with a democracy that depends on knowledgeable citizens to hold their representatives accountable to high standards.

I would wager that most of the people who are adamant that students repeat the Pledge religiously are unfamiliar with its history. Few are aware that the current Pledge was not only penned by a socialist but also written as a means of protesting growing inequality in what was known as the robber baron era.

The Pledge was originally written in 1887, by Colonel George Balch, a Civil War veteran. Francis Bellamy, a socialist minister rewrote the Pledge in 1892. The original flag salute during the ritual was to hold one’s right hand upward, palm down, at an angle that shared similarities with the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute. This was changed in 1942 to putting one’s hand over one’s heart to disassociate it with the symbolism of the Third Reich.

Bellamy lectured about the socialistic nature of Christianity with speech titles like, Jesus the Socialist and The Socialism of the Bible. His version of the Pledge was simply ad copy, first published in a children’s magazine, to sell flags to public schools. In the early years, several versions of the Pledge were in play, and in 1954, the words “under God” were added to distance America from Communism.

The creation of the Pledge of Allegiance and its current role in society are deeply ironic. Bellamy had argued vociferously that men are not born free but are bound by the obligations of their ancestors and their culture. The selfish nature of capitalistic materialism, he said, must be defeated at all costs.

Because of the growing fear of immigrants, Conservative politicians have found the Pledge useful as a form of demonstrative ethnocentrism. It provides a way of overpowering alien loyalties. Those of us who oppose or differ with this view maintain that creating a flag fetish is antithetical to democracy, that forced recitation is in fact oppressive, and that opting out is untenable because of social pressure.

Unavoidably, I have left out a lot of the history of the Pledge, but I’ve included enough to make some points. First, the people who are most fervent about the need for reciting the Pledge, for the most part, have no idea about its history or why and how it came to be.

Moreover, those who insist that school children recite the Pledge daily often know very little about the civic obligations necessary to sustain a democracy, even though reciting the Pledge is something they are familiar with. It’s something they can do, and they think that by practicing this ritual, they are doing their part. Thus, they are thoroughly invested in the act as a demonstration and proof of one’s patriotism at a deeply emotional level. I know this to be true because I grew up in this culture.

In red states, especially, learning is viewed to a significant degree as behaving. Symbols and icons are treated as authoritative reminders that obedience is required and you are expected to get A’s.

Instead of having children recite the Pledge daily, I would rather see their time spent learning what kind of behavior is necessary to sustain a democratic republic. How about lessons in understanding the psychology of propaganda, the dangers of blind obedience, and the importance of transparency in government to foster a complete understanding of how government works, its structure, its history, and the kind of responsibility citizenship demands?

We are experiencing an alarming, fear-based rise in authoritarianism in this country. When a president-elect of the United States starts talking about putting people in prison for flag burning, look out. Flag waving, flag burning, and Pledge of Allegiance issues are going to be used as clubs and as distractions for the foreseeable future.

We need to be knowledgeable enough to deal articulately with dog-whistle bigotry, racism, fear mongering, contemptuous propaganda, and agenda-driven demagoguery.

Simply put: We need to be prepared to do what the founding fathers intended. Instead of bowing, saluting, and genuflecting with obedience at the appearance of symbols and icons, we need to speak truth to power and hold our elected officials accountable. At the same time, it would be helpful to remember that the Pledge of Allegiance was written to check power, not to reinforce it.

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Slouching Toward a Political Fukushima

© Charles D. Hayes
Day in and day out, confirmation that the political Right has reached a stage-four level of wing-nuttery is evident in social media, newspapers, radio, and television. Commentators of every political persuasion have grown weary of uttering the familiar refrain that “You can’t make this stuff up.” But people can. They are making up bizarre things to say, and other people are believing them. Every day we seem nearer to DEFCON 1 lunacy.    
Ultra-conservatives complained recently that a baker forced to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple would, in effect, be participating in a wedding. Strangely, they don’t think a gun store owner who sells a gun to a killer is participating in a murder. Such twisted logic seems to apply only when it feeds a particular agenda.
On the Christian Right, Pat Robertson claimed recently that smoking pot will make a person a slave to vegetables. Another evangelist warned believers to prepare for martyrdom if the Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage. Mike Huckabee said gays won’t be satisfied until there are no more churches.
The unhinged rhetoric just keeps ratcheting up in tenor, and it’s growing louder with the approach of the 2016 election. Kansas politicians have enacted laws to keep people from using food stamps on cruise ships, which simply amounts to an existential effort to humiliate poor people. No doubt they think Jesus would approve.
The paranoid antigovernment crowd is hyper-alert for evidence that government forces are out to get them, and their pattern-matching gray matter is up to the challenge of perceiving connections where any hint of cause and effect can be imagined. Accusations that stretch the very limits of the term irrationality are picking up steam over fears about Black helicopters, secret nuclear weapons, Muslim plots to take over the government, Communist conspiracies, elitist collusions, unseen sinister forces, and other bizarre rumors.
Perhaps it only seems that more and more people qualify as being certifiable, as we used to say, because more media outlets are giving them voice. The Internet and social media have provided conspiracy theorists a communication platform never before possible, with the result that irrationality feeds on itself like a python in pursuit of its own tail.
Conspiratorial paranoia stems in part from a deep-seated psychological dread of otherness, chance, change, and uncertainty because they are cousins to mortality. True conspiratorial believers share a visceral fear of chaos driven by a subconscious fear of death. To them the idea of a psychotic fiend pulling all of the strings that make the world go around is much more comforting and less frightening than the thought that no one is in control and anything can happen to anyone at any time. 
In a nutshell, what we are witnessing is the emotional angst of ill-educated citizens fearful of change they can’t understand, people they can’t relate to, and a future over which they have very little control. The reason the rhetoric sounds so bizarre and outlandish is that this is the playing out of identity politics: It’s us versus them on technological steroids, bouncing off the cyber walls of social media echo chambers. Save a national emergency to get everyone’s attention, there seems to be little we can do to stop the nonsense or even slow it down.
I’ve been writing about the critical need for self-education for more than thirty years, and the 2016 election rhetoric reminds me that we aren’t making all that much progress. The four-day Republican National Convention earlier this year amounted to a hate fest, driven by fear and fueled by deep-seated contempt. In effect, America has a black hole of ignorance in the heartland, where contempt for the unfamiliar metastasizes and citizens bond by way of shared derision.
It’s customary to think that people who are ignorant simply lack knowledge and what they need is the benefit of an education. But the vitriolic rhetoric at the 2016 RNC was a clear demonstration of the great barrier to the kind of learning that can dispel misguided cultural angst. What stands in the way for these ill-informed citizens is a virtual fortress of mistaken assumptions—toxic, absurd assumptions like the belief that President Obama is secretly a Muslim who hates America or that Hillary Clinton is the incarnation of evil, plotting to take away everyone’s guns and ammunition. It goes downhill from there.   
This barricade of ignorant assumptions is almost impossible to breach through the use of reason. The important thing to keep in mind is that these ridiculous beliefs were born in emotion, so they have to be dealt with at an emotional level in order to change. Reason is useless against emotional angst.
During the Cold War, liberals and conservatives shared an emotive realm with one another because of the practicality of dealing with a common enemy. When the Cold War ended, the common emotional connection was severed, and the vitriol between the political Left and Right has been escalating ever since.
A Donald Trump victory in November would be an overt declaration that insanity prevails, followed shortly by a nuclear-level fallout of angst when Trump’s voters finally discover that he is egregiously incompetent and has no clue how to put into practice his maniacal agenda to “make America great again.”
A Hillary Clinton victory, which I hope for and expect, is going to result in a misogynistic Fukushima. The big question is the extent and duration of the emotional fallout. Business owners have threated to close their doors if Hillary wins, while white supremacists threaten revolution. How long will it take after the glass ceiling is broken for misogynists to accept the new legitimacy of a woman as president? This is the existential question.
When President Obama was elected, the hope was that racism would subside. Instead there was a backlash. The effect of that election outcome, as the academics explained, was that it actually gave people permission to own their bias. If the same thing happens with misogyny, the question is, for how long and how severe? When will we grow up? Or are we doomed to forever engage in childish tribalism and call it politics?              

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Sarah Palin vs. Donald Trump

© Charles D. Hayes

Sarah Palin put my community of Wasilla, Alaska, on the map, as the land of know-nothings.  Over a few short months, after she accepted her place on the Republican ticket as vice president in 2008, her approval ratings here and nationwide dropped like a rock, mostly for coming across in interviews and on the campaign trail for lacking knowledge about important matters, that anyone running for high public office should have.

Sarah Palin, in my view, is still an ongoing local and national embarrassment. I grit my teeth every time she speaks up about matters she still obviously knows nothing about.

Palin was not smart enough to realize how far she was in over her head, but it wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t vetted properly. She would be due our sympathy if she were not so hateful.

But, its vitally important to point out, that Sarah Palin offers a clear demonstration of the double standard and implicit gender bias at work in American politics. Palin and Trump read the same nonexistent books, magazines, and newspapers. Neither, could pass a citizenship test. Both have college degrees, that warrant an investigation into how such honors are bestowed since both appear to be lacking an education.  

Both Palin and Trump have a history of saying things that bear no relation, whatsoever, to reality. Both reveal a bias toward minorities and both demonstrate they lack a clear understanding of the role of government.  But here is the thing, Palin may have well cost John McCain the election in 2008, when her astonishing ignorance was revealed, but in Donald Trump’s case, his equally egregious lack of knowledge and hate-filled rhetoric is overlooked.

Sarah Palin is considered dingy by many people for the same behavior and lack of knowledge that makes people see Donald Trump as a leader.  The implicit gender bias in this country is so deeply embedded, that it’s simply accepted as reality and that so many people are blind to the disparity in the way the current candidates are being treated by media because of gender in this 2016, election cycle, is an indictment of our maturity as a developed nation.   If the integrity of journalism were a priority, most of the press corps would be fired for their unprofessional behavior up to now.    

That an unscrupulous, narcissistic, egomaniacal, racist, know nothing braggart, can even be considered a serious candidate for president of the United States, is the second most embarrassing political event, in my lifetime, the first, is the pass Trump is getting from our so called media professionals.       

Make no mistake, Sarah Palin is a thorn in American politics and I would be willing to help her pack, if she would move away from Wasilla, but Donald Trump is more of an embarrassment on the world stage, than Palin ever was, but then, of course, Trump is a man. 

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Why ‘Anyone But HER’ Seems So Obvious to So Many

© Charles D. Hayes
In the presidential election underway, do not make the mistake of assuming anything other than different standards apply when it comes to gender. The eons of our existence have resulted in hierarchal assumptions so deeply imbedded and ingrained in all human cultures that many prevailing prejudices are harder to distinguish and comprehend than what fish might have to experience in order to perceive the nature of water. I’m referring to the social malignancy we know as misogyny—the fear, disdain, or outright hatred of women and all things feminine.

In A Brief History of Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, a book finished in 2004 just before its author passed away, Jack Holland wrote,

“What history teaches us about misogyny can be summed up in four words: pervasive, persistent, pernicious and protean. Long before men invented the wheel, they invented misogyny, and today, as our wheels roll over the plains of Mars, that earlier invention still blights lives. No other prejudice has proven so durable or shares those other characteristics to anything like the same extent. No race has suffered such prejudicial treatment over so long a period of time; no group of individuals, however they might be characterized, has been discriminated against on such a global scale. Nor has any prejudice manifested itself under so many different guises, appearing sometimes with the sanction of society at the level of social and political discrimination, and at other times emerging in the tormented mind of a psychopath with no sanction other than that of his own hate-filled fantasies.”

Indeed, until you examine the subject of misogyny at the bedrock level, it’s simply not possible to understand how modern society is still so viscerally dysfunctional with regard to gender. The tentacles and roots of misogyny live in the bone marrow of our species. They are so deeply buried beneath written history that we take many of their assumptions as straight-up reality. It’s as if the world was created in a cultural temperament so entrenched with a smoldering strain of scorn that it need not be discussed, ever, because it simply represents the way things are, the way they were meant to be, the way things must be. That the gender that is physically weaker would bear an unrelenting burden of submissiveness seems like a no-brainer, based on what we know about primate behavior.

For thousands of years, men had the right to kill their wives and daughters, and in some cultures this practice continues. In ancient Greece and Rome, from the days of Plato and Aristotle, through the origins of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, through the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment, right up to today, misogyny lives and breathes as if its ubiquity is a self-evident necessity for the survival of our kind. The Christian Bible is a manual for misogynous tradition, and even the teachings of Buddhism, thought to be the pinnacle of egalitarianism, assume a hierarchy of gender with a measure of male superiority.

Millions of the females of our species have been raped, bludgeoned, executed, and murdered at the level of emotional whim, all under a banner of righteousness. In the Middle Ages, clergy put women on a pedestal and then condemned them to Hell, burning alive at the stake untold thousands suspected of being witches.

The inanity of Original Sin, via the temptation of Eve and her alleged fall in the Garden of Eden, served then and now as a virtuous demerit for women in the same manner that Jews are stigmatized for having been the accused persecutors of Christ. If you think the pernicious fallout of such medieval thinking is not still present in modernity, you can’t be paying attention.

The notion in Christianity that only a virgin was worthy of giving birth to the son of God has ramifications about the behavior of women that are incalculable when it comes to the negative judgments that follow for simply being a female.  In keeping with this ethos, women have been and are held to standards that do not apply to men. A man who is aggressive and ambitious is seen as a leader; a woman with the same attributes, a bitch or a shrew. A man who is promiscuous is a ladies’ man or a stud; a woman, a slut or a whore.

In some Middle Eastern cultures, women are so subordinate to men that even if they are raped by strangers, they assume the guilt for the offense. If their behavior is deemed dishonorable to their male relatives, they may be put to death. And we needn’t even broach the subject of the way women are still treated in Saudi Arabia.

In America, women have had the right to vote for less than a century. A woman was elected to Congress for the first time exactly one hundred years ago, and to the Senate in 1932. For most of our species’ existence on the planet, women have been regarded as little more than property. Today the residue of this tradition still applies. Women maintain the right to reject consent to sexual relations, but many people have been taught to assume women lose the right over their own bodies in matters concerning abortion.

Readily available contraceptives have resulted in some patriarchal convulsions because the autonomy they allow women is a threat to men’s powers of forced submission. The very idea that women might engage in sexual relations for sheer pleasure, as men have from the beginning, fractures the social hierarchy. Genuine gender equality is truly frightening to misogynists.

Gloria Steinem nailed it when she said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” The right to control one’s own body has always been an ongoing battle for women. For centuries, in myriad cultures, the actions of women were taken as a reflection of the honor of the men in the family, which led to the assumption that women’s behavior is men’s business; for men to be associated with anything feminine would emasculating. Suggesting that the gender pay gap is anything but deep-seated misogyny is purposeful disingenuousness.

Senator Marco Rubio says he disagrees with Hillary Clinton about “everything,” which has a high-pitched misogynous ring to it. The often-heard declaration that anyone would be better as president than Hillary Clinton is so steeped in the ethos of misogyny that to deny this reality is blatantly hypocritical. It’s equivalent to saying anyone would better than a neurosurgeon to operate on your brain.

When you ask people precisely why electing Hillary would be a disaster, most will simply spit and sputter about her being dishonest. After all, regardless of the issue or its importance, her opponents always declare she is lying. In contrast, the other candidate’s truth telling is off the charts in the number of pants-on-fire acknowledgments by organizations devoted to accuracy in media. His ignorance about every subject that really matters is mindboggling.

A candidate who uses bigotry and racism to rally support, and who is supported by people who choose to ignore his record of business failures, outright fraud, and serial bankruptcies that left scores of small businesses in dire straits, has only one thing going for him in the eyes of many. Namely, he is not a woman. He’s an aspirant for the presidency that I’m confident time will reveal as being to politics what Bernie Madoff is to finance.

Millions of dollars have been spent to discredit Hillary Clinton. For those easy to influence it appears to have been money well spent, because when they speak up, they do so with talking-point clichés drawn straight from the media. Call anyone a liar for twenty-five years, spend vast sums of money on investigations, and that person’s reputation will take a hit, even if ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

Hillary Clinton is a flawed individual, as all of us are. She has made mistakes, as all of us have. She will make mistakes in the future, as all of us will. But, gender aside, she is by orders of magnitude a better candidate for president of the United States than Donald J. Trump.

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Life as a Dance with Reality

© Charles D. Hayes

If a sense of objective reality (as best as we human beings can discern it) represented the True North of life experience, where do you suppose a compass would show your location to be in relation to True North? How far away would you be from being as close as you could get, that is, if you were to try with all of your might to discover it?
Imagine having a cell phone app that would give your position on a given subject with respect to True North and tell you how much of what you believe about life is yet unproven and how much is objectively grounded. If, before we could leave our homes, each of us had to nail down what we know and believe based on hard evidence as opposed to arbitrary claims, most of us would never be seen in public again. The gap between what we think we know and what we can prove is so large that just acknowledging the reality gap is troubling.
Of course, it is entirely in our nature to accept what we see when we look out on the world as straight-up reality, but if we have learned anything at all about human behavior during the past century we know for certain that nothing could be further from the truth. We are neurologically rigged for misperception, self-deception, and false attribution. That, more often than not, things are not as they appear is one of life’s most underappreciated great lessons.
According to philosopher Daniel Dennett, there are two fundamental types of argument for making a case about something said to be true: skyhooks and cranes. A crane argument is simply one that offers supporting evidence; it’s like logical scaffolding that says A is true because B and C show that this is the case. A skyhook argument, on the other hand, as the name implies, exists simply because someone deems it so. Now, it’s really disturbing when you fully realize how many skyhook arguments we accept without question and go about living our lives as if these things were true.
Our courts are intended as institutional efforts to find True North. Our jury system is predicated on an ability to discern cranes from skyhooks, although juries sometimes fail outright, while attorneys attempt to disguise skyhooks as cranes. But when a court is functioning as intended, skyhook arguments are thrown out as hearsay.
Popular culture is a collective bubble of skyhook assumptions with little interest in, or tolerance for, cranes. Popular beliefs are widespread, not because they are true, but because they are popular. Politics is mostly skyhook rhetoric spun to appear as cranes.
Inevitably there are many things we have to take on faith because there are times when even science has to create cranes that rest on skyhook assumptions. For example, we know enough about the sun to justify our faith that it will shine tomorrow and the day after, but we are a long way from an ability to completely describe our very own star in terms of slam-dunk cranes without some guesswork.
I hope it will not come as a shock to most people that all religions are held in place by skyhooks. That’s why the term faith can be a deal-breaker for some, and it is why, to a significant degree, religious belief has resulted in reality wars in order to claim ownership of the truth.
To put this whole situation in perspective one has to marvel at the amount of time we human beings spend arguing over things that we literally haven’t the first clue about. Still we will fight and even go to war over skyhook beliefs.
Politically everyone I know, left, right, or center, wants pretty much the same thing—a free and just society with equal opportunity, where hard work is rewarded, and a system that is not rigged by the government, big business, or special interests of any stripe. And yet our culture of social media has so dramatically upped the tempo of our illusionary dance with reality that skyhook music is getting louder and louder, while groups are polarizing and huddling with likeminded dancers in opposing corners of the ballroom.
If you don’t believe your dance with reality is a casual and pretty much thoughtless waltz, then just ask yourself what argument you’ve had with someone lately where you’ve studied the subject to the core, eliminated all of the skyhooks at play, and used only cranes to substantiate your position.
My point is that all of the many problems we face in America today—poverty, global warming, income inequality, political corruption, crime, and drug abuse—can only be solved with reasonable positions based on factual data, with crane arguments, supportable all the way down to bedrock. Some things work and some don’t. It doesn’t take rocket scientists to figure out what does work, but we do have to dispense with all skyhook assumptions.
I’m reminded that the only reliable way to achieve a more just and equitable society, is for more and more of us to care more about solving problems than about whose side wins the argument. To make this happen requires that we slow our dance with reality and stop exchanging skyhook opinions. We need to do the homework required to address the problems we confront and get down to comparing cranes in search of the better argument.  

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How Free Are We Really?

© Charles D. Hayes

Have you ever wondered how the concept of freedom has evolved? Try to imagine what freedom meant to the immigrants in the seventeenth century who indentured themselves to five or more years of hard labor to pay for their passage to America. Then compare that frame of mind to the outlook of the slaves brought here from Africa in chains.

Imagine longing to fulfill an indentured servitude contract to secure your independence. Try to assume the mindset of those who would never live as free men and women, and then consider the expectations of slaves once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, even as the Civil War raged on. 

Our perception of the independence that individuals possess has changed, especially when we compare the way we live today with the times when most people lived off the land and on small farms. Home mortgages, credit cards, student loans, and a business climate driven by shifting technology and payment plans have had a profound influence on our concept of freedom. Many of us willingly indenture ourselves to a lifetime of debt. We adopt the subordinate, submissive, and silent civil behavior that’s so often required to stay employed.  

Today we accept high levels of consumer debt as normal, while perpetuating an economic system known for its creative destruction. Our opportunities as citizens have increased dramatically, while our ability to speak truth to power without risking great loss has suffered. We have, in effect, fashioned a nearly perfect environment for the creation of yes men and women, and yet we wonder why we have so much corruption in business and government.

Increasingly employees witness wrongdoing but can’t afford to report it for fear of losing their jobs and, in some cases, everything they own. Our economy rests on a pyramid of oppressive authoritative control, and those in power have legislated easy rigging into law. This is not to say that legitimate sources of authority aren’t necessary for our very existence, but much of the citizen-level independence necessary to safeguard democracy has been squelched, if not barred, by law.

There was a time when most people lived off the land and very few people worked for wages. Their level of independence and their ability to object to malfeasance without losing everything is hard to fully appreciate today. I raise this subject because many of our fellow citizens in this country brag incessantly about how we are the freest country in the world. But I often wonder if this shrill rhetoric isn’t a result of their own nagging doubt. If you don’t believe the pressure to toe the line is intense, just take a hard look at the lives of whistle blowers after they have nobly followed their conscience.

I spent many years working for major oil companies on Alaska’s North Slope. We had a saying up there that by spending years away from home we were being held in place by golden handcuffs. We did this fully acknowledging that we also felt very lucky to have jobs that paid so well, but I used to secretly wish the oil reservoir would dry up so I would have no choice but to quit.

When we compare ourselves as Americans to the other developed countries that have much more socialistic forms of government, like Denmark and Sweden, we see that their citizens exercise more lifestyle alternatives without penalty than we do in America. Could it be that our own political dysfunction has something to do with the existential angst we endure because we champion freedom in theory but not so much in concrete experience?

I suspect it’s mostly this subconscious anxiety that contributes to the emotional vitriol driving our political divide. People who are constantly in fear of losing their job, home, and livelihood because of sought-after innovations that increase productivity while simultaneously leading to higher and higher levels of unemployment tend to be hypersensitive about anyone they suspect is getting a free ride. This anxiety serves as the perfect political tool for generating public expressions of contempt—something demagogues can depend on for inflaming public resentment ahead of elections.  

In an earlier essay, I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was adamant that labor should maintain a higher premium of value than capital. Lincoln was understandably sensitive about the subject of servitude, and he was dismayed at the thought of people working for wages for a long period of time without being able to free themselves from what he saw as a deeply flawed arrangement. I wonder what he would say about today’s working poor, whose figurative handcuffs are the metaphorical equivalent of barbed wire.  

We still aspire to an ethos of self-reliance and rugged individualism espoused by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson at a time when we were poorer in purse but much more independent. It’s not so easy now to build a cabin in the woods and live off the land in the manner of Thoreau. In fact, things have changed so much that it’s the people who live off the land in rural America who today are most fearful about their economic future.

Clearly hard work, self-reliance, and the ability to take care of oneself and one’s family are just as important today as at any time in the past. But we need to mend the fence, so to speak, to make up for the fact that our society is increasingly vulnerable to arbitrary economic whims and rapidly changing technology. We need to address the reality that a very small percentage of people in our country have accrued the power to indenture most of the rest of us to varying levels of required servitude, often with little room for negotiating our compensation.

Today capital not only trumps the value of labor, it adds insult to injury by capturing most of the income from labor’s rising productivity as effectively as a new Dyson vacuum cleaner scarfs up lint from a bare floor. That a large percentage of our population believes right-to-work laws are anything more at their philosophical core than the right to pay low wages shows the effectiveness of the power of ideological indoctrination.    

We now find ourselves in an economy where six heirs of the Walmart fortune have the wealth equivalent of the bottom forty percent of our population, and yet we subsidize some of Walmart’s employees with government programs. In my view, this is sheer madness and it’s only one egregious example of our growing inequality. There are too many to list.  

Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms—freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear—were, in my view, worthy goals in 1941. They are even more pressing today because our aspirations for democracy have been overwritten by plutocracy.

Call our current economic system the greatest exercise of freedom in the world if you want, but in my book, it’s just a fabricated illusion in serious need of redress. I believe Abraham Lincoln would think we have lost our minds and most assuredly our voices.

My point is that we need to be civically thoughtful when we use the word freedom. History clearly shows that growing inequality results in conflict that can lead to violence. We know that to experience and maintain real freedom requires constant vigilance. Without a thoughtful and responsible public, our freedom is easier lost than gained.
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