Posts Tagged 'belief systems'

Notes On A Foreign Country

I don’t very often publish book reviews but in this case I believe this book to be of great value to anyone trying to make sense of where our country is going.

Review – Notes On A Foreign Country

The sub-title of Suzy Hansen’s “Notes On A Foreign Country” is “An American Abroad in a Post-American World” and that is the story in a nut-shell. Having worked abroad myself for several years I was eager to read what someone else had to say about the experience. What I encountered forced me to look back on my time working in Eastern Europe and I didn’t like what I saw. Ms Hansen is unrelenting in her pursuit of the truth and the clarity of her demeanor and expectations. In short, both she and I and no doubt many others, prima fascia, take American superiority in all matters for granted except perhaps cuisine.

Hansen moved herself to Turkey to experience living full-time in a foreign country following the September 11th attacks. She was then writing for the New York Times Magazine and decided to move to a Muslim populated country to better understand the culture of the Middle East, that country was Turkey. While residing in Turkey she traveled extensively to other countries in that part of the world – Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. She came, by virtue of her travels and unrelenting introspection, to a better understanding of herself and the United States. What she saw clearly were the assumptions many of us make as Americans working and living abroad.

The first challenge that came to mind for this reader is the belief that the United States leads the world in technology, education, military strength, social equity, and in other respects. It came as a great revelation to Ms Hansen that others do not perceive us that way. What she learned is that the influence and reputation of this country is in decline if not bottomed out. One has only to consider the ongoing futility of our military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to appreciate that assessment. And, not only futility but the mind-boggling waste of American lives and national treasure in ventures that have no realistic purpose or definable conclusion. How, for example, can we consider ourselves superior as a society when ours is virtually the only industrialized free market country in the world that does not provide universal free health care?

Hansen’s descriptions of place and people are vivid and intelligent as are her reflections on herself as an actor in a world different from how she was raised and educated. She discovers the disillusionment with the United States of people in the places she visits. She sees how Americans are generally fully convinced of theirs and their country’s superiority as they fail to understand and respect other countries, their people, and their customs. This attitude engenders resentment and a closing down which stands in the way of meeting as equals. We are international missionaries for our life style, our mores, and our technology. We take our values to those whose own values and methodologies are presumed to be inferior to ours.

All of this brought to mind a Polish aphorism, “Koniec nie vidac!” The end is not seen, cannot be seen. We must wonder if perhaps that is the idea, the ultimate purpose, that there be no end to the pursuit of wars around the globe, they are just too profitable to end. And, as we wonder, you may rest assured that others in other countries are thinking the same thoughts.

This is a personal book well written and valuable. This is also an important book with which to disabuse yourself of U.S. Power, popularity, and influence in a world now made crazy and unstable in the “Time of Trump” who himself probably could not find a majority of the involved countries on a map.  I recommend it highly if, for no other reason, than for perspective on this country. My hat is off to Ms Hansen who now makes her home in Turkey.

NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY

An American Abroad in a Post-American World

Farrar, Straus  and Giroux

A Pacifier Nation and Governance by Chaos – or – How To Destroy a Social Contract.

This is the first installment of several on the American Social Contract.

Here is a perfect example of the kind of mentality we are dealing with. This is a quotation from Donald Rumsfeld justifying war in Iraq:

Donald Rumsfeld famously argued with regard to the WMD question in Iraq, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” 

How many times does it have to be said? How much more clearly can it be articulated? But, I’ll  say it once again, this centuries old accumulated wisdom …. – The greatest human problem, the most destructive and most powerful force in the human experiential universe is greed with fear running a close second!  It is fear that is most often exploited by demagogues claiming to speak for the voiceless masses expressing their fears, their anger, and without fail, their prejudices against perceived “enemies” such as all those immigrants “stealing” their good jobs. It would no doubt be sold as “America First”.  … in 1938, a New York Times reporter warned: “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.” No mention will be made, of course, that those stolen good jobs were actually shipped to countries where wages are low and benefits non-existent. No discussion will ensue about how all of this belies the fact that a once believed in social contract has been dismantled and effectively destroyed. The so-called American Dream has fast become the American Nightmare.

What exactly is a Social Contract and how does a society acquire one? All societies including totalitarian states have a social contract both explicit and implicit, written and unwritten, enforced and unenforced. Social contracts cover anything and everything from attire, to diet, to religious practice, to driving on a particular side of the road. In some societies the origins of their contract provisions are lost in time having evolved without record but are manifest in the present.

The social standing of women, castes, races, ethnicities, regional inhabitants are all aspects of social contracts as they occur around the world and within nations. Some are decided by vote others by imposition and carried on by secular or religious tradition or custom. The actors assemble under a variety of banners from Marxism to neoliberalism and always with the same objectives – to limit personal freedom and to delimit individual behavior thus defining a contract.

I have been studying the Social Contract for more 30 years out of an interest that evolved from my teaching a course at Madison titled “Schools and Society”. The motivating question at that time was: Why do societies put so much effort and treasure into teaching the young from kindergarten through university and college? And now, why today, has the United States, a country that has had an enviable system of public education since its founding, why now attack public education from all quarters? I recently saw a Gallup poll that found that more than half of those surveyed were dissatisfied with public schools.

(To be continued.)

Winning and Lying

I recently read a long essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine about a young lady, Noura Jackson, who spent nine years in jail because of prosecutorial bad behavior. In this woman’s case exculpatory evidence was withheld at trial and from the defense. When that evidence was uncovered and revealed the woman was released. Ultimately, the prosecutor and her staff were exonerated. Imagine yourself with nine years of your life unjustly spent behind bars and the people who deliberately perpetrated this outrage got off free. Law and order? Justice? I don’t think so. It is, in fact, more like rewarding pathological lying.

The ethos that caused this young lady to lose those nine years of her life is pervasive in both criminal and civil courts. The base cause of callous disregard for Justice is, as I see it, the national American fixation with winning at all costs and Truth be damned. In fact, the compulsion to win seems to have infected the entirety of our society with damaging effects to trust and civility. In civil cases incentive is provided by insurance companies who pay lawyers to beat back claims to “win” regardless of facts, regardless of damage or injury. It isn’t only a matter of insurance company lawyers pursuing claimants but also plaintiffs’ lawyers who sue businesses for claimed injuries to person or property under questionable circumstances and find sympathetic juries to award damages. In both instances what we have is an assault on truth and the social contract by lawyers. This aberration and negation of justice will continue for as long as lawyers are paid to “win”. They “win” and society loses.

The American ethos of relentless competition and winning is impressed on children practically from the day they are born as parents compare birth weights, the first time on the potty, and cheer passionately at little league ball games. Cooperation is regarded as “Socialist” and it is well on its way to being declared unAmerican. Our reigning president constantly touts himself as a “winner” because he knows the idea resonates with his base. According to him everything he touches “wins” and his fans hang on every utterance basking in his success and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice becoming vicarious “winners” themselves. This “winning” administration is working with the Republicans in Congress to make cuts to education, health care, social security, food stamps, Medicaid,  disability benefits, unemployment benefits, the National Institutes of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the list is long and, if they are successful, the inflicted pain and social disruption will be widespread. Yes, indeed. Step right up folks – everyone’s going to be a “winner”.

Once those cuts to government programs are in place and the savings awarded to billionaires as tax breaks what will be left for those social programs the general public depends on so much? People will be “great” and simultaneously diminished. The winners will be losers. The cutting sword cuts both ways. There is a pathology to this. In fact this pathology is the working definition of sociopathy: “… a disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” The populist “will of the people” has become the 21st century equivalent of phlogiston, the 17th Century magical ingredient, making everything add up regardless of “facts”. Who needs facts, who needs truth if you’re a “winner”?

In the face of what is being said and promised by our new president and what is actually taking place we must wonder about pathological lying and why people who are most injured by those lies vote for the liars. These people are voting against their own best interests, they are living in some kind of alternate universe fueled by resentment and anger. I read an interview recorded at a rally with an enthusiastic Trump supporter and it went as follows: I’m distrustful of most politicians, usually. They say almost anything. At least this administration is doing something. Whether it’s too fast, or outside of already in-place procedures, I really don’t know.” When asked to name an example of something that is “being done” the happy voter was at a loss, he couldn’t name one thing. In spite of or maybe because of, all this America is, at last, “winning” and on its way to regaining its lost “greatness”. Winning in this society has become a meta-political illusion, a dream world, that rationalizes political and lawyerly anti-social behavior as “greatness”. It’s a head scratcher all right. It’s a con game and our tattered social contract is being taken to the cleaners.

The “transmission belts” Of Misinformation

I feel blessed that I am no longer responsible for launching an ICBM as I was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when John F. Kennedy was president and I do not envy those charged with that responsibility now. I trusted JFK to comprehend the enormity of launching even one nuclear weapon and basing any decision on clear reasoning and facts. I cannot even imagine trusting Donald Trump — he of the “alternative facts.” 

The world has heard alternative facts before, fed to receptive audiences by dictators on the rise. Hannah Arendt’s,  “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, is a primer for those wanting to understand how the democratic process unwinds from seemingly harmless origins and feeds on discontent. 

As techniques of government, the totalitarian devices appear simple and ingenious and effective. They assure not only an absolute power monopoly, but unparalleled certainty that all commands will always be carried out; the multiplicity of the transmission belts, the confusion of the hierarchy, secure the dictator’s complete independence from all his inferiors and make possible the swift and surprising changes in policy for which totalitarianism has become famous.

Trump’s alternative facts are the “transmission belts” of conflicting information that cause confusion and uncertainty.  We are directed to fear people we don’t know, have never met, and about whose culture and beliefs we know very little.  Throughout history there have always been necessary “others” to be pointed at, to be vilified and held responsible for popular discontent. We are told we are the victims of “others” and we marshal our resources against the onslaught of otherness, whoever those others may be.  The taxonomy of “otherness” is vast — color, ethnicity, language, social class, a foreign accent, whether a person is rural or urban, religion of course, national origin, occupation, age, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation.  The list is long and ever growing. You might even find yourself on the list — one never knows.

History has shown us this process before, the slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. This transformation has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of the public wanting to be saved from whatever. Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed, discredited, and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The so-called “elites”, whoever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people, while the true elites remain out of sight.

The world has been down this path many times before — we should know it by heart. Alternative facts are disseminated, cronies rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated are the most susceptible to pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who, without ethical or moral commitment to the truth, prey with a simplistic vocabulary. The target of those whirlwinds of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of a foundational social contract.

Our country has become a theater where politicians mouth carefully scripted, democracy-drenched syntax and promises all the while doing their best to deny voting rights and marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions. In Congress efforts are being initiated to undo banking rules, Social Security, health care, and other social programs. Meanwhile, the president cries “fake news” at anything that contradicts the alternative version of reality he is spinning for his followers. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The messengers of the press are vilified and perforce people don’t know what or who to believe. The inevitable confusion ensuing from all of the above lays the groundwork for social discord — fertile ground for a dictator to offer delusionary comfort via social control.

 

Would you obey an ICBM launch order from such a commander in chief akin to the commando raid in Yemen? You say, “It couldn’t happen here.” Don’t be so sure.

The Notion of Democracy

Democracy in the United States has become notional, perhaps it has always been this way and we simply haven’t noticed. Our beliefs are always either evolving or devolving, always changing with the times, and eventually delivering less than what has been promised. A version of death by a thousand cuts  or what is aptly described as “creeping normality”. All the trappings of the real thing are there but behind the red-white and blue bunting lies another story. That story is the devolution from the principles of democracy to populism and its evil cousin, neoliberalism. Our long history of mistreatment of minorities especially minorities of color, for example, exposes many of the contradictions. But since our founding, it is the firm grip of wealth on political processes that invariably influences political and social outcomes. The notion of democracy stands for the reality of capitalism, the greatest social zero-sum game ever invented.

It isn’t that wealth has had more seats at the table than the working class proletariat.Today the influence and control of wealth concentrated in the bank accounts of fewer and fewer individuals has overwhelmed the rest of us. The predicates of democracy are diametrically opposed to those of capitalism. The rewards and power of capitalism far exceed the perceived rewards of democracy. It’s a deadly conundrum. Our world has become a kind of theater where politicians mouth democracy drenched words all the while doing their best to deny voting rights to marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions.

Consider how many Americans do not vote; fewer than half of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016.  Many people surveyed expressed doubt that their votes matter and that being what it is – a self-fulfilling proposition. There cannot be true representative government without participation and that is why certain politicians are doing their best to devise and pass ever more restrictive voting regulations.

The rise of neoliberalism is itself the greatest threat to democracy to ever have faced the United States. Neoliberalism will be the final blow. Neoliberalism combined with populism will serve double-speak, compromised founding principles, and no firm or verifiable truth will be accepted.  All we will have will be “alternative facts”. Truth made fungible and pliant to suit the moment and the desired ends. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The president has gone so far as to launch a federal investigation to validate his claims. 

In a country founded on the principle of religious freedom we have a vice-president, who is a self-identified Christian zealot proclaiming Christianity as the founding belief of the United States. The new Vice-President has proclaimed his Christianity on the floor of the House of Representatives stating the creationism should be taught in public schools and continues his personal “agenda in office. According to the PEW research organization, eight in ten voters who identified as “Christian” voted for the new administration. For people like this religion and politics are one and the same. Populist politics is become a crusade.   

  History has shown us this process, this slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. And it has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of public approval. “Save us from this!” “Save us from that!” Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The “elites”, whomever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people. We have been here before. Alternative truth is disseminated, cronies are rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated, are at large the most susceptible to the pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who are without ethical or moral commitment to the truth preying with the simplistic vocabulary of a child. The net result of this whirlwind of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of the social contract.

Don’t say you didn’t see it coming. “Trust me … I’m a smart person.” Famous last words.

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here” but it did.

pres sealI wrote this essay last November following the election. I was disheartening to say the least and I am republishing here as a reflection on current developments and how prescient Lewis was. It seems that the new administration has unleashed, if not encouraged, a lot of anger and resentment that I worry will get out of control. There is an ancient curse that states: “May you live in interesting times.” Here they come.

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here”

Some time back I wrote a review of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here”. I picked the book up again yesterday because, in fact, it did happen here. I believe there are are important points made in that novel related to recent political events in which a clearly unqualified and unsuitable individual won the 2016 race for President of the United States. In that review I wrote:

Yes, it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant while others feel their time has come. The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go along to get along” complacent society. This is also what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support.

Sad to say, my opening sentence was also prescient and I felt it wasting to happen more than I thought it. There were many reasons of course, including what many of us thought was a dishonest primary with high party officials, including the party chairwoman, colluding to favor one candidate over another a fact later confirmed by ballot counts. Complacency in the form of a great many eligible people simply not voting either in the primary or in the general election added to the debacle. The lack of voter interest and participation is, in and of itself, a terrible commentary on and worrisome omen for the future of politics in the United States. Think for just a moment of those who sacrificed, either with lengthy commitment of time out of their lives or by making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to preserve this so-called Democracy. The depth of tragedy is unavoidably clear.

Where were all those “Freedom Loving” Americans who stand for the national anthem, with their hand over their hearts, but won’t go out of their way to vote? Do they not know, have they not been taught, do they not understand the importance of voting, of informing themselves of what is at stake? Did those who heap heated criticism on an athlete who doesn’t stand for the national anthem vote? What happened that caused a record low voter turn-out? Where did the American socialization process go off the tracks, substituting consumerism and posturing for patriotism? 

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation …  from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged”. It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something” – a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses crucial to their success.

And, it is a pathology, a disintegration of a social contract that requires responsibility for the conduct of a society and the outcomes of its governance. It’s a pathology that can become fatal. I have witnessed instances of these kinds of “leaders” asserting control over organizations and social scenes and the pattern is always the same. Favors are given, loyalty replaces thoughtful engagement, “goodies” flow, and promises predicting even more “goodies” or “free” munchies for the faithful. It is, on evidence, an “innate primal instinct”. It is a matter of ambition over integrity, of emotion over reason.

… consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and … ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu.

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs

These specifications describe our 2016 Presidential election. The specifications apply to both sides, some elements applying more to one candidate than the other. To these I would add two more. There is a certain kind of ruthlessness that specifically negates civility and exploits weakness in others. If you add together the elements of anomic personality disorder you can come up with a fair and accurate description of the actors in this modern-day drama especially the over-weaning necessity to dominate and to receive submission. Last but not least, in connection with the former, include the need for revenge as punishment for failure of obsequiousness and obedience. 

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself. I vividly remember the turmoil of 1968 and the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read … I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this? Think of “It Can’t Happen Here” as an early warning call to action.

As much as some people are revolted by the notion, our social contract is underwritten by socialistic policies such as Social Security, Health Care, highways and by ways maintained by governments, police departments, and a standing military; for the benefit and good of all, even if more for some than others. Will all of this be dismantled in a sociopathic jihad that posits everyone should be on their own in some kind of jungle ethos? Are we just going to give this a whirl and see where it ends while the rest of the world watches?

11/19/16

It’s About Groceries

It seems at times that the world is what it must be like for a fly climbing a window pane. You can see it all out there but you can’t get to it. The window is transparent but, is what you are seeing the truth? How could you know? How could you be sure? Reality is itself a construct which you accept or not at your own peril. We suffer an opaque political system working overtime, as it does, to corrupt itself at every turn while trying to convince us it isn’t. The sensational hour by hour revelations about or for each candidate become a yawn for some people or raw meat thrown to a madding crowd for others. The final political question eventually devolves to how many times we must hold our collective noses and vote for a lesser evil before the political system crumbles into the darkness of chaos?

Required reading for one of the classes I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Radical School Reform, was Saul Alinsky’s “Rules For Radicals”. It was published the same year I started teaching, 1972. I still keep the book on my desk and pick it up from time-to-time scanning through for a random jewel, perhaps a random memory. My favorite passage has always been the concluding paragraph. “The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. … When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world we will see when we believe it.”

It is indeed about believing. We live in a complex world believing in, among other things, truth, equality, other people to fear, and something called “fairness”, and a world in which people are asked to believe in an economic system that favors a few at the disadvantage of many. As with religious dogma our economic belief system, Capitalism, may not be challenged in spite of clear evidence that it is destroying social contracts and the environment globally. If you doubt this you haven’t been paying attention to the exodus of American business to other countries, places where there are little or no health and safety regulations and pay scales that are a fraction of those in the US.. In many of those offshore countries workers earn less in a day than what Americans doing the same work earned in an hour. The irony, of course, is that those goods now being made abroad are brought to the US for Americans to “consume”. At the same time that the general public is being impoverished, infrastructure is crumbling across the country to pay for the perpetual and profitable war machine. It is reasonable, I believe, to ask what our values are as a nation when people are without medical care, and children without sufficient daily meals or a proper education? Are our voices not heard at the seats of power or are our voices simply inconsequential?

Capitalism, a zero sum enterprise that ultimately has only one winner has become both a belief system and an economic system. In the words of S.D. King in, When The Money Runs Out, “In reality, the financial system prices beliefs – and beliefs – not ultimate truth.” The economic pie is just one size and as someone else’s slice gets bigger someone else’s inevitably becomes smaller. In the end, regardless of Calvin Coolidge’s belief that “The business of the American people is business”, what really makes for a healthy equitable society is truth and the truth is about groceries not overseas bank accounts. It’s supermarket shoppers trying to put a meal on the table every day who are the real economy and who make the economy function; that’s what keeps a civil society alive and healthy.


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