Saturday, May 26, 2007

It Depends on What the Definition of "That" Is

Just to keep it light on a Saturday...

Now, some of you may be thinking, "This guy is really gonna dedicate a post to a cheesy song from 15 years ago? Is it 1993?". And I say to you that blogs weren't around back then, I was like 11 years old, so I don't see this as being an outdated topic, but one way overdue.

For those of you who weren't "with it" back when Meatloaf recessitated his career, reunited with his song writer and prophet of goth nerds everywhere, Jim Steinman, and started winning grammies for what was the #1 song in America, "I'd Do Anything for Love." I was there, man, and my 11 year old self ate up every note of the operatic melodrama that is Meatloaf. Now let's get to the "meat" of this post, which are the lyrics to this epic song that beg the question: What won't this guy do for love?

The basic narrative of this song, like many Meatloaf classics (including BostonD's favorite, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light") is as follows -- lovelorn loser tries to convince a girl to "go all the way" tonight and in order to accomplish his aims must engage in a melodramatic dialogue with said girl, and a litany of mixed metaphores and other assortments of cheese ensues. Just as Bruce Springsteen was able to summon transcendent themes from cars and manual labor, Meat and Steinman return again and again to those days of hormones and unrequited love, channeling adolescent desires through soaring sentimentality and ultimately through Meat's powerful vocals.

Rather than disect the logic of the lyrics, I invite you to check them out on your own, download the song or dust off the cassette tape and have a listen. Here are a few gems and there's a pound of cheese in each bite:

Some days it don't come easy, and some days it don't come hard
Some days it don't come at all, and these are the days that never end
Some nights you're breathing fire, and some nights you're carved in iceSome nights you're like nothing I've ever seen before or will again


[Girl:] Will you make me some magic, with your own two hands?Can you build an emerald city with these grains of sand?Can you give me something I can take home?

[Boy:] I can do that! Oh oh now, I can do that!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Why Only Half of Our Country Votes

In the Bush-Kerry election of 2004, which was supposed to be one of the most heated and divisive elections in recent history, only 55% of eligible voters cared enough to go to the polls, and this was up from 51% in 2000, where W's election arguable made some kind of a big difference on the country and the world.

I would argue that this points to an extremely urgent problem with our country, despite its receiving very little attention from any of us. In a country where our leaders stress teh importance of democracy and a government that is accountable to its people, it should be unacceptable to us that only half of eligible voters chose to participate in this process.

What does it mean that only half of our country cares enough to participate in chosing our government's leader? Well, first off, it is debatable how much of this is a "choice," since some eligible voters may be deterred from voting for socioeconomic reasons, but that is a more complicated issue that I will steer clear of in order to focus on those eligible voters who could easily vote and choose not to.

Those that chose not to vote presumably don't care who wins. Now, we can't say for sure that they don't care who is in charge of our government, but rather that they don't care who is in charge if their only options are the Democratic and Republican nominees (ie the choice between W versus Kerry or Gore).

This indifference between Dem & Repub nominees suggests that people don't see the candidates that our two parties produce each year as all that different. This seems accurate. In hindsight, it looks like a President Gore would have done things much differently than W, but during the 2000 campaign both campaigned as moderates, the Saturday Night Live skit where both candidates answered "agree" to everything the other said during the debates comes to mind. Bush-Kerry was essentailly the same - after giving some attention to Dean, the Democratic party scrapped him for Kerry-Edwards, who both campaigned (during the primaries) as in favor of the Iraq war.

Why did the Democrats choose John Kerry? Well experience was important, but grey-haired politicians are a dime a dozen, so what else was decisive? I would say that Kerry got the nomination because he was dubbed, by his campaign and by the American media as the most "electable" of the Democratic candidates.

Say it with me: e-lect-a-ble. I heard the word "electable" being tossed around at the start of the primary "season" in 2003, while I was an undergrad. Dean was the frontrunner at the time, and I remember asking one of my political science professors what he thought about the buzz about Kerry being more electable than Dean. He said: "electable is as electable does," which, apart from making us think of Forrest Gump, means that you can't judge someone's electability until after the election, and any branding of someone as "electable" before the election is a speculative statement, but nonetheless a good campaign strategy if the branding is convincing to the voters.

Now the big question is this: since Kerry didn't turn out to be so "electable" in the general election, how did the Kerry campaign and the national media convince everyone what he was?

My answer is that there are two kinds of "electable" when we are speaking of candidates. In our national discourse (candidates and the media), "electable" means someone who appeals to the other party. A moderate in the sense of a Democrat that appeals to Republicans, or a Republican who appeals to Democrats. Dean was too Democratic and not Republican enough to get elected, the Democrats decided, but Kerry was just republican enough that enough voters would vote to get him elected. The result, of course, is that two candidates emerge who are not so different from one another (again I am talking about what we know about them pre-election), as we have seen in 2000 and 2004, IE two candidates who embrace a mix of Dem & Repub policies, to appeal to the 50% of the country who votes for either a Dem or a Repub in each election.

This seems like a sensible strategy but I would argue that it is extremely unproductive for our country, because it completely ignores the other 50% of the country who doesn't see any difference in the candidates and thus doesn't care enough to vote. We have defined "electable" as "electable by the 50% of the country that votes," and we have completely disregarded the other 50% who may not be so interested in a candidate who embraces a mix of Dem & Repub policies.

Now, should we care about the fact that 50% of Americans are indifferent? Well, maybe. If we believe that half the country is indifferent because the like everything about the Dem & Repub nominees, so either way they are happy (ie: Bush and Gore or Bush and Kerry are both so great, how can you choose), then we shouldn't have a big problem with this. However, if half of the country has decided that they don't like either candidate, then we have a big problem. I would argue that the state of our politics reflects the latter: half of the country is so disappointed with the Dem & Repub nominees that they choose not to vote for either: because they don't believe that either candidate adequately represents their interests and cares about the issues that they care about.

So if this is accurate, and I do not see why it shouldn't be, 50% of Americans feel that the nominees put fourth each election cycle don't represent or care about the things that they care about, so they don't vote. This in itself should be disturbing. However, I would argue that the problem is actually much worse than it looks, because I would bet that many people in the 50% of eligible voters that DO vote think of it as choosing "the lesser of two evils," so many voters are actually voting for candidates that they don't even like so much themselves.

The result? The two parties put fourth candidates that most of the country is not crazy about, and one of these candidates gets to be in charge of our government. This seems like a big problem to me.

So how do we solve the problem? My opinion is as follows.

The first step is redefining how we think of "electable," in fact we urgently need to do this. Again, we can see the 2008 race starting to look like 2004: right now, Obama is just like Dean and Edwards in 2004 - young, fresh, inspirational, and doesn't stick to the same-old, unambitious, "play it safe" political rhetoric. Now the paradox is that so many people like this guy and so few are excited about the other candidates, yet everyone is questioning whether the guy is "electable," and OF COURSE, what they mean by "electable," is: WILL REPUBLICANS VOTE FOR HIM? The same exact thing is going on with Hillary. Now this is totally bogus, because only about 25% of eligible voters are Republicans - why should the Democrats decide their nominee for President based so heavily on what 25% of the country thinks? Nevermind why this is even an issue because I don't want to digress, my point is that we should not just be asking whether Republicans will vote for Obama or Hillary, but we should be asking whether the 50% of the country who continually chooses not to vote for anyone, we should be asking whether they would come to the polls for someone like Obama or Hillary.

Now I am not advocating Obama or Hillary (although I would vote for either if they were the nominee), all I am saying is that we need to redifine our concept of "electable," since our present concept is inaccurate, and it is this inaccurate idea that is being used to discredit not just Obama and Hillary, but perhaps a great majority of politicians in general (a great majority if you see them as potentially appealing to 75% of the vote).

So if we want to get more eligible voters to the polls, and in turn, if we want to send candidates to the general election and in turn elect presidents that truly represent the issues that majority of our democracy cares about, let's rethink our currently narrow concept of who is "electable" and broaden it to someone that is in touch with the interests of as much of our country as possible.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Commence and Commence Again

Just to piggy back BostonD's post, I will use this one to promote what was, for me (and I know VAD may not agree), one of the more inspiring speeches I have come across. What BostonD said is true, I'm a sucker for a good commencement ceremony, and what's makes the following speech even better is that it was given at our graduation.

Just to lay the scene a little bit. After a week of beatiful New York in Spring weather, during which we spent in a constant state of celebration with family and friends, we staggered down in a lackluster procession to sit for two hours in the sun, drenched in our own sweat. We hadn't discussed the day or the chosen speaker much -- perhaps a minor grumble about how we had lost out on Jon Stewart to Princeton and we would be subjected to some friggen playwrite instead.

So we sat, and I sweated profusly, looking forward more to a nap than this Tony Kushner guy. But, after some Dean introduced his impressive achievments (Pulitzer Prize, Tony awards, etc.) I figured I'd lend him an ear or two. His delivery was fast and I couldn't shake the similarities between his voice and that of John Tuturro's in Quiz Show -- a sort of nasaly, at times grating manner of speech. Nothing -- not the heat, the tanline of my mortarboard, or my hangover -- could detract from what was to follow, a speech that has lifted my spirits with countless rereadings and endeared me to its author, who I believe is one of the greatest American authors of the past 50 years:

..."I’m not entirely sure what goes on at Class Day. I missed mine, I was on a picket line, so I’m sort of guessing as to what it is you want me to do this morning, apart from saying mazel tov, mazel tov, to all of you, and I do say it, mazel tov, mazel tov, it’s very exciting, a whole new bunch of Columbia College grads ready for the world, for the public conversation, for the work of repairing the world and repairing the public conversation, ready and able and, dare I say, eager to elevate the terms of the vast public debate in which you, American citizens, have a place prepared if you will claim it, you with your heads and hearts as full of fierce and fiery ideas fresh as they are ever likely to be, you who are not, by virtue of the superlative education you have received and its concomitant openness, engaged skepticism and reckless curiosity, you who are not the sort of grim careerists and ideologues and boodle-minded misadventurers who have seized the public debate and garbled it and reduced it to babble and run with it straight to the ninth circle of hell, dragging behind them the glory of our republic — you will rescue us from these dreadful, dreadful people, and we who are old are deeply grateful, and deeply proud, and, well, scared shitless, so mazel tov and get busy, your work awaits you, the world awaits you, the world is impatient for you, it made you for this purpose — and I don’t want to usurp the role your parents had in you, in getting you to this day, they too made you, the world made them so they could make you, and make the sacrifices they’ve made to get you to this point — my cherished B.A. in English literature from Columbia College, the entirety of the four most valuable and profitable years of my intellectual life, cost my parents less than one year of your time here, and I’m still paying student loans! — mazel tov to your parents, too, and by the way, if you haven’t gotten a graduation present yet, I have a musical running on Broadway and the number is 1-800-telecharge.

I really was more excited than honored to speak to you today, thrilled to get to meet you, you redeemers and rescuers, because this spring, unlike, let’s say, the past spring, or the spring before that, or the spring before that, this May I sense hope in the air, and urgency, and as has so often been the recent case, terrible danger, and so the urgent need of the world is about to snatch you, ready or not, from this most beautiful brick and stony womb and begin its demanding: HELP! HELP! HELP! The world is melting, the world is darkening, there is injustice everywhere, there is artificial scarcity everywhere, there is desperate human need, poverty and untreated illness and exploitation everywhere, there is ignorance everywhere, not native to the species but cruelly enforced, there is joylessness and hatred of the body and slavery masked as freedom and community disintegrating, everywhere, racism, everywhere, sexism, everywhere, homophobia, everywhere (though a little better for the moment in Massachusetts!), everywhere the world is in need of repair. Fix it, solve these things, you need only the tools you have learned here, even if you didn’t pay as much attention as you should, even if you’re a mess and broke and facing a future of economic terror — who isn’t, who doesn’t? HELP! HELP! HELP! The world is calling, heal the world and in the process heal yourself, find the human in yourself by finding the citizen, the activist, the hero. Down with the boodle-minded misadventurers, after them, you know where they are, I figured this speech should be nonpartisan in case there are any, you know, Republicans in the audience but even if you are Republican, after them, down with the boodle-minded misadventurers, up with the Republic. Duty calls, the world calls, get active! No summer vacation, no rest for you, we have been waiting too long for you, we need your contribution too desperately, and if they tell you your contribution is meaningless, if they tell you the fix is in and there’s no contribution to be made, if they tell you to contribute by shopping your credit card into exhaustion, if they tell you to surrender the brilliant, dazzling confusion your education should have engendered in you, to exchange that quicksilver polyphony for dull monotone certainties, productive only of aggression borne of boredom and violence borne of fear borne of stupidity, they’re lying, don’t trust them, get rid of them, you know who they are and where they are to be found and they’ll all be happier back on the ranch in Crawfordsville.

Eight minutes doesn’t intimidate me, I just ignore it. I’m almost done.

This is the Columbia dialectic, the New York City dialectic, all this spectacular symmetry, all this Euclidean geometry, all this rational griddage is a lattice entwined with floribund, uncontrolled and uncontrollable vines, shoots, roots, fruits, leaves, bees, busily cross-pollinating. This box, this machine, this is a crystal incubatory whence comes the fluid, the protean, the revolutionary, the non-mechanical, the non-commodified, the non-fetishized, the human. The air this morning is electric. You have fed, you have sated, you’re ready; and every step you take from this point on counts. This is your Code Orange: Life and its terrors, terrible and splendid, awaits. I know I speak for Jon, Warren and Justice Ruth — seek the truth; when you find it, speak the truth; interrogate mercilessly the truth you’ve found; and act, act, act. The world is hungry for you, the world has waited for you, the world has a place for you. Take it. Mazel tov. Change the world."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pomp? Or Circumstance?

As it's that time of year, I've been thinking and having some conversations about university commencement speeches. Now I know this is normally CapeTown's department (the man loves commencement speeches), but I watched these two videos the other day and I thought I should throw them up here, if for nothing else than for the entertainment value of listening to two fascinating people and excellent speakers talk about life to a bunch of graduating students, but also to present two, at least partly, distinct approaches on advice to young people about how to live, and see if anyone had any reactions about what people especially liked about either of these speeches. I personally found both of them deeply moving and inspirational, and also interesting for the different things they focus on.

Oh and also if you are graduating soon and if one of these guys is speaking at your school (wishful thinking about readership on my part but you can't be too careful (that would be careless)), then you might want to hold off on watching these as they could give it away (give it away now).

Steve Jobs:

Bill Clinton (part 1/1):

Bill Clinton (part 2/2):

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mission Accomplished: Now Let's Write Us Some History

Throughout a standard education in U.S. History, one is undoubtably to hear the phrase -- or cliche -- "History is written by the winners." I don't know who coined it, but I remember, when I first heard it in those halcyon days of High School, it was easy enough to absorb its obvious truths and then, like most people, quickly dismiss it. When you're a student and just trying to get through those traumatic years of adolescence, there is no real reason to question further -- If History is written by "the winners" then what part of the picture is missing? Also, we won, right?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have only recently discovered the scholarship of Noam Chomsky. I was 15 when Good Will Hunting came out and it was the first time I ever heard a reference to Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, and in the same scene, Will makes reference to Howard Zinn's People's History of The United States. Both books and, indeed, both authors are usually stigmatized as "radicals" and shoved neatly to the side of more conventional approaches to U.S. History. Both these professors hold mirrors up to American life and history and by marginalizing their voices, we have lost something invaluable: a sense of who we are and the country in which we live.

I admit, that if only for literary purposes, I much prefer reading the standard version of American history. I marvel at our relatively young nation's ability to have so quickly embraced an almost mythical creation narrative -- great men, in defiance of the tyrannical ruler from a distant land, established what is in my opinion one of the great works of art in history. For many, including myself, this myth is enough to embolden endless patriotism, but our understanding of our "Founding Fathers" and this period of our history must delve further if we are to truly grasp the nature of their intentions and the limitations of our country.

We hold the Bill of Rights today as an almost sacred document, yet there remain glaring anachronisms within its text (the whole thing about quartering a British soldier). We often overlook the plight of the Native Americans involved in America's "Manifest Destiny" expansion. The truth is that the founding fathers were not perfect men -- they understood all too well their own limitations -- and it took decades of atrocities and the Civil War for us to finally get rid of one of America's most relied upon institutions, slavery. There are endless examples of haineous and absure acts committed by past leaders, not the least of which is the duel pictured above between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

I don't need to go through all the nonsense etched on the underbelly of U.S. History, for that you can read Zinn. The process that those of us interested in America -- and who claim devout patriotism -- must undertake is akin to those moments of our youth which sparked our adolescent angst -- when you first see your father cry or the epiphanies that lead you to the fact that your parents are not the embodiment of perfection. Just as it became clear that your parents were human, so it must be revealed that your homeland is deeply flawed. While at first this may be tough to accept (hence those years of adolescence), it is a necessary step towards self-realization and maturity. As we come to discover, those prelapsarian versions of your parents weren't true and that the love you have for them after the fall is that much deeper because of it. Realizing your parents are imperfect brings them down to you, painfully exposing what is also flawed in you, but the end result is an understanding that leads to empowerment.

It is the same with our relationship to American history and to our current government. When we place our officials on untouchable pedastols, we strip them of their human qualities and, by doing so, we blind ourselves to the plain reality of their faults. (Side note: It is almost paradoxical Americans liked Bush cause he was just a regular guy, and many of those who elected him for this reason refuse to accept the limitations and faults that their "regular guy" president has.) Accepting the defects of our govenment and the human frailties of our leaders is not unpatriotic; in fact, it can deepen ones patriotism, for if our leaders are flawed like we are then what is stopping us from becoming leaders ourselves. We each hold a stake in this country and it's future narrative, but before we work together towards a "more perfect union", we must first embrace its past and present imperfections. Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government..." at face value a cynical take, but then he added, "...except for all those others that have been tried." So we must first admit that we were dealt a less than great hand, but it's the best out there and it remains encumbant upon us to improve upon it.

Voices of dissent or criticism are not "radical"; they are necessary. If Chomsky and Zinn are "radical" it is only because they wish to provide us with an alternative (and extremely necessary) lens through which to view ourselves -- as lens usually omitted from standard education. The real truism is that when our History is syphoned through the winners' pens, we all lose something.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Some comments on religion

And Virginia's giant burning cross gives me a segue into a point about religion. My point has nothing to do with burning crosses, but everything to do with supersonic segues.

People sometimes claim that the appeal of religion is that it neatly divides the world into good and evil, and that one derives some psychological comfort from living in such a tidy arrangement. Such claims are sometimes augmented with the observation that religion invests the world with meaning. I think these claims are fine as they go, but obscure the deeper philosophic point about religion regarding normative commitment- the idea that there is something that one should do.

In a recent work Self-Knowledge and Resentment, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami has argued for the fundamental importance of normative commitments for agency. In the book, Bilgrami argues that it is only because we see the world as placing normative commitments on us that we can have anything like agency in the first place. In a thought exercise, Bilgrami asks us to imagine a character so thoroughly passive that he lacks the will to get out of bed in the morning. This character, who Bilgrami calls a radically exaggerated Oblomov, fails to see the world as placing any normative commitments on him. That is, as Oblomov sees it, it does not matter whether he gets out of bed or not. It does not matter to him whether he does anything at all. He finds nothing in the world that compels him to action in anyway. Bilgrami then asks us to imagine how it is that such a thoroughly passive character could have thought. Bilgrami argues convincingly that he could not. The idea is that the passivity, stemming from lack of normative commitment, is so paralyzing that no individual could actually live in such a state. It is not that they would be so depressed they would commit suicide. Rather, it is that no such individual could possibly exist. Our imagination fails us when we try to picture such an Oblomov. The conclusion of the thought experiment is that since we cannot imagine an agent lacking normative commitments, normative commitment must be necessary for agency.

I will leave it to my reader to determine if Bilgrami succeeds or not. I find the argument compelling. But what I want to say- my point about religion- is that if Bilgrami is correct, then there is a much deeper point about the role of good and evil in religion than either of the fine, though somewhat obvious and superficial points listed above.

The point is this: if viewing the world as normatively structured is necessary for agency, and religion succeeds in so structuring the world, then religion serves a necessary role in enabling the existence of minded agents.

Now I want to be very clear about something. Notice the way I worded the point: "religion serves a necessary role." I did not say "religion is necessary for." I am not saying that religion is necessary in anyway. Quite the contrary. I am saying that religion plays the role of something that is necessary- a role that might well be played by any number of other world-structuring phenomena.

But what exactly is this point that religion serves a necessary role? My idea here is that by structuring the world along normative lines, religious doctrine makes it possible for people (religious people) to see the world as mattering in someway. For the religious person, it matters whether they go to church or not. It matters whether they break laws or not. It matters all the way down and around. To the religious mind, every single detail of life matters a great deal, because life is a battle between good and evil. That's just the way they see it. And because they feel the world matters, they feel compelled to act accordingly. That is the important point, I think. Not the questions about God's existence, or tidy psychological pictures, or meaning. The important point, if Bilgrami is correct, is that the normative structure of the world calls people into action, thus appealing to their agency. This I find interesting.

Now for a few clarifying remarks. There is probably a temptation to read my remarks about "calling to action" as calling to religious action- going to church, obeying to torah, things like that. That is not what I mean at all. The call to action occurs at a much more fundamental level. It is the call to any action whatsoever. The action need not have any relation to organized religion at all. That was the very point of the Oblomov thought experiment. That if we do not see the world as normatively structured- placing normative demands on our action- then we will do nothing at all. We will not get out of bed. We will not even think. In fact, we would not even be. So you see, it need not have anything to do with religion.

And lastly, there might be a temptation to take my point as a puzzle for how it is that a non-religious person could a exist. This too, would be an incorrect way to read my point. I do not think a non-religious person could not exist. I know plenty of them. Remember, the point was that religion serves a necessary role, a role that might well be played by any number of phenomena. The crucial thing is that an agent must see the world as normatively structured. It doesn't matter how that world is normatively structured or how it got normatively structured, but just that they see it as normatively structured. And the point about religion is that religion is one way that this gets accomplished.

Go Twins! Yeah Democrats!

Lacrosse - that's French for...the cross

The discussion of the Democrat and Republican teams started by Boston has allowed me to segue into athletics. There has been some discussion recently (most notably in Slate’s exchanges between Neal Pollack, a Slate writer, and Paul Shirley, an American basketball player struggling through the European leagues) regarding the role of race in sports fandom.

Shirley says that "when the average white American male tunes into TNT sometime between October and June, he would very much like to see another average white American male on the basketball court. Most of the time, he doesn't. But in the few situations that he does, he is going to root for that player. That's the way it is. We like to see people who look like us succeed."

Pollack doesn't understand, saying "I guess you could use, as comparison, how Jews felt about Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax in their primes. But you could also argue that when Greenberg and Koufax played baseball, especially Greenberg, Jews weren't considered mainstream "white." Feeling pride for their accomplishments was akin to feeling boricua pride, or Dominican pride."

It is that section that bothers me the most. He seems to suggest that you can be happy for someone of your race (if that race is a minority race) succeeding unless you are “mainstream ‘white.’”

I will admit that I was thrilled to watch Duke Lacrosse advance to the Final Four because Duke is a program that was brought down last year by the prejudicial minds of those who believe that the wealthy, white, prep school elite are all racists and misogynists. While my teacher’s salary has certainly cast a shadow on my qualifications, I remain a member white, prep-school elite type. I coach lacrosse at a prep school, so maybe that makes up for the poverty thing.

When Duke advanced yesterday, I felt a proud, “you can’t hold them down” attitude rising. I realize the inherent awkwardness of suggesting that white, wealthy, well-educated men were being “held down,” but I’m not sure how else to suggest it. Had a black basketball player from Duke been accused of rape by a white stripper, that guy would be railroaded in a similar manner for sure. The only difference is that I think there would have been less media coverage. Oh, and he probably wouldn’t have been acquitted even though he was innocent. That’s a racism tale for another day. The comparison that I want to make is that American culture has evolved, or devolved, depending on your perspective, to the point that being a perceived member of the ruling class makes you a target for prejudicial media treatment and, worse, mistreatment by the legal system. Cough…Nifong…Cough.

When that happens, I feel fine rooting for Duke. Nothing will be able to remove the stain that was irresponsibly put on the three players falsely accused by the police and convicted by the media. But the stain on the program can be lightened by avoiding any disciplinary issues while winning a national title. Duke’s players this year served 570 hours of community service, had no disciplinary infractions on campus, and are (hopefully) on their way to proving themselves to be the best team in the country. That makes me happy - to see my brothers succeed.

But white guys specifically calling other white guys “their brother” smacks of late night meetings and white robes. It’s not just me who hears it that way, right?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Uniting Our "Divided" Nation

Dark sarcasm in the classroom? No spank you!

I would like to continue the theme discussed in two of the last posts (by CapeTown and Virginia) and their comments about America as a "divided nation."

The topic has been familiar discussion on this blog and also among politicians, the media, and undoubtedly many of our everyday conversations. Some interesting questions are the following: How divided are we, really, as a nation, among conservatives and liberals? To the extent that we are divided, how did this come about? Are these divisions the inevitable result of human nature? Or are divisions in opinion artificially created? Is the division healthy or harmful? If it is harmful is there anything we can do about it?

The issue begins with human nature (of course who am I to say what human nature is but here is my take on it). Many philosophers, perhaps most notably Hegel, have written about our innate desires to be "recognized" by our fellow humans. This "recognition" can take the form of something like mutual respect, agreement, understanding, friendship, or love. To achieve happiness we need this recognition and we actively seek its fulfillment in various ways. When we fulfill this desire by making connections and achieve mutual recognition, this makes us happier and more secure, whereas if this desire goes unfulfilled we will be more insecure. One way we fulfill this desire is through one-on-one relationships with people, and of course, another is through belonging to some group.

One example of this is sports teams. If you think about it, it's pretty arbitrary how people develop passionate allegiances to their teams, but I think that taking on a sports allegiance is one way where humans satisfy some innate desire to be recognized by other humans, in this case by belonging to a group. Listen to people talk about their team and often they call the team "we" like they are actually on the roster! Allegiances can also be pretty irrational, for example we think the players are on our favorite teams are great people in their personal lives, and we think the players on other teams are jerks (I bet more Lakers fans thought Kobe was innocent than fans of rival teams). Although I don't think it's necessary, one thing that makes the "belonging to a group" feeling stronger, is when the group defines part of its identity as simply being not some rival, other group. So for example part of what makes a Yankees fan a Yankees fan is the fact that they're not a Red Sox fan. So a way to assert your identity as part of a group, and your group solidarity is through being different from some other, rival group. So if you are a Sox fan and you see a random person on the street in a Sox jersey, you automatically fell a connection, and someone in a Yankees jersey you automatically feel some kind of animosity, whether stong of very slight. There is the issue that this might be more of a male thing (being a sports fan) but I don't want to get too off track. The point is I think that this is an innate human desire since so many people all over the world do this, and since I don't see it explained through any "rational" explanation.

Now just like you can be Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan you can be a a Democrat or a Republican. Sports are not exactly like politics, some would say politics are much more important, although in our day to day lives many of us are much more affected (at least emotionally) by sports. But there are competitions (elections) and people rally behind either side much like with sports.

Of course, when you think about it, it just doesn't seem to make sense, or feel "right" that we should treat politics like sports. As opposed to sports, where adopting an allegiance to a team is a pretty arbitrary act that makes something entertaining much much more entertaining, adopting a political party is supposed to be something different. We aren't supposed to just like whatever a candidate says or does the way we convince ourselves that our sports heroes are cool and good people, but it seems like that shouldn't work for politics - we are supposed to listen to what these people say, agree with some of it, and maybe disagree or not be sure about some of it, not just agree with a candidate or a whole party of hundreds of politicians on all of their views.

So then why, if it doesn't seem to make sense, do so many people line up behind a party on everything, agreeing with nearly everything their party says and disagreeing with nearly everything the other party says? Wel as I said I think it is part human nature, and part our conditioning from society. Part of it is that Americans (maybe humans in general because of the above reasons) in general live in a competitive and contentious culture. Our court system and our economy could both be looked at as more cutthroat than in other countries.

Looking specifically in the realm of politics, though, it is pretty easy to see how politicians and the media alike feed the "sports-like" culture of democrats versus republicans, thus exagerating perceived and actual divisions at the same time. Not only are most pundits on television and on the radio partisan ideologues who agree with everything in the party platform like robots, but they have actually created shows that pit one side against the other, like Crossfire and Hannity & Colmes that explicitly pit one side against the other, in addition to the shows that are just one partisan doing the show solo (ex: O'Reilly). Politicians? Some are more guilty than others of playing up party divisions, but I'm sure we can all think of numerous examples.

So why all of this divisive, partisan rhetoric from the media and politicians? Well it's simply a tactic used to maximize their audience and their attention. The media is just a bunch of corporations competing for viewers, while politicians just want attention and votes. Of course, one way to get attention is through civilized discourse where you respectfully consider all sides of a debate and maybe don't arrive at a conclusion since there is no clear answer to some of these complex issues. But not everyone wants to waste their time listening to a newscaster or a politician admitting that these are complex issues and there is no right answer, or at least we are not used to that, so many of us are not so drawn to that type of thing.

Instead, the way it works is that media and politicians have become very good at exploiting this inner human desire to derive happiness and security from being part of a group, a feeling that is strengthened when the identity of the group consists largely of simple the fact that they are not the "other" group. It is just like with sports - surely there are many Yankees and Red Sox fans who have billions of things in common and one of their comparatively much fewer differences in personality is the fact that they happened to one day decide that they like different baseball teams. But rivalries and the feeling of "belonging" to the team we like is one of the reasons people love sports so much, why they are so entertained and impassiond by it all, and the media and politicians have harnessed the same psychological effect and attached it to politics, which is good for them, because it means many more viewers of their programs and listeners to their speeches and contributors to their campaigns. So the media and the politicians really benefit from this, and thus they have a lot of incentive to fan the fire and perpetuate the divisive culture. Whether the image is real or meaningful, an explanation of how Americans are divided along party lines will sell you a lot of books.

But do Americans benefit from it? Does our country as a whole? I would say definitely not, for many, many obvious reasons. One big reason is that these divisive debates don't ever get anywhere. The conversations on the big news shows are pointless, they don't accomplish anything except getting people who disagreed before the discussion to disagree more passionately afterwards because the discussion was done in an aggressive, contentious, and often very disrespectful way. Everyone has witnessed the phenomena where if you try to convince someone of something disrespectfully, you will just cement their original position - the person will not even want to listen to you or consider your opinion if you address them aggressively and disrespectfully. But this is how a great many media pundits and politicians talk, and I think that when they do this they waste all of our time and accomplish nothing useful, and do much harm.

I think it was Socrates that said that there are two kinds of debate. Truth-seeking debate, and victory-seeking debate. Truth-seeking is where people admit that they don't know the answers, and they might not even know what they think about certain issues, and the point of the discussion is to learn more about what you and the other people think, to consider different views on something, and arrive at the best possible conclusion. Victory-seeking on the other hand is an attempt to convince someone of your pre-decided opinion, to "win" the argument. Often there is no way to prove the argument, so "winning" is often thought of as shooting down someone or making a point they can't respond to or shoot down themselves. This of course makes for much better entertainment, which means more people paying attention, and this has become the object of the media and politicians, as opposed to figuring out what is best for this country.

Well maybe that is a bleak picture, it is definitely a generalization and is not true for all journalists and politicians, but I think we can agree that there is too much of this sort of thing going on. The good news is that with blogs, anyone can be a pundit and join in the debate, but with blogs we face the same danger of falling victim to the great temptation of making our blogs entertaining and boost viewers (say something anti-one party and watch the members of your party pour in to comment and check back to read future posts). Thus the phenomena of people self-selecting and only reading blogs of their party.

Despite this danger, blogs have the potential to be a really positive and productive force for our country. If we can overcome the temptation and the emotional satisfaction of responding to a republican statement with a disrespectful jab at how wrong they are and visa versa, if we can instead respectfully consider each other's opinions, admit that there are perhaps no issues more complicated than the ones we undertake to discuss and thus there is probably no clear and obvious right or wrong answer (Iraq?), if we can overcome our impulses and our adrenaline and our emotions and resist arrogantly assuming that we know all of the answers, blogs can really be something amazingly helpful for the country. By having respectful, truth-seeking debate, we can not only get closer to understanding each other and understanding these complex issues and all of the people in the US and the world that they affect, but we can also change the divisive, victory-seeking debate culture that dominates our news and our politics. I believe we can change it becuase I believe that people are tired of it, and we want a change. Our impulses and our emotions may sometimes cause us to take the bait when media and politicians dangle the partisan hook (sorry I got carried away hook line and sinker with that metaphor), but deep down inside I think we all know that the divisive culture is not helping at all and in fact doing real damage, and we also know deep down inside that no one agrees with everything every politician from one party believes. So we are ready for this change, and I think that this change can only come from the blogs, since the media and the politicians all benefit from the increase in attention they get from keeping the divisive atmosphere alive. Of course maybe single journalists and candidates can do something to reverse the trend, but it will be tough because their competitors, of which there will be more, will continue the same old divisive tactics, so I think that this is up to us. I think, potentially, we can change things and we can help this country enormously, and I don't think it will even be that hard, although it could take a long time. All we have to do is control our impulses and emotions, be calm and patient and respectful, and seek the truth as opposed to victory (or the appearance of victory). I don't see why anyone would want to do it otherwise given how much these issues affect our country and our world, and how important it is for us to reach those answers that we can most strongly agree on.

So let's see what we can do. Now I am off to the Red Sox game.