The American Impasse

Here we are, rolling to the end of another year, about to elect another President.  Very likely the Democratic nominee will be elected, and yet barring divine intervention we’ll be stuck with a Republican majority in the House.  (Right now it appears the Senate could go either way.) So there is still obstruction ahead as far as the eye can see.

Our basic problem, as I see it, boils down to this: There’s a portion of the American population that is prepared, intellectually and emotionally, for the United States to adjust to the 21st century. This portion accepts the U.S. as a multicultural and multi-ethnic nation. It understands the U.S. is one nation among many on this planet, and that our future security and prosperity require friendship and co-operation among nations, for our mutual benefit. It sees government as a means to carry forward the will of we, the people; to secure the rights of citizens; and to be sure that everybody gets a “square deal,” as Theodore Roosevelt promised about 112 years ago.

And then there’s the portion that wants to crawl inside a 1950s-era Disney movie about America and patriotism and never come out. You remember those. In that world, nearly everybody was white. Men were in charge and women were happy to let them be in charge. The few blacks were poor but cheerfully docile, and Native Americans were remote characters who dutifully fell out of trees whenever a white man shot a rifle. You’d think they would have learned to stay out of trees.

There also are a lot of people in neither of those portions. I think a big chunk of the electorate probably knows that Donald Trump is ridiculous and really don’t want to bomb Iran, but they tacitly accept much of the “wisdom” of the Right because that’s all they ever hear — taxes must always be cut, government spending is always bad, and all Middle Easterners are dangerous. They probably don’t accept progressivism, but it’s also the case that it’s probably never been explained to them.

So here we are, this big, strong, wealthy and allegedly dominant nation, and we can’t so much as fix our own bridges. We’re stuck between moving forward as a modern representative democracy or morphing into some kind of authoritarian state run by a cabal of mega-billionaires. If the latter vision wins, the (white) masses will be placated by visions of Fess Parker and his spunky militia protecting the homestead against scary foreign things. Everybody else will be disenfranchised.

A couple of weeks ago,  Rebecca Traister wrote that we’re all suffering through the death throes of while male power.

This moment, this election, these years represent the death throes of exclusive white male power in the United States. That the snarling fury and violence are contemporary does not make them less real than the terrors of previous periods; it makes them more real, at least to those of us living through them. And the presidential-primary contest, while absurdist and theatrical, is reflecting very real fury and violence in the non-electoral world: the burning of crosses and black churches, the execution of black men by police, the resistance of male soldiers to women in elite combat positions, a white man with a history of violence against women himself a “warrior for the babies” after killing people at a Planned Parenthood clinic, and a younger white man killing nine black churchgoers with the explanation “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country.”

The political contest just projects these panicked resentments on a bigger, more official screen. The public spectacle of this presidential election, and the two that have preceded it, are inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered anger and violence we see around us. Recall that Trump’s rise in politics began with his attacks on Barack Obama as foreign, as Muslim, as other. And that the tea party whence Ted Cruz springs has concerned itself mostly — official protestations about economic priorities to the contrary — with shutting down reproductive-health options for women. That is, when they are not trying to shut down the political ambitions of Hillary Clinton at any cost (see Trey Gowdy’s wild-eyed, profligate, and fruitless Benghazi investigation).

Increasingly, Republican voters want just one thing: revenge. Read what Frank Lutz says about pro-Trump focus groups:

I spent three hours in a deep dialogue focus group with 29 Trump supporters. The phenomenon of “The Donald” is rooted in a psyche far deeper and more consequential than next November’s presidential election. His support denotes an abiding distrust in — and disrespect for — the governing elite. These individuals do not like being told by Washington or Wall Street what is best for them, do not like the direction America is headed in, and disdain President Barack Obama and his (perceived) circle of self-righteous, tone-deaf governing partisans.

Trump voters are not just angry — they want revenge.

Mr Trump has adroitly filled the vacuum of vitriol, establishing himself as the bold, brash, take-no-prisoners megaphone for the frustrated masses. They see him as the antidote to all that Mr Obama has made wrong with America. So to understand why millions love Mr Trump so much, you have to take a step back and listen to why they hate Mr Obama so much.

Here, my Trump voter focus group was particularly illuminating. Some still believe the president is not Christian. Many believe he does not love America. And just about all of them think he does not reflect the values the country was built upon. Indeed, within this growing faction, Mr Trump has license to say just about anything. As we have seen repeatedly, the more outrageous the accusation, the more receptive the ear.

Mr Trump delights in unleashing harsh attacks on Jeb Bush, the Republican establishment and the “mainstream media”. His childlike joy in ridiculing his critics is tantamount to healing balm for the millions who have felt silenced, ignored and even scorned by the governing and media elite for so long. Is it any wonder that his declaration of war against “political correctness” is his most potent and predictable applause line?

This of course begs the question — what, exactly, has President Obama “made wrong with America”?  Other than being POTUS while black? Do they even know?

The fact that they hate “political correctness” above all things tells me that nothing matters to them more than the freedom to be openly bigoted without being stigmatized for it.

Tom Gogola writes that America really wasn’t ready for a black president.

If hope and change were the Obama buzzwords in 2009, the lesson of 2015 is that a bunch of overstimulated, hopelessly right-wing pseudo statesmen haven’t changed, grown up, dropped the sub rosa race-bait narrative—even as Obama delivered on his fair share of what he promised way back when.

Don’t ask me why Obama’s race is still an issue; ask Lou Dobbs. The immigrant-bashing news anchor blabbed to the Fox masses about how Obama only became president because he played the “race card,” a curiously timed outburst given that Dobbs made it just two weeks ago.

See the rock-solid belief in the minds of true bigots — black people get things handed to them they don’t deserve, at the expense of white people. They even somehow get elected POTUS when they don’t deserve it.

The Trump supporters feel their “values” are being threatened. And, of course, we know what those values are. They value maintaining social and cultural dominance as a birthright. They deserve to dominate because they are white. Being male and overtly Christian also count.

I could go on. Of course,there’s always been a disconnect between the ideal America and the “real” America. We see ourselves as the “good guys” who stand for freedom and compassion. And, y’know, every now and then, we have been. But there’s also always been bigotry and discrimination, sometimes to the point of violence. We’re a nation of mutts uneasily tied together by a Constitution that we all honor, even if we disagree over what it means.  And right now I have no idea where we are heading.

See also: Nate Cohn, Donald Trump’s Strongest Supporters: A Certain Kind of Democrat; Nancy LeTourneau, Republicans Want Revenge and A World View in Its Death Throes.

This Is Murica

I didn’t even realize there was a mass shooting in Knoxville on Friday until I read about a young man who was shot in the head while shielding three young women. It’s so hard to keep up.

In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the siege of Miami. Or the drowning of Miami, as it were.

To cope with its recurrent flooding, Miami Beach has already spent something like a hundred million dollars. It is planning on spending several hundred million more. Such efforts are, in Wanless’s view, so much money down the drain. Sooner or later—and probably sooner—the city will have too much water to deal with. Even before that happens, Wanless believes, insurers will stop selling policies on the luxury condos that line Biscayne Bay. Banks will stop writing mortgages.

“If we don’t plan for this,” he told me, once we were in the car again, driving toward the Fontainebleau hotel, “these are the new Okies.” I tried to imagine Ma and Pa Joad heading north, their golf bags and espresso machine strapped to the Range Rover.

The situation is not helped by the fact that the state’s Republican government is in denial that this is happening. And the people whose property and neighborhoods are being flooded also are in denial, or just plain don’t understand what’s happening because no one is explaining it to them. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are working on ways to kill the Paris climate agreement.

The class acts at Red State are trying to make an issue of Hillary Clinton’s old lady kidneys. Just wait until your prostates enlarge, dudes.

There Is No Invisible Hand

This cartoon sums a lot up for me. I remember back in the 1980s when I was living in New Jersey and looking for a decent, affordable apartment for me and two little kids. Nobody was building affordable apartments. There was much building of McMansions, yes, but there there was a shortage of decent lower-rent apartments. And every day I passed a huge, newly built industrial/office complex that was completely empty. Months went past; it remained empty. There just wasn’t that much demand for office space, I guess, or else the builders miscalculated what people would be willing to pay in rent. And I understand there’s a glut of McMansions in the New Jersey real estate market these days.

See also “The Old Suburban Office Park Is the New American Ghost Town.”

Now, proponents of Free Market capitalism will probably argue that the Free Market was not at fault; it was bankers, or the Federal Reserve, or something else that caused investment in the wrong thing. But this assumes that the Free Market is a thing that exists out in the ether somewhere entirely separate from banks and financial policy, separate from land and labor, separate from money and infrastructure.

This was published about a year ago, and I’m sorry I didn’t notice it before.

Polanyi’s core thesis is that there is no such thing as a free market; there never has been, nor can there ever be. Indeed he calls the very idea of an economy independent of government and political institutions a “stark utopia”—utopian because it is unrealizable, and the effort to bring it into being is doomed to fail and will inevitably produce dystopian consequences. While markets are necessary for any functioning economy, Polanyi argues that the attempt to create a market society is fundamentally threatening to human society and the common good.  In the first instance the market is simply one of many different social institutions; the second represents the effort to subject not just real commodities (computers and widgets) to market principles but virtually all of what makes social life possible, including clean air and water, education, health care, personal, legal, and social security, and the right to earn a livelihood. When these public goods and social necessities (what Polanyi calls “fictitious commodities”) are treated as if they are commodities produced for sale on the market, rather than protected rights, our social world is endangered and major crises will ensue.

Free market doctrine aims to liberate the economy from government “interference”, but Polanyi challenges the very idea that markets and governments are separate and autonomous entities. Government action is not some kind of “interference” in the autonomous sphere of economic activity; there simply is no economy without government rules and institutions. It is not just that society depends on roads, schools, a justice system, and other public goods that only government can provide. It is that all of the key inputs into the economy—land, labor, and money—are only created and sustained through continuous government action. The employment system, the arrangements for buying and selling real estate, and the supplies of money and credit are organized and maintained through the exercise of government’s rules, regulations, and powers.

The article goes on to argue that what we all call “deregulation” is really “re-regulation.” “Government continues to regulate, but instead of acting to protect workers, consumers, and citizens, it devised new policies aimed to help giant corporate and financial institutions maximize their returns through revised anti-trust laws, seemingly bottomless bank bailouts, and increased impediments to unionization.”

Our “socialist” mayor, Bill de Blasio, has made the creation of decent low-income housing in NYC a priority, bless him. The city needs this desperately. The “free market” doesn’t provide low income housing here. NYC is a place in which, if you build it, rich people will come and pay ridiculous amounts of money for it. But that means the “free market” only caters to them. There are new high-rise apartment buildings going up all over the place in Brooklyn; rent for a basic one-bedroom unit averages about $2,800 a month, I understand.

The people who have made free market capitalism their religion are certain that as long as government doesn’t interfere, the Holy Free Market (blessed be It) will naturally provide whatever anyone needs. But in truth the Free Market doesn’t give a hoo-haw about what people need. The Free Market will dedicate infinite resources to filling even the frivolous desires of the wealthy; everyone else is just out of luck, sometimes even for life’s necessities.

The Free Market also is wasteful and destructive, depleting resources for short-term profit without thought to the future; using up materials and resources for buildings that sit empty and consumer products that end up in landfills after only two or three years of use. The Free Market refuses to maintain infrastructure, will not safely dispose of hazardous waste unless forced to, and will not clean up the ecosystems it destroys. The Free Market would rather kill coal miners than invest in safety precautions.

Because, you see, there is no “Free Market”; there is no benevolent “invisible hand” that turns individual self-interest into common good. There are just people scrambling to make as much money as they can, and as long as a portion of those people don’t care who they hurt in the process, the results often will not be benevolent at all.

Henry Ferrell — the same guy who wrote the article quoted above — today has a post at Washington Monthly about Very Serious People. He’s talking here about foreign policy, but it applies to economic policy as well.

  1. Everyone has a mix of beliefs, some of which are right, and some wrong.
  2. Everyone co-exists in a social system that tends to value, heavily reinforce and widely disseminate some people’s beliefs while disparaging, heavily discounting, and tending to limit the circulation of certain other people’s beliefs. This bias is not random, but instead reflects and reinforces existing power structures and asymmetries.
  3. People whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong, are Very Serious People. The system provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred, even when their mistakes have devastating consequences.

We’ve been fed this fantasy about “free markets” lo these many years, and the fantasy won’t die because the VSPs believe it. But from where I sit that fantasy is not just destroying lives; it’s destroying the planet.

Who Gets to Be Angry

Recent events have reminded me that our culture has strict rules about who gets to be angry.

There are social psychology papers going back many years showing us that men get to be angry when women do not. Here’s a news story about just one:


Citing earlier research, Uhlmann and Brescoll show that for reasons including deeply entrenched stereotypes, there is a real difference between men and women when it comes to expressing anger. Indeed, studies have established that men who express anger at work sometimes benefit from doing so, as co-workers subsequently perceive the mas more important, powerful, and independent. However, when women lose their cool, they do not benefit from such positive consequences


“People … view a man’s anger as a response to objective, external circumstances, but a woman’s  anger as a product of her personality,” say Uhlmann and Brescoll. “As a result, a professional woman’s anger may imply that she is not competent at dealing with workplace situations.”

This is also a bind for women in politics, of course. Awhile back Hillary Clinton was accused by Republicans of being “too angry” to be President (to which David Letterman said, “Did you hear what the Republicans have said about Hillary Clinton? They say she’s too angry to be president. Hillary Clinton, Senator Hillary Clinton, too angry to be president. When she heard this, Hillary said, ‘Oh yeah? I’ll rip your throats out, you bastards.'”) This is right up there with the complaint that she’s “ambitious.” Ambition is fine and noble in a man, but highly suspect in a woman. But the point is, all other things being equal, it’s okay for men to be angry, but when a woman is angry something must be wrong with her. The stereotype that women are “more emotional” has no basis in observable fact, but persists even in people who ought to know better.

I said “all other things being equal,” and those “all other things” are race, of course. All kinds of social psychology papers have been written about how anger is perceived in whites and blacks. Whites see anger in blacks as “threatening,” more so than anger observed in other whites. I googled “black anger” and got a lot of commentaries complaining that blacks are angry and scary. They shouldn’t be so angry. They should try anger management.

The stereotype of the angry black is so entrenched in white America that the Right seizes on any demonstration of emotion in our President and First Lady as proof of it. Michelle Obama cannot demonstrate even the mildest of pique in public without right-wing media going ballistic over the “proof” that she’s militant and angry. Barack Obama can no doubt credit his political success to his extraordinary discipline in not showing anger in public, because just one outburst would have ended his career. Even so, Mitt Romney tried to paint the President as an “angry black man.” Hey, he’s black; he’s gotta be angry. Right? See especially Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Fear of a Black President.”

The Key and Peele “anger translator” skits are partly spoofs of the President and partly spoofs of the culture that forces him into no-anger-allowed box. Hilariously, the “skit” performed at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner drew out the bigots like honey draws ants; see, for example, John Hinderaker  and Byron York, two men so soaked in racism they can’t see the joke has been on them, all along.

Give me an example of a white man, especially a prominent white man, being penalized for being angry. I can’t think of one. Women aren’t allowed to be angry. African-Americans aren’t allowed to be angry. Nobody ever wags fingers at white men to tell them they’re too angry. And it’s not because they aren’t. See, for example, Fox News.

It hasn’t been that long since “angry white men” were being touted as a powerful voting block. Remember the angry teabaggers who kept showing up at townhall meetings to yell about the Affordable Care Act? (And yes, these included some women; I propose the maha anger-gender corollary, that it’s okay for a woman to be angry when she’s standing next to a man angry about the same thing.)

And then there are our frequent mass shootings, nearly always perpetrated by white men. When a white man acts out violently, his actions are attributed to “mental illness” or other factors unique to him as an individual. Anyone else doing the same thing would be proof that his entire demographic group, whatever that is, is unhinged. However, people looking closely at the several White Male Perpetrators say that one thing they have in common is a sense of “aggrieved entitlement” that really is linked to their race and gender and how those factors are perceived in our culture (which is not to say that all white men are “angry”).

As with men in the workplace, anger in a white man often is perceived a virtue or strength, not a threat. Remember Carl Paladino? He was the angry white guy who won the New York Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010. He didn’t come close to beating Andrew Cuomo, but no Republican is going to win a statewide general election in New York. The thing with Paladino is that his entire sales pitch was that he was angry. That’s what got his primary win — he was angry.

It’s OK if you’re a white male Republican.

But then, back during the Bushie years the Right was always complaining about the angry left. Here’s a couple of old blog posts about that — “Speaking of Anger” and “Our Left Wing.” Here’s a snip from the latter:

Predictable reaction from rightie blogs: We’re cool and intellectual, and those lefties are unhinged. I was checking out reactions on one rightie blog, where I found this comment:

“I don’t recall there being a vocal Right that was calling for the public lynching of President Clinton.”

Sorta takes your breath away, doesn’t it? I couldn’t read any further. Enough of that.

And now we come to Baltimore. All sorts of people are clucking about the violence, and I don’t condone violence, either. But as I wrote yesterday, something’s out of whack when citizens are told to control themselves while the government is allowed to be as violent as it wishes, with little to no accountability.

White “patriots” who want to secede or who are hankerin’ for an armed confrontation with the feds out at the Bundy Ranch = acceptable.  Tempers boiling over because of actual injustice = unacceptable.

Basically, the degree to which one is allowed to be angry, and at what, depends on how much power you have. The powerful can be as angry as they like, without criticism. But when those with less power are angry, they are condemned for it.

Why People Are Jerks

This week I’ve been reading a lot of analyses about race and political divisiveness in America — some insightful; much not — including this Salon piece, in which some More Liberal Than Thou white guy explains,

In “All Eyes Are Upon Us,” an important new book I’ve just reviewed for Bookforum, the historian Jason Sokol shows not just that whites have been two-faced about race but – counterintuitively to those who don’t know them – that both faces have often been quite sincere: They can cheer Tiger Woods or Colin Powell (or, until recently, Bill Cosby) unreservedly and insist that their daily discrimination in their neighborhoods and workplaces is driven only by hard market realities and real, undeniable dangers from blacks broken by richer whites who insulate themselves from the racially inflected consequences of economic policies they design and promote. Another of Sokol’s books, “There Goes My Everything,” showed that in the 1960s, even many die-hard Southern segregationists believed sincerely that the mores and protocols they were losing had done more for racial comity and mutual understanding than had activist lawyers’ impositions. No wonder that their children are trying now to re-segregate Southern politics via opportunistic racial districting and voter-identification laws.

IMO the author of the paragraph above must have a different definition of “sincere” than the one I go by. The online dictionary says “sincere” means “free from pretense or deceit; proceeding from genuine feelings.” And of course the Good Old Boys who persuaded themselves that Slavery Was Good and who are now trying to re-segregate Southern politics, etc., are anything but “free from pretense or deceit.” Rationalization is not “sincere.” Desperately lying to yourself to justify your own bigotry and cruelty is not “sincere.”

This is not to say the Salon author is completely wrong about everything, but I do find lectures about how liberals don’t “get” white men, even though many of them are white men as is, it appears, the lecturer himself, to be weirdly fascinating. What is it they aren’t “getting”? What is it we aren’t getting?

I want to go back to something I wrote a few days ago.

We are not only physically dependent on each other but psychologically dependent as well. There is all kinds of data and real-world experience showing that actual isolation is devastating to a human. Prolonged isolation from other humans literally drives us mad. Indeed, our personalities — the traits we think make us uniquely “me” — are (to the psychologist and sociologists who study these things) entirely about how we relate to other humans. If there are no other humans to relate to, personalities cannot be expressed and arguably don’t even exist.

One of my favorite exercises — describe who you are as an individual without reference to a position within some kind of social or economic network. In other words, describe who you are as an individual without reference to family, nation, profession, interests (sports? stamp collecting? messing around on the Web?) or anything that doesn’t require other people. I say it can’t be done.

So, in a sense, we cannot be “individuals” without society. Our social network defines our individuality and allows our individuality to express itself. We cannot be who we are without other people being who they are.

Another way to put this is that we can’t be who we think we are without everyone else being who we think they are. This is something we “know” intuitively but not consciously. We conceptualize ourselves as stand-alone, autonomous person-units. We assume Who We Are is intrinsic to our bodies somehow, and that we remain Who We Are no matter what else happens.

However — and yes, this is kind of a Buddhist view — if we fully appreciate that we take identity only in regard to our function and position in our larger social networks, and that in fact we cannot be who (we think) we are without other people being who (we think) they are, this tells us that on a subconscious level we may all have a very heavy vested interest in seeing to it that other people remain who we think they are. Too much social change is a genuine (we think) existential threat.

This explain why our attitudes about race are so weirdly inconsistent. It explains why some African-Americans are given the right-wing stamp of approval even by people who turn around and call Michael Brown a “thug” who deserved to be killed. In one way or another, someone like Ben Carson or Herman Cain is able to not pose a threat to the social order, and indeed, may enable white racists to deny their racism.

IMO if we understand social and cultural upheavals this way rather than assume it’s just about untethered hate for people who “look different,” many things make more sense. Whites who cling to a particular identity as whites have a vested interest in maintaining racial hierarchies; whites who have mostly let go of whiteness as defining themselves are less invested in racial hierarchies. Whites who cling to whiteness as an essential part of their self-identity assume that those other whites are “just being PC” or suffer from “white guilt,” but it’s more accurate to say that those other whites’ personal orientation toward racial issues is different because it’s less personal.

This is not necessarily the same thing as being wiser or more racially sensitive; basically, it just means racial privilege is no longer a central, personal concern. And, of course, in the real world it’s not an either/or thing but more of a sliding scale. Even a lot of self-identified liberals haven’t quite let go of the sense that white maleness is the default norm.

It is, apparently, still important to a lot of American whites to think that whiteness doesn’t just give them privileges but genuine superiority. Whiteness is identified with industriousness, morality, dignity, self-sufficiency, and respect for the rule of law, so that a white-identity-clinger sees those traits in himself even if they aren’t actually there. This explains the persistent white belief in the black welfare queen; the belief in lazy, dependent black people is necessary to reinforce an identity as an industrious and self-sufficient white person, especially if one isn’t particularly industrious and self-sufficient, but just white.

This is why poor whites dependent on government programs are so easily duped into voting for Republicans who vow to dismantle such programs.They hear about “takers” and see “lazy black people,” not themselves. This explains why so many whites eagerly anticipate black violent reactions to such events as the George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson verdict, because Those People Act That Way. Of course, when whites form violent mobs they think it’s justified, so it’s okay.

The persistence of aggressive hostility to women among a subset of males no doubt has to do with a confused “masculine mystique” that requires women to be submissive and completely nonthreatening so that a “man” can be a “man.” These males cannot be who they think they are with women going around being who they are and, just as bad, other men being okay with that. Feminism is the destroyer of worlds.

And then there’s fundamentalist Christians, who insist that their “faith” requires them to be allowed to discriminate at will and use public schools to proselytize. Christian triumphalism will not abide being told it is not privileged among all other religions. The believer in Christian triumphalism, like the believer in American exceptionalism, must have the triumph of Christianity acknowledged because his ego is attached to the specialness of Christianity (or the USA), which makes him special, too. If Christianity is just one religion among many, what’s the point? (To his credit, last year Pope Francis criticized Christian triumphalism in a homily.)

Anyway, this is my Grand Theory as to why people are jerks.

Do Your Christmas Shopping Here!

I just realized Amazon is having a 30 percent off any book sale that ends midnight tonight, so you have just a few hours to buy up copies of Rethinking Religion to give as Christmas presents at 30 percent off!

Also, if you buy other stuff at Amazon, if you go through the link in the right-hand column they give me a few cents for whatever you buy.

The Myth of Individualism

I very much like this essay at the New York Times, “Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual” by John Edward Terrell. It ties together a lot of my themes.

At least part of the schism between Republicans and Democrats is based in differing conceptions of the role of the individual. We find these differences expressed in the frequent heated arguments about crucial issues like health care and immigration. In a broad sense, Democrats, particularly the more liberal among them, are more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives and to strive for policies that emphasize that understanding. Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe, however, often trace their ideas about freedom and liberty back to Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, who argued that the individual is the true measure of human value, and each of us is naturally entitled to act in our own best interests free of interference by others. Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.

I’ve written before about the fact that our economy is a web of interconnections, and that the failure of part of it hurts the whole eventually. Allowing cities like New Orleans and Detroit to rot; allowing families to be buried by medical bills; ripping the safety net so that lots of people fall into destitution and can’t get out; these things put a strain on the entire economic ecosystem, and with enough strain it all comes apart and hurts everyone. But righties can’t see that; they just think taxes are taking money away from me and giving it to someone else.

I’ve also written before about the utter obliviousness of Ayn Randbots, who sit in chairs somebody else crafted,  in homes supported by networks of utilities other people made and maintain, keyboarding through internet connections they couldn’t reproduce if they tried, and to anyone who will listen, that they don’t need ANYBODY ELSE. Take away the cocoon of civilization and these bozos probably wouldn’t survive the week. Yeah, go Galt, buddy. Please.

Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.

We are not only physically dependent on each other but psychologically dependent as well. There is all kinds of data and real-world experience showing that actual isolation is devastating to a human. Prolonged isolation from other humans literally drives us mad. Indeed, our personalities — the traits we think make us uniquely “me” — are (to the psychologist and sociologists who study these things) entirely about how we relate to other humans. If there are no other humans to relate to, personalities cannot be expressed and arguably don’t even exist.

One of my favorite exercises — describe who you are as an individual without reference to a position within some kind of social or economic network. In other words, describe who you are as an individual without reference to family, nation, profession, interests (sports? stamp collecting? messing around on the Web?) or anything that doesn’t require other people. I say it can’t be done.

So, in a sense, we cannot be “individuals” without society. Our social network defines our individuality and allows our individuality to express itself. We cannot be who we are without other people being who they are.

I want to go back to “Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.” This is another bit of elaborate hooey that’s been around for a long time. One doesn’t hear it as much any more, but the old line was that men are logical and women are emotional, which is why men ought to run things because women can’t make responsible decisions. This may explain why 90 percent of homicides are perpetrated by men … oh, wait …

And there’s another claim that is heard much less often after World War II than before, that white Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon people are logical and all those simple brown natives are emotional. The pattern is that if you can claim your decisions are based on “logic” and not “emotions,” you win. The problem is that, in retrospect, the pattern of Teutonic/Anglo Saxon behavior throughout history doesn’t reveal a preponderance of wisdom or sensible, dispassionate judgment. Aggression, yes. Greed and arrogance, you bet. Wisdom, not so much.

This is not to say that European civilization hasn’t created some wonderful stuff, but the cultures of other continents have created some wonderful stuff, also. Humans can do amazing things sometimes. However, show me someone who claims he is entirely rational and logical, and I will show you someone who is out of touch with his own emotions.

I’ve written elsewhere about Moral Foundation theory and how much research in psychology and sociology reveals that emotions are jerking all of us around, whether we admit it or not. Moral Foundation theory says that our moral decisions are really being generated in our subconscious, which sends emotional cues — sometimes subtle ones, but emotional nonetheless — to our conscious mind, which then crafts rational reasons for why we believe as we do.

In other words, all of that logic and reasoning is strictly post hoc and called in to serve the demands of emotion. We believe as we do because it pleases us (literally) to believe as we do. We join mass movements or adhere to political views because they stoke our egos and reinforce our biases. And then the more deluded among us think up “rational” reasons for all of it and deny the role of emotions. Because, you know, emotions are for girls.

Terrell continues,

This conclusion is unlikely to startle anyone who is at all religious or spiritual. When I was a boy I was taught that the Old Testament is about our relationship with God and the New Testament is about our responsibilities to one another. I now know this division of biblical wisdom is too simple. I have also learned that in the eyes of many conservative Americans today, religion and evolution do not mix. You either accept what the Bible tells us or what Charles Darwin wrote, but not both. The irony here is that when it comes to our responsibilities to one another as human beings, religion and evolution nowadays are not necessarily on opposite sides of the fence. And as Matthew D. Lieberman, a social neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written: “we think people are built to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. In reality, we are actually built to overcome our own pleasure and increase our own pain in the service of following society’s norms.”

While I do not entirely accept the norms clause of Lieberman’s claim, his observation strikes me as evocatively religious.

To me, there is no starker proof of the basic irrationality of Teabaggerism than the way so many manage to combine rigid, by-the-Holy-Book religious views with Ayn Rand’s “objectivism.” This is not just because Rand was an atheist. It’s because you can pretty much take anything Jesus ever said in the Gospels and compare it to Rand, and see clearly that Rand’s views are completely opposite Christ’s. There may be exceptions, but I can’t think of one. Rand’s views are also completely opposite those of the Buddha, which hasn’t stopped a few people from creating a Rand-Dharma hybrid called “dark Buddhism” or sometimes “dark Zen.” That this movement is pretty much a pubescent reaction to and denial of everything the Buddha taught shouldn’t surprise you.

Rand made a mistake commonly made by unthinking people — she assumed that if one ideology is bad, then the good must be its opposite. So Communism, with its denial of individual rights and the value of each person is bad, then the good must be untrammeled individualism. So Rand dismissed communities and societies as a “tribal premise” and denied that even activities such as trade and commerce should be about anything but individuals looking out for themselves. Yeah, try having an “economy” all by yourself.

Skipping a few bits of Terrell’s essay, which I recommend reading, we get to the Enlightenment philosophers. Now, on the whole I like the Enlightenment philosophers, because they are the ones who inspired the Declaration of Independence and the modern democratic ideal. But Terrell has a point here —

According to Rousseau and others, our responsibilities and duties to one another as members of society do not come from nature, but instead from our social conventions. Their speculations about the origins of the latter generally asserted that the most ancient of all societies was the family. Yet in their eyes, even the family as a social unit was seen as ephemeral. As Rousseau wrote: “children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved.” When released from obedience to their father, the next generation is free to assume a life of singular freedom and independence. Should any child elect to remain united with the family of his birth, he did so “no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is then maintained only by convention.”

In fairness to Rousseau it should be noted, as I observed earlier, that he may not have meant such claims to be taken literally. As he remarked in his discourse “On the Origin of Inequality,” “philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there.” Why then did Rousseau and others make up stories about human history if they didn’t really believe them? The simple answer, at least during the Enlightenment, was that they wanted people to accept their claim that civilized life is based on social conventions, or contracts, drawn up at least figuratively speaking by free, sane and equal human beings — contracts that could and should be extended to cover the moral and working relationships that ought to pertain between rulers and the ruled. In short, their aims were political, not historical, scientific or religious.

Terrell is an anthropologist, so the notion of family as not originating in nature must seem particularly bizarre to him. Fossil and anthropological evidence shows us that hominids have lived in family groups since at least Australopithecus afarensis, if not earlier. We would not have survived otherwise.

Terrell then argues that what the Enlightenment philosophers wrote has morphed into a kind of primitive mythology that has become holy to the Teabaggers. As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, this has resulted in the bizarre spectacle of people submerged in a dogmatic mass movement,  marching around wearing tricorner hats and carrying “don’t tread on me” signs to demonstrate how “individual” they are.

Terrell concludes,

The sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals. There was never a time in history before civil society when we were each totally free to do whatever we elected to do. We have always been social and caring creatures. The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. This is not how we got to be the kind of species we are today. Nor is this what the world’s religions would ask us to believe. Or at any rate, so I was told as a child, and so I still believe.

I’ve argued for a long time that the ideal is a kind of balance between the needs and interests of individuals and communities/societies, and when one of these is weighted more heavily than the other there will be dysfunction. But Terrell makes a good point that this idea of untrammeled individualism is, in fact, antithetical to all of the world’s great religions, and it’s interesting to me that so much of right-wing Christianity in America is oblivious to that. Somehow, in their minds, laissez-faire capitalism and the Holy Free Market, blessed be It, are ordained by God and inextricable from Jesus’ teachings. Which makes no sense at all.

The Progressive Paradox

At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes “Why Middle-Class Americans Can’t Afford to Live in Liberal Cities.” In brief, housing costs, and income disparities, tend to be higher in “blue” metro areas than “red” ones, and this is supposed to point to a failure in liberalism. What follows is my comment to the article.

This article should be studied as an exercise in logical fallacy. First, the argument that metro areas must be run by “liberals” if voters there preferred Obama in the last election rather falls apart if you look at the actual metro governments. For example, New York City’s last two mayors, Giuliani and Bloomberg, were both right-of-center by most measures. When When Bill de Blasio was elected last year you could hear America reaching for the smelling salts — what, a real honest-to-God progressive liberal in charge of a major U.S. city? The end is nigh …

To me, the situation the article describes doesn’t say anything about whether “liberals” or “conservatives” are more committed to affordable housing, because nobody anywhere has done much about it in recent years. As I remember, the last time “affordable housing” was a noticeable part of a national political campaign Reagan was running for president. He made fun of the idea; the newspapers were full of “for rent” ads, so what was the problem? I remember this because I was living in New Jersey at the time and struggling to find a decent place I could afford for myself and two small children. Let’s just say I was not a Reagan voter.

Rent control was an attempt to keep the poor from being priced out of their apartments, but the side effects of that made matters worse in the long run. After the disaster of badly planned high-rise urban housing projects of decades ago, I’ve seen few attempts to come up with new solutions.

So nobody’s doing much, and affordable housing happens if it happens. Red states tend to have lower taxes but also lower property values. Many, such as Texas, have an overabundance of really cheap, and still empty, land. The coastal cities, by contrast, are often out of land; there’s no empty space to expand to. “New” development requires tearing down existing densely occupied neighborhoods. Inland cities, red and blue, are over-sprawled, and over time pockets of suburban poverty such as Ferguson, Missouri, have developed. So “cheap” is not necessarily “problem free.”

“Red” areas often have minimal regulations regarding housing standards, so there always are trailer parks with iffy sanitation and potentially hazardous conditions, but they’re cheap. Here in the NYC area even “affordable” housing is too expensive for low-wage workers. That so many manage to find places for themselves anyway is a testament to human ingenuity.

But the single biggest reason the “blue” metro areas are more expensive is that so many of the affluent want to live there, in spite of the higher taxes. We might reflect on why that is true. In the U.S. there is a correlation — not a perfect one, I acknowledge — between affluence and “blueness” — with some exceptions, more “liberal” leaning areas tend to be more prosperous than red ones. Are they prosperous because they are “liberal,” or liberal because they are prosperous? I propose that where people are more willing to tax themselves to pay for better school systems and nicer parks and other public works, there will be healthier economies and more “livable” cities, and the affluent naturally will want to live there. But that drives up housing costs and leaves the poor scrambling for places to live. So that’s a paradox.

Too Broke to Fix

I started to skim the Salon article, “Straight-up propaganda”: Fox News, charlatans, conspiracy theorists and the religious fanatics endangering democracy, thinking it would be the usual rant against the right-wing crazies who keep us from having nice things, but it actually goes deeper than that and is worth reading.

The author, Joseph Heath, argues that the entire U.S. political system has built-in vulnerabilities, and mass media makes these vulnerabilities more easily exploitable by demagogues, and as a result democracy in the U.S. is more, shall we say, challenged than in many other democracies.

The author writes that democracies of any sort must strike a balance between being responsive to public concerns but not being so responsive that public policy is perpetually being jerked around by every passing whim. He points out, for example, that nearly always in functioning democracies the central banking system functions independently of government so that it can make necessary but unpopular decisions without interference.

Thus it is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded.

But this only works up to a point; ultimately politicians elected by the people have the last word on many things. Where issues are complex — and most of ’em are these days — one may either rely on experts or reach consensus through democratic deliberation. And there’s our problem — democratic deliberation itself is utterly degraded. We can’t even discuss anything anymore. And here is where the U.S. is uniquely vulnerable.

One of the glaring deficiencies of the American political system, for instance, is that the president is never forced to engage in debate with other legislators and is never forced to answer any question he doesn’t want to answer. In the British parliamentary system, the prime minister has to show up in the House of Commons when it is in session and defend the policies of the government. He or she is there treated like any other member of Parliament, and thus jeered, heckled, and challenged by members of the opposition. For this reason, and despite how degraded the spectacle has become over time, “question period and debate institutionalize doubt and scepticism in the political system.”

Weirdly, this fact can protect incompetent legislatures as much as Presidents.

In January 2010, House Republicans took the unusual step of inviting President Obama to address their caucus retreat in Baltimore, after which the president spent over an hour responding to questions directly  from legislators. Two things about this were noteworthy. First, Americans from one end of the country to the other were astonished by the lucidity of the exchanges. What they were used to seeing was the president and the members of Congress exchanging barbs through the media. Seeing the president able to respond to questions directly was a revelation. Second, there was the fact that President Obama completely eviscerated his opponents—to the point where Fox News cut off the live broadcast,  in order to save the Republican Party from further embarrassment. The major reason is that most of the Republican legislators did what they were accustomed to doing, which is use their questions as an opportunity to spout talking points. They didn’t realize that this only works as a media tactic; it doesn’t work in a face-to-face exchange with a political opponent, particularly one who can take as much time as he likes to respond.

Because it went so badly for them, Republicans never invited Obama back. Therein lies the central problem with the American presidential system: this kind of exchange is optional. In most other democracies, this kind of exchange is institutionalized as a requirement. As it stands, the American political system simply lacks any mechanism to force the president and legislators to explain themselves or their actions to one another. This makes the “norm of truth” very difficult to enforce, and in turn encourages the slow descent into truthiness. The point is that irrationalism is not an inevitable consequence of the modern condition; it is in many respects a consequence of the institutions we have chosen.

I confess I’d never thought of this before. The author also suspects that had Ronald Reagan “been forced to enter a ‘parliamentary bear pit’ every week the way the British prime minister is, he could not have survived his second term in office.” His dementia would have become obvious. And the Cult of Reagan that still dominates the Republican Party might never have taken hold.

But then there’s mass media. As much as we love transparency, there is evidence from other countries that just putting everything on television is not necessarily helpful. In many countries the introduction of television cameras to legislative debates has caused politicians to speak in sound bytes for public consumption rather than actually argue. The very fact of mass media technology seems to cause some degradation of deliberation. But mass media in the U.S. is worse than elsewhere.

American journalists have a peculiar habit of interviewing each other rather than independent experts, making the entirely media universe something of closed loop. When discussing the federal budget, for instance, they will often put together panels consisting entirely of lobbyists and other journalists. It is relatively rare to see an actual economist (with the exception of Paul Krugman, who typically appears in his capacity as a New York Times columnist, not as an economist). This seems to be just a part of the culture of American journalism—public television is nearly as bad as private—and it’s difficult to see what could be done about it.

There are some other more obvious problems. The creation of straight-up propaganda networks like Fox News in America has done enormous damage to the quality of democratic discourse in that country.

Heath goes on to say that the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine did make things worse, but even more than the Fairness Doctrine we need laws that penalize outright lying and misrepresentation. Other countries have such laws.

The European Parliament, for instance, has passed a resolution specifying that “news broadcasting should be based on truthfulness, ensured by the appropriate means of verification and proof, and impartiality in presentation, description and narration.” In the United Kingdom, the Broadcasting Code requires that “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.” Canada has a rule (enforced by the Canadian Radio-television Communications Commission) that simply prohibits the intentional, repeated broadcast of “false or misleading news.” This type of constraint is more easily defended than the Fairness Doctrine, since it is closer in spirit to the laws governing  false advertising. And yet the Canadian rule is strong enough to have so far prevented Fox News from expanding into that market.

Here, even a state law that prohibited outright lying in campaign commercials was struck down as being a violation of free speech rights. This is insane. Commercials can’t make false claims about toothpaste, but they can about candidates for office, because freedom?

Heath also thinks that a fairly simple way to stop the voter suppression games is to make voting mandatory. That had never occurred to me, but maybe it’s worth considering. Unfortunately …

Criticizing the American political system has, unfortunately, become something of a mug’s  game, simply because the deficiencies are all mutually reinforcing, and so no matter how much sense it would make to change one thing or another, nothing is going to get fixed.

The status quo depends on nothing getting fixed, actually. So the status quo will see to it nothing gets fixed. Krugman’s column today says, “Today’s political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea what our society is really like.” And the system is rigged so they can’t find out.

I very reluctantly have come around to thinking that the system is so broken it cannot be returned to anything resembling functionality. The most likely outcome is that the U.S. will continue to decline economically and politically over the next several years until quality of life is so eroded for enough people that something big and nasty and possibly violent will happen to change everything. We may actually have to become a failed state first, though.