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 clich├ęs 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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Friday, January 13, 2017

America’s Celebration of Ignorance



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Pledge of Allegiance or Pledge of Obedience?


© Charles D. Hayes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Slouching Toward a Political Fukushima




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

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Sarah Palin vs. Donald Trump


© Charles D. Hayes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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