American Winter and Liberal Failure

American Winter is a new documentary that is out right now. It’s about how easily families can fall from middle class into poverty, even when they do everything right.

I watched a free screening of it, along with my brother and a friend, at a community-supported theater that closed down years ago as a for-profit movie theater. That community theater seemed like an appropriate venue.

The turnout was fairly impressive as it was almost a full house. I wonder what impact documentaries can have. I put great faith in knowledge, but it is easy to be dismissively cynical about any positive change resulting.

If anything, I see the fact of such documentaries even being made, much less watched, as the result rather than the cause of changes that are already happening (whether or not it is positive, it would be a bit early to say). Just by casual observation, it is clear that public opinion is shifting and that the former consensus has been eroded. What profoundly saddens me, though, is the knowledge that such cold-hearted capitalism/corporatism not too long ago was strongly supported by so many average people. An entire generation of Americans turned their back on those in need, and too many continue to do so.

It wasn’t strangers far away who supported such moral corruption. Conservatives obviously supported it and even many liberals supported it, probably quite a few of the people around me at that theater. Those who got their slice of the pie thought everything was fine and it apparently never occurred to them what would happen when no one baked any more pies and the last slice was taken.

None of this was forced on the American people, although it could be said that the American people forced it on many others, both the struggling in this country and all around the globalized world. American voters bought the rhetoric hook, line and sinker. Meritocracy, trickle down, free markets… the rhetoric sounded so nice, just as long as it was only other people suffering the consequences.

What woke up the American public was their too late realization that they were part of the struggling masses. A refrain by the people interviewed in the documentary was that they never thought that it would happen to them. Only worthless losers, lazy deadbeats, welfare queens, moral failures, social reprobates, criminal leeches and other inferior types ever need or ask for assistance from others… or so goes the unstated rhetoric that these people had come to accept.

Predictably, people love to judge others for their problems until the same thing happens to them. It is such condescending judgment that allowed it all to get so bad. But why does it take immense personal suffering, not to mention near economic collapse, to remind people of basic compassion and common decency? This frustrates me to no end. Why do we have to let problems become so festering and overwhelming before we even allow honest public debate? All of this is as preventable as it is predictable… or rather it should be preventable because it is so predictable.

One of the major points of American Winter is that for these families poverty was preventable. None of this is a mystery or even complicated. All it takes is the collective will to implement what we know has been proven to work.

This point was expanded in an interesting direction. It is cheaper to prevent the problem than to pay for taking care of it after it becomes a problem.

That doesn’t even include all the secondary costs incurred if the poverty becomes established and continues, especially if it creates a permanent underclass of the severely impoverished: permanent unemployment or underemployment, homelessness, psychological stress and related issues, alcoholism and drug abuse, drug dealing, gangs, crime and imprisonment, violence, increase of homicides and suicides, prostitution, unstable families, divorce, single parents, low grades and lower school achievement, dropping out from high school, not going to college, lack of health insurance and quality healthcare, etc. Add to that all the other problems that go with a shrinking middle class, low socioeconomic mobility, and growing economic disparity: food deserts, obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, STDs, teen pregnancy, and on and on and on, ad infinitum.

All of it is preventable and is less expensive than the alternative. What is most interesting about this is that there isn’t a good criticism that can be offered by conservatives of any variety, especially not fiscal conservatives. Only the most hearltess libertarian or the most belligerent Randian objectivist could dismiss both the moral and fiscal reasons for ending and preventing poverty. It isn’t a matter of not being able to afford poverty prevention. Quite the opposite. We can’t afford to do nothing.

Besides, democracies that get too large of economic inequalities inevitably become banana republics. There is no way to have political democracy without economic democracy. Of course, many on the right would claim they don’t want any democracy at all or else as little of it as is possible, but they should be careful what they wish for. They will get it if they continue to push their luck, assuming we aren’t already past the point of no return.

Meritocracy is presented as a close enough approximation to democracy and/or a replacement for democracy. Hard work is the reward we are to accept for allowing ourselves to be politically disempowered. Voting with our dollars is supposedly all that matters, corporate personhood for corporate ‘democracy’ with the corporation that has the most dollar-votes getting to represent us the consumer-citizens, a la Citizens United.

Indeed, the ideal of a meritocracy is an odd thing, specifically as rhetoric meets reality.

In the documentary, one particular person (a guy with a down syndrome son) demonstrated how this oddness plays out on the personal level. He was one of those who never thought it would happen to him. It was clear that he was deeply ashamed. He said that a grown man in his fifties shouldn’t have to ask his father to pay the electricity bill. How I interpreted this was that he thought a mature adult should be an autonomous individual who is dependent on no one, not even on the closest of family during the most difficult of times.

What seems most odd about this is the simple truth that we all are interdependent on one another. It’s just a fact of reality, not something to be ashamed of. The entire planet is one big interdependent biosphere and humans are the most socially interdependent of any of the species. We humans will deny our interdependency to our own peril.

It has been said, “No man is an island.” Well, I’d say that a self-made man is a mystical beast living on an imaginary island. Even the fairies in fairyland have a hard time believing such a thing could exist.

It’s not just that behind every successful man there is a woman or vice versa. Behind every successful man, there is any number of things: a healthy community, well off social connections, a privileged childhood, etc. The strongest determinant of wealth in America right now, as was mentioned in the documentary, is growing up with wealthy parents. This is to say that most wealthy Americans inherited their wealth and/or the conditions of their wealth, rather than having earned it through hardwork and merit alone.

This isn’t the American Dream. We’ve been sold a bill of goods. Or to put it into Gilded Age terms, we’ve been railroaded. Plutocray has been the dream of rich white men for centuries, most of the founding fathers included, but plutocracy has been the nightmare of average Americans since at least when George Washington violently put down the first populist revolt.

With the plutocratic rhetoric of meritocracy, one of the great boogeymen is the welfare queen. It took corporate propaganda sold by an actor-trained president to convincingly sell this hatred of the poor, presented with a kindly-looking smile, but sold it was. In the standard narrative, the welfare queen is a poor black woman (the antithesis to the rich white man) who out of wedlock pumped out the children (slut) to get free government money (whore) so as not to have to do honest work (lazy) and so as to live the high life driving expensive cars (leech).

The poor black woman was the target of rich white men’s lust during the slave era, but now that she is free who knows what she will do in retribution for the sins of the rich white men’s fathers. Although a demented dark fantasy, it does have its own internal logic of sorts, not unlike the logic of portraying Obama as his father’s son come from dark Africa to seek his anti-colonial vengeance upon white man’s Western society. It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Fearmongering aside, who are the real welfare queens?

A welfare queen takes more than gives, especially those who assume benefits as privileges without attendant social responsibilities. This is anyone who personally benefits from publicly-funded services and whose lifestyle is dependent upon publicly-funded support. This is anyone who accepts any kind of community offering or public good, including public resources taken from the commons, without reciprocation and fairness. This is anyone who takes more than they need when others have greater need, anyone who takes advantage of those less powerful and less fortunate, and anyone who disregards precautions about and investments toward the long-term sustainability of society and the impact on future generations. A welfare queen is defined by their selfishness, greed, and sociopathy.

It is clear that I’ve just described the prototypical modern big business. Nothing surprising about that.  American Winter briefly touches upon an aspect of this, although all too briefly.

A weird form of corporate welfare has developed. The modern transnational corporation isn’t sustainable itself without massive financial support from public funds. What capitalism has perfected is the externalization of costs.

Without welfare and food stamps, without unemployment benefits and public health services, without  public education and state colleges, there would be no functional workforce that could survive on such low wages as offered to most employees. Governments subsidize corporations by paying for what citizens can’t afford with minimum wage. There is something majorly wrong when many if not most of the people receiving government funds and services are those who are employed, yet don’t make a living wage. And when corporations move factories, they leave behind massive unemployment and poverty that is taken care of by the government.

This is is just one aspect of externalized costs. Other aspects include social destabilization and undermining of local economies, bailouts and subsidies, pollution and environmental degradation,  and selling below the market value of natural resources from public lands, etc.

The majority of United States citizens would quickly descend into third world conditions if not for the government hiding the consequences slowly destroying American democracy and American communities. As Fran Lebowitz explained it, “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.” Or as the Borg put it, “Existence as you know it is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own…”  and “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

This sad state of affairs demonstrates a rot at the core of capitalism. This is where American Winter fails to meet the problem beyond emotional appeal.

The documentary lacked a coherent and compelling narrative. I wasn’t inspired because there was nothing offered to be inspired toward. The problems were explained with data and real world examples. I was emotionally moved by human struggle and suffering. But then what? Where is the deeper analysis? Where is the vision?

In watching the documentary, I had an almost passive sense about the portrayal of poverty. It felt like a problem that happened by accident, an unintended consequence of focusing on other things such a decreasing federal spending.

In the documentary, people kept saying that such poverty isn’t what it means to be an American and that such downward mobility isn’t what the American Dream is about. That is fine as far as it goes. There was sadness and desperation, but I sensed no deep outrage. The people were worried about their families, but no one spoke about or was asked about their fears for the fate of America as a country, much less concerns for the suffering and poverty all around the world.

If they had used the middle class family as a jumping off point to get to a larger frame, so much more could have been communicated. As it is, the documentary is a lost opportunity. It isn’t particularly memorable. It is like a hundred other documentaries I’ve seen before. Nothing about it stands out and demands attention.

More importantly, I doubt it would be watched by many who aren’t already aware of the problem and persuaded that it is serious. I can hear in my head how conservatives would dismiss or ignore the view presented. Middle class families as a vague general category don’t make for a powerful symbol that can come close to competing against the dark vision of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, a single poignant image lingering in the collective mind for decades that simultaneously imagines the problem for honest tax-paying Americans and imagines how the cause of the problem is destroying America and the American Dream.

I have a soft place in my heart for liberal do-gooders. Nonetheless, the liberal lack of vision and insight ultimately just depresses me. American Winter is good for what it is, but not good enough for what is needed.

 

 

 

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Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination

I feel the impulse to take stock of my thinking, he says with a heavy sigh.

I’m going to attempt the amazing feat of connecting together various strains of thought that have been mulling in my braincase these past few years. This is my way of warning you that the following is going to be a doozy, in which I will discuss: conservatism and liberalism (in the psychological sense), symbolic conflation and empathetic imagination, literalism and imagination, social order and its lynchpin, ideology and analysis, and we’ll just have to see what else gets thrown into the stew.

Bear with me, if you will; or if not, be off with you.

I’ll begin with symbolic conflation, as that is the originating point of my present contemplations.

In explaining symbolic conflation, the example I usually bring up is that of abortion. I just as easily could use sex education or something similar, issues of sex and gender getting at the tasty marrow of conservative values, but any culture war issues would do. These are hot button topics where symbolic conflation gets exaggerated which makes it easier to observe and analyze.

Symbolic conflation, however, isn’t limited to these kinds of issues. Also, it isn’t limited to just conservatives. Nonetheless, my theory proposes that it is more central to conservative psychology and specifically more central to highly emotional issues.

As a side note, my theory of symbolic conflation might be correlated with and supported by certain psychological studies of ideological differences.

Numerous research shows that conservatives on average have higher rates of such cognitive behaviors as confirmation bias and smart idiot effect. Furthermore, conservatism is somewhat correlated with authoritarianism, although no direct causal link has been ascertained, just partial overlap of factors or a loose affinity of interests under some conditions. What this means is that there is a distinct subset of people who consistently measure high on both conservatism and authoritarianism.

Relevant to my discussion here, authoritarian types are predisposed to being drawn into hierarchical relationships with social dominance orientation types.

The most basic definition — or the most basic element in my theory — of symbolic conflation is this:

A particular type of person is prone to a particular style of thought process that conflates symbolism with reality.

This conflation is inherent to the thought process itself and not merely an end result or side effect. Hence, it isn’t observable by those manifesting this cognitive pattern. Symbolic conflation is only effective when and to the degree it operates below the threshold of awareness.

In communicating shared values and beliefs, rhetoric (usually political rhetoric) can employ specific issues or talking points as symbols for something deeper or larger such that the explicit terms and phrases become codewords for something else, either an unstated meaning or context. To an outside observer, that something else may seem entirely unrelated or not directly related to the overt topic. None of this is necessarily intentional and certainly not conscious. It isn’t an attempt to deceive or manipulate by the person under the sway of the thought process, although it would be used this way by social dominance orientation types when they are seeking to shape the collective identity, perception, and behavior of a specific group or demographic.

For most people, they use symbolic language because that seems to be the easiest (simplest and most useful) way to express the (fuller and deeper) meanings that are otherwise difficult or maybe even impossible to communicate in a more direct and analytical manner. The problem is that symbolism plays a powerful role in the imagination, especially at an unconscious level. This is what makes conflation possible and (for certain types of people and certain types of thinking) probable, even if not inevitable.

One could say, to put it simply:

People don’t always say what they mean… or mean what they say.

However, it might be unfair to explain it with what can be interpreted as dismissive over-simplification. Maybe such people can be taken at face value or maybe not, but either way there is a subtext that is more important and I would add more interesting.

Let me use one of the examples I mentioned earlier.

Sex education and sex-related issues, like abortion, has been put under the scrutiny of those doing scientific research and gathering public data. Using such objective knowledge, this issue can be attacked from numerous angles.

Studies show that abstinence-only sex education fails to decrease sexual activity and ends up, for lack of focus on contraceptives, increasing the rate of both unwanted pregnancies and STDs (the unwanted pregnancies relates to the correlation to increased abortions in countries with abortion bans since such countries also tend to promote abstinence-only sex education and decrease access to contraceptives along with decreasing access to family planning and women’s health clinics). These results are predictable based on what is known about biology, psychology, sociology and anthropology. Humans living in pre-industrial and pre-agricultural societies have very different lifestyles and diets that include reaching puberty years later than modern humans and not delaying sexual activity and marriage like modern humans — thus demonstrating how conservative beliefs/values are divergent from and contradictory to the environmental conditions according to which human nature evolved.

This sex issue is what I first gnashed my teeth on in my coming to terms with the conservative mind. I brought up this info with conservatives, but it was all for naught.

I slowly came to realize that it wasn’t about the practical results of decreasing STDs, unwanted pregnancies and abortions. The issue was about culture and morality. Conservatives see society as morally corrupt and human nature as sinful. Conservative beliefs and values aren’t seen as having failed according to actual people and actual society, but the other way around. So, conservative methods not achieving practical results shouldn’t be blamed on conservatism, if anything it is taken as proof that conservative efforts need to be redoubled.

It should be clarified that it isn’t about conservatives not deigning to make their pure ideals filthy with practical results.

From the conservative viewpoint, there are more important results that have nothing to do with the worldly or lowly concerns of a society ruled by progressivism/socialism (i.e., social democracy), secular humanism, and politically correct multiculturalism. What they seek to achieve is the creating, maintaining and defending of the conservative social order along with its underlying vision of conservative moral order.

Sure, people will inevitably fail to live up to the high standards of conservatism. Most people will fail most of the time and all people will fail at least some of the time, but two important results are hoped for:

1) High standards will filter out the unworthy through punishment and enforced accountability while allowing the worthy to rise to the top into positions of hierarchical authority and in other ways be rewarded for their merit.
2) Punishment, as a threat and an enforcement, will cause people to fearfully cleave closely to the conservative rule and order, thus creating dutiful conformity and social stability.

In the ideal conservative world, premarital/extramarital sex would lead to chastisement, humiliation, ostracism or even banishment and premarital/extramarital pregnancy would lead to the same or else get one forced into marriage, not that any man would want to marry a loose woman in such a society unless he too was forced. Put this in economic terms and you’ll get the ideal world of fiscal conservatism with its austere meritocracy of the haves and have-nots.

This ideal world, of course, will rarely if ever be stated so openly and directly, so starkly and explicitly. Its power resides with the symbolic issues taking center stage like puppets on a string. As the melodrama plays out in public view, the conservative narrative takes hold of the rapt audience.

Symbolic conflation is a very specific way of thinking and communicating symbolically, not to be confused with symbolic cognition in general.

It is tricky trying to grasp at symbolism that seeks to remain hidden, but that just makes it all the more enticing. In my present ponderings, this hidden quality turns my mind toward thoughts of art and the imagination. In considering the liberal/conservative angle, I’m reminded of a similar difference I’ve observed with how art is framed and to what purpose it is used:

With liberals, ideology is expanded through imagination. With conservatives, imagination is constrained by ideology. Both may start with ideology, but go in different directions. The liberal impulse wants to escape or transform ideology into something greater. It’s not that conservatives don’t have a sense of something greater. It’s just that to conservatives ideology itself is an expression of that sense of something greater. Maybe it’s a difference between ideology as means vs ends.

The conservative mind treats art or any other creation of imagination in the way it treats religion. Its natural response is literalism. So, imagination is seen as having no truth in itself. In this way, there is no art for art’s sake, no creative play just for the joy of it, no envisioning of possibility just because one can. Literalism has a literalist purpose and a lieralist end. Literalism is the ur-ideology of conservatism. There is one truth, one reality, one interpretation, one solution (to rule them all).

That constraining of imagination to the ideological seems to be related to the conflating of symbolism with reality. In both cases, imagination or symbolism for the conservative plays an obfuscatory role. In analyzing the conservative worldview, it falls apart because what holds the conservative worldview together is the resistance to analysis. To speak openly and directly about ideology, to factually discuss objective reality, is to reveal the lynchpin of the conservative social order.

As I’ve noted many times before, a core element of liberalism is empathetic imagination. For liberals, imagination is personally and interpersonally real for the liberal imagination is about relating, connecting, merging, crossing boundaries, transgressing the taboo. It’s not that liberals care not about the social order but that they put the emphasis on the social part. Liberals see order serving the social while conservatives see it the other way around.

An inverse relation exists between symbolic conflation and empathetic imagination. Let me explain by summarizing.

What symbolic conflation does is to focus on the symbolic by sacrificing the apparently practical results and real world implications. Nonetheless, the person under the sway of such thinking sees themselves as being perfectly practical. They are indeed being practical, although their practicality is being applied to the covert issue rather than the overt issue. Conservatives’ relative indifference to practical solutions for overt issues would be strengthened or exaggerated by their weak sense of empathic imagination. They are less able to imaginatively empathize with the victims of conservative policies and less able to empathetically imagine it being any other way, even when objective data of other societies proves and demonstrates another way works better in avoiding or solving some problem.

In the conservative worldview, instead of being freed by imagination, empathy is constrained by ideological literalism. Humans are seen as being constrained by their own fallen or selfish nature. As such, human failure and suffering is assumed to be unavoidable, inevitable, simply the way the world works. To imagine otherwise is idealistic utopianism and so imagination gets blamed for this state of affairs for it is seen as offering false hope. Hence, false hope is assumed to exacerbate suffering by creating dissatisfaction with the status quo and, worst still, false hope on the political level is assumed to lead to oppression when the ‘impossible’ is sought to be enforced on the ‘real’.

Conservatives assume the conservative predisposition represents all of human nature. So, they assume the limits of the conservative worldview are the same as the limits of human reality, maybe even all of reality. As a liberal’s imagination is the liberal’s reality, a conservative’s literalist belief is theirs.

My criticisms of the conservative mindset may be related to my wariness to the ideological mindset.

There is a correlation between conservatism and dogmatism, especially as it relates to authoritarianism (maybe dogmatism being the main or one of the main factors where conservatism and authoritarianism overlap). This probably connects to conservatism being negatively correlated to the openness trait and the thin boundary type. A set of ideas only becomes truly ideological when it is strictly systematized and that is precisely what the conservative mindset is good at doing. Conservatives excel or at least are disproportionately represented in careers where systems of rules, beliefs or ideas are central, such as in the legal system.

I’m wary about generalizing ideology too much and extending it beyond that which it most directly and usefully applies. Ideology etymologically originates from ‘idea’. An ideology is a set of ideas, a thought system. Ideologies are involved in or included within but not identical to governments, political parties, cultures, religions, mythologies, worldviews, lifeways, reality tunnels, etc.

It is unhelpful, maybe even dangerous, to think of ideology as representing all (or most) of human reality or, to put it another way, constraining human reality to the limits of ideology. However, to the person who becomes entirely committed to and identified with an ideology, it is experienced as if it were their entire reality. Even though though reality tunnels necessitate more than ideologies, it is an ideology that can play a central role in justifying a reality tunnel and keeping one trapped within it.

In thinking about this, I was doing many websearches and looking through my old posts here on this blog. Here is some of what I came across that was rumbling around in my head as I wrote all of the above:

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10803-004-2553-x?LI=true

http://www.cog.psy.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/papers/2007/Rogers%282007%29_JAutismDevDisord.pdf

http://life-with-aspergers.blogspot.com/2007/10/aspie-and-empathy.html

http://www.autismandempathy.com/?p=1476

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/aspergers-diary/200910/perspectives-aspergers-and-empathy

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-007-0486-x#page-1

http://www.alessioavenanti.com/pdf_library/minio-paluello_2009biolpsychiatry.pdf

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811905006853

http://journals.lww.com/neuroreport/Abstract/2001/08080/Investigating_the_functional_anatomy_of_empathy.29.aspx

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1093/neucas/8.3.245

http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ090909&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ090909

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178109000936

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5914.2009.00402.x/abstract;jsessionid=D58D9FC0B8BFE453E7F846A690C2889D.d04t02?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9450.2011.00913.x/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10803-009-0799-z?LI=true

http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=8k6yVdL-fiQC&oi=fnd&pg=PA149&dq=empathy+AND+aspergers&ots=Hq9yqrjlz8&sig=rjbTa-pPALsEi_vUe7RkJCDDfUU#v=onepage&q=empathy%20AND%20aspergers&f=false

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100426182002.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110125103825.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110628094835.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100427091723.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127085550.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121024175240.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120426143856.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100409093405.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090623120837.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090128074929.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121030161416.htm

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/03/what-rob-portman-learned/63166/

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/why-the-rich-dont-give/309254/

http://www.salon.com/2013/02/22/are_republican_brains_different_partner/

http://www.wevotedforkodos.com/2013/02/05/genetic-predisposition-and-political-affiliation/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/giving-the-real-a-voice/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/liberal-mindedness-empathetic-imagination-and-capitalist-realism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/the-iron-lady-the-view-of-a-bleeding-heart/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/do-rightwingers-love-war/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/the-enlightenment-project-a-defense/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/conservative-mistrust-ideological-certainty-part-2/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/12/25/interesting-stuff-on-the-web-122509/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/haidt-mooney-moral-foundations-spiral-dynamics/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/violence-vs-empathy-indifference-vs-unhappiness/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/why-did-i-become-a-leftist/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/ideology-and-empathy/

Interesting Stuff on the Web: 3/23/13

Here are a few things that caught my attention. Taken together, they almost form a loosely coherent thought-web about the complexity of the left/right spectrum and some interesting examples in contemporary politics, from left-wing states’ rights secessionists to conservatives of the liberal tradition. I’ll share them without any commentary:

U.S. Out of Vermont!
Move over, Texas: In the Green Mountain State, it’s leftists who want to secede.
By Christopher Ketcham

“Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex–Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen. The manifesto that elaborated their platform was read at the conference: a 1,400-word mouthful that echoed the Declaration of Independence in its petition of grievances. “[T]ransnational megacompanies and big government,” it proclaimed, “control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures.” The document was signed by, among others, its principal authors, a professor emeritus of economics at Duke University named Thomas Naylor and the decentralist philosopher Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale. “Citizens,” it concluded, “lend your name to this manifesto and join in the honorable task of rejecting the immoral, corrupt, decaying, dying, failing American Empire and seeking its rapid and peaceful dissolution before it takes us all down with it.””

Conservatives Please Read
Book review by Historied of Sidanius and Pratto’s Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression

“I have worked as an executive in the corporate sector for 35 years and felt how powerfully this approach could be used there. The chronic lack of real talent to solve real issues of the business and environment, is very much compounded by issues of dominance and restriction of the search for talent and the education of talent to elite groups who are often clueless about the world. And this book provides a critical thinking 101 approach quite independent of its content.The growing hereditary nature of management succession (think President of the USA)is part of social dominance. The socially dominant send their kids to the best schools and these seem to be structured to restrict critical thinking or divert it into postmodernist irrelevance. This book helps you see such apparently unconnected phenomena in new ways. And it might direct students towards structurally relevant issues of society rather than the marginal. While this book is an obvious resource for the oppressed, I heartily recommend it to members of socially dominant power groups like myself.”

Comment by Andrew on Corey Robin’s post Edmund Burkey on the Free Market

“I’ve always been a fan of SDO theory. It reconcils social dominance and ‘selfishness’ with altruism, solving the riddle by positing that egalitarianism is actually a form reverse social dominance whereby the group overpowers the alphas and thens uses threat of violence and/or humiliation to keep any one member of the group from becoming more power than the other. This pairs nicely with anthropologists’ and of course, Marx and Engels’ observations on the ‘primitive communism’ of early hunter-gathering societies.

“Although many would likely cringe at the suggestion, I feel it’s an actual evolutionary explanation for the differences between leftwing and rightwing politics.”

Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?
By Patrick J. Deneen

“There’s a further problem in the contemporary narrative that has been developed by conservatives regarding the course of the Constitution. While the narrative of the Constitution’s corruption by Progressives has been popularized by Glenn Beck, it has largely been developed by scholars who study in the tradition established by the German émigré scholar, Leo Strauss. They largely rely on a significant essay written by Strauss entitled “The Three Waves of Modernity.” In that essay, Strauss explains that the break with antiquity – particularly classical Greek and Roman as well as Christian thought – was inaugurated by thinkers of “modern Natural Right,” in an incipient form by Machiavelli and then further by Hobbes and Locke. These thinkers argued that a new science of politics was needed, one that was not as resigned simultaneously to a vision of ideal politics based upon the inculcation of virtue, and also a theory of decline that necessarily accompanied those high aims, as that which characterized ancient thought. Building on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke sought to channel the great source of political strife toward productive ends, particularly in the areas of commerce and expansion of human knowledge (modern science). Aided by the insights of Hobbes’s one-time boss, Francis Bacon, the new science of politics was devoted to “the relief of the human estate,” a project that relied upon the new natural sciences for the expansion of human power and mastery over nature. This “first wave” of modernity recognized the inherent imperfectability of human beings – thus, that we have a nature, and that a successful politics can be built upon that nature – and served as the philosophical basis for the American founding.

“The “second wave” of modernity is called by Strauss “historicism.” Like a wave – following upon and deriving its content from the previous wave – this “second wave” took its point of departure from an instability within the first wave. The “second wave” of modernity took the basic insight of the philosophers of the first wave – that nature was subject to human control – and extended this insight to human nature itself. If external nature were subject to human dominion, why not human nature itself? Thinkers like Rousseau, Condorcet, Comte, and later, John Stuart Mill, developed the idea of human perfectibility, of the human ability to master not only external nature, but to improve human nature as well. If philosophers of the “first wave” argued that human nature was unalterable, philosophers of the “second wave” argued that human nature could be improved concurrent with an improvement in the material domain. The concept of moral progress became a central feature in second wave philosophy, a progress in historical time that was believed to culminate in man’s perfection, even ascent to a godlike condition. In America, thinkers like Dewey, Croly and later, Richard Rorty adopted the basic insights of this “second wave” of modernity.

“What Strauss perceived – and what his epigones too often overlook – is that the seeds of the second wave are planted within the logic of the first wave. A theory that rejects the fundamental governance of nature (at least that nature external to humanity) – or natural law – and substitutes this ancient Aristotelian and Thomistic standard for a more utilitarian calculus of interest inevitably jeopardizes any standard and even its own effort to ground its politics on a now more limited understanding of human nature. The “second” wave is embedded in the first wave – that is, lacking a standard by which humans are to be limited, their tendency will be to develop a political philosophy that invites thorough re-creation not only of our environment, but of the human creature. According to the implicit logic of Strauss’s argument, we do better to see that Progressive liberalism is the consequence of “Classical Liberalism,” and not its wholesale betrayal, as many today would like to believe.

“Strauss discerned that it is from the very individualistic basis of liberalism that arose the collectivist impulse of “progressivism,” initially in communism and fascism, but today in what we might call “progressive liberalism.” The false anthropology of liberalism – anathema to the deeper insights of a pre-liberal “conservative” tradition – spawns the perverse but inescapable progeny that it purports to despise, but which at every turn it fosters. Any conservative impulse is throttled by its more fundamental fealty to the liberal tradition.

“It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America.”

The ‘About’ page for the Front Porch Republic website

“The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation. It also threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.”

What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto
By John Halpin

“As progressives gear up for inevitable fights over taxes, budgets, and social policy, we shouldn’t forget about the importance of values in explaining who we are and what we want to achieve. We believe in freedom with opportunity for all, responsibility to all, and cooperation among all. We believe that the purpose of government is to advance the common good, to secure and protect our rights, and to help to create a high quality of life and community well-being. We want decent paying jobs and benefits for workers and sustainable economic growth. We want growing businesses producing the world’s best products and services. We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. We want all nations to uphold universal human rights and to work together to solve common challenges. This is what a progressive America looks like.”

Social Order and Symbolic Conflation

Again and again, I return to the issue of conservatism. What or who defines it? How is or should it be defined? It’s endlessly mesmerizing, at least to my more liberal mind.

There are two typical answers to the question of conservatism’s definition.

First, (true) conservatives want to conserve.

This a nice notion, but doesn’t work out very well. Everyone, liberals included, want to conserve something as this is simply a facet of human nature. So, this doesn’t get at the core motivation of conservatives as a distinct group, movement, worldview or predisposition: What exactly do conservatives want to conserve? What don’t they want to conserve? And why? Its clear that many conservatives don’t have good answers, beyond largely ahistorical nostalgic fantasies or else abstract philosophizing/theologizing. In relation to American tradition (in the mainstream), many mainstream liberals have taken on the role of conserving the status quo and mainstream conservatives quite the opposite.

Second, (true) conservatives are traditionalist.

This is another nice notion that is equally problematic. There are many traditions, even within a single culture or society or political system. Heck, after several centuries, modern liberalism has become one of the most dominant and well established traditions in the world, a tradition that the United States was founded upon. This is why American ‘conservatives’ are classical liberals rather than classical conservatives. The British Tories were the classical conservatives that Americans sought independence from.

Conservatives do want to conserve something, but many things can be and have been latched onto. Furthermore, anything conserved, even if only in memory or imagination, becomes a tradition and is treated as such by conservatives. This obviously doesn’t clarify the matter. The conservative impulse, separate from the general conserving impulse, does have limits to what or else how it is applied.

Here is my preferred hypothesis. It won’t win awards for originality, but it makes sense of the evidence.

Conservatives value relatively stable, strict or even rigid social orders that are based on, justified by and maintained according to hierarchy and authority. Conservatives will seek to conserve any tradition thus deemed worthy or, failing that, seek to (re-)create a tradition that when established will be worthy of being conserved; both of these easily being conflated at least in rhetoric, hence the close tie between the traditionalist conservative and the reactionary conservative, the distinction as such being an academic exercise — I wonder if traditionalist and reactionary are just two stages in the life-cycle of conservatism, each inevitably leading back to the other.

I would add that, in this way, there is no ‘true’ conservatism since there is no fundamental content or inherent substance. Conservatism isn’t any single thing or set of things, but a preference/tendency in relating to things. For this reason, conservatives have no loyalty to tradition simply for the sake of it being tradition.

American conservatives, for example, have no inherent commitment to any given American tradition, although of course they are committed to a collective imagining of a tradition (a social and political narrative, an origin myth) that may or may not partly correspond to some period or aspect of history. American conservatives have no particular loyalty to the tradition of the Republican Party prior to the Southern Strategy nor loyalty to the European tradition of conservatism. Each generation and group of conservatives has re-imagined what is ‘true’ conservatism.

The world history of conservatism is immensely diverse, including everything from theocracy to monarchism, from fascism to republicanism. Even American socialists have grounded themselves in conservative traditions such as German communalism. Just within the limited spectrum of mainstream American politics, there are conservatives as polar opposite as evangelical states’ rights libertarians threatening secession and secular statist neocons using liberal rhetoric about spreading democracy around the world, two extremes that can’t be contained in any single consistent ideology.

Loyalty and consistency aren’t the issues.

A social order is perceived as worthy or unworthy not because of the social order itself, rather what that social order accomplishes or fails to accomplish. What is trying to be accomplished is that a worthy order will reward the worthy and punish the unworthy. Conservatives turned away from a monarchical system of feudal aristocracy not because it oppressively denied individual rights and liberty.  What Corey Robin points out is that conservatives saw the old social order as having become weak and so no longer able to maintain its own hierarchy and authority against opponents. Conservatives didn’t want to remove this kind of social order, but to offer a new and improved version. This required adapting to changing conditions which is how modern conservatives adopted classical liberalism in place of classical conservatism.

The rhetoric of conservatism is misleading. The purpose of conservative social order is first and foremost to defend and maintain conservative social order, i.e., hierarchical authority. The upholders and representatives of conservative social order don’t need to justify their reasons to social inferiors. They just have to keep their social inferiors in their place, thus maintaining conservative social order.

On this most basic level, conservatism is morally neutral or rather morally relativistic. No external objective standard can be used to measure the authenticity and merit of a social order in the mind of conservatives. It is a self-referential closed system. That is what conservatism does: closes down, tightens the ranks, guards the boundaries, etc. This is what makes it stable and dependable, strong enough to be its own moral standard (in the way the conservative God doesn’t need to justify his own divine laws and moral pronouncements; it is right, good and true because God says so, and you know he said so because that is what God put in his own holy book).

Any principle, belief or value put forth by a conservative is always symbolic. And every conservative symbol represents the same thing: conservative social order. An example I’ve used before is that of conservatives claiming to be pro-life. I’ve pointed out to conservatives that research has shown banning abortions doesn’t decrease and in some cases increases the rate of abortions, just illegal and more dangerous. If conservatives were primarily pro-life, this evidence would cause them to change their mind. Does it make them rethink? Of course not. Being pro-life is a symbolic position representing conservative social order in its role as overt moral order.

This is an opaquely symbolic way of thinking and speaking. The best way to defend the social order is by disguising it as something other or more than what it is. The moment the social order is clearly seen, it can be openly questioned and doubted. The social order has to be taken as a given of reality in order for it to have power to persuade and inspire. The symbol must become conflated with reality and this conflation is of prime importance, the very heart of conservatism.

I can’t begin to explain how immensely this fascinates me. There is power in this that, as I’ve said before, goes way beyond anything liberalism can accomplish (which is meant as a compliment of sorts). As long as the conflation stands unchallenged, liberalism is pathetically weak (a definite criticism coming from my inner left-winger).

Many liberals don’t understand this or are afraid to speak truth to power. When social order is weakened, all of society becomes threatened by the possibility of change. Only the most radical revolutionary will embrace the new and different without trepidation. Liberals want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin. This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.

Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.

None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how  society seems to operate.

So, it all comes down to social order. That is what all of civilization is about. The precariousness of civilization helps me understand the mysterious and hidden nature of conservatism. I have a basic respect for the function it serves.

I’ll end as I began with some questions:

Could civilization operate differently? Or could such ways of operating serve a new kind of social order?

Localized Democracy and Public Good

To give balance to recent blog posts, I’ll share my thoughts that arose with a discussion I had with my dad.

He is definitely a conservative in most ways, fiscally and socially. However, he is intelligent and well informed which has caused him to adjust his views over time. I often use him as a way of testing the direction of political winds, specifically which way mainstream conservatism is blowing.

I can lean strongly left at times and my father can lean strongly right. This often leads to disagreements, but maybe just as often leads to certain kinds of agreements. As conservatism and liberalism meets in the middle, the right-wing and left-wing meets in the political desert.

It’s my dad’s fiscal conservatism that saves him from the ideological blindness of partisan politics. He is an economically practical man who has worked in and taught business management. It has been his business to consider new information. My leftism has maybe served a similar role. It’s basically within the general realm of libertarianism that my father and I can find common ground, although neither of us is an ideologically committed libertarian.

The discussion we were having was fairly typical, not unlike any number of other discussions we’ve had. I guess it stood out to me because I sensed my dad was struggling with new info and so reassessing a bit. There is a newsletter he reads and the financial advisor who writes it doesn’t seem particularly conservative. He was reading this newsletter and the info was food for thought.

For example, my dad is slowly coming around to taking environmentalism more seriously. He was reading about how we as a society can’t continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere. This might seem obvious to those on the left, but this is the type of info my dad has spent a lifetime avoiding and the conservative media has helped him avoid it.

Environmentalism isn’t the main issue my dad brought up, rather economics as it relates to politics. Environmentalism only connected because my dad was considering the commentary that oil will no longer play the role as a cheap energy source. This is problematic as our entire society has been literally fueled by cheap energy and it could be a while before we develop a new cheap energy.

The economics and politics angle, I think, related to developing new energy sources. My dad was telling me about how this financial advisor was saying debt itself wasn’t the problem, but whether deficit spending was being used toward pragmatic investments or not. This goes against my dad’s fiscal conservatism.

Both my dad and I agree that bailing out banks was a bad idea. I was telling my dad about Iceland and he wasn’t familiar with that example.  I also mentioned Sweden that is doing well, even with a massive welfare state relative to GDP. I used this as a jumping off point for explaining my personal theory (or rather set of theories), and my dad agreed.

My dad is wary of what he calls ‘populism’, but I pointed out that the policies in Iceland and Sweden seem to have been popularly supported in those countries. My speculation is that these countries represent optimal conditions for societal and economic health.

I see several essential factors. First and foremost, democracy seems key which doesn’t imply any single form of democracy, moreso just the general principles of democracy in society overall (not just politics, but also in social institutions, community organizing and economic systems). I suspect that democracy only functions well under certain conditions.

There are obvious differences between the US and countries such as Iceland and Sweden. The US is massive in terms of both population and geographical territory. This might be the most important part as I have yet to see it proven that genuine democracy can function at all on the largescale. With this massiveness, there also comes massive diversity that disallows easy organizing and governing. In the US, every special interest group seems out for their own private good. There isn’t a single shared culture to create a sense of social solidarity and common good.

For these reasons, you can only find some well functioning democracy on the local level of American politics. And even on the local level, well functioning democracy in the US is more rare as local communities have been undermined and in many cases decimated. The federal government helped to end much oppression and corruption on the local level, yet often just shifted the problems to the federal level. The closest the US has ever come to something akin to the Northern European social democracies is, to use one of my favorite examples, the early 20th century municipal socialism of Milwaukee.

To my mind, democracy and local governance go hand in hand. However, that local governance has to be supported by a shared local culture. The problem of  many post-colonial countries is that their boundaries were created according to political demands and compromises. This has meant that a single country might contain multiple tribal cultures while any single tribal culture might be divided between multiple countries. Unsurprisingly, these are conflict-ridden societies.

The US seems to be in an impossible situation. I see no likely way of getting democracy to function in the US, definitely not on the federal level and probably not even on the state level. There are just two many special interests and too many lobby groups, not to mention that most of the founding elites never wanted democracy.

My sense of democracy is somewhat open-ended. Democracy maybe isn’t a single ideological system in the way capitalism is. Democracy applies to all aspects of society and can allow for many possible ideological systems. My ideal well functioning democracy could manifest quite diversely depending on the local culture. It could be more capitalist or more socialist or even more religious.

This does seem to be a more libertarian interpretation of democracy. This could be minarchist democracy, but I don’t know that it wouldn’t also allow larger political alliances that might resemble the government of a larger country or union.

The problem with actual functioning capitalism is that it is completely opposed to my vision of democracy. If capitalism is supposed to be a free market, I don’t know what kind of freedom this is or whose freedom it is. It certainly isn’t a democratic economy.

My dad could agree with much of what I said, but he struggles with the notion of a democratic economy for his fear of ‘populism’. Nonetheless, the fact that a mainstream conservative like my dad could agree with my general argument is impressive. There is already a lot of agreement in American society, but the anti-democratic system gets in the way.

I wonder when global society and local communities will get shook up enough to begin implementing something entirely new, beyond a few exceptions found in isolation.

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

Capitalist realism is one of the best explanations of our society I’ve ever come across. I’ve written about it before, but my mood lately has brought it back to my mind.

Sometimes life can feel like a set of bad choices or else no real choice at all. We find ourselves trapped in a collective reality tunnel. It closes down our ability to think about and perceive the world around us, limits our potential and choices, constrains our imaginations. We either lower our expectations or become cynical, as long as we remain in such an ideological worldview.

There is nothing specific going on in my life that turns my thoughts in this direction. I just have my normal depression that pervades my personal world, although it is obvious that my depression makes me hyper-aware and over-sensitive about such things.

Beyond general mood, a more direct connection could be made. Psychiatric conditions are mixed up with capitalist realism. Capitalism atomizes society which leads to breakdown of extended families and communities. Capitalism undermines, weakens and in some cases eliminates social capital. Capitalism destroys natural ecosystems that help maintain our health, from cleaning our air and water to providing nutritious food.

There is good reason for why so many people feel like crap in our society. People are isolated, disconnected and ungrounded. People are overworked and stressed out. People are overweight and out of shape. People are depressed or manic or both, are sleep-deprived and/or suffer insomnia, are over-medicated and self-medicated, are addicted to sugar and caffeine and alcohol. This is the normal state of being in capitalist society.

Yet capitalist realism shifts the blame to the individual. This is the flipside of externalizing costs. Through indoctrination, individuals internalize responsibility for bad choices while not realizing that all choices offered by capitalism are tainted with negative consequences.

In criticizing capitalism, I’m not advocating another ideological system in its place. Capitalism isn’t the only thing that has this capacity to put blinders on our imaginative vision. But capitalist realism is the problem directly before us.

As such, what is it that we don’t see? What possibilities do we ignore? What alternative visions are left unimagined and unarticulated?

In the future, what will be to capitalism as capitalism was to slavery and feudalism? What would it mean if our economy was led by democracy rather than our politics led by capitalists? What if we were not only free to choose among limited and predetermined choices but free to consider all possibilities and envision new avenues of possibility?

This isn’t the end of history. We should hope that this is just the beginning. It would cause me to fall into suicidal despair to think this is the best of which humanity is capable. So, for the sake of my own mental health, I’ll try my best to maintain hope for something better on the horizon, even if I may not live to see its fruition and benefit from its results.

May our imperfect present be the seedbed for new and better future realities, whatever they may be.

Cynicism and Trust

Cynicism and trust are competing forces.

These are mutually exclusive factors where the increase of one causes or contributes to the decrease of the other. With a cynical attitude, people withdraw from social relationships based on a larger sense of trust. As people withdraw their sense of trust, they lessen their commitment to acting trustworthy toward others and are less willing to put themselves on the line to help promote an environment of trust. Thus, cynicism replacing trust, society becomes atomized leading to the dominance of Social Darwinism and hyper-individualism.

Social trust exists in concentric circles: family, church, community, region, country, ethnicity/race, etc. Some societies have high trust cultures and others low trust cultures. All things remaining stable, high trust cultures are concomitant with and sustaining of high trust social organization. The same with low trust cultures and social organization. It’s a reciprocal relation. However, not all things remain unchanging.

The United States has a relatively high trust culture, although not as high as Japan and many Northern European countries. On the other hand, the US has some clear dysfunctions related to low trust. I think this conflict has to do with it being a large and diverse society, but fortunately with many citizens of ancestries from countries that are high trust (such as Germany). Certain US regions (such as those with low rates of German ancestry) have cultures of low trust, the Deep South being the prime example. This regionalism has created clear dysfunction on the federal level of government, but at the same time a high trust form of democracy continues to operate within certain local communities and governments.

The conditions in the US have changed greatly. This has shifted the level and extension of trust. These changes involve various balances of power – between: South and North, federal and states, elites and non-elites, left and right, etc.

Many Americans have lost a wider sense of trust. Partly, it’s just the inevitable atomizing destruction of community that results from globalized capitalism. But there is more to it. Modernity, in general, is about societal change: secularization, multiculturalism, urbanization, suburbanization, and many other factors. Humans have evolved to adapt to change, but this is more change than humans can collectively deal with in a healthy way.

This hits certain groups harder than others. The lower classes, of course, get the brunt of it and they also have the least resources to soften the impact. For reasons of psychological traits, conservatives deal with it the worse or maybe it’s that conservatives become the worst in dealing with it. There is nothing in the world that even comes close to the cynicism of a conservative turned reactionary.

We moderns so often take trust for granted, except when there is societal tumult or breakdown. Human nature is built on group cohesion which necessitates trust. Civilization magnifies this requirement of social capital. At the same time, the development of civilization has undermined what makes trust possible as an expression of human nature and human communities. Humans didn’t evolve in large, concentrated societies and so human nature isn’t adapted well to these conditions.

Some societies apparently have maintained their cultures of trust over the centuries, but modernization has made this increasingly difficult. The exceptional countries are those that have maintained some basic level of cultural (often ethnic) isolation, economic independence, and societal autonomy. This has mostly applied to Northern societies such as Germany and Scandinavia.

The US is somewhere in the middle on the scale of trust. We have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of high trust cultures, but we also have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of low trust cultures. This is one of the divisions underlying the regionalism of North/South. Germans and Scandinavians mostly settled the North. Scots-Irish, Barbadoans, etc mostly settled the South.

It’s interesting that early capitalism favored the high trust culture of the North and more recent capitalism has shifted increasingly to the low trust culture of the South. Capitalism is an odd system in that it needs a high trust culture to develop into large-scale international corporations, but capitalism seeks out low trust cultures to exploit for profits. So, capitalism uses high trust cultures for its own ends which ultimately undermines those very high trust cultures. The only exceptions to this seems to be extremely well developed cultures of trust that enforce massive regulation and social/moral control over the economic sector. The US mixed culture of trust/mistrust makes a perfect location for modern exploitative capitalism.

Of course, this is problematic for democracy in the US and many other countries.

Political Elites Disconnected From General Public

There is an interesting article by Alex Preen on Salon.com:

Politicians think Americans are super-conservative
A survey of thousands shows candidates from both parties think the electorate is way more right-wing than it is

“According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are. Unsurprisingly, Republicans think voters are way more right-wing than they actually are.”

It’s unsurprising that right-wingers are clueless about the average American. That is the nature of being a right-winger, often not even realizing one is right-wing, instead thinking one is a normal mainstream American

“Liberal politicians, meanwhile, don’t imagine that their constituents are super-liberal. A majority of them also believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. Which, well, that explains your Democratic Party since the Clinton administration. They weren’t polled, but I’m pretty sure “nonpartisan” political elites in the media share the exact same misperception. (“It’s a center-right country,” we hear all the time, which it turns out is both meaningless and untrue.)”

Now, this might be surprising to many, especially those on the right. It’s far from surprising to me. The average American is way to the left of what is considered ‘liberal’ in mainstream politics and media.

“Left-liberals who actually pay attention to surveys of popular opinion on things like raising taxes on rich people and expanding Medicare instead of raising the eligibility age are frequently a bit annoyed when they watch, say, the Sunday shows, and these ideas are either dismissed as radical or simply not brought up to begin with, but all of Washington is still pretty sure that Nixon’s Silent Majority is still out there, quietly raging against the longhairs and pinkos. In fact the new Silent Majority is basically made up of a bunch of social democrats, wondering why Congress can’t do serious, sensible, bipartisan things like lock up all the bankers and redistribute their loot to the masses.”

I’m one of those left-liberals who actually pays attention to surveys of popular opinion. The one thing that surprises me is that so few people do pay attention. You’d think it would be a politician’s business to pay attention. Their whole job is theoretically to represent and yet they don’t know who they are representing.

One commenter put it well:

“Constituents? Who cares about them? MONEY votes conservative, and that’s what counts. to both parties.”

Another commenter extended that thought:

“I suspect what’s going on is that many politicians (a) feel they’re supposed to represent their constituents, (b) find they’re compelled to represent their donors and other fat cats, and (c) mitigate the cognitive dissonance by telling themselves (a) and (b) aren’t far apart, although, of course, they are.”

I makes me wonder. Can these seemingly clueless people really be that out of touch and just plain ignorant? People in politics and media tend to be people who are above average in both IQ and education. None of this polling data is a secret or difficult to find.

At least for those on the right, not knowing or pretending to not know is conveniently self-serving. The way they act and what they support implies that on some level they do know, as a commenter put it:

“Republican politicians may be in the grips of delusion about the beliefs of their constituents, but at the same time they understand the need for gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other aggressive antidemocratic uses of power, when they have it, to enforce rightwing priorities. Something isn’t quite right here.”

I care less about the politicians and media. If the public became self-aware of their own leftism, it would become more difficult for the mainstream elites to keep their ruse going.

This is the kind of stating the obvious that we should hear more of, but most people are trapped in the status quo reality tunnel. Our supposedly democratic system isn’t particularly democratic and wasn’t designed to be.

Corey Robin

Every once in a while I teach constitutional law, and when I do, I pose to my students the following question: What if the Senate apportioned votes not on the basis of states but on the basis of race? That is, rather than each state getting two votes in the Senate, what if each racial or ethnic group listed in the US Census got two votes instead?

Regardless of race, almost all of the students freak out at the suggestion. It’s undemocratic, they cry! When I point out that the Senate is already undemocratic—the vote of any Wyomian is worth vastly more than the vote of each New Yorker—they say, yeah, but that’s different: small states need protection from large states. And what about historically subjugated or oppressed minorities, I ask? Or what about the fact that one of the major intellectual moves, if not completely successful coups, of Madison…

View original post 1,470 more words

PKD vs the American Mythos

I’ve been listening to audio versions of PKD’s books, mostly his novels but some of his short stories and his Exegesis. The last two books I listened to are Eye in the Sky and Counter-Clock World, both of which I have read previously. I find myself, as usual, amused with the worlds created by PKD’s unique mind.

Those two novels (EITS & CCW) have been part of the background noise, for the past week or so, to the foreground focus of my thinking about culture. A recent blog post of mine was about the linguistic history of liberty, freedom, and fairness. It’s even more fun to think about such ideas with a PKD spin.

What really got my brain juices going is how PKD’s characters grapple with the realities they find themselves in. Some of his characters are more aware and others less so. To speak in the terms of culture is to already be standing part way outside the frame of the culture(s) in question. If a cultural paradigm is truly dominant, it is simply taken as reality itself and so not easily seen for what it is.

The less aware characters in a PKD fictional world don’t question the strange nature of their reality. It is similar in our world. Every world is a fiction of sorts, but of course a world is compelling only to the extent it isn’t seen as a fiction.

Culture is in particular closely related to the storytelling predisposition of humanity. Politics as well and we can’t leave out economics. It’s easy to think about religion as involving stories. What differentiates religion from most other areas of life is how obviously mired it is in the narrative mentality. However, I suspect religion just makes obvious what otherwise can go unnoticed.

Economics is a good example. What makes economics powerful in organizing society is the same thing that makes religion compelling to the believer. The compelling quality is belief itself, especially considering the often theoretical nature of both economic and religious ideologies.

Money or even gold as a symbol of value might be the greatest fiction ever created. This is most evident with gold which has very little practical application. Paper money at least has some very basic uses in that paper is one of the most useful things ever created. Despite all the hording, no one knows what to do with all of the massive piles of gold all over the world. People have sacrificed their lives and taken the lives of others, empires have risen and fallen, all based on gold being pretty and shiny.

Any monetary system is ultimately symbolic… but symbolic of what? The US dollar is backed by two things: the brute force of a global military empire and “In God We Trust”. As such, the US monetary system is backed by power of two (some might say closely related) varieties. It’s not just the physical power that matters. US currency with its invocation of God is a magical talisman. Only God and the banking system can create something out of nothing (whether in terms of the federal reserve printing money or private banks gambling with wealth that doesn’t actually exist in the real world).

The economic systems of other countries aren’t fundamentally different. Money never represents anything tangible or else money wouldn’t be necessary at all. Relationships or rather the perception of relationships is what money is about. All of the wealth and all of the debt in the world is an imaginary agreement. It is all ephemeral. The entire scheme could shift dramatically or disappear in a blink of an eye.

If the global economy collapsed, nothing objectively would have changed. The gold in vaults would continue to sit in piles. The natural resources would remain as they were before. The human capital would still be where it always was.

The reason there is starvation and malnutrition in the world has no objective cause. There is plenty of food to feed the entire world’s population and there is no lack in our ability to transport the food where it is needed. It’s like the Irish potato famine which was an intentionally created catastrophe. Capitalists couldn’t make much if any profit by selling or giving potatoes to poor starving people, and so they sold Ireland’s remaining potatoes to less hungry people elsewhere who had money. The same basic dynamic continues today with global capitalists who are even wealthier and more powerful.

We live in a corrupt system that is rotten to the core, but we collectively can’t imagine it being any other way. This is what some people call capitalist realism. Those who point out the problems get called commies or worse.

But it goes beyond mere economics. It’s our reality tunnel.

If our world was part of a story, a reader looking in on us would think he was reading dystopian science fiction. The fictions that we live and breathe on a daily basic don’t seem ludicrous because we have no equivalent comparison and so no larger perspective. A reader from the future would find the historical accounts of our period very perplexing. They would wonder why we couldn’t see the obvious immorality that our society is built upon and why we didn’t revolt, the same kinds of things we wonder about those who lived in early America with its slavery (or revolutionary era England with its socioeconomic caste system or any other number of examples). Slavery like capitalism is just another fiction that gains its power from those who believe in it or accept it or submit to it or become fatalistically resigned to it (not to say that some of the oppressed didn’t try to resist or revolt at times).

Like many PKD protagonists, I feel confused by the world I’m in. Things are a certain way and that is just the way it is. I don’t have any more rational understanding of why time flows forward than do the characters in Counter-Clock World understand why time flows backwards. We could quickly solve all of humanity’s problems if we wanted to, but it’s beyond me why we don’t want to or, to put it another way, why there isn’t a collective will to do so.

To be cynical, one could argue that the story of human misery apparently satisfies something in human nature. It’s all about compelling stories. The story of human misery is compelling because it is part of a mythos of compelling stories: the American Dream, meritocracy, free markets, entrepreneurial progress, cultural superiority, white man’s burden, manifest destiny, spreading democracy, etc.

Human misery is just the flipside of the Devil’s Bargain that the US was founded upon. There has to be losers for there to be winners, so the story goes. It’s a Manichaean battle between the makers and the takers, between the job-creators and the welfare mothers, between the hard-working meritocracy and the lazy slaves/workers. The worse off the losers must mean that we are experiencing some serious progress.

That is the thing with stories. You can say they aren’t real, yet they certainly have real consequences. The stories we live are real to the degree we force them onto reality and hence force them onto others. For those of the less powerful persuasion, we can participate in the story of power by submitting to some role within it that might allow us to have greater power than someone, just as long as we aren’t on the very bottom… and even the bottom has its narrative-justified comforts and contentments as there is always something further below us (animals, nature, etc).

Storytellers like PKD attempt to recast our collective narratives and offer a new symbolic context. Just being able to imagine something different is a power not offered by the status quo storyline.