Archive for September, 2010

It’s Hard to be Humble

In 1980 Mac Davis, the song writer who penned such hits as “In the Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” for Elvis Presley, “Watching Scotty Grow” for Bobby Goldboro, and the oft recorded “I Believe in Music,” hit number three in the charts with his solo “It’s Hard to be Humble.”   Today in our first year seminar on America’s future (this unit discussing Anne Marie Slaughter’s book on American values) we discussed humility, something that seems to be lacking in American politics these days.  (This also means that two blog entries in a row reference an LP from the year 1980 — that was unplanned!)

Humility means having the strength to acknowledge both ones’ strengths and ones’ weaknesses.  It’s not false reluctance to take credit for success, or naively taking the blame for something that’s gone wrong.  Humility is honesty, it’s having the capacity to admit mistakes and errors so that one can correct them, and not be afraid to apologize for past misdeeds.   Humility comes from strength; the weak man or woman feigns perfection and flawlessness in order to hide what he or she knows will embarrass or cause self-disgust.   A strong person can recognize and admit errors, even embarrassing ones.

In this light we talked about the alleged “apologies for America” made by Barack Obama.   Oft trumpeted by the right, supposedly President Obama went on a world apology tour, saying America is sorry for all the misdeeds of the past.  Now, if that were true, I’d have no problem with that.   To be able to apologize is to me a sign of strength, as noted above.   But the fact is, there were no apologies made.   This right wing “meme” has become so entrenched that almost everyone thinks Obama apologized (and many probably have no problem with that), but he didn’t!

The far right Washington Examiner attempted to document Obama’s “apologies” with a “Top Ten” list. Yet if you read through the list you have several times where Obama admitted the US made mistakes in the past — and most of these are uncontroversial admissions — but never once is there an apology.   The audacity to publish such a list when it’s obvious not one apology is there is amazing.   Some are even bizarre, like number 6:

“I don’t believe that there is a contradiction between our security and our values. And when you start sacrificing your values, when you lose yourself, then over the long term that will make you less secure.”

That statement is a statement of fact, almost everyone should be able to agree with it.  Or number 2:

“We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect.”

To admit that we are not perfect is the same as an apology!   To read this list is to laugh at the absurdity of the claims, yet many Americans take it seriously, and find it horrifying that a US President would admit his country was not perfect.   In short, many Americans have lost a sense of humility about our country and our values.

That is weakness.  Only a weak person fears admitting mistakes.   But it’s clear many people prickle from foreign criticism of the US or claims by pundits that we’ve done wrong.  To these people admitting error is somehow agreeing with foreign critics and taking an anti-American stand.   But just like the person who takes even just criticism as a personal attack, such folk are deeply insecure about the US.    They don’t want to ask hard questions because that means people they disagree may have a valid point.   Often they claim “such statements make al qaeda’s leaders feel good” or “boost morale” of the enemy.   Excuse me?   Why would anyone care about how enemies “feel,” as if an enemy “feeling good” is somehow harmful to us.   Not only do they likely not notice, but a strong person doesn’t fear that an opponent might feel good and thus choose not to be honest.   More important is what we as a country do and how we act, regardless of how others “feel.”  I also don’t buy the “boost morale of the enemy” argument.  President Obama’s admission that we’re not perfect boosted US prestige because he was stating things that are obvious.

For the US to refuse to admit past misdeeds in Latin America would be pathetic, everyone knows the historical facts, not to acknowledge them would seem not only weak, but petty.   If you knew someone who was so afraid that he or she would be seen as weak by others if they admitted any error, and thus they constantly boosted and said only good things about themselves, excusing or ignoring any mistakes, you’d probably not take that person as a friend.    It’s arrogance, it’s hubris, and it leads to self-destruction.

At home lack of humility undercuts the very capacity of our democracy to operate.  Humility means recognizing that the other side, be it the Democrats or Republicans, have good points and a perspective worthy of considering.  Only the arrogant dismiss and demonize the other side, thereby assuring an inability to cooperate or compromise.  If our two parties get engulfed by arrogance, and if ideological jihad replaces pragmatic problem solving, we’ll not solve the problems facing the country, and drift into an abyss.    Without humility we won’t respect the freedoms of others, tolerate those different than ourselves, see equal opportunity as a goal, and put justice over political whim.    Humility is an essential aspect of all our core values; we lose our humility and we lose part of what it means to be an American.

As a superpower, it may have become hard to be humble.   Yet humility is essential if we are to come together as a nation to solve the problems we face, and to work with the rest of the world to combat terrorism, address environmental issues, and try to build a peaceful transition to the future.

I’ll end the post quoting the final verse of the Mac Davis song:

I guess you could say I'm a loner,
a cowboy outlaw tough and proud.
I could have lots of friends if I want to
but then I wouldn't stand out from the crowd.
Some folks say that I'm egotistical.
Hell, I don't even know what that means.
I guess it has something to do with the way that I
fill out my skin tight blue jeans.
Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
when you're perfect in every way,
I can't wait to look in the mirror
cause I get better looking each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man.
Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
but I'm doing the best that I can.

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Nothing Matters and What if it Did?

The title of the LP caught my eye thirty years ago, as I bought “Nothing Matters and What if it Did?” by John Cougar, without having heard a track from the album or even knowing for sure who John Cougar (later he’d reclaim his true last name of Mellencamp) was.   The album is a classic — the music is timeless and fun, even thirty years after it’s September 1980 release.  However, I was thinking about it in more philosophical terms – at a fundamental level, I think we take things far too seriously (myself, obviously, included).

Consider: we will forget almost every event of today or this week, no matter how important.   We will remember those few major events — the deaths of loved ones or some kind of tragedy like a flood or fire —  but most will fade out of mind.    Moreover, this life is short, and at some point not too long from now we’ll all be forgotten, and of course eventually the sun will go nova, the earth will be destroyed, and who knows what the state of humankind will be by that point.   Our days will be the ancient pre-history of humanity, when we were still barbaric and tied to the planet.

Now, most people smile at that, but don’t take it seriously.   Yet if we do…I think it helps get a little perspective.   Each day is part of a playing out of history, and every person has tragedies and dramas in life.   Every person passes away sooner or later, everything changes, passes, and moves on.   At some level, what seems so important to us in our personal lives has minimal importance in the grand scheme of things.

Yet, of course, it does matter.   But what matters?   I would submit that most of what gets us upset, angry or agitated in every day life does not matter.   I’ll get cute with this.  Matter does not matter.   I’m not even sure if the material is real.  What matters, and what seems real to me, are the emotions and ideas people have.   It would not matter if I died tomorrow, but what would matter is that my children, family and others would be profoundly affected.  It doesn’t matter if my house burns down.   What matters is how we experience it and think about it.

OK, you might say, but so what?   Isn’t that what gets us upset, mad or sad anyway?   Perhaps not.   Let’s say my son is playing a game and hurls a hard ball towards the flat screen TV, destroying the screen and causing a considerable amount of financial loss (assuming we replace it).   Note: this did not really happen, so what follows is a thought experiment. If the material matters, I get angry with my son, perhaps scream at him because of how serious the damage is, send him to his room, and tell him he’ll have to help pay for a replacement — he needs to learn respect for property and to think about the consequences of his actions.    If matter is what matters most, I’ll ignore the obvious anger and shock this would cause him, especially as he was thinking he was just having fun.  I’ll instead fixate on the television, be mad at my boy’s carelessness, and dismiss his crying as “well, he should cry, look at what he did.”  I might even take it as a personal affront if I identify too much with the material I own — he hurt me by destroying my TV, that shows no respect for his dad!

But if the material is not what matters, then my first reaction might be “oh my God, the TV,” but then I’d look over and likely see him shocked and scared about getting in trouble.   I’d realize that the TV does not matter, my son does.  I’d figure out how to handle this in a way that doesn’t create emotional turmoil.   I’d quickly dismiss the damage to the TV — it’s done, we’ll have to figure out what to do, but it doesn’t matter.   Instead, I’d need to focus on how to handle the lessons my son needs to learn.  I’d probably say “What just happened?”   He’d likely be crying and saying “I didn’t mean it.”

I’d stay stern sounding, get him to realize the cost and consequences for all of us of having the TV broken out of carelessness, and ask him what should be done.   He’d probably think up some punishments or cutbacks, and because I didn’t respond with anger, he’d apologize profusely.  At that point we’d both have to pick up the mess, talking about how he needs to learn from this.   He’d no doubt feel bad, so we’d maybe go get some gelato, and decide how we’re going to break the news to the rest of the family!   I could only behave this way if the television did not truly matter to me — it’s a material object that can be replaced or lived without.   My son and his experiences matter far more!

In other words, if we focus on people rather than material objects, we won’t let ourselves get thrown off course by thinking of material damage, inconveniences and what we lack.  The focus will be on the people in our lives, recognizing everyone makes mistakes and has to learn.   The question will be less about punishment (I don’t really think punishment is appropriate if an act is not volitional) and more about learning and how to deal with the consequences (cleaning and contributing to buying something new is a consequence, not a punishment).

In fact, if we don’t make matter the focus and instead focus on people, then angry reactions to family and friends will start to disappear (not that I think we can really do this — I’m thinking in terms of the ideal — we fallible humans will always have moments of weakness).

The material does matter of course, but only in the sense that it is the backdrop for our shared personal experiences.   As such, we’re best not fixating on it.    When another person dies, though, that’s a reminder that even our material existence has, at base, a lack of real importance.   We all die, and when we do the tragedy is not death, it’s the loss of someone with whom we shared experiences, thoughts and emotions.   Such loses are an inevitable cost of living in the world in which we find ourselves.   We share experiences with others for only a finite time anyway, be it 50 years or five days.

I’m also not diminishing the horror of child soldiers, rape as a weapon, slavery and other human sufferings — it is the human emotions and experiences that matter, these things are horrific because of their painful nature to those who experience it.   We should work hard to change things, but instead of focusing on others with anger, the key is to fix the problems.  Retribution or conceptions of justice which focus on punishment likely exacerbate the problem rather than solve it.    I’d argue it’s an error if the material is taken so seriously that instead of wanting others to change their behavior we want to make them suffer as they have made others suffer.    To me it’s more important they recognize they’ve been wrong and change their way of acting.

So “No thing” matters, but “Every one” matters!


Eating in America

Last February I was dismayed when my scale read “222.”  2 is my favorite number, but at 6 ft 0 inches, that’s too much.  So I went on a diet, started an exercise routine, and by May 16th — the day we left for the Germany travel course — I was at 190.  That was a good 32 pounds lost in three months.

The good news is that I have kept up my exercise routines, now with 5:45 AM step machine workouts, and evening bowflex work outs three times a week.  I feel good.   The bad news is that my weight has climbed back up to about 196.  Moreover, it’s done that despite the fact I am still trying to eat in a healthy manner, limiting both snacks and eating out. Those last belly pounds remain resilient.

Part of it is the amount of weight I already lost this year.  You lose more than 10% of your body weight (for me that was about 22 pounds) and your body goes into “starvation mode.”  It assumes that some kind of calamity has hit the food supply.   The pounds are dropping fast, clearly something must be wrong!   And in a state of nature where you struggle for your food rather than struggling to avoid the allure of KFC chicken or Sbarros stuffed pizzas, that was a good thing.  In fact, my current weight is back very close to that 10% level (and 222 was a high last February, before that I was stable at about 218 — 196 is exactly 10% less).    So I may be at that 10% plateau below which weight loss becomes very difficult.

Yet I want to get down to about 185, or if I can put on some muscle perhaps 190.   And I’m not going back to getting half my calories from soyburgers like I did last spring.   A month of intense of calorie deprivation like I engaged in last spring could get me there, but I don’t want to do that.   I want to find a healthy mode of slow but consistent weight lose and develop habits that will keep me where I want to be.

My problem?   I love sweets, I love fatty food, and I find eating vegetables to be a chore.  I’ll eat them, but they don’t satisfy me so they can’t replace the foods I like.   But when my snacks are ice cream, Ritter Sport candy bars, bread and butter with salami, the calories add up quickly.   Worse, I want to eat like the television tells me I should.

Big yummy pieces of pizza full of pepperoni and sausage, stacks of pancakes next to eggs and bacon, a big juicy steak beside a loaded baked potato with a dinner roll.   Pasta — pasta with creamy sauces, stuffed with cheese, and preferably three helpings.   I want gelato daily, to eat bagels and cream cheese, and to supersize my fries.   I want milkshakes.   I want delicious breads, well crafted pastries, and lots and lots of butter.    I don’t want these things in small quantities at special times, I want them in large quantities multiple times a day!

I see these things on the TV all the time, being eaten by young people with beautiful bodies, showing me how cool pasta in an edible bread bowl really is.   The restaurants entice me, telling me that “I deserve a treat,” and of course, I do.  Always.  That statement is true every time it is made, I deserve something special!   I work hard, I help people out, I deserve a treat.  A pizza.  A DQ blizzard.   A Tim Horton’s vanilla cream donut.

At night as I unwind I deserve a drink, maybe two.  I deserve to feel relaxed and a bit buzzed as I watch Jon Stewart mock the political class.  (And if I have to watch Sarah Palin, then I deserve four or five. )   I also need to snack on popcorn with butter, potato chips, or a little salami sandwich while I unwind.  It was a rough day balancing work, kids, grading, etc…I deserve it.

Of course, if I did all that I’d soon be pushing 300 pounds.   Eating in America is hard — and hard in a perverse way.  It used to be that health was more likely endangered by malnutrition or under-eating.   Eating was hard because you had to either grow or trade to ensure a variety of foods, raising animals and then preparing, preserving and rationing your foods as winter came.   Bland food is delicious when you’re struggling to survive (I think I understand that judging by how good my Boca soy burgers tasted when I was in my intense diet last spring!)

Now it’s so easy to grab something tasty — often it is also cheap, and often we underestimate the damage it does.   Many meat and pasta dishes at common restaurants chime in at 1200 calories or higher.   Add drinks, desert, and the complementary bread and butter and it’s easy to walk out of a restaurant 2000 calories richer.   If you weigh 150 pounds or less, that’s all you’re allowed for the day without risking weight gain!

There are always temptations — snack foods, breads, cakes…easy to pick up at the store, and easy to munch on over the course of the day.  A donut at work, coffee with cream and sugar…it adds up!

To try to keep weight off  I have to recognize and keep reminding myself that the food cornucopia that advertisers say I should be able to enjoy is, in fact, an illusion.   They’re selling a product, often enhanced by artificial flavors and dyes.   The idea that healthy fit people can constantly enjoy these foods while staying fit is not true.  I cannot let myself be seduced by the images and temptations on TV, on Main Street, in the mall, or at the grocery store.   They are poisonous,  filling my taste buds with delight while destroying my health and fitness.

I need to take control.  Yes, I like pizza.  I like ice cream.   And yeah, I’m in this world of plenty and not being an ascetic, I’ll enjoy.   But I’ll not enjoy at the ravenous quantity of intake my advertising manipulated emotions cause me to want (or think I deserve).   I’ll figure out what I can afford to enjoy, and plan it for maximum pleasure.   I’ll savor it, rather than pounding down pizza slice after pizza slice.   My superego has to snatch the donut from my id.

Yet even as I type that, I have to fight the Homer Simpson inside who is suddenly thinking “Mmmmm, Pizza and donuts, mmm *drool*…”


Democrats Need Not Panic

The conventional wisdom these days is that the Republicans will almost certainly win majority control of the House of Representatives, perhaps winning as much as 45 to 50 seats, while the Democrats are likely to maintain a small majority in the Senate (recognizing that even a 50-50 split would mean Democratic control).   Republicans are more enthusiastic (less likely to stay home in an off year election), motivated, and their supporting groups have money.   Moreover, the economy is bad, and whether it was Ronald Reagan in 1982 or Bill Clinton in 1994, a President and his party do not look good when the economy is in the dumps.  All the insulting comments about the President seem true; the glory of past campaigns is faded.   Or, as James Carville famously put it in the 1992 campaign: “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Yet there are a number of reasons why the story line for this election may be “Democrats surprise prognosticators with smaller than expected loses and clear control over both Houses.”   The reason is that while the economy is against them and the Republicans ahead in the polls, the GOP may have peaked, and may in fact be committing some unforced errors that give the Democrats an opportunity to pounce — should they get their act together.   Consider the following:

1) The current state of polls.   Republicans lead only slightly in the generic ballot (and some put the Democrats ahead), and in many individual races its still too close to call.  For instance, in South Dakota a recent poll put the Democrat Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin slightly ahead of her Republican opponent.  Yet in most predictions, she’s considered likely to lose — Nate Silver (under forecast center click ‘House’) has her odds of losing at 70% .    The reason?   Most prognosticators are predicting this to be a “wave” election like 1994, with the Republicans picking up the close races due to more motivated voters and the bandwagon effect.

However, it could also be the case that the Republicans have peaked, and the current infighting about the tea party and GOP insurgent primary winners will both weaken the GOP message and give ammo to the Democrats to point to the Republicans as not credible on the economy.   Although the party in power gets the blame, most remember that the problems started with the Republicans in power, and support for the GOP by moderates is hardly overwhelming.   If, as the campaign heats up and people start paying attention the GOP message seems shrill and extreme, a lot of people who now say they’ll vote for change will decide their current House or Senate member is a safer bet.  There is a real possibility that the late voters will swing the Democrats not the Republicans. If that happens, if the GOP has peaked and under closer scrutiny will appear to many as less credible, then not only is the “wave” assumption wrong, but the final shift could go to the Democrats, not the Republicans.

In such a case, predictions for Republican gains of 45 or so seats could be halved.   We could wake up on November 3rd and see Democratic loses of 20 to 25 seats.   In the Senate instead of losing seven, the Democrats could lose only three.   This sounds like a dramatic shift, but it really isn’t.  Assuming these races will be reasonably close (and the polls suggest so), if a Republican “wave” doesn’t occur, and in fact the Democrats have even a small surge late in the campaign, small changes in total vote counts could have a dramatic impact on the final outcome.   Moreover, this has happened before.   In 1982, under similar economic conditions and with approval ratings even lower than President Obama’s, Ronald Reagan seemed certain to lose his majorities in Congress.   Instead, the loses were far less than predicted, and the Republicans were spared an off year election like President Clinton’s Democrats would have in 1994 (when Clinton’s poll numbers were down — again, lower than Obama’s now).

In 1982 the conventional wisdom was predicting a major Democratic victory; in 1994 people had a sense it could be very bad for the Democrats, but the scope of GOP gains was much greater than anticipated.   Now people are modeling their 2010 predictions on the 1994 case.    But in many ways, including peoples’ expectations about the election, this could be more like 1982 than 1994.

2)  The importance of enthusiasm.   Every prediction for a Republican wave assumes that Democratic enthusiasm will not grow by November.  Yet not only do the Democrats have a lot of money and resources, but their best ally may be the Republicans.   The so-called tea party movement has brought extremists out who are saying things that turn off centrists and arouse otherwise less enthused Democrats.

For example, here in the state of Maine tea party favorite Paul Le Page won a crowded primary by having a strong loyal conservative base.   Going into a fall election against Democrat Libby Mitchell and a moderately strong third party candidate, Le Page is up in early polling by 15-18%, a solid “likely R” in the Governor’s column.   Yet some of his statements about the environment and education, plus a tendency for mean-spirited comments and a personal tax controversy that could stay in the headlines, suggests vulnerability.   As independents and Democrats get closer to the election, the chance that they’ll be motivated to “stop LePage” makes this almost certain to be a much closer election than the early polls.  Le Page’s current lead comes from being “against the status quo.”

Note two things: even though he still may win, it’s not certain, and few think his poll numbers will stay as high as they currently are.  But if analysts are expecting a wave and continued Democratic apathy, models would predict his strength as stable or growing.   Repeat this in other places, and one could imagine that even Republicans with apparently comfortable leads (especially in Senate races) could find those vanishing by November, even if they lack the negatives of a Le Page.   The point: the wave may already have hit and may be receding because the enthusiasm gap is almost certain to narrow.

3) Uncertainties.  Events between now and November 3rd will also certainly impact the election — and in one where so many races are close, unexpected turns of events could have a profound impact on the results.

My point is not to assure Democrats that it ‘won’t be so bad.’  The fascinating thing about this election is one can imagine scenarios which are reasonably likely but very different.  The Republicans could pick up 45 seats in the House.   The Democrats could hold Republican gains to about 20-25.   If the Democrats want the latter result, they should not panic or give in the temptation to operate on the defensive.   They need to arouse their voting base, and luckily for them the Republicans are giving them ammunition with which to do so.   For the Republicans, the key to having this not be ‘the one that got away,’ is to avoid internal fighting and try to keep the pressure on the Democrats.

It may come down to how well the GOP can defend it’s message: cut taxes and cut spending.  In the abstract everyone likes that, and if they can sell that message without having to actually provide too many details, they could end up with maximal gains.   That’s a benefit of being in the opposition — you can be vague, while those in power have to defend specific acts and policies.   The Democrats have to try to deconstruct the GOP message and raise questions about whether they are serious — and then get maximum mileage out of GOP divisions and sometimes extremist rhetoric.  They have to get the voter to think, “gee, the Republicans didn’t do too well before and some of these guys are saying crazy things, I guess I’ll stick with my Representative…”

And as of September 23, 2010 there is still a lot of campaign time and left, and anything can happen.

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Obama should learn from Lady Gaga

Today my first year seminar on “The Future of America” was set to discuss the values of equality and justice, the next chapters in the book The Idea that is America by Anne Marie Slaughter.   As I was about to start class, students chimed in saying we should watch a Lady Gaga video.   Thinking it was an effort to simply inject pop culture into the class, I resisted, until they made clear: a) it addressed the topic; and b) it was a speech delivered Monday in Portland, Maine.   I hooked up a student’s computer to the projector and we watched this:

Wow.   I found the speech moving and powerful, alongside the great speeches of the civil rights and women’s suffrage movement.   Not only is “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” discriminatory, but it’s clearly completely contrary to the values of this country.   Lady Gaga is among the likes of Susan B. Anthony and many others who spoke out in a movement to help the US get closer to our founding values.

The Senate, however, did not heed Lady Gaga’s admonition.  The effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” failed.  More importantly, though, is the absence of the Obama administration from this fight.

President Obama should be leading the fight to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell.”  He should be talking about American values and noting that homophobia is not an excuse for discrimination.   At this point in our cultural development, there is no excuse for lingering bigotry against gays.    Instead, the White House, as seems so often the case, shies away from political controversy and tries to play it safe, issuing proclamations of disappointment that it lost a fight it never even really joined.

President Obama, you’re in a position few people get a chance to enjoy.  You can push for your ideals and control the “bully pulpit” for at least the next two years.   Don’t play it safe.  Learn from Lady Gaga, put principle ahead of pragmatism.  Yeah, the polls say the GOP is on the upswing — that’s unavoidable with an economy doing poorly.  Don’t let that cause you to shy way from controversy.  Do the right thing.

So for now, I’m disappointed with the President, but very impressed with Lady Gaga — and my students for demanding I play that video in class!


Are Humans Inherently Good?

Whether discussing theories of international relations, religion, or philosophy, one question that always ensures lively debate is whether or not humans are inherently good or evil.   Most often the response turns out to be somewhere in the middle — we do good things and evil things, and there are humans of all flavors.   Yet I can’t help but answer that deep down, humans are good because they are a product of nature (or of God, if you so believe).

The Christian response to this would be that humans have “fallen.”  But if we look into the Adam and Eve allegory, it becomes a bit unclear how we should take it.   Humans have fallen not because they have given in to a change in nature causing them to be evil, but that they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. While in popular parlance that has come to mean an apple, think through what else this can symbolize.

We have a new kitten.  The kitten is playful, she is constantly jumping on my lap as I type this, and her behavior is neither good nor evil.  She’s jumping on my lap out of self-interest — I was petting her last night for 45 minutes as she sat there, and she apparently likes that.   But when she plays she might scratch or bite — at this point she’s small enough that it doesn’t hurt, but she’s not doing that out of malice.   I have known cats who seem evil though — who hiss and scratch anyone who comes close to them.   One such cat had been in a theater play as a kitten and the high school actors had tormented him — he appeared evil because he had very bad socialization to humans.

But most of the time we don’t attribute evil to animals or pets; they are in nature and acting out of instinct.  When they go bad, like a pit bull dog or cats like the one mentioned above, it’s blamed on the owners or instinct going awry.   The reason is clear: animals do not know the difference between right and wrong, or good and evil.   They are reactive and instinctive.   While science shows they have the capacity to reason — at levels we earlier did not expect — it’s not moral or critical reasoning of the kind we have.

But we have knowledge of our actions, and can reflect upon them.   Cats in a cat fight are reacting to stimuli, and probably don’t think much about how the other cat feels.  We have empathy, we can put ourselves in the place of others.  That knowledge separates us from most if not all animal species, and has led to the development of philosophy, religion, and the capacity to leave our world of instinct and nature and construct social realities designed from our imagination and creativity.

As we build words and act, two things happen: a) we see the consequences of our actions, and b) we empathize and emote as we contemplate our acts and the acts of others.   Here is where the concept of evil takes root.   We see consequences that we know harm others, and that gets magnified by our empathy.  We are then are able to imagine what it would be like to be ‘in the other person’s shoes.’   Crudely, we tend to define as evil those acts that lead to consequences that would be distasteful if they were to happen to us, and we see as good those acts which have an impact we would enjoy if done for us.

This seems simple, yet social reality is not simple.   Move away from acts where the consequences are clear and direct (murder, rape, theft) and layers of cultural rationalizations and abstractions cloud our vision.   All religions and moral codes have clear rules against murder, rape, theft, and physical assault.  Yet they also punish, engage in war (though less frequently than people imagine), tax property, and value physical prowess.   A soldier can go to war and get a medal for killing people he doesn’t know, even as his society condemns murder.

These rationalizations permeate every layer of our psyches and cultures.   Thus we end up constantly engaging in actions which, if done to us, would cause pain.   We recognize that at some level, but rationalize an excuse not to label that evil.    Here is where we start to lose ourselves.  Internal pain, self-loathing, and repression inflict inner wounds that lead people to shut down empathy and fall deeper in a pit of sociopathic behavior.    The knowledge of good and evil is inside us, but we harm ourselves when we block it out in order to justify actions we know deep down to be unjustifiable.    This can come out in many forms, of course, and people are capable of self-critical reflection to work through their actions and learn not to hate themselves for acts that they know were wrong.   Self-forgiveness is a key to mental stability, and probably necessary before other-forgiveness can take place.

So we’re good because we are in nature, but due to our knowledge of the consequences of our acts, plus our ability to empathize, we are able to create the concepts of good and evil, and apply them to ourselves and others.   Being imperfect (we make errors in judgment, are prone to emotionally over-react, probably a remnant from our need to flee or fight in nature), we torture ourselves over our mistakes, often without consciously realizing it.  (Freud would attribute that our superego, created as a response to our upbringing, what we are taught is good or evil).    To stay Freudian, the id is our instinctive playful self, acting in the world to fulfill desires and drives.

In a state of hunter-gatherer or early tribal nature, we are likely to find it easy to build customs and core rules to work through all this.   As society becomes complex, the abstractions and rationalizations for acts which create pain in others become harder to deconstruct and combat.  Nationalism, ideology, religious extremism, and many other ways of thinking and living obscure our capacity for calm, rational self-reflection and self-critical thought.

So we’re good, but we’ve constructed worlds that make it easy for good people to get sucked into a web of self-delusion and abstract rationalization.   One life goal has to be to work through that and examine our own lives and actions self-critically with self-forgiveness, not self-loathing.  Then as co-constructors of our social reality, we should act to fight against the abstractions and rationalizations that hide the reality of our actions and choices.   Like cats, we are playful rather than evil.  It’s just that our play has consequences, and we have the capacity to understand them.


GOP Behaving Like Democrats

Until recently there was one thing you can count on in politics: the Democratic party will find ways to lose elections through internal division out of touch policy idealism.    As the Democrats fight with themselves, the GOP usually develops a kind of internal cohesion in which liberal Northeast Republicans and arch conservative bible belters unite to have a solid front at election time.

How times have changed.   The Democrats in both 2006 and 2008 acted with the pragmatism usually associated with the GOP.  Not only did they coalesce around a clear message in 2006, benefiting from President Bush’s unpopularity, but in 2008 they put aside a divisive Presidential primary campaign to focus on electing Barack Obama and strengthening Congressional majorities.    In the health care debate Speaker Pelosi enforced a kind of disciplined effort to bring the party together to pass reform, a feat many had considered impossible.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are at risk of misplaying the best electoral hand they’ve been dealt in some time.   Buoyed by the fact the economy has stayed bad, increasing public pessimism and desire for change, they have engaged in an all out civil war, as the most radical 25% of the party — the energized base — try to take control.   Like the liberals in the Democratic party who nominated George McGovern in 1972, they care less about wanting to win then wanting to purge the party of anyone they don’t see as ideologically correct.

This was evident last night when a rather bizarre Christine O’Donnell (masturbation is as bad as adultery, accusations from former campaign workers she’s a fraud, severe personal finance problems) defeated a very electable and reasonably conservative Mike Castle.   O’Donnell is virtually un-electable, while Castle was the clear favorite for the November election.   By embracing the extremes of the party, the GOP has virtually assured that the Democrats will not only keep the Senate, but that in November the news might be far different than what people now are expecting.

Castle is just the latest of Republican stalwarts being knocked off by the so-called “tea party” movement.   But the damage she does might be far greater than just assuring the Democrats keep the Delaware seat once belonging to Vice President Biden.  The image the GOP has in America is becoming defined less by cynicism with President Obama’s economic plan, then headlines of Republican infighting and a sense that, as former President Clinton said, “today’s Republicans make George Bush look liberal.”

Though the tea-party folk are convinced Obama harbors a secret socialist agenda, and salivate at Newt Gingrich’s claim he has a “Kenyan anti-colonial” world view (huh?), most Americans don’t want such political theater.   As November gets closer, the Democrats best friends are the Republicans.

Americans want cooperation between the parties and pragmatic problem solving.   If the GOP were going into the campaign stressing ideas over slogans, and ways of cooperation instead of ideological posturing, the public would embrace them.   If a clear message was being sent saying, “We agree with the Democrats there are problems in health care, the US infrastructure, energy and unemployment, and we will use our influence to work with them to find ways to handle these which do not run up more debt and effectively turn the economy around,” it would sound very reasonable.

Instead they lash out against an Islamic community center in Manhattan, continue a barrage of vicious attacks on Obama, and attack their own people who aren’t ideologically pure.    Convinced they are leading a massive revolt against the Democrats and “the way things are done in DC,” they mistake their own convictions for widespread public opinion, and may do more damage to the Republican party than seemed possible even a few months ago.

Note to tea partiers: you’re simply riding the same kind of wave Obama rode when he came into office.   The economy is bad and people are sick of wars, creating the sense we need real change.   Just as the Obama wave quickly dissipated, so will yours.   Moreover, you’re only winning within the hard core of the GOP who votes in primaries.   Most Americans do not share your world view.

Most Republicans, of course, know this.   They understand that emotional movements can get a lot of press and create energy, but they dissipate quickly and can backfire if the headlines get too divisive and combative.   They realize that they in these economic conditions in the first off year election during a new Presidential term that the deck is stacked in their favor.   They expected an onslaught of advertising and attacks to come from the Democrats, and were prepared to weather them by keeping the focus on the economy and Obama’s policies.   Instead they face internal revolt.

It is not yet common to hear this, but I predict it soon will be.  If the GOP cannot regain control of its message, focus on the economy, and avoid being identified with the “tea party,” then they will be blowing an electoral opportunity of a lifetime.    Instead of winning 50 to 60 seats in the House, they may not win 30.   They may win only two to four Senate seats.    Look at the polls.  Republican leads are soft and small in many races, and the Democrats have more money and resources.   Current predictions for a GOP “wave” assume those leads will stay or grow, and the Democrats will not be able to increase enthusiasm or stem the criticism.

If that wave doesn’t come, or if GOP behavior enthuse more Democrats and turn off  some independents, there could be a shift to the Democrats between now and election day that push more tossups their way.    And if on November 3rd Republicans wake up somewhat shocked and disappointed, thinking about what might have or should have been, they’ll only have the tea party to blame.


American values and Democracy

In my first year seminar Tuesday we’ll be discussing democracy.   We are also reading Anne Marie Slaughter’s book The Idea That is America, a very timely and profound look at how the values that founded our country are still our best bet for solving our problems and creating a better future.    So I’ll blog a bit about those values in the coming weeks.   We already discussed liberty (or freedom), something I’ve written quite a bit about already.

Slaughter notes, of course, that the term democracy was used differently at the time of the revolution.   To the founders democracy was crude majority rule, while a Republic was representative government.    Around the time of Woodrow Wilson the usage of the term started to change.   Now politician and political scientist alike would clearly note that while the US is a Republic, it is also a democracy.

It wasn’t a democracy by today’s standards early on.    A country now is considered a democracy when every individual can participate equally in both choosing representatives and other elected officials (one vote per person), and participating equally in political debate and discussion.   Early America did not have this — the founders created a country with slavery, women were not allowed to vote, and for awhile only white land owners had a say in most matters.

A couple of things stand out.  First, as Slaughter notes, the United States is a constant work in progress.   The ideals of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution are aspirational; early America did not fit what the lofty ideals the founders expressed.   Moreover, there have been peaks and valleys along the way — times where we move forward (e.g., the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote) and times we stray from our ideals (the McCarthy era red scare).    There is progress over time, but not constant progress.

This should help political activists and those with strong, passionate views accept that their causes cannot be won quickly.   Both abolition and woman’s suffrage came as a culmination of generations of effort.  Many were radical (some suffrage movements called for an all out revolution), some pragmatic, but over time they won because they appealed to American values.    Tradition, old prejudices, racism and sexism all violate the very principles upon which the country is based.   As time passes, we work and move closer to achieving those values more fully.   That should give us a sense of optimism, even when things look bleak.

Second, it also shows just how hard it is to form and support a democracy.   What the founders labeled democracy would not be given that word now.   To be a democracy requires that all citizens be able to have the right to vote and participate in the political discourse.   If a majority could deny a minority that right, the system would not be democratic by today’s standards.   Fundamental to maintaining a democracy is accountability to law (all must adhere to the rule of law)  and accountability to the people (elections must be free and fair).

What strikes me is just how interwoven our other values are to maintaining a democracy.  Democracies are meaningless without freedom — you can vote in almost every country in the world, but they do not achieve democratic rule if the people are not free.   Democracy cannot self-improve like ours has if there is no tolerance of dissent.   Disagreement is key.   We cannot improve if we do not allow people to think freely and criticize how things are done.

There is a lesson here for those who want to spread democracy.   President Bush famously said that “everyone wants to be free,” suggesting that democracy would be natural if only we got ride of despots like Saddam.   Yet as our own experience shows, our democracy took nearly 200 years to achieve the bare minimum of what it takes to define a country as democractic today.   What if Iraq had said, “We want to be a democracy, but women can’t vote and Sunnis will be held as slaves.”   We’d reject that as not only undemocratic, but an extreme violation of human rights.   Yet we had something like that for much of our history.

Still we expect other states to overnight jump from political cultures that often are less developed than ours was in 1789 to become a functional democracy operating with values we embrace in their 2010 form.   We seem surprised when war lords take over, a political system becomes hopelessly divided, or corruption runs rampant.  We don’t seem to realize that building a democracy requires generational efforts, and is always a work in progress.   Rather than try to demand radical reform, maybe we need to be patient.    Let’s look for slow steps rather than radical change.   Rather than focus on China’s faults, let’s appreciate how much it’s improved.  Rather than wringing our hands over Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia, let’s see it in the context of Czarism and Communism, and hope for at least steps in the right direction.

Humans have an annoying and very dangerous habit.   We like to see our situation — be it religion, form of government, or tastes — as being “right.”   Everyone else is wrong.   That creates a tendency to want to demand others conform to ones’ own choices and beliefs — or else they are met with anger and intolerance.  That is seen in our politics today — and has been in our politics probably since the country formed.   Our values are the best way to counter that tendency, and with democracy work through the disagreements, passions and uncertainties.   After all, we are still early in our path as a country to live up to the ideas and values that define America as an idea, not just a place.

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Two Minute Barack?

My favorite quarterback of all time is Tommy Kramer.  I think he earned my loyalty when he replaced Fran Tarkenton in a December 1977 game against the 49ers in which the Vikings trailed 24-0 in the third quarter.   Kramer led a spectacular comeback, hitting Sammy White for the winning touchdown, 28-27.   He became known as two minute Tommy, a quarterback whose arm was strong and accurate enough to keep any game within reach.  One memory is watching the Vikings come back against Cleveland in 1980, winning and making the playoffs on a last second pass to Ahmad Rashad.  My dad and I jumped up in celebration, causing my mom to drop the grocery bags she was bringing in the house to rush in and see what was wrong — she thought my dad had had a heart attack.

Kramer had some truly awesome performances, but there was a kind of routine to his comebacks.  He’d make little errors, miss some key throws, and look a bit inconsistent early in the game, setting up the need for a comeback.    He had trouble just playing it safe or holding a lead, he was best when he was poised to use his arm to lead a come back.

Right now the political pundits are singing in unison: the Republicans will win big in November, perhaps retaking both the House and Senate, and Obama’s Presidency, after an oh so promising start, is starting to unravel.   The reason is clear: the economy has not recovered, and people are in a sour mood.   And, though Reagan and Clinton faced similar problems at the same stage of their Presidency (Obama scores slightly above them in approval ratings, in fact), the sense is that the Democrats are in for a thumping.    Obama hasn’t been written off for 2012 — the economy may improve by then — but if this were a football game, we’d be in the third quarter and the score would be 24-0.

Kramer’s heroics came to mind when I watched a clip of Obama on stage, feisty and ready to campaign hard for the Midterms.  His Presidency has been like Kramer’s play — competent, some signs of brilliance (he actually got more accomplished in terms of legislation than most Presidents in a short time), but also a number of unforced errors and apparent inattention.   The result is that he’s fallen behind, and his only chance to improve his standing and save his party in November is to go deep.   He has to take some risks and go on offense.

He may just pull it off.  The Republicans have every reason to be gleeful about their prospects, but it’s early — and it’s possible they peaked too soon.   In fact, from the Democratic perspective this has its silver lining.  If it looked as if the Republicans would pick up seats but gain majorities, Democrats would likely remain unenthused.   They expected major change from Obama, and a President simply isn’t powerful enough to pull that off, especially when fighting an economic crisis which I labeled “Great Depression II” the other day.

If, however, the Democrats can put together clips from Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Congressman Boehner, and a few others, and make a compelling argument that the Republican party is in the hands of ideologues whose ideas are dangerous and erratic, a lot of people who now say “generic Republican” to pollsters might rethink how they’ll vote on the individuals running in their races.   The Democrats also need to pound home the point that the Republicans have no plan.  Saying “cut taxes and cut spending” is easy as a slogan, but what will that mean in reality?   Will it just be a return to the policies that brought us to this point?   The GOP is purposefully (and smartly) silent on that — that’s why in times like these it’s much easier to be in the opposition.

The Republicans also have to worry about complacency, and outlandish statements coming out of some of their quarters.   They’ve embraced issues like the mosque at ground zero (actually a community center blocks away) and a strong stance on illegal immigration, two issues which could hurt them in the eyes of independents, and could inspire Hispanic turn out against the Republicans.

Of course, Kramer’s comebacks sometimes fell short.  In 1985 I was at the Metrodome when the Vikings took on the Eagles.    They lost 37-35, despite a brilliant effort by Kramer.   His final pass was caught in field goal range and the receiver got out of bounds…but time had run out.   But for a few seconds the game was lost.  Still, it was thrilling to watch.  If Obama’s comeback effort falls short, it may not be that bad for him in the long run.   He’s not up for re-election until 2012, and like Clinton in 1996, he may benefit from the Republicans over-reaching and thinking that disappointment with the status quo was a mandate for radical change.


Great Depression II

Recent economic news convinces me that we are not in just another recession, but the early days of what could be a significant and extremely painful depression.    Historians may call this era “Great Depression II” and analyze the causes and impacts the same way we look at the 1930s.   If so things may get much worse before they get better.

The other day I posted four charts that illustrate the problems we face.   We have gone into deep debt — both government and the private sector, — have less than 10% of the population involved in manufacturing, and hyper-consume foreign goods, running up massive current account deficits.   This has been going on for thirty years, including unconscionable deficit spending during economic booms in the 1980s and early 2000s.    Private citizens have been if anything as bad if not worse than the government, the US lived on debt, stopped savings, and believed in the bubbles that popped one by one.    It’s not just the government’s fault, we citizens have done this to ourselves.

It’s a depression because there is no quick way out of it.   In a recession rebalancing can be painful, but happens quickly.   It’s caused by short term economic factors usually led by inflation.    Since inflation rates were so low during the thirty year period we engaged in building high debt and overconsumption/under-production, the economy did not have any “natural” way to rebalance.   The imbalances grew, and as long as the short term outlook seemed good, people decided they could live with debt.  Economists even made excuses for the current account deficit, arguing that if it’s private sector driven that’s no problem.   The loss of manufacturing?   No problem, the US was making up for it with the service sector, especially stocks and banking.  The idea was our financial system provides a global service and thus we do not need to produce.  That was an illusion.

In retrospect the question would be why people didn’t see this coming — or why those who did were ignored.  How could people really believe thirty years of growing government and private debt with hyper-consumption and little production work?   But if a delusion is enjoyable, it’s easy to grasp for as long as possible.   Now the last bubble has burst.

Here’s the deal: since the imbalance is debt driven, it cannot be fixed until that debt is paid down.   Let’s set aside government spending for a moment, since that debt might have to rise if we are to fix this.   What is really problematic is the high levels of private debt.   Savings rates remain low, equity in homes is at historic lows, and credit card and other personal debt remains high.     To rebalance we have to simply repay debt and get back into a structurally sound condition.

You might think that this also means cutting government spending, and we do have to do that.   But it’s tricky.   There is no guarantee that this will right itself quickly, we could be looking at long term malaise, even if the public pays down the debt over time.   The government has to cut wasteful and unnecessary spending, diminish commitments abroad (military spending should be cut dramatically) and focus spending on a mix of infrastructure improvements and direct benefits to people starting businesses or working to build productive capacity.

The problem, as I noted earlier, is that we have been consuming beyond our ability to produce.  To repay debt and maintain an enjoyable level of consumption (but not insane as in the mid-2000s), we have to increase production in goods and services that have global demand.   Here is the problem with the two favorite “fixes” from the political parties:

a) GOP — cut taxes and people will invest.    The problem is, if you cut taxes people will consume.   That used to indirectly cause production since you have to produce first what is consumed, but now that the economy is global tax cuts benefits may be exported.   The rich will consume more foreign goods, but the domestic economy will continue to falter, and there won’t be investment in new productive enteprises.

b) Democrats — stimulate the economy.   In a normal recession this is even better than tax cuts because it directly stimulates the economy in focused areas, rather than simply providing tax cuts.   It also is more likely to get money directly to those most hurt by the recession.   However, if not spent right, it will have the same impact as a tax cut — rewarding consumption without promoting production.   In fact, that seems to have happened with the first stimulus, as some of it was geared towards investment, but much was to bail out states and create jobs.

If I were President I’d give a national speech to talk about the depression.   I’d use the D-word, it’s too late to worry about “talking down” the economy.  It’s down and talked down as much as it can be.   I’d mix a list of spending cuts — significant ones, ones that hurt interests on both sides of the aisles, with a set of incentives for investment plus targeted infrastructure improvements.    We also can’t give in to the temptation to cut spending on our future — education, early childhood programs, and help for families in need.   The President should also call for an effort of national renewal, perhaps tying receipt of government assistance to having people “give back” in some way.

The problem is that whether rich and earning big off the stock market, or poor and surviving with food checks and welfare, a something for nothing attitude permeates our culture.    Perhaps prosperity spoiled us, perhaps we simply got too fond of our delusions.   The President needs to make clear that we have to work together to revive our economy and live up to our national values.     The problem can’t be fixed by the government, and no one can expect magic from President Obama.    It took thirty years to get into this mess, we’re now mired in what still could be the early days of a depression, and unless we boldly come together and start making hard choices, giving up our something for nothing attitude, things could get much worse.    If we act wisely, we can turn it around.   President Obama, the country needs your leadership.   Now is the moment — this is what you were elected for, stop playing it safe and focus intently on the economy and bringing the country together.