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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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Why ‘Anyone But HER’ Seems So Obvious to So Many

© Charles D. Hayes
In the presidential election underway, do not make the mistake of assuming anything other than different standards apply when it comes to gender. The eons of our existence have resulted in hierarchal assumptions so deeply imbedded and ingrained in all human cultures that many prevailing prejudices are harder to distinguish and comprehend than what fish might have to experience in order to perceive the nature of water. I’m referring to the social malignancy we know as misogyny—the fear, disdain, or outright hatred of women and all things feminine.

In A Brief History of Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, a book finished in 2004 just before its author passed away, Jack Holland wrote,

“What history teaches us about misogyny can be summed up in four words: pervasive, persistent, pernicious and protean. Long before men invented the wheel, they invented misogyny, and today, as our wheels roll over the plains of Mars, that earlier invention still blights lives. No other prejudice has proven so durable or shares those other characteristics to anything like the same extent. No race has suffered such prejudicial treatment over so long a period of time; no group of individuals, however they might be characterized, has been discriminated against on such a global scale. Nor has any prejudice manifested itself under so many different guises, appearing sometimes with the sanction of society at the level of social and political discrimination, and at other times emerging in the tormented mind of a psychopath with no sanction other than that of his own hate-filled fantasies.”

Indeed, until you examine the subject of misogyny at the bedrock level, it’s simply not possible to understand how modern society is still so viscerally dysfunctional with regard to gender. The tentacles and roots of misogyny live in the bone marrow of our species. They are so deeply buried beneath written history that we take many of their assumptions as straight-up reality. It’s as if the world was created in a cultural temperament so entrenched with a smoldering strain of scorn that it need not be discussed, ever, because it simply represents the way things are, the way they were meant to be, the way things must be. That the gender that is physically weaker would bear an unrelenting burden of submissiveness seems like a no-brainer, based on what we know about primate behavior.

For thousands of years, men had the right to kill their wives and daughters, and in some cultures this practice continues. In ancient Greece and Rome, from the days of Plato and Aristotle, through the origins of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, through the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment, right up to today, misogyny lives and breathes as if its ubiquity is a self-evident necessity for the survival of our kind. The Christian Bible is a manual for misogynous tradition, and even the teachings of Buddhism, thought to be the pinnacle of egalitarianism, assume a hierarchy of gender with a measure of male superiority.

Millions of the females of our species have been raped, bludgeoned, executed, and murdered at the level of emotional whim, all under a banner of righteousness. In the Middle Ages, clergy put women on a pedestal and then condemned them to Hell, burning alive at the stake untold thousands suspected of being witches.

The inanity of Original Sin, via the temptation of Eve and her alleged fall in the Garden of Eden, served then and now as a virtuous demerit for women in the same manner that Jews are stigmatized for having been the accused persecutors of Christ. If you think the pernicious fallout of such medieval thinking is not still present in modernity, you can’t be paying attention.

The notion in Christianity that only a virgin was worthy of giving birth to the son of God has ramifications about the behavior of women that are incalculable when it comes to the negative judgments that follow for simply being a female.  In keeping with this ethos, women have been and are held to standards that do not apply to men. A man who is aggressive and ambitious is seen as a leader; a woman with the same attributes, a bitch or a shrew. A man who is promiscuous is a ladies’ man or a stud; a woman, a slut or a whore.

In some Middle Eastern cultures, women are so subordinate to men that even if they are raped by strangers, they assume the guilt for the offense. If their behavior is deemed dishonorable to their male relatives, they may be put to death. And we needn’t even broach the subject of the way women are still treated in Saudi Arabia.

In America, women have had the right to vote for less than a century. A woman was elected to Congress for the first time exactly one hundred years ago, and to the Senate in 1932. For most of our species’ existence on the planet, women have been regarded as little more than property. Today the residue of this tradition still applies. Women maintain the right to reject consent to sexual relations, but many people have been taught to assume women lose the right over their own bodies in matters concerning abortion.

Readily available contraceptives have resulted in some patriarchal convulsions because the autonomy they allow women is a threat to men’s powers of forced submission. The very idea that women might engage in sexual relations for sheer pleasure, as men have from the beginning, fractures the social hierarchy. Genuine gender equality is truly frightening to misogynists.

Gloria Steinem nailed it when she said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” The right to control one’s own body has always been an ongoing battle for women. For centuries, in myriad cultures, the actions of women were taken as a reflection of the honor of the men in the family, which led to the assumption that women’s behavior is men’s business; for men to be associated with anything feminine would emasculating. Suggesting that the gender pay gap is anything but deep-seated misogyny is purposeful disingenuousness.

Senator Marco Rubio says he disagrees with Hillary Clinton about “everything,” which has a high-pitched misogynous ring to it. The often-heard declaration that anyone would be better as president than Hillary Clinton is so steeped in the ethos of misogyny that to deny this reality is blatantly hypocritical. It’s equivalent to saying anyone would better than a neurosurgeon to operate on your brain.

When you ask people precisely why electing Hillary would be a disaster, most will simply spit and sputter about her being dishonest. After all, regardless of the issue or its importance, her opponents always declare she is lying. In contrast, the other candidate’s truth telling is off the charts in the number of pants-on-fire acknowledgments by organizations devoted to accuracy in media. His ignorance about every subject that really matters is mindboggling.

A candidate who uses bigotry and racism to rally support, and who is supported by people who choose to ignore his record of business failures, outright fraud, and serial bankruptcies that left scores of small businesses in dire straits, has only one thing going for him in the eyes of many. Namely, he is not a woman. He’s an aspirant for the presidency that I’m confident time will reveal as being to politics what Bernie Madoff is to finance.

Millions of dollars have been spent to discredit Hillary Clinton. For those easy to influence it appears to have been money well spent, because when they speak up, they do so with talking-point clich├ęs drawn straight from the media. Call anyone a liar for twenty-five years, spend vast sums of money on investigations, and that person’s reputation will take a hit, even if ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

Hillary Clinton is a flawed individual, as all of us are. She has made mistakes, as all of us have. She will make mistakes in the future, as all of us will. But, gender aside, she is by orders of magnitude a better candidate for president of the United States than Donald J. Trump.

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Life as a Dance with Reality

© Charles D. Hayes

If a sense of objective reality (as best as we human beings can discern it) represented the True North of life experience, where do you suppose a compass would show your location to be in relation to True North? How far away would you be from being as close as you could get, that is, if you were to try with all of your might to discover it?
Imagine having a cell phone app that would give your position on a given subject with respect to True North and tell you how much of what you believe about life is yet unproven and how much is objectively grounded. If, before we could leave our homes, each of us had to nail down what we know and believe based on hard evidence as opposed to arbitrary claims, most of us would never be seen in public again. The gap between what we think we know and what we can prove is so large that just acknowledging the reality gap is troubling.
Of course, it is entirely in our nature to accept what we see when we look out on the world as straight-up reality, but if we have learned anything at all about human behavior during the past century we know for certain that nothing could be further from the truth. We are neurologically rigged for misperception, self-deception, and false attribution. That, more often than not, things are not as they appear is one of life’s most underappreciated great lessons.
According to philosopher Daniel Dennett, there are two fundamental types of argument for making a case about something said to be true: skyhooks and cranes. A crane argument is simply one that offers supporting evidence; it’s like logical scaffolding that says A is true because B and C show that this is the case. A skyhook argument, on the other hand, as the name implies, exists simply because someone deems it so. Now, it’s really disturbing when you fully realize how many skyhook arguments we accept without question and go about living our lives as if these things were true.
Our courts are intended as institutional efforts to find True North. Our jury system is predicated on an ability to discern cranes from skyhooks, although juries sometimes fail outright, while attorneys attempt to disguise skyhooks as cranes. But when a court is functioning as intended, skyhook arguments are thrown out as hearsay.
Popular culture is a collective bubble of skyhook assumptions with little interest in, or tolerance for, cranes. Popular beliefs are widespread, not because they are true, but because they are popular. Politics is mostly skyhook rhetoric spun to appear as cranes.
Inevitably there are many things we have to take on faith because there are times when even science has to create cranes that rest on skyhook assumptions. For example, we know enough about the sun to justify our faith that it will shine tomorrow and the day after, but we are a long way from an ability to completely describe our very own star in terms of slam-dunk cranes without some guesswork.
I hope it will not come as a shock to most people that all religions are held in place by skyhooks. That’s why the term faith can be a deal-breaker for some, and it is why, to a significant degree, religious belief has resulted in reality wars in order to claim ownership of the truth.
To put this whole situation in perspective one has to marvel at the amount of time we human beings spend arguing over things that we literally haven’t the first clue about. Still we will fight and even go to war over skyhook beliefs.
Politically everyone I know, left, right, or center, wants pretty much the same thing—a free and just society with equal opportunity, where hard work is rewarded, and a system that is not rigged by the government, big business, or special interests of any stripe. And yet our culture of social media has so dramatically upped the tempo of our illusionary dance with reality that skyhook music is getting louder and louder, while groups are polarizing and huddling with likeminded dancers in opposing corners of the ballroom.
If you don’t believe your dance with reality is a casual and pretty much thoughtless waltz, then just ask yourself what argument you’ve had with someone lately where you’ve studied the subject to the core, eliminated all of the skyhooks at play, and used only cranes to substantiate your position.
My point is that all of the many problems we face in America today—poverty, global warming, income inequality, political corruption, crime, and drug abuse—can only be solved with reasonable positions based on factual data, with crane arguments, supportable all the way down to bedrock. Some things work and some don’t. It doesn’t take rocket scientists to figure out what does work, but we do have to dispense with all skyhook assumptions.
I’m reminded that the only reliable way to achieve a more just and equitable society, is for more and more of us to care more about solving problems than about whose side wins the argument. To make this happen requires that we slow our dance with reality and stop exchanging skyhook opinions. We need to do the homework required to address the problems we confront and get down to comparing cranes in search of the better argument.  

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How Free Are We Really?

© Charles D. Hayes

Have you ever wondered how the concept of freedom has evolved? Try to imagine what freedom meant to the immigrants in the seventeenth century who indentured themselves to five or more years of hard labor to pay for their passage to America. Then compare that frame of mind to the outlook of the slaves brought here from Africa in chains.

Imagine longing to fulfill an indentured servitude contract to secure your independence. Try to assume the mindset of those who would never live as free men and women, and then consider the expectations of slaves once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, even as the Civil War raged on. 

Our perception of the independence that individuals possess has changed, especially when we compare the way we live today with the times when most people lived off the land and on small farms. Home mortgages, credit cards, student loans, and a business climate driven by shifting technology and payment plans have had a profound influence on our concept of freedom. Many of us willingly indenture ourselves to a lifetime of debt. We adopt the subordinate, submissive, and silent civil behavior that’s so often required to stay employed.  

Today we accept high levels of consumer debt as normal, while perpetuating an economic system known for its creative destruction. Our opportunities as citizens have increased dramatically, while our ability to speak truth to power without risking great loss has suffered. We have, in effect, fashioned a nearly perfect environment for the creation of yes men and women, and yet we wonder why we have so much corruption in business and government.

Increasingly employees witness wrongdoing but can’t afford to report it for fear of losing their jobs and, in some cases, everything they own. Our economy rests on a pyramid of oppressive authoritative control, and those in power have legislated easy rigging into law. This is not to say that legitimate sources of authority aren’t necessary for our very existence, but much of the citizen-level independence necessary to safeguard democracy has been squelched, if not barred, by law.

There was a time when most people lived off the land and very few people worked for wages. Their level of independence and their ability to object to malfeasance without losing everything is hard to fully appreciate today. I raise this subject because many of our fellow citizens in this country brag incessantly about how we are the freest country in the world. But I often wonder if this shrill rhetoric isn’t a result of their own nagging doubt. If you don’t believe the pressure to toe the line is intense, just take a hard look at the lives of whistle blowers after they have nobly followed their conscience.

I spent many years working for major oil companies on Alaska’s North Slope. We had a saying up there that by spending years away from home we were being held in place by golden handcuffs. We did this fully acknowledging that we also felt very lucky to have jobs that paid so well, but I used to secretly wish the oil reservoir would dry up so I would have no choice but to quit.

When we compare ourselves as Americans to the other developed countries that have much more socialistic forms of government, like Denmark and Sweden, we see that their citizens exercise more lifestyle alternatives without penalty than we do in America. Could it be that our own political dysfunction has something to do with the existential angst we endure because we champion freedom in theory but not so much in concrete experience?

I suspect it’s mostly this subconscious anxiety that contributes to the emotional vitriol driving our political divide. People who are constantly in fear of losing their job, home, and livelihood because of sought-after innovations that increase productivity while simultaneously leading to higher and higher levels of unemployment tend to be hypersensitive about anyone they suspect is getting a free ride. This anxiety serves as the perfect political tool for generating public expressions of contempt—something demagogues can depend on for inflaming public resentment ahead of elections.  

In an earlier essay, I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was adamant that labor should maintain a higher premium of value than capital. Lincoln was understandably sensitive about the subject of servitude, and he was dismayed at the thought of people working for wages for a long period of time without being able to free themselves from what he saw as a deeply flawed arrangement. I wonder what he would say about today’s working poor, whose figurative handcuffs are the metaphorical equivalent of barbed wire.  

We still aspire to an ethos of self-reliance and rugged individualism espoused by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson at a time when we were poorer in purse but much more independent. It’s not so easy now to build a cabin in the woods and live off the land in the manner of Thoreau. In fact, things have changed so much that it’s the people who live off the land in rural America who today are most fearful about their economic future.

Clearly hard work, self-reliance, and the ability to take care of oneself and one’s family are just as important today as at any time in the past. But we need to mend the fence, so to speak, to make up for the fact that our society is increasingly vulnerable to arbitrary economic whims and rapidly changing technology. We need to address the reality that a very small percentage of people in our country have accrued the power to indenture most of the rest of us to varying levels of required servitude, often with little room for negotiating our compensation.

Today capital not only trumps the value of labor, it adds insult to injury by capturing most of the income from labor’s rising productivity as effectively as a new Dyson vacuum cleaner scarfs up lint from a bare floor. That a large percentage of our population believes right-to-work laws are anything more at their philosophical core than the right to pay low wages shows the effectiveness of the power of ideological indoctrination.    

We now find ourselves in an economy where six heirs of the Walmart fortune have the wealth equivalent of the bottom forty percent of our population, and yet we subsidize some of Walmart’s employees with government programs. In my view, this is sheer madness and it’s only one egregious example of our growing inequality. There are too many to list.  

Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms—freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear—were, in my view, worthy goals in 1941. They are even more pressing today because our aspirations for democracy have been overwritten by plutocracy.

Call our current economic system the greatest exercise of freedom in the world if you want, but in my book, it’s just a fabricated illusion in serious need of redress. I believe Abraham Lincoln would think we have lost our minds and most assuredly our voices.

My point is that we need to be civically thoughtful when we use the word freedom. History clearly shows that growing inequality results in conflict that can lead to violence. We know that to experience and maintain real freedom requires constant vigilance. Without a thoughtful and responsible public, our freedom is easier lost than gained.
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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Threatened Worldviews and Extremism

© Charles D. Hayes

In 1990, Walter Truett Anderson published Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-To-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. The subtitle is discerning. Anderson’s stunning observations offered cultural insight into the new century we were fast approaching in the same way Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had been prescient twenty years earlier.

The 1990s saw the term postmodernism bantered about by people whose trouble defining it was crucial to its meaning. For many well-educated people postmodernism seemed to rest on casting doubt on the ability to know anything with any degree of certainty.

Postmodernists pointed out that language itself evolves from a foundation based on arbitrary assumptions. The notion resembled eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s proposition that we do not experience things in themselves but only as representations of themselves dependent upon the frailties of our cerebral architecture. The result of such thinking did little but escalate pretense on one side of the argument and contempt on the other.     

Now, in a recent article titled “Despair, American Style” in The New York Times, Paul Krugman has written about the angst of white people and their difficulty in coping with life today amid the turmoil of growing cultural diversity and economic uncertainty. He quotes a source who suggests some Americans are suffering from a loss of narrative in keeping with their sense of reality. Hold this thought. 

A half-century ago, Richard Hofstadter published his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In it he said, “At an early date, literature and learning were stigmatized as the prerogative of useless aristocracies.” But disruptive ideas were all the rage in the 1960s, prompting Hofstadter to declare in 1964 that we had reached a point where “anti-intellectualism could be discussed without exaggerated partisanship.”

Come forward to the present, and Hofstadter’s assertion sounds absurd. Anti-intellectualism is now thriving in exaggerated partisanship. What went wrong? The answer in a nutshell is this: People today are experiencing future shock from the unsettling notion that reality bears little relation to the narrative that most of us internalized growing up.

We know now that our brains don’t work as we’ve always believed they do. Rather, we are rigged for self-deception, seeing what we want to see, and we are born masters when it comes to easily tuning out or shielding ourselves from contrary information. And all the while, our beliefs are setting up like concrete.

Cultures serve as shelters from reality. Some people adopt worldviews very much like read-only software, often internalizing a creed so rigidly that they do not hear, see, or even acknowledge contrary views as having any legitimacy whatsoever. As a result, a significant number of people seek the refuge of echo chambers and block out all contrary opinion.

Cultures also serve as ideological pressure cookers for the formation of beliefs. We are only a few generations beyond a time when many Americans were determined to fight to the death in support of slavery. Our cultural traditions remain so deeply rooted and so tenaciously entrenched that a residue of racial prejudice from the Civil War is still with us.

In many ways the profuse ideas of the 1960s represented a backlash to an overly conformist and authoritarian culture. In the two decades that followed, a strong sea of resentment for secularism and tolerant ideas led to an increase in opposition and to the growth of traditional enclaves and think tanks based on religion and traditionalist ideology. Take this smoldering anxiety globally, and the antics of terrorists begin to make sense.    

It’s hard to get an objective sense of the cultural differences among the peoples of the world. In America, most of us grow up with an unrelenting emphasis on and about the ethos of individualism. This attitude shapes our worldview and the way we relate to other people.

But consider the ideas we Americans have about family and morality, and then contrast these feelings with those of cultures where the custom of honor killing is currently practiced. The moral gap here is so profound and so wide that people on either side of this issue cannot fully comprehend the point of view of the other.

Incidents of clashing social customs and values are increasing today as never before, and the future offers no letup. We’re experiencing lives mediated by technologies that border on magic. Society is both ripping apart and coming together at the same time, causing many people to be driven by fear and a thirst for security.

Alvin Toffler asserted that there are limits to the amount of change we can endure without psychological injury. He echoed William James’ observation that “lives based on having are less free than lives based on doing or on being.” The threat of losing one’s affluence is bewildering, especially when it happens as technology actually increases one’s life choices in superficial ways with new gadgets one can acquire on the way to lower and lower rungs on the economic ladder.

When worldviews unravel, so does the psyche of individuals. In some cases, the angst generated festers and results in conflict that leads to violence among people whose worldviews allow no room for contrary opinion. Although psychologist Steven Pinker has offered compelling evidence that violence globally is actually diminishing, our media’s focus on if it bleeds it leads makes this observation seem hard to believe.   

My point is that we have reached uncharted territory. Our species has always had individuals who see the same things and reach different conclusions, and for centuries our political divide has been sharp or even hostile. As Walter Truett Anderson once observed, the fundamentalists fear the loss of faith while freethinking liberals dread surrender to those who promise certainty.

In today’s world, communication technology is effectively retribalizing the world at a pace we aren’t prepared to deal with. Echo chambers serve as obstacles for finding common ground and as battle stations on stand-by to detect cultural insults and acts of disrespect.

The more contentious the ideological divide between academics and average citizens, the more attractive an anti-intellectual worldview becomes to some. As the rate of change skyrockets, the felt need to seek simplistic solutions and the shelter of consensus increases. At the same time, technology is rapidly fueling the power of radicals to retaliate against society at large.

In short, everything that can happen is happening, only faster, while the disconnect between perception and reality gets bigger. As a result of this chaos, groups seek refuge in associations tenuously held together by ancient customs and supernatural beliefs. Out of desperation more and more of their members assume that those who disagree with them are evil and double down on their convictions when challenged. Moreover, when a culture’s sacred beliefs seem so bizarre that outsiders view them as preposterous, the passion required to defend them is likely to be fierce.

Barring a natural disaster or global catastrophe, the speed of change is not going to let up. Neither is seething cultural conflict as worldviews collide and insecure individuals and groups resist, believing themselves to be facing mortal threats by the mere existence of those who disagree with them about the nature of reality. People who express angst because they believe their symbols and icons are being disrespected are but the first signs of shattering worldviews. ISIS represents the extreme.

It is in the nature of human tribalism to assume one’s culture represents the pinnacle of humanity. When you find out what each culture believes is sacred, you expose a hypersensitive nerve that, when pinched, prompts fear, anxiety, and acts of irrationality. When handled with tact, that nerve holds a key to the radicalization of a group’s members.  

If we are going to defuse some individuals and groups of their fear and achieve a more peaceful society with fewer acts of terrorism, we need to focus on strategies to help people cope with disorder without feeling that the escalating change in the world is a personal attack on their identity and thus their very existence.

If we put a lot of thought into this enterprise, we could call it education with the caveat that the way it is presented may be as important as its content. Education has never been more essential because ideas are the only way to dismantle ideologies. People who are incapable of creating their own narrative without the need for hatred as the cultural adhesive to hold their respective associations together are easy candidates for those who seek to recruit fanatics.

There is one clear and profound point to be made here which we ignore it at our peril: Violence begets violence, and if we have any hope of stamping out terrorism, it won’t be with bullets.
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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Gun Safety: Common Sense, Not Politics

© Charles D. Hayes   

I’ve been a gun owner since I got a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas in 1948 at age five. I still have it. My grandfather laid out all of the ways in which the use of guns required common sense. Since then I’ve served in the Marine Corps and as a police officer.

In February of 2015 I caught a burglar in my home and held him at gunpoint until a state trooper arrived. The burglar pointed a pistol at me. I had a shotgun and convinced him to drop his. He was a second or two away from dying before he put the gun down. In all of my years with firearms I’ve never shot anyone accidently or on purpose.

The current social uproar over gun rights is endemic of the overall political divide facing the country. Common sense has been abandoned strictly on identity based political grounds. In other words, this is not an example of reasoning, it’s a manner of relating as in my group has a stake in this, so we must win at all costs. Not to be confused by facts.

The irony in the rhetoric is breathtaking. Surely a Christian God would deem it a moral blasphemy and an outrage to forbid women and children refuges shelter from possible physical harm on the chance that some might someday pose a terrorist threat, but then cry foul by asking that those purchasing a firearm must be checked against a no-fly terrorist list. Think about the utter insanity of such a dogmatic position as it exposes levels of hypocrisy that are off the charts of any objective standard of human decency, religious morality aside.

Taking the position that no laws are effective in keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and that more people having guns is a deterrent to violence is a complete abandonment of common sense. And don’t offer me a quote from John R. Lott Jr’s book More Guns Less Crime because his data has been thoroughly debunked and discredited.

Think hard about what the politicization of gun safety has done to pervert logic. The more people swim, the fewer drownings, the more people drive, the fewer the accidents, and the more children there are who play with matches, the fewer the burns. The more marriages, the fewer the divorces. The more people with guns, the fewer the shootings. This is insanity on steroids and it has no business being a political issue.

We require driver’s licenses to keep bad drivers off the road and it is ludicrous not to take reasonable measures to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics. Granted not having a valid driver’s license doesn’t stop some offenders from driving, but it does deter enough to make a statistical difference in traffic fatalities due to DUIs.

From my experience, there is a grain of truth in the notion that a person is less likely to pull out a handgun and start shooting people if they believe there is a good chance they will themselves be shot. But this pales in comparison to the likelihood that if more people are armed that minor conflicts will result in an increase in the use of firearms and you only have to witness a few examples of road rage to fully appreciate this reality.

I understand and I sympathize with those who have affection for firearms, but take a walk through your town or visit your local Walmart and tell me you think it would be a good idea that everyone you meet should be armed, some of whom you must admit are not capable of playing with a full deck.

My point is that common sense gun regulations have been made nearly impossible for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the reality of public safety, but everything to do with partisan politics, as if us vs. them is the only thing that matters and that if “they win we lose.” Moreover, this divisiveness is purposefully spurred on by the firearms industry, the very people who profit from the paranoia. No wonder there is an ammunition shortage nationwide.

Arguing that common sense firearms regulations have no positive effect at all on human behavior is patently absurd and the only basis to deny the statistical evidence that regulations do have a positive effect is political posturing that’s completely out of touch with reality. An extrapolation of such ideology would suggest that because some people are lawbreakers we don’t need any laws at all about anything because after all, some people won’t obey. This is nonsense!

Our nation is founded on the premise that most people are law abiding citizens which most people are and this is why it is possible to have a government and a civil society in the first place. Gun safety requires a slug of sanity and some double barreled reasoning with politics set aside.
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