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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