Friday, August 08, 2008
We have been paying this unacceptable price for long enough.
I have been trying to encapsulate what the book is about in as few words as possible, and failing miserably. I could just say that it's about the dangers of the conservative ideology, but that's only a part of it. Equally important (IMHO) is looking at the factors that go into each person's choice of a worldview, which I have tried to do in this book - to understand not just why conservatives think the way they do, but what contributes to their becoming conservative in the first place.
So I've written this rather long (longer than I'd like, anyway) overview of my book, and what I'll do is break it up into smaller parts and post it in sections, till I can figure out how to whittle it down to something manageable and succinct, like a real writer is supposed to do.
(takes a deep breath and jumps in)
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Why do people fervently support political parties, policies and politicians who are detrimental to their own best interests?
This was the question burning a hole in my head after the 2004 presidential election. This was the question that prompted me to become a blogger - and this was the question that led to my new book The Price of Right.
As I write this, we are hanging by our ragged, bleeding fingernails trying not to slip off of the edge and plunge headlong into economic, social and political collapse. The last eight years have brought us to a place that many of us could never have imagined that we would see in our own country - a nation at the mercy of a rogue-elephant administration, with seemingly no remedy in sight.
We are teetering on the brink of a second Great Depression and a Third World War, yet as the middle class are becoming the working poor, as the working poor are becoming the indigent and homeless, as we become an aggressor nation which is feared and loathed instead of respected, as any moral authority we once possessed as a nation is long gone, and our Constitution and Bill of Rights, once the pride of a free and fearless nation, has been ripped to shreds, there is still a sizable group of people who fervently and enthusiastically (dare I say ‘religiously’?) support the ideology which brought us all these things.
I began looking into the core principles of conservatism, since this has been the ideology that has dominated our government with precious little opposition or mitigation for the last few years. It soon became clear (to me, at least) that there was a gigantic disconnect between the stated aims of conservatism and the actual results. To give only one example, we were assured that massive tax cuts for the rich would lead to prosperity for the rest of us - the ‘rising tide that lifts all boats’. The conservative theory was that reward and punishment were the prime motivators for society, and if those who ‘achieved’ were properly rewarded for their ‘hard work, discipline and risk’, instead of being penalized for their success, then the results of that bounty would be reflected in the rest of society. When the exact opposite, happened, however, and a large budget surplus inherited from the Clinton administration turned into a horrifying and unprecedented deficit, to my astonishment not only did conservatives not reject this policy, but embraced it as the solution to the problems it caused!
The cognitive disconnect between stated policy and measurable results confounded me. And as I continued to find example after example of this disparity between theory and fact, I had to ask - what in the blue blazes is going on in the conservative mind? Can’t they see what has happened to this country and the world as a result of conservatism in action?
Before November 2004 I was still under the impression that if people only knew the facts, they would reject these ideas and the people who perpetrated them.
How very, very wrong I was.
The flip, easy answer is to label conservatives as stupid, crazy, or just plain evil. The problem with that is that it is not true. Of course, there are conservatives who are stupid, crazy, or evil, but there are liberals who are stupid, crazy or evil also. And it leaves out many conservatives that I know - close friends and family, who I know for a fact are good-hearted, honest, decent people who are doing the best they know how to be moral people and good citizens. So why do they trust the people who are stealing their jobs, money, security, freedom, and indeed their very lives?
Why does a person become a liberal or a conservative? What factors contribute to the choice of a worldview? As I searched for the answers to this question, I found myself wallowing around in neuroscience, anthropology, genetics, and cognitive linguistics as well as history and philosophy. And as I perused these disparate fields, I found information in each that managed in some way to connect to the others.
John Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience brought to my attention the work of Dr. Robert Altemeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba who is a noted expert on authoritarianism - a name given to a set of traits exhibited by people who are most likely to comply unquestioningly with those in authority. This in turn led me to the first serious study of the authoritarian personality, Adorno et al., which in the aftermath of World War II, a group of social scientists headed up by Theodor W. Adorno undertook at the University of California, Berkeley to see if what happened in Nazi Germany could happen in America. It is estimated by Dr. Altemeyer that 23-25% of the population are authoritarian followers.
Another perspective came from Dr. George Lakoff at UC Berkeley, a cognitive linguist and social scientist who has written about ‘framing’. Cognitive science says that every person conceptualizes the world through mental structures that people use to process and understand reality called frames. We interpret and make sense of the world through these frames. The frames hold within them certain metaphors or associations between two separate concepts. Dr. Lakoff gives as an example the “well-being is wealth” metaphor, sometimes referred to as the Moral Accounting metaphor:
For example, if I do you a favor, you say, “I owe you one” or “I’m in your debt.” Doing something good for someone is metaphorically like giving him money. He “owes” you something. And he says, “How can I ever repay you?”
Americans view their government through a nation-as-family frame. We have Founding Fathers and Daughters of the American Revolution. We have Uncle Sam. We send our sons and daughters off to war. We view everything in our nation in a familial sense.
Dr. Lakoff uses two models to define the family: the Strict Father and the Nurturant Parent. The two represent the conservative and liberal views, respectively. The Strict Father model is hierarchical and authoritarian in nature. Life is seen as fundamentally difficult and the world as fundamentally dangerous. Evil is conceptualized as a force in the world, and it is the father's job to support his family and protect it from evils – both external and internal. Order – God over man, people over animals, men over women – and obedience are seen as the most important values in this frame, without which society would collapse entirely. Fear (of punishment, of harm) is an important part of the Strict Father frame. If a person is not afraid of being punished – by parents, by the law, by society, by God – then there is no way that person can ever be “moral” or “good.”
In the Nurturant Parent family, the highest moral values are empathy and responsibility. Effective nurturing requires empathy, which is feeling what someone else feels – parents have to figure out what their baby's cries mean in order to take care of him or her. Being responsible to others (not for others) and oneself requires cooperation. In society, nurturant morality is expressed as social responsibility that requires cooperation rather than competition, as well as a recognition of interdependence. The main tenets of progressive morality of empathy and responsibility are the same values that motivate liberal political issues.
A broad generalization of the difference between the conservative and liberal worldviews can be described as vertical versus lateral, in that in the conservative view, authority is carried out through order, like a stack of blocks, so that if any person moves out of their appointed place, the entire structure will fall. The liberal value structure is lateral – authority is conferred by purpose, not merely for its own sake (the sake of hierarchy and order) and does not need to be defined by dominance to be effective. The prime values of empathy and responsibility extend to and from all members of the group. Thom Hartmann calls it “the ‘me’ society versus the ‘we’ society”. In conservative economic theory, if each person looks to their own self-interest, the interests of all will benefit. So the conservative is expected to take care of ‘me and mine’. The problem with that is that anyone who is not considered ‘me and mine’ becomes ‘the other’ – not like us. And this, I believe, is the core cause of injustice, hate and war.
In Dr. Lakoff’s analysis of the two models, he explains how the seemingly contradictory positions taken by conservatism (which correlates to the Strict Father metaphor) fit together when viewed through that frame, and why a fact that does not fit into the frame will not be accepted as such at all - it will simply slide off. All people have and utilize both frames in different aspects of their lives, but the stronger or more dominant one frame is, the more it will tend to neutralize the traits corresponding to the other frame. Republicans long ago discovered that framing could be used to connect the conservative agenda with the deepest-held beliefs, needs, and fears of a large segment of the population.
These ideas helped me to understand why it was very difficult if not impossible to change the mind of the people who fall into the category of that 23-25%. Any information that does not mesh with the frames in place is literally not heard. In his book Don’t Think Of An Elephant, Dr. Lakoff states:
Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts that we have – the long-term concepts that structure how we think – is instantiated in the synapses in our brains. Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy or stupid. That’s what happens when progressives just “confront conservatives with the facts.” It has little or no effect, unless the conservatives have a frame that makes sense of the facts.
These ideas helped me to understand why conservatives think the way they do – but how do they get that way in the first place? Why do some people turn out to be fierce liberals, some people turn out to be die-hard conservatives, and others stay somewhere in the middle? Is it nature, nurture, or both? Why is it that brothers and sisters raised by the same parents in the same home under much of the same circumstances can be polar opposites politically? You can, of course, ask the same question about a pair of siblings raised in a home where money was tight. One might respond by spending money freely, claiming “It’s because I grew up poor, and now that I have it I enjoy being able to spend it,” while the other sibling might respond to the same situation by not spending money, and giving the exact same rationale: “I grew up poor, so I’m uncomfortable with spending money.”
Many factors are involved, a mixture that includes the personality you’re born with, the environment you’re raised in, the world you’re exposed to, the critical incidents that happen to you. It’s a mixture of nature and nurture that accounts for a personality type. We all know people who, at times in their lives, make a dramatic, 180 degree shift in outlook. Usually this shift has to do with a seminal event that causes a person to change his/her viewpoint: religious conversion, being robbed or assaulted, losing a job, having a baby, going to war - all can alter a person’s way of thinking. Others change slowly over time through a set of life experiences. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, that many personality traits are genetically transmitted.
Hartmann’s theory is something like this: the traits that are described as ADD – short attention span coupled with hyper-focus at times, distractibility, restlessness or inability to sit still, impulsivity, aggressiveness, independence, disorganization, distorted sense of time, impatience, risk-taking and disregard of consequences, a tendency to be easily bored, desire for immediate gratification – are all qualities that a hunter would need in order to survive.
On the other hand, a farmer needed to be patient, focused, capable of long-term planning and execution, able to delay gratification, and able to sustain a steady, dependable effort. It was important to be organized and methodical. Farmers had to be time-conscious and able to pace themselves. It was necessary to be a team player and cooperate with others. It was important to be able to stick with the tried –and true, and to be able to execute instructions step –by step without leaving anything out. A capacity to tolerate boredom and repetition was a helpful trait. You needed to do things at certain times – plant in the spring, harvest in the fall. If you decided to plant in the fall instead of the spring, you (and your community) would starve. If you got distracted and forgot a step, like watering your crop, you would starve. If you got impatient, and yanked your plants out of the ground because it was taking too long for them to grow, you would starve. Once a system of farming proved successful, it was imperative to stick with that system. Caution and care, even fear, was necessary to avoid danger to the crops.
A hunter, on the other hand, required a different set of traits entirely. If a hunter was to catch an animal, he must be alert and scanning his environment at all times, ready to drop whatever he was doing and change course to catch his prey. He needed to be aggressive and fearless – even reckless – to chase and kill an animal that could be a danger to him. Adaptability was necessary for a hunter. There was no telling when and where his animal would be, and he needed to be ready at all times. Independence, innovation, and ingenuity enabled him to do whatever was necessary to catch his prey. And when a hunter goes after his prey, he turns on the turbo-jets and does not stop until his objective is achieved. He is wired to expect immediate results. Without these traits, he would starve.
However, many of the hunter traits would be useless in an agricultural society. If a farmer had to live in a hunter society, the traits that served him so well on the farm would doom him as a hunter. No one would tell him that at three this afternoon a gazelle would be coming by. The fear that protected him as a farmer would hamper him as a hunter. He might not see the necessity for immediate action, nor have the aggression or fearlessness necessary to put himself in danger in order to catch an animal. If he was expecting an animal at one place, he might not react quickly enough if the animal came from another direction.
The main purpose of Hartmann’s book, ostensibly, was to give those who had been labeled with a deficiency or disorder a way to gain some self-esteem and feel positive about themselves rather than handicapped, defiant, lazy, stupid or crazy. I wondered, though, if there was scientific validity to the hunter/farmer concept – that these groups of traits could be in fact leftover survival traits that have come down to us from two very different points in human societal development?
Most people I raised the question with asserted that heritable traits like these could not evolve that quickly, and that it was a nice way to make ADDs feel better about themselves and nothing more. However, some recent studies in the field of genetics have yielded some interesting data to support my theory. Dr. Mauricio Arcos-Burgos, a geneticist with the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, and presently at the University of Miami, has written a paper published in Current Opinion in Genetics & Development (2007) on the genetic origins of ADHD in which he finds that the traits associated with ADHD are evolutionally positive. He states that “Recent molecular and clinical evidence supports Thom Hartmann’s Hunter–Farmer theory, reaffirming that ADHD might be an anachronic behavioral trait”, meaning that those traits that make it difficult for those with ADHD to fit into our modern ‘farmer’ society are anachronic – that is, traits from another time in human social development. The label applies to those at the farthest end of the ‘hunter’ scale, but a more modest amount of these traits would be a good definition of those with a liberal outlook.
What about a religious outlook? Farmers and hunters might have completely different relationships to a higher power. A farmer’s authority would be the authority of nature. It is one-way only. It cannot be seen or communicated with, negotiated with, challenged, bartered with, or connected with in any way. It can only be accepted and accommodated to. Therefore a farmer’s God might be an authority to be obeyed without question. Although a hunter must deal with nature also, his relationship with nature is much different. His sustenance comes from his own physical effort and battle with a living creature somewhat akin to himself. It is through his own decisions and actions that his animal dies and becomes his food. A hunter can challenge nature where a farmer cannot. So perhaps this might account for the differences in the way hunter types and farmer types view and relate to God.
I bring this subject up because I think that hunter-and-farmer models could apply to political orientation, as well. For instance, what if the traits that usually apply to those who consider themselves liberals are hunter traits, and those that apply to self-described conservatives are farmer traits that have been genetically passed on to us from our ancestors? If you have the tendency to be comfortable in going along with a group, with accepting authority without question, comfortable with having a a role in a hierarchy in which to belong, and are more affected by and susceptible to fear, it seems likely that you will call yourself a conservative. We are all susceptible to fear, but studies have shown that self-described conservatives are much more affected by it, and it will influence their behavior in a way that it does not influence liberals. This is why the Bush administration has been so successful in its use of fear to implement its agenda. The threat of terrorism and the Islamo-fascists who want to kill us is much more real and frightening to conservatives than liberals. Fear is a necessary survival trait, but hunters, more than farmers, must be able to shrug off fear in order to survive. Fear is the trump card for Bush Co., and they play it like Diamond Jim Brady every time.
Well, if conservatives are so fearful and liberals are so fearless, you might ask, why does the Democratic majority cower before the Republicans, refusing to challenge even the most egregious wrongdoings of this administration and cravenly co-signing every vile, illegal, immoral piece of legislation that is excreted in their direction?
The way I see it, Democrats, as liberals, are hostages to their framing as well. They operate from the deep-seated Nurturant Parent assumption that if you want to get, you have to give, and the converse – if you give a little, then your counterparts across the aisle will give in return. Like Charlie Brown with Lucy and the football, Democrats make concession after concession, believing against all evidence that this will earn them cooperation from Republicans, somehow not processing the fact that conceding is perceived as weakness by the authoritarian Republicans, and merely results in more aggressive steam-rollering from the right. What we see as cooperation, they see as submission, which triggers even more dominating, leg-lifting behavior.
Both the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent frames have drawbacks that cause problems in our society. Within the Nurturant Parent frame, it is the tendency of liberals to try so hard to find a consensus that satisfies everyone that the result is that no one is happy and nothing gets accomplished.
What makes the Strict Father frame more dangerous, though, is that the inclination to obey their chosen authority is so strong in conservatives (especially the authoritarian followers) that it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to challenge or defy a bad authority once they have accepted the validity of that authority. What is usually a society-building trait can have devastating consequences if the wrong people are in power. When your need to comply with authority trumps any conscience you might have, the end result is disaster.
Dr. Altemeyer says:
[The] vast majority of us have had practically no training in our lifetimes in openly defying authority. The authorities who brought us up mysteriously forgot to teach that. We may desperately want to say no, but that turns out to be a huge step that most people find impossibly huge--even when the authority is only a psychologist you never heard of running an insane experiment, and your obedience means you are probably going to kill someone. From our earliest days we are told disobedience is a sin, and obedience is a virtue, the “right” thing to do.”
But is it really “the right thing” to do?
The Price of Right attempts to connect the dots and point out the correlation between the implementation of conservative policies - social, economic and political - and the demise of our middle class, our rights to free speech, free press, habeas corpus, privacy, the rule of law and the foundations of our democracy. We have paid a terrible price. Is it too late to stop payment on the “blank check” that Bush and company have squandered like drunken sailors?
I do believe it is possible. But I also believe that whether it is possible or not should have no bearing whatsoever upon whether we should try. What kind of principles are only worth fighting for if you are assured in advance of success?
As liberals, we should be aware that the ability to push aside fear when necessary is one of our strengths. We should utilize this strength more than we do. We are currently playing to our weakness, when we should be getting in touch with our rebellious, disobedient, reckless, fearless side. The United States of America was created by people who risked everything in pursuit of a better way to live; not only for themselves, but for everyone. Our forefathers could very well have stayed colonists (that's the conservative way); they could have easily accepted the status quo and made the best of it. But the hunter traits that gave them the impetus to challenge injustice and the willingness to fight for an ideal when there was no guarantee of success are traits that we liberals need to re-discover. Our flabby muscles of resistance need exercise, and our willingness to take risks is our biggest asset in the fight to get our freedoms back. So, gird your loins and grab your spear – the hunt for justice is on!
Saturday, August 02, 2008
I just got some news from my publisher Sterling and Ross - my book The Price of Right is at the printers and is expected to be shipped by the end of August!
I'm excited and a little nervous, but mostly excited. I never in my wildest dreams expected to write a book, and I'm so grateful to have been given the opportunity to say what I want to say in print. Now that I have an actual ETA, I can start talking about it in earnest, and I'm relieved that it will be out before the election.
To recap (I'll be quoting from some of my older posts) - this book came about in a very interesting way.
Like so many of you out there, the 2004 selection left me absolutely gobsmacked. Although I've always been a liberal, I never felt a particular need to be active - I figured there were other people who were doing that sort of thing. I knew even before the 2000 election was stolen that Dubya was a bad, bad man. I knew this when I heard about the Tucker Carlson interview with Bush when he was still governor of Texas, in which he mocked Karla Faye Tucker, the woman on Death Row who had become born-again while in prison (much like Bush himself) and asked him to spare her life.
I don't believe there is any other elected office in the United States that has the direct power of life and death other than a state governor - certainly not one which is called upon so often to exercise that power. I am very much against the death penalty; nevertheless, I would hope that the people who have been granted that power by the government to decide if someone should live or die would make that decision with the utmost respect, dignity and humility. Instead, this sociopath (who set records in Texas for the number of executions carried out during his term as governor; Time magazine reported in August of 2000 that "George W. Bush, who has had more executions during his five-year tenure in Austin than any other governor in the nation since capital punishment was reinstated, has made his support for executing mentally retarded inmates clear.") dared to defile his office by mimicking and mocking a woman (however guilty, still a human being) he was about to put to death. That story alone told me all I needed to know about the character (or complete absence thereof) of that evil man, and I believe my observations have been borne out.
When the Supreme Court handed the Presidency to George W. Bush, even I, who had the lowest opinion of him imaginable, figured that he would be in and out without much fuss, given his past record of complete incompetence in every situation that was handed to him. Even I, who had the lowest opinion of him imaginable, was absolutely stunned at the damage this idiot was able to inflict upon our nation. I pinned my hopes on the 2004 election, when he would surely be booted out by the Americn people, who now knew from first-hand experience what a hazard to democracy he was.
But after that election, which he touted as a 'mandate' and a fortune in 'political capital', which he intended to do with as he pleased, I was completely and utterly shaken. What Bizarro-World did I wake up in?
I couldn't get out of bed for a day. I spent a couple of days in a disoriented haze of helplessness and frustration. Then I got mad. Then I started Hooterville.
I had no further goals than expressing myself and setting down my thoughts, but I was happy to find other like-minded people and a wealth of information about what was happening in our country. As a high-school graduate who had never written so much as a term paper, I did not think of myself as a writer. My blogging was my lifeline to sanity, and through blogging I began to understand how important it was to be, not merely informed, but involved. As I read other blogs, and developed friendships with other bloggers and commenters, I discovered a hitherto-undiscovered aspect of myself - the political activist. Reading led to writing, writing led to talking, talking led to walking.
Every once in a while I would send a post to radio talk show host Mike Malloy, who would sometimes read it on the air. This post, written almost exactly two years ago, was one of them. He mentioned my blog address, and I got some very nice e-mails. One of those e-mails came from someone at a publishing company who asked if I would be interested in discussing writing a book about why Americans vote against their own best interests. At first I thought it was a hoax or a vanity-press thing ('for only $2500, you can be a published author!') but upon using the Google, I found out that the company was a real publisher. The person who contacted me said that they had been looking for someone to write this kind of book, and my writing apparently fit the bill.
I'm really, really excited about this, as you all know how I feel about this subject. I'm hoping to be able to explain this in a way that regular people (non-bloggers or non-political junkies) will understand. But what blows me away about this is that it came about strictly from blogging. It didn't happen because I 'knew' anyone or had any literary contacts whatsoever. In fact, before I became a blogger, I never wrote at all. But I figure, if literary professionals think I can write a book, who am I to doubt them? They know more about it than I do!
It is a testament to the egalitarian nature of the Internet that I wrote this book - that simply putting one's work out there - casting your bread upon the waters - can result in it finding a home and an audience. So I have to include all of you in this - all of you who have come here to comment and allowed me to get to know you; all of you whose own writing and passion for making our country better have inspired me; all of you who have shared your own selves on your blogs, and have become personal friends as well as blog friends.
This is the time to take it to the right, and lay the blame where it belongs - at the feet of the conservative ideology which believes that "wealth equals morality" and "might equals right." The 'Invisible Hand' has strangled us long enough. We need to remind Americans that the ideals that inspired our Founding Fathers to rebel against the first Mad King George and "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty" are liberal values. We became an independent nation because of this radical idea that all Americans should benefit from our union, not only the rich.
It is my hope that this book will at least raise these questions with people who have not been exposed to any other ideas by the woefully negligent 'mass media', which has long since abandoned its First Amendment obligations.