Archive for July, 2012
Disenchantment was the term Max Weber used to describe the impact of enlightenment thought on humanity. Humans moved from a world of deep spiritual significance to one that can be measured, analyzed and reduced to it constituent parts. Rather than experiencing reality as a deeply meaningful and even magical whole, it has become complex mechanistic set of causal mechanisms outside the self known as nature. Any meaning it has comes from the human mind.
Such a view of reality is both implausible and untenable. It is untenable because recent discoveries in modern physics, especially in the realm of quantum mechanics, defy a mechanized view of reality. We don’t know exactly what the nature of reality is, but it’s definitely not some kind of mechanistic set of material chain reactions! It’s implausible for the same reason we now see old geo-centric cosmological theory as misguided – it views human experience as the center of all reality.
Think of it – a whole cosmos and the vast multiverse, all a lifeless, soulless set of material interactions with no meaning or core value. All meaning, value and understanding in the universe takes place within the brains of carbon based life forms on one nondescript planet. Even if we allow that there may be life forms similar to us on other planets, the result is the same: a meaningless universe of causal mechanisms, forces and particles. Meaning only comes as minds behold, label, and try to understand it.
Oh what vain creatures we mortals are! We no longer believe our planet an unmoving center of the universe, but we think our minds are the essence of what gives reality meaning. Without our minds to behold the world there would be no meaning, no value, just inanimate forces and particles buzzing about. Looked at that way, the rationalist world view of enlightenment thought looks pretty absurd.
Still, the enlightenment was about liberation. The individual now came first. Rather than being products of a community, individuals were now seen as the creators of community. As such they had to use reason to determine how to structure it, became responsible for their own happiness and success, and learned to question or distrust the religions and traditions which had provided meaning and social cohesion.
The biggest drawback, noted by first real critic of the enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, is alienation. The individual used to be part of something greater than himself. An individual in so-called primitive times was one with nature, a part of an enchanted world where every event, action and experience had meaning connected to that person’s life. The boundary between the self and the wider world was imprecise. Even after Christian thought came to dominate the individual was part of a community, had value due to his or her role, and had a network of support in the clan, village or extended family. Religion provided certainty in life – as bad as things may be here, a paradise awaits!
Now we’re not so sure. Most religion myths are seen as implausible, and ever since Montesquieu it’s been clear that the idea that salvation could be an accident of birth – a baby lucky to born in Iowa is likely to be taught the “right” religion while one born in Cairo may be doomed to hell – doesn’t seem likely from a loving God. In fact the ability of one culture to think its religion the one true one is far fetched. When you look at the claims of individual religions, their stories break down.
Moreover, individual responsibility for happiness, value and meaning in life — what the enlightenment liberates us to pursue — is a daunting task. With advertisers insisting that you can’t have a happy life without the newest product, magazine covers defining beauty, and material wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, it’s easy to feel like one is failing. Even Mitt Romney, the GOP Presidential candidate, stated that prosperous countries have “better cultures” than those with less wealth (he used GDP per capita as the defining principle). Get that – a culture is judged to be superior ont the basis of its economic output!
Disenchanted humans, burdened with these tasks handle the challenge in various ways. Most will turn to existing religions, friends and family, their communities, and their own life experiences to find meaning. Often this yields an outcome good enough to make life bearable, and sometimes even pleasurable. Others lose themselves in a host of distractions – sports, gossip, politics, activism, life-dramas, entertainment, books, etc – and train themselves not to think about any deep meaning to life. That may be hectic, but it makes life like sleep walking.
Yet this disconnection with the world has yet another sinister side, the violence and destruction which has accompanied western thought. We have high GDPs, but we’ve had the most destructive wars and pioneered true weapons of mass destruction. We continue to devastate the environment and treat plants and animals as mere products. After all if only the human mind provides meaning, everything else is to be used. Their value is measured by the utility they provide for humans. Colonialism, war, and the destruction of cultures (which, of course, are inferior if they are economically lower — hence exploiting them is doing them a favor by extending western ideas to them) are all actions inherent in this disconnect between individuals and the rest of existence.
It’s time to recognize that enlightenment thought without a spiritual component is untenable. It’s time to assert that meaning cannot just exist in individual disconnected minds. It’s time to recognize that we are part of a larger reality where meaning permeates all of existence. We may not buy the symbols primitive peoples held – indeed, we need to build on rather than reject western thought. Religious fundamentalists fear modernism because of its disenchanting quality, we need to rediscover enchantment!
As a new information revolution expands our power to connect and communicate, as modern physics breaks down boundaries and shows how little we understand the true nature of reality, we humans have to discover the natural empathy within us. Enlightenment thought turns off the deep connections we have with the rest of reality, forcing us to experience life through a stark dichotomy of internal and external. Somehow we have to find a way to reach and feel beyond that. If we can we’ll have a revolution in thinking that can open doors, expand understanding, and overcome the dark side of enlightenment rationalism.
I don’t mean some kind of new age mysticism or magic crystals. I also don’t mean a complete rejection of western rationalism. We simply need a re-enchantment of human existence. I’m not sure how this will look, but the first step must be to think about the world differently. See it as magical, see ourselves as connected, to try to feel those connections and the lack of a true boundary between object and subject. Experience coincidence as synchronicity, see the internal reflected in the external and vice-versa. The world isn’t as meaningless, cold and separate as we’ve been taught to believe.
In 1980 I voted in my first Presidential election and like many people, voted for Ronald Reagan because of his optimism and vision of better times for America. The late seventies had been traumatic. After first bringing a sense of relief to a country torn apart by Vietnam and Watergate, Jimmy Carter seemed helpless as the US slipped into another oil crisis, a recession, and renewed tensions with the USSR. In retrospect Carter handled the situation about as deftly as one could, but to a country used to being on top, it felt like we were in decline.
I had been a fan of Reagan’s back in 1976 when he challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican Presidential nomination. His optimism was contagious, he was likable and seemed to offer a clear answer to our problems: freedom and confidence.
Alas, the reality turned out to be much different. When President Reagan took office the US debt was 30% of GDP, considerably lower than that of most European countries. However, the deficits climbed in the 80s:
In 1977 the deficit was $53.7 billion. That was low enough to help pay down the US debt, as the economy was growing faster. It was down to $40 billion in 1979, though the recession caused a sky rocket to $73 billion in 1980. Then the debt started to pile up:
1981 – $79 billion (mostly Carter’s budet), 1982 $128 billion, 1983 $207 billion, 1984 $185 billion, 1985 $212 billion, 1986 $221 billion, 1987 $150 billion, 1988 $155 billion. Things would improve after that, and for four years (1998 – 2001) there would be supluses before debt would skyrocket again.
During the Reagan years debt went from 30% of GDP to nearly 60% of GDP. Private debt grew just as fast, and credit card debt began to grow (it was very low before 1980). Reagan’s rejection of the “malaise” of the 70s was straight from Michelob’s marketing department — we can have it all! Low taxes, less regulation, and more spending!
That was, unfortunately, the wrong direction to go. Working in DC for a Republican Senator in the early/mid 80s I recall hearing constantly how the deficit was not a problem. When told that during an economic boom one should keep surpluses in order to have money to stimulate the economy when the next bust comes, the response was predictable – counter cyclical funding was Keynesian demand-side economics. Laffer curve supply side economics was now the rage.
Others had a more Machiavellian view — increasing debt would “starve the beast,” making it impossible to continue liberal big government programs. Even as David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, resigned out of anger over the economic illogic of the increasing debt, the growing economy with low inflation caused most people to close their eyes and enjoy. It was the 80s, after all!
This decision is now haunts us. The ‘we can have it all’ response to the recession of the early eighties was really simply a refusal to accept reality — that the US had to structurally adjust to the changing global economy and the fact that the rest of the world was catching up. The post-war superiority that the US enjoyed after WWII was over, and the US needed to find ways to live within its means and make sure that commitments didn’t overwhelm capabilities. We didn’t necessarily need to pay off the debt we had, but keeping a 30% debt to GDP ratio would have been smart.
Instead the so called “conservative” economists of the Reagan-Bush administrations (and later the George W. Bush administration — in which Vice President Cheney boisterously proclaimed budget deficits to be irrelevant) opened the spigots and borrowed and spent even during a boom. As long as inflation didn’t rear its ugly head, they figured it was safe. Add to that the deregulatory fervor that even the Clinton Administration joined in, and the cheap credit to the public coming from the fed, and it was party time for thirty years! Borrow spend, carpe diem, living high, living fine on borrowed time!
Add to that the end of the Cold War and all was grand — we won the Cold War, the Soviets and communism lost, it was going to be an American led free market world… what could go wrong?
Ross Perot, a successful businessman and political gadfly, saw the problem and brought it front and center in the 1992 election. It appeared to push the parties towards fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately the US was beginning an advanced stage of economic decline, perpetrated by two sequential bubbles, the “dot.com” stock bubble and then the real estate bubble. The latter was driven by both a renewed bout of debt from 2002 onward, plus very cheap and easy credit thanks to a misguided federal reserve policy. The result is that when the bubbles burst and dust settled we see that de-regulation, tax cuts, and deficit spending gave us about a total debt of over 100% of GDP, an economy that relied on consumption more than production, and imbalances requiring a deep and long recession to repair.
Both parties share blame. Both mouthed a desire to balance the budget but neither made the hard choices it would take. Instead they reached the Great Republican and Democratic compromise – lower taxes and more spending, financed by debt.
Reagan can’t be blamed for all this – it took a long term bi-partisan effort to do so. However, if we had heeded Jimmy Carter’s prophetic warning and avoided the Michelob “you can have it all” mentality, we might instead have built a sustainable economy in the 80s, immune to oil shocks and banking crises. We took a wrong turn thirty years ago, and it’ll take at least another ten to get on the right path — assuming we start making better choices now!
Looking back at being part of the large “youth for Reagan” group in Detroit in 1980, being on the floor when Reagan accepted the nomination (they let a lot of us in despite lack of credentials in order to give television the image of lots of young people supporting Reagan), I don’t regret going. Reagan did inspire hope, and it was an amazing experience. I even traded a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin for a Maine lobster decal I’d carry all over on my photo case for over ten years, never dreaming I’d actually live in Maine (I’d never even been there). But unfortunately the hope was misplaced. Reagan’s borrow and spend approach bought short term prosperity at a long term cost. But to be fair, he couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t a bi-partisan effort.
(Note, this is part 8 of a series called “Quantum Life,” in which I post the contents of a strange ‘guide book’ I found for a game called “Quantum Life.” It is in English, which the book calls a “Quantum Life language,” unable to capture all thecomplexities of the world as it really is. I’m not sure where this book came from). If this reads very strange to those following my blog, click the link above and look at the basic premise of this series and earlier entries. Picking up where I left off, the next section is “Purpose and Meaning”:
PURPOSE AND MEANING
After childhood the player enters what is known in quantum life reality as adulthood. However, that is simply a term that reflects the physical development of the player in the quantum life world. In reality childhood is designed to prepare the player for challenges to be faced throughout the rest of any round of play (life). The most important component is purpose. Every quantum life player has a purpose. Many fulfill their purpose in childhood and their round ends. Most experienced players, however, have a variety of challenges beyond childhood.
Purpose is a hard term to define using a quantum life language like English. In essence it is the core reason for this round of play — a goal, a particular challenge or lesson the player wants to internalize so that it is carried over to future rounds of play. It gets associated with meaning in that a player is more attuned to their purpose when they experience life as meaningful. The two are linked in a very powerful way. Ideally the quest for meaning in life (or the sense of engaging in something meaningful) should keep people focused on their purpose.
That formula — using the measure of meaningfulness in life to tell if one is fulfilling ones’ purpose — sounds easy, and care is taken between rounds of play to try to make meaning as clear as possible. However, within the game itself there are a myriad of factors that either hide meaning for create a false sense of meaning, often completely misleading the player.
Two main obstacles emerge that can prevent a player from recognizing his or her true purpose. Inexperienced players often succumb to these obstacles despite care being taken between rounds to prepare them. The obstacles are culture and fear.
Culture refers to the set of meanings dominant in a round of play. (Note: here meaning simply refers to a shared understanding about a concept or idea – in quantum life languages words confusingly have multiple meanings!) Each player is “born into” a cultural world with customs, traditions and shared understandings that they are socialized to accept. These “cultures” vary vastly over time and place, and reflect the choices made by players. As such, culture is a product of the game which often has little connection with true reality.
One challenge for players is to become critical of how culture might prevent them from achieving their life purpose. Cultures can define groups of players as inferior, certain practices as morally right or wrong, and certain goals as acceptable and unacceptable. In some cases a player’s purpose requires opposition to the existing culture. That is a challenge often embraced by advanced players.
It’s hard to overstate the ease in which players can lose sight of their purpose and fall into the trap of being hypnotized by the culture world in which they find themselves. They may realize that “something is wrong” inside, or that their life is unfulfilling and lacks meaning, but their response can be to more tightly embrace the culture, hoping that conformity to the norms of the game will bring satisfaction. While numerous lessons and experiences can still be gleaned from such rounds of play, the true purpose of that round becomes hidden and the round is ultimately unsuccessful.
Another obstacle, one that often is connected to culture, is fear. As noted earliler in this guidebook, the core cause of fear is uncertainty. Players enter this world from a world where the connection of all with all is understood and embraced. Pure certainty of meaning is a key aspect of existence in the real world (again, these concepts are hard to convey in a quantum life language). In the game there is a sense of being alone and uncertain.
As an obstacle to be overcome, fear is first dealt with by living as an instinctive creature (an animal) or a human player in physical danger. Fear becomes a response to threats to survival in the world, and as such players learn to see it as a positive force, giving them strength and awareness when necessary. However, it takes practice to take that lesson and use it when fear is a response to uncertainty in the game, especially when a player doubts his or her own worth and meaning.
Rather than using fear as a source of strength players might submit more fully to the culture in which they find themselves. Cultural beliefs often seem to comfort uncertainty by positing a person as superior to other players (e.g., a superior gender, race, ethnic group or class). This can create an illusion of security but the disconnect between the player and his or her purpose generates deep discontent and dissatisfaction.
The result is a destructive downward spiral as players try ever harder to prove their own worth and value in the game-world, and increasingly find it unfulfilling as it is ever farther from their true purpose. Such actions can reinforce cultural norms that create obstacles for other players. This makes for some of the most difficult life lessons and experiences – a player may believe he or she is totally prepared for a meaningful round of play and then emerge having “wasted” a life on material pursuits or efforts to gain power over others.
These obstacles, however, are essential to the game. Overcoming fear and culture requires self-mastery. A player must be confident enough to reject conformity as a moral good, with no need to prove self-worth through comparison to or dominance over others. That is why the game is so popular — players learn to develop the certainty inherent in real world existence even without the ubiquitous real world connections. It is, however, a much more difficult task than most people realize.
(All for today – I’ll continue to transcribe this guidebook in future blog posts!)
It is well known that blacks and low income people vote disproportionately for the Democrats. Blacks are likely to support President Obama’s re-election by a 90% to 10% ratio. Facing a choice, the Republicans in many states have decided that rather than trying to win the vote, they’ll suppress it. In the modern equivalent of poll taxes they are passing laws forcing people to show voter ID to vote, limiting early voting, or putting other barriers in the way of exercising ones right to vote.
The most egregious example is in Pennsylvania where at least one Republican has made no secret of what the motive of the law is. House Majority leader Mike Turzai spoke enthusiastically if perhaps too honestly to supporters: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” he said, drawing applause. That’s the goal. Suppress enough Democratic votes so that the Republicans can gain the White House. If they can’t do it fairly, then twist the laws — cheat, in other words.
Estimates are that up to 43% of Philadelphia voters would not be able to vote according to this law. The Governor’s office says that “99%” of the citizens have appropriate ID, but that seems a number pulled out of thin air. Surveys and studies suggest that this law would disenfranchise the poor and minorities. Middle class (and clueless) whites (I myself am a middle class white, to be sure) often say “well, it’s easy to get a photo ID, you have to do that for just about anything.” First, that’s not true — James Holmes was able to amass a legal arsenal of weapons without needing to show a photo ID. Moreover the effort and time it takes is more costly and less likely to be endured by the poor and minorities.
Think of it – vast numbers of voters turned away at the polls for lack of ID. What would that do to the country? Would a Mitt Romney so elected ever be able to unify the country or even be seen as legitimate? It’s not like fraud’s a problem. Almost every study and estimate of voter fraud in the US show that it’s at record lows and almost non-existent. Political parties know that the cost of being caught acting fraudulently would pay a heavy price, it’s not worth it.
Up until this point such a tactic to try to steal an election has been something both parties have avoided. Since the voting rights act of the 60s the push has been to expand the voting base, recognizing that voters are more connected to the community and thus more likely to be productive members of society. If you vote, you’re less likely to be on welfare or unemployed. Voting is to be part of the civil society, you’re more likely to succeed if you vote.
Republican former Florida Governor Charlie Crist has called the suppression efforts of current Florida Governor Rick Scott “shameless,” noting that cutting early voting (especially Sunday when black churches often mobilized the vote) a clear effort to assure fewer people vote. The attack on minority voters and effort to win an election through suppression is the biggest threat to American democracy today. It is un-American and dangerous. It must be resisted, and if it shapes the election result, that result should not be respected. If suppression causes one person to be elected President instead of another, there should be an active and strong resistance, and politicians should do everything they can to thwart that person’s agenda. In this case only Mitt Romney stands to win on the basis of suppression.
That last statement is one of the sort I have never made. I’m a firm believer in cooperation and compromise between the two parties, and have argued with Democrats who have criticized President Obama’s pragmatic centrism. I believe that democracy is built on different sides “listening” to each other, and forging compromises neither side is completely comfortable with. That inability of one side to simply push its agenda into law is what makes democracy strong — we compromise, and we can undo anything we do. Up until now, I’ve criticized calls to see the other side as illegitimate — I was quick to recognize the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s 2000 election.
However, voter suppression crosses a line. It’s a fundamental threat to American democracy, and it’s inherently dishonest. The politicians pushing it KNOW that fraud is not a problem, and know that their goal is, as our “honest” Pennsylvania House Majority leader noted, simply an effort to stop minorities and the poor from voting. They fear they can’t win the election fair and square so they want to cheat. I honestly can’t believe the gall and disingenuous corruption behind these efforts. They have to be stopped.
Voter suppression measures have been passed in South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Pennsylvania, West Virgina, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Rhode Island. Legislation is pending in Ohio, Virginia and Minnesota. Only Maine has reversed such actions — overwhelmingly through a public referendum. All of these efforts have been driven by Republicans claiming, without evidence, that fraud is a problem. But nobody really believes that’s the driving force — they’re trying to suppress votes likely to go to the other side. The most dangerous cases involve swing states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
This is one issue that cannot be brushed aside. There can be no compromise. Voter suppression is anti-American, dangerous to democracy, and must be resisted. If it shapes an election outcome, that election should not be recognized as legitimate.
If the charge had been made in early 2002 it may have gained traction. Michelle Bachmann and others claimed that Huma Abedin should be investigated for possible links to Muslim Brotherhood. The warning: perhaps she and other Muslim “extremists” have infiltrated the highest ranks of the State Department and US government, putting the country in danger.
Bachmann had no evidence, and ultimately only could point to the fact that back in Saudi Arabia her late father had connections with people who had connections with people who were in an organization with connections with the Muslim Brotherhood. So clearly, she’s a threat. She also probably knows Kevin Bacon.
But in the emotion-laden post-9-11 days, just the hint of the fact a Muslim was high up in the State Department and could potentially be linked to extremists would have had the country atwitter. There probably would have been a series of calls for investigations and warnings of Muslim infiltration of the apparatus of the US government. Unfortunately for Bachmann her call came ten years too late — it was like warning of Communists in the State Department in 1963.
Instead Republicans from John McCain to Jim Sensenbrenner called Bachmann out for her outlandish claim, defending Abedin and noting that it was un-American to make such accusations based solely on her religion or vague ties of acquaintances of her family decades in the past. The Muslim Brotherhood itself professed puzzlement at the charge, noting that it’s having trouble infilitrating even the Egyptian government!
Hopefully this is a sign that the Islamophobia that seemed to grab the country in the 00’s has given way to recognition that Muslim Americans are not all would-be terrorists out to destroy the western way of life. Indeed, the Arab spring has shown Americans that Muslims in the Mideast want freedom and democracy as well.
Still, the fear remains. Behind Bachmann’s outrageous charge is a nefarious organization called the Center for Security Policy, headed by hard core neo-con Frank Gaffney, which has as its primary goal the promotion of a neo-conservative foreign policy. Such a policy seeks to spread American ideals through force if necessary, and sees any indigenous Islamic movement in the Mideast as dangerous. However, even Gaffney has to know that Abedin is no inside threat. What really bothers him and those who still cling to the neo-con dream of an American dominated Mideast is the fact that the US increasingly recognizes that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups in general are not the enemy. Indeed, they are important actors in moving the Islamic world towards modernism. Gaffney and those of his ilk would prefer we see any Islamic organization not overtly embracing western values as a threat.
During the era of knee jerk Islamophobia after 9-11 it was assumed that political Islam was all a variant of Osama Bin Laden’s ideology and al qaeda. Evidence for that claim could always be found using quotes of members of different organizations, even if the quotes were decades old and not aimed at the US. This led to support for a US effort to dominate the region to both bring in an American style democracy and have friendly regimes in control of Persian Gulf oil. That was considered the best way to undercut future terrorism. The Iraq war has shown that such a strategy was folly – it didn’t work and was based on false premises.
Now, however, a more nuanced view dominates. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have a wide range of views, and some quotes and ideas do sound radical. That’s to be expected given the oppression and violence used against them by dictatorial regimes in the past. But these organizations are evolving in a reality where politics is becoming more open. They are no longer just a small group competing against powerful corrupt regimes, but have become a large organization needing public support to try to remake the politics of the region.
As such there is no reason to expect them to be hostile to the US and the West, so long as we are not hostile to them. Indeed, it is in our interest to cultivate a solid relationship with such groups to help them make the transition from being on the outside fringe to governing. This isn’t a new process either. Ever since Robert Michel put forth his view on the “iron law of oligarchy” in 1911, it’s been well known that radical groups moderate when they become part of the system. The Greens in Germany, for instance, went from being radical pacifists and anti-NATO/anti-growth to being part of a German government that fought in Kosovo and embraced pro-market policies to increase growth and competitiveness in Germany.
The neo-cons and other fear mongers will point to parties like the Nazis in Germany and say “see, they didn’t moderate.” But there is no reason to expect the Muslim Brotherhood or other such organizations to behave that way – quite the opposite, in fact.
Change in the Arab world will be gradual, a culture dominated by Ottoman style repression and dictatorship for 700 years doesn’t blossom into a stable functioning democracy overnight. Some states like Saudi Arabia have yet to start the inevitable transition. But with the almost universal rejection of the McCarthy like Islamophobic “warning” of Michelle Bachmann, there is cause to believe that the US can be a positive influence in assisting change, working with a variety of groups in the Mideast to develop a path to democracy rather than fearing our lack of control over the process.
One of the frustrating aspects of this election is how the right has used the rhetoric of “class war” to try to make it seem like the Democrats are anti-wealth. Using terms like “envy, jealousy” or even a charge that Obama and the left “hate the rich,” they paint a picture of a bunch of snarling socialists angry that they couldn’t succeed and plotting to take the wealth hard working Americans struggled to create.
Of course, that’s so far from reality as to be laughable. Unfortunately when hundreds of millions of dollars, scores of pundits and even the most popular news network in the country amplifies and promotes such rhetoric, it’s easy for reality to get lost in the noise.
It is not bad to be rich. It is good, honorable and worthy of praise to work hard, take chances, succeed and then be able to provide well for your family. It’s also impressive and good for the economy to have icons like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs who may earn more than they’d ever need, but do so having contributed greatly to what this country has become. Their individual efforts are a great part of the collective good that America has achieved.
However, what people don’t like is injustice. Not a whiney “it’s unfair that the CEO gets $4 million and I work hard and only get $60,000.” Yeah, that may contain a lot of unfairness when looked at the level of abstract morality, but given the way the system operates it’s often a necessary and even beneficial unfairness. By injustice I mean a real sense that some people are able to bend and even shape the rules of the game to their advantage in a manner that harms others and the country as a whole.
One reason people supported Barack Obama in 2008 was due to a belief that something had gone very wrong in the US. Jobs flowed overseas, the middle class dwindled, and Wall Street engineered an inside job that, while barely legal (and sometimes not) hurled the global economy deep into crisis. They hoped an outsider with a vision of change could shake up the institutions and resurrect the American dream.
Four years later people realize that the idea one man could do that was naive. The way his efforts to compromise and find middle ground were rejected by a Republican leadership bent on reclaiming power made things worse, but given that this is a global crisis, the Democrats are wrong to say GOP obstructionism is why there hasn’t been more improvement. Crises like these are driven by forces beyond the control of even governments. A rebalancing of the global economy takes time.
The problem with Romney and the GOP agenda is that it’s backwards looking. It seeks to resurrect the deregulatory mentality of the last thirty years and trust the markets. And while there are a large number of people committed to that free market ideology, the arguments to support it are meager. The evidence is strong that de-regulation failed, and that tax cuts lead not to more jobs but to chasing bubbles. The growing gap between the very rich and the rest is impossible to ignore.
Rather than recognize that the free market alone can’t solve this crisis, the GOP so far has doubled down on ideology. The only way they can pull it off is to wage class war – to say it’s the Democrats and the “poor” against Republicans and freedom. A class war rallying cry that the Democrats represent the takers, while the Republicans represent the makers. A simple dichotomy where you can’t choose rational regulation and an overhaul of the tax code with both sides compromising. No, compromise seems to be seen as capitulation. It’s either you choose socialism and envy of the wealthy or freedom and praise of the rich.
That’s a false dichotomy consisting of two bad choices. Socialism doesn’t work, big government is dangerous, and very few Democrats want to tax the rich into oblivion. Indeed, all but the most radical tax hike proposals still leave rates below where Ronald Reagan fought to put them back in the early eighties. Rather, the argument is: 1) the wealthy have benefited disproportionately over the last 30 years and need to help pay for trimming the deficit; and 2) the wealthy benefit greatly from the way their lobbyists have rewritten the tax code and created the capacity to pay a far smaller share of their income than do average middle class folk.
Point two is the most salient, and that’s why Romney’s tenure at Bain and his tax documents are very important. They illustrate the point Obama is making — that the system is structured against the middle class in favor of the very wealthy. The very wealthy are not suffering. Pointing that out isn’t class war, trying to protect unjust structural attributes that benefit one group over another is.
The Democrats have to be clear: wealth is not bad. After alll, many very wealthy, successful people support the Democrats. Steve Jobs supported President Obama, as does Warren Buffet. We need a system that truly rewards innovation and hard work, not lobbying efforts and inside information. We need to produce stuff, not bizarre financial instruments with the capacity to obliterate credit markets.
Mitt Romney famously said that corporations are people. Well, so is government. Both big corporate actors and big government represent centralized power with the capacity and information to do things that most average folk can’t do. But governments are supposed to act according to the will of the people with rule of law as the goal; corporations act by the will of the shareholders with profit the goal. Governments shouldn’t be in bed with corporations because the power of those two together shove out average folk and the middle class.
When that happens politics just becomes what the Romans called panem et circenses — bread and circuses. Make sure the people are fed and have some spectacle to jolt their emotions. Gladiator games or talk radio. Chariot races or talking heads screaming at each other on CNN. True accountability disappears; democracy is replaced by marketing. If we go that route we’ll fall deeper into crisis while, as Don Henley put it:
Ah, it’s open season here my friend
It always is; it always has been
Welcome, welcome to the U.S.A.
We’re partying fools in the autumn of our heyday
And though we’re running out of everything
We can’t afford to quit
Before this binge is over
We’ve got to squeeze off one more hit
We’re workin’ it
We’ve got a whole new class of opiates
To blunt the stench of discontent
In these corporation nation-states
Where the loudest live to trample on the least
They say it’s just the predatory nature of the beast
But, the barons in the balcony are laughing
And pointing to the pit
They say, “Aw look, they’ve grown accustomed to the smell
Now, people love that shit
And we’re workin’ it.”
We got the short-term gain, the long-term mess
We got the suffocating, quarterly consciousness
Yes man, run like a thief
– Don Henley, “Working It” from Inside Job
(Note, this is part 7 of a series called “Quantum Life,” in which I post the contents of a strange ‘guide book’ I found for a game called “Quantum Life.” It is in English, which the book calls a “Quantum Life language,” unable to capture all thecomplexities of the world as it really is. I’m not sure where this book came from). If this reads very strange to those following my blog, click the link above and look at the basic premise of this series and earlier entries. Picking up where I left off, the next section is “Childhood”:
In a nutshell, the goal of childhood in the game Quantum Life is to create an identity in this round of play (lifetime) that reflects the player’s personality and experience, and engages the chosen environment (era, culture, etc.) effectively. A successful childhood yields a player who, while not understanding he or she is in a game, recognizes that through choice he or she is fundamentally in control of the life experience. Moreover a successful childhood yields a player who intuitively understands and can use the myriad of connections and shared experiences to learn and grow.
Childhood is the most pure experience of the game, with stronger connections to past experiences than any other time. This makes it an exuberant part of life, or one in which great resiliency and surprising strength can be shown. Nonetheless many players spend multiple “lives” simply trying to get through childhood successfully before attempting adulthood. Others choose obstacles in particular lives (illness, injury, a different perspective on reality often seen as mental illness within the game) to work on particular challenges. Relatively new players to the game often choose to leave at or near the end of childhood. By age 17 almost all “psychic” connections are fully subconscious and operate invisibly.
As with any “life,” different experiences are chosen for diverse reasons. Almost always the parent-child dynamic is important. At the age of 3 or 4 the child first leaves the protection of extremely close contact with and understanding of true reality. Sometimes this corresponds to a point of trauma. Many people want to experience a particular kind of lesson in life, and trauma at that point can be life shaping – it sets up a more rigid set of probabilities, conditions a player is less likely to veer away from. Those who experience trauma of some sort at an early age will find that experience (losing a parent or sibling, having a life changing injury, etc.) a part of their entire life and identity. Traumas throughout childhood play a similar role; their influence is strongest at age 3 or 4 when the child emerges from its deeper connection with true reality.
Even without major trauma, a key role of childhood is identity construction. Since each game or “life” requires the player to don a new personality, childhood is when the ground work for doing this happens:
1. Relation to others. Early on children are completely dependent on others for material survival. Between birth and age 5 the relationship to the parents determines the ease players will have in trusting and opening themselves to others. Players have considerable control over this, as these ages are the easiest to plan with the game counselor. For various reasons some players might want to overcome the challenge of having a lack of trust for others, or perhaps help their parents learn lessons about the consequences of their actions.
For example, two players between games may decide that one has a real problem with patience and empathy. Another player may choose to enter the game as a child with a major handicap in order to try to force the problem player to work on those traits.
2. Confidence. Confidence in life is an important goal of the game, but it has to be learned. Early in childhood this involves asserting ones’ will, defying authority, and even “temper tantrums.” This can be countered by ideas of shame and outside control by parents or an existing culture. Depending on goals and challenges to be faced, players may want to have low confidence as an obstacle to be overcome. Other times poor choices by parents limit the confidence and increase the shame in a player. Many players play multiple rounds (lives) primarily to practice developing or fostering confidence in the roles of parent or child.
3. Action. After age 11 players also learn how to take action in the world and achieve results. Toys and games are particularly important, as are relationships with others. Players model out actions and possibilities, preparing themselves for the choices adulthood will require. This is integrated with the goal of confidence building: low confidence action can inspire guilt, high confidence connects action with initiative.
4. Understanding. Throughout childhood players are acquiring knowledge about their new environment at a tremendous pace and learning how the world — the quantum life game reality — works. Learning in the game is a communal endeavor, not something the player achieves completely on his or her own. This understanding of the world takes place on many levels — causal understanding of how things happen in a “material” world, as well as determining what kinds of things have value for the players.
5. Taking Control. As players near adulthood the primary goal is to take control of ones’ life and take responsibility for the choices made and their consequences. Players should be comfortable with the identity they have constructed for themselves at this point. For many players, especially new ones, this is a daunting task which must be attempted multiple times before success. Even seasoned players may fail, making adulthood very difficult.
The two goals of childhood seem straight forward: a) accept and be happy with the identity they have constructed, and b) to take control and accept responsibility for ones’ life choices and path. Yet numerous obstacles stand in the way, despite the closer connections with reality. This is a necessary consequence of “forgetting” past rounds of the game. Moreover, for all the difficulties and opportunities that “adult” players endure, childhood remains the most important and difficult (if also joyful) stages of the game.
Finally, the tasks listed above accumulate over rounds of play. A player who has mastered the notion of control and identity acceptance will have an easier time doing so in future rounds. These differences appear in the quantum life game as differences in personality or temperament. Extremely advanced players often choose to experience childhood in difficult ways in order to help less advanced players who may be their parents or otherwise connected with their life.
(OK, enough transcribing for today! I’ll post more from this intriguing ‘handbook’ latter on!)
Sounding very much my age, I was talking to my kids about what photography was like when I was young. The idea of not seeing the picture right away seemed odd to them, as did the notion of developing film. I got out my old camera to show the boys and let them see how it feels/looks. I tried to explain how you had to try to get the right shot at the start since it was expensive to develop film. They learned to change the lens, focus (they’ve only used autofocus), and how film worked. They attached the flash and played with that. I tried to explain all the complex settings on the camera and the flash. While they were interested, it was obviously a relic to them. I may as well have been explaining Gutenberg’s printing press.
One thing about my generation is that we’ve seen a large range of technological change. I still remember dial phones, black and white pre-cable TV and adding machines with a pull handle. When I was a kid flash cameras had these nifty little flash cubes. Each cube had four flashes (one on each side) and the camera would turn the cube a quarter way each time. That means you didn’t have to replace a flash bulb with every picture.
I’m not sure when it was, perhaps my first year of college, but I decided I wanted to get a real camera. One where you could control the shutter speed, set it for different film speeds, determine how much light you wanted to let in, and replace lenses for long range or wide angle.
I already had a Polaroid, which despite giving instant pictures, was low quality. I still have some in my old albums – a lefse making project in northern South Dakota and pictures of friends. But as I saw the kinds of photos others were taking I realized I wanted something better.
So at K-Mart on the east side of Sioux Falls I bought a Yashica for about $100 (in today’s money that’s about $200). It was nice, but I soon became dissatisfied and bought the Minolta shown above. It cost nearly $300, which was a major investment for a college kid!
I learned to be very good with that camera. I could frame the shot exactly how I wanted, adjust for different kinds of lighting, play with different settings, and as soon as I clicked the camera the picture was taken, exactly as it looked in the view finder. If I set the shutter speed high enough on a sunny day I could get someone running full speed to look perfectly still — no blurrs.
The camera case is a story in and of itself. Given the politics I present in this blog it my shock readers to find out that in college I was a college Republican (even South Dakota state PR Director), and I went to the national convention in Detroit that nominated Ronald Reagan in 1980. I was even on the convention floor when Reagan gave his acceptance speech. With me was my Minolta camera of course.
But at Eastern Michigan University where we “Reagan youth” were housed, a party atmosphere was the norm. I hung out with two girls from Maine (I don’t recall their names), and traded a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin (at least 6″ in diameter) for a little Maine lobster sticker which I put on my case.
I would carry that camera case with me for the next decade – always with the symbol of Maine, even though I’d never been there and had no clue that I would end up living here. An omen?
I lived in Bologna, Italy for a year attending Johns Hopkins SAIS. I’d travel to visit friends in Germany, taking the overnight express train to Munich through the Brenner pass (trying to sleep in the compartments – . The villages there were picturesque in the Alps, and I made sure to take a day train once just to get photos. Two nuns were in the compartment and pointed out photo opportunities. Even though it was from a train chugging through the Alps one of the photos was so good that my parents had it framed. With that camera, it was easy to take an excellent photo.
The last year I really put the camera to use has a sad ending — it was the year I lived in Germany. First, the camera started to have mechanical problems and didn’t work well. Second, I decided not to develop my film in Germany because it was much cheaper to develop it in the US. So I packed the film and other things in a box and mailed it to my US address. The box never arrived. Dozens of rolls of film from a year in Germany gone.
Then digital photography came. At first I hated it. There was always a pause between when you pushed the button and when the picture got taken — or a pause afterwards as it stored it. I found I lost my ability to take good pictures.
I finally have a digital camera I can use — a Fuji Finepix. It has a real camera feel (though light), but at a cost of $200 it’s still far lower quality than my old Minolta. I find my Iphone can take good pictures. Meanwhile Minolta and Yashica are both out of business, and rather than striving for a few quality photos to save film now people snap numerous photos figuring the law of averages will give them a couple really good ones.
High end digital cameras are becoming as easy to use as the old film cameras — easy as in taking instant shots and being able to manipulate settings. And the fact that photos are now “free” – once you buy the camera and the storage card you can take as many as you want and download them – is definitely an improvement on film. After the experience of my lost German photos, I certainly like being able to download and save them!
And though society belongs to the youth, I count it as one blessing of getting older as having the memory of things like taking photos with my old Minolta.
Campaigns have been becoming more expensive, more vicious, and more ridiculous over the past half century. They have ceased to be “great debates” about the issues of the day, but marketing campaigns where both sides deal in sound bites and tested scripts. Veer from the script and say something wrong and you risk being accused of a ‘gaffe.’ Gaffes are dangerous, and politicians try to avoid them.
Of course, if we ever looked at a transcript of our day to day conversations, we’d uncover gaffes all over. But we’re not candidates. Human error and carelessness — something we all possess — becomes a sign of something nefarious and weak. More important than that, political campaigns have become marketing campaigns where the end product increasingly has little or nothing to do with the campaign itself.
Every candidate now has websites where his or her campaign promises and positions are posted. They have to — that’s part of the marketing campaign, you have to show voters that you have serious proposals and substance. What that substance is results from a serious effort to determine what will impress the voters. Candidates know that once they are in office they cannot be held to anything they said before. The reason is that parties block each other, and President Obama, for instance, can easily say “if the Republicans didn’t obstruct I’d be able to do whatever I wanted and deliver.”
Still, Mitt Romney’s ability to be all things to all people with no clear core makes him the pinnacle of this evolution. He is the post-modern candidate, a man whose positions and speeches mean nothing except to play their role in the marketing campaign that is a Presidential election.
Back in 2008 I noted this trend (citing the Joe McGinniss book ‘The Selling of the Presidency’ about the Nixon campaign in 1968), and how the Obama campaign had gone further than anyone treating it as an exercise in marketing. Romney has taken it yet another step further. We don’t really know where Romney stands, except that he’ll take the stance necessary to try to get elected.
Another aspect of his post-modern flavor is not only don’t we know what he truly believes at core, but he is very secretive about his past, his financial affairs and even it seems when he left Bain Capital. Apparently he has a Swiss bank account, other off shore accounts (or at least had them) and doesn’t want to release old tax returns or other details about his life. The latest controversy about when he left Bain is a case in point.
He claims to have left in 1999 when he went to head the Olympics. Yet documents show he was listed as CEO until 2002, and there are other reports of his involvement. His campaign’s reaction? To angrily denounce the accusations as they admit that “technically he was still the owner.” Technically?
Some believe that “Baingate” could severely damage the Romany candidacy. If it does come out that he lied, it could be an albatross around his neck through November. Even if the issue fades, it adds to the way the Obama campaign wants to define Romney, and distracts from the arguments Romney is making.
The upside of being a post-modern candidate is that if people don’t really know you or where you stand, you can create a persona and take whatever positions are most beneficial to your quest. The down side is that it becomes easier for people to imagine the worst. In a campaign you don’t control the narrative, it’s a competition.
I suspect I do know Romney’s core. The hundreds of millions of dollars big donors are giving PACs to run a slash and burn negative campaign against Obama give a hint: he’s supported by the business and financial elites who see in him someone who will protect their privilege and profits. He’s probably a decent man of privilege, believes he knows what’s best for the country, and govern pragmatically. He’s known for having no qualms about being as ruthless as possible to defeat an opponent, and for saying whatever necessary to get elected.
Recently I was on a flight back from Germany with a group of students. I sat next to a friendly woman, probably in her sixties, who was returning from France. The three of us in that row had a conversation which was mostly not about politics. At one point though she said, “I don’t see how any one can think someone making $300,000 is rich. You take the property taxes and other costs, it’s middle class.”
I didn’t want an argument so I simply said, “well, only about 2.5% of the population earn that or better.” She switched topics saying only, “yeah, sometimes we forget there is a whole country between the coasts.” She was a nice woman, but apparently doesn’t really understand the reality outside her socio-economic group. Romney is like that as well – the conventional wisdom of the elite is his conventional wisdom, and if it takes shifting positions and skewering opponents with attack ads to get the Presidency, then it’s the game he’ll play.
He even looks and acts the part. Handsome but boring. Getting lots of money but generating little adoration. He hopes if he says the right things, takes the right positions and attacks and outspends his opponent he’ll get the job he deep down knows he deserves. Then he will serve the people. Noblesse oblige.
Republican rhetoric has become hyperbolic. If you listen to RNC Chair Reince Prebius last weekend he said that people had to vote Republican to save America. Here in Maine Governor Paul LePage blasted the Supreme Court health care ruling by claiming it makes the IRS “the Gestapo.” Others lament the “loss of freedom” or even the “end of America.” Apparently the Democrats are a threat to the country and we need a single party state. Even in the emotion of an election year such hyperbolic rhetoric is striking.
One of the most important things for the vibrance and success of democracy is acceptance of the necessity and importance of opposing parties. When people believe only ones’ own party fit to govern and that the other will destroy the country, then democracy is threatened. From that perspective, this rhetoric is startling.
However, it’s not new. Talk like this emerged in the early nineties with Bill Clinton as the target. The “draft dodging womanizing child of the sixties” was regarded by many as the most dangerous President ever. He tried to allow gays to serve openly in the military, pushed for universal health care, and was branded an anti-American dangerous narcissist who had to be stopped. It’s easy to forget how frothy the far right got over Clinton.
While the “strangeness” of Obama to many on the right (he’s black, grew up overseas, flirted with radical ideas as a student) explains part of the hyperbole, it’s more than that. As with Clinton it’s a reaction to a cultural shift that has been building for decades. Demography is against this reactionary nostalgia, at least in the long term.
This assault on the cultural change that has been building in the US has two components. One is an attack by the economic elites. They seek to equate freedom for large corporate actors to evade oversight and regulation with freedom for the average person to live their life unencumbered. It is a false convergence, but one that many on the right have internalized. It became extremely popular amongst working class whites, people who earlier had been likely to vote Democratic.
This created a quandary for the Democrats, which Clinton “solved” by essentially siding with Wall Street and the economic elites in order to get as much as he could for his agenda. Given the appearance of economic success (we know now that high debt levels in the eighties and bubble economies created an illusion of success) he had little choice — the conservative narrative was dominant.
After 9-11 and the Bush years this narrative took a dramatic twist. Suddenly America was under attack both from within (the left wanting to “tear down freedom”) and without (Islamic extremists). This siege mentality grew. A decorated war hero like John Kerry was ‘swiftboated’ and demonized for being elitist. For awhile any critical utterance was punished – the Dixie Chicks were boycotted, Bill Maher fired, and the Attorney General told people to “watch what they say.”
That view of America under assault still resonates on the right. The economic crisis (caused by the policies started in the early eighties and continued for nearly thirty years), the rise of someone like Barack Obama, and the changing social scene creates a sense of doom.
An emotional mix of themes – the memory of 9-11, a knee jerk defense of big business while condemning big government, and a nostalgia for a time when values were not so much in flux create an almost paranoid belief that it’s Obama and the Democrats to blame for everything, and it’s them who threaten freedom.
Fortunately for the Democrats, this isn’t universal. Minorities don’t share that sense of doom over change – most of them did poorly under the old rules, and welcome change. Whites are split. Working class and less educated whites are more likely to feel that fear, but the youth and well educated whites tend to support Obama. The reality is that the ‘save America’ line has limited appeal. It’s strong enough to have taken over the GOP, but not strong enough to take the country. Maine’s bombastic Governor LePage won with 39% of the vote, if the progressives hadn’t split the vote by running a strong independent alongside a weak Democrat he would not have made it.
This also means a lot of conservatives are wearing blinders. So convinced that it’s obvious that Obama and the Democrats mean the destruction of all we value, they believe it’s almost inevitable that others will agree and come around to vote him out of office. How could they not? In their minds the Democrats want to create a dependent culture with government largesse giving bureaucrats and politicians control over peoples’ lives. It’s an fantastical mix of Orwell and Huxley – scarey!
But it’s not true. In fact, the growth of dominant power by the big business using campaign contributions, lobbying and inside connections to essentially get government in their pocket has been the real threat to our freedom – a threat not seen by many who simply define freedom as freedom from government. The real threat to traditional American values comes from the declining middle class, and increasingly large number of people at or near poverty. Yes, poverty in America is far more comfortable than even above average wealth in third world countries, but in relative terms it weakens the fabric of society.
And many Americans get that. That’s why Obama still leads in the polls, that’s why his argument resonated so well in 2008. It’s only the economy that renders him at all vulnerable – and with the whole world caught in economic crisis it’s hard to say that Obama could have magically fixed things by now.
But the Democrats don’t have the answers either. America functions best when the two parties have to compromise – and that requires a Republican party that is able to work both with and against the Democrats, not just against. The current economic crisis needs a transformation in how the US government operates — neither party alone can achieve it. Solving these problems requires the Right to recognize that America of 2012 is very different than America of 1982 or 1952. The future cannot be lived in the past.