From a Political Black Sheep: Baaaaa

In the past several years, ambitious parents-to-be have tried to enhance the developing brains of their babies in utero by playing classical music to them, sometimes through headphones placed on the mother’s belly. If this does indeed affect those developing brains, then my brain was shaped by my mother’s avid attention to the 1948 national political conventions. Long before yuppie parents bellied up to Mozart, my mother insisted I surely would be influenced by convention speeches I heard before birth during that steamy summer.

The 1948 Republican convention, June 21-25, and Democratic convention, July 12-14, were both held in Convention Hall, Philadelphia. Holding both conventions in Philadelphia allowed fledgling television networks NBC and CBS to broadcast the events to the east coast, using a cable system available only in that part of the country. Home television sets were not all that common, so most people listened to the conventions on radio. (Yes, I’m that old.) I was born on the day after the end of the Democratic convention, apparently waiting politely for my mother to get through both.

I suspect Mother didn’t give as close attention to the Democratic convention as she did the Republican, but the egalitarian experience in utero seems to have fired up enough liberal-option neural cells in my brain that, despite being steeped in my mother’s conservative views for the next 18 years, I developed progressive political views. This continues to horrify my mother, who often reminds me that I helped her canvas neighbors for Goldwater and was (briefly) a Young Republican.

The 1948 presidential election had some interesting features. Members of both parties attempted to recruit General Dwight Eisenhower, but he declined to get involved, at least for the time being. The Republican convention was relatively sedate, although three ballots were required to settle on running New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey for President.

The Democratic convention provided much more drama. In fact, the conflicts splintered Democrats into three parties, Progressives, Dixiecrats, and centrist Democrats, each of which ran a presidential candidate in the November election. Henry A. Wallace was the presidential candidate on the ballot for the Progressive Party, which was strong on the New Deal and certainly wouldn’t have run screaming for the bunkers if you called them “democratic socialists” –or worse. A number of southern Democrats walked out of the convention and left the party to form what became known as the Dixiecrats. They ran then South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for President on a pro-segregation/pro-states’ rights platform. The Democrats that constituted the party after the split tepidly supported the incumbent, Harry Truman.

Because of this split and a disastrous midterm election two years before, no one expected Democrats to win—including Democrats. However, the pro-union and pro-civil rights Truman poured himself into campaigning, including a traditional whistle-stop tour across country by train. He aggressively went after Dewey, ridiculing him for avoiding the issues, while Dewey himself ran a campaign designed to attract all voters and offend none. By comparison, Truman’s campaign was sharply critical. He called the Republican-controlled Congress a “do-nothing” Congress, which sounds pretty familiar these days. Truman had nothing to lose, since he was unpopular and not polling well. In a publicly more civil era, he could afford a little bombast.

Republicans were sure they had Truman beat. Democrats were fairly sure they did, too. The press and what we now refer to as Washington Beltway insiders were convinced Dewey would win. The Chicago Tribune was so certain, they printed an early edition proclaiming “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Photos of a triumphant Truman holding up the front page of the newspaper are famous. This is what was going on the year I was born.Dewey Defeats Truman

Fairly early in my adulthood, I learned not to discuss politics with my mother. Alas, she hasn’t come to the same conclusion regarding me. She has no intention of allowing me to continue in the error of my ways. Even pushing 90, she is sure she can “win me back” to the right political philosophy and the right way of thinking about the world if she just hammers at me long enough. However, in my most recent conversation with her, she said she wouldn’t discuss politics. I suspect the respite is temporary and has something to do with blood pressure—hers and mine.

Although political opinions don’t seem to be hereditary, passionately held political opinions apparently are. I get just as wild-eyed and upset about politics as she does, only from the opposite side of the political divide. I blame my passionate political opinions on the drama I heard in utero—that or clear-headed, realistic thinking. One or the other.

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Getting Back Up on the Hobby Horse

When I was about 5-years-old, my typical fashion statement consisted of scuffed tie-shoes, droopy anklets, skinned knees, a dress of the sort typically worn by little girls in the 1950s, a holster holding a cap gun, and a painted straw cowboy hat (red, with a chin string).  Not having access to a real horse, my steeds were either a stick horse for outdoors or a rocking horse in my bedroom.  The only cowgirl role model I had at the time was Dale Evans on the Roy Rogers Show.  She hardly ever had any fun, and I’m pretty sure I never saw her handle a pistol, much less carry one in a holster.  She rarely even got to ride a horse.  It was tough being an adventurous little girl in those days.

Those memories came to mind as I was looking online to see if I really understood the term to “ride a hobby horse” before I used it in a post.  I know how I’ve always used the term, but I wasn’t sure the rest of the English-speaking world used it the same way.  Definitions I found ranged from etymological references to an extinct Irish horse breed and tourney-horse costumes worn by English morris dancers, to the “particular obsessions” of Laurence Stern’s character Tristram Shandy, and, inevitably, to use of the phrase as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.  Of course, almost any word or phrase in human language can be or has been used as a euphemism for sex.  Sometimes I wonder if human beings developed language specifically to give themselves euphemisms for sex.  The definition that came up most often was that riding a hobby horse referred to pursuing a favorite activity or pastime: thus the word “hobby” as we hear it most often.  The implication is that a hobby, like a hobby horse, doesn’t get you anywhere.

The way I’ve used the term is to refer to my own particular obsessions (other than my hobbies) that don’t get me anywhere.  For contrast, one of my hobbies is crochet, which sometimes does produce a colorful afghan or throw, even though the results tend to go a bit off.  For the most part, the hobby horses I’m referring to are my opinions about politics and social issues.  Metaphorically, I have an attic full of well worn old hobby horses that never get me anywhere.

If you read my last post (thank you!), you saw a couple of paragraphs listing many of my hobby horses.  A few years ago, someone I know suggested I start a blog as an outlet, “because you’re certainly opinionated.”  Fortunately at the time, I fought down the impulse to protest, “I am not!”

So, I may sometimes warn you that I’m about to climb onto one of those hobby horses.  If my hobby horse riding annoys or bores you, then please feel free to go bacRide em cowgirl (3)k to researching the scholarly article you’re writing, checking Facebook, or googling old classmates to see how much less successful they are compared to you.

And, as you may have figured out from my opening paragraph, I may just get up on my feminist hobby horse once in awhile.  Sometimes my cap-gun trigger finger gets itchy.

[This post was originally published on my new blog, “Ten Minutes With a Friend.”  More of my future posts will appear only there.  I’m saving Wandering Hare for when I feel a serious rant coming on.]

Roaring for Our Humanity

Cecil
Cecil the Lion. Photo source credithttp://leftfootforward.org/images/2015/07/Cecil-the-Lion-BBC-800×450.jpg

The lion—alive—was magnificent. When I saw photographs and film clips of Cecil, the lion killed recently by an American trophy hunter, I was struck by the animal’s beauty and power. If I were the sort to look at the world as a matter of dominance and hierarchies, I could see why the man who killed Cecil wanted to do so. Taking the head of this glorious animal to stuff and hang on the wall is an assertion of power and dominance unlike any other. It is primal—and pointless.

Luring a lion out of an animal refuge to be killed in an arranged “hunt,” is the epitome of cowardice and weakness, no matter how “legal” it may be. It is offensive to our humanity and an offense, I believe, to the Divine. What we feel about the death of that beautiful African lion is unambiguous. In the Natural context, Cecil was an innocent, living his life according to the rules of his world. The human hunter unnecessarily intruded into and disrupted that world. That isn’t dominance, it’s violation.

The response on the Internet has been dramatic. Since the report of the killing, we have seen an amazing out-pouring of grief, from anger by vigilante-wannabes to a flood of charming photos of cats and kittens anthropomorphically asserting, “I roar for Cecil!”

All of this attention, unsurprisingly, has been followed with complaints from people who are outraged that so many “roar” for Cecil while appearing to ignore the horrifying police violence against African-Americans in the U.S. or the shameful neglect of U.S. veterans, too many of whom end their own lives. Indeed, we should feel outrage about deadly racism, ideologically driven violence of all kinds, and shameful neglect of our responsibilities to veterans. Humanity has no shortage of hideous behaviors that should be stopped. Now.

The fact is, we live in a new era of brutality. Perhaps I’m being unfair to call our actions brutality, since the word implies animals (brutes) are more savage than humans. We know this isn’t true, even though a definition of the word “brutal” is “inhuman.” Usually, we apply the word brutish to an insensitive or crude person, someone irrational, someone showing a lack of intelligence. We humans do consider ourselves intelligent. But, clearly, we merely have the capacity for intelligence, with less and less encouragement to use it. It is as though the characteristics we once assumed were human and those we assumed were animal have been reversed. This is not the trajectory or destiny humanity once believed it had.

Although some people tell us overt violence has decreased statistically, socially tolerated brutality has increased to the point that we must force ourselves to be aware of it. It’s “just business.” If we look, we can see it all around us. News outlets batter us with sensationalized stories that are more about attracting “market share” than about relaying important information. Vicious cyber-bullying is responsible for increasing anguish and child and teen suicides. Employers no longer have a sense of responsibility to the people they employ or to the country whose opportunities have made them rich.  Anti-intellectualism and financial self-interest have led to climate change denial and the gradual destruction of a liveable environment. The social safety net is being ripped to shreds by privatizing and a relentless demand for tax cuts and smaller government. Teachers are being humiliated by union-busting governors, and public education is being sold out to profiteers. Students trying to better themselves are crushed by debt. Higher education is being sold to donors and ideologues, who want to bend the truth to suit their own interests. More and more children are being cast into poverty with little hope of escape.  Soon-to-be senior citizens are being told they should work more years and receive less support from the Social Security insurance and Medicare they’ve paid into all their working lives.

Our politics and social allegiances are so polarized that even the way we talk to each other is brutish. And how often do we tacitly approve of ruthless business practices, admiring whatever rapaciousness it takes to get ahead, to win, or, better, to get rich? In our elections, we reward vicious personal attacks and slimy, misleading commercials by not taking our disgust with us into the voting booth. We brutalize each other and ourselves by not being serious about the responsibilities of citizenship and community.

This is why I hope more and more people are moved to roar for Cecil. When we deplore this killing, we confirm that we still know right from wrong. If the death of this beautiful lion breaks our hearts, then we know we still have hearts that can feel pain for other beings and righteous anger on their behalf.

If I could speak to those who are trying to shame the people that seem to feel more compassion for a lion than for fellow human beings, I would tell them we can’t allow compassion to be degraded into a contest, like the contrived, winner-take-all conflicts of “reality” tv . We don’t have to be that way.

To fulfill the potential of our humanity, shouldn’t we stop dividing up everything to create winners and losers? What if we let our grief for Cecil awaken us and inspire empathy for all God’s creatures? Our culture as a whole has been so dehumanized that it teaches us the only option in life is to establish superiority, to dominate, not just our enemies, but anyone or anything we can subjugate or force into inferiority. Grieving, even for a single murdered lion, is a tiny crack in the concrete built up and hardened around our hearts. Compassion is like love—or it is love—which increases as it is given.

I believe we should encourage people to roar for Cecil. We should all roar our hearts out for Cecil! And, at last, we can begin to return to feeling compassion for each other, as well as righting so, so many wrongs. This is within our power as human beings.

Roar for Cecil!

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I am publishing this post on both Wandering Hare (where I’m inclined to climb on a soap box) and on my new, more casual blog Ten Minutes With a Friend.

Nature’s Logic and God’s Dilemma

Wildfires encroach on Mannford, OK water towers.

Wildfires encroach on Mannford, OK water towers.

Sometimes I think it’s a pity the ancient Greeks weren’t right about the potential selectivity of god’s wrath.  A thunderbolt would be a useful item.

Judeo-Christian concepts of god allow for much too much collateral damage.  Think of the results of Eve’s transgression and what God did to test Job.  Both resulted in a whole lot of collateral damage.

If I could throw thunderbolts like Zeus, I know where I’d aim a couple of them.

I would smite the two Senators from Oklahoma, James Inhofe and Tom Coburn.  Coburn isn’t nearly the offender that Inhofe is.  But he does sing back-up to Inhofe’s climate-denial operatics.  He has also done petty things, like threatening to block bills honoring the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring.  Coburn said Carson’s work was “junk science” and complained that her very popular book “was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT.”

In case you are too young to remember, DDT, a chemical derived from petroleum, has been virtually banned worldwide.  Recent research has associated DDT with a wide range of negative effects on human health, from being implicated in type-2 diabetes to fertility problems, birth defects, and DNA mutation.  If Coburn weren’t so influential in Congress, I’d just pass him over as a screwball and let it go.

However, Inhofe is the real culprit.  He is ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, and he published a book in 2012 titled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.  Inhofe takes button-busting pride in “exposing Climate-gate,” which turned out to be much ado about nothing.  He is also extremely proud of blocking or countering any pro-environment legislation.  He hates the EPA.

Even though the climate statistics brouhaha Inhofe was boasting about was cleared up by investigations conducted by the University of East Anglia, the British House of Commons, Penn State University, and the EPA, Inhofe still insists these institutions are trying to mislead the public because they have an interest in scaring people about climate change.  Sure they do.

Inhofe also refuses to accept the recent meta-study that analyzed thousands and thousands of research articles on climate from the past several years.  The authors of this meta-study found that about 97% of these articles agreed that humanity is largely responsible for the steep increase in global temperatures compared to periods of warming in the past.  Only about .07% of the scientific articles disagree with that conclusion.  Nevertheless, Inhofe said in an interview with Rachel Maddow that it was not true more scientists believe humans contribute to global warming.  Apparently, real numbers mean nothing to him.

Inhofe believes what he wants to believe.  And his major campaign donors—all in the fossil fuels industry–seem to get good return on their money.

He even believes God is on his side: “God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

In other words, god will correct humanity’s mistakes—as well as compensate for the oil companies’ greed and gross negligence.  Without thunderbolts, god may decide to correct the damage with another Great Flood.  Or maybe he will just wait for us to destroy ourselves (with Inhofe’s help) and then restore the Earth to Eden.

That’s a whole lot of collateral damage just to punish the small percentage of people unwilling to follow Nature’s logic.

So, that’s why I’d like to smite Inhofe with a thunderbolt.  He and conservatives like him, who are more concerned about profits than the viability of the planet, block others’ efforts to mitigate global warming.

Unfortunately, Nature’s logic is cause-and-effect.  If we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, sunlight will make the planet warmer.  We’ll have changing weather patterns, droughts in some areas and floods in others.

A serious drought dried out Oklahoma over the past few years.  Last summer, the heat topped 100 degrees day after day, week upon week.  The heat recorded in the state capitol reached historic levels, tying or exceeding temperatures last seen during the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Wildfires burned thousands of acres and consumed well over 100 structures, most of them homes.  Whole towns as well as rural residents, including members of my own family, had to be evacuated to avoid the flames.

My sister and mother coping with having no electricity or running water after being allowed to return home.

My sister and mother coping with having no electricity or running water after returning home.

From the perspective of the Old Testament, this is god’s wrath.  If the hellish weather affected only James Inhofe, that would be fine.  Just desserts.  But it doesn’t affect just James Inhofe.  It affects my 87-year-old mother and my sister and her beloved horses and all the people of Oklahoma and on Earth, no matter what their political beliefs.

Nature’s logic will not be denied, which means god’s dilemma is the choice between a thunderbolt or what will very likely be our suffering and demise.  All of us.

Be Very Afraid

Rolling Stone Illustration

The image you’re seeing with this post is from a Rolling Stone article, “The GOP’s Real Agenda.”  It was written by Tim Dickinson and published online March 13, 2013.  The subhead reads: “Since last fall, Republicans have pretended to be more moderate–but their politics are harsher and more destructive than ever.”

I strongly urge you to read it, if you are interested in the political future of the nation.  It is a succinct, well-written explanation of Republican intentions and activities at this time.  This piece articulates the issues far better than I can.  This is the url:

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-gops-real-agenda-20130313

I might as well warn you–it’s depressing as hell.  But if you care, don’t look away.

Skin in the Game

William Blake's Cain and Abel

William Blake’s Cain and Abel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Budget season has started in Congress.  I’ve heard that this is also called “silly season,” but that term could apply to most of what happens in Congress.  Although the ultimate consequences of the budget battle are profoundly serious, the next several months will consist of a lot of political posturing and agit-prop (a form of street theater intended to “agitate” on behalf of a cause, aka propaganda).  The outcome will determine if rich people have bigger bank accounts or if the rest of us keep jobs and our access to important services.  The conflict driving the debate is ideological: is small government better for the country than safe food, a protected environment, student loans, medical and scientific research, preventing terrorism and crime, and caring for the poor, elderly, disabled, and people temporarily down on their luck.  This essential conflict in caring for each other is an old one.

“And the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ And he said, ‘I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

In the Biblical book of Genesis, Cain, son of Adam and Eve, kills his younger brother Abel because God has shown preference for Abel’s offering of “the firstlings of his flock” of sheep.  Cain, a farmer, had made an offering of the fruits of the land.  Something seems to have been wrong with Cain’s offering, because God did not respond favorably.  This and God’s acknowledgement of Abel’s offering made Cain angry.  God said, “Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen?”  Cain does not respond.  God continues, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.”

Biblical scholars have speculated for millennia as to why Cain’s offering was unacceptable.  The most logical reason seems to be that Cain decided to hold back part of his offering or make an offering of lesser significance, apparently favoring his own ego or at least keeping more of his profits for himself.  If this is so, it emphasizes the contrariness of Cain’s reaction to God’s admonition to do better in the future.  Instead of examining his own actions and motives in relation to God’s displeasure, Cain gives in to the sin that lies waiting outside the door:  He kills his brother Abel.  Then he compounds his sin by shrugging it off in what is essentially a lie to God’s face.  When God asks where Abel is, Cain answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Cain need not have “kept” or guarded his brother in order to prevent Abel’s death, since he himself was the murderer.  He needed only to feel the love or even just the kinship of brotherhood.

The early 19th Century Presbyterian minister Albert Barnes, amplified this passage in his commentary on Genesis 4:9—

No man is the absolute keeper of his brother, so as to be responsible for his safety when he is not present. This is what Cain means to insinuate. But every man is his brother’s keeper so far that he is not himself to lay the hand of violence on him, nor suffer another to do so if he can hinder it. This sort of keeping the Almighty has a right to demand of every one – the first part of it on the ground of mere justice, the second on that of love. But Cain’s reply betrays a desperate resort to falsehood, a total estrangement of feeling, a quenching of brotherly love, a predominance of that selfishness which freezes affection and kindles hatred. This is the way of Cain.

The members of Congress who voted against or delayed relief for the people whose homes and lives were wrecked by Hurricaine Sandy certainly didn’t push the hurricane ashore, so they might think they can respond to God’s question as Cain did.  But the truth is they should have felt kinship—some even more than others.  And they should have honored the justice of helping people who had helped them in the past.   Instead, they were willing to let others suffer saying, “We can’t afford it.”  To be blunt, these politicians refused to vote for disaster relief for others because they had no skin in the game—their constituents weren’t the ones suffering.

“We can’t afford it” is also what conservative politicians say about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, student loans and other programs of mutual support and compassion.  They are loyal members of their own small but powerful ideological and socio-economic cohort, but they are not responsible citizens of the whole United States of America.

Having skin in the game isn’t just a matter of whose home is being destroyed by winds, swept away by floods, or destroyed by wildfires.

Skin in the game has to do with brotherhood, sisterhood, shared national identity and shared humanity.  When conservatives say, “We can’t afford it,” they are shrugging their shoulders and saying, as Cain did to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

We can define the issue in theological terms, but the theology simply reflects the basics of human community.  Anthropologist Catherine Bateson points out our species could not have survived without “caring for the weak.” She observes the “success” of human beings depends on cooperation and mutual support.  As Bateson says, “Nor would we have survived if our families, tribes and communities had been based solely on calculated advantage.”*  The conservatives in this Congress look at budgeting as a matter of calculated advantage for the “makers” as opposed to the people they see as “takers.”  They have no skin in the game because they do not value our shared humanity.  It gives them no advantage.

Republicans haven’t always been this way.  How sad that they are now.  When they say we can’t “afford” to take care of hungry children, veterans who have fought to protect us, seniors, and the poor, they are actually saying people—the lives of real human beings—are not important compared to cutting taxes for the wealthy.  They are saying they are unwilling to find a way to pay for the needs of community.

Modern conservatives have decided to dumb-down the heart.

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* There is more on this in my 2/27/13 post “It’s Just a Game, Really.”

The Wrong Question

Lightning at Capitol2

My spouse and I get a kick out of watching Jeopardy on tv and playing along.  If you’ve been living on another planet for the past few decades, Jeopardy is a trivia and intellectual challenge game show in which contestants try to supply the question for the answer in the box they’ve chosen.  See?  The conventional order of question-then-answer is reversed.  If the contestant’s response isn’t posed as a question, it doesn’t count.

This comes to mind as Congress now tries to grapple with it’s own refusal to cooperate “across the aisle.” Since so much is at stake in the financial negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, I think they should spend a little time playing Jeopardy with their own intentions and results.

So, if the sequester is the answer, what was the question?  From what we can tell, the question could be framed thusly: “Since Congress is polarized and incapable of governing now (at the time they voted for it), what consequences for polarized inaction do we put into legislation in order to force compromise and action down the road?”  At the time Congress voted for the sequester, it seemed like a rational—and motivational—answer to deadlock.

This question and answer wouldn’t make it onto Jeopardy, since the game show’s question-as-answer is generally much more simply expressed.  But it gets to the immediate issue fairly well.  The trouble in the current crisis created by stubborn politicians in Congress is politics, not government.

During the debate on the Affordable Healthcare Act in 2009, Rep. Alan Grayson (D) offered this Jeopardy-type answer in a speech in the House: “The Republican plan is don’t get sick.  And if you do get sick, die quickly.” According to Grayson, this was the answer to the simple question: what is the Republican plan for healthcare?

Republicans were outraged by Grayson “partisan” accusation.  Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R) from Tennessee responded to Grayson: “That is about the most mean-spirited partisan statement that I’ve ever heard made on this floor, and I, for one, don’t appreciate it.”

Grayson stood by his interpretation of what Republicans were saying in the debate: “When you don’t have a plan, what that means is your plan is don’t get sick.  So what I said is true.” Grayson not only refused to apologize to Republicans, he apologized instead to the 44,000 people who die  without insurance each year because of Republican obstruction.

Interestingly, Republican outrage at Grayson’s remarks cooled quickly as the brouhaha brought more and more attention to the Republicans’ no-answer position.  Grayson had not only given the answer, he had identified the real question.

In the healthcare debate and other debates on important issues making their way through Congress, President Obama has been accused by progressives of poor negotiating—giving too much to conservatives and getting nothing in return.  Although we have to be grateful that the Affordable Healthcare Act passed, what did pass becomes the “answer” for the urgent question about skyrocketing healthcare costs and human suffering.  It isn’t the answer we need.

As a progressive, I would have said that the question Congress should have asked is “As a nation, how do we provide healthcare for people who are suffering and dying without it?”

Obviously, conservatives did not see that as the question.  Their question regarding this legislation was on an entirely different topic: “How do we prevent Obama from winning a second term?”  Or the Grover Norquist question: “How do we shrink government down to where we can ‘drown it in a bathtub’?”

In public policy, intractable problems involving such radically different ideologies or beliefs have come to be known as “wicked problems.”  For example, the issue of abortion rights is a wicked problem in that Pro-Life forces favor the rights of the unborn and Pro-Choice forces favor the rights of the living woman.  Wicked problems like this have no final answers.  All answers are provisional and merely “better” under the circumstances.  No absolutes.

However, the debates in Congress these days are not wicked problems.  These problems have answers, if people are willing to hear and to admit we live in a pluralist society that has come to value profit over human suffering.  Some people think the gridlock is an issue of governance.  Republicans want less government and therefore try to starve and whither it.  Democrats don’t want bigger government, contrary to what Republicans say, but rather they want humane answers to large-scale human problems—the problems they believe only government can address.

Because they want to starve government, Republicans in Congress are taking advantage of the economic crisis to push austerity.  This would not only shrink government but put financial restraint into law and thus legitimize it, even in relation to large-scale human suffering, such as the devastation from Hurricane Sandy.

Democrats and progressives have allowed conservatives and Republicans to define the questions and thus drive the action in Congress.  In attempting to make a deal (that is, attempting to make government work), Democrats have buried themselves in the individual issues and lost track of the fact that they truly represent the greater good.

If our federal and state governments are making it harder for lower-income people to vote, and if they are firing teachers and firefighters in an economy that needs them also as consumers, if Americans go hungry, if children and parents are being kicked out of their homes, if people are struggling without work or resources, if people are sick and dying when they needn’t be, if the elderly are fearful of the illness and poverty that awaits them when Republicans fully regain power, if the middle class that supports our economy is dwindling in number and political power, then what is the question to which all that is the answer?

If you tell me it’s the answer to the question, “How do we shrink government and attempt to solidify conservative power,” I must broken-heartedly agree.  Obviously, cold-hearted conservatives are writing the rules of the game, and the goal of the game is jeopardy for us all.

Image source–  http://www.online-utility.org/image/gallery.jsp?title=Lightning

All’s Fair

Profit

Although we often repeat the old saying “All’s fair in love and war,” we don’t believe it.  We have laws forbidding stalking, for instance, and humanity has tried to slightly lessen the immoral ugliness of war with the Geneva Conventions (Bush-Cheney aside).  However, we do seem to allow the “all’s fair” motto to apply in business.  So, we should change the saying: all’s fair in the pursuit of profit, but not in love and war. I realize this elevates business to the grand human scale of love and war, but that has already happened without our awareness or permission.  A fact is a fact (unless you’re a right-winger).

This hasn’t always been true.  For a while, we did have some rules about profit and responsibility, about honest banking, truth in advertising, food and drug quality, and fair treatment of workers.  To be sure, fair treatment of workers came only after bloodshed, but we did have something closer to fairness for a few decades.

As a society, we’ve come to excuse the callous indifference of business practices as though that is the way it must be.  We’ve allowed corporations the privileges of citizenship without the responsibilities of citizenship, including ordinary fairness and humane consideration of those over whom they have power.  After all, the purpose of business is profit and all’s fair in the pursuit of profit.

In pursuit of profit, we can close factories, move jobs to Asian sweat shops, devastate American communities, and renege on contracts for employee pensions.  In pursuit of profit, we can cut corners, even on government contracts for equipment that protects our men and women in the military from injury and death.  In pursuit of profit, we can allow pharmaceutical companies to put production convenience above preventing drug shortages that harm and kill people who are already suffering illness.  We can look the other way for too long, allowing a compounding pharmacy to sink into such unsanitary conditions that dozens of people receiving pain injections die from meningitis.

In pursuit of profit, we can lure eager young people and returning veterans into for-profit college contracts that leave them deeply in debt during what should be the most productive years of their lives.  We allow bankers and financiers to manipulate commodity prices and create financial “instruments” that permit them to profit by betting against the success of ordinary investors and people trying to achieve the American dream of owning a home.  We allow the banking and credit industries to enforce usurious interest rates and charge unconscionable fees.

We have taken our “all’s fair” motto so far that we have even allowed government, the people’s voice and protector, to be reconfigured into a profit-protecting enforcer by reducing regulation, into a profit-creator through privatizing, and a profit-increaser through corporate welfare, through tax cutting and tax evasion for the rich.  Now, we’re in the process of possibly electing a president and vice-president who have promised to maximize their own profit and tax advantages at the expense of the elderly, the poor, and the suffering by slashing Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and other community-care programs.

All’s fair in pursuing profit—even starting wars and demeaning the very idea that we should love one another or care for “the least of these.”  Revising the old saying about what’s fair has become necessary now that we have revised what a civilized society is for.

The Dangerous Rich

People with a lot of money don’t impress me–at least not because they have money and rarely for any other reason.  Wealth doesn’t impress me because it can be acquired in many less-than-admirable ways.  It can be inherited, of course, which is no accomplishment. Money can also be acquired through criminal acts, as with mobsters, the so-called “smartest men in the room” at Enron, Bernie Madoff, and drug pushers.  Even when money is acquired through legal means (technically speaking), that acquisition can violate the Golden Rule (if you are religious) or fundamental fairness (even if you’re not religious).

But that isn’t why I wanted to write about the dangerous rich.  I had intended to write a piece about the research showing that wealthy and powerful people can be less compassionate, more selfish, and more unethical than people with less money.  My concern is political.  The rich are powerful at any time, but now they are on the verge of what can only be called a coup.  So I started gathering the original research articles to make sure I understood what I was writing about.  I’ve listed the ones I gathered below, some with quotes and my own emphasis (sometimes using the popular press headlines to summarize more succinctly).

I found some studies that may in part explain the 2008 economic collapse:

“Share Traders More Reckless Than Psychopaths, Study Shows.” Der Spiegal, 9/26/2011. Report of research at University of St. Gallen in Switzerland by Pascal Scherrer (forensic expert) and Thomas Noll (administrator at a Swiss prison).      http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/going-rogue-share-traders-more-reckless-than-psychopaths-study-shows-a-788462.html

Quote from Der Spiegel article: “Particularly shocking for Noll was the fact that the bankers weren’t aiming for higher winnings than their comparison group. Instead they were more interested in achieving a competitive advantage. Instead of taking a sober and businesslike approach to reaching the highest profit, ‘it was most important to the traders to get more than their opponents,’ Noll explained. ‘And they spent a lot of energy trying to damage their opponents.’”

Buckholtz, Joshua W., et al.  “Mesolimbic dopamine reward system hypersensitivity in individuals with psychopathic traits.”  Nature Neuroscience 13,419–421(2010) doi:10.1038/nn.2510   Published online14 March 2010.  Reported in “Psychopaths’ brains wired to seek rewards, no matter the consequences.” Vanderbilt News;  Posted Mar. 16, 2010 — 12:42 PM  http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2010/03/psychopaths-brains-wired-to-seek-rewards-no-matter-the-consequences-109865/

DeCovny, Sherree.  “The Financial Psychopath Next Door CFA Magazine.  March/April 2012, Vol. 23, No. 2: 34–35  (doi: 10.2469/cfm.v23.n2.20)

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. By Paul Babiak, Ph.D., and Robert D. Hare, Ph.D.; published by ReganBooks, http://www.harpercollins.com (Web); 353 pages.

Marshall, L.A. & Cooke, D.J. (1999). “The Childhood Experiences of Psychopaths: A Retrospective Study of Familial and Societal Factors.”  Journal of Personality Disorders, 13, 211-225. [Reported in Bennetto, Jason. “Q: What’s the difference between a politician and a psychopath? A: None.” The Independent. 04 September 1996.]

While most of the bankers and traders who brought down the economy are indeed rich (at our expense—which I will address later), they are actually part of a “perfect storm” of uncompassionate conservatives, including the religious right.  Consider this study….

L. R. Saslow, R. Willer, M. Feinberg, P. K. Piff, K. Clark, D. Keltner, S. R. Saturn. My Brother’s Keeper? Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/1948550612444137

These studies of the ethics of rich and high status people should inform and alarm us in relation to the massive campaign donations allowed to the rich and the conservative ideology that favors the rich:

P.K. Piff, D.M. Stancato, S. Cote, R. Mendoza-Denton, D. Keltner.  “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1118373109.

In two tests, researchers found that upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other cars and pedestrians at crosswalks. The researchers used age, vehicle make and appearance to assess drivers’ social class.

In another series of tests involving undergraduate students and adults, researchers found that those who considered themselves “upper class” were more likely to take valued items from others — including candy, even after they were told that whatever was left over would be given to children.

Others exhibited a greater willingness to lie during negotiations and cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize.

The authors of the study said the differences in ethical behavior can be explained, at least in part, by the upper-class participants’ more favourable attitude toward greed. [As summarized in a report appearing in The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/27/rich-people-less-ethical-study_n_1304800.html?view=print&comm_ref=false

Jennifer E. Stellar, Vida M. Manzo, Michael W. Kraus, Dacher Keltner. “Class and compassion: Socioeconomic factors predict responses to suffering.”. Emotion, 2011; DOI: 10.1037/a0026508  Reported in“Lower Classes Quicker to Show Compassion in the Face of Suffering.”  Published online inScienceDaily (Jan. 5, 2012)  A more thorough report is available from U.C. Berkeley at:  http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/12/19/classandincome/

“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” Jennifer Stellar, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley and the lead author of the study, is quoted as saying in a press release. “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”

“Rick Santorum:  ‘I Have No Problem With Income Inequality.’”  The Huffington Post, 12/20/11.

Association for Psychological Science (2008, December 23). “Are Power And Compassion Mutually Exclusive?”. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/12/081217124154.htm

M. W. Kraus, S. Cote, D. Keltner . Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy. Psychological Science, 2010; 21 (11): 1716 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610387613  Reported in “Upper-Class People Have Trouble Recognizing Others’ Emotions.” ScienceDaily (Nov. 23, 2010)

Quoting from an article by Max Abelson (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-20/bankers-join-billionaires-to-debunk-imbecile-attack-on-top-1-.htm) on the Bloomberg web site we can see that the wealthy seem to want empathy and compassion even if they’re not able or willing to give it:

If successful businesspeople don’t go public to share their stories and talk about their troubles, “they deserve what they’re going to get,” said Marcus, 82, a founding member of Job Creators Alliance, a Dallas-based nonprofit that develops talking points and op-ed pieces aimed at “shaping the national agenda,” according to the group’s website. He said he isn’t worried that speaking out might make him a target of protesters.

“Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” Marcus said. “Are you kidding me?”

Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co, was another financial leader quoted in the Bloomberg article: “Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it.”  You may remember JPMorgan Chase & Co has been in the news quite a bit lately.  In an article titled “JPMorgan Chase’s 11 Biggest Problem” by Mark Gongloff (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/jpmorgan-chase-lawsuits-probes_n_1764194.html), Gongloff outlines a few of the issues:

[Dimon’s] bank, JPMorgan Chase, the biggest bank in the U.S., unveiled a long list of lawsuits and regulatory probes in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday. One of the most noteworthy was the fusillade of subpoenas and lawsuits hitting the bank from around the world as part of its alleged involvement in the manipulation of Libor, a key lending rate.

But Libor is far from the bank’s only problem: It is being sued and investigated for everything from its $5.8 billion loss on crazy credit derivatives bets to its alleged manipulation of electricity markets.

Normally I would summarize and explain all these articles myself, without just listing them with a few quotes and comments.  However, the more I gathered and read the research, the more depressed I got.  I was reading all this against the background of the nightly news reporting on the effects of the Citizens United ruling on campaigns as well as reporting on the Republicans’ successful voter suppression efforts in most of our 50 states.  It was depressing, very, very depressing.  I found myself trying to combat the depression with methods I’ve used before when humanity seems completely horrible and doomed.  As the methods began to work, I decided to abandon writing about the dangerous rich and instead write about the things that make me feel good about humanity.

However, in order to get to the place where you could understand my humanity-caused depression and efforts to raise my spirits, I felt that I had to explain all that you’ve read above.  Now that I’ve written it, I’m depressed again.  Maybe I’ll explain my depression-relieving methods another day—providing they work this time.

Photo credit:  http://2bgr8stock.deviantart.com/art/Money-Cash-113445826

Megalomaniacs Not-Anonymous

Call it nervous laughter or just inappropriate, I found myself hooting fairly often at Newt Gingrich’s insane grandiosity during the Republican primaries.  In fact, when he declared, “By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American,” I spent a couple of happy hours finding material online to compare him with my truly favorite megalomanic–The Brain.

For those of you who’ve never heard of him, The Brain is one half of the famous (?) Warner Brothers animated duo “Pinky and The Brain.”  According to that other pop culture phenomenon Wikipedia,  “Pinky and Brain are genetically enhanced laboratory mice who reside in a cage in the Acme Labs research facility. Brain is self-centered and scheming; Pinky is good-natured but feebleminded. In each episode, Brain devises a new plan to take over the world, which ultimately ends in failure, usually due to Pinky’s idiocy or the impossibility of Brain’s plan.”

Every episode of  “Pinky and The Brain” would begin with this dialogue:

Pinky: “Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”

 The Brain: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world!”

I don’t mean to be rude, but can’t you imagine pretty much the same conversation taking place in the Gingrich household every night?

Even though Gingrich withdrew from the race a few weeks ago, he didn’t go without stating what would indeed seem obvious to a narcissistic megalomaniac–“I think obviously that I would be a better candidate.”  Please note that, although the wording is ambiguous, what he probably is not saying is that it is obvious he would think so, but rather that he thinks his superiority is obvious.   We may not get much more humor in this campaign season, so let us savor this in the comfort of knowing even Republican voters ultimately saw through the crazy grandiosity.