Blog, Politics

The Republican Health Care Bill: Mean and Cold-hearted

Originally published June 25, 2017 on The Huffington Post

The principles of Republican healthcare are straight out of 16th century England where being poor was a sure sign of moral inferiority:

1. You’re completely on your own. No one should be required to pay for anyone else, let alone care for him or her.

2. Everyone should have the “freedom” to purchase only the amounts and kinds of healthcare they want, and nothing more, except of course the rich who should benefit in every way.

3. Competition among and between insurance companies is the only way to lower healthcare costs. Consumers are lucky to get what they are offered.

4. Everyone should be required to pay something for visits to doctors lest they take advantage of government-financed healthcare, and thereby overuse it. People cannot be trusted to use healthcare wisely.

5. People are sick because they don’t lead healthy life-styles. It’s their own fault if they are ill.

6. The poor are poor because they lack the proper moral fiber.

7. People who can’t afford healthcare deserve to die.

Every single one of these is cruel and mean-spirited beyond belief. They utterly destroy the concept of a shared society where people help one another in facing life and death issues.

There is no health care for anyone without health care for all. Health is not divisible.

Blog, Media + Politics, Politics, Religion + Spirituality

Dumb Arguments Are Alive and Well in America

Originally posted on The Huffington Post – March 5, 2014

From the dumb and silly to the outright paranoid and pathological, America is awash in Dumb Arguments (DAs). The constant swirl of dumb, deranged, and dangerous arguments are not only a measure of the low level to which public discourse has sunk, but they displace serious communication and analysis, thereby keeping us from addressing our most important problems.

Case in point. Rep. Michele Bachmann said recently that she is “sorry” that Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a controversial bill in Arizona that, because of their religious beliefs, would have legally allowed businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples. As Rep. Bachmann put it in her own indubitable words, “I believe that tolerance is a two-way street, and we need to respect everyone’s rights, including the rights of people who have sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Rep. Bachmann’s muddled thoughts are a perfect example of a DA. Apparently, Ms. Bachmann is totally unable to grasp the fundamental idea that religious tolerance does not entail a blanket endorsement of every wacky and evil idea that tumbles out of the mouths of religious adherents no matter how “sincerely” those ideas are held. Religiosity does not confer the right to endorse bigotry in any way, shape, or form. Everyone needs to be held accountable for actions and statements that restrict the basic dignity and humanity of others. Isn’t this the true basis of respect and tolerance?

Consider another: Former Arkansas Governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee produced immediate, strong howls of protest when he said recently:

“And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it. Let’s take that discussion all across America because women are far more than Democrats have made them t”o be [sic]. And women across America have to stand up and say, ‘Enough of that nonsense.’ [sic] “

Huckabee remarks were not only dumb, but they were one of the classic forms of a DA.

First of all, Democrats never said that women couldn’t control their libidos and that they therefore needed the government to step in and help them. So this part of the “argument” — if it can be called that — was plainly false. Democrats merely wanted to help women have access to birth control so that it was available if they wanted it. Democrats were acting in support of women, not as their dire enemies or opponents. Republicans on the other hand have repeatedly opposed any form of birth control assistance. Even worse, their proposals to inspect and control women’s bodies have been downright draconian.

Second, the argument was dumb because it insulted women under the guise of helping them. As Huckabee put it: “The fact is, the Republicans don’t have a war on women. They have a war for women…” In other words, women needed men to wage war for them. This was the second way in which women were offended.

Third, Huckabee’s remarks were dumb because they completely reversed the roles between good and bad guys. According to Huckabee, Republicans are really the “good guys” while Democrats are clearly the “bad guys.” This followed because Republicans basically trust women to manage their own bodies and sexual urges whereas Democrats do not. Huckabee’s remarks would be utterly laughable if they weren’t so transparently dumb.

None of this is meant to establish that DAs are exclusively in the hands of the right. Nothing could be further from the truth.

On Sunday, December 29, 2013, Melissa Perry-Harris, host of her show on MSNBC, stepped into a DA of her making. At one point, a panel of comedians were putting humorous captions to notable pictures of 2013. One picture in particular showed the Romney clan with an adopted grandson who was black. Off camera, in a singsong fashion, comedian Pia Glenn began mouthing, “One of these things is not like the others!” The intent was not just to call attention to the obvious fact that except for the adopted grandson, the entire Romney clan was white. The real intent was to mock the Republican Party for its underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics.

The very next day Melissa Perry-Harris apologized profusely and tearfully on camera for the inappropriateness of the segment. Nonetheless, the damage was clearly done. The segment couldn’t be taken back anymore than Mike Huckabee’s words could be retracted.

An unstated premise of the bit, and therefore part of the underlying but unspoken DA, was that comedians have a “license” to do and say things that the rest of us can’t. After all, “It’s all in good fun; what’s the matter, can’t you take a joke?” This too is one of the classic forms of a DA: making fun of someone or something that isn’t funny.

This is not to say that ridicule is never warranted, but that one should proceed with caution, especially if one is mocking young children, the disabled, the elderly, pets, etc. The moral is that no political party, group, ideology, etc. has a monopoly on DAs and dumb actions. DAs are perfectly democratic. They are freely available to all.

I have no illusions whatsoever that we will ever be free of DAs. We must not only be forever vigilant, but do everything in our power to point them out — yea, ridicule them — as forcefully as we can. In the constant battle against DAs, that’s our only defense.

Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems, Psychology

How Groups Become Extreme

Originally published on The Huffington Post, March 12, 2012

In two recent op-eds in the Huffington Post (“Is Truth in Politics Possible? Is Truth Possible in Anything Human?” and “Absence of Truth: Why the Republican Candidates Can’t Get Anywhere Near the Truth”), I argued that historically there are at least four different kinds and meanings of “truth.” There are of course more than four. But four is enough for my purposes.

Very briefly, first, there is traditional, primarily fact-based, impersonal, seemingly emotion-free, and unbiased scientific truth. (Science isn’t emotion free at all and it’s certainly not completely unbiased. It just hides its emotions and biases better than most fields. It also kids itself that they aren’t there. As someone with a Ph.D. in engineering, this doesn’t mean that I don’t believe strongly in science. I not only believe strongly in it, but I condemn those who don’t. Since it is done by humans, I just don’t believe that science is perfect.)

Second, there is speculative, philosophical, and theory-based science.

Third, there is community-based, social truth. This kind resides in the social customs, morals, religion, and wisdom of a community.

Fourth, there is also the kind that resides in the social customs, morals, religion, and wisdom of a small unit, typically a particular family, or close set of friends.

I also argued that all four of these ways fundamentally presuppose and depend deeply on one another. They couldn’t exist let alone work without the others.

I also argued that the current crop of Republican candidates has lost complete touch with truth (reality) because it is the captive of primarily one and only one way of knowing. In brief, the Republican candidates are the captives of the most primitive and debased forms of the third and fourth ways of knowing. For instance, in rejecting evolution and global warming, they are rejecting not only science, but rational thought itself. No wonder why liberals such as myself are so outraged and turned off by their ignorant rants.

But the question I want to raise here is: “How did the Republican Party become so skewed in its thinking? How did it become the captive of a perverse way of knowing and concept of ‘truth’?” There are of course sound historical answers to these questions starting with Goldwater’s humiliating defeat in ’64. As potent as these explanations are, I want to offer a different one.

In the late 60’s, a lifelong friend and colleague, Ralph Kilmann, and I hit upon the idea of putting all those with the same psychological outlook into the same group. Using a psychological test, we put all those who believed in the first way of knowing into one group; all those who believed in the second way into another one, etc. We then gave all the groups the same open-ended exercise: “What is your group’s definition and/or idea of ‘society’s most important problem?'” We also asked each group to: (1) build a collage of their problem definition so everyone could see their thinking, (2) give their collage and problem a short identifying name or label, and (3) list as many characteristics of their problem and collage as possible.

In this way, we were able to “see” personality, which by definition is an “internal state of mind,” and thus very difficult to observe by the untrained eye.

The exercise worked so well that my colleagues and I have been using it for over 40 years to help groups and organizations of all kinds to understand why different people don’t see the world in the same ways. The purpose is not only to help them understand one another better, but to use their differences constructively.

Putting people who all think alike into a common group does at least two things almost instantly. One, the particular group in which people are put very easily and quickly reaches strong, if not nearly complete, agreement. Two, the differences between the groups become magnified and even more intense. This makes it even easier to see differences in personality.
Notice carefully that we gave an open-ended exercise for if we had defined the exercise precisely, then in effect we would be operating primarily out of the first way of knowing. We deliberately wanted to give something nebulous on to which all the groups could project their different personalities.

After the groups have presented their collages, it quickly becomes apparent that each of them is speaking a totally different language. If one’s native language is German and another’s is Chinese, one usually doesn’t hesitate to involve a translator, particularly if one’s negotiations are crucial. But, one rarely involves a translator if people seem to be speaking the same language when in fact they are not.

If in addition, one introduces people into each group who are especially aggressive and extreme proponents of their particular way of looking at reality, then the groups quickly become even more extreme and one-sided. It then becomes virtually impossible for them to see that there is anything worthwhile in other ways of conceiving of reality.

In short, it is rather easy to create extreme groups. Indeed, over time, more moderate members are expelled for not adhering to the “group line.” And, the more that are expelled, the more extreme a group becomes.

I wish we could do for society at large what we are able to do in our workshops. There we are able to step back and explain how we created the groups, how and why they speak different languages, and help all the participants to come to see that the problems we are facing are so complex that they can’t even be properly defined, let alone solved, by one and only one way of looking at the world.

To build up their capacity to understand and appreciate different ways of apprehending reality, one of the other things we do is to create mixed groups. We then give them complex problems such as global warming that cannot even be defined, let alone solved, unless they integrate different ways of thinking.

To put it mildly, it takes a great deal of practice and encouragement to appreciate all four ways of knowing. To say that we desperately need more people who can do this is one of the great understatements of our time.

For this reason, I am utterly appalled when Sen. Santorum says that “going to college is an elite idea.” Really! College is one of the best, but not only, places where we can learn about ourselves by having our ideas challenged.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, March 12, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology

Reality Wars: Measuring the Collective Mental Health of a Nation

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 22, 2012

As a nation, we are fighting several “reality wars” at once. These wars are not only political, but deeply psychological. As a result, our collective mental health as a nation is being severely challenged and tested.

Like that of individuals, the mental health of a nation is measured primarily by how well it is in touch with reality. (Social scientists have long recognized that everything that applies to individuals has a direct analogue with larger social entities. Thus, the “mental health of a nation” is not an absurdity or a contradiction in terms.) Even more basic, mental health is measured in part by what an individual or nation calls reality in the first place, and how it treats it subsequently. Since language is the primary means we use to describe and invent reality, the language a nation uses to frame and treat important issues is a measure, however imperfect, of its mental health.

For example, consider what Republicans call “class warfare.” To call legitimate demands that the richest pay their fair share in taxes “class warfare” is not only a gross insult towards the downtrodden and poor, but it obfuscates the basic fact that the gap in wealth between the rich and the poor/middle-class is as large as it has ever been in our history. It tries to dismiss this painful fact through the use of a clever phrase.

We live in a society where inequality is as great as it has ever been. To ignore this painful fact is to ignore basic reality itself. In a word, one of the prominent measures of the ethical, if not mental, health of a society is its attitudes towards and treatment of its poorest citizens. Denial of what it is to be poor in contemporary America is harsh and unusual punishment.

The upshot is that the very term “class warfare” is self-reaffirming! The very denial of class warfare by those who coined and use the term is an especially pernicious form of class warfare!

The very term “class warfare” is injurious in itself. It would have us believe that there are no such things as class differences whatsoever in American society. True, Americans like to believe (delude themselves) that they live in a society governed solely by individual merit, i.e., we are a classless society. And yet, study after study shows that social–i.e., “class” factors–matter tremendously. For instance, the family into one is born is one of the most powerful predictors of one’s success later in life.

As another example, consider Congressman Darrell Issa’s disavowal of the fact (reality) that millions of women depend daily on the use of contraceptives for their health and general well being. His refusal to call any women to testify in behalf of their own health issues boggles the mind. It is nothing less but a complete dismissal of reality. For another, to call the Obama Administration’s attempt–whether it was politically right or wrong–to have hospitals of whatever denomination help pay for contraception purely a “religious issue” is another distortion.

Consider another prominent assault on reality. Even though a substantial number of women approve of abortion if only in the sense that they don’t want the government interfering with their bodies, the issue of abortion is only one part of a larger cultural war over the rights of gays to marry, etc. The point is that we are at war on multiple fronts simultaneously.

We are certainly bogged down in a prolonged and bitter war over the nature of political reality. Indeed, we are tearing ourselves apart daily over it. The issues include among many the basic legitimacy of our government, whether it has overstepped its bounds in mandating health insurance, whether President Obama is a socialist and wants us to become a “European type ‘nanny-state’,” etc.

No one is more aware than I of the dangerousness of labeling the divisiveness that grips us on nearly every front of our existence as not just a battle over the nature of political and social reality, but even more, as a measure of our collective mental health. To label those with whom one disagrees as somehow lacking in mental health is at best highly contentious. Worst, it borders on the dangerously irresponsible, if not demagogic. Indeed, I am among the first to deplore the fact that we are surrounded by candidates that so freely use demagoguery. For me, this is one of the surest signs of how low our health as a society has sunk.

Thus, I do not use such terms easily or lightly. In short, I am deeply worried about the health of a society that has let its grip on language and reality deteriorate so badly. It’s not just our physical but our underlying mental infrastructure that is in need of repair.

The history of the world is a long battle between narrow mindedness and an ever-expanding view of the universe and humankind’s place in it. For long periods, there is no denying that the forces of darkness and narrowness have assumed the upper hand. But, despite all the wars, destruction, etc., there has been an inexorable march towards greater understanding. I call this “greater understanding” a march towards greater “collective mental health.”

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 22, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics

Can This Political Marriage Be Saved? Should It?

Originally published on The Huffington Post, January 31, 2012

The view that “politics is akin to a marriage” is a casual, if not an often-expressed, sentiment. Unfortunately, almost no one takes the metaphor seriously and thus uses it to do a serious evaluation of the state of health of American politics. If we did, we would soon conclude that the “marriage” between the two major political parties is headed towards divorce, if it is not already there but for the working out of the final terms of the divorce settlement and the formal signing of the papers.

Those who have studied long-term marriages have consistently arrived at the same relatively small set of factors that make marriages successful. They are:

  1. Firm Commitment
  2. Acceptance
  3. Honest Communication
  4. Never Stop Dating
  5. G. I. V. E.
  6. C. M. A. T. (Can’t Miss A Thing)
  7. Respect

What’s important is that all of the above form a tightly interlocking system. If any of them is missing or weak, then the entire marriage is in danger. Unfortunately, this is the case with the “marriage” between the Republican and Democratic parties. Let’s look briefly each of these factors in turn.

Commitment means that in spite of the inevitable relational strife that is part of every marriage, there is a strong commitment to stay and work together. In politics where strife is not only inevitable but a vital necessity in order to arrive at sensible and effective policies and actions, the two parties have to be absolutely committed to work through their differences for their sake and the nation as a whole.

The only deal breakers in a marriage are the three A’s: adultery, abuse, and alcoholism, i.e., serious drug dependency. While adultery and alcoholism might not apply, abuse certainly does. The repeated, over-the-top, highly inflammatory talk of the Republican candidates certainly qualifies as “abuse” in my report card. In this sense, “alcoholism” can be interpreted as an “addiction” to language that is certain to drive any two people apart.

Acceptance means tolerance of the other partner’s peccadillos. In the case of politics, it means accepting that the other party’s philosophy and values are not inherently evil, just different.

Both parties are seriously at fault here even though as a partisan, liberal Democrat, I find more fault with Republicans. But then to be perfectly honest, I am one of the parties filing for divorce. I have no pretensions to “objectivity.” I don’t believe humans are capable of such a thing anyway.

Honest communication means establishing the conditions in order for it to occur. It is often said that one of the reasons for the enduring success of the British parliament is that after a heated day of argument, members would retire to club to drink and repair their feelings. We used to do so as well, but we’ve lost the ability to go on “weekend marriage retreats” that are necessary to repair any marriage. In fairness, the Brits have not been faring well here recently as well.

“Never stop dating” is exactly what it means. It means more than an occasional weekend retreat. It means making the constant time to appreciate and charm the other.

In the best marriages, both partners give 60%, not 50-50. Where the other is seen as the “enemy to be destroyed,” this has all but died.

Can’t Miss A Thing means that life is indeed too short not to enjoy it. We have only a short time on Earth to learn how to work with our opposites.

And, finally, without respect, nothing is possible.

Given all this, sadly, an amicable divorce is not only completely out of the question, but it’s already bitter.

If the divorce proceedings are already well under way such that the current marriage cannot be saved, have the two parties learned anything so that they will fare any better the second time around? Are there any prospects of better second marriages?

In its current form, I believe the answer for the Republican party is a firm “No!” Unless the party undergoes a complete makeover so that it is no longer a mob of right-wing extremists, then I see no viable prospects for future marriages that are healthy and long-lasting.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, January 31, 2012