On Conflict and Stupidity

There was a sad conflict that I came across the other day. I read about it as told by one of those involved, Kayla Renee Parker (Beware of Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing).

It was between Parker who is a black college student and the white lady who was her professor. Both are avowed anti-racists and it apparently became a holier-than-thou fight between two social justice warriors. The student was probably being an immature antagonistic asshole. And the professor was acting less than professional and civility went out the window once she began venting on social media.

I’m not sure that in the end it actually had much to do with racism itself, as both sides had problematic understandings. No doubt the professor’s less than clear quiz question was to blame for the initial confrontation. And Parker in the original version of her article dismissed a black scholar because she thought he was white, as if the value of his scholarship was determined by the color of his skin. It maybe had more to do with two people with personality issues, although the professor in a position of authority had less excuse for her misbehavior.

My initial response was to side with the student, even with her immaturity. She is young and so it is expected that she would be immature. The professor did come off as arrogant, the kind of liberal class intellectual that irritates me. And her Facebook posts were the complete opposite of what a professor should be saying in public, although she probably didn’t understand privacy settings and so possibly didn’t realize that she wasn’t just privately venting. Anyway, it’s hard for me to feel too bad about her career being destroyed, even if the student shouldn’t take pride in having helped. That professor (now former professor, I assume) has serious issues and maybe should seek a different career or at least counseling.

On the other hand, after reading the comments section, I saw some of the criticisms of Parker’s account of the situation. It made me realize that I’d want to hear the professor’s side of the story before making any final judgment. But in the end, I don’t really care. People fight all the time, especially those looking for a fight. Both people involved seem to have wanted a fight and so I guess they both got what they wanted. It’s not my concern.

There was one thing that I noticed that was of interest to me, as it connected to other thoughts I’ve had recently. In a discussion about this heated altercation, some social media postings by the professor were shared in the comments section (I forget where I saw this). One was an old tweet maybe from last year where the professor quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “On Stupidity.” As I recall, it was in reference to Trump voters and so she was basically calling them stupid. This is standard partisan posturing. It’s how many in the liberal class always perceive those on the political right, and it is true that the average Republican IQ is lower than the average Democratic IQ, for whatever that is worth (I might argue that this makes the ignorant stupidity seen among too many Democrats to be even more inexcusable, as it can’t be blamed on mere lack of intellectual ability).

No matter who is involved, conflict can have a way of making people stupid. And we are a society riven by conflict. I was just discussing this in terms of inequality, stating that: “People, under extreme duress and unhealthy conditions, tend to think and act stupidly and that stupidity gets magnified on the collective level.” A central point I made is that this negatively affects everyone, including the middle-to-upper classes. In that post, I quoted from Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder:

“Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.”

This is directly related to Bonhoeffer’s “On Stupidity.” He was talking about Germans under the Nazis, but his writings are directed toward a greater understanding of our shared humanity. Bonhoeffer is a useful case to study, as he took seriously what it meant to be a good person in a not-so-good world. The United States is a divided society, even if not as violently and oppressively divided as Nazi Germany. The one way in which this country is more divided is in terms of inequality, as it is the greatest degree of inequality the world has ever before seen. Even though we don’t have concentration camps (yet), this kind of economic division and segregation has severe consequences.

This goes to a point that Bonhoeffer was making. It’s not just about stupidity on an individual level but about stupidity as an oppressive atmosphere. Accordingly, he wrote that stupidity “is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one… And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.” He is basically referring to what some would call groupthink and tribal politics, the conditions under which people lose the capacity for independent thought. People get caught up in conflict without understanding what is really dividing them. Ignorance and fear is a bad combination.

This ‘stupidity’ might better be thought of in terms of psychological dissociation and cognitive dissonance. As is made clear, it isn’t mere intellectual inadequacy. More than anything, it is a failure of awareness and imagination. The mind is constrained and so, no matter how smart people are in terms of IQ tests, they end up expressing a kind of stupidity. Their full cognitive resources aren’t being used to a degree that would be most optimal. Their minds are shackled and their vision has blinders.

For some reason, this kind of ‘stupidity’ wasn’t as apparent to me when I was younger. Something seemed wrong with the world, of course. Still, I didn’t entirely appreciate how a particular culture and social order could shape how people think and even how they are able to perceive the world around them. It was only after spending more time on the internet in the early 2000s that the human mind was more obviously laid bare for my viewing pleasure. It was a shock to my system. Maybe I was naive, but I had a basic faith in humans back then. I assumed that most ignorance was passive, not willful. That the problem was a lack of access, not a lack of curiosity. It turns out that I was horribly wrong.

I remember one of the early incidents that was incomprehensible to me. The local newspaper, the Iowa City Press Citizen, created a comment section for their online articles. This was used mostly as a local forum. I was attracted to this because this is a highly educated town and I expected high quality discussion, but I ended up being disappointed.

There was one situation where I was trying to make a factual-based argument and so I linked to the source of the relevant piece of data. I was utterly shocked that these well educated people wouldn’t look at or acknowledge facts that didn’t support their preconceived opinions. That didn’t fit my apparently idealized view of what it meant to be well educated. It was a weird experience because it literally would have only taken a minute to look at the evidence. It never occurred to me that, besides a few dogmatic cranks, so many people would be disinterested in informed debate. I’ve come to realize, all these years later, that it is a rare person who is all that curious to learn anything new.

A woman that was involved in that online discussion seemed like a nice person and a good liberal. She was college educated and had worked as a social worker. Her views were in many ways progressive and she probably was a partisan Democrat. She was a more or less typical example of a liberal class professional. I had talked to her in many discussions and in private messages. I genuinely liked her, but she was completely stuck in her opinions. As someone who has changed views over my lifetime, I always assumed that changing one’s views was a normal human ability and not a rare, exceptional heroic act. When I see new info, I rethink my beliefs and conclusions, occasionally even coming to question my biases and assumptions. I appreciate new info that forces me into new views. It’s a pleasurable, not traumatic, experience. Why would anyone resist new info? I will never understand that.

I was intrigued to come across this woman’s name in a book about local race issues, A Transplanted Chicago by Robert E. Gutsche Jr. I don’t feel like stating her name, but I’ll give you her initials (M.H.C.) which would allow you to quickly figure out her name if you looked at the back section of the book, in the List of Names and Terms. Gutsche uses her as an example because she became one of the select members of the newspaper’s “Writers Group.” Using her experience and authority as having been a social worker, she wrote a racist/racialist article that was published (Kindle Locations 1820-1825):

“While this piece was not written by a newspaper staff writer, it was selected by an editor and commissioned by the opinion page editor; in fact, after this story appeared in 2010, I spoke with both the author and the editor about what I considered its incendiary language (i.e., “inner-city refugees”), broad characterizations (i.e., “perpetrators of urban decay”), and how this particular story contributed to overall coverage of the Southeast Side. Both the article’s author and the editor said that the language was provocative, but said that, in fact, that is what they wanted. Indeed, [M.H.C.] told me that her opinion page editor encouraged her to “stir up” the opinion page and blogs through her writing.”.

So, she was stirring up the pot of shit when racial tensions are already high in a city known for its institutional racism (the county has one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country). This was at a time when violent crime had been steadily declining for a couple of decades. As the percentage of minorities increased in town, the rate of violent crime had simultaneously gone down. Yet the local media obsessed over racializing issues and scapegoating the small number of blacks that moved here. Now consider the fact that this is a highly liberal college town, as Solid Blue as they come and filled with Hillary Clinton supporters — you might remember her as the first lady of a sitting president who called black youth super-predators that had to be brought to heel, in a speech she gave in support of the racialized crime bill her husband signed into law (and her husband, by the way, a few years earlier campaigned by standing in front of shackled black prisoners with the infamous Klan site of Stone Mountain in the background).

This is the kind of dark-hearted, cynical stupidity that America is so well known for. The reason it is stupid is because the very privileged liberals who attack right-wingers as bigots will shamelessly spin dog-whistle rhetoric or else support those who do so. They can’t even see it in themselves, as it isn’t part of their conscious identity and worldview. It’s the same basic psychology that allowed so many Germans to not know what was happening under the Nazis. People simply don’t want to know what makes them uncomfortable. This is made possible because of the social conditions when inequality takes hold — leading to divisiveness, isolation, partisanship, fear, and anxiety. The collective mind shuts down. This is a mass stupidity that spreads like a shadow upon populations, from local communities to entire nations. All the individual has to do is fall in line and not question, not think too deeply.

Bonhoeffer’s short piece on stupidity should be read in full. I offer it below. But I wanted to frame it. In Letters and Papers From Prison, “On Stupidity” is directly between two other pieces — before it is “On Success” and following it is “Contempt for Humanity?”. Looking at these other pieces gives a larger perspective of his thought. From “On Success,” he begins with these words:

“Even though it is indeed not true that success also justifies the evil deed and the reprehensible means, it is similarly out of the question to regard success as something that is ethically wholly neutral. It so happens that historical success creates the ground on which alone life can go on. The question remains as to whether it is ethically more responsible to go to war like Don Quixote against a new age or, conceding one’s defeat and freely consenting to it, finally to serve the new age. Success, after all, makes history, and the One who guides history always creates good from the bad over the head of the men who make history. It is a short circuit when the stickler for principle, thinking ahistorically and hence irresponsibly, simply ignores the ethical significance of success. It is good that for once we are forced to engage seriously the ethical problem of success. As long as the good is successful, we can afford the luxury of thinking of success as ethically irrelevant. But the problem arises once evil means bring about success.”

That is what I so often see as a moral justification, success. Partisan politics always is about how to win or how to maintain power. It isn’t about doing what is right or rather what is right is determined by those who control the narrative. Even the most popular of candidates holding majority positions like Bernie Sanders are dismissed out of a bizarre logic that the lesser evil, no matter how weak of a candidate, is the only practical option and only moral choice. This ends up being self-defeating, which is to say stupid, because Sanders had a better chance of defeating the greater evil of Trump than did the lesser evil option of Clinton. Not much of a lesser evil, it turns out.

It goes far beyond partisan politics, of course. The most obvious form it takes is the realpolitik of geopolitics, unsurprisingly supported by the likes of the Clinton New Democrats. The US government constantly acts in ways that worsens the problems that we are facing, such as supposedly fighting terrorism by harming vast numbers of innocent people and the inevitable result is to radicalize those populations into even greater support for terrorism against the US. It’s a stupidity that dominates our entire society. Yet it always presents itself as pragmatic and realistic, often fueled by an ignorant righteousness along with fear-mongering patriotism. Might makes right. No one can doubt that the US is successful in terms of material wealth and military power. But success to what end?

This brings us to the other piece, “Contempt for Humans?”. Human stupidity easily turns one’s own mind toward dark thoughts. But Bonhoeffer didn’t give into despair, seeing it as his moral duty and compassionate opportunity to hold the world in a vision of love. He was a Christian, after all, and more than willing to die for his faith. Here is the heart of his message:

“Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us. How often do we expect more of the other than what we ourselves are willing to accomplish. Why is it that we have hitherto thought with so little sobriety about the temptability and frailty of human beings? We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do and neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings— particularly to the weak among them— is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them.”

That would be why he focuses on the social underpinning of stupidity. To his Christian worldview, relationship with God and through God to humanity is always an individual act. That is where he found himself, sitting in that prison cell and waiting for his fate to come calling. He was just a lone voice speaking out during troubled times. He did what he could, what he felt he must, but in the end there was nothing left for him to do other than speak the truth as he understood it. There was no time left for excuses and pity. He pointed out these human failings and yet did so with what kindness he had, not to strike out in hatred at those who had condemned him.

This post started with an incident of conflict. Two people, in their sense of hurt and defensiveness, felt compelled to attack each other. It’s an all too human thing to do. Yes, it’s stupid and pointless, but we’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another. It’s so easy to get pulled into such melodrama, as if winning or rather making the other lose will somehow bring us satisfaction. Even as I write these words, I find myself in a pointless online debate. Assuming that the other person is the stupid one and not oneself, it still doesn’t serve any purpose or rarely does so. The stupidity of this society that we are immersed in wasn’t created through rational argument and won’t be undone through victorious debate or intellectual persuasion.

The only answer is to look beyond the darkness that surrounds us, hoping to find some light to guide us. For Bonhoeffer, the light he sought was love itself, grounded in faith. That is certainly a better option than a hatred that slowly consumes you. It’s hard living in a society like this where trust seems rare and divisiveness is everywhere. We each have to find our own light in the darkness, whatever helps us to see more clearly, even if just enough light to stumble along. Or failing that, we will get lost along the way.

On a personal level, it makes feel tired. I don’t have Bonhoeffer’s faith. But I can appreciate his wisdom, whether or not I’m up to the task of following his example. I’ve had my fair share of stupid conflicts and I suspect that I haven’t seen the end of it. My mother used to play a song for me as a child and in it there was a line stating that, “God isn’t finished with me yet.” Ain’t that the truth! All of humanity is an ongoing project and we seem to have misplaced the plans.

* * *

“On Stupidity”
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

“If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who lives in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

“Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in must cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person. This state of affairs explains why in such circumstances our attempts to know what ‘the people’ really think are in vain and why, under these circumstances, this question is so irrelevant for the person who is thinking and acting responsibly. The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.

“But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from peoples’ stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom.”

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Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward

Moderation is the issue at the moment, specifically now that politicians have been the target of violence. That is always a surefire way of getting the attention of the political class and the corporate media that obsesses over them.

A single politician shot is more concerning to the mainstream than millions of poor people harmed by the policies of politicians. Worse still is multiple politicians attacked simultaneously — it is a national tragedy, worse than decades of hate crimes and generations of institutional racism, worse than overthrowing numerous democratic governments and committing state terrorism.

Such is the way of the world, at least in a society like this. But it would be nice if some worthy public debate were made possible, even if only briefly. Maybe we shouldn’t wait until the next act of mass violence before dealing with issues of substance. The politics of spectacle is great for campaigns and corporate media profits. It’s not so great for democracy, though. Citizens shooting politicians could be seen as an indicator of failed democracy. Other indicators to be considered are politicians sending citizens off to fight immoral wars of aggression to kill innocent foreigners for reasons of geopolitics and police officers violently targeting innocent citizens for reasons of authoritarian social control.

When the government seeks to solve its problems through violence, it sets the example for its citizens that problems are solved through violence. Some might argue that is not the most optimal of results for a civil society.

* * *

Despite the shallow concerns of the comfortable classes temporarily made to feel uncomfortable, no one doubts that the problems of extremism are very much real. At the Eat Pray Vote blog, Lauren Wynn writes about political moderation (Fear and Loathing in American Politics: the Future of the Sane Center). She states that,

“It occurred to me that many of his assertions could be equally applied to both sides of the aisle — right and left, Republican and Democrat were interchangeable. Crazy concept, huh? If everyone is being this reactionary – which conversations with and observations of both sides indicate might be true – then is a middle ground even possible?”

Many Americans would agree with her, myself included. I’ve seen a number of articles like this, from diverse perspectives and yet with similar questions. I would point out that an increasing proportion of the public dislikes both parties, as there are now more independents than partisans in either major party. After all, we just had a presidential election where the two main candidates were the least popular of any major presidential candidates since polling data has been kept. And following the election, both of them continue their decline into unpopularity, demonstrating that voters still despise the choice that the ruling establishment forced upon them.

Wynn does briefly and partly get to this issue. In discussing fear, she quotes from a NYT article by Emily Badger and Niraj Chokshi (How We Became Bitter Political Enemies):

“Independents, who outnumber members of either party and yet often lean toward one or the other, are just as guided by fear. More than half who lean toward either party say a major reason for their preference is the damage the other party could cause. Only about a third reported being attracted by the good that could come from the policies of the party toward which they lean.”

Fear. That is the most troubling part. To live in fear is not a happy state, especially when it forms the ground of society and the background of daily experience. Such a culture of fear doesn’t come out of nowhere. I’d argue that fear is more of a symptom than a cause, a symptom of a sick society. Speaking of a “Sane Center,” what is supposedly ‘sane’ in a society like this? I wouldn’t consider the majority of politicians, plutocrats, and pundits who dominate our society to be paragons of sanity, not in terms of either mental health or moral decency.

I noticed that the NYT article quoted Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford political scientist: “If you go back to the days of the Civil War, one can find cases in American political history where there was far more rancor and violence… But in the modern era, there are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ — partisan animus is at an all-time high.” That is an odd claim. American history is full of near endless “rancor and violence.” The late 19th to early 20th century was so full of conflict that there were violent labor conflicts and military-style race wars in the streets, while the government feared being overthrown such as by the Bonus Army camped out on the White House lawn. I find myself in a near constant state of amazement at the historical amnesia of Americans, even among the the well-educated. No matter how bad problems are right now, they don’t compare even slightly to numerous other periods in US history.

Anyway, being critical of the culture of fear, I’m strongly supportive of a “Sane Center.” But it depends on what is meant by that. If sanity means being well-adjusted, then what is being adjusted to? Such things are always relative, specifically in terms of left vs right. Context is everything.

We should consider the origins of the left-right divide. The right side has for millennia been associated with power and authority, tradition and the status quo. That is why Jesus was described as sitting to the right of God. And that is why, under the French monarchy, aristocrats and clergy supporting the monarchy sat on the right side of the assembly. Even once the king was deposed, the French assembly maintained this seating with the most radical revolutionaries sitting to the left.

About the French Revolution, it’s interesting to compare it to the American Revolution. Some of the American founders gave primary credit to Thomas Paine for the American Revolution or at least in lending much inspiration toward its success. Paine was as radical as they come, in many ways far to the left of present Democrats (e.g., basic income).

Yet guess where he was seated as an honorary member of the French assembly. He sat on the right side with his moderate allies, as under that context he was a moderate who argued for not beheading the king and for passing a democratic constitution, the whole issue of a democratic rule of law and democratic procedure. He was more radically liberal than were the radical revolutionaries, but this radical liberalism is precisely what made him moderate. It was those radical or rather reactionary revolutionaries, when they gained control, who sentenced Paine to death and he narrowly escaped that fate.

As always, the issues is to the right or left of what? Paine was trying to hold the “Sane Center” in an insane world. Even the American Revolution was far more violent and bloody than is typically acknowledged,. It was a time when wealth and power ruled brutally and it was no easy task for the oppressed to stand up to that injustice, both on the right and the left. Interestingly, during such revolutions, aristocrats and plutocrats are found on both sides of the fight. The French Revolution was initiated with the help of many aristocrats and clergy who were tired of oppressive monarchy. And the same was true of the American Revolution.

Paine was an Anti-Federalist, the ideological group that supported democracy as opposed to centralized power. The Anti-Federalists considered themselves to be the real Federalists because they actually wanted a Confederation of states, as was agreed upon under the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation (the second constitution, ironically, was unconstitutional and passed unconstitutionally according to the first constitution). Because of the second constitution, most US citizens lost power and representation with only a few percentage having the right to either vote or run for office. When the revolution continued under the new government by those demanding the democracy they had fought for, the aristocrat Washington put an army together and violently put down those dreams of democracy.

The US isn’t a country that was founded on a “Sane Center.” That isn’t the kind of country it is. But it is a country that was inspired by democracy and genuine democracy is as radical today as it was in Paine’s lifetime. As Jimmy Carter has observed, the US is a banana republic and was that way before Trump came to power. Research has confirmed this in showing that we don’t have a functioning representative government, as politicians most of the time do what the wealthy want them to do and not what the middle-to-lower classes want them to do (this was analyzed in comparing public policy and public opinion). Still, we are an aspiring democracy and such aspirations shouldn’t be dismissed.

That is the context. And that leads me to the specifics of this article. It was written that,

“During the 2016 Presidential election, deep fissures appeared in both the Democrat and Republican parties. The Democrats were divided between a far-left candidate in Bernie Sanders and a more traditional Democrat in Hillary Clinton. Likewise, Republicans were divided among far-right candidates, traditional Republicans and a complete outlier — Donald Trump.”

Let me first question the claim about what is traditional. What is the comparison being made? Bernie Sanders positions are well within the range of standard policies of FDR’s New Deal. Some consider FDR to be a traditional Democrat and, if so, it should be noted that Clinton’s positions make it clear that she is to the right of FDR.

We also know that the majority of Americans presently agree with many of Sanders’ positions, as polling and surveys show that most Americans are to the left of both main political parties. So, in what sense is Sanders a “far-left candidate?” Sure, he is to the left of the political center in Washington and in corporate media. But the political center in Washington and in corporate media is to the right of the American public. If we are to use the American public as the measure of the center, then that would mean Sanders is a centrist and all the major candidates are to the right of that center.

There is more than one ‘center’ to choose from. It depends on which part of society one identifies with. As someone who agrees with majority public opinion on many issues, I personally prefer to use the known data about public opinion as the defining standard of the political center. But I realize others would prefer a different center, as they don’t want a “government of the people, for the people and by the people.” I do want such a government, as did Paine, but also as did Republicans once upon a time as those words were spoken by the first Republican president.

That gets us to confusion of what goes for traditional in the GOP. As one scholar made clear, the Republican Party has from the beginning swung between the extremes of populism and plutocracy, somehow melding the two poles at the moment with Trump. At present, it’s hard to imagine Republicans doing something as radical as abolishing slavery like Lincoln, breaking up monopolies like Roosevelt, calling out the Military-Industrial Complex like Eisenhower, or simply creating the EPA like Nixon (it’s amazing how liberal Nixon looks these days, more liberal than many Democrats right now).

It hasn’t just been the GOP pushing right for decades. The Clinton New Democrats sought to triangulate by also pushing right. This is how both parties became uncentered or rather created their own center, quite contrary to the silenced majority. Where is the sanity in this? Why do we allow corporatist parties and big biz media tell us what is the Sane Center? They aren’t in the moral position to be telling anyone much of anything. Rather, those in the so-called ‘mainstream’ are the problem.

“Moderatism seemed to have all but disappeared over the past several decades with progressivism’s constant march to the left and conservatism’s to the right, but following the election, people from both sides began discussing a path forward that would help heal the gaping wound of division in our country.”

In that light, what is moderation as an ideological goal, this so-called moderatism? That is to say, what is being moderated between and to what end? Obviously, what goes for moderation in ‘mainstream’ politics isn’t moderating toward the center of public opinion of citizens and eligible voters. When both parties are immoderate, when the corporate media is immoderate, when public intellectuals are immoderate, how is the disempowered and sometimes overtly disenfranchised public supposed to seek out moderation? Does ‘moderate’ have any meaning when the most publicly centrist and most popular candidate in the country, Bernie Sanders, is called a radical left-winger by the minority in the comfortable classes?

This has a way of making many average Americans start feeling a bit radical. Maybe at times like these radicalism is the last refuge of the “Sane Center.”

* * *

One of the similar articles I’ve come across is by Peggy Noonan, a WSJ piece (Rage Is All the Rage, and It’s Dangerous).

For a mainstream media hack, her writing is more tolerable than that of many others, but this particular one didn’t do much for me. It’s more false equivalence. As I regularly make clear, I’m no fan of Democrats. Still, we should be honest enough to admit that the GOP and its supporters, especially pundits on talk radio and Fox News, have been inciting violence for decades (e.g., repeatedly calling Dr. Tiller a “baby killer” on one of the most popular right-wing shows until an audience member murdered him).

That said, the entire country at the moment is feeling pressure and the situation isn’t primarily ideological in nature. Even a moderate mainstream politician and former president like Jimmy Carter openly states that the US is a banana republic, which is to say that partisan animosity is the least of our worries. This is at a time after decades of worsening inequality (a defining feature of banana republics), something that research has proven worsens social problems in general and violence most of all. Republicans have been pushing the gospel of inequality for as long as they’ve been pushing violent rhetoric, and it has been a useful political strategy. For that reason, those in the Democratic Party seeking greater power within this banana republic have copied GOP strategies and also pushed right.

Nonetheless, we live in a far more peaceful era, compared to the past. The 1960s to 1980s was extremely violent, across the political spectrum (economic and political problems did contribute, although the worsening rates of lead toxicity of post-war industrialization and mass car culture played a larger role). And the first several decades of last century were even more violent, that having been the era of bomb-throwing anarchists, the terrorist Klan, and large-scale organized crime.

Ideology, at times, has been a more central concern. And it does help us understand how we got to this point. There is research that shows that violence always gets worse under Republican administrations, at least for as long as data has been kept. Right-wing and reactionary ideology worsens social conditions because of what it promotes. But once a society gets pushed toward instability, ideology itself is no longer the motivating factor. Ideology simply creates the conditions for violence to play out for other reasons, typically more personal motivations.

The guy who shot those Republicans probably didn’t do so for ideology, no more than the increasing hate crimes from the political right are intended as a political strategy. Most people aren’t overtly ideological in having clear and consistent ideological principles, even as they get caught up in the ideological rhetoric fanning the flames. Many Americans are simply feeling desperate, distressed, outraged, and much else. As research shows, high inequality doesn’t increase the probability of either kind behavior or intelligent choices. Only after bad conditions and bad feelings hit a breaking point does ideology typically follow as a way of ranting or rationalizing.

Ideology might offer an outlet for one’s feelings and give form to one’s voice, but ideology plays more of a role on the societal level than on the individual level. That is true until social conditions get so bad that people start organizing terrorist groups that regularly blow up buildings, assassinate people, etc. We haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. Even then, few if any join a terrorist group because of ideology, although there is no doubt that ideology helps to create and cement a new social identity, including social identities people are willing to die for.

Our concern about ideology, first and foremost, should be the neoliberalism and neoconservatism that forms the harmful social conditions and so makes violent consequences inevitable. Once we are at the point of people committing mass violence, talk about ideology is largely moot. We need to push it back a step to see where it originated.

* * *

Related to those articles, I was reading Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. It was published this year. Although far from perfect, I hope it gets a wide reading by the public and gains some traction in the media.

It is a useful book because his analysis of inequality is primarily through a lens of social science, rather than economics or politics. The author explains in great detail the real world impact inequality has on people in all aspects of their lives. The basic point was made many years ago in The Spirit Level by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, but Payne takes it a step further in showing the immense amount of research that has accumulated and showing how all the research connects to form a larger understanding.

The case against inequality goes far beyond a mere moral plea for justice and fairness. Inequality makes everything more dysfunctional. This is seen most clearly in diverse social problems, but there are larger consequences starkly shown in the political sphere. If a divided country is what is wanted, there are few more effective ways to divide a population than through inequality (pp. 110-111):

“Political scientist Nolan McCarty and his colleagues have also traced political divisions over the last century in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, formulating a measure of polarization based on how lawmakers vote, similar to the data used for Andris’s graphs. The polarization index is at its highest when all Democrats vote one way and all Republicans vote the other. Using this index, they calculated how polarized American politics has been in every Congress since 1947. Figure 4.5 shows that polarization in the House of Representatives and the Gini index of inequality have followed strikingly similar trajectories. Results for the Senate are similar. Both inequality and polarization were relatively low through the 1950s and 1960s. They then began rising in tandem in the mid-1970s and have remained on par ever since.”

There is one point that has long stood out to me, as seen with inequality research. It isn’t limited to the problems affecting the lower classes. Even the plutocrats become divided in conflict. That is what results when inequality becomes so entrenched that it forms into a widespread culture of mistrust, anxiety, and fear. This is seen in comparing countries which many earlier books on the topic have discussed. Even the wealthiest are worse off in a high inequality society than they are in a low inequality society. Inequality increases stress-related illnesses, violent crime, and political corruption. To live amidst inequality is to constantly feel on edge. No amount of wealth, power, and privilege can protect one from that sad state of affairs. No gated community can entirely isolate one from problems that tear apart the very social fabric that society depends upon.

Inequality is self-destructive. It has to be remedied if the worst possible consequences are to be avoided: economic collapse, government failure, inability to defend against foreign invasion, terrorism, military coup, civil war, revolution, or some combination of these. Simply devolving into an authoritarian police state and banana republic isn’t much of a better fate. But the point is that the experience of shittiness becomes pervasive even while the outward forms of civil society are maintained. It happens in ways that are hard to see from within a society because the problems become normalized according to the status quo and the ensuing epistemic closure shuts down our ability to imagine anything else. All that is experienced by most people is a general sense of worsening. They simply feel bad which leads to some combination of apathetic resignation and fearful scapegoating. This does not help to build a shared attitude of common good and cooperation, much less compassion and tolerance.

As inequality becomes a chasm dividing the public, the center literally disappears while the once large middle class shrinks. That center is what holds civil society together, what creates a sense of a shared social order (something explained by Aristotle more than a couple of millennia ago and also explained by Adam Smith more than a couple of centuries ago). Inequality turns people against one another. This can be seen in different areas of society, such as on an airplane where people are forced into close proximity. The socioeconomic status of passengers, real or perceived, represents a microcosm of the larger society (pp. 2-4):

“As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

“To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

“This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flight. Since an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

“But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

“Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

“What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

* * *

For some historical context, Noam Chomsky is useful (“The Common Good”, The Sun magazine, November 1997):

“Aristotle took it for granted that a democracy would be fully participatory — with the notable exception of women and slaves — and would aim to promote the common good. But he argued that, in order to achieve its goal, the democracy would have to ensure “lasting prosperity to the poor” and “moderate and sufficient property” for everyone. If there were extremes of poor and rich, or if you didn’t have lasting prosperity for everyone, Aristotle thought, then you couldn’t talk seriously about having democracy.

“Another point Aristotle made was that if you have a perfect democracy, yet have big differences of wealth — a small number of very rich people and a large number of very poor — then the poor will use their democratic muscle to take away the property of the rich. He regarded this as unjust and offered two possible solutions. One was to reduce poverty. The other was to reduce democracy.

“A couple of thousand years later, when our Founding Fathers were writing the Constitution, James Madison noticed the same problem, but whereas Aristotle’s preferred solution had been to reduce poverty, Madison’s was to reduce democracy. He said quite explicitly in the Constitutional Convention that, if we had a true democracy, then the poor majority would use its power to demand what nowadays we would call agrarian reform, and that couldn’t be tolerated. The primary goal of government, in Madison’s words, is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” He also pointed out that, as time went on, this problem was going to get worse, because a growing part of the population would suffer serious inequities and “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of blessings.” He therefore designed a system that would ensure democracy didn’t function. As he put it, power would be in the hands of the “more capable set of men,” those who held “the wealth of the nation,” and the rest would be factionalized and marginalized in various ways.”

* * *

Here are some concluding thoughts. In this post, I resisted linking to any of my old posts. I’ve written about this kind of thing many times before, but I didn’t feel like dredging up prior commentary.

For the longest time, I identified as a liberal and it is still hard for me to shake that identity, even as I’ve seen the problems with it as a specifically American ideological category enmeshed in class politics, class privilege, and class warfare. The specific problem is that the liberal class which, because middle class professionals are found in academia and media, has come to dominate the rhetoric of liberalism within public debate.

My tendency is toward moderation. And I wish I lived in a moderate society. But I don’t. The reality is that the rhetoric of moderation is too often used in mainstream/corporatist politics to defend what is immoderate to the extreme, just as liberal rhetoric is wielded to prop up illiberal power structures. My concern, as always, is more about the reality than the rhetoric. Yet to deal with the reality requires understanding the rhetoric and how it is used. That further requires immense context to gain that understanding, context that few Americans are ever taught.

Inequality and class division makes for a stupid society. I mean that quite literally. It simply is not good for the highest levels of neurocognitive development and hence intellectual capacity. Inequality, similar to poverty, stunts normal development and this can be seen in brain scans. Long-term social and psychological stress accumulates into high rates of what essentially is trauma. An entire national population traumatized isn’t so talented at achieving a moderate civil society. People, under extreme duress and unhealthy conditions, tend to think and act stupidly and that stupidity gets magnified on the collective level.

This is why it is so heart-rending to speak of an idealized “Sane Center.” A common attribute of high inequality societies, specifically those dominated by the WEIRD demographic (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic), is that they have high rates of mental illness. It’s not just the poor having their brains fucked up from lead toxicity, although that is a major component with the combined effects of economic segregation and environmental racism. In the US, even the wealthy have higher rates of mental illness. There are poor communities around the world that, despite lacking healthcare and all the niceties of modernity, have very low or even seemingly non-existent rates of mental illness. The primary difference isn’t between poverty and wealth but between high inequality and low inequality. Of course, combining poverty with high inequality creates an even greater shit storm.

This is what gets me. Those demanding moderation are often the most privileged. They are people who too often think they are above it all and so look down upon all those other crazy people, such as the poor whites who are falsely blamed for Trump’s election. It is the comfortable classes, in their privilege and authority, who get to define what (and who) is ‘sane’ and ‘insane’, along with what is ‘centrist’ vs ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ vs ‘radical’. This even sometimes goes along with forms of gaslighting that make people feel insane — such as hearing politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals speak about the world in a way that doesn’t match the lived reality of most people in the world.

We don’t live in a sane and moderate country. Acknowledging that fact should be the starting point of any public discussion. The ‘center’ of a society gone mad is not where we should move toward, if the public good and functioning democracy is our aspiration.

* * *

6/26/17 – I originally wanted to avoid linking to old posts. But then I got in a debate. That person kept demanding evidence. I find that tiresome because, if someone wants info, they can find it. It’s not hard to find.

I guess I’ll make it even easier to find by offering some of that info gathered on my blog. Besides the following posts, I also shared a bunch of poling data and such down in the comments section. I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to pretend this info doesn’t exist. Here it is:

US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric)
Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals
Environmentalist Majority
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Who Supported the Vietnam War?
Political Elites Disconnected From General Public
Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism
Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization
Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)
Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism
Black and White and Re(a)d All Over
NPR: Liberal Bias?
Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc
The Establishement: NPR, Obama, Corporatism, Parties

Capitalists for Corporatism

There is an odd argument from the political right. That is it seems odd to my political left perspective. The argument is intended to rationalize away regulatory capture by big biz. The basic claim is that only those who come from the corporate sector would have the knowledge and experience to effectively regulate corporations.

This is like arguing that only criminals should be hired as police and judges because they need to have firsthand experience of crime. Or like arguing only enemy combatants should be made into generals of the military they were fighting against because generals need to to have direct familiarity with the enemy. Or like arguing that only the working class should be hired as CEOs because they need to know how a business operates from the ground up (actually, that is a decent argument).

It’s hard to know how seriously to take the argument for big biz regulating itself. Political rhetoric rarely is ideologically principled and consistent, more often being conveniently self-serving. Still, for the sake of argument, I like to take such things at face value. Those making this argument don’t seem to take seriously the implications… or else they don’t notice… or don’t care.

What follows from this line of thought is that corporatism is the inevitable result of capitalism. It also indicates that cronyism is inherent to organizing society around capitalism. As Marxists predicted, capitalism if given free reign will always lead to oligopolies and monopolies through concentration of wealth and power. Regulatory capture, of course, will lead to corruption. There is no way of getting around this. So, if the argument is that regulatory capture is the only way regulation can happen, that puts corruption of government squarely within capitalism itself.

As many have argued, capitalism is far from being the same as free markets. Many anti-capitalists, Marx included, have supported free markets. In fact, the anti-capitalist argument for free markets is far stronger and more compelling. But if the reality of capitalism isn’t identical (or even much resembling) the rhetoric of capitalism, where does that leave us? Even the advocates of capitalism sometimes admit this, even if unintentionally.

So, what would an actual free market look like? How could a market be free without embodying, expressing, and defending the freedom of all people involved in and effected by the economic system? How could an economy and government controlled by big biz be free for anyone other than plutocrats? As always, whose freedom are we talking about?

Fallen State of America

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons
by Corey Robin
(from comment section)

Glenn wrote:

Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone (Percocet and Oxycontin) consumption and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

Donald Pruden, Jr. wrote:

Let me introduce the “World Happiness Report 2017”.

Yes, this is a thing. The Report, published under the auspices of the United Nations, states boldly that (in its words) that “Happiness Has Fallen in America”.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, titled “Restoring American Happiness”, it is written by Jeffrey D. Sachs and it focusses on the United States:

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

And this from a footnote at the end of the Chapter in question:

“5. It is sometimes suggested that the degree of ethnic diversity is the single most powerful explanation of high or low social trust. It is widely believed that Scandinavia’s high social trust and happiness are a direct reflection of their high ethnic homogeneity, while America’s low and declining social trust is a reflection of America’s high and rising ethnic diversity. The evidence suggests that such “ethnic determinism” is misplaced. As Bo Rothstein has cogently written about Scandinavia, the high social trust was far from automatically linked with ethnic homogeneity. It was achieved through a century of active social democratic policies that broke down class barriers and distrust (see Rothstein and Stolle, 2003). Social democracy was buttressed by a long tradition and faith in the quality of government even before the arrival of democracy itself in Scandinavia. Moreover, highly diverse societies, such as Canada, have been able to achieve relatively high levels of social trust through programs aimed at promoting multiculturalism and inter-ethnic understanding.”

[I especially like this last as some have tried to suggest that social strife in the U.S. is, bluntly, to be blamed on the (disruptive) presence of Blacks in the United States — Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” made a point of exposing this belief that Americans seem to hold by displaying it in a montage of person-on-the-street interviews. That film goes on to challenge that view. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” was probably the very first broadly distributed cultural product in the U.S. to issue such blame at Blacks.]

* * *

See my previous post:

What kind of trust? And to what end?

There is one book that seriously challenges the tribal argument: Segregation and Mistrust by Eric M. Uslaner. Looking at the data, he determined that (Kindle Locations 72-73), “It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”

From Community to Legalism

The United States has become a legalistic society. It has always been more legalistic than some countries, for various reasons, but it’s become even more legalistic over time. Earlier last century, most problems weren’t dealt with through the legal system.

This is why it’s hard to compare present data to past data. A lot of criminal behavior never led people to the court system, much less prison. And even when people ended up in court, judges used to have more legal freedom to be lenient, unlike our present mandatory sentencing. This meant that there wasn’t much in the way of mass incarceration in the US until this past half century or so.

Take juvenile delinquents as a key example, far from a new problem. As urbanization took hold in the late 1800s and into the early Cold War, there was moral panic about teenagers being out of control, turning into criminals, and joining gangs. But most kids with problems didn’t end up facing a judge.

There were community institutions that figured out ways to deal with problems without recourse to legal punishment. Kids might get sent to family members who lived elsewhere, to a group home for delinquents, to reform school, etc. Or they might simply be made to do community service or pay restitution. But none of it would end up as a criminal record, likely not even getting reported in the local newspaper. It would have been dealt with quietly, informally, and privately.

There were cultural reasons at the time. It was assumed that kids weren’t fully responsible for their own behavior, as kids were treated as dependents of adults. The problems of kids was seen as the failure of parenting or social conditions. There was little tolerance for bad behavior in many ways at that time, but also society was much more forgiving. A kid would have to commit many major crimes before he would end up in a court and in jail.

The downside of this is that individuals had less rights, as people were seen more in social terms. It was easier to institutionalize people back then. Or if a girl got pregnant, her family would make sure she was sent somewhere else and not bring shame on the family. Juveniles were considered dependents until well into young adulthood. A 21 year old woman who was accused of prostitution, even if false, could find herself sent off to a group home for girls. Early 20th century childhood was highly protected and extended, although far different from present helicopter parenting.

Parents were considered legally and morally responsible for their kids, in a way that is not seen these days. Individual rights were still rather limited in the early 20th century. But there was also a sense of community responsibility for members of the community. It was accepted that social conditions shaped and influenced individuals. So, to change individual behavior, it was understood that social conditions needed to be changed for the individual.

In present American society, we see the past as socially oppressive and it was. We now put the individual before the community. We think it’s wrong to send juvenile delinquents off to reform schools, to separate the low IQ kids from other students, and to institutionalize the mentally ill. But this typically means we simply ignore problems.

The kid with severe autism in a normal classroom is not getting a good education or being prepared for adult life in any kind of way, although there is merit to his being socialized with his neurotypical peers. The mentally ill being homeless instead of in institutions is not exactly an improvement, even considering the problems of psychiatric institutions in the past. And the world is not a better place for our warehousing problematic people in prisons.

Our society has been pushed to an extreme. It would be nice to see more balance between rights of individuals and the responsibility of communities. But that isn’t possible if our main options are to either ignore problems or turn to the legal system. This is a difficult challenge, as increasing urbanization and industrialization have led to the breakdown of communities. There was a much stronger social fabric a century ago. It’s harder for us to turn to community solutions now since communities no longer function as they once did. And growing inequality has undermined the culture of trust that is necessary for well-functioning community.

Yet it’s obvious, according to polls, that most Americans realize that social problems require social solutions. But our political system hasn’t caught up with this social reality. Or rather the ruling class would rather not admit to it.