Invisible Problems of Invisible People

Many have explored how people are made invisible. As Becky Pettit explains in Invisible Men:

“[O]ur collective blindness hinders the establishment of social facts, conceals inequality, and undermines the foundation of social science research, including that used in the design and evaluation of social policy. The decades-long expansion of the criminal justice system has led to the acute and rapid disappearance of young, low-skill African American men from portraits of the American economic, political, and social condition . While the expansion of the criminal justice system reinforces race and class inequalities in the United States, the full impact of the criminal justice system on American inequality is obscured by the continued use of data collection strategies and estimation methods that predate prison expansion.”

In the Washington Post, Jeff Guo made a similar point, including mentioning the work of Becky Pettit and Bruce Western:

“Though there are nearly 1.6 million Americans in state or federal prison, their absence is not accounted for in the figures that politicians and policymakers use to make decisions. As a result, we operate under a distorted picture of the nation’s economic health.

“There’s no simple way to estimate the impact of mass incarceration on the jobs market. But here’s a simple thought experiment. Imagine how the white and black unemployment rates would change if all the people in prison were added to the unemployment rolls.

“According to a Wonkblog analysis of government statistics, about 1.6 percent of prime-age white men (25 to 54 years old) are institutionalized. If all those 590,000 people were recognized as unemployed, the unemployment rate for prime-age white men would increase from about 5 percent to 6.4 percent.

“For prime-age black men, though, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That’s because a far higher fraction of black men — 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people — are institutionalized.

“Now, the racial gap starts to look like a racial chasm. (When you take into account local jails, which are not included in these statistics, the situation could be even worse.)”

It’s nice for this to get some mainstream attention. It’s much worse when one considers that some studies have found that upward of 6% of prison inmates are innocent of all criminal charges. The system is designed to force confessions through threats. And then, innocent or not, the punishment doesn’t end even after people supposedly pay for their wrongdoings by doing time—more from the article:

“One in thirteen black adults can’t vote because of their criminal records. Discrimination on the job market deepens racial inequality. Not only does a criminal record make it harder to get hired, but studies find that a criminal record is more of a handicap for black men. Employers are willing to give people second chances, but less so if they’re black.”

It’s worse still. Other studies have found that blacks with no criminal records are less likely to be interviewed and hired than whites with criminal records. Even if a black ex-con tries to turn their life around by for example getting college education, they are less likely to get interviewed and hired than a white person of equal background with only a high school diploma. Simply having a black-sounding name will decrease the chances of getting an interview at all.

This is all on top of the fact that the entire policing and legal system targets blacks. For crimes whites commit more, blacks still get arrested more and convicted more harshly.

None of this is new information. It is well known by those care to know. It has been substantiated by decades of data and research. Yet too often we act as if not only the problem doesn’t exist but that those impacted also don’t exist.

Moral Failure of Partisanship and the Political Machine

The policies that Hillary Clinton has supported and promoted have led to millions of people, in the US and other countries, to be pushed into poverty, imprisoned, and killed. Bernie Sanders is no dove on foreign affairs, but Clinton makes him seem like a pacifist in comparison.

That isn’t an exaggeration. It is simply looking at Clinton’s record on tough-on-crime bills, welfare reform, and wars of aggression—along with much else that could be detailed. The data shows all this to be true, the real world results of it. It can’t be rationally or morally denied.

So, how do her supporters rationalize this away? Just because it only hurts the poor and powerless it doesn’t matter… just because the disenfranchised and silenced masses can’t be heard we can ignore them with a clear conscience… out of sight, out of mind… really? Is this what goes for ‘lesser evil’? That is depressing and demoralizing. If this is the best that American ‘democracy’ can offer, we are in far more trouble than I thought.

I ask this not simply in the context of campaign season. It is a question about all of democracy or the hope and possibility of democracy. It isn’t just about supporting a candidate. More importantly, it’s about supporting the public good, of putting the people before politics and partisanship.

The cynicism of realpolitik in America is no doubt depressing but also quite pointless. It doesn’t really achieve anything, besides the same old problems endlessly continuing, status quo for the sake of status quo, a grim political determinism of learned helplessness. Don’t Americans ever take seriously the dreams of a better country? If not now, then when? A dream deferred is a dream denied. What are people afraid of?

I honestly would like an answer to these questions. They aren’t hypothetical or idle. But I know few people would have the moral courage to answer them.

Why don’t those millions of lives harmed matter to Hillary supporters? That is a deadly serious question. If she is elected president, how many more millions will be harmed by her policies? It is guaranteed to be a high number. Doesn’t that bother anyone besides those who are already concerned? Is this status quo of machine politics acceptable? Why should we tolerate such inhumanity and immorality? Do we really want more of this corporatist neoliberalism and neo-imperialist neoconservatism? Why? How does that make the world better for anyone?

My criticisms here are the same criticisms I’ve directed at Republicans. Why would I hold Democrats to a different standard? If I did hold two different standards, that would be both cynical and hypocritical.

Does anyone honestly believe that voting for lesser evil will ever lead anywhere besides evil? This isn’t speculation or hyperbole. Those are real lives of people impacted, many dead because of specific policies that get bipartisan support from professional politicians, both those like Bush jr and those like Hillary Clinton.

Is this really the best of all possible worlds that Americans can envision?

I honestly find Clinton more depressing than Trump. Clinton support shows that people are still willing to tolerate all of these vast problems, no matter how bad it gets. Many people would rather deal with known problems than to have the moral courage to face new possibilities.

This is particularly true of the party establishment who would rather lose the election than lose control of the political machine. That is why Trump has the GOP insiders so scared. But the Clintonian New Democrats realize that even though Hillary is unlikely to beat Donald they can at least put on a show that will convince the Democratic base that the Democrats lost honorably and that we just need to try harder next time, commit to partisan loyalty even further.

In that case, Sanders like Nader would get blamed for the failure inherent to the Democratic Party. The party officials will never be held accountable by Democratic partisans. Nothing will change and the same mistakes will be repeated. It’s a failure of imagination to an extreme degree. It’s a vision of fear, with both parties arguing that the other is the lesser evil, when in reality both parties are two sides of the same political evil.

I just don’t understand the type of ‘liberal’ who will vote for a warmonger like Hillary and think that somehow absolves them of all guilt until the next election cycle. That is more demented and horrific than most silly satements made by authoritarians. At least, authoritarians are being honest.

These fake liberals aren’t really indifferent. They are willfully ignorant. A person can’t be accused of indifference when they simply refuse to be aware. It’s plausible deniability. They can go on pretending to be good liberals and lying to themselves. That is the nature of evil. No mass atrocity could ever happen without the complicity of self-identified good liberals. It goes so far beyond mere indifference.

This is what happened after 9/11. Many liberal Democrats became strong supporters of Bush policy. It is so easy to make the average liberal into a fearful war hawk. Research has shown how easy this is to accomplish. This is why the lesser evil rhetoric is so effective. It is the Achilles’ heel of the liberal, and the only psychological defense would begin with awareness, but that first step is the hardest. People resist self-awareness because then plausible deniability loses its force. It is easier to just not think about it too deeply or for too long. Just hold one’s nose and vote, and once again forgetting about it all until the next election.

I’m a dreamer. I see the immense potential in humanity. It is amazing what we humans are capable of, when the conditions are right and we are challenged to be our best. What an awesome society we could create. And I don’t think it would even be that hard. Just the willingness to imagine it.

I don’t just want to blame others. This is about all of us. It’s not just a failure to understand but also a failure to communicate.

I struggle with that. It’s hard enough just trying to grasp the potential that is within us and what it might mean, in what we envision and in how we live our lives. I’m far from perfect in this regard. Still, I don’t want to make excuses for myself or for others. If we are failing our own stated principles, let’s use that as a starting point. Failure doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s merely the awareness that we could and should do better.

That is why voting matters so much, even as the electoral system is rigged. It isn’t just the person we vote for. More importantly, it is the vision we vote for. When we unconsciously vote for a disempowering vision, we give away our power. I don’t think even people who vote for Hillary feel inspired by their choice. They know it isn’t a good thing, but they’re afraid and that is all they can feel or see.

I totally sympathize with feeling overwhelmed. That is why I don’t even feel like demonizing Trump supporters. People are frustrated. I get it. I just don’t want Americans or any other people in the world to simply give into that frustration and give up hope. We really are capable of so much more.

Fear of Fascism

I was having a typical discussion with my dad. It was on the verge of becoming an argument. But an interesting thing happened. I said that the US is one step from fascism. And he agreed with me.

I’ve feared fascism for as long as I’ve understood what it is. I’ve specifically feared American the slide toward fascism, call it what you will: big money, plutocracy, crony capitalism, corporatocracy, inverted totalitarianism, etc.

My dad, on the other hand, didn’t previously worry about such things. He has always been a fairly mainstream conservative and Republican. He loves capitalism. He has fond memories from childhood of factories belching out smoke, a sign that things were being built and all was well with the world. He has even worked for a number of factories as a manager. He loves business and has never before had issues with even big biz. In his Cold War mind, capitalism was going to save the world. That was the propaganda he grew up with, as a child born at the tail end of WWII.

In the past, he would have taken warnings of fascism as left-wing rhetoric, something to be dismissed. If anything, he feared the people making such warnings. The messenger should be attacked for maligning the good name of capitalism. But, in recent years, his mind has been changing. He is beginning to see the potential dangers of big biz and big banks and their collusion with and even control of big gov.

I talk to my dad a lot. He is my main sparring partner. But, to be honest, we actually agree more than not. It’s just that the disagreements can get heated. As we’ve both aged, our views have maybe come closer in certain ways, despite my own thinking becoming more radical. Ideology isn’t the issue. It doesn’t matter that my dad identifies as a conservative and I a liberal. What many people, including my dad, are coming to understand is that authoritarianism is a threat greater than any specific ideology.

It has been Donald Trump’s campaign that has hit this home for my dad. It simply doesn’t matter what Trump says or really believes. He is a wild card. That isn’t to dismiss those who support Trump. There is good reason people feel so frustrated with the status quo. This mood has been emerging for decades now, even if so many Americans tried to ignore it. It took Americans like my dad longer to see what this all meant, until it was already here.

Also, consider the problems going on in Michigan. Flint has brought this to mainstream attention, with the lead toxicity problem. I told my dad that it turns out democracy is a good thing after all, as the Republicans who decided to eliminate democratic government created this problem. My dad at first said that democracy had failed too because of the debt that had incurred, the supposed reason for the use of ’emergency’ dictatorial powers. I countered that, well, eliminating democracy has brought on even worse problems. He agreed that maybe democracy really is the least worst system. My dad doesn’t love democracy and, as with so many Americans, likely doesn’t even understand what democracy is. Still, he is beginning to appreciate what happens when it disappears entirely.

There is a similar situation happening locally. Terry Branstad is the Republican governor of Iowa. He selects the members of the Iowa Board of Regents. And it is the regents who selected J. Bruce Harreld as the new University of Iowa president. He had no experience and many of the other people considered had way better qualifications. But Harreld was a businessman, which in the conservative worldview means you are qualified to do anything, from running governments to running public universities. Businessmen supposedly just know how to solve problems, the exact rhetoric Trump has used to take over the Republican Party.

I explained to my dad that Americans are frustrated with being shut out of everything. Shut out from governing their own communities, shut out from institutions they belong to, just plain shut out. I’ve gave an example to my dad that helped him understand this. The leadership of my union, AFSCME, is backing Hillary Clinton. There was no voting or even input from union members. Even my union steward was shut out from the process. It’s not a left vs right issue. Americans, all across the spectrum, are tired of being silenced and disempowered.

For my dad, this experience hasn’t been part of his life. He has spent his entire life in positions of authority, not immense power but well-respected and secure, from being an army officer straight out of college to having his first job as a factory manager and then later to be a professor at a major university. He has never known what it is like to be silenced and disempowered. He has never personally known severe poverty, racial discrimination, police profiling, or anything like that. It simply isn’t the world he has lived in.

Yet, in his retirement, he has begun to think more deeply. He sees things differently. He realizes that he will likely live comfortably for the rest of his life. But it bothers him the direction his country is taking. His faith in the system has been shaken. There are many Americans like my dad who are becoming aware that the hour is getting late.

A Truly Free People

“We may awake in fetters, more grievous, than the yoke we have shaken off.”
~Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Annapolis Conference

How many Americans understand or even suspect the radicalism that once inspired a people to revolt against one of the most powerful empires in the world? How many grasp how daring and vast was this experiment? How many know the names of these heroes? Besides maybe Thomas Paine, how many know about Ethan Allen and Thomas Young? I must admit that Abraham Clark is new to me.

I’ve often written about Paine. His example is inspiring and his life quite amazing. He practically came out of nowhere, setting the colonial world ablaze with his words. And he walked the talk, putting his life on the line again and again. But anyone can fight. What matters is what is fought for. Paine took revolution seriously, believing it to be more than a shifting of power from one ruling elite to another. He was not alone in this thought. Nor was he alone in understanding it was a class war. Clark, for example, shared that sentiment. They understood those who possessed the land and wealth would control the government, as that was always the principle of every despotic government, the very basis of monarchy and aristocracy.

Those like Paine, however, understood that there was a difference in the past. There had been countervailing forces that protected the commoners. For all the faults of feudalism, it enforced a social order of rights and obligations, not just the peasants to their lords but also vice versa. To be a peasant meant to belong to the land, quite literally, and no one could take it away from you, that is until that social order came undone. It wasn’t revolutionaries that destroyed the ancien regime. It was those in power, the supposed defenders of the ancien regime.

What the ruling elite possessed, in many cases, had been stolen. In dismantling feudalism, eliminating the Commons and the rights of the commoners, in creating a new class of landless peasants concentrated in the cities, they made revolution all but inevitable. This radical, anti-traditional capitalism oddly became the defining character of modern ‘conservatism’.

Joseph De Maistre, a French counter-revolutionary, noted that people only identify as conservatives after so much has already been lost. Conservatism isn’t so much conserving still existing and fully thriving traditions, but lamenting and romanticizing what once was or is imagined as having been. Conservatism is just the other side of radicalism. But, according to Corey Robin, conservatives understand full well that the ultimate blame for the destruction of the old order is the old order itself. Feudalism, as such, committed suicide. Conservatives don’t care about the old order itself or any of its traditions. Their only concern is to rebuild a rigid hierarchy, but almost any new system can be made to work for this purpose, even something as radical as capitalism that was the very cause of the destruction of the old order.

I’ve pointed out many times before that there was a strange phenomenon in post-revolutionary America. How quickly conservatives took up the rhetoric of the political left. How quickly the aristocrats and plutocrats co-opted the revolution. There were increasing restrictions in certain areas, specifically those without power began to have their rights constrained. This wasn’t just seen with poor whites or white women. “In some places, propertied women, free blacks, and Native Americans could vote, but those exceptions were just that. (Ed Crews)” True, they were exceptions, and yet for during the era leading up to the American Revolution these exceptions were becoming ever more common—to such an extent that a movement was forming, the very movement that helped give such moral force to the revolutionary zeal.

The revolution gave form to that radicalism, even as it strengthened the reactionary forces against it. In the following decades, so much was lost. “After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only a few percentage of Americans had the right to vote (the plutocratic elite of free white male landowners which added up to, as some calculate, around 6-8% of the total population who were eligible voters).” In several states, women had gained the right to vote and then in the early years of the new country they lost the vote again. But, of course, among the biggest losers were blacks, including free blacks, as they suddenly were perceived as a greater threat than ever before. What rights and freedoms they had slowly gained were eroded way as America moved closer to civil war. Black churches were shut down for fear of slave revolts and the few free blacks that had the vote lost it—as a newspaper described in 1838:

Since Jackson’s presidency, there’s been a push to give all white men the vote, even if they don’t own property.

Right now, free black men have the vote in several states. But as states revamp their constitutions to loosen voter requirements for white men, blacks are being stripped of rights they had.

Pennsylvania’s constitution of 1790 gave the vote to “every freeman of the age of twenty-one years.”

Today that was changed to say “every white freeman.”

It’s not just the radicalism that I wanted to bring attention to. What occurred to me is how this relates to the issue of the ancient world. Many revolutionaries looked back to ancient Rome and Greece. The idea of The People originated with the Greek démos.

It is hard for many of us today to take seriously this view of society and politics. We automatically see it as a fiction or an abstraction. But this is because organic communities are almost entirely dead in the modern West. The visceral sense of belonging to a people and a place, to one’s kin and neighbors, a coherent sense of community—this is foreign to us. We’ve become fully alienated, in terms of both the Marxian species-being and Cartesian anxiety.

I’ve had on my mind that human nature itself might in a sense be radical. It’s only in taking the ancient world seriously that we can begin to grasp who we are and what we might become. If we aren’t mere individuals, if we aren’t just billiard balls crashing into one another, then what are we? In our attempts to understand ourselves, what kind of world do we create? And in creating this world, how does this further shape that understanding?

To rethink human nature is a radical act because the very potential of radicalism exists within human nature. The new individualistic self took root in the Axial Age. And the psychological self took shape in the Renaissance. But it was the printing press that brought these ideas of the self down into the mess domain of public politics. Pandora’s Box was opened.

These were no longer just ideas to be pondered by the intelligentsia. Their radical potential became manifest. Yet enough of the older senses of self clung to the roots. The feudalism that had its origins in the ancient world was able to hold on into the revolutionary era, the old order still being fresh enough in public memory to be a source of inspiration for the 19th century Romantics.

The notion of The People was being reshaped by new ideas. But the very sense of being a people was nothing new. It was at the very heart of a still living tradition. It was that meeting of the old and new that led to such unpredictable results.

Christian G. Fritz, in American Sovereigns, writes (pp. 3-4):

It seems puzzling today that Americans once considered their sovereign to be the people acting collectively. Modern scholars suggest that sovereignty of the people a rhetorical flourish lacking practical application as a constitutional principle. As a crucial “fiction,” the people’s sovereignty had enormous political influence. But modern accounts of America’s constitutional history neglect the constitutional authority once imputed to such a collective sovereign and as such they fail to appreciate the earlier existence of a widely held belief in collective sovereignty that lost sway only after the Civil War.

The lost view of sovereignty assumed that a majority of the people created and therefore could revise constitutions at will, and that a given majority of one generation could not limit a later generation. America’s first constitutions, being an expression of people’s sovereignty, could not be turned against the majority of the people. Indeed, those constitutions frequently contained express provisions recognizing the broad scope of the people’s authority. Such statements encouraged an expansive view of the constitutional revision. The essence of the rule of law—that binding law exists above both the governors and the governed alike—was challenged by the idea that a sovereign people could not be bound even by a fundamental law of their own making.

Under the expansive view, adhering to procedures specifying constitutional change provided one means of determining the will of the sovereign. Nonetheless, constitutional text requiring special majorities could not prevail over the clear will of a majority to dispense with such requirements if that majority so desired. The key to legitimacy was whether constitutional change expressed the will of the collective sovereign, not adherence to specific procedures. While Americans frequently followed such procedures, for many those steps were simply useful, not indispensable. They were not the only legitimate tools available for a sovereign to articulate its will.

It is time we reclaim our own history.

We are still on that cusp of transformation. Much of the world has to varying degrees maintained organic communities. Many populations still have that communal sense of identity, as a present reality or in the not too distant past. The rural lifestyle and tight-knit small communities is within living memory for a significant number of Americans. Even the ancient traditions of subsistence farming and barter economy continued into early 20th century America. The majority of Americans left the rural areas less than a century ago.

I wouldn’t be so dismissive of that ancient view of being a people, a communal self, not the same thing as collectivist ideology. It’s lasted for millennia. And it was never limited to the Greeks, even though their surviving texts made it famous. For many people today, this is a very much real experience of social reality.

Maybe we should take more seriously what once motivated revolutionaries, the attempt to carry that ancient tradition into a changing world, an anchor in turbulent seas. And as we become increasingly disconnected from the past and alienated from our own human nature, this way of seeing the world becomes ever more radical. The term ‘radical’ etymologically comes from late Latin, meaning of or pertaining to the root. And, I might add, a revolution originally meant a return. We could use a radical revolution right about now, a return to our roots. That is an original intent that might mean something. We can only move forward by seeing the path we’ve been on.

Otherwise, we will be doomed to repeat history. A bad situation being replaced by worse still. That was the warning given by Abraham Clark and many others as well. Within that warning is a seed of hope, that maybe one day a generation will take up the task of becoming a truly free people.

Family Connections and Disconnections

I’ve been working on genealogical research. I’ve spent most of my time on my mom’s family. That is largely because my mom was more interested in her own family.

Growing up, we spent more time visiting my mom’s family and my mom’s family spent more time visiting us. We also would visit more often the places of my mom’s past and that of her family. We went to the parks that she went to when she was younger. And on numerous occasions we traveled to the places where many of her ancestors settled in Indiana, including a place that became a state park and working village. I’ve seen the old homes where they lived and, in some cases, were born. I’ve walked on the land that they walked on and I’ve stood before their gravestones.

I have a tangible sense of my mother’s family and the world they came from. Many of the states they lived in are states I have lived in, visited, and traveled through. My mother’s family is a product of the Upper South and Lower Midwest, most specifically what some refer as Kentuckiana. I have a personal sense of that place. It feels like my ancestral homeland.

My dad’s family is different, though. I’ve become aware of this as I’ve tried to get motivated about doing genealogical research on his side. I realize I have so little personal connection to his family and so little sense of where his family came from.

My dad’s father and siblings rarely visited in the past. His father is dead now, but his siblings are still alive. My aunt lives on the West Coast and so it is far away. My uncle, however, has remained in the area. He recently visited my parents and that was the first time I’d seen him in more than a decade. The only family member on that side that used to visit regularly was my paternal grandmother, but she died when I was young and so I barely remember her.

My paternal grandmother came from the Deep South. And my paternal grandfather came from the East Coast. Besides a trip when I was an infant, I’ve never visited the parts of the country where my paternal grandparents were born and raised. Even the part of the Deep South I lived in (South Carolina) was a world away from the part of the Deep South my grandmother’s family was from (Texas, Oklahoma, and Mississipi), although many generations before her a line of her family lived a short distance from my home in South Carolina, a fact that my dad didn’t know until recently.

For some reason, my dad’s family isn’t close. Maybe it makes sense, considering the family history. He and his siblings were born and raised far from where their own parents were born and raised. Unlike my mom, my dad didn’t grow up with extended family living nearby.

Also, there were other sad breaks from one generation to another. His mother’s father disappeared when she was a girl and it traumatized her for life (records apparently show that he abandoned his family and started a new life, including a new family—a fact that would have broken my grandmother’s heart, had she known about it). Almost nothing is known about him or where he came from. As for his father’s father, he was given away as a child to a Shaker village and he never fully reconnected with his family. Then, when my dad was hitting young adulthood, his parents divorced with his father heading back to the East Coast and his mother leaving for the far away West Coast, taking his sister along with her. So, there were multiple generations of broken families.

This probably explains a lot. My dad and my uncle would go back to visit their father’s childhood home. It was on an estate on Long Island Sound, where their grandparents lived for most of their lives, their grandfather having been the head gardener. Yet it never occurred to my dad to bring his kids to see the place of his fondest childhood memories. We never even took trips to that part of the country, except for that one time in my infancy. I guess it didn’t seem important to my dad at the time. We are finally planning a visit later this year to visit. But we won’t be able to get onto the estate, because there are new owners.

I recently contacted a long lost relative on that side of my dad’s family, a cousin that is maybe two times removed. He never knew this person, although he does remember some of the same East Coast relatives and places that this person remembers. I got my dad to email this guy, but that was it. The guy gave his phone number months ago. My dad has yet to call this guy. He told me that he didn’t know what to talk about, if he did call. I found that bizarre. This guy is family and so you’d talk to him about family. It’s not complicated.

The real issue is that my dad lacks the motivation. This has been true even for the genealogical research. Trying to get my dad involved in looking into his own family history has been like pulling nails. It seems that part of him doesn’t want to know about his own family, not that he would ever admit this.

My dad’s lack of interest makes it hard for me to get interested as well. I’d like to have a better sense of my dad’s family, where they came from and what shaped them. But at present the personal connection is lacking. There is no living sense of kinship. It’s an emotional dead end, which is sad.

The Establishment Speaks

I noticed three opinion pieces at The Wall Street Journal. They were published over the past couple of weeks.

Trump, Sanders and the American Rebellion
by Peggy Noonan

Trump’s America
by Charles Murray

The Young and the Economically Clueless
by Daniel J. Arbess

They are fairly typical mainstream views. And all of the authors are fully part of the Establishment. These are the voices of the ruling elite. They speak with authority and are taken seriously in the mainstream. Each author attempts to explain those crazy commoners, the great unwashed masses.

These people are worldly, smart, and highly educated. They have worked and hobnobbed among the wealthiest and most powerful. They do understand much about what is going, far from being entirely clueless. They occasionally make valid points and they are capable of describing some of the major problems.

Yet they never venture far from the mainstream views that rationalize away the deeper challenges and justify the status quo. I have to wonder if they understand more than they let on. Are their opinion pieces a form of propaganda? They are telling the stories that those in power want to be told. It’s part of the attempt to control the narrative. But have they repeated their lies so many times that they’ve come to believe them? Or are they genuinely so disconnected from the experience of most people that they simply can’t comprehend?

These are people who have access to all kinds of info. They even can contact insiders. And, of course, they are part of the intelligentsia. They know how the world works, at least on the level of power and wealth. They know how the rulers think and they know how the system is designed. But I get the sense that average people are mostly just demographic numbers to them. Their focus is extremely narrow, lacking any larger context and deeper insight. They know intimately the world they are a part of, even as they know so little of what happens outside of that reality tunnel and echo chamber.

What is odd is that I sense that people like this don’t see themselves as insiders, as part of the Establishment. The way they talk makes them seem like neutral observers and disinterested analysts. Yet their lifestyles and careers are part of the problems they describe. They are expressing concern that the boat is taking on water, which is why the last thing they want to do is to rock the boat.

Folk Psychology, Theory of Mind & Narrative

I came across a book with a bit of a different perspective. It is Folk Psychological Narratives by Daniel D. Hutto. I’ve only skimmed sections of it, but it looks like a promising explanation of the human mind.

The basic issue is with folk psychology and theory of mind. To explain simply, theory of mind is about mind-reading, understanding how others think and what motivates their behavior. There are many that see it as an inborn ability of humans, going back to early evolution when the species became distinct.

Hutto, however, sees this as problematic. The details aren’t that important for my purposes at the moment, but suffice it to say that he thinks this view of theory of mind fails to take account of all the evidence. According to him, it is neither sufficient nor necessary.

He speculates that earliest human culture didn’t require a theory of mind. Even basic cultural products, from tools to language, accordingly didn’t require this ability. What allowed folk psychology to develop supposedly was the emergence of narrative thinking. Humans began telling stories and they became increasingly complex.

The book is rather technical in some areas. Hutto isn’t trying to develop an airtight theory. His purpose is more about challenging standard thinking on these issues and so to offer new directions of thought. It seems promising, from what little I can understand at the moment.

What seemed important to me is that he is overturning the idea that mental ability precedes all else. Instead, he sees the understanding of human nature as being a cultural product, built from other cultural developments. I sense a resonance with other previous views, from Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism to Karl Marx’s species-being, although he mentions neither.

I’ll need to read the book in more detail to suss out these potential links. It’s helpful that others have already considered Hutto’s ideas in a larger context, specifically in relation to Jaynes.

* * *

The Contingency of Mind
Situating Jaynes in the Changing Landscape of Contemporary
Philosophy of Mind
by Jan Sleutels

Looking back on the intellectual landscape of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it makes perfect sense that Julian Jaynes was considered a maverick. There was simply no place for his historical approach to consciousness (Jaynes 1976). His theory was rejected on apriori grounds as conceptually incoherent, biologically impossible, and probably also morally suspect (cf. Sleutels 2006).

Today the situation is quite different, however. In the late 1990s the landscape started to shift towards a view of the mind as being contingent upon a variety of external factors. The so-called EEE approach (Embodied, Embedded, Enacted Cognition) drew attention to the ecological and cultural context of psychological competencies, while varieties of the Extended Mind hypothesis pointed up the importance of external tools (including language technologies) for the developmentof cognitive skills (Clark 2008). Critics of evolutionary psychology are questioning the presumption of psychological continuity that goes with essentialism (Sleutels 2013), while philosophers such as Hutto (2008) argue that our current self-understanding as thinking, conscious agents (our ‘folk psychology’) is contingent on socio-cultural practices.

In this paper I will situate Jaynes’s view of the origin of modern consciousness in the newly emerged landscape. I review some of the most pertinent developments in the philosophy of mind, including work in cognitive archaeology (Malafouris2008) and so-called ‘radically enactivist’ theories of mind (Hutto and Myin 2013).
I conclude by proposing a general argument for the contingency of mind that underscores the importance of Jaynes for future research.

Consciousness, Plasticity, and Connectomics:
The Role of Intersubjectivity in Human Cognition
by Micah Allen & Gary Williams

These “zombie” skills suggest that our cognitive system can automatically carry out intentions without the need for meta-conscious oversight, while also demonstrating the subtle dynamics of embedding “top” reflective intentions within active practice. The point is not that automobile drivers are asleep while they drive. Rather, the driver often steers automatically while his or her reflectively conscious mind is ruminating on something else. Thus, their prior and ongoing reflective intentions structure and guide their experience of driving. Similarly, we can see how intersubjective, prereflective elements structure the reflective observation of and interaction with a tool (as in Heidegger), or in Husserl’s famous comparison of the first experiences of a Scandic anthropologist in Greenland and those of a naïve tourist. We literally “see intentions” and “experience thoughts” and these explanada are intimately interwoven within one another.

Furthermore, prereflective reactivity is subjective, and through development and interaction comes to be structured by the cultural–linguistic constructs such as the self, the mind, and other folk psychological narratives (Hutto, 2008). We argue that the conceptual categorization afforded by self-reflective folk psychological narratives greatly enhance our capacity for self-reflective action within an internal “mind-space.” We thus agree with accounts of language as a form of highly evolved tool use or extended cognition (Tylen et al., 2010).

 

Ancient Past is Prologue

My mind has been focused on a topic that doesn’t interest most people, that of the ancient world. I suppose most people don’t see it as all that relevant to their lives. But to me it is one of the most important things in the world. It’s about who we are, how we became this way, and what potential we have to be otherwise. Besides, it’s just fascinating. I can’t understand how anyone couldn’t be fascinated by it.

There is something truly strange about the ancient world. And it speaks to something truly strange about our present human nature and society. We have so little understanding of ourselves. We go about blindly, ignorant of our ignorance, like a bunch of busy ants who have no clue what they’re doing other than the narrowly focused activity of gathering food or moving a grain of sand. That is the human swarm, mostly mindless on the individual level and yet capable of great things as a collective, relationships upon relationships forming a networked whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Yet when we look back in time, it began at a much simpler level. It seems that a relatively small number of changes happened that made possible everything that followed. There is much speculation about what these changes were, what caused them, and what significance they had. But it still largely remains a mystery.

This is important. It’s not just academic curiosity. If we don’t come to terms with our past and the present that it has led to, we may not have a future as a civilization or even as a species. I don’t think that is an exaggeration. How we understand our past, accurately or not, will determine what choices we see and don’t see. So, by projecting our present mentality onto the past and hence into the future, we will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will likely find ourselves unable to make the necessary changes for continued survival, as long as we don’t understand how humanity changed in the past.

I get the sense that few people genuinely believe that humans have much potential for being other than we presently are. You can see that in how people act, in their politics and their everyday lives. Most find it extremely difficult to imagine either a past that was or a future that might be radically different. It is simply incomprehensible to them.

Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

On Quora, someone asked, “What is the link between conservatism and paranoid schizophrenia?” It’s an intriguing and provocative question. One could also ask it of other ideologies in relation to other mental illnesses. (Just the other day, I speculated a bit about depression and schizophrenia, in a similar line of thought).

The responses on Quora were mostly dismissive, some in knee-jerk fashion. I’m not sure why that is. I actually think this is a fair question. It’s too bad some people are unable or unwilling to engage, just because it makes them uncomfortable. This kind of thing doesn’t bother me as long as it is being discussed sincerely and honestly, and I find it odd that others are resistant to even considering it.

There are clear differences in how the brain functions for liberals and conservatives, along with many other ideological demographics you might want to consider: left-wingers and right-wingers, socialists and capitalists, anarchists and authoritarians, etc. And these proven differences in brain functioning presumedly would include how the brain malfunctions (or, if you prefer, functions neuroatypically).

For example, some data shows liberals have higher rates of drug use (“fairly steady increase in amount of drug use as one moves from the conservative to the radical end of the scale.”) and alcohol use (“when a state becomes more liberal politically, its consumption of beer and spirits rises”) and this leads to higher rates of addiction and alcoholism. Some of this is just demographic, as substance abuse increases with increasing wealth and increasing IQ, both correlated with liberalism (i.e., liberals on average are wealthier and higher IQ than all other demographics, besides libertarians). But others argue that it is an inherent tendency to liberal psychology, related to high ‘openness to experience’ and low ‘conscientiousness’. Liberals are prone to curiosity and experimentation, rule-breaking and authority-challenging.

Another example is that some have found that liberals have higher rates of depression. This makes sense, as liberals have lower rates of such things as religiosity (e.g., church attendance) that is negatively correlated to depression. So, either the liberal personality itself predisposes one to depression or predisposes one to behaviors that make one vulnerable to depression. There is also a link between depression and both high and low IQ, liberals on average being on the high end.

On a related note, some research shows that conservatives aren’t actually happier, despite self-reporting as happier. In some studies, liberals were observed as smiling more often and more naturally, and also using more positive words (University of California, New Yorker, Time, Washington Post, NYT, & FiveThirtyEight). Then again, maybe there is some psychological benefit to reporting one is happy, specifically as a desire to fit into social norms and so to be socially accepted (happiness or its appearance most definitely is a social norm in American society). But it could be that liberals have both higher rates of depression and happiness, which is to say they are disproportionately represented at both ends (similar to how Democrats include more people at the low and high IQ extremes, whereas Republicans are disproportionately found in the average IQ range)—or maybe liberals are just moody.

Anyway, it would be beyond bizarre if we didn’t find these kinds of correlations across the political spectrum, including for conservatives. Every ideological predisposition has its problems and deficiencies (I have a lovely post about the weaknesses and failures of liberalism). With almost anything pushed to an extreme, one would reasonably expect to find such things as mental illnesses. This relates to personality traits, for when imbalanced they lead to all kinds of psychological and behavioral issues.

Let me get back to the original question. Schizophrenia is an interesting issue. But it is complex. There may or may not be a correlation to conservatism. I don’t know. More probable would be correlations found between conservatism and certain mood disorders, specifically those involving fear, anxiety and conscientiousness. One possibility is something like obsessive-compulsive disorder (“These findings support the view that OCPD does represent a maladaptive variant of normal-range conscientiousness”). Still, there are those who argue that there is a link between schizophrenia and conservatism, and some might consider their theories to be scientifically plausible—from Neuropolitics.org:

“Previc’s review of religiosity and mental disorders also adds fuel to the fire of a schizophrenic-conservative link. Previc writes “psychotic delusions are a common feature of mania, [temporal lobe epileptic] psychosis, and paranoid schizophrenia…all of these disorders are to varying degrees associated with overactivity of the fronto-temporal pathways (mostly on the left side), elevated [dopamine], and a bias toward extrapersonal space”. […] The conservatives seem to be more prone to mental disorders of the left hemisphere, while, based on the evidence we’ve gathered, liberals are more prone towards depression and anxiety disorders, which are predominately right hemispheric in origin. The mental disorder evidence supports both Brack’s hemisphericity theory of political orientation and Previc’s dopaminergic-spatial theory of religiosity.”

I’m not familiar with that research. But it seems a reasonable hypothesis. I can think of no justifiable criticism, other than political correctness, for not taking it seriously and for scientists to not study it. If it isn’t worthy of further appraisal and analysis, some counter-evidence would need to be offered to explain why it is unworthy—such as a critique of this research or, better yet, other research with alternate conclusions.

Let’s look at this dispassionately. Think of this in terms of other distinctions, as shown in diverse social science research. Do different people measure differently on personality traits/types? Yes. Do people who measure differently on personality traits/types have different rates of ideological tendencies? Yes. Different rates of psychological conditions? Yes. All of this is entirely non-controversial.

In this context, let me give a basic example that could explain possible higher rates of schizophrenia among conservatives. Liberalism correlates to high ‘openness to experience’ and the opposite for conservatism. So, how do schizophrenics measure on ‘openness’? According to one scientific study—Personality traits in schizophrenia and related personality disorders (where SZ refers to “a diagnosis of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder”):

“On the five-factor personality scales, SZ subjects showed higher levels of neuroticism, and lower levels of openness, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness than control subjects.”

The psychological trait of ‘openness’ is one of the most defining features of liberalism. This has been found in endless studies. That schizophrenics rate lower levels of this is extremely telling. It doesn’t prove the hypothesis of a conservatism-schizophrenic link. But it does indicates that it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

To shift to a different perspective, consider it in terms of something like gender. Are gender differences real? Yes. They can even be seen in brain scans, as can personality traits/types and even ideological differences. Is there gender differences in measures of personality traits/ types and ideological differences? Yes. In MBTI, a disproportionate number of women measure as Feeling types and a disproportionate number of men measure as Thinking types. As for ideology, a disproportionate number of women are Democrats, but men are more evenly divided between the parties (disproportionate number of men, instead, are found among Libertarians and Independents).

Well, what about mental illnesses? Are there gender differences in mental illnesses? Yes. Emily Deans, at Psychology Today, wrote:

“Psychiatrically speaking, it is probably not a coincidence that dopamine related disorders, such as schizophrenia, addiction, ADHD and autism are more common in men, whereas the serotonin/norepinephrine linked anxiety and depressive disorders are more common in women. Of course dopamine is also associated with depression and opiates with addiction, and men get depressed and anxious while women have ADHD and autism. These are obviously not absolutes, just trends.”

I saved one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for last.

A major discovery about conservatism and liberalism involves brain structure. Conservatives on average have a larger amygdala (i.e., emotional learning and relating) and liberals on average have a larger ACC (i.e., emotional regulation and cognitive control/flexibility). Both are important, and so an emphasis of one over the other creates different tendencies.

The amygdala sometimes gets associated with fear responses, but it is also necessary for empathy and without it functioning well you could become a psychopath. Also, this emotional learning is what builds emotional bonding, which isn’t just about empathy but also group identity. This is probably why conservatives are inclined to identify with family, church, ethno-nationalism, etc.

It’s not that liberals lack empathy. It just expresses differently, less of a strong emotional pull from conservative group-mindedness. Instead, liberals are prone to an abstract, universalizing empathy—which is why conservatives will, for example, argue that liberals sympathize with the enemy and to an extent they’re right (at the same time, liberals are right that conservatives lack this broader empathy toward those outside of some narrow group identity). Conservatives are much more loyal than liberals, because they are more group-minded, related to their being more partisan as well and less tolerant of cooperation and compromise.

If you want to see the extreme of liberalism, look to libertarians who promote a hyper-individualistic laissez-faire worldview that is the complete opposite of conservative group-mindedness. Indeed, libertarians show the least amount of empathy than any other ideological demographic, not even showing the liberal non-groupish empathy. As such, liberals could be seen as in the middle between the extremes of conservatism and libertarianism. If the problem of liberal politics is the difficulty of herding cats, then the challenge of libertarian politics is that of trying to train lizards for synchronized swimming. Almost any trait of liberalism is going to be found even higher among libertarians. Libertarianism is liberalism on drugs or rather on more drugs—quite literally, as libertarians do have very high drug use. Liberals are downright conservative-minded compared to libertarians (and I’d expect brain scans to show this).

The difference between conservatives and liberals has more to do with who they empathize with and to what degree. As National Review discusses, conservatives place their empathy of US soldiers above even the innocent foreigners that US soldiers kill, whereas liberals don’t place US soldiers so high in the empathy scale and actually see them as equal to foreigners—so who has more empathy? Overall, liberals tend to favor those perceived as outsiders and underdogs, which is why they aren’t overly loyal and patriotic. On some measures (e.g., empathic concern), liberals even rate higher than conservatives. This probably has to do with other factors besides just the amygdala, but surely the amygdala plays a role. From a conservative standpoint, liberals (as with libertarians) have a deficiency in group-mindedness, to the point of being seen as a danger to society, which is to say the conservative’s society.

If a liberal becomes deficient enough in this area, they likely will be drawn to libertarianism. Does that mean libertarianism itself is a mental illness? No, but to have any less empathy than the average libertarian would clearly push one toward psychopathic territory. At the same time, the libertarian’s lack of emotional response is what makes them so idealistic about rationality, which is why they are the most idealistic of post-Enlightenment classical liberals. Conservatives are right that group concern is important, just as libertarians are right that groupthink can be oppressive, but one could argue that conservatives are making the stronger point considering humans are first and foremost social animals. For a social animal to disregard and devalue the group obviously would be less than optimal according to social norms, including psychological and behavioral norms (i.e., mental health). Libertarianism taken to the extreme would be severely dysfunctional and even dangerous, but that is true for almost anything taken to an extreme.

As a side note, gender plays into this, as I noted earlier. Matt Ridley has a WSJ article, in which he writes that: “The researchers found that libertarians had the most “masculine” psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and these results held up even when they examined each gender separately, which “may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women.”” On this scale, I guess conservatives are in the middle—one might call them ideologically bisexual (I couldn’t help myself).

I got a bit distracted there. The data is so fascinating. To get back to my point, my last point, the brain structure issue hits home what is so central, at least in terms of conservatives and liberals (I don’t know about libertarians, much less anarchists, socialists, communists, Marxists, etc). What struck me is something Chris Mooney said in a Discover article:

“People with some forms of schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, for instance, typically have a poorly functioning ACC, so they have trouble discerning relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, giving equal weight to all of them.”

The one part of the brain liberals clearly express high function is with the ACC (anterior cintulate cortex). And this is precisely what is relatively smaller for conservatives. This biological variance is one of the main defining distinctions in ideological expression, what makes liberals liberal-minded and conservatives conservative-minded. Isn’t it interesting that highly functioning ACC correlates both to lower rates of conservatism and schizophrenia? It’s just a correlation, but one has to admit that it is interesting, to say the least.

It is the opposite of surprising that different rates of various psychological illnesses, disorders, and behaviors would be found disproportionately among various demographics. This is true in terms of gender, class, and even race. In the US, whites are more likely than blacks to commit suicide. So, why not look at ideologies in this light? None of this proves a causal link. There are endless confounding factors. Correlations aren’t necessarily meaningful, but they aren’t necessarily meaningless either. They are just evidence to be considered.

Of Mice and Men and Environments

Here is one of the most important issues we face. It effects a wide array of scientific research. But it also has vast implications for our lives and our entire society. It is about the power of environments, including even the slightest of differences.

A mouse’s house may ruin experiments
Environmental factors lie behind many irreproducible rodent experiments.
by Sara Reardon, Nature Journal

It’s no secret that therapies that look promising in mice rarely work in people. But too often, experimental treatments that succeed in one mouse population do not even work in other mice, suggesting that many rodent studies may be flawed from the start.

“We say mice are simpler, but I think the problem is deeper than that,” says Caroline Zeiss, a veterinary neuropathologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Researchers rarely report on subtle environmental factors such as their mice’s food, bedding or exposure to light; as a result, conditions vary widely across labs despite an enormous body of research showing that these factors can significantly affect the animals’ biology.

“It’s sort of surprising how many people are surprised by the extent of the variation” between mice that receive different care, says Cory Brayton, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. At a meeting on mouse models at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton, UK, on 9–11 February, she and others explored the many biological factors that prevent mouse studies from being reproduced.

I came across this issue in a book by David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us. The book is about genetics and IQ. But he brings up many other issues, such as the difficulties and problems of research.

He discusses a mouse study that demonstrates the power of environmental factors. It is far worse than the above article indicates. Even when all known factors are carefully controlled, the results can still be far different, to the point of being divergent in particular areas.

Below is the passage from Shenk’s book (Kindle Locations 1624-1657). I’ve shared before, but it bears repeating.

To say that there is much we don’t control in our lives is a dramatic understatement, roughly on the order of saying that the universe is a somewhat large place. To begin with, there are many influences we can’t even detect. In 1999 , Oregon neuroscientist John C . Crabbe led a study on how mice reacted to alcohol and cocaine. Crabbe was already an expert on the subject and had run many similar studies, but this one had a special twist: he conducted the exact same study at the same time in three different locations (Portland , Oregon; Albany, New York; and Edmonton, Alberta) in order to gauge the reliability of the results. The researchers went to “extraordinary lengths” to standardize equipment, methods, and lab environment: identical genetic mouse strains, identical food, identical bedding, identical cages, identical light schedule, etc. They did virtually everything they could think of to make the environments of the mice the same in all three labs.

Somehow, though, invisible influences intervened. With the scientists controlling for nearly everything they could control, mice with the exact same genes behaved differently depending on where they lived. And even more surprising: the differences were not consistent, but zigged and zagged across different genetic strains and different locations. In Portland, one strain was especially sensitive to cocaine and one especially insensitive , compared to the same strains in other cities. In Albany, one particular strain— just the one— was especially lazy. In Edmonton , the genetically altered mice tended to be just as active as the wild mice, whereas they were more active than the wild mice in Portland and less active than the wild mice in Albany. It was a major hodgepodge.

There were also predictable results. Crabbe did see many expected similarities across each genetic strain and consistent differences between the strains. These were, after all, perfect genetic copies being raised in painstakingly identical environments. But it was the unpredicted differences that caught everyone’s attention. “Despite our efforts to equate laboratory environments, significant and, in some cases, large effects of site were found for nearly all variables,” Crabbe concluded. “Furthermore, the pattern of strain differences varied substantially among the sites for several tests.”

Wow. This was unforeseen, and it turned heads . Modern science is built on standardization; new experiments change one tiny variable from a previous study or a control group, and any changes in outcome point crisply to cause and effect. The notion of hidden, undetectable differences throws all of that into disarray. How many assumptions of environmental sameness have been built right into conclusions over the decades?

What if there really is no such thing? What if the environment turns out to be less like a snowball that one can examine all around and more like the tip of an iceberg with lurking unknowables? How does that alter the way we think about biological causes and effects?

Something else stood out in Crabbe’s three-city experiment : gene-environment interplay . It wasn’t just that hidden environmental differences had significantly affected the results. It was also clear that these hidden environments had affected different mouse strains in different ways— clear evidence of genes interacting dynamically with environmental forces.

But the biggest lesson of all was how much complexity emerged from such a simple model. These were genetically pure mice in standard lab cages. Only a handful of known variables existed between groups. Imagine the implications for vastly more complex animals— animals with highly developed reasoning capability, complex syntax, elaborate tools, living in vastly intricate and starkly distinct cultures and jumbled genetically into billions of unique identities. You’d have a degree of GxE volatility that would boggle any scientific mind— a world where, from the very first hours of life, young ones experienced so many hidden and unpredictable influences from genes, environment, and culture that there’d be simply no telling what they would turn out like.

Such is our world. Each human child is his/ her own unique genetic entity conceived in his/ her own distinctive environment , immediately spinning out his/ her own unique interactions and behaviors. Who among these children born today will become great pianists, novelists, botanists , or marathoners? Who will live a life of utter mediocrity? Who will struggle to get by? We do not know.