Truth Wars: The Bitter Divide Between Conservative and Progressive Belief Systems

Originally published on The Huffington Post, May 23, 2012

Every so often, a truly great book comes along. When God Talks Back: Understanding the Evangelical Relationship With God by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann is certainly one of these.

Let me recount briefly the main argument of Luhrmann’s book. Doing so not only helps us to understand better the Christian evangelical mind, but strangely enough, why Democrats and Republicans are divided so strongly. In a word, Luhrmann gives us deep insight into the nature of different belief systems and why the battle between them is often so bitter and prolonged.

People are drawn to Christian evangelicalism for a variety of reasons. Among the more typical are: life-long struggles with addiction, alcoholism, a history of bad relationships, loneliness, social isolation, and the general feeling that they are missing something deep and fundamental in life. Accompanying these is also the feeling that one not only needs, but is ready to forge a personal relationship with God.

In terms of belief systems, the initial reasons are technically known as “initial inputs or starting beliefs.” More fundamentally, they are “tentative ‘truths'” that the system will “operate on” in highly specified ways so as to produce a “final state of truth” or more generally “state of Being.” This “final state” is typically not an abstract proposition but a strong prescription to engage in actions of some kind to change either oneself and/or the world. The “final truth or state” is also known as the “output” of a belief system. Since it is generally regarded as “established beyond doubt,” it is therefore regarded as “The Truth.”

Luhrmann shows in great detail what the “operators” are in Christian evangelicalism that “transform” the “inputs” into “final established Truth.” In short, they are a carefully orchestrated and prolonged series of “special spiritual exercises” such as distinct types of praying that train the mind first to imagine and then experience via all the senses a different reality.

The “output” is a “direct, personal experience and a day-to-day, on-going, permanent relationship with God!” One no longer just “believes in God” in the abstract but “knows God intimately” as one would a personal friend. The derived benefits, and thereby additional “outputs,” are enhanced calm and peace. The ultimate end is a “heightened emotional state.”
One of the most important components of a belief system is the Guarantor. The Guarantor is the set of underlying beliefs that are accepted without question. They are undeniably true. As such, they constitute the absolute, foundational bedrock of the entire system. In Christian evangelicalism, the Guarantor is the unquestioned belief that The Bible is literally true and that God exists without doubt.

As I read Luhrmann, I thought constantly of the recent, drawn-out, and bitter debates between the Republican candidates. Although both parties constantly use emotional appeals, I believe that it is not an exaggeration to say that with its extreme tilt to the right, the Republican Party is much closer to a Christian evangelical mindset than the Democrats. For example, I am still struck by the extreme emotional belief systems of Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum, not to mention Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

In effect, nearly everything in their so-called arguments” is pure “output.” That is, the sheer outrageousness of a claim, i.e., the “output Truth,” is simultaneously the “input,” “operator,” and the “Guarantor.” No wonder why liberals and progressives who believe so deeply in Reason are so offended and feel a deep sense of revulsion. Everything is not only hopelessly confounded and entangled, but sheer emotional drivel. There are no independent corroborating facts as it were.

Nonetheless, as I have argued repeatedly in HuffPost, I would strongly caution liberals and progressives not to eschew emotion altogether. The proper moral of the story is that more than ever, reason and emotion need to work together. So-called logically pure belief systems may move scientists, but they are hardly sufficient to move the larger body of people to think great thoughts and/or to undertake great actions. At present, Luhrmann shows that conservatives understand this far better that liberals and progressives.

We liberals and progressives are not as smart as we would like to believe we are. We have a lot to learn about belief systems.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, May 23, 2012

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Wall Street: An Unmitigated Culture of Risk

Originally published on The Huffington Post, May 16, 2012

Co-written by Murat Alpaslan

Earlier this year, we published Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes. It was an in-depth study of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. While it was written long before the latest JP Morgan Chase debacle, unfortunately, it anticipated it perfectly. Indeed, it predicted that unless there were momentous changes in the culture of Wall Street, we were in for more of the same.

We are dealing with a perfect storm of (1) complex financial instruments that are beyond the abilities of even the best so-called experts, let alone ordinary mortals, to understand adequately, and (2) an enabling culture of Wall Street that despite all disclaimers to the contrary has little interest and will in understanding and mitigating risk. In short, the financial temptations to engage in risky activities are too great, especially for those with a predisposition towards psychopathology. Apparently, Wall Street tends to attract and nurture psychopaths in greater numbers than are found in the general population.

The complexity of the financial instruments and the lack of proper regulation of the industry are certainly key factors in what caused the latest crisis. Still, it demonstrates once again that until the culture of Wall Street is reformed radically, unscrupulous agents will find ways around the best regulations.

When the Great Financial Crisis started to unfold, Mitroff was fortunate to have repeated conversations with a friend — call him Adam Smith (not his real name, and not necessarily his real gender; in fact, “Adam” is a composite of several people) — who works for a major bank. Adam has uncovered a set of primary assumptions and beliefs that are at the heart of the financial industry. The assumptions and beliefs that he has exposed result from hours of interviews and conversations that Adam has conducted with some of the top Wall Street analysts, managers, and executives. They are also the result of his analyzing countless books, reports, and articles. They derive as well from Adam’s many hours of working among and thus observing at first hand the behavior of the “natives.”

The following set of assumptions and beliefs that Adam observed not only tell us about the dominant culture of Wall Street but they also reveal its dark side as clearly and starkly as anything:

1. We are the Masters of the Universe; we can manipulate anything and anybody to our advantage; we can “game the numbers and the system to serve our needs.”
2. We’re smarter than anyone else; unless you are as smart as us, you can’t possibly understand the complicated financial instruments we’ve invented.
3. We don’t need controls and regulations. We have been selected for our unique skills and talents. As a result, we know what’s best for us.
4. We bet and play with others’ money. It’s a high-risk, high-reward environment. It’s not for everyone.
5. We are entitled to the huge amounts of money we make because of the value of the huge deals that we bring to market.
6. We don’t fail — period! We’re too big and important to fail. Indeed, the world cannot allow us to fail because we are essential to the functioning of the world’s capital markets.
7. Since numbers are the only things that really matter, we can manage risk by reducing it to a mathematical equation.
8. You are only as good as your “last kill” — that is, “big deal.” If you are not producing, then you are not valued.
9. To succeed you have to make difficult decisions. There is no room for bleeding hearts. If, in order to get ahead, you have to fire your best friend, then don’t think twice about doing it.
10. We can’t control the markets. We just pay attention to today and to the transactions immediately in front of us that are within our control.
11. If you’re standing still, then you’re “moving backwards.”
12. We are a culture based on performance. We are constantly grading and weeding out the weak and underperforming.

All of the preceding assumptions and beliefs not only reflect the narrow-mindedness and insularity of Wall Street, but they express a deep sense of entitlement and narcissism, as well as an inability and/or unwillingness to self-regulate. In fact, the assumptions and beliefs constitute a self-sealing and perpetuating system. In many ways, they are nothing but primitive defense mechanisms. They certainly reveal the underlying psychopathology inherent in the system.
Obviously, not everyone in the industry subscribes fully to these beliefs, but according to Adam, the majority not only overlooked and tolerated them to a great degree, but sadly, they still do.

A Culture of Trust

A financial system is basically a trust-based system. No financial system can operate effectively without trust.

Even after the financial crisis, most of us still have to assume that our financial system is trustworthy. For instance, we still trust that “money” is a valid form of payment and assume that others do as well. We trust that the banks will be there tomorrow. We trust that our pension funds, insurance companies, and investment advisers have our best interests in heart. We trust policy makers. We trust the Fed chairman’s monetary policies. In short, trust is the central assumption in any financial system.

With this firmly in mind, let us offer a set of counter assumptions or beliefs that a trust-enhancing financial system would have. Indeed, given recent events, doing everything that we can to ensure such a system is of the highest priority.

1. We are the Moral Masters of the Universe; we never manipulate anything and anybody to our advantage.
2. We have been selected for our unique moral values. Although we can self-regulate, we also want controls and regulations.
3. We never bet with your money. We don’t take unnecessary risks with your money that we wouldn’t take with ours. We know what’s best for you and all of us.
4. We are not entitled to the amounts of money we make unless we bring do so responsibly.
5. We make mistakes! We know we are essential to the functioning of the world’s capital markets. That is why we will not get too big to fail.
6. Moral values matter. We manage risk but never reduce it to a mathematical equation.
7. We are only as moral as our last action. If we are not acting morally, then we ought not to be valued.
8. To succeed we have to make difficult decisions. But there is no room for machismo. We try to make the best decisions, and we never put aside our values and emotions.
9. We can’t control the markets. But we do our best to pay attention to the future.
10. We are a culture based on trust. We are constantly grading and weeding out the untrustworthy.

The main cause of the Great Financial Crisis was not merely financial. It was also cultural. The financial system needs to move from a culture of selfishness and narcissism to a culture of trust.

Obviously, given recent events, we have no illusions whatsoever that moving to a new culture is either easy or forthcoming. For this reason, we have to keep the pressure on.

Given Adam’s penetrating analysis, we can no longer pretend that we do not know the underlying cultural forces at work. We have indeed met the enemy, and “he is us!”

Originally published on The Huffington Post, May 16, 2012

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Why I Am Not and Will Never Be a Libertarian! To Ensure Our Health and Safety, We Need to Get Tough on Crisis Prone Companies

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, May 8, 2012

Let me state my main thesis at the outset: There is a dangerous class of companies and organizations that are Severely Crisis Prone. (For brevity, I shall simply refer to them as companies.) These companies pose a severe threat to our health, safety, and the environment. Since they are largely unable and unwilling to learn from those companies that are prepared for crises — Crisis Prepared — and thus do everything in their power to mitigate major threats to health, etc., government must play a far more active role in regulating and overseeing Crisis Prone companies. If only for this reason alone, I am not and will never be a Libertarian!

For over 30 years, my colleagues and I having been studying crises and disasters of all kinds. We have not only found why crises happen, and ideally what can be done to prevent them, but why we need strong government oversight and intervention to protect the public from unscrupulous companies. In short, if companies won’t do everything in their power to lower substantially the odds of major crises — BP is a prime case in point — then the government needs to step in and force companies to have adequate crisis plans and procedures.

Let me make the case by contrasting two very different types of companies. One type is Severely Crisis Prone while the other is Crisis Prepared. Of course, these two are merely the end points of a broad continuum. Thus, many different types of companies exist in between. Nonetheless, while the two are definitively extremes, they do exist. If anything, they help us see clearly the nature of the full spectrum.

More to the point, at best only 10 to 20 percent of companies are Crisis Prepared. Roughly 10 to 20 percent are Severely Crisis Prone. This means that some 60 percent of companies are Crisis Prone to varying degrees. Since crises are increasingly a major fact of life, this puts all of in jeopardy.

Severely Crisis Prone

Severely Prone Companies don’t believe in Crisis Management, period! They feel that proactive Crisis Management is a complete waste of time and money. Their general thinking is captured by the following: “Haven’t we always reacted well no matter what the problem or crisis is? Isn’t reacting sufficient? We’re big and powerful enough to withstand anything that the world can throw at us.” Unfortunately, as BP shows all too well, such beliefs are dangerously wrong.
Severely Crisis Prone Companies also tend to believe that outstanding companies didn’t have major crises, period! In the highly unlikely event that they did have a crisis, they are supremely confident that they can handle it. Haven’t they in fact handled everything well so far? In short, why waste time and money even thinking about, let alone preparing, for that which no one could foresee or predict with certainty? They have far more immediate and pressing things to consider.

The only thing that matters for Severely Crisis Prone companies is the bottom line. Everything is measured strictly and solely in terms of it. All executives and managers are held strictly accountable in terms of what they’ve added to the bottom line. God help those who detract from it! Executives or managers don’t stay around long if they are a drag on profits.
Needless to say, Severely Crisis Prone companies don’t believe in programs such as Environmentalism or Sustainability that divert precious time and attention away from the precious bottom line.

Unfortunately, as it must, when the “big one hits,” they are totally unprepared for it.

Crisis Prepared

Crisis Prepared companies are at the other end of the spectrum. They believe deeply in broad-ranging programs of Crisis Management. They understand that Crisis Management is not only the right, ethical thing to do for their employees and communities, but that it actually makes them more profitable.

Studies show that Crisis Prepared companies experience significantly fewer crises. As a result, they are significantly more profitable than Crisis Prone companies, which ironically believe only in profits.

Crisis Prepared companies are prepared for a broad range of crises such as ethical breaches by senior executives, acts of sabotage by disgruntled employees, explosions, economic downturns, fires, natural disasters, terrorism, etc… They realize that in today’s world, merely reacting is not sufficient to get out and stay in front of major crises. But even more, they understood implicitly that no major crisis is ever a single well-defined, contained crisis. If one is not prepared for the simultaneous occurrence of multiple crises by integrating one’s crisis plans and procedures, then any single crisis can quickly zoom out of control and trigger an uncontrolled chain reaction of other, and potentially even worse, crises. In short, it is never enough to prepare for individual crises in isolation.

Crisis Prepared companies understand that in today’s world, it is not a question of “if” a company will have a major crisis, but only a matter of “how, when, and why” it will occur, and how well prepared they are to handle it.

The bottom line is extremely important for Crisis Prepared companies as well. The big difference is that everything is not measured strictly and solely in terms of it. Unless one has a good culture that treats employees and their families, customers, the media, and even one’s competition with dignity and respect, how can one truly prosper in the long run, let alone survive in today’s complex world?

Crisis Prepared companies also have robust programs in Environmentalism, Safety, Sustainability. They not only support such programs, but they realize that they have to be integrated with Crisis Management. For instance, Crisis Management and Environmentalism share many of the same components such as picking up and acting on early warning signals of impending, potential crises and problems. Thus, it makes perfect sense to integrate these two and others. Indeed, integrating them not only makes each of them more effective and stronger, but also more efficient and cost-effective. In this way, the programs are an integral part of the profitability of Crisis Prepared companies.

Thus, as it must eventually, when the “big one hits,” Crisis Prepared companies recover far faster with far fewer injuries, economic, and environmental consequences than Crisis Prone companies.

If the benefits of being Crisis Prepared are so clear and strong, then why then don’t more companies do what’s clearly in their and our best interest? The great English poet T.S. Eliot put his finger on it best of all, “Humankind cannot bear much reality.” In short, very few companies have the emotional fortitude and will to face a world that is painfully complex. For many companies, just thinking about the worst causes far more anxiety that they can bare.

If Crisis Prone companies can’t and won’t learn from the best Crisis Prepared companies, then government has no choice but to step in. It is the only thing standing between us and disaster.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, May 8, 2012

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The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears and Stories: Part III

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 25, 2012

In two recent op-eds in The Huffington Post, “The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears,” and “The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears, Part II,” I talked about two masterful analysts of America’s founding myths and stories, Rupert Wilkinson and Robert Reich.

Wilkerson identified four fears have not only been present from the very founding of the Republic, but they are so basic that they are virtually synonymous with it: 1) The Fear of Being Owned; 2) The Fear of Falling Away; 3) The Fear of Winding Down; and 4) The Fear of Falling Apart.

In turn, Reich described four primary myths or stories that historically have not only defined American character, but have from the very beginning of our existence as nation shaped our major attitudes and policies towards key issues and problems: 1) The Rot at the Top; 2) The Barbarians at the Gate; 3) The Triumphant Individual; and, 4) The Benevolent Society.

Briefly, The Rot at the Top is all the European despots, evil kings, and tyrants from whom we initially fled. Given that Freudian Oedipal fears are always just beneath the surface as a natural phase of human development, they are especially painful, easily triggered, and manipulated when they have a strong basis in historical fact.

The Rot at the Top corresponds directly to Wilkerson’s Fear of Being Owned. It helps to explain why the outrage towards President Obama and “Obamacare” is so nasty and intense. As the head of government, a black president especially stokes fear, fury, and hatred of unimaginable force.

As helpful as Wilkerson and Reich are in understanding the largely unconscious forces that not only drive all Americans, but are especially powerful in motivating today’s Republicans and conservatives, I want to go even deeper. In a recent book, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, NYU psychiatrist James Gilligan makes the case that lethal violence, whether in the form of homicide or suicide, has increased significantly under Republican presidents and declined just as significantly under Democratic presidents. Indeed, lethal violence typically reaches epidemic levels under Republican presidents. Even under Democrats, it is still significantly higher than other developed nations.

The link is as follows: While Republicans perpetually talk about getting tough on crime, they actually need it to get and stay in power. Pitting the lower middle class and poor against the really poor, who are simultaneously seen as responsible for and the victims of crime, is a great way of diverting attention away from the fact that under Republicans, unemployment, income and social inequality, all of which lead to crime, actually increase considerably under Republican presidents. This is precisely why Gilligan sees some politicians, mainly Republicans — there are enough Democrats — as more dangerous than others.

More importantly, as a psychiatrist, Gilligan digs deeper for the underlying unconscious elements of human behavior. Republicans, and the Red State constituents they represent, are governed largely by a shame-based morality or ethic. Democrats, and their Blue State constituents, are governed largely by a guilt-based morality.

Under shame, I am bad. Under guilt, we or I did something bad, but we are not necessarily bad per se. Those who have suffered shame, say by being fired or chronically unemployed, are more likely to feel they are bad, and as a result, to strike back with intense acts of violence against others (homicide) or oneself (suicide).

In contrast, under guilt, one is motivated to help those who through no fault of their own have suffered, e.g., racial discrimination, unemployment, etc.

I cannot stress enough that it is absolutely vital to understand that these forces are largely unconscious. They are also not necessarily independent for one can be under the grip of both of them simultaneously.

Understanding such forces is crucial in attacking issues such as gun control, which are completely out of control. Even though the vast majority of both NRA and non-NRA gun owners are for tighter gun control laws, fear and shame are still the primary factors driving gun ownership to record highs. But neither fear nor shame can be approached directly, for one is generally too ashamed to admit one is ashamed! They have to be approached indirectly. For example, one needs to get uber-macho spokespersons to say in the most nonthreatening and blameless terms that it is OK to have as few guns as possible in one’s home: “It’s the manly thing to cut back.”

My point is not that we will solve all of our thorny problems through a better understanding of unconscious forces alone. That is absurd. But, we will not solve them through all of the appeals to so-called rational policies and thinking alone!

Unfortunately, conservatives understand this far better than liberals. If they are so smart, why do liberals have such trouble in understanding the power of emotions and good stories to shape politics and people’s behavior? Because sadly, as a general rule, liberals don’t understand that we don’t learn with our conscious minds alone. I don’t believe that we even learn primarily through consciousness!

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 25, 2012

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Confronting Shame-Based Politics: The Biggest Challenge of All

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, April 24, 2012

What an incredibly boring and uninteresting world it would be if one needed nothing more than a surface understanding of things in order to take action against wrongs.

Over 40 years of professional experience has taught me that deep unconscious forces, of which we are by definition largely unaware, govern the vast majority of human behavior. At a minimum, unconscious factors impact human behavior significantly. Why else would so many sensible, rational appeals and policies that purport to solve our most pressing problems (e.g., gun control, health care, greater investment in education, etc.) not only fall on deaf ears, but be resisted so vehemently?

Sadly, most people are not only unaware of such forces, but as a result, they are often extremely defensive and hostile towards any discussions of them.

To be perfectly clear, although I am a Fellow of The American Psychological Association and thus have a considerable background in psychology, I have never been a practicing clinician or therapist. Instead, I am a psychoanalytically educated social philosopher/scientist. As a result, I regularly use psychoanalysis and psychodynamics to help explain complex, human behavior. Along with history and literature, psychoanalysis is one of the very few fields that delve deeply into the psyche in the attempt to produce sophisticated explanations of human behavior.

This is precisely why I find NYU psychiatrist James Gilligan’s recent book, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, so important. Gilligan makes an extremely powerful case in explaining how and why lethal violence, whether in the form of homicide or suicide, has historically increased significantly under Republican presidents and declined just as significantly under Democratic presidents. Indeed, lethal violence regularly reaches epidemic levels under Republican presidents. Even under Democrats, it is still way too high compared to other developed nations.

The link is as follows: While Republicans perpetually talk about getting tough on crime, they actually need high crime rates to get and stay in power. Because Republicans are motivated chiefly by helping the rich maintain their wealth, pitting the lower middle class and working poor against the chronically unemployed and unemployable poor — who are seen as the primary parties largely responsible for crime — is a great way of diverting attention away from the fact that unemployment, income and social inequality — all of which are major factors responsible for crime — actually increase substantially under Republican presidents. This is precisely why Gilligan sees some politicians, mainly Republicans, as more dangerous than others. Unfortunately, there are enough dangerous Democrats to go around as well.

More importantly, as a psychiatrist, Gilligan digs deeper for the underlying unconscious elements of human behavior. Republicans, and the Red State constituents they represent, are governed largely by a shame-based morality or ethic. Democrats, and their Blue State constituents, are governed largely by a guilt-based morality.

Shame is the deep, persistent feeling that, “I am bad.” On the other hand, guilt is the feeling that, “We or I did something bad, but we are not necessarily or inherently bad ourselves.” Suffering shame by say being fired or chronically unemployed, often leads to feelings that one is irredeemably bad to the depths of one’s core. This in turn often leads to powerful feelings of wanting to strike back with intense acts of violence against others (homicide) or oneself (suicide). Whether “they” or one’s self is actually responsible is besides the fact for in the wounded psyche everything and everyone is bad and therefore at fault. Red States intensify such feelings because they have a culture that inculcates and legitimizes violence, and therefore, in subtle and not so subtle ways encourage its use.

In contrast, under guilt, one is motivated to help those who through no fault of their own have suffered, e.g., racial discrimination, unemployment, etc.

Understanding such forces is crucial in attacking issues such as gun control, which are completely out of control. Even though the vast majority of both NRA and non-NRA gun owners are for tighter gun control laws, fear and shame are still the primary factors driving gun ownership to record highs. But fear and shame cannot be approached directly, for one is generally too ashamed to admit one is ashamed!

If shame is indeed one of the most powerful unconscious forces behind so many of our failed attempts to curb our most pressing social problems, and if it is difficult to approach directly, then how can we confront and combat shame itself?

There are at least four different ways, none of which are sufficient by themself. The first is obviously books such as Gilligan’s, which point out the complex factors and overall patterns responsible for shame. Sadly, because they confront shame too directly and are largely cognitive in nature, they reach only a very small percentage of the population, mainly highly educated liberals, who are already less prone to shame. Nonetheless, they are necessary even if they are not sufficient. Without understanding the factors responsible for shame, it is extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible, to fashion truly effective ways of combating it.

The second way is of course individual therapy. Again, this only reaches a very small percentage of the population, mainly highly educated liberals. And, it does not treat a whole society therapeutically that is suffering from shame.

The third of course is ongoing, sustained programs and efforts in education. The earlier and the younger we intervene with children the better. But imagine the howls of protests from conservatives who are already paranoid about “government stealing the minds of children.”

The fourth is the most effective. It consists of carefully orchestrated public service campaigns that feature prominent, charismatic figures from all walks of life (business, entertainment, sports, politics, etc.) that have successfully faced and overcome shame. Powerful personal stories are the main ingredient. And, of course, celebrities are the story.

Ideally, we would use all four together so that they could reinforce one another. Indeed, we especially need the first to inform the fourth.

With great insight, the brilliant English writer and wit Jonathan Swift said it best of all: “You can’t reason a man out of what he was not reasoned into in the first place.” I couldn’t agree more!

Reason — the first way of combating shame — is always necessary in attacking great social issues and problems, but it is never sufficient in and of itself.

I have no doubt that violence has reached epidemic proportions in American society. It has been an epidemic for far too long. Therefore, addressing shame — one of the most important causes of violence — is a major priority.

Nations are judged not by the easy problems they solve, but like slavery and civil rights, the difficult problems they finally have the will to face.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, April 24, 2012

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The Moral Contemptibility of the Conservative Mind

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 10, 2012

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is highly admirable. It deserves all the good reviews it has garnered. Nonetheless, I want to take exception with it because I believe it fundamentally violates one of its own main theses.

As someone who has taught ethics for more than 45 years, I agree strongly with Haidt that virtually all of the great traditional ethicists profoundly missed the boat, especially when it comes to morality. For instance, the great Immanuel Kant, whom I admire enormously as an epistemologist, leaves me utterly cold when it comes to ethics. This is not because I think Kant is totally wrong. Kant is supreme in his rational approach to ethics. If only rationality were enough to settle the matter. Reason is certainly necessary, but it is hardly sufficient.

(Simply stated, Kant’s central principle regarding whether a proposition should be admitted as an ethical precept is to test whether it is generalizable without contradiction in the sense that it can be applied universally without harm to all persons. Thus, for Kant, suicide fails as a general ethical precept because it cannot be generalized without contradiction, i.e., without the extinction of the entire human race. Needless to say, not all ethicists have agreed with this line of reasoning.)

Haidt’s major criticism is that all of this is far too cerebral for the great body of humankind. And he is right. Traditional ethics fail to grab the emotions, hearts and, most of all, the souls of people because it’s not how people fundamentally experience ethics, and certainly not how they experience morality, which is vastly more personal. In his and the studies of other Social Psychologists, people experience morality in terms of six basic emotional or feeling-based principles: Caring/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity, and Liberty/Oppression.

Interestingly enough, as well as very important, only the first two principles — Caring/Harm and Fairness/Cheating — essentially capture the moral precepts of liberals while conservatives generally subscribe to all six. I agree that this puts liberals at a distinct disadvantage in appealing to the general mass of voters. For instance, liberals often mock values, such as loyalty, without which no society could long endure. For this reason, Haidt enjoins liberals to make a sincere attempt to listen to conservatives and appreciate sincerely the values they hold dear, and even more, to see that that they are generally necessary for any society to hang together.

Again, I’m in strong agreement.

I part company over the fact that all of this sounds too rational, the very thing of which Haidt is so critical. If morality is grounded basically in emotions and feelings, then morality cannot be decoupled from the person or persons giving voice to those precepts and how they are expressed with a person’s entire being, e.g., idiosyncrasies, smirks, etc. This is precisely where things break down. This is precisely why there is an undeclared culture war going on in America.

As a general rule, I agree with Haidt’s list of moral precepts. But when conservatives and Republicans use them to insult women (e.g., women are not caterpillars and not to be compared to insects in any sense), then I am filled with moral revulsion to the very fiber of my soul. In the end we are left with the same moral quandary with which we began: a moral mess of unparalleled dimensions. We yearn for a leader or leaders who can speak civilly both to liberals and conservatives alike on the great issues of the day. Whether we know it or not, we are waiting for a Moral Godot.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 10, 2012

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The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears and Stories: Part II

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 9, 2012

In a recent op-ed, “The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears,” I talked about the fact that in 1988, Rupert Wilkinson published a remarkable little book. Wilkinson identified four fears that not only have been present from the very founding of the Republic, but are so basic that they are virtually synonymous with it: 1. The Fear of Being Owned; 2. The Fear of Falling Away; 3. The Fear of Winding Down; and 4. The Fear of Falling Apart.

Very few people know that just a year earlier in 1987, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also published a book that dealt in a different but complimentary way with the same themes. In fact, I regard it as one of his best books.

Reich described four primary myths or stories that historically have not only defined American character, but have from the very beginning of our existence as a nation shaped our major attitudes and policies towards key issues and problems.

Taken together, Reich and Wilkerson give a deep understanding of the largely unconscious forces that not only drive all Americans, but are especially powerful in motivating today’s Republicans and conservatives. Like all cultures, our unique history has “set us up” in how we approach critical issues no matter what the time period in our history or the particular problems we are facing. As Nietzsche famously said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Reich’s four stories are: 1. The Rot at the Top; 2. The Barbarians at the Gate; 3. The Triumphant Individual; and, 4., The Benevolent Society.

The Rot at the Top is all the European despots, evil Kings, and tyrants from whom we initially fled. Given that Freudian Oedipal fears are always present as a natural phase of human development, they are especially painful when they have a strong basis in historical fact and are thus easily magnified.

The Rot at the Top corresponds directly to Wilkerson’s Fear of Being Owned. Once again, it helps to explain why the outrage towards President Obama and “Obamacare” is so nasty and intense. As the head of government, a black president especially stokes fear, fury, and hatred of unimaginable force.

Of course, for liberals, the Rot is Big Business; for conservatives, it is The Government. Neither one has a monopoly when it come to basic fears.

The Barbarians at the Gate are all those “just on the outside” and forever plotting to “get in and steal all our hard earned and deserved riches.” No wonder why illegal immigrants are so feared and hated. They are just the latest representatives of the evil horde. But so are women to conservatives. This also helps to explain why all the evidence to the contrary will never be enough to dispel claims that Obama is a Muslim who was not born in the U.S. In short, “he’s not one of us!”

The Triumphant Individual is the classic, lone American Hero who all by himself — traditionally the American Hero is male — is sufficient to defeat all of America’s enemies. He is the strong, silent type who doesn’t need anyone. Of course this all too conveniently ignores the fact that it took groups of people together to cross the plains and settle the country. Individuals by themselves were much more likely to perish.

But more than this, The Triumphant Individual is the raw creative energy of America itself. As such, The Triumphant Individual is closely allied with Wilkerson’s fears of Winding Down and Falling Away from the original dream of America.

Finally, The Benevolent Society is America herself, the shining beacon of hope to all of humankind. It is an America that can do no wrong because it is the font of all that is right. This too is closely allied with Wilkerson’s fears of Winding Down and Falling Away from the original dream of America.

The point is that at a very fundamental level, there is a great consistency between different views that help to explain why we are the way we are. But they do more than this.

The thing that liberals need to understand — and I’m not sure that they really can because of the powerful Grip of The Enlightenment with its intense distrust of emotion has on their thinking — is that because Wilkerson’s fears and Reich’s basic stories resonate so strongly with conservatives, they are much more able to use them to their immense advantage. Until liberals are able to help forge new stories that define the America of the future, they will always be at a severe disadvantage in winning the hearts and souls of Americans.

Still, Republicans and conservatives may very well own America’s old stories, but as recent events demonstrate all too well, it’s not enough to guarantee that they won’t screw up and lose today’s hearts and minds. For instance, because of their gross insensitivity, they show no end to their ability to offend women and other key stakeholders.

Nonetheless, liberals shouldn’t take this for granted. We need to take the lead in telling better stories about ourselves.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 9, 2012

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What the Great Greek and Shakespearian Tragedies Have to Teach About Modern Crises

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 6, 2012

The senseless killing of Trayvon Martin is not only a monumental tragedy, but it has all the elements of the great epic Greek and Shakespearian tragedies. In fact, all crises do.

The prime lesson: Get thee to the Greek playwrights and Shakespeare if one would better understand crises!

First of all, individual character and institutional flaws are a prominent, if not the most important, element of all crises (think Rupert Murdoch, Goldman Sachs, etc.). They are certainly prime aspects of the Trayvon Martin tragedy: George Zimmerman’s use of the “f__ word,” the botched handling of the case from the beginning by the Sanford Police Department, and no less the state of Florida, which allowed Zimmerman to operate as a self-appointed vigilante under its surreal “Stand Your Ground Law.”

Second, all the basic elements of tragedy — spectacle (protest marches, staged rallies, etc.), music and rhetoric (the incessant 24 hours “news” cycle, half-truths, self-serving analysis) — are integral parts of virtually all crises.

Third, the major over arching component of tragedy — the plot with its turning points, or “reversals,” based on “discoveries and recognitions” which cause the action to turn in unexpected ways — is a prime feature as well. Look at the ongoing spate of discoveries in the crisis enveloping Rupert Murdock and his empire.

The word “empire” strikes a chord. It brings to mind the world’s most famous tragedy, Hamlet, which is not only the story of a prince, but of an entire nation. The critical turning point in Hamlet is a double discovery that occurs in the middle of the plot. It happens during “the play within the play” that Hamlet stages. Hamlet not only succeeds in “catching the conscience of the king,” but as a result, he now knows for sure that Claudius, the king (his uncle), killed his father. At the same time, Claudius discovers that Hamlet knows. The action “turns” via these discoveries because the pursuer, Hamlet, becomes the pursued, and the pursued, King, become the pursuer.

More often than not, great wars hinge on crucial turning points. For example, Hitler invades Russia and discovers that his Nazi juggernaut is not invincible, and Stalin discovers that not only can he defeat Hitler, but by doing so, he can annex large sections of Europe. This, of course, leads to the Cold War, a crisis that dominates the second half of the 20th century until the plot turns again and “seems” to result in a happy ending. In fact, it merely leads to the beginning of another complicated drama, and so on.

Nonetheless, every tragedy has a final ending. In Hamlet, the double discovery leads to an absolute conclusion, although in a circuitous route that gives Shakespeare the opportunity to further develop Hamlet’s character. For example, Hamlet is so inflated by his discovery that he fails to notice that since the king now knows that he knows, he had better get out of Dodge City as fast as he can. Instead, he is so pumped that he talks about “drinking hot blood.”

“Hot blood” talk is another prominent feature of all major crises. We’ve already seen it rear its ugly head in the case of Trayvon Martin by right-wing commentators and the charge that Trayvon Martin attacked, and thus provoked, George Zimmerman. Rhetoric and false testimony attempt to reverse Trayvon Martin from the role of victim to the dramatic persona of the villain.

In Hamlet and many other tragedies, inflation and hubris are major aspects of the character of the tragic hero. To put it mildly, they are prime aspects of the principal actors in today’s crises, e.g., Rupert Murdoch, Goldman Sachs. Often, the very things that promote inflation are the exact same traits that make a person admirable, powerful, and an outstanding leader. The audience of course sees all of the “mixed bag,” but the hero doesn’t. This, of course, is tragic irony.

In Greek tragedy, the chorus often functioned as the “people” (today’s TV audience) who in some way saw what was happening or going to happen. They embodied the fear, but were powerless to stop it. They played the role of a witness. They were the ones who literally sang about what they feared and knew. They were something like today’s crisis experts who try to warn leaders by telling them what they don’t want to hear. For instance, in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was the civilian leaders who told the military leaders what they did not want to hear and thus avoided what would have been a total tragedy of epic proportions.

One of the many sources that fed into the theater of Shakespeare — that incredible period of dramatic/theatrical growth and accomplishment — were the Royal Entries into London. These happened when a new king was granted permission to enter the city and claim it as a seat of power. The formal procession of lords and statesmen that accompanied the King wound its way through the streets and often stopped at the crossroads where large structures were used as water stations. Little plays would be staged on top of the structures which were sometimes cautionary tales about what makes a good King and how bad Kings fall on bad times. The tragic plays that developed later were, of course, much more complex, but they retained, something of that message. In the great outdoor theaters of Shakespeare’s day, people from all walks of life were reminded of the rise and fall of the great and noble throughout history.

The Puritans, of course, didn’t go to the theater, and so when they seized power in 1642, they tore down all the theaters. In 1660, they were themselves torn down. They should have gone to the theater. Their supreme arrogance and hubris reminds one of the Tea Party, Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, the Catholic bishops and all the others that want some kind of theocracy.

What this should teach us is that crises cannot be avoided altogether. As that other great character of destiny, Macbeth, says we are all merely players who strut our stuff upon the stage and then are “heard no more.” The metaphor — “all the world’s a stage” — is a central meme Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare may in fact have made it into a central meme. We certainly believe that it’s a useful trope for Crisis Management. Perhaps it’s even a necessary prelude to management in general. It starts with the recognition that not even the hero has complete control over the events to come.

We are not gods, merely players. One can only hope that CEO’s would finally understand this and muster some of Macbeth’s humility. Unfortunately, Macbeth’s humility only emerges three short scenes before he looses his head. What a metaphor for our time!

The prime lesson for Crisis Management occurs in the final scene of Hamlet. By this time, all of the principal characters have been dispatched and the state of Denmark, having lost its leadership, is taken over by Fortinbras who has been at war over “a little patch” of Poland “that hath in it no profit but the name.” He just happens to be marching back home to Norway via Denmark and finds an empty throne surrounded by a dead king, queen, and prince. Thus, he claims the country for himself.

According to Horatio, Hamlet is positive about Fortinbras’ taking over. Earlier in the play, he sees Fortinbras in the distance going off to fight a worthless war, but because honor is at stake, he views Fortinbras as his personal model even though he declares that undertaking such a war reflects a hidden cancer (“imposthume”) of too much “wealth and peace.” (Shades of our Iraq folly.)

The cults of the hero, wealth, power, especially when coupled with ego inflation, hubris, ambition and rigidity of thought are unfortunately the perfect conditions for tragedies and crises.

If only we could finally learn from the Bard!

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 6, 2012

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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

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The Need to Fight Ignorance on the Left and Right

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, March 14, 2012

The confusion that reigns in the “marketplace of ideas” is as great as it’s ever been. To say that the Republicans candidates for president exploit this state of confusion for their own benefit is a gross understatement. (Indeed, they provoke it by spreading vicious lies. In this sense, “confusion” is too nice a word.)

Nonetheless, to lay the entire blame for confusion wholly on Republicans is not only not fair, but inaccurate. Liberal Democrats are confused on many of the same issues as well.

Perhaps the biggest part of the blame has to rest with the American people themselves, e.g., our incredible ignorance concerning basic issues, our general unwillingness to become better informed, coupled with the delusional belief that that we are already well informed, etc. There are of course the other perennial whipping boys that account for our appalling ignorance: the poor state of American education, the “media,” blah, blah, blah.

Nonetheless, I stand by my primary contention that Republicans lead in exploiting confusion and spreading lies. For instance, on March 13, Rick Santorum told attendees at the Gulf Coast Energy Summit in Biloxi, Mississippi, that climate change is “a liberal myth.” He went on to say, “The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.”

Let me tackle just a few of the many thorny issues on which there is so much confusion.

A primary issue is the oft-repeated assertion, mostly by conservatives and fundamentalists, that evolution is just a “theory.” It is not a “scientific ‘fact’ or ‘law’.” Therefore, alternative views such as creationism as to how humans first arose are just as “legitimate and valid.” They certainly deserve equal time in school curricula.

The same is true of global warming. The fact that not all scientists agree that humans are the primary cause as to why the Earth has been becoming warmer proves for many that global warming is not a “valid explanation.”

Most people don’t understand the difference between a scientific “law” and a “theory.” Generally speaking, everything in science is a theory. To call something a “theory” is a sign of great respect, i.e., something is taken so seriously by the scientific community that it is accorded an honorific term that is reserved for only the most important ideas.

In general, “scientific laws” — e.g., Newton’s Law of Gravitation, why balls fall to the Earth when tossed into the air — are merely descriptions of some phenomena. A “theory” on the other hand is an explanation of why a phenomenon behaves the way(s) it does, i.e., why balls fall to Earth.

To call something a “theory” does not mean that it is merely a run-of-the-mill explanation. For something to be a theory means that the scientific community has repeatedly tested it empirically and conceptually such that it accords with the best facts and ideas available at the time. This doesn’t mean that as new facts and ideas become available that older theories such as Newton’s are not replaced by better theories such as Einstein’s. It also doesn’t mean that to be a theory something has already passed stringent empirical tests, but just that it is very promising. In other words, it’s a “provisional theory.”

Science is one of the few fields of inquiry where the continual testing of provisional as well as accepted ideas, plus their overthrow, is a fundamental part of the enterprise — not that all scientists necessarily love this aspect of science when it comes to demolishing their pet ideas. Evolution and global warming have passed, and continue to pass, highly stringent tests. Indeed, the tests have become more severe over time. This too is a fundamental part of science.

In this sense, even though the theories of evolution and global warming are always subject to modification and replacement, they are not “provisional.” Yes, there will always be doubters even in science, but until they come up with equally compelling theories that can be tested empirically, they will not be taken seriously. And, they shouldn’t.

This is precisely why creationism is not science. It’s not even good philosophy.

I obviously can’t go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that creationism is a self-sealing, closed belief system. It is closed because its beliefs are its own evidence for its beliefs. No independent evidence has been offered that would either serve to affirm or refute it. Thus, to say that creationism is circular is putting it mildly. In short, to believe in creationism is to be in a state of mind “beyond refutation,” and refutation is one of the chief hallmarks of science. This is why no reputable scientist takes it seriously. As Wolfgang Pauli, one of most famous scientists of all times, once put it in responding to an idea, “[It is] so bad [that] it is not even wrong.”

Metaphysics is undoubtedly the most confusing and thorniest issue of all. Briefly, metaphysics is the study of the most basic assumptions and ideas that we have to posit, i.e., assume, in order to be able to have experience in the first place, let alone make sense of anything in the second. For instance, science wouldn’t even be able to get off the ground unless it first assumed that the world and universe were basically orderly and intelligible. One doesn’t “see” orderliness when one looks through a microscope or telescope. All one sees are shapes. The mind then turns them into intelligible patterns and ideas. The mind thus presupposes orderliness and intelligibility in order to be able to engage in the act of “seeing.”

The preceding paragraph is a prime example of metaphysical reasoning. It shows what we must presuppose in order to engage in the act of seeing and hence knowledge itself.

I obviously don’t expect conservative and fundamentalists to get this, for most liberals and scientists don’t “get it” as well. Most people don’t know that historically the ideas of the orderliness and intelligibility of the universe come from religion, not from philosophy or science. Science owes far more to religion than it realizes.

But far worse, when science argues that “it has no need of philosophy,” it has just staked out a philosophical position without its realization. For another, when it argues that “natural laws are sufficient to explain everything,” it has also uttered a metaphysical proposition without its knowledge or awareness.

If we are justified in getting angry with conservatives and fundamentalists for their basic lack of knowledge — and at times, intelligence itself — we ought to be just as angry with liberals when they pretend to be informed and smarter with respect to certain subjects when they are not. We need to fight ignorance equally on the right and left.

Our dependency on science grows daily. Indeed, we are more dependent on it than ever before. But so is our dependency on philosophy. The great difference is that we where we generally recognize and celebrate science, we do not give philosophy anywhere near the recognition it deserves.

But science and philosophy both have their limitations. Science can’t explain why we live in a universe that has evolution as a prime mechanism, i.e., ordering principle. Philosophy can’t explain it either, but at least it knows that it can’t. This is precisely where religion steps in because it knows that humankind cannot live with much uncertainty. The anxiety of not knowing is too much to bear.

Liberals in particular have yet to really understand that there are many good reasons for believing in religion. What kind? That’s another discussion, especially those that embrace science and philosophy.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, March 14, 2012

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