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.

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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.

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Friday, February 3, 2017

Winning: What Does It Mean?

This is an excerpt from Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher © Charles D. Hayes

A few years ago, I watched an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. Among his guests were comedian Gary Shandling, actor Sean Penn, and former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. from Tennessee. They were discussing the war in Iraq, and Shandling suggested that we need to get beyond our “winner consciousness” regarding the issue of war. Penn seemed interested but remained silent. Harold Ford appeared mystified by the assertion, but I knew exactly what Shandling was referring to and have been thinking about it ever since. In short, winning is an inappropriate metaphor when it comes to war, and we keep having wars precisely because we haven’t yet figured that out. 

Speaking in broad terms, we have, as a nation, adopted something akin to “sports-think” in our conception of how most issues should be resolved. Winning has become a default position that stops further deliberation. There are winners and losers and no in-betweens. At first glance, the win-lose mentality appears to be a type of simple-mindedness born of a mediated society in which sound bytes serve in place of serious thought. But I suspect that something deeper fuels this type of thinking. It stems, in part, from what I call truth by association, which is an instinctual and tribal-like loyalty that says, “My side. Right or wrong makes no difference, but our triumph does matter because we are, after all, who we are.”

Here, winning asserts the legitimacy of the association, especially when “our side” prevails. In other words, we validate the truth of our superiority when we win. On the flip side, losing becomes personal, and loss implies we have been wronged. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of practicing truth by association. What has happened with the metaphor of winning is similar in some ways to what happened during the Cold War to the word socialism, which was stigmatized with such vehemence that even to raise the subject of economic equity is still, for many people, considered subversive.

The notion of winning, however, took the opposite direction from the word socialism. Instead of a negative connation, winning morphed into an aspirational ideal that is ultimately a dead end. Somewhere in the past century of American culture, victories in comic books, movies, sporting events, business, games, lotteries, politics, and the like converged into one all-purpose metaphor: winning, winning, winning. The coaches who have gone to the furthest extremes to make the point that nothing is more important than winning are often celebrated as being great.  

This popular internalization of winning has become part of our collective psyche. The significant emotional experiences we share tend to drive the metaphor of winning deep within us, and eventually we perceive that winning reinforces our association without qualification (when our team wins it is exhilarating), and the metaphor brings us closer together without need of further discussion. Moreover, most of us will respond to criticism of these seemingly self-evident truths with a deep-seated unwillingness to reason or give ground. In other words, in matters of conflict between our group and another group, the word win is enough to close off the conversation, as in enough said.

Combat experience in war may be the most extreme example of experiential emotional attachment. Men and women suffering the stress of war often bond emotionally to such a degree that their association will thereafter trump issues of right and wrong. I suspect that people who have not experienced these feelings can barely imagine what it’s like. A shared significant emotional experience imbues a strong sense of commitment and kinship. I’s become we’s in combat, and the fortunes of individuals give way to an emotional sense of camaraderie and attachment to the outfit. The rigidity of one’s position about the politics at hand during war is often driven so deep that, for some, reasoning about the issue with complete objectivity will never again be possible. 

Setting aside the instance of war for a moment, let’s consider an example in civilian life: cases involving criminal prosecution where people are shown to have been wrongly convicted. When the convicted party is found innocent by DNA testing and subsequently released from prison, the prosecutors who won the conviction more often than not continue to believe the person is guilty. Prosecuting someone involves internalizing the righteousness of one’s position; facing off against defense attorneys drives the prosecuting attorneys’ convictions so deep as to sometimes reside beneath the reach of reason. Enough examples of this exist on television news that one need not look very far to find them.

Another example is the racial prejudice that permeated life in the South during the twentieth century. I have first-hand knowledge of this experience. People of all races who believe passionately that they are free of racial prejudice will remain convinced that they are free of such bias in spite of the results of psychological tests that detect their partiality. Similarly, when profound emotional experience is internalized as feelings of betrayal, the resentment can last a lifetime. For example, an urban legend of Jane Fonda “gotcha missives” exist in the form of emails circulated frequently. These emails tell the story of how she was valiantly denied service in a steakhouse in Montana by a restaurant owner who turned out to be a Vietnam veteran still angry about Fonda’s pro-Communist actions during the war. Revenge brings some people vindictive satisfaction; it means they are winning, getting even, making up for having been deceived and betrayed. Better yet, revenge means a traitor is losing (in Fonda’s case, it was only a steak dinner, but she at least suffered humiliation). This kind of cultural behavior takes the place of rational discourse about war and justice. And yet, who could doubt the deeply felt emotional wounds of veterans who thought—then and now—that Fonda’s actions betrayed them? 

I was a hawk during the Vietnam War. Although I had already been discharged from a four-year hitch in the Marines, I almost reenlisted during the Tet Offensive in 1968. What stopped me was the fact I was single, still owned a home, and could not find anyone to buy it. But I have come to realize that, without the anti-war protest movement that recognized senselessness for what it was, we might have lost another 50,000 or so men and women to a war that, in hindsight, seems absurd. More absurdity occurs when people start railing about how we should have won in Vietnam. Perhaps winning would have made any future loss of life worth the effort. But win what? In an address to the Cato Institute, conservative activist Victor Gold asked the still-pertinent question that applies to both Vietnam and Iraq: “How do you win someone else’s civil war?”

A deeper examination of the concept of winning is critical here. The metaphysics of the idea of winning is so thin that, when you stop and give it some serious thought, it boggles the mind. One foot short of the goal, three inches from the cup, a foot from the hoop, a ball out of the park, or one punch can make all the difference in the world: one side wins, the other loses. The reactions of the participants and the spectators are radically different, yet they do not, in any real way, reflect the physics of what actually happened. Think about it. Nothing in the world is changed in physical reality except something did or did not happen with or to a ball. Now one group of people is beside itself with joy, and the other side is devastated.

How can this same pattern apply to war? How can winning a game parallel the winning of a war? “America 14, Vietnam 7” doesn’t work. Consider the number of deaths: 58,000 Americans; 1-3 million Vietnamese. Bedsides getting closer to reality, does that mean anything? The more you think about it, the more intangible and bizarre the notion of winning becomes. Scores and blood do not mix. One can receive a mortal wound and still have time to kill an enemy, but to say then that either side has won stretches the metaphor of winning beyond its true meaning. The catastrophic circumstances exceed our ability to comprehend what it means to lose anything. 

Just as the psychic investment of prosecutors makes it difficult for them to change their opinion about the guilt of someone they have sent to prison, imagine how the people feel who have lost family members to a war that others call a mistake. To think that a war in which a spouse or son or daughter made the ultimate sacrifice was a mistake, is emotionally untenable, and this adds legitimacy to any war. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan—the circumstances post sacrifice don’t matter or, to be more precise, can’t matter without increased pain. The psychological result is that most people prefer to believe in the honorable sacrifice of their family member instead of questioning the circumstance of war. Asking hard questions after a personal loss in wartime results in further heartbreak. When one admits the illegitimacy of a war, the only alternative is to rethink one’s loyalties; rebuke one’s truth by association, if necessary; and redirect one’s sense of outrage at those responsible for the injustice—which makes this kind of action very unlikely for all but a few.     

Does imagining Jane Fonda being humiliated compensate for the perception that we lost the war? If we were keeping score on the basis of deaths alone in Vietnam, didn’t we win? Not to mention that we got into the war in Vietnam on false pretense, by claiming to have been fired on in the Gulf of Tonkin. You see, truth by association trumps ethics. My country right or wrong means that our sins are justified and your country’s are not. It means we don’t need to make amends or apologize because our errors are beyond reproach. People who assume truth by association believe that anything they do to prevail is justified by the simple righteous nature of who they are. And this is why human beings are locked into a feedback loop of irrationality: hypersensitive to the transgressions of others and oblivious to our own, we generate the eternal justification for conflict. 

President John F. Kennedy said the war was the Vietnamese people’s to win or lose. But our strategic view at the time was that if Vietnam fell, a virtual stampede of countries would suddenly embrace Communism. Then Vietnam did fall, and nothing of the sort occurred. In fact, the reverse happened. So, we must ask, was the war worth the deaths of nearly three million people? Vietnam seems to be a thriving country today, one with which we have resumed business relations, and, to my mind, the situation makes the frequent laments about having failed to win even more meaningless. Of course, many would argue that a number of citizens in Vietnam today feel oppressed by their government, but it is a grand illusion to assume that, had the South prevailed, there would now be a thriving American-style democracy in Vietnam. Fast forward to 2010, and we’re confounded by similar issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, both deeply divided by tribalism?

The conflicts of religious, ideological, and financial interests being what they were then, and still are, make establishing a democracy anywhere in the world a very tall order. The ability to perpetually balance power is very nearly impossible, even in the best of cases. Our own government is strangled by lobbyists in cahoots with our representatives, who are so beholden to various special interests that the majority in America has very limited influence. Yet we are sustained with centuries of idealistic notions about democracy and the rights of citizens.

The end-run philosophical threshold of winning at any cost is that it results in a perversion of us and them to such a degree that torturing prisoners is suddenly deemed okay. The historical records dating all the way to the Inquisition—suggesting that torture is ineffective and confessions obtained through torture are dangerously unreliable—don’t seem to matter. What our recent pro-torture policy achieved is to expose our servicemen and women all over the world to inhumane treatment by our enemies, who now feel not only justified but gleeful about the very opportunity and possibility of being able to torture Americans in the future. 

There is a huge metaphysical disconnect inherent in the metaphor of winning: racking up points on an electronic game offers an illusion of winning that does not transfer to the realities of war. The ephemeral consequences of winning in athletics are totally inappropriate for war. Even winning in sports events, when huge sums of money are involved, does not qualify as an analogy for combat. War is catastrophic change, writ in blood. It’s long past time for average Americans to think this conundrum through, to get beyond the consciousness of winning, as Shandling suggested, and to quit acting as the cheering section in a culture that behaves as if winning is a currency for endless incompatible assumptions and analogies.  

It’s unfortunate that we can’t discuss this subject without people getting red-faced and stomping off, mumbling clichés about patriotism. Such a response demonstrates just how easy it is to resort to war in the first place. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that we did not learn from our experience in Vietnam. But the proponents of winning a preemptive war in Iraq may have once again duped themselves. These same people incessantly champion small government, yet our bungling in Iraq and Afghanistan has so inspired the exponential recruitment of our enemies that we may never again be able to entertain having a small government with such a big threat facing us.

The yearning for small or limited government is understandable but only in an idealistic sense. It’s hard to be against limited government when you see your government as an oppressor. But what small or limited government really amounts to—in this day and age—is emasculated government, incapable of protecting citizens from a collusion of corporate interests whose lobbyists, in effect, purchase legislative support from politicians. A government that cannot protect the rights of citizens above those of corporations is not a democracy, nor is it a fair game.

Winning as a metaphor for games is appropriate, but for war it is insanely inadequate and morally bankrupt. Winning as a crossover to a war analogy is an anti-intellectual shortcut that eliminates thought about the very things we should think about. We need a political makeover in America. We need to understand the concept of winning in all of its manifestations, and we need to stop being consumers and reclaim our roles as citizens. This, in my view, is the only way for average citizens to win.

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