Sunday, January 31, 2010

The American Voter, Part II of III: The American Character

I’ve spent some time in both New York and Seattle. Given that there’s a culture common to big cities the world over, these two couldn’t be more different.

New Yorkers tend to be more formal: they dress up to go to dinner. In Seattle, the casual look is de rigueur—it’s pretty hard to be under-dressed in Seattle without being totally nude. People in New York seem to be more out-spoken and less politically correct than Seattleites. People in Seattle are less likely than New Yorkers to be “in your face” if they disagree with you, but if you stand around looking lost on a New York street, people will fall all over themselves trying to give you directions.

Contrast the citizens of either place with the “typical” Mid-Western farmer, Southern revivalist, or Arizona retiree, and you have an idea of the scope of differences among people across this great land.

So what-all makes an American an American? What are some of the characteristics typical of those born or raised in the good ol’ US of A?

For about fifteen years, I had a unique opportunity to explore that question in discussions with a group of people who had the perspective of having come to America from other places. We met weekly, usually at the home of a Belgian couple—native French speakers who were kind enough to mentor the rest of us in the nuances of that lovely language. Membership in the group changed over the years but included, at one time or another, folks from Great Britain, India, Brazil, France, and Hong Kong. As a born-in-America citizen and native English speaker, I was usually in the minority.

Topics of conversation ranged from history and culture to science and etymology, but we often discussed current events. On my part, these conversations were a chance to understand how smart, well-traveled people with a fondness for the USA tend to see us. Over time, it became clear to me that in nations, as in families, the influence of history goes back a long, long way.

The first white people in America fled religious persecution. They came to a land with many dangers, where only the toughest, hardest-working, and most adaptable could survive. As they came into contact with the native peoples, whose language and customs were incomprehensible to them, conflicts arose. Armed with a powerful cultural and religious sense of superiority and entitlement, the newcomers eventually vanquished the natives. Incentives arose to move westward across the vast continent, and the hardiest or most desperate set out again and again for the great unknown. We, their children and cultural heirs, retain some of the traits evident in those early settlers.

So here are some characteristics of Americans—at any rate, of the dominant culture of white, mainstream Americans—that seem to derive partly from the nation’s origins. Often in the extreme compared to other Westernized nations, Americans tend to be
  • Hard working

  • Stubborn

  • Uncompromising

  • Religious

  • Prudish

  • Stalwart and determined

  • Anti-intellectual

  • Anti-government

  • Eager to help their neighbors

  • Innovative

  • Gullible

  • Inclined to feel persecuted

Only America could have gone from utter ruin at Pearl Harbor in 1941 to world military dominance five years later. Only in America could a large number of educated people still believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago. Only America could proudly elect its leaders one day and then spend the next two to four years accusing them of dastardly secret conspiracies. Only Americans could throw up a barn for a neighbor in a long day’s work but vociferously defend horrific human rights abuses like slavery, gay-bashing, and capital punishment. (Only Americans, for example, could reconcile the notion of free speech with a call to execute protesters for burning a flag.) Only America could keep spawning organizations like the John Birch Society, neo-fascist militias, and the NRA. (People: Nobody—but nobody—is secretly plotting to take your guns away!)

In conversation, Americans tend to be dogmatic and emotional and to take simple disagreement as a personal affront. Americans change their minds less than other people of similar educational background (according to my friends from abroad, anyway), and when they have to acknowledge they may have been wrong, they tend to get angry about it. Having begun as a nation of fighters, Americans still find it hard to conceive of a win-win (as opposed to a win-lose) situation.

However, solving big problems requires the ability to think rationally, speak honestly, tolerate disagreement, and be willing to compromise—in other words, to seek a “win-win” situation. Only in America would large segments of the population condone the actions of leaders who say no, no, no to the party in power, blocking progress on virtually every issue just to try to make the opposition look bad.

I love my country. If I had to get stuck along the highway or be left without a home, I’d rather it be here than anywhere else. But when it comes to engaging in a rational discussion about religion, philosophy, politics, or a host of other topics, I’d rather be anywhere else.

The trouble is, we have to discuss these things. American families can’t wait and the world can’t wait for solutions to the many problems that beset us. As Americans, we need to tell the people who represent us to rise above the worst attributes in the American character and exercise the best to solve problems and get things done.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Media Loves a Good Fight

Having watched yesterday’s exchange of ideas between President Obama and the House Republican caucus, I find some of today’s headlines amusing:
  • “Obama, GOP Trade Barbs at Meeting”

  • “President Obama Rumbles with House GOP”

  • “President Obama Slams Republican Obstructionists at GOP Issues Retreat”

  • “Obama Gets Grilled at GOP Meeting”

“Barbs,” “rumbles,” “slams,” “grilled.” It seems the media has a rich vocabulary for expressing hostility, rage, and open warfare, and they’re always eager to use it. After all, the media can’t help being about entertainment, and everyone knows that tension and suspense are necessary to make a good story.

But as people begin to digest the reality of what happened yesterday—an open, respectful, grown-up, adult-adult exchange of ideas and perceptions between the executive and legislative branches of government—the headlines are changing:
  • “Obama Speaks at House Republican Retreat”

  • “Obama, House Republicans Debate Their Divisions”

  • “Obama Visits GOP Retreat”

“Speaks,” “debate,” “visits.” Speaking with one another, debating issues, visiting back and forth. Aw—now isn’t that nice?

Yep, the media loves a good fight—and none more than Fox News. Its main products, after all, are rage and righteous indignation. If all this warm fuzzy stuff catches on in Washington, Fox may be out of business one of these days.

And wouldn’t that be nice?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The American Voter, Part I: Group Dynamics

As any classroom teacher can tell you, every group of people quickly develops attitudes and a personality all its own. Virtually the minute a crowd comes together (a “crowd” being three or more people), leaders and shared values emerge. People often change as they move through their lives from one group to another, almost instantly taking up and shedding characteristics that naturally emerge in different situations. If someone stumbles and falls, one group will laugh while another will rush to help. What one individual might do or say when alone may be very different than what the same person might do or say in the context of one group or another.

I’ve often been in parent-teacher conferences in which parents and teachers seem to be talking about entirely different kids. A kid who’s defiant and obnoxious at home may be unfailingly respectful at school—or vice versa. A kid who’s inattentive in one class may be completely focused in another. In working with adolescents, I’ve often seen them magically transform from silly, fun-loving children at school to serious, mature adults at work in the community.

As the only child of a single, working mother, I was a community of one. I became fascinated by my friends’ families and how they worked. I was intrigued by how a person could act one way at school, another way at home, and yet another way when hanging out with friends.

Years later, as a teacher, I developed an approach to classroom management that often involved seating people in different parts of the room to influence their behavior. You’d be amazed at how differently, for example, a person may look at the world from the back of the room as opposed to the front. In working with students who had attention problems, I seated them with those who were paying attention—a technique I called “castling” and learned to use to good effect. Even working with adults in college classes, I tended to use group dynamics as a tool for influencing the behavior of my students.

For most of my career, I’ve been both a teacher and counselor, usually working full time at one job and part time at the other. As a counselor, I found myself specializing in a systems approach to family therapy: when working with a family, I don’t focus on who’s at fault. I don’t buy into a family’s beliefs about who’s the villain, who’s the victim, and who’s the rescuer in a family’s game of choice. Rather, I focus on what’s working and what’s not working. From that standpoint, family issues become problems to solve together rather than opportunities to punish and blame one another. Put another way, I encourage families to focus on “win-win” rather than “win-lose” strategies (which inevitably devolve into “lose-lose” situations).

In recent years—especially in the last decade—new imaging techniques have allowed scientists to actually see the workings of the human brain. We now know through scientific studies, not just anecdotal evidence, that people’s “minds” literally change from one context to another. The “emotional brain” (primarily the limbic system located deep in the middle) is entirely different from the “rational brain” (primarily the frontal cortex, which is the last part of the brain to fully develop). People can “think” with either part of the brain—the emotional part or the rational part—but generally not both at the same time.

It takes time for new knowledge to seep out to the general public. Most people don’t know much about how their computers or cell phones work. We leave it to the experts to gather detailed information about complex subjects; in a society with free and open communication, some of that knowledge eventually becomes generally known and part of the cultural heritage.

In general, American voters don’t know much about the logistics of human behavior or how their brains work. I don’t blame them for that. Most know a lot about other stuff. When I have a chance to get into deep conversations with people, I’m often stunned at how much they know—often on arcane subjects—regardless of their background or education. (On one memorable occasion, for example, a young rancher brought a bovine eyeball to school to illustrate how cows see differently than people do—a topic that had never previously come to my attention!) I don’t expect everyone to know or care a great deal about sociology or the workings of the human mind.

But I’ll tell you who does know about these things: advertisers and political strategists. They know countless ways to get people to “think” with the emotional rather than the rational parts of their brain. (How else would you get practical people to pay three times more for a name-brand product than for an identical generic product sitting right there on the same shelf?) They know that negative emotions, such as fear and anger, are not only powerful motivators of human behavior but also highly contagious. They know how to use attitude, innuendo, and fragmentary information (or mis-information) to shape public opinion and behavior. Those who stand to profit from shifting the public mood one way or another may not always care much about the fine distinctions between persuasion and propaganda.

In America, as we found out in the election of 2000, even a single vote can be hugely important. As America goes, so goes the world. Do we focus on drilling for oil or investing in renewable energy? Do we send our troops to fight and die in Iraq, in Afghanistan, or neither? What attitudes do we adopt toward our allies and our enemies? These things are of immeasurable importance. I submit that an American citizen has more responsibility in casting his or her vote than does the citizen of any other nation in the world.

I have profound respect for the individual. I’m suspicious and skeptical of powerful and rich organizations with virtually unlimited resources for influencing public opinion. Never in human history have there been so many of those organizations with so much power to shape the world—to virtually determine the future of the planet and the human race. The odds have never been higher for being able to discern the difference between truth and propaganda.

Knowledge is power. Large corporations and other special interest groups have tremendous resources for buying and wielding knowledge about human behavior—resources no small group or individual can begin to match. That’s one reason why we need government to monitor how and to what ends those groups employ their resources. That’s why it’s a matter of so much urgency that the Supreme Court has given powerful special interest groups of every kind carte blanche to use their resources to manipulate the sentiments of the American people.

I don’t blame people for not knowing when they’re being manipulated. But now more than ever, I think it’s important for Americans to develop a healthy skepticism about what they see or hear in the media—to ask whether their fear or their anger has a basis in reality or is the result of someone trying to stimulate that reaction to further their own ends.

Now more than ever, and here in America more than anywhere, it’s critical that we begin to think with the part of our brains designed for problem solving. More and more, reason rather than emotion should be the basis of the public discourse.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti's Still Hurting

By texting "Haiti" to 90999, we raised over $21 million for Haitian relief as of last week. Let's do it one more time.

For those of you so inclined, here's a poem in which Haitian-American writer Patrick Sylvain expresses his grief.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Message for My Readers

Unfortunately, a couple of pesky little spammers have found their way recently to 46 Degrees North. Your comments are important, and I don't want the comment pages cluttered with ads and Russian gibberish. I'm getting tired of hunting down the offending comments and deleting them.

To block the spam, I've initiated the "word verification" feature on Blogspot, which will require you to prove you're human before posting comments. I apologize in advance for the inconvenience.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Evil That Bush Did Lives After Him

With this week’s decision by the Supreme Court on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the conservative extremists Bush II appointed to the Supreme Court finally had a chance to completely destroy any semblance of balance between the interests of big business and real flesh-and-blood “people.”

By holding that corporations—as in big banks, big oil, and big pharma—had rights to “free speech,” the Court managed to drown out any and all voices ordinary citizens might raise in protest of having their own rights and interests ignored.

Why should an ordinary citizen contribute a small sum to a candidate of choice when big companies can use their billions to buy and sell their own politicians? Why bother to be informed about issues of public policy when they can all ultimately be decided by a few rich and powerful CEOs? Why bother to vote when—as in Iran and other countries where one entity holds all the power— no real democracy exists and elections are just for show?

I’m still speechless. And if something isn’t done quickly, we’ll all be “speechless”—in more ways than one.

As if the current administration didn’t have enough damage to try to undo.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Coakley vs. Brown: The Real Wake-Up Call

Google’s Blogspot, which hosts this column, has a wonderful analytical tool that allows me to track the number of visitors to this site, as well as their locations. (A special hello, by the way, to my regular reader in San Francisco. Hello, Liverpool! And you there in Islamabad—thanks for stopping by!)

Thus I know that in a normal month, my blog gets between 300 and 400 “hits.” A few of you comment regularly—for the most part, those who disagree. Those comments are always interesting and welcome. But these remarks are intended for the rest of you—the silent majority who most likely regard yourselves as Democrats or progressives and may tend to agree with much of what I have to say.

My question for you—and for Democrats/progressives/liberals in general—is this: What the hell’s the matter with you people?

A year ago, our country elected a new president who promised to reverse policies so many of us found abhorrent in the last administration: a pointless war in Iraq, torture of inmates in secret prisons, an economy in free fall, reversal of decades’ worth of environmental protections, and an arrogant attitude of superiority that left America few friends among the other nations of the world. Remember?

President Obama has accomplished much of what he promised, and more. And despite all the conservative and religious extremists in Congress who have done everything in their power to block his every move, this president has had greater success in getting Congress to enact legislative changes than any other president in recent history.

So what does he get for his trouble? Constant criticism, not only from the right but also from the left—from fair-weather do-gooders and erstwhile supporters who either aren’t paying attention to what’s going on in this country or just don’t get it.

In yesterday’s Huffington Post, for example, Robert Kuttner characterizes the Coakley-Brown contest for the U.S. Senate as a lose-lose situation for the administration, blaming Obama personally for the fact that it may not be a cakewalk for the Democratic candidate.

Mr. Kuttner is one of many who’s been lambasting the president for allowing compromises to be made in the interest of passing a health care reform bill which, if not perfect, will at least be a considerable improvement over the status quo. It’s Fox News-style populist anger-mongering—and Mr. Kuttner’s not alone. Instead of recognizing that good politics equals compromise and supporting the president we elected, plenty of liberals are crying foul because they can’t have everything their way.

We elected this president precisely because he’s a skilled diplomat who’s often able to bring about consensus. Now, a year into his presidency, he’s criticized by the right for being too liberal and by the liberals for being too far right.

Any Democrat/progressive/liberal who thinks he or she can do a better job than Obama of rebuilding America, restoring its values, and moving it into the 21st century is welcome to run for public office. Good luck. But meanwhile, those of us who believe in much of what the president believes in should try being part of the solution and not part of the problem.

The apparent loss of steam among Democrats in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a wake-up call, all right, but not for Obama. He’s doing just fine. It should be a wake-up call for all those who believed in what he stood for a year ago and still stands for. But if all you plan to do is vote once every four years and then complain the rest of the time, well . . . don’t blame Obama for the things that don’t get done. And brace yourselves for Bush 3.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Horror in Haiti

Last year about this time, my husband and I were on a cruise to the Caribbean to celebrate our 30th anniversary. We spent a day at a resort on the north coast of Haiti; called Labadee, the place is owned by the cruise company and designed to ensure that no one thinks about life's unpleasantness. The lucky islanders engaged to work inside the compound, selling their wares and putting on a jolly face for the weathy visitors, play their roles well. (Anyone who arrives in Haiti on a cruise ship is, by definition, unimaginably rich by the standards of the country.)

I've seen faces of the poor before, but this was something different. Every Haitian I met was emaciated--a few thousand calories from starvation. Their smiles were tinged with desperation, and they had a look in their eyes I can't forget--couldn't forget, even before the disaster unfolding in that country today. There was agony in their eyes. I couldn't help but wonder how many relatives some of those people tried to support on their meager daily earnings from selling straw hats and cheap, homemade jewelry.

Technology makes so many things simple, including giving. I urge you to text the word "Haiti" to 90999, which will automatically send a $10 donation to the Red Cross. I just did it, and it couldn't be easier. You'll barely register the ten bucks on your next phone bill. But it will help aid workers and volunteers on the ground, who up to their elbows in blood and dust, bring what mercy they can to the suffering.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Coming-to-Jesus of Alan Greenspan

As a brilliant young man in his twenties, Alan Greenspan came under the influence of an intense, charismatic, and flamboyantly self-centered woman by the name of Ayn Rand. A talented intellectual, Rand freely manipulated her adoring acolytes, mixing sensuality and sexuality with pseudo-philosophical claptrap that was really rationalization of feelings she experienced as a child in communist Russia.

Convinced of the essential truth of the basic Randian premise—namely, that a free and unbridled economic market will always do the “right” thing—Greenspan spent his long and illustrious career turning idea into practice. Appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan—a post he held until 2006—Greenspan did everything in his power (and his power was considerable) to promote the interests of business and minimize any type of government oversight.

As a result of his work and that of many other advocates of “Reagonomics,” America experienced a period of apparent prosperity in which the rich got immeasurably richer, cheap credit flowed like tap water, and Americans and America quickly became indebted up to their proverbial eyebrows. Meanwhile, money-lending institutions played roulette with investments. The whole house of cards came crashing down in the fall of 2008—a fact that a great many Americans seem to have already forgotten.

Historically, at least since the Industrial Revolution, politics has largely been about struggles between the interests of business and government. Each needs the other to provide balance. But since the Reagan era, the interests of business have so dominated other concerns—from food safety to public health to the waging of war—that the true functions of government have hardly been acknowledged or discussed. Business interests have used powerful organs of communication—most notably, extremist right-wing media such as Fox News and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal—to obsessively promote the interests of business over government.

These media—together with lobbyists, right-wing “think tanks,” and pro-business organizations like the national Chamber of Commerce—have been waging war on the American government ever since Republicans lost control of it in the last election. They’ve been working hard to persuade a gullible American pubic that the President is un-American and that citizens of a free and democratic nation shouldn’t have to pay taxes to enjoy its benefits. The remarkable success of the “tea-party” movement—which is much more anti-government than anti-Democratic or pro-Republican—is a measure of their success. (This is not to discount the role of the politically independent libertarian movement—which, by the way, was also greatly inspired by the redoubtable Ayn Rand.)

Here’s the thing: the philosophies that inspire public decision making reside in the minds of real, flesh-and-blood human beings. Human beings are motivated, consciously and unconsciously, by both emotion and reason. They come to conclusions that are sometimes wrong.

Alan Greenspan’s early influence was a bitter woman who never got over her profound resentment of the Russian state for, among other things, taking over her father’s business and turning her family out in the street. She thought with her emotions and rationalized her feelings, coming up with a cockamamie philosophy about the all-mighty dollar that she managed to sell to a great many people.

Greenspan was wrong to put so much faith in that philosophy. Himself a highly influential teacher and persuasive leader, he spent his long career enthusiastically leading America in the wrong direction. To his credit, he’s admitted his mistakes—at least some of them.

Everyone has a philosophy. As individuals and as citizens, it’s our responsibility to review our premises from time to time—to have the humility to consider other points of view, and to admit it when we’re wrong. Public figures need to be wary of being swayed by their own influence over others. Populism is no substitute for critical thinking.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Feeling the Love--Not!

Both Joe Lieberman and John McCain seem to be in deep trouble with their constituents. Lieberman’s approval rating in Connecticut is an abysmal 25%, while 67% disapprove of his performance. Most alarming is the fact that the numbers are only very slightly better among independents—and he claims to be one. (I think he’s still technically an “independent”—or did the mercurial Mr. Lieberman change coats again while I wasn’t paying attention?)

For his part, it looks like Mr. McCain may face a primary challenge from the extreme right to his historically cozy position among Arizona Republicans. If New York 23 is any indication of what might happen, an ultra-conservative challenger may just gum things up enough for McCain to force his (in my opinion) long-overdue retirement.

Lieberman has almost three years left on the clock before his judgment day at the polls, but McCain’s term is up this year. Both are quintessential politicians in the most negative sense of the word: willing to do or say anything to sway the gullible American public to give them another few years of bandstanding and throwing their weight around. But after the events of the last two years, during which both men have changed direction with every breeze that came along, even the most casual voters—those who cast their votes for a party or a single issue—may be fed up.

Books could be written about the inconsistencies and betrayals of both McCain and Lieberman, and it's not my intention to list them here. Let's just hope that if the good citizens of Connecticut and Arizona should decide to cut their senators loose, they will provide us with lawmakers who are consistently honest, rational, and willing to work with others to get things done.