Blog, Media + Politics

The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 5, 2012

In 1988, Rupert Wilkinson, who has taught at leading universities in America and the U.K., published a remarkable little book, The Pursuit of American Character. It is nothing short of brilliant. I only wish that more people everywhere were aware of it. If they were, they might really understand America.

The Pursuit of American Character is the single best succinct explanation of the underlying forces that drive American political behavior of which I know. The speeches and general campaigns of the current crop of Republican candidates read as if they were taken, word for word, straight out of Wilkinson.

Wilkinson identified four fears that have not only been present from the very founding of the Republic, but are so basic that they are synonymous with it:

1. The Fear of Being Owned
2. The Fear of Falling Away
3. The Fear of Winding Down
4. The Fear of Falling Apart

The Fear of Being Owned is the earliest and most basic of the four. It embodies all of the primal fears that drove our forefathers to undertake the perilous journey from the Old to the New World. The journey was not merely one of physical geography, but more fundamentally, it was a mental and spiritual journey. It was an heroic escape from the centuries old tyranny of “evil European Kings and despots” that literally did own us. No wonder why it is rooted so deeply in the American character.

The Fear of Being Owned helps to explain why the attack on “Obamacare” is so prolonged and vicious. Even though we are The Government, The Government is identified so strongly with the forces of oppression and tyranny that all the rational arguments in the world are almost powerless to overcome the perception that The Government is The Enemy even though in reality the big insurance companies are the real enemy. Like all of them, the fears are largely unconscious and thereby not open to direct examination by logical arguments alone. The only way to counter them is by getting at the deep emotions that undergird them.

The Fear of Falling Away is the fear of losing the original holy vision of a “City on a Hill” that the Founding Fathers gave us. It is the vision of an America that can do no wrong because She is the font of all that is good and right with the world.

Even though America was supposed to have no established Church or state religion, The Fear of Falling Away is not just “a vision.” It is America’s true religion. The very idea of America is a religion in which all can participate.

No wonder why the Republicans fear that in looking to the future, President Obama wants to take us away from America’s glorious past. In drawing a sharp contrast between himself and the president, doesn’t Governor Romney stress repeatedly that he wants to take us back to the values that made us great, whereas the president doesn’t?

The Fear of Winding Down is the fear that we will lose the unbridled and unbounded energy and optimism that made America great. This fear is also so basic that it’s wrapped up with all kinds of ideologies, e.g., capitalism. Thus, if President Obama would only relax the constraints on American business, then we “could get this high-energy economy going once again.” But then goes the criticism, “This President doesn’t understand business.” Worse, he’s incapable of understanding it.

The Fear of Falling Apart is the fear that we are tearing ourselves apart because of all our internal conflict, e.g., young versus old, black versus white, etc. Therefore, in contrast to the “weak leadership of the current President, we need a strong leader who understands what America is really all about.”

To dismiss these fears as completely childish and irrational, as intellectuals and liberals are prone to do, is a not only fundamental, but a grievous mistake. They may indeed be “childish and irrational,” but they are “real” to many Americans. The only really effective way to deal with them is to co-opt them as only a political genius like Bill Clinton could.

In the end of course, we desperately need new and better stories of who and what we can be. The old fears are seriously out of touch with a world that is interconnected and complex as never before.

Anyone who thinks that the world basically doesn’t run by stories needs to have their head seriously examined. But that, too, is another story!

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 5, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics

Is This the Time Bomb From Which Rush Limbaugh Cannot Finally Escape?

Originally publish on The Huffington Post, March, 7, 2012

I have been researching and consulting with regard to major crises of all kinds (criminal, natural disasters, financial, reputational, etc.) for 30 years. During this time, I have seen individuals and organizations of all types become trapped in the same disastrous pattern from which they rarely escape, or at least not completely unharmed.

First of all, the fact that they have gotten away with over-the-top, outrageous behavior repeatedly only makes them believe they can do it indefinitely. In fact, the more times they have gotten away with it, the greater their belief in their invulnerability and righteousness.

Second, coupled with an over abundant amount of unhealthy narcissism and the fact that they have been supremely rewarded over the course of their entire career for what for anyone else is gross and despicable behavior, they believe that ordinary rules don’t apply to them. (Recall Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods.) Thus, they cannot only get away indefinitely with their shameful behavior, but they can continually up the ante over time with no harm whatsoever.

Third, they believe that they don’t have anything to learn from others who have suffered similar types of crises, e.g., Don Imus, Rupert Murdoch. Thus, even though Rupert Murdoch’s empire still exists, his influence is so diminished that UK politicians no longer fear him as they once did.

Fourth, the fact that they failed to prepare adequately beforehand for a series of crises generally keeps them from responding appropriately and timely once a crisis has occurred. To put it mildly, it’s not sufficient to say that one chose one’s initial words wrongly. This only makes the original crisis worse.

In other words, crises don’t “just happen.” Long before they erupt, there are clear early warning signs of trouble. Unfortunately, because of all the above, they are generally dismissed.

Still, given our culture’s insatiable fascination with and need for celebrities — how one becomes a celebrity is almost completely irrelevant — one would be wrong to bet against Rush’s demise. Given his proven ability to bring in the “numbers,” one would not be wise to bet against his returning. After all, the typical damage control is to lie low and let it “all blow over.” And, in many cases, it does.

Nonetheless, one never knows when one has reached the “tipping point,” i.e., when the sponsors and public finally say, “Enough!”

I predict when Rush does come back, he will only escalate his behavior. He will have really learned nothing at all.

The philosopher Santayana said it best: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

In the end, Rush is his own worse enemy. His is also one of our culture’s worst enemies as well. As much as Rush assaulted Sandra Fluke — the innocent woman he so wrongly and viciously attacked — and women in general, the real tragedy is the continual assault of what is left of decency.

Originally publish on The Huffington Post, March, 7, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics

Is Truth in Politics Possible? Is Truth Possible in Anything Human?

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 28, 2012

With so much deception, if not outright falsehoods and deceit, offered up daily by the current and recent crop of Republican candidates, one has ample reason to ask, “Is truth possible in politics, let alone in anything done by humans?”

To respond adequately to this ponderous question not only requires a lifetime of study of science and philosophy, to mention only two of the many fields of knowledge that are relevant. Therefore, let me merely consider four of the primary means that humans have used historically to establish “truth.” These four also capture the major meanings that humans have meant by “truth.”

The first of course is traditional science. In this view, truth is that which is arrived at by the careful, and often painstaking, gathering of facts and their impersonal analysis by the accepted methods of science. Something is not only true if it has been produced by acceptable methods, but if in addition, it has passed rigorous review by the community of scientists.

In other words, it is not enough just to gather facts and to analyze them. The facts must be reproducible and verifiable by independent investigators. The more reproducible and verifiable the facts, the greater their “truth standing.”

Historically, science was thought to be value and theory free. Facts were presumed to be independent of values and theories. Presumably, all one needed to do was merely to open one’s eyes and look at facts by means of sophisticated instruments. Modern philosophers have rejected this view completely since values play a fundamental role in determining what we think is important to observe in the first place and how much we are willing to spend in time and effort in gathering and analyzing them.

The second way is not necessarily based on facts, although it can be. It is based primarily on the logical-philosophical, and even speculative, powers of the human mind. In this view, something is true if and only if it follows from clear, self-evident and/or verified premises and tight deductive arguments. For thousands of years, Euclidean geometry with its rigorous insistence on proofs before something was accepted as true was the gold standard. The fact that this way of thinking eventually showed that Euclidean geometry was not the only kind of geometry that was possible only added to the stature of this approach.

The third way is based on the mores of a community. It is not only what a community as a whole takes to be true, but what its ultimate values are. It includes the customs, ethics, traditions, values, and religious views of a people. At its best, this way strives to find a set of principles and values that represent and unite all of humankind. Thus, for example, it redefines marriage as “holy act that bonds two loving people irrespective of their sexual orientation.”

The point is that fundamental questions of values on which we depend cannot be fully answered by science. And in fact, science needs values–the belief that science is valuable–to get started in the first place. For instance, historically, the prime belief that the universe is both orderly and understandable comes from religion. Thus, science is more dependent on religion that it knows and acknowledges. One does not see the metaphysical concept of “intelligibility” when one looks through a microscope. Indeed, one presupposes the concept in order to be able to see anything.

Finally, the fourth way is the particular set of truths that a small group of people, typically a family or tribe, uses to guide their daily and spiritual lives. Truth is not universal in this way of being and knowing. Something is “true” if it helps a small group to live well. Nothing more.

One of the first and most fundamental points to be made is that all four of these ways presuppose and depend on one another. For instance, for all its pretensions to impersonality, science is heavily dependent on the intensely personal values of an extended community of scientists just to exist, let alone to function. Science is fundamentally dependent on a community of scientists who share the values of science. It is also dependent on the values and institutions of liberal societies. This doesn’t make the “facts” of science any less “factual.” It merely means that “facts” cannot be decoupled from human psychology and institutions.

Next, all four ways can be perverted. The Nazi scientists certainly used science for inhumane ends. And, we are all aware of how science can often be mechanistic and cold in its pursuit of truth such that it tramples on human concerns and feelings.

I stress this because as a general rule we are more inclined to see the abuses of the third and fourth ways. Because they are concerned primarily with feelings and values, we tend to see them as especially prone to emotional outbursts and prolonged bouts of irrationality. They are also prone to subscribe to the narrowest and small-minded set of values. To be sure, we have plenty of instances from the Republican candidates. For this very reason, many conclude that there is no truth in politics.

I would have us reach another conclusion. The current crop of Republican candidates not only fails miserably on all four ways (need I say more than their failure to embrace Evolution?), but the wider public does not in general fare any better.

Truth neither exists, nor is it to found, in any one of these four ways exclusively, or by themselves. In a world that is more interconnected than ever before along every conceivable dimension, we should have learned by now that “truth” is highly interdependent as well.

Now that is a scorecard on which not only to judge politicians, but all of us.

When it is based on one and only one way of thinking, run like mad whenever you hear anyone speak as if they have the “truth.”

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 28, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics

The Constant War Within: My Daily Struggle Between Reason and Unreason

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 10, 2012

Like many Americans, I suffer from a constant tug of war going on deep inside of me. On the one hand, I believe deeply in reason and scholarship. Why else would I have been a professor my entire life and currently be working on my 30th book? I also believe deeply in tolerance and forgiveness. On the other hand, I feel the constant surge of anger, and even hate, that pulses through me daily. It’s not politic to say that one hates certain ideas and people — I fervently wish it weren’t so — but in the spirit of honesty, which I prize, I can’t deny it.

Let me pick just one out of the many “statements” by the current crop of Republican candidates that makes me lose it totally. Santorum said recently:

“It is a parent’s responsibility to educate their children. It’s not the government’s job. We have sort of lost focus here a little bit. Of course, the government wants their hands on your children as fast as they can. That is why I opposed all these early starts and pre-early starts, and early-early starts. They want your children from the womb so they can indoctrinate your children as to what they want them to be. I am against that.”

The reasoned side of me points out how terribly flawed this “argument” is. First of all, even calling it an “argument” is a stretch.

It shows a complete misunderstanding of American history and the arguments of the Founding Fathers of which conservatives are so fond of quoting and reminding us constantly. First of all, in their genius, the Founders noted that no republic ever survived for long without an educated people. Widespread education was an absolute necessity if the republic was to endure. Second, public education was also necessary if a disparate group of people were to become bonded and thus share a common heritage. In short, public education served a two-fold purpose both of which were equally critical. In fact, each supported the other.

Santorum’s statement also ignores the fact that early, preschool programs have proven especially crucial, indeed essential, in lifting children out of poverty. Early in life, poor children face enormous hurdles in surmounting the numerous educational and developmental gaps between them and middle, upper class children. This is not only true for poor children of color, but for all children. It has been the case for each wave of immigration, a fact that Santorum forgets so conveniently

The thing I find so objectionable about Santorum’s statement is its unabridged paranoia about government and the implication that if government is the feared “bad guy,” then home schooling is the “good guy.” A simple-minded division of the world into “good and bad guys” is enough for me to automatically disqualify anyone from even being considered for president.
But then, all of us are subject to splitting the world into “good” versus “bad guys.” That’s why we always have to be on guard against it, for to a certain extent, I am doing it just by talking about it.

The other side of me — I don’t like to call it the “emotional side” for neuroscientists have shown that reason and emotion are inseparable aspects of the mind — feels pure disgust. The deep disgust and utter contempt I feel emanates from the fact that I was one of the poor kids who made it out of poverty because of public education. Public education from K-12, and college through graduate school, which was relatively cheap when I went to the university in the 1950s and 60s, allowed me to have a career that I still love deeply, and eventually, to become relatively well off. Although I strongly support the “Occupy Movement,” I’m not quite one of the “99 percent.” I’m certainly not one of the “one percent” either.

Santorum’s statement triggers deep disgust and contempt because it literally strikes at the very heart of my existence. It wounds me to very core of my being. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of the government. For this reason, I don’t begrudge paying one iota of taxes if it can help to lift one more soul out of poverty.

It’s not nice to admit, let alone express, that one hates certain ideas and people. I know all the bromides: hate is not good for one’s constitution; it hurts he or she who hates more than it does whom one hates; it doesn’t change anyone’s mind, etc. To a certain extent, the bromides are true and even help. I don’t hate as much as I once did. Still, it’s a never-ending battle. It’s like fighting an addiction that is always there.

One thing I know for sure. If you want to get over something about yourself that you don’t like, don’t engage in denial. Don’t pretend that it isn’t there. Face it and try to deal with it. Hardest of all, try to find the humanity in those with whom you disagree so deeply.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 10, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics

Quick! What’s My Disease?

Originally published on the Huffington Post on February 7, 2012

During his time in office, President George W. Bush gave a new meaning to the awful disease known as IBS. I called it Irritable Bush Syndrome, the gross inability to “digest and pass the truth.”

In the same spirit, let me “offer” the “list of diseases” that the current crop of Republican candidates suffers from.

First of all, there is IRS or Irritable Romney Syndrome. IRS is the chronic inability to “pass honest and sincere emotion, especially for long, sustained periods of time.” Typically, it is the result of severe cases of “unlikeability” brought on at a very early age.

Then of course, there is Gingrichritis, which is a very serious, life-threatening condition. The condition is so painful and contagious that it is just as harmful for those who have even the slightest contact with anyone who is affected by the disease. Its symptoms are well known: (1) chronic inability of the mouth to contain and/or exercise control over anything that literally explodes into the mind; (2) the ability to live in delusional, fantasy worlds for extended periods of time; (3) the uncanny ability to use words and ideas in clever ways that turn everything into an evil conspiracy of the “liberal media”; (4) to “go over the top” such that it not only blows the minds of listeners, but that it literally blows the top off of the head of the speaker; and, (4), the gift of constantly using “coded words” that are perfectly non-coded for intended audiences, for example, the ability to be a “racist, non-racist, racist!”

A particularly serious disease is Sanctorumonious. An especially odious and virulent form of Sanctorumonious is the ability to say with complete conviction and directly to the mother of a cancer-ridden child that the drug companies have the right to charge anything they want for life-saving drugs even if means that poor children will die.

And, finally there is The Perils of Pauline, or just the Perils as it is commonly known. While those who have the Perils want to rightly end foreign entanglements that make no sense, unfortunately they show little, if any, ability to understand a complex world. As a result, they retreat at every possible moment into an equally simplistic, delusional world as those who suffer from Gingrichritis, although the delusions are of course very different.

I shall not bother to discuss the diseases of the other candidates who have dropped out. I leave this to the imaginations of readers.

The thing to ponder is, “If candidates are merely some of the prime representatives of the ‘body politic,’ then what is the larger disease from which we all suffer?” And, “What’s the cure?”

Perhaps the general disease from which we all suffer is not “Class Warfare,” but “Crass War-Fear.”

Originally published on the Huffington Post on February 7, 2012