Posts Tagged ‘Tea Party’

A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. iv)

October 16, 2013

A Gamer Looks at Politics:  the government shutdown (pt. iv)

So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

—-Gary North

 

Thus far, I have tried to discuss the strategy of the Republican party by looking at its moves.  I have shared my impression that their opposition to health care reform was a political tactic to attempt to win the White House, a tactic which failed; and now, faced with the consequence of having lost their best chance to meaningfully influence the health care debate, they are attempting to derail all reform efforts as part of their ongoing presidential campaigning.  In order to regain the leverage they threw away, they are engaged in political brinksmanship, threatening to essentially destroy the United States as the preeminent nation on the planet unless they are allowed to dictate the terms of its survival.

All of this assumes, however, that the GOP actually wants the nation to survive.  Some clearly are patriots; whether you agree or disagree with their policies, it is obvious that there are millions of Americans, from the rank-and-file to some of the leaders, who deeply love this nation.  In fact, some studies have shown that the more deeply someone loves the symbols of the nation, or the more deeply someone is grateful to the military for its work defending the nation, or the more generally patriotic a person is, the more likely it is that this person will be conservative.  This is not surprising; the person who loves what the nation is will naturally want to conserve it, while the one who wants radical change is likely not to feel any great commitment to things that are or have been.  This does not, however, prove that Republicans as a whole, or as a party, are more or less in love with the nation than are Democrats.

Many Republicans openly doubt that Democrats are committed to this nation.  They view the Democrats as a collection of gays, racial minorities, feminists, non-Christians and the poor who care only about their own little group.  However, when you add up the list of people who are seen as “other” by the people Sarah Palin referred to as “real America,” you find that the really real America is in fact that polyglot, cacophonous amalgam.  No doubt there are still many millions with allegiance more to their own group than to the nation; but for the most part, the old revolutionaries of my childhood have stopped trying to chop holes in the hull of the ship of state, and now spend their energies wrestling over the wheel.

The GOP, on the other hand, has become an alliance of groups that openly admit they do not have the best interests of the nation at heart, if “the nation” is the United States, established according to the Constitution and governed by principles of representative democracy.  For the last forty years, one of the most powerful blocs within the Republican party has been the Evangelicals, or so-called “social conservatives.”  They are impelled by a range of motives.  Some simply love Jesus and seek to express their faith as they understand it.  Some believe that the problems of the nation will be solved if everyone becomes an Evangelical.  Of these, there are two main types:  social conformists and Deuteronomistic patriots.™[1]  Social conformists believe that the greatest problems facing the nation are social division and disagreement; if everyone would just have the same values and goals, all our other problems would quickly vanish. The Deuteronomistic patriots, by contrast, are those Evangelicals whose patriotism is shaped by the view of history that underlies the “Deutonomistic History” in the Old Testament.  The Deuteronomistic History includes the books of First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings, and outlines how God blessed Israel when it followed the covenant with God as described in Deuteronomy, and cursed it when the people broke the covenant.  This way of thinking holds that if the United States suppressed “sin” (such as homosexuality and female equality) then God would protect the nation from harm.[2]  This may be superstition and may be a reaction to the free-floating anxiety many feel, but it is not essentially anti-American.

Many Evangelicals, however, have little allegiance to the United States, precisely because they are Evangelicals.  Many are eschatological anarchists.  They do not care what happens to the United States or the world, because this world is the realm of Satan.  Any strong governmental or quasi-governmental power is likely the future tool of the Antichrist.  Better to have war, genocide, persecution and mass rape than to have the blue-helmets of the United Nations rolling across the landscape with their ever-efficient and all-powerful “Peacekeeper” armies, imposing the world dictatorship of their Secretary General (see the Left Behind books and movies).  Wars, earthquakes, famine, ecological and political disasters are all signs of the End Times, and therefore a good thing; and in particular, war in the Middle East shows that we are one step closer to Armageddon, when Jesus will finally return to rule the world.  Of course, eschatological believers don’t expect to actually have to endure most of these horrors they wish to unleash; they expect the Rapture to carry them away into Heaven before the seas become lifeless and the skies burn (whether from nuclear war, global warming or the star Wormwood).

The other powerful group within Evangelical political thinking are the Dominionists.  This group expects that the kingdom that Jesus will establish for his followers will be on this Earth, once Christians have replaced the representative democracy of the Constitution with a theocracy.  They openly proclaim that they intend to use the democratic institutions to undermine democracy, since democracy means allowing rights to non-evangelicals of all sorts.[3]  To the Christian Dominionist (particularly according to the Christian Reconstructionism advocated by Gary North and Rousas Rushdoony) anything that weakens any aspect of the United States as it exists today is good, because that will help create the power vacuum into which the true followers of Jesus can take over.  They promote the politics and economic theories of Ayn Rand (while ignoring the fact that Rand thought all religious believers were nut jobs more dangerous even than the Communists) because her sort of extreme laissez-faire capitalism means a weak central government unable to prevent a theocratic revolution.  They promote the destruction of all government social services, because they want people to depend entirely on churches for education, health care, and help for the elderly.  They seek to replace public education with homeschooling and religious schools, and promote state vouchers to divert funds from the public school system as a way to weaken it.  They promote fear and hatred of Muslims and other religions, because they want Christianity to be the ruling religious and political power.  They despise most other Christians because the vast majority of Christians would oppose their plans to impose a Mosaic Covenant theocracy on the nation.

To the Evangelical Anarchists, a debt default would be quite literally a godsend, something they will unhesitatingly work towards.  The eschatologists expect to be snatched up into Heaven as the economic and political chaos begins.  The Christian Reconstructionists want to cause political anarchy so they can take over; a national default will force a bankrupt America to shut down, leaving them to take over all functions of government.  And for every self-conscious Christian Anarchist, there are countless others in the Religious Right who endorse these policies without realizing the intent behind them or the inevitable conclusion that would follow if these policies were ever fully implemented.

A second group that has recently coalesced to sabotage democracy is the neo-Confederates, a.k.a. “Tea Party.”[4]            We can argue that the Tea Party is a fraud created by FOX News to gin up ratings (who can forget the footage of a FOX news producer leading the crowds in anti-government chants at a Tea Party rally?[5]) and financed by billionaires seeking tax breaks and weakened consumer protection laws, or that the Tea Party is just a rebranding of the Religious Right.[6]  However, it is also a revival of the political theories and, to a large degree, the aspirations of the Confederacy.  Much of its political theory rests on the writings of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolinian politician who fought long and hard for the preservation of slavery and the rights of Southern states to preserve their “peculiar institution” despite the fact that the pro-slavery vote was a minority view among voters nationwide.[7]  His theories, particularly the Tea Party favorite, “state nullification,” were designed to empower a white population that feared being overrun by non-whites; and even today, the racist motivations of Calhoun’s doctrine haunt Tea Party political thinking like some covert possession by the ghost of the Old South.  In fact, focus group studies have found that racial fears motivate much of the GOP rank-and-file.[8]  There is a widespread perception that “real America” is being swallowed up by racial minorities, gays, non-Christians, and generally people who are not the core Republican demographic:  whites, particularly older white males.  When the Old South saw that its traditional ways were being threatened by increased immigration and the voting strength of the North, Southern politicians like Calhoun began to argue that their states had a right to either leave the Union outright, or to simply ignore all national laws they didn’t like.  Today, the neo-Confederates see the future, where gays can get married and whites will be a minority and Muslims will soon reach 2% of the population and become the second-largest religious group in America; and they don’t like that future any more than Calhoun liked the idea of blacks voting.  It isn’t usually hatred, exactly; I wouldn’t call it “racism” as much as “xenophobia.”  It is just a fear that these new voters will change things for the worse, that they are not yet ready for the rights and burdens of democracy, and that their political aspirations have to be suppressed until they are.  And if it takes wrecking the greatest superpower the world has ever seen to save that romanticized, “Father Knows Best” world a little longer, that is a small price to pay.

As a game player, all of this does make a certain sense to me.  After all, as I look at the moves and try to determine the strategies of both parties, it certainly seems as if one party is consistently pushing the nation closer and closer to a complete breakdown.  Why do that, if you seriously love this nation and want to preserve it?  Simply because of a misreading of Ayn Rand?[9]  Or is their patriotism more like the love a weak, insecure man professes for his wife right before beating her, until he finally kills her rather than lose control of her?  Or, perhaps, is the solution to the mystery to reject the initial premise, that they love America at all?

Plato compared the state to a ship, and the leader to a captain.  If the GOP is the would-be captain, then Calhoun is the iceberg-lover who drew its chart; the Tea Party is the First Mate who wants to crash the vessel against as many icebergs as it takes to sink it; and the Religious Right is the pilot who believes that ramming through icebergs is the only way to reach Tahiti.  It seems logical, given the fact that we have seen the GOP steer straight for the iceberg of default more than once, to conclude that at least part of its strategy is dictated by groups that really want to sink the ship.  Perhaps the best analogy is something like “Betrayal at House on the Hill,”  “Battlestar Galactica” or “Are You a Werewolf?”   Some of the players are trying to solve the problem, but one or more are actually trying to sabotage the group.  Ostensibly, they seem to be cooperating; but when the moment is right the traitor turns on them and tries to feed the whole group to the monsters or robots or whatever.

As I write this, the news is that the Senate is struggling to find a plan to avoid default on the national debt and reopen the government, while the Tea Party, or anarchists, or neo-Confederates, or Cylons or werewolves (choose your term) in the House of Representatives argue that default is not a bad thing after all, and is certainly better than allowing Obama to win by letting the Affordable Care Act begin to go into effect.   Putting everything together and reflecting on the results, it seems very likely that the Tea Party will refuse any real compromise, demanding either surrender or default.  Most of their constituents have less stake in preserving the United States or avoiding another economic meltdown than they have in promoting their anti-national agenda.  In essence, they are gambling with someone else’s money, since they win even if they (and we) go broke.  Boehner and McConnell have to decide whether to let them stay in the game, knowing they will flip the table if they get mad, or kick them out of the room so the party leaders can finish the game with the Democrats as strongly as they can.  Given the tensions in Team GOP, it is really hard to predict what its next move will be.  Are the Republicans going to play “Presidential Monopoly,” read the polls that show the public demands a solution, and try to find one?  Or are they going to play “Werewolf” and try to win by destroying the group?

The Democrats seem to be made up of some who mix of “Sim City” or “Civilization,” trying to build a strong nation by balancing taxes, infrastructure, military and economic development, while others play “Monopoly” and try to get as many government services (utilities and railroads) and different colors (purples, greens, etc.) as they can.  They don’t want to play “Werewolf” anymore, and are refusing to play anything if that is their only choice.  Given that the Democratic games are more pragmatic and less paranoid, they will probably seek to make some sort of a deal.  However, they are winning the “Monopoly” game and have little reason to give up.  Also, they may not fully realize that the their opponents are playing a different game, and may not want to “win” at all.

Since the Democrats assume that the Republicans are still playing Presidential Monopoly, as they are, they will interpret the GOP intransigence as a political tactic, one which is backfiring or which is designed to help particular Republican Congressmen but not the party as a group.  If the GOP leadership can rally the “moderates,” then this is in fact the game they will be playing, and at the last possible moment, when both sides believe they have extracted as much as they can from the other, they will end this.  But if the GOP is led by the Tea Party, the game will become more like Russian Roulette with one player who is suicidal and another who doesn’t realize the gun is really loaded.  The Tea Party and Evangelicals will gladly pull the trigger for both sides.


[1] All right, I can’t trademark “Deuteronomistic patriots;” nevertheless, I coined the phrase and I am laying claim to it. Until I drop anonymity, please footnote the phrase and attribute it to “Philosophical Scraps” if you use it.

[2] This sort of thinking underlies the claim by Rev. Falwell and Rev. Robertson that the 9/11 attacks took place because of the widespread feminism and liberalism of the United States in the 1990’s, that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans because of the Gay Pride parade held in the French Quarter earlier that year, or that Hurricane Sandy was punishment for legalized abortion.

[3] See for example Deborah Caldwell’s exposé, “The Far-Right Christian Movement Driving the Debt Default,” Huffington Post, 10-14-2013 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-caldwell/christian-dominionism-debt-default-_b_4097017.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009 )

[4] Bruce Bartlett, “For Many Hard-Liners, Debt Default is the Goal;” New Republic 10-14-2013 (http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/for-many-hard-liners-debt-default-is-the-goal/?partner=yahoofinance&_r=0 ) ; also Michael Lind, “The South is Holding America Hostage,” Salon, 10-13-2013 (http://www.salon.com/2013/10/13/the_south_is_holding_america_hostage/)

[5] Danny Shea, “Fox News Producer Caught Rallying 9/12 Protest Crowd in Behind-the-Scenes Video,” 11-19-2009, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/19/fox-news-producer-caught_n_292529.html)

[6] Chadwick Harvey, “Tea Party Activists are just Evangelicals in Colonial Disguise;” PolicyMic 6-26-2012 (http://www.policymic.com/articles/10086/tea-party-activists-are-just-evangelicals-in-colonial-disguise)

[7] Sam Tnenhaus, “Original Sin:  Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to be the Party of White People;” New Republic, 2-10-2013 (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112365/why-republicans-are-party-white-people)

[8] Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Erica Seifert, “Inside the GOP:  Report on Focus Groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and Moderate Republicans;” Democracy Corps,10-3-2013 (http://www.democracycorps.com/Republican-Party-Project/inside-the-gop-report-on-focus-groups-with-evangelical-tea-party-and-moderate-republicans/)

[9] ANYONE who claims to be a Christian and to be a follower of Ayn Rand has definitely misread Ayn Rand.

A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. iii)

October 15, 2013

A Gamer Looks at Politics:  the government shutdown (pt. iii)

 

The power to destroy a thing is the power to control it.

—– Frank Herbert, Dune

 

            And that really points to the problem that led to today’s government shutdown.  Government is not a zero-sum game; as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.  Government is more like a role-playing game, or Pandemic, where everyone profits by cooperation.  But politics is a zero-sum game.  If either side is playing politics rather than governing, then that side profits from confrontation and obstruction more than from real negotiation; if both sides are seriously interested in bargaining, then they can attempt to gain what each really wants and needs without denying the other some sort of achievement.  For example, the medical instruments tax, which Republicans have assailed, could be dropped if there was a way to replace the funding; unlike the Bush-era Medicare expansion, the Democratic reform at least attempts to pay for itself.  So let’s repeal that part of Obamacare, giving the Republicans what they say they need:  a way to save face by saying they at least achieved something.  And in exchange, they could agree to another way to pay for the bill that doesn’t involve simply massively increasing the debt, as they themselves did under Bush, and doesn’t involve slashing other Democratic programs so the Democrats end up funding the Republican “compromise.”  How about if Republicans agree to raise taxes on the über-rich, thus beginning to address the vast wealth gap that even conservative economists like Kevin Phillips believe is a threat the U.S. and world economies?  Or perhaps we could put a national sales tax on guns, just as other legal but health-and-society damaging products like tobacco and alcohol are taxed.  The point is that Republicans say they want to negotiate and compromise; those words mean “I will give up this if you give me that.”  Compromise does not mean, “You give up that, and I will graciously accept your surrender.” 

            The government shutdown we face today is solely due to the fact that the Republicans were playing a long game in their campaign to recapture the White House in 2012, and they lost.  Rather than try to fix what they saw as a flawed bill, they chose to pass on the chance to negotiate and obtain a bipartisan health care reform package.  Instead, they gambled that by refusing to negotiate or compromise, they could deny legitimacy to all attempts at health care reform and thus deny legitimacy to President Obama.  This was a gamble, and they lost. In 2009 they had tremendous leverage; Obama badly wanted health care reform, was a new President who wanted to be seen as a uniter, and was still a novice to bare-knuckles politics.  By forgoing the opportunity to contribute and possibly even dominate the healthcare reform discussion, they tipped their hand.  In 2013, they are bargaining with a President who has given the orders that have killed or captured hundreds of terrorists (and many terrorist-adjacent), and one who has been told, by Republicans, for four years, that Republicans have no interest in negotiating seriously with him on health care, or any other matter of substance.  As another President tried to say, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  So the Republicans are attempting to negotiate after they themselves slammed shut the window for negotiation, against an opponent who has good reason to be suspicious of them; and they don’t have much positive to offer.  Therefore, they must rely on gaining some leverage, by any means necessary, to try to force not negotiations, but surrender.  And the one way to force an opponent to capitulate is to threaten to destroy something that the opponent cares about.  By threatening to destroy the United States’ credit rating and permanently cripple the nation, the Republicans (particularly the Tea Party, with the active cooperation of so-called “moderates”) hope to force the Democrats to surrender.  Again they are gambling, this time gambling that the Democrats love their nation more than their political goals.

A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. ii)

October 11, 2013

A Gamer Looks at Politics:  the government shutdown (pt. ii)

 

If you must negotiate, watch your enemy’s eyes.

   Klingon proverb

 

            The politics of the health care debate are thus clear.  First, the Republicans did not want to negotiate; they wanted to repeal and replace—repeal the law and replace Obama.  They lost.  In the game of Presidential Monopoly, they lost because the Democrats had more spaces they could collect on, and the Republicans managed to hit every one.  The Democrats had all those properties the Republicans mortgaged to put up those luxury hotels— the women’s space, the immigrant Americans space, the moderate’s space, the young people, and on and on.  But to ease up on the game metaphor a bit, they gave Americans a choice:  vote Romney and stop Obamacare, or vote for Obama and let this “terrible” bill stand.  And despite misgivings about the bill, I think most Americans want health care reform.[1]  Any politician who had come up with a genuine way to improve this bill, or even made an honest attempt, would probably have been lauded nationwide.  However, as they say, “all politics is local,” even when government is national; what is good for the nation is not necessarily what is good reelection and campaign contributions, and what is bad for the nation can be good politics. 

            The game now is not “stop Obama.”  He will not be president after the next election.  But the game is not “save the nation” either.  At this point, the game is “shut down the government.”  That is why 80 Republican congressional representatives said in August that the Republican Party should shut down the government.[2]  Any Republican who calls this “Obama’s Shutdown” is a bald-faced liar; but as a political move, it is a shrewd ploy, an attempt to get the benefits of shutting down the government while avoiding the blame.  Complaining that the Democrats won’t negotiate with them is, from an historical perspective, absurd; the Republicans refused to negotiate when they had the chance, preferring to force the Democrats to pass a bill without a single Republican vote even though it had more Republican ideas than it did Democratic ideas, just so they could run against the bill in the presidential campaign.  Since so many members of the Tea Party won election by opposing Obamacare, and government in general, they are still playing that trench-warfare political game. 

            Democrats, looking at Republican moves to divine their strategy, have concluded that the Republicans are not serious about wanting to merely delay or modify.  The Republicans have stated repeatedly that they wanted, above all else, to break health care reform as part of their strategy to capture the White House.  Democrats are reacting to what they perceive to be the Republican game.  Since they believe that Republicans are not serious in wanting to negotiate and are simply playing politics, the Democrats refuse to engage.  And, given statements from Republicans confirming this perception, Democrats have some reason to be suspicious.  For example, Senator Ted Cruz says “It is the view of every Republican … that Obamacare should be entirely and completely repealed.  Nonetheless, the House started with a compromise of saying not repealing Obamacare but simply that it should be defunded.”  It seems that they are not playing the negotiation game, but rather something more like a shell game, where one side keeps the ball moving until he can steal it without the other side noticing.

            Republicans, for their part, are also looking at the Democrats and trying to deduce what game they are playing.  Research has shown that most Republican voters are nostalgic for the “white majority America” that they remember from the 1950’s (primarily a romanticized 1950’s they watched on television and remember from childhood, not the one with lynchings and blacklisting and “duck and cover” drills in school).[3] They see Obamacare as a conspiracy to win Democratic votes by appealing to “those other people,” those gays or blacks or browns or Muslims or etc.  by giving them things.  Both the Republican leadership and the rank-and-file fear that if the Affordable Care Act is ever implemented, it might just succeed in giving people health care, and that people might like being able to get health care without fear of bankruptcy or of being dropped by their health insurer through no fault of their own.  Republicans believe that if people like the Affordable Health Care Act, they will become lifelong Democrats and that will be the end of the Republican party; and they believe that Democrats are simply playing presidential politics as well, offering a government giveaway for no reason other than to buy votes.    And most likely, the Affordable Care Act was just as serious or cynical a move as was the unfunded, $7 trillion program from the Bush administration, Medicare D, which no Republican presidential candidate spoke out against.[4]   This addressed an actual problem; it also violated core conservative principles by being a massive unfunded entitlement, though it appeals most directly to the core Republican constituency. 

To be continued….


[1] Hell, my own father, a medical doctor for well over forty years, said back the 1980’s that the medical business had changed so much that he wouldn’t advise anyone to become a doctor.  There were simply too many private-sector insurance bureaucrats and too many government bureaucrats between him and his patients.  He never wanted socialized medicine, having been a doctor in the Navy for four years; but the HMOs were not much better to work for.  If even a successful surgeon and leader in the state AMA recognized that American health care needed to change, how much more likely is it that the patients will suspect that something has to change before the whole thing collapses?  They are the ones who have to change doctors because their physician is no longer “in the network,” who have to wait until their kid’s ear infection causes 105º fever so they can get treated in the emergency room for free, or have to pay $100 for an aspirin in a hospital to cover the bill of the kid with the earache and life-threatening fever who came in last night and can’t pay his bill.

[3] See Democracy Corps, “Inside the GOP: Report on Focus Groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, And Moderate Republicans;” Oct. 3, 2013 (http://www.democracycorps.com/Republican-Party-Project/inside-the-gop-report-on-focus-groups-with-evangelical-tea-party-and-moderate-republicans/)

[4] Associated Press, “GOP 2012 Candidates Opposed to Repealing Bush-Era Medicare Drug Benefit;” Sept. 18, 2011 (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/09/18/gop-2012-candidates-opposed-to-repealing-unfunded-medicare-drug-benefit/)

Plato on Music Education: How American Idol is Destroying America (pt. v)

September 12, 2013

What is Plato’s remedy?  The ultimate cure is to take God, rather than man, as the measure of all things.[1]  Saying that does not help us very much today, however, because there is so little knowledge of God and maybe less shared opinion; anyone who claims to be following God can safely be assumed to be following his or her own fancy.  Plato’s God was a god who was rationally known and philosophically approached, not one who could be created out of literal readings of myths mixed copiously with political slogans and party loyalties.  Before God can be the measure of all things, we need to be the sort of people who can have a possibility of genuinely seeking God or recognizing God once we bump into him/her/it.

Suppose we take Plato’s prescription to heart.  In recent years I have noticed two trends in K-12 education:  an increased interest in “character education,” and a slashing of education in the arts.  But what would good, quality education in the arts, particularly music, give to our children?  They would learn that sometimes it takes time to achieve something.  It takes practice.  And it often takes cooperation with others; the first violinist or first trumpet or first soprano still needs the rest of us if the music is to be as full as possible.  They would learn to admire skill and talent more than auto-tune and YouTube fame, as their own efforts at making music revealed to them just how difficult good music is (and how easy and unimpressive the other sort is).  They would learn to accept the judgment of those who know.  They would be exposed to good music, the music of the ages.  By this I don’t only mean classical music, although this is often part of learning music for the simple reason that it is public domain.  When I was a child in public school, we learned folk songs.  These are simple tunes, easy for a child to understand; they are also part of our cultural heritage, the melodic thread connecting generations.  Now, children don’t know the songs children knew for years or centuries; their parents can instead buy “Kidz Bop” and teach their children to love the musical ephemera of the Top Forty list.[2]

Many children, of course, will not be able to fully participate in music of any sort.  Some are deaf, as I am becoming; some may just be tone-deaf.  Plato didn’t value the representational arts much, but perhaps we should.  Why is drawing in school only sanctioned for kindergarten?  What is gained by subjecting oneself to the discipline of working with hand and eye, learning in the process what is truly beautiful and truly difficult and impressive?  What Plato did value was dance.  Why is our physical education aimed at winnowing out the klutzes through the years, to produce a few star athletes for the high-school teams, instead of making all fit “to dance with head and limb”?[3]

Shows like American Idol are the esthetic versions of “Wikiality.”[4]  “Wikiality” is the idea that reality is whatever the rest of us agree is true.  If we all agree that Africa has more elephants than it did ten years ago, then it is true.  Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington owned slaves?  I have a right to say and believe whatever I want.    The problem is, however, that sometimes people die because of this attitude.  The whole “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida is based largely on a factual falsehood; it was intended to correct an injustice of a man arrested for killing a looter, except (1) the “looter” seems to have just been a random, lost, drunk construction worker, and (2) the man who killed him was never arrested; traditional “self-defense” law was all that was ever needed to resolve the case.[5]  As a result of this legislative exercise in Wikiality, Florida now has a law that is routinely used by violent criminals to avoid arrest.[6]  I will leave it to the reader to come up with more examples of laws passed and justified by factual untruths; whether you and I agree as to what are convenient lies and what are disputed truths, I don’t doubt that everyone agrees that politicians routinely reject reality and insert their own delusions.  And from the “Stand Your Ground” laws to the county commissioners who eliminated fluoride from the drinking water (apparently believing Dr. Strangelove was a documentary) to dozens of other cases, this sort of epistemological nihilism is not just an individual saying “I have a right to believe what I want;” repeatedly, people who believe what they want to believe rather than what can be shown to be true cause real harm to others, and impose their fantasies on the rest of us.[7] Think of it as the legislative equivalent of the Sanjaya Effect; instead of bad music being forced on viewers of American Idol while good singers are shunted off to obscurity, bad laws are forced on all of us while good policies are buried in partisanship and ideologically-driven relativism.

Did American Idol kill Trayvon Martin?  No, not really.  Did the disregard for any standards or truth beyond one’s own personal preferences, a disregard fostered by the social media/mass media melding of which American Idol is a prime example, lead to the creation of a bad law that ultimately contributed both to his death and to the circus that whirled around it?  Yes.


[1] Laws, book IV, 716 c-d

[2] “Toxic”?  Really?  That’s what you want on a kid’s album?  “Kidz Bop 6”

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 3, “On Old and New Tablets.”

[5] Ben Montgomery, “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law was Born of 2004 Case, but Story Has Been Distorted;”  Tampa Bay Times April 14, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/floridas-stand-your-ground-law-was-born-of-2004-case-but-story-has-been/1225164)

[6] Kameel Stanley and Connie Humburg, “Many Killers Who Go Free with Florida ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law Have History of Violence;” Tampa Bay Times July 21, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/criminal/many-killers-who-go-free-with-florida-stand-your-ground-law-have-history/1241378)

[7] Anna M. Phillips, “Pinellas County Commission Votes 6-1 to Return Fluoride to Drinking Water;” Tampa Bay Times November 27, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/pinellas-county-commission-votes-6-1-to-return-fluoride-to-drinking-water/1263426).

POSTSCRIPT: Philosophy, Politics and the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

September 10, 2012

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety:  postscript

In the AP report, “GOP Eyes November with Optimism, but the Future?” Republican strategists and political leaders speak of their short-term optimism and long-term concerns for their party.[1]  While the speakers in the video report are optimistic about their success in channeling the anxiety and fear of voters caught in an ongoing economic malaise, some worry about their monolithic base.  In 2004, George W. Bush got 91% of his votes from Caucasians; in 2008, McCain got 90% of his from whites.  The country is becoming more ethnically diverse, while the Republican Party is becoming as segregated as the voting rolls in the Antebellum South.

From a rational point of view, this is insane.  Even Jeb Bush has said that he finds himself out of step with his party on some issues, such as immigration, because it alienates the rapidly growing Latino vote.  But when one considers that the postmodern conservative movement is driven by anxiety and not by reason, it seems both natural and inescapable.  The Tea Party is not, primarily, about issues.  It is about feelings.  Its slogan, shouted again and again at town meetings across the nation, is, “My America is changing so much I don’t recognize it anymore, and I want my America back!”  I first heard this exact phrase shouted, tearfully and desperately, by a woman attending a town hall meeting about health care.  At that time, there was no health care plan.  It was being debated.  Nothing had been decided.  There had been no major initiatives to change the direction of America.  Obama had inherited both the economic freefall and the TARP bailout from Bush, and had tweaked the bailout to stop the collapse; and it was working.  Empirically, there was no reason for panic.  But that woman, the entire room full of older white voters, and rooms full of older whites across the nation were in full panic.  “We want our America back!”  was the rallying cry.  What was so terrible?  The only thing that had changed was that there was a black, Democratic family in the White House.

I do not believe most of the people in those Tea Party crowds were racists per se, and I am uncomfortable with those who expand the notion of “racism” to include any sort of race awareness.  But two things were occurring to fuel the white panic in 2009.  First, conservative media were spreading conspiracy theories, fantasies and distortions.  These things generated huge income; the more anxious people are, the more they listen to doomsayers; the more people who tune in to listen to the “truth” they are “denied” elsewhere, the more radio and television stations can charge for advertising; and the more anxiety, the more people will pay for everything from overpriced gold coins to luxury survival bunkers.  Anxiety has become a commodity.  The manufacturing of anxiety, which is then repackaged as fears for which cures can be purchased, is big business.

The second thing that drove the Tea Party Panic, and continues to drive it, is not the fact that there is a black family in the White House, but what that symbolizes:  that the old certainties are vanishing.  Abstractly, when the U.S. Census projects that by 2040 whites will be a minority, that certainly raises eyebrows; but that is abstract, and distant, just words echoing down a decades-long corridor.  The Obamas on television are a walking, talking manifestation of that future, and that future is now.  But it isn’t just the racial make-up of the nation that’s shifting.  We are talking about the decline of white culture, and the extinction of white bears.  When I was a child, I needed a quarter to call home on a pay phone; today, anyone can call from anywhere, if one has the money to pay for a cell phone plan (but good luck if you still need a phone booth!).  Vietnam was considered remarkable because television brought the war into our homes; now, we fear that war will be made against our homes, maybe by some sleeper cell or radicalized neighbor we’ve lived next to for years.  As Kierkegaard points out, death is both “the only certainty, and the only thing about which nothing is certain.”[2]  For some, this can lead to earnestness, by which Kierkegaard means a recognition of one’s own limitations, a subsequent reliance on God, and a sober recognition that every moment of life is precious.  For most of us, however, this leads only to one or more strategies for evasion.  Death is the ultimate indefinable.  My death is never an actuality, and always a possibility, as long as I live.  And anxiety is precisely the dizziness of freedom when it recognizes the importance of possibility and knows it must act and live with uncertainty.  The more the symbols of stability and the cultural assumptions around me change, the more my own mortality and my own anxiety are made visible to me.

It is clear that much conservative angst centers around the presence of a minority family in the White House.  The racial slurs and attempts at humor that flew around the Internet, were seen on Tea Party signs at rallies, and so on testify to that.  At the same time, I think the shock and outrage many Tea Party members feel at being called “racist” is genuine.  They do not hate all minorities; they only hate and fear what they think is being done to their America.  And of that, roughly half is paranoid fantasy concocted by Fear Inc. and the 24 hour Anxiety Telethon, and the rest is simply the unfocused, free-floating anxiety of people caught in a flash flood of change.

To be continued…..


[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, translate, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1993) p. 91

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 31, 2012

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

 

            With the “postmodern” age, both the confidence in shared truth and in inevitable progress are shattered.  Instead of truth, there are truths, and in the new pluralism it is rude and oppressive to claim that one’s truth is better than anyone else’s.  My belief that individual freedom and self-discovery are merely Western values; the Chinese Communists can claim that individuality is an evil, a threat to social harmony and an intolerable burden for any person; and who is to say which is right?  If I want to say Cleopatra was black because she ruled in Africa and believing she was black empowers my sense of self-worth, who is some historian to point out that her ancestors were all Greek conquerors who never married into the native population, and indeed rarely married even outside the family?  If I want to believe that Washington, Jefferson and all the other Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to free the slaves, who are you to point out that they and most other Founding Fathers actually owned slaves throughout their lives?  Stop imposing your liberal elite historical facts on my truth!

And if shared truth and shared value have been tossed aside, a shared sense of progress is impossible.  How can we possibly all believe in progress, when we can’t agree on where we are going or where we should be going?  After the 9/11 attacks, people of many different religions, political affiliations, nationalities and social classes felt themselves drawn together.  To many, it seemed as if the world had been changed forever.  From now on, the defining conflict of our society, and indeed of the world itself, would be the conflict between civilization and barbarism, rational debate and violent anarchy, rationality and superstition.  And while we mourned the tragic deaths and the future deaths that were certain to follow, we were united in the sense that there was good and right and that the forces of humanity and life were now aligned together against the forces of death and chaos.  What I for one did not anticipate, however, was how deeply threatening that vision was to the people who now call themselves the Tea Party.  To the hard-core culture warriors, the “Religious Right,” this all was deeply threatening.  These were people whose entire defense against anxiety is based on an entirely different reality than that shared by many others.  Where some see nations coming together as equals to talk through problems, they see Satan attempting to enslave the world.  Where some see peace as good, leading towards a better life for all, they see war as good and inevitable, since only when the whole world is plunged into nuclear conflict will Jesus return to save the righteous and establish his reign on Earth.  Where some see the United States as perhaps the best nation, but still one nation that ought to deal with others fairly and respectfully through persuasion, they see God’s nation in a cold war with virtually the entire rest of the world (except Israel).  Where some see Americans, they see Us and Them, Real America versus Liberals.  And their entire identity is tied up in that tribalism.  The day after 9/11, the leaders of the Religious Right began a concerted effort to fight the growing sense of unity Americans felt with one another.  And they succeeded.

Is that good or bad?  In the postmodern world, there is no “good” or “bad.”  There is no truth; there are only truths, each held by its own tribe.  The modern conservatives are the perfect embodiment of postmodernism.  Once it was the Marxists who said that oppressed peoples had the right to reject bourgeoisie truths, such as adherence to science and history, in order to embrace claims that advanced their political-economic struggle.  Now, conservatives claim they are the ones who are oppressed, and thus claim the right to create their own truths.  Once, I saw myself as conservative, because I rejected the right of liberation theologians to write such things as the claim that Cleopatra was black and that Europeans are innately selfish and vicious “ice people” while Africans are naturally peaceful and generous “sun people,” (ignoring the obvious empirical realities that Cleo was a Greek whose family tree was Egyptian only in that it has as many branches as a Nile papyrus reed, while the history of war shows that Africans and Europeans and Asians are all equally human in their capacities for greed and violence, generosity and mercy).  I saw myself as conservative because I believe firmly that all Americans should learn a core curriculum of shared history and cultural values, and learn the good of even the “oppressor” dominant culture as well as of other cultures.  When liberals laughed at the idea of devoting oneself to the study of dead white males, I saw myself as keeping a flame alive, because while I freely acknowledge the many shortcomings of Euro-American culture, I also see good in it, including a capacity for self-criticism.  But now, I find that I am a liberal, without myself changing one bit so far as I can tell; because now it is the conservatives who reject scientific and historical and empirical reality for the sake of self-empowering myths.  If once I was conservative for advocating a certain core curriculum for high school and college students, now I’m a liberal for advocating college at all.  If once I was conservative for advocating critical assessment of the truth claims of liberals, now I’m a liberal for advocating critical assessment.

My point is that, in the postmodern age, there is no point.  There are only points, points on a compass, and everyone runs as fast as possible in all directions.  One anxious person invests his sense of security in his identification as a “real American and true Christian.”  Another invests her sense of identity in being a “good Muslim,” outdoing all the born Muslims in her adherence to all the external rituals of her newly acquired faith.  Another is gay, another liberal, another Latino and so on.  To varying degrees perhaps, each has his or her own unique truth claims, which he or she believes are beyond all rational criticism or justification.  And to varying degrees, all find the others to be profoundly, existentially threatening, because the mere existence of an Other with other values calls my idolization of my particular values into question.  The other must be demonized; he or she is not real, not human, not part of my country or even my world.  For the postmodern person, the Other represents a call to individuality, because the Other is a living embodiment of the reality that one’s own values are partial and perhaps arbitrary.  We could discuss those values, perhaps find a more inclusive truth or at least ways to work together productively; but when the very presence of the Other awakens anxiety, the natural response is to want to do away with the Other.  Whether that “doing away” is achieved by extermination, self-deportation, concealment, or by dehumanizing the Other as some lazy, ignorant, vice-ridden Them, it is all the same; as long as my idol is victorious, I need not think for myself or awaken my own freedom, and anxiety with it.

I call this “The Age of Anxiety” because our anxiety seems so much closer to the surface, and our evasions are so much more fragile.  Once I had to look over the mountain to see a community whose values challenged my self-security; today, I cannot walk ten feet outside my door, or turn on my television or the internet, without encountering Others whose self-certainty challenges my self-certainty.  Athens had one individual, Socrates, and found him intolerable; today, there are Others everywhere, some individuals and some who are just members of a different tribe or clique, wherever I look, their differentness challenging my trust in my private values.  How can I trust my sense of superiority and control, when all around me are others with different values and an equal sense of their own superiority?  The faithful response would be to recognize that indeed I am not superior to anyone else, and to “leap, then, into the embrace of God.”[1]  As a single individual relating to God as an individual, I would find true faith, what H.R. Niebuhr described as “radical monotheism,” and thus not so much escape anxiety but rather be sustained in it.  But most of us all the time, and all of us much of the time fail to sustain such faith and individuality.  Instead, the all-too-human response is to dig deeper into one’s own idolatrous tribalism, to take comfort in one’s own herd and in its values and choices.  In the words of Isaiah 51:10, “Which of you fears the LORD and obeys his servant’s commands?  The man who walks in dark places with no light, yet trusts in the name of the LORD and leans on his God.”[2]  It is terrifying to be in the dark; most of us are like those the prophet warns us against, those who light their own light so they can see for themselves rather than letting God lead them by the hand.  Anxiety is that darkness; it is the possible, the not-yet, the undefined.  Life must be lived forward, choosing without a clear guide, trusting God alone to guide us.  Life is only understood in retrospect.  But of course, we want to go where we can see clearly, which means ultimately we always wish to go backwards, away from anxiety, away from possibility, away from the future, towards the safety of the dead past certainties and dogmas.

Kierkegaard said that anxiety is the mark of the individual; the more anxiety, the more self.  In that sense, living in an age where it is so hard to escape from anxiety is a blessing.  The futility of our evasions and the incompleteness of our idols are always before us.  On the other hand, the depth and omnipresence of anxiety also evokes even stronger efforts at evasion, and even more hostility towards Others.  It is natural that an age where technology and politics and social mores and the very Earth itself seem to be in such rapid flux, that we should also become the most tribal, the most partisan, the most fanatical and close-minded.   Many of us cling to our old myths even to our own harm, with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a razor blade.[3]  The inexplicable is not that some should insist on the falsehood of global warming and the truth of trickle-down economics despite all empirical and historical evidence to the contrary.  The inexplicable is that anyone should recognize these truths, recognize the challenge they present to the American myth of inevitable progress and the omnipotence of the rugged individual, and yet still remain ultimately patriotic and hopeful that a better future might still be possible, if only by the grace of God.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  the age of revolution and the present age; a literary review; translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 108

[2] From the New English Bible

[3] Agatha, Christie, Witness for the Prosecution; directed by Billy Wilder, Hollywood CA, Arthur Hornblow, producer:  1957

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

August 23, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

            Journalists have wondered why the massacre in Colorado has not inspired any calls for gun control, unlike previous atrocities such as Columbine.  True, there have been some pleas from die-hard activists and even from non-politicians such as Jason Alexander.[1]  Jon Stewart has pleaded with us to at least have a conversation about the need to balance gun rights and gun dangers.[2]  But politicians do not dare even discuss gun control, and Americans are more opposed to gun control than ever.  We can talk about banning costumes in movie theaters, but we can’t talk about banning guns in movie theaters.  Are we more afraid of turning our movie theaters into Castle Frank-n-Furter than we are of turning them into war zones?

A quick Internet search (Wikipedia followed by checking the sources used there) reveals some interesting facts.  First, gun violence overall has fallen significantly over the last decade.  Second, most gun deaths are suicides.[3]  When you add in the gun deaths from accidents, from lost tempers during family disputes, and from previously unarmed criminals who take the owner’s own gun and use it, it seems clear that guns are, on the whole, far more dangerous to their owners than to criminals.  And yet, despite these facts, people cling to gun ownership more tightly than ever.  Even the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse.  Why not legalize machine guns?  At least a .50 cal requires a tripod, which would be a lot harder to smuggle into a movie theater than an M-16 without being much more dangerous to the innocent.  If the 2nd Amendment is absolute, then banning any weapons is unconstitutional; if it is permissible and moral to ban machine guns, tanks and RPGs then it is not qualitatively different to ban other military hardware.  Banning guns is banning guns; if society has the right to say that heavy machine guns are too much firepower and thus beyond constitutional protection, then it has the right to make the same judgment about any military-grade weaponry.  That is not so much a plea for gun control as it is a plea for logic.  As a society, we have in fact made judgments about what weapons our neighbors and ourselves will be allowed to own, and what we will not.  It is illogical to claim that such judgments are illegal or immoral while we continue to make them.

If logic cannot explain waning support for gun control, perhaps psychology can.  Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety is a philosophical, psychological and religious analysis of anxiety as a personal and social force.  His discourse “Every Good Gift and Perfect Gift is From Above” is a theological examination of anxiety as the fruit of sin.[4]  Together, these writings present an analysis of anxiety as a primordial driving force in human life.  Briefly, anxiety is described as “the dizziness of freedom.”  Life is full of choices that are both significant and underdetermined by the facts.  We experience anxiety because of this.  This anxiety is compounded when we begin to be anxious not only about our own capacity to choose wisely and justly, but also about the world and the uncertainty of existence.  In the face of such anxiety, the common human reaction is to seek for authorities that can take the burden of freedom from us, or to transform our anxieties into fears.  Both play into the current state of the gun control/rights debate.  Logically, the idea that “I will be safer if I have a pistol, so I can stay and fight a madman in Kevlar hurling tear gas rather than running for an exit” is a stupid idea.  But as Kierkegaard points out, the person in the grip of anxiety will latch onto anything to regain the delusion of security.  The only logical, not to mention pious reaction is to admit that we live in a dangerous world and that we cannot hope to fight off all dangers; we can only commit our souls to God and then live as we are called.  The faithful person is the one who is schooled by “the earnest thought of death,” recognizing that death is both the one certainty in life and yet absolutely unpredictable, so that the only fitting response is a humble recognition of one’s own powerlessness and a commitment to live each day for values that are truly worthy.[5]  Instead, as most of us are not truly faithful, we seek a false sense of security and then turn around to devoting our time to trivialities.

Gun sales always spike after a mass shooting.[6]  Logically, what should spike are calls for gun control.  But from the point of view of anxiety, “gun control” means “I am not the master of my fate;” no control means “I can have a gun and feel safe, relying on my own power.”

In much the same way, the call for voter I.D. laws have caught the imagination of the electorate:  I say “imagination” because all the evidence is that that is where the fraud these laws supposedly will prevent exists.  Millions of dollars are being spent to prevent voter impersonation fraud, which has never taken place in sufficient numbers to affect an election.  These laws even encourage fraud by pushing more people to use the easily-faked absentee ballots instead of showing up in person.  At a time when we cannot afford to repair bridges, pay teachers what we promised them, feed the hungry, and on and on, we are spending millions to chase phantoms.  Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating:  at a time when we cannot afford to honor contracts signed with our teachers, firefighters and police; at a time when we cannot afford to fix the bridges which we cross every day, at a time when we are capable of feeding every person on the planet and yet we claim to not even have enough money to feed, cloth, shelter and provide health care for all of our own citizens—-at this time, we are ready to spend millions of dollars to fight a crime which the best evidence available suggests occurs once per state every two or three years, on average.  It is as if we were to unplug the life support system for Grandma in order to power up the yeti-repelling force field.

But from the anxious perspective, it makes perfect sense.  Those whose sense of security is invested in a certain social order find that security undermined when they contemplate the latest census.  In a few decades, whites will be a minority in this country for the first time since we invaded and occupied it.  As Kierkegaard would point out, faith is “to be out over 70,000 fathoms and yet be joyful;” but most of us don’t have faith, and want to imagine the water is only a few feet deep.  We can reestablish that sense of security first by transforming our anxiety into fear.  Anxiety’s object is really nothing; it is the possible, and thus cannot really be controlled.  Fear is fear of something actual; we feel that if we can only defeat the object of our fear we can be safe.  The fact that the whole world is changing daily and unpredictably induces anxiety; but by focusing on “illegal aliens” and convincing ourselves that if we can just control those “illegals” we can solve everything, we quiet our anxiety.  Someone comes along and says, “Don’t be anxious about the vast range of possibilities the future presents, and your responsibility to respond to them; just be afraid of illegals, and then we’ll pass laws to protect you from illegals stealing your vote and you can rest easy.”  And we jump at the offer of phony solutions to false dangers that can distract us from our real anxiety.

To be continued….


[1] Jason Alexander, reposted on Salon (http://www.salon.com/2012/07/22/jason_alexanders_amazing_gun_rant/) Sunday, Jul 22, 2012 04:38 PM EDT

[3] “55% of all Gun Deaths are Suicide,”  July 21, 2008 (http://www.shortnews.com/start.cfm?id=71736)

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 125-39

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, “At a Graveside,” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) pp. 71-102

[6] Dylan Stableford, “Gun Sales Spike in Colorado After Shooting, Just Like They Did in Arizona,” The Lookout July 24, 2012 (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/gun-sales-aurora-colorado-shooting-spike-tuscon-161409369–finance.html )

Do you know what’s in the Health Care reform law?

July 14, 2012

Prove it!

http://healthreform.kff.org/quizzes/health-reform-quiz.aspx?source=QL

I got 10 out of 10!  That’s better than 99.6% of Americans.  That proves, according to other surveys:

1.  I don’t watch FOX News.  Source:

http://www.businessinsider.com/study-watching-fox-news-makes-you-less-informed-than-watching-no-news-at-all-2012-5

2.  I don’t watch MSNBC  Same source.

3.  I’m a little bit lucky (I wasn’t completely certain on one question).

Try it!  It’s fun and depressing!

 

Since I’ve heard Mitt Romney, Rick Scott and every other Republican repeating more than one of the wrong answers on this quiz, I guess I’m smarter than the entire GOP leadership—-but then again, so are you, probably.  And for that matter, who knows whether the people who voted for the bill could get 100%?  But the Tea Party scores a failing grade for sure.

Reflections on my students’ economic and moral values: Winter/Spring 2012

May 9, 2012

Blog Post May 8, 2012

 

Well, I finally finished the semester.  Papers and tests kept me from writing the last several weeks.  I feel like I’m out of practice!  So, before I finish my reflections on Hume and work, I’d like to stop for a bit and look at my students for the last week.

This semester, I noticed a distinct trend in my students’ answers and essays.  We’ve been discussing economic and social justice for the last month or so in Ethics class, so I’ve read a lot of reflection papers and a lot of test essays on issues like wealth gaps, taxes, property rights and so on.  Very few thought these were unimportant questions.  Almost all seemed to think that there was something wrong with a society where the rich get fewer and richer, and the rest get poorer:  not just mechanically wrong, but also morally wrong.  In a sense, then, it seemed as if the Occupy Movement had gotten a discussion going.  At the same time, though, most of them said the best way to close the wealth gap and to increase opportunities for poor people is to cut taxes for the wealthy, and let the wealth trickle down.  Not one was an out-and-out socialist, and a handful at most thought that it was morally acceptable to simply let more and more wealth be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.  So in a sense, they rejected the Left and they rejected the Right.  But in another sense, they accepted the Left and accepted the Right.  They agree with the Occupy Movement’s diagnosis of the national economic/social/moral condition, but also agree with the Tea Party’s proposed solution.

A Marxist would say they had been co-opted and are all dupes.  Given Marxism’s historical successes as a political movement, I don’t take their word for who is a dupe very seriously.  But there is something schizophrenic in society.  As I’ve mentioned, I teach community college.  That means my students work for a living, for the most part.  They don’t have trust funds and they don’t have dorms and meal plans and a Student Activities office to make sure they never have to leave campus ever if they don’t want to.  They are a much more realistic sampling of society than any student body I was a member of.  And from what I’m seeing, neither major political party in the U.S. should feel very comfortable.  Republicans can take heart that their message of hard work and fiscal conservatism is resonating with many people.  After all, my students are poor or middle class people who believe that if they work hard and get an education, then they will be able to get better jobs and move closer to achieving the American Dream.  They are not looking for handouts.  When the rabbi said, teach a man to fish and you’ve helped him for a lifetime, my students were listening.  They want to learn; they don’t want to be dependent on someone handing them fish, and they don’t want the government taking fish away from someone else to give to them.  It makes sense, then, that most of them would believe that the system basically works if you play by the rules; if they didn’t believe that, they wouldn’t be busting their keisters to take night or on-line classes to get college degrees while working full time during the day.  My polling sample may be more inclusive than, say, a poll of the student body of New College or Union Seminary, but it is skewed to that degree I suppose.

Democrats should probably be discouraged that their message is not getting out.  After all, my students are the very people who Democrats are trying to reach:  the middle class and those poor with the ambition to become middle class.  And when my students are told that the health care system needs reform, that the tax system is biased towards the rich, or that the wealthy should pay 50% inheritance tax (or any) to redistribute wealth back down to the lower and middle classes, many of them just do not buy those strategies.  They don’t think they’ll work, and in many cases they don’t think they’re moral.  Even when they’ve read Marx, Rawls, or Mill and understand their theories, they just don’t buy those; they do buy Locke or the libertarians.  But when it comes to the analysis of the situation, there the Democratic message is winning out.  My students do not want to see the current economic trends continue.  They do not want to see the wealth gap grow, the middle class shrink and the 1% expand their dominance of the nation’s economic and political life.

In the short run, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Republicans continue to score big with my students, and with voters who resemble my students.  Some of this is because they are convinced by the Republican economic message, and part is because of the Republican moral message.  My students believe that hard work and personal responsibility matter greatly, and they hear those values echoed by Republican rhetoric more than by Democratic rhetoric.  But in the long run, a moral commitment to those values probably won’t be enough to keep them voting Republican if Republican promises fail and Republican policies make the problems worse instead of better.  If the wealth gap continues to grow and the only thing Republicans say to my former students is, “Well, you just don’t work hard enough or you’d be rich,” that could turn into a Democratic revolution.

I’m not just hypothesizing blindly here; Kevin Phillips has been saying the same for more than ten years.  Phillips was once Nixon’s economic advisor, and is the man who predicted the Republican revolution based on his conclusion that the Democrats had failed the middle class and become the party of handouts, taxes and graft.  In the 1990’s, though, Phillips began predicting a Democratic swing of the nation, based on his economic analysis and his belief that Republicans had become the party of plutocracy and kleptocracy.  My belief is that people don’t just vote their pocketbooks.  I know some people, at least, who become positively angry if told they should vote for X because it would benefit them financially.  But if they are convinced that X is moral and fair, and that Y is somehow morally wrong, they will vote for X gladly.  It matters to many people to see themselves as good and responsible; political rhetoric that does not appeal to their moral sensibilities will fall on philosophically deaf ears.

The day people start to feel shafted, start to feel the system is rigged, and start to feel as if their Most Trusted News In America is not telling them the truth, the voters could turn on a dime.  But if it does happen, it won’t just be because people are voting for handouts for themselves.  It will also be because they are convinced that the values of the Republicans are fraudulent and the values of Democrats are honest and worthy.

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today? (pt. 2: The Looters)

January 4, 2012

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today?

            The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  No, no, a thousand times, no!

The still longer and fuller answer:  that will take awhile.

The Looters

“If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing.  Such looters are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man.”  Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Rand is celebrated today for her denunciations of the “moochers and the leeches,” the poor who demand to be supported by the rich.  Less often repeated are her denunciations of “the looters and the thugs,” those who steal not through the welfare state but through criminality, or crooked laws, defrauding those who work to become rich off the labors of others.  Of course, Rand is no Marxist; she celebrates the entrepreneur and capitalist who take risks with their own talents or their own resources, and bear the costs of their own failures.  These are the responsible, productive individuals.  They deserve whatever their intelligence and industry brings them.  They choose not to be victims of others, and not to victimize others either.  Rand says that either is a denial of one’s true humanity, which is to say one’s rational nature.  To victimize others is not to survive as man qua man, since it is to live not as a human being but as a parasite.  To be human is to be rational and productive.  These are the traits that lead to survival of the human individual and species.  The looter, like a tapeworm, survives only because there is a productive being it can sap life from; as long as it kills its host slowly enough, it can live.  But the looters are ultimately destroying humanity.  One tick may not kill a dog, but a dog with enough ticks will bleed to death; and when the last dog is gone the ticks will die too.

For this reason, the rationally selfish person chooses to live by trade, not by looting.  Trade is the honest and open exchange of goods, services, talents and knowledge.  It strengthens the human race, and in doing so it strengthens every individual who participates in it.  As Rand puts it, the purpose of ethics is one’s own life and happiness; but the standard of ethics is human life.  What does not preserve and promote human life—-not just my life, but man qua man—-is not ethical.  So the moral person lives by trade and not by looting because this is what preserves human life, the life and continued existence of humanity.  That is the standard of what is ethical.  My own purpose may be my own preservation, but the measure of whether the means I would choose are proper is human life.  Rand thus starts from an egoistic purpose, it seems, but ends up sounding very much like Kant:  “The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—-and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”  (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet Press, 1964:  p. 30).

Rand would approve of the one-percenter who earned his or her wealth and now resists giving it away to support the lazy leech.  The rich one has every right to give his or her wealth away voluntarily, but must resist being forced; not to resist is to betray one’s own human nature.  But “the principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.  It is the principle of justice…..  A trader … does not switch to others the burden of his failures….” (pp. 34-35).  From the savings and loans crisis of the Reagan era (which cost 3.2% of our GDP) to ENRON to the TARP bailout (which is estimated to have cost us 1% of our GDP) and the other bailouts, it is clear that business in the USA is not being carried out under Rand’s principles of trade.  It is being carried out by the looters, under laws made by the looters and for the looters.  And whenever some regulation is proposed to prevent these CEOs and CFOs from gambling with other people’s money and keeping the winnings while sharing the losses, the lobbyists and the SuperPACs come out and make sure nothing comes of it.  Today, virtually every major banking institution suckles from the taxpayer’s teat.  By threatening to crash the entire world global economic system, rich banks and rich bankers have set themselves up with a sweet deal.  Today, the big banks borrow from the Fed at no interest, and then loan that money back to the government at interest.  The taxpayer’s money, that was supposed to allow banks to start lending again so the taxpayer could start borrowing and entrepreneurs could start investing and inventing and producing, is instead being recycled to pay huge bonuses to bankers.  It’s not the 1%, but the 0.1% that are pulling this scam.  Cut them off, and we go into a Second Great Depression.  Regulate them, says the GOP, and we’ll be squelching the “productive” class.  But when the GOP and FOX whines about the leeches draining the poor productive class, who are they defending?  Not the traders.  The SuperPAC money from the banking industry is raised from the looters, to pay for laws to protect the looters.  The fact is that at this point, the banking industry is funded and supported by the taxpayer.  They are both looters and leeches.   And the GOP has made itself the party that defends the anti-competitive monopoly in its efforts to squelch the small entrepreneur who tries to start a small business, the multinational corporation that dumps its wastes in drinking water and expects someone else to pay to clean it up, and the big manufacturer that accepts shipments from small businesses and then refuses to pay them for months at a time so it can use small businessmen as its own no-interest bank.  In short, the GOP is the party of the looters.  (The Dems take their share of money from looters, too, but they haven’t made defending the looters part of their stated party platform.)

From the Regan-Bush bailout of the S&Ls to the Bush bailout of the banks, the GOP has chosen to be the party of deregulation, not in the name of free markets but in the cause of crony capitalism and kleptocracy.  When the financial industry has been deregulated and allowed to take greater risks, the profits were raked in by the top executives while the risks were assumed by the taxpayers.  When polluters are deregulated, the profits go to the 0.1% while the costs in health and cleanup go to taxpayers.  Even Ron Paul has said that libertarian principles do not mean polluters can use their neighbors as mere means to their own ends.

Rand wrote that we should have real capitalism.  She would have defended Bush’s decision to let Lehman Brothers go under; the executives and the stockholders who hired them should go bankrupt for their own follies.  But this also nearly destroyed the nation’s economy, so the decision was made not to allow any more major financial institutions to fail.*  Fine:  I’m not looking forward to a Second Great Depression either.  But would Rand really demand that we allow a few reckless, foolish looters to destroy the wealth of millions of rational, productive individuals?


* Instead FOX News defended paying the executives big bonuses, with taxpayer dollars, because it is necessary to attract “top talent.”  Talent for what?