Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus

Below are some excerpts from William Hazlitt’s Reply to Malthus’s Essay on Population (1807).

I hadn’t previously given any thought to Hazlitt, but I noticed that David Bromwich wrote a biography about him. This made me curious, as Bromwich dresses himself up as a Burkean, albeit of a left-liberal variety.

Edmund Burke, of course, was the great target of Thomas Paine’s harshest criticisms. But he was also the target of Hazlitt’s low opinion, probably influenced by Paine. Hazlitt and Paine seem of a more similar mindset and political persuasion. Interestingly, Hazlitt’s response to Malthus was published just two years before Paine’s death (1809 also being the year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, a man who was early influenced by Paine’s radicalism, although he learned to hide that influence as an experienced professional politician).

I don’t know what Burke would have said of Malthus’s arguments. Apparently, like Malthus, he was against a right to subsistence; whatever form it might take, whether a social safety net for the poor or Paine’s citizen’s dividend. So, the two were in the same British vein of thought, in defense of plutocracy and aristocracy—as it began to take the form in modern capitalism, specifically in terms of meritocracy (i.e., a proto-Social Darwinian scapegoating of the poor). In this, both were opponents of Paine’s radicalism, which oddly was more in line with ancient British tradition (i.e., the Commons and “The Charter of the Forest”)—especially as it took shape with the Country Party, the “Country” referring to those areas where both the Commons survived the longest and radical politics began the earliest; the strongholds of the Diggers and Levellers, the Puritans and Quakers; the areas of the much older Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian ancestries.

Paine was always one to see through such pathetic defenses of unjust power, such moral sophistry. He understood, as did other supposed radicals, that the poor were made, not born. The reason he understood this is because he saw it happen firsthand, by way of the enclosure movement or what Marxists refer to as primitive accumulation; theft by another name, in this case theft of land and livelihood. Is it a surprise that people become poor and desperate when the rich and powerful take everything away from them, even their homes, destroying entire villages and throwing the residents to the street? Being a feudal peasant isn’t so bad compared to being a landless peasant, constantly threatened by starvation and disease, prison and the noose.

Hazlitt may not have had the radical vision and revolutionary fervor of Paine, but he spoke with the same tone of dissent against brute power and class supremacy. They both recognized the hollowness of such arguments against the pleas of those made desperate (poverty and unemployment being realities Paine knew from personal experience). The moral outrage motivating Hazlitt’s able dissection of Malthusianism is the same basic complaint Paine penned in his famous takedown of Burke’s glorifying of the oppressive French monarchy while ignoring the violent oppression, the suffering and starvation of the masses.

What turns my mind to such voices from the past is that they still resonate. Other than the writing style, these views could easily be written today.

The present political right likes to insult the intelligence of the well-informed, by pretending that the clarion of progressivism wasn’t heard until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that modern liberalism was invented by hippies or maybe even communists. That is all bullshit and everyone would know it was bullshit, if the American education system did a better job at teaching history. Mass ignorance allows the right-wing to get away with their games of spin and lies. Sadly, many mainstream liberals willingly play along with this game, because too many of them also fear the moral force that flows down the centuries of Anglo-American tradition.

These are old debates that strike deeply upon unhealed wounds. They didn’t arise from the culture wars of the late twentieth century. These contentious issues were creating divisions long before the United States was founded, long even before the entire early modern revolutionary era. The most basic conflict took full form with the English Civil War, but ultimately goes even further back, as the struggle to maintain the Commons (and the common law) began with Norman Invasion. If the gauntlet thrown down by the likes of Hazlitt and Paine was radicalism, it was a radicalism at the heart the Anglo-American tradition and at the foundation of Western Civilization.

That is what scared Burke shitless. It still scares many others shitless, even as (or maybe because) this supposed radicalism has come to be seen as increasingly reasonable and necessary. Reactionary politics thrives on fear.

John Adams, in speaking of the world he saw taking shape, argued that it was no “Age of Reason,” and so, after a litany of failures and horrors, he bitterly quipped, “Then call it the Age of Paine.” He was too early in making such a declaration. It took some centuries for Paine’s vision of justice to take root, although it is far from full ripening fruition.

As Philip Clark explained:

Like Thomas Paine in “Common Sense” (which, in its day, contained anything but “common” or widely-held beliefs), Hazlitt defends the right of the people to self-governance, and does so with a righteous anger worthy of Paine: “…you [speaking about the defenders of monarchy] would make the throne every thing, and the people nothing, to be yourself less than nothing, a very slave, a reptile, a creeping, cringing sycophant, a court favorite, a pander to Legitimacy – that detestable fiction, which would make you and me and all mankind its slaves or victims…” It is difficult, in the present day, to convey how radical Hazlitt’s argument is; we have largely taken for granted those liberties – freedom of expression, representative government and the rights of the accused – for which Hazlitt is fighting, but it is on the foundations of these arguments that our society has been built, and for this we owe him and his compatriots a greater debt than we recognize.

Despite all the continuing injustices, those old school “classical liberal” radicals would be amazed by how far progressive reform has gone. We continue those centuries-old debates and yet at least the poor no longer starve in the streets. Even conservatives, despite the empty claims of some, wouldn’t genuinely want to return to how bad things once were. That is a sign of progress, however meager it may seem in contrast to ever more radical visions of tangible freedom, beyond mere freedom from the most cruel oppressions.

In that light, read the following words of Hazlitt. Similar critiques, in simpler language, could just as easily be writing against the likes of Ayn Rand, William Buckley, or Russell Kirk. Without ever having heard of Hazlitt, his argument is already familiar, as is what he is arguing against. The past few centuries of Anglo-American politics have been a broken record.

Thomas Malthus’s argument can be summed up in a statement made a few years ago by Andre Bauer, a Republican politician:

“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

That is the attitude that the Hazlitts of the world have been endlessly fighting against. It’s a worthy fight, no matter how tiresome.

* * * *

“Mr. Malthus says that the true cause of the difficulties under which the community would labour, would be the excessive tendency to population, arising from the security felt by every man that his children would be well provided for by the general benevolence: by taking away this security then, and imposing the task of maintaining them upon himself, you remove the only cause of the unavoidable tendency of population to excess, and of all the confusion that would ensue, by making his selfishness and his indolence operate as direct checks on his sensual propensities. He would be tied to his good behaviour as effectually as a country fellow is at present by being bound in a penalty of twenty pounds to the parish for every bastard child that he gets. If every man’s earnings were in proportion to his exertions, if his share of the necessaries, the comforts, or even the superfluities of life were derived from the produce of his own toil, or ingenuity, or determined by equitable compensation, I cannot conceive how there could be any greater security for regularity of conduct and a general spirit of industry in the several members of the community, as far as was consistent with health and the real enjoyment of life. If these principles are not sufficient to ensure the good order of society in such circum stances, I should like to know what are the principles by which it is enforced at present. They are nothing more than the regular connection between industry and its reward, and the additional charge or labour to which a man necessarily subjects himself by being encumbered with a family. The only difference is in the proportion between the reward, and the exertion, or the rate at which the payment of labour is fixed. So far then we see no very pressing symptoms of the dissolution of the society, or of any violent departure from this system of decent equality, from the sole principle of population. Yet we have not hitherto got (in the regular course of the argument) so far as the distinction of a class of labourers, and a class of proprietors. It may be urged perhaps that nothing but extreme want or misery can furnish a stimulus sufficiently strong to produce ‘the labour necessary for the support of an extended population,’ or counteract the principle of population. But Mr. Malthus himself admits that ‘the most constant and best directed efforts of industry are to be found among a class of people above the class of the wretchedly poor,’ among those who have something to lose, and something to gain, and who, happen what will, cannot be worse off than they are. He also admits that it is among this middling class of people, that we are to look for most instances of self-denial, prudence, and a competent resistance to the principle of population. I do not therefore understand either the weight or consistency of the charge which he brings against Paine of having fallen into the most fundamental errors respecting the principles of government by confounding the affairs of Europe with those of America. If the people in America are not forced to labour (and there are no people more industrious) by extreme poverty, if they are not forced to be prudent (and their prudence is I believe equal to their industry) by the scantiness of the soil, or the unequal distribution of its produce, no matter whether the state is old or new, whether the population is increasing or stationary, the example proves equally in all cases that wretchedness is not the sine qua non of industry, and that the way to hinder people from taking desperate steps is not to involve them in despair. The current of our daily life, the springs of our activity or fortitude, may be supplied as well from hope as fear, from ‘ cheerful and confident thoughts ‘ as the apparition of famine stalking just behind us. The merchant attends to his business, settles his accounts, and answers his correspondents as diligently and punctually as the shop-keeper. The shop-keeper minds his customers, and puffs off his goods, tells more lies, is a greater drudge, and gets less for his pains than the merchant. The shoeblack piques himself upon giving the last polish to a gentleman’s shoes, and gets a penny for his trouble. In all these cases, it is not strictly the proportion between the exertion and the object, neither hope nor fear in the abstract, that determines the degree of our exertions, but the balance of our hopes and fears, the difference that it will make to us in our situation whether we exert ourselves to the utmost or not, and the impossibility of turning our labour to any better account that habitually regulates our conduct.1

(“1 Thus the shop-keeper cannot in general be supposed to be actuated by any fear of want. His exertions are animated entirely by the prospect of gain, or advantage. Yet how trifling are his profits compared with those of the merchant. This however does not abate his diligence. It may be said that the advantage is as great to him. That is, it is the greatest in his power to make ; which is the very thing I mean to say. In fact we are wound up to a certain pitch of resolution and activity almost as mechanically as we wind up a clock.”)

“We all do the best for ourselves that we can. This is at least a general rule. […]

“Now I shall not myself be so uncandid as not to confess, that I think the poor laws bad things ; and that it would be well, if they could be got rid of, consistently with humanity and justice. This I do not think they could in the present state of things and other circumstances remaining as they are. The reason why I object to Mr. Malthus’s plan is that it does not go to the root of the evil, or attack it in its principle, but its effects. He confounds the cause with the effect. The wide spreading tyranny, dependence, indolence, and unhappiness of which Mr. Malthus is so sensible, are not occa sioned by the increase of the poor-rates, but these are the natural consequence of that increasing tyranny, dependence, indolence, and unhappiness occasioned by other causes.

“Mr. Malthus desires his readers to look at the enormous proportion in which the poor-rates have increased within the last ten years. But have they increased in any greater proportion than the other taxes, which rendered them necessary, and which I think were employed for much more mischievous purposes ? I would ask, what have the poor got by their encroachments for the last ten years ? Do they work less hard ? Are they better fed ? Do they marry oftener, and with better prospects ? Are they grown pampered and insolent ? Have they changed places with the rich ? Have they been cunning enough, by means of the poor-laws, to draw off all their wealth and superfluities from the men of property ? Have they got so much as a quarter of an hour’s leisure, a farthing candle, or a cheese-paring more than they had ? Has not the price of provisions risen enor mously ? Has not the price of labour almost stood still ? Have not the government and the rich had their way in every thing ? Have they not gratified their ambition, their pride, their obstinacy, their ruinous extravagance ? Have they not squandered the resources of the country as they pleased ? Have they not heaped up wealth on themselves, and their dependents? Have they not multiplied sine cures, places, and pensions ? Have they not doubled the salaries of those that existed before ? Has there been any want of new creations of peers, who would thus be impelled to beget heirs to their titles and estates, and saddle the younger branches of their rising families, by means of their new influence, on the country at large ? Has there been any want of contracts, of loans, of monopolies of corn, of good understanding between the rich and the powerful to assist one another, and to fleece the poor ? Have the poor prospered ? Have the rich declined ? What then have they to complain of? What ground is there for the apprehension, that wealth is secretly changing hands, and that the whole property of the country will shortly be absorbed in the poor’s fund ? Do not the poor create their own fund ? Is not the necessity for such a fund first occasioned by the unequal weight with which the rich press upon the poor, and has not the increase of that fund in the last ten years been occasioned by the additional exorbitant demands, which have been made upon the poor and industrious, which without some assistance from the public they could not possibly have answered ? Whatever is the increase in the nominal amount of the poor’s fund, will not the rich always be able ultimately to throw the burthen of it on the poor themselves ? But Mr. Malthus is a man of general principles. He cares little about these circumstantial details, and petty objections. He takes higher ground. He deduces all his conclusions, by an infallible logic, from the laws of God and nature. When our Essayist shall prove to me, that by these paper bullets of the brain, by his ratios of the increase of food and the increase of mankind, he has prevented one additional tax, or taken off one oppressive duty, that he has made a single rich man retrench one article at his table, that he has made him keep a dog or a horse the less, or part with a single vice, arguing from a mathematical admeasurement of the size of the earth, and the number of inhabitants it can contain, he shall have my perfect leave to disclaim the right of the poor to subsistence, and to tie them down by severe penalties to their good behaviour on the same profound prin ciples. But why does Mr. Malthus practise his demonstrations on the poor only ? Why are they to have a perfect system of rights and duties prescribed to them ? I do not see why they alone should be put to live on these metaphysical board-wages, why they should be forced to submit to a course of abstraction ; or why it should be meat and drink to them, more than to others, to do the will of God. Mr. Malthus’s gospel is preached only to the poor! — Even if I approved of our author’s plan, I should object to the principle on which it is founded. […]

“To make this clear to him, it would be necessary to put the Essay on Population into his hands, to instruct him in the nature of a geometrical and arithmetical series, in the necessary limits to population from the size of the earth, and here would come in Mr. Malthus’s plan of educa tion for the poor, writing, arithmetic, the use of the globes, &c. for the purpose of proving to them the necessity of their being starved. It cannot be supposed that the poor man (what with his poverty and what with being priest-ridden) should be able to resist this body of evidence, he would open his eyes to his error, and ‘would submit to the sufferings that were absolutely irremediable with the fortitude of a man, and the resignation of a Christian.’ He and his family might then be sent round the parish in a starving condition, accompanied by the constables and quondam overseers of the poor, to see that no person, blind to ‘ the interests of humanity,’ practised upon them the abominable deception of attempting to relieve their remediless suffer ings, and by the parson of the parish to point out to the spectators the inevitable consequences of sinning against the laws of God and man. By celebrating a number of these Auto da fes yearly in every parish, the greatest publicity would be given to the principle of population, « the strict line of duty would be pointed out to every man,’ enforced by the most powerful sanctions, justice and humanity would flourish, they would be understood to signify that the poor have no right to live by their labour, and that the feelings of compassion and bene volence are best shewn by denying them charity, the poor would no longer be dependent on the rich, the rich could no longer wish to reduce the poor into a more complete subjection to their will, all causes of contention, of jealousy, and of irritation would have ceased between them, the struggle would be over, each class would fulfil the task assigned by heaven, the rich would oppress the poor without remorse, the poor would submit to oppression with a pious gratitude and resignation, the greatest harmony would prevail between the government and the people, there would be no longer any seditions, tumults, complaints, petitions, partisans of liberty, or tools of power, no grumbling, no repining, no discontented men of talents proposing reforms, and frivolous remedies, but we should all have the same gaiety and lightness of heart, and the same happy spirit of resignation that a man feels when he is seized with the plague, who thinks no more of the physician, but knows that his disorder is without cure. The best laid schemes are subject, however, to unlucky reverses. Some such seem to lie in the way of that pleasing Euthanasia, and contented submission to the grinding law of necessity, projected by Mr. Malthus. We might never reach the philosophic temper of the inhabitants of modern Greece and Turkey in this respect. Many little things might happen to interrupt our progress, if we were put into ever so fair a train. For instance, the men might perhaps be talked over by the parson, and their understandings being convinced by the geometrical and arithmetical ratios, or at least so far puzzled, that they would have nothing to say for themselves, they might prepare to submit to their fate with a tolerable grace. […]

“If then this natural repugnance in the poor to subject themselves to the necessity of parish relief has ceased to operate, must it not be owing to extreme distress, or to the degradation of character, con sequent upon it ? How does Mr. Malthus propose to remedy this ? By subjecting them to severe distress, and teaching them patience under their sufferings. But the rational desire of bettering our condition and the fear of making it worse is not increased by its being made worse. The standard of our notions of decency and comfort is not raised by a familiarity with unmitigated wretchedness, nor is the love of independence heightened by insults, and contempt, and by a formal mockery of the principles of justice and humanity. On the previous habits and character of the people, it is, however, that the degree of misery incurred always depends, as far as relates to themselves. The consequence of an effectual abolition of the poor laws would be all the immediate misery that would be produced, aggravated by the additional depression, and proneness to misery in the lower classes, and a beautiful petrefaction of all the common feelings of human nature in the higher ones. Finally, I agree with Mr. Malthus, that, ‘ if, as in Ireland and in Spain, and many of the southern countries, the people be in so degraded a state, as to propagate their species like brutes, it matters little, whether they have poor laws or not. Misery in all its various forms must be the predominant check to their increase: and with, or without poor laws, no stretch of human ingenuity and exertion could rescue the people from the most extreme poverty and wretchedness.’

“As to the metaphysical subtleties, by which Mr. Malthus endeavours to prove that we ought systematically to visit the sins of the father on the children, and keep up the stock of vice and misery in the family (from which it would follow, that the children of thieves and robbers ought either to be hanged outright, or at least brought up in such a manner as to ensure their following the fate of their parents) I feel and know my own superiority on that ground so well, that it would be ungenerous to push it farther.”

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine

Here is some interesting stuff from the past few days. Included are online writings I’ve been perusing and my thoughts that were inspired.

First of all, in response to my last post on basic income, a regular commenter pointed out two articles, one from Inc. Magazine and the other from the Atlantic Magazine.

American Entrepreneurship Is Actually Vanishing. Here’s Why
by Leigh Buchanan

Welfare Makes America More Entrepreneurial
by Walter Frick

The second is the most interesting. That directly touches upon my thoughts about basic income. Like welfare, basic income is a form of social safety net that creates freedom from want and so freedom from fear, including freedom from being punished for taking risks.

As I’ve said before, this liberating support and protection breaks the oppressive morality-punishment link. A society can have rigid social control or a society can have experimentation and innovation, but to the degree it has one is the degree to which it constrains the other.

Putting those two articles together does make one think.

Much of what Americans, especially on the political right, assume to be common sense may very well be blatantly false. But we will never know one way or another, until we try something new or else we’ll keep getting more of the same, which is the point. The stifling of innovation and experimentation is no accident.

It is so rare that people scientifically formulate their ideological beliefs as falsifiable hypotheses to be tested, but most things could be tested if people had the courage to do so. What we perceive as common sense and counter-intuitive depends on the beliefs we dare not question, which often leads to a self-reinforcing reality tunnel where our assumptions create the conditions that result in the evidence that conforms to our assumptions. That is what makes experiments, social or scientific, so dangerous to the status quo.

What little data we have about basic income experiments, it appears that the results are not as many would predict. Social problems decrease while unemployment doesn’t appear to increase, except within specific demographics such as young mothers and students (who are doing non-paid forms of work). One wonders, if such an experiment was ever done on the large scale, that there might be a large increase in such things as entrepreneurship.

What certain people actually fear isn’t the stifling of innovation, but the possibility of encouraging too much of it. Innovation is always dangerous to the status quo. Some of those on the political right might talk a good game about such things, but too many of them want a highly constrained and uneven playing field to determine only a narrow set of innovations are possible, those that can’t challenge the social order itself. What they fear isn’t that a social safety net can’t work, but that it might work too well.

While I was at the website of The Atlantic, I noticed a few other interesting articles about a different topic. They are all by the same author, James Fallows.

Language Mystery Redux: Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way?

That Weirdo Announcer-Voice Accent: Where It Came From and Why It Went Away

Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way?

There is another kind of societal change. There once was a faux aristocratic dialect in the US. It survived into the early era of mass media. Along with it, there existed some of the remnants of the ideal of an enlightened aristocracy with its noblesse oblige.

The Roosevelts were among the last major example of an American family of inherited wealthy that embodied both these ideals and the way of talking, and noblesse oblige was a major force driving the Progressive Era and the New Deal. The last wave that still carried on the faux aristocratic dialect were those like William F. Buckley Jr who used it as a pose, although no longer held the worldview of noblesse oblige that went with it.

The post-war period with its rising middle class ended the old order with its quirks of language and such. It was also a time of mass assimilation, some combination of chosen and forced. For example, German-American culture was annihalated in a generation or two, despite it having been the single largest ethnic culture in the country, larger than that of the English ancestry. The German-Americans dominated the most populous region in the US (the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest), as French-Canadians still do in Quebec.

This is what is known as the Midlands culture, which German culture heavily influenced since before the American Revolution. Out of this formed the Midlands dialect. One particular variety of this became Standard American English. This dialect then replaced the faux aristocratic dialect that had previously dominated mass media.

Here is another article from The Atlantic.

America’s Largest Mental Hospital Is a Jail
by Matt Ford

It’s a sad state of affairs.

Prisons have become the one-size-fits-all solution for America’s problems. If we incarcerate the people afflicted with social and psychological problems, then we can pretend that we don’t need to face the problems themselves. The poor, homeless, unemployed, mentally ill, etc are then reclassified as criminals. The problem is dealt with by locking away the victims of the problem, but that is a bandaid on a gaping wound.

Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t justice. This brings me to some other things I’ve come across. There is a book I just noticed, Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado. It could be a worthy read and it sounds like it might be a useful extension and broadening of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Two related articles, the first from Yes! and the second from The New Yorker, are about the long-term costs this has had for the African-American population, often quite personal costs.

40 Acres and a Mule Would Be at Least $6.4 Trillion Today—What the U.S. Really Owes Black America
by Tracy Loeffelholz and DunnJeff Neumann

Kalief Browder, 1993–2015
by Jennifer Gonnerman

The second is particularly heartbreaking. A kid was locked away and tortured for years. It turns out he was innocent the entire time and there never was a trial. Most people don’t get a trial with a jury of their peers, as most people assume is their right, but it turns out many people don’t even get a trial.

Where are the right-wing libertarians when big government steps on the rights of the poor minorities? Where is Fox News to argue that failed, money-draining big government programs like mass incarceration need to be shut down? Where are the GOP politicians, or any mainstream politicians for that matter, to demand a full investigation of the entire US prison system and the industrial-prison complex that promotes it?

Another article from The New Yorker is about one of the main costs of these divides in justice.

What Poverty Does to the Young Brain
by Madeline Ostrander

This is how the personal meets the political, when an entire social order of dysfunction causes brain damage to a significant part of the population. This is also how this dysfunction gets perpetuated as a vicious cycle. This stunting of brain development leads to all kinds of cognitive and psychological problems, which create massive stumbling blocks for those inflicted.

That article reminded me of Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids. I haven’t read it yet, but I noticed some reviews, articles, and interviews mention the neuroscience research.

Poor kids’ brains don’t work as well as rich kids’ brains do
by Doyle McManus

Growing Up Alone?
by Hope Reese

Review – Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
by Carrie Sheffield

Author Robert Putnam sounds alarm about growing inequity among rich and poor youth
by Leslie University

All of that and, from what others have written, it appears that Putnam mostly ignores the larger and deeper structural issues, from rigid class hierarchies to entrenched power. One review pointed out that he was avoiding talking about anyone as the bad guys, as if this shift was a mere side effect.

Richer and Poorer
by Jill Lepore

““Our Kids” is a passionate, urgent book. It also has a sad helplessness. Putnam tells a story teeming with characters and full of misery but without a single villain. This is deliberate. “This is a book without upper-class villains,” he insists in the book’s final chapter. In January, Putnam tweeted, “My new book ‘Our Kids’ shows a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids. We’ll work with all sides on solutions.” It’s easier to work with all sides if no side is to blame. But Putnam’s eagerness to influence Congress has narrative consequences. If you’re going to tell a story about bad things happening to good people, you’ve got to offer an explanation, and, when you make your arguments through characters, your reader will expect that explanation in the form of character.”

(If you want some hard-hitting analysis of how corruption and power go hand in hand, see the recent Salon piece by Corey Robin, Your boss wants to control your vote: The real reason to fear corporate power. The society we have is created by intentional policies that are promoted by those with concentrated wealth and power. We shouldn’t fear pointing fingers at those who are responsiblte.)

If anything, Putnam puts the focus on poor parents.

Putnam misses the mark
by Nicki Ruiz de Luzuriaga

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D Putnam review – concerned, scholarly
by Richard Reeves

Book review: ‘Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis’ by Robert D. Putnam
by Alan Wolfe

It reminds me of clueless people wondering where black fathers are, because of the lower marriage rates. Well, like other disproportionately poor and disadvantaged populations, many of them don’t have the opportunity to spend as much time with their kids as they’d like; plus, research has shown how destructive poverty and social stress is to relationships, often either preventing marriages or breaking them up. Also, there are economic disadvantages for poor single mothers to hitch themselves to a poor man, an issue discussed in Putnam’s book and elsewhere.

That said, many black fathers are doing quite well in their rates of visiting with and helping their kids (see here and here). As for those fathers who genuinely are missing, if they aren’t excluded from contact with their kids because of incarceration or criminal records, they likely are working long hours at multiple jobs, forced to seek work elsewhere, or simply unemployed and not in a position to play a supporting role.

Forgotten Fathers: Parenting and the Prison Industrial Complex
by David J. Leonard

Sampling Again: Shawn Carter and the Moynihan Report Remix
by David J. Leonard

6 Actual Facts Shatter the Biggest Stereotypes of Black Fathers
by Antwaun Sargent

About these systemic problems, some people see hope for reform, whether social reform or political and economic reform. Putnam puts his hope in the former. Others look to the latter, including sometimes myself (as in my last post on basic income).

A Practical Vision of a More Equal Society
By Thomas Piketty

Of course, Piketty was reviewing a book written about reform in another country. Many Americans are too cynical to believe that kind of thing is possible here.

This brings me to my last item for consideration. Corey Robin had another recent piece, that can be found on his blog. In it, he offers an extended quote from an article by William Hazlitt.

“The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. . . . Wrong dressed out in pride, pomp, and circumstance has more attraction than abstract right.”

What is possible is largely based on what we can imagine is possible. Hazlitt makes a case for the power of imagination wielded by the reactionary right-wing, a topic of particular interest for Robin. There is power to the conservative imagination because it idealizes and serves power. Power of imagination relates to power in the world, and there is a blunt force in how those on the political right use this power, their aesthetic sensibility being as subtle as a hammer (the reason there are few highly successful conservative comedians).

That said, in one response to Robin’s post, someone pointed out that imagination is obviously not owned by any single group. There is also a long history of its power being used by the political left.

With both Hazlitt’s view and that of the response to it, I felt a resonance to my own thinking. I want to dig below the surface. It’s great to read discussions of data, policies, and real world examples. But that doesn’t get to the beating heart of the matter.

Cranky Conservatives and Hypocritical Liberals

I’ve slowly been adjusting my view on many topics. The most obvious example has to do with politics and political labels, specifically that of conservatism and liberalism.

I’ve written about this for years, because it endlessly fascinates me and confounds my thinking. Mainstream political labels, at first glance, seem to be simple and straightforward. Those who identify with these labels do tend to portray themselves in standard ways. However, if you look deeper, you  begin to realize there is more going on. I’ve explored many other angles previously, and so let me explore a new angle.

The other day, I read a dual review by Kenan Malik. The two books he reviewed were Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained and John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette. The topic uniting the two was that of free will.

I’m not familiar with Baggini’s writings and politics, but from the review I got the sense that he is probably more or less a mainstream progressive liberal. His general approach in defending free will, in relation to the Enlightenment project, seems fairly typical for a well-educated liberal. That is fine, as far as it goes. However, what I’d love to see is Baggini (or Malik) attempt to take on something like Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Then such a writer would have my full attention.

My own view is that of agnostic. I’m agnostic about so much in life, from God to free will. Such issues are of the same quality, whether overtly theological or not. They are about beliefs, not scientific knowledge, and so I feel wary about those who seek to politicize such debates.

Both Baggini and Gray are doing that very thing (and so is Malik in his review). Their beliefs about free will are inseparable from their beliefs about human progress and hence of political progressivism. I’m not sure where that leaves my agnosticism, but I certainly don’t find myself neatly taking sides.

As far as I’m concerned, it is a pointless debate, as neither side can prove they are right and that the other is wrong. Free will can’t be formulated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis and so can’t ever be tested. Beliefs are just beliefs, even when they are based on powerful personal experiences of perceived reality. I have nothing against beliefs in and of themselves, but they should be kept in proper context.

Nonetheless, I found John Gray’s view more interesting, because his mind seems more interesting. A proper label for him might be that of a cranky conservative, having shifted from Thatcherite neoliberal to a captialism-criticizing paleoconservative. What makes his view worthy of serious consideration is that he is a wide reader and a deep thinker, which is probably what allowed his views to shift to such an extent.

I call Gray a cranky conservative as a term of endearment. He is what I think of as the prototypical INTJ (MBTI type: Introverted, iNtuition, Thinking, Judging). In my experience, INTJs have minds that spiral inwards toward what to others seem like a mysterious sensibility or odd perspective. They love the idiosyncratic and obscure, which is what can make them interesting, at the same as it can make them perplexing or even frustrating and irritating.

INTJs have ever curious minds, but it is of a particular variety. It’s definitely not that of a linear-focused, analytical intellect (some readers complain that many of Gray’s books feel like a jumble of thoughts with important issues overlooked and useful connections not made). This kind of curiosity is also not of the endlessly expansive and exploratory tendency, as seen with the strongly extraverted intuition types.

This is demonstrated by Gray’s interest in Philip K. Dick, of which he writes in great detail in The Soul of the Marionette. Both are intuition types, but of opposing attitudes (introverted versus extraverted). Gray, in his recent book, sees PKD as having in a sense failed because his attitude of intuition just goes on and on, ever searching for what can’t be found. Gray rightly notes that this made PKD crazy at times. Still, that partly misses the beauty of PKD’s view.

Nonetheless, the fact that Gray takes PKD seriously at all is what I appreciate. I doubt I’ll ever see the likes of Malik and Baggini writing in detail about PKD, although the latter does one time briefly mention him in Freedom Regained but only then in reference to a movie based on a PKD story (I discovered this one instance by doing a search on Google Books). For this reason, I’m reading Gray’s book and not a book by either of those others, despite my being politically closer to them.

I first heard of John Gray many years ago. I never gave him much thought until I read Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. Robin has a chapter of that book where he discusses Gray as a reactionary conservative, similar to that of Edmund Burke, both holding positions as partial outsiders (although not too far outside, for otherwise the political right would never pay them any attention). Robin makes the argument that this is the basis of all conservatism, but I think distinctions need to be made. Even Robin sees Gray as being a unique figure on the right, as he explained elsewhere:

“There is a large discourse on the left of intellectuals and activists trying to come to terms with their erstwhile support for Stalinism and revolutionary tyranny. Indeed, a great deal of 20th century intellectual history is driven by that discourse, with entire literatures devoted to the Webbs in Russia, Sontag in Vietnam, Foucault in Iran. Yet where is the comparable discourse on the right of intellectuals coming to terms with their (or their heroes’) support for Pinochet, Salazar, and the like? With the exception of John Gray, I can’t think of a single apostate from—or adherent of—the right who’s engaged in such a project of self-examination: not breast-beating or mea culpas, but really looking at the relationship between their ideas and their actions. Now there’s a road to serfdom that’s yet to be mapped.”

He is, as I put it, a cranky conservative. He is a pessimist and highly critical at that. He isn’t going to be easy on even former allies. If anything, he is likely to be more harsh toward those with whom he once shared a view. He seems to place a high standard on both himself and others, and based on that he points out failures and hypocrisy.

I respect that more than I respect, for example, what I too often see among mainstream liberals. I particularly have in mind what I call conservative(-minded) liberals. I’ve become ever more aware of, to put it lightly, the inconsistency of so many liberals. Behind the facade of rhetoric, there is so much of the biases and prejudices as found everywhere else in our society. Simply put, I’d vote for John Gray before I’d vote for Hilary Clinton, for at least he criticizes some of the worst aspects of capitalism, not to mention neo-imperialist war-mongering.

There are surprising number of liberals who are, for example, highly race and class conscious. They are willing to talk about helping the unfortunate, as long as it doesn’t personally effect them. In their own lives, they’d rather not interact with minorities and poor people, and they will sometimes complain about such people behind closed doors. It’s one thing to support welfare or affirmative action for the underprivileged, but it is a whole other thing to have one of those perceived low class people living in your neighborhood or community.

There is at least an upfront honesty with a cranky conservative. As for free will, someone’s personal beliefs are the least of my concern.

Mechanical Spider Legs and Progressive Reform

Did you see this article about FDR?

Report: White House Officials Deliberately Hid FDR’s Mechanical Spider Legs From Public

It does explain a lot. I always wondered why public photos of him never showed his legs.

On a happier note, here are some thoughts about the coming future, when mechanical spider legs will no longer need to be attached to humans.

‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’

One of the jobs that hasn’t been mechanized yet is that of torturer. But with Poland being held accountable, let’s hope it won’t be a growing job sector.

With US Accountability MIA, Poland to Make Payout for Torture of CIA

That article points out how the US government officials aren’t being held accountable for their own actions. That isn’t just true internationally, but also nationally. The US government isn’t accountable to American voters anymore than it is accountable to international courts.

Study: Congress literally doesn’t care what you think

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change. – The Boston Globe

A major reason for this is big money. The US government has big money (funding a big military—and increasingly militarized police—along with helping to fund a big defense industry) and, of course, American politicians are beholden to big money (including from that defense industry), a cozy corporatist collusion. Besides indirect bribes (beyond just campaign money) and unofficial kickbacks (via no-bid contracts and below-market-value of natural resources from public lands), there are also direct subsidies to corporations and banks.

US taxpayers subsidising world’s biggest fossil fuel companies

U.S. Taxpayers Subsidizing World’s Biggest Fossil Fuel Companies

Why Should Taxpayers Give Big Banks $83 Billion a Year?

Top Banking Analyst: Subsidies to Giant Banks Exceed $780 Billion Dollars Per YEAR

Big Banks Have Raked In $102 Billion In Subsidies Since 2009: Report

A related aspect is that of the climate change debate. People are always arguing over who is getting funded how much and who is doing the funding. Interestingly, many of the same big energy sources that fund political campaigning also fund the opponents of the scientific consensus, from funding think tanks to funding scientists. No matter how much money climatology researchers get, they can’t use that money for lobbying and campaign donations, as does big energy.

Accusations that climate science is money-driven reveal ignorance of how science is done

Not just the Koch brothers: New study reveals funders behind the climate change denial effort

Graphs of Science Funding

It’s obviously a complex issue, but one has to wonder what are the end results of all that money. Even the money that goes to research, is the issue really a lack of enough data to know we have a problem to deal with? I doubt it.

Big money corruption is a non-partisan issue, not that you’d realize that from the mainstream media. It has been a central concern of both the Tea Party and the Occupiers. In general, it has been a growing concern of all Americans. A movement is forming and those involved, individually and collectively, are demanding to be taken seriously. In some cases, concerned citizens are going to extremes in their attempt to get heard.

Can the Gyrocopter Gang Start a Political Reform Movement?

Much of the organizing is grassroots and the changes are starting at the local level. Just recently, the county I live in issued a resolution and so joined the ranks of a growing number of local governments across the country, in both red and blue areas.

County supervisors call for Constitutional amendment – The Daily Iowan

Now, we just need a president who is even half the man FDR was and apparently he himself was already half machine. Maybe having mechanical spider legs gives someone the courage to face down the fascists and oligarchs in order to demand progressive reform.

Partisan Apologetics, Bipartisan Bullshit

Someone pointed out to me two articles, one by Paul Street and the other by Thomas Frank. They are about liberal apologetics or rather standard partisan rhetoric.

I often feel wary about liberalism as a label, especially as applied to the Democratic Party. Barack Obama’s liberalism is to Martin Luther King’s liberalism as Jerry Falwell’s Christianity was to MLK’s Christianity. But that is neither here nor there.

The point is that the apologists in question are defending the status quo. I’m not sure if it even matters how such apologists self-identify or what kind of rhetoric they use, just as it doesn’t particularly matter how they identify their opponents and their opponents identify them. Depending on who you ask, Obama is a liberal or a neoliberal, a socialist or a corporate shill, a radical mastermind or a weak moderate, and much else besides. It’s all so much empty talk.

What does matter is what is being defended, beyond all labels and rhetoric. It’s party politics. And I’m sure at least Paul Street understands that the two parties are basically the same, even if one of them is consistently and persistently more despair-inducing than the other.

The point is that Obama isn’t being inconsistent about his beliefs. The more likely explanation is that he is acting according to his principles and values, despite it not being the hope and change some thought he was bringing. His presidency, as such, isn’t a failure, but a grand success. It doesn’t matter what one calls it. Obama serves power and money, just like Bush Jr. It’s the same old game.

It isn’t a failure of the Democratic Party. It isn’t a failure of democracy. It isn’t a failure of liberalism. All of that is irrelevant. It’s a show being put on. It is politics as spectacle. Sure, Obama will play the role of a liberal in giving speeches, but it’s just a role and he is just an actor, although not as great of an actor as someone like Reagan, not that the quality of the acting is all that important.

For that reason, the apologists should be criticized harshly. So should the partisan loyalists who so much wanted to believe the pretty lies, no matter how obvious they were.

After he was elected, I was for giving Obama a chance to prove his intentions, not that I ever bought into the rhetoric. That is why I hoped he would get elected to a second term (instead of Romney), so that no one could ever claim that he wasn’t given the full opportunity to implement what he wanted. As his presidency draws to a close, it is fair to conclude that he has proven beyond any reasonable doubt what he supports. Of course, that should have been obvious long ago to anyone paying attention.

The healthcare reform was a good example of what he supports. As explained in one comment to Frank’s article:

“Obama was able to get the ACA through with no Republican votes, relying fully on Democratic support. Why then, didn’t Obama push a single-payer plan through? The only answer is that either Obama didn’t want single-payer, or the Democratic establishment didn’t want single-payer.

“So instead the Democrats went for the individual-mandate, proposed by the far right-wing Heritage Foundation in the 1990’s, and implemented by Romney in Massachusetts.

“Instead of a truly public health care system, the Democrats mandated that We The People need to subsidize private-sector, for-profit corporations.

“Not to mention, this ‘recovery’ has seen a drastic increase in the stratification of wealth, where the uber-rich have gotten far richer while the middle-class shrinks.

“But under a President McCain or a President Romney, would we have really expected anything to be different?”

Democrats typically argued that Obama’s healthcare reform was a good compromise for pushing progressive change. Meanwhile, Republicans typically argued it was either socialism or a step toward it.

What was mostly ignored by both sides of mainstream politics is that Obamacare first and foremost served the interests of big money, which in this case meant big insurance. The only time big money gets mentioned is when campaign season goes into full gear and even then it’s never about serious concern for getting money out of politics (along with related corporatist issues such as ending revolving door politics, stopping  regulatory capture, etc).

How does this kind of corporatist policy lead to either progressive or socialist results? Why not just call it what it is and leave it at that? Why are so many people willing to play these political games of doublespeak?

People have their minds so twisted up with convoluted rhetoric that I suspect many of them couldn’t think straight, even if they tried. Heck, looking at this ideological mess, I must admit that I also find myself struggling to make heads or tails out of it.

Besides standard political power-mongering, the agenda is hard to figure out. Is it just mindless defense of the status quo? Why don’t those in power see how destructive this is, even to the system itself in the long run?

Political Alliances and Reform

“Our opponents have stripped the discussion of rights of all its complexity.”
~ Howard Schwartz, Beyond Liberty Alone, Kindle Location 1349

I had a direct experience of this over these past few days. I was involved in a political debate. It was on a facebook page for a local group, Reform the Johnson County Criminal Justice System. Before I go into the details of the situation, let me briefly explain the background of the group.

The group was formed because of a particular issue that was being fought against, but it quickly broadened in scope. It attracted many people from a wide variety of ideological perspectives. Over time, some people grew dissatisfied. Many liberals, progressives, and similar types left the group and joined another group. The main guy who organized the group was one of those who left. He passed the keys onto at least one other person, Sean Curtin.

Sean is a lawyer and a libertarian. He is very much an activist. I get the sense that he dedicates his entire life to his politics. He seems devoted and is a decent guy. However, he is a tad dogmatic in his right-wing politics. There is a slight reactionary slant to his libertarianism, but someone was explaining to me that he has been moving (or, because of circumstances, has felt pushed) leftward toward greater alliance with liberal and progressive reformers.

I like to see alliances. This is what makes me a liberal. I’m all about seeking mutual understanding. That is often easier said than done. Sean had sent me a friend request on Facebook and I accepted. I remained ‘friends’ with him for a while, until his dogmatism irritated me enough and I unfriended him.

That wasn’t that long ago when I unfriended him. I hadn’t interacted with him since. For some reason, I was drawn to comment on a post on the group’s Facebook page. He joined in along with some others. It didn’t lead to fruitful discussion. No mutual understanding followed from it, to say the least. Instead, Sean deleted the entire discussion thread. He essentially silenced his opponents. Not very libertarian of him, I must say… or maybe all too typically ‘libertarian’, in that it is liberty for me and none for thee.

The discussion began because of a video talking about “personal responsibility”. This led to talk about rhetoric in terms of language and ideas. It was just when I thought the discussion was getting interesting that it got deleted. I think I understand why. The direction that I was pushing the discussion toward was one in which a libertarian position has little defense. Right-libertarianism can’t handle much direct scrutiny of its ideological rhetoric, because it falls apart or else becomes quite wobbly.

From Sean’s perspective, betraying his idealized principle of liberty by shutting discussion down was more acceptable than allowing any further scrutiny of that ideal and the related ideological rhetoric upon which it is based. That is why I began with that quote by Howard Schwartz. Libertarianism, in its extreme right-wing form, necessitates a simplification of thought and hence a narrowing of debate.

As such, someone like Sean can move pretty far to the left on many issues, but he can only go so far. This leftward shift can even include acknowledging racial bias. It’s just that it has to be kept within a limited framework of analysis. To question too deeply into racism would point toward its structural nature. This enters into dangerous territory of larger social injustice issues that erode at the very foundations of the economic system that libertarians so strongly uphold.

This was the direction in which the discussion was headed. And this is why Sean had to end it before it got too far. This is problematic for any attempt at an alliance for reform. If an alliance is dependent on the lowest common denominator, including reactionary politics into a reform group can bring the agenda down to an extremely low level. This is an even greater problem when reactionary attitudes are held by the leader of a reform group.

This incident has made me question any hope for an effective alliance between the left and right. I haven’t given up hope, but I’m feeling circumspect. Maybe Sean and other libertarians will surprise me in how far they might go, when push comes to shove.

Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism

I’m not a political partisan, but neither am I politically disinterested and I try to avoid feeling politically apathetic. One way or another, I am a strong defender of my values, and so I spend a lot of time clarifying values (my own and others).

My values could be labeled many ways and I’m not more attached to any particular label than to any particular party. Nonetheless, it is through labels that we can speak of values in a larger sense, how we touch upon broader attitudes and worldviews, that which connects one value to another value to create sets of values.

In articulating certain values, I’m going to use data about labels that gets at what matters most beyond mere labels. But I also want to consider the issues for their own sake, to look into some data and see what picture forms.

I recently came across this brief mention of the Wirthlin Effect from the book Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (pp. 252-253):

Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist for the 1980 and 1984 elections , writes in The Greatest Communicator about what he discovered when he went to work for Reagan in 1980. Wirthlin , a Berkeley-trained economist, had been educated in the rationalist tradition to think that voters voted on the basis of whether they agreed with a candidate’s positions on the issues. Wirthlin discovered that voters tended not to agree with Reagan’s positions on the issues, yet they liked Reagan. Wirthlin set out to find out why. His answer was that voters were voting on four closely linked criteria:

  • Personal identification: They identified with Reagan.
  • Values: Reagan spoke about values rather than programs and they liked his values.
  • Trust: They trusted Reagan.
  • Authenticity: They found Reagan authentic; he said what he believed and it showed.

So Wirthlin ran the campaigns on these criteria, and the rest is history— unfortunately for progressives and for the nation. The George W. Bush campaigns were run on the same principles.

“It is not that positions on issues don’t matter. They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves. For example, if you identify yourself essentially as the mother or father in a strict father family, you may well be threatened by gay marriage, which is inconsistent with a strict father morality . For this reason, someone in the Midwest who has never even met anyone gay could have his or her deepest identity threatened by gay marriage. The issue is symbolic, not literal, and symbolism is powerful in politics.

That is a bit of info entirely new to me. I’ve never before heard of this Wirthlin guy, apparently one of the biggest players who shaped modern politics in the US. As an advisor to Reagan, he was one of those big players who played behind the scenes. This reinforces my view that presidents aren’t where the real power is to be found. Real power is being in the position to whisper into the president’s ear in order to tell him what to say.

Still, the general idea presented by Lakoff wasn’t new to me. I’d come across this in a different context (from a paper, Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinity, by Jost, Federico, and Napier) and have mentioned it many times (e.g., What Does Liberal Bias Mean?):

Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).

I’ve previously pointed out that Americans are becoming increasingly liberal and progressive, but the real point is that this has been going on for a long time. The conservative elites, or at least their advisors, fully understood decades ago that most Americans didn’t agree with them on the issues. Nonetheless, most Americans continue to identify as conservative when given a forced choice (i.e., when ‘moderate’ or ‘independent’ aren’t given as an option).

It makes one wonder what exactly “symbolic conservatism” represents or what people think it represents. Reagan often stood in front of patriotic symbols during speeches and photo-ops. Look back at images of Reagan and you’ll find in the background such things as flags and the Statue of Liberty. Ignoring the issue of “true conservatism”, this symbolic conservatism seems to have little in the way of tangible substance, heavy on the signifier while being light on the signified.

Is this why Republicans have become better at obstructing governance than governing? Conservative elites and activists know what they are against, but it isn’t clear that there is much in the way of a shared political vision behind the conservative movement, mostly empty rhetoric about “free markets” and such (everyone wants freedom, markets or otherwise, even Marxists).

To look at the issues is to consider how values are expressed in the real world. What does it mean that many Americans agree with the symbolic values of conservatism while disagreeing with the actual enactment of those values in policies? What are Americans perceiving in the patriotic and pseudo-libertarian jingoism of the GOP or whatever it is? And why is that this perception appears to be so disconnected from reality on the ground, disconnected the reality of Americans’ daily lives and their communities?

Or am I coming at this from the entirely wrong angle?

It’s not primarily a partisan issue, even though it regularly gets expressed in partisan terms. We don’t seem to have a good language to speak about the more fundamental values and possibilities that underlie politics. All that we have is a confused populace and, I would argue, a confused political leadership.

Unfortunately, partisan politics is the frame so many people use. So, let me continue with it for the sake of simplicity, just keeping in mind its obvious limitations that can mislead us into unhelpful polarized thinking. Most importantly, take note that the American public isn’t actually polarized, not even between the North and South — as Bob Moser explained in Blue Dixie (Kindle Locations 126-136):

Actually, the GOP could dominate the region more completely— much more completely. In 1944, the Republican nominee for president, Thomas E. Dewey, received less than 5 percent of South Carolinians ’ votes (making John Kerry’s 41 percent in 2004, his worst showing in the South, sound quite a bit less anemic). That was a solid South. The real story of Southern politics since the 1960s is not the rise to domination of Republicanism but the emergence of genuine two-party competition for the first time in the region’s history. Democrats in Dixie have been read their last rites with numbing regularity since 1964, and there is no question that the region has become devilish terrain for Democrats running for “Washington” offices (president, Senate, Congress). But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.”

I can’t emphasize enough that it isn’t fundamentally about partisan politics.

When more Americans (including Southerners) identify with Democrats than Republicans, they aren’t ultimately identifying with a political party. What they are identifying with is a worldview and a set of values or maybe simply dissenting from the opposite. Political parties use their favored rhetoric, but they rarely live up to it. The central important point isn’t that most Americans are to the left of Republicans but that they are far to the left of Democratic politicians as well. What the mainstream media deems to be ‘liberal’ in mainstream politics isn’t particular liberal at all.

Besides, most Americans don’t vote and aren’t involved in politics in anyway. Most Americans feel demoralized and disenfranchised. Most Americans feel the opposite of empowered and engaged. Most Americans feel those with the power neither hear their voices nor care even if they did hear. But I would argue that, generally speaking, politicians simply don’t hear at all. They are listening to their advisors, not to the American people.

Going back to the Wirthlin Effect, I was brought back to a realization I’ve had before. Yes, Americans are confused about labels or else strongly disagree with the elites about what those labels mean. To repeat a point I’ve made before:

Considering all of this, it blows my mind that 9% of so-called ‘Solid Liberals’ self-identify as ‘conservative’. Pew defines ‘Solid Liberals’ as being liberal across the board, fiscally and socially liberal on most if not all issues. Essentially, ‘Solid Liberals’ are as liberal as you can be without becoming an outright communist.

How on God’s green earth could such a person ever be so confused as to think they are a conservative? What do these 9% of conservative ‘Solid Liberals’ think that ‘conservative’ means? What kind of conservatism can include liberalism to such an extent? What could possibly be subjectively experienced as conservative despite appearing liberal by all objective measures?

Consider the seemingly opposite Pew demographic which is labeled ‘Staunch Conservatives’ (basically, conservative across the board). Are there 9% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ who self-identify as ‘liberal’? Of course not, although interestingly 3% do.

Compare also how many self-identify as ‘moderate’: 31% of ‘Solid Liberals’ identify as moderate and only 8% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ identify as moderate. ‘Staunch Conservatives’ are as partisan as they come with %100 that lean Republican (0% that lean Democratic, 0% with no lean). On the other hand, ‘Solid Liberals’ have 1% who lean Republican and 3% with no lean; that might seem like minor percentages but that means 1 in 100 ‘Solid Liberals’ are drawn toward the Republican Party and 3 in 100 are genuinely independent.

So, yes, there is something weird going on here with the American public. Is this confusion artificially created? Is the public being manipulated by politicians who know the American public better than the American public knows themselves? Apparently not, as Alex Preen explained on Salon.com:

According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are.

The research found that this was as true for Democratic politicians. All politicians across the board were equally clueless about and disconnected from those they claim to represent. This is why it isn’t a partisan issue. It is a bipartisan ignorance.

There is an elite among the elite who knows what is going on. The Wirthlin-like advisor types are in the know and I’m sure there are Democratic equivalents to him, although maybe Wirthlin was a cut above even the average advisor to the elite. These guys aren’t just advisors. They and those like them are pulling the strings behind the scenes. If one is feeling particularly conspiratorial, one might surmise yet another level of power beyond even the evil mastermind advisors.

Whatever is the case, I doubt Reagan had a clue. Wirthlin probably was only telling him what he needed to know to gain popularity and win the election. Reagan, like most politicians, was just an actor; but Reagan had the advantage over most politicians in having more practice at being an actor.

The first thing a politician has to do is convince themselves of their own rhetoric because only then can they convince the public. They have to become the role they are playing. It didn’t matter that most Americans didn’t agree with Reagan on the issues for Reagan believed in himself. It was his starry-eyed optimism and unquestioning confidence that convinced people to buy the product he was selling. That product wasn’t any particular issue(s). Reagan was the product. The American public elected a figurehead, a symbolic figurehead of symbolic conservatism to rule over a symbolic country.

Anyway, in saying that it isn’t fundamentally about partisanship, I must admit that it isn’t without merit that most Americans identify with Democrats. It is true that I’m one of those that tends to say our faux democracy is just an argument about Pepsi vs Coke, but even so there are real differences. This was made apparent to me some time ago when I came across a review of a book by James Gilligan, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others which I posted about and then later, after reading the book itself, wrote a more personal response.

Gilligan’s book is one of the best presentations of compelling data I’ve read in my life. Part of what makes it so powerful is that the data is so simple and straightforward. There is a consistent pattern of several correlations of data and this pattern has continued for more than a century. When Republicans are in power, the rates of three things goes up: economic inequality, murders and suicides. When Democrats are in power, the rates of those very same things go down.

On an intuitive level, I’m sure Americans understand this. Most Americans don’t care about partisan politics, but they do care about these kind of social problems that impact all Americans. Any party or movement that could alleviate these problems would gain the support of the American public. Democrats don’t even fight that hard against these things and still most Americans would rather identify with them. The only reason that Democrats don’t win every election is that so many Americans don’t vote at all. People feel like they don’t have a real choice. Voting Democrats doesn’t generally make anything better, although maybe it keeps it from getting worse as quickly as it would under Republican administrations. Either way, it’s hardly inspiring.

If Americans cut through the bullshit and voted their consciences, they would vote for a third party like the Greens. And I don’t say that as a partisan for the Greens. But just imagine if the Green Party became a new main party. As we have it now, the Democratic Party is closer to the positions of the average conservative. What we have now is competition between a conservative party and a right-wing party. What if instead we had a competition between a liberal party and a conservative party with Republicans being a right-wing third party and with another major third party to the left of the Greens?

The only reason most Americans don’t vote for parties that are more on the left is because the MSM has them fooled. Most Americans don’t even understand what the parties represent. Most Americans don’t even realize how far to the left are their shared values. The bullshit rhetoric of symbolic ideologies combined with the MSM spin creates such a political fog that the American public doesn’t know which way is which.

I have hope, though, that with the rise of alternative media enough of the fog is lifting and the light of clarity is beginning to dawn or at least peak through.

In life, what we value is what we get, but first we have to understand our own values. Americans don’t just want the rhetoric of freedom. They want actual freedom. It isn’t the only thing they want, but it is very important. We can later on argue about the details of what freedom means. For now, we need the force of populism to shutdown the rhetoric machine. When average Americans can hear one another speak, then we can have a genuine discussion about the real issues. Not symbolism, but the issues themselves.

Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism

I’ve been pointing out over this past decade the sea change occurring in American demographics and public opinion. Despite being well informed, I was blown away by looking at an area of polling I hadn’t previously looked into as deeply.

Pew had a poll from a couple years ago that I missed. If you look at the broad public opinion, it looks like the same old same old. Most Americans have a more favorable opinion of capitalism than socialism. They also have a more favorable opinion of conservatism than liberalism. But it’s always in the details where it gets interesting. The cracks are beginning to show in the Cold War edifice.

More Americans have a positive opinion of progressivism, significantly more than their opinion of conservatism. As many have noted, progressivism has basically become the label for those who like liberalism but are afraid of the negative connotations of the word itself. There isn’t a vast difference between what liberals support and what progressives support.

Even most Republicans give a positive response toward progressivism. This probably relates as well to why many people who self-identify as conservatives will support many traditionally liberal positions. These positions back in the Progressive Era used to be called progressive. Americans strongly support them. That is the true Silent Majority or rather Silenced Majority.

Now, prepare to have your mind blown… or else your stereotypes dismantled.

More Democrats have a positive view of of libertarianism than Republicans. And fewer Democrats have a negative view of libertarianism than Republicans. This shouldn’t be as surprising as would be suggested by watching the MSM. Libertarianism is a direct political competitor with the Republican Party, but Libertarians socially have more in common with liberals and progressives.

What about socialism and capitalism?

“Of these terms, socialism is the more politically polarizing – the reaction is almost universally negative among conservatives, while generally positive among liberals. While there are substantial differences in how liberals and conservatives think of capitalism, the gaps are far narrower. Most notably, liberal Democrats and Occupy Wall Street supporters are as likely to view capitalism positively as negatively. And even among conservative Republicans and Tea Party supporters there is a significant minority who react negatively to capitalism.”

Interestingly, blacks and hispanics both have a negative view of capitalism. However, blacks have a more positive view of liberalism while hispanics have a more positive view of socialism. That will be an interesting future dynamic as these two demograhics grow.

As Sarah van Gelder (at Yes! Magazine) summarized this trend:

“There is growing willingness to name corporate rule and global capitalism as key problems, and to look to decentralized, place-based economies as the answer. While capitalism is viewed more favorably among all Americans than socialism, the reverse is true among those under 29, African Americans and Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000 a year, according to a Pew poll. And more Americans have a favorable view of socialism than of the Tea Party.”

http://www.peoplesworld.org/capitalism-big-surprises-in-recent-polls/

http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/is-capitalism-on-trial

http://dailycaller.com/2011/12/28/liberal-unpopular-but-newer-progressive-label-gets-high-marks-in-poll/

Interesting Stuff on the Web: 3/23/13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘About’ page for the Front Porch Republic website

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

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

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

Romney’s Mormonism: Socialism, Progressivism, Xenophobia

A caller on Diane Rehm’s NPR show (I think it was October 11) offered an insightful observation. And the two guests, mainstream talking heads, were utterly clueless in typical fashion.

The caller commented on how Ryan spoke of Romney’s charity. The caller thought that charity was great and that it was great that Mormons take care of their own, but he wondered how much Romney donates to charities that aren’t Mormon.

In a president, you want someone who will be concerned about everyone, not just those seen as part of their group. This is the fundamental problem about Romney honestly admitting that he thinks 47% of Americans are unworthy of his concern and compassion, that therefore he is genuinely only interested in representing the upper classes and other groups of people he happens to personally identify with.

What really caught my attention was something else the caller said. He pointed out that the Mormons are socialist within themselves. This is common on the right. Conservatives are fine with socialism for people within their own group, but not for those not part of their group.

This is where the cluelessness of mainstream talking heads comes in. They denied this was socialism. How can smart people be so ignorant about such basic issues. Of course, it’s socialism. Just because it doesn’t fit Cold War anti-communist propaganda doesn’t mean it can’t be socialism. Most early socialists in America were religious and limited their socialism to the in-group.

This is clueless in another way. The guests argued that the Mormon church isn’t a government. Of course, the Mormon church is a government.

 
Mormons have always kept their church governance closely tied with political governance. In Mormon Utah, the church essentially is the government, in fact originally tried to create a government separate from the  United States. You move to a Mormon town and you will be forced to follow Mormon-based laws. Furthermore, tithing is a tax, not a choice if you want to be a Mormon just as federal taxes aren’t a choice if you want to be American, although both being a Mormon and being American are choices that one can always choose otherwise. Mormons don’t even have a choice in how their church government spends their money, certainly less choice than an American citizen for at least democracy allows for one to vote in or out one’s leaders.

Besides, the right all the time uses the government to fund their religious programs. Churches get tax exemptions and many religious organizations get government funding. For example, the religious right voted in Bush who then rewarded them by funding abstinence only sex education. Compassionte conservatism is ultimately religious ‘socialism’ being implemented in secular politics (‘socialism’ in the broad sense as defined by conservatives).

This is all made clear by looking at history. Back when immigration was low and there were fewer foreigners\outsiders, Mormons were strong supporters of the social welfare programs of Progressivism. Now that immigration is at a high point, Mormons vote against the very programs they once voted for. Such xenophobia is sadly predictable, and it is equally true for the rest of the religious right.