Archive for July, 2009

Humanizing Hitler

Last month I wrote about Sophie Scholl’s moral courage, as portrayed in the film “The Final Days of Sophie Scholl.”   She was part of the White Rose movement of students who tried to oppose Hitler and the Nazis in Germany during the war.  She and her brother were executed.

Another film I recently watched is Downfall, the story of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, as she experiences the final days of the Third Reich.  The film is superb, and worth watching for anyone who wants to understand how easy it was for a country to fall for the lies the Nazis spread.  At the end of the film Junge is quoted as always having felt she had done no evil — she didn’t know of the holocaust, and truly thought she was working for her country, which was in crisis and at war.   Then one day she saw a monument to Sophie Scholl, and realized they had been the same age.  Sophie, a student far from the inner circle saw clearly what Traudl did not let herself see.   See said she realized then that she could have learned more; she simply took the path of least resistance.

The film itself is powerful.   You see people who know its over, but can’t let go of their belief in their cause and its rightousness.  Some, like Goebbels and his wife, simply can’t imagine a world without National Socialism.  They commit suicide, and kill their eight children with poison.   Others try to help people and think about what will come after the war, while many soldiers simply face the inevitable with a grim determination.  They must do their duty, even if it seems meaningless.

The film does not portray Hitler or those around him as evil.  Flawed, but relatively normal.  This has caused some to criticize the film for ‘humanizing’ Hitler.  One can be rather sympathetic to him and many of the Nazis, seeing the final days from their perspective.   Their country is being defeated and occupied, and by now most Germans simply equate support for Hitler as protecting their country from its enemies.

Seeing these films together (I’m not sure which is best to watch first) gives a powerful message.  It is not only not wrong to “humanize” Hitler, but necessary. He was human.   He had his good traits and bad traits, but was not some kind of personification of pure evil or a demonic presence.  He also had been relatively effective until the war.  His policies were not that different than those of Roosevelt, though he pursued them with more vigor (in part because the Supreme Court stymied Roosevelt).   To Germans, he got them out of the depression, put aside the hated Versailles Treaty and until 1939 did it all peacefully.   The war, they often believed, was pushed upon them by the allies, jealous of German success.

Once the war started opposition to the leader became akin to attacks on the very soul of the country.   Remember how Americans responded to the Dixie Chicks when they insulted President Bush, and how Attorney General Ashcroft warned that people should “watch what they say.”  When the country is in danger, people often rally around the leader, even if they disagree with his or her policies.   First and foremost is to protect the country from enemies and oppression.   Propaganda was fierce and more effective than now — in part because Germany had a tradition of authoritarianism and public obedience.

Moreover, the “narrative” that defines the situation — the war, the leader, National Socialism, duty and morality — becomes learned as common sensical and normal.   One doesn’t question it, it’s obviously true based on how people act and what the papers say.   For instance, fifty years from now one might look at our system of democratic capitalism and say it was one of the greatest evils inflicted on human kind.  If the worst of the global warming predictions come true, and given how one fifth the planet lived in the lap of luxury while the rest struggled with famine and poverty, people might ask “how could they honestly believe in non-stop growth and rationalize their wealth when others starved.”   We might be seen by a future narrative as representing evil, a society which destroyed the planet out of greed — greed for meaningless drivel pumped out from third world sweat shops.

Of course, if global warming isn’t what people predict, and if global wealth spreads, a very different future perspective on our era could be written.  The fact is that whatever the case, we are so caught up in the shared understandings and norms of our culture that we often lose sight of the need to be critical of it.   Sophie and Hans Scholl had that capacity, Traudl Junge did not.  Most did not.   Most, in fact, learn to despise those who question the existing discourse, especially if the discourse is “hegemonic,” dominating at all levels of society.

And that is why de-humanizing Hitler is extremely dangerous.   People like Hitler are threats because they appear normal, brilliant, moral and courageous at the time.    People won’t recognize the capacity for evil in their state or from their leaders if they compare them to a mythologized monstrous de-humanized caricature of the most successful German politician in the first half of the 20th century.   Bluntly, many Nazis were nice people who appeared to have strong moral character.   Yet their beliefs and choices, seen by them as rational or necessary, led to some of the worst atrocities of history.   Once they were writing the narrative, their actions seemed to make sense.

Another movie, Europa Europa tells the true story of a boy Solomon, a Jew, who in the chaos of war ends up adopted by a German family and becomes a member of the Hitler youth.   He knows how the Jews are being treated, knows the propaganda against them, and knows he is one.  Yet he identifies with the Nazis, cries when Stalingrad is lost, and admits that the impact of that experience remains with him today.  He says sometimes when he hears of new US aid to Israel he’ll think to himself, “we Nazis were right, the Jews control the power.”  This, decades after that experience.

So neither Hitler, nor the next of history’s villians, is an un-human monstrocity.  He and they were and will be seen as normal, often admirable.   They seduce populations into believing lies, and seeing the indefensible as natural.   De-humanizing Hitler makes it easier for future Hitlers to succeed.  Humanizing Hitler forces us to realize that we’re not in some kind of good vs. evil caricature where it’s clear who the good guys are.  Especially as we deal with economic crisis and dangers such as terrorism or perhaps future oil shortages, we have to be very careful not to get sucked into something that seems good, but contains evil — assuming, of course, that we haven’t already been sucked in.


Claiming Identity

(This is part three of a series including ‘Who am I?’, and ‘Constructing Identity‘.)

Note: I am a political scientist, not a psychologist.  This delve into psychology is a bit dangerous, but my first two posts in this series has pushed me here, and I promised a third so I’ll give it a go.  I may be way off base — I often write sounding more sure of myself than I am.

Up until now I’ve argued that: a) identity is not simply the individual Cartesian ego, but a complex mix of internal subconscious drives/instincts, rational thought, and external factors such as how society and culture create much of who each of us becomes.   Moreover, by focusing on the “rational ego” as the center point of identity, people become blind to how much they (their desires, perspectives, beliefs, etc.) are either emotionally based from the subconscious, or are formed by the society around them.  People get the illusion the who they are is summed up by the discrete individual “self” that they see in the mirror.

The hard part about answering “Who am I?” is to become conscious of as much of those subconscious drives as possible (especially as they show themselves in strong emotions, desires, fears, etc.), and recognize the social nature of ones’ essence.   Margaret Thatcher infamously said there is no society, only individuals and families.  I’d turn that on its head, there are no pure individuals, society permeates each of us.

I believe the “self” or “ego” often fights against efforts at true introspection — and the more insecure one is about oneself, the harder it fights!   It is threatening.  “I know who I am, damn it,” it says, “I know what I want and I figure out how to get it.”   Sure, there may be a subconscious, they admit.   When I see a beautiful woman at the beach there may be some part of me that feels like “I want to be with her,” but I, the self/ego, have the power to say “no, that would be wrong.”

But wait.  Why would the self/ego exercise such power?   Why would one not want to go make a pass at a beautiful stranger?   Is it just the potential consequences — I’d love to sleep with her, but if my wife found out it would mess up my life?   Probably not.   Smart people, like, oh, Governors of states like New York and South Carolina, both of whom had Presidential aspirations, severely damaged their political careers because they didn’t think about the consequences of their choices.  I suspect faithful spouses are also driven by something other than fear of retribution.

Who one is includes the power and will of the self/ego to resist temptation, or better, to decide which temptations to succumb to, and which to resist.   This is closely tied to identity.  Being Muslim or Jewish involves particular rules, observances, fasts, and the like.  The more one resists the temptation to break these rules, likely the stronger one identifies with that religious community.  A western Muslim who drinks, half heartedly celebrates Ramadan, and doesn’t pay the full Zakat probably feels less defined by being Muslim than a devout Muslim that abides by the rules.

Last time I said that reflection, imagination, and perhaps edification — the arts, philosophy, etc. — might help move beyond simply categorizing identity as a mix of internal and external factors.    One can use the imagination first to probe the social construction of one’s own identity — religion, class, ethnicity.   How much is one shaped by these (even if one doesn’t overtly identify with them)?   Imagine yourself in a different socio-economic class, as having grown up as a member of a different faith or ethnic group.    What would be constant, what would change?

Two examples:  Upwardly mobile Americans usually identify with capitalism and markets.   Before it fell, the upwardly mobile in the Soviet Union identified with communism — the party was the place for someone ambitious and career conscious.   Dissidents were often from the arts.   Business leaders in the US might have been Communist party leaders if they had been born there.  Devout Christians might, if they had been born in Cairo, have instead become devout Muslims.   Using the imagination like this can help one get beneath the labels and think about how the “self” would be identified in vastly different contexts.

Next, we should honestly think about our own desires and drives.   Is one driven to try to succeed, better oneself, compare oneself to others, look for sexual gratification, eat, compete, help others, care for others, or lose oneself in nature?    How many of these drives does one consciously work to overcome.   Which ones do you think you should overcome but do not (and why do you think you should, and why don’t you)?  In other words, to find an identity you have to probe those parts of the self outside the “Cartesian ego,” and explore ones own thoughts, feelings, drives and social programming as if one is exploring a different country.

If one is honest — self-critically honest, and resists the ego’s rationalizations about why something isn’t important, or why being in a different class or ethnic group wouldn’t make a difference (the ego-self would like to think that it would be the same anywhere, just navigating different circumstances — it doesn’t want to lose the central focus of identity), then I think a lot of self-growth is possible.

After honest, self-critical introspection, I suspect most people fall between two extremes.  First, one might find that he or she truly loves and likes his or herself.  Not a narcisstic love (I think that’s probably more the ego trying to love its rational Cartesian center while denying the true self), but true understanding of ones’ own strengths and weaknesses, and a sense of satisfaction about who one is, and how one is handling the stresses of living in the world.    Others, however, might be troubled by what they have found, and want to resist thinking about this, believing that beneath the image given to the world is a bad person, shameful of the drives he or she harbors within, mired in guilt over when those drives got the better of the person, and feel remorse over how ones’ life in the world is going — with a pessimism about anything changing.

To the latter, the next step again involves the imagination.   If there is guilt or remorse, then there must be a sense of something one could do better.    What kind of life would make one happy — what desires and drives need fulfillment, what principles should guide ones’ life?   Here the rational ego might say “it doesn’t matter, nothing matters, you just go for what you want.”  That’s the rational side giving into skepticism — skepticism as a kind of defense against guilt.   In Freudian terms it’s given up trying to balance the id and superego, and instead passively watches their battles with a sense of helplessness.

Here it is time for the ego-self to use its imagination and newfound knowledge of these forces he or she has felt helpless against, and construct an image of the person he or she would like to be.   Focus not on external things (i.e., successful business woman), but qualities and traits.  Honest, dependable, fun loving, etc.   Imaginately figure out an identity matching these traits, and claim it as your own.  Re-assert control at the most basic level — who am I?

For those happy with themselves, the same thing applies.  Imaginatively think through why one feels good about their personal exploration, and then think up an identity to claim.   To me, the identity can be less a label or set of words (e.g, spiritual teacher or crusader against injustice) then a feeling of what makes the self feel balanced.  The imagination can delve into ideas that have no clear verbal equivalent.   The answer to “Who am I” may be a smile and a sense of a balanced self.   It should evoke the traits and ideals that had been explored.

For instance, my name could take on the meaning of my thoughts about myself in the areas discussed in this series of posts.   I could also find a short hand label that would evoke those thoughts ands emotions.   “Devoted mother” might mean a lot more than the words alone signify, it may entail personal senses of what devotion means, what motherhood means, and those connections with different parts of the self.

If you read this far, thanks!  Again, my knowledge of psychology is meager, and I’m literally using this blog to speculate and think through things that are on my mind.


Cygnus X-1

The work goes on as we build our clearing in the back woods (with play house for the kids, a fire pit, and some benches), and install our drainage system, which has expanded to reshaping our whole lawn with massive amounts of sand and soil.    So my blogging has been more sparse, made worse by the fact I pushed my shovel against my hand all day doing something to my nerves.  My hand has been numb and tingly the last couple days, with some bits of intense pain.   It makes it difficult to type.   Yet I’ve also been reading and thinking about my research project, particularly a book Adorno’s Positive Dialectic by Yvonne Sherratt.

Adorno’s critique of the enlightenment is one I find both convincing and similar to general tone to my thinking in recent years.   I appreciate that Sherratt’s book is as easy to understand and follow as Adorno’s writing is difficult.   Since my research will focus on political science (probably looking at the twin failings of the US in recent years – overuse of military power and decades of economically unsustainable policy), I have neither the time nor the desire to wade deep into Adorno’s whole philosophical system.   Moreover, Adorno came from the generation where academia was a place for the elite, all of whom would share a vast knowledge of the classics and main themes of western history.   My generation is fragmented into disciplines that are often so cut off from things outside their subject matter that the metaphor of not being able to see the forest for the trees is especially accurate.

I really think it’s time to take a step back, intellectually, and see our current condition in the context of a 2500 year history of western thought and culture.    Adorno is known as one of those who throw cold water into the face of Enlightenment optimism, a Jewish-German philosopher who had flee Nazism.   He and Max Horkheimer argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment that enlightenment thinking was in part the cause of the rise of Nazism.   I believe it also can be seen as a cause of the growth of militarism in US foreign policy, and thirty years of utterly unsustainable economic and ecological practices.

Yet Adorno is not the first to grapple with this sort of problem.  Plato and Socrates responded to the Sophists who had taken Greek Enlightenment thought to an extreme, where at least some Sophists argued that reason can used to support whatever subjective desires a person might have.   Plato turned to idealism and the notion of the “Forms” to try to argue for a transcendent truth.   The Fidiests such as Bayle and Pascal, at the dawn of the Age of Reason in the 17th Century, recognized that reason and rational thought could only be used as a means, but would not provide ends (e.g., you can’t use reason to figure out morality or true meaning in life).    They thought the solution was faith in God, and rejection of reason for anything but daily problem solving.

It is a true dialectic, reason and rational thought distrusts sentiment and emotion.   Thus it stands opposed to movements such as 19th century romanticism (which also responded to the ‘coldness’ of objective, rational thought), and rejects tradition and religion.   It has been part of western thought since the Greeks.   As I work through these books, think of my research project, and contemplate this ‘world in motion,’ the cultural, political and social turmoil of the early 21st century, I think the problem is clear: can we find  away to balance the need for meaning that comes from the heart, and the need for understanding that comes from the head?

Can this be done without sacrificing the ideals of rational enlightenment thought, and avoiding simple appeals to tradition or organizezd religion?   How does this connect with our current problems as a country and even a civilization?   Those thoughts are on my mind as the summer moves on…


Drainage systems and health care

This will be a short entry as I’ve just finished my summer course on consumerism, and will continue to work on the drainage project at the house.   This project was supposed to be a two day effort starting on Monday.    We ordered 60 cubic yards of sand and 36 cubic yards of small stones.   We got 500 feet of pipe (perforated) and fabric.   It seemed like a straight forward project.  Rent a digger for the day and dig the trench (as well as pull out some stumps from the land we cleared out back).  Then on day two lay the pipe, cover it, and the job will be done (renting a different truck to haul and sand and rocks back and forth).

But as we got into it we found first of all that the job took more time than anticipated.   Since I’m teaching I can only work in the morning, or after I bring the kids home at about 5:00.   My wife works too, so her brother and his son do most of the work (and her brother designed the project).    Then there were other things that needed to be done, the job expanded so that most of our yard is being covered with sand (meaning we’ll have to get soil to put on top and reseed).   We missed a dinner with friends we’d planned for Tuesday,  we had to pay a babysitter to watch the kids so we could all work without interruption.

I pick up the boys in about twenty minutes.   Then they’ll play in their sandbox as we continue to work.   There is a heavy drenching rain in the forecast, which means we need to get this done tonight.

So what does this have to do with health care?   Though I believe we need major health care reform and hope Congress passes something soon, it’s a cautionary tale.   A project appears tractible at first.   For us, two days, and a certain amount of money (I’m not being secretive — I just haven’t calculated the amount).   Everyone involved has done things relating to every aspect of this project before, but none of us have actually done the work of building a drainage system around a house.

We get into it, and problems arise, the job expands, some things are harder than expected, and the costs rise.   Not only in time, but more on truck rental fees, more sand, more rocks, babysitter fees, etc.   Health care reform will be very difficult, it won’t be a panacea where suddenly things will get better and costs will go down.  The Republicans warning about hidden costs and unknown side effects should be taken seriously, those things are legitimate and real concerns.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.   Though our basement has stayed dry, our house in the woods not far from a little river has had water problems in the yard since we bought it.   It’s been not only an inconvenience, but sometimes water from the leach field of the spectic system got pushed up to the surface with normal water drainage.  When this is done, we should have a dry yard that will be safe and can be shaped to our design.  This plus the clearing we made in the woods (whose cost and work also have been expanding — though put on hold for “drainage week”) will make our home a fundamentally better place to live.

And I’m convinced that getting the health care system in order will ultimately make our country a better place, especially as our population ages and retires.   I don’t pretend to know how best to do it, or if the House bill is the best idea — though the AMA is supporting it as are many health care professionals, people who were against it before, so that’s a good sign.

But be expected to have things change along the way, with a need to improvise, spend more money and address unexpected complications.   That’s a reality in almost every worthwhile task, from drainage systems to health care systems!


Real Work

I’ve been busy — teaching a three hour a day class, and working on projects at home (yesterday it was the drainage system around the house and pulling stumps) is time consuming.   Yet it isn’t stressful or exhausting.   I think that’s because at a fundamental level, the work I’m doing is real.

This morning I reflected on the nature of work, particularly my experience of work, as I was carrying stumps pulled from the ground to a pile of stacked up branches, plants, and raked sticks we burnt.   Between digging in a muddy trench (we have an excavator, but have to dig to assure the right incline, and where power lines are), I ended up covered in dirt head to toe, strained my left upper arm muscle (rejecting help carrying a stump that in reality was a tad too heavy for me alone), and had sweat out what must have been gallons of water.

Yet I did not feel like I had been doing anything unpleasant.  I was physically tired, but not in a “thank god this horror is over” way, but “OK, we got a lot done, time to shower and get to class.”

Last night I was up until 1:00 preparing for the class.  I re-read the assigned reading, thought about various topics and how to discuss them, then did some work to look up side theories and evidence that might be useful.   When I went to bed I did not think “thank god that’s over.”   I found the work to be interesting and enjoyable, especially reading the daily student papers.  I was playing with ideas in my mind from the readings as I drifted off.

When I prepared dinner, put the kids to bed (an an hour and a half routine involving a bath, then laying with each one for awhile — not endorsed by Super Nanny, but it’s a chance to lay down and rest!), I realized that I don’t mind that work either.  It’s part of being in a family, it has meaning to me.

One topic of the reading lately has been labor.   Marx’s theory of alienation was a theme, and for yesterday we read about Fordism and post-Fordism (assembly line manufacturing, replaced by service sector employment).    I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend all of life working on an assembly line.    I did that for a summer at a kitchen cabinet factory, and it was the knowledge that “I’m getting my degree to get away from this” helped spur me to get through that summer!

I have come to appreciate that I am one of the lucky ones who have real work.   By that, I mean work that I enjoy doing for its sake, and have as much control as possible on how I do it — I can be creative and innovative, and change my routine.   This morning with the outdoor work I set my own pace, could leave for a few minutes if I wanted to, rest when I felt I needed it, and had no stress or pressure to do anything at a particular pace.   It was great to be outdoors on a sunny day, and I really appreciated the beauty of our woods.   I felt like I was part of a meaningful project — a marriage of materialism with a sense of spirit from nature and family.

At night I was reading for class, on consumerism and the economy — topics of interest to me, knowing my job would be to work with students to delve into these concepts.   With a group like the ones I have this summer, that’s fun.

To be sure, my paying job isn’t completely free.   There are specific time frames when class must be held, certain standards for grading and course content.  There are academic policies, and sometimes meetings I’d rather not attend about minutiae like how the academic departments are organized (evoking a reaction where the level of emotion is inversely related to the importance of the issue).   But I can choose my books, my methods of teaching, my way of grading students, my standards for class room conduct, and I can try new things.  I can be creative and spontaneous, there is no stress.

Most people cannot do that.  Demands from the boss, the competition with others, or just the stress of a work day where people have to multitask and deal with a variety of little stresses pile up.   Real work is not a particular kind of work, but an orientation to work.   As such, real work is not contained within the work alone; it includes both the nature of the work and the orientation of the worker to the task.   A contractor who works on remodeling homes and can use his or her skill and creative juice is doing real work if it hasn’t become a boring routine or stressful because of so many clients or demands.     A job like landscape architect certainly has a greater likelihood of offering a platform for real work than work on the assembly line, but it still requires the right orientation from the person doing the work.

I know of college professors who find their job too demanding and feel stresses and anxieties that I do not.   And, of course, if I had been complaining about the work this morning, I might have experienced it differently.   Misquitoes were biting, my body aching; if I felt I was there by compulsion to do a project I really didn’t want to help with, then it would have been less real.

It seems to me that a task for people to undertake is to think about how they can make their own work (at home or office) more “real.”   Are there ways to take control, to change attitude, to find releases for creative and interesting activities?  And if not — if things are so structured and constrained that the alienation is insurmountable — to look for an escape.    At home it’s more likely that people hold themselves back by their attitude towards their work “I wish I didn’t have to do this for the kids, for my wife, or because guests are coming.”  At times it could be an over demanding spouse or family.   For the former, try to make it real with the right attitude.  If it’s the latter, then it’s time for a family meeting.

Still, we’re in a culture where alienation in the work place is a mark of efficiency, and in many jobs finding meaning can be elusive.   Modern practices of controlling employee behavior can be dehumanizing and cause intense stress and alienation.  Personally, we need to claim our own sense of meaning in our work; politically, I think we spend too much time thinking about the material aspects of work (wages and benefits) and not enough on whether or not we’ve got a work culture that encourages authenticity — real work.

In general, the more hierarchical and exploiting the work place, the greater the chance of alienation, with work as unreal, disconnected from anything meaningful to the self.    You might be bribed to accept it thanks to a high paycheck, but if work is meaningless, the risk of alienated boredom increases.


Constructing Identity

(Note: this is a continuation of the post “Who Am I” published on July 15)

If we can make the psychological break from the conventional wisdom of the modern mind to recognize that identity is not purely indiviual, or simply a product of social processes within which the self is completely constituted by cultural discourse, what is identity?  Who am I?

The logical starting point to answer that would look back to the Greeks, particularly Aristotle’s support of the ‘golden mean,’ efforts to balance apparent dichotomies or dualism in thought.  Dualisms are always represent only a glance or slice of  a reality that is multi-dimensional anyway.  So should we start with a balance — we are individuals within a social context?  That context constitutes us in part (genetically, culturally, perhaps karmically) and within those circumstances we have the possibility to act, and to choose?

Yet that really doesn’t get us to identity.   It maintains the separation of the social and the self; the social sets circumstances, the self navigates the realm of possibilities, constraints and opportunities the world presents.  That maintains the Cartesian ego, mapping out the ‘rules of the road’ in how an individual constructs their life and life worlds.   The self still is located in what begins as an alien land, a world that is strange and unknown, which one learns about as one experiences life.

It appears that the language of the enlightenment leaves us there.   And, even that has no fundamental foundation.   Post-modernists, the true masters of enlightenment thought and the use of reason, can use reason and logic to deconstruct any identity or any “road maps” we might create.  We can debate and make strong arguments one way or the other, but ultimately it’s just perspective and persuasion.   And while enlightenment thought sees persuasion as ideally based on logic and consideration of the evidence (e.g., you may not prove your position, but your argument and evidence is powerful so I’ll believe it), humans tend to go from emotion and use reason to rationalize what they want to believe.

So let’s approach this differently.  What if we leave the limitations of enlightenment thought, and think about identity from a wholly different starting point.   Identity is, fundamentally, about meaning.   What does my life, my personality, my choices, my conditions, my very essence mean to me?   “Who am I” can be restated as “What do I mean to myself?”

That’s a loaded question, and the way people answer it will say much about themselves.   Are people hyper critical, do they feel unqualified to master life in the way they believe others around them do, do they feel love for the self, or do they deep down loathe the meaning their life holds for them?   One answer that is unacceptable is to say there is no meaning.   One might think life has no meaning, but there is always some kind of sense of what one’s own identity means to any person.

As one considers the answers — be they from confident optimists or repressed narcissists — I suspect one thing becomes clear: meaning is relational, involving either external world conditions, other people, or ones position within a culture.   Even individual traits one ascribes to oneself are based on comparisons with others — I am lazy, happy, hard working, or depressed.

But here I’m only concerned with identity.  Once one has a list or a set of ideas about what one’s very essence means to oneself, what next?    Here the rationalist might look for a formula or set of rules to whittle this down into a clear identity — like a face book quiz, answer the questions and then somehow you’ll be given an answer:  You are an adventurous free spirit!

No, the next step is imagination and self-reflection.   This involves sentiment.  How does the meaning you apply to your “self” — your essence, choices, and existence as a being in the world — make you feel?  And then explore why you feel that way.   If one’s identity is tied up in what one owns, does that bring feelings of satisfaction with what one’s life means?   And further, is there a difference between those parts of your life you’ve actively sought to construct, and those parts where you passively followed desires that seemed to come from the outside?   And if, as I suspect, nothing falls completely within each camp (there are no internal desires or identity construction without external connections), are there differences in the nature of the relationship between the internal and external variables of the self?

Imagination is the way to assess and give some kind of coherent narrative to what ones’ identity then is.  For instance, ones’ introspection might yield a sense that who I am and what my life means as very much driven by trends and fads of the day, or manipulation from advertisers.   One might find that identity connects to the use of a Mac over a PC, a type of jeans, perfume, beer, or car.     Or it might be friends, religion, a sense of self-mastery, or joy at living each moment.    What emotions does thinking about these connections arouse?

Then, with the imagination, one can explore the connections between the internal self and these external cultural aspects of the self.  Feel the connection, don’t divide things into external and internal.   In other words, wtih imagination we can let go of the enlightenment logic that inevitably brings us to a materialist ontology and a sense of meaning that becomes purely subjective and arbitrary.   What do these connections mean?   Are they spiritual?  For religious folk, the spiritual might be very easy to connect with; for others it might seem like childish fantasy.

I’ve found that if I give up the fear that I may be engaged in childish fantasy, and instead have the confidence in myself to follow my imagination, meaning in life takes a new tone.   Rather than it being attributal (I’m strong, weak, beautiful or handicapped), based on possession (poor, rich, a Mac user, a Nissan enthusiast, etc.), or even based on relationships/roles (mother, father, friend, environmentalist, crusader for human rights), something transcends all of that, and makes meaning and identity at least more clear to me.  The connections themselves have a “feel” to them.   If they are authentic, that feel is one of commonality, a kind of unity despite difference, a strong affinity.   Other connections that may seem important end up evoking more indifference than expected, or perhaps even a kind of disgust or dismay.

With the imagination, perhaps augmented by literature, art, music and things which edify, we can get a clearer picture than pure rationalism will allow.   Some call it spiritual, transcendent, sentimental, or religious.   It is distrusted by our enlightenment modern minds because it seems frivolous fantasy.  Yet the imagination is a powerful realm because it defies proof or disproof; we let it speak with the heart, hoping that the head will pay the heart respect.   The strength, meaning and feel that those connections is what I would call love — love in a true, spiritual sense.   It isn’t different from the love one senses in human relationships, but it is the source of our ability to love (both others and self).   And if life lacks this sense of love, it will lack meaning.    If our self-identity lacks meaningful connections (love) we will be more likely to flail around looking for some kind of sensation or cause to try to fill that gap.

Yet while process of identity construction may bring us closer, we still haven’t directly addressed the question of  identity, and reconnected this whole issue to the topic of consumerism.  I haven’t answered the question “Who am I?”   Claiming identity will be part three of this series of posts.


Carter the Prophet

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.  But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.

It has been called a speech that should have changed history.   Thirty years ago President Jimmy Carter gave what at the time seemed a successful speech.   He noted that the problems the country was facing — an energy crisis, an economic recession, and a question of confidence after a failed foreign policy venture in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon — required a national renewal of purpose.  The speech was inspirational, but later pilloried for as the “malaise” speech, contrasting Carter’s supposed pessimism with Ronald Reagan’s optimism.

Carter had the fate of any prophet of doom — he was quickly pushed aside by the optimists who said nothing is wrong, we can keep moving onward and upward!  And within years, as oil prices dropped (ending the concern about dependence on foreign oil — at least for awhile) and the economy rebounded (albeit through increased debt and foreign goods from abroad), Carter’s warning was forgotten.  President Reagan took the solar panels off the White House and dismissed Carter’s call for a national renewal, including Carter’s claim that we had become overly materialistic and risked severe consequences if we didn’t change our ways.

Carter was prophetic.   Even though he wasn’t able to follow through and bring the change needed, in part due to actions of his administration, in part because of the nature of American capitalism, his speech rings true today.

In that speech, Carter offered a course of action the country should now reconsider:

First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.


We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.

(Read the whole speech)

Carter left office in 1981 with very low approval ratings.  The country had fallen into recession after the oil spike in 1979, Americans had been held as hostages in Iran at the US embassy for over 400 days, as our former ally had become a foe with the overthrow of the Shah.

1979 stands as a pivotal year, with the Iranian revolution in January, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December.   The decline in the ability of the US to use military power to shape events had been shown in Vietnam, and it appeared that the hegemony of the post-war era was over, America was in decline.  Carter offered a way out.   He called for a massive effort to develop alternative sources of energy and move towards energy independence.  He called for a “rebirth” of the national spirit.  Instead, the country embraced the superficial but seductive optimism of Ronald Reagan.

The journalist Walter Lippmann once talked about what came to be known as the “Lippmann gap,” the gap between national commitments and the ability to follow through on them.   Carter was essentially saying that we were suffering from that kind of gap, and would have to pull together and work as a community to set things right.   Ronald Reagan effectively dismissed the idea of there being a gap, and we embraced the “you can have it all” mentality.

In 1979 our total debt was 30% of GDP, about $640 billion.  Our budget deficit that year was $28 billion.   Now we have total debt of $12 trillion, and a deficit of over a trillion dollars.   In 1979 we had the capacity to change course, we were in relatively good economic shape fundamentally, but needed to react to growing economic imbalances caused by a new trend of increased global interdependence — what would later be called globalization.   Oil prices fell dramatically in the early eighties, and that gave us the chance to balance economic health with a concerted effort to keep our economy productive (e.g., save the steel industry, invest in infrastructure) and achieve energy independence.   It would not have been easy, we’d have had to deal with some lean years in terms of economic growth and spending, but we’d arguably have been able to create a sustainable and environmentally friendly long term economic future.

Instead, we partied!   Run up the debt!   Consume, consume, consume!   Bigger cars, more stuff, and stay close to the Saudi royal family so they supply the cheap oil.    Yup, those were a fun thirty years.   We enjoyed a bubble economy where it seemed easy to get rich, stock market increases promised everyone an early and wealthy retirement, and cheap credit with low (observable) inflation that made it seem like there were no dark clouds on the horizon.   We therefore didn’t save for a rainy day (US saving rates reached zero in 2006), and entered a series of wars to boot (Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq again).

So here we stand, the problems of 1979 didn’t go away, we just hid them by consuming and borrowing, making wars and losing clout, responding to crisis much like the old Roman Empire did — refusing to confront the need for real change until too late.  In 1979 the decline could have been turned around.  President Obama claims we still can — but he has to claim that, doesn’t he?   Perhaps we can, but the price will be higher, and the pain (real pain of people out of work, earning less, losing homes, not being able to pay for college, having stresses that tear apart families — not just metaphorical pain) more intense than if only we had listened 30 years ago.


Who Am I?

The idea of identity has been debated in western philosophy and sociology for a long time.  Of course, it also comes up in my current course “Consumerism, Politics, and Values,” ranging from Benjamin Barber’s discussing of “branding” and how companies try to market identities to consumers, and Don Slater’s probe of theories of modern and post-modern identity.

Erik Erikson coined the term “identity crisis” and defined identity this way: “a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image. ”  In other words, identity is both subjective and social, identity is not a free standing individual trait.  How could it be?  Without some social measure or sense of relative existence (difference), identity would be meaningless as a concept.

Yet most of us go through life with a very individualistic idea of identity, the so-called Cartesian ego.   DeCartes famous “cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am” posits the notion that if there is thinking being done, there has to be some entity doing the thinking.   DeCartes reached that position through rational reflection, apparently divorced of any kind of social or collective influence.   To be sure, he used words — language is a social construct — but arguably he could have had the idea even if he didn’t have the words to communicate and symbolize the idea.

Modern western liberalism (liberal in the philosophical sense, not the American politics jargony sense) puts the individual at the fore.  Identity is individual, and defined by ourselves.   The external world gives us choices, options and opportunities, each of us chooses how to construct ourselves in the world.    The market is thus a place of consensual exchange, freed from the demands of tradition, pre-ordained status (i.e., aristocracy vs. peasantry), or coercion.   The government exists primarily to defend our individuality, protecting our lives, our liberty and our property.

To modern liberals, questioning this individualist ontology is to embrace collectivism, and risk undoing the good brought about by the enlightenment.  Government, in the name of the collective, will lay claim to our property, infer status on people, and construct the social order, thereby asserting the power to assign identities.   Thus for modern liberals individualism is both a political value and a moral good — it asserts liberation and freedom  over oppression and even slavery.

Yet what if that individual concept of identity is misguided?   Many modern liberals cover their ears and go ‘yada yada yada’ at this suggestion, so important is the concept of individual identity to their world view that they dare not consider a challenge.   However, if they are wrong their entire philosophical framework is an illusion, the liberty they proclaim is false, and their claims to represent moral good a delusion.

And, of course, there are numerous reasons to question that concept of a rational chosen identity.   There is the challenge Freud posited when he discovered that the motives for human behavior come not from rational reflection, but rather the subconscious.   Regardless of what one thinks of Freud’s various theories, the idea of subconscious drives causing human behavior is so well proven in psychological studies that no one can seriously question it.   The so-called “id” — the desire for instant gratification of whatever we want — apparently comes from a time when surivival required a strong drive to eat, procreate and overcome danger.   Nature kept it in check.    Freudians believe that now a “super ego” reflecting an idealized version of how we should behave (social rules and personal expectations of perfection) counters the “id”, with the ego trying to balance the two.

But if I am in part defined by a subconscious and irrational set of desires that must be repressed or controlled in order to act in society, my identity can come neither from individual rationality or those desires alone.   One navigates this world and culture in order to find socially and personally acceptable ways to fill desires and drives, meaning identity cannot be completely individual, and must have a social component.

This opening to the social, especially as it involves subconscious activity, means that we are open to emotional manipulation — such as by advertisers, politicians, and art.  In fact, one reason theater, poetry, music and art have been prized in most cultures is that this is seen as a positive sense of emotional connection.  Rather than manipulation it is edification, and it is overt.  You know the poet is trying to reach an emotion, you are connecting with something honestly.   When politicians symbolically try to connect their program with strong emotional themes, or advertisers show McDonalds or KFC with images of family and wholesome pleasure, that is manipulative because we don’t recognize the power of the emotional appeals.  We think we are rationally choosing the political program we believe in due to consideration of policy, when we’re really going more from the gut.

Yet it is not just our preferences or choices being manipulated, it’s our very identity — something we’re also blind to if we cling to the idea identity is pure choice and individual.    Moreover, without ascribed and clearly given identities, that power to choose ones’ own identity produces, as Slater notes, “anxiety and risk.”   We have to find a coherent notion of the self that we can internally identify with over time, and connect it a position within the social framework:  there are commonalities and differences to others that allow one to feel that one inhabits a place in the social order that makes sense — even if it is something like an ‘eccentric artist.’  Yet marketers constantly push us to question and shift identities, meaning that many people find themselves having to constantly re-create their identity, superficially connecting with symbols or labels rather than something personally and socially meaningful.

The key to personal happiness and contentment is that identity must have meaning — a person has to feel not only that he or she has a label, but that label is meaningful, both internally and in the world.  That’s why nationalism, religious faith, and other notions of identity — with strong symbols, historical and clear connections, and often an exclusive population — are powerful.   People can identify with something greater than themselves, and find meaning in so doing.   Modern enlightenment liberalism distrusts those identities — they are not rational (why be proud of being an American when it is an accident of birth, why simply identify with the collective) or are traditional (religion is seen as myth).   So the individual must find meaningful identity on his or her own, presumably through rational choice.  Yet the enlightenment and rational thought are tools, unable to themselves provide true meaning.  This is a recipe for chronic identity crises and personality disorders.

That’s the modern challenge: to literally define oneself in a meaningful manner, cognizant of attempts to manipulate people and market faux identities (identification with brand names, lifestyles promoted by advertisers, political movements, etc.)   To do so, one must accept that ones very essence is not purely individual, but part of  a social context, and includes subconscious drives and desires from both our childhood and our genetic heritage.   We must defy both the philosophical hold modernism has on our notion of the self, and the psychological sense that the other — society, culture, other people — are completely separate and detached from self and identity.   This cannot be done with reason alone, and opens up a need to consider the realm of understanding beyond reason — the inspirational, artistic, spiritual, or transcendent.   How to do that will be the subject of a future (likely the next) post.

Update:  I feel a need to write my next post on the 30th anniversary of Carter’s malaise speech, so this will be continued later this week.


Economic Heresy

If you read what the political pundits are writing, the big economic issue is whether or not the stimulus is “working,” (either helping cause a recovery, or at least slowing the decline).   President Obama continues to appear Reaganesque in his political maneuvering.  Do a lot quickly, and then hope you can ride the storm of bad economic news until the inevitable rebound.  Obama’s numbers are still high, in the upper 50s (Bush’s were in the 20s when he left office), but have fallen a bit as the reality of power weighs on the popularity of the President.

What if the conventional wisdom is wrong?   What if an economic recovery is not around the corner, and what if, in fact, it’s not the thing we should be desiring right now?

At the risk of committing economic heresy, I do not believe we should be seeking a quick recovery, a quick stimulus to the economy, or to get back to where we were before this crisis.  In fact, I think such efforts can at best buy short term gain at long term peril.   Instead we need a restructuring of the economy with a decreased emphasis on consumption and an increased focus on saving.   The last thirty years were like a wild party, and while sometimes a ‘hair of the dog’ remedy can seem to work (i.e., a shot of vodka in the morning might help make the hang over more bearable), if you try to just keep partying you’ll soon destroy your body.

A restructuring of the economy means acceptance that this economic crisis is a true economic contraction, and one we can’t get out of until we change priorities and assumptions about how the economy operates.  Consider: the US is aging, and soon we’ll have large number of baby boomers retiring, wanting social security and Medicare.   They’ll also not be paying as much in the way of taxes, and instead of contributing to retirement funds, will be withdrawing from them.   This also means higher medical costs, and more strain on a health care system that is already in crisis.   On top of that, pollution, global warming, declining future oil supplies, and other dangers point to the fact that we cannot sustain the kind of consumer driven economy we had in the past.

The US also has aging infrastructure (most dramatically evidenced by the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 — a bridge I used to cross everyday when I was in grad school!)   And, though total industrial production rates high in absolute terms to other countries, there has been a shift from production to service sector employment, beginning with the collapse of the steel industry in the eighties, and now with a domino effect with the contraction of the automobile industry.   These are truly astounding developments — the idea that GM (and a host of other big industrial names) could be in existential peril would have seemed absurd not that long ago.  Remember “What’s good for General Motors is good for America!”?

We’ve been able to avoid confronting the reality of this economic transformation because of the high debt rates (government, corporate, and household) and trade deficits from recent years.   Cheap goods from China along with a cheap credit bubble economy meant that as a country we became like the credit card user who “kites” — gets new credit cards to pay off balances of old ones, ultimately ending so in debt that they can’t get out.

Actions have consequences.  People don’t want to believe it, they are used to the ‘you can have it all’ Michelob mentality of the last thirty years.   There seems to be a belief that just because the US is a rich, powerful country we can avoid the laws of cause and effect.   People think that somehow all the imbalances can be overcome with some new legislation from Washington, and that someone else will feel the pain (if there is any).  Solve the problem, stimulate the economy (or let the market magically cure everything) and all will be well!

My view is that we have be ready to make sacrifices for a shift in economic reality to a more sustainable, and perhaps ultimately more satsifying one than the consumption driven recent past.    This is a kind of heresy these days.  Since the roaring 90s made the “limits to growth” arguments of the 70s seem misguided and unappreciative of the inventive nature of science, any attack on consumption and unlimited growth is seen as a pessimistic misunderstanding of the power of human initiative.   Those arguments were, however, never really defeated, just buried by a mountain of cheap goods bought on credit from rising third world states.

So what to do?   First, as a society, I suspect we’ll need to think locally and work together to assure that we not only help people harmed by the lingering downturn, but find a new source of meaning other than consumption.   Second, the government will have to prioritize — what do we really need to spend money on?   Military action in Afghanistan, or green infrastructure development at home?   Which government programs can be cut?  Moreover, how can we restructure our economic base to provide for a sustainable future, taking into account the difficult terrain the future holds?  This will be hard; interest groups will fight for their concerns, but the driving force should be people-oriented: how do we make sure that people can get through this restructuring without being cut off or left to suffer.  Third, as individuals we need to take stock of our lives, our priorities, and what we really need.    What gives life meaning, what simply distracts us from boredom?

Societies collapse not because the environment changes, but because they cannot adapt to environmental change.   That happens because people can’t break old patterns of thought, or old habits.    I’m convinced we’re leaving an era defined by unsustainable hyper-consumerism, and entering an era we still have the power to define — if we choose to.   Groping around for someway to hold on to an unsustainable past will cause us to miss that chance.  Figuring out how to define a future, sustainable economy requires re-connecting economics with societal values, and finding a path different than the radical individualism of neo-liberalism, and the bureaucratic drudgery of socialism.   Are we up to it?


Private vs. Public

(Another post motivated by good discussions in my “Consumerism, Politics and Values” course readings today from both Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole,  and Don Slater’s Consumerism and Modernity).

In past posts about the economy I noted that the unsustainable trends that have brought about this crisis really took root in the early 80s.  Until then we had a current account surplus, a strong industrial base, and had been paying off government debt as a percentage of GDP, even though 1968 had been our last balanced budget (we also had ones for 1999 and 2000, but those were enabled by the bubble economy).   As we delve into consumerism and in particular consumer culture, this also seems to be the point in which our culture took a wayward turn.

The problems and dangers of consumerism are immense for individuals.  It de-humanizes us in a way, limiting our freedom and our scope of action even as we believe we have complete free choice.   One poignant way it does this (noted by both Barber and Slater) is to privilege individual freedom and the “private” over societal good and the “public.”

To free market true believers the private is, if not the only relevant thing (Thatcher infamously claimed that there is no society, only individuals and families), at least the most important.   The public sector, or government, is bureaucratic, dangerous (it starts most wars and has a legal monopoly on violence) and as Hayek notes, unable to process the vast amount of diffuse information that a market can.    Therefore, the public sector is to be as limited as possible, and most decisions that are socially relevant should be made by free autonomous actors in a voluntary manner mediated by markets.

As an abstract argument, the appeal of such an approach is obvious.    State power is more obviously and blatantly violent and oppressive, bureaucracies are notorious for not only not effectively processing diffuse information, but actively preventing clear and known information from being acted upon.   Markets have proven their worth by creating an unprecedented amount of wealth  and prosperity, and where they govern, states are generally at peace.   So why would a privileging of the private over the public be an error?

First, there is the obvious problem of dualistic thinking.   A dualistic thinker sees two opposite options and believes one must be chosen.   It’s either a free market or a planned economy.   To be sure, the dualistic thinker recognizes that there is a middle ground, but by definition that middle ground is suspect.  If one aspect of the dualities is superior to the other, then one should get as close to that aspect as possible.    However, this dualism is impossible to maintain.  The difference between private and public varies in function and impact depending on context.   It’s logically wrong to say either a free market or a planned economy is globally superior; rather, depending on the case, it might be better to plan (e.g., the military, the police, or the legal system) or to let the market operate (setting prices for most goods and services, etc.)

Given that the arguments against state power and bureaucracies are valid arguments, the issue really becomes when is the need for public action important enough to risk the dangers and disadvantages of governmental activity.   This also means to compare those risks and dangers — in some cases they may be immense, in others the risk may be tiny.   This complicates the question, of course, but shows a failure in logic of those who argue pure ideology.   This is also true for those who posit markets as morally superior choices because they allegedly allow for the most liberty.   That claim again varies by context; a market in sex trade of abducted women is quite different than a market for peanut butter.

Often free market ideologues try to claim that governments or sex trade folk use physical force and thus that is immoral, but it is not logical to simply declare physical force as bad when non-physical forms of coercion — economic, psychological, manipulation by powerful elites, etc. — are more profound and damaging to freedom than mere physical force.   And once that obvious line is muddied, it really becomes a complicated effort to make moral judgments balancing different factors.

So there is no logical reason to assume that the success of market economics means the private is always better than the public, only that in many cases government power can be abusive and counter-productive — communism certainly proved that!

The problem with simply letting private choices determine public outcomes has been noted by Mancur Olson (the free rider problem) and what Kenneth Waltz called “the tyranny of small decisions.”   Our short term direct wants lead us to rationally choose something that actually goes against our longer term, broader interests.   We want downtown to survive, but choose to buy a TV at Walmart.   We want a clean environment, but choose to drive a large SUV because we want to pull our boat to the lake for recreation.

In the recent economic housing collapse, short term interests made it rational to make loans that people couldn’t afford: it generated assets on the balance sheet, earned fees, and given rising home values, default was unlikely.  Many people noted the long term negative consequences of these acts, especially as mortgages were being bundled into financial products sold as “very safe” investments, but the power of the short term direct interest to trump the longer term “true” interest was immense.

Moreover, private choice will always privilege those with the money.   Their choices matter more.  Hence capitalism does little to meet real needs in much of the world — it may be in our long term interests to have a broader base of prosperity and avoid situations where large majorities would have a rational interest in destroying the system, but it serves no short term interest.   The public good — civil society and social stability — gets destroyed by an emphasis wholly on the private.    That leads to less charity, less solidarity with the community, and a ‘something for nothing’ mentality that somehow if we selfishly do what we want, the longer term broader interests will take care of themselves.  The magical market will somehow make it all come out right.

The answer, however, is not to veer strongly towards government control.  Rather to recognize that the prosperity we have came from a kind of balance between markets and government action to try to provide equal opportunity, address free rider issues, and look at the broader public interest over crude short term individual interests.   That’s why we have regulations on pollution, credit practices, and the like — powerful actors can exploit and manipulate less powerful ones, and that is not good for the public over all.

The current crisis is time to finally put aside that cult of the private.   Yet, in so doing, we need to seek balance, and not deride or denigrate markets or private interests.   We need to ask serious questions about where and to what extent public interests are being corrupted by privatization, and to what extent government action unduly limits effective market solution to problems the market is best in a condition to solve.

President Obama has taken steps towards recapturing space for the public sphere, and limiting the ‘cult of the private sector.’   His rhetoric suggests he does not want to shift to a ‘cult of government’ as an alternative.  Yet for this to work there needs to be open and honest dialogue over the role of government, the importance of broad public goals, and how we make the calls on how much and what to do.   Most people believe such calls now depend on who contributes to campaigns — other people’s private interests, not true public interests.  To overcome this crisis and develop a sustainable future economy we must move away from a culture dominated by consumerism.  Finding the proper space and role for the “public” is a good first step.