Public Good vs Splintered Society (pt 2)

This is a continuation of my thoughts from my previous post. I won’t summarize my thoughts from that post. So you probably should read it first to understand the context of what I’m writing about below.

 – – – 

I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t directly speaking of racism. There is something more fundamental that can manifest as racism but not necessarily. It’s related to xenophobia. More generally, it’s related to the conservative predisposition of fearing that which is different or new.

This type of fear doesn’t inevitably manifest in negative ways. Sometimes there are good reasons to be mistrusting or cautious… and sometimes not. Also, everyone including liberals are prone to extreme wariness and even fear at times, but research shows that conservatives are even more prone and that right-wingers are so prone they live in almost constant state of mistrust and suspicion.

This is important because it goes beyond fear. If you’re afraid of something, you probably won’t deal with it well because fear constricts your options of how to respond. A conservative who is afraid of the strange and new probably won’t respond constructively to the strange and new. Is it any surprise that right-wingers who mistrust the government also are very bad at governing? Is it any surprise that research shows that those who believe in conspiracy theories admit that they would conspire if given the opportunity? Is it any surprise that conservatives who dislike compromise seek to attack anyone who wants compromise and then blame the other party for their failure to submit to the conservatives’ position?

Liberals are the only demographic that has a majority support for compromise. This is very problematic for a democracy where compromise is absolutely necessary in order for the government to function and for different groups to be fairly represented by the supposedly representative government. In an increasingly diverse society, this is increasingly problematic. Conservatives will only ever agree to policies when those policies are in their favor which means when they have the power to enforce policies in their favor.

Well off white conservatives have always become anxious whenever new groups asserted their right to be fairly represented.

It happened when the second wave of Scots-Irish immigrants arrived. It happened with the Chinese and German immigrants later on. It happened when slaves were freed and when women got the vote. It happened with the Catholics and Jews who sought political positions. It happened with the Japanese during WWII. And now it’s happening with Hispanics and Arabs.

It doesn’t matter how many generations these people lived here. All that matters is that they were and in some cases still are perceived as being different.

Racism is often the end result of this xenophobia, but it is’t the fundamental issue. In America, there is this ideal of diverse people working together. Not just conforming. Some conservatives and right-wingers say other groups should conform to the WASP culture. It’s fine to be a Catholic or Muslim just as long as y0u keep it to yourself. It’s fine to be gay or an atheist as long as you don’t speak about it openly.

The WASPs will claim that their culture is and should be the dominant culture.

They will rationalize this in saying that this should be so because they are the majority. Well, once upon a time Native Americans were the majority before European diseases and genocide wiped out most of their population. In Texas, Spanish-speaking Hispanics are the majority. Should all Texans conform to that majority? Why not? Shouldn’t Hispanics be fairly represented?

When their majority argument is challenged, WASPs will simply say their culture should be dominant because it’s always been dominant. So what this dominance was created and maintained for centuries through horrific violence and oppression. Might makes right, after all.

In the end, as a good liberal, I don’t want to blame anyone, not even WASPs. I’m tired of the blame game entirely, no matter who it’s directed at. If you’re a genuine conservative, sure feel free be cautious about the changes happening in society. But enough with the fear-mongering and race-baiting. Don’t use bigotry as an excuse to hate the democratic government. Don’t promote class war to push away the ladder once you’ve made it to the top. Don’t distort Jesus’ message of love to defend a system of injustice and suffering. Conservatism has a healthy role to play, but radical conservatism is unhelpful, dangerous even.

Americans have proven to be able to do great things when we all work together. Republicans, Libertarians and Tea Partiers, I ask this of you: Please quit attacking what makes America great simply for reasons of your personal agenda. America isn’t just about the upper classes or whites or Christians. It never was and never will be.

During the Populist Era, Northerners and Southerners worked together to fight those seeking to take over the government and oppress the lower classes. In some of the first labor unions, blacks and whites worked together.

Earlier last century, conservatives didn’t hate the government but actually sought to create a government that was truly for and by the people. The Republican Party used to be the party of progressivism and moderation, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republican Party helped create the infrastructure (the interstate highway system, the national parks system, etc) of America through progressive taxation including high taxes on the rich. The Republicans, instead of fighting their own dark fantasies about ‘welfare queens’, used to fight the KKK.

The Progressive Era was also a time when liberalism reigned. Liberalism reigned all the way through Nixon’s early political career. Some of the greatest progressives were Republicans. Eisenhower used the military to enforce desegregation. Nixon campaigned on helping blacks and later helped pass the EPA. It was a time when people believed that America was a great nation and that it was the responsibility of the government along with the support of the public to do great things. The government used to send men into space and used to build great technology such as the internet. The Progressive Era created high-paying jobs that were secure and had pensions. Manufacturing jobs were kept in America and Americans were proud of our growing economy. Everyone benefited. It was a good society where literally everyone’s boat was lifted. Progressives gave a generation affordable higher education and created the middle class.

This isn’t patriotic propaganda. This isn’t just history. We are still benefiting from the sacrifices our grandparents and great grandparents made to build this great society. For decades, we’ve been living off the work of past generations while allowing the infrastructure crumble around us. It’s become an age of hyper-individualism and endless wars, in fact wars that are often against the American people. Instead of wars on drugs, why don’t we have a war on political corruption? Instead of tough on crime against the poor and minorities, why don’t we have tough on crime against the corporatists and bankers who nearly destroyed our economy?

It’s not too late. We can take responsibility as generations past did. We could create a great society once again.

At times, it seems so simple. Maybe it is as simple as our collectively creating what we collectively hope for or what we colletively fear. However, when digging deeper, there are all kinds of factors.

I was reading the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State by Andrew Gelman. The following passage caught my attention last night while I was thinking about why conservatives seem to trust less or value less the ideal of a shared community, i.e., community beyond their own in-group.

Looking at people who moved from red (strongly Republican) states: those who move to other red states are poorer, those who move to purple states are slightly richer (on average), and those who move to blue states are richest. Among those who moved from purple (battleground) states, we see the same pattern: the poorer go to red states, the richer go to blue states. Looking at those who moved from blue (strongly Democratic) states, we again see that the poorest went to red states and the richest went to other blue states. In fact, people who moved from one blue state to another are in the richest category, on average. This does not demonstrate that people move to states or regions that are more culturally compatible to them, but the data are consistent with that possibility. A related idea is that higher earners are moving to richer states because of the economic opportunities available for educated professionals in these places.

One link between economics, voting, and social attitudes has been noticed by journalist Steve Sailer, who hypothesizes that rich, coastal states now favor the Democrats because of increasing house prices, which reduces affordable family formation (marriage and childbearing), in turn limiting the electoral appeal of Republican candidates running on family values. Sailer attributes some of this home price difference to what he calls the Dirt Gap—coastal and Great Lakes cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are bounded by water, which limits their potential for growth, as compared to inland cities such as Dallas or Atlanta: “The supply of suburban land available for development is larger in Red State cities, so the price is lower.” The Republicans do better among married voters, who are more likely to end up in more affordable states that also happen to be more culturally conservative.

This reminded me of the distinction I noticed between more conservative Southern states where people value family as community (Scots-Irish fundamentalism and kinship ties) and more liberal Midwestern states where people value community as family (Catholic and Quaker focus on community-building: schools, hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, etc).

As the above passage describes, working class and lower middle class conservatives who vote Republican tend to live in or move to Republican states for a simple reason. Unlike poor social conservatives who vote Democratic, these slightly more well off conservatives have enough money to move and yet not enough money to move to the more wealthy communities. So they go to places where there are suburbs which means places with vast open land to build suburbs. The Midwest doesn’t have such vast unused space and maybe that is why the value of community has survived in the Midwest whereas it hasn’t survived as much in Republican strongholds.

The thing about suburbs is that they’ve tended to be very lacking in traditional community structure. People tend to work far away from where they live. Suburbs often aren’t designed for walking and often don’t have parks or neighborhood schools. They are the antithesis of community and at the same time they are the destination of socially conservative Republicans, especially those who are white (which is most socially conservative Republicans). Suburbs tend to lack multiculturalism and racial diversity which might be another thing that attracts socially conservative Republicans.

This cuts to the core.

Research has found that those who grow up with multiculturalism and racial diversity will as adults be more socially liberal. It’s probably also relates to the research that shows liberals tended to have many friends in their childhoods.

As such, the type of communities we create (rural farming, cities, metropolises, suburbia, etc) creates a particular mindset that allows certain ways of seeing community and disallows others. Community doesn’t just happen. It is created. And if we don’t create it consciously, it might not take very positive forms. We’ve destroyed the natural order (i.e., hunter-gatherer communities) upon which human nature evolved. Our society has become dysfunctional because it’s gone so far beyond our origins as a species. Returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle isn’t possible without the complete destruction of civilization and a mass die-off of most of the world’s population. A ‘natural’ (i.e., unplanned) community isn’t a choice that we have at this point. Even conservatives in refusing to invest in the larger community are creating a particular type of community.

From an anecdotal perspective, Garrison Keillor describes (in his book Homegrown Democrat) the difference between liberal city-dwellers and conservative suburbanites:

“[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”

Keillor is basically what has in the past been called a Sewer Socialist. In an earlier time in Milwaukee, there were socialists in political positions. They were of the pragmatic (i.e., non-ideological) sort that is common in the Midwest. Like Keillor, they were proud to have some of the best public services around at that time. On a practical level, socialism just means that you care about your neighbor rather than seeing community as merely a collection of self-focused individuals.

Many Americans have so completely forgotten what community is. When they see community, they have a fearful knee-jerk response: Socialism! Communism! Oh no, those who care about the public good are going to destroy our society!

 – – –

There is one factor that explains the impossibility of discussing all of this fairly and openly. I recently came across research about the backfire effect.

Basically, the backfire effect is when someone becomes stronger in their beliefs (more unquestioningly dogmatic) when they are confronted by facts that contradict or disprove or bring doubt to their beliefs. It intuitively makes sense, although I’m sure there are complex psychological mechanisms behind it.

What is relevant to my discussion is the demographic most prone to the backfire effect. Do I even need to say it? Unsurprisingly, conservatives are more likely to become more dogmatic when challenged even when or especially when the facts are against them. Liberals, on the other hand, don’t necessarily change their beliefs with new facts; it’s just that they’re less likely to become even stronger in their beliefs which seems to imply that liberals perceive facts as being less threatening.

This puts liberals in an almost impossible situation. Is it any wonder that no matter how much liberals seek to compromise they rarely ever get any compromise in return from conservatives. Liberals love compromise, a weakness and a strength. It’s because liberals love to compromise that they are able to live in multicultural, multi-racial cities. Study after study shows liberals love anything new and different, including ‘foreigners’. But the typical conservative response to anything unusual, even rotting fruit as shown in one study, is to respond with disgust.

Love of compromise is one ‘failing’ of liberalism. The other ‘failing’ is love of knowledge. Even when a fact disagrees with a liberal position, a liberal is more likely to welcome the new info, even if just for reasons of intellectual curiosity. Most (by which I mean the vast majority of) academics, scientists, writers and journalists are self-identified liberals. It’s a combination of liberals loving knowledge and the love of knowledge inducing a liberal mindset. Sadly, the more conservative someone is the less they probably love knowledge, and studies have shown right-wingers are prone to outright anti-intellectualism.

So, what is a poor liberal to do?

The answer isn’t to give up on compromise and knowledge. The real problem is that many liberals don’t understand the conservative mindset. The dogmatic tendency of conservatives and right-wingers correlates to their religiosity. I suspect that religiosity explains one other thing. A fact by itself is less convincing to a conservative. What convinces a conservative the most is anecdotal evidence and stories. Essentially, the Bible is just a bunch of anecdotes and stories, an anecdote being a story is considered real. Also, the evangelical tradition is all about personal experience of God or Holy Spirit which is the ultimate anecdotal evidence.

Everyone loves stories, but I think conservatives put a special importance on stories in a way liberals don’t. To a liberal, a story is a story. To a conservative, a story is reality. The story of Jesus is real, despite the lack of historical fact and even despite the internal contradictions of the New Testament. The most powerful story is the story that is seen as fact. Such a story is especially powerful if it actually is based on fact. It’s not that conservatives hate knowledge, but between a fact and a story conservatives will prefer the latter.

This is why conspiracy theories and global warming denialism are so convincing to conservatives and right-wingers. A conspiracy theory is a story and global warming denialism is often couched in terms of conspiracy theory. It just doesn’t matter to many conservatives that it’s a fact that most climatologists agree that human-caused global warming is real. It doesn’t matter because climatologists aren’t trained, as preachers are trained, in telling a good story.

Liberals love story as well. I do think stories are more powerful than anything else. Stories are what cultures are built upon. Liberals fail when they forget this. As George Lakoff explained:

“Progressives too often fail to clearly state the moral principles behind the American tradition. Our arguments often sound like an abstract defense of distant “government” rather than a celebration of our people, our public, and the moral views that have defined our tradition and the real human beings who work every day to carry them out.”

The root word for ‘science’ means to split or dissect. The root word for ‘art’ means to put together or join. This might be why knowledge and story so often conflict, but they don’t have to. Knowledge and story can work together. Old stories can be taken apart so as to create new stories that bring together. In a multicultural society as we live in, we can take the pieces of our cultural heritage and form something greater than the sum of the parts.

Story can be the bridge that brings liberals and conservatives together. In the past, America had a story about a shared society and that story inspired many generations of people in the first half or so of the 20th century. The greatest story is that which is lived through collective enactment. I’ve often wondered what story (i.e., myth) we are collectively enacting.

The dangerous part is unconsciously enacting a story. When that happens, a society is controlled by the story, trapped in a narrative. We can be mere characters in someone else’s story, such as an ancient story from an ancient book, or we can be storytellers. As William Blake said,

“Invent your own mythology or be slave to another man’s.”

To translate that into the terms of this discussion: Invent our own cultural narrative or be slave to the narrative of another culture. Invent our collective sense of community or be slave to the broken remnants of the past.

If we react out of fear, we will create a society driven by fear. Such a fearful society will result in dysfunctional communities, isolated communities set against one another, broken communities where past traumas are never healed. Only an act of creation can heal. Only retelling the story of community can heal a community.

 – – – 

George Lakoff summarized well the situation we collectively face:

Democracy, in the American tradition, has been defined by a simple morality: We Americans care about our fellow citizens, we act on that care and build trust, and we do our best not just for ourselves, our families, our friends and our neighbors, but for our country, for each other, for people we have never met and never will meet.

“American democracy has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation. This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise. This, the American Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

“Public refers to people, acting together to provide what we all depend on: roads and bridges, public buildings and parks, a system of education, a strong economic system, a system of law and order with a fair and effective judiciary, dams, sewers, and a power grid, agencies to monitor disease, weather, food safety, clean air and water, and on and on. That is what we, as a people who care about each other, have given to each other.

“Only a free people can take up the necessary tasks, and only a people who trust and care for one another can get the job done. The American Dream is built upon mutual care and trust. 

“Our tradition has not just been to share the tasks, but to share the tools as well. We come together to provide a quality education for our children. We come together to protect each other’s health and safety. We come together to build a strong, open and honest financial system. We come together to protect the institutions of democracy to guarantee that all who share in these responsibilities have an equal voice in deciding how they will be met.

“What this means is that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman or business. No one makes it on their own. No matter how much wealth you amass, you depend on all the things the public has provided — roads, water, law enforcement, fire and disease protection, food safety, government research, and all the rest. The only question is whether you have paid your fair share for what we all have given you.

“We are now faced with a nontraditional, radical view of “democracy” coming from the Republican party. It says democracy means that nobody should care about anybody else, that democracy means only personal responsibility, not responsibility for anyone else, and it means no trust. If America accepts this radical view of democracy, then all that we have given each other in the past under traditional democracy will be lost: all that we have called public. Public roads and bridges: gone. Public schools: gone. Publicly funded police and firemen: gone. Safe food, air, and water: gone. Public health: gone. Everything that made America America, the crucial things that you and your family and your friends have taken for granted: gone.

The democracy of care, shared responsibility and trust is the democracy of the American Dream. The democracy of no care, no shared responsibility, and no trust has produced the American Nightmare that so many of our citizens are living through.

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