Friday, February 28, 2020

Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing

(c) Charles D. Hayes

Finally, after a half century of reflection and four years of writing and obsessive rewriting, I’ve just published Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing. In preparation for the flak I’m going to be getting from politically hard-right conservatives, I recently re-watched all five seasons of The Wire, written, produced, and directed by David Simon. To those who don’t understand the problem of drugs and intercity poverty, Simon says watch the series, and if you still don’t get it, watch it again.

The Wire, of course, is fiction, but it is in my view a masterpiece of insightful social commentary. Our criminal justice system is an unmitigated disaster, yet what is required to fix it is amazingly simple but over the moon expensive.

America’s inner cities need a Marshall Plan that includes compensation for systemic unemployment caused by decades of racist oppression, from the end of Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to redlining, and current recognition of the transformation effects of digital app technology on employment. The expectation that traditional employment opportunities are going to spring up en masse in inner cities in enough numbers to solve inner-city employment without a formidable investment is pure fantasy.

The moral objective of policing must be to make communities safe, not play a numbers game based on the pretense that the numbers are more important than the people served. If you want to assess the quality of community policing, numbers are less important than the feelings of being safe, less important than the people who live there actually feeling safe. When the citizens in poor neighborhoods feel protected from bad actors and oppressive policing, the goal will be reached, but not until then. 

Worse, local politicians often fund their government on the backs of poor citizens, by focusing on traffic tickets and misdemeanor fines that have nothing whatsoever to do with safety, but everything to do with a funding arrangement that effectively turns petty crimes into felonies. And while their police officers are tied up with minor incidents to raise revenue, they aren’t available when real emergencies occur.  So, in a nutshell, over-policing leads to under-protection. 

And of critical importance, the problem of racial bias in policing won’t be solved until it becomes commonplace that police officers and the general public have a much better understanding of how our minds work with respect to implicit bias.

If the current level of misunderstanding about how bias works had been the plan of saboteurs to confuse us, it would be hard to figure out how to do a better job, if the objective was to bewilder and mystify.  I can say this much without worry of being incorrect: If you haven’t studied the subject of racial bias intensively, you can’t be objective about it. It’s just not possible. 

What makes these problems so infuriating and existentially sad is that we have known since Reconstruction what is necessary to address systemic racism and inner-city poverty, but the inevitable greed-based corruption that comes with the ambition exhibited by hierarchal governmental authority is damned near impossible to correct across the board, and David Simon’s series makes this point crystal clear. 

I had made up my mind that I was going to shelve this book project if we didn’t retake the House of Representatives in 2018. Now I must contend with the possibility of promoting a work on police reform in the event of Trump being reelected, since it seems that doing so would be sort of like spitting into the wind.

But after some serious reflection, I realize that this kind of thinking is misplaced, because I believe that most of the police officers in this country and most of the public servants in the Justice Department are well intentioned; most really do want justice for all, but the bureaucratic mess that has been created by partisan politics represents a staggering obstacle.

When you think of the irony in the fact that at the very time when we have a serial sexual predator in the White House, that there would be so many positive results stemming from the #metoo movement, that perhaps the same principle can be applied to Bill Barr’s right-wing politicization of the Justice Department, and we can improve policing in the shadows of tyrants, whose call for law and order has more to do with repressing minorities in what they view as a deserved punitive comeuppance, than anything to do with justice. 


The paper version of Blue Bias is available now on Amazon and a Kindle version can be preordered with a release date of March 31st. If you are an Amazon Prime member, I believe the Kindle edition will be free. This was an expensive book to produce. I have more than 10k invested in the bibliography alone, and there are well over 600 endnotes.

I’m encouraged that some of the readers of the manuscript who adamantly opposed me on some issues said that, despite their disagreement, Blue Bias is a pleasurable read. I took this to mean they were talking about clarity and it being easy to understand. If you should read it, I would be very much interested in your thoughts. I believe Blue Bias offers the best explanation of how bias works than any I have ever read, and recommend it for that reason.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Fraudulent Trickledown

© Charles D. Hayes

I posted this short piece on Facebook a few days ago without a title and it sort of went viral. 
A half century ago, General Motors was America’s largest employer and the hourly wages then, were equivalent to $50.00 per hour today. Now, America’s biggest employer, is Walmart and the value equivalence of their hourly wage is $8.00 per hour.
This is the reward of 50 years of trickledown economics and because this loss of equity happened so slowly over time, we have a frog in the pot scenario, in which, the frog (we) let the water get too hot, until jumping was not an option.  
Moreover, the small-government-low-taxes mania that accompanies trickledown economics, combined with a governance that operates on the principle of legal bribery, is a recipe for oligarchy at best, and tyranny at the worst.    

That the GOP still has wildly enthusiastic support for a system rigged so effectively that it amounts to Socialism for the top one-percent, and that CEO’s and Boards of Directors openly loot our public corporations, without public outrage, is an assault on the very idea of democracy. Donald Trump currently has an 88 percent approval rating with Republicans. How in the name of hell is such imbecility possible?

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put our predicament in clear perspective: “We can have a democratic society, or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.”

French economist Thomas Piketty’s exhaustive research on the history of global capitalism, shows clearly and definitively that over time, unless there are very strict safeguards, capital will exponentially outpace the value of labor, resulting in an ever-increasing economic inequality.

This is where we are in 2019, and it’s going to take a lot more than a little tweaking with the minimum wage to fix this. Ideas?
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Monday, December 17, 2018

Facing the Reality of Death: Angst, Exhilaration, and Solace

(c) Charles D. Hayes

I’ve been working on a forthcoming book for 2019 titled: Blue Bias: A Former Cop Rethinks Policing and Deadly Force and haven’t posted on this blog in almost a year, although I do post short pieces frequently on Facebook.  I wrote the piece below my sixties and now I am half way through my seventies and this essay that is from my book Existential Aspirations is one of my favorites and I find consolation in rereading it every now and then. So Happy Holidays I hope you find it interesting.

The evidence is pervasive that we are predisposed for illusion. I’m convinced that the best intellectual exhilaration to be had in adulthood is to break the spell. The way psychologist Erich Fromm characterized it, aging, especially after age sixty-five, is a time to live as if living is one’s main business. To do this effectively requires keeping the alternative in perspective while cutting through cultural fantasies and popularized nonsense.

Thinking recently about Arthur Schopenhauer’s notion that life is a loan from death and sleep is the interest we pay on the loan, it occurred to me that forgetfulness qualifies as a reminder of death. Perhaps this is what makes it so irritating. As we age it makes sense that many of us seem more easily annoyed. Forgetfulness, when it becomes increasingly noticeable, is a constant reminder that we are not in control.

Near the end of his own life, Sigmund Freud theorized about his long-held notion of the existence of a universal death instinct. He acknowledged that what most people do about facing death is to shelve the subject and avoid it with distraction. Freud surmised that all living creatures struggle with the opposing forces of life and death. He believed that, more often than not, the death instinct shows itself as varying forms of aggression. Freud’s theory was not well developed and was not well received in academia.

In my view, a far stronger case can be made that a profound conscious and subconscious existential fear of death favors distraction as a means of avoiding thinking about death, period. We occupy ourselves with cards, television, Internet, books, puzzles, sex, religion, mysticism, golf, a hobby—whatever it takes. Both high and low culture, and drama in particular, provide blissful escape and perhaps a vicarious but subtle method for dissipating our aggression through our imagination, as we sidestep thoughts of our own mortality. Although distraction appears to ease one’s immediate angst, in the long run it ratchets up anxiety that can readily turn into despair of the worst kind, “despair unaware that it’s despair”—as Søren Kierkegaard defined it. So, in effect, the advantage of distraction is more apparent than real.

Deep into my sixties, and despite the above, I now find more and more people willing to discuss the notion of their own death. Through this, I’ve come to believe that there is also a positive side to counter the dread of nonexistence that has the potential to show itself nearly as frequently as the negative reminders like forgetfulness. Trouble is, almost no one speaks about the affirmative side. I’m confident that I’m not the only person who has such experiences. There are times, for example, when the music I’m listening to sounds better than it should be possible for music to sound. The same feeling occurs with the endorphin rush of comprehension that comes from reading a particularly inspiring passage in a book or watching an actor or actress in the delivery of a brilliant performance. Similar feelings occur with other sights, sounds, and even odors that seem more pronounced than ever before. These occurrences are moments of intense clarity and exhilaration. They appear as if in bold capital letters, italicized, and underlined. True, they are fleeting, but they’re no less powerful for it. The impression on my memory is like an asterisk on the experience. I may or may not recall it exactly as it happened, but what matters most is that it did happen and left me with the optimistic expectation that it might happen again.

I’m at a loss to explain these experiences. They are describable only as existential exclamation points—a vivid sense of awareness accentuated with a hint of urgency, part lament, and part celebration. For a long time, I thought these incidents were something other than what William James discusses in The Varieties of Religious Experience, or what Abraham Maslow describes in Peak Experiences, but now I’m not so sure. The example closest to my own experience that I recall reading about is philosopher Brian Magee’s emotional elation while listening to the music of Gustav Mahler, a moment he recounts in Confessions of a Philosopher. It’s not surprising, though, that there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the brighter side of gazing into the abyss, simply because of the common practice of vigorously avoiding the subject.

Mingled with these highlighted experiences are memories of events that didn’t seem so special to me when they occurred but that now give rise to a sense of regret that I may not experience them again. Such memories might be the mesmerizing sound of crickets on a warm summer night and June bugs buzzing under a streetlight, fireflies sparkling like embers in deep woods, the smell of freshly plowed earth, a sudden, blissfully cool downdraft of air preceding a thunderstorm on a hot summer day, the crisp smell of the coming winter in late fall. These are all exclamation points not fully appreciated until the chance of their being repeated is threatened by want of time.   

I’m beginning to suspect that all the meaningful knowledge that prompts people to write books, give lectures, and make movies is a simple thread of fleeting experience that can only be grasped in brief flashes of insight. The effect of these moments is so profound that we intuitively spend the rest of lives in search of more, often without even knowing for sure what it is that we are pursuing. Thus, for many people, meaningful experience has a way of becoming the Holy Grail of their existence, often without their ever realizing it as such.        

The longer we live and the more our friends and family members precede us in death, the more profound I suspect is our awareness of our own mortality and the more aware we are of our being aware. It’s sort of like a stage actor who’s observing herself acting but not worrying about how well she’s doing. Having seen the Discovery Channel’s series about climbing Mt. Everest, I liken the experience of acknowledging the short time ahead to trekking at high altitude and seeing the summit in plain sight. It represents the end. The clearer the end becomes, the more sensitive we are to everything in our midst, and we can be grateful that the air is too thin at this level to sustain much pretension. Strewn about below is a lifetime of memories petitioning to be measured against expectation-- routine and mundane daily experiences interspersed with moments of high drama that turned days into weeks and weeks into years.

Our decades are stacked up like chapters in a novel that lacks a definitive plot; some sections seem as though they belong in the book of a stranger. “Auld Lang Syne” rings in our ears, honoring old acquaintances long forgotten. Images reappear in our mind’s eye, the haunting faces of the elders we knew when we were young. These are the folks who died out of sight and out of mind, but as we near our own death, we find ourselves wondering what happened to them and how and when they passed away. We recall events that seemed critical and profoundly important at the time, that don’t matter at all now, as well as matters that once seemed trivial but are no longer. All those unpleasant memories of occasions we would rather forget come to mind, too, along with those satisfying experiences we wish we could remember more clearly.

One of the things that I find most regrettable in imagining my own demise is the reality of the generation break. The fact is that the memories I have connecting my life to my grandparents will be lost forever. Sure, I can tell my son and granddaughter about the objects I’m leaving behind that belonged to my grandparents; I can even explain how and why they are so special to me, but the meaningfulness won’t be the same. For me, this is an unshakable existential regret.   

Still, so many questions remain unanswered. Has our life been successful? By whose standards do we judge? What of our legacy? Do we actually have one? Would we know it if we didn’t have one, or recognize it as a legacy if we did? What is there left to do that we still might accomplish? If we had our life to do over again, would it be worth the effort? Would it be worth reliving eternally? What would we do differently? Have we learned enough about living to lay down good memories in the present without wishing we could redirect the scenes? An ending is required to put our story in perspective, and yet our very nature dictates that doing so will always seem premature. 

Perhaps, with the summit in sight, we can imagine that upon our shoulders rests the mountainous weight of all our earthly problems, and, upon our demise, these will lift away like a spring mist. Then maybe we can dissolve some of the angst of our predicament. Moreover, the same can be said of our discomfort about nonexistence and any aggression we may secretly harbor. So, even though Freud was probably mistaken about the death instinct, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

As the aging and openly communicative baby-boom generation makes its way to the peak, I suspect there will be a lot of discussion about subjects that earlier generations chose to leave on the shelf. Based upon my own experience, I think that in avoiding such topics our predecessors cheated themselves out of something constructive that only comes with a harsh dose of reality and the desire for perspective. Better to do as Emerson and Schopenhauer suggested: look death in the eye and refuse to blink. Near the summit, the air is clearer, and one can be more objective than ever before. Although enough air to maintain the routine of daily life is lacking, available still is a panoramic, big-picture view that seeks comprehension, rationalization, and justification. It yields no great secrets; instead, it reveals a more realistic view of the way the world is, not as we’ve wished it to be or thought that it was when we were young. The power of this elevated viewpoint is that it enables us to observe layer upon layer of nonsense we have constructed with the help of our culture for reasons that may suddenly seem inconceivable. 

This view may be one reason it’s possible to experience moments of sharp sensory perception, when music can sound better than we’ve ever suspected possible. It’s a kind of clarity of contrasted experience, part bittersweet sorrow because life is passing, and part celebration for having had the privilege of living.

This kind of perception arises in similar fashion to Alan Watts's “backwards law,” which says, when you let yourself relax in the water, you don’t sink as you would expect; instead you float. It’s an unencumbered observer phenomenon unavailable to those whose thirst for security is never satiated. Watts said, “Belief clings, but faith lets go.” Counterintuitive as it sounds, I believe that, just as aging makes our lack of influence over the future more and more self-evident, the letting go of our personal involvement with the world enables us to see and think clearly enough to do something that might have lasting consequences. This may be what prompted life-stage researcher Erik Erikson to observe that wisdom is a product of “involved disinvolvement,” and why some aging citizens achieve a sense of “grand-generativity” as a generous and broadly felt sense of goodwill intended as an aspiration for posterity.  

On the dark side, though, are the many people among the living whose daily existence is but one excruciating health catastrophe after another, not to mention those who die young and those who experience premature senility. For persons living in constant pain, with relief coming only from stupor-inducing drugs, who can blame them for despairing about the mention of exhilaration and aging together in the same sentence? I think of people in this circumstance when I encounter the New Age nonsense, so often pitched in self-help books, with its empty platitudes and cliché-ridden slogans about how wonderful everything is. When I compare these mindless assertions with Schopenhauer’s example of the feelings among animals while one is being eaten by another, the bubble comes back toward the center.

Then there is the late Ernest Becker’s award-winning book, The Denial of Death. Becker argued that if we were to dwell on it too much, the precariousness of our own mortality would drive us insane. He may have been right. But too much shelter from reality also yields deleterious effects. Near the summit, the perspective is grand, unless, fearing the inevitable, one refuses to look. To perceive of life metaphorically above the fray of everyday concerns offers a chance for taking up philosophy, as Thomas Ellis Katen suggests in Doing Philosophy, in order “to get out of the unremitting rain of unreflected-upon information.” But philosophy, as Socrates demonstrated, and as many philosophers since have claimed, is also about learning how to die. The view on high is clear because there is plenty of time and space for the practice of sheer, unfettered observation and contemplation. Taking in the view from this level is unique in that after a lifetime of arguing about what is and isn’t of value, it suddenly becomes clear—real value is not what we thought it was.

In the spirit of Schopenhauer, Becker wrote in The Denial of Death, “Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism’s comfort and expansiveness.” A bit harsh, I think. Speaking for myself, I would rather have the chance to appear as a stain in the pit than not, and I bet I could find lots of folks who would agree with me that there have been some fine moments on our way to the compost heap. 

            More than three decades ago, physicist Stephen Hawking postulated that the existence of black holes means that all information in the universe will ultimately end. Recently he changed his mind. Now he argues that the end will come only to information in galaxies where black holes exist. This kind of logic is probably as close as we will ever get to why some people seem to live charmed lives and others live in perpetual misery. It happens sometimes but not always. So, it doesn’t take a lot of life experience for observant individuals to conceive that for human beings there are many things worse than death and that both good and ill must be considered and weighed constantly to keep one’s perspective.

Of course, simply trying to wrap one’s mind around metaphysical mysteries like time and space being interchangeable, or the unfathomable notion of space as infinite, or, as the Theory of Relativity suggests, past, present, and future, coexisting simultaneously, could drive us mad if we thought we had to reduce these matters to a realm of concrete understanding before we die. Contemplating these mysteries, I suspect, is analogous to the living brain trying to comprehend its own nonexistence—the very act of doing so is a metaphysical violation of causality.

We appear to be wired to shelter ourselves from too much reality. In Wings of Illusion, psychologist John F. Schumaker argues that we should think it worthwhile to determine a proper degree of illusion as a psychological shelter, but to be very careful about not overdoing it. Recall his epigraph at the beginning of this essay. If we are truly honest with ourselves, our predisposition to believe the unbelievable becomes exceptionally clear near the summit. From here, we can see the distraction for what it is and not be nearly as distraught as expected.

Another key to understanding the exhilaration possible in facing death is that when we begin to tweak with our beliefs near the code level of our biological wiring, haphazardly tripping over endorphins is not unusual. In other words, contemplating existential matters at high altitude is pleasurable by design. Schumaker says further that culture absorbs the chaos and “manufactures the stupidity that we need in order to function in this world.” Not surprisingly then, when we begin to figure this out during the existential deliberation that comes naturally with aging, a sense of suddenly seeing through illusions without the usual dread can be enthralling. As it turns out, looking death in the eye trips a pleasure circuit. Neurological testing reveals that when we contemplate death directly, our brain responds by activating positive information to compensate. 

We are all familiar with the process of meeting overwhelmingly bad news with denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance that presumably evolves into a stoic resolve. But for many of us, age catches up-- like the frog in hot water that begins to boil before he can escape—and by the time we awaken enough to see the summit in plain view, it is much too late to deny our mortality. There is nothing to bargain about. Time is short. And furthermore, nothing is to be gained from fear and depression but the possibility of missing a last chance to make some subjective sense of it all. Simply stated, the last chapters of life require some graduate- level thinking to ensure that we’ve fully checked in before we check out.

A determined effort to develop our perspective from a philosophical position near the end of life may well result in some of the best times we ever have. Such effort has the potential for having a lasting effect on whatever legacy we leave behind, provided there are no black holes in the neighborhood and there is new grass to cover the pit. The payoff from thoughtful reflection is the ability to see through the nonsensical distractions that are detrimental to civilization and our progeny’s future. Exclamation points are where you find them, and when you really start to pay attention because time is short, the rewards are exhilarating. One final but pleasurable thought on the quandary of death. Perhaps, if Einstein was right about the coexistence of past, present and future, the worst that can happen to us is to be lost in time. Thoughts?    

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Fear that Defines and Divides Us

(c) Charles D. Hayes
In Staring at the Sun, Irvin D. Yalom, says the gift of self-awareness comes at a high price. “Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably, diminish and die.”

Death anxiety separates us from all the earth’s creatures. We are the only species whose lifelong motivation is subconsciously hijacked in myriad ways to avoid or postpone the inevitability of nonexistence. Death anxiety is the indoctrinating lifeforce of religion and ground zero for the reasons for doing what we do in life. 

Creating art, literature, scientific research and discovery, reading, sports, hobbies, business achievement, and gaining wealth and especially power are all manifestations of a means of pushing back and seeming to close the door the grim reaper is forever threatening to open.

There is mountainous research material in the field of existential psychology that supports mortality salience as being the breach in the dam of the human condition—at the crux of global conflict, and yet, for all practical purposes the subject never gains traction.  

I’ve have written about this human dilemma at great length.  This core humanitarian concern is too often treated like a curious novelty, instead of what it is: humanity’s Achilles Heel, and the subject never achieves momentum in everyday public discourse, even though how it is ultimately dealt with may decide our species survival. 

Strangers, chaos, change, and uncertainty are subconscious reminders of the inevitability of demise, and even the act of forgetting hints of nonexistence. But nothing is quite so toxic and psychologically threatening as the feeling that one is living an unfulfilling life, and this ethos lies at the crux of the political divide in America. Globally millions of people feel threatened by otherness (a metaphorical cousin of nonexistence) many of them need someone to blame for their fears and social contempt works miraculously as a suitable distraction. 

Worse, in some cultures the shelter of submission and losing themselves in a cause produces terrorists, eager to blow themselves up so that in some deranged sense, they can feel that their lives will have mattered. Yalom says his ultimate concerns as a psychiatrist for therapy are: death, isolation, meaning in life, and freedom. 

My point is that we are in the grip of an authoritative regime of dogmatists, whose rhetoric for gaining the support of their constituents, fuels the fear that breeds existential angst. When the future seems overtly threatened by otherness, nostalgia replaces hope, hatred becomes common currency, and one’s identity group is suddenly perceived as having been an inadequate shelter from the inevitable. 

We have people these days with enough wealth to spend ten thousand dollars a day for a thousand years and still be rich. That these people are assumed to be acting strictly out of greed is a mistaken assumption. The money they are making, and the power associated with it, is a subconscious means of metaphorically poking a finger in the eye of the grim reaper, it means they are still here, still alive, and that they prevail.  The ultra-rich people fortunate enough to figure this out for themselves, stand out, often by giving away their fortune and by devoting their remaining years to helping their fellow man. 

In the Jan/Feb issue of The Atlantic there is a feature about WeCroak, it’s an app that sends you a notice five times a day that you are going to die. Being the existentialist that I am, I signed up for the cheerful reminders.  I’m curious about the effect of being rudely and randomly informed that I am soon to be toast, and I will let you know what it is like.

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Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Moral Tax of Inequality

© Charles D. Hayes

Nineteenth-century reformer Henry George once pointed out that we never see a herd of buffalo or a flock of birds where only a few are fat, and most are lean or starving. In our society, however, there’s an assumption that less than living wages are somehow admissible. Egregious inequality is accepted as a just comeuppance for not measuring up to cultural expectations. As I see it, several psychological influences are at work that allow this to happen.

One is an unwillingness to assume responsibility for oneself and one’s family. Another is the human angst and fear that fester in the existential divide between in-groups and out-groups. The angst fits hand in glove with a paternalistic and authoritative ethos of expectations and cultural mores that can be used as evidence that one is behaving improperly, not doing what one is supposed to do, or not believing what one should believe. Those who do not meet the expectations of cultural norms will be deemed unworthy, and if their differences are too prominent, they may qualify as being nonhuman.      

The assumption that less than living wages are justified for full- or part-time work is ardently contrived. A full-time job that can’t command the compensation of a living wage, in my view, is a task better left undone. The only condition in which less than living wages are justified is when the employees are robots. A residue of contempt and imagined cultural superiority causes people to assume that some individuals are of lesser value than themselves and do not deserve the human dignity traditionally ascribed to work. It is time this outdated nonsense be stamped out altogether. Until we start employing the dead, working people deserve enough compensation to live.

The value of labor, or work of any kind, is only partly attributed to its difficulty, while most of its value derives from the power of those who enact legislation and make rules and regulations. Their actions dissolve into the background and become invisible, leaving no suggestion of having negatively affected the worth of labor. What’s left gives the appearance of reality, and we accept this reality in the same way that fish do not ponder the legitimacy of water.

Over the past half-century, we have mangled the ethos of work and reward in this country by letting those with an economic advantage legislate their advantage into law without visible traces of having done so. We have allowed capital to trump the value of labor, a situation that Abraham Lincoln continuously warned against.  That human labor does not have any advantage over capital is anathema to civilization. In a country that prizes self-reliance, it is practically subversive.

In his book The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz put it this way, “For years there was a deal between the top and the rest of society that went something like this: we will provide you jobs and prosperity, and you will let us walk away with the bonuses. You will get a share, even if we get a bigger share. But now that tacit agreement between the rich and the rest, which was always fragile, has come apart.” Yes, indeed. I would say it has come apart at the seams and there is little on the horizon, save voting en masse and marching in the streets, that will help us regain what has been lost. As Stiglitz points out, “American inequality didn’t just happen. It was created.”  

Poverty-level wages have resulted less from free-market forces than from the legislated advantage of those who have attained the power to loot public corporations in the open while shouting platitudes about skill and success. The clichéd ladder of upward mobility is missing so many rungs that the sing-song mantra of those who use carrot-and-stick analogies as employment incentives rings hollow. Less than half of the available jobs in America pay more than $35k per year. We are rapidly approaching a level of inequality that resembles the feudalism of centuries past.

The fact that we have a viable digital technological society that increasingly does more with less speaks to the historical contribution of working men and women across all disciplines who have made such a technological society possible, not to mention those who have given up their lives on the battlefield on our behalf.  Still, every year, because of digital technology, the number of jobs that pay less than a living wage grows larger, and there is no end in sight. If these conditions continue, the foundation that the middle-class rests on is untenable.

That this is occurring at a time of a soaring stock market and record corporate profits is not an aberration—it’s by design. Corporations used to pay a third of our tax burden; now it’s less than ten percent, and one in four corporations pays no taxes at all. We need to stop putting up with the hyper-contemptuous free-market rhetoric that there is divine justice in poverty wages. We must demand living wages, not anemic increases in the minimum wage. And I’ll answer in advance the inevitable question from right-wingers:  It won’t take a rocket scientist to arrive at a figure.

Egregious inequality resonates with a strain of existential contempt at the core of the human condition. It’s connected to the deep-seated psychological insecurity that associates uncertainty, change, and otherness with mortality salience, allowing suspicion of all things unfamiliar to fester. And it plays out with people using their false sense of superiority over those with less perceived status as a psychological buffer against nothingness.

We are fortunate to live in a time when our technology is making it possible to live free of monotonous, repetitious tasks and many of the hazards of dangerous backbreaking work. But unless we rid ourselves of the tribalistic contempt with which we are so easily manipulated into settling for a future stricken by spite and the insane fear that the poor are keeping us from living better economically, we will never mature as a nation.

Equality of opportunity and a society where dignity is bound to the virtue of work requires an acknowledgment of the religious and secular, philosophical and moral declaration that human beings are ends in themselves and are not to be treated only as means to an end. Views to the contrary are detailed, complex, sophisticated, sometimes eloquent and ubiquitous, and yet they amount to disingenuous immoral nonsense. The Donald Trump—GOP tax reform proposal is an overt declaration that only the rich really matter.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Pious War on Science and Reason

© Charles D. Hayes
That Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, wants Christianity to play a bigger part in the education of America’s children is appallingly unacceptable. Trump’s appointment of Jerry Falwell Jr. to lead an educational task force is equally unacceptable, as is the Supreme Court’s loosening of the separation of church and state. For me, these issues are the straws that break the camel’s back. An anti-science, anti-intellectual educational agenda in the 21st century is untenable. The Trump Administration is using organized religion solely for the purposes of regimentation in the creation of a backward, authoritarian, patriarchal culture that’s rich with contempt and animosity for those they assume don’t belong.   

I’m now in my eighth decade on the planet. I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1940s and 50s, in a family that professed a belief in God but did not attend church. In my youth, I was a religious child, but at some point, in my early twenties, I was hit with a lightning bolt of skepticism. Since then, I have been listening to arrogant people declare that if we don’t align the endorphins in our gray matter with theirs, we will burn forever in Hell. These days, in a country with holidays, laws, tax exemptions, and other practices of publicly declaring that supernatural beliefs are to be respected, we hear a constant chorus of complaints that such beliefs are under siege. I say, it’s about damned time.

We celebrate the human brain as the most complex entity in the known universe. Human consciousness is staggeringly complex, and yet there are people who declare that if you go along with their views and if you believe what they believe, you won’t need your brain in order to live forever; you will retain your consciousness and you will experience blissful joy for eternity. 

Any belief system that promises that dead people—people without functioning brains—will live eternally and that they will continue to survive in a glorious mental state simply because they believe something someone said about an event that they didn’t witness—an event that flies in the face of physics and elementary science, an event so preposterous that sanity must be put aside to even consider such violations of physical possibilityis a system that is a threat to global civilization.

The credulity required to accept these beliefs defies rationality. If such radically absurd views were not taught to children before they learned to think for themselves, they would not long survive, as is increasingly evident in Europe. Moreover, these outlandish notions pose an existential danger to mankind because they come with a surplus of defensive contempt for nonbelievers.

True believers are always on alert for those who raise doubts about their doctrines, and they are understandably wary of science and secularism. The devastating but largely ignored reality is that believing such impossible nonsense leads to magical thinking and a license to believe any damned thing, no matter how absurd the premise.  

People who identify as religious fundamentalists are very often so fully invested in their beliefs that they perceive opposition of any kind as a mortal threat. Job-killing automation, social change, accelerating uncertainty, gay marriage, other worldly religions—these looming issues threaten constricted worldviews. They cause believers to double down on their fantastical belief in the promise of immortality by stressing a need for conformity and obedience.  

The crux of the angst of true believers is deeply ensconced in the probability that if the world at large assumes they are wrong about traditional issues as basic as gender identity, gay marriage, and wedding cake politics, then they could also be wrong about bigger issues and quite possibly everything. It is not by accident that anti-LGBT laws are being enacted in states where significant numbers of religious fundamentalists reside. As millennials fight racism and bigotry via social media in southern states, especially concerning LGBT rights, the chorus of fearful response is getting louder.

A religion promising an afterlife is a psychological shield against the fear of death. It’s an existential dressing for the wound of nonexistence. Supernatural beliefs may have positive benefits for some, but the costs are enormous. Millions upon millions of people have been butchered because of religious conflict over the true nature of reality and which fantastical beliefs have credence.

At the geographical borders that separate divergent religious communities, the friction we see erupting threatens to favor one religious view over another. The resulting animosity can fester and smolder into a strain of hatred which, if it remains unchecked, can lead to genocide.

The world is treading dangerously close to a major religious confrontation between the West and East, Christian vs. Muslim. Many radical leaders from both religions are eager to engage in an all-out conflict because it will add great meaning to their lives. Christian conservatives increasingly call for political leaders to use the word Islamic when describing terrorists. This is precisely what the terrorists want to happen because it brings them closer to the possibility of Jihad and martyrdom.

Worship is amped-up delusion, and for the sake of humanity, it needs to be replaced, where possible, with thoughtfulness. Doubt can be frightening, but the price of willful illusion is high, too high. Take any mainstream religious text and substitute the word illusion for the word faith. By doing this, you will be taking a giant leap toward a more objective sense of reality while dissipating oceanic waves of angst and contempt.

Cosmologist Carl Sagan argued that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” There is not a shred of evidence that there is life after death or consciousness without a brain. None, zero, zip, nada. Death is simply nonexistence, and if you think it through, we’ve all been dead before. The first 14-plus billion years went by fast, so to speak. If you want to emulate those religious aspirations that call for brotherly love, compassion, and looking out for those among us least able to care for themselves, I’m all in. But if you expect me to subscribe to supernatural magical thinking, leave me out.

While I remain an advocate for religious liberty and religious tolerance, despite my wariness of organized religion, the separation of church and state requires an unmovable wall. If your religion gives you comfort, good for you. But when people use their religion to engage in bigotry, racism, and ethnocentric hatred, it’s time to speak up and denounce such rhetoric as having no place in a civilized society. If we violate the Founders’ principles of the separation of church and state, we do so at our peril. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” Let’s not let them.

My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: A Mile North of Good and Evil
My Other Blog

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Education Can Still the Brute

© Charles D. Hayes
The 2016 presidential election made it clear that America is suffering an egregious vacuum of goodwill. Too many of our citizens are ill-equipped to cope with life in the twenty-first century. Simply put, they lack the knowledge to deal with the angst that comes with being mortal.

For decades, I have been trying to articulate the benefits of a liberal education. I have fully experienced the rewards myself, having gone from growing up as a hard-right conservative to becoming politically liberal. Years of study helped unravel my animosity toward progressive points of view. For me, the learning I experienced dispelled the angst that used to fester in my mind toward people I considered “others.” Lately the angst has resurfaced as a growing intolerance for intolerance.

So, like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn to read every book and essay I can find about meaningful education because, even though I understand the profound value of broad, liberal learning, I have difficulty explaining how others might relieve themselves of the contempt that comes with a narrow worldview. Nor can I name what the tipping point might be to bring it about.

Although being open to experience is a hallmark of liberalism, it’s not yet known for sure how much our political disposition is genetically predisposed and how much it is because of learning. We do know, however, that even some who hold rigid views can be persuaded to change their minds if presented with a better argument.

One of the hardest things to do is to try to recall what it is like not to know something once you have learned it. It’s almost impossible. But having been raised without the benefit of a liberal education, I still have some sense of the void and smoldering anxiety that such an upbringing provides. Today, much as I want to share the benefits of an existential education, I’m confounded by the amount of social resistance to something that’s so life-changing and so beneficial to society at large. Even so, I do understand the animosity. Anti-intellectualism runs deep.

There are lots of good books on the value of a liberal education, but most come up short because they miss an adequate description of its most important advantage. Finally, after many years of pondering, I think I’m close to identifying what’s so often been left out. A big part of the answer is so glaringly obvious that we don’t see it.

When it works as it should, a liberal education becomes an existential education. By this I mean an education of enough quality and depth to enable one to release some of the anxiety that comes part and parcel with the human condition—that of being mortal. Mortality is a condition from which there is no escape. Willful illusion is one’s only protection, but it cannot last. Smoldering anxiety festers when other people recognize this and no longer share the cultural illusions one has adopted for escape. Contempt follows because the very existence of nonbelievers poses a deep existential threat.   

In essence, an existential education makes it possible to find one’s own meaning in life without the need to find fault with others. It provides one enough confidence to be worry free and unconcerned when the views of others conflict with one’s own. An existential education enables us to forgive others for their otherness, most notably because it reminds us that we are soon to be food for worms.

To learn about many diverse subjects in the humanities is like creating a mental mansion with lavish rooms, each with enough accumulated substance that any new additions are subject to wonder by their contrast. So, instead of being allowed to inspire fear and contempt from a lack of understanding, new information is subject to relative reflection and often creates new corridors between rooms.

When a person embraces a multitude of ideas about the world, narrow viewpoints begin to appear immature. More ideas lead to more possibilities, and more options occur to consider, all of which assist in quelling anxiety before it congeals into despair, scorn, and derision. Thus, an existential education is liberating in its capacity to help dissipate social angst. The effect is the same as taking the lid off a pot of water about to boil, allowing steam to escape instead of blowing the lid off.  

John Adams was right when he said, “Education makes a greater difference between man and man than nature has made between man and brute.”  In my view, an existential education can effectively still the brute in man.

My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: A Mile North of Good and Evil
My Other Blog