Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Driven Apart: Failure in a Land of Plenty

© Charles D. Hayes
A plethora of new books suggest America has entered a state of rapid decline. Two recent works on this subject, both heavily footnoted, are worthy of attention. One is by an elitist on the right and the other by one on the left. In contrast, a third new book is full of hope.
The first to consider is Coming Apart: The State of White American, 1960-2010 by sociologist Charles Murray, whose work I've been reading for years. He refers to himself as a libertarian, although a better characterization might be that he is an ideologue's ideologue. For decades he's argued in a subtle and often guarded tone that some of us are just morally and genetically inferior to others, and he has become rather adept at appearing to stumble accidently onto his biases. In other words, his narratives contain a thinly disguised philosophy that is implied rather than stated outright. 
Coming Apart offers lots of good data, and the contents could make a really good book if the author had been intellectually honest about what has driven us apart. Murray, however, has never been quite smart enough to avoid the transparency of his biases, even when they are cloaked in his data. He submits a two-pronged account of how America is fracturing into enclaves of upper class and lower class, portrayed as Belmont and Fishtown respectively. We are asked to pay no attention to the cause. Instead Murray lays the book out so the unsuspecting will discover his predetermined conclusions embedded in his statistics along with him. He wants us to ignore the greed and lobbied power that have in effect looted the country from the top down. He wants us to concentrate instead solely on the moral failings of inferior folks and to recognize once again that big government is destroying the moral fiber of America.
New York Times columnist David Brooks declared Coming Apart the most important book of the year and said he would be "shocked if there's another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society." This should be tempered by realizing how easily Brooks is shocked. That Murray does not want to discuss the reason for society’s coming apart is what is shocking. For more on Murray's book, check out Joan Walsh's brilliant review at salon.com.
The second work is Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline by social critic Morris Berman, who throws all subtlety out the window. He’s concerned not with moral failings of the poor, but with what he regards as the mindless aspirations of those we deem successful. He characterizes the New Deal not as a restructuring of the economy, but as "a few concessions to the poor and working class." He warns us that when hustling and technological innovation become the purpose of life, there is no purpose, and he sees little hope for course correction. According to Berman, we are a country where people throw their lives away for toys. Our obsession with connectivity results in social isolation as we destroy the planet through what amounts to disingenuous acts of trivial pursuit.        
Now contrast the views above with another recent book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. They write: "Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them. Or desire them. Abundance for all is actually within our grasp." They lay out their argument in nineteen impressive chapters.
So, we have here two cases for a dystopian future due to moral failure and one utopian argument that, even if such a future were possible, would require an ideological remaking of society that goes far beyond simply offering a few concessions to the poor and the working class. The first order of business is to favor work over capital, or Main Street over Wall Street, and that would take an effort just short of a political revolution.
Our dilemma comes to this: The only way to a future worthy of our highest ideals is to get beyond our Stone Age political mindsets, in which millions of people are so fearful that someone else might get something underserved that they would rather see most have nothing. The biggest obstacle to a bright future is adolescent politics. As I advocate in September University, it is time for adults to speak up or forever lose the opportunity to do so. What a predicament: to choose spite or infinite possibilities.  
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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Time for Political Depolarization

© Charles D. Hayes

The election is over, and the holiday season offers a chance for us to calm down and attempt to depolarize, as a practical matter, for the sake of governance. It’s an opportune time to reexamine the notion of values. In a nutshell, values means like us. Unless we understand this at a deep emotional level, we will be ill-prepared for the years ahead, especially if we are not happy with the election results.

The evidence that we human beings are a tribal species is irrefutable. When we form groups around beliefs that sometimes appear to stretch credulity, we adopt an identity that will set us apart from others. Our differences then give rise to perpetual anxiety at the mere mention of those who do not share our worldview because, if we are wrong, then in a deep-seated psychological sense we can't be who we think we are. This makes us existentially fearful and on the lookout for scapegoats. Our social history makes this clear beyond doubt.

When the hot-button issues that divide us become the preoccupation of media in order to gain audience share, the result is intense demographic polarization. The greatest difficulty in dealing with these aspects of our behavior is that much of the anxiety and scapegoating described above plays out in our subconscious beyond our conscious awareness.  

We are not cerebrally wired for equitable negotiation with people who do not appear to belong to our particular group. This is why achieving a genuine democracy is so hard and so rare. To judge whether or not this is true, one need only to look the world over for examples.

The great irony is that if we could simply get beyond the superficial arguments, accusations, and misunderstandings we occupy ourselves with politically, we would discover that, fad and fashion aside, most of the things human beings value on this planet are similar. It’s genuinely hard to fathom that, as much as we have learned about human behavior in the past three decades, the world is still fractured by enclaves of people who believe they are fortunate enough to have grown up with a righteous and truthful worldview that has escaped practically everybody else.

No matter where we look in America, we find people who believe that they are the only true possessors of truth, the only people who really count in the overall scheme of things. And yet, if we ask to what source their knowledge and special virtue can be attributed, we will find that this truth exists simply because their particular group wills it so, or because they think they have found the only true religion or worthy political platform. 

The criteria for what constitutes values are straightforward. We value that which supports and exalts our kind. When we hear the word values in the right context in political commercials, it rings our identity bell. That's why the term can be used to nullify or ignore criticism. Values as a euphemism for like us can trump all facts and evidence to the contrary by triggering group identity with sufficient force to obliterate what could have otherwise been a knock-down argument.

What we project outwardly is a worldview that provides a mirror image of ourselves as individuals and as members of a particular group. In other words, we are what we think and what we believe, and therefore this is what we long to see. It’s how we learn to define worth, and it explains why we feel threatened when others disagree with us. Indeed, the current political rhetoric about values is really more about who we think we are than about the kind of people we really are and what we truly care about.

Consequently, if we can't relate to our political leaders, then we don't view them as being one of us, which makes them certifiably illegitimate. This is why many liberals could never accept the presidency of George W. Bush as being valid; it's also what fuels the birthers and those who claim Barack Obama is un-American.

Still, my studies lead to me to conclude that we Americans are not as viscerally divided as our media would have us believe. When it comes to solving practical political problems, groups of neighbors—minus professional politicians and media pundits—are often able to reach common ground and compromise without much difficulty. We need to keep this in mind, especially with regard to how we view media. Political news media maintain audiences by treating hot-button issues like beach volleyballs, spiking the ball as often as possible to keep us watching.

American history is very clear about the characterization of how our nation was founded and by whom. Our founders were intellectuals by any standard, and we cannot maintain a nation founded on democratic principles without rising to the same caliber of thought. If we value what our founders valued, we should aspire to an identity that says to be an American is to put pettiness aside and abide by the better argument, regardless of its source. But because of our political predispositions, a great deal of conscious effort is required to achieve the level of citizenship that our founders intended. 

Hot-button issues aside, we the people should be a sufficient measure of identity to engage American citizens in the business of acting democratically. This could be accomplished if we refused to let media and ambitious politicians use the existential angst that comes with the human condition to divide us in order to further their own ends.

The election is over. It's time to examine and reevaluate our values in light of the latest research about how our minds really work. It's time to stop the nonsense and act like people who are truly interested in achieving democracy.

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Historical Corruption: Conservatism at Its Worst

© Charles D. Hayes
It’s an old cliché to say that victors write the history of their times, but the opportunists who take full advantage of these biased histories are the ones to keep an eye on. Every time I think about this subject, I’m reminded of the arrogant school board members in Texas who work tirelessly to make ideological fairy tales out of their students’ textbooks.
Enter Newt Gingrich, who calls himself a historian, but whose selective use of history is less about the truth of what happened in the past than about glorifying his role as a guard and protector of American values. Family values at that. Gingrich’s bombastic views amount to airbrushed history, modified to suit his personal, political, and religious beliefs. He says he lives a frugal life but spends a fortune on jewelry.  
Textbook history written with a biased political agenda leads millions of people to embrace a worldview based on lies. Gingrich’s political campaign is over, but his prejudices are a center position of conservatism, namely to reveal our history using grandiose claims that distort the past so severely that it can't be discussed intelligently. He constantly speaks about American exceptionalism and then offers himself as an example.
Gingrich acts as if he is very nearly alone in his ability to debate the reality of history. But his take on the past is so selective that if it were applied to an individual's resume for employment, a homicidal maniac could be made to seem like an ideal employee. He is a master at dramatizing superficiality, and his personal history makes one wonder if his mental condition might be diagnosable. What gives him away are his frequent neck-snapping gaffes. When he treads into a given territory, unaware that normal people will find his views about it bizarre, he retreats and revises accordingly. His advocating that poor students could work as school janitors would be a case in point.
Contemporary conservatism has come to rely on ideological history for its very existence or, to be more exact, for its identity. The trouble with using only the high points in your argument is that the resulting view of reality is so skewed it has to be kept in place with arrogance or political muscle because real facts won’t support it. Moreover, once this ethos takes over, it's nearly impossible to admit ever having made mistakes. When applied to war, this tactic adds a deep-seated barrier to achieving peace.
Most Americans teach their children that it's appropriate to apologize to anyone whom we have wronged, regardless of whether the act was purposeful or an accident. But when arrogance achieves the critical mass of super-patriotism, as in the rewriting of history, political candidates begin spouting the "I will never apologize for the United States" mantra. Mitt Romney is already on board with this nonsensical assertion. Such rhetoric makes us look like arrogant fools. It's a glaring, in-your-face declaration that we believe we are better than anyone else on the planet and rules of etiquette do not apply to us.       
In his book The Folly of Fools, anthropologist Robert Trivers points out that we highlight the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 with three ships that school children are expected to know the names of, but we slip into historical amnesia about his second arrival with seventeen ships in 1493, when he enslaved the local Indians, killing and mutilating them by the thousands and at times feeding their newborn infants to his human attack dogs. You won’t find this kind of information in Texas schoolbooks or in Gingrich’s self-selected historical narrative. And yet, not knowing these things makes us exceptionally dimwitted about the dark side of human nature and the blatant injustices that permeate our past and continuously spill over into the present.
Wrongs can’t be righted if no one knows about them. Moreover, to be in the position of constantly defending false versions of history requires exceptional arrogance, the kind that leads to fervent nationalism and the use of force, which is itself but a short step to the abyss. The exaggerated sense of self-importance that results from constantly censoring history is precisely why the conservative political platform put forth today is so anti-intellectual in nature.
A distorted view of the past leads to a confusing present and inauthentic efforts to fashion a future. Any half-hearted attempt to achieve an objective reading of our history and our present political mess should prove this beyond doubt. An objective study of history should enable us to view the past in a way that brings us together in finding common ground. Instead, censored versions foster arrogance, contempt, and hatred.          
Politicians who brag about what never was are doomed to promise what will never be.
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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Political Ads Work If Citizens Don't

© Charles D. Hayes
It is sad to say, but demonstrably true, that as a nation we are democratically illiterate. If most Americans lived up to Thomas Jefferson's expectations about attaining the knowledge required of citizenship, thirty-second political ads would be a waste of money. That any Americans make up their minds about which candidate to vote for through the influence of television commercials is evidence of a misguided, overtly manipulated, and egregiously irresponsible electorate.
Jefferson argued that government fails when left to elected officials without close attention and scrutiny by knowledgeable citizens, and that democracy is not possible without an aggressive pursuit of civic education by the electorate. And yet, we have high school graduates who can't name the three branches of government, and adults when asked on the street can't pass an elementary citizenship exam.        
America's love affair with liberty has always been such a front-and-center issue that the enormous responsibility that makes freedom possible is too easily overlooked. Jefferson argued vociferously that abuse and perversion of power would ultimately lead to tyranny, unless we educate ourselves as citizens with regard to what must be done and then hold our elected representatives accountable for achieving those results. He noted that we cannot prove or disprove that which we don't understand, and ignorance is not an acceptable excuse for not figuring out what is to be done.
With every presidential election season, I can't help but wonder what Jefferson would have thought of citizens making up their minds about whom to vote for, based not on the plans and polices of the candidates, but on whether or not he or she appears to win a debate. It's often played out like an Olympic contest where people decide to vote for a 9.8 over an 8.9 debate performance, political agenda be damned. Of course, Jefferson is not the only founder who would have thought this is madness, because it is madness.
The hundreds of millions of dollars spent each election season on political advertising is an apt measure of a void of responsibility. This expenditure gauges the depth of our collective ignorance. Too much focus on entertainment. Too much freedom from responsibility. Don't have time to examine the issues? Too busy? Nonsense, says Jefferson. Nothing we do is more important than our duties as citizens because we are the very safeguards of liberty. He put it this way, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
To be swayed politically by television commercials, slogans, clichés, platitudes, placards, signs, and bumper stickers is to cede one's responsibility of citizenship over to manipulation by the highest-bidding propagandist. Swing voters underscore the issue of political advertising with cynical clarity in that their indecisiveness can't be the result of closely examining the election issues at hand. If they were to do that, their decision about how to cast their vote would ultimately become clear. Instead they bounce back and forth like ping-pong balls in match play to the rhythm of mindless television ads, which often amount to little more in substance than character assassination.
So what would the man who said he couldn't live without books think today about American citizens who call themselves patriots, who don't read but who have adamant opinions about myriad subjects they've never studied or looked into in depth? I've read enough of Jefferson's work to be certain that he would be appalled and ashamed, but perhaps not surprised. I wonder, though, how he would have reacted to the stark reality that more and more people in the present mistake ideological derision for evidence of patriotism, while embracing a system of misinformation designed to justify the status quo and to stand in as a substitute for freedom.
 Champions of the status quo have known for decades that acclimating citizens to feel at home in an unjust society is easy to do if the fuel used is contempt. All that's necessary to normalize the perception of escalating inequality is to wave symbols and push the public's hot buttons by pointing to an out-group as the cause. It works nearly every time.
The sad epitaph for those beholden to defend an unjust society under the guise of sustaining freedom is that it is far easier and more emotionally satisfying to protect the powerful forces that pull their strings than to admit to having been made a puppet. Before one can see the hidden strings that manipulate, it is first necessary to tune out the barrage of political ads that would have us feel instead of think.
We can either be citizens or consumers, but if we default to the latter, we stand to lose the former.
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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Matters of Life and Death

© Charles D. Hayes
When it’s war, or even the threat of war, we Americans pull out all stops and forge ahead, sparing no effort or expense, to ensure victory. If needed, we will impose a draft, increase taxes, build ships, aircraft, missiles, and weapons of mass destruction, the likes of which the world has ever seen. On land, air, and sea, we will destroy any enemy that threatens the lives of our citizens. If one of our soldiers is trapped behind enemy lines, we will send whatever resources it takes to free the individual from harm. If our troops are killed, we will go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve their bodies, even risking others’ lives if necessary, and we will continue these efforts for decades after war ends.
We maintain the largest and most powerful military force on the planet in order to make it clear that attacking us will be a suicidal mission. Protecting our citizens is so powerful an ethos that we will even furnish legal services at public expense when a fellow American is charged with a crime. After all, this could be a matter of life and death.
Suppose, though, that our fallen soldier's mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother's life is threatened by an illness like breast cancer, and she can't afford medical insurance. What do we do then? Raise armies? Raise taxes? Send forth doctors and surgeons dressed in fatigues? Not at all. Not only do we stand by and watch them die slowly from a lack of treatment, but nearly half of our population characterizes attempts to remedy this moral failure as an assault on their freedom.
Indeed, in a way, freedom is at play here—unlimited freedom for profits. The charge that Obamacare is a government takeover of healthcare, actually means that the government is limiting the ability of the insurance industry to make runaway profits at the expense of medical treatment. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to incite and inspire rage about this alleged loss of personal freedom.     
So let's talk about freedom—like the freedom to continue living when one is attacked by an illness that doesn't require armies or multi-million dollar bombs to cure, only a health insurance policy that works more for the benefit of patients rather than for insurance companies. Before Obamacare, thousands of people hung onto jobs they despised simply because they were afraid of losing their insurance. That's lack of freedom.
The argument that mandated insurance coverage results in an actual loss of freedom is such an assault on common sense and common decency that it defies any and all attempts to explain it in the context of what it means to be protected under the umbrella of American citizenship.
The current political polarization motivated by the millions of dollars spent on behalf of the insurance lobby has become so vitriolic that much of the goodwill that gives us a sense of national identity as Americans has been lost. Blind rage stands in for civilized dialogue, as extreme Tea Party types express an anxious willingness to sink the ship of state and drown everyone if they can't have everything their own way. They view themselves as the only true Americans.      
Stopping at nothing to prevent a loss of life in war and then looking the other way when private citizens are threatened—not by an army, but by a lack of enough monetary resources to cover the cost of treatment—is a kind of social madness that can only occur when benevolence is trampled by seething contempt. Such derision is made possible by so alienating one's opposition as to think them unworthy of being considered one of us. This has to be the case unless being an American and having one's life threatened is meaningless. Populist scorn has become so ubiquitous that an audience broke into cheering at a presidential political debate earlier this year at the mere mention of letting someone die who had elected not to purchase health insurance.
The current level of political insanity can be seen for what it is when you realize fully that the blueprint for Obamacare was drawn up by conservatives and only became toxic when the opposition adopted it. The push for unfettered profit at the expense of medical care has resulted in an orchestrated pandemic of political hostility paid for by the insurance lobby. This is something to keep in mind when you vote in November: War and serious illness are matters of life and death and should not be considered profit centers or political talking points.
Our service men and women who have been killed in battle deserve something more for the relatives they left behind than derision and alienation because they need a doctor and don't have enough personal wealth to cover the cost. If the people shouting about mandated insurance encroaching on their personal freedom would stop listening to the rebel rousers and simply think, they would realize that the sacrifices our service men and women have made on the battlefield should cover the cost of those who can't afford medical treatment. If being an American means anything, it means the bill has been paid in full.  
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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Job Creator Mythology

© Charles D. Hayes
When I was a teenager in the 1950s, gasoline was cheap but cash was hard to come by. It was common practice to carry a siphon hose in one's car because friends would frequently run out of gas. With a hose you could get just enough gas from a friend's car to reach a gas station without having to get a can and make two trips. The hose was also useful for getting gas from the parents' vehicles.
A siphoning hose uses atmospheric pressure and gravity to cause fluid to flow, once started, without further efforts. When adequate pressure is reached, the flow continues unabated as long as there is a sufficient source of liquid. This makes a great analogy for our economy because the notion of using an economic stimulus works exactly like the siphon hose. Get it going with sufficient force, and it will continue on its own as long as there is a demand.
Jump-starting the economy versus austere measures is an ideological hurdle in politics. Which method works best? What has this got to do with job creation? Good questions, indicating it’s high time to take a fresh look at conventional wisdom. My generation grew up in a world where loyalty to one's employer was expected. It was supposed to be reciprocal, but the economy was strong enough that loyalty to the employee was seldom put to the test. Most people were prone to give their employer the benefit of the doubt when it came to the question of allegiance. So, when one's attitude toward their employer is to be grateful for having been employed, it just seems like common sense to think of employers as job creators. Hold that thought for a moment.
In the Midwest there are companies with caravans of harvesting combines who travel northward harvesting wheat and other crops in the summer and fall. It is cheaper for many farmers to hire a company to harvest their crops instead of buying and maintaining the equipment themselves. My point is that employers are more like harvesters than job creators. The harvesters don't work unless something needs reaping, and likewise most companies do not hire unless there is money to be made. Gratitude for having been offered a job tends to obscure this reality. The expectation of reciprocal loyalty over the past two decades has pretty much evaporated. The reality has always been that employers don't hire people unless there is money on the table or in the field, and it seems exceptionally naïve to have ever thought otherwise.
More often than not, political usage of the term job creator is deceptive. The implication in pro-business political ads is that if we vote for a candidate who is friendly to the job creators, then there will be more jobs. Maybe, maybe not. In a nutshell, no demand, no customers, no jobs. But it doesn't stop here. If the candidate is too friendly with the so-called job creators, then the jobs are not likely to pay a living wage because the employers will write all of the rules and laws.    
Now there are companies that innovate and offer new products, and in the process create their own demand. In effect, they do create jobs. But for the most part, the nation's big corporate employers are analogous to crop harvesters. When possible they ramp up to harvest and cash in. There is nothing wrong with this, but keeping this reality in political perspective is critical to the well-being of those who work for a living and vote.
Stimulating the economy is like siphoning gas: if it's not done with enough force, it won't flow with enough pressure to keep going. Austerity won't get you far enough down the road to reach a gas station, and the people promising to create jobs without a flowing economy are talking through their hats. No demand, no flow, nothing to reap, no jobs. This is not rocket science; it's not even a mysterious process when you stop drinking the political Kool-Aid. Put the ideological rhetoric in perspective and admit that a just society is a worthy goal and that working people count as much as Wall Street executives.
Gratitude toward employers during the past half-century has been so forceful and overwhelming that the right of an entrepreneur to exploit workers with exceptionally low wages and degrading working conditions has traditionally gotten a free pass. They act as if they have a divine right to do this because, after all, they are job creators. It's long past time to think through the mythology and the glorious rights of employers. If a task is worth doing and a job needs to be created, then it is worth a living wage. If not, let the entrepreneurs or executives do it themselves.
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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ryan, Rand and Romney

© Charles D. Hayes

Confusion is rampant these days over the subject of self-interest versus public interest. It’s increasingly fashionable to disdain everything public and revere everything private. The hate your government virus has become the bubonic plague of American politics. Thanks largely to Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's chosen running mate, the ghost of Ayn Rand is spooking the electorate.

Rand’s Objectivist philosophy—that selfishness should be the sole driving force of economics—has been thoroughly rebuked by research in psychology and neuroscience as being universally incongruent with human behavior. It's as absurd to claim that selfishness is the only virtue as it would be to say that selflessness is. So I find it hard to fathom why Ryan, who is now the presumptive Republican candidate for vice president, would ever have described himself as an unapologetic devotee of Rand's ideology.

Applied whole cloth, Rand's economic prescription represents at best the glorification of narcissism; at worst, the ideology of cancer cells. Simply put, if we relied solely on Objectivism economically, America would wind up as a nation of losers among the other developed countries of the world.

Elsewhere I have written that when a rush of adolescent hormones encounters an ideology that makes biologically self-centered and narcissistic inclinations seem glorious, critical thinking stops and notions of superiority blossom. What’s especially disturbing about Rand followers is that once they buy in, most stop thinking for themselves. In effect, they surrender their judgment to Objectivism, and when confronted with a contradictory argument, they look for a Rand quote as a defense. Objectivists become impervious to all contrary evidence and adopt the stance that those who criticize Rand just don't understand her. In fact, many of us understand her very well, and that's the hitch.

John Galt, the fictional character in Atlas Shrugged, represented Rand's concept of the ideal man. He was infallible in principle, and his business savvy was impeccable. But individuals with John Galt's psychological profile and penchant for ideological perfection do not exist in the real world, and neither does a healthy society based solely on Rand's ideas. John Galt wannabes, however, abound—they talk the talk, but don't walk it. They gave us a financial meltdown in 2008. Rand didn't walk her talk, either. She declared the function of government is only to protect citizens from criminals and foreign invasion, but it didn't stop her from signing up for Medicare and Social Security. 

In The Social Conquest of Earth, Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson argues that "[S]elfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals." He suggests that if either case were taken to extremes, the result would be the destruction of society as we know it.

Imagine that you’re charged with assembling a football team from a poor community and your future rests on winning games. You discover that your linemen and your running backs are malnourished. What do you do? By hook or crook, you find them nourishing food. Without it, your team is easily defeated. Now apply this analogy to America. We have millions of children who, through no fault of their own, are malnourished. They are likely to grow up without the cognitive and physical ability to make the team—the team of American citizens. Many of them will wind up in prison, costing taxpayers $50,000 plus per year.

Paul Ryan and his supporters seem to think that more political currency is to be gained in finding ways to punish these children's parents than in solving the problem. Certainly, dealing with freeloaders is a dilemma, and people who expect something for nothing should incur a penalty, if one is due because of their negligence. But providing adequate nutrition must be part of the solution, or the team suffers and America's foundation crumbles.

It's as easy to rig a system for equity as it is to create the current winner-take-all reality of the one percent versus the 99 percent. There are scores of ways in which we turn a blind eye toward the kind of investments that support our team as Americans.

Every developed nation on the planet that offers its citizens a high quality of life is able to do so only by making a substantial investment in the kinds of infrastructure and services that support their public interest. A thriving economy with a strong middle class and based exclusively on a virtue of selfishness has never existed on this planet, but this fact doesn't matter to narrow-minded ideologues. The majority of Americans don't want a handout; they want a fair shot at a decent quality of life and a system that represents and supports our true nature, not one rigged by narcissistic ideologues.

Ryan's recent budget proposal is a one-percent solution. Now, all of a sudden, he is now disavowing Rand's Objectivism as an atheist philosophy that reduces human relations to mere contracts. His budget recommendations have resulted in an ongoing protest by Catholic nuns who argue that his proposed cuts to the poor are immoral.

But here is the scary part. Mitt Romney is our first candidate for president who is on record in print and in video footage with multiple contradictory positions on every issue of importance in the upcoming election. If Paul Ryan thinks he or Mitt Romney is John Galt personified, he has his utopian fantasies mixed up, and this means he is too intellectually immature to be president himself.  

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Do You Have Ideas, or Do Ideas Have You?

© Charles D. Hayes

Have you ever wondered how you were fortunate enough to have been born in the right country, the right state, the right city, into the right religion or the right secular worldview, and especially into the right political party so that your opinion is obviously superior to those with whom you frequently take issue? If you haven't, you are not alone.
The late Neil Postman wrote that "education is a defense against culture." His declaration is egregiously underappreciated, and his observation has much more to do with the existential nature of freedom and authenticity than most of the New Age remedies made popular in the past half-century. The prospect of being motivated by ideological forces that one is unaware of, though they may be crystal clear to others, undermines the very foundation of freedom and the potential for authenticity.
Postman's remark lies at the heart of today's great political divide—it's why our current political discourse defaults to emotional misrepresentation. Until we fully understand the underlying reality of Postman's admonition, we have little hope of escaping political manipulation.    
The headline in this piece poses one of life's most difficult questions, but one that needs to hold our attention. When ideas have us as individuals, it means we can be accurately described as ideologues. Dictionaries define an ideologue as someone who zealously promotes a body of doctrine. That's where culture comes in because it provides us with ready-to-assume worldviews. The penalty for disbelieving is to be considered "not one of us."
We have to learn to keep our culture in perspective so as not to become easy to manipulate. The only way to do that is to vastly broaden our intellectual and emotional horizons. One of the most disappointing attributes of our species is that, in spite of our enormous brains, we can grow up in enclaves of every imaginable size from family to nation states while naturally assuming that our particular group is beyond reproach. We believe that everything we do is automatically justifiable by the nature of who we are, while we learn to view other poor fools on the planet as barely more valuable than objects. If they’re deemed too different, we are likely to view them as evil.
It's helpful to envision ideology as being analogous to a computer program that's closed to new updates. This is where zealotry kicks in. Since the code can't be altered, emotionally charged rebooting becomes compensation strategy. True believers don't modify their views, regardless of the facts presented. Instead they respond by upping their ideological passion with hatred and contempt. When this happens at a national level, it's only a short distance to fascism, as fear of the other becomes a bonding instrument and a rallying point.
If we lie down on a blanket under a summer sky and relax with our eyes on the clouds, in a short time, the clouds will appear to begin forming images of all sorts of things from animals and objects to faces of particular individuals. But these objects are not in the clouds. These are images in our heads, put there by experience. What we don't see and can't see in the clouds comprises all of the vast things in the world that we don't know about. When we compare what we know with what we haven't yet learned, the difference is so vast and so overwhelming in size and scope that declarations about our belonging to the most important group of people on the planet seem like blasphemy.
By the time we reach adulthood we have internalized a mountain of assumptions about things we've never seriously looked into in depth. Our brains, however, looking out for our well-being as they do, take these experiences as precise representations of reality. This is the reason Postman wondered why learning to ask questions is not one of the main focuses of education. To him it was unthinkable that we are taught by people suffering from the same malady we have, people who’ve never critically questioned their own assumptions. One of life's greatest lessons is that upon close examination things often turn out to be not as they first appeared. What could be more disturbing than to discover that your life's goals and ambitions are the result of an ideology about which you remain unaware?   
Once again, ask yourself the headline questions. By now your answers may be obvious. If they aren't, or if there is any doubt in your mind, then you have the criteria for more questions. If you determine that your ideas have you, it can be an enthralling experience to loosen their grip.
KINDLE Books and EBooks on Amazon:
September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life

Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher

The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning
Beyond the American Dream: Lifelong Learning and the Search for Meaning in
Proving You're Qualified: Strategies for Competent People Without College Degrees
Training Yourself: The 21st Century Credential
Self-University: The Price of Tuition is the Desire to Learn. Your Degree is a Better Life
Portals in a Northern Sky: A Novel
A Novella
Alaska Short Fiction Series for Kindle

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

When Ideology Turns Toxic

© Charles D. Hayes
When I first discovered the academic theory of ideological amplification a few years ago, I was intrigued, and I am still. The subject is not only fascinating, but failure to understand it thoroughly is politically hazardous. Ideological amplification is something we recognize intuitively at an unconscious level, but it's not something most of us are aware of intellectually, unless it has been brought to our attention. We may hear of it, for instance, as a subject of study in academia or when it plays itself out in public theatre for all to see. Those of us who grew up watching TV westerns can recall the frequent gatherings of small-town citizens at their local sheriff's jail, where grumbled opinions and heated remarks escalated to the point of deciding to hang someone.   
Ideological amplification is simply the psychological behavior that occurs when people with similar views get together and subsequently push their views to a further extreme. It happens as an often unconscious way of unifying and solidifying the group. Together they move to excessive positions that none of them individually would likely have reached on their own. For example, liberals will tend to move ideologically further left and conservatives further right when they’re in a group. It’s one thing, however, when a harmonious group of like-minded individuals get together, but quite another when it involves a competition to prove one's ideological commitment is greater than that of the competitors.               
This year's GOP presidential primary offered a center-stage example of ideological amplification, and the result has brought the Republican Party close to alienating a significant number of its moderate supporters. Make no mistake, each of the individuals seeking the nomination for president this year has had his own group of rock-solid supporters. But to a skeptical electorate, the ever-increasing attempts to out-conservative one another have, for the last four men who participated in this year's GOP primary contest, succeeded in making Ron Paul look like a crackpot; Rick Santorum, a religious fanatic; Newt Gingrich, a borderline psychopath; and Mitt Romney an indecisive narcissist who appears willing to do or say anything to become president.
When you factor in Rush Limbaugh, with his trademark misogyny, the Republican Party has entered dangerous demographic territory with regard to gender politics, if current polls are accurate. What the candidates couldn't accomplish with ratcheting up their conservatism to a fever pitch mania, Limbaugh has achieved just by being his usual hate-filled self. After all, upping emotional angst through thinly veiled contempt and outright hatred is what has made him a multimillionaire. 
Between now and November, the most interesting thing to come out of politics is going to be watching the GOP dig their way out of the mess they've made and try to sound like reasonable human beings to those of us who do not share their ideology. That there is a great ideological chasm between our two major political parties today is blatantly obvious, but it is still possible to disagree about politics without viewing one's opposition as the incarnation evil. That is, unless either side amplifies their position past the point of contempt for their opposition.          
Regardless of where we register on the political horizon, moving too far in either direction will land us in the camp that we originally set out to oppose. Moving too far left or right can land one in fascist territory, as left becomes right and right becomes left in extremes. A viable democracy requires a left, right, and center with the input of each and the exclusion of none. The lesson to be learned from ideological amplification is to always be aware of its power and to guard against letting it push us to extremes.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, our second and third presidents respectively, were political rivals, but they corresponded for a half-century in a dialog to further their ideas about what was best for America. In 1813, Adams wrote to Jefferson saying that they should not die before explaining themselves to one another. Both Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after American Independence. Too bad we can’t ask them about the danger of ratcheting up one's rhetoric to the point of diminishing returns. But their actions leave little doubt about the need for explaining ourselves without shouting or continuously upping the levels of hostility.
Ideological amplification in politics is analogous to conflict-ridden emotion on steroids: the only purpose served is to move each side further and further apart. People who understand this human frailty can overcome it, but it means caring more about solutions to problems than which side is offering them. Genuine democracy requires getting beyond ideology.   

Books and KINDLE EBooks on Amazon:
A Novella

Alaska Short Fiction Series for Kindle
KINDLE Essays on Amazon:
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Portals in a Northern Sky: A Novel
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